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Authors: Janeen O'Kerry

Tags: #Romance

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BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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The music rose and the song grew clearer.

It was a song of ancient days and a long-lost people, of a time when the gods lived and walked in the land of Eire, a time when power existed to make the great stones light as air and move them above the earth…when gold lay glittering in the crystal-clear streams and could be made to work itself into the most beautiful of objects.

“Those are the Sidhe themselves, of course,” Donaill said. “It is rare for Men to see them. We live within the walls of Cahir Cullen, safe and secure and closed away from the rest of the world. We crash through the forests and thunder down the roads at full gallop, forgetting that the Sidhe live here too, in secret and in silence…but I have gotten quite a good reminder of them here tonight.”

“They have always been here,” said Rioghan, “living in the forest and doing much to maintain and guard it…especially from the careless damage done by those men who live in it and ride through it and strip it bare for their pleasure.”

“Maintain it? Guard it? How could they do that? It’s a very big forest, and the Sidhe are small and few in number.”

“Have you never aimed your spear at the largest, strongest stag, only to see it suddenly leap away with no apparent cause? And then, moments later, a smaller, poorer animal charges headlong into you, practically running itself onto your spear point?”

He turned to look at her with an expression of surprise. “Why…I do remember—”

“And have none of your farmers ever cleared away the oldest or the rarest trees, only to find themselves plagued with ill luck and thievery for days and weeks thereafter?”

“The farmers often say such things—but I thought them only to be making excuses.”

“Yet they learned which trees they could safely take, and which to leave alone.” Rioghan smiled in the darkness. “The Sidhe have good reason to carefully guard their treasures, the artifacts I keep, for even now their beautiful pieces retain traces of the most ancient of power. This power helps the Fair Folk to go about unnoticed, helps them to work small feats of magic when they wish.”

She glanced at him. “It was not chance that made the stags leap. It was not coincidence that caused the farmer’s plows to break or the housewife’s cauldrons to go missing.”

Donaill turned to her, and in the pale starlight she could see that he was grinning. “I suppose it was not. So, Rioghan, tell me if you will: Who does this treasure belong to? This gold and crystal and bronze which has, unfortunately, caught the eye of Beolagh—does it belong to you? To your family? Or to the Sidhe?”

Rioghan nodded, slowly, and gazed out over the starlit pines. “It does not belong to me, nor to my family. It belongs to the Sidhe, every last piece of it, and I will guard it for them with my life.”

“But if it belongs to the Sidhe, why is it all kept here, inside this cave? Would it not be better to hide it among them in the most secret places of the forest?”

“Some of it is with the Sidhe. Each of them wears at least one piece, or keeps one hanging in their home. You saw Kieran’s fine armband when he was here tonight.”

“I did.”

“As I said, the magic that remains within these pieces can sometimes help the Sidhe with the things that they must do: charm an animal, perhaps, or move about unseen. But the pieces are kept here at Sion—and only passed among the Sidhe from time to time—because Sion is the place that best preserves their power.”

“Ah,” Donaill said, and she saw his eyes gleam with understanding. “I think I am beginning to see it, now.”

“It is not by chance that Sion is formed the way it is. Sion is not a thing of nature. It was built so by the ancients, who made a perfectly curving dome of soil and rock to concentrate the powers of the earth directly into the cave at its base.

“The longer these things of gold and bronze and crystal remain inside, the greater is their power—and so, except for those pieces in use by the Sidhe, that is where they stay. That is where they
must
stay.”

“For they will lose their power otherwise,” Donaill said. “Yet—why are you the one who lives in the cave? Why not the Sidhe themselves, to guard their own gold?”

“They did live here once…generations ago. Sion was a home to them the way Cahir Cullen is to you. But with the coming of Men, it proved to be too vulnerable, too easily found, and so it was abandoned as the Sidhe moved deeper into the forests.

“Then one day it happened that a farmer and his wife found this peaceful place not far from the great fortress. He was of the Men while his wife carried the blood of both Man and Sidhe. They had no doubt they would be safe here, for Men considered them their own and the Sidhe knew their own blood when they saw it.

“The pair did not even need a house, for they had this fine cave to live in…and in time, the Sidhe came to know them and to trust them, and even became a part of their family when the first of many marriages took place between them.

“That is how I came to live in this place. I was born here. If I can move well enough between the world of Men and the world of the Sidhe, it is because I am neither and I am both.

“I am happy to have this beautiful treasure of the Sidhe all around me in the cave of Sion, for that is where it belongs—and that is where it must remain, because now, as the Sidhe have always feared, Men have returned to violate their home once again.”

“They have done that for the last time, if I have anything to say about it,” Donaill said. “That was a lovely story, Rioghan. Now I will ask you another question, if you do not mind: What do you know of the stone circles and its origins? No one at Cahir Cullen knows for sure, and the druids will say nothing; and though I keep it to myself, I think it is because, in truth, they do not know either. I see now that you—and the Sidhe—may be the ones who truly know.”

She smoothed her black cloak over her knees. “I will admit that we know little more than you. There are only the oldest stories, which you hear in the songs they sing tonight…stories of the ancient gods who could make the great stones hover in the air and arrange themselves into a circle.

“All of us, men and Sidhe alike, have heard those stories, yet no one alive has ever seen such a thing. There are only the ancient tales. And all of us gather at our own stone circles to observe the solstices and equinoxes, the men and their druids at the large circle on the far side of Cahir Cullen and the Sidhe at this one here by Sion.

“Yet the Sidhe know well how special the stone circles are, how powerful, how magical. They are the ones who might gather within them on any night of the year, beneath the light of the stars, to play their harps and sing their songs and dance and make merry and make love—for they know that each time they do so they add to its magic. There is more power here than most men know.”

Donaill sat back, resting on one elbow. “I can see how the music and the song might conjure power—but the lovemaking?” She could hear the amusement in his voice. “I did not know that such a thing could raise magic.”

Rioghan cast a sideways glance at him. “And yet I cannot think of anything that would increase the magic in a place more than the physical act of love, if it is meant to convey a true feeling of affection between the partners…if it is done to preserve the bond between them, done to bring them closer. Nothing is so rare, or so powerful, as love that is true and unshakable.”

“Is it so rare? I would have thought—”

“I am speaking of love, true and genuine, which will of course find expression in lovemaking. You are speaking only of sex, which is commonplace and too often carries little meaning. There is a great deal of difference between the two.”

“Is there now.” He sat up, facing her, and for a moment looked back toward the stone circle. The harp notes came faster now; the drumbeat grew stronger. “I had not thought of it that way before.”

Rioghan tried to study his face, but he had turned so that it was in shadow. As before, she began to feel that perhaps he was mocking her—but his tone was so polite that she could not quite be certain. “I can tell you this much, Donaill: women often wish that men would think of it that way. At least, from time to time.”

“I thank you for telling me this, then, Lady Rioghan. For, as I often tell the other men, it is not what they think of sex that matters—it is what the women think. Unfortunately, my advice is not often heeded.” He sounded wry.

She cocked her head. “You seem to know much about women for a man who has no wife. Surely there must be a woman in your life somewhere.”

He continued to gaze out toward the circle. “There is no woman in my house or in my heart. I have no wish to take a wife just for the sake of having one. I am happy as I am, with all that a man could want; I am the king’s own champion and a leader of the warriors of Cahir Cullen. I have no wish to cause any woman any unhappiness by making her my wife.”

Rioghan sat a little straighter, intrigued by his modesty and confused by how he’d acted earlier, as if wooing her. “You seem to be a kind and honorable man. How could becoming your wife bring unhappiness to a woman?”

He started to answer, but then glanced in her direction. Even in the darkness she could see the gleam in his eyes. “I am so glad that you do not believe it would bring unhappiness, Lady Rioghan. Perhaps you will be the one to become my wife.” His white teeth gleamed in the starlight.

She could only blink. She knew he was mocking her now. “Thank you, but I must decline. I had planned to pull the burrs from the dogs’ coats tomorrow. I’m sure you understand.”

He laughed. “Oh, I understand perfectly.” He sat listening to the Sidhe harp and drum for a moment before turning back to her. “I will tell you, though, in seriousness, that I have not yet married for the opposite reason that you have not married: you find all men to be unworthy, while I find all women to be more than worthy. In the end, we have the same dilemma. Neither one of us can choose.”

“That may be true,” Rioghan said, “but at least neither of us has acted on the fact that we are expected to marry. I live in this place, in part, so I will not have to endure such pressure. And I think you have done the women of Eire a great service by not limiting yourself to only one of them.”

“Perhaps.” He gave her an intense, piercing look. “But I have not yet given up hope that someday I might find the one who could change my mind.”

Rioghan merely smiled, safe within the shadows, and turned away from him to face the stone circle once more.

The starlight seemed brighter than ever now, as though the songs and the music of the Sidhe had opened the earth to receive it in full. Rioghan could not help but feel caught up in the sweet notes of the harp and the insistent pounding of the drum, and in the beautiful singing voices of the Sidhe…and it was clear that Donaill was caught up in it, too.

At last he turned back to her, still half listening to the music. “Why?” he asked.

“Why?” She shook her head. “I don’t understand. What do you wish to know?”

“I wish to know why you would bring me here with you…allow me to sit atop Sion, your home, and listen to the songs and music of the Sidhe as they dance in this magical place. Surely…surely you have brought no man up here before.”

Rioghan smiled upon hearing the question in his voice, and at seeing the doubt in his face. She looked down and adjusted her cloak yet again. “Only rarely do I bring a man up here, Donaill. Only when I have decided to make him my husband and keep him a prisoner here for the rest of his days.”

For a moment he was silent. In the faint light she could see that his face was serious, no doubt thinking back on the strange tales he had heard of the secretive midwife of the Sidhe who lived alone in a cave in the forest—

“I accept,” he said, and reached for her hand.

Rioghan bit her lip so she would not laugh out loud. “That is brave of you,” she said, “but I have changed my mind. I shall be kind. I shall let you go after all.”

His hand fell back to the grass. “Then…if you are not going to keep me, please tell me why you have allowed me to see such beauty in the first place.”

She shrugged. “It is simple. I am grateful to you for your help. I thought you should see just what it is you are protecting.”

“And if I am impressed by what I see, perhaps I will return to Cahir Cullen and tell the others, so that they might also help you to guard this place.”

She sat up a little straighter. “Others?”

“Why, the other warrior men of Cahir Cullen, of course. I have no doubt that they would be very happy to come out here each night and ride through the stone circle and the clearing of Sion, patrolling this area and keeping a close watch on—”

“Thank you, but they would find the dogs inconvenient.”

“But…I thought you were pleased that I came out to you this night.”

“I was. And I thank you for it.”

“Yet you do not want my men to give you further help, further protection? Surely a place such as this, a place such as I have been privileged to see and understand, deserves all that Cahir Cullen can—”

“Donaill.” She held up her hand, trying to stop his words. “I did not ask for the protection of Cahir Cullen.”

“You did not?” He shook his head as though astonished. “Then…why did you send for me this night? Am I not Cahir Cullen?”

“You are—but I did not ask for all the men of your fortress. I only asked for…for…”

BOOK: Keeper Of The Light
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