Autumn – Chapter 8 – 01

                A shadow was coming toward them, silhouetted against torchlight in the corridor.  Aoife glanced up, toward the open door.
                “Were we expecting someone else?” she murmured to her three companions.
                Teague looked past her into the hall and frowned, starting to rise.  “What are you doing here, Seamus?”
                “I wasn’t aware this was a private party,” the older man said, easing the door shut behind him.  Teague sank back down as Seamus pulled up another seat around the brazier, wedging himself between Neve and Phelan.  “Where’s the mead?”
                Phelan wordlessly passed him a skin.  Teague hunched in on himself, brooding and half-glowering at his brother, jaw set and tight.  Neve’s gaze bounced between her brothers for a moment.  Finally, she just sighed.
                “What’s gone wrong now, Seamus?”
                “I’m always the bearer of bad news these days, aren’t I, little sister?”
                “Yes,” she said, her tone precise.  She drew herself straight to emphasize every ounce of regal bearing she’d inherited from her late and sainted mother.  “So out with it.”
                Seamus took a long swallow of mead and stared into the coals.  His gaze met Teague’s for a moment, then he looked away.  A jolt went through Aoife.
                Is he afraid?  Ashamed?  It wasn’t like Seamus to not be able to hold someone’s eye, peacemaker or not.  He was the steadfast one.
                Seamus had to take another deep draught from the skin before he was able to speak.  “I am to be married,” he said at last.  “Into one of the Southron broods, in order to solidify the alliance between our bloodlines.”
                A ripple of shock washed through the little gathering.  Aoife swallowed a few times to try to hide her surprise.  Uncle would send him south into one of those clans?  But for what?  What does that gain us?
                “A little piece of mind, cousin,” Seamus said softly, as if he’d read her thoughts.  He might have—sometimes he could.  It was a gift of their Otherworld blood, like Teague’s visions.  “We have enemies to our north, to our east.  An alliance with one of the smaller Southron groups would benefit us both.”
                “Who is it?”  Teague asked, voice rough and dull at the same time.  He gestured for the skin of mead.  Seamus gave it to Phelan, who handed it around to his cousin.
                Poor Teague.  Her cousin had been in poor spirits since he’d sent his lover away to safety with the Imbolg.  She would have almost given anything to see him smile again.
                Teague uncorked the skin and took a deep swallow.  “Well?” he prompted.  “Who’s the unlucky bride to your unlucky bridegroom?”
                “The one Father meant for you,” Seamus said quietly.  “Before you bound yourself to that woman.”
                Teague stiffened.  Neve bit her lip and Phelan leaned back for a moment, then cleared his throat.
                “Perhaps now really isn’t the best time to—”
                “I sent her away,” Teague said quietly, pain mixing with anger in his voice.  “What more does he want from me, Seamus?  I bloody well sent her away.  He should be happyNow he’s forcing you into a marriage that may not be what’s best for our people.”
                “And yours was, I suppose?”  Seamus didn’t sound angry, simply weary.  “Brother, it had to be one of us.  They know of your connection to her and they would not hear of allowing father to sever that bond.  So it has to be me.  You’re safe, at least for now—from Father’s matchmaking, anyhow.”
                “They knew?”  Phelan asked, blinking in surprise.  “They knew about Teague and her?”
                “Apparently, we would be surprised at what they did and did not know,” Seamus said dryly.  He looked sidelong at his sister.  “Step lightly.”
                “I always do,” Neve said quietly.  “One of us has to stay in Father’s graces.  Did you upset him?”
                Seamus shook his head. “I don’t think so.  I was appropriately enthusiastic about the match—I thought so, anyway.  Perhaps he thinks differently.”  He reached over the brazier and took the skin of mead from Teague.  “I suggest we all stay well out of his sight for a few days, though.  Just in case I’m wrong and he has an axe to grind with one or all of us.”
                “Why would he?”  Teague asked bitterly.  “I’m the only one he ever has reason to be angry with.”
                Seamus stared at him and sighed.  “Brother, he’s upset and worried.  Can you blame him for his anger?  His grandchild is going to be born out there in the world and will likely die before his first year is out—if he’s born at all.”
                Teague half-rose from his seat.  “What’s that supposed to mean?  I sent her away.  She should be safe with the Imbolg.  They’re not known to be our allies.”
                “Not anymore,” Seamus agreed, “but do you really think that our enemies will stop their advance just because they’ve dealt with all of our allies?  They’ll take the whole isle if they can, and more besides.”  He shook his head slowly.  “Even the Imbolg will not be safe.”
                “The chieftain is of our blood, removed and diluted through it might be,” Phelan said quietly, “and she has connections to Southron powers.  They won’t trouble her if they know what’s good for them.”
                Seamus shook his head slightly.  “I pray you’re right, cousin.  If we’re wrong, the price could be dear.”
                Somewhere beyond the door, a large bell began to clang a warning.  The three men shot to their feet.
                “What is it?”  Phelan asked, straining to hear the coded message within the bell’s ringing.
                “Ships,” Seamus said grimly.  “Come.  Father will need us.”
                “So much for staying out of his way,” Aoife muttered to Neve, who shrugged helplessly.
                “There’s nothing we can do for it now.  Come on.  We’ve got our own work to do.”
                Aoife blinked as Neve tugged her by the hand out of the room, in the wake of their brothers.  “Like what?  Wait for wounded with the other women?”
                “No,” Neve said, a dangerous glint in her eye.  “We ride for the villages, then for the Imbolg and the Fianna.  If Seamus is right, they’ll need to be warned.”
                “Your father will kill us, Neve.”
                “Not if we succeed.  Come on!  We don’t have much time.”

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