Hero's Shield

by Joyce Holt





Chapter One


    Gwen darted along a deer trail, dodging talons and claws of undergrowth. She ran silent as a fox with many a glance uphill through branches to her left.
    There it was again -- a glint of low sunlight on metal, quick as a flick of dragonfly wings, and now the thud of hoofbeats at a trot.
    How many horses? Just one, from the sound of it. Not a trader. There'd be a string of ponies at a walk, and not this spear-head catching the late afternoon sun. The hoofbeats -- a heavier tread than any of the mountain ponies. An armed low-lander, a stranger, riding away from the hillfort -- but no clamor of pursuit by her kin. Had there been battle while she was gone, and only one survivor to flee the scene?
    "Bogan's luck," Gwen swore beneath her breath as she drew her belt knife. Of all times to be needing a sword, and only a dagger at hand. Trails crossed just ahead. With nothing but her foraging sack for a shield, she leaped into the path of the oncoming rider, crying, "Hold! Who and where--"
    A black stallion reared, snorting, and a spear tip swung to meet her challenge.
    Gwen slid out of reach, not daunted by the blade -- for the man moved slower even than her lazy cousin Rhys. Not daunted at all, but wide-eyed at the pennant that streamed from the spear shaft, and at the man's garb. His red tunic and plain white cloak stood out like blood and bone against the gloom of the wildwoods.
    "You're from the king's guard!" Gwen blurted. She straightened her stance.
    The warrior raised his spear -- and a wry brow -- as he reined his horse back under control. "Indeed I am, and hasting on his errand. Give way!"
    She edged aside, calling, "What tidings have you brought to Raven's Crag?" The stallion surged past, nostrils flaring, wary gaze still eyeing her.
    "To war! Cynmarc rallies the warhost! Vengeance on Rhun, Bastard of Gwynedd!"
    Gwen stood gaping, watching horse and rider jounce northward along the traders' track that led down from the ridge. She spun, tucked up her green-and-gold skirts and set off at a run, her gathering sack bouncing at her back. What she'd give for a mount right now, with four swift legs to speed her dash home.
    War! After all this time cut off from the world, with none for company but her own clansfolk and a few scattered homesteaders -- half her seventeen years, hidden away like a hermit -- and the first news to break the silence sang of war. Gwen's pulse raced with the thrill of it. At last, at long last all her practice and training and hard work would bear fruit.
    She pelted along the upward path through tangled passageways of hazel, elm and oak, then through airy halls pillared by beech. With each footfall, a dank earthy odor wafted from her bag, mingled with the tangy scent of marjoram from sprigs she'd tucked under her belt. By the time she broke out into the lower field, her braid had come loose. Red hair tumbled over her freckled shoulders and the polished sheen of her mother's golden armband.
    Haying half done, Gwen saw at a glance, hardly slowing her pace at this last ascent. A cluster of clansfolk still labored out in the field. How odd, after such news. One slight figure garbed in russet and cream stood uphill from others who wielded scythes and rakes. Why would Grandmother order a circle mowed in the standing grass? "We ought to be gathering arms and armor," she huffed.
    There lay the one flaw in her plans, she realized with a clench of her jaw. Not enough swords to go around.
    "Gwen's back!" piped a high voice. One small figure cast her rake aside and broke into a run. Other young cousins flocked after, their work forgotten.
    Three deerhounds joined the race, outstripped the children and bounded up with such a joyous greeting Gwen had to laugh as she scolded them. "I've only been gone since daybreak, you big oafs. Let me pass!" Tongues lolling, the lanky dogs shook their shaggy, fawn-colored coats and parted only when the second wave broke. Half a dozen youngsters crowded around.
    "Battle lessons now, Gwen?" one cried.
    "Me, first with the sword!" two clamored at once.
    The oldest lass pushed to the front. "There's news!"
    "I've heard a hint of it," Gwen told her, then shushed the rest. "I'm not done with my day's tasks. Are you? Back to work. Lessons later."
    "Him back to work, too?" asked a little one.
    "Him?" Gwen took the child's hand and set off again.
    "Why can he run off, and not us?"
    Gwen scanned the figures in the hayfield, looking for one in particular. "Rhys, is it? What's he up to this time?"
    The child jerked to a halt. "Oh woe! He said not to tell!"
    "Hush, don't worry. You didn't tell a thing. I guessed. If I find the scoundrel, I'll send him right back to the fields. Now go on!" She kissed her little cousin's cheek, sent her off, and strode uphill.
    The hillfort of Raven's Crag crowned the steep rise, its timber palisade rearing against the sky. Gwen passed the guardian earthworks of ditch and mound, through the wide-open gateway and into the courtyard, half-filled by the hall's great cone of thatch.
    Barely a step into the yard, Gwen's stride faltered. She narrowed her eyes at sight of the figure ducking out the hall's low doorway, at sight of what he carried. Her foraging bag hit the ground. "What," she yelled at her cousin, "do you think you are doing?"
    Rhys whirled at her voice. The black-haired rascal grinned, shrugged the shield at his back and gave his sword a twirl. "What else, Freckle-Face? Off to hone my battle skills."
    "Not with my father's shield, you're not." Gwen stalked forward.
    "The old relic's hung from a rafter long enough. And long enough it is." He swung the oblong shield onto his arm, and indeed, it gave him cover from dark mop of hair to bare ankle.
    "Relic?" she sputtered, and lunged.
    Rhys leaped over the rails of the paddock built between hall and palisade.
    "Not yours to meddle with, and you know it!" Gwen growled. "Hand it over!"
    "Overhand? For sure, that I can." He swung the sword high and with a thunk sank the blade deep into the railing between them.
    Gwen hiked skirts and vaulted into the paddock before he could free the weapon. "Foolish stunt! Sure to fall in the first clash of battle, you are. Now give!"
    "Take if you can." Rhys backed away, abandoning the sword and raising the shield to ward her off.
    "It's not for close combat. You know that." Gwen bounded within reach, latched onto a bare section of rim and gave the shield a yank, twisting her cousin's elbow. Rhys shrieked and toppled. "Your lesson for the day," she snapped, wrenching the shield from his loosened grasp. "Never lock your arm, youngster. Be ready to sway with the blow then rebound."
    "Don't be calling me youngster. You've only one winter more than me!"
    She gave the wych-elm planking a good look-over. "You've broken off more trim."
    "It was you tussling at it that did the breaking." Rhys got to his feet, rubbing his elbow, and went back to the sword caught on the paddock rail. "What does the trim matter, anyway? I'll wager there's no more magic left to the thing. Long faded."
    "It's your wits that have faded." Gwen glared at his back. "Does your father know you've made off with his sword? Shirker, leaving your day's work undone. Back to the hayfield with you, since Grandmother seems set to mow until dark."
    "You don't know why, do you? Out grubbing in ditches -- you missed all the hullaballoo."
    "I spoke with the king's messenger on my way back, if that's what you're bleating about. Time to be honing swords instead of swinging scythes."
    Rhys managed to wrench his blade free. "One sword will do, says Grandmother. Can't spare laborers from the fields nor herders from the heights, she says. No more than one."
    Gwen's fingers tightened on her father's shield. "I'll be that one," she said.
    "You're not the only warrior wants a taste of battle and glory and roaming the wide world." He darted about the paddock, feinting with an unseen foe.
    "Hah! Send you to the king's host, and make Raven's Crag the laughingstock of the mountains." Gwen narrowed her eyes at his swordplay in the circular paddock, then gazed out the palisade gateway. A circle mowed in the hayfield. "She's planning a tourney, isn't she?"
    Rhys hooted. "Think you can best all the warriors in the clan?"
    Gwen slid between the paddock rails. "Any bettor would say I've a better chance than you," she snapped in crisp Brytish wordplay, and stalked to the hall before he could claim the last word.


Copyright 2017 by Joyce Holt



author's home page


//-->