Three children lay on the rocks at the water’s edge. A dark-haired little girl. Two boys, slightly older. This image is caught forever in my memory, like some fragile creature preserved in amber. Myself, my brothers. I remember the way the water rippled as I trailed my fingers across the shining surface.
“Don’t lean over so far, Sorcha,” said Padriac. “You might fall in.” He was a year older than me and made the most of what little authority that gave him. You could understand it, I suppose. After all, there were six brothers altogether, and five of them were older than he was.
I ignored him, reaching down into the mysterious depths.
“She might fall in, mightn’t she, Finbar?”
A long silence. As it stretched out, we both looked at Finbar, who lay on his back, full length on the warm rock. Not sleeping; his eyes reflected the open gray of the autumnal sky. His hair spread out on the rock in a wild black tangle. There was a hole in the sleeve of his jacket.
“The swans are coming,” said Finbar at last. He sat up slowly to rest his chin on raised knees. “They’re coming tonight.”
Behind him, a breeze stirred the branches of oak and elm, ash and elder, and scattered a drift of leaves, gold and bronze and brown. The lake lay in a circle of tree-clothed hills, sheltered as if in a great chalice.
“How can you know that?” queried Padriac. “How can you be so sure? It could be tomorrow, or the day after. Or they could go to some other place. You’re always so sure.”
I don’t remember Finbar answering, but later that day, as dusk was falling, he took me back to the lakeshore. In the half light over the water, we saw the swans come home. The last low traces of sun caught a white movement in the darkening sky. Then they were near enough for us to see the pattern of their flight, the orderly formation descending through the cool air as the light faded. The rush of wings, the vibration of the air. The final glide to the water, the silvery flashing as it parted to receive them. As they landed, the sound was like my name, over and over: Sorcha, Sorcha. My hand crept into Finbar’s; we stood immobile until it was dark, and then my brother took me home.
If you are lucky enough to grow up the way I did, you have plenty of good things to remember. And some that are not so good. One spring, looking for the tiny green frogs that appeared as soon as the first warmth was in the air, my brothers and I splashed knee deep in the stream, making enough noise between us to frighten any creature away. Three of my six brothers were there, Conor whistling some old tune; Cormack, who was his twin, creeping up behind to slip a handful of bog weed down his neck. The two of them rolling on the bank, wrestling and laughing. And Finbar. Finbar was further up the stream, quiet by a rock pool. He would not turn stones to seek frogs; waiting, he would charm them out by his silence.
I had a fistful of wildflowers, violets, meadowsweet, and the little pink ones we called cuckoo flowers. Down near the water’s edge was a new one with pretty star-shaped blooms of a delicate pale green, and leaves like gray feathers. I clambered nearer and reached out to pick one.
“Sorcha! Don’t touch that!” Finbar snapped.
Startled, I looked up. Finbar never gave me orders. If it had been Liam, now, who was the eldest, or Diarmid, who was the next one, I might have expected it. Finbar was hurrying back toward me, frogs abandoned. But why should I take notice of him? He wasn’t so very much older, and it was only a flower. I heard him saying, “Sorcha, don’t—” as my small fingers plucked one of the soft-looking stems.
The pain in my hand was like fire—a white-hot agony that made me screw up my face and howl as I blundered along the path, my flowers dropped heedless underfoot. Finbar stopped me none too gently, his hands on my shoulders arresting my wild progress.
“Starwort,” he said, taking a good look at my hand, which was swelling and turning an alarming shade of red. By this time my shrieks had brought the twins running. Cormack held onto me, since he was strong, and I was bawling and thrashing about with the pain. Conor tore off a strip from his grubby shirt. Finbar had found a pair of pointed twigs, and he began to pull out, delicately, one by one, the tiny needlelike spines the starwort plant had embedded in my soft flesh. I remember the pressure of Cormack’s hands on my arms as I gulped for air between sobs, and I can still hear Conor talking, talking in a quiet voice as Finbar’s long deft fingers went steadily about their task.
“…and her name was Deirdre, Lady of the Forest, but nobody ever saw her, save late at night, if you went out along the paths under the birch trees, you might catch a glimpse of her tall figure in a cloak of midnight blue, and her long hair, wild and dark, floating out behind her, and her little crown of stars…”
When it was done, they bound up my hand with Conor’s makeshift bandage and some crushed marigold petals, and by morning it was better. And never a word they said to my oldest brothers, when they came home, about what a foolish girl I’d been.
From then on I knew what starwort was, and I began to teach myself about other plants that could hurt or heal. A child that grows up half-wild in the forest learns the secrets that grow there simply through common sense. Mushroom and toadstool. Lichen, moss, and creeper. Leaf, flower, root, and bark. Throughout the endless reaches of the forest, great oak, strong ash, and gentle birch sheltered a myriad of growing things. I learned where to find them, when to cut them, how to use them in salve, ointment, or infusion. But I was not content with that. I spoke with the old women of the cottages till they tired of me, and I studied what manuscripts I could find, and tried things out for myself. There was always more to learn; and there was no shortage of work to be done.
When was the beginning? When my father met my mother, and lost his heart, and chose to wed for love? Or was it when I was born? I should have been the seventh son of a seventh son, but the goddess was playing tricks, and I was a girl. And after she gave birth to me, my mother died.
It could not be said that my father gave way to his grief. He was too strong for that, but when he lost her, some light in him went out. It was all councils and power games, and dealing behind closed doors. That was all he saw, and all he cared about. So my brothers grew up running wild in the forest around the keep of Sevenwaters. Maybe I wasn’t the seventh son of the old tales, the one who’d have magical powers and the luck of the Fair Folk, but I tagged along with the boys anyway, and they loved me and raised me as well as a bunch of boys could.
Our home was named for the seven streams that flowed down the hillsides into the great, tree-circled lake. It was a remote, quiet, strange place, well guarded by silent men who slipped through the woodlands clothed in gray, and who kept their weapons sharp. My father took no chances. My father was Lord Colum of Sevenwaters, and his tuath was the most secure, and the most secret, this side of Tara. All respected him. Many feared him. Outside the forest, nowhere was really safe. Chieftain warred against chieftain, king against king. And there were the raiders from across the water. Christian houses of scholarship and contemplation were ransacked, their peaceful dwellers killed or put to flight. Sometimes, in desperation, the holy brothers took up arms themselves. The old faith went underground. The Norsemen made their claim on our shores, and at Dublin they set up a ship camp and began to winter over, so that no time of year was safe. Even I had seen their work, for there was a ruin at Killevy, where raiders had killed the holy women and destroyed their sanctuary. I only went there once. There was a shadow over that place. Walking among the tumbled stones, you could still hear the echo of their screaming.
But my father was different. Lord Colum’s authority was absolute. Within the ring of hills, blanketed by ancient forest, his borders were as close to secure as any man’s might be in these troubled times. To those who did not respect it, who did not understand it, the forest was impenetrable. A man, or a troop of men, who did not know the way would become hopelessly lost there, prey to the sudden mists, the branching, deceptive paths, and to other, older things, things a Viking or a Briton could not hope to understand. The forest protected us. Our lands were safe from marauders, whether it be raiders from across the sea or neighbors intent on adding a few acres of grazing land or some fine cattle to their holdings. They held Seven-waters in fear, and gave us a wide berth.
But Father had little time for talk of the Norsemen or the Picts, for we had our own war. Our war was with the Britons. In particular it was with one family of Britons, known as Northwoods. This feud went back a long way. I did not concern myself with it greatly. I was a girl, after all, and anyway I had better things to do with my time. Besides, I had never seen a Briton, or a Norseman, or a Pict. They were less real to me than creatures from an old tale, dragons or giants.
Father was away for much of the time, building alliances with neighbors, checking his outposts and guard towers, recruiting men. I preferred those times, when we could spend our days as we wished, exploring the forest, climbing the tall oaks, conducting expeditions over the lake, staying out all night if we wanted to. I learned where to find blackberries and hazelnuts and crab apples. I learned how to start a fire even if the wood was damp, and bake squash or onions in the coals. I could make a shelter out of bracken, and steer a raft in a straight course.
I loved to be out-of-doors and feel the wind on my face. Still, I continued to teach myself the healer’s art, for my heart told me this would be my true work. All of us could read, though Conor was by far the most skillful, and there were old manuscripts and scrolls tucked away on an upper floor of the stone fortress that was our home. These I devoured in my thirst for knowledge and thought it nothing unusual, for this was the only world I had known. I did not know that other girls of twelve were learning to do fine embroidery, and to plait one another’s hair into intricate coronets, and to dance and sing. I did not understand that few could read, and that the books and scrolls that filled our quiet upstairs room were priceless treasure in a time of destruction and pillage. Nestled safe among its guardian trees, hidden from the world by forces older than time, our home was indeed a place apart.
When my father was there, things were different. Not that he took much interest in us; his visits were short, and taken up with councils and meetings. But he would watch the boys practicing with sword or staff or throwing axe as they galloped and wheeled on horseback. You could never tell what Father was thinking, for his eyes gave nothing away. He was a man of solid build and stern appearance, and everything about him spoke of discipline. He dressed plainly; still, there was something about him that told you, instantly, that he was a leader. He wore his brown hair tied tightly back. Everywhere he went, from hall to courtyard, from sleeping quarters to stables, his two great wolfhounds padded silently behind him. That, I suppose, was his one indulgence. But even they had their purpose.
Each time he came home, he went through the motions of greeting us all and checking our progress, as if we were some crop that might eventually be fit for harvest. We hated this ritual parade of family identity, though it became easier for the boys once they reached young manhood and Father began to see them as of some use to him. We would be called into the great hall, after we’d been quickly tidied up by whatever servant currently had the thankless task of overseeing us. Father would be seated in his great oak chair, his men around him at a respectful distance, the dogs at his feet, relaxed but watchful.
He would call the boys forward one by one, greeting them kindly enough, starting with Liam and working gradually downward. He would question each of them briefly on his progress and activities since last time. This could take a while; after all, there were six of them, and me as well. Knowing nothing of any other form of parental guidance, I accepted this as the way things were done. If my brothers remembered a time when things were different, they didn’t talk about it.
The boys grew up quickly. By the time Liam was twelve, he was undergoing an intensive training in the arts of war, and spending less and less time with the rest of us in our joyous, undisciplined world. Not long after, Diarmid’s particular skill with the spear earned him a place beside his brother, and all too soon both were riding out with Father’s band of warriors. Cormack could scarcely wait for the day when he would be old enough to join seriously in these pursuits; the training all the boys received from our father’s master-at-arms was not enough to satisfy his thirst to excel. Padriac, who was the youngest of the boys, had a talent with animals, and a gift for fixing things. He, too, learned to ride and to wield a sword, but more often than not you’d find him helping to deliver a calf or tending a prize bull gored by a rival.
The rest of us were different. Conor was Cormack’s twin, but he could scarce have been less like in temperament. Conor had always loved learning, and when he was quite little he had struck up a bargain with a Christian hermit who lived in a hillside cave above the southern lakeshore. My brother would bring Father Brien fresh fish and herbs from the garden, with maybe a loaf or two scrounged from the kitchens, and in return he was taught to read. I remember those times very clearly. There would be Conor, seated on a bench beside the hermit, deep in debate on some fine point of language or philosophy, and there in a corner would be Finbar and myself, cross-legged on the earthen floor, quiet as field mice. The three of us soaked up knowledge like little sponges, believing in our isolation that this was quite usual. We learned, for instance, the tongue of the Britons, a harsh, clipped sort of speech with no music in it. As we learned the language of our enemies, we were told their history.
They had once been a people much like us, fierce, proud, rich in song and story, but their land was open and vulnerable, and had been overrun time after time, until their blood became mixed with that of Roman, and of Saxon, and when at last some semblance of peace had come about, the old race of that land was gone, and in its place a new people dwelt across the water. The holy father told us that much.
Everyone had a story about the Britons. Recognizable by their light-colored hair, and their tall stature, and their lack of any decency whatever, they had begun the feud by laying hold of something so untouchable, so deeply sacred to our people, that the theft of it was like the heart had been torn out of us. That was the cause of our war. Little Island, Greater Island, and the Needle. Places of high mystery. Places of immense secrecy; the heart of the old faith. No Briton should ever have set foot on the islands. Nothing would be right until we drove them out. That was the way everybody told it.
* * *
It was plain that Conor was not destined for a warrior. My father, rich in sons, grudgingly accepted this. He could see, perhaps, that a scholar in the family might be of some use. There was always record keeping and accounts to be done and maps to be crafted, and my father’s own scribe was getting on in years. Conor, therefore, found his place in the household and settled into it with content. His days were full, but he always had time for Finbar and me, and the three of us became close, linked by our thirst for knowledge and a deep, unspoken understanding.
As for Padriac, he could turn his hand to anything, but his great love was to examine things and find out how they worked; he would ask questions till it drove you crazy. Padriac was the only one that could break through Father’s guard; sometimes you’d catch the ghost of a smile on Colum’s dour features when he looked at his youngest son. He didn’t smile at me. Or at Finbar. Finbar said that was because we reminded Father of our mother, who had died. We were the two who inherited her curling, wild hair. I had her green eyes, and Finbar her gift of stillness. Besides, by being born, I had killed her. No wonder Father found it hard to look at me. But when he spoke to Finbar his eyes were like winter. There was one time in particular. It was not long before she came, and our lives changed forever. Finbar was fifteen; not yet a man, but most certainly no longer a child.
Father had summoned us, and we were all assembled in the great hall. Finbar stood before Lord Colum’s chair, back straight as a spear, waiting for the ritual inquisition. Liam and Diarmid were young men now, and so were spared this ordeal. But they were present on the sidelines, knowing that this reassured the rest of us.
“Finbar. I have spoken to your instructors.”
Silence. Finbar’s wide gray eyes appeared to look straight through Father’s.
“I’m told your skills are developing well. This pleases me.” Despite these words of praise, Father’s gaze was chill, his tone remote. Liam glanced at Diarmid and Diarmid grimaced back, as if to say, here it comes.
“Your attitude, however, apparently leaves a great deal to be desired. I’m told that you have achieved these results without applying a great deal of effort or interest, and in particular, that you frequently absent yourself from training with no reason.”
Another pause. At this point it would most certainly have been a good idea to say something, just to avoid trouble; “yes, Father” would have been enough. Finbar’s utter stillness was an insult in itself.
“What’s your explanation, boy? And none of your insolent looks, I want an answer!”
Father leaned forward, his face close to Finbar’s, and the expression on his face made me shiver and move nearer to Conor. It was a look to terrify a grown man. “You are of an age now to join your brothers at my side, at least while I remain here; and before long, in the field. But there’s no place for dumb insolence on a campaign. A man must learn to obey without question. Well, speak up! How do you account for this behavior?”
But Finbar wasn’t going to answer. If I have nothing to say to you, I will not speak. I knew the words were in his mind. I clutched Conor’s hand. We had seen Father’s anger before. It would be foolish to invite it.
“Father.” Liam stepped forward diplomatically. “Perhaps—”
“Enough!” Father commanded. “Your brother does not require you to speak for him. He has a tongue, and a mind of his own—let him use both.”
Finbar seemed perfectly composed. Outwardly, he looked quite calm. It was only I, who shared every breath he took, knew his every moment of pain or joy as if it were my own, that felt the tension in him and understood the courage it took for him to speak.
“I will give you an answer,” he said. His tone was quiet. “To learn to handle a horse, and to use sword and bow, that is worthy enough. I would use these skills to defend myself, or my sister, or to aid my brothers in time of peril. But you must spare me your campaigning. I will have none of it.”
My father was incredulous—too taken aback to be angry, yet, but his eyes became glacial. Whatever he had expected, it was not a confrontation of this kind. Liam opened his mouth to speak again, but Father silenced him with a savage look.
“Tell us more,” he invited politely, like a predator encouraging its meal into a honeyed trap. “Can you be so little aware of the threat to our lands, to the very fabric of our life here? You have been instructed on all these matters; you have seen my men return bloodied from battle, have seen the havoc these Britons wreak on lives and land. Your own brothers think it honorable work to fight alongside their father so the rest of you can enjoy peace and prosperity. They risk their lives to win back our precious Islands, torn from our people by this rabble, long years since. Have you so little faith in their judgment? Where have you learned this ill-conceived rubbish? Campaigning?”
“From the evidence of my own eyes,” said Finbar simply. “While you spend season after season pursuing this perceived enemy across land and sea, your villagers grow sick and die, and there is no master to turn to for help. The unscrupulous exploit the weak. Crops are ill tended, herd and flock neglected. The forest guards us. That is just as well, for you would otherwise have lost home and people to the Finnghaill long since.”
Father drew a deep breath. His men took a pace back. “Please go on,” he said in a voice like death. “You are an expert on the subject of the Norsemen, I see.”
“Perhaps—” Liam said.
“Silence!” It was a roar this time, stopping Liam almost before he got a word out. “This matter is between your brother and me. Out with it, boy! What other aspects of my stewardship have you found fault with, in your great wisdom? Don’t stint, since you are so outspoken!”
“Is that not enough?”
I detected, at last, a touch of unsteadiness in Finbar’s voice. He was after all still just a boy.
“You value the pursuit of a distant enemy before keeping your own house in order. You speak of the Britons as if they were monsters. But are they not men like us?”
“You can hardly dignify such a people with the title of men,” said our father, stung to direct response at last. His voice was harsh with building anger. “They come with evil thoughts and barbarian ways to take what is rightfully ours. Would you see your sister subject to their savagery? Your home overrun by their filth? Your argument shows your ignorance of the facts, and the sorry gaps in your education. What price your fine philosophy when you stand with a naked sword in your hand, and your enemy before you poised to strike? Wake up, boy. There is a real world out there, and the Britons stand in it with the blood of our kinsmen on their hands. It is my duty, and yours, to seek vengeance, and to reclaim what is rightly ours.”
Finbar’s steady gaze had never left Father’s face.
“I am not ignorant of these matters,” he said, still quietly. “Pict and Viking, both have troubled our shores. They have left their mark on our spirits, though they could not destroy us. I acknowledge that. But the Britons, too, suffered the loss of lands and lives from these raids. We do not fully understand their purpose, in taking our islands, in maintaining this feud. We would be better, perhaps, to unite with them against our common enemies. But no: your strategy, like theirs, is to kill and maim without seeking for answers. In time, you will lose your sons as you lost your brothers, in blind pursuit of an ill-defined goal. To win this war, you must talk to your foe. Learn to understand him. If you shut him out, he will always outwit you. There is death and suffering and a long time of regret in your future, if you follow this path. Many will go with you, but I will not be among them.”
His words were strange; his tone chilled me. I knew he spoke the truth.
“I will hear no more of this!” thundered Father, rising to his feet. “You speak like a fool, of matters you cannot comprehend. I shudder to think a son of mine could be so ill-informed, and so presumptuous. Liam!”
“I want this brother of yours equipped to ride with us when next we travel north. See to it. He expresses a wish to understand the enemy. Perhaps he will do so when he witnesses the shedding of blood at firsthand.”
“Yes, Father.” Liam’s expression and tone were well-schooled to neutrality. His glance at Finbar, though, was sympathetic. He simply made sure Father wasn’t looking.
“And now, where is my daughter?”
Stepping forward reluctantly, I passed Finbar and brushed his hand with mine. His eyes were fierce in a face bleached of color. I stood before Father, torn with feelings I hardly understood. Wasn’t a father meant to love his children? Didn’t he know how much courage it had taken, for Finbar to speak out this way? Finbar saw things in a way the rest of us never could. Father should have known that, for people said our mother had possessed the same gift. If he’d bothered to take the time, he would have known. Finbar could see ahead, and offer warnings that were ignored at your own peril. It was a rare skill, dangerous and burdensome. Some called it the Sight.
“Come forward, Sorcha.”
I was angry with Father. And yet, I wanted him to recognize me. I wanted his praise. Despite everything, I could not shut off the wish deep inside me. My brothers loved me. Why couldn’t Father? That was what I was thinking as I looked up at him. From his viewpoint I must have been a pathetic little figure, skinny and untidy, my curls falling over my eyes in disarray.
“Where are your shoes, child?” asked Father wearily. He was getting restless.
“I need no shoes, Father,” I said, hardly thinking. “My feet are tough, look,” and I raised one narrow, grubby foot to show him. “No need for some creature to die so I can be shod.” This argument had been used on my brothers till they tired of it and let me run barefoot if it suited me.
“Which servant has charge of this child?” snapped Father testily. “She is no longer of an age to be let loose like some—some tinker’s urchin. How old are you, Sorcha—nine, ten?”
How could he not know? Didn’t my birth coincide with his loss of all he held most dear in the world? For my mother had died on midwinter day, when I was not yet a day old, and folk said it was lucky for me Fat Janis, our kitchen woman, had a babe at the breast and milk enough for two, or I’d likely have died as well. It was a measure of Father’s success in closing off that former life, perhaps, that he no longer counted every lonely night, every empty day, since she died.
“I’ll be thirteen on midwinter eve, Father,” I said, standing up as tall as I could. Perhaps if he thought of me grown up enough, he would start to talk to me properly, the way he did to Liam and Diarmid. Or to look at me with that hint of a smile he sometimes turned on Padriac, who was closest to me in age. For an instant, his dark, deep-set eyes met mine, and I stared back with a wide green gaze that, had I but known it, was the image of my mother’s.
“Enough,” he said abruptly, and his tone was dismissive. “Get these children out of here, there’s work to be done.”
Turning his back on us, he was quickly engrossed in some great map they were rolling out on the oak table. Only Liam and Diarmid could expect to stay; they were men now, and privy to my father’s strategies. For the rest of us, it was over. I stepped back out of the light.
Why do I remember this so well? Perhaps his displeasure with what we were becoming made Father take the choice he did, and so bring about a series of events more terrible than any of us could have imagined. Certainly, he used our well-being as one of his excuses for bringing her to Sevenwaters. That there was no logic in this was beside the point—he must have known in his heart that Finbar and I were made of strong stuff, already shaped in mind and spirit, if not quite grown, and that expecting us to bend to another will was like trying to alter the course of the tide, or to stop the forest from growing. But he was influenced by forces he was unable to understand. My mother would have recognized them. I often wondered, later, how much she knew of our future. The Sight does not always show what a person wants to see, but maybe she had an idea as she bade her children farewell, what a strange and crooked path their feet would follow.
As soon as Father dismissed us from the hall, Finbar was gone, a shadow disappearing up the stone steps to the tower. As I turned to follow, Liam winked at me. Fledgling warrior he might be, but he was my brother. And I got a grin from Diarmid, but he wiped his face clean of all expressions but respect as he turned back toward Father.
Padriac would be away off outdoors; he had an injured owl in the stables that he was nursing back to health. It was amazing, he said, how much this task had taught him about the principles of flight. Conor was working with my father’s scribe, helping with some calculations; we wouldn’t be seeing much of him for a while. Cormack would be off to practice with the sword or the staff. I was alone when I padded up the stone steps on my bare feet and into the tower room. From here you could climb up further, onto a stretch of slate roof with a low battlement around it, probably not sufficient to arrest a good fall, but that never stopped us from going up there. It was a place for stories, for secrets; for being alone together in silence.
He was, as I’d expected, sitting on the most precarious slope of the roof, knees drawn up, arms around them, his expression unreadable as he gazed out over the stone-walled pastures, the barns and byres and cottages, to the smoke gray and velvet green and misty blue of the forest. Not so far away the waters of the lake glinted silver. The breeze was quite chill, catching at my skirts as I came up the slates and settled myself down next to him. Finbar was utterly still. I did not need to look at him to read his mood, for I was tuned to this brother’s mind like the bow to the string.
We were quiet for a long time, as the wind tangled our hair, and a flock of gulls passed overhead, calling among themselves. Voices drifted up from time to time, and metal clashed on metal: Father’s men at combat in the yard, and Cormack was among them. Father would be pleased with him.
Slowly Finbar came back from the far reaches of the mind. His long fingers moved to wind themselves around a strand of his hair.
“What do you know of the lands beyond the water, Sorcha?” he asked quite calmly.
“Not much,” I said, puzzled. “Liam says the maps don’t show everything; there are places even he knows little about. Father says the Britons are to be feared.”
“He fears what he does not understand,” said Finbar. “What about Father Brien and his kind? They came out of the east, by sea, and showed great courage in doing so. In time they were accepted here, and gave us much. Father does not seek to know his foes, or to make sense of what they want. He sees only the threat, the insult, and so he spends his whole life pursuing them, killing and maiming without question. And for what?”
I thought about this for a while.
“But you don’t know them either,” I ventured, logically enough. “And it’s not just Father that thinks they’re a danger. Liam said if the campaigns didn’t go right up to the north, and to the very shore of the eastern sea, we’d be overrun one day and lose everything we have. Maybe not just the islands, but Sevenwaters as well. Then the old ways would be gone forever. That’s what he says.”
“In a way that’s true,” said Finbar, surprising me. “But there are two sides to every fight. It starts from something small, a chance remark, a gesture made lightly. It grows from there. Both sides can be unjust. Both can be cruel.”
“How do you know?”
Finbar did not reply. His mind was closely shuttered from mine; not for now the meeting of thoughts, the silent exchange of images that passed so often between us, far easier than speech. I thought for a while, but I could think of nothing to say. Finbar chewed the end of his hair, which he wore tied at the nape of the neck, and long. His dark curls, like mine, had a will of their own.
“I think our mother left us something,” he said eventually. “She left a small part of herself in each of us. It’s just as well for them, for Liam and Diarmid, that they have that. It stops them from growing like him.”
I knew what he meant, without fully understanding his words.
“Liam’s a leader,” Finbar went on, “like Father, but not quite like. Liam has balance. He knows how to weigh up a problem evenly. Men would die for him. One day they probably will. Diarmid’s different. People would follow him to the ends of the earth, just for the fun of it.”
I thought about this; pictured Liam standing up for me against Father, Diarmid teaching me how to catch frogs, and to let them go.
“Cormack’s a warrior,” I ventured. “But generous. Kind.” There was the dog, after all. One of the wolfhounds had had a misalliance, and given birth to crossbred pups; Father would have had them all drowned, but Cormack rescued one and kept her, a skinny brindled thing he called Linn. His kindness was rewarded by the deep, unquestioning devotion only a faithful dog can give. “And then there’s Padriac.”
Finbar leaned back against the slates and closed his eyes.
“Padriac will go far,” he said. “He’ll go farther than any of us.”
“Conor’s different,” I observed, but I was unable to put that difference into words. There was something elusive about it.
“Conor’s a scholar,” said Finbar. “We all love stories, but he treasures learning. Mother had some wonderful old tales, and riddles, and strange notions that she’d laugh over, so you never knew if she was serious or not. Conor got his love of ideas from her. Conor is—he is himself.”
“How can you remember all this?” I said, not sure if he was making it up for my benefit. “You were only three years old when she died. A baby.”
“I remember,” said Finbar, and turned his head away. I wanted him to go on, for I was fascinated by talk of our mother, whom I had never known. But he had fallen silent again. It was getting late in the day; long tree shadows stretched their points across the grass far below us.
The silence drew out again, so long I thought he might be asleep. I wriggled my toes; it was getting cold. Maybe I did need shoes.
“What about you, Finbar?” I hardly needed to ask. He was different. He was different from all of us. “What did she give you?”
He turned and smiled at me, the curve of his wide mouth transforming his face completely.
“Faith in myself,” he said simply. “To do what’s right, and not falter, no matter how hard it gets.”
“It was hard enough today,” I said, thinking of Father’s cold eyes, and the way they’d made Finbar look.
It will be much harder in time. I could not tell if this thought came from my own mind, or my brother’s. It sent a chill up my spine.
Then he said aloud, “I want you to remember, Sorcha. Remember that I’ll always be there for you, no matter what happens. It’s important. Now come on, it’s time we went back down.”
* * *
When I remember the years of our growing up, the most important thing is the tree. We went there often, the seven of us, southward through the forest above the lakeshore. When I was a baby, Liam or Diarmid would carry me on his back; once I could walk, two brothers would take my hands and hurry me along, sometimes swinging me between them with a one-two-three, as the others ran on ahead toward the lake. When we came closer, we all became quiet. The bank where the birch tree grew was a place of deep magic, and our voices were hushed as we gathered on the sward around it.
We all accepted that this land was a gate to that other world, the realm of spirits and dreams and the Fair Folk, without any question. The place we grew up in was so full of magic that it was almost a part of everyday life—not to say you’d meet one of them every time you went out to pick berries, or draw water from your well, but everyone we knew had a friend of a friend who’d strayed too far into the forest, and disappeared; or ventured inside a ring of mushrooms, and gone away for a while, and come back subtly changed. Strange things could happen in those places. Gone for maybe fifty years you could be, and come back still a young girl; or away for no more than an instant by mortal reckoning, and return wrinkled and bent with age. These tales fascinated us, but failed to make us careful. If it was going to happen to you, it would happen, whether you liked it or not.
The birch tree, though, was a different matter. It held her spirit, our mother’s, having been planted by the boys on the day of her death, at her own request. Once she had told them what to do, Liam and Diarmid took their spades down to the place she had described, dug out the soft turf, and planted the seed there on the flat grassy bank above the lake. With small, grubby hands the younger ones helped level the soil and carried water. Later, when they were allowed to take me out of the house, we all went there together. That was the first time for me; and after that, twice a year at midsummer and midwinter we’d gather there.
Grazing animals might have taken this little tree, or the cold autumn winds snapped its slender stem, but it was charmed; and within a few years it began to shoot up, graceful both in its bare winter austerity and in its silvery, rustling summer beauty. I can see the place now, clear in my mind, and the seven of us seated cross-legged on the turf around the birch tree, not touching, but as surely linked as if our hands were tightly clasped. We were older then, but children still. I would have been five, perhaps, Finbar eight. Liam had waited until we were big enough to understand, before telling us this story.
* * *
…now there was something frightening about the room. It smelled different, strange. Our new little sister had been taken away, and there was blood, and people with frightened faces running in and out. Mother’s face was so pale as she lay there with her dark hair spread around her. But she gave us the seed, and she said to us, to Diarmid and me, “I want you to take this, and plant it by the lake, and in the moment of my passing the seed will start to grow with new life. And then, my sons, I will always be there with you, and when you are in that place you will know that you are part of the one great magic that binds us all together. Our strength comes from that magic, from the earth and the sky, from the fire and the water. Fly high, swim deep, give back to the earth what she gives you…”
She grew tired, she was losing her life blood, but she had a smile for the two of us and we tried to smile back through our tears, hardly understanding what she told us, but knowing it was important. “Diarmid,” she said, “look after your little brothers. Share your laughter with them.” Her voice grew fainter. “Liam, son. I fear it will be hard for you, for a while. You’ll be their leader, and their guide, and you are young to carry such a burden.”
“I can do it,” I said, choking back my tears. People were moving about the room, a physician muttering to himself and shaking his head, women taking away the bloody cloths and bringing fresh ones, and now somebody tried to make us leave. But Mother said no, not yet, and she made them all go out, just for a little. Then she gathered us around her bed, to say goodbye. Father was outside. He kept his grief to himself, even then.
So she spoke softly to each of us, her voice growing quieter all the while. The twins were on either side of her, leaning in, each the mirror image of the other, eyes gray as the winter sky, hair deep brown and glossy as a ripe chestnut.
“Conor, dear heart,” she said. “Do you remember the verse about the deer, and the eagle?” Conor nodded, his small features very serious. “Tell me then,” she whispered.
“My feet will tread soft as a deer in the forest,” said Conor, frowning with concentration. “My mind will be clear as water from the sacred well. My heart will be strong as a great oak. My spirit will spread an eagle’s wings, and fly forth. This is the way of truth.”
“Good,” she said. “Remember, and teach it to your sister, when she is older. Can you do that?”
Another solemn nod.
“It’s not fair!” Cormack burst out, angry tears overwhelming him. He put his arms around her neck and held on tight. “You can’t die! I don’t want you to die!”
She stroked his hair, and soothed him with gentle words, and Conor moved around to take his twin’s hand in his own, and Cormack grew quiet. Then Diarmid held Padriac up so Mother’s arm could encircle the two of them for a moment. Finbar, standing next to her pillow, was so still you could have missed him entirely, watching silently as she let her sons go, one by one. She turned to him last of us boys, and she didn’t say anything this time, but motioned to him to take the carved piece of stone she wore around her neck, and to put it on his own. He wasn’t much more than an infant—the cord came down below his waist. He closed a small fist around the amulet. With him she had no need for words.
“My daughter,” she whispered at last. “Where’s my Sorcha?” I went out and asked, and Fat Janis came in and put the newborn baby in our mother’s arms, by now almost too weak to curl around the little bundle of woollen wrappings. Finbar moved closer, his small hands helping to support the fragile burden. “My daughter will be strong,” Mother said. “The magic is powerful in her, and so in all of you. Be true to yourselves, and to each other, my children.” She lay back then, eyes closed, and we went softly out, and so we did not witness the moment of her passing. We put the seed in the ground and the tree took form within it and began to grow. She is gone, but the tree lives, and through this she gives us her strength, which is the strength of all living things.
* * *
My father had allies as well as enemies. The whole of the northern land was patchworked with tuaths like his, some larger, most a great deal smaller, each held by its lord in an uneasy truce with a few neighbors. Far south at Tara dwelt the High King and his consort, but in the isolation of Sevenwaters we were not touched by their authority, nor they, it seemed, by our local feuds. Alliances were made at the council table, reinforced by marriages, broken frequently by disputes over cattle or borders. There were forays and campaigns enough, but not against our neighbors, who held my father in considerable respect. So there was a loose agreement between them to unite against Briton, Pict, and Norseman alike, since all threatened our shores with their strange tongues and barbarian ways. But especially against the Britons, who had done the unthinkable and got away with it.
I could hardly be unaware that prisoners were sometimes taken, but they were closely housed and guarded with grim efficiency, and none of my brothers would talk about it. Not even Finbar. This was odd, for mostly he kept his mind open to me, and my own thoughts were never shut away from him. I knew his fears and his joys; I felt with him the sunlit spaces and the dark mystic depths of our forest, the heartbeat of the goddess in its dappled paths and spring freshness. But there was, even then, one part of himself that he kept hidden. Perhaps, even so early, he was trying to protect me. So, the prisoners were a mystery to me. Ours was a household of tall armored figures, curt exchanges, hasty arrivals and departures. Even when my father was away, as for the best part of the year he was, he left a strong garrison behind, with his master-at-arms, Donal, in iron-fisted control.
That was one side of the household; the other, the more domestic, was secondary. What servants we had went about their tasks efficiently enough, and the folk of the settlement did their share, for there were stone walls to be maintained, and thatching to be done, and the work of mill and dairy. The herds must be driven to high ground in summer, to take advantage of what grazing there was, pig boys must do their best to track their wayward charges in the woods, and the women had spinning and weaving to do. Our steward took sick with an ague, and died; and after that Conor took charge of the purse, and the accounts, while Father was away. Subtly he began to assume authority in the household; even at sixteen he had a shrewd sobriety that belied his years and appeared to inspire trust even in the hard-bitten soldiers. It became plain to all that Conor was no mere scribe. In Father’s absence, small changes occurred unobtrusively: an orderly provision of dry turf to the cottagers in good time for winter, a set up for my use, with a woman to help me and take drafts and potions to the sick. When the little folk got to Madge Smallfoot’s husband, and he drowned himself in a long drop from rocks into the lake (which is how Smallfoot’s Leap got its name), it was Conor who made arrangements for Madge to come and work for us, rolling pastry and plucking chickens in our kitchens. These things were little enough, maybe, but a start.
Finbar did not go on the autumn campaign that year. Despite Father’s orders, it was Liam and Diarmid and, to his delight, young Cormack who departed abruptly one bright, crisp morning. The call to arms was early, and unexpected. Unusually, we were entertaining guests: our nearest neighbor, Seamus Redbeard of Glencarnagh, and several of his household. Seamus was one of the trusted ones, my father’s closest ally. But even he had not entered the forest without an escort of my father’s men, who met him on his own border and saw him safe to the keep of Sevenwaters.
Seamus had brought his daughter, who was fifteen years old and had a mane of hair the same startling hue as her father’s. Her locks may have been fiery, but Eilis was a quiet girl, plump and rosy-cheeked; in fact, I found her rather boring compared with my brothers. Our guests had been with us for ten days or so, and because Eilis never wanted to climb trees, or swim in the lake, or even help me with brewing and preserving, I soon tired of her company and left her to her own devices. I was amazed that the boys took so much interest in her, for her conversation, when she spoke at all, ran mostly to the immediate and superficial. This could surely be of little interest to them. Yet in turn Liam, Diarmid, and Cormack could be seen patiently escorting her around the keep and the gardens, bending with apparent fascination to catch every word she said, taking her hand to help her down steps I could have traversed with a few neatly executed jumps.
It was odd, and grew odder—though the strangest thing was that it took me so long to realize what was happening. After the first few days, she showed her allegiance, attaching herself firmly to Liam. He, whom I would have thought the busiest, always seemed to have time for Eilis. I detected something new in his face, now grown to the long-boned hardness of manhood. It was a warning to his brothers to keep off; and they heeded it. Eilis went walking in the woods with Liam, when she would not go with me. Eilis, most demure at table, could sense when Liam’s dark eyes were fixed on her from across the noisy hall; she looked up shyly, met his gaze for a second, and blushed becomingly, before her long lashes shielded the blue eyes again. Still I was ignorant, until the night my father rapped the board for silence.
“My friends! My good neighbors!”
There was a hush among the assembled guests; goblets paused halfway to waiting lips, and I sensed an air of expectancy, as if everyone knew what Father was going to say, except me.
“It is good, in these times of trouble, to make merry together, to drink and laugh and share the fruits of our pastures. Soon enough, at full moon, we must venture forward again, this time perhaps to make our shores safe once and for all.”
A few whistles and shouts of acclaim here, but they were clearly waiting for something more. “Meanwhile, you are welcome in my hall. It is a long time since such a feast was held here.”
He was grim for a moment. Seamus Redbeard leaned forward, his face flushed.
“Sure and you’re a fine host, Colum, and let none tell you different,” he pronounced, his speech suffering a bit from the quality of our ale. Eilis was blushing and looking down at her plate again. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Cormack feeding slivers of meat to his dog, Linn, who had squeezed her long-limbed body under the table. He’d hold a morsel of beef or chicken very casually between thumb and forefinger, and an instant later the great whiskery muzzle would appear, and disappear, and Cormack would rest his empty hand on the table’s edge, his eyes fixed carefully elsewhere and his dimples showing just a little.
“And so I charge you, drink to the happy pair! May their union be long and fruitful, and a sign of friendship and peace between neighbors.”
I’d missed something; Liam was standing, rather pale but unable to keep a smile off his usually serious face, and then he was taking Eilis’s hand, and I finally saw the way they looked at each other and knew it for what it was.
“Married? Liam?” I said to nobody in particular. “To her?” But they were all laughing and cheering, and even my father looked almost contented. I saw the old hermit, Father Brien, speaking quietly to Liam and Eilis amid the crowd. Clutching my hurt to myself, I slipped out of the hall, right away from the torches and candles and noise, to the stillroom that was my own place. But not to work; I sat in the deep window embrasure with a single stub of candle to keep me company, and stared out into the darkened kitchen garden. There was a sliver of moon, and a few stars in the black; slowly the garden’s familiar faces showed themselves to me, though I knew them so well I could have seen them in pitch darkness: soft blue-green wormwood, that warded off insects; the yellow tips of rioting tansy, dainty gray lavender with its brilliant spikes of purple and blue, the rough stone walls blanketed in soft drift of green where an ancient creeper flourished. There were many more; and behind me on shelves, their oils and essences gleaming in bottle, jar, or crucible, for cure or palliative; their dried leaves and blooms hanging above me in orderly bundles. A delicate healing smell hung in the quiet air. I took a few deep breaths. It was very cold; the old cloak I’d left on a hook behind the door here was some help, but the chill went straight to your bones. The best of summer was over.
I must have sat there for quite some time, cold even amid the comfort of my own things. It was the end of something, and I didn’t want it to end. But there was nothing to be done about it. It was impossible not to cry. Tears flooded silently down my cheeks and I made no effort to wipe them away. After a while, footsteps sounded on the flagstones outside and there was a gentle tap at the door. Of course, one of them would come. So close were we, the seven of us, that no childhood injury went unnoticed, no slight, real or imagined, went unaddressed, no hurt was endured without comfort.
“Sorcha? Can I come in?”
I’d thought it would be Conor; but it was my second brother, Diarmid, who ducked under the lintel and entered, disposing his long frame on a bench near my window. The flickering candle flame showed me his face in extremes of shadow and light; lean, straight-nosed, a younger version of Liam’s save for the fuller mouth so ready to break into a wicked grin. But for now, he was serious.
“You should come back,” he said in a tone that told me he didn’t care, himself, about the niceties. “Your absence was noted.”
I swallowed, and rubbed a corner of the old cloak over my wet cheeks. It seemed to be anger I was feeling now more than sorrow.
“Why do things have to change?” I said crossly. “Why can’t we go on the way we are? Liam was quite happy before—he doesn’t need her!”
To his credit, Diarmid didn’t laugh at me. He stretched his legs out across the floor, apparently thinking deeply.
“Liam’s a man now,” he said after a while. “Men do marry, Sorcha. He’ll have responsibilities here—a wife can share that with him.”
“He’s got us,” I said fiercely. Diarmid did smile then, showing a set of dimples that rivaled Cormack’s for charm. It made me wonder why Eilis hadn’t chosen him instead of the serious Liam.
“Listen to me, Sorcha. No matter where we are, or what we do, the seven of us will never be truly separate. We’ll always be the same for one another. But we are growing up; and grown up people do marry, and move away, and let other people into their lives. Even you will do that one day.”
“Me!” I was aghast.
“You must know that.” He moved closer and took my hand, and I noticed that his were large and rough, a man’s hands. He was seventeen now. “Father already plans a marriage for you, in a few years’ time, and doubtless then you will go away to live with your husband’s family. We will not all remain here.”
“Go away? I would never go away from Sevenwaters! This is home! I would die before I’d move away!”
Tears sprang to my eyes again. I knew I was being foolish; I was not so ignorant as to have no understanding of marriages and alliances and what was expected. It was just that the sudden blow of Liam’s betrothal had shocked me; my world was changing, and I was not ready for it.
“Things do change, Sorcha,” said Diarmid somberly. “And not always as we want. Not all of us would have wished Eilis to be for Liam; but that’s the way it is, and we must accept it.”
“Why does he want to marry her, anyway?” I demanded childishly. “She’s so boring!”
“Liam’s a man,” said Diarmid sternly, obviously putting aside his own regrets. “And she’s a woman. Their marriage was arranged a while back. They’re fortunate that they want each other, since they are pledged regardless. She will be a good wife to him.”
“I’ll never have an arranged marriage,” I said vehemently. “Never. How could you spend your whole life with someone you hated, or someone you couldn’t talk to? I’d rather not marry at all.”
“And be an old wise woman among her possets and simples?” grinned my brother. “Well, you’re ugly enough for the job. In fact, I think I can see your wrinkles growing already, granny!”
I punched him in the arm but found myself grinning back. He gave me a quick hug, hard enough to stop me lapsing into tears again.
“Come on,” he said. “Wash your face, comb your hair, and let’s brave the party for a bit more. Liam will be worried if you stay away all night. He needs your approval, so you’d better put a good face on it.”
I did not dance at the betrothal, but I moved among the folk there, and kissed Eilis’s rosy cheek and told Liam I was glad for him. My red eyes must have betrayed my true feelings, but in the smoke and torchlight, after somewhat more ale than he was accustomed to take, Liam didn’t seem to notice. The others were watching me; Diarmid kindly, bringing me some mead, making sure I was not alone too long; Conor a little severe, as if he understood my selfish thoughts all too well. Padriac and Cormack were making the most of this rare visit by a household of women, and dancing with the prettiest of Eilis’s ladies; by the amount of giggling and winking that was going on, my brothers’ youth was no impediment to their popularity. Fin-bar was deep in debate with a grizzled old warrior, one of Redbeard’s household.
My father had relaxed; it was a long time since I had seen him so. Opening his house to guests had been a trial, but a necessary one, in the interest of a strategic alliance with his neighbor. Father had observed my return, and when I made myself useful chatting to Eilis’s elderly chaperone, he even acknowledged me with a nod of approval. Clearly, I thought bitterly, a daughter like Eilis was just what he wanted—biddable, soft, a sweet thing with no mind of her own. Well, I could play the part tonight, for Liam’s sake, but he’d better not think I was going to keep it up.
The night wore on; mead and ale flowed, platters of food came and went. The best was on offer: roast pig, soft wheaten bread, spiced fruit, and a mellow cheese made from ewes’ milk. There was more music and dancing—the musicians had come from Seamus’s household, and made up in vigor what they lacked in subtlety. The fellow on the bodhran had arms like a blacksmith’s, and the piper a taste for the mead. Such was the noise of stamping feet, of whistling and cheering, that it was some minutes before the commotion at the great door, the clash of metal and the shouting came to the notice of our guests. Slowly the sound of revelry died down, and the crowd parted to admit a small band of my father’s men, still in their field armor and carrying naked swords. They came up to my father’s chair, and between them they dragged a captive whose face I could not see, but whose hair, gripped from behind by a large mailed fist, caught the torchlight and shone like ripples of bright gold.
“My lord Colum!” the captain boomed out. “I regret this disturbance to your festivities.”
“Indeed,” responded my father in his iciest tones. “Your business must be pressing indeed, to warrant such an intrusion. What is your purpose? I have guests here.”
He was displeased at the interruption; but at the same time his hand had moved to his sword belt. The lord Colum knew his men well; not for nothing would they risk his anger in such a way. There was an instant alertness about him that bespoke a professional. Beside him, Seamus Redbeard was slumped in his chair, smiling beatifically at nothing in particular. He might have indulged himself too generously tonight, but his host was cold sober.
“A captive, my lord, as you see. We found him on the northern rim of the lake, alone; but there must surely be more of his kind close by. This is no hired man, Lord Colum.”
There was a violent movement, and the soldier’s voice was cut short as his prisoner jerked at the restraints that held him. People jostled for a better look, but all I could see through the press of bodies was the bright burnished gold of his hair, and the big fist of the man that gripped it, and the way the prisoner held himself tall, as if he were the only person in the world that mattered.
I ducked under a few arms and pushed past a group of whispering girls, and clambered up onto the wide stone bench that skirted the great hall. Then another precarious step onto the rim of a pillar, and I gained myself an unimpeded view straight over the heads of the muttering, craning crowd. The first thing I saw was Finbar, perched in the identical spot on the other side. His look passed right over me and settled on the prisoner.
The captive’s face was badly bruised; his nose had been bleeding and the shining curls were on closer inspection tangled with sweat and blood over his brow. Beneath them, his eyes burned like coals as they fixed on my father. He was young, and hurt, and desperate with hatred. He was the first Briton I had ever seen.
“Who are you, and what is your purpose here?” demanded my father. “Speak now, for silence will bring you no good, that I promise. We have no welcome but death for your kind, for we know of but one intention you can have in our lands. Who sent you here?”
The young man drew himself up, jerking contemptuously on the ropes that tied his hands tight behind his back. He spat with stunning accuracy at Father’s feet. Instantly, one captor tightened the rope, twisting his arms harder, and the other used the full force of a gauntleted fist across the prisoner’s face, leaving a red weal on mouth and cheek. Resentment and fury blazed from the young man’s eyes, but he set his lips grimly and remained silent. Father rose to his feet.
“This exhibition is no sight for ladies, and has no place in this hall of celebration,” he said. “It is, perhaps, time to retire.” He swept a dismissing glance around the hall, managing somehow to thank and farewell his guests in an instant. “Men, hold yourselves in readiness for an early departure. It seems our venture can no longer wait for full moon. Meanwhile, we shall see what this unwelcome visitor has to tell us; let my captains come to me, and all others depart. My guests, I regret this untimely end to our feast.”
The household, in an instant, snapped back into campaign mode. Servants appeared; flasks, goblets, and platters disappeared. Eilis and her ladies made a swift departure to their quarters, with Seamus not long after, and soon there were left just Father and a handful of his most trusted men. Somewhere in the midst of it all, the captive was dragged out, still silent in his blazing rage. If instructions were given to his guards, I missed them.
And in the darkened hall, Finbar and myself, one on each side, blending into the shadows as both of us knew well how to do. I could not explain why I stayed, but the pattern was already forming that would shape our destinies, had I but known it.
“…already here, so close; this means they have intelligence enough of our positions to pose a real threat to…”
“…eradicate them, but quickly, before the information…”
“It’s imperative that he talks.” This was Father, his voice authoritative. “Tell them that. And it must be tonight, for speed is essential in this exercise. We move out at dawn. Tell your men to sleep while they can, then check all for readiness.” He turned to one of the older men. “You will supervise the interrogation. And make sure he’s kept alive. Such a captive could prove valuable as a hostage, after he’s served his purpose. Clearly this is no ordinary foot soldier. He may even be kin to Northwoods. Tell them to tread carefully.”
The man nodded assent and left the hall, and the others returned to their planning. I felt a little sorry for Liam—only just engaged, and he was off campaigning already. Maybe life was like that if you were a man, but it did seem rather unfair.
“Sorcha!” A whisper behind me almost made me cry out and reveal my hiding place. Finbar tugged at my sleeve, drawing me silently outside into the courtyard.
“Don’t creep up on me like that!” I hissed. His fingers on my lips silenced me quickly, and not until we were around the corner and he had checked carefully that nobody was within earshot did he speak.
“I need you to help me,” he whispered. “I didn’t want to ask you, but I can’t do this alone.”
“Do what?” My interest was caught immediately, even though I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.
“We can’t do much now,” he said, “but we might get him away by morning, if you can give me what I need.”
“What?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Poison,” said Finbar. He was leading me quickly through the archway to the gardens. Both of us had the ability to move fast and silently over any sort of terrain. It came of growing up half wild. We had, in fact, a variety of unusual skills.
Once we were in the stillroom, and both outer and inner doors bolted, I made Finbar sit down and explain. He didn’t want to; his face had that stubborn expression it sometimes took on when the truth was painful or hurtful, but had to be told. One thing neither of us ever learned was the skill of lying.
“You’ll have to explain,” I said. “You can’t just say poison and then stop. Anyway, I can tell what you’re thinking. I’m twelve and a half now, Finbar; I’m old enough to be trusted.”
“I do trust you, Sorcha. It’s just that if you help me now, you’ll be at risk, and besides, it’s…” He was twisting the end of his hair with his fingers again. He shut his words off, but I was tuned to his thoughts, and for a moment he forgot to shield them. In the darkness of the quiet room I caught a terrifying glimpse of a glowing brazier, and mangled, burning flesh, and I heard a man screaming. I wrenched myself back, shaking. Our eyes met in the horror of our shared vision.
“What sort of poison?” I asked unsteadily, my hands fumbling for tinder to light a candle.
“Not to kill. A draft strong enough to send a man to sleep for the morning. Enough of it to doctor four men; and tasting fair, so they will take it in a tankard of ale and not know different. And I need it before sunrise, Sorcha. They take their breakfast early, and the guard changes before midmorning. It’s little enough time. You know how to make such a potion?”
In the dark, I nodded reluctantly. We two need not see each other, save in the mind’s eye, to reach an understanding.
“You’re going to have to tell me,” I said slowly. “Tell me what this is for. It’s him, isn’t it? That prisoner?”
The candle flared and I shielded it with my hand. It was very late now, well past midnight, but outside there were subdued sounds of activity, horses being moved, weapons sharpened, stores loaded; they were preparing already for a dawn departure.
“You saw him,” said Finbar with quiet intensity. “He’s only a boy.”
“He was older than you,” I couldn’t resist pointing out. “Sixteen at least, I thought.”
“Old enough to die for a cause,” said my brother, and I could feel how tight stretched he was, how his determination to make things right drove him. If Finbar could have changed the world by sheer effort of will, he would have done it.
“What do you want me to do? Put this Briton to sleep?” By the dim light of the candle I was scanning my shelves; the packet I wanted was well concealed.
“He held his tongue. And will continue to do so, if I read him right. That will cost him dearly. Briton or no, he deserves his chance at freedom,” said Finbar soberly. “Your draft can buy that for him. There’s no way to save him the pain; we’re too late for that.”
“What pain?” Maybe I knew the answer to my own question, but my mind refused to put together the clues I’d been given, refused to accept the unacceptable.
“The draft is for his guards.” Finbar spoke reluctantly. Plainly, he wished me to know as little as possible. “Just make it up; I’ll do the rest.”
My hands found the packet almost automatically: nightshade, used in moderation and well mixed with certain other herbs, would produce a sound slumber with few ill effects. The trick lay in getting the dose just right; too much, and your victim would never wake. I stood still, the dried berries on the stone slab before me.
“What’s the matter?” asked Finbar. “Why are you still holding back? Sorcha, I need to know you will do this. And I must go. There are other matters to attend to.”
He was already on his feet, eager to leave, his mind starting to map out the next part of his strategy.
“What will they do to him, Finbar?” Surely not—surely not what I had seen, in that flash of vision that had sickened me so.
“You heard Father. He said, keep him alive. Let me worry about it, Sorcha. Just make up the draft. Please.”
“But how could Father—”
“It becomes easy,” Finbar said. “It’s in the training; the ability to see your enemy as something other than a real man. He is a lesser breed, defined by his beliefs—you learn to do with him what you will, and bend him to your purpose.” He sensed my horror. “It’s all right, Sorcha,” he said. “We can save this one, you and I. Just do as I ask, and leave the rest to me.”
“What are you going to do? And what if Father finds out?”
“Too many questions! We don’t have much time left—can’t you just do it?”
I turned to face him, arms folded around myself. Truth to tell, I was shivering, and not just from cold.
“I know you don’t lie, Finbar. I have no choice but to believe what you’ve told me. But I’ve never poisoned anyone before. I’m a healer.”
I looked up at his silent face, the wide, mobile mouth, the clear gray eyes that always seemed intent on a future path that held no uncertainty whatever.
“It happens,” he said quietly. “It’s part of war. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes they keep silent. Often they die. Just occasionally they escape.”
“Finbar,” I said. ’What if—what would happen if someone else, say Donal or one of the guards, helped a prisoner get away, and Father found out? What would he do to them?” Young as I was, it had not escaped me that what my brother proposed was no mere act of childish disobedience, to be punished by a reprimand or, at worst, a whipping. This was no less than a knowing undermining of my father’s campaign; a willful hindrance of the quest that was his very reason for being.
“There’d be a price to pay,” said Finbar reluctantly.
“They’d be up before the brithem, if Father did things in accordance with the law. There’d be a hearing, and a judgment, and a sentence. Reparation to be made. A flogging, maybe. Banishment, most certainly. But that’s not how it would be done.”
“What do you mean?”
“The law does not allow the execution of a man for such an act; that is not acceptable if due process is followed. But Father couldn’t afford to let a traitor go free, to spread news abroad. The culprit would be sent into the forest and never seen again. Helped on his way, so to speak. Maybe they’d find his bones five, ten years hence. You know what they say about these woods.”
“You’re willing to take such a risk? For a boy you don’t even know?”
“If I do not act, I deny him a life,” Finbar said quietly. “For me, the choice is clear. It always has been. But you’re right, Sorcha. There could be very serious consequences, and perhaps it is unfair of me to involve you.”
“But you can’t do it unless I help?”
“Not without far greater risk.”
“You’d better go and get on with it, then,” I said in a voice that sounded like somebody else’s. My hands sought a sharp knife and began automatically to slice and chop the ingredients of my sleeping draft. Henbane. Witch’s bonnet. The small blue fungi some call devil spawn. Nightshade, not too much. “Go on, Finbar.”
“Thanks.” There was a flash of that smile, the generous smile that lit up his whole face. “We make a good team. A foolproof team. How can we fail?”
He hugged me for a moment, just long enough for me to feel the tension of his body, the rapid beat of his heart. Then he was gone, slipping away into the shadows as silent as a cat.
It was a long night. Awareness that the slightest error could make me a murderer kept me alert, and before daybreak the sleeping draft was ready, corked safely in a small stone bottle convenient to conceal in the palm of the hand, and the stillroom was immaculately clean, every trace of my activity gone. Finbar came for me as the sound of jingling harnesses and hurrying, booted feet increased out of doors.
“I think you’d better do this part as well,” he whispered. “They’ll be less likely to notice you.” I remembered, vaguely, that he was supposed to be joining the campaign this time—had not Father decreed that it would be so? Then I was too busy to think, slipping silently to the kitchens on my brother’s whispered instructions, edging behind and between servants and men-at-arms who were snatching a last bite to eat, preparing ration packs, filling wine and water bottles. Fat Janis, Finbar had said, go to where Fat Janis has her iron pot on the stove. If they’ve been working at night, she’ll take them mulled ale first thing in the morning. Her special brew. They say it has some interesting side effects. She carries it over to them herself; and maybe gets favors in return. What sort of favors? I’d asked him. Never mind, said Finbar. Just make sure she doesn’t see you.
There were a couple of things I was good at. One was potions and poisons, and another was being quiet and staying unseen when it suited me. It was no trouble adding the draft to the mulled ale; Janis turned her back for an instant, laughing at some wisecrack by the tallest man-at-arms as he crammed a last piece of sausage in his mouth and made for the door, buckling his sword belt as he went. I was finished and gone before she turned back, and she never saw me. Easy, I thought as I slipped toward the door. Must have been fifteen people there, and not one of them spotted me. I was nearly outside when something made me look back. Straight across the kitchen, meeting my startled eyes full on, was my brother Conor. He stood in the far corner of the room, half in shadow, a list of some sort in one hand and a quill poised in the other. His assistant, back turned, was packing stores into a saddlebag. I was frozen in shock: from where he stood, my brother must have seen everything. How could I not have noticed him before? Paralyzed between the instinct to bolt for cover and the anticipated call to account for myself, I hesitated on the threshold. And Conor dropped his gaze to his writing and continued his list as if I had been invisible. I was too relieved to worry about a possible explanation, and fled like a startled rabbit, trembling with nerves. Finbar was nowhere to be seen. I made for the safest bolthole I could think of, the ancient stable building where my youngest brother, Padriac, kept his menagerie of waifs and strays. There I found a warm corner among the well-seasoned straw, and the elderly donkey who had prior claim shifted grudgingly, making room for me against her broad back. Hungry, cold, confused, and exhausted, I found escape, for the time being, in sleep.
Copyright © 2000 by Juliet Marillier