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copyright © 2005, 2007 Stephen Leigh

 

Part One:  Betrayal

 

1: Crow In The Trees (A Prologue)

 

        The pines nearest Torin Mallaghan sighed in the wind as if weary of holding up their branches.  Underneath his boots, the ground was carpeted by a thick, soft covering of needles.  The man kicked at a brown drift pooled around his toes: dry and pale on top, below the needles were wet and so dark as to be almost black.  They clung to the slick, polished leather of his boots — he would have to have one of the servants clean them tonight.  The wind gusted in the high branches, sending a momentary drizzle of green, fragrant needles down over his well-made, intricately-embroidered clóca.  He brushed them away, looking up at the swaying branches fringing the overcast sky.  A crow darted and swooped through the trees to come to rest on a nearby branch.  Torin scowled at the creature and kicked again at the well-needled ground, looking for a rock to throw at the bird, but his horse, tied to a nearby tree, nickered restlessly.   Torin heard the sound of another horse approaching slowly on the road through the forest.

        Torin’s hand went to the jewel captured in a cage of silver and suspended from a gold-linked necklace around his neck, not to the sword in its scabbard.  He caught sight of the rider; slowly, his fingers relaxed around the gem.  He stepped out onto the rutted, muddy road, holding his hand up in greeting.  “I was beginning to wonder whether you’d actually come today,” he said.  “But I should have known you would obey orders.  Tell me, what news do you bring, Doyle?”

        The rider pulled at the reins of his mount.  He leaned forward in the saddle.  His face was stained with travel, his eyes snagged in dark, puffy circles.  Red hair spilled from under the hood of his clóca.  “You’re here alone, my Rí?” he asked with some surprise.  “Is that wise?”

        “How better to make sure there are no unwanted ears listening?   You look… disappointed.”

        The rider shrugged underneath the clóca.  “All I could think about the entire morning is reaching Lár Bhaile, where I could rest in comfort in the Order’s common room, drinking a good mug of stout and sitting by the fire.  We could ride there together, and talk while riding so we get there all the sooner.” 

        Torin waited, arms crossed over his chest, and Doyle finally sighed.  “All right, since it appears the stout and the fire will have to wait until you get your answer.  I’ve spoken to the other Ríthe, as you requested; they’re in agreement and they’re willing to offer you their help as long as they’re not seen to be directly involved.”  The man couldn’t keep the disappointment from his voice, but then Doyle Mac Ard’s emotions and ambitions had always been transparent to Torin  —  it was what made the man easy to manipulate.

        “As long as they’re not seen to be directly involved,” Torin repeated, mimicking Doyle’s tone.  “But they’re not willing to do all I asked for.” Again, Torin’s fingers brushed the stone at his chest.  From the corner of his vision, he saw the crow flap heavily from its branch to one just above to them.  “I must admit I’m disappointed.  To have Jenna MacEagan received in Dún Laoghaire, to have the Banríon Ard greet her as if she were one of us …”

        “Even with the Mad Holder’s impending arrival, the other Ríthe are still not willing to move directly against our Banríon Ard.” Doyle answered.  “But in truth, Rí Mallaghan, did you really expect them to do so?  They’re all afraid of the Banríon Ard’s popularity with the tuathánach -- and not just with the common folk, but even some of those among the Riocha.”

        Torin scoffed.  “You mean that’s what you’re afraid of, Doyle.”

        Doyle nodded.  “Aye, I am, Rí Mallaghan.  That doesn’t make it any different for the Ríthe.  None of them want to be known as the one who brought down the beloved Healer Ard.  But… they’ll offer what help they can as long as they’re not visible giving it, and they’re more than willing to share in the vulture’s feast once she’s gone.  Banríon Taafe in particular had a…”  Doyle paused as if uneasy.   “…specific recommendation,” he said finally.  “A person she knew, discrete and reliable though expensive.  I’ve already hired the woman and sent her on the Dún Laoghaire, and she only awaits word from us to act.  She’s supposed to be excellent at what she does, and frankly, I’d rather that our hands aren’t seen in this, either.  No mage from the Order of Gabair should be directly involved in the Banríon Ard’s death, nor should you, my Rí.  No clochs na thintri should be used.  This shouldn’t look like the work of the Riocha.” 

        Torin nodded.  The crow hopped on its branch alongside the road.  A brighter black caught in jet, its eyes stared down at them.  “Oh, I agree.  You’ve done well, then.  As well as I hoped for, anyway.  And as for the rest of the Geraghty brood?”

        “I let the Ríthe know what we had planned.  Assuming all goes well in Dún Laoghaire, Rí Mac Baoill will take care of Owaine Geraghty and Kayne, and Rí Fearachan has a spy within the Mad Holder’s retinue who will help us deal with Sevei and perhaps the Mad Holder herself.”  Doyle smiled grimly.  “Though, if you’ve no objection, I’ll deal with her myself.”  The harsh emphasis in Doyle’s voice surprised Torin not at all; he smiled, hearing it.  It’s that long hatred of Jenna MacEagan and his lust for what she holds that makes the man so malleable.  When this is done, I may have to do something about Doyle, too...

        Torin brought his attention back as Doyle sighed and continued.  “As for Meriel and Owaine’s other children…”  Doyle shrugged.  “They’re too young at this point to be players in this; we’ll only need to be certain that they’re… removed so they can’t be used as pawns by others.” 

         “And Edana, back in Dún Laoghaire?”

        Doyle laughed mirthlessly at that, shaking his head.  “Oh, I’ll say nothing to my dear wife about this, my Rí.  Ever.”  Doyle let out a long breath. A squirrel chattered on the crow’s branch, its tail flicking angrily, and the crow fluttered its wings.  “After all these years, to think that the wait might actually be over…”

        “You must feel pleased and vindicated, my friend.”

        “Honestly, Rí Mallaghan, I feel mostly tired.  It’s cold and I want to be somewhere familiar and comfortable.  I’d like to see Edana and my children again.  I’d like to see the end of this.  Talamh an Ghlas needs a strong leader, now more than ever if we’re to deal with the threats around us, and I’m glad you’ve made this decision.  It’s long past time to rectify the mistakes the Ríthe made in the wake of Falcarragh.” 

        Torin’s gaze moved from the man in the road to the crow.  His eyes narrowed.  He lifted his right hand, the white sleeve of his léine falling down to reveal a faint pattern of scars reaching to the wrist, and placed it over the jewel at his breast.  He spoke a quick phrase as the crow, seeming to understand, cawed and started to fly away.  The squirrel chirped and vanished behind the trunk of the tree.  But as the bird’s wings flapped and it started to rise, something unseen struck the bird.  Black feathers exploded in a flurry at its chest as if an arrow had found its mark; the bird gave a startled caw and fell, landing in a dark, motionless heap at the side of the path.

        “We’re too close to Doire Coill to trust crows,” Torin said. 

         Doyle nodded with a glance at the dead crow.  “Then, my Rí, let us get to Lár Bhaile and see if I can find that fire in Order’s Keep…”

        Torin unhitched his horse, swung up into the saddle, and the two rode off.

        The squirrel reappeared on the branch and looked down at the crow.  It scurried quickly along the branch, leaping from there to the branch of the nearest tree, and vanished among the needled crowns, hurrying in the opposite direction taken by the riders.

        The wind stirred the pines, sending dry needles down to cover the body of the crow.

#

 

 

2: Arrivals

 

        Sevei strode out of the surf into the overcast day, the gray waves lapping around her knees as her body shifted from that of a seal back to human form.  With the change, she shivered, the air suddenly cold and the water dripping as frigid as a winter rain down her bare back from matted, auburn hair.  She ran to the rock where she’d left her clothing and a towel.  As she wrapped herself in the cloth and started to dry her hair, she heard someone clear his throat loudly from behind a screen of boulders green with moss and algae.

        “It’s about time, Bantiarna Geraghty,” the voice said.

        “Dillon?” Sevei said hopefully.

        “If I were Dillon, then I’d have been absolutely remiss in my duties,” the voice answered, and this time she heard the quaver of age, the rough gravel in the words.   Sevei pressed the towel tightly to herself with a hissing intake of breath.

        “Máister Kirwan?”

        “This is the beach where your mam swam during her time here on Inishfeirm.  If you thought I wouldn’t know what you do on certain nights, then you’re making the same mistake she did.  And if you think I’d allow one of my male students to follow you down here, you’re doomed to be forever disappointed.”  She heard the Máister clear his throat again with a rumble of phlegm, though he stayed discretely behind the rocks.  “I trust your swim was pleasant; my wait certainly wasn’t.  Damn this weather.  Are you dressed yet, girl?”

        “Not yet, Máister.”

        A sigh.  “Then quickly.  There’s someone waiting for us up at the Keep.”

        “Who?” Sevei asked, then the answer came to her.  She saw the flash of a vision in her head, as she sometimes saw people in her family:  a slender, gray-haired woman, her face creased and folded with a life of cares and loss, and a small green stone caged in gold and silver at her breast.  She sat in the chair in Máister Kirwan’s office.  She was drinking something from a steaming mug...  “Gram!” Sevei shouted gleefully.  “Gram’s here!”

            “Aye,” Máister Kirwan’s voice answered gruffly. “The Banríon Inish Thuaidh is here and she wants to see you.  It’s impolite to keep a Banríon waiting, not to mention that half my staff is acting as if they’ve never seen a Riocha before.  I’ve been waiting here for half a stripe or more for you to show up and every joint in my body is aching.  So I’d suggest you hurry, Bantiarna Geraghty, or perhaps Siúr O’Halloran will get the notion that it’s your turn for kitchen duty after supper.”

         “If your staff doesn’t know how to act around Gram, then perhaps you should have sent one of them to fetch me and stayed there yourself to teach them, Máister,” she answered teasingly.  She tilted her head impishly even though she knew the man wasn’t looking at her.  “Or were you hoping to catch a glimpse as I came out of the water?”

        Máister Kirwan sputtered once from behind the rocks, then sniffed.  “You flatter yourself needlessly.  Get dressed, child, or I’ll mention to Jenna that you go swimming with the seals without permission,” he said, though she could hear the amusement in his voice.

        “And perhaps I’ll mention that you refer to the Banríon in public by her given name,” she answered with a laugh.  She shrugged on her red léine and white clóca: the uniform of an acolyte of the Order of Inishfeirm.  “I’m ready, Máister.  You don’t need to hide any longer.”

        Máister Kirwan stepped out from behind the rocks.  His bald head was protected by the hood of his clóca.  In the shadows cast by the rolled cloth, she could she his thin mouth pursed under the strands of a gray-white beard, but his dark eyes glittered kindly.  He leaned on a staff of oak, and Ochtapas — one of the Clochs Mór, the great stones of magic — lay atop the white cloth of his léine.  “Come on, then, Bantiarna Geraghty,” he said.  “Before your Gram causes all the bráthairs and siúrs to go into apoplexy or my bones freeze up entirely.”

            He turned his back and started toward the long trail up the steep flanks of Inishfeirm to the White keep, but Sevei suddenly gave a gasp.  She stopped, putting her hand to her forehead.  “What the matter, Sevei?” Máister Kirwan asked, but she couldn’t answer him through the welter of images flooding her vision.

        An awful creature, scaled and horrible… the stench of carrion… her beloved twin brother Kayne’s face, mouth open in mingled pain and fury… He was close, closer than he’d been in so long, but…

        “It’s Kayne,” she answered finally.  She clutched her side as if something had struck her, groaning.  “Something’s happening to him…”

#

        The wind was cold in the Mountains of the Finger, and snow swirled down from low gray clouds shredded by the rocky peaks surrounding them.  Kayne shivered in his furs, glowering as his da, Owaine Geraghty, raised his hand.  The riders  —  now only a few hundred, though they’d ridden away a year ago with over a thousand mounted troops  —  halted.  They were at a crossroads, the town of Ceangail nearby.  “What’s the matter?” Kayne asked his da, bringing his horse Gainmheach up alongside his da’s dappled stallion.

        “Nothing,” Owaine replied.  “I thought we should rest the horses for a moment.”

        “So close to the town. Da?”

        His da’s eyes narrowed at the question.  For a moment Kayne thought that he wouldn’t answer  —  Kayne knew he wouldn’t have, if their positions had been reversed and Kayne had been the one giving the orders.  He would expect his orders to be obeyed, unquestioned and immediately.  But, of course, Da sighed and answered.  “We have time to get there yet today, Kayne.  Why risk hurting one of the animals?  Besides, we should check the wagons before we start the descent into Ceangail.  The road’s rough and we don’t want to lose one or hurt any of the injured.” 

        Owaine’s voice was calm enough but Kayne could saw Harik MacCathaill — as Owaine’s Hand the person responsible for the discipline of the gardai — scowl openly at Kayne for daring to demand a reason.  The gardai nearest them looked carefully away.  Most of them knew the tension that existed between Kayne and Owaine, a tension which had only become worse over the last year.  The campaign had begun badly before they even left Dún Laoghaire:  there was to have been an army five or perhaps even ten thousand strong riding from the Tuatha into Céile Mhór and ready to lend succor to the besieged lands of Thane Aeric MagWolfagdh, but the usual squabble and disagreements had broken out; the Rí Connachta had been openly irritated upon learning that Owaine would lead the expedition.  “The man’s no more than a common tuathánach, no matter what titles the Mad Holder may have bestowed on him,” he was reputed to have said.  Not much more than a third of the hoped-for number had finally assembled, mostly from Dún Laoghaire itself along with a full squadron of clanfolk sent from Inish Thuaidh.  Tuath Infochla had sent nearly its full allotment, but there were few from Tuath Airgialla, Tuath Connachta or Tuath Locha Léin, and none at all from Tuath Gabair or Tuath Éoganacht.   The only Cloch Mór among the group had been Owaine’s own, and there were few clochsmion. 

        The Thane of Céile Mhór had been hard-pressed to conceal his severe disappointment on their arrival.  And over the year, with few exceptions, the battles with the Arruck had not gone well.

        Some of the gardai had witnessed the heated confrontation between Kayne and Owaine after the battle at Lough Scáthán.  The memory of that day still burned in Kayne’s mind like witchfire.  If he had been wielding Blaze, his da’s Cloch Mór, then the Arruck would have regretted their decision to attack the hill held by Thane MagWolfagdh.  Kayne would have ignored the Thane’s orders to remain in position on the flank; he would have disdained the signal to retreat.  No, he would have moved the gardai of the Tuatha forward in support and driven the foul Arruck back into the deep, shimmering waters of the lough.

        There would have been no ignominious rout, had that been done.  Thane MagWolfagdh might still be alive and sitting on the throne of Céile Mhór in Concordia and not that incompetent, ungrateful first cousin of his.  The slow advance of the Arruck might have been halted for a time.  They might have been going home heroes rather than as simply a troop of weary, tired soldiers whose tour of duty was thankfully over.

        Owaine, to Kayne’s mind, had proved to be a cautious and too-obedient general, a careful one who loved and protected his troops too much.  The cautious and obedient and careful are rarely heroes, Kayne had long ago decided.  He wondered when Da had changed.  After all, he’d heard many times the story of how near-sighted Owaine Geraghty had left Inishfeirm, alone and unarmed, in pursuit of the woman who would become both Kayne’s Mam and the Banríon Ard of all the Tuatha.  At one time in his life, apparently, Owaine had been as reckless and impulsive as Kayne, uncaring of risks to himself.

        No longer.

        Kayne heaved a sigh as cold as the lines of snow whipping around the horses’ hooves. He’s too cautious to even get out of this weather without first checking the wagons…  “Fine,” he said to his da and started to turn Gainmheach.  But the wind shifted slightly, blowing for a moment from the northwest.  They all smelled it in the same moment, the soldiers’ weary heads lifting:  wood-smoke, and with it a bitter tang they all remembered too well.  “Da?” Kayne said. 

        Owaine shook his head.  “No, son.  It can’t be,” he insisted, but his face creased to match the landscape around them.

        “It is,” Kayne persisted.  “You know it is.  The Mother knows none of us can forget that stench.”

        Owaine grimaced.  “Leave the wagons here,” he called out.  “Those who can ride, come with me.”  He led the gardai along the stony, ill-marked road:  around a barren outcropping, up a steep slope to where they could look down through the gray-white haze of the flurries into the valley where the town of Ceangail lay.  But Ceangail was obscured behind a screen of black smoke.

        Several buildings within the walls of Ceangail burned.

        Riding next to his da, Kayne could see the corded muscles on Owaine’s neck, the flare of color on his cheeks, and the narrowing of his dark eyes.  Owaine rose up in his stirrups, glaring down into the steep-sided valley.  The figures they saw besieging the walls were all too familiar, as were the cries that echoed from the green-wrapped slopes around them.  

        Arruck.  Here in Talamh an Ghlas.  Here in our own lands.

        “How in the Mother’s name did they come to be here?” Owaine asked the wind, staring.

        “That doesn’t matter, Da…” Kayne began impatiently, but glared warningly at him and turned to his Hand.

        “How many are there, Harik?” he asked.  “I think we should come at them from two sides so we can to cut off their lines of retreat.  We don’t want any of them escaping to-” 

        “Da!” Kayne shouted.  “The town burns while you’re sitting here talking.  We have to ride!”   He wheeled Gainmheach around and shouted to the others.  “Ride!” Without waiting to see if anyone followed, Kayne plunged downward recklessly, Gainmheach’s hooves skidding on the frozen ground.  “Go, Gainmheach!”  He dug his heels into the stallion’s sides.

        He risked a glance back.

        “Go!” he heard Owaine say belatedly.  As one, the riders stirred on the crest of the mountain road.  Like a dark avalanche, they spilled downward with Kayne at the fore.  The sound was enormous: hooves pounded the rock-strewn, wet earth like it was a vast drum; hoarse battle cries shrilled like calls of a fierce banshees; the air shivered with the high ring of armor and sword.  Kayne held desperately to Gainmheach, urging the horse into a desperate downhill gallop as much from fear of being overtaken by the thunder behind him as from an urgency to reach the smoldering buildings ahead.

        He’d worry afterward about what Da would say.  Now, he only wanted to kill.  He wanted revenge for the far too many dead they’d left behind, buried in foreign barrows.  He wanted retribution for the Arruck’s temerity in entering his land.  His.

        At nineteen, even after a year’s experience, the onset of a battle was still exciting to Kayne, and he held the young person’s belief that he was invincible. Scars he had, aye, but they were minor and he was, if anything, proud of what they represented.  He wore them with honor.  In the past several months he had seen death and grave injuries, had seen it happen to friends and foe alike, but Kayne had no sense that anything like that could happen to him.  The son of the beloved Healer Ard never learned to fear injury; over the years, his mam had healed the broken bones he’d sustained in play, and he’d seen her call on the power of the mage-lights and bring back soldiers whose souls were already half in the grasp of the black haunts, restoring them back to health.  The men in the wagon, those too wounded to ride or walk, held onto life with the hope that the Healer Ard would aid them in the same way, once they were back in Dún Laoghaire.

        Kayne didn’t fear battles.  He only feared losing them.

        The cold wind threw Kayne’s long, braided hair behind him and made him squint.  He reached the foot of the mountain;  the slope gentled as Gainmheach vaulted a scree of fallen rock and pounded over the soft, thick turf of the valley.  The shouting of the gardai, tinged with a shared outrage, rose louder as they approached Ceangail.  After the long campaign in Céile Mhór, the soldiers with them were —like Kayne — furious to find the Arruck within their borders.  Kayne heard his da’s voice, directing two of the squadrons to wheel left and attack from the flank.

        Kayne wanted only the direct confrontation.  He was close enough to see their ugly faces now as the Arruck turned from their attack on the walls of Ceangail to peer at the charging riders.  They howled, waving the huge, long pole weapons they called ‘jaka.’  He could see at least one of the Arruck mages — the Svarti — among them, raising his spell-stick.  Kayne reached for his sword, pulling it loose from the scabbard lashed to his pack.  He waved it high, screaming the caointeoireacht na cogadh — the terrifying war-cry of the Inishlanders that Da had once taught him.

        Kayne smelled the Arruck waiting in ambush before he actually saw it — a strong whiff of rotting meat and musk.  Almost before the scent could register, the creature sprang up from a weed-choked hillock to Kayne’s right as he galloped past: scaled skin in mottled yellow and brown, a snouted face with its spinal crest flared and erect.  The Arruck’s muscular legs — articulated backward like that of a goat — bent, then straightened as the creature launched itself at Kayne.  Clawed hands grasped for him, missing Kayne but finding the rump of his horse. Gainmheach screamed in pain as the talons ripped long furrows in its flesh before digging firmly into muscle.  The Arruck was flung sideways but the horse reared, falling, and Kayne went down with it, his breath leaving him as he hit the ground.  Somehow he managed to keep his grip on his sword and pushed the point into the ground to help him rise.  He nearly went down again when he took a breath — he’d slammed his ribs against rocks hidden in the grass.  He forced himself to ignore the pain and stay upright, crouching and wheeling in a slow circle with his sword out as he looked for the Arruck.  “Gainmheach!  Here!” he called to his horse, but though Gainmheach had stopped several paces away, it only shook its mane and pawed the ground with its front hooves, its eyes and nostrils wide with fright and pain.

        The Arruck rose up from the ground between Kayne and the horse.  It was weaponless and young, but that hardly lessened the danger.  Kayne had seen an Arruck disembowel a sword-bearing gardai in boiled leather armor with a single, ferocious kick. This one was clothed in a loin-rag with its tribal crest on the right hip, and on the left were three slashes of bright color:  green, blue, and yellow — the sign of an Arruck mage, though this one must have been an apprentice, too young to be a full Svarti.  It crouched down and snatched up a spellstick laying in the grass. 

        Kayne scowled; if the spellstick still had slow magic stored within it, then Kayne was dead. 

        The rest of the riders had swept on past, Kayne’s da with them; he could hear — faintly — the shouting voices and the clash of steel as the line hit the Arruck attacking the village, and the smell and haze of a wood smoke was heavy around them.  Bloody light flashed in the sky:  Owaine’s Cloch Mór, Blaze, raining fire down on the enemy.

        Late, as usual.  You should have used the cloch sooner, Da…

        The Arruck snarled, its lipless snout curling over snaggled teeth.  Kayne waved the tip of his sword in its direction.  “Run away or make your move,” he said to the creature, even though he knew it was unlikely the Arruck understand Daoine.  “Kapasti!” he added in the Arruck’s own tongue:  Castrated coward, one of the few Arruck words he knew.  The insult was enough:  the Arruck howled, but he didn’t lift the spellstick and unleash magic:  instead, he charged.  Kayne screamed his own defiance and swung his blade. 

        The Arruck’s attack was the same Kayne had witnessed a hundred times over the last year, one that Kayne himself could admire:  direct and heedless of the creature’s own safety.  Kayne’s stroke chopped deeply into the Arruck’s neck and left shoulder, slicing down to bone, but the Arruck snarled and slashed at Kayne with its right hand even as Kayne — grunting with the effort — yanked his sword away from where it had caught in bone and scale.  Kayne half-stumbled, narrowly avoiding the Arruck’s following kick.  Thick blood drooled down the Arruck’s chest and its left arm hung limp and useless.  It snarled again and blood frothed in its mouth.  It took a step toward Kayne, slashing again with its right hand, but the intended blow came nowhere near Kayne and the creature’s deep-set eyes had gone cloudy.  It took another step and went down on its knees, hissing at Kayne and speaking a phrase in its own language.

        From the sound, it was almost certainly an insult.

        The Arruck considered capture to be worse than death; the few wounded ones the Daoine forces had managed to take alive had refused food, water, or the ministrations of the healers and simply waited for their wounds to fester and kill them.  From the soldiers of Céile Mhór, who had dealt with the advance of the Arruck for two decades, Kayne had learned that the Arruck themselves did not take prisoners or hold them for ransom as did the Daoine — any Daoine found wounded and still alive on the battlefield was always summarily executed.

        The soldiers of Céile Mhór no longer took Arruck prisoners, either.  Kayne stepped carefully around the kneeling Arruck until he stood to one side.  The head followed him, glaring, and the right hand was curled, the claws extended in defiance.  Kayne brought his sword back once more; a moment later the Arruck’s head rolled across the grass.

        “If you’d stayed with me, Kayne, this wouldn’t have happened.  What you did was foolish.”

        Kayne leaned on his sword, panting and trying to ignore the pounding ache in his side as his da jumped from his horse and hurried over to Kayne.  Owaine’s Cloch Mór swung bright on his chest, and the clóca underneath was spattered with blood.  He smelled of the Arruck. 

        Kayne ignored the rebuke.  “The town?” he asked.

        “The town will survive; the fires are already mostly out. A few houses burned and some townsfolk dead, but it could have been far worse.  Our return was well-timed.”  The spark of anger faded in his dark brown eyes as he looked at Kayne.  “Are you all right, son?”

        “Aye,” Kayne said, then groaned as he tried to straighten.  “I think so.  The damned thing took me off my horse and I probably cracked a few ribs.  The rest of the Arruck…?”

        “There were only three double hands of Arruck or so — considering how far they are from the current frontier, this must have been a group sent out to scout new territory.  None of them will be reporting back.”  Owaine sighed and muscles jumped in his lean face along the jaw.  “One of was a Svarti with slow magic, and we lost Padraic O’Calhain and Harkin O Floinn.  Here, on our own soil, where we thought we were finally safe.  I was afraid…  I was afraid we’d lost you as well, but I couldn’t take the time to find you…”

        You shouldn’t be afraid, Da.  You’re the commander.  You shouldn’t think of fear at all…

         Kayne’s mouth pulled down in a frown.  “Sorry, Da,” Kayne said.  “This one was waiting in the grass and surprised me.”

        Owaine glanced down at the body.  “Young one.  Mage-marked, too.  Probably sent back to recover his spells for the final assault.  Lucky for both of us that he never got the chance to finish, eh?”  Owaine took a step toward his son and embraced Kayne, pulling him close.  Kayne kept his arms at his side and a moment later, Owaine stepped back.  “Thank the Mother,” he husked.  “I don’t know how I could tell your mam if you’d been lost.”

        Is that why you’ve been so cautious, because I’m with you?  That’s not what I want, Da.  That’s not the way you should be.   “I’m not afraid to die in battle, Da.  If that’s the Mother-Creator’s will, nothing any of us can do will stop it from happening.  I’d prefer to die with my sword blooded and as many of the enemy dead as I can manage.”

        “I’d prefer to win the battle with as few losses as possible.  Maybe if you had to look at the dying men in their faces, you’d feel differently.” Owaine looked away.  Back.  “Can you ride, son?”

        “Aye,” Kayne told him.  “I can manage.  Gainmheach…”

        The horse came this time at Kayne’s call, limping visibly from the injuries caused by the Arruck.  Blood soaked its rump.  “Take my horse,” Owaine said, but Kayne shook his head. 

        “I’ll walk him back, da.  Go on.  I’m  fine — see to the others.  Make sure we’ve got all the Arruck.”

        “Aye,” Owaine said, but he didn’t go.  He regarded Kayne, watching as he wiped his blade on the grass and sheathed it.  “Kayne.”  Kayne looked over at his da.  “What you did just now…  There’s a difference between bravery and foolhardiness.  You can’t just rush into battle without a plan, not if you want to come back out again.”

        “The town was burning, Da.  There were Arruck and we outnumbered them a good hand to one.  Did you plan to wait until they’d taken Ceangail?”

        The anger flashed again, Owaine’s nostrils flaring.  “After a year in the field, I would think you’d have gained some knowledge and wisdom, Kayne.”

        “I have, Da.  I know that the Arruck think we Daoine are too weak to defeat them, and I’m wise enough to know why.”

        He thought that Owaine was going to scream at him.  His da’s face flushed and he sucked in a harsh breath up, but Harik came riding up.  “Tiarna Geraghty!” the Hand shouted to Owaine.  “The Ald of Ceangail would like to speak with you, and the men are wondering where to make our encampment.”

        “I’m coming,” Owaine said to Harik.  With a final glare at Kayne, he stalked over to his horse and pulled himself up.   He rode off without another word. 

        Harik stared hard at Kayne for a long moment before turning to follow.

 

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