With the day of her arranged wedding fast approaching, will the Lady Eithne agree to marry King Eowain? And what interest do the mysterious drymyn-priests and their dark, forgetful Gods have in such a mundane matter as love?
Eithne cursed at the door and gave it another futile kick, then went to the earthen decanter on the chest and sniffed at it, poured a dram into the cup and eyed it with suspicion—but no need. It was only cool, clear water.
Gods but a spot of ôl would be welcome, she thought, then filled the cup and drank.
The room around her lacked any personality. The stone walls, floor, and ceiling were dank and everything smelled of mildew. It might have been some time since the room had last been used, and the previous tenants had left little to define them. An hourglass full of sand, a hairbrush, and a small hand-mirror of polished brass stood upon the second chest.
Idly, she overturned the glass to set the sands running and drained her cup. How long do they think they can keep me cooped like a hen?
She moved the candle, flipped open the first chest, and rummaged through its contents. Nothing but personal items, clothing, and religious articles. The second chest was much like the first.
Eithne closed them again and sat on one of the reed mats. The sands of the hourglass ran into the lower bulb. She poured herself a second cup of water.
Gods, this is intolerable. She wondered what had become of the previous tenants. Died of boredom, no doubt. She tapped her fingers on her knee. How did I get here?
She’d heard reports that Eowain was killed fighting bandits, kinsmen, and rival tribesmen. And then she’d been told he lived, but so near to death that he might expire at any moment. Then he was bathed in the spring-waters, and boiled in that terrible cauldron, and— Now by some miracle he’s hale and whole again? I mean, Gods be praised, but…
There was a touch on her skin, at the back of her hand. She looked down idly and—
A giant house-spider—! Eithne’s throat closed. She knew its kind. They lived mostly in caves, or dry forests under rocks. And a common enough spider in people’s homes too.
Which is this, cave or home, here under this hill—! The nape of her neck tingled. It’s as big my damn finger—!
The conspicuously hairy legs and palps tested her flesh.
With a little shriek and a shudder, Eithne stood and shook the infernal thing off her. It flew away to a far corner and disappeared.
Oh, I will not remain cooped up with that! She pounded on the door, called out to her jailors. But if any heard, they did not answer.
She kicked at the stone wall, paced three strides to the opposite side and kicked at the opposite one for good measure. Is this any way to treat guests? Locking them up with great, big, hairy—!
The bolt scraped.
The door swung open and the ban-drymyn Alva Damar stepped through. The same ban-drymyn who’d lived a hermit’s life in the forested mountains near Eithne’s village. The very one who’d pronounced the geas upon her as a child.
“Are you ready to behave like a woman, or will we have more of these tantrums?” The ban-drymyn’s voice was stern and grim.
“Tantrums? I’m not accustomed to being dragged about like a poppet, Sister!”
There was no force of magick behind the command. “I’ll stand, thank you.”
“Suit yourself then, child.” Alva closed the door to the cell and the bolt clicked into place behind her. She sat wearily down, took up the earthen cup, tossed the remaining sip to the floor, and poured a new draught from the decanter.
Eithne crossed her arms over her chest. “Why am I a prisoner? Where’s Eowain?”
“Stop being stupid, girl.” Alva sipped from the cup. “Your hedge king is safe for the moment. Resting, here in the temple. He’ll sleep for some time. And you’re not imprisoned. You’re protected.”
“From what? Eowain defeated his cousin and the bandits.”
Alva nodded. “Aye, and the Cailech men, and a sorcerer besides.” She sipped again at the cup, put down the cup, and pulled up her hair to braid it as she spoke.
“Then why am I—protected? The danger has passed.”
Alva shook her head and braided her plaits. “Not past. This sorcerer, Kûlkak, he was somewhat to reckon with. Gods only know what mischief he set in motion before he died. And now there’s—something else.” She furrowed her brows.
“Something else?” She scoffed at the old woman. “Is that the best you’ve got?”
Alva shook her head again, finished her braid, and took up the cup again. “No.” She drank. “The danger’s not yet passed. There’s been—an upset—in the æther.” She looked grim, but waved it away as if unimportant. “More to the point, factions have gathered in the Vale, each with many men, and many reasons to oppose this marriage. Not to mention the king of the Cailech, whose kinsmen your hedge-king just murdered.” She drank again, then put down the cup. “You’re far too lovely and talented a girl to sleep among such cutthroats.” She glanced up at Eithne. “Stop slouching.”
Frustration boiled up from Eithne’s breast. “I am not slouching.” She squared her shoulders. “And you are not my mother. And my father and his men and the men of Droma are not cutthroats. I’ll be as safe with them as here.” She stabbed at finger at Alva. “Don’t forget it was you that brought us here, old woman. Five months ago, you told my father the portents for this marriage were favorable.” She threw her arms in the air. “What part of all this seems favorable to you?”
Alva narrowed eyes at her. “I don’t make the omens, girl. You were prohibited to marry, from the day you were born and until the portents were favorable.” She closed her eyes and squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Even then, you’d still have your choice not to wed. If it suited you. So said the coelbreni when I threw them. I don’t order the signs, I just read them.” She sighed. “And favorable is what they said five months ago.” She raised her hands and shrugged. “What would you have me do?”
“I’ve waited seventeen years for these favorable portents of yours! Most of my contemporaries are married, with children of their own already.” Eithne punched the door. “I gave up on such omens a long time ago.”
Alva sulked. “Not my fault you haven’t got more faith. I blame that father of yours—”
“But—Oh!—Surprise!” Eithne threw her arms in the air and waved her hands. “This would-be hedge-king needs a bride, and we can settle some old clan feud, and suddenly the portents are favorable!” She snarled at the old witch. “Damned convenient.”
Alva snorted and her tone grew dangerous. “Which part—of any of this—seems convenient to you? The journey here from his kingdom was one disaster after another. Twelve men died. Your own handmaiden Breda was killed by war-dogs. There wasn’t a one of us that wasn’t almost killed. Including me, you fool girl!”
“I am not a girl!” Eithne pounded her fists against her thighs. “And I still haven’t agreed to any of this!”
“Och! Gods save us from stubborn little fools.” Alva closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples. “You are your mother’s daughter.”
“You leave my mother out of this!” As if Eithne wanted anything in common with that woman. “Open this door! I don’t need or want your damn protection.”
“Glad to hear it.” Alva slapped her knees and stood up. “Nevertheless, you’ll stay here, for your own safety.
Eithne closed her eyes, clenched her fists, took a deep breath. It was all too familiar. Old women telling her what to do, what to think. Mother does the same damn thing. Talks circles around me, as if I’ve said nothing.
Alva went on. “Anyway, the Dragon is coming, and—”
“What is that? The Dragon?” The high-priestess had made similar cryptic references to such a thing. “You don’t mean—” Eithne waved her hands like wings through the air. “A dragon?”
Alva shook her head. “It’s of no concern to you what it is. It’s coming, and until it does and the time for your wedding’s at hand, you’re best kept safely here.”
Eithne put her fists to her head. “I haven’t agreed to marry!”
“Really now, why wouldn’t you? He’s a stout lad.” Alva leered at her. “Would that I were thirty years younger.”
“And he’s done nothing but nearly get me killed ever since I heard of him.”
Alva pursed her lips. “He was nearly killed himself on your account, don’t forget.”
Eithne rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “By his own cousin. Surely that makes it worse, not better. His own people hate me.”
“Stop whinging, dear.” Alva smoothed a wrinkle in her pale-blue robes. “Hate’s such a strong word. They just don’t know you yet.”
“They don’t want to know me.”
“Pick, pick, pick.” Alva pointed at Eithne’s brow. “You’re going to give yourself wrinkles if you keep frowning like that.”
“Will you stop that?”
Alva blinked at her like a wide-eyed owl. “Stop what, dear?”
There it is again. Does this withered old woman have no idea how she sounds? Is she really so oblivious? Eithne took—one, two, three—deep, calming breaths. “I am not a child. Stop treating me like one.”
Alva shrugged. “Stop acting like one.”
A knock from the other side fell on the door. Alva rose, went to it, and ushered in a priestess in pale blue robes with a tray of cold meats and fruit. Beyond, two Huntsmen stood watch.
“Ah, good,” said Alva. “Just set the platter there.”
“Aye, Sister.” The priestess made a curtsy and set the tray on a chest, then bowed out.
Alva eyed Eithne. “I’m quite serious, girl. You’re better off here. You have food, and drink. I trust you’ve settled yourself? Just stay here, until the situation has calmed itself. I don’t want the door bolted again.”
Eithne considered the old woman. She could certainly force her aside. Except that Alva had more than once stayed Eithne with naught but a word. And she was a priestess of the Order. The merest hair on her knotted white head was sacrosanct. To do violence to her would bring the Gods’ own curses down on her.
Eithne sighed heavily, smoothed her dress, schooled her manner, and curtsied. “Yes, Sister.”
She’d have to think of some other way out.