Authors: Kate Forsyth
‘Maybe,’ Iseult said coolly. ‘They have no enmity with the Fairgean though, living so far from the sea. And I do no’ ken if they would be prepared to leave the snows to fight for a cause in which they have no interest.’
At the very slight stress in her words, Lachlan scowled. Duncan Ironfist said, ‘Besides, it would take months for them to mobilise. By the time a messenger rode into the mountains, persuaded the Khan’cohbans to our cause, and then rode back down to Rionnagan, it would be winter already. By the time they travelled round to join us in Carraig, a year or more would have passed. If only there was some way to cross the mountains into Carraig! Then we could strike from the south as well …’
‘But there is a way across the mountains,’ Iseult said.
They all stared at her incredulously.
‘Many have tried to cross the mountains and all have failed!’ Linley cried. ‘I myself have tried several times since Carraig was lost to me!’
‘Are ye sure, Iseult?’ Meghan said. ‘No’ once, in all the thousand years since our kind came to Eileanan, has anyone ever found a way across the mountains. That is why we have always relied so much on the sea routes.’
‘I imagine none has ever asked the Khan’cohbans,’ Iseult replied with great composure.
Linley laughed harshly. ‘The snow-faeries are one o’ the major reasons
we have never crossed the mountains. No’ to mention frost-giants, ogres, goblins, avalanches, sabre-leopards, snow-lions, wolves …’
‘Well, I have crossed the mountains myself,’ Iseult answered.
A volley of questions and exclamations followed her comment. She listened calmly, then said, ‘Ye can only cross during the summer months, when all the snow has melted in the higher passes. Then the danger o’ avalanches is much less too, and the frost-giants are hibernating. If ye were given permission to pass through the dragons’ valley, that would cut off almost a month from the travelling. Ye could do it from here in under three months if ye had sleighs.’
Everyone looked at each other eagerly. ‘If we sent a force across the mountains now, we could be there by autumn,’ Iain said, doing quick calculations in his head.
‘And ye could speak to the Khan’cohbans and persuade them to our cause on the way,’ Linley said eagerly.
Colour rose high in Iseult’s face, showing the two thin scars across her cheekbones. ‘But I canna go back to the Spine o’ the World!’ There was mingled longing and dismay in her voice. ‘No’ unless Lachlan comes too.’
Golden eyes met blue eyes in a long charged look, totally unaware of the cries of disappointment and outrage around them.
‘A commander must stay with his troops!’ the Duke of Gleneagles cried.
‘Ye canna leave command o’ the army to anyone else, no matter how able! How would the men feel? They all worship ye,’ the Duke of Killiegarrie said.
‘It is too dangerous, master,’ Dide cried. ‘Ye canna be risking yourself so!’
‘What would we do if ye were lost in an avalanche?’ Duncan said, troubled. ‘Remember how it was when ye were cursed and lay like the dead for months? All the lairds and guilds withdrew their support and we were stalled like a haycart bogged in mud. I fear it would no’ be wise, Your Highness.’
The Rìgh was clearly troubled. ‘I canna go through the mountains,’ he said. ‘I must go where the army goes. Alasdair is right, a commander stays with his troops.’
‘What is the problem?’ the MacSeinn demanded. ‘Her Highness can guide me and my men through the mountains and ye can lead your army around the lowlands. That way we strike from three directions. We canna help but triumph!’
‘But I canna leave ye,’ Iseult whispered to Lachlan. ‘I am in
The MacSeinn leapt to his feet and leant forward on
the table, his face hard with anger. ‘Surely this is no time to be clinging together like a pair o’ love-struck doves! No-one but the Banrìgh kens the way through the mountains. She must go!’
Other voices joined with his and Lachlan looked from one face to another, and then back to Iseult’s. She rose, her face very white and stern. ‘Do ye release me from my
Still Lachlan hesitated, as many in the room exchanged mocking glances, thinking he could not bear to be parted from his wife for a scant few months. At last he nodded, holding Iseult’s eyes with his own. ‘Very well, I release ye. Ye shall go to the Spine o’ the World.’
She gave a low bow and genuflection that only Isabeau recognised as a formal Khan’cohban gesture, then turned and strode away, her back very straight.
Lachlan suddenly shouted after her, ‘Ye’ve been longing for the snows, do no’ try and say ye have no’!’
Iseult did not reply, closing the door sharply behind her.
Isabeau stared at Lachlan in dismay. ‘Do ye no’ realise what ye have done?’ she whispered. By the hot anger and misery in his golden eyes, she thought he came close.
Jay drew his bow over the strings of the viola, a cascade of music filling the air. The voice of the viola was deep and low, thrilling with tenderness. The song came to
an end, and slowly Jay lowered his bow and opened his eyes.
With a start, he realised the heir to the throne of Rurach was sitting on his bed listening to him, stroking the silky black fur of the elven cat that lay sleepily upon her lap. She wore a green velvet riding habit, with a black plaid slung about her shoulders and pinned with a clan badge depicting a black wolf. Her chestnut-brown hair was pinned up under a rather dashing green tricorne hat, embellished with plumy black feathers.
‘Finn!’ he cried. ‘I dinna hear ye come in.’
‘I came to say goodbye, but ye were off in your usual sort o’ trance and I thought it might be dangerous to disturb ye,’ Finn said with a grin. ‘Like sleepwalkers, ye ken.’
Jay grinned rather ruefully. ‘Well, I’m rather glad ye dinna disturb me. I love that song.’
‘It’s aye bonny,’ Finn said. ‘Ye get better every day, Jay. All that time ye’ve spent practising is paying off.’ There was a faint note of pique in her voice.
‘Aye, I’ve been lucky to have had Nellwyn teaching me as well as Enit,’ Jay said eagerly. ‘She’s a true Yedda, trained at the Tower o’ Sea-singers and everything. There is so much she can teach me.’ Tenderly, he swaddled his viola with a length of silk and laid her back in her case.
‘I could find it in me to be jealous o’ that lump o’ wood,’ Finn said.
Jay’s eyes leapt up to hers, his colour deepening.
‘Though it is only a lump o’ wood,’ she went on. ‘Even if it does have a damn fine shape to it.’ She sighed
and looked down at her own lithe, boyish figure. ‘Och well. Maybe I’d have a shape like that if I dinna spend so much time riding horses and climbing trees. And really, I’d rather be flat as a flounder and get to climb trees than otherwise.’
‘Well, ye are looking very bonny today,’ Jay said awkwardly.
She gave a little shrug. ‘Och, aye, as fine as a goat’s turd stuck with cowslips, that’s me. The Duke o’ Lochslain has high ideas about the manner in which a banprionnsa should present herself. The journey home is no’ going to be much fun, I fear.’
‘Did ye really come to say goodbye?’ Jay asked wistfully.
‘Aye, I’m afraid so,’ Finn answered, standing up and draping the elven cat over her shoulder. ‘So much for escaping my royal duties. Lachlan has promised me he’s written to my
, telling him I do no’ want to be a banprionnsa any more, but I hardly think
will pay much attention, given the rest o’ the news we carry. All I can say is he had better take me with him, because if I get stuck back at boring auld Castle Rurach I swear I really will run away! I’d rather eat toasted toads than have to sit around fiddling my thumbs while ye’re all off fighting wars and having adventures.’
‘Well, happen it will be a quick war and we can all come home soon, and go to the Theurgia together, like we planned.’
‘Happen,’ Finn replied, without much hope in her voice. ‘Though I canna see it being a quick war, can ye?’
‘Nay,’ he answered unhappily.
‘I must go,’ she said. ‘The Duke o’ Lochslain already thinks me an undisciplined brat. If I keep him kicking his heels much longer, he’ll be giving my
a bad report o’ me and I really do want to be in
’s good books at the moment. Have a care for yourself, won’t ye? Dinna go thinking ye can win this war playing that bloody viola o’ yours.’
‘Nay,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Though I do think …’
‘Ye heard what Lachlan said,’ Finn said firmly. ‘Remember, if ye wish to be a witch ye must practise humility, modesty and obedience.’
‘Ye’re a fine one to talk!’ Jay cried, but she only laughed at him, grabbed him by the ear and kissed him on the side of his mouth. By the time he had recovered his breath, heat scorching his face, she had gone, the elven cat spitting at him from her shoulder.
‘So we ride to war once more,’ Lachlan said, leaning upon his great longbow. Iseult nodded, her face very calm. ‘But this time no’ together,’ he continued, searching her face with his eyes.
‘Nay, this time no’ together,’ she repeated, looking away from him, her mouth set in a firm line.
He put his arm around her shoulders and tried to draw her close. ‘It will feel peculiar, no’ having ye near me,’ he said softly. Although she did not resist his embrace, she stood stiffly within it and he eased away from her to again search her face for some clue to what she was feeling. But there was nothing. No anger, no sadness, no tenderness. Lachlan’s own mouth
compressed and he walked away, his back very straight.
Isabeau stroked her twin’s arm comfortingly. ‘He does no’ really understand what it is he has done,’ she whispered. ‘He does no’ ken about
Iseult met her eyes in a long, intense gaze and there at last Isabeau saw how her sister was feeling. ‘He understands. In his heart he understands how important such a debt of honour is to those of Khan’cohban blood. He just did no’ want to say so in front o’ all those men.’ There was a faint trace of bitterness in her voice.
‘But ye will come back to him?’ Isabeau whispered urgently. ‘Ye are still married to him.’
‘What do your marriage rites mean to me?’ Iseult said, hurt pride in her voice. ‘Khan’cohbans do no’ marry.’
‘But ye jumped the fire wi’ him, ye have borne him three children,’ Isabeau said anxiously.
‘I swore never to leave him, and now he has released me from that
.’ Iseult’s voice was flat with finality. She shrugged Isabeau’s hand away and mounted her horse. ‘Are we ready, my laird?’ she asked Linley MacSeinn.
‘As ready as we shall ever be,’ he answered gaily, his horse dancing about as the prionnsa’s impatience communicated itself.
Isabeau stepped forward, looking up into Iseult’s face. ‘He loves ye, ye ken that.’
‘Does he?’ Iseult replied coolly. ‘Happen he does.’ She wheeled her horse away, spurring her elegant mare to the front of the cavalcade. There Lachlan stepped forward and laid his hand on her boot.
‘Have a care,
,’ he said.
She looked down at him. ‘I shall. Look after my babes for me.’
Lachlan nodded in response, then reached up, grasped her gloved hand and drew her down. For a moment she resisted, her thin red brows drawn together. Then she bent and allowed him to kiss her. Their mouths clung and when at last she straightened, her blue eyes were glittering with tears.
‘Eà be with ye,’ Lachlan said.
‘And with ye,’ she answered gruffly and gave the command to ride out.
Five hundred men rode out in their train, most of them the MacSeinn’s, two hundred of them chosen to serve and protect the Banrìgh. They rode their horses hard, rising in the dawn and riding on by the light of torches, changing their mounts at every opportunity. In less than three weeks they had reached the Pass, and were riding up the narrow, winding road beside the tumultuous rush of the Rhyllster.
It was slower riding after that, for the roads in the Sithiche Mountains were not so well tended as those in the lowlands. As she rode, Iseult was unable to help the flood of memories that rose and threatened to engulf her. Here was where she and Meghan and Lachlan had tricked the Red Guards into letting them through the Pass. Up there was where they had made camp one night. Through those woods was the cave where Iseult had first met Lachlan, a surly hunchback with intense golden eyes that had never stopped staring at her. The memory made her stomach twist with longing, and she drove the men on even harder than before.
Then she saw the familiar crooked shape of Dragonclaw rearing up out of the lesser mountains around it and a new longing awoke in her, a yearning for the cool silence of the snows. They rode their horses to the point of exhaustion that day, and camped that night in the meadow below the Great Archway. In less than a week it would be Midsummer’s Eve, and then the days would again begin to shorten as the seasons swung towards autumn and the coming confrontation with the Fairgean.
Iseult rose before dawn the next day, and went out into the meadow to gather a great bunch of wild roses from the briars that grew in great profusion all over the rocks at the base of the tall mountain. When her arms were full, she crossed the grass to the wide stone platform that marked the beginning of the Great Stairway.
The sun was just rising when her squire, Carrick One-Eye, came to her, troubled that she had left the protection of the camp without him. He was half human, half corrigan, one of the many faeries to flock to Lachlan’s banner during the Bright Wars. Although only short, he was broad and very strong, with a face as rough as granite and one eye set deeply into his head. Carrick had been appointed Iseult’s squire and personal bodyguard by the Rìgh, a responsibility he took so seriously that Iseult had not been able to take a step without him. She smiled at him reassuringly.
‘Ye must stand back, Carrick,’ she said. ‘And no matter what happens, ye must no’ approach.’ He protested. ‘Nay, I mean it,’ she said. ‘Ye do no’ understand the way o’ the dragons. Many people have died in the past because they have been too foolhardy or
bold. Stand back, I say, and let me speak to the dragon alone.’