Authors: Kate Forsyth
‘Imagine if we can win back the Tower o’ Sea-singers, so that when they return we are already in the strongest position possible!’ the MacSeinn cried, his sea-green eyes shining.
Isabeau frowned. ‘The Isle o’ the Gods is the most sacred spot o’ all the Fairgean,’ she protested. ‘Even in the height o’ the summer months it would never be left unguarded.’
Linley MacSeinn stared at her. ‘Well, we shall just have to win it back anyway,’ he said.
‘But do ye no’ understand the Fairgean will never submit to allowing ye to step foot inside the Fathomless Caves? It is sacrilege o’ the highest order. That is one reason why they fight against us so mercilessly, so relentlessly. They believe their gods were all born within the caverns there, that it’s the womb o’ all that is sacred and divine. As long as ye seek to win back the Isle o’ the Gods, they will never submit.’
Linley shrugged, his face set hard as granite. ‘Och, what will they care when they are all dead?’
Isabeau had lost all her colour. ‘Do ye plan to kill them all then? Every single one, women and babes as well?’
She turned on Lachlan. ‘Is that the plan? To kill them all? To wipe them from the face o’ the earth? Did ye no’ see that their blood runs as red as your own? They may be faeries o’ the sea but they breathe air and make love and bear children and worship the forces o’ nature just like any o’ us.’ Her voice broke.
Lachlan gripped his sceptre tightly. His face was troubled.
Isabeau rose to her feet, looking from him to Meghan. ‘Last year ye said we would never gain a lasting peace until we came to some sort o’ understanding with the Fairgean, until we learnt to forgive and understand each other. When ye said that, I thought at last ye had become a rìgh, a true rìgh like Aedan Whitelock must have been. I thought how wise ye were, and how brave. Was I wrong?’
Lachlan met her furious gaze straightly, his mouth twisting. ‘I hope no’,’ he said. ‘But it is no’ me that sought this war, Isabeau, ye ken that. I have sent messengers seeking to parley, I’ve offered to come to some sort o’ treaty, and no’ just me, my father and grandfather afore me. Ye saw how they answered me!’
Isabeau was silent for a moment. ‘But do ye seek to kill them all?’ she asked at last, her voice a little softer. ‘The MacSeinn is set on winning back the Isle o’ the Gods while I tell ye now the only way humans shall ever set foot in the Fathomless Caves again is over the bodies o’ each and every living Fairgean. Is it genocide that ye aim for, or a way o’ bringing peace to the land?’
Lachlan stirred uneasily. When he spoke his voice was gentle. ‘Ye are right, Isabeau. We do no’ go to wipe the Fairgean out once and for all, we go because we hope to find some way o’ making a lasting peace.’
Linley MacSeinn groaned and struck his forehead with his hand. ‘Are ye all soft in the head?’
Isabeau turned on him. ‘I hope we are soft in the heart and no’ in the head,’ she cried. ‘Why are ye so hard? Do ye no’ understand the Fairgean feel grief and rage and love, just like we do?’
He laughed harshly. ‘And what would ye ken, ye bairn? Were ye there when the Fairgean attacked at night, killing all they could reach and driving us out into the bitter snows with naught but a few clothes to our backs? Were ye there when I had to watch my wife and my eldest die with Fairgean tridents in their hearts, or when my daughter died from cold and starvation on the road?’
‘Were ye there,’ Isabeau countered, ‘when your ancestors first attacked the Fairgean in their sacred sea-caverns, massacring them and driving them out to drown in the icy seas? Were ye there when they took flaming torches into the holy darkness where no light had ever before fallen? Were ye there when the Yedda sang a thousand Fairgean to death, mere babes among them? Ye do no’ need to be there to ken.’
There was a long moment of silence, fraught with tension. Isabeau faltered a little when she saw many in the council were looking at her with suspicion and condemnation. Then Meghan rose stiffly to her feet.
‘Isabeau is right,’ she said, ‘and I too am ashamed o’ myself. So long we have hated and feared the Fairgean, and never have we thought o’ the actions o’ our ancestors as anything but right and true. Yet there has been great evil done on both sides. We canna tip the balance so it lies more heavily on our side. We canna go to war planning to annihilate our enemy. It is much easier to destroy than it is to build anew.’
Again there was a long, troubled silence. Then Lachlan sighed. ‘Yet we canna go to war already deciding the terms o’ a peace that may never be possible. Let
us take what Isabeau has said into our hearts and our minds and ponder the ramifications but, please, let us now plan a war. For though we may have come to realise that there has been wrong done on both sides, the Fairgean surely have no’! They hate us as much as ever and the Beltane massacre was surely no’ their last offensive.’
There was much murmuring among the councillors and Isabeau was troubled by the sideways glances many gave her. Everyone knew she had brought Maya’s daughter Bronwen back to Lucescere and that she had had some discourse with the Ensorcellor herself. It was clear Isabeau knew more than anybody else about the customs of the Fairgean, and many wondered aloud how that was so. Besides, she was a witch, and despite the restoration of the Coven, many of the people of Eileanan still distrusted witches.
So Isabeau said no more, sitting back in her chair, turning her moonstone ring round and round upon her finger as the arguments went round and round the conference hall. She had so much to perturb her heart, so many doubts and forebodings, regrets and self-recriminations, that it took her some time to notice that her twin Iseult also sat silently, her thin red brows drawn together. Under normal circumstances there would have been nothing in that to remark upon. Khan’cohbans were not given to garrulity. However, this was a war conference. Iseult was a Scarred Warrior, trained from birth in the art of fighting. It was not like Iseult to sit with her hands folded when a war was being planned.
Suddenly Iseult turned and met Isabeau’s gaze. Colour scorched up her face and she bit her lip and looked away. Isabeau sat very still for a long time, not even hearing the wash of conversation about her. Her hands felt cold, her head hot. All her intuition told her something was wrong and that somehow she was at the heart of it.
That night Isabeau tried once again to approach her sister, though her very anxiety made her awkward. Iseult smiled at her in perfect composure and gave her a brief hug, an uncharacteristic sign of affection. ‘Nay, o’ course there be naught wrong, Beau. No’ with us, anyway. I am just tired and irked by all this bickering. They are always the same, these lairds. They talk and talk and naught is ever decided. I canna be bothered arguing with them. If they want my insight, then they can ask me for it.’
Although her words seemed fair, there was still enough of a shadow on Iseult’s face for Isabeau to seek out Dide in the guardroom. He looked tired, his dark curls tousled, his shirt unlaced at the neck, but he smiled at the sight of Isabeau and sprang to his feet.
‘How are ye yourself, my bonny Beau?’
‘Och, fine,’ she answered distractedly. She looked about the guardroom, where all the other officers of the Yeomen of the Guard lounged, playing dice or trictrac, and drinking whisky. Most regarded her with friendly curiosity and she smiled rather briefly at those she knew. ‘Dide, is there somewhere we could go to talk?’
‘In Rhyssmadill? A hundred places,’ he replied with a laugh. ‘This palace was built for intrigue.’
She bit her lip at the double entendre, but she allowed him to show her out of the guardroom. They walked upon the battlement, under the silvery-blue light of Gladrielle, the only moon yet to rise. In its clear radiance, Isabeau could clearly see the quizzical look upon Dide’s face.
‘Much as I would like to think ye have sought me out for some dillydallying in the moonlight, I ken ye must have some other reason,’ he said. ‘What be wrong, Beau?’
She took a deep breath and then said hesitantly, ‘I’m worried about Iseult. She seems so … so cold, so … distant. I think she is angry, but I dinna ken why … or with whom …’ Her words trailed away.
He twisted his mouth in chagrin and looked away. She stared at him in surprise.
‘I would no’ worry,’ he said, still not meeting her eyes. ‘My master … spoke some hasty words one day, in a temper, and I do no’ think my lady has yet forgiven him. She holds fast to what she feels, your twin.’
Isabeau was puzzled. ‘What kind o’ hasty words?’ She laid her hand on his arm. ‘Something to do with me?’
‘Now what makes ye think that?’ Dide replied mockingly.
‘I dinna ken,’ she answered seriously. ‘I just feel it, somehow.’
He did not know how to answer her. Watching Dide searching for words, when he was usually so glib of tongue and quick of wit, only confirmed Isabeau’s suspicions. ‘What did he say?’ she cried angrily.
‘Lachlan always thinks the worst o’ me. Did he say something against me?’
‘He was upset,’ Dide said. ‘It was on the
, after we had heard about the laddies being kidnapped. We did no’ yet ken if Donncan was even alive, let alone that ye had rescued him from Margrit. He loves that laddie dearly, ye ken that, and we had come fresh from the war against the Bright Soldiers. We were all tired and overwrought …’
‘So he did say something! He blamed me, did he? And Iseult was angry? They argued about me?’
‘Dearling, I canna say,’ Dide answered in some distress. ‘He is my master. I canna be repeating what he says, no’ even to ye. Especially no’ to ye.’
Isabeau was too angry and upset to notice the endearment. She said furiously, ‘He is always the same! It does no’ matter what I do, he always thinks the very worst o’ me. And why? Why?’ She held up her crippled hand. ‘Ye’d think he would feel guilty that I was tortured and maimed in his place. Ye’d think he would speak softly to me and be kind, if only because I am his wife’s twin. But no! He is always quick to blame me, to call me traitor and spy, to have me accused of murder and betrayal …’
Dide seized both her hands in his. ‘But Beau, ye do no’ understand …’
‘Nay, I do no’!’
‘It is because o’ all o’ that, do ye no’ see? It is because he blames himself for your hand, because ye are as like Iseult as the reflection in her mirror. He said it himself. If he is no’ to hate ye, what else is he to do?’
‘He hates me …’ she faltered.
Dide dropped her hands and turned away. ‘I should no’ have said anything,’ he said stiffly. ‘It was just I wanted to explain … please forget I told ye. Neither Iseult nor Lachlan would want ye to ken what was said in haste and anger, and under such duress. He does not hate ye, it’s just …’
‘I look too much like Iseult,’ she said matter-of-factly.
‘Aye,’ he said, not looking at her. ‘It is enough to drive a man mad, seeing ye side by side, so alike and yet so unalike. Is it any wonder he sometimes questions …’
‘Nay, what? Tell me.’
He shook his head. ‘I have said too much. I wish ye had no’ asked me. Ye will take it amiss and indeed, it was no insult to ye that has Iseult so angry.’ Once again he stopped himself, striding away with his hands clenched beside him, turning suddenly back to seize her arms. ‘It was no’ fair o’ ye to seek me out,’ he said abruptly. ‘Ye ken I can deny ye naught, it hurts me to see ye upset and so now I have betrayed my master’s confidence. Get ye to your bed, Beau, and do no’ be looking at me with those unhappy eyes. There is no need for
‘But Dide …’
‘I shallna say any more, Beau, so there’s no point in asking. I wish I had no’ said anything at all.’
He walked away from her swiftly and did not look back. Isabeau looked after him, her face troubled,
gnawing at her fingernail.
If no’ to hate me, then what else is he to do?
she thought and, despite herself, gave a little smile.
Lachlan rapped the table and said, ‘Enough! Let us concentrate on the job at hand. Three days we’ve been shut up in this room and I do no’ ken about all o’ ye, but I am heartily sick o’ it. Let us put our strategy in place and ride to war!’
Talk broke out on all sides. ‘We’ll just have to kill as many Fairgean as possible afore they get to Carraig,’ the Duke of Gleneagles cried.
The Duke of Lochslain had fought many times against the Fairgean. He leant forward now, his wrinkled face troubled. ‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘the sea-demons be as slippery as eels. Ye can fight and fight against them, to try to stop them landing, and they’ll simply turn and slither back into the sea again and be gone. And if ye try to pursue them by boat, their blaygird sea-serpents are waiting outside the headlands and the boats are crushed and everyone drowned.’
‘Could ye no’ kill the sea-serpents?’ Duncan Ironfist said.
‘How?’ the duke said simply. ‘Arrows are no good, they just bounce off their hide.’
‘All the royal fleet are well armed with cannons now, thanks to the Bright Soldiers,’ Lachlan said, rubbing his tired eyes. ‘Do ye think they’d be any use against sea-serpents?’
‘I do no’ rightly ken, Your Highness,’ the duke said
doubtfully. ‘Their hides be mighty tough. Happen cannonballs would just bounce off.’
‘And the sea-serpents would have to come within range, and by that time they’d have the ship in their coils anyway,’ said the captain of the
who had been promoted to Lord High Admiral of the Rìgh’s fleet.
‘The trick is to try to kill the sea-serpents afore they come too close to crush the boat,’ Duncan Ironfist said, tugging at his beard.
‘Och, that be easy enough,’ the MacBrann said, startling them all, since everyone had thought he was dozing. The old man twinkled at their expressions of astonishment, scrabbled around his huge sporran and drew out a sheaf of crumpled papers. ‘I brought ye my design for a giant mangonel. We found it most useful against the Bright Soldiers when they tried to storm Ravenscraig. We’ve thrown a boulder well over four hundred yards!’
There was a little murmur of surprise and the MacBrann beamed round at them. ‘Aye, I think ye’ll find that o’ use! Since then I’ve been working on a ballista that can shoot a giant arrow nearly as far. Ye could dip the arrowhead in some sort o’ poison so that all ye need do is pierce the sea-serpent’s hide, ye do no’ need to strike a vital organ to kill it. The poison will do all the work for ye.’