Mist rose above the rolling moors, gilding the half-melted snow tops. The early morning sun crept over the horizon, as though reluctant to let the night relinquish its grasp on the land. A gentle gust played across the hilltops, holding in its tendrils the scent of spring. Night sounds still pervaded the air: the melodic chirruping of crickets, the mournful crying of the nightingale, the throaty warbling of peepers. Stars glistened like gems against the slowly brightening sky, turning from ebony black to a dusky grey. Everywhere, the valley’s diurnal inhabitants still slumbered, hopeful of a promise of a fair day.
One rider noted the coming of morning with relief. He nudged his massive stallion up the slope of a particularly large hill, halting at its crest. His and his steed’s breaths furled and intermingled in front of them sporadically. The man was about forty with the sturdy build of a northerner. His countenance was weathered but handsome. Across his back lay a sheathed sword, and attached to the saddle cantle was a hefty axe. He had positioned himself squarely over his horse’s broad back, straight as a rod. When in progress, the horse, also from the north, moved with a rocking gait. His barrel chest was deep and wide, his coat a smoky grey, and his legs stout and muscular. Endurance defined their features, and to find a hardier pair would have been difficult.
The man surveyed the surrounding moors of the country with a swift gaze then turned his eyes southward, trying to discern the shadows that made up the sprawling Tengirth Forest. But he could see nothing; it was yet too early. Praising under his breath the breaking of dawn for he disliked the quiet unknown of dark, he tugged Gale’s reins to the left and proceeded down the hill in a careful fashion, avoiding the stones and brush scattered about like the stars in the early morning sky.
In the forest, one noted the coming and going of the man with but mild interest. Men, especially riders, frequented the moors and forests throughout the warmer months. Who could he have been but a merchant or scout? the young woman reasoned, turning her attention to the task at hand. Her appearance was nothing out of the ordinary. A plait secured her brown hair, and quick, intelligent green eyes caught the forest’s every movement. The woman donned typical woodland clothes: a green tunic, thick breeches, leather boots, and sword belt, into which was thrust a dagger. In her hands was a thin curved yew bow.
A young deer browsed the ground, his velvety lips foraging for last year’s acorns. The young woman hid behind a tree and waited for the right moment. Unfortunately, her footing slipped and a branch cracked underfoot. The deer raised his head and surveyed his surroundings with keen eyes and ears. His nostrils flared as he tried to catch wind of any unusual scents. The girl kept her back against the tree for a breathless moment until the deer lowered his head again.
Carefully, she stepped out from behind the tree just enough to get a good shot, now that he was broadside to her. Notching an arrow to her bow, she drew back until the string was taut. Holding her breath, she released the string. The arrow flew through the air and landed with a thud in the deer’s midsection. Stifling the cry she made at the off shot, the girl watched the deer leap up in surprise and pain and bound away to the east. Sighing, she let out a low whistle. A black horse ambled out of the depths of the wood, dragging behind him a plank of wood. He was a stocky horse, his girth perhaps a bit too much for one of his breed, but his steps were sure and sound. Snorting, he tossed his head and paused to nip at an overhanging leave.
“Peredur,” the girl commanded tersely. Undeterred, Peredur shuffled slowly towards his mistress and paused again to graze. Annoyed, she walked over to her horse and took hold of the trailing reins. Drawing his head up, the girl scolded the nonchalant horse. “I will brook no nonsense from you today, my friend,” she chided, looking into his eyes. “We must return by mid-morn, and I do not want to delay.” He breathed hard into her face, and the young woman smiled, amused. “Per, come.”
Releasing Peredur’s reins, she set off into the forest, following the distinguishable blood trail the deer had made. The girl tracked the dying deer through groves of oak and beech until she found him lying on his side. Pity rent her heart, and she took the dagger from her belt. While she hated to end the life of the deer so painfully, she aimed to end his suffering. She knelt by the animal, inhaled deeply, and plunged the dagger into the jugular vein in his neck. Blood spurted out of the wound and onto the ground. Within a short time, the deer’s lifeblood had drained onto the ground and the beast lay still. Because he was too heavy for her to lift, the young woman rolled the deer onto the wooden plank and tied a rope around his midsection. Thus secured, she and Peredur started off into the forest, heading for home.
Leading Peredur, the girl walked assuredly down an overgrown path, following a winding river. After a good hour walk, she stepped out into a large clearing, the sun beaming overhead. This was the village of Dowerglen. Sturdy buildings made of wood and stone with thatched roofs lay scattered about the area. A single dirt road ran north and south through the clearing. Near the road was a tavern called the Hollow Tree Inn. A worn brown shingle emblazoned with an oak tree dangled from a peg over the door. It was a small village of honest farmers and artisans, known for their intricate woodwork.
The girl tugged Peredur forward after he planted his hooves in the road and huffed, tossing his head spiritedly. The pair walked down the road until they were hailed by a tall, broad-shouldered, well-formed man with dark hair and heartbreakingly blue eyes. He straightened up from raking dirt and called, “Well, ‘tis about time you came back, Addie! I was worried you were lost in the woods again!”
Laughing, Adrienne replied in mock indignation, “I don’t see you traversing the forest for food, Matti. At the least you could lift this beast for me!”
Matthias, Adrienne’s brother, bent down, lifted the carcass easily over one shoulder, and proceeded to a nearby dwelling. Another man stood on its threshold, nailing in a frame for a window. He turned upon hearing the approaching footsteps and greeted Matthias and Adrienne cheerfully. “Well met, Addie!” the man, their father Thyrin, praised as he approached his children.
Thyrin was the steward of Tengirth Forest, a wide swath of temperate deciduous forest covering the northeastern region of Illyria. He was tasked with the safety of those who lived in the Tengirth along with enforcing the King’s rule. It was a thankless task, but Thyrin had raised his family in relative safety away from the intrigues and plots of the royal court. Despite the fact his family was of minor nobility, Thyrin preferred the woods to the great city.
He set down his hammer and nails to embrace his daughter in a one-armed hug. “I see you managed to get Matti to help as well.” His gaze met that of his twenty-six-year-old son. “I admire that, my girl. He is as hard to move as a donkey.”
Grinning in return, Matthias retorted, “True. But it’s not polite to call me an arse, Father.”
Thyrin laughed gaily. But then a sudden thudding of hooves on the dirt road forestalled further conversation. A large grey horse galloped their way, and his rider cried with relief at the sight of Thyrin. He hauled back on the reins, and the stallion stuttered to a halt.
”Thank the fortunes you are here, Thyrin!” the man said, jumping off his horse and embracing the elder man graciously.
Thyrin held the man at arm’s length and stared bewildered at the younger man by a year, his brother. “Ardyn, brother, what has happened?”
Ardyn stared into Thyrin’s blue eyes, widening them slightly in significance, and nodded infinitesimally. Thyrin bit his lip anxiously and whispered, “He has died, then?”
“Aye, ten days ago. Ingrid had me summon the two princes just before I left to formally declare his death.”
“May his soul reach peace,” Thyrin bowed his head, giving the dead king a moment of respect. “But now,” he added, coming back to the present, “we must remain vigilant. Who knows what will await us with Renault on the throne? Have you any word from Emir?”
“Not a word. But you know him, he’ll find us when the opportunity suits him.”
“Aye, it is true what the oldwives say about the Andelai: ‘Dark as night, elusive as mist, the Shadow-men thrive. ‘Twixt leaf and loam, barrow and stream, more dead than alive.’”
“‘More dead than alive?’” Ardyn scoffed and shook his head dismissively. “Emir may be secretive, but I’m quite sure he and the others live.”
Thyrin shrugged and cast his eyes around the glade, taking in every inch of his village. He noted the shape of a large dark bird hopping agitatedly in a nearby beech tree. With a harsh caw, it launched itself into the air, wheeled once, and flew off into the forest. The steward watched it for a moment before returning his attention to his brother. “Be that as it may, I hope the rascal pokes his head around soon. I have need of his counsel.” He sighed heavily and took his brother away to converse in low tones.
The siblings watched the quiet exchange with interest. Wishing she had the ability to read lips, Adrienne muttered sideways to her brother, “What do you reckon is going on?”
“Something grave to be sure,” Matthias replied, eyes on his father, whose shoulders slouched, a clear indication of a weighty matter. “But we shall find out soon enough, Addie.” He turned away with the slain deer over his shoulder and deposited it on the ground. “But Father will tell us in due time. You know he always does.”
Adrienne wrinkled her brow as she noted a raven flying over her head toward the north. “It looks like Lady Vrana is keeping an eye on Uncle Ardyn’s coming.” She indicated the retreating bird with a nod. “There goes Bierga.”
“Vrana Snake-eye? Is that hedgewitch still living? I thought for sure she perished three winters ago!” Matthias said with a laugh. “Goodness knows we haven’t seen her in Dowerglen for at least that long.”
“I would have you know she visited last midsummer,” Adrienne retorted, glowering at her easy-going brother. “But you’re not likely to remember that when your head was drowning in mead, you scoundrel.” She nudged Matthias in the ribs. “Vrana offered me a love potion for you, you know. Said it was time for you to settle down with a nice woman.”
In a manner reminiscent of Peredur, Matthias tossed his head in a dismissive fashion as he began to walk towards the Hollow Tree. “Bah, marriage is not like to find me for years, Addie. Women are too…”
Adrienne matched his pace and arched an eyebrow at his comment. “Too what, brother?”
“Fickle. Women are too fickle,” Matthias finished as his face brightened in embarrassment. “Come now, let’s be off to the Hollow Tree. I’ve a keg of Boar’s Breath to pick up for Father. Strongest ale in the country, the way old Barty talks of it.” Bantering, the siblings strode off down the road to the tavern.