Authors: Kate Forsyth
‘My master!’ Dide cried. ‘Oh, merciful Eà, let the Rìgh be safe.’
As weak-limbed and shivering as if they had been struck down with a fever, they climbed the stairs together, trying to avoid stepping in the pools of blood. The bodies grew scarcer and their step quickened. Up to the royal suite they mounted, past the fallen bodies of the Rìgh’s bodyguards. Still they could sense nothing but a fog of black despair which clouded all their extrasensory perceptions.
Then they came to the landing and saw there a great pile of dead Fairgean, sixty or more, their pale scaly skin horribly smeared with blood. Isabeau noticed, with a strange detachment, that their blood was as red as any human’s. Then she saw Lachlan kneeling just beyond the dead Fairgean, his dark head bowed, his wings folded in comfort about the still figure of the youngest of his personal guard, Dillon of the Joyous Sword. Dillon was crouched in unnatural stillness, his arms red to the elbow, a bloodied sword in his hand. Across his lap was the lifeless body of his dog, the white fur dark with gore.
Dide scrambled across the piles of dead. ‘Master, are ye hurt?’
Lachlan lifted his face, twisted with rage and grief. ‘Nay, no’ I, thanks to Dillon and his joyous sword. He saved me and Iseult both. We could no’ fight them all off, they came so fast.’
‘The bairns?’ Isabeau whispered.
‘Safe,’ the Rìgh answered, gesturing towards the royal suite.
He shrugged, his face darkening.
Isabeau ran past him, her heart pounding with dread. The sitting room was empty and undisturbed, but she could hear the sound of childish sobbing from the nursery wing. She hurried that way and came into Donncan’s room. She had to step over two sea-warriors who were lying in the doorway, their weapons fallen from their hands. There was no mark of battle on their slim, muscled forms, and although their eyes were closed, the gills at their neck fluttered slightly and their bare chests rose and fell slightly with their breathing.
Iseult was sitting on the floor, comforting her three children who all cowered against her. Bronwen was slumped nearby, her arms huddled about her knees, her silver flute fallen from her hand. On the floor before them lay their nursemaid Elsie, her cap wrenched askew so her blonde curls lay tumbled, her pretty face staring up at the ceiling. Her grey dress and white apron were slashed and stained with blood. Her blue eyes were wide open and rather startled. Across her unmoving chest lay another Fairgean warrior, a long serrated
fin curving out of his spine. He was snoring.
Isabeau looked from Elsie’s dead startled face to Iseult, then back again. ‘What happened?’ she whispered.
‘The Fairgean came to try to kill the children,’ Iseult replied matter-of-factly. ‘Elsie held them off as long as she could, then Bronwen played her flute and they fell asleep. It was too late for Elsie though.’
Isabeau knelt and gathered Bronwen in her arms. The little girl gave a great shudder and pressed her face against her, but did not cry or speak. Isabeau smoothed her silky black hair, rocking her gently. She looked down at the nursemaid, lying so still at her feet. ‘Poor Elsie,’ she said.
‘She saved the bairns’ lives,’ Iseult said, still in that very controlled voice. ‘If she had not held them off, Bronwen could no’ have reached her flute and they all would have died.’
Suddenly Iseult bent her head over her children and began to weep, great sobs shaking her slim body. Isabeau reached for her hand. Her twin’s fingers closed hard upon hers and so they sat, both fighting back their tears, for a very long time.
‘Now shall ye agree that we must wipe out the Fairgean once and for all?’ Linley MacSeinn demanded, striding up and down the great hall so his heavy plaid swung from his shoulders. ‘Now that they have dared to strike at ye in your own home?’
There was an uproar from the council. Many among them had eyes reddened with grief, for few had not known someone who had died in the Beltane massacre.
Lachlan rose to his feet. He was drawn and tired. He raised one hand but the shouting did not die down until the chancellor had banged his hammer down repeatedly. At last the council quietened down and
turned to hear the Rìgh speak.
‘The Fairgean have grown so strong and so bold they were able to strike at us here in our very own stronghold,’ Lachlan said. ‘Reports from the city and the countryside show that we were no’ alone in our duress. All up, we have calculated that up to ten thousand Fairgean warriors attacked Rhyssmadill, Dùn Gorm and many o’ the major towns along the Clachan coastline. We foolishly believed that we were safe behind the bulwark. Now many innocent men, women and children have died because o’ our—because o’
—foolishness. Their deaths weigh heavily on my conscience.’
The court was silent. Lachlan sighed and rubbed his forehead. ‘Linley is right. We have let the Fairgean rampage unchecked for too long. I hoped that as long as we stayed away from the coast and the rivers, we would no’ have to face them until we were strong enough. We concentrated on solving our internal problems before we faced the threat from without. The Fairgean have had time to grow strong, however. They have been breeding up their numbers ever since they wrested Carraig back from the MacSeinn. They are now well armed with swords and spears o’ fire-forged steel, and they have had much practice in killing humans.’
He paused for a long time, waiting for the groans and exclamations to die down once again. His hands clenched tightly upon his sceptre. As if in response to his touch, the Lodestar mounted at the crown glowed with a soft white light. For a moment a chord of exquisite music rang out, though only heard by those who
had the gift of clear-hearing. The Lodestar was the most potent talisman in the land, and could only be touched by one of MacCuinn blood. Lachlan had only recently begun to master the powers of the magical orb, and its response to his touch obviously comforted and strengthened him.
‘We are stronger than we have been since the time o’ my ancestor Aedan Whitelock!’ His voice rang out proudly. ‘Eileanan has been united into one land for the first time in its history. Arran and Tìrsoilleir no longer stand against us, and all those o’ faery kind, from the mighty dragons to the mysterious nyx, have sworn us their friendship and aid. The Fairgean alone refuse to sign the Pact o’ Peace. They alone stand against the might o’ a united Eileanan!’
This time there was cheering from the ranks of lairds, merchants, guildmasters and soldiers crowded into the conference hall. Many beat their daggers against their goblets enthusiastically. Again Lachlan waited, though this time his hands were calm on the glowing orb of the Lodestar and his wings were raised proudly. When he spoke again his voice was soft but filled with regal assurance.
‘So, yes, Linley, ye are right. It is time for us to strike! It is time for us to win back your land for ye, it is time for us to fulfil the promises we made to ye and your clan. It is time for us to drive the Fairgean back into the sea!’
The room erupted in cheers and shouts of martial joy. Only a few remained sombre and quiet—the Banrìgh sitting so still and pale upon her throne; the Keybearer Meghan NicCuinn, her ancient face set in
grim lines; Dide and his grandmother Enit Silverthroat; her apprentice Jay the Fiddler, a tall boy with a thin, sensitive face who cradled a viola case in his arms; the young banprionnsa Fionnghal NicRuraich who sat by his side, a dainty black cat curled on her lap. Even Brangaine NicSian, who had lost her entire family to the Fairgean, looked troubled and unsure.
‘We must plan the offensive very carefully,’ Lachlan said. ‘There must be no chance o’ losing this war. Over the past thousand years we have had to take up arms against the Fairgean three times. Three times we have struggled with them, three times we have fought for our lives and our liberty at the cost o’ thousands o’ lives. There must no’ be another time. This must be the last.’
A chill fell over the room and many looked at each other sideways, unable even to bear the thought of what would happen if they planned an offensive against the Fairgean and failed.
Lachlan smiled at them all rather grimly. ‘Do no’ fear. We shall no’ fail. Have we no’ won against far worse odds than these? Did we no’ drive the Bright Soldiers from our land and back into the Forbidden Land, and did we no’ conquer the Forbidden Land itself? Do we no’ have the might o’ both witchcraft and arms on our side? Eà shall shine her bright face upon us, never ye fear.’
The council broke up with a great hum of conversation as everyone discussed the outcome of the meeting. Lachlan came up to where Iseult and Isabeau sat, leaning his hand wearily on the side of his wife’s chair. ‘Well, it is done. We attack Carraig.’
Iseult nodded, not looking at him. Her back was very stiff. ‘We had best call the war council together,’ she said. ‘Once again we plan a war.’
He nodded and straightened up, his face grim. Isabeau looked from one to the other, still sensing a coldness and distance between them. Neither looked at her or at each other. When Lachlan moved away to speak to Duncan Ironfist, she said softly to Iseult, ‘Is all well between ye two?’
She saw colour run up under her sister’s fine skin but Iseult shrugged and said rather sharply, ‘O’ course, why would it no’ be?’
Isabeau said apologetically, ‘I be sorry, I just wondered …’
‘We are all just troubled by what lies ahead,’ Iseult said. ‘We have just won one war and now we must fight another.’ Her voice was unhappy.
Isabeau laid her hand on her arm to comfort her, but Iseult shook it off, saying, ‘We must do what has to be done.’ She rose and strode off to join her husband and Duncan in front of the maps. Isabeau watched them, her heart still troubled. It had been some time since she had dreamt of Lachlan’s hand upon her body, his mouth upon her throat. By the tension in Iseult’s shoulders, the smoulder in Lachlan’s eyes, she knew it was no coincidence.
The war council convened for three days and three nights. Platters of food and jugs of wine were carried in and out, and when the arguments grew too violent,
a break was called and everyone staggered off to bed for a few short hours.
All were driven by a sense of urgency. For the first time in the long, bloody history of Eileanan, a death blow had been struck into the very heart of its people. Rhyssmadill had been breached. The MacCuinn had been attacked in his very home. Blood had been spilt in the throne room and the Rìgh’s own bedroom. The Fairgean had declared war in no uncertain terms.
The conference had been called so hastily that not all the prionnsachan were able to attend. Anghus MacRuraich of Rurach was many miles away and deeply immersed in his own problems; but his daughter Fionnghal attended the council, accompanied by Rurach’s ambassador to the court, the Duke of Lochslain.
Brangaine NicSian of Siantan was there, pale and quiet, her eyes red-rimmed. She contributed little to the discussion, having no knowledge of war tactics, but listened carefully to everything that was said, her mouth set grimly.
Melisse NicThanach of Blèssem had ridden in only a few days after the Beltane massacre, with a large troop of men and her seanalair, the Duke of Killiegarrie, who had fought at Lachlan’s side through many an engagement.
Madelon NicAislin of Aslinn sent her seanalair, the Duke of Gleneagles, while Malcolm MacBrann of Ravenshaw rode in with his son Dughall and a swarm of dogs of all shapes, colours and sizes. The Prionnsa of Ravenshaw was very elderly now, a thin stooped old man with a shock of silver hair and a magnificent full
white beard that reached past his sporran. He wore the full regalia of kilt, plaid and badge, with a black velvet doublet, a snowy white cravat, and a
thrust in his boot. Although he was always the first to hear the step of the servants bringing in the wine, whenever anyone asked him to take the yapping, brawling dogs out to the kennels, he would cup his hand behind his ear and shout, ‘Heh? Speak up, lad, I canna hear ye.’
Of all the people there, Linley MacSeinn was the most vociferous. He had dreamt of marching for Carraig with the whole of Eileanan behind him for so long that now it seemed likely to happen he was in a state of quivering impatience, part exultation, part disbelief.
‘Linley, I ken ye are eager to be on the move but indeed we must decide what we are all to do afore we can ride out,’ Lachlan said with some exasperation. ‘Please, let us think how we can best overcome the Fairgean. Where and when would be the best place to face them? How should we fight them? Do we spend our money building more ships or do we try to fight them on the land? These are the things that must be decided before we even think about marching forth!’
Argument broke out all round the room. There had been no concerted defence against the Fairgean since they had first driven the MacSeinn clan out of Carraig and begun their attacks against the coast of Eileanan. Every fishing village or harbour town had defended itself as it thought best, or simply packed up and fled at the first sight of a sea-serpent on the horizon. As the years had passed and the Fairgean had grown bolder and stronger, more and more villages had opted for flight
until the hinterland was crowded with refugees and the coast virtually deserted.
What little resistance there was had proved to be haphazard and erratic, in stark contrast to the highly organised attacks of the Fairgean. Some villages strung up their fishing nets across the mouth of the bay to try to entangle the sea-faeries, stabbing them through the net with their salmon spears and their gutting knives. This tactic was no longer as effective as it had once been, since the Fairgean now had daggers and swords of their own with which to slash themselves free. Other villages had met the attacks with flaming torches, since all knew the Fairgean were terrified of fire. That had been effective only as long as the number of attackers had been small. Now that the Fairgean were once again many, they had simply overwhelmed the villagers with force of numbers.
‘Isabeau, ye ken more about the sea-faeries than anyone,’ Lachlan said. ‘What will their movements be?’
‘The Fairgean leave the summer seas in mid to late September,’ Isabeau said. ‘They then swim around Eileanan, moving slowly up the coast. I believe it usually takes them two months at least to reach their homes in Carraig. They have many newborn babes with them and so can only swim slowly. Besides, they do no’ sleep in the water, ye ken. They must come ashore to sleep, and that is why there has always been so much conflict over the few safe harbours and beaches. Where the Fairgean wish to come ashore to rest is where our kind has always settled. So much of the coastline is dangerous and rocky, ye see.’
‘But canna they breathe underwater like fish?’ the Duke of Gleneagles asked. ‘Do they no’ have gills like a fish?’
‘They have gills,’ Isabeau answered slowly, ‘but no’ like a fish. They can breathe underwater for no longer than five or ten minutes. Then they need to surface for air. That is why the Yedda can drown them by singing them to sleep.’
‘So if we can stop them from coming ashore to sleep, they canna rest,’ the Duke of Gleneagles said thoughtfully. ‘They will simply drown?’
‘It is no’ that simple,’ the Duke of Lochslain said. ‘The coast is very long and villages are far and few between. Although it is true that they prefer to come ashore in a safe harbour, we have kent them to climb up very steep cliffs and attack us from the rear.’
‘That would be the warriors,’ Isabeau protested, ‘no’ the women and babes. The warriors would’ve attacked ye so that they could make a safe resting place for the babes, who would have been only wee still.’
‘Nonetheless,’ the Duke of Gleneagles said, ‘if we can try to stop them from coming ashore to rest, we will weaken them considerably and happen that will help us defeat them in battle. Every Fairgean that drowns from exhaustion will be one less to fight later.’
‘But the babes …’ Isabeau said in some distress. The soldiers ignored her, taking up the Duke of Gleneagles’ idea with some enthusiasm.
‘We shall set up coastal watches,’ Lachlan said decisively after the subject had been discussed exhaustively. ‘Beacons must be prepared and manned on every
headland. At the first sight o’ Fairgean in the seas, the beacons must be lit so the villagers have warning. Then when the Fairgean try to come to shore to rest, they must be kept off with sword and flame. The net idea is a good one if they try to swim up a river, as we all ken they do. The idea is no’ to waste lives in fighting them to the death, but to wear them out and delay them, to give us more time to get to Carraig. If we can be in Carraig afore them, we shall be able to choose our battlefields. We can secure every harbour against them, and have our men on every clifftop and in every bay.’
The MacSeinn gave a hooray of excitement. Lachlan scowled down at his parchment, muttering under his breath as he tried to work out how long it would take to mobilise the army and march upon Carraig. At last he threw down his pencil with a curse and commanded Iain to work it out for him. ‘Eà kens I was never any good at mathematics!’ he cried.
‘I can vouch for that,’ Meghan said with a little smile as Iain began calculating how many months it was likely to take to get their troops mobilised, provisioned and on the march.
‘Well, by the time we g-g-gather together our armies here and then m-m-m-march to Carraig … even if we march at twenty miles a day, we canna be getting there afore Samhain ourselves, and that’s no’ counting any d-d-d-delays,’ Iain said at last.
Lachlan scowled. ‘We need to strike faster than that!’ he cried. ‘There must be some way we can get some men to Carraig by autumn. ‘We want to surprise them if we can.’