Firebrandby Gillian Philip
At the end of the sixteenth century, religious upheaval brings fear, superstition, and doubt to the lives of mortals. Yet unbeknownst to them, another world lies just beyond the Veil: the realm of the Sithe, a fierce and beautiful people for whom a full-mortal life is but the blink of an eye. The Veil protects and hides their world…but it is… See more details below
At the end of the sixteenth century, religious upheaval brings fear, superstition, and doubt to the lives of mortals. Yet unbeknownst to them, another world lies just beyond the Veil: the realm of the Sithe, a fierce and beautiful people for whom a full-mortal life is but the blink of an eye. The Veil protects and hides their world…but it is fraying at the edges, and not all think it should be repaired.
Discarded by his mother and ignored by his father, sixteen-year-old Seth MacGregor has grown up half wild in his father’s fortress, with only his idolized older brother, Conal, for family. When Conal quarrels with the Sithe queen and is forced into exile in the full-mortal world, Seth volunteers to go with him.
But life beyond the Veil is even more dangerous than they expected, and Seth and Conal soon find themselves embroiled in a witch-hunt—in which they are the quarry. Trapped between the queen’s machinations at home and the superstitious violence of the otherworld, Seth must act before both of them are fed to the witch-hunters’ fires…
Brimming with intrigue and rebellion, Firebrand is the first book in the Rebel Angels series by Gillian Philip, the Carnegie Medal–nominated author of Crossing the Line and multi-award-nominated Bad Faith.
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—The Sunday Times
"Philip has created an utterly believable other world, where male and female are equals in arms. It is often stark and brutal but with moments of heartbreaking beauty."
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Rebel Angels Book One
By Gillian Philip
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Gillian Philip
All rights reserved.
You deal with him.
That was the first and last communication my mother ever had with my father about me. My father was more surprised than angry when my mother's emissary rode through the dun gates with a sullen brat on a pony behind him and an expression of pained endurance on his face. The man had ridden three days with me and I'd made sure they were the longest three days of his life. He was so glad to see the back of me, he didn't even take bed and board from Griogair for the night; he stayed for one meal and a very stiff drink, then turned right round and rode back the way he came. I hope Lilith made it worth his while.
Even later my father was never angry about it. He wasn't involved enough for that; at most he was mildly irritated. Deep down I'm sure he wasn't convinced of my existence, that he thought I was just one more of Lilith's illusions.
My stepmother believed in me, all right. I used to feel Leonora's cold blue gaze like frost on my skin, and if I looked up, she wouldn't look away. She was the only one who didn't. The rest of the clann averted their eyes, as if I was a colossal embarrassment. Well, that's what I was, so as soon as it became clear Griogair wasn't going to embrace me as his long-lost heir, they adopted the policy of pretending I didn't exist. The small band of children took more of an interest, the older ones freezing me out or taunting me at best, and giving me thrashings at worst. The younger ones ran from me: I made sure they did.
But my stepmother didn't bully me or fear me or ignore me. She watched me. I thought it quite likely she'd eventually kill me, but I never could read Leonora's eyes, let alone her mind. It wasn't that she felt threatened by me; she wasn't threatened by anyone. I'd watched her and my father together and I'm sure he never smiled at my mother like that, or touched her so gently, or spoke so tenderly. Certainly he never treated me that way. If he caught sight of me his brow would furrow and he'd set his teeth and look exasperated, as if I was a reminder of some great mistake, a souvenir he couldn't get rid of. Leonora? All I could ever make out in her was pity and a degree of contempt, and I hated her for it. I'd have liked to hate my father too, but I couldn't. All I ever wanted was his love, or if I couldn't have that, his notice would do.
I never had a chance.
But my mother sent me back to him anyway. She was living at court by then, an adviser to the queen: oh, her exile had brought her up in the world. From being Griogair Dubh's afterthought lover, she'd risen to be one of the most powerful courtiers in Kate NicNiven's halls. What she didn't need was a truculent attention-seeking toe-rag who was always getting into trouble, calling the captains names and the courtiers worse ones, getting thrashed on a regular basis and generally being an embarrassment. So she sent me back to Griogair.
I liked it better with my father anyway. The women of our race don't do motherhood well, it's a known fact, so I didn't really miss Lilith, not after a while. Sithe women make wonderful fighters, wise and wily counsellors. If they're healers or smiths they do it well; when they're witches they excel at witchcraft. What they do not excel at is motherhood. It's not something that happens easily, we're not a fertile race; maybe that's where those ridiculous stories come from, the ones about us being baby-stealers. Let me tell you, our women can barely tolerate their own brats, let alone someone else's. Our women don't yearn for children, because what's the point mourning for centuries over something that may never happen? Instead they harden themselves, and even if they do breed they never quite shake off that hardness. Anyway, some of them don't even take lovers, the loss of their virginity is so physically painful. Must be, to stay loverless for centuries.
Well, my mother must have got over that problem. She had plenty of lovers, though what she wanted more than anything was to be Griogair's bound lover and that was something she'd never get for all her wiles, because he'd bound himself to Leonora decades before Lilith came along. When it became clear I wasn't going to advance her cause in any way, Lilith lost interest in me altogether.
Which was fine by me. Being sent away from Kate NicNiven's labyrinthine caverns was like breathing for the first time, and there was no-one I missed from her pale and haughty court. There had been even fewer children underground than there were above it, but anyway, I needed neither friends nor mother. At my father's dun I was content to skulk in the shadows and watch; that way I could see how the fighters trained, how the children scrapped and competed, how the strange and complex hierarchies of dun life operated. There were daredevil games on horseback that I might have liked to join, and when the wild racing music played on moonlit nights I used to half-wish I could throw myself into the dance with the rest of them. But it was fine, I was fed and clothed and relatively safe, and I was learning a lot — not that anybody made me study, or even tried to make me work the fields or learn a practical skill. My education was self-inflicted and unconventional, but I knew that the lessons would come in useful for the rest of my life. The most useful of them was the one I learned first: I was responsible for myself. In life and death you're on your own, and I knew that better than any of my peers.
It seems stupid now that I looked forward so much to living with my father. I must have had some childish romantic picture in my head, me and him doing father-son things together, fighting and hunting and laughing and confiding.
But it turned out he already had a son, a perfect one, so he didn't need another.CHAPTER 2
I was fishing that morning. This was what I liked best about living in my father's dun: it was in the open air. I'd hated Kate's underground caverns. They were beautiful, breathtaking, but lightless. You couldn't see the sky.
At my father's dun there was sky to spare. The fortress rambled across a rocky headland, its stone walls falling sheer to the sea on its western side. It was as much a part of the land as the great grey rocks that jutted from the earth, mottled with yellow lichen, hacked and split by the weather of aeons. To the north and south were blue bays; inland was the machair, wild with flowers, and an expanse of moorland so huge it blurred to a haze at the horizon. I had no sooner seen it than I loved it and knew that I'd die here.
The sooner the better, if you asked my new clann.
I didn't care what they thought of me. Now I could run free where and when I liked; I had no boundaries, no limits. I could swim and fish and snare rabbits; I could spend the whole day taming a wounded falcon while I ate what I found or caught. It was a loveless existence, but so what? I was eight years old and I was free for the first time in my life. Nobody knew or cared what I did or where I was. It was a kind of heaven and a kind of hell, but I fixed my mind on the heaven part and it was fine, it was a good enough life for a boy who wasn't meant to be born.
On the first day of my twelfth month in the dun, my life as a ghost ended.
That summer day, the hours stretched ahead of me like a gift, sunlit and lazy. The lochan on the moor was still and steel-blue: not a good day for fishing, but I had nothing better to do with my time. Was there anything better? My ribs still hurt from my last beating, but my nose had stopped bleeding and I had the blood of my enemies on my own knuckles, their skin under my fingernails, and I'd cost one of them a tooth. My pride was intact and I knew it always would be. I was bruised and battered but the breeze was warm on my skin, the heather smelt of honey, and I was happy.
I'd been teasing that trout for almost an hour. I didn't use my mind. It's hard and boring to enter the mind of a fish, and anyway, I liked the challenge. This was a cunning old one; plenty of people had tried and failed to catch him, and I wanted to be the one to get him. I had some vague notion of presenting him to my father, seeing Griogair's eyes light up with pleasure and maybe a little respect.
So there I was, on my stomach in the scratchy heather, letting my fingertips graze the still surface of the lochan, singing softly to my trout. He was sleepy and fat among the weeds, and the water so brown and cool that I longed to curl my fingers round his sleek body, but I knew I mustn't rush it. When I let my forefinger trail a delicate line along his spine, and he didn't stir, I knew I had him. Gripping him firmly, I tossed him out of the water with a yell of triumph.
He floundered on the grey rock, looking stunned and a little betrayed. My delight faded as I stared down at his gasping, flopping body. Now he didn't look so fine.
I thought about my father again. This morning I'd seen him ride back from a dawn hunt with my half-brother, a sleek roebuck slung across their garron's back. This half-brother had returned to the dun a month earlier, from secondment to another clann seventy miles to the north, but since his arrival he'd shown no interest in me. Well, the contempt was mutual.
As they rode right past me the two of them were laughing together, easy companions, and you could see the pride burning in Griogair's eyes when he looked at Conal, the love nearly choking him. I half-wished it would. Griogair had barely registered me there, but Conal's gaze had slewed towards me, unreadable. He didn't try to get into my mind — that's how far I was beneath him — and I'd no intention of going near his, even if he'd let me. I didn't want to read his scorn and superiority, his first-born arrogance. I did notice there was only one arrow missing from his quiver. He'd got that buck first shot, and it was a beauty.
A fish? My father wasn't going to care a damn for a fish.
I picked up a stone to stun it, but once I'd hit its head I found I couldn't stop. I went on smashing the stone into the pathetic creature long after I'd put it out of its misery. There was translucent flesh all over the rock, and bits of skin and shattered pale bone. Still I went on pounding, till I began to wonder how I'd ever stop.
'Well, don't take it out on the fish.'
I leaped to my feet, the stone clutched in my fist and raised to strike.
Conal was watching me from a rock outcrop, barely six feet away, his arms resting casually on his knees. Gods, how I hated him. He was everything I wasn't. Grown-up, for a start: he had to be more than a hundred years older than me. He had his mother's dark blond hair, cut short but unruly, and Griogair's light grey eyes, dancing with laughter. He had everything of Griogair's, not least his love and trust. And all I had was Griogair's black hair, like the villain I knew I was destined to be. I decided then and there that I'd grow it long.
Conal was wearing his sword on his back, his silver-embossed sword that Griogair had had made for him, and I wondered if he'd come here to kill me. I wondered if the prospect bothered me that much, and I decided that it did. My fingers tightened on the stone. I'd damn well hurt him first.
'Go away,' I snapped.
He shrugged lightly. 'But this isn't your rock. And I like it here.'
'Don't look at me,' I snarled, raising my stone a little higher.
Sighing, he turned himself round on the boulder so that his back was to me. 'Better?'
No. Worse. I went on glaring my hatred at him. The sword was a beautiful thing, and more than beautiful. I'd seen Conal wield it in practice, I'd seen how it sang in the air, light and fast as his thought, perfectly balanced on its tang, answering him like his own hand. My father, I knew suddenly, would never give me anything like that. It didn't matter how hard I tried, I would never be his son. Not really.
'But you're my brother,' murmured Conal.
'That means you get to lord it over me, does it?'
'No.' He glanced over his shoulder but didn't quite look at me. 'It means I'd like to know you. And it means that what I want ... it isn't the same as what Griogair wants.'
'He wants me to go away.'
That silenced him. He didn't even bother to contradict me, because he knew it was true.
'I don't,' he said at last.
Hot tears spilled out of my eyes, and the humiliation made me loathe him even more. 'Shut up!'
'Don't call me that!' My words got all tangled up in my tears.
'Isn't that your name?'
I sniffed violently. I wanted to hit him with the stone. I wanted to hit him like I'd hit the fish, till he didn't exist any more. Then he'd know how it felt. My face was all tears and snot, like some infant, streaked with the dried blood from my nose.
'Go ahead,' he said.
I stared at the back of his head.
'Preferably not with the rock,' he added, 'but go ahead and hit me.'
I don't know why I dropped the stone. I could just have used it anyway, but I did drop it. Before I could think any harder I ran at him, and struck him hard on the side of his face. Then, like a coward, I ran away again and crouched, ready to bolt for my life.
Slowly, a little stunned, he put his hand to his face. I knew I'd hurt him and if he pretended I hadn't, I promised myself I'd hate him forever. But he shook his head slightly, wincing as he touched his cheekbone.
'Strong,' he murmured. 'You're strong.'
'I hate you,' I said.
'I know. Can I turn round yet?'
'No!' I didn't want him to see the fresh tears brimming in my eyes.
'Did that make you feel better?'
'Yes,' I lied.
I could tell he meant it. He wasn't trying to teach me some stupid moral lesson about the futility of violence. He actually just wanted me to feel better.
'Your mother had my mother exiled,' I spat, as much to remind myself as him.
Shrugging very slightly, Conal half-turned. 'Well,' he said, a smile just creasing the corner of his mouth. 'Your mother did try to poison my mother.'
I slumped down into the heather and gnawed on my knuckle for a while. The silence between us was almost companionable. Almost. If I hadn't been on the verge of tears I'd have been closer to contentment then than I'd ever been, just sitting there in his company. I had to keep reminding myself he was Griogair's first-born, the only one my father loved, the one who'd made me superfluous before I was even conceived. If he tried to tell me now he'd be my friend, I'd pick up the stone again and kill him.
After a while he said, 'Do you know Sionnach MacNeil?'
I did, but I said nothing. He was a nice enough boy, about my age, one of the few human beings in the dun who'd acknowledged my existence, one of the few children who didn't torment me. If I was the kind of child who ever needed a friend, I remember thinking he might do.
'He knows where there's a fox den, up in the pinewood,' Conal went on. 'He'll take you up there if you want.'
'Who says?' I snapped.
'All right,' I said, because I could think of no other answer.
'So can I turn round yet?' 'All right.' Quickly I rubbed my nose on my sleeve.
So he turned and looked at me. I didn't want him to smile at me, and he didn't. Instead he reached out a hand to me, simple as that.
Biting my lip hard, I looked at his hand. And then I took it, simple as that.
Then Conal did smile. But by then I didn't mind too much.
* * *
So after that, I had at least one friend in the dun. Sionnach liked the things I liked, and we spent most of every day together, and being Sionnach's friend gave me a bit more status, since his father was Griogair's second-in-command; Niall Mor MacIain was actually kinder to me than my own father. And Conal, while keeping a distance that was entirely my choice, slowly made me part of the clann; so slowly and gently, in fact, that neither I nor the clann noticed the moment when I stopped being Griogair's unwanted mistake and became one of them.
Now, when he rode into the dun with Griogair, from a hunt or a patrol or a diplomatic visit to Kate, Conal would say sharply ~ Athair! Father! That would be enough to make Griogair start, and look at me, and almost smile. It was all I ever got but it was more than I'd grown to expect. Conal would reach down a hand and pull me up onto his ferocious black horse — and sometimes Sionnach too — right in front of the whole clann. Then I'd just about burst with pride. I wasn't Griogair's son, not in any true sense, but look at me! Look at me, you dogs that used to sneer at me and kick me and ignore me: I'm Conal MacGregor's brother!
Excerpted from Firebrand by Gillian Philip. Copyright © 2010 Gillian Philip. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
GILLIAN PHILIP was born in Glasgow, lived for twelve years in Barbados, and now lives in the north of Scotland with her husband, twin children, three dogs, two sociopathic cats, a slayer hamster, three chickens, and a lot of nervous fish.
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