‘We shouldn’t be here,’ said Aonghas.
There were so many replies to that one, I didn’t know where to start. I kept my mouth shut, and my opinions to myself. My brother wouldn’t thank me for starting a squabble. Conal wasn’t looking at either me or Aonghas as he pressed his hand to the wet salt-crusted rock face, but I’d seen his shoulders tense with irritation, and I wasn’t in a mood to push it.
The cliff face had unnerved him too: he never was good with heights. I’d found the way down and he’d climbed after me, but he hadn’t liked it and his edgy temper lingered. I’d thought that being with Eili MacNeil last night would have softened his rough edges, but leaving her yet again had only made things worse.
So what? I missed Orach, as much as I was capable of missing anyone. It didn’t mean I couldn’t soak up the light and the landscape of home, storing it away in my cells for the next long exile. In my head I knew the silver sheen on the water was no different on this side of the Veil, or the shatter of waves on rock, or the clamour of gulls. My heart knew it was a different world: a whisper’s breadth and a whole universe away. I’d never stopped missing it and I never would. I’d make the most of it on the chances I got.
Find me the Stone, Kate had said. Don’t come back till you have it.
We shouldn’t be here. But it had never been any other way. We’d stopped short of swearing that we’d never cross the Veil, would never come home till we found the Stone. We’d told Kate we’d stay away, but we’d given no oath.
So we lied. So what? As if we could live without breathing our own air once a decade.
Kate NicNiven must know that as well as we did. And she must suspect that we sneaked through the watergate like thieves now and again, as if we were skulking Lammyr and not the sons of Griogair Dubh. But if our queen wanted to kill us, she’d have to find us first.
It was a game, that was all. It had become our life’s game. We risked death every time we played, but if we didn’t play, we’d go mad. Anyway, what’s life without an adrenaline kick?
I think I liked it better than Conal, though. And Aonghas liked it least of all, especially now.
‘I’m serious,’ he went on. ‘We’ve been here too long this time.’
‘I know that,’ snapped Conal.
I gave Aonghas an I-told-you-so look, and he rolled his eyes. They seemed even greener than usual because of the khaki green of his T-shirt. He also wore ripped jeans, and his sword in a scabbard on his back, and despite his claims to seriousness, a broad irrepressible grin.
He had that wistful look too gods help us. I knew what was coming.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘we could just stay over there. With the full-mortals. Settle in.’
‘Gods’ sake. You sound like Reultan.’ And who’d have ever thought that proud bitch would become such a convert to the otherworld?
‘She likes it over there. And know what? Maybe she’s right. Maybe we should just – you know – adapt. It’s all right. When’s a full-mortal ever tried to harm us?’
I laughed in disbelief. ‘Since May last year, you mean?’
‘That was your own fault. I’d have got my mates to beat the shit out of you too if she’d been my girlfriend.’
‘So what are you saying? We should leave the Veil to Kate’s mercies? Let it die?’
‘Course not. But maybe … we could let things lie. Keep our heads down. Just for a bit.’ He glanced out to sea, embarrassed. ‘Till Finn’s grown up?’
‘Oh, right. It’s your baby brain again. Wars don’t wait for you to stop breeding, you know.’
‘Shut it, you two.’ Conal laid his head against the rock, as if he was listening to its voice. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered. ‘But we’ve come this far. We might as well— Ah!’
Four hundred years on and his sudden smile could still catch me by surprise, could still turn my surliness to a matching grin.
‘You found it,’ I said, and laughed.
‘I found it.’
* * *
‘Knowledge is power, so it is,’ I said as we rode eastwards. ‘And Leonora wouldn’t want me having that.’
‘Ah, get over it. You know now.’ Conal looked distracted, but I was angry. The tunnel in the rock could have saved me a lot of hassle, a long time ago. It would have saved me a desperate run across the machair under a too-bright moon, and a climb that nearly killed me, and all to get Conal and me back into our own dun.
‘She could have made it easier. It’s not like anyone else knows about it.’ The Veil had been woven tight, dense, thick as rope around the tunnel entrance, and that was a witch’s work. No wonder it had been hard to find.
‘And nobody ever should. You can both start working on a block right now. Put it to the back of your minds.’
‘Why did you show us now?’ Aonghas looked happier, now we were on our way home, but that was understandable.
‘She’s only just told me about it,’ said Conal. ‘Believe it or not.’
‘And,’ I interrupted. ‘He’s worried about the old bat. Ow.’ I should have learned by now that if I was going to insult Conal’s mother, I should make sure I was more than an arm’s length away.
But, ‘Seth’s right.’ My brother’s voice was all gloom. ‘Kate keeps her hands off the dun only because she’s scared of Leonora. If anything happens to her—’
‘And there’s no reason anything should,’ pointed out Aonghas.
‘Want to bet? She’s got that look in her eye.’
Yeah. I’d seen it myself, and I had mixed feelings. Leonora’s death was to be dreaded, and she’d already stayed in life three and a half centuries longer than anyone else I’d ever heard of, after the death of a bound lover. It was a hell of an achievement, what with her soul being dragged in Griogair’s wake every minute of every day. Didn’t make me like her any better, but it was an achievement.
All the same, if she gave in and went to her death, our exile would be over, and I wanted it to be over. How long since I’d stopped believing in the Stone? I’d lost count of the decades, if I’d ever believed in it at all. Prophecy, fate, talismans? Horseshit. Leonora and Kate might be the most powerful witches the Sithe had ever known, but they were both in thrall to some mad old soothsayer, and I expect the ancient loon was squawking even crazier nonsense by the time Kate’s Lammyr finally killed her. I’d heard what she said about me – try forgetting it, when you live with a superstitious old Sithe-witch – and I shoved it to the back of my mind with the bad grief and the worse jokes and the old guilt, all the other detritus of life. No demented half-dead lunatic was dictating my life choices. Not anymore. She’d sent me into a four-hundred-year exile in search of a nonexistent Stone, and that was more than enough.
No bit of rock was going to save the Veil, defeat the queen and return Conal and me to our dun and our people. I knew what was going to do that: fighters and good blades, and the sooner we abandoned the hocus-pocus and pitched into a proper fight, the better it would be.
I was glad to see Conal in a better mood as we rode back towards the watergate. Maybe he was thinking the same as me, at last. Or maybe he was just baby-headed, like his brother-by-binding. When Aonghas actually started to whistle, I couldn’t take the surfeit of happiness anymore.
‘Do shut up,’ I said. ‘That’s bad luck. And wipe that stupid smile off your face.’
‘Ah, leave him alone, Seth. He’s soft in the head. It’s his hormones.’
‘Wasn’t him that was pregnant.’
‘You’d have thought it was. I swear to the gods, he threw up every morning.’
‘And he put on a belly. Still got it, actually.’
‘The pair of you can hide up your own arses,’ said Aonghas cheerfully, patting his stomach, which to be honest was as thin and hard as mine. Well, maybe I was a little jealous. But he had a right to be happy. They’d waited long enough, him and Reultan.
It was one of those days of intense slanting sunshine and black rain. When the sudden spattering showers lifted, the light would come under the clouds like a torch-beam, bronzing the fields and making the sodden trees glitter. It was pretty. We were home, for now. None of us minded getting wet. We rode with the sun’s rays, and I suppose that their dazzle was harsh looking the other way.
Which must have been why the child didn’t see us.
It was under Conal’s hooves before it realised its danger, but its impetus carried it stumbling beneath the black horse and safely to the other side, where it tripped and crashed into the bracken. It was already scrambling to its feet, sobbing with terror, and I had to haul on the blue roan’s bit to keep it from lunging for the boy. It was a boy, though in that state, to the blue roan, it was nothing but prey. Conal’s black was showing a hungry interest now, and I could see a food fight coming.
‘Don’t run!’ I shouted, furious. ‘Don’t run, you stupid little—’
I might as well have yelled at the rain not to fall. The boy – seven or eight, I’d guess – had bolted again; luckily for him, he ran straight towards Aonghas, who simply leaned down and scooped him off his feet and onto his rather more biddable horse, holding him tight in front of him.
‘You’re fine. Jaysus, child, you’re fine, this is a horse, not a—’
Aonghas’s words had no more effect than mine; already the boy was hammering him with his fists, biting at his bare arms, struggling and kicking. Aonghas swore and slapped him; the boy slapped him back and gave as good a mouthful of abuse, and Aonghas finally lost his temper and seized the child’s forehead with one strong hand. ‘Sleep, brat.’
The boy fought him for maybe two seconds, but he was too young to block well, and his body slumped, limp. Well, at least an unconscious child wasn’t such a provocation to the black and the blue roan. As the two horses snorted and stamped and calmed a little, Conal stared at Aonghas, and the child, and me.
‘What in the name of the gods? Doesn’t he know a frigging kelpie when he sees one? Don’t his parents—?’
I looked beyond him, and nodded. ‘Wasn’t us he was scared of.’
We fell silent as we watched the smoke curl beyond the brow of the hill. Now we could hear screams, the thwack and chunk of blades hitting flesh, the hungry crackle of building flame.
Conal lifted his thumb and forefinger, maybe an inch between them.
‘This close,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘We are this close to the dun lands.’
‘But not within them.’ Aonghas eyed him.
‘Chancers,’ hissed Conal. ‘How feckin’ dare they.’
Aonghas said, ‘We can take the child. Get him away. More sensible.’
I stayed out of it. It was Aonghas’s place to counsel him, not mine. But hell, I was hoping he’d lose the argument.
Actually, I think he was too. A bit.
‘Aonghas, listen to it.’
Aonghas cocked his head. ‘Three of them. Four, maximum.’
‘And they’re not expecting us.’ Conal was seething.
The roan was behaving now. It had forgotten the boy, and was yearning and tossing its head towards the sounds and smells of a fight. I patted its pearly neck.
‘And famously,’ I said, ‘I’m a one-man army, me.’
Aonghas rolled his eyes. ‘I had to try.’
Conal grinned, or rather he bared his teeth. ‘Yes, you did. But you stay here with the child. Me and the one-man army’ll do this.’
‘Aw, come on—’
‘An order.’ Conal winked. ‘I’m not half as scared of you as I am of my sister.’
Aonghas looked down at the unconscious boy in his arms, a smile tugging his mouth. Yup: baby-brained. ‘Well, do it fast. I don’t want to have to come in and save your arse, not with a child on board.’
They were not expecting us. They were expecting nothing but poorly armed farmers, who must have refused to give up tithes to Kate or one of her captains. The crofter was dead already, but the captain of the raiding party hadn’t yet put his sword through an older boy; he was still gripping him by the neck while the youth kicked for air.
‘Put him down,’ barked Conal, and made him do it.
The leader’s death left us only one each, and a spare, and Conal was in enough of a rage not to share nicely. He was flinging himself off the black and slamming the third one to the ground, his teeth grinding in the man’s ear, while I was still chasing down the last panicking horseman and trying not to harm the even smaller child screaming under his arm.
The fighter backed his horse into a corner by a burning shed, and as if that wasn’t stupid enough, he dropped the child. I didn’t bother with my blade after that, or only to strike his sword out of his hand. He was so scared of the roan, he was barely watching me, so I grabbed the neck of his shirt, pulled him to me and punched him as hard as I could. And again. And again.
I was still punching when Conal yanked my other sleeve. ‘Wasting time,’ he said, and spat out another bit of ear. ‘Get that child. Its mother’s alive.’
Its mother was half-blind with blood and grief and rage, but she was indeed alive and she had enough wits about her to know she shouldn’t have been. And she didn’t have a choice now, and anyway her croft was gone and her beasts slaughtered along with her lover. She took the smallest infant from my arms, and the middle boy from Aonghas’s, and she and the older boy scraped up weapons from the raiders’ bodies and limped in the direction Conal showed them. Our dun was two days’ walk at most, and they wouldn’t be safe outside it.
I was sucking on my bruised and skinned fist by now, and sulking at my own stupidity.
‘Stings?’ Conal winked. ‘Eejit.’
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Aonghas told me. ‘You’ve got style.’
‘I know I have. He’s jealous.’
‘You’ve got style, and he’s stuck with morals. Course he’s jealous.’
I laughed. ‘You say morals, I say politics.’
I was still grinning at Aonghas as his laughter died. He wasn’t looking at me anymore; he’d raised his head to stare across the burning croft. I felt my heart shrink.
‘Conal!’ he yelled.
Conal rode to our side, staring with us at the distant riders. They were coming on fast; perhaps the remainder of this patrol. I’d wondered why there were so few of them. ‘Damn. Let’s go.’
‘It’s okay. They haven’t seen us.’
‘No, but they’ll have to. We’ll have to draw them off. Shit.’
Well, of course we would. We knew what would happen if this new patrol caught up with that woman and her children. I swore through my teeth, just to relieve my feelings, and then we put our heels to our horses’ flanks and rode for it.
We crossed their line of sight in the full flare of that late sun and the burning buildings. They couldn’t miss us, and we couldn’t miss their shouts of shock and triumph.
‘Cù Chaorach! Cù Chaorach, you rebel bastard!’
It wasn’t a chance they’d pass up. Every one of them came after us, and I had time to be glad the crofting family were out of it, and to regret my brother’s suicidal altruism for maybe the five hundredth time. Then there was only time to draw breath and ride.
There were trees ahead, and that made it easy for us. The roan leaped a fallen log and we plunged in among birks and thick undergrowth, Conal to my right and Aonghas to my left. I saw them only as blurred movement broken by silver trunks, and I could hear only my pounding blood, and the roan’s hooves, and the yells and the thunder of pursuit.
It was fine. As I risked a glance over my shoulder, I knew it really was fine. Relief hurtled through me on a giddy high and I let myself whoop. We’d been far enough ahead and we’d taken them by surprise; we were going to outpace them with ease. I knew this land and I knew where Conal was heading as I swerved the roan around a slalom of birk trunks. He’d taken a wide arc round but we were almost on the northeast edge of the dun lands now, back on our own territory, and Kate’s patrol would never follow there.
As we broke from the trees and galloped headlong onto the high moor, I almost laughed. Luck had held solid for Conal again. Beyond the saddleback hill I knew I would see the first boundary stone of the dun lands. Thank the gods for fast horses and stupid enemies.
Their frustrated yells were growing more distant, and as I saw the boundary stone flash past my left foot, I knew that one by one, the pursuing riders were drawing up. There was a strange note to their shouts, though; a funny mixture of disappointment and triumph. I didn’t have time to think about it. I goaded the roan down a rocky slope and into the next belt of trees, Conal a neck ahead of me and Aonghas at my heels.
A few hundred yards on, Conal reined in the black horse and spun to face me, laughing. The roan danced to a stop at his side and we turned to meet Aonghas, grinning.
He was upright on the horse’s back, so for a moment I thought I was seeing things. He was playing some stupid joke. Typical, but a bit inappropriate in the circumstances. My grin froze, and I felt it die.
Aonghas was looking at Conal with regret and aching grief. A smile trembled at the corner of his mouth, and a bead of blood. His khaki T-shirt was stained wet, and the stain was spreading onto his jeans. Everything was so vivid in that slanting light, and I’ll never forget the colours: the green of Aonghas’s T-shirt and the brighter green of his eyes, the dark mud red of the spreading stain, and the inch of quivering silver that stuck out from his ribs.
‘Aonghas,’ I said.
He said nothing. His voice was already gone, and his life went as Conal hauled him off his horse and into his arms, weeping and screaming his name.
I wanted to say something: I wanted to tell Conal that the jutting point of the blade was hacking at his chest, mingling his blood with Aonghas’s, but I don’t think he’d have cared. I think, just then, he’d have taken the whole foul thing in his own heart, if it would only bring Aonghas back.
Copyright © 2011 by Gillian Phillip