copyright © 2003, 2007 Stephen Leigh
Part One: The Sky’s Stone
1: A Fire In The Sky
The stone was a gift of the glowing sky.
Jenna wasn’t certain exactly when the first shifting curtain of green and gold shimmered into existence among the stars, for her attention wasn’t on the vista above her. She shouldn’t have been out this late in the first place—she should have been bringing the sheep into their pen even as the last light of the sun touched the hills. But Old Stubborn, their ancient and cantankerous ram, had insisted on getting himself stuck on a rocky ledge on Knobtop’s high pasture, and Jenna had spent far too long pushing and prodding him down while trying to avoid being butted by his curled horns. As she shoved the ram’s wooly bottom back down toward the winter scrub grass where the rest of the flock was grazing, her dog Kesh barking and growling to keep Old Stubborn moving, Jenna noticed that the silver light of the stars and crescent moon had shifted, that the landscape around her had been brushed by gold.
She looked up, and saw the sky alight with cold fire.
Jenna gaped, her mouth half open and her breath steaming, staring in wonder at the glowing dance: great sheets and folds of light swaying gracefully above like her mother’s dress when she danced with Halden at the Corn Feast last month. The lights throbbed in a strange silence, filling the sky high above her and seeming to wrap around Knobtop. Jenna thought there should have been sound: wailing pipes, or a crackling bonfire roar. There was power there; she could feel it, filling the air around her as if a thunderstorm were about to break.
And it did break. The light above flared suddenly, a gold-shattered flash that dazzled her eyes, snatching away her breath and sending her staggering backward with her hands before her face. Her heel caught a rock. She went down hard, the air going out of her in a rush and a cry, her arms flailing out on either side in a vain attempt to break her fall. The rocky, half-frozen ground slammed against her. For a moment, she closed her eyes in pain and surprise. When she opened them again, the sky above her was dark once more, dusted with stars. The strange lights were gone, and Kesh was whining alongside her, prodding her with his black and white muzzle. “I’m all right, boy,” she told him. “At least I think so.”
Jenna sat up cautiously, grimacing. Kesh bounded away, reassured. One of the rocks had bruised her left hip through her woolen coat and skirts, and her neck was stiff. She’d be limping back down to Ballintubber, and Mam would be scolding her not only for getting the sheep back so late, but also for getting her clothes so dirty. “It’s your fault, you stupid hard-head,” she told Old Stubborn, whose black eyes were gazing at her placidly a few strides away.
She pushed angrily at the rock that had bruised her. It rolled away an arm’s length downhill. In the black earth alongside where it had lain, something shone. Jenna scraped at the dirt with a curious forefinger, then sat back, stunned.
Even in the moonlight, she could see a gleam: as pure a green as the summer grass in the fields below Knobtop; as bright as the glowing sky had been and captured in a stone. Jenna pulled the pebble free. It was no larger than the beans in Mam’s soup, rounded and smooth. She rubbed it between fingers and thumb, scrubbing the dirt away and holding it up to the moonlight. With the touch, for just that second, another vision overlaid the landscape: she saw a man with long red hair, stooped over and peering at the ground, as if searching for something he’d lost. The man stopped and looked toward her—he was no one she recognized, and yet… She felt as if she should know him.
But even as she stared and the man seemed to be about to speak, the vision faded as did the glow from the pebble. Maybe, she thought, none of it never been there at all; the vision and the brilliance had simply been the afterimage of the lights in the sky and her fall. Now, in her hand, the stone seemed almost ordinary, dull and small, with no glow or spark at all, though it was difficult to tell under the dim moon. Jenna shrugged, thinking that she would look more closely at the rock later, in the morning. She put the pebble in the pocket of her coat and whistled to Kesh.
“Let’s get ‘em home, boy,” she said. Kesh yipped once and circled the flock, nipping at their heels to get them moving. The sheep protested, kicking at Kesh and baaing in irritation, then started to move, following Old Stubborn down Knobtop toward the scent of peat and home.
By the time they came down the slope and crossed the ridge between the bogs and saw the thatched roofs of Ballintubber, Jenna had forgotten about the stone entirely, though the dancing, glowing draperies of light remained bright in her mind.
The expected scolding didn’t come. Her mam, Maeve, rushed out from the cottage when she heard the dull clunking of the tin bells around Old Stubborn’s neck. Kesh went running to her, barking and running a great circle around all of them.
“Jenna!” Maeve said, her voice full of relief. She brushed black hair away from her forehead. “Thanks the gods! I was worried, you were so late getting back. Did you see the lights?”
Jenna nodded, her eyes wide with the remembrance. “Aye, I did. Great and beautiful, and so bright. What were they, mam?”
Maeve didn’t answer right away. Instead, she threw her shawl over her shoulder and shivered. “Get the sheep in, then clean yourself up and while I feed Kesh, and we’ll go up to Tara’s. Everyone’s there, I’m sure. Go on, now!”
A while later, with the flock settled, her clothing changed and the worst of the mud brushed away from her coat and from her hands, and Kesh (and herself) fed, they walked down the lane to the High Road, then north a bit to Tara’s, the dirt cold enough to crunch under their boots, the moon frosted silver above. The tavern’s windows were beckoning rectangles of yellow, and the air inside was warm with the fire and the heat of bodies. On any given night, Tara’s was busy, with Tara herself, gray-haired and large, behind the bar and pulling the taps for stout and ale. Often enough, Coelin would be there, playing his fiddle or giotár and singing, and maybe another musician or two would join him and later someone would start dancing, or everyone would sing along and the sound would echo down the single lane of the village and out into the night air.
Jenna liked to listen to Coelin, who was three years older. Coelin had apprenticed under Songmaster Curragh, dead of a bloody cough during the bad winter three years ago. Jenna thought Coelin handsome, with his shock of unruly brown hair, and his easy smile that touched every muscle in his face, and those large hands that spidered easily over his instrument (and which, aye, she sometimes imagined running over her body). She thought Coelin liked her, as well. His green eyes often found her when he was singing, and he would smile. “You’re too young for him,” mam had said one night when she noticed Jenna smiling back. “The boy’s twenty. Look at the young women around him, girl, smiling and preening and laughing. Half of them have already lifted their skirts for him, I’ll wager, and one day soon one of them will miss her bleeding and pop up big and there’ll be a wedding. You’d be a piece of blackberry pie to him, Jenna, sweet and luscious, devoured in one sitting and as quickly forgotten. Look if you want, and dream, but that’s all you should do.”
Tonight, Coelin wasn’t playing, though Jenna thought that half of Ballintubber must be pressed inside the tavern. Coelin sat in his usual corner, his instruments still in their cases. Aldwoman Pearce stood up alongside the huge fireplace across from the bar, a mug of brown stout close at hand, and everyone staring at her furrowed, apple-shaped face. “…in the Before, the sky would be alive with mage-lights, four nights out of the seven,” she was saying in her trembling voice that always reminded Jenna of the sound of a rasp against wood. When Jenna and Maeve walked in, she stopped, watching them as they sidled along the back of the crowd. Cataract-whitened eyes glittered under overhanging, gray-hedged brows, and she took a long sip of the stout’s brown foam. Aldwoman Pearce was Ald — the Eldest — in Ballintubber, over nine double-hands of years old. “I’ve buried everyone born before me and many after,” she often said. “And I’ll bury more before I go. I’m too old and mean and tough for the black haunts to eat my soul.” Aldwoman Pearce knew all the tales, and if she changed them from time to time as suited the occasion, no one dared to contradict her.
Aldwoman Pearce set the glass down on the mantel again with a sharp clack that made half the people jump up, startled. The noise also narrowed Tara’s eyes behind the bar — mugs were expensive and chipped ones were already too common. Aldwoman Pearce didn’t notice Tara’s unspoken admonition; her gaze was still on Maeve and Jenna.
“In the Before, when the bones of the land were still alive, mage-lights often filled the sky,” Aldwoman Pearce declared, looking back at the others. “They were brighter and more colorful than those we saw tonight, and the cloudmages would call down the power in them and use it to war against each other. In the Before, magic lived in the sky, and when the sky became dark again, as it has stayed ever since for hands upon hands of generations, the cloudmages all died and their arts were lost.”
“We’ve all heard that story a thousand times before,” someone called out. The voice sounded like Thomas the Miller, who lived at the north end of the village, but Jenna, craning her head to see over the crowd, couldn’t be sure. “Then what was that we saw tonight? I saw my shadow, near as sharp as in the sun. I could have read a book by it.”
“Aye, that you could, if you owned a book and if you could read at all,” One Hand Bailey called out, and everyone laughed. Jenna’s mam had a book, a fine old thing with thick pages of yellow paper and gray-black printing that looked more perfect than any hand could have written. Thomas claimed he could read and Jenna’s mam had shown him their book once, but he claimed it must have been written in some other language, because he couldn’t read it all. Sometimes Thomas read stories from the book bound in green leather that Erin the Healer owned, but Jenna wasn’t alone in wondering whether Thomas simply made up the things he supposedly read.
“Tonight we saw the signs of the Filleadh,” Aldwoman Pearce declared. “The first whisper that the bones of the land have stirred and will walk again, that what was Before will be Now. A hint, perhaps-“ She stopped and glanced at Jenna’s mam again; a few of the others craning their necks to look back as well. “-that things that were hidden will be found again.”
Some of the people muttered and nodded, but Thomas guffawed. “That’s nonsense, Aldwoman. The Before is Before, and the bones of the land are dead forever.”
“The things I know aren’t written in any of your books, Thomas Miller,” the Ald sneered, tearing her hard gaze away from Maeve. “I know because my great-mam and great-da told me, and their parents told them, and so on back to the Before. I know because I hold history in my gray head, and because I listened. I know because my old bones feel it, and if you had a lick of sense in your head, you’d know it, too.”
Thomas snorted, but said nothing. Aldwoman Pearce looked around the room, turning slowly, and again she fixed on Maeve. “What do you say, Maeve Aoire?”
Jenna felt more than saw her mam shrug. “I’m sure I don’t know,” she answered.
The Ald sniffed. “This is an portent, I tell you,” she said ominously. “And if they saw the lights all the way in Dún Laoghaire, the Riocha will be like a nest of hornets hit with a stick, and will be buzzing all around the whole of Talamh an Ghlas. The Rí Gabair will be sending his emissaries here soon, because we all saw that the lights were close and within his lands.” With that, Aldwoman Pearce drained her stout in one long swallow and called for more, and everyone began talking at once.
By the time Tara’s clock-candle had burned down another stripe, Jenna was certain that no one in the tavern really knew what the lights had been at all, though it certainly made for a profitable evening for Tara — talking is thirsty work, as the old saying goes, and everyone wanted to give their impression of what they’d seen. Jenna slipped outside to escape the heat and the increasingly wild speculation, though Maeve was listening intently. Jenna shook her head as the closing door softened the din of a dozen conversations. She leaned against the drystone wall of the tavern, looking up at the crescent moon and the stars, gleaming and twinkling as if their stately transit of the sky had never been disturbed.
She smelled the odor of the pipe a moment before she heard the voice and saw the glowing red circle at the corner of the tavern. “They’ll be going for another stripe, at least.”
“Aye,” Jenna answered, “and they’ll all be complaining of it in the morning.”
Laughter followed that remark, and Coelin stepped out from the side of the tavern, his form outlined in the glow from the tavern’s window. He took a puff on the pipe, exhaling a cloud of fragrant smoke. “You saw it, too?”
She nodded. “I was up on Knobtop, still, when the lights came. With our sheep.”
“Then you saw it well, since it looked as if the lights were flaring all around old Knobtop. So what do you think it was?”
“I think it was a gift from the Mother to allow Tara to sell more ale,” Jenna answered, and Coelin laughed again, a full and rich amusement as musical as his singing voice. “Whatever it was, I also think that there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“That,” he said, “is the only intelligent answer I’ve heard tonight.” He tapped the pipe out against the heel of his boot, and sparks fell and expired on the ground. Coelin blew through the stem and tapped it again, then stuffed the pipe in the pocket of his coat. “They’ll be calling for me to play soon, wanting to hear all the old songs tonight, not the new ones.”
“I like the old songs,” Jenna said. “It’s like hearing the voices of my ancestors. I close my eyes and imagine I’m one of them: Maghera, maybe, or even that sad spirit on Sliabh Colláin, always calling for her lover killed by the cloudmage.”
“You have a fine imagination, then,” Coelin laughed.
“Your voice has a magic, that’s all,” Jenna said, then felt herself blushing. She could imagine her mam listening, and telling her: you sound just like one of them… Jenna was grateful for the dark. She looked away, to where Knobtop loomed above the trees, a blackness in the sky where no stars shone.
“Ah, ‘tis you who has the magic, Jenna,” Coelin said. “When you’re there listening, I find myself always looking at you.”
Jenna felt her cheeks cool, and she stopped the laugh that wanted to escape. “Is that the kind of sweet lie you tell all of them, so they’ll come sneaking out to you afterward, Coelin Singer? It won’t work with me.”
His eyes glittered in the light of the window, and the smile remained. “”Tis the truth, even if you won’t believe it. And you can tell your mam that the rumors about me are greatly exaggerated. I’ve not slept with all the young woman hereabouts.”
“But with some?”
He might have shrugged, but the grin widened. “Rumors are like songs,” he said. He took a step toward her. “There always has to be a bit of truth in them or they won’t have any power.”
“You should make up a song about tonight. About the lights.”
“I might do that,” he answered. “About the lights, and a beautiful young woman they illuminated-“
The door to the tavern opened, throwing light over Jenna and Coelin and silhouetting the figure of Ellia, one of Tara’s daughters and Coelin’s current favorite. “Coelin! Put out that pipe of yours and…” A sudden frost chilled Ellia’s voice. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you out here, Jenna. Coelin, mam says to get your arse inside; they want music.” The door shut again, more vehemently than necessary.
“Ellia sounds…” Jenna hesitated, tilting her head at Coelin. “Upset,” she finished.
“It’s been a busy night, that’s all,” Coelin answered.
“I’d better get in.”
“Ellia would like that, I’m certain.”
The door opened again. This time Jenna’s mam stood there. Coelin shrugged at Jenna. “I should go tune up,” he said.
“Aye, you should.”
Coelin smiled at her, winked, and walked past her to the door. “’Evenin’, Widow Aoire,” he said as Jenna’s mam stepped aside.
“Coelin.” She let the door shut behind him, and crossed her arms.
“We were talking, Mam,” Jenna said. “That’s all.”
Maeve sniffed. Frown lines creased her forehead. “From what I saw, your eyes were saying different things than your mouth.”
“And neither my eyes nor my mouth made any promises, Mam.”
Inside the tavern, a rosined bow scraped against strings. Maeve shook her head, revealing the silver-gray that touched her temples. “I don’t trust the young man. You know that. He’d be no good for you, Jenna — wouldn’t know a ewe from a ram, a bull from a milch cow, or a potato from turnip. Songmaster Curragh got him from the Taisteal; the boy himself doesn’t know who his parents are or where he came from. All he knows is his singing, and he’ll get tired of Ballintubber soon enough and want to find a bigger place with more people to listen to him and brighter coins to toss in his hat. He’d leave you, or you’d be tagging along keeping the pretty young things away from him, all the while with children tugging at your skirts.”
“So you’ve already got me married and your grandchildren born. What are their names, so I’ll know?” Jenna smiled at her mam, hands on her hips. Slowly, the frown lines smoothed out, and Maeve smiled back, her brown-gold eyes an echo of Jenna’s own.
“You want to go in and listen, darling?”
“I’ll go in if you’re going, mam. Otherwise, I’ll go home with you. I’ve had enough excitement for a night. Coelin’s voice might be too much for me.”
Maeve laughed. “Come on. We’ll listen for a while, then go home.” She opened the door as Coelin’s baritone lifted in the first notes of a song. “Besides,” Maeve whispered as Jenna slipped past her, “it’ll be fun to watch Ellia’s face when she sees Coelin looking at you.”
2: A Visitor
In the morning, it was easy to believe that nothing magical had happened at all. There were the morning chores: settling the sheep in the back pasture, cleaning out the barn, feeding the chicks and gathering the eggs, going over to Matron Kelly’s to trade a half-dozen eggs for a jug of milk from her cows, doing the same with Thomas the Miller for a sack of flour for bread. By the time Jenna finished, with the sun now peering over the summit of Knobtop, it seemed that life had lurched back into its familiar ruts, never to be dislodged again. In the daylight, it was difficult to imagine curtains of light flowing through the sky.
Jenna could smell Maeve frying bacon over the cook fire inside their cottage, and her stomach rumbled. Kesh was barking at her feet. She opened the door, ducking her head under the low, roughly-carved lintel, and into the warm air scented with the smell of burning peat. The cottage was divided into two rooms — the larger space crowded with a single table and chairs and the kitchen area, and a small bedroom in the rear where Jenna and her mam slept. Maeve had helped Jenna’s father — Niall — build the wattle-and-daub house, but that was before Jenna had been born. She often wondered what he looked like, her da. Maeve had told her that Niall’s hair was red, not coal black like Jenna and Maeve’s, and his eyes were as blue as the cold waters of Lough Lár, and that his smile could light up a dark night. She knew little about him, only that he wasn’t from Ballintubber, but Inish Thuaidh, the fog-wrapped and cold island to the north and west. Jenna tried to imagine that face, and sometimes it looked like one person and sometimes another, and sometimes even an older Coelin. She wished she could see the memories that her mam saw, when she rocked in the chair and talked about him, her eyes closed and smiling. Jenna had no memory of Niall at all. “He was killed, my love,” Maeve had told her years ago when Jenna had asked, curious as to why she didn’t have a da when others did, “slain by bandits on his way to Bácathair. He was going there to see if he could gain a berth on one of the fishing ships, and maybe move you and me there. He always loved the sea, your da.”
When Jenna grew older, she heard the other rumors as well, from the older children. “Your da was fey and strange, and he just left you and your mam,” Chamis Redface told her once, after he pushed her into a thicket of bramble. “That’s what my da says: your da was a crazy Inishlander, and everyone’s glad he’s gone. You go to Bácathair, and you’ll find him, sitting in the tavern and drinking, probably married to some one else and talking nonsense.” Jenna had flown at Chamis in a rage, bloodying his nose before he threw her off and Matron Kelly came by to pull them apart. When Maeve asked Jenna why she’d been fighting with Chamis, she just sniffed. “He tells lies,” she said, and would say nothing else.
But she wondered about what Chamis had said. There were times when she imagined herself going to Bácathair and looking for him, and in those fantasies, sometimes, she found him. But when she did, invariably, she woke up before she could talk with him.
The man you thought you saw, after you fell… He had red hair, and his eyes, they might have been blue… Jenna tried to shake the thought away, but she couldn’t. She saw his face again and found herself smiling.
“I’m glad to see you’re so pleased with yourself,” her mam said as she came into the tiny house. “Here’s your breakfast. Give me the milk and the flour, and sit yourself down.” Maeve slid the wooden plate in front of Jenna, along with one of the four worn and bent forks they owned: eggs sizzling brown with bacon grease, a slab of brown bread with a pat of butter, a mug of tea and milk. “This afternoon I have to give Rafea two of the hens for the bolt of cloth she gave me last week.”
“Give her the brown one and the white-neck,” Jenna said. “They’re both fat enough, and neither one lays well.” Jenna slid her fork under a piece of bacon. “Mam, I think I’ll take the flock back up to Knobtop this afternoon.”
Maeve’s back was to her as she cut a slice of bread for herself. “Up to Knobtop?” she asked. Her voice sounded strained. “After last night?”
“It’s a nice day, the grass was good up there yesterday, and this time I’ll be sure I’m back earlier. Besides, mam, in all the old stories, the mage-lights only come at night, never during the day.”
Her mam hadn’t moved. The knife was still in her hand, the bread half cut. “I thought you might help me with the hens.” When Jenna didn’t answer, she heard Maeve sigh. “All right. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Aldwoman Pearce’ll be talking about it, though.”
“Why should Aldwoman Pearce care if I go to Knobtop? Because I was there last night?”
“Aye,” Maeve said. She set the knife down and turned, brushing at the front of her skirt. “Because of that, and…” She stopped. “Ah, it doesn’t matter. Go on with you. Take Kesh, and keep Old Stubborn out of trouble this time. I’ll expect you back before sundown. Do you understand?”
“I understand, mam.” Jenna hastily finished her breakfast, gave Kesh the plate on the floor while she put her coat and gloves back on, and took the half-loaf of brown bread her mother gave her, stuffing it into a pocket of the coat. “Come on, Kesh. Let’s get the sheep…” With a kiss for her mam, she was gone.
By the time they reached the green-brown flanks of Knobtop, the sun had warmed Jenna and her coat was open. The sky was deep blue overhead and dotted with clouds, sailing in a stately fleet across the zenith. The sheep moved along with Kesh circling and nipping at their heels, their black-faced heads lowering to nibble at the heather. As they rose higher, Jenna could look back north and west and see the thatched roofs of Ballintubber in its clearing beyond the trees lining the path of the Mill Creek, and looking eastward, glimpse the bright thread of the River Duan winding its way through the rolling landscape toward Lough Lár. By noon, they were in the field where Jenna had seen the lights.
She didn’t know what she had expected to see, but she found herself disappointed. There was no sign that anything unusual had happened here at all. Kesh herded the sheep into the largest grassy slope, and the flock set themselves to grazing — they paid no more attention to the area than they did to the pastures down in the valley.
Jenna found a large, mossy boulder and sat to rest from the climb. “Kesh! Keep them here, and don’t let Old Stubborn get away this time.” She pulled mam’s brown bread from her pocket; as she did so, the pebble she’d picked up the previous night fell out onto the ground. She leaned down to pick it up.
The touch of it on her fingers was so cold that she dropped the stone in surprise, then picked it up carefully, as if she were holding a chunk of ice. In the sunlight, there was the echo of the emerald brilliance the rock had seemed to possess when she’d first found it. She’d never seen a rock this color before: a lush, saturated green, crenellated with veins of pure, searing white that made her pupils contract when the sun dazzled from them. The stone looked as if it had been polished and buffed with jeweler’s rouge.
And so cold… Jenna closed her right hand around the stone, thinking it would warm as she held it, but the cold grew so intense that it felt as if she’d taken hold of a burning ember. As it had last night, another vision laid over her eyes like a mist, as if she were seeing two worlds at once. The red-haired man was there again, still stooped over as he paced slope of Knobtop, and again he turned to look at her. “I lost it…” he said, and then he faded. Other, stronger voices came to her: a dozen of them, two dozen, more; all of them shouting at her, at once the din clamoring in her ears though she could make out none of the words in the chaos.
Jenna cried out (Kesh barking in alarm at her voice) and tried to release the stone, but her fingers wouldn’t open. They remained stubbornly clamped around the pebble, and the icy burning was climbing quickly from her hand to her wrist, onto her forearm, past the elbow… “No!” This time the words was a scream, as Jenna scrabbled frantically at her fisted hand, trying to pry the fingers open with her other hand as the cold filled her chest, pounding like a foaming, crashing sea wave up toward her head, crashing down into her abdomen. The voices screamed. The cold fire filled her, and Jenna screamed again in panic. She could feel a surging power pressing against her, each fiber of her body taut and humming with wild energy. She lifted her hand, concentrating her will, imagining her fingers opening around the stone. Her fingers trembled as if she had a palsy, then sprang open. Coruscating light, brighter than the sun, flared outward, arcing in a jagged lightning bolt that struck ground a dozen strides away.
The stone fell from her hand. A peal of thunder dinned in her ears and echoed from the hills around Knobtop. Breathless, Jenna sunk to her knees in the grass.
Whimpering, Kesh came up and licked her face as she tried to catch her breath, as the world settled into normalcy around her. Old Stubborn baaed nearby. Jenna blinked hard. Everything was normal, except…
Where the lightning bolt had struck, there was a blackened hole in the turf, an arm deep and a stride across. The dirt there steamed in the air.
Jenna’s intake of breath shuddered in amazement. “By the Mother, Kesh, did I…?”
The stone was laying a hand’s breadth from her knee. Cradled in winter-browned heather, it seemed pretty and harmless. She reached out with a trembling forefinger and prodded it once. The surface felt like any other stone, and she felt nothing. She touched it again, longer this time: it was still chilled, but not horribly so. She picked it up, careful not to close her hand around it again. “What do you think, Kesh?”
The dog whimpered again, and barked once at her.
She placed the stone, gingerly, back in her pocket.
“Is everything all right?” Maeve asked as Jenna brought the flock back to Ballintubber. “Thomas said he saw a bright flash up on Knobtop, and we all heard thunder even though the sky was clear.” The worry made her mam’s face look old and drawn. “Jenna, I was worried. After last night…”
All the way down from the high pasture, Jenna had debated with herself over what she’d tell her mam. She’d thought at first that she’d tell her everything, how she’d found the stone after the lights, how it had seemed to glow, how the cold fury had consumed her until released. She wanted to describe the man she’d seen in the misty vision, and ask her: could it be da? But looking at Maeve now, seeing the anxiety and concern that filled her eyes, Jenna found that the carefully rehearsed words dissolved inside her. The fright she’d felt had faded and she seemed unhurt by the experience — why bother mam with that now? Besides, she wasn’t sure she could explain it: mam might think she was making up tales, or wonder if Jenna had gone insane like Matron Kelly’s son Sean, whose brain had been burnt up by a high fever when he was a baby. Sean talked as poorly as a three year old, and was babbling constantly to creatures only he could see. No, better to say nothing.
Jenna plunged her hand in her coat pocket, letting her fingertips roam over the pebble there. The stone felt perfectly normal now, like any other stone, not even a hint of the coldness. Jenna smiled at her mam.
“I’m fine,” she said. “A flash? Thunder? I really didn’t notice anything.” Jenna wasn’t used to lying to her mam — at least no more than any adolescent might be — and she was surprised at how easily the words came, at how casual and natural they sounded. “I didn’t see anything, mam. I thought I might, after last night, but everything was just….” She shrugged, and brought her hand out of her pocket. “…normal.”
Maeve’s head was cocked slightly to one side, and her eyes were narrowed. But she nodded. “Then get the sheep in, and come inside. I have some stirabout ready to eat.” She continued to regard Jenna for a long breath, then turned and entered the cottage.
That was all Jenna heard. Jenna took the stone out of her pocket that night after supper, hiding it in a chink in the wall next to her side of the bed and covering it with mud. It was dangerous, she told herself, and shouldn’t be handled. But every morning, when she woke up, she looked at the spot, brushing her fingers over the dried mud. She found the touch comforting.
That night, she dreamed of the red-haired man, so real that it seemed she could touch him. “Who are you?” she asked him, but instead of answering her, he shook his head and wandered off toward Knobtop. She followed, calling to him, but she was caught in the slow-motion of a dream and could never catch up. When she woke, she found that she couldn’t remember his features at all; they were simply a blur, unreal.
She looked at the mud-covered spot where the stone lay, and that, too, seemed unreal. She could almost believe there was nothing there. Nothing there at all.
Over the next few days, the excitement in Ballintubber over the lights over Knobtop gradually died, even though the stories about that night grew with each telling, until someone listening might have thought that entire armies of magical creatures had been seen swirling in the air above the mount, wailing and crying. A good quarter of the village of Ballintubber had been up on Knobtop that night, too, if the tales that were told in Tara’s were to be believed. But though the tales grew more elaborate, the night sky over Knobtop remained dark for the next three nights, and life returned to normal.
Until the fourth day.
The day was gloomy and overcast, with the lowering clouds dropping a persistent cold rain that permeated through clothing and settled into sinew and bone. The world was swathed in gray and fog, with Knobtop lost in the haze. Ballintubber’s single cobbled lane was a morass of puddles and mud with occasional islands of wet stone. The smoke of turf fires rose from the chimneys of Ballintubber, gray smoke fading into gray skies, and the rain pattered from the edges of thatch into brown pools.
Rain couldn’t alter the pace of life in Ballintubber, nor in fact anywhere in Talamh an Ghlas. It rained three or four days out of seven, after all, the year around. Rain in its infinite variety kept the land lush and green: startling bright and refreshing drizzles in the midst of sunshine; foggy rains where the clouds seemed to sink into the very earth and the air was simply wet; soaking, hard spring downpours that awakened the seeds in the ground; summer rains as warm and soft as bath water; rare winter storms of snow and sleet to blanket the world in white and vanish in the next day’s sun; howling and shrieking hurricanes from off the sea that lashed and whipped the land. Rain was simply a fact of life. If it rained, you got wet; if the sun was out or it was cloudy, you didn’t—that was all. The chores still needed to be done, the work still went on. A little rain couldn’t bring the activity in Ballintubber to a halt.
But the appearance of the rider did.
Through the open doors of the small barn behind Tara’s tavern, Jenna saw Eliath, Tara’s son and youngest at twelve years of age, currying down the steaming body of a huge brown stallion. Jenna was pushing a barrow of new-cut turf toward home; she detoured to see the horse, which looked far too large and healthy to be one of the local work animals. “Hey, Eli,” she said, setting down the barrow just inside the door where it was out of the rain.
Eli glanced up from his work. The horse turned its great neck to glance at Jenna and nickered. She went over and rubbed his long muzzle. Eli grinned. “Hey, Jenna. That’s some animal, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is,” she said. “Who does it belong to?”
“A man from the east, that’s all I know. He rode in awhile ago, stopped at the tavern, and asked mam to send me to get the Ald. I think he’s Riocha; at least he’s dressed like a tiarna — fine leather boots and gloves, a jacket of velvet and silk, and under that a léine shirt as white as new snow, and a clóca over it all that’s a thick as your finger and embroidered all around the edges with gold —the colors of the clóca are green and brown, so he’s of Tuath Gabair.” Eli plucked at his own bedraggled woolen coat and unbleached muslin shirt. He plunged a hand into a pocket and pulled out a large coin. “Gave me this, too, for getting Aldwoman Pearce and taking care of the horse.”
“Where is he now?”
“Inside. Lots of other people there now, too. You can go in if you want.”
Jenna glanced at the tavern, where yellow light shone through the streaks of gray rain. “I might. Can I leave the barrow here?”
There were at least a dozen people in the dim, smoky interior of the tavern, unusual in mid-afternoon. The stranger sat at a table near the rear, talking with Aldwoman Pearce. Jenna caught sight of a narrow face with a long nose, brown eyes dark enough to be nearly black, and a well-trimmed beard, a slight body clad in rich clothing, a delicate hand wrapped around a mug of stout. His hair was long and oiled, and the line of a scar interrupted the beard halfway to the left ear. Jenna could hear his voice as he spoke with Aldwoman Pearce, and it was as smooth and polished as his clothing, bright with the accent of the upper class and permeated with a faint haughtiness. The others in the tavern were pretending not to watch the stranger’s table, which made it all the more obvious that they were.
Coelin was there, also, sitting at the bar with a mug of tea and a plate of scones in front of him, talking with Ellia. Tara was in the rear of the tavern, hanging the pot over the cook fire. Jenna went over and stood next to Coelin, ignoring the barbed glance from Ellia, behind the bar.
“Who is he?” Jenna asked.
Coelin shrugged. “Riocha. A tiarna from Lár Bhaile, if he’s to be believed. The Tiarna Padraic Mac Ard, he says.”
“What’s he talking to Aldwoman Pearce about?”
Coelin shrugged, but Ellia leaned forward. “Mam says he asked about the lights — didn’t Aldwoman Pearce foretell that the other night? Says he saw them in Lár Bhaile from across the lough. When mam told him how they were flickering around Knobtop, he asked to speak to the Ald.”
“Maybe he’ll want to speak with you, Jenna,” Coelin said. “You were up there that night.”
Jenna shivered, remembering, and shook her head vigorously. She thought of those dark eyes on her, of those thin lips asking questions. She thought of the stone in its hole in the wall of her cottage. “No. I didn’t see anything that you didn’t see here. Let him talk to the Ald. Or some of the others here who say they saw all sorts of things with the lights.”
Coelin snorted through his nose at that. “They saw things with the ale and whiskey they drank that night and their own imaginations. I doubt Tiarna Mac Ard will be much interested in that.”
“Why’s he interested at all?” Jenna asked, glancing over at him again. “They were lights, that’s all, and gone now.” Mac Ard’s eyes glittered in the lamplight, never at rest. For a moment, their gazes met. The contact was almost a physical shock, making Jenna take a step back. She looked away hurriedly. “I should go,” she said to Coelin and Ellia.
“Ah, ‘tis a shame,” Ellia said, though her voice was devoid of any sorrow at all.
“Come back tonight, Jenna,” Coelin said. “I made up a song about the lights, like you suggested.”
Despite her desire to be away from Mac Ard and the tavern, Jenna could not keep the smile from her lips, though the pleased look on Ellia’s face dissolved. “Did you now?”
Coelin tilted his head and smiled back at her. “I did. And I won’t sing it unless you’re there to hear the verses first. So will you come?”
“We’ll see,” Jenna said. Mac Ard was still looking at her, and Aldwoman Pearce turned in her chair to glance back also. “I really need to go now.”
As Jenna rushed out, she heard Ellia talking to Coelin — “Keep your eyes in your head and the rest of you in your pants, Coelin Singer. She’s still just a gawky lamb, and not a very pretty one at that…” — then the door closed behind her. The rain struck her cold on the face, and she pulled the cowl of her coat over her head as she ran through the puddles to the barn and retrieved her barrow of peat.
She hurried back to the cottage through the rain and the fog.
BACK TO S.L. FARRELL