Child of the prophecy, p.1
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       Child of the Prophecy, p.1

           Juliet Marillier
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Child of the Prophecy


  To old friends

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Epilogue

  Chapter One

  Every summer they came. By earth and sky, by sun and stone I counted the days. I’d climb up to the circle and sit there quiet with my back to the warmth of the rock I called Sentinel, and see the rabbits come out in the fading light to nibble at what sparse pickings might be found on the barren hillside. The sun sank in the west, a ball of orange fire diving beyond the hills into the unseen depths of the ocean. Its dying light caught the shapes of the dolmens and stretched their strange shadows out across the stony ground before me. I’d been here every summer since first I saw the travelers come, and I’d learned to read the signs. Each day the setting sun threw the dark pointed shapes a little further across the hilltop to the north. When the biggest shadow came right to my toes, here where I sat in the very center of the circle, it was time. Tomorrow I could go and watch by the track, for they’d be here.

  There was a pattern to it. There were patterns to everything, if you knew how to look. My father taught me that. The real skill lay in staying outside them, in not letting yourself be caught up in them. It was a mistake to think you belonged. Such as we were could never belong. That, too, I learned from him.

  I’d wait there by the track, behind a juniper bush, still as a child made of stone. There’d be a sound of hooves, and the creak of wheels turning. Then I’d see one or two of the lads on ponies, riding up ahead, keeping an eye out for any trouble. By the time they came up the hill and passed by me where I hid, they’d relaxed their guard and were joking and laughing, for they were close to camp and a summer of good fishing and relative ease, a time for mending things and making things. The season they spent here at the bay was the closest they ever came to settling down.

  Then there’d be a cart or two, the old men and women sitting up on top, the smaller children perched on the load or running alongside. Danny Walker would be driving one pair of horses, his wife Peg the other. The rest of the folk would walk behind, their scarves and shawls and neckerchiefs bright splashes of color in the dun and gray of the landscape, for it was barren enough up here, even in the warmth of early summer. I’d watch and wait unseen, never stirring. And last, there was the string of ponies, and the younger lads leading them or riding alongside. That was the best moment of the summer: the first glimpse I got of Darragh, sitting small and proud on his sturdy gray. He’d be pale after the winter up north, and frowning as he watched his charges, always alert lest one of them should make a bolt for freedom. They’d a mind to go their own way, these hill ponies, until they were properly broken. This string would be trained over the warmer season, and sold when the traveling folk went north again.

  Not by so much as a twitch of a finger or a blink of an eyelid would I let on I was there. But Darragh would know. His brown eyes would look sideways, twinkling, and he’d flash a grin that nobody saw, nobody but me where I hid by the track. Then the travelers would pass on and be gone down to the cove and their summer encampment, and I’d be away home, scuttling across the hill and down over the neck of land to the Honeycomb, which was where we lived, my father and I.

  Father didn’t much like me to go out. But he did not lay down any restrictions. It was more effective, he said, for me to set my own rules. The craft was a hard taskmaster. I would discover soon enough that it left no time for friends, no time for play, no time for swimming or fishing or jumping off the rocks as the other children did. There was much to learn. And when Father was too busy to teach me, I must spend my time practicing my skills. The only rules were the unspoken ones. Besides, I couldn’t wander far, not with my foot the way it was.

  I understood that for our kind the craft was all that really mattered. But Darragh made his way into my life uninvited, and once he was there he became my summer companion and my best friend; my only friend, to tell the truth. I was frightened of the other children and could hardly imagine joining in their boisterous games. They in their turn avoided me. Maybe it was fear, and maybe it was something else. I knew I was cleverer than they were. I knew I could do what I liked to them, if I chose to. And yet, when I looked at my reflection in the water, and thought of the boys and girls I’d seen running along the sand shouting to one another, and fishing from the rocks, and mending nets alongside their fathers and mothers, I wished with all my heart that I was one of them, and not myself. I wished I was one of the traveler girls, with a red scarf and a shawl with a long fringe to it, so I could perch up high on the cart and ride away in autumn time to the far distant lands of the north.

  We had a place, a secret place, halfway down the hill behind big boulders and looking out to the southwest. Below us the steep, rocky promontory of the Honeycomb jutted into the sea. Inside it was a complex network of caves and chambers and concealed ways, a suitable home for a man such as my father. Behind us the slope stretched up and up to the flattened top of the hill, where the stone circle stood, and then down again to the cart track. Beyond that was the land of Kerry, and farther still were places whose names I did not know. But Darragh knew, and Darragh told me as he stacked driftwood neatly for a fire, and hunted for flint and tinder while I got out a little jar of dried herbs for tea. He told me of lakes and forests, of wild crags and gentle misty valleys. He described how the Norsemen, whose raids on our coast were so feared, had settled here and there and married Irish women, and bred children who were neither one thing nor the other. With a gleam of excitement in his brown eyes, he spoke of the great horse fair up north. He got so caught up in this, his thin hands gesturing, his voice bright with enthusiasm, that he forgot he was supposed to be lighting the little fire. So I did it myself, pointing at the sticks with my first finger, summoning the flame. The driftwood burst instantly alight, and our small pan of water began to heat. Darragh fell silent.

  “Go on,” I said. “Did the old man buy the pony or not?”

  But Darragh was frowning at me, his dark brows drawn together in disapproval. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said.

  “What?”

  “Light the fire like that. Using sorcerer’s tricks. Not when you don’t need to. What’s wrong with flint and tinder? I would have done it.”

  “Why bother? My way’s quicker.” I was casting a handful of the dry leaves into the pot to brew. The smell of the herbs arose freshly in the cool air of the hillside.

  “You shouldn’t do it. Not when there’s no need.” He was unable to explain any further, but his flood of words had dried up abruptly, and we brewed our tea and sat there drinking it together in silence as the seabirds wheeled and screamed overhead.

  The summers were full of such days. When he wasn’t needed to work with the horses or help around the camp, Darragh would come to find me, and we explored the rocky hillsides, the clifftop paths, the hidden bays and secret caves together. He taught me to fish with a single line and a steady hand. I taught him how to read what day it was from the way the shadows moved up on the hilltop. When it rained, as it had a way of doing even in summer, we’d sit together in the shelter of a little cave, down at the bottom of the land bridge that joined the Honeycomb to the shore, a place that was almost underground but not quite, for the daylight filtered through from above and washed the tiny patch of fine sand to a delicate shade of gray
-blue. In this place I always felt safe. In this place sky and earth and sea met and touched and parted again, and the sound of the wavelets lapping the subterranean beach was like a sigh, at once greeting and farewell. Darragh never told me if he liked my secret cave or not. He’d simply come down with me, and sit by me, and when the rain was over, he’d slip away with never a word.

  There was a wild grass that grew on the hillside there, a strong, supple plant with a silky sheen to its pale green stems. We called it rat-tails, though it probably had some other name. Peg and her daughters were expert basketweavers, and made use of this grass for their finer and prettier efforts, the sort that might be sold to a lady for gathering flowers maybe, rather than used for carrying vegetables or a heavy load of firewood. Darragh, too, could weave, his long fingers fast and nimble. One summer we were up by the standing stones, late in the afternoon, sitting with our backs to the Sentinel and looking out over the bay and the far promontory, and beyond to the western sea. Clouds were gathering, and the air had a touch of chill to it. Today I could not read the shadows, but I knew it was drawing close to summer’s end, and another parting. I was sad, and cross with myself for being sad, and I was trying not to think about another winter of hard work and cold, lonely days. I stared at the stony ground and thought about the year, and how it turned around like a serpent biting its own tail; how it rolled on like a relentless wheel. The good times would come again, and after them the bad times.

  Darragh had a fistful of rat-tails, and he was twisting them deftly and whistling under his breath. Darragh was never sad. He’d no time for it; for him, life was an adventure, with always a new door to open. Besides, he could go away if he wanted to. He didn’t have lessons to learn and skills to perfect, as I did.

  I glared at the pebbles on the ground. Round and round, that was my existence, endlessly repeating, a cycle from which there was no escape. Round and round. Fixed and unchangeable. I watched the pebbles as they shuddered and rolled; as they moved obediently on the ground before me.

  “Fainne?” Darragh was frowning at me, and at the shifting stones on the earth in front of me.

  “What?” My concentration was broken. The stones stopped moving. Now they lay in a perfect circle.

  “Here,” he said. “Hold out your hand.”

  I did as he bid me, puzzled, and he slipped a little ring of woven rat-tails on my finger, so cunningly made that it seemed without any joint or fastening.

  “What’s this for?” I asked him, turning the silky, springy circle of grass around and around. He was looking away over the bay again, watching the small curraghs come in from fishing.

  “So you don’t forget me,” he said, offhand.

  “Don’t be silly,” I said. “Why would I forget you?”

  “You might,” said Darragh, turning back toward me. He gestured toward the neat circle of tiny stones. “You might get caught up in other things.”

  I was hurt. “I wouldn’t. I never would.”

  Darragh gave a sigh and shrugged his shoulders. “You’re only little. You don’t know. Winter’s a long time, Fainne. And—and you need keeping an eye on.”

  “I do not!” I retorted instantly, jumping up from where I sat. Who did he think he was, talking as if he was my big brother? “I can look after myself quite well, thank you. And now I’m going home.”

  “I’ll walk with you.”

  “You don’t have to.”

  “I’ll walk with you. Better still, I’ll race you. Just as far as the junipers down there. Come on.”

  I stood stolid, scowling at him.

  “I’ll give you a head start,” coaxed Darragh. “I’ll count to ten.”

  I made no move.

  “Twenty, then. Go on, off you go.” He smiled, a broad, irresistible smile.

  I ran, if you could call my awkward, limping gait a run. With my skirt caught up in one hand I made reasonable speed, though the steep pebbly surface required some caution. I was only halfway to the junipers when I heard his soft, quick footsteps right behind me. No race could have been less equal, and both of us knew it. He could have covered the ground in a quarter of the time it took me. But somehow, the way it worked out, the two of us reached the bushes at exactly the same moment.

  “All right, sorcerer’s daughter,” said Darragh, grinning. “Now we walk and catch our breath. It’ll be a better day tomorrow.”

  How old was I then? Six, maybe, and he a year or two older? I had the little ring on my finger the day the traveling folk packed up and moved out again; the day I had to wave goodbye and start waiting. It was all right for him. He had places to go and things to do, and he was eager to get on his pony and be off. Still, he made time to say farewell, up on the hillside above the camp, for he knew I would not come near where the folk gathered to load their carts and make ready for the journey. I was numb with shyness, quite unable to bear the stares of the boys and girls or to form an answer to Peg’s shrewd, kindly questions. My father was down there, a tall, cloaked figure talking to Danny Walker, giving him messages to deliver, commissions to fulfill. Around them, the folk left a wide, empty circle.

  “Well, then,” said Darragh.

  “Well, then,” I echoed, trying for the same tone of nonchalance and failing miserably.

  “Goodbye, Curly,” he said, reaching out to tug gently at a lock of my long hair, which was the same deep russet as my father’s. “I’ll see you next summer. Keep out of trouble, now, until I come back.” Every time he went away he said this; always just the same. As for me, I had no words at all.

  The days grew shorter and the dark time of the year began. With Darragh gone there was no real reason to linger out of doors, and so I applied myself to my work and tried not to notice how cold it was inside the Honeycomb, colder, almost, than the chill of an autumn wind up on the hilltop. It was an aching feeling that lodged deep in your bones and lingered there like a burden. I never complained. Father had shown me how to deal with it and he expected me to do so. It was not that a sorcerer did not feel the heat of the fire or the bite of the north wind. A sorcerer was, after all, a man and not some Otherworld creature. What you had to do was teach your body to cope with it, so that discomfort did not make you slow or inefficient. It had to do with breathing, mostly. More I cannot say. My father was once a druid. He said he had put all that behind him when he left the brotherhood. But a man does not so easily discard all those years of training and discipline. I understood that much of what I learned was secret, to be shared only with others of our kind. One did not lay it bare before the ignorant, or those whose minds were closed. Even now there are some matters of which I cannot and will not tell.

  There were many chambers in the Honeycomb. We lit lamps year round, and in my father’s great workroom many candles burned, for there he stored his scrolls and books, grotesque and wondrous objects in jars, and little sacks of pungent-smelling powders. There was a dried basilisk, and a cup made from a twisted, curling horn, its base set with red stones. There was a tiny skull like a leprechaun’s, with empty eyes. There was a thick grimoire whose leather cover was darkened with age and long handling. In this room my father spent days and nights in solitude, perfecting his craft, learning, always learning.

  I knew how to read in more than one tongue and to write in more than one script. I could recite many, many tales and even more incantations. But I learned soon enough that the greatest magic is not set down in any book, nor mapped on any scroll for man to decipher. The most powerful spells are not created by tricks of the hand, or by mixing potions and philtres, or by chanting ancient words. I learned why it was that when my father was working hardest, all he seemed to be doing was standing very still in the center of an empty space, with his mulberry eyes fixed on nothing. For the deepest magic is that of the mind, and you will not find its lore recorded on parchment or vellum, or scratched on bark or stone. Not anywhere. Father owed his first learning to the wise ones: the druids of the forest. He had developed it through dedication and study. But our
talent for the craft of sorcery was in our blood. Father was the son of a great enchantress, and from her he had acquired certain skills which he used sparingly, since they were both potent and perilous. One must take care, he said, not to venture too far and touch on dark matters best left sleeping. I could not remember my grandmother very well. I thought I recalled an elegant creature in a blue gown, who had peered into my eyes and given me a headache. I thought perhaps she had asked questions which I had answered angrily, not liking her intrusion into our ordered domain. But that had been long ago, when I was a little child. Father spoke of her seldom, save to say that our blood was tainted by the line she came from, a line of sorcerers who did not understand that some boundaries should never be crossed. And yet, said Father, she was powerful, subtle and clever, and she was my grandmother; part of her was in both of us, and we should not forget that. It ensured we would never live our lives as ordinary folk, with friends and family and honest work. It gave us exceptional talents, and it set our steps toward a destiny of darkness.

  I was eight years old. It was Meán Geimhridh, and the north wind beat the stunted trees prostrate. It threw the waves crashing against the cliff face, forcing icy spray deep inside the tunnelled passages of the Honeycomb. The pebbly shore was strewn with tangles of weed and fractured shells. The fishermen hauled their curraghs up out of harm’s way, and folk went hungry.

  “Concentrate, Fainne,” said my father, as my frozen fingers fumbled and slipped. “Use your mind, not your hands.”

  I set my jaw, screwed up my eyes and started again. A trick, that was all this was. It should be easy. Stretch out your arms, look at the shining ball of glass where it stood on the shelf by the far wall, with the candles’ glow reflected in its deceptive surface. Bridge the gap with your mind; think the distance, think the leap. Keep still. Let the ball do the work. Will the ball into your hands. Will the ball to you. Come. Come here. Come to me, fragile and delicate, round and lovely, come to my hands. It was cold, my fingers ached, it was so cold. I could hear the waves smashing outside. I could hear the glass ball smashing on the stone floor. My arms fell to my sides.

 

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