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Authors: Janeen O'Kerry

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Keeper Of The Light (21 page)

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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“Yet you could help. There are things that can be done—charms of binding…” The woman threw up her dye-stained hands and then ran them through her long blond hair, clutching the sides of her head. “You must help me, Rioghan! I cannot fail this time. It is as much for Airt—whose wife has abandoned him and left him with nothing, as you well know—as it is for myself.”

Rioghan stood up, and now it was her turn to pace across the cave. Scath followed her as she went and stood beneath the bundles of herbs on the far wall. “Many folk have managed to make good marriages, and they have not needed the help of one such as I. Do you hope to make the work simpler for yourself by relying on magic instead of love and care?”

“I do not,” Coiteann said. “You did not hear all that Sabha said. She placed us both under a curse.”

Rioghan slowly turned. “A curse.”

Again the anger was clear in Coiteann’s eyes. “She cursed us both to live with faithless partners—with each other. Surely you knew that she would do this.”

“I knew the strength of her anger. I knew the depth of her pain.”

“She has left us without the hope of a real life together! She has gone now; she does not want Airt any longer. I am willing to build a life with him, and he would do the same with me. Can you let us walk away from here still carrying the weight of a scornful wife’s curse?”

Rioghan stood in silence for a time; then she sighed. “It is my wish to help all who ask it of me all those in need, all those who suffer. That is what I did for Sabha. Now that that task is completed, I can do no less for you.” She looked up into Coiteann’s angry blue eyes. “Tell me. What exactly do you want from me?”

“I want you to make for me a charm of binding,” the blond girl said quickly, walking over to stand nearer Rioghan. “One which will keep my love only for the man who places it around my neck—and that man will be Airt. That will help us both to overcome Sabha’s curse.”

Rioghan’s eyes narrowed. “You yourself have some knowledge of magic. Why not make your own charm?”

“You are far more powerful than I. Your knowledge is far greater. And it does not seem to me that I could break a curse that I myself carry.” Her expression softened. “Please help me, Lady Rioghan. Help both of us. I ask for Airt’s sake as much as for my own.”

Rioghan studied her. A charm of binding, was it? Her first thought was that there was nothing she would like more than to bind a woman like Coiteann to Airt.

“I do not like selfishness,” Rioghan said after a moment, pacing slowly across the straw, “especially when it comes at the clear expense of others. You have behaved as a selfish young female who saw nothing wrong in going from man to man to man and taking from each whatever you could persuade him to give you. It did not matter that his wife might be expecting to have all of her husband’s heart, and not have him secretly sharing bits and pieces of it with whatever pretty face and attractive backside might happen to come along.

“You saw no harm in poisoning the marriage of another with your secret attentions and flatteries. It caused you no harm, so you believed it must not have harmed anyone else…and even if it did cause harm it was simply none of your concern. Is this not true, Coiteann?”

Rioghan watched the blond from across the cave, waiting for the outburst sure to follow such criticism. But the woman only looked down at the straw and fidgeted with the ends of her plain leather belt. “It is true,” she whispered. “I have learned, now, what can happen. And I do not ever want it to happen again.”

“Yet you have lived this way since you were barely out of your childhood. Why should you suddenly change your ways now?”

“Rioghan,” the woman said, still looking down, “you did not see the shame of it yesterday. You did not see Sabha’s face as she cursed us, nor hear the crowd’s laughter when they realized what she had done. I cannot ever let that happen again.”

Slowly Rioghan nodded. “It seems to me that nothing but good can come from keeping the two of you together. If it means you and Airt can make a life together—and stay together—then I will help you.”

Coiteann closed her eyes and breathed a great sigh of relief. “I thank you. We both thank you.”

Rioghan moved to the far end of the cave, where she kept wooden boxes and leather bags filled with many fine and rare things, and began to search through them to see what might suggest itself for this task.

She began with a length of slender iron chain, but knew that this charm would require far more. Binding. That was the thing needed here. The binding and confining of the wearer of the charm, holding and preventing her from reaching out to any other man, and keeping her love only for one.

Binding required weight and power and impenetrability. It would require things of the earth, the heaviest and strongest of the four natural elements. Water and air had force, but could contain nothing on their own. Fire would only destroy anything it tried to hold. This task needed the power of the earth.

She found a box of small stones. Some were shining crystals of startling beauty, clear and glittering even in the low light of the cave. Some were duller and heavier, some were rounded and others flat on one side…but all still seemed too light, too ordinary.

Beneath it was another box, this one containing odd, small shapes of various metals. There were little lumps of shining gold and larger pieces of green-tinged copper and rusty-black iron.

Rioghan took out one of the pieces of iron, but quickly put it back. She had never much liked iron; it always felt cold and dead and surprisingly brittle, even for all its weight and supposed strength. And if left alone for only a season or two, it would turn to rust and dissolve into nothing.

What was this?

In with the pieces of gold and copper and iron was a large lump of smooth metal with a silvery black finish. Rioghan lifted it out and instantly thought back to the day the Sidhe had brought it to her, as they often brought odd or interesting things they came across that they had no immediate use for. It seemed that she might very well have a use for this now.

It was the metal called
luaidhe,
heavier than any other, yet soft enough to be easily pressed into whatever shape might be desired. It was perfect.

“Give me three long strands of your hair,” Rioghan said. Coiteann walked close, ran her fingers through her blond mane, and handed over the strands of hair. Rioghan lifted out the
luaidhe
piece and carried it, along with the iron chain and the strands of Coiteann’s hair, to the entrance of the cave. Brushing aside a little of the straw on the floor, she took one of the loose, flat stones from the hearth, set it on the bare earth of the cave floor, and placed the heavy piece of metal on the stone.

Now the soft, silvery black rock was in direct contact with the earth. Pressing down on it with another hearthstone, Rioghan began to whisper, under her breath, words in the oldest of languages…words that only the Sidhe, and a few others, still knew.

Soon the piece was smoothed and flattened into shape. It was of a size to cover the palm of her hand, and its silvery black finish was attractive; yet it was heavier than any stone or any piece of metal she had held.

Rioghan wrapped the strands of Coiteann’s blond hair around the flat, heavy piece, and then wound the slim iron chain over and around it all. As she did the winding she continued to whisper softly, eyes half-closed, working by feel, her hands slowly moving lower and lower to the earth as she did, as though the
luaidhe
piece were becoming too heavy to hold.

At last, using both hands, she raised it up and looked at it. The soft, glowing, heavy lump of metal, dug from the heart of the earth and shaped to Rioghan’s will, was now itself bound up with Coiteann’s hair and iron chain. Slowly she got to her feet, feeling weighed down simply by holding the thing in her hands.

She held it out to Coiteann, who took it without hesitation and then held it up, eyeing it closely.

“Give it to Airt,” Rioghan said. “Tell him to hold it close between his hands, place a kiss upon its surface, and then place it around your neck so that it rests over your heart. Once he does this, he should then give you a kiss with all the sincerity he possesses—and you must do the same for him. Once you have both done this, you will be bound to him for as long as you live.”

“Thank you, thank you,” Coiteann said softly, tucking the amulet and chain into a bag she carried at her belt. “You have done more for me this day than you know.”

“Go in peace, Coiteann,” Rioghan said, stepping back to let her pass. The woman hurried outside and ran with light footsteps to search for Airt.

 

 

The afternoon was cold and gray and still. Donaill, restless with the short days of winter, walked with his brothers, Irial and Lorcan, across the quiet grounds of the fortress toward the gates. All around them, gray-white smoke from the hearth fires of the houses rose up to join the cold sky, as did the white clouds of their breath on this unusually cold day.

“Donaill,” called a young feminine voice from behind them. “Donaill!”

The three men turned to see Coiteann hurrying over to them. “Well, now,” said Irial, leaning over to Donaill. “You are the one in her favor today?”

“I suppose it is time for her to move on to a new man,” added Lorcan. “After what happened this morning with Airt.”

Donaill laughed. “I can tell you only one thing about Coiteann’s next conquest: it will not be me. I have decided to look elsewhere.”

“Oh, just as we thought! Well, that lady is a strange one, but I cannot say she was not a pretty sight at the feast. Maybe you—”

“Donaill, I am so glad I caught you before you left!” said Coiteann, running breathlessly up to him. She seemed not to notice that two other men stood beside him.

“We are just going out for a bit of hunting before dark,” Donaill answered patiently, with a polite smile. “What can we do for you?”

She walked up close in front of him and smiled brightly, as if she had never been so pleased to see any man. “I have something to ask only of you, not of your brothers,” she said softly, and reached out to smooth and straighten the edge of his heavy red cloak where it lay over his chest.

Donaill stood motionless. At last she withdrew her hands, and spoke again. “I do not need to tell you that I have not held a place of high honor among the people of Cahir Cullen,” she began. “Everyone knows what happened yesterday between Airt and Sabha and myself. I can never let such a thing happen again.” She sighed. “Airt and I hope to make a life together. I wish to be respected as his wife, not laughed at as a…a…”

She looked up Donaill, and tried to smile. “I wish to make peace with all those whom I might have offended. I wish to start with you.”

“With me?” He shrugged, and laughed a little. “Why with me? You have not offended me, Coiteann.”

She hung her head again. “I believe I have offended everyone here, at one time or another. And I wish to start with you because you are the highest- ranking man here, save the king, and I fear to approach him.”

Donaill smiled. “Again, I will ask you: what can I do for you?”

Her face lit up. “Oh…you can let me perform some humble service for you. Let me change the straw on the floor of your house. Let me sweep the ashes from your hearth. This will let you see that my intentions are real, and are not just words. You will see that I mean to follow them up with actions.”

Donaill glanced at Irial and Lorcan. “I would have to ask my brothers. The three of us share the house.”

“Oh, but that is good; that is even better! I could do this for all three of you while you are out hunting. When you return, you will find that all is done, and maybe a little extra, too.”

His brothers shrugged. “This is for you to decide, Donaill,” Lorcan said. “You are the one who was asked.”

Donaill could only laugh. “Coiteann, if this will help you, then go ahead and sweep my hearth if you wish,” he said. “We will be away until dark. If changing the straw on the floor of my house will help you to be a respected wife, then I am pleased to let you do it.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” she said fervently, looking straight into his eyes. For a moment Donaill looked back at her, and saw in her eyes a kind of coldness and determination that was somehow disquieting.

But he assumed it was merely the determination of a long-scorned woman who had finally decided to raise her station in life. “You are welcome,” he said. “We will be back at dark.”

He and his brothers turned and continued on their way to the gate, leaving behind a smiling Coiteann.

Chapter Seventeen

As night fell, Donaill and his two siblings walked slowly back across the grounds of Cahir Cullen. All of them were wet and muddy from the afternoon’s hunt through the cold rainy woods, but quite satisfied with their catch of five hares. The beasts dangled from a leather cord thrown over Irial’s shoulder.

They left four of the hares with the servants, to be prepared for the king and his family, and took the last one back to their house. They pushed the door open, and the three of them paused. “Well, Donaill,” Irial said, “perhaps you should let Coiteann offend you more often.”

They walked inside. A fire glowed in the newly swept hearth. A single beeswax candle had been lit in a stone dish over each sleeping ledge. The floor was thick with fresh, clean straw. And lined up on the hearthstones were three large wooden plates filled with hot wheaten flatbread with butter, chunks of boiled beef with salt, and watercress in hot meat drippings. Three cups of heated honey wine, each with a little wisp of steam rising up into the cold air, rested beside each plate.

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
2.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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