Part I: Escape
Silven watched as the two newest prisoners were added to the cell. They too, must have incurred the wrath of the latest Roman Queen, since they were being chained, arms above their heads, like herself. She grimaced in sympathy when a guard silenced the younger man with a fist in the gullet. Romans were notorious in their "kind" treatment of prisoners. She vowed to take the two with her in her escape... as soon as she planned it. For now, she hung her head, a defeated expression on her face, and waited. Day had faded and the moon risen high before the two regained consciousness from the Roman mistreatment.
"Conor, you all right, Lad?"
"Fine, Fergus, you?"
"Who's the woman in the chains?"
"I know about as much as you, Fergus, seein' as we arrived at the same time."
"Sorry, Lad, din't mean ta bother ya."
"Can you break your chains?"
"No, and neither can you." her voice was hoarse from screaming and Conor wished he was able to give her some water to ease her raw throat. He took the opportunity to look full at her, now she'd spoken. She'd had her golden brown hair shorn off, up to her ears in places, by the Romans.
Conor felt anger stir in his belly as he examined the knife wounds from the Roman daggers on her neck; they hadn't cared whether it was hair or flesh they'd cut. She'd twisted in her chains to look at them and Conor had a glimpse of the darkest blue eyes he'd ever seen before she turned back again. She wasn't very tall, he noted, since she was forced to stand on her toes where he and Fergus easily reached the ground. Romans didn't seem to feed their prisoners very well either, since rags that might once have been a fine tunic now exposed her rake thin shoulder.
"How long have ya been here, lass?" he asked gently.
"Long enough to know you can't break chains. Why did they put you in here?"
"Conor here is startin' a little confederation of tribes, and Diana din't like it." Fergus always had his say. A shadow of the changing of guard silenced all three.
"Look here, do as I say and we'll all be out of here soon. I've a plan, ya see." Conor didn't know if he was comforted by the impish grin she directed at them. Just then, the guard responsible for the cells was relieved. Silven swallowed hard and hoped her brave words proved true.
"Hey, guard." she whispered hoarsely "I've got information that'll make you a favourite of the Queen." she oozed every ounce of persuasion into her voice. As she'd hoped, Rodious was the guard who was on duty. One of her strong points was character judgement and she knew who'd be greedy or loyal among Diana's guards. She only hoped herfriends were close by, or this was only going to be the shortest escape in living memory.
Rodius turned to her and sneered. "And what would that be, slave?" she hoped her wince at the hint of her fate was sufficient. Cowering for Romans always made them feel so superior.
"Come in here and loosen my chains first."
"Come now, Rodius, I only want my feet to touch the ground. That's not too much to ask, now, is it? After all, the reward the Queen would give you for finding Conor's camp'd more than make up for any reprimand..."
"Conor's what?" Rodius took the keys from his belt and opened the door.
"Now, you just come in and loosen the chains a wee bit, and I'll tell ya." Rodius only smiled at Silven, leaving he keys in the cell door. Damn him! He couldn't make this easy for her, now, could he?
"Are ya daft, girl?" Fergus hissed, playing along with what he must have guessed was a charade. She studiously ignored him.
"Now, you were saying?" Rodius stood two feet away from her.
"Loosen the chains first."
She was answered by a sharp slap. Undaunted, she faced the guard again.
Rodius stared down at the imp. She'd had her chains deliberately shortened, though she'd been given the longest set. She dangled in front of him, making him stare her down, knowing that the information she offered was too tempting. Having been in here with the two rebel leaders, he'd no doubt this thief had wheeled the location of Conor's camp out of them. What harm could a little length of chain cause if she gave up such a gem to him. He gave her enough chain to stand erect.
Slap! but he loosened it enough that her hands could touch her nose.
"Two leagues over the north hill." Smugly, Rodius turned to face Conor wanting to gloat, not realising until too late Conor was also smiling.
Silven grabbed her chains as soon as Rodius was past her. She lurched sideways and struck the guard in the back of the neck with all her weight behind her heel. The guard stiffened, the smile forever etched on his dead face as he fell.
"Good lass, but now what? We're no closer to freedom now without the keys." Fergus hissed.
"Fret." she called softly toward the bars. "Fret!" she called a little louder. A pink nose and shining pair of eyes appeared under the bars.
"Good girl. Tools, Fret. Bring me my tools."
"Keys Fret, bring her the keys." Fergus whispered, but the eyes had already disappeared.
"You're crazy, lass. That rat'll never bring you anything useful. It canna get us out a here."
"Hush." Silven hissed, The three waited, holding their breaths.
Not long after her whispered command, Fret the ferret came scurrying over the straw strewn ground, dragging a small pack behind her. This she deposited in her mistress' mouth and scurried to her post to watch for trouble. Conor and Fergus' jaws dropped in surprise, but they said nothing.
Silven undid the cord around the pouch and withdrew a lock pick. Within a moment she'd set herself free and had started on her fellows' chains.
"Why din't ya just tell her to get the keys?"
"Because she can't carry the keys. To heavy."
"Fine, now what?"
"Stand the body up outside against the wall. Make sure no one's ta see ya." Silven hissed. Conor complied with a grunt, Silven close on his heels with Fergus in the rear. Conor'd made a move to leave when Silven gripped his arm.
"The wall of the castle, there, across the way. See the shadows that lead to it behind the hay wagon, spear pile and fire pit? The only guard on duty now ta see us is the one walkin the wall above, there. Each time he makes a turn to walk to the left, his back is to us. Go then and only then, or we'll be spotted for sure, and I'm not talkin sheep. Keep quiet. Now, go!" Conor nodded as she made each point and followed her instructions. He'd made it halfway across when she sent Fergus after. She soon joined them behind the shadow of the wall where no torchlight reached. Here she'd dug a hole under the wall wide enough for her to squeeze through. She pushed Conor towards the gap and turned in the opposite direction. He grabbed her arm.
"Where do ya think you're goin?" All three paused as the guards steps brought him directly overhead.
"I have a few things to pick up first."
"Like what?" Fergus whispered.
"I'll meet ya outside. Follow the fox, there. Remember ta keep ta the shadows. I'll be all right." by the time Conor had turned to see the small animal waiting by his foot, the girl had disappeared.
"Conor, come on."
"She's alone, Fergus."
"We'll come back fer her. Let's go!"
They followed the fox, keeping against the wall until it reached the shadow of the first hill, which covered them enough to reach a small stand of trees. When there, Conor made Fergus stand fast.
"Are ya mad, boy? They could take us again at any moment."
"We're waitin fer her."
"She could be hours if she din't get caught, lad! Conor, she's one person and the whole confederation depends on ya. Can't ya.."
"We're waitin fer her, Fergus. She saved us from the Romans. We owe her enough ta wait fer a bit. Then we'll leave."
"Then shall we go?" Silven's voice dripped with humour as she joined the two in the ford of trees. She'd strapped a pack to her back that, among Fret and a few other things, contained the obvious bulge of a lute. Around her waist was a short sword that had a purple stone which winked at Conor once, and in each hand she held other weapons.
"My father's sword!" Conor breathed. She'd retrieved their weapons as well as her own, which she tossed to Conor and Fergus.
"They were with my pack and I figured ya could use 'em. Let's be off 'afore the Romans change watch again and find we're gone. Happy trails!" Silven turned to go a different path.
"Where ya headed?" Fergus asked gently.
"Where ever the path leads me."
"Ya'd be welcomed ta come with us ta the Sanctuary. We owe ya a night's rest and some decent food, at least." Conor smiled at her. Silven was not the trusting sort, but she looked deep into these two, into their hearts as Kenall had taught her, and only saw the honest wish to repay her. Despite her misgivings, she nodded her agreement and began to follow.
Chapter Two: Sanctuary
It had been many years since Silven had been on the isle of Eire and so she let the two men lead the way in the moonlit forest. Fret squeaked occasionally from her pack, but other than that the three travelled in silence. It wasn't until well over two hours that the tall, lanky Fergus, walking behind her, struck up a conversation.
"Do ya know how ta use that thing?"
"My lute? Of course. I'd not be weighted down with it else."
"Ya know how ta use that?"
"My sword? Well enough."
"Too bad ya can't use the two tagether, eh?"
Silven laughed. Fergus had a good, strong heart and smiled easy enough. She liked him. "Tell the truth, It's been a while since I've had a chance ta use my lute, though it's usually how I earn my keep in any village I stay in. The sword's been used much more of late. Too much war around."
"You're not from the isle then?" Conor asked, surprised.
"I was, years ago. Went to Britannia for a few years. Had some business there. Then I just travelled for a while. Not much farther than Gaul, mind ya. I'd just gotten back home when Queen Diana nabbed me."
"What fer, lass?"
"Well, ya see, I was a little short for gold. And seein as how Diana had so much and I had none, I decided that the gold bowl she used ta eat her apples outta would serve me better'n her. I grabbed it and made it almost as far as the hole under the wall there where I'd gotten in."
"They tortured ya fer stealin a bloody bowl?" Fergus bellowed.
"Well, it had a couple of apples in it at the time. I guess she just really wanted an apple." Silven shrugged in innocence. Fergus' gawfaws accompanied them all the way to the Sanctuary.
At the height, Conor and Fergus yelled to the sentries posted. Almost immediately, a dark skinned young man burst from the darkness and accosted Conor.
"Where have you been, we've looked everywhere! Catlin took a poisoned arrow in the shoulder, so she's sick. The midwife said she could die tonight unless we find a healer fast. And the representatives from Forumland clans are here to speak to you about joining the confederation. Conor, you've got to hurry and see Catlin. Come on!"
"Can I come? I do know a few things, I might be able to help your friend." Silven asked Fergus.
"Any help will be appreciated. Lead the way, Tully."
As soon as Silven stepped inside the cave where the woman was, she knew the situation was as grim as the boy had said. The woman was feverish and tossed about on the pallet where she lay. Another woman sat with her, murmuring soothing nothings and damping her patient's forehead with a cloth.
"Tully, wasn't it?" the young man nodded as Conor stood by the bedside of his friend, "Did anyone manage to suck any of the poison out?"
"Some. Not enough, obviously. They wound won't even start closing and she bleeds too much."
Silven murmured to herself, then glanced at Conor for permission to look at the woman's wounds.
"Easy, Catlin. I'm Silven. I'm here to try to help you. Just rest easy and we'll set you right. Easy now. Hmmmmm. There's a piece of her leathers caught in her wounds. Let me just see if I can take it out with my lock pick. There. That was why the wound won't close. Now, about the bleeding. Let's see. There it is. See the nick in that vein? That's why she won't stop bleeding. Wait, just a little longer Catlin. I'm heating my lock pick to cauterize the wound. It'll hurt for a bit," Catlin screamed as Silven burned the severed vein together again, " there, there, all done with that. Now, I'm going to clean out the wound a bit with some of that warm water and a bit of vinegar. There, I know it hurts, Catlin, but I'm almost finished. We'll just wrap the wound so that you won't tear the flesh anymore. There, that's done. The worst part is over, Catlin. Tully, how long ago did she take the arrow?"
"Two days ago this morning." He replied promptly. Silven's brow creased in frown. The poison should have worked it's way out by now. Unless... unless there was no poison and it was only infection. In that case...
"Hand me a small pot of hot water and clean cloth, will you. I think, yes, I do have crushed garlic for infection and Cayenne for the fever. Now, I'm make a little broth from this. I warn you, Catlin, this is not going to taste very good, but it will help you. Now, drink this, that's right. Just drink it all up. There you go. That's it." Silven bent her head and the words of a healing sleep spell came to her lips. She leaned over, ostensibly to give Catlin a kiss on the forehead, and whispered the spell. Catlin sighed and calmed immediately into a deep sleep. It had been almost three hours and Silven was exhausted from her imprisonment as well as the long hike to the Sanctuary. She wearily left the woman and went outside to sit by the fire.
A young man dressed in battle armour crouched by the main fire pit, mumbling in low tones to Conor. Hmmmm, thought Silven, must be the last of the Forumland representatives. She approached quietly, an old habit she firmly told herself she was going to break here if given the chance. Never the less, she overheard some of the conversation.
"The Stargazers will fight, if need be Conor, you know that. As long as there is no other way, and against the Romans, I doubt there will be. There is a balance, albeit an uneasy one, in Forumland between the tribes. The Stargazers are committed to keeping that balance and defending the land, despite what the O'Conors think of our methods."
"If you'd bring some of your Clan's warriors here, Skybax, you could..."
"Conor, don't think for a second that the Romans are the only threat to Eire.. I see a great conflict coming, and it will begin, and hopefully end, in Forumland... There is something about that realm...It's like a nexus point for Shadows on this Isle. A battle feild between Light & Dark.. I have seen such lands before... I must have all my warriors there. We will come to your aid if called, but my Clan and all it's people stays in Forumland in the interim."
"Very well friend. You know more of such things than me, I trust your opinion. With troops from the O'Connor, Ferguson, Catlin Clans and their faeiry veil allies ariving here in a few weeks, we can't really take anymore at the Sanctuary with our food supplies such as they are."
"Then I should be moving on as soon as possible?" Silven interjected. She did not want to be a drain on anyone, used as she was to living alone.
"How's Catlin?" Conor stood immediately and moved aside to let Silven close to the fire. She idly thought that he must have left the cave very early in her treatment of Catlin, since she didn't even notice he'd gone.
"Her fever's broken and I've given her something for any pain." She thought it more prudent not to mention magic at this point and not tell them about her minor spell, "The bleeding has stopped. She should heal nicely, a bit of a scar but nothing the worse for wear."
"I can't thank ya enough. You'll always be welcomed here, girl. Ya look hungry, we've some stew if ya like?" it came all in a rush and she couldn't help but smile.
"The name is Silven, and I'd love something to eat."
"I'll be right back." Conor smiled and dashed off.
"Skybax, and I'll keep you company while you eat if you like." The young Leader by the fire introduced himself.
She crouched by the fire and nodded. Her clothes hadn't held well in Diana's prison and she was cold. She inched closer to the fire.
"Are you a healer by trade, Silven?"
"No, I usually use my lute to earn my keep as most villages have a healer."
"Not much call for song on the isle these days."
Silven understood much of what he said, but he had a strange way of speaking, "You're not from Eire, are you?"
Skybax shook his head, "Gaul originally.. and you could say that I've been around... Ever heard of it?"
He raised his eyebrows at her nod of assent.
"Lived in Britannia for the past few years. I'd just returned home when Diana decided to make an example of me." She shrugged, partially from the knowledge that in the ten years she'd frequently been made an example of by the Romans for her songs, partially from the cold air. She heard Conor approach and smiled to herself. No one could sneak up on her. She was surprised to feel a sudden weight on her shoulders as Conor wrapped a cloak about her before handling her the first real meal she'd had in a long time. Conor smiled as she attacked the meal with gusto while Skybax seemed to understand her embarrassment at being starved and politely turned his head. After half the bowl was gone, she licked her fingers and turned to Conor.
"Did you really mean that, about not having enough food stores?"
"We'll manage just fine if you want to stay, Silven."
"Silven." Skybax touched her shoulder lightly, "The Stargazers would gladly pay your keep in exchange for your services as healer. Aside from the normal day to day duties as a Clan Healer, we will soon be in real need of your services, and our mage, Cullen would be glad of the respite I think. We don't feed as many as Conor here, and our supplies are more reliable as well."
Both men awaited her answer.
"I'll ... if I could sleep and give you a decision in the morning?"
"I'm not asking you to join my clan, Silven. You're welcomed to return here anytime if you change your mind."
"Then I accept. If you have a corner for me to curl up in? And if I could borrow your cloak, here?"
"The cloak's yours. It's the least we could do. You can sleep anywhere ya like. And remember, you're always welcomed back, any time." with that Conor rose and left. Which left Silven and Skybax alone again.
"There is plenty of room in the Forumland part of the camp." he suggested. She shrugged and rose to follow him, "By the way Silven, that green's an excellent color for you." she gazed at the cloak only to realize what he said was true; it was the traditional deep forest green of a healer. Despite her weariness she smiled; yet again, her role had been chosen for her.
She was lost in the woods again. Da would be angry with her and Ma would scold. She ran through the woods to her home only to find it aflame; half the village there yelling above the screams from the house that her parents had brought the evil. She was about to scream herself when a hand clamped over her mouth and she looked up into the eyes of the Druid who'd saved her life.
"Not now child. You're fighting the wrong demons. You'll have your revenge against the right ones in time, and after I've taught you how to be a great fighter."
Silven remembered the lesson. To be a great fighter meant you had to be a healer first. To hurt was easy, to heal was where the skill came. She saw Kenall's cave then, with the two of them standing there, she learning the odd healing spell, the magical and medicinal uses of herbs, plants, flowers and fruit. Kenall taught her to gather, store and mix said powders, and he taught her about Bridgit and Cernunnos and the other Gods and how to call to them to heal as well. Kenall taught her to speak to the animals and was there when she made friends with the fox cub named Yip and rescued the baby ferret called Fret. And he taught her to see deep into the souls of others, to learn if they were true to their words and deeds. She'd refused him when he'd asked her to join the Druids and it had broken his heart.
Suddenly she was being handed her family's sword, and Kenall was being taken back to the Druid castle and she began to cry and cry and cry....
"Scrolls, it's Skybax." Silven shook off the dreamworld at the sound of a foreign voice. She shifted and sighed, as if still in sleep and glanced across the fire as the figure there continued. Guiltily she heard the spell he used to open the Scrolls, and found herself repeating it over and over until she had it memorized. It must have been habit remembered from the dream. Then she listened as Skybax recorded a piece of his life in the enchanted Scrolls, and memorized the battle against a great mage named Kirvin. I'm still half asleep, she thought, that's why I'm being so rude. But she continued to repeat until she had perfect the spell Skybax used to close his Scrolls. It must have been while she was memorizing this last spell that she fell back to sleep.
After checking on Catlin the next day, Silven happily wandered the camp with her four-footed companions, strumming a rather contented tune. She was playing one of Yip and Fret's favourites by the waterfall when a tall woman came and sat next to her. A young woman also carrying a lute.
An easy silence settled between them as they began to play a stirring duet, much to the delight of the two animals. Silven was no where near as skilled as this woman on the lute, but she enjoyed it none the less.
"I'm Clan leader to the Mistik Minstrels." The other woman said after a moment, "I hear you're quite skilled as a healer."
Silven shrugged, "I know a few things."
"Come now, you must know we minstrels realize how to separate fact from fiction. It's as much a part of the trade as the lute or pipe. I also hear you are not above picking the occasional lock."
"Like I said before," Silven was getting nervous at how much this woman knew, "I know a few things."
"I hear you also have no clan. Mine could appeal to you. We could always use a healer among us."
"I'll be staying in Stargazer Hall once we reach Forumland, if ever you have need of my services." with that, Silven practically fled.
Eventually wandering back to the camp proper, Silven sought out Skybax, only to find he and the other Clan leaders preparing to return to Forumland.
"Have ya ever ridden a horse there, Silven?"
Her vision swam before her and she faced an old enemy on a white mare. Suddenly a fiery sword slashed her mount's throat.
Conor laughed at Skybax' question, "The only thing she has besides her new cloak is her pak and sword." Yip and Fret became very vocal just then. "All right, and you two as well. I am sorry for forgettin ya." They all laughed as the two animals immediately calmed down.
Skybax made a move and she suddenly burst out with, "I'll walk beside your horse, if that's all right, Stargazer." She had the impression he was about to ask her to ride double with him. Skybax merely nodded solemnly, as if he can read my mind and see what happened to the last horse I rode, she thought.
"I'd be honoured to have you run at my side, Silven." He spoke the traditional words as solemnly as he'd looked. With a wave to Conor and the others, the troop of Clan leaders rode off toward home.