Saturday, March 26, 2011

Freedom's Sword -- Beginning of Chapter Four

Caitrina shook her head. Donnchadh said they had gone north and a little east along the pine forest. He pointed to the North Star, faint in the black velvet sky. She rubbed her arms, covered with goose bumps, as they trudged. Even in April, the night air was chill. But how far east had they come? How far did they have yet to go to reach Avoch Castle?

A trumpet called somewhere behind them and she froze. It came again. She grabbed Donnchadh's arm. He pulled her, running, towards a dark mass of thick brambles down slope that extended over the next rise. She stretched her leg to keep up. They pushed their way into the scratchy branches and sank down. Panting and heart hammering, she squeezed his hand. It grew silent again except for an owl hooting in the darkness.

"They won't see us in here," Donnchadh said, "but they might hear us. It's noisy pushing our way through."

"If we tried to stay in the brambles, it would take a long time, too." She listened. The horns, whatever they had meant, had stopped. "I think we have to take the risk."

They neared the top of the next rise and crouched to listen, keeping a nervous eye out for searchers. The English could come very close before they saw them in the dark. The night was silent so they kept going, pushing their way through the dense thicket, arms and legs stinging with welts from the thorns.

Caitrina stopped. A lighter area opened ahead in the moonlight--the road. She pointed, and Donnchadh motioned for them to lie down. Caitrina pointed again at a dense clump of gorse, thick enough to hide her. "Stay here," she whispered.

He grabbed for her hand but she was already creeping forward. From flat on the ground, she could see very little, just the dark night and the ground in front of her. After a few damp, tiring yards of crawling, she glanced back to see how far she'd come. Donnchadh's eyes gleamed in the moonlight. She went on.

She was sure she was near the road when she heard the beat of horses coming at a fast walk. She trembled, wanting to jump up and run. But if she did, of a certainty, they would see her. Don't move. Don't move. Donnchadh's eyes had shined in the dark, so she forced herself to stare at the layers of leaves on the ground. The horses came from her left. They were so close they almost seemed to ride right over her; the ground shook.

Her whole body shuddered with terror, but they kept going. Once the pounding hoof beats had passed, she dared a quick glance. They disappeared before she could count the dark shapes--at least ten or twelve of them. The hoof beats died away. She took a deep breath and crept into the spicy-smelling clump of gorse. She parted the spiky leaves and even in the moonlight, the road was scarred with hoof marks. Why were they riding east? Away from Edirdovar Castle? It wasn't enough to attack Avoch, surely. Were they looking for her?

She strained through to see along the road as far as she could without getting out in the open. Nothing. She jumped at a touch on her arm and gave a faint squeak.

"They're ahead of us now," she whispered and her stomach rumbled loudly.

Donnchadh gave her a weak grin. "Glad it didn't do that before."

Together, they crept away from the road and made their way through the firs. She had gotten blisters on the bottoms of both of her feet so she took off her shoes. The dirt and damp needles made a soft cushion underfoot. She needed to piss, but didn't want to tell Donnchadh. She couldn't make water while he watched. Finally, though she couldn't hold it any more and her belly ached from it, so he turned his back while she squatted.

The horizon was hidden by the fir trees, but slowly the sky turned from gray to blue. Caitrina stumbled over a root she hadn't seen and grabbed a trunk, the bark rough under her hand. "I don't think I can walk much more."

"We'll look for a place when it gets light. No way we'll make it to Avoch today, I don't think."

Caitrina nodded and kept her eyes on her feet trying not to stumble, putting one bare foot in front of another. Her stomach ached with emptiness. It had been a long time since the berries. Once she stumbled over a rock and landed hard on her knees.

Donnchadh gave her a hand to boost her erect. "Not much longer. We'll rest during the day and go on when it gets dark." They found a tumbled cairn grown over with brambles. He made a tunnel into it and pulled the bushes close so they were hidden. Caitrina was sure she wouldn’t sleep but the last thing she remembered was cradling her head in her arms and then Donnchadh gave her shoulder a shake.

The light was already waning in the clear spring sky and the world was turning gray. The brambles ended at the edge of a fir wood. Donnchadh grumbled that it would be hard to find their way under branches that hid the stars, but there wasn't a choice so they kept to the fragrant firs and climbed up a long brae. He led them down the other side and up the next gentle rise.

Caitrina sniffed. "I smell wood smoke."

Donnchadh pointed towards flickering light off to the right. Her stomach was so empty she felt sick and Donnchadh looked longingly towards the light.

"Maybe it's a croft," he said. "I don't have no siller to buy anything. Do you?"

"No." She worried at her lip with her teeth. "They could tell us how far to Avoch though and if they've seen riders. And maybe they'd spare an oat bannock if we ask."

Donnchadh frowned and shook his head. "But what if the riders stopped there?"

"I hadn't thought of that." She twisted her fingers together. "We better be careful."

They kept going in the dimming light that turned into twilight. Where the trees thinned, they slipped from bush to bush. Every few steps they stopped to listen. The light ahead was bright when she heard a horse snort and a man's voice. The smoky smell got stronger.

Donnchadh put his mouth against her ear. "You wait here."

She wanted to protest against being left but was afraid to with the English so near, so she sat down next to some thick brambles as he crept on his belly. Her stomach ached with hunger, but it couldn't be that far to Avoch. The once she had been there, it hadn't been a long a ride by road. She clasped her arms around her bent knees, shivering a little in the cooling night air. They could get there without food, she was sure, even walking. Then Donnchadh was creeping toward her. He shook his head and his lips were pressed so tight they were pale.

"What is it?"

"The riders that passed--they're there." His voice was choked sounding. "They've--they've killed the crofter--his family. The bodies..." He heaved and bent as he coughed up a string of bile. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and she waited, heart pounding. "They're just lying there in the dirt. Like--like old rags or--" His voice broke, and he stopped, choking back a sob. She had a sudden vision of Edirdovar Castle--her sister and mother and all the people she knew...

She pressed her hand to her mouth as Donnchadh sucked in gusty breaths through clinched teeth. He looked up, cheeks wet. "They didn't have a chance."

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