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"Oh, Deirdre. Of course I like your Rowan. Come now." She squeezed the druid's hand. "He just doesna trust me, and it makes it tense. Most people who know what's good for 'em dinna trust me. He's a good solid man, and he treats you kind. He's a good husband for you." Deirdre relaxed visibly, and Shannon withdrew her hand and clasped it with the other behind her head. "He's got a nice body, too," she said absently, pursing her lips. Deirdre flushed and tried to hide how pleased it made her; Shannon had assumed the critical contemplation of a connoisseur, and barely seemed to be paying attention. "Built like a warhorse that one, and as fine an arm as I've seen. I'm a pushover for a hairy chest now and again. Say, Dee, doesn' his beard scratch at you?"
She laughed despite herself. "Oh come on, Shannon, you don't mean to tell me you've never kissed a man with a beard before?"
"Sure an' I have. I mean does it not scratch you--you know."
Deirdre flushed purple and turned Shannon her back, crossing her legs almost reflexively. "Hush you." Shannon laughed and put her feet on the coffee-table, a strangely male gesture. "Oh, Dee. Was it Rowan put you off Alain?"
"No," she said. "I didn't even know him then. He followed Alain home one day, like everyone else, and he was so strong and safe. I don't like edges, Shannon. They make me dizzy."
"I like to be dizzy," said Shannon. "There's nothin' more sexual." She smiled, and Deirdre looked away. "I'm still tryin' to understand you, Dee. I'm a hell of a lot more aggressive than you an' even I dinna think I ought t'be in control *all* the time. If you've someone there to catch you, fallin' can be like flyin'. I dinna think you understand how much it is trust means. Maybe you need a few terrible secrets to understand it." She paused deeply. "Why was it you left Alain, Deirdre?"
"I didn't 'leave' him," she said, irked. "I'm still here."
"That's not what I mean an' you know it. He's a fine man, Dee, and I really canna believe he was more threatenin' than Rowan. How could you leave without lovin' him once? Cat's honor, Deirdre, I do not understand."
She sighed. "I don't suppose, Shannon, you've ever found anything so beautiful it transcended sexuality."
Shannon looked at her curiously. "No," she said. "No, I canna say as I have."
"Well I have."
She considered that, turning her hair in her fingers. "I guess that means a foursome is out of the question."
"Pity that. You know any other woman I'd kill dead."
"Be a love and change the subject, won't you?"
"You're such fun to fluster, Dee."
"All right! That's enough." Deirdre pushed between them, white as a sheet. "B-break it up, both of you. Go home."
"Don't interfere in this, Druid," snarled the soldier.
"Don't give me orders, guard!" she barked back at him, authority breaking through her fear. "I'll have none of this brawling in *my* presence. Everyone disperse *now*!"
"I have no wish to fight," said Alain, and stepped down. "You're under arrest," bawled the soldier, shoved Deirdre forcefully out of the way; she screamed "breith bhais talamh!" and the earth ripped like a maw, trembled violently, the soldier made a terrified aborted cry and the ground crashed back together and he was gone. There was absolute, total silence. "It is a capital offense to strike a Druid," Deirdre almost whispered. "Tell the rest of your men that."
"Yes'm," one of the other guards almost whispered back. The crowd dissolved back into streets and alleys. There was no riot that day.
"I'll bet you don't. I had sex with Castellan Tearney last night."
"*Oh*," said Deirdre.
"As disgustin' a slob as ever you saw, with fat, meaty hands. What do you think of *that*?"
Deirdre wavered a moment, and then came over to her and pressed her hand. "Oh, my poor Shannon."
Shannon struck herself on the forehead with the heel of her other hand. "And I killed a baby with a meat-hook this mornin'," she said sideways.
Deirdre blinked and licked her lips. "You didn't really, did you, Shannon?"
"No, of course not. Good God, Dee, what's it take to get a moral judgment from a priestess anyway? Do you not think screwin' slimy old cooters is a little bit nasty?"
"Worse for him than for you."
"Oh, thanks a *fuckin'* hell of a lot!" She flung Deirdre from her hand and stood up on the sofa. "Thanks a fuckin' *hell* of a lot, Dee, now you think I'm a worse lay than some smarmy middle-aged dandy with secretary's ass? What do you, think I'm degradin' him?"
"Shannon, *please*. You know what I mean. It's an outrage that you have to do these things. It always was."
She sat down, muttering "Damn straight," and emptied her drink.
"Do you think I could think it your fault? Your father--"
"My father was a pussy and he's dead. He hasna sent me with anyone since I was nineteen. I know for myself now what needs done. What do you think of *that*?"
"I think you live in a horrible world."
Shannon rolled her head. "Alain is blind and you scrunch your eyes up tight. Where am I supposed to turn?"
"You told Alain?"
"No, and if you tell him I'll thrash you. It'd break him."
"He wouldn't blame you," she murmured. "He'd understand."
"It'd break him not bein' able to save me," she said darkly.
"Oh my poor Shannon."
"You at least know where we stand." She accepted Deirdre's embrace without malice. "We have to wait an' keep our embers hot, do we not, love?"
"Still I think even I might kill them there," she said, low.
"You would not. You're too soft, and I'm too smart. Oh, don't whine over me, Dee, you know I canna bear it." She flopped back in the sofa. "I'll be all right. It's easier when it's at least enjoyable."
"*Oh*," said Deirdre, scandalized.
"Why do you think the Sidhe put on their pretty faces?... It's harder to sell your soul to somethin' repulsive, now, Dee, everyone knows that."
"Just the same." She folded her arms, shaken. "It shouldn't matter."
"Not in the long run, lassie, and Raven MacInerney's goin' the same way as Hugh Tearney come Judgment Day, believe you me, but I feel like less of a middle-aged whore when he puts his hand on me."
"Sometimes you talk like a horrible person, Shannon."
"Sometimes I am."
"I dinna want to talk about him now," she interrupted with rising violence, standing abruptly. Deirdre faltered. "This doesna belong in the same conversation. I'm goin' to go use the bath."
"Shannon... I'm sorry..."
"*I* ken the difference between gettin' fucked and makin' love. You don't. Don't you forget that."
"There's bubbles in the pantry," she said, subdued.
"I dinna want bubbles. I want some lye."
Deirdre started to sing, quietly but strong, in Gaelic.
"Aithne?" She frowned at it. "That's in the middle of nowhere."
"It's also strategically valuable," said Dancer. "And it's vulnerable."
Shannon shook her head. "You're doin' this all wrong. It's not helpin' us winnin' these. We need to build up public support. You'll not take this country Aithne by Aithne."
"I could." He drummed his fingers together. "But it might take twenty years."
"We dinna have twenty years. The goal is not gainin' ground. The goal is manpower enough to take the castle. This *has* to be top down."
Dancer rubbed his mouth. "So you're saying the Druids are key."
"I dinna think the Druids are going to join us, Dancer. They're a cautious lot."
"They will if there's a massacre."
She looked at him quickly, and thought about it. "Only if there are enough of us left and enough of the people are with us that they're for damn sure we're goin' to win it. We need enough support for one big assault. If you can get the Druids do it. But we dinna have time for this inexorable advancement crap of yours. Dancer." He looked at her. "Don't you sacrifice my man. You *will* regret it."
"No, I need him to keep the reign of terror in hand when we're through." He waved his hand at her and took the pin out of the map. "This changes matters."
"Would a little reign of terror around here really be so bad?"
"Depends who it hits, now, doesn't it? Shut the door on your way out."
Rowan stumbled in exhausted. "It's over, Dee," he said hoarsely. She was up and at his side before the door finished closing. "We've lost Alain."
Shannon looked up slowly. "What do you mean 'lost'?" said Deirdre, muted panic stirring in her voice. "He's not dead?..."
"They've taken him to Grey Tower." Rowan sat down wearily. "They're going to execute him."
"Not without the Druids they're not." Deirdre dabbed at his swollen eye fiercely. "Not without one motherfuck of a fight."
"They're going to ask the Druids, Dee, and you know at this point you can't say no." Deirdre's hand shook but the mistletoe did not fall from her fingers. "I think that must be why they haven't killed him yet."
"Then you're stupid." Shannon knotted the strings to her cloak hard at her throat. "They've not killed him yet because he's a symbol, and you have to kill symbols publicly and with daunting law. If you dinna crush the people's hope they explode in the night."
Rowan turned on her. "Are you behind this," he rumbled ominously.
Shannon's lip curled a little, derisively. "Shut up," she told him, withering, jerked her hood up over her head, and left.
The floor seemed almost to twitch, and then one of the flagstones lifted up a slow and jerky inch and swivelled off to one side with the barest of scraping sounds. A small hooded figure followed it, tensed low to the ground like a cat and looking huntedly at the cell door. "Shannon," he started to whisper, but she shook her head frantically and slipped across to him. "Get out of here," he hissed. She put her finger to his lips and pulled a piece of wire from her bra. "Please don't make any noise," she breathed in his ear, and fidgeted with the lock at his wrist tautly. Her heart pounded against him at an unnatural rate. "They'll kill you," he mouthed, and shuddered. She didn't even answer. The manacle came loose with a dull click muffled by Shannon's fingers, and Alain found his balance with a struggle. She was barefoot, and her drawn lips shook with adrenalin or with fury. "Maybe I'll kill them," she said, in his other ear, and slid her shoulder under his arm as the second manacle released his right wrist. He tried not to slump, but Shannon seemed almost wired enough to carry him. She stuffed the thin pick back down her shirt, and closed the clamps as quietly as she could. "Come on," she mouthed. "Down here."
"Oh, God," said Deirdre, "the door."
"You answer," hissed Rowan.
"Who--who is it?"
"It's me, Shannon," floated her thin voice. "Let me in. What's goin' on?"
"Do I let her in?" said Rowan, hesitating and looking to Alain. "Yes," snapped Deirdre, before he could say anything, and Rowan flinched and opened the door. She fluffed in, looking more than her usual amount of distracted. Rowan deadbolted the door behind her. "All right," she said. "No matter who asks, it was one of our mages broke in the Tower. The nimrods dinna have a magical barrier up in the place. You got that?"
Rowan turned around and stared at her. "Who do we have who can teleport?" he demanded.
"Nobody, but no one has to know that. I mean this one. My story is that we have a mid-range mage, and if I'm caught in a lie now I'm losin' my head and the whole revolution's goin' down the toilet, that it is."
"You mean--*you* broke into Grey Tower?"
"Tuatha de Danaan, Rowan, stick to heroics and leave figurin' out the obvious to me and Dancer." She shook her head with disgust and moved around him. "I dinna care how you feel about me or what you dinna give if I'm killed, you stick to my story or we're all dead. I dinna like givin' a direct lie like this, but I have no option." She brushed the top of Alain's head with her fingertips. "I'll explain it to Dancer, and everyone else gets the mage story. It's that simple."
"Branwen would trust you a lot more if she knew," said Deirdre.
"I'm not riskin' my ass so the fuckin' Morrigu will come have tea with me. This time, this once, everyone do what I say." She exhaled. "This is how spies get killed. I didna do it to impress the fuckin' Morrigu."
Shannon plucked at Deirdre's sleeve with her quick nervous fingers and said "Dee, I need to talk to you a second."
She let herself be drawn aside. "What is it?"
"You're not goin' to like this."
She stiffened. "Are you hurt?"
"No, no, I'm not hurt. Dee, there's no need to heal Alain clean."
She grabbed her arm. "Keep it down," she said evenly. "He's essentially fine the way he is, and it isna goin' to hurt us any to let the people see him."
Deirdre jerked away, repulsed. "My God, Shannon--"
"Oh, will you shut up an' listen to me! You ken and I ken he's not hurt badly; you've tended enough dyin' men. He's had a rough day of it but he'll be all right in the mornin'. You ken as well as I. Now tell me, what was your first reaction when he came in here?"
She paused a long time. "Concern?" she said finally, a little bitterly.
"Oh, Deirdre, it *was* *not*!" The druid bit her lip and looked down, and Shannon advanced on her with her hands out. "We need that."
"Shannon, no. I'm not going to go manipulating people like that. It, it's deceitful."
"It's *not* deceitful, Dee, you're not lyin', you're communicatin'. This *happened*."
"I'm a healer, Shannon!"
"You're also a revolutionary warrior!" Deirdre bit her thumb, and Shannon eased off. "Had you forgotten?"
"It's not right," she whispered, almost in tears.
"It's not wrong either. It's the best you're goin' to do." She touched her friend's hand with startling gentleness. "I made a choice today, Dee. I chose the much, much harder way of doin' things, and I'm goin' to need your cooperation if I'm goin' to make it stick. Do you understand me?" Deirdre nodded wordlessly. "Close the wound, yes, for gods' sake set his shoulder straight, but he's had crap kicked out of him and it'll not hurt him to wear it a few days." She traced her thin lips with a finger. "The marks on his wrists are good, and you can leave the shiner on his jaw. He's a right beautiful jaw that one. Keep Branwen pissed a week at the least."
"The Morrigu," said Deirdre, sharply, "won't care."
"The Morrigu," said Shannon, "is a lot more mortal than she likes to style herself. It was only a joke because she's *always* pissed. I want Alain's precious peasants to remember this one, all right? I'll take care not to bite him there." Deirdre turned from her violently, and she struck herself in the forehead with the heel of her hand. "All right, Dee, I'm sorry. No sex jokes when you're strung out."
"Are these the things you think, is this really the way you think?" She turned back with a sort of anguish, her palms up. "Do you sit there and *think* these things, Shannon, is that what you've been thinking all day?"
She pursed her lips. "Some of us can think more than one thing at a time," she said quietly. "If it wasna for us, most of the rest of you wouldn' be thinkin' anythin' at all. Do what I say this time, Deirdre. We're all human beings."
Deirdre tiptoed down the stairs in her moccasins, feeling her face very white. Shannon was kneeling on the rug by the sofa, her head leaned into Alain's, holding his still hand in both of hers. She looked very tranquil. Deirdre waited what felt like a long time and then said "Shannon?"
She didn't move. "Yes, Dee."
"What--what do you think the castle's going to do, Shannon?"
Shannon lifted her head and looked at the Druid with something akin to shock. "I--execute some Tower guards, I suppose, panic, wait on pins an' needles till I get back or they hear I'm dead. They can wait all night, the bastards. Why?"
"I'm scared, Shannon," she whispered. "What if they break in and kill us?"
"Deirdre, if they do that they've lost the war without any of our help, believe me. They've not done it so far, now, have they?"
"No. Shannon, do you think Alain--told them anything?"
She was quiet a moment, looked at Deirdre, and then looked out the window at the moon. "No," she said. "You canna get a good man to tell you somethin' useful in one day, and you canna do it beatin' him with sticks. I've a feelin' they were bein' symbolic. They'll come to regret it. Dee, I dinna think you've ever asked me my professional opinion before."
"No," she whispered. "I don't think I have."
"C'mere." She extended her other arm, and Deirdre folded herself into it like a bird. "It's all right. It's goin' to be all right."
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