Chapter 1. Lost
Wolf’s silver fur shone in the moonlight. Lifting his muzzle, he sniffed the damp air. A faint smell of the river mingled on the breeze. He pricked up his ears, listening to the changing sounds as night gave way to dawn. His sharp eyes made out the shiny snake of the river which lay before them in the bottom of the valley. He turned to Rhiannon as he caught the faint reassuring howl of Juniper in the settlement, and knew at once the direction of home.
Rhiannon shivered as she pulled her old woollen cloak closer, a finger sliding over the red enamel of the circular pin* at her neck. The howl was far beyond her hearing. She eased back her shoulders, which were stiff from the night she’d spent in the hollow of a tree. Wolf’s wet nose nuzzled her hand, bringing a smile to her weary face. Gently she stroked his head and ruffled his ears. She was totally lost. “Which way now?” she asked him, straining her eyes to see in the darkness.
Suddenly, a twig snapped behind them and Rhiannon whirled round. Wide-eyed she stood there, straining her ears to listen, her heart pounding in her chest and her hand on the hilt of her knife. A rat scurried through the undergrowth and she sighed with relief. “It’s just a rat,” she told Wolf.
Slowly, Wolf led the way down the steep wooded slope towards the river, the wet grass soaking his long fur. Rhiannon slithered and slid along behind him. “Belisama only helps in the light,” she worried. “Now she’ll be gathering souls in the darkness, sucking them down into the river’s black heart. We have to cross the river to get home! But how are we going to find the crossing in the dark?” She yanked at the edge of her cloak, pulling it from brambles as she passed, adding to the snags in the fabric. Wolf waited, his bushy tail twitching impatiently, until she caught up with him.
“But we can’t wait for the light, we have to get back before the gates open,” Rhiannon worried, rubbing impatiently at the mud on her soft leather breeches. “It’s all well and good Torsa saying there are fat rabbits on this side of the river. We didn’t find any!” Wolf slipped quickly under the branch that hung across their path. Rhiannon shoved it out of her way letting it twang back as she passed, splattering the earth with drops of rain that had been held amongst the leaves. “At dawn the gates will open and I’ll have to explain why I didn’t get home. They’ll be worrying about me.”
The valley bottom was even darker than it had been up on the hill. Wolf padded ahead, sniffing the ground as he went; his ears up and his nose absorbed in the search for the stepping stones to cross the river. The day before they had crossed safely in the light, leaving their scent on the grass, if Wolf could only find it. Then there it was! He stood rock steady, his nose pointing to the first stepping stone.
“You’ve found the crossing!” Rhiannon cried out in relief, stumbling towards him. Once they were over the river Belisama couldn’t hurt them; they would be back in their homelands and safe. But first they had to persuade the river goddess to let them cross in the dark.
Rhiannon stared at the crossing, fear gripping her stomach. The river was in full spate after the previous night’s rain, and was rippling over the tops of the stones. Rhiannon and Wolf looked silently at each other but there was no choice – the crossing had to be made. “I should have brought my pike!” Rhiannon whispered.
Her foot slithered on the slippery surface as she stepped on to the first stone. She licked her dry lips; she could barely see the far side of the bank. She took a small piece of iron in the shape of a hazel nut from the pocket* on her belt, and closed her eyes. “Please Belisama,” she pleaded, “take this nut and leave us to make the crossing, just as you promised to our forefathers.” She bent down and placed the nut carefully against the furthest edge of the first stone. Then she waited.
Wolf’s tail twitched. The gurgling river sucked at the stones. Rhiannon turned as a screeching owl flew behind them. But when she looked back the nut was gone. “Good,” she thought, stepping confidently onto the second stone and placing a new hazel nut against its edge. Wolf mastered the stone behind her.
Then they waited, listening to the churning call of the river around the stones. A silver fish leaped up clear of the surface slapping back into the water startling them both. “That nut’s gone too,” she told Wolf as she moved on again.
By the time they reached the middle stone, both banks had almost disappeared into the shadows, leaving nothing but the seething water around them. They stood silently waiting for the nut to be taken. The river whispered to them as it flowed past, calling them to slide within its watery grasp.
Rhiannon fiddled with the pin at her throat, forcing down the panic in her chest. “Oh Leon,” she thought, “I could use your help right now.” She wished she could see her older brother waving from the far bank, pleased to find her safe. But the nut was still there.
The river sang its song of death. Gurgling and gargling as it rushed by her feet, it mesmerised her with its twinkling. Wolf let out a long, low growl. Rhiannon trembled as she almost lost her balance for a moment, but the nut was gone.
She stepped on to the next stone as the clouds parted, bathing her in moonlight. She turned her face towards the sky, her stomach a pit of dread. “Please Belisama,” she prayed, “please help us home.”
But it seemed Belisama was not pleased. A screaming black crow flew across the river from the trees and crashed into the back of Rhiannon’s head, knocking her forwards. She flailed her arms as the crow pulled at her thick plait, its wings flapping round her face. Rhiannon’s feet slipped; she felt herself losing her balance. Wolf bayed from the rock behind her, jumping with the force of each bark, but there was nothing he could do. She slithered off the stone, and cried out as she fell into the water with a splash. Her breath froze in her throat as the cold water grabbed her and pulled her down. Wolf howled in panic; turning round and round on his stone. Rhiannon clawed for the stone’s edge as the force of the river dragged her away downstream. She kicked frantically, but her mouth filled up with foam as she slipped below the surface.
She stared up at Wolf as she rose in the water. Water rose up her nose; the pain in her chest was crushing. “No!” she screamed, as she saw Wolf jump towards her into the waiting river. Cold helplessness smothered her as she saw Wolf being dragged downstream, and she was sucked below the surface of the water once more.
Suddenly she felt a strong hand grab the back of her jerkin. She was lifted out of the tumult, dragged towards the shore and deposited on dry ground. Shivering, spluttering and coughing, she lay still until she could breathe more freely. She turned to her rescuer but the strange brown-robed figure was already running down the river bank, his outline etched in the moonlight.
Gradually Rhiannon got to her knees and then to her feet, shivering with a cold that froze her bones. “Who is that man?” she wondered. She stood for a moment swaying as she looked back across the stones – then she remembered.
Terror rose up in her throat. “Wolf,” she cried out in anguish, “where are you?” And then, overwhelmed and exhausted, she crumpled to the ground.