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Three children lay on the rocks at the water's edge. A dark-haired little girl. Two boys, slightly older. This image is caught forever in my memory, like some fragile creature preserved in amber. Myself, my brothers. I remember the way the water rippled as I trailed my fingers across the shining surface.
"Don't lean over so far, Sorcha," said Padriac. "You might fall in." He was a year older than me and made the most of what little authority that gave him. You could understand it, I suppose. After all, there were six brothers altogether, and five of them were older than he was.
I ignored him, reaching down into the mysterious depths.
"She might fall in, mightn't she, Finbar?"
A long silence. As it stretched out, we both looked at Finbar, who lay on his back, full length on the warm rock. Not sleeping; his eyes reflected the open gray of the autumnal sky. His hair spread out on the rock in a wild black tangle. There was a hole in the sleeve of his jacket.
"The swans are coming," said Finbar at last. He sat up slowly to rest his chin on raised knees. "They're coming tonight."
Behind him, a breeze stirred the branches of oak and elm, ash and elder, and scattered a drift of leaves, gold and bronze and brown. The lake lay in a circle of tree-clothed hills, sheltered as if in a great chalice.
"How can you know that?" queried Padriac. "How can you be so sure? It could be tomorrow, or the day after. Or they could go to some other place. You're always so sure."
I don't remember Finbar answering, but later that day, as dusk was falling, he took me back to the lakeshore. In the half light over the water, we saw the swans come home. The last low traces of sun caught a white movement in the darkening sky. Then they were near enough for us to see the pattern of their flight, the orderly formation descending through the cool air as the light faded. The rush of wings, the vibration of the air. The final glide to the water, the silvery flashing as it parted to receive them. As they landed, the sound was like my name, over and over: Sorcha, Sorcha. My hand crept into Finbar's; we stood immobile until it was dark, and then my brother took me home.
If you are lucky enough to grow up the way I did, you have plenty of good things to remember. And some that are not so good. One spring, looking for the tiny green frogs that appeared as soon as the first warmth was in the air, my brothers and I splashed knee deep in the stream, making enough noise between us to frighten any creature away. Three of my six brothers were there, Conor whistling some old tune; Cormack, who was his twin, creeping up behind to slip a handful of bog weed down his neck. The two of them rolling on the bank, wrestling and laughing. And Finbar. Finbar was further up the stream, quiet by a rock pool. He would not turn stones to seek frogs; waiting, he would charm them out by his silence.
I had a fistful of wildflowers, violets, meadowsweet, and the little pink ones we called cuckoo flowers. Down near the water's edge was a new one with pretty star-shaped blooms of a delicate pale green, and leaves like gray feathers. I clambered nearer and reached out to pick one.
"Sorcha! Don't touch that!" Finbar snapped.
Startled, I looked up. Finbar never gave me orders. If it had been Liam, now, who was the eldest, or Diarmid, who was the next one, I might have expected it. Finbar was hurrying back toward me, frogs abandoned. But why should I take notice of him? He wasn't so very much older, and it was only a flower. I heard him saying, "Sorcha, don't" as my small fingers plucked one of the soft-looking stems.
The pain in my hand was like firea white-hot agony that made me screw up my face and howl as I blundered along the path, my flowers dropped heedless underfoot. Finbar stopped me none too gently, his hands on my shoulders arresting my wild progress.
"Starwort," he said, taking a good look at my hand, which was swelling and turning an alarming shade of red. By this time my shrieks had brought the twins running. Cormack held onto me, since he was strong, and I was bawling and thrashing about with the pain. Conor tore off a strip from his grubby shirt. Finbar had found a pair of pointed twigs, and he began to pull out, delicately, one by one, the tiny needlelike spines the starwort plant had embedded in my soft flesh. I remember the pressure of Cormack's hands on my arms as I gulped for air between sobs, and I can still hear Conor talking, talking in a quiet voice as Finbar's long deft fingers went steadily about their task.
"... and her name was Deirdre, Lady of the Forest, but nobody ever saw her, save late at night, if you went out along the paths under the birch trees, you might catch a glimpse of her tall figure in a cloak of midnight blue, and her long hair, wild and dark, floating out behind her, and her little crown of stars ..."
When it was done, they bound up my hand with Conor's makeshift bandage and some crushed marigold petals, and by morning it was better. And never a word they said to my oldest brothers, when they came home, about what a foolish girl I'd been.
From then on I knew what starwort was, and I began to teach myself about other plants that could hurt or heal. A child that grows up half-wild in the forest learns the secrets that grow there simply through common sense. Mushroom and toadstool. Lichen, moss, and creeper. Leaf, flower, root, and bark. Throughout the endless reaches of the forest, great oak, strong ash, and gentle birch sheltered a myriad of growing things. I learned where to find them, when to cut them, how to use them in salve, ointment, or infusion. But I was not content with that. I spoke with the old women of the cottages till they tired of me, and I studied what manuscripts I could find, and tried things out for myself. There was always more to learn; and there was no shortage of work to be done.
When was the beginning? When my father met my mother, and lost his heart, and chose to wed for love? Or was it when I was born? I should have been the seventh son of a seventh son, but the goddess was playing tricks, and I was a girl. And after she gave birth to me, my mother died.
It could not be said that my father gave way to his grief. He was too strong for that, but when he lost her, some light in him went out. It was all councils and power games, and dealing behind closed doors. That was all he saw, and all he cared about. So my brothers grew up running wild in the forest around the keep of Sevenwaters. Maybe I wasn't the seventh son of the old tales, the one who'd have magical powers and the luck of the Fair Folk, but I tagged along with the boys anyway, and they loved me and raised me as well as a bunch of boys could.
Our home was named for the seven streams that flowed down the hillsides into the great, tree-circled lake. It was a remote, quiet, strange place, well guarded by silent men who slipped through the woodlands clothed in gray, and who kept their weapons sharp. My father took no chances. My father was Lord Colum of Sevenwaters, and his tuath was the most secure, and the most secret, this side of Tara. All respected him. Many feared him. Outside the forest, nowhere was really safe. Chieftain warred against chieftain, king against king. And there were the raiders from across the water. Christian houses of scholarship and contemplation were ransacked, their peaceful dwellers killed or put to flight. Sometimes, in desperation, the holy brothers took up arms themselves. The old faith went underground. The Norsemen made their claim on our shores, and at Dublin they set up a ship camp and began to winter over, so that no time of year was safe. Even I had seen their work, for there was a ruin at Killevy, where raiders had killed the holy women and destroyed their sanctuary. I only went there once. There was a shadow over that place. Walking among the tumbled stones, you could still hear the echo of their screaming.
But my father was different. Lord Colum's authority was absolute. Within the ring of hills, blanketed by ancient forest, his borders were as close to secure as any man's might be in these troubled times. To those who did not respect it, who did not understand it, the forest was impenetrable. A man, or a troop of men, who did not know the way would become hopelessly lost there, prey to the sudden mists, the branching, deceptive paths, and to other, older things, things a Viking or a Briton could not hope to understand. The forest protected us. Our lands were safe from marauders, whether it be raiders from across the sea or neighbors intent on adding a few acres of grazing land or some fine cattle to their holdings. They held Sevenwaters in fear, and gave us a wide berth.
But Father had little time for talk of the Norsemen or the Picts, for we had our own war. Our war was with the Britons. In particular it was with one family of Britons, known as Northwoods. This feud went back a long way. I did not concern myself with it greatly. I was a girl, after all, and anyway I had better things to do with my time. Besides, I had never seen a Briton, or a Norseman, or a Pict. They were less real to me than creatures from an old tale, dragons or giants.
Father was away for much of the time, building alliances with neighbors, checking his outposts and guard towers, recruiting men. I preferred those times, when we could spend our days as we wished, exploring the forest, climbing the tall oaks, conducting expeditions over the lake, staying out all night if we wanted to. I learned where to find blackberries and hazelnuts and crab apples. I learned how to start a fire even if the wood was damp, and bake squash or onions in the coals. I could make a shelter out of bracken, and steer a raft in a straight course.
I loved to be out-of-doors and feel the wind on my face. Still, I continued to teach myself the healer's art, for my heart told me this would be my true work. All of us could read, though Conor was by far the most skillful, and there were old manuscripts and scrolls tucked away on an upper floor of the stone fortress that was our home. These I devoured in my thirst for knowledge and thought it nothing unusual, for this was the only world I had known. I did not know that other girls of twelve were learning to do fine embroidery, and to plait one another's hair into intricate coronets, and to dance and sing. I did not understand that few could read, and that the books and scrolls that filled our quiet upstairs room were priceless treasure in a time of destruction and pillage. Nestled safe among its guardian trees, hidden from the world by forces older than time, our home was indeed a place apart.
When my father was there, things were different. Not that he took much interest in us; his visits were short, and taken up with councils and meetings. But he would watch the boys practicing with sword or staff or throwing axe as they galloped and wheeled on horseback. You could never tell what Father was thinking, for his eyes gave nothing away. He was a man of solid build and stern appearance, and everything about him spoke of discipline. He dressed plainly; still, there was something about him that told you, instantly, that he was a leader. He wore his brown hair tied tightly back. Everywhere he went, from hall to courtyard, from sleeping quarters to stables, his two great wolfhounds padded silently behind him. That, I suppose, was his one indulgence. But even they had their purpose.
Each time he came home, he went through the motions of greeting us all and checking our progress, as if we were some crop that might eventually be fit for harvest. We hated this ritual parade of family identity, though it became easier for the boys once they reached young manhood and Father began to see them as of some use to him. We would be called into the great hall, after we'd been quickly tidied up by whatever servant currently had the thankless task of overseeing us. Father would be seated in his great oak chair, his men around him at a respectful distance, the dogs at his feet, relaxed but watchful.
He would call the boys forward one by one, greeting them kindly enough, starting with Liam and working gradually downward. He would question each of them briefly on his progress and activities since last time. This could take a while; after all, there were six of them, and me as well. Knowing nothing of any other form of parental guidance, I accepted this as the way things were done. If my brothers remembered a time when things were different, they didn't talk about it.
The boys grew up quickly. By the time Liam was twelve, he was undergoing an intensive training in the arts of war, and spending less and less time with the rest of us in our joyous, undisciplined world. Not long after, Diarmid's particular skill with the spear earned him a place beside his brother, and all too soon both were riding out with Father's band of warriors. Cormack could scarcely wait for the day when he would be old enough to join seriously in these pursuits; the training all the boys received from our father's master-at-arms was not enough to satisfy his thirst to excel. Padriac, who was the youngest of the boys, had a talent with animals, and a gift for fixing things. He, too, learned to ride and to wield a sword, but more often than not you'd find him helping to deliver a calf or tending a prize bull gored by a rival.
The rest of us were different. Conor was Cormack's twin, but he could scarce have been less like in temperament. Conor had always loved learning, and when he was quite little he had struck up a bargain with a Christian hermit who lived in a hillside cave above the southern lakeshore. My brother would bring Father Brien fresh fish and herbs from the garden, with maybe a loaf or two scrounged from the kitchens, and in return he was taught to read. I remember those times very clearly. There would be Conor, seated on a bench beside the hermit, deep in debate on some fine point of language or philosophy, and there in a corner would be Finbar and myself, cross-legged on the earthen floor, quiet as field mice. The three of us soaked up knowledge like little sponges, believing in our isolation that this was quite usual. We learned, for instance, the tongue of the Britons, a harsh, clipped sort of speech with no music in it. As we learned the language of our enemies, we were told their history.
They had once been a people much like us, fierce, proud, rich in song and story, but their land was open and vulnerable, and had been overrun time after time, until their blood became mixed with that of Roman, and of Saxon, and when at last some semblance of peace had come about, the old race of that land was gone, and in its place a new people dwelt across the water. The holy father told us that much.
Everyone had a story about the Britons. Recognizable by their light-colored hair, and their tall stature, and their lack of any decency whatever, they had begun the feud by laying hold of something so untouchable, so deeply sacred to our people, that the theft of it was like the heart had been torn out of us. That was the cause of our war. Little Island, Greater Island, and the Needle. Places of high mystery. Places of immense secrecy; the heart of the old faith. No Briton should ever have set foot on the islands. Nothing would be right until we drove them out. That was the way everybody told it.
It was plain that Conor was not destined for a warrior. My father, rich in sons, grudgingly accepted this. He could see, perhaps, that a scholar in the family might be of some use. There was always record keeping and accounts to be done and maps to be crafted, and my father's own scribe was getting on in years. Conor, therefore, found his place in the household and settled into it with content. His days were full, but he always had time for Finbar and me, and the three of us became close, linked by our thirst for knowledge and a deep, unspoken understanding.
As for Padriac, he could turn his hand to anything, but his great love was to examine things and find out how they worked; he would ask questions till it drove you crazy. Padriac was the only one that could break through Father's guard; sometimes you'd catch the ghost of a smile on Colum's dour features when he looked at his youngest son. He didn't smile at me. Or at Finbar. Finbar said that was because we reminded Father of our mother, who had died. We were the two who inherited her curling, wild hair. I had her green eyes, and Finbar her gift of stillness. Besides, by being born, I had killed her. No wonder Father found it hard to look at me. But when he spoke to Finbar his eyes were like winter. There was one time in particular. It was not long before she came, and our lives changed forever. Finbar was fifteen; not yet a man, but most certainly no longer a child.
Father had summoned us, and we were all assembled in the great hall. Finbar stood before Lord Colum's chair, back straight as a spear, waiting for the ritual inquisition. Liam and Diarmid were young men now, and so were spared this ordeal. But they were present on the sidelines, knowing that this reassured the rest of us.
"Finbar. I have spoken to your instructors."
Silence. Finbar's wide gray eyes appeared to look straight through Father's.
"I'm told your skills are developing well. This pleases me." Despite these words of praise, Father's gaze was chill, his tone remote. Liam glanced at Diarmid and Diarmid grimaced back, as if to say, here it comes.
"Your attitude, however, apparently leaves a great deal to be desired. I'm told that you have achieved these results without applying a great deal of effort or interest, and in particular, that you frequently absent yourself from training with no reason."
Another pause. At this point it would most certainly have been a good idea to say something, just to avoid trouble; "yes, Father" would have been enough. Finbar's utter stillness was an insult in itself.
"What's your explanation, boy? And none of your insolent looks, I want an answer!"
Father leaned forward, his face close to Finbar's, and the expression on his face made me shiver and move nearer to Conor. It was a look to terrify a grown man. "You are of an age now to join your brothers at my side, at least while I remain here; and before long, in the field. But there's no place for dumb insolence on a campaign. A man must learn to obey without question. Well, speak up! How do you account for this behavior?"
But Finbar wasn't going to answer. If I have nothing to say to you, I will not speak. I knew the words were in his mind. I clutched Conor's hand. We had seen Father's anger before. It would be foolish to invite it.
"Father." Liam stepped forward diplomatically. "Perhaps"
"Enough!" Father commanded. "Your brother does not require you to speak for him. He has a tongue, and a mind of his ownlet him use both."
Finbar seemed perfectly composed. Outwardly, he looked quite calm. It was only I, who shared every breath he took, knew his every moment of pain or joy as if it were my own, that felt the tension in him and understood the courage it took for him to speak.
"I will give you an answer," he said. His tone was quiet. "To learn to handle a horse, and to use sword and bow, that is worthy enough. I would use these skills to defend myself, or my sister, or to aid my brothers in time of peril. But you must spare me your campaigning, I will have none of it."
My father was increduloustoo taken aback to be angry, yet, but his eyes became glacial. Whatever he had expected, it was not a confrontation of this kind. Liam opened his mouth to speak again, but Father silenced him with a savage look.
"Tell us more," he invited politely, like a predator encouraging its meal into a honeyed trap. "Can you be so little aware of the threat to our lands, to the very fabric of our life here? You have been instructed on all these matters; you have seen my men return bloodied from battle, have seen the havoc these Britons wreak on lives and land. Your own brothers think it honorable work to fight alongside their father so the rest of you can enjoy peace and prosperity. They risk their lives to win back our precious Islands, torn from our people by this rabble, long years since. Have you so little faith in their judgment? Where have you learned this ill-conceived rubbish? Campaigning?"
"From the evidence of my own eyes," said Finbar simply. "While you spend season after season pursuing this perceived enemy across land and sea, your villagers grow sick and die, and there is no master to turn to for help. The unscrupulous exploit the weak. Crops are ill tended, herd and flock neglected. The forest guards us. That is just as well, for you would otherwise have lost home and people to the Finnghaill long since."
Father drew a deep breath. His men took a pace back. "Please go on," he said in a voice like death. "You are an expert on the subject of the Norsemen, I see."
"Perhaps" Liam said.
"Silence!" It was a roar this time, stopping Liam almost before he got a word out. "This matter is between your brother and me. Out with it, boy! What other aspects of my stewardship have you found fault with, in your great wisdom? Don't stint, since you are so outspoken!"
"Is that not enough?"
I detected, at last, a touch of unsteadiness in Finbar's voice. He was after all still just a boy.
"You value the pursuit of a distant enemy before keeping your own house in order. You speak of the Britons as if they were monsters. But are they not men like us?"
"You can hardly dignify such a people with the title of men," said our father, stung to direct response at last. His voice was harsh with building anger. "They come with evil thoughts and barbarian ways to take what is rightfully ours. Would you see your sister subject to their savagery? Your home overrun by their filth? Your argument shows your ignorance of the facts, and the sorry gaps in your education. What price your fine philosophy when you stand with a naked sword in your hand, and your enemy before you poised to strike? Wake up, boy. There is a real world out there, and the Britons stand in it with the blood of our kinsmen on their hands. It is my duty, and yours, to seek vengeance, and to reclaim what is rightly ours."
Finbar's steady gaze had never left Father's face.
"I am not ignorant of these matters," he said, still quietly. "Pict and Viking, both have troubled our shores. They have left their mark on our spirits, though they could not destroy us. I acknowledge that. But the Britons, too, suffered the loss of lands and lives from these raids. We do not fully understand their purpose, in taking our islands, in maintaining this feud. We would be better, perhaps, to unite with them against our common enemies. But no: your strategy, like theirs, is to kill and maim without seeking for answers. In time, you will lose your sons as you lost your brothers, in blind pursuit of an ill-defined goal. To win this war, you must talk to your foe. Learn to understand him. If you shut him out, he will always outwit you. There is death and suffering and a long time of regret in your future, if you follow this path. Many will go with you, but I will not be among them."
His words were strange; his tone chilled me. I knew he spoke the truth.
"I will hear no more of this!" thundered Father, rising to his feet. "You speak like a fool, of matters you cannot comprehend. I shudder to think a son of mine could be so ill-informed, and so presumptuous. Liam!"
"I want this brother of yours equipped to ride with us when next we travel north. See to it. He expresses a wish to understand the enemy. Perhaps he will do so when he witnesses the shedding of blood at firsthand."
"Yes, Father." Liam's expression and tone were well-schooled to neutrality. His glance at Finbar, though, was sympathetic. He simply made sure Father wasn't looking.
"And now, where is my daughter?"
Stepping forward reluctantly, I passed Finbar and brushed his hand with mine. His eyes were fierce in a face bleached of color. I stood before Father, torn with feelings I hardly understood. Wasn't a father meant to love his children? Didn't he know how much courage it had taken, for Finbar to speak out this way? Finbar saw things in a way the rest of us never could. Father should have known that, for people said our mother had possessed the same gift. If he'd bothered to take the time, he would have known. Finbar could see ahead, and offer warnings that were ignored at your own peril. It was a rare skill, dangerous and burdensome. Some called it the Sight.
"Come forward, Sorcha."
I was angry with Father. And yet, I wanted him to recognize me. I wanted his praise. Despite everything, I could not shut off the wish deep inside me. My brothers loved me. Why couldn't Father? That was what I was thinking as I looked up at him. From his viewpoint I must have been a pathetic little figure, skinny and untidy, my curls falling over my eyes in disarray.
"Where are your shoes, child?" asked Father wearily. He was getting restless.
"I need no shoes, Father," I said, hardly thinking. "My feet are tough, look," and I raised one narrow, grubby foot to show him. "No need for some creature to die so I can be shod." This argument had been used on my brothers till they tired of it and let me run barefoot if it suited me.
"Which servant has charge of this child?" snapped Father testily. "She is no longer of an age to be let loose like somesome tinker's urchin. How old are you, Sorchanine, ten?"
How could he not know? Didn't my birth coincide with his loss of all he held most dear in the world? For my mother had died on midwinter day, when I was not yet a day old, and folk said it was lucky for me Fat Janis, our kitchen woman, had a babe at the breast and milk enough for two, or I'd likely have died as well. It was a measure of Father's success in closing off that former life, perhaps, that he no longer counted every lonely night, every empty day, since she died.
"I'll be thirteen on midwinter eve, Father," I said, standing up as tall as I could. Perhaps if he thought of me grown up enough, he would start to talk to me properly, the way he did to Liam and Diarmid. Or to look at me with that hint of a smile he sometimes turned on Padriac, who was closest to me in age. For an instant, his dark, deep-set eyes met mine, and I stared back with a wide green gaze that, had I but known it, was the image of my mother's.
"Enough," he said abruptly, and his tone was dismissive. "Get these children out of here, there's work to be done."
Turning his back on us, he was quickly engrossed in some great map they were rolling out on the oak table. Only Liam and Diarmid could expect to stay; they were men now, and privy to my father's strategies. For the rest of us, it was over. I stepped back out of the light.
Why do I remember this so well? Perhaps his displeasure with what we were becoming made Father take the choice he did, and so bring about a series of events more terrible than any of us could have imagined. Certainly, he used our well-being as one of his excuses for bringing her to Sevenwaters. That there was no logic in this was beside the pointhe must have known in his heart that Finbar and I were made of strong stuff, already shaped in mind and spirit, if not quite grown, and that expecting us to bend to another will was like trying to alter the course of the tide, or to stop the forest from growing. But he was influenced by forces he was unable to understand. My mother would have recognized them. I often wondered, later, how much she knew of our future. The Sight does not always show what a person wants to see, but maybe she had an idea as she bade her children farewell, what a strange and crooked path their feet would follow.
As soon as Father dismissed us from the hall, Finbar was gone, a shadow disappearing up the stone steps to the tower. As I turned to follow, Liam winked at me. Fledgling warrior he might be, but he was my brother. And I got a grin from Diarmid, but he wiped his face clean of all expressions but respect as he turned back toward Father.
Padriac would be away off outdoors; he had an injured owl in the stables that he was nursing back to health. It was amazing, he said, how much this task had taught him about the principles of flight. Conor was working with my father's scribe, helping with some calculations; we wouldn't be seeing much of him for a while. Cormack would be off to practice with the sword or the staff. I was alone when I padded up the stone steps on my bare feet and into the tower room. From here you could climb up further, onto a stretch of slate roof with a low battlement around it, probably not sufficient to arrest a good fall, but that never stopped us from going up there. It was a place for stories, for secrets; for being alone together in silence.
He was, as I'd expected, sitting on the most precarious slope of the roof, knees drawn up, arms around them, his expression unreadable as he gazed out over the stone-walled pastures, the barns and byres and cottages, to the smoke gray and velvet green and misty blue of the forest. Not so far away the waters of the lake glinted silver. The breeze was quite chill, catching at my skirts as I came up the slates and settled myself down next to him. Finbar was utterly still. I did not need to look at him to read his mood, for I was tuned to this brother's mind like the bow to the string.
We were quiet for a long time, as the wind tangled our hair, and a flock of gulls passed overhead, calling among themselves. Voices drifted up from time to time, and metal clashed on metal: Father's men at combat in the yard, and Cormack was among them. Father would be pleased with him.
Slowly Finbar came back from the far reaches of the mind. His long fingers moved to wind themselves around a strand of his hair.
"What do you know of the lands beyond the water, Sorcha?" he asked quite calmly.
"Not much," I said, puzzled. "Liam says the maps don't show everything; there are places even he knows little about. Father says the Britons are to be feared."
"He fears what he does not understand," said Finbar. "What about Father Brien and his kind? They came out of the east, by sea, and showed great courage in doing so. In time they were accepted here, and gave us much. Father does not seek to know his foes, or to make sense of what they want. He sees only the threat, the insult, and so he spends his whole life pursuing them, killing and maiming without question. And for what?"
I thought about this for a while.
"But you don't know them either," I ventured, logically enough. "And it's not just Father that thinks they're a danger. Liam said if the campaigns didn't go right up to the north, and to the very shore of the eastern sea, we'd be overrun one day and lose everything we have. Maybe not just the islands, but Sevenwaters as well. Then the old ways would be gone forever. That's what he says."
"In a way that's true," said Finbar, surprising me. "But there are two sides to every fight. It starts from something small, a chance remark, a gesture made lightly. It grows from there. Both sides can be unjust. Both can be cruel."
"How do you know?"
Finbar did not reply. His mind was closely shuttered from mine; not for now the meeting of thoughts, the silent exchange of images that passed so often between us, far easier than speech. I thought for a while, but I could think of nothing to say. Finbar chewed the end of his hair, which he wore tied at the nape of the neck, and long. His dark curls, like mine, had a will of their own.
"I think our mother left us something," he said eventually. "She left a small part of herself in each of us. It's just as well for them, for Liam and Diarmid, that they have that. It stops them from growing like him."
I knew what he meant, without fully understanding his words.
"Liam's a leader," Finbar went on, "like Father, but not quite like. Liam has balance. He knows how to weigh up a problem evenly. Men would die for him. One day they probably will. Diarmid's different. People would follow him to the ends of the earth, just for the fun of it."
I thought about this; pictured Liam standing up for me against Father, Diarmid teaching me how to catch frogs, and to let them go.
"Cormack's a warrior," I ventured. "But generous. Kind." There was the dog, after all. One of the wolfhounds had had a misalliance, and given birth to crossbred pups; Father would have had them all drowned, but Cormack rescued one and kept her, a skinny brindled thing he called Linn. His kindness was rewarded by the deep, unquestioning devotion only a faithful dog can give. "And then there's Padriac."
Finbar leaned back against the slates and closed his eyes.
"Padriac will go far," he said. "He'll go farther than any of us."
"Conor's different," I observed, but I was unable to put that difference into words. There was something elusive about it.
"Conor's a scholar," said Finbar. "We all love stories, but he treasures learning. Mother had some wonderful old tales, and riddles, and strange notions that she'd laugh over, so you never knew if she was serious or not. Conor got his love of ideas from her. Conor ishe is himself."
"How can you remember all this?" I said, not sure if he was making it up for my benefit. "You were only three years old when she died. A baby."
"I remember," said Finbar, and turned his head away. I wanted him to go on, for I was fascinated by talk of our mother, whom I had never known. But he had fallen silent again. It was getting late in the day; long tree shadows stretched their points across the grass far below us.
The silence drew out again, so long I thought he might be asleep. wriggled my toes; it was getting cold. Maybe I did need shoes.
"What about you, Finbar?" I hardly needed to ask. He was different. He was different from all of us. "What did she give you?"
He turned and smiled at me, the curve of his wide mouth transforming his face completely.
"Faith in myself," he said simply. "To do what's right, and not falter, no matter how hard it gets."
"It was hard enough today," I said, thinking of Father's cold eyes, and the way they'd made Finbar look.
It will be much harder in time. I could not tell if this thought came from my own mind, or my brother's. It sent a chill up my spine.
Then he said aloud, "I want you to remember, Sorcha. Remember that I'll always be there for you, no matter what happens. It's important. Now come on, it's time we went back down."