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Authors: Janeen O'Kerry

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BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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The six riders cantered across the clearing and then started back down the road to Cahir Cullen, leaving Donaill alone on his horse before the softly glowing cave of Sion.

Chapter Five

Donaill waited, tense, until the other riders had gone. While Cath stepped and snorted beneath him, he listened closely and tried to search the darkness for any sign that Beolagh and his men might have slipped around and come back.

Suddenly Cath jumped forward and the horse’s head jerked up. Donaill swung the mount around, his sword raised, and watched as two small shadows moved slowly out from behind the looming dark mound of Sion.

Donaill closed his legs on Cath’s sides and reined him back firmly, causing the stallion to half rear. “Stop! You will come no closer to this place until I know who you are. Show yourselves!”

The shadows continued to approach. One leaned upon the other with what seemed to be great weariness, and then the pair moved into the glow of the hearthfire. “Donaill,” said a soft voice. “It is Rioghan. Rioghan and Kieran. Please…let us pass.”

Quickly Donaill backed his horse away and slid down to the ground. To his surprise, another pair of shadows reached out and took the reins: a duo of Sidhe. Cath went with them calmly and disappeared into the darkness.

“They will care for him,” whispered Rioghan. “Come inside with us.”

She walked out into the clearing, and stopped. Near the entrance to the cave lay the still gray body of one of her dogs.

“I am so sorry,” Kieran whispered. “I was not fast enough—or strong enough…”

She looked away, then briefly patted his arm. “Do not think of it now. We will do what needs to be done for Garda later. You are safe, and that is most important.”

Slowly, still leaning on Kieran, her face pale and her hands trembling, Rioghan walked to the entrance of her home and drew aside the black cowhide curtain. “Come inside,” she said again, and Donaill followed her inside the softly lit cave.

 

 

“Please, Lord Donaill…sit down beside the fire while I see to Kieran.” Rioghan led the young Sidhe to the sleeping ledge and made him sit down in the thick straw so she could tend him. Her two dogs Cogar and Scath settled in on either side of the Sidhe, and he leaned his head back against the ledge and rested his arms comfortably on the animals’ shoulders.

“I can see that you are very weary, Lady Rioghan,” said Donaill, sitting down on a cushion in the straw near the hearth. “Are you all right? What may I do for you?”

She smiled. “I am well, and I thank you for your question. I am always weak when I have been forced to use the magic of the earth, the little that is mine to command. I will soon recover.” With a quick glance around the cave, she noted with relief that all was as she had left it. No intruder had set foot inside her home this night.

Rioghan picked up a little stack of firewood and took it to the hearth. “Kieran,” she began, as she built up the fire, “you are a young man of the Sidhe, as clever and strong as any in your clan. How is it possible that six loud and clumsy men were able to capture you?”

Kieran said nothing, but his eyes shifted to Donaill sitting by the hearth near the entrance to the cave. In the silence, Rioghan moved to the far end of her little home. There she filled a small bronze cauldron with fresh water, and gathered a few strips of clean white linen.

“Mil and Ceo were walking here to Sion, as they always do each night, to tidy it and bring what might be needed,” Kieran said at last. “You care for so many, Rioghan, whether Man or Sidhe, and see to every birth. It seems you scarcely take any time to care for yourself.”

Rioghan smiled. “It would seem so. I am grateful to Mil and Ceo for their constant help.”

“I walked with them,” Kieran went on, “intending to keep watch and help carry water, when I heard the men riding straight for us through the deepest part of the forest.

“Their voices carried well before them in the woods. It was clear they were determined to get your gold, even if they had to capture you and kill every one of your dogs—and we feared they might do just that, for you know the dogs would never retreat.”

She nodded again, glancing at the animals who continued to support Kieran—and thinking of those who now lay unmoving out on the cold, damp earth of the clearing. “Go on. How were you able to keep them away from Sion at first?”

He looked away. “My first thought was for the two women. Mil and Ceo are no longer young, and I feared they could never outrun the men on horseback if they were seen. So I told them to hide in the forest as the men rode past.

“They were safe. They were not seen. But the men rode straight to the stone circle, where the dogs met them, and I knew they would be at Sion as soon as they could get past the dogs. I had to stop them…and so I let them see me. I called to them and showed them this.”

Kieran reached beneath his moss-green cloak and pulled out a small, bright armband, made from a slender, twisted band of gold. “Oh, their eyes lit up. And they were glad enough to ride away from such troublesome dogs. But I knew that nothing but the promise of the gold I could bring would keep them from Sion. I felt I had no choice but to allow the men to catch me.”

Rioghan set her cauldron down onto the coals of the hearth, filled a shallow bronze dish with cool, clean water, and sat down beside Kieran with the dish and the linens. Reaching across her dogs, she tilted Kieran’s head back and began cleaning the long, shallow cuts across one side of his neck. “That was a brave thing you did. Brave…and terrible. No doubt Mil and Ceo are very grateful to you, as am I. But—as I said—no amount of gold is worth your life.”

He winced a little as she cleaned away the last of the blood. “I am glad that the women escaped without being seen. And gold
is
just gold. However, Lady Rioghan, many of these treasures are far more than just ornaments. They are bronze and gold and crystal pieces so ancient they were made by the gods. There was magic worked into those, just as there was power hammered into the stones of the circle…magic that helps us all to stay alive here in the forest, even with the coming of men.” Kieran looked up at her with enormous dark brown eyes. “I could not let them steal it…not any of it.”

Rioghan smiled gently and stood up to carry her basin of water and linen back to the hearth. “You are right. Your mother and grandmother have taught you very well. But Kieran…” She looked across the room at his young face. “Giving these men a few small things will not appease them. They cannot be bribed to leave us alone. If you give them a little, they will not stop until they get it all. And what will we do when we have no more to give?”

He looked away, but then just as quickly met her gaze again. “You are right. We will have to make sure they can never again get near Sion. Not any of them.”

Boldly, Kieran looked straight at Donaill. “Can you not rid us of this evil thieving Man?” he asked, his voice remaining soft. “Can you not put him to the sword and remove this threat to us once and for all?”

Rioghan stopped, almost in mid-step. Her eyes shifted from Kieran to Donaill. Would he agree to such a thing? Would he go so far as to kill one of his own men, simply for the crime of trespassing against the Sidhe?

“Oh…well…you see…” Donaill gave a short laugh and started to get up, then sat back down again. “Much as I might like to—for if ever there was a perfect fool among the king’s own men, it is Beolagh—I cannot simply kill someone outright. We at Cahir Cullen live by the laws of the druids. I would be brought before them as a murderer should I kill someone without sufficient cause.”

“Sufficient cause?” Rioghan set down her basin. “Our home is overrun with armed trespassers, Kieran’s life is threatened, and two of my guard dogs are killed—and your king would not find this to be ‘sufficient cause’?”

“My sympathies are with you, my lady. That is why I am here. But unfortunately, those crimes do not carry the penalty of death.”

“It seems they carry little penalty at all,” Rioghan murmured, turning to search among the small stone jars on her shelf.

“Beolagh and his cronies might disagree,” Donaill said, chuckling again. “They found them to carry a penalty of dog bites and sword slaps and a nice long walk on foot back to Cahir Cullen.” He grinned, looking expectantly at Rioghan and Kieran, but at their silence he was at last forced to look away. “I am sorry,” he said, his voice serious. “I wish I could do more for you. But I must follow the law even if some do not.”

Rioghan went over to Kieran’s side. Gently she touched a healing paste to the wounds on his neck and wrapped a long strip of clean linen across them. “There,” she said, getting to her feet. “Keep it clean, and let me change the wrappings tomorrow.”

The Sidhe stood up, glancing at Donaill, then looked back at Rioghan. “My lady…”

She smiled at him. “Go, Kieran. All is well here. I will call if anything is needed.”

With one more quick look at Donaill, the youngster turned and left the cave, disappearing into the silence of the winter night. After watching him go, Rioghan folded her hands and sat down on the stones at the edge of the hearth, within an arm’s length of the man who sat on the leather cushion in the straw.

“Do not misunderstand me. I thank you for helping us,” Rioghan said to him. “I do not know how I can repay you. I am not certain what would have happened if you and your men had not come.”

Donaill smiled, and then he got to his feet, minding his head on the low ceiling of the cave. “I am just glad that you trusted me enough to send for me. I will help you anytime you have need of me, Lady Rioghan. You have only to ask.”

She met his gaze for a long moment, but before he could move again she stood up and stepped to the door of her cave. “Walk with me, if you will,” she said, brushing aside the black cowhide door. Donaill quickly followed, as did her two dogs, into the quiet of the night.

“Rioghan! Where are you? I cannot see you!”

Rioghan smiled to herself. So quickly had she moved within the deep shadow of Sion that Donaill’s brief hesitation had caused him to lose sight of her. “Here, Donaill. The dogs will show you.”

She waited a moment, still in the shadows, until at last he walked toward her, feeling his way along the grassy side of the steep mound in near-total blackness. “And just where do you intend to take me, my lady?”

Rioghan smiled again, though she knew he could not see her face. “To a place you have never been, to see something you have never seen. This way.” She turned and started up the faint path that tracked back and forth up the far side of the mound. In only a short time she reached the very top, where Donaill and the two dogs quickly joined her.

“Oh,” he said, and she stepped back to let him see.

The mound became nearly level at its peak, like a small, grassy meadow floating high above the earth. There was a bare ashy spot near the center where the great fires burned on the appropriate days. Donaill walked forward until he stood near the edge of the mound and then raised both hands, holding them out from his sides, as he simply stood and took it all in.

The ever-moving clouds had thinned enough to finally allow the clear, cold light of the stars to filter through. It cast the faintest glow on the tops of the pine trees, for the top of the mound was high enough to allow Rioghan and Donaill to look down on the forest.

All around them were the endless woods; but to the west, just beyond the narrow strip of trees that separated it from Sion, was the large clearing where the stone circle lay.

The nine stones were only forms distinguishable in the dark at this distance. Even Rioghan was not sure she could actually see them. Yet there was no forgetting their ancient presence in the clearing beyond the trees.

“I have stood upon other hills, and ridden through this forest countless times, but never have I seen the world quite like this,” Donaill remarked. “The trees are lined with starlight; the needles have turned to faintest silver. Even the blades of grass ripple and compete to see which will shine the brightest in whatever light there is for them to gather.”

He sighed, as Scath and Cogar lay down at his feet. “I thank you for allowing me to come to this place, to see the forest in this way.”

Rioghan sat down beside her dogs, throwing the ends of her heavy black wool cloak across her chest and over her shoulder. “This is only the beginning. Watch…and listen.”

He glanced at her, a gleam of curiosity in his eye, and then sat down in the cold grass beside her. Donaill followed her gaze as he looked out across the clearing to the west, beyond the strip of pine trees where the stone circle stood.

The stones were all but invisible in the deep night. But as the two of them watched, it was not long before they heard it: the faint, sweet notes of a harp, and then the soft beat of a drum, and then high voices singing in harmony with the distant music.

She heard Donaill catch his breath. As the music and the singing continued, the clouds thinned more and more and finally all but vanished, as they did on occasion in the inland forests of Eire. And as the stars shone at their brightest, the nine stones of the circle took shape in the darkness, and shadowy forms began to move among them.

Donaill stretched taller, straining to see. “‘What is that? No animal moves in such a way, whirling and turning and circling. Who is there?”

“Listen,” Rioghan said again. “Listen, and they will tell you.”

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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