Tongues of flame licked the thatched roof. Sunlight flashed on a Legionary’s helmet. Soldiers advanced, swords drawn. So many. More than Owein could count.
The attackers had hacked through the front line of Celts. As the youngest of the warriors with only sixteen years, Owein had been left in charge of the village. But he hadn’t stayed at his post; he’d run ahead to the fighting.
He’d not expected the Romans to slip in behind and attack the children and elders.
Owein had managed to stay alive during the battle, though not without cost. He’d lost his sword when a Roman blade sliced his upper arm. The limb dragged, bleeding freely as he ran darted toward the screams. He felt no pain. At least, not yet.
A child’s shrill cry assaulted his ears. Moira. Enid’s little lass. He lurched toward the sound, not willing to believe he couldn’t save her.
A rough hand halted his progress, spinning him about. “By the gods, lad, ye canna mean to go back.”
With difficulty, he focused on the speaker. His kinsman, Cormac. “I must,” he gasped out.
“They are lost,” Cormac grunted, all but dragging him Owein from the slaughter. “There’s naught ye can do.”
A scream split the air. Darkness rushed the edges of his vision. He swayed on his feet.
Cormac words were true. There was nothing Owein, or anyone else, could do. The Roman attack had been too swift, too brutal. The clan was no more. Under cover of darkness, Owein and his kinsman fled.
The weeks that followed were a blur of flight, hunger, guilt, and fear. Cormac’s prodding was the only thing that kept Owein on his feet. Left to his own devices, he would gladly have made the choice to die.
“There’s naught ye could have done to save them,” Cormac grunted, crouching low on a bluff overlooking a muddy road. The dwarf’s stunted limbs gave him the advantage when it came to evading Roman patrols; he could wedge his body into the tightest of crevices.
“The Romans are savages, for all they call our people beasts. They dinna rest until they’ve taken all.”
Owein drew his knees up to his chest and bowed his head, trying to keep his silhouette as small as possible, a difficult task for one as large as he. The moor offered little opportunity for shelter; he could only hope the ten soldiers on the windswept trail did not look up.
“How could Rhiannon have given herself to one of those brutes?” Owein muttered. A year had passed since his older sister had left her people to travel south with a Roman commander and his young son. She’d claimed she’d fallen in love the marauding dog. Owein, to his great shame, had told her to follow her heart.
“Perhaps ’twas a good thing she did,” Cormac said. “If she’d stayed with the clan, she’d be dead.”
Owein took what comfort he could in that grim fact. “Do ye think–”
Cormac gripped his arm. “Quiet, lad.”
The centurion leading the Roman patrol shouted his men to a halt, his eyes scanning the hillside where Owein and Cormac hid. Abruptly, his gaze sharpened. Owein’s breath stalled. Had they been seen?
The centurion’s hand strayed to the hilt of his sword.
Closing his eyes briefly, Owein whispered a Word in the language of the Old Ones. He wasn’t sure the Druid spell would work. His talent was Sight, not persuasion.
The centurion frowned. Looked away. A moment later, he shouted an order for his men to resume their march. When the patrol was out of sight, Cormac heaved a sigh of relief.
“The Horned God’s mercy is with us today,” he muttered.
Owein struggled to his feet. His limbs felt like lead in the aftermath of the magic he’d wielded. Aye, the Horned God had responded to his plea, but Owein knew better than any man that the god’s favor was not given freely. Payment was demanded, in the form of pain and weakness. A sharp, familiar ache sprung up behind Owein’s right eye. His limbs dragged as if he carried a sack of lead in each hand. But he said nothing as he stumbled after Cormac.
The dwarf forged west, into country that grew increasingly mountainous. Owein followed, his strength sapping with every mile. Just when he was sure he could go no farther, his rough kinsman called a halt, hunkering down in a copse of evergreens that was blessedly free from wind. Owein collapsed beside him. In a heartbeat, he fell asleep.
The rustle of footsteps on dry grass woke him. Two shadows slipped into the copse. Celts ready for battle, swords drawn. Owein rolled into a crouch, his hand on his own sword. The head warrior was a large, bearded man garbed in animal skins. His companion was small and lithe. A boy.
Owein blinked. Nay. A woman.
The lass could be hardly older than Owein himself. She wore a tarnished mail shirt and a man’s braccas , and held her sword at the ready. And yet her garb and stance could not disguise her beauty.
Despite his weariness, despite the hopeless endeavor Owein’s life had become, he could not look away from her. His lower body stirred with an unfamiliar ache. The lass’s hair and eyes were the color of honey. Would she taste as sweet?
She met his gaze squarely, her brows arching. Owein’s cheeks heated. Had she read his thoughts?
“The point of a sword is no greeting for a friend, Bryce,” Cormac told the man, rising.
“Cormac,” the man replied. Clearly, he recognized Owein’s kinsman. He sheathed his sword. “Welcome.” A sudden frown marred his features. “How goes it in the north?”
Cormac spat. “Roman everywhere, building their forts and their Great Wall. The clan is gone. Dead, or taken as slaves. Owein and I barely escaped.”
Bryce muttered his dismay. Owein’s eyes remained fixed on the lass. She guarded the trail, one hand on her weapon, with the air of one who knew what she was about.
Bryce caught Owein’s eye. “My niece,” he said, nodding. “Nia.”
Nia took Owein into her bed that very night. Too embarrassed to tell her he’d never before lain with a woman, he fumbled to please her. He must have done well, for afterwards she smiled and snuggled into his arms.
She told him about her life. Her parents had been killed by a Roman raid on her village ten years earlier. After the dead had been buried, Nia’s uncle had trained her to both sword and bow. Every hand, even of the women and lasses, was needed to defend what was left of their clan.
Her kin numbered thirty. More than half were unfit for battle–children, elders, and those wounded in battle. Hemmed by the Legions constructing Emperor Hadrian’s Great Wall to the north, and the expanding Roman forts and settlements to the east, they had been forced farther and father west. So far they had survived, each season moving higher into the Cambrian mountains. Their freedom shrank with every Roman advance.
Cormac and Owein were accepted into the clan, and Owein’s life took on a new purpose. By day, he dedicated himself to the defense of his new clan. By night, he loved Nia, fiercely and often. Yet he could not shake a sense of doom. It hung over his head like the sharpened edge of a sword.
“Let’s leave this place,” he told Nia one night. “There’s nothing for us here; the Romans have taken everything. In the northlands, beyond the Wall, we might find peace. In Caledonia, there are still valleys the Romans fear to tread.”
“The clan could never make the journey over the Wall,” Nia replied. “The elders and the children–they would die.”
“We could go alone. Make our own life in the high mountains.”
Nia shook her head, her eyes bright with tears. “As fine as that would be, Owein, I cannot. How could I leave my clan? The children and the elders? I made a vow to protect them.”
Owein closed his eyes against the image of his burning village. He’d made the same vow to his own clan, and had broken it. How could he think to renounce his duty a second time?
“Ye could go,” Nia said in a small voice. “A man alone could slip over the Wall in the night.”
Owein let out a long breath. “Nay,” he said, his arms tightening around her. “I’ll go nowhere without you. Ye are my home now.”
Thanks for reading my Flash Fiction!
“Warrior” is a Beyond the Books short story in the Druids of Avalon historical fantasy series. The character of Owein is introduced in Book One, Celtic Fire. The events of “Warrior” take place in the years between Celtic Fire and Book Two, The Grail King.
The Druids of Avalon series chronicles the lives of the ancestors of King Arthur in Roman and Dark Ages Britain. Learn more about the Druids of Avalon series at joynash.com