Guinevere's Gamble Excerpt
Llyr had found something in the forest south of Deva that he wanted her to see, something he could not describe and was afraid to remove from its setting. More interesting still, it was something that Lord Riall had secreted away. She was curious to see it, since it might explain why Lord Riall had come to Deva in the first place...
Llyr pushed Thatch into a trot and headed for the trees at the forest verge. The forest was thin, here, for the old Roman road lay nearby, and the Romans had cut down every tree and bush for a hundred paces on either side. They had also thinned the woods between the road and the river, as had each generation after them. The Romans had not trusted the river, and they had been wise.
It was an excellent place for hunting deer, for the brush was low and afforded a good chase. Guinevere was not surprised to find signs of the recent passage of horses. Llyr observed the marks but did not pause to examine them. All his concentration was on finding the landmarks to Sir Riall's hiding place.
Guinevere eyed the blackthorn dubiously. "Is there a way through?"
Llyr wrapped Thatch's reins around a branch, then stepped three paces to the left and pulled aside a large section of the dense, spiky growth. He used handles, Guinevere saw, made of twisted rope stained to match the grey-brown of blackthorn branches. The way ahead was clear. A narrow path had been cut into the hedge beyond, and it led straight to the base of the grandfather oak.
"Did he do all this himself?" Guinevere breathed. "Just one man?"
Llyr nodded. "He made the way. And the gate. I saw him."
"But not the thorn. He didn't have time to build a barricade himself. This brake was here."
"Yes," Llyr said, struggling to pull the wall of twisted branches back in place. "This thorn is old. As old as the tree, perhaps. I think this used to be a sacred place."
Guinevere shivered. Oaks were sacred to Druids, those select and clever pagan priests who still worshipped the Goddess in ways long proscribed in civilized kingdoms. There were few of them about any more, and for this she was thankful. One did not cross a Druid; his curse could follow a man for years before striking at the least expected hour. Their memories, it was said, went back at least a thousand years.
"Not recently, I hope," she said aloud to still her trembling. "If there had been a way through the blackthorn, Lord Riall wouldn't have had to cut one."
Llyr gave her a reassuring smile. "It has been empty a long time. And the oak is dying."
He had finished with the gate. The solid circle of blackthorn around the tree seemed to seal the two of them off from the outside world. The hedge was tall enough that they could not be seen from outside if they squatted down, and this gave them a sense of privacy.
Llyr approached the ancient tree, scarred and gnarled with age, and began to climb. At twice his height a dark gash cut partway through the trunk. Here, ages ago, a lightning strike had pierced the rugged bark, making an entrance for decay. Llyr swarmed up, threw a leg over the lowest branch, and hanging upside down, stretched his hand into the open wound.
Carefully, he withdrew a long, flat package wrapped in canvas and tied with twine. He wedged it firmly under his arm and jumped to the ground.
They bent over it together. "What is it?" Guinevere asked in growing excitement. "Open it. Hurry."
Llyr took his time undoing the knots. "Be patient," he murmured. "This must be tied up again exactly the same way so that he does not know we have found it."
"But what is it?" Guinevere whispered eagerly. "You've seen it, haven't you?"
Llyr nodded. "But not up close. And not in daylight."
Beneath the canvas and twine was an inner wrapping of leather bound with thongs. Again, Llyr untied the knotted thongs with consummate care. Inside the leather wrapping lay an oiled cloth wrapped around something thick at one end, flat and slender at the other. Gently, Llyr pulled back the final fold of protective cloth.
Around them the forest grew suddenly still. The wind died, and with it the rustle of leaves and the birdsong.
The sheath of a dagger gleamed with the dull luster of old gold and gems deep-set in the Roman style. Silver chasing ran along its edges, fine, thread-like work that spoke of consummate craftsmen and long-lost skills. The hilt was a masterpiece of the goldsmith's art, and Guinevere uttered a soft cry as her hand reached out to touch it.
Llyr watched her anxiously.
Her palm closed on the grip, worn smooth with use, and pulled the blade free. It was a long steel blade, forged by an expert hand, with honed edges and perfectly balanced weight.
Heavy as it was, Guinevere found it enticingly easy to hold. She had never been one to worship weapons, but the sight of it in her hand produced a heady rush of exhilaration.
"Oh, Llyr," she breathed. "It's magnificent!"
He edged closer. "Whose do you think it is?"
"I don't know. But it has power. I can feel it."
Llyr went still. "Put it down, Gwenhwyfar. It could be cursed."
She almost laughed. "Oh no, not cursed. Not when it makes me feel so wonderful." The dagger's grip seemed made for her hand, so close was the meeting of flesh and steel. She could not tell where one ended and the other began. Cool power flowed from the blade into her wrist and arm, and then into her body, making her heart pound and her breath come fast and light.
When Llyr held out his hand for the weapon, Guinevere instinctively recoiled. The fear in Llyr's eyes brought her to her senses. It was not her dagger, and it never would be. Reluctantly, she let it go.
"A weapon that makes you feel like that is dangerous," Llyr said gravely as he returned the dagger to its exquisite sheath. "It is better out of sight."
He wrapped it up in the oiled cloth and as it disappeared from sight the forest came alive with sound: not only wind and whipping leaves, but the thudding hoofbeats of a horse coming fast in their direction.
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