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Conor stood at the water’s edge with waves lapping at his feet. The late sun threw his shadow across the glistening slate shingle. A solitary seagull soared effortlessly in the clear blue sky, dipping and gliding high overhead, and a light landward breeze lifted stray wisps of his light brown hair—grown longer now in the months of his slow and painful recovery—long enough to wear it in a tight braid gathered at the side of his head like one of the ancient kings whose exploits the bards turned into song.
Indeed, dressed in his splendid new clothes he appeared the very image of a prince of Eirlandia’s noble line. Thanks to his host’s generosity, he now possessed a siarc of gleaming scarlet edged in heavy gold thread; brown breecs the colour of oak leaves on the turn; fine brócs of soft deer leather that laced halfway to the knee; and a wide black belt studded with tiny gold rivets in the pattern of sea waves, and a cloak of tiny blue-and-black checks. This magnificent attire, like the healing care given him in the last many weeks, was a gift from a grateful benefactor: Gwydion, King of the Tylwyth Teg and Lord of the House of Llyr, whose daughter Conor and his friends had rescued from the Scálda.
Just now, Conor paused in his stroll along the water’s edge and gazed out across the green-grey water of the Narrow Sea, suddenly overcome by the realisation that time was passing in the wider world. How much time, he could not say. Here, in the Region of the Summer Stars, time behaved differently. He did not know why and understanding, much less any explanation, remained just beyond his grasp. Tír nan Óg, and the island realm the faéry folk called Ynys Afallon, was part of, and yet somehow separate from, the wider world beyond its shores.
Conor stood on the strand, his dark eyes searching the shimmering horizon, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Eirlandia lying out on the rim of the sea. All the while, he massaged his arm and shoulder with his free hand. The wounds that had laid him low for such a long time were almost healed; he could move his arm freely and strength was fast returning. His side no longer ached every time he moved, nor sent a pain stabbing through him when he stooped or ran. According to Eurig, chief of the faéry physicians, his feet were on the path to health restored and he would soon be able to travel freely once more.
He felt more than ready. Although, curiously, as strength returned, the homeward pull diminished. Each day that passed, it seemed to Conor that he forgot a little more the cares and concerns of his homeland: the war with the Scálda, its ever-present urgency, its towering importance, receded a little more; even his memories seemed to grow more distant—as if they belonged to another Conor in another time and place. Lately, he had begun to fear that if he and his friends did not go soon, they would never leave.
As he looked out across the gleaming silver sea, he reminded himself once again that, as pleasant as life among the faéry was for him and Fergal and Donal, they could not stay. He told himself that the Land of the Everliving was not their home and they were needed in Eirlandia. He was needed in Eirlandia. The thought conjured an image of Aoife, long hair streaming in the wind as she, like him, stood on the strand gazing out to sea. She was waiting for him; his beloved, his betrothed was waiting, willing his return. If not for Lord Brecan, that devious and deceitful schemer, the two of them would be married by now.
But the fatal intrigues of the arrogant and ambitious Brigantes king had set Conor’s feet on a different path. Perhaps, Clíona, that fickle and flighty daughter of destiny, had decreed they would forever remain apart. Conor cringed from the thought, and felt a pang of longing pierce him to the marrow. Aoife, dearest heart of my heart, how cruelly you have been treated. I will come back for you.
Hearing a crunch of footsteps approaching over the strand, he tensed. No doubt it was his physician come to fetch him and chide him for his errant ways. A moment later, a voice called out, ‘Here you are, brother—and me looking for you half the day.’
‘Aye,’ agreed Conor without turning around. ‘Here I am.’
‘Did Eurig say you could come out?’
Conor gave vent to a resigned sigh as Donal came to stand beside him. ‘Ach, well, good Eurig did not say I couldn’t go out.’
‘They are wonder workers, these faéry healers,’ Donal observed.
‘They are that,’ agreed Conor. ‘If they could mend you, I suppose they could put anyone back together.’ He turned to his friend. ‘It is that good to see you up on your two hind legs—a sight I never thought I would see again.’
‘Was I that bad, then?’ wondered Donal in a matter-of-fact tone.
‘Worse—at least, worse than me.’ Conor put out a hand to grip Donal by the shoulder. Despite his friend’s recent ordeal, he seemed much his old self: his broad good-natured face glowed with good health; his long, thick moustache was neatly trimmed, his jaw clean shaven. Certainly, his solid, well-muscled frame—clothed now in the fine brown breecs and splendid siarc, and a cloak of faéry weave that combined blue and brown and violet in a check pattern—had never looked better. But his pensive black eyes hinted at new depths of knowledge or understanding that Conor had never noticed before. The observation prompted Conor to say, ‘I am sorry you had to suffer so. If only—’
Donal shook his head. ‘It was not your spear that caught me. You brought me here and that was the saving of me. You have nothing to feel sorry about.’
Conor accepted this without comment. Bending down, he selected a small, flat bit of slate, hefted it, and gave it a quick flip that sent it flying out into the bay. The stone skipped four times before sinking.
‘Not bad,’ observed Donal. ‘But is that the throw of the fella who used to win all the contests when we were sprouts?’
‘I did not throw with my left hand then,’ Conor told him, lifting his injured right arm slightly. He rolled his shoulder and swung the arm to loosen it.
‘A good warrior would be able to throw with either hand,’ Donal reminded him. ‘A good warrior can skip a stone seven times at least.’
‘Seven times?’ Conor challenged. ‘Go on then, let’s see how a good warrior skips a stone.’
Grinning, Donal picked up a round, flat sliver of slate from among the countless small stones at his feet. He stood, hefting it in his hands for a moment, squinted his eyes and said, ‘Six.’
With that, he drew back his arm and, with a whipping motion, released the stone. It flew low over the water before dipping and skipping six times over the surface.
‘Six, is it?’ said Conor, searching for a stone. ‘Six is fair, but it is not seven.’ He bent and chose another stone, then prepared to let fly.
‘Three,’ said Donal, squinting his eyes and looking out into the bay.
‘Seven,’ Conor insisted. He threw again, awkwardly, and the stone sank after the third skip. ‘Ach, well, you distracted me.’
‘Then by all means, try again. Find a better stone this time.’
Conor did and, as before, just as he was about to let fly, Donal said, ‘Five.’
The stone made five equal skips before plunking into the water some little way out in the calm water of the bay. This process was repeated six more times: with each throw Conor announced a number, Donal countered it with another—sometimes higher, sometimes lower—and each time the stone skipped the number of times Donal predicted.
After the seventh throw, Conor regarded his friend sharply, and was about to comment on this uncanny run of predictive luck when the expression on his friend’s face stopped the words in his mouth.
Donal stood with eyes squeezed shut, his features clenched tight. After a moment, Donal’s features relaxed, and Conor said, ‘Is it your injury? Are you in pain?’
‘Ach, nay,’ he said, averting his eyes and lowering his head. ‘Well, maybe—maybe we’ve both been a little too brisk just now.’ He gave Conor a fishy, hesitant smile—which did nothing to allay Conor’s concern.
‘We should go before they come to drag us back.’ Conor turned and started back up the strand toward the path leading to their house at the little lake the faéry called Llyn Rhaedr. Donal, however, remained gazing out to sea. ‘Coming?’ called Conor and, with a shake of his shoulders, as if he had been doused with cold water, Donal turned and quickly followed.
The two walked easy in one another’s company as they crossed the strand; they had just reached the greensward when there came a shout from the linden-lined path directly ahead. ‘Conor! Donal!’
Both men glanced up to see Fergal standing in the middle of the trail, hands on hips, waiting for them. Conor raised a hand in greeting. ‘Fergal!’ he called. ‘How goes the battle?’
Fergal hurried to meet them. ‘Does it never occur to either of you to tell anyone where you’re going? What were you doing out here?’ This last was directed at Conor.
‘Well, you know me and the sea,’ Conor replied. ‘Try as I might, I cannot stay away from it. I have the ocean in my veins now.’
‘Seawater for brains, more like.’ The tall fair-haired man arranged his long face in an unsuccessful frown of disapproval.
Like the other two, his sojourn among the faéry-kind had made a new man of him. He seemed both taller and broader, Conor thought, his hair longer, and neatly braided into a thick hank that, like his own, hung at the side of his head, making his face and bearing seem more regal. In his splendid new rust-coloured siarc and breecs he looked every inch a lord of wealth and stature. Adjusting the flawless cloak of yellow and green checks across his well-muscled shoulders, Fergal rested his hand on the pommel of the gold-hilted knife the faéry king had given him and shook his head. ‘You should be in bed resting, you know. You look terrible, Conor.’
‘Ach, well, that is a matter of opinion.’
‘Nay,’ said Donal. ‘It is a plain fact. You do look terrible.’
‘But better than before.’
‘That is a matter of opinion,’ replied Fergal, falling into step beside Conor. ‘Lord Gwydion is asking for you. He says he has news.’
‘Has he now?’ said Conor. ‘As it happens, I would like to speak to him, too.’
Donal raised a questioning brow.
‘Brothers, it is time to go home. I mean to ask our gracious host to take us back to Eirlandia.’
‘Soon, aye,’ agreed Fergal, ‘but you are nowise ready to travel. For all you’re only just up from your sickbed—and you probably shouldn’t even be out here at all.’
‘Ach, Eurig says I have exhausted his art. I am full ready to travel.’
Fergal gave him a long, scornful look to show what he thought of that idea and pulled on the corner of his moustache. ‘Exhausted his patience, more like.’
‘As pleasant as it would be to stay on this most favoured isle and while away our days among the faéry folk,’ said Conor, ‘we are needed elsewhere. King Brecan’s death is bound to create problems for everyone. We are needed at home.’
‘To do what?’ demanded Fergal testily. ‘What do you think we can do that would make any difference to anyone at all?’
‘For a start, we can tell them what we know.’
‘Who will listen?’ said Fergal. ‘I will tell you, shall I? No one. No one is going to listen to us—three exiles, cast out of our tribe for our crimes. Will anyone even deign to receive us? I think not. And if they do, it will be only to hold us to blame for Huw and Mádoc’s deaths—maybe that swine Brecan’s, too, for all I know.’
Donal saw the dangerous look in Conor’s eye, and said, ‘Enough, Fergal. You’ve said enough.’
‘Too much,’ muttered Conor.
Fergal sighed. ‘I am sorry, brother. I meant no disrespect to Mádoc or Huw, or anyone else. But we must try to see how things stand now. You are injured and Donal is still recovering, and whatever you imagine is happening across the water in Eirlandia has most likely happened already and without us.’
‘For once, Fergal is right,’ offered Donal. ‘You should rest and fully recover the strength of that arm of yours. Let Eurig and his helpers take care of you so that when we do go back, you will be fighting fit again.’
‘I am fighting fit already,’ Conor insisted. He looked at his two friends and a slow smile spread across his pale features. ‘Thank you for your wise counsel. I know you intend it for my good.’
Fergal threw a cautious glance at Donal. ‘Does that mean you will abide?’ he asked.
‘Nay,’ replied Conor. ‘I am still going to ask Gwydion to take me back to Eirlandia as soon as possible.’
Copyright © 2019 by Stephen R. Lawhead