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Authors: Juliet Marillier

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BOOK: Twixt Firelight and Water
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‘Perhaps,’ Ciarán said in answer to my question. ‘If not tomorrow, then the next day. If not the next, then the one after. Are you in a hurry, Aisha?’


‘No,’ I said. ‘But I’m perplexed. One
as the
crow flies,
I think you told me. It seems you’ve chosen quite a circuitous path, Ciarán.’


He smiled. ‘The path is as long as the stories we tell,’ he said. ‘It is as long as it needs to be. Don’t concern yourself; we’ll reach our destination at the right time.’


I could think of no appropriate answer. It would be sheer folly to strike out on my own; I had no choice but to stay with him. The evening passed. We sat by the fire and told more tales, wondrous, grand, surprising and silly in their turn. I achieved a minor miracle by coaxing Fiacha down from his branch and onto my shoulder. I could feel his claws through my woollen tunic.


‘Come, then,’ I murmured, holding my lure — a piece of the cheese the bird so liked — between my fingers. ‘Come on, I’m not so bad.’ The raven sidled down my arm, step by cautious step. I thought he would snatch the prize and fly off, but I kept talking to him quietly, as I had seen my father do with wild creatures, and he stayed there long enough to eat the morsel from my fingers. I reached slowly across with my other hand; brushed the soft breast feathers. The bird fixed his bright gaze on me, and my heart went still with the strangeness of the moment. Then, in an eye-blink, he was gone back up to his perch.






‘Do I remember correctly, that you told me Fiacha was not always a raven? What did you mean by that?’


‘Ah.’ My companion settled himself more comfortably by the fire. ‘I imagine your father has told you many tales of Sevenwaters. You know what I am and can guess, perhaps, what my mother’s line has given me. I could tell you a story, a remarkable and sad one. You might find it easier to believe if I did not use words, but showed you instead.’


My skin prickled. ‘Showed me? In pictures?’ I could not imagine how this might be achieved by night, in the middle of the forest.


‘In a vision. If you are open to it, I can reveal the story to you in the water of this pool. Indeed, that would be entirely apt, since the tale begins between firelight and water.’


Fiacha ruffled his feathers, moving restlessly on his branch.


‘Why is he doing that?’ I asked, eyeing the bird. ‘Does he not want the tale told? Or is he merely complaining of hunger or a sore belly?’


‘He thinks he does not want the tale told,’ Ciarán said, apparently taking me quite seriously. ‘But there is no doubt that this is the time to tell it. I would guess you are afraid of very little, Aisha. There is no need to fear this. The challenge lies not in the tale itself, but in the choice it reveals.’


‘A choice for whom?’ I was intrigued. I had always prided myself on meeting whatever challenges came my way.


Ciarán did not answer my question, but moved to kneel by the pool, stretching out a long hand towards me. ‘Will you try it?’ he asked. Fiacha turned his back on us. He could hardly have made his disapproval more plain. ‘You’ll need to sit beside me, here, and keep hold of my hand. Fix your gaze on the water, and you will see what I see. It may take some time. Be patient.’


It did not take long at all. Images formed on the surface of the pool and in its depths, and while I held Ciáran’s hand I could see them quite clearly. I thought I could hear voices, too, though here in the glade all was quiet. Perhaps they spoke only in our minds. It was indeed a strange tale, and a sad one: a big brother and a little brother; a malevolent mother and a courageous father; true love turned to sorrow and loss; an ingeniously cruel curse. It was a tale that fitted neatly around the one I already knew of Sevenwaters, the story of the Lady Oonagh, who wed my grandfather and turned his sons into swans. Conri’s was a tale fit to bring a strong man to tears. When it was done, and the pond showed no more than a ripple or two, we sat for some time in complete silence. Glancing at the bird, trying to imagine what might be in his thoughts, I met a glare of challenge.
Don’t you dare feel sorry for me.
It came to me that I had been told this tale for a purpose.


‘A choice,’ I said flatly. ‘You’re offering me the choice to marry a raven.’


Ciarán stretched his arms and flexed his fingers; he had become cramped, sitting so still to hold the vision. ‘Offering, no. Setting it before you, yes. I thought it just possible you might consider it.’


‘No man would want a wife who wed him out of pity,’ I said.


The raven — Conri, if it was indeed he — gave a derisive cry. The sound echoed away into the darkness under the trees.


‘Is it pity you feel?’ Ciarán asked.


‘For the bird, no. He’s a wary, prickly sort of creature, and I wonder what kind of man he would be, if it were actually possible to reverse this —
, is that the word? — by going through with a marriage. Who would perform such a marriage, anyway? What priest could possibly countenance such a bizarre idea?’


‘The one you see before you,’ Ciarán said. ‘Performing the ritual of hand-fasting is one of a druid’s regular duties.’


I felt a chill all through me. He could do it; he could do it right now, tonight, and if the peculiar story proved to be true, I could free a man from a life-long hell set on him simply because he’d wanted to protect a child. And I’d be saddled with a husband I didn’t want, a man who’d likely prove to be just as irritable and unpleasant as the raven was. I wondered if I had in fact fallen asleep in the forest, and would wake soon with a crick in my neck and the nightmare memory fading fast.


‘What possible reason could I have for agreeing to do this?’ I asked, then remembered something. ‘Wait! Did you actually know I was coming? Did you guess who I was? He came to find me. Fiacha. He led me to you. Don’t tell me —’


‘Nothing so devious, Aisha. I did not know who you were until you mentioned your father. I had seen you in a vision, earlier, approaching this place. I sent Fiacha out to find you, thinking you might need help. Perhaps some other power has intervened to aid my brother here, for your arrival seems almost an act of the gods.’


I thought about this for a while. Reason said I must give a polite refusal. A small, mad part of me, a part I recognised all too well, urged me to be bold, to take a chance, to do what nobody else in the length and breadth of Erin would be prepared to do. That impulse had led me into some unusual situations in my time. I’d never once failed to extricate myself safely. I considered the story itself and the odd bond between these two half-brothers. ‘I have some questions,’ I said.


‘Ask them.’


‘First — is it safe to speak his name now? To acknowledge that I know who he is?’


‘Quite safe. That part of the
died with his beloved Lóch.’


‘Then tell me, how did you learn Conri’s story, and when? Was it like this, in a vision?’


‘Some of it was revealed to me in that way. But I knew already what had become of him. She told me. Our mother. There was a time when I went back to her. A dispute with my family drove me from Sevenwaters. There were aspects of our mother’s craft I wanted to learn. She welcomed me, little knowing the depth of my loathing. She gloated over what she had done to Conri; she thought herself ingenious. It was another reason to destroy her.’


‘She’s gone, then?’


His mouth went into a hard line. ‘She is no more.’


‘Ciarán ...’ I hesitated.




‘What she did to Conri — it was very long ago. Haven’t you tried to undo the
before? There must have been other unwed girls in the family over the years.’


He grimaced. ‘It seemed too much to ask. As you can see, he himself has mixed feelings on the matter.’


‘Can you ... can you communicate with Conri?’


‘You mean speaking mind to mind, without words? Alas, no. We have an understanding; it has developed over the years and has served us well enough. But I cannot ask him what he wants, Aisha. I can only use my own judgement. He needs to do this. And I want it done. He’s my brother, and I owe him. I cannot put it more simply than that.’


‘Then why now and not before? If it seemed too much to ask those other women, why is it all right to ask me?’


Ciarán regarded me with his dark mulberry eyes. ‘You seem ... formidable,’ he said quietly. ‘A woman travelling all alone with perfect confidence; a woman of wit and intelligence, balance and integrity. Strong; brave; whole. If anyone can do this, I believe you can.’


‘You don’t even know me.’


His lips curved. ‘You think not? We’ve exchanged many tales as we walked, Aisha. We’ve passed through the forest of Sevenwaters together. Besides, I am the son of a sorceress; I have abilities beyond the strictly human. I believe my assessment of you is accurate. If I did not, I would never have suggested this course of action. Would I trust my brother’s future to a woman who was doomed to fail?’


The situation was nothing short of ridiculous. I considered the possibility that Ciarán was actually completely mad, one of those wild men who are supposed to wander about the woods and commune with the trees, and that the next thing he might do was strangle me or have his way with me, or both.


‘Why do you smile?’ he asked.


‘I’m wondering what he’s like now,’ I said. ‘Conri. In the vision he was just a lad, barely become a man. He hadn’t even —’ I broke off as a new thought struck me. Conri had been transformed into a raven on his wedding day. If I did what Ciarán wanted, I’d be acquiring a husband who was not only elderly, but also inexperienced in the art of love. The prospect hadn’t much to recommend it. ‘There would be rather a large gap between our ages,’ I said. My mind quashed this objection instantly with an image of Father and Mercedes dancing together by lantern light. Tenderness. Passion. Complete understanding. A pang of some hitherto unknown emotion went through my heart. Longing? Yearning? That was crazy. My life was a good one, a complete one. I did not need this complication.


‘He was a goodlooking boy,’ Ciarán said. ‘He’s likely to be a well-made man. And he is the same kind as I am: my half-brother. I expect that in physical appearance Conri will seem no older than five and thirty.’


‘And he’ll come complete with an ill temper and a load of bitterness on his shoulders.’


‘It’s not as if there’s been no cause for that,’ said Ciarán mildly. ‘And once he is a man again, it may change. You could change it, Aisha.’


‘And if I can’t bear the fellow?’


‘A hand-fasting can be made for a finite period. A year and a day. Five summers. Whatever is deemed appropriate.’ After a moment, Ciarán added, ‘I must be quite honest with you. To be sure of meeting the requirements of a
one might need to make permanent vows.’


‘I need time. Time to think.’ By all the saints. Was I actually considering this? What had got into me?


‘Of course.’ Ciarán looked as if he’d be quite content to sit here by the fire all night if necessary. ‘You’ll be tired,’ he added. ‘Take all the time you need. He’s waited many years; a little longer can make no difference.’


A little longer. Or much, much longer. If I said no, Conri might be condemned to stay in bird form more or less indefinitely. The raven seemed bitter and warped. What would he be like in another twenty years? I began to realise what a patient man Ciarán was. A good brother. They both were.


‘You may prefer that we lead you straight to the keep in the morning,’ Ciarán said now. ‘I can introduce you to Sean and his family: his wife, two unwed daughters and a very small son. And Conor; I could take you to meet him.’


There was something he wasn’t saying.




‘It just occurred to me,’ Ciarán said with unusual hesitancy, ‘that if we performed the hand-fasting
you went to meet the family, your explanations would be much easier. You arrive with your husband, the two of you receive a delighted welcome. Conri is accepted as a member of the family without question. There would be no need to speak of his past or of his parentage. It seems you have travelled widely, Aisha, and met many folk from different lands. The fact that you were wed to a man of Erin would hardly provoke questions. Appearing as a single woman travelling alone, then suddenly acquiring a husband more or less from nowhere, surely would.’


‘Do these people know about Fiacha?’


‘They know him only as a raven.’


I stared into the fire, trying to imagine how it would be to walk into the keep of Sevenwaters as a married woman. I could not picture it. Instead, I saw young Conri facing his mother, holding his nerve against the onslaught of her cruelty. That boy with the lovely voice, losing himself. And the raven by Lóch’s side, watching her die.


What Ciarán had just suggested would be too much for Conri. It would be too soon. Once the transformation was done, he’d need time, space, quiet. I’d seen the way Father tended to abused animals, how he gentled them, waiting until they were ready to take the first steps forward. Gentle was not a word folk used when describing me. But I supposed I could learn.


‘If I agreed to this,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t take him straight to meet the family. It’s been a long time for him. We’d be best on our own awhile. He needs to mend. Until that’s begun, he should see only you and me, I think. I know how to fend for myself in the woods, Ciarán. All we’d need would be shelter and quiet, until he’s healed.’ Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the bird had turned around. He was looking at me.

BOOK: Twixt Firelight and Water
12.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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