She did not set this geas upon herself, didn’t ask for the special attention of the Gods to her love-life. Yet the time for her decision has come.
Eithne picked at the cold meats, the early spring berries, and felt guilty.
Lying to a drymyn wasn’t as bad as striking one, but that didn’t make it right.
She had to admit to herself that old Alva meant well. Eithne was warm, fed, watered, safe for the first time in—Gods, when was the last time I felt safe?—yet she couldn’t help but feel trapped. The room was close and narrow, the walls made of stone, the air mildewed, and a single candle was all she had for light. She didn’t even know what hour of the day it was. Was it noon? Evening? She’d come to the temple near dawn, but she’d been underground ever since. The hourglass, its upper bulb nearly empty, signified nothing.
And where did that spider get to…? She shuddered at the thought, glanced around for any sign of the hairy-legged little beast.
She beat her fists against her knees as she sat down on one of the beds. The way they discount and undermine me? I don’t need their protection, no more than I needed Eowain to risk his damn fool neck for me. I know how to fight.
Her father’d seen to that, taught her sword-play and spear-work until she was as good as any man in their village.
Eithne had never wanted to be any good at spinning and carding and other so-called, “women’s work.” Yet Mother would’ve chained her to the spinning wheel—if she could have—and droned on and on through all the days of Eithne’s life about the glittering courts of the kings of Larriocht and what it meant to be lady-like. The life of a mountain-lord’s wife in a remote village, that wasn’t the life she’d wanted for herself. It wasn’t the life she wanted for Eithne.
Never mind what Eithne wanted for herself.
There’d been no sound from the hall since Alva left. Eithne rummaged through the chests again. A masher, a small knife, a small can of fuel oil, a tinderbox, and a clay smoking-pipe were among the personal effects.
She pocketed the knife. Just in case. Gods only knew where her sword, armor, and other gear had gone.
A cape, linen undergarments, a tunic, a woolen scarf, and a smock. A light blue robe, such as the lesser priestesses wore. A small wreath of mistletoe, holy to the goddess Thaynú, and set of small tin bells.
She put the light blue robe on over the plain linen gown she’d been given, took up the candle, and lifted the latch. The door opened.
“Hold, my lady.”
Eithne’s throat clutched.
The other guard growled at her. “We’ve our orders. You’re not to leave. Not until Her Eminence says other—yowse!”
Eithne’s right hook snapped his nose. She threw her flaming candle into the surprised face of the other, and ducked under his arms. Then like a bow-shot, she was past them.
She had to find the Commemoration Hall, with the tapestries on its walls. She’d entered the temple through there and knew no other way out.
Already booted footfalls followed after her.
A dark opening loomed on her left—but that wasn’t how I came—then another empty place on her left. At the far end, the light of fiery braziers flickered through an archway, and she could see a glimpse of tapestry beyond. The Hall! She skidded around the corner.
Down that corridor, up a short flight of carved stairs, and through the arched passage, into the wide hall. Four tapestries hung from the walls, and bronze statues of the mythical summer and winter kings stood in their alcoves. Booted heels and a hoarse shout pursued her.
From the wide hall, another short flight of carved stairs descended. Four Huntsmen stood guard, two on each side at the top of the broad stairway, with their backs to her. Long, fine swords sheathed in leather depended from their girdles.
The four guards turned, round-eyed. Hands went to sword-hilts.
Eithne leaped between them and down the carved steps like a spring doe.
“Damn it!—Get her!—Sound the horn!”
She ran and skidded around the corner into a long narrow vestry, with rows of blue and white robes hanging from pegs on either side. She took up one in each hand, threw them in the air. Her pursuers caught them in the face. The urgent, high-pitched blasts of a horn echoed from the stones—once—twice—again.
Eithne turned through an illumined archway into an octagonal shrine, lit by four burning braziers. Five women in pale blue robes, their prayerful chants interrupted, stood at a stone altar, round-eyed. Set behind them in the wall was a bronze statue of a beautiful woman with a sheaf of grain crooked in her elbow.
From beneath the altar, clear spring waters gushed from the hill. A channel of stone blocks bisected the chamber. The water frothed through the channel and out under the wall to her right.
Yes, I’ve been here before!
Two stout oaken doors, banded with black iron, stood on each side of the channel.
I came into the shrine through those doors!
One of them opened. A Huntsman came, sword drawn, in answer to the alarum horn. Across the channel, the other door opened. Another Huntsman, sword drawn as the first. Behind her, muffled curses and the stamp of booted feet.
She leaped into the channel. Her limbs went numb, the spring water rose over her head, the current swept her feet out from under her.