Authors: Patricia Malone
“The old superstition!” I say. A white animal is thought by many to come from the other world, and a red mark is especially alarming to people who fear spirits. “I'm surprised that he has survived.”
“Aye. Everyone knows they'll answer to me if anything happens to him, but he could use another friend in the fortress.” He looks down at the dog. “Would you like to stay with the lady, Machonna?”
“I'd love his company; I miss my old hound. Come, boy.”
Spusscio points to me. “It's all right. Stay with Ilena.”
Machonna leaps back up beside me and starts to lick.
When Spusscio gets to the door, the dog looks toward him, then back at me.
“Hold his collar while I leave. He'll be fine.” He watches the two of us for a moment before adding, “I've told your weapons class to meet in the Great Hall at half noon.”
Teaching the young warriors of Dun Alyn will be one of my main tasks. While Durant and his companions were here, we held several sessions of games and weapons demonstrations with all our warriors, the young and the experienced, taking part. Now it is time to start regular training sessions that will go on throughout the winter.
“Good,” I say. “It is time to get to work.”
Machonna watches Spusscio leave, then stretches out on my bedplace and dozes as I twist my hair into a braid and change into trousers and battle vest. When I've gathered my sword and shield from their corner, he prances beside me on our way to the Great Hall.
Tables have been dismantled to clear space for us, and six young people mill around the fire. Talking ceases when I enter, and all turn to stare at me. I'm not sure how to begin, so I stand still and smile while I think about what to say.
“Are you all here?” Spusscio's voice booms from the doorway behind me. “Where's Sorcha?”
No one speaks.
Spusscio stomps across the room, grumbling as he goes. “I said midmorning. It's well past that.”
“I've been grieving for my grandfather.” The shrill voice comes from the doorway and sets my teeth on edge.
“Welcome, Sorcha,” Spusscio says. “Come and take a seat. I want to talk about the things that have happened at Dun Alyn.”
I would not have known who she was if he hadn't said her name. When I spoke with her on the day after her grandfather's death, I thought she was a child. She kept her head down, and her hair had fallen across her face, partially hiding her tear-swollen eyes. She ran from me that day and has kept out of my sight since then.
Now I see that Sorcha is no child. She is not much taller than Spusscio, but her hair is plaited off of her face, her shoulders are back so that her breasts shape the tunic beneath her war vest, her chin is high, and her eyes are blazing. She strides across the room and stops for a moment, surveying the others, then glares at me and sits as far from me as possible.
When she speaks again her voice is a little quieter, but it is still far different from the hesitant tone I remember. This is a young woman—one who seems to change her appearance as she chooses. “Then tell the truth about what happened, Spusscio. Ilena killed my grandfather!”
Her words tear through me like a knife. I feel as if I'm back on the walltop, clinging with one arm to the rough rock ledge while her grandfather, Ogern, dangled for a
painful few moments from my other arm before losing his grip and dropping to the rocks far below.
“Your grandfather tried to kill Ilena,” Spusscio says.
“She pushed him off the wall,” Sorcha says. Her voice is shrill again.
“Ogern tried to push Ilena off the walltop, but he lost his balance and both of them fell. Ilena managed to hang on, but he did not.” Spusscio looks at each of the young people in turn. “Are there any questions?” He turns to Sorcha last and holds his gaze on her face.
Sorcha's voice is flat now, without emotion. “Very well. That is the story you tell. My grandfather—Druid of Dun Alyn and uncle of Chief Cara—is dead. I, who have lived at Dun Alyn all my life, must give up my claim as chief because some unknown person”—she turns to look at me for a long silent moment—“who had never been in this fortress, who was raised among strangers, with no knowledge of our customs, has wandered into our Great Hall and claimed to be Belert's daughter.”
“And so she is, and more important, she is Cara's firstborn daughter and thus became the rightful chief at Cara's death.” He looks around the group for a few moments before he continues.
“Let us go back farther—to Dun Alyn's darkest hour. That hot summer day three months ago. You were with us on the hunt, Sorcha—and you, Rory.” He nods to a tall
young man on the back bench. “Some of you were in the high meadow with the cattle, others going about your work in the fortress. I'll wager none of you will ever forget what you were doing when the horns sounded.”
They shift in place and shake their heads. Even Sorcha sits quietly as she remembers. Spusscio's voice is softer now but easily heard in the silent hall.
“A raid. With no warning. Strangers at our gate— Saxons among them but others from here in the North also. I've not yet learned the fortresses they came from.”
“We tried to get back,” Rory says.
“Yes,” Spusscio says, “we tried. When we heard the horns, we raced, Belert in the lead, as hard as we could push the horses. But it was too late. Our beloved Chief Cara and her daughter Miquain were dead when we arrived. None of the raiders escaped our swords, but that was little comfort to us.”
Sorcha says, “And my grandfather told me that I was the new chief. Cara and my mother were cousins.”
Spusscio says, “Yes, as far as we knew at the time, Sorcha was the heir to Dun Alyn. But you've all heard the story; you were in the hall the night Ilena was brought in. Some pretended to think she was a spirit, but when her background was pieced together, we knew she was the true chief of Dun Alyn. She is the daughter of Cara, twin sister to Miquain. Because of the superstition about twins, Cara had to send Ilena away. Moren, Cara's brother, and his wife, Grenna, carried Ilena to safety in the West.”
Sorcha says something so quietly that I can't hear it.
Spusscio shakes his head and looks at the group. “Ilena is your chief! You will meet each day at midmorning for weapons practice unless she makes other plans for you.”
I stand and speak with what I hope is an air of authority. “Does everyone have sword and shield?”
“Yes, lady,” Rory says. “We've all brought our own.”
“You did well in the skirmishes, Rory,” I say. In one of the mock sword fights yesterday, he held his own against Durant for some time before his sword flew from his hand and he had to kneel in defeat.
He looks pleased. “Thank you.”
I look at the others. “All of you took part at one time or another; I watched you closely, and I am impressed with your ability.” I'm careful not to look at Sorcha.
“I did not participate in games with men from Arthur's troop,” she says. “I would have been tempted to harm one of them.”
I turn to meet her gaze with as much dignity as I can muster. I understand her grief and her anger at me, but I am chief of Dun Alyn—by birth, by training, by law—and I will not appear weak before her. “I have not seen you work with sword or spear, but I doubt that you could have bested any one of the five,” I say. “And remember that Durant will be chief beside me; you will see Arthur's people in Dun Alyn often.”
She stands and picks up her shield and sword. “If I am here.”
“And where would you be?” Spusscio snaps.
“I'm leaving tomorrow to visit our relatives at Dun Struan,” she says.
A flash of anger crosses his face, but his voice is level. “When was that decided?”
“I've talked to Belert. You don't know everything that happens in this fortress.” She stalks to the door and turns back to glare at me. “We'll see what the rest of our family thinks of this stranger pushing me out of my home and my position.”
I can feel the tension in the room ease as she leaves. My other students shift on their benches, look at each other, then focus on me. I take a deep breath and try to sound matter-of-fact.
“Let's get started,” I say.
Spusscio snaps his fingers at Machonna and stomps to the far end of the hall with the dog close behind him.
I set my pupils to work on exercises in strength training and watch closely to see who might need a different sword or additional practice with a heavy iron bar. When they are tired, I urge them on for a few more swings and lunges, then tell them to rest.
Spusscio has been watching while Machonna has napped on the straw behind him. I wander back to them while my students relax.
“They are well trained already,” I say.
“Aye,” he says. “Cara—your mother—was a skilled teacher. As you are.”
“Thank you,” I reply, pleased at the compliment. “I am simply doing what Moren did as he taught me.”
“I didn't know Moren, but Cara and Belert spoke of him often. He was said to be the best war leader and teacher in Britain. His absence was a great loss for Dun Alyn.”
It is hard to picture my foster parents at Dun Alyn. And harder still to remember that they left here more than fifteen years ago to live in exile so that I would be safe. If Ogern had known that I existed, Miquain and I would both have been in danger. Our bard has sung the story twice since I arrived, but it still seems unreal—as if it had happened to someone else.
“I'll leave you to finish,” Spusscio says, heading for the door. “Then let's meet with your father and consider the problem of Sorcha.”
For the second part of the lesson, I demonstrate the changing trick. With Rory as my opponent, I feint to draw his sword far to his right, then whirl out of range, drop my shield, and move back with my sword in the other hand. Even though he realizes what I'm doing, I'm able to reach behind his shield and touch his right side with my blade.
“Practice that,” I say. “You must learn to move very quickly at just the right moment. You'll all try it tomorrow.”
Spusscio appears as they are leaving, and the two of us,
with Machonna between us, go directly to my father's chamber, where we find him gazing into the fire. This is not the first time I've seen him sitting motionless, deep in some reverie that he does not share with anyone.
When we're seated on the wide bedplace and he has turned his chair to face us, Spusscio describes Sorcha's behavior.
Belert confirms her claim. “Sorcha's grandfather had planned for her to spend part of this winter at Dun Struan. I saw no reason to object when she asked me for an escort; I hope her absence will give Ilena time to win over the other young people.” He reaches down to pet Machonna, who has settled at his feet.
“It may help her to get away for a time,” I say, remembering the sympathy I felt when I saw her grief over her grand-father's death. “When will she return?”
“By Imbolc,” Belert says.
Imbolc is the time the ewes give birth and women celebrate the rites that keep us safe in childbirth; by then the worst of winter is over, though snow and cold often linger for another month or more. “Is travel possible at that time?” I ask, thinking of Durant.
“Dun Struan is only one day away, and there are no mountains to cross,” Belert replies. “The cold water at the Ford of Dee is the only problem, but the river is low before the spring thaw.”
“I've told you, Belert,” Spusscio says, “that nothing good will come of contact with Dun Struan.”
“I realize that, but I see no reason to prevent normal interactions between our fortresses.” My father stares straight at Spusscio as if to challenge him to disagree.
Spusscio's face shows his anger, but his voice is courteous—almost too courteous—when he answers. “Of course, Belert. I'm sure your decision is wise.”
I keep Machonna in my room for the night. It is good to have company, and his furry body is warm against my feet. I am tired from the long day, but I find that sleep escapes me as I think of Durant and wonder where he camps tonight.
I think too of Sorcha. Her hatred of me is chilling. She has lost both her grandfather and a place as chief of Dun Alyn because of me. But I would not give up my position here for anything in the world.
The long cold winter drags on. The last traveler to arrive from the West before the trail is completely closed is our new Druid, Gillis. He is young to be a Druid—no older, I'd guess, than Durant—but he has the air of authority common to his profession. Most in the fortress are pleased that he also follows the new religion.
He arrives well before midwinter eve and so is here to lead us to the oak grove where he cuts the sacred mistletoe. We put it above our doors and windows and in the barns and kennels to keep all of us and our animals safe through the winter.
It is far colder here than it was in the Vale of Enfert. I learn to wear two cloaks, and I often sleep in my fur-lined
boots. We range farther and farther on our hunting parties since many animals have moved to warmer places for the winter. On days that we don't hunt, my students and I continue weapons instruction.
Sorcha returns from her trip to Dun Struan a few days after Imbolc, and I think the visit was good for her. She seems to have overcome her grief. She attends weapons practice every day and proves to be my best pupil. I often spar with her myself, as she is more than a match for the others.