Read Twixt Firelight and Water Online

Authors: Juliet Marillier

Twixt Firelight and Water (6 page)

BOOK: Twixt Firelight and Water
12.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


I expected no reply and I got none, save for the mocking
of a raven as it flew to alight on a branch nearby. The creature turned its head to one side, assessing me. Was I imagining things, or did it have a particularly inimical expression in its eye? As I looked up, it flew a short distance away, then alighted and peered at me again.


‘Would I trust a bird with eyes like those to show me the way?’ I muttered. ‘Not for an instant. But as I’m headed in that direction anyway, by all means tag along.’


The light was fading fast. The thick canopy and the filtered sun had made me misjudge the time of day. With hardly a clearing to be found and the broad, leaf-strewn paths of this morning completely absent, the wise choice would be to make camp the next time I came upon some rocks that might provide shelter, and accept the fact that I would not reach the keep today.


There were, of course, no rocks. I was starting to believe Father’s stories now, and wishing I had asked him for better directions. As for the wretched raven, I didn’t like the look of it at all. It seemed altogether too knowing for a wild creature, and it wouldn’t go away.


‘Rocks,’ I said, slithering down a muddy incline bordered by stinging nettles. ‘An outcrop, perhaps a cave, that’s what I want.’ I eyed the bird with distaste, wondering if ravens made good eating. I suspected this one’s flesh would be as tough and bitter as the look in its eye. I slid to a halt, digging my walking staff into the ground. ‘Or then again ...’


We had emerged at the edge of a small, circular glade. It was a patch of light in the dark forest, and in its centre the stream flowed into a neat pool circled by flat stones. A campfire burned on the stones, and by it sat a man, cross-legged. His back was as straight as a child’s, his hair a striking dark auburn, his eyes a peculiar shade of mulberry. He looked around my own age, and was clad in a long grey robe. As I stood at the edge of the clearing, waiting for him to speak, the raven winged its way over and landed on his shoulder. I winced, imagining those claws digging in.


The red haired man rose gracefully to his feet. His garb seemed that of a religious brother of some kind, though I saw neither cross nor tonsure. All he wore around his neck was a white stone strung on a cord.


‘Please, warm yourself at our campfire,’ he said courteously. ‘We see few travellers here. Have you lost your way?’


I moved forward, feeling not only his gaze but that of the bird. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Lost my way? Not exactly.’ I studied the pair more closely, wondering if there was anything uncanny about them. I wasn’t sure how one could tell. There was a neatly strapped bundle over near the trees and a blanket spread out, as well as cooking gear and some other items — corked jars, a little book, a bundle of rowan twigs, a sheaf of herbs. I saw no weapons. ‘I’m heading for the keep of Sevenwaters. It can’t be far from here.’


‘Less than a mile as the crow flies,’ the man said. ‘But dusk is close. I’d advise you to wait until morning, then we can walk on with you and show you the way. You’re welcome to camp here, if you wish.’


Not a word about who I was or the nature of my business. I liked that. On the other hand, it showed a remarkable lack of caution. What was to stop me from sticking a knife in the fellow’s back and making off with all his worldly goods?


The raven gave a
which I interpreted as:
Don’t flatter yourself, we can overpower you with our eyes shut,
or something to that effect. I shot the bird a look of dislike. ‘Unusual pet,’ I commented, putting down my pack and lowering myself to sit beside it.


The red-haired man almost smiled. ‘Fiacha is an old friend,’ he said. ‘Far more than an ordinary raven, as you can perhaps see for yourself. My name is Ciarán.’


That startled me. I scrutinised his features anew, seeking signs of my father. This was a handsome man, strong-jawed, the planes of his face well-defined, the eyes deep and watchful. Ciarán. There was a Ciarán in the tales of family, a half-brother born of a sorceress, who had been spirited away from home and had not returned until after my father was gone. The sorceress had been one of those others, the ancient races I was not quite sure I believed in. If this was the same Ciarán, his mother had come close to destroying my father’s family. But no, this could not be the man; he was far too young.


‘I’m a druid,’ he said. ‘The nemetons where my kind live and work are not far from here. Fiacha and I are spending a few days alone in quiet meditation. A respite from my teaching duties. I am responsible for the novices.’


‘Then I’ve interrupted your time alone.’


‘As to that,’ Ciarán said, organising a cook pot, water, beans, herbs with a deftness obviously born of long practice, ‘my visions have been troubling. I want no more today. I would welcome your company, if you wish to remain with us.’


I asked no questions until the supper was cooked and we were eating it by the fire. Night was falling in the forest around us; birds sang their last farewells to the fading light. The raven, Fiacha, sat hunched on a tree stump nearby, his unnerving gaze following every mouthful from bowl to fingers to lips. If he was hungry, why didn’t he fly off and catch something?


‘Do you know the Sevenwaters family well?’ This seemed a safe way to broach the subject.


Ciarán glanced up from his meal. ‘I do.’


‘You mentioned that you are a druid. Can you tell me if there is a man called Conor among your number? He would be old, over sixty by now.’


A silence. Then he said, ‘Why do you ask?’


There seemed no particular reason to hold back, so I came right out with it. ‘My father’s name is Padriac. He’s Conor’s youngest brother. I would be interested to meet Conor, and perhaps the current chieftain and his family. That’s if I get to the keep. Father told me family can find their way in this forest, but I can’t say it’s been easy.’


‘You are Padriac’s daughter?’ A smile of delight and wonderment transformed Ciáran’s sombre features. ‘Then you will most certainly find your way. In any case, Fiacha and I can guide you to the keep, as I said earlier. No hurry. For now, let’s enjoy our meal and the quiet of this place, and perhaps exchange a tale or two. I did not know your father. He left Sevenwaters when I was an infant. But Conor is still here. My brother is chief druid, in excellent health despite his years, and much respected. He will most certainly want to meet you.’


My mind was working hard.
My brother.
‘Forgive me,’ I said, ‘but does this mean you are indeed the same Ciarán who was born to the chieftain of Sevenwaters and a ... a ...’ I seldom found myself short of words, but this was delicate.


‘I am that Ciarán. My father was Colum of Sevenwaters. My mother was one of the Fair Folk.’ He spoke plainly, as if this knowledge were in no way extraordinary.


It went some way to explaining why he looked so young. Father’s tales had taught me the Tuatha de Danann were a long-lived race and kept their youthful looks into old age. Observing the calm expression on Ciáran’s face, the relaxed, graceful hands as he passed me a chunk of bread, a wedge of cheese, I considered the likelihood that along with her longevity he had inherited his mother’s facility for magic. A druid. Were druids something akin to mages?


‘You spoke of visions,’ I said. ‘What kind of visions?’


‘It is part of our discipline to practise the use of still water — a scrying bowl, or a pool — for this purpose,’ Ciarán said. ‘We may see past or present; we may see a possible future. We may be shown what might have been. Or nothing at all. Some folk have a latent ability. Several in the family have a strong natural gift. We do not always use water. Images may be present in the smoke from a fire, or we may see them after fasting, a vigil, a time of bodily denial. Unspoken truths may visit us in sleep.’


I shivered. He sounded so matter-of-fact. I watched him as he passed a slice of cheese to Fiacha, who snatched it from the outstretched fingers and swallowed it in a gulp. ‘How long has the bird been with you?’ I asked.


‘Long. Fiacha has seen me through many trials. Folk think him ill-tempered. He has his reasons for that. Time after time he has aided me in the cause of good. He has worked with me to battle the forces of darkness. And indeed, to quell the darkness within. Our mother ... never mind that. Let us exchange a tale or two. May I know your name?’


‘Aisha. It is a name from my mother’s country. He brought her here once, he said, when his sister was dying. But they didn’t stay. Father was changed by what happened to him when he was young. He wanted to live his own life, far from this place.’


Ciarán nodded gravely. ‘I, too, went away,’ he said. ‘I made a choice to return. I have my brethren. I have the family, though I do not dwell among them. I have Fiacha. I have my memories and my visions.’


He was a man of such controlled demeanour, it was only the slightest break in the mellow tone, the very smallest change in the eyes that hinted at suffering, regret, a depth of sorrow I had no hope of understanding. As Ciarán spoke, Fiacha flew across to perch on his shoulder again, almost as if offering comfort.


‘Clearly your father wed and had at least one daughter,’ Ciarán said, entirely calm again. ‘Is he in good health?’


I grinned. ‘Robust health. Thrice married, and a father of many children, the newest a babe not long out of swaddling. Beloved in his home village; owner of a significant trading fleet that is mostly managed by my half-brother these days. My stepmother is a woman of four and twenty. She loves Father dearly. He made a good life for himself.’


‘And taught his children to speak Irish like natives.’


‘He said the stories wouldn’t sound right in Galician.’


We sat in silence for a while. I felt suddenly edgy. I had plenty more questions to ask, but it seemed to me there was something unspoken, something weighty that the druid knew, and the bird knew, and I didn’t. I held my tongue. Ciarán had been perfectly courteous and open, and there was no reason at all to suspect him.


‘What of you, Aisha?’ he asked. ‘Have you a family of your own, a husband, children?’


The sound conveyed a desire for the conversation to take some other turn, or to cease so we could all sleep.


‘It’s uncanny,’ I murmured. ‘That bird speaks a language I can almost understand. No, I have neither. I’ve never felt the need or the wish for a husband, and as for children, the kind of life I lead hardly has room for them.’ As I spoke, I thought of Mercedes and her many sisters, cousins and aunts. At all times of day and night there tended to be a bevy of women in our house. If I had produced a child or two, there would have been no shortage of doting substitute mothers. ‘I don’t really want them,’ I said, making myself be honest and thinking, not for the first time, that darkness and a campfire encourage all manner of confidences between strangers.


Ciarán nodded. ‘A child is the most precious gift of all,’ he said quietly. ‘But you cannot understand that until you have one of your own.’


This idea was familiar from the little talks I got from Mercedes and her kinswomen, lectures that had become increasingly frequent as I approached the age at which I might as well give up thoughts of motherhood. I had not expected it from Ciarán. Nor had I expected him to say it the way he did. ‘But you’re a druid,’ I blurted out.


‘I was not always a druid. Nor was Fiacha here always a raven.’


This was getting beyond the acceptable borders of oddity. ‘What did you say?’


‘That is a tale for another day,’ Ciarán said. ‘Let us have something else instead. Has your father told you the saga of the clurichaun wars?’


He was an expert storyteller. While I had heard the clurichaun tale before, Ciarán had his own version, droll and witty, and I was soon captivated. I told a tale in my turn, about a princess and a drowned settlement. He told another, and all too soon it was time to settle by the campfire for the night. I fell asleep still smiling. The raven roosted above us, a deeper patch of shadow.


The next day we struck camp and walked on, and as we walked we told more stories: the voyage of Bran, Cruachan’s cave, the dream of Aengus. The prince who kept his dead wives in a closet; the spurned lady left to starve in a tower, her ghost thereafter scratching at the window every night and keeping the household in terror. Fiacha punctuated our tales with his hoarse cries. Time was not softening his evident disapproval of his master’s new travelling companion.


Dusk fell on the second day, and we still had not reached Sevenwaters.


‘I thought this was only one day’s walk,’ I said as Ciarán stopped in a comfortable camping spot. A rock wall sheltered a patch of level ground, and there was a pool among stones, much like the one by which we’d camped the previous night. ‘I’m sure that’s what my father said.’


‘Sometimes it takes a little longer.’ Ciarán was calm. Out came the cook pot, the bunch of herbs, the flint and tinder. ‘Could you gather some dry wood while we still have light?’


I busied myself collecting fallen branches and piling them nearby. I watched him building a fire, and after a while I asked, ‘Will we reach Sevenwaters tomorrow, do you think?’ He seemed a good man, but I could not help being a little suspicious. If he had told the truth about his identity, he was half fey. What if he was guiding me, not to the home of Father’s kinsfolk, but down one of those tracks spoken of in the tales, leading to the Otherworld? There were stories of people getting trapped in that uncanny realm for a hundred years. I might relish adventures, but the prospect of such a journey was a little too much even for me.

BOOK: Twixt Firelight and Water
12.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Flying Fur by Zenina Masters
Aftershock by Sylvia Day
Trust (Blind Vows #1) by J. M. Witt
Promise Me Always by Kari March
How Forever Feels by Laura Drewry
Noche by Carmine Carbone
Next To You by Sandra Antonelli
Aspen by Skye Knizley