Midsummer, 1041st Year of the Third Age (405th Year of the King)
"They push too hard!" Fionne slammed her fist onto the heavy wooden table in front of her. "It is enough!" she hissed. Murmurs of agreement rose around her; Tán Eghan was nodding and Tán Shiel clutched the hilt of his sword, his eyes grim and narrow.
The high king remained impassive, watching her with cool eyes. "Taine, I fear you seem to be spoiling for a fight." Gallech drew a sip of wine, still watching her.
Fionne settled back in her chair and tried to level her voice when she spoke. "They occupy the mountain pass, and claim that it is no man's land. Where once they traded, now they steal. They poach from our woods. They have stolen horses and raped women." She glanced around, her gray eyes glinting. "Kyric's 'emissaries' came to Miodág land to 'trade', and then made camp within our ring stones and defiled them. Should my family do nothing?"
The great meeting hall of Ríhalla exploded into noise at her words, the outraged voices of her fellow Tokens echoing off the stone walls in a terrible din. The noise was so great that the king's dogs began barking, adding the chaos. The massive table seated over eighty men; every family that owned at least a block of land was entitled to send a tán, or Token, to represent their needs to the high king.
Nearly every Token in the country had come to Ríhalla this evening.
Tán Huil of the Abhainntír house rose to his feet and the hall grew quiet. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. "Ríg," he said to the king, "we cannot sit idly and let this happen." Huil was her brother-by-marriage, and he locked eyes with her briefly in a show of support, his mouth tight beneath his dark beard. The Abhainntírs were a strong house, with a huge parcel of land near the Uiane River, from which they made a rich living in smith work. Fionne was glad, and not for the first time, that she had bound herself into such a family.
"They've done us no violence," said Gallech quietly. "You all seem to forget that." His gaze lingered on Fionne. "We have traded peacefully with the North for hundreds of years. This very table is hewn from the trunk of one their great evergreens." He ran a hand over the ancient slab of wood. "Shall we throw that away in an instant because you cannot keep your hands off your swords?"
"No violence?" echoed Fionne. Check yourself, she thought the minute the words escaped.
"Perhaps they have not drawn steel," Huil said, his voice steady and measured in sharp contrast to her own outburst. "But they mean every insult, and battle looms." He paused, choosing his words. That was the way of the Abhainntírs; they spoke little and they spoke carefully. "We can bring them battle on our own terms, or we can wait for their move."
"Is it a battle we can win?" asked Gallech. He looks old, Fionne realized suddenly. Gray streaked the dark hair at his temples and shot through his beard; weary lines creased the skin around his eyes. He must count at least fifty years, she thought. He has been king since I was but a girl. His crown was nothing but a slender golden circlet adorned with emeralds, but still it seemed to weigh him down.
"Yes," said Fionne hotly, and she heard several men echoing her. "We need only drive them back beyond the mountains. They do not know the land, and their horses are slow."
"It need not be a war," said Eghan, "only a lesson that stings – something to send them off with their tails hanging."
"…slinking away like the curs they are!" cried Shiel, slamming both fists on the table.
It was enough to make hall erupt again, the din nearly deafening. Every man at the table rose, their chairs clanging on the stone floor. Fionne examined the faces around her and saw their anger mirroring hers.
The high king rose as well, but slowly. With a last look down the length of the great meeting table, he raised a hand to silence them. "If it is battle you desire, then show your tokens and be counted," he said formally.
For a moment, nothing happened and the hall was still. Then Fionne reached inside her cloak and produced a handful of shining steel tokens engraved with a five-petalled flax flower within a hoof print. The Miodág family did not lack for land, and she had many tokens to cast in their name. She held them up for a moment, watching the red and orange of the firelight dance across them.
With a last glance at her peers, she flung them down upon the table in front of her. They landed like fat rain drops, each one ringing bright as a bell as it landed.
Huil was the next to cast his vote, and then Shiel Sionnachlinn followed. No one seemed surprised; Huil was her brother-by-marriage, and she and Shiel had traded sons nearly eight years ago in a foster arrangement.
Eghan's tokens landed with a clang, and then more followed in a sudden downpour. A few of the lesser Tokens were withholding; some were men with scarcely a block of land to their name who barely qualified as Tokens, and she could see the fear in their eyes. She found Taine Morna Nóenin, the only other woman in the room, staring at her. Cast your tokens, Fionne willed. But the Nóenins had little land as it was, and Morna looked down and tucked her hands into her lap.
The pile of tokens on the table had grown into a shining heap of metal that blazed in the firelight, forming a strip of bright metal than ran from one end of the table to the other, and Gallech raised his hand again. "There is no need to count," he announced. "The will of the tanabh is clear, and the will of the tanabh is the will of the people. We ride to battle."
"FIONNE!" She heard his shout and wheeled her horse around in just enough time to catch a flash of steel before it bit into the soft flesh of her face, bringing white-hot pain with it. Blood filled her left eye and welled into her mouth, and she had to spit out in order to breathe. She whipped her head around, choking on her own blood and struggling to see her attacker with only one eye.
There! He had spun around and was racing towards her headlong, his stout little Northern horse blowing hard under the weight of his heavy plate armor. She urged Caor forward and the weary stallion found a burst of speed for her. They closed in on each other, and Fionne could hardly judge their distance from one another with only one eye. To her right, she could see Shiel, who had called out to her earlier, racing towards them, but he still seemed a great distance away.
Caor was a clever horse; she could only hope his cleverness did not fail her now. She saw the Northman lift his blade and knew they must have been nearly at arm's length. Gripping her horse's mane with one hand, she pulled up hard on the reigns and spurred him forward all at once. Caor sprang onto his back legs and his iron-shod hooves struck enemy's armor with a resounding clang. The man flew from his saddle and landed with a heavy, metallic thump.
The man, one of their knights, she supposed, lay stunned on his back while his horse bolted away, following the retreating Northern army. Fionne dismounted and gave Caor a cursory glance; it was a dangerous trick she had pulled, for it left her horse's underside exposed to the enemy's blade. Caor was blowing hard and lathered with sweat, but otherwise unharmed. She turned back towards her opponent, and staggered. Too much blood, she thought grimly, feeling it running down her neck and onto her breasts as it seeped through her armor. The leather and mail she had once been glad to don now felt dangerously heavy, and she fought to keep from stumbling again.
Even so, she went to the metal-clad man and pulled his helm from his head to see his face.
A boy, and no more, she realized, surprised by the youthfulness of his features. He stared up at her, gasping to recover the wind that had been knocked out of him, and she kicked his sword out of his reach. She wondered if he was of any importance; he had a fine blade and his chest plate was painted with a red fox on a white field. She did not know that house, but if they held any power, he might make a fine hostage.
She spat to clear the blood from her mouth. "Do you speak the common tongue?" she asked, though the words did not come out quite properly.
He coughed hard and drew a halting breath. "Bitch," he spat, and then fell into coughing once more.
Fionne's sword painted a red line across his throat.
Her head was so heavy and her mouth felt as though it were filled with cotton. Fionne groaned softly. She tried to lick her lips and pain lanced through the side of her face.
"Be still," she heard a voice murmur. "I'll get you some water."
Opening her eyes, she reached up towards her husband's face with an unsteady hand. He caught it gently in his own and pressed a cup of water to her lips. She drank from it as best she could; every movement of her lips brought fire to her to wound, but she was so very thirsty.
"Not too much," Brevan said. "You'll make yourself ill." His dark eyes were clouded with worry.
A bit of water trailed into her windpipe, and the pain when she coughed was so great her head grew light and her stomach turned.
"Poppy," she forced out, and her husband nodded. She groaned a bit.
"You were in a great deal of pain and could not sleep… Eghan's Healer thought it necessary so you would rest," he said, taking her hand and kissing it, the coarse hairs of his beard brushing her skin. She tilted her head to look at him, her head aching a bit from the effort of focusing her eyes. His fine features were tight with concern, and beneath the olive warmth of his skin she could see that he was pallid and tired. His dark, shoulder length hair was still unwashed from the battle.
"How long…" she trailed off, hoping he would catch her meaning. Running her tongue along the inside of her cheek, she discovered that the wound went all the way through, though it had been carefully stitched closed. He flayed my face clean open. From what she could tell, the cut ran from above her left eye, through her eyebrow, down her cheek and past her mouth to her chin. Had Shiel not warned her, he might have taken her head clean off.
"A night and a day," he answered. "It's almost evening now."
She gave a slight nod. "How many?"
He frowned, his lips pressed into a grim line beneath his beard. "Not so many, but Huil's men, his light riders…" He ran a hand through his hair and sighed.
She urged him on with her eyes, though her heart told she did not want to know.
"They were crushed," he admitted at long last. "They were trapped head on against a line of knights…"
But their knights are so slow, she thought. Their plate armor made their movements labored and sluggish.
"They were like a wall," Brevan continued, shaking his head. It was a grizzly scene he was painting, and she had to keep herself from grimacing. "We could not stand their charge."
"Just fine," Brevan said quickly.
"Safe and well at Breaghmuír, with your family," he replied. "Your sister sent word and said they saw nothing of the battle so far south, not so much as a stray horse. She means to have them brought to Ríhalla in a few days' time. "
Fionne turned towards him in surprise; the motion was too quick and brought pain with it. "Ríhalla?"
"The high king was slain…" Brevan said. "A stray arrow – one of our own. Surely you remember?" He looked at her keenly and she found his gaze uncomfortable, looking back towards the ceiling with a nod. "There must be a choosing, and quickly," he finished.
Of course, she thought, but what of the children? I will see them soon enough when I ride home…
Brevan seemed to know her mind. "Fionne," he said gently, "it is you the tanabh call for. They would see you crowned."
She stared at the ceiling, memorizing the arching oak beams that supported it. We're in Eghan Úllaig's keep, she thought vaguely, recognizing the distinct woodwork of his halls. Her hands ran lightly over the linen beneath her; it was fine and soft. A low sun peaked in through the window to her right, its yellow light hazy and warm through the glazed glass. A private chamber with a glass window, she mused. Eghan's keep was largest this far north, so he was sheltering the wounded in within his walls until they were well enough to ride home. It was a common courtesy, and Fionne knew that the wounded surely filled the healing hall, lined the hallways, and spilled into the great hall, while she lay in a private, airy bedroom with a handsome window.
It's true, she realized. It was true, and already men were currying her favor. What about Shiel, though? She had thought…
Brevan was watching her gravely. She lifted her hand to his face, running her fingers along his cheek and down to his jaw, and sighed. "You will make a fine queen," he breathed into her fingers.
I have not been chosen yet, she thought. And yet her husband was not a man to take things for granted; if he felt so sure, then favor of the tanabh must have been strong indeed. A fine queen, she thought, if not a beautiful one. She pulled her hand from her husband to touch the wound on her face gingerly.
"An ugly thing," she forced out.
Brevan offered her a gentle smile. "It is not your face they want you for." His voice grew soft. "And it is not your face I want you for." He leaned over her and placed a kiss on her forehead with the utmost care. "I would rather have your lips, but I fear that might hurt, hmm?" He sighed a bit into her hair.
Knowing better than to smile, she slid her hand up and caressed the nape of his neck. Her fingers brushed over something unexpected: a swatch of linen across his shoulder. She looked at him with alarm. "A paltry little nick," he assured her. "Just a bit of a tap from a Northern sword." It was no "tap", she thought, to have bitten through his mail and leather armor, but he was belittling it for her sake.
A quiet knock on the door interrupted them, and Brevan drew himself from her grasp. "Come in."
A Healer entered, clad in blue robes belted with a wide white sash, as was the dress of her order. She looked harried, and although she was not an old woman her face was weary. Her dark hair was gathered in a plain braid that ran down her back, but stray hairs escaped left and right. Fionne thought of her daughter, who had only this year donned the blue robes as an apprentice of the House of Healing. It was not an easy calling; they were a hard working order, especially after a battle. If Fionne became high queen, Sahva would have to take a new advising Healer at Ríhalla if she wished to stay with her family.
"Taine," said the Healer. "I am pleased to see you awake. Have you had water?"
"She has," her husband answered for her.
The Healer approached her bedside. "May I?" Fionne nodded, and the woman leaned over to inspect her wound. Her touch was fastidious but still sent waves of pain through Fionne's face. "The wound is very clean; that is good. You will heal," she said confidently, seeming pleased. "Though… it will scar," she added, her face tense as though she thought the news might surprise her patient.
Fionne nodded. I would certainly think so. Most wounds scarred; those on faces were no different except that their bearers found them more regrettable.
"You are lucky to have your eye, Taine."
I am lucky to have my head, she wanted to say, and suddenly she found the Healer's coddling unbearable. She knew that it would heal; that it would scar; that it would be ugly. She did not need to be told that she was lucky or have it made obvious to her how much worse it might have been. Steeling herself against the pain, she forced out a few select words. "Indeed. Thank you." She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture, but the Healer stood where she was.
"I shall have broth sent to you – drink as much as you are able," she instructed calmly, as Fionne's rudeness had rolled off of her. "And with it I will send wine with poppy –
Fionne shook her head.
" – a smaller dosage, Taine. Not enough to make you sleep, only to dull the pain."
"Fionne…" Brevan took her hand. "Take the poppy. You need to rest. You have a choosing to attend soon." He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "And then I shall see to forging you a crown that suites you."
Fionne watched the Healer's face, unsure how she would react to her husband's words. To speak so openly, as though the outcome of the choosing was already decided, was quite bold.
"Silver would suite the taine's eyes," said the Healer, courteous and with no hint of surprise.
"No," murmured Brevan, "not silver." He regarded his wife's face solemnly. "Steel."
Her brother pushed her to her knees, his long grey robes billowing orange in the firelight. She was totally nude, and the earth was hard and cool under her bare knees. Her hair hung loose about her shoulders, red like fire and blowing in the night wind. All around them stood the Greatstones, the largest of Nevahr's ancient ring stones and most sacred. They towered high, throwing long shadows in the firelight. Beyond them, she could just see the shapes of people. There was her husband, standing with daughter and foster son. More of the Abhainntírs stood behind them; she could just make out the faces of Huil and his wife Deva. Fionne's sister was there as well, and her mother too.
She looked back up at her brother's face, though at the moment he was not her brother, but a high priest. He had in his hand a crown of brambles, the sharp thorns clear even in the firelight. He laid it on her head with seeming gentleness, but then he pushed it down firmly and the thorns cut into her skin like tiny knives. The crown came dangerously near her wound, which was newly healed and unstitched. She felt beads of blood well up from beneath the points of the thorns, and one ran down her nose and past her eye.
"Thorns," he said simply, "so that you may bleed and suffer with the land." He lifted the crown away, the sharps points ripping clean and tugging on her hair. He handed it to an attending priestess, who in return gave him a circlet of flowers. It was a lovely thing, made of all number of summer blossoms great and small, woven together with care.
He crowned her with it, the fragrant petals nestling into her hair. "Flowers, so that you may heal and grow anew with it." And again, he lifted away the crown and handed it away. Fionne bowed her head. Now came the crown that was truly hers, the crown made for her and no other.
It sat in his hands, wrapped in cloth to protect it, though it would not bend or dent like gold or silver. He unveiled it and it blazed in the firelight, all the woven strands of metal and times gems alight. "Steel," he said reverently, "so that you may protect this great land, when it has dire need." He lowered her crown onto her head and it fit perfectly, coming to rest across her brow her unsurpassed ease. "Steel," he repeated, "for the high queen Fionne Miodág. May her reign be just."
She was a queen.
Hanlon offered her his hand and pulled her to her feet, still naked. A king, or a queen, must have nothing to hide from the people, so kingmaking was always done in this way.
"Gallech Clochán was a fair and righteous high king," Hanlon continued. "He was slain by a stray arrow, and the land weeps at his passing. But it is not ours to question the intentions of Maira for her children, and our tears for Gallech are tempered by our joy at the new high queen she has given us."
Fionne glanced at the faces around her until her eyes rested on her family. Brevan was watching her solemnly, as always, and her foster son Dorran stood wide-eyed and serious. She locked eyes with her daughter briefly, and saw tears shining on the girl's dark lashes. Fionne looked away uncomfortably. Sahva, she thought wearily, you are a queer creature. She was just like her father, that girl, with eyes that Fionne could feel looking right into her. Sometimes terrible things must happen, she thought at her daughter, so that better things might follow.
A young acolyte offered her a robe, cutting into her thoughts, and she accepted, belting it snugly about her waist. Now she would begin the most harrowing part of the ritual.
A high priestess approached, clad in grey robes like Hanlon and bearing a small bowl before her. In it were three small, round berries, all a dark purple that neared black.
"Crush them in your teeth and draw the juice from them," she instructed, "but spit the pits back into the bowl. Do not swallow them." Her voice was grave and serious.
Fionne reached out and took the berries into her hand, and after a moment's hesitation she put them in mouth and bit down. They burned instantly, and yet were so sweet it was almost putrid. Her eyes watered but she did not gag, and she forced herself to suck out the juices and swallow them down. She spit the pits back into the bowl, and then she did gag, just a bit, but nothing came up.
The priestess took her by the elbow and led her before the fire, where she would stay until dawn. She lowered herself to the ground and sat there expectantly. Hanlon and the priestess, whose name she did not know, stood a short distance away and watched her.
She felt nothing, and stared into the fire blankly. She could only think of how weary she was; the night before, she had been occupied with the bloody sacrifice of a stallion to appease Cadren, the god of war, and the night before that she had been waiting on the news of Northern movement from a scouting party. She sighed. This meant that her would be leaving Breaghmuir permanently for Ríhalla. How strange that seemed; Ríhalla was not a place to live in, it was a place to go on business, as she had so often done when she was a Token. In becoming high queen, however, she had severed all her ties to Miodág land, and would never again serve in the name of that house. Her alliance belonged to the land and the land alone now. She would serve until death – as had the last high king.
Who would be the Token of the Miodág family now, she wondered. Not Hanlon, obviously, and not her sister Idelle either. Moirden? Her cousin Moirden, probably, for he seemed to have the head for it.
She watched disinterestedly as a delicate moth fluttered out of the fire and left a trail of flame behind it. She reached out to catch it in her fist, only to have it turn ash in her hand.
That wasn't real, she thought in alarm, feeling her heart began to pound. There are no moths made of fire. She licked her lips; her mouth felt dry and hot but her skin was cold.
Something else appeared in the dancing flames; this time it was not a moth but a horse. A horse, she scoffed. There is no secret meaning to that.
The horse turned and snorted, standing upon a field of flame. It was a stallion. The animal lifted its head and whinnied, and a chorus of whinnies answered. A band of mares dotted the land behind him, which had grown into hills and valleys all made of fire.
If the House of the Sacred was hoping to wring some sort of prophecy from her, they would be sorely disappointed. Horses grazing in a field were a fairly common occurrence, particularly in Nevahr.
The pounding of hooves caught her attention, and she saw the stallion, his ears pinned and tail lashing in fury, charging full speed. On a grassy ridge stood another horse, a younger stallion that was really just a colt, watching the older horse bear down on him.
That was the way of things; sires drove their own sons from the band once the colts were grown, to protect their mares. If a youngster wanted a band of his own, he had to steal mares.
The colt only stood watching, but she could see his hide of fire twitch in anticipation. When the stallion was but a few strides away, the colt burst into motion, springing back on his hocks and leaping forward. The two animals collided with a sickening thud, nostrils flared and eyes rolling. The colt lost his footing and slid onto his side, and in an instant the stallion had his throat in his teeth. This was no warning he intended to deliver, but rather a killing bite. Her heart went out to the youngster, but that was the way of things. Though a fight to the death was rare, if the colt would not heed his sire's warning then the outcome was certain.
And then the colt twisted violently, throwing the stallion off of him and scrabbling to his feet. Run, she urged him, but instead he gathered his haunches underneath himself to make another pass at the stallion. There was another hideous slam of bodies and they were so tangled with one another that she could not make out what happened. The stallion screamed with rage but the sound was suddenly cut short, and she saw the colt's teeth locked around his throat.
The stallion gave one last attempt at a brutal kick, and then was still. The colt backed away from the body, tossing his mane and looking uncertain. Then he lifted his head and screamed, on and on, the sound echoing off the hills and plains of fire that surrounded him.
"Fionne." She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of Hanlon's voice. "It is dawn."
"What?" Dawn? It had scarcely been a few minutes since she sat down before the fire. She looked around, her eyes aching, and found that it was true.
"Time was moving differently for you," answered the high priestess simply. "What did you see?"
Suddenly, her hips and buttocks were aching from sitting on the ground so long. She placed a hand on the small of her back and groaned. "I saw… horses fighting," she confessed. "Nothing more."
Hanlon raised a red brow, his face so like her own. "Why did they fight?"
"For control of the band, why else?"
"The young colt."
Hanlon merely nodded. Only the House of the Sacred can take a horse fight and make it a holy omen, Fionne thought dryly. She greatly admired the highest Order for their dedication to wisdom; they were unmatched scholars who knew much of the earth and the heavens. Nevertheless, their more mystic propensities left her a skeptic.
Fionne turned her head and retched onto the ground. A wave of sickness had hit her so hard and sudden that it was worse even than when she had been carrying either of her children. Hanlon gave her a grim smile. "You see why we are careful with the fruit."
I do indeed, she thought. She felt as though she had binged on wine, and then wandered into a field and been kicked in the gut and head by every ill-tempered bull in it.
Hanlon helped her to her feet. "You need water, and rest. We should go back to Ríhalla; there are many who have been waiting to see you."
She nodded, clutching his arm a bit as she steadied herself. "My family needs me," she agreed, thinking of the unsure faces of her daughter and foster son. She had not spoken to either of them in several days, having been engrossed in politics and ritual.
He gave her a strange look. "You must change your way of thinking, sister." He reached up and fussed with her crown. "Nevahr needs you."