Kushiel's Justice (Page 96)

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“Clunderry,” I murmured.

Sidonie's fingers tightened briefly on mine. “After Clunderry.” I turned away from her to meet Phèdre's gaze, filled with a complicated mix of affection, rue, and an unexpected thoughtfulness that looked a great deal like respect. I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders, and went forth to greet Hyacinthe and the others.

Chapter Seventy-One

It was a strange feeling, retracing our path to Clunderry. All of us went, save Hyacinthe, who returned to the Stormkeep. It was only three days' ride, and the days passed swiftly. I remembered my first glimpse of the place so well; the Brithyll River widening to form a weedy lake, the castle, the village, the mill's sails turning lazily. An idyllic place, a happy place.I had no memory of leaving it.

Or at least, I had only snatches of memory, fever-ravaged. Pain. A jolting cart, anxious faces. Voices, distant and echoing. The Bastard's bony head leaning over the cart that carried me, snorting through flared nostrils. Someone cursing him.

Elua.

None of us had been there since it happened; not me, not Urist, not even the Lady Breidaia. It hurt too much. And yet, Clunderry was as it had been. Life went on apace. The folk turned out to greet us, bowing low at the sight of our entourage led by the Cruarch himself. I recognized and remembered them. Trevedic the young reeve; old Cluna, the midwife. Kinada, Kinadius' mother; his sister, Kerys. They were all there, from Hoel, the lowly cook's apprentice who'd been crowned on the Day of Misrule, to Murghan, the one-armed steward who had been rumored to share Lady Breidaia's bed.

And there were others, too. The ollamh, Firdha, had come. Leodan of Briclaedh, my cattle-raiding neighbor. My southern neighbor Golven of Sionnachan, who had lent me his beekeeper, Milcis. Others I didn't recognize; others I did.

Eamonn was there.

Eamonn and his wife Brigitta, representing the Lady of the Dalriada. Her youngest was there, too; the boy Conor. Not a boy, not anymore. A young man with dark, watchful eyes, his harp slung in a case over his shoulder. The blood of the Maghuin Dhonn ran strong in his veins. I wondered how many people knew it.

The only person missing was Dorelei.

I missed her.

It had been a whole other life here in Clunderry, and it had been a good one. I'd been happy, and even if the happiness hadn't been entirely real, many parts of it had been. I was touched by the number of folk who welcomed me back with sincere gladness and pride.

Alais, of course, they welcomed with delight; there were a great many folk who had grown fond of her. But I was glad to see that they seemed genuinely honored that Queen Ysandre had sent her eldest daughter to attend, reckoning it a fitting tribute. In their eyes, Alais had become a daughter of Alba, and did not represent Terre d'Ange; but Sidonie did.

She did it well, with a quiet dignity beyond her years. The composure that had seemed unnatural—and betimes irritating—in a child suited her as a young woman.

We had arrived well before noon and the better part of the day was taken up in arrangements and preparation. It would be a simple ceremony, but there would be a great feast afterward.

I kept to myself that day, and after our initial arrival, folk left me alone. Even Eamonn was subdued, although he greeted me with a great, crushing embrace.

“I'm so sorry for what happened, Imri,” he said hoarsely. “Dagda Mor! We were all sick at the news. Mother holds herself to blame for allowing you to accept Berlik's oath.”

I shook my head. ” 'Twas no fault of hers. I made the choice myself. How are matters in Innisclan?”

“Well enough.” Eamonn glanced over at Conor, talking quietly with Alais. “We were grateful to hear that you asked the Cruarch to have mercy on the innocent.”

“You went a-hunting the Old Ones, though,” I said.

“I did.” His face turned grim. “Found a few, too. Conor summoned the harpist. I didn't think he would come, but he did. Don't worry, I didn't kill anyone. But I let it be known that anyone sheltering Berlik would be put to death without any questions asked.”

“No one sheltered him,” I said. “He fled.”

“A long way, I hear,” Eamonn said.

I nodded. “A very long way.”

While the others met and mingled, I went for a walk around Clunderry's holdings. I would as soon have gone on my own, but Urist caught me slipping out of the castle and refused to allow it. I daresay he was the only companion I could have borne.

We walked slowly together, Urist leaning on his stick. All the fields had been plowed with neat, straight lines. Tender shoots of grain were emerging from the furrows. We passed the threshing barn. I remembered taking part in that backbreaking labor, coming home to Dorelei with dust and chaff clinging to my sweating skin. We strolled through the orchard, which was just past its peak blossoming. A gentle rain of petals fell from the apple trees as we walked beneath them, and the skeps of coiled straw were buzzing with honeybees.

“That would have pleased her,” Urist said.

I smiled. “It would.”

The distant pastures with their low stone fences were dotted with grazing cattle. We crossed the Brithyll on an arched wooden bridge, the heel of Urist's walking-stick echoing hollowly over the water, then circled around the reedy lake. Several families of ducks followed us curiously, trailing fuzzy ducklings.

I wasn't sure Elua's shrine would still be there, but it was, there beneath the arbor I'd helped build. Although nothing was blooming yet, the roses and lavender and columbine I'd transplanted myself had been tended with loving care. The effigy of Blessed Elua stood beneath the arbor, smiling toward the castle, his arms outstretched. I took off my boots to approach, then knelt and gazed at his face. I thought about what a priest of Elua had told me about love many years ago, the first time I kept his vigil on the Longest Night.

You will find it and lose it, again and again. And with each finding and each loss, you will become more than before. What you make of it is yours to choose.

It was true.

“I have chosen, my lord,” I whispered. “Please, no more losses.”

Although there was no answer, the steady throb of my heart was answer enough. I knew where love lay, and I would do my best to hold fast to it. I rose and donned my boots. Urist waited patiently, leaning on his stick. In the west, the sun was beginning to sink, low and golden, shadows stretching long across Clunderry. Behind the mask of his warrior's markings, there was compassion and understanding.

“Come on, lad.” Urist clapped my shoulder. “Let's give our lass her due.”

“I'm ready,” I said.

Dusk was a time of day that Dorelei had loved. That wasn't why it had been chosen, of course; that had somewhat to do with twilight blurring the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. She had, though. The world went soft around the edges; that's how she'd described it.

We walked in solemn procession, all of us. The ollamh Firdha led the way, with Drustan beside her. I followed, carrying Berlik's skull. The Lady Breidaia was on my right, Talorcan on my left. Behind us came Alais and the Lady Sibeal, and behind them, Sidonie, flanked by Phèdre and Joscelin, my foster-parents. Behind them came everyone else, and I could not begin to guess at the order. There were too many people.

It was the first time I'd visited the burial mound.

It wasn't large. There were only a few stone markers there. Dorelei's was the newest, the carvings on it still sharp-edged and clean. There was the Black Boar of the Cullach Gorrym; there, too, was the swan of House Courcel. There were runes written on it that only an ollamh could read. Still, it was old enough that the grass had grown over her grave, rendering it invisible. And there along the sloping incline, a deep hole had been dug, smelling of fresh-turned earth. A pile of loose soil lay beside it.

Firdha gave the invocation, calling upon the gods and goddesses of Alba to bear witness. Drustan stepped forward with a libation vessel, pouring uisghe on the green grass that grew above Dorelei's grave. He passed the vessel to his sister, and to his sister's son, and they made offerings, too.

“Let it be done.” Firdha nodded at me.

I took a deep breath and stepped forward. I'd been given new clothing in Bryn Gorrydum, and I was attired in the old Cruithne style, as I had been at our Alban nuptials. A crimson cloak lay over my shoulders, and my chest was bare save for the golden torc and the scarred furrows of Berlik's claws. I took the libation vessel and made an offering, and then I knelt on the sloping greensward and placed the skull in the hole that lay beneath Dorelei's feet, dug deep into the hillside. Berlik's skull gazed out at me. I scooped up a double handful of soil and let it trickle over naked bone.

“Be at peace, Dorelei my love,” I murmured. “Be at peace, my son.”

Somewhere in the distance, a harp sounded.

A ripple of disturbance ran through those assembled. I got to my feet, gazing at them. Conor mac Grainne's head was cocked and listening, but his harp-case lay untouched over his shoulder. It wasn't Conor who was playing. It was farther away, wilder, filled with aching sorrow and regret.

Talorcan stirred, glowering.

“No!” The word emerged from my lips unbidden. “All of Alba grieves,” I said more gently. “Let it be so this evening.”

In the pause that followed, Sidonie's calm voice rose to fill the void. “Terre d'Ange grieves with Alba,” she said. “Let it be so.”

The harp echoed, wild.

Everyone looked at Drustan. The Cruarch cast his gaze heavenward, then lowered it. He looked at me. I looked back unwavering. “All of Alba grieves this evening,” Drustan said quietly. “Conor mac Grainne, will you give voice to this grief, as you gave voice to joy on the eve of the nuptials betwixt Imriel de la Courcel and Dorelei mab Breidaia?”

He knew, I thought.

Conor flushed. “I will, my lord.”

He unslung his harp-case and played for us; a sad, simple dirge. Or at least so it began. The longer Conor played, the more I heard in his playing. He played with eyes closed, his cheekbones bright with color. There was the tune he'd played for Drustan before, the twining harmonies evoking the death of his youngest sister, Moiread. There was the tune Ferghus had played for us, the song of the Maghuin Dhonn's last sacrifice. And there, too, slow and unrecognizable, was the Siovalese children's tune about the little brown goat.

The distant harp echoed it all.

It was strange, haunting and beautiful. I do not think there was any magic in it, save the magic of the harpists' skill. The harps called to one another, echoing over the woods and fields. One by one, the guests came forward to take part in the ritual.

I watched Sidonie make her offering, tipping the libation vessel. She stood for a moment, head bowed. I could see the burden of our shared guilt and sorrow weighing on her. But she gathered herself, stooping with deft grace to grasp a handful of soil and sprinkle it over Berlik's skull.

Bit by bit, the hole filled. The shadows deepened and the distant harp fell silent. Conor's fingers stilled on his harp-strings. Drustan nodded to him. He came forward to place the last handful of earth on Berlik's grave. The master gardener pressed and smoothed the earth, then set a piece of green sod, carefully preserved, over the place, tamping and watering it.

It was done.

Torches were lit. I let the procession turn and pass me by, lingering. Drustan gave me a curious look, but said nothing. I watched them wind toward the castle, then turned back toward the burial mound.

“Be at peace, Berlik,” I said quietly. “Watch over them for me.”

The lines of the burial mound were blurred by the deepening twilight. The world had grown soft around the edges. I stood there, breathing the moist spring air, listening to the ordinary sounds of night in the countryside emerge; the last tentative chorus of birdsong, the chirping of crickets, the occasional cattle lowing in the pasture. I remembered the way Dorelei's laughter had sounded, ringing across the land she had loved.

I stooped and touched the earth of Clunderry a final time.

“Good-bye,” I whispered.

Chapter Seventy-Two

If the ceremony had been sober and grave, the feast that followed was its opposite.There had never been a proper wake for Dorelei in the usual Alban tradition. Her kin had been scattered, hunting Berlik; I'd lain at death's door. Tonight stood in its stead.

Clunderry's great hall—which wasn't terribly large—was filled to bursting. The household staff had labored for two days in preparation for the event. Platter after platter of food emerged from the kitchen. Mead and uisghe circulated freely. We sat at long tables, eating and drinking until the small hours of the night.

Telling stories of Dorelei.

Fond stories, funny stories. It hurt, but there was healing in it, too. Lady Breidaia nearly broke my heart telling how Dorelei had privately confessed her astonishment that I'd been thoughtful enough to send for a beekeeper after she'd dreamed I fed her honeycomb.

“You were a good husband to her,” Breidaia said, eyes bright with tears. “You would have been a good father to the babe.”

And then I laughed until my sides ached at a tale that Kinadius and Kerys told about a piglet, a runt destined for an early demise, which Dorelei had saved from the axe. How they'd rescued it from the pigsty in the dead of night. How the three of them had managed to hide it for weeks, shuttling it from one room to another, two steps ahead of the suspicious maidservants.

“It used to follow her like a dog,” Kerys remembered.

“Ah, gods!” Kinadius laughed. “I had to sneak out before dawn every morning to steal milk. She'd let it suckle on an old scrap of blanket dipped in milk. That pig ate better than we did. When we finally got caught, the pig-keeper said, 'Well, she's a runt no more, is she?'“