"Ilena? Are you there?"
The low stool he made for me when I was a child is near his bedplace. I pull it closer and sit beside him.
"I'm here, Moren. What is it?"
"My dream. I saw the hag at streamside."
I feel a chill despite the warm fall sunlight flooding through the open door. "No! Do not think of that. I've sent for Aten. She'll bring stronger herbs."
"It's too late. The old woman washed my clothes in the stream. The water ran red with my blood."
I try to sound confident. "Aten will help. Have a drink of water. Your lips are dry from fever."
My father clutches at my hand with a fumbling motion that tears at my heart. When he is well, his wrists bulge with the muscles of a warrior. He trained me day after day, year after year, until I too could swing the sword with either hand for hours. "Stamina, lass, stamina!" he would say as we practiced. "The battle goes to those who hold out until their opponents falter."
It is agony for me to watch him now that he is weak and helpless, dependent on me to hold the bowl of water, to wipe his face, and to bring the slop jar. I lift his shoulders so that he can sip, then lay him back gently and take his hand in mine.
"I saw her clearly," he says.
Sudden tears blur my vision, and I swipe at them with my free hand. When a warrior dreams of the old woman at the stream, death is near.
Cryner lets out a warning bark from his sunny spot by the front door.
"Ilena?" It's Aten's voice from the path.
I put Moren's hand down on the bedskins and hurry outside.
Aten is the village healer. She and her husband helped us when my parents rode their tired horses over the snow-laden pass into this valley fifteen years ago. I was only a few days old, wrapped tightly against my mother's chest, weak with hunger because her milk wasn't strong enough yet to sustain me. It was Aten who put me to breast at once and saved my life.
Her son, Jon, was two when we came. Her daughter, Fiona, was born a year after we arrived. They are my closest friends in the village, and I'm glad to see that Fiona is with her now.
Cryner greets them and thrusts his head against Fiona's skirt until she stoops to scratch his long hound ears. She pushes him away when he tries to lick her face, and he goes back to resume his nap.
Aten carries her small iron pot filled with medicines. She takes out a handful of plants and three cloth bundles, then hands me the empty kettle. "Get water heating, Ilena. Half-full will do. I'll put these inside where the wind won't take them, and I'll have a look at Moren." She disappears into the house.
"Is it bad?" Fiona is already stirring the outside fire into a blaze.
"I fear so," I answer. "He speaks of seeing the crone at the stream."
She shakes her head. "Not a good sign, that."
I dip water from the barrel by the door and hang the pot over the hottest part of the fire. "I'm glad you came," I say. "I heard the boys return from gathering wood and hailed them. I hoped they would get the message to you quickly."
"Aye. Nol's son ran ahead of the others to tell us, and we left at once."
Aten's face is grim when she comes out of the house. She jostles the iron kettle as if to urge it to heat faster before she turns to me. "His lungs are badly congested. When did he get home?"
"Just before sunset yesterday," I reply. "I heard him coming and ran out to meet him. He was slumped over his horse's neck and could not raise himself enough to greet me. I caught him as he slid from the saddle, and I could feel the fever.
"I got him into his bedplace and prepared a strong tea of pennyroyal and thyme. It lowered the fever, but he would not eat. He slept fitfully through the night and seemed no better this morning."
Aten jostles the pot again and watches steam begin to rise. She says, "I'll mix something stronger. It may loosen his breathing."
"The trip to the East again?" Fiona asks.
I nod. "It was difficult for him last year, and I begged him not to go this time. But he said that he was expected."
"He has aged in the two years since Grenna died," Aten says.
I look up to the hill above the house. I can see the cairn that we built on my mother's grave. I wonder how long it will be before another is raised beside it to mark my father's resting place. I blink back tears.
Aten puts her arms around me. "Do not weep, Ilena. We'll work hard to help him."
"Tell her about the dream," Fiona says.
"The death dream of a warrior," I say. "He saw the crone."
"We'll not give up yet." Aten too looks toward my mother's grave before she carries the hot water into the house.
They stay with me through the afternoon, but I shake my head when Fiona offers to spend the night. "Thank you, but I will be fine."
"Are you sure?" Aten asks.
"You have your own chores. Come in the morning when you can," I say, "and thank you."
Fiona lingers at the door when Aten leaves. "I could keep you company."
I walk out into the yard with her. "I know you plan to go to the singing," I say.
On summer evenings the other young people meet in a grove of trees near the end of the valley. I can hear the pipes and sometimes the laughter from up here on the slope. When we were small, I often joined Jon and Fiona. We would lurk about with the other children, spying on courting couples and dancing in our own little circles.
As I grew older, Jon's attentions toward me changed, and Moren found more and more reasons why I should stay at home in the evenings. When I became a woman, he forbade me to go to the singings at any time.
"Your destiny is not in this valley, lass," he said when I complained, but he would not explain what he meant.
Fiona says, "Of course I was planning to go, but I will stay here if you need me."
"I thank you for offering, but there is one who would miss you if you did not appear at the gathering."
She smiles and her cheeks flush. "Yes, he would," she says, "but we'll have many years together."
"Is it settled then?" I can't imagine choosing someone to live with forever.
She nods. "My father has agreed. We'll be married in the spring." She hesitates, then says, "Are you sure you will not consider Jon? My brother is a fine man."
"Yes, he is," I say. "And he is my friend. But I am not ready for marriage."
"But you are older than I." She shakes her head.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Legend of Lady Ilena by Patricia Malone. Copyright © 2002 by Patricia Malone. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.