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Chapter 2

Duncan roused for a moment with a yell when someone set the broken bone of his arm. Someone else helped him sit a moment later and gave him something to drink. As he drifted back into darkness, he heard words. “…broken arm, two lumps . . . head . . . worried . . . pupils . . . different sizes…”

It was the morning daylight pouring through the door of the tent that next awoke Duncan. He didn’t know where he was. After turning his head, and looking around some, he still didn’t know where he was. This wasn’t his mother’s tent, and he was on a cot instead of his familiar bed roll. His left arm was strapped to his body. Just as he was about to call out, his memories flooded back.

“Colan! Melinora!” He tried to raise up, only to fall back as his head started to thunder again.

Someone ducked in the doorway of the tent. Duncan looked up to see a face with more lines than clear skin staring down at him with a smile.

“So, you finally awaken. I was beginning to be very concerned about you, son of Nial.” Argus corArgon, the healer of Clan Rhiadd laid a hand on Duncan’s forehead. “Good. No fever.” He thumbed back one eyelid, then the other. “And the darks of your eyes are the same size. So, I think you are healing, young Duncan.”

“Colan . . . Melinora . . .” Duncan got out.

“They’re fine, which is more than I can say for you.” The old healer closed one eye and squinted at Duncan. “Arm broken above the elbow, two—not one, but two—lumps on the head. Not one for half measures, are you lad?”

“I . . .” Duncan tried to feel his head.

“Nah, leave it be, lad. I’ll wager you’ve the sound of drums in your head, am I right?”

Duncan grunted in reply.

“I thought as much. But lying around won’t help that any, so up you get. Let’s see if you can sit on the bed without falling off of it.” The white-haired healer leaned over, placed his hands under Duncan’s shoulders and lifted. A moment later, Duncan was sitting with his feet on the floor of the tent, head spinning in slow loops. After a few more moments, the spinning slowed. He looked up at the healer.

“This wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to see you again, Argus.”

“Ha! If you can jape at me, boy, then you’re mending for sure.”

Duncan winced at the laugh. He looked around. “Where am I?”

“My tent.”

“Ah. And why am I here in Clan Rhiadd and not in my mother’s tent in Clan Ailane?”

“Truth to tell, lad, you were that bad when they got you this far that we, me and healer Llewass corArdh from your clan, we decided that it would be best not to move you farther until you had mended a bit.”

“And how long have I been here?”

“Well, now, this is the second afternoon since you were brought here by torchlight.”

“Two days!” Duncan winced again as the drums in his head thundered louder in response to his exclamation.

“Aye, lad. You’ve been out like a snuffed torch for the better part of two days now. Like I said, I was beginning to be just that bit concerned about you, but here you go and wake up on your own. That’s a good thing, you see.”

“I’ll take your word for it. And I’m no longer a lad, Argus.”

“Well, now, when you’ve reached a fine age such as mine, five dozen and nine, then the difference between you and your brother seems not so large, but as you will.” The healer turned to pick up a clay pot that was sitting near the coals of the fire. He poured some of the contents into a cup, then turned back to Duncan. “Here, drink this.”

Duncan sniffed the cup as it was thrust under his nose. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“Who said anything about liking? It will dull the drums in your head.”

At that, Duncan took the cup and drank the contents down. “Pfaugh!” He spat in the fire to try and clear the taste from his mouth. “That tasted worse than a muskcat smells.”

“Good. Medicine’s no good if it doesn’t taste bad.” Argus grinned at him. “Or at least, that’s what my old great-aunt Belwyn used to say.”

Duncan sat on the cot as Argus busied himself in clearing away the pot and cup and a few other loose items. Before long, he could feel the beat in his head dulling down. “It’s working.”

“Don’t sound so surprised.” Argus frowned with his mouth, but the wrinkles around his eyes said he was amused. “I do know what I’m doing.”

“So where is everyone?”

“Tired of my company already?” Argus laughed. “Nah, your mother is asleep in your aunt Guenmara’s tent. She’s been here night and day, until her sister dragged her off to get some sleep.” The old healer sobered. “And your father, young Duncan, is at the clans’ council.”

A wave of lightheadedness swept over Duncan and he shivered. He had a suspicion of what was being discussed. He remembered having a bare sword in his hand when the others came upon him the other night. A hollow feeling began growing in his stomach.


The evening shadows were falling when Nial corAnuwn ducked through the opening of the healer’s tent to find his son sitting in a chair and waiting for him. “Well,” he said, “you look somewhat better than the last time I saw you.”

“Aye,” Argus spoke from the fireside where he was tending a cup of liquid. “He is that much better. But not much more than that, mind you.”

Duncan watched as Nial dropped cross-legged to the floor beside Samara and put his arm around her shoulders. “See, I told you he’d be fine. He’s hard-headed enough that it will take more than a couple of lumps to take him down.”

“Something like a broken arm?” Duncan’s mother’s voice was sharp.

“I’d broken both my arms by the time I was his age,” Nial said equably, “and look how I turned out.”

“Stop trying to groom me like one of your colts, Nial corAnuwn.” The look his wife turned on Nial looked dark to Duncan. “Our son was hurt.”

“He caused more hurt than he took.” Nial’s face went serious.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better about seeing him all pasty-pale the other night, senseless and limp?”

“Mother,” Duncan said. “It happened. Will we, won’t we, it happened. I’m awake now. Be glad of it.”

She turned and glared at him. “You! No more sense in you than one of your father’s yearlings, and you dare to speak to me like that.” She wilted. “No, that’s not right. But what happened that put five men in the care of the healers during festival?”

“That’s what the clans’ council wants to know as well, son.” Nial turned very serious and turned to face Duncan full on. “And now that you’re awake, they’ll be asking you as soon as you can walk to the council tent. So tell me; tell your father what happened in that clearing in the woods.”

It took some time to tell the story. Duncan had to think about what had happened, recall events, talk his way through everything. His father asked a few questions along the way, but not many. At length, the story ended.

Nial rocked back a bit, then leaned forward looking into the fire. “That agrees with what Colan and Melinora have said about what led up to the fight. And if it happened the way you remember it, it explains some things the Torkielin said, or didn’t say.”

“You believe me, don’t you?” Duncan discovered he was nervous to hear the answer.

“Indeed I do. I know a thing or two about fighting, you know,” Nial grinned, “ and what you’ve said makes sense. More so than the words the Torkielin have been spewing forth, trying to explain how the four of them were beat by only you.”

Duncan shrugged, then winced from the pain that caused his arm. “They’re Torkielin.”

Nial laughed. “They are that.” He turned to Argus, who had been sitting to one side, listening. “Can Duncan go to the council tomorrow?”

“Possibly.” The healer stroked his beard. “Just possibly. But I will go with him if he does.”

“It would be better for him to go as soon as possible.”

Duncan starting feeling the hollow feeling again.


Late in the evening, Nial looked down at the face of his sleeping son, who had been dosed with one of the healers’ drafts to help him sleep. Now that Duncan had awakened on his own, they could give him some of the medicines they had been withholding because of the head wounds he had taken.

Nial tried to memorize the lines of Duncan’s face as the firelight played over it.

“And so it begins,” he murmured.

“Did you say something, Nial?” Samara said from where she sat by the fire.

“No,” the First Sword replied, still looking at his son. “Nothing.”


The following morning Argus and Llewass both ruled that Duncan was still not to be trusted on his feet. They refused to let him leave the tent, saying as much to the delegation of clan chiefs that arrived later to argue the matter. Argus gave them the sharp side of his tongue, while Llewass simply stood beside him, arms folded, with a most profound frown on his face. Duncan was unsure as to which was more disconcerting to the chiefs. He listened with inner glee, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning as Argus proceeded to ventilate the egos of the chiefs as if they had been the arrow targets on the testing days. By the time they had gathered enough collective wisdom to retreat, they were slouching like boys who had been caught at trying to pilfer honey cakes from ovens before a clan feast. He lost the struggle with the grin just as the chiefs turned and hurried away from the doorway of Argus’ tent.

The old healers were still muttering antiphonal curses when Nial ducked into the tent, followed by Samara, her sister Guenmara, and a woman that Duncan didn’t know.

“Were those clan chiefs I saw scuttling away?” Nial asked.

“Aye,” Argus snarled. “Come to badger us to send your boy to the council tent, they did. We sent them off with their tails between their legs and their bellies dragging the ground.”

Duncan’s grin broadened.

“Good,” Nial said, not responding to the grin. “We’ve something to do with Duncan now, something that must be done before he goes to the council, and I’d rather they not know of it.”

“Yet?” Argus asked. “Or at all?”

“At all, if you please.”

Llewass folded his arms and fixed a less-than-approving eye on the father of the patient. Argus aligned himself alongside his fellow, and together they glared at Nial. He seemed to be made of sterner stuff than the clan chiefs, as he was seemingly unaffected by the dual glares. “And what,” Llewass finally said in a biting tone, “are you thinking must be done to Duncan at just this moment that you had not the wit to discuss the matter with us before now.”

Samara stepped up beside her husband. “He needs his clan markings, and he needs them before tomorrow.”

Duncan was stunned. Getting the clan tattoos was normally spread over a time after the 18th birthday. Why the rush?

The two healers looked at each other, then back at Nial and Samara. Neither healer looked happy. Therefore Duncan was a bit shocked to hear Llewass say, “Understood. And I assume that explains why Lorana of Clan Ramessey is with you.”

Duncan was perplexed. Lorana? Why was that name familiar? Then a memory surfaced, of his mother and his aunt talking not long ago about Colan’s clan markings. “Will you be asking Lorana to do them?” his mother had asked. “Nay, we will not,” Guenmara had responded. “He’ll not be freighted with the power that she can put in them.”

Duncan swallowed. So Lorana was one of those who still held to at least some of the old ways. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Argus spoke up. “It will be done here, it will be done quietly, and it will be done under our supervision. If we tell you that he can take no more, you will accept that.”

“Agreed,” in unison from Nial and Samara. The other woman, who must be Lorana, nodded.

There was a certain amount of bustling around, and before Duncan was really aware of it, he was seated in a wide chair with a blanket draped around his naked shoulders. A flat board stretched across the arms of the chair and his hands were resting on it.

“Can you hold your hands steady?” the third woman, the one known as Lorana, asked in a husky voice. “If not, we can tie them down.”

“I don’t need the ties,” Duncan said. He’d seen men get the markings before; they had described how the process felt to him. A hand descended on his shoulder, and he looked up to see his father’s visage, solemn at the moment, but with a hint of a smile lurking in his eyes. Duncan knew that look, and it helped him settle.

Lorana settled on a stool before Duncan, and placed a small satchel on the board between Duncan’s hands. Samara and the healers each took a place around the pair of them, holding lanterns in their hands to shine where Lorana was going to work. She looked up at the parents. “What goes to the light hand?”

“The sword,” Samara responded in a level tone. That was as Duncan expected. In the iconography of the clans, much of it left from before they shifted to the worship of the White God, the sword had various meanings. Courage and boldness were the predominant values the clans assigned to it, but it could also take on the aspects of defender, warrior, or even berserker.

Duncan was not a horse holder, nor was he a craftsman. His hand turned to the sword more than to any tool, so it would be the strongest influence in his life; hence the tie to the right hand, the sun hand, the strong hand. Courage, defender, warrior—all were recently evidenced in his life. Everyone in the tent could follow Samara’s thoughts.

Lorana took Duncan’s right hand in both of hers, gently turning it so that the inside of the wrist lay uppermost. Taking a small fired clay bottle out of the satchel, she carefully worked the top out and set it aside. She then took a small brush, dipped it in the bottle, and used it to limn the outline of a sword in red on the inside of Duncan’s forearm, with the point of the sword nestled in the crease where the hand joined the wrist, and the pommel lying a full span up the length of the arm.

When the scale of the outline became clear, Duncan saw both his mother’s and his aunt’s faces grow impassive. One of the healers hissed, and Nial’s hand grew heavy on his shoulder for a moment. It was more than Duncan had seen done for anyone else’s clan markings, and he swallowed. Clan marks were not ordinarily so large. But given the reactions of everyone around him, there was import here that he was not understanding. Suddenly the thought of having his hand restrained while Lorana worked seemed to not be so out of the question.

Lorana capped the bottle and put it away, then took out another. “What goes to the dark hand?” The left hand, the dark hand, the match to the sun hand, where the complement or contrast of the primary strength was seated.

“The owl,” Samara replied, face still hard. Duncan’s eyes opened wide in surprise. He had expected the bow, given that he was a proficient hunter. He started to say something, but Nial squeezed his shoulder, so he kept his silence. Aunt Guenmara looked down, and both healers shifted their feet, but no one spoke.

The owl . . . that evoked dark thoughts. The owl was associated to stealth, to darkness, to subterfuge; all connected to the spirit of the former goddess of battle, Rhaichannan. It was not a sign often used, and then more often to a woman than a man.

It took several moments for Argus to loosen the binding holding Duncan’s left arm immobile and gently place the forearm inner-side up. Even with the upper arm still splinted, the pain of the broken arm being manipulated was more than noticeable. Duncan’s jaws ached from clenching and he could feel beads of sweat on his forehead. Nial’s hand on Duncan’s shoulder was firm and steadying. Duncan watched as Lorana drew an owl’s mask on the inside of his left arm in blue, and took in a slow breath when the second bottle and brush were replaced in the satchel.

A third bottle was brought out and opened. Now Lorana looked to Duncan’s father, standing behind him. “And the heart?”

“The raven,” Nial said in a quiet tone, almost a whisper. Samara closed her eyes, and Duncan thought he caught a glint of a tear.

“Ah,” Lorana said. She looked directly at Duncan. “I think this will go easier if you sleep.”

She lifted a hand, leaning forward, and touched her fingertips to Duncan’s forehead. The room faded to darkness around him.

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