Aislinn ni Sorar sat silent at the required place of honor A near the fire. She drew her white ceremonial cloak with its spiraling gold embroidery tightly about her, lifted the hood over her head until her youthful features were obscured in shadow.
"You are cold?" The chieftain Brennus Mac Bran shouted at her, though he was seated directly to her right. He was fat and drunken. Grease from the haunch of boar he had devoured was trapped in his red moustache and slathered on his chin. Brennus the Brutal, they called him. Even the people of his own tribe.
Aislinn regarded him silently, said nothing. Beneath the wide sleeves of her robe, she pressed the palms of her hands tight against her forearms. She could feel their sweaty dampness. She breathed slowly and deeply, tried not to let the chieftain hear the ragged sound of her expelled breath.
Surely the child must be here! She had tracked the story of a captive child from village to village for many months. At last, a fortnight ago, she had come to the child's birth village, been given the story that had led her here, to this fireside. Surely, she would find the child here. Now. Thiswas the quest on which her foster-father Aodhfin had sent her, so many turning moons ago. In the way of all important druid teaching, he had given her this quest in a sacred riddle of three.
"Listen to me, daughter!" Aislinn still remembered the urgency in his voice, on his old face, usually so placid and kind. "Much will be woven into this journey you undertake. What is past and what is to come; forces gather around your journey." And then he had begun, his voice a low chant.
"From the place of darkness will come a child to light your journey. To the place of fire will come a man bearing fire for the body and the mind. Between darkness and light, you are the still point."
Still Aislinn had lingered, waited for more than a fortnight, fearing to leave the security of the druid school at Tara, fearing to leave Aodhfin, the only father she had known. Until the night of the Dark One and his vast black wings. The same night on which she first dreamed of a child with copper hair and sea-green eyes, her face upturned, crying, "Máthair! Mother!" The night she had begun this journey, almost two years ago.
Now, by the fire, Aislinn closed her eyes. She could see the sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of the little nose, the fear in the pale green eyes. She would know the child anywhere. Aislinn shivered, opened her eyes.
"Here, you, Corra!" the chieftain bellowed, waving his arm in the air. A thin, sickly looking child of about ten disengaged herself from the women who hovered near the feasting table. She came to Brennus's side, her hands clasped together too tightly. She stood with her head bent, her face obscured in a tangled mat of dirty hair.
"The priestess is cold. Pour another goblet of warm wine to her health and honor!"
The child bent to gather the silver pitcher from beside the chieftain. Her short brown tunic rode up for a momentand Aislinn stared at the back of her legs. They were flayed, bloody, laid open from below the knees to where the welts disappeared beneath the hem of the tunic.
The child moved to the druidess, bent, poured wine into the goblet, her head bowed in polite deference. Aislinn willed the little girl to raise her eyes. Slowly, the child's head lifted. Aislinn gasped in recognition, pressed her palms tight against her arms to quell the wild hammering of her heart. The intense green eyes regarding those of the priestess were those of her dream!
For a moment, the wild green eyes locked with Aislinn's in a silent plea. The druidess gave the barest nod. The child moved away.
"Send this child to her sleeping mat!" Aislinn commanded. "She does not look well!"
From across the fire, one of the other chieftains' wives concurred.
"The druidess speaks true. Who in Eire treats a child in this fashion? Our brehon laws are clear about the rights of children."
"Send her to her night's rest," Aislinn repeated.
Brennus Mac Bran regarded the two women with surprise. The women of his village feared him; none would dare give him a command or they would feel the weight of his anger. He assessed the slight frame of the priestess. It was sacrilege to harm the body of a druid, though such sacrilege might have its pleasures with one as young and ripe as this. Still, it would not do well to argue with one who had the ear of the gods. Brennus acquiesced.
"Go!" He waved his hand at the child, but when she moved toward the south door of the feasting hall, he stopped her.
"Nay. Tonight you will sleep in my chamber."
An awkward silence prevailed among the chieftains around the fire. The child looked desperately in Aislinn's s direction. Aislinn turned toward Brennus, regarded him silently for a moment. At last, she nodded at the child, pointed toward the north door. Brennus grunted in satisfaction.The child headed for the chieftain's sleeping lodge, a defeated slump to her shoulders.
The men around the fire shifted position, watched the druidess for a while. One or two made strange signs in the air. Aislinn closed her eyes, waited out the silence.
After a while, a handsome young chieftain stepped into the light at the center of the fire. He dashed his plaid cloak aside, stood clad in only his baggy plaid braichs and soft leather boots. The firelight gleamed from his naked torso.
"Come!" he cried. "Who will meet my challenge for first storytelling rights?"
A second young man leaped laughingly into the ring.
"I am for you!"
They grappled at the shoulders, circled each other, laughing with the delight of the battle. They wrestled each other to kneeling in the ring. The chieftains around the fire shouted and cheered them on. They dropped into the dust, rolling against and over each other until the coals and dirt from the floor clung to their sweat-stained torsos. At last, the first challenger pinned his opponent to the ground, his forearm hard beneath his opponent's throat.
"Yield the right of first boast!" He crammed his arm harder under his companion's chin. "Yield!"
His opponent laughed and sputtered.
"I yield, I yield. Now we will all endure your endless tales of battle."
The two rose, clapped each other on the back, and laughed.
"Drink deep to our champions!" Brennus cried. Whole tankards of mead were downed at one swill. The women hurried to refill them to the brim. Brennus required three refills before he paused in his quaffing.
In the deep darkness of her hood, Aislinn gave a small, satisfied smile. She fingered the leather pouch tied to the belt at her waist, then threw back her hood, lifted the thick length of her black hair free. She smiled at the young champion.
"The druids will salute a man of battle." She raised her wine goblet to him. All the men drank again, Brennus more deeply than the rest. He fixed his eyes on the druidess, on her pale, clear skin, on the curve of breast that lifted beneath the robe when she raised her goblet. He set his tankard beside him in the dirt. He did not notice the small movement of Aislinn's free hand over the surface of the cup.
"Come, warriors!" she cried. "We salute your tales of battle." The men drank deeply again, Brennus among them.
The young champion was swelled with pride that he should be acknowledged by a druidess, and she most beautiful. He signaled to one of his minions, seated in the second circle of the fire. The man rose and left the hall, returning moments later with a braided rope. From the rope hung human heads, shrunken and distorted with age and hard banging against the saddle. The young man held them up.
"Each of these was a prize of war! Shall I tell you their tales?"
"Tell!" cried one of the avid young warriors from the second circle. The long night of storytelling began. One after another, the warriors rose, told tales of battle, stories of love, eerie tales of encountering the little people of the sidhe. Each tale was accompanied by a salute of mead-cups, Aislinn holding her wine goblet forward, passing her free hand above Brennus's cup before he picked it up.
At last Brennus stood among the company, bowed deeply and sloppily in Aislinn's direction. He wiped some spittle from the beard at the base of his chin. His words slurred.
"Nay, brother warriors, such battles are nothing!" He looked at Aislinn, raised his eyebrows, stumbled a little, regained his footing, gave a loud boisterous laugh. "I, Brennus Mac Bran, have sired more than a score of children on as many women. Few were willing, but I madetheir choices simple. Do as I ask or die. I have seeded strong sons and daughters the length and breadth of Eire. Now these were battles."
A few of the men in the circle laughed uneasily. Others remained silent.
Aislinn turned her full regard on Brennus, her eyes boring into him, unblinking. She said nothing. Aodhfin, her tutor, had taught her that silence was a weapon, that it could unman more powerfully than words. For a while, Brennus stared back at her, leering and smiling, but after a time, he grew sulky. At last he sat down among the company, fortified himself deeply with drink, called for more.
No other chieftain rose to boast at the contest. After some time of uncomfortable silence, the company began to depart for sleep. Aislinn remained seated, her eyes on Brennus Mac Bran. The chieftain drank steadily and unceasingly. At last he simply slumped over in a drunken stupor, drool oozing down the side of his cheek. Still, Aislinn remained motionless in the firelight while the hall emptied, while the sounds of the village settled down for the night.
When at last she sensed the moment of silence all around her, she stood, sweeping like a soft, white snowfall across the feasting hall, through the north door, into the sleeping chamber of Brennus Mac Bran.
She bent over the child, started back. The child was wide awake, her green eyes staring into the penetrating darkness. Aislinn placed her finger on her lips. The little girl nodded, raised her arms.
Aislinn lifted the frail child, thought for a moment how slight she felt, how angular and boned like a bird. The child twined her arms tightly around Aislinn's neck. Cautiously, they moved out into the night circle of the little tuath. Aislinn looked up, blessed the gods for the moonless night. She kept close against the dwellings, skirting their sides, staying deep beneath their thatch overhangs.It was only when she reached the quiet fields beyond the village that Aislinn began to run.
The child huddled in the shelter of the low stone wall, her head buried beneath her arms. The early morning rain, which swept across the field in gusts, plastered her copper hair against her brown cloak, over the curve of her small body, and onto the arches of her bare feet where it curled in wet red tendrils. She shook continually.
Aislinn stood beside her, breathing hard. They had run hard until well past dawn, Aislinn carrying the child until at last she stumbled. They had exchanged no words. Aislinn knew that she had not yet put enough distance between them and Brennus Mac Bran. She stared back at the way they had come, knelt beside the child.
"Do not be afraid. Corra? Is that what you are called?"
The little girl turned her head in Aislinn's direction, her face a pale, pinched mask. She nodded once. "Corra ni Brith," she said, her voice small and dry.
"Corra, I promise that he will not hurt you anymore."
She made a cradling motion around the shivering body, then unfastened her own thick white cloak and wrapped it around the child's body, tucking it under her feet.
She stood again. The wind caught at her raven-black hair, no longer trapped in the folds of the cloak. It lifted around her like wings. Aislinn peered at the pockets of mist swirling through the trees beyond the wall and absently fingered the intricately carved golden hilt of the dagger that hung at her waist.
"He will not harm you again," she said, almost to herself. "First he will have to go through me. And if he tries, I swear by the Sacred Tree that I will kill him."
Aislinn shivered. Without her cloak, her bare arms were exposed to the wind and rain. The spiraling gold bracelet that wound around her upper arm felt like ice against her skin. Within the range of her vision, nothing moved but the branches of the trees.
But Brennus would not come now. It was too soon for him to shake off last night's drugged stupor. Too, the loss of his slave child to a woman would be too humiliating before the visiting chiefs. He would keep that a secret until they had gone. For a moment, Aislinn wondered how Brennus would explain her disappearance. The thought made her smile. She was a druid. If Brennus told them all that she had lifted away on the night wind, they would believe it. Brennus himself might believe it. Superstitious fools.
Still, she would need that superstition. For Brennus would come for them eventually.
To steal a cumal, the slave of a chieftain, was against the brehon law, even for a druid priestess. Brennus would boast himself within his rights to come after the child. But this was a freeborn child; so the people of her own village had told Aislinn. Still, there was more. Aislinn remembered the way Brennus had looked at her, had delighted in sending the child to his own bedchamber. She remembered the back of the child's legs. Brennus the Brutal would enjoy coming after them.
So much danger! Why had her tutor insisted that she come on this journey, find this child? And why had she begun it only when the Dark One frightened her into flight? From the place of darkness will come a child to light your journey. Was this the child? And if so, what journey had begun?
Aislinn looked at the shivering child beside her and her heart moved with pity. No matter the reason, she must find shelter, food, a measure of safety for them both. She rapped the point of her dagger against the rough top of the stone wall. She turned in all four directions. At last, a small smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. Brennus would come after her, but she would choose a place guaranteed to feed his fear. She looked one last time at the rain-swept field, then crouched and put her arm around the child. Corra bolted up, twined her arms fiercely around Aislinn's neck.
"Do not take me back there!"
"Seotho a thoil. Hush, darling." Aislinn lifted tendrils of wet red hair away from Corra's face. "I will care for you now."
"But where will we go?"
"I have remembered the perfect place," said Aislinn. "It is warm and dry and we can build a fire."
She disentangled the child's arms and stooped to gather her up. The little girl shook her head.
"I am too heavy, priestess. I will walk."
"It is almost a full day's walk. Are you sure that you are strong enough?"
The little girl smiled. "You came for me. I will make myself strong for you."
Aislinn turned away rapidly, blinked. She turned back to the child who held out the white cloak.
"Come then," she said. Hand in hand, they tramped across the muddy field to the edge of the forest. Once they were in the shelter of the trees, Aislinn turned back again. The fields were still empty, sluiced with rain.
"Will Brennus follow us?" The child clung tightly to her hand.
"He will follow us, but he will be afraid."
"Good, because I am afraid of him."
"He was cruel to you?"
"He was. And he killed my mother."
Aislinn regarded the child with sympathy. "I too am a motherless child."
"Is that how you knew to come for me?"
"Nay, I knew to come for you because my teacher sent me to find you."
"Your teacher?" The child seemed disappointed, withdrew her hand.
"Aodhfin the Wise. He told me to search for you."
"And how did you know that I was the one?"
"For many weeks now I have seen you in my dreams."
"Ah, that explains it then," the little girl said, nodding. She smiled and slipped her hand back into Aislinn's palm.
"What does it explain?"
"I know that the druii possess great magic. You will use your magic against him, won't you, priestess?"
Aislinn smiled at the child.
"I will make myself strong for you," she said.
Together, they began the long walk through the wet forest.