The Raven and the Forest Girl
by David Landrum
The Raven and the Forest Girl
Noelani still had nightmares.
“I’m sorry,” she would say, crying. “I still have dreams about it.”
He reached up and brushed away her tears.
“I was at the pond,” she wept. “Except in the dream, they threw me in and the stone was around my neck. I was drowning.”
He held her. She squeezed him, pressing her body against his and soon fell asleep. He remembered the first time he had seen her.
He had been with Elisedd. It was the last day they were together before the Druids selected him for sacrifice. They had returned from hunting, riding through fields guarded by scarecrows, and dismounted at the King’s house. Wanting wine, and wanting to avoid the crowd of sycophants who would waylay Prince Elisedd with petitions the moment he stepped in the door to the Great Hall, the two of them cut through the kitchen.
Squatting by one of the hearth fires, a young woman—she might have been eighteen—fed kindling sticks into the small flame glowing there. Rian thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes on, though her loose hair and the blue bracelet on her arm told him she was pledged and not eligible for marriage. Still, he gazed at her, his heart charmed. She had delicate features: a long, straight nose, big eyes, and a high forehead. Her stance made her shapely buttocks strain against the simple buckskin dress she wore. Her brown locks cascaded over her back. A light fuzz of hair covered her shins. She was barefoot. She built the fire with a look of intense concentration.
They went into the next room.
“Who was the girl by the fire?” Rian asked. “And, yes, I saw that she’s pledged.”
“Her name is Noelani—daughter of Garth. The Druids are training her.”
“For what? Religion?”
“She is,” Elisedd agreed. “Too bad.”
Rian and Elisedd drank wine and went into the Great Hall. They stopped cold. The King, a grave look on his face, stood by his judgment chair. Four Druid priests stood about him. Grave expressions covered their faces as well. The priests made Rian leave. He waited outside. After an hour, he and several others were admitted to the hall. A herald proclaimed the news that shocked everyone in the kingdom. Elisedd would die to open a path of divination.
Rian managed to gain an audience with Cathasach, the King, Elisedd’s father.
“This is barbaric,” he said. “Mother told me no one has died this way in hundreds of years, and you know she served seven winters of pledge before she married father.”
“The situation is grave,” Cathasach said.
The Romans had won several victories last spring. Now that cold weather had ended they were on the march again.
“The Romans have offered us a treaty,” Rian said. “The other tribes who accepted their terms have been treated well. If we defy them, we’ll be enslaved.”
“The sacrifice will tell us how to defeat them.”
“Sacrifice!” Rian shouted. “This is your son!”
“Mind your tongue, boy,” one of the King’s advisers warned, putting a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“You’re Elisedd’s best friend,” Cathasach said, motioning for his adviser to stand down. “If you truly love him, you’ll accept what he has accepted. In the past, the duties of a prince sometimes required sacrifice. We look to the past customs as a hope of freedom. Think of his death as the equivalent of death in battle.”
Rian understood from Cathasach’s tone of voice that his audience was ended. He bowed and left. When he got outside, he began to curse, swear, and throw stones. Afraid someone would see him, he mounted his horse and rode at a wild gallop toward the woodland that separated the territory Cathasach ruled from the lands the Romans had settled. After a time, he slowed his horse and led it to a pool to drink and rest. It was there that he saw her.
The girl—was her name Noelani?—stood at the edge of the forest. Rian stepped into a thicket of linden trees and watched her. Once more, he marveled at her beauty. She stood a moment, reached up to grasp the shoulders of her garment, and pulled it over her head.
His blood jumped at sight of her nakedness. Her slender body glowed in the greenish forest light. She had full, round breasts, hips as shapely has he had imagined them when he saw her by the hearth, a gentle tuft of red hair at her juncture of her thighs, long legs and delicate feet.
She lifted her hands and began to sing. Her song, in a language he could not speak, sounded as if it was a hymn from paradise or a song the gods had written. Its beauty and power captured him. He thought the loveliness of her body expressed itself in her song and that she had just sung out herself—her soul, her essence. He remembered his mother had told him the ancient paeans were not mere tunes, but whispers of heaven and earth in their power and harmony.
As she sang, animals appeared: four deer, a small lynx, and two wild dogs. Rian wondered if he should protect her, but remembered she was a pledged woman—and her being clothed with the wind complicated the matter. Also, she evinced no fear at the appearance of the predatory beasts in the menagerie. She smiled as she stroked the coats of the dogs, which were large and ferocious. Birds appeared then. A raven lit on her shoulder. Linnets landed on the ground about her feet. She held out her hand and a white bird of a type he had never seen perched on her index finger.
After a moment, she lifted her hand. The white bird flew into the wood. The lynx, the dogs, and all the deer but one followed it. The other birds flew off, though he noticed that the raven lit on a branch and watched her. The deer waited patiently as she clothed herself with the garment she had taken off. She patted the deer’s neck. The creature licked her hand. She turned and began walking away from the wood. The doe followed her. Rian watched until she and the animal disappeared down the path.
He lingered, contemplating what he had just seen. Again, he recalled what his mother had told him about her time as an acolyte to the Druids. There were women who had the power to draw animals to their side. They were called Gatherers because the animals that followed them were used as sacrifices. So this was Noelani’s role as a pledged woman. He wondered if the deer would be sacrificed as a part of ceremony for Elisedd.
He rode aimlessly at first, but then, on a whim, followed the raven the girl had summoned as it went from tree to tree, allowing Rian to get closer to him than such birds usually allowed, then flying off but perching in sight, as if it were leading him. He rode a long way along a woodland path and came out of the forest into a land of wide meadows and grain fields swaying in the breeze. Scarecrows with bells tied to their lifeless limbs made a ringing noise to frighten off birds. He saw houses here and there. He suspected he had ridden into Roman-controlled territory. If it was the kingdom of Ghynath, though, which it probably was, he would be in no danger. They had signed treaty with the Romans and lived alongside them in peace. Rian’s family owned land in this kingdom. The Romans had allowed them to retain it. His family rented it out to tenants who farmed it.
He rode on, following the raven until he came to the edge of a town. Roman banners flew on some of the buildings. He stopped to rest in a grove of trees by a pond. His horse drank as he rested. A group of men walked by. One of them greeted him in Latin. He replied in the same language. A man following the group stopped, regarded Rian, and came over to him.
“Greetings, young man. I am Orev. I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before.”
“I’m not from around here.”
“A stranger then. You’re a Celt. I can tell that from your accent and appearance. You speak Latin very well.”
“My mother spoke Latin. She taught me the language. My father had me speak it to the merchants he did business with. Later—well, the king’s son employed me as interpreter.”
“That would be Prince Elisedd. Pity what befell him.”
“You know about that? How?”
“Informers, shall we say? Many in your kingdom don’t agree with what your king plans to do.”
“Neither do I. We should make a treaty with the Roman like the Ghynath have done. And what the King plans to do with his own son is a barbaric practice our people abandoned generations ago. The King has fallen under the sway of the Druids.”
“They’re desperate to preserve themselves,” Orev answered. “The Romans don’t treat them very well when they conquer an area where the Druids hold power.”
“The Romans? You speak of them as if they were a people separate from you. Aren’t you a Roman?”
He was dressed like one. Rian could tell from his speech that his Latin was his native tongue.
“I am a Roman Citizen, but I come from the Provinces and don’t exactly give my loyalty to them. So the answer to your question is yes—and no.
Rian suddenly felt glum.
“Do Romans approve of human sacrifice?”
“They abhor it, as everyone should.”
“I wish they would launch an invasion of our land before Elisedd dies. They might rescue him.”
“He won’t be rescued, but the Romans will gain your kingdom.”
Rian looked at him. “Are you a prophet?”
He laughed. “Prophecy is from God,” he said, sounding almost as if he were quoting rather than just making a statement. “I only observe and judge like anyone else.”
“Do you have a prophetic word for me?”
Orev looked straight at him. “You will thrive, but someday you will become a man—and not a man. You will live a life that is not a life, but you will be restored to life and be full man once more.”
Rian blinked. “What does that mean?”
Orev gestured and laughed. “I don’t know. If it made sense, it wouldn’t be a prophecy. But it will make sense to you one day.”
With that, Orev took his leave.
His horse finished drinking and trotted over to him. He patted its neck. Rian remembered how long he had been riding and thought he needed to return to his own land He returned, arriving back in the kingdom near dusk. Because he was an employee of the king, he had an apartment in the royal compound, but he did not want to go there. He did not want to be near the place. He hoped Cathasach would come to his senses. He ate at a tavern and heard that the Prince had died. The Druids stabbed him the stomach and interpreted his writhing and the blood that flowed from his wounds. The sacrifice was auspicious, the people in the tavern said. Cathasach would defeat the Romans. The kingdom of Voltanda would remain free.
Rian went home. His mother and father tried offer words of comfort over Elisedd’s loss, but he was sullenly inconsolable. That night when he went to bed he dreamed a raven flew into the bedroom. After that, Rian found himself at the edge of Brendályn’s pond and saw a group of men dragging Noelani, hands bound, screaming and pleading, to the water to drown her. He woke with a start. Dawn had come. He smelled porridge cooking, got up, washed and dressed. After a trip to the privy, he came into the kitchen. Fenella, his sister, who was visiting with her husband, stirred a pot of oatmeal hanging in the fireplace. Barran, her husband, sat at the table with Rian’s father. He took his place with them. His mother came in. Her feet and the hem of her dress were wet with dew.
“Our neighbor Ahern has brought me distressing news,” she said. “The Romans have assembled a force and are coming this way. Cathasach has called us all to arms and they’re going to kill the girl who is their Gatherer.”
All three men in the room stood, alarmed.
“Kill her?” Rian repeated. “Why?”
“She defiled the ceremony.”
“I don’t know, Rian. But she’s to die at noon today.”
“Are they going to drown her?” he asked, afraid of her affirmation.
“She is a virgin, so they will not shed her blood,” his father said. “We need to report to our units. Rian, the King will probably need you to stand at his side as an interpreter. Go to him immediately.”
Rian’s father and Barran went outside, saddled horses, and galloped off to join their home guard units. Rian lingered behind. Though he knew it was his duty to report for service to the King, he decided he would not go. By his brutality toward his own son, and Rian’s best friend, Cathasach had forfeited his right to Rian’s loyalty. He would rescue the girl and take the consequences. They had killed Elisedd and lied about his death throes being auspicious. Now they were going to kill a young virgin woman. Surely, he thought, the gods did not approve the murder of innocent people. The King, on the advice of his Druid Priest, had slain a young man who was brave, dutiful, and obedient to his father. Now they planned to kill an innocent girl who had denied her own desires in the service of religion.
His mother, who must have caught the look in his eyes at the table, ran out of the door to their house, arms extended.
“Rian, don’t try to interfere,” she cried.
He looked down at her. “Why not, Mother?”
“They’ll kill you.”
“They seem very keen on killing people these days—people who have done harm to no one.”
“We mustn’t ask questions.”
“I question when a brave young man and innocent maiden are murdered.”
“Don’t say that! You’ll bring the wrath of the gods upon us.”
“I like to think the gods are as offended at this as I am. If the gods are higher than we, it would seem their compassion and sense of justice would exceed our own and so they would aid me in what I plan to do.”
“Rian, please,” she wept.
“I’m sorry, Mother. I have to go.” He rode off.
He galloped to Brendályn’s pond. He wore a sword and dagger, but as he neared the place he remembered it was sacred to the Goddess Ardwinna. Carrying a weapon into a place sacred to her would constitute sacrilege. As he rode, the impossible questions of right and wrong, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the common ran through his mind. A sacred place was a place of peace; hence, weapons were forbidden in its precincts. Did such a space sanctify murder? The Goddess Ardwinna, a chaste goddess who had never known a man, exuded gentleness, love, kind, and purity. Would she approve the brutal killing of a virgin in her own sacred territory? And what had Noelani done? Surely she would not have deliberately blasphemed. He had only glimpsed her twice, but in those moments he read devotion in her gaze.
Girls who were pledged as she had been pledged agreed to their vows and did not enter service at the direction of their families, as many girls did; they entered service at an age when their reason could discern choices and when their bodies were developed to the point that they understood desire and had some idea of what their vows would demand of them. Noelani had agreed to the pledge and, when he saw her, looked like a determined woman who had embraced a solitary life willingly and with absolute commitment.
Would she even want to be rescued? In his dream, she had begged and pleaded. Had he only dreamed what he wanted to see?
Rian tethered his horse in a brake of birch trees. Their white and black trunks stood, slender and lovely, in the light of noon. Their bright leaves fluttered in the breeze. A moment later, he heard chanting. Near a calm pond surrounded by willow trees, he saw a group of mannequins—four of them, better-made then what you might see in a farmer’s field, but unendurably grotesque. The Druids had set them up in connection with the ceremony about to take place. Amid the chanting he heard a woman sobbing.
He sneaked close to the noises. Coming to a stand of massive cottonwoods where chattering leaves concealed the noise of his approach, he drew closer.
Four men armed with swords and javelins went past him followed by a procession of Druids—eight of them. Two led Noelani. She wore a white smock, just like she had worn in his dream. A rope encircled her wrists. Another rope looped about her neck. A Druid carried a stone to which the rope around her neck was attached.
“Please,” she wept. Rian tensed. He put his hand on the hilt of his dagger. “For the love of the chaste Ardwinna, be merciful to me! I tried not to. I didn’t mean to.”
Rian undid his sword belt and cast it aside. Even if the men escorting Noelani to her death were armed, he would not bring a weapon into a sacred place. He would save her by the force of his body, though he did retain his dagger to cut the rope they had put around her hands and neck. After uttering a quick prayer to Ardwinna, he bolted out of the thicket.
As he did so, a number of things happened simultaneously. The Druids and their guards halted and faced him. At the same moment, he heard twanging, the whistling of what sounded like arrows, and saw one of the Druids and two of the guards fall to the ground. Taking advantage of the confusion, Rian sprang, sliced the rope that tethered Noelani to the stone, and cut the cord binding her hands. At the same moment, ten armed men in red uniforms—Romans—broke through the underbrush. Acting instinctively, Rian seized Noelani’s arms and leaped with her into the pond.
The two of them splashed, went under, and came up. A melee had developed on the shore just a few feet from them.
“Can you swim?” he asked Noelani.
She nodded, water streaming from her hair on to her face.
“Let’s make for the shore.” He pointed. “Maybe we can escape.”
They swam to the side of the pond opposite the battle. When they emerged, dripping wet from the deep, bushes shook and they heard the clattering weapons and armor and the creak of leather harness. Eight Roman soldiers, swords drawn, formed a semi-circle in front of them.
Rian produced his dagger. A solider stepped forward.
“Give me the knife, boy,” he said in Brythonic, the Celtic tongue. When Rian did not respond, he added, “Be sensible. You don’t have a chance against us.”
Rian sighed and gave him the dagger. The man looked like an auxiliary—a local who functioned as a scout and translator for the Romans. The thin smock Noelani wore was soaked and her nakedness showed through its sodden fabric. One of the Romans gave her his red cape to wear. This was a good sign, Rian supposed. Also, they did not bind him. The auxiliary, named Dolan, gestured for them to follow. Rian glanced to the other side of the pond. The Romans had captured the four guards. They had killed all eight Druids. Rian and Noelani followed Dolan and the Romans.
They led them to a staging area. A squad of cavalry and probably 300 foot soldiers lolled in ranks under Roman banners. Dolan led them to a man who wore gold-inlaid armor. Rian knew this meant he was an officer—probably the unit commander. After a short conference, Dolan gestured. The soldiers pointed. Rian and Noelani found themselves in the presence of a Roman official.
“I am Arius Nebridius,” he said, “Commander of Hispana, Legion IX of the Imperial Roman Army. Who are you?”
He spoke the Brythonic language fluently. He had probably been born here. The Romans had occupied parts of Britain for hundreds of years. They gave their names.
“Maiden,” he said, fixing his eyes Noelani, “what is your association with the Druids?”
“I am a pledged woman who serves their needs.”
“In what way?”
“I cook for them. I clean up after their sacrifices. I obey them and act as their servant.”
“Dolan tells me they were going to kill you—drown you in the pond. Why was that?”
“I committed sacrilege.”
“Can you explain?”
“I”—she breathed in to steady herself. “I vomited at the sacrifice of Prince Elisedd. The sight of him crying out, and writhing in a pool of his own blood sickened me. What I did made the sacrifice inauspicious, and they sentenced me to death.”
“Such barbarity should sicken anyone. I am sorry your eyes had to look upon such a sight.” He turned to Rian. “You, boy—you saved her life. Are you a relative?”
“No, sir.” He hesitated and then said, “I’m in love with her.”
The commander laughed. “Well, now. This is getting interesting.”
“He was Elisedd’s best friend,” Noelani put in.
Everyone reacted to her words. Custom dictated that women—especially virgin women—spoke to men only when spoken to first.
“Indeed,” Nebridius said. “I’m told the action of the Druids was unpopular and has alienated the people of this kingdom.”
“I don’t know about that, sir,” Rian put in, “but it certainly alienated me. As you said, it was a barbarity. Our people are disgraced by such an action. And then they were going to murder her—a virgin and a pledged woman—because she reacted as any human being with a tender heart would react when beholding such a cruel and bloody act.”
“You speak well, young man.”
“Ego narro vestri lingua, Dux. Ego servo ut a reddo pro nostrum rex regis.” (I speak your language, Commander. I served as a translator to our king.)
“That’s even better. Would you be willing to deliver a message to the leader of your people? If you do, we will reward you. And you can have the girl.”
“She is under vow,” Rian began.
“No,” Noelani said. “The Druids took the status of holiness from me. My vows are nullified. I am nothing but a lost soul.”
“If you deliver the message,” the commander told Rian, speaking loudly to indicate he was making an official promise, “you can have the girl. Otherwise, we’ll sell her as a slave, and I think you know what that will mean for her. I don’t want war. I want a treaty. The terms will be generous. There is no reason for bloodshed. Will you agree to this?”
Rian said he would.
The Romans took Noelani. She told him later they housed her with the Vestals at a temple just inside their territory. Rian’s tribe, the Voltandi, had gathered for war. He brought Nebridius’ terms. The chieftains and clan leaders thought them reasonable. The King, though, led by the Druids, refused them. That night, the leaders of the tribe deposed him. Celtic kings did not rule by right but were subject to the Council’s decrees. Cathasach’s nobles felt outrage that he had sacrificed his own son and groveled at the beck and call of the Druids. Many Celts had become Christians; even those who worshipped the old gods did not trust the Druids. They also censured them for what they had intended to do Noelani.
Things developed rapidly after this. A parley was arranged. The nobility elected a new ruler and signed a treaty with the Romans, who demanded a sum of gold each year, which the leaders deemed not a burdensome amount, and permission to build settlements and military bases on Voltandi land. To Rian, though, the finest moment came when he rode to the Temple of Vesta and to Noelani, who had received manumission—freedom from her vow and transfer to his authority.
The two of them rode off together as the sun set over the forest of their homeland.
They came to the farmland the chieftains of his people had given him as a reward for his service. He looked over at her when their horses came to a halt.
“This is where I live. I”—
“I am your wife,” she said. “I must be. The only other thing I could do is return to my relatives—my mother and father are dead. My brothers and sisters are loyal to the Druids. They’ll make me a slave and a whore if I seek refuge with them.”
The shadows lengthened. When he glanced at her, her beauty made him tremble.
“What do you want, Noelani?”
“I want you to take me into your home. We’ll consummate our marriage. I am your wife.”
“Should we go to the temple first?”
“Ardwinna will bless our union. We can declare our pledge before her later.”
He took her as his bride.
Things went their normal course. The leaders of his people had given him a fair tract of land near the Forest of Cistonion. They soon had children—three boys and two girls. The Voltandi lived equitably with the Romans. Rian and Noelani’s farm prospered. Their children grew and married. Two of his sons married into the ruling clans of the Voltandi. One of his daughters, Seana, had a bent toward religion and thought to pledge herself to the service of Ardwinna, but then fell in love with a young man and decided to marry rather than vow herself to chastity and service. She had the gift of prophecy and knew gods spoke through her. She learned the prophetic songs of the people. Even as a wife and mother, she spoke as an oracle and a bard who knew the ancient hymns sacred to their people. After their children were grown to adulthood, the Romans withdrew from Britain.
The Roman army had maintained security for the Celtic Britons. Their withdrawal led the Picts, the Irish, and the Anglo-Saxons, to invade the land. It was at this time that Rian’s people sought the help of the goddess Morrigan.
It was also at this time that Rian received the gift of prophecy.
One night he dreamed the former King’s life was in danger. That morning he left Noelani with the children and went to Cathasach’s estate.
“You are in danger,” he told him. “You need to flee.”
Cathasach sneered. Rian could see how much his behavior—sacrificing his son, condemning Noelani—had filled him with guilt and remorse. His deposition had also filled him anger. And he was not well-disposed toward Rian, who had rescued Noelani and rebuked him for his design to kill Elisedd.
“How do you know this?”
“I dreamed it.”
“You can interpret dreams? Since when are you a prophet?”
“Prophecy belongs to God,” he said, almost before he thought of it, remembering when Orev, whom he had not seen in all these years, had said the same thing. “My daughter has the gift of prophecy. Perhaps a bit of it lies in my soul as well.”
“From ‘God,’ you say? You’re a Christian now?”
“I am a follower of Ardwinna, as I have always been.”
“The girl? Is she well?”
“I don’t think someone who has defied the gods like you did in rescuing her has any spiritual authority. You’re not qualified to tell me anything.”
Rian thought to mount a scathing rebuke of Cathasach. Here was a man who had been suborned by religious fanatics, a thing that led to crime and his deposition. Rian restrained himself.
“I’m obligated to tell you your life is in danger and you should flee this place. I came here out of affection to you, my Lord—and out of loyalty. You were my sovereign. For many years you led our kingdom well. I respected you, served you, and stood as a loyal retainer in your wars, poor though I was. The Divine Power sent me to deliver a warning to you. Do with it as you chose.”
Having said that, he left.
He thought Cathasach would reject his counsel, but the old man retired that morning to a stronghold one of his relatives owned. He also summoned several loyal kinfolk who rallied to defend him. Sure enough, a group of hired killers from another tribe attacked his home the day he left. When they found out where he had fled, they moved on the fortress only to be attacked by his kinsman.
Cathasach rewarded Rian with money and an apology. The incident bolstered his fame as a prophet. He sought Orev but could not find him and assumed he left in the Roman evacuation.
Over the next few years, his prophetic gift protected the kingdom. His people defended themselves against the raiding parties—Picts, Irish, Vikings—when they raided Voltandi territory, With his guidance, they were able to defeat the Anglo-Saxons. Rian knew their plans and movements. Each time they attacked, the Voltandi would be waiting for them. Rian’s words never fell to the ground.
He knew prophecy was not a ladder to wealth or power. It was a gift, and he functioned as steward of it. Noelani’s understanding of the limitations spiritual roles imposed helped him exercise discipline and not use his gifts from personal gain. The years passed. They grew older, saw their grandchildren and managed their prosperous farm. When he reached age 45, Noelani died from an infection brought on by a broken leg.
Grief darkened his life. His mother, past sixty, wise and beautiful in her age, told him how all who live will die and that he had shared many years with Noelani. Her children were her legacy and carried her life and blood. He tried to be consoled.
It was also at this time that the rulers of his people began to seek the face of Morrigan.
He had warned them twice to avoid her. “She is treacherous and seeks to enslave all who cross her threshold. No good will come from an alliance with her.” But the rulers were uneasy. Rian’s prophecies enabled them to remain free and to intercept raiders and know the plans of enemy armies—but his wife had died. What if Rian died too? He was as vulnerable as any human being. Morrigan demonstrated her power and supposed good will by aiding the Voltandi in a battle against the Anglo-Saxons. It ended in a notable victory for the Celts.
Rian again warned them.
“Morrigan is the Goddess of Discord. It is not in her nature to bring good.”
“She is the Goddess of Battle,” Badden, their king said. “She gave us victory. How could you doubt her good will?”
Rian returned to his farm. His hired men harvested grain. Their wives worked at various tasks. Their children played or did chores. He walked to Noelani’s grave. As he stood there, he knew what would happen and waited patiently, eventually hearing hoof beats. A group of armed riders approached, Badden among them. They circled him.
“Don’t kill my retainers,” he said. “And spare my daughter and son-in-law. They’ve done no despite to you. Of course, I haven’t either.”
“You have my word no harm will come to your people, though they will have to find work elsewhere,” Badden replied. Rian knew he was a man of his word. “Your daughter is a prophetess and married to one of the ruling clans. We would never do despite to a servant of the goddess or to the families of our rulers. As for your last point, we’ll let Morrigan decide that one.”
The sky darkened as in an eclipse. Silence fell. Birds ceased to sing and the wind grew still. It was as if the land held its breath. A swirl of purple smoke rose inside the circle of horses. And Morrigan appeared.
She wore a long purple garment. Her pale skin and red lips made him shudder. Her hair fell in a black wave to the small of her back. She was barefoot. She leveled a look of absolute contempt at Rian.
“Foolish, hollow man,” she sneered. “Did you think that through some puny gift of magic you could stand against me?”
He did not reply. He turned to Seana who had seen the riders and rushed over with her husband and some of his hired men. “The hymn of Laoise,” he told her. She nodded.
“Do you assume there is magic in an old hymn to the gods that could overcome me?” Morrigan laughed. “I’ll show you whose power is the greater. You are nothing. I will make you a man and not a man.”
“You will,” he replied, and he knew he spoke with the voice of prophecy, “but you will be underdone by the scarecrow you plan to make of me, and by a raven, your totem animal. In the end you will lose all you have gained.”
Her face showed dark thunder. He felt the transformation.
On the ground he beheld the limp, lifeless shadow of a mannequin—a scarecrow, a man and yet not a man—hung on a cross piece. He could see and could feel the dry wind of autumn and the sunshine on his head. But he did not feel his heartbeat, did not feel the flow of his blood, the warmth of his bowels, nor the rush of air into his lungs. Morrigan smiled at her enchantment.
“Let this be a warning to anyone who would defy me,” she said, with emphasis on the word me. Your kingdom will grow in power as long as I am obeyed. This farm will be abandoned. The wood adjacent to it will become mine. I will make it a sacred place, and you will supply me with chaste girls to serve as my acolytes and attend my altar here.”
With that, she vanished.
Orev’s prophecy came true. Rian was a mannequin. But the story was not over. As the sun set, he watched Badden and his soldiers ride off. He wondered at the years that lay ahead.
The Demetae could have defended Wells Fortress easily except that Morrigan lent the Voltandi her evil magic. The goddess would not lower her dignity by standing in their ranks, but she sent her flock. After the besieging army approached with ladders and siege towers ready, the sky darkened. A mass of black birds came like a storm wind, diving at the soldiers, flying in their faces, pecking at their eyes and tearing at their skin. Men fell from the parapets; the birds flew hard enough to upset vats of boiling oil and molten lead, setting the upper walkways afire. The creatures clawed and tore at the flesh of the defenders, while the assaulting members of Voltandi clan hoisted their ladders and rolled their siege towers forward. The Demetae were unable to regroup and fight back. In minutes their enemies had surmounted the walls and swarmed inside. The flock of Morrigan rose into the sky and disappeared, a black cloud moving off toward the eastern forests.
Gowan fought his way out of the scene of slaughter. He hoped to find Kennis amid the crowds of terrified women running about, but he did not lay eyes on her. He and five other men formed a squad and managed to escape through the livestock gate. Pursuers came after them. They scattered in five directions. Gowan fled into the forest running until he could not go on.
Too cautious and too afraid to sleep, he rested until some of his strength returned and pushed on until he found a brook. He drank and dunked his head in the icy water. Looking up, he saw black smoke rising a good distance away. Wells Fortress—burned, its people slaughtered and enslaved. Kennis—he didn’t want to think what had probably happened to her. He realized how close he was and that the Voltandi would eventually scour the area of fugitives. Gowan drank more water and headed deep into the forest, where he would be more difficult to track.
He moved steadily into the woods north of his conquered homeland. The massive trees blotted out the light of day. An eerie green glow was his only illumination as he moved steadily, putting as much distance as he could between him and the battle site.
The wood abounded in dangers. He saw two massive bears and a wolf. Where a solitary wolf stood, the pack was not far away. For the next two weeks, he hid—climbing trees when search parties appeared, sleeping in caves and hollow oaks, surviving by eating nuts and fruit he found, drinking water from clear streams, once or twice catching fish with his hands and eating them raw. On the afternoon of his fourteenth day in the wood, head throbbing, stomach empty, Gowan spotted a clearing and made for it.
He saw a small house in the middle of a field. Several more structures, collapsed or sagging, stood off in the distance. He saw no people, no animals, no smoke coming from the chimney on the one building still standing in the midst of what appeared to have once been a fairly good-sized farm. He made his way toward the house.
It sat empty. The shutters stood open. No door separated it from the elements. It was empty of furniture. Gowan looked around, stepped inside, and turned to once again scan the area around the house. He saw outlines of what had once been plots of cultivated fields. Stalks of grain grew in clumps here and there. He hurried over to them, stripped the heads from the stalks, rubbed the chaff from them, and chewed them. An overgrown patch to one side of the house suggested a neglected garden. There he found pumpkins and turnips amid the weeds. The farm orchard still bore fruit. He cut up one of the small pumpkins and ate it. He also found some carrots.
The food made him sleepy. Even though the sun still shown, he settled into one corner of the empty house, took off his tunic and boots, rolled up in the tunic, and immediately fell asleep.
He woke in the morning, sore and hungry. After relieving himself and putting on his tunic, he headed for the garden. Gowan stopped in his tracks when he saw a raven perched on the tumble-down garden fence, staring at him.
He looked around. Seeing no other birds, he relaxed. Morrigan’s flock did her bidding, but not all ravens were evil—though most people considered them birds of ill omen. He opened the sagging gate and walked into the area enclosed by a lopsided fence. The raven flew over to a roost a few feet away, staying closer than such birds usually stayed to a human presence.
Going back to the garden, he found five more pumpkins, several turnips, and some onions. He would not starve. He harvested the produce and stored it in the house, found firewood, and kindled it with the flint he carried at all times. He spitted the vegetables and searched for water. Not far from the house, a spring flowed. He took a drink of the icy water and felt his spirits rally. He might survive. All he had known had been taken by his clan’s enemies. Still, not everything was lost. The Voltandi would subjugate his people, not massacre them. Kennis’ beauty would mean she would be raped—or possibly taken as a prize for one of their high-ranking chieftains to marry or make a whore. He sighed and felt a surge of anger, but what was the point of anger? He could not alter what had happened. Perhaps she had escaped—not likely, but he could not rule out the possibility. Kennis was a brave, strong, crafty young woman. As he knelt to turn the garden fruits on the spit, he heard the raven scream. Looking up, he saw it posed above the door of the house.
His fears returned. Why was it following him? Birds avoided people. Could it be one of Morrigan’s flock coming to spy him out? He gazed at the creature and sighed with resignation. If Morrigan had sent it here, he could do little to prevent it from revealing his presence. Gowan doubted he was important enough to merit the goddess’s attention. The Voltandi had probably agreed to worship Morrigan or provide her with young women to serve at her shrine. It crossed his mind that Kennis, if captured, might have been forced to be one of Morrigan’s forest girls. When he thought this, the bird on the lintel squawked and flapped its wings.
Its behavior startled him so much he stood. The bird did not fly but continued to cry out in its high-pitched, grating voice and to flutter its wings.
“Trying to tell me something, bird?” he scoffed. The sound of his own voice startled him. The bird quieted. Its shiny round eyes seemed to meet his and then it lifted off and flew over the fields and outbuildings toward the tree line.
Silence fell. Gowan checked the vegetables. They had softened. He ate ravenously and then set out to explore the limits of the abandoned farm that had become his refuge.
The outbuildings had sagged or fallen down completely. He found nothing useful in them, though he could burn the boards for firewood. The privy had collapsed on itself. The scent of hog manure told him a broken-up fence had once enclosed a pig sty. If the pigs had gone feral, he thought, they might be living in the wood nearby and he could hunt them. He noticed more patches of grain, nearly ripe. He could harvest it over the next few days.
He thought of his own holdings, his bachelor house, his forge, and the few possessions he had owned. All of it would have been taken by a Voltandi soldier. Possibly he could build a new life here.
Going further out, he came to the place where the scarecrow he had noticed yesterday stood. It had held up remarkably well, given the length of time the farm must have been abandoned. The straw stuffing and the old coat and pants had not turned to dust in the sun, rain, and winter snow. A dried gourd formed the head. The painted eyes, nose, and mouth shone dark and clear in spite of exposure to weather. The scarecrow stood at the limit of the property. As Gowan surveyed the ground past it, the raven lit on the scarecrow’s shoulder. Gowan laughed.
“One hell of a scarecrow you are,” he chuckled. The bird gaped at him. It appeared to be the same one that had fluttered on his doorstop. Maybe it had a nest around here. Or it might be the previous owners had befriended it—made a pet of it. He had known people to do this. One of his friends—now dead or enslaved, he thought—had taught a jackdaw to mimic words. As this remembrance crossed his mind, the raven cackled, “Forest girl.”
He gaped. The bird fixed its eyes on him as if to confirm what it uttered constituted a genuine communication, not mimicking or stock and store. Gowan shook his head. His grief over Kennis coupled with hunger and exhaustion had made him think mad thoughts. He turned and headed back to the house.
Once inside, he dug a pit for his food, lined it with stones, and covered it with old planks so animals would not plunder his store. He tried to dismiss what the raven had uttered, but he could not stop thinking that the very phrase—and it was not a phrase used in everyday speech—had crossed his mind only an hour before.
He stepped to the door and wondered if the sacred wood of Morrigan lay nearby. If the bird had a connection to her, it might have come from there. He remembered rumors that her forest was somewhere in this area. Her altar and the forest girls who brought a daily sacrifice to the stones sacred to the goddess lay within her sacred wood.
As the day wore on, his curiosity burned. Just past noon, he made his way toward the tree line and into the dark of the ancient forest.
Gowan fought through the underbrush and eventually found well-defined trails. They did not lead to the edge of the forest where the trees ended and cultivated land began. They picked up about thirty feet from the forest’s edge. Yet they were wide and well-worn, as if people walked them frequently. He followed a half mile or so and stopped cold. A few feet ahead of him, he saw Kennis.
No mistaking it and no hallucination. She wore a coarse, threadbare dress—sleeveless and shorter than modesty allowed (it came above her knees). Her hair fell about her shoulder in tangles. Her feet, legs, hands, and arms were dirty. She held a double handful of acorns.
At first he could not speak but the recovered his voice.
She looked at him. He thought he glimpsed a flash of recognition on her eyes, but then her expression went hostile and ugly, her stance belligerent. She opened her mouth, hissed, spat at him, and, clutching the acorns to her breasts, sprinted down the path into the woodland darkness.
Gowan followed. Kennis ran with bare feet down the forest path. He gained on her, calling after her, but she did not turn about or respond to his voice. Gowan had almost caught her when he slowed to a stop.
In front of him two more women stood. They wore garments identical to what Kennis had on, but they were filthy dirty, their hair long, matted and tangled. Long curly nails protruded from their fingers and toes. Their wild eyes challenged him. They opened their mouths wide, tongues extended, and hissed at him.
He looked up saw two of them posed in tree branches above him. One was naked, the other wrapped in a smock full of rends. He heard more hissing a saw a trio of the women off to one side of the path. Hatred and murder shone in their eyes. They moved toward him. Kennis had disappeared.
Gowan put his hand on his dagger and backed up. He did not want to kill women, even wild women of the forest who looked to be possessed. As he backed away, the wild females stayed put. He walked backwards until he was a good distance from them, turned, hurried to where the path ended, and returned to the fields and open land.
He paused, trying to get his breath and tame the crazy thoughts going through his head. It had been Kennis. No doubt of that. She had even briefly recognized him. But what had happened to her? How could she have transformed in such a short time? And who were the other women? What had he just seen?
Glancing up, he saw the raven sitting on in a tree branch looking down at him.
He remembered what it had uttered earlier in the day. He wondered for a moment if it would say “forest girl” again, but as it stared at him he knew such a repetition would not be necessary. Kennis had been changed to one of Morrigan’s savage acolytes. She had been captured and given to the Goddess of War and Discord. Morrigan had enchanted her and consigned her to serve her altar in her sacred grove. He looked up at the raven.
“Are you an enchanted creature? Are you one of Morrigan’s flock? Do you mean me evil or good?”
It did not answer nor move. He fancied it listened and understood but did not have voice to reply. After a time, he turned and went back to his house. He stirred the ashes of the fire, threw on more wood, and watched as it blazed up. He decided not to eat anything more, though hunger gnawed at his insides. Darkness fell. Gowan stared into the fire and remembered.
A wise woman had told him about Morrigan’s forest girls. She had called them “forest maidens,” but everyone else called them “forest girls.”
“They are captives delivered as tribute to the evil goddess. They attend the altar in her sacred wood and live their lives as wild, virgin acolytes. They are under some sort of enchantment. Living under the spell of the goddess makes them like animals. They are extremely dangerous and will destroy anyone who comes into their realm.”
Weariness came upon him. He started, though, when he heard chanting. He listened, stepping away from the fire so its crackling would not interfere with the song that wafted through the dark. It rose in a solemn, eerie, melancholic strain—like a threnody, like a lament, though softer; not a lamentation exactly, but a song sung so sadly it broke his heart. Kennis’ voice was part of the choir. She was there, in the wood, not very far from him. He could rescue her—or could he? Gowan covered the ashes to his fire, went into the house, rolled up in his tunic, and fell asleep.
The Raven spoke to him.
He dreamed of it. It spoke, but not in words. Still, he understood. Kennis, it told him, had been taken captive and delivered to the goddess, who had made her a forest maiden to serve to her altar. The bird was not one of Morrigan’s flock. He would reveal who he was later on. There was a way to rescue Kennis. He, the raven, could not reveal it, though.
“Who can?” Gowan demanded in his dream.
“The oracle,” the bird told him.
“Who is the oracle?”
No answer. He only saw the raven perched on the shoulder of the scarecrow.
“Who are you?” he asked the raven.
Gowan woke. He ate turnips and found a blackberry brake by the abandoned outhouse. After cleaning up by the spring and washing and drying his clothes, he spent the rest of the morning gleaning grain from the patches of volunteer stalks growing in clumps about the field. At the end of his labor, two bushels of wheat filled the ceramic storage urns he found in one of the outbuildings. He roasted a portion of it. When he carried it inside the house to eat, the raven lit on the table, gazed up at him with its dark, round eyes, and squawked.
“Orev,” Gowan said.
The bird stared. Gowan remembered more of the dream. The thought of Kennis hissing at him, her eyes exuding the look of a madwoman, her hair—which he had thought so beautiful—matted and tangled, her body filthy dirty, bare feet, clothed in an immodest garment—the memory sent surges of pain though him. He fought down his anger, sat in the rickety chair he had dragged from an outbuilding to the main house, and glumly ate. Though he knew ravens were carrion birds, he threw a handful of wheat kernels on the tabletop. To his surprise, the bird snapped them up. The two of them finished eating. Gowan went to the spring to drink. The raven followed him. After slaking his thirst, he heard Orev squawk. The creature flapped its wings and flew into the air. He rose in a high arc, descended, and landed on the shoulder of the scarecrow.
Gowan once more remembered his dream.
He walked to where the mannequin hung on its pole.
“This is the oracle?”
The raven made no sound. Gowan smiled to think of an oracle with no ability to speak. But as he thought this, he felt something buffet him. He felt no pain, but some kind of force hit him like a gust of wind strikes one on a blustery day. He seemed to see the sun, the stubbly fields of grain, his own face, and the ruins of a building all at the same time. After only a moment, everything reverted to normalcy.
His heart pounded and he felt short of breath. As he contemplated the origin of the spell that had overcome him, the raven rose into the air, screeched, circled him, and flew to a berry bush. Gowan puzzled. The raven screamed. He understood that he was to follow it.
He walked the long distance. Orev the raven would perch and, when Gowan drew close, would fly to a new mark. This continued until he crested a hill and came to the ruins of an ancient structure. It was the ruin he had seen in his confusing vision when he stood in front of the scarecrow.
He followed the raven inside. It settled on the ground and pecked.
Gowan stared in puzzlement. The raven drove its beak down furiously in one spot. Gowan drew his dagger and tapped with its hilt where the bird had pecked with such determination. The stone floor seemed hollow beneath that area. Elsewhere, it sounded solid.
He looked about him. It was a Roman ruin. They had abandoned Britain many years ago, but the structures they had built dotted the countryside, some still in use, others crumbling and uninhabited. On one wall of the structure he saw a six-pointed star. Racking his memory, Gowan finally recognized it as the symbol of the Jews. They had come here with Romans. This must have been a temple to their god, he thought. The raven screeched and fluttered. Gowan looked around for a heavy stone (he would not risk breaking the blade of his dagger), found a round granite boulder, and began to hammer at the hollow spot. After seven or eight hits, the space in the floor shattered.
Reaching into the hollow spot beneath the floor, Gowan felt something cool and metallic. His fingers encountered a sharp edge. He realized it was a sword, grasped the hilt, and drew it into the bright light that filled the roofless building.
He held it up. It was a magnificent blade, richer than any he had ever seen. Jewels adorned its hilt. Its long steel blade glistened. He marveled at its balance and its workmanship.
“My sword,” a voice said.
Gowan cried out in fear and turned to face a man in a purple tunic. He wore a black braided beard. His hair fell in ringlets to his shoulders. A gold torq encircled his neck. Rings adorned each of his fingers. He chuckled.
“I’m sorry I frightened you, Gowan. I’m Orev—Prefect of Midian. That is my sword you’re holding. Your grasp of it enabled me to break the enchantment in which I have lived for 2000 years. Prior to this I could assume human form for short periods of time. Now I can assume my human form and remain in it as long as I desire.”
Gowan gaped. The man smiled.
“It feels very good to be human again.”
“You were imprisoned in the body of bird?” Gowan said, not knowing how to even speak of what he was seeing.
“In a manner of speaking. I was killed when Gideon’s Hebrew army overcame our forces at Orev—the place came to be named after me. Of course, it’s a good idea to protect yourself with an enchantment. My spirit passed into the body of my totem animal, the creature after which I was named, and remained there, more or less, until now. One of the Hebrews took my sword as a prize of war and passed it on to his heirs. So it was for thousands of year until it arrived here. The last heir to it departed hastily when the Romans left Britain. I’ve nested around that sword for more than twenty centuries.”
Gowan blinked in amazement and, after a moment, offered the blade to Orev. He backed off.
“No. I can’t touch it until it draws blood once more. The sword is enchanted with powerful magic—the magic that transformed me and has kept me alive for so very long. It will serve both you and me well—me to gain full life once more, you to recover the woman you love.”
“Its magic can help me get Kennis back?”
“Most certainly. But I’ve been a raven for 2000 years or so. I’d really like to eat something other than carrion and dry seeds.”
They returned to the abandoned farm. Gowan listened, astonished, to the story Orev told him. “I arranged for an enchantment. I paid a huge sum of money to a sorcerer. Zeeb, my co-commander, laughed at me, saying I’d been taken in by a charlatan. He’s dead. I’ve been alive all these centuries—and now I’m human again.”
Gowan vaguely remembered the story of Gideon from when a Christian priest had read it from their sacred scriptures. Some of his family had converted to that faith. Kennis seemed favorably disposed toward it. Gowan remained a worshipper of the ancient gods and goddesses, though he remained persistently skeptical of religion.
“The sword is enchanted?”
“The magic that carried my soul to the body of a raven and has now changed me to human form once more draws on ancient magic from when the world began. One stipulation, though—why do sorcerers always set down conditions?—is that I may not touch the sword until it draws blood. If I do, I will revert to being a bird. Once the sword has drawn blood, though, I can take it up and resume the life torn from me so long ago. The blood of Morrigan will serve the spell superbly.”
Gowan shot a startled look at Orev.
“The sword is more powerful than Morrigan?”
“The magic in it is. She is a young goddess. Her strength is formidable, but it is as a child’s understanding compared to this.”
They ate. Orev enjoyed roast grain and vegetables. After eating, they made their way into the wood of Morrigan.
Almost immediately they spotted the forest girls peering from behind tree trunks, perched in overhanging branches, lurking in thickets of underbrush. They hissed and mewed, glaring with hatred at the two intruders. Gowan and Orev moved down the path toward where they assumed the altar might be. The hissing and threatening noises increased. Gowan gripped Orev’s sword. Orev had taken Gowan’s dagger to defend himself if need be. As they continued on, darkness began to fall.
It was not the darkness of coming night. The sun stood at noon. Yet the green light that filtered through the trees dimmed. The daylight dulled and the dark grew profound. Gowan knew they had encountered the darkness of Morrigan’s anger. The hissing and cursing of the forest girls sounded through the gloom.
They heard another voice speaking.
“Fools. Blasphemers.” The voice was female. “How dare you tread into my sacred grove? I’ll kill you both with my bare hands.”
“Hold up the sword,” Gowan heard Orev say. They stood in total darkness now.
Gowan raised the sword. Immediately the sounds of the forest girls stopped. The darkness disappeared. A few feet from stood a woman he knew had to be Morrigan.
He saw the goddess he had heard so much about. She might have been beautiful, but malice and hatred had distorted the lines of her face so much that he could hardly look upon her. Her countenance radiated evil and murder. Yet he saw fear in her expression as well. After a moment, she sank to her knees and then dropped more, falling forward, supporting herself with one hand. Behind her, as many of thirty forest girls stood. They only stared—not at Gowan and Orev, but at their stricken mistress. Their eyes conveyed bewilderment, fear, and grief.
Morrigan managed to lift her head and look at Gowan and Orev.
“You—goddess,” Orev said. “You are overcome by the conquering power of Baal-Peor. Yield or we will cut your guts out.”
She tried to stand but dropped down. Raising her eyes, which still radiated murder, she said, “I yield. What do you want?”
“This young man bears the grievance, not I. He will speak to you.”
Morrigan’s gaze rested on Gowan. He could see her searching his face for a hint of weakness, for some way to break the enchantment that had enthralled her.
“I want several things from you. First, you will free the maiden Kennis, who was given to you as tribute by the Voltandi and serves as one of your altar maidens.”
“It shall be done.”
Gowan felt his boldness grow.
“Further: you will abandon this wood, lift all enchantments from it, and give it to my control forever. You will relinquish all claim to it and you will set free all the women who serve as your acolytes. Further, you will disassociate yourself forever from the Voltandi.”
Anger boiled in Morrigan’s eyes, but she said. “These things shall be done.”
“One thing more. Rise to your feet.”
The goddess struggled to her feet. She swayed and trembled as she did so. Gowan raised the blade and, in a lightning quick motion, flicked it across her cheek.
Morrigan let out a harsh cry of pain. A trickle of blood ran down to her jaw. Gowan had not cut a large swath on her face, though he had cut deeply.
“You will bear a scar on your face as testimony that not all fear your evil doing. I have no further demands. You are a goddess and must keep your word. Your divine nature is your oath. I release you to go.”
A flash of black light exploded. It lasted only a second, and when it dissipated Morrigan had vanished. Absolute silence fell over the wood, which now glowed with the green light of sun shining through the thick trees. Gowan could tell the enchantment was gone. The grip of Morrigan’s evil magic had been released.
After a moment, he heard screaming and weeping.
The forest girls. They wept and gasped at their appearance—that they were unwashed, their hair tangled and matted, fingernails uncut, dressed in coarse, dirty smocks. The ones who were naked put hands over their breasts and intimate parts and rushed to hide in thickets and behind trees. After a moment, Kennis broke out of a tangle of vines, came running, and threw her arms around Gowan.
She wept and wailed. He comforted her, telling her the curse had lifted and she was safe. After she calmed down, he sent her to the other women. Morrigan had 30 acolytes who brought sacrifices to her altar. Kennis spoke to them. They shyly emerged from the wood, except for the five or six who were naked. Even these spoke to Kennis from their places of concealment. While all of this happened, Gowan heard birds singing, a thing he realized he had not heard until now in these woods. Only evil things had lived in Morrigan’s sacred grove. Her spell lifted, it had already begun to populate with benevolent and beautiful creatures.
Though he did not know how they would care for the forest girls, Gowan thought they should leave the wood. Orev and Kennis agreed. They led the women down the path leading out of the trees. Like Eve of old, the women with no clothing wove coverings of vines and leaves. Led by Orev, Gowan, and Kennis, all thirty of the women—some young, some a little older, but none past thirty—walked in a long line to the abandoned farm where Gowan had found refuge.
Even as they walked along, Gowan noticed the beautiful fruit brought by the breaking of Morrigan’s spell. The women, their initial shock gone, chattered, volubly rejoicing that they were free. They laughed and sometimes broke into spontaneous dance. They leaped for joy. Some wept quietly, but the tears were tears of happiness, not of anguish. Kennis held Gowan’s hand and as they walked along.
“Almighty God, I stink!” she lamented. “My hair is filthy! This garment is shameful.”
“At least you have a garment,” he said.
When they arrived at the farmhouse, the women washed, enduring the icy water from the spring. Orev and Gowan donated their tunics to the women bereft of garments. The other women cut strips of cloth from the hems of their smocks and were able to make skimpy dresses for the six women still unclothed. They laughed, saying they were dressed immodestly but would think of themselves as Artemis of old, whose skirts revealed her thighs. Gowan and some of the women scoured the abandoned farm for more food and found grain and vegetables.
“There is a storehouse filled with food in Morrigan’s wood,” Kennis told Gowan and Orev, “but we were so joyous at being free of her spell we didn’t think to carry any of it with us. We can go in tomorrow and see if it’s still there.”
The sun set. The moon rose and the river of stars appeared. The women, including Kennis, wept. “We didn’t see the stars or the moon all through our enthrallment. Mine was only a few days, but some of the women have been captive for years.” Weeping, almost all of them circled the fire Gowan built and fell on their knees. Prayers to the Lord, to Ardwinna, Eostre, and Odin sounded in warm dark.
“The god you worship is powerful,” Gowan said to Orev.
“He isn’t worshipped anymore.”
“Where will you go? Know that my roof is yours. What little I had I lost in the war, but any service I might give in thanks for you setting Kennis and the others free, I will give.”
Gowan and Orev slept in the farmhouse. Kennis went to sleep with the other women, who had bedded down in pairs to keep warm and covered themselves with reeds or taken refuge in the outbuildings.
In the morning, Gowan looked for Kennis but couldn’t find her. She was not among the women and none of them had seen her that morning. As he feared the worst, he heard someone approaching and turned to see Kennis, and a woman a little older than she, walking toward him. The woman, blonde, very tall—a head taller than Kennis, who was not short—wore one of the cloth-sparse dresses the other women had fastened together for her. She moved with dignity and sadness.
“Gowan,” Kennis said, “This is Drendala, Princess of the Voltani clan.”
He gaped. The war that had destroyed the stronghold at Wells and enslaved his people began when the Voltandi had accused the Demetae of abducting Drendala. As he gazed at the woman, his anger showed, despite his efforts to restrain it.
“You have reason to be angry, I know,” the woman said, her voice even. “Believe me when I say I am a victim of treachery, as your people are. It was Morrigan who abducted me long ago and has kept me a prisoner in her wood. She also spread the rumor that your tribe had abducted me and made me a whore. Morrigan is the goddess of discord and war. She was able to poison the minds of my people because the gift of prophecy has gone from us—a thing also done by her evil.”
Gowan puzzled a moment but then connected oracle and prophecy. He blinked.
“We did have a final prophetic word,” Drendala continued. “I knew of it because the ruling women in our family were taught it and preserved it through the generations. Now the curse has been lifted, I know the time of its fulfillment has come. The spell I memorized can summon prophecy once more. My song is all that is lacking. I must ask your permission, though, to sing it, since you broke the evil enchantment that enthralled the prophecy that guided our people since we became a tribe.”
“I don’t understand all of this,” Gowan replied, “but I trust your word. Please sing.”
Drendala lifted her hands and sang.
The song, in a tongue Gowan did not know, rose to the new day’s sky. It rang with beauty, but its melody also expressed power and wonderment—as if the woman singing it spoke ancient truth she knew well but truth which still amazed her. When the song ended, Gowan felt empty—the way he felt at the loss of a thing he cherished. Drendala drooped as if the recitation had taken her strength. Kennis gripped her arm. As Drendala said this, her eyes lit up.
Coming over the ridge—as if he were walking out of the sun—a tall man strode toward them. Gowan noticed that the scarecrow he had been so used to seeing had disappeared.
As the figure drew closer, Gowan guessed his age at perhaps forty. He looked about him as he walked, his head turning to take in the sights all around, the light in his eyes and the look on his face indicating pleasure at what he saw. When he came near to them, Drendala sank on one knee.
“Grandfather,” she said, her voice quavering.
“He smiled widely, taking her hand so she stood.
“I’m surprised you still remember me.”
“How could forget you? I’ve thought of you ever day of my life, all these years. After Mother taught me the Hymn of Laoise, I sang it every day in your memory.” She gestured. “These are my companions—Kennis and Gowan of the Demetae.”
The man glanced over at a raven sitting in the branch of a near-by tree. Apparently, Gowan though, he could still take on his raven form when he desired.
“And Orev,” the man said. “From him I know something of Gowan. Kennis, I am charmed.”
Kennis bowed to him. Gowan stared in amazement.
“You’re Rian?” he stammered.
“It seems I am—once more.” Rian took the weeping Drendala in his arms. “Peace, child,” he said. “All is restored. Norland is well, though his heart is broken over losing you. You and he will be wed before the moon is new.”
“I only wish Mother was alive to see you restored,” Drendala wept.
Rian suggested they return to the farmhouse. Gowan looked to see if Orev still occupied his perch on the crossbar in his raven form, but he was nowhere to be seen.
◊ ◊ ◊
Things happened quickly after this. When Gowan, Kennis, Drendala, and Rian returned to the main part of the farm, the women were preparing food in the cooking utensils they had carried out of the storehouse in Morrigan’s forest. The smell of baking bread wafted through the air. At Rian’s suggestion, he and Gowan went into the grove and hunted down two feral swine. The women skinned the animals and dressed the meat. They had found more smocks in Morrigan’s storage barn. All of them could be properly clad now, though the dresses were still deplorably revealing for maidens to be wearing. They gave one to Drendala, who was thankful for it, though she was so tall it left what she considered far too much of her legs uncovered.
A number of the girls were Voltandi. When they heard the new man who had appeared just now was Rian, they knelt in reverence. One told Kennis how Rian had disappeared long ago. His renown as a warrior and a prophet remained to this day. They interpreted his return as a portent of blessing.
Gowan told him of the war.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “for the losses your people sustained. I can only say on behalf of my people that all of this was the doing of Morrigan, Goddess of Discord and Strife. She began by enthralling and imprisoning me many years ago. Then she abducted my belovéd granddaughter—all to bring war and discord—and so my people would seek her help and thus come under her control. Her scheme is at an end. It only remains for us to see that our tribes reconcile.
“You’re a good man, Gowan. The young maiden who loves you is a worthy woman.”
Gowan realized what Rian meant. “I’m a yeoman—a blacksmith who served in the King’s army. Neither Kennis and I are remotely related to the royal family.”
“Most of your rulers died in the war. It’s time for that to stop, and it will stop. Your bravery and has been noted by your superiors.”
“We’re a conquered people.”
“Your clan won a major battle to the north just yesterday. Our losses were heavy. Your people are far from defeated. It’s time to end the bloodshed that we all know was Morrigan’s doing. I think you would do well as a ruler. And you have a sword charged with powerful magic.”
He had left it at the farmhouse.
“It doesn’t belong to me. You would know that. It’s Orev’s.”
“Does he want it back?”
“I don’t know.”
“He will let you know tonight.”
That night, Gowan slept with Kennis.
“You proposed to me, but Father gave his permission when my family was at breakfast the morning of the attack on Wells. I was going to tell you at noon. Then the alarm sounded and you went to your place as defender. My family hid me in a cellar, but a house across the street caught on fire and the smoke filled up the place I was hiding. When I ran from there, the Voltandi took me captive and delivered me to Morrigan that very day. By Father’s permission, we’re married, even if haven’t stood before a priestess. I want to begin our life together.”
She yielded her virginity to him. In the morning, a squad of Voltandi rode into the farm. When they saw Rian and Drendala, they dismounted and did obeisance.
Orev did not speak to Gowan in a dream, but when he returned from relieving himself in the woods (the women had claimed the old outhouse as their privy), he ran into him in human form.
“Your sword is in the house,” Gowan said. “I’ll get it for you.”
“Keep it. You need its magic more than I do.”
“I don’t even know how to use its magic.”
“You’ll know how when the time to use it comes.”
“Don’t you need the sword?”
“I’ve decided to return to my homeland, though I know after two millennia nothing from my time will remain. But I like the climate. It will be a long flight, and if I’m going to take the body of a raven, a sword will be a bit of hindrance.”
“Thank you,” Gowan said, feeling stupid that he had given so simplistic a reply to such a gracious gesture. Orev smiled, transformed, and, in a flutter of ebony feathers, flew, rising into the sky, diminishing to a black dot, and finally disappearing from the range of Gowan’s sight.
David Landrum’s speculative fiction has appeared widely, and his fantasy stories in Non-Binary Review, Black Denim Review, Mystic Nebula, Dance Macbre–and in Silver Blade. His novellas, The Last Minstrel, The Prophetess, and Shadow City, and my full-length fantasy novel, The Sorceress of the Northern Seas, are available through Amazon.
Tags: David Landrum, Fantasy