Branwen ap Griffith pulled back on the reins and her weary horse gradually came to a halt, snorting softly and shaking its mane. She swayed in the saddle, her long black hair cascading down the sides of her face. Her limbs trembled with fatigue, and her whole body ached. Rhodri’s horse went clopping on for another few paces through the trees before it, too, halted. The half-Saxon runaway looked back at her, his brow furrowed, his bright brown eyes sunken in his ashen face.They had traveled far together, following the magical path of glittering light that had drawn Branwen from her home and all that she held dear, leading her toward the destiny prophesied for her by Rhiannon of the Spring, the ancient earth spirit.
Rhiannon of the Shining Ones.
Branwen had fought long and fiercely against the ominous visions of the woman in white, struggling to free herself of the destiny that gaped like a dragon’s maw in front of her, a destiny that threatened to swallow her entire life.
But the foretelling would not be denied. What was it the bard had sung to Branwen-to her alone-in Prince Llew’s Great Hall?
The Old Gods are sleepless this night
They watch and they wait
For the land is in peril once more
And the Shining Ones gather
To choose a weapon, to save the land
The Sword of Destiny
A worthy human to be their tool
Child of the far-seeing eye
Child of the strong limb
Child of the fleet foot
Child of the keen ear
Such a weight for a girl who had seen only fifteen summers. To be the savior of her land and of her people. To drive back the rising tide of bloodied Saxon iron. To be a warrior-a leader.
But Branwen had taken up the fearful burden and followed Rhiannon’s path. And for friendship’s sake, Rhodri had come with her.
She was clad in the chain-mail jerkin and the dark-green cloak once worn by her brother Geraint. He no longer needed them-he’d been murdered by Saxons, his ashes blown away on the wind. His sword was at her hip now, and his round wooden shield, white with a rampant red dragon, hung from the saddle. The jerkin and cloak were flecked and stained with dried blood; the shield was notched and dented from the blows of swords and axes. These marks were the result of Branwen’s fighting, not Geraint’s. Dead too young, her brother had never met the Saxons in battle-had never grown to be the warrior he should have been.
Branwen and Rhodri had ridden through the starless gulf of the night, following the flickering silver path through dense forests and over ridge and bluff, spine and spur of the high hills. With the passing of time, as the mystical moonshine path had waned and its light had bled away into the ground, Branwen’s hope and faith had faded with it, replaced by frustration and growing anger.
She turned and gazed back the way they had come.
The distant ridges of the hills were now showing sharp and black against a streak of dreary gray light.
Dawn was coming.
A dawn empty of all magic.
Where was Rhiannon?
Branwen gritted her teeth, a cold fire burning in her heart at the capricious nature of the Old Gods. If the Shining Ones offered her no guidance, no clear path to her destiny, then why should she not simply turn back and fight the Saxons in her own way-on the familiar ground of Cyffin Tir?
Back there, her home was burning. Her father lay dead on the battlefield. An image of the battle-weary, grieving face of her mother, Lady Alis, forced its way into Branwen’s mind. She could almost hear the words she had spoken as Rhiannon’s path had unreeled itself into the night.
This is the Old Magic, Branwen. It is wild and pitiless. Do not follow this path, Branwen. It will devour you!
And she remembered her own reply.
It won’t, because I’m part of it. The Shining Ones have chosen me. They brought me here. They helped save us. Let me go to them, Mama. I’m doing this of my own free will.
A fresh wave of anger and disillusionment broke over Branwen as she thought of all she had left behind.
“Who am I, Rhodri?” she demanded as he dismounted and led his horse back to her. “Who do the Shining Ones think I am?”
“You are Princess Branwen, daughter of Prince Griffith and Lady Alis of Cyffin Tir,” he replied, his face full of compassion as he gazed up at her. “And you’re exhausted and ready to drop. We should rest now. For a while at least.” He gave a faded smile. “Can your destiny wait a little while longer, Branwen?”
“What destiny?” hissed Branwen, her head swimming. “Whose destiny?” She struggled to remain upright in the saddle as she threw back her head, using the last of her energy to shout into the night. “Rhiannon! Where are you? What do you want of me?”
But the rugged hills and the shadowed forests made no reply.
“I will not go purposelessly into the west,” said Branwen. “The shining path has vanished and Rhiannon hides herself from me!” Red anger flooded her mind. “Even her winged messenger has left us. Where is Fain? I will not follow blindly,” she continued bitterly. “If this is all the Shining Ones offer, then I will turn my back on them!” A wave of absolute exhaustion struck her, and she lurched in the saddle. “I’m going back, Rhodri,” she murmured. “Back to my own people. That way lies the hope for the future. That is the true path to my destiny. . . .” A black fist closed around her mind and Branwen felt herself falling.
She was vaguely aware of strong arms around her and Rhodri’s friendly voice in her ear.
“Let destiny go for now,” he said. “You need rest and you need food inside you. Just put your arm around my neck. Let’s find a soft spot for you to lie down on.”
She allowed herself to be carried, one muscular arm under her knees and another behind her back. Her head lolled on Rhodri’s shoulder. She could hear his rasping breath as he lowered her to the ground.
She opened her eyes and found herself half-lying under a massive old oak tree, its gnarled and twisted roots rising on either side of her like knuckled fingers. Her nostrils were filled with the smell of damp earth and rich mold.
“You wait here,” Rhodri said. “I have something we both need.” Branwen watched him walk to where the two horses were standing. He led them to a tree and tethered their reins loosely to a low branch. He ungirdled the horses’ saddles and drew them off, laying one on top of the other under the tree, then unwound a small sack from his saddle and came back with it hanging from his fist.
“What is it?” Branwen asked tiredly as he crouched at her side.
“Not much, but hopefully enough for our present needs,” replied Rhodri. “A hunk of bread and some cheese and a small flask of milk that I managed to purloin from the stores before the battle started. A wise precaution against hunger, if I do say so myself. Providing for an empty belly was a lesson hard-learned on the lean and hungry roads of Brython.”
Branwen smiled grimly. “This is more than Rhiannon has given us,” she said.
“Ahhh, well . . . Rhiannon,” murmured Rhodri, sitting cross-legged at her side and handing her a chunk of bread and a piece of ripe yellow cheese. “He looked sideways at her. “You aren’t really turning back, are you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “But this is not what I expected when we began to follow the shining path. I imagined it would take us . . . I’m not sure . . . somewhere . . . special. A place where everything would be explained.” She narrowed her eyes. “I should have known better. Rhiannon seems to delight in confusing me, in tormenting me with her riddles. . . .” She dug the heels of her hands into her eyes, trying to shake off the lethargy that dragged at her limbs and clouded her mind.
She looked at Rhodri, sitting quietly at her side, chewing the bread, his tawny hair hanging in his eyes.
“If you were me,” she asked, “what would you do?”
“I would eat and drink and sleep,” Rhodri replied. “Maybe things would seem clearer then. Who knows?” He looked at her with deep sympathy in his eyes. “I’ve never met anyone with a destiny before, Branwen. What do you think Rhiannon is playing at? Is this some kind of test?”
“Haven’t I passed enough tests?” Branwen asked.
Surely she had done enough? She had heeded Rhiannon’s terrible warning.
Your enemy comes creeping over the eastern hills even as we speak, cloaked in deception. Speed is your only ally now, Branwen. Fly as fast as you can, and you may still save many lives.
She had galloped her horse down the mountain like the west wind, desperate to thwart the Saxons’ plans to kill her mother and father and to burn the hill-fort of Garth Milain. She had taken part in the battle that raged at the foot of the ancient mound. She had killed men. And then, despite her efforts, she had seen her father cut down and her home burned. The battle had been won-but at what cost!
Heed me, child: When the battle is done, for good or ill, you must make your choice: to follow your destiny, or to turn forever from it. But choose wisely, for your decision will seal the fate of thousands. This is my final foretelling.
And Branwen had made that decision. She had left her grieving warrior mother standing proud but haggard on the charnel house of the battlefield-had left her home, Garth Milain, in flames.
“Sleep,” Rhodri said gently, his hand on her shoulder.
She slid sideways and rested her head in his lap, feeling the soft touch of his hand on her hair as the dead weight of her fatigue finally dragged her into slumber.