Authors: Kate Forsyth
The Fairgean warriors had swum into the lagoon, seeking only to harvest the kelp that floated in the sea about the island. Although Maya was half Fairge herself, she was in as much danger from the warriors as Isabeau and the boys, for she had failed her father, the Fairgean king, in his plans to eradicate humankind once and for
all. She feared the wrath of her father and the Priestesses of Jor as greatly as she feared that of Lachlan and the Coven of Witches. So she had taken up her clàrsach and commanded Bronwen to take up her flute, and together mother and daughter had sung the Fairgean warriors to death.
It did not help that Isabeau had taken Bronwen away from Maya. It did not help that Bronwen now slept peacefully in the royal nursery, as sweet-faced and innocent as the other children. Fairgean warriors still swam through Isabeau’s dreams every night, dragging her down with their webbed hands, strangling her with their seaweed hair, drowning her.
Isabeau shivered and pulled her plaid up about her neck, even though the night was balmy and the heat of the Beltane bonfire had the dancers damp with perspiration. She wished Meghan had not retired to her bed, or that her old friend Lilanthe was there, to talk and laugh with and distract her from her troubled thoughts. She wished that Dide, her oldest friend of all, was not flirting so outrageously with the newly crowned May Queen, the prettiest girl Isabeau had ever seen.
Laughing wickedly, Dide was dancing and cavorting all round the fire, scattering spring-green leaves behind him. He had not been still since the dawn ceremony but he showed no sign of weariness, leading the dancing in an unruly procession that overturned tables and knocked a tray of goblets flying. With a shout of joyous excitement, he flung himself over in a wild flurry of cartwheels, flip-flops, lion-leaps, hand-springs, headsprings, sideways leaps and twists of every description
that had the crowd roaring. Brangaine leapt to her feet and clapped enthusiastically, and Dide bowed and blew her a kiss. When she blew him a kiss in return, he fell over backwards as if he had been felled by a blow, and lay on the ground, his arms outstretched, his eyes shut, his chest heaving.
Isabeau poured herself another goblet of wine.
All the other jongleurs were spurred on to new feats of acrobatic grace and dexterity. Dide sat up and watched them, occasionally jeering or applauding a particularly deft somersault. Another pretty young girl came and tried to drag him into a dance but he waved her away, pretending he was swooning from exhaustion. Then he spied Isabeau, sitting alone at the high table, the elf-owl Buba perched on the chair behind.
Isabeau sensed rather than saw Dide get up and make his way towards her. She turned her attention to the musicians, watching them play as if she had no greater desire in the world than to study their fingering. Then she felt him lean over her, his breath warm on her cheek and smelling strongly of ale.
‘If it’s no’ my bonny Beau,’ he said. ‘Look at ye, in your witch-robes. And there’s your wee owl. If I come too close, will she peck me again?’
‘Probably,’ Isabeau answered, leaning away from him.
‘Och, as cruel as ever, my lady,’ he answered mockingly. He bent and seized her hand and kissed it with an extravagant flourish of his green-feathered hat. ‘May I have the pleasure o’ this dance?’
‘No, thank ye,’ Isabeau replied coolly.
‘Och, come and dance, Beau!’ he cried. ‘Come on, ye’ve been sitting up here for hours like some auld grandam. A bonny lass like ye should be dancing.’
‘I’m quite comfortable where I am, thank you.’ Isabeau tried to draw her hand away, but Dide dragged her up to her feet, almost pulling her over in the process. He laughed, grabbing hold of her with both arms as he tried to regain his balance, and almost fell over again.
‘Ye’re drunk!’ Isabeau said.
‘I’m the Green Man, it’s my job to be drunk,’ he retorted and tried to kiss her, getting a mouthful of hair in the attempt. ‘Come on, Beau, why so cold? Will ye no’ dance with me?’ He whirled her into the dancers, his arm sure about her waist, his hand holding hers firmly.
Isabeau’s eyes flashed with angry fire. ‘I said I dinna want to dance!’
He spun her round. ‘Did ye?’
‘Aye! Let me go!’
‘No’ likely! I havena seen ye in months! Years! The least ye can do is dance wi’ me.’
‘Ye ken I canna dance,’ Isabeau protested. ‘Dide, ye’re treading on my feet!’
He laughed. ‘No’ as sure on my feet as I was twelve hours ago,’ he panted. ‘Och, what a day!’
‘Ye seemed to be enjoying yourself.’ Despite all her best intentions, Isabeau could not help a note of pique in her voice.
He laughed at her and squeezed her waist. ‘Och, I have! I’d enjoy it even more if ye’d stop glaring at me
and give me a kiss instead. Am I no’ your auldest friend? Ye’d think I’d get a warmer greeting than this!’
‘I think ye’ve had quite enough kisses for one day,’ Isabeau replied primly.
‘No such thing as enough kisses,’ Dide replied. ‘Especially from ye, my bonny Beau.’
He whirled her about so swiftly she had no breath to retort, and smiled down at her with great warmth in his eyes. ‘So much has happened since I last saw ye,’ he said. ‘How long has it been? Three years? I see ye are a witch now, just like ye wanted. Soon to be a sorceress, I hear.’
She nodded, finding herself unaccountably tongue-tied.
‘Congratulations,’ he said and bent his head to kiss her, his hand tightening upon her waist. Then the steps of the dance separated them. She was spun about by other arms, went from partner to partner all the way down the line. Isabeau could not help looking back over her shoulder. She met Dide’s gaze, blushed hotly and looked away.
They met again at the head of the line. His arm slid about her waist with great assurance, pulling her closer than the etiquette of the dance truly demanded.
‘And I hear ye have been made an earl,’ Isabeau said lightly. ‘Who would have thought it, the little boy I played with in the stableyard now an earl with his own coat o’ arms and a castle and everything.’
He bowed with an extravagant flourish. ‘Didier Laverock, the earl of Caerlaverock, at your service, my lady.’ They parted with a bow and a curtsey, danced down the line and met again at the bottom. ‘I’m no’
sure how I feel about it,’ he admitted. ‘I’m glad for my grandam’s sake, though. She is auld now and badly crippled. I am glad she has somewhere comfortable to bide awhile. And who kens? Happen I’ll tire o’ the jongleur’s life one day.’
‘Now that I doubt,’ Isabeau answered. The tune came to an end with a flourish of violins, and they all clapped and bowed to each other. Isabeau gathered up her long robe and stepped away, reminding herself that she was a witch of the Coven and not a silly young lass to be dazzled by a charming smile.
Dide caught her hand and halted her, seizing two cups of Merry May ale from a tray. ‘Nay, I canna be allowing ye to sit around and mope like a miserable auld maid! It’s May Day and I be the Green Man! It is my beholden duty to allow no-one to mope, especially a bonny wee lass like yourself. Drink! Drink!’
‘Stop it, Dide!’ Isabeau protested, almost choking as he poured the ale into her mouth. ‘I ken what ye’re like! Ye’re only trying to get me drunk so ye can have your evil way with me.’ She swallowed, coughing and spluttering.
He laughed at her, his black eyes sparkling. ‘Och, I do no’ have to get ye drunk to do that!’ he mocked, kissing her. It was the kiss of a lover, deep, long, ardent. Isabeau was ensnared, unable to break away. For a moment she heard only the beat of his heart against hers, felt only the surge of her own blood in response. Then she broke free, or he let her go, she did not know which. He kissed her again, his hand cupping her chin, and smiled down into her eyes. ‘See?’
She pulled away, chin raised proudly. He had her plait in his hand, his arm about her waist. He would have drawn her through the dancers to the shadowy garden beyond, but she pulled against his grasp. ‘I thought ye wanted to dance?’ she cried and, laughing, ran back into the throng of dancers. He caught the edge of her robe and pulled her back, and she let him turn her so that his hands were on her waist again and she was laughing up into his very bright black eyes.
Suddenly screams ran out, screams of terror. The throng of dancers milled about, crying, ‘What’s happened?’
There were cries of pain now, and high-pitched whistles and musical warbles. Isabeau froze, her stomach twisting. She had heard that high-pitched trilling before. It was clear Dide had too, for he went white. ‘Fairgean!’ he cried. ‘But how …’
People began to try to struggle free of the crowd, panicking. The screams grew more frenzied, and Isabeau saw a woman run down the steps, blood pouring down the side of her frightened face. Suddenly she fell, and Isabeau saw a long trident protruding from her back. As if in slow motion, fascinated, she lifted her eyes. Tusked warriors stood at the top of the stairs. Their scaly skin glistened in the light of the lanterns, and their long black hair streamed down their backs, dripping wet. One bent and pulled the trident out of the woman’s back, casually lifting it and throwing it down into the milling, screaming crowd. A man fell, and the frenzied crowd trampled him underfoot as they struggled to escape.
‘I havena even got my daggers!’ Dide cried. ‘Eà curse
them! How did they get in? Rhyssmadill is meant to be impregnable …’
‘They’re all wet,’ Isabeau said. She was surprised at how calm her voice was.
‘They must’ve found the underwater caves,’ Dide cried. ‘They’ve come up the well, curse their black blood!’
Isabeau nodded, sure this was the truth. So that was the explanation of her dreams! Why had she not heeded their warning?
The Fairgean warriors were coming down the stairs, methodically killing one dancer after another. None of the merrymakers had worn weapons so they were defenceless against the sea-faeries, who all carried steel daggers as well as their long tridents of sharpened coral. Body after body fell, blood pooling on the marble.
Dide darted forward and grasped two flaming brands out of the fire, spinning them in his hands. Two of the Fairgean came forward to grapple with him and he beat them off with dexterous thrusts and swipes of the torches.
‘Run, ye fool!’ he hissed at Isabeau.
She ignored him, conjuring a ball of flame and flinging it at one of the Fairgean warriors, who was about to cut a woman’s throat. He fell, screaming and beating at the flames with his webbed hands. Isabeau took a deep breath, swallowed her nausea, and blasted another. She saw Brangaine crouched behind the shelter of an overturned table, her crown of roses askew, methodically knotting and unknotting her sash, while three Fairgean struggled to reach her through a
wind that had come from nowhere. It picked them up and threw them across the square, slamming them into another group of Fairgean warriors and knocking them flying.
Brun the cluricaun caught a branch with his long tail and swung up into the trees, just avoiding being spitted on the cruelly sharp prongs of a trident. He crouched in the tree, gibbering with distress, as a woman at the foot of the tree was hacked to death by two of the scaly warriors.
Four Fairgean attacked Isabeau at once and she fought them off with nothing but her fists and feet, the elf-owl Buba raking at their faces with her talons. She bashed two of their heads together, then twisted aside to avoid the thrust of a trident. Landing on her knees, she held out her hand and her staff of power flew to her across the square. She seized it and used it to hold off the warrior seeking to strike her. With a swift turn of the staff, she knocked him back with a blow to the jaw, and regained her feet. Swiftly she spun and kicked the fourth Fairgean in the stomach, then cracked her staff over his head so that he fell like a stone. She caught her breath and looked about her.
All over the garden the merrymakers were doing their best to fight off the sea-faeries. Some had grasped flaming brands out of the fire, or had seized a chair or candelabra to try to hold the Fairgean off, but the warriors were too well armed and well trained to be stopped for long. Gradually the humans were being overwhelmed.
Then the palace guard came running up through the
garden, their hauberks still unfastened. The archers knelt and fired a volley of arrows into the ranks of Fairgean, and the swordsmen ran forward to engage. Dide and Isabeau fought beside them, dragging weapons from the hands of the fallen, until at last the company of Fairgean warriors were all dead. No quarter had been offered or asked for.
All the time she had fought Isabeau had been sick with fear at the possible fate of her loved ones elsewhere in the palace. What of Meghan, who had retired to bed, or Lachlan and Iseult and the children? There was so much terror and pain in the atmosphere that Isabeau’s witch senses were overwhelmed. She knew Iseult was alive for she felt no physical pain, but the others?
As soon as the last Fairgean had fallen, she set off into the palace. Torn and bloodied bodies lay everywhere, most of them human. Isabeau wept, recognising many among them. She saw the pretty young girl who had flirted with Dide so boldly earlier in the day, and the scullery maids Doreen and Edda whom she had once scrubbed floors with, and some of her fellow students from the Theurgia, all lying still and lifeless. There was the musician that had so charmed her with his flute-playing; there was the jongleur who had amazed them all by wrapping her legs about her head and walking about on her elbows, and there was Oonagh the White, the city sorceress, her corpse surrounded by eight dead Fairgean, all charred and smoking. Isabeau picked up her robe and ran past, tears choking her.
She came into the great hall of the palace, and saw
more bodies lying strewn across the expanse of blue marble and across the stairs, so many bodies it was impossible to count. She had to stop, great sobs tearing at her ribcage. She could not breathe, and bent over, gasping. She felt Dide come up close behind her and take her in his arms. They held each other closely, taking comfort from one another’s warmth and strength and the audible pounding of their hearts.
‘The bairns,’ Isabeau choked at last. ‘I must …’