Kushiel's Justice (Page 36)

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And Sidonie…

Ah, Elua! We hadn't been sure, either of us, that our feelings would last. Mayhap it was for the best if mine withered and died, smothered under a blanket of Alban sorcery. Mayhap my feelings for Dorelei would grow into the kind of passion for which I yearned.

So I told myself, anyway.

In the meanwhile, we continued to enjoy the hospitality of the Lady of the Dalriada, awaiting a response from the Old Ones. Several days passed. Eamonn and Joscelin were engaged in plans for the academy and library—like all Siovalese, Joscelin had a keen interest in architecture. Our bored escort of D'Angeline and Cruithne soldiers were pressed into service, digging trenches to lay the foundations for the library. Phèdre and Brigitta were content to explore the treasure trove of books we'd brought, having conceived an unlikely friendship on the course of our journey here.

And I, I spent a good deal of time with Dorelei.

By day, we rode for pleasure and for sport, hunting and shooting for the pot. She taught me to use the Cruithne short bow and we made a game of it, trying to outdo one another. Betimes, some of the Lady's children accompanied us; at other times, we ventured out alone. We grew easy with one another.

By night, we spun out our evenings with long meals in the hall of Innisclan, telling stories or playing music afterward. The Lady's clan was a high-spirited lot, and if there was any strangeness in the way they treated Conor, it soon passed. The protection the ollamh had placed on me held. When we retired to bed, there were no pipes, no laughter, no mysterious tug on my will. Indeed, save for the yarn fetters and the croonie-stone, my life held a semblance of normalcy.

And then the Maghuin Dhonn returned.

As with the harpist's visit, they appeared as the sun was growing low in the west, shortly after we'd sat down to dine. This time, we were alerted by shouts from our escort's encampment, sending us hurrying outside into the yard to see what transpired.

There were three of them. They came from the north, pacing unhurriedly over the green hills, their long shadows pointing eastward toward Terre d'Ange. I felt my heart stir within me as they drew near, filled with a mix of hope and uncertainty.

Urist's men turned out, wary and watchful, forming a double cordon through which the Maghuin Dhonn must pass. The Old Ones ignored them. I could smell their scent on the evening breeze, musk and loam and berries. The air felt dense and heavy with it.

Two of them, I knew; the harpist Ferghus and the woman Morwen. I didn't know the third. A man, a big man, half a head taller than the harpist. Like Morwen, he had eyes as pale as mist, framed by raking woad claws. Berlik, I guessed; both had mentioned the name. Although the evening was warm, he wore a bearskin robe, rendering him even bulkier.

In the yard, Grainne stepped forward, Brennan at her side. The rest of us arrayed ourselves cautiously. Dorelei moved closer to me, and Joscelin's hands rested on his dagger-hilts.

“Lady.” The big man greeted Grainne. His voice was deep and husky. I couldn't place his age, but he had the most somber, sorrow-laden face I'd ever seen.

Grainne inclined her head. “My lord Berlik.”

“I have heard your offer,” he slowly. “For six days, I have fasted and prayed. Some glimpses of what will be have been afforded me. Others have been denied.” Berlik turned his head and his strange, pale gaze rested on me, palpable as a touch. The woad-marked flesh below his eyes sagged with weariness. He turned back to Grainne. “The trinket belongs to Morwen, and she will not be swayed. The offer is refused.”

Someone drew a sharp breath. I swallowed hard against a intense surge of disappointment, mingled with a tinge of treacherous relief. Glancing at the woman Morwen, I saw no triumph in her face, only a strange, careful gravity. The leather bag that had hung around her throat before was missing.

“Do you deny the insult?” Grainne asked.

“I do not.” Berlik shook his head, stirring shaggy black locks. “I bear an offer in turn. Do you forgive the insult, I will swear that no member of the Maghuin Dhonn will harm so much as a hair on the lad's head, anywhere on the length and breadth of Alba's soil.”

Grainne was silent a moment. “By what oath?”

“By stone and sea and sky,” he murmured, “and all that they encompass. By the sacred troth that binds me to my diadh-anam.”

“And the Maghuin Dhonn have so consented?” she asked the other two.

“We have, Grainne,” Ferghus said. All the lightness had fled his voice. “Not a hair on his head, not a scratch on his skin. Not by any means.”

“I don't understand.” Grainne took a step closer to them, searching their faces, and Morwen's last of all. “Why? If you mean Imriel nó harm, why not surrender the trinket?”

“I cannot.” Morwen looked small and diminutive before the Lady of the Dalriada, but she raised her chin to meet the Lady's eyes, steady and uncowed. “It is he who means us harm. This may be our sole protection against it.”

“What?” I raised my voice in protest, pricked by the comment. “I intend nothing of the kind! Or at least I damnably well wouldn't if you'd leave me be.”

Morwen fixed me with her moon-pale gaze. “You do not know what will come to pass.”

“This is absurd,” Joscelin said flatly. “Lady, I do not mean to gainsay your rule, but—”

“Ah, no!” The harpist Ferghus raised a warning hand. “Do not think it, warrior. We are three and unarmed, but we are not powerless.” There was an edge to his easy smile. “You would buy our lives at certain cost. Meanwhile, the trinket lies elsewhere, hidden. You do not know who will claim it if we fall. Be wise, and accept our oath.”

“Prince Imriel,” Grainne said. “What will you?”

Dorelei's fingers dug into my elbow, but there was no guidance in her grip, only fear. I frowned and looked at Berlik. He stood patient and unmoving, his massive head bowed a little. I pried Dorelei's fingers loose from my arm and walked forward to confront him. Beneath his shadow, the scent of loam and berries was stronger, mingled with the rank odor of his bearskin robe. I had to crane my neck to see his sad, heavy face.

“What she said is a lie,” I said to him.

“No.” There was sorrow in his pale, shadowed eyes. “It may or not be many things, but it is not a lie.”

“A riddle?” I asked.

Berlik shrugged. “Truth is a riddle.”

I touched my sword-hilt. “Your kinswoman has somewhat I might claim as my own. What if I offered challenge for it? Would you answer for her?”

His voice dropped to a low rumble, so low no one else could hear it. “Look down.”

I glanced down. The sleeves of his bearskin robe ended in shaggy paws, fierce black claws protruding slightly. Berlik's vast shoulders shifted. The claws flexed and curved. I looked back up at him.

“You do not wish to do that,” he said in the same low voice.

“Nor do I wish to be bound, my lord,” I said.

“Things are not always what they seem.” Raising one hand—if that was what it was—Berlik touched the croonie-stone at my throat. A single claw clicked against polished stone. “Accept our oath. You may be grateful for it.”

There was no lie in his eyes, only sadness. Or madness? I couldn't tell. Strangely, I almost found myself drawn to him, or at least wishing to speak further with him. But he said nothing else, only watched me silently.

I sighed, stepping back from him. “So be it.”

Grainne nodded. “Then swear, my lord Berlik.”

The bearskin robe rippled as he raised his hands; a man's hands, large, but ordinary. At breast-height, he clasped his left hand into a fist, folding the other atop it. “By stone and sea and sky, and all that they encompass, I swear this. By the sacred troth that binds me to my diadh-anam, I swear this. Across the length and breadth of Alba, no man nor woman of the Maghuin Dhonn shall harm this man Imriel; not a hair on his head, not a scratch on his skin.”

The words hung like thunder in the air. Somewhere in the distance, a flock of birds took flight, wheeling across the bloody sky. Cattle lowed uneasily.

Berlik inclined his head. “Do we have your forgiveness, Lady?”

“You do,” Grainne said. “So long as your oath holds.”

“I will not be forsworn.” He smiled, awful and grim. ” 'Twould be a dreadful fate.”

I wondered what he meant. I wished he would stay and speak further with me. Unlike the others, I sensed no mischief in him. I wanted to know why he looked so sad and weary, what burden bowed his shoulders. I wanted to know why they believed I meant to harm them. It seemed unreasonable. If I bore them ill will, surely, they must see it was due to their own actions. It was all so very strange, I wasn't even sure what I felt. If we could only talk in a reasoned way, mayhap all this could be resolved.

But instead, there came low notes drawn from a harp's strings; a sweet, yearning air. The tune Morwen had played on the pipes, the charmed tune that had haunted my dreams, was even more poignant in the harpist's hands. I'd not even seen him remove his harp from its case, but there it was, braced beneath his chin, his lean brown fingers moving over the strings.

A strange, hushed peace settled over everyone present; the Lady and her children, Phèdre and Joscelin. Even Dorelei, even Brigitta; even Urist and the Cruithne and D'Angelines under his command, who stood aside, letting the Maghuin Dhonn pass.

I watched them go.

The music touched me; the charm didn't.

At the last moment, Morwen turned and gave me a long, impenetrable look. Tell me, was she beautiful? No, I'd said to Dorelei; I'd thought I meant it. Now I wasn't sure. There was beauty there, unfamiliar and wild.

I lifted one hand, gripping the croonie-stone.

Morwen smiled and passed.

And then they were gone, three figures moving into the deepening twilight. As they crested the distant rise, one remained upright. The harpist, still playing, the notes fading. Two figures dropped. One large and one small. Four-footed, shambling. My skin crawled. The fear I hadn't felt in their presence came home to roost.

“It's all right.” A hand slid into mine. Conor, squeezing hard. “I think it is.”

I squeezed back. “I hope you're right.”

“So do I, Prince Imriel,” he murmured. “So do I.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

We departed from Innisclan two days later.It was a bittersweet leavetaking. Our time spent with the Lady of the Dalriada and her children had been pleasant, but it had been strange and unnerving, too. Like Phèdre, I would be grateful for the security Hyacinthe's mantle of power afforded.

We said our farewells. Eamonn and Brigitta would be attending the Alban wedding ceremony held for Dorelei and me in Bryn Gorrydum in a little over a month's time, so that, at least, was a casual parting. Conor was hoping his mother would allow him to come, and promised to play his harp at our wedding if she permitted it.

As for the others, they sent us on our way with fond regrets, and mayhap the slightest bit of relief. I daresay Innisclan would be calmer for our departure.

Once again, we set forth on the taisgaidh paths under Urist's expert guidance, retracing our steps across the green isle of Alba.

If our outbound journey had been lighthearted, this one was more somber. Our encounter with the Old Ones had everyone uneasy. Oddly enough, I was the least disturbed of the lot of us. The Maghuin Dhonn had sworn an oath not to harm me. Whatever else was true, I was certain Berlik meant his oath with absolute sincerity.

My nights were free of haunting incidents.

My days were free of thoughts of Sidonie.

I left the ollamh's protections in place, checking every morning and evening to ensure that the red yarn was still tied securely around my ankles and wrists, the croonie-stone hanging around my neck. Berlik's oath may have been sincere, but my will was still subject to Morwen's ensorceled charm. I had no desire to be lured out of my tent in the middle of the night, filled with heartache and desire. Of a surety, she could do great damage to my relationship with Dorelei without harming a hair on my head.

I liked Dorelei. At least I'd allowed myself to learn that much. I liked her a great deal. She was quiet and thoughtful, but she liked to laugh, too. She was an easy person to be with, and exactly the person in private she seemed in public, steady and unchanging. There was no malice in her, and a good deal of kindness.

Did I love her? No. There was none of the obsessive passion I'd felt for Sidonie, soaring, searing, and absurd. I never felt my heart swell within my breast at the thought of her, never felt her name stitching an endless pattern through my thoughts. With the ollamh's bindings on me, I wasn't sure I could feel that way for anyone. But I wasn't miserable, either; racked with longing, struggling against the adamant shackles of unwanted love.

Anyway, all that seemed like a dream, now.

And it might be that love would grow between us yet, Dorelei and I. It wouldn't be the same. It would be a gentler thing, an easy fondness growing slowly into somewhat deeper. As Amarante had said, love wasn't always a raging tempest. It could be a safe harbor, too.

As we crossed Alba, I began to think mayhap that wouldn't be so bad. Every safe harbor I'd known had been stolen from me. My childhood home, my very sense of identity, my scholar's retreat in Tiberium. Even Phèdre and Joscelin's love had become a place fraught with dark undercurrents when I'd grown from a boy to a young man. There were worse things in the world than finding a lasting peace as Imriel, Prince of Alba, husband of Dorelei. Paradoxically, the very binding placed upon me had freed me to find that peace.

Things are not always what they seem, Berlik had said.

Truth was a riddle.