Derry pulled the hood of his sodden dark
blue cloak further over his face to keep out some of the driving rain.
He had been riding in rain for most of the day, first a light drizzle,
then squalls, but in the last hour a solid downpour. He sighed
miserably, regretting his decision to press on from the tavern at
Laraby village where he had drunk a tankard of ale–all right,
three–and eaten a meal. But the rain had seemed to be letting up,
and he had thought he could make St. Genevieve's Priory by dark and
stay in the guesthouse there.
He sighed again. This was the wettest day he could remember
spending on horseback in years. Even his horse, an energetic young
stallion, had lost some of his usual enthusiasm as he picked a careful
way up the steep mountain trail that wound from the plains around the
walled city of Cardosa northward into the heart of the Rheljan
Mountains on the borders of Tolan.
His destination, Caer Dinan, was at least a half-day's ride away in
good weather, and this was anything but. The snow was gone, for March
had been unseasonably warm, even here, but the trail was steep and
slick, and he was beginning to wonder if he was actually on the right
trail at all when he spotted ahead what he had been seeking for the
The mountain trails were sprinkled with small way huts that served
to shelter travelers and shepherds alike from the weather at need.
Derry had thought he was closer to one, but at least he'd found it
now, so he urged the animal toward the shelter of the hut's attached
Swinging down from the saddle, he led the stallion into the small
barn-like structure. Inside, there was room for several horses and a
well-filled hayrack. A stone trough for water he filled with a
convenient pail, making several trips to the spring outside to give
his weary horse a generous portion of water. Like any good horseman,
he saw to his mount's needs before considering his own. When the horse
was watered, fed, and relieved of his gear, Derry gathered up his
saddlebags and a bucket of water for his own use and made a dash
around the hut to its sturdy wooden door.
To his relief, this opened with ease and let him in out of the
pelting downpour. With a sigh of relief this time, he slammed the door
behind him and promptly tripped over a wide wooden bench. Muttering a
curse, he managed to save the bucket of water, at least, if not
himself. Disgusted, he rubbed his sore shins and opened the door again
to get some light.
He dug into his saddlebags and found his steel and tinder and a
bundle of emergency kindling he always carried. There was firewood
stacked outside the door of the hut, so he brought in a good load,
though he thought gloomily that it was so soaked it would never burn.
Still, he could try.
Before he set to work on the fire, he stripped off his wet cloak,
draping it over one of the two wide benches in the small hut. The
whole interior was only about the size of a good-sized bedroom, and it
held only the benches and a few low stools. These places were not
built for comfort, just convenience. Like others of its kind that he
had seen, this hut was built of the native stone of the area and
roofed with blue-gray slate tiles. The rain hissed on them over his
head, but at least there were no leaks.
On the wall opposite the door was a small window with both inner
and outer shutters, and there was a wide hearth to the left of the
door. His tunic was wet as well, so he took it off, too, leaving
himself in just a linen shirt and his leather riding breeches. He then
took a long pull from his wineskin; glad now he had spent the extra
money to buy good Fianna red as he passed through Cardosa.
Thinking of Cardosa was no longer as painful as it once had been,
though he had not and would not forget ever the horror of his
imprisonment and torture by Wencit of Torenth in the dungeons of
Esgair Ddu. After nearly nine years, though, and much work on the part
of the Duke and Duchess of Corwyn and assorted others, most of the
nightmares had faded, and his fear of betraying his lord or his king
again had eased. There had been some bad times, especially just after
he had recalled fully the night when he had helped Wencit steal away
young Brendan and had himself tried to kill Morgan. He had struggled
long and hard to overcome his feelings of guilt and shame over this
But that was all past now. Since then, he had learned to accept his
role as a victim in all those acts. He had learned at last to laugh
again, and "merry Derry" was once again an appropriate
nickname given him by companions in the various taverns of both Coroth
and Rhemuth. Even in Cardosa, he had spent not too bad a night at a
decent inn, with a pretty little maid doing her best to entice him to
offer her much more than a smile and a kiss or two. He sighed as he
knelt by the hearth. He likely should have taken her up on her
suggestion, but he had been tired already, and he had planned to be
out of Cardosa by first light. He might no longer get the shudders
just thinking of the place, but he would never again like being there
longer than he absolutely must.
He had closed the door as soon as he got a little flame going with
his kindling, but he had almost exhausted the meager supply from his
camping gear, and he had been right. The wood was too wet. With yet
another sigh, he rose and started to pick up his cloak, intending to
return to the shed and bring in enough hay to get a good hot blaze
under the wood for a bit, to dry it out more. As he moved, a bundle of
dried flowers rolled off the bench and landed at his feet, and he
picked them up with a grin. When he had been at Caer Dinan, he'd been
told that the way huts also served as trysting places for lovers, and
that bunches of fresh flowers left in a hut were a signal to wise
travelers to move on along or be prepared to face the ire of the pair
who planned to meet there.
But these flowers were far from fresh, and they would probably burn
as well or better than the hay, and he would certainly stay drier if
he used them instead. He knelt back down by the hearth and laid a
lattice of the wet wood above the place he planned to build his hot
little fire, designed to dry it as much as possible. Satisfied with
his handiwork, he began feeding the dry leaves and stems a few at a
time into the little blaze he had managed with his kindling, noticing
that the leaves gave off a not unpleasant, sweet and slightly spicy
smell, rather like carnations. And the thought of carnations plummeted
him into a memory long buried, of a summer day long ago at Caer Dinan....
He was sixteen, and he had been back at Caer Dinan for three months,
ever since the passes had opened in mid-April. He had been happy to get
back, for in many ways Caer Dinan, with its boisterous family of
McKelvey children, was more fun than Castle Derry, where he had only his
sister and his mother. His Uncle Trevor, of course, was nearby, but a
growing boy sometimes found the too-close attention of a mother and
sister annoying, to say the least.
That was never a problem at Caer Dinan. There were all the McKelvey
children, of course, and at least half a dozen other boys there at Lord
Michael's express invitation to learn what he could teach about
fighting. And this summer, in particular, there was Helena, the eldest
of Lord Michael's daughters.
Helena was a little less than a year younger than he was, and she had
been his playmate for the past four years. It had been a surprise–no,
a shock– to young Sean Seamus O'Flynn, Earl Derry, to discover that
his playmate had suddenly turned into a woman. She had returned just the
week before from a visit to her Aunt Elinor Ranier in Carbury, and it
was like seeing a vision from a boy's fantasy of love. Her figure had
filled out in very interesting ways, and her former taunts had given way
to teasing smiles. She knew she was attractive, and she made sure any
boy she was near knew it too. Her presence had teased the edges of
Derry's awareness constantly from the first moment he had seen her after
her return, and she had also managed to let him "find" her
alone for a moment now and then to "steal" a few luscious,
dizzying kisses that left him nearly burning for more.
On that particular day, he had been training in the armory yard as
usual, and after what always seemed a long time, Lord Michael was
allowing him a short respite while he worked with one of the other boys
there for training that summer. Derry was leaning on the low wall that
separated the armory yard from the main courtyard when she wafted by
like a dark butterfly, her glossy hair shining as it flowed down her
back to her waist, still a little damp from washing and full of the
scent of some herb she had put in the water.
Her touch on his arm was like butterfly wings, too, and he almost
thought he had imagined the whispered, "Come to the hayloft
later," until he saw her secretive, seductive smile. He was glad he
had been exercising vigorously, for he knew otherwise the heat he felt
in his face would have betrayed his thoughts. The very idea of being
alone with her in the deep, fresh hay had sent a shock through his
entire body, setting every nerve tingling. It was all he could do to
return to his swordplay and not rush off then and there to find her.
He had gone from the armory yard to his quarters and changed into
fresh clothes, and he had stopped in the garden to pick a handful of
sweet, spicy carnations for the equally spicy and lovely Helena. She had
received them with delight, kissing him once for each of the dozen or so
blossoms, and they had sunk down into the fresh hay . . .
Derry felt his heart pounding in his chest. What a thing to remember,
he thought, and wondered why it should be affecting him so. His pulse
was racing and his vision blurry. He fed another of the dried plants to
the fire and fought a wave of dizziness. His ears were ringing, too, so
that he almost missed the sound of the door opening. He was just in time
to snatch up his sword and stagger to his feet before the wind blew in a
gust of rain and revealed that the newly arrived traveler wore skirts,
not breeches. He relaxed a little as the woman flipped back her hood
with one hand–until he noticed that the other hand kept a competent
grip on a very business-like rapier. Firelight glittered as she raised
it slightly, and he wondered if this was some lady bandit. He started to
speak, but she let out a shriek and lunged for him.