Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five) (5 page)

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
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“Why not simply slay them, as you did Thor?”

“I never slew Thor. That was someone else. And since I returned Fragarach, I thought that was sufficient payment for a harmless subterfuge.”

Brighid darted her eyes over to Manannan Mac Lir, who shrugged, obviously confused.

“Say that again, Druid,” the goddess said.

“I never slew Thor.”

“No. What was that about Fragarach?”

“I returned it. Via the Morrigan.”

Brighid’s eyes widened in fury. “The Morrigan!” she spat. “You gave Fragarach into the keeping of the Morrigan?”

“She promised to return it to Manannan Mac Lir,” I explained.

“I remember my promises well, Siodhachan,” a raspy voice chuckled from my left. The Morrigan stood there, naked save for an iron amulet around her neck, skin like cream in porcelain and hair darker than a mine shaft. Her eyes glowed red as she stared at Brighid, Fragarach cocked over her head and her taut body ready for battle. “I never told you
when
I would return it.”

“Cathéide!”
Brighid shouted, and she was suddenly transformed from barbarian princess to badass knight, covered from head to toe in magnificent armor she
had made herself. It was one of the coolest bindings I’d ever seen.

I recognized the armor; she had made it specifically to counter Fragarach and be the immovable object to its unstoppable force. The armor came with a weapon: She hefted a massive bastard sword in her right hand and kindled a ball of flame in the gauntlet of her left, then set herself defensively on the hill next to her throne.

These two had hated each other for as long as I could remember, but I never thought they’d actually throw down. Maybe I just hoped it. But I never hoped I’d be in the way.

Chapter 4

A hush fell over the Court as the Morrigan and Brighid faced off. Perun could no longer contain his enthusiasm. After spending years as an eagle, within the past hour he’d been seriously flirted with, watched two goddesses appear starkers, then saw them prepare for battle. Joy in every syllable, he shouted, “Yes! I love Irish peoples!”

The Fae thought this funny and erupted in laughter behind us. The Tuatha Dé Danann, not so much—except the Morrigan. She chuckled and lowered Fragarach, but Brighid didn’t budge.

“You may relax, Brighid,” the Morrigan said, her red eyes cooling down to their normal dark brown. “I am not here for battle. I am here to fulfill a promise. You see that I have the Druid’s sword. I’ve been holding it for a good while now.” The tone of her voice made clear to everyone that she was enjoying the double entendre. The Morrigan’s mouth twitched upward at the corners.

“The Druid is quite the swordsman. I’m sure you can imagine. Of course, imagining is all you’ll ever be able to do.”

I wanted to tell the Morrigan to shut up, but I didn’t dare. She was dangerously close to revealing that she knew Brighid had offered herself to me. I’d promised Brighid never to tell anyone about it, but the Morrigan had guessed the truth. Brighid would probably not care
about such distinctions if the Morrigan made it public now. She’d be humiliated in front of all Faerie and she’d want to char someone to a cinder as a result.

Brighid didn’t move or say anything, and it was her best option. The Morrigan would hardly want to charge her when Brighid held the high ground; it didn’t matter that the Morrigan was Chooser of the Slain—it wouldn’t be fun. She’d be set on fire, for one thing. And taking a quick glance at the hill in the magical spectrum, I could see that said hill was warded extensively and prickling with defensive traps. You’d have to be insane to charge Brighid there, and the Morrigan wasn’t; she was malevolent and petty and damn scary on a regular basis, but not insane.

She could see that Brighid was ignoring her gibes, so she resorted to outright mockery. “It’s odd that a goddess of poetry should be at such a loss for words. Does this mean no one in the mortal world can remember their dirty limericks right now?”

“Return the sword as you promised and leave,” Brighid said.

“There’s an effort!” the Morrigan crowed. “You managed a line of pentameter.” She rested the flat of the blade on top of her shoulder, holding it casually, the way a baseball player might while walking to the plate. With seeming indifference to Brighid, she strolled to her left toward Manannan Mac Lir. She knew Brighid wasn’t going to move off her hill; she’d effectively trapped her there. If Brighid left, she’d surrender all her advantages in battle—and you needed every advantage you could get if you were going to cross swords with the Morrigan.

Manannan stood from his chair and waited, his hood up and his arms crossed underneath his cloak. The entire Court grew still and strained to hear whatever might be said, for Manannan did not speak often in public. The Morrigan paused in front of him and brought the
blade down horizontally in her hands, holding it chest high in a clearly ritualistic way, reminiscent of the formal transfer of possession practiced in Japan.

“Manannan Mac Lir, I am here to return Fragarach to you as I promised the Druid Siodhachan Ó Suileabháin I would. Its original scabbard was lost long ago. Will you accept it?”

“I will,” he said, disappointing everyone who was hoping for some more drama. I thought the Morrigan would have had a few more shenanigans up her—well, not up her sleeve. She didn’t have a stitch on. But then I flicked my gaze over to Brighid and realized what the Morrigan was doing. Brighid still stood as if she expected the Morrigan to charge her at any second. The Morrigan’s sudden appearance with the sword had goaded her into a defensive position, but now that the Chooser of the Slain was behaving in a completely nonaggressive and even polite manner, Brighid looked as if she had overreacted at best and like a frightened coward at worst.

The Morrigan placed Fragarach gently into Manannan’s outstretched hands and said, “It is done.” Then, without a farewell or even a backward glance at Brighid, she morphed into her crow form and flew into the grove surrounding the Court. She’d followed Brighid’s curt instructions precisely, and now Brighid looked ungracious on top of everything else. The ball of flame still glowed redly in her gauntleted hand, and all eyes swiveled to her and registered that she was ready to fight a nonexistent threat. Realizing this, she muttered a couple of words, and the armor and ball of flame disappeared. To Perun’s great delight, she was once again clad—if one could call it that—in nothing but wispy, transparent gauze.

She was seriously annoyed, however. Her eyes blazed
with a glowing blue light. “How long has she had Fragarach?” she growled.

“About twelve years, I suppose. But I thought she’d returned it.”

“And what of the amulet?”

I shrugged. “I’m sure she’s been working on it, but you could see as well as I that it’s not finished yet.”

“The point,” Brighid said, her eyes cooling while her voice took on three notes of creepy, “is that it will be finished someday. And I would rather that day never arrive.” The unspoken bit we both understood was that Brighid did not want the Morrigan to be immune to fireballs hurled by the goddess of fire, as I was.

The two black wolfhounds near the base of the hill had remained stationary and quiescent all through the Morrigan’s visit; now they rose to their feet, bared their teeth, and growled. At me.

Oberon said.

Stay silent for now
, I told him.

“If you have naught but threats for me, Brighid, I will take my leave.”

“You may leave when I allow it.”

“We are none of your subjects, and you guaranteed us safe passage.”

“True, but I did not specify how long it would take you to pass through.”

I made a mental note to demand a fixed time period in any future negotiation with the Tuatha Dé Danann. Being duped twice by the same loophole in the space of a few minutes will drive a point home.
Now you can growl
, I told Oberon, and he did so with gusto.

“You and I had a conversation once, if you recall”—I raised my voice over the din of three growling hounds—“about the finer points of hospitality.” She could take that one of two ways. She could remember that I had completely outmaneuvered her, take it
as a warning that I had similar plans laid now, and calm down. Or she could listen to her pride, already wounded by the Morrigan, and flare up. The building blue glow in her eyes pointed toward the second option, and my heart dropped as I realized I’d have to kill somebody to get out of here.

Oberon said.

Chapter 5

“BWAH-ha-ha!” someone laughed amongst the Tuatha Dé Danann. I darted a glance that way and saw everyone looking at Manannan Mac Lir, who had clapped a hand over his mouth. Flidais threw in a girlish titter, and then they all erupted—which gave everyone else permission to laugh as well, though they had no idea what they were laughing at. What had happened is that the Tuatha Dé Danann had “heard” Oberon’s comment. My eyes slid back to Brighid, and her mouth was quirked upward on one side; as I watched, her hounds subsided and sat down. I told Oberon to lay off as well.

You might have just saved our bacon there
, I added.

Oberon asked, a hopeful note in his voice.

“Please explain, if you will,” Brighid said in a much more cordial tone, “why you found it necessary to conceal your existence from me and the rest of the Tuatha Dé Danann.”

“I needed some assurance that I would be undisturbed for a span of years, for I have been hard at work training an apprentice. You may remember her.” I gestured over my shoulder. “Granuaile MacTiernan.”

Brighid bestowed a nod of recognition, and I assumed Granuaile returned it. A murmur of appreciation rippled through the Tuatha Dé Danann. A new Druid would be most welcome.

“She is not yet bound to the earth,” Brighid noted, seeing no tattoos on Granuaile’s right arm.

“No, but she is ready. I was on my way to begin the process when we were interrupted.”

“On your way where, if I may ask?”

“I was searching for an appropriate place in Arizona.”

Brighid frowned. “You cannot bind a Druid to the earth in the New World.”

That set me back on my heels a bit. “You can’t?”

Brighid seemed as bemused as I was. “It may be done only in Europe. Only the Eurasian plate has agreed to participate in the ritual. I thought you knew this.”

“No.” I had never tried to bind an apprentice elsewhere—in truth, I had bound precious few apprentices to the earth in the first place. All three Druids of my “issue” were dead now. Two had been ambushed—or perhaps assassinated, shot in the back—and another had died in the civil war that resulted in the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire. I hadn’t attempted to train anyone since the death of Cíbran, my last apprentice, in 997. And so it was no wonder I had never discovered this particular proviso to a Druid’s binding, but it made sense. All levels of the earth, from elementals to plates to Gaia herself, must be involved, and the plates were notoriously loath to get involved in anything but their own slow movements and ceaseless grating against one another.

Manannan spoke up. “Brighid, if I may interject?” She waved at him to continue, and he rose to address me. He commanded everyone’s rapt attention. “I cannot speak for all, but I hope I speak for many of the Tuatha Dé Danann when I say we welcome Granuaile MacTiernan
to Druidry, and I, for one, would like to see you train many more apprentices. Druidry has been neglected far too long on the mortal plane.” Emphatic nods among the Tuatha Dé Danann supported his statement.

“Thank you, Manannan, and all of you who agree,” I said, and privately cursed myself for not taking note of who hadn’t visually concurred. “If I could find such excellent apprentices as Granuaile, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to continue teaching. However, for me to accomplish this goal, I need to have a modicum of security. To that end, I humbly request that you keep my existence a secret, especially from the Olympians and the Norse.”

Furtive glances warned me that I had made a troublesome request.

“If … that is possible?” I asked.

Flidais spoke up. “The Olympian Bacchus asked us to inform him if you ever showed your face here.”

“Well, the Olympian Bacchus can go blow a goat.” There was no love lost between us. I had called him a “petty god of grape and goblet” and derided him as a pale echo of Dionysus. All the Roman gods were; their worshippers had possessed so little imagination that they hadn’t even moved them off Olympus. Two pantheons lived atop the same bald peak, albeit on different planes.

“Attempting to conceal it will strain our relationship with the Olympians,” Brighid pointed out.

“Perhaps you do not have all the facts here. Bacchus does not want to know of my whereabouts so he can send me a skin of his best cabernet. He wants to kill me, nothing else. He has sworn to Jupiter that he will do so. You cannot strain our relationship any more than that. So do you want more Druids or not? If you do, then don’t tell the immortal god of madness where to find me, and keep a close watch on your faeries.”

“Regrettably, it may already be too late,” Fand said,
in a liquid sort of lilt that perfectly matched her appearance. “I’m quite sure many of the Fae have already spread word of your audience here. Word will circulate quickly that you are back from the dead. Bacchus will hear of it sooner or later.”

Three kinds of cat shit, Oberon
.


There was nothing I could do about it now. “Speaking of people returning from a long absence,” I said, “Loki, the Norse god of mischief, is walking the nine realms again. And he seems intent on burning others.”

Brighid frowned. “Explain.”

I waved a hand at the Russian thunder god looming behind me. “This is Perun, a Slavic god of the sky. Loki somehow gained access to his plane and burned it all. You could feel the plane dying on the earth. I tell you three times; Gaia shuddered beneath my feet. I do not know if Loki plans on attacking the Tuatha Dé Danann or the Fae, but considering the myriad paths to Tír na nÓg, I highly recommend taking steps to seal it off from intruders, keeping in mind that Loki has a reputation as a shape-shifter.”

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
13.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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