Authors: Patricia Malone
I gulp. “I wondered why he seemed so pleased.”
We find Belert in his quarters. When he's heard the story from each of us, he scowls at me. “You've no business being alone. It's not safe.”
“This is my home,” I say. “Surely I don't need an escort in my own stables.”
“It sounds like you did today,” he says. His voice softens, but he is firm. “From now on, Ilena, be careful when we have visitors, and do not go outside the fortress anymore without an armed companion.”
“You must think of the future of Dun Alyn,” Spusscio adds.
I want to protest, but I know what they mean. There are many stories of fortresses that have been conquered by force. If Faolan's advances had been successful, he would have a strong claim over me and Dun Alyn.
When I hear the sound of a horse troop gathering near the gate, I stay inside so that I won't have to see Faolan again.
At dinner Spusscio tells me that Sorcha has gone with them.
We had been busy with the chores of early spring before Faolan came. Tools must be repaired and sharpened. Fields must be plowed and spread with manure from the barns and paddocks. Weapons, chariots, and harnesses are readied in spring because the season of battles comes soon after planting.
But now, since Faolan's attack on me, his threat to return at Beltaine, and his abrupt departure, we work with a new sense of urgency to ready ourselves for whatever troubles may come.
Still, I find time every afternoon to walk the ramparts, looking to the south with the hope that I'll see Durant riding his gray stallion out of the tree cover and onto the trail
that leads to our gate. Each day I become more distressed that he has not come. Often I find myself staring at the horses on the red ring stone as if the smooth figures hold the answers to my questions.
Faolan's words haunt me. Perhaps Durant has changed his mind. Surely in that case, he would have sent a message.
It is more likely that something has happened to him. The fear grows day by day until I cannot escape it. I awaken frightened in the night, and a sense of dread keeps me company through the days. I cannot forget Spusscio's story. Faolan seemed sure that Durant would not come, and he may well have stopped him.
Gillis joins me one afternoon as I sit on the low wall that rims the seaside rampart, trying to take comfort from the calm blues that stretch to the horizon. I've become so intent on the rhythm of the waves marching toward me and crashing against the rocks below that I don't hear his footsteps until he is almost beside me.
He sits down a short distance away and looks out on the sea also. There is the faint sound of metal striking metal from the blacksmith's building, and Machonna keeps up a low howl below us. Gillis says, “You have come up here every afternoon all spring.”
“Aye,” I say.
“The scouts returned this afternoon,” he says. “Spusscio and I sent them out several days ago to search for any sign of Durant.”
I'm surprised. “I didn't know that.”
“We hoped to have good news for you.”
I brace myself. It is clear from his expression that there is no good news.
“They ranged beyond Dun Dreug and south on the western trail; that would have been his route from Uxelodunum.”
“He might have come through Cameliard if Arthur had business there.”
He shakes his head. “He stayed with a farmer a day's ride from Dun Dreug.”
“It was the waning half moon. Probably fifteen nights ago.”
“And so he should be here.” The fear swells inside me
until I think I can't contain it. I glance down at the waves below and wonder how it would feel to be washed away—if that would end the pain.
“He did not arrive at Dun Dreug. The scouts inquired north along the trail also, but no one had seen him.”
“Where does that trail to the north lead?”
“Dun Lachan—Andrina, cousin to Faolan on his father's side, is chief there. It is her sister, Camilla, who married a Saxon and rules Alcluith to the south.”
I remember Moren's distress when he heard about Alcluith: “One of our most important fortresses! How could a British family allow their daughter to marry a Saxon?” He grumbled for days. I realize now what a sacrifice it was for
him to remain in hiding in the Vale of Enfert when danger threatened Britain.
But my concern is for Durant. “Would Arthur have sent Durant to Dun Lachan?”
“It's not likely. Dun Lachan was the first of the far northern fortresses to invite Saxons into an alliance, and it is still one of the strongest. Saxon warriors quarter there to assist Andrina's war bands, and Saxon families have settled on the outskirts of Dun Lachan's territory. It would be far too dangerous for anyone from Arthur's table to come into the area.”
“Durant is used to danger; traveling to far places alone is his custom.”
“Yes, that's true.” Gillis does not sound convinced.
“Perhaps he has business somewhere we haven't thought of, and he will come here when it is finished.” I do not believe this even as I say it.
Gillis's stern expression has softened a little, and I think I see sympathy. “Let's go down now; Machonna is impatient.”
I try to smile, but it is a weak effort.
Three days before Beltaine, wood and grasses are piled high in readiness for the fires that will burn to purify our land and our livestock, and I lead a hunting party to secure game for
the feast. We return in late afternoon and are tending to our horses in the stables when a messenger arrives. He calls out the traditional request for entering a hostile fortress.
“I bring word from Dun Struan. May I enter with a promise of safety?”
I reach the gate before Belert and Spusscio, who are hurrying out of the family quarters, and give the proper response. “A messenger need fear no harm at Dun Alyn. I am Ilena, chief of this fortress, and I guarantee your safety inside these walls.”
I remember this young man from Faolan's visit. He dismounts and looks around uneasily at the sentries and the gathering crowd as though fearful of attack. At last he faces me and announces, “I am Gerden of Faolan's house guard.”
Belert has come up beside me. “You need not fear treachery at Dun Alyn. We will hear you speak after you have eaten and refreshed yourself, and you will leave tomorrow morning as you have come.”
“Unlike the custom in some places,” Spusscio mutters.
The Great Hall fills rapidly as everyone crowds in to hear the message. It is clear from the young man's request for a guarantee of safety that it will be a challenge.
When Gerden has eaten a trencher of stew, he rises from the bench where he was sitting and comes to stand before Belert and me. He has calmed himself, and he speaks now in a steady voice.
“Will the chiefs of Dun Alyn hear what Faolan has charged me to say?”
“Faolan reminds you that you insulted him in years past when he requested Miquain in marriage.”
There is a slight rustle in the hall as people shift on their seats and stretch to see around those in front of them. I console myself with the knowledge that my father is as opposed to my marriage to Faolan as he was to my sister's and try to relax.
Gerden continues. “He believes that Dun Struan and Dun Alyn are natural allies, bound by the generations of those who lived before us. It is right that the families be united in marriage.”
He pauses, and I can see that he is struggling to remember the exact words he has memorized. Belert sits, unmoving, with a face like stone; I try to copy him, but my mind churns with anxiety. The horrible story of Spusscio's brother, the memory of Faolan's attack in the stable, and my fear that Durant will never come all tumble around in my head.
“Faolan will come six days following Beltaine to claim his wife.” Gerden takes another deep breath, glancing quickly at me and then back to Belert. “The lady Ilena is to be ready. If the gates of Dun Alyn open to us, we will join in a wedding feast. If they do not, we will …” He gulps. “We
will enter Dun Alyn by whatever means we must and take Faolan's rightful bride.”
A chill runs through my body and gathers like a lump of ice in my belly.
Belert rises. His voice thunders across the Great Hall with each word separate and clear. “The lady Ilena does not desire marriage to Faolan. She is betrothed to Durant, chief of Hadel in the South and follower of Arthur. Tell Faolan that he comes against Dun Alyn at his peril.”
Gerden nods and sighs. “I will carry that message.” He steps back and waits to be dismissed.
“Go,” Belert says. “Cormec will show you to your quarters.” He looks out across the room. “Gerden of Dun Struan is our guest and has been promised safety in this fortress.”
People along the aisle to the door shift their feet to clear a path as Gerden leaves. There are no threats or gestures, but the faces that turn to follow his progress are grim.
Dinner is a solemn affair. Everyone in the fortress knows what Gerden's message was and what inevitable events our answer has put into action.
After dinner, Gillis returns to the family quarters with Belert, Spusscio, and me. We gather around the table in Belert's chamber.
Spusscio begins. “I've received word of a buildup of
Saxon forces at Dun Lachan. If Andrina brings her own war band, along with the Saxon warriors who've gathered there, to assist Faolan, we'll have a fight on our hands.”
“And I'm sure that she will,” Gillis says. “This isn't a dispute between two neighboring fortresses; it is part of the plan by Saxons, and the Britons who conspire with them, to defeat Arthur's alliance and take over all of Britain. There isn't time to get Arthur here unless you intend to wait inside Dun Alyn and let Dun Struan lay siege.”
Belert shakes his head. “No. We'll not risk getting hemmed in. It would take days to get word to Arthur and as many more days for him to arrive—if he were free to come to us. If Faolan and Andrina want a fight, we'll take one to them at the Ford of Dee.”
I nod. Battles are often fought at fords because rivers are the natural boundaries of our territories. The rivers themselves belong to no one, so they and their crossings are neutral ground.
“I've four scouts ready to leave at dawn for our friends' fortresses,” Spusscio says. “Two will go to Dun Dreug and two will ride northwest to Glein and Dun Selig. What word shall I send? And do you want the beacons tonight?”
“Aye,” Belert says. “One beacon at each station to let our people know that trouble is coming; then, on the night after Beltaine, we'll light two at each place for an immediate muster. Tell Dreug, Glein, and Selig that Faolan has challenged us, and that we'll be at the Ford of Dee on the fourth
night after Beltaine. They'll know they are needed. We'll meet tomorrow to decide who goes with us and who stays here.” He turns to me. “What about your students?”
“They're ready to take their places in the war band,” I say. I hope that I've prepared them well enough.
And that I am prepared myself.
The day we set out for the Ford of Dee is overcast with a cold rain that stops and begins again time after time. The grounds of Dun Alyn are so crowded with people who've come inside for safety that it is difficult to get our horses and equipment through the clutter of pens, carts, and makeshift shelters.
We leave a holding force. Our youngsters are skilled with slings, and many men and women who would find the trip to the Ford of Dee difficult are still vigorous enough to wield a spear or sword in defense of their home. Those who remain behind line the path from the entrance out to the trail to wish us all well and, in many cases, to grasp a loved one's hand one more time.
I am amazed at the size of our troops. Cormec and Spusscio ride ahead with the scouts, and Belert, Gillis, and I follow. We are flanked by guards, and one holds Dun Alyn's banner high over our heads. The white goshawk on a black background flutters and snaps in the brisk wind.
We have a horse troop of fifty behind us with at least two hundred spear carriers and slingers behind them. They are followed by supply wagons, donkeys laden with blacksmiths' wares and tools, and chariots to transport our wounded back to Dun Alyn.