Born in exile, Aelida will witness the rise and fall of kings and fight for her people’s very existence, for she holds a great secret…one that could see Briton’s greatness return…or fall forever.
Having had her son taken from her, Aelida escapes Tintagel…only to fall into the hands of the High King’s enemies. Will he come for her, or will she die at the hands of those who hate him?
So much I had endured. Taken by the High King Farval, forced to bear his child, his heir, and forcibly exiled from the only home I had known. I was torn from the man I loved and brought to the high king’s fortress, living among those who saw me as his whore. He had bred me once more, determined to get another child upon me, and his wife, the queen, had poisoned me, killing my unborn child. And then, as though all my grief were not great enough, the queen persuaded him to take my first-born away from me, and then, the final blow, to give me to his friend, Besnar, a man well known by others to be a sadist. He had taken everything from me; but in the end I had escaped him, fleeing the fortress and all his plans for me.
I was no fool. I knew Farval would search for me.
It was strange that after being so abused by Besnar, I still feared the high king more. There was no understanding myself sometimes.
All my instincts knew he was close; I could feel his anger, his determination. He might give me away, but I would not escape his will. He did not know me well enough. That was my only consolation in this battle of wills. He might have hunted with me, but he was a man; he would underestimate my abilities.
I was not mad enough to journey north to reach for my heart’s desire so soon. Lasim would be the first place they would look. Instead I made for the great forest where Farval had taken me once before. A place of brief happiness. There I forged deeper than they had hunted.
Here was no sign of human hands, just wildness complete. Here in this haven, I survived. Hunted, stayed in no place long. Left no sign of my presence. Furs kept me warm. Bound about my feet, they saved my boots from wear. I waited, watched. My hope was that they would believe that, in my despair, I had flung myself from the cliffs of Tintagel. If they could not find me, this belief would gain force.
If only they could persuade Farval. He would notice my bow was gone, my possessions. I did not know if he felt the same way I did and could feel my presence, but I was taking no chances. He was my primary foe and a worthy one at that. A hunter of great note, he would not be easy to fool.
With spring, I hoped to gradually make my way north to the forests about Lasim, exist there for a time until I was sure it was safe to show myself to Caeorlin and Ilene. Then, at last, I might be happy. Perhaps Caeorlin and I could build a home in the forest, safe even if someone should search the village. I would be free of my name and the burden it presented.
It was not easy, my plan. It was mild that winter, even for the south, but I was not always successful in my hunting. Sometimes there was hunger. Once I got a fever from a cut that would not heal, and I think I almost died. It was hard to care one way or the other.
My grief for Thoreiul, my son, seemed to grow with time instead of healing. An aching sense of emptiness, it haunted every waking hour and filled my dreams with taunting images of him being in my arms again. His birthday came and went and with it memories of the horror of his birth, of my hatred for Farval.
It was hard to realize I could never be the same again. I might return to Lasim, take up with Caeorlin, love and be loved, but I could never be the same woman. The High King of Britain had forever changed me.
There was little else of note during that winter. I survived perhaps in spite of myself and my dark humors. In time spring came, a feel in the air, the return of birds not native to the region, a breath of sea air coming in from the south. It was time to start moving.
Spring was also the time when the king and his companions would once again hunt in these woods.
I moved north, staying within the forest at all times. My progress was steady but slow, and sometimes I fretted that it would take all of spring and summer to reach my goal. It would have been faster to move out into the open, find roads, but my caution had not waned. The forests eventually came to more settled regions, and here I could no longer stay concealed. Perhaps the forest went around this area, perhaps not. I had no way of knowing. If it did not, it would cost me many days of backtracking. I could almost feel Caeorlin waiting. My impatience mounted. Caution suffered.
Finally, I made the choice to move out of concealment. First, though, I would have to change my appearance. A woman traveling looking like a huntress would attract attention. Changing into my dull brown dress covered with Hal’s cloak made me nondescript, less than memorable. A stout walking stick helped blur my age, and dirt on my face made my features less noticeable. I set out, heart pounding, but determination lending me strength of purpose.
The first few days went well. I had enough dried meat and berries to keep me going, and there seemed to be few people about. The road was broad and paved with stones, like nothing I had ever seen before. Occasionally I glimpsed riders from afar, but I quickly moved off the road and out of sight behind low bushes or trees. Each time they passed me by, and never were they anyone I recognized. Several times I saw fortresses ahead, built beside the road itself or on nearby hills. Upon such sightings I would move cautiously into whatever cover possible and make a wide passage until I could find the road again. It seemed to be going in the direction I wanted.
As time went on, my supplies began to run low. I was hesitant to hunt, not knowing the territory and not wishing to be seen by any inhabitants as other than what I seemed. I had not foreseen this. As if to test my mettle, the farther north I traveled, the more clouds gathered, until it began to rain…and forgot to stop.
Day after day, I slogged along the road, soaked and shivering. I thought to take several of my furs and drape them over my shoulders under the cloak. This at least shed the water to some extent and kept me somewhat sheltered.
One night I could do nothing but find the lee side of the riverbank and build a small fire to dry out my clothing. I did not sleep at all, terrified someone would see the small flames. With morning, I finally closed my eyes for a short time, but it did little to relieve my exhaustion.
Travel that day was slow, although I felt better for being dryer. The rain poured down, striking the stones upon the road with great force, splashing back up, the noise steady and mind dulling.
This was my downfall.
I should have been more careful, but it had seemed unlikely that others would be so foolish as to travel in such miserable conditions.
I was wrong.
The sound of hooves did not penetrate my consciousness until the horses were almost on top of me. My eyes widened, though I did not look back. Never slowing, I simply stepped to the side to let the riders pass, hoping, praying they would continue on. Hoping my actions looked natural, my presence unremarkable.
A horse stepped into my path…and stopped.
By the sound of it, there were many more behind me. Trying not to panic, I slowly looked up, my face shadowed by my hood. I let out my breath in a small sigh.
The rider was no one I knew. His face was battered, with dried blood crusting beside his lower lip, and he radiated exhaustion. Brown eyes bored into mine.
“Old woman, have you healing skills?”
My eyes dropped to where his hand lay on the pommel of his sword. Oh Goddess… I roughened my voice as best I could.
“Only the most basic learning, lord, barely enough to get by.”
He sank back in the saddle in a kind of despair, his eyes closing for a moment. They opened again, stared at me in grim resignation.
“It will have to do.” He jerked his head in the direction behind me. I turned to confront fifteen or so riders, each of them as grim and battered as the next. One sat slumped on his mount, another man supporting him with one arm. “One of our group is wounded and needs aid now. If you are the best available, it will have to be enough.”
His hand reached down. I stared at it numbly.
There was no choice.
He must have read my trepidation, for his tone held weary reassurance. “You have nothing to fear, old one, if you do your best to help our” —he bit back the words— “friend.”
Hands encircled my waist, and I fought back a scream as they raised me high. The man who had spoken reached out then, settling me before him, his arms about my cloaked form. He spoke curt orders and we moved off at a gallop.
My body was stiff with terror. Against so many I could have no chance of escape, and should they discover that I was not old, my fate would not be kind. The rain came down harder, something I had not thought possible, and the horses bowed their heads against the force of it. I pulled my cloak closer, shivering with a combination of shock and cold.
When the horse beneath me finally halted, I looked up slowly at the small home before us. A dog barked frantically at our arrival, teeth bared, lunging to the end of its stout rope. The small door cautiously cracked open, and a face peered out. The man who held me spoke, his tone authoritative and cold. I did not take in the words, too miserable to care. My attention sharpened, however, when the door swung open completely and two older men appeared, their faces apprehensive as they sidled along the side of the house, just out of reach of the newcomer’s weapons. They hastily hushed the dog, gripping its rope collar tightly when it continued to growl.
I was passed down to one of the warriors, then the man who had held me dismounted stiffly. The wounded rider was lifted down by several men, and I heard his pained groan as they carried him within the much-patched home. My captor gripped my arm painfully, pulling me brusquely through the doorway. I blinked uncertainly in the sudden dimness, stumbling in the half light. My arm was only released when we stood over the odorous pallet on which the injured man had been placed.
“What will you need?” The question brooked no argument.
I did not answer immediately, but knelt upon the dirt floor and cautiously pulled aside the wounded man’s cloak. His chest and side were soaked with blood that had seeped through the makeshift bandages his companions had bound about him. Carefully I unwound the cloth, catching my breath at the first sight of what I faced.
Obviously a slash from a sword or spear, the blow had landed on the upper ribs on the left side, below the armpit. Shallow there, it became deeper as its path continued, angling down across the belly and then slicing deep into the man’s side. As he breathed, I could see the white flash of bone, his ribs laid bare.
I fought back sickness, my hands beginning to shake. His eyes fluttered open, unfocussed, dazed. I stared at him, transfixed at the most curious shade of palest blue. His gaze fell upon me, confusion showing on his features for brief moments before he looked past me to my captor. That man leaned forward to lay a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“This old woman will help you. She knows healing.”
The injured warrior slowly nodded and closed his eyes, whether in weariness or pain, I could not tell.
A voice spoke close by my ear. “You would do well to save him, old one, or you will know our wrath.”
So much for his earlier reassurance. A ruse to gain my compliance, no doubt. The sheer menace in those words made me swallow heavily. This wound was far beyond the meager skills Ilene and I had learned from the village healer. All the young girls were expected to learn the basics; any with interest had gone farther. I had not, preferring to limit my contribution to gathering common herbs while out hunting. Now that lack might well mean my life.
Licking dry lips, I fought to regain use of my voice.
“I have not the medicines needed…”
A sack was dumped by my side. “We took this from our enemies. None of us has any knowledge of their use.”
I dared not ask whom they considered foe.
“I need more light.” My tone firmed.
This man needed my help, and I had never been able to bear another’s pain. Besides, I was not completely without skill. Had I not patched up any number of wounded creatures as a child? Was this warrior less than they?
Untying the sack, I sorted tentatively through the contents, small cloth bags of precious, pungent contents. I smelled each one and tasted some, putting those aside I either could not identify or did not need. The men had stoked the fire high and also found two small pots for me to boil the herbs in.
My arms ached after only a short time of grinding the herbs into powder. They were slightly damp from the weather and resisted my pounding and crushing. Muttering to myself helped keep me focused on the task at hand and all unwittingly made my disguise that much more real. I made two poultices, both simple, but in my experience, effective. One I would pack on the wound for a while before removing it for stitching. Its purpose was to numb the area as much as possible for the needle. The other would be smeared over the entire site before binding. It would hopefully draw the poisons and prevent the wound from turning foul. Beyond that, I had no skills to help him.
I felt the cold stare of my captor at all times as I worked steadily. Many of the other men lay wrapped in their cloaks, sound asleep or nearly so, but he and three others stayed alert, weapons in hand. I idly wondered where the two poor old men had been forced to take shelter in light of their home being invaded. Fortunately few of the men had removed their cloaks, and no comment was made about me retaining mine. It was the only hope I had of keeping up my disguise. Should I have to remove it, they would swiftly realize my true age, despite the dirt smeared about my face.
I stiffly rose to my feet, and with the aid of a stout stick, retrieved the first pot from above the fire. Returning, I let it cool for some time before taking some upon my finger and testing its strength upon my tongue. Grimacing at the horrific taste, I nodded with satisfaction. I had succeeded despite working only on memory. The wounded man moaned as I gently smoothed the mixture over the wound, and I found myself soothing him with my voice, comforting him with my touch. Pale blue eyes opened, darker with pain, sweat beginning to drip down his face. He stared at me for long moments, frowning, and then easing as the herbs began to do their work, numbing the terrible agony. As I finished, he reached out with one blood-smeared hand to touch my cheek.
He brushed back his hood just slightly and his gaze sharpened, then he smiled and let his hand fall.
“Angel. My angel.”
To my vast and everlasting relief, he fell asleep, the very lack of pain making exhaustion overcome him.
I sat back on my heels. Now I could only wait for the full effect before stitching the wound closed. My breath stopped as my captor sank to his heels beside me, his sharp eyes assessing my work. Those same brown eyes slid to mine.
“He is indeed out of his head to mistake you for an angel, old one. Perhaps the highest compliment you have ever received, eh?” He shrugged, smiled slightly. “Ah, but perhaps in your youth you were a beauty. There is consolation in that.” His smile faded, his face becoming grim once more. “You will need several of us to hold him down for the stitching.”
I nodded carefully. “Perhaps. If the herbs have worked properly, mayhap only two.”
His eyebrows rose. “Your skills seem greater than you have led me to believe.”
I shrugged wearily. “In my village all women are expected to know the basics. I never went past that stage. That is all this is, basic.”
“Your village must have greater skills than most then, for even healers of note in this area seldom know such arts. Where does your village lie?”
I considered lying, but perhaps the truth, or at least measured doses of it, might better serve me here.
“I come from Lasim, far to the north, on the coast.”
He frowned in thought, then shook his head. “I know of no such place. It must be far north in truth. Why then are you here, so far away, and heading back in that direction?”
“Long ago raiders came to Lasim and stole me away. Only now have I been able to attempt to return.” My voice thickened with true emotion. “I miss those I loved.”
He did not react, still deep in thought. “So you were taken to the south.” His eyes slid to mine. “In what region?”
Again I considered how best to answer, but here, I had little choice. I could not describe any area but that around Tintagel itself.
His demeanor changed instantly upon hearing that name. His eyes became those of the wolf, his body tense with menace.
“Tintagel.” He rolled his tongue about the name like a curse. I flinched as his eyes met mine again. “The high king. Farval. Did you see him?”
That particular question would have been laughable in other circumstances, but not now. The hair stood up on the back of my neck in warning. Cautiously, I nodded.
He leaned toward me, grasped my arm painfully. “How many men live within the fortress walls? How many come and go?”
The warning feeling intensified almost to pain within my head. This man was no friend to Farval and therefore, in my mind at least, no friend to Britain itself.
“I would be of little help to you with those particular questions, lord. I did not live within the keep itself and so had little to do with those within. Having no interest in military matters, noticing such things would not have occurred to me.”
The wounded man moaned. I could have hugged him. My captor subsided, but I knew the matter was far from over. Of all the cursed luck, I had fallen in with Farval’s enemies. If they knew my true identity, how would they use it against the high king?
I thrust the new worries away desperately. Right now I had to concentrate all my thoughts and energies on my healing skills. Nothing else.
I had pulled threads from my dress and set them to boil over the fire, softening them for their new purpose. Now I removed them and waited for cooling. A needle for leatherworking had been found in the house, and I had boiled that also, trying to get leather oil off the metal.
Gently, I cleaned the herb mixture away from the wound. Threading the needle carefully, I took a deep breath and nodded. Two men took charge of their injured friend’s feet, while my captor and another held down his arms and shoulders. Fighting to control my trembling fingers, I made the first thrust. He flinched, moaned, but did not scream. The poultice was working; I could breathe again. Shutting my mind to the torture of what I was doing to him, I worked swiftly and steadily, holding the flesh together, pulling the needle through, knotting the threads. I wished that he might faint, save himself the pain, but he endured. Biting down on a piece of thick leather one of the men had offered him, he even tried to watch my efforts.
At last, I was blessedly done. I smeared the second poultice over the stitches and bound it all with a clean shirt someone had offered for the purpose before backing into a corner at the head of the bed and sitting there, shaking uncontrollably, arms wrapped about my knees.
The men at guard seemed to relax somewhat then, still holding their spears, but squatting on their haunches, resting, but alert. The wounded man, whom I heard referred to as Belar, and my captor spoke in low tones, and by their glances in my direction, I knew their words concerned me. I lowered my head in silent despair, shielding my face, wishing I were anywhere but here. At least in Tintagel I had had some small measure of protection. Even Besnar did not seem as frightening as these men. With them, in this place, I had the feeling my nobility would shield me not at all. They seemed more like Daruk’s men than had those under Farval’s command.
A pair of boots came into my vision. “My lord Belar wishes to speak with you.”
Slowly I rose, trying to hide my still-shaking fingers. Upon reaching the pallet, I was pushed to my knees with little ceremony. Obviously gratitude was not going to be the order of the day.
“Arlan tells me that you were journeying north to your village when we came upon you.” Belar’s voice was amazingly strong, considering the amount of blood he must have lost and the pain of my stitching.
I nodded, a faint feeling of hope rising. He sounded slightly more courteous than Arlan. Was it possible he might release me to go my way? They seemed purposeful; perhaps they wanted no woman to slow their pace.
Arlan had other thoughts, it seemed. “My lord, it is still two days’ ride. We may yet need the old woman’s skills.”
Belar shot him a look of astonishment mixed with confusion then slowly smiled in genuine amusement.
“Old? Arlan, old friend, it seems your worry on my behalf has blinded you.”
The other man frowned blankly. “My lord?”
Belar shook his head, then motioned me closer. “Come here, girl, that we might see you properly.” When I did not move, his voice lowered slightly, the amusement changing swiftly to command. “Lower your hood.”
Slowly, coming no closer to his grasp, I obeyed, my eyes still downcast, fighting back a small cry of fear as Arlan touched my hair incredulously.
Belar laughed out loud at the look on his friend’s face, then grimaced and caught his breath. His smile slowly returned at the various reactions of those men who were awake.
Arlan did not take being deceived well. Grabbing my arm, he yanked me painfully to my feet, all but tearing the cloak off my shoulders, gouging the side of my throat with the cloak pin as he did so. Lips set in a thin, grim line, he raked my form with contemptuous eyes. That same contempt made my pride come to the fore. I shook off his hold, straightening my clothing, returning his glare with one of my own.
His fist rose…
“No.” Belar’s voice was low, but carried force. Arlan froze in mid-motion.
The same voice came softly once more. “You have lied to us.”
My chin rose as my gaze left the angry man before me and returned to Belar.
“No, I did not. Arlan assumed. I let him.”
The wounded man did not answer, but let his gaze roam over me slowly. “You are no village girl. Not by your manner nor looks. Arlan tells me you come from Tintagel. Do you spy upon us?”
I would have laughed if the situation had not been so tense with threat.
“I spoke the truth, though I cannot make you believe that. I was born in Lasim. We were attacked by raiders. I was taken south to Tintagel against my will. All of that is true. Now I seek to return home, though I am not sure of the way.”
There was silence then as he considered my words.
“These raiders you speak of. Who were they?”
My eyes hardened, my anger very real and potent. “Those of Britain.”
His eyes bored into mine. “Their leader’s name?”
My gaze never wavered. “Daruk.”
The name sent ripples of unease and fury through the room. Belar’s fingers clenched into fists, and his eyes became blue flint. He regained control slowly, silently, like the ebbing of a tide. When he finally spoke once more, his tone was remarkably calm.
“This must have been long ago. You were young?”
“Yes.” My voice was suitably expressionless, though my heart thundered in my breast. So far I had been able to answer with the force of truth behind my words. The wrong question could destroy that.
He watched my reactions as a predator—closely and with purpose.
“He did harm to the villagers?”
My lip curled faintly. Foolish question in light of Daruk’s nature.
“He and his men raped as they choose, took our winter’s supplies as tribute, and killed my stepfather.” To my horror, tears rose, and I blinked them away angrily.
Perhaps that was the proper response after all, for his eyes softened just slightly, giving me hope.
“So you were taken to Tintagel. So it must have been shortly afterward the tide of war changed and Farval became high king. Arlan tells me you did not live within the keep?”
“No, I did not.”
“Did you see much of the high king?”
I prevaricated. “I knew who he was.”
Belar’s eyes sharpened. “Did you notice any conflict between Farval and others? Were there those who defied his rule?”
I felt the first faint stirrings of anger. “No, not that I ever saw. Everyone believes in the beauty of his vision.”
Belar held up one hand, halting anything his friend might have said. Ice blue eyes held mine steadily. “Do you believe in his vision?”
My chin rose higher. “Completely.”
There was a tense silence.
Belar’s expression held a subtle contempt. “Are you one of those women who has fallen for his fair face?”
I straightened proudly. “Not at all. I hated him quite thoroughly.” My voice was strong with passionate certainty.
He nodded slowly, staring at me thoughtfully, though I sensed his mind was far away.
At last he blinked, came back to the present, and I saw exhaustion beginning to sap his formidable strength. It was truly miraculous that he had been lucid for this long.
His eyes fell upon Arlan. “I will decide what to do with her tomorrow. Keep her safe till then.” His tone hardened as that same gaze swept all the men gathered about.
They nodded reluctantly, and inwardly I shuddered at some of the looks they bestowed upon me, though I managed to conceal the fear reasonably well.
It made for a sleepless night.