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Authors: Graham Joyce

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FORTY-SIX

Maggie
told everyone what she wanted and whom she wanted.
De Sang
was
recalled and Ash dispatched on an errand. Maggie asked Alex to stay close by.
She wanted him to be there, to know.

Maggie's feverish sense of
authority betrayed to De Sang that something had occurred, but in performing
what was required he kept his suspicions to himself. He was sceptical about
what else he could offer; he was also deeply apprehensive after the experience
of Annis' occult scream.

"On the count of three I will
touch you lightly and you will come to us as before, calm, and rested.
One, two, three.
There. Hello, Annis. You've been
away."

The session was conducted in the
lounge, as before. She blinked and looked at De Sang. Then she looked at her
hands.

"How do you feel, Annis?"

A sneer came across her face.
"Priest."

"No, I'm not the priest. Not
anymore, Annis. I'm a friend of Maggie. You know who Maggie is, don't
you?"

She looked blank.

"You don't have to play with
us, Annis. Maggie is the one who will help you."

She
licked her lips, and spoke with difficulty.
"Water."

De Sang handed her a glass and she drank.

"Maggie wants you to tell me the Death Lullaby.
The
song of death and departing.
She wants you to tell me."

Silence.

"You know you want to, Annis. Then you can be free."

Silence.

It was broken by a ringing on the
doorbell. Alex went to answer it. De Sang heard muffled voices in the hallway.
He resumed the interrogation.

"Let me ask you something else. Who
taught you the Death Lullaby?"

"A one."

"And you have to give it to another
one? But it can't be a man? What happens if a man sings the Death
Lullaby?"

"No man can know it."

"But if he did?"

"No power. Only women can know.
Deeper in the cycle of life.
Spring from womb, grow a womb,
spring from a womb."

"I understand. So I don't want you to
tell it to me. I want you to tell it to Maggie."

Silence again. Then: "No need. I have it for her."

"But if you don't, then two thousand years
of craft will be broken, Annis. A hundred generations of witches, and the
Singing Chain broken.
Forever.
Give it to Maggie. Let
her take it."

"No need. We are one."

"No, no, Annis. You are
separate. You must separate. She doesn't have the Chain. You have it."

No answer.

De Sang was already at the end of
his rope. He didn't even believe in the existence of the Singing Chain,
whatever it might be, and therefore wasn't surprised when he was unable to find
it. He belonged to a school trading only in the
cantrips
of logic. But Maggie had given him a key she claimed would unlock the secret.
He sighed. "I have a message for you from Maggie. She wanted you to have
this special message."

"Tell."

"She asked me to say to you
the following words. Are you
listening.
Annis?
She asked me to say: /
am
Maggie. I will take away the
brank
of time"

Her eyes flared open. She rotated
her head slowly to look at De Sang. There was lambent fire in her eyes, but for
the first time there was also loss, confusion,
doubt
,
hurt. She started to tremble. It was the onset of a fit, the profitless finale
of many of these sessions.

"Don't run away, Annis! Don't
run away!" He was terrified she would simply hide from the conflict he'd
set up for her, hide behind her fit. Already her breathing was deepening and
she was closing her eyes. "Keep your eyes open, Annis. Look at me. If you
won't tell us, we're going to have to kill Maggie."

She came to again. "You
won't." Her demeanour had switched. She'd become protective.

"You said it, Annis! I'm the
priest. I'll have her taken!"

"DON'T TOUCH HER!"

"I'll burn her. I'll have her
buried alive, Annis!"

"DON'T YOU TOUCH
HER!
"

"It's why you're still here!
If we kill her, we can kill you!"

"DON'T BRANK SISTER! DON'T
BRANK SISTER!"

"Then tell Maggie! For
heaven's sake, tell Maggie the Death Lullaby! Tell her!"

"I can't! Don't you see I
can't!
" She was screaming. Crying and screaming.

"You can, Annis! You want to!
She can take away the
brank
!"

"She can't! She can't!"

"Why can't she? Why?"

"Because because
because
MAGGIE IS NOT MAIDEN!"

De Sang was astonished. Maggie had
persuaded him Annis was ready to pass on the secret. She'd been certain.
Plausible even.
He'd believed it really might happen, if
only because of
her own
conviction. Suddenly he felt
crushed, defeated. Not maiden. He understood for the first time it was not that
Annis didn't want to pass on the Chain to Maggie; she was unable. In Annis'
mind, the Death Lullaby could only be passed on to a virgin. The play had been
made, and it had failed. De Sang didn't even know if there was such a thing as
a Death Lullaby, or a Singing Chain. The convolutions of Maggie's unhinged mind
had simply turned another flip, rendering the solution inaccessible. She had
placed herself beyond reach. He had failed.

Behind him the door opened
silently. De Sang turned and saw, advancing into the room, an old woman. He
thought she must have been eighty years old. Her face was wreathed with care
lines and her hair was iron-grey; loose flesh, like wattles, hung from her
chin. She walked with a stick, yet moved forward with a light, fluid step. He
guessed her name.

It was Liz. Before her was Amy,
blinking shyly. Liz had one claw like hand clasped on her shoulder. Ignoring De
Sang, she propelled Amy toward the chair. The two women locked eyes. The sky
outside was beginning to darken.

"I'll give you a one,"
said Liz.

"No," said Alex,
hovering uncertainly by the door.

"And all things will be
well," said Liz.

There was silence.

Liz leaned across the chair, and
spoke gently. "This is the gift. She will take away the
brank
. Come on, old gel.
You in your
turn.
Me in mine.
And her in
hers."

Maggie shuddered at Liz's words.
Then she looked at Amy, her eyes blue glass. "The
brank
of time," she murmured. She beckoned to Amy with a tiny gesture.
"Come here."

Amy looked at Liz. She was afraid.

"Go to her," said Liz.
"Remember what I've told you."

She gave Amy a gentle push and
backed off. "Well?" she said, turning to Alex and De Sang. "Get
you out! This is not for you."

Neither Alex nor De Sang showed
any inclination to move. Ash was also hovering in the hallway, having delivered
Liz to the house at Maggie's request. Alex started to protest.

"Out!"
shouted Liz, rushing at them.
"Out!"

Startled, they went, and she
slammed the door after them. She took up position against it, like a sentry.
"Now," she said, "you have your gift. And the way is
clear."

Amy looked at her mother. She was
still afraid of her.

She didn't seem like her mother.
Behind those features she saw an older face, the face of an enemy. But it had
softened. Amy saw pain and sadness and suffering in that
face,
and a hunger for revenge that had only tormented herself. Amy understood
nothing of this, she only felt it. She looked into her mother's eyes and saw
again that impenetrable blue glass, and behind that rivers of ice, running,
congealing, thawing, refreezing, running free again. The rivers of ice were
hundreds and hundreds of years old. Her mother took her left hand and gripped
her third finger tightly. She was silent for a while before she intoned in a
kind of chant:

"My dark sister was Stella.
And hers was
Celinda
.
Hers Isabel.
Hers
Lizabeth
.
Hers Jean.
Margaret.
Ciss
.
Annie. Hers Peg.
MyraRuthRowena
.
HazelBessElla
.
Melusine
and
Mag
. Greta-Clara
Alwyn
.
CorrinnaFredaMalekinUlrica
.
JeanneAmeliaMicol-MaugElfredaMina
.
Ericalsolda
.
EilianMurielGwynethMorgan
.
RhonwenEnaBridged
SheelinganMoiraCatti
.
Una
.
Hers
Tryam
.
MolleeGlastie
BoodKirreeCaithBrythMaeveSheena
.
Ethna
.
Etain-RoanneeLhiannon
.
CarridwenFuamach
and Ann and
Fionn
.
Nuala
.
Sadbh
and
Lorreeak
.
And
Alethea
from across the great sea.

"That is the line. Now it is
yours, and you must remember.
Many names.
But you will
remember them all.
Because this is the Singing Chain.
This is the far memory."

Amy felt her mother's hand tighten
round her.
finger
. The
ice rivers
were running free.

"Now give her the song,"
urged Liz.
"The Death Lullaby.
And you will be
free."

Maggie sighed and ran her tongue
along her lips, and sighed again.

"Come on, gel," Liz
urged, "push it out."
But patient, like some
shadowy, unknowable midwife at the foot of the bed.

Maggie beckoned Amy forward and
kissed her hard on the mouth. She fell back and stared at the ceiling. Then she
began singing, so softly Amy had to strain to hear the words, words which meant
nothing, but which she would never forget.

 

Baby born is born to
die

Even Mother's tears
will dry

By 'n   by

 

All is none and none
all

Baby
die
'fore baby crawl

By ‘n
by

 

Dead men lie still

But truth they will

By n’ by

 

When baby live

Then all's to give

By 'n by

 

When baby live again

No more a witch's
pain

By

n
by

Maggie closed her eyes and went to
sleep. Amy stared at the rhythmic rise of her breast and knew that Annis had gone
forever, and that her mother would soon be well. Liz came up slowly behind
her. She put her gnarled old hand on Maggie's brow and nodded with
satisfaction. Then she ran her hand gently through Amy's hair.

"No telling.
Ever."
Amy nodded. She knew. "When I'm finished, when my time comes, I shall
call you, and you shall have my line too. Two lines joined in one. And what a
one you shall be!"

Amy looked up at Liz. And her eyes were pure and clear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FORTY-SEVEN

Maggie was mending. She was well
enough two weeks later to
make an expedition to see Liz, along with Alex and the
children. When they got there Ash was nursing a glass of elderberry wine. He
kissed Maggie and told her how much better she looked; he was relieved not to
have to pretend it was true. A rose flush was back in her cheeks and she'd
regained her lost weight.

Liz pronounced that spring was painting
the hedgerows, and that they should all go out for a "blow," but Ash
wanted to leave. He made his excuses. Alex tried to persuade him to come along,
but he couldn't be tempted.

"That's right," said Liz. "You bugger off."

Ash kissed Maggie again, shook hands with
Alex, and got into his car.

"And don't come back till the next
time!" Liz growled after him. She opened the gate and they went walking
across the field. Her collie stared after Ash as if it couldn't understand why
he wouldn't come with them.

Liz was no stranger to Alex anymore. After the evening
at his house, Liz had left Maggie to sleep and had taken charge, mobilizing people,
giving instructions, heaping abuse where necessary. She'd emerged from the
room with Amy to tell them Maggie was "mending" and needed putting
to bed. When De Sang said he wanted to give Maggie a sedative after the
punishment she'd been through, Liz gave him a tongue-lashing. De Sang looked
round nervously for someone to grin at, and concluded he had no option but to
accept this colourful new authority in the household. Liz snapped at him that
he should make himself useful by getting the kettle going, and no one seemed
more amazed than himself when he jumped to it.

Hadn't Alex got work?
she
demanded before scolding him for getting under
everyone's feet. She busied herself with cooking up a weak broth, which she
stipulated was for Maggie and no one else.
Meanwhile Ash,
seeing that Maggie was in the safest hands possible, slipped off quietly
without telling anyone.

He hadn't the heart to stick around.

Amy had stolen the show by sitting
regally in a chair with her hands folded in her lap. Occasionally she would
approach Liz and whisper something in her ear, some question or other, to which
the old woman would nod and answer simply yes or no; a little conspiracy which
vexed De Sang and dismayed Alex. Most of the time Amy sat apart from the
others, with her head slightly cocked, as if listening to some internal music,
or as if she was counting.
Or reciting in time to a rhythm
only she could hear.

Sam just seemed baffled by it all. Liz,
with whom he never felt entirely secure, had turned the premises upside down.
Her presence was like a spice wind blowing through the house. Amy, after
receiving permission from Liz, told him he had nothing more to worry about from
"the lady," that he wouldn't be troubled again. He sensed that
something had happened to Amy, but was no more party to it than were either his
father or his erstwhile psychologist. They were all three adrift in the same
excluded boat of ignorance, and he sat staring stupidly at his sister.

For the next few days Alex was subdued. A
renegotiation of rights had taken place at a mysterious level almost beyond
words. He was coming to terms with it. He knew he'd have to yield up his taste
for control if things were going to work, and when that actually started to
happen, he began to relax; soon he learned that he'd lost nothing but an angry
pride.

"You had some idea of what you wanted
from our life together," Maggie told him. "And the pictures in your
head were more important than the people in your home. You're going to have to
fix that."

"What can I do to make you
stay?"

"You can't do anything. If I stay now
it's because I choose to."

"So if you want to whistle up the
wind every time there's a full moon, I have to put up with that?"

She laughed. "I actually don't feel the
impulse for all of that anymore. Not today, at least. But I won't go back to
the way things were before. I feel like I'm starting over. It's up to you if
you want to start over with me."

Meanwhile Alex was feted over his
archaeological discovery in the castle grounds. His reports on the excavations
appeared in academic and popular journals, and in all his writings he freely
acknowledged the mysterious assistance of his wife in the "dig here"
episode. He offered the information up to his readers exactly as it had
happened, without senseless speculation.

Sam at least wasn't at all unhappy about
the idea of going for a walk across the fields. Inside Liz's cottage, he gave
the pantry a wide berth.

It was indeed a beautiful spring day. They
climbed a stile and walked beside hedgerows cloudy with May blossom. Lapwings
had returned to the field in number. Amy had her arm linked with Liz's.
Occasionally the old woman would stop and point her stick at something in the
hedge or growing in the grass.
"Shepherd's purse.
Can stop a bleeding
wi
' that
one. You mark it," she said.
Or, "Groundsel.
Lady's friend.
Tell you when you're older about that
one."

Sam noticed how closely his mother and
father, walking behind Liz and Amy, were marking this blossoming relationship.
Amy seemed to glow in the attention. The sun lit up her golden hair and there
seemed something changed about her. Tagging along behind, he could only gaze in
awe and admiration at his sister.

His shining, dark sister.

BOOK: Dark Sister
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