Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Epic, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
I might have guessed."
"We were justmdash" Conal began.
"Sneaking out?" Meithin laughed again. "Well, you're not children, I'm not going to stop you. I'm not even asking you for an explanation. I'm just here to fetch my Swiftfoot and Windeyes up to take around the fire, and if anyone asks, I haven't seen you. But what horses have you got?"
Emer breathed a sigh of relief and set down the lantern beside the chariot so Meithin could see them properly. "Whitenose and Crabfoot," she said.
"Very sensible of you," Meithin said approvingly. "Nobody's going to want the geldings tonight.
You have been careful to put Crabfoot on the right?"
"Yes, I'm quite used to him," Emer said.
"We make sure you have difficult horses for training so that you get used to challenges," Meithin said.
"You're not going to do anything crazy, are you, not going to blindfold yourself and drive three times around the dun backwards? Or go down the waterfall road in the dark?"
"Of course not!" Emer hoped she sounded as horrified as she felt.
"Orlam and I went backwards around the dun blindfold one Feast of Bel," Meithin said, sounding wistful. "We were only a year or so older than you two."
"We're just going out to Edar," Conal said. "I know the way, and we won't be blindfold."
"Edar?" ap Meithin sounded taken aback. "What's there?"
"It's my father's farm," Conal said. "It's a fire hill, so they have their own festival there, with good ale and dancing. They roast a sheep, which might even be done not long after we get there, if they had it ready, unlike the cows here, which won't be cooked until breakfast. There'll be room for us to sleep out there, and we'll come back in the morning."
"And it's a long way from parents and everyone you don't want to see," Meithin said. She sighed.
"Well, have fun. I almost wish I was ten years younger and coming with you."
Conal looked at Emer inquiringly. She squeezed his hand, loving his generosity and his consideration.
"Why don't you come, then?" Emer asked. "There'll be a fire there for you to drive your horses around."
"I'm not so young and wild," Meithin said. "Besides, the last thing you two want is me coming along like a third horse to your yoke."
"It isn't you we want to get away from," Conal said, saying exactly the right thing, as always when he wasn't with his father. "You'd be very welcome to come with us. But you do know Orlam's back?"
"I could hardly have missed her," Meithin said. "But she . . . but I ... well. Sometimes what you wait for isn't what you were hoping for. Orlam's back, but. . ." She hesitated. "Well, maybe it wasn't a good day for it. But she said she isn't going to need a charioteer."
The misery in Meithin's voice was so painful that Emer wished she knew her well enough to hug her.
"That's too bad," Conal said sympathetically. "Come on, yoke up, or the sheep will be eaten before we get to
"I haven't said I'm coming," Meithin said, but she so clearly wanted to that Emer couldn't bear it any longer.
"We'll get your chariot, you get the horses," Emer said decisively. Meithin raised her chin and went off to the paddock.
Fortunately, Conal knew which chariot to take, even in the darkness of the stable. "You don't mind, do you?"
he asked as they dragged it towards the doorway, gray against black.
"Mind? I asked her. How could I mind?" Emer let go of the chariot and put her arms around Conal, resting against him for a moment. "I want to be with you. You wouldn't be you if you didn't want to ask her to come.
Besides, I like Meithin."
Conal squeezed her tightly, and her body felt as if it were melting. Not tonight, she thought, not tonight, but soon. Then, wordlessly, they each let go and took up the chariot again.
"I like Meithin, too," Conal said. His voice sounded strange, as if he barely had it under control.
"She's helped me more than anyone "with my swordwork these last few years."
"Me, too," Emer said, and she was surprised to find that her own voice shook a little. "I didn't know she was a charioteer."
"She used to be," Conal said. "She's mostly a champion these days. But she was Orlam's charioteer, before
Orlam went off to Rathadun. They were very wild, and very close, too."
"I'd gathered that," Emer said. Then they were outside, and they could see Meithin coming back from the paddock with her mares.
The lower gate stood open, with no guards. Emer had expected they'd need to talk their way out. "Where's the guard?" she asked.
"Nobody would attack on the Feast of Bel," Conal said. "We leave it open for the gods to come in, if they choose to visit, and the farmers. It doesn't seem worth making someone miss the festival to guard it. It worries me less than leaving it unguarded in the daytime when it's quiet, really. If an enemy isn't stopped until the top gate, we'd have given away a lot of ground for free."
"Have you said this to Conary?" Meithin asked.
They turned westward around the hill, to meet the northern road. It was lighter than Emer had feared. The moon and the stars were bright. She could easily tell the road from the fields.
The horses were eager, but she kept them at the pace Meithin set beside them.
"He won't listen to me," Conal said. "He said I'd soon learn how much champions enjoy guarding gates when there's no war."
"I suppose he does have to manage his champions as well as his enemies," Emer said.
"He'd have heard it if Darag had said it," Conal said.
Then they came to the northeast road and turned, and Emer let the horses have their heads for a little, and
Meithin did the same with hers, and for a while, they raced down the road. Meithin would have won, having less weight, but they pulled up after a little and went on more sedately, talking sometimes but mostly in a companionable silence. There were no other chariots, no sign of anyone else at all. Only the fires on the hilltops told them that they weren't the only people left in the world. It felt peaceful and exhilarating to go along through the dark like this. Emer would have been happy to have traveled on like that forever, Conal close beside her and the horses eager under her hand.
Edar turned out to be bigger than Emer had expected from Conal's calling it a farm. There was a ditch around the bottom of the hill, almost dry after this very dry month, and a palisade
around the top of it. The night was completely dark by now, but the moonlight was sufficient to show them that the way up was too steep to drive.
"Should we unyoke the horses?" Meithin asked.
"But then there's nowhere to put the chariots except just leaving them out here," Conal said, biting his lip. "I
think we'd better leave them yoked and lead them up. It's not too steep if we're careful. If I drove out here more often, I'd suggest we ought to build a stable at the foot of the hill like at Ardmachan. But I always walked before."
As they neared the top of the hill, the wind changed, taking away the scents of hot ale and cooking meat and bringing Emer the scent of saltwater and tide-wrack. "Are we so near the sea, then?" she asked.
"It's just two miles east of us here," Conal said.
They led the chariots up and were met at the top by a cluster of delighted farmers. Emer gathered that they loved and honored Conal and had not seen him for some time. She soon found herself plied with marvelous hot ale and, not long after, with roast lamb and palm-sized griddies hot from the pan.
"I haven't had griddies since I left home," Emer said, thanking the smiling farmer who had brought them. "I
thought you didn't make them in Oriel. I like them so much better than bread."
"We always make them on special occasions," the farmer said.
"You couldn't have said anything better," Conal murmured when the farmer had moved on to share the griddies with everyone. "Ap Anla prides herself on her griddies."
Emer ate seven griddies and felt ready to burst. After they had eaten, everyone was needed for driving the animals around the fire. Emer had never seen this done; she had always been sent to bed long before. The animals were garlanded and driven around while everyone sang to Rhianna, the Mother of Beasts, and danced with them. There were no instruments, and Emer found herself thinking that next year she would bring a harp, if she could. Meithin threw herself into the celebration, drinking and dancing and laughing. At last, she went off with two of the young farmers, one on each arm.
"Do you think she'll feel better about Orlam?" Emer asked, watching from where she sat with Conal near the fire.
Conal put his arm around her, and she leaned back against him. "Not really," he said.
"But at least she hasn't had to stay in Ardmachan with Orlam there and not with her. I'm glad we brought her."
"I'm glad we came," Emer said. "Maybe we could come every year. I really like the people here."
"You really like the food," Conal said.
"Maybe we could live out here," Emer said. "Your father isn't using it, and he isn't here, and we could be in
Ardmachan if Conary needed us."
Conal hesitated, and Enier wondered what she'd said wrong. "I need to be under Conary's eye, and where all the champions know me well," he said. "If they're to choose me king over Darag, I have to be in Ard-machan."
"You don't have to be king," she said. "It isn't the only good thing to be."
"Anything else is a failure," Conal said decisively.
Emer bit her lip and didn't say anything. There were so many things to be, why did he have to set his heart on that one? It was his father insisting on it, she knew it was. She couldn't say so, she could never make him see it. She just sat there and watched the dancing and the people going off together in pairs.
At last her eyes started closing, and she and Conal staggered off to lie down in the hall. They
kept all their clothes on, except for their armor coats, but lay all night curled up very close together, sharing the warmth of their bodies and feeling each other breathe. Soon, Emer thought sleepily, but for now, this was enough, this was marvelous, she didn't want anything more than just to lie together like this for as long as they possibly could. She drifted between sleeping and waking, feeling happier than she ever had.
She must have slept at last, because she was woken at dawn by one of the farmers coming to tell them that ships from the Isles were landing troops down on the shore, and they wanted Conal to tell them what they should do.
Ferdia's father Cethern, the king of Lagin, had told his son there was no point in drinking to drown your troubles, because troubles can swim. It was just as well Ferdia knew this, or he would have been very tempted to try it. He kept out of the way, leaning on the wall of the Speckled Hall, and looked at the reflection of the lights in his ale. Everything had gone wrong. First he had unwittingly said something to offend Darag.
Then he'd been unable to get Darag alone to talk about it properly. Leary had stuck to them like a leech, and
Darag had seemed, as so often lately, to want Elenn ap Allel to be with them.
Ferdia understood why, of course. Elenn was beautiful. He knew how beautiful women liked to be talked to, and he was always polite. He had two older sisters, and there were other girls his age at home in Ernachan.
He knew what they liked, and Elenn wasn't any sillier than the rest of them. Besides, Darag was rightmdashshe was nice to look at, and it did make a difference. Conal's father had made up a poem about how beautiful she was, which he hadn't liked much. Leary had made up his own afterwards, and then Darag had wanted to, so they sat down to it together.
The best Ferdia could come up with was to say that the way she looked reminded him of the smell of snowdrops. Darag didn't understand, and asked how a look could remind him of a smell. Ferdia wished he were better with words so he could explain properly. It was something about the fragrance in the cold air, with the loam smell and the green growing smell. He was thinking especially of a wood near home where he always found the first snowdrops in the early spring. That's what she looked like to him, not how they looked, the smell. She looked nothing like them, the green shoots in the dark earth and the nodding white blossom, but there was something about the smell. Or maybe the taste of the very first blackberries of autumn.
Something like that. Darag laughed and said he'd never be a poet. Ferdia knew that already.
All the same, he quite liked Elenn. Sooner or later, he knew, he'd have to marry somebody, and if not for who her parents were, he wouldn't at all have minded if it turned out to be Elenn.
It would be nice to have her around to look at, her manners were very good, and a queen everyone thought was beautiful was an asset to any kingdom. As it was, with her being Maga of Connat's daughter, she wasn't even on his father's list.
Leary's sister Orlam was, and from what he'd seen of her today, she would probably do well enough, though she was a lot older than him. That wasn't so good. But a queen who was a lawgiver would be a good thing for
Lagin. Orlam seemed to be quick and clever, which would also be useful.
It was such a pity Darag didn't have a sister. Then he could marry her and Darag could marry his sister
Locha. Or his sister Moriath, if Darag preferred her. It didn't matter which one. If they could have done that it would make them brothers twice over. But Darag could marry one of his sisters and be his brother anyway.
Unless Darag insisted on marrying Elenn. That would spoil that plan. He sighed and drank another mouthful of ale. She had been with them all spring. She would be here until next spring, and he would have to go home at midwinter. He had been hoping Darag might come with him and spend a year in Lagin. But not if he wanted to stay with Elenn. She wasn't so bad. She was always polite, and she seemed to like him. He didn't usually mind having her around at all. He didn't even mind Darag liking her. Usually.