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Authors: Patricia Malone

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BOOK: Lady Ilena
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He turns and disappears into the forest. I wait, standing alone in the gathering darkness, until I can no longer hear his footsteps, then crumple onto my bed. I fall asleep quickly but waken again and again during the long night to stare at the full moon floating above the trees and think about my fate.

Chapter 7

Spusscio brings Rol to me in the early morning light. I can hear movement and the clink of harness fittings all around me, but no one else has come near me since Gillis left last night.

“Do you wish to join Belert?” he asks.

I hesitate. The joy of riding with my father at the head of our troops seems even sweeter now that it will be taken from me. Would it hurt to ride there just once more? Shame and concern for Belert's reputation give me the answer. “I'll come along at the rear,” I say.

He nods and seems to look for words. Finally he says only, “As you wish.”

At first I ride behind the foot troops, among the chariots
and wagons. Some of the wounded sit upright and watch our progress; others, too badly wounded to sit, lie drugged against the pain on the straw that covers the wagon and chariot beds. I fall farther and farther back until I am riding behind the last wagon, which holds three corpses laid side by side. Only the warriors of the rear guard are behind me.

I grieve for those we've lost, yet I envy them. How much better to go home to a hero's funeral than to ride disgraced toward a coward's death.

It is late afternoon when we reach Dun Alyn's gates. I enter last and lead Rol to his stall myself since the horse tenders are all busy. I take my time grooming him and bringing feed and water. Perhaps this is the last time I'll be with him. I throw my arms around his neck and lean against him, then leave the barn without looking back.

There is warm water in my room, and I wash carefully and comb my hair till it is smooth. I put on my blue dress and the girdle that my mother made for me. Before I toss the dirty bathwater out the window, I take my sword out of its scabbard and clean it thoroughly. After I've polished it with the linen bath towel, I stand it in its place in the corner.

I wonder if I will ever use it again.

Our bard is strumming a peaceful song as I approach the door of the hall, and I can hear conversation inside. Cormec is in his place as doorkeeper. He bows as he holds the doorskin aside for me.

There is total silence as I walk the aisle between the
tables. I do not look to the right or to the left, but keep my eyes on Belert at the head table. He is standing now, and Gillis stands beside him. Spusscio remains seated with his head bowed. The bard has stopped playing and holds his harp upright with his hands muffling the strings.

This story will be told in halls throughout Britain, and few who hear it will have any sympathy for me. I step onto the dais and stand before my father.

He sighs and turns to Gillis. “Have you made a decision?”

Gillis nods, and Belert sits down.

Gillis looks out over the room. “You have heard the story of the battle yesterday. Ilena faltered and fell to the rear when the attack came. She left her chief unprotected.” He waits while voices murmur through the room. When it quiets, he resumes. “You watched her when the Northmen attacked Dun Alyn last fall, and you know of her courage. She has taught Dun Alyn's young people weaponry, and she has led the hunting bands against the wild boar and other game. You know, as do I, that she is brave, skilled in warfare, and loyal to her father, Chief Belert.”

I stand still, watching him and listening for the sounds behind me. I can hear shuffling as someone stands to speak, and silence as people stop their conversations to listen.

“I have hunted with Chief Ilena.” It is Cormec. “She shows more courage when she faces the wild boar than anyone I've followed. I do not know why she faltered at the Ford of Dee, but I would like to hear her story.”

Gillis looks at me for a few moments, then responds. “Her story is a strange one. Ilena saw an apparition riding beside Andrina, an image of Durant; whether in the flesh or as a spirit, she could not determine. Since no one else saw him, it is possible that Andrina cast a spell on Ilena, or perhaps that Andrina has progressed far enough into the dark arts to conjure up one from the Sidhe to ride beside her.”

The room erupts with excitement. Feet shuffle and benches creak as people stand to talk to others about the news.

Gillis stands, calm and powerful. Spusscio watches the movement in the hall. Belert toys with his dirk and stares beyond it at the tabletop. He looks weary, and he lays the dirk down for a moment to rub his eyes, then glances at me and manages a tiny smile. His eyes are warm as they have always been when he looks at me, and I feel reassured that he, at least, does not blame me for my actions.

Gillis clears his throat and raps his dirk on the table. People scurry to their benches, and quiet returns to the hall. “I have thought long about Ilena's situation,” he begins.

“The penalty for falling behind in battle for any reason but grave injury is death.” He pauses. “Ilena is guilty!

“The penalty when an uninjured warrior leaves a chief unprotected is death.” He looks at me and then out into the hall. “Ilena is guilty!

“The penalty when a chief fails to lead the war band is death.” This time when he pauses, the hall is so quiet I can hear the sound of the sea through the open window.

“Ilena is guilty!”

His words bash against me like physical blows. It is all that I can do to stand still and keep my head high. The room behind me remains silent.

Gillis continues. “Because of the strange circumstances of Ilena's lapse, because of her youth, and because her father, Chief Belert, asks mercy, I have spent the hours since the battle ended looking for another way.

“There are a few times—very few—in our history when the death penalty has not been exacted. The first requirement for setting it aside is that the Druid must certify that mercy is indicated.

“I believe that it is in this case and will so notify the Council of Druids.

“The second requirement is that you, Ilena's people, desire mercy.”

A bench scrapes behind me as someone stands. “I stumbled during the battle yesterday.” It is Rory. “Ilena saved my life. I will follow her gladly. She is a good chief and she deserves mercy.”

Cormec's voice rings out. “I've spoken once of her courage; I will speak again. She fought like one of the old heroes at the Ford of Dee. It took three of us to stop her from following our opponents back into their own territory.”

“Aye,” someone calls. “I've not seen such a fine battle rage in my life.”

There is a hum of conversation through the room.

Belert looks out at the crowd and then gives me a slight nod of encouragement. I feel some of the fear start to drain from my body.

Spusscio stands and waits for quiet before beginning. “Faolan and Andrina planned this. If Ilena is no longer chief of Dun Alyn, then Sorcha is the next heir, and Sorcha rides with Faolan now.”

Someone in the back begins chanting, “Mercy! Mercy! Mercy for Chief Ilena!”

Others take up the call until the hall rings with it.

Gillis waits patiently for the chants to die down before he speaks again. “You have made a wise decision. Ilena is not a coward and does not deserve a coward's death. But the law must be satisfied.”

He continues. “Ilena, you have heard your people.”

“I have heard them,” I say, “and I am grateful to them.”

“You understand that I must pronounce a judgment to satisfy the law?”

“I do.”

“The old codes provide two punishments other than death. You must choose between them. Turn now and face your people.”

I do not want to look out over the hall, but I turn slowly and stand with my head held high and my fists clenched tightly at my sides.

Moren told me always to look brave and under control no matter how I felt. I breathe a prayer of thanks for him
and for Grenna. They taught me well, and I only wish that I brought honor to their memory instead of disgrace.

Gillis's voice booms from behind me. “Ilena may stay at Dun Alyn and live out her life here—if she relinquishes her place as chief and does not ride with the war band again.”

Give up being chief and riding with the war band? But that is my life. What would I do?

Rory is sitting at a front table, and I can see the shock on his face. There is a stir as others react.

Gillis raps on the table again. “That is one choice. The other”—he pauses until it is quiet—“is that Ilena must leave Dun Alyn—alone—and not return until she has accomplished tasks great enough to prove herself worthy to be chief of this fortress.”

I'm stunned. Somehow I'd resigned myself to death, but the relief I felt when mercy was granted has turned to confusion.

A life of dishonor, being reminded every day that I failed as warrior and chief, while someone else—Sorcha?—rules? I prefer death!

Or exile, forced to go out alone in search of a hero's task. The prospect frightens me—but it is the only choice I can make.

“Have you decided?” Gillis asks.

The people in the hall seem to hold their breath, waiting for my reply.

“I am a warrior, and I am chief of Dun Alyn,” I say. “I
have failed in my duty to you, but I will not give up that high honor for safety.” I pause for a deep breath, then say firmly, “I choose exile!”

People throughout the hall murmur and shift in their seats. Rory at least approves. He is smiling and nodding.

“Wait, Ilena,” Gillis says. “Consider carefully. This is a dangerous time in Britain. Your father and your friends will not know where you are or how you fare. If you choose exile, you might well be choosing death.”

“I …” I start to say that I am sure, but I think of my father. He still grieves for my mother and sister. If my staying would bring him peace…I turn and face him. “Father.” It is hard to get the words out, but I must. “Do you want me to stay?”

He looks at me sadly for a few moments, then says, “Of course I want you by my side, Ilena, as would any parent. But you are a warrior. The way of a warrior is a dangerous path and an honorable one. I would not ask you to forsake your life's calling. Go with my blessing.”

I blink and try to smile my thanks. I look at Gillis and repeat, “I choose exile!”

“If you are sure,” he says, “you must leave tomorrow. You may return when your deeds of valor can be told in this hall.”

I hesitate for a moment, then bow to him and to my father before I turn back to my people. “I thank you all. I pray
that your judgment is right and that I will deserve the mercy you have shown me.”

I walk along the crowded aisle as proudly and as slowly as I can manage. At the door I stop to talk with Cormec. “Thank you for speaking,” I say.

He nods solemnly. “What I said is true. You are a good chief and a courageous warrior. Come back safely to us.”

“I hope to.”

When I step outside, Machonna races toward me and leaps up to lick my face. My joy at seeing the dog fades as I think of leaving him tomorrow. He races happy circles around me all the way to my room.

I keep him with me for the night, and he sprawls at my feet as I burrow into the bedskins. My last thoughts before falling asleep are of this room and this luxurious bed. I do not know when I will sleep in warmth and comfort again.

I awaken before sunup and take Machonna out into the compound, then tie him securely so that he cannot follow me. I hug him hard and whisper, “Good-bye, friend.”

When I return to my room, Belert is there, surveying the pack I've laid open on the bedplace, and the small pile of belongings that I've stacked in it.

“Do you have what you need?” he asks.

“I plan to take only what I brought with me from the Vale of Enfert,” I say.

“Nonsense!” he says. “Everything here is yours.” He
throws open the three larchwood boxes that stand along one side of the room and pulls a tangle of gold bangle bracelets and rings out of the smallest one. “You'll need these to buy food and shelter.” He drops them onto the bedplace beside my pack and turns back to the larger box.

“And this!” He tosses the green dress onto the bedplace. “Chiefs and daughters of chiefs wear green.” He takes my shoulders and pulls me around to face him.

“You are the daughter of Cara, chief of Dun Alyn, and her consort, Belert; your foster parents were Moren, noted war leader of Dun Alyn, and his wife, Grenna. That is as noble a lineage as any in Britain, and it is yours wherever you go, whatever you do. Do not forget it.”

I've been thinking of myself as the girl I was in the Vale of Enfert with no knowledge of my lineage or of my proper place in life. I gulp and say, “Yes, Father. I'll remember.”

“Now hurry. You are wise to get an early start.” He picks up my sword from the corner and carries it out with him.

I tie straps around the pack and pick up my cloak and war helmet. I stand in the doorway, looking back at the room for several moments. I'd never seen such a fine chamber before I came to Dun Alyn. Will I live in this one again?

The courtyard is empty, though I can hear voices from the kitchen. I would like to gather some loaves and meat, but I don't want to face anyone. I go into the warm stable with its heavy scent of horses and hay.

“No! I forbid it!” Gillis is shouting at someone.

“She can't go alone!” Spusscio's voice is just as loud.

By the time I get to Rol's stall, the two of them have stopped yelling and are arguing in hushed tones. Belert is tightening Rol's saddle straps, and a good roan mare with a large pack is tied to the outside of the stall beside Rol's.

“The law is clear,” Gillis says. “She will not redeem herself any other way.”

“She'll be in danger every moment she's gone,” Spusscio responds. “When Faolan and Andrina get wind of her exile—and they will somehow—they'll be after her at once.”

Gillis sighs. “I know. But she must earn the respect of her people and of our allies. You heard Perr and Doldalf.”

“I'll be fine,” I say.

“I could go with you and no one would even know it. I come and go constantly on Belert's business.” As he speaks, Spusscio takes my pack and secures it behind Rol's saddle.

BOOK: Lady Ilena
6.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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