National bestselling author of Heir to Sevenwaters
Anluan has been crippled since childhood, part of a curse that has besieged his family. And only the young scribe Caitrin can unravel the web of sorcery woven by his ancestors before it claims his life-and their love...
At a place where two tracks met, the carter brought his horse to a sudden halt.
"This is where you get down," he said.
Dusk was falling, and mist was closing in over a landscape curiously devoid of features. Apart from low clumps of grass, all I could see nearby was an ancient marker stone whose inscription was obscured by a coat of creeping mosses. Every part of me ached with weariness. "This is not even a settlement!" I protested. "It's—it's nowhere!"
"This is as far west as your money takes you," the man said flatly. "Wasn't that the agreement? It's late. I won't linger in these parts after nightfall."
I sat frozen. He couldn't really be going to leave me in this godforsaken spot, could he?
"You could come on with me." The man's tone had changed. "I've got a roof, supper, a comfortable bed. For a pretty little thing like you, there's other ways of paying." He set a heavy hand on my shoulder, making me shrink away, my heart hammering. I scrambled down from the cart and seized my bag and writing box from the back before the fellow could drive off and leave me with nothing.
"Sure you won't change your mind?" he asked, eyeing me up and down as if I were a prime cut of beef.
"Quite sure," I said shakily, shocked that I had been too full of my woes to notice that look in his eye earlier, when there were other passengers on the cart. "What is this place? Is there a settlement close by?"
"If you can call it that." He jerked his head in the general direction of the marker. "Don't know if you'll find shelter. They've a habit of huddling behind locked doors at night around here, and with good reason. I'm not talking about troops of armed Normans on the road, you understand, but . . . something else. You'd far better come home with me. I'd look after you."
I slung my bundle over my shoulder. On the tip of my tongue was the retort he deserved: I'm not so desperate, but I was not quite brave enough to say it. Besides, with only four coppers left and the very real possibility that pursuit was close behind me, I might soon be reduced to accepting offers of this kind or starving.
I stooped to examine the weathered stone, keeping a wary eye on the carter. He wouldn't attack me, would he? Out here, I would scream unheard. The stone's inscription read Whistling Tor. An odd name. As I traced the moss-crusted letters, the man drove away without another word. The drum of hoof beats and the creak of wheels diminished to nothing. I took a deep breath and ordered myself to be strong. If there was a sign, there must be a settlement and shelter.
I headed off along the misty track to Whistling Tor. I had hoped to reach the settlement quite quickly, but the path went on and on, and after a while it began to climb. As I made my way up, I could see through the mist that I was walking into ever denser woodland, the dark trunks of oak and beech looming here and there above a smothering blanket of bushes and briars. My shawl kept catching on things. I wrenched it away with my free hand, the other holding tight to my writing box. I stumbled. There were odd stones on the path, pale, sharp-edged things that seemed set down deliberately to trip the unwary traveller.
The last light was fading. Here under the trees, the shadows and the mist combined to make the only safe speed a cautious creep. If only I were not so tired. I'd been up at first light after an uncomfortable night spent in the rough shelter of a dry-stone wall. I'd walked all morning. At the time, the carter had seemed a godsend.
Footsteps behind me. What now? Hide in the cover of the trees until the person had passed? No. I had made a promise to myself when I fled Market Cross, and I must keep it. I will be brave. I halted and turned.
A tall man emerged from the mist, shoulders square, walking steadily. I had just time to take in his impressive garb—a cloak dyed brilliant crimson, a chain around his neck that appeared to be of real gold—when a second man came up behind him. Relief washed through me. This one, shorter and slighter than the other, was clad in the brown habit and sandals of a monastic brother. They halted four paces away from me, looking mildly surprised. The deepening dusk and the rising mist rendered both their faces ghostly pale, and the monk was so thin his features seemed almost skeletal, but his smile was warm.
"Well, well," he observed. "The mist has conjured a lovely lady from an ancient tale, my friend. We must be on our best manners or she'll set a nasty spell on us, I fear."
The red-cloaked man made an elegant bow. "My friend has a penchant for weak jests," he said. He did not smile—his face was a sombre one, thin-lipped, sunken-eyed—but his manner was courteous. "We see few travellers on this path. Are you headed for the settlement?"
"Whistling Tor? Yes. I was hoping to find shelter for the night."
They exchanged a glance.
"Easy to lose yourself when the mist comes down," the monk said. "The settlement's on our way, more or less. If you permit, we'll walk with you and make sure you get there safely."
"Thank you. My name is Caitrin, daughter of Berach."
"Rioghan," said the tall man in the crimson cloak. "My companion is Eichri. Let me carry that box for you."
"No!" Nobody was getting his hands on my writing materials. "No, thank you," I added, realising how sharp I had sounded. "I can manage."
We walked on. "Do you live somewhere locally?" I asked the two men.
"Close at hand," Rioghan said. "But not in the settlement. When you get there, ask for Tomas. He's the innkeeper."
I nodded, wondering if four coppers would be enough to buy me a bed for the night. I waited for them to ask me why a young woman was out wandering alone so late in the day, but neither of them said a thing more, though each glanced at me from time to time as we walked on. I sensed my arrival was a curiosity to them, something that went beyond the obvious puzzle of my appearance. When I'd fled from Market Cross I'd looked like what I was, the daughter of a skilled craftsman, a girl of good family, neat and respectable. Now I was exhausted and dishevelled, my clothing creased and muddy. My boots had not handled the long walk well. The manner of my departure had left me ill equipped for travel. Of my small store of coins, all but those four coppers had been spent on getting me to this point. A new idea came to me.
"Yes, Caitrin, daughter of Berach?"
"I imagine you are attached to a monastery or similar, somewhere near here. Is there also a Christian place of scholarship and retreat for women?"
The monk smiled. He had teeth like miniature tombstones; they made his features look even more gaunt. "Not within several days' ride, Caitrin. You seek to enter a life of prayer?"
I blushed. "I would hardly be qualified for that. What faith I once had, I have no longer. I thought it possible such a place might offer refuge . . . Never mind." It had been a mistake to ask such a question. The less people knew about my woeful position the better. I'd been stupid to give these two my real name, friendly as they were.
"Are you in need of funds, Caitrin?" Rioghan's question was blunt.
"No." The carter had made me wary. Rioghan's good manners did not necessarily mean he was trustworthy. "I'm a craftswoman," I added. "I earn my own living."
"Ah." That was all he said, and it pleased me. No intrusive questions; no laughter at the idea that a woman could survive on her own without resorting to selling her body. For the first time in many days I felt almost at ease.
We walked on in silence. I could not help staring at Rioghan's crimson cloak. The fabric was silky and sumptuous, most likely a cloth imported from a far land at fabulous cost. But the garment was sadly worn, almost to holes here and there. Did Rioghan have nobody to do his mending? A person who wore such an extravagant item, not to speak of the gold around his neck, must surely have servants at his beck and call.
He saw me looking. "A badge of authority," he said, and there was a note of terrible sadness in his tone. "I was once a king's chief councillor."
It was hard to find the right response without asking awkward questions. Why once and not now? Rioghan did not look terribly old, only sad and unwell, his pallid complexion adding to that impression. Connacht was ruled by kings of the Uí Conchubhair; Ruaridh had been high king for many years. There would be chieftains ruling each region in these parts. As I had travelled westwards I had seen palisades of sharpened sticks encircling villages. I had seen folk digging trenches and raising defensive mounds around the mud and wattle strongholds of local leaders. If ever a king needed his chief councillor it was now, with the Norman invaders eyeing this last untouched part of the land. Had Rioghan fallen out of favour with his leader? Been supplanted by an abler man?
"I'm sorry if I was staring," I said as we took a branch of the track that headed downhill. Below us, looming shapes in the mist suggested we were at last close to the settlement of Whistling Tor. "That is such a fine red. I was just wondering what the dyestuff was."
"Ah," said Rioghan. "You're a weaver? A spinner?"
"Neither. But I'm interested in colours. Is that the village?"
The two of them halted on either side of me and I paused, looking ahead. A formidable barrier surrounded the modest settlement, a conglomeration of sharp-pointed stakes, iron bars, splintery old gates and other lethal bits and pieces. The mist shifted around it, revealing here a broken plough, there a great jagged stone that must have taken the efforts of eight or ten men to haul into place. As a fortification against the Normans the barrier probably wouldn't last long, but it made a powerful deterrent to travellers. The place was set about with flaming torches on tall poles.
"It seems the folk of Whistling Tor don't like visitors," I said flatly. "Since I'm with you, I suppose it will be all right." Within that wall I could see men moving about, but the mist made details obscure. I headed on down the hill towards the barrier, my two companions behind me.
I was about twelve paces from the wall when something hurtled over it towards me. I ducked, shielding my head. A sizeable stone hit the ground not far away, followed by several smaller ones. Someone shouted from within the barrier, "Not a step further! Spawn of the devil, away with you!"
Blessed Brighid, what was this? Trembling, I peered out between my sheltering hands. Four or five men stood on the other side of the fortification, their faces uniformly ash white, their weapons at the ready: a pitchfork, a scythe, an iron bar, a club with spikes. "Away with you, scum!" yelled one, and another added, "Go back where you belong, into the pit of hell!"
Had the mist transformed me into a monster? Run, Caitrin, run! No; I must be brave. I cleared my throat. "I'm just a . . ." I faltered. A wandering scribe might be the truth, but nobody was going to believe it. "A traveller. On my way to visit kinsfolk. My name is Caitrin, daughter of Berach." Curses, I'd done it again, used my real name. Pull yourself together, Caitrin. "I need shelter for the night. I mean no harm here." I glanced over my shoulder, wondering why Rioghan and Brother Eichri had not spoken up on my behalf, but nobody was there. While the inhabitants of Whistling Tor village were hurling stones and insults, my two companions had made a silent departure.
All alone. No one to turn to but myself. That was nothing new; I had been all alone at Market Cross, in a house full of folk. Should I run? Where? Speak up, Caitrin. This couldn't be what it seemed, surely. It was some kind of mistake, that was all. "It's the truth!" I added. "Please let me in." I remembered something. "Might I speak to Tomas?"
The men of the settlement stood close together, eyeing me. They looked both combative and terrified. This didn't make sense. What did they think I was, a one-woman raiding party? I shivered, hugging my shawl around me, as they held a muttered consultation.
"Where did you say you were headed?" The man with the club asked the question without quite looking me in the eye.
"I didn't," I said. "But my mother's kin live in these parts." That was not quite a lie: my mother's family had indeed lived in the far west of Connacht, but there were none of them left now, at least none I knew of.
"Fetch Tomas," someone said. A lull, then; no more missiles thrown, but plenty of talk in low, agitated voices on that side of the barrier, while on this side I stood waiting as the last light faded. I wondered how much longer my legs would hold me up.
"What are you?" A new voice. Another man had joined the first group, an older man with a more capable manner. "Ordinary folk don't come to Whistling Tor. Especially not after dark."
"Are you Tomas?" I asked. "My name is Caitrin. I've been on the road all day. I just need somewhere to sleep. I can pay."
"If you mean no harm, prove it," someone called out.
"How?" I wondered if I would be subjected to a search or other indignities when I got through the defensive barrier. Well-born young women did not usually travel alone. It would be plain to everyone that I was in some kind of trouble. After today it was all too easy to believe men would interpret that as an invitation.
"Say a Christian prayer." That was the man with the club, his voice still thick with unease.
I stared at him. Whatever these villagers were afraid of, it seemed it was not the Normans, for the most part a Christian -people. "God in heaven," I said, "guide and support me on my journey and bring me safely to shelter. Blessed Saint Patrick shield me. Mother Mary intercede for me. Amen."
There was a pause, then the man with the club lowered his weapon, and the older one said, "Let her through, boys. Duald, make sure the barrier's properly sealed afterwards. You can't be too careful in this mist. Go on, let her in."
"If you're sure, Tomas."
Various bars and logs and pieces of metal were moved apart, and I was admitted to the safe ground within. "This way," Tomas said as I murmured thanks.
He walked by my side through the village. The houses were bristling with protective measures, the kind used by superstitious folk: triangles of iron nails, bowls of white stones set under steps, other charms to ward off evil. Doors and shutters were tightly closed. Many were barred with iron. What with the shifting light from the torches and the gathering mist, there was a nightmarish quality about the place. In the centre of the settlement stood a bigger building, solidly built of mud and wattle and roofed with rain-darkened thatch.
"Whistling Tor Inn," my companion said. "I'm the innkeeper; my name's Tomas. We can give you a bed for the night."
Tears pricked my eyes. I'd been beginning to think I had strayed into a different world, one where everything was awry. "Thank you," I said.
The inn was locked up. A wary-looking woman opened the door at Tomas's call, and I was ushered into a kitchen where a warm fire burned on the hearth. Once we were in, the woman set a heavy bar across the front door.
"My wife, Orna," Tomas said. "Here." He was pouring me a cup of ale. "Orna, is that soup still warm? This lass looks as if she could do with a meal."
My heart sank. I made myself speak up. "I have only four coppers. I don't suppose that's enough to pay for soup as well as a bed. I can manage without food. I just need to get warm."
The two of them turned searching looks on me. I could see questions coming, questions I wouldn't want to answer.
"That's all right, lass," Orna said, shifting a pot onto the fire. "Where are you headed? We don't get many visitors here."
"I'm . . ." I hesitated, caught without a satisfactory answer. I could hardly tell them the truth: that I had left home with no plan other than to set as much distance between myself and Cillian as I could. But I did not feel comfortable lying. "I have kin in these parts," I said. "A little further on."
"You'll likely not get another ride for a long while," said the innkeeper.
"Is Whistling Tor so far off the main roads?" I asked.
"Not so far that a carter couldn't bring a person down here quickly enough," said Orna, stirring the pot. A savoury smell arose, making my mouth water. "But they won't do it. Folk skirt around us. Nobody comes here. This place is under a curse."
"A curse?" This grew stranger and stranger.
"That's right," said Tomas. "Step outside that barrier at night and you put yourself in deadly danger from what's up the hill there. Even by day, folk don't pass the way you came if they can avoid it."
"The name is unusual. Whistling Tor. The hill you mention is the tor, I suppose. But why whistling?"
Tomas poured ale for himself and his wife and settled on a bench. "I suppose it once was a bare hill, the kind you'd call a tor, but that would have been a long time ago. The forest has grown up all over it, and it's full of presences. Things that lead you out of your way, then swallow you up and spit out the pieces."
"What do you mean?" I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.
"Manifestations," said Tomas weightily. "They're everywhere; there's no getting rid of them. They were called forth long ago; nigh on a hundred years they've plagued this place."
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