by Joyce Holt
Gwen heard the first cry and scrambled to her feet.
Song still echoed through the circular hall, rising with smoke from the central hearth to swirl about the rafters of the steep conical roof.
It took a second, louder shout from the old man in the doorway to cut the crowd off in mid-chorus. Of all the folk crammed shoulder to shoulder inside the hillfort's hall, Gwen knew only her three companions -- worn and wounded travelers taken in by complete strangers. Now the welcome song, ringing with harmony and gladness, broke into clamor.
The hillfort's matriarch stood from her high seat, swirling her mantle of deep blue and holding up a hand to quiet the questions that pelted the air. "There is a what on the road?" she demanded.
"A goorach!" the greybeard panted, leaning heavily on a staff.
Gwen and Trystan stared at each other. "Is the hag still following us?" Gwen hissed.
Old Teg put her good hand on Gwen's shoulder and with narrowed eyes nudged Gwen's attention back to the high seat. The matriarch was looking their way, and now other clansfolk followed their leader's gaze.
"Not just tall tales you were spinning then," said the blue-mantled woman, lips thinning, brow knitting.
Gwen shook her head. "Told a bit grandly, perhaps, but true. All true." Though not the whole story. She'd made no mention of the enchantments -- not the shape-changing curse wreaked upon her by the sorcerer, nor the Fair Folk's gift of speech with every creature. She turned to the elderly man clinging to the door post. "What is the goorach's lament? What does she foresee?"
"Woes and grief to all in the land. To all! Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
"No names?" Old Teg asked.
"None!" he said with a shake of the head.
"Did the hag say when this doom would befall?" Trystan asked.
Another denial, his jowls a-quiver.
"What is it?" asked Keolwynn in her native Anglish.
Gwen translated for the Angul girl sitting behind her on the sleeping platform, leg propped, a hot poultice on one knee. Keolwynn watched wide-eyed as several men and a few women of warrior age wended their way through the throng.
"Left my sword at home," one called out. "I'll catch up."
"Do they go to battle this dreadful ogre?" Keolwynn asked.
"Not to battle the ogre herself," Gwen answered in Angul speech, "but the danger she foretells."
The blue-mantled matriarch settled the old sentry on a stool by the hearth, a cup in his shaking hand. Parents grabbed youngsters trying to trail along with the warriors, and argued with youth who claimed to be old enough to swing a sword.
Trystan stood with hand on hilt, glaring out the open doorway.
"Don't even think of it," Old Teg snapped. "You're in no shape to fight."
"Nothing wrong with my sword arm." A lump at his temple, a black and squinty eye, neck red and chafed from the iron slave collar, whip weals still raw across his back, shield arm bruised up and down and splinted from the battering of clubs -- yet he looked a fine sight to Gwen. Rich auburn hair of a length to blow in the wind, straight dark brows so like his father's, thin lips quick to quirk in a wry half-smile and shaded by a good start on a mustache--
And a glower in those hazel eyes. How he hated the goorach that had come moaning on the eve of his mother's death.
"If she's not naming names," Gwen said, "perhaps we should stay here, out of sight. Perhaps it's not us she's after."
"'All in the land,'" Teg echoed the goorach's foretelling. "We're in the land she laments. If woes are coming here, they'll come to us as well. We ought to go."
Trystan scowled and shook his head.
"Go?" Keolwynn recognized the one word of Brytish, and blurted in Anglish, "Now? At night?"
Trystan let go of his hilt, cradled his splinted arm, and frowned after the departing warriors. "Gwen is right. If the goorach isn't after us in particular, if she doesn't know we're here, she won't be sending the serpent after us again, not if we lay low."
"The serpent, you say," said the matriarch in a low voice as she stepped into their circle with a swish of her blue mantle. "The fabled ram-horned serpent, companion to the Horned Huntsman. Once again I ask you. That tale you were telling, how much of it is true?"
"All of it, I swear on the honor of the mountain clans! We've been through horrors. I didn't take injury like my companions, but--" Gwen flourished the skirts of her green-and-white gown, puckered with the recent mending of rips and tears. It lacked one sleeve. "The ram-horned serpent was gravely wounded. I can't think it would be coming back, not so soon. We truly thought we'd seen the last of it, and of the goorach."
"We'll leave here, quick as may be," said Teg. "We don't wish to reward your hospitality by drawing doom on your clan."
The woman huffed. "Does all fate hang on four bedraggled tramps? I think not. Just look at you. One lamed, two with broken arms, all in rags." She clucked her tongue and plucked at Gwen's tattered, one-sleeved gown.
Gwen's heart warmed at the friendly insult.
"And you've given us good warning," the matriarch went on. "Whatever danger is coming, it won't find us sleeping. You're staying the night, in what safety we can provide. In the morning go your way with our thanks for a merry evening."
Teg's lined face took on the added furrows of a frown, but she didn't protest the offer of shelter. Her broken arm pained her more than she let on.
"Thanks and thanks again," Gwen chipped in as folk beckoned for the matriarch's attention. "For your welcome. And for the use of your oxen." Gwen glanced at Trystan. It had taken two of the sturdy draft animals and several lengths of heavy rope to wrench open the link that had locked the iron collar in place around his neck.
She ran a hand through her hair, her short, lopped-off tresses -- the sign of her own two-day stint in slavery. The ragged flame-red fringe tickled her cheek as she turned to the Angul girl. "We're not leaving, Kee. They urge us still to stay the night. I'll help stand guard over the hillfort, and we'll set out by daylight, if you're up to it."
Keolwynn bit her lip and glanced at Teg.
The wisewoman lifted the warm, moist bag of oats and herbs and checked her patient's knee. "Still swollen. Would be better for you if we stay put." Teg replaced the poultice, sighed in resignation, and tucked a stray wisp of white hair behind her ear. "Fetch stones from the creek, Gwen. We'll give the knee a chilling."
Keolwynn grabbed Gwen's cloak. "It's true!" she gasped in Anglish. Eyes wide, she gazed after a young woman crossing the room with a babe on one hip and a scabbard on the other. "You wealh really do suckle your young on the battlefield."
"What?" Gwen asked, brows arched. "Who told you that?"
"Everyone says so. I didn't believe it. Until I met you. How else could you be so fierce if you weren't raised that way since a babe?"
The clanswoman handed over belt and sword to a young man. He pecked the babe on the top of the head, gave the young woman a longer, lingering kiss, then headed out the door after his fellows.
"It would be foolish indeed to take a babe to battle. That's why I don't have one yet. And don't call us wealh," Gwen said, rankling at the Angul term of derision. "Think about it. We're hardly the 'foreign' ones, when this was our land first. Call us Bryts."
"Bryts. Yah. I mean, indeed." Kee ducked her head at the struggle to learn the speech of the land. "You say you have no babe yet, Gwen, as if you might," she said in a hushed voice. "How old are you? Surely too young--"
"I have fifteen-and-three winters."
The Angul girl stared. "Eighteen! But, but you're no taller than me!"
"Did you see anyone here taller than you?"
"It's just-- Well, I should have guessed. You stride so boldly through life."
"And I'd best set to and stride off on Teg's errand. She wants me to fetch cold streambed stones for your knee."
Moments later Gwen stood outside the palisade of the hillfort and waited for her eyes to unglaze from the hearthfire's glow. Trystan joined her, and their fingers twined in the darkness. Racing clouds gave glimpses of the starry sky. High above the world, the Little Hoe chopped at the northern horizon while the Big Hoe raised on the upswing, and far to the south the Key Star peeked through a short-lived rent.
"It would be a most romantic moment," he murmured, "if there weren't Otherworldly creatures roaming out there, sniffing after your scent."
Gwen grinned. "Perils aplenty and life in a turmoil, they make moments like this all the sweeter." She peered into the dark. "We crossed a stream on our way up the hill, remember? Not likely for monsters to prowl so close to the bustle of mankind."
They set out in the murk of dusk, following the path down towards the ancient stone highway. In spite of her light-hearted words, she kept hand to dagger hilt, and shifted the strap that kept her sword dangling at her back. One torch showed on the old road below, but most of the watchers would be going without, the better to see further than the small reach of a flame's light.
Trystan stood watch on the bank while Gwen scooped water-chilled stones into the lap of her gown. She gathered up the clinking load, stood and turned from the stream, then halted, listening.
"What is it?" Trystan whispered, and his sword zinged from the scabbard.
"A frog," she said, voice full of delight.
He let his breath out in a whoosh. "Wish we could turn that foul goorach into a frog," he spat, "then let her croak all she likes."
"A frog!" Gwen said again, with emphasis. "And you know what it said?"
"Stuck in the mud, stuck in the mud." When she punched his shoulder, he said, "Very well, what are the frog's words?"
"I'm lonely, I'm lonely!"
"So what is it they say when you hear great choruses of them ringing through the marshes?"
"I don't know. Can't wait to find out. Never thought the Lady's gift would prove so entertain--" She sucked in a breath. "Don't sheathe your sword yet."
A rustle came from the woods up the bank.
"Who goes?" Trystan barked, his voice dropping nearly as deep as his father's.
"He-he-here you are," a voice bleated. "Looking for you everywhere."
"Nimble One!" Gwen said, heaving a breath and shaking the tension from her shoulders. "I've been wondering about you, too."
"Say 'Ninny,'" demanded a shadowy figure.
"Such disrespect!" To banter with a creature from the Wild Realm still set Gwen's nerves a-tingle. To meet gazes with those slit-pupiled eyes, to hear Brytish words spill from a goatling's mouth--
A cloven hoof clinked on stones underfoot. "When I ever ask respect?" demanded the maiden who wore nothing but her own thick fleece. Short horns sprouted above her russet-red goat-ears, half-seen in the gloom. "Want that name. Ninny. Say it."
"I'll say it," said Trystan. "You've been a ninny from the start."
Gwen hushed him and turned to the goat-maid. "I'll call you Nimbly like you asked that day you made the poppet."
"Back to the hillfort," Trystan urged.
"Wait." Gwen took a step towards the Wild One, whose large dark eyes glinted in the starlight. "Nimbly, please tell us. What happened to the serpent?"
The goat-maid shifted from her two-footed satyr form to four-footed goat, and pranced in a circle. "Shivers and shakings and wailings and shrieks! Snapping at anyone comes too close. Even at Horned Huntsman! Never seen him slink before, great lord of all the Wild Realms. Slink away from writhing serpent."
"See? We're safe." Trystan tugged on Gwen's elbow. "Let's go."
"All my thanks, Nimbly," Gwen said.
"Ninny! Say Ninny!"
"Ninny!" Trystan called.
There came a bleat of laughter. Then, "Safe? Ne-e-ever safe! Wary, always be wary!"
Copyright 2017 by Joyce Holt
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