Disclaimer: this version of the knights belongs to New Line Cinema, the plot of Hansel and Gretel belongs to the brothers Grimm.
A/N : some readers who have managed to slog through Llynyas Song/Fragile and Faithless will recognise a few of the characters, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand this. All you need to know is that the story is set twelve years after the film and concerns the son and daughter of Tristan and his wife Lucy. Dagonet is eight years old, Alyce is eleven.
"Mum's going to be mad if we don't go back soon.." Dagonet paused, looking back towards Hadrians Wall. It looked a long way away; grey against the snow and smaller than such a huge, imposing thing should be after only half a mile of walking. Tucking his hands under his armpits to keep them warm, the seven year old tried to wiggle his toes. They seemed to be frozen into his deerskin boots, but when Alyce looked back and glared at him, he did his best to hurry down the hill and catch up with her. He wasn't a baby, and he wouldn't complain, but Dagonet wished, not for the first time, that his sister was a little less headstrong and a little more "girly."
"This way, I think," Alyce said decisively. From the way that she had hunched her shoulders against the wind, and the way she tucked her cloak around her, Dagonet knew that she was as cold as he was. Unfortunately, given the determination in her hazel eyes, she wasn't about to give up her quest, and since he wasn't about to let her go into the forest alone, neither of them were about to warm up any time soon. It was all Three's fault, the boy thought grumpily, trotting down to join his sister. If she hadn't been flirting with one of the soldiers then he wouldn't have overheard him telling her about a hawks nest in the forest, and then he wouldn't have told Alyce who had promptly dragged him off to find it.
Actually that made it his fault for telling his sister, he realised. Brushing his shaggy brown hair from his eyes, he decided to make it Three's fault anyway - at least she wasn't the one freezing out in the snow.
The forest looked deeper and darker than it usually did, Dagonet thought uneasily, his sister's blonde hair the only bright thing in the silent shadows. A shiver ran down his spine that had nothing to do with the cold, and he gave Alyce a hopeful look. Perhaps she was as unnerved as he was… The grin she gave him quickly put paid to that idea.
"Isn't this great?" she said excitedly. "I bet there's no-one out here at all!"
Dagonet was inclined to agree, but was far less elated at the prospect. "Al…" he said hesitantly. "It's really dark in there - how are we going to find our way back?"
"Easy," Alyce replied with the condescension only an eleven year old addressing her younger brother can achieve. "I've brought these to mark our path." Sticking her hand in her pocket she pulled out a big handful of dried rose hips. "Everytime we make a turning I'll drop one so we can see which path to take. Anyway, it's not like we're going far; the soldier said the nest was by the blasted oak. We'll be there and back in no time, and think how pleased dad'll be!"
It was quite a good idea, Dagonet acknowledged grudgingly. All the berries were long gone in the forest, so the red rose hips would show up pretty well, and the idea of taking home a hawk chick was very tempting.
"Alright," he said finally. "But we'd better be quick."
"We will be," Alyce said confidently, trotting into the darkness, marking her route when she turned onto a track leading up a gentle slope, Dagonet following closely on her heels.
Half an hour later, cold, weary and increasingly panicky, Dagonet looked at his sister worriedly. Alyce's expression was not at all reassuring. What should have only been a short walk had stretched to what had to have been a couple of miles, and their surroundings were totally unfamiliar. There was no sign of the blasted oak, no distinct trail anywhere, and worse, the snow was starting to fall again.
"I don't like this, Alyce," Dagonet said, tugging his sister's sleeve. "Let's go home. Please?"
She made to argue for a brief moment, but seeing the fear in her brother's eyes, and admitting to herself that this was a lost cause, Alyce nodded and turned back to retrace their steps. For perhaps half a mile they made good progress; the rose hips gleamed brightly against the snow and were easy to follow, but at one particular junction there was nothing to mark the path that they had taken.
"It's got to be here somewhere," Alyce said, her attempt at calm failing to hide the panic in her voice. "Look again."
"We've looked six times already," Dagonet said, near tears. "It's gone. What if a bird ate it, or a mouse?"
Alyce's heart sank at his words. Oh gods, how could she have been so stupid? Using food to mark their way in the middle of a forest full of hungry animals? Why on earth hadn't she thought of this before? Heart thumping, she looked around slightly wildly. The path split into three different routes, all of which looked highly unfamiliar. With the sky overcast she couldn't use the sun to guess their direction, and the new snow had obliterated their tracks. One of the trees on the track to the right looked vaguely familiar, she thought, and since they could either stay standing here forever or choose a path, she chose that one.
"This way," she said sounding a lot more confident than she felt. It was a mark of how cold and tired Dagonet was that he didn't question her, merely following her when she started walking. It was another mile before Alyce realised she'd made another big mistake. There were no rose hips marking any of the pathways, but increasingly desperate, she'd trusted to instinct . She was a scout's daughter, she must have inherited some of his legendary sense of direction, she tried to reason. Alas, as the light grew dimmer and temperature dropped, it became clear that she took after her mother in more ways than just her hair colour.
"I want to go home, Alyce," Dagonet sniffled. His nose was running, and pausing, her sister wiped it with one of the rags in her pocket before dropping it in disgust. "I don't want to be eaten by wolves in the dark."
Alyce's stomach did a lazy flip flop in her stomach at his words. Wolves weren't common this near the fort, but they weren't unknown either, and since she didn't actually know where the fort was, and night was drawing in… Instinctively she clutched the little hunting knife in her pocket, and tried to imagine fending off a wolf attack with it. The results were not at all reassuring. "Come on, " she said, mentally shaking herself. They had to keep going, if only to generate some body heat. Taking her brother's cold hand, she walked as swiftly as was safe down a path that looked a little brighter than the others, Dagonet stumbling along beside her. They hadn't gone far before Dagonet stopped abruptly, making her stumble backwards.
"What?" she snapped. "We've got to keep…"
"Look," Dagonet interrupted, "a light."
Following his gaze, Alyce saw what her brother's sharp eyes had noticed. A small flickering glow twinkled through the dense branches, and she felt hope well up inside her.
"Come on then," she said, setting off towards it, but Dagonet needed no urging. Together they struggled through the snow, ducking or clambering over tree branches, until the source of the light was revealed.
Tucked into a small hollow, the cottage would have been easily overlooked were it not for the glow of the fire inside illuminating the one small window. A scrawny cow looked at the approaching children with mild interest from the shelter in its pen, but no-one human came out to greet them.
"Stay here," Alyce whispered to her brother. "If I tell you to run, then you run - understand?" Dagonet nodded unenthusiastically. He understood the need for caution -after all who knew who or what lived in the little house? It wouldn't do for them both to be attacked, but the likelihood of running off if his sister was threatened was pretty much nonexistent. Alyce narrowed her eyes as though she had read his thoughts, before walking up to the door and knocking on it hesitantly. For a long agonizing minute it seemed as though no-one would answer, before it creaked open a sliver and a rheumy eye set in a web of wrinkles regarded her with first suspicion and then surprise. The door opened wider, and Alyce found herself looking at an elderly woman with a stooped posture and long white hair.
Resisting the urge to step backwards, because fragile as the old woman seemed, there was also something faintly unnerving about her, Alyce tried to smile.
"I'm really sorry to bother you," she said through chattering teeth. "My brother and I," she paused to gesture at Dagonet standing a little way behind her, "got lost in the forest. We wondered if we might warm ourselves by your fire."
The woman was obviously surprised to see two young children suddenly arrive on her doorstep, but taking in their frozen appearance and hopeful faces, she gestured them into the house.
"Come in, come in, you must be frozen." Beckoning to Dagonet, she hustled them both into the warmth. Both children moved gratefully towards the fire, holding their frozen hands towards the heat. The old woman bustled about gathering a couple of threadbare blankets and dropping them over the children's shoulders and setting a cauldron of water to warm over the fire.
"How did two scraps like you end up so far in the forest?" She asked with concern. "Where are your parents?"
"We're in the forest because she," Dagonet shot an accusing look at his sister, "wanted to catch a new hawk for our father 'cos his old one died."
"And you decided you wanted to come too," Alyce retorted. Realising that their squabbling must appear a bit rude, she moderated her voice. "We came from the wall - our parents don't know that we're here; we were supposed to be back before they noticed we were gone."
"We're going to get punished for the next hundred years when we get home," Dagonet muttered under his breath.
"I see." The old woman lifted the cauldron from the fire and took it over to the bench. "Well, no need to worry. You can stay here for the night and I'll take you home in the morning; I know the woods around here like the back of my hand. My name is Arline, and you two are?"
"Alyce," Dagonet said pointing to his sister, "and I'm Dagonet."
"Dagonet?" Arline's eyes narrowed. "The name sounds familiar; are you named for someone else?"
"Dagonet was one of our dad's friends," Alyce explained. "They were Samartian knights. Dagonet died, but our dad was freed when Arthur became king. He's still Arthur's scout though."
Both children had turned their faces back to the fire, and so did not see the blaze of utter hatred that flashed briefly in the old woman's eyes.
"You are Tristan's children," she said quietly.
Dagonet smiled and nodded his shaggy head. "Yes, you've heard of him? Lots of other people have too - he's the best scout and fighter ever, he killed more men than all the other knights- everyone says so," the boy stated proudly.
"They speak the truth." Arline glanced over at the small window. Through it she could just make out the oak tree she had buried her two sons beneath. Picking up her shawl, she composed herself before wrapping it around her shoulders and walking to the door. "I'm just going to check on my cow, dearies," she said to the children before stepping outside and closing the door behind her. Outside the cold was bitter and biting, but the blood pounding through her veins meant that Arline didn't really feel it. It was too overcast to see the moon, but Arline muttered a prayer to the moon goddess anyway. She had asked Circe for vengeance and the goddess had answered. As the scout had slain her children, so she would slay his.
"Lucy, in the name of the gods sit down!" Vanora grabbed her friend and physically forced her onto one of the tavern benches. "All you are doing is wearing away good shoe leather pacing around like that."
"Easy for you to say," Lucy snarled. Pushing her heavy blonde hair away from her face, she blinked back tears, and looked over at the courtyard. A stable boy was tightening the girth on Tristan's saddle, the horse pawing the ground as though expressing its displeasure at having to go out in the cold. "I'm sorry Van," she said softly. "I'm just so worried."
"I know, pet." The tavern owner sat down beside her friend and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "But don't fret - your man could find a needle in a haystack with his eyes closed, they'll be back before you know it. With the others searching too, they're bound to find them."
Lucy nodded, but found little reassurance in Vanora's words. True, her husband was the best scout anyone had ever heard of, but he was still only human. Snow erased tracks, and they didn't even really know where the children had been headed - how could he find them in the approaching darkness? Out there lay wolves, hunters, treacherous snow banks - gods the cold alone could kill them if they weren't found soon. A myriad of horrible images flooded through her mind and she bit her lip so hard she tasted blood.
The light touch on her hand broke through her reverie.
"Miss Lucy?" Nine, Vanora's second youngest son, looked at her with big brown eyes, shifting from foot to foot nervously. "Da said that Alyce and Dag got lost, and you don't know where they are but I think I do but Three said not to tell about talking to the soldier and…"
"Nine." Vanora said sharply, cutting off her son's torrent of words. "Do you know where they were heading?"
The boy nodded hesitantly. "Maybe. I heard Alyce talk about a hawks nest she was going to find out by the blasted oak. She was going to bring back a chick for her da - they might have gone there."
Vanora and Lucy exchanged a brief look, before the blonde got to her feet and raced over to where Tristan, Lancelot and Gawain were getting ready to mount their horses.
"Nine thinks they've gone to the blasted oak," she said breathlessly. "There's supposed to be a hawks nest near there."
"There is." Only Lucy noticed the brief flicker of hope that flashed in the scout's amber eyes, as the rest of his face remained inscrutable, but she knew what it meant. The search had narrowed considerably, and the odds of finding the children alive had increased as a result. Touching her cheek briefly, Tristan swung into the saddle.
"Gawain," he shouted to the blond man mounted near him. "Take the north path and swing back around to the oak from Ashton pass, Galahad?" The dark haired man, nodded, awaiting further instructions. "Take the east road and cut through the cattle trail. Check they haven't made their way to Lytchett village. I'll take the venison trail and meet you both at the oak." The two men nodded assent and kicked their horses in to a canter, following the scout who had set off at a gallop before splitting off into different directions.
Alyce was warm - indeed after struggling for hours in the freezing snow, she wondered why she had always taken warmth for granted. Her mother always made sure that both she and Dagonet were wrapped up snugly when winter came, and there was always a fire blazing in the hearth. The thought of her mother sent an ache of both longing and apprehension through her. Nothing was softer or safer than her mother's arms around her, or more reassuring thant the voice of her father when he sang her Samartian lullabies to ward off bad dreams. Both of them must be worried about her and her brother, and given that Alyce was the eldest, she'd get the brunt of their anger.
She wasn't sure how long she had been dozing; quite a while, she decided, turning her head and sleepily looking at the way the fire had died down. Dagonet was snoring softly beside her, and Alyce sighed as she closed her eyes and made to follow his example. A faint sound caught her attention before she could slide into dreams, and Alyce frowned. The noise was familiar, but for a moment she couldn't place it. Again, it came, still soft but a little clearer, and this time Alyce recognised it for what it was. How many times had she watched her father cleaning his weapons; sharpening them with a whetstone so that it seemed the blades could slice a sunbeam in twain? That was the sound she had heard. Arline must be sharpening a knife or something. But why? Rolling over and looking up curiously, her movement startled the old woman who looked up from the big curved knife she was whetting. Any curious question died on Alyce's lips when she met Arline's eyes. Never had she seen such naked hatred. Never had she been filled with such utter certainty that here, before her, was someone who truly wished her harm. For a moment she froze and could do nothing but watch as the woman gave a twisted smile and got to her feet. The knife in her hand flashed bright as it caught the firelight, and the ensuing adrenaline rush it triggered broke Alyce's paralysis.
"Dagonet!" It came out as a half scream, half yelp, but it succeeding in waking her brother.
"Wha.." Alyce didn't wait for him to open his eyes. Scrambling to her feet, she hauled her brother up by the scruff of his tunic and lurched towards the door. The blankets wrapped around his legs coupled with his disorientation sent them both crashing to the ground again.
"Al… What…" Dagonet struggled to his knees, blinking dazedly.
"What do you want?" She had tried to sound intimidating, but Alyce inwardly cringed at the squeak that came out instead. Arline stood in front of the door, effectively blocking the exit, the knife in her hand glittering dangerously. The old woman looked almost elated as she watched Dagonet struggle up behind her, and Alyce struggled not to let her fear show.
"Your heads," Arline said matter of factly, as though there was nothing strange at all about the statement. "Don't worry, I'll take them home to your father, but I'll keep your hearts for myself. There's all sorts of magic in a child's heart if you know the right spells."
Oh gods the woman was mad. Hearing her brother's terrified whimper somehow allowed Alyce to push some of the fear away, and she played for time. The window was big enough for Dagonet to fit through; if she could distract Arline she could perhaps find a way to shove him through it and hold the witch of for long enough for him to get away….
"We've done nothing to you," Alyce said quietly. "Why do you want to hurt us?"
The old woman narrowed her eyes. "My sons used to ask the same thing of the demon knights. They were slaves to Rome just as my people were its victims, and yet they slaughtered every Woad they came across. My boys died at the hand of your accursed father, and as I have known pain, so shall he. This is justice for all those he has slain."
The words cut through her, but Alyce forced herself to concentrate. Killing in battle was one thing, murder was something else entirely.
"No." Alyce shook her head. "This is revenge. If you must have it then take my life and spare my brother, I beg you. I brought him here, he's innocent." Dagonet started to protest, but Alyce tightened her grip on his arm and he gave a yelp of pain.
Arline shook her head almost sadly. "That's not the way it works, dearie," she said gently. "Two lives for two lives. Everything is balanced - if your bastard father cares to he can ask the traitorous whore who married your king. But don't worry, I'll make it quick." Giving an almost motherly smile she beckoned to the children. "Who wants to go first?"
"Me," Alyce said quickly. "But let me say goodbye to my brother first." Arline shrugged as though she found the whole thing rather amusing, and at that perceived permission, Alyce turned and bent down to her brother. Dagonet's eyes were huge in his pale face, and when Alyce put her arms around him she could feel him trembling. "Listen," she whispered. "When I tell you to run, I want you to run to the window and get out. Run as fast as you can and don't look back."
"Al.." She heard the pleading in his voice and blinked back tears.
"If you love me you'll do it, Dag. Please." She felt him nod against her shoulder and breathed in the smell of his hair. She'd got them both into this mess, at least she could give him a chance to get out of it. Letting him go, Alyce turned to the witch, raising her head with as much pride as her terrified body could muster. Her hands dipped into her pockets, fingers closing around her little pocket knife. It wasn't much, but gods willing it might be enough to save her brother.
"Go on then," she said, taking a step towards Arline. "Kill me, but know that my father will come for you. Your sons weren't worthy enough to defeat him, and neither are you."
The witch almost snarled at the slight against her boys, and raised her knife. Despite her age and apparent frailty, her movements were sure and fluid, and Alyce had no illusions that what she was dealing with was a normal old woman. Desperately trying to remember everything that her father had taught her about combat, she watched for the moment when Arline shifted her weight to strike and dodged sideways when she brought the knife down, at the same time swinging up her own blade.
"Run!" she screamed to her brother.
The knife meant for her heart slashed across Alyce's side instead, sending a blaze of pain through her, but the witch's shriek of outrage gave her hope, and so she pulled her little knife from where it had been wedged in the old woman's shoulder and struck again, hitting her in the ribs. This time she wasn't so lucky and the blade rebounded against bone. Her hand slick with blood, Alyce lost her grip on it and only by throwing herself to the ground did she miss the next swipe of Arline's blade. Heart pounding, her hands and knees scrabbling for purchase in the dirt floor, Alyce felt a brief flash of euphoria when she saw that Dagonet was no longer in the room, before the witch's foot slammed heavily into her side, toppling her onto her back. Looking up at the ancient face twisted with hatred and the blade poised to decapitate her, Alyce closed her eyes and felt the icy rush of death sweep over her.
Tristan rode as fast as he dared, but not nearly as fast as he wanted to. The tracks he followed were narrow and treacherous; the last thing he needed was his horse to break a leg tripping over a snow covered tree root. Pulling his gelding to a halt, he willed himself to calm down. To try and forget who it was that he was actually looking for. In the days before Lucy and the children it was his detachment that made him the best at what he did. By not being influenced by emotions he did not believe he could feel, he could see things that others couldn't. A woman slain by a Woad's arrow yielded information rather than compassion; the trajectory of the arrow, the direction of the footprints around her, the markings on the shaft were far more important than wondering what her name might have been.
Now, however, he felt a sick, blinding panic that threatened to overwhelm him and wondered briefly whether the love he had been blessed with might end up killing the very people who had given it to him.
The stricken oak tree was before him, the blackened branches reaching up towards an uncaring sky. Tristan had found no sign of his children, which meant that they had either gotten lost on the way or that this hadn't been their destination in the first place. If it was the former then by retracing his steps he might be able to find a clue as to where Alyce and Dagonet had gone wrong. If it was the latter…
Suppressing a shiver that had nothing to do with the freezing wind, Tristan turned his horse back and retraced the path he had taken.
The scout was perhaps halfway back home before he saw it.
So small as to be almost unnoticeable to anyone who was not trained to notice everything around them, the piece of dead bracken in the snow had been stripped of leaves and discarded at the edge of the path. Dismounting, Tristan picked it up and glanced around. It had been dropped at a fork in the path, the heavy branches of a tree protecting it from the snow that covered any tracks that he could have followed. Nonetheless he recognised it for what it was - it had been stripped rather than eaten, and knowing his son's nervous habit of shredding leaves when he was upset, the scout remounted and headed down the trail that unfortunately led away from the Wall. Carefully studying the path, his patience was rewarded by a few small signs that at least someone had passed this way recently: a freshly broken twig, an indentation that had been a footprint , and half a mile later his heart leapt when he came across a tatty bit of cloth that had been blown into a holly bush. One of Alyce's handkerchiefs, he thought retrieving it from the prickly leaves. They had been cut from one of Lucy's old dresses and he would have recognised it anywhere.
"Alyce! Dagonet!" he yelled into the forest. The wind was against him and whipped the words away, and so after a couple more tries with no more response, Tristan set off again, hope and fear battling in his chest. They had been here, but where were they now? A sense of terrible foreboding was making his chest tight, and he had to force himself not to urge his horse faster. Time stretched, the forest, dark and silent seemed to hold its breath as he moved further into its heart, and he saw the light and heard the cry almost at the same time.
"Alyce!" The voice was faint and distorted by the wind, but the scout recognised his son's terrified voice instantly. Kicking his horse into a gallop he raced towards the light flickering through the trees with reckless speed, guiding it over the treacherous ground with a skill honed from decades of hunting. The scene before him was bright and horrible, but acting on instinct he jumped from his horse, unsheathed his dagger and let it fly in one fluid movement. The blade hit its target swift and true, sending the crone brandishing a bloody knife at his son flying backwards, to lie unmoving, but he was too late, Tristan realised with a pain that drove him to his knees. Silhouetted in the doorway his daughter lay unmoving.
He was too late.
Grown ups were funny, Dagonet thought to himself as he snuggled against his mother's knee. She was knitting so he couldn't curl up on her lap, which was what he really wanted to do, and the wool kept flicking over and tickling his nose, but he was safe and warm and that was what really counted. They said one thing and then did exactly the opposite.
His father had told him that it was important not to show weakness, but he had cried when he had rescued him and his sister, and for some reason he had cried more when he'd picked Alyce up and she'd burst into tears and hugged him. He hadn't cried, even though he'd wanted to. Well only a bit, and anyway he was younger and allowed to. His mum had told him that she'd tan the backside of both of them if they ran off without telling anyone where they were, and yet they'd stayed out all night with a mad lady who tried to kill them, and all she did was hug them and give him so many kisses that he had had to squirm away in embarrassment.
Shifting slightly, Dagonet caught his sister's eye and smiled. Alyce was wrapped up warm in a blanket, resting against their dad's chest. Although there wasn't much room on the bench he'd tucked her in beside him, one hand idly stroking her hair. She gave a sleepy grin back before closing her eyes again, and Dagonet watched as she fell asleep. She was a pretty good sister, he decided. When she wasn't getting them lost in freezing forests and attacked by witches. Of course he was a pretty good brother too. It had been him that had jumped out the window and thrown himself at the door. If he hadn't have done that, knocking the old woman off balance and spoiling the aim of her knife, well, then.... He cut that thought off. He'd quite like his sister's bedroom, but not that much, and Alyce had been really brave. For a girl anyway. Maybe since he'd killed an evil witch (well alright not killed, but hitting it with a door sort of counted) Arthur would ask him to be a knight...
Yawning, Dagonet let his mother's tuneless humming lull him to sleep. Warm, safe and totally content, he made a vow to himself. No more venturing into the forest. Never again. Well never again unless Five promised to show him that hidden cave he was always talking about....
A/N: I know, I know - I said no more fairytales or anything from the Llynya/Fragile/Faithless trilogy, but I have an excuse. It's Mutpadarra's fault. She suggested a Hansel and Gretel story with Alyce and Dagonet, and lo a plot bunny was conjured which nibbled my socks until I wrote it. Have a lovely christmas everyone. Eat drink and be merry (but if you come across any gingerbread houses run away!)