“Praise God!” said Angus, and although Moiread didn’t share his vocal devotion, her silent thanks were equally heartfelt. She could have kissed the dark walls of MacAlastair Castle like a sailor returning to land; she settled for an ear-to-ear grin and a yell that made the guards at the gate straighten up in alarm before they saw her face.
It wasn’t just that she’d been away for ten years. It wasn’t just that she was coming home victorious. The damn sky had opened for the last two days of her journey back. Her cloak had struggled valiantly before giving up and now hung like a giant sponge across her shoulders and down her back. Her mail would need hours of polishing, and the damp leather beneath the chain had been chafing her for the last ten miles. Her boots were squashy, and the fat, elderly plow horse she rode was up to her fat, elderly hocks in mud.
Even if she’d wanted to abandon her men, she couldn’t have flown in that weather: between the gusts of wind and not being able to see more than a foot in front of her face, she’d probably have ended up in Rome. And while dragon blood meant that cold and wet wouldn’t harm her like they would mortals, it didn’t make them more pleasant.
But up ahead were stone walls to keep out the rain, a roast turning on a roaring fire, and her room, full of clean, dry clothing, another fire, and—praise Christ and all the saints in heaven—a bed.
She grinned at the bowing guards as she passed them—too slowly for her tastes, but the horse served her well and she didn’t want to strain it—waved to the servants in the great courtyard, and practically jumped out of the saddle with more spirit than she’d had since midway through Yorkshire.
“Have her rubbed down well and give her a hot mash,” she told the stable boy, a lanky redhead who’d probably been toddling when she’d left. “We’ve been a long time travelling.”
Clearly he’d picked up the name from the older grooms talking around him. Or he’d seen the soggy banner her men carried and realized there was only one MacAlasdair woman likely to ride in at the head of a company. Moiread laughed. “That’s the one, lad,” she said, and extracted a coin from her beltpouch. “Don’t worry—you’ll have a chance to get used to me this time.”
Now free of the horse, she made good speed to the inner door. A number of smells filled the staircase beyond, but the castle was clean, and food was the strongest: bread and meat. It was just past lambing season, she remembered, and her stomach growled at the notion, sounding nearly as loud as her own roar could be in her other shape.
One of the maids rushed up to her and dipped into a curtsey, the top of her blonde head coming briefly to Moiread’s waist. It didn’t rise above her chest when the girl stood, either. She was a short one, and Moiread was taller than most men.
“Aye,” she said, trying to remember how to talk to servants who weren’t also fighting men. The maid was a few years older than the stable boy, she thought, but nonetheless young—nobody she’d have known ten years ago, and that visit had been a short one. “I’ll want a fire in my room, and a bath.”
God’s wounds, but it was a relief to make such requests freely, knowing that she wasn’t condemning a brace of poor footmen to sudden and intense labor. At most of the places where she’d been quartered, from farmhouse to castle, baths meant dragging tin tubs up a flight or two of stairs, then heating buckets of water and carrying them as well. For the MacAlasdairs, sorcery made those matters considerably easier.
“Yes, m’lady. Your father’s given orders for both already.”
“Did he? Good man.” Her scouts would have given Artair warning, even without divination, but Moiread’s father was always busy, and not always prompt about passing his knowledge on to the housekeeper. This time it seemed that the dice had come up in Moiread’s favor.
The maid nodded. “Only he says to tell you, m’lady, that you’re to dine in the hall tonight.”
Moiread shoved a splotch of wet hair off her forehead and thought less charitable, less filial things. I just got home! was one, and I hope he doesn’t expect three coherent words out of me, another.
“There are guests, m’lady, from Wales.”
“And Artair doesn’t think he can entertain them by himself? The world may be ending.” The maid kept tactful silence on that. Moiread couldn’t blame her. “Very well. Tell the laird my father that I am, of course, at his service, and I’ll even try to look civilized for the occasion, though I can’t promise not to fall asleep in my soup if it goes too late.”
“My lady,” said the maid, and curtseyed again before nipping off to tell Lord Artair a most likely heavily altered version of Moiread’s sentiments.
Artair would probably translate them back into the original adeptly enough. Being family for over two centuries provided a private, master language of their own.
Dripping her way up two flights of stairs, Moiread wondered idly what Welshmen were so important that Artair demanded her company for the occasion. Her mother’s people had ties to the country, but Wales had been under English rule for decades, having lost to the same bastard excuse for a king who’d tried to take Moiread’s own country.
Longshanks must have spun in his grave when his stripling grandson had signed the treaty, and the idea still made Moiread smile, the better part of a year later.
No, the prospect of a court dinner couldn’t lower her mood, not with that memory fresh to take out and polish. She’d have that story to dine on, and she’d dine better than she had in months; meanwhile, the fire in her hearth already warmed the room, a metal tub of water stood steaming in front of it, and two maids were waiting nearby.
Quickly they plucked Moiread clean of cloak, belt, and boots. The mail gave them a moment of trouble—they were used to waiting on ladies, not soldiers—but they took instruction well and Moiread wore her hair short to some purpose. In little time, she was naked, ignoring the way the girls stared at her scars, and easing herself into the hot water.
“Welcome back, lady,” said one of the maids.
Moiread sighed with pleasure. Odd how being surrounded by water was so vile when it was cold and near bliss when it was hot. She flexed her toes against the end of the tub and leaned her head back on the other rim. “I am never leaving again.”