That afternoon, after packing up their dinner, Gwilym asked Grainne how long it would be before they left the forest.
“Probably tomorrow morning,” was her reply. “Unless the path stays this wide and we can keep up this pace.”
Her words were prophetic as the path seemed to open around them and the trees thinned out, leaving them with great visibility. The picked up their pace. The horses seemed to have lifted spirits and pulled eagerly.
After five hours of fast traveling, they saw the forest thicken ahead. Grainne strained to find the path. She steered toward a likely path. Before long they were winding their way along a deer path similar to the one they had been traveling along through most of the forest. Gwilym looked at Grainne. She said, “It can’t be more than a few more hours. We’ll sleep tonight outside the forest.” Gwilym breathed a sigh of relief.
“What do you have against forests?” she asked.
“I love forests when I’m wandering with a beautiful woman or playing with my children. But not when I’m being hunted by murderous knights and preyed on by bandits. That is when I prefer the open ground where I can see.”
“That is when I prefer forests. I can always hear them first as long as we stay quiet.”
An hour later she stiffened and signaled to the boys behind to halt and be quiet. Gwilym had noticed nothing. She signaled to Bleddyn to bring his cart right behind her. She led Gwilym to the boys’ cart and whispered to them her orders. “You are going to hear a terrible noise soon, like the barking of thirty pair of dogs. Don’t be afraid. I’m making that noise. But the horses will be scared. The sound will be coming from directly behind us so they will want to run forward. Stay right behind me, Bleddyn. We have to be close together for the illusion to work and it won’t last long.”
Grainne returned to the lead cart and shook the reins to start the horse. She drank a long draught of water. She then held the reins in her knees as she reached behind her for her traveling bag. She pulled out some herbs and powders and spread these on her horses and cart while murmuring some ancient words. Then she lifted her head to the sky, opened her throat and, even though Gwilym was expecting it, scared him half to death with the sound she made.
Gwilym had heard packs of wild dogs before, terrorizing sheep in the hills. But this was worse, closer, frightening! His skin crawled, his hair stood on end and his heart leaped in his chest. How did her small body produce such a tremendous noise? Magic again, he supposed. The horses bolted, held onto the path by Grainne, who still looked up at the sky, her throat convulsing with the sounds she made. Gwilym, wide-eyed, looked from her to the path, not understanding how she managed to steer the horses while looking straight up. He looked behind and was relieved to see Bleddyn following right behind her while the other boys were holding their ears and looking terrified.
They burst into a clearing at full gallop and Gwilym saw two men running off into the woods, dropping their bows in their haste. One of them glanced behind him right at Gwilym, then tripped and fell. The man screamed, scrambled up and bolted into the cover of the trees.
Grainne kept up the spell for 10 minutes, while the horses galloped along the path. Then the noise she was making faded away. She lowered her head and spoke some comforting words to the horse that slowed to a trot. Both horses’ sides were bathed in sweat and their skin was quivering with fright. She smiled at Gwilym.
“What was that?” he asked.
“The Questing Beast,” she croaked.
“And what did that man see; the one who looked back?”
She replied in a hoarse voice, “A large, spotted, leopard with the head of a snake.”
Gwilym shook his head and gave her a draught of water, which she gulped down. “That’s going to cost me,” she said, then fell into a swoon.
To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here: