Twin Passions(3)By: Miriam Minger
Spying a path that led away from the river, Gwendolyn veered down the steep side of a hill. She hid behind some low branches, watching breathlessly as the two thanes thundered past her, their steeds flecked with sweat and foam. Confident that she had eluded them, she left the shelter of the trees and urged the mare once again into a gallop.
"Faster, Arrow, faster!" Gwendolyn laughed with joyful exhilaration. She rode through the woods with wild abandon, her painful thoughts forgotten, at least for now. The brisk air enlivened her senses. Aye, it had been a long time since she had felt so lighthearted and free!
Damp evening mists parted before the mare's flashing hooves as she galloped through a clearing in the densely wooded forest. At Gwendolyn's urging, the mare plunged back into the woods nimbly dodging the shadowed trees that loomed all around them. A loud clap of thunder suddenly exploded in the distance, startling the spirited animal. She reared in fright, nearly throwing Gwendolyn off her back.
"Whoa, Arrow!" she shouted, pulling firmly on the reins. Another clap of thunder echoed through the strangely silent woods, startling a flock of resting blackbirds into flight. Their raucous cries shattered the growing stillness as lightning was etched against the sky. Looking up at the dark, menacing clouds, Gwendolyn realized she had not noticed the approaching storm. She had been riding for hours, and knew it was long past the time when she should have returned to the stronghold.
She twisted around in the saddle, peering about her, but she could not make out any familiar landmarks in the gathering darkness. Now you've done it, my girl, she thought, cursing her foolhardiness. She had never ridden so far from the stronghold before, and doubted she was even on her father's lands.
Stifling a twinge of apprehension, Gwendolyn decided to ride toward the river. Aye, surely from there she would find a path leading back to the stronghold. She wheeled her frightened mare around, and set out the way she had come.
Riding hard through the woods, the storm surging and shrieking about her, Gwendolyn finally reached the churning river. Wracked by shivering spasms, she felt chilled to the bone. Cold, stinging rain lashed at her body through her soaking clothes. Her numbed hands could barely grasp the reins. Shielding her eyes from the rain, she searched anxiously for any signs of a path, but there was none. Desperately she plunged the mare into the heavy underbrush that choked the muddy banks of the river.
A bright bolt of lightning suddenly flashed across the sky and dashed into an ancient oak right in front of them. Orange flames leaped from the ground where the bolt pierced the earth, as if shooting up from the very depths of hell. Rearing and snorting in fright, the mare frantically pawed the air, the whites of her eyes gleaming in the dark. Another veined streak of lightning lit the sky, illuminating the swollen waters of the river.
Suddenly, Gwendolyn's face constricted in terror, her breath tearing raggedly at her throat, at the apparition before her. Before her very eyes, a demon creature, dragon-like, floated across the rushing torrents of water, leering at her with devilish glee. Then just as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone.
"Holy Mother Mary, protect me!" she screamed, crossing herself frantically. Hot tears streaked her cheeks as she clung desperately to her mare's wet mane. She felt herself slipping from the saddle as unconsciousness drew her deeper and deeper into a frightening maelstrom of darkness.
The sound of hooves thundering toward her flooded her with relief, and revived her failing senses. Peering into the surrounding trees, Gwendolyn recognized the familiar shapes of the two thanes as they rode up beside her.
"Lady Gwendolyn, are you all right?" questioned the burly thane, his voice filled with concern. Receiving no response, he gazed fearfully at her pale, stricken face. Her emerald eyes were glazed and overbright.
Acting quickly, the thane lifted her onto his saddle and covered her with his woolen cloak. Although sodden, it would offer her some protection from the cold rain. Cursing to himself, he knew there would be hell to pay for this misadventure. "Outwitted by a chit of a girl," he muttered darkly. The Lady Gwendolyn was well known for her willful exploits, but this time he feared she had gone too far. Signaling to his companion to grab the reins of her mare, he kicked the heaving sides of his steed and headed for the stronghold at a full gallop.
Nestled within the heavy cloak, Gwendolyn could feel the warmth slowly returning to her aching limbs. The burly thane's arms about her were reassuring, and she attempted to dispel the memory of the nightmare vision from her mind. I can tell no one, she thought dazedly, or they will think I am mad. Yet, in her heart, she knew her vision had been real, though she could not explain it.
Reining in their horses at the timbered gate of the stronghold, the thanes waited impatiently for the heavy doors to swing open. Great torches, sputtering in the rain, lit up the night as loud shouts heralded their entrance into the main yard.
Gwendolyn felt herself being taken into the waiting arms of another thane. Then she was carried across the yard into the great hall. Blinking from the brightness, she felt a twinge of guilt at the anxious faces of those gathered around her. Her eyes came to rest on the figure of her mother rushing toward her.