Tem & Wen were the sons of Brogan of the cat People of the marshes, his younger sons so not important. They lay on their bellies in the bracken above the Latis river on a crisp September morning & watched their sister, Gillie, kill a Formarian soldier. Gillie was quick & clean, like killing a pig. One slash across the big vein in the neck & it was all over bar the last jerkings of outraged nerves. Nothing fancy for Gillie. He had been a man & now he was a dead man.
Wen sucked at the edge of his thumb wide eyed as Gillie cleaned her knife on the man’s tunic. There seemed to be a lot of blood spurting onto the green grass & he knew what Gillie was like about blood. She would be sick, like she always was when she had to kill anything. Tem knew it too, had wanted to do the killing but the knife was Gillie’s & honed to so fine an edge it could cut silk like butter. Neither of them spared any pity for the dead man. He had been a fool to walk alone by the river so far from his war host & fools deserved to die, as this one had, quickly & silently, denied, Tem hoped, a glimpse of his god’s face before being hurled into utter darkness. His fingers fondled his unbloodied knife, not so fine or sharp as Gillie’s, & his eyes narrowed as he watched Gillie’s nimble fingers search the body. It galled him to have Gillie do the killing but he could not deny her the right. He did not think killing helped.
It did not help Wen who never spoke now, had not spoken since the night the formarians had burnt their dun about their ears & done unspeakable things. Tem scowled ferociously down the scree. If he’d been bigger, stronger, faster…but the truth was they were, all of them, just lucky to be alive, lucky to be free, lucky the Formarians weren’t interested in slaving, not yet. Sometimes Wen cried out in his sleep, but he never spoke. He just trailed after Gillie like a wraith, a small thin shadow wishing himself elsewhere & Tem hated it. He hated what they had become, Gillie, Wen, himself, prowling through the marshes like feral dogs killing the foolish ones who strayed too far from the camp, like the dead one down by the river, but there was no joy in it. No joy for any of them. Beside him Wen hunkered silently, his gaze fastened on the dead man. He neither moved nor spoke as Gillie prowled & above her the dark specs of crows began circling, waiting for the moment when she would leave & they could feast.
Gillie never looked at the faces of the men she killed but this one had been young, the skin firm & unblemished; someone’s son, brother, lover, to be grieved for in far off Formaria. She took care to remember that & so did not mutilate, but he had been a warrior who should not have been on her land & now he was dead. She was not sorry though she would be sick later. She was always sick. Nausea was already curdling her stomach like sour milk, her guts like water. She took a steadying breath & began to strip the body because they would have need of his things & it wasn’t like he needed them any more. The living came first. She left him his loincloth, & not just for decency but because to remove it was to bring memories better left buried & there was no time to remember or grieve or do anything but face each day & wade through it as best she could.
The cloak that had pillowed his head was thick & good & the 7 colours of an Ard~ri’s son were woven into the hem. It was almost new & the gush of blood had missed most of it. The jerkin had not been so lucky & was badly stained but most of the blood would wash out. The leather breeks were soft & barely worn, the boots patched but solid. Gillie closed her mind to the smell of death in her nostrils & her squeamish stomach as she rolled the heavy body to tug at the man’s breeks. Why was a dead body so much more awkward than a live one? She was loathe to touch him at all but they needed his things. The Formarians had not left them much of anything at all & winter would close in on them all too fast. She spread the cloak & bundled his clothing into it. Sword & shield followed a heavy purse. The purse would please Tem. Gillie shook her head trying to concentrate on the job at hand but it was a relief to please someone these days, even if it was only Tem who should still have been playing at warriors not blooding his dirk in Formarians.
Gillie glanced up & round, trying to hurry. Soon this man, whoever he was, would be missed. There would be soldiers out looking, of course there would. He’d worn an ard~ri’s cloak so was probably important & the crows & flies would lead the searchers to this place & though Tem & Wen watched from their hidden place in the bracken Gillie would not completely trust her safety to their hands. They were very young.
She knotted the cloak into an awkward bundle & waded back across the shallow place in the river that was there if you knew exactly where to look & dropped to her belly in the bracken beside the boys. She felt the corner of her cloak clutched & Wen’s fingers begin their incessant rubbing of the cloth. He would put a hole in the cloth before he was done & Gillie squashed her impatience & frustration. She knew how much he needed even that tenuous touch. Tem reached for the bundle. It was a thing he always did, count the purse before they moved, inspect the sword, & it was not a thing Gillie understood. What did it matter? These were things that could wait but Tem never waited.
The sword was a good one, sharp & un~nicked. That sword was starting to worry Gillie & she glanced anxiously along the river bed. The man had too many fine things & in truth the sword looked like it had never been used for anything more deadly than slicing bread. Tem smiled his satisfaction. It was unlikely he’d be allowed to keep the sword but for a little while he could pretend it was his & that he was a great warrior. He could pretend that he was a man grown & that the sword did not pull at his shoulders & dip disconcertingly earthwards when he tried to lift it. One day he would have a sword of his own & a better one than this. One day he would kill openly with none of this skulking behind a woman’s skirts. One day…Regretfully he put the sword aside & reached for the purse. It weighed heavy in his hand & for a moment his gaze caught Gillie’s & he saw the flicker of worry she was trying so very hard to hide. He jerked the laces open & began counting: a handful of copper coins, ten silver bits, three gold pieces. This one had been rich. Briefly Tem regretted his death thinking of the ransom price & then commonsense asserted itself. It was unlikely the three of them could have held a Formarian warrior for ransom, even one as stupid as this one had been. It was better that he was dead. His purse would buy the dun a pig, perhaps even a sow in farrow, corn for the next season’s planting…his thoughts trailed off. There was all of this winter to get through first & the harvest was gone. So much death & disaster!
Gillie poked him & Tem hastily shoved the coins back into the purse thinking hard. Gillie’s face had the greenish tinge that meant she was very close to being sick & already there were crows circling overhead. Tem cursed. The bloody birds were like a beacon & Wen’s eyes were fastened on them in a mesmerized sort of way that meant he was disappearing a long, long way inside himself. It was definitely time to move.
He hefted the awkward bundle knowing Gillie would have enough to do managing herself with Wen clutching at a corner of her cloak & bumping against her as they ran together. Together they slid down the little hill, running with the easy loping stride of the cat people. The bundle weighed but was too precious to ditch. It wasn’t far & truth be told they’d never killed so close to the dun before. It would be a Lucky Formarian who found their way through the reedy bog over one of the hidden paths ~ with a jolt Tem remembered they’d already been lucky once & his running faltered. The others had come from the west, under cover of the beeches but they had found the path & the dun, the men away…Tem dragged his thoughts back to the here & now. He clutched the bundle tighter & ran harder till the blood pounded in his ears & he couldn’t think. On their own his feet found the hidden path through the reeds. Water sloshed into his boots & the rank smell of bog filled his nostrils. The reeds slashed at his face & he could smell his own blood & sweat, & the rancid taste of his own fear. His fear was like a panicked bird batting at his mind.
It was Wen who stopped them. He simply stopped running, dragging at Gillie’s cloak. He stood quite still, his arms dangling, then his head went up like a hound’s, scenting, & his head swiveled uncertainly. Gillie’s eyes went wide with disbelief but Tem could smell it too, the reeking of burning thatch. They stared at each other while the mud seeped into their boots & a dark cloud blossomed & grew in the thin blue sky. Wen stood like a rabbit snared in a foxe’s gaze, too terror struck to help itself & Gillie…Don’t be sick now, Tem pleaded silently. Now is not a good time. He tried to think but the billowing smoke heaving it’s way through the marshes set his nerves jangling till all he wanted to do was turn & run & then keep on running.
‘Merde!’ Beside him Gillie began swearing, working her way down the very thorough list of curses she had learnt from their Da’s war band. Tem was impressed. He hadn’t known she knew all those words & them some; some he had never heard before & wasn’t at all sure what they meant but the way Gillie was spitting them through her teeth made him feel braver & they couldn’t cower forever in the reeds.
‘Best go & see,’ he said hardily. Gillie nodded, already moving forward silently Wen dragging sloshily at the corner of her cloak. It will be alright, he told himself & he thanked Rhiannon’s stars that Gillie had a cool head on her shoulders, moving so as not to rattle the reeds or send the wild fowl winging across the reeds in warning. No nests to step on & send ducks suddenly skywards. The reeds rustled & bent but no more than if the wind was rustling them. Bog squelched underfoot & oozed into their boots but Wen was moving uncertainly & Tem eyed him with growing alarm. If he panicked & took flight…but it was alright. Gillie had noticed & was reeling him in by her cloak, pulling him close till his wheezing terror quietened.
The ground grew suddenly firmer & they were able to peer through the reeds at what was left of the dun. It had sat in the exact centre of one of the fertile silt isles that dotted the marshes with a good earth work ditch & a spiked pale. It was all ashes now. Smoke skulked about the pig pen & the hen coops, billowed in angry clouds through the charred thatch of the roofs , writhed through the rows of beans & late corn. A desperate, starved crackle rumbled ominously about the dun but the dun was a blackened ruin where nothing moved but the smoke & everything that could burn had. Gillie sucked in her breath, Tem bit his lip but Wen was silent.
Where was everyone? When they had left that morning the dun had been bustling with activity. Now even the animals were gone. Gillie’s eyes narrowed as her gaze swept back & forth across the dun. Had they been taken as slaves? Were they already dying on the sun wheels of the Formarians, sacrificed to their despicable gods? Why was there no scout? Theirs or ours there should have been a lookout, someone, anyone. Glancing miserably at Gillie Tem decided there was no real sign of disturbance. The ground was untrammeled. There were no charred remains of blankets thrown over gorse bushes to dry, no hens scuttling desperately from a place of safety, no pony whickering unhappily. What she particularly noticed was that the burning dun smelt cleanly of wood & rushes & stone & not of burning flesh which had a sweet sickly smell to curdle the stomach. The inhabitants of the dun had just vanished as if they’d never been.
Cautiously Gillie stood up. Still nothing moved. No arrow flew. No warrior stepped from the trees. She was going to be sick very soon Tem thought, sicker than she’d ever been. What she needed was tea, hot chamomile tea laced with honey & ginger, somewhere warm & dark & safe where she could heave her hate & revulsion out in peace & she wasn’t going to get it. He made no move to stop her as she stumbled through the rushes into the open. Beside him Wen took an anguished breath & Tem hastily clamped a firm hand over Wen’s mouth.
‘Later’, he hissed. ‘You can scream all you like later.’
Reluctantly he stood, dragging Wen with him through the rushes & out into the open still clutching the bundle which was useless now. Gillie held out a length of chain.
‘Someone unleashed the hounds.’ She sounded merely puzzled rather than frightened.
‘But…’ Tem stumbled over his thoughts. ‘No~one can get near our hounds. Only us.’
‘Do stop & think, Tem,’ Gillie snapped tiredly. ‘One of us did. Sorcha, probably. The question is why?’ Her gaze swept over the dun’s roofless houses, the unhinged doors, the broken shutters & air of abandonment. There was no shelter & between them they had one good cloak caked with a dead Formarian’s blood. No food either, & no flints, nothing that would help them survive this night. She began cursing again in a soft insistent way that made Wen squirm unhappily.
They never heard the horse. It seemed to arrive silently out of nowhere, wavering through the smoke like a grey ghost. Bit & bridle had been muffled by strips of cloth & there was cloth wound about its hooves too. For a moment Gillie just gaped, her mind tumbling. She had killed a Formarian that day. His blood was on her hands & under her nails, on her plaid & jerkin. The stench of him was on her clothes making her heart hammer wildly. She expected to die. It took only a breath to realize the rider wore a breachan & plaid of the tribes, not the leather leggings & vest of Formaria, & he wore a an unsheathed cleadgh mor thrust through his wide belt. He was fair in the Banb way, corn ripened hair a little long & tied back from his face with a leather thong & he was rather pretty, which was an odd thing to think of a man but that is what Gillie thought. His face was long & delicately boned as a wolf hound’s though just now the long mouth was very grim & the grey eyes as cold as sleet. He sat watching them from his grey horse with neither pity nor kindness as if he had expected them but having found them they were not quite what he had expected. His voice, when he spoke, was as indifferent as a flicking lash.
‘I thought we’d missed one or two.’ He spoke their tongue easily enough though his slurred vowels made Gillie frown as she tried to follow his speech. She eyed the blue & grey & purple of his plaid uncertainly but couldn’t place it. The colours belonged to no tribe she knew. Was he a scion of the blood? Here? It was hardly possible but his arrogance, his insolence, the way he spoke as if he had a right to information one did not give to strangers marked him. He studied them lazily, marking the blood stains & the bundle. Beside her Tem flinched & Wen pressed into her side. She could feel their fear; it was her fear too. She held fast to her courage & stared back. A slow smile curved his lips.
‘Was it good hunting, bairns?’ Rage scorched through Gillie. She had stolen a man’s life; it wasn’t something to be joked about. She caste a cautious, slant eyed look at her brothers. They were staring bug~eyed, Tem as silent as Wen. She should speak, defend their honour, but in a sudden rush of giddy hilarity she knew the moment could be prolonged no longer. Her rebellious stomach roiled queasily, she gasped once, heaved violently & retched everything in her belly onto the charred green swathe. The grey horse sidled distastefully away. Grey eyes appraised her without surprise as he steadied his horse. Gillie swiped at her chin with her plaid, tasted bile. Her head swam. She wanted to do nothing more than lie down & sleep.
The rider slid from his horse, holding his hands away from the cleadgh mor. Wen retreated behind Gillie but Tem stood his ground though Gillie could feel him shaking. His eyes were fixed on the sword, his whole body poised for sudden flight. Gillie willed for him not to run. The man had a sword, a horse. Gillie took care to remember that. The stranger held the advantage & for the moment there was nothing they could do about it. He could scythe them down before they reached the shelter of the trees or marsh. She reminded herself that he wore the breachan & plaid, that he was fair not Formarian dark .
‘Open it.’ He gestured to the bundle Tem still clutched. Reluctantly Tem dropped it. He knew he was going to lose the sword & the heavy purse. The loose knot unraveled & everything spilled on to the ground, jerkin, breeks, boots, the purse & the sword & the long oval shield that was embossed with the golden rays of the Formarian sun god. A booted foot turned over the shield & there was surprise in the cool grey eyes; surprise & something that might have been respect as they looked directly at Gillie.
‘Did you kill cleanly, lass?’
Gillie was past caring anymore. She nodded dumbly. What point to deny a killing when the man’s blood was everywhere on her for all to see?
Very softly the man said, ‘You did not…’ a hesitation as the man searched for the least offensive word, ’castrate this man?’
Gillie shook her head. What did it matter? He was dead. A fool who had died a fool’s death. Again there was the lazy insolent smile & he began to laugh silently, shaking his head at the wonder of it. She was little more than a child, a woman, & unless he was much mistaken she had just done what the whole of Avagaddu’s war host had not been able to do. She had just killed Fiarach of Formaria’s only son.