Authors: Patricia Malone
Kenna and Aten go outside to check the paddock gate for the night, and Fiona and I sit for a few more minutes by the remains of the fire.
I say, “I'll help where I can tomorrow.”
“Will you stay, then?” Fiona asks. She sounds hopeful, and I'm reluctant to disappoint her, but I must.
“I cannot, Fiona. I'd planned to go directly on; I've business in the North.”
“Perhaps you'll find word of our men.” She sounds disappointed but resigned; she was the only person in the village who seemed to understand why I left last fall.
The four of us settle onto the bedplaces without any further conversation. I try to stay awake to think about Durant and about the problems here, but I can't keep my eyes open and soon fall into a sound sleep.
I waken to Machonna's whine. Aten has dressed his wound again, and he struggles to get up. “Can you lift him, Ilena?” she asks. “He needs to get outside for a bit, but he can't put weight on this yet.”
I carry him out and stand him carefully in a sunny place. I yawn and stretch my muscles while he hobbles around sniffing grass and trying to relieve himself without leaning on his injured foreleg. The sun has cleared the mountains to the east, so I've slept long past daybreak.
Fiona comes from the barn as I'm lugging the dog inside. “Kenna is grooming Rol,” she says, “and will rub the roan down too. How's the hound?”
“Good,” I say. “It was hard to treat the wound on the trail, and the ride on horseback must have been painful for him, but he's better for a good night's sleep and your mother's care.”
While Machonna laps at a bowl of water Fiona holds for him, I open my smaller pack and remove the remaining loaves of bread and strips of meat. I hand them to Aten. “There is more food in the big pack,” I say, “and oats enough for the horses. We won't be a burden to you.”
She smiles. “Grenna's child is not a burden to me.”
Grenna's foster child, I think, but I do not say anything. That is a long story better kept for another time.
There's a noise at the door, and Eogan enters. He is taller than last fall, and he greets me with the direct gaze of an adult. “Well met, Ilena. It is good to see you again.”
“And you, Eogan,” I say. I hear a horse whicker and a harness jingle. “Is that Legg?” I hurry outside.
The stallion knows me and ducks his head to rub it against my shoulder. “He's sleek and well cared for,” I say.
“Aye,” Eogan says. “Jon let me groom and feed him every
day. And I've ridden him most days—so he'd stay strong, of course.”
“Of course,” I say. “It is good you've been able to keep him exercised. He looks ready for anything.”
Eogan nods. His welcoming smile has faded. “He's fit as ever. And you'll have come for him, I suppose.”
His affection for the horse is touching. “Do you think you could keep him longer? I've business in the North and don't need him at present.”
He brightens at once. “Keep him longer? Yes! Our barn is a bit small, but I've made a separate stall where the roof is the highest and he can turn around and raise his head. He doesn't seem to mind the cow and the pigs.”
I laugh. “I think he's happy with you. He looks content to me.”
“Will you be at the gathering this afternoon?”
I hadn't heard of a gathering, but it is the custom whenever travelers arrive in the village for everyone to come to one home to meet them. “I'm sure that I will be,” I say.
“I'm off to hunt,” Eogan says. “We need meat with so much of the livestock gone.”
“How much did you lose?” I ask.
“Everything from Jon's … your place, and whatever was still in night pens when they came. Youngsters had about half the cattle and most of the pigs out and up on the meadow.” He gestures to the east of the village, where grassland stretches to hills at the end of the valley.
“And the oxen,” I say. “I heard about them. Let's try the roan if we can rig a harness. She's trained for chariot work and might pull a plow.”
“I'll get what I put together for Legg,” he says. “The oxen yoke is of no use, of course.” He turns to leave, then stops and faces me again. “I almost forgot. There was nothing left of your house and barn when the burning stopped, but I have Moren's scabbard and shield. They were with Legg's harness.” He hesitates and looks down. “I would have returned them, but I wanted to study them for a time.”
“I'm pleased that you have them,” I say. “And have you room for them also?”
He nods vigorously and smiles. “Thank you, Ilena.”
I spend the rest of the day leading, tugging, and coaxing the roan mare through the muck of a field. The wet black earth is cold on my bare feet, and the worn tunic that Aten found for me to wear is little protection against the cool spring breeze. I envy Eogan as he rides off on Legg with a bundle of hunting spears fastened to the horse's harness. I've done fieldwork before, of course, but by the time I was old enough to do hard work, my main job was hunting. The roan, however, seems afraid of the others, and only I can get her to lean into the makeshift harness around her chest and pull at the heavy plow behind her.
When I judge that the horse has worked as hard as she should for a day and call a halt, one field is finished and
another started. I'm happy to join Fiona and the others in the icy stream to rinse away the dirt from our legs and arms.
“I've oats enough for her for a few days,” I say, “but we'll need to find more grain if she's to work like this.”
“Aye,” Fiona says. “There's grain still in the pits. Show me how much she'll need each day, and I'll see to it. Can you leave her with us, then?”
I have little need for a pack animal if I carry only fighting gear, and it's better by far to be without one if I have to move fast. Besides, my old friends need her more than I do. “Yes, I can leave her. That should see you through the plowing at least.”
“We've a bull yearling that Eogan thinks will pull at the millstone; the children can take turns pushing along with it so we can get some of the grinding done.”
“Good,” I say. “The mare can't handle that and plowing.”
By the time I've fed and wiped down the roan, tended to Machonna, and changed back into my own clothes, there's a fire blazing at the storyteller's house, and a pot over it, sending the scent of stew wafting through the village. Aten, Fiona, Kenna, and I walk there together. I think of Durant and wonder where he eats his meal on this springtime evening. The others walk in silence too, grieving, I'm sure, for their missing husbands.
It is a gathering of women, with Eogan and the younger boys who surround him the only males present. Though I've
talked with almost everyone at some time during the day, there is a stir of welcoming sounds when I arrive.
After we have eaten, Delya, the storyteller, begins. “We welcome Ilena home. Our grief for our husbands and sons and brothers is great, but with Ilena here our fears for our safety diminish.”
There are nods and smiles throughout the group. I can see hope and—worse—trust in the faces of these women whom I've known all my life.
She continues. “When Moren and Grenna, with Ilena in her arms, joined us that chilly spring day so long ago, the dangers that had plagued us vanished; Moren's skill and courage kept the raiders away from then on. And now Ilena has returned just as we, defenseless, face the spring raiding season.”
I want to scream, “No! I'm not staying. I have to find Durant.” But I can't. I cannot watch the hope in their faces turn to anguish when they learn that I haven't come to help them. Fiona is looking in my direction, waiting for me to speak, but I sit silent and listen as the teller goes through the story of my family's life in the Vale of Enfert. When the group disbands, I hurry back to Aten's house as soon as I can.
I'm so tired from the fieldwork that I go to sleep quickly, but some time later I awaken. I try to go back to sleep, but I cannot relax on the hard straw bed. Images of Durant sweeping by me at the Ford of Dee come as they have most
nights, but now I'm troubled by the plight of the folk here in Enfert, too. At last I get up and creep outside.
The half-moon, which lit our walk home from the gathering, has set, and the night sky is a sparkling sheet of stars. I locate the Great Bear and follow its direction to the North Star. I long to gather my things, harness Rol, and leave as soon as dawn shows the trail.
I find a fallen tree beside the meadow and sit to stare at the brilliant sky. When I was little, I would lie in the grass here with Jon and Fiona beside me, and we would tell each other stories about the pictures we could see in the heavens.
“Ilena?” Fiona's voice comes from somewhere in the darkness.
I stand and look around, but I can't see her. “Fiona? Over here.”
“I missed you,” she says. “I feared you might have left us already.” She is beside me now.
“I'm sorry I woke you,” I say. “I tried to slip out quietly.”
“I haven't slept well since Craig and the others left,” she says.
“I know. I lie awake too, thinking of a loved one.”
“You've found someone?” Though it's too dark to see her face clearly, I sense that she is smiling.
“Aye,” I say. We sit down close together on the log, and after a few minutes of silence, I begin to tell of my experiences since I left the vale last fall. She is entranced by the story of Durant. “And he is one of Arthur's friends?”
“A cousin. He rides at the Dragon Chief's sword side.” Even in this isolated valley people hear tales brought by the bards, and so they know what an honor that is.
My description of the events at Dun Alyn amazes her. “You? Ilena—my friend—you are chief of a fortress?”
“I was,” I say, and continue my tale.
When I've finished, she embraces me, and I feel her tears against my face.
“Of course your first allegiance is to your betrothed,” she says. “I understand why you must go on.”
“But I am worried about you here in Enfert, too.”
“I'm not sure how we'll defend ourselves if the slave raiders from Eriu arrive,” she says, “or if that band of Northerners and Saxons comes back.”
I start to ask if they meet to practice with spears or slings, but I stop myself. I remember how difficult it was for Moren to interest the men in developing fighting skills, and the women in the vale have never considered using weapons.
She gets up. “I should sleep. I must work hard tomorrow. We are trying to do our own tasks and those of our husbands and fathers. Are you coming in now?”
“No,” I say. “I'll be along in a few minutes.”
As the stars wheel in their pattern through the springtime sky, I think about Durant and Dun Alyn and about this village. What I must do seems clear enough finally, though I do not like it.
Even though my position as chief of Dun Alyn is in doubt, it is my duty to fight for my people, to lead warriors, and to train others to handle weapons. The folk of Enfert are my people as certainly as are those of Dun Alyn. I failed at the Ford of Dee, but I must help my friends here.
I pull the gold chain from inside my tunic and hold Durant's ring while I think of our time together at Dun Alyn. Will I ever feel his arms around me again?
When dawn begins to light the eastern sky, I go back into the house and fall asleep at once. Aten and Fiona get up early, and I awaken to the smell of hot oatcakes on the stone at the inside hearth. Kenna is stirring herself on her bed across the room.
She sees that my eyes are open and smiles. “I am glad that you are here, Ilena. I've feared for my babe with no one to protect us. Now there is hope for us; perhaps we can survive until Jon and the others return.”
Fiona is squatting beside the fire, turning the oatcakes. She stops her work and waits to hear how I will respond to Kenna.
I stand and stretch, then say, “I will stay here for a time; we must organize some defenses.”
“With women and children?” Fiona asks.
I laugh. “Yes, Fiona. Except for Eogan, we are a village of women and children now. So we will do what we must.”
As I step into the yard, I see a familiar face peering over the gate. “Calum,” I call. “Just who I need right now.”
He grins and ducks his head as he comes in. “I'm on my way to gather the livestock—what we've got left, at least.”
Calum is about nine and the liveliest of the village boys, a leader in any group of his companions whether they're tending the village herds or spying on couples who've sought a bit of privacy in the long summer evenings.
“Carry word for me to the mothers that I want every young person over four summers old on the meadow as soon as the sun is above that great oak.” I point to a tall tree that stands at the eastern end of the valley. “Tell them the livestock
can wait a bit this morning. And everyone should bring a sling if they can.”
He nods vigorously and turns to leave. “One more thing,” I say. “Find Eogan and tell him I need him.”
The first group of youngsters arrives with Eogan in their midst. “You see that dead tree?” I ask the children. “I want you to practice hitting it with a slingstone.” They jostle for position and begin. I step back to give them room and motion Eogan to join me.
“Will you be staying, then?” he asks.
“A while,” I say. “You and I must form a defensive force for the village.”
He looks startled, then squares his shoulders and smiles. “I've wondered what we could do.” The children are milling about, either casting stones in the general direction of the dead tree or begging to borrow a sling from someone else. “It'll be hard to make a defensive force out of that,” he says.
“Notice that they've made a great shield of stones even though few of them are near the target. No one could have walked safely across that space.”
“Aye, that's right. A stone hurts no matter who casts it.”
“Stop,” I call. “No more slinging now. Go look for the stones. We can't afford to lose any. When you've gathered all that were cast, come sit here in front of me.”
I send Eogan to bring the women, and I study the
children assembling before me. Fifteen have come, and I don't think any are missing.
When the last youngster has settled herself on the ground and placed her slingstones beside her in the grass, I say, “Calum is in charge of slingers. It is a big responsibility.” Calum straightens up and looks solemn. “You are all to pay close attention to his directions. From now on no one is to leave the house without a sling and a pouch of slingstones. If you do not have them, talk to Macaulay.”