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Authors: Janeen O'Kerry

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Keeper Of The Light

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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Keeper Of The Light
Celtic Journeys [6]
Janeen O'Kerry
Leisure (2002)
Rating:
***
Tags:
Romance

In early winter, at the dark of the moon, Rioghan is visited by warriors. Their leader is Donaill, the king's champion. She has watched him pause in the standing-stone circle of the Sidhe, seen his reaction to their beautiful music; but she has also seen his men's greed. And she alone is guardian of the fairy folk's treasure.

Yet Donaill seeks not wealth, but aid. There is a woman the druids have failed, whom only Rioghan can heal. And though Rioghan sees great troubles ahead, she suddenly feels she and Donaill can overcome even those dangers. Together they will prove that the greatest power is always that of love.

Pronunciation Guide

Airt—art

Beolagh—BAY-oh-lah

Bran—brahn

Cahir Cullen—KYE-er KULL-en

Ceo—kyoe

cetmuinter—KET-min-ter

Cogar—KO-ger

Coiteann—kah-TENN

Donaill—DON-all

dormuine—DOR-min-eh

Eire—AIR-eh

fidchell—fihk-YEL

Irial—EER-eer-ell

Ita—IH-tah

Kieran—KEER-an

Iuaidhe—LOO-ih-yeh

Luath—LOO-eh

madra—MEH-drah

Rioghan—REE-gan

Sabha—SAH-vah

Scath—skawth

Sidhe—shee

Sion—shee-AWN

Chapter One

On a winter’s night at the dark of the moon, three men guided their horses through the frosty pine forest and kept their swords at the ready.

“Marauding wolves and thieving Little People,” muttered Beolagh, “and we ride out in pitch blackness—for what?”

Donaill kept his eyes on the faint track in front of him. He could see only a few steps beyond his horse’s black ears, and he did not want to lose the way in the darkness. “To save a woman’s life,” he said over his shoulder.

“Save her life?” Beolagh snorted. “There’s nothing wrong with her, save what’s in her mind! Why send the king’s champion and two warriors just to fetch the Little People’s midwife? We have druids and physicians of our own at Cahir Cullen, and no need to ride anywhere to find them!”

“This woman cannot be helped by the druids,” said Irial. “Even they said that the Sidhe’s healer should be sent for.”

“My brother is right,” said Donaill. “Some things cannot be cured through normal methods. The druids—”

“Are surely much more learned than an old hag of a midwife living alone in a cave! Aren’t the servants sent out to bring her when she is needed? Why send us? And why can’t we take the road instead of this dark and miserable trace a badger couldn’t follow? And why—”

Donaill stopped his horse and turned it around. His brother Irial did the same. “Your mouth is attracting the wolves, Beolagh,” he snapped. “I suggest you shut it and follow this path along with us.”

He turned his horse once more, and continued riding. “Besides, the servants walk along the road to Sion whenever they are sent to bring the midwife. But this is an urgent time on a dark winter night. So the king has sent his champion and two of his
very bravest warriors
to take the faster but more dangerous way.”

Beolagh snorted at the thinly veiled sarcasm.

“If you would rather be a servant,” said Irial, “and take the long safe road, I am sure King Bran will be pleased to let you do just that.”

“Of course I am not a servant! I just think—”

“Quiet!” Donaill held up his hand. “Listen now.”

They halted again and silence descended over them. It was broken only by the breathing of the horses and the rattle of bridles as the beasts shook their heads—and then, floating through the black branches of the tall pine trees, came the faint sound of music and singing.

“This way,” said Donaill, and guided his horse forward.

The delicate songs, and the sweet sounds of harp and drum, were both beautiful and unnerving all at once. It seemed to Donaill that the music itself had eyes, that it watched him and his two men as it floated through the dark woods.

Donaill would not give Beolagh the satisfaction of hearing him say it, but he too would have preferred the good wide road to this narrow, twisting, barely discernable path through the heavy forest. It allowed a short route from Cahir Cullen to the home of the midwife, or so the servants and farmers said; but it also provided close cover for any wolf or outlaw or Sidhe who might be watching three of the king’s men out on their late-night errand.

Of course, wolves almost never attacked men. And there was no rogue or thief that Donaill and his two companions could not handle. Yet thoughts of the Sidhe—the ancient, secretive, small dark folk of Eire who lived in seclusion in the deepest forests—filled him with unease. The people of Cahir Cullen had had little trouble with the Sidhe in recent years. Indeed, this midwife they were on their way to fetch was rumored to be one of them. And there were still the old and disquieting tales of men who disappeared while trespassing on Sidhe territory…men who became hopelessly lost and were never seen again…

At last they came to the edge of the trees and emerged in a small open meadow. Donaill was sure that the music came from here—but just as the three riders trotted their horses into the dry grass, it stopped.

The riders halted. All three men glanced around at the surrounding forest and at each other. Their horses shifted, their breath forming plumes of white mist in the darkness, as the faint starlight revealed a circle of nine standing stones out in the dark floor of the meadow.

“What’s this?” demanded Beolagh.

“The stone circle of the Sidhe,” said Donaill. “I have heard of it in tales, but never seen it. I was not even sure it was real.”

All of them sat very still and looked at the brooding stones. The druids of Cahir Cullen had their own great stone circle far on the other side of that fortress, but it was made of large, smooth rocks standing out in the open on the top of a hill. This place was lonely, eerie, hidden away from the eyes of men, with stones that looked worn and crooked and bent, and must have been far more ancient than their own.

“It’s so far inside the forest that it would be almost impossible to use,” Irial said. “It hardly seems the sun’s rays could reach it, or that the moon’s rising could be marked.”

“Yet the ground is clean and the stones are free of weeds,” Donaill noted. “
Someone
is using this circle.”

They heard the faint, sweet music again, this time coming from across the clearing where the forest once more began.

Donaill’s mouth tightened. “We’re almost there. Keep ready.” He cantered his horse across the rest of the meadow, picking up the path through the trees. Irial and Beolagh followed close after.

Donaill focused his mind on keeping to the faint trail and getting to the old midwife’s cave, cantering his horse as quickly as he could and ducking beneath the dark needles and branches of the trees that reached out to grab at him. The other two men stayed close behind, and for once even Beolagh kept quiet.

The music faded away as another sound reached them: growling, howling, baying—almost like a roar. “Wolves!” cried Beolagh, trying to drag his horse to a stop. “Don’t you hear them?”

“Not wolves,” said Donaill, keeping his horse moving through the trees. “They’re barking. Wolves do not bark. Those are dogs. And there are a lot of them.”

“Oh,
much
better,” Beolagh said with a sneer, but he allowed his horse to plunge forward after his companions. “I’d sooner face a little pack of wolves than a hundred snarling dogs!”

He may be right
, Donaill thought as they drew closer to the growling and barking. The midwife was apparently well guarded, for the source of the sound did not appear to be moving. It was coming from just one spot directly ahead of them: their destination.

Donaill allowed his horse to slow down. In a moment he and his men reached another break in the trees, and he was forced to shield his eyes from a sudden bright light.

Far across the clearing a huge fire burned in a rock-lined pit. In its glare, a mob of long-legged dogs ran back and forth. The enormous animals, all of them black or gray with thick wiry coats, barked and snarled and showed their teeth, but did not turn on the warriors, who kept their distance and remained beneath the trees. The dogs’ collars, all of thick black leather, were plated with gold and bronze that gleamed in the firelight.

As his eyes adjusted to the spot of brightness that was the fire’s light, Donaill became aware of a great darkness rising up behind it. With a start he realized he was looking at one of those enormous, grass-covered mounds of earth which could be found in many of the old and secret places of Eire, places where the Sidhe had once lived in great numbers.

Some insisted that these mounds were natural formations, but others, like Donaill, could only look at the perfectly curving structures rising in isolation out of flat and empty ground and feel that they must have been built by human hands…built by the Sidhe, long ago, or by their even more ancient and mysterious ancestors.

And here was the old midwife making her home in one of those mounds.

The entrance to the midwife’s cave lay just beyond the flames. Pieces of shiny black cowhide hung down over the opening, backlit by what must have been lamps inside.

The dogs continued to hold Donaill and his men at bay. Their howls were enough to wake every living thing in the forest, yet there was no sign of movement inside the cave.

The trio’s horses began to snort and dance, having had more than enough of the menacing dogs. “Well, where is she?” asked Beolagh. “This is the place, isn’t it?”

Donaill moved his horse forward as close as he could get without antagonizing the dogs, and he cupped one hand alongside his mouth. “Midwife!” he shouted as loudly as he could over the frenzied canine barking. “Midwife! Come out to us!”

As one, the dogs raised their heads to the sky and howled: a long, drawn-out sound that raised the hair on the back of Donaill’s neck. The pack fell silent, then, and the cowhide hangings in front of the cave were slowly drawn back. A small figure in black emerged.

For a moment, the three warriors could all clearly see inside the cave. Donaill caught a glimpse of scattered bronze and stone lamps casting their light over heaps of clean straw. Across the back of the cave was a sleeping ledge covered with slick black cowhides and soft, thick furs, and beside it stood a beautifully carved wooden chest.

There was also, scattered throughout the dwelling on ledges and niches and low fur-draped benches, a collection of shiny objects—cups and plates and figures of animals—in gleaming gold and reflective bronze and bright, sparkling crystal.

Beolagh’s eyes widened. He leaned forward over his horse’s neck. “Where did she get all that? Maybe it’s true what they say about the Sidhe—that they’ve got treasure beyond anything we’ve ever seen!”

Donaill glared at him. “It’s nothing but an old woman’s trinkets. Hardly what I’d call treasure.”

“Ah, but think of how many
young
women’s favors we could trade for, if we had those trinkets for gifts!”

“Do you think of nothing else? And do you truly have such a low opinion of the women of Cahir Cullen?”

“Pity you must win their favor with trinkets,” added Irial. “Most of us don’t find that to be necessary.”

Beolagh just laughed. “That’s what you
say
—but everyone knows women are all the same. They love beautiful things, and they love any man who gives them such. And besides, what else is there to think about?”

“Quiet,” said Donaill. “There she is.”

The woman from the cave walked slowly toward them, her dogs frisking about her feet. She put out her hands to quiet the animals as she approached.

“I presume you are the midwife,” Donaill called. “You are needed at Cahir Cullen.”

The woman paused, and though her black cloak hung down over her face she seemed to be studying them. “Tell me your name,” she said.

Donaill blinked. Her voice was youthful and soft, nothing like that of the old crone he had expected. He glanced at his two companions before looking back to the woman.

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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