Home > Scourged (The Iron Druid Chronicles #9)(11)

Scourged (The Iron Druid Chronicles #9)(11)
Author: Kevin Hearne

This lad wants to take a swipe at me with his sword. His right arm visibly lengthens as he matches speeds with us, his arm trailing behind, his plan plain to see.

“Watch that shite,” I say. “He’s going to whip that around back.”

“I am aware, sir,” the herald replies, his manner calm and unruffled as he floats above the fen and I churn me legs through it.

It’s a crafty strategy the yewman’s chosen. To counter it, Coriander will have to stop, and that will do two things: allow the lads we’ve passed to catch up a bit, and leave me exposed to a volley from the archers if I don’t stop in time. I peek around at the archers and see they’re all ready and waiting for me to break cover again. Fecking hells.

This yewman’s arm isn’t tough and woody like the other one; it’s limber and flexible and meant to bend instead of snap, so even when it runs into Coriander’s wards, that arm and sword are going to keep whipping around my way.

Bollocks.

The branch yaws back and around, building all the tension it can with the sword clutched at the end, and then it releases and Coriander halts to meet it. I’m immediately exposed and the archers let fly. Nothing for it: I dive headfirst into the fen, stretching out and ready for the sting of foul water in me wounds. The arrows pass over me head and so does the curl of the sword, but all me momentum’s gone and I’m covered in muck and I may have squashed an unlucky frog.

The yewman’s arm whips away and I can see the archers reloading. A glance over me shoulder confirms the others are trying to make up that lost ground.

“Come on, Coriander, while me arse is still attached,” I says, giving him the four syllables he wanted. I lurch up out of the sucking mud and stagger forward, trying to build up speed again. Coriander screens me from the next volley of arrows and then we’re past, moving too quickly for the yewmen to catch up. Not that they stop trying. We just have to keep going and hope we don’t run into some booby trap ahead.

A mist rolls in from the Morrigan’s gothic horror show of a house, and I can tell by the way it behaves it’s not natural, nor is it a mere binding: It’s Manannan’s Cloak of Mists, which means I’m about to be lost in the fog shortly before being pounded into stew meat. I shout into it as it envelops me.

“I’m here to talk, damn it, not fight! I’m here with a herald! Put your cloak away, Manannan, and let’s spill some whiskey instead of blood!”

The mist halts, then retreats like it’s being sucked down a drain, and when it’s gone, there’s a long-bearded man standing there in a white tunic, his blue eyes cold.

Manannan looks tired. Aged too; there’s some gray in his beard, methinks, which wasn’t there before. I think those magic youth-restoring hogs of his are still back in Tír na nÓg. Or perhaps his disposition isn’t suited to being a rebel. Or perhaps it’s my imagination and it’s the dreary atmosphere of the fen that makes him look so weary and chewed up.

“Can we talk, Manannan? I’ve come with this Coriander lad, who’s supposed to be well known, and I bring an offer from the First among the Fae.”

A single eyebrow quirks up at that news. “An offer? Or terms of surrender?”

“Definitely an offer. No surrender involved, for you or Fand.”

Manannan’s eyes shift behind me shoulder and he raises a hand to halt the yewmen. “Stop. My last order is rescinded.”

I turn and see the yewmen there, approaching from behind. They halt a safe distance away, and Manannan dismisses them.

“Our selection of whiskeys may not be so rare as the last time we dined,” he tells me, “but you’re welcome at our table, Eoghan Ó Cinnéide, and you as well, Coriander. We’ll hear this offer.”

“That’s very kind of ye, Manannan.” We draw close and I see that it’s not me imagination: The face of the god of the sea looks like someone crumpled it up and then tried to stretch it flat again, lines of stress all over it. He made a hard choice when Fand rebelled, and had he chosen Brighid’s side over his wife’s, I don’t think he’d look any different. He’d be miserable regardless, and I think I can empathize. Or is it sympathize? I fecking hate English. But whatever the proper word is, I see a smidgen of his problem. I am caught between Greta and Siodhachan and hope I never have to choose between the two. Luckily they are merely estranged and not actively trying to destroy each other.

Which reminds me: I owe the herald some kindness, and I pay him while we walk. “Coriander, lad, that was some fine saving of me arse ye did back there. Thank ye for keeping me alive to this point. I know I can be an angry hollering tit and—well, I just wanted ye to know I’m not that way all the fecking time.”

The herald raises one corner of his mouth. “Indeed? And for how much time, sir, shall I expect you to be…so mild and genteel?”

“Honestly, this half a minute might be it. Savor it while ye can. Greta—that’s me girlfriend—says I might need years of therapy.”

“She sounds like a wise and caring companion, if I may say so.”

“That she is, and ye may.” Manannan has nothing to add. He keeps his head down and gives no indication he wishes to speak or be spoken to. We slog in silence most of the way to the Morrigan’s nightmarish warren or nest or whatever she used to call it. I speak up before we walk in, though, once the ground firms up and dries out a wee bit.

“Forgive me for askin’, Manannan, but are ye well? I’ve seen ye lookin’ better.”

He stops, considers, then looks up when he has an answer. “I am well physically. But I have essentially been confined to this plane for a while now and I miss the ocean. I miss the sense of harmony I once felt. Both were more important to my happiness than I realized.”

“Fair enough. I hope me offer will allow ye to find that harmony again.”

“Let us hope together. Please, enter and be welcome.”

In Fae circles, that’s about as clear a guarantee of safety as one can expect. I step past the threshold and behold a room covered in bones. Not the floor, but all four walls plus the ceiling. It’s a whole lot of dead people’s remains, shellacked and burnished and fitted together, set off by the occasional skull grinning gumless at ye from the other side of the veil.

“Well,” I says, “it’s a bold look, an’ that’s no lie. Definitely a statement. Maybe not a statement of actual welcome, but it’s a statement.”

“Do excuse the décor,” Manannan says. “The Morrigan had unusual tastes, and we have not had time to remodel.”

He leads me through the next room, which contains a clear, narrow pool fed by three gurgling waterfalls. There’s a chorus of eerie voices singing in a minor key, and it’s the opposite of relaxing. I’m about to ask what fresh shite is this when Manannan offers an explanation.

“The Morrigan would use this pool to cleanse blood from her body after she returned from her exertions. We don’t know where the singing is coming from, and our efforts to make it stop have thus far been unsuccessful.”

“Ah. Very practical of her,” I says. “That’s thinking ahead, that is. Now that I see it, I can’t understand why more homes don’t have a room like this.”

Coriander snorts softly and Manannan grunts, enjoying the dry commentary. “Refreshing bloodbaths, haunted by the voices of people you’ve slain. Blood rooms instead of mud rooms. Yes. They will soon be in the suburban homes of mortals everywhere.”

“I could probably use a bath, to be honest. I’m a mess, wearing half the fen on me front.”

Manannan waves at the pool. “By all means. I will have clothing brought to you here.”

I strip and wade in and it’s a cool pool, but not cold. It would be refreshing if not for the haunted cries wailing about the room. I do me best to wash off the wounds I’ve collected and use the energy in me knuckles to heal. Apart from that, I don’t linger, because it’s a mite creepy, and some Fae bring me a towel and some fresh clothes straightaway.

The next room is a long one, rather like the dimensions of a mead hall, full of helmets mounted on the wall, organized from oldest to newest. It would be a grand history of armor, I suppose, fit for any museum, except that the helmets still have skulls inside them.

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