RAVEN QUEEN EXCERPT
Ruán was picking raspberries by touch along the edge of a sun-bathed clearing, pleased to find something sweet now the honey had run out. Sunseason was unfolding with a rush, the dusks growing long and hazy, the days still.
He recognized Maeve’s step behind him. She squatted, the smell of sheep-fat and horse wafting over him from the saddle blanket around her shoulders.
“You should not be walking this far,” he said. A trickle of sweat ran down beneath his blindfold, and he rubbed his brow through the worn deerskin.
Maeve took a raspberry from the birch basket and munched it. “I should have gone home days ago.”
“Just because you can hobble, does not mean you can ride.” He eased another berry from its stalk.
“You know very well I’m not hobbling. You hear my every step.”
That was true. Without his sight, every sense had become more acute. So he knew how swiftly the sword wound above her hipbone was knitting; not as deep as he first feared. “I didn’t let you retch all over me just to break your neck halfway home.” Ruán turned to the bushes to pluck more berries.
Maeve rose and flicked his hair, leaving a tingling trail on his neck. “Now you’ve made me feel sick again.” She crawled into the hollow, spreading her blanket among the ferns and sprawling on her back. There she let out a sigh from deep inside her. “I cannot see anything but the sky…there is nothing at all. Nothing.” The yearning in her voice bore a darker thread.
Pulling up the deerskins while she slept, Ruán sometimes brushed her cheeks and found them wet. He suddenly wondered why someone so robust had taken so long to surface from this fever. As if she did not want to come back.
“Come and smell these blooms,” Maeve said, “and talk to me.”
“I can talk while I gather supper.”
She went silent, but the next moment there was a flare beside him, and she caught his legs and dragged him toward her.
“Careful!” Ruán braced himself as he toppled on his back, trying not to fall on top of her.
Maeve propped herself up on one elbow, nudging a berry between Ruán’s lips. He pressed them together, but she only squashed the fruit until it burst and dribbled down his chin. Ruán licked it away, tucking an elbow behind his head.
The blaze he saw around him now was not the sun, it was her.
Ruán’s limbs settled into the ferns. She lives. Thank the gods. A fierce pleasure welled in his heart. I didn’t kill her. He had healed her, instead.
Maeve traced his lips with a finger, her breath berry-sweet. Ruán became aware of his pulse growing slower, stronger. Maeve sensed it, for she bent and kissed the beating vein in his wrist. This pool of sunshine was set adrift, he thought unsteadily. It was a moment of time outside their real lives, their greater desires, as it always was.
She must have thought it, too, for he heard her whisper something into his skin. Take me away…
From the weight of sorrow; the darkness and clash of swords in her dreams, the terrible flow of blood.
And for that time, with his body, he could take her away. Then he would wake, and she – the Queen - would be gone, and he would be left in peace again.
Ruán tilted Maeve’s chin up to his mouth, his fingers tangling in her curls as he held her head, parting her lips with his tongue.
Lying on his back, something dripped onto Ruán’s shoulder. He twitched, mumbling and turning his head into the ferns.
“It is ale — and still you will not rouse?” Maeve planted her lips on his, and as his mouth opened, cold liquid flowed in from hers.
He swallowed and exclaimed.
“There.” She sat up, linking her arms about her knees.
Even through the haze of sleep, Ruán perceived the change in her. There was a ragged edge to her flame now. ”What is wrong?”
“I walked a long way along the shore while you slept, and…” Her arm tensed. “If I can make it that far now, then I have to get home. I am a fool and have stayed too long.”
Ruán knew that taut seam in her voice. While he slept, fear had slunk along the shores of the lake behind her. “You are wounded—”
Her breath exploded. “Yes, I nearly died! And imagine if I had been slain…what would happen to them all...” Her voice cracked. “It has all changed now, after what I saw. There isn’t any more time to lose. There never was, no matter what I want for myself.”
Ruán listened to her rising voice, smelled her sharp sweat. They were a rampart rising between them again. “Maeve, how were you wounded?”
She paused, blowing shreds of fern from her fingers. “I ordered a cattle raid on the Ulaid territory.”
“You attacked the Ulaid at Beltaine?” It was a sacred time, celebrating life.
She went rigid, then groped and flung on her discarded tunic as if she wanted some armor between them. “King Conor raided my lands to steal our sacred bull.’
His pulse was a louder drumbeat now. “And what,” he said softly, “were your raiders seeking?”
“Proof of a weakness in the Red Branch.”
The Red Branch warriors were King Conor’s band of elite fighters. “Why?”
Her sigh was forceful, as she twisted toward him. “So I can bring them and Conor down.”
Something was tearing inside Ruán. His sat straight to ease his chest. “If you attack the Ulaid in force, you condemn many to death. Not just warriors — innocent people.”
“My warriors do not kill crafters and farmers!” Maeve clambered to her feet.
“Herders defend their lands and cattle, Maeve, and crafters their homes.” He jumped up after her, ferns clinging to his bare thighs. He tried to rein in his rising temper. “Defense is one thing. You had to fight your rivals, or die. But attack the Ulaid in force, unprovoked, and you risk a war breaking out that will draw everyone in, from the poorest cottars to the greatest kings. You risk all of Erin!”
“How dare you question me?” Their harsh voices flushed a blackbird from the branches and it flapped away. Maeve hobbled over the grass, shoving one leg into her trews.
Ruán was struggling with the storm in his head, unable to think. And then the hurt bloomed, and he finally understood that pain. They had shared a wonder together, opened to each other — and still she would choose to be this.
Now that unreachable person rose again before him, armored and bloody.
Ruán was swamped by betrayal. He had poured all of his light into her, taken what was torn and knitted it back together in one of the greatest moments of his life. He wove the very sparks that made him with her own life-force. And now, again, she would throw that wondrous form of flesh and spirit before a deadly blade.
Ruán swiped up his tunic and drew it over his head. “Do not speak to me like a servant. Or is that all I am?” He faced her, lips tight. “Am I just another man to fill you, distract you, like the others?”
She gasped, her flame blotted out by a darkness that was terror. “By all the gods — I will kill Conor now before he kills me!”
The explosion faded into silence. Ruán’s blood was pumping. Could it all come down to that?
Maeve plucked up the saddle-blanket and tossed it back down, cursing. “I was wed to Conor — he wants to be high king of Erin. His pride is savage, only few see it because of his cunning.” Her words tumbled out, senseless. “Don’t you see? The flight of Deirdre has dealt him the final blow. He is seeking a way to prove his strength to his men again, to show his power.”
“You don’t know this—”
“I do! He has always been Connacht’s greatest threat, and I won’t risk my land based on scruples you wish I had!” They regarded each other, breathless. “It’s not the same for you,” she hissed. “You are safe here.”
He gestured at his blindfold, his empty eyes. “Was I safe from nobles like you, who never care about the havoc you wreak?”
She stifled an exclamation. “I care.”
“Do you?” He was dragging on his trews, fumbling with the laces. “Because from the moment you took that sword from your father’s body, you have been seeking out danger and bloodshed. Anyone would think you crave it, thrive on it.”
“I do not crave it.” Bitterness seeped through her voice. “I never chose rape at the hands of men who saw me first as a prize, and then as a threat they should destroy.”
Ruán laughed, grinding his palms into his temples. “Listen to yourself! What are you going to do, kill every man in Erin so no one can hurt you again?”
Her obstinance beat upon his senses. Ruán growled, sweeping in to grasp her face between his hands, caging her cheeks. Their legs entangled, hot breath mingling. “Open your eyes, Maeve! Use that strength of yours to build, not tear down.” He caught his breath as her tears ran into his fingers. “I feel such fire in you — use it to make something no one has thought of before. Conor has ringed his territories with ramparts; you can do the same. Find a way to forge the strength of the other kingdoms into something greater than one tribe alone. That is what will make you unassailable.”
Maeve’s back went rigid. To his spirit sight, her flame, now a turmoil of black and red, sent up a desperate flare. “Gods, you are right. The kingdoms must band together to attack Conor. It is the only way.”
With a curse Ruán thrust her away. He took a step and turned. “What are you doing here with me, Maeve? I am not a warrior, I am not a lord. I cannot give you anything to make you safe from men like Conor of the Ulaid. You choose that life...” He sketched a hand at his eyes. “But I left that world long ago.” He dropped his hands by his sides. “So tell me what I am I to you. What we are.”
And if she answered…he would know for certain himself.
That pause was full of struggle. “It does not matter.” Her voice was ragged. “Whatever I try to hold for myself…it will be torn away from me by Conor and men like him. So nothing…nothing is anything to me.”
Ruán’s chest deflated, and he nodded, his chin down.
“There is not only my life to consider.” She faltered. “I have people to protect—”
“People you put in danger every day by setting them on the battle-path. Can’t you see it? Your fear of Conor takes your sense.“
“I do not fight for me, I do it for them.“
“If that is what you tell yourself at night.”
Maeve choked back a cry and struck him in the chest, her fist on his breastbone.
That blow forced all the hurt out of Ruán, and in the shocked silence that ensued, a calmness poured over him. His mind cleared into a dawn of understanding.
He had saved Maeve’s life three times: the sacred number of the gods. Connacht needed a strong ruler, and she had stopped the kingdom from disintegrating — that was undeniable. She was born to be a shield, a sword. That was what her druid dreamed, only Ruán had not fully believed it. He couldn’t fight his way through that…but as she said, it did not matter.
He would make it not matter.
For now he knew what to grasp for — his fate was only ever to help the Queen of Connacht to her throne.
Ruán went light-headed, his ears ringing. Maeve had brought the life and vigor back into his body. He helped her to power. It was a bargain, as she had always said.
A bargain fulfilled.
The glimmer of the sídhe washed through Ruán. He heard their singing, faint as wind in the reeds. “I miss the one who opened to me, and wept in my arms.”
“If I weep, I break — and people die.” But in Maeve’s voice was the force of will she was marshalling to speak this way. She wrapped herself in the saddle-blanket. “Perhaps the Shining Ones did help me to my hall, but kings who fail to protect their flock are sacrificed to the gods.”
“If you were blessed by the sídhe, it is because of the surrender that has happened in your heart, not the blade in your hand. For someone so brave, it’s the one truth you will not face.”
Maeve was backing up. “The Red Branch wield a weapon we do not understand. The only way to be safe is to attack Conor when he is weakened.”
Pity throbbed in Ruán, and his reply emerged with tenderness. “And all you do is stoke his wrath higher.”
“No! You do not understand.”
“No.” The despair in her whisper pierced him, the hopelessness of a wild thing ensnared. “I know what I have to do.” With a catch in her throat, Maeve spun about and hastened away.
Ruán heard the faltering of her step, the wound paining her. There was nothing to do but let her go.
Ruán sat down cross-legged, his face lifted to the sky as he tried to slow his breaths. He could muster no sight; could only cling to the lifeline of the sunshine soaking through him.
At his heart, though, there was only ice.
At the stables of Cruachan, Maeve was easing her horse’s saddle off when Finn burst through the open doors. The girl’s face was bone-white, her eyes glittering. She went to fling herself at Maeve and stopped a handspan away, rocking on her toes as if she did not know which way to fall.
Maeve drew breath, her eyes lifting to her daughter like someone in darkness seeking the glow of a fire. She had passed the funeral pyres of the men who died in her raid on her way across the plain, the ashes still smoldering. The reek clung to her hair, to her dead heart.
But more deaths would come if they did not stay strong.
“I…” Finn’s voice cracked. Her face was all twisted up, like a cub in pain.
It stirred Maeve’s instincts, piercing the fog around her. She curved her palm behind Finn’s head, then stepped close to crush her child into her chest. “I told you I was hard to kill.”
Finn’s breath leaked out of her, her brow upon Maeve’s breast. “But you did not run away from Conor’s warriors, as you promised.”
“No.” Maeve stared over Finn’s shoulder into the shadows of the stable. Her eyes were glassy. “I could not live with myself if I ran away. It is my duty to stay. To stay…here.” Her embrace tightened around the one in her arms, so vulnerable as she huddled against her. Maeve was meant to shelter them all…she had made an oath, hadn’t she? “I brought the wrath of the wolf upon you, so it is I who must fight. I have to be more ruthless than he is, stab first, or he will defeat us. I have to be…”
“Mother...?” Finn raised her head.
Maeve’s lips parted, and she looked into Finn’s puzzled eyes. Blinking, she brushed a strand of Finn’s hair from her brow. “Go and tell the others I am back, and that I will see them tomorrow, when I have rested.” She turned and left, her head pounding so hard she could barely see.
Her throat aching, at last Maeve eased herself into her bed in her bedchamber.
She could not face anyone. No one must touch her raw skin, or drag her back with their questions, not yet. She conjured again every touch in the sunshine, the way Ruán murmured to her, the taste of his lips.
She could hoard that…no one could take that…
Not even now that war was coming.
Excerpted from The Raven Queen by Jules Watson Copyright (c) 2011 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.