‘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.
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.