Thoomee; silence. It was a very old word. For the first time Gillie truly understood it’s full meaning. This was Thoomee, the silence that held no breath of air, no sound but utter emptiness. It was strangely peaceful. It was as thick as a sheep’s coat before the shearing & it cradled her between the worlds so that falling, she was held, & held she moved beyond fear & terror.
There was also light, moving towards her steadily, a fierce blue/white light that hurt her eyes & mithered her so that she seemed to be swallowed up in the brightness. Then there was only the light; light & silence as she spiraled slowly between the worlds ~ & was halted by a voice.
‘You owe me a life.’
The brightness was dimmed as if by some unseen hand so that scowling Gillie could make out the image of a man, a man who was, indisputably, the ugliest little man Gillie had ever seen. He was so deformed he reminded Gillie of a broken toy glued back together wrongly. At some point his hands had been….. They were the large, practical hands of a tradesman & all bent out of shape. His face was criss crossed with old scars & the dark eyes burnt with a consuming fire.
For the first time Gillie really thought about Torquil. He had been young, like Alaistair or Owein, but not a warrior & it had been wrong of her & Alaistair to make jokes about his poetry. True, it wasn’t very good poetry. He had been a silly chook of a man, frightened of his own shadow but he had only wanted to lie in the sun for a little while & try to forget, not die suddenly at the angry hands of a little girl who had nothing better to do with her time that day. Gillie would not have put it quite like that.
‘His life was not yours to take.’
That was true. Broghan had said it, & Alaistair, though not so directly, & Tem had said it & even Wen had said it, so there was no use arguing the matter.
‘And now you come like a thief, to a place where you have no right, to petition for that to which you may make no claim.’
Gillie worked her way through the tangle of words till she thought she understood & nodded her head. She had no right to be here, no right to ask anything at all. She had not thought of it as stealing.
The man shook his head at her, his eyes regarding her steadily.
‘You usually have more to say for yourself than this.’
Gillie flushed hotly. Also true.
‘So, I will do for you what you have not asked of me, & you will do for me what I have asked of you.’
‘What have you asked?’ Gillie managed to stammer, temporarily bewildered & wondering where on earth she would have seen this little man before because surely she would not have forgotten him.
‘You do not know me, but one day you will. Now, I will set you on the path you should go & Owein will take you home.’
‘But what do you want me to do?’ Gillie blurted.
‘As Dougal tells you. How else will Alaistair have the healer he needs?’
He seemed surprised she didn’t know this & Gillie was inclined to resent the assumption. Alaistair & his healer! She was tired to death of it.
‘But it is not for Alaistair,’ the man said simply. That was so true Gillie blushed hotly again. It was not about Alaistair. She knew it wasn’t. She knew what Broghan would say: ‘Grow up, girl!’
The path was beneath her feet again & Owein was just there, close enough to touch, anguish & relief chasing across his face.
‘Mawr oll Aither, lass, don’t let go again. I thought I’d lost you.’
‘Obviously not your lucky day,’ Gillie said hardily & had the satisfaction of hearing Owein laugh, a little shakily but it was still a laugh. He took her hand. His grip was cool & firm & she could feel the sword calluses along the palm, hard & a little rough, old calluses too so Brehon or no he had continued with his sword practice all through his training. They turned right, following the path of the sun, spiraling in & down, turning right to follow the path of the light till it spun them up & out again to a fire burnt to cinder & ashes & white faced warriors standing by silently.
Gillie glanced at the sky & knew morning was not far away. There was a wide grey band along the horizon & the bitter coldness of first light. She was stiff from her body sitting still so long while her soul had journeyed to places she had never imagined & looking over at Owein & seeing how pale & white he looked she began to understand the warriors’ concern. They had watched & waited all through the long night & now waited patiently as Gillie built up the fire again & scrubbed her hands thoroughly with watered wine & astringent herbs.
Alaistair’s back was crusting with brownish scabs & oozing pus but seemed to be healing cleanly enough though he was breathing as shallowly as possible so as not to cause any more hurt. It made Gillie flinch just to look at it. How one man could do something like that to another, or a father to his son, was beyond her.
Owein pulled the stopper from the comfrey jar for her. Gillie hesitated, scooped the ugly brown goo into her hands and as gently as possible began to spread it across Alaistair’s back. There was a fierce fire in her hands & a pulsating icy heat flaring beneath them as she worked. She seemed to feel all the raw edged wounds knitting together & the screaming nerve ends silenced as they rejoined & gradually the tense stiffness of Alaistair’s back relaxed & with a soft sigh he relaxed into a healing sleep. He looked young & gawky in sleep, quite unlike his usual self .
Gillie began wiping her hands clean trying to ignore the whispered looks around her & the rising speculation. So many strange faces & her not over fond of either of the two faces she knew. She sighed to herself. It wasn’t difficult to deal with Owein but she resented that it was necessary.
‘Who’s second in charge?’
‘Me ~ unless we are fighting & then it would be Cam.’ Gillie nodded, not surprised.
‘I don’t want to move him…’
Owein smiled at her wryly.
‘You can’t think that Avagaddu will wait.’ He shook his head. ‘ The main host will move on & we’ll follow when we can.’ Gillie just stared at him appalled. Avagaddu would move on leaving a cantref of men to fend for themselves with a wounded man to care for.
No,’ Owein said decisively. ‘We are a mobile force & much more able to fend for ourselves than you think. Those hunting cats of Alaistair’s for one thing. They’ll hunt a man as easily as a deer. Alaistair would break us into our decades for another. That is how we usually hunt for Avagaddu, in packs of ten. It will be well & if we aren’t traveling hindered by the wagons we will probably make Slievenamon before Avagaddu does.’ Gillie stared at him chewing the edge of her thumb. She knew what she had to do, she just didn’t want to do it. Owein saved her the bother. ‘I will send someone for your things.’ She shrugged. It had to happen sooner or later, she just wished it had been later & the truth was, she wasn’t a healer, not yet & likely never would be. She was a sham & a fake & she pitied the poor sod forced to suffer her inept ministrations but if Alaistair wanted a charlatan for a physic that was his problem.
Just the same, Gillie felt stupidly self conscious hunkered by her small fire waiting on her things & surrounded by a hundred armed men, a hundred of the best too. Only the best for Alaistair! Avagaddu should be worried. The pick of his men were finding their way into Alaistair’s small, vicious war band. Already she missed Wen. She missed Tem & her da & the way their lives had been before the Formarians. Even if they won, even if it was all over tomorrow, it would never be the same. She was not the person she had been a month ago, or a year ago, or even a day ago. With a sinking sensation Gillie realized that the life she had once imagined for herself had become to small & what her life would be she had no idea. There was no certainty she even had much of a life left.
She glowered unhappily over the campsite where the men were going about the daily grind of feeding & watering the horses, checking for saddle galls & cracked hooves, cooking, honing swords, greasing leather & now she knew she could see the pattern of tens & how orderly the camp was compared to the unwieldy surging mass that was the main hosting. It also smelt far better. Avagaddu just would not waste time & man power digging proper latrines when his camp was moving on in a day or two but dysentery was rampant among his men & Dougal had had words about it more than once.
‘Two things,’ Dougal was always saying, ‘that will destroy an army faster than anything else ~ toilets & water. Make sure both are clean.’ Gillie was pretty sure that Alaistair had been listening to Dougal. The camp was immaculate. ‘Cleanliness.’ Dougal was a fastidious man himself but now Gillie could see the sense. There were flies but not the hordes that swarmed about the main camp & not the droning of blown meat.
She glanced down & saw that Alaistair was awake & watching her with a resigned grimness.
‘Do we pass muster?’
She flushed & looked away thinking she had days & weeks & months when she would have to endure his company. A hundred men did not, suddenly, seem too many.
‘That’s not for me to say.’ Detachment. Dougal had the right of it there too.
‘What? You haven’t heard Dougal’s lecture on cleanliness yet? It’s one of the first & he likes to repeat it.’
‘Then you don’t need me to,’ Gillie managed calmly. Alaistair was silent. Surprised Gillie glanced down at him. She had seen the look in his eyes in the eyes of a hawk finding itself unexpectedly tethered but he had better self discipline that she did; he was not about to throw a tantrum because he had been hurt & shamed. After a moment he began again, a little diffidently.
‘Would you care to explain what you & Owein thought you were doing yesterday?’
‘Gillie! My healer & my 2nd paddling about in the nether regions.’
‘I don’t tell you how to do your job,’ Gillie snapped forgetting all about detachment, ‘So don’t tell me how to do mine!’
‘With my second, ‘Alaistair repeated.
‘Take it up with Owein. He wasn’t invited.’
Alaistair’s whole body spasmed. Gillie leapt to her feet alarmed then realized he was trying very hard not to laugh. Infuriating man!
‘I’ll be taking it up with Owein, never fear, & I guess I can safely leave you to Dougal.’
For a moment Gillie just stared at him & then the laughter came gurgling up in hiccuphy little bursts so that she snorted inelegantly into her plaid. She collapsed beside him again gurgling happily. By the time she saw Dougal again he’d be long over it.
‘I see,’ Alaistair said grimly. ‘Fully trained already are we?’
‘Don’t be silly.’ It was too funny to be dampened by Alaistair’s sarcasm. He could take that up with Owein to, a thought that sent her into another spate of happy gurgles. Alaistair closed his eyes tiredly & said from behind his closed lids, ‘There are a hundred men in this camp. You sleep between Owein & I & you go nowhere without one of us by your side.’
Gillie sobered instantly. Without opening his eyes Alaistair continued, very softly. ‘Make no mistake, this is my war band. Only Avagaddu has the right to shame me openly before my men.’ Gillie blushed a bright & scalding red but Alaistair would not open his eyes & look at her. Rather pointedly he turned his head & ignored her while Gillie struggled with a furious & necessarily silent rage. However long it took it would not be too soon before they could ride.