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.
‘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.
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