Dance of the Gods Page 76

She talked of war, she thought. And he gave her a flower.

Maybe it was foolish—maybe both of them were—but she slid its stem into one of the buttonholes of her coat. And she breathed in its sweet scent as they walked toward the battleground.

Chapter 18

T hey’d walked only minutes when Blair heard the sound of horses, and a rattle she assumed was a wagon or cart. When they cleared the curve in the road, she saw she’d been right. There were two wagons, both loaded with people and possessions. There were riders on horseback as well, some no more than children.

Mules were tethered to the back of each wagon and clopped along with a look she could only describe as extreme irritation.

The first wagon pulled up, with the man driving it lifting his cap to Blair, then addressing himself to Larkin.

“It’s the wrong way you’re traveling,” he said. “For by orders of the royal family all in this province are to go into Dunglas, or farther, even into Geall City itself if they can manage it. There are demons coming, it’s said, and war with them.”

Beside him, the woman clutched the baby she carried closer to her breast. “It won’t be safe here,” she told them. “All are leaving their homes behind. The princess Moira herself has decreed that every citizen of Geall must be indoors by sunset. You’re welcome to a seat in the wagon, and to ride with us as far as my cousin in Dunglas.”

“It’s kind of you, mistress, and thank you for the offer of hospitality, but we’re on business here for the royal family and for Geall. We’ll make our way.”

“We had to leave our sheep, our crops.” The man looked behind him. “But the riders who came from the castle said there was no choice in it.”

“They’d be right.”

The man turned back to study Blair. “And it’s said, too, that warriors and wizards have come from beyond Geall to fight this war and drive the demons out of the world.”

“It’s truth.” But Larkin saw both fear and doubt. “I’ve gone out of this world, and back into it. I’d be Larkin, lord of Mac Dara.”

“My lord.” Now the man removed his cap altogether. “It’s our honor to speak with you.”

“This is the lady Blair, a great warrior from beyond Geall.”

The boy who sat on horseback beside the wagon all but bounced in the saddle. “Have you killed demons, then? Have you fought and killed them, Lady?”

“Seamas.” The woman, obviously his mother, spoke sharply. “You haven’t been given leave to speak, much less to pester with questions.”

“It’s all right.” Blair stroked a hand over his horse. The boy had a wide-open face, she thought, where freckles had exploded like ginger over cream. He couldn’t have been more than eight. “I have fought them, and killed them. So has Lord Larkin.”

“And so will I!”

She hoped not. She hoped to God he was safely tucked into bed by nightfall, and every night after. “A strong boy like you has another job. To stay inside, every night until the war’s over, guarding his mother, his brothers and sisters. Keeping them safe will take courage.”

“No demon will touch them!”

“Best make your way now, and safe travels,” Larkin said.

“And to you my lord, my lady.”

He clicked to the horses, snapped the reins. Blair watched them until both wagons had rumbled by. “That’s a lot of faith in your family, to pack up, leave your home. That’s another strong weapon, that kind of faith.”

“You spoke well to that boy, made him see that staying inside with his mother was a duty. Lilith’s whelp was about that age—a bit younger, actually.” Larkin reached under his hair, traced the scar on the back of his neck with his fingers. “Sweet-faced, too. He was some mother’s son before she turned him into a monster.”

“She’ll be paying for that, and a lot more. That bite give you any trouble?” she asked as they started to walk again.

“It doesn’t. Not something I forget though, that’s for certain. As I’m sure you know for yourself.” He lifted her hand, turned her wrist over and kissed her scar. “Still pissed, as you say, that the little bugger got a taste of me. Hardly more than a baby, and damn near killed me.”

“Kiddie vampires aren’t any less lethal than the full grown variety. And actually, in my opinion, more creepy.”

The hedgerows dropped away, and the Valley of Silence lay before them.

“And speaking of creepy,” she murmured. “It’s no less goosebumping from down here. I’m no sissy, but I wouldn’t be insulted if you held my hand.”

“I wouldn’t be insulted if you held mine.”

So they stood, clutching hands, on what seemed to Blair to be the end of the world.

The land fell off in a steep, jagged, ankle-breaking incline. It heaved up in nasty hillocks or rippled tables of rock. Acres of it, she thought. Acres of misery and shadows with only the undulating moan of a cold wind through the wild grass.

“Lots of places to hide,” she commented. “We can use that as well as they can. Most of the fighting’s going to have to be done on foot. Only the best riders could handle a mount on that ground.”

She narrowed her eyes. “We’d better go down, take a look at what we’re dealing with.”

“How do you feel about riding a goat?”

“Unenthusiastic.” But she gave his hand a squeeze. “Besides, if we can’t negotiate it now, daylight, no pressure, we’re not going to do very well at night, in the heat of battle.”

Plenty of footholds, she discovered as they started down. And the ground was too mean and stubborn to crumble away under her boots. Maybe she’d have preferred a nice flat field for the mother of all battles, but there were ways to use what they had to their advantage.

“Some of these crevices, shallow caves could be useful. Hiding men and weapons.”

“They would.” Larkin crouched down, peered into a small opening. “They’d think of that as well, as you said back in Ireland.”

“So we get here first, block off some strategic points. Magically maybe—we can talk to Hoyt and Glenna about that. Or with crosses.”

He nodded, straightened. “We’d want the high ground there, and perhaps there.” He gestured as he studied the lay. “Flood down on them, that’s what we’d do. Flood down on the bloody bastards, keeping archers on the high ground.”

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