With the day of her arranged wedding fast approaching, will the Lady Eithne agree to marry King Eowain? What sinister forces have gathered to oppose the happy day?
The unrelenting torrent carried Eithne under the black stone wall.
Eithne’s face broke the foaming surface of the lustral spring waters for a moment. She gasped for breath. The current rushed through the center of the outer hall and plunged down from the hill on its stony course into the valley below.
She tumbled with the cataract over the precipice. Her leg and arm banged against one wall of the stone channel, her back buffeted against rough bricks. Foaming spume filled her nostrils, stung at her eyes.
Then water closed once more over her head.
Her feet hit the soft muddy bottom. She flexed her knees and pushed off, up, toward the surface and the air. The sodden blue robes and linen gown dragged at her.
She broke surface and gasped.
The sun lingered behind mountainous walls around the Vale. Dawn? Dusk?
The sodden robes pulled her down. The pool was deep enough to drown her.
The waterfall of spring water at her back splashed into the pool.
The waters run down the south side of the hill, she recalled. The sun was to her right. To the west. Dusk, then.
Above on the hill, she heard shouts over the racket of the cascade. They’re coming for me.
She kicked hard for the soft bank of reeds that surrounded the pool and dragged herself from the waters. She shed the blue priestess-robe and ran out into the fields that rolled down toward the village and the fairgrounds.
Men bounded down the steps cut into the hill, swords and javelins in hand, hooded with the heads of bears and wolves. Horns blasted from atop the hill.
The red gloaming-fires still flickered at the top of the mountain wall, but the Vale itself was already dark. The chirrup of insects and the croak of frogs filled the air.
Eithne was leaving a trail a child could follow, she knew, but from such men, there was no hiding, not when they were so close.
Mud sucked at her sandaled feet, she slipped on grass, but on she ran.
Across the deep purple sky, shadows swooped and swirled. Bats at their evening feast, squeaking and chittering.
The bray of horns broke the night air again. There were shouts behind her and to both sides.
They’re strung out across a line. So not to miss me in the gloaming.
The footing grew firm. Open ground to run, and she did. She had to stay ahead and lose them in the gathering dark.
Eithne’s mother had always demeaned the strength of her body. “A lady should be soft,” she would say. “A man doesn’t want a muscle-bound wife.”
But surely, Eithne was glad for those muscles then. Glad of the hours she’d spent running against the other men of the village. Her legs were strong, her wind good. Even weighted as she was in the sodden linen gown, on she went through the chill evening air.
From the hill of the Goddess, the land rolled south gently and descended toward the farm settlement that supported the temple. She could see the lights of the village already, and the broad swath of campfires that blanketed the horse-fair, pilgrims and merchants and nobles come for the high-spring holy day.
Somewhere among those lights was her father. Father, who’d always encouraged swords and shields and woodcraft. Father, who’d always had a good word for her, even when her mother hadn’t. Father will know what to do, she thought. Father would take care of her.
She set her teeth and ran on.
A horn blasted the air thrice behind her. High-pitched. A summoning. She’d been sighted.
Come on! Run! She lowered her head and leaned in. She leaped over hummocks and rocks hardly seen in the dimness. The campfires bobbed and jumped in her vision. Her legs burned with exertion.
Shouts and cries chased her, drew closer. Her cold, clammy clothes dragged at her limbs.
Almost there! Almost to the crowded camps. Her father would be there somewhere, among the cook-fires with his men. Her father would defend her.
Her breath grew ragged, her step faltered. Run, damn it all!
Out of the sky, a great dark shadow swept down. Piercing shrieks filled her ears, each new long wailing cry—high and thin and cruel—more unbearable than the last.
Ye Gods! Her hands went to her ears. Blackness came into her mind, and she could think no more of running, but only of falling, hiding, crawling.
Agony clamped down on her shoulder—knocked her from her feet—tumbled her through the meadow grass.
A huge shadow-shape passed over her.
She landed on her back with a thud.
In the sky above, three more dark shadows flitted thither and yon.
She drew the small knife from her pocket. Her other hand found a tree branch in the meadow grass. She rolled to her feet, raised the branch like a club, and held the knife ready.
The shadows flitted in circles, then plunged, one after the next.
The pain of their keening shrieks, like steel nails over chalk, nearly blinded Eithne. She dropped the branch from nerveless fingers, grabbed at her ears, and fell to her knees. The first bat swooped over her.
The second bat seized her right arm in its fangs, dragged her up from her knees. The third struck her in the back. The jaws of another clamped down on her leg.
Their wings tangled, and her weight was greater than they could bear. Together, they plunged and pinwheeled across the dark meadow.
Javelins flew out of the dimness. Two burrowed down and quivered in the grass. Two more pierced the beasts on the ground.
The injured ones screamed and staggered on awkward legs and wings. The third released Eithne’s arm and shrieked across the meadow.
Through the blinding pain, she stumbled to a knee, then a foot.
Huntsmen! She caught a glimpse of them before the black dog-sized body yet airborne flapped down between them and her.
The two ungainly monsters scrambled into flight.
Eithne stood and kicked the blunt, upturned snout of the nearest bat. Blood exploded over her sandled foot. The beast blinked and shrank back.
Like a bolt from a bow, Eithne was away. Black forms swept down out of the sky, passed over her.
Behind, the shrieks of the bats mingled with the shouted curses of the Huntsmen.
The village and its camps were just ahead.
Run, damn it! Eithne lowered her head and shoulders. The hummocks flew away under her feet. Run!