There were only five great libraries of note in the Nine Kingdoms. Tor Neroche boasted one, especially when its noble collections were augmented by those at the palace of Chagailt. The library of Buidseachd found itself firmly on that list, of course, due simply to the number and variety of the tomes to be found in the bowels of the magic-slathered castle in Beinn òrain.
Faodail in Gairn required an arduous trek in order to reach its well-tended and jealously guarded shelves, but scholars through the ages had found the journey to be a fair price to pay for the opportunity to linger in a place of such seclusion where they might read in peace. The library at the university at Lismòr contained, arguably, a collection of the finest and most extensive scholarly works available.
But the greatest of them all was the library of Eòlas, in Diarmailt.
The sheer number of books housed there was staggering, as was the depth and breadth of the topics those books contained. A small army of librarians patrolled the hallways and supervised the reading chambers to keep those granted entrance not only supplied with what they had come seeking but to keep the more obstreperous consumers of words on their best behavior.
Most only saw the lower floors where the lesser tomes were housed for perusal by the unwashed masses. The collections became more exclusive—and progressively more hazardous—as the stairs wound upward, until the discriminating peruser of fine manuscripts would find himself on the most exclusive floor of all.
In Perilous Collections.
Aisling of Bruadair stood with her back against the exquisite wooden paneling on that uppermost floor in the great library of Eòlas, looked at the dozen soldiers standing there with arrows and swords pointed her way, and wondered just how in the world she had managed to get herself in her current straits.
Finding herself completely out of her depth had become a terrible habit. That sort of thing had begun almost three fortnights ago when she had been plucked out of her uncomfortable life as an unwilling weaver, dressed as a lad, and then shoved into a carriage that had carried her off to places she had never dreamed she might see for herself. Her task had been straightforward: find a mercenary to save her country from an evil usurper. With the added incentive of a death sentence awaiting her if she didn’t find a lad to hoist a sword in Bruadair’s defense within a certain amount of time, she had continued her quest with all due haste through the western half of the Nine Kingdoms. Her companion for the most of that time had been the man currently standing next to her, trying to look harmless.
In truth, he had no reason to to look guilty. They had arrived outside the walls of Eòlas at dawn, hidden their steed, then walked through the gates as nothing more than simple travelers seeking enlightenment, which they were. They had gotten inside the library, she had gawked briefly at the seemingly infinite number of books, then they had set about their business of looking for things to aid them.
Or, rather, things to aid her. The truth was, she had recently come to believe that everything she had been told about her homeland was absolute rubbish. She had to know the truth, because she had the feeling her life depended on it.
Unfortunately, they hadn’t been inside the library an hour before they realized that they had attracted the attention of a few well-garbed library officials. Then, as seemed to be her wont of late, Aisling had found herself thrown from one piece of peril directly into the jaws of another.
Because there was apparently nothing quite as dangerous in the country of Diarmailt as a feisty librarian.
The librarian standing in front of them presently, the head librarian as he had identified himself pointedly, was proof enough of that. The man had appeared suddenly at their table and insisted that they come away from where they’d been calmly and methodically looking through things that found themselves on the first floor whilst discarding as useless tomes that hadn’t offered them what they’d been looking for.
Well, perhaps that wasn’t entirely accurate. Her companion had been thumbing calmly through whatever caught his eye; she, on the other hand, had been frantically searching for something to disprove what she’d grown to womanhood believing about curses and the certainty of them falling upon whomever dared set foot beyond Bruadair’s thorny border. It was possible that she had been giving vent to exclamations of increasing dismay as she’d failed.
The librarian had backed up his request with several swords carried by lads who looked as if they meant business with those blades. She and her reading companion had been marched up several flights of stairs until they had wound up in the inner sanctum of the library itself. The assortment of glass cases containing what she could only imagine were priceless treasures of the written word stretched as far as the eye could see. The man standing next to her had begun to purr. Then again, he had a fondness for libraries . . .
“Now,” the head librarian said suddenly, looking at them both as if their sole purpose in his domain were to steal his most valuable personal treasures, “I believe we’ll have a bit of information from you two ruffians.”
“Are things so changed in Diarmailt,” the man standing next to her asked mildly, “that two simple travelers having sacrificed much to enter these doors are greeted with this sort of ridiculous and unnecessary suspicion?”
The head librarian, a Master Laibridh by name, drew himself up indignantly. “You are hardly simple travelers.”
“And what makes you say that?”
“Because of what you have,” the other said shortly.
Aisling frantically struggled to recall everything she had with her, but considering that consisted of two books in a leather satchel slung over her shoulders, she didn’t suppose that was what had gotten them into trouble. Then again, it was possible that just the sight of those books might send everyone in the area into a hearty case of the vapors.
“What do we have?” her companion asked.
The librarian looked at them shrewdly. “Magic, and don’t spare the breath to deny it.”
“But I don’t have any magic,” Aisling said in surprise.
The librarian frowned at her. “I wasn’t talking about you, though I might have you examined later. I was talking about the man standing next to you.”
That man standing next to her happened to be the second son of the most infamous black mage in the history of the Nine Kingdoms, but Aisling thought it was perhaps prudent not to mention that.
That second son shrugged casually. “I have no magic.”
Aisling looked at Rùnach of Ceangail, son of that black mage and grandson of an elven king—an elven king she imagined was full of some fairly mighty magic himself—and wished she didn’t know he spoke the truth. Unfortunately, Rùnach did indeed have no magic, because his father had taken it all for himself.
Then again, perhaps Rùnach had set alarms to ringing just by virtue of whom he was related to.
“We shall see,” Master Laibridh said shortly.
Rùnach leaned back against the wall and folded his arms over his chest. He might have sighed as well, but Aisling couldn’t be certain of that because all she could hear was the blood pounding in her ears. She supposed she had no reason to be nervous, but then again not only had she almost been killed by one of Rùnach’s bastard brothers the day before, but she only had three days left before she either had to complete her quest or die. The last thing she had time for at the moment was to find herself lingering in a dungeon thanks to the overzealousness of self-important keepers of books.
A beefy-looking man parted the swordsmen and came to a halt next to Master Laibridh. He had large, protruding eyes that matched perfectly his large, protruding nose. Whatever he sniffed likely found itself unable to hide.
“This is Fàileadh,” the librarian said coldly, “and he can smell magic from a league away.”
Aisling felt Rùnach hesitate, then sigh.
She looked at him in surprise. “What do you mean damn?”
“You’ll see,” he muttered. He reached down and pulled a dagger from his boot and held it out. “I forgot about this.”
Fàileadh leapt forward and took the knife, looking at it with a strange, unsettling sort of reverence.
“The runes of Tòrr Dòrainn,” he breathed.
The librarian’s mouth fell open. “Impossible.”
“He wears them on his hands as well,” Fàileadh said. He considered, then gestured toward Rùnach’s face. “And somewhere on his brow.”
Swords whispered as they came from sheaths, and arrows made particularly birdlike noises as they came from quivers. Master Laibridh looked at Rùnach narrowly.
“Reveal yourself,” he demanded.
Rùnach remained motionless for a moment or two, then sighed lightly as he lifted his hood back from his face. He shot the librarian a look of irritation. “Satisfied?”
There were gasps, mostly of horror. Aisling understood. Her first sight of Rùnach’s face had left her gasping as well, but then again she’d been looking at the unscarred half, which was almost too difficult to look at thanks to its perfection. The other half was almost too difficult to look at as well, but that came from the web of scars that stretched from his mouth to the corner of his eye to his ear, covering the whole of his cheek.
Fàileadh murmured appreciatively.
Rùnach shot him a look that Aisling suspected had brought more than one courtier to his knees, wondering which words might most quickly restore him to an elven prince’s good graces. Fàileadh remained unmoved.
“Impossible,” Master Laibridh repeated faintly. “’Tis common knowledge that all Prince Gair’s children were slain at Ruamharaiche’s well.”
“Apparently common knowledge is mistaken,” Rùnach said evenly.
“But surely you would have been found long before now, Prince Rùnach. And to have you here—”
“Being treated with such discourtesy,” Rùnach said smoothly. “Appalling, isn’t it?”
Master Laibridh seemed to realize quite suddenly that his guardsmen were still brandishing their swords. He waved them away impatiently. “No need for that, of course.” He put his shoulders back and seemed to pull himself together. “The king will want to know about such an august visitor to the library.”
Aisling didn’t have to look at Rùnach to know that was the last thing he wanted. Their goal had been to get in and out of the library without garnering any notice. She was in haste, and Rùnach had his own reasons for wanting to lose himself in a crowd for a bit. After the previous fortnight they’d had, she couldn’t blame him.
“Don’t go far,” Master Laibridh added to his men, half under his breath. “In case you’re needed.”
“By all means,” Rùnach said caustically, “have your men escort my companion and me as we investigate your priceless treasures.” He reached out and took his knife back, then slid it down the side of his boot. “Unless you worry that the grandson of Sìle of Tòrr Dòrainn would stoop to something as pedestrian as theft.”
“Of course not,” Master Laibridh said quickly. “I never would have considered that. It was just the magic, you see, which set off alarms—”
“Since when is having magic a crime in Diarmailt?” Rùnach asked.
Master Laibridh considered, then shooed his guardsmen farther away. He sent the man with the nose off to sniff other patrons before he stepped closer to Rùnach. “I don’t like to tell tales,” he said a low voice, “but ’tis naught that you won’t hear from the king himself, I daresay.” He looked about him carefully, then back at Rùnach. “The king’s magic is . . . lessened.”
“Is that so?” Rùnach asked, looking rather surprised. “I heard something different quite recently, but perhaps things have changed since my cousin has misplaced his crown.”
Master Laibridh flushed. “Forgive me, Your Highness. I forget to whom I’m speaking.”
Aisling found herself flushing a bit as well. She had grown rather accustomed to thinking of Rùnach as simply, well, Rùnach. In her defense, it had only been recently that she’d realized he was not at all who he was pretending to be.
“This untoward lessening did indeed happen after the loss of his crown, Your Highness,” Master Laibridh continued uneasily. “I have no important magic myself save a rudimentary ability to invoke the odd spell of finding if I’ve lost a treasured book, so my opinions on the matter are perhaps less valuable than another’s might be, but I will say that while there are court mages to keep our spells of defense intact, the king, ah, himself . . .”
Rùnach did the man the favor of rescuing him from what was obviously a delicate subject.
“I understand,” he said quietly. “There are many ways to lose one’s power. Not even kings are immune, I daresay.”
The head librarian nodded slowly. “So they aren’t, Prince Rùnach. But the king assures us happier days are ahead thanks to his cleverness, so we soldier on as best we can. But perhaps now you can understand why we are careful about who we let inside our gates and our library.”
“I can,” Rùnach agreed.
“I’m sure the king will send a proper carriage for you, but perhaps you would care to take your ease in my chambers until that happy time arrives?”
“Actually, it would indeed be a pleasure to peruse your perilous tomes here,” Rùnach said. “If that wouldn’t be an imposition. After all, it isn’t as if we’re here to steal anything, is it?”
“Of course not, Your Highness,” the librarian said quickly. “Please feel free. We’re unable to open the cases any longer thanks to, ah, the lack of proper, ah, kingly abilities—”
“Say no more,” Rùnach said with a nod. “We’ll be happy just to look, I assure you.”
Aisling listened to them exchange another handful of pleasantries before Master Laibridh was apparently satisfied that he had redeemed himself from his display of bad manners. Rùnach started to walk away, then paused and looked at the master of the books.
“Why does the king think happier days are ahead?”
Master Laibridh shrugged. “Perhaps he’s found a new source of magic. Heaven knows we could use it.” He made Rùnach a low bow, then hastened away.
Aisling watched Rùnach stare after him thoughtfully for a moment or two, then reach for her hand and pull her with him toward the long gallery full of finely wrought cases. She waited until she was sure they were out of earshot before she looked up at him.
“That was interesting.”
“Wasn’t it, though,” he said thoughtfully.
“Are we going to see the king?”
“I’m not sure how we can avoid it now, though I’m less than thrilled by the prospect. Not only is Simeon an insufferable prig, he also sets an inedible supper.”
She managed a smile. “We all have our flaws.”
“He has more than his share, trust me.” He sighed, then nodded toward the cases. “We might as well avail ourselves of these lovelies whilst we have the chance. I think I can safely say we will never see anything like them anywhere else in the world.”
“How did the king come by them, do you suppose?”
“I believe it was the previous king, Nicholas, who is responsible for the bulk of the collection.”
She looked at him in surprise. “Nicholas? As in—”
“The former wizard king of Diarmailt?” he finished for her with a smile. “Aye, that’s the one.”
She put her hand over her satchel almost without thinking. Nicholas, that erstwhile king of Diarmailt who was now the head of the university at Lismòr, had given her one of the books she carried constantly on her person. She hadn’t had much of a chance to look at its innards yet, but there was no denying the outside was certainly fit to keep company with the books she could already see in the cases ahead of her. “Do you think my book came from this collection?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. In fact, if we look hard enough, I suppose we’ll see the place where it once resided.”
She leaned closer. “You mean he stole it?”
“So much nuance to the word stole,” he said with a smile, “given that he no doubt acquired your book in the first place. I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had foreseen your need for it.”
“And I haven’t taken the time to read it.”
“We’ll find you privacy for that as soon as we can. For now, let’s see what sort of collection my discriminating uncle amassed during his tenure on Diarmailt’s throne.”
She nodded and trailed after him as he moved from glass case to glass case, peering intently at the books inside. She supposed she would have been more interested in what she was seeing if she hadn’t felt such urgency about discovering the truth about Bruadair. She had spent so many years—all of her life that she could remember, actually—believing certain things only to have doubt cast on them . . . well, she wasn’t sure what to believe any longer.
She had been told that leaving the Guild meant death, that crossing Bruadair’s border meant death, that speaking of Bruadair to anyone meant instant death. The first she had shown to be not true because she had indeed left the Guild and was still breathing. She had also crossed the border, though she wasn’t entirely sure that that curse wouldn’t fall upon her at some point in the future.
The last one she hadn’t dared attempt because she wasn’t at all sure that there wasn’t some veracity to that rumor, and the sad truth was, she didn’t think she had the courage to test it.
She had decided, thanks to several timely suggestions, that seeking the truth might be best accomplished in the library where she currently stood. Rùnach had agreed to accompany her there, partly because he was that sort of chivalrous sort of lad but perhaps mostly because he wanted to be out of the open for a bit. She understood that perfectly because she had no more interest in encountering his bastard brothers than she did.
She watched him for a minute or two, then realized there were underlibrarians standing a discreet distance away, gaping at him as he looked as if he were nigh onto putting his elbow through the glass to liberate a priceless book or two. Actually, he looked as if he might be considering it. She glanced at the books in the case, then looked at him.
“What’s so interesting?” she whispered.
He pulled back and shook his head. “Nothing.”
He started to speak, then shook his head again, as if there was something he just couldn’t fathom. “I need to sit, I believe,” he said absently. “Let’s go find something interesting to read whilst we wait, shall we?”
And with that, he walked over to the librarians standing there and introduced himself. Aisling had another look at what was in the case and wondered which book it was that had caught his attention so thoroughly. There were several quite lovely things there, displayed on stands of intricately wrought gold. The books themselves were spectacular, either obviously terribly old or boasting covers that sported gems and fine silkwork.
Well, save one of them.
It looked rather out of place, that particular book. The cover was nothing more than simple leather, though it had been tooled with all manner of intricate shapes that left her feeling that what lay inside would not only be magical but a magic full of might and elegance. But there were no precious gems or heavy stitching or guilding on the pages. It looked most definitely out of place compared to the other books there.
She frowned thoughtfully as she walked away from the case and stopped next to Rùnach in time to hear him give the lads standing there a list of things to look for.
“An atlas,” he was saying, “a selection of histories of the world, a wide variety of books on myths of the Nine Kingdoms, and finally a volume or two on the shearing of sheep and the dyeing of their wool. If that wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
The three men standing there gulped as one, then bowed to him before they turned and hastened off. Aisling considered, then looked up at Rùnach.
“The dyeing of wool?”
He merely lifted his eyebrows briefly and smiled before he led her over to an enormous table set under an equally large glass dome set in the ceiling above them. It was, she had to admit, the perfect light for reading, and the chairs surrounding the table looked very luxurious. She sat, then helped herself to a book on sheep when it was set down next to her. She glanced over after a moment or two to see what Rùnach was reading, though she supposed the nature of the subject didn’t particularly matter given that he was turning pages without seeing what was written there. Perhaps that might not have been obvious to anyone else, but she had seen him pore over books before.
She would have asked him what was amiss, but it was at that moment that Master Laibridh and another man came rushing toward them. The man who skidded to a halt a respectful distance away from Rùnach wore velvet robes, an important-looking hat, and appeared thoroughly out of breath. He bowed deeply.
Rùnach looked at him politely. “You must be one of Simeon’s ministers. How is the king these days?”
“Very well, thank you for your solicitous words,” the man said automatically. He looked at Rùnach again and flinched a bit. “He sends his most heartfelt greetings, Prince Rùnach.”
“How lovely of him.”
Aisling listened to them continue to spew out all manner of pleasantries she supposed were necessary for the moment. She sat back in her chair and watched Rùnach, marveling at the change in him. She knew him as an ordinary sort of lad who seemed more inclined to laugh at himself than take himself too seriously. At the moment, though, he looked nothing less than what he was: an elven prince with generations of mythical beings lurking in his family tree. She wondered absently how she could have ever mistaken him for anything else.
“The king sends his most humble request that you and your companion join him for luncheon.”
“It would be our most profound pleasure to accept.”
The man paused, then cleared his throat. “His Majesty was also curious about what you were researching. If that isn’t too impertinent a question, Your Highness.”
“Oh, this and that,” Rùnach said dismissively. “Surely nothing worth wasting the breath to report.”
She wasn’t sure the man was satisfied with that answer, but she knew Rùnach wouldn’t provide him with a better. If there was one thing that could be said about their activities over the past month, it was that secrecy had been paramount. Rùnach had been unwilling at first to tell her who he was, but now that his identity had been revealed, he had chosen other things to remain silent on, namely who he thought was trailing along behind him or what that someone might want from him. Add to that her own reasons for secrecy and it was a wonder they had anything to talk about.
She followed Rùnach, who was following their escort, and watched the possibility of solving her dilemma slip through her fingers. She could only hope they could escape the king’s hospitality long enough to get back to the library, preferably without guardsmen in tow.
They walked out into the morning sunshine, and Aisling couldn’t help but catch her breath a little. Perhaps the king had lost his crown and things weren’t as perfect as they had been in the past, but there was no denying that the city of Eòlas was spectacular and the library its crowning jewel. Even the courtyard in front of them was like nothing she’d ever seen before. Trees were beginning to bloom, fountains leapt up into the air with abandon, and peaceful-looking scholars either paced about or sat on benches, no doubt thinking deep, scholarly thoughts.
It was a far cry from Beul where everyone dressed in grey and shuffled along from one endless day to the next.
“What was that, sorry?”
She heard something in Rùnach’s voice that sent a chill down her spine. She looked at him in surprise but found him wearing a neutral expression on his face. She frowned, then looked at the king’s emissary.
“One of your brothers is here,” the man said. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Of course we have seen your father’s bastard—er, natural sons quite often.”
Aisling felt the world slow to a halt. She and Rùnach had encountered one of Gair’s natural sons just the day before and almost lost their lives at his hands. It was one of the reasons they had come to Diarmailt, to escape undue scrutiny from any of Rùnach’s unpleasant relatives who might want them dead.
“In fact, I believe he was only a few moments behind me, having been at the palace to speak with the king—”
“And, of course, I’ll be thrilled to see him,” Rùnach said, “so perhaps we might— oh, did you forget something, Aisling?”
Aisling looked at him quickly. “Ah—”
“Your gloves, of course.” Rùnach looked at the secretary. “Gifted to her by her father, as it happens. Very dear to her. I couldn’t in good conscience leave them behind.”
“I’ll send someone back for them.”
“No need for that,” Rùnach said firmly. “Is there, Aisling?”
Aisling shook her head, because she had the feeling she knew what Rùnach was getting at. “I don’t remember exactly where I left them, so I’ll have to retrace my steps. I wouldn’t want to put anyone to any trouble.”
“She wouldn’t want to put anyone to any trouble,” Rùnach said in a tone that said very clearly that the topic was no longer open for discussion. “I’ll help her retrace her steps.”
“But, I can see Master Gàrlach’s escort from here,” the secretary protested.
“And I would wave, but we’re hidden by this rather large topiary that seems to have sprung up just now to shield us from the morning sun,” Rùnach said. “We’ll meet you back here in a quarter hour, Secretary Rùnaire. Please let my half brother know how much I’m looking forward to breaking bread with him in King Simeon’s luxurious great hall.”
And with that, he took Aisling by the arm and pulled her back inside the library. She didn’t dare look over her shoulder to see if they were being followed, not that it would have made any difference, because Rùnach quickly pulled her into an alcove with him.
“What are you doing?” she managed.
“Hiding. And with any luck, we won’t have to for long, because I’m going to use Miach’s spell to render us perfectly invisible as we trot back upstairs.”
She felt her mouth fall open. “We’re going back upstairs? Why?”
“Because we’re going to save our sweet necks,” he said. “And steal a book.”
She supposed she might have wanted to sit down sooner rather than later, but Rùnach didn’t give her a chance. She saw Miach’s spell of un-noticing fall over them, then hardly had the chance to take note of the fact that she was able to see something she wouldn’t have believed could exist three months ago before Rùnach had taken her hand and was pulling her up the stairs after him.
He stopped suddenly and flattened them both back against the wall in the stairwell. Aisling held her breath as a pair of scholars climbed the stairs past them. She waited until they were out of sight before she attempted even a whisper.
“They didn’t see us.”
“Miach’s spell of un-noticing is a very good one,” Rùnach murmured. “Thankfully.”
She let out a shaky breath, then looked up at him. “Gàrlach is here?”
“Apparently so,” Rùnach said. “I’m surprised he’s already recovered from his recent encounter with his own spells, but he’s a resilient lad. Not to worry, though. He’s no one of consequence.”
“Which is why we dove behind that bush.”
“I believe it was actually a horse-shaped topiary.”
“I think it was Iteach.”
He smiled. “I think so too.” He looked up and down the stairs, then nodded. “Let’s hurry.”
She was more than happy to oblige him, though she soon realized that keeping up with him was leaving her in a flat-out sprint. When he finally stopped, she leaned over and gasped for breath.
“Short of smashing the glass, I’m not sure I can get at what I want here.”
She heaved herself upright and saw that he was looking far too interested in the contents of the case in front of them. She started to tell him that when one encountered that sort of resistance, it likely meant one shouldn’t be getting into what lay before him, but before she could blurt the words out, he had shrugged out of his pack and was rummaging about inside it.
“What are you doing?” she wheezed.
“Looking for lock-picking tools.”
She felt something sweep through her that she was fairly confident was terror. “You can’t be serious.”
“Can you see if there’s a spell laid over this case?”
“A better question is, ‘Do I want to look?’ And the answer is, ‘Nay, I do not.’”
He paused with a small leather case in his hand, then looked at her with a small smile. “I’ll answer three questions for you without demanding anything in return.”
She pursed her lips. “I don’t like this bargain.”
“Ah, but think of the things you will learn. I know many secrets.”
She imagined he did, and she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to know any of them. But she looked at the case just the same.
It was covered by several spells; that she could see easily. She patted herself for something to use in moving them aside, then found herself holding on to Rùnach’s knife.
“Will that suit?” he said. “’Tis a gift from my grandfather. I imagine it’s enspelled.”
“It is,” she agreed. The echo of the runes engraved on the hilt ran up her arm, not revealing themselves in their entirety but giving her a very good idea of what they were capable of. She imagined Rùnach could cut through solid rock with that knife.
She faced the glass case, then lifted up the bulk of the spells to reveal a lock on the case.
She stopped him before he reached out with his tools. “There’s another spell there.”
“I think so. Let me see if I can get the knife under that as well.”
She could hardly believe she’d said as much, but it had been that sort of spring so far. As she lifted the spell up, she supposed it wasn’t a good thing that she managed it. Unfortunately, Rùnach opened the lock before she could come up with anything stern to say about his abilities. Obviously he’d done this sort of thing before, though she had absolutely no desire to ask him where or for what purpose.
He reached in and pulled out the book she’d noticed before, the one with the beautifully tooled leather cover. She would have asked him why he wanted that one, but she didn’t have the breath for it. All she could do was stand there and panic over the reality of their situation.
They were, it had to be said, trapped in a library, un-noticed for the moment, with one of his bastard brothers wandering around outside wanting to kill them and what would no doubt be very angry librarians inside soon wanting to hunt them down and punish them for assaulting their domain.
“I’m hurrying,” he said.
And indeed he was. That was quite possibly why the edge of the book he was filching caught the knife she was still using to hold the spells away from the case. Before she could compensate, the knife had gone through the spell of alarm, and bells started ringing wildly.
Rùnach shoved the book and his tools into his pack, took his knife back and slid it down into his boot, then took her hand.
“Let’s go,” she repeated incredulously. “Go where? We’re finished!”
“Not quite yet, I don’t think.”
“Let’s go up, shall we? That seems like a useful direction.”
“Probably,” he agreed with a smile as he pulled her along toward the nearest window, “but let’s give this a go just the same.”
“Are we jumping?” Aisling asked in disbelief. “From this height?”
“Hopefully not. Ah, look you there at our pony, ready and conveniently wearing dragonshape in order to help us make our escape.”
She took a deep breath. “It looks very locked.”
“I think Iteach intends to melt the glass. Stand back and let’s see what he can do.”
Aisling stood back and waited, but the window didn’t melt. Rùnach frowned at it, but that didn’t accomplish anything either.
“Is there a latch?” Aisling ventured.
“I believe there is,” he said, reaching for it. He touched it only briefly before he cursed, then sucked on his finger. He used his knife to unlatch the window, then used it again to push the window outward. “That will have to do, I suppose. Mind the gap between library and dragon.”
She hesitated, partly because she could feel the window’s heat from where she stood, but mostly because she didn’t like heights. “I think he likes this shape—”
“I think he loves this shape,” Rùnach said dryly, “and you’re stalling. Off you go.”
Aisling leapt because Runach had boosted her up onto the windowsill and given her a wee nudge. He followed her immediately, which almost sent her spilling out of the saddle off the far side. He steadied her, then gave Iteach a friendly pat before suggesting a hasty exit upward.
It was not a pleasant ascent, but she supposed she couldn’t have asked for anything else. It occurred to her that she was neither fainting nor shrieking, which likely said more than she cared for about her methods of travel over the past fortnight. She was fairly sure Iteach had spent far more time ferrying them about in the air than he had trotting on the ground.
She waited until he had stopped clawing at the air to carry them skywards and was merely flapping off into the distance in a measured sort of way before she looked over her shoulder at Rùnach.
“What now?” she managed.
“How do you feel about a journey into the mists of legend and myth?”
It took her a moment or two before she realized where he was talking about. “Tòrr Dòrainn?” she asked, feeling a little breathless at the thought.
He smiled. “I can think of worse ideas. Are you interested?”
He laughed. “I imagine that’s exactly true.” He nodded back behind them. “I apologize for leading us into a hornet’s nest. It didn’t occur to me that things would be so changed. I don’t believe Diarmailt has always been as unfriendly as it seems to be now.”
“How were you to know?” she asked.
“Well, the first indication might have been that the king was stupid enough to lose his uncle’s crown.” He glanced over his shoulder, then swore. “I was afraid we wouldn’t leave without attracting some sort of notice.”
Aisling looked behind them to see another dragon there, flapping fiercely. She clutched the pommel of the saddle. “Who is that? Gàrlach?”
“I imagine so.” He had another look, then shook his head. “He won’t see us, of course, but it’s possible that he might sense a shadow of our passing.”
“Then what are we going to do?” Her voice was more a squeak that was carried away almost immediately on the rushing wind, which she supposed was just as well. “Rùnach, he’s spewing something out at us. Well, not exactly at us, but more in all directions, I daresay. I think it’s a spell—”
She whipped her head around to look at him so quickly, it pained her. “What are you talking about?”
“Whatever you do, don’t let go. Iteach is going to change shape.”
“Well, a larger dragon would be faster—”
“Not a larger dragon.”
She felt something curl in her stomach, and it wasn’t the breakfast she hadn’t had a chance to eat that morning. “What?”
And that was the last thing she remembered as she slid happily into a faint.