From Every Bitter Thing

fromeverybitterthingcoverExcerpt from From Every Bitter Thing

The night before the marriage, she lay on her sleeping pallet, staring at the thatched ceiling above her. Her mind churned. She was going to spend the rest of her life in a foreign country. The thought sent cold waves of apprehension through her.

Caledonia was her land. Her spirit had walked among its white-capped mountains, its rivers, its trees for countless seasons, through many incarnations. From the ancient time of dreaming, to the here-and-now, she had been part of it. The knowledge that she was leaving created an empty hole in the middle of her spirit, an absence for which she had no name.

She listened to the sounds of the fortress around her, the periodic calls of the sentries, and somewhere, the hoot of a tawny owl. In the bustle of activity, she’d ignored the need within her, the strong pull on her spirit that told her she’d been away too long from her forests.

She stood and put on a green robe and a heavy woolen cloak, and slipped from her chamber. She hadn’t left Caledonia yet.

She walked to the stables. The mare Arthur had given her greeted her with a soft nicker. She bridled it and led it out.

At the gate, the fork-bearded sentry recognized her. “Going out so late, priestess?”

“I can’t sleep, Amil. I can open the gate, myself”

“May be some Irish stragglers out there.”

“I can take care of myself, and I know the forest.” She pushed open the postern beside the great wooden gates and led the mare out. Behind the wall she heard Amil climbing heavily down the ladder to close the gate. She mounted and rode down the hill.

Above her, the sky spirits twinkled, watching with small, bright eyes. A waxing moon provided enough light to see. She turned the horse northward.

Soon a shadowy, wet forest rose up around her, dark yew and pine. The path, cushioned by dead needles, climbed slowly at first, then more steeply. Llyr, the wind, blew chill down the mountain, and she breathed in the crisp, living scent of the night air. The horse’s ears twitched as it swung its head from side to side, picking out the path.

Guenevere reached a crest and rode down the other side. Gradually the forest stood away, and she saw ahead a tarn, dark and still, mirroring the mountain peak in the light of the moon. At the edge of the water a deer lifted its head and watched her, but did not bound away.

She listened inwardly, felt the pulse of her heart and the rhythm of her breathing slow to match the deep, slow pulse of the woods. She knew this was where she belonged, alone here with the spirit of the forest.

She dismounted and tethered the mare to a willow, and walked to the water’s edge. On the first finger of her right hand was a ring, silver with a gold vine scrolled around it, her favorite. An unblemished ring offered to the Mother Goddess symbolized the wish for a happy and complete union. She pulled it off and held it up, the metal glinting faintly in the moonlight. Making her wish, she drew back her arm and threw it far out into the lake. It hit the water with a small splash.

As she gazed at the moon’s silver track on the lake, she became aware of a change in the rhythm of the night around her, a disturbance in nature’s flow that made uneasiness stir along her spine. She listened but heard nothing. She scanned the shore of the lake, but saw nothing that didn’t belong. Yet something was wrong.

Trusting her intuition, she moved quietly to her horse and mounted, and trotted into the trees.

There she turned and watched the path. Her mare stamped. After a few moments she heard a sound, faint but growing louder, the sound of hoof beats coming toward the lake. A moment later they stopped.

She peered through the gloom toward the edge of the clearing. Was that faint blur near the tall pine a rider? She waited.

Moments lengthened, and still she waited. Her hands began to sweat. The sky spirits wheeled slowly around the Nail of Heaven. Perhaps she’d only imagined the hoof beats.

From the dark stain of pine a hooded rider appeared, as if a native spirit of the wood had taken shape in the gloom. It rode slowly toward the lake.

Heart racing, she turned her mare, intending to skirt the clearing quietly and reach the path behind the rider. But the mare whinnied, and the rider’s head jerked in her direction. He spurred his horse and pounded toward her.

Guenevere kicked the mare and it bolted. Thorns caught at her cloak as she plunged through a thicket. On the other side, a deer trail dove down a steep slope, and she urged her mare down it, its hind hoofs slipping in patches of snow under the trees. At the bottom, a brook splashed and chattered. She turned the horse into the stream and clattered along it, then out again.

For what seemed hours she rode a twisting, confusing course through the forest, working her way gradually toward the fortress. Occasionally, she stopped to listen, her body cold with fear. She heard only trees sighing in the wind like sorrowing ghosts. But some sense told her the pursuer was still behind her. She rode on.

Black had faded to gray when she reached the edge of the forest, so abrupt it seemed drawn by a knife. Between here and the fortress lay nothing but open ground. The man behind her had a larger horse, and she knew he would probably catch her before she reached safety.

Heart hammering, she uttered a prayer to the Great Mother, drew a breath, and kicked her mare into a gallop. She plunged toward the road.

As she snatched a look over her shoulder, the rider burst from the forest, a darker blot against the trees. He zigzagged across the hillside like a hunting dog casting for a scent. He spotted her and whipped his horse into a gallop.

Frantic, she bent low over her mare’s neck, urging it on, pleading with the pony. Still the man gained.

The road plummeted downhill alongside a churning stream. She reached the mouth of the valley and galloped up the slope crowned by the hill fortress. He was within bow range now, and her pony, tired, began to stumble.

Glancing back, she saw him shrug a curved bow from his shoulder and fit an arrow to the cord. As he loosed the arrow she swerved to the right and the shaft went wide.

The man drew again. That arrow also missed, but thinly enough that she heard the thrumming of the white feathers as it shot past her ear. The walls of the fortress loomed above her.

“Open the gate!” she shouted. “Attack!”

The sentry peered out and swore. He disappeared. She waited. “Hurry!”

For long seconds she thought the gate was not going to open. At last, it swung slowly inward. She darted through as another arrow buried itself in the wood near her head.

A volley of answering arrows sprang from the walls, but went wide. The rider wheeled his horse and galloped away.

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