"Must you leave tomorrow?" I ask.
Durant and I sit, wrapped warmly in his traveling cloak, watching the hearth fire flicker and talking of our plans for the future. Wind howls outside the fortress while the rough sea attacks the cliffs below us. My head is snug against his shoulder, and I can feel his chest move as he sighs.
"You know I don't want to go, Ilena," he says, "but Hoel and I have lingered ten days past the time that we planned, and winter weather makes traveling through the mountains more dangerous every day. Arthur expects us."
I know that, of course. Saxons have been settling in the South of Britain for years, but now they come into the North, and some fortresses here welcome them. Arthur, also known as the Dragon Chief, is building an alliance to keep Saxons out of our northern territory. Durant and his friend Hoel are his most trusted lieutenants, and the information they have for him is important.
"I am glad that you have stayed this long," I say.
He laughs. "Yes, and I have an extra piece of news for Arthur because of it."
We intended to wait until Durant returned in the spring to announce our marriage plans, but my father, Belert, urged us to consider the matter immediately.
Hoel agreed. "What better way to make Dun Alyn's alliance with Arthur clear than to announce a betrothal between Durant of Arthur's table and Ilena, chief of Dun Alyn?"
"Let the bards spread the news throughout the winter," Belert said. Then he grinned and added, "And I'll be spared the nuisance of suitors swarming at our gates asking for my beautiful daughter."
Despite my father's bantering tone, his announcement of our betrothal at the banquet earlier tonight made it clear how pleased he is with our plans. "Durant of Hadel is a great warrior. He rides at Arthur's right hand, and bards throughout the land sing of his courage and wisdom. He and Ilena will wed in the spring and rule Dun Alyn well."
We ended the evening with the Great Oath. Durant's arm was warm against mine as we stood together, and our voices blended as we spoke.
"Heaven is above us, and the earth is beneath us, and the sea is round about us. Unless the sky shall fall with its showers of stars on the ground, or unless the earth be rent apart, or unless the waves of the blue sea come over the forests of the living world, we will stand with Arthur."
Those ancient words bind all of us to follow Arthur whenever he calls us. We are sworn to protect him at all costs and to give up our own lives to keep him from harm. The people of Dun Alyn swore that oath to me on the night that I was recognized as hereditary chief, and then I joined with them as we pledged ourselves to Belert. This has been the custom of our people for generations and generations, and it accounts for our strength in battle. Our honor as individuals depends on our courage and our loyalty to those we swear to protect.
"It is late," I say. "You need sleep if you are to get an early start tomorrow." I make myself move away from him.
Durant leans forward and stirs the fire. The flames blaze up and light his face for a few moments, and I try to memorize every detail. His fair complexion is flushed from the fire, and his auburn hair falls around his face, blending with his short beard. His eyes look gray in the firelight though I know that flecks of green appear in daylight. He is tall, with the broad muscular build of a warrior.
When he turns back to me, he says, "I can hardly bear to leave you, Ilena. I'll think of you every day that we are apart."
"And I of you," I respond. I dread the long snowy months until he returns.
"You will be busy," he says. "You've a fortress to govern."
"Belert does that," I say.
"You are the hereditary chief, Ilena." Durant's voice is firm. "People expect leadership from you."
I struggle to make sense of this. I have trained all my life as a warrior, absorbed the lessons of loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice, but I never thought of myself as a chief until I came to Dun Alyn. "I will depend on my father's counsel until you come to rule beside me," I say.
He shakes his head. "I will not always be beside you. I owe allegiance to Arthur and will often be away on his business. A true chief must be strong and able to stand alone when it is necessary."
"But you will come as soon as possible in the spring?"
"Aye. As soon as the snows melt in the high passes." He reaches out to hold me close again.
We stay beside the hearth until the last coals grow dim and thick with ash.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lady Ilena: Way of the Warrior by Patricia Malone. Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Malone. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.