IN A DRAFTY passageway below the Dalriadan fortress of Dunadd, two men met in shadow. The place was well away from the eyes and ears of the Gaelic court there, and thus suited to covert exchange. The information to be passed was dangerous; in the wrong hands it could be deadly. The future of kingdoms depended on it.
"What do you have for me?" There was a pattern to such exchanges; the younger man, a lean, dark individual with a shuttered expression, fell into it with the ease of long practice.
"A name," said the other, a tall fellow clad in the russet tunic of King Gabhran's household retainers. "Bridei must move quickly and cleverly if he is not to be hemmed in from north and south."
"Spare me the analysis," the dark man said. "What name?"
"And in return?"
The dark man's lips tightened. "You'll get your information."
In the little silence that followed, the tall man glanced to left and to right along the shadowy way. All was quiet; moonlight, slanting in from the distant entry, allowed the two to read each other's features dimly. Under such a light it can be difficult to know if a man lies or tells the truth; itis hard to tell how far to trust. Both of these men were expert in such judgments, for a spy's existence is all calculated risk.
"One of the Caitt chieftains," whispered the tall man. "Alpin of Briar Wood. He commands an extensive personal army. The alliance could be sealed before next spring unless your people act to forestall it."
The dark man nodded. "Which of the other northern chieftains would support him? Umbrig?"
"In my judgment, no. But they are kinsmen. Alpin has a natural son fostered in Umbrig's household. As for the others, I can't say. The chieftain of Briar Wood has both allies and enemies among his own."
"Your king would be well advised to make a speedy approach to Alpin," said the tall man. "You'd best have a quiet word in Bridei's ear."
The dark man's expression did not change. "I'm hardly in a position to do that," he said levelly. "I'm only a bearer of information. I'm not the king's confidant."
"That's not what I've heard."
"Then you've been misinformed," the dark man said.
"Now give me what you have."
The dark man's eyes had grown colder. "Gabhran should look to his eastern defenses," he said. "Should this matter of the Caitt not impede him, Bridei could be ready to make his major push against the Gaels next spring. There's a council planned for Gathering, with high hopes Drust the Boar will fall in behind Bridei at last"
The tall man grunted acceptance. The exchange of information was fair. What each man did with it was his own business.
The two parted without farewells. The dark man had a long way to go; the tall man was closer to home, and he walked back along the shadowy passageway and out under cover of trees with his mind on supper and a warm night in the bed of a certain accommodating woman.
A boy out fishing found him a few days later, his body swollen and distorted from immersion in a stream andbruised by the rocks under which it lay partly wedged. It was just possible to ascertain that he had not died from drowning, but had been expertly strangled by something strong and thin, such as a harp string.
As for the dark man, by then he was long gone from Dunadd, headed back across the border out of the Gaelic territory of Dalriada and into the lands of King Bridei of the Priteni. The bag of silver he had received from his Dalriadan masters had been hidden away. There would be another payment when he got to Bridei's fortress at White Hill. Considerable wealth now lay in his secret place, a resource he would surely never use, since he had neither wife nor children, brother nor sister to spend it on; at least, none he was prepared to acknowledge, even to himself.
He traveled with the speed and efficiency of a man who does not allow anything to distract him from his goal. It was unfortunate that his contact had required removal, but not unexpected. Pedar had not been stupid, and Faolan had known he would start to ferret out the truth about his own close relationship with Bridei eventually. He'd let his informant live until the danger of exposure was no longer outweighed by the value of what Pedar was able to supply. It was necessary that his Dalriadan masters believe Faolan entirely loyal to their cause. One must hope Pedar had kept faith with the delicate codes of covert intelligence, and had not shared his suspicions with anyone. At any rate, Faolan would need to stay clear of Dunadd a while, just to be sure. Perhaps Bridei would dispatch him to serve with Carnach's fighting men, preparing for the great war to come. Perhaps he might be assigned to Raven's Well, where another army readied itself for the final push westward into Dalriada. A little honest fighting would not be unwelcome. He had been dancing on the fringes of kings' courts for too long now, and was growing weary of masks. Ah, well; good speed, clement weather, and he should be back at White Hill before the moon reached full again. Perhaps, Faolan mused as he made his way up the track by the lake's edge, heading northeastward under the clear skies of a crisp spring day, he might simply return to his old roleas personal guard. In the five years since Bridei was elected to the throne in somewhat unusual circumstances, nobody had got close enough to lay a finger on him or his wife. Faolan had made sure of that. Whenever he went away, he installed an infallible system of deputies to cover the period of his absence. All the same, nothing was quite as effective as his own presence by Bridei's side. He found, to his surprise, that this felt almost like going home.
ANA HAD BEEN a hostage at the court of Fortriu since she was ten and a half. After eight years, she recognized that what had once seemed a kind of prison, albeit one where the captive ate at the king's table and slept in fine linen and soft wool, had become more like a home. When Bridei built his new fortress at White Hill and moved the court of Fortriu, Ana moved with the rest of them. Bridei's wife, Tuala, was one of her closest friends. That, thought Ana as she guided the tiny, tottering figure of the king's son Derelei across the sheltered garden that lay within the fortress walls, presented a problem for Bridei. The whole point of taking hostages was leverage against their kinsfolk. She was here as surety against a possible revolt by her cousin, who was monarch of the Light Isles and a vassal king to Bridei. In those eight years, there had been no sign of unrest in her home islands, so it seemed her captivity had had the desired effect. On the other hand, there had been little interest shown by those at home in her welfare; her family seemed to have forgotten her. These days, it was White Hill that felt like home, and she could not imagine Bridei hurting her in any way, should her kinsmen suddenly take against him.
"Oops!" Ana exclaimed as Derelei's infant knees gave way and he collapsed abruptly onto his well-padded posterior. He looked momentarily surprised, seemed to ponder whether crying might be in order, then reached his arms toward her, offering a sound that meant "Up!"
"Come on, then." Ana lifted the child to her hip; he wassmall for his age and had something of his mother's fey looks, the skin pale as milk, the eyes wide and solemn. His hair was Bridei's, brown as a nut and already curling tightly.
Who would have thought it, back in the Banmerren days when they were students together? Tuala was married and a mother, and Ana was still here in Fortriu, unwed. Carrying the royal blood of Fortriu often felt more like a curse than a privilege, especially if one were a woman. In the lands of the Priteni, the royal descent came through the female line: kings were selected, not from kings' sons, but from the sons of women like Ana, those descended from an unbroken line of royal females. It made her a prize piece in the great game of political strategy. Whoever wed her could be the father of kings. Bridei, as king of Fortriu, would be the one who eventually made the decision as to where she would go and when. There might be a token consultation with her cousin, but with both her parents long dead, and her kin far away in the islands, she knew it would be Bridei's choice. When she was a little girl with a head full of stories, she had hoped for love. She knew now how foolish it was to expect that.
And yet, for some people, love could be everything. Look at Bridei and Tuala. Their marriage had seemed impossible. It had been frowned upon by the powerful Broichan, the king's druid and Bridei's foster father. Ana looked down at Derelei, who had a strand of her long hair clutched in his fist and was exercising his new teeth on it. He gazed back, eyes solemn as an owl's. He was his mother's son, all right; the legacy of the Otherworld was plain in the tiny face, the delicate hands, the unusual gravity. Bridei had done the unthinkable; he had married for love, and as a result, Fortriu now had one of the Good Folk as its queen. Ana smiled to herself. A fine queen Tuala was, strong, courageous, and wise. People had accepted her for all her difference, and her husband loved her with a devotion that was plain every time he set eyes on her. Nonetheless, Bridei was king, and conducted his business in a realm of powerful and dangerous men. When it cameto it, Ana was just another useful piece in the game, kept in reserve for the moment when she might be deployed to best advantage.
"Mama!" Derelei stated with emphasis, releasing Ana's hair and turning his head toward the archway at the far end of the garden. It was a sunny spring day; the light touched the creeper that twined up the stone wall, making a pattern in shades of subtle green. There was no sign of anyone; no sound save the distant voices of men-at-arms about their business, and nearer at hand the chirping of small birds hunting for nesting materials. The child was intent on the archway, his body jiggling with anticipation in Ana's arms. She waited. A little later Tuala appeared through the archway with another woman behind her.
"Mama!" the small voice proclaimed, and the infant leaned forward at a perilous angle. Ana relinquished him into Tuala's arms.
"He knew you were coming," she said. "He always seems to know."
"Ana, see who's here!" Tuala said, settling herself on a stone bench with her small son on her lap. The other woman moved forward and Ana realized belatedly who it was.
"Ferada! How good to see you! Tell me all your news!" Ferada, daughter of the influential chieftain of Raven's Well, had shared part of her education with both Ana and Tuala back in the days before Bridei became king. Unfortunate circumstances, kept largely from public knowledge, had enforced her return home to oversee her father's household and raise her two young brothers, and it was a long time since she had visited Bridei's court at White Hill. Ferada looked older; older than she should, Ana thought. A mere two years' advantage over her friends should not be enough to have caused the weary lines that bracketed Ferada's mouth, nor the unhealthy pallor of her complexion. One thing was unchanged: Ferada's gown was immaculate, her hair carefully dressed, her posture fiercely upright.
"News?" Ferada echoed, clasping her hands together inher lap. "Nothing very exciting, I'm afraid. I've learned how to keep household accounts. I've managed to instill a little wisdom into Uric and Bedo with the help of visiting scholars--yes, Tuala, I took a leaf from Broichan's book on that score, knowing what an excellent job your old tutors did with you and Bridei. The boys are well; Bedo is good at his lessons and Uric has made steady improvement. Now, of course, they think themselves men and beyond such sedentary pastimes. It's all horsemanship and weaponry these days. Father seems to believe a stay at court will be educational for them."
"I always thought they were good-hearted little boys," Tuala said. Derelei had settled in her lap, fingers grasping a fold of her tunic; she stroked his curly hair with her small, white hand as she spoke. "So, does this mean Talorgen is seeking suitors for you, Ferada? You know there will be a major assembly before long; many chieftains will gather at White Hill to debate strategy for war. It is an opportunity ..."
"I expect anyone who expressed interest in me when I was sixteen will be wed by now," said Ferada. "If Father is looking about, it'll be among the older ones, those who are not so desperate to father large broods of children as rapidly as possible." She glanced at Derelei, then met Tuala's searching eyes and mildly amused expression. "Don't take offense, Tuala, you know I don't mean you and Bridei. Didn't the two of you wait an agonizing two years from betrothal to formal handfasting? The fact is, women like Ana and myself are viewed principally as breeding stock, and by twenty we're considered past our best. On that subject, I'm surprised to see you still here, Ana. Pleased, of course; I've missed you both terribly. But I would have expected you to marry years ago. There was certainly no shortage of interested suitors. You were a beauty at thirteen and you still are."
Ana looked down at her hands. "I understand Bridei does have someone in mind; a chieftain from the north, he said. Perhaps next summer. I do feel as if I've been waitingforever." The comment about "past our best" had disturbed her, but she did not want her friends to see this. As a daughter of the royal line, one must always put duty first, as indeed Ferada had done most admirably in returning home to five years as glorified housekeeper. During that time numerous opportunities had passed her by. At this rate they would be toothless old crones together, with not a husband or babe between them.
"In fact," Tuala said, "there have been some developments on that front. Faolan's back, and Bridei wants to speak to you later today, Ana. I understand it's to do with this chieftain, Alpin. I didn't press him for details; he wanted to talk to Faolan alone."
Ana shivered. "That man! I always wonder, looking at him, whose blood he has on his hands this time; what dark corner he's been lurking in. I don't know how Bridei can trust him."
Tuala gazed at her. "I've never known Bridei's judgment to be faulty," she said quietly. "Misinformation, deception, sudden death, those are the essence of Faolan's work. He is of great value principally because he does those things so expertly, and without qualms."
"He turned against his own people," Ana said. "I don't know how anyone could do that."
"No?" Ferada lifted her brows. "What about you, living contentedly at the court of the folk who took you hostage when you were too young to know what it meant? Making yourself at home among people who have denied you the chance to grow up among your family? That's not so different from Faolan gathering information among the Gaels."
"Shh," Tuala said. "Ferada, I admire your outspokenness, I always did. But you're at White Hill now; you should moderate your speech a little, even among friends. Ana should not judge the king's assassin, and you should not judge Ana. A great deal has changed at court since Drust the Bull took her hostage. Indeed, she can hardly be called that anymore; I view her as something more like a sister."
"All the same," Ferada said, "I notice Bridei hasn't sent her home."
Home, Ana thought, as a cloud of misery settled over her. The Light Isles. In the early days she had longed to go back to that realm where the lakes held the pale light of the open sky and the green hills folded gently down to pastureland. The place of her childhood was full of ancient cairns and mysterious stone towers, sudden cliffs and drifts of wheeling seabirds. Yet now, if Bridei sent her there, she thought it would seem like another exile. As for the other option, the one that now loomed as real and immediate, it made her cold with misgiving. The Caitt were of Priteni blood, as were her own island people. She thought of the only Caitt chieftain she had seen since her childhood: Umbrig of Storm Crag, a man like a big bear, fierce and uncouth. Umbrig had appeared unexpectedly at the election for kingship and had cast his vote for Bridei, helping him win out over Drust the Boar, monarch of the southern Priteni realm of Circinn. Folk said the Caitt were all like that, huge and ferocious. Ana shrank from the notion of sharing such a wild man's bed.
"Derelei walked all the way along the path today, holding my hands," she said, changing the subject. "He'll be doing it on his own soon. He's a credit to you, Tuala."
"I catch Broichan looking at him from time to time, no doubt searching for eldritch talents; seeking to discover how much of my own blood our son bears and how much of Bridei's."
"Broichan doesn't fool me," Ana said. "He dotes on the child, to the extent that a king's druid may unbend enough to show affection. You watch him sometime when he thinks you're not looking. Derelei's like his own grandchild."
"And does he?" Ferada asked, scrutinizing the infant, who was sitting quietly on his mother's knee, examining his fingers. "Have any eldritch talents, I mean?"
Ana opened her mouth to answer, but Tuala was quicker. "I would be happy if he could conjure a charm to alleviate the pangs of teething," she said. "We're all shortof sleep. Ferada, I see a look in your eye that tells me you have more news. I did hear a rumor that Talorgen has made the acquaintance of a certain comely widow. Or is that merely gossip?"
It was interesting, Ana thought, how deftly Tuala managed to avoid discussion of any special abilities her son might exhibit, and indeed, of her own talents in certain branches of the magical arts. As queen, she seemed determined to avoid those matters, as if they might be in some way dangerous. Ana knew Tuala's power at scrying; it had become the stuff of legend at Banmerren, the school for wise women. And there was a very strange tale of a time when Tuala had run away, and what had befallen both her and Bridei in the forest of Pitnochie, a tale neither of them had ever told in full. Still, one must abide by the queen's wishes. If she wanted to be ordinary, if she preferred her son to be unexceptional, one must pretend, outwardly at least, that this was so.
Ferada shifted a little on the bench. "Father plans to seek permission to dissolve his marriage," she said grimly. "We don't know if Mother is still alive, or where she is, only that she traveled beyond the borders of Fortriu. Father has good grounds to do this. I understand it's the king's druid who makes such decisions. I think Broichan will allow it."
"And?" Ana prompted.
"Father wishes to remarry. The widow's name is Brethana; she's quite young. I like her, inasmuch as a girl can like her father's second wife. The boys don't care one way or another. At that age their own activities are all that matters in the world. Once Father marries, there'll be nothing to keep me at Raven's Well."
There was a pause, during which Tuala and Ana exchanged a meaningful glance.
"You know," Tuala said, "I feel quite certain the next thing Ferada wants to tell us has nothing to do with suitors and marriages. I see a certain look on her face."
"Mm," Ana mused, "the look she always used to get just before coming out with something outrageous."
"I'm not sure if I should tell you yet," Ferada said. "I need to talk to Fola."
"Fola! You mean you're going to return to Banmerren and become a wise woman?" Tuala's tone expressed the incredulity Ana felt; whatever their friend's abilities, and these were many, Ferada had never seemed destined for a future in the service of the goddess.
Ferada's cheeks reddened. "I am going to Banmerren. Or, if Fola comes for the assembly, I will speak to her here at White Hill. And no, of course I'm not planning to become a priestess. I have a proposition for Fola. It troubles me that so many young women of noble blood receive, at best, half an education, and more commonly none at all save in the domestic arts. I know Fola provides places for them at Banmerren, as she did for Ana and me. But what's offered is lacking in structure and depth; no sooner does a student start to get interested than she's whisked off back home, or to court to be paraded before the men, or into some fellow's bed to have his heirs put in her belly. Don't look like that, Tuala; I know your own experience has been somewhat different but, believe me, for most girls it's a brutal and arbitrary business. If there was a place where young women could stay just a little longer, learn a little more, gain some wisdom before they are thrust out into that world of men, I think we might equip them better to stand up for themselves and play a real part in affairs. So that's what I want to do. Start a school; or rather, expand the one Fola has already to include a whole branch for girls who are not to become priestesses, but live their lives in the world. I plan to ask Fola if she will let me organize it; let me be in charge of it. I have done quite well with Uric and Bedo. And I learn quickly. What do you think?"
Tuala was smiling. "A bold idea, entirely typical of you, Ferada," she said. "I'd be surprised if Fola were not interested. What about your father?"
"He's not entirely comfortable with it, but his new marriage is foremost in his mind. Besides, he owes me. I'vedone a good job of managing his household and the boys; I've given five years to it."
"You will encounter some opposition, that is certain," said Tuala. "Broichan is unlikely to support such an idea; he does not believe in education for women, save for those destined to serve the goddess. Many of the men will think it unnecessary, a waste of time. Some will consider it dangerous. Not all men are as open-minded as your father, who always encouraged you to express your opinions."
"What of your own marriage?" Ana asked. "How would you achieve this plan if you had a husband and family to look after? Surely you don't intend to sacrifice that--"
"Sacrifice?" Ferada's tone was scathing. "Oh, Ana. Can't you entertain the possibility that a woman might reach deeper fulfillment in her life without a man?"
Ana felt the heat rise to her cheeks. "I--" she began.
"I'm sorry," Ferada said in a different tone. "I've upset you; I didn't mean to. It's been so long since I was able to speak openly, and my head is so full of ideas. I want to teach. I want to make a difference. I want to be sure I don't waste my life."
"I don't intend to waste mine," Ana said, unable to ignore the implication.
"Then you must hope whatever suitor Bridei has in mind for you is a paragon of male virtue," Ferada said. "Tuala, will you speak to Bridei about my intentions? His support for the general idea of it would help me immensely."
"Of course," Tuala said. "And you should ask him yourself, as well. I feel certain he will approve. He admires you, Ferada."
Ferada fell unaccountably silent, and at that moment the baby began to squirm, drawing several deep breaths that seemed to presage a storm of some kind.
"We should go in," Tuala said, rising and hitching the child expertly to her hip. "He's getting hungry; it must be all that walking. You're good with him, Ana."
"I like it," said Ana. "Seeing him grow; watching all the little changes."
"All very well when it's someone else's," Ferada observed,"and you can give it back when it yells or dirties itself or gets a fit of the midnight terrors. Count yourselves lucky you don't have five or six of them milling around your ankles. If they'd married us off when they first started speaking of suitors, we'd each have a brood by now."
"I'd love another child," Tuala said with a smile. "If the Shining One blesses me with a daughter, Ferada, I'll be sure to send her to you for her education."
"That's if Fola doesn't get in first," Ferada said.
THE KING'S COURT at White Hill was built on the site of an ancient fortress fashioned of stone laced with fired wood. Traces of those walls still remained deep in the undergrowth that clad the steep slopes of the hill. Here and there under the shade of tall pines a crumbling fragment of shaped stone would suggest a rampart, a wellhead, a stretch of paved way; the stream that made its circuitous course down the flanks of White Hill flowed into basins and pools both natural and constructed. The place was considered impregnable. The steep pitch of the hill itself, the sheer, strongly built fortress walls, the views allowed by strategic gaps in the screening cover of the trees gave the occupants great advantage in defense. From here, one could see both northward to the ocean and southward to the changeable waters of Serpent Lake and the dark hills of the Great Glen. The natural supply of fresh water and the broad expanse of level ground at the summit of White Hill, now covered with the halls and dwellings, the gardens and workshops of Bridei's establishment, all within the massive new walls, would allow the occupants to withstand a siege for as long as it took for attackers to tire of it, or for reinforcements to arrive.
To the east, along the coast, lay the old defensive fort of Caer Pridne, which had housed the royal court of Fortriu under Bridei's predecessor and many other kings before him. Bridei had been young when he came to the throne, but possessed of a powerful will for change. At one andtwenty, two years into his reign, he had completed the construction of White Hill and shifted his headquarters there, breaking with tradition. The first celebration in his new court was his marriage to Tuala, then barely sixteen years of age. Other changes followed. The most risky was Bridei's decision to alter the practice of a certain ritual that marked the year's descent into the dark. The last time that had been attempted, the offended god had exacted a terrible retribution. But the chieftains and elders accepted Bridei's decision. It was known that both he and his druid, Broichan, enacted personal rites in place of the old observance, and that these were demanding in nature. Folk did not ask for details. Their trust in their new young king was strong indeed. There was a quality in the man that swept others along, a passionate dedication and blazing energy, tempered by caution, subtlety, and cleverness. After all, Bridei had grown up as Broichan's foster son, and Broichan was a powerful mage, chief adviser to both the old king and the new.
There had been whispers in the early days. Broichan was not well liked; many feared his power and distrusted the esoteric nature of his knowledge. Some had said that having Broichan's foster son as king would be just the same as having the druid himself on the throne. Was not this his carefully created puppet, set up to conduct the affairs of Fortriu to Broichan's plan? From the first day of his kingship it was clear Bridei had a mind of his own and intended to make his decisions independently. He formed a council composed of a clever balance of the older, more experienced men and those younger chieftains who were prepared to countenance new ideas and consider calculated risks. He weighed druids against war leaders, scholars against men of action. On occasion he included women in his group of advisers: not only the senior priestess, Fola, who ran the establishment where girls were trained in the service of the Shining One, but also the old king's widow, Rhian of Powys, and sometimes his own wife, Tuala.
While the decisions were largely made at White Hill, Bridei maintained strongholds elsewhere. Caer Pridne still housed a garrison, stables, training yards, and an armory. Raven's Well in the southwest and Thorn Bend in the southeast were strategic outposts under the leadership of influential chieftains loyal to the king. All knew Bridei's plan was to strengthen Fortriu sufficiently and then move against the Gaels. All knew the time was drawing ever closer. Exactly when was a matter for the laying of wagers.
The day after Faolan's return to White Hill, Ana was called to the royal apartments. Derelei was out in the garden with the nursemaid; within the chamber Bridei and Tuala used for informal meetings, the king and queen were sitting quietly, waiting for her. Their serious faces alarmed Ana. She had a fair idea of what was coming, but she had expected Bridei, at least, to present the news as positive. The little white dog, Ban, who was Bridei's constant companion, arose from his place beneath the king's chair, stance alert, then, seeing a friend, settled once more. Moving forward into the chamber, Ana saw that there was a fourth person present. Faolan, Bridei's assassin, Bridei's spy, Bridei's right-hand man, was leaning against the wall by the narrow window, his form in shadow. His eyes traveled over her as she went to sit by the table. Ana saw in his face, not the open admiration that other men offered her, but a cool assessment: plainly, the Gael was calculating her value as marketable goods.
"You know why we have called you, I imagine?" Bridei said as Tuala poured mead.
Ana was suddenly tense with nerves. She gave a tight nod. These were her friends. She dined with them every day. She played with their son. Nonetheless, Bridei had such power over her future that, for a moment, she was afraid. "I understand Faolan has news of this Caitt chieftain, Alpin," she said, keeping her voice calm. "He has, perhaps, shown an interest in marriage?"
A brief silence. Evidently her guess was wrong.
"We find ourselves in rather a difficult situation," Brideisaid, "and, as a result, we're about to ask for your help, Ana. What we need you to do is difficult. Awkward. It will mean great change for you."
Ana had no idea what he meant.
"We've called you here now, just the four of us, so that we can give you this news in private and allow you some time for consideration," Bridei went on. "There's to be a formal council this evening, at which our decision must be made on this matter. Faolan's news has made this urgent. Critical."
"Bridei," Tuala said, "I'm sure Ana would prefer it if you just set everything out for her. This is a great deal to ask. She needs all the facts."
Faolan cleared his throat.
"You know, of course," Bridei said, "of the great venture we plan against the Gaels in the near future. Gods willing, our old foes will be swept from the shores of Priteni lands once and for all, and their Christian faith with them. In this endeavor we need whatever allies we can get. Circinn has been invited to an assembly before full summer, as you'll be aware. We have high hopes of securing Drust the Boar's cooperation this time, for all he let the missionaries of the cross into his own kingdom. I also intend to set in place what alliances I can with the northern realms of the Priteni."
"My kin in the Light Isles?" Perhaps, against all expectations, he was sending her home.
"I've sent a request to your cousin for armed men. The message also sought his formal consent to my bestowing your hand in a particular quarter."
"Ana"--Bridei's tone was kind--"you've known this was coming for a long time. You are in your nineteenth year now, well past the age when you might have expected to be wed."
"Just tell her, Bridei," said Tuala with uncharacteristic sharpness.
"I'd planned to investigate the chieftain we had in mindfor you, Alpin of Briar Wood, more thoroughly before approaching him," Bridei said. "Thus far, Umbrig is the only Caitt chieftain to pledge support against the Gaels. The Caitt are a strange breed, full of pride and aggression. Alpin is probably the most powerful, and he's also the hardest to get to, his territory being both remote and situated in the middle of an impenetrable forest. Messages travel slowly."
Ana thought hard. "Don't the Caitt usually stay outside other people's disputes?" she asked. "They crossed to the Light Isles from time to time in their war boats; I can remember them at my cousin's court. He used to buy them off with gifts."
"They are of our own kind," Tuala put in. "They share the same blood and the same tongue as the Priteni everywhere, in Fortriu, Circinn, or the Light Isles. And if Umbrig can pledge warriors, so could Alpin. That could make all the difference."
Ana waited. She felt she might be missing something.
"Faolan," said Bridei, "tell the lady Ana what you have discovered; at least, that part of it we agreed is safe to tell."
Faolan folded his arms and stared into the middle distance. He was an unexceptional-looking man, of average height and wiry build, the sort of man who can blend into any crowd. His only distinguishing feature was the lack of facial tattoos which, since he was plainly neither druid nor scholar, marked him out as not of Priteni blood. Ana wondered if, as a spy, he worked assiduously on being instantly forgettable.
"I heard talk of a second territory," he said. "On the west coast, with a sheltered anchorage. If this information is accurate, the place is ideally placed for access by sea to the Dalriadan territories. That's the first piece of information, and it means we're not likely to be the only player trying to woo this Caitt leader with incentives."
An incentive. She had never been called that before. "And the second piece of information?" she asked him coolly.
"You understand," Faolan said, "that you cannot be privy to all the details; in the wrong hands, information can be dangerous."
Ana was outraged. "I may be a hostage," she said in her most queenly tone, "but I can be relied on to be unswervingly loyal to Bridei. I don't much care for your implication."
Faolan looked through her. "The strongest man's loyalty can break under torture," he said flatly. "You'll be told what you need to know, no more. Alpin is a powerful player, far more so than we realized. I heard that he may be on the verge of agreeing to an alliance with Gabhran of Dalriada. We have to move swiftly. We cannot afford to have that western anchorage in Gaelic hands, or Alpin's private army ranged against us in battle. It's simple enough."
"I see." Ana struggled for calm. "So you plan to offer him a royal bride?" she asked Bridei. "To render this powerful player still more powerful by offering him the opportunity to father a king?"
"Alpin is wealthy," Bridei said. "He has land, men, cattle, silver. We can't tempt him with any of the usual things. Our leverage rests on two facts we've gleaned from Faolan's investigations. One, Alpin craves respectability and status. Past history has rendered him less than well regarded by the other Caitt chieftains, such as Umbrig, for all his natural son is fostered out iri that household. Two--"
"He isn't married," Ana said.
"Exactly. He is a widower with no legitimate children. You see what an opportunity this is."
"Bridei understands how difficult this is for you, Ana." Tuala's small, clear voice was apologetic. "Although you have been anticipating this for so long, that makes it no less daunting to face the reality, I know. Please ask any questions you like; I imagine it will be far easier to do so now, informally, than at tonight's council."
Ana swallowed. "Why a council?" she asked. "Is notthis Bridei's decision?" One thing was certain; her own choices did not come into it at all.
"My advisers and war leaders need to hear Faolan's news at first hand," the king said. "It's significant."
It seemed to Ana that all of them were holding something back. "There's more, isn't there?" she said, looking from Tuala's big, troubled eyes to Bridei's honest blue ones to Faolan's dark, closed-off stare. "What?"
"Time," Faolan said. "There's no time. You need to go now. That's what it amounts to."
Ana stared at him.
Bridei sighed. "In effect, that is what we must ask you to do. The nature of Faolan's information is such that this has become of pressing urgency. I've dispatched a messenger to Alpin advising him of our offer. However, it's in our best interests not to wait for a written response, but for you to set out for Briar Wood right away. We need you married and an agreement signed by summer. We must move before Alpin commits himself to a Gaelic alliance."
"Go now--but--" Ana was speechless. Suddenly, she was ten years old again, full of excitement to be visiting the court of Fortriu, then being told she was a hostage and would not be going home again. "But Bridei--Tuala--how can you do this? It means I'll be on the way there not even knowing if he's agreed! What if I turn up on his doorstep and ..." She could not quite put it into words. What if he doesn't want me? There was a terrible shame in it.
"Ana," said Bridei, "the man would be a complete fool to be displeased with such a bride. Believe me. He need only take one look at you. Put such doubts from your mind. It is our belief that your physical presence at Briar Wood will be one of our most telling bargaining points."
This did not make her feel better. "Surely this could be approached just a little more gradually," she protested. "Even if your advance takes place as early as next spring, couldn't we wait for the messenger to come back with Alpin's answer?" Alpin might even travel to White Hill in person to fetch her. That way, there would at least be a little time to make his acquaintancebefore the formal handfasting. "There'd still be plenty of time for me to travel to Briar Wood before next winter," she said.
"It has to be now." Faolan's tone was final. "Strategic reasons. Reasons it's best you don't know in full."
"I see." Ana was shaking; she clenched her fists, wondering if what she felt was anger or fear. "When is now, precisely?"
Bridei's eyes were full of compassion. "As soon as you can be ready," the king said. "There are certain arrangements to be put in place; someone from court will accompany you and assess the situation at Briar Wood before any final agreement is made between yourself and Alpin. I'll see to it that you have an appropriate escort. You'll wish to take a little time with preparation of clothing and personal effects. Tuala will make sure you have any help you need. Faolan will speak to you later, he'll let you know what's required. The terrain's difficult in parts, so the baggage must be kept to a minimum."
There was a silence. Ana looked down at her hands. "Someone from court," she said eventually. "That is to be Faolan?" It was not possible to keep the note of distaste from her voice.
"Correct," Bridei said. "He's well equipped to assess the risks when you reach Briar Wood, and expert in matters of personal security."
She looked up then, and saw on the face of the king's assassin an expression that must surely be the mirror of her own. It gave her some little satisfaction that to him, too, this arrangement was less than welcome.
"You look tired, Ana," Tuala said quietly. "This is a great deal to take in."
Her friend's kindness was, somehow, the last straw. Ana knew she was on the verge of bursting into tears or uttering some ill-considered protest. "I'm fine," she said brightly. "This council--what is expected of me there?"
"Your formal consent to the handfasting. Some council members may have questions for you, or you for them"
"I see." And she did see; she saw a future in whichthings happened regardless of her own choices; a future in which she was completely powerless. Duty: so this was what it amounted to. She hoped Alpin of Briar Wood was a kind man. "Excuse me." Holding her head high, she managed to leave the room with her dignity intact. She waited until she was in her chamber alone before she let the first tear fall.
"I DON'T LIKE this," the king of Fortriu said to his wife a little later, when Faolan had departed and the two of them were alone. "I had always hoped not only to find the right strategic match for Ana, but also to select a man whom I knew would be kind to her. I hate this need for haste."
"She's very upset," said Tuala. "She was doing her best not to show it, she's been well trained, but it was obvious she was on the verge of tears. If there is some way to make this easier for her, we should do our best to find it."
"I know." Bridei reached down to scratch Ban behind the ears; sighing, Ban laid his head on the king's foot. Since the day the dog had mysteriously appeared by the scrying pool at Pitnochie, in the momentous winter of the election for kingship, he had scarcely left Bridei's side. "It's a great deal to expect from her, I'm well aware of that. But Ana is a grown woman now, and she's made no secret of her wish for children of her own. At least this did not happen when she was fourteen, fifteen, as it could well have done had the right offer come at that time."
"All the same," said Tuala, "any woman in her situation would be thinking, what if I reach Briar Wood and discover my betrothed is a monster: pox-ridden, or a drunkard, or a wife beater? It would be so much better if Alpin could come here first, so we could find out what manner of man he is. Ana is our friend, Bridei."
He opened his eyes a little. His wife sat, slight and upright, in the chair opposite his. Her dark hair, which was escaping its neat braids, curled in becoming wisps around her face. Her eyes were like Derelei's, wide, light, andclear. "I know," Bridei said. "Were I only that, her friend, I would advise her to refuse our request. I'd caution her against making a long and perilous journey to place herself in the hands of a chieftain of Alpin's reputation. But I am the king. My decisions must weigh what is best for Fortriu."
"Bridei, you know I don't blame you for this choice," Tuala said softly. "I understand, as you do, that it's necessary for the greater good. Ana knows that, too. But she's shocked and afraid, as anyone would be in the circumstances. Is it really essential that she leave before we receive Alpin's answer?"
"According to Faolan, yes. I've consulted Broichan, and he is in agreement. We've been preparing for this final assault against the Gaels for years. Everything is falling into place. To the extent that it's possible, we've taken steps to cover every eventuality. Or so we thought. It seems Alpin is the unpredictable factor, the element that could tip the balance one way or the other. Until now, we had not realized just how much influence he could wield. Nor did we know how seriously he was considering an alliance with Gabhran. Ana is our solution, Tuala, and though it hurts me to say it, we need to deploy her now. Each day that passes while we keep her at White Hill is one too many."
"It's dangerous, isn't it? This journey?"
"Faolan will make sure she is safe. He'll assess Alpin and the overall risk; we'll lay out terms that require a certain period between their arrival at Briar Wood and the handfasting. That will at least allow Ana time to get to know her betrothed a little."
"She despises Faolan. It is odd; Ana's such a sweet, good creature, with not an ill word to say of anyone, but in his case she cannot see past the nature of his work."
Bridei grimaced. "The feeling seems to be mutual; Faolan would not refuse a commission, of course, but he made it as plain as he could to me that nursemaiding spoiled princesses and their bride-chests over the fastnesses of Caitt territory was not the kind of task he relished.Indeed, he set out with some cogency all the reasons this was a job best suited to some other man."
"Spoiled?" Tuala, smiled. "He doesn't know her very well, does he?"
"He's planning to put her through her paces on horseback every day until they leave. It's plain he believes she'll barely be able to trot from one end of the yard to the other without pleading exhaustion or a sore back."
"I don't like this at all, Bridei." Tuala's tone was somber. "The whole situation is fraught with uncertainty. You could surely have trusted Ana with the real reason why this has to be done in such a hurry."
"I acted on Faolan's advice," Bridei said. "In his opinion, the less she knows, the less she can tell if things go awry. It's in Ana's best interests."
"Mm," said Tuala. "Of course, she's clever. Men tend to overlook that when a woman is as beautiful as Ana. I expect she's already worked it out for herself."
IT WAS EVENING. Ana had dressed plainly, in tunic and skirt of blue-dyed wool with cream borders embroidered in a darker blue, and had plaited her thick fair hair into a single braid down her back. Now she made her way down through the garden, past a pair of tall guards, along a stone-lined passageway where torches burned in iron sockets, and up to the oak door of the designated chamber. Outside the door stood a large man with a spear: Breth, one of Bridei's personal guards.
"They're ready for you, my lady," he said, and swung the heavy door open for her.
The proceedings appeared to have been under way a good while; jugs and cups stood on the table, and several people who had been talking ceased abruptly as Ana came in. She held her chin up and her back straight in an effort to quiet the nervous churning of her stomach.
"Welcome, Ana," the king said, rising to his feet. Fromhis position by Bridei's chair, Ban gave a token growl. "Please be seated."
Ana looked around the circle of faces. It was a small council and a select one, comprising the most powerful of Bridei's advisers. Tuala was seated by her husband, and gave Ana an encouraging smile. The wise woman, Fola, who had arrived earlier in the day, regarded Ana quizzically down her beak of a nose. She had always reminded Ana of a small, ferocious bird. By the hearth stood the king's druid, Broichan, a tall man in dark robes, his hair in a multitude of tiny plaits twisted with colored threads. His face revealed nothing; it was ever unreadable. Bridei's councillors, Aniel and Tharan, sat sober-faced; the chieftains Carnach and Morleo, with Ferada's father Talorgen, were also present. Behind the king's chair stood Faolan. Ana met his gaze and looked away.
"Now," said Bridei, "I've set out the situation for the members of this council, and Faolan has given an account of his travels and the intelligence he has gathered. I regret very much that we could not give you more time to consider this, Ana. If you agree to it, the kingdom of Fortriu will be very much in your debt. I wonder if, after reflection, you have some further questions for us?"
Ana cleared her throat. She had spent the afternoon wrestling with questions that could not be asked, questions that had nothing at all to do with strategy, but concerned her personal inclinations. "I wondered if any of you had actually met Alpin of Briar Wood. If there was someone who could give me a picture of him." She glanced at Talorgen; at Carnach. Warrior chieftains traveled widely and encountered many folk.
"May I answer that?" It was the gray-haired councillor, Aniel. Bridei nodded. "Unfortunately, we must answer no, Lady Ana," Aniel said. "We know Alpin only by reputation. He's feared and respected among his own kind. His stronghold is isolated; it lies in a tract of dense forest. Such a setting can easily give rise to the type of rumors that feed on men's natural unease."
"Choosing to live in a forest is not necessarily a badthing," Tuala commented. "The territories of the Caitt are full of such wild places, or so we are told. I suspect every chieftain wears his own particular cloak of tales."
"There was a mention of past history," said Ana, who had found little of reassurance in Aniel's words. "What history?"
"Nothing specific," Aniel said. "Some of Faolan's sources hinted that Alpin liked to go his own way, that was all. Isolation breeds such men; they can be dangerous in times of war, for their allegiances may alter with a change in the wind. Hence our pressing need to make a friend of this one. A marriage by summer, an heir within the year, that will be our best way of forging a bond that is strong and tasting."
"It's that or eliminate the fellow." Faolan spoke with no particular emphasis.
"You would not wish to do that," Ana retorted, "if you needed his fighting force on your own side rather than the enemy's."
Faolan's eyes met hers for a moment and she shivered. They were dead eyes, the eyes of a man who has forgotten how to feel.
"Precisely," Talorgen said. "In fact, it's vital that we prevent him from throwing his forces behind the Dalriadan resistance. We can't afford to have him allied with Gabhran."
"I understand that," Ana said. "Broichan, may I have your opinion on this matter?" As king's druid, Broichan had the ear of the gods. When it came to it, if it was their will that she should agree to this, she must do so without hesitation.
"Prior to Faolan's return I cast an augury," Broichan said in his deep, commanding voice. "My interpretation revealed a threat from the north. Unfortunately, reliable intelligence on the Caitt is very difficult to obtain. The region is a fastness, stark and mountainous, subject to extremes of weather that would test the most seasoned traveler." He studied his long, bony fingers; a silver ring formed like a tiny snake with green jewel eyes glinted there. "The misgivings my vision aroused have now beenreinforced by Faolan's news. As a Gael, he may travel where others cannot. We must take swift action."
Ana clutched her hands together behind her back. "I know I have to do this," she said, holding herself straight and striving for dignity. "That doesn't mean it's something I'm happy with. What am I supposed to do if I get to Briar Wood and Alpin refuses? It's a long way to go for nothing."
"He won't refuse," Aniel said, echoing Bridei's sentiments of earlier in the day. The other men in the chamber nodded or murmured assent; Ana could feel their eyes on her golden hair, her figure in the blue tunic, her face, which one ardent suitor had assured her resembled a wild rose in bloom. She felt a flush of humiliation rise to her cheeks.
"You do understand," said Talorgen, "that if you are wed to Alpin, and he becomes our ally, it eliminates a very dangerous possibility that could otherwise greatly weaken our battle strategy. I won't bore you with the details, but I'm sure you realize a seaborne force led by Alpin in support of Dalriada could spell ruin for our plans. On the other hand, should we gain some measure of control over this anchorage ourselves, that would be significantly to our advantage."
Ana looked at him. One would have thought that, as Ferada's father, he would have better insight into how she was feeling. At least he did not think her too stupid to be given strategic details. "I understand that," she said. "I understand about the war, and why it's important to secure Alpin as an ally. It just seems such a rush. I hardly have time to prepare myself ..."
"The journey is long." Faolan's tone was neutral, detached. "You'll have more than enough time to think about it on the way."
"How long?" She frowned at him.
"For a party with women, more than a turning of the moon, even if the weather's favorable. Quicker for warriors, or messengers."
Ana turned back to Bridei, addressing him formally. "In your message, my lord king, did you tell Alpin I was coming?" she asked. "So he will have had a number of days' notice, time to consider this for a little before I arrive?"
"That was my intention," the king said.
She had run out .of questions. Everyone seemed to be waiting for her to speak. The wrong words were on the tip of her tongue, angry words, hurt words, the words not of a princess of the Priteni, but of a frightened girl who finds herself given to a stranger. She swallowed them.
"My consent to this is, of course, just a formality." She could hear the tight, sharp tone of her own voice, and worked to moderate it. "I will begin my preparations in the morning. I hope this proves a significant help to Fortriu's cause. I would hate it to be wasted." For all her best efforts, her voice shook.
Nobody said a thing. Ana saw tears in Tuala's eyes, and a resigned compassion in Fola's. "Good night," she said. "I will retire now. May the Shining One guard your dreams." Even the king rose to his feet as she made her way out.
"SHE DOESN'T WANT to go," Tuala said to Bridei. "It's plain in her every word. She's frightened. Who knows what kind of man Alpin might prove to be?"
Bridei was sitting by the fire in their quarters with his small son drowsing on his knee. The council was over. The royal bride would be dispatched as soon as Faolan had the escort ready. As king, Bridei had become used to making decisions on a balanced assessment of risks and advantages. This decision had been harder than most.
"That's one reason I'm sending Faolan," he said. His head was starting to thump with persistent pain; he closed his eyes, leaning back in his chair, the warm, relaxed body of the infant a comforting presence in his arms. "He may see this mission as somehow beneath him, but I trust him to make certain Ana will be safe before he leaves her at Briar Wood. He has the skills to assess Alpin's true intent; to predict his future moves."
"But not those to recognize whether he will make a good husband," Tuala said quietly.
"Ana understands the situation," Bridei said. "She'll be as well protected as we can manage. If for any reason this goes awry, the escort can see her safely back to White Hill. Faolan's taking ten men-at-arms. You know how capable he is."
"Capable isn't enough. This is worrying me, Bridei. It just doesn't feel right. Here, give me Derelei. He should be in his bed."
Bridei lifted the sleeping child and placed him in her arms.
"Ana will miss him," Tuala said. "She loves him."
"I suppose she'll have one of her own soon enough."
Tuala bore the child away. When she returned some time later, Bridei saw the glint of tears in her eyes. "You're crying," he said, alarmed. For all her delicate, fey appearance, Tuala possessed an inner strength that had impressed him even when she was a child of five. She did not often let him see her tears. "For Ana? I'm sorry--here--" He gathered her into his arms, his cheek pressed against her dark hair. "I do regret the manner of this bitterly, Tuala. At the same time I know I must do it. If I don't take steps to win Alpin over, and promptly, I put the lives of hundreds of men at risk."
"It just seems so unfair," Tuala said, leaning against him and putting her arms around his waist. "That she, and others like her, must endure these loveless bargains while you and I ... We broke so many rules to be together, Bridei. We let love be our lodestone. We acted in spite of Broichan's dictums and of all the usual protocols of court. Yet we're not allowing Ana any choice at all. She's one of my dearest friends, and has been since those days when we were first learning what love was all about."
"At Banmerren?" Bridei smiled. "I think I learned it long before that." A memory of a tiny Tuala, her hair wild in the breeze, turning in place on a perilous pinnacle of rock, came vividly to his mind, and his arms tightened around her. "Besides, the gods smiled on our marriage. Even druids must yield to that higher authority." And,when she did not reply, "Tuala? I am truly sorry. I will give Faolan a strict set of instructions. If anything goes wrong, he will bring her home. He's never yet failed to execute a mission with flawless efficiency."
Tuala disengaged herself, holding his hands and looking up at him. "I hope your faith in him is justified." she said. "He's a good friend, I acknowledge that, and excels in his various trades. But he doesn't know the first thing about women."