A profound gloom had gathered between the close-packed oaks, and it felt to Branwen ap Griffith as though she and her small band of riders were wading through a floodtide of shadows, thick as black water.
They were climbing the forested flanks of a great hunchbacked mountain in the deep dark of a starless night. Heavy clouds blotted out the sky. The going was hard as the five horses picked their way slowly through the rising trees.
Branwen leaned forwards, her long dark hair falling over her face. Her thoughts were racing; a fire burned so brightly in her mind that she felt she would never need sleep again. Between the new moon and the old, her life had changed beyond all recognition.
My brother dead – my dear, gallant Geraint – slaughtered by Saxon raiders. And before the ashes of his funeral pyre were cold, I was sent from my home. To escape from danger, so my parents believed, and all the while, I was thinking I might never see them again. Over the mountains to the safety of the cantref of Prince Llew ap Gelert. Safety? Ha! A poor refuge that turned out to be! And what was to happen to me then? A long journey south to marry that loathsome boy Hywel, although I only met him the once, and that was almost ten years ago. Well, at least my destiny spared me that!
It would have been a miserable fate for a girl who had spent her first fifteen years riding the hills of her homeland, free as an eagle, untamed as the landscape that she loved.
But she never went south. Rhiannon of the Spring put paid to that. One of the Old Gods – the Shining Ones. She told Branwen of the path that lay ahead.
You are Destiny’s Sword.
The Bright Blade!
The Emerald Flame of your people!
Branwen sighed now to think of the way she had fought against that pitiless destiny. It was only when Rhiannon had warned her that Garth Milain was in danger that she had acted.
And although I rode hard and arrived in the Garth in time to warn mother and father, I was still too late to save them from all harm. The Saxons were thrown back, but Father died in the battle. And if that wasn’t hard enough to bear, I had to leave my mother and my home that same night to follow this pitiless destiny again.
Rhiannon’s word rang in her ears.
All of Brython will be your home and you will gather to you a band of warriors that shall keep the enemy at bay for many’s the long year.
And what a strange group of wanderers they were! But then Branwen’s destiny had the habit of catching people up in its net – of sending ordered lives spiralling out of control.
Riding directly behind her was the shrewd and crafty-tongued youth Iwan ap Madoc. She had first encountered him at the court of Prince Llew. He had annoyed her and fascinated her in equal amounts – and he still did.
Ahead of her, only half-visible in the darkness, she could make out the shapes of Blodwedd and Rhodri, riding tandem on one horse. Even if there were enough horses to go around, Branwen suspected Blodwedd would wish to ride with Rhodri.
She shook her head. Theirs was a strange affinity – the half-Saxon runaway youth and the half-human owl-girl! Half-human? Blodwedd was nothing more than an owl wrapped in a human shape…save for her eyes. They were huge and amber and they had no whites. No one looking into those eerie eyes would have any doubts that Blodwedd was not human.
Govannon of the Wood had sent Blodwedd. Govannon of the Shining Ones, the huge man-god of ancient times, with his sad green eyes and the twelve-point antlers that soared majestically from his temples. Branwen had detested and mistrusted the owl-girl at the start, but Blodwedd had proven faithful and true.
Iwan’s sudden voice made her turn.
“Are you managing to keep awake, Branwen?” he asked. “I’m told a spur of hawthorn in the britches is a fine way to stay alert on a long ride.”
She looked at him, sitting erect in the saddle, his light brown hair falling over his lean, compelling face. His eyes met hers and he gave her a crooked smile.
“I’ll be fine, thank you,” she said. “This is not such a night that I will have trouble with drowsing.”
“No.” His eyes were bright and wakeful. “I imagine not.”
She gazed back beyond him to where the rest of her band rode, two to a horse. Four young woman of Gwylan Canu – fiery Dera, riding with lithe little Linette, and bringing up the rear, flame-haired Banon and heavy-set Aberfa with her dark, brooding eyes.
In the dying embers of the day just passed, this wayfaring band had won a great victory. The Saxon warlord Herewulf Ironfist had sought to come with speed and stealth to conquer the sea-girt citadel of Gwylan Canu, guardian outpost of the coastal road that led into the very heartland of Powys.
But speed and stealth had not been the only weapons in Ironfist’s arsenal. He had deep and dreadful treachery to help him on his way.
Prince Llew ap Gelert – the richest and most powerful of the nobles of Powys, second only to King Cynon himself, had turned traitor!
Branwen still did not know the reason for this terrible betrayal. It was almost beyond belief that a lord of Powys would side with the ancient enemies of Brython. For two hundred years, the people of the Four Kingdoms had battled wave after wave of Saxon incursions, yet they had always thrown the butchering invaders back. But never had defeat been closer than in the battle they had just fought. And if not for supernatural aid, all would have been lost.
Govannon himself had joined in the battle – bringing even the trees of the forests to life to sweep the Saxons into the sea – beating down upon them with an army of birds and beasts that had utterly defeated them.
And upon a rocky promontory, Branwen had done her part – fighting furiously with Ironfist himself. Almost bested by him, she had been saved at the last by the beak and claws of her faithful companion, Fain the falcon, who had flown into Ironfist’s face and sent him plunging over the cliff and into the raging sea.
Then had come the momentous meeting with Govannon, towering above her, wild and dangerous and yet strangely benevolent. He had told her what she needed to do next – what new effort her great destiny required of her. He had pointed the way up the mountains. “Thither wends your path, Warrior Child, up into the cold peaks, into the high places of the land to seek for Merion of the Stones.”
Faithful, kind-hearted Rhodri had insisted on coming with her, of course. And Blodwedd, too. But it had been Iwan’s insistence on journeying alongside her that had filled Branwen with a heady mix of joy and confusion.
“Don’t you remember what I said to you when you bound me and escaped with the half-Saxon?” he had asked, his eyes shining.
“You said you thought I would have an interesting life. You said you wished you could have shared it with me.”
“And now I shall. If you will have me as a companion.”
She had no control over her Destiny. It was pitiless and relentless, and people had died on the way.
But these people shan’t die. I won’t let that happen. I am Branwen ap Griffith. The Emerald Flame of my People. I will keep them safe from harm.
But the responsibility weighed heavy on her. What perils was she leading them into on these high mountains?
She knew virtually nothing of Merion of the Stones. In a mystic glade that had been shown to her in a vision, she had seen a devotee dressed as Merion – bent-backed, stumbling, clutching a stick, masked as an ugly, wrinkled old woman.
But Branwen had learned not to trust appearances. The forms that The Shining Ones took when they interacted with humans were not their true ones. But what would Merion want of her? So far the requirements of the Old Gods had all been for the good of Brython. Surely, the most vital task now was to unmask the traitor Prince Llew ap Gelert, and to bring him down before he could do any more harm.
To that end, riders had already been sent from Gwylan Canu, racing pell-mell down the long road to Pengwern – to the Court of King Cynon – with urgent warnings from Iwan’s trustworthy father.
Hopefully, that would be enough to thwart Prince Llew’s grim ambitions. But even with Llew’s duplicity laid bare, there was still a great Saxon army on the borders of Powys – less than a day’s march from Branwen’s already embattled homeland of Cyffin Tir.
And here she was – a thousand lifetimes away from the world she had once known – treading again the veiled path of her Destiny… riding through the impenetrable night with seven souls in her care.
“Ware!” It was Blodwedd’s scratchy voice, its low pitch at odds with her small, slender body. An owl’s voice in a human throat.
Branwen snapped out of her thoughts, alert in an instant. “What is it?”
Blodwedd had by far the keenest eyesight of them all. That was why she had taken the lead through the forest once the night had grown too dark even for Fain’s sharp eyes. The falcon was at rest now, perched upon Branwen’s shoulder, his claws gripping her chain mail shirt.
“I am not sure,” called Blodwedd.
Branwen urged Stalwyn on with a touch of her heels to his flanks. She came up alongside Rhodri and Blodwedd. The owl-girl’s amber eyes were circular in her pale, round face.
“I smell something not of the forest,” Blodwedd said, arching her back, lifting her head to sniff, her long thin hands resting on Rhodri’s broad shoulders, the nails white and curved.
Branwen heard a metallic slither. Dera ap Dagonet, daughter of a Captain of Gwylan Canu, had drawn her sword.
“No beast shall come on us unawares!” she growled, peering into the fathomless dark that lurked under the trees.
“It is no beast!” said Blodwedd. “It is worse than beast!”
Her head snapped around and she let out a feral hiss.
Branwen drew her own sword. There were shapes in the forest. Large, fast-moving shapes, blacker than the night.
Moments later, with a rush and a rumble of hooves, a band of armed men came bursting into view, their swords glowing a dull grey, iron helmets on their heads, and their faces hidden behind iron war-masks.