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Chapter 5

Over the next few weeks, Nial drilled Duncan on Shaun-ki just as fiercely as he had ever drilled him on the practice grounds for the sword or for riding. And despite his original hesitation, Duncan discovered that he could learn to play the game well after all. Before long, Nial was bringing other players to the tent in the evenings to provide a variety of opposition for Duncan. He still lost frequently, but win or lose, he was improving with every game.

Then Nial switched it up by bringing maps in to talk about how to fight in real terrain, instead of the flat level of the Shaun-ki board. Those nights also often included some of the other warriors of the clan, such as the clan chief, Ranald corManwydd, or Karas corTurart, his father’s right-hand man in leading the clan’s swords and spears.

The height of summer had passed and the days were starting to grow shorter when Nial nudged Duncan awake at dawn one morning.

“What?” Duncan muttered as he peered up at his father with gummy eyes.

“Get up. I’ve got Nightflame and Swiftwing saddled. We’re going for a ride.”

When Duncan shuffled out of the tent moments later, he found his father standing at the head of Duncan’s horse Swiftwing, a dun-colored male with black feet and mane. Nial looked at where Duncan’s left arm still rested in a sling. “Can you mount with one hand?”

“I think so,” Duncan said. He grasped the front of the saddle with his sound hand, put his left foot in its stirrup, then pushed off with his right foot and pulled with his hand. His leg barely cleared Swiftwing’s haunch, but he did manage to get into the saddle, although he had to wiggle around a bit to get settled and get his right foot in its stirrup.

By that time Nial was in his own saddle, sitting atop Nightflame with casual ease. “So how long until you can use that arm again?” He nudged Nightflame, Swiftwing’s older full brother, solid black and enough larger that Swiftwing looked outclassed, into motion.

Duncan urged Swiftwing to move out alongside Nightflame. “They say the bone appears to be healed now, and it doesn’t ache much anymore. They just want to be sure that it’s well-healed before I start doing anything heavy with it.”

“But it still means your time is growing short.”

Duncan sighed. “I guess it does.”

They were riding out of the camp on a pretty well-traveled trail. Duncan wondered where they were going but didn’t ask. Better to let his father reveal their destination in his own time and own way.

Before long Nial turned onto a side trail that was just wide enough for one horse to pass between the trees, so Duncan pulled Swiftwing in behind Nightflame and followed his father. He kept his senses alert, though, and had a really good idea where they were the whole time they were moving.

Eventually Nial left that trail and began guiding Nightflame through the trees that were surrounding the trail. Swiftwing followed two steps behind.

Nial took them back and forth across the terrain, always following a way that he obviously knew that Duncan couldn’t track. Oh, after the first couple of changes, he knew generally where they were; he could have tracked back to the trail with confidence. But did he know with the same sureness he’d known on the trail? No. But still, he said nothing, waiting for the moment where his father revealed where they were going, and why.

At length they began climbing a rise. When they reached the crest, Nial pulled Nightflame to a stop. Swiftwing stepped up beside his brother, and Duncan looked out at a vista.

“This is the valley where we ambushed that northern raiding party a couple of years ago, isn’t it?” That experience was still rather fresh in Duncan’s mind, as it was the first time he’d fought people he knew wanted to kill him. Of course, the same was true of him; the raiders had received no mercy from the ambushers from Clan Ailane, and Duncan knew for a fact he had killed two of them, and perhaps another one or two.

And after the fight was over, remembering the feel of his sword punching into the bodies of the ones he’d killed, Duncan had stumbled over to a nearby tree and leaned against it while he’d puked up what felt like everything he’d eaten for the previous two weeks.

“It is,” Nial answered. “What do you remember about that fight?”

“Mostly just standing where you told me to until after the fight began.”

Nial chuckled. “Right.” He lifted his arm and pointed to the northeast. “That crease in the land is how they advanced. I think they were expecting to surprise us by coming through it. Unfortunately for them, we knew about it, and I had scouts posted especially to keep an eye on it.

“Now, the game we played last night was modeled on this. And you won. But look at the land now: would your attack plan have worked on the land rather than on the playing board?”

Duncan looked around carefully, noting the lay of the land and the landmarks and features in the valley before him. After a few long moments, he shook his head.


“And why not?”

“Because the rise in the land going that direction, and the creek that runs down from the northwest would have disrupted the attack.”

“Or at least slowed it,” Nial observed.

“I see that,” Duncan said.

“Always remember, the map is not the land, no matter how good it is. If at all possible, always view the land you’re going to fight over with your own eyes. If that’s not possible, then send out scouts who know how to see and how to report.”

“I see that,” Duncan said again.

“Now, let’s talk about how I ordered the clan’s swords for this one.”

They dismounted and loosened the saddle girths on the horses to give them some rest, then spent over an hour discussing the ramifications of what had been really a minor skirmish two years ago.

At the end of it, Duncan was almost in awe at his father’s ability to not only plan and execute an attack, but to then turn around and teach it to him. And it gave him living context into which he could start fitting the things he had learned playing Shaun-ki.

The ride back was noticeably shorter than the ride out had been. Duncan shook his head when he realized Nial had taken him on a very roundabout route to the crest of the ridge to keep him from recognizing the land before they reached the observation point he’d selected.

Once they made it back to the main trail, they resumed their conversation.

“So,” Nial asked, “have you beaten your mother at Shaun-ki yet?”

“No. I feel like a toddler in a napper when I play her, she beats me that fiercely. Did you teach her to play?”

Nial laughed. “Oh, no, that was both her mother and her uncle.”

“Grandmother Eilidh?”

“Aye, Eilidh suBeathaga, and Macsen corFergias, who was First Sword for the clan before me. According to Eilidh, your mother pestered Macsen to teach her to play the game from so early an age that she could barely stand on her own feet. He finally gave in just to get some freedom from the nagging.” Nial chuckled. “Macsen had no daughters, so your mother was his sunlight after his wife died. He…what was the word your grandmother used…he indulged her.”

“So that’s why she’s so good at it?”

“No,” Nial said, sobering. “Part of it is just a White God given talent—if she’d been a man, she’d probably have been First Sword after Macsen instead of me—and part of it is just sheer bloody-minded spirit to win. Your mother hates to lose at anything. And there were other women who played who taught her.”

There was a long moment of quiet while Duncan absorbed that. Nial finally broke the silence.

“You’re going to the kingdoms below the plateau sooner than either of us would like. There’s little more I can tell you. I can’t prepare you for everything. You’re going to get hurt. You’re going to make mistakes. But take this as my last rede. Never underestimate anyone. Many are capable of more than you would first believe. And never,” Nial turned to face his son, “never underestimate women. You will probably never meet one that can meet your strength or match your skill with a sword. But they can be just as keen a strategist as you, and they can use a knife even better than you. Do not underestimate them. And the person you would most take for granted is the very person you should most carefully measure.”

Nial reined in beside Duncan, and reached over to cup his son’s head. “You be strong, Duncan. You be strong, and you be wise. You beat the bastards, you come home.”

Duncan swallowed. “I will, Da. Somehow. I will.”

“You do that, boy.”


Two weeks later, Duncan tied the saddle bag shut and slung it across his shoulder. His deep blue cloak in the clan colors was hanging from the tent pole; he left it there, taking up instead his gray and green hunting cloak. He looked around his mother’s tent, knowing it would be long indeed before he saw it again.

Duncan still sometimes almost wished the clans’ council had insisted that he leave immediately, instead of allowing him to wait until his broken arm healed. Leaving while he was still numb from shock would have been easier than now, Duncan thought. Of course, he probably would have been killed on the ride west. A man with only one functional arm would have a tough time surviving in the wilderness, even without a concussion. But his arm was healed now. He sighed. All things considered, this was best, but, oh, his heart was sore within him.

After a long moment, he heaved another great sigh, and ducked under the flap to leave the tent.

The sun was up, but just barely, with only a sliver of sky between the bottom of it and the eastern horizon. Llêw stood at the head of Swiftwing, Duncan’s horse, holding the reins. Nial was testing the harness and the saddle cinches. Duncan walked over and tossed the saddlebags across Swiftwing’s back, tying them to the saddle. Then he turned, facing those who had gathered to bid him farewell.

Clan Rhiadd had ridden away from the fairgrounds on a course parallel to that of Clan Ailane. Over the last three months, while Duncan had healed, Melinora’s family had made many visits to check on his welfare. His aunt Guenmara had continued to drag Argus corArgon over to check on Duncan, which would have been an insult if Llewass were not a good friend of Clan Rhiadd’s healer. Duncan had, nonetheless, heard his father mutter more than once that Clan Ailane had a perfectly respectable healer of their own.

Today the Clan Rhiadd relatives were all present. Colan and his father Sentir stood together, with the son unconsciously mimicking his father’s stance, right hand on hip and left on sword hilt. Guenmara stood with her arms around her older sister Samara. Melinora stood on the other side of the women, arms wrapped around herself. It was on the edge of the knife as to who was more devastated; the girl or her aunt Samara. Duncan’s mother’s eyes were red-rimmed but dry. He had heard her weeping in the darkness before this day’s dawn, but there were no tears now.

“No sense making this hurt any longer than we must. I need to be well down the trail by dusk.” Duncan held out his hand to Sentir, who gave it a firm clasp.

“The God go with you, Duncan.”

No sooner had Sentir released Duncan’s hand, than he was enveloped in a fierce hug by Colan. “Gods, gods, I can’t bear to see you leave like this.”

Duncan returned the embrace. “Take care of Melinora, and visit my mother’s tent from time to time. She may welcome your presence while I’m gone.”

“Of course I’ll . . .” Colan’s voice choked, and he turned away.

Guenmara said nothing when Duncan embraced her, but the sorrow on her face spoke volumes. Duncan made a small gesture with his head toward his mother; Guenmara nodded in response.

Duncan turned now to Melinora, who was standing with tears coursing down her cheeks. “Nah, nah, Meli, no need for this.” He put his arms around her, at which she began sobbing.

“It’s my fault,” she said over and over.

“Nah, Meli, that it’s not. And those whose fault it truly is all have something to remember me by. I hear that Oredd is still walking spraddle-legged and won’t sit a saddle.” She gave a hiccough and a bit of a smile. “That’s better.”

Melinora looked up at him seriously. “I’ll wait for you.”

Duncan looked down at the girl that he might well have wed had things gone differently, and swallowed the lump in his own throat. “Nah, Meli, that you won’t. There will be someone for you, but it won’t be me. I’ll be gone longer than you’ve been alive, and I won’t have you becoming a sour old woman who remembers my name with curses.” He chucked her chin and she giggled through her tears. “Nah, just remember me fondly and name your firstborn son for me. When I finally come back, I’ll teach your sons the sword and dance with your daughters.”

She held her chin up, wiping the tears from her face. “You’d better. Come back, that is.”

“Oh, I will. I won’t let Torkiel have the final word on this.” Melinora nodded firmly in agreement.

Duncan braced himself, then turned and embraced his mother. Samara returned the embrace, laying her head on his shoulder. They stood thus for a long moment; Duncan didn’t know how many heartbeats passed. She stirred at length, and stepped back. “You’d best be about it.”

He gathered her hands in hers. “I’ll be all right, Ma.”

She pulled loose and slapped his shoulder. “Of course you will. You’re your father’s son, aren’t you? Now be off with you, before I crumble in front of the entire clan.”

Duncan kissed his mother’s brow, then turned away before he was the one to crumble. He took two steps to his brother and took Swiftwing’s reins from his hands.

“You listen to Da, and don’t do anything as stupid as I did.”

Llêw looked up at him with fevered eyes. “I’ll make that Torkiel pay, see if I won’t.” Duncan reached out and snatched Llêw’s knife from its sheath. “Hey, give that back!”

“The Torkiel is mine, little brother. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. It will be well chilled by the time I return. I say again, this is my concern, not yours.” Duncan held the knife up in front of his brother’s eyes. “The line continues.” He waited for Llêw to repeat the response. “Right now, the line is you. Do not increase our mother’s heartbreak.” There was a long moment of silence, then Llêw gave a slow nod. Duncan returned the knife to him, and they exchanged an embrace without further words.

“That was well done,” Duncan heard from behind him as he watched Llêw walk over to Samara. He turned to face his father.

“I hope he heard me.”

“Oh, I think he did.” Nial looked over at where Meli stood with Colan’s arms around her shoulders. “What you said to Melinora was wise as well.”

Duncan grimaced. “It’s not what I want, but I’ll not have her become a bitter old woman for my sake. Come to that,” he looked his father in the eye, “she should be wed, and soon, else she’ll be having trouble with that shoat of a Torkiel every time she turns.”

Nial gave a slow nod. “More wisdom, I think. You should be sitting with the grayheads.”

Duncan grunted. Nial turned to Swiftwing and slipped one more package under the saddlebag strap. He looked up at Duncan. “Your uncle Jamesh’s Shaun-ki set.”

That closed Duncan’s throat for a moment. His father’s brother had been a favorite of his when he returned from his wandering years, and his early death had been a blow to both Nial and Duncan. The game set was a fine one, and he and Nial and Llêw and Samara had used it many of the evenings that had passed while his arm was healing. In truth, his mother was perhaps the best player in the family. He knew Nial was attached to the set, but he could also see that his father would insist on his taking it, so he didn’t protest. And in fact, it warmed him a little to know he would have one more thing of home with him to help him face the long years ahead.

Nial tugged on one last strap. “I still wish you’d take Nightflame instead of Swiftwing.”

“Da, I can’t take a horse that fine. If I was seen riding a king’s ransom down the trail, I wouldn’t even make it to Nika. I’d be fighting bandits and horse thieves every step of the way. No, Swiftwing is good enough. He’ll get me there safely.”

“You know where you’re going? You have the map of the road?”

Duncan rolled his eyes. “Yes, Da.”

Nial pulled a pouch from his belt and handed it to Duncan. “Here. This is all the coin I could gather. You’ll need it in Nika. Make it last as long as you can—bargain like Connor did for Llêw’s knife.”

“Aye, Da.”

His father pulled a thong out of his belt. “These are lead pilgrim medals. The pilgrims of the White God gather them by going to the various shrines in Darcia. There are eighteen here. When you get to Nika, find Josten the horse trader. You remember him?” Duncan nodded. “Give him one and ask him to send it to me. That way we’ll know you arrived safely.”

“And the rest of them?”

“One every year, until you come home.” Duncan tucked the string of medals into his own belt, next to the pouch of coins.

Nial reached an arm out and grabbed Duncan by the back of the head to pull him close. “You’re my son,” was all he said.

“I know, Da. I’ll try not to do anything else to make you ashamed of me.”

Nial pulled back and gave Duncan a smile. “You’ve done nothing to shame me.” As Duncan stored that comment away to warm his heart, his father clapped him on the shoulders. “Be watchful, be wary, be wise, and return to us when the exile is up.” Nial stepped back. Duncan placed his left foot in the stirrup and swung his way into the saddle.

Reining Swiftwing around, he looked at his family for the last time, storing the vision to support him for eighteen years. Melinora began to cry again, and his mother seemed to grow smaller where she stood with her sister.

Duncan raised his hand in farewell, not trusting himself to speak. He reined Swiftwing to face the path out of the camp, giving a nudge with his heels. The horse took to a trot, and they left the tents of Clan Ailane behind in very little time. Duncan did not look back, though it felt as if the strings of his heart were being torn from his breast.

It wasn’t long before the trail curved around an outcrop of the forest, and the clan’s campsite passed out of sight. Duncan slumped a little in the saddle, feeling that that was the final break in his ties to the clan. Swiftwing continued to move down the trail for some time, while Duncan was brooding on his thoughts. It wasn’t until the horse slowed down, then finally came to a stop, that he looked up.

The trail was entering a bit of a cut, and there standing on the edge of it, her head slightly higher than his own even though he was mounted, was Lorana. It was the first time Duncan had seen her since the day she placed his clan marks on him, and a very unexpected sighting it was, too. His mind flashed back first to that day, but then it jumped to the day a week later when the healers removed the swaddlings from his arms and chest. It was the reverse of the application methods, only by that time Duncan was able to stand.

Llewass had carefully removed the wrapping from the right arm first, and layer by layer the sword mark was revealed. When it all lay bare, it seemed brighter and stronger than Duncan had recalled it.

Argus again supported his left arm while the bandages were unwrapped from it, uncovering the owl in flight. It, too, had seemed stronger and more luminescent than Duncan’s memory recalled it.

Finally, Argus still supporting Duncan’s arm, Llewass had removed the bandages from around Duncan’s chest. He had looked down, and had grown frustrated because all he could see was a dark blur.

“Wait,” Llewass had said. The healer had turned away to pick up something, then had turned back to hold up a polished silver mirror. Duncan had recognized it; it was the prized possession of Riesel suRauchel, wife of Makh corMakhlin, clan chief of Clan Rhiadd. Llewass had held it up, so that Duncan could see his chest. In the rippled reflection of the mirror, Duncan had seen the raven, poised as if it was in flight, wings widespread. Even in the distortion of the mirror, Duncan had felt the power of the lore-wife’s work.

Duncan’s senses returned to the present, to see Lorana’s gaze still focused on him. She said nothing; simply looked at him. After a moment, Duncan stirred, and said, “Why?”

He wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that question, and he wouldn’t have been at all surprised if she had called him a fool, or had simply turned and walked away. But on a day when he didn’t think he could be surprised, she proved him wrong.

Lorana lifted a hand to brush back her hair. “Why?” she echoed. “I don’t really know. Even in the days when we followed other gods, we often did not know why things were done. Now that we follow the White God, and all that are left are the echoes of the old ways . . .” she shrugged, “. . . we know even less than we did before.”

“But why, really?” Duncan asked again, heat rising in his chest.

Lorana tilted her head to one side. “Because you are different,” she finally said. “I could see it in you, could see it in your mother’s choices, your father’s choice. A bold defender in the sun, who can walk hidden paths in the dark . . .” The lore-wife paused.

“And the raven?” Duncan prompted.

“The raven,” Lorana said softly. “That was a surprise. No one has called for the raven in more years than I’ve been alive. Unseen power, righteous judge, ruthless nemesis, relentless pursuer . . . all aspects of the raven. And all to be realized in you.” She paused. “The times are coming where you will need what these will give you. Times are coming when the clans will need what you have been given.”

“What?” Duncan said. “What do you mean?”

Lorana said nothing for a long moment, and when she did speak, she didn’t speak to his question.

“I gave you nothing you did not already have. Your father knows, I think, else he would not have called for it.”

Duncan was motionless. He wasn’t sure he understood everything the lore-wife was saying; then again, he wasn’t sure he wanted to understand.

“You will be known, young Duncan. You will be remembered, both in the clans and out of them.” Lorana tilted her head to the other side and looked at Duncan, not blinking, for another long moment, until he began to grow uncomfortable.

The lore-wife straightened, and stepped to the very edge of the cut. “Come closer, young Duncan.”

He wasn’t sure he wanted to do that, but after a moment he guided Swiftwing into taking a sidewise step. Lorana reached out a hand. Duncan flinched slightly. “No harm, Duncan of the clans,” she murmured, resting her hand on top of his head. “Only a blessing.”

The lore-wife said nothing further, simply closed her eyes. The following moment seemed to last forever, until her eyes opened again and she dropped the hand to her side. One more long moment of their eyes locked together, then she turned and walked away.

“Known for what?” Duncan called out. It wasn’t surprising that Lorana did not respond.

Duncan watched until the lore-wife disappeared among the nearest trees, then expelled his breath in a rush. His head swirled with questions for which he apparently wasn’t going to receive answers.

He looked around, feeling as if he had been dozing. No one was near. He shook his head, then tapped Swiftwing with a heel. “Let’s go, horse. We’ve got a long road to travel.”

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