Who shall be this country's shield?
My gaze turns North, but wavers;
Idle, hesitant sits there
A dragon tamed, and dares not.
Who shall be this country's shield?
My gaze turns West, but wavers;
Simple, feeble, mind and soul,
A dotard sits, and cannot.
Who shall be this country's shield?
My gaze turns South, but wavers;
Greedy, fed on Saexon gold
Prince Gwylim sits, and will not.
Who shall be this country's shield?
My gaze turns East, and trembles;
Saexon lions crouch to pounce
Upon a land divided.
Dafydd ab Owain, c. 1260
"First at the cross!"
Aedan laughed in delight, slightly out of breath, as he slapped both hands against the tall stone waycross, the sound muffled by the strips of greyish cloth he had wrapped around his hands in the place of mittens. He turned around to glance back over his shoulder, where his mother was passing the tall standing stones surrounding the waycross, picking her way up the overgrown path. Her fond, indulgent, slightly weary smile made it clear that this was a custom she knew well, as well accustomed as she was to losing this particular race. Maira was in no hurry as she followed her son, starting to unsling a heavy leather pouch from her shoulder.
Aedan was a tall boy in his twelfth winter, whose elongated frame made him rise up almost to his mother's height already. Both had raven-dark hair, although Aedan's was cropped short under the hood he wore.
Aedan was already perched on one of the larger broken stones that lay scattered all around the waycross; some force that was lost to history had broken off the upper right portion of the twelve-foot cross, so long ago that the edges had long been rounded by the wind and the rain, and the portions that had fallen to the ground were overgrown with moss. The two largest were his and his mother's customary seats whenever they passed this spot. They passed it several times a year, sometimes as often as once a month.
Sunset was still two hours away, but it came quickly in these parts of Rhyddion. Aedan knew that there was a small village – no more than three farms huddled into the face of a hill just off the road – further along the path, and that Maira would want to reach it before sundown, but whenever they passed Saint Elen's cross, they always stayed for a while.
Maira shooed her son up from the stone and set aside her pack with a clinking of earthenware inside, and he followed suit, placing his own, lighter leather satchel into the damp grass next to it. Together, they knelt before the cross, and Aedan murmured the familiar words together with his mother:
"Saint Elen, keeper of the roads and travellers, watch over us, and at the end of the road, guide us safely home."
As she crossed herself and rose, Maira turned to Aedan, and said, half over her shoulder as she adjusted her heavy woollen cloak, "Make us a fire, Aedan, will you?"
The boy had got up as well, and looked unhappy. This, too, was as good as a ritual
"In the normal way?" he asked.
"In any way that provides us with a fire." Her tone was light, as it always was, but Aedan felt the pressure, even though it was probably not even intended. Today, he felt like trying. He hadn't, not in a while, frustrated by his own inability to make the kindling catch fire without the use of tinder and flint, and she never reproached him for his lack of expertise, but somewhere inside, Aedan knew that she was disappointed every time he took out his flint stone.
The drizzle that had fallen earlier that morning had stopped well before mid-day, but all wood on the roadside was moist. Aedan took a few dry branches from his satchel, and unrolled a piece of cloth holding tinder. His mother could kindle moist wood even without the help of tinder, but he knew better than to try and match her skill. He briefly closed his eyes, trying to focus on something he knew was there, though he could never quite grasp it. Placing his fingertips on the wood, he tried to imagine, as vividly as he could, flames springing from his fingers to the kindling. He could see them in his mind's eye, merrily licking around the kindling and eating into the wood, could almost feel the warmth coming from them. Maira had told him this was the key. But as he opened his eyes, the wood and kindling looked just as before, stubbornly refusing to burn, and his fingers weren't even warm. In fact, they were numb with cold. Maira sat on her stone one and a half yards away, sifting through her pack, not watching him, or at least pretending not to watch.
With a sigh, Aedan retrieved a flint stone from his pack, and in just two strokes, managed to make the kindling catch fire. He blew on the feeble flames, cupping them with his hands, until he was sure they wouldn't go out in the light wind. He fed some more dry sticks to the fire, and then went through his satchel to produce a piece of bread. It was several days old, but Aedan, who hadn't eaten at all since morning, was hungry enough not to care. He broke it into two approximately even halves and held out one of them to his mother.
Maira's smile told Aedan that he hadn't fooled her, but she made no comment on his method of fire-making at all, just took the bread, and replaced the small clay crucibles through which she'd been looking in her pouch, each carefully wrapped again in its piece of cloth. "I'm nearly out of vervain and horehound," she said ruefully, moving closer to the fire Aedan had started, warming her hands as she ate. "What a terrible summer for herbs! Here's hoping the next will be drier. And here's hoping that Siana will be over her morning sickness when we get to Owain's farmstead tonight."
"How long will we stay there?" Aedan asked around a mouthful of bread.
"Probably two days, maybe three. Depending on the weather, and on how well Siana is. After two more miscarriages in just two years, she needs my reassurance as much as she needs my herbs." Maira poked the fire with a long stick she had picked up from the ground; it was wet, and the fire hissed and cackled. "Why?"
Aedan ducked his head with a sheepish grin. "She makes great apple pasties."
Maira laughed and flicked a little shower of sparks his way, and Aedan jumped backwards with a yelp. "You impossible boy! Shamelessly taking advantage of an unhappy woman's feelings. She sees you as the son she should have had."
Aedan became serious again as he sat back down. "I know. She once asked me where on earth you'd got me from, and if our kind just sprang from the grass."
Maira's smile became more guarded, but it did not leave her dark eyes completely. "And what did you tell her?"
"Couldn't tell her much, could I?" Aedan realised he sounded more resentful than he actually felt. Probably the renewed failed attempt to light a fire, he thought. He had long ago given up on coaxing his mother into telling him where exactly she had got him from. He hadn't sprung from the grass, that much he was sure of; he resembled her too closely, with his dark hair and dark brown eyes, and the skin that tanned more easily in summer than most Rhyddaegmen's. Branach, the common people in the country called their kind, the lineage of crows, or Fae-born, thinking they were related to the small folk, although Aedan was definitely not small. He had heard many words for their kind, and for their skills – magic, witchcraft, sorcery; the one that Maira herself used, if she used any term at all, was Cyfrinach – the Secret.
Siana probably truly believed that Branach sprang from the grass. Aedan was sure that he had a father, somewhere, but he had never succeeded in getting anything at all out of his mother. She'd never become angry or shouted at him to let it rest; all she had ever done, in that quiet, definite way of hers, was to let him know the matter was closed. He knew she must have been quite young when she had given birth to him – sixteen perhaps, or seventeen – and he surmised that it had been one of those things that happen to people that age. He'd seen the youths of Caer Aderyn at it, stable boys and kitchen maids, and they didn't seem to marry much afterwards either.
At times, Aedan had amused himself by sizing up men they had met during their travels, the ones that seemed roughly the right age, and wondering if one of them was his father, even eyeing them to see if one of them seemed familiar enough with Maira to have bedded her, but he had never really had any grounds for speculation. He sometimes fantasized that his father was a great warrior, who had maybe died heroically in some great battle, although, if he thought about it, there hadn't been any great battles in the eleven years he had been alive.
His mother, noticing his brooding, cocked her head. "Would you like to hear a story?" she asked, ending the long silence.
"Tell me of King Brân," Aedan said at once.
"Again?" Maira asked.
Aedan nodded, poking at the fire. His mother might not be as great a storyteller as Dafydd, the chief bard at Caer Aderyn, but he loved her stories that were always full of brave warriors, fair maidens, and great deeds. The ones of Brân son of Mabon were his favourite. "Of the Twelfth Battle."
"No, not the battle today," Maira said. "Gloomy stories should not be told on such a cold and gloomy day. What about the beginning?"
Aedan shrugged, slightly disappointed, but nodded.
"In Rhyddion there reigned of old King Mabon, who was wed to Rhedyn, the fairest lady in all the cantrefs," Maira began, in a soft voice, while a few blackbirds quarrelled in a nearby hedge. "One year, she became pregnant, but just before her term, she had a dream of a wild boar who came into her chamber and killed her babe with its tusks; frightened, she turned to Mabon, who promised that he would permit no harm to come to her or her child. A few days later, she gave birth to a boy, who was strong and healthy. On the next morrow, however, he was found dead in his bed.
"His mother wept for three weeks, but she became pregnant with another child. Just before her term, she was troubled again by bad dreams; this time, she dreamt of a wolf that came into her chamber and ripped apart her newborn babe with its fangs. She besought Mabon to save her child, who promised that he would do so; and after several days, she gave birth to another son, who was just as strong and healthy as her first. Mabon saw him and was unworried; but he lay in wait in front of Rhedyn's chamber, to ward her and the babe from any intruders. However, sleep overcame him before midnight, and when he awoke on the following morning, this second son also was found dead in his bed.
"Rhedyn then wept for seven weeks, but finally, she became pregnant a third time. Again, just before she would give birth, she had troubling dreams; in them, she saw a large crow fly into her chamber and kill the babe with its beak. Again, she begged Mabon to protect her child.
"When the babe was born, it was a healthy boy, even stronger than the other two had been. This time, Mabon hid in the chamber, and held vigil at the bed. And behold, at midnight there was a flapping of wings, and a large crow came into the chamber and landed on the bed in which the baby was sleeping. But Mabon cast a sling over the bird and drew it tight about its head, and held up the crow by the neck.
" 'King,' said the crow, 'I have done thee no evil, let me go.'
" 'Thou wouldst have slain my newly-born son, and for this crime, thou shalt die.'
" 'A crime that has not been done need not be avenged,' said the crow. 'Let me be free, and thy son shall be blessed with all the gifts I have to give: strength of spirit, foresight, and power over life and death.'
"Mabon then loosened the sling, and let the crow go; and as a reminder of the terrible deed which the crow was prepared to commit, and because of the sling Mabon cast about its neck, the voice of that bird is hoarse to this day.
"But the babe at his feet was sound and safe, and he was named Brân, and his hair was dark as a crow's wing, and he grew fast, and was strong enough to take up arms when he was ten years old. And to this day, the descendants of Brân are said to be blessed with the crow's gifts."
Aedan sat staring into the fire, where Maira's quiet voice had conjured up images in his mind of the heroes of old days, the stories that had accompanied Aedan for as long as he could remember. He suddenly found that the cold had steadily deepened, and he pulled his hood closer around his face.
He started slightly as Maira rose, lightly touching his shoulder.
"Come," she said. "Or it will be dark before we reach our shelter for the night."
A few leagues further towards the West, a slate-grey sky hung over Caer Aderyn, a castle hewn in part from the very rock upon which it stood, perched on the edge of the sea. The waves crashed monotonously against the steep cliffs rising up a hundred feet, the spray mingling with a slow drizzle falling steadily. Both were ice-cold, but hardly as cold as the atmosphere in the council chamber within the stone walls of the keep.
"I'm telling you, Prince Iared," Reginald of Burcaster almost spat the title, "if you can't discourage your people from raiding my lands, I will find ways to discourage them, and I am certain that you will not be happy with the lesson I will teach them."
Prince Iared of Tangnafedd, who had been twirling his earthen wine cup between his fingers, finally stopped and looked at Burcaster, a burly, black-haired man. "No, my lord," he told the Saexon, his voice as polite and calm as his face. "I think that much we are agreed on." The prince of Tangnafedd was a tall man of thirty-two, with a neatly trimmed beard and brown hair worn short. He was clad in a great chequered cloak of white, grey and blue, pinned together on his chest with a silver brooch.
It had been the third time in less than a year that Saexon dwellings had been raided by Rhyddaegmen, and in two cases, the Rhyddaegmen in question had been from Iared's own lands. None of these raids had happened with Iared's knowledge, much less his approval, but it was plain that Burcaster, a Saexon Marcher Lord whose holdings shared a long, disputed border with Tangnafedd, was disinclined to believe this.
Huw ab Hywel ground his teeth, both fists clenched on the table of the council chamber. He was a broad-shouldered, red-haired man, whose bristling beard was starting to show streaks of grey, and only partially hid a deep scar running from his left cheek down along his entire face. He had to fight the urge to solve the matter in a much less diplomatic, but much more satisfying way. Catching sight of Lady Elaine, Iared's wife, who shook her head almost imperceptibly, he forced himself to relax. He was Iared's kinsman and most trusted advisor, and he would not be the reason for war.
Of the people in the council chamber, Huw was not the only one whose temper was at breaking point. Burcaster looked calm, but there was a twitch in the Saexon's mouth underneath his beard even if he wasn't talking. His two men-at-arms were looking at the Rhyddaegmen with barely concealed hatred. The seventh person in the chamber was Prior Emrys, the head of the local Cistercian abbey. He had not spoken thus far, watching the unfolding conversation with obvious discomfort.
Only Iared was quiet and tactful as ever, perhaps even more so than usual, striving to appear civil and cultured to the Saexons. He had even received the Saexon delegation in a council room, instead of hearing them out in the Great Hall, as would have been customary for a Rhyddian prince. Huw strongly doubted that the gesture had even registered with Burcaster, who, like most Saexons, believed Rhyddaegmen to be nothing short of barbaric.
Lady Elaine seemed to sense that some courteousness was called for, and said to the Saexon, in her musical voice, "My Lord, I am sure this matter can be settled. I can assure you that nobody regrets this incident more than does my husband."
Elaine was the only woman present in the council chamber, and while the sophisticated, flawless Rouvian she spoke strengthened the civilised impression that Iared wanted to convey, her presence was another affront to the Saexons. In their country, women had little business in the affairs of politics.
Burcaster completely ignored Elaine, addressing Iared again instead. "You are aware, Prince Iared, that you are in no position to face an open war." His mouth twitched less now that this was out. Huw didn't doubt that war was what Burcaster wanted. If he won – of which there could be little doubt, with support from the Saexon crown – he would gain even more chunks of Tangnafedd.
"I am aware of that, my lord, but I appreciate the reminder." Iared's voice finally held some edge. "I will curb my people, and I am offering compensation for your losses. How much did you lose?"
Burcaster's broad face showed no satisfaction at the offer. "Four of my men were killed in that raid, one barn was burned down, and some cattle died in the flames, while more was taken away. Forty shillings for the cattle. Twenty pounds of silver for the men."
Huw couldn't dispute the price for the killed men, but he did take objection at the rest. "Forty shillings!" he boomed, in Rhyddian, so that the Saexons didn't understand, although his tone was eloquent enough. "What sort of cattle was that, Burcaster? Do your goats piss gold, or what?"
Burcaster's men started reaching for their weapons before they remembered that they had left them outside the chamber, and just clenched their fists instead. Iared grasped Huw's hand. "Don't," he said quietly, in Rouvian, for the Saexons' benefit. To the Marcher Lord, he continued, "I hope you will find a payment of cattle satisfying, Lord Burcaster."
"Indeed I will not." The Saexon's voice was cold and disdainful. "Do I look like a cattle-drover to you? I will take silver, and silver only. Do your mines yield so little of it these days? Don't take me for a fool, Iared. It would be the last mistake you'll ever make."
Prior Emrys finally spoke. "Gentlemen, please," he said, his voice brittle with age. "Let us remain civil. No transgression was intended."
Huw couldn't help but think that, in speaking up, Emrys seemed frightened by his own daring. He supposed it had to do with conflicting loyalties. While Emrys' abbey lay within a stone's throw of Prince Iared's own keep, it was no secret that the Cistercian order shared far more traits with the Saexon church than the Rhyddian one.
"Forty-two pounds of silver it is, then," Iared cut in, his voice showing the strain of the entire conversation now. "And I assure you that the culprits who raided your lands will not go unpunished."
The prince had got to his feet, and extended a hand to Burcaster. The Saexon took it, and shook it briefly, then let it go just as quickly. Huw could see one of Burcaster's men spitting into the floor rushes, and he ground his teeth to refrain from bashing the Saexon's arrogant head in. He would be glad when the Saexons finally were on their way; if that didn't happen soon, he might not have any teeth left.
Iared led the group out of the council chamber, through the adjacent Great Hall. It was almost a hundred feet long, a magnificent room by Rhyddian standards. The floor consisted of beaten flagstones in the half furthest from the bailey, and muddy earth in the front half. In the middle, there was the heart of the keep, an octagonal hearth providing warmth. A wooden dais was raised at the back, about a foot above the flagstone floor; it was covered by rushes and was where almost all the daily life of the keep took place. The rushes in the front portion of the hall were muddy and trodden on; there, a lot of Iared's cattle were kept, cows and sheep and swine.
The Saexon soldiers had been waiting on the wooden dais, disdainfully pointing at the noisy cattle, but got to their feet as they saw their lord emerging from the meeting. Even if they hadn't huddled together in a knot, warily eying the scornful people of Prince Iared, they would have been easy to pick out in the crowd, for their surcoats were brightly coloured, as opposed to the more muted browns and greys worn by most of the Rhyddaegmen.
Huw watched as Burcaster went with Iared's treasurer, and the rest of the Saexons prepared for departure once more. Iared, following Rhyddian custom and hospitality, had offered them a place at his table and bedding for the night, but Burcaster had been quick to refuse. While the refusal could have been seen as a calculated affront, Huw surmised that it was for the better. Under the circumstances, Rhyddaegmen and Saexons were unlikely to spend a peaceful night under the same roof.
Huw helped with the preparations – overseeing the work in the stables and even helping to stow away a small chest with silver on Burcaster's rear horse – but it seemed like an eternity until the Saexon delegation was finally on its way again, in early afternoon.
"He'll run straight to his king," Huw said grimly as he stood with Iared on the steps that lead into the Great Hall, watching the line of twenty Saexons under the black-and-yellow chevron banner leaving the bailey, to the sour looks of the men and women of Caer Aderyn.
"No, not for a border dispute like this. Not even if it was the second or the third within the year. He'll save that for a time when he's truly angry." Iared turned to Huw, the ghost of a smile on his face. "And thanks, old friend, for not making him truly angry. I know how hard it was."
"Do you?" Huw replied, doubtfully. "He'll keep coming back for more. Being raided by our people seems to be a nice little side income for a Marcher Lord. From what he's taking home with him now, he can muster and feed at least ten armed men. This is not happening as a series of coincidences, Iared. It's happening everywhere along the Marches, not just in Tangnafedd. The Saexon king won't keep his barons in line, as long as they don't overdo it. Saexony is gnawing away at Rhyddion, bit by bit, never enough to warrant an all-out war, but there won't be anything left of it for our children – for your children, Iared – unless someone puts up a fight."
"Any fight we could put up is doomed to fail, and you know that." Iared's voice was bitter. "Once King Geoffrey starts waving his well-connected Archbishop around, quite apart from the army he can muster at a few week's notice, he has won any argument."
Huw couldn't help but give a bitter chuckle at the mental image Iared had conjured, and the prince went on, "Burcaster said it was a farm near Berry. That would make Lord Ifor responsible for the raid. Either that, or he deliberately looked the other way while his people – my people – attacked that Saexon farm."
Huw snorted a humourless laugh. "Ifor, look the other way while there's fun to be had and Saexons to be killed? Never. He probably carried off a sheep or two in person. I should look for them under his bed if I were you."
Iared slowly turned to look at Huw. "Which is precisely what you are going to do."
"I'm going to search Ifor's bedchamber for stolen sheep."
"You might as well, while you are at it. But first and foremost, you are going to talk sense into him. His conduct is what stands between us and a war with Saexony. If he won't back down, I can no longer tolerate his presence near the Marches."
"Talk sense into Ifor? My prince, I feel I'm not very suitable for that sort of task."
Iared gave him a sly look. "If anyone is, you are. He is to understand that I'm serious about this. He needs to be persuaded to leave the Saexon Marches well alone."
Huw's bearded face broke into a grin. "Maybe I'm suitable after all."
"I'm sure you are. And I need you to ride soon. Not tonight, maybe, but on the morrow. Someone needs to keep an eye on that Saexon delegation, if from a distance. Their mood was about as foul as ours towards the end. There are many solitary farmsteads between Caer Aderyn and the Marches; if they decide to take out their anger on any of them, it could be days before we would even know."
Aedan skipped over the stepping-stones leading across a small brook on their path. Rhyddion, and Tangnafedd in particular, was criss-crossed with rivers, brooks and muddy ditches, and he'd taken off his shoes, despite the cold, for a better hold on the mossy stones. He whooped as one of his feet slipped into the icy water, laughing as he sloshed on. Ahead of him, Maira had already crossed the water, dry-footed, and was patiently waiting for him to put on his shoes again, and continue their journey.
The joy of being on the road again, together with the prospect of a warm bed and probably hot apple pasties at sundown quickly dispelled all of Aedan's brooding thoughts. What did he care who his father was – most likely, he was leading some boring life somewhere in Tangnafedd, possibly as a farm hand or a blacksmith. This life was Aedan's, had been his for as long as he could remember. As soon as he could walk, Maira had taken him on her travels with her. When spring came, they'd set out across Tangnafedd, to all the places where the best herbs grew – wormwood in the hills in the North, basil in Gwylan Bay, lavender on the high fields near Silvermere, St. John's wort in the thickets of pine forests. In winter, they would mostly stay in one place – most often Caer Aderyn, which was the only place Aedan came close to calling home – but when an urgent call came and the weather allowed it, they would be off for a week or so.
Maira seemed to know every village, every settlement and farmstead in the cantref, so when night came, they always found a place to sleep. Even if hospitality hadn't decreed that every traveller be given a place at the hearth and something to eat, they were always welcomed, for there was always an aching tooth, a sprained ankle, a fevering child or a badly-healing wound, and the villagers knew that Maira could always help.
Aedan knew no other life, and desired no other life.
Their shadows were already long before them and the air was getting colder when Aedan suddenly saw his mother pause and turn around, listening hard. They could not be much further from Owain's farm than an hour.
"What?" he asked, also stopping in his tracks and straining his ears to catch something, but all he could hear was the wind rustling in the dry brown winter leaves of the hedges beside the overgrown path around them.
Maira shook her head. "I thought I'd… never mind." She lightly put an arm around Aedan's shoulder, but the boy did not miss the seriousness in her eyes. "Let's go on. We're almost at the bridge. From there, it's just another hour's walk."
The Roman bridge was one of the most imposing sights in Rhyddion. It spanned the Mawrafon, one of the largest rivers in the country, and was wide enough for two horsemen to ride side by side.
When they were already in sight of the bridge, even Aedan was sure that he had heard something – hooves on the path behind them, far-off shouting, some snatches of men's voices singing. They were passing a stretch of road shouldering a bare hillock, and as Aedan paused to look, shielding his eyes against the low glare of the setting winter sun, he saw a long, narrow column of men on horseback clattering up the hillside. The sight of so many horsemen in Rhyddion, not accompanied by any carts such as merchants would have, was uncommon, and Aedan's first thought was that it was the teulu, the household guard of Prince Iared. But then the last sun's rays fell on the black and yellow banner at the head of the column. Rhyddian princes seldom used coats of arms, much less carried them around where they went, and even if he hadn't known Iared's device was blue, Aedan would have been able to tell who these people were.
"Saexons!" he said, in excitement rather than alarm. Wherever they went, the people talked bad about them, and the further east you came, the more hated the countryfolk's tales of the Saexons would become.
Maira had turned pale. "Under the bridge, quick!" she said, grasping Aedan's shoulder as she looked around. "Off the road." She started to run, gripping Aedan's arm.
"Why?" Aedan asked, bewildered, as Maira's fear caught up with him. "What will they do if they see us?"
"A lone woman and a boy don't go well with a handful of soldiers," Maira panted, catching him as he slipped on a smooth stone, and dragging him with her. "And Saexons… don't like our kind." She seemed to be on the verge of saying more, but then she closed her mouth again and urged him on. They reached the foot of the bridge, and started to skid and slide down the slope to the bottom. The foot of the first arc was a few inches deep in water. The hem of Maira's skirt was sodden with water, billowing out around her, but she didn't care as she pressed herself against the age-old stone, holding Aedan close.
Huddling against his mother, Aedan could feel his heart beating in his throat as he heard the clatter of their horses' hooves more loudly, approaching the bridge. He heard angry words being passed from one man to another several times, but it was all in Saexon. A part of him was still more thrilled than scared. He could pretend he was a Rhyddian warlord, quietly watching his Saexon prey walking blindly into the trap he'd set for them, waiting to spring it – across from him, his men, three score of fighters, were waiting for his signal, ready to drive the Saexons right back to where they'd come from –
The clatter of hooves was all around them in the cold evening air now, multiplied by the stone, as the column passed over their heads. There had to be two or three dozen of them, the noise did not seem to end. There was more shouting above them, and then Aedan felt his mother's hand tighten on his shoulder as, to their right, a man came into view. He wore the bright yellow surcoat with a black chevron, looking so splendid to Aedan that he was sure he was looking at some high-born Saexon Lord. He was also in the process of untying his hose, somewhat diminishing the first impression.
He yelled in surprise when he saw the woman and the boy, then laughed and shouted to his companions.
Maira's first instinct was to drag Aedan up with her and to run, up the slope and into the hills, but she stopped short after just a few steps. Horses were slow on uneven ground, especially Saexon-bred ones, hardly faster than humans, but that would only delay the inevitable outcome, not prevent it. And more Saexons were coming down from the bridge on the other side now, blocking their escape.
Maira drew herself up as tall as she could – which was not much – and tried to shield Aedan behind her, but as soon as three, then four grinning, leering men had ridden up on both sides, that became pointless, too.
The man who had first spotted them approached with a sneer, shouting something at her, pointing. His face showed several battle-scars running along his cheek and into his hairline; half his left ear was missing.
There was no thrill left in the situation for Aedan now. "Mam! What do we do?" he shouted, terrified.
"Stay close to me," she said. Her face was white, but her voice sounded almost calm except for an urgent undertone. "And run when I tell you to."
Two more men had dismounted and were advancing on them. Aedan saw that these later ones seemed more hesitant, one of them nudging the other and talking urgently, but whatever he had said, the first man with the half-ear answered it with a snapped remark. There were so many brightly-coloured surcoats and fine armour now that Aedan found it impossible to distinguish any ranks.
The first man with the missing ear had reached them now. He was stocky, but taller than Maira, with blond hair cropped around his face. He reached for Maira, but she struck his outstretched hand aside.
He stared, then he advanced again, and Aedan wished he could use the Cyfrinach to stop him, but Maira, who could have, made no move to defend herself.
Both she and Aedan had been watching the half-ear, and Aedan yelled in surprise and fear as he was suddenly grabbed from behind, and a mail-clad hand yanked him back. Aedan turned to see a Saexon in a black and yellow surcoat, whose grin revealed a few missing teeth. He said a word that he'd heard the half-ear utter as well, an ugly, hissing word whose meaning he learned much later – witch.
"Mam!" Aedan shouted again, panic starting to rise in him.
Still, Maira was keeping her head. By her manner alone, she kept the half-ear at bay with her outstretched arm as she turned to face the one holding Aedan. "Let my son go." She said it slowly, stressing every word, and even if the Saexons didn't speak a word of Rhyddaeg, they had to get the message.
Then, another rider appeared at the scene. He sat astride a splendid-looking dapple grey horse and wore fine mail, not just a chain shirt, but a mail hauberk covering his legs and his arms down to his leather gloves. The air of authority he conveyed made Aedan realise his earlier mistake; this had to be their lord. He tried to see some kindness in the man's bearded face, but couldn't read anything in it at all. He said something to the men holding Aedan and threatening Maira, and the half-ear spat some answer at him. Then there was the word again: witch.
The leader dismounted and walked across to them, saying something to the one standing beside Aedan, the one not holding him; the man advanced on Maira. Aedan struggled wildly in the Saexon's grasp when he saw that the man had his sword drawn, but he only cut the strap of Maira's pouch. The leather bag fell to the ground, spilling his mother's little earthenware pots containing ointments, pastes, dried herbs and tinctures, which rolled down, some of them disappearing in the churning waters of the Mawrafon. Maira still made no move, even though Aedan knew that these little crucibles and their contents were her most prized possessions.
One came to rest before the nobleman's feet, and he gave it a disdainful prod, causing it to spin down and shatter against a stone, with a sound that made Maira flinch.
The lead man looked back up at the woman and the boy his men had captured, and without any further word, with only a jerk of the head, he turned and walked back to his horse, mounting it. He never cast back a glance.
Out of the corner of his eye, Aedan saw the half-ear reaching for Maira, but then the man holding him jumped back with a frightened oath and screamed as he saw flames that had suddenly jumped up from his sleeve. Maira had finally moved. Aedan was free.
"Run," she told him, in the brief moment when the men were too stunned to act. "Run! Wait for me at Saint Elen's cross." The calm in her voice made Aedan obey without thinking. He darted under an outstretched Saexon arm, heard the man curse as he grasped only air, and half-ran, half-scrambled up the slope, back the way they'd come. He knew why she had told him to go back, not on to the farm where they had been headed – he would have had to pass the entire column on the narrow bridge.
Aedan heard cursing and swearing behind him as well as the sound of hooves, and knew the man was still following him. There were loud, angry voices and sharp words behind him. He felt sick with fear, but dared not stop or look back.
He reached the overgrown portion of the path again, and immediately dashed for the bushes, hardly feeling thorns and twigs, racing on, always skirting the road, never daring to stop, only slowing down to catch his breath for a short while before stumbling on again, as fast as he could. The sun was sinking before him, sometimes vanishing behind the hills ahead to re-emerge a few instants later when he rounded a hill-top. Several times, he thought he still heard the swearing and panting behind him, and dared not listen, scrambling over hedges and low stone walls, his lungs burning, until at last he stumbled out of a small copse and saw the cross on a flat hill-top, just a hundred yards ahead.
He had to cross a little, stone-strewn slope before the path ascended again, and he started to run across the empty space for the safety of the overgrown till-top. Suddenly he felt his foot sinking deep into the ground as he hit a rabbit hole hidden in the slope, yelling as he went down. His movement was stopped abruptly for no more than a second, then there was a snap and he was free, rolling some twenty yards down the slope before he was able to catch himself. Pain blocked out any other thought, and the world kept spinning far longer than it should have, as he lay at the base of the slope, sobbing for breath. The pain came from his left leg, but he did not dare to look. The waycross was ahead, looking black against a dark blue sky streaked with a last hint of yellow.
Mustering strength he hadn't known he had, Aedan crawled up the last stretch of distance until he reached the scattered stones at the foot of the cross. There he collapsed, his head spinning around the throbbing pain in his leg.
A burnt smell reached his nostrils, and his head jerked up in alarm until he realised that his head was inches from the place where he had started a fire just two hours previously.
He closed his eyes again to listen, but everything was quiet. The only sounds were minute rustlings in the grass and bushes nearby, of mice or other nocturne little animals, but no footsteps, no horses, and no swearing. Nobody had followed him
He turned his head to look up at the cross, at a few pale stars twinkling down innocuously. He felt he should pray, but the words seemed wiped from his mind.
"Saint Elen," he mouthed. "Just… just make my mam get here quick."