Author’s note: contains aggressive sex and dubious consent
Teia lifted the boiling kettle off the fire with a forked stick and emptied it into the bucket, careful not to splash herself, then refilled it from the other bucket and set it back to heat.
Mentally she divided the stack of greasy platters beside her into two. One more bucketful and the dishes would be done, thank the Eldest. Her hands were dishpan-red, the tips of her fingers almost numb from scrubbing at dried gravy.
Dunking a stack of plates into the bucket of hot water, she set to with the sand. She’d lost count of how many she’d washed already and she hadn’t even had her supper yet. All the other unmarried girls had had theirs, then drifted away one by one to watch the young warriors wrestle, leaving her, the dutiful one, to finish their chores as well as her own. She sighed and tilted the plate towards the light to check for spots she’d missed, then put it to one side. Complaining about the others’ idleness wouldn’t get the dishes washed any sooner, but she’d make sure their mothers heard about it in the morning.
When the water was too dirty to be useful, she dipped a finger in the kettle. Barely warm. She had enough time to fetch fresh water. With a bucket in each hand she trudged out of the circle of tents towards the stream.
Gradually the roar of the fire and the war band’s raucous laughter faded into the whispery night sounds of the plain. The wandering moon was a little past full, silvering the tall grass so brightly that she could see almost as clearly as in daylight. Habit took her a few yards downstream of the watering place to empty the buckets, then she walked back up the stream-bank to the shallows and refilled them.
The water was deliciously cool on her sore hands. Looking around to see if anyone could observe her shirking her duties, she knelt down and plunged her arms into the stream to the elbows. Wonderful. The sand on the bottom was soft as fine wool. Her hair fell forwards around her face, blocking out all but the faintest glow of moonlight, trapped like fireflies in the rippling water.
She stayed like that for as long as her aching shoulders could bear it, then sat back on the bank and dried her hands on the hem of her dress. No one would miss her for a few minutes more. After the smoke and stink of the camp the plains breeze was refreshing; all she’d been able to smell for two days was elk-grease and ashes.
Teia glanced towards the fire. Poor Drw. Gone now to the Hall of Heroes to sup with his greatfathers. Not for him a glorious death on the field of battle, but his shade would have a tale to tell nonetheless. Carried to Maegern on a woman’s sigh.
I’m tired now, Teia. I think I’ll sleep.
Tears pricked at her eyes and she blinked them away. Farewell, my chief.
Even with the wind behind her she heard the bleat of bagpipes and the throb of a drum; a ragged line of figures was silhouetted against the blaze, men and women with arms linked as they laughed and stumbled their way drunkenly through a dance. Pledges would be exchanged tonight and no doubt maidenheads broken long before any marriage vows were said.
Marriage. That thought left an ache in the pit of her belly more powerful than her grief for Drw. Her mother Ana had been talking to her aunt about the wedding fair again, though she had not realised Teia could hear as she and her sister reckoned up what price they might get for her at the Gathering. Afterwards, Teia had cried herself to sleep. Next morning, she had looked into the water for her future and seen only clouds.
Teia glanced around, biting her lip. She was alone with the soughing grass, the burble of the stream. No one was close enough to see her, even if she was missed. With the Gathering drawing nearer, less than two weeks away now, she had to know what was waiting for her there.
She dragged one of the buckets between her knees. When the water had settled and the silver disc of the wandering moon floated undisturbed in the centre, she placed both hands on the rim and closed her eyes. Then she reached down inside herself for the music.
Slow to respond at first, it leapt suddenly into the forefront of her mind. Quickly she tamed it, narrowed the flow until it was the merest trickle, then let it out. Bluish sparks crawled around her fingers, writhing out over the water. The reflection of the moon shimmered. It was waning gibbous; not as powerful as a full moon, but still a good sign for scrying. White light filled the circle described by the bucket rim then became utterly still, mirroring a perfect image of her face.
The image shivered then cleared. Still her face, but surrounded now by a cloudy grey sky. Blood smeared her cheek and her hair was a bramble-thicket of wet dark curls. Her eyes were dull as a dead bird’s.
No matter how many times she saw it, that vision always dismayed her, hinting as it did of a future no woman could want. Gripping the bucket’s rim, she took a deep breath to steady herself for the next scrying, in case it was the black warrior again.
The image changed to the boy. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, gazing solemnly out of the water at her, with a woman’s hands resting on his shoulders. Protectively or proudly? She was never sure. His square, blunt features and stocky frame left no doubt whose line he sprang from, even without the glint of gold at the neck of his shirt.
This time she saw a view from a high place, looking down first on forested mountain slopes, then rolling silver-beige plains threaded with bright rivers. The landscape resembled the plains south of the camp, near the an-Archen, but it was not a view she had ever seen during her winters there. Besides, it appeared to be summer, or at least spring, because the sun shone and there were flowers amidst the grass. Far off, nearly at the limit of her vision, antlike figures walked away.
‘What are you doing, child?’
Ytha! The Speaker was right behind her, moving through the grass as quietly as a huntress. Letting go of the music, Teia swirled her fingers through the water to dispel the image and scrambled to her feet to face her.
‘N-nothing, Speaker! I was just fetching water—’ She realised she was gabbling and took a deep breath, pressing a hand to her chest as if she could still her racing heart. ‘I was daydreaming.’
‘Ah. I’m sorry if I startled you,’ said Ytha pleasantly. ‘I thought for a moment I sensed someone scrying.’
‘Scrying?’ Teia’s heart flung itself against her ribs like a trapped bird. Had the Speaker seen? ‘No, not at all. I don’t know how.’
‘Of course not. Because if you had the gift, you would have come to me, wouldn’t you?’
Ytha took a step closer and made a twisting gesture with her hand. A ball of cool blue light appeared, floating above Teia’s shoulder. Even though she’d seen the Speaker’s lights before, the abrupt manifestation of one so close to her face was unsettling. It gave off no heat, but she felt its radiance prickling her skin like nettle-itch begging to be scratched – or maybe that was just because she was the subject of the Speaker’s scrutiny. After half a year of avoiding her eye, it took almost all Teia’s courage to stand still and face it.
‘My, you are a pretty thing.’ Ytha touched Teia’s cheek, then tilted her chin towards the light. ‘You are fortunate to be blessed with such good skin, my dear. And such lovely eyes, too.’ She flicked her fingers at the tangled mane hanging over Teia’s shoulders. ‘A pity about your hair, but we can fix that. Let me see your hands.’
Teia held them out. Ytha took one in each of hers and turned them over, running her thumbs across the chapped skin and clucking sympathetically.
‘Come with me, child. There is much we can do about this.’
‘But the dishes,’ Teia protested. ‘I’m supposed to be washing the dishes!’
‘I have already spoken to your mother and sisters,’ Ytha assured her with a smile. ‘It will all be taken care of. Fetch the water, then come to my tent. Don’t drag your heels, mind. I shall be waiting for you.’
Then the Speaker was gone, striding through the long grass back towards the camp. Stunned, Teia followed, lugging the two heavy buckets.
There was no sign of her mother at her family’s fireside and the tent was empty. She left the buckets by the hearth, unhooked the now steaming kettle and set it on a rock so it would not boil dry, then made her way through the camp.
Ytha’s tent, like the chief’s, stood slightly apart from the others. Torches fixed in tall bronze stanchions flanked the entrance and a light glowed within. Teia took several deep breaths to steady herself and scratched at the flap.
‘Come,’ said Ytha, and she ducked inside.
Speculation was rife amongst the younger girls as to what the interior of the Speaker’s tent was like; most of what they speculated was wrong. There were no caged familiars, no reeking smoke-pots or strange totems of feather and bone. Hangings obscured the hide walls and screened off the sleeping quarters. Carpets covered the floor, piled with cushions and ornamented chests. Teia felt the merest twinge of disappointment: it was just like her family’s tent.
Only when she stepped further inside did she see that the scenes worked into the hangings depicted birds and beasts she did not recognise, the wools dyed in colours richer than any she had seen, even in Drw’s tent. The light too came from a strange lamp hung from the tent’s central pole. Instead of a clay dish of oil with a floating wick or Drw’s three-armed silver lamps, the flame was encased in a box made of some shiny yellow metal and clear flat panels like the skim of ice from the top of a pond.
She turned around slowly, staring. All at once the tent did not look so ordinary any more.
Ytha pushed back the drapes and stepped through from the private area. Teia jumped. The Speaker had discarded her fur mantle and wore a plain russet-coloured dress with an intricate fish-scale belt. Her thick hair was tied back with a thong and she was smiling.
‘I have startled you again, it seems.’ She held the drape aside. ‘Come in.’
The inner chamber of the tent was similar to the outer in its furnishings, apart from the fur-strewn bed and a large basin of hot water steaming on the floor. Teia eyed it uncertainly. ‘Speaker?’
Ytha half-turned, a towel folded over her arm. ‘Yes, child?’
‘Why am I here?’
‘The chief has expressed an interest in you – he has asked that you take supper with him. I will help you prepare yourself.’
Teia’s heart renewed its frantic fluttering. It had not been like this when Drw sent for her, two seasons previously. The old chief had spoken to her himself; she had been so honoured that he even knew her name that she had almost burst with pride. Even her father had smiled. Now Ytha was taking a hand, and that unsettled her.
‘Come along, child, we haven’t got all night.’ Ytha handed her the towel and a tablet of soap. ‘Get yourself washed whilst I find you something to wear.’
Teia took a deep breath. If the chief had asked for her and the Speaker approved, she could hardly refuse. So while Ytha bustled around the tent in a fashion that was almost motherly she undressed, folding her clothes with care, then knelt beside the basin.
The soap was much finer than the elk-fat stuff she was used to and lathered readily. Rubbing the rich suds between her fingers, she held them to her nose and inhaled the sweet scent of some kind of flower, one she didn’t recognise. Had that soap come from beyond the southern mountains? Sometimes pedlars came through the an-Archen for the great fairs, bringing spices and trinkets from afar, but even amongst their wares she’d never seen anything to compare with it.
As if she had heard Teia’s thoughts, Ytha popped her head into the inner chamber again. ‘Don’t stint with it, there’s plenty more.’
So Teia soaped and scrubbed, amazed when Ytha brought her fresh water to rinse with, then dried herself on the towel. The Speaker sat her on a stool and gave her a small clay jar with instructions to rub some of the contents on her hands, feet, knees and elbows. Whilst Teia did so, Ytha picked the tangles out of her hair with a whale-ivory comb, then dressed her in a fine lawn shift and a gown of blue wool. Teia fingered the dress. The woollen fabric was almost as soft and supple as the shift, and bright as a bluehawk’s tail. Like Ytha’s hangings, such stuff could only have come from distant lands. Suddenly she knew what she was being dressed for.
The Speaker held up a bronze mirror so Teia could see herself. She was transformed. The gown fitted her perfectly, showing off her neat hips and rounded breasts. Her hair was still an unruly mane, but now a mane of glossy waves instead of bird’s-nest tangles. The thick ointment in the jar had taken most of the redness from her hands and softened the skin so that it was hard to believe she had spent much of the evening up to her elbows in dishwater.
‘Fit for a chieftain, I think,’ said Ytha, putting the mirror aside. ‘Are you ready?’
Was she? ‘I don’t know. I think so.’
Irritation flickered through the Speaker’s expression and was gone so quickly that Teia wouldn’t have been sure she’d seen anything at all were it not for the worm of dread gnawing at her insides.
‘The chief has asked you to take supper with him. You will stay with him for as long as he wishes you to. He might ask you to dance for him, or sing, if your voice is pleasing. He will tell you what he wants of you.’ Ytha fixed her with a steady gaze. ‘Remember, child, this is a great honour for you and for your family. It could be a wonderful opportunity for you to better yourself. If you please him, you may be rewarded. If you do not, it could go hard for you.’
Hands clasped tightly together, Teia nodded. ‘I understand, Speaker.’
‘I’m sure you do. After all, you were chosen as a companion by Drw, were you not?’ Again, Teia nodded. Ytha laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘Stand up straight, child. A slouch is not becoming. Now, are you ready?’
Making an effort to square her shoulders, Teia decided she was. After all, it would make little difference if she was not. The chief was the chief – even if he wasn’t his father. ‘I’m ready.’
‘Then come with me.’
Ytha led the way from her tent across the camp to the chief’s. The new dress had the desired effect: every man who was not too drunk to focus watched Teia pass. Some shouted appreciative comments, or suggestions that brought a furious blush to her cheeks. Lips set in a faint, aloof smile, the Speaker ignored them all.
At the chief’s tent, Ytha stepped inside and left Teia waiting between the two guards at the door. The warriors made no attempt to hide their interest in her, their eyes roaming hungrily over her body, tracing her shape beneath the new dress. Cheeks burning, she fixed her gaze on the tent flap ahead. Macha, why didn’t they just grab at her bottom and be done with it?
After a moment or two, Ytha reappeared and beckoned to her.
‘Now remember,’ she said, hand on Teia’s shoulder, ‘do as you are bid and all will go well for you and your family. If you please the chief, your father could become a very rich man, well able to give your husband a dowry that will make up for your lost innocence. A more pleasant option than the wedding fair, yes?’
Teia swallowed a sudden stab of humiliation and nodded.
‘Yes, child, I know it stings, but a woman who cannot go innocent to her marriage bed goes to the wedding fair. It is the way of the clans and always has been.’ She squeezed Teia’s shoulder. ‘Think of what you have to gain here.’
‘I will. Thank you, Speaker.’
Ytha smiled, nodded once, then held the tent flap open for her. Teia stepped inside to face her chief.
He shared little of his father’s tastes. Gone were the simple rugs woven in traditional clan patterns; the ground-skins were spread with furs, strewn with cushions almost as opulent as the Speaker’s, and hangings in dark reds and purplish browns draped the tent sides. All that remained of Drw were the silver oil-lamps that hung from the tent poles, their yellow flames winking on the bronze and leather war gear heaped by the entrance, the chief’s sword leaning against the pile lest anyone be in any doubt as to whom the tent belonged.
Drwyn lounged on a cushion in the centre, his shirt unlaced and his muscular legs crossed casually at the ankles. He was much the same height and breadth as Drw had been, and shared his father’s dark, blunt features and near-black eyes, even wore the same close-cropped beard framing his mouth. A large gold earring gleamed amongst his thick hair.
‘Be welcome, Teia.’ He gestured to the cushions beside him. ‘Please, join me.’
Eyes demurely lowered, Teia sat on the adjacent cushion and accepted the cup of wine handed to her. She took a gulp for courage and almost choked as the raw red stuff scraped her throat.
‘Would you care for something to eat?’ Drwyn gestured to a nearby platter heaped with choice foods.
The savoury smells made her stomach churn, but she did not dare refuse. ‘You are very kind.’
He filled a plate for her, his large hands awkward with the fork, and handed it to her. She took it, dismayed by how much he’d served; she made a show of sampling everything, but her mouth was so dry she needed more wine to wash the bread and meat down. All the while Drwyn watched her. His eyes measured the curves of her body, lingered on her breasts and thighs, his gaze as blatant as a touch.
Teia managed another bite of bread, then put the plate aside.
‘Does it not please you?’ Drwyn asked.
‘I’m just not very hungry.’
He watched her again as she sipped her wine. Teia felt sick. She was too hot and, in spite of the shift underneath, the new woollen dress Ytha had given her was prickling the backs of her legs.
To distract herself from the intensity of his gaze she looked around the tent, pretending to admire the furnishings, but all she felt was queasy. The butcher’s-bucket colours of the thick hangings, the furs spread around her feet, made the tent feel like the inside of a crag-cat’s den.
A flash of light caught her eye and she stared, startled to see her own reflection looking back at her from an object hanging from the tent pole. ‘What’s that?’ She pointed.
At once Drwyn was on his feet to fetch it for her. ‘It’s a looking-glass.’
‘I’ve never seen anything like it before.’
The glass was small, not much bigger than the palm of her hand and set in an ornamented metal frame. She peered at her reflection. It was much clearer than in Ytha’s bronze mirror. She could see the freckles that dusted her skin, the colour of her eyes – violet-blue, like sunlight on a raven’s wing. Her complexion was paler than the norm for her clan, she had always known that, but she had never appreciated just how pale she was. Her reflection in a basin of water – even in a vision – did not compare to this.
‘Where did it come from?’
‘South of the mountains, I think. I found it amongst my father’s things. Do you like it?’ he asked. She nodded. ‘Then keep it. It’s yours.’
She turned to thank him and realised he had sat down on the cushions much closer than before. The arm he leaned on was behind her back and his free hand was resting on his thigh just inches from hers. Though he was barely a hand taller than her, his thick build, his nearness, was intimidating. She fiddled with the glass, trying to appear fascinated by the intricate knotwork pattern on the frame, but she knew what was going to happen – had known it since Ytha had dressed her in fine new clothes, like a doll for a child. Why else would a new chief send for the old chief’s bedmate, if not to ensure he could claim any offspring as his own? She knew Drwyn knew that she knew, too. Nonetheless her heart lurched as he took the glass from her and tossed it aside.
‘Teia.’ He held her hand in his. His breath was hot on her cheek and smelled of wine. ‘I can see why my father chose you. You’re very beautiful.’
He attempted to kiss her cheek but was foiled by her hair, so he dropped her hand and turned her face towards him. His dark eyes were even more intent now. Before she could catch her breath he had pulled her against him and his mouth was eagerly exploring hers. At first she tried to drag her head back, but his grip was too strong. She shut her eyes and let her mouth open under the pressure of his tongue.
Once he realised she was pliant, his free hand began to roam over her body. She sat quite still as he ran it along her limbs, as if she were a horse he was buying, then squeezed and kneaded her breasts. His kisses grew no gentler. If anything they became more urgent as he tried to push her dress up. The skirt was too narrow and he growled in frustration.
‘Take it off,’ he said, tugging impatiently at his own shirt ‘Take it off, now!’
Teia bit her lip, then knelt and pulled the dress up over her head, and the shift along with it. There was nothing else for it. She could not run or fight – Drwyn was physically too strong for that. His musculature was clearly defined despite the mat of hair that covered his chest and belly. He could snap her in two if he chose.
Her hair fell forwards, hiding her breasts, but he pushed it back and cupped them in his hands, sucking hungrily at her nipples. Teia shut her eyes tight. His beard prickled her tender skin like the bristles of an animal.
When he released her she opened her eyes again to see him plucking at the fastenings of his trews. He freed his erection and grasped it with one hand, a warrior testing the heft of a spear. His lips drew back from his teeth, somewhere between a grin and a snarl. His other hand twined in her hair and urged her head down.
Teia gagged at the taste and the bulk of him moving in her mouth almost choked her. Drwyn groaned his pleasure, apparently unaware that her stomach heaved with every thrust. Tears spilling down her face, she wrenched her head back, even though the pain of her yanked hair brought more tears to her eyes.
Drwyn stared at her, then without warning backhanded her across the mouth. ‘Bitch!’
The force of the blow flung her across the cushions. She tasted salt; when she touched her mouth her hand came away smeared with red.
Drwyn lunged for her, seizing her arms and flipping her over onto her hands and knees. Then he was behind her, kneeling between her legs. One hand grabbed her hair and twisted it into a rope around his fist; she yelled again and was rewarded with another slap, this time across her buttocks. The breath whooshed out of her at the sudden sting. That seemed to excite him, for he struck her again, left and right across her rump. She flinched but stifled her cries, knowing without quite knowing how that if she showed her pain he would only hit her harder.
Eager fingers probed between her thighs, followed by his thick member. Grasping her hips, he pulled her hard against him. Teia squealed, but at least he had released her hair. Pushed face-first into the pillows by his weight, every breath was a struggle. Drwyn’s fingers gripped her hips with bruising force, his dense body hair coarse against her skin. Each thrust of his pelvis jabbed painfully at her insides.
Eyes screwed shut, Teia clenched her jaw. It would be over soon, Macha willing. The panting and heaving would end, if she could just endure. His movements quickened. Teeth clamped on her shoulder and she bit into the pillow under her face to keep from screaming. Soon now, it had to be soon now. Harsh breaths, harsher words that grew into a bellow of triumph as he strained hard against her buttocks. His breath fanned her ear for a minute and then he rolled off her.
Teia drew her legs up slowly, keeping her face hidden in her hair as she turned onto her side. It was all she could do not to cry aloud: her shoulder was on fire. Through the strands of her hair she saw him, chest heaving, mouth open in a broad grin of satisfaction. She smelled sweat, stale wine and the bitter realisation that although he echoed Drw physically, there the resemblance ended.
Sometime towards morning Drwyn took her again, with as little tenderness, before falling into a sated sleep. Teia stared up at the tent roof, too exhausted to cry. After a while she dozed, too, but his rasping snores soon woke her again. Birds chattered outside and a finger of pale light edged across the carpet from the door flap.
She sat up, raking her tangled hair back from her face. Between her legs she was abominably sore, but when she touched herself she found no blood, only Drwyn’s sticky residue. She looked across at him, sprawling and slack-mouthed. Still asleep, praise Macha.
Slowly she slid out from under the covers and stood up. Her knees refused to support her at first and she almost fell. Taking very small steps, she made her way to her clothes. She put on her dress, rolled up the shift and pushed her feet into her shoes. After a second’s thought she stuffed the little looking-glass into the middle of the bundle, then peeked outside.
Nothing stirred around the camp but a few dogs squabbling over discarded bones in the grass. Even the chief’s guards had disappeared. The sun was a pale disc in an oyster-grey sky, its light thin and colourless as the smoke rising from the heap of ash that was all that remained of the celebratory fire built on the embers of the old chief’s pyre. She thought of Drw, and how different her life had been then, and her throat closed up with tears that wouldn’t fall.
Teia stepped outside. Normally the camp would be teeming at this hour; women building fires and kneading bread, men checking their gear and feeding the horses before going hunting. No doubt everyone had celebrated the new chief’s anointing so enthusiastically that they were still too drunk to lift their heads.
Clutching the bundled shift, she hurried through the clusters of tents to the stream where she had gone to fetch water the night before, then downstream a little further, to the next shallow place. From there the camp was barely visible; no more than the peaks of the tents to be seen above the tall grass. That would hide her well enough. She crouched down on the sandy bank and took out the looking-glass.
A ghost-white face stared back at her, eyes red from weeping circled with sleepless shadows. Dried blood crusted the corner of her mouth and her lower lip was thick and purpled. She explored the bruise cautiously, pulling her tender lip out to see where her teeth had cut it.
A glimpse of more bruising at the edge of her reflection made her loosen the lacing at the neck of her dress and push it down over her shoulder. Imprinted in her flesh were the marks of Drwyn’s teeth. The bruise filled the glass. Fresh tears filled her eyes.
Macha preserve her.
She dropped the glass, clawed the dress off and kicked out of her shoes. The stream was bitingly cold but she couldn’t wait to heat water. She had to be rid of him, rid of the juices clotting inside her.
Squatting in the deepest part of the stream, she scrubbed herself as hard as her tender flesh would bear. She scrubbed at his sweat and the memory of his touch, scrubbed until her body shuddered with the cold and her feet and hands had no feeling. Then she fell to her knees in the stream and wept.
When she walked back into the camp, people were stirring. Cook-fires had been lit and there were two guards outside the chief’s tent again, grey-faced and bleary. She did not go back there. Instead she returned to her parents’ tent to change the dress for one of her own. She couldn’t be rid of the one Ytha had given her soon enough.
Her father was sitting on a stool at the entrance, mending a bridle. He was a lean, wiry man, tough as rawhide thongs, with salt-and-pepper hair tied back in a horsetail and long moustaches that drooped to either side of his thin lips.
When her shadow fell over his work he stopped, but did not look up.
‘Teia,’ he said. His tone was flat. Hitching around on the stool, he turned towards the light and continued working, his brown, callused hands deft with the stiff leather.
She waited for something more from him, some acknowledgement that she was still his daughter, but nothing came. Clan law lay between them like a wall of ice, impossible to climb. From now until she wore a wedding tattoo, she did not exist.
Drw had never been so formal. He’d waved the law away, clapped Teir on the shoulder and called for another flask of uisca for his old friend. But then Drw had offered for her in the old way, over a cup of water; he and Teir had clasped on a bargain well before it was emptied, all without the Speaker taking a hand. Nothing was the same any more.
So this was how it would be. Sobs thickening in her chest like clouds that grew heavier and darker but never came to rain, she walked past her father into the tent. To her relief, it was empty. Stripped to her skin, she threw the hateful blue wool dress and crumpled shift into the shadows in the far corner, where she wouldn’t have to look at them. She was about to hurl the fancy looking-glass after them but hesitated, fingering the ornamented frame. Drwyn had given it to her, but it hadn’t truly been his to give. It had been Drw’s, and having something of his was . . . comforting. She tugged a clean shift and one of her own familiar dresses from her clothes chest, then hid the glass away at the bottom, under her winter stockings.
She’d just pulled her dress over her head when she heard someone enter the tent behind her and turned to see her mother in the doorway.
‘Teia!’ Ana exclaimed, rosy face bursting into a smile. She held out her arms and, reluctantly, Teia went to her. When her face came into the light from the entrance, her mother’s delighted expression slumped like stale cooking-grease. ‘Macha’s ears, what’s happened to you, child?’
‘Didn’t the Speaker tell you where I was last night?’ Her voice sounded crushed flat, as if she had a great weight on her chest.
‘Of course, but—’
‘He hurt me, Mama.’ Gulping a breath, Teia tugged her unlaced dress down off her shoulder.
Her mother squeaked, hands flying to her mouth, bright black eyes widening. ‘Oh, Teisha,’ she breathed. She hurried to the tent flap and snatched it aside. ‘Teir! Teir, come here!’
Teia’s father limped in, the half-mended bridle dangling from his hand.
‘Look, just look at her!’ Ana seized Teia’s arms and pulled her further into the light. ‘Look what he’s done to her!’
Her father’s face was expressionless. ‘He is the chief, Ana.’
‘That doesn’t give him the right to paw over our daughter like an animal!’
‘And how am I supposed to stop him?’ Teir demanded harshly. ‘Am I supposed to march up there and call him out to battle? He is the chief! He’ll have me staked out for the wolves, woman!’
‘Does she mean so little to you?’ Ana persisted. ‘I told you I did not want her going to him – I knew something like this would happen! He is not his father, Teir, not by a full measure!’
‘Mama, please.’ Teia tried to shrug off her mother’s hands and cover herself, to hide from the storm of raised voices.
‘Drw was my friend. I trusted him, and I served him willingly until I couldn’t serve any more.’ A muscle worked in Teir’s jaw and he looked away. ‘I owe it to his memory to serve his son.’
‘Even after this? She is not a saddle blanket to be traded—’
‘Quiet!’ Teir snapped. He flung down the bridle and levelled a finger at Ana. She backed away as if he had pointed a spear at her, drawing Teia with her. ‘I have heard enough, wife. I have given my word to the Speaker that I will abide by the chief’s will in this. Now remember your place.’
Then he turned on his heel and stalked away, making no attempt to hide the stiffness in his gait that he’d carried for as long as Teia could remember, legacy of the Stony River Rebellion. Ana watched him go, then sighed and pulled the tent flap closed.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, looking down at her hands. ‘I tried to tell him last night, but he would not listen. He thinks he is doing his best for you.’ Her shoulders lifted helplessly. ‘Your father’s a proud man. It hurt him more than he would ever admit to give up the captain’s banner and just be a liegeman again. It eats at him.’
‘So I’m supposed to feel sorry for him?’ The words were thick in Teia’s throat. ‘What about me, Mama?’
Ana sighed. ‘A lame man can’t be a war captain, Teisha. Drw never forgot what Teir did to help put down the rebellion, but now Drw’s gone and your father has nothing. If he sees you wedded to the new chief, his name will have high honour in the Crainnh again.’
Teia stared incredulously. ‘But first I have to whore for him?’
‘Teia!’ It was not much of a reproof and still Ana could not look at her. ‘He is a good man trying to do the right thing. A Crainnh without honour has no place in the clan and you know that. He is only trying to secure your future. Our future.’
Teia flung up her hands. ‘And what if the chief doesn’t want me for his wife? Did he think about that? Or will he just auction me off at the Gathering and buy back his honour?’
The clouds broke at last and engulfed her in tears. Jerking her dress straight, she pushed past her mother and out into the weak sunshine, no longer caring who saw her face or pointed at her as she stumbled away. She did not care where she was going either, and blundered straight into the Speaker.
Strong hands caught her, fending her off. ‘Wait – wait, child!’
Teia looked up, recognising the voice.
Frowning, Ytha lifted her chin. ‘What happened to your face? Did Drwyn do this?’
Mutely, Teia nodded, fresh tears spilling onto her cheeks faster than she could swipe them away.
Ytha harrumphed and released her. ‘I thought you would have learned how to please a man by now. You spent long enough with Drw.’ The Speaker’s voice was flat and chilly as stone and her green eyes just as hard.
Horrified, Teia searched Ytha’s face for compassion or even a shred of the brusque kindness of the night before. She found nothing. Her heart sank towards her toes and she could articulate nothing more than a moan.
‘Stop snivelling, child! I told you yesterday: do your duty and all will be well. Now wash your face, put on the dress I gave you and attend the chief. He will be expecting to see you beside him when he wakes.’ With that, Ytha gathered her mantle around her and strode off.
Teia stared after her through a blur of tears. Maybe the wedding fair would have been a better option after all.