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Authors: Janeen O'Kerry

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BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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“She is,” Niall answered. “And for any harm she might do the husband as well.”

Airt’s eyes widened. “Oh,” he said. “I had forgotten about that.”

“She’s only immune for simple assault—not for actual bloodletting or permanent injury,” said Comyn helpfully.

“Or murder. She is not exempt for murder, either,” added Tully, being equally helpful.

“You’re right,” said Irial. “And since not many can afford to pay the body price
and
the honor price for murder, it happens only rarely.”

“And after three days, the first wife is exempt from only half the penalty, instead of the full penalty,” said Lorcan. “That does slow down a few of them after a while…but not many.”

“Airt, you seem to be forgetting one thing,” Irial said. “You must have the first wife’s consent, however grudging, before you bring a second wife into the home. Otherwise, the first wife has the right to divorce you and take all of her goods with her—as well as a portion of yours. You would still have only one woman in your house, and you would also have a divorced wife who resents you.”

“And it is not just a matter of law,” said Donaill. “You cannot do this thing by force. It will never succeed if the first wife will not accept it, and there are many who will not. You cannot ignore the feelings of such a woman. She may do far worse than simply divorce you.”

Airt raised his head and tried to look them all in the eye. “I think a man just has to be patient and understanding while the adjustment is being made. It has been successfully done many times. I am sure that Sabha and Coiteann and I will be no different. I look forward to our being a family.”

“If you ever see Bercan’s wives,” said Lorcan, “take a close look at the younger one’s face. She still bears the scars from the fall she took that night, thrown down by her sister-wife. Never do the two of them speak unless it is absolutely necessary.”

“Bercan’s is a very quiet house,” said Irial.

“And a peaceful one, too, I should think,” said Airt, with a laugh.

“Some might call it peaceful,” said Donaill. “But a cold, grim sort of peace it is. Not the sort that I would want in my home.”

“I would ask you, though, Donaill,” Airt said, “why a man of your status and respect has no wife at all in his house. Surely there are many who would be only too glad to take their places with you there. Surely you, the king’s champion, are a man who could have one or two or even three wives, wives who would be pleased to do all they could to gain your attentions—”

Donaill laughed. “I would rather have one woman living in happiness than two or three living in constant jealousy and tension. When I find that one, I will know. You need not worry for me, Airt. I would rather have true peace in my house, even if I must settle for just one wife.”

“Oh, I did not mean to worry for you! I only meant—”

But Donaill suddenly sat up straight and held out his hand for silence. All of them looked at him and quickly glanced at each other—and then the rest of them heard it, too.

There was a scratching, scrambling sound on the outside of the steep grass-covered wall, a wall half again as tall as any man in Cahir Cullen. The seven men leaped to their feet, reaching for the hilts of their swords as they did, and stood tense and waiting.

Something tore at the grass on the other side of the wall—something large and growling and determined. The men each fell back a few paces, braced, and waited for whatever it was to show itself.

Two huge dogs, one gray and one black, leaped up to the top of the wall. The gold and bronze plates on their collars gleamed in the torchlight from the grounds.

Donaill lowered his sword. He took a slow step toward the dogs, and then another. “Rioghan,” he whispered.

The two dogs pointed their noses to the dark sky and howled, a pleading, insistent noise that rose up to the clouds and vanished on the wind.

Donaill and his six companions ran to their horses.

Galloping out of the gates and into the night, they followed the narrow path through the dark woods.

Donaill did not need to follow the pair of dogs to know they were going straight to Sion. Only moments before, he and his friends had been relaxing within the safe walls of Cahir Cullen, enjoying a long winter evening with hardly more to worry about than who would fetch their next cup of blackberry wine. But now they rode through the woods at a breakneck pace, for Donaill knew that Rioghan would never have sent her dogs to him unless something was terribly wrong.

It was not long before they heard it.

Beyond the stone circle, on the other side of the strip of forest that separated the stones from Sion, came the sound of rearing horses and shouting men and fiercely barking dogs—and above it all, floating in the cold still air, a steady, hissing chant.

“Leave us!”

“Leave us!”

“Leave us!”

And as Donaill and his men burst out of the woods, he saw Rioghan up on the top of the mound of Sion, lit from below by the fire of the cave and surrounded by the men and women of the Sidhe. She held a bright crystal in her upraised hand and led the Sidhe in their wild, insistent chant.

“Earth, rise up!”

“Earth, rise up!”

Quickly Donaill and his men dragged their horses to a stop and tried to make sense of the wild confusion. Everywhere dogs leaped and snapped as six shouting riders slashed at them with their weapons. Stones flew through the air from the slings of the Sidhe. And it seemed to Donaill that an ominous shaking and vibration surged through the earth beneath their feet, unnerving the horses and their riders, almost as if the ground itself was about to—

“Earth, rise up!”

The trembling increased. A few rocks tumbled down from above the cave of Sion. All of the horses, including those of Donaill and his men, swung in terror and bolted for the forest, leaping and plunging away no matter what their riders tried to do.

The Sidhe cried out in triumph—but then the shaking stopped.

Donaill turned around. He saw Rioghan’s arms drop to her sides. She collapsed to the grass, exhausted. The Sidhe quickly surrounded her, dropping their slings. They all disappeared, then, into the darkness and the night became quiet and still once more.

The invading sextet of riders regrouped. They turned their horses back toward Sion once again, and Donaill’s anger flared when he recognized Beolagh as their leader. Forcing his black horse back into the clearing, Donaill shouted out, “Irial! Lorcan! Move now! Get those men away from here! Make them remember why they should not come back!”

The six men who rode with Donaill were among the best of King Bran’s warriors, and they made short work of the startled Beolagh and his five companions. Lorcan and Niall cut and pulled the heavy tangled nets off the trapped dogs, leaving the animals free to help.

There was no need to do serious harm to any of these men. The fierce barking and biting of the dogs, combined with the aggressive riding and challenges of Donaill and his men, soon had Beolagh and his followers surrounded. Their nervous horses crowded together as Rioghan’s dogs continued to growl and snarl at them, their eyes shining red in the light of the nearby bonfire.

“Beolagh!” shouted Donaill, allowing his horse to trot around the edge of the clearing. “And all the rest of you, the king’s own men! What are you doing in this place?” He pointed his sword directly at Beolagh’s pale and wide-eyed face. “This is the Lady Rioghan’s home! Why do you disturb it in this way? Why have you come here? Answer me!”

Beolagh gaped at him and opened his mouth as if to speak, but said nothing. As silence fell over the clearing, he glanced left and right, and Donaill saw that his own men had all of Beolagh’s riders at swordpoint—and none of them seemed any more ready to talk than their leader.

Donaill glanced at them. “I see that not one of you has the courage to answer me. The king will be pleased to know he has such honorable men serving him.” He snorted in contempt. “All of you—get off your horses. Now.”

Sullen and grim-faced, Beolagh and the other five slid down to the ground. “Move away from there. Stand over here, near the light from the cave, where we can see you.”

With the greatest reluctance, the six men let go of their horses and walked in a little group toward the cave. Quickly Airt and Comyn chased away the riderless horses and sent them galloping in a tight herd back down the road to Cahir Cullen. Donaill knew they would not stop until they reached the gates of the fortress.

His warriors surrounded the six men on foot, keeping them at swordpoint in the flickering light of the bonfire. In moments, the sound of their horses’ hoofbeats faded away. In the quiet that followed, Donaill could have sworn he heard the faint sound of laughing from somewhere above.

He kept his eyes firmly on his captives, resisting the temptation to look up to see the Sidhe or Rioghan. “I will ask you only once more, Beolagh. Why have you come to this place?”

His anger and frustration beginning to overcome his fear, Beolagh finally looked his captor in the eye. “We have harmed no one here! See for yourself!”

“No one? Were any of these dogs hurt? How many did you kill?”

Beolagh scowled in annoyance. “I don’t know. I might have killed one. What else could we do? They attacked us!”

Donaill laughed, though it was filled with contempt. “Oh, of course. You invade their home, so the creatures attack you, and then you have no choice but to kill them. Do you realize what a perfect idiot you resemble?”

Clenching his fists in frustration, Beolagh glared up at Donaill. “None of the Sidhe were harmed. We only want the gold!”

“Gold?” Donaill halted his horse, though he still kept his sword pointed at Beolagh. “What gold?”

Now it was Beolagh’s turn to look disgusted. “You know very well what gold! The gold right there in that cave!”

The man turned and pointed. There in the low light of Rioghan’s home, visible along the edges of the black cowhide hangings, were the glints of the gold and bronze and crystal objects that Beolagh had eyed the night before—a beautiful collection of pieces large and small, of rings and armbands and curving torques; of plates and small bowls with magnificent curling and interlocking designs; of stars and crescent moons and horses and dogs and deer and wolves perfectly rendered in gleaming metal and inlaid with sparkling crystals.

Donaill almost laughed. “So instead of serving as King Bran’s warriors you have decided to become common thieves? You would rather spend your time stealing the plates and cups of an undefended woman?”

Beolagh scowled and clenched his teeth, but he stayed among his men. “We are not thieves! That is Sidhe gold hidden in that cave. What need does a solitary midwife have for it?”

“Whether she has need of it or not, it’s no concern of yours. Anything in that cave is hers and hers alone. Did you not learn that as a child, Beolagh, as the rest of us did? Or were you out stealing the other babes’ toys on the day that lesson was taught?”

Donaill’s men began to chuckle amongst themselves. Also, he felt sure he could again hear the faint sound of laughing from above, and even from deep within the forest.

But Beolagh only glared hard at his captors; then he turned and spat on the ground. Donaill tightened his grip on his sword and lifted Cath’s reins.

“The Sidhe are not our people! They are nothing but animals roaming the woods!” Beolagh shouted. “They live in caves and wear skins and furs! What use do animals have for gold? It will cause them no harm whatsoever if we take it, no more than if we took a wagonload of rock from their forest! It will cause them no harm. No harm at all!”

Donaill cantered his stallion in a tight circle around the six captured men, forcing them to gather close together and raise their chins to look up at him. “Hear me, all of you!” he cried, pointing his sword directly at them as he rode by. “You are to stay away from this place. You are to leave this midwife and the Sidhe unmolested and in peace. You are to make no attempt to take their gold, or their bronze, or a clod of earth on the forest floor, or anything else that is in their possession. Am I understood?”

Beolagh looked as if he were ready to spit again, but thought better of it. “You are,” he muttered, and then elbowed his glowering companions. “Understood,” they all said, one after another. “Understood.”

Donaill halted Cath. “Good,” he said, and gave them all a sincere and pleasant smile. “Then I shall look forward to not seeing you here again. Go on now. You have a bit of a walk ahead of you. I hope you enjoy it.”

He backed his horse away from them, and glanced at his men to do the same. Beolagh scowled and looked from Donaill to his own sullen followers. Finally all of them turned and tramped off after their long-gone horses, walking down the dark road that would take them the long but simple way back to the fortress.

When the men were out of sight, Donaill turned to Irial. “All of you—go back to Cahir Cullen. Make sure Beolagh and the others really do return. I must go and find Rioghan.”

“You are certain? We will wait—”

“There is no need. It is late enough already. Go and get your rest. I will return by dawn.”

Irial grinned, and then turned his horse to go. “If you do find her, it may be later than that. We’ll see to Beolagh for you. And I suppose you can always sleep tomorrow.”

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
9.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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