Sample text for Son of the shadows / Juliet Marillier.

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Chapter One

My mother knew every tale that was ever told by the firesides of Erin, and more besides. Folks stood hushed around the hearth to hear her tell them after a long day’s work, and marveled at the bright tapestries she wove with her words. She related the many adventures of Cú Chulainn the hero, and she told of Fionn mac Cumhaill, who was a great warrior and cunning with it. In some households, such tales were reserved for men alone. But not in ours, for my mother made a magic with her words that drew all under its spell. She told tales that had the household in stitches with laughter, and tales that made strong men grow quiet. But there was one tale she would never tell, and that was her own. My mother was the girl who had saved her brothers from a sorceress’s curse, and nearly lost her own life doing it. She was the girl whose six brothers had spent three long years as creatures of the wild, and had been brought back only by her own silence and suffering. There was no need for telling and retelling of this story, for it had found a place in folks’ minds. Besides, in every village there would be one or two who had seen the brother who returned, briefly, with the shining wing of a swan in place of his left arm. Even without this evidence, all knew the tale for truth; and they watched my mother pass, a slight figure with her basket of salves and potions, and nodded with deep respect in their eyes.
If I asked my father to tell a tale, he would laugh and shrug and say he had no skill with words, and besides he knew but one tale, or maybe two, and he had told them both already. Then he would glance at my mother, and she at him, in that way they had that was like talking without words, and then my father would distract me with something else. He taught me to carve with a little knife, and he taught me how to plant trees, and he taught me to fight. My uncle thought that more than a little odd. All right for my brother Sean, but when would Niamh and I need skills with our fists and our feet, with a staff or a small dagger? Why waste time on this when there were so many other things for us to learn?
“No daughter of mine will go beyond these woods unprotected,” my father had said to my Uncle Liam. “Men cannot be trusted. I would not make warriors of my girls, but I will at least give them the means to defend themselves. I am surprised that you need ask why. Is your memory so short?”
I did not ask him what he meant. We had all discovered, early on, that it was unwise to get between him and Liam at such times.
I learned fast. I followed my mother around the villages, and was taught how to stitch a wound and fashion a splint and doctor the croup or nettle rash. I watched my father, and discovered how to make an owl and a deer and a hedgehog out of a piece of fine oak. I practiced the arts of combat with Sean, when he could be cajoled into it, and perfected a variety of tricks that worked even when your opponent was bigger and stronger. It often seemed as if everyone at Seven-waters was bigger than me. My father made me a staff that was just the right size, and he gave me his little dagger for my own. Sean was quite put out for a day or so. But he never harbored grudges. Besides, he was a boy, and had his own weapons. As for my sister, Niamh, you never could tell what she was thinking.
“Remember, little one,” my father told me gravely, “this dagger can kill. I hope you need never employ it for such a purpose; but if you must, use it cleanly and boldly. Here at Seven-waters you have seen little of evil, and I hope you will never have to strike a man in your own defense. But one day you may have need of this, and you must keep it sharp and bright, and practice your skills against such a day.”
It seemed to me a shadow came over his face, and his eyes went distant as they did sometimes. I nodded silently and slipped the small, deadly weapon away in its sheath
These things I learned from my father, whom folk called Iubdan, though his real name was different. If you knew the old tales, you recognized this name as a joke, which he accepted with good humor. For the Iubdan of the tales was a tiny wee man, who got into strife when he fell into a bowl of porridge, though he got his own back later. My father was very tall and strongly built, and had hair the color of autumn leaves in afternoon sun. He was a Briton, but people forgot that. When he got his new name he became part of Sevenwaters, and those who didn’t use his name called him the Big Man.
I’d have liked a bit more height myself, but I was little, skinny, dark haired, the sort of girl a man wouldn’t look twice at. Not that I cared. I had plenty to occupy me without thinking that far ahead. It was Niamh they followed with their eyes, for she was tall and broad shouldered, made in our father’s image, and she had a long fall of bright hair and a body that curved generously in all the right places. Without even knowing it, she walked in a way that drew men’s eyes.
“That one’s trouble,” our kitchen woman Janis would mutter over her pots and pans. As for Niamh herself, she was ever critical.
“Isn’t it bad enough being half Briton,” she said crossly, “without having to look the part as well? See this?” She tugged at her thick plait, and the red-gold strands unraveled in a shinning curtain. “Who would take me for a daughter of Sevenwaters? I could be a Saxon with this head of hair! Why couldn’t I be tiny and graceful like Mother?”
I studied her for a moment or two as she began to wield the hairbrush with fierce strokes. For one so displeased with her appearance, she did spend rather a lot of time trying out new hairstyles and changing her gown and ribbons.
“Are you ashamed to be the daughter of a Briton?” I asked her.
She glared at me. “That’s so like you, Liadan. Always come straight out with it, don’t you? It’s all very well for you; you’re a small copy of Mother yourself, her little right hand. No wonder Father adores you. For you it’s simple.”
I let her words wash over me. She could be like this at times, as if there were too many feelings inside her and they had to burst out somewhere. The words themselves meant nothing. I waited.
Niamh used her hairbrush like an instrument of punishment. “Sean, too,” she said, glaring at herself in the mirror of polished bronze. “Did you hear what Father called him? He said, he’s the son Liam never had. What do you think of that? Sean fits in; he knows exactly where he’s going. Heir to Sevenwaters, beloved son with not one but two fathers—he even looks the part. He’ll do all the right things—wed Aisling, which will make everyone happy, be a leader of men, maybe even the one who wins the Islands back for us. His children will follow in his footsteps, and so on, and so on. Brighid save me, it’s so tedious! It’s so predictable.”
“You can’t have it both ways,” I said. “Either you want to fit in, or you don’t. Besides, we are the daughters of Sevenwaters, like it or not. I’m sure Eamonn will wed you gladly when it’s time, golden hair or no. I’ve heard no objections from him.”
“Eamonn? Huh!” She moved to the center of the room, where a shaft of light struck gold against the oak boards of the floor, and in this spot she began slowly to turn, so that her white gown and her brilliant shining hair moved around her like a cloud. “Don’t you long for something different to happen, something so exciting and new it carries you along with it like a great tide, something that lets your life blaze and burn so the whole world can see it? Something that touches you with joy or with terror, that lifts you out of your safe, little path and onto a great, wild road whose ending nobody knows? Don’t you ever long for that, Liadan?” She turned and turned, and she wrapped her arms around herself as if this were the only way she could contain what she felt.
I sat on the edge of the bed, watching her quietly. After a while I said, “You should take care. Such words might tempt the Fair Folk to take a hand in your life. It happens. You know Mother’s story. She was given such a chance, and she took it; and it was only through her courage, and Father’s, that she did not die. To survive their games you must be very strong. For her and for Father the ending was good. But that tale had losers as well. What about her six brothers? Of them, but two remain, or maybe three. What happened damaged them all. And there were others who perished. You would be better to take your life one day at a time. For me, there is enough excitement in helping to deliver a new lamb, or seeing small oaks grow strong in spring rains. In shooting an arrow straight to the mark, or curing a child of the croup. Why ask for more when what we have is so good?”
Niamh unwrapped her arms and ran a hand through her hair, undoing the work of the brush in an instant. She sighed. “You sound so like Father you make me sick sometimes,” she said, but the tone was affectionate enough. I knew my sister well. I did not let her upset me often.
“I’ve never understood how he could do it,” she went on. “Give up everything, just like that: his lands, his power, his position, his family. Just give it away. He’ll never be master of Sevenwaters, that’s Liam’s place. His son will inherit, no doubt; but Iubdan, all he’ll be is ‘the Big Man’, quietly growing his trees and tending his flocks and letting the world pass him by. How could a real man choose to let life go like that? He never even went back to Harrowfield.”
I smiled to myself. Was she blind that she did not see the way it was between them, Sorcha and Iubdan? How could she live here day by day, and see them look at one another, and not understand why he had done what he had done? Besides, without his good husbandry, Sevenwaters would be nothing more than a well-guarded fortress. Under his guidance our lands had prospered. Everyone knew we bred the best cattle and grew the finest barley in all of Ulster. It was my father’s work that enabled my Uncle Liam to build his alliances and conduct his campaigns. I didn’t think there was much point explaining this to my sister. If she didn’t know it by now, she never would.
“He loves her,” I said. “It’s as simple as that. And yet, it’s more. She doesn’t talk about it, but the Fair Folk had a hand in it all along. And they will again.”
Finally, Niamh was paying attention to me. Her beautiful blue eyes narrowed as she faced me. “Now you sound like her,” she said accusingly. “About to tell me a story, a learning tale.”
“I’m not,” I said. “You aren’t in the mood for it. I was just going to say, we are different, you and me and Sean. Because of what the Fair Folk did, our parents met and wed. Because of what happened, the three of us came into being.Perhaps the next part of the tale is ours.”
Niamh shivered as she sat down beside me, smoothing her skirts over her knees.
“Because we are neither of Britain nor of Erin, but at the same time both,” she said slowly. “You think one of us is the child of the prophecy? The one who will restore the Islands to our people?”
“I’ve heard it said.” It was said a lot, in fact now that Sean was almost a man, and shaping into as good a fighter and a leader as his Uncle Liam. Besides, the people were ready for some action. The feud over the Islands had simmered since well before my mother’s day, for it was long years since the Britons had seized this most secret of places from our people. Folk’s bitterness was all the more intense now, since we had come so close to regaining what was rightfully ours. For when Sean and I were children, not six years old, out Uncle Liam and two of his brothers, aided by Seamus Redbeard, had thrown their forces into a bold campaign that went right to the heart of the disputed territory. They had come close, achingly close. They had touched the soil of Little Island and made their secret camp there. They had watched the great birds soar and wheel above in Needle, that stark pinnacle lashed by icy winds and ocean spray. They had launched one fierce sea attack on the British encampment on Greater Island, and at the last they had been driven back. In this battle perished two of my mother’s brothers. Cormack was felled by a sword stroke clean to the heart and died in Liam’s arms. And Diarmid, seeking to avenge his brother’s loss, fought as if possessed and at length was captured by the Britons. Liam’s men found his body late, floating in the shallows as they launched their small craft and fled, out-numbered, exhausted, and heartsick. He had died from drowning, but only after the enemy had had their sport with him. They would not let my mother see his body when they brought him home.
These Britons were my father’s people. But Iubdan had no part in this war. He had sworn, once, that he would not take arms against his own kind, and he was a man of his word. With Sean, it was different. My Uncle Liam had never married, and my mother said he never would. There had been a girl once that he had loved. But the enchantment fell on him and his brothers. Three years is a long time when you are only sixteen. When at last he came back to the shape of a man, his sweetheart was married and already the mother of a son. She had obeyed her father’s wishes, believing Liam was dead so he would not take on a wife. And he needed no son of his own, for he loved his nephew as fiercely as any father could and brought him up, without knowing it, in his own image. Sean and I were the children of a single birth, he gust slightly my elder. But at sixteen he was more than a head taller, close to being a man, strong of shoulder, his body lean and hard. Liam had ensured he was expert in the arts of war. As well, Sean Learned how to plan a campaign, how to deliver a fair judgment, how to understand the thinking of ally and enemy alike. Liam commented sometimes on his nephew’s youthful impatience. But Sean was a leader in the making; nobody doubted that.
As for our father, he smiled and let them get on with it. He recognized the weight of the inheritance Sean must one day carry. But he had not relinquished his son. There was time, as well, for the two of them to walk or ride around the fields and byres and barns of the home farms, for Iubdan to teach his son to care for his people and his land as well as to protect them. They spoke long and often, and held each other’s respect. Only I would catch Mother sometimes, looking at Niamh and looking at Sean and looking at me, and I knew what was troubling her. Sooner or later, the Fair Folk would decide it was time: time to meddle in our lives again, time to pick up the half-finished tapestry and weave a few more twisted patterns into it. Which would they choose? Was one of us the child of the prophecy, who would at last make peace between our people and the Britons of Northwoods and win back the islands of mystic caves and sacred trees? Myself, I rather thought not. If you knew the Fair Folk at all, you knew they were devious and subtle. Their games were complex; their choices never obvious. Besides, what about the other part of the prophecy, which people seemed to have conveniently overlooked? Didn’t it say something about bearing the mark of the raven? Nobody knew quite what that meant, but it didn’t seem to fit any of us. Besides, there must have been more than a few misalliances between wandering Britons and Irish women. We could hardly be the only children who bore the blood of both races. This I told myself; and then I would see my mother’s eyes on us, green, fey, watchful, and a shiver of foreboding would run through me. I sensed it was time: time for things to change again.
* * *
That spring we had visitors. Here in the heart of the great forest, the old ways were strong despite the communities of men and women that now spread over our land, their Christian crosses stark symbols of a new faith. From time to time, travelers would bring across the sea tales of great ills done to folk who dared keep the old traditions. There were cruel penalties even death, for those who left an offering, maybe, for the harvest gods or thought to weave a simple spell for good fortune or use a potion to bring back a faithless sweetheart. The druids were all slain or banished over there. The power of the new faith was great. Backed up with a generous purse and with lethal force, how could it fail?
But here at Sevenwaters, here in this corner of Erin, we were a different breed. The holy fathers, when they came, were mostly quiet, scholarly men who debated an issue with open minds and listened as much as they spoke. Among them, a boy could learn to learn to read in Latin and in Irish, and to write a clear hand, and to mix colors and make intricate patterns on parchment or fine vellum. Amongst the sisters, a girl might learn the healing arts or how to chant like an angel. In their houses of contemplation there was a place for the poor and dispossessed. They were, at heart, good people. But none from our household was destined to join their number. When my grandfather went away and Liam became lord of Sevenwaters, with all the responsibilities that entailed, many strands were drawn together to strengthen our household’s fabric. Liam rallied the families nearby, built a strong fighting force, became the leader our people had needed so badly. My father made our farms prosperous and our fields plentiful as never before. He planted oaks where once had been barren soil. As well, he put new heart into folk who had drawn very close to despair. My mother was a symbol of what could be won by faith and strength, a living reminder of that other world below the surface. Through her they breathed in daily the truth about who they were and where they came from, the healing message of the spirit realm.
And then, there was her brother Conor. As the tale tells, there were six brothers. Liam I have told of, and the two who were next to him in age, who die in the first battle for the Islands. The youngest, Padriac, was a voyager, returning but seldom. Conor was the fourth brother, and he was a druid. Even as the old faith faded and grew dim elsewhere, we witnessed its light glowing ever stronger in our forest. It was as if each feast day, each marking of the passing season with song and ritual, put back a little more of the unity our people had almost lost. Each time, we drew one stop closer to being ready—ready again to reclaim what had been stolen from us by the Britons long generations since. The Islands were the heart of our mystery, the cradle of our belief. Prophecy or no prophecy, the people began to believe that Liam would win them back; or if not him, then Sean, who would be lord of Sevenwaters after him. The day drew closer, and folk were never more aware of it than when the wise once came out of the forest to mark the turning of the season. So it was at Imbolc, the year Sean and I were sixteen, a year burned deep in my memory. Conor came, and with him a band of men and women, some in white, and some in the plain homespun robes of those still in their training, and they made the ceremony to honor Brighid’s festival deep in the woods of Sevenwaters.
They came in the afternoon, quietly as usual. Two very old men and one old woman, walking in plain sandals up the path from the forest. Their hair was knotted into many small braids, woven about with colored thread. There were young folk wearing the homespun, both boys and girls; and there were men of middle years, of whom my Uncle Conor was one. Come late to the learning of the great mysteries, he was now their leader, a pale, grave man of middle height, his long chestnut hair streaked with gray, his eyes deep and serene. He greeted us all with quiet courtesy: my mother, Iubdan, Liam, then the three of us, and our guests, for several households had gathered here for the festivities. Seamus Redbeard, a vigorous old man whose snowy hair belied his name. His new wife, a sweet girl not so much older than myself. Niamh had been shocked to see this match.
“How can she?” she’d whispered to me behind her hand. “How can she lie with him? He’s old, so old. And fat. And he’s got a red nose. Look, she’s smiling at him! I’d rather die!”
I glanced at her a little sourly. “You’d best take Eamonn then, and be glad of the offer, if what you want is a beautiful young man,” I whispered back. “You’re unlikely to do better. Besides, he’s wealthy.”
“Eamonn? Huh!”
This seemed to be the response whenever I made this suggestion. I wondered, not for the first time, what Niamh really did want. There was no way to see inside that girl’s head. Not like Sean and me. Perhaps it was our being twins, or maybe it was something else, but the two of us never had any problem talking without words. It became necessary, even, to set a guard on your own mind at times so that the other could not read it. It was both a useful skill and an inconvenient one.
I looked at Eamonn, where he stood now with his sister, Aisling, greeting Conor and the rest of the robed procession. I could not really see what Niamh’s problem was. Eamonn was the right age, just a year or two older than my sister. He was comely enough; a little serious maybe, but that could be remedied. He was well built, with glossy, brown hair and fine, dark eyes. He had good teeth. To lie with him would be—well, I had little knowledge to such things, but I imagined it would not be repulsive. And it would be a match well regarded by both families. Eamonn had come very young to his inheritance, a vast domain surrounded by treacherous marshlands to the west of Seamus Redbeard’s land and curving around close by the pass to the north. Eamonn’s father, who bore the same name, had been killed in rather mysterious circumstances some years back. My Uncle Liam and my father did not always agree, but they were united in their refusal to discuss this particular topic. Eamonn’s mother had died when Aisling was born. So Eamonn had grown up with immense wealth and power and an overabundance of influential advisers: Seamus, who was his grandfather; Liam, who had once been betrothed to his mother; my father, who was somehow tied up in the whole thing. It was perhaps surprising that Eamonn had become very much his own man and despite his youth kept his own control over his estates and his not inconsiderable private army. That explained, maybe, why he was such a solemn young man. I found that I had been scrutinizing him closely as he finished speaking with one of the younger druids and glanced my way. He gave me a half smile, as if in defiance of my assessment, and I looked away, feeling a blush rise to my cheeks. Niamh was silly, I thought. She was unlikely to do any better; and at seventeen, she needed to make up her mind quickly before somebody else did it for her. It would be a very strong partnership and made stronger still by the tie of kinship with Seamus, who owned the lands between. He who controlled all of that could deal a heavy blow to the Britons when the time came.
The druids made their way to the end of the line, finishing their greetings. The sun was low in the sky. In the field behind our home barn, in neat rows, the plows and forks and other implements of our new season’s work lay ready. We made our way down paths still slippery from spring rains to take up our places in a great circle around the field, our shadows long in the late afternoon light. I saw Aisling slip away from her brother and reappear slightly later at Sean’s side, as if by chance. If she thought her move unnoticed, she thought wrong, for her cloud of auburn hair drew the eye however she might try to tame its exuberance with ribbons. As she reached my brother’s side, the rising breeze whisked one long, bright curl across her small face, and Sean reached out to tuck it gently behind her ear. I did not need to watch them further to feel her hands slip into his and my brother’s fingers tighten around it possessively. Well, I thought, here’s someone who knows how to make up his mind. Perhaps it didn’t matter, after all, what Niamh decided, for it seemed the alliance would be made one way or another.
The druids formed a semicircle around the rows of tools, and in the gap stood Conor, whose white robe bore an edging of gold. He had thrown back his hood, revealing the golden torch he wore around his neck, a sign of his leadership within this mystic brotherhood. He was young yet by their standards, but his face was an ancient face; his serene gaze held more than one lifetime’s knowledge in its depths. He had made a long journey these eighteen year in the forest.
Now Liam stepped forward, as head of the household, and passed to his brother a silver chalice of our best mead, made from the finest honey, and brewed with water from one particular spring whose exact location was a very well-guarded secret. Conor nodded gravely. Then, he began a slow progress between the plows and sickles, the hay forks and heavy spades, the shears and shovels, and he sprinkled a few drops of the potent brew on each as he passed.
“A fine calf in the belly of the breeding cow. A river of sweet milk from her teats. A warm coat on the backs of the sheep. A bountiful harvest from spring rains.”
Conor walked evenly, his white robe shifting and changing around him as if with its own life. He bore the silver chalice in one hand, his staff of birch in the other. There was a hush over all of us. Even the birds seemed to cease their chatter in the trees around. Behind me, a couple of horses leaned over the fence, their solemn, liquid eyes fixed on the man with the quiet voice.
“Brighid’s blessing be on our fields this season. Brighid’s hand stretch out over our new growth. May she bring forth life; may our seed flourish. Heart of the earth; life of the heart; all is one.”
So, he went on, and over each of the homely implements of toil he reached his hand and dropped a little of the precious mead. The light grew golden as the sun sank below the tops of the oaks. Last of all was the eight-ox plow, which the men had made under Iubdan’s instruction long year ago. With this, the stoniest of fields had been made soft and fertile. We had wreathed it in garlands of yellow tansy and fragrant heather, and Conor paused before it, raising his staff.
“Let no ill fall on our labors” he said. “Let no blight touch our crops, no malady our flocks. Let the work of this plow, and of our hands, make a good harvest and a prosperous season. We give thanks for the earth that is our mother, for the rain that brings forth her life. We honor the wind that shakes the seed from the great oaks; we reverence the sun that warms the new growth. In all things, we honor you, Brighid, who kindles the fires of spring.”
The circle of druids echoed his last sentence, their voices deep and resonant. Then, Conor walked back to his brother and put the cup into his hands, and Liam made a comment about maybe sharing what was left in the flask after supper. The ceremony was almost over.
Conor turned and stepped forward, one, two, three steps. He stretched out his right hand. A tall-young initiate with a head of curls the deepest red you ever saw came quickly forward and took his master’s staff. He stood to one side, watching Conor with a stare whose intensity sent a shiver down my spine. Conor raised his hands.
“New life! New light! New fire!” he said, and his voice was not quiet now but powerful and clear, ringing through the forest like some solemn bell. “New fire!”
His hands were above his head, reaching into the sky. There was a shimmering and a strange humming sound, and suddenly above his hands was light, flame, a brightness that dazzled the eyes and shocked the senses. The druid lowered his arms slowly. Still between his cupped hands flared a fire, a fire so real I watched with awe, expecting to see his skin burn and blister under the intense heat. The young initiate walked up to him, an unlit torch in his hands. As we stared transfixed, Conor reached out and touched this torch with his fingers, and it flamed into rich, golden light. And when Conor drew his hands away, they were just the hands of a man, and the mysterious fire was gone from them. The face of the youth was a picture of pride and awe as he bore his precious torch up to the house, where the fires of the hearth would be rekindled. The ceremony was complete. Tomorrow, the work of the new season would begin. I caught fragments of conversation as we made our way back to the house, where feasting would commence at sundown.
“…was this wise? There were others, surely, who could have been chosen for this task?”
“It was time. He cannot be kept hidden forever.”
This was Liam and his brother. Then I saw my mother and my father as they walked up the path together. Her foot slipped in the mud, and she stumbled; he caught her instantly, almost before it happened, he was so quick. He arm went around her shoulders, and she looked up at him. I sensed a shadow over the two of them, and I was suddenly ill at ease. Sean ran past me, grinning, with Aisling not far behind. They were following the tall, young man who bore the torch. My brother did not speak, but in my mind I caught his happiness as he passed me. Just for tonight, he was only sixteen years old, and he was in love, and all was right in his world. And I felt that sudden chill again. What was wrong with me? It was as if I were wishing ill on my family, on a fine spring day when everything was bright and strong. I told myself to stop being foolish, but the shadow was still there on the edge of my thoughts.
You feel it too.
I froze. There was only one person I could speak to this way, without words, and that was Sean. But it was not my brother’s inner voice that touched my mind now.
Don’t be alarmed, Liadan. I will not intrude on your thoughts. If I have learned anything these long years, it is to discipline this skill. You are unhappy. Uneasy. What happens will not be your doing. You must remember that. Each of us chooses his own path.
Still I walked toward the house, the crowd around me chattering and laughing, young men holding their scythes over a shoulder, young women helping to carry spade or sickle. Here and there hands met and clasped, and one or two stragglers disappeared quietly into the forest about their own business. On the path ahead, my uncle walked slowly, the golden border of his robe catching the last rays of setting sun.
I—I don’t know what I feel, Uncle. A darkness—something terribly wrong. And yet, It’s as if I were wishing it on us by thinking of it. How can I do this when everything is so good, when they are all so happy?
It’s time. Not by so much as a turning of the head did my uncle show that he spoke with me thus. You wonder at my
ability to read you? You should talk to Sorcha, if you can make her answer. It was she, and Finbar, who excelled in this once. But it may pain her to recall it.
You said it’s time. Time for what?
If there was a way to sigh without making a sound that was what Conor communicated to me. Time for their hands to stir the pot. Time for their fingers to weave a little more into the pattern. Time for their voice to take up the song. You need feel no guilt, Liadan. They use us all, and there is not much we can do about it. I discovered that the hard way. And so will you, I fear.
What do you mean?
You’ll find out soon enough. Why not enjoy yourself and be young while there is still time?
And that was it. He shut off his thoughts from me as suddenly and surely as if a trapdoor had slammed closed. Ahead, I saw him pause, waiting for my mother and Iubdan to catch up; and the three of them went into the house together. I was left none the wiser for this strange conversation.
My sister was very beautiful that night. The hearth fires of the house had been rekindled, and there was a bonfire out of doors, and cider, and dancing. It was quite cool. I had wrapped a shawl around me, and still I shivered. But Niamh’s
shoulders were bare above her deep blue gown, and her golden hair was cunningly woven with silk ribbons and little early violets. As she danced, her skin glowed in the firelight and her eyes spoke a challenge. The young men could scarce keep their eyes off her, as she whirled first with one and then another. Even the young druids, I thought, were having difficulty in keeping their feet from tapping and their gaze suitably sober. Seamus had brought the musicians. They were good; a piper, a harper, and one who excelled at anything he put his hand to, bodhrán or whistle or flute. There were tables and benches set out in the courtyard, and the older druids sat with the household there, talking and exchanging tales, watching as the young folk enjoyed themselves.
There was one who stood apart, and that was the young druid, him with the dark red hair who had held the torch rekindled with a mystical fire. He alone had not partaken of food and drink. He showed no sign of enjoyment as the household exploded in merriment around him. His foot would not be tapping to an old tune; his voice would not be raised in song. Instead, he stood upright and silent behind the main party, watchful. I thought that only common sense. It was wise to have a few who did not partake of strong ale, a few who would listen for unwanted intruders, who would be alert to sounds of danger. In knew Liam had posted men to watch at strategic points around the house, in addition to his usual sentries and forward guards. An attack on Seven-waters tonight could wipe out not just the lords of the three most powerful families in the northeast but their spiritual leaders as well. So no chances were taken.
But this young man was no guard; or if he were meant to be, he was a pretty poor one. For his dark eye were fixed on one thing only and that was my lovely, laughing sister as she danced in the firelight with her curtain of red-gold hair swirling around her. I saw how still he was, and how his eyes devoured her; and then I looked away, telling myself not to be stupid. This was a druid after all; I supposed they must have desires, like any other man, and so his interest was natural enough. Dealing with such things was no doubt part of the discipline they learned. And it was none of my business. Then I looked at my sister, and I saw the glance she sent his way from under her long, beautiful lashes.
Dance with Eamonn, you stupid girl, I told her, but she had never been able to hear my inner voice.
The music changed from a reel to a slow, graceful lament. It had words, and the crowd had drink enough by now to sing along with the piper.
“Will you dance with me, Liadan?”
“Oh.” Eamonn had startled me, suddenly there be beside me in the darkness. The firelight showed his face as gravely composed as ever. If he were enjoying the party, he gave no sign of it. Now that I thought about it, I had not seen him dancing.
“Oh. If you—but perhaps you should ask my sister. She dances far better than.” It came out sounding awkward, almost rude. Both of us looked across the sea of dancing youths and girls to where Niamh stood smiling, running a careless hand through her hair, surrounded by admirers, a tall, golden figure in the flickering light.
“I’m asking you.” There was no sign of a smile on Eamonn’s lips. I was glad he was not able to read my thoughts as my Uncle Conor could. I had been quick enough to assess him earlier that evening. It made my cheeks burn to think of it. I reminded myself that I was a daughter of Sevenwaters and must observe certain courtesies. I got up and slipped off my shawl, and Eamonn surprised me by taking it from me and folding it neatly before he laid it on a nearby table. Then he took my hand and led me into the circle of dancers.
It was a slow dance, couples meeting and parting, circling back to back, touching hands and letting go, a dance well suited to Brighid’s festival, which is, after all, about new life and the stirring of the blood that gives it form. I could see Sean and Aisling moving around one another in perfect step, as if the two of them breathed the one breath. The wonderment in their eyes made my heard stop. I found myself saying silently, Let them keep this. Let them keep it. But to whom I said this, I did not know.
“What is it, Liadan?” Eamonn had seen the change in my face as he came toward me, took my right hand in his, turned me under his arm. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I lied. “Nothing. I suppose I’m tired, that’s all. We were up early, gathering flowers, preparing food for the feast, the usual things.”
He gave an approving nod.
“Liadan—” He started to say something but was interrupted by an exuberant couple who threatened to bowl us over as they spun wildly past. Adroitly, my partner whisked me out of harm’s way, and for a moment both his arms were around my waist and my face close to his.
“Liadan, I need to speak with you. I wish to tell you something.”
The moment was over. The music played on, and he let go as we were drawn back into the circle.
“Well, talk then,” I said, rather ungraciously. I could not see Niamh; surely she had not retired already. “What is it you want to say?”
There was a lengthy pause. We reached the top of the line; he put one hand on my waist and I put one on his shoulder, and we executed a few turns as we made out way to the bottom under an arch of outstretched arms. Then suddenly it seemed Eamonn had had enough of dancing. He kept my hand in his and drew me to the edge of the circle.
“Not here,” he said. “This is not the time nor the place. Tomorrow. I want to talk with you alone.”
I felt his hands on my shoulders briefly as he placed the shawl about me. He was very close. Something within me sounded a sort of warning, but still I did not understand.
“In the morning,” he said. “You work in your garden early, do you not? I will come to you there. Thank you for the dance, Liadan. You should perhaps let me be the judge of your skills.”
I looked up at him, trying to work out what he meant, but his face gave nothing away. Then somebody called his name, and with a brief nod he was gone.
I worked in the garden next morning, for the weather was fine, though cold, and there was always plenty to do between herb beds and stillroom. My mother did not come out to join me, which was unusual. Perhaps, I thought, she was tired after the festivities. I weeded and cleaned and swept, and I made up a coltsfoot tea to take to the village later, and I bundled flowering heather for drying. It was a busy morning. I forgot all about Eamonn until my father came into the stillroom near midday, ducking his head under the lintel, then seating himself on the wide window embrasure, long legs stretched out before him. He, too, had been working and had not yet shed his outdoor boots, which bore substantial traces of newly plowed soil. It would sweep up easily enough.
“Busy day?” he asked, observing the well-ordered bundles of drying herbs, the flasks ready for delivery, the tools of my trade still laid out on the workbench.
“Busy enough,” I said, bending to wash my hands in the bucket I kept by the outer door. “I missed Mother today. Was she resting?”
A little frown appeared on his face. “She was up early, talking to Conor, at first. Later with Liam as well. She needs to rest.”
I tidied the knives, the mortar and pestle, the scoops and twine away onto their shelves. “She won’t,” I said. “You know that. It’s like this when Conor comes. It’s as if there’s never enough time for them, always too much to be said, as if they can never make up for the years they lost.”
Father nodded, but he didn’t say anything. I got out the millet broom and began to sweep.
“I’ll go to the village later,” I told him. “She need not do that. Perhaps, if you tell her to, she’ll try to sleep.”
Iubdan’s mouth quirked up at one corner in a half smile. “I never tell your mother what to do,” he said. “You know that.”
I grinned at him. “Well then, I’ll tell her. The druids are here for a day or two. She has time enough for talking.”
“That reminds me,” said Father, lifting his booted feet as I swept the floor beneath them. When he put them down again, a new shower of earth fell onto the flagstones. “I had a message to give you.”
“From Eamonn. He asked me to say he’s been called home urgently. He left very early this morning, too early to come and see you with any decency, was how he put it. He said to tell you he would speak with you when he returned.
Does that make sense to you?”
“Not a lot,” I said, sweeping the last of the debris out the door and sown the steps, “He never did tell me what it was all about. Why was he called away? What was so urgent? Has Aisling gone as well?”
“Aisling is still here; she is safer under our protection. It was a matter calling for leadership and quick decisions. He has taken his grandfather and those of his men who could be made ready to ride. I understand there was some new attack on his border positions. By whom, nobody seemed sure. An enemy who came by stealth and killed without scruple, as efficiently as a bird of prey, was the description. The man who brought the tale seemed almost crazed with fear. I suppose we will hear more when Eamonn returns.”
We went out into the garden. At this chill time of year, spring was not much more than a thought; the tiniest of fragile crocus shoots emerging from the hard ground, a hint of buds swelling on the branches of the young oak. Early flowering tansy made a note of vibrant yellow against the gray-green of wormwood and lavender. The air smelled cool and clean. Each stone path was swept bare, the herb beds tidy under their straw mulching.
“Sit here awhile with me, Liadan,” said my father. “We are not needed yet. It will be hard enough to persuade your mother and her brothers to come inside for some food and drink. I have something to ask you.”
“You, too?” I said, as we sat down together on the stone bench. “It sounds as if everyone has something to ask me.”
“Mine is a general sort of question. Have you given any thought to marriage? to your future?”
I was not expecting this.
“Not really. I suppose—I suppose I hoped, as the youngest, for a couple more years at home,” I said, feeling suddenly cold. “I am in no hurry to leave Sevenwaters. Maybe—maybe I thought I might remain here, you know, tend to my ancient parents in their failing years. Perhaps not seek a husband at all. After all, both Niamh and Sean will make good matches, strong alliances. Need I be wed as well?”
Father looked at me very directly. His eyes were a light, intense blue; he was working out just how much of what I said was serious and how much a joke.
“You know I would gladly keep you here with us, sweet-heart,” he said slowly. “Saying farewell to you would not be easy for me. But there will be offers. I would not have you narrow your pathway because of us.”
I frowned. “Maybe we could leave it for a while. After all, Niamh will wed first. Surely there won’t be any offers until after that.” My mind drew up the image of my sister, glowing and golden in her blue gown by firelight, tossing her bright hair, surrounded by comely young men. “Niamh should wed first,” I added firmly. It seemed to me that this was important, but I could not tell him why.
There was a pause, as if he were waiting for me to make some connection I could not quite grasp.
“Why do you say that? That there will be no offers for you until your sister weds?”
This was becoming difficult, more difficult than it should have been, for my father and I were very close and always spoke directly and honestly to each other.
“What man would offer for me when he could have Niamh?” I asked. There was no sense of envy in my question. It just seemed to me so obvious I found it hard to believe it had not occurred to him.
My father raised his brows. “Perhaps, if Eamonn makes you an offer of marriage, you should ask him that question,” he said quite gently. There was a hint of amusement in his tone.
I was stunned. “Eamonn? Offer for me? I don’t think so. Is he not intended for Niamh? You’re wrong, I’m sure.” But in the back of my mind, last night’s episode played itself out again: the way he had spoken to me, the way we had danced together, and a little seed of doubt was sown. I shook my head, not wanting to believe it was possible. “It wouldn’t be right, Father. Eamonn should wed Niamh. That’s what everyone expects. And—Niamh needs somebody like him. A man who will—take a firm hand but be fair as well. Niamh should be the one.” Then I thought, with relief, of something else. “Besides,” I added, “Eamonn
would never ask a girl such a thing without seeking her father’s permission first. He was to have spoken with me early this morning. It must have been about something else.”
“What if I told you,” said Iubdan carefully, “that your young friend had planned a meeting with me as well this morning? He was prevented from keeping this appointment only by the sudden call home to defend his border.”
I was silent.
“What sort of man would you choose for yourself, Liadan?” he asked me.
“One who is trustworthy and true to himself,” I answered straightaway. “One who speaks his mind without fear. One who can be a friend as well as a husband. I would be contented with that.”
“You would wed an ugly, old man with not a scrap of silver to his name if he met your description?” asked my father,
amused. “You are an unusual young woman, Daughter.”
“To be honest,” I said wryly, “if he were also young, handsome, and wealthy, it would not go unappreciated. But such things are less important. If I was lucky enough—if I was fortunate enough to wed for love, as you did…but that is unlikely, I know.” I thought of my brother and Aisling, dancing in a charmed circle all their own. It was too much to expect the same thing for myself.
“It brings a contentment like no other,” said Iubdan softly. “And with it a fear that strikes when you least expect it. When you love thus, you give hostages to fortune. It becomes harder with time to accept what fate brings. We have been lucky so far.”
I nodded. I knew what he was talking about. It was a matter we did not speak of openly, not yet.
We got up and walked slowly out through the garden archway and along the path toward the main courtyard. Farther away, in the shelter of a tall hedge of blackthorn, my mother was seated on the low, stone wall, a small, slight figure, her pale features framed by a mass of dark curls. Liam stood on one side, booted foot on the wall, elbow on knee, explaining something with economical gestures. On her other side sat Conor, very still in his white robe, listening intently. We did not disturb them.
“I suppose you will find out when Eamonn returns whether I am right,” my father said. “There is no doubt he would be a very suitable match for your sister or for yourself. You should at least give thought to it in the meantime.”
I did not answer.
“You must understand that I would never force you into any decision, Liadan, and neither would your mother. When you take a husband, the choice will be yours. We would ask only that you think about it, and prepare yourself, and consider any offers that are made. We know you will choose wisely.”
“What about Liam? You know what he would want. There is our estate to consider and the strength of our alliances.”
“You are you mother’s daughter and mine, not Liam’s,” said my father. “He will be content enough that Sean has chosen the one woman Liam would most have wanted for him. Your choice will be your own, little one.”
I had the strangest feeling at that moment. It was as if a silent voice whispered, These words will come back to haunt him. A chill, dark feeling. It was over in a moment, and when I glanced at Father, his face was calm and unperturbed. Whatever it was, it had passed by him unheard.
* * *
The druids remained at Sevenwaters for several days. Conor spoke at length with his sister and brother, or sometimes I would see him with my mother alone, the two of them standing or sitting together in total silence. At such times they communicated secretly, with the language of the mind, and there was no telling what passed between them. Thus had she spoken once with Finbar, the brother closest to her heart, him who returned from the years away with the wing of a swan instead of an arm and something not quite right with his mind. She had shared the same bond with him as I did with Sean. I knew my brother’s pain and his joy without the need for words. I could reach him, however far he might go, with a message nobody but he would ever hear. And so I understood how it must he for my mother, for Sorcha, having lost that other who was so close that he was like a part of herself. For, the tale went, Finbar could never become a man again, not quite. There was a part of him, when he came back, that was still wild, attuned to the needs and instincts of a creature of the wide sky and the bottomless deep. And so, one night, he had simply walked down to the lake shore and on into the cold embrace of the water. His body had never been found, but there was no doubt, folk said, that he drowned that night. How could such a creature swim, with the right arm of a young man and on the left side a spreading, white-feathered wing?
I understood my mother’s grief, the empty place she must carry inside her even after so long, although she never spoke these, not even to Iubdan. But I believed she shared it with Conor during those long, silent times. I thought they used their gift to strengthen one another, as if by sharing the pain they could make it a little easier to bear, each for the other.
The whole household would gather together for supper when the long day’s work was over, and after supper for singing and drinking and the telling of tales. In our family there was an ability for storytelling that was widely known and respected. Of us all, my mother was the best, her gift with words such that she could, for a time, take you right out of this world and into another. But the rest of us were no mean wordsmiths either. Conor was a wonderful storyteller. Even Liam, on occasion, would contribute some heroic tale containing detailed descriptions of battles and the technicalities of armed and unarmed combat. There was a strong following for these among the men. Iubdan, as I have said, never told a tale, though he listened attentively. At such times folk were reminded that he was a Briton, but he was well respected for his fairness; his generosity, and above all his capacity for hard work; and so they did not hold his ancestry against him.
On the night of Imbolc, however, it was not one of our household who told the tale. My mother was asked for a story, but she excused herself.
“With such a learned company in our midst,” she said sweetly, “I must decline for tonight. Conor, we know the talent of your kind for such a task. Perhaps you will favor us with a tale for Brighid’s day?”
I thought, looking at her, that she still seemed weary, with a trace of shadow around the luminous green eyes. She was always pale, but tonight her skin had a transparency that made me uneasy. She sat on a bench beside Iubdan, and her small hand was swallowed up by his large one. His other arm was around her shoulders, and she leaned against him. The words came to me again, Let them keep this, and I flinched. I told myself sternly to stop this foolishness. What did I think I was, a seer? More likely just a girl with a fit of the vapors.
“Thank you,” said Conor gravely, but he did not rise to his feet. Instead, he looked across the hall and gave the smallest of nods. And so it was the young druid, the one who had borne the torch the night before to rekindle our hearth fires, who stepped forward and readied himself to entertain us. He was, indeed, a well-made young fellow, quite tall and very straight backed with the discipline of his kind, his curling hair not the fiery red of my father’s and Niamh’s but a deeper shade, the color at the heart of a winter sunset. And his eyes were dark, the dark of ripe mulberries, and hard to read. there was a little cleft in his chin, and he had pair of wicked dimples when he allowed them to show. Just as well, I thought, that this is one of the brotherhood. If not, half the young girls of Sevenwaters would be fighting over him. I dare say he’d enjoy that.
“What better tale for Imbolc,” began the young druid, “than that of Aengus Óg and the fair Caer Ibormeith? A tale of love, and mystery, and transformation. By your leave, I will tell this tale tonight.”
I had expected he might be nervous, but his voice was strong and confident. I supposed it came from years and years of privation and study. It takes a long time to learn what a druid must learn, and there are no books to help you. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, Liam looking at Sorcha, a small frown on his face and a question in his eyes. She gave a little nod as if to say, never mind, let him go on. For this tale was one we did not tell here at Sevenwaters. It cut altogether too close to the bone. I imagined this young man knew little of our history, or he would never have chosen it. Conor, surely, could not have been aware of his intention, or he would tactfully have suggested a different story. But Conor was sitting quietly near his sister, apparently unperturbed.
“Even a son of the Tuatha De; Danann,” began the young man, “can fall sick for love. So it was with Agengus. Young, strong, handsome, a warrior of some repute; one would not have thought him so easily unmanned. But one afternoon, out hunting for deer, he was overtaken suddenly by a deep weariness and stretched himself out to sleep on the grass in the shade spread by a grove of yew trees. He slept straightaway, and in his sleep he dreamed. Oh, how he dreamed. In his dream, there she was: a woman so beautiful she outshone the stars in the sky, a woman to tear you heart in pieces. He saw her walking barefoot by a remote shore, tall and straight, her breasts white as moonlight on snow where they swelled around above the dark folds of her gown, her hair like light on beech leaves in autumn, the bright red-gold of burnished copper. He saw the way she moved, the sweet allure of her body; and when he woke, he knew that he must have her or he would surely die.”
This had, I thought, far too much of a personal touch. But when I looked round me, as the storyteller drew breath, it seemed only I had noticed the form of his words: I and one other. Sean stood by Aisling near the window, and they seemed to be listening as attentively as I, but I knew their thoughts were on each other, every scrap of awareness fixed on the way his hand lay casually at her waist, the way her fingers gently touched his sleeve. Iubdan was watching the young druid, but his gaze was abstracted; my mother had rested her head against his shoulder, and her eyes were closed. Conor looked serene; Liam remote. The rest of the household listened politely. Only Niamh sat mesmerized on the edge of her seat, a deep blush on her cheeks and her lovely blue eyes alight with fascination. He meant it for her, there was no doubt of it; was I the only other who could see this? It was almost as if he had the power to command our reactions with his words.
“Aengus suffered thus for a year and a day,” the youth went on. “Every night in visions she would appear to him, sometimes close to his bedside, her fair body clothed in sheerest white, so close it seemed he could touch her with his hand. He fancied, when she bent over him, he felt the light touch of her long hair against his bare body. But when he reached out, lo! she was gone in an instant. He was eaten up with longing for her so that he fell into a fever, and his father, the Dagda, feared for his life, or at least for his sanity. Who was she? Was the maiden real or some creature summoned up from the depths of Aengus’ spirit, never to be possessed in life?
“Aengus was dying; his body was burning up, his heart beat like a battle drum, his eyes were hot with fever. And so the Dagda solicited the help of the king of Munster. They sought to the eat, and they sought to the west, and along all the highways and byways of Erin; and at length they learned the maiden’s name. It was Caer Ibormeith, Yewberry, and she was the daughter of Eathal, a lord of the Tuatha De;, who dwelt in an Otherworld place in the province of Connacht.
“When they told Aengus this news, he rose up from his sickbed and went forth to find her. He made the long journey to the place called Mouth of the Dragon, the lake on whose remote shores he had first glimpsed his beloved. He waited there three days and three nights, taking neither food nor drink, and at length she came, walking along the sand barefoot as he had seen her in his vision, her long hair whipped around her by the wind over the lake, like coils of living fire. His desire threatened to overwhelm him, but he managed to approach her politely and introduced himself as steadily as he could.
“The maiden, Caer Ibormeith, wore around her neck a collar of silver, and now he saw that a chain linked her to another maiden, and another, and all along the shore thrice fifty young women walked, each joined to the next by chains of wrought silver. But when Aengus asked Caer to be his, when he pleaded his longing for her, she slipped away as silently as she had appeared, and her maidens with her. And of them all, she was the tallest and the most lovely. She was indeed the woman of his heart.”
He paused, but not a glance did he make in Niamh’s direction, where she sat like some beautiful statue, her intense blue eyes fill of wonderment. I had never seen her sit still so long.
“After this, the Dagda went to Caer’s father where he dwelt in Connacht and demanded the truth. How could his son, Aengus, win this woman, for without her he would surely be unable to live? How might so strange a creature be had? Eathal was unwilling to cooperate; eventually, pressure was applied that he could not resist. The fair Caer, said her father, chose to spend every other year as a swan. From Samhain she would resume her birdlike guise; and on the day she changed, Aengus must take her to him, for that was the time she was most vulnerable. But he must be ready, warned Eathal. Winning her would not be without a cost.
“It came to pass as Eathal had said. On Samhain Eve, Aengus traveled back to the Dragon’s Mouth, and there on the shore were thrice fifty beautiful swans, each with a collar of beaten silver. Thrice fifty and one, for he knew the swan with the proudest plumage, and the longest, most graceful neck, was his lovely Caer Ibormeith. Aengus went up to her, and fell on his knees before her, and she laid her neck across his shoulder and raised her wide wings. At that moment he felt himself changing. A thrill went through his body, from the tips of his toes to the hair on his head, from his smallest finger to his beating heart; and then he saw his skin change and shimmer and his arms sprout forth snowy plumes, and his vision became clear and far seeing, and he knew he, too, was a swan.
“They flew three times around the lake, singing in their joy, and so sweet was that song that it lulled all for many leagues around in to a peaceful sleep. After that, Caer Ibormeith returned home with Aengus, and whether they went in the form of man and woman, or of two swans, the stories do not make plain. But they do say, if on Samhain Eve you travel close to Loch Be;al Dragan and stand very still on the shore at dusk, you will hear the sound of their voices calling out in the darkness over the lake. Once you have heard that song, you will never forget it. Not in all your living days.”
The silence that followed was a sign of respect accorded only to the best storytellers. He had indeed told his tale with skill; almost as well as one of our own family might have done. I did not look at Niamh; I hoped her red cheeks would not draw undue attention. At length it was my mother who
“Come forward, young man,” she said softly, and she stood up, but her hand was still in my father’s. The young druid stepped forward, somewhat paler in the face than before. Perhaps, for all his seeming confidence, this had been an ordeal for him. He was young enough, scarce twenty, I’d have thought.
“You tell your tale with spirit and imagination. Thank you for entertaining us so well tonight.” She smiled at him kindly, but I noticed the grip she kept on Iubdan’s fingers behind her back, as if to steady herself.
The young man bowed his head briefly. “Thank you, my lady. Praise such as this, coming from a storyteller of your reputation, I value highly. I owe my skills to the best of teachers.” He glanced at Conor.
“What is your name, son?” This was Liam, from across the room where he sat among his men. The boy turned.
“Ciarán, my lord.”
Liam nodded. “You are welcome in my house, Ciarán, whenever my brother chooses to bring you here. We value our tales and our music, which once were all but lost from these halls. Welcome, indeed, all of the brotherhood and sisterhood who grace our fireside on Brighid’s night. Now, who will play the harp or flute or sing us a fine song of battles won and lost?”
My uncle was, I thought, deliberately moving them onto safer territory, like the master tactician he was. The young man, Ciarán, melted back into the group of gray-robed figures seated quietly together in a corner; and with the passing around of mead jugs and the striking up of pipes and flute, the evening went on in perfect harmony.
After a while, I told myself I was being foolish. An overactive imagination, that was all it was. It was natural for Niamh to flirt; she did it without thinking. There was no real intention in it. There she was now, laughing and joking with a couple of Liam’s young warriors. As for the tale, it was not uncommon to base a description of a hero, or a lady, on someone you knew. A boy brought up in the sacred groves, far from the halls of lord and chieftain, might have precious little to go on when required to speak of a peerless beauty. Not surprising, then, that he fixed on the lovely daughter of the house as his model. Harmless. I was stupid. The druids would go back to their forest, and Eamonn would return, and he would marry Niamh, and all would be as it should be. As it must be. I’d almost convinced myself, as it drew onto midnight and we made ready to retire to bed. Almost. As I reached the foot of the stairs, candle in hand, I happened to glance across the room, and met the steady gaze of my Uncle Conor. He was standing still amid a bustle of people who talked, and laughed, and lit candles from the lamp there, so still he could have been made of stone, but for his eyes.
Remember, Liadan. It unfolds as it must. Follow your path with courage. That is all any of us can do.
He had moved away already, and I could no longer touch his thoughts. But I saw Sean turn his head sharply toward me, feeling my confusion without understanding it. It was too much. Nameless feelings of ill; sudden bouts of shivering; cryptic warnings of the mind. I wanted my quiet room, a drink of water, and a good night’s sleep. Simple, safe things. I gripped my candleholder, picked up my skirts, and went upstairs to bed.

Copyright © 2001 by Juliet Marillier

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Young women -- Fiction.