Daughters and Other Strangers

Daughters and Other Strangers

Postby Niabh » Thu Sep 14, 2023 8:32 am

She spotted Mactire a fraction of an instant before he spotted her. Normally her habits and duties led her in a neat circle around Mactire, and she seldom saw him before noon and quite often not until the evening meal, which meant he had like as not placed himself in her path on purpose, which meant he was up to something. Father couldn’t ask for water without there be a whole tower of schemes in back of it. Fruitlessly, she wondered if she could feign not seeing him and carry on walking.

No sooner did the thought cross her mind than he stepped away from Bruidda—who looked rather relieved to be dropped—and began striding toward her, hand raised, a cheerful, rapacious grin on his face as he shouted, “A word, Your Ferocity?”

She winced. Now would begin a contest. Once, many years ago, Mactire explained that the reason he used that title was because Mabhe ni Niall originated it, and he wanted people to associate Fionn with her grandmother. “You need all the status you can get,” he told her. “Mabhe’s not using hers, so you might as well borrow it.” Between the two of them, it was understood that he called her that to remind her that she would never be Mabhe and that she lacked all ferocity. To do anything less than accept the Official Reason would give him the satisfaction of successfully wounding her. He, in turn, enjoyed how it made her look naive every time she bowed her head to the title, and how much energy it took her to hold back her rage at the trap in which she found herself, a trap Mactire could trigger with only a hearty hale from across a trampled, muddy courtyard.

At any moment she could shatter the whole glam by telling him bare that she knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. But it was too convoluted, requiring as it did too much knowledge of him and too much of herself to adequately explain to an outsider, and being far too easy for him to deny.

Therefore she drew to a halt, turned lightly, and blinked slowly at him before giving him the formal nod of acknowledgement, then not a word. Let him be the one to bring the matter to her.

“We need to discuss your tultharian.”

And immediately, the whole sordid backstory fell complete into her mind. She cursed herself for not knowing realizing yestereven, when the clan sat down for their formal meal and she noticed he was missing. “Do I have a tultharian?” She pretended to check under her skirt hem.

“That’s one place I know for damn certain he’s not been,” he replied drily. “If you ever want to be rid of me, just sleep with him and I’ll hang myself.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” she said, equally dry. His fierce good humor was inexhaustible, and ran so counter to her own that she could see, from a long way off, how tired she would be after this conversation. “I’ve discussed the tultharian as much as is necessary. Do you want me to call Meg back?”

“Too late, she’s committed.” He rolled his eyes and folded his arms across his chest, seeming to block her path. Her only defense was to not politely lower herself to his stature, and to in fact straighten her back and draw back her shoulders, looking down on the top of his head. Her height was one of the few things that annoyed him almost as much as her title annoyed her, and best of all, it wasn’t anything he could kick out from under her. “Why do you insist on wasting our best healer on a tultharian? This tultharian. Tell the truth.”

“I tell the truth. I wish him to be well, and I trust no one better than Meg.”

“You’re trying to prove a point,” he replied coldly. “You want to impress him.”

Fionn inclined her head to the side, eyes wide. “I hope very much he is impressed with Meg. She is the best of us. He is not a fool; he will recognize her skill.”

Mactire put up his palm flat toward her face. “Please stop. Don’t say anything more that will embarrass yourself. Just tell me the truth.”

She folded her arms like his, rocked back on her heel with hip thrust forward, and regarded him coolly. “Do you question the Queen’s truth?”

“I don’t believe it was the Queen who sent Meg,” he said. “I believe that was the misguided decision of my distractingly tall, vindictive daughter. He bearded you.” He was all but gloating. “You don’t like being bearded. And he did it in a way that you couldn’t reasonably retort to. Leaving him to die would be disproportionate retribution. You wanted him to live so that you could prove to him that you are the mighty, merciful Queen who let him live. Not that that left much of an impression on him, I assure you.”

“An you already have a theory, why ask me?” She shrugged prettily, then swung the tilt of her head to the other side and pushed her braid over her shoulder. Sourly she contemplated the sort of conversation he and Glenn might have had, what either of them could tell the other about her. Her stomach churned. “You won’t believe any answer but your own.”

“Because for once, I actually feel somewhat responsible for this. I feel I’ve established a vulnerability in you and now this Sionnach fellow has gone right through the chink in your armor.”

She wrinkled her nose in disdain, not caring much for the imagery. “What, then, is your responsibility driving you to do? Is it something I need to forbid immediately?”

“I’m not interested in doing him any harm, if that’s what you mean, save for the imaginary harm I expect anyone who has to spend thirty heartbeats with him dreams of doing. You know. The same harm you dream of doing me.” He flashed her his foxlike grin.

She pressed the heel of her hand to her suddenly throbbing left eye. “This is your fun little way of telling me that you’ve spoken with him, he probably gave you nothing of use, and now I’m supposed to fill you in in self-defense, am I?”

“Exactly so. Spill.”

“I have told you everything there is to tell. We corresponded. We had a few visits between us. He has recently returned to Myrken. Now I am cross with him. I do not yet know if I care to resume the friendship.”

She intended that to be her final word on the subject, and turned to walk away from him, although he now had her so flustered, she had quite forgotten to which quarter she had been headed. Nevertheless, she strode boldly, trusting that if she walked far enough, someone would need her.

“That is a suspicious lot of modifiers,” he called after her. “You do not yet know if you care to resume the friendship. You’re leaving a lot of doors open, Your Ferocity. A lot of chances to change your mind. What would it take to know for certain? What if he took a turn for the worse?”

“Was that a threat, sir?”

“Believe it or not, it wasn’t,” he said. “But your response suggests you still feel proprietary enough over him that you don’t like having your chattels threatened, hence the question is entirely relevant: what would he have to do?”

She wheeled back toward him. “Do you think I’d ever tell you?

“I think you don’t know,” he said calmly. “I also think it wouldn’t need be much. My lady, if you let yourself be successfully swayed by a manipulative tultharian’s blandishments, you’ll never survive Court.”

“I don’t seem to be very good at surviving Court as it is. I’ve seen what Court is like. I don’t want to survive it; I want to dismantle it.”

“Fine. That’s a good goal. But you can’t do it from here.” She was still, turned inward with herself. He took the moment to bridge the gap between them, standing just outside of her morning shadow. “And you can’t do it with him. The only way you can take apart the Court is to break it to pieces with your bare hands. It won’t be negotiated with. It will never see reason. The rot goes clean to the roots. You already know all this. Never forget how you learned it.”

What humor and distance remained in her expression dropped like a wineglass to a stone floor. Perhaps a misstep; he’d hit a nerve, causing her to close her shell around her. “You’re disgusting, sir.”

His voice sharpening to pierce through the armor. “The whole affair is disgusting, my lady. Court is disgusting. What happened to you was disgusting. The bitch put the Queen of the Nialls into a position where she had to forsake her own lands—that’s disgusting.”

“Is breaking the Forest Covenant also disgusting?” she asked in a drawl so like his own that he bit back a fierce delight. She didn’t even realize she’d done it.

“Probably, but it also has no bearing on Court.”

“If the gean-connah takes back the Covenant, Clann Niall will be out of Court,” she replied with a chiding smile.

“If the gean-connah takes back the Covenant, Court will be the last of anyone’s concerns.” Dash it all, she’d baited him. “But until such time as that occurs, let’s assume Court still exists and that it still needs dismantling. Is that not your goal?”

Your goal, sir.” She gave him a small, mocking nod of acknowledgement.

“Your reasons are as good if not better than mine own; I’ve only held mine longer.” He saw her pause to consider an answer, then stepped into the gap before she could. “Do you have any goals? I don’t think you do.”

His timing was excellent, his aim true. The barb struck its mark. Her face flashed with pain and annoyance, and he heard the liquid sound in her mouth as she sucked on her teeth to maintain her composure. “For the past hundred years of my life, you have done everything in your power to ensure that I had no goals save for the ones you gave me. Whenever I’ve had a goal, you’ve had something to say about it. Therefore I shall not bother to inform you in the future, since you so seldom prove useful in furthering them.”

“Did the tultharian teach you that?” he snapped back, almost without thought. That accusation had been brewing in the back of his head ever since this conversation began and he would have employed it eventually, regardless of what she said. It was a risky move. She was protective of the tultharian. Whether that be because she liked him or because she was acutely sensitive to how much influence the man really had upon her was a point of particular interest to Mactire, who realized now that it might have been the wrong time to make the accusation: she was ready to put her back to him again. He grabbed her wrist before she could turn.

Her free hand shot out and her palm cracked his cheek. At once, he set her loose. A shadow in the shape of her palm bloomed on his face, then defused outward like the clutching tentacles of a jellyfish. He was pleased at her lack of hesitation and the fact that she had not spared him enough regard to hold back her full strength. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bruidda rise to her feet in concern.

Somehow, the blow broke the ice. Like two good combatants, they each stepped to their corners, creating a little physical distance in which he could breathe and she could glower.

“I left you Cnoch-na-Niall for nigh on ten years, sir.” She sounded on the verge of yawning. “Had you goals in all that time, you should have pursued them behind my back. I expected to come home to find the High Queen dead, quite frankly.”

“Oh, you would have loved that. Come home to a clear playing field, Father Dear having cleaned up all the mess for you, and nothing to do but take credit for it.”

“I want her dead,” she shot back hoarsely. The tendons on the sides of her throat stood up like vaulting; her fist clenched. “If some crofter managed to strike her down with a slingshot, I’d hang so much gold on him, he couldn’t walk. It isn’t about status anymore, Father. She’s too dangerous to be allowed to live. You were the one who impressed that upon me. Now that I believe you and agree with you with my whole heart, you dare imply that I want her dead to steal status?

“Keep your voice down,” he replied calmly, all the while keeping Bruidda in his peripheral vision. “It’s still treason even if I agree with you.”

She gave him a sour scowl, but lowered her voice. “Yet you propose to return me to a country where the bitch still lives, where I would be walking back into the same peril from which you bid me flee. What has changed? Other than you flaunting the Forest Covenant and all but selling Lady Emir to the Oisins.”

This last she flung in his face, a shrewd gleam in her eyes. He sighed, as much at her clear smugness in having routed out the news without him telling her as at having it found out at all. “Ainrid’s been running her mouth, I see.”

“Ainrid knows her duty, unlike some.” She flicked her braid over her shoulder. Suddenly she was towering over him, the shadow in which he stood still and cold as an eclipse. The loose hair escaped from her braid in a flaming corona brushed by the dazzling morning sun, and her round, stubborn chin lifted to a precise angle that could not be taught, only intuited. When the lass wished to play Queen, she could certainly look the part, no matter what his other opinions of her. She was Mabhe to the teeth. “When were you going to tell me? I thought you hated the Oisins.”

“Everyone hates the Oisins and I gave up Emir solely because it is what you would have done under the same circumstances, except that with you, we’d spend six months convincing you that it was the best option. Otherwise they would have come down to claim her themselves, the clan would have to protect her, and we’d waste an entire season over one petty noblewoman at the expense of alienating a more important petty noblewoman. Leannan Oisin’s the High Court bard now, did Ainrid tell you that?

She blinked in surprise, as good as a confession. “What? That mongrel?”

“Aye, he’s a mongrel but he’s a banded bard. The College’s current golden boy, to hear Ainrid sing of him.” He inserted himself back into her space, speaking through clenched teeth so that Bruidda, still watching, could not read his lips. “We do not need the Oisins getting a foot in High Court. Praise the gods he’s about as apolitical as anyone can be in Leabharcham, but it’s already a point of pride for his bitch sister than he’s there. They’ll want to leverage it. If the Oisins go to High Court, it should be as our creature. Not as Queen Alieanor status-climbing. If the High Queen does fall, the Oisins are going to expand the West into Leabharcham.”

“Let them have it,” she replied curtly. “We can move the High Court to Cnoch-na-Niall and it’s not as if I have a great longing to gaze upon Leabharcham ever again.”

“Be that as it may, you don’t want to allow the Oisins a chance to set up enclaves in the hills that sooner or later we’ll have to ferret out. If you want them in the West, give them the West—as High Queen, on your own terms. Make it dependent on your grace, otherwise you’ll end up at war with Alieanor’s daughters.”

“Let’s hope she proves barren.” The quip provided no comfort. She closed her eyes in defeat. “Lady Emir was ever loyal to Cnoch-na-Niall.”

Both of them understood it was already too late.

“Aye, so she was. But you have set yourself as the Queen who will uphold the Law when the High Queen disdains it. The Oisins’ claim was valid. We pled for mercy upon her; I thought that might please you.”

She stared at him, stonily, as if from a thousand miles away. “I know not what purpose you pled her mercy, but it was not to please me.”

“No,” he agreed. “It wasn’t.”

In their silence, the sounds of camp reasserted itself: the regular ping! of a hammer tapping a chisel, two unseen guards singing some ridiculous song about the rising of the moon; a horse shaking its bridle, all surrounded and overshadowed by the vast hush of the Woods, the sigh of wind in its branches and the faint, ominous creak of immense branches swaying, the lap of the lake. She could almost believe, listening, that despite this ridiculous power-play—making something out of nothing at all—all was as it should be. The first weeks after making a camp was a time of harmony and excitement, everyone working together, always a project or a plan in motion, but with enough stability that one almost felt they could accomplish anything from this makeshift foothold. It was everything she loved, and, in its way, everything she had longed for. Trying to build a camp on her own had shown her the desperation and loneliness of the enterprise, and nothing she created ever felt like anything more than a damp hole in the ground. Why then did she feel trapped?

Finally she brushed a hand at the side of her face, signaling an ending. “We’ve strayed afar from the subject at hand. You will stay away from my tultharian. Whatever he is is nothing to do with the clan.”

Mactire’s brows went up. “And now he’s your tultharian after all.”

Her lids lowered in half-mast indifference as she looked down her nose at him, bearing down on him with her authority, her physical stature. She sucked the sun’s warmth from his back, leaving him chilled; she stole from him the very possibility of escaping her, closing the exits all around so that the only path ended at her feet, and there was no way out but through her. He struggled against the gravitational pull of her influence, but finally bowed his head. Only then did she speak, staring down upon the straight part down the center of his scalp.

“Be he mine or none of mine, still you will not interfere with him. Do it again and I’ll put you on escort.”

“A Queen should not offer second chances, my lady.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine then, you’re on escort. Bruidda!” She summoned the captain with a whirl of one hand. The hefty woman approached with grim expectation. “Bruidda, are you available to be His Lordship’s escort?”

Mactire groaned inwardly.

“Would that I were,” said Bruidda, side-eying Mactire’s discomfort with evident pleasure. She shucked her broad shoulders with a cheerful clank of her shoulder plates. “I cannot do two duties well, my lady. But I can find you someone who will serve.”

“An you would, Bruidda-dear. A woman, if possible.”

Bruidda’s pleasure spread across her face. “I know just the one. Excuse me, my lady.”

She bowed herself backwards, then turned and trotted briskly across the courtyard, like a hound on the scent. The Queen watched her go, stone-faced. Mactire watched the Queen and wondered.

“A woman, huh?” He shook his head skeptically. “What do you take me for?”

Normally a clear victory over Mactire—however slight, and however leveraged by force—would put her in a more cheerful mood. Now she resented it had come to that point. He could never be reasonable, he could never just agree. She stared down at him, then deliberately turned on a heel, scarlet skirts whisking over the rutted mud, as she walked away with her head down, like a bull. Her braid lashed across her back.

And now he was on escort. Resigned, he turned himself toward the direction Bruidda’d trundled off. Could’ve been worse. He would have accepted worse, if only he’d gotten a fraction more of what he wanted from the effort of the confrontation. An escort was not unworkable; most of his scheming went on in his head, where no guard could glean it, nor any Queen either.

Something was the matter with her. Passive in all the wrong ways, stubborn in ways obscure to him. Not the girlish thing she had still been even after Leabharcham. A royal stranger.
Anything can be magic if you're gullible enough.
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Niabh
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