by Joyce Holt
Gwen darted along a deer trail, dodging talons of undergrowth. She ran silent and swift 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 the thud of hoofbeats at a trot.
How many horses? Just one, from the sound of it, but a heavier tread than any of the mountain ponies. A stranger riding away from the hillfort, but no clamor of pursuit by her kin.
Couldn't be a trader. There'd be a string of ponies at a walk, and not this spear head catching the late afternoon sun.
Not a raiding party. There'd be more than just one.
Unless there'd been battle, and only a lone survivor to ride away.
"Bogan's luck," Gwen swore beneath her breath as she drew her belt knife. "Of all times to be needing a sword, and not even a dagger at hand." 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 than that rascal Rhys, most irksome of cousins. 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 making haste on his errand. Give way."
"What tidings have you brought to Raven's Crag?" she asked as she edged aside. The stallion surged past, rolling one eye to watch her, nostrils still flaring from alarm.
"To war! Cynmarc rallies the host to wreak vengeance on Rhun, Bastard of Gwynedd."
Gwen stood gaping, watching the horse and leather-capped stranger 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 allied 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. She puzzled at the cluster of clansfolk still out in the field. One slight figure garbed in russet and cream stood uphill from the others, directing youth 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 muttered.
There lay the one flaw in her plans, she realized with a clench of her jaw. Not enough swords to go around.
"There she is!" piped a high voice. Down in the field, one small figure jumped up and down, waved, cast her rake aside then broke into a run. Other young cousins flocked after, their work forgotten.
Two 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!" The lanky dogs shook their shaggy fawn-colored coats, tongues lolling, 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.
"There's news!" said the oldest lass.
"I've heard the barest hint," 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 the youngest.
"Him who?" Gwen took the child's hand and set off again.
"He said not to tell. 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?"
"Oh woe! He said not to tell!"
"Hush, don't worry. You didn't tell a thing. I guessed. If I find the rapscallion, I'll send him right back to the fields. Now go on!" She kissed the child's cheek and headed uphill.
The hillfort of Raven's Crag crowned the rise, its timber palisade rearing against the sky. The steep climb slowed Gwen's lope to a trot until she passed the guardian earthworks of ditch and mound. She hurried 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 when she spotted the figure ducking out the hall's low doorway, and 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? Ee, 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 still 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 took 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? You missed the hullaballoo, out grubbing in ditches."
"I spoke with the king's messenger on my way back, if that's what you're dithering 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 and stalked to the hall before he could claim the last word.
Copyright 2017 by Joyce Holt
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