Gillie slept through the little birds calling the morning & the clatter of Sorcha’s big kettles over the fire. She slept though the wafting smell of griddle cakes & stewing apples, the jingle of bits & bridles, the creak of wagons bumping over the tussocky grass & the hiss of water quenched fires. She slept so long there was only Alaistair’s cantref of men still about & they were nearly ready to ride too. Her da was riding with Alaistair’s men too, but not as one of his cantref.
Gillie frowned sleepily. Did Avagaddu always leave the dirtiest jobs for Alaistair? Riding tail point was no sinecure but Alaistair seemed well organized & as Gillie scrambled hastily to her feet, embarrassed at being the very last one up & absolutely ravenous, Wen sidled up to her & sureptiously clutched at the corner of her cloak. Tem passed her a covered bowl of stewed apple & crumbled griddle cakes, still just warm & dobbed with little dabs of yellow cream. Gllie’s eye’s widened. From where had he got the cream? The cows should all have been bred & dry by now. Tem shrugged & pointed towards Owein who waggled his fingers at her but made no move to join them. Wen removed his thumb from his mouth & said distinctly, ‘For Alaistair’s nose last night. What did you do to Alaistair’s nose?’
‘Joke,’ Gillie mumbled scooping apple & cake crumbs up in her fingers & shoveling the warm sweetly tart mess into her mouth conscious that Tem’s eyes were asking all sorts of questions she was in no mind to answer so it was almost a relief of sorts to have Alaistair himself come striding towards them.
‘You two,’ he jerked a thumb at Tem & Wen. ‘See Owein. He has ponies for you to ride. Wen dropped the hem of Gillie’s cloak & bolted after Tem. Alaistair smiled a little deprecatingly at Gillie. ‘You, my lass, get to choose. Would you rather ride with us or with the other women in the wagons?’
Gillie glanced towards her father but he shook his head indifferently. It seemed she really could choose for herself & flustered Gillie found she couldn’t choose.
‘Owein’s picked out a quiet little mare for you,’ Alaistair prodded, ‘&,’ He added a little mockingly, ‘I’m under strict orders not to bother you. No need to look so surprised. Your da says if I’m clever you will come to me like a bird to the hand…’
‘He never,’ Gillie gasped.
‘No, but that’s what he meant just the same.’ Alaistair cocked his head at her & his tone changed. ‘I don’t have time to pander to you or court you to my way of thinking so if you change your mind about Dougal, see Owein. And if you’re riding mount up. I’m in enough trouble with Avagddu.’ That Gillie could believe. Hastily she scooped up the last of the apple & ran her finger round the bowl for the last sticky sweetness before stowing it in one of the saddle bags. The wagons had gone, lumbering sluggishly over the grass. They would hold up the war host & make Avagaddu even more bad tempered but it was Alaistairs cantref left to sweep wide behind the main host & Gillie found that rather interesting. It was a dangerous job defending the rear when the main war party had thrust ahead & the tail was thick with women & children, the old & the infirm, few of whom would be much use in a fight, which told Gillie something about how well & how viciously Alaistair’s cantref fought.
She wandered uncertainly over to Owein who hoyed her unceremoniously onto the back of a little grey pony & indicated she should ride to the left of him. Gillie bit of all the questions she was dying to ask. The men were absolutely silent as Alaistair issued his orders & disciplined! Gillie watched as the cantref formed up & moved slowly out, sweeping wide behind the jiggling wagons.
Owein grinned at her companionably.
‘We can talk now. Alaistair is enough our father’s son to get a tad tetchy about his command.’ Gillie giggled. Owein was very easy to be with & though he carried a blade & she reckoned he knew how to use it, his droi robes marked him as a scholar first & his duties would be those of a scholar. She looked for the ribbons that should have been at his shoulder but there were none & the pin of his plaid was a plain bronze one. Owein saw her looking & his grin widened.
‘I trained on Innis Droinich,’ Owein offered. Not file then, & she couldn’t see either Avagaddu or Alaistair giving much credence to the rantings of dreamers & seers either, which meant he’d studied law. A brehon then?
‘Clever girl,’ Owein said. Quite suddenly Gillie didn’t like him nearly so much. She felt tricked & cheated, which was foolishiness but nothing to be done about how she felt. She let the grey mare slow her pace but Owein immediately reached out a hand to grab her reigns & pull the little mare beside him again.
‘Sweet Dana, girl. Don’t get me in trouble with Alaistair. Brother or no he’ll have the skin of my back if anything happens to you.’ Gillie glanced round. Tem & Wen were riding ahead with her da & Alaistair. Gillie frowned ferociously at the landscape which was open & gently rolling with heather frosted to russet. She felt very alone & mad as a hornet.
‘Can you get over being angry soon,’ Owein pleaded. ‘We’ve a long way to go & you’re much nicer when you’re not angry. And in all seriousness you can’t blame Alaistair for everything ~ Avagaddu is…difficult.’ Trust a lawyer to choose his words carefully! Owein shrugged. ‘Let us know when you’re over it.’ He began whistling cheerfully to himself which was infuriating but Gillie was perfectly aware she was being unreasonable. She pulled her plaid over her head the better to think. The gently rocking motion of the pony combined with the sun warm on her back & the thick smell of bracken & heather made her want to sleep again more than anything else.
The jingling of harness made a little counter song in the air & on either side riders were constantly peeling away to wheel backwards & forwards until they disappeared amongst the heather & bracken. Above her a hawk drifted lazily on the high thermals. Everything looked so very peaceful & ordinary when really it wasn’t. Somewhere beyond the sweeping lines of Alaistair’s cantref Fiarach lurked & surely by now they had found Torquil. The crows would have led even the stupidest Formarian straight there. Gillie’s tummy flip~flopped a little. She was being silly. Fiarach was the important thing. She couldn’t be like the tribes thinking only of her own concerns first. She should be bigger than that & with a jolt of surprise she realized that Alaistair & Owein believed that of her. It was why they had asked her to train under Dougal, risked her da’s wrath & a blood feud they could ill afford. It was a very pretty compliment in its way. Even her da had seen that. Gillie sighed softly. She so hated being wrong & she dreaded having to say so to Alaistair. Then she realized that she didn’t have to; he had said to speak with Owein & though that would be no nicer it would be far easier.
Jolted out of her own concerns she glanced round again remembering she hadn’t seen Alaistair’s cats this morning & wondering just where they had got to. She couldn’t see them anywhere. Surely he didn’t let them roam free. And then she noticed that the wagons up ahead had halted & the riders were wheeling agitatedly in a loose circle about them. Gillie scanned the landscape quickly but she couldn’t see anything wrong. She couldn’t hear anything either & then she saw Alaistair gesturing furiously & a rider began riding fast for the main war band now a long way ahead. To Gillie’s astonishment the several wagons wagons pulled in close & began making camp.
Owein muttered a pithy word & Gillie eyed him uncertainly. He hadn’t seemed the sort. When she saw Alaistair’s face as he rode towards them she wished herself elsewhere, anywhere where that icy grey stare couldn’t find her.
‘I’ve sent Nisian for Dougal,’ Alaistair snarled as he reigned in. ‘One of those poor children of Seorge’s has gone into labour & I don’t think she’s going to make it ~ not that Avagaddu will care. Another delay ..’
‘He won’t wait,’ Owein commented, ‘not again. Who’s with her?’
‘Nemain, grim as the old death crone herself but at least she’ll have no qualms about ensuring the half~breed brat’s still born.’ He hunched irritably into his plaid.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Besides ensuring Gillie doesn’t knock off any more stray Formarians, nothing.’ Gillie flushed uncomfortably at his scathing sarcasm. ‘I’ve scouts out & nothing seems to be moving but at this pace we’ll see snow before we see Slivenamon & I could do with a drink before I have to face Avagaddu again ~ but naturally the mead’s all with him! I’ve had better days.’ He wheeled his horse abruptly & rode after a rabble of small boys who had found a willing hound & an interesting scent & were disappearing into the heather together. A moment later a chagrined warrior was receiving the sharp edge of his tongue & a lecture on what Alaistair meant when he gave instructions that the wagons were to stay together.
‘Good grief,’ Gillie hissed watching as Alaistair’s cantref formed a cauldron around the impromptu camp & set the little ones to gathering firewood. Owein sat stolidly on his horse watching, not the camp, but the clouds roiling along the horizon. Not hard to guess the incoming storm wasn’t likely to make Alaistair any better tempered. Already the cattle were starting to bellow unhappily & the hounds to pace, their noses scenting the air & a whine in their throats. There was a whine to the wind too, low but persistent, like the droning of a wasp. Gillie wished Owein would move so they could find some sort of shelter under one of the wagons but Owein just sat there, his eyes unfocused, staring blankly at nothing.
He sat there so long Alaistair noticed & came riding back towards them looking, if anything, even more furious than before. Gillie braced herself for the tongue lashing she was sure was coming but Alaistair said nothing until Owein sighed softly & gathered up his reins.
‘What?’ Alaistair hissed. Owein shook his head like a bull bothered by gnats.
‘It feels wrong but I can’t tell...’
‘Of course it’s wrong,’ Gillie snapped impatiently. ‘That storm’s coming from the south. This time of year they should all be coming from the north.’
‘Out of the mouth of babes,’ Alaistair teased, ‘& naught we can do about it unless you’ve been indulging in some sureptious training.’
‘Don’t be stupid!’ Owein snarled, then grinned reluctantly as Alaistair’s grin broadened. ‘Let’s hope we don’t all pay because Avagaddu doesn’t like Dreamers.’
‘Just get under shelter for now. Avagaddu mightn’t have dreamers around him but it’s a safe bet the tribes don’t feel the same way about it & one of them’s bound to have noticed. Let them deal with it. That’s what they’re trained for, if you can call what they do training!’
Owein snickered, gathering his horse under him while Gillie lifted her face to the sky & sniffed the air. She could smell rain, which was to be expected, & the hot acrid smell that lightening made when it struck ~ only there was no lightening. She wriggled uneasily in her saddle watching the clouds collide in an angry, bruised, roiling mass their ends fraying across the sky in wild horses’ manes. There was an oppressive silence. The whining wind had ceased. The hounds were cowering under the wagons & the cattle had turned their backs to the approaching storm & were flicking their tails in disgust.
‘Do you want to get soaked?’ Alaistair hissed in her ear. She shrugged him off. Ben Anu was disappearing under a thick cloud & mist was skirling along the river bed & oozing outward in a dank cloud.
‘Gillie.’ This time she didn’t miss the veiled threat in the quiet voice. ‘With Owein, please.’ She nodded absently but didn’t move until Alaistair gave the pony an impatient swat on the rump. His eyes glittered dangerously but Gillie was paying him no mind. All her attention was focused on the snaking river. Something was very wrong; dangerously wrong. Owein had the right of it. She turned impatiently to Alaistair, jabbing a finger at the widest bend in the river.
‘They can cross there if they’ve a mind to.’
‘Mawr oll aither, girl, I am knowing that.’ He scrubbed at his face with his hands then said tiredly, ‘Can’t you trust me to do my job? I’ve sent men...’ Gillie flushed, mortified, but before she could spin away Alaistair laid a firm hand on her bridle so she was forced to wait. ‘We will do better if you don’t fight me on everything. I have a frightened child about to give birth to a babe the tribes will never let her raise so tell me, how will it help to panic everyone by telling them the Formarians are readying to cross the river?’ When Gillie didn’t answer him he nodded brusquely. ‘Good. You understand….’& then struck by another thought he added firmly, ‘You are on your honour not to go head~hunting any more Formarians, not while I am responsible for you. Are we clear?’
‘As mud,’ Gillie said sulkily.
‘Sweet Danu,’ Alaistair sighed, ‘preserve me from clever women!’ He prodded her pony forward & watched as she wrestled with bit & bridle & saddle straps, her fingers unused to the stiff leather clumsily impatient but he did not offer to help. She didn’t know whether to be cross that he was so ungallant or pleased he thought her capable of managing on her own.
One of his warriors stepped forward to lead the little grey pony away & Gillie looked round for Owein. There were men & hounds keeping the cattle bunched & under every wagon a frightened huddle of men & women & children, none of whom wanted to be here & all of whom were because Avagaddu had burnt their duns out from under them too, just the way he had burnt Broghan’s.
She spotted Owein at last hunkered beside one of the larger wagons & recognized the blue & grey plaid of the Seal people. They were fisher folk & Gillie pitied them being dragged across the moors like this, so far from the sea.
‘Gillie.’ Owein beckoned her over & as she hunkered beside him her nostrils flared uneasily. The rank small of unwashed bodies mingled with the sour smell of sickness pierced through with the iron smell of blood ~ a lot of blood; too much blood. ‘I can’t make them understand we have a healer coming.’
‘It will be too late by then,’ Gillie said, ducking her head & peering under the wagon. The dark, bird bright eyes of Nemain stared back at her. Gillie had never liked the little ban droi. She dabbled in the sort of things to give Gillie nightmares & she was there to send the small soul struggling to be born straight into the arms of death, but she did speak most of the tribal dialects.
‘Tell them,’ Gillie said.
‘He will be too late,’ Nemain said stoically. ‘You can smell how much blood there is.’
‘Tell them.’ Gillie found herself staring the crone down. They both knew the importance of hope. Nemain shrugged indifferently. Gillie crawled under the wagon beside her, trying not to gag. Alaistair was right. The labouring girl was just a child. Her breasts had barely budded & her hips were not wide enough for the child she carried. Gillie backed out, gulped fresh air & sent Owein for water. When he brought it she found he had also brought a cup & a cloth & Gillie was grateful.
She crawled back under the wagon wondering why Nemain hadn’t done this herself but Nemain probably thought it wasn’t worth wasting water on one who would so soon be dead anyway. It made Gillie angry but a lot of what Nemain did made Gillie angry & she had hidden her courses from the old woman when they began so as not to go to the Mother’s fires, not with Nemain. She disliked her enough to defy custom & Gillie had learnt to be scrupulously clean to avoid the woman’s suspicious queries. She hated being so close to the old fraud but the child was staring with wide eyed fright & her stomach was rippling with constant contractions so that she should have been screaming ~ & could not. Someone had cut out her tongue.
Gillie wiped the child’s face with a cool, damp cloth & gave her sips of water but it seemed a very long time until Alaister came with the healer.
Dugal gave Gillie one bright appraising glance then set to work just as the wind began swooshing through the bracken bringing with it the first icy gusts of rain. Soon the rain was thundering on the wagon tray & Dougal was working in a pool of water. There was no need for Nemain after all. The babe was already dead ~ or so Dougal said as he began the gory task of dismembering it in utero. Gillie watched with fascinated horror as he pulled out his long handled instruments, but seeing her interest he began to talk softly explaining what he was doing as he went & how the herbs would help stop the bleeding & dry up her milk. The soft patter of talk was mesmerizing but what Gillie noticed was the kindness of his brown eyes & that he smelt freshly & cleanly, if a little bitterly, of rue. When he was done he smiled at her tiredly & said softly still, ‘run & tell that boy of ours we will not be moving for a few days.’ When Gillie saw Alsistair’s face she knew why Dougal had sent her to do the telling ~ & she didn’t need telling that Avagaddu would not wait for them & that it would all be Alaistair’s fault.