The long, wet day after a night of less
than sound sleep had left Derry tired, but he didn't ever recall being
so tired that he didn't even realize he was in danger until he woke to
feel the hard edge of a sword pressed to his throat, his hair gripped
by a powerful hand.
Almost simultaneously, he heard Dacia's
cry and a fierce growling voice: "I'll have yer name, man, and
I'll know what it is yer doin' in this hut wi' ma daughter!"
"Father! It's Sean! Lord
Derry!" Dacia was on her feet now, pulling at her father's
shoulder. "Don't hurt him! We did naught but sleep!"
Lord Michael shifted his grip on Derry,
who had gone limp when he realized who held him. The Earl of Drumaere
got to his feet and hauled Derry up with him. "Sleepin' in a way
hut, Dacia? I'll have an answer from ye, Sean O"Flynn. What
possessed ye to bring ma daughter to a way hut?" His sword no
longer pressed against Derry's neck, but his tone was still far from
"My Lord Michael I was run in by
the rain and hail, and Dacia as well "
"It's so, Father, and a good thing
I came along when I did. He was lighting a fire with a bunch of
Lord Michael snorted. "Good God,
boy! Have ye forgot all I tried to teach ye?"
"I don't know as you ever told me
anything about it, m'lord. Anyway, Dacia saved me from it "
"Aye, then. And just what were ye
doin', Dacia, out on the mountain alone in the rain?"
"I thought to make St.
Genevieve's, Father, as Sean did, too. But the rain was too hard. What
are you doing here? It's barely light."
"Raiders in Crieff. Burned a cot
and stole five good horses. We lost the trail in the scree. They're
bound to be headed for Dimarl Pass, though. Gregory's taken some by
Hathnel, and I came across Eldar Dun." He frowned at her and
"Only to find ma unwed daughter in
the way hut with a known rogue like ye, Sean O'Flynn. Get yer sword,
man. Ye ride wi' me. Dacia, you go wi' Ethan and one o' the lads.
They'll see ye safe home."
Like Derry, she moved automatically to
obey her father. Derry for his part hadn't even thought; he had just
started buckling on his sword. As he gathered up his saddlebags and
cloak, his eyes met hers for a long moment. He had anticipated a long,
pleasant ride to Caer Dinan with her that day. He sighed inwardly.
He'd come to find out what was happening on the Tolan border; it
seemed it was time to go to work.
As the sun rose, Derry followed Lord
Michael up a treacherously steep incline, very glad he'd had at least
some sleep and wishing he'd had more than the scant breakfast of bread
and cheese he'd eaten as they rode. The clearing sky promised a warm
day, but the rain had left the trail slick, and it took all his skill
as a rider to keep his horse from going down in places. The Eldar Dun
was the shortest way to the Dimarl Pass, he knew, but he wondered if
it was the fastest under these conditions.
They rode as fast as the trail allowed,
and by an hour past sunrise they had reached the final approach to the
pass itself. Lord Michael pointed to a stand of pine to the left of
the trail. "Amos, ye an' Noel an' Edgar hide yerselves in there.
Sean, Tanner, coom wi' me. We'll see if the devils coom for the
pass!" He led Derry and the other man into another thicket on the
other side and further along the trail, and they turned, swords loose
in their scabbards, to watch and listen.
The older man kneed his horse close
beside Derry's and spoke softly. "Weel, lad I'm sorry for the
greetin' ye got," he said. "But I didn't know 'twas ye in
there wi' Dacia. Saw her mare, o' course. Didn't know yer own horse.
Not a bad bit o' horseflesh, that."
"He's champion, m'lord. I'm glad
you decided to give me a chance to explain myself. I can't think why I
was so deep asleep I never even heard you before you had me by the
hair and neck."
The older man chuckled. "Likely
that empty wineskin o' yers. That and the remsatt together."
"Aye, well " he stopped as
the older man raised his hand, and he heard it too the sound of horses
moving as fast as the rough terrain would allow. Drawing his sword, he
moved forward with Lord Michael and the other man to the edge of the
thicket. The sounds of the approaching riders grew louder, and then he
saw them and felt the adrenalin hit his bloodstream.
There were more than a dozen men in the
band, well armed and riding warily for all their speed. He shot Lord
Michael a glance and received a grim nod in return. The older man sat
quiet but tense until the band was past the first thicket where his
other men waited, then spurred his horse into the open.
"Stand!" the earl roared.
"Ye've violated ma borders, ye bla'guards! Ye'll go no
It was a hot and nasty little skirmish.
The leader spurred his horse toward Lord Michael, but Derry couldn't
see what was happening to anyone else, for he had trouble enough of
his own. Three of the raiders made straight for him, and it took all
his attention to keep them at bay. Lord Michael's patrol was badly
outnumbered more than two to one and despite their occupation as
border raiders, these louts fought like trained soldiers. Derry
parried a sword thrust from one of them on his right, raised his
shield against a second on his left, then dodged from the third coming
in on his flank. The rest of Lord Michael's patrol was similarly
Derry heard a horse scream and a man
yell in pain, but he was too busy to know why. A lucky blow he knew it
was luck left one of his opponents without the use of his sword arm
for a few minutes, and that gave Derry time to drive toward the most
dangerous of the three attacking him, a huge man in chain mail. The
two exchanged blows, and a ribbon of fire shot across Derry's left
shoulder as his enemy's sword touched him. Grimly, he clenched his
teeth against the pain and wheeled his horse to meet the next blow.
A shout from Lord Michael was suddenly
answered by another from the trail below, and even over the noise of
the fight, Derry could hear more riders approaching quickly. The
raiders heard them, too, and they abandoned their fight in a headlong
run for the pass ahead of the reinforcements. Derry would have ridden
after them, but Lord Michael caught his reins.
"Nay, let 'em go, Sean. Ye're
hurt, an' so's Noel there. We'd ne'er catch 'em, that's sure. Through
the pass is Tolan and God knows what else. Here, man! Get down off yer
horse. Ye're bleedin' like a pig."
"I'll live, m'lord," Derry
said, but he dismounted while the older man held his horse. "It's
not deep, just bloody."
I'll have a look," the earl
insisted. Another of the men had also been assisted from his horse and
was lying on the ground now, moaning as another bent to see to a wound
in his thigh. Derry sat as directed on a boulder and began to remove
his shirt while Lord Michael dug supplies out of his own saddlebag. He
was already bending over Derry's shoulder when Gregory's patrol
arrived. Derry knew his friend's voice as he heard the other
dismounting behind him.
"Sorry, Father," Gregory
apologized. "The rain washed out half a mile of the trail above
Hathnel. We had to go the long way about."
"Aye, weel ye came fast as ye
could, then. Look who turned up just in time to get hi'self
"Hullo, Gregory," Derry
grimaced as Lord Michael began cleaning the cut on his shoulder with
something wet and cold that stung like new fire.
"Sean! Good God, where'd you
spring from? What a time to choose for a long overdue visit! I've only
been inviting you for eight years or so! Is it bad, Father?"
"Nay, he'll live. Hold still,
Sean. Let me bandage it up."
Derry was a little startled by
Gregory's obvious surprise at seeing him, but not entirely so. Lord
Michael obviously had not told even his son and heir he had sent to
the king and requested Derry's presence to see the situation on the
border. That, he figured. was just like the old man. He had always
kept his own counsel. He didn't know why Lord Michael hadn't told
Gregory, but he could only assume there was a good reason, and as he
was there in answer to the earl's summons, he had no choice but to
play his game. He nodded at Gregory in reply to the other's question.
"Well, don't you think it's time I
finally accepted one of your invitations?"
"I do! Where did you find him,
Father? Surely not in the pass?"
"Nay," Lord Michael said as
he began to wind a bandage around Derry's shoulder. "I found him
i' the way hut on Eldar Dun wi" yer sister Dacia."
There was no amusement in his tone,
Derry noted. Gregory's eyes widened in alarm, then narrowed as he gave
Derry a hard look.
"Don't look at me like that,
Gregory. Do you take me for a complete fool?" Derry protested,
wincing as Lord Michael pulled the bandage tight and tied it off.
"We both got run in by the rain and hail just before dark. We ate
supper and went to sleep."
"Is that all?"
"You're lying," Gregory said
flatly. " I know you better. You've never been alone with a girl
you didn't at least try to kiss, Sean."
Lord Michael gave his son a glance and
turned a cold look on Derry. "Is that so?" His eyebrow
arched, and Derry recalled with a pang that Lord Michael had always
read him like a book. Even if he could have fooled Gregory, he
wouldn't dare try with Lord Michael. He gave his friend a sour book
before he admitted, "All right. I kissed her. She did save my
"Lit hi'self a fire wi' remsatt,"
Lord Michael said before Gregory could ask. "Damned fool thing to
do, Sean." He paused for a beat. "So ye kissed her."
"I did, m'lord. You must know
"Aye, and I know your reputation
as well. Is that why you're here, then? Lucas came back from Eastmarch
two days ago an' said he heard a tale ye got sent from court for some
Derry hadn't counted on his cover story
reaching Lord Michael before he did himself, but he hadn't left
Rhemuth immediately. To give the story credence, he had spent a couple
of days encountering hard stares and pointed avoidances from several
ladies and dodging down corridors and alleyways to avoid their irate
male relatives. He'd also had to detour through his home demesne at
Derry to deliver some deeds and other documents to his sister, who
managed the estates there for him. It was clear the story had beat him
to Caer Dinan, and he wondered if Lord Michael knew it was only a
cover. His heart sank as the Earl of Drumaere went on.
"He said the king an' Morgan both
suggested ye get as far from Rhemuth an' Coroth as ye could until the
furor died down."
"Is that true, Sean? What did you
do?" Gregory asked.
Derry caught Lord Michael's warning
look and answered with a shrug.
"It was a misunderstanding,
Gregory. I was drunk–"
"A drunk, as well as a
libertine," Lord Michael sighed. "Weel, I'll not turn you
out, nor o'er to any outraged fathers, Sean. But ye stay away from
Dacia, or I'll carve yer tripes out." He put his medical kit back
in his saddlebag. "We've done all we can here this day. Let's go