Authors: Patricia Malone
“Up here!” Eogan is shouting. “It's Ilena!”
“Tell Arthur.” Spusscio's voice. “The dog found her.”
My eyes snap open, and I turn toward the warmth. Machonna lies beside me with his muzzle near my head; he aims a hearty lick at my face.
Eogan, managing to look angry and relieved at the same
time, stands over me with Gillis and Spusscio close behind him. “You were supposed to come back last night.”
Pine boughs scatter as I scramble to my feet.
Vorgel pushes past Eogan to embrace me. “We feared for you. I am so relieved that you are safe.” She holds me firmly, and her eyes are moist. “Arthur is angry that you tricked him, and Eogan is cross with all of us for letting you go into danger.”
“Arthur knows why I tricked him, and Eogan must learn that I am a warrior.” I speak firmly, but I stay close to Vorgel and keep looking from Spusscio to Gillis and on to Eogan to be sure that they are really here with me. Machonna's body presses against my knee, and I keep a hand on his rough head. The fear and despair that haunted me through the night begin to drain away.
Spusscio sounds as cross as Eogan looks. “You were to find a brave deed to do and come back to us—not disappear completely for over a month and get yourself into a prison on Alcluith.”
Vorgel speaks before I can defend myself. “She has done what I would expect of the daughter of Cara and Belert. She rescued Arthur at considerable danger to herself and, as I described to you, put her own desires aside to help her people in the Vale of Enfert.” She turns to Gillis and waits for him to speak.
His voice is as deep and stern as I remember it. “There is
no doubt that Ilena has fulfilled the conditions for her return as chief of Dun Alyn.” He pauses and looks at me solemnly. “The way of the warrior is difficult. Bravery is required, but so is kindness; skill with weapons is necessary, but so is patience with others; the warmth to attract followers, but also the strength to act alone; the heart to grieve and the soul to feel joy in life.”
While Gillis is speaking, Arthur comes into the clearing. He says, “And few there are with all of those gifts, Gillis. Dun Alyn is fortunate to have Ilena.”
I am too overcome by their words to answer. Vorgel puts her arm through mine, and we walk out of the clearing together.
The others are waiting on the trail. Arno looks uncomfortable on a gray mare; Hoel and four warriors whom I don't know are talking quietly together while their horses crop grass nearby.
As I prepare to mount Rol, Arthur comes to my side. “Durant told me that you have more courage than most,” he says. “He was right.” He looks up at the sun, midway in its arc to noon. “My head would be looking at the sky from a spearpoint now if you hadn't come to my rescue.”
“It was Jon,” I say. “He rescued you.”
“It was not Jon who came back into the fortress and snatched me out of danger. And it was not Jon who pushed me into the boat and shoved it out into the current.”
There is a jingle of harness and a creak of leather as the
rest mount and begin moving north on the trail. Arthur looks at me in silence for a moment, then says, “I won't forget your loyalty, Ilena.” He turns to go toward his horse, then stops and looks back at me. “How did you get off of Alcluith?”
“You mentioned a north entrance,” I say. “Just as I found it, the sentries went to see why the prison was dark, and I slipped down the path. When I got to the beach along the channel, there was a small leather boat. It seemed the only way.”
“Thank the gods you succeeded.” He hurries to his horse and mounts.
The trail is wide enough here for two horses, and Vorgel falls into place beside me. We ride in silence for a time, then she says, “Arthur told us about Durant.”
I remain silent. I cannot forget the sight of his body facedown on Alcluith with Sorcha's sword protruding from his back.
She continues. “His death is a terrible loss to Arthur and to Britain.” She sighs. “There are no words of comfort that I can offer you.” She reaches over and clasps my hand. “Only that life goes on, Ilena. It does not seem so now, but it does. Gradually, slowly, happiness will creep back into your days. Welcome each bit that appears, because it will mean that you are healing.”
I put my other hand over hers. “I can't feel anything but despair,” I say. I let the tears fall, and we ride together until
the trail narrows, then I slow Rol to allow her to move ahead of me. As I follow her, I can see the slump of her shoulders and her occasional attempts to ease her position in the saddle. I wonder how old Vorgel is and marvel at her stamina; she has traveled steadily for at least eight days and goes to a battle that will determine the fate of Northern Britain.
We push on as fast as we can through the afternoon and evening and make our night camp near a deserted tower of the ancient ones. We are in Cameliard's territory now, and we should arrive at their mustering field early in the morning. I lie down with Machonna at my feet while the others are still talking around the night fire.
When I awaken, dawn has stained the sky a brilliant rose color, and the horses are ready. Eogan hands me my waterskin. “I've filled it for you, and Machonna has had a drink from the stream and bread and meat for breakfast.”
We are on our way as soon as we can see the trail. It keeps to high ground to avoid the marshes that stretch across the plains beside us, and we soon have a good view down the valley to the cliffs of Cameliard.
All my life I've heard of the famous fortress set here at the eastern entrance to the North, but the tall gray cliffs with the meadows before them, the river looping behind, and the rampart walls rising above are a picture far more dramatic than anything the bards could portray.
Our path winds around the side of a rocky hill and comes out at the wide plain below the fortress. The entire
area, including the meadow and the slopes of the surrounding hills, is filled with war bands that spread in a thick circle around a central field. In the open space, chariots race and pause so that a chief or Druid can speak to the troops, then race again, making a brilliant pattern as harness fittings, trumpets, sword hilts, and burnished helmets catch the morning sun.
When we stop to look over the scene, Gillis is beside me. “There,” he says. He points at a spot in front of the cliffs. The black banner with a white goshawk in the center waves above Dun Alyn's troops. “Your father will be happy to see you; he has spent the days that you've been gone grieving and worrying about you.”
I long to see him, too, and I turn to see if Arthur is ready to move on. One of his warriors is unfurling the red and white dragon banner. Eogan is nearby, and his face shines with the excitement of riding onto the field under Arthur's banner.
“Ilena.” Arthur motions me to him.
“Hoel will ride at my shield side as usual,” he says. “You know that Durant rode on my sword side?”
I nod. The greatest honor a warrior can have is to ride at his chief's sword side. That was my place beside Belert at the Ford of Dee.
Arthur continues. “Will you ride at my sword side today?”
He watches me as I realize what he said. “I'd be pleased,” he adds, “if you would take Durant's place.”
I finally find my voice. “I'm… I'm honored!” I say.
And so, with the dragon banner fluttering over us, I ride at Arthur's right hand down onto the mustering field and hear the noise diminish to silence as war band after war band recognizes the Dragon Chief.
When I read the literature that has come down to us through the oral tradition—that is, the folktales, myths, and legends of olden times, with their mix of facts and fantasy— I find myself trying to imagine a reality behind the stories. How did people actually live? What did they wear, eat, drink? What were the houses like? And what true events lie behind the exaggerations, superstitions, and magic?
We can never know for certain. The old stories come from a time before written language and have been told for so long that their origins are lost. The first descriptions of events and people in Britain were written by the Roman historians who accompanied Julius Caesar in 55–54 BC.
The Romans came back to stay in AD 43, and life for
Britons in the occupied area—what is now England— changed greatly. The Romans were unable to conquer the North—what is now Scotland—so life there continued much as it had for centuries.
When the Romans left Britain around AD 400, Germanic tribes from Europe began invading. The Saxons were one of the first groups to come, and the British, without Roman protection and with their own structures of government and war bands weakened or gone, had trouble defending their land. By AD 500 Saxons and other invaders controlled most of southeast Britain.
It was around this time that a strong resistance movement arose somewhere in the vicinity of what is now the Scottish-English border. Many experts believe that Arthur was the leader of an alliance of tribes that held back the invaders for nearly forty years.
The stories about Arthur that are most familiar to us were written by Chrétien de Troyes, who lived in France in the late 1100s, and Sir Thomas Malory of England, who wrote around 1470. These authors set their stories in their own times, and in them Arthur is a king and his war band is made up of knights of the late Middle Ages. However, the real Arthur and his followers would not have had suits of armor, large horses, stirrups, squires, fancy palaces, elegant clothing, elaborate banquets, or any of the other trappings of the High Middle Ages.
Another difference between these romantic stories written
about Arthur and the reality of life in the Dark Ages was in the role of women. In the North of Britain women were warriors, chiefs, Druids, and—most important, perhaps— heiresses to land and fortresses. One indication of the widespread participation of women in war bands is that Adomnan, abbot of Iona (a monastery in what is now western Scotland), felt it necessary to make a law in AD 697 ordering that women not go into battle. Adomnan's Law was enforced from time to time, but it was many years before women disappeared completely from war bands throughout the North.
Much of what we know about the sixth century in Britain comes from archaeological discoveries. Pottery shards and remnants of rectangular Saxon houses indicate that Saxon expansion halted during the first half of the 500s. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of round structures built by the native Britons—some as large as ninety feet across that probably served as Great Halls, and many smaller ones in which families lived. The defensive rings of earth and occasional thorn hedges that surrounded fortresses in the old stories have been verified by archaeological digs. Excavations have yielded jewelry, scraps of clothing, tools, weapons, and utensils from the era.
In my quest for a realistic setting for my fictional heroine, I've visited many of the locations described in
Lady Ilena: Way of the Warrior.
I spent a wonderful afternoon exploring spectacular
Dunnottar Castle on the northeast coast of Scotland—right where I imagined Dun Alyn to be. While my companions poked around the remnants of fifteenth-century buildings on the site, I tried to visualize the fortress as it would have been in Ilena's time. I looked out on the North Sea and down to rocks at the bottom of the cliffs just as she would have. I pictured round thatched-roof buildings and the bustle of life inside the compound, as well as small farms and settlements in the surrounding fields.
At Dumbarton Castle—called Alcluith in the sixth century—we drove onto the castle grounds because the channel that had separated the fortress from the mainland is gone now. I climbed up behind a seventeenth-century building, through the narrow passageway where Ilena is startled by Jon's presence, and out into the courtyard where she stands before Faolan and Sorcha. I climbed to the very top and looked across the river Leven toward the hill where Ilena surveys the nighttime scene before she is captured. I studied the sheer cliffs below me and imagined that the channel to the east was still flowing between fortress and mainland. I could picture the difficulty Ilena would have in getting away from this place.
At Stirling—Cameliard in the sixth century—I stood at the ramparts atop the high cliffs and stared down at the plain below, where the final scene of
Lady Ilena: Way of the Warrior
takes place. I could almost see the banners, the chariots wheeling about the field, and the sun glinting off
gold sword hilts and harness fittings. The wind whistled around me, and I wished that the city noise would stop so I could listen for trumpet blasts and the shouts of the Druids as they roused the fighting spirit of the war bands. I looked to the southwest, hoping to see Ilena, Hoel, and Arthur leading their little band down onto the battleground, but of course they were not there.
My search for answers to my own questions has led to this book, and I hope that my writing helps readers, as it has helped me, see the Dark Ages more clearly.
Patricia Malone grew up on a farm in central Illinois. She is a former teacher who has traveled extensively throughout Great Britain, researching its history, legends, and folktales. She is particularly interested in Scotland, the land of her ancestors.
Patricia Malone lives in Naperville, Illinois. Her first novel was
The Legend of Lady Ilena.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Laurel-Leaf and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1