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The steam rising off the backs of the cantering horses faded into the morning fog. Our chariot raced toward the far end of the Forgotten Vale, and Maelgwyn Ironhand—my charioteer, constant companion, and frequent adversary—pulled back on the reins.
“No!” I shouted. “Faster! Make them run faster!”
Mael didn’t bother to spare a glance over his shoulder at me. He knew any argument would be futile. Instead, he gave the ponies their head and let them run. We flew over the ground likes ravens diving over a battlefield. The horses snorted and strained, hooves drumming the grassy track and sending mist billowing in our wake.
I stood behind Mael with a spear gripped tight in my right fist and my feet braced against the swaying motion of the chariot’s suspended deck. The wind screeched in my ears, and the ground was a blur beneath our wheels. We’d never gone so fast before, and my heart hammered in my chest. I shifted and moved past Mael, stepping out in front of the chariot’s platform to balance on the square-sided draft pole that ran between the two horses.
“Fallon—be careful!” Mael called as one of my feet slipped on the wood.
I hissed through clenched teeth as I almost fell and nearly lost my hold on my spear. Switching up my grip on the weapon, I regained my balance and peered ahead at the far end of the vale, where the ground sloped sharply upward into the grave barrow of a long-forgotten occupant. A single, rough-hewn stone crowned the round summit, and at the base of the hill, we’d set up a man-high target—a tree stump padded with hay, wrapped in canvas, and painted with the image of a grimacing, snaggle-toothed Roman soldier.
I grinned, exhilaration prickling my skin. The wind whipped my hair back out of my eyes, and I saw everything with crystal clarity. It was as if time had stopped and was waiting just for me.
Carefully, one foot in front of the other, I made my way forward on the draft pole as the horses thundered on. I held my breath until I could feel the rhythm of their matched strides in my bones. Then I hitched the spear up onto my shoulder and ran the length of the chariot pole until I stood perched between the shoulders of the galloping horses, my feet braced wide on the wooden yoke harnessing them to the chariot.
My goal that morning was as simple as it was impossible: successfully execute a chariot maneuver called the Morrigan’s Flight, named after the fearsome winged war goddess who flew over battlefields collecting the souls of the worthy dead. I’d watched my older sister, Sorcha, attempt it time after time. The idea was to run out along the narrow pole between the horses of a careening chariot, throw a spear, hit a target, balance for as long as it took for the spear to stay lodged, and then run back to the safety of the chariot deck. It was dangerous. It was thrilling.
It was the supreme act of a true Cantii warrior.
And I’d never seen anyone do it. Not even Sorcha.
The last time Mael and I had attempted it, I’d lost my footing completely and dropped between the horses, barely managing to catch onto the pole with one arm and my knees. If I’d fallen, there was a good chance I would have been killed—trampled by hooves or run over by the chariot’s wheels. But the goddess had not seen fit to take me that day, and Mael had managed to pull the horses to a stop before I lost my grip. The bruises had taken weeks to fade, and Mael had shouted at me for almost half an hour, his face flushed crimson, and swore we would never, ever try such a thing again.
He should have known I wouldn’t leave him in peace until we did.
So here we were, racing at breakneck speed across the floor of the Forgotten Vale. Because at the break of dawn that morning, I, Fallon, youngest daughter of Virico the king, chief of the Cantii tribe of Prydain, would turn seventeen years old. Old enough to be made a member of my father’s war band, just like my sister before me. And I was determined that before that moment came, I would master the Morrigan’s Flight.
And Mael, with his clever, steady hands on the reins, would see me do it.
From somewhere in the Otherworld, I imagined Sorcha watched as well.
“On the field of battle, you’re either a warrior or you’re in the way,” my sister had scolded me one afternoon as my wooden practice sword missed its mark by a wide margin. She’d already proved herself to be one of the finest warriors of the Cantii tribe, and it was a lesson she had drilled into me over and over again until the day she died—killed in a skirmish defending the Island of the Mighty from Caesar’s invading legions.
“Are you a weapon or target?” Sorcha had asked. “Choose, Fallon!”
So I chose—that day and every day after.
The weight of the spear on my shoulder and the sword at my hip were as familiar to me now as my tunic and boots or my favorite cloak. As comforting as my father’s rough laugh or the roaring fire in his great hall. As heady as one of Mael’s slow smiles that, more and more often, seemed meant just for me . . .
The thrumming of the chariot ponies’ hooves raced through my limbs like the pulsing of my blood. In another moment, Mael would have to steer the chariot into a sharp turn to avoid running up against the steep sides of the Forgotten Vale’s barrow.
Now or never . . .
My fingers tightened on the spear shaft, and the target loomed large in front of me. I leaned forward over my bent knee, felt the spear tilt into a moment of perfect balance . . . and threw. The slender missile arced through the air like a deadly bird of prey, black against the dawn-pink sky.
I held my breath.
Not perfect—the spear struck the target a hand’s breadth to the left of where a flesh-and-blood man’s heart would have beat—but still, it was a good, clean blow. Mael’s elated shout confirmed that. I punched my fists skyward in victory before sweeping my arms out to either side, stretched wide as wings. I felt for that fleeting instant as if I really were the goddess Morrigan in flight, swooping low over a battlefield to collect the souls of the glorious dead.
Then, as Mael eased the chariot into the turn, one of the ponies stumbled.
The animal scrambled to regain its stride, and the yoke I was balancing on bobbled with it. My gesture of triumph turned into a frantic flailing as I lost my balance and grabbed at the air to try to right myself. I heard Mael’s jubilant shout distort into a cry of warning as I pitched sideways over the shoulder of the horse and cartwheeled helplessly through the air. My head hit something hard, and the world spiraled into darkness.
Dull silence muffled the first strains of a lark’s song.
The warmth on my cheek was either the kiss of the sun or the spill of my tears. Or was it blood? That was probably it, I thought dimly. I’d hit my head and split my skull open, and now I was going to die. On the morning of my seventeenth year.
“Fallon!” Mael cried again.
His voice sounded very near and very far away at the same time.
“I must be dead,” I murmured. “Or else I’m dreaming . . .”
If this was a dream, it was a vivid one. One as clear as the dream that often haunted my nights, when the Morrigan, goddess of death and battle, would appear, terrible and magnificent in a cloak of raven feathers. In a voice like smoke and ashes, she would call me “daughter.”
My eyes fluttered open, and I found myself staring up into Mael’s face, his nose only inches from mine. I realized that the warmth I’d felt on my cheek had been his breath.
“You’re not dreaming, Fallon,” Mael said, his eyes wide with worry.
I grinned up at him.
Who cares for merely dreaming about the Morrigan, I thought, when you can fly like her?
Like I just had. The thrill of that moment still tingled in my blood.
“Well, if I’m not dreaming,” I teased, “then I suppose I must be dead.”
The dread vanished from Mael’s face, chased away by a look of hot fury. “You’re not dead either,” he snapped, the anger in his voice barely leashed. “Though damned well not for lack of trying.”
“Why are you so angry?” I asked irritably, grunting with the effort of raising myself up on one elbow. In the near distance, I could see my spear where it still quivered in the practice dummy’s torso. “Look!” I pointed over his shoulder. “We did it—”
“You did it.” Mael said. “And then I almost killed you!”
“That wasn’t your faul—”
“It was!” He glared down at me fiercely. “And if you ever make me do something as stupid and reckless as that again, I just might kill you, and it won’t be by accident!”
“Are you trying to fulfill Olun’s prophecy?” he asked. “Is that what you’re trying to do?”
I rolled my eyes. It was true my father’s chief druid, Olun, had divined that I would one day follow in my sister Sorcha’s footsteps. But she had been killed on the field of battle. The Forgotten Vale was nothing more than a placid meadow.
“I was a fool to let you talk me into this,” Mael shook his head. “You seem determined to test the will of the Morrigan.”
I opened my mouth, but for once no sharp-tongued retort was forthcoming. It wasn’t as if I weren’t used to him scolding me—we’d grown up together, since I was five and he was six, and we had spent most of those years enthusiastically arguing. Mael was the youngest son of Mannuetios, king of the Trinovantes to the north, and as young boys, he and his brother, Aeddan, had been sent to foster with our tribe—to grow to manhood as one of us, ensuring peace between the two kingdoms. One of the first things Mael had done upon meeting me was break my baby finger with a wooden practice sword in a play fight.
Ever since that moment, he’d harbored an annoying streak of overprotectiveness that was at constant odds with his natural inclination to fight with me at every opportunity. It drove me mad. The two of us together were like flint and iron, forever sparking off each other. Most of the time I was hard-pressed to decide if I couldn’t stand Mael . . . or if I’d be lost without him. But as I looked up at him, I saw genuine worry in his eyes. I realized he really had thought I was hurt.
“Mael,” I said, reaching up to brush back the strands of dark hair that fell in his face. “I’m sorry. I—”
His lips on mine silenced my apology, muffling my words with his sudden, hungry kiss. My eyes went wide . . . then drifted shut, plunging me into a red-lit darkness. My heart was a glowing ember bursting into flame, and all I could think was that this was what joy felt like. Fierce and demanding. I gazed up at Mael, at the flecks of dark silver in his eyes. They glinted like the raw iron our blacksmith melted down to forge swords and daggers and all manner of dangerous and beautiful things. Suddenly, I knew the answer.
I would be completely lost without Mael.
My pulse surged loudly in my ears, and my fingers tangled in his long hair as I drew him down to me again. Mael’s full weight pressed me back into the damp grass, and his broad hands slipped beneath me, fingertips slowly sliding from my shoulders all the way down to the small of my back. My spine arched as he lifted me up off the mossy ground, wrapping his arms around my torso and pulling me close to his chest. His mouth traveled from my lips to the side of my throat, beneath my ear—and then I heard myself gasp, first with surprise and then in protest, as he suddenly tore himself away from me.
The breeze that now flowed between us prickled my skin as Mael threw himself onto his back with a sigh. He lay there for a moment, chest heaving and face flushed, and I wondered if we’d done something horribly wrong. It was the first time I’d ever kissed anyone like that.
But then he rolled his head toward me. His gray eyes flashed dangerously.
“Today,” he said in a ragged voice.
“Mael?” My head spun dizzily.
“This morning.” He sat up and rolled back onto his knees in front of me, grasping me by the shoulders and pulling me toward him. “This very morning, Fallon.”
I gazed at him in wary confusion. “What about it?”
“I’m going to go to Virico, and I’m going to ask him for your hand.” The words tumbled from him in a rush. “Now. So that he can announce it tonight at the feast of the Four Tribes. In front of everyone and—”
“What?” Mael said, faltering. “Fallon—”
I shook my head a little wildly. “My heart . . . it’s already yours, Mael,” I said. “You don’t need to ask for my hand—”
“Yes,” he said, adamant. “I do.”
“You can’t have it!” I felt a tiny shiver of panic in my chest. “Not yet.”
“I thought . . .” He groped for words as his cheeks reddened. “I thought you—”
How could I explain it to him? It wasn’t that I didn’t want him. I did, even if I’d only just begun to realize how much. But there was something I wanted . . . needed first.
I needed the chance to earn my own name.
I bit my lip. “It’s just that tonight my father is going to make me a member of his royal war band. I know he is.”
I watched as Mael’s face clouded over. The feverish moment of our kiss was slipping away.
“Please, Mael.” I reached up a hand and pressed it to his cheek. “You have to wait for me. I can’t let anything stand in the way of this. I’ve worked too hard. I don’t want to give Virico any reason not to give me that honor.”
Mael pulled away from my touch. “Sometimes I wonder if you care more for your sword than for me,” he said.
“How can you even say that?” I snapped, ignoring the small voice in my head that hissed the very same thing. “You’re already a member of the war band! You would deny me the honor and glory of fighting at your side?”
That stung. I could see it in his eyes. “No,” he said. “I would never deny you that, Fallon.”
I reached for his hands. “Just wait a little while, Mael, until I’m a true warrior. We can go to my father then, and we can have everything we ever wanted—together.”
“All right,” Mael said finally, his familiar grin returning. “I’ll wait, Fallon, as long as it takes. But maybe we can make the wait feel shorter.”
Then he kissed me again, and for once, I forgot all about arguing with him.
The day’s afternoon was bright and brilliant and all the more beautiful for my having spent its morning kissing Mael in the Forgotten Vale. But inside my house in Durovernum—the house that I once shared with Sorcha—it was dark. I let the heavy leather door curtain fall closed behind me and moved through the room lighting the lamps.
Over the years, Sorcha had collected more than a dozen of the things—shining, delicately wrought metal or carved alabaster or clay painted with jewel-bright glazes—and hung them from the ceiling poles in our cozy little house on chains of different lengths. My favorite was the one shaped like a bird, with bits of blue and green glass set into the wings that made it glow with a fey light. The lamps had mostly come from far away, as had most of my sister’s precious things, brought over in ships by traders from places across the sea. Places like Gaul and Greece and Aegypt. And Rome.
As much as Sorcha had taken delight in professing her hatred for Caesar at any opportunity, that hate hadn’t influenced her fondness for fine and decorative things from the lands his legions had conquered. Just another one of my sister’s many contradictions, I suppose. I once saw a mosaic in a trader’s stall, and that was what imagining Sorcha was like—a multitude of sharp, shining pieces that, taken together, made up a whole image. Told a whole story.
As I lit the last of the lamps, I thought about the day they’d told me my sister was dead, killed by the Romans. The women of the tribes of Prydain—Cantii and Catuvellauni, Trinovantes and Iceni—could choose to fight alongside the men or not. Many did and with such skill that they were feared as much as the men—more so, even. The legions thought that the women warriors of the Island of the Mighty were demons, aberrations whose corpses they burned in heaps after battles so that their black souls could never escape to inhabit another body. Of course, I knew just how ridiculous that was. A primitive superstition. The fighting women of the tribes of Prydain were as good as they were because they worked at it. I worked at it—hard.
It was a simple—and as complicated—as that.
Cast in the ethereal glow of flickering lamplight, I stood staring at the wavering apparition reflected back at me from the polished bronze mirror hanging on the wall—another of Sorcha’s exotic treasures. I raised an eyebrow at the ragged creature. Even in that uncertain light, I saw a smudge of dirt on my left cheek, partially obscuring the smattering of freckles there. The long tunic I wore over my shift of thin wool had once been a bright red-and-purple check but was now worn to faded shades of rust, stained from climbing hills and fording brooks and fighting Mael day after day in the vale. A tangled, unruly crown of fox-brown strands had escaped from the plait to which I’d hastily consigned my hair in the dark hours before dawn. At the age of seventeen, I might have the lean muscles and the long, strong legs that a warrior ought to have, but I would have to make myself presentable for when my father honored me with my full warrior status.
Just like he had my sister before me.
Sorcha was older by nine full years, and she’d never let me forget it. There were two baby brothers born between us, but they had both been lost to marsh fever before the age of three, and our mother had followed them to the Otherworld herself only days after I was born, leaving Sorcha to raise me—and keep me out of trouble—when our father the king was too busy ruling a sprawling tribe of brawling Celts to pay me much heed. The fact that she probably got me into more trouble than she ever kept me out of it never bothered me a bit. She was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. Strong and sharp and dangerous as the sword she carried on her hip, Sorcha was my goddess even more than the Morrigan we both worshipped. I followed her everywhere, stumbling along on baby legs behind her as she ran, deer-swift, through the forests of our home, always looking for an adventure—or, better yet, a fight to pick.
And then, one day it all changed.
Caesar and his legions landed on our shores—not once but twice. And the second time, they took my father, King Virico, prisoner in a hard-fought battle. When the gathered tribes rode out in their chariots to free him, Virico’s royal war band led the charge. Three days later, Father came home. Sorcha didn’t. My fierce, bright, beautiful sister was gone. Dead.
Just like that.
It had been almost seven years since the legions left our shores, having declared the Island of the Mighty sufficiently conquered. In all that time, the Romans had not returned to Prydain, the island they called Britannia in their strident native tongue. Of course, the traders had never left—they’d been here before Caesar had set foot on our shore, and they’d stayed when he’d departed, “triumphant.” Since that time, we’d been left in peace.
But one day, the legions would return to finish what they’d started. Prydain was too rich a resource for gold and tin and timber—and “barbarian” slaves. Caesar and his kind wouldn’t be able to resist. The armies of Rome would return and we would be ready to fight them when they did. I would be ready to fight, just as my sister had.
Only I wouldn’t fall to the thrust of a Roman sword.
The night Sorcha had ridden out in her chariot for the last time, I’d sat on the end of the bed watching her in the mirror as she buckled the straps of her breastplate and adjusted the hang of her sword on her hip. Angry at being left behind yet again, I complained loudly to Sorcha’s reflection about how I wanted to go out to fight Caesar’s legions with her.
She ignored me as long as she could.
“Enough!” Sorcha said finally, rounding on me. “Have you really thought about what it means to be a warrior, Fallon?”
I blinked at her, noticing for the first time the turbulence in her gaze.
“Have you?” She sighed. “Because I have. It means you kill. You kill men. You kill women. All while they are trying very hard to kill you. And if one of them is better at it than you, then you die. Are you so eager to dance with death, little sister?”
I was ten years old. I didn’t know what to say.
What I should have said was “Don’t go.”
But instead, I just pouted and stayed silent. Sorcha left our house and never returned to hear my answer to her question. That was the first night that the Morrigan visited me in my sleep and named me—me, not Sorcha—her daughter. It was a sacred thing, fearsome and awesome all at once, and I’d never told anyone. But I’d always kept the memory of her voice locked away in my heart.
I shook myself free from the clutches of those memories. Never mind that night. After this night, the Cantii would see me as the newest member of my father’s royal war band, not just as the legendary Sorcha’s little sister.
Facing the mirror, I picked up the carved bone comb that lay among a pile of bracelets and ear hoops on top of a wicker trunk. The occasion demanded that I should at least put a little effort into my appearance. Normally, I would have called for the bondswomen that attended me to deal with such things. But today seemed somehow as if it was meant to be mine alone, and I wanted to savor it—what had already happened and what was to come—without the drone of gossipy slaves in my ears. The merry chaos of this evening’s feast would come soon enough. Even with the distractions of choosing a tunic and shift, setting out jewelry, and taming my hair into submission—things I had little patience or skill with—all I could think of was what my father would say at the feast.
As the sun sank over the far purple hills, I imagined how he would welcome me into his war band with silver words praising my prowess with sword and spear. Indeed, the great hall would be crowded with Prydain royalty, including Aeddan, Mael’s older brother by two years. After the passing of their father, Mannuetios, he was now king of the Trinovantes.
The thought of seeing him made me smile. We’d all grown up together when Aeddan was still a fosterling in our tribe, but Mael and I hadn’t seen him in a good long while. Not since their father’s great betrayal. But after our morning spent in the vale, Mael had gotten word that Aeddan and his train of Trinovante chiefs had arrived in Durovernum. I had sent him off to greet his brother while I untangled the brambles from my hair.
Every two years on the Eve of Lughnasa—which also happened to be my birthday—the kings of the Four Tribes came together to feast and toast each other with wide smiles and enough thick, foamy beer to strengthen the bonds of friendship forged in the alliances of years past. This would be Aeddan’s first time there as king, newly returned from a long period of exile in Rome after his father was killed, executed for selling vital information to the Romans. Mael never spoke of his father’s betrayal, but he’d remained with the Cantii since that time, past the usual age of fostering, because of it.
As for his feelings toward his brother, Mael had always known that when he returned from Rome, Aeddan would be king, not him, and so he bore him no ill will. The three of us—four, if you counted the times Sorcha indulged in our mischief—had grown up together, and I’d feared that Mael might come to resent his brother. But he never did, which was a great relief to me. We were like family, and I would have hated for anything to come between us.
I finished dressing with care, adjusting the delicate silver torc around my neck with nervous fingers. I could hear laughter and shouting outside my door.
The festival atmosphere that had slowly grown throughout Durovernum over the preceding weeks had finally burst into full bloom. Beyond the town’s wooden palisades, in the fields leading down to the docks on the River Dwr, there were games and contests and stalls selling bolts of brightly colored cloth, arm rings and furs, food and drink, and songs that could be bought from the bards to woo a lover from afar or shame a rival without bloodshed. Charioteers raced their pony-drawn carts up and down the winding tracks (none with quite the skill or daring of Mael and me), and the very air crackled with anticipation of the feast that would begin after sundown.
At last, the sky shaded to indigo in the east, and the rich smells that had seasoned the breezes all day—spit-roasting boar and venison stewed in great cauldrons—drew the nobles of the Four Tribes and their freemen and freewomen to gather in the great hall.
I took a last nervous glance at myself in the mirror. I’d brushed the thick waves of my hair until they shimmered down my back, and I’d dressed them off my face with a circlet of red gold that twined about my brow. I had to admit, the look suited me. A gown of leaf-green wool under a russet-and-purple mantle draped the lines of my body. The torc around my neck gleamed, and the stacked bronze and silver bangles on my wrists jangled as I pushed aside my door curtain and headed up the winding path to my father’s great hall.
Once inside, I was enveloped by the smells of roasting meat and peat smoke and had to snake through the crush of bodies to find my seat by the hearth.
“You’re dressed like a proper queen this night,” Clota, my father’s chief bondswoman said, chuckling as she leaned over to fill my cup with mead. “And more than one lad here tonight seems to have noticed finally that you are a girl.”
I rolled my eyes and reached for a platter of honeyed oatcakes and apples, too nervous to eat much. I shifted on the low bench seat near my father’s left hand and wondered where Mael had gotten to. Clota might have been joking, but in truth, I could almost feel the looks from all about the hall—glances that traced the lines of my limbs, the planes of my face. But when I sought them out, there was only one person who was bold enough to return my gaze.
And it was not Maelgwyn Ironhand but his brother, Aeddan. I grinned and raised my hand in greeting, but Aeddan did not smile back. Instead, he just raised his cup to me.
He knows, I thought, my stomach knotting a bit. Mael told him.
Aeddan was two years older than his brother, but they were unmistakably related. Both had dark hair, worn long, and almost identical slate-gray eyes. Like his younger brother, Aeddan was handsome and clever and good with a sword. But—to me, at least—his had always seemed more of a brooding presence, sitting in the shadows just beyond the circle of firelight. Where Mael’s eyes could shine bright with passion or burn dark with anger, Aeddan’s gaze always seemed to me a bit cool. Sharp. Like the blade of a fine iron knife waiting to be used. The veneer of Roman culture that he’d adopted from his time in that place—he drank wine and draped his cloak over one arm like a toga—only emphasized the contrast between the brothers. But as different as they were, I had always loved them both: Aeddan like a brother, Mael . . . as something more. Much more, it seemed. I turned away from Aeddan’s gaze before he noticed the blush creeping up my cheeks.
Clota passed by in that moment, and I lunged for her tray, snatching up another mug of spiced mead. I’d gulped the first one down far too fast in an attempt to steady my nerves. I glanced around the room again, suddenly desperate to find Mael’s face. I thought I saw him pass through the archway of the great oak doors and half rose from my seat to go to him. But then a drift of conversation between a grizzled old bear of a Catuvellauni warrior and a pair of young men—freemen of a visiting chief from Gaul, by the strange look of them—caught my attention.
“How goes the resistance, then?” the old bear asked. “Do the Arverni and the Carnutes still harry the Romans in Gaul and set fire to their forts?”
One of the freeman with tattoos on his cheeks and red-rimmed eyes spat. “There is no resistance since Arviragus surrendered. The coward.”
I was pretending not to listen but could barely hide my shock. Arviragus? A coward? Impossible. I had met the Gaulish warrior king when I was young and he was but a prince, but I’d been awed by his bravery and skill with a sword. He would never surrender to the Romans.
“He was no coward,” his companion said loudly, chewing his words through a mouthful of meat.
“But he was a fool. Letting himself be taken by the Roman. I’d have fallen on my own sword first.”
“Be careful how you speak!” the older man snapped, his eyes flicking to where my father, Virico, sat, gazing out over the gathered crowd.
“Why?” Dark beer sloshed over the rim of the young warrior’s mug. “I simply speak the truth.”
I realized in that moment that he either didn’t know or didn’t care that, like Arviragus, my father himself had once been captured by Caesar. Or that his beloved daughter Sorcha had led an army to free him and in doing so had been lost herself.
His tattooed companion began to guffaw. “Maybe he’s right, Biron. Perhaps these Prydain tribes have the way of it. Why even fight the Romans? Easier to let them think they’ve had their way with you, and in the morning, they’ll just hitch up their skirts and leave you in peace.”
Drunkards, I seethed, my hand tightening on my dagger.
I was close enough to my father to see that he’d heard the exchange. For a moment, I wondered if he’d silence the fools with his blade, but his only reaction was to toss back the rest of his own drink and stand.
Virico Lugotorix rising to his feet was a sure way to draw the attention of even the drunkest of revelers. Two of the hearth slaves heaved a heavy log onto the great fire at the same time. As firefly sparks bloomed around him, my father looked like the king of some fiery underground realm. His chestnut hair and beard gleamed, and his handsome face glowed crimson.
“Tuatha!” he bellowed. “Welcome. The voices of the Four Tribes sing you peace. The Island of the Mighty carries you on her green shoulders. Fill your bellies and your hearts this night in my hall, and we shall be as one people. One tribe. More so for the good tidings I tell you now.”
The men and women in the hall fell silent and leaned forward, straining to catch the next words of Virico’s grand pronouncement. I leaned forward too, my fingertips biting into the edge of my seat as I waited, breathless, for my father’s call to me to join his elite warrior band. Finally, I would have my chance to make him proud—as proud as Sorcha ever did.
“My daughter Fallon is the jewel of my house,” he continued, gesturing toward me. “She is of age now, as of this very night. Her heart is golden, and her sword is a spark in the darkness. And I would have her take her place among my war chiefs, as both her mother and her sister did before her . . .”
My cheeks flushed, and I felt elated as the blood rushed from my head to my feet and back again, leaving me hot and cold in waves.
“. . . but for this.”
Virico’s voice lapsed into echoing silence.
This? I looked up at him.
He refused to meet my gaze, and when he spoke again, it was like the sound of a blade’s edge dragging over a whetstone. He lifted his head and called out a name: “Aeddan ap Mannuetios!”
Aeddan? I stood up and tried to speak, but my voice fled from me in that moment.
“Come forth!” Virico bellowed. “Come and claim my daughter’s hand before our gathered friends here in my hall.”
No, I thought. He’s made a mistake.
“Aeddan!” Virico shouted again. He beckoned with one hand, fingers winking with gold rings.
“Chief among our dear friends the Trinovante, my soon-to-be son, come forth!”
A roar went up from the gathered crowd, but I was shocked into silence. The smoke-dark air seemed to thicken, pressing against my skin.
I glanced wildly around the room, searching until I finally spotted Mael’s ashen face. He stood frozen near the stacked barrels of beer and mead, surrounded by a group of laughing Trinovante chiefs and freemen—young men from Mael’s own tribe, all friends of Aeddan’s. His dazed expression turned to fury in a moment. I saw him shout his brother’s name, but I couldn’t hear him over the noise. At the same time, Aeddan worked his way through the press of bodies packing the hall, accepting hearty, undeserved congratulations with a grin tugging at his lips. Only I saw how the bashful expression never reached Aeddan’s dark eyes.
This is all a terrible mistake. Father is drunk. He’s not thinking clearly . . .
“Mael!” I shouted above the raucous din. “Do something!”
Mael could stop Aeddan. Talk reason to him or, at the very least, challenge his absurd claim! We could still stop this. We just had to get to my father.
Mael shouted back, but I couldn’t make out the words. He was too far away. And Aeddan was too close, moving nimbly through the crowd of gathered tribesmen and tribeswomen toward where I stood.
“Father!” I reached out a hand, grabbing at Virico’s sleeve, but the cries of the chiefs and their freemen shook the very air of the great roundhouse and drowned out my protests.
Virico’s head swung around, his eyes fever-bright in the firelight. “I knew you would be upset,” he said in a low, urgent voice. “But I cannot make you a war chief, Fallon. I lost your sister to the sword. I will not have you suffer the same fate as Sorcha. I cannot lose you both.”
“No!” I shook my head desperately. “Father, you can’t do this to me.”
But just then Aeddan reached me. An even more thunderous shout erupted from the gathering as he spun me around and kissed me hard on the lips.
It was the second time that day that a son of Mannuetios had kissed me.
Only this time, it felt like poison pouring into my mouth.
I struggled to push Aeddan away, but there was nowhere to push him to. The throng was crushing. The women of the Cantii converged upon me with fierce embraces and well-wishing. Some of them burst into song, and others whirled and threw their arms in the air. If there was one thing every good Celt loved, it was love itself. They sang of it, fought for it, wept bitter tears into mugs of mead over the loss of it, and—if the slightest hint of a joyous union so much as wafted past on a breeze—seized the opportunity to celebrate it ferociously.
Over near the mead vats, there was a commotion as Mael struggled against the crowd toward Aeddan and me. I thought I might have actually seen him throw a punch. But then Aeddan blocked my view and forced me back a step. That close, I could see his face was flushed—with drink or desire or both—and his dark eyes shone. The crush of bodies, the brightly-woven cloaks and jangling jewelry, the braided hair and painted eyes, lips, mouths, tangled tattoos and torcs and shouting, the stench of beer and bodies and meat . . . for the first time in my life, I thought that I might actually faint.
When the scuffle by the vats upended a large, foaming tub of mead, the crowd suddenly ebbed in that direction with cries of outrage and shouts of drunken laughter cheering on the combatants. In the ensuing chaos, I ducked beneath Aeddan’s arm and ran for the great hall doors.