Wall's End

The land was quiet, as it often was, of late. But in that hush lay danger, the more powerful because she had no hope of seeing it until it was too late. So she walked with quiet step, eyes wide, listening to the distant song of bird, or chitter of squirrel that rang through the deserted spaces of the hills where Hadrian’s Wall lay.

Why was she here? She’d asked herself that thousands of times, with each step she took beyond the border of civilization defined by the Fortress of Sauvage. Still, the need drew here. She had loved, and been loved, and lost love… and now she feared to lose again. In a bid to postpone what she thought of as inevitable, when she allowed herself to think on it at all, she had taken her daughter to the woman who served as nanny for her, assuring her safety, closed up the house, and taken up her own arms and armor, setting out on the long path toward the farthest reaches of land nominally held by the King.

She looked from side to side, warily scanning the brush that grew close to the road. What dangers might hide there, what horrors might be watching? Her pace quickened as she moved toward the fallen tower that marked the road to Benowyc, mute testimony to strength from earlier days that had faded. The patrols from Lord Benowyc’s keep did not even walk this far usually. Only the random warband or lone traveler marked the road with footprints these days. She placed hers lightly, to the side, fearing what might come as much as she needed to escape what had come in the comfort of her home.

Insects buzzed in the long grasses that grew unruly up toward the dirt road; a wave of green that washed toward the last remains of human touch. The day grew warm, waves of heat rising from the distance to distort the appearance of the road and the small forest it approached. To her right, the high hill once known as Bruic’s thrust up, capped by the stone tower where none save enemies were likely to be found. She lifted a hand to wipe a drop of sweat from her brow, then shifted her pack and walked on, watching the trees ahead for danger. The calls of birds echoed in the trees, assuring in their way. Still, a tingle rose on her skin, and her hand found the hammer she carried for protection. Was she being watched?

No cries of attack, no thundering footfalls sounded as she turned her gaze from side to side. The quiet darkness of the forest foiled her attempts to peer into it, but no danger boiled free from the sheltering trees. Soon she spied the wall itself, stones strong and firm, rising between two cliffs to protect the land from invasion. Her steps slowed, then stopped as she gazed up the wood scaffolding. How many had stood there, on the walls and below, in attempt to protect the land? How many had struggled? How many had triumphed over strong foes? How many had fallen?

“My Lady,” a soft voice whispered. “You’d be safer, were you up on the wall.”

She spun, mouth agape she was certain, yet saw nothing. Sparing her the humility of turning blindly again, he stepped forward out of the shadows he’d blended into so well, so that she could see him. She felt her face redden as she finally regained enough composure to curtsey to him, returning his quick bow. “My Lady, if you would climb to the wall, I will watch over you,” he said, his voice nothing more than the rustling of leaves, sibilant with an accent she couldn’t place.

“Yes, of course.” As quietly as she could, yet still feeling as if her steps rang as loudly as a woodsman’s axe, she climbed the wooden stair to the broader expanse of the wall. She didn’t look behind her, but knew he followed.

“If you would stand here, you will be hidden in a way,” he said, gesturing to a taller portion of the wall near the gatehouse. “I will watch over you,” he said again.

She blushed. “I thank you, sir…,” she paused, floundering. “But I do not know your name.”

“I am but a lone watcher,” he said softly, stepping back from her, and though she watched for him, it was as if he faded into nothingness.

“I thank you, sir,” she said again, softly. She did her best not to look for him, for if another who hid in the shadows watched with ill intent, she’d no desire to give away his hiding spot. In truth, she thought to herself, I probably would never see him. But who is he?

She watched over her shoulder now and again, then down to the dusty road, then carefully poked her head over the wall, glancing in the direction invading armies would come. But still birds sang, and insects buzzed. There was no one there. As the day wore on, her vigilance waned, until she rested leaning against the warm stones of the wall, wondering again what she thought to accomplish here. “If I can be of help, it will be here,” she said to herself softly.

Almost as if to comment on her words, a moist gurgle sounded behind her. Startled, she leapt to her feet, whirling in time to see her protector slide sharp blades free from a slumping corpse. Her eyes widened as she noted the blades the kobold held, tinged with an ichor that was a poison of some sort. An intense hazel gaze found and held hers. “Are you all right, My Lady?”

“I… yes,” she whispered. “Was he coming for me?”

He flashed a smile and nodded. “He never saw me. But I was watching.”

“And you are not injured?” she asked breathlessly, heart pounding in reaction to the near tragedy.

“No, though if I could have your blessings, I would move more easily,” he answered.

“My… I did not study blessing well,” she whispered, blushing.

“A blessing from a Lady as lovely as you, no matter her studies, is always appreciated.” She looked at him closely, but he was sincere, smiling at her from the green cloak that aided him in his stealthy work.

“I am happy to give what blessing I can to my savior,” she said, blushing as she began the prayer that would give him extra strength and dexterity. “And you have my thanks as well.”

“I could ask for nothing more,” he said softly, then bowed with a flourish before he slipped again into the shadows, hidden from her sight.

As the daylight waned, she wondered what her course of action should be. Caer Benowyc was a distance away, and it would be night before she could travel there. Walking by night in this portion of the land was always dangerous, even moreso than by day. At night, those who favored the shadows found them deeper, more comforting, and easier to strike from.

But should she remain here? She could camp in the gatehouse, where she would have some protection, but there would be no fire, no warmth other than her cloak. Or perhaps a distance in the forest would suit, but there were wandering bands of brigands who would be more than happy to rob her. As she mused, chewing lightly on her lower lip, she heard his voice again, “My Lady, will you spend the evening in this area?"

“I hadn’t decided,” she said softly, turning slowly in the direction his voice came from. To her relief, he stood there in plain view, so that she had no need to seek his form in the shadows. “Caer Benowyc is some distance.”

“I would be happy to guide you there, if that is what you wish,” he said, smile flashing from beneath the green hood of his cloak. “It would be far safer than here. I do not wish harm to come to you.”

She felt herself blushing yet again. “Perhaps that would be best. But I don’t wish to cause difficulty for you. I’m certain you wish to keep your watch here, and have no need to escort a wandering cleric.”

“It would be my pleasure,” he said softly. “And no difficulty at all. But come, the day grows long.” He gestured to the stair, so that she would precede him.

She lifted her pack and settled it, then made her way down the stair again. Consciously, she worked to make her steps light, but no matter how she tried, her footfalls sounded like echoing thuds, while she couldn’t hear his at all. Once she turned to smile at him. “I thank you for your kindness, sir… though I still do not know your name.”

“Nor I yours, My Lady,” he said softly, grinning. “But forgive me. I am called,” his words dropped suddenly and he reached to take her arm, pulling her close to the bole of a large tree. “Sit close to the tree, holding it as you might a loved one.”

She nodded silently, not questioning his expertise. She sat, hugging the tree close, while he took a few steps to the side, then seemed again to vanish into the shadows. “I will be near,” she heard his last whispered words.

Eyes wide, she tried to look around her while keeping herself as close to the strong shelter as possible. There was a rustle in the grass, then a rumble as if rocks were rolling down the hill. She hunched her shoulders, awaiting the stroke of an enemy’s blade, for she was certain her protector had seen an approaching army, but was only one against many. She strained her eyes, peering out the corners. There! Running with the characteristic shambling gait of trolls, the enemy moved toward the road leading to Benowyc. Smaller forms darted between the huge creatures. She shivered and buried her face in the bark of the protecting tree. Would they see her? Would she die, huddled here?

She strained to hear, eyes closed. The rumble of trolls diminished. Slowly, silence returned, then the meek song of first one bird, then another. A hand touched her shoulder, nearly sending her racing heart through her chest. “Forgive me, My Lady. I did not know they were here. We cannot go to Caer Benowyc.”

She shook her head. “Of course it is not your fault. But should we report this?”

“No doubt Lord Benowyc will know of them soon,” he said wryly.

“Did you count their numbers?” she asked, blushing as she did. Of course she might have counted as well, had she not been hiding her face in the bark of the tree.

He nodded. “Two full groups, by my count. But perhaps,” he shook his head, placing a finger to her lips and drawing her back against the tree with his other hand.

Eyes wide again, she watched as another patrol of enemies ran past. The kobolds and Norsemen were uphill from the small grove of trees, and running quickly through the tall grasses, avoiding the burrows of the fairies who lived there. Their speed had been increased by the song of a skald, so they passed by quickly. She realized she’d been holding her breath, and slowly exhaled as he moved his finger. “Please forgive my forward acts, My Lady,” the man in the green cloak whispered.

She shook her head again, smiling. “Come now,” he said, gesturing to a small path through the trees. “We must be moving.”

She followed him as he led through the sheltering trees. Shadows grew long and thicker as they slowly made their way toward Caer Sursbrooke, skirting the encampments of the renegades and passing carefully through the small open glades until they could shelter among trees again. As night fell, the moon rose, silvering the ancient stones that had once marked the road through the valley. His steps soundless, hers as quiet as she could make them, they passed over a hill and finally caught sight of the stronghold in the distance. The warmth of golden light spilled out of an upper window, and torches flickered in sconces along the walls. Seldom had a place looked more inviting to her.

He knew the trail well, and guided again, leading her over the rim and down into pine trees, their pungent scent filling the air, and their whispered sighs masking even her own steps through the thick carpet of needles. “Patrols come close by here. We must make certain they know we are not the enemy,” he said. He led her down into a patch of pale moonlight, pausing beside a carved stone, and there they waited, until they heard the sound of marching feet.

He held up his hand as the patrol from Caer Sursbrooke approached them. “Greetings, Sinoshsor,” the armsman leading the patrol said, saluting her protector with respect. “How goes the night?”

“A party of trolls and Norse was headed toward Benowyc,” he answered. “Three groups in number. Will you inform Lord Sursbrooke? This Lady also has need of a place to rest for the night, in comfort and safety.”

“Trolls, ye say?” the armsman muttered grimly. “Aye, his Lordship will want t’ hear o’ that. Any news on how Beno is holding up?”

“I came away as quickly as I could,” the green-cloaked man answered. “But I will travel back to find out what I can.”

“We’ll be waiting for your report. And never fear, your lady will be well treated.”

“Not my lady,” her guide responded. “But a Lady cleric due respect.”

“Oh, hrm, o’ course,” the guard answered. She felt herself blushing, the heat from her face surely enough to glow in the dark. “If ye’ll come with me, Ma’am?”

“I thank you, Sir Sinoshsor,” she said to her guide. “For protecting and guiding me. And…,” a soft smile in his direction, “For teaching me some stealth.”

That earned her a flash of his teeth in his own smile. “It was my pleasure, My Lady. Good travels to you.”

“And to you as well, Sir.” She wearily turned to follow the guardsmen leading her Caer Sursbrooke. One glance back told her the man had disappeared again into the shadows.

She returned to her life, bringing her daughter home and delighting in new discoveries such as words spoken for the first time, youthful play with the kitten and happy days spent splashing in the small pond they’d built outside the house. Her husband remained on distant patrol, sending word once, then again, and then no word at all. She hid her pain as best as she could from Maisye, taking the child with her to market or to visit friends, but little children are adept at seeing truth, even when it is hidden. “Mum sad?” she said one day, chubby hands patting her cheeks. “Da not home?”

She smiled, trying to bury the worry deeper. She had heard rumors of the scout speaking of the beauty of elves or Norse women. Surely he would not have run to a foreign land without at least telling her good bye? Surely the joy they’d had together hadn’t been only one-sided. Surely he loved her?

“No, Da’s not home, Maisye,” she answered. “But someday soon, he will sneak up on us and bring us presents. He loves you very much.” To avoid any further discussion, she turned on the child, tickling until Maisye screamed with glee, then racing around in the garden, playing an abbreviated game of hide and seek.

Time passed. Slowly, she began to feel that her husband would not return. She’d had no news, but daily duties such as cleaning the guild’s vaults, or helping younger members took up her days. She accompanied groups to the frontier, helping by healing as much as she could, though often they were overwhelmed by invaders. There, she occasionally saw the mysterious man in the green cloak, though only if he wanted her to, she was certain. Oft times, there was simply a wave or a whisper on the wind, and he was gone, protecting the wall. At home, Maisye continued to grow, toddling, then walking and running with surer steps. They practiced ABCs and counting, cooking and cleaning, and life returned to a sedate normality.

It was the calm before the storm.

She sat in the shade of the aquaducts, resting from her earlier endeavors. A group of elves had pierced the wall built to keep them out, and she had been with the parties sent to rid the land of them. It had been hard, painful work, for the Hibernians were masters of magery. Dark powers buffeted them, pain wracked them, and for each wound inflicted by the enemy, she and her fellow clerics struggled to mend, to aid, and to keep the fighters alive.

Eventually, the battles were won. Exhausted, her group had stopped near the ancient ruin, a watch posted and gazing warily about while others slumped against the worn stones. Soon, the buzz of insects in the grasses and the gentle breeze led her to doze.

“I tell ye, Dronamar spoke o’ elven women.” His name brought her from sleep to wakefulness in moments. She rose to her knees, looking around to see who had spoken her husband’s name. Eye wide, her half-shed pack clutched close, she peered about. None seemed to be conversing. But surely she had heard someone speak of him!

She rose, walking slowly through the small clumps of resting folk. Some smiled at her, others had their eyes closed in slumber. She peered at the face of each, frustration rising. Who had been speaking?

She shrugged into her pack, walking with more purpose toward the guard. Surely she would know who’d been speaking. The paladin was known for her strong swordarm, pious beliefs and honesty. “Pardon, Lady,” she said. “I heard someone speaking the name of my husband. Do you know who was talking of him?”

The paladin looked at her for a moment, brows drawn together. “I wasn’t watching our ranks, Lady Cleric,” she said cooly. “So I am afraid I cannot say.”

“Did you not hear any speaking of Dronamar?” she asked.

The paladin shook her head. “I fear not.”

Frowning, she clenched her fists. Who had spoken? Who knew of her husband?

As the leaders drew the groups together again for a patrol of the area, she asked any she could. All claimed they had no knowledge of the conversation. The words she had heard hung in her thoughts all that day and into the night, as her frustration and worries grew. Had her husband abandoned her for an enemy land?

She couldn't stop searching. First she'd lost Sanders to circumstances her mind accepted after Randon's explanation, but her heart hid from, for the pain was still great. Now Dronamar had gone as well. She roamed the frontier, at times protected by the soft voice and invisible wave of the man in green, at times distant from him and from all. Those few warm contacts from him were her only moments of pleasure, so it seemed.

Now she stared at the dagger in her hand, tears in her eyes, remembering. So sharp, as he'd kept it. So lethal, given a stealthy approach. So...

Through tear-blurred eyes, she gazed into the woods. He was not there. She'd searched for weeks, leaving Maisye in the care of her old nanny at Adribard's retreat, telling the woman only that she had a task she must undertake. And yet, she'd failed. He was not there.

She'd cried, stumbling down the path through trees that no longer welcomed, but seemed to raise their branches against her. The weight of the search, the weight of emotions, the fear and despair all had crushed down on her. She fell over a root and lay there, uncaring if any found her, grief-stricken sobs ringing out through the small mountain valley. She screamed out her pain against god, against the land, against the enemies, against life, until her voice was hoarse and there were no more tears. And even then, gasping for breath, she sobbed painfully, her face buried in her hands.

Finally, there were not even any more dry sobs to be had. She stared blankly at the trees around her. Her hand fell to her side, there finding the dagger she'd carried, hoping to return it to him when she found him.

But he was not there.

Face emotionless, she pulled the coif from her head, tangles of fiery red hair falling to her shoulders. Silently, she lifted the dagger, then grasped a clump of hair, tugging it away from her face, then slicing it free with the dagger. Over and over again, she cut ragged patches from her hair, leaving a circle of locks where she tossed them, as if some red-haired bird had lost its wings. A patch of blood oozed from her scalp where the dagger had come too close, but she took no notice, pulling the coif on again. She rose clumsily, shoving the dagger home in its scabbard, then wearily lifting her shield.

"Black," she murmured as she turned her steps toward Camelot. "By all rights, black."

She looked up at the walls, at the gables of the houses, anywhere but at the door that thwarted her. It was in this shop that the first man she married had bought her dyes of crimson and blue, their colors reflecting the gaiety and joy of their union. It was near there she'd learned from Randon of that man's infidelity. But it was there the dye she now longed for was sold. So she took a breath, rubbed a knuckle over her cheek to wipe away any stain of tears, and crossed the cobbled street.

Without looking to the side, she climbed the stair, nodding to the dyemaster. "Black. Six," she said softly, and passed him the coins. Without another word, she turned and left the store.

With the armor spread before her on the floor of the house she'd shared with him, she painted. What was white, the color of purity, became black. What had been golden brown, the strength she showed, now was darkest night. Tears again flowed as resolutely she dyed the armor, never once looking up to the bow and shield that still hung over the mantle.

"Maisye, forgive me," she whispered, finally succumbing to fatigue and lying before the fire on the soft fur there. "I can't find your Da." Tears swelled again as she sobbed herself to sleep.

There had been strange looks from many, both friend and stranger, though whether they were at the new color of her armor, which had been its original white for so long and now was darkest black, or at the strands of red hair that slowly grew out again, mismatched in length and stuffed under her chain helm, she didn't know and didn't care.

She'd checked on Maisye, spending a day with the happily bubbling child, turning away from time to time to hide the tears that threatened. How could this child, conceived in slavery in a heathen land, bring such joy to those around her? How could she tell the girl that the man she'd called Da was gone? Was Maisye doomed never to know a father?

As they chased butterflies and startled frogs in the pond of Eustace's garden, she thought about her own father, still living with her mother in the Highlands. "When I've found peace," she whispered, watching Maisye pluck the petals from a flower. "We'll go home, perhaps. But for now...," she shook her head resolutely. "If I've not found him yet, he's not going to be found. And I have duties I've neglected for too long."

She scooped the giggling girl up in her arms, her own face transforming into a smile. "Maisye," she said gently. "My Bonny Lass, I'm off to the Frontier again for a time. I've duties there that I've put off, and I must return to them. You will stay with Eustace. And when I return," she continued, shaking her head and touching her daughter's pouting lower lip. "If that's not turned into a smile, I'll have to tell Grandda that we're not coming to visit."

"Grandda?" Maisye crowed excitedly, clapping her hands.

"Yes, Love. When I return, we'll go visit Grandda and Grandmum. I'm sure they'll be happy to see us."

She kissed the now smiling girl on top of her head, sending her off to chase butterflies in the garden again. "Will ye be gone long?" Eustace asked, looking at her with a worried frown.

"Not long now, Eustace. I thank you for caring for Maisye so. I've my duties to complete, then I'll return."

The old woman nodded slowly, then took Sinaedh into her embrace. "Ye be careful out in th' wilds, Lass."

"I will, Eustace. And I'll be home as soon as I can."

The dull lump within her breast continued to pump, though at times she'd thought it might simply cease. But how could it? Maisye needed her, the more so since Randon had moved back to the Highlands. There were those who knew of her daughter's parentage, but most were willing to forgive and forget. Randon had been there to make certain, in his gruff way, that Maisye was not threatened. Now that duty fell to her alone.

She shook her head slightly as she moved between the trees lining the road. Here was not the place to daydream, to worry about the past or to regret choices made and actions taken. Here, she must be cautious. There was word of invaders once again moving through the wall. Whether they would make their way to Caer Benowyc or further into Albion lands was uncertain. She would help as much as she could, though the defenders in the hills were few.

She stepped around a tall tree, peering first toward the road. No hulking forms of trolls or smaller dangers of dwarves ran there. She glanced to her right. There, the renegades who had taken up homes in the rugged hills moved stealthily, claiming their perch on the side of the steep hills, awaiting unwary travelers. She frowned slightly. It would not do to get too close to that camp, but at the same time, she didn't want to move down the road. One lone cleric, trained mostly in healing wounds, would not be a match against an invading warrior.

Slowly, she slid from one tree to the next, eyes wide, listening for any sounds that seemed out of the ordinary. The trees were quiet, a gentle breeze stirring only the tops of the branches. The wood smoke from the renegade camp drifted lazily straight up into the sky. It was a measure of their security that they had the fire at all, she thought. Surely if they had fears of being disturbed, they would not have risked someone scenting the smoke.

Her passage was slow but steady and uneventful. She reached the cutoff toward Benowyc, gazing around worriedly. Here, she would have to cross a grassy expanse with no trees for shelter, and she did not have the skills at blending in with the vegetation that those who chose the stealthy path did. She bit her lip lightly, looking carefully at the meadow, then up the road toward the deep shades of the trees there, then down toward the abandoned villa now populated by the ghosts of Roman warriors. All was still. Too still? She didn't know. Her goal was farther down the road, however. She would have to chance it.

She hitched her pack up on her shoulders, reached to touch her mace reassuringly, then after one quick glance around again, moved as quickly as she could across the grass. A fallen tower lay before her, and she scrambled up over the jagged stones, to crouch in the barrel of the destroyed structure, peering once again around her, to see if any had been attracted by her flight through the grass. All was still quiet. Birds sang in close trees, insects buzzed in the grass.

She sighed in relief, looking about once again, then crawled out of the tower, over the broken stonework, then up the steep hill. Here again, the way was mostly grassed, but she hoped that her perch on the side of the hill would allow her to see any dangers and hide before she was discovered. Still, she'd had no sight of the defending or opposing armies, and a worried frown crossed her face. Where were they?

She made her way around the side of the hill, sighing in relief again as she rushed down it and into the sheltering trees. Here there were other dangers, Picts from lands farther north who'd taken these trees for their own, but she could avoid them. The forest would give her places to hide if enemies were closeby.

Then, she heard it. The unmistakable clash of metal on metal, the cries and groans of fighting. She hurried through the trees as quickly as she could, pausing by the last of the thinning copse to peer toward the sound of battle. Cries for help urged her on, and she paused by a fallen defender to heal his wounds and help him to his feet. He grunted thanks, then rushed forward again to attack the force of enemies that was surging through the battered gate of the Wall.

She moved to the side, as distant as she could be from the struggle and still offer the aid of healing. She was a target, she knew, and would be of no value if the enemy spotted her and rushed toward her. So she circled as best she could, trying to reach the wall itself, to place it against her back in protection as she quickly cast spells of healing to those in need. Now, there were no regrets, no thoughts other than those of giving aid to those who fought in defense of the land. She turned, sending healing as she could, sidestepping a dwarf swinging a heavy hammer at her, nodding thanks to an armsman who bashed the invader over the head for daring to attack a cleric.

The struggle ebbed and flowed, until eventually the invaders were defeated. She slumped down against the wall, closing her eyes in exhaustion, only to blink them open wide again at the soft words, "I am glad to see you here again safe and unharmed, My Lady."

She felt a flush creep over her face as she looked up into the dark eyes of the man. "I...," she swallowed, then managed a smile. "I am glad to see you again, Sir Sinoshsor." Then she couldn't help but giggle softly. "And in fact to see you, rather than just hear you from your hidden spot."

He grinned at her in return. "Well, that is what I do...," then he stiffened, looking up toward the wall that loomed overhead. "Pardon me, My Lady, but I think perhaps you should climb the wall. It may become dangerous again soon."

((Written by the player of Sinoshsor))

In the distance the faint sounds of a raiding party could be heard. Each step of the heavily armored warriors tore though the earth, sending a faint thunder rippling though the air.

His focus sifted to the lone cleric. She rushed to climb the wooden steps of the wall.

He followed suit, his eyes scanning the surrounding. There was no way to silence the sound of her clashing chain; he could only hope that it would go unheard.

“Quickly, milady, they are not far now. It may be wise to hide within the tower old quarters. They rarely look there if the wall is quiet,” he said in whisper.

She simply nodded as she crept though the doors. He guided her to a corner of the tower’s quarters. Placing a finger to her lips, he blended into the shadows.

The smell of the raiders cut though the fresh air of Hadrian’s. The strong pungent odor brought tears to the sneak’s eyes. The leader bellowed commands to his underling, in a strange tongue. The sounds of the outer doors that sealed the wall echoed though the inner space. Sinoshsor darted to the windows of the tower, quickly poking his head out and retreating. He looked to the cleric frozen in the corner. Quickly he approached her.

His voice faint, “Milady, sixteen or so warriors linger below us.” He took her hand into his, hers clutched into a fist. Finger by finger he relaxed her fist. Sinoshsor gave her a warm smile, trying to reassure her of her safety as he slipped a small scroll into her open hand. “Write of them here, so that we may report of them to the wondering patrols.” He pointed to small cage, the inhabitant a pigeon. “He will be your courier.”

He shifted to the window, the one facing Hadrian’s. Glancing down he could spot the doings of the invading warriors. A look of disappointment seemed to form at the absence of defenders. The leader, a proud northman, barked orders to a warrior clad in reinforced leather, a spear in one hand and a bow strapped to his back, a hunter. Sinoshsor could not understand their language but knew the hunter's task. With a booming voice the leader gave his last order. His troops quickly gathered around him. As quickly as they came they departed towards the ancient aqueducts. All that was left was a lone hunter, but every seasoned assassin knows they are never alone.

((Written by the player of Sinoshsor))

Sinoshsor quickly thought about his next move. He knew instantly what needed to be done. Intelligence is the wining factor in any war and neutralizing the scout would give his realm the upper hand. The task was not without risk for there was no count of how many others hid in the shadows.

Unsheathing his blackened dirk he took a quick breath. Taking a black vial from his pouch, its contents sticky and thick, he carefully drizzled it upon the blade. The poison pitted its blade, its strength eating away at the blacksmith’s masterpiece. Taking a few steps back from the window he glanced towards the cleric. He placed a finger to his lips and gave a quick nod. Returning the nod of understanding she finished her task. With it done she released the pigeon courier.

The Norse hunter took note of the retreating bird. His eyes squinting, he examined the creature quickly, noticing the message attached to its leg. Sinoshsor took advantage of the distraction. With a few quick steps he leaped from the window. He landed hard upon the hunter, taking him to the ground. The shaft of the hunter’s spear slammed into Sinoshsor's face. The strength of the hunter overpowered the light rogue, sending him tumbling back. Now the hunter stood above him, his spear ready to plunge into the rogue's flesh. The spear came down quickly as Sinoshsor’s eyes grew wide. Just as the hunter thought the battle won, the quickness of the rogue prevailed as he evaded the plunging blow. In one swift move Sinoshsor unsheathed his dirk and pierced the hamstring of the foe.

The hunter fell to his knees. Again Sinoshsor leaped forward, tackling the still strong hunter to the ground. The force of the blow knocked the heavy spear from the hunter’s hands. Sinoshsor raised his dirk, ready to pierce the neck of his foe. The dirk fell from his hands as the sickening sound of torn flesh filled the air. A shadow blade’s knife had found its mark, or did it. The shaft of the arrow stuck from Sinoshsor’s hand. His head turned quickly spotting the hunter from afar. The hunter let another swift arrow fly. With a rush of adrenalin, Sinoshsor shifted the fighting Norse beneath him, using him as a shield. The Norseman’s eyes grew large as he felt a sudden sharp pain tear thought his body. He released a final gurgling noise before his body fell limp.

Sinoshsor rose to his feet, stumbling for the dirk he had dropped. The Blade began her charge towards the rogue, her cleavers poised at the ready. He took a defensive stance, reading himself for the rage of the Blade. Her first quick swing took him off guard. He lurched back, but it was too late. The blade tore though the leather as it sliced a deep cut into his chest. Immediately he began to feel woozy. Poison. Weakened from the invading substance, his strikes were feeble at best as they barely pierced the leather of his new foe.

Her next blow landed upon his leg; again the weight of the cleavers cut deep into his flesh. Sinoshsor crashed to his knees. He looked up to the foe awaiting his fate. Yet she stood frozen unable to land the final blow. Sinaedh stood from the window; her call of heavenly light had landed. Again she bowed her head in prayer. Sinoshsor felt the weight of the poison being lifted from his body. Sinaedh quietly stood, her head bowed. The wounds upon his flesh faded giving him the strength to stand. As he looked up he saw Sinaedh eyes fill with rage as she called forth judgement upon the Shadowblade. The smell of ionized air filled his nose as the sky released a bolt of lighting upon the young Blade. A second bolt fell to its mark as the young Blade fell to the ground.

Sinoshsor rushed up the steps. He called out to Sinaedh, “Jump from the window, milady! We shall hide on the Midgardian side of the wall until the reinforcements arrive.”

He leaped from the wall, setting up position beneath the tower window. Sinaedh timidly leaped from the tower, putting faith in the rogue. He caught the falling cleric, setting her to her feet. Taking her hand into his, he lead her to the safety of the evergreens.

It was after he led her to a hiding spot in the evergreens, protected from view by the downsweep of the needled branches, that the reaction to what had happened hit her. Sinoshsor had patted her shoulder, smiled, then slipped into the woods. She knew he was there now, patrolling, watching, hidden. She knew he was protecting them both.

Rarely had she used the training she'd received to smite the enemies of the land. More often she was so busy tending to injuries that she had no sense of where or when attacks were being made even as battle swirled around her. But this time... no, she couldn't stand there and allow the enemies from the north to slay the man who protected her at every turn, never complaining or laughing at her feeble attempts to aid or to hide. So it had been easy to call down the Light to blind the enemy, then to heal her protector's hurts.

But why, oh why had her anger spilled over? Why had she called out the spell of smiting so fiercely, taking the life of the shadowblade? She shivered in reaction, clutching her hands together, huddled under the tree. Tears ran slowly down her cheeks.

So stealthy was he that she never heard him return. Her heart lurched as his hand came to rest on her shoulder, and his gentle voice asked, "My Lady, is all well?"

"I...," she nodded, looking down and lifting her hand to quickly wipe away the tell-tale tears. "Yes," she said softly. "I am sorry, you startled me." She sniffed, then looked up at him, hoping that both the shade of the evergreen boughs and her hand wiping away the tears had worked well enough. "Is there any sign of reinforcement?"

He shook his head, settling crosslegged close by the bole of the tree. "Not yet. But also no sight of further enemies, which is good." He flashed a smile. "And my thanks for your aid."

She looked down. "I... in my travels, I've found that we and our enemies are much alike. Each wants the best for home and family, and each reacts to the hurts caused by others in much the same way. But I...," she glanced at him, her voice trailing off as his hand gently came to rest on hers.

"Had you not aided me, I would have fallen." He looked at her. "I know it's not your normal calling. I sense there's not a mean bone in your body. So please, let me be grateful, but let it rest easy on your mind."

She nodded, managing a slow smile. "Then let me be grateful as well. For without your protection, I fear I'd have fallen long ago."

"Your gratitude is accepted." He grinned then tugged his pack free. "Let us speak of other things. Are you hungry?"

She shook her head. "No, I fear the fright has taken any thoughts of hunger away from me."

"I'd have thought a battle-hardened cleric like you would never be frightened," he said, chuckling.

"I spend battles aiding others," she said quickly, looking down, his words bringing a flush of embarrassment. "I...," she paused as his hand gripped hers.

"Pardon me, My Lady, I meant to lift your spirits, but it seems I've failed. I've nothing but admiration for the work you do." He offered her a bottle after pulling the stopper from it. She took it, hesitantly lifting it to her lips, then nodding as she tasted the sparkling cider it contained. "And," he continued, smiling, "I promised to change the topic. So... did you have plans to attend the ball that I hear whispered in the winds?"

"Ball?" She shook her head. "I hadn't thought about it, truly. Between my duties and caring for my daughter..."

"Daughter?" he lifted an eyebrow. "I'd no idea you had a child, Milady."

"Oh yes," she finally smiled openly. "Her name is Maisye."

His questions, her answers, the warm sunlight of the afternoon and the pleasant clean smell of the evergreens were all she knew for the next hour or so, until he stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm. He stood quickly, listening, and she half-rose, prepared to aid him in a new fight if there were to be one. But instead of enemy voices, it was the clank of plate armor and the words of reinforcing armies from Albion they heard. "I think it's safe for you to return to our own side of the wall, Milady," he said, holding out a hand to help her to rise.

Even though the fighters from Albion were close by, and she could even see some up on the ramparts of the Wall, there was danger. The shadows could cloak enemies as much as they cloaked this man who was so kind to her. He saw her worried look and nodded. "I will be with you," he whispered. "But I will be of more value if I am in the shadows."

She nodded. "I know," she said softly. "I am ready."

She played the part well, she knew, for she was frightened, and it took no acting skill to display it. She glanced around her. He was gone, though she trusted his word that he was closeby. Taking a deep breath, she shrugged her pack into place, and stepped out of the shelter of the evergreen.

Birds chirped above. Insects hummed in the grass that waved with the gentle breeze. Atop the wall, an armsman nudged a mercenary beside him, then pointed at her.

She strode forward quickly, not running as fast as she could, but certainly not dawdling. With every step, she expected an arrow or dagger to plunge into the stiff muscles of her back. But none came. Soon, she was in the shade of the Wall itself, and the great wooden doors swung open to admit her. She stepped from the quiet of the enemy side to the bustle of a full army making preparations to hold firm their side of the barrier.

The armsman clattered down the stair. "How did you get to that side of the Wall?" he asked, frowning. "We've had scouts out, and they didn't see you!"

"Sir Sinoshsor helped me," she answered. "We were here, and attacked. He took the fight to the enemy side, and then we hid there to await the arrival of reinforcements."

"Sinoshsor?" he barked. "Where is he? Report!"

She stepped back as the man in green passed her by, appearing as if by magic, and winking at her before he stepped close to the armsman. She knew the man would value Sinoshsor's report more than hers, and took no offense. He was a veteran of the wars, and skilled in observation. She mainly observed pain and suffering and tried to alleviate it. So she turned away, smiling at those closeby, and found a place to sit, to await the time when she might be needed again. As she did, she glanced up into the bright blue sky. "Dear Lord," she prayed softly. "Thank you for sending Sir Sinoshsor to aid me."

She ducked away from a swinging axe, only to find the point of a blade sweeping toward her throat. But just as it would have connected, the arm and the dwarf it had been connected to jerked back. Sinaedh watched in horror as the small man spasmed, then fell to the ground to reveal the flashing smile of the saracen. "Thank...," she started, then stumbled as a hammer, destined to slam into her kneecap, instead clipped her thigh.

"Get back, Lass!" the burly Highland armsman called as he shoved her attacker to the side with his polearm. She murmured a prayer for healing for herself as well as those around her, then quickly backtracked, trying to keep sight of those who might need aid as well as keep from putting herself in more danger. "They're through again!" she heard the armsman call as he swung his lucerne hammer, sweeping a path of destruction through the surging horde. "Fall back! Fall back to Benowyc!"

She retreated slowly, her eyes on the armsman, as well as on others who guarded the retreat. Bands of fighters formed up around minstrels beating their drums, to hurry their steps to the keep. She paused now and again to send her prayers of healing as she could, working to keep those around her on their feet. The din of the battle rang in her ears: the screams of the injured; the dull thuds of troll feet; the cries of small blue kobolds. Trudging through the chaos with fingers tight on the hammer that was her main protection, she relied on her faith to aid, and once or twice to send those who would attack her staggering blindly away from the Light of Camelot.

The defenders formed a ragged line, some moving more quickly than others, those of the rear guard the slowest as they continued to fight against the invading Norse. Slowly the fighters of Albion moved closer to Caer Benowyc, and each of them felt relief in the shade of the strong stone walls. "Set up in the courtyard," she heard the call. "Any siege we've got. We'll rush them if we can."

She stumbled through the strong wooden gates, weary and drained. Without much concern for the danger, she found a place to the side and sat, simply needing to rest for a time before she could do her duty again. She nodded grateful thanks as a sorcerer passed a cup of water to her.

"Get readaiiieee," came a cry. The armsman fell through the gate, blood coating his armor.

She scrambled to help pull him inside as others shoved the huge wooden gate closed. "Summa pia gratia nostra conservando corpora et cutodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna*," she prayed, repeating the words of the Elders of the Church as she worked to ease the man's wounds. He nodded thanks to her and others as a dull thud began to pound on the wooden gate.

Their work was not done.

*According to the Viking Answer Lady this is the only written version close to the prayer uttered by those who feared the invasion of the real Norse... 'from the fury of the Northmen, deliver us'. In translation, it is: "Our supreme and holy Grace, protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms."

Still appropriate, I think.

((Written by the player of Sinoshsor))

One by one the fallen northerns were revived by their barbaric healers. They gathered letting the freshly risen rest from their ordeal. As he glanced down the road all he could see was the bodies of both Albion and Migard forces. The barbaric leader barked orders and as quickly as he finished the force at the wall formed up. And as quickly as they breached the wall they left it, its doors ruined from the axe blades. Their destination could be no less then Benowyc. They left behind a few healers to continue the daunting task of raising the fallen.

Though tempted by the lure of the unguarded healers, he knew the count of the invasion force was much more valuable. He leapt from the wall, keeping to the shadows that it so graciously provided. He knew time was of the essence, yet it was something he did not have. Traveling in the shadows was slow; each step had to be carefully calculated so as to not make any noise. Though he did know what few others did, a hidden path that lead directly to the doors of the Caer.

As he exited the hidden path he heard the fighting. It was no surprise that the enemy forces beat him to Benowyc, for their skalds were fierce warriors and even fiercer motivators. He snuck toward the walls of the Caer. Slowly, he began to climb them, careful not to draw the attention of the hunters diligently plucking their bows. As he crested the wall, his eyes quickly became affixed upon the fiery haired healer that he had seen so often. He cracked a smile as he saw that she was in the safety of the Caer. He gazed silently as she rested in the quiet corner. There was something about her that he found intriguing, something that drew him near. His gaze of awe was quickly ended as the buzz of an arrow passed his ear. Quickly he turned his head, leering at the hunter that had found him as his mark. He leaped over the wall, taking shelter as the next arrow flew by. Something troubled him, though. He peered over the wall to ease his suspicions, but what he saw only validated his fears.

“I must tell them,” he thought to himself. As he looked up he saw the company of scouts that protected the walls of Benowyc. “You have healers to the rear in the east, four of them. Two wear the color of blue, one of silver, and the other of black. See what you can do.” The scouts nodded as they took aim.

He leaped in to the courtyard. Just as he landed he noticed the young cleric helping the leader of the defense. He hurried his way next to them; his ears were enchanted by the softness of her voice as she said a prayer.

“Sinoshsor! Do you have word to bring us?”, asked the armsman, freshly eased of his pain.

Sinoshsor nodded as he spoke, “Aye sir, seems that only a third of the number I counted from the wall are here. I saw the gleam of weapons down the road. If you mount a charge it may be ended quickly by an ambush down the road.”

The armsman looked grave as he pondered the new information. “I must warn the re-enforcements!” He paused as the thought a bit more. “Better yet… I have an idea that might just work.” The armsman ran up the steps into the keep.

Sinoshsor extended his hand, offering to help Sinaedh up. “May I assist you, milady?” A grin came over his face, hoping she would accept his offer.

((Written by the player of Sinoshsor))

Sinaedh accepted his offer, extending her hand. With a gentle tug he brought her to her feet. With a sly grin he said, “We had best get you to the lord’s room.” He glanced over to the keep's door, its wood splitting wider with each blow from the Midgard ram. “We haven’t much time.”

Neither one said much as they climbed the steps of the tower. Each one wondered what the Lord of the keep had in mind. They reached the Lord’s room to see the armsman writing hectically upon a piece of parchment. As he finished he looked up to Sinoshsor.

“Sinoshsor, please take my finest assassins and secure the climb points of the wall. They must not get in to know how many we have here.”

Sinoshsor nodded as a group of fellow assassins surrounded him. “You have a hawk, do you not?”, asked the Lord.

“Aye, milord, I do.”

“Please call him and have this message delivered to the approaching reinforcements.”

“I would be honored, Milord,” Sinoshsor said with a grin.

A loud whistle left his lips followed by the cry of a hawk. In a matter of seconds Mordaki appeared in the window, his feathers glistening in the sunlight, grey feathers dawned on his brow showing his age. Sinoshsor simply smiled to his old friend approaching him with the scroll.

“Good to see you again, old friend”, he whispered to the bird as he gently attached the document. “Please take this to the men you have seen. Take it in haste.” Mordaki seemed to give a nod of understanding as he turned. His wings stretched gracefully into the air as he leaped into the wind.

“Come, let us protect the walls!” Sinoshsor cried as he turned to leave the room.

A whisper stopped him. “Please allow me to bless you before you go.”

He turned around to see Sinaedh standing there. Before he could accept she began a light prayer. As each one finished, a holy aura would surround him and then disperse into the air. Sinoshsor smiled fondly to the beautiful highlander, “I thank you, Milady, these will do me well.”

“They are not much as those who have mastered the art, but they are better than nothing.”

“They are perfect, Milady.”

The group of sneaks dashed down the stairs which were lined with the fighters from the realm. Each one's blade was being endowed with the magics of the wise wizards. The warriors filled the tower from bottom to top. They howled with hunger for battle, though they did not know the odds they faced. The sneaks passed archers preparing themselves in the murder holes.

“There are four points of weakness on these walls, each one giving access to spies of the other realm. Luckily those spots come in pairs, which are relatively close to each other. You four go there.” He pointed to the southern corner of the keep. “The rest follow me. Remember our job is to deter them from spying, by any means necessary, but do not give chase outside our walls.” The sneaks dispersed to their assigned positions.

The courtyard grew silent, from the sound of human voices. The voice of chaos could be heard clearly outside the keep. The sound of weakening metal filled the courtyard as the supports of the door gave way. It was only a matter of seconds before the door fell. Sinoshsor knew his band of master sneaks would be in harm's way, but he thanked God for their art of stealth. The head of the ram burst though the door, sending splinters of wood flying. There was a great cry of pride as the Northmen broke through the door. Their axes' frenzy shredded what was left of the once mighty door.

Meanwhile, Mordaki found the re-enforcements in the nick of time. The leader risked a moment's time and paused to read the letter.

To whom is in command,

The wall has been lost. The force that has survived the breech is held up in Benowyc. The number of the horde approaches 100. Please send a scout ahead. I have reports that an ambush is set in the woods in front of Benowyc. We will hide within the tower. I hope the numbers will deceive them and they will mount a full attack on what they see as a few defenders. Once they fill the courtyard, charge from the rear. They will be like fish in a barrel for our wizards and scouts. We might yet save Benowyc!

~The Lord of Benowyc

The master of the force called forth a scout and did what the letter described. They held fast in the broken villa waiting for the signal.

In Benowyc, the horde filled the courtyard. Their axes chopped at the tower door. A few brave knights of Albion snuck out a sally port to give the guise of defense. The brave few charged into the horde. The sound of metal upon metal could be heard as the knights formed a defensive circle. Each one slashed out with his sword, hoping to hit the flesh of the northern men. Their efforts would not be forgotten.

One by one the knights fell to the axes and great swords of the Northmen. The Norse leader yelled out for a young hunter to approach him. Sinoshsor watched as the hunter dashed out the courtyard. He knew it was the signal for the ambush to advance.

((Written by the player of Sinoshsor))

The north men’s axes struck the tower door, the rhythmic sound of each blow overpowering the roar of the warriors. There was a great roar as an axe finally broke though the thick door. The offending troll turned to revel in the cheer for his strength. As he turned to give another blow to the crumbling door, a bolt from a crossbow struck him down. The roaring north men rushed upon the door, their eyes filled with revenge for their fallen ally. As new holes in the door emerged, so did the bolts of crossbows, but for each north man that fell, another took his place. The reinforcements entered the courtyard. There was a sudden surge in the crowd as a troll warrior made his way to the door. The axe he carried was forged in hardest steel, the blades scribed in runic symbols. His armor was made of the finest leather, its color modified with the stain of the blood of his enemies. The attackers at the door stepped aside, giving room to the gargantuan troll. With one swing of his axes he shattered the door into pieces. The north men rushed inside before the dust even cleared. But their charge was halted by a wall of shields. The sound of the scraping of metal against metal sent a shiver down Sinoshsor’s spine.

There was a sound of a trumpet from within the tower. The call was followed by the appearance of the realm's wizards and archers. The rain of arrows and fire filled the courtyard, claming the lives of many who lacked the protection of armor or their gods. It did not take long for the leader of the horde to command the mystics into position. The cool touch of the northern mages' spells whisked next to the hiding teams of sneaks. Both sides of the arcane duel fought for dominance. A fine mist formed from the mix of cold and hot. Then a cry from outside the walls was heard. The re-enforcements of Albion had arrived.

The seers scrambled up the stairs to seek refuge on the ramparts as the flood of their warriors and Albion’s finest converged into the courtyard. Atop the tower, the wizards were replaced with clerics who tried to keep the front line of the re-enforcements alive by chanting protection and prayers. The trap was sprung. The seers and mystics took turns in the battle, one line sitting as the other healed. The hidden sneaks knew it was time to leave their post and take a spot behind the helpless seers. One by the one the assassins leaped from the shadows, striking their daggers into the flesh of their targets. But each attack was not without cost. As the rogues tried to escape from their strikes some were caught and struck down by the spells of the near by mystics. Again the trumpet sounded from the tower. It was followed by a revived surge within. The north men were being pushed out of the tower and into the already crowed courtyard. The fighting grew fierce in the yard of Benowyc.

A shaman laid a curse onto the charging army of Albion, causing their skin to rupture in sores. Sinoshsor made the shaman his mark. He crept up behind the unsuspecting shaman who was busy in his chants of pain and gifts of life. Sinoshsor silently drew his dirk, the blade crying for fresh blood. In one swift move, Sinoshsor placed his hand of the mouth of the shaman and thrust the deadly dirk deep into the enemy's kidney. He could feel the warm breath meet its end in the palm of his hand. In the shaman's last breath a curse crawled from his dying lips. Sinoshsor's veins erupted in fire as the poisoned curse crept within. His focus became blurred as the pain grew. Unable to blend into the shadows, he was quickly spotted by the enemy force. A sharp pain overwhelmed his senses as a heavy maul collided with his leg. The blow from the blunt weapon shattered the bones. Almost instantly, Sinoshsor collapsed to the floor of the battlements. His voice was silent even in the ungodly pain. A north man hovered over him with a dark grin of victory on his face. With his hammer held high, he smirked as he summoned his strength for the finishing blow. Sinoshsor’s hand fell to his side, searching. With a crisp ting, Sinoshsor released a crossbow bolt that wedged deep in the warrior’s throat. The body of the warrior collapsed onto the smaller man. A sharp pain lanced through Sinoshsor as his leg was farther crushed under the weight of the warrior.

All around him, he heard the sounds of battle. His vision slowly blurred from the pain. The trumpet sounded again as Sinoshsor drifted into unconsciousness.

As the battle raged, she had no time for thought. Every moment was spent in prayer for the health and welfare of those who fought for Albion, or in rushing to aid those who staggered up the stairs, seeking healing and rest until they could return to the fray. She worked as quickly as she could: helping an armsman staunch the flow of blood and chanting a prayer to close his wound; taking the arm of a blinded sorcerer and settling him to the wooden floor of the upper tower until he could catch his breath and she could beseech a cure with her words; and sending strength and healing with her prayer to a paladin who fought bravely within the courtyard. She glanced around the walls from time to time. He was there, she knew it, but as usual, she couldn't see him.

She didn't have time to realize the new life that raced in her veins, nor the new spirit within her. She simply used it as best she could, doing her job to spread the Light of Albion and aid those who fought in defense of Caer Benowyc. Below the parapet, the battle raged in the courtyard, men and women of Albion struggling against the invaders, first one surging forward, then the other. Slowly, the spells of the wizards and the flashing blades of the defenders began to prevail. The clash of swords and the grunts of fighters passed from the courtyard to the outer grounds, where Albion fighters hunted down the last remaining invaders.

"Courtyard's clear!" came the call. "We need clerics and friars!"

She rushed to help, stepping into the carnage of the courtyard, pausing only a moment to peer around in dismay at the lifeless bodies of Norsemen and Britons, of Kobolds and Avalonians. She closed her eyes, gathering strength, and along with the others there who had the skill in healing, she worked to mend wounds and to lift those who had fallen from the ground. Without realizing it at first, she expected at any moment to feel a light touch on her shoulder, to hear a whisper from the shadows, to catch a glimpse of his smile. But that touch didn't come.

For what seemed like hours, the clerics, paladins and friars toiled, calling upon the sacred healing powers that were theirs to command. Others mended the gateway that had been ravaged by the invasion. The sound of hammering and clinks of armor dropped to the ground as wounds were assessed filled the courtyard. Still, he was not there. As the number of wounded diminished, Sinaedh stood for a moment, wiping a strand of errant fiery red hair from her eyes. She smiled at a fellow cleric who offered her a sip of water, then nodded as he pointed to the walkway along the wall. "Methinks th' courtyard itself ha'e been cared for. But th' bas... er... that is, th' heathens ha'e chopped awa' th' stair t' th' walk. We'll play Hell gettin' up there."

Sinaedh glanced toward the walk. Sure enough, the ladder-like stair that was normally used to ascend had been hacked by Norse axes, more than likely as a tactic to protect their own seers who had perched there. "Well, I'm light enough, if someone tall could lift me, I might scramble up," she said.

"Now, lass, tha's..." The other cleric shook his head. "Well, tha's dangerous. But might be 'tis wha's needed. We cannae ken until someone gets up there, an' them wha's got climbin' skill don' ha'e th' skill t' heal."

She smiled at the rough young Highlander. "Do you think you can lift me, Brother Jared?"

"Aye, lass, bu' only if ye'll promise t' be careful."

"That I will, of course." She walked with the brawny man to the collapsed stair. He lifted her in his arms, pushing her high without much effort at all, until she could reach the edge of the platform. Jaw clenched, she pulled herself up over the edge as he pushed up on her feet. The walkway creaked with her weight, its support diminished with the stairway gone.

"Ye all right, lass?" the cleric called up with concern.

"Yes." Sinaedh slowly rose, dusting her hands off on her hauberk. "There are still a few enemy here, and some of our men." She walked slowly forward, testing each step as the boards groaned. She knelt beside a kobold, testing his pulse with her fingers, then shaking her head. He had gone to his gods, and she paused only a moment to whisper a prayer after him before moving to the next body. There, a minstrel lay, breathing raggedly. Working quickly, she stopped his bleeding, then murmured a healing prayer, nodding to herself as his gasps for breath eased and his eyes opened. "Rest a moment," she said, then moved to the next form.

She slowly worked her way down the length of the walkway, aiding those she could, carefully stepping around the rocky bodies of fallen trolls or the smaller Norse and kobolds. With each step, the walk seemed stronger, the joists connecting it to the wall firmer. Others had followed her lead, and were now helping some of the injured climb down from the wall. Ahead of her, there was a jumble of arms, legs, armor and weapons. She knelt, touching the side of a Norse warrior to assure herself he'd passed to his reward, then lifting him with her own grunt to roll him aside. What she saw made her face whiten, her limbs tremble, and a gasp leave her lips.

"No! Sinoshsor!" She reached to touch his cheek. Fire of fever burned there under the paleness of his skin. A green tinged vapor oozed from his lips, and his breath rattled in his lungs. "No," she said softly, then bit her lips, rallying herself. It would do the man no good to let fear rule her. She could help him. She must help him.

She closed her eyes and placed her hands on his chest, whispering the prayer potent against poison. With soft exhortation, she chanted the invocations to bring healing and strength back to him. She didn't dare open her eyes to see if it worked, she only held to the faith that was hers. A tear worked its way down her cheek as she thought of this man's quiet kindness, and of the comfort she felt when he was nearby. With a soft sigh, she prayed for him, for his health and strength.

An unsteady finger touched the tear on her cheek. She snapped her eyes open, to be caught in the dark gaze of his. "Surely that wasn't for me?"

She couldn't do anything but smile happily and shake her head in denial. But he knew. He must have known. He sighed softly. "I couldn't think of a more wonderful sight to open my eyes to, after the pain of the shaman."

Of course he meant seeing any cleric in service of Albion. Of course he meant that. She smiled and held out her hand. "Can I offer you help down to the ground?"

The quiet after battle was strong contrast to the clash that had filled the courtyard earlier. Sinaedh moved from minstrel to armsman, speaking with each, taking care to make certain the healing that had begun was continuing with rest. The commander of Benowyc's fighting force had taken a small contingent out into the hills around the keep, searching for any remaining enemies. Soon enough, a stronger force would be assembled to travel to the wall, to buttress it against the expected return of the Midgard warriors.

She blushed as she passed close to the place where the infiltrator was resting, turning her head slighty away so that he wouldn't see, but darting her eyes back to him. He had saved her life, and she his. There was a bond between them, but it didn't feel the same as the bond between the fighters of Albion. It was different. But how could that be? How could that be?

"Returning to civilization?" the soft voice came from her side.

She smiled and turned to face him. "Yes. There is a party returning to Sauvage, so I can travel with them. And I promised Maisye I'd not be gone long." She lifted her hand to swipe a strand of red hair away from her face. "Are your wounds healing well?"

"Ah yes, Maisye. She must be a beautiful child," he said, smiling.

Sinaedh blushed. Once again he had turned discussion away from himself, a skill he seemed to have honed nearly as well as hiding in shadows. Though her smile remained, she placed her hands on her hips. "Now you haven't answered my question, Sir Sinoshsor."

He chuckled softly. "I have you to thank for that. I'm feeling nearly as fit as a fiddle. And soon off myself. Lord Benowyc has asked me to scout the Wall."

Her smile faultered slightly. "Be careful. I...," she blushed, looking down. "I would not like to hear that you'd been injured."

"I will do my very best," he said gently. Sinaedh glanced at him to see if he was mocking her, but he had a sincere look in his eye and a easy smile for her. "I would ask if you would..." Now it was his turn to blush and look down, shifting from foot to foot. He coughed slightly, then looked into her eyes. "I would ask if I might have your blessing?"

"Of course!" She closed her eyes, then murmured the words that brought blessings of strength and dexterity, of shielding against danger and increased constitution to him.

She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder, then heard his whispered, "Farewell, Lady Sinaedh," and he was gone.

The trip to Sauvage had never seemed so long before. The grasses of the open lands near the road that led to Benowyc whispered in the breeze. Her eyes wide, she strained to see any sight of the men she knew hugged the shadows, watching over the land, yet she knew that she would see no sight of them. She moved with the large party of armsmen and sorcerers, their steps hastened by the spells of the mages that some of the Church viewed askance. Several other mages traveled with them, including a few who studied the cabalistic works and others who shaped the very forces of the land.

Even speeded by the chants of the sorcerers, the trip was a long one. Through the grasses of Hadrians and up the hills that were shaded by trees that also sheltered wild cockatrice and huge boars, they climbed the heights leading to Caer Sursbrooke, cheering strongly when a patrol from that stronghold approached. They were escorted to the keep itself, resting in the courtyard while the armsman delivered dispatches to Lord Sursbrooke. Then they were off again.

The armsmen strode with hands close to weapons as they traveled down the small valley between Sursbrooke and Berkstead. This was a popular area for ambush, and all travelers were wise to keep a sharp watch. Sinaedh felt sweat trickling down the back of her vest as the sun glinted on the party. Weariness was beginning to tell, and they were a bit spread out as tension and the past days' fighting added up.

As they climbed toward Caer Berkstead, the armsman leading slowed. "Keep an eye out. We should have met the patrol by now," he called back to the others. Several worried eyes scanned the horizon.

Sinaedh felt as if her eyes were straining to pop from their sockets. She glanced from side to side, trying not to look as nervous as she felt. Lips moving slightly, she whispered a prayer as the party of Albion fighters climbed the hill toward Caer Berkstead. It was quiet… too quiet. Not a breath of breeze, not a whisper of birdsong, not even a drop of rain disturbed the heavy still air.

When the storm broke, it was fierce. Clouds suddenly swirled around them, and the wind began to howl louder than the ghostly cyhraeth who haunted the hills south of Berkstead. Raindrops began to drum down on the party, and then disaster found the group of fighters.

She thought it was lightning that had struck nearby until she saw the armsman next to her stagger, then fall to his knees with blood rushing from his temple. Quickly she moved toward him, murmuring a prayer of healing, but another flash stopped her dead in her tracks. She couldn’t even blink as the magic of the shaman settled over the party, poison dropping them to the ground, rolling in agony. If only she were free of the vise of the mesmerization that had been cast on her, she might have worked against the poison, but she was reduced to darting her eyes from side to side, wondering where the enemy was, lips straining to move in a chant of protection and healing that simply could not form.

One armsman still stood, valiantly struggling to fight a horde of Midgard warriors dominated by huge rocky trolls. But as she watched through the corners of her eyes, a troll lifted a hammer high and slammed it down onto the armsman's head. The man fell without a sound. Then the trolls turned toward her.

The spell held. She couldn’t scream, or tremble, or even close her eyes. With low grinding growls, the trolls advanced. She saw glints of humor in their eyes as weapons lifted, soon to make an end of her.

Lightning flashed. Rain poured down the stony arms of the trolls and sheeted over their faces. But something was wrong. If she could have frowned in confusion, Sinaedh would have. The trolls had halted, weapons lifted. They were more stone than alive now. They had become statues of ferocious creatures, menacing, but not moving.

“Quickly,” a voice hissed. “Collect the men and get them to the keep. I cannot control the minds of the brutes for too long.”

“Aye, Master Somchanh.” A party of yeomen and fighters wearing the emblazoned tunics of Lord Berkstead moved among the fallen party, lifting and carrying. One archer stood staring at the frozen trolls for a moment, then took her arm. “Come, Lady,” he said.

She stumbled after the man, feeling slowly returning to her limbs as he nearly dragged her up the hill to the strong walls of the keep. Behind her, she heard the sorcerer chant, reinforcing and directing the spells he had woven around the enemy force. Ahead of her, men carried fallen fighters through the strong gate and into the courtyard of the keep.

“Man the walls!” she heard calls as she staggered through the courtyard. She nodded to a cleric who was tending some of the fallen, and went to work as best as she could, slowly feeling herself returning to normal as the freezing spell of the enemy wore off. Up on the ramparts, men drew and fired arrows and mages cast their own spells down on the troll warriors. There was a fury of action, then cheering as the enemy party withdrew, leaving a few fallen rocky fighters littering the hillside like outcrops of granite.

She finally sat down, resting after all the injuries had been healed. “We were lucky ye were watching fer us, Master Somchanh,” a burly armsman said, nodding his thanks to the mage as he passed. “Surely we were done fer.”

“We cannot allow that, can we?” the mage replied, unsmiling, though Sinaedh thought she detected a wink directed at her. “Trolls must be shown their place. And that place is on the ground.”

The calm after the storm found armsmen resting in the courtyard, sitting wherever they could, leaning against the stout walls. Somchanh, who Sinaedh had known for quite some time, had disappeared into the reaches of the inner keep, most likely conferring with Lord Berkstead or his commanding officers, she thought. Although she had been surprised to find him here, she was grateful that he had managed to save the lives of the party members travelling home from the Wall. “In truth,” she murmured to herself, “it’s not that surprising. Somchanh knows the frontier lands like the back of his hand. Probably almost as well as…”

“Oh, have I a rival in my legendary skill in navigating the dangerous lands?” a voice next to her ear asked.

Sinaedh felt her face burn into a flushed pink. “Of course not! I have never met one more knowledgeable about the trails through Snowdonia, or the paths in the Pennines than you, Sir Somchanh!”

He looked at her, one eyebrow lifted high enough that it was hidden in his shock of startlingly white hair. “As you say, I am the Master of the Frontier.” A quick wink softened the statement. Others often found the man overbearing and pompous, but Sinaedh had never felt anything but kindness from him. “And yet I did not know you would be travelling, as much as I’d like to claim the premonition that Darrell the armsman attributes. What brings you to Caer Berkstead?”

“I was doing duty at the Wall,” she said. “There was an incursion of warriors, and a great deal of fighting at Caer Benowyc. Once the land there was stable, I thought to accompany some of the returning fighters to Sauvage. Eustace is watching Maisye for me, and I didn’t want her to worry if I was overdue.” She sighed softly. “Though I am indeed overdue now. Do you think it will be safe to continue on?”

He shook his head slowly. “Safe? I doubt it. Lord Berkstead has gotten reports of elves plinking potluck along the road to Excalibur. And those rock-heads… well, we drove off most of them, but there are likely more lurking somewhere about. They blend in too damn well with the mountainsides.” He looked at her, noting the frown of disappointment twisting her lips. “Well, but there are ways to make it back to Sauvage Fort without tempting the elves too much, aren’t there?”

“Are there?” she looked at him, a bit of hope breaking through the bleak picture he’d painted. “I do want to get home to Maisye as soon as I can.”

She lifted a hand, swiping a stray lock of red hair away from her face, pausing a moment to puff a breath up toward the others that were tempted to take advantage of sweat and breezes to dangle in her eyes. Glancing around at the high mountain pass, she shook her head, then looked forward toward the tall white-haired man who led them. “Is this not a dangerous place to pass?” she whispered.

He was far enough ahead that he shouldn’t have heard her, but she was no longer surprised by the abilities of the sorcerer. “The screaming of the cyhraeth will tell us if anyone approaches over the mountaintop to the east. And although the Ellyll are often allied with the Hibernians, the bwca are angry at everyone. We will know if there are lurkers about.”

She nodded and hefted her pack, shifting it on her shoulders. Even though this path would be less likely to attract the interest of enemies who might be travelling through the land, it certainly would not be easier.

The party was alert as they crossed the valley where the great stones marked the path from Excalibur toward the Wall. This was the path armies had taken since the early days, and for many, it was the easiest to travel. For that reason, it also was the most likely place to expect ambush. Somchanh sent an enthralled boggart down to scout the valley, nodding as it returned and grunted into his ear. “All is clear, but be wary.” The sweat that had been running down Sinaedh’s back under her tunic seemed to turn to ice and her skin crawled as they stepped out into the grass of the valley. Ears strained and eyes wide, she followed the party of armsmen and mages. But no arrows flew from the high hills, no warcries broke the gentle breeze. As they crossed the valley and climbed up the other side, she began to relax a bit.

“I must be wary here,” Somchanh whispered. “The Isolationists do not like me.”

The others nodded, making a wide path around the encampment of the Isolationist army, none daring to ask what affront the sorcerer had given them. The tents of the Isolationists were tolerated, since they sometimes performed good deeds for the Realm. The party climbed again past the Isolationists’ hill, tall grass swishing around their feet and legs. Sinaedh leaned into her pack as she followed the long strides up a steep hill, then stopped short with a gasp, staring into huge black eyes. A spider of enormous size stared back at her, forelegs tapping gently on the ground. “They will not harm if you do no harm to them,” came the words of the sorcerer.

With a gulp and a nod, Sinaedh sidestepped the huge creature, then walked on after the men, her hand clenched on the mace at her side. She glanced nervously back at the spiders, but just as Somchanh had said, the creatures seemed to have no interest in the passing warriors, preferring instead to skitter over the hills, in search of some prey. What would spiders that large eat? she wondered to herself, then considered that she didn’t truly wish to know the answer.

They passed over the large rolling hills, then down into a low valley, where trees began to crowd close together. The winds stirred the leaves of the forest trees, almost giving them a voice. Welcome or warning? Sinaedh wondered.

“Forest Sauvage,” the sorcerer said to the party. “Be wary of the fellwoods. But we should be back to the fortress ere long.” He led the way unerringly into the shade beneath the boughs of the trees.

After the bright grasslands of the hills south of the Pennines, the forest seemed dark and subdued. Birds flitted through the high branches, and occasional coughing barks came from the east, where water pooled in the low places, but Sinaedh felt eager. They were almost home. Soon she would be reunited with Maisye, and able to relax in her own home in peace. “Hsst,” Somchanh said softly, gesturing with his staff. Sinaedh felt her blood run cold. There, ahead of them, lingering by the large bole of a tree, but looking in the wrong direction, was an elf! Somchanh gestured, muttering softly, and sent a pulse of magic to lock the elf in place. With grim determination, the leader of the armsmen strode forward, unsheathing his sword. Sinaedh bit her lip, remaining near the sorcerer, eyes wide, turning to look through the trees. Where there was one elf, were there others?

The leader of the armsmen took one swing, neatly decapitating the elf, who was frozen in place by Somchanh’s spell. He gestured, dispatching the fighters of the party in a line fanning out from the location, each man keeping his eyes peeled for the presence of further enemies. After some time searching, they returned to Sinaedh and Somchanh. “I think it was just the one. Probably hoping to tag some poor lads taking the road to Excalibur,” said the armsman, shaking his head.

Somchanh nodded. “It is common practice. No matter, we are close by the fortress. Stay close, and quiet.”

The members of the party were indeed close and quiet as they traveled through the trees toward the fortress. Even though they were close, there were still dangers. Thumps and vibrations of the ground warned of the giants who lived in the deep forests to the east. And even the hill just out of the fortress itself was known to be a favorite poaching ground for enemy stealthers. Again Sinaedh felt an icy touch creeping up her spine. But no arrows flew through the woods, nor did any rushing clouds of evil magic settle over them. With relief, they spied the watchtower marking the fortress’ boundary. Sinaedh smiled as they crested the hill, coming out of the trees, then walked down toward the huge gate that protected Sauvage Fortress.

"On the hill!" came the cry, and Sinaedh turned to look over her shoulder. The road to Excalibur climbed away from the portal of Sauvage keep up into a twisting path lined with the tall trees of the forest. There, standing at the crest of the hill just before the road bent and made further view impossible, stood a small group of enemies.

"Trap," murmured Somchanh. "They will lure the young up."

Sure enough, a group of armsmen who had been chatting with the guards at the Sauvage gate turned, hefting polearms and swords, and rushed up the hill. "No, wait!" cried Sinaedh, taking a few steps toward them.

The sorcerer gripped her arm. "Let them find out on their own."

Sinaedh shook her head. "Please, I know you are weary, but...," she looked at the party of armsmen who had just traveled from Hadrian's Wall, then gestured toward the armsmen running up toward the dim forms on the hill.

The leader of the armsmen glanced at his fellows, then nodded. "If we may have your blessings again, Lady Cleric."

Sinaedh blushed. "I am not strong in that, but you will have all the blessings I can call upon you." She lifted her hands, speaking the words of prayer that would bring strength and dexterity, as well as a protective shield around the veteran fighters. When she had finished, they turned and marched in measured rhythm up the hill.

"That is Hryggr," came the sorcerer's soft voice in her ear. "They will face more than they know." He glided away from her side.

Cries from the combat now beginning between the inexperienced fighters and the troll who commanded the dead were echoing through the tall dark trees of Sauvage. Sinaedh ignored the warnings of the fortress guards and edged closer, trying to keep close to the trees, while still watching for danger. She knew that these attacks near Sauvage were often more than they seemed, and many more enemies might be lurking in the shadowy forest. She reached a point where she was close enough to call down healing power for some of the fighters, but many of the novice group had already fallen. Sure enough, magical attacks rained down on the combatants, cast by more enemies hidden at the side of the road. Sinaedh lifted her hands in prayer, giving as much aid as she could to the fighters struggling against the enemies.

The veteran armsmen were grimly climbing through the trees on the opposite side of the road. Sinaedh rushed to help an armsman who was staggering down the road, blood streaming from wounds as a skeletal form struck at him from behind. She called upon her powers, stunning the skeleton, then reaching a healing hand out to the armsman. But before she could aid him, another skeletal form rushed toward her, teeth chattering together as it ran. Sinaedh, concentrating on her spell of healing, did not see the horror until it struck her, dazing her and ending the healing before it had even begun.

Her head thumped against the hard-packed ground. Something was dragging her downhill. She groaned as she pried her eyes open, sunlight blinding her momentarily; resolved eventually into treetops that moved past, highlighted in the bright blue sky. "Stop, please," she mumbled, reaching toward the grip on her right wrist.

There was no reply. Grimacing, Sinaedh struggled to turn and gain her feet, only to have the form continue to pull her. Rolling to her side instinctively to avoid a face full of dirt, she commanded more firmly, "Stop!"

"Enough, Boark," a soft voice came, and the pull eased on her wrist. "Let the lady go. You have done well."

Sinaedh winced as she pushed bruised hands on the ground, slowly rising to her feet. Somchanh stood nearby, offering her a canteen. "My thanks," she said quietly, then nodded to the ensorceled boggart. "Thank you for bringing me away from the danger."

The sorcerer chuckled softly. "He would as likely as slit your throat, had he been free to act. But come, let us return to the fortress. Ravus and his fighters have routed the enemy, for now."

Sinaedh nodded, following gingerly in the man's wake as he nodded to the guardsmen, who opened the great gate after a careful look around and after making a one or two furtive handsigns thought to protect against the evil known to be used in sorcerer's spells. Sinaedh frowned at the idea that the sorcerer would harm any within Albion, but Somchanh walked through the gate as if he hadn't noticed. She followed, nodding to Uliam as they passed out the gate into Camelot Hills. "I thank you, Sir Somchanh," she said yet again. "In time, I will learn to heed your advice, and not make the mistakes I do. I am sorry." She looked down in embarrasment, then fished in a pocket of her cloak, finding five silvers to pay the stableman. "I need to return to the Marsh." With the help of the man, she mounted the brown horse, holding the reins gingerly with fingers that seemed bruised.

She felt a hand on her thigh. "I do not expect you to ever stop caring the way you do," the sorcerer said, eyes dark under the startling shock of white hair as he looked up at her. "For that will be the day when you are no longer in service to Albion. Do not worry yourself over your zeal, but rather take joy in it. I do." He almost smiled, then smacked the horse on the rump, sending it down the road.

Sinaedh found herself shaking her head as she rode away from the fortress. Eventually, the warmth of the day, the singing birds, and the waves of guards on the road cheered her, and she laughed softly. "Sorcerers. How can anyone ever know what they are thinking, or why?" She settled into the saddle, aches and pains slowly subsiding. Soon she was whistling softly as the horse carried her toward a reunion with her daughter.

A breeze blew in the tall branches, sending the leaves fluttering and making a rustling as if thousands of tiny fairies were clapping, applauding the beautiful day. Sinaedh sat on the blanket she'd packed with the picnic lunch, smiling as Maisye darted here and there, picking up leaves, rocks and squirming frogs, bringing them back for her inspection. "My, that's a handsome toad," Sinaedh said, smiling. "Do you know his name?"

"Buggy!" the girl replied, giggling. "His name's Buggy. He hops good!"

"Aye, I imagine he does, my lass. But it's hard to hop when a wee girl has her hands on you, I imagine." Sinaedh ruffled the golden hair of the child. "Why not let him hop, and we'll have a bit of pie?"

"Yes, mum." Maisye placed the toad on the grass, patting him kindly on the head, then turned to take her own seat on the blanket. Her bright blue eyes remained on the toad, and she clapped when he finally moved, first with a tentative hop, then, convinced he was truly free, with more prodigious bounds. "He's a good hopper."

"He is good at what he does." Sinaedh smiled as she placed a slice of pie on a plate, then passed it, along with a napkin and fork to her daughter. "Now show me how you've learned to use your fork."

Studiously, the young girl positioned the fork in her hand, using the left to guide the implement to its proper position in the right, then leaned to attack the pie. With only a few dropped berries, industriously fished from the blanket with fingers and popped into her mouth, she was soon engrossed in the mystery of pie. Sinaedh smiled as she watched, sighing softly in the warming sun. Birds chittered in the branches of the forest, squirrels darted along highways of their own, and the path she and Maisye had taken to get to the picnic, although close, was quiet. Or nearly so. Her brows drew together slightly as she listened to the approach of a horse.

Maisye heard it too, and paused, a berry clenched in small fingers, a rim of juice around her lips. The sound of hoofbeats was louder now, but the rider was slowing the animal. Sinaedh peered at the trail, spotting the rider just as he seemed to see them as well, pulling the horse to a stop. He vaulted from the saddle and tied the animal to a tree limb, then pushed through the bushes toward them. "Lady Sinaedh Entreris?" he said.

Sinaedh felt a small grip of pain deep within her. She had informed the authorities of Dronamar's disappearance some time ago, and told the Church fathers of her intention of returning to her maiden name, but it took time for these things to become known to all. "Sinaedh Bell," she said softly. "My husband is gone."

"Oh, pardon, Ma'am." His face flushed briefly. "I've a message for ye from Lord Skandon."

"Skandon?" Sinaedh shook her head. "I'm afraid I don't know Lord Skandon."

"Of Castle Myrddin, Ma'am," he clarified, holding out a folded letter.

"Myrddin?" Sinaedh frowned as she took the letter. "I have not been there in quite some time."

"Aye, Ma'am." The man grinned, then shrugged. "Perhaps that's why he bade me send to ye. I can't say though." He waited patiently while Sinaedh broke the seal and read the note. "Will ye reply?"

The puzzled frown grew as Sinaedh read the note. "He invites me to visit, and promises a pleasant meal? How...," she glanced at the messenger. "And you're certain this was to come to me? I honestly do not think I've ever had the pleasure of Lord Skandon's acquaintance."

"Aye, Ma'am," he reassured. "I had special instructions to deliver it as soon as could be. I was directed t' Lord Adribard's retreat, but they told me there ye'd moved home, and your neighbors sent me off thisaway t' find ye and yer picnic."

"Most... strange," Sinaedh murmured, leaning forward to wipe Maisye's sticky fingers with a damp cloth. She was certain she'd never met Lord Skandon in the few times she'd made the arduous trip to Caer Myrddin. Why would he invite her to visit there? And of all places for a pleasant meal, the high plateau of Myrddin seemed most unlikely.

The man cleared his throat slightly, breaking her reverie. "Will ye reply, Ma'am?"

"Oh!" Sinaedh blushed. "I do beg your pardon. I was lost in thought a moment. Please tell Lord Skandon I would be happy to visit Myrrdin, though it will take some time to make arrangements for my daughter's care."

"Aye, Ma'am. He said he understood it would take some time, but when e're ye can arrive, he'd be pleased t' host ye. Thank ye, Ma'am. I'll be off now."

"Fare well," she murmured. She watched, the puzzled expression not leaving her face as the man returned to his horse, vaulted into the saddle, lifted a hand in farewell, then turned the animal back the way he'd come.

"How strange," she said softly. "How very strange."

Sinaedh hugged Maisye tight, kissed her cheek, then smiled at Eustace. "This should be a fairly short trip. I'm not certain why Lord Skandon has asked for me, but certainly it cannot be anything of great moment, since he knew it would take some time for me to arrive."

"Have a fair trip, Lady Sinaedh," the old woman said, smiling. "Th' wee one and I will be happy here until ye return."

Sinaedh nodded, then reached for the reins of the horse standing nearby, smiling as the stableman gave her a leg up into the saddle. The trip from Avalon to Snowdonia was an arduous one, but she admitted to herself her curiousity drove her. What could Lord Skandon want of her? "Certainly not my skills as a cleric," she murmured wryly to herself as she leaned forward under an overhanging branch. The road through Campacorentin Forest was dark, and though often traveled, not as well maintained as others. This far from Camelot, the scouts and foresters had their work cut out for them keeping the path safe for those who walked or rode it. She kept a wary eye out for dangers as the horse picked its way along the dirt road, hoof-falls muffled by the leaves of ages that accumulated there.

The sight of Caer Ulfwych through the trees was a welcome one, though she didn't plan to linger there. Changing horses, she paused just long enough to get word of goblin incursions deeper in the forest to the north and east. Nodding grimly, she swung back into the saddle. Goblins would not be strong enough to harm her unless there were many of them, but she would keep watch for them none-the-less. Leaves high overhead twined together, blocking most of the sunlight, and creating a perpetual gloom in this part of the forest. Though Sinaedh looked from side to side, she saw neither hide nor hair of the reported goblins. "Just as well," she said to the horse, patting it's neck. "We don't need any more goblin toes lining the mantle."

The sun was sinking low into the depths of the forest when she reached the watchtower that separated forest from the grassy knolls of the Salisbury plain. She pulled the horse to a stop, pausing to water him and tie him so that he could graze on the lush grass, nodding to the merchants and guards who lived at the lonely outpost. "Good eve to you. May I rest here a while?"

"Aye, lass, an' ye should, fer there be dangers out to th' plains at night, if ye're not wary," said a guardsman. "Still, I've plenty o' wares t' sell, should ye find yerself needin' t' bide here a while."

"No, my thanks," she said to the man. "I have roamed the plains, some time ago. Are the giants still menacing travelers there?"

"Aye, lass, an' th' heathen tomb raiders as well. No matter how many we put inta th' soil, seems they rise at night, along w' th' skeletons an' other fey beasties. 'Tis a wicked place, for certain."

Sinaedh nodded. "Yet a beautiful one, as well. In time, we will bring the Light to all the restless souls here, have faith."

The man nodded, an expression of doubt on his face. "Aye, many have tried t' bring order. Perhaps someday 'twill be done."

Sinaedh smiled. "Indeed. But for now, I fear I must travel on. I've a meeting in the frontier."

"Good luck t' ye, lass." The guard lifted his hand as Sinaedh checked the girth on her saddle, then settled herself on the horse again. The horse's hooves raised clouds of dust as she guided him along the trail through the plains. On the top of byres, she glimpsed shadowy creatures, night haunts that she remembered vividly from her youth. "It seems no matter how many the Church sends here, the Dead will not rest," she murmured to the horse. As if he agreed, he snorted, and continued on his way.

By daybreak, Sinaedh had reached the great bridge crossing the river. She smiled, remembering sunny days when she and Christiana had stripped off their armor, leapt from the edge of the bridge, and swum nearly to the great city of Camelot itself. Sometimes they had races to see who swam the faster. She waved at the guards as she guided the horse over the bridge and into the hills that surrounded the great city itself.

Though she considered traveling overland, the horse seemed more comfortable on the roads, so Sinaedh guided him past the guard towers and the mysterious sunken statue, frozen arm reaching high into the sky. She paused at Nob's stable to refresh both herself and the horse, but soon was in the saddle again, riding toward the Black Mountains. There were bandits and poachers in this land, she knew, but they seemed to be keeping to themselves, for which she was grateful.

She smiled to herself, waving to the guards near Ludlow. It was there she'd first met Sanders; though she didn't know it at the time, he watched her from outside the circle of light as she told tales one evening by the forge there. Though his loss was still a sorrow, the pain had faded somewhat, and the days with him were fond memories that warmed her heart. She guided the horse north from Ludlow, reaching the marvellous double arched bridge just as the sun skimmed atop the forested Black Mountains. A brilliant new day dawned fresh as she waved to the guards, riding farther north yet.

The road was steeper, and the forests closer, bears and hunting cats occasionally passing nearby. Quickly, Sinaedh rode on, waving to the traders at Snowdonia Station, and then to the guards at Swanton Keep, though she didn't approach close enough to actually speak to them. Soon, she was pulling the horse to a stop before the great gates of Snowdonia Fortress, nodding to the stableman as she turned the weary horse over to him. Though it had been a long ride, her trip was not over yet. Caer Myrddin was far to the north of the fortress, and a long trek still awaited. Sinaedh gratefully accepted the offer of a bed for the night. She would leave for Myrddin in the morning.

It was early morning when she left the windswept turrets of Snowdonia Fortress; she stood for a moment on the brink of the huge cliff that fell away from the castle, allowing the wind to blow through her hair as she watched the orange sun climb up over the horizon. With a final shake of her head to the guard who once again offered her an accompanying detachment, she smiled. "No, Sir Richard, I'll not deprive the watch here of men. I have traveled to Caer Myrddin before, I won't get lost."

"Nay lass, mayhap not, but there are wild beasts, both four legged an' two, in th' hills. I beg ye be watchful an' walk wi' careful steps."

"I promise that I will," Sinaedh answered, lifting her coif to her head and tugging it down over the unruly mass of scarlet that still wished to dance in the breeze. She tucked a few stray whisps of hair under the chain protection, then shouldered her pack, touched a hand to the mace riding at her belt, and waved. "Farewell, until later."

The guardsman frowned worriedly as he lifted a hand in farewell. Sinaedh turned to the right, carefully following the worn path down the steep ridge leading away from the massive fortress, her eyes wide and ears attentive. Each trip to Myrddin was full of danger, there was no doubt about that.

Near the end of the ridge, she slowed, looking around carefully. The wild bounders, cats with sharp teeth and sharper hunger, dwelled nearby, and though they didn't often harm travelers, there was no doubt that wild beasts of any kind could at times be dangerous. Today, they seemed to be well-fed, lounging in the rocks, basking in the sunlight. Sinaedh watched them for a moment, then turned aside, leaving the path to carefully make her way down the steep hillside. There, a lake lay embraced by hills and the forest, but the idyllic nature of the place was misleading. There, the renegade Arawnites had their camp. She must avoid them, at all costs.

Her pace slowed as she reached the bottom of the hill. She paused often, standing near tree boles, listening as best she could, sweeping the areas between the trees with her gaze. Once, she spotted an Arawnite, his savage dress indicating he was of that cult within the sect that called themselves headhunters. Sinaedh traveled carefully, steps as light as she could make them, doing her best to blend into her surroundings so that the heretics, driven from the civilzed lands by the Church, would not see her.

She let loose a soft sigh, aware she'd been holding her breath, as the land began to rise again. There was a watchtower at the top of the next hill, and she knew the forest-dwellers wouldn't travel so close to guards. She glanced over her shoulder from time to time, an icy trickle of perspiration forming there, but it seemed she had evaded the Arawnites. Her steps were quicker as she climbed ever closer to the guard tower, but there was no need for worry. Nothing had followed her out of the steep ravine.

A frown twisted her lips as she glanced around the stone ediface. No guards had appeared to question her path. "Hello?" she called, but there was no answer. Strange, the guard at Snowdonia Fortress hadn't mentioned the tower was unoccupied. Sinaedh climbed the tower's ladder, higher and higher, but still found no indication that a guard had been posted there in recent times. But at the top, oh, what reward. She looked out over the land, spying Caer Hurbury in the distance, its towers gleaming through a low fog that had begun to gather. "It will rain soon," she murmured to herself. "I will stay here until the storm passes." She watched as the clouds gathered, closing around the distant keep and hiding it from her view. A cold wind began to blow, and spits of snow and rain mixed finally drove her down from her perch, to a warmer, dryer spot within the tower itself. There, she barred the door and built up a fire in the hearth with wood that had been left by the last traveler.

She woke with a start. She hadn't meant to sleep, but the fire in the warm tower room, safe haven from the snowstorm that had built up outside was comforting, and lulled her. Until, that is, the thump had begun on the door she'd closed and barred. The fire had sunk to glowing embers, the room had chilled. Sinaedh fumbled for her coif, tugging it on, then reached for the mace, still by her side. Was it an enemy that chose that particular moment to shove at the door again, rattling the wood with a meaty thump?

As silently as she could, she rose, holding her breath as she listened. Silence. She took a step closer to the door, heart jumping a beat as another thud jarred the door. She pulled her mace free, fingers curling around its handle, then stepped to the side of the doorway, and reached hesitantly to the latch as she lifted the mace high. She would only have a moment to surprise whoever it was that was hammering on the door. Surely if it had been the missing guard, he would have called out. No, this must be an enemy.

With one motion, Sinaedh lifted the latch then took a step back, mace ready for a swing. The moment froze as she waited in silence to do battle with whoever was attacking.

It seemed as if time stood still. She wondered if she had dreamed the attack. There was only silence; even the wind outside had died down. Then another jolt was given and the door slammed open, bouncing against the stone wall and back into the face of the creature that had hit it. Wasting no time, Sinaedh swung her mace down toward the head of the being, just as she realized it was no enemy at all that had attacked the door, but one of the wild creatures of Snowdonia. Her mace impacted the skull of the huge pig with a thud not unlike that of pigsnout against door, then she lifted a hand, murmuring the words to a spell that would bring the pain of lightning to bear on the beast.

For its part, the mammoth sow squealed and slashed at the cleric, mouth agape and showing sharp teeth. Blood ran from its head where Sinaedh had hit it, and the spell, while damaging, seemed to do more to inflame the anger in the small reddish eyes than discourage it. Sinaedh took a step back, then swung the mace down again, knocking the pig to its knees. With a scrabbling of hooves on stone, the massive sow surged toward her attacker. Sinaedh stepped back, but the snout of the animal swept one leg, knocking the cleric off balance. She stumbled, and the sow surged forward, spittle flying from her lips, an unearthly squeal sounding from her throat, and teeth gnashing.

Sinaedh had only enough time to raise the mace again before sharp teeth crunched down on her leg. She swung the mace with both hands, crying out in pain. The weapon hit solidly, knocking the pig off its feet again. Sinaedh's leg twisted, still caught in the maw of the sow as the animal fell. She lifted the mace and swung it again. This time, with a breathy grunt, the sow slumped to the floor, jaw slack.

With a grimace, Sinaedh pulled her leg free, wincing as the sow's sharp teeth tore at her. She stood slowly, balancing on one leg, then lifted her hands, again calling the Light of Camelot down on her attacker, to make certain the animal was well and truly dead. Hobbling, she turned away from the smoking carcass and moved closer to the hearth. She slowly slide down the wall to sit with her legs outstretched.

Sinaedh reached for a few pices of wood and fed them to the fire, poking at the embers until the fire once more burned brightly. Then with a painful hiss of breath, she worked the straps to loosen the chain leggings she wore. Surely the armor had kept her from losing a leg, but in the end, pig teeth had proven well able to bite nearly through the links.

Her teeth clenched, Sinaedh removed the legging, allowing a flow of blood free. Toothmarks formed a snout-shaped pattern on her thigh, but the armor had kept the injuries small. Sinaedh closed her eyes briefly, murmuring a prayer of thanksgiving and healing. As she prayed, she placed her hands on the wound, marvelling once more at the warm healing that flowed from her palms into the wounds, drawing them closed and healing the injury. She sighed softly as the pain receded. "Thank you, Lord, for your gift."

"Lle nambe eithel," came a soft musical voice.

Sinaedh blinked her eyes open, reaching again for the mace. The tall form lifted both hands, shaking his head. She could see bright purple eyes in the depths of the hood covering his face. An elf! "Lle anta amin tu?" he said softly.

Sinaedh shook her head, frowning. The words of the elf made no sense to her, but it didn't seem as if he were threatening. "I don't understand," she said.

He shook his head again. "Lle quena i’lambe tel’ Eldalie?" came the musical words.

She could see her confused expression mirrored in his eyes. "Ah," he breathed, then spread his arms wide, hands well away from the bow slung on his back and the sword at his side. He lifted one hand, wiggling the fingers as he brought it down, then wrapping both around him, shivering. He pointed outside, and she nodded.

"Yes, it is cold. You came here for shelter?" He shrugged, her words making as little sense to him as his had to her. He pointed to the fire, then himself, one fine silvery eyebrow arched in question. She nodded slightly, bringing the mace to her lap. "You are welcome to share the fire." She gestured toward the hearth.

"Diola lle," he said with a courteous bow.

That could be nothing other than thanks, she thought. "You are welcome," she replied with a small smile.

She woke again with a start. She'd slept with an enemy in the same room, sharing the heat of the fire? Shaking her head wearily, Sinaedh looked around the room. It had not been the first time, nor would it probably be the last that she and enemies shared a fire. The fire had been recently fed, and lifted light into the chamber. The elf was gone. She moved her hand, then paused. A small bottle sat on the stone floor where the elf had rested. Beautiful calligraphy covered the label, but she couldn't read a word of it. The drawings of grapes and vines that encircled the label left little doubt, but she bit her lip gently. Could she trust a gift from an enemy?

She tugged her leggings back on, grimacing. The chain would have to be repaired when she reached Caer Myrddin. Shivering slightly, she pulled her cloak close, then bent to lift the bottle. A gift from an enemy. "We are not so different after all," she said softly, and put the bottle into her pack, carefully placing a soft cloak around it to cushion the glass. She banked the fire, leaving it safe to either burn itself out or relight when another traveler arrived, then went down the stair to the outer door, her breath frosting in the air as she got closer. It was cold outside still, but that was to be expected.

Sinaedh pushed the door open to a blinding wilderness of snow. The sun was rising over the horizon, and the air was sharp and chill. Shivering once, she stepped out into the crunching white. A glance down convinced her the elf had left not much past dawn. She turned a full circle, smiling and waving, hoping he would see. She looked over her shoulder at the tower, then turned to make her way north, taking the little-traveled trail toward Caer Myrddin, one of the most remote, and yet one of the most important outposts of Albion.

The sun made the snow blinding on each side of the dull gray path she walked. It was dangerous on the path, perhaps; enemies knew those with little training took it to Caer Myrddin. Although she was familiar enough with Snowdonia to take other routes, there she would have to avoid the bwca, who incessantly attacked others with ill will, or the wandering boars and sows, huge porcine threats, or the Tylwyth Teg, ancient invaders from Hibernia who remained in remote enclaves. No, it was best to take the path, there only to keep away from the cat-like bounders that wandered the frozen wastes, and hope that no enemy skulkers pointed arrows or spells in her direction.

It took some time of trudging ever northwest, but soon she saw the plateau where Caer Myrddin was built. A ring of standing stones surrounded the entrance to the keep, with soldiers pacing sentry-routes between them. As she approached, she saw the closest of them watch her warily, but then wave her on as they recognized the symbol of Albion on her shield and armor. With a long sigh of relief, she nodded to the gatekeeper, who accompanied her inside. "I am here to see Lord Skandon," she said.

"Aye, I'm sure he's expecting ye, Ma'am." The gatekeeper gestured to the central keep. "If ye'd go up t' his office?"

"Indeed I will." Sinaedh entered the keep and climbed the stair, nodding at soldiers stationed there. She passed by the large ornate room where Merlin's staff was kept, smiling to herself. How often had she and others raced here to protect the relic from attack by enemies? How often had they rallied and defeated forces, usually from Midgard, entrenched in the snow and intent on stealing this reminder of past times? She shook her head slightly and climbed to the office of Lord Skandon. There was no attack her today. Instead, a mystery of sorts. Why had the commander of Caer Myrddin sent for her?

Background image from Gaelic Girl's Gifs

Wall image from Lord Kyl's Clipart

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