Gillie found it hard to sleep. The ground was hard & her cloak wasn’t doing a good job of keeping the cold night air off her skin. When she closed her eyes blood spattered across her vision & she could feel how Torquil’s body jerked in its death throws. She wasn’t used to the soft sounds of nickering horses or they way they shifted along the picket lines. She didn’t feel safe lying in the open with so many strangers about & so she was still awake when Alaistair & Owein finally made their way to her father’s fire.
It was very late. There were guards patrolling still; the regular sound of their passing boots wasn’t exactly reassuring. Ceridwen’s Cup had turned over in the sky spilling her 5 little stars into the low banked clouds & the fires had been banked with turf. Wen was pressed into her back like a snuffling hound puppy, the corner of her cloak still clutched in one grubby hand, his thumb tucked into his mouth. Tem had crawled as close to the fire as he could without actually getting in it but his thin body shivered convulsively in his sleep.
They came quietly, the arrogance less obvious, their footsteps slow, huddling close to the thin warm of the fire & drawing their cloaks close just like any other man. Gillie rolled towards them, slitting her eyes in feigned sleep.
‘So, an interesting day, Alaistair,’ Brogan said, fishing a mead skin out from under a pile of tangled rope. It was empty & he tossed it aside beginning to look round vaguely.
‘Owein brought wine,’ Alaistair said gently, ‘& yes, it was a very interesting day. Cautious is one word for your brats. I’d given up, had turned to ride for home when I spotted them through the smoke. I only waited so long out of fear of what you would do to me if I returned without them. You were, I recall, quite explicit.’
Broghan grinned at him & Gillie jerked in surprise. Her da liked this man, liked him enough to make jokes.
‘I’m sorry you took a blow for them tonight.’
Alaistair shrugged indifferently.
‘I was lucky. He’d gone for his belt & with the men standing there I should have had to suffer it. The mere sight of me makes Avagaddu lose all reason.’
‘That I do understand.’
Teasing? Gillie squirmed uncomfortably squinting through the smoke as she tried to gauge this unexpected relationship. Her da liked Alaistair, like him enough to tease as friends tease!
‘All in all a lucky day, ‘Alaistair said. ‘ When I saw that shield I scarcely knew what to think & I feared for my life when I walked of with your daughter. You breed bear cubs, Broghan.’
‘I breed liars,’ Broghan drawled, ‘& I am not done with them yet though I must have my boys from behind their sister’s skirts to do it. It is Gillie who is having the brains & she cannot shelter them forever.’
‘They have been hurt,’ Owein said softly.
‘And this is war,’ Broghan retaliated hardily. ‘Fiarach will neither forgive nor forget & it is Gillie who carries my bloodlines, not my bear cubs.’
‘She has been done a great harm, the song of your heart, ‘Alaistair said very, very gently. There was enough anger in Broghan to kill & he was no longer hiding it well. Alaister watched the blunt hands open & close convulsively, then spread helplessly.
‘Sons aplenty I have, but only the one daughter…’ he shook his head ‘& now her life is forfeit.’
Alaistair & Owein glanced uneasily at each other. They were coming to it now Gillie thought, the thing they had come to Broghan’s fire to say & Broghan was not about to like it. Gillie could see him know it & brace himself.
‘It was a clean kill,’ Alaistair said softly, ‘quick & painless & left some decency. For this & other reasons I think you know I would ask a favour of you.’ He hesitated but Broghan was impassive, staring uncompromisingly into Alaistair’s too pretty face. Gillie almost giggled. Better men than Alaistair had been disconcerted by her da.
‘Oh dear,’ Alaistair sighed. ‘I seem to be doing this very badly.’ He flushed awkwardly which made him somehow much more likeable & Broghan’s mouth twitched with amusement.
‘There is no need to try your charms on me,’ Broghan smirked. ‘I will hear you out.’
‘It seems I need the practice,’ Alaistair mourned insincerely. ‘Especially as I would have Gillie travel with Dougal this winter.’
For the longest time no~one said anything at all, then much too softly Broghan said,
‘That is presumptuous, my friend.’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’ A bitter laugh that made Gillie’s eyes fly wide open. ‘I do not want some tribal witch doctor with a bag of simples & a simmering blood feud around my men.’
‘Just my daughter…? That’s sensible of you…’
Gillie sniggered into her cloak as Alaistair flushed absurdly & Owein grinned at him foolishly.
‘Broghan,’ Alaistair spread his hands in supplication. ‘It’s only a winter & the healer’s green will give her some protection.’
‘A winter isn’t very long.’
‘What I need, more than anything else,’ Alaistair said slowly, ‘is a cool head. I can’t have someone panicking. I can’t have someone who can’t kill cleanly at need. Or some tribal hot head with a point to prove.’
‘Just my daughter,’ Broghan said again, said it in such a way that Gillie heard the clear warning in his voice. Alaistair must have heard it too. He looked desperately at Owein, who shrugged helplessly. Gillie watched & listened with growing amusement. Alaistair was caught on the horns of his own dilemma. The tribes protected their bloodlines ferociously.
‘What you want,’ Broghan said flatly, ‘is a miracle.’
‘A miracle wouldn’t go astray,’ Alaistair agreed.
Owein leaned forward & said softly, ‘Can Gillie speak for herself? If she agreed would you allow it? Broghan, you know we would not ask if there wasn’t such need but Avagaddu will not see sense. He is going to hole the whole of Banb in that rabbit warren he calls Slievenamon & trap us like rats in its maze. You know how the tribes are. They will be at each others throats doing Fiarach’s work for him within hours of Avagaddu dropping the bar across his gates. We will destroy ourselves from within.’
Gillie watched her da hesitate & knew Owein was right. The tribes were incapable of getting along together & they’d much rather settle old blood feuds than deal with Fiarach. For a long moment Broghan rocked on his heels studying the two young men at his fire & Gillie watched Broghan, almost sure she knew how he would decide & why. He pointed a stubby finger at Alaistair.
‘You have a certain reputation, Alaistair. If by word or deed you insult my daughter there is no land that is big enough to hold the two of us & you will forfeit your brother’s life. Agree, & I will abide by Gillie’s decision.’
‘No need for threats,’ Alaistair said. ‘I am informed, quite reliably, that your daughter knows how to use a blade for purposes other than gutting pigs.’
Owein threw back his head & howled with laughter. After a moment Broghan grinned sheepishly.
‘Ask away then. She’s not asleep.’
Reluctantly Gillie untangled herself from her cloak & Wen’s clutching fingers, stepped past Tem’s sprawled body & stood uneasily beside her da. His bulk was solidly reassuring but it was hard to make out anyone’s features & Gillie found she was tensing, listening for every unspoken nuance.
‘Gillie?’ Alaistair, deferential & not in the least reassuring.
‘The war band’s physic.’
‘Then you don’t need another,’
Alaistair hissed furiously through his teeth but Owein’s shoulders shook as if with silent laughter. Owein she could like.
‘Listen before you judge, yes?’
‘Will you go away then?’
Owein gurgled happily & Alaistair sighed with exasperation.
‘I’m not asking you to marry me, or even to like me, merely to listen. You can do that can’t you?’
‘If I must.’
‘Mawr oll Aither. Owein, you try.’
‘Me?! Not me .This one has claws.’
‘Enough!’ Broghan clamped a large hand on his daughter’s shoulder & pushed her down to sit beside Owein. She thought Owein winked at her in the darkness but it was hard to be sure.
‘Alaistair intends to keep a small war band outside of slievenamon. For that he needs his own healer. If I have understood him correctly it will be for emergency contingencies only & he takes only men who have no blood feuds on their hands.’
‘That must be one small war band then,’ Gillie muttered.
‘It is,’ Broghan said. ‘Think, child. It can’t be large; Avagaddu would see that as a bigger threat than Fiarach. It has to scavenge from what is left on the land ~ & that isn’t much. It must be fast & mobile so it may be all that survives or the first thing destroyed. Alaistair is offering you sanctuary of sorts. Even Fiarach does not kill healers outright.’
‘The men who ride with me,’ Alaistair interceded, ‘Can put aside clan allegiances. That you didn’t castrate Torquil & shove his manhood down his throat shows remarkable restraint & restraint I need. There will be enough needless blood shed before we are done with this war.’ Gillie stared stolidly at the ground but it was Owein who made her glance up at last.
‘Fiarach will lay siege to Slievenamon. Rumour has it he has a black droi with him.’
‘Black? Are you sure?’
‘I did say rumour.’ Owein hunched forward a little more so that Gillie could see his eyes glittering in the dark. ‘He will wait for the dark of the moon & call on the Dark Ones for aide. How much teaching do you have?’
‘Enough to know he may not be able to rule what he has called out nor bind again that which has been loosed.’
Owein nodded grimly.
‘There won’t be much of Banb left & nothing worth the having.’ He glanced enquiringly at Alaistair then shrugged & went on. ‘If that happens, & I think it will, we will loose the bloodlines & Banb will cease to exist.’
Broghan swung round on Alaistair but he didn’t speak, merely waited, tense & unhappy. It was Owein who went on.
‘We are sending some of the smallest children to the skerries hoping to salvage something but you can imagine what it’s like. You heard your da & he’s not the only one.’
‘Twice, Alaistair?’ Broghan whispered.
Alaistair bowed his head between his hands, said between clenched teeth, ‘I cannot make him see reason. I have tried; Avagaddu will not heed me. What would you have me do? Let blind loyalty cloud my judgment? Slievenamon is a death trap & I will not be caught in it. When that happens Dougal will stay with the main war host . He must. I will have my own healer; if not Gillie then another. I am out of choices.’
‘I will stay with my da,’ Gillie said wondering why her da wasn’t riding with Alaistair if he liked him so much.
‘Will you at least think on it?’ Alaistair pleaded. ‘Broghan..’
‘No more, Alaistair. Leave the child alone for now.’ There was absolute finality in Broghan’s voice & though Alaistair ran his hands through his hair in frustration he held his tongue. ‘Patience,’ Broghan advised. ‘ Would not go astray. You would not try & win a horse like this, nor yet one of your whores. Honey & sweet words may yet win you what logic cannot.’
Alaistair nodded with resignation pulling his plaid more tightly about him as he stood to leave but Owein tapped her nose in passing & said with a wicked little snicker, ‘Put his nose properly out of joint you have & there’s not many can do that. That earns you a special treat that does.’ He began to laugh silently as he picked his way a little unsteadily between the bodies around Broghan’s fire & a moment or so later Alaistair’s voice floated back waspishly, ‘Just how much wine have you had, Owein?’
Gillie giggled. Owein seemed remarkably sober to her but his voice, though deferential, held a gentle mockery. ‘Not enough, brother. Not nearly enough.’
Beside her Broghan began chortling happily. He pulled Gillie close in a great bear hug & kissed the top of her hair fondly.
‘Don’t judge yet,’ he whispered softly. ‘There’s a great deal more to those boys than a scion’s arrogance.’
‘But you don’t ride with them,’ Gillie argued. She felt her father’s body sag a little as he shook his head.
‘I haven’t been asked. It’s a young man’s host. Besides, that Alaistair is smart enough to know I’m much more use to him where I am, as Avagaddu’s aide. Now, bed, & this time sleep or I will have Sorcha make you one of her special potions that you are so fond of.’ Gillie pulled a face. Sorcha’s potions were particularly vile. ‘And Gillie,’ she waited expectantly. ‘Try not to scream in your sleep. It disturbs everyone.’
‘Da!’ But it was true she screamed in her sleep. She hadn’t worked out yet how to stop but as she wiggled herself back in between Wen & Tem & felt their heat start to seep through her thin cloak she thought she might at least sleep.