Down in the thicket the shade fell dappled, cool in the windless summer day. Among aspens the spring welled up clear, a noiseless bubble of water through white sand. When Gwanwyn knelt, she felt the Presence. The priests said an evil spirit lived in the spring, but she was convinced that the spirit was holy. Either way, at times the Presence did deign to show her visions. Gwanwyn opened the leather pouch hanging from her kirtle and took out a piece of honeycomb, wrapped in green leaves. When she laid it down upon the grass, the Presence grew stronger.
Gwanwyn stared into the still waters and the rippling image of her own face, roundish and pale under blonde hair, pretty without being beautiful. Owain, O Holy Virgin, please, show me Owain!
As she chanted his name, the dappled shadows blended to a darkness, then welled until the dark at the heart of the spring filled her mind. In the midst of the darkness, bright-lit in a ray of sun, Owain stood with his sword in his hand, his helm tucked under one arm. Gwanwyn saw her father standing nearby and laughing, his head thrown back. So. They were both safe, and the battle over. Gwanwyn smiled as if they could see her in return. Then the ray of light turned bloody, picked Owain out, and washed him in gore.
With a scream Gwanwyn leaped to her feet. The spring was only a spring again, but the thicket seemed to shiver with the memory of her scream. She clasped her hands over her mouth and stood shaking, deathly cold in the summer air.
“What’s so wrong?” The voice came from behind her. “Did you see somewhat in the water?”
Gwanwyn spun around. Standing among the trees was a stranger, an old woman. Tall and spare, she wore shabby traveling clothes, a blue cloak thrown over a much-mended dress that once had been green, but her lined face was so strong that her white braids, wrapped round her head, seemed a queen’s crown. Just beyond stood a gray palfrey and a large gray dog lying patiently beside it.
“Who are you? I thought I was alone.”
“My horse smelled the water, and he’s thirsty. May a traveler drink at this spring?”
“If the Holy Virgin allows it, you may.” The old woman nodded, as if tucking this bit of lore away, then went to fetch her horse. When the dog sprang up and followed, Gwanwyn leaped back. It was, in truth, a great gray wolf from the far highlands, with a black roach down his back and narrow yellow eyes.
“He won’t hurt you, lass. I’ve had him since he was a cub, and I raised his mother, too.” The old woman busied herself with slacking her horse’s bit. “My name is Rosmarta, and I’m on my way to the village. Who are you?”
“Gwanwyn of Dun Pennog. My apologies! I’ve quite forgotten my courtesies, haven’t I? How does your journey fare? Will you seek shelter in my father’s dun?”
“My thanks, but I won’t. I have a cousin in your village, old Mab the herbwoman.” She hesitated, looking Gwanwyn over with calm, gray eyes. “You know, lass, sometimes roads cross for a reason.”
Gwanwyn smiled politely, tried to think of an answer, then decided that Rosmarta didn’t truly expect one. When the horse and wolf had drunk their fill, Gwanwyn showed her the way to the village by her usual shortcut, a narrow track that wound across the meadows. Mile after mile, the rolling hills of southern Rheged stretched round, them, a long green view crested with trees. Here and there in meadows grazed white cattle, switching flies.
“You’ll pardon my asking,” Rosmarta said. “But what’s a high-born lass like you doing out without an escort?”
“I like to be alone, and besides, all the men are off with Father. The Irish have been raiding again, you see.”
“Well, that’s ill news!”
“It is, truly. They burned a church, you see, and a monastery, too. They killed the monks; all of them.”
“How dreadful.” Yet her voice had no mourning in it.
“A terrible thing.”
“Well, the monks were all good Christian men.”
Gwanwyn hesitated, waiting. Rosmarta never crossed herself.
“And what about you, my lady?” Gwanwyn took refuge in courtesy. “Have you traveled far alone?”
“I have, but who’s going to bother one poor old woman? Besides, there’d be pity in my heart for the man who dared attack me in front of Giff here.”
The wolf stretched black lips over strong white fangs and waved his tail.
About two miles from the spring, an untidy clutter of round thatched huts spread out around the crossroads. At the common well in the center of the village, a gaggle of old women in black and gray dresses were sitting and gossiping. A couple of small boys kicked a leather ball back and forth and raised little puffs of dust in the road. As Gwanwyn and Rosmarta walked by, everyone curtsied, but in a rather absentminded way. Old Mab’s house was scented with the bitter and the sweet of fifty different herbs. When they opened the gate to the jingle of tiny brass bells, Mab came waddling out, her smile vast among her many chins.
“And there you are, my sweet cousin! And the Lady Gwanwyn, too, by the Holy Mother herself!” Mab made a surprisingly graceful curtsy. “How fares your father, my lady? Any news?”
“I saw—I mean, none yet, good dame. But I pray every night he’ll come home safe.”
“As well you might.” Mab glanced at Rosmarta. “It’s the Irish again, you see, coming up the creeks and stealing everything they lay their foul paws on and burning what they leave behind.”
“So our young lady told me. I heard about the monastery.”
Mab and Rosmarta exchanged the barest trace of a smile.
“But now, we’re all in danger, like,” Mab went on, and her voice trembled. “They kill anyone who won’t make fit slaves. A terrible thing it is.”
“It is, it is at that,” Gwanwyn said. “And we’ve lost ever so many good men, fighting them. I only pray I won’t lose my betrothed, too. I worry so about him.”
“As well you might.” Mab gave a firm nod. “And will you take my hospitality, my lady?”
“All my thanks, but your cousin must be tired, and I’d best get back to my duties.”