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Authors: Janeen O'Kerry

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BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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“I think she may well have succeeded…though I hate the thought of giving her such satisfaction.”

“Then consider the question that I ask you now: Do you wish to exact justice? Do you wish to teach them both a lesson they will never forget?”

Sabha looked straight at Rioghan. Her voice was steadier than it had been. “Tell me what I must do.”

 

A short time later Rioghan pushed open the door of Sabha’s house with her shoulder, holding an armload of hare and badger furs, and the black linen tunic against her chest. The other women hurried over to her, but she held up her fingers to request quiet. “She sleeps now, in the warm straw. I have given her a drink to help her rest.”

“Will she be all right? Is she rational now?”

“She will recover. Please let her sleep. It is the best thing for her. I will stay until dawn, and we can give her more of the tea that makes her sleep should she need it again.”

With that, Rioghan let go of the bundled furs and the tunic she carried, and let them fall to the muddy ground. “Give these to the servants,” she said, “and tell them to throw them to your dogs—if the dogs will have them.”

 

 

The eastern sky had turned the faintest gray when Rioghan and her two hounds walked across the yard of Cahir Cullen and approached the tall wooden gates. The gates opened for her just as she reached them, for the night watch was accustomed to her quiet presence and knew that she preferred to leave at dawn whenever possible. A moment later she, Scath, and Cogar were walking down the wide road toward home.

Long ago—so long that none of them nor their children nor their grandchildren were still alive—the Sidhe had built this road between Sion and the holly grove where Cahir Cullen now stood. The road had been made from beams of timber laid both straight and crosswise to form a true, solid framework. Then the beams had been pegged together, filled in with twigs and rock, and covered over with earth to make a good surface for animals and chariots alike.

It served humans on foot just as well, Rioghan had found, and it allowed her to make the journey to this fortress with relative ease whenever she was needed. Only in an emergency was the shorter, but more difficult way through the deep forest taken—for while the dense, dark needles of the pines offered shelter and screening even in winter, they could also house terrible danger.

Donaill had been bold to bring his men down that nearly invisible path in the deep darkness last night. Even Rioghan, accustomed as she was to the forest, always found herself picking her way very carefully through that wild, thick, confusing stand of tall trees and heavy brush, with its uneven ground and haphazard rocks. Yet Donaill had done it without hesitation when someone at his fortress needed help, though Rioghan knew well that even the boldest of men were apprehensive at the thought of meeting any of the Sidhe…especially at night in the dark and misty forest.

The Sidhe were the small, dark-haired folk who had always lived in Eire. They had built many wonderful things and had their own powers, but their gentle magics and fragile bronze weapons had proved to be no match for the tall, fair, iron-wielding invaders who had overrun their land and killed any who dared to interfere.

Most of the Sidhe were gone now, either long dead or through having their lines absorbed by the families of Men—but there were still some who existed in secret in the deepest part of the woods, living as best they could and keeping their magic alive wherever they could find a way to do so.

Rioghan followed the road, this time, and she was soon out of sight of Cahir Cullen. She felt a sense of relief, as she always did, when on her way home…though she made herself ignore the small tug of loneliness, the little sense of loss, that always accompanied her when she bade farewell to the people of the fortress. No matter how much she looked forward to being at Sion once again, there was part of her that missed companionship.

Yet her true home waited for her at the end of this road, she reminded herself, a safe and comfortable home guarded by some thirty fiercely loyal dogs and surrounded by the gentle and beautiful people called the Sidhe. Rioghan smiled down at her pets and walked faster, anxious to see Sion once more.

Just as she rounded the first curve in the road, there was the sound of galloping hooves behind her.

In a heartbeat, Rioghan and her dogs were in the cover of the forest. Her black gown and cloak blended with the bare black trunks and deep shadows of the pines, as did the black and gray coats of the dogs. All three of them stayed very still as a stallion and his rider came around the curve.

“Rioghan!” cried Donaill, slowing his horse to a trot and then to a walk. “Rioghan! I know you must be near. You could not have gone much farther than this. Please come out. I will take you back to Sion, if you will allow me.”

He halted briefly, but when he got no answer he urged the black horse on again. “Rioghan!”

“Donaill.” He turned the horse around to see her standing in the center of the road, Scath and Cogar close at her side. With a wide smile, his blue eyes shining, his heavy red cloak flowing out behind him, he reined his stallion back down the road to halt in front of her.

Rioghan looked up at him as he smiled down at her, and it seemed that she was seeing him now for the first time. He was a man in the full strength of maturity, perhaps thirty years old, as tall as any other man at Cahir Cullen and with the broadest shoulders and most heavily muscled arms she had ever seen. Even his neck seemed to be carved of iron, the way his stallion’s neck rippled with strength.

Yet in spite of all of this power, those were slender and sensitive fingers that held the reins. Donaill’s face was shaved clean, and his light brown hair fell past his shoulders, drawn back by a black leather cord.

Above his wide jaw was a curving mouth and a slim, straight nose, and blue eyes that held gentleness and a glint of humor. “Rioghan,” he said. “I am so glad I found you. Will you let me and my horse, Cath, take you back to Sion? It is a long walk.”

“It is not so long,” she argued. “But I thank you.” And then, she turned and continued on her way. Her dogs trotted close by her side.

Donaill urged his horse after her. “It is the least I can do after you have come all this way.”

“It is no trouble,” she said, keeping her eyes on the road. “I have come to Cahir Cullen many times, and always I have walked home.”

“But my lady Rioghan…” She stopped and waited patiently, still looking straight ahead. “I would enjoy your company,” he finished, seeming almost embarrassed.

Rioghan smiled. She had been waiting for that admission. “Thank you. Then I will accept your offer.”

As she had the night before, Rioghan took hold of Donaill’s strong wrist and swung up behind him on his black stallion. But this time, instead of making a mad dash through the darkness, the horse walked at a leisurely pace through the cold gray morning, with only Rioghan’s two dogs, a few wintering thrushes, and the occasional raven for company. Rioghan held her black leather bag with one hand and allowed the other to rest on her thigh as Donaill’s horse carried her home with long, powerful strides.

“I am so glad you accepted my offer,” Donaill began, glancing over his shoulder. “For quite some time now I have wanted to get to know you better.”

She looked up. “Quite some time? Until last evening you did not even know who I was, king’s champion Donaill.”

“Well, that may be true. I remember you only as an occasional shadow visiting Cahir Cullen in the night. But now that I have met you face-to-face, I do indeed wish to know more about you.”

Rioghan smiled. “There is little to tell—little that would be of interest to you. I have the age of twenty-three years, and for all of those years I have lived at Sion.”

He nodded. “Many of us have wondered about that place. We know it only as a place of the Sidhe, where Men trespass at their peril…though I will admit, I do not know of anyone who has actually been harmed by any of the Fair Folk. There are only the old stories, which do serve, it would seem, to keep Men away.”

“You are right,” Rioghan said. “The Sidhe’s numbers are few these days. And Sion is indeed a place of the Sidhe, built by the most ancient of them to provide both a ring of standing stones and a safe place to live within the earth for those who would learn to use the ring—and for those who have the greatest power of magic.

“Yet as the years pass, it has become forgotten, as such places often do, as the Sidhe’s numbers dwindle. After a time the cave has simply become a home for the Sidhe who remain, and for those who, like me, claim both Sidhe and Man in their ancestry.”

Donaill nodded. “I was told that a family once lived there, but that only the midwife has remained for the past several years.”

“That is true. My family is not of noble blood. They were farmers all, and some of them, a few generations back, were believed to be of the Sidhe. For countless years they lived side by side with the Fair Folk and made their home in the caves beneath the mound.”

“Yet you are the only one left there now. How did that come to pass? Why do you not come to live among us at Cahir Cullen?”

Rioghan paused. “Your fortress is simply not my home. I have never lived there, and I would never really belong.”

Donaill shook his head. “King Bran—and everyone there—would surely welcome you and your skills. Would you not like to have other young women to talk to, to work beside, to be with you as companions?”

She smiled. “Do not misunderstand. I have always found Cahir Cullen to be a lively and interesting place. I do enjoy the company of the other women there. But, as I said, it is not my home. I am not like the others.”

He grinned. “I can see that you are not. But tell me, please, how it is that you came to live alone at a place like Sion, beautiful though it is?”

She looked away, her thoughts drifting back. “My parents went to their rest long ago. After they were gone, my brother became a craftsman and found a bride at the fortress of Dun Orga, where they now live. My two sisters feared to live alone in the woods and also made their way to Dun Orga, where they soon found husbands.

“They are all content, and have invited me to live with them many times…yet I find that the only place for me is at Sion. There I can live as I choose, and I have the satisfaction of helping both the people of the Sidhe and the people of Cahir Cullen with the healing skills I learned from my mother and the Fair Folk. It is a very good life.”

“I suppose it is,” Donaill agreed. “But are you never lonely in that place, Rioghan? Such a beautiful young woman, with only dogs and Little People for companions, so far from the company of men—”

“I often think I prefer the company of dogs to the company of men,” she interrupted.

After a brief moment of shocked silence, Donaill laughed. “Now you must tell me why a lovely young woman—one whom many men would like very much to know—would say such a thing.”

Rioghan shifted the leather bag under her arm. “It is the same story that many women have. I did go to Dun Orga with my sisters for a time, and I too met a man…a man I loved, a man who loved me in return—or so I thought.”

“But he betrayed you.”

She glanced down at the road. “It is the most common of stories. He was simply another man who thought to acquire a wife for home and take as many women as he wished elsewhere.”

She paused, glancing toward the forest as a night-black raven flew off over the pines. “I thought him special. I thought him different. I thought him a hero. But he was just like any other man, and the fact that I loved him could not change what he was.”

The stallion’s hooves thudded softly on the road as they traveled.

Donaill cleared his throat. “The day will come when you will find the man who is worthy of you. But I am not surprised to hear that you have not yet found that man.”

Rioghan rode in silence. She was not quite certain whether she had been insulted. “Why do you say this?” she asked at last, keeping her voice as even as she could.

Again he glanced over his shoulder. She could see him smiling. “Only because you are, as you say, so different from all other women. You are secretive and mysterious, and that is always an attraction to men. You are independent, far more than any woman I have ever known…” He halted the horse and twisted around to look at her. “And you are very beautiful. I only wish I had known who you really were before now, for you have certainly caught the eye of the king’s champion.”

Donaill’s face moved very close to her own. His breath was warm on her face in the cold, damp air. His eyes began to close, and his lips approached hers…

“I may be different from all other women,” Rioghan said, sitting very still, with his mouth only a hair breadth from hers, “but I find you are the same as all other men—bragging, boasting, and concerned only with your station in life.”

Donaill froze. His blue eyes opened, surprised. Then he drew back from her and turned again to face forward.

Rioghan caught his waist as the horse moved on. She waited for Donaill to respond to her biting comment, but as they continued down the road he said nothing.

Yet she could feel his shoulders shaking. Was he angry? Perhaps she should slide down and continue on alone. She should have known better than to allow this situation—

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
12.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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