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Authors: Kate Forsyth

The Fathomless Caves

Kate Forsyth lives in Sydney with her husband Greg, their sons Benjamin and Timothy, a little black cat called Shadow (Skitty for short) and far too many books. She has wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember and has certainly been writing stories from the time she learnt to hold a pen. Being allowed to read, write and daydream as much as she likes and call it working is the most wonderful life imaginable and so she thanks you all for making it possible.

You can read more about Kate at her website at
http://www.kateforsyth.com.au
or send a message to her at
[email protected]

Also by Kate Forsyth:

The Witches of Eileanan series:

Dragonclaw

The Pool of Two Moons

The Cursed Towers

The Forbidden Land

The Skull of the World

The Rhiannon’s Ride series:

The Tower of Ravens

The Shining City

The Heart of Stars

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

THE FATHOMLESS CAVES
Book Six of the Witches of Eileanan

ePub ISBN 9781742744919

An Arrow book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney, NSW 2060
www.randomhouse.com.au

First published 2002

Copyright © Kate Forsyth 2002

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian Copyright Act 1968), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.

Addresses for companies within the Random House Group can be found at
www.randomhouse.com.au/offices

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry

Forsyth, Kate, 1966–.
The fathomless caves.

ISBN 0 09184 055 4.
ISBN 978 0 09184 055 6.

1. Magic – Fiction. 2. Fantasy fiction. 3. Witches – Fiction. 4. Fantastic fiction. I. Title.
(Series: Forsyth, Kate, 1966– Witches of Eileanan; Bk. 6)

A823.3

For all those who died—stripped naked, shaved, shorn

For all those who screamed in vain to the Great Goddess, only to have
their tongues ripped out by the root,

For all those who were pricked, racked, broken on the wheel for the sins
of their Inquisitors.

For all those whose beauty stirred their torturers to fury;

And for those whose ugliness did the same.

And for all those who were neither ugly nor beautiful, but only women
who would not submit.

For all those quick fingers, broken in the vice.

For all those soft arms, pulled from their sockets.

For all those budding breasts, ripped with hot pincers,
For all those midwives, killed merely for the sin of delivering man to an
imperfect world.

For all those witch-women, my sisters who breathed freer as the flames
took them, knowing as they shed their female bodies,
the seared flesh falling like fruit in the flames,
that death alone would cleanse them of the sin for which they died—
the sin of being born a woman who is more than the sum of her parts

Anonymous, 16th Century

(Published in Erica Jong,
Witches,
1981)

 


1. Magic is the mother of eternity, and of the essence of
all essences, for it makes itself by itself and is understood
in the desire.

2. It is nothing in itself but a will …

5. Magic is spirit and being is its body …

6. Magic is the most secret thing.’

Jakob Böhme,
Base des six points thésophiques
, 1620

 

 

The soaring towers of Rhyssmadill were bright with the light of a thousand lanterns. They blazed from every window and were strung through the palace gardens like garlands of fiery flowers. Beneath their radiance, crowds of gaily dressed people talked and laughed as they watched the spectacular acrobatics of the jongleurs and listened to the minstrels. Many danced around the roaring bonfire in the centre of the square, or sat at the long trestle tables, loaded with delicacies of all kinds.

The Merry May ale flowed freely. All were celebrating the victory in Tìrsoilleir that had brought an end to the civil war that had troubled Eileanan for so
long. No-one needed to fear another invasion by the Bright Soldiers of Tìrsoilleir, for Elfrida NicHilde had gladly sworn fealty to the Rìgh, Lachlan MacCuinn, after her restoration to the throne. For the first time in hundreds of years, all the lands of Eileanan were united and at peace.

As the two moons sailed higher in the starry sky, the dancing grew wilder, the cheering and stamping grew louder, the minstrels’ songs grew bawdier and plates began to get broken. Brun the cluricaun amused the crowd with his antics, swinging from lantern pole to lantern pole, and playing his flute while hanging upside down from the trees. Dide the Juggler walked on his hands, juggling a spinning circle of golden balls with his feet. He left a trail of broken leaves and twigs behind him, for he had once again been chosen as the Green Man of the Beltane feast and so wore leafy branches tied to every limb. With his dark eyes alight with merriment and his slim muscular body filled with vigour, he was the perfect choice as the embodiment of the life-force that renewed the world in springtime.

Isabeau took a sip of goldensloe wine. From the corner of her eye she could see Dide dancing a spirited jig with a pretty blonde girl as the crowd clapped and laughed and cheered. Resolutely, Isabeau shifted in her seat so that she could not see him. She had to remind herself quite forcibly that she had no time for dillydallying with a fickle, volatile, unreliable jongleur, no matter how handsome. She looked down at her right hand, a gleaming jewel on every finger, then lifted her head proudly, raising the three fingers of her left hand to clasp
the petrified owl talon that hung around her neck on a leather thong.

The rings on Isabeau’s right hand were not for mere adornment, unlike the jewels at the throat and wrists of the other women sitting at the high table. Like her tall staff crowned with a perfect white crystal and her austere white robe, the rings showed Isabeau to be a powerful witch. Isabeau was one of the youngest witches in the history of the Coven to have won all five of her elemental rings, yet she was hungry to go on and sit her Sorceress Test. She needed to focus all her will and desire upon her studies if she hoped to master the High Magic, and no black-eyed jongleur with a wicked grin was going to distract her from achieving that goal.

You-whoo gloomy-whoo?
the little white owl sitting on the back of Isabeau’s chair hooted anxiously.

‘No’ at all,’ Isabeau replied firmly and drained her goblet of goldensloe wine.

Despite the noise and merriment of the crowds, the company sitting at the high table did seem rather morose. The Rìgh was slouching on one elbow, a goblet grasped in one hand, his chin resting in the other. His glossy black wings were sunk low, his topaz-golden eyes heavy-lidded, his mouth set sullenly.

In contrast, his wife Iseult was sitting very straight, the goblet of wine before her untasted. She was dressed severely in white, her mass of red-gold curls was pulled back from her brow and hidden within a white snood, and she wore only two rings, a moonstone on her right hand, a dragoneye on her left hand. But unlike the plainness of Isabeau’s white witch-robes, Iseult’s austerity was
a matter of choice. As the Banrìgh of Eileanan, Iseult could have been dressed as richly and gaily as any other lady at the Beltane feast. Her only adornment, however, was the clan brooch that clasped her snowy-white plaid about her shoulders.

The brooch was exactly the same as that which pinned together the white folds of Isabeau’s plaid, a circle formed by the stylised shape of a dragon, rising from two single-petalled roses surrounded by thorns, for the two women seated side by side at the high table were twins, as alike as mirror images. If it was not for Isabeau’s scarred and maimed left hand, and the staff and witch-rings that showed her status as a member of the Coven, a stranger could well have had difficulty in telling them apart.

The chill silence between the Rìgh and Banrìgh had affected the spirits of all the other lords and ladies at the royal table. Most had gone to seek more cheerful company on the dance floor or by the ale barrels. Elfrida NicHilde, who could not overcome her lifelong indoctrination against any kind of merrymaking, had gone to brood over her young son Neil, sleeping upstairs in the nursery suite with the other children. Her husband, Iain MacFóghnan of Arran, had been drawn into a political argument with some of the other prionnsachan, while the ancient Keybearer of the Coven, Meghan NicCuinn, had sought her bed some time ago. There was only Isabeau, Iseult and Lachlan left, all of them sombre and preoccupied.

Connor, the Rìgh’s young squire, knelt by Lachlan’s side with a crystal decanter of whisky. ‘It is near mid
night, Your Highness,’ he said respectfully as he once again refilled the Rìgh’s goblet. Lachlan looked at him rather blankly, his eyes bloodshot. ‘It’s time for the crowning o’ the May Queen,’ Connor prompted, rising again and stepping back.

‘O’ course,’ Lachlan said, his words rather slurred. ‘The May Queen. How could I forget?’ There was a slight trace of sarcasm in his voice and Isabeau felt her twin stiffen, drawing herself up even further. Isabeau roused herself from her own miserable thoughts to turn and look at her sister, but the Banrìgh’s face was averted, her profile as cold and white as if carved from marble.

Lachlan leapt up on to the table, his black wings sweeping out and back so the movement was as swift and graceful as the soaring of an eagle. ‘My good people,’ he called, his voice ringing out across the tumult of laughter, chatter and music. Immediately everyone stilled and turned to face him, for Lachlan’s voice had a rare magic in it, as compelling as the song of any sea-singer.

‘It is Beltane Night, the night we celebrate the coming o’ summer and the passing o’ winter. With the burning o’ the Beltane fires, we drive away the darkness o’ the dead months and beckon the golden gladness o’ the growing months. This evening, our Beltane fires have even greater meaning, for we have left the darkness and dreadfulness o’ war behind us and celebrate the dawning o’ a new season o’ peace and fruitfulness.’

Cheering erupted everywhere. People clapped their hands, stamped their feet, called out ululations of
approval. Lachlan held up his hand for silence and after a long moment, the noise died down again.

‘As you know, spring is the time when Eà walks the world in her green mantle, flowers springing up in her footsteps. We like to celebrate May Day by crowning the bonniest lass we can find with a garland of flowers and draping her with a mantle of green, to praise and honour Eà, our mother. I think there can be very little doubt in any of our minds who should be crowned May Queen tonight.’ He paused once again, to allow the shouts and ribald suggestions to die down. ‘So I have great pleasure in calling upon … Brangaine NicSian to be our May Queen this even!’

Isabeau could not help a little start of surprise. This was not because the NicSian was not a young woman of uncommon beauty. Brangaine NicSian, the Banprionnsa of Siantan, had hair the colour and texture of cornsilk, and eyes of clear emerald green. She was without question one of the most beautiful girls Isabeau had ever seen. It was just that Isabeau had expected Lachlan to name his wife as May Queen. Beltane was a night of great significance to Iseult and Lachlan. It was the night of their first loving, the night they had conceived their son Donncan, now six years old.

There was no change in Iseult’s expression, though her fingers tightened a little on the stem of her goblet. The crowd was cheering and clapping, as a blushing, smiling Brangaine was led up to a flower-bedecked dais. Lachlan draped the green silken cloak about her shoulders and crowned her with a garland of pink roses and white hawthorn, before bending to kiss her cheek.

‘I dinna realise Lachlan kent the NicSian so well,’ Isabeau said rather tentatively.

‘Brangaine sailed back on the
Royal Stag
with us,’ Iseult said. ‘She can whistle the wind, ye ken. It is because o’ her that we were able to get home from Tìrsoilleir so quickly.’

As she spoke, a great roar went up from the crowd. Dide had somersaulted right across the bonfire, landing gracefully on one knee before the May Queen and kissing her hand reverently. He then delighted the crowd by pulling her down so he could kiss her hard on the mouth. As everyone cheered and whistled, he leapt to his feet again with a flourish of his green-feathered hat, allowing a flushed and dishevelled Brangaine to regain her seat.

The dancers all came together in great circles of whirling colour about the tall maypole, which was decorated with leaves and flowers and long trailing ribbons in all the colours of the rainbow. The inner circle of dancers, all the prettiest girls at the feast, danced under each other’s upraised arms, tying up the maypole till it was bound tightly within its cage of ribbons.

‘She’s very bonny, isn’t she?’ Isabeau said carefully.

Iseult smiled rather coldly. ‘Aye, indeed. Are ye worried my feelings are hurt? I could no’ be May Queen every year. It would hardly be fair.’ She rose, Connor leaping to pull out her chair for her. ‘Would you excuse me? I’ll just go up and check the children are sleeping. Donncan has been having nightmares every night since he and Neil were kidnapped. He likes me to be near.’

Although Isabeau nodded and smiled, it was an effort. All around her people were dancing and laughing, rejoicing in the end of a long and bloody war, but Isabeau could not shake off a heavy feeling of misery. She knew she was tired—knew she had gone beyond tiredness to bone-weariness, soul-sickness—but still it seemed she saw portents of trouble everywhere.

The last few months had been hard ones for her. Isabeau had strained her powers to their very limit, confronting and defeating the cruel sorceress Margrit NicFóghnan, who had kidnapped the young heir to the throne Donncan, and his best friend Neil, Margrit’s own grandson. Margrit had hoped to murder Lachlan and rule Eileanan through Donncan, and it had taken all of Isabeau’s wit and courage to rescue the boys and overcome Margrit. She had so overtaxed her strength that she had suffered sorcery sickness as a result, a dangerous illness that could lead to death or madness or the complete loss of one’s magical powers. It was the second time she had succumbed to sorcery sickness in as many months. She felt limp as an old lettuce leaf.

Isabeau never enjoyed Beltane Night, anyway, though it was meant to be a celebration of life and love. The Rìgh and Banrìgh never failed to renew their bonds of passion on Beltane Night, the anniversary of their first joyous communion. Isabeau had strong psychic links with her twin sister. On Beltane, the tides of power turned as a new season began, and the psychic current that ran between Isabeau and her twin sister was stronger than ever. She felt pain if Iseult hurt herself, and she felt rapture when Iseult did, particularly if she
was asleep and dreaming, all her defences dissolved. So, every May Eve, Isabeau went to bed knowing she would dream of Lachlan’s hands upon her body, Lachlan’s silken black wings caressing her, his strong arms enfolding her.

Tonight, though, Isabeau would almost welcome sharing Iseult’s joyous release. At least dreaming of Lachlan’s mouth upon hers would drive away the nightmarish visions of slimy, webbed hands, curving yellow tusks, and long black hair streaming like seaweed, that every night rose up from the dark well of her unconscious.

Isabeau knew why she was haunted by these dreams. Only a few weeks ago, she had seen the bodies of drowned Fairgean rolling and bobbing about in the waves that curled upon the beach where she stood, their long hair undulating like kelp, their limp arms and legs swaying. The image was scorched upon her inner eye. She tasted the ash of her horror and revulsion upon her tongue every minute of every day.

It was not just the sight of the dead bodies that so troubled her. Isabeau had seen death before. And these corpses had been Fairgean, humankind’s most bitter enemy. If those Fairgean warriors had seen her and Donncan and Neil, they would have had no hesitation in gleefully spitting them upon their tridents.

It was the manner of the sea-demons’ death which tasted so foul. The Fairgean warriors had been killed by Maya the Ensorcellor and her six-year-old daughter, Bronwen.

Isabeau had helped bring Bronwen into the world.
She had struggled to keep the little newborn babe alive, had cared for her and fed her and bathed her when her own mother had refused to even look at her. It was Isabeau who had helped Bronwen take her first unsteady step, Isabeau who had smiled and listened to her childish babbling, Isabeau who had taught Bronwen her letters and numbers. Isabeau loved Bronwen as if she herself had struggled and screamed to bring her, all blue and bloody, into the world. To know Bronwen had been taught to kill sickened her to the very depths of her being.

It had happened during their desperate flight from Margrit’s stronghold, after Isabeau had managed to outwit the sorceress by swapping the wine in their goblets so that Margrit herself drank the poison she had meant for Isabeau. Sorely wounded and swooning with the sorcery sickness, Isabeau and the boys had taken refuge on a small island in the Muir Finn. In a coincidence too strange to be mere chance, the island proved to be the refuge of Maya the Ensorcellor, who had fled into exile after her failed attempt to win the throne for her daughter. Bronwen was Lachlan’s young niece, the child of his dead brother Jaspar. Named as his heir and successor, Bronwen had ruled for just one day before Lachlan had won the throne and the Lodestar for himself.

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