“Yes, child,” he said to the top of her blond head. “You may touch him. Only go slowly, he is not accustomed to children.”
The small head tilted up and the child gifted Cuchulainn with a tremendous smile of gratitude. Sharp canine teeth glittered in odd contrast to her innocent appearance.
“Her name is Kyna.”
The winged woman moved to the child’s side. She gave Kyna a nod of encouragement and Cuchulainn tightened his grip on the gelding, holding him firmly in place so the girl could carefully pat his slick chest. The rest of the children watched and whispered to each other.
“And I am Ciara, granddaughter of the Incarnate Goddess Terpsichore. You are most welcome here, Cuchulainn.” She, too, smiled brilliantly up at the warrior with a sharp-toothed grin. “I believe the children have answered your question for all of us. We have waited for more than one hundred years for this day. Yes, it will be our great pleasure to follow you to Partholon.”
Pandemonium greeted her proclamation. The adults cheered and the children danced around as if they had springs as well as wings. Afraid someone would get trampled, Cu had been forced to dismount, which brought on another tirade of questions from the children who wanted to touch his back to make sure he wasn’t hiding wings under his cloak. Ciara and the other adults had quite a job calming the jumping, dancing, laughing group of excited youngsters.
Trying to keep his veneer of detached observer in place, Cuchulainn had silently watched the cacophony of jubilation. The winged people obviously looked to Ciara for leadership. She had laughingly apologized for the overenthusiastic welcome while she called for one of the lodges to be made ready and introduced him to several smiling adults. But when he asked her if she had been made leader during Lochlan’s absence, she had only laughed and said she was the same now as she had been when Lochlan was with them—just an ordinary Shaman to her people.
Her words had been completely unexpected. Shaman? Where were the barbaric hybrid demons he had expected to watch warily and judge harshly? Cuchulainn remembered how stunned he had felt standing there that first day. Then little Kyna had shrieked. He had lunged, pulling his claymore free from its pommel. Crouched and ready for battle he had followed the child’s pointing finger to discover that Fand had finally crept from a clump of concealing brush and was slinking toward him. Cu had hastily sheathed his sword and knelt down to reassure the nervous wolf cub, while he fielded rapidly fired questions from Kyna. He felt Ciara’s gaze and looked up to find her dark eyes studying him knowingly.
“You have no enemies here, Cuchulainn, except those that war within you,” she had said quietly.
Before he could respond the sky had opened and huge, wet flakes of snow had begun falling.
Fand and the big gelding temporarily forgotten, Kyna had tugged on Cuchulainn’s cloak for his attention. “Watch me catch the snow with my tongue!”
Still crouched beside his wolf cub, Cuchulainn had watched the little girl throw her arms wide and spread her dove-colored wings. With the innate innocence of childhood she stuck out her tongue, twirled and jumped, trying to catch the elusive flakes. Soon she was joined by dozens of other children and he was surrounded by the timeless laughter and joy of youth. For an unexpected instant he’d felt the suffocating pain of losing Brenna shift and ease and become almost bearable.
Cuchulainn thought he would remember that moment for the rest of his life. Though he didn’t realize it, thinking about the children relaxed the tight sadness that had claimed his handsome face since Brenna’s death. He almost looked like himself again, the Cuchulainn who had been quick to smile and laugh and had been filled with life and hope and the promise of a full and happy future.
Now, with a soft woof, Fand slunk low to the earth, pulling Cu’s thoughts back to the present and shifting the focus of his attention to the trail ahead. Silently Cuchulainn moved forward. Readying an arrow, he peered around the next boulder to see the wild, white sheep pawing through the snow at a patch of yellow lichen. Taking a long, slow breath he notched the arrow, but before he could draw and aim, he heard the distinctive twang of a loosed bow and the sheep dropped, a quivering arrow neatly embedded at the base of its neck.
Fand’s growl changed to a yip of welcome when the centaur Huntress stepped from behind a concealing ledge.
“You took my shot, Huntress.” Cuchulainn’s words were gruff, but he smiled and grasped the centaur’s forearm in greeting. He was surprised at the pleasure he felt at the sight of Brighid. With her came a vision of MacCallan Castle. Until that moment he hadn’t realized how much he had begun to long for home. And then on the heels of his remembrance came a wave of fresh pain. Brenna would not be there. All that remained of her was a monument carved in her image and a cold grave.
“Took your shot?” The Huntress’s unusual violet eyes sparkled. “If I remember correctly the last time we hunted together you hit nothing and chose to bring your prey back alive.” She returned Cuchulainn’s smile, even though his had faded into an odd grimace. She clasped his forearm warmly before frowning down at the young wolf that was leaping around her hocks. “I can see the creature is still alive.”
“Fand is an excellent companion.” He motioned for the jubilant cub to leave the Huntress alone. Fand ignored him.
“She hasn’t learned any manners.” Brighid kicked a hoof absently at the squirming cub, who decided it was a game and began biting at her hock.
Cuchulainn growled low in his throat, sounding remarkably wolflike, and, looking dejected, Fand stopped her mock attack and flopped down on her belly to stare with soulful eyes at the warrior.
Brighid lifted a brow. “Seems I have come just in time. You obviously need some civilized company.”
The Huntress nodded. “There is nothing more civilized than a centaur.”
She waited for Cu’s return gibe, which did not come. Instead the warrior tucked his arrow back in its quill and began striding toward the sheep.
“My sister sent you, didn’t she?”
“I volunteered. I don’t like to see her worried. And—”
Cuchulainn whirled around and cut her off. “Elphame is well?”
Brighid heard the thinly veiled panic in the warrior’s voice and was quick to reassure him. “She’s quite well. Renovation of the castle moves ahead. The Clan is happy and healthy. The first new MacCallan Clan member has been born within the castle’s walls. And, as I was about to explain, the game in the forest is so thick that even humans can easily hunt it. So I thought I would kill two birds with a single arrow.” She grinned, raising her empty bow. “I’d alleviate my Chieftain’s worry for her errant brother, as well as hunt something more challenging than deer that are practically domesticated.”
As she spoke she studied Cuchulainn’s face. The panic had dissipated, leaving him looking tired and relieved, and then, as she watched, even those small emotions fell from his face, until it seemed he was wearing an expressionless mask. He had lost weight. His eyes were shadowed by darkness and new lines feathered from their corners. Was that gray in his sand-colored hair? He bent to pull her arrow from the sheep’s body and she looked down at him. Yes, it was, indeed, gray that glinted around his brow. The man before her looked easily a decade older than he had two moon cycles earlier.
“Here,” Brighid said, swiveling at the waist to pull two long leather cords from one of the travel packs slung across her back. “Tie this around its legs. I’ll drag it.”
Cuchulainn returned the arrow to her after wiping it clean in the snow.
“My gelding isn’t far from here.”
Brighid snorted. “I hope your camp isn’t far from here. I’ve seen little of the Wastelands, but I already do not savor the thought of spending the night in the open. Not in this Goddess-be-damned wind.”
For an instant she thought she saw amusement flash in his eyes, but all he said as he took the cords