Authors: Kate Forsyth
Together the witches all chanted, ‘Feel the blood pumping through your veins, feel the forces o’ life animate ye. Give thanks to Eà, mother and father o’ us all, for the eternal spark, and goodwish the forces o’ spirit which guide and teach us, and give us life.’
Isabeau looked down at her golden sorceress-ring and said, with heartfelt gratitude, ‘I thank ye, Eà, for shining your bright face upon me this day.’
Suddenly an elf-owl hooted sleepily from the branches of the oak tree.
Now-hooh can we-hooh snooze-hooh?
‘Aye, thank Eà!’ Isabeau laughed. ‘I’ll
for a week, I think.’
I sabeau gazed expectantly out the window of the carriage as they wound their way deeper into the swamplands of Arran. Contrary to her expectations, the marshes were not bleak and grey and eerie. Swamp-lilies bloomed in gaudy clusters of scarlet and gold and pink, bulrushes thrust their blood-red velvety swords into a clear blue sky, and pale yellow drifts of flowering sedge waved in a gentle breeze. Huge trees raised strong green branches into the sky, their feet soaking in water. Insects chirruped everywhere, and the sound of bird-song filled the air.
Beside her the two-year-old twins, Owein and
Olwynne, squirmed and wriggled, one minute squabbling over a toy, the next trying to climb on to Isabeau’s lap so they too could see out of the window. Both had dark brown eyes and bronze-red curls, and already their fair skin was liberally splattered with freckles. Like his elder brother, Donncan, Owein had inherited his father’s wings, though his feathers were not black like Lachlan’s but as red-bright as his hair. Since Owein was likely to launch off into the air at any given moment, Isabeau tended to keep a tight hold on the back of his overalls.
Donncan and their cousin Bronwen hung together out of the other window, talking excitedly, pointing as they saw the strange marvels of the swamps—a bogfaery peering shyly through the rushes, a giant frog sunning itself on a log, a pair of bulbous eyes floating in a stretch of swamp. All four children had the striking white lock at their brow that showed they had bonded with the Lodestar.
Isabeau glanced over at Meghan, who sat with her hands folded on her lap, her eyes shut. As she was wont to do of late, Meghan had dropped off into a light doze, despite the noise of the excited children. The Keybearer looked very old and very tired, her face falling into deep wrinkles about the mouth and eyes and brow, her eyelids as crinkled as crepe paper. The braid that hung down to pool upon the floor was as white as snow, and the veins on her thin, age-spotted hands stood up very blue and knotted. Isabeau felt a little constriction of her heart. It worried her to see the Keybearer looking so frail. Meghan had been such a
force in her life it was impossible to imagine an existence without her, yet Isabeau knew the day was fast approaching when she would have to manage alone. This journey to Arran had reminded her forcibly of the bargain Meghan had made with the Mesmerdean, the strange, enigmatic faeries of the marshes.
Isabeau did not need to hang out the window like the children did to know that twenty-one Mesmerdean elders flew behind their carriage in a uncanny guard of honour. The marsh-faeries had risen up out of the swamp-grasses the moment Meghan’s carriage had crossed the border into Arran, their shining translucent wings held proudly erect, their glittering clusters of eyes fixed upon Meghan’s thin form. Meghan had returned their gaze as enigmatically, her dark lined face revealing nothing. After that she had ignored them.
For Isabeau, just the dank swampy smell of the Mesmerdean was enough to make her feel sick and dizzy. She had fought the marsh-faeries before and knew them to be a formidable enemy. The whirring of their wings, the unswerving stare of their green metallic eyes, the well-remembered shape of their claws, were all enough to keep her on edge. She wondered at Meghan’s calmness, when the old sorceress knew the Mesmerdean only waited for the day when they could take her in their arms and kiss her life away.
The carriage jolted to a stop. Donncan opened the door and flew out, Bronwen close on his heels, both shouting with excitement. Isabeau helped the twins down and then gently shook the old sorceress awake.
‘Wake up, we’re here, Meghan,’ she said.
No snooze-hooh any more-hooh,
Buba hooted sleepily, her feathers rather ruffled.
The Keybearer came awake with a little start and a snort. ‘What? What was that?’
‘Time to wake up, Meghan, we’re here.’
‘Nonsense, I was no’ asleep. What, are we here already?’ Meghan straightened her plaid irritably and hauled herself to her feet, gripping her flower-carved staff tightly. Her familiar, the little donbeag Gitâ, grumbled a little and crept into her pocket to resume his nap. Isabeau repressed a smile and helped the old sorceress out of the carriage.
They had drawn up in front of a series of wooden wharves which jutted out into a wide, tranquil loch. Men and bogfaeries were busy everywhere, loading and unloading boats and wagons with sacks and crates and huge ceramic jars, all marked with the sign of a flowering thistle. Water-oaks dipped and nodded at their reflections in the water, their leaves fresh and green, while crimson-winged swans glided about on the water, some followed by a family of fluffy pink cygnets.
In the centre of the loch was a long, low-lying island. Built upon it was a great palace that soared up into the sky in a cluster of tall, twisted towers, all painted in soft colours like the first flush of dawn. Smoky-white, pale pink, apple-green and cloud-blue, the towers were ornately decorated with intricate carvings around the arched windows and balconies.
‘Legend has it that Fóghnan raised
Tùr de Ceò
out o’ the mists with a spell, but the truth is, the Tower of
Mists took a century o’ hard labour by the faeries o’ the swamp,’ Gwilym the Ugly said, his voice harsher than ever.
Isabeau smiled at him. ‘Glad to be home?’
He snorted. ‘Glad to be back in this dank-smelling mud-hole? By my beard and the Centaur’s, I’ll be gladder when I can shake its stinking mud off my stump and feel solid ground beneath me again.’
‘Liar,’ Isabeau said.
He smiled back at her reluctantly. ‘Och, well, I canna deny I miss the marshes when I’m away from them. Eà kens why, it’s a miserable land, fit only for frogs and swamp-rats.’
‘I was surprised by how bonny the marshes were,’ Isabeau replied. ‘I thought it would be all grey and drear.’
‘Och, the swamp has put on her feasting clothes in honour o’ your visit,’ Gwilym answered with a low bow. As always it was difficult to tell if he was being serious or sarcastic, but Isabeau thanked him nonetheless. She had spent much time studying the secrets of the High Magic with the one-legged sorcerer since undertaking her Sorceress Test and had grown to like him very much, sharing with him a rather mordant humour and a liking for the ridiculous, and admiring his quick intelligence and wit.
The Sorceress Test had been a shock to Isabeau, breaking down some walls within her, walls that had perhaps also been props. Certainly Isabeau had since become aware of an acute heightening of sensitivity along with the heightening of her powers. An unexpected
glimpse of beauty, the sight of Bronwen’s eyelashes resting on her sleep-flushed cheek, a strain of exquisite music, the heady scent of summer roses, all filled her with a joy akin to pain. It was as if she had been peeled like an onion, layers of hard skin torn away to reveal a pure white core. She was terribly aware of the fragility of being. It was as if she could see the shadow of death pressing up close to the brightness of life, sharply underlining every moment. She felt as if her whole body was brimming over with tenderness and gladness yet, paradoxically, she was filled with fear and sorrow and a new uncertainty. This confusion of emotion often troubled her, and only the hot rush of pride and gladness she felt every time she saw the dragoneye ring on the middle finger of her left hand persuaded her that it had all been worthwhile.
Brun the cluricaun, sensing her vulnerability, had kept close to her side, bringing her little clusters of flowers or a handful of eggs, polishing her boots and playing strange little tunes on his flute for her. His concern touched her greatly, and she accepted his little gifts and services with real gratitude. He stood beside her now, his furry ears pricked forward with eager curiosity, his necklace of found objects chiming gently.
Suddenly he whimpered, laying his ears right back, his long tail twisting about anxiously. Isabeau looked up at once. A swarm of Mesmerdean nymphs had risen silently out of the marsh and now hovered all round the clearing, their bulging multifaceted eyes fixed upon Meghan. She did not seem to notice, but Gitâ was wrapped tightly around her throat, his paw on her ear.
Gwilym indicated the silver-winged faeries with a subtle gesture of the hand.
‘They are like ravens hovering about a corpse, but their prey is no’ yet dead,’ he said with a shudder. ‘Havers, I hate Mesmerdean!’
‘When I saw they no longer followed Meghan everywhere she went, I had hoped they had forgotten,’ Isabeau said.
‘Mesmerdean never forget,’ Gwilym said sombrely.
Isabeau’s throat muscles tightened and she had to breathe in deeply and calmly through her nose before the constriction passed. ‘So there is no chance?’
He looked at her sardonically. ‘No’ while a Mesmerd lives.’
‘Will they wait?’ Isabeau laid her hand on his arm and felt his muscles clench.
‘To the very hour o’ the agreement and no’ a second longer,’ he answered, his dark ugly face very grim. ‘Strange as it may seem, the Mesmerdean are an honourable race, more honourable than most men. They are immovable, however. Nothing that could cause a man to change his mind, love or gold or power, would change a Mesmerd’s.’
Isabeau stared at the swarm of nymphs, fascinated. Unlike the dry, shrivelled-up faces of the elders, the nymphs possessed an unearthly beauty that somehow made them seem even more sinister. For long moments they hovered, motionless, wings whirring, then suddenly darted sideways, causing her heart to jolt and her breath to quicken. All round them a miasma seemed to hang like the effluvium of a freshly dug grave.
It brought back many terrifying memories and she shuddered and stepped a little closer to Gwilym.
‘Will they remember that
have killed Mesmerdean?’
‘Mesmerdean never forget,’ he repeated, looking down at her with an unreadable expression on his face.
‘Never forget,’ Brun echoed. ‘Never forget, never forgive, forever and for-never, never ever forgive.’
She bit her lip, frowning, unable to take her eyes off the hovering marsh-faeries with their strange, beautiful faces, their huge glittering eyes and gauzy wings.
Gwilym gave a harsh laugh. ‘Never fear, Beau,’ he said. ‘I have killed many more than ye. Meghan has taken all o’ our sins upon herself. Mesmerdean do no’ forget and do no’ forgive, but they shall no’ exact vengeance upon us all as long as Meghan fulfils her pledge and gives herself to them. As long as Meghan dies in their arms we shall be safe.’
Isabeau said a little huskily, ‘I hate to think that she must go to them, they are such horrible ghoulish creatures. I wish—’
‘If wishes were pots and pans, we’d have no need for tinkers,’ Meghan said gruffly, so that Isabeau jumped and gave a little cry of surprise. She could think of nothing to say, but Meghan required no words, just patted her on the arm and said, ‘Come, it is our turn to cross the loch. Ugly, will ye ride with us?’
‘It would be my honour,’ Gwilym replied and handed Meghan down into the long pinnace, which had been carved into the shape of a swan with proudly raised head and folded wings. Isabeau jumped down beside her, then
reached up her arms to the twins. Owein almost fell into the water in his eagerness to jump off the wharf and only Isabeau’s quick reflexes saved him. She hugged him close, not wanting to scold him when she knew how much he must miss his mother.
‘Snuggle up close, my bairns, else we’ll no’ all fit,’ she said and cuddled Bronwen and Olwynne close under her arms as the one-legged sorcerer clambered stiffly down beside them, almost overbalancing when his wooden stump slipped on the damp wood. Isabeau had to restrain herself from offering him her hand, knowing how much Gwilym hated to be reminded of his disability. Brun the cluricaun jumped in last, causing the boat to rock wildly.
The pinnace glided across the still waters of the Murkmyre with no need for anyone to raise the sail or lift an oar. Isabeau let her hand trail in the water, admiring the beautiful reflection of the palace in the loch. The swan-boat’s white breast cut through the reflection, swirling it into a shimmer of pearly colours. Then the pinnace bumped up against a wide marble platform where Iain and Elfrida were waiting, Neil jumping about eagerly by their side.
‘Welcome to my h-h-home, Isabeau,’ Iain said with a smile, reaching his hand down to her. She took it and let him pull her up, staring wide-eyed at the immense palace soaring above them.
‘It’s huge,’ she cried.
Buba said, her head tilted right back, her golden eyes round with amazement.
Iain smiled ruefully. ‘Aye, and m-m-m-most o’ it lies
empty. Once we have won peace, we shall have to see what we c-c-can do to fill it wi’ life again. Ye ken our libraries here are the b-b-best in all the land? Happen ye should come and stay with us and study here for a while.’
‘I’d like that,’ Isabeau replied rather shyly.
Iain helped Meghan and the twins out. Bronwen scrambled out to join Donncan, who had flown out as soon as the pinnace had touched land and was now scrapping good-humouredly with Neil.
‘Come and I’ll show ye my rooms, Bronwen,’ Neil said. ‘I have the best rocking horse ye’ve ever seen.’
‘I bet it’s no’ as big as mine,’ Donncan immediately cried, bristling up.
‘That’s enough, laddies!’ Isabeau said. ‘Donncan, ye are Cuckoo’s guest here, please mind your manners.’
‘But that’s no’ fair!’ Donncan cried. ‘When Cuckoo was at Lucescere, ye said I had to mind my manners because he was
guest. When do I get to
mind my manners?’
‘Never,’ Lachlan said, giving Isabeau a rueful smile as he came out of the palace. ‘Ye are a MacCuinn, Donncan, and heir to the throne. Ye can never forget your manners.’
‘It doesna seem fair,’ Donncan said sulkily, following Neil as he proudly showed Bronwen up the steps and into the palace.
‘We must do something about finding the bairns a new nursemaid,’ Lachlan said apologetically to Isabeau.
‘Ye seem to be doing naught else but minding them for me.’
‘Och, that be no trouble,’ Isabeau replied, rather disconcerted. ‘I fain do it, and besides—’