Read The Fathomless Caves Online

Authors: Kate Forsyth

The Fathomless Caves (5 page)

‘Dragonbane,’ Meghan cried. ‘Iain, your mother sold Maya some dragonbane when she was trying to wipe out the dragons. Wouldna dragonbane work on sea-serpents too?’

Iain nodded. ‘I imagine it probably w-w-w-would, Keybearer. I do no’ ken myself how to make it, but there are those who live in the swamps who would k-k-k-ken the recipe. I can try to find out.’

‘My father has another invention which he thinks may be o’ some use to ye,’ Dughall MacBrann said then in his indolent drawl. He was lying back in his chair, his eyes half shut as if he were only just managing to stay awake. ‘Tell them, Father, for I’m sure I forget what it is.’

The MacBrann sat up eagerly, blinking behind his spectacles. ‘Och, yes, I’d forgotten about that. Thank ye, laddie, for reminding me.’ He rummaged about in his sporran and drew out a little glass vial which he held up to the light. It held some thick, viscous liquid. ‘I call it seafire,’ he said. ‘Found it quite by accident years ago and scribbled down the formula, which I put in some book for safekeeping. Forgot all about it until last year when I found it again while I was looking for something else. Belle’s genealogical chart, I think. Or maybe it was my grandmother’s recipe for elderberry wine.’

‘Who do ye reckon Belle is?’ Dide whispered to Isabeau. ‘His mother?’

‘Nay,’ Isabeau said, stifling a laugh. ‘I’d wager it’s one o’ his dogs.’

‘Anyway, I found it quite by accident and threw it on my desk and when young Dughall here said he was coming along to see ye, my lad, I thought I’d bring it along too and see if ye like it,’ the MacBrann continued cheerfully. ‘It took me some time to dig it out
again, I must say, but I think ye’ll like it. It makes a pretty blaze.’

‘I’m sure I shall like it, Uncle Malcolm, if ye’ll just tell me what it is,’ Lachlan said with uncharacteristic patience.

‘It be seafire, laddie, dinna I tell ye? It ignites on contact with sea water.’

‘Ye mean, sea water makes it burn?’

‘Aye, dinna I say so? Ye could throw it with the mangonel and when it hit the water, bang! It would blow up and all the water about would be one big sheet o’ fire. That would give the sea-demons a fright.’ The old man chuckled and rubbed his hands together in delighted anticipation.

‘It makes water burn?’

‘Aye, aye. Am I no’ making myself clear? Or are ye a bit slow on the uptake, laddie? I suppose it’s no’ to be wondered at, since ye were a bird all those years. Strange story that one. Very strange. It must have had an effect, your brain being shrunk down to the size o’ a pea. We must no’ wonder at ye being a few pence short o’ a farthing.’

Lachlan said with remarkable composure, ‘Nay, no’ at all, uncle. It is just I have never heard o’ water being made to burn before. Normally we use water to put out a fire. What in Eà’s name is in your “seafire”?’

The MacBrann tapped his finger to his nose. ‘Nay, nay,’ he chortled. ‘Ye canna trick me so easily, laddie. I do no’ give away my secrets so easily.’

‘How would ye put such a fire out?’ Admiral Tobias asked with great interest. ‘Fire is a dangerous weapon
to use on a ship.’

‘Good question,’ Dughall answered laconically. ‘We wondered that ourselves when Father decided to test it out. I’m afraid one wing o’ Ravenscraig was rather badly charred before we solved the problem.’

‘So how do ye put it out?’

‘Well, eventually we used sand,’ Dughall replied with a secret smile, fingering his beard. ‘Though we found human water had a dampening effect upon it also.’

‘Human water?’ Admiral Tobias asked, puzzled. Then light dawned. His sunburnt face turned even redder as he said, ‘Oh, I see! Human water.’

‘Aye,’ Dughall replied. ‘Ye can see the problem there.’

‘Aye, indeed,’ the admiral replied, trying to hide his embarrassment in the face of Dughall’s sophisticated ease.

‘Well, then, that means we can use the navy,’ Lachlan said, his scowl clearing for the first time in days. ‘That be grand, I’d hate to have wasted our Ship Tax! We’ll have to spend some time and money having the ships fitted out and armed. Since we’ve recovered and repaired most o’ the pirate ships, our fleet is now up to sixty-four, including all o’ the Tìrsoilleirean ships. That’s a good sized navy!’

‘If we sail to Carraig, we’ll be able to get there m-m-m-much quicker,’ Iain said. ‘Even if the army marches at full speed, the men canna walk m-m-m-much more than fifteen or twenty miles a day. The navy should be able to sail as much as one hundred and sixty m-m-m-miles a day, if we keep the winds
blowing fair. And if we can get the army to Bride in time, we’ll be able to set sail before the F-F-F-Fairgean have begun their journey north again.’

There was a stir of excitement, and Alasdair Garrie of Killiegarrie said, ‘Besides, if we arm the ships with this seafire and the poisoned ballistas, it will no’ matter if there are Fairgean in the sea, we’ll just be killing them off sooner.’

‘And I heard tell ye’d found a Yedda in Tìrsoilleir,’ the MacSeinn said excitedly. ‘Och, that be grand news indeed! A Yedda can sing the blaygird sea-demons to death. And she can be teaching the songs o’ sorcery to some o’ your young witches. I’ve heard rumours that ye have a few now that have the Yedda Talent, Eà be praised.’

There was a long, awkward silence. Dide stilled, his long-fingered hands clenching. Enit Silverthroat turned and looked at Meghan commandingly. The Keybearer gripped her lips together and said nothing. Isabeau looked from one to the other, wondering. There was much about Dide and Enit’s journey to Tìrsoilleir that she did not know about. The MacSeinn’s words, she thought, obviously touched upon a nerve.

‘Well then,’ the MacSeinn cried, breaking the silence, ‘Is this no’ true? Did ye no’ rescue a Yedda in Tìrsoilleir?’

‘They did,’ said Meghan. ‘A Yedda called Nellwyn. She spent eight years incarcerated in the Black Tower. Young Finn rescued her when she rescued the prophet Killian the Listener. She is here now.’

‘And do ye no’ have others that can weave spells with music?’ the MacSeinn demanded. ‘Canna they be taught to sing the Fairgean to death too?’

‘Enit Silverthroat can sing the songs o’ sorcery and she has taught her grandson Dide, as well as her apprentice Jay the Fiddler,’ Meghan said quietly. ‘They were able to sail to Tìrsoilleir safely this time last year, though I ken they encountered Fairgean on the way.’

‘But ye ken I shallna sing the song o’ death,’ Enit said abruptly. ‘I have told ye that many times, Meghan. I am no Yedda to use my magic to kill.’

‘But Enit—’

‘Nay, Lachlan. Naught has happened to make me change my mind. Ye ken how I feel about this.’

‘What foolishness is this?’ the MacSeinn cried, staring at the old jongleur in bafflement. ‘Ye ken how to and yet ye will no’? Why?’

Enit looked at him with pity in her eyes. ‘I willna use my powers to kill. There are other ways to use the songs o’ sorcery.’

‘Other ways? What other ways? I tell ye, if we could train up a batch o’ young witches and put one on every ship, we’ll soon win this war! A good Yedda can kill hundreds o’ the blaygird sea-demons at once. Hundreds!’

‘When we sailed to Tìrsoilleir last year, we were attacked by a group o’ Fairgean warriors,’ Dide explained. ‘Instead o’ singing them to sleep, we sang the song o’ love. Jay played the
viola d’amore,
which as ye ken was made by Gwenevyre NicSeinn herself and has great powers indeed—’

‘Gwenevyre’s viola should never have been given
away like that,’ the MacSeinn cried, trembling with rage. ‘And to naught but a gypsy lad! The viola is a relic o’ the MacSeinn clan and should have been given back to us. Ye had no right, Your Highness!’

Looking distressed, Jay clutched his precious viola close to his chest. Dide gripped his hands into fists.

‘The viola was given to Jay the Fiddler because o’ the help he gave me in winning my throne,’ Lachlan said evenly. ‘All o’ the members o’ the League of the Healing Hand were given their choice from the auld relic room and that is what he chose. Linley, the viola had lain there unused for many years. It was pure luck that it was no’ lost in the Burning, like so many other precious heirlooms. Or happen it was no’ luck, but the invisible workings o’ the Spinners. For Jay plays that viola as if it were fashioned purely for his hand. There is none left in your clan who could play it. Do no’ begrudge it to Jay, who has done so much to help me.’

‘Is that so?’ the MacSeinn said sceptically. ‘Let us hear him play it then.’

The colour burnt hotter than ever in Jay’s face, but at Lachlan’s nod he rose and tenderly removed the viola from its case. Beautifully carved and polished, the viola had far more strings than was usual, raised over an elaborate wooden bridge. Its graceful neck had been carved into the shape of a woman, her eyes blindfolded.

Jay looked at the MacSeinn with a shy yet direct gaze. ‘She is blindfolded because they say love is blind.’

The MacSeinn nodded brusquely. ‘Och, no need to be telling me about the
viola d’amore
, my lad. I was
taught at the Tower o’ Sea-singers. Who taught ye?’

‘Myself,’ Jay answered simply. ‘And Enit.’

Without waiting for a response, he lifted the viola to his chin and ran the bow over the strings. A cascade of notes fell into the room, deep and rich and pure. Then Jay swung into a lilting dance tune that had heads bobbing and toes tapping. He came to the end with a flourish, and a little storm of applause rang out. He blushed and lowered the bow, looking to the MacSeinn.

‘Well, there’s no doubt ye can play, lad, and play well,’ the prionnsa answered gruffly. ‘And it is true what the MacCuinn says, there is none left in my family who could play so beautifully. My daughter might have been able to, but she is dead now.’ An expression of intense melancholy crossed his bearded face and he sank his chin into his hand. For a moment he was quiet, and then he looked up, the fire back in his brilliant sea-green eyes. ‘But if you have the Talent, why will ye no’ sing the Fairgean to death?’

‘She is made for singing o’ love, no’ death,’ Jay said quietly. ‘Canna ye see?’

‘I see ye have a relic o’ the MacSeinn clan and willna use it to help us!’

‘But, my laird, if ye will just listen,’ Dide said. ‘I told ye we sang the song o’ love when we were attacked by the sea-faeries. My laird, the Fairgean were enchanted! They swam after our ship, crooning and whistling and throwing us fish. And later, when we were attacked by the Tìrsoilleirean navy and our ship sank, the Fairgean rescued us, swam with us to shore. My laird, do ye no’ think …?’

‘Sang the song o’ love,’ the MacSeinn replied scornfully. ‘That be a song for courtiers and troubadours, no’ a song for war!’

‘But we won them over, we forged a connection o’ sorts with them,’ Enit cried. ‘We could do the same in Carraig.’

‘Sing the song o’ love as an army o’ Fairgean warriors charge us with tridents raised?’ The MacSeinn’s voice was sardonic. ‘That would be one way to speed up the inevitable end—us all dead and the Fairgean ululating in triumph.’

‘Ye ken I have said so myself, Enit,’ Lachlan put in. ‘Any song o’ sorcery only works when the audience listens, and during a battle ye can hear little but the clash o’ arms and the screams o’ the wounded. And even when the audience does listen, they must hear with the heart and no’ just with the ear. Ye yourself taught me that. How should we sing them to peace when they are blinded and deafened by their hatred?’

‘But in Tìrsoilleir—’

‘Aye, but that was only a small group o’ warriors, ye said so yourself. We canna send ye and Dide and Jay out into the midst o’ a horde o’ ravening Fairgean like a band o’ wandering minstrels. It be too dangerous.’

Enit said nothing, her crippled fingers gripping the arms of her chair.

The MacSeinn snorted in exasperation. ‘This is what happens when ye invite
women
into a war council,’ he said with heavy sarcasm. ‘Ye get addled with soft notions and foolishness.’

‘Is that so?’ Iseult snapped. ‘Does that mean ye do no’
wish the benefit o’
my
advice, my laird?’

The MacSeinn said nothing, his jaw clenched tight. Iseult said, very softly, ‘Remember that I am a Scarred Warrior, my laird. It does no’ matter whether ye are male or female upon the Spine o’ the World. All that matters is whether or no’ ye can fight. I did no’ earn these scars for nothing.’

‘O’ course, Your Highness,’ he said after a moment, with obvious difficulty. ‘No offence meant.’

Iseult did not answer, obviously fighting to contain her temper. Lachlan too was angry. He cast an exasperated look around the table and said, ‘We must no’ be arguing amongst ourselves all the time. If we are to defeat the Fairgean we must have a united front. Come, Isabeau says the Fairgean will be back in Carraig by Samhain or soon after. We must be there by then, and if we can, strike them hard and from two sides at once.’

Most of the Rìgh’s army, called the Greycloaks because of their camouflaging grey attire, were still deployed throughout Tìrsoilleir. It was decided that Lachlan should join them, along with the forces of the southern lairds and prionnsachan, so that they could attack Carraig from the east, sailing the majority of the men up the coast in the royal fleet. Since the troops of the NicThanach and the NicAislin would join them, as well as Iain and Elfrida’s men, they should be able to muster over ten thousand men and faeries, a sizable force indeed.

In the meantime, Fionnghal NicRuraich and the Duke of Lochslain would travel back to Rurach to speak with the MacRuraich and enlist his help. On the way, they would speak also with the MacAhern of
Tìreich, whose cavalry was famous for its swiftness and bravery. Including the longbowmen of Ravenshaw, an army of three thousand or more could be raised to attack the Fairgean from the west.

‘That means a total o’ thirteen thousand soldiers, which is a strong force indeed,’ Duncan Ironfist said with some satisfaction. ‘Even though we shall have to fight the Fairgean in their own territory, we should have the advantage o’ numbers.’

‘We can swell that even more if your father decides to join us,’ Lachlan said to Iseult. ‘He has a few hundred men up there now and he is a Scarred Warrior himself and a bonny fighter. Which reminds me, do ye think he would speak to the Firemaker on our behalf? The Khan’cohbans have signed the Pact o’ Peace, which means they have promised to aid us in times o’ trouble. They think o’ war as some kind o’ hobby, do ye think they would join us too?’

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