Authors: Frewin Jones
WARRIOR PRINCESS BOOK THREE
For Amanda Fleming and Tracy Rossi
PROFOUND DARKNESS had fallen among the close-packed oaks, and it felt to Branwen ap Griffith as though she and her small band of riders were wading through a flood tide 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 forward, her thoughts 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 killed—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. And all the while I was thinking I might never see my parents again. Over the mountains they sent me, 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 after that? A long journey south to marry that loathsome boy Hywel, although I met him only once, almost ten years ago. Well, at least my destiny spared me that ending.
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 Branwen never went south. Rhiannon of the Spring saw to that. One of the Old Gods—the Shining Ones—Rhiannon 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 destiny. It was only when Rhiannon had warned her that Garth Milain, her beloved home, was in danger that Branwen had acted.
Although I rode hard and arrived in the garth in time to warn my 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 home and my mother that same night to follow this pitiless destiny again.
Rhiannon’s words rang in her ears.
“All of Brython will be your home, and you will gather to you a band of warriors who shall keep the enemy at bay for many long years.”
And what a strange group of wanderers they were!
Riding directly behind her was the shrewd and crafty-tongued Iwan ap Madoc. She had first encountered Iwan at the court of Prince Llew. He had annoyed her and fascinated her in equal amounts in that first meeting—and he still did.
Ahead of her, only half visible in the darkness, Branwen 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 and the half-human owl-girl.
human? Blodwedd was nothing more than an owl wrapped in a human shape … save for her eyes. They were huge and golden and had no whites whatsoever. No one looking into those eerie eyes would have any doubts that Blodwedd was not human.
Govannon of the Wood, another Shining One, had sent Blodwedd. Govannon, 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 herself faithful and true.
Iwan’s 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 back at him sitting upright 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. They were four young woman of Gwylan Canu—fiery Dera riding with lithe little Linette, and flame-haired Banon riding with heavyset Aberfa, who had 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 conquer the seagirt 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. 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 Brython had battled wave after wave of Saxon incursions, and they had always thrown the butchering invaders back. Why, then, did Prince Llew go against his homeland? As a result, never had Powys been closer to defeat than in the battle they had just fought. If not for supernatural aid this night, all would have been lost.
Govannon himself had joined in the battle, beating down upon the Saxons with an army of birds and beasts, even awakening the trees of the forests to help sweep them into the sea.
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 moment 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. He had towered above her, wild and dangerous and yet strangely benevolent, and 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. You must seek Merion of the Stones.”
Faithful, kindhearted 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 harsh 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 heavily 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. 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 border of Powys, poised to strike at Branwen’s homeland.
And here Branwen 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 golden eyes shone 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 toward a noise beyond Branwen’s hearing 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 gray, iron helmets on their heads, and their faces hidden behind iron war-masks.
HE 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 saw a blade slice down torward Iwan. He managed to draw his own sword and deflect the full blow—but the flat of the blade still 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,
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 outward to fend off her attacker’s blow.