‘Just one or two small points,’ Dougal said pouring wine, & not the cheap nasty stuff he kept for treating wounds but the rich red ruby stuff that was like liquid fire. Gillie eyed him uncertainly, the headache hammering away behind her eyes. ‘Your bedside manner requires a little polish…’ Gillie snorted. One way to put it. ‘You’re not meant to hurt them, lass.’ He smiled benignly & handed her a cup of wine. ‘And next time don’t make your stitches quite so tight; they pull as the wound heals.’ Gillie shook her head at him spluttering on her wine.
‘Numpff.’ Shook her head some more. ‘I can’t..’ Dougal ignored her splutterings.
‘I admit I was worried there for a minute or two, but only a minute mind. You did very well, very well indeed.’
‘Dougal,’ Gillie managed to interrupt him at last. ‘Truely, I can’t.’
For a moment he sat studying his long healer’s hands that were soft & white for a man’s hands & without a sword’s calluses then he said calmly, ‘Would it help to know Alaistair was asking round for a case of the pox?’
‘That…!’ Words failed her. All the things she couldn’t call a scion of the blood rampaged through her mind while Dougal watched impassively.
‘So, you see, we were really very lucky.’
‘Lucky!’ The headache was a screaming tornado.
‘Oh yes.’ Dougal smiled beatifically. The headache was making it hard to think & nausea was swimming round the pit of her stomach in an eddying pool but something in Dougal’s impassive tone warned her. She swallowed her protests & tried to concentrate. Sweet Dana, the men were betting on this! Dougal put a long finger to his lips warning her to silence.
‘How much?’ She hissed
‘Enough to beggar Alaistair several times over.’ Sweet Dana! Gillie closed her eyes in horror. The man was mad. Dougal smiled sweetly at her.
‘So you see, my sweet,’ He said softly, ‘if you really want to gut Alaistair as badly as you seem to think you do, all you have to do is pack your bag & walk away.’
And he’d let me do that?’
Dougal’s eyes twinkled mischievously.
‘Well, he does have Avagaddu for a father & he doesn’t usually make bets he loses.’
‘And where’s your money?’ Gillie asked waspishly.
‘Where it always is, on Alaistair. Though I do have an unfair advantage; I’ve worked with you.’ Gillie stared at Dougal & he smiled back diffidently. His confidence in her astounded her.
‘Because I do not think this is about Alaistair, is it?’ he asked gently. It was as if he had opened a box of black winged terror. Gillie stared at him like a mesmerized rabbit, darkness & terror & a raging anger that this should have happened to her surging through her veins in an icy torrent. The nausea came bubbling up her throat hot & rank, choking her with its bitterness. ‘Any fool can kill,’ Dougal said softly. He stood up abruptly & poured his lees into the simmering fire. ‘Take some willow bark for that headache & go & lie down. I will manage without you this evening.’
The willow bark was definitely a good idea but the thought of having to move to find it & mix it into her wine was all suddenly too much effort. Gillie simply rolled herself into the blankets beside her & shut her eyes & let the darkness bury her. She listened to the sounds of the camp: booted feet pounding the ground, nickering horses, the crackle & pop of cooking fires & the shimmering smell of stew. And beyond the camp there were other sounds of falling leaves & cawing crows, of water gurgling through the rushes, faint & ordinary & going on & on no matter what men did to each other. There were footsteps that came closer, hesitated a moment, then a small body snuggled in against her back & she felt Wen’s small fingers searching for the corner of her cloak & she wondered what had happened in his day that he needed her before he needed his supper. Alaistair again. He was no warrior her Wen but he wanted very badly to please Alaistair & so he was trying very hard to be something he was not. His small body & snuffling warmth was familiar & reassuring & in a little while Gillie fell asleep.
She was woken by a hand over her mouth & a soft voice saying, ‘Please don’t scream.’ Heart thundering painfully under her ribs Gillie opened her eyes & peered into the darkness.
‘Will you come?’
‘Please, will you just come?’ His voice sounded bruised & uncertain but he was being very insistent. Gillie struggled out of the tangle of blankets & felt round for her cloak. The night air was piercing cold & one glance at the stars told her it was very late.
Owein grabbed her elbow, guiding her through the maze of fires & past the edge of the camp. The guard nodded but made no move to stop them & for a moment Gillie faltered, but this was Owein & Owein she could trust. He moved ahead of her forcing her to grab his cloak & keep close as he pushed through the tangled underbrush that formed it’s own dark hidden cavern beneath the trees, trees & scrub thick enough to blot out the light of a decent fire. Gillie blinked in the brightness, welcoming the warmth even before she could feel it & hesitated. Alaistair’s entire cantref was there, standing about in a subdued & sulky silence. Hostile eyes regarded her without expression but the silence was fraught with anger. Gillie glanced anxiously at Owein but he was dragging her beyond the edge of the light & Gillie sucked in her breath. Someone, Avagaddu, had beaten Alaistair badly & systematically. His back was a mass of raised welts & hairline cuts, the sort of beating that would cause pain & make a point ~ & Alaister was in pain; lots of it, lying with the sort of stillness that tried to defy even breathing.. Gillie was quite clever enough to get the point.
‘I’ve laid out what you will need,’ Owein said softly.
‘You could have done this,’ Gillie said, thinking how much Alaistair was going to hate her knowing this.
‘You are the healer,’ & the way he said it Gillie knew he meant more than just the mender of bones & dispenser of potions. He meant it in the droi sense & she wondered for the first time just exactly what it was he had learnt on Innis Drioneach. She could feel the tension of the gathered men whom Avagaddu had shamed as much as he had shamed the son of his loins.
Gillie began to curse, systematically, the way her da did went things went this badly wrong, & then she hunkered down beside Alaistair, not touching, just looking.
‘I will need more light.’ Owein nodded & in a moment there were men building a small but very bright fire for her. She was struck by how they set it so the smoke would blow away from her but throw no shadow where she was working. Still she didn’t touch Alaistair. Her touch was going to be agony however gentle she was & she would have to be very gentle.
She lent forward & said, ‘Alaistair?’ His eyes flickered open briefly, filled with shame, & flickered shut again. She needed to swab him with something very astringent to make sure there was no infection & that was going to sting like blazes. There was water ready & sniffing the heady fumes Gillie wondered just what Owein had put in the water. ‘I’m not going to touch you,’ she told Alaistair, ‘just pour some herby water over you but it will sting.’ Now there was the understatement of the year!
Gillie shook her head as she muttered to herself. She was getting as bad as Nemain or Dougal but she found talking to herself was helping her to a. not panic & b. remember what on earth she was supposed to be doing.
Alaistair’s whole back spasmed as she poured the water over him & he whimpered like a puppy, an absurd sound from a grown man. Gillie winced & began chewing her lip. Across the fire from her Owein hunkered patiently & his calmness steadied her. Knowing she needed to get comfrey onto Alaistair’s back was one thing, actually getting it there quite another. There were men edging up to the brink of the firelight too, not saying anything, just standing & watching, which was disconcerting enough but she could feel their trust, like a live thing, that she would know what to do & somehow make it all better ~ just like their mams had Gillie though crossly, wondering why grown men so often behaved like big babies. She couldn’t make this better. Treat it yes, heal, no ~ & there her thoughts paused. It was possible. She had seen it done & had forgotten it till now. Not Dougal. She couldn’t imagine Dougal stooping to something as superstitious & illogical as this. No, this had been a village shaman, not one of theirs. Her da wouldn’t have put up with something like that either.
He had been painted white, some sort of clay Gillie suspected, & stark mother naked except for a necklace of feathers & bird beaks & bits of white bone that gave Gillie the heebie~jeebies. He had limed his hair too so that it stood out in a stiff brush from his head but that was all for show. Gillie couldn’t see in the least how that made any difference at all to what he did. She wound a hank of hair round & round her finger & tried to remember what he had done.
She had been very small, smaller than Wen was now, & she had to travel a long way back to find that small, wide~eyed girl who had wandered into the shaman’s hut & seen something not meant for her eyes. It had been very dark inside so that the shaman had glowed like a ghost, which was probably the point. Walker of worlds. Gillie scarcely dared breathe. Walker… & it seemed she had, after all, been meant to see. She thought she knew what she had to do.
She shut out all thought of Owein & Dougal & the silent crowding men who were, too, men of the tribes, & would understand better than she probably did herself. She wasn’t droi trained, had never been to the Mother’s fires, had no real idea in the least of what she was doing as she began traveling inward a long, long way. Her feet found the sacred spiral, stood poised tentatively above the rush of water. Once she stepped in there was no turning back. That first step was going to be the hardest & she imagined salving Alaistair’s back without doing this. Her squeamish stomach rolled into a frightened knot & Gillie sighed softly. Alaistair was going to be furious about this. So too would Dougal. She would get an earful from the pair of them.
She edged her feet forward uncertainly. There was a faint luminescence in the darkness but it was like being poised on the brink of eternity. There were no stars over her head, nothing under the path she stood on, no walls around her, no beginning & no end, just the endless now in which she stood.
She hesitated again, feeling the cold water rippling over her feet, water that she knew wasn’t really there but it felt as wet as water, cold as a snow fed stream. She shivered a little, as much from fright as from the cold & wished Wen were there, clutching at her cloak as he always did. It was easier to be brave when someone was more frightened than you were. Impossible to stride forward confidently when she couldn’t see the path under her feet, was feeling for it with her toes, inch by cautious inch. When had she lost her boots? Gillie pushed her hair out of her eyes in exasperation. Idiot! What had she thought she was doing? She peered uncertainly into the gloomy darkness.
‘Gillie?’ Owein’s voice. ‘ For the love of Dana, girl, what do you think you’re doing?’ Sloshing sounds as he moved towards her. Gillie was too relieved to be surprised. She felt his hand grab her arm. ‘Alaister will kill me this time; this takes years of training.’
He wriggled past her on the narrow path & she hooked her fingers into his wide breachan belt. She wasn’t risking losing him now he had found her.
‘But you know, right?’
There was an uncomfortable pause then Owein muttered a very pithy word indeed.
‘They might never ask,’ Gillie suggested, amused.
‘Then you don’t know Alaistair, or Avagaddu for that matter. And now is not the time to ask,’ Owein said as Gillie drew breathe to do just that.
‘Can you teach me?’
‘No.’ No explanation either, just no, flat & uncompromising. ‘Please concentrate, Gillie. You have no idea of the row there’ll be if I loose us both in here. This is the sort of thing that sends Avagaddu into an insane rage. Not that Alaistair’s much better…’ he finished irritably. That Gillie could understand; her da wasn’t much better either. Dreamers, drois, & seers, he was pretty scathing about the lot of them but this, this was real, Gillie thought. Uncomfortably real & more dangerous than she could ever have imagined. A different danger to a warrior’s danger. There were no swords, no axes, no arrows marked with her name but there were other things & Gillie began to know them with a dawning horror.
They came like mischievous imps of darkness: the unkind words, the selfish acts, an array of little lies that no~one knew about except herself, the small thefts she thought she had gotten away with. Horrified Gillie watched as they paraded arrogantly across her mind ~ & then they got on to the good stuff! She began sweating, hating herself in ways she would never have thought possible.
She was making Owein suffer too. His jerkin was damp & there was a growing wetness along the edge of his belt where his sweat was pooling as it ran down his back but they were traveling faster, not much but some, turning right, following the path of the unseen sun, spiraling inwards & downwards.
Gillie began breathing faster, the air burning like ice in her lungs, the darkness pressing against her, heavy as a man’s weight. She gasped & shook her head. Darkness beating about her like the wings of a trapped bird, with the smell of him in her nostrils, rank as curdled milk, his unwashed body sour with sweat, hard hands …Gillie sucked in air like a drowning man, the all too familiar nausea swirling giddily round & round. Owein halted & she crashed into his back.
‘For crying out loud, Gillie, exercise a little self~control, can’t you?! The rules are the same as for the Mother’s fires.’’
‘I haven’t been,’ Gillie managed to gasp. Owein did begin to swear then, words Gillie had never heard before & hoped never to hear again, a rain of curses on the Formarians that would peel the bark from a tree & a list of just what he would do to the Cat woman’s ban droi when he caught up with her that defied both biology & logic. When at last he paused for breath Gillie said, ‘It’s not her fault; there are rules about these things.’ So there were. Owein would know that as well as she did.
‘I would have thought…’ Gillie knew just what he thought. She was old enough but one way & another her courses had never come. ‘Mawr oll Aither,’ he groaned. ‘You are more trouble than you’re worth.’
‘So sorry,’ Gillie said crossly & insincerely. Owein snorted but he was innately kind, far kinder than Alaistair, & so he swiveled on the path so she could see the dim white blur of his face & the dark smudges of his eyes.
‘The God Path,’ he said. ‘The Sacred Spiral. The Everlasting Knot. The Dreamer’s Dream. The Mother’s fires. Different names, same thing. If you keep thinking as you are the path will skew left & we will spiral onto a path I can promise you you do not want to tread. Focus.’ Then his voice softened, sounding tired & defeated rather than cross. ‘I know why you came & what you seek but it requires far more self discipline than you are displaying just now. Please, Gillie, put aside what was done to you, & what you have done to others. Both will destroy us.’ With a flash of insight Gillie understood what it was about the Dreamer’s paths that drove men like Avagaddu & Alaistair into a frenzy. This was no place for a scion’s pride or the arrogance of the tribes. She stood on holy ground, a beggar asking supplication. She would be wise to remember that. And thinking that, she let go of Owein’s belt. She heard him curse as she fell.