Authors: Kate Forsyth
Tags: #Epic, #Contemporary, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Witches, #Occult & Supernatural, #Fiction, #australian, #Fantasy Fiction
The Witches of Eileanan
A ROC BOOK
THE FIRST STRAND IS DRAWN
ISABEAU THE FOUNDLING
Isabeau swung her pack over her shoulder and strode down the track, her eyes roaming over the ground as she searched for the first unfurling of leaf and flower through the muddy snow. It was only a few days till Candlemas and the beginning of spring, and since it was the first fine day in months, Isabeau had spent all day digging and cutting, filling her herb bag with roots, leaves and early flowers.
Although the sun on her neck was warm, snow still glittered on the jagged peaks above her and lay piled in the shadows below the massive trees. It had been a bitter winter and Isabeau was glad to be out in the meadows again, breathing deeply of the sweet air and calling the creatures of the valley to her. Animals of all kinds were stirring as the sap flowed again in the stem, and they gamboled about her feet or twittered to her from the bushes, tempting her to lay down her spade and knife and play with them. She smiled and spoke to them in their own language, but did not stop, knowing she was tired and the light already fading. She must be home before nightfall. Although the hidden valley was almost impossible to find by chance, these mountains were dangerous, the valley's teeming life temptation to hungry hunters, whether human, beast or fairy.
The path led down through the trunks of ancient, towering trees. Through the entwined branches came glimpses of the rocky finger of Dragonclaw, rearing above the lesser mountains around it, its narrow tip dusted with snow. Isabeau paused at the crest of the hill, stretching her aching back and enjoying the spectacular view. The loch below her stretched toward the eastern rim of the valley bowl, coiled over the edge and fell hundreds of feet to the valleys below. Above the far distant hills, the two moons were rising. Magnysson bronze in the sunset sky, Gladrielle lavender. There was a faint tang of smoke to the air and Isabeau stepped forward eagerly, realizing her guardian must have returned while she was out in the meadows. Meghan had been away for several weeks now, and Isabeau had begun to wonder whether she would return in time for her sixteenth birthday, only two days away.
Reaching the base of one of the massive trees that stood around the loch, Isabeau tucked her spade more securely into her belt and began to climb swiftly and easily. Soon she was forty feet off the ground and reaching out for the gossamer ropes that hung between the branches, almost invisible in the twilight air. She swung out of the tree's branches and into the next, hands clinging to the ropes that formed a bridge from trunk to trunk. As always, she cursed her guardian's obsession with secrecy, which was what made the entry in and out of their home so difficult. "It does no' take long for paths to appear, Isabeau, ye ken that. We must leave no sign that anyone bides here, for that could be our undoing." If Isabeau left even a bent twig behind her, she was scolded thoroughly and made to scrub out the evil-smelling pot in which Meghan made her potions.
With a twist of her body she swung into the branches of the biggest tree in the forest, which grew on a small rocky outcrop above the loch. Its roots were protected by thorns, starred now with white buds. Clinging to one of its thick branches, Isabeau paused to look around her. It was almost dark, and the waters of the loch below were black. In the east, the moons were fully risen, and in their trail a red comet had appeared, pulsing with life and rising steadily across the sky. Isabeau stared at the Red Wanderer with mixed awe and anxiety, for the comet had appeared six days earlier and there had been no one to ask what it meant. She knew there were rites to be performed at the rising of the comet, but for the life of her she could not remember what they were. It could not be important, though, for if it had been Meghan would have told her what to do before she left. Meghan would never forget a date in the witches' calendar, no matter how rarely it occurred.
Balanced precariously some sixty feet off the ground, Isabeau found the secret catch with her fingers and swung open a door in the huge trunk. She threw her pack in before maneuvering her own long body through the narrow entrance.
"It's grand for Meghan," she muttered, as she had ever since she had grown to her full height, "but if I get any fatter, I will no' be able to squeeze through this bloody door anymore."
Isabeau was standing in a small, round room, its rough walls lined with uneven shelves fitted in wherever the knots of wood allowed. These shelves were filled with jars and bottles, while dried plants and the shriveled bodies of bats, chameleons and drakes hung from the low ceiling. The room was so small that Isabeau could touch both walls with her hands. In the center of the floor was a small hole with a ladder that lead to a lower story. Again Isabeau had to drop her pack through before squeezing through herself.
Each successive room was slightly larger than the one above and each had a hole in the floor with a ladder that lead to the next. By the fourth floor, the rooms were hung with tapestried curtains and their shelves lined with books and curious objects—a crystal ball on clawed feet, a yellow skull, a globe of the world, a piece of twisted driftwood. The fifth floor was Isabeau's bedroom, and most of the space was taken up by a narrow bunk hung with blue velvet curtains with golden tassels, another remnant of her guardian's mysterious past. The sixth floor was Meghan's bedroom; thick books were piled on all the shelves and on the floor, and a carved wooden chest stood against one curved wall. Isabeau wondered yet again how her frail guardian had ever managed to get the massive chest into the tree, not to mention all the other furniture.
As she bent to swing down into the lowest floor, where the kitchen and storerooms were, she heard a murmur of voices. Instantly she froze; then as silently as she knew how, lay flat on the floor so she could peer through the hatchway to see who was within.
The ground floor was much larger than the rooms above, since the tree had grown up against a natural outcrop of stone that held within a small cavern, concealed by the trunk and roots. Subsequently, living wood providing the northern walls, hand-smoothed rock the rest, with the fireplace built into a crack which provided a natural chimney. The roots of the tree provided a tangled ceiling, with every nook and cranny serving as a shelf or hidey-hole. Hidden ingeniously behind two of the shelved walls were the entrances to secret passages, one leading to a hidden cave by the loch, the other into the forest.
Craning to see beyond the hanging bunches of herbs and onions, Isabeau saw Meghan sitting in her curious high-backed chair in front of the fire. In her lap was a blue book, its pages filled with her thin, spidery writing and drawings, and in one hand she held a jewel that glittered with golden fire.
"So do ye recognize my mystery emblem? I am sure I have seen it before somewhere, but I canna find it in any o' the books I have here . .." Suddenly she stopped, and drew back her hand, tucking it under her plaid. "Come down, Isabeau. I've been expecting ye back for an hour or more. Did ye find any trefoil?"
Relieved to see it was only her guardian, Isabeau swung herself down lightly. "Aye, two lots," she responded.
"I hope ye did no' pull it out by the roots," the wood witch said irritably, as she closed the book and tucked it down the side of her chair. A diminutive woman, her iron-gray hair was bound into a long plait that hung over the edge of the chair, pooling onto the floor below. A white streak began at her left brow and could be seen twisting through her plait all the way to its end. Her familiar, a donbeag called Gitâ, perched on the low rafters above her head, nibbling daintily on a nut he held in his paws.
"O' course no'! Ye taught me better than that," Isabeau replied, dumping her pack on the handmade wooden table.
"Ye must be hungry. We were just having some tea— pour yourself a cup."
We? Isabeau jerked upright in surprise, and only then saw the other woman sitting in the chair on the other side of the fire, half obscured by the flickering shadows. It had not occurred to Isabeau that Meghan had been speaking to anyone but Gitâ, for in all the sixteen years that Isabeau had lived in this valley, no one had ever visited them before. The valley was far away from any town or village, and lay right below Dragonclaw, home of the dragons. No one trespassed lightly on land over which the shadows of dragons passed.
The woman was staring back at her and Isabeau felt uncomfortable under her intent gaze. She was pale-skinned with black hair and green eyes, and was wearing a brown dress with a wooly plaid wrapped over her shoulders and across her chest. Her hair was very long and very untidy. It flowed over her shoulder and hung toward the floor, tied here and there with leather thongs.
"So this is your wee lassie," the woman said. Her voice had a pronounced accent, drawn out and very thick. "What a scarecrow!"
Isabeau was immediately aware of her stained breeches, the twigs and leaves in her matted hair, the dirt under her fingernails. She scowled. "I've been out hunting herbs all day. It's hot and dirty work!"
"That it be," the woman said calmly. "Come here. I want to see ye."
Isabeau did not move, only glared at the stranger suspiciously. Meghan rose stiffly to her feet and lit the candles on the mantelpiece and table with her finger. Warm light flickered up, and after a moment Isabeau moved reluctantly closer.
"Come sit here, lassie," the woman said, and Isabeau kneeled on the floor by her feet, frowning a little but compelled by the serene authority in the strange woman's voice.
At first, because of the blackness of her hair and the smoothness of her face, Isabeau had thought the woman was young. Now she was not so sure. Although few lines marred the pale skin, there was an undeniable maturity in her gaze and under her eyes were dark circles. There was a sense of weariness about her, of long roads traveled and long years endured. It was hard to keep her gaze steady under those calm, searching eyes, but Isabeau stubbornly refused to look away.
"I am glad indeed to meet ye, Isabeau," the woman said at last. "My name is Seychella and I'm an auld friend o' your guardian's. I traveled long and hard to get here—it's been a tiring few months."
Isabeau wondered why the woman would make such a journey just to visit their hidden valley. Although beautiful, there was not much here except trees and rocks, and she would have had to find her way through the deep ravines and gorges that made the Sithiche Mountains so impenetrable. Isabeau realized that Meghan's unexpected absence the last few weeks must have been due to the expected arrival of Seychella. Meghan must have gone to meet the stranger-witch and guide her back through the labyrinth of caves that was the only entrance to the valley. So why was Seychella here? One did not undertake such a long and difficult journey to make a social call.
Isabeau's interest quickened, for her birthday was only a couple of days away. In the days when the Coven was a power in the land, acolytes were Tested on their sixteenth birthdays for acceptance into the Coven as apprentices. Most acolytes would have spent the previous eight years at the Theurgia being taught many of the basic principles of magic after undertaking the First Test of Power at the age of eight. Isabeau knew that acolytes won their first ring and the witch's ceremonial dagger after the Second Test of Power, to indicate their status as apprentice-witches. Eight years later, after passing the Third Test of Power, apprentices won their witch's staff as a full member of the Coven.
Many witches never gained more than their moonstone ring, but if they had power and ambition, they could go on and try for their rings of elements. If a witch passed the first, second and third Tests in any one element, they were counted a sorcerer or sorceress, and could wear the appropriate precious stone on their left hands. Of course, no one dared wear rings of any kind anymore. Still, Isabeau had often dreamed of winning her moonstone ring and becoming an apprentice. Could Meghan be meaning to Test Isabeau, even though the Coven was disbanded and witchcraft outlawed? lsabeau's heart began to race, for her burning ambition was to learn more of the art of magic.
Although she knew witchcraft was forbidden, and that anyone found practicing it was put to death or exiled, Isabeau was fascinated by the subject. She loved the feel of drawing on the One Power, the gradual heightening of all the senses, the feeling of power and grandeur that filled her. Why, their whole history was spun from magic threads, though this was a history no one would admit to now. And although Meghan would talk little about the uses and practices of the One Power, Isabeau had gradually been working through her guardian's hundreds of books. Most of them were fairy stories, vague prophecies and simple spells, that anyone could do, but in one, a very ancient magical book, Isabeau had read of witches who could command the weather, make themselves invisible, tell the future, and even fly.
"The tea," Meghan said, and Isabeau felt herself flush as she stumbled to the fire where the old clay teapot hung above the flames. It was not like her to lose her composure; she wondered at it, even as she poured the fragrant brew into the cups and got the honeycakes out of the tin on the mantelpiece.
"Made with honey from our own bees," Meghan said.
"And where have ye hidden the hives?" Seychella asked with amusement in her voice.
"Now that's a secret," Meghan smiled, drinking the tea and nodding at Isabeau, who was perched on a stool by the fire, her usual seat taken by the stranger. "Why no' have your bath, Isabeau? Ye're filthy!"