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.