Blood. Flames. Darkness. Screaming chaos.
Savage voices shouting in an unknown tongue.
“Hel! Gastcwalu Hel!”
“Gehata! Tiw! Tiw!”
Branwen’s sword clashed against a thrusting spear point, knocking it aside. The whirl and thunk of axes rang in her ears. Around her, arrows fell, thudding into flesh. There was the hideous, tearing crack of iron cleaving bone. A sword slashed down toward her neck, the agonizing impact knocking her to the ground as her blood spurted hot and high.
Branwen awoke with a jolt into a pale dawn. She knew she could not have been asleep for very long. It was that mysterious time halfway between night and day, with the sun still hidden under the horizon.
She sat up, unwilling to fall back into her gruesome dreams. Rhodri was leaning against the trunk of the old tree, his head drooping, his eyes closed. She hoped his dreams were sweeter than hers. She looked fondly at him, remembering their first meeting. She had been lost and alone in the fog-bound mountains. She had thought him a Saxon marauder and clouted him with a stick, only learning her mistake afterward. He wasn’t an enemy, but he had spent most of his life in Saxon captivity.
Branwen learned much later that Rhiannon of the Spring had engineered their meeting, and they met again, in the forest outside Doeth Palas, the fortress village of Prince Llew of Bras Mynydd. For some unexplained reason, their fates were intertwined.
By all the saints, that seemed a whole lifetime away! But it was not—she and Rhodri had fled Doeth Palas only two nights past.
She rested against the tree once again, gazing up into the branches, watching the shifting patterns of the leaves in the breeze, oil-black against the cloudy sky.
A small, almost inaudible scuttering caught her attention. Then she felt the kiss of a tiny motion on her hand, which was lying in the brown leafmold that gathered in heaps and drifts under the tree. Soft feet had pattered over her fingers. She tilted her head a little, trying to see.
It was a mouse—a small gray mouse. Branwen smiled, her heart lifted by the sight of the little beast as it nosed and plowed its way through the rot and debris between her hand and her leg, its whiskers twitching, its eyes bright and black and shining.
The mouse scampered around her hand and dived under a gnarled root, vanishing with a whisk of its tail. Branwen lifted her hand—slowly, slowly—and took a piece of bread, crumbling it in her palm. She rested her hand, palm upward, close to the root.
“Come on, little one,” she whispered. “Come and feed.”
She waited, listening to Rhodri’s slow, deep breathing, her eyes on the dark gap under the root.
A pink nose appeared. Whiskers quivered.
The mouse emerged, rising onto its haunches, sniffing the air. Could it smell the bread?
It moved closer, its body trembling. It lifted its forepaws onto her hand, sniffing the breadcrumbs.
“Eat your fill, my friend. Have no fear.”
But to her disappointment, the mouse turned and slipped away under the root again without eating.
“You can trust me, little one. I won’t harm you.”
She heard furtive movements from beneath the root—more movement than could be explained by a single mouse. A family of mice, perhaps?
She smiled with joy to see the mouse appear again. And to her delight, the mouse was followed by five others, perfect little mice children, scuttling and tumbling over the rotting leaves as they followed their mother.
Biting her lip, Branwen hardly dared to breathe as the mother sprang onto her hand, leading the children to the food. Their feet tickled Branwen’s skin as they gathered and fed in her bounteous palm.
Suddenly, a shape came sweeping down from the sky. Branwen’s heart jumped. It was a grayish-brown shape, gliding phantom-soft on widespread wings. She gasped and jerked her head back as it pounced. Then it was gone again—a mouse clutched in either claw.
The other mice fled.
“No!” Branwen howled in distress, her whole body contracting in a spasm of horror, her hands beating the ground as the owl glided away into the trees.
Rhodri woke with a start.
Branwen scrambled to her feet, running in pursuit of the gray predator.
She heard Rhodri chasing after her. He caught her arm and brought her to a halt.
“Branwen? What is it?” he asked.
“An owl took the baby mice,” Branwen cried. “I gave them bread. They were on my hand.
Rhodri stared at her. His voice was low and calm. “Owls eat mice, Branwen,” he told her. “Its what they do.”
She turned on him, angry for a moment. “I know that,” she said. “I’m not a fool!”
He paused before speaking. “So why has it upset you so much?”
She held her palm out toward his face. “They came because I offered them bread,” she said. “They trusted me and the owl took them. It was my fault.”
His brows knitted. “It’s your fault that owls eat mice?” he said.
She glowered at him. “No. But I tempted the mice into the open,” she said slowly. “If I hadn’t been there, they would still be alive.”
She walked back to the tree, but couldn’t bring herself to sit again beside that root.
She pointed down to where it lifted from the leafmold. “Keep away from me, if you wish to live,” she called.
“Branwen, stop,” said Rhodri. “Try to sleep some more. Things will seem less bleak when the sun is up, I promise you.”
“I can’t sleep,” said Branwen. She looked solemnly at him. “Rhiannon told me I was the Sword of Destiny—the Emerald Flame—the Bright Blade who would save the people of Brython from the Saxons.” Her voice rose. “And yet I cannot keep even a handful of mice safe!”
Rhodri bit his lip, looking anxiously at her but not speaking.
Branwen’s shoulders slumped. “Rhiannon was wrong,” she said. “The Shining Ones chose badly.” She took a deep breath. “Do you hear me, Rhiannon? You chose the wrong person! Choose again. Choose better next time!”
She turned and walked toward the horses. Rhodri snatched up the bag that still held the remnants of their food and drink.
“You want to ride on?” he asked “Without any real rest?”
“Ride, yes,” said Branwen. “”On? No!”
She picked up her saddle and threw it over the horse’s broad back.
Rhodri frowned at her. “You’re going back?”
“I am.” She stooped and fastened the saddle girth. “Back home where I belong.” She stood up. “I’m not the great leader the Shining Ones need,” she said. She pointed into the east. “We took the Saxons unawares and threw them back for a time. But you know the truth better than I do. You were Ironfist’s servant. How big is the Saxon army that is encamped outside Chester?”
“At least ten times the number that came against Garth Milain,” Rhodri said, his voice subdued. “Maybe more.”
General Herewulf Ironfist was the strong right hand of the king of Northumbria—the hammer with which the Saxons intended to smash Brython. Shortly before Rhodri had escaped his long captivity, he had learned of Ironfist’s plan to take Garth Milain by treachery. It was Rhodri’s warning that had prevented a massacre. But even forewarned, the House of Rhys had found the battle to be closely fought—and dearly won.
“And what will be your ex-master’s response to the defeat of the host he sent against us?” Branwen asked.
“He will be angry,” Rhodri said. “He may decide to send five times that number against Cyffin Tir to make sure of a swift and complete victory.”
Branwen nodded as she climbed into the saddle. Her weariness was gone now—she felt renewed energy flowing through her, a new certainty. “And if he comes, I will be where I should be—at my mother’s side. Shoulder to shoulder. Blade by blade. Let Rhiannon find someone else to be Savior of Brython.”
Rhodri picked up his own saddle. “Then I will I will come with you,,” he said. “Let the wrath of the Shining Ones fall upon both our heads, if it must be so.”
“No,” said Branwen. “Your home lies in the west. You have no mission in the east and I won’t let you put yourself in danger because of me.”
“You rescued me from torture and certain death in Doeth Palas,” said Rhodri. “And I should replay you by scurrying off into the west while you ride eastward? I think not!”
“You’re a fool, then.”
“Perhaps,” said Rhodri. “But a grateful and faithful fool, I hope, and one who will never desert you.” He bent to tie the saddle girth under his horse. “And I ride with you knowing that we will probably be killed at journey’s end. Killed quickly if I’m lucky, because if Ironfist captures me alive…” He left the sentence unfinished. Then his face appeared over his horse’s back. “Escaped servants are dealt with most harshly if recaptured,” he said. “I have seen it once and have no wish to see it again—especially not if I am to be the victim. The Saxons have cruel and slow ways of punishing those who seek to defy them.”
“Then you’re twice the fool,” Branwen said with a wry smile. “Come, saddle up. I would be home again as soon as possible.” She looked around, feeling as though inhuman eyes might be watching her from the shadows under the trees. Had Rhiannon really departed, or was she merely standing back, watching with those terrible ice-blue eyes—waiting, catlike, for Branwen to make a wrong move?
Rhodri had once said, How do you run away from a goddess? Where can you hide? Branwen had no answer to those questions, but the sooner she was down off the mountains and out of the forest, the safer she would feel. The thought of being once more with her mother was like a guiding light in the front of her mind. To the east, then—to Garth Milain and whatever else fate and the Saxon menace had in store for her.
Branwen watched as Rhodri clambered awkwardly into the saddle, then they both turned toward the brightening dawn. The light was gray and grainy still, but it was slowly climbing the sky and snuffing out the stars, and a hint of dusky green had begun to color the forested hills that tumbled before them.
Branwen clicked her tongue and nudged her heels into her horse’s flanks. Rhodri followed dutifully behind as they rode into a wide clearing.
They had not gone more than a few paces across the open ground when a sudden gust of wind came swirling out of the west, lifting Branwen’s hair and whipping it about her face.
She turned, her eyes narrowed against the wind as it came hissing through the trees, fluttering the leaves, bending the branches.
“It seems the very air is intent on helping us along our way,” said Rhodri, his hair flying and his clothes flapping about him. “A good omen, perhaps?”
“But do you feel it?” Branwen called to him. “It’s strange. It isn’t cold.”
It was not. Instead it came dashing through the trees as warm as blood and as relentless as a racing tide. The wind grew in intensity, filling the forest with creaking and rustling and groaning as the boughs of the trees were twisted and wrenched, their leaves quivering with a shrill sound like the swarming of bees. It flung itself in among the rusted leaves of the past autumn, sending the debris of the forest floor whirling into the air so that Branwen and Rhodri had to cover their faces with their arms for fear of being blinded.
The horses snorted and whickered, their manes and tails torn by the wind, their eyes rolling in fear. It was all Branwen could do to keep her seat as the wind—scorching now—buffeted her and slapped her face with its hot hands. Her shield was torn from the saddle and went bowling across the forest floor.
Above her, shredded clouds flew across the sky; below her, the ground seethed in racing turmoil. Suddenly the forest vibrated to a deep, reverberating howl.
Branwen clung on grimly as the wind sought to tear her from her horse’s back. She knew now that this was nothing natural. This was no wind of the world—this was something other. A warning—a lesson—a punishment! Beside her, Rhodri was hunched over in his saddle, his horse staggering.
Blindly, Branwen reached for her sword, drawing it and brandishing it defiantly in the air. “I…do…not…fear…you!” she shouted, the wind throwing her words back into her throat. “Do…your…worst! I…will…go…home!”
The maniacal wind dropped as suddenly as it had risen. The swirl and storm of dead leaves ebbed and fell away around them, and all became suddenly silent.
It was as if the forest and the mountains and the sky and the very ground beneath her feet were suddenly poised and listening.
Rhodri lifted his head, his mouth open, gasping.
“Is that all you have?” shouted Branwen, turning in the saddle, staring defiantly into the west and waving her sword above her head. “Is this what I should fear?”
“Branwen!” Rhodri’s voice was urgent, ringing with alarm.
She turned to follow the line of his eyes.
The rushing air was thronged with owls on the attack.