A Bitter Memory
Gwendolyn sat on the fallen slab of rock, its six sisters standing in a wide semi-circle, dark and proud against the sky. The wind was blustery but Gwen lifted her face to the feeble sun anyways, enjoying what warmth it managed to offer. This was one of her favorite places, the Standing Stones as they were called. Six, large, rough hewn pillars of black granite, with the seventh broken off at the ground. What they were and how they had come to rest here, no one knew.
She watched the sheep spread across the small hill. The tender, hardy shoots that grew this high this time of year were good for them, and a needed supplement to their meager winter fair. Sitting in this spot with her knees drawn up to her chest always had a peaceful affect on her. But today, as the sun crept towards noon, Gwendolyn, felt ill at ease. A sense of foreboding and anxiety, feelings she was unaccustomed to.
Finding the golden cup and then the old woman’s reaction to it worried her. And there was the dream, most of the dreams she could remember revolved around life in the village, the one last night was different, and today, this unease she was feeling, akin to it somehow.
Startled, Gwen slid off the rock and skinned her knee.
“Day dreaming again were you lass?” the boy said, smiling down at her.
Seething, Gwen let her expression change to a grimace as she grabbed her leg.
The boy’s smile fell away as he hurried around the fallen pillar. “I’m sorry girl; I was just funning with ya.”
The gangly youth leaned over to help Gwen to her feet.
When he stepped between her and the sun, Gwen grabbed his scarf, placed a foot in his stomach and flipped him over her head. He landed with a solid thump flat on his back.
Giggling, Gwen looked over at the face lying next to hers, up side down in her perspective.
“Aw, that weren’t funny Gwen”, the boy said, as he struggled to catch his breath.
Getting to her feet, she fingered the hole in her gray stocking, exposing her scraped knee.
“That’ll teach you to sneak up on a body William Tanner,” she said, holding out her hand to help him up.
He waved the hand away. “I’ll do it me self,” he told her.
“Oh c’mon Will, don’t be like that.” You have to admit you looked pretty funning running around that rock the way you did.”
“That’s because I thought you were hurt... You are a cold one Gwendolyn, and you know everyone says so“.
“I am hurt”, she told him, a little heat in her voice. “You made me tear my stocking and bruise me leg, you wool headed fool.”
“Alright, alright,” the boy finally said, “Lets don’t fight, we’ll call it even” he told her, holding up his hand in parley.
With a mischievous grin she poked him in the stomach, “Nope, I’m still one up,” she yelled over her shoulder as she started down the hill back towards the village.
The boy called after her, “And thanks for watching the flock for me Will.”
“Thank you,” she yelled back at him, already halfway down the slope.
Gwen found the old woman bent over their fire, the aroma of mutton coming from the spit. “Is that bleeding mutton I’m smelling?” Gwen asked as she hurried to remove her wrap.
“Hush girl, you know what I’ve told you about talking like that,” the old woman said without turning from her work.
“Yes,” Gwen said at the admonishment, her stomach reacting to the smell. Meat was a luxury they seldom enjoyed.
“I thought a haunch would be nice to warm you up,” the old woman told her, straitening up to rub her lower back.
Gwen tore off a bite of bread from a loaf resting on their small table before pulling her stool closer to the fire. It was unusual for her to be home in the middle of the day, if there wasn’t a blizzard, or she wasn’t sick in bed. The change of routine only deepened the feelings of unease she had been experiencing.
“Does any of this have to do with the golden cub she asked?”
“Lets have our sup and then we’ll have our talk,” the old woman told her.
After their meal the old women put the leftovers back in the pot with the bone. They would have the broth tomorrow; little was ever wasted in their small home.
Finally when their plates were clean and each had a hot cup nearby, the woman begin.
“My dear little one I’ve loved you like a daughter all your short life. An orphan you are as you knew, but there are things that have been hidden from you. For your protection I thought, but now,” the old woman started then faltered.
“What is it mother?”
The old woman gathered her thoughts before beginning. “This morning, before you showed me the cup you were asking about dreams.”
“I do not know what your dreams may mean, if they mean anything at all. But you are of that blood, from a line that often saw things, the sight my mother called it, though she was afraid to speak about such powers.
The women of your family reach a time just before their first woman’s blood when decisions must be made. Important decisions of whether to impart upon them the knowledge and special abilities of their ancestors, your grandmother and mother were taught the Old Code, but none since your great-grandmother has every taken the oath, she was the last.
“You knew my grandmother?” Gwen asked.
The old woman looked down at her feet and let her shoulders slump, feeling every one of her 66 years. She raised her face to look into the eyes of the child she had cared for, loved, and tried to protect. The child of the child she had loved as her own, and the granddaughter of the one she loved more than if they had been true sisters.
Joined at the heart, they had whispered to each other when they were just girls, and even now, after all these years, hers' still ached at the loss.
The old woman cleared her throat and wiped at her eyes. “Yes, I knew your grandmother, your great-grandmother as well. I know I told you I took you as a newborn when your mother died in childbirth. But that was not the truth.
Your sweet mother did die shortly after your birth, what I’ve never told you was that your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother; alas your entire family died the night you were born.”
Gwen started to speak.
The old woman held up a finger to silence the child. “Not now, I must finish before Fate takes away my courage. Let me start at the beginning, my part in it at least.
Many years before the Clan Wars, your mother’s family owned all the land for leagues around here, from the Boar Woods to the harbor; including the Castle at Glennlock. The women of your family were strong matriarchs and for generations had practiced an old religion that had its roots in this very region. Your great-grandmother was the last ordained Sister of that old Order.”
The girl started to ask something but stopped. The old woman smiled at her.
“I know you have a lot of questions dear, let me start by telling you who the Sisters were. The Sisters were the guardians of The Dragon’s Keep. That’s the old name for the castle that once stood on Kings Head. Even in your great-grandmother’s time however, it was in ruins and abandoned. But she kept the old traditions, as did her mother and her mother’s mother. But she was the last one to take the vow, and unfortunately most the Old Code died with her.”
“Why was it called Dragon’s Keep? Were there dragons there?” The little girl asked her, eyes wide.
“No little one, no dragons. But have you ever wondered why it is that for leagues around there are very few large, old trees? That’s why we burn mostly dried peat and manure in our cook stoves. For hundreds of years, maybe longer I’m not really sure. The Sisters kept a fire burning high in the tower. Everyday, year after year carts would haul fuel up to the castle to be added to the blaze. It was a signal fire they say, but at night for miles around people said it resembled a dragon sitting on a hill, hence the name.”
“What were they trying to signal?” Gwen asked, almost in a whisper.
The old woman looked her directly in the eyes. “I’ll get to that in a moment. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain about what happened to your poor family, and then I’ll return to the legend.
My mother was brought into your great-grandmother’s household as a serving girl where she soon became the mistress’s favorite. In the course of that time I was born, and then about a month later your grandmother was born. My mother became her wet nurse.
Your grandmother, Estelle, and I were raised almost as sisters. I attended the same sessions with her tutors, not formally of course, but I was soon surpassing her in some subjects. Anyway, I learned to read and write from some of the finest scholars in the land, and even more significantly, I heard about the Old Code at the knee of your great-grandmother. I’ve taught you to read and write, but soon I fear I must teach you more.” She paused a moment to look into the fire.
“Your grandmother and I,” she began again, “Grew into women, and although we were still very close our stations did not allow us to remain friends in the same way. I didn’t mind though, she was always very kind to me and I never stopped loving her. I never married and continued to serve your family, Estelle did however, and soon your mother was born.
Adeena was such a beautiful baby, but often sickly, your grandmother and I would stay up night after night coxing the little one to live. Soon she began to thrive, and I was asked to be her nurse. I so enjoyed those times spent with Estelle and the baby; it was like the old times again.
That was almost thirty years ago.” The old woman paused, lost in her thoughts at where the time had gone. The years passed so quickly, but they were very happy ones. Soon however, Fate failed us and evil struck.
There had been rumors of a marauding horde attacking the eastern camps and trading villages for years. From where they had come I did not know. It was rumored that they were a squinty-eyed people from the East where the land is covered in an ocean of grass they say. It was also believed that they suckled their horses and ate the dead. But many such rumors abounded in those days.
We had felt safe however, this far west, and even though we had diminished in recent generations; our people were still hardy and our knights dour.
When runners appeared heralding that our own boarders were under siege and that the enemy was at the river, it caught us ill prepared. Your great-grandfather and grandfather led the men of their household to the crossing at Falcon’s Wash, were they, and the other nobles were able to beat back the attack and secure the border for several years. But where force of arms failed, treachery soon succeeded.
The Easterners begin to make secret alliances with some of the Clans, promising land and booty if they would only join them. An assassin’s arrow killed your grandfather, forcing your great-grandfather to retreat back to Castle. We had enough stores and weapons to hold out for a time, but soon things grew increasingly grim.
Though the Cup be lost, as the saying went, it was said that some of the old power still resided in your great-grandmother. I saw her with my own eyes, standing alone upon the battlements with the moon behind her, arms out stretched, her long gray hair streaming in the wind. On those occasions when we felt that the end was surely near, your great-grandmother would face the enemy, their darts falling harmlessly all around her. What spell or incantation she invoked I never knew, but they would always retreat. Each time she performed this feat it took her longer to recover. We knew time was running out if relief unlooked for did not come from somewhere.
This went on for almost a year, and as farms went fallow and the stock was consumed we felt that Fate had turned its back on us. Your great-grandfather was considering a parley when scouts reported a fleet landing troops at Barters Dock, not five miles away.
We wondered what doom this new news would bring. Your grandmother, mother, and I watched from the tower as a line of horsemen appeared just over the hill south of the village. As the host drew closer we could see their armor and regalement shining in the sun. Soon flags were unfurled, and silver dragons on scarlet fields begin to snap in the wind. We lost count after about two hundred knights, but many more spearmen on foot and bowmen quickly filled the plain.
We could see the Easterners and their rebel allies’ hastily forming defensive squares between the strangers and our walls. It was apparent that they were just as surprised to see the newcomers as we were. We watched the two armies position themselves, jockeying for the better ground. We could see the newcomers were greatly outnumbered, but never the less they were still an impressive site. Their units were well organized and their horses, while big boned were fair to look upon.
After about a half hour of tense stalemate, a small group of riders broke from the center and road up to the Easterner’ formations, their hands shining white in the sign of parley, of the exchange we could tell little, except that when the brief meeting was over the riders turned and walked their horses back to their lines.
We had fought the Eastern Barbarians for over three years now and were well aware of their capabilities. Their most formable weapon besides hate and fear was their light cavalry. These leather shirted men on horseback, armed with short bows were devastating to our slower moving foot solders and knights.
They would hold back always just out of reach and rain destruction down on man and horse alike. Only our swiftest riders could catch them, but few ever returned from such a charge. Only in highly defensive positions or in garrison could we withstand their attacks for long.
I felt pity for the newcomers as we watched their handsome cavaliers form four abreast. We new from experience that the enemy spearmen would hold the middle and fix the knights while their cavalry archers would try to flank their formations and attack from the sides and rear. The newcomers did not have the numbers to survive such devastation we feared.
Just as it looked as if they were about to charge, lines of men armed with great bows stepped from between the horses and formed up along a slightly curved front. We watched to see what would happen next. Both armies were still out of bowshot, or so we thought, so it would be a test to see who would charge first.
We watched the archers with the long bows slowly raise and draw them. We marveled at the strength it must have taken to fire such a great weapon, and strangely, at least to us, they pulled the bowstrings back towards their faces. Our archers, as well as the enemy’s normally drew back towards the chest. When they did release we were amazed at the height the missiles reached at their apex before slowly turning and starting earthward.
The deadly rain slammed into the Easterner’s tightly packed formations taking down scores of men and horses with just the first volley. We saw several companies of rebels break away and flee. Easterner Captains however, do not retreat so easily. They ordered their own archers to return fire, but the range was still too great. As they tried to move in closer they were cut down by waves of directed arrow shot.
Having his best weapon nullified, the Easterner Captain gave the only order that was left. Charge! The light cavalrymen slung their bows across their backs and drew their short curved swords, and along with a thousand-barbarian spearman, they attacked.
The bowmen released one last volley at the advancing horde before retreating, as they did lines of men carrying tall pikes moved forward and replaced them at the front. The silver tips of their pole-blades shone white in the midday sun.
The Easterner lines crashed against the wall of steel and fell back like waves against the cliffs. Twice the Easterners rallied and charged, but each time there were less of them to fall back and reform. When it looked as if the Easterner’s numbers had been unbelievably reduced by half we heard the clear sounds of horns blowing from up and down the newcomer’s lines. This was the signal for the cavalry that had been waiting to attack.
They fell upon the now fleeing barbarians. Your great-grandfather and his knights joined them, and being caught between two determined foes the barbarians were routed. Through the afternoon and into the evening over 2,000 enemy heads were counted. Only when the battlefield was quiet, except for the sounds of the wounded, did your great-grandfather finally lead our savior into the castle.
On a winded horse, his once shinny armor sweat stained and bloody, the young knight rode through our gates.
As he passed under the torchlights holding his helm under his arm, we could see his long blonde hair in a single braid down the middle of his back. Your mother, looking down from her window, straining to see in the gloom, caught her first glimpse of your father; she was just 16 years old.
“My father! But you said you knew nothing of my father!” Gwen said, a shaking tenor to her voice.
“I know dear. Please forgive the lies I’ve had to tell you. I promised your mother I’d keep you safe, and keeping you blind to your past was necessary.”
Gwen got up and moved away from the fire. She turned and looked at the old woman sitting small and frail on her rough stool, “Mother, I love you, and I thank you for all you’ve done for me. But it’s time I know the truth, all of it.”
“Yes my sweet girl. You’re right, you’re time has come. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us now, but I am with you and we will face it together.”
“I need to know what happened to my mother and family. How were they killed, and why?” Gwen asked, crossing her arms as she leaned against her bed.
“Come sit.” The old women said patting the stool beside her. “Let me finish.”
“Your father’s people, they’re actually distant kin, for the ancient Traders that settled this land, also landed in their country long ago. Anyway, the Easterners had attacked them in their southern provinces. Mostly costal raids, but their spies had warned of a larger army here, across the ocean channel that separates us.
Your father’s father, their King, decided to send his son and what forces could be shipped to confront the Barbarians, here on the mainland. Your father explained that his King had granted him rights to establish treaties and alliances as he thought would best benefit the Kingdom.
He and your great-grandfather signed a pact and the Prince committed a garrison of 1500 men to our defense in exchange for trading rights and free passage southward. As your father and his men went about building border forts he was often at the castle, and it was inevitable that he and your mother would fall in love. They did, and in June of that year he made her his bride.
We were all very happy and your mother soon bloomed. But before you were born the Prince received word that his father was deathly ill. He was ordered home. Adeena, heavy with child was confined to her bed and unable to travel. The Prince sailed away promising to return or send for her as soon as he could.
Two months passed with no word, when finally a messenger arrived for the Captain of the garrison. The Prince never arrived it said, and was feared lost. His father the King had died, and with the Prince gone his cousin the King’s nephew was crowned. The new King ordered all troops home and abandoned the treaties.
Within a month of their leaving old reveries heated anew. We were once again besieged, but by our own countrymen this time, factions of the Northern and the Eastern Clans. Your great-grandfather died in his bed and the castle fell a few weeks later.
On the night you were born we could hear the pounding at the gates and smell the fires. Your grandmother and mother pushed you into my arms and instructed me to flee via the cellars and to keep you safe. Your great-grandmother met us at the south stairwell and tied a leather sack around my neck. She said this was some of the treasures of her house and a little gold to help us. She kissed you on your little head, pushed a torch into my hands and nodded for us to go.
Later I was told she went and stood alone in the courtyard to face the first of the rebels as they breeched the gate. They say scores were stuck dead as they tried to advance towards her, and many more she bested with sword before being overcome and hacked to the ground. She was 78 years old on the night she died.
Your mother and grandmother retreated to the high tower before it was sat afire. They died jumping to their deaths trying to escape the flames, and it was assumed that your mother’s unborn child died with her.”
They sat silent as their fire waned. The old woman got up and stoked the little stove until it suddenly blazed. Gwen jumped, and with tears in her eyes turned and buried her face in the old woman’s bosom, sobbing.
When she had quieted a little she looked up with red-rimed eyes and asked, “My great-grandmother, what was her name?”
The old woman still holding her reached and smoothed her soft, golden hair. “It was Gwendolyn dear, you were named for her.”
Minuets passed as Clotild slowly rocked the young girl back and forth.
“Mother”, Gwen asked. “Why have you told me these things, why now?”
“The cup dear, it’s been found. Its your time,” she whispered.
Gwen leaned away to look up at the woman. “My time, I don’t understand.”
“I know child, I’ll teach you.”
It was still early evening but the sun was already beginning to set. Their little room grew dark and Gwen felt her eyelids growing heavy. She was so tired.
Guiding her by the shoulders Clotild led Gwen to her cot where she helped her into bed before pulling the blanket up under her chin.
“Sleep little one. Tomorrow is another day.”
 The castle where the current overlord of the province lived.
 Colloquial aphorism from the region to explain an unknown.