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The Dark Mirror
By Juliet Marillier, Claire Eddy
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 Juliet Marillier
All rights reserved.
THE DRUID STOOD IN the doorway, as still as a figure carven in dark stone, watching the riders come up the hill under the oaks. Dusk had fallen. Beyond the screening trees, Serpent Lake was a dim shining, and rooks winged to their roosts in the last light, calling in their secret, harsh language. It was autumn: past the feast of Measure. The air was full of a crisp, blue cold that halted the breath in the chest.
The men at arms rode up to the level ground before the doorway, dismounting each in turn. At first it seemed they had not brought the boy. The druid swallowed disappointment, frustration, anger. Then Cinioch, riding in last, said, "Come, lad, stir yourself," and Broichan saw the small figure seated before the warrior, well wrapped in swathing woolen garments, a figure the others moved quickly to lift down from the horse and usher forward for the druid's inspection.
So small. Was this boy really in his fifth year, as Anfreda had said in the letter advising him of her choice? Surely he was too small to be sent here to Fortriu, so far away from home. Surely he was too small to learn. The druid felt anger rise again, and paced his breathing.
"I am Broichan," he said, looking down. "Welcome to Pitnochie."
The child looked up, his gaze moving over Broichan's face, his dark robe, the oaken staff with its intricate markings, the black hair in its many small plaits tied with colored threads. The boy's lids were drooping; he was half-asleep on his feet. It was a long journey from Gwynedd, two turnings of the moon on the road.
The druid watched in silence as the child squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, took a deep breath, and frowned in concentration. The boy spoke, his voice quavering but clear. "I am Bridei, son of Maelchon." Another breath; he was working hard to get this right. "May the — the Shining One light your pathway." The eyes gazed up at Broichan, blue as celandines; there was fear in them, that was plain, but this scrap of an infant would not let it unman him. And, thank the gods, Anfreda had taught her son the language of the Priteni. That would ease Broichan's task greatly. Perhaps, after all, four was not too young.
"May the Flamekeeper warm your hearth," Broichan said, this being the appropriate formal response. He scrutinized the small features more closely. The firm jaw was Maelchon's; so was the upright stance, the iron will that kept those eyes open for all the pull of sleep, and summoned the memorized words amid the strangeness of this sudden waking to a different world. The sweet blue eyes, the curling brown hair, the little frown, those were Anfreda's. The blood of the Priteni ran strong and true in this child. The mother had chosen well. The druid was satisfied.
"Come," Broichan said. "I'll show you where you'll be sleeping. Cinioch, Elpin, Urguist, well done. There's supper awaiting you indoors."
Inside the house, the boy followed silently as Broichan led the way past the frankly curious eyes of his serving people and into the hall, which was occupied by the two old men, Erip and Wid, and a tangle of large hounds before the fire. The dogs raised their heads, growling a warning. The boy flinched but made no sound.
The old men had a game board and bone playing pieces on the table between them. Bridei's eyes were caught by the carven priestesses, warriors, and druids, each no bigger than a man's little finger. He hesitated a moment beside them.
"Welcome, lad," Erip said with a gap-toothed grin. "You like games?"
"You've come to the right place, then," said Wid, stroking his white beard. "We're the foremost players in all Fortriu. Crow-corners, breach-the-wall, advance and retreat, we're expert in the lot of them. You've a look of your mother, lad."
The blue eyes regarded the old man, a question in them.
"Enough," Broichan said. "Come, this way" He must remind Wid and Erip that the child's rearing was to be in his own exclusive control. Bridei's new life began from this moment; the child must tread the path unburdened by the knowledge of just who he was, and what he must become. Time enough for that when he was grown. They had ten years, fifteen if the gods smiled on them. In that time, Broichan must mold this infant into a young man fitted in every way for the great part he was destined to play in the future of Fortriu. Bridei's education must be flawless. Indeed, it was as well he had come so early. Fifteen years would scarcely be long enough.
"This chamber is yours," Broichan said, placing the candle he held on a shelf as Bridei looked around the little room with its shelf bed, its storage chest, its small, square window looking out on rustling birches and a patch of dark sky. "You seem weary. Sleep now, if you are ready for it. In the morning we will begin your education."
* * *
PEOPLE AT PITNOCHIE were always busy. Bridei became expert at avoiding the grim-faced housekeeper, Mara, and the ill-tempered cook, Ferat, as they barked orders at their hapless assistants or set their considerable energies to beating dust from wall hangings or turning a side of mutton on the spit. Even the two old men were always doing something. Often they were arguing, though they were never angry. They just seemed to like to disagree about things.
Bride, too, was busy. Broichan's lessons were challenging, commencing with the lore of plants, trees, and creatures, and moving swiftly to include the practice of personal disciplines of silence and concentration. Bridei was a few years younger than the boys who went off to the nemetons for druidic training, Broichan said, but not too young to make a start on such work.
For a while, he fought back tears each night as he lay in his chamber waiting for sleep. But soon enough his mother and father and his big brothers began to fade from Bridei's memory. Little things stayed with him: his father's belt, broad, dark leather with a silver buckle in the shape of a horse. A sweet scent he associated with his mother, violets or some other hedgerow flower. When even these were becoming distant in his mind, he remembered his father's parting words: Obey your foster father in all things. Obey, learn, and do not weep.
The seasons passed, and Bridei followed this instruction precisely. He was pleased that, in a small way, he was meeting his father's expectations. Erip and Wid, who played their part in his education, had explained to him about fostering; how it helped families form alliances, and made young men stronger and more useful when they went back home. He did wonder why his family had chosen him to be sent away, and not his brothers, and he asked Broichan this.
"Because you were the most apt," the druid said.
"When will I go home?"
Broichan turned his dark, impassive eyes on the child. "That is a question only the gods can answer, Bridei," he said. "Are you dissatisfied here at Pitnochie?"
"No, my lord." And he was not, for he liked his lessons. He just wondered, sometimes, why he was here.
"Then do not ask such a question again."
* * *
BALD-HEADED ERIP AND hawk-nosed Wid welcomed questions, though not the ones Broichan would not answer. The old men knew lots of tricks. Over the first winter, Bridei learned the game with the little carven figures. Wid showed him how to make a corbie and a deer and a long-eared hare with the shadow of his fingers on the wall, while a candle burned behind. They were laughing over this when Broichan, poker-faced, made an image on the wall that had nothing at all to do with the shape his hands formed before the flame — what man with a mere ten fingers at his disposal can conjure a fire-breathing dragon, wings flapping, pursuing a whole host of terrified warriors?
In springtime, close to the feast of Balance, Broichan went away into the forest for solitary prayer and meditation. He was gone for three days, and in his absence the old men taught his foster son to swallow a whole beaker of ale in one gulp. The first time he tried this, Bridei spewed copiously on the flagstones, and the dogs had to lick up the spillage. The druid returned with a strange look in his eyes and a pallor about his face. He said nothing of his time away. But he discovered quickly what had occurred in his absence. The next night, when Bridei came to the hall for supper, the old men were gone.
Bridei was not aware that he was lonely. His father's parting words meant that he must accept what came; must deal with it and move on. He had once had a family, and they had sent him away. Erip and Wid had been kind to him, and now they were gone. There was a lesson to be learned in this. Broichan said there was learning in everything.
Broichan's lessons were generally about patterns: the ones that could be seen, such as the way the leaves on the birches went from cautious swelling to fresh green unfurling, from verdant midsummer strength to the crisp, dry brown of the frost time; the way they shriveled and clung, then fell to transform into fragile skeletons and to lose themselves in the rich litter of the forest floor, nourishing the parent tree. The way the new leaves waited, hidden, through the dark time, like a dream in the back of your mind that could not quite be put into words. There were other patterns that lay behind, chains and links so big and so intricate that Bridei thought he might be an old man himself before he truly understood them. But he grasped at them, and listened hard, and watched his foster father as closely as a young wild creature watches its elders, learning the great lessons: hunt or starve, hide or be taken, fly or fall.
Over the course of that first year, the child stood by the tall, stern druid through every one of the rituals that marked the turning of the seasons. First was Gateway, most secret of all, the entry to the dark time, the resting time, when Bone Mother cast a long shadow over the earth, frosting the grass, icing the ponds, lengthening the nights until all longed for the sun. At the ritual of Gateway a creature shed its blood and gave its life right there before them on a slab of ancient stone. Broichan did not ask his foster son to wield the knife; that he did himself. But he did require Bridei to watch unflinching. The rooster's blood sprayed everywhere. Bridei did not like the sound it made as it died, even though the druid performed the act quickly and cleanly. It was necessary; Bone Mother required it. All over the land of Fortriu, she expected it. Afterward Broichan invited the spirits of the ancestors to the feast. Places were laid for them at table. If he half closed his eyes, Bridei thought he could see them, pale wispy shadows of grim warriors and slender women, and here or there a little silent child.
Next was Midwinter, a feast of the Shining One. At this ceremony Bone Mother's presence was still strong, but from now on her grip would relax day by day as the rising sun crept eastward. Sprigs of goldenwood were hung around the house, with glossy holly leaves and bloodred berries; there would be new life soon, and these were its first promises. It was a portent of a particularly good year to come, Broichan told his pupil, when the Shining One was at her perfect fullness on the night of the solstice. If that occurred, it was a sure sign of this bright goddess's blessing on the household and its labors. There would be lush crops and fat lambs, the trees would bow down under the weight of their fruit and new babes would thrive. It occurred to Bridei that, although Pitnochie did indeed have oats and sheep and pear trees, there were no babes at all here, nor any children save himself. But for the housekeeper, Mara, Broichan's was a household of men.
After the solstice came other festivals: Maiden Dance, sacred to AllFlowers, goddess of growing things; Balance, the feast of the equinox; Rising, of which Broichan did not divulge a great deal, save to say that in other places, among other folk, there was somewhat more to it, and that Bridei would learn the details when he was older. At Rising the days were warm, the scent of blossoms hung richly in the air, bees buzzed, birds sang, and Broichan allowed the men at arms to visit the settlement south of Pitnochie, a privilege granted but rarely. Bridei had never seen the settlement. Broichan said there was no reason for him to go beyond house and garden. There followed Midsummer, when the Flamekeeper was at his strongest; Gathering; and Measure, when dark and light fell once more into perfect balance before the year hastened on to its ending, and another Gateway.
Bridei watched and learned, going over the rituals in the quiet of his little chamber every night before he slept, practicing the steady, pacing moves Broichan employed, trying out the casting of the circle, the solemn greetings and farewells. At first, he worked hard because of his father's parting words; because he knew it was expected. Before long, he was learning because there was a thirst in him for it, a fascination for the mysterious and powerful things that Broichan could reveal to him. The more he discovered, the more he wanted to know. The rituals were a good example. It was not just a case of going through the motions. Broichan had made that clear from the beginning. One must know the gods, as far as gods could ever be known; one must love and respect them, and understand the true meaning of the festivals so well that the learning lay deep in the bone, and flowed in the blood, and existed in every breath one took. Such learning was a lifelong process; one never ceased striving for a purer bond between flesh and spirit, man and god, world and Otherworld. It was a mystery both wondrous and terrible, Broichan said, and they would indeed grow old before they touched its true heart.
In the spring of Bridei's sixth year, Donal came. Donal was a warrior with a fierce pattern in blue all across cheeks and chin and a fine design of interlocking rings around the bulging muscles of his upper arm. He had close-set eyes and an intimidating jaw, and a grin that made Bridei smile back without even thinking. They rode out together, Bridei on Pearl, the sweet-tempered pony Donal had brought for him, and the warrior on a bony horse of strangely mottled hue, whose name was Lucky. It was an unusual choice for a warhorse, but then again, Donal said, maybe not so odd; hadn't Lucky carried his rider through three battles with the Gaels, misbegotten carrot-haired wretches that they were, and neither man nor beast with a mark to show for it? Well, there was a broken tooth or two — Donal's — and a wee nick in the ear — Lucky's--but here they were, safe and sound and living a fine life riding around in the woods with a druid's son. If that wasn't lucky, what was it?
"Foster son," Bridei corrected.
"Broichan is not my father. He's teaching me. When I'm bigger I will go home." Bridei was not sure this was so, but he could not think what else his foster father might have in store for him.
"Oh, aye?" That was what Donal always said. It meant maybe yes, maybe no: a safe response. It was the sort of response that would ensure Donal stayed in the druid's household longer than the old men had.
"I want to gallop," Bridei said, touching his heels to Pearl's flanks, and the two of them were off under the oaks, along the hillside above the lake. It was hard for Donal, tall on a big horse, to match the pony's pace in such terrain, and Bridei led him all the way to a place where the hillside dropped away steeply in a tangle of briars and brambles. The oaks grew on the lip of this sharp cleft, but within its shadowy confines were only smaller trees, their kind hard to discern, for all grew awry, in shapes wizened and strange. A mist hung above the rift even on this clearest of days; there was an eldritch stillness in the air that breathed fear.
"What's this place?" asked Donal, coming up beside Bridei and dismounting with a well-practiced roll from saddle to ground. "Got a bad feel to it, I reckon. We'd best not linger here."
"There's a path," said Bridei. "Look."
The way was not easy to see, for clutching fern tendrils and twiggy fingers of low bushes reached across to conceal it. The mist hung less than a man's height above the winding track, which was narrow and formed of hard-packed earth: not a natural gap, but a made one.
Excerpted from The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier, Claire Eddy. Copyright © 2004 Juliet Marillier. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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