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Authors: Janeen O'Kerry

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BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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Then, as one, they stopped and raised their heads. The pack faced the strip of dark forest that separated Sion from the stone circle—and after a heartbeat of standing in complete silence, they shot straight across the meadow.

Rioghan ran after them. The dogs tore through the forest until they reached the clearing where the stone circle stood. Rioghan let them run past her and then crouched down behind the trunks of two pine trees, peering out into the darkness as the dogs began a frenzy of barking.

The ground began to shake with hoofbeats. Across the clearing, a group of men on horseback came crashing out of the forest, riding down the same path Donaill had followed to fetch her the night before—and one of the men Rioghan recognized instantly.

“Beolagh,” she whispered, and so it was, the same loud, greedy man who had come here with Donaill, the same man whose small eyes had lit up upon seeing the gold of Sion.

He had brought six other men with him. Their horses’ hooves cut and ripped the damp earth as they galloped back and forth across the clearing and in and out of the stones of the circle. The men slashed their swords at the furiously barking dogs as they rode, laughing as they did, and occasionally shouting in triumph whenever one of the dogs shrieked in pain.

Yet a seventh horse had no rider and ran loose, its reins trailing on the ground. Rioghan saw another man move out of the forest until he stood right in the center of the stone circle, facing away from her, held there by several dogs with bared teeth.

Her fear and confusion continued to rise. Why did the dogs not attack the lone man on foot? They could make a quick end to the intruder and then help drive away the others on horseback—but as Rioghan stretched up a little taller, she saw with a shock why the dogs would get no closer.

The man on foot held his sword to the neck of another, smaller figure.

“Kieran!” Rioghan cried, but the Sidhe could not hear her over the baying of her dogs.

How had these men possibly managed to catch Kieran? He was of the Fair Folk! How had he let himself be caught out in the open?

The men on horseback continued to gallop past the other dogs, teasing and striking at them. Then, with a terrible shriek, a huge black hound flipped over in the air amidst a spray of blood. Beolagh galloped past and raised the crimson blade of his sword overhead, shouting wildly as the dog fell heavily to earth and lay motionless.

For Rioghan, shock turned to rage. She stood up, formed her hands into fists as hard as stones, and cried, “
Madra!

Instantly the dogs’ barking ceased. The pack of black and gray beasts turned away from their tormentors and raced toward her, still growling and whining. In a moment they had her surrounded and milled about in a tight circle.

The marauding men pulled up their horses in the center of the standing stones, surrounding the one who still held Kieran in his grip. All of them kept a wary eye on the dogs, who had suddenly and inexplicably bolted to the edge of the forest.

Rioghan stood very still within her cover of brush and trees. The men would not see her so long as she did not move, but Kieran would surely know she was there and understand why the dogs had dashed away to gather at the edge of the pines.

His captor’s sword still at his throat, Kieran raised his head and tried to look over his shoulder at Beolagh. “Leave Sion, and I will bring you other gold,” he said to them, in his soft, childlike voice. “I will bring it to you here in the stone circle. Just leave Sion and do not return.”

But the men only laughed, though a little nervously, as they continued to watch the strange behavior of the dogs. “Why should we wait for you to bring it?” said the one holding Kieran. “You’ll only disappear if we let you go!”

“We want the gold now. We want what is buried inside that mound you call Sion,” said Beolagh. “And why shouldn’t we have it? What does a woman living alone need with gold? It’s a small price to pay for the protection she enjoys from Cahir Cullen!”

“Leave Sion’s gold,” Kieran said again. “I will bring you—”

A deep rumbling sound rose up from the earth, and then stopped.

The seven men looked at each other. Then, before any of them could speak, the sound began again. It was a low rumble from beneath the enormous brooding stones of the circle.

Their eyes widening in shock, the men watched as the great stones began to tremble. One of the stones, the largest and tallest of them, actually rocked slightly, as if it would tear itself free of the earth and walk over to crush the intruders.

The men clung to their terrified horses as the animals bolted. The man who held Kieran shoved him violently aside in his panic to get away, and dashed after his comrades in a futile effort to catch up to them, crying out as they galloped off toward the road back to Cahir Cullen.

Peace returned to the clearing. The stones settled back to earth, as silent and still as ever.

Breathing hard, Rioghan bowed her head and shut her eyes. A wave of exhaustion passed over her. She slid her crystal wand back into its slim leather case beneath the sleeve of her left forearm, giving silent thanks once more to her mother for teaching her how to wield the ancient crystal. The wand seemed to be attuned to their family; no one else had ever been able to use it. But it would give Rioghan a brief and frighteningly strong burst of power over natural things made of earth or stone, and it had certainly been effective on this night. She stepped out of the forest and hurried over to Kieran with the pack of dogs close by her side.

The young Sidhe was just getting to his feet. “Are you hurt? Did they hurt you?” she asked, touching his face and his arms and looking closely at him. “What have they done to you?”

Kieran’s face was pale and damp, and his dark locks fell down over his eyes, but he drew himself up straight and pushed his hair back with hands that trembled only a little. “I am not hurt,” he claimed, after a breath. “They did not want me. I think they’re afraid of us, strange as it sounds, as though we had some dire magic we could use to take revenge on them. They wanted the gold in your care but feared to murder one of us to get it.”

“Kieran, gold means nothing compared to your life. And the Men are afraid of nothing but old tales and half-remembered wars from long ago. They may fear us, but they do not respect us. Never forget that.”

She smiled at him and smoothed his hair. “Come with me back to Sion. There is a little blood at your throat. Let me see to it, while you tell me how this came about.”

The Sidhe nodded, and walked with her back to the comforting shelter of the forest. It was only a short distance through the stand of trees to the clearing where Sion stood—but then, to their horror, they realized that once again the forest shook with thundering hooves.

Riders were galloping straight down the road from Cahir Cullen and toward the clearing of Sion.

Chapter Four

Rioghan grabbed Kieran’s hand and together they dashed across the clearing to the mound. When they got to the cave, she reached beneath her sleeve and pulled out her crystal wand once more.

“Go and get the others!” she said to Kieran. “Bring all your people’s warriors here! Go! Go!” And after only a heartbeat of hesitation, Kieran raced off to bring the men of the Sidhe to defend their land against a second wave of intruders.

Rioghan stood in the clearing at the entrance of her cave. This would leave her backlit by the fire and her lamps, and she hoped that her ominous silhouette would let whoever approached know that the cave was not unguarded.

But the six riders who came thundering into the dark meadow seemed not to care.

The frenzied barking and bared teeth of her leaping, menacing dogs held them just beyond the trees. Their snorting horses shied and swerved and refused to move into the snarling pack—but this time the intruders were ready.

Two of the men pulled wide rope nets, like fishing nets, from behind their saddles. Where had they gotten them? Why had they not used them before? With practiced arms they threw the heavy devices over the dogs—and just that quickly, nearly half of Rioghan’s twenty-nine dogs were thoroughly entangled and unable to do anything but snap and snarl in frustration.

While his five companions swung and slashed at the remaining dogs with their swords, Beolagh reined his horse hard around them and galloped to the entrance of the cave.

Rioghan held tight to her crystal wand, keeping it hidden beneath her palm, and went out to face him. She stood tall and bold with her arms held out from her sides, as though shielding the entrance to her home.

“Did you think we would give up so easily?” Beolagh asked, dragging his horse to a stop in front of her. “You may have a few tricks, but these are the king’s warriors you’re dealing with! You cannot frighten us away as if we were nothing but Little People!” He laughed. “We knew we might have to deal with your dogs, so we were ready for them. And in case you were wondering, we’ve come for your gold. We know you have no need of it. Give it to us.”

Rioghan stared at him, motionless. “It is not mine to give. It is Sidhe gold.”

“The Sidhe have no more use for it than you do! We, on the other hand, could do a great deal with it. Give it to us now, and consider it payment for all the goods and protection you have received from Cahir Cullen over the years.”

“I will give you nothing,” Rioghan answered, and she shut her eyes tight.

Beolagh flinched and raised his arm to his head as a small rock struck him in the shoulder. Then his horse leaped in fright as a second stone landed on its hindquarters. When yet another one struck, the animal spun away and bolted back toward the others before Beolagh could stop it.

“They’re slinging rocks from above!” he shouted, rage and frustration clear in his voice. “Flann, Dowan, ride up atop the mound and get them down! The rest of us will finish the dogs and then the gold is ours! Go on now! Go!”

The two men galloped off into the darkness as Beolagh had ordered, heading around to the back of Sion, where they could ride their horses up the smooth, grassy slope of the mound. Rioghan smiled grimly as she watched them go. They would be surprised to find the top of it deserted; there were no Sidhe up there to meet them. Not yet. These stones had come flying only by the limited power that she herself could command with her crystal.

That power was useful, but it was brief. She would not be able to hold these men off for long. The few dogs not entangled in the nets still faced slashing iron swords. Even as she watched the frantic dogs and determined intruders at the forest’s edge, there came a heart-rending shriek as another of her dogs met its end. Beolagh yelled in triumph.

Quickly Rioghan stepped out of the light from her cave and into the shadows of the rock face surrounding it. “Scath! Cogar!” she called, her voice a whisper. “Come to me! Come!”

In a moment, to her great relief, the two enormous panting dogs tore themselves away from the pack and came bounding over to her. She grabbed them by their gold and bronze collars and held them close.

“Donaill,” she whispered fiercely. “Find Donaill.
Donaill.”
Then she released them, and the pair flew through the night and vanished into the strip of forest, there to race across the stone circle and down the hidden path to Cahir Cullen.

 

 

“You’re sure you want to bring a second wife into the house? Don’t you remember what happened when Bercan did that, a few years ago?”

Donaill leaned back so that his shoulders rested against the curving, grass-covered earthen wall of Cahir Cullen. He and six other warriors—Irial, Lorcan, Niall, Tully, Comyn, and Airt—all sat on thick furs or woolen cloaks tossed on the cold, damp grass, or on one of the several large stones scattered about. Only a few stars showed themselves from time to time through the heavy, slow-moving clouds that shrouded the fortress in darkness.

Yet it was pleasant sitting out here together beneath the flickering torchlight, their breath forming white clouds as they talked and laughed.

Donaill and the others often sat out here in the evenings when the weather was not too harsh, enjoying the brisk air of winter as much as they did the soft breezes of summer.

Airt grinned. “I didn’t see it, but I heard the stories. And I also heard that Bercan and his two wives are all living peacefully together now.”

“When Bercan brought his second wife into his home and introduced her to his first wife, all went well—in the beginning,” Donaill said. “The two women were cold, but polite to each other, and it seemed that they would learn to tolerate the situation.

“But then, some four days later, Bercan woke to the sounds of bronze plates and iron tongs smashing against the walls of his house, and of the two women locked in a screaming argument. The new wife had not only rearranged some of the first wife’s store of dried flowers and carefully gathered remedies, she had begun to embroider one of Bercan’s cloaks—a cloak that the first wife had made for him.

“This was more than enough to send the first wife’s cold resentment flaring into violence. She seized the offender by the hair, dragged her out of the house, and threw her face-first into the dirt and rocks in front of the door.”

Airt shook his head. “I know that making the adjustment is always the hardest part for the wives. Even the laws understand this. Is not the first wife immune from penalty for three days for any harm she might do the other wives when they first come into the house?”

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
12.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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