They walked into Avagaddu’s war camp just before dusk. Smudge fires, small & smokeless, glowed faintly amongst the trees, banked so very little light showed. Cooking pots swung on their tripods & Gillie sniffed appreciatively. There was a smell of stewed meat & she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had meat. The rich, fatty smell rolled about the camp.
There were horses picketed close by & men walked through the camp armed. The wagons holding the women & children had been dragged into the center of the camp but plenty of stray animals seemed to be roaming about, rootling pigs, cows & goats, hens, wolfhounds, a cat or two, big hunting cats with wild suspicious eyes that intrigued Gillie. She knew they could disembowel a man faster than a rutting boar & she wondered who’s they were & why they were allowed to keep them. Her eyes followed their lithe movements as they stalked proudly about the camp.
‘Mine,’ Alaistair leaned forward to hiss in her ear. ‘Aren’t they pretty? And they give Avagaddu a royal pain.’ He winked at her before sliding of his horse to greet the guard. Gillie sighed. Naturally the cats were Alaistair’s.
‘He’s not happy,’ the guard warned, nodding at Alaistair but his gaze accessing the children. Alaistair seemed unsurprised by this comment although his mouth thinned grimly.
Suddenly there seemed to be a great many people converging their way. Gillie scanned the crowd anxiously but only one man stood out. He was a great bear of a man with tawny, flowing moustaches & a thick gold torque circling his bull neck: Avagaddu, ard~ri of Slievenanamon. He had the coldest eyes Gillie had ever seen, colder than Alaistair’s, blue & hard like chipped blue flints.
‘You took your own sweet time,’ Avagaddu roared brusquely as he strode towards them. ‘What kept you?’
‘There was a slight…complication.’ Gillie watched Alaistair deal with his father with interest. Not deferential exactly but certainly cautious. He kept his voice softly neutral, obviously used to being greeted like this. Gillie, who had decided she didn’t like Alaistair at all, took an even greater instant dislike to Avagaddu.
‘And whom did you kill this time?’ Hard & swift & meant to sting. Gillie sucked in her breath hard but Alaistair seemed unmoved.
‘I didn’t actually; not this time. She did.’ He gestured to Gillie still perched atop the grey stallion. She flinched under Avagddu’s icy stare. His barely contained rage was reverberating through the camp & people were wandering over to stand & stare the way people do when something nasty starts happening that doesn’t concern them.
‘And what poor rabbit did the brat kill?’ Gillie was suddenly conscious of how much blood was caked to her breachan & that she very badly needed a wash.
‘Torquil, Prince of Formaria.’
The blow was so swift, so sudden, so completely unexpected, Gillie never saw it coming. She doubted Alaistair had either though not surprised either. He sprawled absurdly in the dust, blood streaming from a cut lip, a raised welt the exact size & shape of Avagaddu’s fist already darkening his cheek.
‘Lies are for your whores, not for me.’
Alaistair climbed slowly to his feet dabbing at his lip with exaggerated affectation. Avagaddu’s brows lowered ominously, a bull goaded too far. His big, blunt hands began unbuckling his wide leather belt & Gillie’s eyes widened apprehensively. Surely he wouldn’t! She gazed round agitatedly but Tem & Wen had drawn together in a wide eyed huddle, their mouths open with shock & people were starting to turn away, obviously used to Avagaddu’s rages.
‘The lie wasn’t even worth the telling,’ Avagaddu snarled swinging his belt. Alaistair held his ground with seeming indifference as the crowd swayed reluctantly from Avagaddu’s injustice. Gillie gaped at the man truly alarmed. Discipline was necessary of course, but a scion should not be publicly humiliated, nor a leader before his men. She glanced round frantically but people were turning away & casually resuming their tasks.
‘Hold awhile, Avagaddu!’ Relief flooded through Gillie at the sound of her Da’s voice. He sauntered forward to stand beside Avagaddu, short & broad compared to Avagaddu but with laughter lines to his face & a warmth in his brown eyes that Avagaddu would never have. Avagaddu dropped his arm.
‘Aye.’ Brogan eyed his daughter’s blood stained brechan & shook his head at her. ‘Was it rabbits, daughter?’
Gillie shook her head at him. Easier to deal with her da than with Avagaddu who was still itching to whip his son like a slave boy. She answered carefully, not looking at Avagaddu, only at her da.
‘I killed a man. We brought his shield.’ The exact truth, no more. Broghan himself had taught her how to slit a man’s throat. He rocked a little on his heels, his gaze drifting to his sons who were not spattered with a Formarian’s blood, then back to his daughter & in the silence his judgment weighed heavy.
‘We will leave the matter of why you were doing the killing for now, when there were men about to do it for you.’ Gillie flushed uneasily at the rebuke but Broghan had already moved on. ‘Let us be seeing the shield of the man you killed.’ His voice was overly calm but Tem nearly sprawled in the dirt in his haste to step forward & unwrap the bundle he still clutched like a talisman.
His fingers shook & Gillie slid of the horse to help him.
‘I told you,’ Tem hissed under his breath, ‘I said you should let me.’
‘Your blade’s blunt,’ Gillie hissed back. ‘You shouldn’t use it to hack brambles with.’
‘Stow the interfamilial row for now,’ Broghan ordered waiting with assumed patience but Alaistair’s knots were better than Tem’s. The more they tugged the tighter the knots became. Impatiently Tem drew his blade, hacked through the thin cord & the bundle fell open. The shield was on the bottom, it’s scooped shell being used to hold everything else. Gillie tipped it so that boots & purse, breeks & jerkin & sword tumbled into the cloak & Tem could lift the shield up & everyone could see it was a Formarian shield of bronze, not leather, long & oval, deep crimson in colour & emblazoned with the many rayed sun of the Lion Kings of Formaria. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence while Avagaddu studied it.
‘You swear the man you killed carried this shield.’ Gillie nodded. ‘And you’re certain he’s dead?’
Gillie’s eyes flashed dangerously. She had said so, & more than once. Was she a child?
‘Of course he’s dead! I slit his throat for him!’
There was a gurgle of laughter from Alaistair & Avagddu turned on him waspishly.
‘You’re late! See to your men & horses.’ Wrapping his belt around his thick waist he strode away abruptly as Alaistair said softly under his breath, ‘Naturally I will see to my men & horses.’
Gillie stared after Avaguddu in disbelief. She couldn’t believe the man. He would have been at the end of a knife before now if he behaved like than amongst the tribes. She began rewrapping the bundle carefully not sure who she was angriest at only knowing that a furious rage was threatening to overcome good sense. Her hands shook as she worked & Tem eyed her uneasily. Gillie could be …temperamental & there was still their da to deal with.
‘Must you goad him brother?’ a soft voice asked. Gillie glanced up curiously. He was enough like Alaistair to be his brother, a small brown nut of a man in the dark plaid of a droi, his reddish brown hair shaved & caught up in a scalp lock, his mouth wry.
Alaistair shrugged. ‘He seems a touch tetchy even for him, Owein. Don’t tell me the old fox was worried.’
‘That he’d lost fighting men for children, yes.’ Alaistair snorted but Gillie’s attention was drawn by a distinct cough behind her. Broghan was waiting. Hastily Gillie scrambled to her feet to find Tem was paling visibly under Broghan’s considering star & Wen had again retreated inside himself, his fist clutching the corner of her cloak & his thumb in his mouth so that he seemed much younger than he really was. Gillie sighed & rescued her cloak.
‘And now,’ Broghan began in the gentle way that was so deceptive, ‘Would the three of you care to explain, in plain words for I am a simple man, why you were out of the dun killing stray Formarians & why, in the names of all the gods there ever were, it was Gillie wielding the knife when killing a chook gives her nightmares for weeks on end? I’m sure you have a perfectly reasonable explanation & I am, after all, a reasonable man.’
‘No.’ Gillie said briefly. She no longer cared. Broghan could do what he liked. There was no reasonable explanation for what they had done. Lots of unreasonable ones, but not one single reasonable one.
‘We are at war…’ Broghan began.
‘And we killed an enemy,’ Gillie snapped. ‘A stupid enemy who was alone & too close to the dun & I am older than they are & my blade is sharper. Would you have us cowards?’ Tem trod very gently on her foot trying to stop the angry surge of words. Gillie shoved him aside.
Broghan shook his head as if swatting away flies.
‘But you,’ he pointed a finger at Gillie his voice never rising, ‘carry the bloodlines. What were you thinking?’
That was the crunch. Tem stared at the ground shamefaced. Wen’s mouth worked but no sound came. A large tear began sliding slowly down his grubby cheek. Now Gillie was angry for them. They didn’t deserve to be shamed. Gillie hesitated, then lied.
‘We tossed for it.’ Beside her Tem tensed. ‘I won. He was asleep & never woke, an easy death when you think on it’
‘You tossed for it,’ Broghan said slowly as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Gillie was uncomfortably aware that both Owein & Alaistair were staring at her thunderstruck, & that Alaistair at least didn’t believe her. He was grinning like a fool. ‘You tossed for it,’ Broghan said again. ‘With what?’ Gillie gaped at him but beside her Wen held out a clenched fist & when he opened his hand two filthy dice lay there. They were so dirty & worn the dots were almost worn away. Gillie bit her lip. Blast Wen & his thieving fingers. They were Formarian dice lifted no doubt from the purse while Tem was counting the coin & certainly never used in a wager by them but it would never do to say so. Broghan stared at them in disbelief, momentarily distracted.
‘Since when did my son take to carrying dice about?’ he asked but Wen was like a terrier that had got the scent of a rat. His voice rose querulously, threatening tears.
‘It’s not fair. Gillie cheats.’ Tem snickered & Gillie bit back a protest. The sneaky little brat was about to get them out of the mess she’d landed them in. ‘It was my knife. I want it back!’
‘You bet the knife. It’s mine. My knife, my kill & you stole them both. Cheater! I had the double sixes. His death was mine!’ He launched himself at her in a fury hitting & screaming while Gillie tried to fend him off without hurting him & Alaistair’s inane grin widened. Broghan stretched out a Brawny exasperated arm & plucked his small son up by the scruff of the neck.
‘Enough.’ He glanced from one to another of his children & smiled suddenly. ‘I will not say ‘brightly done’ but you have all survived the day & for that I can be thankful.’ Gillie sighed in relief. Her da might not be an important man but he was a smart man, far too smart to pursue an argument he wasn’t going to win or to be so easily deceived. Nor was she fool enough to think he was done with it; it was only deferred for a time. He caught Alaistair’s eye above his children’s heads & said formally, ‘Thank you for my children, Alaistair.’
And Alaistair brought his hands together before his face & bowed in salutation but his voice held a good deal of gentle mockery as he said, ‘I have my own father to appease but I will find your fire later. There are things we must talk on, you & I.’
Broghan nodded but, Gillie noted, he did not look happy about it.