Thursday, November 15, 2007

chapter 9

Gillie first saw Slievenamon as they came down through Ben Dubh & she caught her breathe at the wonder of it. As they came down through the pass the land rolled away in dumpy hills & little sluggish streams pottering gently onto the small plain. Beyond the plain the land crumbled away into the sea in jagged shards ~ except for Slievenamon. There was an isthmus running out into the sea, rising in a long narrow spit that spread out above the raging waters of the Tethys Sea in all its glittering granite glory. Here Avagaduu had built his stronghold & from the hill top, with its banners & pennants flying & the sun glinting off the quartz, it seemed a thing of beauty & wonder. The reality was very different but Gillie never forgot how it seemed to her at first.

‘He’s not here,’ Owein said to no~one in particular & Gillie thought he had had the right of it all along; Avagaddu was traveling much more slowly & he would have to take the long way round through the foothills because the wagons would never manage the mountain pass & were far too valuable to be abandoned.

Now with Cantlos half done the land glowed like a jewel. Blaeberries & rowan berries scalded trees & bushes with their colours. The heathers of mauve & yellow, frost tipped russet, burned in fiery swathes over the rolling moorland. The sky was high & clear, the sea darkly blue & so far west golden wheat & brown rye waited impatiently for the harvest scything. Alaistair’s cats went hunting & brought home hares hanging limply from their jaws.

Gillie thought the western land very beautiful until she passed under Slievenamon’s portals & the rank smells of a large keep assailed her nostrils. Ard~Ri or no, Avagaduu kept his keep like a pig sty & Gillie could not see how adding more people to it would improve it at all. Filth littered the narrow walkways between buildings & the middens lay uncovered & thick with flies. She didn’t even want to think about the latrines.

‘Is it me, or is it worse this time, do you think?’ Owein asked.

‘Worse,’ Alaistair snapped. ‘Delma might at least try..!’ He stared distastefully at the litter rising like a tide against unlimed walls & the scuttling rats. ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll make the men camp in here! Tell Cam to ride on through. We’ll camp in the headland caves. It’ll be cold but at least the air will be clean.’ Owein nodded as he urged his horse forward. Gillie tried to make herself invisible. Alaistair in this grim faced mood was not someone to be trifled with. In the weeks that they had been traveling she had swabbed his back twice a day & salved it, in silence. She had managed to avoid having a single conversation with him & as he had seemed perfectly happy with that arrangement she had spent most of her time with Owein. She missed him now, already, & he had only been gone moments. She let the little grey pony lag a little, not enough to draw Alaistair’s wrath but enough that she could forget about him, which she promptly did, rootling about in her mind for one of the memories that made her happiest, one that did not involve war bands, or riding contrary little ponies & cold beds on hard ground; which was how she missed the fact that Alaistair had halted & was waiting for her with his iciest grey eyed stare. She almost rode him down. She gaped at him blankly suddenly realizing that the war band had moved on & that there was now only her & Alaistair.

‘How long will this go on?’ He asked with deceptive mildness. Gillie kept a discrete silence while she hurriedly racked her brains for what she could possibly have done that had given offence this time. ‘I know you’re not stupid so I can only think it is deliberate & I have warned you; only Avagaddu has the right.’

Gillie shook her head trying to collect her scattered wits & thoroughly alarmed. Alaistair did not make idle threats.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You,’ Alaistair said very gently & very pointedly, ‘are my healer; mine. And you ignore me so pointedly it is the talk of the camp.’

Gillie, who had never once though how it would seem to others, stared at him in total bewilderment.

‘What would you have me do?’ To her surprise Alaister flushed slowly & painfully & the grey eyes lost their icy stare for just a moment.

‘My mistake,’ Alaistair snapped shortly & reefing his horse’s head round in a way that would certainly have incurred her da’s wrath for mistreating an animal he moved briskly forward. Gillie stared after him in bewilderment. There was no pleasing the man. She hurried to catch him up but now that he had her attention it seemed he was in no mind to pay her any. She shrugged irritably as she struggled to keep up with him through the rabbit warren of narrow pathways but once they came onto the open headland Alaistair began snapping orders so fast & furiously that Owein’s eyebrows hiked & glancing curiously at Gillie he asked, ‘What did you say to him?’

‘Nothing,’ Gillie sulked. ‘The man’s impossible.’

‘There I agree with you, but even Alaistair is not usually so unreasonable. I know he wanted to speak with you; did he?’

‘You could say that..’ though Gillie had not often had a more peculiar conversation.

‘And?’ Owein prompted.

‘He seems to think I’m insulting him.’ Owein grinned at her slowly & beatifically.

‘You, my girl, are an absolute treasure!’ Gillie glared at him. Alaistair was bad enough; she would not bear it from Owein but Owein continued to grin at her, charmed beyond words. ‘And you, of course, have absolutely no idea what he’s on about, do you?’

‘I asked him what he wanted me to do…’ at which Owein put his head down on his saddle pommel & began laughing silently till the tears streamed down his cheeks. Gillie sighed with exasperation.

‘Wen,’ Owein gasped at last. ‘Wen does it to him too!’ He dabbed at his streaming eyes with his plaid. ‘Oh my, no wonder he’s so wild.’

‘But what have I done?’ Gillie asked. Owein cocked his head at her trying to curb his amusement.

‘Exactly as he asked.’ Owein chocked on his laughter again. ‘Exactly, & no more. And then you make him disappear. Pouff!’ He snapped his fingers. He was laughing too hard again to continue. ‘Not literally, you goose,’ as Gillie opened her mouth to protest that that wasn’t possible. ‘Oh my,’ He grabbed at his aching sides, ‘He got more than he bargained for when he got Broghan’s brats.’

‘Owein!’ Gillie exclaimed irritably, ‘You are making no sense at all.’

‘Yes, well, you’ve never been to Slivenamon before have you?’ Owein seemed to be finding it funnier & funnier & was now choking inexplicably on his words as they followed slowly behind a cantref scavenging what wood they could off the heathland. ‘Let’s just say Alaistair is not used to being so totally ignored by someone wearing a skirt.’ He hooted happily. ‘And the men have …noticed, though it would help if you didn’t so pointedly ignore him all the time.’

‘Alaistair.’ Gillie said flatly.

‘An ard~ri’s son? He’s considered quite a catch. What an odd girl you are. It’s never once even crossed your mind, has it?’

Gillie’s lips thinned ominously. The only thing stopping her from spinning her pony about & riding off was that she really didn’t want to find out what Alaistair would do to her if she broke one of his stupid rules. She was pretty certain it would not be pleasant & he was in a stinging nettle mood.

‘Don’t be cross,’ Owein wheedled. ‘Some of us appreciate you.’ Still grinning, he slid of his pony as Alaistair called a halt, then turned to lift her down though she was perfectly capable of dismounting her own pony. It was one of Alaistair’s ‘things’. His Healer was given respect & she was to be seen to be given respect. Gillie understood but it fretted her, just as it fretted her that she was not given any job in the setting out of the camp. Very deferentially indeed Owein proffered his arm & began guiding Gillie to the jumble of rocks that partially hid the steep incline that led underground & into the caverns hollowed out by the sea & filled with its constant booming. He was still shaking & Gillie itched to hit him.

The incline was narrow & slippery & very steep. It twisted like a snake around jagged shards of granite, plummeting downwards in an ugly snare of rolling pebbles & sharp shell ~ & they had to come back up this path! Just the same Gillie would never argue with Alaistair about this. The thought of camping close to the dun appalled Gillie as much as it did Alaistair & when Dougal arrived there would be words.

Looking round the windy caverns Gillie had to agree this was much better; cold & it would get colder yet, but the air was stingingly clean & experience had taught her that Alaistair would ensure it stayed that way.

‘We’ll get you set up,’ Owein said. ‘Niall will be along with your things presently & you’d best be ready when Alaistair lets the men rest.’ Gillie nodded. The array of small mishaps brought to her attention made no stretch on her limited medical skills. Any household goodwife could manage those & Gillie had learnt from Sorcha. Her daily surgery was another of Alaistair’s little quirks & again, though it fretted her & made her feel an almighty fraud, she saw the sense in it. The men took a propriety sense of ownership in her & were starting to seek her out to treat their minor ills. They had learnt from Alaistair too & kept a civil tongue in their heads & after the past few weeks Gillie was starting to feel safe at last. She knew when the men’s protective instincts were properly honed Alaistair would lift most of his restrictions & she could go where she liked & with whom she liked.

Owein found her a corner against the back wall out of the worst of the wind & as she laid out her bed roll & unfolded the low rickety collapsible desk Dougal had lent her she watched the cantref start weaving a windbreak of heather across the opening. The tough springy stuff would shed like a moulting cat but then some canvas pegged over it would make things decidedly warmer. Grawn was already setting up a smoky kitchen & the smell of fresh chopped herbs reminded Gillie she was ravenously hungry. Unrolling the small emergency pack she normally used with it’s everyday herbs & salves tucked into the little pockets, some small linen strips, needles & a sharp blade gave her something to do & she stretched it out wondering if this was how Dougal had got to be such a fussy little man. Then she sat & waited. Niall brought her a cauldron of hot water & a cake of acerbic soap, grinning cheerfully. She liked Niall. Grawn brought her a mug of hot ginger tea sweetened with honey like a clumsy overgrown bear, but he meant well & was more frightened of Alaistair than most. His cooking was dubious at best & he was no swordsman though if you gave him an ax he could hack away to some purpose. Liam brought a skin of cheap wine with an evil leer. Liam was one of the few Gillie could not like but he was of the weasel clan, ferret faced, devious, & sour. And all the time Owein was hovering somewhere near in a way that made Gillie cringe. She didn’t need baby sitting & she thought it rather cruel of Alaistair to give the babysitting duties to his second in command.

Then the men started coming & for a little while she was busy though lots of them wanted nothing more than a bit of a chat with someone who’s lungs hadn’t been honed on a parade ground. Sometimes the whole decade came even if it was only one man who needed to see her but though she waited Alaistair was keeping himself so busy that in the end she went hunting him.

He made her wait. Gillie seethed quietly, determined not to let him rile her, while he gave some last minute & quite unnecessary orders about the horses.

‘I’m busy, Gillie.’

Gillie folded her arms & stayed stubbornly where she was while she accumulated yet another audience as the men needing to see Alaistair politely waited behind her. The grey eyes became guarded.

‘I will see you now.’

‘The back’s fine, Gillie. Has been for days.’

‘The back is fine when I say it is fine,’ Gillie snapped. She very nearly stomped her foot in sheer temper. ‘Move it.’ His eyebrows hiked but before he could utter a word Gillie began ranting. ‘Well, no Dougal. I’m his healer but Alaister wouldn’t let me near his back. No Dougal, I’m afraid I didn’t know about the infection. I’m sorry, Dougal, which bit needs cutting off?’ She managed to refrain from saying, ‘His head, perhaps?’ She jabbed a finger at him furiously. ‘Your orders! You might have the decency to follow your own instructions.’ Behind Alaistair Owein was rolling his eyes & shaking his head frantically. Niall’s jaw had dropped open in fascinated horror & there was an appalled little silence where in Alaistair enquired pleasantly, ‘Are you done now?’

Gillie waggled her comfrey pot at him & pointed towards her corner. The look Alaistair gave her told her very definitely she was overstepping the mark & for a moment she wavered. Infuriating man! But the thought of having to face Dougal & tell him she hadn’t done her job properly was more frightening than all Alaistair’s implied threats. Stubbornly she stayed where she was & after a moment Alaistair did come. Gillie scuttled after him & found him peeling off his jerkin in such a way that he had torn some of the wetter scabs free & there was now a myriad of open wounds to be dealt with again. Sighing softly Gillie sloshed some of the cheap wine onto a cloth & began dabbing at his back while he sat on the end of her bed roll in a stony silence. Well, he could be mad all he liked so long as he let her do her job. Owein drifted over silently. Normally he would keep up a steady banter of bad jokes but not tonight. Tonight he stood uncomfortably rolling the dirty bit of twine he made cats’ cradles from between his fingers, twirling it round & round, round & round in a way that told Gillie how worried she should be. She ignored him & began rubbing comfrey along the open wounds. On the whole she was pretty pleased with herself. There would be scarring of course & though one or two of the deeper cuts were still red & angry looking there was no infection & the back was healing cleanly. She handed Alaistair his shirt but he didn’t put it on, just sat with it scrunched between his hands then said softly, ‘Do you know what would happen to one of the men if they spoke to me as you did tonight?’

Gilli’e bowels turned to instant water.

‘Something along the lines of what Avagaddu did to you I would imagine. Sensible of you not to maim the healer..’

‘Gillie! Owein got brushed aside as Alaistair studied Gillie curiously.

‘You think that green jerkin gives you that much protection?’

‘No, I think you normally have more sense than that. You can’t give me a job & then not let me do it, especially when it’s me who will answer to Dougal for it & he will answer to Avagaddu. I don’t imagine he’s had the pleasantest of trips, do you? Explaining to Avagaddu he’s sent a chit of an untrained girl to rectify the damage he caused. Look, be mad at me all you like, just do what you’re told like a good boy until your back really has healed then I won’t have to come bothering you.’

‘You’ve been spending too much time with Owein,’ Alaistair said sourly, ‘You argue like a lawyer. Just the same, you owe me an apology; a very public apology.’

‘If you like,’ Gillie said equitably so that Alsistair was instantly suspicious. Owein sucked in his cheeks to hide his grin while Alaistair climbed to his feet, pulled his shirt over his head & tucking it through his belt said, ‘ You’ll have to spend your days with Dougal in the keep, once he gets here, but whatever instructions he gives you, you follow to the absolute letter. I don’t want preventable infections rampaging through here & that place is a cesspit.’

Naturally not ~ & Alaistair, when would you like your apology? ' She grinned at him & had the pleasure of seeing him wince.

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