Authors: Kate Forsyth
At last Carrick acquiesced, and when the MacSeinn came hurrying up, anxious and concerned, he held him back and would not let him approach.
Iseult looked up at the brightening sky and waited. Despite having lived many years in the shadow of the dragons, her heart still lurched when she saw the great magical creature soar into view above the shoulder of the mountain. It bugled exultantly, and all the horses picketed down the meadow reared and whinnied in panic. Some managed to break the ropes that bound them, though they were so firmly hobbled they could not gallop away. Men everywhere fell to the ground, or cowered back against the frail shelter of a tent, while the men behind Iseult all gasped and fell back a pace or two, sweat springing up on their brows.
The dragon flew down and landed on the platform before Iseult, dwarfing her with his immense size. He coiled his tail about his claws and waited, tiny tendrils of steam escaping from the red caverns of his nostrils. Iseult knelt with her head bowed, the roses laid in a great sheaf before her.
Greetings, Great One
, she said in their own silent language.
Greetings, Iseult the Red
, the dragon answered, regarding her with slitted topaz eyes.
Thou bringst a sizable force in thy train.
His mind-voice had the symphonic power and resonance of an entire orchestra of musicians.
We come bearing gifts, in the hope that
the mighty dragons will allow us to cross through their hallowed ground. As ye ken well, my husband Lachlan MacCuinn and I bear no malice towards the dragons. We revere you and honour you. We have no desire to provoke your anger or to challenge your rule. We shall cross with our eyes lowered and our voices silenced and we shall leave no mark of our passing, if the Great Circle will give us their forbearance and clemency.
There was a long silence, the dragon regarding Iseult through narrowed eyelids. She took a deep breath and indicated the roses lying before her with a graceful sweep of her hand.
I have also brought the tithe o’ roses in the name o’ the MacFaghans, as the dragons decreed long ago, and hope that the long friendship between my clan and yours may grow and flourish as the roses do.
The dragon’s eyes were mere slits and the tip of the tail was waving back and forth. There was a long silence, then he purred,
Iseult gestured to Carrick and he came forward carrying a heavy chest, which he laid on the ground before her, his face even stonier than usual in his effort not to show his fear. She gestured him back and stiffly, slowly, he retreated, determined not to scurry back as he would have liked. Iseult unlocked the chest and opened it, and with a swift, menacing grace, the dragon bent his long neck and smelt the jewels within, his cavernous nostrils flaring red.
We also leave ye and your brothers a herd o’ five hundred horses to hunt for your pleasure and satisfaction
, Iseult said.
We beg pardon that they be so thin and scrawny and hope the
number o’ them makes up for the lack o’ fat.
The dragon laughed, a sound that chilled all who heard it to the very marrow of their bones. Iseult knelt very still, her head bowed, and after a long tense moment when she did not breathe at all, the dragon moved away, the chest of jewels held in his claws.
We know thee, Iseult the Red. We accept thy gifts, paltry though they are, and give thee and thy men permission to climb our mountain. Remember that we shall brook no impertinence from thy followers. If only one dares look within our palace doors, or leaves a footprint in the mud of our pools, we shall see whether the fat of thy bodies makes up for the lack of fat on those scrawny beasts you call horses.
Iseult inclined her head in acquiescence. The dragon bent his powerful hindquarters and launched off into the sky, the blasting wind from his wing-beats almost knocking her over. She shielded her eyes from the whirlwind of dust and leaves and took her first deep breath in some time.
They reached the dragons’ valley on Midsummer’s Morn, and slowly filed past the steaming loch, which filled the crater with a writhing mist that smelt unpleasantly of rotten eggs. Although many of the men jumped involuntarily at the slightest sound, all were careful not to stare at the seven great caverns in the side of the hill. No dragon was seen, rather to the disappointment of the bravest among them, and then they were able to begin the long climb back up out of the dragons’ valley.
Iseult waited until all the men had filed past her and were out of sight before she crossed the valley floor and
laid the great bunch of roses, now rather wilted, on the lowest step. She knelt and said,
I thank ye, Circle o’ Seven.
Deep within her mind, so deep it seemed to reverberate around the hollows of her heart and stomach rather than her brain, she heard the queen-dragon reply,
It is our pleasure.
Happiness welled up in her, stinging her eyes with tears. She swallowed, nodded her head, and rose to her feet, walking briskly across the valley floor to join her men once more.
I sabeau walked slowly through the forest, looking about her with intent eyes. She had to find the perfect place. She would know it when she saw it, she was sure of that. It would be a place of power, a place where the forces of air and water and earth and fire could connect, a place that strummed some inner chord of meaning within her.
It would have been best if it had been somewhere that already had great meaning to her, like the rock shelf on the edge of the waterfall in Meghan’s secret valley, where she had undertaken her Apprentice Test. But the Rìgh’s army was riding to war and Isabeau
travelled in its train. She did not have the freedom to choose the place and time of her Sorceress Test, as young witches had in days of old. She was lucky that Lachlan had decided to spend a few days at Dùn Eidean with the banprionnsa of Blèssem, celebrating Midsummer’s Eve before riding on for Arran, and then to Tìrsoilleir to meet up with their navy. Until now, the Greycloaks had not stayed more than one night in the one place. Isabeau was required to sit in silence, communing with the forces of nature, for three days and three nights before being allowed to sit her Sorceress Test. Such an ordeal was impossible in the noise and bustle of the army camp.
Buba the elf-owl soared from branch to bough ahead of her, hooting in perplexed query.
Why-hooh we-hooh here-hooh? Why-hooh not snooze-hooh?
I-hooh have-hooh just had-hooh my lunch-hooh,
Isabeau hooted back, smiling.
Noon-hooh good-hooh time-hooh for snooze-hooh
, Buba hooted.
, Isabeau replied.
I-hooh not owl-hooh
, Buba agreed sadly. She had not grown reconciled to Isabeau’s reluctance to shape-change ever since her last dreadful bout of sorcery sickness, and was always trying to persuade Isabeau to fly with her once more.
The ground began to tilt under Isabeau’s feet. She hung on to the branch of a tree and hauled herself upwards, anxiety tightening her nerves. This small patch of woodland was the only wild spot for many
miles, Blèssem being a land of meadows and hedge-rows. If she could not find somewhere to sit her Ordeal and take her Sorceress Test, it could be months before she had the opportunity again.
Then she heard the tinkle of running water and her spirits lifted. She followed the sound, coming through a shadowy grove of oak trees into a small clearing lit by the sun. Isabeau knew she had found her place.
A spring of crystal-clear water bubbled up from a cleft in the western face of the rock, cascading down the side of the hill to gather in a small pool in the centre of the grove. Waterlilies floated on its surface, white and crimson and blue, while bulrushes stood up straight as spears on either side. Beyond stretched a little meadow where butterflies danced above a tangle of wild herbs and flowers. A hawthorn tree in full blossom stood in a circle of bruised white petals, while an ancient yew leant drunkenly at the far end. The roots of the leaning yew formed a wide seat on the edge of a cliff, where the stream fell down in long, pale tassels. Framed in the overarching branches of the oak trees was a wide view of the valley below, the walls and towers of Dùn Eidean floating above the blue shimmer of a loch.
Suddenly she saw a nixie sitting on a lily pad, regarding her with curious crystal eyes. The little water-faery immediately dived back into the pool but Isabeau’s heart had leapt. She stood in the sunshine, smiling, lifting her arms to the sky.
, Isabeau agreed.
The sun was just rising when Isabeau came back to
the oak grove the next day. She was alone, Buba having reluctantly agreed to wait for her in the forest below, so Isabeau could sit her Ordeal in isolation, as she was meant to.
Everything was very still, the meadow grass heavy with dew, the only sound the carolling of birds. Isabeau carried a large pile of firewood and a heavy satchel upon her back, which she unloaded in the sweet-smelling shade of the hawthorn tree. There were five tall dusk-coloured candles, a small bag of salt and another of dried dragon’s blood, a bunch of dried herbs and flowers, some pewter bowls, a little bottle of precious oils, a slim book with a blue cover, a loaf of bread, a bottle of goldensloe wine, a bag of little red apples and a wedge of cheese that Isabeau had made herself to be sure it had been curdled with the juice of thistle flowers and not the digestive juices of a lamb.
She arranged everything neatly under the hawthorn, then sat within the yew roots and ate her last meal for three days, washing it down with water from the spring. The water was cold and tasted of earth and darkness. It made her throat ache.
As she ate, Isabeau’s gaze kept returning to the blue book which she had laid down beside her knee. Meghan had given it to her the previous afternoon, with a quick, hard hug and a kiss between her brows. ‘Your acolyte book, Beau,’ she had said. ‘Ye are ready to read it now.’
Isabeau was not so sure. Meghan had let her read a few pages once before, and it had been a humbling experience. The pages of the blue book recorded
Isabeau’s growth and progress, and she knew she had been a wilful, disobedient child, more interested in climbing trees, swimming with the otters and playing with the squirrels and donbeags than in concentrating on mathematics, astronomy or history.
Resting upon the book was a ring which flashed with a hot yellow light. It was a rare jewel, the dragoneye, only found in the far distant mountains where the dragons lived, and where Isabeau had grown to womanhood. It had her name engraved upon the inside, and had been a birthing gift from the dragons themselves.
The dragoneye jewel was set between two exquisite single-petalled roses, with the band engraved with the curving spurs of thorns. The same design was repeated in the clan brooch that pinned together her soft white plaid. It was the emblem of the MacFaghan clan, descendants of Faodhagan the Red who had flown with dragons and built many of the great witches’ towers, including his own, the Towers of Roses and Thorns, where he had died at the hand of his twin sister, Sorcha the Murderess.
Those who would gather roses must brave the thorns
, Isabeau thought and picked up the ring with trembling fingers. She turned it so the stone caught the sunlight and flashed, then slid it on to the middle finger of her left hand. She had not been permitted to wear her dragoneye ring since returning to the folds of the Coven and she had missed it greatly. Soon, Isabeau hoped, she would be able to wear her sorceress-ring openly. If all went well these next three days. She
sighed and smiled, and polished the ring with the hem of her tunic, admiring its golden brilliance. Only then did she open the book.
The pages were filled with Meghan’s thin, spidery writing, the lines cramped and often crossing each other. Isabeau gave a little impatient sigh but as soon as she began to read, the frown between her brows disappeared and she became absorbed. For the book told the story of her life, from the time Meghan had discovered Isabeau as a newborn babe in the gnarled roots of the tree in which she had made her home, to Isabeau’s acceptance into the Coven as a witch the previous year. Often Isabeau laughed aloud as she remembered this misdemeanour or that childish folly, and occasionally her eyes stung with tears. Once, she had to lay the book down while she swallowed a great fist of sorrow and regret, a useless wish that things might have been different.
By the time she had finished, the sun was sliding down behind the hill, the grove of trees filled with long shadows. Isabeau wrapped up the book and tucked it back in her satchel, her head swarming with thoughts and memories like a hive full of bees. It took an effort to wrench her mind back to the present and the task ahead of her. Isabeau had to spend some time with her eyes closed, her hands upturned on her thighs, seeking to control her breathing and with it that elusive life-essence the Khan’cohbans called the
, the still centre of certainty she carried within her.
At last Isabeau felt serene enough to continue. Slowly she undressed. First Isabeau removed the petrified owl talon she wore hanging around her neck. Like
the thin, white scars on her face, the talon was no witch token, but a sign of her Khan’cohban heritage and training. She laid it aside and then unbuckled the long dagger she always wore at her waist. Its hilt was carved into the shape of a dragon, its wings folded along its sides, its eye glowing golden. Isabeau rubbed the tiny dragoneye jewel with her thumb, then laid the knife down carefully. She unwound her hair from its tight braid, so that her bronze-red curls hung freely down her back, coiling and uncoiling in the breeze. Finally she stripped off the long white robe, made without buttons or hooks, and folded it neatly. She was naked, her feet bare.
She walked into the pool of water, parting the waterlilies to reveal green cloudy water. Beneath her feet mud squelched. Her toes curled involuntarily, but she felt her way forward, feeling the shock of the cold water upon her skin. For long moments she floated, her hair drifting behind her, watching the sky fade to a clear greenish-blue, and then darken to violet. Gladrielle began to rise above the horizon, then Magnysson, the sooty marks on his flank very clear. The light of the two moons turned the surface of the pool to rippling quicksilver, and Isabeau spread wide her arms and legs, gazing straight up into the starry expanse arching so far above her.
At last she stood up and waded out, shivering a little. She beat herself all over with branches of juniper and rosemary, then rubbed herself dry with a rough towel, her flesh stinging. She then, with great ceremony, anointed herself with the precious oils, a blend of
murkwoad, hawthorn, angelica and rose, for clear-seeing, far-seeing, far-travelling and protection from evil.
Isabeau sat in the embrace of the yew tree’s roots. She felt very clean, very confident. Staring out into the night, she emptied her mind of all thought, all emotion. Under her breath she chanted: ‘In the name o’ Eà, our mother and father, thee who is Spinner and Weaver and Cutter o’ the Thread; thee who sows the seed, nurtures the life, and reaps the harvest; feel in me the tides o’ seas and blood, feel in me the endless darkness and the blaze of light; feel in me the swing o’ the moons and the planets, the path o’ the stars and the sun; draw aside the veil, open my eyes, by the virtue o’ the four elements, wind, stone, flame and rain; draw aside the veil, open my eyes, by virtue o’ clear skies and storm; rainbows and hailstones; flowers and falling leaves; flames and ashes; draw aside the veil, open my eyes, in the name o’ Eà, our mother and father, thee who is Spinner and Weaver and Cutter o’ the Thread …’
Slowly Isabeau felt herself drawn ever higher and thinner, as if someone were tugging at a rope through the top of her skull, through the base of her spine. She was rooted into the earth, rooted into the sky. Her spinal cord was a sapling, her branches entwined with stars, her taproot submerged deep into the soil. She could feel the almost imperceptible pulse of the planet beneath her, felt herself grow smaller and smaller within the immensity of the night, until she was a mere pin-prick of light in a roaring darkness.
She fell into this abyss of night, at first in sudden
jerks that she had to struggle not to resist, then smoothly, quickly, spiralling down in an ever widening corkscrew.
In that stillness that was not sleep, that quietness that was not death, she travelled back down the path of her life. It seemed to her she was hurrying down a great spiral staircase. It was night-time still and the stone steps glimmered with an unearthly light. With each turn of the staircase, she was deeper into her trance and deeper into her past. Old sorrows rose up to haunt her. She saw the purple face and protruding tongue of Margrit the Thistle, who had drunk the poison meant for Isabeau. Margrit reached out her hands, begging forgiveness, but could not speak, her throat strangled.
Isabeau would have stopped and tried to calm her pulse, seeking her
, but the staircase kept twisting round, and she kept sliding down, down.
Once again she skimmed down a pure sweep of snow and, turning, saw behind her a frost-giant with his ice spear poised to throw. Her heart thundered. Desperately she tried to flee. The ice spear was flung towards her. She saw the great wave of avalanche rising to swallow her. Once again she soared away into the sky with the wings of an owl. Exquisite relief flashed though her, the joy of abandoning her maimed, cumbersome body for the swift, free, clear-sighted body of an owl, a snow-lion, a golden eagle, or any creature she chose. At the time Isabeau had felt only bewilderment. Now she wept and laughed together.
Down she fell, through whirling snow and leaping fire, through hunger and loneliness and cold, loss and
heartache. She saw Maya casting a black poppet upon a fire, she saw Bronwen playing a tune upon her flute while all her toys danced and cavorted about her. Isabeau saw her father transform from a wild, incoherent man back to a wild, incoherent horse, rearing and bucking with rage. She saw her mother sleeping within a cocoon of hair and herself shaking her, pleading with her to wake. For some reason, this memory stabbed her with greater sorrow than all those that had come before. Isabeau felt tears falling down her cheeks, felt as if they were tears of quicksilver, scorching her soul.
In that instant, Isabeau realised how much her mother’s absence had bothered her all her life, like an aching tooth that one probes and probes with one’s tongue, flaring with quick agony if probed too hard, subsiding into a dull throb if left alone. Both Isabeau and Iseult had always chosen not to confront Ishbel, to leave the aching doubt alone, but now Isabeau realised how deeply it had hurt, knowing her mother had taken refuge in her strange enchanted sleep in preference to caring for her twin daughters herself.
She saw Ishbel awaken, and look for her, but this time her mother smiled at her and embraced her, calling her by name. To Isabeau’s surprise and pleasure, she saw Ishbel now lay in a bed all hung with curtains, rather than in the nest of her own hair. Her husband and Isabeau’s father, Khan’gharad, slept peacefully by her side. Somehow the coil of the staircase had taken Isabeau across space as well as time, and it was the Ishbel of now, not of the past, who had responded to her inarticulate cry.
Is all well?
her mother asked anxiously, and
Isabeau nodded, wiping away tears of sudden relief. She clung to her mother but the staircase was turning, and Isabeau was turning with it.