Authors: Patricia Malone
I am proud to see my students throughout the horse troops—all except Sorcha, who has cast her lot with Faolan.
The terrain is rough with hills and small streams, but the trip goes smoothly. Rol prances happily, showing his pleasure at the outing by tossing his head and rolling his eyes at Belert's mare. We are in place a short distance south of the Dee well before twilight. We make our night fires at the edge of a woods; boys and girls who've come to tend the horses help us rub down and feed our animals while others hurry to gather buckets of water from a stream that rushes along on its journey to the Dee.
I have just settled on a rock to eat the dried venison and bread that I carried in my pack when I hear a shout. “Someone comes. A troop, from the west.”
I lay down my food and stand to draw my sword.
The sentry is stationed high on a cliff overlooking the
area. Her voice is drowned out by the noise of people readying their weapons.
“Silence!” Belert shouts. “I can't hear her.”
“A large troop. They fly a green pennant with brown on it. And another follows—a blue pennant.”
Allies! I replace my sword. Dun Dreug's banner is a gold boar on a blue background, and Glein flies the brown bear on green.
Perr of Dun Dreug is the first chief to join us. His voice is as hearty as I recall. “Ho! Belert. Spusscio. And the lovely lady Ilena!” He settles his sturdy frame on a log seat and sighs. “I'm tired of a saddle already. Getting old, I fear.”
Belert laughs. “Not yet, my friend. It is good to see you.”
Perr turns to me with a serious expression. “Have you heard anything about Durant?”
I shake my head. “Nothing,” I say.
Doldalf of Dun Selig and Lenora of Glein arrive together. I stand to greet them, and Lenora wraps me in an enthusiastic embrace. “I've thought of you all winter,” she says, “but especially since we heard about Durant.” She releases me and looks at Spusscio. “Still no news?”
“Nothing,” he says.
Doldalf grumbles, “There's too much activity on the trails this spring to suit me. Northerners going south, Saxons going north. No one's safe anymore.”
Last fall when we needed help at Dun Alyn, these three
friends along with Durant and Hoel rode to our assistance. It is good to see them again.
We are in a large clearing near the stream, and our cheerful fire brightens the shadows as the sun drops below cliffs to the west. It could be a happy gathering of friends met to hunt if I did not know what lay ahead. By this time tomorrow we will be checking our weapons for the last time, preparing ourselves for battle.
“When do you expect Faolan?” Perr asks.
“We think that they will leave their fortress the day after tomorrow,” I say.
“It is a short ride from Dun Struan to the ford, so we should see them by midmorning,” Spusscio says.
We are not disturbed during the night, and when I awaken, people are cleaning and polishing their weapons and seeing to belt and harness fittings. The horses are corralled in a makeshift paddock well away from the large clear area between woods and riverbank.
After breakfast Spusscio says, “I'm going up there to look over the area.” He nods toward a large hill in the distance. “Who wants to join me?”
Gillis, Lenora, and I follow him, and by a little before noon, we are standing on an outcrop that gives a good view of the countryside.
“That's Dun Struan,” Spusscio says. He points to the northeast where a cloud of smoke from cooking fires hovers above a fortress. We can see the walls and three huge
earthen rings that surround them, but little else because we are so far away.
The river Dee runs below us, churning between steep rocky banks to the west, slowing as it approaches the ford, and widening out as it moves toward the sea. Lenora stares at it for a long time.
“Can it be forded anywhere downstream?” she asks.
“No,” Spusscio says. “It is wide and the sands are treacherous. This is the lowest crossing, and there are no others for a great distance upstream because it flows swiftly between high banks for much of its length.”
“Then we need not fear a surprise attack,” she says.
“No,” he answers. “There is no other route for them but across that ford.”
When we return to the campsite, I see that Belert has ordered drivers to move the wagons and chariots back along the trail and to space themselves out so that our warriors will have room to move to the rear if they need to.
The mood around the campfires during dinner and throughout the evening is somber, though no one seems eager to sleep. At last, as the fires die down, and the moon rises above the treetops, I can stay awake no longer.
“A good night to you all,” I say, and roll myself in my cloak with my feet toward the fire and my head pillowed on my war vest. I can hear the others around me following my example, and finally talking ceases throughout the camp area. I sleep fitfully, partly because of the hard ground beneath
me—I've become too accustomed to my soft bed—but also because thoughts of tomorrow's battle stir me awake each time I drop into slumber.
Will I be equal to the role of chief? I know what a warrior must do, and I know how to fight as well as any here. But will I be strong enough in the face of a large force against us? Can I hold my position at Belert's right hand?
As a chief myself, I am charged with duties of leadership and example far beyond the other warriors. Since this is my first battle with the war band of Dun Alyn, my every move will be scrutinized, and the judgment passed on my qualifications will follow me for years.
At last my thoughts fade so I can sleep, and I awaken as dawn is casting a pink glow against the clouds. I look toward the two watchmen stationed on the cliff and see them staring across the river. Belert and Spusscio stand on a small rise nearby, looking in the same direction. When I reach them, I see two horsemen on the north bank of Dee. They watch us for a time, then turn their horses back toward Dun Struan.
“Scouts,” Spusscio says.
“Aye,” Belert says, “their main troop will be along soon.” He pulls his sword from its scabbard and raises the blade above his head. He turns slowly in a complete circle and moves back into the ranks of warriors, brandishing the sword in a silent and unmistakable signal to prepare for battle. The other chiefs, weapons high, move among their troops with the same message.
I hurry back to my sleeping place to gather up my cloak and pack, then carry them into the woods out of the way. Those who wear the traditional long wool garment strip it off and toss it onto piles of others. Most wear leather trousers, but some do not have even that much clothing when the woolen cloak is gone. Lenora wears a tunic over her trousers, as do I, and both of us have thick leather vests for protection.
Fear is building inside me, and I wish for a moment that I were back safely in the Vale of Enfert, where my only opponents were the wild boars and the sheaves of straw Moren hung for targets.
A shout rings out from the cliff above us. Gillis stands with his arms raised and his head back. He begins an ancient plea to the gods of our ancestors, then looks down and points at me. People have pressed forward into the clearing to hear him, and now they begin to chant my name.
“Lady Ilena, Lady Ilena.” It begins quietly from a few people, then builds until the surrounding forest seems to echo it.
I know it is customary to honor a leader before going into battle, but Belert is here, and Doldalf and Perr and Lenora. I am the youngest chief, and this is my first battle. Surely I should not stand beside the Druid. Belert nods at me, and I can see that he is saying, “Go!”
Lenora smiles and reaches out to take my arm. “Come, Ilena. You are chief of Dun Alyn. Your people want to see
their leader.” She leads me through an aisle that opens in the crowd until we reach the trail to the cliff top. There she releases my arm and gives me a gentle push.
I climb the steep path with the sound of my name roaring around me. “Ilena. Ilena. Ilena, Chief Ilena!”
Gillis waits while I pull myself up the last steps onto the cliff top and then turns to the crowd again with his arms raised. I hold my sword up as Belert did earlier and listen to the voices. As I hear my name mixed with the battle cries of four different fortresses, I feel a surge of power. My fear is gone now, replaced by the assurance that I can do what I must. I step forward to the edge of the cliff and brandish my sword in a wide circle over my head.
When Gillis speaks into my ear, “It is enough. We must prepare our ranks,” I lower my arm and look across the river.
Faolan rides toward the ford, with Sorcha on his right. A warrior on his left holds the brown and blue wolf head pennant so that it streams over them. There is a chariot with three people directly behind him, and ranks of warriors, the bright morning sun gleaming off their weapons, stretch back along the trail as far as I can see.
I raise my sword again, throw my head back, and call the battle cry of Dun Alyn with all my strength.
Our war bands are forming along the edge of the clearing and back into the woods. The chiefs, our house guards, and the sword carriers will lead against the first attack. Horse tenders are hurrying our mounts to us. I take Rol's rein from the girl who leads him and swing into the saddle. We will fight on horseback for as long as we can.
“Try to get him when I dismount,” I say.
“Yes, lady. I'll be nearby,” she says. She reaches out and touches my hand briefly. “God's blessing on you.”
I nod my thanks, pull my helmet from its place on the harness and tug it on, then move Rol forward to a position between Belert and Perr.
Spusscio, still on foot, rushes toward us, his boots and trousers dripping wet. “Andrina! Andrina is here.”
“The witch!” Perr says.
“Aye,” Belert says, “and no surprise. Gillis warned us.”
“Are there other fortresses?” I ask.
“Probably,” Spusscio answers. “Dun Lachan has plenty of allies, and I'm sure there are Saxons along too.”
I'm glad that our own friends have come to help us.
Faolan moves forward to the riverbank, and we all quiet to hear him. “My cousins of Dun Alyn! Again I bring the gifts.” He turns and a young girl leads the black colt forward. “Consider my request. There should be only friendship between our people.” He wears neither tunic nor vest, and his hair stands out in a lime-stiffened ruff around his head. The blue tattoos on his bare upper body ripple as he lifts the gold bracelet.
Rol moves sideways as Gillis rides up between Perr and me. The Druid's face is stern, and his long hair blows loose around his head.
“Ilena,” Faolan continues. “Accept your bride gifts and your destiny. Save your people and mine from the bloody wounds of war.”
I swallow hard. I do not wish to marry Faolan, but I do not want my people harmed on my account.
Belert senses my hesitation and reaches out to hold Rol's rein. “Do not waver, Daughter. You know of his treachery.
He would force Dun Alyn to bow to Saxons, and Dreug, and the others would fall without us.”
Gillis urges his horse forward. He moves down onto the riverbank on our side and raises his voice until all in both front ranks can hear him. “I am Gillis, Druid of Dun Alyn. I warn you that the gods favor Arthur and his followers. If you attack us, you abandon the gods who have cared for Britons for ages past, and you anger the true God who is above them all.”
A team of black horses pulls a chariot forward, and the woman in it steps up beside her driver, leaving a man standing alone behind them. She wears a war helmet, but her black hair streams out around it; her arm, brandishing her sword over her head, is muscular and browned from the sun. She speaks loudly above the noise of the river and the stamp of horses and the clank of battle gear. “Gillis, I know well that you have forsaken the old ways. The gods of our ancestors lead us to make peace with the Saxons and to resist the southern traitor, Arthur.”
Belert leans closer to me and says, “Andrina!”
Faolan points to the trees that line the river. “The Morrigan have gathered.” Ravens have settled onto branches throughout the area, and more are arriving in waves overhead. “They wait for the feast that simmers for them.”
“It is you, Faolan, who have called them,” Belert shouts.
Gillis returns to us and takes his place beside me; I am on Belert's right and Spusscio is on his left. Our best warriors
push forward to circle us. Perr is swept off into the center of his own troops.
I breathe a prayer for our protection and for my own courage as the front line of Dun Struan's forces plunges into the river to meet our front line with a great clash of swords and spears. Battle cries from both sides rise above the din.
I snatch my sword into my left hand to wipe my palm against my leather vest, then grasp the hilt again with my right hand. Faolan, with Andrina's chariot beside him, has crossed the river and is pushing through our ring of warriors toward us.
“Now, Faolan,” I mutter, “we face each other again.” My fear has retreated and a cold rage at the man who brings this threat against us has taken its place. I urge Rol forward to intercept him.
Faolan swerves out of my path, and Andrina's chariot rushes toward me. As she approaches, the driver turns so that I am heading straight for the warrior who stands beside her.
The sounds of battle blur as I recognize Durant.
Rol stops abruptly and rears upward. I can hear myself screaming Durant's name again and again as the chariot thunders past us and disappears into the midst of Dun Struan's warriors.
I sit motionless, staring after them, while the fight swirls around me. When I come to my senses, the front line of battle has moved into the river, and I am far behind with the foot troops pressing around me.
“Belert!” Where is he? “Belert!” Shock and shame overcome me. I have abandoned my chief.
A warrior can commit no greater sin.
I hold Rol still for a moment, hoping that somehow I can disappear—be spirited by some otherworldly force up and away from this place. I see Rory battling a Northern warrior; the two of them move back and forth over a slick patch of mud at the river's edge. Suddenly Rory slips and stumbles off balance. As he tries to recover his footing, I break free of my trance.