Kushiel's Justice (Page 33)

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“One of the Old Ones placed a binding on him,” Conor informed him.

“Indeed!” The bushy eyebrows shot up. “Well, lads. Give me a hand with these fish, and I'll tell you what I can.”

Aodhan plucked the creel from the water and began trudging alongside the steam. For all his age—I'd guess him to be at least seventy—he moved with alacrity. Beneath the hem of his plain, rough-spun brown tunic, the calves of his bare legs were knotted like oak.

We followed him to his home, if one could call it that. The ollamh lived in a cave, albeit a dry and cozy one, fragrant with the odor of dozens of herb bundles that hung drying from the walls. They were everywhere, tied with leather thongs to outcroppings and promontories.

In front of the cave, the ground had been swept clean and leveled. A slender wisp of smoke arose from the ashes of a neatly laid fìrepit.

“I expect you remember how to clean a fish.” Aodhan handed Conor the dripping creel. “Mayhap you can give your fair D'Angeline friend a lesson while I stoke the fire.”

“I know how to clean a fish,” I said.

“Indeed!” His eyes twinkled. “This is a day of surprises.”

There were five trout in the creel. Conor and I ventured a few yards downstream and made quick work of gutting and cleaning them. By the time we finished, Aodhan had a skillet heating over a brisk fire.

“Nice work, lads.” He popped the fish into the skillet, where they began to sputter and sizzle. “So, tell me about this binding.” For the second time that day, I related the story. Like the Lady Grainne, the ollamh asked what Morwen had bound me with. When I told him, he snorted. “That was careless.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, so I'm told.”

“Ah, but how were you to know, eh? Still, a young man like yourself, newly wed …you're meant to be getting heirs on your bride, lad, not spilling your seed on barren soil!” Aodhan studied me, then turned his attention to the fish, reaching out to flip them with his bare fingers, heedless of the heat. Bits of fish-skin stuck to the hot skillet. “Desire,” he mused. “Harboring a secret one, are you?”

I didn't answer.

Aodhan nodded to himself. “That'll give the binding power, all right.”

“Can it be broken?” Conor asked.

“No.” The ollamh prodded at the nearest fish with one horny thumbnail, testing its doneness. “Not without the mannekin, I fear.” He glanced up at me. “You might bargain for it, or her Ladyship might. The Old Ones do love a bargain.”

“Such as…?” I asked.

“Well, there's uisghe.” Aodhan grinned. “They're partial to strong spirits, they are. Or you could give them what they want and go home, which is a bargain they're more like to accept.”

I watched him pluck the fish deftly from the skillet and pile them on a wooden platter. “Is that your counsel?”

“Don't know just yet.” He proffered the platter. “Tell me why you're here, lad.” Freeing one hand, he rapped his knuckles on the hard-packed earth. “Here in Alba.”

“The succession—” I began.

“No, no!” Aodhan waved his free hand dismissively. “I know all about the politics. Even hermits have ears. Why are you here?”

I took a piece of fish from the platter, juggling it from hand to hand. It was hot. Conor and the ollamh began to eat, picking flaky white flesh from the bones. “Because I believed it was the right thing to do,” I said slowly “Because I'd given my word. Because I thought mayhap dedicating my life to ensuring a peaceful succession for Alba and Terre d’Ange was a way to atone for my mother's sins.” I glanced at Conor. “It's a long story.”

“Could you learn to love it here?” Aodhan pointed. “And mind, eat your fish, lad. 'Tis best when it's hot.”

I obeyed, thinking. “Yes,” I said at length, swallowing. “Alba's very beautiful.”

“You D'Angelines and your beauty.” Aodhan snorted, but I thought he was pleased with my answer nonetheless. He shoved another hunk of fish into his mouth, his braided beard waggling as he chewed. “Will you stay?”

I met his shrewd gaze. “I don't know.”

“Well.” He nodded. “An honest answer. Eat, and I'll give you mine.” He reached out and tapped a startled Conor in the center of his forehead. “And you mind, lad! Everything you hear today is under the ollamh's seal of discretion. Breach it, and you'll be sorry.”

“Yes, Master Aodhan,” he murmured.

We finished eating and washed our hands in the cool stream. Aodhan cleared his throat. “Here's my thinking, young Imriel. You seem to have the makings of a good man in you, and Alba owes you a chance to prove it; aye, even old Alba. There's naught I can do to break the binding, but there are protections I can lay over you if you're willing.”

“Will I be safe, then?” I asked.

“Safe!” Another snort. “Nothing's safe. But it will render the binding harmless so long as the protections are maintained. The rest is up to you.” He studied me. “Mind you, it comes at a price, and that's whatever this great passion is with which the witch bound you.”

My heart gave a sudden leap of anguish. “Forever?”

“No, lad.” There was a note of sympathy in the ollamh's voice. “Only for so long as you wear my charm. I cannot change your heart. Underneath, you'll be the same. But whatever desire drove you to spill the seed that's in the witch's keeping…” He shrugged. “Waking or sleeping, you'll no longer feel it.”

“And this Morwen won't be able to summon me with it?” I asked.

Aodhan nodded. “Even so.”

I twisted Sidonie's ring on my finger, then made myself stop, pushing away all thoughts of her. Mayhap it would be for the best. I took a deep breath and gathered my courage. “All right. If you're willing, I'd be grateful.”

He wiped his damp hands on his tunic. “Let's be about it, then.”

After our homely luncheon, it was strange to see Aodhan perform a formal ritual. He ducked into his cave several times, emerging with an array of items. The skillet was banished from the vicinity of the fire, which was stoked anew with branches of rowan and birch. He cast a handful of herbs on the flames, and a pungent smoke arose, smelling of camphor.

“Pennyroyal,” Aodhan said briefly. “Take off your boots and stand over there, lad.”

Once again, I obeyed.

I stood barefoot on the hard-packed earth while Aodhan drew a circle around me with a broom made of hazel twigs, then fetched a pouch full of salt and retraced his steps in the opposite direction, sprinkling salt along the circle. Sunlight filtered through the trees that lined the stream, shining on his bald brown pate. I felt foolish, but Conor watched with grave eyes.

The ollamh began to chant.

“The charm of Brigid ward thee; the charm of Danu save thee; the charm of Manannan shield thee; the charm of Aengus defend thee.”

His voice was deep and rolling and musical, and there was power in it. Any feeling of foolishness vanished. I felt the air shiver against my skin. The sunlight grew brighter and the tree-cast shadows darker and sharper. Aodhan circled me; once, twice, three times.

“To guard thee from thy back,” he intoned, tying a length of red yarn first around my right wrist, then around my left. “To preserve thee from thy front. From the crown of thy head and forehead.” He stooped, tying a length of yarn around my right ankle. “To the very sole of thy foot.” He secured the last piece of yarn around my left ankle.

I stood without moving as he rose and knotted a leather thong around my neck.

“From all who seek to bind thee, be thou protected!”

His final words tolled like bell. Aodhan clapped his hands together, the sound so loud I jumped a little.

And I felt…different. Not bad, not good. A little numb. There was a quick pang of loss, but it was distant and far away. Somewhat had changed, somewhat had shifted. It was as though a thick wall had sprung to life inside me; dividing me against myself, protecting me from myself. Behind it, I felt calm and peaceful.

He grinned at me. “Well, that's that, young Imriel. How do you feel?”

“All right,” I said. “I'm not sure. Is that bad?”

“No, no.” He shook his head. “Mind, you'll have to keep it up. If any of the threads fray, they'll need to be replaced by an ollamh. I reckon even a court bard can manage one of the old spells.” He tapped whatever it was that hung at my throat, strung on the leather thong. “That's a croonie-stone. Don't take it off.”

“All right.” I fingered it. A smooth stone, a hole in the center. Once again, a seal of protection hung around my neck; this one wrought by nature. At least this time I knew it was there, and why. “Is there aught else I should know?”

“Well, you might consider bargaining with the Old Ones. It's always worth a try.” Aodhan took up the hazel-twig broom and busied himself with sweeping away the traces of his circle. He snorted. “And you might have a greater care where you spill your seed. Now get out of my way, will you?”

I moved. “How can I repay you for this, my lord?”

Aodhan glanced at me, then at Conor, sitting quiet and watchful. “The lad knows.”

I remembered what Conor had said about the Path of the Grove. “You want him to study with you.”

“The old ways, aye.” Aodhan swept briskly. “It's in his blood.”

I looked from one to the other, marking a similarity in their brown skin, in the angle of their broad, high cheekbones, that transcended the disparity of age. Not Cruithne, not Dalriada. Other. I'd seen it last night by moonlight. “And yours?”

He smiled and didn't answer. “Go on, now! You've bothered me long enough.”

We went.

Chapter Twenty-Two

At dinner that night, I steeled myself and told the tale for a third time.If I could have avoided it, I would have. But there was no way of explaining the lengths of red yarn knotted around my wrists, the pierced, sea-polished stone hanging at my throat. So I told it, leaving out the bit about the mannekin and spilled seed, and any mention of Conor's parentage. We'd agreed, he and I, to keep one another's secrets.

“Dagda Mor, Imri!” Eamonn exclaimed. “How do you manage to find trouble wherever you go?”

I smiled grimly. “Just lucky, I reckon.”

Joscelin looked thunderous. “This is not acceptable,” he said quietly to Grainne, his tone all the more fearsome for its calm. “What do you mean to do about it?”

“Joscelin.” His name emerged more sharply than I'd intended. I sighed. “I'm sorry. But I am not…without blame…in the matter. And Alban law is clear. As I am unharmed, there is little recourse.” I raised my hands, displaying my yarn fetters. “Her Ladyship has provided good counsel nonetheless.”

“If anything happens to you—” he began.

“It won't.” Conor, flushing, spoke up. “Master Aodhan is very wise.”

“Still,” Phèdre murmured. “I am troubled.” Her dark gaze rested on me, seeing things no one else saw. The scarlet mote of Kushiel's Dart floated on her left iris, a promise of things that never would be. It didn't seem to bother me as it used to. “What will you, love?”

I set my jaw. “I'll not flee, if that's what you mean.”

Beneath the table, Dorelei's hand groped for mine, finding it and clutching hard. I squeezed back, stealing a glance at her lowered profile.

“You are content, then?” Phèdre asked softly. “To let matters stand?”

“I am, for the most part.” I took a deep breath. “The ollamh said Alba owed me a chance to prove I was a good man. I mean to take it.” I turned to Grainne. “My lady, Aodhan also said that the Old Ones love a bargain. How might such a thing be accomplished?”

“Chance and luck, usually,” the Lady of the Dalriada said wryly. “Encounters with the Old Ones are subject to their whims. Still, Morwen has insulted my hospitality, and I am nothing loath to bargain on such a basis.”

“How do we reach them?” I asked. “I don't suppose they've fixed lodgings.”

She looked at Conor and didn't answer.

Conor looked at the table. “He taught me a song to summon him if I had need,” he whispered. “The harpist.”

“What harpist?” Mairead asked.

His skinny throat worked. “A…a man I met. One of them.”

“One of the Old Ones!” His sister punched his shoulder. “Why didn't you tell us?”

Brennan gave his mother an odd look. “I remember a harpist.”

“So do I.” Eamonn frowned. “At least, I think I do.”

“Should I summon him?” Conor asked the Lady, lifting his head.

“The choice is yours,” Grainne said gently.

He sat for a time without moving, then rose from the dinner table and fetched his harp. Without a word, Conor unbarred the door to the hall and walked out into the soft blue twilight. A moment later, we heard the first notes arising; a wild, mischievous flurry that softened into a plaintive, teasing air. The Lady's other children stared at one another, openmouthed.

“His father was one of them?” Eamonn asked, dumbstruck.

“Ah, well.” Grainne smiled. “And who are you to stare, my wandering son, with your Skaldic bride? He's like to keep the old ways, even as you bring the new. 'Tis a fine balance.”

“Eamonn.” Brigitta laid a hand on his arm, a look of profound bewilderment on her face. “Will you explain all of this to me later? Slowly? In Caerdicci?”