The attackers came crashing into Branwen’s band, horses neighing and kicking, shields raised, swords slashing. In the forest gloom and in the utter chaos of the assault, Branwen could not make out how many horsemen had fallen upon them. Five at least, she thought, maybe more.
She saw a blade slice down towards Iwan. He managed to draw his own sword and deflect the blow – but his opponent’s blade skidded off his sword and the flat of the blade struck Iwan savagely on the side of the head. The last Branwen saw of him was as he tumbled from the saddle.
A scream of alarm came involuntarily from her throat. “Iwan! No!”
She was given no more time to fear for him. The largest of the attacking horsemen came for her, his face hidden behind a ferocious war-mask of beaten iron, his sword raised high.
The attacker’s horse butted up against hers, forcing it to stumble sideways so that she struggled to keep in the saddle. Fain rose from her shoulder, wings spreading, screeching raucously. Fighting for balance, Branwen managed to bring her shield up high, the top edge angled outwards to fend off her attacker’s blow.
The sword struck her shield like a thunderbolt, and had she not been holding it at an angle, the hungry iron would have split it in two. As it was, the force of the blow numbed her arm and shoulder and sent her rocking back in the saddle.
She had never fought on horseback before. She was used to feeling the solid ground under her feet – to be able to manoeuvre – step forwards, step back, circle the enemy – come at him from the side. She felt awkward and vulnerable in the saddle – she felt like an easy target in the darkness of the forest.
The man’s sword arm rose again, this time swinging in a low arc, clearly intending to slip the blade in under the curve of her shield, and strike at her belly. The natural defensive move would be to smash down on the encroaching blade with her shield, driving its tempered edge into Stalwyn’s neck.
Instead, she threw herself forward, lunging half out of the saddle, beating her shield hard into the attacker’s chest, her own sword jabbing for his neck. She felt the hilt of his sword strike against her side, hurting, taking the breath out of her – but her sudden move forward had caused his blade to sweep past her, gouging the empty air where she had been only a moment before.
She followed up, using her shield as a ram, pressing in on him with all her weight. She felt him slip sideways from his horse as she pushed him. But even as he was falling, his sword arm hooked around her waist and she was dragged down with him.
For a few winded moments she was too dizzy and hurt by the heavy fall to do anything other than gasp and flounder in the forest bracken, menaced on every side by the pounding hooves of the frightened horses. She was on top of her attacker, lying across his chest. One good thrust of her sword and it would be over. But she was not given the chance. He heaved up under her, throwing her off in a tangle of arms and legs. The horses backed away, neighing and whinnying. Branwen only just had the presence of mind to keep hold of her sword and shield as she came smashing to the ground, tasting earth and blood in her open mouth.
She turned onto her back, her thoughts scattered. The gloom of the night-shrouded forest swum in front of her eyes and it seemed that the earth beneath her rocked and pitched like a tormented sea. A deeper darkness loomed over her – a black pillar topped by a grimacing metal face.
A sword came scything down. She twisted away and the blade bit deep into the forest floor. She kicked out, catching his knee, making him roar with pain and stagger backwards. A moment later, Fain was in his face, pecking and clawing, his grey wings whirring.
But the iron mask protected the man from the falcon’s attack, and soon it was Fain who had to withdraw, speeding upwards and away from the man’s whirling blade.
The fear of sudden death cleared Branwen’s mind. Ignoring the pain that jangled in every part of her body, she sprang up, moving in on the man, crouching, balancing on the balls of her feet, her shield up to her eyes, her sword arm bent back ready to unleash a killing blow.
There was really no time to take in the mayhem that was erupting around her in the deep shadows, no time to organize and encourage her embattled followers. But she did catch a momentary glimpse of the fighting taking place among the trees.
So far as Branwen could tell, there were four other men involved in the confused skirmish. One was large and broad-shouldered. Banon and Aberfa were on foot, attacking him while he rained ringing blows down on their shields from the saddle. Rhodri and Blodwedd were also unhorsed – Rhodri lying on the ground with Blodwedd standing over him and holding off another mounted swordsman with a length of broken branch. A little further off, the fighting between Dera and Linette and the third man was partly obscured by trees and branches, and Branwen could not see who was getting the upper hand.
There was something odd about the last horseman – he was small and slight – even in the gloom that much was obvious. No more than a boy! And he was holding back from the fighting. His helmet had been knocked off and he looked terrified as he tried to control his bucking and rearing steed. And he was unarmed.
Why would a band of warriors bring a weaponless child with them? Who were these horsemen? Where did they come from? Branwen’s first thought had been that they must be a band of Saxon raiders, but they did not seem to be wearing Saxon war-gear, and behind the iron masks, she saw no trace of the telltale Saxon beards.
But even if they were men of Powys, that was no reason for her to feel at ease. Prince Llew had declared her a traitor and an outlaw when she had freed Rhodri from confinement in the fortress of Doeth Palas. If these were Prince Llew’s men, they would show no mercy. If not killed, she would be bound hand and foot and dragged back to the Prince’s citadel on the coast. A swift trial and a bloody death was all that awaited her in that place.
But the thought that these might be Prince Llew’s warriors made her look more closely at her opponent. He had positioned himself to mirror her pose; balanced well on feet spread to the same width as his shoulders. His knees bent, muscles flexed. His shield up to his hidden eyes, his sword arm bent over his back, ready to unleash murder.
She circled to the left, and he moved his feet easily, turning so that his shield was always between her and him. She feinted a move in on his right, and he danced lithely backwards, then shifted his footing and came leaping in from the side.
His sword sliced down at her unprotected right shoulder and she only just skipped back in time to avoid serious injury. She sprang aside, bringing her sword down and into his neck. His shield caught the blow, and for a moment her sword was snagged where she had split the rim.
He drove in on her, their shields clashing – and now for the first time she saw his eyes through the slits of the metal mask.
She pushed him off, wresting her sword free and dancing backwards, gasping for breath.
There was grey hair visible under his helmet, and there was something familiar about the way he moved.
An old man, then – but a serpent-quick old man who gave her not one moment to regroup as he came for her, blow after blow beating on her shield. She fell back, stumbling, her heels catching on roots and creeping undergrowth.
At last her opponent spoke. “Surrender to me, Branwen ap Griffith!” he demanded, his voice deep and gravelled. “I would not have you die here by my hand!”
“Gavan!” The suspicion had already dawned – but the sound of the old warrior’s voice confirmed it.
It was Gavan ap Huw, a battle-hardened old warrior of Powys, and the man who had taught her the basics of sword-fighting in the innocent times before she had earned Prince Llew’s enmity.
“I will not be taken back to Doeth Palas!” shouted Branwen. “I am not the traitor here! Look to your own Lord if you seek treachery against the land of Brython!” her voice rose to a howl. “Look to Prince Llew!”
Gavan stood before her, sword arm raised, but no longer attacking.
“What do you mean by that, Branwen?” he growled.
Branwen’s whole body was trembling from the power of his blows. A few more moments and her shield would have been riven in two and she would have been defenceless before him.
“Call your men off!” she gasped. “Let us talk! I have things to tell you, Gavan– things that will change all!”