Kushiel's Justice (Page 46)

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“He's not, I fear,” Breidaia said calmly. ” 'Tis how young men earn their marks in peacetime.”

“And clan-lords increase their herds,” Kinadius added.

“By raiding cattle they don't need from friendly estates?” I asked.

“Well, yes,” he said.

“That's foolish,” Alais observed.

Kinadius grinned at her. “You're allowed to think that. You're a girl.”

Alais wrinkled her nose at him. I pushed away an inadvertent memory of Sidonie that seeped through my bindings, scratching my wrists and thinking. I was sick and tired of being bound by all manner of strictures and unable to act. “But I've a right to my first warrior's mark, Kinadius, you said so yourself. I chose not to receive it because it's not a D'Angeline custom.”

“Aye, and you didn't want to mar your pretty face.” He eyed me. “So?”

“So,” I said slowly, “if Leodan mab Nonna claims I'm not a proper warrior, then he's calling me a liar. And as such, he's given insult, hasn't he?”

“What are you plotting?” Dorelei asked suspiciously.

I shrugged. “What if we claim insult and raid Briclaedh first?”

There was a little silence around the table, then Kinadius let out an excited whoop. “I'd say you're beginning to think like a Prince of Alba,” Dorelei said, a mixture of pride and rue in her voice.

It was a pointless undertaking, an exercise in the enduring folly of mankind and, most especially, the violent futility of masculine pride. And in one fell swoop, it endeared me to the folk of Clunderry in a manner that months and months of sober behavior, hard work, and courtesy wouldn't have accomplished.

Urist, seasoned, sensible Urist, loved the notion. It surprised me a little.

“Ah, how not!” The Cruithne commander jabbed at me with his forefinger. “Do you think I'm not a man, lad? Do you think I don't want to serve a lord I can be proud of? Aye, and the men I command, too?”

“No, of course not,” I said.

He fixed me with a hard gaze. “Afraid, are you? Having second thoughts?”

“Afraid, no.” I frowned. “Second thoughts, yes.”

We were sitting in his garrison-chamber, a tiny cell scarce large enough to hold a bed, a chest for his belongings, and a pair of chairs. “Listen, lad.” Urist laid his hands on his knees and faced me squarely. “I've an idea you're loath to make enemies. But 'tis a friendly skirmish, nothing more. You're not going to incur a blood-feud over a cattle-raid. Showing your mettle before anyone dares test it is the best idea you've had since you set foot on Alban soil.”

“And if Briclaedh retaliates?” I asked.

“They might.” He shrugged. “If they do, they'll seek to reclaim what's theirs, no more, and consider the score settled. You'll still come out of it with the upper hand. Do you see?”

“I suppose,” I said reluctantly.

Urist transferred one hand to my left knee and squeezed hard. “Good lad!”

Thus it was that my first real act as a Prince of Alba, a role I'd agreed to play for the purpose of fostering peace and prosperity, was to stage a cattle-raid on my nearest neighbor.

Once the matter was decided, plans were implemented swiftly lest word leak to Briclaedh, only a day and a half away. Urist chose a raiding party of thirty men, a mix of veterans and green lads. He informed me cheerfully that if I wanted to garner any measure of respect, I would have to lead them myself, to be the first into battle and the last to retreat.

I tried to imagine explaining my actions to everyone at home and failed miserably. There was a good reason, I thought, that Drustan downplayed Alba's dangers. It wasn't that they were so terribly dire, but that the culture was unfathomable to a D'Angeline mind. To be sure, Terre d'Ange had known periods of strife, but any quarrels that had played out on a large scale had been driven by ambition, greed, or grievous insult, not some manufactured slight of honor.

This seemed unnervingly like …sport.

I spoke to Alais about it, reckoning she was the only one who would understand. She listened gravely to my concerns.

“It is stupid,” she said when I'd finished. “Any girl could tell you as much.”

“Do you think I should put a halt to it?” I asked.

“I don't think you can, Imri,” Alais said simply. “This isn't Terre d'Ange.”

I sighed. “I don't suppose you've had any helpful dreams.”

“No.” Her brows furrowed. “I'm beginning to learn to understand them better, or at least I would if I had them, but I don't.”

“My fault?” I asked.

Alais nodded. “Firdha says I'm too close to you, that all of us are. As long as you're bound like this…” She pointed at my wrists. “It's like there's a fire in the hearth, but a great stone is blocking the chimney. All we can see is smoke.”

“I'm sorry, love,” I said. “I'd take them off if I dared.”

She shuddered. “Don't.”

I didn't; indeed, I had Firdha check my bonds. Although the strands of red yarn were beginning to fade and fray, they were holding sturdy. She allowed grudgingly that Aodhan had done good work and she was reluctant to tamper with it unless it was needful.

All was in readiness. The night before our departure, after we retired to our bedchamber, Dorelei presented me with a gift.

“Close your eyes,” she whispered. “And hold out your hands.”

I obeyed, mystified, and felt her slide somewhat heavy over first one hand, then the other, careful not to snag the yarn tied around my wrists. I felt the familiar weight of a pair of vambraces settle into place, the inner leather soft against my skin. Her deft fingers did the buckles.

“You can look now.”

I opened my eyes. The vambraces gleamed in the lamplight. The steel plates were riveted to the outer layer of hard-boiled leather. Silver plate overlay the steel, etched with the image of the Black Boar of the Cullach Gorrym, bristling and fierce, in the bold, flowing lines of the Cruithne style. I ran my fingertips over the surface, tracing the curve of his tusk. It was skillfully done, too smooth and shallow to hold the point of a blade.

“Do you like them?” Dorelei asked shyly.

“They're wonderful,” I said honestly.

“They were meant to be finished earlier.” She took my right hand, turning it over and kissing my knuckles. “But mayhap they'll help keep you safe.”

I cupped her cheek. “Thank you.”

“Oh, well.” She gave her dimpled smile. “I've watched you and Joscelin spar. He said you've never had a pair of your own. A proper pair.

“No.” I shook my head. “I found a pair in Lucca, an old rusted pair. They saved my life. But I never …” I thought about it. “I don't know. I suppose it would have felt presumptuous. After all, I'm not a Cassiline.”

“I don't care about that.” Dorelei leaned forward and kissed my lips, taking my other hand and placing it on her belly. “I just want you to come home to me, that's all.”

I kissed her back. “I will.”

That night, I gained a measure of insight regarding why men wage war for foolish causes. For all that women's wisdom runs deeper, they are tender and ardent on the eve of sending their men into battle. With the spectre of bloodshed hanging over us, Dorelei and I made love that night, and it had a poignancy I'd never felt before.

And in the morning, I went forth to raid cattle.

Chapter T hirty

We lay on our bellies in the hazel copse, gazing down into the valley.The slanting rays of the setting sun warmed the grey stone of Briclaedh Castle. It was smaller than Clunderry, but the pasturage that surrounded it was richer.

“Leodan of Briclaedh must have two hundred head of cattle,” Kinadius said admiringly. “How many do we try for?”

Urist glanced at me, his eyes like polished stones.

“Twenty,” I said. “Settle for no less than ten.”

Urist grunted his approval.

It was, I thought, one of the most unforgivably idiotic ventures I'd ever undertaken; and that was saying somewhat. There were far easier ways to acquire ten head of cattle. The glow of Dorelei's ardor had faded on the first day's ride. Now I was merely hot and sticky with sweat, and I had hazel twigs tangled in my hair.

But I was in command of this folly. And so I narrowed my eyes and studied the lay of the land. It would have been a simpler business in the late autumn, when the cattle were herded into pastures abutting the keep, close to the byres and hay-barns. Now they were still spread out far and wide, gleaning the hillsides.

“How many of Leodan's men are like to respond?” I asked Urist.

“On short notice?” He shrugged. “A score.”

I lifted my gaze to the keep's towers. “Sentries on duty?”

“Of course.” Urist's teeth gleamed. “But 'tis a half-moon tonight.”

I shaded my eyes and gazed southward. “All right, then. A pair of men on each of the first two gates; one to open and close, one to guard his back. A dozen to drive the cattle and ride herd on them. I'm not doing this for naught.”

“That leaves…” Urist counted on his fingers. “Fourteen to fight?”

I bared my own teeth in a smile. “Afraid, are you?”

“No,” he said stubbornly.

“Good.” I clapped his shoulder. “Let's regroup and await nightfall.”

Like Clunderry, Briclaedh's estates lay alongside taisgaidh land. We'd made our camp in a clearing that afternoon. We'd had a devil of a time making our way through the thick undergrowth and getting there unseen, but under Urist's guidance, we'd managed it. The woods felt stifling and oppressive, and the horses were restless and stamping. Still, no one came. Unlike Clunderry, it seemed Briclaedh's folk weren't eager to venture into the sacred places; or mayhap it was simply that Briclaedh's garrison commander hadn't thought to post a reward for sighting strangers the way Urist had.

I gave the men my orders. There was no quarrelling; they merely nodded, and the dozen assigned as cattle drovers began cutting hazel switches.

Dusk came early in the dense woods. We led the horses in a single file to the verge of the copse, wincing at every crackling step. There, we waited for the twilight to fade over the valley.

It was a clear night. The waxing half-moon hung over the eastern horizon, growing brighter as the sky darkened, an array of stars emerging. Warm squares of golden light marked the windows of Briclaedh Castle and its outlying buildings. Across the gentle, rolling hills, cattle settled for the evening, legs tucked beneath them, dark, dim lumps under the night sky.

“Ready?” I asked in a low voice.

There were murmurs of assent.

“Let's go, then.”

We moved out from the shadows of the copse, riding slow and fanning out across the hill as we descended into the valley. There was no fence on the taisgaidh side of Briclaedh, and it was my hope that we were far enough from the castle sentries to pass undetected into the pasturage.

It worked, too. I sent the two teams of gatekeepers riding hastily toward the south, searching for gates rendered near-invisible by darkness. The rest of us waited, horses milling, while cattle lifted their heads and gazed at us with incurious eyes. I checked the Bastard's reins to be sure they were knotted together, a trick Urist had taught me.

In the distance, a torch kindled; then another, nearer.

The gatekeepers were in place.

I nodded to the drovers. “Go.”

There is no quiet way to stage a cattle-raid. The drovers spread out across the hills and began yelling and shouting, swinging their hazel switches. Cattle bawled and lowed, lumbering to their feet in their awkward way, hindquarters first. The drovers shouted back and forth to one another, rounding up as many head of cattle as they could find and driving them toward the first gate in a massive, pounding press of confusion, all of which went on for far too long.

“Fun, eh?” Urist grinned.

I pointed toward the castle. “Here they come.”

Dark figures came pelting over the fields. Urist had guessed wrongly. There were no more than a dozen mounted warriors, clinging bareback to saddleless horses; but there were dozens more following on foot, a swift-moving stream only a few moments behind. My heart began to pound in my chest.

“Take the riders!” I shouted. “Take the riders, and head for the gates!

And then they were on us, and we clashed.

Within a heartbeat, the melee was a complete mess. Briclaedh's men were whooping, uttering wild war-cries; so were Clunderry's. Tattooed Cruithne faces were everywhere, and in the faint light I was hard put to tell friend from foe. 'Twas a stroke of dubious luck that my unmarked face made me a clear target. I didn't have to worry about striking a blow against one of Clunderry's men; I was surrounded by Briclaedh's. Dropping the Bastard's knotted reins, I guided him with my knees, turning in a tight circle and laying about me on both sides, sword in my right hand.

“D'Angeline!” Leodan mab Nonna came alongside me; I knew him by his thick brows, which met over his nose. We locked swords, swaying. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Claiming insult,” I grunted. “Not a proper warrior, am I?”

In the moonlight, I saw him smile fiercely. “Ah, well.”

Wind whistled on my other side. Trusting to training, good hearing, and blind luck, I swung my left arm in an arc and felt a blow glance off my vambrace.

“Don't kill him!” Leodan shouted in alarm. “Hostage, hostage!”

I dug my heels into the Bastard's sides and he plunged free. Somewhere in the midst of pandemonium, I swear I heard Urist snicker. Half of Leodan's men were injured or unhorsed; the other half were pursuing Clunderry's fleeing riders. Urist was among them; I must have imagined the snicker. The first wave of Briclaedh's foot-racing warriors arrived, panting, to find me alone and abandoned.