Riding closer towards her home, Ceridwen was getting excited. “Oh, you have no idea how happy I am to see these trees again. It’s close to harvest time. We’re getting ready for equinox. I can smell the fires billowing already! Would you like to come celebrate with us? For all of your trouble and assistance, the least we can do is treat you to a meager forest feast and some wine or mead. I know I need it!” Ceridwen said to the kind traveller.
“No, I’m sorry but I must keep carrying on. I can hunt on me own, but I am much appreciative of your offer. These days just seem to be getting darker.” he said.
“I understand. I hope you get to where you’re going without trouble...Oh! Right here! You can let me off right here.” Ceridwen shouted and then looked at Anlon and reached out her hand to shake his. He looked confused as he had never met a woman who shook hands with a man like an equal. Anlon shook her hand.
“I am forever grateful for all of your help. I wish you the best of luck on your travels. I hope you get to see your family soon and send them our blessings,” Ceridwen said.
“Blessings to you as well, Ceridwen. You’ve been the kindest, and..probably most talkative travelling partner I believe I’ve had in ages.” he said and she giggled.
“Farewell Anlon,” she said as she stepped out of the cart and began to walk the winding road through the forest leading to her home. She watched as he rode away in the opposite direction.
She sighed and started to walk towards the smell of chimney smoke and bonfire. Ceridwen had only been gone a few weeks and longed for equinox meals and celebrations. It was one of her favorite times of year. As she kept walking her pace started to get faster and faster in excitement. She had so many stories to tell her mother and father. Her brother and sister would want to hear about the city and she couldn’t wait to show them her sword. Ceridwen would be the first young woman of the village to have one in two generations. Some things she knew would have to keep to herself, but was proud to have learned enough to know she could now handle her own with a blade and shield. Further down the hilly trail she began to walk steadily until she ran towards the forest clearing that would reveal her home. She ran as fast as her legs could take her and she rejoiced in mid-sprint as she came to an abrupt stop and skidded on the dirt below her.
Her heart before was pounding from her run down the path, but it felt like it had left her body. The feeling of pure terror overwhelmed her entire being. Her blood went cold and she turned pale, and ghostly white. The smoke she thought was for equinox wasn’t for a celebration. It was for an execution.
Burned bodies, some impaled and dismembered on and around the ground was an unfamiliar scent that lingered in the air. Her entire village had been set ablaze and a single flag waving in the wind, staked into the ground like the final word. The flag that hung over the Northern city she had just come back from. There were still bits of grass holding the last bit of flame that told her it had been burning for a while.
She fell on her knees in disbelief. Men, women, children, all laid in the pasture. Without even checking, she knew she had lost everyone and everything. The homes were torched to piles of ashes. Only few outlining structures of the buildings remained, a skeletal afterthought of shelter and safety now lay in ruin. She wanted to scream out loud but knew whoever had been responsible was probably still closeby. And they were possibly coming for her next, if not awaiting her arrival.
Ceridwen walked slowly through the piles of charred remains. At one point she had to put her arm over her face to mask the smell of burning and decay. As she got closer to her home she stood, frozen. Her entire life was set ablaze in one night. She knew that her mother and father must had bravely fought back against whoever was responsible. But what about everyone else? Walking slowly around the circumference of their plot of land, she found her father. And then her mother, brother, and sister. It was a gruesome scene to behold all at once, but her curiosity was put to rest. They all deserved a proper burial that they wouldn’t receive. Ceridwen looked up at the sky to see where the sun was heading to predict the time of day. She didn’t know anymore. The sky was gray. The sun was hiding behind the clouds.
Ceridwen walked towards her mother. Her face she could still see through the ash. She bent down by her side and held her cold lifeless hand and as tears rolled down her cheeks, they fell onto her mother’s body and left imprints on the charred skin.
“I’m so sorry,” she said through sobs “I’m so, so very sorry. Why didn’t I come home sooner? Why did I leave at all? I should have listened when you said I should not have left. We don’t leave the ones we love. We always stay.” she started to bawl and began apologize again and felt a rush of urgency and quickly wiped the tears away. In the deafening silence she suddenly heard a sound resembling her horse, Rhiannon.
For a fleeting moment she felt an overwhelming feeling of hope. “Rhiannon?” she called to her, trying to find her sound. “Rhi! Rhi if you can hear me let me find you!” She started running, faster now and sprinting. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the beautiful white and gray mare laying on her side but unharmed. “Rhi, you made it? How did you save yourself?” she asked Rhiannon as she looked around to see many other animals had also not survived the slaughter. Ceridwen ran to her, gave her a hug around her neck and said, “I wish you could tell me what all you’ve seen but I know you wish you hadn’t yourself. I promise you, we’re going to get away from here. Far away.” She helped Rhi back to her feet and checked for wounds. “You’re probably exhausted. But we need to get out of here.”
As they slowly walk through the burned rubble and debris and looks at the fallen, scattered all over the ground like ragdolls, Ceridwen tried her hardest not to look into their eyes or their faces. It was the most horrifying atrocity she’d ever witnessed. “We have to keep going. Save the grief for later,” she tells herself. As she scoured the ground she grabbed a sword, a shield, a blanket and anything else she could carry with her on horseback.
“We have to go to the port where my father’s brother Eirnin lives. They need to know and we must warn the others.”
This, luckily was through the woods but a trek they both knew well. Even if it meant travelling for two days, it was their only way out to safety.