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Maeve risked a glance behind her. By now her husband would know she had run. Were the clouds darker already in the north? Don't be a fool. She heeled her horse over a ditch that cut between banks of yellowing trees.
The stallion's haunches plunged, his forelegs scrabbling. Maeve slammed into the saddle and clung on for all she was worth, rubbing her chin on her shoulder. She might herself throw everything away, but she wouldn't let a man--or a slip of the ground--take it from her.
Dusk veiled the west of Erin by the time Maeve's horse flew into her father's stronghold in Connacht. Ramparts of earth topped with rows of stakes closed about her. Smoke leaked from thatched roofs into the mist.
At the stables, Maeve leaped from her mount, Meallan, and caught his foaming muzzle. Then she closed her eyes, her brow on his. "I am so sorry, a stor." Woman and horse-breath mingled, and Meallan's hide trembled beneath her palms. "Rest now."
Maeve had been gone so long she didn't know the horse-boy who was gaping at her. "Water him, please," she instructed the lad. "I must see the king." And she bolted outside, her windblown hair flying.
At once she caught herself. Remember who you are. Drawing straight, she picked her way along earthen paths between the little huts where the crafters lived, their mud walls damp with moss, their reed roofs sweeping the ground. People's chatter died as they stared at her mud-spattered trews and cloak, and the kilt of leather strips that covered her thighs, scored by branches and thorns.
Some of the crafters she knew, and their faces kindled when they recognized her. "Lady," they stammered.
One of the weavers reached out gnarled hands that had once braided Maeve's copper hair. Her eyes were milky. "Is that you, child, back with us again?"
Maeve touched her fingers, gentling her voice. "Yes, Meara. But I must get to my father."
The noble houses that jostled for rank around the royal hall--gaudy-painted, banners flying--were nearly empty. The warriors were no doubt huddled somewhere muttering about the king, Maeve guessed. The few older lords who were left stared at her with narrowed eyes.
Her appearance in her old home often coincided with some upheaval, and men muttered that she brought trouble with her. Such troubles are not of my making. Maeve thrust that fierce thought at them with her chin, until they looked away.
The king's hall of Cruachan stood at the heart of Connacht like a golden hill. A great ring of stone wall was topped by a vast thatch roof that almost touched the ground, sweeping up to a carved crest hung with banners.
A circle of stakes around the doors held shields, racks of antlers, and pennants of wolf-tails, now limp with rain. As Maeve approached she smoothed her wild red hair, shielding her eyes from the guards and sweeping past before they could stop her.
The hall swallowed her, a cavern of oak pillars and thick furs gleaming in the firelight. Flickering lamps picked out the glint of shields and swords on the walls. A hint of strange herbs made Maeve's nostrils flare. Yes, there was sickness here. The rumors she had heard were right.
Her heart thumped as she fumbled her hair into a braid with chilled fingers and pushed through the servants about the fire-pit. She clambered up the ladder to the sleeping floor--a ledge of oak planks that ran inside the great roof. Beds nestled beneath the eaves, screened by wicker.
Hurrying to the king's chamber, Maeve charged into the back of her older brother Innel. Years of fighting and illness had thinned the ranks of siblings until only these two remained.
Whipping around, Innel caught hold of her.
Maeve stared over his shoulder at a spindly figure in a pool of lamplight. Father?
"What the gods are you doing here?" Innel's arms were iron bands, cutting off Maeve's breath. "Out, all of you!" he growled at the servants, who fled. Only then did he release her.
Maeve swayed. Her sire Eochaid had always been a stern oak tree looming over her. Now he was a fallen trunk, his branches withered. The fiery hair he'd bestowed upon her and Innel was now the hue of ash. And his face . . . The left side was melted like wax, and slack lips spun a thread of drool. One eye drooped, revealing a sliver of white.
Maeve had to make her throat move. "When were you going to tell me, brother?"
Innel's eyes were cold as he folded his brawny forearms. Sword scars webbed the corded muscles with silver. "You seem to have forgotten you are of the Ulaid now, sister--Conor's queen. You do not belong here."
Maeve got up. Her brother always stiffened his ruddy hair into spikes and wore his scars, broken nose, and butchered ears as battle spoils. She must be wary, but she was also trapped. Her husband King Conor's famous Red Branch warriors--the elite fighters of the Ulaid war-bands--could be coming already to drag her back to their fortress.
She curled her hand at her neck, hiding her pulse. For the safety of her people, she could not stay silent. "I have run away from Conor."
Innel grimaced and grabbed her wrist, pushing her against the slope of thatch. His breath reeked of ale. "You stupid . . . willful . . . bitch."
Maeve arched a brow, breathless. "Surely I cannot be all of those, brother. It takes sense to be willful, after all."
He growled, his grip biting. "Father sealed the Ulaid alliance with oaths--with you. You'll draw the wrath of Conor and his Red Branch upon us at the very moment he is weakened. Do you care nothing for our people?"
"I care only for them, which is why I've come back!" She dragged herself free, rubbing at the welts he had left. "I lived among the Ulaid for two years. I know their heroes, their war-bands. I know the mind of Conor the cunning."
Innel paced, plucking at his ruddy moustache. "We must hand you back to them without delay."
Maeve's nostrils flared as she sought for her only weapon. She cocked her head. "So already you make Father's decisions for him. You hover around his sickbed like a crow on a carcass."
Her brother clenched his fist.
Maeve watched it, readying herself to duck.
Just then King Eochaid groaned, and his body stirred beneath the coverlet of wolf fur. Fear darkened Innel's face.
Ah, Maeve thought. She traced the bedpost with a shaking finger. "If Father is ill, other kinsmen will be gathering, as hungry as you to rule. So you will send your thugs to drag me back to the Ulaid now, leaving you here alone?"
Innel scowled, knuckling his temple as if her words strained him. At last he stalked past her. "You will soon be begging my favor, sister--when I am king."
After he left, Maeve sank onto a stool at her father's side and rested her brow in her hands. Her jerkin of toughened hide dug into her ribs, making it hard to breathe. What have you done? But sometimes she had to act, or she felt she would burst open . . .
A cracked wheeze. "You . . . broke . . . my alliance?"
Maeve sprang straight. Eochaid's good eye was blazing.
Her gaze flew to his hand, and out of habit Maeve flinched. Only then did she realize it still lay limp. "Yes, Father."
"Conor's warriors will fall upon us . . . battle and ruin . . ." Spittle gleamed on his lips. "Traitor!"
Maeve was on her feet. "Three times you married me off to kings and princes, Father, and you broke two of those alliances yourself." Just as I finally scrounged some scraps of peace. She gulped that down. Eochaid hated defiance but admired bravery. How to walk that line? She lifted her chin. "None of them made war once you returned their bride-gifts. They all had other women, and Conor does, too. He is already betrothed to someone else, an orphan girl he has raised as kin. He will soon have other wives . . ."
"You are his wife! You were given to him to seal our oaths, his and mine."
A cow to be bartered away. She swallowed that, too.
"You would not dare defy me if I was well," he slurred, withered fingers knotting the blanket. "A raven, you are, come now to pick over my bones."
Maeve's nails dented her palms. No, she was merely desperate. And this close to him--listening to his labored breath, seeing his helpless limbs--she could not think of anything save when he first made her feel this same way.
Maeve turned from him, trying to fill her lungs. But she was there again anyway, sixteen years ago . . . as if yesterday. The day her father first gave her body away.
The firelit lodge of the aging King of Laigin, Ros Ruadh. Once more she tasted the sting of vomit in her throat, felt the drag of robes too heavy for a twelve-year-old. She heard the bracken crackle as she cowered into the bed, too shocked to whimper; remembered the gleam of sweat on the Laigin king's brow as he labored over her, wheezing.
Maeve's will had long ago conquered the pain. It was the invasion that was so hard to banish, the sense of her own bright self being ground away into nothing.
When she was sixteen, her father plucked her from the household of the stern and indifferent Ros Ruadh, only to marry her again to Diarmait, prince of Mumu. He pinned her with brute arms and a heavy belly, to make her writhe so he could strike her and stoke his lust.
She eventually found a way to make him leave her alone, though: claiming a say over her body by rutting with men of her choosing, and many of them. She had to endure worse beatings at first, but finally Diarmait's rage turned to repulsion, as she had hoped. He sought other wives and kept the alliance with Connacht in name only.
So again Maeve carved out a sliver of peace for herself, this time for ten years. It was then her father went after his greatest prize yet: kinship with the Ulaid, the most powerful kingdom in Erin. Two years ago Eochaid broke his oaths with Diarmait of Mumu and she was sent away for a third time, to be Conor's queen.
Of all her husbands, it turned out to be Conor, with his sardonic smile and opaque eyes, his stiff body and dry, cool hands, who alone sought Maeve's bed every night.
It was not she, though, that made him want to plow that field. At twenty-six when they wed, Maeve was already too old for his tastes. Though graying and wrinkled himself, he liked fresh maids who had never been broken by another.
No . . . Conor wanted an alliance with Connacht, so his western flanks would be protected. And more. In an ancient war, Connacht had taken the hill that was the sacred heart of Erin. Since then it was said that with their bodies, royal daughters of Connacht bestowed upon their mates the blessings of all the goddesses of Erin.
That was why Conor so fastidiously folded aside his embroidered robes and lined his rings up on the dresser while his guards tied her wrists, taking no chances. And why, as he thrust atop her, he stared at the wall with such fierce determination--not for her, but to possess Connacht's sacred blood for himself.
Now she knew why.
Maeve closed her eyes, blinked to clear them, and turning around, sat by the bed. The movement made the lamp flame dip, and shadows reached for her. "Father," she said in a low voice, "I came back because I heard you were sick, because I want to look after you."
So you will let me stay, and for once be Maeve alone. His little warrior, bold and fearless, who had once made Eochaid laugh with pride . . . before she grew breasts and he remembered that he could use her for better ends.
No more marriages. No more bodies crushing her. No one but her own self.
The king's good eye narrowed.
Maeve took a breath. "And I came back to bring you urgent news of Conor mac Nessa." Maeve covered her father's paralyzed hand with her strong one. "Conor does not want an alliance with Connacht. He wants to take us over."
Eochaid gargled in the back of his throat.
Maeve's knuckles went white. "That is why I ran from him, to tell you before it is too late!"
Eochaid struggled to wipe away his spittle with his other hand. "You heard him say this? What proof?"
Maeve hesitated. "I heard . . . whispers, asides . . . remarks I did not at first understand. But they have built a certainty within me."
He hissed under his breath, one side of his mouth pulling down. "So you know nothing."
Maeve clung to this lifeline. She had thought that if she could lay some great triumph at his feet, he might free her and let her stay here at his right hand. Safe . . . at last. "I know that Conor wants to rule all of Erin."
She suppressed a shudder. "I . . . feel it. Sense it. He wants to rule everything." Her body had been conquered by Conor mac Nessa. His bones had caged hers. Of course her instincts sensed more than anyone could ever know. And then, only days ago, she had heard his whisper in the night . . . she was sure it was not a dream . . . that he would wrench a son from her and use him to make Connacht his own.
Men might use her, but not her child.
Maeve's belly cramped and she bit her lip. "We must gather fighters and attack before he does--"
"Bah." Eochaid struck her away. "The four kingdoms have stood for many ages; the gods hold this as sacred. We are well-defended, and Conor is powerful. It would be madness to attack him without proof or reason. Unless you have just given him one." His lip curled. "I did not ask you to spy, I sent you to be a queen to him, to bind me to the Ulaid throne. And instead you insult him and run away? I will pack you back off to him with no delay!"
Maeve endured this torrent, but she would not endure Conor mac Nessa again. One day he would come for Connacht--her people, free and proud--and she would be here to defend them when he did.
As Eochaid paused, wheezing, Maeve leaned her arms on the bed. She put her chin close to his on the pillow, like she did when he loved her like a son.
Before he sold her body to an old man.