Read Rexanne Becnel Online

Authors: Where Magic Dwells

Rexanne Becnel

Where Magic Dwells
Rexanne Becnel

For the children I grew up with—Matt, Renée, and Dani—and the very special people they turned out to be

Contents

1
Radnor Forest, Wales,
A.D.
1172

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Epilogue

A Biography of Rexanne Becnel

1

Radnor Forest, Wales, A.D. 1172

T
HERE WAS A STRANGER
in her forest. Wynne ab Gruffydd looked up from where she knelt in a tall bed of Olympia fern and a shiver snaked down her spine. Her hands stilled at their task of delicately uprooting the bulbous growths on the fern roots.

There was a stranger in her forest; she knew it with a certainty that had never failed her. She knew it without seeing him or hearing him. She knew it even though the fat red squirrels still chattered at their daily work and the doves called down in their familiar mournful tones.

Perhaps it was that the falcon circling so high above had suddenly dropped lower and now only skimmed the high tops of the oak and ash and thorn trees. Or maybe it was the pair of rabbits that had paused in their browsing for new fern fronds and wild strawberry leaves. Wynne did not bother to wonder about her knowledge. A man had entered the forest—perhaps more than one man. And he came by horseback.

Normally that was not cause for alarm. It could be Druce or even the Fychen family, coming as they always did during the waxing of the moon to collect the rare forest herbs she gathered and prepared for them. But she knew it was not them. This man was a stranger to her. And though she sensed now that it was indeed a group of men, one of them came through to her more clearly than the rest.

Wynne stood up abruptly, absently brushing the dried and clinging fern fronds from her deep green woolen skirt. Without realizing it she began to rub the familiar amethyst amulet that hung, heavy and reassuring from a chain around her neck. She had a sudden and uneasy premonition, stronger than anything she’d ever sensed before. This man spelled trouble for her. Though she’d long ago grown used to the inexplicable feelings that often assailed her, she’d also learned to trust them. Still, she’d never before felt so vivid an impression as this.

The devil’s-apple she’d hoped to gather would have to wait, she decided at once. She could collect them another time. Right now she must get back to Radnor Manor.

Wynne did not take the deer path that led through the low fern beds and past the Old Circle, the huge granite boulders that were her secret place. She avoided the stream path and the ancient rocky road—the Giant’s Trail. She had assumed the strangers would be traveling down the Old Roman Road. But now she was unsure just where these men were, and more than anything she knew she must remain hidden. So she picked her way down the hill, through the gorse and thorn grove, but avoiding the expanse of heather that grew in a sudden clearing. She clung to the thickets and deep woods, as familiar with them as any of the wild creatures might be. This was her home, her Radnor Forest. The man who traversed it now was a stranger to this wild part of
Cymru
—of Wales. He was a stranger and unwelcome, and Wynne’s wariness swiftly expanded to include anger. What right had he to be here?

As Wynne approached the sprawling manor house, she spied Gwynedd standing at the edge of the clearing waiting for her. Her great-aunt knew, she thought with relief. She’d sensed the man as well. Somehow that was a comfort.

“Wynne?” the old woman called, although Wynne approached on completely silent feet. “Come here, girl. Give me your hand.”

Wynne took her aunt Gwynedd’s gnarled hand in hers and held it tight to still its constant tremor.

“I feared for you, girl. What is it?”

“There is a stranger—or strangers—in the forest. I felt their presence and I’m certain they bode ill for us. Did you sense them also?”

Gwynedd shook her graying head. Though her eyes followed the sound of Wynne’s voice, Wynne knew they saw little more than shadows and light. “I sensed only your fear,
nith.
Tell me what you saw.”

“I saw nothing,” Wynne answered as she led her great-aunt slowly to a smooth log. They sat down together. “But I felt …” She paused and tried to organize the vague and troubling feelings that had risen inside her. “I felt something stronger—something clearer—than anything I’ve ever felt before. Yet it was still indistinct. There are a number of men, and yet only one of them came to me.” She stared down at her hands, stained green at the fingertips, and rubbed a spot of dirt away. Then she turned to her elderly aunt.

“ ’Tis the oddest vision I’ve ever had. I wish I could explain it. I wish you could still …”

Gwynedd smiled and patted her niece’s knee. She stared at Wynne with her strange unfocused gaze. “My time is past. It has been these several years. But even if my powers were strong, there’s naught to say that I would sense the same from this man that you do.”

“But it’s so strong. You would have been able to make something of it.”

The old woman shook her head. “ ’Tis different for each of us who have been blessed—or cursed, some would say—with the Radnor visions. You know that. We each have had our strengths and our weaknesses. All we can do is use our gifts as best we can. Mine is fading, just as my sight has faded. But you are young. You are strong.”

They sat in silence a few minutes as Wynne pondered her aunt’s words. Then she sighed. “He frightens me,” she confessed in a low voice, disturbed that this unseen man held such power over her.

“He may have his strengths, my child, but you also have yours,” Gwynedd reminded her. “Let us wait and see what he is about. And now, what is that I hear?” She cocked her head, and Wynne looked around.

“ ’Tis Druce, back from the hunt. Perhaps he’ll have news.”

Druce ab Owain and three other men from Radnor Village filed into the manor yard. Two of them carried a long pole between them, from which hung a gutted stag. Druce and his younger brother each had a brace of rabbits slung over their shoulders. They were dirty, and their leather hunting tunics bore the stains of their successful hunt. But they were not concerned with their appearance. The hunt had been good and their spirits were high.

“Wynne. Wynne!” Druce called when he spied her. A huge smile lit his dark face, and he changed his direction toward her, holding his catch high for her to see. “This shall see all who reside at Radnor Manor well fed for the next few weeks!”

“Indeed!” she exclaimed. “Just feel what Druce has brought us, Aunt Gwynedd.” Wynne brought the older woman’s hand up to the several rabbits. “And he also has a fine stag.”

“Ah, Druce. What a good lad you are to see to the needs of your neighbors.” Gwynedd smiled and nodded blindly in his direction. “ ’Tis best that I gather up the young ones. They must help Cook and the others in the preparation of the meat. The skinning. The carving.” Then she turned to Wynne. “What say you? Are the twins to be banned from this, or is their punishment done?”

Wynne’s pleased expression changed. Rhys and Madoc. Of the five orphans she raised at the manor, those two were by far the most mischievous. Riding the poor cow, Clover, as if she were a destrier. Scattering the already wild chickens. This time had been the worst, however, for had little Bronwen not alerted her in time, they might be dead by now. Or at least maimed. In exasperation Wynne thrust one hand through her heavy hair, further loosening the midnight tresses from her knitted coif.

“I’m not certain they’ve learned their lesson at all,” she muttered. “But then, I doubt even a week of scrubbing hearths and cleaning the animal pens will wean them of their recklessness.”

“They’re but high-spirited lads,” Druce said in defense of the twin boys. “Why, every lad worth his salt has swung down from the Mother Oak on wild vines, trying to make it to the other side of the Devil’s Cleft. I did it, and so shall—”

“You were nearer ten,” Wynne broke in. “Rhys and Madoc are but six years old. And barely that,” she added, becoming frightened once more for her impish charges.

Druce shrugged. “They would have been fine. Though I doubt they would have reached the other side, they would not have been hurt.”

“They might have fallen!”

“They would have slid down the vine, only a little frightened for their adventure.”

He gave her a lopsided smile, and as always Wynne found herself struggling to hold firm against it. Though Druce was one year older than her, he still seemed a boy, young and reckless. Fun-loving. He’d been the wildest lad in Radnor Village, and she’d been close behind him in daring. Had he not ordered her away those long years ago at the Mother Oak, she would have clambered up after him and tried to swing across the Devil’s Cleft herself. It was the first time he’d acted as the other boys usually did, reminding her that she was only a girl. When she’d become incensed, he had threatened to tickle her. When that hadn’t worked, however, he had used the ultimate threat. He’d vowed to kiss her and then stepped forward to prove he meant it.

She’d fled in horror, just as he’d expected. He had made the daring swing from the tree and had come home to the village a hero, swaggering and proud. His father had bragged endlessly, and his mother had been dismayed. Wynne, however, had been devastated, for everything had changed after that. Druce had joined the older boys’ games and assumed more and more responsibilities among the men, while Wynne had slowly become more a part of the village women’s world and the accompanying chores. Not until after the English attack and her move from the village to Radnor Manor itself had she and he recovered their old friendship. And even then it had been different.

Of course everything had been different since the English had come to Radnor Forest that day nearly seven years ago. Her parents had both been killed, and then later her sister, Maradedd, had died too. Yet Maradedd had been murdered by the English just as surely as if they had left her bleeding and lifeless on the day of the battle. The mere fact that she’d survived another nine months meant nothing.

With Maradedd’s death Wynne’s transition from wide-eyed child to embittered woman had been complete. She, instead of her sister, had moved into Radnor Manor with the Seeress, her aunt Gwynedd. At the age of thirteen she had begun to assume the responsibilities for the manor and the string of little English bastards that had found their way to her door. Now, six years later, she was Seeress of Radnor, with both the problems and the privileges that position conferred.

With a sigh Wynne gazed up at Druce’s waiting face. “All right, the children shall help. Even Rhys and Madoc. But I shall fetch them myself,” she added, frowning. “And, Aunt Gwynedd, I hope you give them the hardest and dirtiest task of all. Those two need to learn some caution.”

“Spreading dirt over the bloodied yard is not likely to teach them caution,” Druce taunted her, but Wynne purposefully ignored him. He was very likely right, but what else was she to do? She so often felt inadequate to the task of raising them. Though she tried to fill the role of mother to them all, most of the time she felt more like a beleaguered older sister.

“Come along.” She sighed, taking her aunt’s arm. “We’ve kegs and pots to assemble, and brine to prepare. Cook can’t do it all alone.” They started toward the squat kitchen building just beyond the two-story cruckwork manor house, but then Wynne remembered the strangers in the forest and turned back, letting her aunt proceed alone.

“Druce,” she called, hurrying across the dusty yard to catch him. “Druce, did you see anyone in the forest? Any travelers? A group of men?” she added in a quieter tone.

He pushed a handful of coal-black hair back from his brow. No trace of teasing was left on his face, for he was a firm believer in the Radnor vision, which had been passed down through the women in Wynne’s family. “A pair of barefoot monks riding jennets were on the Old Roman Road headed north. But that was in the morning, right after we left Radnor Village. They can be nowhere near here by now.” He frowned. “What did you sense?”

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