The outskirts of the forest were sparsely treed but the deeper they entered, the closer together they grew and the denser the undergrowth. The sky was soon shut out by an overlapping canopy of branches. The little light that filtered down revealed a ground covered in rotting leaves with roots rising up at random to trip the horses. The animals snorted their discontent, their ears flattening and their flanks twitching. Gwilym strained to see in the dark, his line of sight limited also by the twisting path. Spider webs stretched between the trees and Gwilym had to peel them off his face after passing through. Several times Grainne had to brush a spider off his head from an occupied web. Gwilym shuddered in disgust as one scrambled down his neck.
Grainne steered the carts on a winding path formed by nature, rather than by man. At times, Gwilym had to walk in front and chop down occasional saplings for the carts to pass. It was slow going and the night fell quicker here than on the open plain. They pitched camp in a small clearing where they could draw the carts near each other with room between for the pavilion.
“No fire,” ordered Grainne. “It will attract unwelcome visitors.” She walked around the clearing, sprinkling herbs, twisting branches together and singing. Her enchantment complete, she returned to the boys who were raising the pavilion. “Stay within the clearing tonight,” she said.
As the night grew darker, Gwilym and his sons started at the sounds of the animals and moving branches in the forest. Grainne and her two boys were resting easy for the first time of this trip. Gwilym remarked on this.
Grainne said, “The forests are our natural home. Avalon borders an ancient forest. We learn our herb-lore there, we worship in the groves, and we gather mistletoe. We spend many nights sleeping in forests without protection spells.”
“Should I stand guard?” asked Gwilym.
“I’ve taken care of it,” replied Grainne, kissing him deeply.
Despite Grainne’s insistence, Gwilym woke at every noise and was grumpy when daylight started filtering into the clearing. They packed up and continued in a westerly direction. This day passed uneventfully. They disturbed the occasional deer, many squirrels and birds. They still hadn’t reached the great north-south Roman road by nightfall.
Around midday on the third day in the forest, Grainne halted the carts and pointed up at the rise ahead. “The road is up there.”
“How can you tell?” asked Gwilym.
“The straight line,” she replied. “Only humans use straight lines.”
She pointed at the top of the rise and Gwilym could see the line of the road.
“Wait here,” he said, drawing his scimitar and climbing the rise.
He forced his way through the undergrowth to the embankment and poked his head out of the bushes and into the clearing of the Roman road. It was empty of traffic on both sides. He crossed and entered the woods there, looking for a place to drive the cart. The brush was thick here so he glanced left and right trying to find a space. There seemed to be no path. Then he looked back and saw no apparent path where he had come from. Humbled, he scurried back to Grainne and asked her to find a path.
With a crooked grin on her face, she led him to the right instead of straight up to the road. “You have to think like an animal. Deer don’t like to walk through undergrowth either. They have made paths over the years. Deer like open spaces and sometimes travel in herds so they prefer wide paths between trees. We’d been following a deer path the whole time until you decided to strike out for the road.”
The path they followed skirted the road for about a mile, between five and ten feet below the road’s surface. Then it rose up to the same level and they could be seen from the road. Grainne backed the horse so they were hidden again by bushes. She stepped down and Gwilym joined her approaching the road. There was a large bush near the drainage ditch and Grainne crawled into it, squirming through the low branches until her head was poking out the other side. Gwilym shook his head at her dexterity and waited behind. Grainne pulled her head back into the bush. He heard hoof-beats and froze. He glanced behind him, relieved that he could see no sign of the boys or carts.
The hoof-beats clattered by. From his vantage point, Gwilym saw two sets of horse’s hooves trotting south along the road. Grainne waited a few minutes, and then worked her head back out of the bush. She yanked it back in and Gwilym tensed. Squatting on his haunches was uncomfortable but, given the tension he saw in Grainne’s body, he dared not move to relieve his aches.
Many minutes later he heard the sound of men’s voices. They were approaching from the north. Gwilym looked around, hoping that his body was as well hidden from a walking person as he knew it was from one on horseback.
He held his breath as the men approached within hearing distance. “There be better prey than those two, lads. Gotta wait for t’right oppituny. Bite off more’n ye can chew an’ yer dead right quick. Take t’easy pickin’s I always say.”Gwilym heard some grunts in reply as the men walked past. Then he heard, “Wha’ about t’deer path? We aint looked along it fer a while. Could be somethin’ there.” The men stopped in the road and discussed this for a while. Gwilym grasped the hilt of his scimitar, steeling himself to protect his children.
To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here: