Authors: Patricia Malone
I raise my sword and urge Rol toward the river, reaching Rory just as he falls to one knee. My sword stroke severs his opponent's head, and Rol's charge carries me out into the river. We plunge into a group of Northmen who surround four warriors from Dun Dreug. I leave two of the Northmen sprawled in the water and the others scattering from my path.
Only my death can wipe out my guilt, and I court that death. Wherever the fighting is fiercest, I force Rol on with my sword whirling and my voice raised in the war cry of Dun Alyn.
At last I see Belert with Spusscio at his side. Faolan and four others surround them.
I drive into the group with such force that two of Dun Struan's warriors fall under Rol's hooves and Belert and Spusscio are pushed aside. When Faolan leaps down from his horse and swings his sword at Rol's forelegs, I whirl the
horse out of danger and jump to the ground to engage Faolan.
He moves toward me with the mocking smile I remember from the stables at Dun Alyn. “Where is your wolf-dog now, Lady Ilena?” he asks.
In answer I leap forward with my sword swinging in a wide arc. He has his shield in place in time and attempts to strike me as I complete the move. Instead of checking my swing as he expects, I let my sword stroke pull me around in a complete circle and dodge out of his range. As he turns to follow me, I try to slash below his shield, but he defends himself well.
His back is to the river, and I'm able to press him bit by bit until he stands on slippery mud. “Will you yield now, Faolan?” I say. “Your forces are retreating across the river.”
His eyes dart away from me for a moment, but he looks back immediately and says, “That's an old trick, Ilena.” He lunges in my direction with his sword raised, but one foot slips, and he loses momentum.
As he steps back farther, searching for firmer footing, I'm pushed aside by Andrina's chariot. Only she and her driver are in the vehicle now. I try to slash her as she passes, but she is moving too fast.
The chariot slows, and she jumps down from the back, sword in hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Faolan and two of his warriors being pushed back by Lenora and a group from Glein. Andrina moves to join them, and I go after her.
“Turn and face me,” I demand. “Where is Durant? What have you done with him?”
She laughs. “You should have accepted Faolan.”
We face each other in knee-deep water. There are few of either side still on horseback now, and the clang of weapons and the cries of the wounded rise together above the sound of the river and the croaks of the waiting ravens.
Andrina stands firmly on a flat part of the river bottom, her dark eyes staring into mine. I step slowly around her, trying to lure her into swinging her sword. She is good; she has the patience to wait till I make a move and then slash when I am off balance. I wait also. It seems an eternity that we circle and stare and attempt brief false moves to lure the other into an attack.
I dare not take my eyes off her face to see how the battle is going, but the area around us seems to be opening up, with fewer and fewer people pressing around us. I move forward one step and force Andrina back; none of her warriors are behind her for support. I do not know if any from Dun Alyn are near me. As I attempt to push her another step toward the north bank of the river, she lunges forward, aiming for my left side.
I twist quickly so that her sword glances off my shield without harming me; at the same time I strike toward her shield. As soon as she turns to protect herself, I check my movement and thrust in behind the shield from the other side. My sword fails to penetrate her heavy leather vest and glances downward, slashing her trousers and drawing blood.
She gasps and steps backward again. Three warriors from Dun Struan rush to her aid and begin pushing me back. Spusscio appears on my right side and Cormec on my left. Steadily we move the Dun Struan band toward the north bank. Andrina falters as the injured leg buckles. One of her companions catches her and helps her away. The other two turn and retreat.
“Come back!” Spusscio says. He takes my arm and tries to lead me to the south bank of Dee. “Stay with your troops. Faolan is withdrawing.”
I pause to look around. The dead and wounded of both sides lie on the banks and in the river; the water rushing downstream around my boots is bright red. Dun Struan's forces are in full retreat.
“No!” I yell. I jerk free of Spusscio's grasp and charge through the bloody water in pursuit of Andrina and Faolan. I hope to fight my way through their ranks and find Durant.
Belert rides in front of me and halts his horse in my path. “It's enough, Ilena. Let them go.” He waits until Spusscio and Cormec catch up with me and says to them, “Get her back to camp and stay with her till she calms down. I'm looking for Perr.” He watches me with a solemn expression on his face, then adds, “I'll talk with you later.”
I try to hold his gaze to learn what he is thinking, but I drop my eyes in shame after a few moments. Thank God he is unhurt, but I can take no credit for that.
When Spusscio and Cormec take my arms, I let them lead me back through the river to our campfire.
“Sit here!” Spusscio says. “Pull off your boots and warm your feet. I'll get you ale.”
I want to argue, but I've begun trembling so hard that I can't talk. I drop onto a flat rock and try to remove my boots, but my hands won't serve me. Cormec stoops to pull them off. I nod my thanks and try to control my shaking jaw and chattering teeth.
The ale is strong, not yet mixed with water. I choke and sputter but manage to swallow two large gulps.
Spusscio takes the aleskin from me and says, “I'll get it back to the surgeons.” He looks at Cormec. “Stay with her.”
I rub my arms and begin to feel calmer. Two of our warriors go by with another who's bleeding freely from a wound in his arm. All three of them glance in my direction but hurry on without acknowledging me. Cormec is silent. When I look up again, Spusscio has returned. I suspect that the two of them are staying close to protect me.
Perr and Lenora walk by without stopping. Perr jerks his head away when he sees me; Lenora hesitates but then walks on with him.
I cannot bear to stay out here where everyone can see me.
I stand and wait for a moment to be sure I'm steady on my feet. “I'm going back into the woods,” I say. “I want my cloak. You are both needed here. I'll be all right.”
When I reach the cover of the trees, I look back and see that they are watching me. Spusscio has such a bleak expression that I can hardly stand it.
It is long past noon now, but the sun is still bright in the western sky. Here under the trees, shafts of sunlight bring some relief from the gloom of deep woods. I find my cloak and pack where I left them and give thanks that no one else is around. I realize that I am still gripping my sword tightly in my right hand, and I look at the gory blade. It should be washed in the river, but I do not want to walk back through our people again. I break fresh leaves off a low-hanging branch of an ancient oak and clean the blade as much as possible before putting it into the scabbard. I stand the weapon against a stump, then lower myself to the ground and lean back against a tree.
I don't know how long I sit without moving, trying not to think about the battle, about that moment when I fell back away from my chief. I force myself to try to blot out the image of Durant at Andrina's side.
His ring is heavy against my chest, and I pull it out to look at the red horses. One looks straight toward me, but stare as I may into the half-closed eyes, I can learn nothing from the stone.
Wagon and chariot wheels creak along the trail as the wounded are carried to the surgery at the rear. At least one wagon will be gathering our dead to take them back to Dun Alyn for the funeral fire.
I should be walking among the warriors, asking about each one, visiting the wounded, and thanking those who came from other fortresses to our aid—if I were worthy to be chief. But I cannot show my face now. I've given up all right to lead, and if the old laws prevail, I will give up my life for my offense.
No one comes to speak with me for a long time. Finally I hear footfalls nearby and turn to see Belert approaching. He carries a waterskin and a loaf of bread.
“Have you eaten?” he asks. His voice is kind.
I shake my head. “I have bread, but no appetite.”
“You must eat something. We will leave at first light in the morning.” He is silent for a few minutes, then sighs and sits down beside me. He breaks off a piece of the bread and hands it to me.
“It is not unusual to freeze with fright in your first battle.”
“But I am…was…a chief,” I say.
“I should not have kept you beside me. The first wave of an attack is frightening, and only experienced warriors can hold firm. I forgot that you had not seen a full battle before.”
“But I was not frightened,” I say. “Oh, perhaps at first, before they started toward us, but that faded at once. I was calm and ready for anything—I thought. I never expected to see him here, and the shock stunned me for a time.”
Belert looks puzzled. “Him?”
He stares at me in silence for several moments, then speaks carefully, slowly, as one speaks to a child. “Where did you see Durant?”
“Behind Andrina. He was the third person in the chariot; I didn't recognize him until the driver swerved so that Durant was directly in front of me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” I say.
“Sometimes things seem to appear when we want them too much,” he says.
“I certainly didn't want Durant riding beside an enemy chief,” I snap. “Faolan rode toward us, and I pushed ahead of you to shield you. I know my duty. I am—was—proud to ride on your sword side.”
“Did you feel fear then?”
“No!” The question angers me. “I have faced enemies before. I welcomed the thought of combat with Faolan. He has earned my hatred.”
“As Faolan approached, someone else broke through the line around us and I went to Spusscio's aid, leaving Faolan to you. Did you engage him?”
“No. He swerved just out of sword range and turned back into his ranks. Andrina's chariot was behind him, and it kept coming. As it reached me, it too swerved and turned across my path. Durant was an arm's length away.”
“Why do you think it was Durant?”
“I know it was.” I think about the man I saw. “I wouldn't mistake Durant even with the helmet covering so much of his face. It could not have been anyone else.”
He sighs heavily. “I do not know what this means. The law…”
“I know what the law says.”
He pulls himself up and looks beyond me. “I cannot bear to lose you, too.”
I bow my head and bite my lip to keep from crying. I've not only disgraced myself, but I've brought more sorrow to my father.
He reaches out and pulls me up beside him. “I must go. Perr and the others are waiting.”
I lean against him with my face mashed into his leather war vest for a moment, then gulp and pull myself away. “I'm sorry, Father. I wish that I could relive those moments.”
“Be strong, Ilena.” He tries to smile, then turns and leaves me.
No one else comes until nearly dark. I've gathered wood for a night fire and am dragging last summer's oak leaves into a pile for a bed when Gillis arrives. I think for a moment that he must have waited till dark, when no one would see him talking with me, but a closer look at his tired face and bloodstained clothing tells me that I've misjudged him.
“I would have come sooner,” he begins, “but the surgery is busy.”
“I should have come,” I say. But should I have? Would I have been welcome? Finally I confess, “I didn't know what to do.”
He lowers himself to the ground by the fire and leans his chin on his drawn-up knees. “I almost sent for you, but I feared that some would resent your presence. The story of the first moments of battle has spread throughout our camps.”
“I'm sure that it has.”
“Word of your courage and your fighting frenzy when you recovered yourself has also spread. People are not sure what to think.”
I sigh. “Nor am I. I thought I could trust myself in the face of danger. But to see him—”
He interrupts me. “Belert told me your story.”
“It was Durant.” I say it firmly, but even as I speak, doubts creep in. It was someone or something with Durant's appearance, but I did not touch him or hear his voice or see his eyes.
“Andrina is a witch; she has more knowledge of herbs, spirits, and the ways of the otherworld than anyone I know. She was at the Druid school for a time when I was there. She was a brilliant student, but she seemed to listen to voices that we did not hear. She is capable of tricking us, perhaps even of conspiring with someone of the otherworld.”
“Do you believe that I saw Durant?”
He hesitates. “Andrina is skilled in magic arts and
could bewitch or drug a man, but there is a more likely explanation.”
I wait while he shifts his body and stretches his legs toward the fire.
When he speaks, he watches me closely. “You are young, and you have suffered greatly. Surely Moren's death last fall, your journey to Dun Alyn and the dangers you met there, and Durant's absence are all weighing on you. It is not strange that you might see one you love while the rest of us do not.”
“You think I imagined him!”
He does not look at me, but peers into the fire as if searching for meaning there. “Would he have allied with Andrina?”
I think hard. How well do I know Durant? Could he be a traitor to Arthur and to me? “I cannot believe that he would betray me. And it is impossible that he would betray Arthur.”
Gillis stands, and though he faces me, I cannot see his expression clearly in the gloom. He speaks sternly. “The elders will meet to discuss your fate, and the warriors of Dun Alyn will be consulted. But the final judgment is mine.”
I take a deep breath and try to keep my voice steady. “I know that death is the penalty for failing to defend a chief.”
“Yes,” he says, “but your father has asked mercy for you. I will review the laws carefully and seek signs to guide me.
Come into the Great Hall of Dun Alyn tomorrow at dinnertime prepared to hear my decision.”