When the high king decided it was time to fill the ambassador's seat, he sent messengers to all of Keenan's heirs. Brendan prepared to leave quietly. He wanted to be gone before the messenger found Connor and Marnas, but Dierdre would not allow it. What if the troublemakers had found him gone, house empty, when they came to steal new mounts? She knew they might, because they were vain and wasteful. If Brendan did not meet them and discourage them outright, they could have followed him to France. She did not want the embarassment of a public scene in the middle of King Moreau's court. The brothers were trouble waiting to happen no matter how she looked at it. Dierdre raised one eyebrow and handed him the new spangle helm that his Godmother, Melusine, had sent to congratulate him on the promotion. It matched the full set of armor for his birthday, the shield she sent for Yule, and the sword that she sent him last year. His gear cast anything Marnas could afford to shame.
"You are a knight of Orkney, son." Dierdre gazed proudly into his eyes. "If a seer sends you a full set of armor and weapons, I assume you will need them sooner or later. If you lose, I will be obliged to disown you." She smiled gently, then became very serious. "I command you not to kill them. Beat them black and blue if you must, but watch your temper."
"As you wish, your Majesty." Brendan remembered the conversation fondly, up until the part about not being permitted to use deadly force. It was just too bad he had promised. Dierdre gathered so much information, she employed a dryad to keep track of it all. The tree outside her tea room heard every report from her spy master, every magic mirror transmission, and every gossip session over sweet biscuits. She recorded all the details, deep in her roots, and organized the Queen's vast resources of secrets. For instance, she knew how often her son practiced fencing compared to his brothers. There was no question who must win, and who must lose in her mind.
Brendan was lucky. In a world where a grown fae might have two score jealous brothers to contest against him for court appointments and prized possessions, he only had two. He shuddered to think how many siblings fought to death over such trivial things. A man might start with twenty brothers, but violent rivalries were the primary cause of mortality under the waves. Only the traditional rules of conduct kept hot tempers and jealousy from breaking into all out war. Those who could not obey the rules of the light court found more leeway in the dark court, where Brendan's own father would have been banished for dueling on human land if he had survived. No danger of that here. The magical wards on this island steered humans clear of landing, or even looking, at Brendan's property. Connor had no hope of winning and nothing to gain by provoking him here. Half a herd of valuable animals could not be kept long by any fae less than a master in self defense. How else could he guard them from theft? If Brendan failed to protect his stock, every member of the wild hunt would try to steal a precious brood mare or proven stud. Connor might know a few moves, but he would never fight like a man who had something to lose. A man threatened, on his own home ground. A man given the perfect opportunity for a ruthless response.
Brendan summoned his armor. The small tingle of magic warned Connor just in time to summon his own. He raised his sword to block a slash to his neck. Brendan's moves kept Connor on defense, so focused on blocking his opponent's saber that several things came to his mind at once. Marnas noticed that the easy mark they expected in the prince was a shark in a flounder skin. A man this skilled could win purses of gold in saber competitions at every court in fae lands. Although it was moving too fast for his eyes to follow, Marnas thought that the sword looked wrong. It didn't flash like titanium in the gray light of the cloudy morning. It didn't ring when it clashed against his brother's blade.
Connor's reaction was just a hair too slow. He failed to block a strike to his leg. Instead of a sword striking inferior chain mail, parting the rings and drawing first blood, he felt a struck by a blunt club. His muscled stiffened. All the color drained from his face. His eyes, visible through the narrow holes in the helm, tightened with rage. "Unsheathe your sword, you rude eel. Only children fight with bound blades."
"No." He landed a few more blows. Spreading the pain. Legs, back, shoulder, shins, he bruised and battered his opponent until Connor could hardly lift his round shield.
"Coward!" He wheezed. "Fight me like a man."
"You have not earned it, mi frato." Brendan hoped to leave no part of Connor unbruised, but delivering such a beating through armor caused streams of sweat to collect in his damp, heavy gambeson. Marnas clicked his tongue in disgust.
"Yeild, Connor. If he beats you anymore I'll be spoon feeding you for a week. It isn't worth it."
"It is worth it." He choked. "We need to be there," he yelped when Brendan hit him again. "To avenge..."
"Silence!" Brendan laid the bare edge of his sword along Connor's neck. "Do not speak treason, slug. The queen commanded no actions of retaliation from any of us. I will strike off your head if you complete that unwise sentence." He held his arm perfectly still. No tremble of doubt led his opponent to expect mercy. "Do you yield?"
"Aye. Go to the palace in the depths and take your brackish nags with you." Connor bannished his armor and sank wearily to the ground, ignoring Brendan's hand. Every muscle in his body protested in pain.
"The best man won. I hope we can leave this behind us in time." Brendan searched Marnas's face for a long moment. "Must I fight you as well?"
"Nay, as his second I also yield. I am simply wondering about your fighting style." Marnas practically floated into the sandy fighting circle, placing his feet so delicately that he left no mark.
"What of it?" He tried to keep his movements loose, his face disinterested. He wondered if Marnas guessed how richly his godmother spoiled him, and how unfairly she ignored Keenan's other fatherless sons.
"You favor Master Coriande. Your style seems heavily influenced by the French." Marnas indicated Brendan's armor with a wave of his hand. "Among other things."
"Hasn't everyone seen his demonstrations? He visits often. He and my mother are good friends. He checks on the sterlings whenever he can, to make certain I am not mishandling them." Brendan sent his armor away and scrubbed his sweat dampened hair out of his eyes. Hadn't he tried to improve the lives of his less fortunate half siblings? If they had tried, put forth the years of effort, a handful of breeding stock could have made them comfortable, if not wealthy. Maybe they didn't have the gift of animal empathy, among the many disciplines they lacked. "Perhaps animal husbandry and fencing expertise naturally come hand in hand." He allowed a tight smile and turned his back on the thwarted thieves.
"Brothers forever, equals never. You and I live in different worlds" Marnas shook his head. "Enjoy the privilage of rank, your Highness. Goodbye." Brendan did not look back. His long stride carried him quickly to the shore, where he wasted no time calling the selkies.
"Magnus, Valerian! Bring the herd together. We are leaving now." Eager to be away from jealous eyes, he dove into the icy gray sea. Transformed in an instant, his green and silver tail slapped the surface once before he vanished. He left everything on land without a thought. His house, the garden, the sweaters all belonged to his mother. If she wanted him to have them, all his minor possessions would be packed up and delivered by a servant. They might be short on magic, but bored fae meant dangerous fae and Dierdre had lifetimes of work on her hands just keeping the servants busy. Let Dierdre enjoy the harvest of fresh greens from his garden plot. Nixie dung made brilliant fertilizer.
Worries slipped from his mind as his body pierced the water. Two selkies paced him, using the ripples from his passage to pull them along in his wake. The nixies swirled around them like a happy pod of dolphins. When Magnus veered north to the sorcerous gate that linked Orkney to France, Brendan shook his head and signed. "We won't use the gate. The herd is strong enough to swim directly, so we can enjoy some scenery." Magnus nodded and stayed in line, heading south. True enough, all the young animals had been moved ahead of time. The ones remaining were healthy and fast. It would not take that long to swim, especially at the speeds a nixie pod could travel. He touched the lead mare's mind softly. He urged her to swim with him, matching her strokes with his. Her sleek shape pulsed with power under his hand, faster and faster. She shared the joy of speed with him, eager to keep moving.
Brendan could have shared his thoughts with Magnus in the same way, he simply chose not to. He found it impossible to lie mind to mind. The contact telepathically linked a flood of details in a single flash of pictures and feelings that communicated more than words. At the moment his thoughts swirled with an undercurrent of details best kept in his own mind. He distrusted the gate. The predictable route, so convenient, so unsafe. If anyone heard the reason behind his change in travel plans, his decision to give Connor a second chance would mean nothing. His promise to keep them alive would be wasted, and the loose lipped son of a minor noble would be tried for conspiracy against the continued peace and wellbeing of Orkney herself. In short, Dierdre would put Connor to death.
I believe we are at the end of this portion of the tale. All this will be woven together into the final, soon enough.