Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Epic, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
"That's nonsense," Conal said. "I mean, when my father married my mother, I am sure my Grandfather Ross of Anlar and everyone here meant it to be an alliance to bind Anlar and Oriel.
But we go to war with Anlar whenever we want, and my father goes along and takes care not to kill his friends and then makes up songs about it afterwards."
"Maga's plan is that we should make the marriages as alliances for Connat before anything else, and use our wiles to keep our husbands firm to our alliance," Erner said, screwing up her face.
"She is full of good advice about how to do this, and how to be a queen, all of which sounds the most vile nonsense. Not to mention that it demonstrably doesn't work, or she and Allel wouldn't fight so much. But she says that if we do it right there will be nobody to attack Connat except Muin."
"Or Anlar, or the Isles," Conal objected. "But no, I suppose Anlar couldn't attack except through Oriel, and the Isles would have to attack by sea, and I suppose that's why she wants your brother to marry Atha."
"She doesn't want him to!" Emer said, surprised. Her hand stopped moving, and Conal's breath caught. "My father wanted him to, but Maga says that Atha is a famous warrior and will
always want to be fighting someone."
"She would, you know," Conal said, grinning at the thought. "I met her when she was here last year. She's not happy sitting still. She had the champions racing and playing hurley all day and dancing all night. My aunt Elba kept threatening to take to her bed with exhaustion, and my mother kept forcing her to join in with dire threats."
Emer laughed and stroked his hand again. "I wish I'd seen that. Is Atha really as ugly as people say?"
"No, nothing like. She's not pretty, but she wouldn't crack a plate either. Just like anyone.
But I hear she always spikes her hair and paints herself ugly all over for battle."
"Does she fight naked, then?" Emer asked.
"Apparently. Almost all the champions of the Isles do. I haven't seen her in war paint. But that's what my mother said."
"It shows great trust in the gods," Emer said dubiously. "Our people paint their faces and arms and legs, but they wear armor where it will cover."
"Very sensible of them," Conal said. "But you're right that Atha fights in a frenzy, and your mother is right that she'd not be happy without fighting. Besides, I have heard that she might be going to marry Urdo ap
"Really? And go off to Tir Tanagiri and fight the Jarnsmen?"
"Ah, that's the snag. Urdo would like that, no doubt, but she'd like him to send her some Vincan horse-warriors to fight against us."
Emer rolled her eyes and took back her hand. "Marriage alliances!" she said. "This is getting like dinner conversation at home."
"I wasn't talking about an alliance, except incidentally," Conal said. Now that he was free to move he reached out his hand, meaning to take hers back, but she turned, and she was in his arms and he was kissing the top of her smoothly braided head. Her scent was stronger than the scent of the grass. He felt overwhelmed.
"Emer!" he said. "Emer!" The hammering stopped again. "Emer," he whispered into her hair.
He knew exactly what he wanted to do, though he knew he wasn't going to do it. She might be a grown woman before the law, but she was not seventeen yet, and she was his uncle's fosterling. No matter what his father said, he wasn't an irresponsible boy. He could master his desires. But she turned her face up and looked at him, and in her eyes was such trust that he almost wanted to close his own eyes. "Conal," she said, very quietly.
Then there was a hesitant cough, and they leaped apart as if they had suddenly grown red hot.
It was the smith, bringing a cup of milk as he often did on warm days.
He held the wooden cup out to Conal, who stood and took it awkwardly.
"Shall I bring some more for the lady?" the smith asked slyly, looking at Emer.
Conal's first thought was to say no and get the man away as fast as he could, begging him not to tell anyone what he had seen. Then the things he had learned took over. If he acted guiltily everyone would assume that there was something to be guilty about. Nothing would make the man gossip more than him trying to stop him. Much better to act as if there was nothing unusual. "Yes, thank you very much," he said casually, sipping at his cup. "How do you keep the milk so cool on such a warm day?" he asked. Emer was sitting down with her back to them.
"Well now, I keep the bucket in the stream," the smith said.
"What a good idea. I shall have to tell my mother about that," Conal said. "I suppose you have an iron bucket?"
The smith laughed. "Iron fittings on it," he said. "A bucket all of iron would be too heavy."
"Of course," Conal said. "I was thinking you could have made one without the carpenter."
"Iron fittings, and the wood swelled to be watertight, for a bucket," he said. "I'll fetch some more milk for the lady now."
Emer looked around when he had gone. "How could you talk so calmly?" she demanded.
Conal laughed. "I'm good at that," he said.
"I know, I've seen, but even so. My face was burning. It still is. I've never been so embarrassed in my life."
"We weren't doing anything wrong," Conal said, draining his cup.
"My mother would scream for days," Emer said. "Worse, she'd make me come home. She may anyway. She may not like my taking up arms." She bit her lip again.
"Surely she'll take it all right?" Conal was alarmed. "Uncle Conary sent ap Usli to explain, and he's good at explaining. She -won't really make you go home, will she?"
"I've begged Elenn not to ask her to," Emer said. "And she wrote as well. Maga takes more notice of her. But
Maga didn't want us to come away. Ap Usli could be back by now, if she had been happy. It's only five days to Cruachan."
"They'll have asked him to stay for the Feast of Bel," Conal said. "I can't see what Maga can object to, really, when it was a fortunate day."
The smith came back out with another cup of milk. Emer took it and thanked him seriously.
They all bowed, then he went back inside and began clattering again.
"It will be the Feast of Bel in three days," Emer said, drinking her milk.
"Yes?" Conal said. Then he remembered what that meant. "No," he said in a different tone. The Feast of Bel had three meanings. The first was that the season of planting was over and the season of war could begin, between planting and harvest. The second was the renewal of the ancient ward that protected evil from coming to the island of Tir Isarnagiri. The third was the dance of fruitfulness. Everyone danced it once, around the relit fires, that the crops and the beasts should be fruitful in the next year. Then, after the children were sent to bed, it was danced again by men and women. Conal had heard that nobody ever asked where anyone had slept on the Feast of Bel. It was a time when the gods came into the world in disguise looking for willing partners, a time when women whose husbands had not given them enough children could seek a more fruitful coupling, and a time when many married couples would try to kindle children in the fields who had not come to the marriage bed. So many children were conceived at the Feast of Bel that the Feast of Mother Breda came exactly nine months later.
"Nobody asks where anyone sleeps on the Feast of Bel, and we are adults now," Emer said, smiling in a way that made Conal want to hold her again.
"You are not done growing, you are too young to bear children yet," Conal said. His voice came out almost as a growl. "Besides, if we go to war with the Isles this summer, you won't want to be feeling sick as the chariot lurches."
Emer frowned. "But I'm not married, and unmarried women don't have babies."
"They do after the Feast of Bel," Conal assured her. "If the gods want them to. That's what it's all about."
"My mother never explains things properly," Emer said crossly.
Conal had heard tales of what Maga did on the Feast of Bel. He didn't like to think what she might have told
Emer. "There will be plenty of other chances," he said, stooping to pick up the wooden swords.
"But not yet."
He tossed a sword to Emer. She caught it left-handed; she still had the cup in her right hand.
"Not here," she said, looking at the smithy and setting the cup down. "Not in the dun, not anywhere in the dun."
"No, there's no privacy there unless you have your own house," Conal agreed. "If we get married, we could have our own house. Next year, maybe."
"You could sleep in the king's hall now if you wanted," Emer said, picking up her shield and getting into position.
"I'm not ready to fight that battle with my father," Conal said. "I need to do it from a position of strength. He isn't ready to see me as a man yet."
"Anyway, apart from the poetic side of it, it wouldn't do any good. I sleep with Elenn and Nid."
"What poem do you mean?" Conal asked, taking his stance.
"Really, for someone whose father is a poet anyone would think you never heard any," Emer said. "Cian's poem Spring. He's in love with a woman and they both sleep in the king's hall.
'How can I sleep when your soft breathing fills the air of the hall, echoes through the whole island'."
Conal laughed. "Sounds to me as if she snores."
Emer looked horrified for an instant, then began to laugh so hard she dropped sword and shield and sat down abruptly.
"I'm not very poetic," Conal said apologetically.
"Oh, that's all right," Emer said when she could speak again. "It's Elenn who wants poetic. I just want you."
Conal put out his hand and pulled her to her feet. "And I, you know Imdash" Words had always come easily to Conal, but now there didn't seem to be enough of them to say what he meant. "I want you, too," he said clumsily, and angry with himself for being clumsy. "Now pick your sword up and let's get back to it."
"With the wooden blades?"
"Yes. Now I really understand why it's not good to learn to stop, or to gut your friends in training. We can use the real swords for practicing alone. Or maybe we could use them with ap Carbad, if he keeps coming down to morning practices the way he has been these last few days.
You wouldn't mind if you gutted him."
"Not in the slightest," Emer said, sounding entirely as if she meant it. "No more than I would an enemy. But he's going to be very surprised tomorrow when he sees how much better I am."
They practiced until hunger drove them back to the dun.
When Finca shouted outside the door, they all got up and dressed by candlelight, getting in each other's way. Nid kept yawning and complaining about having to be up so early, as if she didn't care what day it was.
At home, they would all have had new clothes. Maga had sent new overdresses for both girls, pale green with
red and blue hatchings. Elenn smoothed hers down carefully. It was the first dress she had had for years that she hadn't worked on herself. She had neither helped weave the length nor sewn the finished cloth. She might have carded or spun the wool before she left home, and she found herself hoping she had, that when Maga had come to choose the wool to weave, she had run her hands carefully along the store until she came to some Elenn had spun. It was strange to wear a dress that had none of herself in it. She had only her old shift to wear underneath. Maga had not sent a new one, and Elenn had not thought in time to beg Elba for wool and the use of her loom.
They did not seem to make new clothes for the Feast of Bel in Oriel. If they had all been preparing, she would have remembered. But nobody had said anything about it or been extra busy at the looms. Nid was wearing the overdress she always did. Elenn had seen her wear it every time she'd seen her more dressed up than the shift and jerkin she wore every day, like a
boy. Nid's hair, left bare and unbound for the festival, looked like a rat's nest. Elenn took up her comb, a very good hawthorn comb her father had made. She combed her own hair smooth and left it loose on her shoulders. She turned to Emer and was about to offer her the comb when she saw that her sister was wearing her usual mottled heather-colored overdress.
"You forgot your new overdress," Elenn said.
"It doesn't fit," Emer replied, untwisting her hair from her sleeping braid.
"How can it not fit? Mine fits."
Emer shrugged and looked down. "I've grown a lot since I left home."
Elenn frowned. She had grown, too, and her dress fit. But it was true that Emer had grown a lot.
"You should have said before," she said. "I'd have helped you let the seams out. It's fortunate to have new clothes for the Feast of Bel."
"Is that a custom of Connat?" Nid asked.
"It's what we say at home, yes," Elenn said, trying not to sound as if she thought less of Oriel for doing differently. Maga had warned her about that. She had warned her about a lot of things, but not of the important one. She didn't think Maga had ever imagined the possibility of Emer's mutiny.
Emer still wasn't meeting her sister's eyes. "The dress isn't long enough," she said.
"An overdress doesn't need to be long," Elenn countered. "Let me see if I can do anything with it." She couldn't force Emer to do anything anymore. The last half month had shown that only too clearly. But she could persuade her.
"There isn't time," Emer said sulkily.
"She's right," Nid said. "It'll be light soon. I need to find my parents and you need to join the king."
Without waiting for Elenn, or even combing her hair, Emer took up the candle, parted the curtain on the door and started out into the hall. Elenn and Nid had no choice but to follow.
At home, Maga and Allel would have had every fire in the hall lit, ready to be doused. Then they would lead the way around all the houses of the dun and down into the village, making sure there was no fire anywhere before Maga made the sunrise vow. Here, there were hardly any fires lit.