Regina woke when the first cock crowed. The mornings were already chilly, even though the blackberries were only just ripe. She dressed quickly, putting on Wulfrún's russet kirtle, even though it was a bit short on her: it was the warmest garment she could claim as her own. She had deerhide shoes, but she decided to pack them instead of wearing them: it was not that cold yet, and who knows when she might have another pair?
As she tucked the shoes into her bundle, she noticed that it had become larger than she recalled. It appeared that Cynehild had added a ragged old shift to the one Regina had already packed. It was a tattered thing and certainly nothing that the farmstead's mistress couldn't spare, but it might come in handy as bandage linen, if nothing else. Regina didn't want to owe the woman anything more than she did already, but she could not afford to offend Cynehild: her silence would buy Regina precious time on her journey.
There was a small pot of porridge half buried in the smoored fire. Regina ate quickly, although she wanted to linger. She had a bag of meal in her supplies, and another small pot, but who knew when she would next taste honey or milk? She wiped the bowl and the horn spoon and added them to her bundle, then left the houseplace.
Pausing behind the cow-byre, she wrapped the cloak Cynehild had given her around her shoulders. The clear, pale light of the coming morning suggested that she would not need it later, but she was glad of it now. It was a man's cloak, really: it had belonged to Garmund, the old master, who had died five years since. His son Gárwine had a splendid new green cloak that Cynehild had woven for him. No one would miss this one for several months.
The watchdogs came around the corner of the byre, paused, then raced happily to see her. She patted them all and spent some time making much of Casern's ears. The white-chested bitch always reminded her a bit of Owain's Dog, even though she was more lightly built and shaggier: she had the same earnest nature and similar coloring. She was still nursing two of her latest pups; the rest had already gone to their new masters. "Fare you well, Casern," Regina whispered. "May you have an easy winter, and more fine pups in the spring."
The sun was coming now, a warm brightness to the east. Soon the men and women of Gárwine's steading would be up and about, taking the cattle out to graze, gathering eggs, tending to the kale garth. Regina slipped through the gate in the stockade that circled the farm house and its outbuildings and ran downhill through the barley field, avoiding the track, where her footprints would be clear for all to see. She crossed the stream at the bottom of the rise and hurried into the half-cleared woodland beyond.
Little enough of the wood remained: she could turn back, peer through the tangles of the little hazels and crack willows, and see the farmstead. To her alarm, Gárwine was standing at the door of the house, looking about him. Even though Regina knew that she could not be seen and knew also that she could not yet have been missed, she shrank back behind the nearest tree trunk. She must hurry. There was only one thing left she must do before striking her way north and west.
She had recalled the huge old thorn tree with the twisted limbs long since, when Gárwine first commented, admiringly, on her eyes. Now she looked it over, her memory showing her Owain kneeling at the roots of the tree and digging in the soil between them with his knife. She took a fallen branch from the ground, broke off the twigs and branchlets along its length, and fell to her knees at the same spot. After digging in the earth for a few moments, she felt the tiny jolt of something hard. She cast the stick aside and pulled out handfuls of loosened soil. The first rays of the rising sun, shining through the leaves of the great tree, struck a spark of green fire from the jewel in Owain's father's ring.
It had come to her just a few days since how she could let Owain know that she had taken the ring. She drew out from her bundle the little earthenware pot that Wulfrún had once filled with her herbal wound salve, famed for miles around. Now it held nothing but a lock of Regina's black hair, a color she had never seen on the head of any Saxon, coiled and twined about with scarlet thread, and sealed in the pot with clay from the stream. She strung the ring on another strand of woolen thread, then tied it around her neck, allowing the ring to fall down inside the gown. She buried the little pot and patted the earth firmly on top, then scattered fallen leaves and twigs over the place.
For a moment she stayed there, on her knees, thinking of Wulfrún. She had never known her own mother, and crabbed old Totia, who had beaten Regina when she did not bring home enough after a day's begging, was nothing but a faded memory that she was pleased to let go. Wulfrún had never tried to be Regina's mother, but she had been kind and generous. She had taught Regina about plants and herbs, how to count and keep tallies, bake bread and honeycakes, how to sew and weave and milk a cow. They had been close for ten years, and Regina still missed her. "Farewell, Wulfrún, wherever you may be," she whispered.
Then she rose, and made her way northward.
The late summer sun shone hot on Regina's head, drying the last of the night's rain from her kirtle. Below her was the Sabrina, a smaller and shallower river than it had been when she first picked it up north of Glevum. On the far side was a flock of sheep, but where Regina sat, there was nothing but heather and scrub and off at the top of the next hill, a grove of hazel.
She had been on her way for some ten days now. Her bag of meal was long since empty, as was the wallet of dried fish. The brambles were still thick with fruit, however, and the wild greens were thick and full. She had snared hares twice, most recently yestereve, and once she managed to catch a chub, laying in wait for it patiently on the bank of a stream, as Swegen the herdboy had shown her years since.
Owain would be proud of her. It was strange to think of how little she had known when they had crossed these miles more than ten years ago. Then the open spaces had made her cower, and she would have starved without him.
Glevum had been a strange temptation. She had not realized how accustomed she had grown to having people about, no matter how little she had cared for most of the folk at Garmund's steading. She had stood at the top of a hill beyond the town, seeing how there were only a handful of occupied houses, knowing that the coming of a stranger would be noted and remembered, and yet longing to go down and see human beings, to eat bread or porridge, to sleep beneath a roof. And then she had turned away.
Across the river, she could see the figure of a shepherd lad with a dog beside him, pied black and white. As she watched, he stretched out on the turf, taking his ease while his flock grazed under the dog's watchful eye.
I should go, she thought, before the wind shifts, and the dog realizes I'm here. She slipped away behind the brambles and scrub until she was hidden from the river by the shoulder of the hill, then stepped out in earnest.
The shadows were long in Viroconium, and the wind was picking up a bit. The first hazelnuts were ripe, and Regina had made a fine dinner of them, crushed to a porridge and heated over her little fire. She had found the remains of old gardens in the overgrown ruins of the city, where turnips and carrots had seeded themselves, as had the garlic and onions. The apple trees still bore fruit, and now she knew to look for chestnuts and walnuts as well.
She scattered some crushed hazelnuts for the little brown hen she had stolen from the settlement nearby a week since, who pecked at them eagerly. She was joined by the wild birds who were coming to expect gleanings around Regina's sheltered corner: the robin and her mate, the boisterous crowd of sparrows, the thrush who sang for her at dawn and evening. And then, to her delight, a blue tit joined them. Regina watched and rejoiced in her heart at the busy scuffling and pecking on the stones, warm in the memories of how Owain and Dog had watched with her all those years ago.
When the last crumbs were gone, she shut the hen back into the little coop she had made from willow withies. She had saved yesterday's egg, and with the wild greens, carrots, apples, and nuts she had laid by, she felt quite rich. She had still the last of the fat from the hedgehog she had caught two days since, and thought that she would make herself an excellent supper. All she needed was some water: the old, cracked crock she was using was nearly empty.
As she walked to the lion-faced wellspring, she thought for a moment of winter. For all her pride in her skills at foraging, she quailed at the thought of surviving here, alone, when the storms came. Her kirtle was already growing ragged and thin with wear, and if her shoes wore into holes, she had no leather to mend them but the skins of the hares she had killed for food. There was no store of musty barley left to see her through the dark days to come, and no one to help her hunt larger game.
She went carefully down the three mossy steps to the grotto with the lion's mask fountain still pouring cool water into its basin. The birds who drank there startled and scattered at her arrival, then came close to drink again as she filled the crock, accustomed to her harmless presence.
There was a sound then, a sound that she had never expected, and yet it seemed that she had been awaiting it for more than ten years: the footsteps of shod feet on the cracked pavement of Kyndylan's palace. All the birds flew away, and she turned, and stared.
A man stood there: a dark-haired man past his first youth, of middling height, with a few weeks' growth of beard on his face and weariness in the set of his shoulders. He wore Saxon gear, with a sword belted on his hip, and he was looking at her as though he were a man dying of thirst, and she was a draught of cool water.
"Regina," he said.
She knew him, then: knew the face above the beard, the hand that half reached out to her, the way he held his head as proud and as straight as did a ten-point stag in the spring of the year, despite the weary miles he must have traveled to find her.
She did not not smile, or make any movement to set the crock down. "Owain," she said. "I knew you would come one day."
And that was all.
And that was everything.