MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Every summer they came. By earth and sky, by sun and stone I counted the days. I’d climb up to the circle and sit there quiet with my back to the warmth of the rock I called Sentinel, and see the rabbits come out in the fading light to nibble at what sparse pickings might be found on the barren hillside. The sun sank in the west, a ball of orange fire diving beyond the hills into the unseen depths of the ocean. Its dying light caught the shapes of the dolmens and stretched their strange shadows out across the stony ground before me. I’d been here every summer since first I saw the travelers come, and I’d learned to read the signs. Each day the setting sun threw the dark pointed shapes a little further across the hilltop to the north. When the biggest shadow came right to my toes, here where I sat in the very center of the circle, it was time. Tomorrow I could go and watch by the track, for they’d be here.
There was a pattern to it. There were patterns to everything, if you knew how to look. My father taught me that. The real skill lay in staying outside them, in not letting yourself be caught up in them. It was a mistake to think you belonged. Such as we were could never belong. That, too, I learned from him.
I’d wait there by the track, behind a juniper bush, still as a child made of stone. There’d be a sound of hooves, and the creak of wheels turning. Then I’d see one or two of the lads on ponies, riding up ahead, keeping an eye out for any trouble. By the time they came up the hill and passed by me where I hid, they’d relaxed their guard and were joking and laughing, for they were close to camp and a summer of good fishing and relative ease, a time for mending things and making things. The season they spent here at the bay was the closest they ever came to settling down.
Then there’d be a cart or two, the old men and women sitting up on top, the smaller children perched on the load or running alongside. Danny Walker would be driving one pair of horses, his wife Peg the other. The rest of the folk would walk behind, their scarves and shawls and neckerchiefs bright splashes of color in the dun and gray of the landscape, for it was barren enough up here, even in the warmth of early summer. I’d watch and wait unseen, never stirring. And last, there was the string of ponies, and the younger lads leading them or riding alongside. That was the best moment of the summer: the first glimpse I got of Darragh, sitting small and proud on his sturdy gray. He’d be pale after the winter up north, and frowning as he watched his charges, always alert lest one of them should make a bolt for freedom. They’d a mind to go their own way, these hill ponies, until they were properly broken. This string would be trained over the warmer season, and sold when the traveling folk went north again.
Not by so much as a twitch of a finger or a blink of an eyelid would I let on I was there. But Darragh would know. His brown eyes would look sideways, twinkling, and he’d flash a grin that nobody saw, nobody but me where I hid by the track. Then the travelers would pass on and be gone down to the cove and their summer encampment, and I’d be away home, scuttling across the hill and down over the neck of land to the Honeycomb, which was where we lived, my father and I.
Father didn’t much like me to go out. But he did not lay down any restrictions. It was more effective, he said, for me to set my own rules. The craft was a hard taskmaster. I would discover soon enough that it left no time for friends, no time for play, no time for swimming or fishing or jumping off the rocks as the other children did. There was much to learn. And when Father was too busy to teach me, I must spend my time practicing my skills. The only rules were the unspoken ones. Besides, I couldn’t wander far, not with my foot the way it was.
I understood that for our kind the craft was all that really mattered. But Darragh made his way into my life uninvited, and once he was there he became my summer companion and my best friend; my only friend, to tell the truth. I was frightened of the other children and could hardly imagine joining in their boisterous games. They in their turn avoided me. Maybe it was fear, and maybe it was something else. I knew I was cleverer than they were. I knew I could do what I liked to them, if I chose to. And yet, when I looked at my reflection in the water, and thought of the boys and girls I’d seen running along the sand shouting to one another, and fishing from the rocks, and mending nets alongside their fathers and mothers, I wished with all my heart that I was one of them, and not myself. I wished I was one of the traveler girls, with a red scarf and a shawl with a long fringe to it, so I could perch up high on the cart and ride away in autumn time to the far distant lands of the north.
We had a place, a secret place, halfway down the hill behind big boulders and looking out to the southwest. Below us the steep, rocky promontory of the Honeycomb jutted into the sea. Inside it was a complex network of caves and chambers and concealed ways, a suitable home for a man such as my father. Behind us the slope stretched up and up to the flattened top of the hill, where the stone circle stood, and then down again to the cart track. Beyond that was the land of Kerry, and farther still were places whose names I did not know. But Darragh knew, and Darragh told me as he stacked driftwood neatly for a fire, and hunted for flint and tinder while I got out a little jar of dried herbs for tea. He told me of lakes and forests, of wild crags and gentle misty valleys. He described how the Norsemen, whose raids on our coast were so feared, had settled here and there and married Irish women, and bred children who were neither one thing nor the other. With a gleam of excitement in his brown eyes, he spoke of the great horse fair up north. He got so caught up in this, his thin hands gesturing, his voice bright with enthusiasm, that he forgot he was supposed to be lighting the little fire. So I did it myself, pointing at the sticks with my first finger, summoning the flame. The driftwood burst instantly alight, and our small pan of water began to heat. Darragh fell silent.
“Go on,” I said. “Did the old man buy the pony or not?”
But Darragh was frowning at me, his dark brows drawn together in disapproval. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said.
“Light the fire like that. Using sorcerer’s tricks. Not when you don’t need to. What’s wrong with flint and tinder? I would have done it.”
“Why bother? My way’s quicker.” I was casting a handful of the dry leaves into the pot to brew. The smell of the herbs arose freshly in the cool air of the hillside.
“You shouldn’t do it. Not when there’s no need.” He was unable to explain any further, but his flood of words had dried up abruptly, and we brewed our tea and sat there drinking it together in silence as the seabirds wheeled and screamed overhead.
The summers were full of such days. When he wasn’t needed to work with the horses or help around the camp, Darragh would come to find me, and we explored the rocky hillsides, the clifftop paths, the hidden bays and secret caves together. He taught me to fish with a single line and a steady hand. I taught him how to read what day it was from the way the shadows moved up on the hilltop. When it rained, as it had a way of doing even in summer, we’d sit together in the shelter of a little cave, down at the bottom of the land bridge that joined the Honeycomb to the shore, a place that was almost underground but not quite, for the daylight filtered through from above and washed the tiny patch of fine sand to a delicate shade of gray-blue. In this place I always felt safe. In this place sky and earth and sea met and touched and parted again, and the sound of the wavelets lapping the subterranean beach was like a sigh, at once greeting and farewell. Darragh never told me if he liked my secret cave or not. He’d simply come down with me, and sit by me, and when the rain was over, he’d slip away with never a word.
There was a wild grass that grew on the hillside there, a strong, supple plant with a silky sheen to its pale green stems. We called it rat-tails, though it probably had some other name. Peg and her daughters were expert basketweavers, and made use of this grass for their finer and prettier efforts, the sort that might be sold to a lady for gathering flowers maybe, rather than used for carrying vegetables or a heavy load of firewood. Darragh, too, could weave, his long fingers fast and nimble. One summer we were up by the standing stones, late in the afternoon, sitting with our backs to the Sentinel and looking out over the bay and the far promontory, and beyond to the western sea. Clouds were gathering, and the air had a touch of chill to it. Today I could not read the shadows, but I knew it was drawing close to summer’s end, and another parting. I was sad, and cross with myself for being sad, and I was trying not to think about another winter of hard work and cold, lonely days. I stared at the stony ground and thought about the year, and how it turned around like a serpent biting its own tail; how it rolled on like a relentless wheel. The good times would come again, and after them the bad times.
Darragh had a fistful of rat-tails, and he was twisting them deftly and whistling under his breath. Darragh was never sad. He’d no time for it; for him, life was an adventure, with always a new door to open. Besides, he could go away if he wanted to. He didn’t have lessons to learn and skills to perfect, as I did.
I glared at the pebbles on the ground. Round and round, that was my existence, endlessly repeating, a cycle from which there was no escape. Round and round. Fixed and unchangeable. I watched the pebbles as they shuddered and rolled; as they moved obediently on the ground before me.
“Fainne?” Darragh was frowning at me, and at the shifting stones on the earth in front of me.
“What?” My concentration was broken. The stones stopped moving. Now they lay in a perfect circle.
“Here,” he said. “Hold out your hand.”
I did as he bid me, puzzled, and he slipped a little ring of woven rat-tails on my finger, so cunningly made that it seemed without any joint or fastening.
“What’s this for?” I asked him, turning the silky, springy circle of grass around and around. He was looking away over the bay again, watching the small curraghs come in from fishing.
“So you don’t forget me,” he said, offhand.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Why would I forget you?”
“You might,” said Darragh, turning back toward me. He gestured toward the neat circle of tiny stones. “You might get caught up in other things.”
I was hurt. “I wouldn’t. I never would.”
Darragh gave a sigh and shrugged his shoulders. “You’re only little. You don’t know. Winter’s a long time, Fainne. And—and you need keeping an eye on.”
“I do not!” I retorted instantly, jumping up from where I sat. Who did he think he was, talking as if he was my big brother? “I can look after myself quite well, thank you. And now I’m going home.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I’ll walk with you. Better still, I’ll race you. Just as far as the junipers down there. Come on.”
I stood stolid, scowling at him.
“I’ll give you a head start,” coaxed Darragh. “I’ll count to ten.”
I made no move.
“Twenty, then. Go on, off you go.” He smiled, a broad, irresistible smile.
I ran, if you could call my awkward, limping gait a run. With my skirt caught up in one hand I made reasonable speed, though the steep pebbly surface required some caution. I was only halfway to the junipers when I heard his soft, quick footsteps right behind me. No race could have been less equal, and both of us knew it. He could have covered the ground in a quarter of the time it took me. But somehow, the way it worked out, the two of us reached the bushes at exactly the same moment.
“All right, sorcerer’s daughter,” said Darragh, grinning. “Now we walk and catch our breath. It’ll be a better day tomorrow.”
* * *
How old was I then? Six, maybe, and he a year or two older? I had the little ring on my finger the day the traveling folk packed up and moved out again; the day I had to wave goodbye and start waiting. It was all right for him. He had places to go and things to do, and he was eager to get on his pony and be off. Still, he made time to say farewell, up on the hillside above the camp, for he knew I would not come near where the folk gathered to load their carts and make ready for the journey. I was numb with shyness, quite unable to bear the stares of the boys and girls or to form an answer to Peg’s shrewd, kindly questions. My father was down there, a tall, cloaked figure talking to Danny Walker, giving him messages to deliver, commissions to fulfill. Around them, the folk left a wide, empty circle.
“Well, then,” said Darragh.
“Well, then,” I echoed, trying for the same tone of nonchalance and failing miserably.
“Goodbye, Curly,” he said, reaching out to tug gently at a lock of my long hair, which was the same deep russet as my father’s. “I’ll see you next summer. Keep out of trouble, now, until I come back.” Every time he went away he said this; always just the same. As for me, I had no words at all.
* * *
The days grew shorter and the dark time of the year began. With Darragh gone there was no real reason to linger out of doors, and so I applied myself to my work and tried not to notice how cold it was inside the Honeycomb, colder, almost, than the chill of an autumn wind up on the hilltop. It was an aching feeling that lodged deep in your bones and lingered there like a burden. I never complained. Father had shown me how to deal with it and he expected me to do so. It was not that a sorcerer did not feel the heat of the fire or the bite of the north wind. A sorcerer was, after all, a man and not some Otherworld creature. What you had to do was teach your body to cope with it, so that discomfort did not make you slow or inefficient. It had to do with breathing, mostly. More I cannot say. My father was once a druid. He said he had put all that behind him when he left the brotherhood. But a man does not so easily discard all those years of training and discipline. I understood that much of what I learned was secret, to be shared only with others of our kind. One did not lay it bare before the ignorant, or those whose minds were closed. Even now there are some matters of which I cannot and will not tell.
There were many chambers in the Honeycomb. We lit lamps year round, and in my father’s great workroom many candles burned, for there he stored his scrolls and books, grotesque and wondrous objects in jars, and little sacks of pungent-smelling powders. There was a dried basilisk, and a cup made from a twisted, curling horn, its base set with red stones. There was a tiny skull like a leprechaun’s, with empty eyes. There was a thick grimoire whose leather cover was darkened with age and long handling. In this room my father spent days and nights in solitude, perfecting his craft, learning, always learning.
I knew how to read in more than one tongue and to write in more than one script. I could recite many, many tales and even more incantations. But I learned soon enough that the greatest magic is not set down in any book, nor mapped on any scroll for man to decipher. The most powerful spells are not created by tricks of the hand, or by mixing potions and philtres, or by chanting ancient words. I learned why it was that when my father was working hardest, all he seemed to be doing was standing very still in the center of an empty space, with his mulberry eyes fixed on nothing. For the deepest magic is that of the mind, and you will not find its lore recorded on parchment or vellum, or scratched on bark or stone. Not anywhere. Father owed his first learning to the wise ones: the druids of the forest. He had developed it through dedication and study. But our talent for the craft of sorcery was in our blood. Father was the son of a great enchantress, and from her he had acquired certain skills which he used sparingly, since they were both potent and perilous. One must take care, he said, not to venture too far and touch on dark matters best left sleeping. I could not remember my grandmother very well. I thought I recalled an elegant creature in a blue gown, who had peered into my eyes and given me a headache. I thought perhaps she had asked questions which I had answered angrily, not liking her intrusion into our ordered domain. But that had been long ago, when I was a little child. Father spoke of her seldom, save to say that our blood was tainted by the line she came from, a line of sorcerers who did not understand that some boundaries should never be crossed. And yet, said Father, she was powerful, subtle and clever, and she was my grandmother; part of her was in both of us, and we should not forget that. It ensured we would never live our lives as ordinary folk, with friends and family and honest work. It gave us exceptional talents, and it set our steps toward a destiny of darkness.
* * *
I was eight years old. It was Meán Geimhridh, and the north wind beat the stunted trees prostrate. It threw the waves crashing against the cliff face, forcing icy spray deep inside the tunnelled passages of the Honeycomb. The pebbly shore was strewn with tangles of weed and fractured shells. The fishermen hauled their curraghs up out of harm’s way, and folk went hungry.
“Concentrate, Fainne,” said my father, as my frozen fingers fumbled and slipped. “Use your mind, not your hands.”
I set my jaw, screwed up my eyes and started again. A trick, that was all this was. It should be easy. Stretch out your arms, look at the shining ball of glass where it stood on the shelf by the far wall, with the candles’ glow reflected in its deceptive surface. Bridge the gap with your mind; think the distance, think the leap. Keep still. Let the ball do the work. Will the ball into your hands. Will the ball to you. Come. Come here. Come to me, fragile and delicate, round and lovely, come to my hands. It was cold, my fingers ached, it was so cold. I could hear the waves smashing outside. I could hear the glass ball smashing on the stone floor. My arms fell to my sides.
“Very well,” said Father calmly. “Fetch a broom, sweep it up. Then tell me why you failed.” There was no judgment in his voice. As always, he wished me to judge myself. That way I would learn more quickly.
“I—I let myself think about something else,” I said, stooping to gather up the knife-edged shards. “I let the link be broken. I’m sorry, Father. I can do this. I will do it next time.”
“I know,” he said, turning back to his own work. “Practice this twice fifty times with something unbreakable. Then come back and show me.”
“Yes, Father.” It was too cold to sleep anyway. I might as well spend the night doing something useful.
* * *
I was ten years old. I stood very still, right in the center of my father’s workroom, with my eyes focused on nothing. Above my head the fragile ball hovered, held in its place by invisible forces. I breathed. Slow, very slow. With each outward breath, a tiny adjustment. Up, down, left, right. Spin, I told the ball, and it whirled, glowing in the candlelight. Stop. Now circle around my head. My eyes did not follow the steady movement. I need not see it to know its obedience to my will. Stop. Now drop. The infinitesimal pause; then the dive, a sweep before me of glittering brightness, descent to destruction. Stop. The diver halted a handspan above the stone floor. The ball hung in air, waiting. I blinked, and bent to scoop it up in my hand.
Father nodded gravely. “Your control is improving. These tricks are relatively easy, of course; but to perform them well requires discipline. I’m pleased with your progress, Fainne.”
“Thank you.” Such praise was rare indeed. It was more usual for him simply to acknowledge that I had mastered something, and go straight on to the next task.
“Don’t become complacent, now.”
“It’s time to venture into a more challenging branch of the art. For this, you’ll need to find new reserves within yourself. It can be exhausting. Take a few days to rest. We’ll begin at Imbolc. What apter time could there be, indeed?” His tone was bitter.
“Yes, Father.” I did not ask him what he meant, though it troubled me deeply that he seemed so sad. I knew it was at Brighid’s feast that he first met my mother; not that he ever spoke of her, not deliberately. That tale was well hidden within him, and he was a masterly keeper of secrets. The little I knew I had gleaned here and there, a morsel at a time over the years. There was a remark of Peg’s, overheard while I waited for Darragh under the trees behind the encampment, unseen by his mother.
“She was very beautiful,” Peg had said to her friend Molly. The two of them were sitting in the morning sunlight, fingers flying as they fashioned their intricate baskets. “Tall, slender, with that bright copper hair down her back. Like a faery woman. But she was always—she was always a little touched, you know what I mean? He’d watch over her like a wolf guarding its young, but he couldn’t stop what happened. You could see it in her eyes, right from the first.”
“Mm,” Molly had replied. “Girl takes after her father, then. Strange little thing.”
“She can’t help what she is,” said Peg.
And I remembered another time, one summer when the weather was especially warm, and Darragh finally grew impatient with my persistent refusal to go anywhere near the water.
“Why won’t you let me teach you how to swim?” he’d asked me. “Is it because of her? Because of what happened to her?”
“What?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“You know. Your mother. Because she—well, because of what she did. That’s what they say. That you’re frightened of the water, because she jumped off the Honeycomb and drowned herself.”
“Of course not,” I replied, swallowing hard. “I just don’t want to, that’s all.” How could he know that until that moment, nobody had told me how she died?
I tried to dredge up some memory of my mother, tried to picture the lovely figure Peg had described, but there was nothing. All I could remember was Father and the Honeycomb. Something had happened long since and far away, something that had damaged my mother and wounded my father, and set the path forward for all of us in a way there was no denying. Father had never told me the tale. Still, it was an unspoken lesson built into everything he taught me.
* * *
“Time to begin,” said Father, regarding me rather severely. “This will be serious work, Fainne. It may be necessary to curtail your freedom this summer.”
“Good.” He gave a nod. “Stand here by me. Look into the mirror. Watch my face.”
The surface was bronze, polished to a bright reflective sheen. Our images showed side by side; the same face with subtle alterations. The dark red curls; the fierce eyes, dark as ripe berries; the pale unfreckled skin. My father’s countenance was handsome enough, I thought, if somewhat forbidding in expression. Mine was a child’s, unformed, plain, a little pudding of a face. I scowled at my reflection, and glanced back at my father in the mirror. I sucked in my breath.
My father’s face was changing. The nose grew hooked, the deep red hair frosted with white, the skin wrinkled and blotched like an ancient apple left too long in store. I stared, aghast. He raised a hand, and it was an old man’s hand, gnarled and knotted, with nails like the claws of some feral creature. I could not tear my eyes away from the mirrored image.
“Now look at me,” he said quietly, and the voice was his own. I forced my eyes to flicker sideways, though my heart shrank at the thought that the man standing by me might be this wizened husk of my fine, upright father. And there he was, the same as ever, dark eyes fixed on mine, hair still curling glossily auburn about his temples. I turned back to the mirror.
The face was changing again. It wavered for a moment, and stilled. This time the difference was more subtle. The hair a shade lighter, a touch straighter. The eyes a deep blue, not the unusual shade of dark purple my father and I shared. The shoulders somewhat broader, the height a handspan greater, the nose and chin with a touch of coarseness not seen there before. It was my father still; and yet, it was a different man.
“This time,” he said, “when you take your eyes from the mirror, you will see what I want you to see. Don’t be frightened, Fainne. I am still myself. This is the Glamour, which we use to clothe ourselves for a special purpose. It is a powerful tool if employed adeptly. It is not so much an alteration of one’s appearance, as a shift in others’ perception. The technique must be exercised with extreme caution.”
When I looked, this time, the man at my side was the man in the mirror; my father, and not my father. I blinked, but he remained not himself. My heart was thumping in my chest, and my hands felt clammy.
“Good,” said my father quietly. “Breathe slowly as I showed you. Deal with your fear and put it aside. This skill is not learned in a day, or a season, or a year. You’ll have to work extremely hard.”
“Then why didn’t you start teaching me before?” I managed, still deeply unsettled to see him so changed. It would almost have been easier if he had transformed himself into a dog, or a horse, or a small dragon even; not this—this not quite right version of himself.
“You were too young before. This is the right age. Now come.” And suddenly he was himself again, as quick as a snap of the fingers. “Step by step. Use the mirror. We’ll start with the eyes. Concentrate, Fainne. Breathe from the belly. Look into the mirror. Look at the point just between the brows. Good. Will your body to utter stillness…put aside the awareness of time passing…I will give you some words to use, at first. In time you must learn to work without the mirror, and without the incantation.”
By dusk I was exhausted, my head hollow as a dry gourd, my body cold and damp with sweat. We rested, seated opposite one another on the stone floor.
“How can I know,” I asked him, “how can I know what is real, and what an image? How can I know that the way I see you is the true way? You could be an ugly, wrinkled old man clothed in the Glamour of a sorcerer.”
Father nodded, his pale features somber. “You cannot know.”
“It would be possible for one skilled in the art to sustain this guise for years, if it were necessary. It would be possible for such a one to deceive all. Or almost all. As I said, it is a powerful tool.”
He was silent a moment, then gave a nod. “You will not blind another practitioner of our art with this magic. There are three, I think, who will always know your true self: a sorcerer, a seer and an innocent. You look weary, Fainne. Perhaps you should rest, and begin this anew in the morning.”
“I’m well, Father,” I said, anxious not to disappoint him. “I can go on, truly. I’m stronger than I look.”
Father smiled; a rare sight. That seemed to me a change deeper than any the Glamour could effect; as if it were truly another man I saw, the man he might have been, if fate had treated him more kindly. “I forget sometimes how young you are, daughter,” he said gently. “I am a hard taskmaster, am I not?”
“No, Father,” I said. My eyes were curiously stinging, as if with tears. “I’m strong enough.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, his mouth once more severe. “I don’t doubt that for a moment. Come then, let’s begin again.”
* * *
I was twelve years old, and for a short time I was taller than Darragh. That summer my father didn’t let me out much. When he did give me a brief time for rest, I crept away from the Honeycomb and up the hill, no longer sure if this was allowed, but not prepared to ask permission in case it was refused. Darragh would be waiting for me, practicing the pipes as often as not, for Dan had taught him well, and the exercise of his skill was pleasure more than duty. We didn’t explore the caves anymore, or walk along the shore looking for shells, or make little fires with twigs. Most of the time we sat in the shadow of the standing stones, or in a hollow near the cliff’s edge, and we talked, and then I went home again with the sweet sound of the pipes arching through the air behind me. I say we talked, but it was usually the way of it that Darragh talked and I listened, content to sit quiet in his company. Besides, what had I to talk about? The things I did were secret, not to be spoken. And increasingly, Darragh’s world was unknown to me, foreign, like some sort of thrilling dream that could never come true.
“Why doesn’t he take you back to Sevenwaters?” he asked one day, somewhat incautiously. “We’ve been there once or twice, you know. There’s an old auntie of my dad’s still lives there. You’ve got a whole family in those parts: uncles, aunts, cousins by the cartload. They’d make you welcome, I’ve no doubt of it.”
“Why should he?” I glared at him, finding any criticism of my father difficult, however indirectly expressed.
“Because—” Darragh seemed to struggle for words. “Because—well, because that’s the way of it, with families. You grow up together, you do things together, you learn from each other and look after each other and—and—”
“I have my father. He has me. We don’t need anyone else.”
“It’s no life,” Darragh muttered. “It’s not a life for a girl.”
“I’m not a girl, I’m a sorcerer’s daughter,” I retorted, raising my brows at him. “There’s no need for me to go to Sevenwaters. My home is here.”
“You’re doing it again,” said Darragh after a moment.
“That thing you do when you’re angry. Your eyes start glowing, and little flashes of light go through your hair, like flames. Don’t tell me you didn’t know.”
“Well, then,” I said, thinking I had better exercise more control over my feelings.
“Well, that just goes to show. That I’m not just a girl. So you can stop planning my future for me. I can plan it myself.”
“Uh-huh.” He did not ask me for details. We sat silent for a while, watching the gulls wheel above the returning curraghs. The sea was dark as slate; there would be a storm before dusk. After a while he started to tell me about the white pony he’d brought down from the hills, and how his dad would be wanting him to sell her for a good price at the horse fair, but Darragh wasn’t sure he could part with her, for there was a rare understanding growing between the two of them. By the time he’d finished telling me I was rapt with attention, and had quite forgotten I was cross with him.
* * *
I was fourteen years old, and summer was nearly over. Father was pleased with me, I could see it in his eyes. The Glamour was tricky. It was possible to achieve some spectacular results. My father could turn himself into a different being entirely: a bright-eyed red fox, or a strange wraith-like creature most resembling an attenuated wisp of smoke. He gave me the words for this, but he would not allow me to attempt it. There was a danger in it, if used incautiously. The risk was that one might lack the necessary controls to reverse the spell. There was always the chance that one might never come back to oneself. Besides, Father told me, such a transformation caused a major drain on a sorcerer’s power. The further from one’s true self the semblance was, the more severe the resultant depletion. Say one became a ferocious sea monster, or an eagle with razor-sharp talons, and then managed the return to oneself. For a while, after that, no exercise of the craft would be possible. It could be as long as a day and a night. During that time the sorcerer would be at his, or her, most vulnerable.
So I was forbidden to try the major variants of the spell, which dealt with non-human forms. But the other, the more subtle changing, that I discovered a talent for. At first it was hard work, leaving me exhausted and shaken. But I applied myself, and in time I could slip the Glamour on and off in the twinkle of an eye. I learned to conceal my weariness.
“You understand,” said Father gravely, “that what you create is simply a deception of others’ eyes. If your disguise is subtle, just a convenient alteration of yourself, folk will be unaware that things have changed. They will simply wonder why they did not notice, before, how utterly charming you were, or how trustworthy your expression. They will not know that they have been manipulated. And when you change back to yourself, they will not know they ever saw you differently. A complete disguise is another matter. That must be used most carefully. It can create difficulties. It is always best to keep your guise as close as possible to your own form. That way you can slip back easily and regain your strength quickly. Excuse me a moment.” He turned away from me, suppressing a deep cough.
“Are you unwell?” I asked. It was unusual for him to have so much as a sniffle, even in the depths of winter.
“I’m well, Fainne,” he said. “Don’t fuss. Now remember what I said about the Glamour. If you use the major forms you take a great personal risk.”
“But I could do it,” I protested. “Change myself into a bird or a serpent. I’m sure I could. Can’t I try, just once?”
Father looked at me. “Be glad,” he said, “that you have no need of it. Believe that it is perilous. A spell of last resort.”
It was no longer possible to take time off from my studies. I had scarcely seen the sun all summer, for Father had arranged to have our small supply of bread and fish and vegetables brought up to the Honeycomb by one of the local girls. There was a spring in one of the deep gullies, and it was Father himself who went with a bucket for water now. I stayed inside, working. I was training myself not to care. At first it hurt a lot, knowing Darragh would be out there somewhere looking for me, waiting for me. Later, when he gave up waiting, it hurt even more. I’d escape briefly to a high ledge above the water, a secret place accessible only from inside the vaulted passages of the Honeycomb. From this vantage point you could see the full sweep of the bay, from our end with its sheer cliffs and pounding breakers to the western end, where the far promontory sheltered the scattering of cottages and the bright, untidy camp of the traveling folk. You could see the boys and girls running on the shore, and hear their laughter borne on the breath of the west wind, mingled with the wild voices of seabirds. Darragh was there among them, taller now, for he had shot up this last winter away. His dark hair was thrown back from his face by the wind, and his grin was as crooked as ever. There was always a girl hanging around him now, sometimes two or three. One in particular I noticed, a little slip of a thing with skin brown from the sun, and a long plait down her back. Wherever Darragh went she wasn’t far away, white teeth flashing in a smile, hand on her hip, looking. With no good reason at all, I hated her.
The lads used to dive off the rocks down below the Honeycomb, unaware of my presence on the ledge above. They were of an age when a boy believes himself invincible, when every lad is a hero who can slay whatever monsters cross his path. The ledge they chose was narrow and slippery; the sea below dark, chill and treacherous. The dive must be calculated to the instant to avoid catching the force of an incoming wave that would crush you against the jagged rocks at the Honeycomb’s base. Again and again they did it, three or four of them, waiting for the moment, bare feet gripping the rock, bodies nut-brown in the sun, while the girls and the smaller children stood watching from the shore, silent in anticipation. Then, sudden and shocking no matter how often repeated, the plunge to the forbidding waters below.
Twice or three times that summer I saw them. The last time I went there, I saw Darragh leave the ledge and climb higher, nimble as a crab on the crevices of the stark cliffside, scrambling up to perch on the tiniest foothold far above the diving point. I caught my breath in shock. He could not intend—surely he did not intend—? I bit my lip and tasted salt blood; I screwed my hands into fists so tight my nails cut my palms. The fool. Why would he try such a thing? How could he possibly—?
He stood poised there a moment as his audience hushed and froze, feeling no doubt some of the same fascinated terror that gripped me. Far, far below the waves crashed and sucked, and far above the gulls screamed a warning. Darragh did not raise his arms for a dive. He simply leaned forward and plummeted down headfirst, straight as an arrow, hands by his sides, down and down until his body entered the water as neatly as a gannet diving for fish; and I watched one great wave wash over the spot where he had vanished, and another, and a third, while my heart hammered with fear, and then, much farther in toward the shore, a sleek dark head emerged from the water and he began to swim, and a cheer went up from the boys on the ledge and the girls on the sand, and when he came out of the water, dripping, laughing, she was there to greet him and to offer him the shawl from her own shoulders to dry himself off with.
I did not concentrate very well that day, and Father gave me a sharp look, but said nothing. It was my own choice not to go back and watch them after that. What Father had taught me was right. A sorcerer, or a sorcerer’s daughter, could not perform the tasks required, could not practice the art to the full, if other things were allowed to get in the way.
It was close to Lugnasad and that summer’s end when my father told me his own story at last. We sat before the fire after a long day’s work, drinking our ale. At such times we were mostly silent, absorbed with our own thoughts. I was watching Father as he stared into the flames, and I was thinking how he was losing weight, the bones of his face showing stark beneath the skin. He was even paler than usual. Teaching me must be a trial to him sometimes. No wonder he looked weary. I would have to try harder.
“You know we are descended from a line of sorcerers, Fainne,” he said suddenly, as if simply following a train of thought.
“And you understand what that means?”
I was puzzled that he should ask me this. “That we are not the same as ordinary folk, and never can be. We are set apart, neither one thing nor the other. We can exercise the craft, for what purpose we may choose. But some elements of magic are beyond us. We may touch the Otherworld, but are not truly of it. We live in this world, but we never really belong to it.”
“Good, Fainne. You understand, in theory, very well. But it is not the same to go out into the world and discover what this means. You cannot know what pain this half-existence can bring. Tell me, do you remember your grandmother? It is a long time since she came here; ten years and more. Perhaps you have forgotten her.”
I frowned in concentration. “I think I can remember. She had eyes like ours, and she stared at me until my head hurt. She asked me what I’d learned, and when I told her, she laughed. I wanted her to go away.”
Father nodded grimly. “My mother does not choose to go abroad in the world. Not now. She keeps to the darker places; but we cannot dismiss her, nor her arts. We bear her legacy within us, you and I, whether we will or no, and it is through her that we are both less and more than ordinary folk. I had no wish to tell you more of this, but the time has come when I must. Will you listen to my story?”
“Yes, Father,” I whispered, shocked.
“Very well. Know, then, that for eighteen years of my existence I grew up in the nemetons, under the protection and nurture of the wise ones. What came before that I cannot remember, for I dwelt deep in the great forest of Sevenwaters from little more than an infant. Oak and ash were my companions; I slept on wattles of rowan, the better to hear the voice of the spirit, and I wore the plain robe of the initiate. It was a childhood of discipline and order; frugal in the provision for bodily needs, but full of rich food for the mind and spirit, devoid of the baser elements of man’s existence, surrounded by the beauty of tree and stream, lake and mossy stone. I grew to love learning, Fainne. This love I have tried to impart to you, over the years of your own childhood.
“The greater part of my training in the druid way I owed to a man called Conor, who became leader of the wise ones during my time there. He took a particular interest in my education. Conor was a hard taskmaster. He would never give a straight response to a question. Always, he would set me in the right direction, but leave me to work out the answers for myself. I learned quickly, and was eager for more. I progressed; I grew older, and was a young man. Conor did not give praise easily. But he was pleased with me, and just before I had completed my training, and might at last call myself a druid, he allowed me to accompany him to the great house of Sevenwaters to assist in the ritual of Imbolc.
“It was the first time I had been outside the nemetons and the depths of the forest. It was the first time I had seen folk other than my brethren of the wise ones. Conor performed the ritual and lit the sacred fire, and I bore the torch for him. It was the culmination of the long years of training. After supper he allowed me to tell a tale to the assembled company. And he was proud of me: I could see it on his face, clever as he was at concealing his thoughts. There was a gladness in my heart that night, as if the hand of the goddess herself had touched my spirit and set my feet on a path I might follow joyfully for the rest of my days. From then on, I thought, I would be dedicated to the way of light.
“Sevenwaters is a great house and a great túath. A man called Liam was the master there, Conor’s brother. And there was a sister, Sorcha, of whom wondrous things were said. She was herself a powerful storyteller and a famous healer, and her own tale was the strangest of all. Her brothers had been turned into swans by an evil enchantress, and Sorcha had won them back their human form through a deed of immense courage and sacrifice. Looking at her, it was hard to believe that it might be true, for she was such a little, fragile thing. But I knew it was true. Conor had told me; Conor who himself had taken the form of a wild creature for three long years. They are a family of considerable power and influence, and they possess skills beyond the ordinary.
“That night everything was new to me. A great house; a feast with more food than I had ever seen before, platters of delicacies and ale flowing in abundance, lights and music and dancing. I found it—difficult. Alien. But I stood and watched. Watched a wonderful, beautiful girl dancing, whirling and laughing with her long copper-bright hair down her back, and her skin glowing gold in the flare of the torches. Later, in the great hall, it was for her I told my story. That night it was not of the goddess nor my fine ideals that I dreamed, but of Niamh, daughter of Sevenwaters, spinning and turning in her blue gown, and smiling at me as she glanced my way. This was not at all what Conor had intended in bringing me with him to the feast. But once it had begun there was no going back. I loved her; she loved me. We met in the forest, in secret. There was no doubt difficulties would be raised if we were to make our intentions known. A druid can marry if he wishes, but it is very unusual to make that choice. Besides, Conor had plans for me, and I knew he would not take the idea well. Niamh was not promised, but she said her family might take time to accept the idea of her wedded to a young man whose parentage was entirely unknown. She was, after all, the niece of Lord Liam himself. But for us there was no alternative. We could not envisage a future in which we were apart. So we met under the oaks, away from prying eyes, and while we were together the difficulties melted away. We were young. Then, it seemed as if we had all the time in the world.”
He paused to cough, and took a sip of his ale. I sensed that telling this tale was very difficult for him, and kept my silence.
“In time we were discovered. How, it does not matter. Conor’s nephew came galloping into the nemetons and fetched his uncle away, and I heard enough to know Niamh was in trouble. When I reached Sevenwaters I was ushered into a small room and there was Conor himself, and his brother who was ruler of the túath, and Niamh’s father, the Briton. I expected to encounter some opposition. I hoped to be able to make a case for Niamh to become my wife; at least to present what credentials I had and be afforded a hearing. But this was not to be. There would be no marriage. They had no interest at all in what I had to say. That in itself seemed a fatal blow. But there was more. The reason this match was not allowed was not the one I had expected. It was not my lack of suitable breeding and resources. It was a matter of blood ties. For I was not, as I had believed, some lad of unknown parentage, adopted and nurtured by the wise ones. There had been a long lie told; a vital truth withheld. I was the offspring of a sorceress, an enemy of Sevenwaters. At the same time I was the seventh son of Lord Colum, once ruler of the túath.”
I stared at him. A chieftain’s son, of noble blood, and they had not told him; that was unfair. Lord Colum’s son; but…but that meant…
“Yes,” said my father, eyes grave as he studied my face, “I was half-brother to Conor, and to Lord Liam who now ruled there, and to Sorcha. I bore evil blood. And I was too close to Niamh. I was her mother’s half-brother. Our union was forbidden by law. So, at one blow, I lost both my beloved and my future. How could the son of a sorceress aspire to the ways of light? How could the offspring of such a one ever become a druid? It was bright vision blinded, pure hope sullied. As for Niamh, they had her future all worked out. She would marry another, some chieftain of influence who would take her conveniently far away, so they would not have to think about how close she had come to besmirching the family honor.”
There was a dark bitterness in his tone. He put his ale cup down on the hearth and twisted his hands together.
“That’s terrible,” I whispered. “Terrible and sad. Is that what happened? Did they send her away?”
“She married, and traveled far north to Tirconnell. Her husband treated her cruelly. I knew nothing for a time, for I was gone far away in search of my past. That is another story. At last Niamh escaped. Her sister saw the truth of the situation and aided her. I was sent a message and came for her. But the damage was done, Fainne. She never really recovered from it.”
“What is it, Fainne?” He sounded terribly tired; his voice faint and rasping.
“Wasn’t my mother happy here in Kerry?”
For a while I thought he was not going to answer. It seemed to me he had to reach deep within himself for the words.
“Happiness is relative. There were times of content; your birth was one. In that, Niamh believed she had at last done something right. We knew the choice we had made went against natural laws; that choice condemned us to a life in exile, here where men neither knew us nor judged us. Some would call such love an abomination. Yet it was the only fine thing, the only true thing in my life. I had not the strength to deny it. Niamh’s eyes grew bright once more; I thought she was well again. I was ill prepared for what happened in the end. It seems she never recaptured what she had lost. Perhaps her final answer was the only one she had left.”
“It is a very sad story,” I said. “But I’m glad you told me.”
“It has been necessary to tell you, Fainne,” Father said very quietly. “I’ve been giving some consideration to your future. I think the time has come for you to move on.”
“What do you mean, move on?” My heart began to thump in alarm. “Can I begin to learn some other branch of the craft? I am eager to progress, Father. I will work hard, I promise.”
“No, Fainne, that is not what I mean. The time is coming when you must go away for a while, to make yourself known to the family of whom I told you, those who have by now completely forgotten that Niamh ever existed to cause them embarrassment and inconvenience. It is time for you to go to Sevenwaters.”
“What!” I was aghast. Leave Kerry, leave the cove, travel all that way, to end up in the midst of those who had treated my parents so abominably that they had never been able to return to their home? How could he suggest such a thing?
“Now, Fainne, be calm and listen.” Father looked very grave; the firelight showed me the hollows and lines of his face, a shadow of the old man to come. I bit back a flood of anxious questions. “You’re getting older,” he said. “You are the granddaughter of a chieftain of Ulster, the other side of your lineage does not change that. Your mother would not have wished you to grow up alone here with me, knowing no more than this narrow circle of fisherfolk and travelers, spending your whole life in practice of the craft. There is a wider world, daughter, and you must go forward and take your place in it. The folk of the forest have a debt to repay, and they will do so.”
“But, Father—” His words made no sense to me; I knew nothing but the terror of being sent away, of leaving the only safe place I knew in all the world. “The craft, what are you telling me, the craft is the only important thing, I’ve spent so long learning and I’m good at it now, really good, you said so yourself—”
“Hush, Fainne. Breathe slowly; make your mind calm. There is no need to distress yourself. Do not fear that you will lose your skills or lack the opportunity to use them once you are gone from here. I have prepared you too well for that to occur.”
“But—Sevenwaters? A great house, with so many strangers—Father, I…” I could not begin to explain how much that terrified me.
“There is no need for such anxiety. It is true, Sevenwaters was a place of grief and loss both for me and for your mother. But the folk of that family are not all bad. I have no quarrel with your mother’s sister. Liadan did me a great favor once. If it were not for her, Niamh would never have escaped that travesty of a marriage. I have not forgotten it. Liadan followed her mother’s pattern in choosing to wed a Briton. She went against Conor’s will; she allied herself with an outlaw and took her child away from the forest. Both Liadan and her husband are good people, though it may be some time before you see them, for they dwell now at Harrowfield, across the water. It is appropriate that you should meet Conor. I want him to know of you. You will be ready, Fainne. You’ll go next summer; we have a full year to prepare. Those things which I cannot teach you, my mother will.” His lips twisted in a mirthless smile.
“Oh,” I said in a small voice. “Is she coming here? My grandmother?”
“Later,” Father replied coolly. “It may not be greatly to your liking or mine, but my mother has a part to play in this, and there is no doubt she has many skills you’ll find helpful. In a place like Sevenwaters you must be able to conduct yourself in every way as the daughter of a chieftain would. That you can never learn from me. I acquired deep knowledge in the nemetons, but I never discovered how to go out into the world as Lord Colum’s son.”
“I’m sorry, Father,” I said, aware that my own distress was nothing beside his. “I had thought—I had thought one day I might become like you, a great scholar and mage. The lessons you have taught me, the long seasons of practice and study, won’t all that be wasted if I am sent away to be some kind of—fine lady?”
Father’s lips curved. “You will use all your skills at Sevenwaters, I think,” he said. “I have taught you the craft as my mother taught me—oh, yes,” he added, seeing my eyes widen in surprise, “she is an adept, unparalleled in certain branches of magic. And such as she is need not be present in body in order to teach.”
I thought of the locked chamber, the long times of silence. He had indeed kept his secrets well.
“I don’t invite her here lightly, Fainne. My mother is a dangerous woman. I’ve kept her away from you as long as I could, but we need her now. It’s time. You should have no misgivings. You are my daughter, and I am proud of your skills and all you have achieved. That I send you away is a sign of the great faith I have in you, Fainne, faith in your talents, and trust in your ability to find the right purpose for them. I hope one day it will become clear to you what I mean. Now, it’s late, and we’ve work to do in the morning. Best get some sleep, daughter.”
There was a sadness in his eyes, and in the set of his shoulders, but I did not know how to comfort him. Peg and Molly and the others, they were free with hugs and kisses, with tears and laughter, as if such matters were simple. It hurt me to see my father’s sorrow; it hurt more that I was powerless to mend it.
“Good night, Father,” I whispered, vowing inwardly that I would work harder than ever, and do my best to please him by mastering whatever skills he chose to teach me.
I was deeply shocked by what my father had told me, and inwardly much troubled. Still, a year was a long time. Anything could happen in a year. Perhaps I would not have to go. Maybe he would change his mind. Meanwhile, there was nothing for it but to continue with the practice of the craft, for if the worst happened and my father did send me away by myself, I wanted as much skill as I could master to help me. I put aside my misgivings and applied myself to work.
The weather was quite warm, but Father still had a persistent cough and a shortness of breath. He tried to conceal it, but I heard him, late at night when I lay awake in the darkness.
I was practicing without the mirror. Gradually I had reduced the incantation to a couple of words. I made my eyes blue, or green, or clear winter-sky gray. I shaped them long and slanted, or round as a cat’s, thick-lashed, bulbous, sunken and old. As the season passed I moved on to the other features: the nose, the mouth, the bones of the face. The hair. The garments. An old crone in tatters, myself in future guise, maybe. A fishergirl with her hand on her hip, and her come-hither smile, white teeth flashing. A Fainne who was like myself, almost a twin, but subtly changed. The lips sweeter, the brows more arched, the lashes longer. The figure slighter and more shapely. The skin pale and fine as translucent pearl. A dangerous Fainne.
“Good,” said my father, watching me as I slipped from one guise to the next. “You’ve an aptitude for this, there’s no doubt of it. The semblance is quite convincing. But can you sustain it, I wonder?”
“Of course I can,” I responded instantly. “Try me, if you will.”
“I’ll do just that.” Father was gathering up a bundle of scrolls and letters, and a tightly strapped goatskin bag whose contents might have been anything. “Here, carry this. The walk will be good for you.”
He was already making for the passageway to the outside, his sandaled feet noiseless on the stone floor.
“Where are we going?” I was taken aback, and hastened after him, still in the guise of not-myself.
“Dan heads back north in the morning. I’ve business for him to conduct on my behalf, and messages to be delivered. Stay as you are. Act as you seem. Maintain this until we return. Let me see your strength.”
“But—won’t they notice that I am—different?”
“They’ve not seen you for a year. Girls grow up quickly. No cause for concern.”
Father glanced back over his shoulder as we came out of the Honeycomb onto the cliff path. His expression was neutral. “Is there a problem?” he asked.
“No, Father.” There was no problem. Only Dan and Peg and the other men and women with their sharp looks and their ready comments. Only the girls with their giggling whispers and the boys with their jokes. Only the fact that I had not once gone right into the encampment without Darragh by my side, not in all the long years Dan Walker’s folk had been spending their summers at the bay. Only that going among people still filled me with terror, even though I was a sorcerer’s daughter, for my clever tricks scarcely outweighed my limping, awkward gait and crippling shyness.
But then, I thought as I followed my father’s striding, dark-cloaked figure along the path and down the hillside toward the cove, today I was not that girl; not that Fainne. Instead, I was whatever I pleased. I was the other Fainne, the Glamour wrapping me in a soft raiment of gracefulness, smoothing my curls into a glossy flow of silk, making my walk straight and even, drawing the eye to my long curling lashes and my demure, pretty smile. They would see me, Dan and Peg and the others, and they would admire me, and never notice that anything had changed.
“Ready?” Father asked under his breath as we came along the path and caught sight of the cluster of folk preparing livestock and belongings for next morning’s early departure. Dogs were racing around yapping, and children chased each other in and out between carts and ponies and the legs of men and women about their tasks. As we came closer and were seen, people drew back as was their habit, leaving a neat untenanted space around my father. He was unperturbed, striding on forward until he spotted Dan Walker making some fine adjustments to a piece of harness. A couple of lads were bringing their ponies up from the shore, and they glanced my way. I put a hand on one hip, casually, and looked back at them under my lashes as I had seen that girl do, the one with the teeth. One lad looked down, as if abashed, and moved on past. The other one gave an appreciative whistle.
“And drop this off at St. Ronan’s,” my father was telling Dan Walker. “I’m grateful to you, as always.”
“It’s nothing. Got to go that way regardless, this year. It’s close enough to Sevenwaters. Can’t pass those parts without calling in on the old auntie, I’d never be forgiven. She’s getting long in the tooth, but she’s a sharp one, always has been: Got any messages for the folk up there?” The question was thrown in as if quite by chance.
Father’s features tightened almost imperceptibly. “Not this time.”
I took a step forward, and then another, and I was aware that Peg and the other women were watching me from where they hung clothing on the bushes to dry, and I saw that now Dan’s eyes, too, were fixed on me, appraising. I looked away, down toward the sea.
“Girl’s turned out a credit to you, Ciarán,” Dan said. He had lowered his voice, but I heard him all the same. “Who’d have thought it? Right little beauty, she’s turning into; takes after her mother. You’d best be finding a husband for her before too long.”
There was a pause.
“No offense,” Dan added without emphasis.
“The suggestion was inappropriate,” my father said. “My daughter is a child.”
Dan made no comment, but I could feel his eyes following me as I walked over to the line of ponies tied up loosely in the shade under the trees, cropping at the rough grass. I could feel many eyes following me, and they were not amused or pitying or scornful, but curious, admiring, intrigued. It made me feel quite strange.
I reached up a hand to stroke the long muzzle of a placid gray beast, and the lad who had whistled before appeared at my side. He was a gangling, freckled fellow somewhat older than myself. I had seen him many times with the others, and never exchanged so much as a word. Behind him a couple more boys hovered.
“His name’s Silver.” This was offered with diffidence, as if the speaker were not quite sure of his possible reception. There was a pause. Some response from me was clearly expected. It was all very well to maintain the Glamour, to keep myself as this not-quite-myself that they all seemed to want to look at and talk to. My techniques were well up to that. But I must also act in keeping; find the words, the smiles, the little gestures. Find the courage. I slipped a hand into the pocket of my gown, repeated the words of an old spell silently in my head, and drew out a wrinkled apple that had not been there when we left home.
“Is it all right if I give him this?” I asked sweetly, arching my brows and trying for a shy smile.
The boy nodded, grinning. Now I had five of them around me, leaning with studied casualness on the wall, or half-hiding behind one another, peering around for a better look without being conspicuous. I put the apple on the palm of my hand, and the horse ate it. His ears were laid back. He was uneasy with me, and I knew why.
“Is it true you can make fire with your hands?” blurted out one of the lads suddenly.
“Hush your mouth, Paddy,” said the first one with a scowl. “What are you thinking of, asking the young lady something like that?”
“None of our business, I’m sure,” said another, though doubtless he, like all of them, had exchanged his fair share of speculative gossip about what we got up to, those long lonely times in the Honeycomb.
“It’s my father who’s the sorcerer, not me,” I said softly, still stroking the horse’s muzzle with delicate fingers. “I’m just a girl.”
“Haven’t seen you out and about much this summer,” commented the freckled boy. “Keeps you busy, does he?”
I gave a nod, allowing my expression to become crestfallen. “There’s only my father and me, you see.” I imagined myself as a dutiful daughter, cooking sustaining meals, mending and sweeping and tending to my father, and I could see the same image in their eyes.
“A shame, that,” said one of the lads. “You should come down sometimes. There’s dancing and games and good times here in the camp. Pity to miss it.”
“Maybe—” began the other boy, but I never heard what he was about to say, for it was at that point my father called me, and the lads melted away quicker than spring snow, leaving me alone with the horse. And as I turned to follow my father obediently back home I saw Darragh, over on the far side of the horse lines, brushing down his white pony. Aoife, her name was; he’d argued long and hard with Dan to be allowed to keep her, and he’d had his way in the end. Now Darragh glanced at me and looked away, and not by so much as a twitch of the brow or a movement of the hand did he give me any recognition.
“Very good,” my father said as we walked home in the chill of a rising west wind. “Very good indeed. You’re getting the feeling of this. However, this is just the beginning. I’d like you to develop a degree of sophistication. You’ll need that at Sevenwaters. The folk there are somewhat different from these fishermen and simple travelers. We must begin work on that.”
“Yes, Father.” For all his words of praise, he seemed tired and sad, as if something weighed on him. I saw a look in his eyes that I recognized well, a look that told me he was planning, calculating, seeing things so far ahead I could not hope to understand. What was it he wanted me to do at Sevenwaters? Was it so dangerous there that I must cloak myself in magic every waking moment? I wished he would explain. But that was never his way. If there was a puzzle to be solved, I was expected to do it myself.
“We might start sooner than planned, I think. As soon as Dan’s folk are away we’ll take the next step. You can have one day’s rest. You’ve earned that much; we cannot afford more. Use the day wisely.”
There was no choice in it; there never had been. “Yes, Father,” I said, and as we made our way up the cliff path and into the dark tunnels of the Honeycomb, I let the Glamour slip away and was once more my limping, clumsy self. I had done what my father asked. Why, then, did I feel so unhappy? Hadn’t I proved I could be what I pleased? Hadn’t I shown I could make people admire me and bend them to my will? Yet later, lying on my bed, I stared into the darkness and felt an emptiness inside me that bore no relation whatever to spells, and enchantments, and the mastery of the craft.
It was a night of restless dreams, and I awoke before dawn, shivering under my woollen blanket, hearing the howl of the wind, and the roar of the sea as it pounded the rocks of the Honeycomb. Not a good day to be abroad. Perhaps Dan Walker and his folk would decide to stay a little longer. But it never did happen that way. They were as true to their time as birds flying away for the winter, their arrivals and departures as precise as the movement of shadows in a sacred circle. You could count your year by them. The golden times. The gray times. It seemed to me the voice of the wind had words in it. I will sweep you bare…bare…I will take all…all…And the sea responded in kind. I am hungry…give me…give…
I put my hands over my ears and curled up tight. It was supposed to be a day of rest, after all. Might I not sleep in peace, at least until the sun rose? But the voices would not go away, so I got up and dressed, not sure what the day might hold, but thinking I would make myself very busy indeed, and try to ignore the sick, empty feeling in my stomach. It was as I pulled on my boots that I heard, very faintly through the blast of the wind, another sound. A note or two, fragments of a tune over a steady, solid drone. The voice of the pipes. So, they were not gone yet. Not stopping to think, I grabbed my shawl and was away, out of doors and up the hill toward the standing stones, my hair whipped this way and that in the wild weather, the sea spray pursuing me as far from the cliffs as its icy fingers could stretch.
Darragh stopped playing when he saw me. He’d found a sheltered spot among the stones, and sat with his legs outstretched and his back to the great dolmen we called the Guardian, not disrespectful exactly, just blending in as if he belonged there, the same as the rabbits. I stumbled forward, pushing my hair back from my eyes, and sat down beside him. I clutched my shawl closer around me. It was still barely dawn, and the air held the first touch of a distant winter.
It took me a while to catch my breath.
“Well,” said Darragh eventually, which wasn’t much help.
“Well,” I echoed.
“You’re abroad early.”
“I heard you playing.”
“I’ve played up here often enough, this summer. Didn’t bring you out before. We’re leaving this morning. But I suppose you knew that.”
I nodded, sudden misery near overwhelming me. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I’ve been busy. Too busy to come out. I—”
“Don’t apologize. Not if you don’t mean it,” said Darragh lightly.
“But I did want—I hadn’t any choice,” I told him.
Darragh looked at me straight, his brown eyes very serious and a little frown on his face. “There’s always a choice, Fainne,” he said soberly.
Then we sat in silence for a while, and at length he took up the pipes and began to play again, some tune I did not recognize that was sad enough to bring the tears to your eyes. Not that I’d have cried over so foolish a thing, even if I’d been capable of it.
“There’s words to that tune,” Darragh ventured. “I could teach you. It sounds bonny, with the pipes and the singing.”
“Me, sing?” I was jolted out of my misery. “I don’t think so.”
“Never tried, have you?” said Darragh. “Odd, that. I’ve never yet met a soul without some music in them. I bet you could sing fit to call the seals up out of the ocean, if you gave it a try.” His tone was coaxing.
“Not me,” I said flatly. “I’ve better things to do. More important things.”
“Things. You know I can’t talk about it.”
“I don’t like to see you doing that—that—doing what you were doing yesterday. I don’t like it.”
“Doing what?” I lifted my brows as haughtily as I could manage, and stared straight at him. He looked steadily back.
“Carrying on with the lads. Flirting. Behaving like some—some silly girl. It’s not right.”
“I can’t imagine what you mean,” I retorted scornfully, though I was struck to the heart by his criticism. “Anyway, you weren’t even looking at me.”
Darragh gave his crooked grin, but there was no mirth in it. “I was looking, all right. You made sure everyone would be looking.”
I was silent.
“My father was right, you know,” he said after a while. “You should get wed, have a brood of children, settle down. You need looking after.”
“Nonsense,” I scoffed. “I can look after myself.”
“You need keeping an eye on,” persisted Darragh. “Maybe you can’t see it, and maybe your father can’t see it, but you’re a danger to yourself.”
“Rubbish,” I said, bitterly offended that he should think me so inadequate. “Besides, who would I wed, here in the bay? A fisherman? A tinker’s lad? Hardly.”
“You’re right, of course,” Darragh said after a moment. “Quite unsuitable, it’d be. I see that.” Then he got to his feet, lifting the pipes neatly onto his shoulder. He had grown a lot, this last year, and had begun to show a dark shadow of beard around the chin. He had acquired a small gold ring in one ear, just like his father’s.
“I’d best be off, then.” He looked at me unsmiling. “Slip you in my pocket and take you with me, I would, if you were a bit smaller. Keep you out of harm’s way.”
“I’d be too busy anyway,” I said, as the desolation of parting swept over me once again. It never got any easier, year after year, and knowing I would myself be leaving next autumn made this time even worse. “I have work to do. Difficult work, Darragh.”
“Mm.” He didn’t really seem to be listening to me, just looking. Then he reached over to tweak my hair, not too hard, and he said what he always said. “Goodbye, Curly. I’ll see you next summer. Keep out of trouble, now, until I come back.”
I nodded, incapable of speech. Somehow, even though I had learned so much this season, even though I had come close to a mastery of my craft, it seemed all of a sudden that the summer had been utterly wasted, that I had squandered something precious and irreplaceable. I watched my friend as he made his way through the circle of stones, the wind tugging and tearing at his old clothes and whipping his dark hair out behind him, and then he went down the other side of the hill and was gone. And it was cold, so cold I felt it in the very marrow, a chill that no warm fire nor sheepskin coat could keep at bay. I went home, and still the sun was barely creeping up the eastern sky, dark red behind storm-tossed clouds. As I walked back to the Honeycomb, and lit a lantern to see me in through the shadowy passages, I made my breathing into a pattern. One breath in, long and deep from the belly. Out in steps, like the cascades of a great waterfall. Control, that was what it was all about. You had to keep control. Lose that, and the exercise of the craft was pointless. I was a sorcerer’s daughter. A sorcerer’s daughter did not have friends or feelings; she could not afford them. Look at my father. He had tried to live a different sort of life, and all it had brought him was heartache and bitterness. Far wiser to concentrate on the craft, and put the rest aside.
Back in my room I made myself picture the traveling folk loading their carts, harnessing their horses, setting off up the track northward with their dogs running alongside and the lads bringing up the rear. I made myself think of Darragh on his white pony, and forced myself to hear his words again. I don’t like to see you doing that…you made sure everyone would be looking…you’re a danger to yourself…If that was how he saw me, it was surely far better that our paths were separating now. Ours was a childhood friendship, untenable once we were grown, for we were of different kinds, he and I, kinds that cannot be joined for long. Other girls might sit on the cart, and flash their smiles, and think of a life like Peg’s and Molly’s, full of laughter and music and family. Other girls might look at Darragh and think of a future. I was not like other girls. Yet I felt the loss of him like a deep wound, as if a part of me had been torn away. Year after year, season after season I had waited for him, pinning my hope and happiness on his return. It had seemed to me, sometimes, that I was not fully alive unless he was there. Now my grandmother was coming, and I was being sent away; everything was changing. Best if I put Darragh from my thoughts and just get on with things. Best if I learn to do without him. Besides, what could a traveling boy understand about sorcery, and shape-changing, and the arts of the mind? It was a different world; a world beyond his wildest imaginings. It was a world in which, finally, one must be strong enough to move forward quite alone.
Copyright © 2002 by Juliet Marillier