Gwyllm thought that he must be in serious trouble now. Stumbling almost blindly through brambles, bending shrubs out of his face as he struggled to push his way through the forest. The moon was beginning to sink in the western sky. The point of a sword in the small of his back goaded him onward through the thickets to where he knew not.
Coming to a gully, banks soft and eroded under his boots, Gwyllm paused. “Which way now?” he asked.
“Turn right and follow the creek,” the unseen voice commanded. He sidestepped down the embankment and began to walk eastward along the shallow bed of the stony stream. The orange light of the setting moon filtered through the trees and dimly illuminated the way. The creek wound around fallen logs and great boulders. On his left he could see the land rise up in the slope of a hill. They walked until the sky began to redden with the first rays of twilight.
“That’s far enough,” the girl said. They had stopped near a ledge of limestone that hung over the creek bed, creating a natural shelter, good cover to hide them from any of the patrol who may have followed.
Gwyllm turned to face his captor. In the dim light of dawn he made out the form of a young woman, about his age, slim, dressed in black jeans and smock cinched at the waist with a wide leather belt. Her hair was long, black, and curly, and her face was beautiful, though her eyes were dark with heavy eye shadow. What Gwyllm noted most, however, was how she held sword and dagger in front of her, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
“Are you Gwyllm of Swansea?” the girl asked.
“How do you know my name, and what do you want from me?” Gwyllm countered.
“I’ll ask the questions,” she snarled. “If you are another ordinary cur from that company of fiends this will be your doom.”
“Well, if you put it that way, I’ll have you know that I am Gwyllm, from the village of Swansea,” he replied.
“What are you doing on patrol with those war criminals? Shouldn’t you be at home on your farm, taking care of your mom and dad?” The girl sheathed her dagger and tucked the blade of the sword into her belt. “We’ll be safe here for a while. It’s time I let you know what I know about the fine gentlemen of your company and of what remains of both our families.”
“What do you know of me and my family, miss?” Gwyllm asked, “and what should I call you? You have a name, I assume.”
“I am Rachel of Ravenwood. You should be thanking me now from saving you from a certain and rather painful death,” the young girl replied. “Did you honestly think that troupe of devils was going to make you part of their company so easily? You were nothing but an expendable pawn to them and bait for me. Why do you think they stationed you at the rear guard without even giving you basic training? You were never in the army boy.”
“What do you mean by calling me bait?”
“I have been dogging that patrol for the last week. In the dead of night, while their guards are dozing. I sneak up on one of them, given an opening, and slit his throat for him, nice and quick and quiet. I’ve taken two that way, and one in the woods while his pants were down.” Rachel spit.
“You sound like an assassin. I guess from what you have told me thus far you have reason for your murders?” Gwyllm asked.
“All in good time boy. First I must swear you to silence, and to cause me no harm. I am alone in my revenge and believe we may have common cause, though of this cause you know little yet. Swear, by whatever gods you have, or by your own life, and I will spin out my pretty tale to your delight.”
“Something tells me few of your stories are pretty, Rachel. You have done me no real harm thus far, and I am no friend of those soldiers, despite being in their company. I will swear, by the Lord and the Lady, to cause you no intentional harm, and to speak your tale to nobody.” Gwyllm made the sign of the Pentacle in the air before him using his sword finger.
“A brother of The Craft I see, and not a follower of Yeshua. I will trust in your oath before our gods and reveal to you why all this has occurred, at least as far as I have been able to understand.” Rachel sat now on the dark, wet sand of the bank beneath the sheltering limestone ledge. Gwyllm sat cross-legged in front of her, wondering what could drive a beautiful young lady to take upon herself the life of a cutthroat.
After a pause to collect her thoughts, Rachel began: “Seven days ago I was little more than a happy young woman, content with life in our small town on the western border of Nimshire. I had a day job at the milliner’s, weaving lace and sewing dresses for the ladies of the hamlet. My father was an herb doctor, and my mother cared for the young children of the village and my sister Anna, who was special. We led a good simple life and never had trouble from what few bandits would stray from the Neutral Zone, offering them meal and ale in exchange for fresh game and furs. We knew little of crime, and took care of our neighbors in times of trouble.”
“That afternoon a week ago, as I sat at my loom in the shop, I heard a commotion outside. I ran out the door into the streets to see people running helter-skelter, screaming. From the west I heard shouts and death cries, the clang of steel on steel. The men of Ravenwood rushed into the streets, blades at the ready, but we were outnumbered and taken by surprise. I ran to my home, a quarter mile down River Street, but stopped as our cottage came into sight. Fox, my friend from school, was there and took my arm, pulling me behind the oleander bushes in his front yard. From our hiding place I watched as your brave corporal in his shining helm and mail dragged my little sister Anna from our burning house into the streets screaming. I could hear the cries of my mother and father from inside our home, I was that close. Fox held his hand over my mouth so I could not scream and give away our position.”
“Finally the people of the village, men, women and children, armed with whatever would serve as a weapon, gathered en mass and drove the raiding party from the streets of Ravenwood. Smoke darkened the sky from the dozen or so homes that had been burned. When all was clear I ran to the burning wreck of our cottage, but there was nothing to be done. In the streets the dead were strewn and the dying bled and moaned. I searched everywhere in the wreckage of the raid but could find poor Anna nowhere. She and other young girls of the village had been taken by the soldiers. I swore that dawn, by the elements, to see this company of demons drown in their own blood, or in the attempt offer my own life and join my family in the Summerland.”
Rachel paused now and dropped her gaze to the black sand of the creek bed. With her right hand she clutched the sand, held it a moment, then opened her grip and let the earth fall between her fingers.
“You are one against a nation, Rachel,” Gwyllm softly spoke. “The patrol will be nearing Lancaster City tomorrow, and they will surely bring reinforcements to hunt you down. Tell me, what do you know of my family, and how do you know my name?”
“The night you were taken by the constable I was hiding in your small orchard. The next morning, that damned corporal and five of his men came. When they began to loot your root cellar and haul off your animals, your father protested. They beat him to the ground. Then they bound him and your mother hand and foot, threw them into your cabin, nailed the door shut and piled brush from your wood pile around the perimeter of your house. Your family is with mine in the Summerland now. After the soldiers had left I followed them into Swansea. I made inquiries as to you and your family in the dry goods store while they sprung you from jail. I made sure to get a good view of your face and form as they loaded you into their wagon and marched out of town. I followed them, keeping away from the road. Soldiers march so slowly in their heavy gear.” Rachel finished her story, watching the tears well up in Gwyllm’s eyes.
Gwyllm held his hands over his face, trying to keep from crying. His family gone, his freedom taken, how could men sworn to keep the peace and protect the population do such things? There was something about the girl’s voice, quavering, thin, which caused him to believe that this was all no elaborate lie. This one dark, willowy girl had a whole platoon of the Duke’s Army on the run? He was guided by the Rede to harm none, yet if he did nothing, many would be harmed by his inaction. All he knew now was that he was alone in this world, as was Rachel, yet they had common cause. He would fall in with this young lady, and do what he could to help her.
“Your story is indeed terrible,” Gwyllm spoke. “We are both outraged by this foul company. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but I swear, by Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Ether to protect and aid you, Rachel of Ravenwood, until our revenge is served. So let it be!”