Authors: Jules Watson
First published in the United States in 2005 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
Woodstock & New York
One Overlook Drive
[for individual orders, bulk and special sales, contact our Woodstock office]
141 Wooster Street
Copyright © 2004 by Jules Watson
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
For Alistair, for Eremon’s eyes, and more
ContentsCopyrightAcknowledgementsPrologue: LINNETChapter 1: LEAF FALL,AD79Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18: LONG DARK,AD79Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21Chapter 22: LEAF-BUDAD80Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28Chapter 29Chapter 30Chapter 31Chapter 32Chapter 33Chapter 34Chapter 35Chapter 36Chapter 37Chapter 38Chapter 39Chapter 40Chapter 41Chapter 42Chapter 43Chapter 44Chapter 45: SUNSEASON,AD80Chapter 46Chapter 47Chapter 48Chapter 49Chapter 50Chapter 51Chapter 52Chapter 53Chapter 54Chapter 55: LEAF-FALLAD80Chapter 56: LONG DARKAD80Chapter 57Chapter 58Chapter 59Chapter 60Chapter 61Chapter 62: LEAF-BUDAD81Chapter 63Chapter 64Chapter 65Chapter 66Chapter 67Chapter 68Chapter 69Chapter 70Chapter 71Chapter 72Chapter 73Chapter 74Chapter 75Chapter 76Chapter 77Chapter 78Chapter 79Chapter 80Chapter 81EpilogueHistorical Note
No one can complete such an undertaking alone, and I’d like to thank all my friends and family for their love and support, particularly for not minding that I was only half-there for the last few years, since my other half was off in first-century Scotland.
To the friends who gave invaluable and encouraging editorial feedback, and helped me answer the breeches/trouser question: Amber Trewenack, Tessa Evans, Helen Jamieson, Kathryn Tenger, Claire Hotchin, Lisa Holland-McNair, and Jo Ferrie.
To Amber, who cried in all the right parts and thereby gave me hope. To my big brother Mark Thompson, for beaming with pride and unconditional love at all the right times. To my wonderful agent Maggie Noach, for believing in me so staunchly. To my editor Yvette Goulden, for understanding what I was trying to do, and all those at Orion, for treating my ‘baby’ with such respect.
Patricia Crooke helped me with some ideas for gaelic terms. David Adams McGilp of the Kilmartin House Museum kindly broke away from an audio-visual crisis to talk to me, and in return I promised to tell everyone about his brilliant museum in Kilmartin, Scotland, a stone’s throw from Dunadd.
Great thanks go to Dorothy Watson, who generously gave me a temporary home in Australia. To Claire, Graeme and Cassie Swinney, who took me into their home during the last fraught months of editing: for barbecues, essential gin and tonics, and overwhelming generosity and love when I needed it most.
My biggest thanks come last. To Claire, who sowed the seed, believed in me with unwavering ferocity, and held my hand through absolutely every drop of blood, sweat, and tears.
And to my beautiful husband Alistair: for cooking up the best plot details over many a pint in many a pub, for reading it umpteen times and still getting emotional, for coping with my meltdowns, and above all, for unstinting love and belief. I couldn’t have done this without you.
She was the child of my heart, though not of my body.
I remember her as a girl, running up the mountain path towards me with amber hair flying, face twisted with weeping.
I worried about her then, and how the jealous taunts of the other children could draw such tears. I feared she was weak, and would not survive what was coming. For it was both my gift and my curse to see some of her future.
Blood spattering wet sand.
A green-eyed man in the prow of a boat.
The sea closing over her head.
And last, the cries of women on a battlefield, picking their way among the dead.
I knew she had a greater destiny to fulfil, but how would it unfold? That I did not know. As priestesses, we trumpet our powers of sight, but the truth is that it comes rarely, and never clearly.
I watched the girl closely from the day my elder sister birthed her and died. I remember her grasping my finger, milky eyes seeking my face, the tuft of red-gold hair still damp from the womb … ah, but these are a mother’s musings.
What I did realize that day, was that she was one of the Many-born, who come back to live again and again. And that because of this, her gifts would be as great as her pains.
For this reason I could not help her. She had to grow into her strength. And so she did. Like the fierce salmon, she fought against the currents of people’s jealousy, ambition, and awe. As her legs lengthened, so her face came into its form, losing the softness that had troubled me once. I saw also that she no longer cried – and in my priestess heart I felt relief.
But in my mother’s heart, I wept for her.
I could not speak about her future – the blood, the man in the boat, the battle. My role was not to guide her course, but to build her courage and insight so that she could steer her own way through what would come.
For while we are caught like threads in the Mother’s loom, we still have choice. I loved her more than my life – and so I wanted her to choose her path. Perhaps I would have done differently if I had known how it would hurt.
One thing only I clung to: although my sight hinted that many dark years were coming for the people of Alba, somehow, I knew she was a link to our freedom.
History can turn on many things.
On a word.
On a sword blade.
On a girl, running up a mountain path, amber hair flying in the wind.
The babe fell into Rhiann’s hands in a gush of blood.
The mother let loose one final scream of triumph and agony, and slid down the roof-post against which she squatted. Rhiann, leaning in on her knees, wriggled to get a better grip on the slippery body. Fire from the hearth glowed on waxy skin and smeared blood, and under the wisps of dark hair, tiny bones throbbed against her fingers.
‘To the Mother’s arms you sink. The kin bids you welcome, the tribe bids you welcome, the world bids you welcome. Come in safety.’ Rhiann murmured the ritual words breathlessly; the woman’s heel was digging into her ribs.
Still holding the child, she nodded to the old aunt, who eased the mother to a pallet of bracken by the hut’s fire. Now mercifully upright, Rhiann brushed her hair back with one shoulder, her hands still full of the squalling baby.
The mother pushed herself up on her elbows, panting. ‘What is it?’
‘Goddess be thanked.’ She sank back down.
When the cord stopped pulsing Rhiann rested the baby on the pallet, taking her priestess knife from her waist-pouch. ‘Great Mother, as the child has fed from this body, now let him feed from You. Let his blood be Your blood. Let his breath be Your breath. So shall it be.’ She cut the cord and deftly tied it off with flax, then wrapped a scrap of linen around the tiny shoulders to turn the baby’s face to the fire.
‘Oh, lady, what do you see?’
All new mothers asked this of priestesses. And what were they to reply?This boy is not of the warrior class, so at least he will not die by the sword.
‘What will he be?’ the old aunt wheezed.
Rhiann turned back, smiling. ‘I see him hauling in nets full of fat fish with his da, for many years to come.’ She nestled the baby on his mother’s breast, leaving a last caress on his soft head.
‘You’ll have one of your own soon,’ the aunt croaked, handing her a rag. ‘They won’t be picky over your suitor, our man says. Not with the King so ill.’
‘Hush!’ the other woman hissed from her pallet.
Rhiann forced a tight smile, wiping her fingers. ‘Now,’ she said to the new mother, ‘brew up the woodruff twice a day, as I told you, and it will bring in your milk.’
‘Thank you, lady.’
‘I must go. Blessings be on you and the babe.’
The woman drew her child closer. ‘And you, lady.’
Outside, the tiny hut’s reek of fish and dung smoke was washed away by the dawn air. Taking a deep breath of it, Rhiann forced the old aunt’s words away too, draping herself over the cow-pen to stretch her back. The bony cow lowed and scraped its flank against her fingers, and she smiled.
Many nobles at Dunadd would look down their noses at this steading: the turf roof, the driftwood fence, and crusted fishing nets. To Rhiann, though, it seemed content in its little bracken glen. The scent of brine and lilt of fisher songs drifted over the bay. The rhythm of the day was well begun for everyone, and it would be much the same as any other day. She thought about how fine a future that would be. Calm. Uneventful. Predictable.
Then a tiny figure came hurtling around the side of the house and barrelled into her legs. ‘Ah!’ she cried, and bent to swing the little boy into the air. ‘Who is this great, fierce boar trying to run me down?’
The child could hardly be seen for dirt; she didn’t know where his ragged fringe ended and his face began. He battered grubby feet on Rhiann’s thighs, and she held fast and tickled until he squealed.
Then the boy’s sister was there, clucking in embarrassment as she took him from Rhiann’s arms and set him down. ‘Ronan, you scamp! Oh, forgive us, lady … your robe …’
‘Eithne,’ Rhiann glanced down at her stained dress, ‘I was hardly clean – your new brother saw to that. Goddess knows what I look like!’
‘A brother!’ Eithne hid a shy smile with one hand. ‘Da will be pleased. And you look as fine as you always do, lady,’ she added, remembering her manners.
‘Pretty,’ the boy piped. ‘She says you’re pretty.’
Eithne looked at her feet, giving his hand a sharp tug. She was dark like her brother, with black eyes and bird-like bones. The two of them were strong in the blood of the Old Ones; the people who lived in Albabefore Rhiann’s tall, red-haired ancestors arrived. Common blood, as it was known.
Right now, Rhiann ached to be small and dark and common. Life would be much simpler for her then.
‘Thank you for bringing the babe safe, lady. And for coming so far.’ Eithne dared a quick glance at Rhiann. ‘Especially with the King so sick and all.’
Rhiann’s belly turned over at this, but again, she forced it away. ‘When your mother knew she was bearing, I promised to come, Eithne. And I left my uncle in good hands. My aunt attends him.’
‘Pray to the Goddess he gets well!’ Eithne pulled something from the recesses of her patched dress and proffered it to Rhiann: a crude and dented stag-head brooch. ‘Da asked me to give you this. It’s good copper – he found it on the beach.’
Rhiann touched the brooch to her forehead and stowed it away reluctantly. It was tradition to pay for the services of a priestess, no matter how poor the family. Yet, by the Goddess, she had enough brooches.
There was a loud nicker from a horse tethered to the end of the fence, a light-boned mare the colour of winter mist. Rhiann smiled at Eithne. ‘Ah! My Liath calls. Give my blessings to your father, and thank him for the fine brooch.’
She drew on her sheepskin cloak, pulling the fleece close about her neck. Then she squared her shoulders and took up her pack. It was time to seek her own home.
The path inland was wreathed with mist that crept over the water meadows, choking the River Add in its bed, clinging to Rhiann’s face and throat. Liath’s hooves were muffled on fallen alder leaves, and all was silent and dripping.
Such a fog hid many doorways to the Otherworld. Perhaps fey spirits were floating beside her right now, just beyond her fingertips. Perhaps they would draw her through, and she would leave the dankness of Thisworld behind. Rhiann spread her hand, hoping that the air between her fingers would conjure the spirits she sought, to take her away …
But she caught a branch instead, and icy dew spattered down her neck. She rubbed it away, sighing. Doorways and spirits! Here, there were just rotting leaves, mist and damp, and long nights to come.
The track wound up on to a spur, and when she emerged into milky daylight she reined in. Stretching away before her, the blanket of mist hid a wide marsh, which lapped at the flanks of a lone rock crag. And rearing from the crag into the light was Dunadd – thedun, the fort, on the Add. On its crest, the King’s Hall, where her sick uncle lay, squattedagainst the sun, and the pillars of the druid shrine clawed the sky with black fingers. She shivered and nudged Liath along.
Dunadd’s nobles lived high on the rock above the sprawling village at its feet, surrounded by an oak palisade. As Rhiann reached the village gate, the guard came down from his tower to loosen the cross-bars, blowing on his hands, and then helped her dismount with a wary nod.
They were all looking at her warily now.
The village was just stirring, the first dog barks and curses and children’s cries drifting out from under hide doorcovers. Rhiann led Liath through the jumble of thatched roundhouses, sheds and granaries to the stables. There, she threw the reins to a yawning horse-boy and hurried up the path to the Moon Gate, the entrance to the crag, leaving the village and the mist behind.
‘My lady! My lady!’
It was Brica, Rhiann’s maid. In the weak sun, the carvings of the moon goddess on the gate shadowed her lean, sharp face. She flew forward to take Rhiann’s cloak, chittering at the mud that had splashed up from Liath’s hooves. ‘I’ve heard nothing about the King, mistress – the Lady Linnet was not back when I left. Are you well? Are you feared? You look pale …’
‘I’m fine!’ Rhiann brushed off the invasive prods of those black eyes.
Brica was of the Old Blood, too, and grew up on the Sacred Isle out in the Western Sea, where Rhiann had trained to become a priestess. When Rhiann had stormed from the island the previous year after her initiation into the Sisterhood, the eldest priestess pressed Brica’s services upon her. Rhiann didn’t know why, for she and the little maid had never taken to each other.
‘I need to wash properly.’ Rhiann spread her hands. ‘Is there water?’
‘Ah! Your aunt emptied the water-pot with her draughts for the King. I’ll go to the well right now!’ Brica handed Rhiann’s cloak back and darted away, lifting her skirts from the churned mud beneath the gate.
Rhiann slowed as she passed the houses of the King’s kin. Here, the air of waiting was pungent, broken only by the steady drip of dew from carved doorposts. Servants crept to dairy and well on soft feet, their eyes cast down. Somewhere, a baby wailed and was hushed.
Rhiann’s heart began to thump against her ribs.
And then the great arc of the Horse Gate was looming over her, leading to the crest of the dun. Peering between the carved stallion’s legs, Rhiann could glimpse a curl of blue smoke rising from the small druid shrine, on the edge of the cliff. Between gate and shrine sat the King’s Hall, a sprawling roundhouse topped by a thatch roof that swept to the ground. No one moved there.
From the roof-peak hung the royal emblem of her tribe, the Epidii –the People of the Horse. It was embroidered with the divine White Mare of the horse goddess Rhiannon on a sea of crimson.
This morning, though, the breeze was as weak as the pale sun, and the pennant stirred forlornly on its post like a bloody rag.
Rhiann lived on the edge of the crag, her door facing out to the marsh. When the wind was in the south, the only sounds that carried to her were lonely bird-cries, and the beat of wings. Sometimes she could pretend she was Linnet, her aunt, who lived on a mountain with only goats and one loyal servant for company.
As Rhiann lifted her doorcover, a finger of sun outlined Linnet herself, seated on a stool before the hearth-fire. Her aunt was changed. Normally so tall and regal, now she was slumped in weariness. Her russet hair, untouched by grey, looked somehow faded, straggling from its braids, and when she raised her face, the pale, tranquil oval was lined with furrows of worry. The women of Rhiann’s line bore strong bones and long, fine noses. But in pain this fineness became pinched, and Linnet looked so now. ‘It is not good, child.’
Rhiann’s legs gave out, and she sank on to the hearth-bench, her cloak in her lap. ‘I thought you would heal him when I could not. I was sure. I was so sure!’
Linnet sighed, her grey eyes grown darker with shadows. ‘I can give one more dose of mistletoe, and we will see if his heart slows.’
‘Then I will go to him now … I’ll try everything …’
‘No.’ Linnet shook her head. ‘I will return to him. I just came to see if you were back.’
Rhiann leaped up, the cloak falling to the earth floor. ‘I will come with you. If we both reach out to the Mother …’
‘No,’ Linnet said again, and rose, glancing at the bronze scales hanging from the rafter. Behind, glazed jars and baskets gleamed against the curved wall. ‘Stay here and brew more meadowsweet for me.’
‘You try to distract me.’ Rhiann was breathing hard.
Linnet managed a tired smile. ‘Then you have found me out. But nevertheless, I will go. I am the senior priestess.’
‘But I am the Ban Cré! It is my duty to be by the King’s side!’
‘Brude is my brother.’
‘And you loved him as little as I!’ Rhiann bit her lip, for the words had flown from her heart before she could stop them. As they often did.
Linnet put a hand on Rhiann’s cheek, and looked deep in her eyes. ‘That is true, as the Goddess knows. But let me spare you this. Soon such choices will be in my hands no longer.’
The denial trembled on Rhiann’s lips. Part of her wanted to run away from the King’s sickbed; part yearned to fight for his life. And no, it wasnot for love, the Goddess forgive her. It was to stave off what was coming. When, as Linnet said, all choices would be gone.
Eventually, in exhaustion, she gave in, for Linnet’s soothing voice and measured speech hid a backbone of iron. This was something they shared, along with their fine bones, but one of them must always back down, and this time it would be Rhiann.
After Linnet had gone, Rhiann crept to the stool and sat before her fire, watching the throbbing of blood under the pale skin of her wrist. The same blood had run in those veins all her life. How could a single man’s death make it greater, more valuable?
The words were bitter on her tongue. For in Alba, the king’s line did not run from father to son. His female kin, his sisters and nieces, carried his blood. His heir was his nephew. But of the royal clan, which had ruled for six generations, no heirs now remained, leaving it vulnerable to those other clans who desired the kingship. And now only Rhiann could bear a male of the King’s blood, for Linnet took her vow of retreat long ago, and was past her time.
While her uncle stayed hale, Rhiann kept at bay the dread that one day she would be forced to mate. But as the King’s death drew closer, so did her own day of reckoning. There was no heir left alive. There was only her womb.
Her special blood.
Linnet returned with the dusk. ‘Another draught, and still his heart skips. I dare not give him more.’ She rubbed her eyes wearily. ‘I have done all I can, daughter.’
Rhiann pressed trembling fingers into her cheeks. ‘But surely he can fight this, aunt. He is strong – Goddess! Fighting, eating, drinking! They were hislife!’
Linnet shrugged in defeat. ‘Perhaps all that eating and fighting harmed his heart. Sometimes the soul blazes too bright for the body, and burns it from within. I’ve seen it before.’
The birch fire snapped and sent up a spray of sparks, which drifted to ash against the thatch roof. Rhiann turned to face it, wrapping her arms around her thin chest. Did death follow her? Was she one of those unfortunates who were stalked by marsh-sprites, which sucked human life dry? Her own birth took her mother into the Otherworld; her father followed only five years later. And then … and then came that other loss, those other deaths, a year ago on the Sacred Isle …
The force of Linnet’s gaze drew her back into the room. In the way it was between priestesses, Rhiann sensed the weight of her aunt’s concern on her skin. She knew why. She knew what Linnet saw.
Once, Rhiann took after her mother’s beauty, so the bards sang.They shared the same hair and eyes: amber and violet to the bards, auburn and blue to Rhiann. But now her mother’s bronze mirror was buried deep in her carved trunk. Rhiann’s fingers had found the deep hollows in her own cheeks, and traced the prominent bones in wrist and neck. She did not need a mirror to tell her she no longer favoured her mother. That wide mouth would be a gash across her fine bones; the long nose a sharp prow. Linnet’s features were showing the strain of days; her own showed the strain of moons. Shame and grief could consume flesh, as all healers knew. So it was with her.
There was a rustle of linen skirts, and then Linnet’s warm hands were smoothing back her hair. An ache sprung to Rhiann’s throat, an ache that she could not give in to, for fear the tears would never stop. She hunched her shoulders, struggling to swallow it. After a moment, Linnet sighed and dropped her hand.
‘There must be something we can do, aunt!’ Rhiann turned to her, fists by her sides. ‘Cold slows the blood … there will be ice on the peaks now …’
Linnet shook her head, fingering the moonstone pendant at her throat. ‘I’ve considered everything. We must entrust him to the Goddess now, daughter. Only She knows the warp and weft of the loom.’
Even though Linnet must know the fate that reached for Rhiann with those words, no other comfort came, as it had not since the King’s illness struck. The familiar hurt gave one great throb in Rhiann’s chest.
It was then that they heard it. One piercing wail rose from the pinnacle of the crag; a soaring, lonely sound, plaintive as a curlew-call. It came from the King’s Hall. It was Brude’s wife. And as the rest of his women broke into their ululations, cry after cry arced down from the crest, sharp enough to pierce Rhiann’s breast.
She met Linnet’s eyes. The King was dead.
The hours passed in a blur of ritual wailing, and the pale, shocked faces of people crowding the King’s Hall, and the tears of his daughters wet on Rhiann’s neck. Eventually, Linnet ordered her to seek her bed. Under pale starlight she could barely put one foot in front of the other, and once in her house she warded off Brica’s attentions and crawled on to her bed pallet.
There, face buried deep in deerskin, she sought the oblivion of sleep.
Her mind would not rest, though. All eyes would be on her now. She bit her lip to stop herself from cursing the womb she carried. Without it, she would be no more than a man. Without it, the elders would not care who she was. If only she’d been born to a tribe in the south, in what the Roman invaders called Britannia. There, kings cravedsons, and looked to their wives to breed. No one cared much about royal sisters or nieces there.
She sighed and rolled on to her side, watching the sparks of the hearth through the wicker screen around her bedplace. If only she’d been born into a fisher family, or to farmers …
Stop thinking, she told herself.Just sleep.
Sleep would not bring peace, though, not on this night. As a healer, she should have known that this new grief would conjure the old; the pain that had stalked her this past year, wasting her flesh. She should have given herself a special draught to take away the visions in the night.
But she forgot.
And so, in the darkest hour before dawn, she began to dream. First came swirling visions of her uncle on his horse. She was hanging on his bridle, pleading with him to take her up before him. But his cold helm was over his eyes, and he kicked up his steed and raced away, the horse becoming a gull as it ran.
She tried to follow him, for something was chasing her, bearing down on her … but her legs were caught as if in mud, and she stumbled, sobbing, in a marsh … Then there was Linnet before a fire, spinning, endlessly spinning, her wool a pool of scarlet at her feet … and the skein reached out tentacles to tangle around Rhiann’s legs …
And then, with shocking suddenness, the confusion cleared. There was a doorway in the air, and the taste of a salt breeze blew through it. It was the air of the Sacred Isle. She was back there.
And part of her realized what lay on the other side of the door, and frantically tried to wake itself. Yet it was far too late. The memories took hold of her limbs and drew her through, eager to live again …
…Her feet crunch on shells.
Spray hangs thick on the shore, and through it swim red sails and sharp prows that are black against the sun. The acrid smell of smoke is on the wind.
Sounds drift closer. A clang as sword bites sword. The hissing whine of spears. The thud of iron points in warm flesh …
There stands her foster-father Kell, shield raised against a tide of north-men with fierce eyes. And there, his head rolls bloody in the spume, one eye cast back to its home.
There, little brother Talen stumbles, clutching his belly as pale guts spill between his fingers, his first sword fallen on the sands. And there, a screaming woman flings herself on the boy; her foster-mother Elavra, peal of anguish cut short by burly hands around her slim throat …
And there … right there … her gentle sister Marda is splayed beneath a grunting man, copper hair tangled in seaweed …
Then she sees no more, dear Goddess, no more. Nothing but her own hands, pale as dead fish on the dark rocks as she scrambles away,sobbing. Run, Rhiann! Away from the iron-hot smell of blood, and the crackling of flames, away from the harsh shout behind …
In the bed, Rhiann’s eyelids fluttered as she tried to wrench herself out of the dream. That shout! She groped for consciousness, a cry on her lips, until at last her eyes opened and she desperately blinked away sleep.
The dazzling brightness of the dream was gone, and in its place, shifting fire-shadows on a mud wall. She couldn’t move her legs, the sheet held her down, stifling her … she would be sick. A burning rose in her gullet, like it did that day on the beach.
The day of the raid … yes … a year ago this night …
She clapped a hand to her mouth, gagging. The wave of nausea surged and peaked, and then subsided, until at last she lay, gasping for breath. Her family … her beloved foster-family … was torn from her heart one year ago. By day, it felt like a lifetime; in her dreams, only yesterday.
All noble children were fostered out young, to strengthen the kin bonds, and foster-kin were therefore held dearer than blood-kin. But as Rhiann only had Linnet, they had meant even more to her. Kell and Elavra had sheltered her as she began her Sacred Isle training, and taught her how to be a royal lady as well as priestess. But the entire family had died between the rising and sinking of one sun. Just one sun.
After a few gulps of air she eased her legs free and curled into a ball, hands in fists. Against the rush of blood in her ears, she could just hear the whisper of Linnet’s breath from the next alcove: a tiny, innocent, ordinary sound.
A tear trickled into Rhiann’s ear, and she dashed it away. No, she must not do this. If Linnet heard one sob, she would stroke Rhiann’s face and hold her hands and draw out the pain into the light. And as much as Rhiann yearned to bury herself in Linnet’s arms, as she had when a child, she could not face that agony. She could never let it free.
Cold and numb was better. So she kept her silence. And Linnet kept hers.
It took a long time for the drumming of her heart to fade, and tortured images continued to sweep across her mind in lurid swirls of light. She pushed them away and fixed on her breathing.In, out. In, out. Think slow. Think of nothing.
She thought of nothing, for some time. But even so, the rushing was still there. Just at the edges of awareness. She raised her head.
Since the raid, Rhiann’s abilities to see, to receive visions and feel the spirit world, had all but deserted her. The source of her power had ebbed away, along with her family’s blood on the sands. For a year, she had stumbled blindly, dead inside.
But was she feeling something now? Some whisper from the Otherworld to comfort her?
The whisper around her grew to a murmur. And then there was a far-off, swelling, reedy cry, and out of nowhere a fist of wind slammed into the house. Rhiann sank back into her furs, heartsick. It was only a storm, not a vision to help her, then. Storms like this came often this season, swift and furious, sweeping in from the sea and across the marsh to break over the lone crag.
In three heartbeats it was skirling around the rock, beating its wings on Rhiann’s roof like some great, dying bird. Keening gusts clawed madly at the thatch, until the door cover slapped and cracked and bucked on its thongs.
From a gap in her cocoon of furs, Rhiann stared at the roof. The sky could weep for the dead King Brude of the Epidii, for her people, for the land.
Not for her. No one would weep for her.
Far out on the dark sea off Alba’s coast, lightning struck with a sizzling crack. Its flame lit up a single boat that foundered in the storm’s fury, and the men within who clung desperately to life.
‘By the balls of the Boar!’ cried Eremon mac Ferdiad, their leader. ‘Brace yourselves … now, by all the gods, now!’
His plea was drowned in a roaring rush as another wave broke over the boat’s bow, and he pushed his feet into the ribs of the hull. At last the seething foam cleared, and Eremon shook the spray from his eyes.
Heart in mouth, he counted the men again. Under a clouded moon he couldn’t tell who was who with any certainty. Except his foster-brother Conaire, of course, whose bulk was unmistakable. But twenty, yes, there were twenty still aboard, and the fisherman they brought to be their guide. And Eremon’s wolfhound Cù still crouched at his feet, shivering. The dog hadn’t even whimpered.
As Eremon’s pulse slowed, he felt the now-familiar gorge rising into his throat.Not again …
He leaned over the side and retched what was left of his guts into the heaving sea. Around him his men did the same, most not bothering to lift their heads from the oar benches. Young Rori seemed to have a bigger belly than he, despite his small size, and managed to vomit an enormous slick that just missed Eremon’s feet.
So much for princely dignity. Eremon wiped his mouth. The stink of piss and the sight of blood he could take, for these were part of a battlefield, part of being a warrior. He could hold his drink, too. But this? This was another world entirely. For once, his hard will could not bring his body into line, no matter how he fought.
Another wave was bearing down, and Eremon ordered the men back to bailing and rowing. He was no mariner, indeed he’d hardly set foot on a boat before. Yet common sense told him that they must keep head-on to this swell, or be lost.
In the ridiculous way of crises, at this very moment a scrap of old lore from his father’s druid tumbled through his mind:The gods’ smiles bring the sun, the thrust of their swords a king’s death, their frowns the thunder and wind that split the sky.
As the foam rushed around him, sucking at his feet, Eremon frantically shook hair back from his eyes. If the old druid was right, then he knew what he now faced, for surely only a god’s wrath could conjure this storm from a calm sea!
Even the fisherman could barely cling to the tiller, his eyes glassy with terror. Eremon fought down a rush of guilt. The man had only ever sailedcurraghs, and those little hide boats could skim lightly over such waves. This craft was a larger trading vessel: planked instead of hide hull, ten oars each side and the square-rigged sail. Not only that, but the fisherman was the most reluctant of guides, for he’d been stolen as well as the boat.
If Eremon had known the danger they were sailing into, he might have spared the man. But the day they fled Erin in a hail of arrows had been calm and bright. It wasn’t until the second day that the sky darkened and the wind rose, and the fisherman began to mutter at the threatening bank of cloud that loomed up in the south.
The storm front attacked with stark ferocity, the wind, waves and rain rolling together into a grizzled beast that sprang on them, gripping and shaking the boat in its jaws. They hardly noticed as day fled into night, and they could see no more in the darkness. Their world narrowed to sound and touch and taste: wind roars and cold lash of rain; spume on their tongues; the creaking of rigging; the breaking of blisters on the oar.
Now the star wheel must have swung well towards morning. The whole sky was heavy with cloud, yellow where the moon was sinking. Like an eye, that baleful glow seemed to Eremon, the merciless eye of a god. Was it Hawen the Great Boar, totem of his tribe? Dagda the Sky God? No, more likely it was Manannán, Lord of the Sea, protector of Erin. Maybe Manannán was angry that Eremon had abandoned his own land.
Then just take me!he silently cried to the eye.Spare my men!
He received no answer, no slackening of the wind or softening of the sea. The next wave hit, and a great gout of water slapped into Eremon’s mouth and filled his nose, and he snorted and spat and held tight until it set the boat free again in fickle disgust.
Cù was cringing as low as he could, belly and chin flat, rangy legs spreadeagled as if to grip the hull. Eremon spared a moment to pat the shaggy head, and felt the dog’s tongue on his hand where a sword callous had been torn away by the damp, splintered oar. In the lull, Eremon cast a glance back to Conaire. He was rowing strongly, histhick, sinewed arms and immense back pulling with as much strength as when he was fresh two days before. True to form, Conaire was the only one not struck by the sea sickness.
Eremon managed a grin, and although Conaire’s teeth flashed in the dimness, the feeble light that caught his eyes showed something else. With a shock, Eremon realized his foster-brother was afraid.
He turned back to his own oar. This was bad. Conaire had never been afraid of anything in his life – man or beast. He met every fight, every challenge, with fierce joy and laughter. But even Conaire had never been in a boat before. Eremon thought:He doesn’t believe we’re going to make it.
And then the next surge hit. The men held tight to their oars as he’d instructed, except young Aedan the bard, who would not let go of his precious harp. However, this wave was the greatest yet, and it felled Aedan with one blow, and tore him from his braced stance against the ribs of the hull. For one frozen moment he hung over the stern in a cascade of foam, scream lost in the wind.
Eremon pushed Cù away and launched himself across the oar benches, heedless of the men he was trampling. Conaire was already there, his great bulk steadying Aedan’s flailing body, and together he and Eremon fought the surge until the water surrendered the bard, and he collapsed at their feet. Panting, Conaire stared blankly through his dripping fringe, eyes fixed on a place over Eremon’s shoulder. Eremon took a breath and turned.
The mast, weakened by the waves and wind, had finally cracked, and now leaned at a crazy angle, sail and ropes flapping uselessly. Eremon let the breath out in one long hiss of despair. When would it end? Then he looked past the shattered timbers to twenty pairs of eyes, all turned to him for guidance.
At Rori on his oar bench, scarlet hair slick with water, chin thrust out manfully despite his quivering lip.
At grey-eyed Aedan, who cradled his harp so carefully as he retched.
At burly Finan, who had fought battles when Eremon was a baby at the teat, and who now clung fiercely to the tiller that had been abandoned by the cowering fisherman.
Around Eremon huddled the rest of his warband. Some were young warriors with hero-light in their eyes, desperate to follow a prince to glory; and others, veterans like Finan, were loyal friends of his dead father, King Ferdiad of Dalriada.
Though he was only one and twenty himself, they followed Eremon because they believed he could reclaim his father’s hall from his usurping uncle, a man who wrenched it from him by sword and betraying tongue. All Eremon had managed to salvage were these twenty men andsome jewels and weapons. They had barely escaped from Erin’s shores alive, in that last, surprise attack on the beach.
And now death will claim us anyway…
‘We can’t keep this up!’ It was Conaire, yelling in his ear above the wind. ‘We have to hold, not row, or we’ll be food for fish by morning!’
Eremon blinked rain away. Conaire spoke sense, but he knew that if they stopped rowing they could not keep head on to the waves, and would surely tip. Torn, he gnawed the tiny, puckered scar that worry had worn inside his lip. He must decide, and quickly.
He reached out to grip Conaire’s shoulder, more for his own comfort. ‘We’ve fought plenty of battles, and this is no different!’ he cried. ‘I say we row!’
Conaire’s face fell, but before he could answer, there came a hissing voice, and they both looked up to see a curling wave-crest begin its deadly descent towards them. They just caught the mast before it hit, and this time, when the spume cleared, it was Finan sprawled on his back.
The tiller yawed, caught by a blast of wind, and as if waiting its chance, the sea grasped the boat and spun it wildly. They were wrenched side-on, and as the next wave swelled beneath them, the hull rose and tilted, until they were all staring into the black depths below. For an endless, sickening moment, the boat clung bravely to the wave shoulder, and every man aboard braced himself for the long fall, and the heart-stopping, icy splash.
Then the wave released them, and the boat rolled down into the trough, upright again. Finan was on his feet before Eremon reached the stern, and between them they wrenched the tiller around, desperately turning the bow back into position.
‘Get to those oars!’ Eremon roared, chest pounding. The terror was so great that it immediately cleared the sickness, and he gave his belly no more thought. ‘Diarmuid, Fergus and Colum, keep bailing – everyone else row as if the hounds of the Otherworld are on your heels! To Alba!’
Alba of the waves, of the moors, of the mountains. Though they had been blown north, not east, he knew his goal loomed somewhere near, just out of reach. But he could not spare any thought to what awaited them there.
There was just the now: wind, black rain, and the hungry sea.
‘The funeral is at dawn in two days.’
Rhiann felt Linnet, beside her, stiffen at the chief druid’s clipped words. The roof of the druid shrine was open to the clouded sky, and dull morning light striped the rain-soaked earth between the massive oak pillars. But the face of the chief druid – Gelert – remained in shadow.
He had just performed a sacrifice for King Brude’s soul. Blood streaked one gnarled hand and spattered his bleached robe, and behind a half-circle of other druids, a yearling calf lay across the stone altar. At the base of each oak pillar, the wooden idols of the gods stared down with empty eyes, stained with ochre, wreathed with withered flowers. Dried petals littered the floor around their feet.
‘Surely we need time to prepare.’ Linnet’s tone matched the druid’s coldness.
Gelert dipped his hands into a bronze washbowl held by a young novice. ‘All is prepared. The nobles will journey to the Isle of Deer before first light in two days. We burn him at sunrise.’
‘I see grief has not slowed you, Gelert.’
The druid waved the novice away, moving forward into the sunlight. Rhiann caught her breath, as she always did when she was near Gelert. The fading tattoos on the old man’s cheeks were twisted by the wrinkles that seamed his skin. The flesh of his nose had shrunk away from the bone, and it cleft his face as a prow cuts the waves. Lank, white hair straggled to his shoulders. But it was his eyes that repulsed her, and no more so than when they were fixed on her. The lashes were nearly gone, and the irises were yellow and flat, like those of an owl.
‘What is the point of grief?’ Gelert shrugged. ‘I knew he was dying. I, at least,sawit. And unlike you, I have little time to indulge myself in women’s grief.’ Another novice appeared with a wolfskin cloak, andGelert drew it around his bony shoulders. ‘Other matters require my thought.’
Linnet folded her hands into her sleeves. ‘You mean the rumours of Roman soldiers to the south. But we all know they won’t come into Alba.’
Rhiann started. Lost in the depths of her misery, she’d not heard any such rumour about Romans. The invaders had been on the islands of Britain for nearly forty years now, so the lore of the priestesses said. Though they advanced north at intervals, they seemed to have stopped, content to sit and bleed their new province dry. But Alba? It was too cold and rugged for them, and the tribes too fierce. This is what Rhiann had heard around the cookfires since she was a baby. Everyone knew it.
Gelert smirked. ‘Well, I would not expect women to appreciate such matters. That is why they are safely in other hands.’
Rhiann knew Linnet would not rise to this, for Gelert always spoke so to her aunt. His hatred for those of the sisterhood – those of the Goddess – had been a steady thread throughout Rhiann’s life. The druids drew increasingly close to their sword, thunder and sky gods, although most of them at least still paid their respects to the female face of the Source. But not Gelert. He would sweep the whole sisterhood from the face of Alba if he could. To him, Rhiannon the Great Mother, after whom Rhiann was named, was no more than the ornamental wife of a god.
Which was even more reason for Rhiann to stop standing there, gawking as if she were a child. She was a priestess, too, and must act like one. ‘What of the symbols for the King’s journey-boat?’ she broke in, returning to the matter at hand. The Romans would remain a rumour, so she put them out of her mind.
Gelert turned to her, and the power in his eyes was like yellow flame spilling from two oil lamps. ‘All done. While you were off delivering that fisherman’s cub, my brethren were preparing the King’s way. You need only grace us with your presence. Unless you object?’
She did not reply, only raised her chin.
He smiled. ‘Ah, yes, our proud Ban Cré, our Mother of the Land. Our Goddess-incarnate, our royalpriestess.’ He always managed to imbue her titles with such contempt. ‘The people would be so disappointed to see you fail your kinsman.’
‘Of course we’ll come,’ Linnet snapped. ‘Unlike you, we respect the dead.’
This was uncomfortably close to a lie in Rhiann’s case, but shehadtried to save her uncle’s life. Not Gelert. As soon as the King fell sick, the druid had obviously set about organizing the funeral, not even waiting for the spirit to relinquish the body.
Rhiann considered that as they left the shrine. She did not expect to see Gelert grieving, but she had anticipated more respect.
Linnet’s arm slipped around her waist. ‘Don’t let him upset you, daughter. His words do not come from the true Source.’
‘He doesn’t upset me,’ Rhiann lied.
But the memory of those owl eyes stayed with her throughout the day.
Thebodhrandrums began at dusk, rolling from the peak of Dunadd like storm-claps, shot through with the flash of bone pipes and strident horns.
The druids were conducting their own rituals with the King’s body, for he had worshipped the sword gods, paying little heed to the Goddess, and Linnet and Rhiann would stay away until they were done. Rhiann did not like the smell of druid magic. Or perhaps it was just that it always carried the taint of Gelert’s soul, and she felt it keenly.
She and Linnet ate by her hearth-fire while the wailing and singing swirled outside. The first rams had been slaughtered now the long dark grew near, and the mutton broth was warm in her belly, though no more than ashes on her tongue.
That day Brica had replaced the stale rushes on the earth floor, and so at least the familiar smells of home were around her: fresh plants, herb stew and peat smoke.
She thought about the King’s Hall, with its taint of blood and half-cooked meat, its gaudy banners, and walls bristling with spears and shields. The curved walls of her single-roomed roundhouse were softened by hangings woven by her mother, and only bunches of herbs and net bags of tubers decorated the rafters.
On the hearth-stone lay a deerhide bag that needed mending, and by the door rested an assortment of digging sticks, stained with mud. Hanging above them were weaving shears, and knives for herb-cutting, their blades blessed in sacred wells. On a low shelf a line of tiny wooden figurines rested: statues of the Mother Goddess, ochre-stained.
There were no hunting spears or shields propped up, no horse harness waiting for repair, no longbracaetrousers spread on the loom by the door, half-woven.
But for how much longer? A man was going to invade her home.
As he would invade her.
The world was still ragged with scudding cloud, and beneath a dawn sky the colour of cold ash, Eremon sat alone in the bow of the boat.
Eremon, son of Ferdiad. Rightful King of the people of Dalriada, in Erin.
The corner of Eremon’s mouth lifted bitterly.King of nothing, and no one. He glanced at the huddle of men in the stern. Well, King of twenty good men, at least.
Over their heads, he squinted across the waves, now only rocking the hull with light, insistent slaps that nudged them shoreward. Another day and night after the storm, it was only clear now that they’d been swept north along the Alba coast, and not out into the trackless reaches of the Western Sea.
The sharp tang of brine was strong on the west wind now, but in the still air before dawn, he’d caught the scent of wet pine and mud. Earth; good, solid earth.
He idly fondled Cù’s ears, too weary and heartsick to appreciate this good fortune. Then he was struck by a new thought, and sat up a little straighter. Against all odds, they’d come through the storm and were close to land. So perhaps Manannán had sent it totestEremon, to know that he was worthy to take back his father’s hall and rule the people of Dalriada. Maybe he could earn the blessing of the gods after all.
Eremon’s hand stilled on Cù’s warm head, his eyes glazing over. The storm was the first test, then – so there would be others. And he would pass every last one of them, until he returned to Erin to kill his usurper uncle, Donn of the Brown Beard. He lost himself for a moment in a dream of a blazing sword, and the expression on his uncle’s face when it bit him through the neck.
‘Wake up!’ Conaire waved a hand before Eremon’s eyes, and squatted down, passing over a hunk of damp bread. Cù thumped his tailon the deck and raised his head for a sniff, then flopped back in exhaustion.
Eremon patted him, eyeing the crumbling bread with sudden, ravening hunger. After all, there had been nothing in his stomach for two days now. He tore off a chunk and chewed in silence.
‘So we are near land after all,’ Conaire offered. He paused. ‘You were right about the oars.’
Eremon snorted, picking barley grit from his teeth. The memories of the storm were now just a hazy blur of rain, wind, and terror. He knew they had come close to passing over to the Otherworld, and even though the druids said this was nothing to fear, he’d realized just how much his body wanted to stay right here. Trust Conaire to forget it all so quickly.
Then Eremon cast another glance at his men, chewing their bread. They were worn and wet, with new bruises and oar blisters. And yet, they’d somehow made it through the storm alive. He should be thankful, and leave it at that. He cocked his head at Conaire. ‘You admit that I’m right, do you, brother? Did the mast catch your head as it fell?’
Conaire grinned in answer, and stretched his long legs out along the rough-hewn planks.
The two men were an unlikely pair. Conaire had been a giant even as a babe, with hair that shone like ripe barley, and the wide, blue eyes of his people. Next to him, Eremon always felt too dark and lean. His own eyes were a shifting sea-green – the legacy of his Welsh mother, along with his hair, the deep brown of a mink’s pelt. Both had marked him as different when he didn’t want to be.
As a boy, Conaire had raced around in a storm of yelling and running and laughing. That exuberance did not come easily to Eremon, and less so when he realized he was a prince, and must learn how to be a king. Conaire’s sire was only a cattle-lord, and Conaire could fulfilhisexpectations easily. Be as quick to fight as to jest. Hold a man’s fill of ale and boar. Oh, and bed a woman as soon as physically able, which in Conaire’s case was before his eleventh birthday.
But Conaire had a sense his bluff father would never have appreciated – he always knew when Eremon was brooding. So now he brushed the crumbs from his thighs and clapped Eremon on the back. ‘What say we get some earth under our feet then, brother? My balls are turning bluer by the day, I swear!’
The thump set Eremon choking, and it took some moments of coughing and laughing before he could reply, by which time the dark hurt of betrayal and home had fled. Donn and revenge could wait a little while; there were more pressing issues to take care of first.
‘Now that you’ve woken me up,’ Eremon cleared his throat, ‘we need to find out where we are.’
‘Right.’ Conaire leaped to the oar benches, and in three hops was standing over the fisherman, who was gnawing half-heartedly at a hunk of bread.
Eremon watched the ease with which his brother moved, despite his great bulk. Sometimes, just sometimes, he longed to be like Conaire: to follow some other man’s orders, to ride into battle behind someone else’s flying banner, giving no thought to strategy, just to fighting. Ah, to fight and become lost in blood and heat and the glorious surrender it gave …
He took a breath. That was not for him, especially not now. He must be a leader from the moment they landed in Alba. A prince, not – Hawen forbid – an exile.
He followed Conaire, pausing to check on Aedan and Rori as he passed. Rori was thin and pale, his freckles standing out like spots of blood on his white cheeks. Aedan was drawn and bruised, and his grey eyes were shadowed. Yet both youths straightened bravely when their prince touched their shoulders.
Then Eremon was staring down at the mottled top of the fisherman’s head, which was burned the deep colour of skin that lived in the sun. Conaire was standing over him with hands on hips; plainly, he’d got nowhere.
‘Where are we?’ Eremon demanded.
The fisherman squinted up at him sourly.
‘Answer the prince, man!’ Conaire growled.
The other dropped his gaze. ‘Aye, it smells like Alba’s air, all right. But not the Misty Isle, we’re north of that. Where, though, only Manannán knows.’
Eremon met Conaire’s eyes. They must go ashore sometime soon, for they were running out of water. Chances were that they’d arrive on an island of poor fishing folk, anyway. This would suit him well, for they could rest and get their strength back before seeking out the local chieftain.
‘We’ll row this coast until we find a safe landing; somewhere with few people. We can hold out another day or so.’ Eremon then addressed the fisherman. ‘And as I promised, I’ll find you a boat to return you to Erin.’
‘Good!’ the man spat through rotting teeth. ‘Savages, the Albans are. You’ll probably all be eaten alive come night—’ He was silenced by the crunch of Conaire’s great hand on his shoulder, and he gulped and slipped into more respectful silence.
No matter who they first met, Eremon knew they must make a show of strength. News travelled fast among the islands, and the more fear and awe they could inspire at the outset, the better. The tale would grow inthe telling, and by the time it reached the local ruler’s ears he would think twice about attacking them.
Or so Eremon hoped.
At the very least, they should not look like the sorry pack of refugees that confronted him now. So as they rowed towards the distant coastline, the men took it in turns to clean their weapons and faces, and comb and braid their hair. Shields were polished and tied in lines down the flanks of the boat, and spear-tips, helmets and mail shirts were burnished.
For the fifth time, Eremon checked on the three iron-bound chests strapped safely in the hull. These were filled with jewellery gathered in from a handful of secret supporters, when his uncle’s challenge for the throne became a growing threat, but before Donn attacked Eremon openly. Some time before they landed, he would distribute the wealth among his men.
Safe in Eremon’s leather pack was the gold circlet of his father, with its green jewel that glowed on the brow. That jewel came from a land so far to the east that Ferdiad was forced to trade a sack of gold and his favourite concubine to gain it. And wrapped in oiled hide was Eremon’s own iron and bronze helmet, its crest a bronze boar, the totem of his clan, bristles stiff with attack fury.
When they were ready, Eremon leaped on to a rowing bench, and surveyed his men with an approving grin. ‘I swear you all look as pretty as maids.’ Then he grew more sober. ‘Unfortunately, though, you must impress as men, not maids, or our lives may be forfeit before we see Erin again.’
‘Not without a fight.’ Finan stroked his sword.
‘No, not without a good fight. Though a score of men, no matter how fine, cannot stand up to a whole people.’ Eremon stared at each face hard in turn. ‘You know the plan and you must follow it, every one of you. For now, I’m a prince seeking trade alliances. A lie brings dishonour, I know, but Hawen the Boar will forgive us. He wants us alive.’ In a sudden burst of inspiration, he unsheathed his father’s sword and held it aloft. ‘This blade was named by my father, but now I give it another name on Alba’s shores, in honour of Manannán, Lord of the Sea. Like His own sword, I call it Fragarach, the Answerer. And it will answer our betrayal with blood! The blood of the traitors!’
The men roared, baring their teeth, their worn faces lighting up. Some leaned over to beat a din on their shields, and others spat deadly curses at Donn of the Brown Beard. And then, breathless and fierce, they returned to their benches to row once more.
Soon the strain of a harp took up the beat of the oars, and in the bow, Aedan began a new song. Aedan’s songs involved too much undying glory for Eremon’s taste, especially when the reality was cold fear, thestench of battle, and a final sword thrust in the gut. And as for the maidens who swanned through the bard’s tales, the reality there was similar. In Eremon’s experience they were twittering birds with a love of finery and jewels; jewels that must be hard won by such as he.
But as the men relaxed into the rhythm of rowing, Eremon noted their new sense of purpose, a purpose that no storm, no betrayal, could beat out of them. He smiled to himself. The campaign against his uncle had wrought them into a warband to reckon with. Above all, they were intensely loyal – they’d proven this by being willing to follow him into exile.
He savoured the vile, unavoidable word on his tongue again. If only there’d been more men like this, his uncle’s betrayal would have ended differently. He tested the razor-edge of his sword with a fingertip.Very differently. Then he sighed, sheathed the sword and stowed it, joining Conaire at the oar.
In his short life, he had learned that men’s hearts are seldom true. Of women’s hearts, he gave no thought.
Brica woke Rhiann and Linnet long before dawn on the day of the funeral, a lamp of tallow-soaked rushes sputtering in her hands.
By the hearth, the maid first stripped Rhiann of her bed-shift, and then with a mixture of fat and rowan ash, she painted over the blue tattoos that curled all over Rhiann’s breasts and belly.
All Epidii women were tattooed at puberty, but as the Mother of the Land, the Ban Cré’s tattoos represented the curving lines of power that radiated through the soil and rock, and along the rivers. The designs anchored the divine Goddess to the land and people through Rhiann’s earthly body. Her tattoos were therefore the most beautiful and sacred, and must be protected by the rowan as they sent the King to the Otherworld this day.
Over a fresh linen shift, Brica dressed Rhiann in an ankle-length tunic of green wool, embroidered with scarlet flowers, fastened on each shoulder by a swan-head brooch. Over that she draped her blue priestess cloak, clasped by the royal brooch of the Epidii: two filigree horses, their eyes set with jewels of amber that matched her hair. Bronze rings glittered on her fingers and white wrists, their chased designs digging into her tender skin. Her twisted gold torc was heavy, and she felt every measure of its weight dragging on her neck.
Linnet was dressed in similar finery, and when they were ready, she surveyed her niece with approval in her eyes. Rhiann’s answering smile felt bleak. She understood well how such spectacle garnered respect and power, and she was not above using it to her own advantage when needed.
But deep down, she longed to be barefoot on Liath’s back, with a hot sun above her, and only dandelion seed in her hair.
‘It is time,’ Linnet said. ‘We must go.’
And as they sprinkled the goddess figures with the daily offering of meal and milk, Rhiann thought,Great Mother, though you no longer speak to me, at least give me strength this day. Give me the courage to face what I must.
By light of moon and flaming torch, by foot, on horseback and chariot, it was a subdued throng of nobles that took the Trade Path downriver for Crìanan, where they would take ship for the Isle of Deer, just offshore. Mist rose in ghostly wraiths from the Add, and hung in pale sheets over the marshes, softening the sound of riffling water. The alders and willows that fringed the banks dripped with dew.
Gelert had set off leading the King’s chariot and the bier that held the body, so Rhiann let Liath drop back. But, sunk in a chill reverie, she suddenly realized that the chief druid had appeared silently on foot by her side. ‘You should be with your uncle’s body, doing your duty.’
She hunched her shoulder away. ‘I do my own will, not yours.’
‘Always so disrespectful!’ he spat, and grasped her bare ankle in a bruising grip, making Liath shy. In the jostling crowd, no one could see. ‘But not for much longer, girl. I have plans for you.’
‘You have no power over me!’ she hissed back.
‘You and I both know that’s not true.’ Gelert’s voice was a sibilant murmur. ‘You’re not witless, though you make me believe so. I’ve watched you shirk your duty for too long. You should have given us another heir years ago, instead of sailing off to that witch camp to dig up roots and weave your petty magic.’ He inclined his owl-head staff towards the King’s bier. ‘Now he is gone, and it is time for the snare to tighten on you at last.’
‘The people won’t force me to marry!’ Rhiann bit out. But they were only fine words, and her fear was a live thing fluttering in her breast.
‘Try them, child! Without a king we are in grave danger from the other clans – and other tribes. Danger makes people think of their own skins, not that of a pale, bony wraith like you.’
She followed his eyes, seeing the nobles of the lesser clans of the Epidii riding so high on their horses, gaudy with their wealth, proclaiming their power. She knew they were circling for blood, hungering to take the kingship from her royal clan, even as they paid their respects. One of the contenders was right in front of her, a young hot-head called Lorn, with hair so fair it shone silver under the moon. He and his father boldly raked the other warriors over with the same slate-grey eyes as they rode.
Suddenly Gelert released her ankle, and though it throbbed, she made no move to ease it.
‘I am no child, druid.’ She strove for control over her voice. Priestess training was good for some things, that was certain. ‘You cannot force me.’
‘Perhaps not. But you always were a dutiful girl. And don’t think thatI haven’t sensed the guilt that rides your shoulder. Duty and guilt … a potent mix. One that will do my work for me.’
He glided away, and she pulled her fur wrap closer about her throat.
As the wailing of women faded away, and harp string, pipe and drum were stilled, Rhiann stood with Linnet on the beach on the Isle of Deer, the waves lifting the hull of the King’s boat as it rolled in the shallows. Gelert’s voice, distorted by his horse-head mask, rang out as he sprinkled water from the sacred spring to the four directions, calling on his gods.
The sky over the island’s dark slopes was aflame with the approaching sunrise, though they still stood in cold, purple shadow. In the faint light, Rhiann saw a mother hush her babe’s strident demands, and Aiveen, daughter of Talorc, the King’s cousin, smiled slyly at a warrior behind her father’s back. Brude’s tear-streaked daughter rubbed her nose, smearing ashes on her cheek, as her mother, hair cropped in grief, bowed her head.
Suddenly Rhiann realized that Gelert had paused, and everyone was looking at her expectantly. Talorc now waited by the bier in the boat with the dead man’s sword in his hands. Rhiann stepped forward as if in a dream, taking the great scabbard flat on her palms and wading into the foam to lay it on the King’s body.
The water was bone-jarring cold, but Brude himself still blazed, with silk thread and exotic cloth, amber, jet and glass rings, his beard oiled and braided, his torc as thick as his wrists. Two gold coins from Gaul lay on his closed eyes. Yet as Rhiann rested the sword across him, her hand brushed his arm, and she jerked back at the chill heaviness of his flesh.
As Rhiann returned to her place she felt the force of Gelert’s gaze. He smelled her fear, she knew it. She returned his look coolly, but her only answer was the glint from the mask’s eye slits, under a fringe of ochredyed mane.
When Linnet had laid down the King’s spear, Gelert took up a flaming torch, calling to Lugh of the Shining Spear to light the way to the Blessed Isles. Sparks drifted out over the water, and as the first fingers of sunlight at last spilled over the hills, Gelert bent and lit the pyre beneath the King’s body.
Flames leaped into the air with a roar, fed by the pitch that soaked the nine sacred woods, and in answer to the hungry tongues of fire, the women’s wailing broke out again, and the harps and pipes skirled into life. Warriors beat their swords on their hide shields, drowning out the druid drums.
With a wave, Gelert signalled to thecurraghsthat were roped to the King’s boat in the shallows. The oarsmen rowed hard, and the ropes grew taut as they drew the boat offshore.
Rhiann’s gaze was fixed on the smoke, unseeing.The King was gone.
Desperate, she wanted to reach out and pull the boat back, have him sit up again, laugh again, bellow again.He was gone.
Thecurraghscut the ropes and came racing back to shore, and the blazing boat was soon no more than a speck on the water, obscured by smoke. Dread swept over Rhiann then, and with it came a fevered vision of a man, her unknown husband, laying on her, smothering her with his rank beard, stinking of meat and sweat and ale … She swayed in horror. How could she ever face such an attack, night after night, for the rest of her life? She would not be able to bear it.
I won’t, she thought fiercely.I’ll give them what they want and then I’ll leave. Or die!
And then, something happened to sweep these bleak thoughts away in one shocking flash of light. Something … impossible.
A flare of crimson and gold blazed for a heartbeat, cleaving the smoke. Rhiann shaded her eyes. Then the breeze cleared the haze for one brief moment and – there – the flash came again, so brilliant and sharp it hurt. Goddess, what was it?
Abruptly, the singing and wailing died away, and Declan, the seer thrust his way to Gelert’s side. People were peering out to sea, open-mouthed. The shocked silence lasted only a moment, and then a rustling of whispers began to hiss like foam over the sand. When the flash came a third time, the rustling swelled to a fearful murmur. Time was caught, suspended on the cold dawn wind.
But death was all around this day, and fear and tension were running high. And so the first cry of terror at last spilled over. ‘The sun rises again in the west! The gods have come!’
‘An omen!’ someone else screamed.
The panic instantly caught alight, blazing through the crowd as a spark lit to dry tinder.
‘The gods are angry!’ a young woman wailed. ‘Oh, mercy, save us!’
Warriors were wrenching spears from their shield-bearers and unsheathing swords, unsure whether they faced a threat from Thisworld or the Otherworld. Talorc, bellowing orders, got the men into a wavering line facing the sea, and the druids clustered closer around Gelert and Declan. But when Rhiann felt Linnet grip her hand, and saw her aunt close her eyes in the seeing way, she did the same, her senses yearning towards the strange light.Please, Mother, just this once, let me see!
She held her breath … and then a swirling picture flared into life in her mind. The spirit-eye on her brow blazed with pain, and she gasped, trying to hold the scene steady. As she did, the gasp lurched into a cry of shock. For what faced them was not, as the people feared, an Otherworld sun. It was something much, much worse: sunlightreflecting off weapons and mailshirts. A boat full of warriors, shining from head to foot, with the glint of swords in their hands.
As she registered this, terror coursed through Rhiann’s veins in a bright flood, so intense that she caught her breath.Raiders! How could I let them get so close again!Then a second thought raced on its heels.No! The blood on the sands … the screaming … Oh, Mother, no …
She heard a low moan, and realized it came from her own throat. Beside her Linnet was swaying, her grip on Rhiann’s hand growing tighter and tighter until flesh lost all feeling.
The image behind Rhiann’s eyes was now clearer. There was a young man standing in the bow, dark-haired, his skin brown and clear, unmarked by the blue tattoos of her own tribesmen, his face shaven. Agaelof Erin.
The man’s green cloak was swept back to expose an immense gold torc, and under the sleeves of his embroidered tunic, arm-rings shone. The mailshirt over his tunic was burnished so that it glittered, and on his brow blazed a jewel of green fire. In one hand he held an unsheathed sword; in the other a crimson shield, bright-painted with the symbol of a boar.
At last she dragged her eyes open, daring it all to be a dream. But there it was. Goddess, it was real.
The boat was so close now that those of the Epidii without the sight could discern for themselves what the gods had brought them: a battered craft with cracked mast, and inside, a score of men with fierce eyes.
And they were making for the shore.
In an instant, panic broke out on the beach, as women swept up children and raced for the hill-slopes above, old people stumbling after on cold-stiffened legs. Rhiann stood rooted to the spot, her knees weak beneath her. She tried to turn, and faltered, and then Linnet’s firm arms were steadying her.
‘It is all right,’ Linnet murmured, as if she was gentling a filly. ‘We are safe, daughter. We are safe.’
Rhiann tried to gulp a breath, but the panic had taken hold, and it left no room to fill her lungs. The edges of her sight wavered and grew dark.
Gelert’s roar split the air, and such was the ingrained fear of him that the tide of people froze. The chief druid wrenched off his horse mask, spilling white hair over his shoulders, and thrust it into Declan’s hands. Then he took back his oak staff and raised it before him. Though old, he was formidable, and for the first time Rhiann felt almost grateful for that daunting power.
Thegaelrowers had stilled their own hands, and the boat now hung suspended, the leader’s cloak against the sky like the first spear of grass after snow. And then the man held his hand up, with fingers open in the trading sign of peace.
‘Name yourself!’ cried Gelert, raising his staff. His voice carried clearly over the water. ‘You disturb a soul’s journey to the west!’
‘I am a prince of Erin!’ the man called. His voice was fair and strong, speaking a language close to Alban, with its own strange lilt. ‘We have come to negotiate a trading treaty, but were caught in the storm. Please, let us land and we will talk.’
Rhiann’s mind was still spinning, and yet his words penetrated the haze of shock around her. These men were not raiders, no matter how well armed. Raiders fell upon people in surprise; they did not approacha shore defended by spears, or exchange fair words. Still, her shoulders trembled as Linnet released her.
Gelert leaned into Declan and the two druids spoke, heads close together. The chief druid turned back to the boat. ‘You may land, man of Erin,’ he conceded. ‘But only if I bind you by your most sacred oath to do us no harm.’
Without hesitating, the man laid his sword out across both palms. ‘I swear on my father’s honour, and that of Hawen the Great Boar, god of our tribe, that we will not raise weapons against you.’ He swung the sword back down, and broke into a sudden, crooked smile, startling in the grimness of his face. ‘Be assured! I would not wear such finery to attack, honoured druid. I only seek pardon for disturbing your rite.’
Around Rhiann, people who had been crying out moments before began whispering again, and now their voices held a note of … admiration?
Gelert stared impassively at the man, as the boat drifted closer on the incoming tide. ‘So be it, bold prince! Then you’ll hand over your weapons as a surety, until we feast you.’
The foreigner’s smile faded, and angry murmuring broke out among his men before he silenced them with a curt gesture. Rhiann saw that they obeyed him instantly, even though many were older than he.
‘My men will give up their weapons,’ the man agreed, his jaw tight. The crooked grin had fled as instantly as it had come. ‘And you can have my spears – but not my sword. It is worth more to me than my life.’ He sheathed the blade in a bronze-tipped scabbard at his waist. The clink as it slid home echoed across the waves. ‘If I touch it, strike me down. I swear that none of my men will make a move to save me.’
The othergaelsflinched at this, though said nothing – they clearly trusted him. And it was a clever reply. Unprovoked, no Epidii warrior could harm him without losing honour. And men, of course, valued their honour even more than their horses.
Gelert slowly nodded. ‘Then you may land.’
The line of Epidii warriors fell back as the boat’s hull grated on the sand. Talorc, a thick-set, grizzled warrior who still sported formidable arms despite his age, planted himself before the strangers to take their weapons as they stepped ashore.
Rhiann drew her cloak closer with trembling fingers, stepping back so that she was further away from these strange men. She saw the prince take a ring from his finger and hold it out. ‘I give this to you for your dead,’ he offered, bowing gracefully from the waist.
The rustling of approval around Rhiann grew louder. ‘He speaks fine for agael!’ an old woman croaked.
‘He came to us as the sun,’ a younger one breathed. ‘The gods must favour him!’
Gelert studied the foreigner before taking the ring. ‘We will offer your gift at a sacred spring. The gods will look kindly on you.’ He beckoned one of the novices forward. ‘Take these men to the funeral hut, and send mead.’ He swivelled his eyes to thegaelleader. ‘We are soon to return home, and have little food to give you beyond cold meat. You can drink, though, and then we’ll speak.’
Wide-eyed, the novice led the men up the beach to a single roundhouse that stood on themachair, the flower-starred strip of grassland that edged the sands.
Rhiann watched them pass. Now that they were close, she could see the prince’s clothes, though well-made, were torn and crusted with salt. Yet he held his head as if dressed in the most expensive finery, and now that the crooked smile was gone, his dark braids framed a face that seemed carved from stone. His forehead was a smooth plane, his jaw-line clean, and high cheekbones gave his eyes an exotic, slanted cast. Yet his out-thrust chin was too sure of itself, and the eyes themselves were a glacial green. Then she saw the bloodless lines on his swordhand from clenching hard the horn pommel of his sword.
Ah … he was lying. His face dared someone to see it, as his very hand betrayed it. Someone who could lie and look so fair was dangerous. She wondered if Gelert already knew.
Behind the leader came the largest man Rhiann had ever seen. His mop of barley hair and sky-blue eyes gave him a boyish air, yet his arms were thick as young trees, and a curved scar caught at the corner of one eyelid, pulling it down slightly and scoring his cheek. A smile hovered at the corners of his mouth, which broadened when the young women crowded forward to stare at him. Aiveen, Talorc’s bold daughter, was foremost among them, her butter-coloured braids swinging.
And then there came a shy youth, hidden behind a shock of scarlet hair, neck a mass of freckles. Then a bard, pretty as a girl, with cream and roses skin that was bruised along the jaw. He limped slightly, clutching his harp to his chest as if drawing strength from it. Both of these boys were too young, surely, to be away from their mothers! But then Rhiann’s eyes fell on the men who followed: all hard-bitten warriors in their prime, with sinewed arms that spoke of constant swordplay, seamed with faded scars. Likewise, their armour and weaponry shone with careful burnishing, though their tunics and trousers showed the wear of the storm.
As the Epidii closed in behind the foreigners, Rhiann felt a soft touch on her hand. ‘Come,’ said Linnet, ‘walking will help your body to let go of the fear.’
Until it comes again, Rhiann thought, but accepted the arm around her shoulders. After a few steps, she glanced up, bracing herself for the pityin Linnet’s eyes. Perversely, though she yearned for help from her aunt, she hated to be pitied.
But Linnet’s face was white, with bright spots of rose on each cheek, and her eyes had deepened to a stormy grey. She was not looking at Rhiann at all. She was staring out to sea, past the last traces of smoke from the burning, her eyes glazed.
And then Rhiann’s senses caught the smallest quiver of something else in her aunt; something entirely unexpected.
Eremon and his men were left alone in the funeral hut, with only one guard to watch over them. It was clear that guest laws were as sacred in Alba as in Erin. Strangers must eat before discussing their business: it was a rule that every tribe from Gaul to Erin held to.
Cold meat in a cold dawn was not ideal, though better than stale bread. The others eagerly attacked the woven willow platter of deer flesh, but under the piercing black eyes of the warrior at the door, Eremon had little appetite.
The wild blue tattoos curling up the man’s cheeks and around his eyes made him look as fierce as a charging boar. The effect was heightened by the long moustache that drooped over his mouth, and his hair, limed into stiff peaks. Eremon rubbed the stubble on his own chin, which was kept shaven among his people. Those blue markings must inspire fear in battle, but he’d rather keep his own face.
Conaire had no such qualms about eating beneath those fierce eyes. He ripped off huge mouthfuls and chewed noisily, and Rori, Finan and the others followed his lead. Eremon leaned in to pick some pieces for Cù, who was laying under his feet. The hound gulped the meat from his fingers, coating them in drool.
Eremon wiped his hand on his trousers and scanned the room.
Despite his estimation that the Alban jewellery was not as ornate as his, nor their swords as fine, the walls of this hut were painted with beautifully-wrought symbols, and similar forms were sculpted into the roof-posts and beams. Some were animals: he could see the horse, the boar, and the stag, so real that their muscles flowed as if moving. Other symbols were unknown shapes; lines and curves that were also beautiful, yet meaningless to him. The same symbols were painted on a high table by the hearth, scattered with pots of fragrant oils, and dried petals of meadowsweet. There, the bier for the dead person had clearly laid.
The guard moved, and the sunlight from the doorway glinted on his spear. Eremon frowned and shifted, conscious of his own sword’s weight by his side. He’d been furious about giving up their weapons, even though there was little choice. Many spears had been trained on them, and from the size of the warriors they were well within range. Ifonly he’d seen more clearly through that smoke, perhaps they could have landed somewhere else …
So much for simple fisherfolk.
He gnawed at his lip. It seemed he’d just brought his men from one danger straight to another. It was not the landing he’d imagined at all. And yet, the gods had brought him here, for the boat was driven helplessly before that storm. Were They plotting his glory, or his downfall?
It is a test, he reminded himself.The gods demand proof of your bravery. Show yourself worthy, and you’ll be home next leaf-fall.
The meat was almost gone when, from outside, he heard a burst of singing and crying, a blaring of trumpets, and thundering of beaten shields. The din grew and grew, until it echoed on the walls of the house, and Cù threw his head back and howled, his eyes wild. As the noise died away to a last throbbing drumbeat, Eremon saw the Alban warrior close his eyes and murmur fervently to himself.
He did not need to ask what had happened, for in Erin they, too, drove the spirits of the dead away like this. Now the freed soul would heed the god Lugh’s call to fly away to the Blessed Isles.
Soon after, a shadow blocked the doorway: the old druid who had spoken on the beach. He was followed by a servant girl, carrying a bronze-rimmed horn cup, and the heavy, older warrior who had taken their weapons – a man almost matching Conaire’s size. The servant came straight to Eremon with the cup, its two handles cast as rearing horses. The workmanship was very fine, like that of the carvings, and to Eremon’s surprise the ale within was also good, with a musky flavour he’d never tasted before.
He must have betrayed himself, for the druid was smiling at him. It was not a warm smile. ‘Our women make the best ale in Alba. The heather flowers give it the flavour.’ The druid’s voice belied his age, ringing with power and authority.
Eremon nodded carefully, and the girl took the cup and turned to lift it to Conaire’s mouth. She was pretty, and Eremon saw her start and blush when she caught his foster-brother’s eye. After the cup had been offered to Eremon’s men, the druid wasted no more time. ‘Now,’ he said, gesturing to a screened alcove. ‘I wish to find what you are seeking here. Come, and we will speak.’
Eremon glared at Conaire, who pulled his eyes away from the girl and followed him, wiping the traces of grease from his mouth. They joined the druid and the old warrior, easing themselves on to fur cushions on the alcove’s earth floor.
Eremon began, as was his due as a guest. ‘I am Eremon, son of Ferdiad. My father is King of the great kingdom of Dalriada in Erin.This is my foster-brother Conaire, son of Lugaid. We come to make new trade alliances with our honoured neighbours.’
‘I am Gelert, man of the oak,’ the druid returned. ‘My cousin Brude, son of Eithne, is King of the Epidii, our tribe. The King is … away, collecting tribute in the north.’
The pause was slight, and Eremon saw the Epidii warrior glance at his druid, before turning to Eremon. Around one great arm was a fox-fur band, the same colour as his hair and moustache, though they were now frosted with grey. But his blue eyes were clear, cheeks ruddy with health. ‘And I am Talorc, son of Uishne, also cousin to Brude.’ He folded his arms on his barrel chest, chin thrust forward. ‘You are right to seek us out, prince, for we are the foremost tribe on this coast, with many riches.’
I did not seek you out, and I see few riches, thought Eremon, keeping his face still.And where, in truth, is your king?
‘I am surprised,’ he said out loud. ‘Your death rite was for a man of great standing, it seems – yet your king is not here?’
Gelert’s yellow eyes glinted with anger. ‘You seek trade alliances, you say?’ he barked.
Eremon blinked in surprise, and nodded.
‘Then your storm gods drove you to the right place, prince. Our fortress of Dunadd rules the trade route this side of the mountains. We exchange with the tin tribes in southern Britannia, and those on the Northern Sea. What can you offer us?’
Eremon took a deep breath: at least he was ready for this. ‘The gold you see is only a part of our wealth,’ he explained, throwing open his cloak to reveal his ornate belt and jewelled dagger-hilt beneath his mailshirt. ‘Our rivers run with it, and the hills are seamed with copper. And I have men joining us with more examples of our skill. We will call on tribes all over Alba.’
Talorc’s eyes were resting on the jewelled circlet on Eremon’s brow.
‘Of course, gold is not all,’ Eremon continued, smiling. ‘We have plains of barley and rich cattle herds, for our land is warmed by milder winds than yours. And we make many other things: our craftsmen are famed the world over.’
At this, Talorc could not help himself. ‘So! We have the best deermeat, the finest hunting dogs, and the warmest hides!’ He thumped his chest. ‘Our sheep give much better wool than yours – and our women are, of course, the most beautiful.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that!’ Conaire broke in, grinning. ‘How about I show you the quality of my sword – and your women the fineness of another weapon altogether!’
Talorc’s face twitched, then he chuckled and slapped his leg. ‘You jest well for agael,’ he laughed. His eyes gleamed as he took in the breadthof Conaire’s sword-arm. ‘I wonder if you can fight as well as you make jokes, young colt! I was cattle-raiding when you were pissing in yourbracae! What say I give you your sword back, and—’
An abrupt movement from the druid silenced him. Gelert was raising himself to his feet with his oak staff, frowning. Eremon saw the knobbed end was carved as an owl’s head, with eyes of glittering jet, and as the druid leaned on it, two pairs of pupils seemed to fix on the prince. ‘I’m sure my cousin appreciates how little time we have for such … pleasantries. Come with us across the water to Dunadd. There we can feast you, and talk more.’ His cold gaze swept Eremon from feet to head.
Caught in that druid net, Eremon felt a sudden, childish impulse to take his men and run. Run where, though? Such discourtesy would win him nothing except suspicion. No, he was being foolish. He must trust to the Boar. The breaking of hospitality laws was unheard of, and these people were not savages, plainly, no matter what the fisherman had said.
‘Thank you, we’ll come gladly,’ he found himself saying. ‘But … you go by sea?’ He could not hide his body’s sudden remembrance of that roiling hull.
Gelert smiled thinly, as if he sensed the sickness that lurched into Eremon’s belly. ‘This is only an island: Dunadd lies across the strait to the east. We’ll give you guides for your boat, for there are many rocks in the Bay of Isles. Talorc will see to it.’ He turned to go, and then paused. ‘One more thing. We cannot speak of the dead man for one moon. Respect this, and ask no questions.’
Eremon nodded, his face stiff.
Once Gelert was gone, the air seemed lighter. Talorc clapped Conaire on the shoulder and jumped to his feet. ‘Come,’ he said. In contrast to the druid, his eyes were guileless; the pale blue of a winter sky. ‘Our servants will make ready for a while yet. Let’s not waste the ale!’
Eremon was glad the day had unfolded so fair, for his men came close to mutiny when he said they must take to the water again.
‘It is an island,’ he explained, as they clustered around the hearth in the hut, cups in hand. Talorc had left to speak to the Epidii nobles. ‘There is no choice.’
‘How do we know we can trust them?’ This was Finan, gruff as ever.
‘We’re under guest laws now,’ Eremon replied, with more confidence than he really felt. ‘They will hold to this, as we do. And there’s another thing.’ He drained the dregs of his ale. ‘They think I have more men coming, and that my father is a powerful ruler. They wouldn’t risk a blood feud with a king.’
‘They will when they find out there’s no king.’ Colum rubbed ale-foam from his stubbled chin.
‘Then we make sure they don’t find out. Look, without allies, the Boar knows how long we might remain fugitives, fighting for our lives instead of building our strength. How can I win my kingship back then?’ His eyes rested on them all, one by one. No one argued.
They left the hut and crossed the sands to their battered boat, past the suspicious eyes of the Epidii warriors, and the speculative looks of their women. On the way, Eremon’s attention was caught by a bloom of flame along the dark rocks that cupped the bay, and he stopped as his men carried on without him. The paintedcurraghswere being burned!
Though born and bred a warrior, Eremon had always had, in his father’s eyes, an unmanly attraction to the mysteries of the druids. If he’d been a commoner he might have followed that path, though any such tendencies had been driven away by Ferdiad’s beatings. So he stood and watched the burning for a moment, intrigued that something so beautiful was being destroyed.
Suddenly he became aware of another standing nearby who also watched; someone with the unmistakable air of a druid, draped in asapphire cloak, its hood up. Struck by an impulse, he opened his mouth to ask what the symbols on the boats meant, and why they were being burned.
But before he’d uttered a word, the druid whirled to face him, and he saw snapping blue eyes, huge in a white face, and a nimbus of the most extraordinary hair. ‘Keep your hands off me, man of Erin!’
Her voice cut through him like a shard of ice. No one had ever looked at him like that, with blazing eyes in a face of such tense coldness. Women did not look like that. Not at him. Gaping, he stood there like a fool, as she clutched her cloak closer and hurried away.By the gods, have I insulted a druid? How? Why?
Conaire was suddenly by his side. ‘Eremon, I’ve been calling! We have our guides and we’re waiting for you.’ A loud belch sounded in Eremon’s ear, and then Conaire paused, watching the slim figure retreating down the beach. He cocked his head at Eremon and chuckled. ‘You don’t waste time, my brother.’
Eremon shrugged helplessly, and put the encounter out of his mind as he followed Conaire to the water. Their boat was already afloat in the pale shallows, and one of the Epidii guides was directing some of Eremon’s men to hold it steady while the others boarded.
A pack of curious children jostled each other in the foam, and further back, young women eyed Eremon with interest, whispering behind their hands, as he waded through the water. He placed his sword carefully in the boat and hoisted himself in, and the women’s murmuring grew louder. One of the Epidii guides shot him a sullen look.
‘I am not used to your local speech.’ Eremon’s voice was friendly as he stowed his blade and settled to the oar. ‘What are they saying?’
‘They call you mac Greine, lord.’ The man’s voice held a hint of scorn. Plainly, he thought little of the women’s fancies.
Mac Greine. Son of the sun. Eremon did not know whether to be flattered or embarrassed, for that was a name given to the god Lugh of the Shining Spear. Then he shrugged to himself, practicality winning out. If they were in awe of him, that was no bad thing.
And, though he was sorry for startling the druidess, if some were afraid of him, then that was no bad thing either.
The Alban boats were timber built, as sleek and curved as spear points, with painted animal prows. The horse was foremost among the carvings. What had Talorc said over the ale?We are the People of the Horse. It was a noble creature indeed – Eremon just hoped that this tribe lived up to its totem.
Despite his concerns, he could not help but feel excited. Behind him lay great darkness, and he would have to face the pain of it all soon. Toosoon. For now, though, they were on an adventure in an unknown land, with a new day’s sun in their faces and swords by their sides. The Boar knew what glory might come his way here; what paths might open …
Steady on, my boy. Just focus on getting home.
His eyes were drawn west, to where Erin lay over the horizon … Erin, his land, his love, with her rounded, lush hills and soft winds. A stab of longing pierced him, but then he shut the door firmly in his mind. He could not go back, not yet. The time would come, one day, and it would be the right time, under the right circumstances.
He caught the eye of the other Epidii guide, a friendlier man than the first. His skin was seamed and burned by the sun, and his face had the characteristic squint of someone who worked on the sea. Perhaps he was a fisherman.
‘What island is this?’ Eremon asked.
The man grinned, pleased to be superior. ‘The Isle of Deer.’
‘Ah.’ Eremon shaded his eyes to peer up at the hazels and oaks crowding the island’s glens. ‘I’ve heard of this place even in Erin. Exceptional hunting, I believe.’
At mention of the hunt, Cù’s ears shot straight up, and he looked at Eremon with a longing that was matched only by that on Conaire’s face.
‘Is this true, man?’ Conaire demanded.
The guide nodded.
‘A spot of spearwork with the dog is just the thing to right my belly!’ Conaire crowed, delighted. ‘When can we go?’
Eremon smiled. ‘Let’s get to Dunadd first.’
‘Aye, but I’ll take you soon,’ the fisherman promised, eyeing Conaire’s great arms with ill-concealed envy. ‘There, the boars are so big that even you, young giant, will have trouble pulling them down!’
‘You are blessed with riches!’ Conaire exclaimed.
The man shrugged, his face flushed with pride. ‘We are under the protection of Rhiannon and Manannán both. Rhiannon is the Lady of Horses, rider of the White Mare. She gives us the best mounts in Alba. Manannán fills our nets with fish and brings the traders.’
‘We, too, revere our Lord Manannán,’ Aedan put in helpfully.
The man twisted on his oar bench, sizing him up. ‘Is that so? Though I bet you haven’t seen the Eye of Manannán, as I have, harper! It is close now – perhaps you’ll hear it roar!’
Aedan’s rosy cheeks paled, and his grey eyes widened. ‘An eye that roars?’ he whispered. ‘What is that?’
‘A whirlpool,’ came the devastating reply. ‘It’ll suck you down and spit you out in the Otherworld! You’ll never come back here, to be sure!’
Aedan paled even more, and Eremon regarded him with frustratedaffection. He would have preferred to leave the youth behind, for this was no journey for the faint-hearted. But Aedan leaped into the boat as they fought to leave Erin, and would not be moved. ‘You are going to glory, lord!’ he declared. ‘And I will be there to sing your praises, and to bring your deeds back to Erin, so you are never forgotten!’
A hail of Donn’s arrows unfortunately cut this stirring speech short, and in the rush to escape there was no time to argue. Now Aedan was here, though, he must do his part. So Eremon stared at him steadily, seeking to put into his eyes what he could not put into words. ‘Aedan, why don’t you go and liven the men up? It will keep their minds off their bellies.’
Gratefully, Aedan scrambled to his feet and joined Eremon’s men in the stern. Soon the strains of his harp floated across the bow, the playing fine but not up to its usual standard.
At the first pull on the oar, Eremon’s new blisters broke, and he had to grit his teeth against the pain. Then, just as the boat began to skim over the waves, he felt a queer, tingling sensation on the back of his neck. He threw a glance over his shoulder to the boat just ahead – and saw a white swan’s prow, and beneath, a figure in a blue cloak. Then they cleared the rocks, and the open sea was slapping the bow in the rising breeze, and a cascade of icy water rushed over his hands.
Conaire was laughing next to him. ‘You know, I could get used to this!’
Ever since the unexpected arrival of thegaels, Linnet had been withdrawn. Rhiann spoke with her on the beach, but her aunt’s conversation had been desultory, her mind clearly elsewhere. So once the boats were on their way, Rhiann settled beneath the swan prow and retreated into her own thoughts.
Staring into the water, she wondered again how Linnet could have beenexcited, of all things. These foreigners had brought Rhiann only fear – she could still feel the aftershock of the trembling in her limbs. And then that lying brute nearly touched her on the beach. She shivered, despite the warmth of the sun on her face, and forced herself to sit a little straighter.
She could not wait to clear the sheltered bay, for the sea always calmed her. As the crystal water deepened to blue-black, laced with broken kelp, Rhiann drew the salt air into her lungs and slowly let it out, closing her eyes. The control she had to exert in public was becoming increasingly fragile. She longed to be home, where she could bury herself in bed and shut it all out.
A cry floated down from above, and she glanced up to see a curlew beating its slow way towards the marshes around Dunadd. Its voice was mournful, lonely, and she tried to lose herself in it, to send her spirit upinto the air with the bird. For a moment it almost worked, and she started to drift away … away from her body with its hurts …
Then she realized that her mind was in fact anchored most firmly in her skull, and her eyes were fixed on the boat shooting up behind: the one with the men from Erin. She was close enough to see the copper glints in the leader’s dark hair where the morning sun caught it. And again, she tasted the terror that had clawed at her when he nearly touched her arm.
A warrior who lied. A child murderer, a violator of women, like all the others.
Suddenly she saw the man turn, as if he could hear her. Impossible!
She frowned, twisting away to lock her gaze on the blue haze of the mainland hills, and the sun pouring through the wide cleft that sheltered Dunadd’s plain. When she glanced back, the boats had drawn apart, and the man was no more than a blur of leaf-green and glittering bronze on the sea.
By the time the fleet neared the shore, Eremon’s boat had slipped to the rear. Dunadd’s port, Crìanan it was called, was no more than a cluster of piers and roundhouses squatting on a spur of rock. To its south, a river unravelled as it reached the bay, slicing the marsh and mudflats into ribbons of dark water.
But Eremon saw the advantage of its position immediately. Curls of surf showed the swell rolling in from the sea to the north, but the port lay on calm water, sheltered by a curving arm of land. Across this bay, a palisaded dun looked down on it with watchful eyes from a high crag.
‘Is that Dunadd?’ Eremon asked.
The fisherman shook his head, smiling. ‘That is the Dun of the Hazels. Dunadd is up the river; you’ll see.’
Eremon peered past Crìanan’s piers, the crowding houses, and thecurraghsand dugout canoes scattered on the tidal sands. Try as he might, he could not see the royal dun, only wide expanses of bronze sedge and scarlet reeds.
He had heard the name in Erin: it was indeed of some trading renown. What awaited him there? He realized he was on his feet, his muscles tensed as if they wanted to spring. Or run.
The boat ground against the pier, its timbers slippery with green weed, and his men jostled to get to dry land, Cù in their wake. Eremon let them pass and held himself back, for a sense of foreboding had suddenly come upon him, like a cloud over the sun. Cù checked his headlong rush after the men and stopped, looking back at his master.
And it was as Eremon stood there, poised between sea and sky, that the icy breath of fate touched him. He suddenly knew, in his heart, itwas not a joyous adventure that awaited him here. Something else wanted his allegiance. Something he would not be able to resist.
He froze. He’d not set foot on Alba yet, so perhaps this fate was not sealed.
The Epidii guides were throwing rope around pilings, and hailing those who had beached their boats. No one noticed him. He glanced over his shoulder to Erin again, hidden behind the islands, and then back to Alba’s shore.
Cù whined softly, and Eremon closed his eyes, telling himself he was being ridiculous. The salt breeze ruffled the hair at his temples, and he breathed the familiar scents of dung and peat and baking bread. It was just a place; a place like any other. How Conaire would laugh if he knew his fears!
Slowly, his breath whistled out through his teeth. Then, without pause, he forced himself to leap on to the pier, and take his first steps on Alba.By the Boar, it’s all nonsense! he chided himself.The sea sickness has addled my mind!
He broke into a run, cuffing Cù around the ear as he hurried to catch up with his men. Talorc was waiting to take them to Dunadd.
Eremon’s first glimpse of the Epidii dun was in clear light, so he witnessed the full effect of the gold-thatched roofs on its crest and the flying banners, warmed by the ruby glow of the marshes that surrounded it.
It was impressive, by design. The King’s Hall was exposed to the full force of the sea-wind, but spectacle was far more important than comfort. Dunadd’s builders well knew how their dun would look from afar.
The thudding feet and hooves of the party of Epidii nobles ahead raised flocks of teal to wheel in the air, skimming low over the moss and sedge to land in a scattering of marsh pools. The only firm ground was the path that followed the river, which had been laid with hard shell and gravel until it shone pale under the falling alder leaves.
As the path brought them closer to Dunadd, they could just make out a scarlet banner flying from the highest roof-tree, and when the wind caught it, Talorc cried, ‘See there the White Mare of Rhiannon, emblem of our Royal House!’ Yet Eremon caught the glimpse of a frown marring that bluff face.
Dunadd’s palisade was broken only where the sheer walls of the crag made attack impossible, and even the pier, tied about with punts and canoes, was built into a whaleback of rock that reached out to the river. This dun was a mighty jewel indeed – and it looked as if it knew this, standing proud and lonely above its marsh.
‘Have you seen anywhere placed so well?’ Eremon breathed to Conaire. ‘A single rock bounded by bog, with clear access to the sea?’
Conaire’s eyes sparkled as he looked up at the rock face. ‘A worthy challenge! We’d be spitted like pigs before we gained the walls!’
‘Taking it by force is not what I had in mind,’ Eremon said drily.
The Trade Path ran up to a gate that was guarded by twin towers. On entering the village, Eremon expected to be engulfed by the noise and smells of a busy dun: the ring of smiths’ hammers and squawking of geese; children crying, women calling. But though there were people about on the pathways, the dun had a subdued air, and there was little evidence of anyone labouring at the granaries or in the multitude of worksheds. The murmuring groups of people fell quiet as the men from Erin passed under the shadows of the gate, and people stared, toddlers hanging wide-eyed on their mothers’ skirts.
Talorc hurried them past the people clustering by the gate. ‘The stables are there.’ He waved to one side. ‘You’ll find that we are the best horse breeders and traders in Alba: we’ve an eye for fine blood. And there, you see the sheds of the armourers and iron-smiths.’ He stopped and hooked his hands in his belt, cinched under an ample belly. ‘Your sword is very fine, prince of Erin, but perhaps your young lads,’ he smirked at Aedan and Rori, ‘could do with a sturdy helmet or two. You may not find our neighbours so friendly, and some of them can bring a sword down faster than a bull can come, eh?’ He jabbed Rori in the ribs with a forced jollity, and the boy blushed and ducked his head.
‘Our own swords are fast enough, thank you,’ Eremon responded firmly.
‘Well, here’s the bronze-smith, then. You’re not the only ones with fine craftsmen, as you’ll see.’ He turned to Conaire and clapped him on the back. ‘Maybe you need an amber hair pin for your lady back home, son of Lugaid!’
‘I’ll need more than one, then!’ Conaire replied, grinning.
Rhiann left Linnet at the stables with her mount Whin, and made her way to her own house. Brica was outside, hopping from foot to foot with excitement. ‘I’ve heard about the strangers, lady. Where are they, then? What do they look like?’ She craned her neck, squinting through the gaps between the houses.
‘I think they’re down in the village.’ Rhiann lifted the doorcover, and the maid followed her inside. ‘It’s nothing to be scared of, Brica. They’re a trading party, that’s all.’ She unpinned her cloak and drew it from her shoulders.
Brica sniffed as she took it; the closest she ever came to contradicting Rhiann. ‘Well, Fainne said they were from Erin and had many swords and spears. I wonder what they’re doing here?’ Her black eyes dartedabout as she hung the damp cloak over the loom to dry. ‘Maybe they want an alliance? Or perhaps they—’
‘I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.’ Rhiann was suddenly exhausted. ‘The Lady Linnet will be here soon. Have you brewed tea?’
‘It’s here.’ Brica bustled around with the iron pot, pouring out two cups and setting it back on its tripod over the coals. The sour tang of blackberries wafted up on the steam. Then she took up a wicker basket. ‘I’ve made mutton stew, and Nera has baked the bannocks. I’ll go and get them and you can eat.’
At a nod from Rhiann, Brica disappeared outside.
Rhiann wandered to the hearth, and stirred the cauldron suspended on its chains over the fire. The nobles must be gathering in the King’s Hall now, and soon, too soon, there would be a council.
But who would be the next man to be declared king, to stand on the slab of rock at the summit, one foot in the carved hollow, the stallion hide around his shoulders? A man from another clan, who forced his ascendancy with bloodshed? Or a son of her own? He would be a baby in the arms of a regent, although still the rightful king. Neither possibility was welcome to her.
She pulled up her stool and was sitting with her hands around her cup, when Brica burst back through the door, bread spilling from her basket. ‘The watch cry has gone up, my lady,’ she panted.
‘What of it? And why have you been running?’
‘Everyone is running, mistress,’ Brica gasped out. ‘There is a warrior in full gallop on the south road. From Enfret’s dun, he is, and he bears the banner warning of attack! I heard the watch send a guard to the chief druid!’
Rhiann caught up her cloak once more and hurried to the King’s Hall. There she met Linnet in the stream of people who were squeezing through the Horse Gate, for though this day they were in mourning for King Brude, news about thegaelshad drawn many from their houses. Everyone wanted to see the gold that adorned the newcomers.
Together, she and Linnet managed to push through until they were close to Gelert and Talorc, who were standing with the men from Erin outside the hall, watching the rider approaching the village gate below.
As the messenger reined in and leaped to the ground to begin his run up through the village, Rhiann saw Gelert narrow his eyes against the glare of the sun. Declan the seer, hands clasped on his crescent staff, was also frowning. Whatever the message, the seer was worried – it did not look good. Rhiann’s heart started to skip again.
At last the crowd parted for the man, and he threw himself down on one knee before the assembled nobles.
‘Well?’ barked Gelert, ‘What is this haste for? What has happened?’
The rider could not get his words out, his chest heaving from his run.His trousers were spattered with mud, his tattoos smeared with sweat and dirt. Gelert made a sharp gesture with his hand to still the murmuring of the people around him.
‘We have had news from the Damnonii to the south, my lord,’ the man finally gasped out. His eyes were wide with fear.
‘It is the men of the Eagle – the Romans!’ the man cried. ‘At last they have crossed into Alba!’
Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of the Roman province of Britannia, was well satisfied.
The Alban evening was unseasonably fine, and his body slave tied back the flap of his tent so that he could watch the camp going up around him. To an untrained eye, the noisy bustle of soldiers, slaves, carts and mules was chaos. To Agricola, this hive of activity was perfect order.
Hundreds of leather tents were sprouting up in rows on the plain, and between and about them, thousands of legionaries were unpacking bed rolls, lighting cook fires and digging waste pits. Far off he could see lines of men, as tiny as ants, hoisting baskets of earth on to their shoulders as they carved the ditch to encircle the camp. Rearing above the columns of diggers, the stakes of a half-complete timber palisade cast long shadows across the turf.
In the falling dusk, Agricola watched his chief engineer correct the position of a newly-erected tent. The soldier he spoke to shrugged and bent down to knock out the errant tent peg with his mallet, and Agricola’s mouth firmed in approval.
‘They’re getting better by the day, sir,’ said the engineer, coming over to his commander. ‘We’ve nearly halved our building time.’
The man was portly, with a thatch of dark hair that never lay flat, a bulbous nose, and a quivering, extra chin. He was a figure of amusement to the other officers, and only his exceptional technical skills kept him under Agricola’s command.
‘Thank you, Didius.’ Agricola scanned the ramparts. ‘Your new gate design is working well – the extra time is worth the added security, and the further north we go, the more we’ll need it.’
Didius swelled with pride, as Agricola reached behind himself and cracked his knuckles, stretching his shoulders. They were stiff after the long ride, although getting looser every day. He was nearly back tocondition. The creeping softness around his waist had been stripped from his lean frame in the first weeks of marching; though not so for Didius. Agricola glanced at the man’s paunch with distaste. It seemed to have a strong tolerance to exercise.
Now the engineer’s attention was caught by a shout at the camp gate. Some of the mule trains at the rear of the army had bunched up, and were milling around, blocking the entrance. Tutting, Didius hurried away, his scarlet helmet-crest waving in the breeze.
Agricola closed his eyes and sniffed the heather blanketing the hill-slopes all around. There was something about this land, cold and wet as it often was, that got into the blood, even more than his last posting in Asia Minor.
And things were progressing better than he’d hoped. The Emperor had just this month sent new orders for Agricola’s push into Alba – an imperative if they were to call the whole island of Britannia their own.
Ah, and wouldn’t it be fine when it was theirs? It had taken thirty-six long years to subdue the wild British tribes, and with the fall of Wales, the land from east to utter west was Roman. Now it was time for the north. Leaving it to the barbarians would be a thorn in the Emperor’s side; it was not to be borne.
So in one rapid strike, Agricola had penetrated deep into Alba, the spear thrust of his attack reaching as far as the River Tay, before he pulled back to the friendlier shores of the Forth inlet. Behind this line, the tribes were subdued. Only the Selgovae tribe had resisted, until the ballista bolts did their work on their great hillfort in the south. It fell with few Roman lives lost; a satisfying result.
For the rest, the ambitious Alban woman who had offered herself to the Roman cause had ensured an easy advance. Under her influence, the eastern tribes surrendered to their new ruler, and opened their lands for his armies to march straight through. Now 5,000 of the best Roman soldiers were camped on this bay, gaining their strength, for the conquest from here on would not be as easy.
‘Father!’ came a voice from his tent. It was his son-in-law, Publius Cornelius Tacitus. ‘Come back in! I’ve only got as far as your advance on the Ordovices. They would not come down from their western mountains, so you went to them … and then what?’
Agricola remained at the door, leaning on the tent pole. The soft evening beckoned, its warm breeze nudging away the sudden memory that blew in with Tacitus’s words: of freezing winds and whirling snow during that long winter campaign, two years before. ‘We killed them all. You know this already.’
‘Yes, but it may end up as the only record we have, so I need detail. Did the chiefs really have enemy heads on their spears? How close was the fight? How did you win?’
At last Agricola turned, regarding the youth with impatience. Tacitus was seated on Agricola’s camp stool, feet on the folding map table, scribbling on a pile of vellum sheets. One finger was black with ink.
‘We killed them all.’ Agricola ran a hand through his clipped hair. ‘That is as accurate as I can be.’
‘Oh … very little fighting then.’ Tacitus sounded disappointed.
‘All the better, since it freed me to turn my attentions to the north.’ Agricola came to the table and began flicking through an untidy pile of letters. ‘And here we are. So, now you’re back in the present you can get down to real business. You offered to be my secretary, I recall.’
Tacitus sighed, and uncurled his body to dig through the letters, before proffering one to his father-in-law. ‘Here is a dispatch from that fat old man at Lindum. He says that construction of the forum has been delayed by rain.’
Agricola raised an eyebrow, fingering the broken wax seal, and Tacitus held up his hands. ‘I know, I know! I should not speak of our learned procurator so. But honestly, Father, it rains all the time in this country – since when did that hold anything up? If it did, nothing would get done. He’s just wasting too much time with that German whore of his.’
‘As you pointed out, don’t speak so of the man.’ Agricola read the letter.
Tacitus threw the other dispatches down with a sigh, then gave Agricola a winning smile. ‘Can we eat now? I’m starving. I’ll go through the rest of these later.’
‘So long as you do it tomorrow. I’ll not have you getting behind.’ Agricola beckoned to the slave lighting an oil lamp by the camp bed, for within the tent, it was growing dark. ‘Send a message to the legates that I will dine with them tomorrow, and order us some food. And find the lady – I wish her to join us.’
The slave bowed and left, and Agricola turned to catch a frown on Tacitus’s face. ‘Don’t look at me like that, boy! You know why I entertain her. She’s the reason we’ve conquered these lands so easily.’
The youth’s frown deepened. ‘She’s a witch, not a lady,’ he muttered. ‘I don’t trust her. And I don’t—’ He caught himself, compressing his lips to stop the words.
‘You don’t like me laying with her?’
Tacitus shifted uncomfortably; Agricola let him. He never felt the need to explain himself to anyone, and he was not about to start. The youth would have accepted his argument that the dalliance with the woman was wholly political, and gave them valuable information about Alba, for he shared Agricola’s passion for conquering the north – or at least for writing a glorious tale about it. Tacitus would not understand the other reason, though: that these northern witches provided a reliefAgricola’s wife could never give him, Juno bless her. And this one was better than any he had come across.
‘You don’t have to stay,’ he offered, idly scanning another letter. Tacitus was silent, looking mutinous.
Then a honeyed voice flowed into the space between them. ‘You asked for me, my lord?’
The voice was dusky, speaking lilting Latin, and the woman’s colouring matched her tones: hair as black and glossy as raven feathers, eyes of ebony. She wore the simple dress of her people, but her lush, rounded curves robbed the plain robes of their modesty.
Without taking her dark eyes from Agricola, she unpinned her cloak and handed it to the waiting slave, then walked in front of the new-lit lamp. ‘My lord,’ she murmured to Tacitus, bowing her head. She’d positioned herself so the light came through her fine linen shift. From where he was, the boy could not fail to see every part of her outlined in all of its glory.
Tacitus was far from stupid. He grabbed the unopened letters, and with a terse nod to Agricola, swept from the tent. The woman smiled slowly.
‘You shouldn’t intimidate him like that,’ Agricola said.
‘Oh, I can’t help it! He’s too prim!’ She pouted.
‘He’s also family, and a tribune. You should give him the respect he deserves.’
Her pout grew deeper, until at last Agricola smiled. He was struck, as always, how a face that escaped true beauty could be so seductive. A droop at the corner of each eye gave her a heavy-lidded look, and those obscenely full lips diverted attention from a snub nose.
A second slave had arrived with the evening meal: roast duck from the marshes, barley bread and Egyptian figs, washed down with Gaulish wine. Behind him a third slave carried a steaming basin of hot water, fragrant with bog myrtle. Agricola gave the woman a seat on the bed, and they picked at their food as the slave washed their feet. Foot-washing was a custom of the British tribes; the only one Agricola approved of.
‘Does this cursed ground ever dry out?’ He watched the water in the basin swirl with mud.
The woman waved dismissively with one hand, while placing figs in her mouth with the other. All her appetites were strong, it seemed. ‘If you would not wear such shoes! Let me get you a pair of our boots. They are sheepskin: fleece inside and hide outside.’
Agricola shook his head, as the slave wiped his feet dry. ‘Good, solid Roman issue is fine for me. I won’t have my men thinking I’m going native. You yourself are problem enough.’
Her smile was arch as she reached out to stroke his leg. ‘You won’t get rid of me, though, will you? I make you happy.’
‘In bed, yes.’ Agricola did not flatter himself that this witch found him attractive. He was nearing forty, and a beaky nose, greying hair, and the deeply-lined face of a soldier were not what pretty young women desired. She wanted his power, that was all, and he knew it. In his life he’d seen this a thousand times. In the imperial courts of the madman Caligula and the despot Nero there’d been many such people, fed by an unending lust for power. She thought she ruled him, when in reality he would merely play with her until he’d had enough of both her body and her information. His interest in one of them would wane soon enough. He wondered, idly, which one it would be.
Her smile faltered. ‘Come now, I make you happy in other ways! It was I who opened the gate to Alba for you. If my people resisted, you would have had to fight for every step!’
This was true – not that he had any intention of admitting it. ‘Your assistance is always appreciated, madam, although I reward you well enough.’ He touched the ring on her finger. It was an intaglio, a garnet carved into the head of Mercury. His other gifts included the best Samian tableware and fine glass goblets, and amphorae of olive oil, sweet wine, figs, and dates. He knew she lusted after such civilized things, and that this supply of goods would assure her loyalty for a time yet.
He rose to the table, took up a creased parchment and a stylus, and sat back down, unrolling the map on to his lap.
‘We are here, on the south side of this inlet, is that so?’ He pointed his stylus at some crude lines on the scroll. It was not a Roman map, but had been pieced together from reports by the Greeks, who received their information from the Phoenician traders before them.
The witch looked at the map, a slight frown touching her soft brow. ‘Our lands end here,’ she ventured, pointing. ‘The tribe on the other side of the Forth are the Venicones.’ She gave a tiny, smug smile. ‘This is what I came to tell you. My messengers have just returned. It seems your little raid, and my … persuasions … have convinced the Venicones leaders to surrender.’
Agricola nodded, reaching out for his wine goblet. Although he was pleased, he took the news lightly. The minds of these barbarians were like quicksilver, and what they said today rarely applied the next. Yet if it was true … it would just make his eventual success easier, that was all. ‘And what of the peoples beyond the Tay?’
The woman’s eyes flickered, and Agricola fastened a cool hand on her wrist. ‘Tell me the truth. My scouts will find out soon enough, and then our … partnership … will be over. Understand me?’
Her cheeks flushed, and silently amused, he watched her bring herselfunder control. When she was angry her eyes darkened to glittering black beads. It was most diverting. He released her wrist.
‘I have little news,’ she finally admitted. ‘North are the Vacomagi, the Taexali – and the Caledonii. There is a weak link there, which I am pursuing, but it will take a little more time.’
Agricola sipped his wine thoughtfully. He already knew that the Caledonii tribe would be a challenge. By all reports, they were so powerful that the Greeks used their name for all the peoples of Alba.
The oil lamp sputtered in a stray gust of wind that crept under the tent flap, and he looked into the leaping flame, tapping his stylus on the map. Vespasian’s last orders were to group on the banks of the Forth. The territory to the south would remain in check, thanks to the witch. However, further north and west was another matter. He’d heard that the Highland tribes sported tattoos on their faces as fierce as their reputations.
He must send a full report to the Emperor, before awaiting further orders. Vespasian may even want to come and join him for the final push, to be there when they reached the limits of Alba and claimed all of it for the Empire. In the meantime, there was always much to do. They needed a full assessment of the terrain, a population survey of the conquered lands, and a reliable system of local food supply.
He briskly rolled the map back up. The army had been on the move for two seasons, and they’d be glad to halt for a while and build more permanent quarters.
The woman was looking around her with that studied nonchalance she often used. Abruptly, he smiled and touched her hand. Rapid mood changes were disconcerting, he’d found, and made people easier to control. Under his fingers, her skin was warm and smooth. He gestured to the slaves to take the food and leave.
The woman was smiling too, now. When the tent flap fell back into place, she took the map from his hands and placed it carefully on the table. She knew how much he valued his maps. Then, while he lay back on the bed, she took down her hair, dropping the jewelled pins into the bronze bowl by his bed, one by one. He found the faint chimes strangely compelling.
At last her hair was around her shoulders, a fragrant mass of ebony silk that reached her waist. ‘Are you still hungry, my lord?’
At the purring note, Agricola pulled her down across his lap. ‘I have not even begun to satisfy my appetite.’
He was surprised to see a flash of real lust in her eyes. With all of her Roman sensibilities she was a barbarian at heart, then. As a people they were ruled by the uncontrollable fires that burned in their souls. He had learned to quench his own fire with cold will, but this the tribes would never do. That was why Rome would always triumph.
In a moment, these thoughts were banished from his mind, as she sat up and stripped off her shift, guiding his hands to her heavy breasts. When she straddled him, he was enveloped in a swathe of her hair.
It smelled of the moors around them.
The lamp-flame was low and flickering when a sound at the tent flap brought Agricola instantly awake. He recognized the voice of Tacitus, speaking to his door-guard. With a hint of irritation, he eased himself from under the woman’s body, and pulled on his discarded robe.
When he raised the flap he glimpsed Tacitus in the gloom, and a figure behind him with an imperial insignia on his arm. Then his son-in-law moved into a pool of torchlight, and Agricola saw his stricken face.
A thousand cries of alarm sounded in his mind. Was it his wife? His daughter?
‘What is it?’ he demanded.
‘It is our Divine Father, Vespasian.’ Tacitus was hoarse with grief. ‘The Emperor is dead.’
How much do we know?’ Linnet patted Liath’s nose, as the horse eagerly snuffled at her fingers.
Rhiann was leaning on the mare’s stall, her cheek pillowed on one hand. She shook her head. ‘Not much yet. The new messenger is up at the King’s Hall. I sent Brica to find out what’s going on. I just could not …’ She shrugged.
‘I understand.’ Linnet reached out and tucked a stray piece of Rhiann’s hair behind her ear.
The whole dun was ablaze with the news of the Romans, but amidst it all Rhiann just felt sick. The sickness had settled into a hard knot deep in her belly. It wasn’t fear of the invaders, though. The King’s death and the dread that came with it had muffled the alarm around her, and left her in a cold cocoon of her own making.
Next to her, Linnet sighed. ‘I should have told you before, daughter, but I did have hints of this.’
Rhiann straightened sharply. ‘You knew about the Romans? And you never told me?’
Linnet hesitated. ‘I didn’tknow,’ she stressed. ‘I heard it in the tremors in the land, in the cries of the birds – but it did not come to me in the seeing bowl. You of all people know that you rarely see what you wish.’
Rhiann stared at the sun falling through the stable door, and blinked as it blurred. ‘Then have you seen anything of me, my fate, aunt?’
Linnet averted her eyes. ‘No, daughter.’ She grasped Rhiann’s hand where it rested on the stall. ‘But whatever comes, I will be there for you, always.’
Rhiann heard the note of fierceness, and looked down at the elegant fingers entwined with her own. Linnet’s nails were stained with traces of some berry dye, and on one finger her gold priestess ring glittered.
She knows something. A flare of hurt bloomed in Rhiann’s chest.
After the raid and the murder of her foster-family, Linnet had heldRhiann on countless nights, stroking her hair, forcing down the bitter draughts that brought her back from the edge of darkness. But once Rhiann was out of danger, a gulf had opened between them, a gulf wrought by secrets and duty. They were not a mother and daughter. Linnet was a priestess, and saw things Rhiann did not; felt things that must go beyond human love. She knew that the tribe must have its heir.
How Rhiann wished she were a child again, following Linnet through the woods as she named each plant, told her what powers it had, what sickness it could cure. No man had darkened her horizon, then. No man … no Romans, either. They were always just a tale for the fireside, not real people at all.
Suddenly, Brica’s shadow fell across her face. ‘The men of the Eagle are building camps,’ the maid burst out, clenching and unclenching her hands.
Rhiann let her breath out and looked up. ‘What?’
‘I was outside the King’s Hall, and I heard everything. The Romans had been marching quickly, but just as suddenly, they’ve stopped. They are building a big camp with walls. They mean to stay, but they can’t move around in the snows.’
‘So.’ Linnet straightened and moved into the light. ‘Thank the Goddess: we have a respite.’
The men from Erin had been offered all the comforts given to high-ranking visitors – plentiful meat and ale, and soft bracken beds in the guest lodge. But for a week, Eremon’s trade meeting had to take second place to the Roman threat.
The council sent its own scouts south to gain more news, and discovered that the Romans had indeed halted, and were building long-term quarters. After the first shock, the tribes of Alba had been given an unexpected breathing space.
The Epidii druids sacrificed a white bull to the gods in thanks for giving their land a long dark that lasted for many moons. No troops could move through the mountains in the snows and storms, not even on horses.
But rest, the tribe could not. When the icy rivers that fell from the mountains thawed, and the sun came north again, so would the Romans.
Another storm wrenched the last leaves from the trees, leaving a haze of bare branches along the river. But though it remained heavy with cloud, the days fell still once again, and Gelert sought out Talorc where he was inspecting his new chariot team along the water meadows.
‘I wish you to take thegaelshunting on the Isle of Deer.’
Talorc frowned, and pulled the harness tighter across the black stallion’s chest. ‘But I should stay here, to guard the dun.’
‘Take a small band of warriors. Our scouts are now posted in a circle around the Romans: we will have advance warning if they so much as sneeze. But this is just as important.’
‘Why?’ Talorc adjusted the snaffle, and the horse shook its head and smacked its lips. ‘We have enough food.’
Gelert’s golden eyes reflected the shifting clouds above. ‘I have an idea to safeguard the tribe, and it requires that we take the measure of this foreign prince. Now listen …’
And the two heads, one red, one white, moved closer.
Conaire was delighted that they were finally going to see the fabled Isle of Deer, and Cù was so excited when he saw them making new hunting spears that he ran rings around himself, barking furiously.
‘This will be more like it! I am so bored with all this talking!’ Conaire squinted down his ash spear-shaft to check its straightness. They were settled on deadfall logs along the riverbank, under a sky bruised with cloud. The evening air carried the first bite of cold from the north.
‘Yes, I know,’ Eremon agreed, chipping bark from his shaft with his knife. ‘But don’t you think it’s a strange time to send us hunting, when they don’t know what the Romans intend?’
‘I don’t think so.’ Conaire grinned at him. ‘After all, word is that the invaders are staying where they are. So we get to throw a few spears into a boar, and then come back and do the same to Romans. Hopefully.’
‘Fighting Romans was not part of my plan.’
‘Ah, but you told me you wanted us to prove ourselves to the Albans, to gain allies here. That is the plan, isn’t it?’
‘Then what better way to do that, but to kill some Romans for them!’
Eremon smoothed the fresh, white ashwood with a finger. ‘I’ve thought of that myself, brother. And yet, we know that the Romans fight differently, which makes them so hard to defeat. They have discipline … they make their warriors act like one beast. I don’t like the thought of putting my men in such danger, and all for someone else.’
‘This is just the chance we need! And, anyway, don’t you wish to see them fight? You studied those scraps of Greek about their tactics enough. Don’t you want to see them?’
Eremon sighed. ‘Yes, but … I wanted time to get established here, time to run things my way. I don’t want anything to happen too fast. The Romans – we are talking about war, Conaire!’
Conaire rested his spear-shaft across his knee and picked up a stick tothrow for Cù. ‘I can’t see it coming to that, Eremon. They’ll just stamp around with their swords, make a few declarations, and then leave.’
Eremon had to laugh. ‘And since when do you know so much about Romans?’
Cù brought the stick back, panting, and Conaire threw it into the river reeds. ‘It’s what I’ve heard around the dun. Look,’ he put his hand on Eremon’s shoulder, ‘try as you might, you can’t plan everything. We’ve got to take things as they come. I say that we grasp at anything that brings you closer to your own hall – why else did we come to Alba? We’ve been lucky this far. And we can just as soon die in a cattle raid as in a battle with Romans.’
‘Or of sea sickness.’
‘Or of loneliness.’ Conaire clasped his groin. ‘I need a woman soon, or I’ll die!’
They sat in silence as Cù came running back and then raced off again after the stick. ‘I still think it’s strange, this hunt,’ Eremon added, picking up an iron spear-point and hefting it in his fingers.
‘You think too much. They just want to get us off their hands. And we’ll be bringing in meat – the last of the season, probably. Let’s just enjoy it while we can.’
Eremon did not answer, but as he fitted the point into the new shaft, he was uneasy. He would be glad when they were back, and he could get on with the real reason he was here.
Which meant, of course, that he had better think of one.
Rhiann opened one eye, glancing at Linnet’s tranquil face in the purple dawn. They were walking the barley strips closest to the dun, blessing the fallow soil to let it sleep safely until leaf-bud came. Breath misting the chill air, they stepped down the furrows, harvest stubble crunching under their feet.
As Linnet had taught her, Rhiann tried to feel the Source, the universal fire of life, running through the soles of her feet, surging up from the soil. She strained to still her mind, to send her awareness down into the earth.
Imagine that you are a tree, Linnet had told the child-Rhiann, years before.Your roots go deep into the ground, and there they find water. The Source is the water, and it flows beneath and through all things: earth and rock, tree and spring, beast and man. When you want to feel it, turn yourself into the tree, reach your roots into the ground. And you will connect, and feel it running through you …
Rhiann tried and tried, picturing her legs as the roots. But the joining with the land did not come. Perhaps it would help to seek for the voice of the Mother herself. She closed her eyes, but again, it was the memory of Linnet’s words that came.
The Source wears many faces, of many gods and goddesses. We call on Rhiannon as guardian of mares, Ceridwen in childbed, Sulis at the spring, and Andraste when our men go to war. But the mystery is that they are all one, child … an energy of Mother, the Goddess-of-all …
Striving with all her heart, Rhiann sought for the Mother touch she had felt so many times before … sought and strained … until her eyes flew open, and she had to stop herself from crying aloud in frustration.
It was no use. Every time she tried, she was met with the same deadness. It was something else that she had lost since the raid, along with her seeing.
She pulled her wool cloak closed as a sharp gust of wind caught it.If the Mother will not speak with me, then She has not forgiven me yet. When I’ve paid the penance for Kell’s life, for Elavra,for Marda and Talen, for not saving them, for not getting there in time … then She will return to me. She must.
There was the thudding of hooves on the Trade Path, and as she looked up, startled, a party of warriors galloped by on their way to Crìanan, a pack of yapping hounds at their heels. Near the back, she caught a glimpse of the blond giant from Erin, a brace of hunting spears in his fist.
And by his side, a darker head that turned as they passed.
The hunting party returned after four days.
Gelert was in the blacksmith’s forge with Belen, a tribal elder, surveying their stocks of spears and shields, when the shout went up from the watchtower. They both emerged into the smoky dusk to see a wavering line of men tramping through the gate. And then they saw what led them.
Four hunters carried a litter of willow branches tied with rawhide, and on it lay a man. As the party came closer, Gelert could see who it was: Conaire of Erin, face pale, golden hair lank with sweat, swaddled in cloaks. The prince held one hand, and his dark head was bent close to Conaire’s mouth. He was so intent on the injured man that he did not look up as they passed Gelert, but although Conaire was unconscious, the druid could see that he breathed.
Gelert did not know whether to be satisfied or disappointed. Conaire showed no fear of the druid kind, from what he could see – and that made him dangerous.
He squinted, looking among the men for Talorc’s great bulk, his mind racing. Perhaps Conaire had disgraced himself. That would deal a blow to the prince’s pride – which was certainly excessive. Maybe it would put the young buck in his place, and show him how much he needed Gelert’s support.
The druid studied the other faces in the hunting party. The Epidii warriors were triumphant, shoulders heavy with leaf-wrapped haunches of boar meat, bloody spears in their hands. But the Erin men were downcast: a blow had befallen them.
Gelert was intrigued. Would this benefit his plan? Were the gods extending their favour once more?
Talorc was before him now, cheeks smudged with wood-ash and smelling of sour sweat. Bristles clung to his faded hunt tunic, and there was blood on his brawny arm – boar blood or man’s blood, Gelert could not tell. He raised his eyebrows, taking in Talorc’s flushed, excited face beneath its red moustache.
The rest of the men followed the litter up the path, and they were left alone with Belen.
‘What happened?’ Gelert demanded.
Talorc swung his shield over his shoulder and leaned on his spearbutt, smiling broadly. ‘Ha! A thieving raid, Lord Druid! Those cursed Creones were in our hunting grounds. We came upon them late yesterday as we were leaving. We were outnumbered, but what a rout! Killed ten, we did. That Eremon lad – by the Mare, you should have seen him fight!’ He broke off coughing, hawked, and spat into the mud at his feet.
Gelert gripped his staff with impatience. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘A drink first! Can hardly swallow.’ Talorc peered around him, then cocked his shaggy head at a passing servant. ‘Girl! Get me an ale, quickly!’ The girl scurried off to the nearest house.
‘Tell me what happened!’ Gelert snapped. ‘Was the son of Lugaid wounded in the raid?’
Talorc’s smile faded. ‘Ah, no, poor lad. The boar got him, yesterday morn. It was a huge male, and it charged Mardon. Conaire jumped right in front: fair took the tusk to his balls, it seems.’ He shook his head. ‘Sad business, but odds are the Lady Rhiann can put him right. At least we can feast on boar for some time … Ah! Good.’ This last was to the girl, who had reappeared with a horn cup. Talorc gulped down most of the ale before pausing with a great sigh, his lips flecked with foam. ‘Now, where was I?’
Gelert’s voice was quiet. ‘You are about to tell me that the prince bravely killed the boar, I suppose.’
Talorc’s face cleared. ‘Why, yes – spectacular kill! Flew in a rage when Conaire went down, he did – I’ve never seen such a spear cast.’ He paused to swig the ale again. ‘Straight in the eye,’ he added, between gulps, ‘dead before it hit the ground.’
‘What about the raid?’ Belen broke in, eagerly twisting the encrusted rings on his thick fingers.
Talorc handed the empty cup to the servant. ‘Well,’ he gave an impressive belch, ‘as I said, we were on our way back across the island. We’d wrapped Conaire up, and butchered the boar. Then suddenly we heard voices; a crew of Creones bucks, not taking too much trouble to keep quiet, I can tell you! Well, the Erin prince came up with a plan I could not have bettered myself.’
I can well believe that, Gelert thought, holding his impatience in check.
‘Hard as steel, that one,’ Talorc went on. ‘His brother bleeding everywhere, and there he is, suddenly cool as can be, laying a plan to give those upstarts a beating they won’t forget! We ranged ourselves out among the trees, and Eremon took to the path to challenge them, single-handed. Three attacked at once, the cowards! He lured them by retreating, and they raced after him … and then we poured out of thetrees and fell on them!’ He shook his spear. ‘You should have seen the fight! Of the ten we killed, half were Eremon’s trophies – and not a wound on us. They broke and ran. Ran! Can’t remember when I’ve had so much fun!’
Belen leaned in, the fox-tails falling forward from his fur cape. ‘Talorc, what do you think of the prince now you’ve seen him at close quarters?’
Talorc’s face was still bright with their success. ‘He brought us honour, and showed courage. He’s smart, too, and fights like the god Arawn himself.’ He nodded slowly. ‘I would rather have him and his men by our side than not, when the Romans come.’
Belen sank back on his heels, and threw a satisfied look at Gelert.
Now it was clear that Talorc was itching to be away, for the news of the raid had already spread. Throwing his checked cloak over his shoulder, he made his excuses and strode back down into the throng of people gathering at the gate tower. Soon Belen and Gelert could hear his voice booming out the tale, as his wife hung, big-eyed, around his neck.
Belen looked up at Gelert. ‘Strange times, Lord Druid, strange times. Can it be the gods have sent us such a man at this time of need? A man of great ability, it is clear. Your talk of a good omen is proved right. I will call the council together, and we’ll hear the tale in full.’ He hurried away, his short, bulky figure disappearing into the dusk shadows between the houses.
Gelert opened his mouth to call him back, then shut it again. This was what he wanted, wasn’t it? He had said to the council that the arrival of the men from Erin was a propitious omen. For he had many reasons to encourage closer relations with Eremon of Dalriada.
Deep in him, wisdom warred with avarice. The wisdom whispered that this Eremon might prove difficult to control. The twin calamities of the King’s death and the Roman threat had provided Gelert with a rare opportunity to finally exert his full power over the tribe. In their terror, they were like children, looking for a father’s protection. But, Gelert was a druid not a warrior. For him to become the real power behind the throne – to steer the tribe’s fortunes, to be King in all but name – he still needed a man with a strong sword arm. One who owed him much; one who would depend on the Chief Druid’s backing to make his name.
Yes, he needed a strong man … but not a hero.
Doubt writhed in his heart, until avarice rose, reminding Gelert how powerful he himself was. The prince was a beast that wielded a sword well, that was all. He was merely a warrior. He could be as easily directed as a man directs oxen at the yoke.
And then there was the girl, Rhiann.
Proud and scornful, just like her bitch mother Mairenn, who’dlooked at him with the same contempt when she threw his marriage offer back in his face, all those years ago. And the girl was likewise a priestess, and equally disobedient and wilful, always preening with her so-called goddess power.
Well, he wouldn’t make the same mistake withher. She would be yoked to the plough early, for his gods had whispered the source of her suffering, and how to increase it until she could no longer raise her face to scorn him with those blue eyes.
Ah, yes, the prince could become quite a useful weapon. At this, avarice finally triumphed, and Gelert left, wondering how soon to take the young man aside.
The carvings on the gate that led to the crag flickered shadows across Conaire’s pained face. ‘Take us to your healer’s house, quickly!’ Eremon cried to the Epidii men who took over the litter. He was so intent on ensuring that they did not jostle his foster-brother that he took no notice of where they were going. Then the bearers were laying the litter down on the ground, and he looked up.
They were outside a small roundhouse near the crest of the dun, and a woman was emerging from the covering over the door. Eremon knew that hair, those fine features, from the day of his arrival.
She is the healer? He should not be surprised; many female druids were healers, after all. But she looked so young and frail; she could not be more than eighteen. Would she be good enough to save his brother?
Without a glance at Eremon, she went to kneel at Conaire’s side, taking his hand. She felt his pulse, sniffed his breath, checked his eyes, and finally peeled back the pad of torn wool, sticky with blood, that covered his groin. The boar’s tusk had in fact just missed Conaire’s most precious organ, and gone deep into the upper thigh instead. At her probing fingers, Conaire stirred and cried out in pain, and his eyes opened.
The woman looked up at Eremon, and in place of the cold eyes on the beach, he saw the professional frown of a healer. ‘How long ago did it happen?’ she asked.
‘Nearly two days, now.’ Then the words burst out: ‘Can you help him?’
Her frown deepened, and all she said was, ‘Take him inside.’
Eremon barely noted what the inside of her house was like, but was conscious somewhere that it smelled different, earthier, the air tinged with the strange, sharp scents of herbs and ground roots.
The woman was confidently issuing a stream of orders to a little, dark serving woman, to put water on to boil, and to gather linseed and mossand bandages. He helped to ease Conaire on to a small pallet in an alcove divided from the rest of the room by a wicker screen.
It was crowded now, with Finan, Rori and even Aedan milling around helplessly, until the servant shooed them away, scolding like a small, wiry crow. At length, only Eremon and the healer remained by the bedside.
Eremon leaned over Conaire, his hand gentle on his brow. It was the first time his foster-brother had been conscious since crossing the strait from the island, when the boat was tossed by waves, and Conaire, groaning, had thankfully slipped away into a faint.
‘When I said we should prove our strength, my brother, I did not mean that you must try to kill yourself.’ Eremon said it lightly, but his chest was tight.
Conaire tried smiling, his forehead sheened with sweat. ‘I thought something big was needed.’ His voice was hoarse, and he broke into a cough. ‘It was a good leap.’
Eremon squeezed his shoulder. ‘Yes, it was. But now I want you to put the same effort into getting well.’
Conaire could only close his eyes in exhaustion, and Eremon looked up to find the druid watching him closely, as she soaked a cloth in a bronze basin by the bed. ‘You’ve got to help him,’ he said, heedless of the plea in his voice. Let her think him weak; right now he did not care.
She answered him bluntly, but her hands were gentle as she laid the cool cloth on Conaire’s forehead. ‘The wound itself is not serious, otherwise he would be dead by now. But … wounds from the boar often turn bad. I do not know why. This is what we must fight.’
Conaire’s eyes flickered open again. ‘It has been long since I gave to the Boar, Eremon. Perhaps He is angry …’
Eremon picked up the hand that lay limply on the blanket, and held it. ‘Then I will sacrifice for you! I will give him so much that his eye never falls on you again, except with favour!’
Conaire tried to smile, but the smile turned into a wince as the wound cramped again.
‘I will do all I can for him,’ the woman murmured. She hesitated. ‘It is best for him to have quiet now. Go and make your sacrifice. The shrine is at the brow of the hill. And I will pray to the Mother of All, the Great Goddess.’
Unhearing, his eyes still on Conaire’s face, Eremon muttered, ‘I thank you,’ and rushed off as if he did not have a moment to lose.
The night was long, as all nights were when Rhiann had this particular fight to win. The fire, banked higher than usual, threw ghoulish, leaping shadows on to the walls. But she was lost in her own world, and did notnotice Brica replenishing the water, or bringing her more moss pads, or clearing bloody bandages.
This role Rhiann fulfilled gladly. To her healer’s soul, all patients were equally in need of care, even this … this invader, this man. She had only to use her knowledge. She did not need to deal with her heart at all. It was simple. And she did it well, for this skill had been left to her. She still had this.
She murmured the required prayers over steeping golden-rod and yarrow, and sang as she ground ivy in her mortar-bowl. The man, now drenched in sweat, tossed and cried in delirium, giving long, tortured speeches about betrayals, and battles, and Erin. She listened closely, intrigued, but could make no sense of it. Did his wandering mind speak of myths long gone, or his own past?
When the wound was cleaned and packed, she dribbled sorrel in sour milk between his lips, seeking to bring down the fever. She knew that although the poison was bad, this burning was the hungry consumer of men’s souls. She had seen it happen many a time, even from slight wounds.
At least this man was strong. His arms were thick, his chest wide, his midriff lean and packed with muscle. And unlike the men of her own tribe, this man’s skin was smooth and hairless. For some reason this brought her a flash of memory, a memory that had not passed the borders of her mind for many moons.
Few men had she seen like this, and only one had she touched when not a healer, many years ago, back on the Sacred Isle. She felt her face flush. And why didthatthought arise now, of all times?
She dragged her gaze to her patient’s face instead, pushing the memories away. He was younger than she had first thought him, with only a faint stubble of beard on his chin. In fact, now that he was in repose, he looked little more than a harmless boy, with a soft mouth that could even be called innocent, if she ever thought of men that way.
Then her eyes fell on the white seams of scars on those great arms, and the curving score on his cheek, and she shivered. He was no innocent boy, this one – no poet, no artist, like the man in her memory from the Sacred Isle. This man was a killer.
Just like his prince.
Eremon hardly left Conaire’s side for days. The only other place he frequented was the small shrine on the crag’s crest, where he exchanged some fine finger-rings for the daily sacrifice of a ram.
It was there that Gelert sought him out in the freezing dawn.
Eremon was on one knee before the wooden image of Cernunnos, his sword across his lap. Clouds crowded in over the lip of the open roof, swelling with rain. He looked up at Gelert’s step and started, before getting to his feet. ‘You do not worship Hawen, our Boar God,’ Eremon said, gesturing to the idol, half-embarrassed. ‘But your druids told me that this is the Lord of the Hunt, and we revere him, too.’
‘Come.’ Gelert threw the tattered edge of his sheepskin cloak over his shoulder. ‘I wish to talk privately, and the view is fine from here.’
The old man led Eremon through an archway opposite the main entrance, and out on to a rock ledge that faced west, towards the sea. They edged past a rough-hewn stone altar, smaller than the one inside the shrine, stained dark with blood that was a black crust in the dank sunrise. There, against the shrine’s outer wall was an oak bench, and Gelert sat himself down and gestured for Eremon to do the same.
The marsh was still floating in mist, and from the exposed mudflats at the river mouth came the lament of a redshank, and a wavering line of geese that rose and flowed southwards. Gelert sat straight and still, so still that the only movement was his breath stirring the wisps of his white beard. Eremon decided to say nothing: the druid could break the silence first.
‘You conducted yourself admirably on the boar hunt,’ Gelert observed at last. ‘Our people cannot stop talking of you – your bravery, your daring. I, however, was particularly impressed by your strategic abilities with the Creones bucks.’
Eremon was taken aback. The last thing he expected from Gelert waspraise. ‘Well, I … it is no more than I was trained to do.’ He was at a loss for anything better to say.
‘Ah, yes, your training.’ Abruptly, Gelert turned to Eremon and fixed him with both eyes. They glowed like coals in the shadow of the pillars. ‘I am no fool, young man. I know very well that you are hiding a secret.’
With every shred of control he possessed, Eremon forced the sudden surge of guilt away from his face, and instead put in place a puzzled frown. ‘I don’t know what you mean, Lord Druid.’
‘Oh, I think you do. But, be assured – I am not going to ask you what it is.’
Eremon’s belly uncramped, though he thought it best to stay silent.
‘I can see that you are a noble’s son.’ Gelert waved that away as if it were of little importance. ‘Your skill with weapons, your command of your men – these would be enough, but with my druid eyes I see it written into every line of your bearing, and the pride on your face.’
He said this last with distaste, and Eremon could feel himself bridling at this casual dismissal of his breeding, which he held more important than anything else. For it was, of course, all that he had now. ‘Iama king’s son, as I said. And I’m here to trade, as I said, but if your council does not meet with me soon, I will be forced to go elsewhere.’
‘Yes, the question of trade.’ Gelert closed his eyes, gripping his oak staff, and his voice dropped into the sibilant tones that druids used whenever they were pronouncing prophecies. The hair on the back of Eremon’s neck rose. ‘But there is this. You may be a king’s son, but behind you I see a darkness, Eremon of Dalriada. Something that chases you before it, that rides your shoulder like a war crow. A different reason for your arrival on our shores.’ He opened his eyes, and his voice returned to normal. ‘I have not discovered what your secret is yet, but I soon will. You would not like that, would you?’
Eremon’s heart was hammering now, but he only said, ‘I don’t mean to offend, Lord Druid, but I really have no idea what you mean.’
Gelert smiled. ‘I leave the trading to others, boy, but I have a …proposal… to make to you. You value your secret very much. And I can promise that not only will I not reveal it to anyone, but I’ll protect you from any attempts by others to discover it. And make no mistake,’ he leaned forward until Eremon could smell his old breath, ‘I am high, very high in the ranks of the druids of Alba. You will find no better ally than me.’
Eremon could not believe what he heard, but if he said anything, he would betray himself. He realized that his hands were clenching Fragarach’s fine scabbard, the chased boar design digging into his skin, and he tried to loosen his grip.
‘And in exchange?’ Gelert answered his own question. ‘Why,strangely enough, you don’t have to give anything away in this deal, for I am going to give you yet something else. Honour beyond your wildest dreams.’
Eremon had to know. ‘What,’ he said slowly, his tongue dry in his mouth, ‘are – you – talking – about?’
But Gelert was not quite ready to come to the point, and he sat back again. ‘I have a truth to tell you, prince. I was waiting until I saw what kind of man you are. But you will already have guessed. The man we were sending to the west on the day you arrived was our king, Brude, son of Eithne.’
Eremon had guessed, and wondered again why the druid had lied. Kings die – but surely the Epidii already had another king picked out, whoever he was.
‘I did not want you to know this at first, for his death has, alas, made us weak. Four moons ago the warriors of our royal clan were in the south on a cattle raid, when a plague struck. It took our king’s chosen heirs – all of them. There is no man of the royal blood left who can be king – no one young enough, skilled enough, unblemished. If Brude’s line dies, then the rival clans will fight each other for the kingship. My kin, Brude’s kin, will be dispossessed, but even worse, the tribe will be riven from within. We cannot afford that, not now the Romans approach.’
Eremon was surprised at this tale.
‘I will be blunt,’ Gelert said. ‘I see this darkness of yours, this secret, and I won’t ask you what it is. But you are not here to trade. You have come to win a name, I can smell it. You want to prove yourself, and I will give you the chance. We need your people’s strength against the Romans, and your own at Dunadd to stop our men from killing each other. We need a war leader, a man who can head our clans, who belongs to no clan.’
Eremon felt a rushing around him, and his mind reeled. He could hear, as an echo, what he had said to Conaire:I don’t want it to happen too fast.
‘So look me in the eye and tell me this one truth, boy, and I’ll let it be. Do you have the men at arms to help us, as you’ve boasted? Will you give your sword to protect us from the Romans, and keep stability within?’
Never had Eremon’s powers of guile been so tested, as when he had to look into the owl eyes of a druid such as this, and lie. But his life, and those of his men, depended on it.Hawen, my Lord, please aid me now, if you never do again!
And the swelling cloud above spilled over, and a few cold raindrops spattered into Gelert’s eye. He reached up to rub them away, breaking their gaze. Eremon took a breath, and focused on the last question, andhe knew he could answer that one truly. For Conaire had said to grasp the chance, and his twenty men, though few, could certainly help against the Romans. His skills could be used to hold a tribe together – it was what he had been trained for all his life!
‘If I so choose,’ he said at last, clear-eyed, ‘I can.’
Gelert had been blinking, frowning, but at Eremon’s words his brow smoothed.
‘You spoke of a reward,’ Eremon pointed out, brushing rain from his own forehead. ‘For supporting you when my own shores are not in danger.’
Gelert’s laugh was a bark. ‘You mean something more than keeping quiet about you?’ He leaned back into the shelter of the pillars, his gaze penetrating. ‘Then apart from my silence, here is the fruit I dangle before you, Eremon of Dalriada. I come here today to offer you the hand of our royal princess.’
At this, Eremon was truly speechless, his mind a blank, frozen rock that could absorb nothing.
‘But wait!’ Gelert added. ‘The king’s bloodline runs through his female kin. You will not be a king yourself: only the sons of a royal woman can be so.’
‘But what about your own princes? Why not choose one of them as a suitor?’
‘We always choose outsiders to wed our royal women. It has been so for generations – it strengthens alliances to other tribes. Brude’s mother was an Epidii Ban Cré, but his father was a prince of the Trinovantes in the far south.’
Something else began to penetrate the shell around Eremon’s mind, and as if he followed his thoughts, Gelert added, ‘Yes, this means that a son she bears you will be king. But he will only be of his mother’s blood: his allegiance only to us.’
A king! Eremon’s heart could not help but leap.
‘Of course, what we want from you is more immediate. The union with our Ban Cré will make you our champion, our war leader, someone to lead us into battle. It is far too dangerous a time to allow the warriors to fight over that honour. But if we install you … our problem is solved.’
‘But … you don’t know my lineage, high though it is. You don’t know my people. How will your council agree to this?’
‘Our need forces us to be less prudent than we would otherwise be. And there is the manner of your arrival. I have convinced them that you were sent here by our gods. And we have seen you fight. It is enough, for now.’
Eremon shook his head to clear it, and Gelert leaned forward. A light drizzle was now falling, catching on his hooked nose. ‘Do you havemany grades of the marriage union, as we do?’ At Eremon’s nod, Gelert went on. ‘Then the ceremony will take place as a binding to the fifth grade only; a year-marriage, a handfasting. It can easily be severed if you prove unfruitful. In leaf-bud, when the sea lanes open again, we can send to your father. If all is well, and we are happy with the confirmation of your lineage and bridal gifts, then we will make the marriage binding, to the ninth grade. A royal marriage.’ He fixed Eremon with one yellow eye. ‘Make no mistake, only the Roman threat would ever make us act in this haste. It took me a long time to convince the council to agree. It was your fighting prowess that turned their hearts, for they are desperate. But we will be watching you closely.’
Eremon was too dazed by what he had been told to wonder why the druid bothered to argue for him at all. ‘What if all does not go well with my kin?’
‘If you have lied, then we lose little.’ Gelert was blunt. ‘We will be stronger then, anyway. And hopefully our royal lady will be breeding.’
Eremon heard a new note in Gelert’s voice just then, a most undruid-like spite, but he was too preoccupied to care about it.So, they want me for my loins and my sword. As the druid said, this surpassed his wildest dreams. Had the Boar sent him here for this very reason? It had to be! He desperately wanted to talk to Conaire about it. ‘How long do I have to decide?’
‘A day only. It is a great honour.’
‘And if I say no?’
Gelert pursed his lips, surveying his domain. ‘Then we’ll bid you farewell, prince, and send you on your way.’
Eremon doubted that very much indeed. Gelert would discover his exile, and he and his men would be vulnerable to attack by the other tribes – and even by the Epidii. They had seen his gold, after all.
As he rose, he turned his face from the stinging rain, which had now begun to blow in from the marsh. ‘I’ll give you my answer tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow, and no later.’
Once Conaire was out of danger, the Erin men had been moved into the King’s Hall. Brude’s wife had returned to her kin with her daughters, and the house had been purified with sweet oils and fragrant smoke. At the time, Eremon wondered why this honour had been bestowed on them, but after Gelert’s offer, he thought he understood.
That day he chased the myriad servants out of the hall so that he could tell his men what had transpired in the shrine. Conaire, who was resting on a fur-covered pallet by the central hearth, let out one long, low whistle.
‘Well?’ Eremon said.
All eyes turned to Conaire, who shifted his bandaged thigh. A boar tusk gleamed on a thong around his upper arm. ‘It seems that Hawen has given us just the chance we need, brother.’
‘But I’m committing us to fight the Romans!’
‘It will win us more glory than any cattle raid!’ Rori burst out, hardly able to contain his excitement.
‘We’ll be throwing in our lot with one tribe.’
‘You told us that it would be the best thing.’ Finan scratched his head. ‘And kin bonds are stronger than trade alliances. You’ll be able to call on all the Epidii kin bonds, too. Seems a good offer to me.’
‘It means no trekking around in the long dark,’ Colum put in – he was known for his fondness for good food. ‘Who knows how long it will take to forge an alliance with another tribe?’
‘But much more important than that, you’ll be the father of two kings!’ Aedan breathed, his eyes alight. ‘You’ll sire a king here, and another when you take your father’s hall back. A dynasty on both sides of the sea!’
Eremon could see Aedan’s mind scrambling for a song to do justice to such an idea, and despite his misgivings, he felt his own soul stir with the thought. A dynasty in Alba and Erin. Surpassing his own father. And his uncle. ‘Please tell me what’s wrong with this idea,’ he begged faintly. No one heard him, as they fell to wondering about what it would be like to become part of the Epidii.
Eremon gazed around the King’s Hall. It had been built to inspire awe. The roof-cone soared to an apex six spear-lengths above, and beneath it lay the hearth that twenty men could stand in, with iron spits to roast whole boars, and bronze cauldrons as big as bathing pits, suspended on chains. Around the hearth curved an immense ring of benches, on which they now sat, covered in soft furs and embroidered cushions, and bright hangings swept down from the rafters. No man’s heart could fail to swell with the thought of ruling this domain: feasting kings, planning raids …
So what was wrong?
The druid’s offer was the perfect solution to his problem. All he had to do was ensure that Gelert did not discover the truth next leaf-bud. And perhaps it would not matter, then. If he was in a strong enough position, perhaps he could weather that particular storm. After all, the old man might die. The girl might be barren.
And there was a thought – he had not seen her yet! Among all this talk of siring and kin bonds, he would be gettingmarried. To another person. Someone he had to share a house with, a bed. No one seemed to have thought of that. It was easy for them to apportion him out as if he was a fine stallion. What would he have to say to awife?
Conaire caught his eye. ‘It is the chance we were looking for,brother.’ His face, which had been pale since his illness, was glowing. ‘The Boar provides. And Manannán brought us here on the storm! It is the best thing for all of us.’
The best thing for all of us.
Yes, that was what mattered. ‘I suppose you are right,’ Eremon conceded. ‘It’s not a trap, after all, is it?’
‘No! The betrothal can be broken, once we don’t need it any more.’
So Eremon agreed with his men that he would take the hand of the Epidii princess.
Whoever she was.
‘We wish to marry you to the prince of Erin.’
The words crashed into Rhiann’s skull, and were tossed from side to side as if in a whirlwind. She stared up at Belen from her hearth-stool, nerveless fingers dropping the heavy spindle into her lap. At the grain quern, set on the floor by the door, Brica stopped grinding and knelt back on her heels.
Then Rhiann’s eyes fell on Gelert, stooping to enter her house, and she saw triumph chasing eagerness across his face – an eagerness to see her pain. She would not give him that. She rose, clumps of unspun wool falling from her skirts. ‘And when will this marriage take place?’ Her voice hardly betrayed her, as she gripped the edge of her loom.
‘In three days,’ came Belen’s devastating answer. He checked at her expression, and added hastily, ‘It is to the fifth grade only, lady. When the sea paths open, the prince will send to his father, and at year-end we will conclude the full rites then, if you are willing.’
Outrage replaced the fear in her heart. ‘And when exactly were you going to tell me?’
Belen paled slightly beneath her glare, and gulped nervously, his eyes straying to Gelert.
‘My lady is aware of the urgency to strengthen our position,’ the chief druid put in smoothly, leaning on his owl staff. ‘You are overdue to be married; you know we have only been debating where to bestow your hand.’ He smiled.
‘But you do not even know this foreigner, thisgael!’
‘We know he is a fine fighter and leader of men, lady,’ Belen offered awkwardly, spreading his hands. ‘We know he has many riches. The druid confirms he is who he says he is.’
The loom dug into her hands. ‘But … but you did not consult with me! I do not know what kind of man he is!’ She saw the blankness on Belen’s face: he, like all the elders, would think this of no consideration.
‘We deem this man worthy of your rank,’ he answered, frowning. ‘And most importantly, he has the abilities and men-at-arms that we need so sorely. We don’t only have the Romans to contend with, as you know, lady. The other clans will come baying for the kingship soon. We are desperate.’
This tug on her guilt was enough to dampen Rhiann’s anger, and she found her mind stumbling, yet again, over what was best for the people.
Duty. Fear. Pain.
Then one thought of self-preservation came clearly through the rest:You must appear to agree.
She bowed her head. ‘I will make my preparations,’ she murmured, not looking up until the door cover fell back into place. Then she gasped for breath, pushing her forehead into the sharp talons of the carved eagle on her roof-post.
‘My lady!’ Brica cried, jumping to her feet. ‘The Goddess will have Her vengeance if they force you! In the old days the queen would choose her consort, and then another if she wished …’
‘But it is not the old days any more.’ To her own ears, Rhiann’s voice sounded dead, and far away. The next thing she knew she was on her way to the stables, and the healer in her realized that she was in shock, real shock, for this was what the numbness was.
Distantly, she heard the cries of children playing in the tanner’s yard, and from behind the forge came the squealing of a pig, the sound abruptly cutting off. She stumbled through the dyer’s shed, sharp with the smell of urine, and then she was at Liath’s stall.
She had no riding trousers or cloak, but it did not matter – before she could form a coherent thought, she was on the mare’s bare back and nosing her through the outer gates of the village. No one stopped her, but again she felt their eyes.
Her ears folded, Liath kept to a sedate walk until Rhiann was well out of sight of the dun, held by the hands in her snowy mane. But the mare must have felt the tension in her mistress’s legs, the taut muscles across her back, and once released from Rhiann’s hold she was away, flying through the bare fields, north towards Linnet’s glen.
Once alone among the dying bracken of the brooding hills, the fear of this day, so long denied, at last broke free from Rhiann in an anguished gasp, the strangled sound of her heart, her secret heart. But as Liath’s legs drummed faster and faster, leaping out from beneath her, the gasp became a moan, and then swelled and sharpened into a cry of rage that wrenched itself from her throat, cleaving the air.
Dimly, Rhiann felt the wind clawing at her bare thighs, but the ache was nothing compared to the sheer agony of helplessness. She, who prided herself on her courage, her strength, could do nothing. She wastrapped: by duty, by guilt and shame. Trapped by men who saw her as no more than a brood mare.
Then Liath was slowing to a stop, and Rhiann looked down to where her hands were clenched in the frosted mane, and they were wet with tears. Shakily, she slipped to the muddy ground beneath a dead oak furred with lichen. Liath blew her sweet breath on Rhiann’s face and lowered her head to lick her legs, which were trembling from cold and the strain of gripping the mare’s back.
Rhiann buried her face in the horse’s warm neck, and let the tears come fully in the wake of the rage.
By the time she cantered into Linnet’s yard, the wild outpouring was over, leaving behind a steely anger. ‘How dare they?’ she muttered, pacing the floor of Linnet’s tiny, low-beamed hut, as her aunt stirred tansy tea over the fire. She whirled. ‘Did you know they were planning this?’
‘Of course not!’ Linnet poured the water into cups and set them to cool on the hearthstone, then offered hesitantly, ‘Is he so bad, this man? He is very fair, and not old at all. He is noble. It could be wor—’
With one look at Rhiann’s face, Linnet broke off.
‘Any man, any marriage, is hateful to me!’ Rhiann cried. ‘You know this! There could only ever be one, and even then—’ She bit off her words, appalled at herself.
But Linnet’s senses were sharp. ‘One? You mean thereisa man?’
Rhiann gritted her teeth, shook her head. ‘Was, not is. It is nothing, a child’s fancy, that is all.’
‘No.’ Linnet held her eyes. ‘Tell me.’
Rhiann shook her head again. ‘The man who tattooed me at my first bleeding, on the Sacred Isle. But that was years ago!’
Linnet sat down wearily in her wicker chair. ‘Daughter, the skin painters aremeantto rouse the girl, for it imbues the sacred symbols with power.’
‘I know, aunt, which is why I have forgotten him. None of that matters now – that is not why I resist!’ Rhiann passed her hand over her eyes. ‘The council is not marrying me tohim, they’re marrying me to this … this … murderer, this sword-wielder!’
‘Not all men are like those raiders, daughter.’
Rhiann spun on her heel and kept pacing. ‘I can still invoke the law. No woman can be forced!’
‘That is true, and if you take that path, then by the Goddess I will stand by your side, you know that. But …’ Linnet bit her lip. ‘This marriage is for the good of us all, especially now that we face the invaders, for without it we will fragment. It is a hard choice; and Iwould spare you from it, believe me. But if you say no, I see darkness and chaos for us all. That is the truth.’
Rhiann whirled again. ‘And who didyouchoose, aunt, to give us our heir, when you were young? You have the same blood as me! You’ve never been sold to a man, I recall.’
Linnet paled. ‘It was different, then. Your mother was Ban Cré. The King had many heirs. My blood was not needed.’
A shadow of grief crossed her face, but Rhiann was too angry to take it in. ‘I don’t want any man!’ she cried again. ‘And this one is arrogant, and … and he is lying! I can see it!’
‘Rhiannon brought him to us, on the waves. He does not bode harm – I sense it, I sense it strongly.’
Rhiann stopped, clenching her hands into fists. Linnet’s definition of harm differed greatly from her own, she knew that. Oh, her aunt would let no man disturb a hair on her head. But that was not the point … she didn’t understand …
Linnet rose and took her hands. ‘Daughter, daughter, calm yourself! You must trust what She sends you, and trust me, and the things that I cannot speak. Somehow, all will be well.’
All will be well.
Rhiann wanted to knock the cups to Linnet’s feet. She wanted to wrench the shelves from the wall, shattering the pots of salves and bitter tinctures, send the loom crashing to the floor, its threads snapping, tear down the bags of dried roots from the rafters, scatter the digging sticks and the carved figurines and the pans of beeswax and crushed dyes on the table.All will be well.
She had spent years learning such acceptance, such calm trust, on the Sacred Isle. It was easy to find, as a child. But all of that had bled away with one ringing blow of a raider’s sword across her foster-father’s neck.
Linnet pulled her resisting body into her arms. ‘Stay here this night. I will brew you a sleeping draught. Perhaps the Mother will make things clearer for you in your sleep.’
Rhiann drew a trembling breath. Well, she could not go back today anyway, not if all theban-sidhesof the Otherworld were on her heels. Let the council worry over her, for once.
But in the darkness of the night, these proud thoughts deserted her, and the shadows on Linnet’s walls seemed to draw in. She huddled deeper into the goatskins to escape them, until the draught took her at last.
And a dream from the Mother did come.
This vision was much older than the memory of slaughter; it had come to her often since her first moon bleeding. It was a secret dream, a golden dream that she’d once dared hope might come true.
There stood Rhiann, surrounded by all the people of Alba in a valleyfilled with light. Danger stalked the dark slopes beyond, and the harsh, high shrieks of eagles came from the mountain peaks above. But Rhiann stood at the centre, cupping the cauldron of the goddess Ceridwen in her hands, gathering the Source so that it drove back the shadows.
And by her side there stood another, a man, though she could never see his face, and he held a sword that brought not death, but protection and truth. And they had come together again, as in many lives, to bring the Source into balance.
Over the years, Rhiann had attached features to this man’s face in her imagination: dark gold hair and brown eyes.Drust.
He was a youth when he tattooed her on the Isle; a man he must be, now. It had to be him, for he was an artist, with fine fingers – not a killer. And he was there when she bled for the first time, when the dream first came. Kissing her, touching her …
In her dream, she sighed and turned, cradling this one glimpse of joy to her breast.
Which was when, for this one night, the dream changed.
She was alone in a forest glade. There was the whisper of wings in the night air, and she felt the fear of the mouse as it cowers from the shadow of the owl above. The fear grew, until, in a panic, she ran, sensing always the wings beating above. ‘Help me!’ she cried, and suddenly on the path before her stood a beast; its eye bright, its shoulders thrusting with strength. For a moment she thought it would attack, and she felt despair, but as her feet carried her on, the beast let her go, then turned to paw the path against what followed.
Ahead of her she saw sunrise creeping through the trees. But from behind came an unearthly cry, torn from the owl’s throat.
Rhiann’s bed-place was empty when Linnet woke to the chinks of dawn creeping under the turf roof, but to her relief Liath was still tethered in the stable.
Not knowing when Rhiann would return, Linnet drew on her work dress and took down the muslin bags of goat-cheese that her maid Dercca had tied up to drain before she left to visit her sister. But as she ladled the curds into nettle baskets, Linnet’s mind kept straying to the night before.
She could not tell Rhiann that she saw the man from Erin in a vision, that she recognized him at the moment of his arrival. To reveal that would mean revealing the other scenes she’d foreseen, and somehow Linnet felt if she did this, the course of Rhiann’s life would alter, and not for the better. She wouldn’t learn what she needed to, before the Otherworld called her.
You knew you must prepare her, not guide her, Linnet reminded herself. She thought she had accepted this long ago … yet it had not been tested, not really. And now the time of testing had come.
She sighed, teasing thyme stalks from a bunch drying on the rafter. The raid on the Sacred Isle had left Rhiann with a deep hatred of warriors, but why the girl feared marriage itself, that Linnet did not know. So long as the man was honourable – and the prince seemed so – then he bore no resemblance to the shrieking murderers branded on the poor child’s heart.
Of course, if Rhiann had once felt a child’s love for a boy … but the tattoo artists painted many girls, and many fell in love with the first to touch them that way. It was not a love to hold on to. Rhiann said she had forgotten it, so Linnet would have to believe her. This Erin prince was a different matter altogether.
Pursing her lips, Linnet stripped the thyme leaves, the sharp scent filling the room. Was the prince here for good, or ill? Was the vision ofhim a warning? She thought back to how she’d felt on the day she received it. No, she did not sense he was here to harm. And surely the Mother would not let him cross the waves – a realm where many die – if he was to hurt Rhiann?
She sprinkled the cheeses and wrapped them, then wandered to her loom, plucking the warp threads absently, thinking of the harsh words Rhiann had flung at her.
The girl had touched on more than she knew. For although she thought that in retreating from the world, Linnet had found her true place, Linnet had once wanted hearth and home as desperately as Rhiann wished to escape it. In the end, Linnet lost the very chance that was being offered to Rhiann now.
But, ah! She could not tell her that.
It was past midday when Rhiann returned. Linnet was feeding her goats, and she paused and set down the bucket of slops, leaning her elbows on the brush paling of the pen, as Rhiann approached. Her eyes still burned, though with wonder now, not anger.
‘Come, you must eat.’ Linnet drew Rhiann to the old bench set against the hut’s wall, ducking inside for a honey bannock and cup of milk.
Rhiann ate silently, her eyes still far away. But finally she brushed the crumbs from her skirt and stretched her kidskin boots out. ‘You were right,’ she said, lifting her face to the weak sun. ‘The Mother did send me a sign.’
Linnet’s heart leaped. ‘What was this sign?’ she asked eagerly, taking in the brightness of Rhiann’s eyes. But then she realized what a brittle light it was, with none of the warmth Linnet longed to see.
‘It was a dream, which I have been puzzling out all morning.’ Rhiann shook her head. ‘But now I am clear. And listen! The Mother sent this man from Erin to be the sword in my hand – the sword to break Gelert’s hold!’
‘What do you mean?’
Rhiann explained the dream when she ran through the forest. ‘Don’t you see? The beast appeared to be a boar, and this prince has a boar crest on his helmet – I saw him polishing it while visiting his sick brother. I have been so afraid … but I see now that I can turn Gelert’s own weapon – this prince – back on him!’ She clasped her hands together. ‘If I accept, I will have a husband with a strong warband, and a kingdom across the sea. If I can gain control over him, I can use him to fight Gelert on his own terms!’ A grim smile touched her mouth. ‘I’ve been weak and sad for too long, aunt. But now a weapon has come to my hands, and I can wield it, and be just as hard as any man!’
Linnet’s heart sank. No one should start a marriage with a heart so full of dark thoughts.Oh, my dearest!
And yet … Rhiann had agreed to marry the prince. And the pitiful despair in her eyes, that had been slowly breaking Linnet’s heart for many moons, was gone. Perhaps, over time, Rhiann would change, if he was kind and treated her well.
Please let him be a good man, Mother, the man with green eyes.
And then, just as this fine day had broken through unending cloud, her spirit lifted. The sisterhood taught that the strongest soul-healing comes when the wounded one faces the source of harm.
As man had wounded her, perhaps man would lead Rhiann back to herself.
Most marriages took place at Beltaine, the start of sunseason, and brides were crowned with flowers beneath blue skies.
But as Rhiann rode back to the dun with Linnet and Dercca two days later, she realized that this time of year was right for her union. A hoarfrost glittered on the dying sedges, and the taut air bit at their noses and fingers until they burned with cold. In the pale sky over the marsh, the geese wavered in long lines, fleeing south.
The Samhain festival was close: the end of the old year and the start of the new, when the long dark drew in and the land went to sleep in the Mother’s womb. And for a new year, perhaps it was time for Rhiann to throw off the fear and weakness that had infected her for this last wheel of the sun.
Samhain was also the time when the fabric between the Otherworld and Thisworld grew thin, and the powers could cross between worlds more easily, tormenting the living with apparitions. An Otherworld marriage, then … a dark marriage.
I also do this for the Mother, Rhiann thought, winding her icy fingers in Liath’s mane.And if I suffer it well, and am strong, perhaps She will forgive me for not being strong enough to foresee the raid, for not being strong enough to save my family. Perhaps then she will let me see again…
No one stopped Rhiann as she entered the village gates, but all those hurrying along the paths, and loading and unloading carts, and hovering in doorways, fell silent, staring. She sensed Linnet glance at her, and she kept her back straight, and Liath stepped proudly.
Brica welcomed her back with a tirade of renewed anger about the marriage. ‘The lord druid is furious!’ she cried, taking their cloaks and laying them out near the fire. ‘He has had to put a good face on it for thegaels, but they must know something is wrong! The council guessed where you’d gone, but they argued about whether or not to force you. Belen said if you were so unwilling, to leave you be.’
‘Did he? I’m shocked.’
‘Everyone is talking,’ Brica rattled on. ‘Oh, my lady, you have caused a stir!’
Rhiann glanced at Linnet, and smiled. ‘Good! Now Brica, I have something to tell you. I am going to marry this prince tomorrow, as planned.’ She held up a hand as Brica’s mouth opened to protest. ‘It is my duty as Ban Cré – you must understand that. We’ll have to see something of him,’ she repressed a shudder, ‘though I’ll make it as little as possible, you can be sure. The provisions for the feast are on hand? Good. Help me off with my shoes, and then go and tell the cooks to have it ready tomorrow eve. Come straight back – and don’t speak to anyone, mind. I’ll let the council know my decision in my own way.’
She sat down on the hearth-bench, and Brica bent to unlace the thongs of her leather boots. Linnet and Dercca were unrolling their packs in the guest alcove, behind a wicker screen.
Brica looked up at her mistress, but Rhiann’s gaze was on the flames, trembling in the draught that came under the door. ‘The Goddess has given him to me, Brica, and I’ll use him for Her glory. And when he is no longer needed, then he can return from where he came!’
She said the last under her breath, for her own ears only, but she saw Brica cock her head.
Eremon had taken to watching the sunrise with Cù from a high, bare hump of rock that reared up just outside the Horse Gate, near the King’s Hall.
From his perch that morning, wrapped in his cloak, he watched the chief druid leading the sun greeting outside the shrine with a great deal more grimness than usual, his face belying the soft, fine dawning of the day. Below Eremon’s lookout, the dun burned with gossip. The princess of the Epidii, whom Eremon still had not seen, had apparently disappeared when told of the marriage.
Eremon could not understand her behaviour. His men had theories of their own, from Eremon’s poor reputation in the bed-furs, to his prominent lack of beauty, but they quieted when he pointed out that if the bargain fell through, they would be cast out to wander Alba alone in the long dark. No, the Boar was looking on him kindly the day He brought them to these shores. Surely this chance would not slip through his fingers. She must come back, she must.
The Epidii had hunted again to stock up the larders for a wedding feast, and the surrounding nobles of the royal clan had arrived from their duns in the hills. Eremon had been fitted for a new green tunic, and it was hastily being embroidered in gold thread by Talorc’s wife. He also considered his jewellery stores, and picked a delicate silver necklace of his mother’s as a wedding gift. A more lavish bride price was expected to come from his kin in time.
His kin. He fingered the other tusk from Conaire’s boar, now tied around his upper arm, against his skin. Ah, he was playing a risky game,he knew that. But when someone like his uncle changed the rules, a man must adapt, or die.
At times the guilt of his deception pricked at him, but he had been trained to be ruthless as well as practical, and to limit his attachments to those he must use. And although his men came first, he also knew that with them, and his control over the Epidii warriors, he could keep to his end of the bargain. That would weigh against the lie, in the eyes of the gods.
He would be a strong war-leader for the Epidii. He would be all they needed.
This day, he and Conaire were called to break their fast with the council again, but the thick porridge stuck in Eremon’s throat as much as it had on the last two mornings. Glances darted around the ring of benches in the King’s Hall, from elder to elder, eyes catching each other as the cold light from the open door shone on their rings and furs. No one seemed to have anything left to say. Well, not in Eremon’s hearing, anyway. Conaire and Eremon’s eyes met, too, but Conaire just pursed his lips and shrugged, stretching his sore leg to the fire.
Then a shadow darkened the door, and a slight, black-haired servant was standing there, curtsying stiffly. She looked familiar, but Eremon couldn’t place her.
‘What is it, woman?’ Gelert said irritably, his mouth full of bannock.
‘Pardon, my lords, but the Lady Rhiann is here.’
There was an explosion of crumbs from Talorc, and mutters from the others. To Eremon’s further surprise, the servant shot one venomous look at him, but before he could wonder why, she turned, and a girl – no, a woman – was standing outlined in the cold sunlight spilling through the doorway.
Belen was on his feet in an instant, as were all the others, except Conaire.
The woman glided forward. She was dressed in a tunic of saffron, and her hair was unbound to her waist. Eremon could not see her properly until she walked into the pool of firelight by the hearth, and then he reeled, for the wide, crescent-shaped eyes, high forehead, and amber hair were those of the healer. This was his bride? Into the shocked silence, Eremon blurted, ‘But you are a druid!’
The girl turned those arched eyes on him, and he saw some strong emotion there which chilled his blood. She swept him with a glance. ‘No, I am of the Goddess. You do not have priestesses any more in Erin, do you?’
She had not addressed him with his title, and he felt an odd surge of anger.
Gelert stepped forward. ‘Prince, this is the Lady Rhiann, daughter of Mairenn, who was sister of Brude.’ He paused. ‘Our Ban Cré.’
The girl bowed a graceful head, but when she straightened, there was a sardonic tilt to her smile. ‘And you are Eremon, son of Ferdiad, King of Dalriada in Erin,’ she recited. ‘I apologize if I have inconvenienced you.’
With no more than that – no muttered excuses or embarrassed wringing of hands – she turned to the elders. ‘The wedding feast will be ready as arranged.’ Then she addressed Gelert, not hiding her distaste. ‘The Lady Linnet is here to lead the wedding rites with you. We will be ready by noon tomorrow.’
Eremon’s alarm was growing. During her healing of Conaire, he discovered her name but barely spoke with the girl, worried as he was for his brother. Now he racked his brains. Did he say something then to offend her? Impossible: they only ever talked of Conaire, and only in passing, for she left every time Eremon appeared at the door.
He was assuming that his bride’s disappearance was a last attack of girlish nerves. But the remote face before him seemed to hold no fear, only contempt. Surely she welcomed the match? After all, he was comely, wealthy – what more could she want? Then he was struck by a new thought. What if she had bestowed her heart elsewhere? Perhaps she was one of those noble women who harboured dreams of marrying for love. Well, herders’ daughters could do so, but not princesses.
He glanced at Conaire, confused. Politics he understood, but dealing with a woman like this was something else altogether. If they were to forge some sort of partnership, they were getting off on the wrong foot entirely. So he tried the only thing that occurred to him, and gave her his most encouraging smile. But she turned away before she caught the force of it, sweeping out into the morning.
‘Prince,’ said Gelert, ‘when the sun is at its highest tomorrow, we will perform the rite. Bring your men to the forecourt before the shrine.’ The elders followed the druid out until only Eremon and Conaire remained.
Conaire let out a whistle, kneading the healing scar on his thigh. ‘Hawen’s balls! The Boar certainly gave you a beauty, brother, but she never looked that way at me when I was in her sickbed! Let’s hope your reputation in the furs holds up, for she’ll be using those claws of hers on you if it doesn’t.’
By the middle of the next day, a merciful haze had settled over Rhiann, as a cloudbank from the west settled over the sun, plunging the crag into gloom.
She stood by her bed as the young noblewomen hummed around her like a swarm of bees, Linnet directing them with her firm voice.
Arms up, stiff as a corn-doll, and a fine linen shift floated over her head. Arms down, and sharp fingers pulled the embroidered sleeves to her wrists, and tied the gathering under her breasts. Arms up, and they eased the sleeveless undertunic over her shoulders; arms down, and it fell to the floor in a drift of green silk. Arms out, and they drew on the heavy, embroidered robe of crimson wool, pinning it on each shoulder. Arms in, and they flitted around her, tugging a bit of cloth here, settling a fold there.
Talorc’s two daughters were hovering over her hair, braiding the lengths into fine plaits, weaving gold thread in among each braid. They chittered and breathed on her neck.
‘That’s my thread, Aiveen!’
‘No, it’s not, you gnat. You’re taking too much hair!’
‘Girls!’ Linnet nudged one out of the way, and her soft fingers touched Rhiann’s skin as she continued to weave. ‘Breathe now, child.’
Rhiann nodded distantly, but she’d forgotten how to breathe. She didn’t know what it felt like, what lungs were. She did not have a body, she was just a wisp of air, hardly chained to Thisworld any more.
This feeling was mostly due to thesaor– the sacred herb draught that freed her spirit from her body. She took it whenever she was acting as the Goddess in a rite. Normally, it brought warmth and light-headedness, as if, every time she tried to move, her body lagged behind for a moment. In some dim corner of her mind, though, she knew this was a different haze today; warm still, but heavy, an escape rather than freedom. But she did not care. If it dulled the fear, then that was all thatmattered. She’d drunk a double draught ofsaor, just to be sure, though Linnet did not know that.
She comforted herself with the fact that this was a public rite, not a private joining. It was not Eremon mac Ferdiad wedding Rhiann of the Epidii; it was the war leader joining with the Land. She was bestowing sovereignty – however temporary – on him with her hand, until a king could be restored, and in return he had a sacred obligation to protect and serve her people in war.
She wondered if anyone had bothered to explain that part to him.
On the other side of the bedscreen, the girls’ mothers rustled their dresses and gossiped by the fire, already shrill with the warmth of the mead. The highest ranking women were supposed to have a hand in her preparations, to bind them to the Mother. So far this had been perfunctory, sharp hands straightening a bit of cloth here and there, before they went back to their drinking. But when it came to her finishing finery, they crowded forward eagerly. She caught a glimpse of Aiveen with her mother, both faces bright with avarice.
A golden girdle, alight with garnets, went around Rhiann’s narrow hips. Bronze arm-rings came next; snake-coiled on one wrist, deer-headed on the other. Her priestess ring shone on the third finger of her left hand; her others were left bare. Her braids were tipped with tinkling gold balls, which pulled at her scalp. At last, Brica put her priestess cloak around her shoulders and fastened it with the Epidii royal brooch, and then Linnet was before her with the matching royal torc to replace Rhiann’s own. The eyes set in the mares’ tossing heads were cold dewdrops of garnet, and as it clasped her neck, so Rhiann, her body reeling with the effects of thesaor, felt as if she were sinking into the ground under all the weight of wool and linen, gold and bronze.
Perhaps she really would sink, she mused, and could rest at last as the dead rested, in the cold of the earth.
But a horn was blowing, and the seated women rose excitedly, their calls raucous to Rhiann’s ears, scattering mead cups in their wake.
Linnet’s gentle hand came to rest on Rhiann’s shoulder.
Under a glowering sky she looks up at the prince’s face, swimming above her like a pale moon through cloud, a green jewel blazing on his brow. Gelert’s voice drones on.
The scene shifts and blurs, in and out of focus, and yet little things leap out in minute detail. The gnarled boles of age-darkened wood on the druid shrine. Light glancing off the boar that crests the prince’s helmet. The damp wind lifting the braids at her neck. The rigid line of Linnet’s mouth.
Beyond the murmuring of the crowd, the birds on the marsh cry, faintly.I could fly there right now. I could be with them.
A spot of rain falls, glistening on Gelert’s balding scalp. He steps back, and the raindrop runs down into his beard. His eyes are slits; what lurks in them, she is beyond. Today he cannot touch her.
Linnet comes forward with the golden cup, and wraps Rhiann’s chilled hands around it. Linnet blesses the prince with water from the sacred spring, while Rhiann stares at the clouds. One has billowed into the shape of an eagle’s head. Or is it a goose?
How did I get here? This man … this man will take me … I am afraid.
The stabbing fear breaks through thesaorfor a moment as the prince accepts the sacred bread from Linnet’s fingers. Then his sword is out, and he turns to her people, laying it across his hands. No! She pushes the pain away, not willing to come back into the shell of her body.
He is not marrying me. He is marrying the Goddess. The Goddess … I am the Goddess.
Yes … the cloak of numbness falls back into place, and she draws it tight. The fear recedes. She looks down into the cup of sovereignty in her hands. In it, there lies a pool of amber mead, like her hair. She must raise it to his lips now, so that he can drink and be one with her land, her people.
Don’t look at him, though, as he sips, and fixes her with those green eyes. Don’t look.
The Goddess. You are the Goddess.
Yes, he feels it too. He can look no longer: he knows that he does not join with Rhiann. And then it is over, and his eyes are hidden by his dark hair.
Linnet binds their hands together with a sash of deep red, a blood colour. His palms are damp. Linnet speaks of the Goddess and the consort, the defender of the land, ritually bound now with the bones of the land. And the people shower them with dried haws, for there are no flowers. No Beltaine flowers.
Goddess, he will take me. I am afraid.
‘Please, my lord. Let me sing.’
Aedan’s words were muffled, as Eremon tugged his helmet and circlet off and handed it to Finan.
‘You’d better let him.’ The older man winked at Eremon. ‘He’s got to show those fine threads off to everyone, after all.’
Now Rori was helping Eremon off with his mailshirt. As befits the new defender of the tribe, Eremon went to the ceremony in full war regalia, but he couldn’t sit like that all night.
‘And why did Aedan getthat, while I gotthis.’ Rori looked from Aedan’s riotously embroidered tunic down to his own plain red one, which clashed with his hair.
The Erin men explained away their lack of feasting clothes by sayingthat their chests of personal belongings had been lost in the storm. The Epidii willingly furnished them with clothing for the wedding, although the quality had been a chance affair.
Aedan sniffed. ‘Well, perhaps these people understand the true status of a bard. Second only to his lord, is that not right, sir?’
‘In polite company, yes.’ Eremon was curiously tired. Standing up there in front of the shrine, before all the people, he had suddenly become aware of what he was swearing to. A defender of their land – he had agreed to that with Gelert. But a consort for their Goddess? Just where did that come from? He was taken unawares, asked to make a lasting vow when, come a year, he would be leaving. But how could he have backed out then and there? So he drunk from the cup, and swore the oath to that older priestess – his bride’s aunt – even though the girl herself would not even look at him.
Ah. He swore fealty to the Boar and to Manannán first, in Erin. He promised them he’d go back. This Goddess of the Epidii would just have to understand. He shrugged away an uneasy prickling that she might prove more demanding than he thought.
A bronze-rimmed cup of ale was thrust in his hand. ‘And here’s your first drink as a new husband.’ Conaire grinned at him, took a gulp of his own ale. ‘By the Boar, my leg was growling to stand so long! But this will take the pain away.’
The men were alone in the King’s Hall, except for the servants turning the spits of boar and deer over the fire-pit, and rolling barrels of ale and mead into place against the outer walls. The feast would begin soon, but they had a few moments to themselves. Cù was pacing around the hearth, watching the sizzling fat spit into the fire, and squabbling with the old king’s hounds.
‘So can I sing, my lord?’ Aedan was pleading now.
‘Yes, yes. But choose your tales with care. That goes for all of you – hold your drink well, and keep your counsel.’
‘Hold your own drink well, my brother!’ Conaire nudged him. ‘No going soft tonight, of all nights!’
‘And fill up on boar,’ Colum chuckled. ‘You’ll need your strength!’
Eremon forced a laugh, as the others let loose with a stream of sexual jests, while a servant refilled their cups. Tonight. He’d not forgotten that part.
A strange mixture of desire and apprehension stirred in him. Hawen, it had been a while without a woman. Unlike Conaire, he’d had more to think about since their arrival. And his new wife was comely, if thin for his taste. There was little enticing roundness about her hips or breasts, as far as he could see, but she certainly had a striking face, with its high cheekbones and generous mouth. And unusual hair.
As Finan launched into a ribald story about a wedding night in hisyouth, and Eremon’s ale slid down his parched throat, he thought about that hair. An image flashed into his mind of pulling it down around his face, running his fingers through it. Hmm … now that thought was more interesting. His memory continued roving over her face, coming to rest at last on her eyes, and there the hot flush of desire abruptly faded.
Her eyes were striking, too, wide-set, tilted up at the edges. But they unnerved him. On the beach they held repulsion, in the King’s Hall that morning, hostility. And during the ceremony – well, that was the most unsettling part of all. She stood there, but she wasn’tthere. Her eyes were not even cold; coldness requiring some emotion and presence. They were just blank.
He had seen plenty of druid rites in his time, and as the king’s son, was often close to the brethren when they were communing with the gods. But he never expected that one day he would see that same unearthly light in the eyes of his bride. The touch of the Otherworld.
Still, she was a priestess, which must be something like a druid. And after going through all that joining-to-the-land thing, he had realized that this must be business to her as well as to him. He sighed. Politics were all very well, but in the meantime, this betrothal could have been a pleasant interlude.
He had spent years trying to stop girls falling in love with him, because he did not want a wife. He was too busy roving Erin with Conaire, honing his military skills. With his looks and position, there had been no shortage of noblewomen making eyes at him, but he’d stuck to the safer options: regular tumbles with the dairymaids, the smith’s daughter, and his mother’s fine-fingered needlewoman. But this was altogether a different proposition. He must be careful with her. Especially tonight.
‘So, to the health and fortune of our prince, a married man at last,’ Conaire was saying, his cup lifted.
Eremon glanced around at the bright circle of faces, cups in the air, humming with the promise of the evening’s delights – food, drink, and women. At least they were getting a feast out of it.
‘To the prince!’
‘The prince!Slàinte mhór!’
Rhiann knew it would be one of the longest nights of her life.
Thesaorhad worn off now, and in its wake came a hollow sickness, and chills that brought a shiver to her skin. She desperately wished that she could take more, that she could return to the floating haze, and stave off the time when she would have to regard this hall and the people in it in the cold light of reality.
She glanced around the huge ring of benches, circling the hearth.Servants dashed back and forth, holding on high woven willow platters of boar-flesh, salmon with juniper, roast goose with blackberries, and baskets heaving with soft cheeses and honey-baked bread. Others mingled among the nobles with jugs of heather ale and pale mead. The calls for more ale! more mead! resounded from the roof-beams. The crowd was becoming louder, the jokes quickly bawdier. Normally she would be long gone to her bed … but tonight, tonight she would rather endure this than …that.
The bridal hut was waiting. With the houses always so full of guests, newly-weds were given their one night of total privacy. And she must go there, withhim. The rite she had gone through today, to safeguard her people, it would have no meaning to them unless she disappeared into that hut with that man, and did not emerge until morning.
Her hand crept to her waist. The jewelled girdle was still there, but underneath her linen shift she had tied on her priestess pouch. She cupped it now through the soft wool of her dress, her fingers seeking security. For the people, she must go to that hut. But, just as no one knew what went on inside her head, no one would know what went on inside the hut.
She had exchanged barely any words with her new husband. He tried that boyish grin on her a few times, but it slid off her skin like a straw arrow glancing off mail. It may well work with the insipid, moon-eyed girls that seemed to find him attractive, but it wouldn’t work with her.
Her other hand was gripping her mead cup so hard that the enamelled mounts were digging into her palm. She had no intention of being polite to him. She’d made the sacrifice, and that was enough. He married her for her position, and that was all that he would get. The council may be able to barter her away, but no one could control her mouth, her mind, her heart. They were hers alone.
One of the servant girls passed by again with the platter of boar-meat, and that great blond hulk from Erin paused to spear even more on to his knife. The prince was eating more sparingly, but she noticed his quick, nervous gulping of the mead.
Good. Get so drunk that you pass out. As her mind slid dangerously close again to what would happen after the feast, she resolutely brought it to bay.Stay here, in the present. What comes after cannot be faced. It cannot be faced.
At least she did not have to worry about Gelert. The druids had blessed the feast and partaken of a sparse meal, and then left the hall to the warriors and their women.
On one side of her, she heard the prince and his brother talking about the Romans, speculating on what they might do. War talk, that was all they knew. Still, at least he had given up trying to speak with her.
‘Take some more food, daughter.’ Linnet, on her other side, squeezed her hand. ‘You must eat after thesaor.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
A pause. ‘You did well today. I was proud of you.’
‘I did not have much choice.’
Linnet sighed, but she put a light hand on Rhiann’s back, at the level of her heart. After a moment, a warmth began to tingle on Rhiann’s skin, through the layer of the robe and the shift, growing into a pulsing glow of comforting heat that spread throughout her chest. And Rhiann remembered with a pang how Linnet had always been there, stroking her face, putting her healing hands on a scratched knee, a feverish cheek. It wasn’t much. Right now, it brought tears dangerously close to the surface. But it was hers. It was all she had. She reached out and put her hand in Linnet’s lap, and took another sip of mead.
The bards were tuning their harps near the door. One of the lesser bards had already been playing a series of wordless tunes throughout the feast, until it was time for the family lays to be recited and sung, to confirm the lineages and the new kin bonds. In effect, it was part of the marriage contract: telling the prince of Erin what he had got for his money.
Meron, the Epidii chief bard, told the story of Rhiann’s own ancestor, Beli the Bold, who led his people out of the east, and crossed the great sea, fighting all manner of strange beasts to make landfall on Alba’s fair shores. It was, of course, a favourite for the royal clan, many of whom knew it off by heart. Rhiann saw more than one old warrior’s lips move in a silent echo of Meron’s deep, melodious chant.
In the silent pause after Meron left the floor, when men were waking as if from a trance, blinking their drink-sodden eyes, a slight figure stepped out of the shadows into the cleared space beside the hearth.
It was the bard from Erin. He was so young, he must still be undergoing his training. And pretty, too, as she’d noted before, with his ripples of dark hair framing a heart-shaped face. He could almost be a woman, especially clean-shaven as he was today. She heard a muttered joke to this effect from somewhere to her left, smothered by a loud guffaw, and saw Conaire, the blond giant, pin the unfortunate joker to his seat with a glare.
The bard had borrowed a fine blue cloak to cover his tunic, and now he swept this back, somewhat theatrically, and paused, until a burst of talking and cries for more mead respectfully died down.
Bards – no matter their looks – were sacred. They were untouchable even on the battlefield. After all, they held a people’s whole history in their heads – all the kinship lines, the battles, the marriages, the acts of kindness and outrage, the births and the feats of honour and glory. They could kill with words, by bringing stinging satire and shame down on aman’s head, hounding him to his death. And they brought beauty, on the long nights when the cold winds prowled around, and all within were aching to see the sun again.
Someone hastily brought the young bard a stool, and he settled himself on it, tuning his harp, his fingers tracing over the strings lovingly. Rhiann’s heart thawed just a little at this total absorption. This one did not wield a sword, at least. He was a maker of things, of beautiful songs, not a destroyer.
‘I will sing,’ he announced grandly, ‘the lay of the Sons of Mil, the tale of my prince’s most glorious ancestor, the first Eremon, who conquered Erin with his brothers, vanquishing the faery-people, the Túatha dé Danann. This you will see, is the line of his blood, the most noble line of our most noble island …’
And so on, so on … Rhiann took another sip of mead as the bard launched into his tale.
She had to admit that he had a fine, clear voice. The sons of Mil, among whom numbered the famous bard Amergin, crossed from Iberia to Erin countless generations ago. Rhiann had never heard the story, and despite the fact it was abouthisancestors, she gave herself up to the bardic rhythm of the voice, and the song of the harp, and drew some comfort from its beauty. People sat silent, relaxed if not always attentive, reaching their feet out to the fire, hands on full bellies, fingers curled around ale cups.
Then, looking around the room, Rhiann’s eyes accidentally caught upon her new husband’s hard profile. He had straightened on his bench, his eyes fixed on the bard. There was something about him of the stag sensing the air, an alertness that had not been there before. Curious.
She brought her attention back to the tale, where the bard Amergin’s powerful words helped the brothers to vanquish the Túatha dé Danann, who retreated to their underground mounds. The sons of Mil then divided up Erin between them.
The bard continued proudly:And so the warriors,The great warriors,The warriors-of-gold,Gathered about them ten thousand swords eachAnd ten thousand spearmen.Five boars a night they feasted onAnd twenty gold arm-rings they gave away.But hark! Eremon mac Mil was the brightestAnd the fairest.And the gold in his hall,The gold on his walls,Shone out across the length of Erin.
The bard’s voice changed, and he paused to execute a difficult flourish on the harp.
Rhiann’s glance now fell on the prince’s hand where it rested on his knee. The firelight glinted off a jewelled ring, as he clenched his fist. Then, she saw him mutter something to Conaire, who muttered something to another of their men, who slid away from the benches into the crowd beyond.
The bard’s voice had hushed:So began the strifeThe kin-strifeThe greatest kin-strife Erin has seenBrother on brother—
Suddenly, his fingers fumbled, and his fine voice faltered. His eyes darted to the prince’s face, and Rhiann, sitting so close, saw those sky-grey pools widen from the dreamy bardic trance into something more like … fear? Just then, thegaelwho had slipped away stumbled out into the hearth-space, clutching another man as if he was falling down drunk. The clutched man swore, and both careened into the bard, knocking him from his stool.
The room erupted into shouts of laughter. The prince waved for more ale, and servants dashed in, breaking up the edges of the crowd. Under cover of a burst of shouted jests at the supposed drunk man, who stumbled off outside, Rhiann saw some others from Erin rush in to help the bard up. By the time he dusted himself down and checked his harp, he’d lost the crowd’s attention.
Some of the Epidii servants had pipes and drums, and they took the opportunity to launch into a raucous jig, and the feasters shouted for more mead, for they would rather talk and dance now, and grope their women.
The prince stood and nodded to her, his face grim, and then pushed his way through the crowd, his brother in his wake. Very curious. There was more to this man’s lineage than he had spoken of, that was clear. Perhaps he was not as noble as his little bard was boasting!
‘It is time to retire.’ Linnet was brushing crumbs from her skirts.
Linnet searched Rhiann’s face. ‘Then I will stay. I will see you to your marriage bed.’ The line of her mouth hardened.
‘No, go. You are tired.’
‘I won’t leave you here.’
Rhiann put her hand over Linnet’s fingers, and looked in her eyes. ‘It won’t make any difference, aunt. Go. For once, heed me.’
Linnet held Rhiann’s gaze, as all around them the music and the shouting and the jostling bodies swirled. ‘I love you,’ Linnet said.
But if you go, I can hide from this fear that chokes me. Go. Please go.
The moon outside was heavy and low, sinking to her bed. The King’s Hall was hot now, packed to the brim with sweaty bodies, jostling their mead cups together. Another toast, and Eremon had to gulp from his cup for the third time in as many heart-beats.
Out of the corner of his eye, Conaire wove into view, his blond hair a blurred halo. Someone had spilled ale down Conaire’s tunic, and there was a dark patch over his chest. A woman was hanging around his neck, her breasts pushing against her thin gown. Conaire was laughing and untangling her hands, trying to make his way through the crowd.
Eremon swayed back on his bench, desperate for air. By firelight and torchlight, people’s faces swam in and out of focus, sheened with sweat, flushed with drink. Talorc was by the spits with a sick-looking Rori, forcing more mead down the young man’s neck while the other men laughed.
Aedan was nowhere to be seen.
Foolish bard. He’d gone down on his knees outside and begged Eremon’s forgiveness for singing that lay of the murdering sons of Mil, who turned, each on the other, and fought to the death, bringing Erin to its knees. The lay of that first Eremon, who killed his brothers for the throne of Erin. A tale too close to home.
Aedan got so carried away proving Eremon’s lineage, boasting about him in front of these people, that he forgot the very reason they were here, and what they had to hide.
Kin-strife obviously runs in the family. Eremon swigged mead, and smiled. Ah, the bard was only doing what a bard did. They existed to boast about their lords. Eremon was really only a little angry. After all, who here would make the connection? No reprimand had been required, anyway. Aedan’s shame was punishment enough, and he had crawled off to be alone. Eremon would ask him to write a song about the wedding. That would keep him happy.
In front of him, Finan and Colum were crouched over abrandubhboard in a cleared space; bets of rings and daggers were being passed furiously back and forth over their heads. The druids were long gone, as were most of the women.
Eremon shifted uncomfortably. His belt was too tight, for he had gorged himself on boar. But he was given the champion’s portion, and could not refuse. He could not refuse the toasts of his new kin, either.Ah! I should not get drunk, not now. It’s not safe. He peered at Conaire, willing him to come closer.
Something moved next to him. The girl. His bride. His wife. She had said nothing to him, but remained still and white-faced, rigid in her seat. The people and laughter and shouts, the drunken jests and spilled mead, eddied around her as if she were a pale rock in the middle of a dirty river. He looked at her. Her gaze was far away, locked on some point in the darkness of the roof. Why had she not gone to bed? She did not seem one for feasting like this.
In a sudden burst of bravado, he leaned into her, swaying slightly. ‘I will retire if you wish, lady. It has been long enough?’ With a great effort, his words came out clearly.
He sensed the way she froze, even though she did not move. Living skin became stone, just for a moment. Then she turned her head. ‘No,’ she said, and the word sounded bitten off, her voice harsh. ‘It will never be long enough.’ She turned away again.
He did not know what to say. His brain was stuffed with wool, and nothing, no thought, would emerge clearly enough from the tangle of the rest. He realized, vaguely, that she seemed upset. But why? Most maidens were eager for the marriage bed, few were wholly inexperienced. Or perhaps this one was. She could certainly freeze a man’s balls at a hundred paces. He knew he must do something … must say something …
‘Eremon!’ Conaire’s hand landed on Eremon’s shoulder and he squatted awkwardly by his side, favouring his wounded leg.
‘Where’ve you been?’ He could hear his words were slurred now. He shook his head to clear it.
Under cover of the noise around them, Conaire leaned close to his ear, grinning. ‘Where do you think? I’ve been in the stables tumbling the young lass who spilt her drink on me!’
‘I’m not.’ Conaire pushed sweaty tendrils of hair back from his face, and then deposited a piece of straw on the bench next to Eremon. ‘She was very sorry for soaking me.Verysorry.’
Eremon laughed, then hiccupped. ‘Brother – they’re getting me drunk.’
‘Couldn’t say no, wouldn’t be polite … to my new kin.’
Conaire picked another piece of straw out of his tunic. ‘Certainly not. I’m honoured you’ve made the sacrifice for us.’
‘But it’s not safe. The men …’ He waved vaguely around the room.
‘By the Boar, man! You deserve it.’ Conaire settled his arm around Eremon’s shoulders. ‘Anyway, I’m here. I’ll look after them all, don’t worry.’
‘You … sure?’
‘As sure as the girl was sorry.’
‘You’re a good friend.A good friend.’ Eremon patted Conaire’s hand in emphasis.
‘Now, my prince, save all that energy for your lady wife. I’ll see you safe to bed, never fear.’
‘Bed! Ah, bed. I shouldn’t have drunk this much.’
‘Don’t worry, she won’t be expecting a lot.’
‘Hush, she’ll hear.’ Eremon hunched himself around Conaire in an attempt to shield his words.
‘No, she won’t. She’s gone.’
Rhiann lay rigid, ears straining. The apple-wood fire threw off wafts of fragrant smoke, lacing the wattle walls of the hut with shadows.
The bed in which she lay was rawhide over a wooden frame, with a down-filled pallet, soft and springy. The linen sheets were cool on her bare legs, scented with imported lavender. The furs on top were the softest: otter and seal and beaver. No labour had been spared to make this bed a haven of beauty.
Her hand crept again to her waist, to the hard bulge of the priestess pouch. The young maidens who attended her had removed her outer dress, her undertunic, and her jewellery. One of them combed out her hair with a silver and bone comb, until it fell before her eyes in a silken sheet, copper in the firelight. They scented her skin with honeyed oils, giggling all the while. But she batted their fingers away from the lacing of the shift under her breasts, and with a glance at her forbidding face, they let her leave it on. They could think her modest; she did not care. She just wanted them to leave.
Now she lay there, in the half-dark, and did not know what to do.
Her breath came in shallow draughts, struggling to draw air into the heavy flesh that was her body. The detached part of her noted:You are a noble woman. You are a priestess. You must know what to do.
But she didn’t. Her thoughts rolled around her head; one moment freezing into blankness, the next tumbling into fire. The moments crawled by, as moments do when they have been a source of dread formoons. She had avoided this moment, buried the knowledge that it was coming at all, and then, suddenly the time was here, now.
And she must face it. Hiding inside her mind no longer worked, because it wasn’t a case of minds now, of thoughts, memories, fears. It was about flesh, a man’s flesh, his breath, his force.
She pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes. She could leave. But then every reason for marrying him would be meaningless, and her people would be no better off. It wasn’t an answer, no matter how strongly it beckoned.
She must do the only thing she could do, and that was to use the iron-hard priestess discipline she had learned on the Sacred Isle, to wall herself up. The focus that was required for seeing, that she could use; the way of making sure that thoughts and feelings did not intrude. She could do that …
Outside, there was the sound of stumbling tread on the path, and men’s voices.
And all the moments collided into one.
Eremon was being jostled in a crowd of drunken men. Talorc pushed another cup of mead at him, spilling it down his tunic. ‘More, have more. Consort of the Goddess … needs to be strong …’
‘No … no more.’ Eremon tried to catch himself from falling, as Talorc laughed and clapped him on the shoulder with one meaty hand.
Behind them, his men and many of the Epidii warriors were weaving along the paths between the houses, singing. A few stopped to bay at the moon, swimming through the racing clouds above, before breaking down into snuffles of laughter. Hounds barked in answer, and a woman’s voice cursed the men for the noise they were making.
‘I can walk,’ Eremon slurred. ‘Let me go.’
‘Here we are. Here we are!’ Talorc turned and called needlessly to the revelers.
Eremon leaned on the wall of the wedding hut. After coming out into the cold air, his bladder was bursting. The men swayed around him, still singing. Conaire took Eremon by the shoulders and said solemnly, ‘May the tusk of the Boar stand up hard tonight.’ His eyes twinkled in the moonlight, and the crowd shouted with laughter.
‘Ha!’ Talorc guffawed. ‘And may the White Mare be warm and wet for her stallion, eh?’ He pulled Eremon to him in a bear hug, his breath reeking of ale. ‘Your seed is our seed, brother. All of you! Health to the house of Ferdiad!’
‘The house of Ferdiad!Slàinte!’
As Talorc released him, his moustache scraped Eremon’s cheeks. ‘Tonight, we add our strength to yours. Stand together, and we’ll beat these dogs back to Rome, where they belong!’
‘To Rome!’ In a rumble of laughter and heavy tread, the men began to disperse. Conaire gave Eremon’s shoulder a quick squeeze, and then he too was gone.
Gods. They are leaving, at last.
Abruptly, Eremon was alone on the path among the dark shapes of the houses. He fumbled in his trousers, and with great relief, passed his water as he leaned against the hut, his head pillowed on one forearm. When he finished, he raised his head, and the world shifted up and down disconcertingly.
Ah! I am drunk, then.
Well, what he had to do wasn’t difficult. He knew he was good. That girl at his cousin’s dun had said so … what was her name? That was two moons ago – two moons! With that thought, his body suddenly awoke with heat, a heat that suffused his loins and thrust his fuzzy mind impatiently aside. He took a deep breath, pulled the door cover up, and went in.
The hut was small, with the bed pallet to one side of a central fire. On the other side was a single bench. Among the bedclothes, there was a dark shape on the pillow; her hair. He could not see her face.
He stood by the bench and tried to pull his boots off, but swayed so dangerously that he sank down on to it, and tugged them off from there. His clumsy fingers fumbled over the brooch to unfasten his cloak, but he got it in the end. Then his belt, with his sword. Then the new tunic, the gold thread scratchy against his cheek, and then his trousers. They became tangled around his ankles, but by the time he got them off and straightened, he noticed how hard he already was.Gods! Two moons! Finally, he slid off his torc and finger-rings, leaving only the boar tusk around his arm – perhaps it would give him strength.
All the while, the girl lay silent, her face and body turned away.
She is shy. He sat down heavily on the bed, pulling the fur covers and the sheet back. The pallet dipped under his weight. All he could see was her white shift, and her hair spilling out over it. Her glorious hair. And then, with a shock, he recognized the pale pearl-sheen of skin. One shoulder, peeking out from the slashed neck of the shift.
His pulse leaped in his throat, and his breath caught. The heat in his loins ignited into an urgent flame.Steady.
Some part of him would normally be whispering to take it slow, not to scare her. But tonight, that Eremon had been drowned in a tide of drink and lust that had taken him by surprise. What did Conaire always say?You’re too serious. Have some fun. Well, tonight he was doing that.
He put his hand out, to where the shift was rucked up a little against her hip, and moved it down to the lace edge. There, his fingers touched soft, warm skin. Living skin, the first life he had seen or felt in this cold beauty. The firm muscle of a white thigh.
There was no response. She seemed frozen. Frozen by shyness? Uncertainty? Well, he would make her certain; certain that she wanted him.
Slowly, so slowly, he slid his hand up inside the shift, up the thigh, to where the muscle gave way to the round swell of a hip. Gliding over that, he dipped down into the achingly velvet texture of her waist. His breath was coming so high and fast now that the dizziness had returned.
And then he felt it. The slightest quiver of her flesh. He knew he would be able to rouse her. Encouraged, he moved his body up to press against the length of hers, and grasped her by the shoulder.
Goddess of Light Lady of the Forests Giver of Life Bringer of Death She of the Three Faces Raven of War Mother of the Land Goddess of Light Lady of the Forests Giver of Life Bringer of Death She of the Three Faces Raven of War Mother of the Land Goddess of Light…
From far away, Rhiann was aware of him sitting in the bed.
It doesn’t matter.
She felt the heat of his body as he moved closer.
It doesn’t matter.
Then the alien hand touched her skin – and that is what broke her.
No! He will take; take what I do not choose to give!
The litany and the distance and the numbness slipped away. She tried desperately to grasp them, to hold them around her nakedness, but they were gone …
She is on the beach again. The sand crunches under her feet …
This time, the sudden shout behind is not just a shout. She scrabbles up the hillside … she is nearly free … and then an iron hand closes on her ankle.
Hands are everywhere then, wrenching her by the shoulders, throwing her to the boggy turf, so that sharp rocks bruise her breasts. More hands take her shoulders, more power than she has ever felt in her life, holding her down. Her cheek is pushed into a puddle of peat-stained water; the mud sucks at her scrabbling fingers. She opens her mouth to scream, gripped by panic, but the fist hits her. Stars explode behind her eyes, as she is wrenched over on to her back. There is a sound of cloth ripping. Her skin is suddenly cold. On her breasts, her belly. The hands on her shoulders have coarse, black hairs sprouting from them, the nails are dirty and torn. A man’s guttural laugh comes from above those hands, and the weight of a bull lands across her body, extinguishing her breath. A black beard envelops her face; the reek of rotten fish clings to it, stifles her. A wet mouth, wet like a fish, grasps her lips, bites until she tastes blood. There are jeers from above. She cannot move cannot scream cannot think cannot breathe cannot feel cannot see … until iron hands push her knees apart, fingers digging into her skin. She tries to close her legs, but the bull-strength wrenches them open again, and she rails at her weakness. Helpless … helpless … Something rams into her, breaks into her body. But it isherbody … he cannot enter …
She is impaled.
The invader plunges again and again and again … as the pain erupts, searing her insides. And in the dark of her own body he floods her with liquid shame, and she knows that, in answer, her womb weeps blood …
Between one breath and the next, the ice of Rhiann’s mind was shattered by the touch of the prince’s fingers, and in its place rage boiled over. With the strength of a cornered beast she twisted, ripping open the waist-pouch, and in her hand suddenly there was the steel of a dagger, firing off sparks of light.
A dagger pressed into the soft skin at Eremon mac Ferdiad’s throat.
She felt the wildness pour from her eyes, as his face paled in shock, and a single drop of blood welled around the knife tip.
He was helpless … helpless! She rejoiced at that, as her heart sang in her ears, free of its constraints. Blood cascaded through her veins, alive.
‘If you ever,’ she hissed, ‘everlay hands on me again, I will kill you.’
The night was over. Crouched, shivering, on the bench she’d dragged to the open door, Rhiann watched the first streaks of dawn lighten the sky. She glanced down at the dagger in her stiff fingers, noting that, in the grey day, it was dull and lifeless. No sparks of fire flashed from it now.
Goddess, but her body was tired. The flood of rage had burned out just as quickly as it exploded, consuming the last dregs of her energy. Her mind, though, was strangely awake, the lassitude that had invaded it after the raid gone.
Something about drawing that dagger shattered it. Something about reliving the men on the beach, their touches … every agonizing heartbeat. In all this time, she had never let her mind replay that image, those feelings. All her night dreams ended with the shout behind her, when she clawed herself awake. And now this – a waking dream, a vision, brought on by the touch of the prince’s hand.
She twisted to peer inside the hut, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. The prince was seated against the farthest wall, on the floor, as far from her as he could get. He stayed awake a long time in the night, after crawling from the bed and dressing himself. For hours she felt his eyes on her, as she crouched in her cloak by the door, but eventually the drink claimed him. Now his sleeping head was sunk on his breast, his legs splayed out.
She looked down at the dagger again, toying with the weight of it. She could plunge it into that vulnerable breast right now, if she wanted to. Then she sighed, and looked up at the sky.And become like him?
The pureness of feeling, the bright bloom of pain and rage and the unexpected, blessed triumph of that blade in her hand, pressed against his skin – all of it had fled with the grey light of day. For her, it was back to living by the mind. And the first rational thought that came was therealization that she’d drawn a weapon on her new husband, and shed his blood, though the nick was slight.
No one would understand her point of view; of course not. Though rape within marriage was condemned, he had not raped her. And no one knew what really happened on the beach, during the raid – not even Linnet. That was how well she buried it.
This man was her people’s defender. Their hope. In that moment of her release, she had betrayed their trust. Part of her was appalled at what she’d done. Part of her could not help but feel satisfaction.It was a moment of madness, that is all. I would not have killed him.
She glanced back at him apprehensively. Would he declare her mad, then? Shame her before her tribe, repudiate her? Or say nothing, and beat her in the privacy of their bed-place? She realized with a shock that, in her self-absorption, she had taken no note of what kind of man Eremon of Erin truly was. She did not know if he was brutish. Or witless.
Stay calm. Think about this. She tapped the dagger on one finger.
Hehadstayed the night, as she had. After all, they married for sound reasons, and he had much to gain from this alliance, as did the Epidii. What happened was between them, for the moment. Yet would it stay that way? If he rejected her, she would be freed from the marriage, but her people would be weakened again. And the Romans were coming.
Now she heard a rustle of clothing, and she ducked her head, sliding the dagger out of sight under her thigh. It would not do to remind him of that too soon. In a moment, two booted feet entered her line of vision.
‘Lady.’ His voice was deep, though rough with drink and lack of sleep.
Taking a deep breath, she slowly raised her eyes, bracing herself for what she would see. His clothes were rumpled, but he held himself straight, his head high. The nick at his throat was a sliver of crusted blood. His fore-braids had come loose, and dark tendrils wound about his forehead. At last she could no longer avoid his eyes, and so, tensing, she met them. What would lay there? Disgust? Hatred?
What she saw was the last thing she expected, the last thing of all. His eyes were green and unflinching, and in them dwelt puzzlement, curiosity and … pity? ‘Lady,’ he said again. ‘I behaved unspeakably last night, and I seek your deepest pardon.’
She was speechless.
‘I have no excuse but that of mead, if you will take that as any excuse at all. Be assured that, in answer to your request, I will not lay a hand on you again.’
She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
He was adjusting his scabbard on its chains, and peering out at the skyas if getting ready to leave. ‘In view of the alliance between our two peoples, could we agree to keep my … indiscretion … to ourselves? Please trust that you have no cause to fear my attentions again.’
She nearly laughed with disbelief. But he had offered her the way out, so instead, she drew her cloak around her shoulders and nodded stiffly. ‘I will not speak of it to anyone.’ She wondered what else to add, and could think of nothing.
‘Good.’ He was brisk now. ‘And our living arrangements are …?’
‘I am expected to move into the King’s Hall. With you and your men.’ At that, her voice caught a little, and he glanced at her keenly. Pity indeed! She put her chin up. ‘However, I will keep my house as it is, for my healing and ritual duties, for which I need quiet, and space. I will spend most of my time there.’
A silence fell at last.
‘Well, then,’ he added, ‘I have duties of my own to attend to. Lady …’ He bowed to her gracefully, and then he was gone, the clasps on his belt clanking with each step.
She slumped on the bench, blowing out her breath. She had agreed to share a secret. With her husband. In other words – despite her wishes, in defiance of all her plans – a bond of sorts had been formed.
Between her and the prince of Dalriada.
The sling-stone whizzed through the icy air over the marshes, and fell harmlessly into a frost-fringed pool. The flock of black-striped geese rose with honking cries, before wheeling out over the Add, settling far to the north against the hills.
‘Hawen’s stinking balls!’ Conaire slapped the leather sling against his good thigh.
‘If you keep yelling like that, you’ll scare them all away.’ Eremon was crouched in the reeds, blowing on his chilled hands.
‘Ah, I don’t have your patience, brother. Give me a boar to run down any day!’ Conaire squatted awkwardly on his haunches, still favouring his scarred leg, and rooted through his satchel.
Eremon worked the sling between his fingers, rolling the stone around. ‘Patience … ah, yes, a great virtue of mine.’
He could not keep the bitterness from his voice, and Conaire glanced up, his hands around a flask of stiffened boar hide. ‘Still proving elusive, is she?’
Eremon nodded, his fingers tracing the tiny scab on his throat, which he had explained away as a razor nick. He could not tell Conaire what really transpired in the bridal hut a week ago. He was too ashamed – not of his own behaviour, which was barely at fault, whatever he told the girl. But how could he admit that he’d not yet consummated themarriage? Or that a woman had drawn a knife on him; drawn blood? He could not bear the shame. And as for Talorc and the rest of the Epidii; he would instantly lose every grain of their hard-won respect.Andhe could say goodbye to any chance of leading them, of making his name, of returning to Erin in glory …
‘I’m sure she’ll come around soon.’ Conaire shrugged. ‘She must be shy, that’s all.’
She’s mad, that’s all. Well, perhaps not mad. Something must have occurred in her past to make her like that – she had been sorely treated, that was plain. It was only this realization that had stayed his anger the morning after.
That sudden stab of pity had surprised him, as he looked down at her hunched on the bench. Until then, she’d been a forbidding figure, but in that one fleeting moment, she was just a frightened child. Then she thrust out that proud chin, and the moment was gone. But there was a mystery there, it was clear.
And what do you care for such mysteries? he chided himself.What time do you have for such follies? Rhiann of the Epidii was a riddle, best left unsolved. He forced a smile, his jaw tight. ‘Let’s just say that this alliance better prove its worth!’
‘It is that bad?’ Conaire took a sip of elderberry ale, and held the flask out for Eremon. ‘Maybe you need some lessons in the bed-furs, brother!’
Eremon did not return the grin, and the twinkle in Conaire’s eyes faded as he wiped his mouth. ‘Come now! They are expecting an heir, and that is all you must give them. If it’s like that, then grit your teeth once a week with her and think of Erin. Meanwhile, there are plenty of women willing to have some fun. That maid Garda says you are the talk of the dun – the fact that you have not partaken of their charms is driving the women even wilder for you. I say enjoy it.’
Eremon drank, his eyes far away. Then he came back to himself, his face relaxing into a proper smile. ‘You’re right, of course. And anyway, we have more important things to think about. Come.’
They continued down the path that ran between the tussocks of red moss, rimed with frost in the dawn shadows. ‘I’ve decided to ask the council to call in levies from all the Epidii chieftains,’ Eremon announced. ‘We can house the extra warriors here at Dunadd.’
‘But that’s a standing warband – and not how things are done here, Eremon. Just like at home, each chieftain keeps his own retinue of men.’
Upright, they were in the full force of the bitter wind soughing across the marshes, and Eremon tucked his sling in his armpit and blew on his hands again. ‘That is all well and good for cattle raiding, brother, but the Romans are an invading army! The Epidii will have to adapt – or die.’
‘From what I understand, the council won’t be happy to bring inwarriors from the other clans. They’ve been concerned about a challenge to the kingship, remember.’
‘And this is the best way to avoid such a challenge!’ Eremon halted, scanning the reeds. ‘Look! Are they swans?’ For a few moments they searched for a path to the south, until they found one and set off, talking more quietly now.
‘The best way to take control is to weaken the clan divisions,’ Eremon pointed out. ‘We bring the young warriors here, and work on making them loyal to me. They won’t have a chance to get embroiled in any conspiracies. Not only will they be cut off from their own elders, but they’ll all spy on each other, which saves me doing it.’
‘As usual, you’ve thought this through.’
Eremon snorted.And there’s not much else to do on these long nights, when my wife lays with her back to me. ‘There’s another reason,’ he continued aloud. ‘I have to meld them into some sort of coherent fighting force. That Greek treatise was clear: the Romans fight as one. We don’t.’
Conaire sighed. ‘I hear you, but what happened when we tried it in Erin? Everyone broke formation and scattered, but by the Boar we fought like devils! Who thinks of strategy when hungry for blood? For honour, a man fights alone.’
‘Then we’ll all die alone, too.’
Now it was Conaire’s turn to halt in his tracks. ‘Thereareswans! Quick.’ He pulled Eremon down beside him. ‘Steady now. Let’s take it slow and sweet.’
‘You don’t need to tell me that, you great lumbering bear!’
They wound their slings around their hands, and began to creep along the path. Through a gap in the reeds, four white shapes sailed across a dark pool.
Eremon carefully loaded the sling with a ball from the pouch on his belt. Out of the corner of his mouth he whispered, ‘How many women was Garda talking about?’
They returned to the gates of Dunadd at full morning, a swan slung across each back, fingers raw with cold, bellies growling. As they neared the King’s Hall, Eremon caught the arm of one of a passing pair of servants.
‘Girl!’ Eremon untied the swan from his shoulders and shrugged it to the ground, gesturing to the girl and her companion. ‘I want you to take both these birds to the Lady Rhiann. The feathers are a gift, tell her, from me. From me, do you understand?’
‘Yes, lord.’ The girls giggled, glancing covertly between the swansdown and Conaire.
As he and Conaire strode away, Eremon caught his brother’s raisedeyebrow, and in answer he shrugged. ‘No harm in trying. She is a woman, after all.’
The festival of Samhain had arrived at last; the greatest of the four fire festivals, for it marked the dying of the old year and the renewal of the new.
For days beforehand, the herders drove great streams of cattle down from the summer pastures to gather on the fields about Dunadd. There they were penned, until the druids had made the choices of which would be kept for breeding, and which would be slaughtered. The air was filled with the sound of their lowing, and the rich smell of their dung.
It was not only cattle gathering in from the far glens. People, too, were coming, for all the tribe must participate in Samhain. Now, the veil between the Otherworld and Thisworld grew thin, and it was a dangerous time: mortals could be drawn into the arms of the faery-people, the dead walked again among the living, shape-shifting beasts stalked the land.
Against this, the people must come together to be renewed by the Goddess, to commune with their ancestors and placate the forces that threatened to bring them into chaos.
On Samhain eve, Rhiann sat by her own fire in silence. This night she wore only one robe of undyed wool, and no ornaments beside a crown of rowan-berries. Her body felt lighter than it had at the betrothal, weighed down as it was then with gold and heavy wool. That had been an earthly rite, and as such needed the material things to bind her. Tonight, she must have as little as possible between her and the Otherworld.
‘Mistress.’ Brica was by her side, holding out an earthen cup of a dark liquid. Thesaor.
Rhiann drank deeply, fighting down the sickness in her belly. Samhain was the most sacred of nights, the start of the new year. The Goddess must be able to manifest, to calm Her people’s fear at the coming of the long dark. But would this be the night when Rhiann was unmasked? When all would know that she no longer felt the Goddess within? That she could no longer see?
Rhiann sighed and rose, standing before the sacred figurines on their shelf. Then her fingers closed over one, the image of Ceridwen in her guise of Crone, the cauldron of rebirth in her hands. Tenderly, Rhiann placed the tiny figure in her waist pouch, under her robe, close to her skin.
Brica lifted the door cover and peered out, and Rhiann saw the triangle of black above her head, spangled with stars. Her escort would be here soon.
Now Brica came back to the hearth with the kettle in her hands, and she doused the last coals still glowing in the fire-pit. The house was plunged into blackness, and with the light went the old year. The new year would begin when Rhiann lit the great fire in the valley of ancestors, to the north, and the riders returned with flaming torches to ignite every hearth-fire at Dunadd.
There was the triple rap of a staff on the wall beside her door.
‘Mother of the Land, rider of the White Mare. Your people need you to renew the fire. Come!’
Meron’s voice soared to the cold stars above. From her position atop the old mound, Rhiann could see the black hole of the fire-pit yawning below, filled with the nine sacred woods, unlit. Although the moon was dark, and the crowd of hundreds silent, she could sense them on the plain around her, their breath rising in the frosted air.
Thesaorbegan to throb through her veins in time to the single drumbeat that accompanied Meron, and when his song ended, Gelert took up the chant to the dead, who this night walked in Thisworld as if alive.
By now, Rhiann was in the floating place where she saw little, and felt even less. Even so, a fleeting sorrow brushed her, light as a swallow wing, when she laid down a honey-cake for her foster-family in the feast of the dead. Yet that was all that came.
She sensed the Goddess presence on the fringes of her consciousness, just beyond her finger-tips. But the burning that used to envelop her was no more than a feeble warmth now that did little to thaw her heart. She hoped that the people could not see this; that to them she appeared as she used to, the priestess glamour swathing her like a cloak, making her taller, straighter, greater …
Linnet’s touch came at her elbow. At her feet, two druids had kindled the need-fire, and were handing her a pitch-soaked brand. She held the torch in the fire until it burst into flame, and straightened, the sparks streaming away above her head.
And then, through her fear, words came, and the priestess voice to carry them, more resonant than her own, more ancient.
‘My people!’ she cried. ‘The land returns to My womb, there to be renewed. All will sleep the long sleep, but in My Darkness, old shall be made new again. As you shall be. Take this fire as a symbol of the light that will continue to glow, ready to flower once more when the sun returns. Fear not! For I am with you in all the turns of the days!’
From the flat valley bottom, Eremon watched the brand arc high in the air as Rhiann threw it into the great fire-pit. But he could not take his eyes off her, not even when the crowd parted to make way for thecloaked riders who, crying to the Mare, streamed back towards Dunadd with flaming torches.
It was the first time he had seen his new wife as Goddess, and when her voice changed as she made her proclamation, growing sonorous, deeper, the hairs on the back of his neck rose. Yet as the drums and pipes began, and figures began to dance around the roaring fire, he also saw that she was untouched by the crowd’s release of tension, the renewal of laughter and talk. She remained unmoving atop the mound, and in her pale robe, her hair bleached by the starlight, she was a shard of ice: detached, unreachable, untouchable.
His heart chilled, he turned away.
There was mead and ale flowing now, and he drew a drink from the barrels, content to wrap himself in his cloak on the frosted slopes of the narrow valley that cupped the line of ancestor mounds. So much had happened in such a short time, that he took any opportunity he could to sit and think. It was, after all, the thing he did best.
The dancing had become wilder now, to chase away the restless Samhain spirits, and Eremon chuckled to see Conaire being pulled enthusiastically into the fray by the girl called Garda. She had been stalking his poor foster-brother for weeks now.
He jumped and looked up. There, next to him, was another girl. He’d certainly noticed her around the dun, mainly because of the way that her eyes always followed him. Round, blue eyes, they were, and she had a lush figure and thick, yellow hair. He smiled, not knowing her name.
‘I am Aiveen, my lord, Talorc’s daughter. I have been wishing to speak with you.’
A bold one, she was, then. No woman had yet dared to approach him, though tonight, for the first time, he was ready for them to do so. The mood of the dancing was infectious, and he had not forgotten Conaire’s words on the marsh that day. He took a sip of mead, and then, impulsively, held the cup out to her. ‘Then speak with me, daughter of Talorc.’
She sank down next to him and held her hands for the cup, drinking, holding his gaze while she did so. ‘Are you enjoying our feast, my lord?’
‘Most certainly. And more so now I have some company.’
She dimpled, lowered her eyes with false modesty and turned her cheek away. Ah, there it was. So the games begin. First the coyness, then the suggestive comments, and then her leg would brush his … All of a sudden, he reconsidered whether he could be bothered with the predictability of it all.And it’s an attitude like that, my lad, that will keep your balls blue for many moons to come.
His eyes roved down her cheek, to where full breasts swelled againstthe neck of her gown. And then, in the light of the nearby fire, he noticed something. The hood of her cloak was fringed with feathers. Swan feathers.
He frowned. ‘Where did you get those?’ He flicked one with a finger.
For the first time, she looked uncertain. ‘My mother received them as a gift for me. I thought …’
Abruptly, he laughed, raking his fingers through his hair. ‘I see.’
So that’s what Rhiann did with his gifts. On the far mound he could just see her, outlined against the fire, still and pale. So far away. Maybe there was no point in trying after all.
Aiveen’s leg brushed his, and he decided to put Rhiann out of his mind. He leaned back, his elbows pillowed on the cold ground by his cloak, and smiled at the girl. ‘The feathers become you very much.’
She dimpled once more, sure of him again. ‘Thank you, my lord.’
‘And no more of this “my lord”’. He brushed her cheek slowly with a finger. ‘My name is Eremon. You may use it.’
‘Thank you, Eremon.’ She rolled his name around her tongue with obvious relish, and he felt an answering stab of warmth between his legs. She sipped the mead and gave it back to him. ‘So, do you celebrate Samhain in the same way that we do?’
‘Mostly.’ He looked around at the dancing and the firepits, the small bands of musicians. ‘But we don’t have priestesses.’
A frown touched her brow at that; she would not want to be reminded of Rhiann. Cursing himself, he reached out and ran the back of his hand down her arm, and felt her answering quiver. Then she lay back on one elbow, near to the circle of his body. The movement made her breasts press even more tightly against the fine wool of the dress. When he raised his eyes to her face, her saw her knowing smile.
‘And what do you do when the feast is over?’ Her voice was low, throaty.
He knew that note well. This was proving much easier than he’d anticipated. A little too easy, if truth be told, but it made things simpler. If he did not have to win her, then she would expect nothing from him. ‘We honour the gods with our bodies. What do you do?’
She laughed, throwing back her head to expose her white throat. Her teeth were pearly and even in the firelight. ‘We, too, do this.’
‘And how long until such – diversions – begin?’
She smiled and looked at him directly. ‘The women have wondered about you. They said you would be difficult; that you must not like girls.’
‘No one has tried.’
‘Well, I am brave.’
‘Yes, you are.’ He stroked her hand again. ‘And what will you say to these women now?’
‘I will tell them that you don’t like girls, of course.’
He laughed. At least she had some wit; it made things slightly more interesting. ‘You did not answer my question.’
‘And that was?’
She took the mead cup from him and rested it on the ground, then rose. In her eyes was triumph. Ah, yes. Being the first would matter to a girl like this. For a moment, he wondered about her father, but then put the thought out of his mind. He was a prince: it was an honour for her to find favour with him, and Talorc would be pleased at the connection.
‘Eremon of Erin should wait for nothing.’ Her hand was out, and she pulled him to his feet. ‘Is that cloak of yours warm?’
He leaned in, his hands resting lightly on her waist. He could feel the curve of it, the burning of the skin through the cloth. ‘The cloak is not so, but I am.’
As they left the firelight for the darkness of the valley slopes beyond, Eremon cast one look back over his shoulder. The lonely figure on the mound had not moved, and even in the midst of all that swirling, ruddy firelight and flickering heat, she was silver and still.
‘Eremon.’ The whisper came out of the dark. He turned and followed it.
There was the taste of first snow in the air on the day they began the curing of meat for the coming season. It was heavy work, and bloody, too, but Rhiann relished the sheer physical effort of it.
She was supervising the women in the curing shed. One side was open to the slaughter yards, and the thin air was filled with the steam of cattle breath, the curses of men and the stumbling and pushing of beasts being driven in from the gates.
‘Here, my lady.’ One of the servants handed her a cloth to wipe her fingers, as she finished pressing a haunch of flesh into a pan of sea-salt.
She didn’t really need to be here. She’d already blessed the cattle for slaughter, and the older women of the dun knew better than she how to cure the meat. But soon the snows would close in, and she would be trapped inside with little but sewing to do for many moons.
She stifled a sudden yawn, and saw the servants looking at her sidewise. The last thing she wanted was to give them more to talk about. The dark rings under her eyes and her exhaustion meant only one thing when one was new-wed. If only they knew the truth.
She barely saw her husband, in between gathering the last berries, skimming and curdling the last milk, and blessing the grain pits as they were sealed with their caps of clay. She ensured that the prince and his men had food, but often did not eat with them, excusing herself to attend the sick in her own house. Even if she did eat in the King’s Hall, she and Brica sat on the women’s side of the central fire, keeping to themselves. It was only at night that he was near her, for they must share a bed in an alcove on the hall’s upper gallery.
But – and she still could not believe it – he never touched her. He never even came close to touching her. After sitting late with his men, he pulled back the screen around their bedplace to find her hunchedagainst the wall, and in return, when he lay down, he kept close to the pallet’s edge. She could not even feel the warmth of his body.
At first she had lain there awake, rigid with tension, waiting for the hand on her shoulder once more, and not knowing what she would do when it came, for the hall was full of people now. Every night, she heard him shift and turn, and knew that he lay awake, too. But the touch never came. Subsequently, their shadowed eyes and short tempers triggered many knowing glances around the dun, and speculation about what was keeping them awake. It was an unbearable torture for Rhiann, but there was worse.
For now, she really had no choice but to admit to herself that Eremon of Dalriada had some honour after all.
Her eyes were gritty and weeping from the sharp, snow-tainted wind, and now she blinked to clear them. More glances came her way.Dear Goddess.
She dipped her fingers into one of the pickling barrels and touched them to her tongue. ‘Maire,’ she said to the servant standing by, ‘add five more ladles of salt. And Anga, we need extra bulls smoked this year: one hundred altogether.’
Throwing down the cloth, she took up her cloak and walked to the gate that opened on to the main village path. Her nose was running, and her hands were beginning to ache from cold.
I’ll get Brica to pour me a hot footbath.
Just then a sweet scent wafted over the blood and snow, as a jewelled Aiveen and her attendants hurried by. The reason for her haste was soon apparent, for Eremon and his men had entered at the gate. As the group passed her by on their way up the village path, Rhiann saw Conaire say something, and Eremon reply with that sardonic half-smile, and Aiveen throw back her head, fingers pressed to her throat, her high, tinkling laughter carrying over the bustle of the village.
Rhiann grimaced. Honourable the prince may be, but possibly stupid, as well, if such a girl turned his head.
On the first day of snowfall, Eremon received a druid visit in the King’s Hall.
‘No, Rori, duck under, don’t step back!’ Eremon pushed himself away from the roof-post and grabbed Rori’s sword arm.
The boy’s opponent, Colum, rested his sword-tip on the floor, breathless and grinning, as the other pairs continued to spar in the cleared space to the side of the hearth, where the feasting benches had been pushed back. Conaire and Aedan were playingfidchellon the far side of the fire, beside a steaming cauldron of venison stew. Under their stools, Cù was tied up, sulking.
‘Watch,’ Eremon instructed Rori. ‘This is the move that Colummade. I’ll do it slowly. Now, show me again what you just did. You stepped back here and—’ Eremon lunged in with his sword, and brought it up short, with the tip touching the vulnerable skin under Rori’s armpit. ‘See? You exposed your whole flank! Just because he changed his attack, doesn’t mean you abandon that defence I taught you. Does it?’
Rori flushed to the roots of his red hair. ‘No, sir.’
‘Do this in battle and you’ll be gutted like a fish.’
The doorway darkened, and Eremon glanced up to see Gelert standing there. He turned back to Rori. ‘Now, do it again. Colum, swap with Fergus. I want to see the lad up against a different fighter.’
He left them and strode over to the druid, who was scanning the room with his sharp eyes, a mantle of bear-fur over his pale robes. ‘You turn our King’s Hall into a battleground,’ Gelert observed.
Eremon wiped sweat from his face with his bunched-up tunic and shoved it under his arm. They had all stripped bare to the waist to train close to the fire. ‘And that is the reason you invited me within it. Will you have some ale?’
The druid waved his hand dismissively, but Eremon accepted a cup from one of the servant girls. He drank it dry, making no effort to put the tunic back on. Gelert eyed his sweat-streaked chest with visible disdain. ‘Belen tells me that while I was away in the north, you badgered the council into supporting a strange plan of yours. Levies.’
Eremon handed the cup back to the girl. ‘That’s right.’
‘This is a delicate matter, prince. We are trying to keep our throne, not invite rival clans to take up residence here.’
‘I gave the council sound reasons, and that is why they agreed. If you wish me to be your war leader, then you must let me lead.’
‘On the battlefield, yes, but—’
‘Lord Druid, I am trying to build you a warband that will be strong enough to take on the Romans. We are not dealing with cattle-raiders any more. Things will need to change.’
Gelert’s eyes flashed. ‘You are dealing with tribal matters. You should have come to me; that was our … understanding.’
Slowly, Eremon rested the tip of his practice sword on the earth floor, leaning on the hilt with both hands. Though the druid did not move, a muscle twitched in his cheek.
‘Iamdealing with tribal matters, yes,’ Eremon replied. ‘But at such a time, war and politics are one and the same thing.’ He let his eyes wander casually over the shields crowding the walls of the hall. ‘It’s strange but, in Erin, our druids confine their considerable powers to the spirit world. They leave the messy business of war to people like me.’ He fixed Gelert with a cool stare. ‘Am I to understand that things hereare different? If so, I’ll ask Belen and the rest of the council to explain it to me.’
Gelert regarded him for a long moment, his eyes veiled. ‘The sea lanes will be open again in only a few moons.’ The druid’s voice was velvet. ‘I must consult with you on where your father’s dun lies, and how best to get our messenger there.’
Eremon bowed his head in acknowledgement. ‘I will consider that nearer the time. But for now, there is much to do, and there will be more when the warriors arrive. So if you’ll allow me to get back to my training …’
Gelert gripped his oak staff, his hands white over the owl’s eyes. Then he turned for the door. ‘Until leaf-bud, then, prince.’
Eremon watched him go, suddenly sensing Conaire beside him. ‘Should you antagonize him so, brother?’ Conaire asked.
‘He needs to be reminded of his place. An understanding, ha! I will be no man’s hound, to come at his call. Perhaps it is time for him to find out what he took on when he made me that offer.’ Eremon threw his tunic down on the nearest bench. ‘Come! Get your blade. I need to sweat this druid stink out of my skin!’
Rhiann hefted the heavy babe on her hip. ‘Goddess, but he’s a weight. He’s fattening up nicely now!’ She tickled the baby under the chin, and he giggled and butted his head into her shoulder.
‘He is now, thanks to you, lady.’ Aldera, the wife of Bran, the smith, smiled at her son indulgently. They were standing outside the door to Bran’s house.
‘Now, I still want you to give him the powder in mare’s milk every day for one more moon. Brica, have you given Aldera the packet?’
‘I have, mistress.’ Brica was hovering over Rhiann with her cloak, eyeing the new crust of snowfall on the path.
Just then Rhiann caught sight of Gelert coming down through the Horse Gate from the King’s Hall, his face thunderous. Behind him trailed some of the novices in training. As he drew level with them, he slowed his steps.
‘Lord Druid.’ Aldera bobbed a curtsy.
Gelert nodded at the women, and then his sharp glance took in Rhiann standing there with the baby. His eyes roved over her, resting so very deliberately on her belly. Rhiann just as deliberately kissed the soft hair on the baby’s head.
She knew that Gelert missed little, and was no doubt marking her thinness and the worn creases of exhaustion. Yes, the pleased smirk that crossed his face as he kept walking left her in no doubt of that. He wanted to see if she was breeding. He wanted to see how much pain she was in.
Watching his departing back, the white hair straggling over his shoulders, she toyed with the thought of telling him exactly how she was, just to wipe that sly smile off his face. Showing him that his plans had not hurt her would give great satisfaction … but no. It would do neither she nor her tribe any good to unmask her relationship with the prince right now.
As she and Brica said their farewells and headed home, she was struck by the thought that if the marriage tie was severed, Gelert would seek to wed her to another man immediately. And that man would no doubt prove to be more demanding of his marriage rights than the prince of Erin.
That thought kicked her in the belly, and she froze. Brica halted too. ‘Mistress?’
‘I need to go for a walk.’
Brica looked up at the heavy clouds. ‘It will be warmer by the fire.’
‘I don’t want warmth, I want air.’
Brica bit her lip. ‘You must take care with your health, lady. This lack of sleep …’ She trailed off, and Rhiann saw the anger in her sharp face. Brica still slept in her own bed. She, too, assumed that the prince was keeping Rhiann up of a night to satisfy his lusts.
‘I am sleeping more now, and fresh air is as important as rest, as you well know – though delight in ignoring.’ She said it lightly, as a jest, but Brica’s mouth pursed.
The little woman put the pack of herbs on the ground and took off her cloak. ‘At least put this on underneath your own. I’ve only to go a few steps.’
Rhiann complied, chastened. Brica tugged both cloaks closed around her throat and pulled Rhiann’s hood up. ‘There.’
‘Thank you, Brica.’ The wind on Dunadd’s crest would be fierce, coming in from the northern mountains, so she had to admit Brica was right.
She was having to admit all sorts of things about all sorts of people, she realized, as she walked away. And a cold face framed by dark hair flashed into her mind.
‘Cù!’ Eremon whistled, expecting to see the hound racing back through the Horse Gate at his call. But all he heard was a faint yip from the houses below the shrine. ‘Fool dog!’ he muttered, brushing the feathered snowflakes from his eyebrows, thinking of the warm fire behind him, and Conaire waiting with thefidchellboard. But the hound was still young, not yet running with the king’s pack, and Eremon didn’t want him bothering anyone with his exuberance.
He followed the trail of yelps out of the gate and down between the houses, ducking along unfamiliar paths, slippery with frozen slush.Then, coming around the curve of a wall, he stumbled across a doorway, its hanging tied back. And this place he did know. He approached silently, almost fearfully, alarmed at the rumbles of Cù’s growls coming from within.
It was his new wife’s house. She was alone by her hearth-place, her back to the door, bent over. Both hands were clasping the end of a linen cloth that Cù was gripping and shaking madly, his tail a blur of grey, a growl punctuating each wrench of his head.
Gods! That was all Eremon needed. He raised a foot to step inside, to take Cù in hand, but then checked himself. For a most unexpected sound suddenly rang out. The princess was laughing.
Instantly, Eremon pressed back against the wall. Cù yipped once more, from the side of his clenched jaws, and pulled harder.
‘You’re a strong lad!’ she chuckled, leaning back on her heels, tugging the cloth. ‘But don’t pull me over!’ It was a rich, throaty laugh, completely at odds with the coldness of her features, the thinness of her body, the way she always hunched into herself.
But the moment couldn’t last; a breath before Cù himself noticed Eremon, she swung around, her face a white oval of shock and dawning embarrassment.
He took a step forward, drawing some dignity around him. She’d caught him spying! ‘I’m sorry if the hound disturbed you, lady.’
Cù dropped the cloth and launched himself at Eremon, his paws landing against his chest and throwing him off balance. By the time Eremon disentangled himself, the girl had retreated to the other side of an oak workbench, set near the wall of healing potions. Her face was tilted, and he could just see the curve of her cheek, flaming a deep red.
He racked his brains for anything sensible to say. ‘I – ah – as it happens, I needed to speak with you anyway.’
‘Really?’ She wrapped the chewed cloth around her fingers and grasped the handle of a steaming pot, pouring what smelled like hot beeswax into an earthen bowl. He thought he saw her hands tremble, just slightly.
‘It’s about these levies,’ he said, stepping cautiously to her fireside. On the hearthstone, close to the coals, barley bannocks were toasting, and he sniffed.
‘Don’t tell me the news has not gone around the whole dun.’ He glanced at her, and she lifted her chin.
‘I don’t gossip with the other women.’
‘Yes, I had noticed that.’ He circled the hearth slowly, deliberately avoiding any sharp movements. Cù had by now flopped down by the fire. ‘I’m calling in fifty warriors from each clan to be quartered here, and in the nearby duns. I’m going to train them as one warband.’
‘Fifty each! But that’s five hundred men!’
‘Even that will be no more than a gnat bite on the hide of the Roman army, though it’s a start. They will be here at Imbolc.’
‘Imbolc? But the snows will only just be melting; the storms still fierce!’
On a low shelf near the door he passed a line of squat figurines, ochre-stained. Next to them, a collection of faded shells and dried anenomes. ‘I’m going to clear the King’s Hall and train them inside, in shifts. Any time we can, I’ll train them outside. We’ll need to drill the chariot teams as well …’
‘You are going to train them outside?’ Her voice was incredulous.
‘Yes.’ He reached out to touch the smooth back of a speckled cowrie shell. ‘Armies may not march in the long dark, but we can certainly walk a few steps down to the river meadow.’
She was silent, and he turned, fighting down exasperation. ‘As soon as the weather breaks, the Romans will be on the move again. Do you think they just came here to poke their heads over your border and wave their standards? We must be ready for them. It is the only way.’ He had argued this very point with the council for a full day.
‘You’re right.’ She was nodding. ‘The Romans are here for more than that.’
He blinked, surprised. ‘And how do you know this?’
‘I am a priestess.’
‘You have seen it?’
A pause. ‘My aunt has seen it.’
‘Well.’ That was interesting. ‘Let us speak of this soon. For now, I need you to think about how you’ll distribute the men among the houses, and look to your provisions.’
A spoon clattered to the bench. ‘I?’
‘Yes, who else? You are to all intents the Queen of this dun, are you not? I’ve managed to decipher some of your admittedly strange kin system. And despite the unorthodox marriage that I find myself in …’ At that, she lowered her eyes. ‘Despite this, you are wife to the war leader. I must be able to rely on your support in that area.’
If in no other. He did not say the words, but the bitterness leaped to his throat, surprising him.
Her head reared, as if she heard him. ‘I will organize which houses will take the men. We were already putting down extra provisions in case of siege or war, but I’ll make sure to store more.’
Some small relief swept through him. She would co-operate, then. ‘Good. And I think that we’ll also need extra clothing.’ He patted his leg, and Cù rose to heel. ‘Thank you.’
His awkwardness had returned, but she was stirring her beeswaxsalve, staring resolutely into the bowl. ‘Know that I put my people first. Always.’
As he left her, he wondered if he’d ever hear that laugh again. It would have warmed the hearthside, now that the snows closed in.
The longest night of the dark was seen out with drums and yew boughs, and moon cakes of hazel and roasted acorns. And then, in the midst of a week of sleet storms, a clear day dawned.
Shaking out her riding trousers from the chest where they had lain musty for a moon or more, Rhiann piled on a wool shift and sheepskin tunic, and wound the thongs of her snow boots up her calves. She simply must get out of the King’s Hall. It reeked of old sweat and unwashed male bodies and stew – she was heartily sick of mutton stew! Her eyes were strained and gritty from huddling over embroidery in the firelight, her fingers cramped and clumsy.
When Liath saw her riding cloak, she tossed her head and pawed the stable floor. ‘Are you tired of this, too, my love?’ Rhiann patted her nose. ‘Too much soured barley and too little air. Let’s stretch those legs of yours!’
Despite the clouds there had been little deep snow, and what was left was trampled into a muddy slush that made the going difficult. But Rhiann did not want to keep to the valley paths. She had something else to do. She took the southern trail, and then urged Liath away from it, up the slopes to the east, and into the forests.
There were many places sacred to the Old Ones there, slabs of rock with strange spirals carved on them, and an underground gateway to the Otherworld made of stones. And in a hidden fold of the land, there was a sacred pool, which a spring fed so slowly that the water was always clear and smooth.
Liath plunged gamely through the deeper drifts, her sturdy legs made for such going. Little moved among the ice-rimed branches and pale sunlight, but the robin’s trill still sounded from a high branch, and more bird calls came, carrying far in the crisp air.
Rhiann tethered Liath on a rowan tree by the spring. Tattered scraps of cloth tied around the branches – last year’s offerings – fluttered in thesighing wind that came down from the heights above. She spread out a hide on the banks of the pool and leaned over the water. The surface was unfrozen, and only a crust of ice frosted the moss.
From her pack she pulled a garland of dried marigolds, gathered in sunseason, and a copper arm-ring. It was Gaulish: she’d been careful to choose something that was not Roman. Lastly, she unstoppered a tiny vial of rose-scented oil. Dabbing it on her spirit-eye, she murmured, ‘Elen, water guardian, I come annointed to your shrine. Hear my plea.’ Then she cast the flowers on the water, and gently tossed the arm-ring into the deepest part of the pool. It spun, over and over, then faded from view.
Now Rhiann took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and tried to empty her mind. She’d deliberately not takensaoror any of the herbs of seeing. She wanted to find out if she could do this for herself, to gain some hint of what was in store for them when leaf-bud came.
She remembered the power that surged through her as she looked into the silver seeing bowl on the Sacred Isle … the pillar of light and heat that spilt into the top of her head and poured down her body, as if she stood under a waterfall of light. She ached for it again.
But to find it, she must breathe. And breathe.
Soon, the trickling of the spring out into its stream was dulled. The whoosh of Liath’s breath softened into the keen breeze around her. All she could hear was her heartbeat, and the rasp of her breath, the rush of blood in her ears. ‘Goddess of all, She of the Three Faces, Lady of the Forest. I plead for Your grace. Guide me today in love for Your people. Show me what steps I must make upon the path back to You.’ She opened her eyes and leaned out over the water, holding the steadiness of the heartbeat and the breath in her mind.
The surface of the spring shimmered with colour, and shifting shapes. Were there red cloaks there, swords, a ship? Her throat caught, as she leaned closer, closer, to the shining water …
Yes, yes…I see…
But at the last there was nothing: only her own face, the sun a nimbus around her hair, the branches of the rowan a mocking crown. She sank back on her heels, and bit her lip at the sharp flood of hurt.
It was a slow ride back, Liath stumbling now when before she had been so sure-footed. Rhiann was so sunk in her despair she did not notice the mare leave the path that led back down the slope. But suddenly she reined in, disoriented. ‘Liath, where are we?’
The horse whinnied in reply, and shook her mane. Rhiann turned in her saddle in all directions, looking for a landmark. The melting snow and branches stretched out in all directions, but thankfully, without the obscuring leaves, she could just make out the top of a great rock slab that thrust out from the slope. She knew that; it was a lookout for the scouts.She had just come a little too far north, that was all. If she made for that and cut directly downhill she would hit the main track back to Dunadd.
Long after, she wondered at the compulsion that took her to the rock that day. If the sky had not been clear, or if she had ridden out later, or if Liath had not left the path, she would not have seen what she did.
First there was the scent of smoke. She pulled Liath up. There was movement at the base of the rock: it must be the lookouts, with their fire. She would pass by and see them, ask if they had any news to relay to the dun. Why, then, did she not call out? Why did she slip to the ground silently, and walk closer? Why?
Near the rock, she saw the horses. One of them was a big, black brute called Dòrn – the Fist.
The tribe’s wedding gift to her new husband.
There was a fire under the shelf of rock, on the ground where no snow lay. Close to it, a deer-hide was spread, and a man and a woman were locked in an embrace, oblivious to the bite of the air, oblivious to Rhiann’s pale form standing by a tree on the edge of the clearing. The woman, yellow hair spilling over the roan hide, was Aiveen. And the man’s arms around her were Eremon’s.
Stricken though she was, Rhiann could not make herself look away. She seemed to have lost all control over her eyes.
They lay bathed in the weak sun, close to the fire, moving together as sinuously as otters in a stream. Rhiann had never seen two people twine together in this way, like one being. Around the dun she witnessed rushed encounters against walls, in the stables or granaries. But as for the rest, it happened under cover of darkness, and the moans that came from people’s beds always sounded painful to her.
She stared, burning with shame and fury, yet torn by an awful fascination. The kisses and caresses in the clearing grew more urgent, and she saw the girl’s round breasts emerge from her tunic, saw them covered by Eremon’s hands, shockingly brown against Aiveen’s white skin.
A sickness stirred in Rhiann’s belly, as the kisses became ever hungrier. And then Eremon pushed the girl back on the hide and edged her dress higher, and that part of the act Rhiann knew all too well. With the slapping of naked flesh, and the cries, sharp in the thin air, Rhiann’s own newly-awakened memories rushed in. The same hoarse thrusting and grunting, the crying of her own voice in pain, the smell of old fish on the breath of the black-haired man …
Disgust roiled in her guts like curdled milk. She wanted to run before she was sick, before the dark memories came fully to life. Yet still she could not draw away. It was as if her feet had been frozen in place, imprisoned by the snow.
Aiveen whimpered and moaned again, and this time a deep instincttold Rhiann that this cry was different to her own a year ago. It was low and throaty; not high and sharp. Not pain: pleasure. Rhiann’s spirit was too naked and raw to deny it.
Abruptly, the old trauma faded into the pale-washed sky, and the scene before her leaped out in minute detail. Instead of the rough, red skin of her own attacker there was Eremon’s strong, brown arms, glistening with sweat, Aiveen’s hands spread protectively over tight muscles. Instead of coarse black hairs there was Eremon’s tawny fuzz, glinting in the sun, and his dark braids falling into Aiveen’s eyes.
The moans were growing louder and the thrusts faster now, and Rhiann felt her own breath coming shallow in her breast. And then at last, Eremon let loose a great wrenching cry and collapsed on to Aiveen’s writhing body, and mercifully, it was over.
Rhiann’s feet were released.
She stumbled back to Liath, heedless of the cracking twigs, a sob growing in the back of her throat. After flinging herself into the saddle, she wheeled the horse around, urging her off through the trees, away, away from the sickening scene behind her. But where the slope deepened, and Liath’s hooves began to skid on loose mud, Rhiann suddenly pulled the mare up again, throwing herself to the ground, falling to her knees. And there she vomited in the snow, retching again and again, until all that was left was the spasm.
Shaking, she wiped her mouth, tipping back on her heels against Liath’s leg. The mare leaned down and butted her with concern, and Rhiann twined fingers in the wind-knotted mane, her eyes unseeing.
The forest was silent around her.
All the birds had fled.
She rode back to Dunadd in a daze, now blind to the beauty of the day. The last sun was spilling through a rent in the clouds, slanting low over the ground, picking out each rock and tree branch with gold.
She saw none of it. The fury had cooled to dull anger, though she tried to hold on to its fire. In its place, ice ran in her veins. Eremon could do what he wanted. He had no tie to her. His taste was questionable, but then what more could she expect?
Yet all the while this monologue trailed on, against the backdrop of her mind … through her mind … tumbled images; visions of a clarity she had wished to see in the sacred pool. But they were not pictures of the man with black hair, and dirty nails. They were not the bunching of Eremon’s back as he thrust, the white globes of Aiveen’s breasts, yellow hair spread across the hide. They were images of a far more disturbing nature. And try as she might, she could not exorcise them from her mind.
Eremon’s hands, caressing the girl as gently as he would still a filly.Eremon’s fingers, running tenderly from Aiveen’s waist along one flank. Eremon’s lips, lighting on her shoulder, bare from its dress, as a butterfly lights on a flower.
Rhiann had felt such things with Drust on the Sacred Isle, when he painted her. But that was long ago.
Before the darkness came.
At the rites of Imbolc the women offered to Brigid, goddess of leaf-bud, pouring pale streams of ewe’s milk into the Add and burying kegs of the first butter deep in marsh pools.
And as the goddess heeded their call, and woke the land, the levies of men began arriving.
On a day weeping with sleet, Eremon lined the new arrivals up on the plain by the river, to see what this army of his was made of. There were young boys clutching their bows, their cheeks smooth, their eyes wide; there were thick-set warriors with scar-seamed hands, and cynical mouths; and finally a brace of chieftains’ sons, with bright-checked cloaks and gold torcs, their chins jutting with pride. They watched Eremon – and each other – with hawk-eyes, and he knew why they had come. They were here to take his measure as much as he was theirs, to report back to their fathers what kind of man thisgaelwas.
Eremon, too, had dressed in his best, bearing every arm-ring and brooch he possessed, his boar-crest helmet, and his bright shield. Fragarach was in his hand, the sleet-glare catching on its hilt as he spoke.
Balanced on Talorc’s chariot pole, he explained in rousing terms why he had called them all in. He told them of the voraciousness of the invaders – and exaggerated their riches. He said that he would forge them into a hammer, which could fell the Romans with one blow. He told them they could become the strongest, most valiant, and most lauded tribe in Alba. That few generations had been given the chance to make such a name as they could make now; a name for the bards to sing of for ever.
And as the wind cut across the meadow like a knife-edge, and the melting flakes caught in shaggy, sheepskin cloaks and froze the mud on cowhide boots, he saw the light begin to kindle in the men’s eyes. They nodded and grunted, and inside he permitted himself a sigh of relief.They would go along with him, then, and watch and wait. He had some little time to win them over.
Just then there was a shout from the river ford, and every head turned. Across the meadow, through the sleet, a careering chariot had appeared. Drawn by a pair of black horses, which seemed to fly through the whirling white, the chariot bumped and swayed dangerously on the rutted ground. The driver yipped and slapped the reins across the black beasts’ backs, and they raced faster and closer, making no effort to slow as they neared the crowd, but swinging out in a wide arc. The wicker sides of the chariot and its iron wheels were painted scarlet, and against the grey sky and pale meadow it was a splash of blood on snow.
From his own height, Eremon watched this display with a frown. No one could bring a chariot over land in this weather. It must have been carried – carried! Whoever the owner was, he intended to make an impression.
The chariot executed a wild, sharp turn, but the warrior standing behind the driver kept his feet, and then the gathered levies were forced to scatter as the vehicle came to a skidding halt before Eremon, the horses rearing up in their traces.
With one lithe movement, the warrior leaped from the chariot, and stood looking around with challenging grey eyes. He was of an age with Eremon, taller, though with less breadth at the shoulder. His hair marked him from afar, for it was so fair as to be silver, and acted as a fine foil for the expensive, purple-dyed tunic. His torc was twisted gold and bronze, and his cloak was braided with the four stripes that denoted a chieftain’s son – though this was apparent enough in the set of his chin.
He raised his eyes to Eremon. ‘Are you the son of Ferdiad?’
Eremon stared him down. ‘I am. And who are you?’
The man grinned, but topped by those glacial eyes, it was a baring of teeth. ‘I am Lorn, son of Bettna. My father is Urben of the Dun of the Sun.’ He shook his spear. ‘I come to aid in my tribe’s defence.’
‘I thank you for joining us,’ Eremon said.
‘I thankyoufor joining us,’ Lorn replied pointedly. ‘Your sword arm will be valued in our fight against the Roman dogs.’
Out of the corner of his eye, Eremon watched the other chieftains’ sons. He saw a mixed reaction. Some were absorbing Lorn’s challenging tone, and turning bolder eyes up to Eremon. Others were regarding the new arrival with bristling wariness. He was reminded of the way dogs circle each other, their legs stiff and hackles up. Quite the normal greeting among young warriors, then. He relaxed.
‘Your druids thought so when they made me war leader,’ Eremon rejoined. He had given this young cock enough attention; he did not wish to lose those men whose hearts had begun to turn to his words. He surveyed the crowd.
‘And make no mistake, it is my fight, as well as yours!’ he cried. ‘I am your brother-in-arms, and on the day I took the hand of the Ban Cré, I pledged myself to your service. There will be no “yours” and “mine”. I will share the same food, and laugh through the same hardships and – if Manannán wills it – shed the same blood! We have one enemy only, and that is the Roman empire. Side by side, we can beat them into dust!’
Most of the men howled and cheered and spat curses at the Romans, and as they broke and filtered back through the village gate for the welcome feast, they were already jesting and cuffing each other. Lorn, though, strode with the sharpness of anger, and about him other chieftains’ sons gathered closer, dark as crows.
‘We must watch that one,’ Conaire murmured at Eremon’s shoulder.
‘Yes.’ Eremon’s eyes followed the silver head until it disappeared among the houses. ‘I feel he will not be cowed by words.’
‘Good,’ Conaire growled. ‘Then he will have a chance to meet my fists.’
But Eremon needed to know more. ‘Who is Lorn, the man with the fair hair?’ he asked Rhiann the next day, as she left the dairy shed with a keg of butter in her arms.
She ducked her head, not meeting his eyes. ‘Lorn? His clan is the most powerful after our own – when our own was powerful,’ she amended.
‘And this means …?’
‘It means that he was the strongest contender for the kingship, and his clan had high hopes of installing him so.’
In the weeks following, the plain below the dun echoed with the clamour of swords and hoarse shouts of men-at-arms. The Trade Path was alive with racing chariots; the air filled with whines and thuds as archers and spearmen practised on hide targets.
The hard work made hungry bellies, and Rhiann ordered a line of great pit-ovens to be dug, for baking whole pigs, and stone-lined water troughs for boiling joints of beef. Each woman’s hearthstone was kept hot for bread baking, her cauldron full of barley porridge. The King’s Hall stank of male sweat and rang with male voices. Only at night did the levies disappear to their host houses in the dun, the village, and surrounding farmsteads.
With so many weapons being oiled and mended and forged, and men walking about in clanking armour, Rhiann felt as if she were living in a war camp. When she closed her eyes she could still see the sun glinting off the spear-tips on the plain; and even in the quiet darkness of the dairy shed, her ears echoed from the din.
Yet her dreams were not of battle, or even of armed men. In thenight, a deeper part of her emerged, and the images that stalked her then were of an entirely different nature: Eremon and Aiveen in the woods, laying in the snow, devouring each other with a hungering need.
One night she jerked awake, still seeing Eremon’s brown hand on the girl’s white skin, still hearing the cries …
Snores and mutters drifted up from the main hall below. Next to her, she heard the deep, exhausted breathing of Eremon in his sleep. Her mind was instantly alert, as if it had been chewing over things for many hours, even while asleep. And with the perfect clarity that comes in those dark hours, she suddenly realized the message of her dreams.
How can he be the weapon in my hand, when I have no control over him? If I isolate myself, I lose my chance.
For Aiveen was not the only one enjoying his attentions. A few days before, Rhiann overheard Eremon and Conaire joking about the trysts they had enjoyed on their recent visit to one of the northern duns. And every time he lay with those women, they had his ear, and not she.
Well, I can’t go as far as that.
No, not as far. But his words in her house came back to her, reminding her that she was wife to the war leader. Yes, there was a way forward; her mind pounced on it instantly and held on.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the Goddess had given her the sight that day in the forest after all. Rhiann asked for guidance at the sacred pool. In coming across that scene of lust, Eremon and Aiveen together, perhaps Rhiann had been given that guidance.
So she had lost her deeper spirit powers, and would be no breeding wife to him. But there was one other role to fulfil, perhaps the only role left to her now.
I can’t fight with a sword. But I can use my mind.
Despite the war-light in their eyes that first day, the young nobles expected only to game and feast and hunt in this season. They grumbled at taking the field, for though fine weather broke through a little more day by day, at any moment the sun could be eclipsed by frozen storms that howled down the glen from the mountains, or blew in from the sea.
And at any opportunity that presented itself, Lorn’s voice was the loudest. Eremon had been declared as war leader, and so never asked for opinions, but nevertheless Lorn disagreed about how many men to train as archers, and how many as swordsmen, and argued that the fighting techniques of Erin did not suit the longer Alban swords. Like a stinging gnat, he goaded the men without ever rebelling against Eremon openly.
Then, after one frustrating day, when Lorn’s men ignored Eremon’s commands and broke the formation he had been teaching them, Eremon’s patience snapped. He would bring this to a head now, on theground of his own choosing. Lorn was obviously not a man like Eremon – a man who would reason, or put the good of the tribe first. There would be no other way.
‘Son of Urben!’ Eremon growled, striding across the meadow. ‘I ordered you to practise this formation; practise it until it becomes your second skin! If we were in battle, you would be dead now!’ The silver head jerked up, for Eremon spoke as if to a boy.
Lorn’s eyes flashed. ‘If we were in battle, I would have ten enemy heads on my spear, and you none!’ he boasted.
The lines of sparring men caught the scent of a brewing fight and instantly downed their weapons, racing closer.
‘You teach us to fight like cowards!’ Lorn cried, warming to his theme. He tossed his head boldly and stared down the men at the forefront of the audience. ‘Use this stroke, turn this way, hold your shields like this! We are Epidii, and we fight like champions, from our hearts!’ He thumped his chest. ‘We charge, we dance, we fly! We don’t tramp in lines, like mindless ants! Like Romans!’
Eremon rested the tip of his practice sword on the ground. ‘I teach you to win!’ he shouted for the benefit of the gathered men. ‘Yes, our hearts are the fire in the forge – but Roman discipline is the tempering hammer. We can learn what they will throw against us; and turn it back on them! They fight as one beast: each man part of the leg, the claw, the jaws. We must move together as they do, if we are to defeat them!’
Eremon heard a murmuring at that, but in support or dissent, he could not tell. He rounded on Lorn. ‘And you, son of Urben! I am in command here, no matter what exalted blood runs in your veins! And you will follow my orders or, by the gods, I will throw you out of this warband and send you home to your father with your tail between your legs!’
With a howl, Lorn threw his sword to one side and leaped on Eremon, bearing him to the ground. As he went face down in the freezing mud, Eremon was shot through with a bolt of pure elation, because at last he could let the fire burst free. Howling back, he threw Lorn off and jumped on his chest, landing a blow to his jaw. Around them, the other men erupted into a frenzy of cheering and yelling, and Eremon caught a glimpse of Conaire’s wide arms holding them back, clearing a space for the two scuffling fighters.
That is, until three of Lorn’s cronies broke free, piling on to Eremon’s back where he sat astride Lorn, pummelling his face. The impact knocked the wind from him, and suddenly Eremon was at the bottom of a writhing mound of men, and Lorn’s fist came out of nowhere and slammed into the side of his head.
Stars spun for a moment in darkness, and then from somewhere above there was an unearthly yell, greater than that of all the other mencombined, and Conaire came storming into the fray like a bull on the rampage. Eremon heard the grunts as Conaire laid about him with his huge fists, and the press above him lightened as the men were dragged off one by one and felled with a hammer blow, until only Lorn remained, now pinning Eremon down.
Lorn was cut above one eye, and the blood dripped on to Eremon’s cheek. ‘Yield!’ Lorn screamed, fastening both hands around Eremon’s throat. ‘Son of the bitch of Erin!’
‘Watch your tongue, puppy,’ Eremon gasped, and then twisted to bring his knee up, ramming it into Lorn’s groin. The Epidii youth howled again, this time in pain, and summoning a burst of strength, Eremon took the advantage and threw him off balance until they both fell sideways into the mud. There, Eremon wriggled one hand free, and swinging back his shoulder, punched his fist into Lorn’s mouth. There was another spray of blood, and the hold on his arms slackened for a moment.
They both struggled to their feet. But Lorn had not finished, and he now bowed his legs and curved his arms in the grappling position of wrestlers.So that’s how he wants to play it!Eremon took up his own stance, and for a fleeting moment they were still.
However, Eremon had one advantage that Lorn should have considered. From babyhood, his wrestling partner had been Conaire. And to win against Conaire’s bulk, he’d had to train himself to focus on skill, and not brute strength.
So his eye detected the ripple of tension in Lorn’s legs a split second before he jumped, and as the Epidii warrior crashed into his chest, Eremon let himself go slack. This turned the impact into a measured roll, and Eremon used Lorn’s own momentum to flip them both over until Eremon was again astride Lorn’s chest, pinning his arms with his knees.
‘Now you yield,’ he panted.
Lorn’s eyes burned up at him, his fury tangible. For a long moment they held each other’s gaze, and now it was Eremon’s blood dripping on to Lorn’s grazed cheekbone. Finally, Lorn dropped his eyes, and Eremon released him and got to his feet.
Trying not to wince, Eremon straightened and wiped some of the mud from his face, wriggling his jaw to check it was sound. He took a breath. ‘Now, I want you all to try that formation again.’
Behind him, he heard Lorn struggle to his feet. ‘No.’
Eremon turned. Blood was streaming from Lorn’s brow, and his eye was turning a mottled purple. But his bearing was straight, his shoulders back. ‘I won’t stay here to be turned into a Roman!’ He spat a glob of blood and saliva on to the ground. ‘I am a prince of the Epidii, and I fight like my fathers did. Champion to champion! With battle lust andfury! Not in careful lines, weighing every move like a pack of muttering druids!’
Eremon stood and let the words wash over him. This would not be the last time that he would face these accusations. He could not conquer long-held views overnight. ‘We need every strong arm that we have, son of Urben,’ he said quietly. ‘The Epidii needs us all united.’
Lorn wavered for a moment, before those pale eyes hardened. ‘I serve my tribe well,’ he bit out, ‘by refusing to follow agaeland fight like a coward!’ He whirled, striding across the field toward the palisade, his followers taking off after him without a backwards glance. The other men from Lorn’s clan were confused, looking between his retreating back and Eremon, but then one by one, they, too, threw down their practice swords and trailed after their chief’s son.
Soon after, Eremon heard the drumming of hooves on the southern causeway, and glimpsed the glitter of spears as Lorn and his men galloped out of Dunadd.
‘Well,’ Eremon said to Conaire. ‘We are short fifty men. We’ll have to call up more from the other clans.’
But as the last sun caught on that silver head, disappearing down the muddy road, Eremon sighed.His courage would make him a fine leader. But there can be only one.
Late that night, as Eremon brooded over thefidchellboard, a scout arrived from one of the outlying posts, mud-flecked and breathless from riding. He bore ill news along with the scowl on his face.
The Romans were on the move.
Though the large camp remained, parties of soldiers were now marching across the Forth. And even worse, they were building what looked like permanent quarters. ‘They are smaller than camps, my lord,’ the scout reported, ‘but made of wood, with palisades and ditches … the messenger was not exact.’
Once the scout had been fed and sent to rest, the hall fell eerily quiet: the men’s laughter stilled; Conaire and Eremon’s game forgotten; Rhiann and Brica silent over their sewing.
‘Gods!’ Eremon suddenly smacked his fist into his hand, and rose to pace the hearth. ‘I won’t sit here like some duck on the marsh, waiting for the Roman arrow! I must know what they intend – and when they will come for us.’
‘Maybe we can strengthen the scout network,’ Finan put in.
‘We still won’t see them coming until they are here.’ Eremon strode the length of the hearth-place and back. ‘We need more information. I must have more information!’
‘We could raid these Venicones lands ourselves,’ Conaire suggested. ‘Capture a soldier and make him talk.’
Eremon raked back his hair. ‘Romans don’t venture out alone, brother. And we cannot walk straight into their lines.’
Silence fell. Then Rhiann’s slim form stepped out from the dark shadows. ‘What aboutthroughtheir lines?’
A host of male eyes turned up to her, surprise etched on twenty faces. Eremon knew his expression must be the most shocked of all: she never spoke to any of them freely, and certainly not about such matters.
Standing there primly, in her robe of green wool, hair unbound, sheseemed very young. Then she looked directly at Eremon, and what he saw in her eyes was not youth, but calculation. ‘You do not have the blue designs on your skin. You can pass as Britons from the south.’
Eremon saw the answering leap of interest in the faces of his men, and raised his hand to object.
‘Yes,’ Rhiann continued, thinking aloud. ‘Your men can pass through the southern lands, as can I. You can be my escort.’
‘And go where?’ Eremon cut in. ‘As wandering strangers, we will stand out as if the marks of the Albans grace our own faces. You are talking of a dangerous proposition, not an adventure!’
Her eyes sparked at him. ‘I have a cousin of the Votadini, at the Dun of the Tree, on the east coast. I have not seen her for many years, but she would welcome a visit from me, I am sure. The Romans have already taken the Votadini lands; her people will know more of them and their disposition, their numbers …’
‘It won’t work.’ Eremon knew he sounded curt. But she treated him with complete indifference for moons, and then here she was, poking her nose into war business. ‘We come through their forward lines, from enemy territory – it won’t work.’ He turned his back, dismissing her.
‘Itwillwork,’ she argued, pushing in front of him again. His men glanced at each other, their eyes wide. Then Rhiann took a half-burnt twig that had fallen from the firepit, and began scratching with it on the bare dirt before Eremon’s feet. Amazed, he stared at her for a moment before dropping his gaze to the crude map taking shape in the firelight.
‘We take a boat down this loch to the sea, then land here on the west coast, below the Clutha. From what we know, we will be south of the Roman line at that point. Then we travel up the river valleys, which run down from the high ground – here – coming upon my cousin’s dun from the south. From the territories the Romans have already conquered.’ She dropped the stick and brushed the charcoal from her hands, a challenge in her eyes. ‘I will be a noblewoman from the lowlands, travelling north to visit my family. For Beltaine, perhaps; that would be a good excuse.’ She looked around at them all. ‘If we take a small escort, we can do it.’
Eremon was silent, determined not to get into a haggling match with his wife in front of his men. And yet, as he listened, he had to admit that it could work. It was daring … but just the sort of thing that would impress the Epidii. If he was successful, he would gain more power, and more status among the new levies. And sitting here doing nothing was just as risky – no, riskier. If only he had thought of it. He glanced at Conaire. An unspoken message passed between them.
‘I think it is a good idea,’ Conaire declared, as if trying to convince him. ‘We know that the Romans passed through those lands quickly, sothey must be at peace now. A small escort with – as you say, lady – no Alban markings, would attract little notice.’
‘You are forgetting something.’ Eremon folded his arms. ‘Yes, the Romans passed through these lands quickly – but this means that these tribes are sympathetic to their rule. How else did the Eagles not meet with greater resistance?’
‘That may be true,’ Rhiann returned swiftly, ‘but we won’t know exactly what happened unless we go. Perhaps the Votadini did give in to save themselves. But my cousin is of the sisterhood, and she will support us, no matter what betrayals the men of her tribe have committed.’
Eremon was silent. What she said intrigued him, despite his misgivings.
‘Don’t you see?’ Rhiann broke in again. ‘This is the only way to get the information that you need. It is a perfect plan. I say you should be thanking me, not arguing with me!’
Eremon noticed Finan and Colum biting down smiles, and Conaire sported a distinctly amused turn to his mouth. Rori was looking from Eremon to Rhiann with shocked eyes.
‘The chance of success is high, despite the danger, brother.’ Conaire spoke seriously now. ‘The Romans will take little notice of a few lightly armed men and one noblewoman.’
‘Well,’ Eremon said at last, allowing Conaire to convince him. ‘We cannot sit here, waiting for the snare to tighten. We must take action, for the sake of the Epidii. I say we go.’ He smiled magnanimously at Rhiann, but she just frowned, irritation written into every line of her body.
Good, he thought.That will teach you exactly who leads this warband. My lady.
‘Rori, Colum, Fergus and Angus, you will come with us,’ he added briskly. ‘And Finan, you will stay here and continue the training in my stead. Whatever we discover on this journey, I want the men in some sort of fighting order before sunseason arrives. That is, if we even have that long.’
Rhiann may have won over her husband, but the council of elders reacted with horror at news of her plan. Tharan, the eldest, declared it madness, and even Talorc was unusually implacable in his refusal to let her go.
‘Lady,’ Belen said, ‘our Ban Cré should not be riding around the mountains on some dangerous escapade! She should be here …’ he trailed off, but Rhiann did not miss the glance at her belly.
Yes, the murmuring had already begun, for she had been wed for six moons now, and still no sign of a babe. Which gave her another reasonto press for this journey, for news of the Romans would keep the council’s attention away from her. For a time.
She dragged her gaze to Eremon, who now broke in smoothly to say that he and his men could accomplish the same goal without taking her, and in fact would prefer to not do so. At that, she had to bite down the urge to slap the smug smile from his face.
In the end, support came from the most unexpected quarter.
The meeting was in the shrine, for the day was fine, the air carrying a hint of the warmth to come. And lurking in the shadows of the pillars, it was Gelert who said they should go. ‘It is as the Ban Cré said: the Romans will not touch her. They do not have enough men to keep peace themselves, but rely on winning local chieftains to their side, bribing them with wine and oil. When they feel secure, they move forward. For this reason, the prince and his lady wife will meet few Roman soldiers in the conquered lands. And her status will protect all of them among the tribes. She must go.’
‘You – you support this escapade, Lord Druid?’ Belen sounded amazed.
‘Most certainly.’ Gelert stepped forward, drawing himself up to his fullest height. The morning sun was dazzling on his white robe and hair. ‘The Romans will roll forward until they slaughter our babes in their beds. We must do anything to prevent it.’ His voice rose to the commanding pitch of druid pronouncements. ‘The gods cry out for Roman blood! We must give it to them, or feel their wrath ourselves!’
This proclamation had no effect on Rhiann, but she saw the fear ripple over the faces of the elders.
‘The gods wish us to let them go?’ Talorc spoke gruffly, to hide his discomfort.
Gelert whirled, and opened his arms before the altar. The robe spread out into wings to either side, and the sun poured through the thin wool. ‘They speak to me,’ he hissed. ‘They speak to me in the fire. They say that the journey will safeguard our tribe!’ He spun back, and the robe fluttered out and then was still. ‘The Ban Cré must do her duty, and the prince fulfil his oath. I have spoken.’
Gelert’s words overrode the council’s reluctance, and when the sun was high, the vote was cast to let the party go south.
As she left the shrine, Rhiann threw a look over her shoulder. Gelert was turning back to his altar. He paused and caught her eye; the curve of triumph in his crooked smile was unmistakable.
He had said nothing of their own safety.
Far away, on the Orcades islands off Alba’s northern tip, a king sat brooding in darkness, alone. The wind blew around his hall with a steady roar, as it had all through the long dark, sweeping in from the north across the flat plains around his dun.
He had a shaggy thatch of dark hair and black eyes, like all men of the Orcades. But when his subjects were brought to stand before him, they saw another kind of darkness in his face, and the fire in his eyes burned with no warmth. He had the girth of a bull, and around his shoulders he wore the pelt of the great white bear that ranged the ice lands of the far north.
This king was powerful, and held all of the islands and many leagues of the mainland coast in his iron fist. However, it was not enough.
It seemed to him as he sat there in his dark hall, lit only by a single, sputtering torch and a smoky peat fire, that he was not powerful at all. What he wanted was the warm vales of the mainland, the tall forests and lush pastures, the rich pickings of the trade routes.
He clenched the fist that rested in his lap, and stared into the dirty glow of the fire. He – Maelchon, son of queens – had to dangle here on the edge of the world, scrabbling for the scraps to fall from the tables of the high and mighty tribes of Alba, like a lowly, slavering hound. Take that Caledonii King, Calgacus, arrogant upstart, lording it over them all, flashing his jewels and his horses and his cattle …
Maelchon hitched up his belt as he shifted on his throne, and then, suddenly, he smiled to himself. They were all in for a surprise. Soon, no king or anyone else would look at him with anything but fear and awe.
This thought brought the now-familiar surge of heat to his loins. Every time he gnawed on his plans, he could hardly keep still. But he had to wait, to put them in place with patience, so that nothing wouldgo wrong. It was hard, so hard to hold himself back. It was not his nature.
Maelchon’s excitement was pressing on his trousers now, and he knew he had to get up and move, before this need for slowness drove him mad. He could call for his wife, pitiful creature that she was, but useful for some things … or he could call for his druid, and go and see his broch tower.
He glanced at the dim light creeping under the musty door hanging, and beckoned to the guard waiting in the darkness behind his throne. Judging by the light, it appeared he had time for both. There was not much else to do in this accursed, blasted land.
Kelturan the druid came quickly, as always. He was a tall, thin man with a sallow face and sparse hair, and deep-set eyes that missed very little. He wielded his oak staff of rank, but it was an old stick from the days of his youth. No tree of that lineage grew on these islands – only stunted, hardy rowans that could cope with the endless wind. ‘You will be wanting to start the work teams again, lord.’
Maelchon smiled, for the druid had read his mind, which was why he kept him by, and no other. ‘I do. I have heard that the Caledonii King is considering his defence against the Roman invader. A change is on the wind, Kelturan. Unstable days may be coming.’ He took a gulp of ale, regarding the chipped whalebone cup with distaste. Where were the gold goblets, the bronze-rimmed horns, the jewels? He knew well the answer to that: hoarded by men such as Calgacus, in their lowland duns.
‘It would be better to be within stout stone walls,’ Kelturan was saying, although he knew, as did Maelchon, that the islands had always been protection enough. ‘I shall call the teams back tomorrow.’
‘I want to go there now,’ Maelchon said. He could see the druid thinking about the winds outside, but when he looked into the King’s eyes, all protest died on his lips. As it should.
‘Yes, my lord, but pray, let me get my cloak.’
‘You will come with me now, Kelturan.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
They emerged from the hall into the dank, stinking village, washed with a dull light that crept from behind heavy clouds. Maelchon was followed by two guards, although they were for show, not protection. Here, in his domain, he need fear no attack. His people were spineless. They bowed and scuttled away as he strode down between the scatter of rude houses to the beach.
There, rearing from the shore like a grim, grey crag was the skeleton of a broch, a round tower four times as high as an ordinary house, with immense walls as thick as a man is tall. Its shell was almost complete, except for one wide cleft, and as yet it was roofless. Within the cleft, the stairs and galleries that led from the ground to two upper levels couldclearly be seen. Soon the timber for the floors would arrive from the mainland, the wood costing more than anything Maelchon had ever traded for. But it did not matter.
The broch’s stout walls, its grim heights, spoke of Maelchon’s power. They proclaimed that he was no provincial king to be ignored and scorned. And when his plan was complete, then he would have the gold and the goods to carve and clothe and furnish the broch with rich decorations, until it was a kingly dwelling to rival any in Alba. There he would sit in his majesty, and gather the princes of Alba, and dazzle them. And someday after he would cross over and take all the lands down to the Forth itself: Caledonii lands, Taexali lands, Vacomagi lands. And any bride he wished, of the highest blood.
His heart fed on these thoughts, gloating over them as if they were hoarded gold in a deep chamber of his house.
The druid’s voice shook him out of this pleasant reverie, and Maelchon waved his hand. ‘I will go up alone. Wait here.’
He started up the stairs of the broch, moving heavily but easily, for age had not as yet dimmed his vigour, and the feeling of these walls, of owning these walls, gave extra strength to his step. He came out on to a stone ledge, one of the cross slabs that formed a gallery, and looked over the unfinished walls, to the sea.
He gripped the rough stones and felt their strength, and savoured the knowledge of his dominion over them. He ordered that they be set just so, and they were. All things could be ordered, men most easily, but many other things as well. Even his druid could be controlled – a man of magic, supposedly. Ha! A true king had no time for druid power. For him there was only one kind of power – that over life and death.
He crossed to the landward side of the broch, and gazed down at the people in his village, going about their rude and pointless existence. And as always, anger at them grew within him.
They were good for few things, these island people, providing food and tribute, but little else. Their sheer baseness seethed within him. One day he would take his proper place among the nobility, and he would be lord of all those who thought they were greater than him.
Then it will be different, he thought.Then I will do as I wish.