Flame of Sevenwaters
Maeve, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters, was badly burned as a child and carries the legacy of that fire in her crippled hands. After ten years she’s returning home, a courageous, forthright woman. But while her body’s scars have healed, her spirit remains fragile, fearing the shadows of her past.
Sevenwaters is in turmoil. The fey prince Mac Dara is desperate to see his only son, married to Maeve’s sister, return to the Otherworld. To force Lord Sean’s hand, Mac Dara has caused a party of innocent travelers on the Sevenwaters border to vanish—only to allow their murdered bodies to be found one by one.
When Maeve finds a body in a remote part of the woods, she and her brother, Finbar, embark on a journey that could bring about the end of Mac Dara’s reign—or lead to a hideous death. If she is successful, Maeve may open the door to a future she has not dared to believe possible....
My aunt taught me to hold my head high, even when people stared. My uncle taught me to defend myself. Between them they made sure I learned courage. But I could not be brave about going home.
I was ten when the accident happened: young to be sent away from home and family. My parents must have believed Aunt Liadan could achieve the impossible. True, if any healer could have cured me, she was probably the one to do it. But my hands were beyond fixing. Although she never said so, I think my aunt expected to keep me at Harrowfield only until I had learned to live with my injuries. But days grew into seasons, and seasons into years, and whenever the suggestion was made that perhaps I might return to Erin, I found a reason for saying no.
At Harrowfield the household knew me as I was, not as I had been before. They had learned quickly that I hated fuss. People let me do what I could for myself. Nobody rushed to snatch things away when I was clumsy. Nobody treated me as if I had lost my wits along with the use of my fingers. They did not stare when I chose to walk about with the scar on my head uncovered. All the same, I did not need to travel far from the safe haven of my uncle’s estate to know that in the eyes of the outside world I was a freak.
Back home at Sevenwaters, the world changed without me. A little brother was born. My sisters married, had children, moved away. Family joys and tragedies unfolded. I would hear about them many moons later, in the occasional letters that reached us in Britain. I could not write back. I sent words of love, penned for me by the Harrowfield scribe.
If I could have slipped back into my childhood home without a ripple, I would have done it long ago. When I’d been under her care two years, Aunt Liadan had spoken to me frankly about my situation. My hands had healed as well as they ever would—there could be no further improvement. I’d always need someone to help me. I’d never hold a knife or spoon with my fingers. I’d never use a spinning wheel or a needle. I’d never be able to comb my own hair or fasten the back of my gown. Swaddling a baby, holding a child’s hand, those simple things would be forever beyond me. My aunt set it out with kindness and honesty. She did not insult me by couching the hard truth in gentle half–lies. In her embrace, I allowed myself to weep. When I was done, I dried my tears and vowed not to weep again. I was twelve years old.
The next morning I made two lists in my mind. Firstly, the things I might as well forget about. Marriage. Children. Plying a craft of some kind. Managing a household, whether that of a chieftain like my father or a more modest establishment. The list was long.
Next, the things that were possible in my future. I struggled with this, wishing I were a different kind of girl. It was a shame my sister Sibeal was the one with a spiritual vocation, for if ever there was a future suited to a person in my circumstances, it surely lay among the sisters of a Christian nunnery such as St Margaret’s, situated less than a morning’s walk from Harrowfield. I considered this for some time, liking the notion of a sanctuary where folk could not turn that special look on me, the look that mingled pity, horror and fascination. I saw that look on the faces of strangers passing on the road. I saw it in the eyes of visitors to my uncle’s hall, though they concealed it quickly when they learned who I was. And I did like quiet. But try as I might, I could not find much of a contemplative streak in myself, nor a wish to spend my days in prayer to a deity I was not quite sure I believed in. Besides, nuns worked hard. The sisters at St Margaret’s were up at dawn gardening or cooking or performing the hundred and one tasks that kept their establishment going. What use would I be with that?
I could read. We sisters had been fortunate to have parents who saw the value of such a skill for girls, and when I came to Harrowfield, Uncle Bran’s scribe continued my lessons. But I could not write—I would never perform a scribe’s duties myself. I could sing, but did not like to do so in public. I knew plenty about herbs and healing, since I spent a great deal of my time watching Aunt Liadan at work in her garden and stillroom, or observing as she patched up various injuries. But my knowledge was all theory, no practice. Where Liadan’s fingers were deft and strong, apt for chopping and grinding, for gentle laying on of poultices or decisive cutting away of diseased flesh, mine were the claws of a dead thing, stiff and immobile.
My lists had not been encouraging. It was hard to think of any life I might have in which I would not be a burden to someone. Father was chieftain of Sevenwaters, a leader with a broad domain to oversee and a number of powerful and volatile neighbours to deal with. Our family lands were located in a particularly strategic spot, right between the holdings of rival branches of the Uí Néill clan. My uncle and foster–father, Bran, was always prepared to discuss such matters with me. Since I could not exercise my hands in spinning, weaving and sewing, or in baking and brewing, I made sure I exercised my mind instead.
I had seen at the age of twelve that my presence back home would be of little value to my parents. Nothing had occurred since then to change my opinion. Mother would be managing the household perfectly, as she always had. A daughter who could contribute only advice, not practical help, would hardly be an asset. I could not be offered as wife to a chieftain Father wanted as an ally. Who would want me? I would not even be able to eat at the family table when visitors were present. I would be a hindrance, an embarrassment.
I had known this ever since I learned my hands would get no better. But, where my return home was concerned, it was more convenient excuse than valid reason. The fact was, I was afraid to go back. Deep down inside Courageous Maeve, the young woman convinced by her loving aunt and uncle that she was as strong as any warrior, there cowered another Maeve, a child of long ago. Ten years old, stumbling into the smoky darkness of the fire that had broken out in an annexe at Sevenwaters. Bounder was inside; I could hear him whining, frightened, wanting me. Half–blinded by the smoke, I tripped, reached out to steady myself, and laid my hands on an iron door bolt, hot from the fire. Everything went dark for a while. They told me, later, that my father had saved my life, risking the flames to find me and carry me out to the open air. When I came to, the flesh of my palms was burned to angry blisters. My face was marred. And my beloved dog was dead. Back in Erin, the ghosts of that night were waiting for me.
When I made my lists, I was a child. I hardly thought of the one skill I had that might shape the future for me. It came as naturally as breathing, and it was perhaps for that reason that I considered it nothing special. Years later, when the day finally came for me to face my fears, it was this skill that drew me home to Sevenwaters.
‘Maeve, may I speak with you?’
Uncle Bran had come to stand by me at the dry–stone wall surrounding the horse yard. In the yard, Emrys was training Swift to a halter. Stable master Garalt was on the opposite side, eyes watchful. Emrys ran; the yearling moved with him, a vision of power and grace, like clouds before an easterly breeze or summer waves on the shore. His pale coat shimmered in the light; his feet were a dancer’s. That we’d bred such a remarkable creature here at Harrowfield was a source of immense pride for Garalt and for every groom trusted to work with Swift. And for me. I was the one who had gentled Swift’s dam through a difficult foaling, and it was I who had been called in, time after time, to calm and settle this magnificent young creature as he grew toward maturity. For Swift had his mother’s temperament, all fire and pride, and that made him difficult to train. Sometimes it seemed to us that he would sooner die than submit to authority, however kindly that authority was imposed. Hence my presence today while Garalt and Emrys worked to convince Swift the halter was not an enemy to be fought off with all his considerable strength.
‘Of course,’ I said with a smile, wondering what made Bran sound so serious. My uncle and I were friends; we did not stand on ceremony.
He was not quick to enlighten me, but stood by me watching as Swift tested Emrys’s control, now seeming almost compliant, now fiercely resistant. There was a long way to go with him. Not that he’d ever be a riding horse; he’d be too valuable as a breeding stallion. But he must be trained to tolerate human touch, to submit to being haltered and led, to being rubbed down and checked for injuries, to having draughts administered, and all the other handling needed to keep him in robust health. Garalt and I had already discussed which mare Swift would be put to first, when he was mature enough, and what the chances were that he’d sire a foal that was his own equal.
‘I’m sending him away,’ Bran said. ‘First as far as Sevenwaters, then on to Tirconnell, at your father’s request. A gift for one of the Uí Néill chieftains. It will be partial restitution for an event that occurred on Sean’s territory last spring, something they’re calling the Disappearance. That,’ he indicated the horse with a movement of his head, ‘is the kind of gift that would placate the most difficult of men.’
I felt as if I had been dropped from a great height. For a while I had nothing to say. Bran’s dogs had come with him and were jostling around my skirts, nosing into my hands, seeking attention I did not have in me to give right now. I cleared my throat, wondering if what I felt was the onset of tears. ‘Have you told Garalt? ’ I managed.
‘Not yet. I will when he and Emrys are done here. This decision will upset a lot of folk, Maeve. I didn’t make it in haste. I received the message from your father some time ago. While I was considering it, further information came in through my own sources. This is necessary.’
‘When?’ I asked. Garalt’s seamed features were all concentration as he watched the stallion. I wasn’t sure I could bear to witness the moment when he was told his pride and joy was being packed off across the sea, so far we would likely never hear whether Swift had sired any foals at all, let alone a charmer with quicksilver in its steps.
‘Before the autumn gales set in.’ Bran turned his gaze from Swift to me. I thought he was about to express regret or sympathy, for both were in his steady grey eyes, but what he said was, ‘There’s something further I want to put to you.’
‘Oh?’ I could not imagine what was coming, unless he was about to ask me to break the bad news to Garalt for him.
‘The most even–tempered of horses hates the motion of a boat. I don’t need an expert to tell me what a risk it is to transport this particular creature over to Erin. Swift is going to need more than the attentions of a groom or two, even if they’re as capable as Emrys. Liadan tells me Garalt’s injured foot won’t heal in time for him to travel with the horse. Would you be prepared to go?’
My jaw dropped.
‘Only as far as Sevenwaters, of course. You’d take your maidservant with you. Your father can arrange for Swift to be safely conveyed on to Tirconnell.’
When I did not answer—I was still trying to put the pieces together in my mind—my uncle added, ‘It’s a great deal to ask, I know that. You have your reasons for not wanting to go back and I respect them. But this isn’t a request that you return to live with your parents. I’m asking you to do a highly skilled job; a job nobody else can do. It’s not so much for my sake as for your father’s. He’s in a difficult position, and this will help him. It’s for the horse’s sake, too. I know you’re attached to the creature. With you there, we can be reasonably sure Swift will survive the trip without doing himself serious damage.’
Emrys had brought the yearling to a halt. Garalt had limped over to speak to him and was standing beside Swift, one hand resting on the animal’s neck. Swift stood still for now, but he was trembling. They’d lead him into the stables for a rub–down, and then, I supposed, Bran would break the news. What if I told my uncle the truth: that the thought of going home awoke the frightened child inside me? What if I refused to do it? Then Garalt would not even have the reassurance that Swift would travel safely. He would be as quick as I was to imagine the possibilities if a highly strung creature, taken away from everything familiar, were to be loaded into a boat and sent off across an expanse of unpredictable ocean.
‘I have some questions,’ I told Bran. What sort of insult or injury required restitution beyond the means of a prominent Irish chieftain? What in the name of the gods was the Disappearance? ‘But you should tell Garalt now. I can’t pretend to him that nothing’s happened. Can we speak about this later?’
‘Of course. So you will consider it?’
Through the gathering clouds of misgiving in my mind, I recognised his courtesy in making this a request, not an order. Bran and Liadan were my foster parents; they had authority over me. Bran could simply have told me I was going home. Instead he had shown respect, and I honoured him for it even as I shrank from the task itself.
‘I’ll consider it, Uncle. You should tell Garalt that you’ve asked me to go with Swift; that will soften the blow.’ I drew a deep breath. ‘I’ll come with you when you tell him,’ I made myself say.
My foster father offered me his heavily tattooed arm and I hooked mine through it. ‘Thank you, Maeve,’ Bran said. ‘You have a gift for imparting fortitude, and not only to creatures. Come then, let’s do this.’
Of recent times there has been a marked increase in the activity of which we advised you some time ago: unexplained acts of violence against both people and property, instances of malevolent meddling, the circulation of strange rumours and tales. We have been plagued by events of this kind since before the time of Finbar’s misadventure; it is easy enough to guess their source. You understand, as I do, that there is a possible solution to this difficulty, involving the return of a certain family member. This would involve immense risk. It seems a monstrous thing to ask of anyone. I seek your honest advice on the matter.
There have been accusations from all sides regarding the events to which I refer, and many of those are directed at me and mine. In the past it has generally been possible to make peace with the offended folk, in some cases through restitution in goods or silver.
However, an event has occurred that dwarfs the previous occurrences. It is a deeply troubling development. The offended party is Cruinn of Tirconnell. If he were able to prove the fault was mine—the circumstances suggests that it was—this could become a matter for the High King. I am, therefore, now reassessing my approach in consultation with my druid uncles.
You may already have heard what occurred through other sources, but in summary it was this: a troop of Cruinn’s warriors, led by his two sons, was riding southward on the track that skirts the western margin of the Sevenwaters forest. We know they passed our north–western guard tower about two hours after dawn, and that there were sixteen of them, all well–armed. My sentries reported this, and it tallies with what Cruinn told me later. Their purpose was to visit a chieftain of the southern Uí Néill, whose daughter was betrothed to Cruinn’s elder son. My sentries commented that the riders seemed to be in high spirits.
What happened next, nobody knows. The sixteen men never arrived at their destination. They did not pass our south–western guard tower or Illann’s watch posts south of our border. They did not come home. Messengers were sent. A search was carried out. Once I was informed of their disappearance I set my own search in place, since outsiders do not easily find their way in the Sevenwaters forest. Nothing. No trace. It was as if those sixteen men had vanished into another world.
Long after, when all possibilities had been considered and discounted and Cruinn’s accusations were becoming personal, the lost men began to reappear. One was found squeezed into a hollow tree, his knees against his chest, arms curled over his head as if to shield him from attack. Stone dead. A man taking pigs out to forage discovered another on the ground beneath a bees’ nest, his body reddened and swollen by stings, his face smeared with honey. His body was still warm; he had lived for close to two moons from the day of the disappearance. The third man was discovered sprawled at the foot of a cliff with his neck broken. The clothes he had been wearing when he rode out were gone; instead, he was clad in strange garments made from feathers.
As time passed, twelve men were discovered within the Sevenwaters forest, each in a different place, each killed in a different way. None had been dead long. Someone was playing with us. Cruinn was beside himself with fury. This was happening on my land, under my watch. And his sons were still missing.
The last four have not yet been found. Perhaps our adversary has tired of his game. In any event, he has made his point. In doing so he has divided me most emphatically from those I had considered allies, both to the north and the south, for the chieftain whose daughter was to wed one of these men clamours against me as loudly as Cruinn does. What occurred has already become legend in these parts. Folk refer to it as the Disappearance.
Brother–in–law, I would welcome your counsel on this matter, and that of my sister. I will offer compensation to Cruinn, of course. Although this was not my doing, the bodies of these men were found on my land, and I must bear some responsibility. But what can compensate for the loss of a son? Of two sons? I understand Cruinn’s grief more closely than he can ever realise. I will provide gifts; a fine stallion, perhaps, though I doubt there is any animal in my stable that would match Cruinn’s standards—horses are his passion and he breeds the best in Tirconnell. That is one issue. The other is tackling the cause of this disaster, and that task is beyond you or me, I believe.
Let me know your opinions as soon as you can. Meanwhile, my regards to Liadan and to my daughter. I hope Maeve is thriving. We miss her.
Well, I missed them, too. But not so much that I wanted to go home.
‘Does Father mean Mac Dara is responsible for what happened?’ I asked. The letter lay on the table before me; the candle cast its flickering light across my father’s strong black script. He had chosen not to have a scribe write this for him. I could understand his reasons for that. ‘Has Cathal’s father continued to stir up trouble ever since he failed to get his son back?’
‘That’s what Sean means,’ Aunt Liadan said, ‘though he won’t say so directly in writing. He’s implying that Cathal could return to Sevenwaters and attempt to confront his father. That would be perilous. Mac Dara is a creature of the Otherworld, powerful and without scruples. If Cathal put himself in his father’s path he’d be risking everything. When Mac Dara abducted your little brother and used him as bait to lure Cathal back under his influence, he cared nothing for who might be hurt along the way. And now Cathal and Clodagh have the children . . . It’s surely too high a risk, even at this extreme.’ My aunt’s neat features were grave, her lovely green eyes full of disquiet.
‘Sean must take some action,’ Bran said. ‘If he allows this to continue he will lose all his allies. The whole of the north could be plunged into conflict once more. Sevenwaters has long been a stable domain amid the Uí Néill disputes, and its chieftain a peacemaker, despite the natural misgivings of other leaders concerning the Sevenwaters forest. Folk sense it is a haven for the uncanny, even if they have no proof of it. They know the tales of your family’s past. But even in the most confronting of those, the Fair Folk have not taken this sort of malicious action toward humankind. Mac Dara’s on a quest. A quest to bring his heir back to his own realm, if necessary by waging a campaign of fear throughout the entire region until Cathal feels obliged to return and challenge him. Sean’s right; this must be stopped.’
‘Wouldn’t my father disapprove of your sending me home at this particular time?’
Bran opened his mouth to reply, but Liadan answered for him. ‘He would be concerned for your safety, as indeed are we. I expect Sean is relieved that your sisters have left Sevenwaters now, since anyone in the family could be the target of Mac Dara’s malice.’
‘Would Mac Dara attempt another abduction?’ Bran asked.
‘Perhaps what happened with little Finbar taught him how powerful the bonds of love can be as a means to manipulate humankind,’ said Liadan. ‘In the end that attempt failed, of course, but it did draw Cathal into the Otherworld for some time.’ She and Bran exchanged a glance. If there were anything to make me regret the married life I would never have, it was the little looks and touches and soft words between these two. Master and mistress of a grand estate they might be, but in private they often reminded me of a pair of young lovers, constantly surprised and delighted by each other.
‘We don’t underestimate the danger you’ll be facing if you choose to undertake this journey, Maeve,’ Bran said. ‘It is real enough. But there are dangers everywhere in the world, even here at Harrowfield.’
‘And there are opportunities everywhere,’ put in my aunt. ‘This would certainly be challenging for you, and not only because of Mac Dara. The decision is entirely yours. But if you plan to face this particular difficulty at some point, now seems a good time to do so. Swift must travel; you’re the only one who can keep him safe on the journey.’
I cleared my throat. ‘Once I reach Sevenwaters they will expect me to stay there,’ I said. ‘Mother and Father. When they sent me here, it wasn’t meant to be forever.’
Bran regarded me levelly. ‘True, Maeve. And once you reach home, it will be Sean and Aisling who make the decisions about your future.’
‘But don’t forget,’ Liadan said, ‘that your father has seen several of his daughters follow paths of their own choosing. It’s fortunate that Deirdre made such a strategic marriage; she made up for the rest of you girls.’ Her smile was wry. ‘We would send a letter with you, letting your parents know that you were welcome to return to us and make your permanent home here, if that was what you preferred. Whether Sean chose to overrule your wishes would be up to him, of course. But, Maeve,’ my aunt’s tone softened, ‘I am sure he and your mother really miss you. Aisling must be quite lonely with all your sisters gone, even Eilis. She would be happy to have you back home.’
Briefly, I imagined myself as the unwed daughter of Sevenwaters, growing gradually older and sourer as I played the role of companion to my ageing parents, while remaining incapable of setting a hand to any useful work around the house. I did not much care for that picture. Who’s that? a visitor to the house would ask, seeing my drooping figure on the stairs. Her? That’s the fourth daughter, the one who never married. A cripple; terribly burned. Can’t do a thing for herself. I wondered whether Father would let me help in the stables.
‘I can’t refuse to go,’ I said, feeling a sensation like a cold stone in my belly. ‘It’s enough of a blow for Garalt that Swift’s being sent away.’
There was a little silence. I watched the candlelight playing across the curiously patterned features of my uncle and the vivid, watchful ones of my aunt.
‘But I know that’s not a good enough reason to say yes,’ I said, talking more to myself than to them. ‘I will tell you the truth. This scares me more than anything has done since . . . since those days after I was hurt, before I came to Harrowfield. The moment I step inside the borders of Sevenwaters it will all come back, not just for me, but for everyone who knew me then. And I hate that. I hate pity. I hate people being sorry for me. I hate them saying what happened wasn’t fair and calling me “that poor girl”. This is the life I’ve got; there’s no changing it. I’d rather just get on with it. Going home feels like going backwards.’ And when neither of them said a word, I added, ‘It sounds selfish, I suppose. They are my parents. I imagine they do miss me. And I would like to meet little Finbar.’
Liadan smiled. ‘Not so little any more. He’ll be seven years old by now. Close to the same age Sibeal was when you last saw her. And now she’s married and living far away in the south. It is a long time, my dear.’
‘Ask yourself,’ said Bran quietly, ‘which is the braver choice.’
There were no excuses left. I drew in a deep breath and let it out again. ‘I know what I have to do, Uncle Bran. And I will do it. After tonight, I’ll set my feet forward and hold my head high the way I always do. You’ve taught me well. You’ve been good examples to me, the two of you. I can’t imagine you ever being afraid of anything.’
Bran gave a crooked smile. ‘Everyone is afraid of something. Know your fears and you’re a step further away from letting them rule you. But you’re right, on the field of battle a brave face will help you stand strong. If you put on the semblance of courage, courage itself is easier to find.’
It was fortunate that my maid and helper spoke fluent Irish—it would make the journey easier for her. Rhian’s mother had been an Ulster girl. When Rhian’s father, a crewman on a trading vessel, had chosen to leave the sea and work the land, the family had settled in his home region of Cumbria, in the village that lay close to Harrowfield. This would be Rhian’s first visit to her mother’s homeland. She was somewhat nervous about the voyage, as the daughter of a seafaring man might well be after years of witnessing her mother’s anxiety. Concerning Sevenwaters itself she had no fears, only endless questions.
‘What are druids like?’ she asked me as she spread out a gown for folding. It was hard to know how much to pack, since I had no idea how long I would be staying at Sevenwaters. A turning of the moon—just long enough, I judged, not to seem an insult to my parents—or the rest of my life? ‘Didn’t you say some of your kinsmen belong to that brotherhood?’ Rhian went on. ‘Do they have magical powers?’
‘Not that blue gown, Rhian. I don’t suppose I’ll be attending any grand banquets or suchlike. Keep it to plain, practical clothes. One good outfit for company, a reasonable supply of shifts and stockings, a couple of comfortable skirts and tunics for outdoors—that should be all I’ll need. I dare say my sisters will have left a few things behind that I can borrow if I must. We don’t want to be weighed down with bags.’ She would be the one carrying them, and she was a tiny little thing.
‘Isn’t one of your sisters a druid?’ she asked, not waiting for a reply to her earlier questions. In private, with just the two of us, she did not use ‘my lady’ but called me by my name. Rhian was my hands, and had been since soon after I first came to Harrowfield. Brows had been raised at the time, I was later told. There was I, ten years old and severely injured, and the maid Aunt Liadan chose for me was less than a year my senior, a little girl herself. My aunt had been wise. Rhian and I had finished our growing up together. My handmaid had helped me in more ways than anyone understood. She was closer to me than the sisters I had not seen for so long. They felt like characters in a story, and never more so than when Rhian asked me about them.
‘Sibeal, yes. We all thought she was destined for a spiritual life, and she has one, but not at Sevenwaters. She lives in the south now, and she’s married, which was a big surprise. The druids there are of a different kind. They work hard out in the community, teaching and healing. They don’t sound much like the druids of Sevenwaters, whom I remember as quite solemn and mysterious. You may meet my father’s uncles when we get there. Uncle Conor’s very old now. He is chief druid. I don’t know much about Uncle Ciarán. We saw far less of him. They live in the forest. They come out to perform the seasonal rituals, as well as handfastings and burial rites.’
‘It sounds very different,’ Rhian said, rolling up a pair of stockings.
It was; quite how much so, I could not adequately convey to her. While my father’s household might on first acquaintance seem like that of any regional chieftain, the forest around it was no ordinary forest, and many parts of the family story were hard for outsiders to come to terms with. Some of it Rhian already knew, for the two of us were in the habit of telling tales before we went to sleep. But I had no way of conveying to her how vastly different Sevenwaters was from the nominally Christian household of Harrowfield. It was different even from the rest of Erin. In my homeland the old faith was dwindling, with few chieftains sanctioning the open practice of its rites.
‘In some ways, druids are like Christian monks or nuns,’ I said, wondering how much of the Sevenwaters I remembered from my childhood was still there. It might all be changed now. The family would certainly be different, with my sisters away and only young Finbar left. ‘But their church is out of doors, under the trees. The rituals mark the turning points of the year. I remember . . .’ I fell silent, an image in my mind of my cousin Fainne with a lighted torch, helping Uncle Conor rekindle the hearth fires. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said.
Rhian gave me a swift glance but held her silence. She could read me better than anyone.
‘Druids are remarkable storytellers,’ I said, banishing the fire image. ‘Sibeal always had a talent for that, even as a small child, and she seemed to know what people were thinking without being told. There are skilled healers among them. Generally they’re quiet and wise and perhaps a bit remote. Uncle Conor is rather different. He used to visit us quite often, to advise Father.’
There was a silence, then Rhian said, ‘Maeve?’
‘Mother has tales about the Fair Folk, but she makes them sound like something from ancient times, not quite real. When you talk about the Fair Folk and those other strange beings, it sounds as if they’re right out there in the forest, only a short walk from your parents’ home.’
I had not told her what I knew about the Disappearance. Now did not seem a good time for that. ‘I’ve never seen any of the Fair Folk,’ I said. ‘But Sibeal used to see them when she was little. And you know the story about my baby brother being abducted. Cathal, who married my sister Clodagh, is the son of a fey prince. Clodagh and Cathal have both been to the Otherworld. You remember what I told you about their rescuing Finbar and taking the little twig and leaf baby back to its mother.’
‘So that really is true, all of it?’ Rhian’s hands had stilled halfway through folding a kerchief.
‘Did you think I was making it up?’
A blush suffused her cheeks. ‘I thought you might be adding parts to it to make a better story.’
‘There was no need to add anything; it’s a startling enough tale as it is. As for how much is true, I believe it all is, but I can’t be sure, since it happened after I left Sevenwaters and I heard it second–hand. My family has many stories of that kind. You asked about magic. We could encounter it, I suppose, but it’s far more likely that we won’t. A lot of the time Sevenwaters is an ordinary household like this one. There may be uncanny folk out in the forest, but people still do all the ordinary things: raising stock and growing crops, cooking and washing and tending to children.’ I couldn’t tell her about Father’s letter and Mac Dara and the Disappearance. She might refuse to come then, and how would I manage without her?
As soon as this thought occurred to me, I felt how selfish it was. Rhian should not have to come with me if she didn’t want to. She wasn’t just my maid, she was my friend. I owed her the truth.
‘The Fair Folk aren’t always benign,’ I said. ‘One or two of them are dangerous—like Mac Dara, the one who stole my brother. They say he’s still there, in the Otherworld part of Sevenwaters. And . . . well, it seems as if he’s still making mischief.’ Mischief was a most inadequate word for the apparent slaughter of twelve innocent men, some of them in the cruellest fashion. ‘Stirring up trouble for my father, because Mac Dara failed to lure Cathal back to the Otherworld. Some men were killed; not my father’s, but the sons of another chieftain and their party of men–at–arms.’ Rhian was listening with such fascination that she had completely forgotten the packing. She knelt stock–still watching me. ‘That was only a few moons ago, Rhian. I thought I should tell you, in case you decide you don’t want to come with me.’
‘Not come?’ The rapt expression was replaced by one of horror. ‘Not go to Sevenwaters? Of course I want to come!’ After a moment she added, ‘Besides, how would you manage without me?’
I grimaced. ‘Some day you’ll want to marry and have a family of your own. I can’t expect to have you with me forever. It’s not much of a life for you, being my shadow day and night.’
Rhian grinned. ‘If the fellows around here are the best I get to meet, I might be still unwed when the two of us are old women,’ she said. ‘Now, should I pack another pair of shoes?’
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