Kushiel's Justice (Page 30)

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“One half a year, I think,” Brigitta said, careful and precise.

“Is it only that long?” Mairead's brow wrinkled. “Oh, well, since Eamonn's letter arrived, I suppose. It seems like longer. We've been so worried, waiting and hoping all these months. And he left years before it.” She thumped her brother's shoulder. “You were gone so long! I want to hear all about it. I want to hear all about Terre d'Ange and Tiberium and Skaldia…Skaldia! And all these people, your foster-family …oh, Dagda Mor, they're right out of the stories! And Lady Dorelei, you're very welcome among us …Eamonn, what are they all doing here? Oh, Mother's going to be so pleased. Well, I think, anyway.”

Brigitta looked bemused, having lost the thread of her words long ago.

“Slow down.” Eamonn laughed. “There's time. And it's hard for Brigitta to understand when you gabble.”

Mairead thumped him again in indignation. “I don't gabble!”

“You do,” he informed her.

“You do,” she retorted. “You always did. Talk, talk, talk!”

After some bickering and discussion, Eamonn went with Mairead to greet the Dalriada who'd ridden with her and make them welcome at our camp tonight. They were friends of his from childhood, and we heard the roars and shouts drifting across the darkening meadow. A fleeting memory of Sidonie crossed my mind. He's just so infernally loud! I pushed the thought away, blowing a few idle notes on Hugues' flute.

“Well,” I said lightly to Brigitta. “Now you've an idea what you're in for.”

“Yes.” She nodded. “I think I will like it.”

Once they had matters settled, Eamonn and Mairead returned. Although it was growing late, we stayed awake for a time. Eamonn was reluctant to tell the tale of his Skaldic courtship of Brigitta, wanting to save it for Innisclan, but he told her about the tribute we bore for the Lady of the Dalriada, and how Queen Ysandre had wished to escort him home in honor.

In turn, Mairead told us that she had been leading a scouting-party.

“You?” Eamonn scoffed fondly.

She elbowed him. “I'm the oldest after Brennan and you, am I not? Brennan rode north, and I rode south. Some clan-holders have complained about calves being taken. There have been rumors of bears” She shook her head. “But we found no bear sign, only your campfires.”

A shudder ran up my spine.

Bears.

Dorelei glanced at me. “Bears?” she asked cautiously. “Or …?”

“The Old Ones?” Mairead grimaced. “I cannot say. I thought they had no cause to trouble the Dalriada. Mother has long maintained a truce with them. But perhaps we have given them cause. If we have, I do not know what it is. Or perhaps they're merely curious. Or hungry.”

“Old Ones?” Phèdre murmured. Anyone who didn't know her would have thought her sleepy. “I don't know that name.”

“The Old Ones, the Wise Ones.” Mairead made a gesture intended to avert bad luck and nodded at Dorelei. “So we call them to avoid giving offense. Some of them play tricks if not given proper respect. How do the Cullach Gorrym call them?”

“We don't,” Dorelei said in a tight voice. “If we must speak of them, we call them by name. But it is better if we do not speak of them at all.”

Mairead eyed her. “The Dalriada believe otherwise.”

I cleared my throat. “Kinadius called them bear-witches.”

“Men fear things more than women,” Brigitta observed, paying close attention to the conversation. “Like Lucius and the dead.”

“Perhaps, but Lucius was right, my love,” Eamonn said. “He had reason to fear the dead. Still, we have made our camp beside Brigid's Well, and I think no harm will come to us here.” He yawned. “My friends, it grows late. Imri, why don't you give us a song to fill our heads with pleasant dreams as we take to our beds?”

I set the flute to my lips and played the first thing that came to mind. It wasn't until I was well into it that I realized it was the piper's tune, the one that plagued me. My fingers faltered briefly on the holes, but I kept going. It was a plaintive melody, and yet there was somewhat seductive about it, too. A yearning promise of ease, of bittersweet desire. Around the campfire, my listeners' faces softened, sinking into private reveries.

The sight filled me with unease, so much so that I stopped playing. Eamonn shook his head like a man waking from a nap and gave another mighty yawn. “Dagda Mor! You've gotten good on that thing. Well, bed it is. Come, Mairead, you can share with us.”

I wasn't tired, not at all.

“I'm sorry, Imriel.” In the tent Dorelei and I shared, she was heavy-lidded and yawning, too. “I know I promised, but can we speak in the morning? We've been travelling for a long time, and I'm bone-weary.”

“You weren't so tired last night,” I reminded her.

“No.” She smiled with remembered pleasure, the sort of smile that makes any woman look beautiful. “And I won't be at Innisclan, but tonight I am.”

I gave up. “Sleep well, then.”

“Mmm.” Dorelei closed her eyes. “What was that song you played? It was lovely.”

“I don't know,” I said. “That's the thing. I keep hearing it in my dreams. That, and a woman's laughter. Only it's not in my dreams, exactly. It's that time just before you fall asleep, when you're not quite one or the other. That's why I asked if you'd heard aught peculiar. I wanted to tell you about it and what happened today at Brigid's Well, and to ask …” I hesitated. “Well, after what Mairead said, to ask what you know about the Maghuin Dhonn. Because I don't feel I'm in danger, not exactly, but I don't feel safe, either. Someone or something is playing tricks on me.”

A faint snore escaped Dorelei's parted lips.

I sighed.

Wide awake and lonely, I sat cross-legged on my bedroll, twisting Sidonie's ring around my finger. I was alone in a strange land, and although it was a beautiful land, it seemed not to want me here. I missed my home, and oh, gods! I missed Sidonie. I wished I could talk to her. I wished she was here or I was there.

I wished I could lose myself in her.

For the first time in many days, I lowered the rigid guards I'd erected around my thoughts and let myself think of her.

Ah, Elua! It hurt, but it felt so good, too. I chose a memory of our lovemaking; only one. They were like perfect pearls on a strand, precious and far too few. I pushed away the strangeness and the nagging sense of fear and sank into my memories with a vast sense of comfort and indulgence, playing them over in my mind. Every kiss, every gasp, every thrust was etched there. Sunlight in her hair, the sheen of sweat, the honey-sweet taste of her mouth. It drove everything else away, until I was taut with desire.

Nothing else mattered.

I propped myself on one elbow, stroking my throbbing phallus with my other hand. Is this what you want? Another memory; too many, too fast. I was spending them too quickly. I couldn't stop, though. Faster and faster. Sidonie, wrists straining. Begging. Shuddering over and over as I took her relentlessly, driving her to new heights, plunging to new depths. I stroked myself harder, my testes rising and tightening at the memory.

It came fast and hard. I rolled to one side and hissed between my teeth, my seed spurting onto the ground.

And then it was over. I flopped onto my back and lay panting. Turning my head, I could make out Dorelei's profile in the dim light of the low-burning campfire that filtered through the tent walls. Sleeping, peaceful and oblivious.

I felt better and worse, all at once. And I felt tired. I'd opened the floodgates and other memories sought to crowd me, tender and importunate and hurtful. I was too tired to fight them, to tired to wrestle them into submission. Instead I fled, seeking refuge in sleep, eased by my body's languor.

This time, I didn't hear the pipes.

Only the woman's laughter.

Chapter Twenty

In the morning, a handful of Mairead's riders departed for Innisclan to give warning of our impending arrival. Unencumbered by wagons, they were likely to arrive some hours before us. The young Dalriadan warriors were a loud, merry lot. They'd stayed up late, drinking and boasting with the Cruithne and the D'Angelines, and seemed none the worse for wear. I was glad relations seemed amicable among all parties, and I envied them.My own head felt thick, as though I'd drunk too much wine. Too much emotion, like as not. The boulder of my buried heart shifted and groaned, disturbed from its place of rest far, far beneath the surface of my life.

“Shall we talk now?” Dorelei asked me, clear-eyed and well rested. “I'm sorry I couldn't stay awake.”

I made myself smile at her. “It can wait. I can't think straight with all this lot around. My head's a muddle.”

She smiled back at me, dimples flashing. “They are a bit loud.”

No one else was melancholy. It was a fine day, bright and clear, with nary a cloud in sight. All of last night's concerns were forgotten. No one spoke of Wise Ones, Old Ones, bear-witches, or the Maghuin Dhonn.

And in the bright light of day, that was fine with me.

We made good time, following the tracks of the Dalriada. Before long, we came upon rutted paths and the wagons travelled more smoothly. There were low stone fences marking pastures, and cattle watched us with incurious eyes. The mules pricked their ears, the Bastard pranced beneath me. We sang as we rode. I played Hugues' flute, although not that song.

The air took on a tang of salt. Gulls circled with raucous cries.

From atop a grassy rise, we beheld the land spread below. Innisclan, the vast hall and scattered outlying holdings, the mill and the smithy, the grazing cattle. And beyond, the sea, grey and shining in the afternoon sunlight.

Phèdre reached for Joscelin's hand. “Oh, love! 'Tis the same!”

“So it is.” He smiled at her. “Do you remember …?”

She flushed. “All too well.”

The whole of Innisclan turned out to meet us. I would have known Eamonn's mother anywhere. The Lady Grainne of the Dalriada was tall and imposing. Strands of grey dimmed the fire of her red-gold hair and there were lines on her strong face, but her eyes crinkled like her son's when she smiled.

Eamonn greeted his mother with a sweeping bow, then straightened to receive her embrace, grinning with delight. He introduced Brigitta to her. After that, there was a good deal of exuberant shouting and hugging as various siblings came forward, and then at last, the rest of us were presented.

As Ysandre's delegate, Phèdre made a graceful speech regarding the tribute we'd brought. The Lady Grainne listened to it with a look of amusement.

“Books!” Her grey-green eyes crinkled. “You always do bring interesting gifts, Phèdre nó Delaunay.”

Phèdre smiled. “This was Eamonn's choice.”

“We mean to start an academy,” he told his mother. “Brigitta and I.”

She raised red-gold brows. “Very interesting.”

While the Lady's eldest son Brennan took charge of the tribute-wagons and oversaw the unloading and storage of their cargo and accommodations for our escort, we were ushered into the hall of Innisclan, where a welcoming feast was being laid on the great table. It was a vast space, most of it given over to the hall. As honored guests, we were accorded private chambers; small stone cells scarce large enough to hold a narrow bed.

“It's tiny,” I whispered to Dorelei.

“Hush.” She pressed a finger to my lips. “This isn't Terre d'Ange.”

As soon as we'd had a chance to wash our hands and faces and change our travel-stained attire, we were summoned to eat. It was a lengthy affair, and a noisy one, too. The Lady's children talked over one another, eager to hear of Eamonn's doings and share their own. During the course of the meal, I managed to sort them out. Brennan was the oldest, his mother's heir. After Eamonn and Mairead came another sister, Caolinn, and then Conor, the youngest at some fifteen years.

Save for Conor, they were all cut from the same cloth, tall and redheaded. He was the quiet, odd one of the lot, with thick black hair and dark, thoughtful eyes out of which he kept stealing covert, fascinated glances at Phèdre. I remembered Eamonn telling me that, except for his sisters, none of them had the same father. As for those fathers, none were in evidence.

Seeing his siblings all together, I could understand better why the Lady Grainne had been sanguine about permitting her second-oldest to wander the earth, footloose and unfettered. There did seem to be an awful lot of them.

Once the meal was finished and the storytelling began, they fell silent, though. Everyone sat rapt while Eamonn related the tale of his courtship of Brigitta. Partway through, Conor rose quietly to retrieve a lap-harp. He held it throughout the telling, head bowed, fingers moving over the strings without touching them.

When it was over, Caolinn sighed. “That's so romantic!”

“Why?” Mairead shrugged. “He did a lot of chores, that's all. There's naught romantic in chopping wood and hauling water.”

“For love's sake? Of course there is.” Her sister turned to Conor. “You think so, don't you?”

Head still bowed, he nodded. “I do.”

“Will you make a song about it, little brother?” Brennan asked with a smile. “He's very good, you know,” he said to the rest of us. “He can play any tune he's ever heard, perfect to the note. One of the old bards born anew, like as not.”

Conor's averted cheek flushed. “Go on!”

“Will you play for us, Conor?” Phèdre asked. “I'd love to hear you.”