SWAN MAIDEN EXCERPT
Naisi chipped at the limpet shells on the wet rocks with his dagger.
Deirdre often crouched like this around the fire, breasts pressed against her thighs. He hacked furiously, but more unbidden images crept into his mind. When she placed shells in the coals, her tunic gaped and he saw the globes of pale flesh pushed up on her knees. He would almost feel them rubbing against the cloth as his own chest prickled.
Now he expelled a low growl, frustrated at his weakness. After being cooped up in a sea-cave for many days, was it any wonder he could find nowhere to look? The hiss of waves sometimes sounded like voices coming closer, and they all tensed whenever the rustling trees on the cliffs above cast shadows over the cave entrance.
I am a man of honor. He flipped a limpet off, dunked it in a rockpool and placed it in his sling. I will keep my honor over this. One day he’d have to face his Red Branch comrades, and as Conor had not released her, in their minds she was somehow still his.
Dusk was creeping over the beach. He stared at the last finger of sun reaching down their tiny wooded ravine from the west. The light warmed the grey, restless sea — and he thought of the previous night, of Deirdre washing her hair in the stream and drying it before the fire. Her fingers had been a weaving comb through that gold thread, lulling him into a daze where none of this was real.
A cry came, so faint it could be a gull. He squinted down the rocks to the pale crescent of twilit sand. Two weeks they had kept hidden. The cliffs were too rugged to support steadings and the trees that spilled down the ravines were in their full growth, hiding them from the sea. Their cooksmoke leaked away into the fissures in the cave roof.
Over the wind the cry came again, more urgent. He straightened, the knife dripping. That was human.
Naisi sprang across the rocks, sheathing his dagger as he went. His feet slid in the kelp and he leaped between the bare knobs of stone until he could drop to the sand, hardly noticing the growl of denial that was rising in his throat until it burst out in a shout. “Ainnle! Ardan!” His brothers were around the point behind him.
Another whaleback of stone protruded from the beach ahead, and when he leaped up it, he saw four figures outlined against the gloom of evening: Deirdre clutching her bag, her cloak streaming in the wind — and advancing on her, three men. The last lick of sun picked out the shine of metal in their hands.
Naisi roared as he ran, feeling his sword-hilt in his fingers though he could not remember drawing it. He knew the build and hair color of one man there — Leary, Winner of Battles. The warriors saw him coming and began to run, with Deirdre caught between them. Naisi bellowed something incoherent and at last she turned, stumbling towards him before getting her legs under her and streaking across the sand. Panic twisted her face and it was that which broke Naisi’s long-dammed temper and set it free in a flood. She was defenceless.
He caught her before the others reached them, flinging her brutally behind him and squaring off, shielding her. “Run! Down the beach, now!” She scrambled up and over the rocks and disappeared.
The three warriors halted, swords up and shields braced against their chins, panting. “So you show your faces at last,” Naisi gasped. “But you, Leary, I didn’t expect. So is this better than releasing a traitor’s arrow at someone’s back?”
Leary’s eyes widened. “I would never!”
“And yet you stalk us now like beasts.”
Leary lowered his shield, his blunt face even grimmer. “We have been scouring the land for you, aye, but only to put a stop to this foolishness before someone else gets hurt! Give the girl up and we can all go home. We don’t want to fight.”
“Then why attack?” Naisi’s blade wove in front of him.
“You stole what belongs to the king.”
“I stole nothing. She asked for my help as a noble warrior of the Red Branch. Would you turn away a maiden that pleaded with you, Leary? No, you’d have her on her back as payment!” His rage hammered him.
“Enough!” One of the other warriors spat on the sand. “She isn’t just any maiden, and the king wants her back. It’s simple enough: give the girl up.”
There was red behind Naisi’s eyes. Give her up… He might have done before that point pierced his shoulder, leaving a scar that still ached — before she tried to soothe his pain, reaching unflinchingly to share his burden of guilt.
“You can still come back from this.” Leary gritted his jaw to ignore the insult. “Put down your weapon and hand her over. With her at his side, we all think the king’s madness will pass and we can get him to forgive your infernal pride.” When Naisi only raised his sword, the tip wavering, Leary burst out, “Come on, man! If you’ve lifted her dress we’ll not tell him, just for some sweet peace around here.”
Struck, Naisi wanted to say, but she doesn’t wear dresses, and in that moment knew this was not about his pride. “Swear you’ve heard no word of us, and I will not harm you.”
Their eyes fixed on the grim gleam of his blade in the fading light. “We can’t do that,” the third said, another Naisi knew only by sight. “We’ve been ordered to take her, no matter what.”
“What, trussed like a fowl? Conor will sink to that?”
The man merely shrugged contemptuously. It was too much. Naisi again saw Deirdre’s face lifted to the scents of dawn. Conor would not let her walk through the woods alone, the night hushed and silky-dark around her. “Put up your blades,” he said quietly, and Leary’s face fell.
Behind him, Deirdre and his brothers appeared on the crest of the rocks. Ainnle cried his name. “Stay back,” Naisi barked. “This is on my head only.”
“Balls to that,” Ainnle growled in answer, and spitting something at Ardan he barrelled down onto the sand, unsheathing his sword.
Deirdre’s nails bit into Ardan’s arm. Ainnle had told his brother to stay, but she could feel the strain in the muscle beneath her fingers. “Go to them,” she choked.
Ardan shook his head. “They will have to come through me at the last.”
She could barely make sense of the fight that broke out below as the men began spinning and lunging, stabbing out and leaping back. Sand was kicked up and the dusky light and shadows confused her further. Slash was blocked by thrust, blades reaching in then darting back.
Naisi’s sword rose, its scything plunge met by Leary’s blade in a terrible grate of iron. Deirdre stared as those familiar flowing muscles of Naisi’s formed new shapes — hacking, jabbing, stabbing, the whites of his eyes showing in the dimness. She was amazed at his speed and grace; she’d seen the brothers run and climb but this was more like a dance, blades spinning so fast they were a blur, legs leaping, arms whirling.
The two brothers stood back to back, using each other as shields, and as they were taller they could get in under the strokes of their stockier opponents. The clang of blades travelled through Deirdre’s shaking body.
Her gaze was tied to the curve of Naisi’s head. She had once held it to peer at his healing wound, and it came to her now in exquisite detail how the bones fitted her palms, his black hair caught between her white fingers. Heat swept over her with no warning — an urge to stroke his waist and back, his underarms, his muscled flanks, to see if they also molded to her touch. Absurd at such a time — so late, so blind! — but the need roared through her at the very moment she might never feel his skin again.
“It’s a duel,” Ardan was muttering. “First cut only and it’s over. No Red Branch has ever killed another.”
She dragged her mind back, shuddering. There was something controlled in Naisi’s movements as he tried to target not the flanks of his opponents but their swords, and at last succeeded in twisting one blade away. When the man stumbled, Naisi struck his head with his hilt and he collapsed on the sand, unconscious.
“We are matched in number now,” Naisi croaked. All the warriors were soaked with sweat, their hair stuck to their foreheads. “Let us go freely.”
“We can’t,” Leary panted, flinging his shield to the sand. “Before I left, the king demanded my clan oath to return her, even at the cost of you.”
A chill drenched Naisi. “He asked for one Red Branch oath against another?”
Leary nodded wearily. He spread his fingers, and they trembled from strain. “I won’t have you destroy so much for your pig-headed pride. It was always too ripe in you — in all of you.”
Naisi rocked on his heels. “So now it comes out. You would ignore your conscience for the king’s gold.”
Leary sucked in a breath, launching his unshielded blade at Naisi with a yell. Naisi’s sword swept up to block it. Gulls exploded from the cliffs in alarm, whirling around their heads and shrieking against the darkening sky. Back and forth the two men twisted and cut, Naisi forced from Ainnle’s shoulder by Leary’s attack, both men reckless with anger. Leary was thicker set, stronger, better controlled; Naisi lithe, his reflexes quicker. The fight was so furious that Ainnle and his opponent stopped sparring, their swords lowering.
Naisi took a cut on the forearm and grunted at the sting but did not falter, nor did Leary halt his attack. All pretence of a duel had died.
Blood trickled down Naisi’s hilt now, making it slippery, so he flipped his sword into his left hand. He had not only practiced the Salmon Leap into the night as a boy, but also taught himself to fight from either side, like Cúchulainn. The blades met again and slid along each other until they locked at the hilts. The two warriors’ faces were so close that Naisi’s spittle flecked Leary’s cheek. ”He’s wrong, and you know it,” he gasped.
Leary’s eyes were clenched with effort. “Bend just a little and you’ll live! But you never can.”
With a growl, Naisi pushed his sword sideways like a staff and Leary’s foot sank in a patch of softer sand behind him. It was only a slight imbalance, hard to detect. But Naisi saw and didn’t hesitate, kicking out with his heel to knock Leary’s legs from under him. As the older man wobbled, Naisi sprang forward in a last act of desperation, thinking only to cut his sword hand and disable him.
Leary dropped his weapon, however, and leaped for Naisi to wrestle him over. Naisi didn’t see the dropped sword, only the movement. Years of practice had honed his instincts, melding blade with body and as he brought up his arms to defend himself, his sword came with him.
From a dazed distance, he watched the blade disappear as Leary drove himself onto it.
Deirdre heard a scream like a dying animal, only it didn’t come from the stabbed man sliding to the ground but the one who held him. Ardan shoved her aside and bounded down the rocks to his brothers. Ainnle was standing with his mouth open, sword dangling. The third warrior had by now dragged his friend up, still dazed, and without a word they both fled across the sand.
Naisi was rocking the dead man, his dark braids falling over those staring eyes and white cheeks. Deirdre’s stomach heaved and she shoved her fist in her mouth, sinking on her knees. The pool of blood soaked into the sand while the wind rippled the dune-grasses.
Naisi shrank back, pulling his bloody sword with him and flinging it away as he let Leary’s body slump to the ground. He crawled towards the sea, head down, and when he had gone a little way opened his throat and retched up bile. Deirdre heard the keening between the splashes of vomit on the sand, a raw sound wrenched up from his bowels. His brothers did not take their eyes off the dead man’s face, utterly confounded.
At last Naisi staggered up, swaying. His hands were bloody — one from the cut trickling down his forearm, the other from the sword grip. He shook them as if to rid himself of that gore, then wove towards the water. When he reached the curling waves, he plunged in, his head going under.
Deirdre looked at Ardan, her cheeks stiff with dried tears. “He won’t…hurt himself?”
“No.” Ardan’s face was bleached of feeling. “He must make Leary’s death worth something. He will take the victory.”
Darkness fell and the wind rose, and Ardan, Deirdre and Ainnle crouched around the driftwood fire in the cave. Naisi had dragged himself out of the water and disappeared over the rocks, and he hadn’t come back yet.
Dazed, Deirdre stared at the strips of deer-meat drying on their frame. A few days ago the brothers had crept into the hinterland and hunted a hind, roasting it in a pit on the beach. They laughed openly for the first time around that fire, Naisi’s face softening in the glow of the flames. The guilt was strangling her. “I must go to him.” She brushed past Ainnle and his accusing eyes, averting her gaze from Leary’s bundled body.
Outside the wind was raging as if joining them in grief, the surf foaming under the thin sliver of moon. She searched one end of the beach to the other before glimpsing Naisi on the whaleback rock. Heart in her mouth, she climbed up to him. He didn’t turn, watching the waves sweep up on the sand in front of him, his fingers curled over the slash on his forearm.
“You didn’t mean to hurt him,” she blurted. “It was just the way he leaped—”
His shoulders moved convulsively, halting her words. “Our swords should never have met in anger, not one Red Branch against another. It cannot happen. Surely it did not happen…” He trailed away.
“Naisi, I’m so sorry,” she murmured. When he did not reply, she drew the salt wind in through her nose to clear her mind. “Tomorrow I leave for Emain Macha.” His head whipped around, the moonlight turning his face to bone and hollows. “I never want to see your body wracked like that, Naisi. Not you...never you…” She gulped down the rest of those sweet, anguished words. “It will be your death next.”
His eyes were pits in the dim light. “I will not allow Conor to triumph.”
“This isn’t about victory! It’s about saving people.” She grasped his shoulder. “Once, I wanted what you had more than anything — to sing and chase deer, taste the grease on my lips from game I had hunted. But in wanting this, I have taken it from you.” She shook her head. “I must end this.”
The bitterness of his smile took her breath. “You betray your innocence, Deirdre. I will always be a wanted man now for killing a warrior of the Red Branch.”
No. He was wrong. There must be a way out. She had wrought this; she would mend these broken threads if she had to submit to Conor’s desires until the day she died. She got her quivering legs under her. One more moment of the moon on his face, shaping it into those bleak planes, and she would have no strength to leave him. “I will remember how you fought for me.” Her voice broke and she clambered down the rocks, wind-blown spray coating her face.
He caught her by the shoulders halfway up the beach. Beneath his flying hair, his lips curled in a snarl, and she smelled blood on him. “He will not have you.”
So she was just a thing to him, too; a possession to snap and squabble over. She flung up her chin. “As Conor’s bride, I will tell him this death was an accident and gain a pardon for you. It will be a wedding boon, the last thing I ask of him—”
“I don’t need you to ask it. I’ll sink a sword into him before he looks even once upon your face.”
“You’re not listening!”
“Because you’re insane!” His eyes were wild, his fingers biting into her arms.
The wind buffeted her body and her temper was torn free by its force. “So now you seek to bridle me as he did? To deny the choice of my own heart, to end this, to save you?” She struck at his belly with her palm as if beating a rock to release that rage, knowing it was all for Conor.
Naisi braced himself, easily absorbing the blow, and the implacable hardness of his body shattered her control. She went to kick out but he pulled her against him, his fingers burying themselves in the unravelling braids at her ears. “Don’t do this to me, Deirdre. Not this night…”
She barely heard him mumble, for the wind was pushing their tangled hair into her mouth. She was dragging it free when he crushed his palms to her temples, and looming in, ground his lips to hers with brutal force.
Excerpted from Swan Maiden by Jules Watson Copyright (c) 2009 by Jules
Watson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.