My mother knew every tale that was ever told by the firesides ofErin, and more besides. Folks stood hushed around the hearthto hear her tell them after a long day's work, and marveled atthe bright tapestries she wove with her words. She related the many adventuresof Cú Chulainn the hero, and she told of Fionn mac Cumhaill, whowas a great warrior and cunning with it. In some households, such tales werereserved for men alone. But not in ours, for my mother made a magic withher words that drew all under its spell. She told tales that had the householdin stitches with laughter, and tales that made strong men grow quiet. Butthere was one tale she would never tell, and that was her own. My motherwas the girl who had saved her brothers from a sorceress's curse, and nearlylost her own life doing it. She was the girl whose six brothers had spent threelong years as creatures of the wild, and had been brought back only by herown silence and suffering. There was no need for telling and retelling of thisstory, for it had found a place in folks' minds. Besides, in every village therewould be one or two who had seen the brother who returned, briefly, withthe shining wing of a swan in place of his left arm. Even without this evidence,all knew the tale for truth; and they watched my mother pass, a slightfigure with her basket of salves and potions, and nodded with deep respectin their eyes.
If I asked my father to tell a tale, he would laugh and shrug and say hehad no skill with words, and besides he knew but one tale, or maybe two,and he had told them both already. Then he would glance at my mother, andshe at him, inthat way they had that was like talking without words, andthen my father would distract me with something else. He taught me tocarve with a little knife, and he taught me how to plant trees, and he taughtme to fight. My uncle thought that more than a little odd. All right for mybrother, Sean, but when would Niamh and I need skills with our fists andour feet, with a staff or a small dagger? Why waste time on this when therewere so many other things for us to learn?
"No daughter of mine will go beyond these woods unprotected," myfather had said to my Uncle Liam. "Men cannot be trusted. I would not makewarriors of my girls, but I will at least give them the means to defend themselves.I am surprised that you need ask why. Is your memory so short?"
I did not ask him what he meant. We had all discovered, early on, that itwas unwise to get between him and Liam at such times.
I learned fast. I followed my mother around the villages, and was taughthow to stitch a wound and fashion a splint and doctor the croup or nettlerash. I watched my father, and discovered how to make an owl and a deerand a hedgehog out of a piece of fine oak. I practiced the arts of combatwith Sean, when he could be cajoled into it, and perfected a variety of tricksthat worked even when your opponent was bigger and stronger. It oftenseemed as if everyone at Sevenwaters was bigger than me. My father mademe a staff that was just the right size, and he gave me his little dagger for myown. Sean was quite put out for a day or so. But he never harbored grudges.Besides, he was a boy, and had his own weapons. As for my sister, Niamh,you never could tell what she was thinking.
"Remember, little one," my father told me gravely, "this dagger can kill.I hope you need never employ it for such a purpose; but if you must, use itcleanly and boldly. Here at Sevenwaters you have seen little of evil, and Ihope you will never have to strike a man in your own defense. But one dayyou may have need of this, and you must keep it sharp and bright, and practiceyour skills against such a day."
It seemed to me a shadow came over his face, and his eyes went distantas they did sometimes. I nodded silently and slipped the small, deadlyweapon away in its sheath.
These things I learned from my father, whom folk called Iubdan,though his real name was different. If you knew the old tales, you recognizedthis name as a joke, which he accepted with good humor. For the Iubdanof the tales was a tiny wee man, who got into strife when he fell into abowl of porridge, though he got his own back later. My father was very talland strongly built, and had hair the color of autumn leaves in afternoon sun.He was a Briton, but people forgot that. When he got his new name hebecame part of Sevenwaters, and those who didn't use his name called himthe Big Man.
I'd have liked a bit more height myself, but I was little, skinny, darkhaired, the sort of girl a man wouldn't look twice at. Not that I cared. I hadplenty to occupy me without thinking that far ahead. It was Niamh they followedwith their eyes, for she was tall and broad shouldered, made in ourfather's image, and she had a long fall of bright hair and a body that curvedgenerously in all the right places. Without even knowing it, she walked in away that drew men's eyes.
"That one's trouble," our kitchen woman Janis would mutter over herpots and pans. As for Niamh herself, she was ever critical.
"Isn't it bad enough being half Briton," she said crossly, "without havingto look the part as well? See this?" She tugged at her thick plait, and thered-gold strands unraveled in a shining curtain. "Who would take me for adaughter of Sevenwaters? I could be a Saxon with this head of hair! Whycouldn't I be tiny and graceful like Mother?"
I studied her for a moment or two as she began to wield the hairbrushwith fierce strokes. For one so displeased with her appearance, she did spendrather a lot of time trying out new hairstyles and changing her gown andribbons.
"Are you ashamed to be the daughter of a Briton?" I asked her.
She glared at me. "That's so like you, Liadan. Always come straight outwith it, don't you? It's all very well for you; you're a small copy of Motheryourself, her little right hand. No wonder Father adores you. For you it'ssimple."
I let her words wash over me. She could be like this at times, as if therewere too many feelings inside her and they had to burst out somewhere. Thewords themselves meant nothing. I waited.
Niamh used her hairbrush like an instrument of punishment. "Sean,too," she said, glaring at herself in the mirror of polished bronze. "Did youhear what Father called him? He said, he's the son Liam never had. What doyou think of that? Sean fits in; he knows exactly where he's going. Heir toSevenwaters, beloved son with not one but two fathershe even looks thepart. He'll do all the right thingswed Aisling, which will make everyonehappy, be a leader of men, maybe even the one who wins the Islands backfor us. His children will follow in his footsteps, and so on, and so on.Brighid save me, it's so tedious! It's so predictable."
"You can't have it both ways," I said. "Either you want to fit in, or youdon't. Besides, we are the daughters of Sevenwaters, like it or not. I'm sureEamonn will wed you gladly when it's time, golden hair or no. I've heard noobjections from him."
"Eamonn? Huh!" She moved to the center of the room, where a shaft oflight struck gold against the oak boards of the floor, and in this spot shebegan slowly to turn, so that her white gown and her brilliant shining hairmoved around her like a cloud. "Don't you long for something different tohappen, something so exciting and new it carries you along with it like agreat tide, something that lets your life blaze and burn so the whole worldcan see it? Something that touches you with joy or with terror, that lifts youout of your safe, little path and onto a great, wild road whose endingnobody knows? Don't you ever long for that, Liadan?" She turned andturned, and she wrapped her arms around herself as if this were the only wayshe could contain what she felt.
I sat on the edge of the bed, watching her quietly. After a while I said,"You should take care. Such words might tempt the Fair Folk to take a handin your life. It happens. You know Mother's story. She was given such achance, and she took it; and it was only through her courage, and Father's,that she did not die. To survive their games you must be very strong. For herand for Father the ending was good. But that tale had losers as well. Whatabout her six brothers? Of them, but two remain, or maybe three. Whathappened damaged them all. And there were others who perished. Youwould be better to take your life one day at a time. For me, there is enoughexcitement in helping to deliver a new lamb, or seeing small oaks growstrong in spring rains. In shooting an arrow straight to the mark, or curing achild of the croup. Why ask for more when what we have is so good?"
Niamh unwrapped her arms and ran a hand through her hair, undoingthe work of the brush in an instant. She sighed. "You sound so like Fatheryou make me sick sometimes," she said, but the tone was affectionateenough. I knew my sister well. I did not let her upset me often.
"I've never understood how he could do it," she went on. "Give upeverything, just like that: his lands, his power, his position, his family. Justgive it away. He'll never be master of Sevenwaters, that's Liam's place. Hisson will inherit, no doubt; but Iubdan, all he'll be is 'the Big Man', quietlygrowing his trees and tending his flocks, and letting the world pass him by.How could a real man choose to let life go like that? He never even wentback to Harrowfield."
I smiled to myself. Was she blind that she did not see the way it wasbetween them, Sorcha and Iubdan? How could she live here day by day, andsee them look at one another, and not understand why he had done what hehad done? Besides, without his good husbandry, Sevenwaters would benothing more than a well-guarded fortress. Under his guidance our landshad prospered. Everyone knew we bred the best cattle and grew the finestbarley in all of Ulster. It was my father's work that enabled my Uncle Liamto build his alliances and conduct his campaigns. I didn't think there wasmuch point explaining this to my sister. If she didn't know it by now, shenever would.
"He loves her," I said. "It's as simple as that. And yet, it's more. Shedoesn't talk about it, but the Fair Folk had a hand in it all along. And theywill again."
Finally Niamh was paying attention to me. Her beautiful blue eyes narrowedas she faced mc. "Now you sound like her," she said accusingly."About to tell me a story, a learning tale."
"I'm not," I said. "You aren't in the mood for it. I was just going to say,we are different, you and me and Sean. Because of what the Fair Folk did,our parents met and wed. Because of what happened, the three of us cameinto being. Perhaps the next part of the tale is ours."
Niamh shivered as she sat down beside me, smoothing her skirts over herknees.
"Because we are neither of Britain nor of Erin, but at the same timeboth," she said slowly. "You think one of us is the child of the prophecy? Theone who will restore the Islands to our people?"
"I've heard it said." It was said a lot, in fact, now that Sean was almost aman, and shaping into as good a fighter and a leader as his Uncle Liam.Besides, the people were ready for some action. The feud over the Islandshad simmered since well before my mother's day, for it was long years sincethe Britons had seized this most secret of places from our people. Folk's bitternesswas all the more intense now, since we had come so close to regainingwhat was rightfully ours. For when Sean and I were children, not sixyears old, our Uncle Liam and two of his brothers, aided by Seamus Redbeard,had thrown their forces into a hold campaign that went right to theheart of the disputed territory. They had come close, achingly close. Theyhad touched the soil of Little Island and made their secret camp there. Theyhad watched the great birds soar and wheel above the Needle, that stark pinnaclelashed by icy winds and ocean spray. They had launched one fierce seaattack on the British encampment on Greater Island, and at the last they hadbeen driven back. In this battle perished two of my mother's brothers. Cormackwas felled by a sword stroke clean to the heart and died in Liam'sarms. And Diarmid, seeking to avenge his brother's loss, fought as if possessedand at length was captured by the Britons. Liam's men found hisbody later, floating in the shallows as they launched their small craft and fled,outnumbered, exhausted, and heartsick. He had died from drowning, butonly after the enemy had had their sport with him. They would not let mymother see his body when they brought him home.
These Britons were my father's people. But Iubdan had had no part inthis war. He had sworn, once, that he would not take arms against his ownkind, and he was a man of his word. With Sean it was different. My UncleLiam had never married, and my mother said he never would. There hadbeen a girl once that he had loved. But the enchantment fell on him and hisbrothers. Three years is a long time when you are only sixteen. When at lasthe came back to the shape of a man, his sweetheart was married and alreadythe mother of a son. She had obeyed her father's wishes, believing Liamdead. So he would not take a wife. And he needed no son of his own, for heloved his nephew as fiercely as any father could and brought him up, withoutknowing it, in his own image. Sean and I were the children of a single birth,he just slightly my elder. But at sixteen he was more than a head taller, closeto being a man, strong of shoulder, his body lean and hard. Liam hadensured he was expert in the arts of war. As well, Sean learned how to plan acampaign, how to deliver a fair judgment, how to understand the thinking ofally and enemy alike. Liam commented sometimes on his nephew's youthfulimpatience. But Sean was a leader in the making; nobody doubted that.
As for our father, he smiled and let them get on with it. He recognizedthe weight of the inheritance Sean must one day carry. But he had not relinquishedhis son. There was time, as well, for the two of them to walk or ridearound the fields and byres and barns of the home farms, for Iubdan to teachhis son to care for his people and his land as well as to protect them. Theyspoke long and often, and held each other's respect. Only I would catchMother sometimes, looking at Niamh and looking at Sean and looking atme, and I knew what was troubling her. Sooner or later, the Fair Folk woulddecide it was time: time to meddle in our lives again, time to pick up thehalf-finished tapestry and weave a few more twisted patterns into it. Whichwould they choose? Was one of us the child of the prophecy, who would atlast make peace between our people and the Britons of Northwoods and winback the islands of mystic caves and sacred trees? Myself, I rather thoughtnot. If you knew the Fair Folk at all, you knew they were devious and subtle.Their games were complex; their choices never obvious. Besides, what aboutthe other part of the prophecy, which people seemed to have convenientlyoverlooked? Didn't it say something about bearing the mark of the raven?Nobody knew quite what that meant, but it didn't seem to fit any of us.Besides, there must have been more than a few misalliances between wanderingBritons and Irish women. We could hardly be the only children whobore the blood of both races. This I told myself; and then I would see mymother's eyes on us, green, fey, watchful, and a shiver of foreboding wouldrun through me. I sensed it was time, time for things to change again.
That spring we had visitors. Here in the heart of the great forest, the oldways were strong despite the communities of men and women that nowspread over our land, their Christian crosses stark symbols of a new faith.From time to time, travelers would bring across the sea tales of great illsdone to folk who dared keep the old traditions. There were cruel penalties,even death, for those who left an offering, maybe, for the harvest gods orthought to weave a simple spell for good fortune or use a potion to bringback a faithless sweetheart. The druids were all slain or banished over there.The power of the new faith was great. Backed up with a generous purse andwith lethal force, how could it fail?
But here at Sevenwaters, here in this corner of Erin, we were a differentbreed. The holy fathers, when they came, were mostly quiet, scholarly menwho debated an issue with open minds and listened as much as they spoke.Among them, a boy could learn to read in Latin and in Irish, and to write aclear hand, and to mix colors and make intricate patterns on parchment orfine vellum. Amongst the sisters, a girl might learn the healing arts or how tochant like an angel. In their houses of contemplation there was a place forthe poor and dispossessed. They were, at heart, good people. But none fromour household was destined to join their number. When my grandfatherwent away and Liam became lord of Sevenwaters, with all the responsibilitiesthat entailed, many strands were drawn together to strengthen ourhousehold's fabric. Liam rallied the families nearby, built a strong fightingforce, became the leader our people had needed so badly. My father madeour farms prosperous and our fields plentiful as never before. He plantedoaks where once had been barren soil. As well, he put new heart into folkwho had drawn very close to despair. My mother was a symbol of whatcould be won by faith and strength, a living reminder of that other worldbelow the surface. Through her they breathed in daily the truth about whothey were and where they came from, the healing message of the spirit realm.
And then there was her brother Conor. As the tale tells, there were sixbrothers. Liam I have told of, and the two who were next to him in age,who died in the first battle for the Islands. The youngest, Padriac, was a voyager,returning but seldom. Conor was the fourth brother, and he was adruid. Even as the old faith faded and grew dim elsewhere, we witnessed itslight glowing ever stronger in our forest. It was as if each feast day, eachmarking of the passing season with song and ritual, put back a little more ofthe unity our people had almost lost. Each time, we drew one step closer tobeing readyready again to reclaim what had been stolen from us by theBritons long generations since. The Islands were the heart of our mystery,the cradle of our belief. Prophecy or no prophecy, the people began tobelieve that Liam would win them back; or if not him, then Sean, whowould be lord of Sevenwaters after him. The day drew closer, and folk werenever more aware of it than when the wise ones came out of the forest tomark the turning of the season. So it was at Imbolc, the year Sean and I weresixteen, a year burned deep in my memory. Conor came, and with him aband of men and women, some in white, and some in the plain homespunrobes of those still in their training, and they made the ceremony to honorBrighid's festival deep in the woods of Sevenwaters.
They came in the afternoon, quietly as usual. Two very old men and oneold woman, walking in plain sandals up the path from the forest. Their hairwas knotted into many small braids, woven about with colored thread.There were young folk wearing the homespun, both boys and girls; andthere were men of middle years, of whom my Uncle Conor was one. Comelate to the learning of the great mysteries, he was now their leader, a pale,grave man of middle height, his long chestnut hair streaked with gray, hiseyes deep and serene. He greeted us all with quiet courtesy: my mother,Iubdan, Liam, then the three of us, and our guests, for several householdshad gathered here for the festivities. Seamus Redbeard, a vigorous old manwhose snowy hair belied his name. His new wife, a sweet girl not so mucholder than myself. Niamh had been shocked to see this match.
"How can she?" she'd whispered to me behind her hand. "How can shelie with him? He's old, so old. And fat. And he's got a red nose. Look, she'ssmiling at him! I'd rather die!"
I glanced at her a little sourly. "You'd best take Eamonn then, and beglad of the offer, if what you want is a beautiful young man," I whisperedback. "You're unlikely to do better. Besides, he's wealthy."
This seemed to be the response whenever I made this suggestion. Iwondered, not for the first time, what Niamh really did want. There was noway to see inside that girl's head. Not like Sean and me. Perhaps it was ourbeing twins, or maybe it was something else, but the two of us never had anyproblem talking without words. It became necessary, even, to set a guard onyour own mind at times so that the other could not read it. It was both auseful skill and an inconvenient one.
Excerpted from Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier. Copyright © 2001 by Juliet Marillier. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.