A lone skittish deer bolted it's head upright in the clearing, as the sound of a rock crashing against the newly unfrozen earth and foliage, pierced the silence. The yearling, who had just barely survived it's very first winter in the woods, flicked it's ears in all directions, with it's sizeable nostrils flaring, in an anxious attempt to detect any dangers. It's dark eyes stared into the shadows of the early pre-dawn, no movement being detected amongst the tree columns just beyond the small clearing in the forest.
The silence – only broken by the gentle rustling of wind caressing branches and budding leaves – was revealing nothing in the woods, the rushing heartbeat of an anxious young stag beginning to settle down to normal once more.
With the dawn approaching in slow, steady paces, the animal once more lowered it's head – to feed off the carpet of grass, adorned with thousands of small jewels, created by the newly formed morning dew, rising from the cold earth. A gentle mist of moist air hung close to the ground, coating it in a grey veil.
It's teeth began to cut off the grass from it's roots, distracting the animals mind for the smallest of moments. That was all it took. It's head bolted upright at the sound of a bowstring snapping, but too late. Already before it could tense the muscles in it's hind legs, did an arrow pierce through it's hide.
This yearling, would naught survive to see it's second winter.
Loud creaking and rummaging emitted from the shadows of the undergrowth, as a young woman – barely much more than a child, having seen only ten and three summers – barged through the ferns and branches, cursing loudly at herself.
“Careless! You idiot, Eraine!” she growled at herself, sheathing her bow back into it's protective straps on her back. “Go around, bashing to rocks and branches, will you? Fool! You could have scared it off, you dimwit!”
The woman, Eraine as she was named by her mother dear, continued to rant over herself, as she kneeled down towards the deer, slicing her knife over it's throat in a clean cut to let it bleed out. Her ranting did not halt as she continued to gut the poor creature, and was only muffled, as she fed on some of the halfly digested contains of it's stomach – still warm from the belly.
Even as she hoisted the young animal over her shoulder, did her relentless cursing at herself not halt. “- But noooooo, of course you just had to throw every goddess-be-cursed rock out in the damned undergrowth, why didn't you? It's pure blessed luck, it is I tell you, that the stag was either too young or too foolish to run while it had the chance.” She finally finished scolding herself – with a single, last exclamation piercing the dawn: “Blessed mother oak, you are, and will be, an idiot, Eraine!” - as the path she walked on cleared of trees, leading out to a broad, open valley and it's rolling hills where dewberries, anemone and snowdrops was beginning to flourish, amongst grasses and grazing horses. At the middle of this little, wood-enclosed haven, rested a small village in the river valley, a single lazy creek making it's way through the landscape. The scene, still glistening with dew and alighted with the touch of dawn, was a sight of which many would have stopped to adore.
However, Eraine was completely untouched by the beauty of the hills, seeing only the season for her tiresome duties with the village's women, of harvesting what nature had to offer, drawing inevitably closer with each day.
She trampled he way down a well-used trail, towards the village where smoke was rising with the making of fire. A pair of hunters on the northmost trail was also returning, each carrying their catch of the early hunt.
With a gleam in her eye, she looked over the two of them. Seisyll, one of the women who had taken up the mantle of a Druidess, walked with her son, Corraidhin, towards the village. Each was carrying a rabbit, as well as that two ermines rested on the Priestess' shoulders – their coat still holding the blazing colour of white.
Eraine watched them in envy, not only for their catch – though she had to admit, the dearly wanted her hands on the pair of ermine's... They could make for very nice sleeves – but it struck a pang in her heart to watch mother and child walk so carelessly together, and not enjoy every wake moment of their lives together.
Angrily, she picked up her pace, so that she'd rush down into the village long before the pair of them reached the main “road”.
More of a dirt path, one might add.
Eraine trotted past the cluster of houses which laid on the path towards the two largest buildings in the small village. She changed between grumbling and sneering at the ones she passed. It had definitely not been a good morning for the girl.
Not only had she almost let the deer on her shoulder flee at her presence – a failure she had yet to forgive herself for – but she had also been locked up by her father at her room the fortnight. It had been so embarrassing!
In front of the entire council, he had put up a boring lecture of her hunting in the woods – everybody else did it, so why not she? - just because of the men who had come from the south. And when she had so much as dared speak her opinion, it had all escalated to the old, thin man yelling at her.
Of course she couldn't give him the advantage of her silence, so she promptly yelled right back in his face. Served the old git right, it did. Though somehow, the subject changed onto her mother. Her stupid, lovable, diseased mother.
Eraine fumed to herself, as she stomped her way down the plaza, where flat stones had been laid in the earth to hinder too much mud. She headed towards the second largest building, the chieftain's hall – right next to the City hall, which was also the largest building in the village.
Why couldn't her father see, that just because her mother had been stupid enough to get herself killed by the tall invaders from the north, didn't mean she'd be send to the earth by the dark ones from the south! She wasn't an idiot like her, mistaking the barbarians for tall ones of our own.
She angrily threw the deer corpse onto the workspace in front of the chieftain's wooden house, before she began to flay the hide from the body and work it out to a hide. Her movements with the knife was rougher than they should have been, and tiny tears in the hide emerged like ants, little to her care.
And now, he had dared forbidding her to hunt! Hunting was her life! He couldn't! Her father could right as well take the longsword from it's place upon the wall and thrust it through her heart himself, for surely that'd be a more merciful death than one of boredom!
Frustrated with herself, her situation, her father and her work, she threw the knife onto the ground.
Her cry of surprise gave her a few glances from passerbys, as the knife's old blade of stone shattered upon a hard rock in the dirt. Instinctively, she threw her arms up to protect her face of the dangerous cascade of razor-sharp flint-stone shards, as they flew to all sides.
Recovering from her shock – and the minor cuts to her hands – she lowered her arms to look on the damage. The knife had shattered deeply into it's core, she realised – flint laid everywhere on the ground.
Tears began to threaten to burst out of her eyes, though she valiantly held them back. Because at the sound of the knife shattering, her father had burst out of the door, still clad in his official attire of a chieftain.
The fury in his eyes almost looked like as if a fire-demon had been trapped inside of those icy globes, resting amidst wheat-blonde locks.
“Why can't you just leave me be?!”
The fight between Eraine and her father Finnbar had, by now, escalated into senseless shouting. Both were standing on the workspace in front of the house, screaming right up in each other's faces – with half of the village looking on in awe. Not that it was unusual for the two.
“Why won't you just act like a proper adult? Why do you always have to be a burden to us all?” Finnbar growled at her.
“Why can't I just be who I am?! Just leave me alone!” She screamed, the pitch of her voice breaking the scale.
Her father's arm shot out of nothingness and his hand hooked harshly onto her upper arm. He lowered his face down to her – he was a relatively tall man.
“Inside,” he growled lowly in a threatening tone. “Now.”
“NO!” She violently janked her arm out of his grip, before she scaled the small fence separating their “terrace” from the plaza. She shot into the crowd, gathering gasps and curses from the onlookers as she pushed and snaked her way out.
“Eraine! Come back here, NOW!” She heard her father yell at her.
“NO!” she screamed back. “I hate you! Leave me be!”
She finally reached the edge of the plaza and looked back, her breath in her throat, together with her heart. Behind her, Finnbar was swiftly making his way through the dispersing crowd. Her eyes widened in fear, as she shot towards the nearest house, scaling the wooden boards with ease. She got a grip of the edge of the roof with her hands, gripping onto it tightly, before she hauled herself up – just in time to see her father stare daggers towards her.
Before he could come with yet another threat, she quickly ran over the sloped rooftop and jumped to the next, nearby-lying house. As she ran over and jumped to the next, she could hear her father yelling something in a curse as he pursued her. Ha! She was way faster than that old git could ever hope to be!
She scooted down the slope of ol' Cahoimhe's roof at the edge of the village, landing with a thud in the dirt as she bended her knees to roll over the dirt. She extended her roll to almost immediately jumping up on her feet and continuing in a run, towards the western forest.
Behind her, she knew her father would be looking over all of the village to find her, not to loose face for this. Of course, they both knew that she had fled to the forest, but he had to keep up his reputation amongst the residents of River Valley Village.
Not that they didn't know it would be to no avail, but it was all about just that. Knowledge, reputation. Image.
She halfly grinned, halfly cringed as she imagined just how angered her father would be when she came home. He'd be furious!
Her run slowed down to a fresh walk, as she came near to the shed which laid at the very edge of the forest. Even she held a revered relation to the sturdy creatures. They had helped her family for generations, as warhorses or to help transport goods – even for hunting were they used.
Eraine looked into the shed, where the wooden troughs stood. One was half full of water – it was have to do until the horsekeeper could see to them.
The other trough had only a few straws of hay left. She shook her head in annoyance. Who had left them hungry now? A low groan escaped the young girl's throat, as she walked outside with a cleaved pole, the two edges forced apart to better pick up the hay. She yanked it into the stack of dried grass on top of the shed's roof, lifting a good bundle up with her pole. All the while, she sharply whistled a tune.
With a few humpfs and groans, she managed to hoist the hay down from the rooftop and into the trough. Already were a few sturdy horses met up, called forth from her merry tune. She placed the tool back to it's nesting spot, before she walked over to a particular favourite of her's – A five year old stallion, who had recently taken over the herd from his father. He was a dark brown colour, like the insides of a fine wood, and with a dark night-coloured mane. Most of the horses they had were slightly lighter in the tone of coat, ranging from a dusty hay colour to an ashen brown.
She lovingly ruffled the stallion's mane and tugged his ears – to great delight of the horse. This one had always been her favourite, and she gently placed her forehead upon the broad one of the horse's. She could feel the sweet smell of hay and beast intertwining in her nose, along with it's warm breath down her chest. It was all quite soothing, just standing there, resting up against her friend.
Eraine drew back with a sudden, startled laughter, as her horse began shaking it's head.
“Why you're hungry, Storm!” She laughed at the horse. Summer Storm, it was named, for it had a nasty habit of lashing out at it's rider whilst seemingly acting at it's nicest. “I'll let you all finish your dinner then. Eat up!” She smiled, before heading into the forest.
The horses themselves took no heed, their mind focused on churning down hay.
Eraine walked down a small dirt trail in the forest, letting her feet lead her, as she kicked absent-mindedly to the nearby-lying rocks. A foul mood had beset her once more, so she trodded onto the path with anger burning as a dying wildfire within her stomach – still seething and hissing, threatening to light up once more. A beast of fire and cinders, roaring, growling and hissing at the outside world from within it's dark cave.
She stomped her way past the foreboding tree-trunks and into a clearing. Abruptly, she came to a halt.
She had, accidentally, walked into one of the sacred groves. Superstition got the better of her, and she almost froze. The Sacred Groves were places of great magic – here, the impossible happened. She had heard talk of the dead coming to life, the incurable sick finding themselves healthy as ever, the animal walking right up to the hunter with his knife. A Sacred Grove were places, where both the Moon Goddess and the Horned One were listening to every word and every breath. It was the sacred dwelling of the revered Great Mothers, the holy trees.
Eraine let her gaze wander over the clearing – her heart sunk deeper into her stomach. In the middle of the clearing stood a huge tree. An oak, one of the holiest trees to be found. Elaborate runes had been carved or dyed in rich hues of indigo blue, blood red (it might actually be blood), midnight blacks and a white as bright as snow. They had been laid into it's huge trunk, which were more than the arm's length of eight men thick, and more then all of their height together. It's crown of branches reached out in a huge crown, some branches just barely outside of reach – while others rose to the heavens, adorned with budding leaves which reached for the sun's embrace. The broad web of branches made a roof over the entire clearing, chopping up sunlight into small rays, which lit up the fading dawn's mist.
The young woman let her gaze wander upwards towards the network of foliage, noticing long, well-made offerings hanging from the tree. Circular slabs of wood had been carved with various of runes, and hung in clusters from Her branches by brightly dyed ribbons, hanging alongside with bones of various bird and forest dwellers. The light breeze which gently pushed to the branches and offerings, caused a low clattering of wood or bone to transfer on the gale's wings.
“What do you do here?” A voice called out from behind.
Eraine spun around to face the Druidess, clad in her official robes. Antlers adorned her shoulders, rising up like two foreboding wings, whilst a skull was attached to the hood which clad her head, covering away the short, strawberry-blonde locks. The snout of a wolf's skull was aligned with her nose, and her icy eyes looked out at the young girl from under the cover of her hides. The atire gave off the illusion of human and man colliding together and uniting, the hides covering her almost entirely.
Anger sprouted within Eraine's stomach again. What right did that old crow have to judge her actions? The Groves was not actually forbidden area.
“What do you care? Can't you just leave me alone?” She turned her back to the Druidess, wounding her arms tightly around her chest, as to defend herself of the strange aura that the sacred woman seemed to emit.
“Why do I care? Well, why do you think, child?” Came the answer.
“I'm not a child! And I don't care what you think, leave me alone! Why can't you just all leave me alone?!” The anger burst alight within her, an inferno of rage towards the unfairness. Why wouldn't they just let her go where she wanted? It's not like it was any of their business!
“Be careful, Eraine, for powerful forces listen to your words here,” did Seisyll warn her, with a grave tone to her elderly vocie.
“I don't care! I don't care about any of you! For all I care, you could all burn, and the world would be a better place!” She screamed, turning violently towards the Druidess, as she steeled herself for a fight.
She stopped almost immediately, shocked. Seisyll was gone!
Eraine looked around the Grove, suddenly aware of the eerie atmosphere which had descended onto the clearing. It felt as if the bones and wood above rattled forebodingly. She felt as if the large oak, which she now faced her back against, were looming down above her, judging her with every blow of the now howling gale. A cold chill ran down her spine as she looked up behind her, towards the oak which rose.
At the very edge of Her branches, Eraine could see the sun beginning to set in the edge of the horizon. Gods be damned! Had she really been out this long? The sun would be down in less than an hour, she thought.
Swiftly, she turned to the empty trail and began walking with swift steps homeward, worried for what might await her there. She was more worried still, however, for the dangers of the night which were wakening. Trolls, witches and faerie folk, all which were dangerous and sometimes deceptive. She could feel a small chill, running down the edge of her spine, as she thought of how the many things which could witch her away with nobody ever knowing what had happened to her.
With a new spring in her step, she hurried over the dirt path in the waning light of the setting sun.
A relieved sigh escaped her, as she came within the safe and secure surroundings of the river village. The boisterous laughter of young men, sitting up around the large fire which had been lit in the evening at the village gathering plaza. Eraine came to a halt by the wall of the smith's house, standing still and holding her breath in awe, as she listened carefully for her father's voice.
She could hear several of the young men, the Druidess (that was where she had wisped herself to) and... There, her father.
She grinned slightly at the prospect of being able to procrastinate their inevitable fight to the morrow after, as she sneaked along the walls of the village homes, to come to the back of her own. Her father had installed windows back when he build the house, and the window shutters on her window was a little loose – a pain when a storm came through, as she had to tie them together to the frame, but a wonderful thing whenever she had been out and didn't want to disturb him.
Carefully, she slid her fingers in under the edge of the wood, slowly digging them in at the gap she had created between the frame and the shutters. She edged her hand in to get a proper grip, parting the shutters silently.
With care and silence like a feline, she climbed in through the window, making little sound on the wooden boards. She had her lower lip tugged nervously in between her teeth, halting every now and then to listen for her father, whenether or not he was still at the fire. If he wasn't, he might come in to check up on if she had come back yet without his notice, and if she weren't in bed by then, he'd most definitely pick up a fight. Even at this time of the hour.
Most thankfully, however, she could just barely hear his boistrous shouting from the other side of the house, a slightly drunken tone to his laughter and shouts. Eraine cursed soundlessly. If he was getting drunk on mead and ale tonight, that meant he'd be extra cranky and groggy tomorrow, which then again meant that she'd have to get shouted on by a man who could barely make up his words. Just brilliant.
Lowly, she groaned in pity at herself, only to almost jump a meter in the air as a sound right behind her made her heart stop beating for then. She spun around, ending up right in the face of her chambermaid.
“By the Gods, Cynbel! You scared me half to death!” She whispered towards the other young woman in a rushed tone.
Cynbel looked at her with those lovely doe eyes she had, a dark brown like some fine wood they were. Her hair was also a fierce auburn colour. A shame she did not speak. Or at least, Eraine had never heard the slave girl speak a word, despite the other, slightly older woman, obviously understood what they were saying, and was able to answer back. In her own, wordless way, granted.
The woman crossed her arms over her chest as she looked towards Eraine with that glance which meant she was definitely in trouble. The slightly cocked eyebrow over her leftmost eye indicated that she was raising it in an inquisitive fashion.
Eraine threw up her arms in a frustrated motion, growling lowly at the other woman. “It wasn't my fault!” She stared daggers over towards Cynbel, who placed her hands on her hips as rose both eyebrows. Her entire body language screamed: “Oh really?”
The young chieftain's daughter walked over the to small, flat stool which stood near her bed, as she growled backwards towards Cynbel in a dangerous tone: “help me out of this.” Eraine spread her arms slightly, letting the other woman work on the tight knots and clasps of her silken tunic and rougher, woollen trousers, uncommon for a girl of her standard – but most other fabrics tore up too much in the undergrowth. And they felt strange when it came to trousers.
Eraine waited impatiently for Cynbel to finish up the work with her clothing, small grumbles of impatience managing to pass her lips. As soon as she was out of the tight-fitting garb, she darted to the chest at the end of her bed – finding forth the soft night-gown of silk forth – the one that her father had given her at her nameday when she had seen ten and two summers.
She quickly let the silky fabric slide down her body, the rich colour of purple adorning her fine, pale skin. She made a small twirl on the floor, looking down over herself as the long gown flowed out to all sides, the thin, slightly diaphanous fabric spreading to all sides like water around her, only to fall back perfectly in place as she came to a still. This simple, but prized piece of clothing was probably the finest she owned. Her father had, for many years, insisted that she kept it hidden, as it was not of “proper Briton fashion” as he used to say. Of course, that wouldn't do! After months of fighting, she had finally been allowed to wear it to bed – and how glad she had been for that! Thankfully, she had never been one to toss and turn a lot in sleep.
As Eraine darted in under her covers in time to hear her father stumble drunkly into the house, she did not even notice Cynbel going to bed once more, the older woman already having cleared the discarded clothes off.
Their oncoming sleep was only briefly disturbed, as Finnbar poked his head within his daughter's room. His gaze was angry at first, but softened upon looking down at his dear daughter's sleeping form. He could feel Cynbel rise to his side, gently placing her hand upon his bared upper arm with her fine fingers. He clasped his own large hand over her's, his smile now directed towards the slavegirl.
The chieftain gently let the back of his fingers trail Cynbel's fine jawline and cheekbones, before he used both roughed arms to pick her up. With a broad grin and bulging muscles, he carried the woman out of his daughter's room and towards his quarters, closing both doors behind him with a low thud – for privacy, of course.