When GallenO'Day is hired as a bodyguard to escort a young woman through the woods to the forbidden ruins at Geata Na Chruinn, it seems like an ordinary job—but all too soon, he finds himself fleeing for his life from creatures that seem like escapees from a nightmare—the alien dronon, led by their golden queen. With his best friend, a genetically engineered talking bear named Orick, and his girlfriend Maggie, Gallen soon finds himself tangled in an interstellar war that he never knew existed, racing across a host of worlds, confronted by a future unlike any that he had ever imagined.
one of my best friends in the writing business. We broke into the field at about the same time (late 1980s) and have been mutual supporters ever since. After Dave's big break writing Star Wars (The Courtship of Princess Leia), he wrote his own military SF space opera, which launched with The Golden Queen. This is one of Dave's favorites.
Veriasse could taste the scent of vanquishers in the crisp mountain air. Beneath the sweaty odor of the horses, lying deep below the aroma of pine needles and leaf mold, he could barely detect the acrid scent of a dronon vanquisher's stomach acids. This was the third time he had caught that scent in as many days, but this time it was closer than in the past.
He reined in his mare at the crest of the mountain, raised his right hand as a sign for those behind to halt. His big mare whinnied and stamped its feet, eager to forge ahead. Obviously, the horse tasted the strange scent, too.
On the muddy road behind him, the Lady Everynne reined in her stallion, and Veriasse just sat a moment, looking back at her. She had the hood of her blue cloak pulled up, and she hunched wearily in her saddle, too tired to remain alert any longer. The wind was blowing at his back in wild bursts, rushing through trees with the sound of an ocean, gusting first from the east, then from the south. In such weather, one could seldom tell where a scent originated. A vast forest spread below them, and Veriasse could see little of the road they had just traversed—only a thinning of the pines in the valley. Overhead, thunderclouds rolled across the evening sky. In minutes, full dark would fall upon them, with the storm.
Veriasse raised his hands. The olfactory nerves running up his wrists could detect the subtlest smells. He could taste a person's nervousness from across a room, detect the scent of an enemy across a valley. Now, he could smell a man's fear behind him, along with the acrid odor of a vanquisher.
"Calt?" Veriasse called softly. The big warrior was supposed to be trailing them as a rear guard. With Calt's sharp ears, he should have heard the call even at half a mile. But he didn't answer. Veriasse waited for a count of four.
Downhill, far behind them, Calt whistled like a thrush, three short calls. It was a code: "Our enemy is upon us in force! I will engage!"
Everynne gouged her stallion's flanks, and the horse jumped forward. In a heartbeat she was beside Veriasse, looking back down the trail in confusion, as if to wait for Calt.
"Flee!" Veriasse hissed, slapping her stallion's rump.
"Calt!" Everynne cried, trying to slow and turn her horse. Only her ineptitude as a rider kept her from rushing headlong back down the mountain.
"We can do nothing for him! He has chosen his fate!" Veriasse growled. He spurred his own mare, grabbed Everynne's reins as the horses surged forward, struggling to match pace.
Everynne looked at him, her pale face flashing beneath her hood. Briefly, Veriasse saw the tears moistening her dark blue eyes, saw her struggling to fight off her confusion and grief. She hunched low and clung to her saddle horn as Veriasse pulled her horse over the rise, and soon their mounts were fluidly running downhill, side by side, over muddy roads where one misstep would throw a rider headlong to his death.
Veriasse pulled his incendiary rifle from its holster, gripped it with a cold hand. A wailing sound echoed over the mountains, freezing Veriasse's bones, a keen death cry that could not have issued from the mouth of anything human. Calt had confronted his vanquishers. Veriasse held his breath, listening for more such cries, hoping Calt would be able to fell more than one of the monsters. But no more cries reverberated over the hills.
Everynne gasped, and a wracking sob escaped her as the horses raced through the oncoming darkness between the boles of tall black pines.
Five days. They had known Calt only five days, and already he had sacrificed his life in Everynne's service. Yet of all the places the vanquishers could have attacked, this is where Veriasse least expected it, on a quiet mountain road in a backward place like Tihrglas. This should have been a pleasant ride through the woods, but instead Veriasse found himself hunkering down on his horse, thundering over a muddy road, numbed by cold and grief.
Veriasse was weary to the bone, yet he dared not close his eyes. For an hour they rushed through the darkness and pelting rain until the horses could no longer see well enough to run. Even then, Veriasse pushed the horses as fast as he could, sensing that the vanquishers would soon overtake them, until at last the woods opened up and they clattered over a long, sturdy wooden bridge.
The river below them was a swollen flood. Veriasse shouted, drove the horses forward mercilessly till they reached the far side of the river, then halted.
He leapt from his horse, studied the bridge. It was constructed from heavy logs with planks laid over the top. He could see no easy way to topple it, so he fired his incendiary rifle into the planks. Stark white flames erupted for fifty meters across the bridge. The mare jumped and bucked beneath him in fright. She had never seen the chemical fire of an incendiary rifle.
The cold rain had soaked through his robes, and Veriasse longed to stay a moment, warm himself beside those flames. Instead, he took Everynne's reins and pulled her stallion forward.
"Let's stop here," Everynne said. "I'm so tired."
"There is bound to be another settlement just up the road. We can't stop now, my child. We're so close to the gate!"
He urged the horses on, and Everynne did not answer him, just sat stiffly in her saddle. Ten minutes later, they climbed another small hill. Veriasse looked back to see his handiwork. The bridge was an inferno across its entire length, lighting the muddy river in a dull red, fire lit smoke billowing overhead.
Yet on the far banks of the river, Veriasse saw the giant form of a green-skinned vanquisher in battle armor, staring at the swollen river in dismay.
O O O
When Gallen O'Day was five years old, his father took him to the Widow Ryan with the notion of getting the boy a kitten, and on that day, the Widow Ryan said something that saved Gallen's life a dozen times over.
It was a cold morning in Clere, with a dusting of new-fallen snow on the autumn ground. Gallen's father wore a badly stained brown leather greatcoat and a pair of green woolen gloves that had no fingers, and Gallen clenched his father's hand as they went to knock at the widow's door. The Widow Ryan was so old that many of the children in town told stories of her, naming her a witch and saying that the priest had drowned all her babies for being leprechauns.
The widow's house was grown from an ancient, gnarled pine tree, thirty feet in diameter and two stories tall, with assorted black branches poking out like ruined hands. Many houses in town had grown from seeds taken from its cones, but none of the other houses were quite so vast. Often, crows would fly up from the rocky bay and caw in its branches. The widow's husband had been a tinker, and when he'd found a pot that was not worth mending, he had brought it home to use as a planter. Many a blackened iron kettle still hung from branches on that ancient tree, and Gallen imagined they were suitable vessels for a witch to boil children in.
Gallen's father rapped on the heavy door. Moss grew up the wrinkled bark of the tree, and a large brown snail oozed near Gallen's foot. The widow opened the door, hunched beneath a heavy blue shawl. She ushered them into the warm house—a fire crackled in the stone fireplace—and took them to a box by a faded couch. The widow's cat had seven kittens in a variety of colors—one with orange-and-white stripes, two calicos, and four that were black with white faces and boots. Gallen hardly knew which to choose, so the widow allowed that he could sit and watch while she and his father talked.
Gallen looked the kittens over, and he half listened as the widow told stories from her youth. Her father had been a merchant and once bought seven olive presses down in Ireland, thinking to retire. He'd taken the whole family with him, but a storm blew them into uncivilized lands where wild Owens roamed—hairy men who had lost their Christianity and now wore only brass rings piercing their nipples. The wild Owens ate her family, but held the widow prisoner on a rocky isle where they brought their dead along with gifts of food every full moon, leaving the corpses for her blessing. She'd have to feast for days before the food rotted, then she'd starve afterward for weeks. The island's soil was white with the bones of dead Owens. The widow survived for a summer in a haphazard shelter under a leaning slab of marble, teaching herself to swim until she could finally brave the vast waters.
Once she escaped, she traveled the world. She'd gazed on the statue where Saint Kelly had carved the face of God after seeing his vision at Gort Ard, and as she described the statue, neither male nor female, old nor young, she cried at the remembered beauty of it.
She told how she had wandered for days at the Palace of the Conqueror near Droichead Bo, never twice entering the same room, and there she found a small hoard of emeralds that had been overlooked by treasure hunters for two hundred years.
Gallen quit listening, turned back to the kittens. Between his breathing on them and poking them, the kittens soon woke. He watched them stretch and search for their mother's nipples; then he began playing with them, hoping that since he could not make a choice, perhaps one of the kittens would choose him. But the kittens were not used to small boys, so they ran about the house frolicking with one another.
One kitten in particular caught Gallen's eye: the orange-and-white one would glance into a shadowed nook and hiss as if it had seen a ghost, then it would leap up the couch, climbing as if a wolf nipped at its tail, then it would prance along the spine of the couch with all of its hackles raised, its back arched. When Gallen wiggled his finger, the kitten became all eyes and crouched to stalk for the attack.
Despite the kitten's playfulness, Gallen wasn't sure he wanted it: the widow had fed the cats a fish, and its breath smelled bad. A bright calico with blue eyes caught Gallen's fancy. When it became clear that he'd never be able to choose, the widow bent her wrinkled face close and said the thing that saved Gallen's life, "Take the orange one that plays so much. He'll live longest."
"How do you know?" Gallen asked, frightened, wondering if the widow really was a witch and somehow knew the future.
"Clere is a big town," she said, "with tough old tomcats living on the wharf, and hounds on every corner, and many a horse riding through that could crush a cat. But that orange tom can handle life in a dangerous town. Look at the way he practices the skills he'll need in life. He'll do well."
Gallen grabbed the orange kitten in his stubby fingers. The kitten nuzzled into his woollen jacket, and the Widow Ryan continued, "You can learn a lot from that kitten, child. There are many kinds of people in this world. Some live only in the present—moving through life from day to day without a thought for tomorrow or a backward glance. They live only one life. For these people, life is a dream.
"Another kind of person lives in the moment but has a long memory, too. These people often fester under the weight of old slights or bask in triumphs so time-worn that no one wants to hear of them. For these people, the walking dream is spiced with a past that they can't escape. "Then there is a third kind of person, a person like your cat. This person lives three lives. Such people don't just muck about in the past or drift through the present, they dream of tomorrows and prepare for the worst and struggle to make the world better.
"This orange kitten, he'll likely never get crushed by a wagon or be eaten by a dog, because he's faced all those dangers here." She pointed a crooked finger to her head.
Gallen took the orange kitten. Sure enough, within six months the others in the litter had been tragically massacred by dogs or crushed under carts or thrown into the ocean by mean-spirited boys. But not Gallen's orange tom. It died of old age years later, and by that time Gallen had learned all that the cat could teach.
As a boy, Gallen lived three lives, but by far the life of his imagination was the fullest. Like the cat, he imagined every possible danger and worked to avert it, and like his cat, he was a rangy lad.
So one summer night when he was seventeen, he surprised himself when he and a neighbor named Mack O'Mally were accosted by two highwaymen on a dark road. Both robbers wore loose black flour sacks to cover their faces. The robbers attacked from behind, and just as one was about to plunge a knife into Mack, a screech owl called out. This distracted the felon, making him turn his head. Gallen noticed the small peepholes the robbers had burned into the sack, and realized the sacks must be mighty inconvenient to see out of. So he snatched both flour sacks, turning them so that the robbers were blinded, then he pulled Mack from their grasp. Within five seconds, he had both highwaymen gutted on the ground.
Gallen and Mack made five pounds and three shillings when they rifled the murderers' pockets, and when they got back to Clere, they went straight to the alehouse and bought everyone a round and gave the change to an undertaker to dig a hole for the dead robbers.
In a sense, that was the beginning of the legendary "fantasist" Gallen O'Day, but that's a far cry from the end of his tale.
No, I suppose that if one were to tell it right—and it's a tale that demands to be told in whole—one would have to continue the story two years later. Gallen had been down south for a year building a name for himself. He had taken up a friendship with a black bear named Orick, and together the two worked as bodyguards for wealthy travelers. In those days, the family clans were strong, and it was hard for a merchant to make a living when the O'Briens hated the Hennesseys and the Hennesseys hated the Greens. An unarmed traveler could hardly ride a dozen miles without someone trying to bloody his nose. But there were worse things in the land.
Rumor said that Gallen himself had rid the countryside of two dozen assorted highwaymen, cutthroats, and roadside bandits. In fact, every highwayman in six counties had learned better than to accost the dreamy-eyed lad with the long golden hair. He was building a grand reputation. But that fall, Gallen got word that his father had died, and he returned home to Clere to care for his aging mother.
So it was, that one night.…
An autumn storm kept the rain rapping at the windows like an anxious neighbor as Gallen sat in Mahoney's alehouse with his friend Orick the bear, and as Gallen listened to the rain knocking the glass, he had the unsettling feeling that something was trying to get in, something as vast and dark as the storm.
Gallen had come to the inn tonight hoping to ply his trade as a bodyguard, but even though the inn was full of travelers and the roads around Clere were rumored to be thick with robbers, no one had approached him. Not until Gallen caught the eye of a fellow at another table, a prosperous sheep farmer he knew from An Cochan named Seamus O'Connor.
Seamus raised a bushy brow from across the room, as if asking Gallen for permission to sit at his table. Gallen nodded, and Seamus got up and tamped some tobacco into a rosewood pipe, went to the fire and removed a coal with some tongs, then lit his pipe. Father Heany, the local priest, came over to borrow use of the coal.
Seamus sat across from Gallen, leaned back in the old hickory chair, set his black boots on the table and sucked at his pipe, with his full stomach bulging up over his belt. He smiled, and at that moment Gallen thought Seamus looked like nothing more than a pleasant fat gut with a couple of limbs and a head attached. Father Heany came over in his severe black frock, all gaunt and starved looking, and sat down next to Seamus with his own pipe, sucking hard to nurse some damp tobacco into flame. Father Heany was such a tidy and proper man that folks in town often joked of him, "Why the man is so clean, if you took a bath with him, you could use him for soap."
Together, the two old men blew the pleasant smell of their tobacco all about until they were wreathed like a pair of old dragons in their own smoke.
"So, Gallen," Seamus said, "rumor has it that you'll be staying here in Clere now." He didn't finish the sentence, now that your father has died, leaving your frail mother a widow.
"Aye," Gallen said. "I'll not be roaming far from home, nowadays."
"How will you keep yourself, then?" Seamus asked. "Have you thought about it?"
Gallen shrugged. "I've been looking about, and I've got a bit in savings. It should last awhile. I've thought about taking up fishing, but I can't imagine any woman ever learning to love the smell of a fisherman."
"Sure, the blacksmith is looking for an apprentice," Father Heany offered.
"I saw him just today," Gallen said, remembering how the smith would pick up the horse's back foot, leaning his shoulders up against the horse's sweaty rump, "and to tell the truth, I'd rather be a horse's ass than work with my head so close to a horse's fertilizing region." Seamus and Orick the bear laughed, and Father Heany nodded wisely.
"Sure," Heany admitted, "a smart man can always find a job that will let him keep himself unsoiled." He frowned as if thinking furiously, then said, "There's the priesthood."
"A fine vocation," Orick cut in with his deep voice. The bear was sitting on the floor, paws on the table, licking out of a bowl. Some milk still stuck to his muzzle. "I've been thinking of joining myself, but Gallen here makes light of God and his servants."
"I'll not make light of God," Gallen responded, "but I've no respect for some who call themselves his servants. I've been thinking on it. Your Bible says God created man in his own image, and it says God is perfect, but then he only made man 'Good,' as in good enough? Like maybe he was lazing about. It seems to me that God could have done better with us, considering that we're his crowning creation: for instance, a day-old fawn can jump a four-foot fence—so why can't a day-old child?"
"Ah, and to be sure, Gallen O'Day—" Father Heany said with a fiery twinkle in his eye "—if God had had you looking over his shoulder on the day of creation to give him a little advice, we would have all been better off!"
Orick lapped at the bowl of milk on the table, and the bear had a reflective look in his dark eyes. "You know, Gallen," Orick grumbled soberly, "God only gave man weaknesses to keep him humble. The Bible says 'man is just a little lower than the angels.' Surely you see that it's true. You may not live as long as a tortoise, but you'll live longer than me. Your mind is far quicker than any bear's. And with your houses and ships and dreams, your people are richer than us bears will ever be."
Spoken like a true priest, Gallen thought. Few bears ever entered the priesthood, but Gallen wondered if perhaps Orick wasn't a natural for it.
"I'm not one for the priesthood," Gallen assured Father Heany. "I still love the road too much. I'm looking to buy some property, then lease it out. Other than that, I plan to continue my work as an escort. There are plenty of short routes hereabouts. I can take some work and still care for my mother." He said it mildly, but it was not the short roads Gallen wanted to travel. He wanted to someday head south to Gort Ard and look on Saint Kelly's likeness of the face of God, or head east and search for hidden treasures. But now he would be stuck here in County Morgan, never more than a couple of days from home.
"Heavens, boy!" Father Heany said. "Why, your reputation has already traveled farther than your foot ever wandered. Every highwayman in the county will clear out in a week, and no one will need escorts anymore! Why, you're your own worst enemy!"
Seamus nudged the priest with an elbow, cleared his throat. "Ah, don't give the boy a fat head. He's not that good!" He turned to Gallen. "But, to tell the truth, Gallen, I do want to contract your services. My son's gone ahead to tell Biddy that I'll be home later, but I'm not half as drunk right now as I want to be in an hour, and I'll pay you two shillings if you get me home alive."
"Two shillings?" Gallen asked. It was a low price for a bodyguard, but then it was late of the night-too late and too rainy for robbers to be about. Gallen would only have to escort Seamus over the hills from Clere to the village of An Cochan, a distance of four miles, making certain that Seamus didn't fall off his horse. "Give me four and it's a deal."
Seamus grimaced as if he were passing a kidney stone. "What? Why you've got an inflated notion of your own worth! You're so hot to become a landlord, you're already evicting imaginary tenants!"
"Five shillings," Gallen said. "Four for my services, and one for insulting me."
"Three!" Seamus said with finality.
Gallen held his eye a moment, nodded agreement. The only sound was the wind howling outside and the paddles in the butter churn. The scullery maid, a sweet sixteen-year-old girl named Maggie Flynn, normally churned fresh butter every dawn, but with the stormy night and so many travelers passing through town, she was trying to get a head start. She had dark red hair and darker eyes, a patina of perspiration on her brow. She caught Gallen looking at her and shot him a fetching smile.
Seamus winked at Father Heany and said, "Ah, Father, it doesn't get any better than this, does it? Lazing about after a fine dinner."
"No," Father Heany agreed. "Not much."
"No, not much better at all—unless," Seamus said, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke, "you were in your own house with your own sweet wife sitting on your lap while you were smoking your pipe, and your dear wee children all tucked into bed." Seamus cocked an eye at the priest, as if daring him to disagree—what with the priest being celibate—but Father Heany just sucked on his pipe thoughtfully, seeming to take a cue from Seamus.
"Ah yes, a wife." Father Heany sighed. "'Tis a fine thing, I'm sure."
"Now, if I were a young man like Gallen," Seamus said, "just moving back to town, getting ready to settle down, I'd be looking for a wife. In fact, I'd almost think it my duty to find some fine County Morgan girl and marry her." Gallen wondered what Seamus was hinting at. Seamus had a couple of young daughters out on his farm, but the oldest was only fourteen. And while it wasn't unheard of for a girl to marry so young, Gallen couldn't imagine that Seamus would be talking about "duty"—unless some boy had filled one of his daughters with a child and then run off into the yonder and now Seamus was desperate to find the girl a husband.
Father Heany must also have been trying to fathom where Seamus was leading, for he said, "Now that you speak of it, there's that Mary Gill down in Gort Obhiann whose husband got kicked by a horse last summer, leaving her with three strapping little boys, all of them fatherless. If I were looking for a wife, I'd certainly pay a visit to Mary. A beautiful girl! Beautiful! And she's guaranteed not to leave you childless."
"Ah, she's pretty enough all right," Seamus agreed. "But dumb as a pine cone, I hear. Like as not, she'll fall in a well or catch a cold from standing in the rain too much, then leave her husband a widower."
"Hmmm?" Father Heany asked, cocking a brow.
"Now, there is Gwen Alice O'Rourke-smart as a bee's sting, and a hardworking girl, too."
"Nooo, no!" Father Heany threw up his hands as if to ward off a blow. "You can't go trying to unload your ugly niece onto the boy," the priest said. "That would be a sin. She's a nice enough girl, but with those buck teeth—"
"You don't say!" Seamus frowned in mock horror. "You daren't talk about my niece that way!"
"I will," the priest said. "God agrees with me on this point, I'm sure. The girl has tusks as dangerous as any wild boar's. Now, if Gallen is looking for a nice young woman, I'm sure others could be found."
Maggie got up from her churn. The cream had hardened to butter, and she could no longer turn the crank. Her face and arms were covered with perspiration. Gallen figured it must be midnight, yet she'd been working since before sunrise. She stood wearily, put a heavy log into the fire, then sat at a nearby table with a sigh that said, "Ah, to hell with it."
"Well, there is Maggie here," Seamus said with a wink, and Gallen saw that he'd been planning this all along. With Gallen and Maggie sitting so close together, it was a perfect opportunity to torment them both. No one in town could have missed the glances they exchanged, and Gallen had just about decided that Maggie was the one for him. "Now, Maggie has it all—she has her wit, she's a charmer, and she works as hard as three people."
"True, true," Father Heany agreed.
"And looks!" Seamus said. "More men come here to look at Maggie than ever came in for a drink! Why, if some boy were to marry her, it would deal a horrible blow to John Mahoney's business. Sure, you'll not find a better catch in all of County Morgan than Maggie Flynn."
"But …" Father Heany said with a sigh, "she's too young. The poor girl is only sixteen." He said it with such finality, Gallen knew it was more than a casual thought, it was a verdict. Father Heany was only repeating aloud in front of Gallen the things that others in town had decided in private.
"Too young?" Seamus argued. "Why, she's but two months away from her birthday!"
The priest held up his hands. "Sixteen—even an old sixteen—is marginal, very marginal. Marrying a girl so young borders on sin, and I'd never perform the ceremony!" he declared. "Now, if you ask me—and I'm sure the scriptures would back me up on it—eighteen is far more respectable! But if you make a woman wait until she's twenty, then it seems to me you're sinning the other way and ought to be roundly chastised for making the lady wait."
Seamus raised his brow, gave Gallen a look that said, "You can't argue with a priest," then drained his glass. Maggie got up to refill it, but Seamus shooed her away with a wave. "So, that's how you feel about it, Father Heany," Seamus said as he hitched his pants and strolled to the bar. "Well, all I can say is that it's growing mighty cold in this corner of the room, so I think I'll sit me by the fire and leave the young ones be."
Seamus filled his mug, then sat at a table nearer to the fire. Father Heany and Orick followed, leaving Gallen alone. Father Heany took up a fiddle and began playing a mournful tune appropriate for a cold night. Maggie sat down next to Gallen. He put his arm around her shoulders, and as soon as Seamus had his back turned, she glanced around the room quickly to make sure no one was looking, then nipped Gallen's ear.
"Gallen O'Day," she whispered fiercely, "why don't you come up to my room? I'll let you play on my feather bolster, and you can undress me with your teeth."
"What?" he whispered, feeling blood rush to his ears. "You've got to be joking! You could have a baby from that. You wouldn't want to get tied down with children so young."
"I'm old enough to cook and clean from sunrise to sunset for a bunch of dirty beggars who give me no consideration and don't know enough to take off their muddy boots before they flop onto a bed. Taking care of a husband and a couple of sweet young ones would be a holiday after this."
"Ah, Maggie," Gallen said, "you heard Father Heany. Give yourself another year or two to grow up."
"I'll have you know, Gallen O'Day," Maggie said, "that most men in these parts think I'm old enough already. You should see my backside: I've been pinched so many times that it looks like I've been sitting in a bowlful of black currants!"
Gallen knew a threat when he heard one. She was saying, either you pay more attention to me, or I'll find someone who will. And she wouldn't have to look far. Gallen took a thick oak stick from his pocket and began simultaneously twisting and squeezing it, an exercise he used to strengthen his wrists. "Hmmm …" he said, "maybe I should take a look at your backside." He felt her warm breath on his neck.
"You're not a religious man, are you?" she asked. "I wouldn't want you to think I'm just after fornicating with you. If you would rather have a priest and some vows first—"
"No, it's not that," Gallen assured her, yet marriage was exactly the problem. She was so young that no honorable man would propose to her, yet she couldn't bear the thought of working here for another two years. So, if she happened to turn up with a child in her belly, the whole town would just wink at it and hurry the wedding. It was an odd turn of events, Gallen thought, when the town would view a shameful wedding as somehow being more noble than an honorable proposal.
"If I were to propose right now," Gallen said, "it would hurt us in the long run."
"In what way?"
"I want to have a political career," Gallen said. "Father Heany is right. I'll never make a living by selling my escort services around here. I've killed too many highwaymen. Next year, I plan to run for county sheriff. But I can't do that and go tumbling in bed with you. It would bring shame on us both. I beg of you, give yourself time to grow up."
"Is that a promise you're making me," Maggie asked, her shoulder muscles going stiff in his arms, "or are you just trying to brush me off like a gentleman?"
Gallen looked into her dark eyes, eyes such a deep brown that they were almost black. She smelled of good honest sweat and lilac perfume. Outside, a fierce gust of wind howled and sleety rain spattered against the windows with such startling ferocity that Gallen and Maggie turned to glance at it. The window rattled so loud, Gallen had been sure that someone had pushed against it. He turned back to Maggie. "You're a sweet girl, Maggie Flynn. I beg you, be patient with me."
Maggie pulled away, disappointed, perhaps hurt. He still hadn't promised himself to her, and she wanted a commitment, even if it was informal.
The inn door swung open, and a sheet of rain whipped into the room. At first Gallen thought the wind had finally succeeded in blowing the door open, but after a moment, in walked a stranger in traveling clothes—a tall fellow in riding boots and a brown wool greatcloak with a hood. He wore two swords strapped over his cloak—one oddly straight saber with a strange finger guard on its hilt, and another equally long curved blade. By wearing the swords over the cloak in such a downpour, the stranger risked that his blades would rust but kept his swords handy.
Only a man who made a living with his weapons ever wore them so.
Everyone in the alehouse stopped to stare: the stranger must have been riding in the dark for at least five hours, a sign that he had urgent business. Furthermore, he stood at the door without removing his hood, then silently inspected each person in the room. Gallen wondered if he might be an outlaw. He didn't seem to want his face to be seen in town, yet his roving eyes appraised each person in the room as if he were a hunter, rather than hunted.
At last, he stepped aside from the door so that a slender waif of a woman could enter the room. She stood in the doorway for a moment, erect, head held high with her hood still covering her face. Gallen saw by his tense posture that the man was her servant, her guard. She wore a bright blue traveling robe trimmed with golden rabbits and foxes. Under her arm she carried a small harp case made of rosewood. She hesitated for a moment, then started forward and her hood fell back.
She was the most beautiful woman Gallen had ever seen. Not the most voluptuous or seductive—just the most perfect. She held herself with a regal air and looked to be about twenty. Her hair was as dark as a starless night. The line of her jaw was strong and firm. Her skin was creamy in complexion and her face looked worn, tired, but her dark blue eyes were alive and brilliant. Gallen recalled the words to an old song: "Her eyes kindle a fire for a lonely man to warm himself by."
Maggie boxed Gallen's jaw playfully and said, "Gallen O'Day, if your tongue hangs out any farther, all you will have to do is wag it to clean the mud off your boots."
Maggie got up and greeted the strangers. "Come in and get out of the weather, sit by the fire and dry those soggy cloaks. Would you poor folks like some dinner, a room?"
The tall man spoke with an odd speech impediment, loud enough so that the entire room could hear, "It is said that there is a place near here, art ancient arch with strange symbols carved on it—Geata na Chruinne. Do you know of it?"
Until that moment, everyone in the room had been listening but pretending not to. Now, they cocked their ears and became conspicuous about it.
Gallen wondered if these strangers might not be adventurers, out to see the sights of the world. Geata na Chruinne sometimes attracted such people.
"I know of the place," Maggie said suspiciously, studying the stranger's face, "as does everyone around here."
"Is it easy to reach?" the stranger asked in a thick voice. "Could we make it tonight, after a brief rest and dinner?"
"No one goes to the arch after dark," Maggie said uneasily. "People say it's haunted. You can stand beneath it on a hot day and feel cold air blowing off it like a sheet of ice. Besides, it's deep in the forest, in Coille Sidhe. You can't go there in the night."
"I could pay for a guide," the stranger offered.
"Well," Maggie said, "there are a couple boys in town who know the way, if you're willing to wait till morning."
"No—they can't be boys," the stranger said, standing over Maggie. "I want a man, a seasoned soldier. Someone who can defend himself."
Maggie glanced toward Gallen, lines of worry in her face. Few people in town had actually been to the ancient ruins called Geata na Chruinne, "Gate of the World." And only one had any kind of fighting skills.
Gallen wasn't sure that he trusted these well-armed, secretive people. But he didn't want to miss the chance to make some money. He nodded.
"Gallen O'Day could take you there in the morning," Maggie told them as she jerked her chin toward Gallen.
The hooded stranger glanced at Gallen, said, "Are you a soldier?"
He advanced on Gallen, the hood shielding his face. "He's an armed escort," Maggie boasted, "and he's killed over twenty robbers. He's the best there's ever been."
As the stranger got close, Gallen could see that the tall man had vivid blue eyes, tawny hair going silver. He regarded Gallen with a distant expression.
Without flinching an eye, the stranger drew his sword and swung at Gallen's head. Gallen leapt from his chair and grabbed the stranger's wrist, pinching the nerves between the radius and the ulna, then twisting. It was a painful grip, Gallen knew, and made the victim's fingers spasm open. The stranger's sword stroke went wide, then the sword itself clattered to the table. Gallen twisted the man's wrist painfully in a come-along so that the stranger soon found himself at arm's length, standing on his tiptoes.
The stranger nodded, and said, "Well done. You've the reflexes of a cat, and you must have studied a bit of anatomy to have figured out that trick."
Gallen let the man go, surprised that the fellow had wanted to test him. Gallen's reputation had grown so wide that few employers ever bothered to test his skills anymore.
The young woman in blue looked Gallen over, shook her head. "Not him, he's too small."
"Size is an illusion," Gallen said, catching her eyes. "A man is what he thinks."
"And I think that if a foe who outweighed you by a hundred pounds swung a sword at you, you would never be able to parry his blows."
Gallen listened to her words with difficulty, realized that like the man, she too spoke oddly, as if she had a mouthful of syrup. Yet her accent wasn't as thick. He said, "I've been strengthening my wrists since I was six years old, knowing that I'd have to parry blows from bigger men. I believe a man can become anything he puts his mind to. And I assert that by thought, I have made myself bigger than I seem."
"He'll do," the guard said, picking up his sword and shaking the pain from his hand. "He's got a hell of a grip—better than mine."
The woman in blue opened her mouth in mild surprise, then smiled.
"I've already contracted a job for tonight," Gallen said. "But I can pick you up at dawn. The hike to the gate makes for a short trip, only five miles."
The stranger spoke to Maggie briefly. Once he'd purchased rooms for the night and ordered dinner inside, the two began walking up the staircase, and then stopped. The old man said, "We just came from the south, from Baille Sean. There's a large bridge over the river there. Lightning struck it just after we crossed. I suppose you'll want to inform the town." Several people cried out in dismay. By law, the two towns would have to come together and repair the bridge, an onerous task.
Gallen knew that he could not let the young woman, his new employer, go without introducing himself.
He stood and said in a loud voice, "My lady?" The two stopped in their tracks, and the woman glanced over her shoulder at him. Gallen continued, "When you walked in the room just now, and your hood fell back to expose your face, it was as if the morning sun had just climbed over the mountains after a dreary night of rain. We're curious folks hereabout, and I think I speak for many when I ask: may I beg to know your name?" The little speech came out sounding so sweet that Gallen could almost taste the honey dripping from his tongue, and he stood with his heart pounding, waiting for the woman's reply.
She smiled down at him and seemed to think for a moment. Her guard waited cautiously just above her on the stairs, but he did not look back. After a few seconds she said, "No."
They continued upstairs, turned the corner of the hall, and were gone. Gallen O'Day sat down in his chair, staring after them, feeling as if his heart had just turned sideways or he'd died a small death. The last few patrons in the inn looked at Gallen and chuckled. Gallen's face was hot with embarrassment.
Maggie quickly made up two plates and readied them to take upstairs, then came back to Gallen and set the plates on his table a moment and said, "Oh, you poor abused child! To think that she'd mistreat you so." She leaned over and kissed him heavily on the mouth.
Gallen suspected that she was both hurt and angry. He also reminded himself that, wisely, he'd made her no promises. He held her gently as she kissed him, then she slapped his face, grabbed her trays, and danced off, smiling at him over her back.
Gallen put his chin on his knuckles and sat alone, feeling stupid until Seamus O'Connor began to sing and the rain outside quit splattering the windows, then Gallen knew it was time to be off. He helped Seamus to his feet, Seamus snagged the whiskey bottle with his left hand, and they headed out the door.
Amazingly, the storm clouds were scudding by fast instead of lingering like they usually did. Gallen could see pretty well by the slivered moons that shone down like twin sets of eyes, gazing from heaven. Seamus's old mare was across the street, tied in the livery stable with plenty of sweet grass piled before it. Gallen saddled the horse and helped Seamus climb atop, then led the horse out of the stables north toward An Cochan. The mare's hooves clattered over the paving stones. At the back of the inn, in the dim starlight Gallen saw two bears feeding in the rubbish bin and stopped the horse, asking, "Orick, is that you?"
One of the bears grunted in a deep voice, "Hello, Gallen."
"What are you mucking in the slop for?" Gallen asked, surprised that he hadn't seen Orick leave through the back door of the common room. "I've plenty of money. I can have Maggie fix you up a platter." Gallen felt nervous to make the offer. Bears eat so much that they're notorious for always being broke.
"Don't bother," Orick said. "Maggie saved a nice plate of leftovers for me. When I finish here, I'm going up the hill to hunt for a few slugs. It will be a grand feast, I assure you."
"Well, to each his own," Gallen said, appalled as ever at his friend's eating habits. "I'll be back at dawn."
"Do you want me to come along?" Orick asked.
"No, go get some dinner in you."
"God be with you then, for I shall not," the bear said. Seamus hunched over in his saddle and began singing. Gallen shivered at the sound of Orick's cryptic farewell, but pulled the mare's reins, urging her forward.
O O O
That night in Mahoney's Inn, the Lady Everynne paced at the foot of her rough bed. The smell of its thick down tick and the soft texture of its heavy red quilts called to her, but even though she was weary, she could not rest. A single dim candle lit the room. She had taken two rooms for appearance's sake. Her guardian, Veriasse, sat at the foot of the bed, head bent in a forlorn attitude.
"Get some sleep, my daughter," Veriasse said. He had slept little in two days, yet she knew he would stay awake at the foot of her bed and keep wide-eyed until they reached safety. His brown hood was pulled back, revealing his weathered face.
"I can't, Father," she said honestly. "Who could sleep? Can you still taste their scent?"
The aging man stood up, shook his head so that his long silver-gold hair spilled down over his shoulders, and went to a basin in the corner of the room. There he poured a pitcher of cool drinking water over his wrists and hands, then toweled them dry. He opened a small window, raised his hands and held them out, long thin fingers curled like claws, and stood for a time with his piercing blue eyes closed as if in meditation. Though the old man could catch a scent with his hands, Everynne could see no sign that he was testing the air.
"Yes," he said at last. "I can still taste the scent of a vanquisher. He is distant, perhaps no closer than twenty kilometers away, but I am sure he's here. We can only hope that when we destroyed the bridge, the vanquisher got trapped on the other side."
"Perhaps vanquishers have another reason for coming to this world?" Everynne asked in a tone that was part argument, part plea. "Just because you taste the scent of a vanquisher, it does not mean he has come for us."
"Don't fool yourself," Veriasse said at last. "Tlitkani has sent her warriors to kill us. With only one gate to watch, this world is the perfect spot for an ambush." He said it as one who knows. Tlitkani had enslaved Veriasse for four years, had forced him to become her advisor. Veriasse was gifted at reading personalities, at studying motives and moods. He could anticipate an adversary's actions so well that many thought him a psychic. No one understood Tlitkani better than Veriasse did.
"The young man downstairs said that the gate is only five miles distant. Could the vanquishers have already found it?"
"It's hard to say-" Veriasse answered. "I feel certain that vanquishers are following, but they could be ahead of us, too. On such a windy night, I cannot even be sure that the vanquisher I smell is twenty kilometers off. It might be ten, or only two."
"Perhaps the vanquishers are searching for the gate, even as we are," Everynne offered.
"Or perhaps Tlitkani wants us to believe that her servants are only searching for the gate—hoping that we will foolishly rush into another trap. I think it best to wait here for the night." Veriasse yawned and rolled his shoulders to keep the muscles loose, clearly uncomfortable. "We should proceed to the gate cautiously. We may have to fight our way through."
Without Calt, Everynne thought, that will not be easy. She felt a pang of grief, hoped that Calt had died painlessly.
Veriasse said nothing for a moment, then asked, "And what of our guide, this Gallen O'Day? Shall we convert him to our cause? He reacts quickly, and he is marvelously strong."
"I won't do it!" Everynne said, perhaps too forcefully. She knew all of the arguments. She needed protectors, she needed an army of men like Gallen O'Day, but what could he know of her world, the weapons that her people used? You could hardly expect a man to battle vanquishers with nothing more than knives, and Veriasse had no weapons to spare. Even if she did choose to persuade the young man to come along, it would be the same as murdering him.
Veriasse sat down cross-legged on the floor, but gazed up at Everynne past heavy lashes. He looked at her knowingly. It was as if he read her mind as she considered the arguments, almost as if he were placing the thoughts in her head.
"Then you are decided?" Veriasse asked. He smiled secretively.
"What?" Everynne said. "What do you know?"
"I know nothing," Veriasse said. "I can only guess at probable outcomes based on what I know of my associates."
"What do you guess?"
Veriasse hesitated. "I've seen men like Gallen before. He will want to follow you. Regardless of your good intentions, you must allow him to follow you, to fight at your side—if necessary, to die at your feet. So many people depend on you! I would advise you to use this man as your tool. He is only one, but his sacrifice might save many others."
Yet Everynne could not bear the thought of watching another guardian die. Especially not one so ignorant as Gallen O'Day, one so innocent.
"Let's get some rest," she said. Everynne crossed the room, blew out the candle. She closed the window and stood for a moment looking out into the dark streets of Clere. There was a little starlight shining on the town. From this height, she could see over several house-trees and buildings, down to the quay. Small fishing boats lay on the rocky shore, dark, like beached pilot whales. Poles in the sand held twisted coils of fishermen's nets, hung out to dry. Everynne could almost smell the kelp and the sea rime upon them. She had passed those nets only an hour before, as she made her way into town, and the memory of that smell came strong to her.
High on the beach, the seagulls had huddled under folded wings, eyeing her darkly, ominously. Almost, it felt as if they were watching now, through this window.
Everynne shivered, moved away from the window quickly and lay on the bed. Veriasse's heavy, uneven breathing came to her, and she listened to it as she drifted off. Veriasse—with his unwavering devotion, his strong back—seemed somehow more than human. Certainly, by the standards of this world, he would not be judged human at all. Her teacher, her friend. He had guarded Everynne's mother for six thousand years. And during the course of Everynne's short life, he had been a solid presence, always at her side. Sometimes she tried to distance herself from him, think of him only as a warrior, the only one of her guardians to survive this journey. But she could tell that he was weary to the bone, worn through. She could not ask that he continue fighting alone.
The old man sat in the dark at the foot of her bed, wrapped in dark robes—ever faithful, ever determined in the face of overwhelming foes.
With a pang that tore at her heart, Everynne realized what she must do. She needed another guardian, someone to fight beside Veriasse. She knew that men like Gallen O'Day could not resist her. Something in them responded to something in her. It was biological, inevitable. When she had first walked into the inn. She could tell from Gallen's eyes that he believed he had fallen in love. Given an hour in her presence, he would be sure of that love, and within a few days he would become ensnared. Another slave.
Yet there was nothing Everynne could do to dissuade the unyielding devotion of men like Gallen and Veriasse. So Veriasse sat at her feet, waiting to die. Everynne hated her lot in life. But it was her fate. For she had been born a queen among the Tharrin.