One of these was Elisius, now about eleven years old, carrying water from the river that ran by the base of the hill; the other was younger, with long blonde plaits, panting slightly to keep up with Elisius, although she wasn't much smaller than the older girl.
"When do you think our fathers will be home?" She asked.
"I don't know, Sioned. They could be gone until the harvest for all I know."
The younger girl hung her head slightly.
"Cheer up! I'm sure they won't be that long. They're not far away, so they should be back well before then." said Elisius hastily, smiling reassuringly. She often forgot how fond of her father Sioned was. They continued to trudge up the hill in silence. The neighbouring tribe was giving them grief again because they claimed that Rhisiart had taken some of their land. The tribe was a bit tense at the moment because they were afraid that Ossilon's men might attack the village, but Elisius thought that they would be too busy trying to fend off Rhisiart's warband to bother.
"Who's that?" Sioned said suddenly, nodding at a tall youth standing nearby, watching them.
"I don't know," replied Elisius, trying to ignore the sudden cold rush she felt in her face that told her she had gone pale. Sioned suddenly froze.
"He's coming towards us!" she gasped.
"Keep walking," muttered Elisius, trying to sound as calm as she could, although she could feel her heart thudding in her head. "Pretend you haven't noticed..."
But the man was not to be ignored; he was now walking beside the girls.
"Greetings," he said, smiling at them. "We've met before, haven't we?"
Elisius didn't reply.
He stood right in front of them and they stopped. Elisius tried to walk around him but he moved with them, his grin widening.
"I don't think you heard me," He commented, mildly. Elisius still remained silent. Sioned reached for her free hand, but Elisius meaningfully shoved the bucket of water at her instead.
"I don't think I know you," She said abruptly, looking him straight in the eyes. The man looked rather hurt.
"Well, there's no need to be so cold."
Elisius paused for a moment.
"What brings you here?" She asked. "I must warn you that at this time, the people who live here are hostile towards any they consider to be foe."
The man's face froze. Elisius wondered if she should call for help, then thought better of it. She turned to Sioned.
"Go and take the water to my house," She instructed, well aware of the risk she was putting herself at; but Sioned didn't move. She was shaking, and seemed to have been hypnotised by the man she was staring at, her eyes as wide as a frightened rabbit's.
"I am glad to see that you are gaining trust in me," The stranger leered. "Because if I was foe and you were alone, then I could slit your throat in one stroke."
In panic, Elisius looked around her. There was no help to be got; if she called out, she knew that he would kill her where she stood. Suddenly, her eye was caught by a long brown object in the grass nearby. She couldn't see it too well, but she was pretty sure it was a sword. She looked back at the man. His grin was back and his fingers were curled around the hilt; there was a blinding flash of light as the early sunlight glanced off the long steel blade as he drew it. Without thinking, Elisius ran straight over to the sword on the ground and, with an effort, pulled it from its scabbard.
The man watched her struggle to pull the sword upright; it was very heavy. Suddenly he began to laugh.
"Very noble," He chortled. "You do not seriously think that you can kill me? Is this the best that Black Spear can provide by way of an army? This should be an easy fight."
Elisius didn't reply; she was watching her opponent, every muscle tense, ready to swing the huge sword even though she was sincerely hoping that this man was just making a very bad joke. He wasn't. The blade ripped through the air towards her, and Sioned screamed-but the scream was drowned by the crash of the swords. It took a second for the man to recover from the shock of seeing this undersized girl knocking his sword off course. Elisius, gathering all her strength, swung her weapon again. It missed the target, but the man doubled up with a cry as flecks of blood spattered the grass. As she steadied herself again, the man hit her round the side of the face and she fell over backwards. As she tried to get up, his sword shot towards her and pinned her dress to the ground, missing her ribs by less than an inch; she fell back and next thing she knew the flat of the man's sword was pressing against her throat. She struggled for a second, but when she realised that this was only making her even more out of breath she lay still and turned her head to the side. She still couldn't breathe; her head felt as though it was so full of water she was sure it would explode; her vision was blurring, so she closed her eyes. She was about to die on the edge of her own village. Silently, she pleaded Sioned to run, to get back to the safety of the village. She could hear her friend crying nearby. It was going to be the last thing she ever heard. "Please," She thought in despair. "Please, just finish it now. Please hurry! Please... Just let it stop."
And it did stop. It was though a dam had burst in her neck; cold air flooded through her, making her chest hurt and her head spin. She could hear a voice above her, shouting something about a cowardly wretch. She just lay still, letting the feeling return to her arms and legs. It was quiet around her now, but there was an odd roaring in her ears. She knew what was coming, hastily turned onto her side and vomited on the grass. Finally, she opened her eyes and looked up. Sioned was there, white to the lips; she felt herself being hoisted up on her feet and turned.
The man who had picked her up was Owain the blacksmith. He was a big, broad-shouldered man, with a great many scars and scratches on his arms. His hair was blonde, with flecks of white even though his face still looked young.
"Are you well?" He asked. Elisius nodded. He held up her sword.
"You did well. This sword is far too big for you."
"Where is that man?"
"Who was he?"
"One of Ossilon's men. He must have escaped the brawl with his tribe and your father. I doubt that he would have lasted long on that battlefield."
Elisius suddenly realised that Owain had saved her from certain death. She tried to think of something to say that could express her gratitude, but could somehow only manage a rather weak "Thankyou, Owain".
"You need not thank me," He replied. "It seemed as though you were doing well enough on your own at first." He continued to look from Elisius to the sword.
"This is far too big for you," He repeated, thoughtfully. "If I was to make a smaller one, I would like you to try it out. I want to see you fight again."
It seemed to be the least Elisius could do for the man who had rescued her, so she nodded. Owain smiled.
"I will tell you when to come and test it," He promised, then left.
Elisius watched him leave, then thoughtfully fingered at the hole in her dress where the sword had gone through. Suddenly she became aware of Sioned staring at her; she tried to think of something to say, but couldn't think of anything. Instead, she picked up her discarded bucket of water and went on her way again.