Authors: Kate Forsyth
‘Ye be a sorceress now,’ Lachlan said. ‘Ye canna be wasting your time running after a passel o’ bairns.’
‘I fain do it,’ Isabeau replied shyly, taking Olwynne’s hand and helping her up the steps. ‘Ye ken I love them dearly.’
‘Aye, I ken,’ Lachlan said softly, taking Owein’s hand and walking up the steps beside her, his night-black wings brushing against her legs. The little boy fluttered his own wings so that he hopped and bounded up the stairs rather than climbed. He was still too young to have worked out how to use his wings fully, but he nonetheless found them a great help in reaching things the adults would much rather he left alone.
Isabeau found it hard to look at Lachlan or to say anything that sounded natural, so she kept silent, concentrating on helping Olwynne, who was still rather prone to tripping over her own feet.
After a moment, Lachlan said, ‘Besides, I do no’ think Meghan will thank me if I allow ye to spend all your time looking after the bairns. I ken she is looking forward to having ye near on this journey, for she says your studies have already been too hurly-burly.’
‘Well, that’s true!’ Isabeau laughed at him. ‘What wi’ being on the Spine o’ the World and then chasing your laddiekin all over the Muir Finn, it’s a wonder I’ve won any rings at all.’
‘I ken and I’m sorry,’ Lachlan said rather awkwardly.
Isabeau regarded him sceptically. ‘Sorry for what? That my studies have been a wee bit haphazard? Och, that was no’ your fault, though o’ course I’m glad to blame ye if ye want!’
Lachlan flushed, opening his mouth angrily, then shut it with an exasperated glance at her. ‘Here I am trying to be nice to ye and all ye do is provoke me!’
‘Och, I’m sorry,’ Isabeau said sweetly. ‘It’s just I’m no’ used to ye trying to be nice.’
Lachlan swung round, his wings opening a little, his flush deepening. ‘Isabeau!’
He glared at her for a moment, then reluctantly laughed. ‘True enough, I suppose, and for that I’m sorry too. I’ll try harder.’
‘It must be hard,’ Isabeau said sympathetically. He looked at her suspiciously and she grinned at him, saying, ‘Being nice, I mean. It’s so alien to your nature.’
As he struggled between anger and laughter, she skipped away down the hall, Olwynne and Owein both hanging off her hands, Buba fluttering from chair back to balustrade. Halfway up the stairs she turned back and called, ‘And o’ course, I’m such a difficult person to be nice to.’
He laughed despite himself, and she smiled at him, before turning away to help the twins once more.
Elfrida was waiting for her on the landing above, saying, ‘I thought I’d give ye a room close to the babes, Isabeau, for I ken they would fain have ye near.’
‘Thank ye, that was thoughtful,’ Isabeau answered, looking about her with great interest as Elfrida led the
way up the stairs. The palace was very richly furnished with finely woven carpets and tapestries, many very large paintings in ornate frames, and bowls and vases of the finest porcelain. The device of the flowering thistle was everywhere—engraved on doors, set in mosaic on the floor, embroidered on velvet cushions, and worn on the breast of every one of the hundreds of servants that moved soundlessly through the corridors. It was even set at regular intervals in the gilded balustrade of the grand staircase.
‘It is very nice to be home again,’ Elfrida said. ‘It is odd, even though I lived in Tìrsoilleir all my life and am now its banprionnsa, I still think o’ Arran as being home.’ She smiled at Isabeau shyly. ‘It was the first place I was happy, I suppose.’
‘Ye were raised in the Black Tower, though, were ye no’?’ Isabeau asked. ‘I imagine that was no’ a happy place.’
‘Nay, no’ a happy place at all. Happiness was no’ an objective o’ the Tìrsoilleirean. I was whipped across the hand if I was ever caught smiling, and dare no’ think what punishment I would have been given for laughing.’
‘It was no’ pleasant, particularly when I was naught but a bairn myself.’
They came into a big sunny playroom that was filled with every imaginable toy a six-year-old boy could want. There was a miniature castle complete with a moving drawbridge and tin soldiers dressed in the Arran livery; there were balls and building blocks and a chest of clothes
for dress-ups and a rocking horse as large as Cuckoo’s own pony. The children all ran forward with cries of delight and were soon busy playing, as Elfrida showed Isabeau where they would all sleep. Cots had been set up for the twins in an antechamber to the room that Donncan would share with Neil, while Bronwen had been given a room across the hall, right next to Isabeau.
An old bogfaery was sitting in a rocking chair, sewing. She had heavily wrinkled skin of a purplish-black colour, with black ripples of fur over her head and arms. As Isabeau and Elfrida came in she smiled, showing two sharp little fangs.
‘This is Aya,’ Elfrida said. ‘She was Iain’s nanny when he was a lad and now she has come back to help look after our own laddiekin.’
‘How lovely for ye,’ Isabeau said warmly to the bogfaery. ‘It must make ye very happy to see wee Cuckoo growing up so bright and happy.’
The bogfaery nodded. ‘Ee-an big man, no need Aya no more, Aya sad, Aya go ’way. Now Ee-an have wee man, Aya come back, Aya glad.’
‘When Iain was a bairn, Aya was the only one to be kind to him and look out for him,’ Elfrida said, showing Isabeau through into the corridor again. ‘He loves her very much. Bogfaeries make wonderful nannies, for they’re so gentle and loving.’
‘Happen I shall have to borrow one,’ Isabeau sighed. ‘I must admit I’m finding it rather hard looking after four bairns as well as studying with Gwilym and directing the healers. We’ve had rather bad luck with our nursemaids recently.’
Elfrida nodded, appreciating the bitter irony. ‘Well, why do ye no’ take young Maura, Aya’s grand-daughter? She is a sweet wee thing, and very strong, despite her size. She can cook and sew and has worked here with Aya and her mother Faya for some years now, so she’s had experience with bairns.’
As she spoke she opened the door into a small but charming bedroom, its wall hung with a tapestry of a boating party on the loch, with a wedge of crimson-winged swans flying above. It had a wide window overlooking the water.
‘Och, this is lovely!’ Isabeau exclaimed, following Elfrida in.
Isabeau’s luggage had already been brought up from the boat and another bogfaery was padding about quietly, packing away her few clothes and pouring her out some honey-scented water in which to wash. Isabeau thanked her and then stood at the window, admiring the view. At the sound of peals of childish laughter from across the corridor, the two women turned and smiled at each other.
‘That is why I do so want Cuckoo to have a happy childhood,’ Elfrida said impetuously. ‘And I ken Iain feels the same. In some ways his was worse than mine because I at least kent my parents had loved me. My tormentors were my prison guards, no’ my own mother.’
Isabeau hesitated, then found the courage to raise something that had been troubling her greatly. ‘Elfrida, Iain does ken, does he no’? That it was me that killed his mother?’
Elfrida looked at her in some surprise. ‘We have
heard the story o’ how the Thistle died. I had thought it was more by her own hand than yours.’
‘But I was the one who swapped the wine,’ Isabeau said, a knot of anxiety in her chest.
Elfrida smiled at her. ‘But Margrit who put the poison in the wine. Aye, Iain kens. It seems a fitting way for her to die, and I must say we are all relieved. We do no’ need to fear she shall try to steal Cuckoo away from us again, and this way she did no’ die by Iain’s hand, which would have been a terrible thing, regardless o’ how evil she was. She has been a shadow on our happiness from the very beginning and now that shadow is gone, and for that both o’ us are grateful to ye, truly.’
‘Och, I’m glad,’ Isabeau cried. ‘I would have been so unhappy if Iain had hated me!’
Elfrida laid a cool hand on Isabeau’s arm. ‘He would never hate ye, Isabeau. The only person Iain has ever hated was Margrit, and believe me, she deserved it. So do no’ think on it any more. We wish ye to enjoy your stay in Arran. Tomorrow we have organised a boating expedition up the river so ye can see the golden goddess in flower, and tonight we shall have a feast to celebrate the Rìgh’s visit.’ She moved away, her pale face colouring a little. ‘I hope ye do no’ mind, Isabeau, but I can no’ help noticing that ye do no’ have any feasting clothes. Ye are here tonight as our honoured guest, no’ as a witch o’ the Coven, and so I have brought ye some dresses to choose from. If ye prefer to wear your witch’s robes, well, o’ course ye may, but I just thought …’
Isabeau’s face lit up with pleasure. ‘Och really?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Nay, I’d love to wear something festive!
I do have some other clothes back in Lucescere, but since we ride to war, I did no’ pack them.’
Elfrida was pleased at Isabeau’s delight and clapped her hands imperiously. Within a few minutes a procession of bogfaeries came in with piles of silks and satins in all colours of the rainbow, spreading them out on the bed or hanging them up from the curtain rail. ‘They all belonged to Margrit,’ Elfrida said, ‘but most o’ them have never been worn. Ye must no’ mind that they were hers. The seamstresses will take them in for ye.’
Isabeau could not help exclaiming in delight. Even though she was a fully fledged member of the Coven of Witches, and so used to a life of austerity, she had not lost her love of finery. Somehow this sensuous side of her nature had never been given a chance for full expression, and the sight of all those luxurious fabrics and gorgeous colours went to her head like a draught of goldensloe wine.
After twirling about in front of the long mirrors in one gown after another, Isabeau at last decided what she would wear to the feast that night. It was a gown of pale ivory satin printed all over with tiny crimson roses, golden lilies and delicate sprigs of forget-me-not. The skirt was trimmed and embellished in velvet ribbon of the same forget-me-not blue, with a blue velvet bodice and long, tightly fitting sleeves slashed to allow wisps of ivory gauze to billow out. The gold-embroidered cuffs came to a long tapering point over the hands, hiding Isabeau’s maimed fingers, while the bodice was cut low over her breasts, the embroidered neckline softened with pleated gauze of the same pale ivory.
That evening Elfrida’s maid dressed Isabeau and drew her hair from her face with a simple fillet of blue velvet and pearls, allowing the mass of fiery curls to hang free down her back. When the maid had at last expressed her satisfaction, Isabeau stood and stared at herself in the mirror. For the first time she looked like a banprionnsa. More importantly, in Isabeau’s mind, she looked beautiful. She smiled at herself, thanked Elfrida’s maid, gathered up the little gold-embroidered reticule that went with the gown, and squared her shoulders. For some reason she felt much more nervous having to face Lachlan and his court now that she was dressed like any of the other ladies.
she asked Buba, who had settled on the back of a chair, her ear tufts lowered sleepily.
, the little owl agreed, her round eyes already closing.
Meghan was waiting for her in her own room just next door. She too had changed her clothes and was dressed in a severe gown of dark green velvet, relieved only by her plaid and the great emerald that fastened it about her shoulders. As usual Gitâ was perched on her shoulder, his black eyes bright as pools of ink, his plumy tail carefully groomed. Meghan looked Isabeau over rather caustically, saying, ‘Och, ye’re gaudy tonight, my Beau.’
Isabeau flushed, but said laughingly, ‘Well, I do no’ often get a chance to dress up!’
She helped the old sorceress to her feet and offered her arm for Meghan to lean upon. They made their way slowly down the corridor, often stopping to admire
a particularly fine piece of porcelain or cunningly carved box, thereby covertly allowing Meghan to catch her breath.
As they made their way down the sweeping staircase they heard a hum of conversation, and then, as they turned the corner to the last flight, saw the grand hall below packed with people. There were the blue-clad Yeomen of the Guard, Lachlan’s personal guard, captained by Duncan Ironfist, who was also seanalair of the Rìgh’s army.
Then there were the lairds, all dressed in their family tartans, and their officers and courtiers. Most important of the lairds were Alasdair Garrie of Killiegarrie, uncle to Melisse NicThanach and seanalair of her army, and Cameron Guthrie of Gleneagles, the NicAislin’s seanalair. Neither the NicThanach nor the NicAislin rode to war, like most women of Eileanan bowing to tradition and leaving the fighting to the men. As a result the majority of the crowd gathered in the grand entrance hall were men, the only women being witches or healers. Isabeau knew the witches and healers well, but their faces were lost in the crowd so that it seemed she was entering a sea of strangers.
As Meghan and Isabeau made their way down the steps, a lull fell over the crowd and many turned to stare, even though they had seen both the witches many times before. Isabeau hesitated in sudden shyness. Then Dide came forward to offer her his hand and lead her down the last few steps.
Like all of the Rìgh’s officers, he wore a long blue cloak, pinned back at the shoulder with a badge depict
ing a charging stag, the ensign of the Yeomen of the Guard. His dark curls were tied back neatly under a cockaded blue tam o’shanter, and his blue kilt swung with every step. There was no sign of the shabby jongleur Isabeau had always known and she felt a sudden surge of shyness. Then he grinned at her, and all her awkwardness dissolved.
‘Flaming dragon balls, ye’re fine tonight,’ he said. ‘If Finn were here, she’d say ye were as fine as a goat’s turd stuck with buttercups.’
Isabeau laughed at him. ‘Such a courtier,’ she mocked. ‘Now I understand why Lachlan usually insists on ye travelling around like a gypsy.’
‘Och, that be because he’s afraid o’ the havoc I’d cause among the ladies if I stayed wi’ the court,’ he answered, his black eyes glinting with laughter.