Daughter of Destiny
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Welsh Woodlands, 1806
The woman's labored gasp
shattered the primordial stillness in the forest. Disembodied, it echoed around the trees,
its owner hidden by the mist that floated near the ground.
Moments passed. A light wind blew through the forest, whipping the mist into clutching, gray fingers, allowing filtered sunshine to dapple the ground with patterns of light. It whispered through a large spider web strung between two boulders.
Another gasp. Starting as a hiss, it deepened into an agonized moan.
The wind keened in sympathy as it gained strength and swept across the forest floor, banishing the last of the mist, revealing the woman. Branwyn huddled in a nook by the roots of a fallen tree, the velvety cloak that she wore not quite hiding her swollen figure.
Distant, excited baying drifted toward her hiding place. She froze, her hands shaking as if palsied. The hounds had picked up her scent again. They werent fooled by the illusions shed created to hide herself.
Death was coming for her.
She clenched her teeth as yet another cramp ripped through her midsection. When it passed, she stood. Aware the baying had grown louder, she stumbled forward, lurching between the ancient boulders, breaking the spider web into a hundred dewy filaments. She still clutched the faint hope of escape to her heaving breast.
The pain ebbed and released her from its cruel embrace. Knowing that it was but a brief respite, she ran faster yet, weaving between gnarled tree stumps and treacherous, exposed roots. Brambles ripped the hood from her head, and pulled her elegantly coifed hair into a tangled mass of brown.
Branwyn stopped and gauged the distance between her and the hounds that chased her. A few leagues of hills and trees separated them, muffling their baying. Panic began to eat away at the self-control she normally took pride in, and she scanned the trees for a place to birth the babe, for her druid's wisdom warned that her time would be upon her in a moment.
A stream gurgled toward the north. She limped toward it as another cramp began to build, this one the fiercest yet. Waves of pain crashed over her as she collapsed by the stream, her body arching in silent torment. Her eyes were shut tight, her skin flushed hot as she struggled to draw air into seared lungs. The cloak fell back, revealing legs that writhed as she dug her heels into the sandy dirt beneath her.
Exhausted, she pulled her knees up and screamed, the sound an animal grunt of rage and terror--rage over what she was going to lose, terror of the hounds that craved her blood. The hounds' throaty bellowing also stopped for a moment, but Branwyn gave it little thought. Her trembling legs heaved one final time as she felt the child slide from her, its bony shoulders ripping skin that could stretch no more.
The babe was born.
Lying back against the sodden earth, she heaved a relieved sigh. The infant squalled on her chest, a girl, incredibly frail and small, brought into the world too early. Love, mingled with aching sadness, softened her green eyes as she gazed at the babe. Then, her hands shaking, she tied off the umbilical cord and wrapped the infant in her cloak.
"You will never know me, but understand this," she whispered urgently into one tiny ear. "Even though I hold you for but a moment, I've already loved you a lifetime's worth."
Groaning, she hauled herself to her feet, and stood on legs that nearly crumbled beneath her. More precious time passed as she leaned against a fallen tree, the small bundle held securely in her arms. Her lips twisted into a grim line as she tried to find the strength to continue.
The child squirmed within the cloak, seeking the warmth of her mother's body. But she made not a sound as Branwyn again began to stumble along the stream.
With frightening speed, eager baying now a scant league away broke the stillness that had descended upon the forest. As darkness chased away the last rays of sunlight, Branwyn realized she couldn't elude the hounds much longer. Even so, a bolt of resolve shot through her and she vowed that the infant she'd borne would escape her own fate.
The rippling water next to her reflected a desperate silhouette as she veered from the stream and plunged through a clearing in the forest, trampling tufts of grass beneath her feet. As she ran, she searched the surrounding wood for a nook small enough to hide her child. But when a bevy of geese behind a distant hill took flight, she paused and listened.
Chirping. A bird, perhaps.
Creaking. A tree fighting the effects of wind and age.
She examined the forest edge. Nothing moved.
Had she escaped them?
Crash! The hounds charged in an explosion of sound, heedlessly lunging through the forest undergrowth, almost within view. The feel of her baby snuggled against her gave her the strength she needed. Oblivious to the trickle of blood that stained her underskirt, she ran out of the clearing, into the field beyond, and almost slammed into a fence. A wooden fence. It bore the mark of the holding it protected--the holding where Gwynllian lived. She was close, so close.
But her ears told her that she wasn't close enough. She collapsed against a fence post, her heart squeezed by hopeless fear. With halting movements, she slipped a necklace bearing a sparkling green egg over her head and dropped it into the folds covering the babe. Then, after lingering a few last moments, she hid the bundle in the green bows of an oak tree.
"Keep her safe, mighty oak," she whispered. Then, in a final burst of energy, she hastened back into the forest. The infant mewled only once, very softly.
Deep inside, Branwyn knew there would be no last-second reprieve. Her movements were becoming jerky, uncoordinated, as the blood began to flow down her legs in a steady stream. And yet she staggered forward, lit by a fierce desire to put as much distance as possible between herself and the child she'd delivered.
She'd reached the limits of her body's strength, however. After one last look at the moon that observed her from its serene height, she collapsed. Not even the snuffling noises of the hounds following the trail of blood could prod her into greater effort.
"My baby," she whispered, and drifted into blackness.
Fervent howls roused her from her stupor. She opened her eyes and saw the hounds, their jaws impossibly wide, their eyes baleful with the glare of death. The druid houndmasters stood a few feet behind them, holding their beasts on leashes. The one closest to her prodded her midsection with his booted toe. His face betrayed grim satisfaction. In that moment, she realized he didnt know. Hed felt the afterbirth shed yet to pass and thought the babe was still inside her.
A smile curved her lips upward.
The houndmaster nodded at his companions, and together, they unleashed their beasts.