Beside Gillie Wen tensed angrily. It had not been funny. They had killed ~ well Gillie had killed ~ & it had not been funny. The man’s laughter made him feel ashamed.
The rider studied Brogan’s brats curiously. They all had a bush of pale hair, Brogan’s strong hawk nose & Sorcha’s eyes, darkly, vividly blue blazing from faces pinched thin by want. He sobered suddenly, speaking only to Gillie.
‘Will you take me to the body?’
Immediately both boys surged forward protectively & the rider fought his urge to laugh. They were fierce as kittens & no match for a grown man’s sword. He saw Gillie know it & push them back with the heel of her hand.
‘Stay here.’ It was an order & he was a man used to being obeyed. He stepped towards Gillie & was met by two short blades. The point of Wen’s dagger wavered a little uncertainly but he was holding it properly for all that & had spread his weight while keeping his eyes on the stranger’s eyes, watching for the deceptive flicker that would give away his move. Brogan’s training showed & the rider nodded approvingly, still amused but wary too. They were tribesmen & held their honour dear. If he forgot that it would cost him.
He said calmly,’ No harm will come to the lass. On my honour I mean her no harm’. They didn’t believe him but it did not matter. Gillie’s hand came up & pushed Wen’s blade down. Tem hesitated, glancing uncertainly from Gillie to the stranger. Gillie stepped past him & he blurted, ‘He died this morning. There’ll be flies…’ & worse but he didn’t need to say that. Gillie turned a sickly green colour again but the man nodded grimly. Well, he’d know being a warrior & all but Tem still hesitated. Gillie was looking most peculiar.
She led the warrior through the marshes, moving quickly, knowing the towering reeds would confuse him & his sword hamper him. He grimaced as the water gurgled into his boots but she seemed not to notice this & then they were in the open again. She broke into a half trot while he struggled to keep the pace she set & cursed all the time he spent sitting on a horse. Obviously she didn’t but then it wasn’t as far as he’d expected. Crows rose reluctantly in a dusky cloud as they crested the low hill & waded through the bracken. Gillie’s eyes were everywhere, the fear whining through her, but there was only the sluggish river meandering through the reeds , the crows carking to be back at their dinner & a vast & indifferent silence where a man’s body still lay sprawled beside the river bank.
There was a soft whistle from the man beside her.
‘He’s big. How on earth did you manage to slit his throat for him?’
Gillie shrugged. ‘He was asleep. It wasn’t hard.’
‘You managed to sneak up on him?’ Gillie merely nodded feeling with her feet for the shallow path over the river, wanting only to be done with it. It was worse coming back like this. The blood was drying in sticky patches & there were flies everywhere & the iron smell of too much blood mingled with the sickly odour of death. Gillie would not look. The crows had been at him & surely by now he had been missed. Someone would be very angry about that.
The man put his boot to the shoulder & rolled the body over then he stood for a long time looking down into the death mask, his own face inscrutable. He shook his head finally & the smile came. Gillie flinched from the look he gave her. She didn’t know what it meant. It was coolly speculative & hard, compounded of surprise & respect & something she couldn’t name.
‘Mawr oll Aither,’ he breathed. ‘Heads will roll for this!’
‘You know him? It was a thing to say, not an answer she really wanted. Gillie didn’t want to know his name or anything at all about him. That would be to make him real & she didn’t want him to be real.
‘In a manner of speaking.’ His flippancy jerked Gillie’s head up & she stared at the stranger in surprise. He grinned at her beatifically. ‘You have just killed Torquil, Prince of Formaria.’
Stunned, Gillie shrugged nonchalance.
‘Then he was a fool as well as a Formarian, to walk so far alone & a bigger fool to fall asleep unguarded.’
‘Always the fool, Torquil.’ Gillie eyed him uncertainly. What on earth did he find so very funny? The man’s grin widened. ‘A blessing, perhaps, to be dead & far removed from Fiarach’s disappointment in him. Mayhap the god of his people will grant his verse greater favour than they found in this world.’
Gillie stared at him. A well read man. A learned man. Staring into the bland inscrutable face Gillie at last began to giggle.
‘Unlikely, wouldn’t you think. It wasn’t very good verse.’
There was a hoot of unrestrained laughter from this very surprising, very annoying young man. The grey eyes regarded her approvingly & for the first time there was curiosity in the look he gave her.
‘So. Our kitten has claws. Well, well. One of Brogan’s litter perhaps?’
Gillie froze & went cold all over. Who was this man? He knew far too much! She held her tongue & again something indefinable passed through the grey eyes.
‘We should go. This is one man Fiarach’s war host will be looking for & it would be most unwise of us to be found here ~ especially with Torquil’s blood splattered all over you.’
Gillie was only too pleased to go. She had had enough of Torquil, dead or not, & there were things they needed to do: find food & shelter, think what to do & how she was going to fend for all of them with no dun to keep them safe. There were shadows now where there had been sunlight before & the air had the first touch of chill to it, a forcible reminder that the season was turning & winter would be here all too soon. She needed Tem & Wen, waiting in the burned out dun & frightened for her. She was tired of the smell of blood & death, the dirty feel of it on her skin & under her nails, the taste of it in her mouth, the sight of it & the way it lurked in her mind. She hurried, not looking to see if the stranger was following or not & not really caring either. He caught her up in two long strides, his breachan swinging jauntily as he walked. He had nice legs, firm & straight, not bowed as so many riders’ legs were.
‘An exchange of confidences, perhaps, to pass the time,’ he suggested. He smiled at her, quite nicely. ‘A name for a name.’ Gillie thought it odd of him to ask now but everything about him struck her as odd. He acted like he almost knew them, lugged her through the marshes to look at the dead body of a man he said he sort of knew then made jokes about him, & not very nice jokes at that. Reluctantly Gillie nodded, not seeing how she could get out of it.
Behind them the crows dropped like a blanket over the body, screaming their hunger. Their harsh cawing filled the air but Gillie would not think about it. He was dead & so to him it did not matter any more. She walked, one foot before the other. It was foolishness to give up her name; she would not be first. The stranger was laughing again, but softly & Gillie flushed. It was superstitious but how dare he laugh at the ways of her people. She hunkered into her plaid & wondered if she tried very hard she could just make him disappear, pouff! the way the droi, Caiftin, made copper bits disappear between his fingers.
‘Alaistair of the Waters.’ There was a great deal of diffidence in his tone but Gillie blanched anyway, horrified, trying to remember if any of them had said something they really shouldn’t have. Alaistair! The one they called Avagaddu’s wastrel son! Sweet Dana, what was he doing here?
‘An exchange, I believe, was offered,’ Alastair prompted gently. So Gillie told him, just her ordinary, everyday name, not the secret name that was for family & intimate friends & the man she would one day wed.
‘Thank the Mother I waited,’ Alaistair breathed. ‘I can’t imagine what your da would have said to me if I’d returned to camp without his brats.’
Gillie glared at him furious over so many things it was hard to know where to begin.
‘Couldn’t you have said that at the beginning?’ she snarled, ‘instead of letting us think the Formarians had burnt the dun again.’
His eyebrows hiked at her unexpected attack but he said peaceably enough, ‘You didn’t see what I could see…three grubby brats covered in blood & armed to the teeth, though I agree, you don’t look like Formarians.’
‘We don’t look like…’ & then the rest of what he had said sunk in. He wasn’t alone. Somewhere near by the war host waited. ‘You’ve seen my Da?’
‘This morning. He said particularly to make sure you were there ~ & of course you weren’t & no~one seemed to know just where you were…’ He grinned deprecatingly. ‘I don’t imagine being skinned alive is pleasant, so I waited. I figured sooner or later the three of you’d come winging home to eat.’
Eat. Gillie gulped suddenly foundering. This night they wouldn’t be eating peaceably about their own hearth fire. They had no home. The dun was a smoking ruin.
Alaistair watched her cautiously. ‘Avagaddu had to. We’re pulling all the tribes back, burning everything. He thinks we can starve them out.’
‘He thinks we can starve the Formarians out? Then he’s an idiot.’
‘Agreed, but then he’s ard~ri not me.’ It was a gentle reminder but a reminder just the same. She was speaking too close to treason for comfort. ‘Besides, Avagaddu doesn’t know about Torquil yet. You, my girl, have just ensured Fiarach won’t go home any time soon.’
It was enough to make a sane person put back their head & howl like a wolf, & Gillie wasn’t feeling any too sane. She was tired & sick & frightened & angry & the whole sorry churning mess of feelings was curdling round her stomach. It was enough to make a grown man cry. With some surprise Gillie realized she was doing just that.
‘Mawr oll Aither,’ Alaistair said uneasily, appalled, ‘Don’t cry or those boys at the dun will never believe I didn’t try to rape you.’ Gillie hiccupped, trying to stop the tears that insisted on leaking out. A scented lace handkerchief was pressed into her hand. ‘Please stop. I can’t afford a blood feud just now, not even for one so lovely as you.’
That stopped the tears alright. Something in her curled away from him in disgust. Never again. Never…that…again. She gave him her coldest look. A woman of the tribes was no man’s toy.
‘Try it.’ She said with sweet venom. ‘Just make sure you don’t leave a blade lying around.’
The quick laughter rose in the grey eyes.
‘I promise to remember that when I tell your father I will pluck Rathannan’s stars from the night sky to make a crown for your hair.’
Did nothing stop his glib, tripping tongue? She walked steadily, ignoring him. She ached to sink a blade between his ribs the way she had slit Torquil’s throat for him, & smell the sweet, hot rush of his blood as his smile died in surprise, a thing not possible. Not Avagaddu’s son, not a scion of the blood.
‘You’re supposed to swoon,’ he prodded gently. ’All the best ladies swoon at improper suggestions ~ or slap my face; whichever you prefer.’ Her fingers itched to do just that. There was a memory buried deep in the dark places of her mind, buried so deep, so far… Breathe in, breathe out. Walk. Do not remember. In. Out. Do not think. Darkness & fire & screaming & the ground so hard under her, grass spikes prickling her palms & the stars dipping & swinging overhead. In. Out. Sweet Dana! The scalding blood rushed to her face & the bile rose in her throat.
‘I’m sorry.’ Conciliatory. ‘I’m not usually so clumsy.’
Gillie thought she was going to be sick ~ again! She was tired of her rebellious stomach & the lurching emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. It didn’t matter, It was done & over with but however often she told herself that the thought of that night still made her sick, every single time. She was tired enough to lie down where she was & just go to sleep, which wasn’t possible. Tem & Wen were waiting on her, worried, & they needed looking after so she kept putting one foot in front of another over & over, sloshing over the hidden paths of the marsh & through reeds that rustled like corn stalks until there was only the charred, burnt ground under foot & the lingering smell of smoke.
The boys were exactly where they had left them, watching the gap in the reeds where Gillie would emerge. Tem searched her face anxiously, then reassured by what he found there relaxed into a relieved smile. Gillie grinned back finding it was in her to boast, just a little, to tease Tem & Wen, who had wanted the kill, but not too much.
Sweet joy to see the envy in their eyes. It was a thing for bards to sing on. She, Gillie ni Broghan, had done this thing. It would not be forgotten. A smile curled her mouth but then Alaistair wiped out all their joy by saying,’ Come. The war host is waiting & no doubt Broghan is wondering what I’ve done with his brats.’
Another order. Already Gillie was resenting Alaistair & his orders but she saw it wasn’t so for Tem & Wen. Already they were prepared to half worship him, a friend of their da’s, a warrior with kill rings knotted in his hair. Gillie sighed thinking that her men folk were very strange. Not an hour before they’d had their blades leveled at Alaistair, prepared to spill his blood if they could. Now…Gillie shrugged irritably, baffled by what went on in her brothers’ minds.
‘You’, a long finger pointed at her, ‘will ride.’ The coldness was back in Alaistair’s eyes, warning her that it would be foolish to argue. He’d happily hoi her across the grey stallion’s back like a sack of grain. Gillie bit her tongue & allowed him to help her into the saddle as if she really were a fine lady & ignored the laughter bubbling in the grey eyes. Let him laugh. Soon she would be back with her da could forget him. She ignored him as much as possible. It was better that way.