Authors: Kate Forsyth
She saw Lachlan lift the baby Bronwen from her bath, her fins streaming with water, her scales shimmering like mother-of-pearl. He shook her, hissing through clenched teeth, ‘Keep her away from me. By the Centaur’s Beard, keep this
away from me and my son!’ And Isabeau took Bronwen in her arms, sick and shaking with fear.
The little girl dissolved away into nothing in her arms. Isabeau was hurtling down the stairs now, back through all the grief and fire of the Samhain rebellion, back through the sick confusion of her feverish journey to Rhyssmadill. Each vision came so fast she barely had time to cope with the tumult of emotion, yet she knew she was swiftly approaching the time of her torture. She struggled to break the trance, to leave the stairway, to fly back up to the present. It was no use. Inexorably she was led back to that time, the moment when her world was cracked apart and remade, marred and spoiled forever. She saw Baron Yutta’s smile as he bent over her and in a paroxysm of terror and shame, she plunged down, deeper into the abyss, free-falling.
The world spun around her, stars and night whirling past in dizzying spirals of white fire. She was falling so fast she could not breathe, her lungs squeezed in the grip of some cruel giant. Visions whirled with her as if seen from the corner of her eye, all blurred and distorted with tears. The shadow of a dragon crossing the moon. Meghan spinning wool and telling her stories.
Holding Meghan’s hand and watching a young boy with laughing dark eyes turn cartwheels faster than she could run. Then she saw herself, a newborn babe, lying in the embrace of a great tree’s roots, a dragoneye ring clutched in her hand.
Deeper she fell. A red confusion, filled with screaming and sobbing and the shadow of dragons’ wings. An unbearable pressure all around her. Then some sort of peace. Darkness. Floating. She curled in upon herself, resting, unsure where she was. The only sound was a great, distant booming, like the organ of the ocean deep. She rested there for a long time, grateful to be still, lulled by the boom of the ocean and the gentle rocking waves. Once again she felt herself dropping, though so slowly, so gently, it was almost imperceptible. She gave a little cry, reluctant to go.
White radiance. Light filling her ears and eyes like water. Falling faster, the world spinning. A sudden disconnection, a high echoing scream as she fell immeasurable distances. Then she saw other lives, other times, though distantly, as if gazing through a clouded glass, and all twisted together into a vast helix that stretched both ways into the great infinity, like finely spun thread.
The insight lasted only a moment. Isabeau drifted back down into her body and opened her eyes, wonderingly. It was dawn. She had two more nights to endure.
She bathed again, trying without success to wash away the sweat and terror of the night. She read her acolyte book once more, crying more often than she
smiled, and caressed the dragoneye ring with her thumb, trying to recapture her easy insouciance of the day before. She kept her mind resolutely turned away from the bread and cheese growing stale and hard in her satchel, and her warm, soft plaid, which she longed to wrap about her.
Night came and passed, and turned into day, and then again to night. Where Isabeau had been cold, she was now as hot as if she had a fever, and all her limbs trembled. Dawn broke again, birds shrieking. The day dragged itself along on its elbows. She was filled with self-loathing and self-pity, one moment weeping for all her mistakes, which she seemed condemned to repeat over and over again as if she were a spit-dog running in a wheel, the next moment filled with rage and resentment at everyone she knew and loved, for all the times they had failed to save her.
She dreamt of sticky, frantic, reckless love but dreaded to see the face of the man she desired so desperately, afraid it would be Lachlan, or the beautiful inhuman face of a Mesmerd kissing her to death, or worst of all, Baron Yutta, caressing her with one hand while he inflicted agonising pain with the other. So she thrust the vision away with all her strength, chanting to Eà and the Spinners as if the ancient, well-worn words had the power to banish all evil, all harm. There was no respite, though, for it was dreams of war and death and drowning that filled the void, and she had no strength left to cast the dreams away.
The last night passed in a sick blur. It seemed strangely short, as if the three days had telescoped upon
themselves. Once again she had strange dreams, of coiled snakes, whorled seashells and ammonites, the staircase twisting round and round, a black spinning whirlwind, ripples of water over her eyes, swirling into a maelstrom to suck her down, down, down … then she saw Meghan’s spinning wheel whirring round and round, and the flash, flash of light upon the blade of a giant pair of scissors that cut, cut, cut the thread, snip, snap, snip, snap, cutting the thread, severing life …
Isabeau came back to herself in the dawn of the third day, trembling with cold and fatigue, her eyes still sticky with tears. She would have liked to have stayed where she was, curled into the knotty embrace of the yew tree, until the last shreds of the nightmares were gone, but she stood and stretched, and splashed herself with cold water. She had gone through too much to lose everything now.
When the sorcerer and three sorceresses came solemnly through the oak grove, in the first spill of light, Isabeau was as ready as she could be.
A circle and pentagram had been scratched into the soil of the meadow, the weeds all cleared away so the shape was stark against the green riot. Five purple-blue candles, smelling sweetly of murkwoad, hawthorn, angelica and rose, stood tall at the five points of the star. A bonfire had been built at the centre of the circle and Isabeau sat, naked, at the southern point, her staff thrust into the soil behind her, the candle and a bowl of water before her.
Slowly the sorcerers entered the circle. The Keybearer, Meghan of the Beasts, came first, wearing
naught but her eight rings and the shining disc of the Key. Behind her limped Gwilym the Ugly, leaning heavily on his staff, then Arkening Dreamwalker, a very frail old woman with a vague, dreamy smile on her withered face. Last came Nellwyn the Sea-singer, the sorceress that had been rescued in Tìrsoilleir. Still gaunt after her years spent as a prisoner in the Black Tower, Nellwyn had a very long plait of ash-blonde hair and watchful green-grey eyes. Eight years as a prisoner had given her a tense, wary air, but over the past few months her unnatural alertness had begun to dissipate, revealing her as a woman of great strength and commonsense.
Isabeau closed the circle behind them, then sprinkled the deeply scored lines with water, ashes and salt, chanting: ‘I consecrate and conjure thee, o circle o’ magic, ring o’ power, symbol o’ perfection and constant renewal. Keep us safe from harm, keep us safe from evil, guard us against treachery, keep us safe in your eyes, Eà o’ the moons. I consecrate and conjure thee, o star o’ spirit, pentacle o’ power, symbol o’ fire and darkness, o’ light in the depths o’ space. Fill us with your dark fire, your fiery darkness, make o’ us your vessels, fill us with light.’
As Gwilym and the sorceresses bent their heads, making the sign of Eà’s blessing with their hands, Isabeau lit the candles and the bonfire with a thought. Sweet-smelling smoke began to climb into the sky.
‘I have drawn today a five-pointed star within the circle, for the five elements, the five senses, and the head and four limbs, the circle being the sixth sense and
Eà, mother and father o’ us all,’ Isabeau said a little nervously. ‘I have laid the fire with the seven sacred woods, and the candles are coloured blue for wisdom and the hidden powers, and purple for clear-seeing and far-seeing and the higher realms of consciousness. I have anointed myself and the candles with murkwoad, hawthorn, angelica and rose. May Eà keep us safe and protect us from evil.’
Meghan nodded, driving her staff, all carved with flowers and vines, into the earth at the northern point of the star. She eased her ancient body down to the ground, crossing her legs and allowing her mass of snowy white hair to veil her. The others sat too, their faces all stern and rather forbidding. Isabeau could not help wondering anxiously what she had forgotten.
‘Isabeau Shapechanger, ye come to the junction o’ earth, air, water and fire, do ye bring the spirit?’
‘May my heart be kind, my mind fierce, my spirit brave.’ Isabeau spoke the ritual words with a quaver in her voice. Indeed, she had thought she was ready for her Sorceress Test but all her confidence was shaken now.
‘Ye have sat your Ordeal?’
Isabeau nodded, unable to speak. She saw they regarded her closely and did her best to hide how disturbed and shaken she was. It was hard, for Isabeau had not eaten or slept in three days and she was sick and weak.
‘Isabeau, ye come to the pentagram and circle with a request. What is your request?’
‘To learn the secrets o’ the High Magic, to learn to
wield the One Power in wisdom and in strength, with cunning and with craft. To be worthy of my sorceress-ring. May my heart be kind enough, my mind fierce enough, my spirit brave enough.’
She made a circle with the three remaining fingers of her left hand and crossed it with one finger of her right. The other four witches mimicked her.
The Sorceress Test of Fire began. Isabeau should have found it easy. She had undertaken all these challenges many times before. She could summon fire and dismiss it, she could use fire as a tool, forging herself a silver chalice set with moonstones and opals, and engraving it with runes of power. She could scry through the embers, she could handle flame without pain, she could walk upon hot coals or juggle balls of flame, she could step into a roaring bonfire and stand as cool and composed as if standing in the rain. She could wield a sword of fire, she could write her name in stone with a thin, hissing, blue quill of flame.
Finally she could do what no other sorceress had ever been able to do. As the old cook Latifa had once told her, fire was the element of change and metamorphosis. It transformed living wood to ashes, it consumed air, evaporated water, charred the earth and all its fruits, turned coal to diamonds. It gave Isabeau the power to change shape. For this, her Sorceress Test, Isabeau had chosen to transform herself into
, a fire salamander, in mythology and witch-lore the elemental being of fire. In this guise she crept within her roaring bonfire and sat there, watching the witches with fire-glazed eyes.
Isabeau should have found the Sorceress Test of Fire easy. She had prepared herself carefully, had practised all her Skills and planned her Ordeal meticulously. Nothing, however, had prepared her for the harrowing of her spirit. She had not expected to sit her Sorceress Test trembling in every limb, sick with fear and envy and self-doubt. She had not expected the flames to turn in her hand and lash her with sparks, or for the inner spark within her to flicker and sink, as it had done after her torture and fever, so that for many long months she had worried she had lost her powers. Isabeau had to struggle all the long day to do as she had planned, in the face of her examiners’ unwavering silence and severity.
At last, though, it was over. Isabeau had at her knee her sorceress’s cauldron, the silver chalice in which to mix her potions, scry through water, and burn incense. She had demonstrated every known Skill of Fire, and displayed her rare and mysterious Talent, without doubt of sorceress level. She knew everyone there wished her well and desperately wanted a new sorceress to add to their meagre ranks. There was no doubt she would gain her sorceress-ring and be permitted to begin studying the High Magic. Isabeau had just not expected the cost to be so high.
‘It is always thus,’ Meghan said softly, drawing Isabeau’s head down into her lap so she could stroke the mass of fiery red ringlets that snapped and snarled down her back. ‘The Third Ordeal was a shock to all o’ us. Yet we canna warn ye or shield ye. Ye must just endure it as best ye can, and hope ye are no’ broken in the enduring.’
‘Many are,’ Nellwyn said, her rich contralto voice quavering with sympathy. ‘Ye are young indeed to sit your Sorceress Test. I must admit I was afraid …’
Isabeau’s shoulders were shaking. In the fiery refuge of her hair, she rubbed at her face furiously, angry with herself for her weakness, but unable to control her shuddering sobs.
‘Come, it is over. Ye have passed indeed. Let me put your dragoneye ring upon your finger. Wear it with pride, for indeed ye have earned it this day. It is the rewards most hardly won that mean the most, ye ken that, my Beau.’
Isabeau sat up, shook back her heavy hair, wiped her nose with her fingers. They all smiled at her mistily, and Meghan slid the glittering topaz-yellow jewel onto the middle finger of her left hand. It made the white pits of her scars more obvious than ever, and she clenched her hand shut.
‘Come, my bairn, breathe deeply o’ the good air, and goodwish the winds o’ the world, for without air we should die,’ Arkening said tremulously. Isabeau nodded, and took several great, sobbing breaths, feeling herself begin to calm.
‘Drink deeply o’ the good water, and goodwish the rivers and seas o’ the world, for without water we should die,’ Nellwyn said. Isabeau filled her silver chalice with water and lifted it to her lips, admiring the glow of the moonstones and opals about its brim. Excitement suddenly quickened in her veins.
‘Eat deeply o’ the good earth, my bairn, and goodwish the fruits and beasts o’ the world, for without
them we should die,’ Meghan said. Isabeau toasted her stale bread and cheese with the palm of her hand till they bubbled golden, and ate with enjoyment. She then made herself a restorative herbal tea and heated it with her finger, more to see the quick smile that flashed across Meghan’s face than because she did not have the patience to wait for the water in her cauldron to boil.
‘Come close to the good fire, warm yourself and bask in its light. Goodwish the fire o’ the world, for without warmth and light in the darkness we should die,’ Gwilym said. Solemnly Isabeau obeyed, making the sign of Eà’s blessing and bowing her head very low. Indeed, she was so heady with relief and gladness that it seemed her very veins ran with wildfire.