Kushiel's Justice (Page 47)

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Leodan mab Nonna raised his heavy brows. “Take him.”

Once more, I turned the Bastard in a circle, swearing with fury. There were too many of them, and now that I knew they meant to take me alive, I was loathe to strike killing blows. I flailed at the Cruithne with the flat of my blade while they ducked and dodged, tattooed faces grinned up at me, tattooed hands reaching to grab at my legs, my sword-belt, my left arm, dragging me from the saddle.

The Bastard squealed. I kicked my feet free of the stirrups and let them take me. I landed on my back atop two men and used the unexpected momentum to tear free of their grip, somersaulting backward and coming up in a crouch, sword at the ready, facing a semicircle of unmounted men.

“Nice trick.” Leodan glanced away, distracted. “The horse, lads, the horse! I want that spotted horse, too.”

They all looked, and so did I. Unlike Urist and his men, the Bastard hadn't deserted me. He stood with legs splayed and ears flat, snaking his neck and snapping at the Briclaedh warrior who was attempting to grab his bridle.

“Oh, the hell you do!” I growled.

Without thinking, I shoved my sword into its scabbard, turned my back on my assailants, and charged the fellow attempting to catch the Bastard. I tackled him around the waist and brought him down with a thud. We rolled around in the mire of the cow pasture, grappling with one another. I'd learned to wrestle in Siovale. I came up on top and punched him hard in the mouth, feeling his teeth break the skin of my knuckles. He gaped at me, bloody-mouthed.

Most of Leodan's men were hooting and laughing, jeering at their comrade, paying scant heed to me. The rest were chasing the Bastard, arms spread wide, trying to form a circle to enclose him. He evaded them with short dashes, snorting with alarm.

D'Angelines may be vain, but even we admit that the Tsingani are the best horse-breeders and -trainers in the world; and the Bastard was Tsingani-bred and -trained. He might be a bastard, but he was my Bastard. I got to my feet, stuck two fingers smeared with cow-dung in my mouth, and whistled sharply.

The Bastard's ears pricked.

“Oh, hell,” Leodan muttered.

Bursting past his would-be captors, the Bastard came at a canter. He barely slowed for me, but it was enough. I reached up to grab the pommel, swinging myself astride by main force. Leodan's men were scattered, unmounted and unprepared. I settled myself in the saddle and turned the Bastard's head toward the south, grinning at the lord of Briclaedh. “My thanks for the cattle.”

He roared; I didn't wait to hear what.

I clapped my heels to the Bastard's flanks, and his gait moved smoothly from a canter to a full-out gallop. Together, we raced across the dark pasture.

There was an abandoned torch burning at the first gate, the butt-end wedged in a crevice in the cobbled stone fence. The gate itself stood open, and we passed through it without slowing. It seemed like a great deal of time had passed, too much time, but midway across the second pasture, I caught up with the others.

Our drovers were anxiously herding cattle through the second gate, while Urist and his warriors held Leodan's remaining outnumbered horsemen in an uneasy standoff.

I slowed the Bastard to a walk. “Hello, lads.”

Someone whooped.

Urist gave me a wary smile. “You're here.”

“No thanks to you.” I eyed him. “Let's get these cattle home, shall we?”

He made a fist, pressing it to his brow, then his heart. “Aye, my lord.”

I should have been angry—I was angry—but at the same time, I understood. This was Alba. I'd needed to prove myself to my allies as surely as my enemies. I gazed at Urist and saw him, truly saw him. He was a proud man, and he needed to serve a lord he could admire. Drustan was one such; even serving the ollamh Firdha had been an honor, albeit one he hadn't sought. He was no fool—he'd known Leodan of Briclaedh wouldn't want to kill me and risk the wrath of Terre d'Ange. Still, he'd been willing to take the chance of humiliating me.

I could call him on it and earn his resentment.

Or I could accept the jest and keep his respect.

I chose the latter.

After all, we'd prevailed; and if no one had earned his warrior's mark in the process, no one had died, either. That pleased me. So we sent Leodan's last men packing—I daresay they were glad enough of the excuse—and hustled Briclaedh's cattle through the second gate, closing it behind us.

Urist didn't think there would be further pursuit, or at least not that night. We were armed and moving swiftly in the near-dark. If Leodan meant to retaliate, he would wait. But as a precaution, I ordered Kinadius and a sensible veteran named Timor to lag behind and keep watch. The rest of us hurried onward, herding our reluctant charges. By daybreak, we'd have crossed Clunderry's northern border.

Despite the foolishness of it all, I had to own, I felt good. My blood was singing in my veins; I felt more alive than I had in weeks. At Kinadius' prompting, I told the story of how I'd foiled Leodan's attempts to take me hostage, giving all the credit to the Bastard. I forgave their role in it and enjoyed their laughter and admiration, listening idly as they began to invent poems to describe the night's adventure.

I wondered what Sidonie would make of it.

Like as not, she'd think it was ridiculous; and she would be right, of course. Still, I thought, she was a woman. She would give me a warrior's welcome. I could nearly see her face, torn between disparagement and desire. Desire would win, of course. Ah, Elua! I dreamed about it as we rode, letting the Bastard dawdle, letting the others set the pace. Coming to her bedchamber, rank with sweat and besmirched with mire and cow-dung.

It wouldn't matter. It wouldn't.

Sidonie might laugh; she would laugh. The thought of it made my heart soar. But if I pressed her, if I laid my filthy hands on her and undid her stays, laying her bare, her black eyes would turn soft and blurred. My fingers would leave marks on her creamy skin. Her mouth would seek mine, begging wordlessly, her thighs would open…

“Imriel.”

Morwen's voice roused me from my waking dream.

I was in the woods.

Alone.

Ice water trickled down my spine. “What?” I whispered. “What is it?”

Moonlight scarce penetrated the dense foliage. I could make out Morwen's pale eyes, the shape of her hand lifting as she clutched the leather bag at her throat. “You summoned me.”

“No,” I croaked. “No, I didn't.”

“You did.” Her fingers tightened. I groaned. “Dismount.”

I obeyed helplessly. The Bastard eyed me wonderingly as I sank to my knees. Morwen approached, as grave as a priestess. She took my left hand in hers and undid the buckles on my vambrace. “See?”

The red yarn had gotten tangled in the straps. It must have snapped when Leodan's men dragged me from the saddle.

I closed my eyes. “No.”

“I can give you what you want, Imriel.” Morwen moved closer, crouching, showing me the leather bag. The scent of her, rank and overripe, surrounded me. “You sought to make a bargain. I am offering one.” With her other hand, she reached out to stroke my groin. “Give me a child.”

The mingling of disgust and acute desire was excruciating, and in a horrible way, far too close to the waking fantasy I'd conceived. I tried to ward her off, but my arms seemed to weigh two hundred pounds apiece. I couldn't even lift them. “Why?” I whispered.

“I've seen her.” Morwen's pupils dilated, black circles rimmed by pale grey. “I've seen our daughter, Imriel. A child of two worlds, a child of two folk. She will walk the old ways and the new and preserve the balance between them. She will be a magician, a powerful magician.” Her fingers fumbled at my breeches, picking at the laces. She drew a sharp breath. “Mayhap even powerful enough to unlock the secrets of the Master of the Straits!”

Bile rose in my throat as her hand closed around the shaft of my phallus. Love's throbbing scepter.

“I swore an oath!” I said in anguish. “For a year and a day, I pledged myself to Dorelei, and Dorelei alone. By stone and sea and sky, and all that they encompass. Alba's ancient oath; your oath, Morwen! Would you have me break it?”

She paused. “In your heart, you are already forsworn.”

I gritted my teeth. “I do not consent to this.”

Morwen smiled, her hand moving on my phallus. “This says otherwise.”

I struggled for memories of Daršanga, but they were too far away; and my memories of Sidonie were too close. Desire burned, caustic and harsh. My body seemed to belong to someone else. Morwen reached out with one hand and pushed my chest. I toppled onto my back, helpless. My spine arched, hips thrusting. My fingers scrabbled at the forest loam. Morwen began to crawl up the length of my body, hitching her skirts with one hand, the other clutching the leather bag that held the mannekin.

“I will give this to you when we are done,” she said. “It is a small price to pay for your freedom. And Alba's future is at stake.”

I felt her moist nether-lips slide along the length of my phallus and hissed through my teeth. Her smell filled my nostrils. The worst of it was, appalled and disgusted as I was, I wanted her. It was as though all the brightness and glory I'd ever found in desire was held in that vile bag, and all that was dark and disturbing surged forth to meet it. I wanted her to free me, I wanted to turn her over in the dark forest and rut like a beast, taking her from behind and shoving her face into the loam.

No.

“Blessed Elua be my witness,” I whispered. “I do not consent to this. Mighty Kushiel, hear your scion. This is blasphemy, and I will avenge it.”

Morwen hesitated. “Your gods are not here.”

“Imriel!”

It was Kinadius' voice. Branches crackled in the offing, broken by tramping feet. A horse whickered; the Bastard raised his head and replied. A grimace of fury contorted Morwen's face, the tattooed claw marks writhing. She squeezed the leather bag so hard, I thought my testes would burst, and I couldn't tell whether it was with pleasure or pain. Tears trickled from the corners of my eyes.

I laughed through my tears. “No, but one of my men is.”

Morwen let go the bag and leapt off me with unnerving swiftness, her hands forming rigid claws. I got stiffly to my feet and read her shadowed face.

“Don't do it,” I said, drawing my sword. “I swear to Elua, if you think to attack him in any form, I will defend him to the death. And if you think you can get past me without doing me grievous harm, you're sore mistaken. Are you so eager to be forsworn, Morwen?”

She made a guttural sound deep in her throat. For a long moment, we stared at one another. There was fury in her gaze, but there was despair, too; a kind of desperate madness. The crashing, cracking sound of Kinadius blundering through the woods grew closer.

Morwen fled.

Deeper into the woods, deeper into taisgaidh land. She vanished in the darkness, with scarce a sound to mark her passage. I sighed and sheathed my sword, and set about tying my breeches before Kinadius found me. I felt the dull ache of thwarted desire, bone-deep and awful, thudding futilely in my groin.

“My lord!” Kinadius stumbled out of the trees. “What in Lug's name are you doing?”

I picked up the vambrace Morwen had removed, showing him the tangled yarn. “Bear-witch.”

His eyes showed the whites. “Where?”

“Gone, for now,” I said wearily. “Let's go. I've need of the ollamh's services.”

We made our way back to the verge of the woods where Kinadius had tethered his mount. I had no recollection of having entered them, but the Bastard and I had left a trampled path. I was lucky Urist had noticed my absence, lucky he'd led a dozen men back to search for me, lucky that Kinadius, bringing up the rearguard, had spotted our trail.

Or mayhap 'twas more than luck.

Betimes the gods answer our prayers in a sideways manner.

One by one, we caught up with the other searchers. Kinadius told them in a single hushed word what had happened. Bear-witch. I got heartily sick of hearing it.

“What did she want?” one of them finally asked.

I gestured at my crotch. “What every woman wants. Didn't get it, though.”

There was a shocked pause, and then Urist roared with laughter and the others did, too. Men are always apt to laugh when fearful. It helped, though. By the time we caught up with the drovers and the fourteen head of cattle we'd stolen from Leodan of Briclaedh, the men of Clunderry had grown easy with me once more. They decided it was a grand jest that their D'Angeline lord—a man who'd proved he could take a jest himself—had such a pretty face it could render even a bear-witch lovestruck.

I smiled wryly and didn't disabuse them of the notion, although I wished it were that simple.

Although we were all wary and on edge, the balance of our journey was uneventful. Leodan launched no pursuit, and Morwen attempted no further gambit. We crossed into Clunderry as the sky was turning grey, and Urist declared a rest. The men slept in shifts, an hour at a time, while others kept watch over the weary cattle.

I didn't sleep.

“My lord, I swear to you, I'll stand watch over you myself,” Urist said fervently. I daresay he felt guilty, and well he should. “I'll not let anything befall you.”

“It's all right,” I said. “I'm not tired, that's all.”

True and not true.

I was tired; I was bone-tired. I was bruised and battered, my cut knuckles stung, and I stank of cow-dung. The dull ache of desire hadn't faded, and Morwen's scent lingered in my nostrils.

But I was myself.

And despite everything, the air in my lungs tasted fresher; my vision seemed clearer and brighter. My unfettered heart sloughed off the shackles of Alban magic and sang, as pure and clear a tune as Ferghus drew from his harp-strings. Like a prisoner granted an unexpected day's leave, I meant to enjoy every moment of it. I watched the sun rise in the east. I watched each blade of grass cast its own sharp-edged shadow. I watched the men of Clunderry snore in their bedrolls. I watched the cattle chewing their cuds, slow and meditative.