The men had balked at bringing a woman along until Gayth described the holy woman’s warrior skills. Still, Talty sensed their disapproving glares. She and Richard kept to themselves.
On the third day, Gayth called a stop to rest and forage for fresh provisions. Talty and Richard tethered their horses and made their separate camp. While Richard prepared a fire pit, Talty rummaged beneath the shrubbery to find dry wood.
“Can’t we cheat and use matches, Richard? I’m tired of being cold and wet.”
“So am I. Nick is missing a fine old time, isn’t he?” Richard poked through his toolkit until he found the waterproof matchbox. When the fire was burning well, he invited the others to come and light their torches from the holy woman’s fire. The exhausted men came, muttered vague thanks, and returned to the main camp.
The rain stopped at twilight. Snug beside their crackling fire, Talty and Richard finished the last of their oatcakes and ale.
“So here I am, the protector of a holy woman. Who knew?”
Talty winced. She regretted agreeing to the deception. Gayth had told the men her presence would protect them. “I wish Leesha hadn’t started this. I’m not some saint who can heal battle wounds with a touch.”
“They don’t know that, darling. We have an edge as long as they think you’re no ordinary woman. Why did she say that, anyway?”
“She was afraid I’d spirit Gayth away to fairyland. She needn’t have worried, though. He seems able to resist me just fine.”
“Perhaps you married too young to learn how devious men can be. Our friend Gayth isn’t finished with you, holy woman.”
Gayth’s reaction to the scars on her chest said otherwise. Talty sighed and brought their bags near the fire to dry. She fretted over the leather sack Brother Marcan had entrusted to her.
See that one of the healers gets the bag. It contains all I could spare from my physic garden and my drying shed.
Marcan had described the contents of the various pouches: yarrow, sorrel, St. Patrick’s leaf, comfrey root, and even fungus dust to keep wounds from festering. Cobwebs to staunch bleeding and prevent inflammation, hare pelts for dressings, linen strips and cobblers’ wax to hold them in place. Jars of honey and salt for infection, bees’ wax and mutton fat for burns.
The clay jars would be fine in the dampest weather. The herbs worried Talty, though when she checked them she found that the leather bag had protected them well.
Gayth stepped from the darkness. Both pleased and annoyed, Talty tied the bag up tight.
“Hello, Gayth,” Richard said with an irritating smile. “All’s well, I trust.”
“Yes. My kinsmen are grateful for your fire. The furze is too wet to burn. They invite you to join them in a game of spear fishing, Richard. There’s salmon nearby, and we need the food as well as the sport.”
“I’m reluctant to leave Christy alone.”
Talty bristled at Richard’s protectiveness. “You should get to know the men. I’ll be safe enough at my prayers.”
Gayth’s chocolate eyes sparkled in the firelight. “I will stay and protect you while you pray.”
Still smiling, Richard found a spear and went off to fish. Though Talty had encouraged him to go, his abandonment annoyed her. “I’m going to pray beside the pond. It could be a watering hole for game.”
“You hunt game, holy woman?”
“Even holy women must eat.” She left him by the fire and was soon scanning the ground at the edge of the pond. The twilight’s glow revealed animal tracks in the rain-damp soil. She walked toward a dense stand of trees, not quite sorry that Gayth and his sparkling eyes had caught up.
“Did you see any tracks?” he asked.
“Yes. Deer, I think. Smaller game as well, and I’m sure I heard waterfowl a while ago.”
“I like roast goose. Can you pray for some?”
Silently groaning, she studied the sky. “Do we have time to roast meat?”
“The men must eat. Once we’ve rested and refilled our food sacks, we’ll ride again. We should reach Dublin in three, maybe four days’ time.”
“What day is this?”
“Monday of Holy Week. What holy woman wouldn’t know that?”
Barely aware of his teasing tone, she supposed they could reach Dublin by Good Friday, though that would be cutting it close. Yet in this world, the Battle of Clontarf might not take place on Good Friday. Perhaps no battle would occur at all. Perplexed, she stole into the trees.
Gayth followed her.
“This will make a fine blind.” She spoke more to herself than to Gayth.
“You intend to wait here for deer? Praying?”
Ignoring him, she returned to the fire to bank the embers and fetch the Viking bow.
Gayth was right beside her.
She slung the quiver and arrows over her shoulder. Her hooded cloak went on next to protect both her and the bow from the weather.
Her preparations seemed to mystify Gayth. “Why don’t you simply rush the herd and cast a spear when they bolt?”
“This way I’ll get the deer I want, not one who falls behind because it’s old or sick.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“I need silence.”
“Yes, I know. To pray. I promise to be quiet.”
They stood in the natural blind together and watched the water’s edge. She didn’t resist when he pulled her against him.
“Lean on me, lady,” he whispered. “Rest a little.”
He wrapped his cloak around her. She leaned against him, breathing in smoke and sweat, banishing all thought until a small herd of deer appeared to investigate the clearing. Though tempted to forget them, she broke away from Gayth and uncovered her bow. Silence was critical now.
He caught her face in his hands and kissed her well. After the briefest pause, she kissed him back, grateful for the fading light that hid her burning cheeks. Then she nudged him away. The deer wouldn’t tarry long.
Kiyoshi’s words flowed back to her: See the target as a reflection of your mind, as a mirror. Your mind will find the target.
Gayth stepped back. Talty fixed on the biggest doe in the herd. She drew without breathing, released, and held her position until the arrow pierced the doe’s side.
Shot clean through, the doe hovered over the ground for the briefest moment before collapsing in a motion so natural, the other deer failed to notice. The arrow’s strange whoosh had alarmed them, however. They scattered into the forest.
Pleased with her success, Talty lowered her bow. The kiss that lingered on her lips unexpectedly angered her. “Why are you here, Gayth? You ran from me before.”
“I ran from a holy woman. Your warrior skills bestir most unholy thoughts in me.” He ran a knuckle over her breast.
She slapped his hand away. “Help me get the meat back to camp.”
She left him smiling in the trees.