Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chapter 6

It was 2 days before Dougal would let the seal girl travel & three more before they caught up with Avagaddu’s war host camped impatiently in one of the small hidden valleys at the foothills of the Dragon’sback mountains. Alaister pushed them hard but not even he could make a war host hampered by women & children & lumbering wagons travel very fast. By the time they sighted Avagaddu’s camp his face was grim.

It was a habit, Gillie though, watching Avagaddu stride forward to greet his son.

‘You stopped for a labouring girl & a dead brat!’ Avagaddu bellowed furiously. ‘You try my patience, bachan. This is a war hosting, not a hen roost!’

Alaistair scrubbed tiredly at his face. There was no answer that he could give that would turn the edge of Avagaddu’s wrath. He gave the order to dismount & turn out the horses But Avagaddu wasn’t done.

‘My healer was with you.’

‘So were the wounded,’ Alaistair retorted mildly.

Too late Gillie saw the light whip Avagaddu carried. The men were already turning away in a tense, embarrassed silence, & leading their horses towards the picket lines. It was like a bad dream, the sort where the same thing happened over & over again. The whip sang about Avagaddu’s head then thrashed down around Alaistair’s hips with a resounding thwack. Alaistair staggered under the onslaught but held his ground stubbornly. The whip swung again. It was too much. Gillie hissed furiously, white anger blazing. She shook of Owein’s restraining hand, Dougal’s warning shake of the head & murmured, ‘Best stay out of it,’ slid off her pony & plunged forward.

‘Enough!’ she snapped coldly, at least as furious as Avagaddu but careful to stand well clear of the whip’s reach. He swiveled round to glare at her & she glared right back. ‘Are you a fool, man? Would you cripple a mounted man & have him slow the wagons even more? You think we haven’t enough wounded already? Have sense, Avagaddu!’

Eyes hard & blue & colder than ice bored into her. Gillie met the furious glower steadily, head high.

‘No~one,’ Avagaddu said coldly, ‘tells me how to deal with my son.’

‘Then perhaps they should.’ What was she saying? Gillie heard the gasps all through the camp & bit her lip. People were staring at her in disbelief. Gillie made a hasty grab at her temper & said more reasonably, ‘Would you have had Alaistair leave your physic behind?’ It was a gamble but surely Avagaddu knew what kind of a man he had for a physic. The anger died in Avagaddu’s eyes & Gillie breathed a sigh of relief. He did know what sort of a man Dougal was. He gave Gillie one last appraising glance then strode abruptly away. Gillie sucked in badly needed air & tucked her shaking hands into her plaid. Never again, she promised herself. Never, ever again. Avaguddu could whip his son to a pulp, or not, for all of her, but never again.

‘Mawr oll aither, lass,’ Alaistair laughed softly, ‘I’ve never seen his fangs so thoroughly pulled.’

Gillie gave Alaistair a malicious little look, fright making her angrier than was reasonable, & said with sweet venom, eyeing the rip in his breachan; ‘I’m your healer, I believe, so I will be seeing you when you’ve made camp.’ A startled flush rose to Alaistair’s cheeks but he grinned at her broadly. She gave him her stoniest glare & swept past him to Dougal who was waiting for her with his most pained expression.

‘His healer, child? Do you have any idea how to deal with a gash like that?’

‘Of course not! That’s why I have you!’ Dougal groaned softly & Gillie was immediately contrite. ‘Did I do wrong, Dougal?’

‘If you did,’ Dougal said with slow thoughtfulness, ‘it was still well done. Avagaddu needs Alaistair badly though he is not the man to admit that. A nice twist that last, to turn the edge of Avagaddu’s wrath. A lucky guess?’ Gillie smirked at him & Dougal shook his shaggy head at her. ‘You’ll have plenty of time for embarrassing Alaistair later but tread carefully, child. He is nobody’s fool & you should stop treating him like one.’

‘He makes me cross,’ Gillie snapped.

‘He makes everybody cross but that still doesn’t make him a fool. Scalp hunting is becoming a bad habit with you.’

‘Now you sound like Alaistair,’ Gillie protested. ‘I killed one Formarian. One.’ Dougal rolled his eyes at her.

‘A very important one, not that that’s my point. Just promise me you’ll keep your temper, whatever happens.’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’ Gillie asked surprised. ‘How hard can it be to treat a cut like that? It’s not going to need stitches, is it?’

To her bewilderment Dougal coloured uneasily. He pulled her further away from the passing men & with some difficulty managed to mutter, ‘There may be some…um, teasing, from the men.’

‘I do have brothers,’ Gillie said kindly to help him out of his difficulty.

‘Sweet Danu,’ Dougal groaned. ‘I would put money on every man in Alaistair’s cantref standing round to watch this.’ Gillie flushed uneasily seeing how it was. ‘Detachment,’ Dougal muttered. ‘Be very detached.’

‘Perhaps you’d better...’

‘No!’ Dougal was unexpectedly firm. ‘Best learn to deal with this sooner rather than later, just keep smiling. Now,’ & regaining his composure he managed to explain what Gillie needed & what she needed to do.

Just the same she was more than a little nervous when Alaistair finally made his way towards the healers’ fire pit. And Dougal had been right. Behind him lurked every man of the cantref, grinning broadly. Gillie felt sick & began to regret her rash words. Alaistair might not have a fatal wound but she was damned sure it stung like crazy by now. One smart remark & she would make sure the cure was worse than the bite! Why, oh why, hadn’t she let Avaguddu deal with him? He certainly had the happy knack of wiping the smile of Alaistair’s face.

Gillie put on her blandest face but it seemed to be a thing that needed practice & didn’t feel overly convincing. No~one actually said anything but she could feel the grins getting broarder as Alaistair flung himself down on the blankets & whined, ‘It pains me here, doctor.’ There was a hoot of ribald laughter that sent the red rushing to Gillie’s face. Even Owein was grinning like a fool.

‘Don’t mind them,’ Dougal hissed reassuringly. ‘They’re just trying to be funny.’

‘If they had any sense,’ Gillie muttered, ‘They’d call you but Alaistair wanted his own healer & his own healer he gets.’ Anger helped just a little. Then she remembered what Dougal did when a crowd gathered that he didn’t want. He’d accused her of hunting scalps, Dougal had. Well she was going for them now. She singled out Owein.

‘Get the men to move back, Owein. Over there will do nicely.’ Where she couldn’t see them.

He grinned at her, almost smirking & trying hard not to, but moved obediently enough, too well trained by half. Gillie waited wondering exactly what the bet was & just how much money had changed hands & whether the odds were in her favour or not. On the whole she thought they probably were.

She knelt briskly beside Alaistair & lifted his breachan gently aside. He stirred under her hands & turned to wink a mischievous eye at her. Gillie ignored him though she flushed a little as she unwrapped her pouch. The gashes were deeper than she’d expected & caked with dirt. She would have to clean him up first.

Swinging the pot of boiling water off the fire she tipped a little into one of Dougal’s good wooden basins, added the most astringent herbs she could think of & hoped they would sting enough to wipe the smirk of Alaistair’s face. Avagaddu was something of a marksman with a whip & Alaistair had been lucky not to take another blow. Taking a clean cloth from the pouch she dropped it in the water then rinsed her own hands as Dougal had taught her. It all seemed much harder with Alaistair lying there like a great lump & the men leering at her with folded arms & lots of unhelpful advice.

‘And here was me thinking the lassie could kiss it better,’ came a plaintive voice, not Alaistair’s this time. Gillie froze, her mind completely blank.

There was a very pregnant pause. Gillie could feel how the men were watching her waiting to see how she would deal with this. She took a steadying breath & managed to make herself fish the hot wet cloth out of the bowl. She could almost feel Alaistair relax, but not for long. He was going to pay & she would make sure of it.

She slapped the wet cloth against his thigh taking no care to be gentle & had the satisfaction of feeling him wince. So too did Dougal, though for very different reasons. She was going to hear about this later.

Somehow or other Alaistair had managed to get a good bit of dirt & gravel into the wound & Gillie began to wonder suspiciously if he & Owein hadn’t conspired together to make the whole thing much worse than it had been. Thinking that made her crosser & deeply embarrassed & it was all Alaistair’s fault. Why on earth couldn’t he keep a civil tongue in his head around his father? It wasn’t like Avagaddu even liked his son. In fact, Gillie couldn’t think of a single occasion when Avagaddu had spoken to him with anything other than vilification.

Now she could actually see the wound Gillie blanched. It was deeper than she’d expected, the raw edges curled back & gaping in an unpleasant way. She gritted her teeth. After all, she’d been watching Dougal at this for days. How hard could it be to sew a man up again? She could have done without the audience though & would have preferred Dougal to be giving the instructions but no doubt he wasn’t about to let her permanently maim the man so she might as well try.

She took out the needle & coarse thread knowing Dougal was watching her like a hawk & holding his peace with difficulty. She was going to have a really big tantrum when this was done & she was going to enjoy every last moment of it. Owein had gone rather pale & was glancing anxiously at Alaistair. Dougal coughed delicately & suggested, ‘It’s customary to give some warning before you start sewing a man up.’ Gillie stared at them stupidly. Alaistair did tense this time & his head swiveled round questioningly.

‘I guess you heard that.’

He snorted indelicately. ‘Enjoy, sweetheart. You won’t get many opportunities like this.’

‘Can you hold still or must I get Owein to sit on you?’

‘I will be good.’ She hoped for both their sakes he meant it. She reached for the cheap wine Dougal kept for moments like these & poured it generously over the wound. Every muscle in Alaistair’s body tightened & the sweat broke out on his body. Gillie was past being kind ; she only wanted to be done with this.

Sewing a man was not much like sewing a rent in her tunic & the whole process made her sweat like a stuck pig. It did not help that the whole cantref had surged forward to watch but at least for the moment they were silent. She was painfully aware of them breathing heavily all around her, men who had seen Dougal’s handiwork & knew a good physic when they saw one. She tried to keep her stitches small & neat, her knots tight but by the time she was ready to slather comfrey over the wound & bind it with a clean linen strip her hands were shaking with exhaustion. She couldn’t believe 3 tiny stitches could leave her so tired. She rubbed the comfrey in firmly & felt Alaistair wince. She was hurting him & meaning too. She hoped he knew it. Dougal certainly did & was shaking his head at her in warning. Ignoring the pair of them she knotted the bandage firmly & tugged Alaistair’s breachan down before wiping her hands on a clean cloth & putting the needle & knife aside to be boiled in astringent water.

Alaistair got to his feet a little tentatively & his cantref snickered. Gillie flushed & ducked her head but Alaistair just stood there waiting & in the end she had to look up. He met her stony gaze with amusement.

‘My thanks, healer,’ He emphasized the title slightly, ‘in more ways than one.’ His eyes were wide & guileless. She saw it coming, couldn’t think how to stop him, shook her head mutely as he said, ‘There is the question of payment for services rendered.’ He smiled genially proffering a heavy silver bracelet & His smile remained genial as he slipped the heavy metal over her wrist. Gillie mistrusted that smile. ‘A Healer deserves their pay,’ he quoted the Brehon law. ‘What? Shall I pay you more?’ His lips brushed hers & there was a roar of laughter from his men. The scalding blood rushed to Gillie’s face. Tit for tat. Without violation her hand came up to give him a stinging slap across the face. She had itched to do that for so long & there were so many things she wanted to say.

Next time I’ll let Avagaddu have you.

I’m you healer not your whore.

My da will string you up for crow meat.

What she did say, with deadly professional calm, surprising even herself & speaking to Owein, not Alaistair, was: ‘See he keeps it clean & use this. He has no further need of my services.’ She handed a stunned Owein the jar of comfrey & stalked away while the cantref howled & hooted derisively behind her. Tears stung her eyes. Sod Alaistair! Sod them all. She was a woman of the tribes & he had insulted her before his men. She’d be damned if… footsteps, a hand on her arm halting her.

‘My pardon Gillie, for offering insult.’ His voice carried. Gillie watched the jackdaws squabbling as they began roosting for the night thinking of all the ways it was possible to kill a man, knowing she had been royally set up & why. Her da had warned her, & Dougal. A clever man, Alaistair & no man’s fool. He would not have Broghan’s daughter squabbled over like a choice bone amongst his men & he had just made that very, very plain to every man there. Gillie hated him for it even as she knew it to be wise.

‘I seem to make a habit of offending people I shouldn’t,’ Alaistair said wryly, & more softly, for her ears alone, ‘please Gillie, if not for me, then for your da & the twin shadows…’ There was the barest shadow of desperation in his voice. Gillie managed to find her voice but could not look at him.

‘No insult, Alaistair.’

He nodded soberly, took her hand briefly & bowed formally, a gesture for the watching men. Then he turned her hand over & kissed the palm, a gesture so intimate Gillie only just managed not to hit him again. She was too tired to cope with him any more.

‘Oh, Go away, Alaistair. You make me tired.’ And after a moment he did go, his footsteps no longer jaunty, merely relieved, & Gillie rubbed her temples felling the beginnings of a massive headache erupting behind her eyes & wishing Alaistair to the bottom of some deep, dark pit where his cleverness & his insolence & his damn arrogance needn’t bother her any more..

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