Authors: Patricia Malone
Also available from Laurel-Leaf Books
THE LEGEND OF LADY ILENA
THE SEER AND THE SWORD
PROTECTOR OF THE SMALL: PAGE
THE POWER OF ONE
HOME IS EAST
THE WIDOW AND THE KING
“Must you leave tomorrow?” I ask.
Durant and I sit, wrapped warmly in his traveling cloak, watching the hearth fire flicker and talking of our plans for the future. Wind howls outside the fortress while the rough sea attacks the cliffs below us. My head is snug against his shoulder, and I can feel his chest move as he sighs.
“You know I don't want to go, Ilena,” he says, “but Hoel and I have lingered ten days past the time that we planned, and winter weather makes traveling through the mountains more dangerous every day. Arthur expects us.”
I know that, of course. Saxons have been settling in the South of Britain for years, but now they come into the North, and some fortresses here welcome them. Arthur, also
known as the Dragon Chief, is building an alliance to keep Saxons out of our northern territory. Durant and his friend Hoel are his most trusted lieutenants, and the information they have for him is important.
“I am glad that you have stayed this long,” I say.
He laughs. “Yes, and I have an extra piece of news for Arthur because of it.”
We intended to wait until Durant returned in the spring to announce our marriage plans, but my father, Belert, urged us to consider the matter immediately.
Hoel agreed. “What better way to make Dun Alyn's alliance with Arthur clear than to announce a betrothal between Durant of Arthur's table and Ilena, chief of Dun Alyn?”
“Let the bards spread the news throughout the winter,” Belert said. Then he grinned and added, “And I'll be spared the nuisance of suitors swarming at our gates asking for my beautiful daughter.”
Despite my father's bantering tone, his announcement of our betrothal at the banquet earlier tonight made it clear how pleased he is with our plans. “Durant of Hadel is a great warrior. He rides at Arthur's right hand, and bards throughout the land sing of his courage and wisdom. He and Ilena will wed in the spring and rule Dun Alyn well.”
We ended the evening with the Great Oath. Durant's arm was warm against mine as we stood together, and our voices blended as we spoke.
“Heaven is above us, and
the earth is beneath us, and the sea is round about us. Unless the sky shall fall with its showers of stars on the ground, or unless the earth be rent apart, or unless the waves of the blue sea come over the forests of the living world, we will stand with Arthur.”
Those ancient words bind all of us to follow Arthur whenever he calls us. We are sworn to protect him at all costs and to give up our own lives to keep him from harm. The people of Dun Alyn swore that oath to me on the night that I was recognized as hereditary chief, and then I joined with them as we pledged ourselves to Belert. This has been the custom of our people for generations and generations, and it accounts for our strength in battle. Our honor as individuals depends on our courage and our loyalty to those we swear to protect.
“It is late,” I say. “You need sleep if you are to get an early start tomorrow.” I make myself move away from him.
Durant leans forward and stirs the fire. The flames blaze up and light his face for a few moments, and I try to memorize every detail. His fair complexion is flushed from the fire, and his auburn hair falls around his face, blending with his short beard. His eyes look gray in the firelight though I know that flecks of green appear in daylight. He is tall, with the broad muscular build of a warrior.
When he turns back to me, he says, “I can hardly bear to leave you, Ilena. I'll think of you every day that we are apart.”
“And I of you,” I respond. I dread the long snowy months until he returns.
“You will be busy,” he says. “You've a fortress to govern.”
“Belert does that,” I say.
“You are the hereditary chief, Ilena.” Durant's voice is firm. “People expect leadership from you.”
I struggle to make sense of this. I have trained all my life as a warrior, absorbed the lessons of loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice, but I never thought of myself as a chief until I came to Dun Alyn. “I will depend on my father's counsel until you come to rule beside me,” I say.
He shakes his head. “I will not always be beside you. I owe allegiance to Arthur and will often be away on his business. A true chief must be strong and able to stand alone when it is necessary.”
“But you will come as soon as possible in the spring?”
“Aye. As soon as the snows melt in the high passes.” He reaches out to hold me close again.
We stay beside the hearth until the last coals grow dim and thick with ash.
The northeast wind continues through the night and by morning is throwing icy blasts of rain across the fortress grounds. Durant, Hoel, and their three companions are at the gate as soon as dawn lightens the cloudy sky. I've gathered food for their packs and seen that their waterskins are full.
“At least the wind will be at our backs,” Hoel grumbles, “though this time of year it can shift fast enough.”
“It might let up as we leave the coast,” Durant says. “Go on; I'll follow you in a moment.” We stand close together beside his big gray stallion and watch the others ride out through the gate. As is the custom on entering or leaving a fortress, Hoel has raised a standard, the red and white dragon pennant of Arthur's troops, and it whips above their heads as they move back and forth through the maze of earthen walls that secures the approach to Dun Alyn.
Durant pulls a chain with a gold ring on it from around his neck.
“I have no fine gift for you or for your father. I will bring both when I come, but wear this until then.” He puts it over my head, lifting my hair gently out of the way.
I hold the ring so that I can study it. The thick yellow metal is carved with branches and leaves. The oval mount is rimmed with a gold rope design and holds a sculpted stone that is layered in different shades of deep blue-red. Two horses carved into the stone stand out against darker red layers around them.
“I've never seen you without this,” I say. “It is beautiful.” The horses blur as my eyes fill with tears. I wonder how often I'll stare at them and think of Durant before he returns to me. I drop the ring inside my tunic and wipe my eyes with the edge of my cloak.
“It was given to my great-great-grandfather by the
Roman Duke of War himself,” he says. “Someday it will belong to my son.”
He has told me about Aidan, who is five years old, and has also talked of the child's mother, who died when Aidan was born. We plan to travel to Durant's home fortress of Hadel after our wedding and bring the boy back to live with us here.
We hold each other for what seems a very short time; when he loosens his arms, I cling tightly for another moment, then step back to let him go. Once on horseback, he removes his war helmet from its hook on the saddle and pulls it on. I reach up to grasp his hand one more time.
“Until spring,” I say.
He nods. “Until spring. God keep you safe for me.”
“And may he guard you while we are apart.” I watch as he moves through the gate, then hurry to the ladder that leads to the walltop.
By the time I've climbed onto the ramparts, Durant has cleared the defensive ring and is on his way down the steep road to the spot where Hoel and the others are waiting. I watch, clutching my cloak tight against the rain, as the five of them, Hoel and Durant in the lead, the horses at a canter, and the long dragon pennant snapping in the wind above their heads, proceed along the trail that leads into the forest. When they reach tree cover, the group stops; Hoel furls the pennant around the spear that holds it, and Durant turns to look back toward Dun Alyn.
I wave and he raises his hand in response, then follows his companions onto the path that leads through the woods to the mountains.
I hurry to my room, thankful for the rain against my face because it hides the tears I can't keep back.
Only three of us live in the family quarters. Belert's large room is next to mine. Spusscio, my father's friend and advisor, lives in a room across the central hearth area.
My room belonged to my sister, Miquain, who died last summer in battle. Belert has made it plain that everything here is now mine, and the clothes that I brought from the Vale of Enfert are mixed with hers in the larchwood storage boxes. My cloak hangs on a peg by the door, and my sword and shield have their place in the corner. I stir the small fire into a blaze and fasten the window shutters more tightly against the wind, then fall onto the bedplace and bury my face in the soft furs that cover it.
The long winter stretches ahead without Durant. I've a new life, new tasks, but suddenly I'm homesick for my old house in the Vale of Enfert, for my dog, Cryner, for my friends there, and most of all for my parents—my foster parents—whose graves lie high above that valley.
“Ilena?” It's Spusscio.
I swipe a bedskin across my face before I answer. “Come in.”
He opens the wicker door, and a young hound pushes past him and leaps up beside me. A rough tongue rakes
my face, taking care of any remaining tears, and his tail whips my arm as he clambers across me. I smile in spite of my sorrow.
“Down, Machonna!” Spusscio commands. “Ilena won't like you if you have no manners!” Spusscio is a dwarf; the top of his head does not reach my shoulder. His voice, however, is as gruff as any man's, and his authority as my father's closest confidant is rarely questioned.
The dog takes one last sniff of the bedskins, leaps to the floor, and, eyeing the fire with some concern, circles back to Spusscio's side. He sits with his left ear up and his right one drooping down, his dark eyes scanning the room, and his tail swishing softly on the stone floor. The ear that folds over is a light red-brown, and the color strays down onto his face to surround his right eye; the rest of his face and body is white.