A Year in the Life of Optimus Prime: Four

By Buckeye Belle and Vivienne Grainger

Chapter 1

(A.N. Transformers belongs to Hasbro and whoever they have allowed the rights to it, which certainly doesn't include me. No money has been made from this fanfic and no copyright infringement is intended. All I own are my OCs.

This story contains religious and spiritual discussion drawn from various religious paths both real and fictional. Those who wish not to be exposed to religions other than their own should turn back now.

This is the sixth story in The Sidhe Chronicles series. Previous stories are "Swords and Jewels," "The Sidhe Chronicles 2: Dark of the Moon," and the first three stories of "A Year in the Life of Optimus Prime." This is a separate AU from the "Come on up for the Rising" verse.

"Normal speech"

::Silent speech (Internal radio or through a bond)::

Scene Break: -Sidhe Chronicles-

Thanks to my beta and co-author, Vivienne Grainger. /A.N)

-Sidhe Chronicles-

(Leinster, Ireland, 1185)

The troubles between England and Ireland began with the violent death of a High King, Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn. Now, the passing of human kings was an all-too-regular event in the lives of the Seelie Court fae. So quickly did human lives pass that, in the days when the Gaels buried their dead in barrows, supplied with grave goods to aid their passage to the next world, upon hearing of the birth of a royal child, Queen Titania would quietly commission the creation of a parting gift for that prince or princess' final journey, less than a century hence.

The customs of barrows and grave goods, along with so many other things, had passed with the arrival of Christianity to the Emerald Isle. One of the things lost had been the close ties between the Seelie Court and the courts of the Irish kings and queens. Where once Sidhe diplomats and human druids had been advisers in those courts, now the priests whispered in the ears of kings, and the Fae kept to the forests.

Now, this Muirchertach was the patron of one Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster. The new High King exiled Diarmait, who appealed to Henry II of England, who sent troops including the powerful Norman Marcher Lord, Richard de Clare. King Henry was encouraged in this endeavor by the first and only English pope, Adrian IV, who wished to consolidate control over the Irish Catholic Church.

Restored to his throne in 1170, Diarmaid offered the hand of his daughter, Princess Aoife, to Lord Richard, who had been of invaluable assistance to him in his quest to regain his throne, and made his new son-in-law his heir. Now, Henry, fearing the rise of a rival Norman kingdom in Ireland, went to Leinster at the head of an army to assert his control over de Clare. Henry declared his younger son, John, Lord of Ireland, and when John unexpectedly became king, the English claim to Ireland fell directly to the throne.

"Aye, aye, aye," said Martha the Badger's old nurse, "here are your arms and armor, child, such as they be, and may God forgive you for bearing such Sidhe trash."

"Hurry," said her mother. "I cannot be long gone, or your sister will …"

"Yes. I know." Martha pressed her cheek to her mother's, and then to the old woman's wrinkles, and reached for the door.

But at that moment it crashed open, and Martha's sister's suitor lunged for her with sword extended, a half-dozen priests behind him. "Changeling!" he screamed. "Foul wench!"

Martha's mother lunged, intending to take a cut to the hand to save her child, but Hubert de Clancy's blade slipped or was pointed to her breast, and her swift movement to save Martha took her life. DeClancy cursed her, pulling the blade from her body.

Martha screamed, "Mother!" and sent a blast of water at Hubert, who was knocked off his feet by it. "Changeling bitch!" he shouted, struggling to his feet.

Martha paused, crouched in the window of her father's castle, and said flatly, "You and my sister deserve one another, de Clancy, and I wish you what joy you deserve of your union!" She leapt from the window, and in the storm, her water powers made her invisible behind a swirl of snow.

And who can track snow through falling snow?

Diarwen ni Gilthanel might have been able to, but such was not her concern. She knew nothing of Martha the Badger, lately returned to her family of birth, nor of the changeling plucked from Martha's family's bosom, whose loss Martha's sister had chosen to grieve by asking her fiancee to kill the returned changeling.

The politics between Ireland and England were … unclear, at the moment. And the situation involving the powerful Richard deClare, the young princeling John, his tempestuous father Henry, second of that name to sit the English throne, and the king of Leinster (at present, no one could truly be said to be "High King of Ireland") was a soup a-boil with treachery and intrigue.

Spying upon the humans and obtaining the information that Titania, Queen of the Seelie court, needed to unravel this complex web of alliances and betrayals fell to Diarwen ni Gilthanel, one of the Queen's Own. So it came to pass that, early in winter, Diarwen made her careful way through a snow-covered valley on her way between Dublin and Kildare. She was glamoured as a human minstrel boy, easier to pass unnoticed in these times when neither Sidhe nor unaccompanied women commonly took to the roads, especially in winter.

Leaning on her walking stick, Diarwen paused at the top of a hill. She was still half a day's walk from her destination, more if the snow continued to pile up, as it seemed likely to do. She remembered the long, cold winters of her childhood, when much of the continent had still been locked in ice—this day was warm in comparison, but still she looked forward to Lord Kevin's warm hall.

Shouting and the ring of steel on steel sent her to cover in the trees. She was all too aware that the snow would make it impossible to disappear without a trace—it was too deep to hide her trail. But she could not simply pass by the disturbance without first finding out what it was all about. If outlaws had brought some merchant to bay, she could not simply leave him to his fate.

As she drew closer, she felt the shimmer of magic in the air.

Her first glimpse of the altercation was of the green tabard of a knight. Also easily visible against the snow were the black robes of a priest who wielded a cudgel, and the rougher, less colorful clothing of several men-at-arms. Opposing them was a slender maid armed only with a dagger—and magic. She wore a leather jerkin over a gambeson and breeches. The jerkin's minor charms were only marginal protection against the cold, or the weapons of half a dozen grown men.

Her control over the power of water which she commanded was that of a novice, and her aura showed great weariness as well. The battle cry she shouted as she drove back one of the men-at-arms was in Sidhe.

Diarwen let her glamours fall, and the simple walking-stick she carried became her bow. As the man-at-arms raised an axe, she let an arrow fly, pinning his arm to a tree by his sleeve. "Hi, young one, so many you keep to yourself! Have you enough here to share your sport with a bored traveler?"

"Enough that I might spare a few, milady, since ye asked so kindly!"

Diarwen stood her bow against a tree, dropped her bundle, and drew her sword, as the knight, the churchman, and their men looked uncertainly between the weary young maid, and the fully armed, armored, and thoroughly unimpressed Sidhe warrior.

Diarwen stared at the knight over her mithril blade. "Begone or have at ye, rogues!", and called fire to her blade.

The flaming sword decided them that "begone" was the wiser choice, the man-at-arms Diarwen had shot at leaving his sleeve pinned to an oak.

The maid sheathed her dagger and knelt. "Milady, your arrival was most fortuitous. I am called Martha the Badger."

"So named by those who took you as changeling?"

"Aye, Lady."

"I am Diarwen. How did you come to be out here alone?"

"Prince Jaelin ordered me returned to my human parents. My father is lord of a castle near here. My younger sister saw fit to be rid of me, and denounced me to the Church, so that she might inherit in my stead and make a better marriage. My mother helped me to escape, but fell to the blade of my sister's betrothed, and I've led them a chase since. Had you not come along, Milady, I hoped only to fall quickly in battle rather than be taken captive. There were too many for me to overcome alone."

"I see. I know that you are weary, child, but we must be away from here. They will return, and with more men, an I read them right. If we go quickly, the snowfall will hide our trail before morning."

"Where shall we go, Lady Diarwen?"

"I am bound for Kildare. There are those there who will teach to live among humans without attracting the notice of the Church. You must get into the habit of hiding your magic and your skill with a blade, though. When you have rested, I will begin to teach you a few useful glamours."

"Brigit bless you, Milady."

Diarwen cut the girl a walking stick. "Let me lead the way, child. I should like to put as much distance as we can between us and this place before darkness falls, but I fear we shall not reach Lord Kevin's hall before then."

The girl shivered, and not only from the cold. "It is dangerous to be out at night. There are redcaps about."

"Are there now?" Diarwen asked placidly. "It could be dangerous to be a redcap this evening, then. Let me know if you need to stop and rest."

"Aye, Milady."

Whistling a cheerful tune, Diarwen led the way along the snow-covered road. They saw no other travelers, for which she was quite relieved. It would be awkward to answer questions from others that they might meet.

Until she learned the language and customs, Martha would have to stay in hiding. Lord Kevin and his household kept the old ways, and would make room for the girl at their table. The trick would lie in getting her there unnoticed.

Though, for Martha's sake, Diarwen had passed redcaps off as nothing to be concerned about, she kept her eyes and ears open for any sign of them. The creatures were a species of fae, distant kin to the Sidhe. Redcaps were fearsome opponents because dark magic bound them to keep their caps wet with blood at all times or die. Granted, that same magic slowed the drying process, and they could use the blood of game taken in the hunt as well as any other, but they would fight on regardless of the odds against them when needs must because their caps were beginning to dry out. The Unseelie Court used them as shock troops, often throwing them into battle before joining in themselves, so if they were seen, usually their masters were also about—though sometimes they might be permitted to hunt alone.

It was uncommon for the Unseelie to take an interest in a changeling after returning them to the mortal world, but Jaelin Stormfalcon sometimes did in the case of a pretty young girl like Martha, if he thought she might become a damsel who would capture his eye when she had grown a bit.

If that were so, it meant nothing good for Martha.

"Martha, how old are you?"

"Twelve years, Milady."

"Ah. Nearly grown, then."

"I do a full day's work, Milady. I shall earn my keep."

"I meant not to imply that you did not, child."

"Your pardon, Milady."

"I take no offense."

"Milady, where are we bound?"

"To the hall of Lord Kevin Moran and his Lady, Siobhan. They are good and kind folk, and within their walls, they keep to the old religion. You will be safe there, and they will teach you how to manage in this world. You would not be the first returned changeling that they have fostered."

"What can I do to repay-?"

"We ask for nothing. This is not something to be repaid to us, but rather, when you are older and settled, it is something to be passed on. You will know when the time comes."

"Yes, Milady."

Once a look at their back trail convinced Diarwen that the snow had sufficiently covered their tracks, she called a halt and dug into her pack. First, she dug out a warm, fur-trimmed tunic, which fell to Martha's knees. Then she untied her bag of provisions and found ale, hard bread and cheese, and a couple of apples.

Martha spotted a sheltered spot under the snow-covered boughs of an evergreen tree. First checking to make sure a badger hadn't already claimed the space, they crawled underneath to share their dinner out of the weather.

Martha shivered every time the wind howled. "There was nothing like this in the Underhill," she said. "The wind and the snow—I have seen nothing like this before."

Diarwen replied, "On my few journeys into the Underhill, I was always aware of the mass of stone above my head, and of the possibility that the small streams running through the tunnels could turn into raging torrents without warning. Yet that was as familiar to you as these hills and forests are to me. In time, if you give yourself the chance, you will acclimate as I did."

Martha nodded and finished her apple, then burrowed further into the too-large tunic.

Diarwen was tempted to use magic to warm the child, but here, warm would soon mean wet—more dangerous in the long run. They needed to find a dry place to rest, where she would not have to worry about melting the snow.

"We are not too distant from the ruins of St. Jerome's Abbey," Diarwen mused. "We might take shelter for the night there, if you do not fear the undercroft?"

"What is an abbey, and what is an undercroft?"

"An abbey is the dwelling place of a group of Catholic monks or nuns, and an undercroft is a chamber built underneath underneath a church, commonly used as a chapel—and there, the community often buried their dead. St. Jerome's was looted and burned during the fighting a few years back. Each side blamed the other, and those few monks who fled into the forest and survived could not identify their attackers. Vile brigands, though highborn some of them may have been. Most of the buildings were burned to the ground, but the walls of the church were still standing when last I saw it, and though several of the monks were slaughtered there, the undercroft was still covered. I know of no other possible shelter that we will find before nightfall."

"I fear dead monks less than I do the live ones," Martha replied. "Though after what happened earlier today, I would prefer to avoid all of them."

"As indeed you should, until you have a chance to learn how to act around them."

"Why do they hate us so?"

"They fear us. We stand against the order that they wish to create. They want their faith to rule the world, and all who do not convert must die. It is madness. There would be room for all. Their Christ told them to go into all the world and preach the gospel—He did not tell them to murder all who would not listen. Yet, somehow over a thousand years, that is becoming the way of things. I fear it will grow worse, not better, as time goes on."

"What will become of me?"

"Your element is water. It is in your nature to conform to that which you flow over, yet water you remain. That will be your strength—you will learn to live among them, yet Martha the Badger you will still be. You and your children and theirs will keep the old ways alive in secret, until the day comes when this madness ends, and all once again can walk in peace together."

"How long will that take?"

"I am no prophet, child."

"Aye, Milady. I myself will make but one prophecy—if we stay here much longer, night will overtake us before we find that abbey."

Diarwen grinned. "Indeed. Let us be on our way, then."

-Sidhe Chronicles-

Jaelin Stormfalcon drew upon his command of air and water to mitigate the storm, but it was too late, the trail had already been obscured. "How could that chit of a girl have fought off a knight and four men-at-arms?"

"My Prince, perhaps this explains it," replied his dark-haired companion, indicating a scrap of cloth pinned to a tree by an arrow. He urged his mount over to the tree and yanked out the arrow so that he could study it. "Some Seelie spy, no doubt."

"May I, your highness?"

He let the Queen's Champion take the arrow. She pushed back her sable hood from her face and said, "This is Diarwen's work. I know her fletchings."

"Interfering on behalf of a human wench is precisely the sort of thing that softhearted fool would do," Jaelin snarled, scowling.

What a pity, Morithel thought, that the child could not be denied his wants for even a moment without falling into a pet. He would be no fit leader of the Unseelie, yet lead he must, when came the time. Fortunately, he had centuries yet in which to learn. "We owe her a debt of thanks. Without her interference, you should have lost the girl's entertainment."

"True. Perhaps I shall not kill her right away when we find them."

Morithel said nothing, but she had been Jaelin's swordmaster. She doubted that he would be killing Diarwen ni Gilthanel at all today. The arrogant prince had a lot of growing up to do before he would be a match for her Summer Court counterpart.

"The storm is going stronger, I feel its energy increasing. Where might they take shelter in these lands?"

Morithel thought on that. "A few leagues on, there is a ruined abbey. I can think of nowhere else that they might go. It is a place to start, in any case."

"Very well. Onward then."

-Sidhe Chronicles-

The abbey ruins loomed through the falling snow, the dark mass of charred, scattered timbers and cracked stones pierced here and there by a standing chimney or a fragment of a wall, overgrown with weeds and a few saplings. Here and there, gaps in the piles of rubble remained where people had taken away the fallen stones to use somewhere else. Much of it would be scavenged, in time.

On this dark, wintry evening, though, no one was within a league. Diarwen cast about for any sign, magical or mundane, that anyone or anything else had already claimed the place, and found that they had it entirely to themselves, as well as she could tell.

In the distance, a wolf howled, but here, all was so silent that Diarwen could almost hear the snowflakes fall on the ruins.

The abbey's church had fared better than the surrounding smaller buildings, which had been built more of timber than stone. The church had been burnt out, the remains of the roof falling in and filling the center of the building with a jumble of debris.

But in one corner, a narrow stairway, intact, led down to the undercroft.

Diarwen called fire to her sword to light their way. A few stray stones had fallen into the stairwell, and part of the door at the bottom still hung crazily from the hinges. The splintered pieces of the rest lay just inside.

The undercroft contained a small chapel and the tombs of the monks who had lived here for hundreds of years. The latest inhabitants had been spiders, who had spun their webs everywhere. Diarwen burned them out of her way—next spring, a new generation of arachnids would replace them.

Martha the Badger poked about carefully. "Do you think we might dare a fire down here, milady?"

Diarwen righted a brazier. "There may yet be charcoal," she replied.

Martha picked up a piece of the charred door. "Of a plenty, I should think, lying all about us."

"Half charred, or gone completely to ash, yes," Diarwen smiled. "But where there is a brazier, there should be proper charcoal, and I doubt the looters bothered with it. I shall have a look for it." Diarwen removed a small traveling lantern from her pack and checked the oil and the wick, then lit it from her sword. "There, that will be light and a bit of warmth while we look."

Sure enough, there was charcoal. Once it had been kept in a large basket in the storeroom. The looters had tipped it out to see if anything of value had been hidden inside and left it there. They gathered enough for the brazier and got a fire started. Diarwen told Martha, "Get out of those wet things and wrap up in your blanket; no clothes are better than wet clothes. Spread them out to dry as much as they will before morning."

Martha did as she was bidden, while Diarwen took her copper kettle back upstairs to pack it with snow. She set a ward while she was up there.

When she returned to the undercroft, she hung the kettle over the brazier, and soon they had hot water for tea, then a simple porridge sweetened with a handful of dried currants. Hot food was more than welcome, no matter how homely.

Diarwen followed her own advice and stripped to the skin, then dug a chemise out of her pack.

Martha gasped at the sight of her scars. Raised a slave, she had seen scars before—but not the marks left by fifteen thousand years as a warrior.

Diarwen laughed, not unkindly, at her shocked reaction and the flaming cheeks which followed. "I have been one of the Queen's Own for a handful of hundreds of your years, little one. That leaves its evidence."

She spread her clothes out to dry, then sat down to unbraid, brush and rebraid her long hair. By the time she had finished, Martha had settled down to a restless, exhausted sleep as near the brazier as she dared.

Diarwen kept watch with her sword close at hand. Her wards would give them some warning, but would not stop determined redcaps for long.

She charmed the brazier to give forth more of its warmth, bringing the cellar to a temperature that was, if not quite comfortable, not freezing either, then concentrated on drying their clothing. Occasionally, she went above to have a look around and check her wards.

Martha wakened a couple of hours before dawn. She had not had time to get out of her scullery maid habits; in the Underhill her work day had begun while her fae masters were still asleep. She dressed gratefully in dry, warm clothing. On her last trip upstairs, Diarwen had refilled the kettle with snow; Martha hung it over the brazier.

They were getting ready to leave when Diarwen felt one of her wards go down. She drew her sword and led the way up the stairs, unwilling to be trapped in the undercroft.

A redcap met her near the top of the stairs. The result was swift, violent, and terminal. Diarwen ducked an axe swing and stabbed upwards. The stairwell plunged into darkness as her sword momentarily quenched itself in the creature's body. Its dead weight fell on her, trapping her sword, and she could hear more of them in the church above. Biting back a curse, she backstepped, freeing her sword, and clambered over the body. Behind her, she heard Martha's dagger whisper from its sheath.

Diarwen signaled Martha to stay back, then charged the redcaps. There were four of them.

The ring of mithril on iron broke the dawn silence. Diarwen knew her skill could aid her only if she ended the fight quickly—a drawn-out conflict favored the redcaps.

One of them went down quickly, while thanks to her armor she escaped a broadsword's bite with bruises and her life. The third one tried to grab her from behind. She sidestepped, and the two fouled each other, allowing her to step clear. She looked wildly for the fourth one—and saw Martha slit his throat from behind.

In the space of a few seconds, the redcaps had gone from outnumbering their quarry five to two to equal numbers, not odds to a redcap's liking. The survivors looked at each other, then at the Sidhe warrior, and took a more defensive stance. They knew as well as Diarwen did that their best hope was to wear her down. When she slowed, they could bring their much greater strength into play without being spitted.

Martha drew up mana from the snowfield and blasted ice shards in the nearest one's face. Diarwen was quick to take advantage, and then it was two to one in favor of the Sidhe.

The remaining redcap retreated to get the wind at his back and threw a handful of some sort of dust at Diarwen. Instantly her eyes began to water and burn. She pushed the pain to the back of her mind and concentrated on her other senses, locating the redcap by the sound of his hobnail boots on the frozen stone and by the dark slash of hunger that was his aura. She feinted, he brought his blade up to parry, and she drove a hard kick into his midsection.

His sword drew a line of fire down the inside of her knee, but that had been an accident, not a purposeful blow. He went down, and she stabbed him through the throat.

Martha's terrified gasp informed her that the battle was not yet over. Expecting more redcaps, she scrubbed at her streaming eyes to see exactly the last people she would have hoped to meet at a time like this: the Unseelie prince, Jaelin Stormfalcon, and Medb's champion Morithel.

Jaelin strutted into the ruined church, keeping his cloak clear of the redcaps' blood. "Diarwen ni Gilthanel. What an interesting place you've found to spend the night."

Diarwen raised her sword in a mocking salute. "Ah, your highness. Did your mother the Queen allow you to play outside today?"

Jaelin had yet to reach his majority, something the Seelie warrior knew grated at him. He directed at her a smile more of teeth than good nature, and said, "As witty as ever, I see, milady."

"And Lady Morithel—well met, warrior."

The raven-haired warrior brought her own blade to her forehead. "Indeed. This concerns you not; it would be better were you to stand aside."

"I will not do so. The maid Martha the Badger is under my protection. It would be better were you to go home and celebrate the return of her changeling."

"You just cost me five redcaps. Do you truly expect me to let that pass?" Jaelin asked.

Diarwen said, "It were wiser if you did, princeling. You are of sufficient rank that honor will not allow me to disregard your challenge. Think long and hard upon the courses of wisdom and folly, e'er you issue one."

"I have had enough of your disrespect, Seelie wench."

"On the contrary, it is out of respect for your lady mother that I warn you away from this battle. You cannot best me. True, Morithel will avenge you—but have no doubt, you will fall before me. She is Queen's Champion for a reason, and as I am Champion to my own Queen, let her fight in your stead."

Morithel realized immediately what Diarwen's strategy was, and tried to dissuade the headstrong Jaelin, "She speaks truth, your highness. You are not yet ready."

"I will be the judge of that. Stand aside, these wenches are mine."

Morithel did as she was ordered, her dark glare promising Diarwen a terrible retribution if she had to return Jaelin to his mother slung across his saddle. Martha shrank back into the undercroft stairs, certain they were both going to die today.

Diarwen drew fire to her blade to be sure it was cleansed of the redcaps' blood. "Your highness, if you must insist on this duel, then state the insult I have done you."

"You have killed my thralls and stolen my slave. I demand recompense."

"The Seelie court recognizes no claim upon the person of a sentient being. You are due no recompense."

"I will have it in gold, or in your service in their stead: else pay with your life."

Diarwen brought her sword to a ready position. "Come take it, then."

Diarwen was already tired from the clash with the redcaps, and her eyes still watered. The duel was not as one-sided as it might have been. But Jaelin had not yet reached his tenth century, and while he had been learning the sword all his life, his only conflicts had been duels to first blood among the youngsters of the court. This was his first real fight. He didn't know how to use that advantage.

It was by no means the first time Diarwen had started a fight at a disadvantage, and she knew very well how to work around it. After the first two or three passes, Jaelin realized too late what both swordswomen had tried to warn him about. He was fighting a purely defensive battle, while Diarwen stalked him through the ruined church, predator and prey.

It was only a matter of time until Jaelin made a mistake, a little off balance, his guard down slightly. Diarwen's blade caught his through the fancy pommel and sent it spinning out of reach—and a kick dropped him to the cracked, ice-covered flagstones. Instantly her blade was at his throat, the flame threatening to sear his skin.

Diarwen stated coldly, "Yield."

Jaelin swallowed, but said, "I will not yield to a summer-court harlot."

"By your laws, princeling, I have earned captor's right over you; who would that make the harlot? It is your good fortune that my queen forbids any such thing. I would be within my rights to claim your arms and armor, and take you back to the court to hold you for ransom. How long, my lady Morithel, do you think her majesty Queen Medb would allow this stripling to enjoy our hospitality before she decided he had learned his lesson and ransomed him?"

Morithel said, "I know not, my lady Diarwen, that would depend greatly on how vexatious court had been when I returned with word."

"Indeed. And I should be plagued with a royal prisoner for all that time. I shall make you a very generous offer, Prince Jaelin—yield to me, swear upon your honor that you renounce all claim on this girl, and swear as well to let us go in peace. Do that, and we all leave here under conditions of truce. If you fail to do so, you will leave here as my prisoner."

Jaelin looked to Morithel, and found not an ounce of pity in her cold black eyes. The Queen's Champion would let the silver-haired warrior take him prisoner and march him, shamed, into the Seelie Court; such was her right as the victor of their duel. Either way, Martha the Badger was Diarwen's, either as spoils or by his granting the returned Changeling her freedom.

He had been checkmated. Spitting the words as though they were made of acid, Jaelin said, "I yield, milady. Upon my honor, I quit my claim upon this girl, and agree to let you both go in peace."

Diarwen stepped back, leaving Morithel to help her student to his feet. Medb would hear of this, and Jaelin was due a difficult time when he returned to the Unseelie Court. She nodded to Morithel, who returned the salute. Then her Unseelie counterpart, with Prince Jaelin, retrieved their horses from the abbey courtyard, and rode away.

Diarwen scooped up a handful of clean snow to soothe her burning eyes. Martha looted the redcaps of what valuables they carried, but took the time to lay them out respectfully and say the words to send their spirits safely to the Lands Beyond.

They went below to gather up their few belongings, and set out again. It was an hour's walk to the border of Lord Kevin's lands, and upon the way they met some of his knights out for a morning's ride.

One of them, Lord Kevin's son Ciaran, courteously dismounted and lifted Martha to ride sidesaddle ahead of him. The two were of an age, so the chivalrous gesture was not easy for the young lordling, but Diarwen noticed how the two looked at one another.

As did the captain of the patrol. He and Diarwen exchanged a smile, then he extended his hand to help her up onto his horse. She managed her sword and bow gracefully as she settled herself behind him, too experienced a rider to need to be held in place.

The rest of their journey was thus a pleasant ride through the snowy fields and forests of Lord Kevin's lands, onward to the completion of Diarwen's mission and the beginning of a new life for Martha the Badger.

End Chapter 1