Monday, November 26, 2007

Chapter 12

‘If,’ said Alaistair to Gillie, ‘my cantref were yours to command, what would you do now?’

Gillie absently watching swallows dip & swing above Slievenamon through the cool spring day didn’t even need to think about it.

‘I should burn his wagons,’ she said absently. ‘All that food ~ an army marches on its stomach.’ It was an old maxim but true enough to make Alaistair smile whimsically.

‘They will be guarded.’

‘Indeed they will.’ Gillie grinned at him, dragging her thoughts away from Slievenamon. Alaistiar’s war hosting was no place for two small boys.

‘So far, so good. Now how would you do it?’

Gillie still wasn’t used to the way he & Owein talked to her as if she actually understood the convoluted plans their minds worked on & as if her opinion mattered. And Alaistair, at least, always did it in moments like this, when there were only the two of them & Gillie’s mind was scampering after rabbits.

She stared thoughtfully over the small hillocky plain ringed by dumpy hills spreading westward onto the narrow isthmus slung high above the raging waters of Tethys Sea that was Slievenamon, with Formaria camped before the causeway like a hungry & impatient wolf. It was a big camp, Fiarach’s war hosting, & it had spread itself arrogantly before Slievenamon but even Firach’s arrogance did not extend to his wagons. They were pulled together in the very centre of his camp & would be difficult to get to but not impossible & for Alaistair’s cantref, used to fighting in their tens as guerillas & not in open warfare, very possible indeed.

‘Fire, said Gillie thoughtfully, thinking aloud, ‘smudge fires in the wagons; no use lighting a fire under them. It would be seen too soon. Use the dak pots…’ Every decade had two or three dak pots, some even more. They were used for holding very hot coals while the cantref traveled because they could be used for lighting a fire quickly at need. They were also used, Gillie knew, as personal hot water bottles, wrapped in the plaid & cradled against the stomach on the more bitter mornings. It was one of the quirks Alaistair turned a blind eye to. Warm bodies fought better & made fewer mistakes. Now he was staring at her with amused respect.

‘You are a wicked woman, Gillie ni Broghan.’

Gillie ignored the jibe.

‘The wagons are too close together; fire will spread quickly & if it is in the wee hours…’ She did not need to finish her thought. With any luck the fire would spread quickly to the tents. They would have surprise & confusion on their side & no~one would be staying round to fight unless they absolutely had to.

‘And,’ Alaistair chortled happily, ‘It is Slievenamon Fiarach will be watching. He will expect any attack to come from that direction so his strength will be to the west.’ He pushed the stray hair back under his cap & pulled his cap down a little more firmly before adding, ‘But you don’t get to come.’ Gillie bit her lip trying hard not to protest.

‘I can’t afford to lose the only healer I have,’ Alaistair said softly. ‘ There will be injuries & I am going to lose men. I need to know you will be here when we return. The men need to know that.’ Gillie nodded resignedly. Anyone caught in the Formarian camp would want to hope that they were already dead.

‘What of the droi?’

‘What does Owein say?’

‘I will have Owein’s thoughts on the matter later. Now I am asking you.’

Gillie shrugged. ‘Not a truthsayer or else we would not have killed so many today. He is here for another purpose.’

‘I think you are right again & I do not think Owein will have anything to add to that though I will ask him just the same. We move tonight.’ For a moment he looked just like Avagaddu & his eyes were Avagaddu’s, hard & cold. Gillie found the family resemblances disturbing because in most ways Alaistair was nothing like his father. ‘I believe there are things you need to do.’ It was a dismissal, abrupt like Avagaddu’s dismissals so often were. Gillie shrugged peaceably enough & left him to think how best to sneak a hundred men into Fiarach’s war camp, set fire to his wagons & get out again with as little risk as possible. Rather him than her, & rather Owein than her when Alaistair had made up his mind & went looking for Owein to issue his orders. And, she realized with a sinking heart, she did have things to do, preparations to make , supplies to check & she would have to do it all because Alaistair was about to have the men busy at their own tasks.

She sighed & began scouting from fire to fire for everyone’s kettles & cauldrons, buckets & even empty wineskins, anything that would hold even a smidgen of water. She was going to need water, lots & lots of water ~ which meant she was going to have to walk up & down the hill to the small burn until every last one was filled. Gillie gritted her teeth & began walking knowing before she began that the up hill slog with heavy, full containers was going to try her patience. She reminded herself, frequently, that she would be the first to complain if she had no water when she needed it. Then she collected firewood because all that water would have to be boiled. When that was done she went to the corner where she kept her things & for the first time lifted out the large rolled pack with its myriad of little pockets holding instruments & salves, bandages & lint, & packet after packet of dried herbs neatly labeled in Dougal’s firm hand. Tucked into the very last pocket was Dougal’s notebook. Gillie slid her fingers along the ragged page edges & breathed a quick prayer to the God whose name she did not know that she wasn’t going to need it this time. Just the same she lifted it out carefully, took it out into the sunshine, & struggling a little with the cramped ogham script, read every reference she could find to burns. It took up a good deal of time, not enough but a lot. She started with surprise when a shadow fell across her page & Owein said with exasperation, ‘What have you done with all the pots, girl? You’ve left the men nothing to cook with.’

‘Need ‘em for water.’ Gillie let the thin wooden covers of the book fall shut & wriggled over on her rock so that Owein could join her if he was so inclined. After a moment he did, stretching out like a lizard basking in the sun. Gillie envied him his ability to relax so completely but so many of Alaister’s men were like that that she suspected him of choosing his cantref for that ability alone just as she suspected most of the cantref was sleeping soundly while she was wound like a too tight harp string ready to snap.

‘But we can’t sleep later,’ Owein would have said, perplexed. He had, Gillie knew quite well, put tonight quite out of his mind & so they talked of small things while Owein spun a cat’s cradled between his fingers, giving her the occasional lazy smile that was like Alaistair’s & yet all his own. He described for her Innis Droineach till Gillie thought she could probably walk it from one end to the other blindfolded, & not stumble once. ‘Wen should go there’, he said. Gillie could see Wen there, a happier Wen than the little boy she knew. Perhaps when this was over… & crashed into the thought that if they won she had an obligation to Alaistair, one she most definitely did not want to fulfill though it would make Innis Droineach possible for Wen, & if they lost it was immaterial anyway.

‘We should go back,’ Owein said. ‘Alaistair will have a hissy fit if his healer goes missing on the eve of battle.’ Gillie giggled. No one could tease Alaistair so well as Owein. He hoyed her to her feet & took her hand in the casual manner he had always taken her hand. Alaistair would think nothing of it she knew & she was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion herself of just how dark the paths were that Owein had ventured on. He was completely self contained, more so than any man she had ever known. Apart from herself & Alaistair he had no companions amongst the men though he was popular enough & most of the men preferred to deal with him than chance Alaistair’s moods. It was the sort of thing to ask sometime, but not now on the eve of battle.

It was a dark moon night & that was the only thing that made the venture possible at all. Riding down hill they could too easily be sky lined, giving away their position & intent before they had even begun. As always Gillie watched fascinated as each man carefully muffled his bit & bridle with strips of cloth & blackened those parts of the face that tended to shine in the light. Owein leered at her ghoulishly in passing but Gillie felt very alone as she watched the men ride away down the hill, passing as silently as ghosts. She climbed up on to Dougal’s Cap from whence she could watch the riders ride slowly down the hill in single file & onto the heath land. The bracken swayed noiselessly .They made no sound & only the occasional glint of light flickered to say they were there at all.

Hunkering down out of the wind Gillie peered into the darkness. She knew it was unlikely she would see anything until fire blossomed in the wagons but it was impossible to sleep & she would not deprive Finn who had been left behind just to guard her. There were hours of waiting yet. Gillie had not realized how much of war was made up of waiting, a waiting broken by excited flurries into panicked frenzy. Beside her Finn strained like a leashed hound, but he did not ask, as once he might have, her permission to leave & follow after his decade. Alaistair’s discipline held. Gillie sighed softly. She knew she could step onto the spiral path & follow the men that way but Alaistair was trusting that she would be there waiting when he returned & once on that path there was never any knowing where it might lead.

The night hours dragged wearily on. At some point the horses would be abandoned leaving the men to slide on their bellies through the bracken & into Fiarach’s camp. Alaistair had spent all day counting the guard & the changing of the guard but Firach seemed to think he had all of Banb safely penned behind Slivenamon’s walls & his guard was careless. Alaistair was counting on the usual Formarian arrogance to cost them dear.

An owl call fluted on the clear night air & Finn took Gillie’s hand as if he were Owein & stood with his eyes straining against the darkness. That was Owein’s signal & Gillie gripped Finn’s hand tight hating being only able to watch when she couldn’t really see anything, hating being left behind, hating the exercise of a patience she did not have & she was pretty sure Finn felt the same.

They’d never talked much, her & Finn. She knew he was the youngest son of 19 brothers & had no experience of sisters. She knew she terrified him nearly as much as Alaistair did & that he thought himself expendable to be shuffled off onto Alaistair.

More waiting. The faintest of movements in the bracken. Finn’s hand tightened on hers. There was a faint glow in one of the wagons & then another. Gillie held her breath watching. Had they been seen? Would the fires catch & spread? There was a sudden bright flare & fire rushed up the sky with a billowing whoosh, danced & fell in a thousand bright sparks. Gillie jiggled a little with excitement. Finn’s teeth flashed a smile. Below they could see men scuttling, like ants, tumbling from the tents still adjusting their breeks, reaching for their swords, hear the sound of shouted orders but not the words. They could smell the smoke, harsh & acrid. So much of fire lighting up the sky, blotting out the stars. First a ring of fire & then a rush. There was a billow & one after another tents caught, the light Formarian fabric burning fast & furiously in one quick burst before collapsing inward & then, maw roll Aither spreading insidiously outwards in an engulfing wall of flame through the bracken. Gillie made a small strangled sound. The tents were never part of Alaistair’s plan. She recognized Owein’s thumbprints all over this, Owein & his decade. Her eyes were wide. The men were still down there but someone had seen. Men were rising out of the bracken & fleeing like deer across the moor to the waiting horses. There was fire snaking under the trees & screaming across the plain, turning the sky blood red & bitterest black. Gillie tugged Finn away needing to get back to the caverns, needing to get the fires banked & hot, needing to be ready for the men who staggered in black as pitch, cloth melted into their skin, open wounds oozing, needing cool water & salve for weeping eyes, needing a thousand & one things that could not be done watching from the top of a hill.

The men began arriving with the first light, squeezing themselves through the chimney & making their way towards Gillie knowing she & Finn would keep a tally of their numbers for Alaistair.

‘Bloody Owein,’ said Cam, who was amongst the first to arrive. Gillie nodded wandering what Alaistair would do to his brother. Cam’s hair was singed & smelt terrible but otherwise he was unhurt & grateful for it. ‘I lost Alaistair…& Owein. It was madness down there. Two of my decade too…I don’t know what’s happened to them.’ He hesitated, said diffidently, ‘Look, Gillie love, when you see Alaistair, & chances are you will before I do, send him over like a good girl, will you? That fire, that wasn’t a natural fire. It had a good deal of help from somewhere.’

‘I thought so too. Impossible to tell from up there,’ she jerked her head towards Dougal’s Cap, ‘but it didn’t seem right somehow.’ Cam nodded brusquely before going off to wash away the grime but as man after man drifted in & Gillie scanned the tartans anxiously Owein did not come & nor did any of his decade. Alaistair did, looking particularly bad tempered & singed all round his edges. He had spot burns to both hands, one or two of them particularly nasty, and as she dressed them she passed along Cam’s message. He nodded distractedly.

‘No Owein?’

Gillie shook her head.

‘And none of his men either. Blast the man!’

‘They’re not putting up fire wheels,’ Gillie pointed out comfortingly.

‘Yet.’ Alaistair snapped out the little word & Gillie knew he was right to worry. There were Formarians hunting through the burn out like hounds, angry at being caught napping & desperate for someone to hang before their god in approbation. She bit her lip knowing that Fiarach now knew not all of Banb was locked behind Slivenamon’s heavy oak gates.

Towards dusk the horses started straying in. Some stood outside the chimney whickering hopefully & Deacan went & unsaddled them & brought them in one by one. Some came around the hill, finding their own way through the maze of jumbled rock. Others simply plodded along the streams to the source & came on over the hill. Fifteen horses, one of them Owein’s & all ten of his decade’s. There were Formarians thick as leaves crashing about the plain so though Alaistair posted scouts & lookouts he dared not start searching himself for his missing men & the wait was making him shorter tempered than usual. Gillie knew he would wait for the dark. The men knew it too but this was not a relaxed waiting. Everyone was beginning to dread what they would find.

Gillie knew she should have taken Finn with her when she climbed the hill again but she was tired & heart weary & very badly needed to be properly alone if only for a little while so she left Finn behind & wedged he back against a sun warmed rock that threw enough shadow to conceal her from prying eyes below. She sat very still listening to the kites shrieking overhead & watching their giant shadows flit past like clouds. Almost she dozed hearing only the small snufflings of the wind through the bracken, felt the shadow without ever hearing the footsteps. Her eyes jerked open.
‘Healer, will you come?’

Gillie did not know the man except as one of Owein’s decade. He looked terrible. One side of his face was blistered & festering & his plaid was a score of scorch holes. She nodded at once.

‘I’ll just get my bag…’

‘You won’t need it.’ His voice was smoke raw & harsh. Gillie’s stomach plummeted like a hooked fish. Who? She couldn’t ask, trotting at the man’s heels like an obedient puppy. Someone else had gone for Alaistair & it was then she began to know with a terrible knowing, slamming her mind shut before the truth hit, closing her heart to the rising tide of pain.

Chapter 11

Chapter 11
When Gillie woke it was because the cats had left her side & ice was fringing her blankets. The caverns were gloomy but faint bird song was drifting on the air & a scattering of little lights from the cantref fires blossomed here & there. She rolled over & edged out of her blankets.

‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’ Alaistair’s voice queried.

‘I haven’t gone anywhere yet but I’m sorta in a hurry so get a move on if you’re coming.’

He emerged cautiously from his blankets & stood shivering in the crisp morning air while he hunted round for a clean jerkin & pulled it over his head. Gillie jiggled impatiently until Alaistair grabbed her arm & guided her briskly through the sleeping camp. Alaistair’s cats had found a sunny sheltered spot & were happily basking in the thin morning warmth. Their heads turned as Gillie passed them & their golden eyes were alight with quick interest.

‘They like you,’ Alaistair commented.

‘It’s mutual,’ Gillie said. She had no idea what attracted her to Alaistair’s cats but they were so lithe & pretty with their dark speckly coats, whimsical faces & large golden eyes.

The latrines had been set out the way Dougal would have wanted with a section screened off at the end just for her. Gillie scuttled towards it & when she was done stood waiting for Alaistair watching the sun seep through the swirls of morning mist till it formed a myriad of tiny rainbows.

‘It must be a good place for writing poetry,’ Gillie said without turning round when she heard Alaistair’s footsteps behind her.

After a moment he said softly, ‘It was.’ He was gazing out over the jumble of rocks rather grimly. ‘Avagaddu has made sure I will never want to come here again.’ He shook his head impatiently. ‘It’s a bit of a maze around here but there are three things by which you can always orientate yourself,’ Alaistair said. ‘The cockscomb,’ & he pointed to the peculiar crest atop one of the largest boulders. ‘That’s sitting right above the chimney we came in by. Then there’s Dougal’s Cap.’ Gillie giggled as he pointed to a squashed looking boulder perched alone on an outcrop that looked just like Dougal’s cap dropped carelessly & somehow forgotten. ‘It’s almost due west & you can see the sea from up there. I will show you later. And then there’s Dana’s Skirts,’ he said a little grimly pointing to a cluster of tall thin outcroppings that wind & time had worn away into a swishing swirl of multi coloured rock. ‘There’s a largish pool at the base too, which we will need later. But first I have to deal with 2 stupid lads who really should have known better.’

‘Must you?’ Gillie cringed.

Alaistair quirked an eyebrow at her. ‘Squeamish, Gillie? It’s not half as messy as killing a man.’ Gillie hunched into her plaid defeated. All the war bands did it but Gillie thought beating a man a particularly barbaric practice & the mess Avagaddu had made of Alaistair’s back was still vividly fresh in her mind. She knew she wouldn’t be able to weasel out of being present either. There were some things Alaistair was absolutely adamant about so she passed on Grawn’s burnt porridge not trusting her unreliable stomach in the least.

She thought she would have to stand alone. Owein was busy with Alaistair but Tem came & stood on one side of her & Wen stood on the other, his small fingers feeling for the corner of her cloak as they always did until she could feel the small tuggings at the cloth as his fingers rubbed & rubbed. His thumb was back in his mouth & Gillie sighed to herself worried that one day he would retreat so far inside himself he would never find his way back.

Gillie had seen this done many times, usually on the training ground, & it was always brutal. Alaistair didn’t have a training ground so he just used the open space of the cavern. Just the same there should have been whipping posts & as the men gathered & stood about in their decades there was none of the belligerent hostility Gillie had expected. Nor, it seemed, were the men, expected to stand in rigid formation but stood chatting cheerfully. When the cause of all the fuss were brought out they came unbound, walking on their own two feet beside their captains & Gillie’s eyes narrowed. Clever, clever Alaistair. This was not to be an exercise in humiliation but one in courage & character. Gillie had to admire the subtlety of it though it made it no easier to watch as each man removed his jerkin & bared his back for the cane. Unlike Avagaddu, Alaistair’s punishments were restrained & he left the disciplining to the captains concerned. Gillie heard the small pop as Wen removed his thumb from his mouth & when she glanced down his eyes had lost their glazed look. It was the sort of thing Broghan might have done.

Gillie picked up her medical bag & went to deal with the damage surprised to find Wen still trotting by her side. In Alaistair’s camp her brothers were given work & when they were done they were much more likely to be found round the horse lines or teasing the hounds than following her about. She hardly noticed when Owein joined them.

‘You will find it easy this time, hen,’ Owein said with a sidelong smile as he laid his droi robes out on his bed roll. Gillie eyed the dark plaid with interest. It was a mish mash of turgid greens, mustard yellows, strange blues, violent mauves & dark browns that formed a not unpleasant whole & told Gillie a number of interesting things. She waited while Owein found the silk ribbons that would be pinned to his left shoulder then grinned at him cheekily.

‘Man, you have been a naughty boy, haven’t you?’ Gillie flipped the ribbons over with a thoughtful finger. Red for the law, mauve for the dreaming, the mustardy yellow for a seer.

Owein flushed guiltily.

‘You should see Alaistair’s.’

‘He told me he got kicked out.’

‘Only from the Bardass.’


‘Only if you promise you’ll never tell him I told you.’ Gillie nodded her head. ‘For satirizing Torquil’s poetry,’ Owein admitted reluctantly. Gillie stuffed the end of her plaid in her mouth & collapsed on her bed howling with laughter. How too, too funny. Owein watched her resignedly, already regretting having told her. She was sure to find some way of letting Alaistair know she knew. ‘Do you have a proper skirt or only that old breachan you always run around in?’

‘Only this old breachan,’ Gillie admitted cheerfully. ‘We’re not rich like some.’

Owein tossed a pouch onto the breachan & Gillie wrinkled her nose. She could smell the herbs it held from where she sat. Another sort of girl might have minded going to the Mother’s Fires like this instead of doing it properly amongst her own clan with the special feast to follow & all the little gifts she would get from her friends & relatives. Gillie didn’t. Just not having Nemain anywhere near her was enough for Gillie.

‘I’m not even sure this is legal.’ Owein muttered crossly.

‘Wouldn’t worry about it, Gillie offered lazily. ‘Last I checked Dana wasn’t much of a one for legalities of any sort.’

Alaistair meandered over all dressed up in his best plaid. From somewhere he had unearthed a jerkin with cuffs several inches deep in lace & he looked a right dandy. He winked as he dropped a badly wrapped parcel into Gillie’s lap. She opened it & found herself staring into pleats & folds of the Cat clan’s tartan. Gillie would have recognized Sorcha’s weaving anywhere. Alaistair could only have got it from her da, & that meant what? She almost smiled. Her da didn’t like Nemain much either. She slipped behind the screen Alaistair always had put up for her & into the skirt. It was very full; Sorcha hadn’t skimped on the weaving & it flared around her calves in a satisfying swish but it made her feel very self conscious. Gillie wasn’t used to paying much attention to her appearance & even less so since she had been with Alaistair. She felt rather silly, like a little girl playing at grown ups.

When she reemerged both men turned to regard her with the sort of admiration Gillie was definitely unused to.

‘Scrubs up quite nicely,’ Owein teased.

Alaistair tossed her another small pouch that held the sort of large hooped silver ear rings that Gillie had never thought she would be rich enough to possess. She flushed a little but Alaistair just grinned at her.

‘Enjoy. I was never going to wear them anyway.’

She got plenty more stares as the entire cantref set out around the hill to the base of Dana’s Skirts & the pool at the foot of the cliffs. It wasn’t a large pool but it was deep & dark. The water lay still & secretive reflecting in perfect detail the lines of rock, the spattered stars, every bush & twig. Overhead the cliffs loomed ominously. The reeds were stiff with frost & ice fringed the edges like a lacey frill. It was very still & quiet. Like so many of Dana’s sanctuaries the wildlife had departed the place & as the last of the light faded it was very dark.

The men formed silent ranks behind Gillie waiting for the moment when they would form the double spiral that was the physical counterpart of the inward journey. Most of them had sisters or cousins & had stood witness numerous times before now but the absence of women at the Mother’s Fires was new. Gillie hadn’t missed the irony of it.

The biggest fire Gillie had ever seen stood stacked ready for the flames & as it was a new moon night the waning of the daylight had plunged the pool into an even deeper darkness than usual. The cold was rising off the ground now too & beside the water bit more deeply. Their breath gleamed white in the air.

Slowly, in ones & twos, the men began to form the sacred spiral, winding it round & in to the fire. If they had been women they would have faced inward but being men & not welcome at the Mother’s hearth, they faced outwards. Gillie hunkered down beside the pool to wait & trying not to notice that Owein was striping down to his skin just as Nemain always did. She hadn’t expected that, or that he would coat himself with the fine white clay until he glowed in the dark like a ghost. She must ask him about that later & why it made a difference. At the last he slipped bangles of feathers & tiny silver bells over his wrists & ankles so that he pealed softly any time he moved. He was already a long way away from them when he took a little knife from his belongings & made the gashes across his chest. Gillie winced. Naturally Dana would demand her blood price. When he stood up he was no longer Owein Ap Avagaddu but a walker of worlds, already walking the spiral path. Gillie shivered a little wondering if it mightn’t have been safer after all to have walked to the Mother’s Fires with Nemain.

Owein walked over to her a little stiffly & bound a soft silk cloth around her eyes which meant he had to guide her to the beginning of the spiral. He left her there with the dak pot that would light the fire to follow by the sound of his bells. For a moment Gillie hesitated but she knew the spiral turned right; it always did. She stepped out confidently & crashed into the back of the first warrior. He staggered under her unexpected weight. Gillie took a breath & orientated herself. She couldn’t panic. Shuffling her feet she inched forward more carefully, turning right, & right again, spiraling inwards. Without her eyes her nose worked over time. Grawn smelt sharply of basil, Niall of the mint he liked to chew, the horse master of horses & the smith of iron. There was a powerful odour of cold wool & male sweat rising in warm damp waves that pressed in & weighed down so that Gillie wanted to hurry just to be done with it. She longed for the cold sharp air. Every time she hurried she bumped someone & disorientated herself so she continued inching forward, inch by precious inch, until she felt the space around her open out & grow colder. She hesitated, clutching at the dak pot. Someone removed the bandage & Gillie moved obediently towards the fire. She looked for the pile of little twigs that would light easiest & tipped the glowing coals in her dak pot out. A thin stream of smoke spiraled into the sky. It was followed by a whoosh of sound & a flare of leaping flames. In a moment the fire was blazing, the brightest thing in the darkness & obliterating the sight of the waiting men.

Alaistair moved towards her, grey eyes sober. Gillie tried very hard not to think at all as Owein made the cuts on their right arms & bound them to each other. The thought of Alaistair’s blood mingling with hers made her feel distinctly queasy. The cloth was very tight. Gillie could feel Alaistair’s forearm all along her own, warm & slightly damp & sinewy but at least she didn’t have to look at him. He was facing over her shoulder but there was the problem of what to do with her fingers. Resting them against Alaistair’s skin was too intimate but there was no where else to put them. Alaistair’s body began to shake gently & Gillie realized he was laughing. Very firmly & sweetly she trod on his foot ~ hard. She heard him suck in his breath but the shaking stopped.

There was an awkward moment as they struggled to sit, tied as they were, & Gillie so much smaller than Alaistair though he was not a big man. This was the bit Gillie dreaded, the moment when Owein proffered the welcome cup. She could smell the herbs, knew what they would do & preferred to have her wits about her. She took only the barest sip, barely wetting her lips before setting the cup down & while Owein wasn’t looking managed to oh so accidentally knock it over. She heard Alaistair suck in his breath sharply & felt his body tense alongside hers but he kept his gaze on the ground in front of him & didn’t say anything. The tension was singing through him like wind through wire. For a moment his fingers pressed a little more firmly against her skin & then they were stepping together on to the spiral path.

Gillie knew what to expect this time & was ready for the icy rush of water across her feet, the heady spacelessness around her, the sense of nothingness. She paused for a moment. She could still feel Alaistair beside her & his whole body was thrumming with tension. All Gillie’s senses were sharply alert, warned by Alaistair’s tension but still she did not expect what happened next. There was a burst of rainbow colour, a flash of blinding light & a myriad of small songbirds plummeted towards them joyfully clustering on Alaistair’s shoulders, twittering in his ears, climbing up his jerkin to cock their heads & peer enquiringly into his face, tug his hair, peck his cheeks while all the while Alaistair stood silently with his head bowed. His face was stony & he wouldn’t look at Gillie. Gillie stood shocked. She wasn’t stupid. She knew exactly what she was seeing. What she didn’t understand was why Alaistair was letting her see. He didn’t look all that happy about it, not happy at all in fact. His right hand came up slowly & he proffered a finger to the closest songbird, who accepted it with giddy delight. There were no ravens.
‘I lost this when I lost the Bardass,’ Alaistair said tightly. ‘I hate coming back.’ Gillie didn’t know what to say. She could feel Alaistair’s sense of pain & desolation like a living hurt, had no idea how to help & was deeply embarrassed to be witness to something so very definitely none of her business.

‘It wasn’t like this with Owein.’

‘No,’ Alaistair said flatly. After a moment he said as if the words were being dragged out of him, ‘Owein walked some very dark paths & something died in him then. He doesn’t come here from choice either.’ Gillie chewed the side of her thumb watching Alaistair very gently rubbing his thumb up & down the little wren’s chest. Its eyes half closed in ecstasy & there was an ecstatic warbling in its throat. He smiled at Gillie a little wryly. ‘It’s not so different you know. Whether you use a sword or a verse, the blows can be deadly. I should never have satirized Torquil.’

‘His verse is awful,’ Gillie protested, having suffered from some of the worst of it at different wedding feasts. She thought it sickly & cloying but her preference was for the robust & strange. ‘Say me some of yours instead.’ Alaistair flushed slowly & painfully & he set the little wren down with infinite gentleness. For the first time in all the months she had known him Gillie saw Alaistair completely at a loss, foundering & gawky as if he were Tem & afraid he would not impress someone he wanted very badly to impress.

‘Och, mo croi,
There is long I am without you,
And no joy to be had from all my length of days.
The Blood runs strong;
Tide of my heart, returning,
Over & Over to you.’

‘The Love Song Of Banb?’ Gillie queried, startled. ‘That’s yours?’

‘You have been too well educated by half,’ Alaistair commented sourly, ‘if you’ve read even the minor poets.’ Gillie grinned at him liking him properly for the first time.

He shook his head at her. ‘What a very odd girl you are.’ He took her hand. His fingers were longer than Owein’s, the calluses harder, the flesh warmer & slightly damp. His thumb rubbed along her thumb with the same soothing gesture he had used on the little wren’s chest & startled Gillie realised Alaistair was nervous. In her surprise she almost toppled of the spiral way. ‘Careful,’ he said steadying her. ‘Unlike Owein I may not be able to fish you back if you disappear on me.’

He led her forward, moving with much more confidence than Owein had & Rhianonn’s birds came with them in a wheeling, dipping flight & in the flashing rainbows the bright colours made Gillie caught glimpses of other things; of stars like fireballs pulsing like drums, of trees so big & old they had eaten themselves hollow, of seas deeper than light & animals for which she had no name they were so strange. At some point it occurred to her that this was Alaistair’s betrothal gift to her, a sharing that gave her access to his heart & could, if she so chose, allow her to hurt him very badly indeed. She was amazed at his courage, but then he had never lacked for courage. What on earth Avagaddu must have made of this Gillie could not begin to imagine. Or rather she could. It explained a good deal of the savagery with which Avagaddu dealt with his son. And Alaistair, being Alaistair, would not have bothered to explain anything, would not even have tried, & the end result would have been an insolence that would have driven Avagaddu mad. Gillie almost giggled. Like so much of what Alaistair did it was both clever & aggravating. Owein being much more devious & lacking for Alaistair’s courage had simply held his peace & said nothing at all of what he was really doing. Why men like Avagaddu sent their sons to places like Innis Droineach to be educated Gillie had never worked out. Invariably they did not appreciate the end results. Gillie, on the other hand, was deciding she liked the results very much indeed. Here was a richness & a depth that could keep them cheerfully comfortable around a winter hearth for years to come. She forgot which poet had called the mind a treasure house of riches but she could see for herself that so far as Alaistair was concerned it was true. He glanced down, his eyebrows quirking.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I was just wondering why you hid all this. Is it just Avagaddu?’

‘I forgot what a nosey little bitch you are.’ Gillie flinched, immediately retreating into herself, but Alaistair turned her to face him & tilted her chin up so that she was forced to look at him. ‘I gave you that right when I agreed to this,’ he said softly shaking his head. ‘Pure unmitigated fear is no excuse for bad manners.’ It was an apology of sorts & the best Gillie thought she could hope for under the circumstances. ‘Did you know that a thornless rose does not smell as sweet?’ The wry smile. ‘Avagaddu had a bride picked out for me ~ a sweet, vapid little thing without a thought worth having in her pretty little head.’

Gillie giggled. She could see Alaistair losing patience with that very quickly indeed.

‘Yes, well, trust you to see my point. I’d rather be pricked by the occasional thorn than die of boredom.’

‘Is it just me or is this taking rather a long time?’

‘It’s different every time. And we haven’t seen Dana yet though I have a funny feeling she won’t be claiming you. You rejected her agent; she will reject you.’ He pulled her closer & wrapped his big cloak around both of them. Gillie was immediately warmer though his closeness as always bothered her . It was almost worth having his scent in her nostrils

The days passed pleasantly as winter slowly blossomed into spring & the chilly air grew imperceptibly warmer until Gillie, rinsing out her linens in one of the little burns, concluded the sun on her back was decidedly hot. It had been so peaceful & pleasant she had almost forgotten what she was doing camped out in the hills with a cantref of men. Gazing lazily out across the dimpled little hills to the thin blue line that was the sea she almost mistook the little puffs of smoke for another passing cloud. Throwing her wet things hurriedly over a nearby gorse bush Gillie scampered back across the hillside to find the men arriving just as she was, having seen the suibhe croi lit & knowing exactly what it meant. Somewhere on the clear blue sea Fiarach’s war boats bobbed towards Banb like cockleshells & this interval of peace was over. Alaistair’s face was taking on its grim faced look already as he poured water from a nearby kettle into a basin & very deliberately began to shave. The thundering sound of hoof beats passed them. The first rider.

‘We have a man on the path for the second rider,’ Cam said softly. Alaistair nodded as he ran the razor round the sharp line of his jaw. Gillie watched with mesmerized fascination as he squinted into the small bronze mirror before running his hand over his face to check if he’d missed anywhere. ‘Dorric says he knows the rider.’ Alaistair glanced up.


Cam nodded uneasily. They were all tense. Soon the Slivernamon banners would be run down the poles & the gates shut & no~one would go in or come out.

‘Tem. Wen.’ Alaister said gently. ‘Pack your things. You go with the second rider.’

Gillie’s heart lept like a hooked fish. She had forgotten Alaistair had promised to return her brothers. She looked for them & found Tem was already turning away to do as he was bid but Wen stood there stubbornly, his lip trembling, threatening tears. She sighed & took his hand.

‘Be brave for me,’ she whispered into his ear. ‘The men don’t want their healer all wet & soggy like a griddle cake that’s been dropped in the soup.’ He gave her a watery smile & his fingers groped for the corner of her cloak. As Gillie helped him pack his few things & mount his pony she clipped the worn edge of her cloak & pressed it into his hand. He didn’t say anything but wound the thin cloth through his fingers. Gillie knew he wouldn’t lose it. The she walked her brothers down to the track & watched them disappear with the second rider.

Dorric had waited for her. He was one of the dark otter people with translucent white skin & large velvety eyes & he was, as so many of them were, very young.

‘Padrig says 30, healer,’ he told her. Thirty boats with 30 men apiece. Gillie did the math & sucked in her breath. There would be boats behind these boats & more again. Tiny Banb could not field those sorts of numbers. Worriedly Gillie followed Dorric back to camp. The men were hunkered about the central fire pit silently waiting. There wasn’t a sound as Dorric made his report. Alaister sat tracing a stick in the dirt the whole time as if barely listening. Gillie knew that wasn’t true; he was listening very carefully indeed.

‘We have a days grace,’ he said softly at last. ‘One. The boats are still ½ a days sailing away & those battle barges of Fiarach’s can only land at one of two places along the eastern seaboard. He won’t try tonight on an outrunning tide but will stand off shore & wait for the morning tide. I am betting he will choose to landdown the coast a little at the Sweetwaters. It is a little small & he will have to send the boats in one or two at a time but it is secluded & has the advantage of easy travelling away from the water. So long as he doesn’t try a landing on a turning tide it is also the safer of his two choices.’ Alaister twisted his hands together & though he still spoke softly every word carried. ‘I will see the captains now but the men may ready themselves & rest. We will ride at dusk. Gillie, with me, please.’

A little surprised at finding herself included in the smaller war council Gillie stayed where she was & listened with astonishment to the well laid plans that had been going on all this time without her knowing anything of them. When he had dismissed his men he turned to her. ‘Wear your green healer’s robe in plain sight,’ he instructed. ‘I am giving you Finn; stay under the green banner he will carry & follow his instructions. He has his orders from me. I’d rather leave you behind but will probably need you a bit closer to hand. Don’t set up an infirmary. Just get the wounded mobile.’ Gillie nodded. ‘Hopefully the element of surprise will reduce our casualties considerably.’

‘All right, Alaistair.’

He smiled a little ruefully. ‘And Gillie….don’t thwart me out there, there’s a good girl. You’re the one person I really can’t afford to lose.’ Gillie grinned at him but she dreamed of fire & flashing light down screaming swords. She dreamed of twisted mouths that made no sound & of women born aloft like swirling leaves. She dreamt of hands …& woke screaming & thrashing, Alaistair with a firm grip on her wrists hushing her & Owein sporting the beginnings of a black eye. She had, she noticed with alarm, woken the whole camp.

‘Not to worry’, Owein assured her. ‘It’s time to move out anyway.’

They didn’t hurry, breaking their fast leisurely & once mounted moving south & east at an easy pace along paths that were still soggy with melting snow, under trees just beginning to bud & through air that smelt sweet & fresh. A thin spiral of white smoke from the third beacon twisted into the dark night sky. The cats peeled away & went hunting wide, returning further down the track looking smug & well fed. The gentle jingle of harness & bit pinged through the dark so that the blurred hours rocked into each other, a seamless rocking dream that ended in the dunes above the Sweetwaters.

Gillie had never seen the Sweetwaters before though she had heard of its harbour. As Alaistair deployed his men in the darkness of the dunes Gillie strained her eyes through the darkness trying to make out the notorious headlands known as the Lobster’s Pinch. Here the water swirled in a seething witch’s brew as the tide turned & battled the wind & current. It was very narrow & riddled with hidden rocks & treacherous bars while the towering cliffs on either side either funnelled the wind through like a tornado or blocked it completely. What made the pinch worth it was the small deep bay with its long gently sloping beach, the sweet water that gave the river its name, its seclusion & easy access to numerous well defined paths & trails. Mannan’s Bay was easier to access but it was open to every wild wind that blew & the beach was not so good for beaching the clumsy tubs Fiarach called his warships. Besides, climbing out of Mannan’s with a loaded pack was no easy task & once out the forest clustered in a riotous tangle that made travelling of any sort difficult. Gillie suspected that Alaistair had chosen right & Fiarach would choose to land at the Sweetwaters ~ & he would not be expecting them.

Gillie waited with Finn under the trees & as the sun rose sending the sea shimmering in shards of glittering light she could see the war ships bobbing at anchor just beyond the Pinch. The rider had said there were thirty & thirty there were, high in the poop, beamy across the midsection, wallowing wildly even on the calm open water. The knot in her stomach tightened imperceptibly. They looked what they were, unwieldy & not highly manoeuvrable. Gillie knew Alaistair was counting on that.

‘Remember,’ Alaistair had said to his men, ‘they are most vulnerable before they reach firm ground. Hit hard & fast & get out. I don’t want to get bogged down here.’

An hour after sunrise the wind dropped out & the sea lay like a mirror at the slack of the tide. It was the signal for the ships to start gliding serenely through the Pinch but though the sight was lovely Gillie’s insides turned to water & began sloshing about unhappily. She could hear men slinking off to empty their bladders & then it began.

The first warship dropped its anchor & began loading men & horses onto the flat punts that would pole them to the beach. As the punts pulled away from the ship the next one began the same thing. It was a precise & orderly manoeuvre ~ until Alaistair’s archers rose gracefully out of the dunes & the sky rained arrows. They spun with light as the sun caught the barbs. A horse screamed thrashing it’s hooves against the wooden sides of the punt until a man reached over & cut its throat. The screaming stopped abruptly & Gillie leaned away from her pony & was very sick into the new green grass.

There was alarm in the punts. They began rocking violently as men scrabbled to buckle their armour, reached for their shields while the archers renocked their bows & more arrows fell, swift & deadly. Men & horses shrieked & in the turmoil a punt capsized throwing men & horses into the water. Gillie knew this was exactly what Alaistair had hoped for. An armoured man in deep water drowned quickly if not quietly & they were drowning, dozens of them, but not nearly enough. The punts & the men kept coming. The arrows fell like hail & then to her horror Gillie saw the first dark fin crest the water. She turned away, unable to watch but the shrieking terror filled her ears. There was blood in the water & more dark fins circling expectantly. As the punts grounded no~one wanted to be the first to leap into the water with the sharks & pull the punt up the beach so the punts wallowed in the surge & pull of waves along the beach. Alaistair’s cantref rode out to meet them, spreading wide along the beach in a dark line & there was a good deal more blood spilled.

Gillie sat chewing her lip. In & out Alaistair had said, a gadfly, a hornet to sting & torment, to slow Fiarach & make him step carefully on the soil that was Banb. Before the Formorians could collect their terrified & bolting mounts the cantref was pulling out & away again, & there were no dead, not this time. Finn was tugging at her sleeve to urge her after the cantref but Gillie was in no mind to turn tail & flee like a frightened rabbit. She sat her mount out in the open where she could be easily seen carefully counting the men who came out of the water. There were so many of them & not all of them were dark.

‘Mercenaries!’ Finn snapped. Gillie nodded absently. She wore the green of a healer’s robe under a green healer’s banner & it was more than a man’s life was worth to touch her. They should see, these dark men of Formaria, what pride there still was in Banb. She turned away with dignity & rode slowly away, her head very high while Finn turned white with fright at the thought of what Alaistair would say.

‘Mawr oll Aither!’ Alaistair roared as they dropped below the crest of the dunes & so like Avagaddu at last. Gillie rode straight past him with Finn torn between keeping with her or heeding Alaistair’s bellowing. In the end he stayed with her but no happier for it. She heard Alaistair cursing as he wheeled his horse to follow them. The rest of the cantref was already riding hard for home, spreading themselves thin through out the narrow paths & byways. Alaistair came alongside of her on the left, the three of them riding hard for home & the safety of the caverns but it seemed even riding hard Alaistair had plenty of time to think of all the things he meant to say to her. He was snarling even before he slid of his horse to lead them through the narrow chimney. Gillie concentrated on tending the little pony who was flecked with foam & breathing hard while all the while Alaistair ranted & raved. When he paused for breath Gillie glanced up & said with deadly calm, ‘You’ve forgotten your mount.’

All the blood drained from Alaistair’s face. There was a killing look in his eyes & she knew it was not over, just deferred for a time. She couldn’t be bothered with Alaistair & his tantrums but went to her usual place under the cavern overhang where the light was best for her work & began the small surgery of cuts & bruises & pulled muscles as the men found their way home in dribs & drabs but all the while she was aware of Alaistiar waiting & fuming. All the men were quick to find business elsewhere. A row between the cantref leader & his healer was not going to be pretty & no one seemed inclined to hang around & listen to it. Funny how the rumour spread without a word needing to be said. Eventually there was nothing more for her to do but fold her hands & wait for Alaistair to begin. There was so much of cold anger in his eyes though it was quieter now.

‘Explain please.’

She had a better reason to hate than he; it showed in her eyes. There was a place so far down in the dark inside her where only she could go. She saw him know it with a sudden intaking of breath. She had not known she could hate so well or so long. Alaistair’s words were only words & they could not hurt her where memory struggled like a crying bird & so much of darkness lay.

‘Oh, Gillie,’ he said softly & the crying bird of her heart was still. He lifted his hands in a mute, helpless gesture. ‘You are the only one I can not afford to lose.’ She was his healer & there was no ease for the pain she bore. ‘Do not, ever, do that to me again.’ To which there was no answer she could make, no promise she could give. He tried again. ‘What were you doing?’

‘Looking for his droi.’

‘We all have droi’s,’ Alaistair groaned. ‘ Avagaduu has a droi, even I have a droi ~ of sorts.’

‘But neither of you have a black droi with a white staff. He’s brought him back with him, the black droi.’ Alaistair had not known. She could see that he had not known & now there was wariness in the grey eyes.

‘You are sure? Absolutely sure?’

Gillie shrugged. It was Owein Alaistair needed now, Owein & the strange paths he had walked on the spiral. Owein would have a much better idea than she did of what it might mean. Still Alaistair hesitated twirling his beret in his hands.

‘Is it just you dislike me ~ or wasn’t I clear enough for you?’

Gillie sighed & said what she had said to her da all those months ago.

‘There was no danger.’

‘I am not speaking of danger,’ Alaistair said softly but the cold was back in his voice as if he believed her being deliberately obtuse. ‘My men followed my orders though every heart must have been sore within them to do just as you did. You shame me before my men & there is nothing I can do.’

Gillie flushed guiltily, seeing far too late how it would seem & how it belittled both Alaistair & his men. Alaistair shook his head at her. ‘Please don’t tell me you are sorry.’ Gillie bit her apology back abruptly & Alaistair, who explained himself to no one gave her a reason she could understand. ‘I hold this cantref by a thread,’ he said softly. ‘They are men of the tribes & their pride is all they have.’ It was a bitter truth. There was little real wealth amongst the tribes.’ Seeing Gillie’s stricken look he perched beside her on the sun warmed rock. ‘Just try & forget how much you dislike me,’ he suggested.

Guilt ridden Gillie tried for an apology that wasn’t an apology but would let Alaistair know she was sorry.

‘I keep forgetting,’ she teased, ‘what it was you promised my da.’

There was a startled silence, so much silence that Gillie thought she had missed her mark & then Alaistair’s unrestrained laughter.

‘Mawr oll Aither. They all warned me, Dougal, your da. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. They all said I’d rue the day I chose a clever healer.’ He was still laughing as he strode away but Gillie felt sick thinking how close she always seemed to come to undoing Alaistair’s carefully laid plans. She promised herself to remember that Alaistair was a clever man too, & careful. He could count his cantref by the tens; Avagaddu his hosting by the hundreds & Fiarach his war band by the thousands. The odds were not in their favour but today they had won a small victory. Gillie thought about that as she sent about scalding her instruments

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Chapter 10 ~ unfinished

It was a long, cold winter. Day after day Gillie, trudging through the piles of dirty snow towards Slievenamon with Owein like a faithful shadow, wondered if Fiarach, sulking in his Formarian fortress & planning his spring campaign, thought harassing Banb worth it.

‘Gold & lace,’ Alaistair said tartly when she mentioned it. Neither would feed his army. It wasn’t feeding Avagaddu’s either & as the winter dragged on Avagaddu’s army began disapperating like mist across the wold & Gillie saw her fair share of stab wounds, broken noses, smashed jaws as the tribes turned on each other like a pack of hungry sharks.

The bitter cold kept the worst of the stench at bay but there was sickness all through the keep & the old rushes were rotting underfoot before the season turned. Gillie began to hate the place with a ferocious passion thinking that Alaistair was wise to have his men out of there, keeping them busy rappelling the cliffs after puffin eggs & scouring the shoreline at low tide for periwinkles, tiny crabs, mussels & seaweed, all of which could be turned into food. On milder days some of the men ran a dingy line off the rocks & sat bobbing about on the swell fishing for the big cod & from somewhere Grawn produced a barrel of limes. When Gillie saw those limes she marched into Slivenamon & made Tem & Wen pack their things.

‘Run errands, lime the latrines, water the horses,’ Gillie snapped when they protested. ‘I don’t care but you aren’t staying here.’ They protested to Broghan & were sent packing with a flea in their ears.

‘Do you want all your teeth to fall out?’ Gillie snapped. She was pretty pleased with herself until she found the men preferred to swing her brothers’ light weight over the cliff edges than risk their own necks.

‘Don’t you dare baby them, Alaistair warned seeing her face. ‘They are safe enough.’

And night after night Dougal inscribed medical notes in a thin wooden backed book in his cramped Ogham script, ‘For when you’re on your own,’ he told Gillie with his shy smile. It was a statement that made Gillie’s stomach lurch with fear. It was one thing to have Dougal calmly issuing instructions, & as she had learnt with Alaistair, not fun at all when left completely to her own choices, her own decisions.

She didn’t even notice when Alaistair lifted his restrictions but by then it was habit to slip between Owein & Alsistair’s warmth at night & have Wen snuffling into her back. She almost forgot there was a war. She even forgot she was one reason Fiarach would come in the spring.

Alaistair broke camp as soon as the temperature warmed even a little, before the snow was off the ground. The ripe smell of the latrines warned Gillie that typhoid & dysentery would soon follow. She was more than pleased to be leaving Slievenamon. All Dougal’s warnings & all his cajolings had fallen on deaf ears ; Slieveamon was sinking beneath its own mire.

As Owein gave her a leg up onto the little grey pony & she watched Alaistair’s cantref forming up in a orderly row to ride through the dun she couldn’t help but compare them to Avagaddu’s disorderly & mostly drunken host. Even after the winter Alaistair’s men were muscled & lithe. Their horses were sleek & well groomed, their swords honed sharp, their leathers oiled & supple. They rode with a glittering pride; they knew they were the best there was.

Her brother’s trotted close by her side with the same fierce glittering pride though Gillie knew Alaistair had promised her da to return them to the keep before the fighting began. She glanced round the cantref, naming names & clans & wondering when this was over just how many of the bloodlines would have been lost. Many of the ard~ris had hedged their bets & had kept their scions with them while sending younger sons with Alaistair.

They rode early, before the dun was about its business for the day. Smoke belched from the Slievenamon fire pits as they rode out under the gate & across the causeway. For the first time in months Gillie breathed a sigh of relief. The narrow causeway might make defending Slievenamon easy but it also trapped the residents like rats. There was only the one way in or out & though it was possible to go down the cliffs it was not possible to walk around the boulder littered base where the water crashed & fumed tempestuously.

Wet snow lay in soggy puddles across the plain. Black ice fringed the streams & rivers but in the middle the water was flowing again. On the peaks crisp snow glittered in the morning light & the air was cold enough to numb Gillie’s nose & set it to dripping so that she was constantly swiping at it with her plaid. Alaister was letting the horses pick their way slowly. The hill caves they were headed for were less than ½ a days ride away & every horse carried a heavy burden of supplies as well as a rider. Avagaddu had refused categorically to lend Alaistair a wagon & one of the things Gillie knew she would have to do as soon as possible was start scouring the hills & streams to replace her herbs.

Alaistair came trotting back to them once he had the men moving as he wanted. For the first time in all the months Gillie had known him he seemed happy & relaxed, but Gillie was pretty sure getting away from Avadaggu would do that all by itself. His cats ran beside his horse & he was whistling cheerfully as he reigned in beside them.

‘Will you ride with me, Gillie?’ he asked with a whimsical smile. Owein immediately rode forward leaving Gillie to scowl after him. She hated how the two of them plotted around her & somehow one or other of them always seemed to have her under their wing. What if she actually said, I mind very much? Would that stop him? Naturally not, so why did he even bother to ask.

Alaistair’s smile faded.

‘Can we not fight, Gillie. Please.’

‘I’m not fighting.’

‘I know you prefer Owein’s company. I’ll give him back in a moment I promise…
obviously not the thing to say,’ as Gillie glared at him. He scrubbed at his face in the way that always reminded Gillie forcibly & guiltily of Avagaddu. ‘Just once, can’t you forget how much you dislike me?’

‘Why don’t you just tell me what you want, Alaistair & then we can stop annoying each other.’

‘Because I am trying to make sure of you. I don’t want to suddenly find my healer has run home to daddy on a whim.’

Gillie jerked her pony to a standstill forcing Alaistair to also stop. She was shaking with so much rage she though she just might be sick, which was a terrific way for the war band’s healer to start out. Alaistair eyed her with alarm & a certain wariness, while up ahead Owein had also halted & had his horse circling as he glanced back at them uncertainly.

‘What have I not done that you’ve asked? When have I not been where you’ve asked me to be? If you trust me so little you might as well send me back to Slievenamon now.’ She was literally spitting out the words & Owein was edging back towards them with alarm. ‘What do you wish to discuss Alaistair? The latrines? They’ll be set out as per Dougal’s instructions ~ & well away from the waterways. My responsibility; I will deal with it. Grawn I will keep an eye on. He’s thick but if I tell him to supplement the diet he will do exactly that. If I need anything I will ask you.’ Alaistair was staring at her in the stony faced way that told Gillie that once again she’d overstepped the mark. Worse, she had soured Alaistair’s mood & they would all pay for it.

‘As you wish,’ he said icily urging his horse forward again. Gillie pulled her plaid up & hunched deeper into her cloak. She had no wish to speak to either of Avagaddu’s sons any time soon. So much simpler if she could just slit the man’s throat for him. Save a mortification of trouble.

Then suddenly the face of the land changed. Giant boulders lay pummeled into the ground, leaned together in drunken comradeship or piled together forming a natural maze sprouting about the small hillside. The temperature plummeted. The air around the rocks was wetter & colder & Gillie shivered. Eventually the troop dismounted & squeezed through a narrow chimney until they were in a small shallow basin that in summer would be sweet with grass & small wildflowers but was now ankle deep in snow & bitterly cold. Massive overhangs & deep caverns blocked out the sun. Gillie glanced round sharp eyed. As Dougal had warned her there was no nearby water. It would have to be carried in from outside but it was a safe warren that even the most suspicious Formarian would have trouble finding & just big enough to hold a cantref of men.

‘The result of a misspent youth,’ Owein chortled. ‘No, not mine,’ he grinned as Gillie glanced his way. ‘He never did say what he came up here for.’

‘If you had to ask, Gillie snapped, ‘then you are sadly lacking in imagination.’

Owein looked so hurt Gillie was almost sorry but she was too cold & tired to care. She stood clutching her pony’s reins & leaning into the little mare for her warmth. Deep shadows plunged about the enclosure & the clouds were lowering ominously as one by one the men stripped their horses of saddle & baggage & led them to the picket lines. She should do the same but it was too much effort so she just stood there while the snow melted under her boots & began leaking in. They were old boots & the patches needed replacing.

‘Owein!’ Alaistair bellowed. ‘Mawr oll Aither, man! How hard can it be?’ Gillie, watching Alaistair stride in their direction, in a vague way, was inexplicably reminded of Avagaddu. It was disconcerting. ‘I told you to keep an eye on her,’ Alaistair snarled across the yards as Owein glanced up bemused from the horse he was unsaddling. Owein glanced round & for a moment, as Gillie watched Alaistair, she could almost see Avagaddu’s tawny flowing moustaches & bear like presence. ‘I don’t keep you close for your brains, laddie, & don’t bother spinning me your brehon platitudes. Look at her.’ At that moment Gillie clutched at her little grey mare’s mane for support & was violently sick into the snow. ‘We discussed this,’ Alaistair ranted. ‘What use is all that fancy training if you can’t keep one chit of a child from harm?’ As he reached her Alaistair swept his big cloak around her & much more gently than he sounded, wiped her mouth with his plaid. ‘Get Niall to bring her things,’ Alaistair ordered Owein as if he was the lowliest slave boy.

‘Just sick,’ Gillie mumbled, alarmed at how much trouble Owein seemed to be in.

‘Not just sick, no,’ Alaistair said very firmly. ‘Now, look, don’t argue, please, not with every man about the place looking on. I’m going to pick you up & carry you in where it’s a bit warmer & hope that Owein has enough brains about him to get a fire going.’

‘I can walk,’ Gillie murmured hopefully.

‘But not today. Just for once, be gracious.’

He lifted her like a babe, much stronger than he looked although Gillie knew intimately just how muscled his back was. Gillie tensed up like a frightened rabbit. Her nose was full of the smell of him, the cold dampish wool smell of his cloak & plaid, the sweat of his skin, of greased leather & of his cats & horse. His stubble was prickling the top of her head & he was much too close for comfort. Her stomach roiled.

‘For both our sakes, try & give us some warning if you’re going to be sick again,’ Alaistair muttered into her hair as Niall & Owein rushed past with her things. ‘And don’t squirm ~ it makes you so much heavier.’ Gillie froze. She was stiff & uncomfortable & Alaistair’s mouth was thinning in the way that told her he was not at all happy.

‘ ‘m sorry,’ She muttered.

‘Owein’s fault!’ Alaistair snapped. ‘He’s supposed to have dealt with it; Dana alone knows, he’s had enough time for it.’

Gillie shut up. She didn’t see how it could possibly be Owein’s fault but Alaistair was certainly looking grim about it.

He strode into a set of open caverns clustered around a central cave. Basalt boulders loomed in the darkness overhead & the shadows flared & wavered uncertainly in the flickering light of a fire that was shedding light but no warmth. Someone had piled a thick pillow of heather under her bedding roll & spread it ready for her. Her medical bag was behind her pillow, just the way she always arranged her things. The saddle bags with her personal belongings she always put between her & Alaistair & that’s exactly where they had been put. Niall scuttle away leaving Owein to tentatively offer Gillie a cup of Grawn’s ginger & honey tea while studiously avoiding his brother’s eye.

‘I hope you laced that with something effective,’ Alaistair snapped as he set Gillie down on her own two feet. ‘Sit’. He handed her the cup. Gillie sniffed it suspiciously but it smelt ok. Gingerly she tasted it. The faintest trace of something bitter made it’s presence known. She sipped cautiously trying to ignore the brewing row between Avagaddu’s sons.

‘I told you to see to it!’ Alaistair hissed furiously.

‘I was getting there,’ Owein protested quietly. ‘You know what she’s like.’ Gillie tried to pretend that they weren’t talking about her but the stinging words & furious silence had her squirming.

‘Cowardice doesn’t become you, brother,’ Alaistair said very, very softly. ‘You endangered us all.’


‘Get out! Get every man in the cantref away from here. You leave me no choice & I’ll be damned lucky if she doesn’t set my own cats on me! Move!’

Owein looked white & appalled but knew as well as Gillie there was nothing to be gained from arguing with Alaistair. He spun on his heel & strode off while Alaistair fiddled with the fire wood & studiously avoided catching Gillie’s eye. There were shouted orders out side. Gillie quailed. Owein was going to be mightily unpopular sending the men back out into the cold, unrested & even before the camp was set up.

For some time there was quite a lot of noise & then there was no noise at all. The crackling of the fire sounded very loud. Alaistair dropped the log of wood he was holding onto the fire then hunkered down beside it studying the flat knuckles of his hands in a considering way. Gillie kept very still. There was a shrieking in her mind & a desperate desire to run & run & to keep on running, & since that wasn’t possible she began retreating inside herself, somewhere safe where Alaistair could not reach.

‘Please don’t do that.’ Alaistair said softly. ‘Not just at the moment. Damn, Owein!’ He did glance up then. The grey eyes were anguished. Gillie stared at him like a stunned rabbit. ‘ I thought it would be better coming from Owein; I still think that but Owein has a little problem with people who put up good barriers & yours, I’m afraid, are excellent.’ He gave her a lopsided grin but Gillie wasn’t in the least capable of grinning back. Alaistair dropped his gaze to his hands again, muttering obscenities under his breath. At last he tried again. ‘We have a small problem.’ Gillie squirmed & Alaistair watched her squirm at finding herself so trapped with someone she didn’t much like, didn’t want to talk to & was being forced to deal with. ‘Sweet Dana, girl, I’d give my honour price to know how you did it?’ Gillie eyed him cautiously like a shying horse. ‘How in blazes did you get away with lying to Nemain?’ Gillie promptly dropped her gaze to her mug of ginger tea & waited to hear where he was going with this. ‘I know you lied,’ Alaistair said & she could hear the fear in his voice & the gentling & the coaxing behind the fear. ‘I have a hundred men penned in here & an unclaimed bloodline…’ Gillie’s head did jerk up at that. Alaistair spread his hands helplessly. ‘She is hunting already, is Dana.’

‘What did my da say?’

‘He didn’t. I never asked. I think it should be for you to say, for lots of reasons. If it is Owein…’

‘No!’ The word was jerked out of Gillie. ‘I can’t…’

Alaistair scrubbed at his face. There was ginger amongst the gold of his stubble & flecks of it in his hair. Gillie stared at him in anguish. All his careful planning & she could bring it down about his head.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

chapter 9

Gillie first saw Slievenamon as they came down through Ben Dubh & she caught her breathe at the wonder of it. As they came down through the pass the land rolled away in dumpy hills & little sluggish streams pottering gently onto the small plain. Beyond the plain the land crumbled away into the sea in jagged shards ~ except for Slievenamon. There was an isthmus running out into the sea, rising in a long narrow spit that spread out above the raging waters of the Tethys Sea in all its glittering granite glory. Here Avagaduu had built his stronghold & from the hill top, with its banners & pennants flying & the sun glinting off the quartz, it seemed a thing of beauty & wonder. The reality was very different but Gillie never forgot how it seemed to her at first.

‘He’s not here,’ Owein said to no~one in particular & Gillie thought he had had the right of it all along; Avagaddu was traveling much more slowly & he would have to take the long way round through the foothills because the wagons would never manage the mountain pass & were far too valuable to be abandoned.

Now with Cantlos half done the land glowed like a jewel. Blaeberries & rowan berries scalded trees & bushes with their colours. The heathers of mauve & yellow, frost tipped russet, burned in fiery swathes over the rolling moorland. The sky was high & clear, the sea darkly blue & so far west golden wheat & brown rye waited impatiently for the harvest scything. Alaistair’s cats went hunting & brought home hares hanging limply from their jaws.

Gillie thought the western land very beautiful until she passed under Slievenamon’s portals & the rank smells of a large keep assailed her nostrils. Ard~Ri or no, Avagaduu kept his keep like a pig sty & Gillie could not see how adding more people to it would improve it at all. Filth littered the narrow walkways between buildings & the middens lay uncovered & thick with flies. She didn’t even want to think about the latrines.

‘Is it me, or is it worse this time, do you think?’ Owein asked.

‘Worse,’ Alaistair snapped. ‘Delma might at least try..!’ He stared distastefully at the litter rising like a tide against unlimed walls & the scuttling rats. ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll make the men camp in here! Tell Cam to ride on through. We’ll camp in the headland caves. It’ll be cold but at least the air will be clean.’ Owein nodded as he urged his horse forward. Gillie tried to make herself invisible. Alaistair in this grim faced mood was not someone to be trifled with. In the weeks that they had been traveling she had swabbed his back twice a day & salved it, in silence. She had managed to avoid having a single conversation with him & as he had seemed perfectly happy with that arrangement she had spent most of her time with Owein. She missed him now, already, & he had only been gone moments. She let the little grey pony lag a little, not enough to draw Alaistair’s wrath but enough that she could forget about him, which she promptly did, rootling about in her mind for one of the memories that made her happiest, one that did not involve war bands, or riding contrary little ponies & cold beds on hard ground; which was how she missed the fact that Alaistair had halted & was waiting for her with his iciest grey eyed stare. She almost rode him down. She gaped at him blankly suddenly realizing that the war band had moved on & that there was now only her & Alaistair.

‘How long will this go on?’ He asked with deceptive mildness. Gillie kept a discrete silence while she hurriedly racked her brains for what she could possibly have done that had given offence this time. ‘I know you’re not stupid so I can only think it is deliberate & I have warned you; only Avagaddu has the right.’

Gillie shook her head trying to collect her scattered wits & thoroughly alarmed. Alaistair did not make idle threats.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You,’ Alaistair said very gently & very pointedly, ‘are my healer; mine. And you ignore me so pointedly it is the talk of the camp.’

Gillie, who had never once though how it would seem to others, stared at him in total bewilderment.

‘What would you have me do?’ To her surprise Alaister flushed slowly & painfully & the grey eyes lost their icy stare for just a moment.

‘My mistake,’ Alaistair snapped shortly & reefing his horse’s head round in a way that would certainly have incurred her da’s wrath for mistreating an animal he moved briskly forward. Gillie stared after him in bewilderment. There was no pleasing the man. She hurried to catch him up but now that he had her attention it seemed he was in no mind to pay her any. She shrugged irritably as she struggled to keep up with him through the rabbit warren of narrow pathways but once they came onto the open headland Alaistair began snapping orders so fast & furiously that Owein’s eyebrows hiked & glancing curiously at Gillie he asked, ‘What did you say to him?’

‘Nothing,’ Gillie sulked. ‘The man’s impossible.’

‘There I agree with you, but even Alaistair is not usually so unreasonable. I know he wanted to speak with you; did he?’

‘You could say that..’ though Gillie had not often had a more peculiar conversation.

‘And?’ Owein prompted.

‘He seems to think I’m insulting him.’ Owein grinned at her slowly & beatifically.

‘You, my girl, are an absolute treasure!’ Gillie glared at him. Alaistair was bad enough; she would not bear it from Owein but Owein continued to grin at her, charmed beyond words. ‘And you, of course, have absolutely no idea what he’s on about, do you?’

‘I asked him what he wanted me to do…’ at which Owein put his head down on his saddle pommel & began laughing silently till the tears streamed down his cheeks. Gillie sighed with exasperation.

‘Wen,’ Owein gasped at last. ‘Wen does it to him too!’ He dabbed at his streaming eyes with his plaid. ‘Oh my, no wonder he’s so wild.’

‘But what have I done?’ Gillie asked. Owein cocked his head at her trying to curb his amusement.

‘Exactly as he asked.’ Owein chocked on his laughter again. ‘Exactly, & no more. And then you make him disappear. Pouff!’ He snapped his fingers. He was laughing too hard again to continue. ‘Not literally, you goose,’ as Gillie opened her mouth to protest that that wasn’t possible. ‘Oh my,’ He grabbed at his aching sides, ‘He got more than he bargained for when he got Broghan’s brats.’

‘Owein!’ Gillie exclaimed irritably, ‘You are making no sense at all.’

‘Yes, well, you’ve never been to Slivenamon before have you?’ Owein seemed to be finding it funnier & funnier & was now choking inexplicably on his words as they followed slowly behind a cantref scavenging what wood they could off the heathland. ‘Let’s just say Alaistair is not used to being so totally ignored by someone wearing a skirt.’ He hooted happily. ‘And the men have …noticed, though it would help if you didn’t so pointedly ignore him all the time.’

‘Alaistair.’ Gillie said flatly.

‘An ard~ri’s son? He’s considered quite a catch. What an odd girl you are. It’s never once even crossed your mind, has it?’

Gillie’s lips thinned ominously. The only thing stopping her from spinning her pony about & riding off was that she really didn’t want to find out what Alaistair would do to her if she broke one of his stupid rules. She was pretty certain it would not be pleasant & he was in a stinging nettle mood.

‘Don’t be cross,’ Owein wheedled. ‘Some of us appreciate you.’ Still grinning, he slid of his pony as Alaistair called a halt, then turned to lift her down though she was perfectly capable of dismounting her own pony. It was one of Alaistair’s ‘things’. His Healer was given respect & she was to be seen to be given respect. Gillie understood but it fretted her, just as it fretted her that she was not given any job in the setting out of the camp. Very deferentially indeed Owein proffered his arm & began guiding Gillie to the jumble of rocks that partially hid the steep incline that led underground & into the caverns hollowed out by the sea & filled with its constant booming. He was still shaking & Gillie itched to hit him.

The incline was narrow & slippery & very steep. It twisted like a snake around jagged shards of granite, plummeting downwards in an ugly snare of rolling pebbles & sharp shell ~ & they had to come back up this path! Just the same Gillie would never argue with Alaistair about this. The thought of camping close to the dun appalled Gillie as much as it did Alaistair & when Dougal arrived there would be words.

Looking round the windy caverns Gillie had to agree this was much better; cold & it would get colder yet, but the air was stingingly clean & experience had taught her that Alaistair would ensure it stayed that way.

‘We’ll get you set up,’ Owein said. ‘Niall will be along with your things presently & you’d best be ready when Alaistair lets the men rest.’ Gillie nodded. The array of small mishaps brought to her attention made no stretch on her limited medical skills. Any household goodwife could manage those & Gillie had learnt from Sorcha. Her daily surgery was another of Alaistair’s little quirks & again, though it fretted her & made her feel an almighty fraud, she saw the sense in it. The men took a propriety sense of ownership in her & were starting to seek her out to treat their minor ills. They had learnt from Alaistair too & kept a civil tongue in their heads & after the past few weeks Gillie was starting to feel safe at last. She knew when the men’s protective instincts were properly honed Alaistair would lift most of his restrictions & she could go where she liked & with whom she liked.

Owein found her a corner against the back wall out of the worst of the wind & as she laid out her bed roll & unfolded the low rickety collapsible desk Dougal had lent her she watched the cantref start weaving a windbreak of heather across the opening. The tough springy stuff would shed like a moulting cat but then some canvas pegged over it would make things decidedly warmer. Grawn was already setting up a smoky kitchen & the smell of fresh chopped herbs reminded Gillie she was ravenously hungry. Unrolling the small emergency pack she normally used with it’s everyday herbs & salves tucked into the little pockets, some small linen strips, needles & a sharp blade gave her something to do & she stretched it out wondering if this was how Dougal had got to be such a fussy little man. Then she sat & waited. Niall brought her a cauldron of hot water & a cake of acerbic soap, grinning cheerfully. She liked Niall. Grawn brought her a mug of hot ginger tea sweetened with honey like a clumsy overgrown bear, but he meant well & was more frightened of Alaistair than most. His cooking was dubious at best & he was no swordsman though if you gave him an ax he could hack away to some purpose. Liam brought a skin of cheap wine with an evil leer. Liam was one of the few Gillie could not like but he was of the weasel clan, ferret faced, devious, & sour. And all the time Owein was hovering somewhere near in a way that made Gillie cringe. She didn’t need baby sitting & she thought it rather cruel of Alaistair to give the babysitting duties to his second in command.

Then the men started coming & for a little while she was busy though lots of them wanted nothing more than a bit of a chat with someone who’s lungs hadn’t been honed on a parade ground. Sometimes the whole decade came even if it was only one man who needed to see her but though she waited Alaistair was keeping himself so busy that in the end she went hunting him.

He made her wait. Gillie seethed quietly, determined not to let him rile her, while he gave some last minute & quite unnecessary orders about the horses.

‘I’m busy, Gillie.’

Gillie folded her arms & stayed stubbornly where she was while she accumulated yet another audience as the men needing to see Alaistair politely waited behind her. The grey eyes became guarded.

‘I will see you now.’

‘The back’s fine, Gillie. Has been for days.’

‘The back is fine when I say it is fine,’ Gillie snapped. She very nearly stomped her foot in sheer temper. ‘Move it.’ His eyebrows hiked but before he could utter a word Gillie began ranting. ‘Well, no Dougal. I’m his healer but Alaister wouldn’t let me near his back. No Dougal, I’m afraid I didn’t know about the infection. I’m sorry, Dougal, which bit needs cutting off?’ She managed to refrain from saying, ‘His head, perhaps?’ She jabbed a finger at him furiously. ‘Your orders! You might have the decency to follow your own instructions.’ Behind Alaistair Owein was rolling his eyes & shaking his head frantically. Niall’s jaw had dropped open in fascinated horror & there was an appalled little silence where in Alaistair enquired pleasantly, ‘Are you done now?’

Gillie waggled her comfrey pot at him & pointed towards her corner. The look Alaistair gave her told her very definitely she was overstepping the mark & for a moment she wavered. Infuriating man! But the thought of having to face Dougal & tell him she hadn’t done her job properly was more frightening than all Alaistair’s implied threats. Stubbornly she stayed where she was & after a moment Alaistair did come. Gillie scuttled after him & found him peeling off his jerkin in such a way that he had torn some of the wetter scabs free & there was now a myriad of open wounds to be dealt with again. Sighing softly Gillie sloshed some of the cheap wine onto a cloth & began dabbing at his back while he sat on the end of her bed roll in a stony silence. Well, he could be mad all he liked so long as he let her do her job. Owein drifted over silently. Normally he would keep up a steady banter of bad jokes but not tonight. Tonight he stood uncomfortably rolling the dirty bit of twine he made cats’ cradles from between his fingers, twirling it round & round, round & round in a way that told Gillie how worried she should be. She ignored him & began rubbing comfrey along the open wounds. On the whole she was pretty pleased with herself. There would be scarring of course & though one or two of the deeper cuts were still red & angry looking there was no infection & the back was healing cleanly. She handed Alaistair his shirt but he didn’t put it on, just sat with it scrunched between his hands then said softly, ‘Do you know what would happen to one of the men if they spoke to me as you did tonight?’

Gilli’e bowels turned to instant water.

‘Something along the lines of what Avagaddu did to you I would imagine. Sensible of you not to maim the healer..’

‘Gillie! Owein got brushed aside as Alaistair studied Gillie curiously.

‘You think that green jerkin gives you that much protection?’

‘No, I think you normally have more sense than that. You can’t give me a job & then not let me do it, especially when it’s me who will answer to Dougal for it & he will answer to Avagaddu. I don’t imagine he’s had the pleasantest of trips, do you? Explaining to Avagaddu he’s sent a chit of an untrained girl to rectify the damage he caused. Look, be mad at me all you like, just do what you’re told like a good boy until your back really has healed then I won’t have to come bothering you.’

‘You’ve been spending too much time with Owein,’ Alaistair said sourly, ‘You argue like a lawyer. Just the same, you owe me an apology; a very public apology.’

‘If you like,’ Gillie said equitably so that Alsistair was instantly suspicious. Owein sucked in his cheeks to hide his grin while Alaistair climbed to his feet, pulled his shirt over his head & tucking it through his belt said, ‘ You’ll have to spend your days with Dougal in the keep, once he gets here, but whatever instructions he gives you, you follow to the absolute letter. I don’t want preventable infections rampaging through here & that place is a cesspit.’

Naturally not ~ & Alaistair, when would you like your apology? ' She grinned at him & had the pleasure of seeing him wince.

chapter 8

Thoomee; silence. It was a very old word. For the first time Gillie truly understood it’s full meaning. This was Thoomee, the silence that held no breath of air, no sound but utter emptiness. It was strangely peaceful. It was as thick as a sheep’s coat before the shearing & it cradled her between the worlds so that falling, she was held, & held she moved beyond fear & terror.

There was also light, moving towards her steadily, a fierce blue/white light that hurt her eyes & mithered her so that she seemed to be swallowed up in the brightness. Then there was only the light; light & silence as she spiraled slowly between the worlds ~ & was halted by a voice.

‘You owe me a life.’

The brightness was dimmed as if by some unseen hand so that scowling Gillie could make out the image of a man, a man who was, indisputably, the ugliest little man Gillie had ever seen. He was so deformed he reminded Gillie of a broken toy glued back together wrongly. At some point his hands had been….. They were the large, practical hands of a tradesman & all bent out of shape. His face was criss crossed with old scars & the dark eyes burnt with a consuming fire.

For the first time Gillie really thought about Torquil. He had been young, like Alaistair or Owein, but not a warrior & it had been wrong of her & Alaistair to make jokes about his poetry. True, it wasn’t very good poetry. He had been a silly chook of a man, frightened of his own shadow but he had only wanted to lie in the sun for a little while & try to forget, not die suddenly at the angry hands of a little girl who had nothing better to do with her time that day. Gillie would not have put it quite like that.

‘His life was not yours to take.’

That was true. Broghan had said it, & Alaistair, though not so directly, & Tem had said it & even Wen had said it, so there was no use arguing the matter.

‘And now you come like a thief, to a place where you have no right, to petition for that to which you may make no claim.’

Gillie worked her way through the tangle of words till she thought she understood & nodded her head. She had no right to be here, no right to ask anything at all. She had not thought of it as stealing.

The man shook his head at her, his eyes regarding her steadily.

‘You usually have more to say for yourself than this.’

Gillie flushed hotly. Also true.

‘So, I will do for you what you have not asked of me, & you will do for me what I have asked of you.’

‘What have you asked?’ Gillie managed to stammer, temporarily bewildered & wondering where on earth she would have seen this little man before because surely she would not have forgotten him.

‘You do not know me, but one day you will. Now, I will set you on the path you should go & Owein will take you home.’

‘But what do you want me to do?’ Gillie blurted.

‘As Dougal tells you. How else will Alaistair have the healer he needs?’

He seemed surprised she didn’t know this & Gillie was inclined to resent the assumption. Alaistair & his healer! She was tired to death of it.

‘But it is not for Alaistair,’ the man said simply. That was so true Gillie blushed hotly again. It was not about Alaistair. She knew it wasn’t. She knew what Broghan would say: ‘Grow up, girl!’


The path was beneath her feet again & Owein was just there, close enough to touch, anguish & relief chasing across his face.

‘Mawr oll Aither, lass, don’t let go again. I thought I’d lost you.’

‘Obviously not your lucky day,’ Gillie said hardily & had the satisfaction of hearing Owein laugh, a little shakily but it was still a laugh. He took her hand. His grip was cool & firm & she could feel the sword calluses along the palm, hard & a little rough, old calluses too so Brehon or no he had continued with his sword practice all through his training. They turned right, following the path of the sun, spiraling in & down, turning right to follow the path of the light till it spun them up & out again to a fire burnt to cinder & ashes & white faced warriors standing by silently.

Gillie glanced at the sky & knew morning was not far away. There was a wide grey band along the horizon & the bitter coldness of first light. She was stiff from her body sitting still so long while her soul had journeyed to places she had never imagined & looking over at Owein & seeing how pale & white he looked she began to understand the warriors’ concern. They had watched & waited all through the long night & now waited patiently as Gillie built up the fire again & scrubbed her hands thoroughly with watered wine & astringent herbs.

Alaistair’s back was crusting with brownish scabs & oozing pus but seemed to be healing cleanly enough though he was breathing as shallowly as possible so as not to cause any more hurt. It made Gillie flinch just to look at it. How one man could do something like that to another, or a father to his son, was beyond her.

Owein pulled the stopper from the comfrey jar for her. Gillie hesitated, scooped the ugly brown goo into her hands and as gently as possible began to spread it across Alaistair’s back. There was a fierce fire in her hands & a pulsating icy heat flaring beneath them as she worked. She seemed to feel all the raw edged wounds knitting together & the screaming nerve ends silenced as they rejoined & gradually the tense stiffness of Alaistair’s back relaxed & with a soft sigh he relaxed into a healing sleep. He looked young & gawky in sleep, quite unlike his usual self .

Gillie began wiping her hands clean trying to ignore the whispered looks around her & the rising speculation. So many strange faces & her not over fond of either of the two faces she knew. She sighed to herself. It wasn’t difficult to deal with Owein but she resented that it was necessary.

‘Who’s second in charge?’

‘Me ~ unless we are fighting & then it would be Cam.’ Gillie nodded, not surprised.

‘I don’t want to move him…’

Owein smiled at her wryly.

‘You can’t think that Avagaddu will wait.’ He shook his head. ‘ The main host will move on & we’ll follow when we can.’ Gillie just stared at him appalled. Avagaddu would move on leaving a cantref of men to fend for themselves with a wounded man to care for.

No,’ Owein said decisively. ‘We are a mobile force & much more able to fend for ourselves than you think. Those hunting cats of Alaistair’s for one thing. They’ll hunt a man as easily as a deer. Alaistair would break us into our decades for another. That is how we usually hunt for Avagaddu, in packs of ten. It will be well & if we aren’t traveling hindered by the wagons we will probably make Slievenamon before Avagaddu does.’ Gillie stared at him chewing the edge of her thumb. She knew what she had to do, she just didn’t want to do it. Owein saved her the bother. ‘I will send someone for your things.’ She shrugged. It had to happen sooner or later, she just wished it had been later & the truth was, she wasn’t a healer, not yet & likely never would be. She was a sham & a fake & she pitied the poor sod forced to suffer her inept ministrations but if Alaistair wanted a charlatan for a physic that was his problem.

Just the same, Gillie felt stupidly self conscious hunkered by her small fire waiting on her things & surrounded by a hundred armed men, a hundred of the best too. Only the best for Alaistair! Avagaddu should be worried. The pick of his men were finding their way into Alaistair’s small, vicious war band. Already she missed Wen. She missed Tem & her da & the way their lives had been before the Formarians. Even if they won, even if it was all over tomorrow, it would never be the same. She was not the person she had been a month ago, or a year ago, or even a day ago. With a sinking sensation Gillie realized that the life she had once imagined for herself had become to small & what her life would be she had no idea. There was no certainty she even had much of a life left.

She glowered unhappily over the campsite where the men were going about the daily grind of feeding & watering the horses, checking for saddle galls & cracked hooves, cooking, honing swords, greasing leather & now she knew she could see the pattern of tens & how orderly the camp was compared to the unwieldy surging mass that was the main hosting. It also smelt far better. Avagaddu just would not waste time & man power digging proper latrines when his camp was moving on in a day or two but dysentery was rampant among his men & Dougal had had words about it more than once.

‘Two things,’ Dougal was always saying, ‘that will destroy an army faster than anything else ~ toilets & water. Make sure both are clean.’ Gillie was pretty sure that Alaistair had been listening to Dougal. The camp was immaculate. ‘Cleanliness.’ Dougal was a fastidious man himself but now Gillie could see the sense. There were flies but not the hordes that swarmed about the main camp & not the droning of blown meat.

She glanced down & saw that Alaistair was awake & watching her with a resigned grimness.

‘Do we pass muster?’

She flushed & looked away thinking she had days & weeks & months when she would have to endure his company. A hundred men did not, suddenly, seem too many.

‘That’s not for me to say.’ Detachment. Dougal had the right of it there too.

‘What? You haven’t heard Dougal’s lecture on cleanliness yet? It’s one of the first & he likes to repeat it.’

‘Then you don’t need me to,’ Gillie managed calmly. Alaistair was silent. Surprised Gillie glanced down at him. She had seen the look in his eyes in the eyes of a hawk finding itself unexpectedly tethered but he had better self discipline that she did; he was not about to throw a tantrum because he had been hurt & shamed. After a moment he began again, a little diffidently.

‘Would you care to explain what you & Owein thought you were doing yesterday?’


‘Gillie! My healer & my 2nd paddling about in the nether regions.’

‘I don’t tell you how to do your job,’ Gillie snapped forgetting all about detachment, ‘So don’t tell me how to do mine!’

‘With my second, ‘Alaistair repeated.

‘Take it up with Owein. He wasn’t invited.’

Alaistair’s whole body spasmed. Gillie leapt to her feet alarmed then realized he was trying very hard not to laugh. Infuriating man!

‘I’ll be taking it up with Owein, never fear, & I guess I can safely leave you to Dougal.’

For a moment Gillie just stared at him & then the laughter came gurgling up in hiccuphy little bursts so that she snorted inelegantly into her plaid. She collapsed beside him again gurgling happily. By the time she saw Dougal again he’d be long over it.

‘I see,’ Alaistair said grimly. ‘Fully trained already are we?’

‘Don’t be silly.’ It was too funny to be dampened by Alaistair’s sarcasm. He could take that up with Owein to, a thought that sent her into another spate of happy gurgles. Alaistair closed his eyes tiredly & said from behind his closed lids, ‘There are a hundred men in this camp. You sleep between Owein & I & you go nowhere without one of us by your side.’

Gillie sobered instantly. Without opening his eyes Alaistair continued, very softly. ‘Make no mistake, this is my war band. Only Avagaddu has the right to shame me openly before my men.’ Gillie blushed a bright & scalding red but Alaistair would not open his eyes & look at her. Rather pointedly he turned his head & ignored her while Gillie struggled with a furious & necessarily silent rage. However long it took it would not be too soon before they could ride.