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By Anne Kelleher
LunaCopyright © 2006 Anne Kelleher
All right reserved.
White Birch Druid Grove, Garda Vale
The trixies were restless and the butter wouldn't churn. Meeve's messenger, one of her elite corps of warriors called the Fiachna, and sorely afflicted with arrogance, had come and gone and Catrione had been glad to see him go. Since dawn, rain had been sluicing off the thatched roofs like water from an overturned bucket, and while at one time, the thought of his wet, uncomfortable journey might've quietly pleased her, this was the first quarter Catrione had ever served as Ard-Cailleach, the head sister of the Grove, and she was too caught up in the turmoil spiraling all around her to give him another thought.
She dodged the widest puddles as she hurried across the chilly yard toward the low stone still-house, but her feet were soon soaking wet, her hems sodden. The oldest cailleachs, on whom she might've relied for support and advice, had all left for the MidSummer rites at Ardagh, summoned there early to a special conclave by the ArchDruid, Connla. Catrione, being one of the younger sisters and head of the Grove for the quarter was left with the few druids either too old to travel or too young to be called. There were reports of blight spreading across the land, of increasing numbers of unnatural births—two-mouthed fish and six-legged calves—and rumors that goblins were stirring. The queen's messenger didn't say why Meeve wanted her daughter, Deirdre, home. Hehad not once looked directly at Catrione, nor any of the other druids, and after he left, the serving maid who'd warmed his bed spoke of trouble between the ArchDruid, Connla, and the Queen.
But nothing seemed to account for the fact that knots wouldn't stay tied, fires wouldn't stay lit, water wouldn't boil and bread was slow to rise. Not to mention the trixies, who spilled and spat and quarreled and caused so much aggravation that that very afternoon, she'd banished them to their dens below the Tor shortly after discovering that an entire batch of starter had to be scrapped, leaving the entire Grove with no means of making bread unless the still-wives had more.
Catrione paused under the eave as a huge black raven shrieked at her, then rose and flapped off. Startled, she put her hand on the still-house latch as the old rhyme ran through her mind: One for sorrow. The door swung open, seemingly of its own accord. Catrione gasped as three anxious faces materialized out of the stillroom's gloom the moment she put her foot across the threshold, and she wondered if they'd been watching for her.
"Catrione, you have to let us take the child." Bride, the chief still-wife, broad-breasted as a turtledove but sharp-eyed as a hawk, closed one hand on Catrione's wrist and pulled her inside. "Deirdre's child—it's gone too long past its time."
"Sisters," Catrione managed, feeling weak in the knees. Deirdre the High Queen's daughter, once Catrione's best friend among the sisters, had doubly disgraced herself and the Grove. Not only had she lain with a brother outside the sacred rituals, but a few months after he'd been banished, she'd admitted to carrying his child.
Druids lay with each other only as part of sacred ritual, and then only after preparation and precautions against the conception of a child, for such couplings produced dangerous rogues and other anomalies. This pregnancy had gone long beyond anything normal, and now, having resisted the sisters' arguments that the child should be aborted, Deirdre was approaching three months, at least, past term. The child was still alive and squirming, and Deirdre refused to do anything more to hasten her labor than to drink the mildest of tonics.
Catrione felt as if her legs might give way beneath her, but Bride's clasp seemed to communicate a subtle strength, allowing her to sink onto a long wooden bench.
"You know we must," Bride was repeating. "You must allow it."
Baeve, tall and thin as a wraith, spoke from over Bride's shoulder, as Sora, youngest of the three, shut the door. "You know we're right, Catrione. It's not natural."
Catrione knotted her fingers together over her stained linen apron. "But, sisters—"
"Think of Deirdre," said Sora, all soft voice and hands that fluttered around Catrione's shoulders like shy birds. "Think of the Queen," said Baeve as Catrione met her eyes.
"It's not good for her," Bride was saying. "And look what's happening here. This is the kind of thing that's happening all over Brynhyvar."
Baeve's expression made Catrione pause. The messenger had gone away, but his parting words were that both Meeve and her sister Connla, the ArchDruid of all Brynhyvar, would be stopping on their way to Ardagh. But even as one side of Catrione wondered why the ArchDruid wasn't at Ardagh already, she recognized that for all their reasons, the women were right. And yet to order the child taken felt like betrayal.
The memory of Tiermuid's words, his voice like sand-washed silk, whispered through her. Protect her.
And so Catrione had, not because Deirdre was her dearest friend, the one among all the twenty or so sisters who really did feel like a sister, but because he'd asked it of her, Tiermuid, whose black hair fell around his shoulders, lustrous as a woman's, his eyes so faint a blue they were nearly sidhe-green. She and Deirdre were not the only sisters who giggled and blushed when Tiermuid was around, and if Deirdre had been the one to fall completely under his spell, the fire he'd lighted in Catrione smoldered secretly still, tamped down only by long force of hard discipline. To order the child—his child—taken felt like an arrow in her heart.
"We know how much you love Deirdre. We know how hard this has been for you." Bride's face puckered like a dumpling. She pushed wayward wisps of gray hair under her coif and covered Catrione's hands with her own, eyes steady and unwavering. "But we've no choice."
"What will we tell the ArchDruid when she comes, otherwise?"
"What will we tell the Queen? Her knight said she'd stop here herself on her way to Ardagh, didn't he?"
Catrione raised her eyes to the bunches of drying herbs hung along the rafters, the baskets of nuts and berries and seeds. Somewhere amidst all that profusion was the potent combination that would drive the child out at last. A tingle ran up her spine and down her arms. She could've left at Beltane, for her father Fengus, the chieftain-king of Allovale and nearly as powerful in his own right as the High Queen, had been left without a druid in his own house when the last one died. But Deirdre was here, and the child was due, and she'd stayed.
But that wasn't the only reason, Catrione knew, if she was honest with herself as she was required to be at every Dark Moon ritual. Tiermuid might return. The term of his banishment from the Land of a year and a day was nearly completed. She closed her eyes and wished any of the older sisters present, even Eithne, whose tongue was as cutting as her eye was quick to find the least fault. She had maintained all along that the child should be aborted, while Catrione had been careful never to voice an opinion. No wonder they made me Ard-Cailleach, she reflected bitterly. It's a kind of test.
"Please," said Baeve.
Catrione rose, back straight, deliberately shutting at all thoughts of Tiermuid's naked body, slim and white in the moonlight bending over Deirdre's darker flesh. That way lies madness—look at what's happened to Deirdre.
"We know you don't want to," Sora said, eyes liquid and large as a doe's, skin nearly as pale and satiny as a sidhe's. "But we hope you see you must." Bride sat back, folding her arms.
"We have to end this unnatural thing," Baeve put in. Catrione held up her hands as she heaved a deep sigh. She was druid, she had always been druid, and this desperate striving urgency building in her belly was a result of the Beltane to Solstice ritual abstention from any kind of coupling. The fire kindled at Beltane must be allowed to burn. That's why she was feeling this growing need, every time she thought of Tiermuid. Druids did not love each other. Not the way you love Tiermuid. The wicked little whisper made her belly burn. MidSummer was coming, when the bonfires on the Tors would call out the sidhe, and the druids would couple their fill, infusing the land. But until then, the energy had to be suppressed. "Sisters, you've convinced me. What do you want me to do?"
"Go get her," answered Baeve.
"Bring her here," added Bride.
"What if she won't come? What shall I do then?"
"If she won't come, call the men," said Baeve.
"What men?" Catrione blinked.
"The men who'll be waiting outside the door as soon as we call for them," replied Baeve.
Catrione stiffened. So this had been previously planned out. "Did Niona put you up to this?" Niona MaFee, just a few years older than Catrione, and the daughter of a poor shepherd somewhere far to the north, had been jealous of Catrione, the daughter of the chief of Allovale, from the moment Catrione had arrived at the White Birch Grove nearly fourteen years ago. Since Beltane, when Niona had not been among those chosen to accompany the older cailleachs to Ardagh, she'd grown even more resentful.
The women exchanged glances, and Bride said, "Every-one—even the neighboring chiefs—are talking. Why, just yesterday young Niall of the glen was here, telling us his sheep were sickening and to see if we had a remedy, and Niona happened to be here. Then she went with him while he spoke to Athair Emnoch about his trees—you were with the Queen's messenger."
Catrione's cheeks grew warm. No one had even mentioned the young chief's visit. Her jaw tightened. She balled her hands into fists, determined to keep control, and said, "You want me to do this now?"
"There's a bit of time," said Baeve with a glance at the other two. "We've got to get a few things ready—"
"And you look like you could use a rest," said Sora.
"Why not lie down for a turn of a short glass," said Bride.
"I'll send Sora with a cup of something with strength in it when all's ready."
Catrione nodded at each in turn, wondering if this was how her father felt before setting out on a cattle raid. She trudged across the courtyard, listening to the fading sounds of the flurry of activity that began the moment the door-latch clicked shut behind her. Her sandals slapped against the slates, the smell of roasting chicken wafting through the air made her nauseous. The rain had eased but the sky was as leaden as her mood. The low white-washed buildings with their beehives of thatch looked like giant children squatting under rough woven cloaks. The courtyard was deserted and she was glad. She picked up her skirts and ran as another downpour suddenly intensified. Once inside the long dormitory, she stopped before Deirdre's door, fist raised.
She let out a long breath, considering whether to knock or not, whether to try to reason with her friend once again. But she'd had that conversation too many times, and the dull, dead feeling in her gut told her exactly how it would end—Deirdre would refuse, the men would have to be summoned and she, Catrione, would have to go down to the still-house, tired and unprepared. Don't do that to yourself, she thought. Take the time you need to do it right.
Preparation was everything. If there was anything she'd learned in the last fourteen years it was never attempt anything—healing, ritual or oracle—without properly preparing oneself, one's tools and one's environment. But, oh, Great Goddess, why can't this child just be born? The hollow echo of her footsteps was the only answer.
The long corridor stretched before her, the end shrouded in gloom, every closed door on either side a silent reproach. Most of the rooms were unoccupied. The sisterhouse had been built many years ago, and gradually, fewer and fewer sisters and brothers came to stay. All the Groves were far smaller than they used to be, and some had closed completely. Now that so many had gone to Ardagh, there were only a dozen left.
The deeper into the shadows she went, the more the walls around the doors seemed to shimmer and blur. A tingle went down her spine. It was not unheard of that the OtherWorld occasionally intersected with a corridor—any place that wasn't one place or another, or was a conduit between two places, was a possible portal. She felt a shimmer in the air around her and out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a narrow pale face and heard the tinkle of a high-pitched laugh. It would do her good, she thought, to seek out the embrace of a sidhe, fleeting as it might be. It would relax her, help her think. Later, she promised herself. Later I'll slip up on the Tor and find my way to TirNa'lugh. But not now.
Excerpted from Silver's Lure by Anne Kelleher Copyright © 2006 by Anne Kelleher. Excerpted by permission.
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