Sian woke. It was still dark,and she was so cold. Why hadn’t Wenhaf stoked up the fire before bed? She stretched a bit and when her hand touched the tree, she remembered where she was. There was no Wenhaf to stoke the fire. There was no fire. Just the cold damp earth and her wet cloak.
She sat up, wondering how long she had slept. She knew she had to get moving or else she’d freeze. Sian was stiff from the day before and climbing out from under the tree was painful. She stood and looked around her. With only a sliver of a moon, she had little light to guide her steps. Feet on the road, she wasn’t sure which way she had come, or ought to head.
“I’m a dunderhead. I ought to know my way home, but I am as lost as can be.” Turning to the right, she headed down the road. It was growing lighter, but dawn was still some time off. Sian figured that she would have to come to a cottage soon. She remembered passing some on that wild ride yesterday. Walking head down to watch her footing, she didn’t see the horsemen until they were right upon her.
“Whoa!” the man in the lead shouted as he pulled his horse up sharply. The others pulled up behind him and to the sides as he barely avoided running her down.
“Watch where you walk woman! We almost ran you down!”
“Oh sirs! I’m so sorry, but I am lost and cold and, and….” her voice trickled to a halt as she looked up at the men on horseback. They looked anything but friendly with their cloaks wrapped tight and hoods pulled close. A shiver of fear ran down Sian’s spine. As she tried to move to the side of the road, the man who’d spoken dismounted and walked towards her. He towered over her and the hand that reached out to stop her seemed huge.
“Hold on lass, we mean you no harm.” He reached out his hand to touch her shoulder. “Why, you’re as wet and cold as a spring.” He turned to his fellow riders. “Lew, hand me your cloak. She’s soaked.”
Lew did as he asked, and in a moment, Sian’s wet cloak was replaced with a warm, dry one. She shivered in spite of the change, and the giant of a man noticing this, picked her up and placed her on his horse. He mounted and was about to start moving on when Sian found her voice.
“Sir, please, take me to my home. My father will give you a rich reward. Please. I am so lost and frightened.” She looked up at the man.
Mael looked down. “I would If I knew where your home was. However, we are bound out of here before daylight ‘er the Reeve’s men take a fancy to our lives. I’ll take you with us and decide what to do with you later.”
Sian cried out in despair, as it had all been too much for her. “No, please,” she mumbled as the horses started to move. Her words were lost in the folds of the cloak and the rumble of horse hooves.
Sian woke in a daze as Mael handed her down to Lew in a courtyard. She was about to protest when he shushed her and walked away leading his mount. Lew took her hand and lead her into the hall. It was a smaller building than that of her father’s, and older. Lew lead her to an alcove, where she sat.
“Stay here lassy. I’ll get you something to eat and drink.”
She curled up on the deep bench, pulling Lew’s cloak over her and fell deeply asleep.
She woke much later, and the first thing she saw was a plate and a tankard on a stool next to her. She sat up and reached for the food as she looked around the hall. At the far end was the fireplace and a long table. Around it were the men who had nearly trampled her in the road. Lew of the cloak, Mael the giant of a man, two redheads that looked to be twins, a small dark man and a few others she couldn’t see for the shadows.
The meat on the plate was cold, but tasted good. She was so hungry that it didn’t matter. The ale was alright as well although a cup of hot tea would have been far more welcome. She must have made a noise when she sat the tankard back down as the men at the table turned towards her.
“Ah, our wee traveler has woke. Are you rested now?” Mael walked towards her. Lew and one of the redheads followed him.
Sian looked up and running a hand through her hair self consciously, didn’t know where to start. “Umm… Where am I? And who are you?”
“Ah, it’s more we that aught to be asking the questions, I’m Mael. This is Lew and Artur.” He pointing to each in turn. “It’s Lew’s cloak you have there. As for where you are, I guess it won’t hurt to tell you. Not as lost as you seem. This is Hoel. It’s a farmhouse we use when down in these parts. Now, who are you?”
Something in the way he talked made her nervous. Vague memories of the Reeve being mentioned and the way he talked about the hall they were in made the hairs on the back of her neck tingle. What were these men? Sian realized that she had been quiet too long as Mael cleared his throat and looked to her for an answer.
“I’m Sian of Clewth Hall. It’s in Clewth Dale down near the headwaters of the lake. There’s a village and a market near the lake and farms all around as well.” She rambled on, not knowing just what else to say.
Mael looked at her and then shook his head. “Sorry, don’t know it. We could try and get you back, but maybe you’ll decide you’d like to stay here. We could use some women’s help around here.”
As he said that she realized that the hall was ill kept. Spiderwebs in the rafters, rushes on the stones were in need of replacement and there was a musty smell. At the same time, the thought of not going home terrified her. The loss of all that was familiar was hitting hard.
“Oh, but I must go home. Father will be worried and angry. Cadell and he had an argument yesterday. Cadell rode off with me and then left me when we disagreed. You must take me home!” Sian cried.
Lew and Mael exchanged looks. “Well, we could let you go on your own,” Lew said. The other two nodded.
Sian looked at them like they had suddenly grown horns. “What do you mean? Walk home? I was lost already, and now who knows where I am? Why? Why can’t you take me home?”
Mael set the plate and tankard on the floor and pulled the stool up to sit on. “We can’t take you home as it isn’t worth getting our necks stretched. You are free to go or stay. However, there is no heading back that way for us.”
Sian puzzled over this. “What are you? Brigands? Thieves?” As she spoke, the comments about the Reeve came back to her and the blood drained from her face. “Oh.” is all that came out of her mouth.
“Now lass, we aren’t that bad. We haven’t harmed you, and no one will amongst us. We may take the odd purse or head of cattle, but we have some honor. Most of us have been kicked off our land or lost everything to debt. Some of us just like the life.” Mael spoke as if he were describing a day at the fair.
Sian found herself pulling back from them and trying to hide deeper in the alcove. She’d been brought up to think the worst of such men. Her face showed that to the three in front of her.
Artur looked at her with disgust. “Should have left her to freeze. She’ll be more trouble than worth. What were you thinking Mael?” He walked off shaking his head.
Lew looked at Sian and then Mael. “Your choice Mael. I’m for having a bit of woman’s help around the place. However, I’ll go with whatever you decide. So will most the lads. They are tired of my cooking.” He picked up the plate and tankard and walked off.
Sian just looked at the men with more and more terror. She wanted to cry, speak, plead and nothing came out except a whimper. For all her eighteen years, she felt more like eight. She tried to make herself smaller as she pushed to the back of the alcove.
Mael saw the state she was working herself into and knew he had to put a stop to it. She wasn’t the most handsome lass he’d seen, but cleaned up, she might be just fine. She might even be able to cook, which would be a bonus. Lew could burn meat just fine, but that was about it.
“Sian. Listen to me now. No one is going to hurt you. No one will touch you. Yes, we are brigands. Lawless men. However, we aren’t so cruel as to leave a lass like you out on the road in spite of Artur’s words. We won’t take you home, but we won’t stop you from leaving either. There is a village over the next hill, and perhaps someone there can take you home. It’s up to you.” He stood and walked away.
Sian curled up in the cloak trying to think it all through. She fell asleep. As darkness fell, someone placed a warm rug over her and left her alone.