Conall had stood and watched Gil with the lass, it didn’t please him. He had known Gil a long time and trusted him, but he had dragged the poor fellow outside irritated at his advances toward Morgan, like a jealous ejit. He shook his head at his own imprudence.
“Horse?...oh, I…um…can’t ride.”
Even though there were several good riding schools near Castle Cary, I had never taken the time to take lessons or even contemplated riding a horse. Conall turned to look at me with frustration, with a raise of an eyebrow turning back to the fire huffing something under his breath that sounded like “God’s blood”.
“Er...what does skuddy mean?”
Conall didn’t answer straight away and then in voice so quiet I barely heard him he said, “Naked.”
“Oh, I see.”
“How long will we be here?”
Without looking up he said, “Not long.”
“Ok then. That was short and sweet” Seeing as I probably wasn’t going to get much else from Conall I sat on one of the rickety chairs at the table. I was feeling tired and glad of a seat. Although it was daylight here, we had left just before midnight. I could so do with a soft bed just about now and one of Ula’s strong teas.
It was almost an hour later that the noise outside from the whinnying of the horses signaled that Gil had returned. The horses must have been some distance away for the time it took to retrieve them. The thought of getting on a horse was turning my stomach with anxiety. Not to mention that I was somewhat tired and did not look forward to spending however long on a horse before I could lie down and sleep.
“We need to leave.” said Conall as he headed to the door. I picked up my bag and followed Conall outside. Gil was standing between two brown bay horses holding the reins. I was startled by the way Gil was staring at me, an odd expression on his face. Conall went to take the reins when I suddenly grabbed his arm hard. He looked at me with a stunned expression.
“Conall…the…pendant…it’s warming.” I gasped. I knew what it meant and quickly diverted my eyes looking around expecting to see someone hiding behind a tree or bush.
“What the devil!” He grabbed me, shoving me behind him.
“Gil, come behind me lad.” he whispered scanning the area. Gil still had his eyes transfixed on me and hadn’t moved.
Conall demanded. “Gil did ye no hear me lad?”
Gil remained motionless, his eyes not leaving my face, the look he was giving me sent chills up my spine. The pendant was getting warmer. Even though I couldn’t see the lights dancing crazily across it, I knew they were. I gasped realising it was Gil that was setting the flame next to my skin. It could be no one else.
“Lucifer’s ghost! Conall it’s Gil…he…he’s the Brollachan.” I cried clutching at the front of my jacket where the very hot pendant sat.
Conall’s face turned quickly to me, then to my clenched fingers then to Gil. Gil let go of the reins pulling a dirk from his belt behind him. He rushed forward to attack Conall. Conall managed to grab the arm of the hand that held the knife, punching him hard in the face. The dirk flew to the ground. Gil landing heavily in the dirt. Getting to his feet with agility he pulled another dirk from his boot going on the attack again.
Conall kicked him hard in the stomach. Gil’s body flew back. Conall threw himself at Gil both clutching the dirk, straining for control. Gil was not as big or as strong as Conall. It was only a matter of minutes before Conall raised himself standing over the dead body of his friend. Blood seeping down the side of Gil’s neck where the dirk was imbedded.
“Oh, Conall…I am so sorry…I never thought-” I cried into my hands at the bizarre change of events. Conall interrupted me before I could say anything further.
“Lass give me ye bag. We leave. Now!”
I reached down to the tapestry bag and handed it to him mechanical like. Conall had just killed his friend. His reaction was resolute on the task of getting on the road. He attached the bag to one of the saddles. Retrieving a rope from a saddle bag he tied one horse to the back of the saddle of the other. All I could do was stand there like a dimwitted buffoon looking at the dead body of Gil. I had never seen a dead body before. I hoped I would never see one again. Without a word Conall marched over picked me up and unceremoniously dumped me into the saddle.
Jumping up behind me he led the horse with the other one trailing behind towards a clump of trees to the left. Leading with the reins in his right hand, his left arm bound around my waist. The ride would have been a little more comfortable except for Abbey between us. Every jostle of the ride Abbey was a hard fixture between Conall and I.
I knew I was going to have some serious blisters where she was riding up and down between my shoulders. The horses galloped for another hour before the hushed words I heard Conall use when he sat before the hearth in Gil’s cottage bust from his lips.
“God’s Blood! This will nay do.” he bellowed bringing the horses to a sudden stop. He jumped down from the horse taking me with him to the ground. “Lass I can no travel with that infernal contraption strapped to ye back anymore.” he ranted rubbing at his neck beneath his chin. It was obvious by the red welt on his neck that Abbey had caught him during one of the jostles. “Ye need to take it off before I lose me heid.”
“And if we are attacked and I can’t get to Abbey?” hands on hips I scowled at him. I was having difficulty with how he was coping with the loss of his friend. It was ominous that he showed no signs of remorse or sadness.
“Lass if were attacked ye will no be able to reach it straddled on the horse with me up against ye back, with ye cloak on. Would ye now?”
I had to agree it would have been very unlikely that in an attack Abbey would not have been an easy access. “Why am I riding with you anyway, we have two perfectly good horses.”
Conall gave me derisive look. “Oh, so ye can ride can ye? Did ye no tell me ye have no been on a horse afore?”
“Well...no. I can’t ride….but-”
“Tis settled then ye have to ride with me. I dinna need ye falling off yer horse every step of the way.”
Without asking he undid the ties of my cloak letting it drop to the ground. Then set about taking Abbey off, and unbuckling the holder. He attached Abbey to the saddle bag on the horse behind and rolled the strapping up, pushing it into one of the saddle bags. Picking up my cloak he tied it back up under my chin. Once again, he lifted me into the saddle of the lead horse, jumping up behind me.
“Aye that’s better. I was afraid ye crossbow was going to separate me heid from me shoulders.” he shouted as he led the horses into a canter.
Hanging onto the pommel, I had to agree, without saying so. It was so much more comfortable without Abbey even if I did feel rather vulnerable. Having Conall behind me was a much softer ride, and back padding.
It felt like we had been riding for hours. I must have fallen asleep waking to discover I was slumped backwards into Conall with my hands hanging limply by my side. His arm still around me but much tighter than when we had started out. I stretched my neck up and shrugged my shoulders trying to erase a small crick in my neck. He slowed the horses as we came into a small clearing. Coming to a halt beside a birch tree. He jumped down, before lifting me at the waist to place me on the ground.
He said. “We will camp here for tonight.” Tying the horses to a small tree next to a stream so they could drink. After removing the saddles, he disappeared into the trees saying he was going to get dinner. I thought I might as well be useful and went about collecting firewood. The centre of the clearing was a previously used fire pit surrounded by stones. I piled the twigs and wood bits next to it. I had no matches with which to litght it so that job I would leave to Conall for when he returned.
I sat on the ground thinking of poor Gil and the horrors he had endured only to end up being knifed by a friend. I couldn’t understand how the Brollachan could have known when, where and what time we would be travelling, or what time period we would be travelling to. Especially so quickly. Were they going to follow me no matter where I go?
Conall returned just as the sun was sinking below the trees. He had caught two good size fish. He set about lighting the fire, and informing me that he would indeed teach me how to do so with flint and tinder at a later date. It didn’t take him long to gut and clean the fish. I was thankful he had done that a distance from the camp. Once the fish were skewered and set upon a perch to cook, he retrieved a flask from the saddle bags. Taking a swig, he sat on the ground cross legged to keep an eye on the fish. I sat down near him.
“Here lass have a drink.” He said handing me the flask.
I could smell the scent of scotch before it reached my mouth. I nonetheless, took a drink and swallowed wincing as the liquor burned the back of my throat.
“Ye’ll need it as the nights here can get a wee bit chilly, e’en this late in spring”
I took another swig before handing the flask back to him. I wanted to say something about his friend Gil and deliberated over how and what to say to him.
“I am sorry about your friend.” I watched for his reaction. He took another drink and replaced the lid, setting the flask on the ground beside him.
“Aye, so am I lass. It could nay be helped.” he sounded despondent.
“I don’t understand how the Brollachan could have found us so quickly. How do you think they knew we were here?”
Conall shook his head. “I do no ken, tis a problem to be sure.”
I could see he was thinking about it. It showed on his face. He was concerned and no doubt baffled as I was. I needed to lighten the air a little and thought to find something else to talk about.
“How did you catch the fish without a fishing pole, or did you have one stashed in the woods somewhere?” I smiled hoping to ease his solemnity.
He turned to look at me with a slight upward curve to his lips. “Stashed? I no need a fishing pole to catch fish.”
“Oh? How did you catch them then? Did you whisper sweet nothings in their ears to charm them out of the water?” I laughed sardonically.
Conall’s raised an eyebrow shaking his head at me.
“You can be so frustrating at times. Can you not answer a simple question?”
“Aye I can.”
Conall continued watching the fish cook. He still hadn’t answered my question. My thoughts went back to Gil. I felt responsible. If it hadn’t have been for me he would still be alive.
As if Conall understood my thoughts he said, “Lass it is no yer fault.”
“Really? I looked disbelieving. “If I hadn’t come here he would be sitting down to his dinner now.”
“Your mother thought the same I believe.”
“Why would you say that?”
“The last day ye da was alive he met with the Druid Council at Caisteal Leòdhais, Lews Castle. They were planning fer the wee box ye have to go home. The Brollachans attacked and killed everyone. They did no find the box as ye da left it with yer ma fer safe keeping. Hector, he was her protector was waiting outside while ye ma was helping to birth a bairn. When the Brollachans arrived, Hector held them off while ye ma escaped. Some say she rode an ocean wave in her escape. Nuckelavee canna move from his area, but he has been getting stronger. Someone has been helping him. Ye ma was with child when she escaped.”
Conall took another drink from his canteen. “She had to live in secret to protect ye and herself, separated from her family. Do ye no think she didna agonise wi guilt that ye missed out on yer da, and kin. It was no her fault, as Gil’s death is no yer fault.”
I had gotten to my feet while Conall was talking, my eyes misting. Ula had told me the basics of how my father was killed but it was Conall who now filled in the details. He motioned for me to sit as the fish was ready. We ate in silence. I was deep in thought about what he had told me.
Conall laid out a blanket on one side of the fire and one for me on the other side. He went to the stream to wash up. I could hear him cooing softly to the horses in Gaelic. What a complicated person he was. Sometimes he was resolved, rude and downright exasperating. Other times he was tender, attentive and thoughtful. Still he was my guardian and protector and I was very appreciative to have him with me.