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.
Detail from Gundestrup cauldron, 100 BC-AD 1
~ The Horned Huntsman and his companion, the ram-skulled serpent ~
These terrors and other creatures from Celtic mythology
lurk in the pages of HERO'S SHIELD
two bonus folktales: flash fiction set in Cumbria
the setting of HERO'S SHIELD
Freckles and Bronze
The sun blazed overhead, beating without mercy as Kynan toiled up the naked mountainside. Charcoal burners had hewn down acres of forest here. With each footstep, the odor of charred wood spiked the air. New growth, hip high, offered no shade. Sweat stung his eyes, soaked his linen undertunic.
Kynan didn't dare strip down in the open, though. The sun has no mercy for fair freckled skin.
As soon as he reached the forest verge, he slung his belongings to the ground, stripped his woolen tabard, and rolled up his linen sleeves.
With a last glance at the path behind, Kynan caught sight of a glint on the ground. He stooped to examine a small object in the dirt.
A ring. A fine silver ring.
Who in these wild parts could have dropped such a treasure?
Everyone knew about the Spanish princess being regaled at the king's estate on the coast.
Had a royal hunting party come this way?
And here he was, a lowly kennelman, on a hunt of a different kind.
Perhaps if he returned the trinket, he'd win a reward.
Kynan grinned, reached down,
took the cool metal ring between thumb and forefinger.
"Higher!" piped a thin voice from the shadows.
"Higher!" trilled another from the depths of the woods.
"Higher?" Kynan gulped and looked up. Nothing to see but leaves.
Shrill laughter resounded from all directions.
"Hire! We said hire! Thou hast taken the pay, now thou must earn thy hire.
The queen of pixies has need of thy service. Come!"
Kynan stumbled along after half-seen figures flitting through the deep woods,
afraid to back out of the deal he'd unwittingly entered.
Better to serve quickly and be done than to offend any fey, however small.
"What service does her grace desire of me?" Kynan called.
"Save us from the ogre!"
Kynan faltered."I am no warrior!
I carry no arms but a poor bronze dagger and a broken flint knife!"
"Thou hast taken the queen's gold. Thou wilt earn thy hire."
Kynan thought to toss the ring and flee.
And be pursued by a mob of furious pixies.
Better to face the ogre.
His guides hovered at the entrance to a dim green grotto veiled by brush and thicket.
"Thou must not bear arms," one cried from the grotto.
Kynan unbuckled his belt and let his dagger drop to the ground.
"Thou must not bear arms!" sang another from the right.
He tossed aside his flint knife.
From the left echoed, "Thou must not bear arms!"
Kynan planted hands on hips.
"Then how am I to battle the ogre?"
Laughter pealed. "Thou must not bare arms!
For nettles and thorns do beset thy path!"
Red with embarrassment, Kynan rolled down his sleeves,
retrieved his blades, and plunged into the grotto.
And so Kynan the kennelman not only saved the pixies
from a small, noisy, hairy, fearsome ogre
but also fulfilled his own quest of returning to the Spanish princess
her lost Cocker Spaniel.
From "The Lady of the Fountain,"
found in the Red Book of Hergest (c.1400)
Owain spurred his horse up the steep trail.
The dapple grey tossed its head as they made the last turn,
and whinnied in alarm when
they broke out of the forest into a gloomy clearing.
At first the knight could see no threat,
but he heeded his mount and reined to a halt.
Nothing moved in the glade.
Then the shadowy figure of a lion appeared from the depths of a cave.
Owain ap Urien drew his sword.
The beast paced side to side, limping.
Owain could see its ribs, its pelt matted with blood,
its ragged ears flicking as if in fear.
The lion gazed at horse and rider but not with a hunter's thirst for blood.
Despair shone in that glance. Wariness.
Perhaps even a plea for help.
Owain shook his head at the foolish thought.
He backed his horse, for he saw
the lion gathering to spring into the open.
At the same moment the beast made one bound forward,
a massive shape spewed from a crevice near the cave mouth.
A monstrous serpent rammed the lion, knocking it back into its prison.
The wingless dragon pulled back into its lair, vanishing from sight.
The dapple grey snorted and shimmied and shied,
tensing for flight, nostrils flaring at the stench of the monster.
Owain dismounted, tied the reins to a stout branch,
then approached on foot, sword still drawn.
The lion, he could see from nearby,
raised itself on trembling limbs,
licked at a bloody flank, panted in fear.
Once again those golden eyes fixed upon Owain, begging, pleading.
The knight edged up to the crevice. He raised his sword,
then waited for the next rush to freedom.
The beast came to the cave entrance, gathered itself, burst forth.
Once more the great serpent struck at its prisoner,
but Owain struck all the harder.
He sliced right through the monster's sinuous neck.
The dragon's head rolled across the stony ground.
Its neck crashed among the rocks.
Tail lashing, the lion rose from a crouch,
edged up to the carcass, sniffed at its tormenter.
Owain wiped clean his sword blade.
"My kill is all yours," he told the lion.
"I don't fancy dragon for dinner."
He strode back to his fidgeting horse,
keeping an eye on the great cat until he could mount and ride away.
When twilight descended, Owain made camp further off in the forest.
The knight was crouching by his fire when the undergrowth rustled.
He rose, reaching for his sword hilt
as the lion shouldered its way out of the brush, dragging a freshly killed deer.
The beast dropped the carcass, stepped away a pace,
sank to its haunches, and set to licking its wounded flank.
"Ah. Well. Thank you most kindly," Owain told the lion.
"Did you eat your fill earlier, I wonder?"
The great cat yawned, displaying an imposing set of fangs,
then settled to its belly, curling its tail like an enormous housecat,
a contented look in the golden eyes.
The lion dozed while Owain butchered the deer and roasted a haunch.
The dappled grey looked on in disapproval,
but its ears soon stilled from their nervous flicking.
When Owain mounted in the morning and continued on his quest,
the gaunt and grateful lion trotted alongside
like a well-trained greyhound.
They sheltered one night at the castle of an earl.
While Owain settled his horse in the stable and brushed it down,
the lion took the manger for a bed.
It woke and followed when Owain finished and headed for the hall,
and no one dared shoo it away.
The great cat settled under the table, at his feet, and feasted on every scrap he dropped
while the earl's hounds slunk into hiding.
The castle servants had welcomed the wandering knight
and spread out a feast in gloomy silence.
The earl picked at his food.
His lovely daughter sat still, her face white, her eyes downcast.
When the first course was finished and etiquette allowed conversation to begin,
Owain asked what troubled his host.
"Ah, Chieftain," the earl said.
"My two sons went hunting in the mountains yesterday morning, but they became the prey.
A giant seized them, and sent word that he will slay them before my eyes tomorrow
if I do not deliver up to him my daughter."
His voice broke with sorrow.
"Which do I sacrifice? The beloved youths or the beloved maiden?"
"Neither," said Owain. "I am a knight of Arthur's court,
and no man can stand against me in battle."
"This is no man! It's a monster!"
"Yesterday, a dragon. Tomorrow, a giant."
Next morning the whole castle woke to a thundering clamor outside the walls:
trompings and thrashings and a howling voice
calling the earl to come out and witness the death of his sons.
The giant had arrived.
Owain donned his armor and went out to meet the threat, the lion pacing at his side.
Together they charged into battle.
"Some hero you are," the giant snarled at Owain.
"Who's doing the real fighting here,
you or your beast?"
The knight led the lion to the castle courtyard,
shut him in, then leaped back into the fray.
When the lion heard the clash of weapons, though, it roared in frustration.
It leaped to the top of a shed, to the top of the stable, to the top of the hall,
and from there to the ramparts.
It sprang to freedom and raced back to Owain's side.
In a raging battle-fury, the lion slashed with wicked claws --
and gashed the monster open from shoulder to hip, ripping through his bulging heart.
The giant crashed to the ground, dead.
Owain's quest took many more twists before it ended back at Arthur's court.
Much to the chagrin of one dapple grey, a faithful lion loped ever at its side,
in service to the greatest knight of Albion.