Edana gasped for breath and crouched beneath the bushes. Where was mama? She was frightened. She knew that the Saxons were bad; papa had told many stories of them. She huddled further into the bushes and stroked her puppy. Anwen had promised that she would come. She could wait for Anwen, and maybe Anwen would bring mama. And then they could run away together. Or maybe papa would come home and fight the Saxons. Papa could beat them; papa could beat anyone.
Edana sighed as she waited. The bushes were getting itchy, and she was getting hot and sticky. She hoped that Anwen would come soon. The puppy whined in her arms, and she petted its soft ears, murmuring a few words that mama had always said to comfort her. Something moved in the bushes. Edana peered out from her hiding place, but didn't see anyone. She settled back down. It was probably one of those pretty blue birds she had chased, come to keep her company. Then, she did hear footsteps. Soft steps, like Anwen walked. She crawled from the bush and looked around. She couldn't see over the surrounding bushes; they were taller than her.
"Anwen?" She asked. The footsteps turned towards her. She heard a male voice call out softly. "Cadeyrn?" No, he did not know she was in the woods. Anwen had said to wait until she found her, but it was so hot. The voice called again. It sounded like papa. Edana called out. The voice answered. It wasn't papa, maybe Brennus. "Bren?" She crawled in a small animal-path towards the movements. Feet appeared in front of the bush and she looked up. The man had a kind face, and he was smiling at her.
"Who are you?" She asked as he picked her up.
He said nothing, but continued to smile at her as he took her out of the woods. Edana wondered if he could speak at all. She laid her head on his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his neck. "I'm Edana. But mama and Anwen call me Eda. You can too." The man hefted her a little higher and patted her back. Then he said something that Eda did not understand. She frowned. Was he a Saxon?
Eda looked around to see where he was taking her. He was heading back out of the woods. Anwen had said to wait, Anwen would miss her if she left. "I have to wait in the woods for Anwen." She informed him, wondering if he understood, and then she remembered her puppy. "My dog!"
The man let her down as she squirmed, and she saw the puppy following after them. She picked him up, and the man nodded. Eda wriggled as the puppy licked her with his warm tongue. She was not sure if she should go with this man. He did not seem bad; he smiled at her kindly. But he spoke again, and she did not know what he was saying. What if he was a bad Saxon?
"I have to wait for Anwen in the woods. I can't leave, or she won't find me." She explained. He shook his head at her kindly, gesturing that he did not understand. But he held out his hand, and she took it. He was not frightening. Hand in hand, they walked to the edge of the forest. And there, white and gleaming, was a great horse. Eda had never seen one so pretty before.
Æðelstan watched the little girl's face light up as she saw the horse.
"How would you like to ride him with me?" Æðelstan asked her. He had gathered only that her name was Eda. Other than the few names he heard here and there, he understood nothing of her lilting speech. Her shining eyes and little round mouth was his reply. He lifted her up and mounted behind her. She certainly was not afraid for such a small girl. Æðelstan turned his horse towards the burning village and clucked his tongue. Alaric had commanded that they leave no one behind, and when he'd caught sight of this little girl running for the woods, he'd come after her. She was a cute little tyke, and smart, too, from the sounds of her speech. She didn't talk with a lisp as most young children tended to, and she seemed quite positive of what she wanted and what she had to do.
Æðelstan decided to keep her. There was no telling what had happened to this Anwen she kept mentioning, and her mother and father were most likely dead. Æðelstan 's wife would love the addition of a little girl to her family; she'd always wanted a daughter, but five sons was all they had. If Æðelstan didn't keep her, she'd be mistreated as a slave, and when she got older, she'd become a mistress of whatever man happened to take her. And Æðelstan had no doubt that when this little girl grew up, she'd be beautiful. Her big brown eyes were rimmed with dark lashes, and her golden hair created a contrast with the chocolate brown eyes.
Yes, Æðelstan would keep her. Maybe she would marry one of his sons, and produce a fine family of descendants. Besides, at the moment she was the cutest thing he'd seen, and Æðelstan needed a gift for his wife. What better than a little girl?
Anwen sighed with discomfort. Though she had been raised to ride horses, she'd never ridden all day and partway into the night. She was stiff, and her hip was sore from falling in the caves earlier that day. Sand gritted her eyes, she had a headache, and her throat was dry. To top it off, her left hand was burnt from grabbing the charred doorframe, and she could not hang on to anything with that hand. She was grateful when the prince; Alaric was his name, called out orders to stop for the night.
He dismounted and partially lifted her down from the horse. He was not letting her do anything on her own; every movement she made was led by Alaric, usually with his hand grasping her wrist or his arm around her waist.
Though she could not get away from him, she rebelled against his touch by keeping herself stiff beneath his arm, holding her body as far away from his as she could manage. Each time her eyes had become heavy with the gentle plodding of the horse, the remembrance of her mother's screams jerked her body straight, robbing her of any rest. Tears tumbled down her cheeks again as she choked on the grisly memories. Do the tears never end? Anwen scrubbed her face dry with a dusty hand. The tears were a weakness she preferred Alaric not see. He would only mock them.
Early stars promised to shine brightly, and the moon was full. Anwen sighed again as she looked up to the stars. Her neck was cramped; she stretched, yawning, and then tensed when Alaric came up behind her. He gathered her thick, wavy hair at the nape of her neck and slowly let it slide from his hand.
Anwen pulled away, bristling at his use of the name her father called her mother. What right did he have to address her so intimately? She walked a few paces before turning to face him. He stood, his dark features unreadable. His voice, like the smooth purr of a dangerous cat, commanded her, "Come here."
Anwen suppressed a shudder when she met his gray-green eyes; they dared her to defy him. And she took the challenge.
"No." She lifted her chin and stayed where she was. His arm flexed. She tried keeping her breath even and controlled when he stepped slowly closer. This man killed my family. The thought repeated over and over in her mind, giving her the courage she needed to defy the burning gaze.
"I do not take 'no' for an answer, my love." He continued to walk closer, intimidating, but Anwen stood her ground.
"Then do not tell me to come." She forced herself to keep her arms at her side, commanded her body to remain in a relaxed position. He was only two steps away; her heart picked up speed and beat at her chest; her breath caught in spite of her efforts to keep it controlled. He had ordered her mother killed. His men had burned her village. Cadeyrn was dead by this man's command. What would he do to her? His eyes did not tell her, they were as calm as a frozen winter pond.
"I don't want to hurt you, my love. But-" He lifted his hand; Anwen fought the urge to back up. "-if you continue to rebel," He touched her cheek, "I will be forced to beat it out of you." His voice was warm and controlled, like a man speaking to his love, but his eyes had melted into a dangerous fire. Anwen swallowed as he cupped her cheek in his hand. It was warm and a little rough; he smelled like the land, mixed with some sort of spicy aroma.
"I can feel your fear." He purred, "You are like a wild kitten. All you need…" He smiled. "…is a little taming."
She took a deep breath and looked away. An unguarded tear escaped down her cheek. His thumb caressed it away, then slid down her neck and arm to her hand.
"Come, now. Rest." He soothed, leading her to a tent that was somewhat larger than the others she saw. She followed hesitantly. From the rich fur covering the ground and soft pillows scattered about, she knew that it was his tent, and she stood stiffly. What did he want with her? He gestured to a soft bed laid out on the ground. "You will sleep there."
She let out her breath. There was another bed on the opposite side of the tent. Did the heathen have a small sense of decency? It looked so. He stripped off his shirt and lay down, extinguishing the small lantern hanging above him, and she huddled down on the bed laid for her. Almost immediately, memories assailed her. She choked on a sob and buried her face in the soft fur beneath her head.
Oh, maithar… why? God, why? Her mother's last glance lingered in her memory. The blue eyes so filled with sad defeat, heartbreaking surrender. And the love. The silent goodbye. Anwen wrapped her arms tightly around herself and curled up in a ball, the sobs refusing to be silent. God, I want her back! Please! She tried to suppress the cries, but the pain was too great. I never said goodbye. I never said I love you. Grief escaped her lips in small whimpers; she ceased to care if the brute in the corner could hear her. Her heart was breaking. Give me death, Lord. Let me join my family, please! I cannot bear this pain alone!
I am here, Beloved.
A hand rubbed along her back soothingly, an arm slid beneath her and lifted her against a warm chest. "Hush…" Alaric's calm voice crooned in her ear. She shoved him away.
"Get away from me…" She gasped. "I don't want your comfort."
The man sat back on his heels and made no move to stop her as she stumbled out of the tent. She wanted to run, but could only crumble to the ground five feet away. Oh, God… help me.
Deirdre snapped awake. What had wakened her this early? Sun poured through the slit of a window in her small cottage; its narrow beam rested on her face. She rose, tickled by the soft pelts beneath her feet, and peered out the window. She could see the winding, beaten dirt road emerging from the village gate, meandering down the hillside and disappearing over the next hill. Guards stood post beside the gates, dressed in gaudy red and blue, cheerfully saluting their comrades in the early morning light. Mist rose from the grassy lands, dissipating in the beams of the sun; the creek caught the light and glittered as it wound into the cattail filled pond. The surrounding huts lay sleeping, their hay roofs shining like gold in the sun.
Deirdre took a deep breath and smiled. She loved the early morning hours, when the air was still clean and clear of dust and smoke from the fires of cooking, when the sun had not yet warmed the ground and the snap of the morning touched her skin. Then she gave a little hop as she remembered why today was so important.
Alaric was due back soon. He had promised to be back by mid-summer. She hoped he would come back within the week. She hated waiting for people to arrive, especially when they were weeks late and the excitement of anticipation had passed. She padded back to the bed picked up a light blanket, pulling it around her full figured form. Her thin nightdress wasn't enough to protect her from the cool air, no matter how much she liked it. She ran out the door and into the street, peering out over the hills, her eyes searching for Alaric's small army. Nothing greeted her eyes except the lush green of the grassy hills and the bright blue of the morning sky. Sighing, Deirdre turned and went back to her hut, passing word for a maid on the way.
One of the cook's girls; Deirdre couldn't remember her name, appeared a few minutes later, smiling and bowing politely as if it were perfectly normal to be called for at four in the morning. Her dress was slightly drooping, and her hair was starting to fall from its hastily braided plaits. Deirdre hid a smile and asked her to draw a cold bath. She wanted to be clean when Alaric came, and she wasn't going to be caught with dirty hair or soiled hands. The maid murmured "Yes, milady" with a slightly comical look and turned to leave the room. When her back was to Deirdre, she saw why the dress sagged. The laces weren't tied all the way, and came loose slowly as the maid walked. Deirdre giggled and ran back to the window. Alaric was coming!
She couldn't wait to see him! He would ride through the gates on his strong black horse, swing down, twirl her in the air and give her a present. But, that wasn't what Deirdre looked forward to. After he gave her the gift, he would smile into her face and caress her cheek. That smile and caress made Deirdre breathless; just thinking about it made her heart beat faster. For, she loved Alaric; or at least she thought she did. He was strong, handsome, and slightly mysterious. What girl wouldn't fall for him? No one that Deirdre knew; all of the women in the surrounding village would give anything to be Alaric's choice for a wife. Which made Deirdre the most privileged woman among them.
She smiled at the servants as they came in with her bath, and she dismissed all but one of them. The one was the same girl who had answered her ring. The cook's daughter. What was her name? Oh well, whatever it was, Deirdre silently thanked her as she roused the fire from its sleep into crackling flames. The maid turned and stood expectantly, but Deirdre dismissed her as well. She didn't like maids fussing over her and helping her dress and undress. It was uncomfortable to be fussed over when one was stark naked.
Deirdre blushed and scolded herself for the thought. The maids were only helping, doing what they had been trained to do; assist those women who couldn't do anything for themselves, and insisted that everything from the brushing of her hair to the saddling of her horse be done for her.
Deirdre's teeth chattered as she slipped into the chilly water; her skin stung for a moment with the cold, and she curled her toes. But then, she had asked for a cold bath. It was invigorating. As she sat there scrubbing her skin with soap, she bore the coldness, reminding herself that Alaric was coming. She didn't want to be tempted to stay in the bath any longer than necessary. She scrubbed the soap through her long blonde hair and then held her breath as her head touched the water.
Finally, she felt she was clean, and she hopped out of the tub and dried herself off before the fire, rubbing scented oils into her skin. Slipping into her underclothes, she sat with her back towards the fire on a woven rug and stroked a brush through her wet hair, letting it dry with the heat of the flames. The heat felt good, and she closed her eyes, dozing. Sudden commotion at the gate sparked her to life and she ran to the window. A dark shape moved over the hill- Alaric's army!
She scurried around the room, tripping over a rug, hastily pulling her dress over her head, and forgetting about her hair. Alaric liked it down, anyway. She thought the better of it; her mother would be scolding her for her appearance, she turned back from the door and quickly braided her hair half back, tying the braid with a blue ribbon, to match her dress, and then she picked up a mirror and stared at her reflection.
Her cheeks were flushed, her blue eyes were bright, and her skin was smooth. Surely her mother would find nothing wrong with her daughter today. Deirdre dropped the mirror onto her bed and ran out the door. She had forgotten her sandals. No matter, it had not rained in a few days, and the street would be dry. Then she stopped. Horses, cows, chickens, pigs, goats, all of them meandered through the street when they chose, and they left piles. She turned back and scurried around her one room cottage, quickly locating her sandals and hurriedly tying them on. She wanted to be there when Alaric came through the gate.
She finally reached the gate and waited, nearly bouncing, as she watched the procession slowly make its way up the hill. Was that Alaric? She looked closer at the man leading the small army. Disappointment curled through her like water on a fire. It was only Leofwine, Alaric's brother, come back from a skirmish in the North. With a sigh, she turned away from the gate and trekked back up to her hut.
Resting her hip against the windowsill, she peered out. Leofwine's little army of poorly clad village men forlornly marched through the gates, some dispersing back out to their homes, most scattering into the great hall for a mug of mead and a hearty welcoming meal. She could hear their voices, tired, as they rang out amongst each other in jest, and Leofwine moved through them with an encouraging smile for all. It did not look as if they had been victorious.
When the big man waved at her with a smile, she nodded to him. Leofwine was ever flirting with every maid in his vicinity, his words often poetic and his face always engaging. He should have been a bard instead of the soldier that he was, but his father, Sigebehrt, leader of their Saxon tribe, had pressed the silver tongued giant into war instead of song. And though Leofwine ever pushed himself harder, he had never taken to leading men as had his brother, Alaric.
Deirdre sighed. She missed Alaric. He had been gone for months already, and she did not want to wait another day to see him. But wait she must. A knock sounded on the door.
"M'lady?" The surprisingly tenor voice of Leofwine echoed through the door.
Deirdre turned. "Come in." She smoothed the front of her dress, ever conscious of her looks. To be a Lady, her mother often pressed her, one had be impeccable.
Leofwine lumbered through the door, his frame larger than Alaric's yet somehow less imposing. The boyish grin on his face was covered with a golden beard, his youthful looks disguised behind the curly golden bush of hair. He bowed, a twinkle in his eyes. When he straightened, he held out a small, moving mass of fur in his large hand, tied with a red bow. Deirdre gasped and gently picked up the tiny gray kitten, nuzzling its soft fur with a smile.
"Complement of the Celts, milady, and myself, for saving it from thundering hooves." He sounded immensely pleased with himself. Leofwine had a kind heart. He was ever bringing her presents; a pretty jewel, a rug, a dress, ribbons, each gift plucked from a market or taken from a plundered village. He delighted in making her smile.
As she stood there, cuddling the kitten under her chin, she was aware of Leofwine's blue eyes that studied her with brotherly tenderness.
"I brought her in case Alaric had not yet shown his face. I knew you would be waiting anxiously for his return." His voice held a smile. He, more than anyone else, knew how she felt about Alaric. He encouraged her affection for his brother, soothed her when Alaric had unintentionally shoved her away, smiled when she spoke in daydream. Leofwine's approval for the match gave Deirdre rising hope that one day she would be called Alaric's wife.
"Thank you, my silver-tongued knight." She called him by the title she'd dubbed him years ago. "It helps immensely." She sighed. "I hope he comes quickly."
Leofwine smiled. "Of course he will. Alaric never does anything slow." He laughed. "I've never met a being with more energy than my brother." When Deirdre did not smile, but forlornly looked away, he stepped forward and lifted her chin with gentle fingers. "He is safe, Deirdre."
She smiled halfheartedly at him. How he knew her mind! "I do hope so."
Anwen shifted again, her rear end protesting the hard back of the horse beneath it. It was another hot day, made all the more miserable with the muscled presence of the prince behind her. Her back was sweaty, becoming irritated by the constant chafing of cloth, and aching from riding the horse all day and sleeping on a hard, relentless ground at night. They had been traveling for three days now, through hills and plains, groves of whispering trees, tall grasses, and many creeks and rivers.
The midday sun beat down on her head, and a few flies followed the horses with an annoying buzz. Anwen's stomach growled loudly, above the plodding of the horses' hooves and the jesting of the men. She knew that the man behind her had heard it; she could feel his chest rumbling with quiet laughter. He held up his arm, a signal for the procession to stop, and slid off the horse, pulling her down with him.
"Rest a while." His voice carried over the group, though he had not spoken loudly. From where she stood beside him, Anwen could barely see the prisoners, a few women and children. They huddled together despite the heat, their faces fearful of the heathen Saxons poking and prodding at them. They're treated like cattle. Anwen seethed to herself. She dared not voice her anger at the prince, who was leading her to the shade of a stand of aspens, for her captor was quick to anger and quicker to strike. From the sidelong look he gave her, she could see that he was watching for any rebellion. Could he see her anger? She lifted her chin when he looked at her again, ignoring his glance.
He nearly shoved her to sit at the base of the nearest tree, then with catlike grace, he lowered himself beside her, offering a piece of bread from his portion of lunch. Anwen almost refused it, hating to take anything from the prince, but her stomach overruled her hate. She took of the wine as well, sudden thirst parching her throat. When he was satiated, the prince stood and pulled her up, heading back to the horses, but she protested.
"I must… relieve myself." Anwen tugged her arm in his grasp, pulling him to stop. He looked at her for a moment, then nodded. So far, she had not tried to run again, but he always took the precaution of a rope tied to her wrist. Should she try to escape, he would immediately know by the lack of tension when he pulled on the rope.
He knotted the rough braid around her upper arm and nodded. "Don't try to run. If I do not feel you on the rope, I will come." The precaution was repeated each time she had the need to relieve herself.
Without acknowledging his warning, Anwen worked back into the trees, until she was out of his sight. She could feel the constant slight tugging on the rope, and knew she would have to be quick. With swift fingers, she untied his knots and slung the rope around a tree, tying it securely. She was free! The leaves seemed to whisper a warning, and Anwen took it. Her feet pounded on the ground as she ran through the small grove of trees and out into the hills beyond. The grass sloped steeply beneath her feet as she ran, curving down to meet the next hill. She glanced back; no one yet followed.
Up the next hill, gasping for breath, knowing that no one could see her yet, she lifted her skirt to her knees and pushed herself on. And then, she was at the top. It was a steep downhill roll that greeted her, a small rock grabbed her foot, and she fell. Tumbling over the grass, she hit every rock, every bump, her hands flailed and her face was bruised. She unconsciously held her breath as she rolled, and her teeth jarred in her mouth, drawing blood from her lip.
With a cold splash, she was still. Her head ached, and she was aware that she was lying in a cold stream, but she didn't care. Images of the hills around her swirled in her eyes, disorientating her mind, until she was nearly sick with the dizziness. She pushed up halfway from her side, feeling the trickle of water from her hair. Her eyes still refused to focus completely, but she could see that she was in a sort of ravine, hemmed in by two long hills.
A stream, which she now half lay in, ran merrily between the hills, its rocky bottom cutting her hands. The blue sky was above, cloudless, sunny, so opposite what she felt. She tried to stand, but her legs would not let her, and she fell back into the cold water, nearly dashing her face on a rock. The stream below her was running slightly pink before it cleared up. Blood? She looked down at her leg. Her green dress was turning a rusty brown color over her left calf.
She ignored it and scrambled up the opposite hill, crawling, walking, running, tripping. A rock slid under her foot, and a sudden too familiar deep laugh froze her where she crouched. She looked behind her.
Alaric stood on the opposite ridge, watching her weak attempts to crawl up the hill, his lips pulled up in a smirk. She shook her head slowly and dropped to the ground. Her head hurt, and it was no use running any further. He had caught her again. A rock pushed into her cheek, but she didn't move. It was so much easier to just close her eyes, ignore the approaching footsteps… so much easier to relax in the sturdy arms that lifted her…so much easier to give in to darkness. God, end this…
She wanted to die.