Chapter One: The Burning

After an attack
After an attack

Cwendlwyn stood staring at the burning houses that were once the village called Riverwide. Screams reached her ears even where she stood on the hilltop that led to the forest below the mountains, her only possession clutched to her chest.  Her father had finished stringing the lute just that morning, smiling sadly as he placed the instrument in her hands.  Had he sensed what the day would bring? Could he have known that their life would be destroyed – again – by forces out of their control?

Turning from the scene, she raised a shaking hand to her face. Blood streamed from a gash on her cheek.  She had not felt the pain until the threat of the attackers had dissipated with distance. Now that she was relatively safe from harm, the entire left side of her face began to throb. She had none of her father’s herbs or potions that would quickly stop the oozing of the wound. Surely they were all destroyed by the fires. Perhaps her father would have had the sense to pack some before the attackers had reached their home. A scar would remain without the treatment her father’s salves could provide. It would be little compared with the other scars of the day, she thought, and began to walk toward the wood situated at the bottom of the range of rolling hills.

She plunged into the trees without hesitation. Being a bit of a loner, she knew the wood by heart and quickly found familiar landmarks: the squirrel’s nest in the oak, the fallen rowan, the spring with its small brook that joined the Adorn to the south of the village. She stopped at the spring to ease the burn in her throat and clear the taste of smoke from her mouth.  The cool, clear water slaked her thirst, but showed a reflection that caused more pain to her than she realized her own image could induce, considering the circumstances. Her home burned, her few gathered possessions lost, her father missing or dead. None of these struck her as her own bloodied image in the crystal pool.

Before this day, Cwendlwyn’s hair had hung like night past her shoulders to her waist. She knew as she sought to save her beloved horse from the town stable that her flyaway tresses were in danger from the building flames. She had woken from a nap to the sounds of screaming and harsh guttural cries. She had had no time to braid and confine the wild mane before she fled from the small hut she lived in with her father. She recalled now the acrid scent of burning hair and realized it was not just the manes of the beautiful horses trapped in the stable being burnt away. A good length of her hair was gone, the ends broken and brittle. She ran a shaky hand across her scalp and a great clump of it pulled away. She stared in horror at the delicate strands clinging to her fingers, shocked that she had not noticed, angered that the only thing she felt was beautiful about herself was gone.

A small black water beetle stroked its way across the still pool, shattering her image as it flitted past. Her gaze broken, she clasped her hand to her throat. It was tightening uncharacteristically, threatening to overcome her and choke her with tears. If only she could prevent them from spilling, if only she could tear it all away – the broken remnants of her hair, the images of the familiar huts burning in the morning air, the visages of the Dunlendings running down the familiar paths with axes and maces raised, hacking and slashing the familiar faces that after eight years had become almost family to her.

The golden blonde mane of Frieda, newly married and the first true friend Cwendlwyn had ever made, captured the early morning light, blazing crimson against the blue sky above her. She had cried out to Cwen, reaching through the rare second story window of the home her husband, son of the village elder, had built for them. The hungry flames crept up the thatch to overwhelm her. Her screams as her hair caught fire echoed in Cwen’s brain, magnified by the screams of a hundred women and children.

Cwen had wanted to help her friend, just as she had wanted to save Bean, her beautiful chestnut. She had stared, horrified as her world burned down around her, powerless to stop it.  Only the rush of a Wild Man bearing a blackened sword rushing toward her broke her from the shock of seeing Frieda burned alive. In one swift movement, Cwen drew the dagger from the sheath around her calf, stooping below her attacker’s swing and turning to bury the blade in his side as he tumbled past. With a feral scream that seemed to stun the wounded man to stillness, Cwen ripped the dagger from his flesh and thrust it into his neck.  Without hesitation, she turned and ran, knowing the man was dead, dodging bodies without noting friend or foe for everywhere she looked was fire.

None noted her, as the invaders seemed set on the total destruction of the village. Men of Riverwide took up arms where they could and fought back, but most were caught unawares during the morning attack, and died unarmed, fleeing or defending their homes with fist and heart. She was almost to the meadow that led into the mountains when a Dunlending appeared from the smoke, brandishing a mace. With a ferocious cry, Cwen charged the man, dagger raised, chanting a song of the brave. The man turned and fled, dropping a brown satchel as he ran. Cwen recognized the leaves stitched into the seams as her father’s mark, the sign of his trade. She ran forward to retrieve the pack and later found her risk was worth it: the sack contained some simple trail rations and the lute her father made.

But where was her father now?

The question roused her from her shock and she realized the moisture on her cheeks were tears. Once more she touched her hair, the gash marring her left cheek. A support beam had collapsed in the stables, causing the roof to cave and throwing debris in the air. Only when a board smashed into her face did she give up trying to reach Bean, and she knew that she was lost beneath the rubble. She allowed the tears to flow until the count of ten, then she wiped her eyes on the hem of her tattered sleeve and climbed to her feet.

She followed the brook until a small hunter’s path branched away form its banks. Stepping carefully and quietly as Tyne had taught her, she made her way through the wood to the tiny hut that had been their hideaway many times before. She approached cautiously, listening for occupants, human or otherwise. She peered in through a low window and saw the cold hearth and dust on the table.

Convinced that the hut was unoccupied, she went inside and set to kindling a fire. She had searched the bag on the hilltop and had saved the rations then.  She now munched one without tasting its dryness or feeling any hunger. Cwen knew that Tyne would find her and her father and they would escape into the woods yet again, together. Once the fire crackled warmly on the stones, Cwen sat in the lone wooden chair and waited.

She did not have to wait long. Soon, the sound of a quiet footfall reached her ears and she rushed to the door to greet him. She stopped short at the sound of two voices talking lowly.  Father! she thought, but her excitement was quickly replaced with shock and disbelief.  She did not understand the language spoken, though it was familiar. It had the same rhythm and cadence as the invaders’ cries to each other as they pillaged Riverwide. Ice froze her blood, threatening to turn her to stone. She forced herself to back away from the door, hearing the voice that was plainly her father’s say, in Rohirric, “If it be her, and not forgoil flown from the village, treat her in turn.”

Fear crept up Cwen’s spine and her feet stepped backward under their own volition. As her rear hit the low table across the room, the door opened and her father stepped across the threshold, followed by Tyne Dernhere, her beloved, her fiancé.

Never before had she seen Tyne as she saw him now: dirty, blackened with soot, and carrying a bloodied mace, much like the one borne by the Dunlending who attacked her.

©Lindsey Smith

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