Authors: Patricia Malone
How welcome his company would be!
“Gillis is right,” Belert says. He puts his hand on my shoulder. “I would keep Ilena safe at Dun Alyn or go with her myself if it were possible. But she has chosen exile, and all we can do is wish her well.”
“Thank you, Spusscio,” I say. “I would like nothing better than your company, but I must go alone. I will return to you.” I pray that this is true.
“Well, then,” he says, “your horses are ready.” He picks up three small loaves of bread and some meat strips from a clean pile of hay nearby and tucks them into the top of the
pack on Rol's back. My sword and shield are in their places in the harness, and spears bristle from a case on Rol's side.
“There are more loaves and plenty of dried meat in the roan's pack,” he adds. “And oats for the horses and some sleeping skins are there. And two containers of ale.”
“Thank you,” I say, touched by his work. I had expected to slip away without seeing anyone.
When we lead the horses out of the barn, the morning sun has cleared the walltop, and the entrance is open for the day. Gillis has gone ahead and waits for us at the gate.
I can hear Machonna howling from the kennels. I'd like to hug him good-bye one more time, but it would only make him more unhappy to have me leave him again. When I step back to mount Rol, Spusscio is watching.
I don't trust myself to speak, so I nod and swing onto Rol's back. Belert fastens the packhorse's lead rein onto my saddle, then stands with his hand on Rol's withers.
“I must go,” I say.
“Yes.” Belert blinks and pats Rol's neck. “Go with God and do not forget the path back to us.” He reaches his hand up to me, and I grasp it and hold it against my face for a moment.
When I let go of his hand, I reach down to clasp Spusscio's. Then I straighten up and turn Rol toward the gate. I nod a greeting to the sentries and stop Rol beside Gillis.
“Thank you,” I say. “I know that you have done what the law requires, but you have also given me hope.”
He sighs. “I pray that you will be strong enough for whatever awaits you.”
I do not look back until I am clear of all the entrances and well down the path onto level ground. That's when I hear a familiar sound behind me. Machonna, howling madly, is racing toward me. He wears his wide hunting collar with a new leash wrapped securely around it.
Spusscio is standing in the open inner gate of the fortress; Belert is up on the ramparts with Gillis beside him. I wave to them, then dismount to unwrap the leash and stow it in my pack.
I go on with Rol and the packhorse trotting smartly and Machonna running alongside.
There are no trails leading south of Dun Alyn because impassable marshes stretch from the shoreline to the mountains; the ocean is on our east, and Dun Struan and River Dee lie directly to the north. My only option is west over the mountains. There, past Dun Dreug and not far from the Vale of Enfert, lies the north-south trail.
Dun Lachan, Andrina's fortress, is somewhere along that path into the far North.
By the time I've crossed the first mountain range, my mind is made up. There may be no brave deeds there, but I must know why Durant was with Andrina. I will go to Dun Lachan.
The lengthening days of spring are a good time to travel, as dawn comes early and the long twilights will allow me to
continue well into the night hours. I am almost halfway up the western range of mountains when I stop for the night.
Machonna stays close to me; he is used to forests and fortresses, and the stark emptiness of the mountain landscape makes him nervous. After I water and feed the horses, I share bread and meat with him. Our tiny fire sends shadows over the cliffs, and the wind howls around the peaks. Despite my brave words this morning in the barn, I've never made night camp alone before, and I am glad that Machonna is with me. I sleep well and don't awaken until dawn.
It is not hard to get an early start when the only preparation is to eat a little bread and harness the horses. We make good time over the mountain range and pass below Dun Dreug in midafternoon; I look up with longing at the fortress on the hilltop and wish that I could find a welcome there with hot food, a soft bed, and the companionship of friends. But I remember the way Chief Perr walked past me without speaking at the Ford of Dee and put the thought out of my mind.
I push us on as long as it is light enough to see the trail, so we make camp well west of Dun Dreug. We should reach the north-south trail early tomorrow morning. By nightfall it has begun to rain, and I find shelter in a clearing with a rock overhang that protects Machonna and me. I tie the horses nearby under thick evergreens that provide some cover for them.
Machonna is happy to be in a forest and dashes around our little clearing several times before I call him.
“Come, Machonna! Come here.” He obeys reluctantly and puts his nose on his paws to watch me start a fire under the overhang and tend to the horses.
When I awaken sometime in the night, he is gone. I whistle for a time, then settle back onto my bed of damp pine branches. Hunting dogs are trained to range widely and return to their master; surely he will find his way back.
I am awakened again just as darkness begins to weaken in early morning. The horses are pulling against their reins, bending the saplings that I secured them to and bumping into each other in their alarm. The din sounds like the kennels at Dun Alyn when the dogs fight over their food, but there are no kennels here in the forest.
“Machonna!” I can't tell if any of the yelps and growls are his. “Machonna! Come!” I scoop up the casting spears that I keep beside me at night and race toward the noise.
As I stumble over tree roots and through underbrush, the yelps turn into howls of pain. I burst into a clearing in time to see three wolves vanishing into a thicket. Machonna, blood streaking his fur, tries to follow them, falls, then raises himself and tries again.
“Machonna! Wait!” He turns and stumbles toward me for a few steps, then collapses in a trembling heap. When I reach him, I can see that the blood comes from a wound on
his left shoulder. The leather collar protected his throat, but there is a slash from the shoulder joint to his knee. His brown eyes fix on my face as if he's pleading with me to stop his pain.
“All right, boy,” I say. “It'll be fine. Let's get you back to camp.” I drop the spears and hoist him up. The jostling increases his pain, and he whimpers, but he does not resist as I get his front feet over my shoulder and lock my arms under his back haunches.
The big pack that Spusscio prepared contains what I need. I wash out Machonna's wound with a big splash from one of the aleskins and split a linen towel into strips for a bandage.
When I've cut as much hair away from the wound as I can and washed it out again, I pick woundwort, which is growing near the trail, and pack it into the gash, then wrap the bandage firmly around his leg. He has stopped struggling to get up, but he wheezes and whimpers while I work and falls asleep as soon as I finish.
I had hoped to be on my way north toward Dun Lachan soon after sunrise, but Machonna's wound is too serious for him to travel far. I fear that it won't heal for days. There are no houses in this area that I know of; it is too far to go back to Dun Alyn, and I doubt that I would be admitted at Dun Dreug.
There is only one place we can go—one place where I know I will be welcome. The Vale of Enfert lies less than a
day from here. My childhood friends Fiona and Jon will care for Machonna. Their mother, Aten, is the village healer and knows the best herbs to heal a wound.
I repack the roan's bundles until there is a hollow space across the middle of the pack. Then I wrestle Machonna up into the depression and secure him with ropes so that he won't slip as we move.
“It's all right, boy,” I say. “We're going home.”
It is almost evening when I stop at the head of the pass and look down over the valley where I grew up.
Memories flood my mind, and tears blur my vision. I stood like this so many times, resting from the climb up the steep path, often leading Rol with a deer or boar from the day's hunt slung over his saddle. I look down the trail into the village, almost expecting to see my foster mother, Grenna, hurrying out to greet me. But of course she died three years ago.
My old friend Fiona has seen me. Her voice floats up to me as she hurries along the path. “Ilena! Is it you?”
“Fiona!” I wave to her and start down the slope. My homeplace is high on the hillside to the left, closer to the
pass than the rest of the village, but a large outcrop of rock hides it from my view. Jon, Fiona's brother, is probably busy in the paddock, opening the gate to the night pen or leading Legg, Moren's horse, into his stall in the barn. When I left last fall, I asked Jon to move in and care for the livestock and the fields until I returned—if I returned.
I urge Rol forward, eager to see Jon, but bracing myself for the possibility of finding a woman there also. When I refused Jon's proposal, I knew that one day he would marry someone else. A farmer needs a wife beside him, and Jon was eager to have a family of his own.
As I move past the boulders, I strain to see my old home in the deepening twilight. It takes a few moments for me to realize that it isn't there.
The comfortable house with its thatched roof is gone, as are the barn and other outbuildings. The paddock fence, woven from supple willow branches and repaired carefully each spring, has vanished. I stare in silence at the black patches and scorched posts that are all that is left of our farm.
Fiona has reached me and holds out her arm to help me dismount. “It's horrible!” she says.
“What happened?” I step into her embrace and close my eyes for a few moments to blot out the sight of devastation.
Aten joins us. “Welcome, Ilena,” she says. “Though it's a sad homecoming we have for you.” She looks tired, and she's thinner than she was last fall.
The three of us stand, arm in arm, looking at the burned-out homestead. “I don't understand,” I say. “How could all the buildings have caught fire at once? The barn was well away from the house.”
“They lit them all,” Fiona says. “It was before Beltaine— fifteen days or so ago. Craig and I were down at the end of the village, working in our fields. We'd been married for just a short time.” She stops and starts to sob.
Aten embraces her daughter for a moment, then takes up the story. “Jon and Kenna were living here; they were married soon after you left.” She hesitates and watches to see how I react to the news.
I'm not surprised. Kenna made no secret of her feelings for Jon, and I'm sure the two of them are happy together. “Were either of them hurt? The buildings are a loss, but Jon can build new ones. Who lit them afire? And why?”
“Jon is gone.” Fiona forces herself to stop crying and continues. “So is Craig. All of our men and the big boys, too.”
“What happened?” I ask. Rol shakes his harness and nudges my back with his head. “Let's go down,” I say. “The others are waiting.” A group of women has gathered near Aten's house. Kenna, her belly swollen in pregnancy, is among them.
As we walk, Aten describes the group of warriors, most of them from somewhere in the North, Jon had said, and a few who spoke a language no one recognized. “They went
into every house and field and forced all the men and boys to go with them.”
“Except Eogan, who was hunting,” Fiona says.
We reach the group at Aten's yard, and old friends surround me. Their greetings worry Machonna, who struggles against the ropes that hold him. Fiona helps me get him down, and I carry him into the house.
By the time Aten has examined Machonna's wound and applied a fresh dressing, Fiona and Kenna have Rol and the packhorse settled into Aten's small barn. It is getting dark as Aten dips soup for us. After we've eaten, the four of us sit on the bedplaces and talk long into the night.
“Tell me again,” I say. “What happened first? Did the watch give alarm? How many were there?”
“I was here with Kenna,” Aten begins. “There wasn't a watch yet since it was too early for the usual slave raiders, but Kenna and I heard the noise. They took the cow and calf and the pigs out of your barn—then fired the place. It was a great awful burning.”
“Cryner?” I ask. An old dog is of little matter when human lives are endangered, but I hope the hound did not suffer.
“Gone,” Kenna says. “In the winter. Just didn't wake up one morning. Jon carried him up the slope and buried him there near your folks.”
“And Legg?” I asked. “Did they take him?”
“Eogan had him,” Kenna says. “Hunting, like always.”
I remember Eogan, a tall boy about two years younger than I. He spent a lot of time watching Moren teach me sword fighting, and he liked nothing better than permission to groom the horses. “He rides him, then?” I ask.
“Aye,” Aten says. “Eogan has been our best hunter all winter. Thank the gods he at least is left to us.”
“But Legg is no good at the plow or the mill,” Kenna adds. “Tried him at both, Eogan did, but the horse wouldn't pull.”
I picture the proud stallion harnessed like a donkey or an ox to the plow and shake my head. “It's not something he's trained for,” I say. “So they took the oxen, too?”
“Aye,” Aten says. “We've nothing to pull the plow or turn the millstones now but ourselves.”
“What did the men do?” I ask. “Did they try to fight back?”
Aten shook her head. “Jon considered it, but the leader spoke to us.” She stops, overcome with sadness, and adds, “There were about forty in the group.”
“They'd kill us all and burn our homes like they had yours unless our men went with them,” Fiona says.
“Eogan saw the fire and hurried back to us,” Aten says, “but they were gone by the time he got here.”
“We stopped him from going after them,” Fiona says. “It wouldn't have helped, and we'd have lost him and the horse besides.”
“It's hard for Eogan to do all the men's work alone, and
we're behind in plowing and planting,” Aten says. “It's a bad time.” She smiles at me. “But it is good to have you here.”
We sit in silence, watching the hearth fire burn lower and lower. Machonna whimpers in his sleep, and a cow lows quietly from the barn. I've missed these small houses with the animals close by and the peaceful nighttime talk of crops and hunting. But the vale is no refuge now.