Authors: Patricia Malone
“Faolan and Andrina's failure to win that battle was a setback; however, the plan to attack Cameliard has gone forward as they planned. Saxons from the South of Britain, and those northern tribes who oppose Arthur's alliance, stream toward their muster at Alcluith.
“Dubric's messengers have hurried through Britain the past month, alerting all members of Arthur's alliance. In
addition, I've sent word to Belert, Perr, Lenora, and Doldalf to meet with me tomorrow at Dun Dreug. Then they will lead their war bands to Cameliard to await the attack there.”
“But what about Arthur?” I ask.
“We will be sorely weakened at Cameliard without his leadership. If he is not restored to us, I fear for the entire alliance.”
“Nothing would stop the Saxon tribes then,” I say.
“True. They hold the South of Britain already; they've formed alliances with tribes of the Far North. Only Arthur and those loyal to him stop them from controlling the central part of the isle. Nothing is more important than Arthur's presence at Cameliard.”
She is right. My concern about Durant and my work with my people in Enfert had driven thoughts of the danger to Britain from my mind. “I apologize for lagging this morning,” I say. “I had lost sight of my duties to Arthur.”
And to Dun Alyn. If my people are going into battle, I must be with them. Even if I am not a chief, if I must walk with the spear carriers or the slingers, my place is with Belert and our warriors.
“You were focused on two important tasks,” she says. “You did wonders at leading the people of Enfert to mount their own defense; your concern for Durant is proper, and your plan to ride north to search for him was wise though dangerous. However, you must lay those thoughts aside now and undertake this task.
“I will leave Dun Dreug as soon as I've met with the chiefs and lead a small band toward Alcluith. You know the situation there?”
I nod. Alcluith is an ancient fortress of Britain, but it came under Saxon control three years ago. Its loss was a devastating blow to our people. Andrina's sister, Camilla, rules it now with her Saxon husband.
She continues. “Dubric and I believe that Arthur must be a captive there—if he is still alive. It is the safest prison in Britain, and only a few days' travel from the place he was captured.”
“Can we get into the fortress?”
“You are not to try. Your job is to see how many war bands have gathered around it. Groups have been moving into the area for days. Knowing where the camps are will help us plan how to get into the fortress to search for Arthur, and it will tell us how many warriors are assembling for the coming battle at Cameliard.”
Arno has appeared at Vorgel's side, and Eogan is stretching after his nap. Machonna rouses himself and wanders around the clearing, sniffing at rocks and trees.
Vorgel takes a stick and breaks off a few slivers to make a sharp point. “Watch now, all three of you. Arno, you must be sure I am accurate. Eogan and Ilena, memorize this so that you know your route and where to meet me.”
She swipes leaves and grass from a spot beside the spring and pats the mud smooth before she begins to scratch lines
in it. “We are here, and this is the trail to the south. It will take you three more days to reach a spot opposite Alcluith where you can see the enemy camps.”
Her instructions make it sound simple enough. We will go south on the main trail until we reach a long lake, where we will continue along the west side of the water. The lake drains into a river called Leven, and River Leven meets River Clota a half day's journey to the south. We are to note the ford that lies a little south of the lake, but we are to pass it without crossing and climb a hill to observe the area around Alcluith.
“Alcluith is here,” she says. She places a small stone at the point where the east bank of River Leven meets the north bank of Clota. “It is an island.”
“But we'll be on the west bank of Leven and it must widen as it meets Clota,” I say. “How do we get across to Alcluith?”
“You don't! Your goal is not to reach the fortress but to observe it from the far bank. There are hills that will give you a vantage point.” Her stick jabs the earth along the west bank of Leven where it approaches Clota. “You should reach a suitable place by twilight three days from now—if all goes well.”
I do not like the worried look on her face. “What can go wrong?”
“It is dangerous for you to be near Alcluith. But we expect the battle at Cameliard to begin in six or seven days, so
I need information as soon as possible. We must try to free Arthur—if it is not too late.”
Eogan continues to stare at the drawing. He points to the Ford of Leven. “I'd think the greatest danger would be here, then.”
“Exactly,” Vorgel says. “Though you could encounter hostile war bands anywhere.” She drags her foot over the drawing until it is wiped out. “Now, let us be going.”
As we move steadily eastward, my mind swirls with thoughts of Dun Alyn. If my people are to meet Vorgel at Dun Dreug tomorrow night, they must be on the trail now. I long to be with them, and the pain of my exile is almost more than I can bear.
The north-south trail is wider than the track we've followed from the Vale of Enfert, and the center portion is worn down by the generations of travelers that have walked and ridden along it. We stop for a few minutes to rest and to say our good-byes; then Vorgel and Arno continue east toward Dun Dreug, and Eogan and I turn south toward Alcluith.
We get our first look at the lake the next morning. It is a cold, wet journey southward on a narrow trail along the western shore as we camp under damp tree cover at night and trudge through mud and over slippery rocks during the day. We finally see the south shore of the lake in the distance on the third evening after we leave Vorgel. It is getting dark, so we make camp in a small forested glen. I'm so tired from traveling over the rough terrain that I sleep soundly all night.
When I awaken, the sun is bright behind the mountains across the water. Eogan is harnessing the horses, and Machonna is gnawing on a hard piece of bread. From my sleeping place I have a good view of the lake below us.
Someone is rowing a leather boat toward shore, and I watch the small craft bob up and down as the paddle dips into the water first on one side and then on the other. Finally I pull my attention away from the peaceful scene and think of our instructions.
“We should have left long ago,” I grumble as I stand and stretch. “We must reach the viewpoint that Vorgel described well before dark today.”
“I'm sorry.” Eogan yawns as he speaks. “I slept too late.”
“We are both tired,” I say. “I should have awakened sooner myself.”
We are leading the horses out of the trees when Machonna growls. He stands near the trail and stares to his left. The hair on his back rises, and he growls again.
I hand Rol's rein to Eogan and point back into the trees, then race for Machonna. He balks, but I manage to drag him up past our sleeping spot into the deep tree cover and pull his leash from my pack.
“What is it?” Eogan whispers.
I shake my head. “I wasn't close enough to the trail to see. Be still and listen.”
For a moment the only sound is Machonna's low growl, but soon we hear horses. I keep my eyes on a gap in the trees that shows a sliver of the trail below us. A horseman appears, followed by three others. All four are heavily armed, and they ride at a brisk pace.
“Only four,” Eogan whispers, “but it's well that we are not ahead of them.”
“Those could be scouts,” I say. “There may be a war band behind them.”
Machonna has not relaxed; he continues to strain against the leash and growl. It is only a few moments before we hear horses again. I do not recognize the first two people who pass, but the third is unmistakable. The vividly colored hair, the chestnut mustache, and the wolfskin cloak are all familiar. It is Faolan, and Sorcha rides behind him.
I draw in my breath so sharply that Eogan turns to look at me. “You recognize them?” he whispers.
I nod. My anger grows with each warrior that I see below us.
The sun has risen well above the mountain by the time the last of Faolan's followers has gone by.
As soon as they are out of sight, Eogan asks, “Who are they?”
“My enemies!” I answer.
“What should we do?” he asks.
“Wait. It is all that we can do. Since their destination must be Alcluith or a mustering ground near it, they will have to cross the Ford of Leven, and it will take a troop that size quite a while. We'll give them a good head start before we attempt the trail.”
Eogan loosens the horses' bits so that they can graze, and I tie Machonna securely.
“How far is the ford?” he asks.
“Less than a half day's travel, I think.”
“And we must go some distance past it, climb a steep hill to observe the countryside, and return to the ford in time to meet Vorgel tomorrow morning. Is that possible?”
“Aye.” I try to sound more cheerful than I feel. “Vorgel and her war band will wait until we arrive.”
He shakes his head. “What if…”
“Stop worrying,” I snap. “We'll push on as soon as we can. Now get some rest!”
He glares at me and stomps to the bed of pine branches he slept on last night.
I feel a pang of guilt for being so sharp, but I'm worried about accomplishing our task too. It doesn't help to talk about how difficult it is. Eogan falls asleep at once; I stare into space and think about Faolan and Sorcha.
When the sun is almost overhead, I wake Eogan. “We must risk traveling. If they kept their pace, they should all be across River Leven by the time we get there.”
The horses are refreshed from the extra rest this morning and make good time through the afternoon. I keep Machonna on the leash for a while, but release him when the trail becomes too narrow for him to walk beside Rol.
We reach the ford before the light has faded; the summer solstice is so close that nights now are completely dark for only a short time between the last glow of twilight and the first glimpse of dawn.
Machonna races up and down the riverbank, sniffing and whimpering; he looks across the water and back at me to see if we are going to cross. I dismount and pull him to me to fasten the leash.
“How far ahead of us are they?” I ask.
Eogan dismounts and stoops down, studying the tracks closest to the water. “It looks like these”—he points to a pair of footprints so sharp that I can see each toe outlined sepa-rately—“were just made. See how they are blurring as the water laps at them?”
I look across the ford at the shrubs and trees on the other side of the river. Any number of Dun Struan warriors could be watching us at this moment. The skin on my scalp prickles, and I am aware of how exposed we are. “Let's hurry on. It's getting late, and we must find shelter.”
We continue a short distance past the ford until we see a tiny stream that cuts between the steep hills, and we follow it to a clearing large enough for the animals and ourselves, but well hidden by brambles and low-hanging pines.
“Make camp,” I say, “but do not risk a fire. Tie Machonna. I'll be back shortly.”
“Where are you going?”
I point to a hilltop outlined against the pink and gray sky. “I'll see what is visible from that summit. Perhaps I can see Alcluith and the river Clota from here. The night campfires will tell me what I need to know.”
“This isn't where Vorgel said to look.”
“She told us to find out how many war bands have camped near Alcluith. We don't have time to get closer.”
“Vorgel told me to stay with you.”
“No, Eogan. You will remain here. Someone must care for the animals. I'll return tonight if I can; if not, I'll come in the morning.”
“If you come back! I took an oath to protect you.”
“You took an oath of loyalty, and that means you are to help me carry out my duty. If I do not come, be at the ford tomorrow to meet Vorgel.” I pull my waterskin from Rol's harness, and a loaf of bread and some meat strips from my pack, then turn toward the stream.
“Your sword! You've forgotten your sword.”
“I can't carry it through the brambles and rocks.” I hesitate, then say, “Don't worry. I'll be fine.” His frown remains as I clasp his hand in farewell and hurry out of the clearing.
I climb steadily alongside the little stream; by the time I've finished my bread loaf and meat strips, I've reached its source. I rest against the cliff where water drains out of the layers of rock. The sky is still streaked with pink in the west, and the light is brighter here above the glen. I test the water gushing from a large crack in the stones near me and find it sweet to the taste. I empty my waterskin and refill it with fresh cold water, then begin my climb to the summit.
A path winds its way upward, leading me around boulders and past clusters of gorse, so I move quickly with little problem despite the failing light. As I approach the final
ascent to the summit, the western sky has darkened, but a nearly full moon is riding just above the hills across the river Leven to the east. When I come out at last on the top, I'm well above tree cover, and I can see to the horizon in all directions.
I turn slowly in a circle. There is nothing but darkness to the north and west. To the south I can see the river Clota; it's a bright moonlit strip that widens toward the western sea and disappears behind dark hills to the east.
Alcluith is a massive twin-peaked hulk looming up where the Leven opens into Clota. Moonlight gleams on the water around it, and there is an orange glow from fires between the two peaks.
Campfires also burn along both banks of River Clota and cluster around Alcluith, stretching back like the legs of an ungainly spider into the hills beyond the fortress. The camps line the east bank of Leven from the great fortress to a point almost opposite where I stand. I try to count them all, but give up after numbering thirty just along River Leven. There must be well over one hundred camps.
One hundred war bands of Saxons and Northerners gathered to march against Cameliard! No wonder Vorgel wanted information. There is no way to get near Alcluith without going through enemy camps.