Twin Passions(3)

By: Miriam Minger

Gwendolyn shook her head fiercely. Nay, she didn't want to think of the wedding, of Wulfgar Ragnarson, or of Anora's betrayal anymore! But suddenly an odd thought struck her. She laughed ruefully, startling her mare. It could have been my fate that was decided by the king, except for an accident of birth. She wondered if her own betrothal was being planned to follow shortly after Anora's marriage, now just three days away. The thought of being subject to any man made her stomach knot angrily. Why, she could ride a horse and wield a weapon as well as any of her father's thanes, if not better!

"A king's pawn!" Gwendolyn snorted derisively. "Nay, I will not settle for any man unless it is by my own choosing!" Urging the mare into a full gallop, she looked mischievously over her shoulder. She could barely make out the two thanes through the thick trees. They were riding hard and fast, yet she had the advantage of distance as she rebelliously spurred her mare onward.

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!

Chapter 2

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.