And so it came to pass that young Annarin was spirited away from the devastating destruction of the home she’d known and brought into the lower country through Mercia and onward toward the sea. As a bride her mother had left the safety of this place to make her home at her husband’s side, up into the wilderness of the North Country. Though she came to love the remote and often unforgiving land the Melanafee had held for generations, she secretly kept her girlhood home close in heart, longing one day to return. She’d been robbed of her chance, leaving her daughter to make the journey in her place.
Barely of marriageable age, Annarin drew notice wherever she went, for she was tall and striking, with long blonde hair and sparkling blue-violet eyes, her mother’s eyes. Only days before those eyes had shone with the joy of security, but the sudden, savage destruction of all she’d known had replaced this with the stunned, shattered look of one who had seen too much. Her world had been ripped apart in the space of a sunny afternoon and she’d found herself at once lost and alone, haunted by the garish, blood soaked images of an unprovoked attack. She’d watched as childhood friends were heartlessly butchered; her father, fighting valiantly, was taken down by the ax of a Norsemen’s blade; and her mother suffered the indignities of capture with all the bearing at her command.
It was this brave spirit that came to aid the Lady Audra as she seized upon her only chance to spare her daughter the life that awaited the prisoners of the victors. With all haste and cunning, she gathered the few keepsakes kept from the plunder and secreted them among the things Annarin would take with her. There was time for a last, heartfelt embrace and a few whispered words, a prayer and then she was given into the hands of the most loyal of her father’s men. Donegan, a well-tested warrior of many years took command of the girl and the small force that swore a blood oath to deliver her safely into the hands of her mother’s kin.
It would be a difficult and treacherous journey under the best of circumstances, but with the hostile force so close at hand, the danger was tenfold. The pitch-black sky was tinged red, blood-red, and the terrible sounds of the victory celebration echoed through the familiar wood, mocking them. Battle-scarred and weary, the men used every skill they possessed to make the escape, silent and sure over land they knew so well.
Four days had come and gone since they put the higher terrain behind them and moved into the fertile valleys of the lowlands. Travelling by day, they made a slow progress along the Dyke named for the indomitable leader who built it, though they kept their distance from the people settled there, remaining in the unspoiled wilderness. Here the creatures of the forest watched with wide, silent eyes as the soldiers and the lone girl passed through lands untouched.
Annarin spent much of the journey at Donegan’s side, finding some measure of comfort in the company of her father’s most loyal man. Seated securely atop the only mount they’d been able to retrieve from the stables, her wide eyes moved over the landscape with growing curiosity. She’d never been so far from home before, and something of the adventure of it called to her youthful spirit. So many of the stories she’d been told came alive in the silence of the woods, and she wondered at what she would find at the end of this journey. Timid but hopeful, her heart beat steadily in her chest as she gazed wide-eyed at the view suddenly and most unexpectedly revealed to them at the top of a small rise.
Here was a valley of lush green, spring bursting forth to clothe the land in vibrant color, purple heather and patches of wildflowers reaching up into a cloudless sky. At some distance they could make out the smoke of the chimney fires from a settlement that Donegan, who had made the journey once before, knew as a sign they had entered Wessex. It would be but a few days more before they would reach the lands held by Lady Audra’s widowed sister, Annarin’s only surviving blood kin.
It was at Eddington that they used what coin they had to secure room and board for the night, a welcome shelter from a driving rain that had been falling steadily through the afternoon. Though small, the inn was well-kept and offered Annarin a private room where she could bathe and take her rest. There were fresh garments to be had too, and Donegan took care in choosing a simple linen gown of deep blue to present to the girl. For the first time since that terrible day, Annarin’s eyes flickered with something akin to interest as she beheld the garment, impulsively hugging the wizened soldier before dashing back into her room. This alone served to soften his heart, and he found himself most pleased when she came down to dinner, the bearing of her mother in every line of her as she joined the men at the long wooden table.
Revived by a night’s rest, the party continued their journey heading east into the rising sun. Gone was the wooded wilderness, the lowlands well-traveled and thickly settled by people who cast uneasy glances toward the party of fighting men and the striking girl who passed among them. Travel over the aging roads was easier, lending speed to the journey, and in short order they had reached the outskirts of Winchester, where Donegan felt certain there would be news of Annarin’s kin.
As with all the rest, spring green had come to take firm hold of this place, bursting forth everywhere in abundance, surrounding the buildings that had been built and rebuilt over the years. Annarin gazed about, her eyes moving from the cottages to the fertile land, some with animals grazing upon it, other patches bearing the mark of newly tilled earth. Rising up into the cloudless sky, the imposing gray turrets of a stately manor house stood tall and proud, watching over those in the settlement below. Annarin was at once overcome by an undeniable feeling of familiarity — some part of her knew this place, knew it and loved it still.