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copyright © 2004, 2007 Stephen Leigh

 

Part One:  Acolyte

 

1: Fire From The Stones

        Raw power smeared red and purple across the night sky, held captive in the glow of the mage-lights…

        Jenna raised her right hand, with the stone called Lámh Shábhála clasped in her fist, to the dazzling fury banishing the stars.  The radiance snarled about her arm, the painful scars that mottled her arm glowing as she cried out in mingled relief and suffering.

        She felt the man’s presence before she actually saw him, sensed the attack even as the danger arced toward her:  a dragon scaled in fiery red and yellow, great wings of leather beating the night sky, its taloned and muscular legs striking for Jenna as it reared back in mid-air, a long barbed tail lashing like a whip.

        Almost contemptuously, Jenna took a part of the energy in which she was ensnared and sent it toward the dragon.  The power smashed into the creature, nearly blinding Jenna with a showering explosion of white and blue.  The mage-dragon howled in agony and vanished, but mocking laughter followed its disappearance:  baritone, a bit too loud.  She lowered her hand and the mage-lights curled reluctantly away into sky, fading.  She could see him now, standing not ten strides from her—at the edge of the small courtyard enclosed within the private inner bailey of Dún Kiil Keep.  He was a young man, no older than twenty, dressed in a silken, well-made clóca and léine, red-haired and thin of face, with a jewel grasped in his right hand—like Jenna’s own hand, it too was scarred, though lightly, a barely visible marking that stopped at the wrist.  She knew him immediately, even though she’d last seen him in several years before, when he’d been a pimpled, gawky adolescent:  Doyle Mac Ard.

        She wondered how he’d gotten here—to her island, inside her Keep, but she refused to let him see that his presence worried her.  “Strike him down while you have the chance…” the voices of the old Holders within Lámh Shábhála whispered to her, but she ignored them, confronting the intruder with a scowl.  “Only a fool would attack the Holder of Lámh Shábhála alone, especially when the mage-lights are out, Doyle.”

        “I’m not a fool,” the man answered.  “I was simply announcing my arrival.  And you’re as strong as they told me you would be, sister.”

        “Half-sister,” she answered.  A sudden, shivering fright came over her—she could think of only one reason why Doyle would appear here to speak with her.  “How is mam?”

        Again, his noisy amusement echoed.  “So nice of you to still care.  I rather expected an immediate ‘You’re not welcome in Inish Thuaidh, Doyle’ or ‘I’ll kill you the way I killed your da.’  Of course, if you really cared for her, you would have actually come to see her once over the years.  I hardly think your occasional letters to her count, though she stopped me when I tried to burn them.”

        Jenna didn’t answer.  She longed to justify her absence:  I asked her if she would see me in the letters, but she never answered…  She waited, and after a moment, Doyle sniffed.  She saw the answer to her question in the lines of his face before he even spoke the words. “Mam’s dead.  She passed two days ago.  I thought I might tell you before you heard from your spies in the tuatha.”

        “Dead…”  Jenna didn’t know what to say.  “No…”  Tears started in her eyes, brimming to run down her cheeks.  She started to speak and couldn’t, the sudden grief closing her throat.  An image flashed before her:  Maeve, as she’d been the day Jenna had found Lámh Shábhála: the age Jenna was now, her hair a satin blackness sparked with wispy of pure white at the temples, and a smile creasing her face.  Jenna blinked, and the vision faded.  “How?” she asked finally, unable to get out more than the single word.

    “Does it really matter to you?  You’re a few decades too late for genuine concern, aren’t you?” Doyle responded.  When Jenna just stared at him, he finally shrugged.  “She hasn’t been in good health for the last few years, as I’m sure your spies reported back to you, and the last winter was especially hard on her. I assure you that she was always well-cared for by Da’s family.  When she was lost in her final madness, they made certain she didn’t hurt herself.  I saw her as often as I possibly could, because I loved her and wanted her to know how much I will always be in her debt for having raised me.  But I was never the child she most wanted to hear that from.  Is that what you wanted to know?”  A deliberate hesitation; a half-smile.  “My dear sister.”

    Jenna stared past him, not allowing any of the pain inside to show on her face.  The residue of the mage-lights pounded in her temples, throbbing, and she longed to put a warm cloth over her eyes and take some kala bark to ease the headache.  She wanted to be alone to grieve for the mam she remembered.  “You sound surprisingly like your da,” she sai “You’re too young to be this cynical.”

    “I’ve had to grow up fast,” he responded.

    “Why are you here, Doyle?”

    “Not how?  I’d think you’d worry about me just showing up in Dún Kiil.”

        “I can guess how.  The library at Inishfeirm tells of a Cloch Mór—‘Quickship,’ isn’t it?—with the ability to move people to places its holder has been, so one of the Ri Ard’s tiarna must have found that stone and learned how it works.”

        “Indeed.”  Doyle gestured mockingly at the high, crenellated walls about them.  “Aren’t you glad that it was me who came and not some assassin?” 

        The voices grumbled inside her—“…kill him…”—but she took a calming breath, pushing them back.  “Don’t threaten me, Doyle.  You have no idea what I’m capable of.”

Doyle gave her a wide-mouthed look of false astonishment, his empty hands palms out in front of him, then laughed again.  “Actually, I think I have a very good idea of what you’re capable of doing.  I wouldn’t presume that I have any ability to frighten the Banríon and First Holder.  In fact, I’m here to do you a service.  I’m here to give fair warning to my kin.”  His face went serious then, and he released the jewel he was holding, letting it fall to his breast on its chain.  “I’m a man now, sister; a mage of the Order of Gabair and a tiarna in the service of the Ri Ard O Liathain and fully in his confidence.”

        “And also betrothed to Nevan O Liathain’s daughter and to be married to her at the Festival of Fómhar,” Jenna interrupted.  “Given a Cloch Mór by the Ri Ard himself.  I do hear these things, brother.”

        “Half-brother.”  Doyle grinned.  “I hear things as well.  I hear what the Riocha say:  about Inishlanders in general and their Banríon in particular.  They think you’re arrogant and above yourself; they think you’ve done little or nothing with the power you control; they think you’re mad and dangerous and you hide here like a hermit; and they believe someone more… well, deserving should hold Lámh Shábhála.”

        Jenna tightened her fingers around the finger-sized stone in its silver cage.  “I know at least some of those you talk about.  Then let Nevan O Liathain or any of them try to take Lámh Shábhála from me.”  Her voice took on heat now—if she could not let herelf grieve, then she’d let anger cover the turmoil inside her.  “Perhaps you’d like to bring back your mage-dragon again and make the attempt yourself?  I remember Snapdragon—the cloch you now hold—from Dún Kiil.  I’ll tell you that it will fare no better now than it did then.”

        Doyle simply shook his head.  “We’re not stupid, Jenna.  Especially not the Ri Ard.  But Dún Kiil was a long time ago, and memories dim and time grows shorter for the ones who were there.  We young tiarna don’t remember it at all.  Why, I was just a babe suckling at our mam’s breast when you murdered Da.”

        “It wasn’t murder, Doyle,” Jenna snapped.  The headache and grief pounded at her skull; her right arm ached as if it were made of glacial ice.  “…smash him for his arrogance and be done with it…”

        “Of course, you wouldn’t call it that.  How do you think of it, Jenna?  ‘Self-defense?’—no, it couldn’t be that, when you’ve already bragged to me that you don’t consider one piddling Cloch Mór a challenge for Lámh Shábhála.  Or was it just a happy accident of some kind, just a twist of unkind fate?  What was it you told Mam when you gave her Da’s body?  ‘He gave me no choice…’  No, there’s no blame on you, sister.  There’s no guilt to stain your soul when the black haunts come for you.”

        Jenna blinked away the memories.  She set her jaw against the pain, both mental and physical.  “We can dance with words all night, Doyle.  If you wanted to chastise me for my past, you could have done it more easily in a letter.  What is it you want?”

        A sniff.  “I’m telling you all this, sister, so that I can go to Mam’s barrow with a clear conscience and tell her that I warned you, that I made the attempt to avoid bloodshed between us.  It’s her who has protected you all these years, Jenna.  You probably don’t realize that.  She told me that I she couldn’t bear to see her children fighting each other, so I obeyed her.  But she’s gone now.  You may be too strong to attack directly, Jenna, but those around you, those you love, aren’t so well protected and to hurt you someone might decide to go after them. Your enemies might feel they have no other choice.  Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

        The image came to her of her lover Ennis, his throat slit open in front of Jenna as she watched helplessly… Jenna closed her eyes against the horrible vision etched forever in her memory, forcing back the hot tears that threatened her again.  She took a slow breath and opened her eyes again.  “I understand that better than you’ll ever realize,” she told Doyle.   

        “Good,” he answered.  “Then I’ve done what I came to do.  As to what I want…”  Doyle stared at her, then let his gaze move slowly to her hand, where she clutched Lámh Shábhála.  “I want what should have been Da’s in the beginning,” he said quietly.  “I want what should have been mine.  And I will have it.”  His gaze came back to her eyes.  His stare was unblinking and steady.  “One day, I will have it. And aye, I know what that means.”

        He touched the stone at his chest and Jenna started in alarm.  The voices inside Lámh Shábhála screamed at her—“Fool!  Kill him now!”— but Doyle didn’t release the power of his cloch nor did the dragon appear.  Instead, he was simply gone, soundlessly, as if he had never been there at all.

        Jenna let out her breath in a long, shuddering sigh.

        A garda’s step scrunched on gravel, and Jenna saw a face peering through the garden gate as he called out to her.  “Banríon, is everything all right?  I thought I heard another voice…”

        “Just a ghost,” she told him.  “The air tonight is alive with ghosts.”

#

 

 

2: Leaving

        Meriel’s mam was at the window, staring out toward the cliffs of Croc a Scroilm, the ‘Hill of Screaming’ atop which Dún Kiil Keep sat.  “Your daughter’s arrived, Banríon,” the hallways garda announced, letting Meriel entering the room and then swiftly closing the door behind her.  With the click of the door lock, her mam sighed as if in resignation and turned. 

        “Meriel,” she said, glancing at the clock-candle on the fireplace mantle, the white wax marked with regular lines of red.  “I sent for you over a stripe ago.”

        “Sorry, mam,” Meriel answered.  “I’d had Iníon Nainsi take me down to the harbor, and we came back as soon as the page found us.”

        That was a lie.  In truth, Meriel had been with Lucan O Dálaigh behind the rocks at the edge of the harbor, with Nainsi acting as lookout in case someone came near.  Lucan was two years older than Meriel and the youngest son of Barra O Dálaigh, a tiarna under Meriel’s Da. 

        She and Lucan had started a secret flirtation—at least Meriel hoped it was secret—while she’d been visiting her da in Dún Madadh last summer.  The first night there, she’d danced with him at the Festival of Méitha; the quiet romance had blossomed during long, warm days, fueled by too-rare meetings.  When Lucan had been sent to Dún Kiil to serve at the Keep only a few days after Meriel herself had returned, she’d thought that the Mother-Creator Herself had blessed them.  The relationship had already lasted longer than any of her past infatuations; she had dared, once or twice, to imagine that it might even go further.  For now, though, there were only stolen moments in the corridors of the Keep and precious minutes when they could both find excuses to be away and alone together.  She could still feel the touch of Lucan’s mouth on hers; she wondered that her mam could not see the kisses, engraved in burning heat on her lips.

        Jenna MacEagan seemed to possess that sorcery:  she had a strange knack of knowing when Meriel was lying and for seeing things that Meriel thought hidden. Her mam was still frowning, and Meriel rubbed unconsciously at her lips with the back of her hand.  “Besides, Mam,” Meriel added, “there’s that Taisteal clan that has set up down by the harbor, and they hardly ever come here and I wanted to see what they had to buy…”

        Her mam only nodded abstractedly and without anger, as if her mind were elsewhere.   Jenna tucked strands of coal-black hair (with a few, first strands of silver at the temples) behind her ear and adjusted the golden torc around her neck:  the torc of the Banríon.  On the brocaded clóca she wore, a chain glittered, a cage of silver wire on it holding a stone of pale green, shot with lines of white: Lámh Shábhála, the first and most powerful of the clochs na thintrí—the mage-stones.  Despite its reputed power, the stone had always seemed rather plain and ordinary to Meriel.

        In the shadows of the dimly-lit room, movement snagged Meriel’s gaze as a man moved behind the serving table to her right.  He was dressed in a plain white clóca and léine.  He was older, perhaps the same age as her mam, with long blond hair fading now to gray, his skull shiny-bald from eyebrows to nearly the crown of his head.  His beard, though, was strangely dark and liberally spattered with white hairs; under it, a jewel the green-blue of a shallow sea glittered in a cage of silver and gold, suspended from a chain around his neck.  The gem was far more impressive to look at than the one around her mam’s neck.  Jenna knew what that stone was, too, or at least she could guess at it:  a Cloch Mór, one of the thirty major mage-stones.  White raiment, the cloch na thintrí around his neck: the man was a cloudmage of the Order of Inishfeirm.

        Seeing him here in this room, she had a sudden gnawing suspicion as to why he was here and why she’d been summoned.  Her stomach burned with the thought, roiling.  You wouldn’t do this to me, Mam, she wanted to cry out, all at once.  Her mam saw Meriel’s attention on the stranger.  “Meriel, this is Máister Mundy Kirwan,” she said, “head of the Order of Inishfeirm.” 

        The man’s eyes were the blue of glacial ice, though there was a gentleness in the folds that crinkled around them as he smiled at her.  “You probably don’t remember me, Bantiarna MacEagan,” he said, “but we’ve met before, three or four times.  The first time, you’d been born no more than a week before; the last time I was in Dún Kiil, you were seven or perhaps eight summers old.  You’ve… grown up much since then.”  He glanced over to Meriel’s mam, whose lips were set in the neutral near-frown she wore whenever she was talking with the Riocha—those of royal blood—who swarmed around Dún Kiil like flies around a dead storm deer.  “She’s ready to go?”

        The burning in Meriel’s stomach went to flame.  “Ready to go?” Meriel asked, looking from one to the other.  “To go?  Mam, please, you can’t mean that…”

        Meriel saw confusion and embarrassment cross the Máister’s face, and his hands lifted in apology.  “Jenna, I’m sorry.  I thought you’d already told her-”

        Jenna…  With the casual use of her mam’s name, Meriel realized how well the Máister must know her.  There were very few people on Inish Thuaidh who could address her so familiarly.  Jenna MacEagan was ‘Banríon MaEagan’ or at the least ‘First Holder’.  The only one she had heard call her mam ‘Jenna’ had been Da or old Aithne MacBrádaigh, whose late husband had been the Rí before Meriel’s mam had become Banríon. 

        “Told me what?” Meriel asked.

        Her mam’s lips tightened, the lines on her forehead grew deeper.  Jenna’s right hand, covered with the patterned white lines of old scars that echoed the lines of the mage-lights, brushed the silver cage of Lámh Shábhála and dropped again. 

        “I meant to tell her,” Jenna said, speaking more to the Máister than Meriel.  “But she was away with Kyle all the summer and I’ve been otherwise occupied since then, as you know…”  She stopped.  Took a long breath.  Gold-brown eyes caught Meriel’s gaze.  Meriel knew what she was going to say before she spoke, confirming the apprehension she’d felt ever since she saw the Máister in the room.  “You’re going with Mundy—Máister Kirwan—to Inishfeirm, Meriel.  I studied there, too, after I became First Holder-”

        “No.”  Meriel spat out the word, interrupting her mam.  Her head shook, her long and rather unruly strands of curly red hair swaying with the motion.  She said it more loudly.  “No!  I’m not going, Mam.  I’m not interested in being a cloudmage.”

        “You need this schooling, Meriel,” Jenna answered.  “It’s vital, for your own well-being.”

        “Do you hate me that much, Mam?” Meriel railed back.  “Have you run out of cages to put me in or places to send me so you don’t have to deal with me?  Am I in your way that much?”

        Bright spots of color flared high on her mam’s cheek and Meriel thought she was going to spiral into one of her rages, but Máister Kirwan cleared his throat and they both looked at him.  “Meriel, I remember your mam telling old Máister Cléurach fourteen years ago, in nearly the same tone, that she had absolutely no interest in anything he could teach her,” Máister Kirwan said, a chuckle of subdued amusement in his voice.  “The poor man damned near died of apoplexy right there and then.”  He did laugh then, a low rumble like soft thunder.  “But your mam did study despite her protest, if somewhat grudgingly, and she learned.  You should be an even better student:  you have the gift from your mam’s side, and…”  He paused, glancing at Jenna strangely.  “…as strong a one from your da’s.”

        Her mam’s cheeks colored again, and Meriel wondered why the man would say that, in such an odd tone.  Aye, her da also held a Cloch Mór, but he always said that it was only because his wife was the First Holder and he never seemed to enjoy talking about the times he’d used it.  Jenna, on the other hand, was certainly snared in magic.  Meriel had heard the tales of the Filleadh, the “Coming Back” of the mage-stones for which her mam had supposedly been responsible. 

        Meriel had never been able to escape the history of her mam.  In fact, her mam’s past seemed to surround Meriel everywhere she went, and people delighted in telling her again all the tales she’d heard too many times before.  She heard them in long ballads sung by the Songmasters in the Weeping Hall:  the Lay of Jenna Aoire and its endless verses.  Or she heard them in the whispered tales from the succession of maidservants who had watched her through her childhood, or even from her current attendant Nainsi.  “Oh, your mam the Banríon,” they’d say with half-trembling voices, “why, you wouldn’t believe what she did when she was but a young woman herself.  She was chased all the way to Inish Thuaidh by the gardai of the Rí Ard and barely escaped with her life….”  Or it would be the flattering tongues of the Riocha she met, pressing around her in sycophantic delight.  “Aye, I was there at Dún Kiil with the Banríon when she defeated the armies of the Tuatha…”

        The stories and songs, some of them, were so far-fetched that they seemed more myth and legend than truth, impossible to attribute to the flesh-and-blood woman she called Mam:  the powerful Banríon who united the contentious clans of Inish Thuaidh; the fierce Hero of Dún Kiil; the great First Holder.  Meriel knew the last was true, at least: the mage-lights called Jenna nearly every night and Jenna went out to commune with them and let them wrap their silver and green tendrils around her.

        Meriel also remembered the feel of her mam’s right arm like ice against her skin, and how the fingers curled into a stiff claw.  She heard her mam cry out in pain some nights, cradling that arm to herself and moaning… 

        Meriel had cried at nights as well over the years, wishing that her mam could simply be her mam and not some distant story.

        “The Máister’s right,” Jenna said.  “Meriel, you’re seventeen.  You need to start learning your way in life.”  She touched the stone around her neck; as she did, the sleeve of her líene fell to her elbow, displaying the scars that marred the flesh from hand to shoulder.  “Someday, this may be yours to hold.”

        “I don’t want it, Mam,” Meriel said.  “I’ve told you that a dozen times before.  But I don’t expect you to suddenly start listening to what I want now.”

        Jenna drew in her breath with an audible hiss, and Meriel saw small muscles twitch along her mam’s jaw.  She knew that the argument was lost before it was begun.  Mam, she wanted to cry, every time I try to make my own life, you destroy it.  You can’t take me away from here, away from Lucan, away from the only friends I have, away from my da, away from everything familiar and everything I have right now.  You can’t send me to a miserable flea-speck of an island stinking of fish and seals.  That isn’t the life I want.  Why do you hate me so much?

She knew what her mam would say—Jenna said it to her daughter many times over the years, so often that the actual words had lost any meaning they’d once had.  It was ritual.  “We rarely get what we want from life, Meriel.  We have to take what the Mother-Creator gives us.  I’m doing this to make you stronger.”

        I don’t need to be strong, I need you to act like you love me, Meriel ached to retort.  It’s not the Mother-Creator doing this.  It’s you.  No one else.

        But she bit her lip, trying not to cry in front of them.

        “You’re going, Meriel,” Jenna said, her voice as implacable as the stone walls around them.  “You don’t have a choice.”

#

        “Da, you can’t let Mam do this!” Meriel said desperately. 

        A slow, somewhat sad smile drifted over her da’s features.  His attendant Alby, who somehow always seemed to be in the same room as her da, sniffed as if in reply to Meriel’s plea as he poured water for tea.   Kyle MacEagan’s chambers in Dún Kiil Keep were unconnected to his wife’s, but they seemed more comfortable and warm to Meriel. “Come here, my lamb,” her da said, opening his arms.  She leaned into his embrace, as soft as his features.  Kyle was a short man—Meriel’s head was at a level with his—and plump.  Meriel sometimes wondered how the man could be her da—she seemed to have inherited everything from her mam, not him.  She could also love him as she couldn’t seem to love her mam.  He was also affectionate to her, always willing to be interested in anything she was interested in, always able to let her be part of his life.

        Her mam would never do that.  Jenna was the First Holder before anything else, and Lámh Shábhála was the more demanding child.

        Everything about Kyle MacEagan was relaxed and gentle:  his movements, his breath, his voice.  The only hardness to him was the Cloch Mór, Firerock, that he wore around his neck.  He kissed Meriel’s forehead as if she were still a child.  “Your mam has only your welfare at heart,” he whispered to her as if he’d guessed her thoughts.  “I know you don’t feel that way sometimes, but it’s true.  It’s always been true.”

        She pulled back from him; his arms dropped back quietly and unresistingly.  “You can’t be taking her side in this, Da.  She wants to send me to Inishfeirm—a miserable flea-speck of an island, where I’ll be surrounded by old cloudmages and all the useless third sons and second daughters of the Riocha that have been sent to them.”

        “Ah,” Kyle said.  His eyes twinkled.  “So you’re too good for them?”

        “Da, that’s not what I mean,” she said in exasperation.  His eyebrows raised but he didn’t answer.  “It’s not.  Why should I have to go to Inishfeirm with the Máister?  I should be here, where I can learn to be a bantiarna and serve on the Comhairle and maybe even one day be the Banríon.”

        “Ah, so you’re decided to be Banríon now,” Kyle said, and Meriel heard Alby chuckle quietly across the room.  Meriel felt her cheeks go hot, but before she could say anything, her da shook his head.  “Meriel, maybe one day that burden—and it’s a burden, my lamb; if you believe nothing else, you should believe that—will come to you.  If it does, aye, you’ll need to know much more than you do now.  You’ll need to know things that only Máister Kirwan can teach you.”

        Meriel resisted the temptation to stamp her foot on the stone flags of the room.  “You’re going to let her send me away?  Why does she hate me so much?”

        “Meriel…”  Kyle sighed and took the mug of tea that Alby offered him.  Meriel shook her head at the mug the man proffered to her.  Alby nodded, though she thought she saw a disapproving half-scowl on his face, and moved back to the recesses of the chamber.  Her da sipped at the tea.  “Your mam loves you, as I do, even if you don’t want to believe that.  If you’re going to truly be Bantiarna MacEagan and be on the Comhairle, much less be Banríon, then you’re also going to need to learn that sometimes—often, in fact—you can’t do what you want, but rather what you have to do.  Things have changed recently, and so this you have to do.”

        “Why?”

        He lifted the mug again.  His eyes closed as he sipped.  They stayed closed as he spoke. “It’s for your own safety.”

        Meriel glared at him.  “That’s what Mam said.  I didn’t believe her, either.”

        Kyle glanced across the room to where Alby stood.  She thought she saw him shake his head at the man.  He went to the window of the chamber and set the mug down on the sill.  When he turned back, his face was more solemn than Meriel ever remembered seeing it.  “Jenna—your mam—asked me not to tell you this.  But I will.  You’re been directly threatened, Meriel.  Your uncle Doyle Mac Ard… he sent a message to your mam.  That’s why we want you to go to Inishfeirm:  so you’ll not only have cloudmages around you for protection, but so you can also begin to learn to protect yourself.”

        Meriel was shaking her head before he’d finished.  “That doesn’t make sense, Da.  Mam has Lámh Shábhála, and you have Firerock.  How could I be safer away from you?”

        “At Inishfeirm, you’ll have several Cloch Mórs and clochmions around you, all the time, as well as those who know slow magics.  We both agree-”

        “But I don’t,” Meriel interrupted.  “I don’t.”

        Her da’s face closed off.  He wouldn’t look at her and she knew that she’d lost the argument, that nothing she said would be enough.  “You don’t have a choice, my lamb,” he said.  “If telling you as your mam isn’t enough, then she’ll tell you as the Banríon and First Holder.  You don’t have a choice.”

#

        “We could run away,” Lucan said desperately.  “Why, we could take one of the fisherfolk’s boats and go across to Talamh an Ghlas.  We could travel to one of the southern Tuatha, or maybe even cross over the Finger to Céile Mhor.  They wouldn’t find us.  We could make our own lives.”

        They were on the rocks at the western end of the harbor near the noisy and busy Taisteal encampment, with Nainsi again acting as their lookout, though a trio of gardai from the Keep had also been ordered by Jenna to also go with them and were standing with Nainsi just out of sight.  A mist was falling, beading on their clóca; the waves splashing against the black rocks were gray and thick as porridge, and seals grunted and groaned out toward Little Head.  Meriel and Lucan stood together, embracing each other, their faces close.  Meriel could see the adventure blazing in Lucan’s green eyes.  He’d already constructed a fantasy around the notion and she wanted desperately to share it, and she couldn’t.  “My mam and da would come after us, and your da as well,” she told him.

        “They won’t find us.  Not in Talamh an Ghlas.  There are lost valleys there, and the old forests.  We could hide there and an army couldn’t find us.”   His voice was desperate and deep and the urgent certainty in it made her shake her head.

        “They wouldn’t need an army.  They have the clochs na thintrí, Lucan, and my mam holds Lámh Shábhála.  You don’t know how powerful that stone is-”

        “Those are folk-tales and myths, Meriel.  Your mam doesn’t know about us, does she?”

        Meriel shook her head once, back and forth.  “I don’t think so.”

        Lucan grinned.  “There, you see?  She can’t know everything.  This is right, Meriel.  Can’t you feel it?  Let’s do it.  Now, before we have a chance to talk each other out of it.”  He leaned down to kiss her, and she reached up with one hand to touch his black beard, short and soft and still patchy on his cheeks.  The kiss was long, deep, and sweet, yet when Lucan moved back, Meriel couldn’t stop the words that tumbled out.

        “If they find us, Lucan…”

        “If they find us, what can they do, Meriel?  We’ll have been together.  Alone.  Intimate.  We’re both Riocha and my family name is good enough even for the MacEagan clan:  they’d insist that we marry, that’s all.  And isn’t that what we want?”

        “Aye,” Meriel answered, but she couldn’t summon the enthusiasm she thought she should feel.  She started to speak, swallowed the words and then tried again.  “We’d be two people alone in the wild, Lucan.  Only the Mother-Creator knows what walks there since the land has awakened again.  There are still Bunús Muintir in the old woods, and the dire wolves are bad enough here-”  She didn’t mention the threat of her uncle.

        “Shhh…” He leaned down again, kissing her softly.  “I’m good with sword and bow and I can teach you.  And we’d be together: there’s nothing in this world that could stand against that.”  He laughed, and after a moment she laughed with him, wanting to believe.

Believing enough that she agreed to go with him that night, before the ship to Inishfeirm sailed tomorrow afternoon.  They walked out from behind the screen of the rocks, hand in hand.

        “Good afternoon.”  Máister Kirwan waited with arms folded across his chest at the end of the harbor, with Nainsi standing sheepishly alongside him.  The trio of Keep’s gardai stood a pace behind.  “A foul day to be out, don’t you think, Meriel?  When I first talked to your mam, I thought perhaps she was wrong to be sending you to Inishfeirm.  Now I suspect that it’s exactly the right thing to do.”  Máister Kirwan glanced at Lucan, giving him a grim smile.  “And young Tiarna O Dálaigh.  It seems your da has sent a request to the Banríon, asking that you return home to Dún Madadh.  You’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.”  He nodded to the gardai.  “If you’ll be good enough to accompany Tiarna O Dálaigh back to the Keep so he can begin his packing, I’d appreciate it.  Meriel, let’s take a walk, you and I.  Nainsi, you’ll wait here for us.”

        Máister Kirwan’s tone was that of a person used to obedience.  Meriel saw Lucan hesitate but the gardai were grim-faced and moved quickly alongside him, taking him by the elbows and escorting him away.  “Meriel…” he called, looking back as they pulled him away.  She would have gone to him, but Máister Kirwan took her arm and moved her back along the path through the rocks.  His grip on her elbow was gentle yet firm. 

        “Máister…”

        “You’ll have a chance to say goodbye to him, Meriel.  I promise you that,” he said.  “And if it is love between you and not a simple infatuation, it will be strong enough will survive the separation.  Come with me for now.  Please.”

        Meriel cast another glance back, but Lucan and the gardai were already near the street entrance, the bright tents of the Taisteal camp ahead of them.  She let Máister Kirwan guide her away from the harbor, walking slowly past the hollow where she and Lucan had kissed and planned, following the rough path down to the water again, closer to the curving horn of Little Head.  He didn’t say anything while they walked, nor when they reached a small, rock-strewn beach where strands of green kelp lay in the tidal foam and pebbles.  He stood there, looking back toward the town and the Keep high above it, and the mountains that framed Dún Kiil Bay. 

        “It’s a rough beauty we have here on Inish Thuaidh,” he said at last.  “Our islands aren’t soft and green like those of Talamh an Ghlas.  Here, the hard bones of the land are laid bare.  And we Inishlanders are like the islands themselves:  we make our own way, and we prefer to be left alone—but that’s not possible.  We’ve managed it about as long as we can.”

        “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Meriel said, impatience coloring her voice.  She found the voice she used on the servants when they hadn’t performed as she wished.  “By what right are you interfering with my life this way?”

        Máister Kirwan’s face twisted, as if he were trying to conceal a smile.  “By the right of your mam’s orders,” he answered.  “And my own advice to her, to which she occasionally listens.  You’ve been kept away from most of what your mam has had to deal with; that was Jenna’s choice—against my advice.  Because of that…”  He stopped. Just before Meriel started to speak, he began again.  “Meriel, your mam wasn’t much older than you when she was given Lámh Shábhála to hold, all unprepared, and was thrust into larger events than she ever imagined when she was a simple shepherd girl.  I can understand why she’d want to protect her daughter from the same fate.  I think that was a mistake, but it was Jenna’s to make.  But now…  It’s time you started to open your eyes.”

        Impatience flared into anger.  “You talk to me like I’m a child.  I’m not.  Speak plainly if you have something to say, Máister, not in riddles and innuendoes.”

        “Plainly?” Máister Kirwan reached into a pocket on his clóca and brought out a small rock.  He held it in the palm of his hand as if admiring it:  Meriel thought it might be quartz: a pretty thing, with transparent facets that were a faint blue in color.  “Here’s the unadorned truth, then.  You are privileged, Meriel.  You’re even spoiled…”  He raised a finger against her protest.  “…even though I know you feel confined and over-protected.  Because of who you are—who your parents are—you will almost certainly hold a Cloch Mór one day, one of the thirty great stones of magic.  You may even hold Lámh Shábhála, if that’s the fate the Mother-Creator has in store for you.  That’s a great burden, a heavier one than you can imagine.  It’s my job to make certain that you can bear it.”

        “What if I don’t want that?” Meriel told him.  “Because I don’t.”

        “Then what is it you do want?”

        Meriel blinked.  “Right now, I want Lucan.  But you and Mam took him away.  She takes everything I want away.”

        A grin creased his cheeks.  He put the piece of quartz back in his pocket.  “Think beyond your wants of this instant, Meriel,” Máister Kirwan said.  “Think beyond today.”

        “Then…”  She stopped.  “I don’t know.  I… I haven’t...”  Her voice trailed off into silence.

His face changed, all the lines carving deeper in his flesh, his eyes flashing as he leaned near to her.  His countenance frightened her:  he glared at her as if he were holding back a terrible anger, and his voice was like the low rumble of an approaching storm.  His left hand caught her forearm, the fingers digging deep into her flesh.  “Listen to me, child,” he growled.  “Listen because your life may depend on this knowledge, sooner than you think.”  He let go of her arm, and Meriel rubbed at her skin where his fingers had been, blinking back unbidden tears.  Máister Kirwan reached for the chain around his neck, lifting the gem at the end of it.

        “Let me tell you something you may know, something you damned well should know, if you don’t.  And if you think you’ve already heard it then listen again, because it’s obvious to me that you haven’t understand the importance.  There are one hundred and fifty clochmion—the minor stones of magic.  Of the major stones, the Clochs Mór, there are thirty, Meriel.  No more.  Eight of them reside here in Inish Thuaidh—which means there are but twenty-two Clochs Mór in all of Talamh an Ghlas:  between the seven Tuatha; between all the ríthe who rule them and the Rí Ard himself; between all the Riocha there, the hundreds of tiarna and bantiarna and céili giallnai with royal blood in their veins, and the thousands who would like to be among the Riocha.  The balance of power among all of us, now that your Mam has opened the mage-lights to the stones once again, is largely determined by the Clochs Mór.  To the Riocha of the Tuatha, if Inish Thuaidh has eight Clochs Mór, then we have too many Clochs Mór.  We’re smaller than any of the Tuatha, yet none of them have more than four of the Clochs Mór. 

        “They want our Clochs Mór, want them the way a drowning man wants the sweet air, and it’s only the Rí Ard Nevan O Liathain who holds them back from coming to take them.  He hesitates because of what happened the last time, here at Dún Kiil.  But the Rí Ard’s health is failing—if he dies, then the new Rí Ard may not be so cautious about warring against us.   Many of the Riocha have forgotten Dún Kiil or are too young to have fought in that battle, and the southern Tuatha never took part in it at all.  The Tuatha look at Inish Thuaidh, and they see that we have more Clochs Mór than they like, and they think that their twenty and two are more than a match for our eight even with Lámh Shábhála also against them.”

        He let the stone drop back to his chest, and he gazed at Dún Kiil, his eyes narrowing and his face pained.  “I remember the battle.  I remember the hundreds who died here.  I remember smoke and chaos and the smell of death, the crackling of magic being used in its most destructive way.”  He turned back to her, stricken.

        “That war isn’t ended.  It will soon break open again,” he said.  “I don’t think we can stop it.  And you will be part of it, whether you want that or not.  Sometimes people don’t have the luxury of deciding what they want to be.  You won’t have that luxury, Meriel.  That’s why you’re going to Inishfeirm.”

#

        “Did she hear you?” Jenna asked.  “I mean really hear you?”

        Mundy shrugged.  “I don’t know,” he answered.  “I hope so.  I think I scared her, at least, and she needs to be scared.   We should all be scared.”

        Jenna hmmed at that.  Mundy could see the worry on her face, and he saw the way she cradled her right arm with her left hand, as if the scarred arm pained her.   “The O Dálaigh boy?” she asked.

        “I talked with him also, after I spoke to Meriel.  He’s just… a boy.  We’ll see how long the infatuation lasts when they’re apart.  I’ll wager it won’t be long.  Some pretty lass will smile at him, and suddenly what’s in front of him will be more important than what’s gone.”

        Jenna blinked.  Mundy saw her start to protest—as any mam might protest such an offhand dismissal of her daughter’s charms—then close her mouth again.  “And the clochmion?  Treoraí’s Heart?”

        Mundy reached into his pocket and brought out the fragment of crystal he’d had on the beach.  “I didn’t give it to her,” he told Jenna.  “I know you asked me to, but she isn’t ready, not even for a clochmion.”  He paused, his fingers still closed around the stone.  “She may never be ready, Jenna,” he said.  “Not for what you carry.  I think that’s something you have to consider when you’re ready to pass it on.”

        “She doesn’t need to be ready,” Jenna answered sharply.  “I wasn’t prepared for what was given me, but I struggled through.”  Jenna held out her left hand.  “Give me the Treoraí’s Heart.  I’ll give it to her myself before we go.”

        Mundy looked at Jenna’s outstretched hand but didn’t respond.  “Meriel’s not you, Jenna,”  Mundy said.  “She’s not her da, either—and I mean her real da, not Kyle MacEagan.  She’s just… herself.”  His hand was still closed around the stone.  He looked again at Jenna’s hand, then at her bitter frown.  “If you want me to be Meriel’s teacher, then you also have to trust my judgment in this, Jenna.  Otherwise, you can teach her yourself.  Can you really handle that responsibility, along with all the others you’ve taken on?”

        A grimace twisted her lips.  In that moment, she looked older, and Mundy realized how much the years had touched her.  “It would be nice to have a daughter or a friend who simply obeyed me when I asked them to do something.”

        “A Banríon can demand unquestioning obedience from her subjects, but a friend will give the Banríon honesty instead, even when I tell her something she doesn’t want to hear.  Which do you want me to be, Jenna:  friend, or subject?”

        Grimace slid into scowl.  The fingers of Jenna’s right hand twitched, as if she wanted to form it into a fist but couldn’t.  “You sound more like old Máister Cléurach every time we meet, Mundy Kirwan.  You have the same arrogance and the same stubborn belief that you’re the only one who’s ever right.”

        He scowled back at her. “It’s the air at Inishfeirm,” Mundy answered.  “It turns us all into grumpy old curmudgeons before our time.  Evidently you stayed there long enough to be infected yourself.”  He held the scowl for a moment longer until he saw her lips relax and her head shake, and he laughed into her reluctant smile.  He put the clochmion back in his pocket.

        “I’ll take care of your daughter as if she were my own, Jenna,” he said.  “I promise you that.  With the help of the Order, Meriel will find the strength that’s inside herself and bring it out.”

#

 

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