Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Epic, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
He had been in the water, and now he was looking down on the water. He had been standing, or crouching at least. Now he was upside down. The swans had been going for him, but now he was being squeezed around his waist. He tried to see what was squeezing him, but he couldn't make it out. It seemed to be a huge silver coil. That made sense, because there were other huge silver coils coming out of the water. Darag was in the
water, fighting the coils with a spear. Leary wasn't far from him, also with a spear. This made Ferdia remember that he ought to have a spear himself. He looked around for one. There was a spear stuck hard in the smooth coil, though it was not bleeding. The spear was quivering slightly and stuck quite far in. Ferdia wondered if he had put it there, though it looked as if it had been thrown there. He stretched his arm to see if he could reach it, and found his arm encircled with another loop, a thinner one. People were shouting, but the sound of thrashing water drowned out their words.
What was this thing anyway? It was like a snake, but everyone knew there were no snakes in Tir Isarnagiri.
And where was its head? He looked up and saw nothing but sky. He was starting to feel faint from lack of breath. The coil seemed to be moving him downwards towards the water. There was a huge splash and he was immersed in the mud and water again. He struggled, but the harder he struggled the more the loop squeezed him. Just as he was about to give up and try to breathe water, someone rolled him over. He just lay there for a moment, breathing.
Breathing was wonderful. He was on his back in quite shallow water. Close above him were Conal and Emer, laughing. They both held big knives, or maybe funny little swords, and were soaked and muddy.
Ferdia sat up gasping and saw Darag, still holding a spear, looking concerned. "Are you all right?" Darag asked. There was nothing behind him but Leary and Nid, muddy and dripping, both their spears running with water.
"Where did it go?" Ferdia asked and coughed painfully.
"We killed it," Emer said, then amended herself. "Conal killed it."
"Emer killed it," Conal said, bowing. "You're a true warrior, not a charioteer."
"I'd much rather be your charioteer," she muttered.
"If you killed it, where's the body?" Laig interrupted. Ferdia looked to the bank. Laig was standing there dry and clean, holding the traces of both chariots.
"It melted away when we killed it," Emer said.
"What was it?" Ferdia asked. "Was it a snake?"
"It may have been," Conal said. "I've never seen one, but it was like the way they are in songs."
He leaned down and offered his empty hand to Ferdia and pulled him to his feet. The water wasn't even up to his knees here. Now that he could breathe again, he felt chilled all through. He took a step toward the bank and stubbed his toe on something hard. He saw a gleam through the murky water and bent for it. It was his spear. He pulled it out and leaned on it.
"I didn't know they were so big," Nid said. She looked cold as well, her teeth were chattering.
"And I didn't know about the wings. I thought it was like a huge swan."
"What wings?" Ferdia asked, puzzled.
"I didn't see any wings. It had scales like snakes are supposed to, but I think it was a great big fish," Leary said.
Ferdia looked about for the dead swan he had come into the water for. There was no sign of it.
There was no sign of any life at all, except for one solitary moorhen cowering in the reeds.
"It wasn't a swan or a fish or a snake, and we didn't kill it," Darag said. If it hadn't been impossible, Ferdia would have thought there were tears in his voice. He must have swallowed some of the water. "She was the
Guardian of the Creatures of the Island of Tir Isarnagiri, and it's all my fault and I nearly got you killed, Ferdia.
I shouldn't have killed the swan, I knew it was out of season."
"The swan was flying," objected Leary. "You're allowed to spear swans in the sky all year
"But he was coming down, and he fell in the water," Darag said.
"If it was the Beastrnother, and I do not for one moment concede that it was," Conal said, his voice like sharpened ice, "then how is it that you know this and we do not?"
"It's just how things are," Darag said. He ran his wet hand through his wet hair. "I know you won't believe I
don't do this sort of thing on purpose, Con, but if I could be free of it, I would. I'd happily give it to you and have it be you who hit the swan and you that Rhianna spoke to. It's as if everything I do has significance beyond anything I would want for it. I can't just come out and kill an animal and go back a man, something has to happen to make it special. It's as if nothing of my life belongs to me and all of it is tied to something
else. It's as if I don't have any choices. Everything I do is ringed about with strangeness. I saw a target and went for it and I could have got Ferdia killed." He sounded completely despairing.
"Ap Fathag saidmdash" Erner began, but Conal raised a hand and she fell silent.
"Any of us could have done the same," Conal said. "But speaking to the gods ismdash"
"It was because he killed the swan," Leary said. "He's the king's nephew, we all are, she would have spoken to any of us if we'd killed it. I didn't even throw, impossible shot from where I was. You missed, lost your spear. Darag hit it, we all fought the Guardian, whatever it was.
When we did well enough against her she relented, spoke to Darag to tell him what he did so he wouldn't do it again. That's all."
"And I'm all right," Ferdia said to Darag, as reassuringly as he could. "Really I am." Darag came nearer and embraced him wordlessly. Ferdia hugged him back, as if they were family.
"Did we kill it?" Nid asked. "Or do we have to go and look for something else?"
"Emer killed it, but it counts for all of us," Conal said doggedly. "The same as it would in a boar hunt."
"No head," Leary said briefly, looking around as if hoping to find one. "Supposed to show the head in the hall."
"They will have to take our word," Emer said.
Conal laughed suddenly. "Yes, they will. After all, would they accuse all of us of jumping in a duck pond to muddy our clothes and making up a story about it?" He bowed to Emer and took her arm to escort her out of the water, for all the world as if they were going in to dinner.
Ferdia shook his head at Darag. "Will they believe us?" he asked.
"They'll have to," Darag said fiercely.
In the end, it didn't matter, because a herd of deer crossed their path on the way out of the wood so they had venison enough to feast all King's Hall.
THE FEAST OF BEL
Conal feinted high and thrust low. Emer blocked smoothly, then signalled a stop. They both stepped back.
The grass behind the smithy was flattened in a rough circle. They had been coming here to practice alone for half a month now. It was as private a place as there was in reach of Ardmachan. Conal had found it three years ago. The willow-bordered stream ran out of the trees and alongside the low stone smithy. This patch was one of the very few pieces of land outside the dun bare of trees and not planted with crops. The smith kept a cow, but she did not mind her pasture being trampled. And the smith didn't mind the noise, he always made enough himself. Conal had come to an arrangement with the smith. When the cow was ready, he would bring his father's great bull down to her, and this kept the smith in milk and cheese and meat, or even profit if it should be a heifer that he could trade. The smith was well pleased with this bargain, always greeted
Conal kindly and sometimes even brought him out a cup of milk on hot days. Amagien knew nothing about it, but it suited Conal very well. Inside the dun, there was plenty of room for practicing. But inside the dun, there were also the others.
"What's wrong?" Conal asked. She couldn't be tired already. She wasn't even breathing hard.
"Nothing," she said. "Just getting my balance a moment. You're right about how different it is using the blades."
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said. He wouldn't have agreed to it if he wasn't sufficiently confident of his control of the sword. He had always been told never to practice steel against steel, but Emer had wanted to so much, and he knew he could stop in time.
She laughed. "Of course not." Conal felt a sudden wave of protec-tiveness, a desire not just to avoid hurting her but to keep her from being hurt by anything, ever. "But I suddenly realized I could hurt you. The next move
after the block would bemdash" She mimed the upward strike, slowly.
"Yes, and I would block," Conal said, bringing his shield around equally slowly. "We've done this with the wooden swords. You're fast, and you're getting much smoother."
"But if you didn't block in time, I could hurt you. With a wooden sword, that doesn't matter."
Conal grinned wryly. They had both felt the force of the wooden swords in the time they had been training hard together.
"Well, if you don't count bruises, it doesn't matter," she amended. "But with this if I don't stop, I could gut you. And I know I shouldn't be thinking about stopping."
"You're right, it's the last thing," Conal said seriously. He sat down and patted the ground beside him. For a wonder, the grass was quite dry. Emer sat obediently, quite close. "That's what Meithin always says, and I
see now how right she is. That's why we always practice with wooden blades. If you learn to pull your blows, then you'll pull one in battle, when you need to be gutting someone. And they won't do the same and then you'll be the one who's dead."
As he was speaking the smith's hammer stopped for a moment and the last word came out unnecessarily loud in the sudden silence. The sound of the stream came to him clearly, and a thrush singing in the woods.
"Have you ever fought anyone for real?" Emer asked quietly.
"Not with swords." Conal didn't want to think about the times he'd fought Darag. He wasn't sure it counted anyway; real as those fights were, they weren't trying to kill each other, only to win. "Only that thing in the water."
"That wasn't at all the same," Emer said, turning her sword in her hand. "It didn't have hands or a head. It was a monster. I just wanted to stop it. It wasn't like fighting a person. I didn't use any technique until you told me to cut through it with you."
"We were very lucky, I think," Conal said.
The hammering started up again, louder than ever.
"It felt different from practicing," Emer said, raising her voice. "I think fighting people for real would feel different again."
"I think so, too," Conal said. He hesitated, looking at her, still feeling strangely protective. "You don't have to fight if you don't want to," he said.
Emer looked startled. "Of course I want to! Do you mean you don't think I'm good enough to be your charioteer after all?"
"You're better with the chariot than a lot of charioteers already," Conal said. "Even my mother says so, and my mother never gives more praise than she need. I didn't mean that at all. It's what I want. But if you would rather not fight and kill, rather stay home safe, nobody would think any the worse of you, and I would defendmdash"
Even as he found the words, he knew he was saying the wrong thing.
"I think you are mistaking me for my sister," Emer said, her voice very hard. She turned her face away, wiping it on her sleeve.
"I'm sorry," Conal said after a moment. "I wasn't mistaking you for anyone else. I justmdash"
Her hair was tightly braided, as if to go under a leather battle-cap; she seemed all eyes, as always. She wasn't beautiful, not like Elenn. But she was unmistakably herself. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her. He wished she weren't so young. "You are special, and I want to keep you safe."
She turned her head back, her eyes still bright with tears, but there was anger in her voice. "And how would you feel if I said that to you?"
He thought about it for a moment, giving it consideration. "Treated like a child," he admitted.
"Well then!" she retorted, and threw a piece of grass at him. It landed on the leather practice coat around his chest. He looked at it for a long moment as it moved with his breathing. "I want to defend you, and be defended by you," she said. "I want to be your charioteer and fight beside you."
Conal reminded himself again how young she was, almost a year younger than he was, not even seventeen yet. "Yes," he said. "And later, not yet, later, in a few years' time, we could get married, and keep on fighting together."
Emer didn't say anything for a moment, and he thought he had spoiled everything. Then she put her hand on top of his where it lay on the grass. "It would be like a song," she said quietly. "If my mother would let us."
"You said she wanted to marry you to Darag," Conal said. He felt far more aware of his hand where hers touched him than of anything else. "There are no bloodfeuds between our houses. I am of the royal kin of
Oriel. If she would consider Darag, I ought to do as well, if not better. Through my father, I am also of the royal kin of Anlar."
"Maybe we could persuade her," Emer said. She ran her long fingers over the back of his hand.
"It isn't blood she is concerned about, but alliances. Kings." Emer frowned.
"Darag is not bound to be king of Oriel," Conal said. He felt as if his hand was his whole body, his whole existence. He wanted to move, to put his other hand on her hand, but he dared not. "And surely if you tell your mother your preference, she will take account of it."
"My father might," Emer said, biting her lip. "My mother thinks that if Elenn is married to Ferdia and he is king of Lagin, and I am married to Darag and he is king of Oriel, then they will do what we say."