Award-winning author Juliet Marillier’s “lavishly detailed”(Publishers Weekly) Blackthorn & Grim series continues as a mysterious creature holds ancient Ireland in thrall...
Disillusioned healer Blackthorn and her companion, Grim, have settled in Dalriada to wait out the seven years of Blackthorn’s bond to her fey mentor, hoping to avoid any dire challenges. But trouble has a way of seeking them out.
A noblewoman asks for the prince of Dalriada’s help in expelling a creature who threatens the safety and sanity of all who live nearby from an old tower on her land—one surrounded by an impenetrable hedge of thorns. With no ready solutions to offer, the prince consults Blackthorn and Grim.
As Blackthorn and Grim put the pieces of this puzzle together, it’s apparent that a powerful adversary is working behind the scenes. Their quest soon becomes a life-and-death struggle—a conflict in which even the closest of friends can find themselves on opposite sides.
About the Author
Juliet Marillier is the author of the Sevenwaters series and the Blackthorn & Grim novels. Her historical fantasy novels and short stories are published internationally and have won a number of awards. She was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, a town with strong Scottish roots. She graduated from the University of Otago with degrees in languages and music, and has had a varied career that includes teaching and performing music as well as working in government agencies. Juliet now lives in a hundred-year-old cottage near the river in Perth, Western Australia, where she writes full-time. She is a member of the druid order OBOD. Juliet shares her home with a small pack of waifs and strays.
Read an Excerpt
Also by Juliet Marillier
This list includes some characters who are mentioned by name but don’t appear in the story.
Oran: prince of Dalriada
Flidais: Oran’s wife
Donagan: Oran’s companion
Deirdre: Flidais’s chief handmaid
Blackthorn: wisewoman, formerly known as Saorla (seer-la)
Grim: her companion
Emer: (eh-ver) Blackthorn’s young assistant
Ruairi: king of Dalriada; Oran’s father
Eabha: queen of Dalriada; Oran’s mother
Sochla: Eabha’s sister
Master Caillín: court physician
Domnall: senior man-at-arms
Geiléis: (ge-lace, hard g) the Lady of Bann
Dau: (rhymes with now) manservant
Caisín: (ka-sheen) seamstress, married to Rian
Onchú: senior man-at-arms
Rian: man-at-arms, married to Caisín
Mechar: man-at-arms (deceased)
Ana: a cottager
Fursa: her baby son
Father Tomas: head of the monastic foundation
Brother Dufach: one of the monks
Brother Fergal: gardener
Brother Ríordán: (reer-dawn) head archivist
Brother Dathal: (do-hal) assistant archivist
Brother Marcán: infirmarian
Brother Tadhg: (t¯ıg) a tall novice
Brother Eoan: (ohn) keeper of pigeons
Brother Galen: scribe and scholar (deceased)
Bathsheba: his cat (deceased)
Brother Conall: a novice
Lily: a young noblewoman
Ash (Brión): a young nobleman
Muiríol: (mi-reel) Lily’s maidservant
Mathuin: chieftain of Laois
Lorcan: king of Mide
Flannan: a traveling scholar
Ripple: Flannan’s dog
Conmael: a fey nobleman
Master Oisín: (a-sheen) a druid
Cass: Blackthorn’s husband (deceased)
Brennan: Blackthorn’s son (deceased)
Brother Gwenneg: an acquaintance from Geiléis’s past
Cú Chulainn: (koo hull-en) a legendary Irish hero
Rain had swollen the river to a churning mass of gray. The tower wore a soft shroud of mist; though it was past dawn, no cries broke the silence. Perhaps he slept, curled tight on himself, dreaming of a time when he was whole and hale and handsome. Perhaps he knew even in his sleep that she still kept watch, her shawl clutched around her against the cold, her gaze fixed on his shuttered window.
But he might have forgotten who she was, who he was, what had befallen them. It had been a long time ago. So long that she had no more tears to shed. So long that one summer blurred into another as the years passed in an endless wait for the next chance, and the next, to put it right. She did not know if he could see her. There were the trees, and the water, and on mornings like this, the mist lying thick between them. Only the top of the tower was visible, with its shuttered window.
Another day. The sun was fighting to break through; here and there the clouds of vapor showed a sickly yellow tinge. Gods, she loathed this place! And yet she loved it. How could she not? How could she want to be anywhere but here?
Downstairs, her household was stirring now. Someone was clanking pots, raking out the hearth, starting to make breakfast. A part of her considered that a warm meal on a chilly morning would be welcome—her people sought to please her. To make her, if not happy, then at least moderately content. It was no fault of theirs that she could not enjoy such simple pleasures as a full belly, the sun on her face, or a good night’s sleep. Her body was strung tight with waiting. Her heart was a constant, aching hurt in her chest. What if there was no ending this? What if it went on and on forever?
Senach tapped on the door, then entered. Her steward was a good servant, discreet and loyal. “Breakfast is ready, my lady,” he said. “I would not have disturbed you, but the fellow we sent to the Dalriadan court has returned, and he has some news.”
She left her solitary watch, following her man out of the chamber. As Senach closed the door behind them, the monster in the tower awoke and began to scream.
• • •
“Going away,” she said. “For how long?”
“King Ruairi will be attending the High King’s midsummer council, my lady.” Her messenger was gray-faced with exhaustion; had he traveled all night? His mead cup shook in his hands. “The queen will go south with him. They will be gone for at least two turnings of the moon, and maybe closer to three.”
“Who will accompany them? Councilors? Advisers? Friends and relations?”
“All the king’s senior councilors. Queen Eabha’s attendants. A substantial body of men-at-arms. But Cahercorcan is a grand establishment; the place will still be full of folk.”
“This son of King Ruairi’s,” she said. “The one you say will be looking after his father’s affairs while they’re gone—what manner of man is he? Of what age? Has he a wife?”
“Prince Oran is young, my lady. Three-and-twenty and newly married. There’s a child on the way. The prince does not live at Cahercorcan usually, as he has his own holding farther south. He is more a man of scholarship than a man of action.”
“Respected by his father’s advisers, those of them who remained behind?” A scholar. That might be helpful. “Is he a clever man?”
“I could not say, my lady. He’s well enough respected. They say he’s a little unusual.”
“They say he likes to involve all his folk in the running of household and farm. And I mean all, from the lowliest groom to the most distinguished of nobles. Consults the community, lets everyone have a say. There’s some at court think that odd; they’d sooner he just told folk what to do, as his father would.”
“I see.” Barely two turnings of the moon remained until midsummer. After the long, wearying search, the hopes dashed, the possibilities all come to nothing, she had been almost desperate enough to head south and throw herself at King Ruairi’s feet, foolish as that would have been. Common sense had made her send the messenger first, with orders to bring back a report on the situation at court. She had not expected anything to come of it; most certainly not this. Her heart beat faster; her mind raced ahead. The king gone, along with his senior advisers. The queen absent too. The prince in charge, a young man who would know nothing of her story . . . Could this be a real opportunity at last? Dared she believe it? Perhaps Prince Oran really was the key. Perhaps he could find her the kind of woman she had so long sought without success.
She’d have to ride for Cahercorcan soon—but not too soon, or she risked arriving before the king and his entourage had departed. It was the prince she needed to speak to, not his father. How might she best present her case? Perhaps this scholarly prince loved tales of magic and mystery. She must tell it in a way that would capture his imagination. And his sympathy.
She rose to her feet. “Thank you,” she said to the messenger. “Go to the kitchen; Dau will give you some breakfast. Then sleep. I’ll send for you later if I have further questions.” Though likely he had told all he knew. She’d sent him to the royal household in the guise of a traveler passing through and seeking a few nights’ shelter. There’d be limits to what a lad like him could learn in such a place. “Senach,” she said after the messenger was gone, “it seems that this time we have a real opportunity.” At last. Oh, at last! She had hardly dared to dream this might be possible. “You understand what this means?”
“Yes, my lady. You’ll be wanting to travel south.”
“I will, and soon. Speak to Onchú about an escort, will you? In my absence, you will be in charge of the household.”
“Of course, my lady.” A pause, then Senach added, “When do you plan to depart?”
“Not for a few days.” Every instinct pulled her to leave now, straightaway, without delay; any wait would be hard to bear. But they must be sure the royal party had left court. “Let’s say seven days. That should be long enough.”
“When might I expect you to return, my lady?”
Her lips made the shape of a smile, but there was no joy in her. She had forgotten how it felt to be happy. “Before midsummer. That goes without saying. Prepare the guest quarters, Senach. We must hold on to hope.” Hope, she thought, was as easily extinguished as a guttering candle on a day of spring storm. Over and over she had seen it tremble and die. Yet even now she was making plans again, looking ahead, seeing the way things might unfold. Her capacity to endure astonished her.
“Leave it to me, my lady. All will be ready for you.”
• • •
Later still, as her household busied itself with the arrangements—horses, supplies, weaponry—she climbed back up to the high chamber and looked out once more on the Tower of Thorns. All day its tenant had shouted, wailed, howled like an abandoned dog. Now his voice had dwindled to a hoarse, gasping sob, as if he had little breath left to draw.
“This time I’ll make it happen,” she murmured. “I swear. By every god there ever was, by the stars in the sky and the waves on the shore, by memory and loss and heartbreak, I swear.”
The sun was low; it touched the tower with a soft, rosy light that made a mockery of his pain. It would soon be dusk. There was just enough time.
With her gaze on that distant window, she began the nightly ritual. “Let me tell you a story.”
I sat on the cottage steps, shelling peas and watching as Grim forked fresh straw onto the vegetable patch. Here at the edge of Dreamer’s Wood, dappled shade lay over us; the air held a warm promise of the summer to come. In the near distance green fields spread out, dotted with grazing sheep, and beyond them I glimpsed the long wall that guarded Prince Oran’s holdings at Winterfalls. A perfect day. The kind of day that made a person feel almost . . . settled. Which was not good. If there was anything I couldn’t afford, it was to get content.
“Lovely morning,” observed Grim, pausing to wipe the sweat off his brow and to survey his work.
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Something wrong?”
A pox on the man; he knew me far too well. “What would be wrong?”
“You tell me.”
“Seven years of this and I’ll have lost whatever edge I once had,” I said. “I’ll have turned into one of those well-fed countrywomen who pride themselves on making better preserves than their neighbors, and give all their chickens names.”
“Can’t see that,” said Grim, casting a glance at the little dog as she hunted for something in the pile of straw. The dog’s name was Bramble, but we didn’t call her that anymore, only Dog. There were reasons for that, complicated ones that only a handful of people knew. She was living a lifelong penance, that creature. I had my own penance. My fey benefactor, Conmael, had bound me to obey his rules for seven years. I was compelled to say yes to every request for help, to use my craft only for good, and to stay within the borders of Dalriada. In particular, Conmael had made me promise I would not go back to Laois to seek vengeance against my old enemy. I’d known from the first how hard those requirements would be to live by. But my burden was nothing against that borne by Ciar, who had once been maidservant to a lady. For her misdeeds, she had been turned into a dog. Magic being what it was—devious and tricky—she had no way back.
“Anyway,” Grim went on, “it’s closer to six years now.”
“Why doesn’t that make me feel any better? It doesn’t seem to matter how busy I am, how worn-out I am after a day of applying salves and dispensing drafts and giving advice to every fool who thinks he wants it. Every night I dream about the same thing: what Mathuin of Laois did to me, and what I’ll do to him. And the fact that Conmael’s stupid rules are stopping me from getting on with it.”
“I dream about that place,” Grim said. “The stink. The dark. The screams. I dream about nearly losing hope. And when I wake up, I look around and . . .” He shrugged. “The last thing I’d be wanting is to go back. Different for you, I know.”
I wanted to challenge him; to ask if there weren’t folk who’d wronged him, folk he might care to teach a lesson to. Or folk who’d once loved him, who might still be missing him and needing him to come home. But I held my tongue. We didn’t ask each other about the past, the time before we’d found ourselves in Mathuin’s lockup, staring at each other across the walkway between the iron bars. A whole year we’d kept each other going, a year of utter hell, and we’d never shared our stories. Grim knew some of mine now, since I’d blurted it out on the day fire destroyed our cottage. How Mathuin of Laois had punished my man for his part in a plot against injustice. How he’d burned Cass and our baby alive, how he’d ordered his guards to hold me back so I couldn’t reach them. Grim knew the dark thing I carried within me, the furious need to see justice done. And Conmael knew. Conmael knew far more than anyone rightly should.
“Pea soup?” Grim’s voice broke into my thoughts.
“What? Oh. Seems a shame to cook them—they taste much better raw. But yes, soup would stretch them out a bit. I’ll make it.”
“Onion, chopped small,” he suggested. “Garlic. Maybe a touch of mint.”
“Trying to distract me from unwise thoughts?” I turned my gaze on him, but he was busy with his gardening again.
“Nah,” said Grim. “Just hungry. Looks like we might have company in a bit.”
A rider was approaching from the direction of Winterfalls. From this distance I couldn’t tell who it was, but the green clothing suggested Prince Oran’s household.
“Donagan,” said Grim.
The prince’s body servant; a man with whom we shared a secret or two. “How can you tell?”
“The horse. The white marking on her head. Only one like that in these parts. Star, she’s called.”
“You think the prince’s man will be happy to eat my pea soup?”
“Why not? I always am. Need to start cooking soon, though, or he won’t get the chance.” Grim laid aside his pitchfork and straightened up, a big bear of a man. “I’ll do it if you want.”
“You’re busy. I’ll do it.” Since I didn’t plan on standing out front like a welcoming party, I headed back into the house. Donagan was all right as courtiers went, but a visit from a member of the prince’s household generally meant some sort of request for help, and that meant saying yes to whatever it was, however inconvenient, because of my promise to Conmael. The most reasonable of requests felt burdensome if a person had no choice in the matter. If I was to survive seven years, I’d need to work on keeping my temper; staying civil. I only had four chances. Break Conmael’s rules a fifth time, and he’d put me straight back into Mathuin’s lockup as if I’d never left the place. That was what he’d threatened, anyway. Maybe he couldn’t do it, but I had no intention of putting that to the test.
Grim stayed outside and so did Donagan, whose arrival I saw between the open shutters. Once he’d tethered his horse, he leaned on the wall chatting as Grim finished his work with the pitchfork. That gave me breathing time, which I used not only to prepare the meal, but to put my thoughts in order. Step by small step; that was the only way I’d survive my time of penance. My lesson in patience. Or whatever it was.
• • •
Donagan had brought a gift of oaten bread. It went well with the soup. Dog sat under the table, feasting on crusts. Our guest waited until we had all finished eating before he came to the purpose of his visit. “Mistress Blackthorn, Lady Flidais has asked to see you, at your convenience.”
Nothing surprising about that, since Lady Flidais, wife to the prince, had been under my care since she’d first discovered she was expecting a child. The infant would not be born before autumn, and thus far the lady had remained in robust health. It was typical of her, if not of Donagan, that this had been presented as a request rather than as an order.
“I can come by this afternoon, if that suits Lady Flidais,” I told him. “I have one or two folk to visit in the settlement.” This had to be more than it seemed, or they’d have sent an ordinary messenger, not the prince’s right-hand man. “Is Lady Flidais unwell?”
“The lady is quite well. She has a request to make of you.”
There was a silence; no doubt Donagan felt the weight of our scrutiny.
“Can you tell us what it is?” I asked. “Or must this wait until I see her?”
“I’ve been given leave to tell you. King Ruairi and Queen Eabha will be traveling south soon for the High King’s council; they and their party will be away from Dalriada until well after midsummer. The king requires Prince Oran to be at court for that period, acting in his place.”
My thoughts jumped ahead to an uncomfortable conclusion. Lady Flidais and the prince both loved the peaceful familiarity of Winterfalls. I was quite certain they’d rather stay here than go to the king’s court at Cahercorcan, some twenty miles north. But although Oran was not your usual kind of nobleman, he wouldn’t refuse a request from his father, the king of Dalriada. And where Oran went, Flidais would be wanting to go too. The two of them were inseparable, like lovers in a grand old story. If they needed to be at court for two turnings of the moon or more, that meant . . . My guts protested, clenching themselves into a tight ball.
Grim said what I could not bring myself to say. “The lady, she’ll be wanting Blackthorn at court with her. That what you’re telling us?”
“Lady Flidais will explain,” Donagan said. “But yes, that is what she would prefer. Lady Flidais does not place a great deal of trust in the court physicians.” He fell silent, gazing into his empty soup bowl. Grim and I stayed quiet too. There was a long, long list of reasons why the prospect of going to court disturbed us; not all of them were reasons we could share with Donagan or indeed with Lady Flidais.
“Inconvenient, I know,” the king’s man said eventually, still not meeting my eye or Grim’s. “Your young helper would need to act as healer here in your absence. And . . . well, I understand this wouldn’t be much to your liking.” Now he glanced across at Grim. “Lady Flidais’s invitation extends to both of you. Since it’s for some time, there would be private quarters provided.”
“Invitation,” echoed Grim. “But not the sort of invitation a person says no to, coming from a prince and all.”
Donagan gave Grim a crooked smile. I had come to understand that he had a soft spot for my companion, though what exactly had passed between them during that odd time when Grim and I had stayed in the prince’s household I was not quite sure. I knew Grim had been in a fight and had hurt another man quite badly. I knew Donagan had helped get Grim out of trouble. So it was possible that Donagan realized how hard it was for Grim to sleep without me to keep him company—not the sort of company a man and a woman keep when they’re wed, more the company of a watchful friend, the same as we’d had when we were in that wretched place together, before I’d understood what friends were.
“True enough,” Donagan went on. “Still, I imagine you will say yes, not because you feel obliged to, but because Lady Flidais trusts you. And because you have her welfare at heart, as we all do.”
It was a pretty speech. No need to tell him that if I said yes, it wouldn’t be for that heartwarming reason, but because I was bound to it by Conmael. Court. Closed in by stone walls, surrounded by highbred folk quick to judge those they deemed their inferiors. I imagined myself embroiled in petty disputes with the royal physicians, who could only resent Lady Flidais’s preference for a local wise woman over their expert and scholarly selves. Court, where every single activity would be subject to some sort of ridiculous protocol. Morrigan’s curse! I’d found it hard enough staying in the prince’s much smaller establishment. Grim would loathe it. And what about Conmael and our agreement? He’d ordered me to live at Winterfalls, not at Cahercorcan. So complying with one condition of my promise would mean breaking another. A pox on it!
I rose to my feet. “Thank you for bringing the message. I have some herbs to gather before I head over to the settlement, but please tell Lady Flidais she can expect me around midafternoon.” I thought I did an excellent job of sounding calm and unruffled, but the look Grim gave me suggested otherwise.
“How soon?” he asked Donagan. “When’s the king leaving?”
“At next full moon. It’s a long journey to Tara, made more challenging by the fact that Mathuin of Laois is stirring up trouble in that region. And the king will want Prince Oran settled at court before he leaves.”
“Doesn’t give us long,” Grim said. His hands had bunched themselves into fists.
“You’ll be offered all the assistance you need for the move. Horses, help with packing up, arrangements put in place so young Emer can continue to provide a healer’s services to the community.”
“Emer’s been under my guidance for less than a year,” I protested. “She may be quite apt, but she can’t be asked to step into my place. It’s too much to expect.”
Donagan smiled. “I’m sure a solution will be found. Lady Flidais will discuss that with you. Now, I can see you are both busy, so I will make my departure.”
When he was gone, we sat staring at each other over the table, stunned into silence. After a while Grim got up and started gathering the bowls.
“Court, mm?” he said.
“Seems so. But what if Conmael says no?”
“Why would he?”
“The promise. Go to Winterfalls. Quite specific.”
“Then you tell Lady Flidais the truth,” Grim said.
“What, that the wise woman she trusts with her unborn child is actually a felon escaped from custody? That the only reason I help folk is because I have no choice in the matter? That the person I answer to is not even human?”
Grim fetched a bucket, took a cloth, wiped down the table. He spooned the leftover soup into a bowl for Dog. “Thing is,” he said, “she knows you now. She’s seen what kind of person you are. She’s seen what you can do. That’s why she trusts you; that’s why the prince trusts you. And you did get them out of a tight corner.”
“You mean we did.”
“Something else too,” said Grim. “Escaped felons. We may be that, and if we went south we might find ourselves thrown back in that place or worse. But Lady Flidais is hardly going to take Mathuin’s side. He’s her father’s enemy.”
The thought of telling Flidais the truth—of telling anyone—made me feel sick. “Trust me,” I said, “that is a really bad idea. What lies in the past should stay there. I shouldn’t need to tell you that. Let word get out about who we are and where we came from, and that word can make its way back to Mathuin.”
“Mm-hm.” He poured water from the kettle into the bucket and started to wash the dishes. After a while he said, “Why don’t you ask him, then? Conmael?”
“What, you think he’s going to appear if I go out there and click my fingers? I need to know now, Grim. Before I go and see Flidais.”
“Mm-hm.” He looked at me, the cloth in one hand and a dripping platter in the other. “What were the words of it, the promise you made to the fellow? Was it live at Winterfalls, or was it only live in Dalriada?”
I thought about it: the night when I’d been waiting to die, the terrible trembling that had racked my body, the way time had passed so slowly, moment by painful moment, Grim’s presence in the cell opposite the only thing that had stopped me from trying to kill myself. Then the strange visitor, a fey man whom I’d never clapped eyes on before, and the offer that had saved my life.
“I’m not sure I remember his exact words. One part of the promise was that I must travel north to Dalriada and not return to Laois. That I mustn’t seek out Mathuin or pursue vengeance. Then he said, You’ll live at Winterfalls. Or, You must live at Winterfalls. He told me that the prince lived here, and that the local folk had no healer. And that we could live in this house; he was specific about the details.”
“Maybe you don’t need to ask him,” said Grim. “Isn’t part of the promise about doing good? Looking after Lady Flidais, that’s doing good. Sweet, kind lady, been through a lot. And her baby might be king someday. If it’s a boy.”
“Some folk might say a future king would be better served by a court physician.”
“Lady Flidais doesn’t want a court physician,” Grim said. “She wants you.”
“Why are you arguing in favor of going? You’ll hate it even more than I will.”
“Be sorry to leave the house. And the garden. Just when we’ve got it all sorted out.” Grim spoke calmly, as if he did not care much one way or the other. His manner was a lie. It was a carapace of protection. He had become expert at hiding his feelings, and only rarely did he slip up. But I knew what must be in his heart. He had spent days and days fixing up the derelict cottage when we first came to Dreamer’s Wood. He had labored over both house and garden until everything was perfect. Then the cottage had burned down, and he had done it all over again. I wasn’t the only one who would find going away hard. “But it’s not forever,” Grim said. He tried for a smile but could not quite manage it. “Lads from the brewery can keep an eye on the place. Emer could drop in, make sure things are in order.”
I said nothing. A lengthy stay at court would be miserable for both of us. We had a natural distrust of kings, chieftains and the like, based on our experience with Mathuin of Laois. That Oran and Flidais were exceptions did not mean a stay at Cahercorcan would be easier, since the king and queen would leave a good part of their household behind. We preferred to be on our own, Grim and I, which was why Conmael had suggested the cottage as a likely home for us. Conmael, a stranger, had somehow known that living at a distance from the settlement was the only way I was going to cope with being a wise woman again. At Cahercorcan, private quarters or not, we’d be right in the middle of things.
And there was another complication. The baker, Branoc, whom we’d helped bring to justice after he kidnapped and abused a young woman, was serving out his sentence as a bondsman to the king. He would be living in the household at Cahercorcan. I doubted Grim’s capacity to be so close to the man without killing him.
“So, you going to ask him?”
“You mean Conmael?”
“Mm-hm. I know you don’t much like the fellow. Me neither. But he’s had his uses. And he did save your life.”
I hesitated. If Grim was right, and the promise had been only to stay in Dalriada, then going to Cahercorcan would not be breaking my vow. On the other hand, if Conmael had bound me to stay at Winterfalls, then heading north would put another year onto the term of our agreement and lose me one of my four chances. That was a sacrifice I was not prepared to make.
“Brew?” asked Grim. “Ready when you get back.”
“What makes you think Conmael will be there when I need him?”
“Came when I needed him, didn’t he? The day you took it into your head to rush off south on your own.”
There was no arguing with that. I had believed a lie that day, and I’d let anger guide me, not common sense. Although there were times—more than a few of them—when I’d have preferred my own company to Grim’s, there was no doubt that he had the ability to steady me, and that was not something to be lightly set aside. “I’ll look. But he won’t be there.”
• • •
The herbs had been an excuse to get rid of Donagan; I had no immediate need to gather anything. I went into Dreamer’s Wood without my basket and knife, and without any real expectation that Conmael would make an appearance. Dog came with me, pattering along behind as I walked down the pathway toward the shadowy, fern-fringed pool that lay within the woodland. She had not yet learned the way of being a creature, and did not venture far from the path in pursuit of interesting smells or rustlings in the grass. I felt for her, though as a woman she had done Lady Flidais a great wrong. If Flidais’s own experience was anything to go by, Ciar still had her human understanding while trapped in her canine body. No wonder she was sometimes ill-tempered. Who would look after her if we went to court?
I reached the strip of pebbly shore where, last autumn, I had witnessed a sudden death and a strange transformation and had not fully understood either. One thing I had learned from that experience—I would never dip so much as a single toe in the waters of Dreamer’s Pool. I might frequently despise my wretched, inadequate self, but I far preferred this body to that of, say, a dragonfly or trout. In Dreamer’s Pool things were apt to change, and not always in the way one would wish.
I sat down on the shore, not too close to the water. Dog retreated into the undergrowth and hunkered down to wait for me. The wood was hushed; the birds knew it was a place of deep mystery, and within the shade of these trees they did not sing. So, how to summon Conmael? When Grim had needed our fey friend, he’d cursed him, shouting. I was disinclined to attempt that approach.
I was considering the right words to use when my skin prickled, I looked up, and there he was, two paces away, tall and pale in his dark cloak, gazing down at me with an expression of mild amusement. I rose in a measured fashion, not wanting to show that he’d unnerved me.
“Blackthorn. You need me?”
Could the man see right into my mind, every moment of every day? “I have a question for you, concerning our agreement.”
“Ask it, then.”
I explained what Donagan had told us. “While I have absolutely no desire to spend time at court, let alone that much time, under the terms of my promise to you I am bound to assist Lady Flidais if she asks for my help.”
Conmael made no reply, simply fixed me with his deep blue eyes and lifted his brows as if well aware that this was only part of the truth. He was handsome after the manner of the fey, his features high-boned and haughty, his nose straight, his mouth thin-lipped but not devoid of humor. His crow’s-wing hair was not loose today, but gathered at the nape by a silver cord. His long fingers wore shining rings worked with signs I could not decipher.
“I have a great deal of respect for Lady Flidais,” I added. “I would help her even without the obligation under which you’ve placed me. But I believe our agreement included a requirement that I live here at Winterfalls. A lengthy stay at Cahercorcan would seem to break the terms.”
“You wouldn’t enjoy court,” said Conmael. “All those folk, all those rules.”
“I don’t need reminding of that.”
“Why go, then? Are not the king’s physicians capable?”
“Conmael. It is a simple question. Would my spending two or three turnings of the moon away from Winterfalls constitute a breach of our agreement?”
Conmael gave a wintry smile. He folded his arms. “If my memory serves me well,” he said, “the requirement was to stay within the borders of Dalriada and not to travel south toward Laois. To stay away from Mathuin. And, yes, to live at Winterfalls, but that part of it is not binding—provided you do not leave Dalriada, I see no reason why you should not travel about, going wherever there is a need for your services. I would expect you back at Winterfalls on the fourth full moon, if not before.”
“Or . . . ?”
“Surely I need not spell it out for you, Blackthorn.”
“The term of our agreement becomes longer. And my chances fewer.”
He smiled again. “Walk with me awhile.”
“I have patients to visit. And Lady Flidais to see.”
“Indulge me a little.” He cupped my elbow as if to guide me to the path; I could not help flinching, and his hand dropped away. “You are strung tight,” he observed.
“I don’t take kindly to folk putting their hands on me without asking first.” I made myself take a steadying breath. “I’d like to say a year in that place of Mathuin’s didn’t leave a mark on me, but I’d be lying.”
“Then let us sit here side by side, not touching, and talk awhile. Not about our agreement. Not about the past; at least, not the painful past.”
I sat down again, and he settled beside me, a careful arm’s length away. His cloak made a pool of liquid darkness on the stones.
“You have done well,” he said quietly.
“I thought you said we wouldn’t talk about the agreement.”
“Ah. You came close to breaking it, when you fled south on the strength of a foolish lie. That was the day when I realized your guard dog does indeed have his uses.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use that name for Grim. He’s a man like any other man. If Prince Oran can treat him with respect, so can you.”
“You measure me by the yardstick of a human prince.”
“Oran is a good man. It irks me to admit that, but it’s the truth. And I have no other yardstick to use.”
“When I say, You have done well, I mean in the matter of solving Prince Oran’s puzzle. Your solution pleased me. It was bold, risky, clever, ingenious. Everything that I would have expected of you, Blackthorn.”
“I would say thank you, but I am wary of compliments. They so often come with requests attached.”
There was a silence, as if he could not think how to answer this. Then he said, “You do not believe I have asked enough of you already?” His voice was oddly constrained.
“I believe you please yourself. I think that may be typical of the fey. But what would I know?”
“More than some of your kind.”
“Because I was once a wise woman? A dealer not only in potions and cures, but in spells and charms?” I glanced sideways at him, and caught an odd expression on his face. For a moment he looked . . . softer. A little less fey; a little closer to human. Something stirred in my mind, a fragment of memory, gone before I could grasp it.
“You never ceased to be a wise woman, Blackthorn,” Conmael said. “You simply lost your way for a while. As for the spells and charms, they may not come as readily to your fingertips as they once did, but that is only a matter of practice. On the night when you helped Lady Flidais return to her own form, did you not hold back the rain in order to assemble those you needed here at the pool? That was no easy matter.”
I grimaced. “And there was I thinking maybe you’d had something to do with that.” It was pleasing to know that my use of natural magic had been effective; that the success of that night had owed nothing to fey intervention.
“I?” Conmael’s elegant brows shot up. “I trust you. Possibly more than you trust yourself. Why do you imagine I offered you the lifeline I did? It was not out of a wish to play some kind of game, I assure you. I did so because I knew you could make something better of your life.”
“Then why the conditions? Why not just free me and let me go my own way?”
“Hatred was devouring you. The only thing left in your heart was the will for vengeance. You wouldn’t have survived a single day. Even now, the desire to go back to Laois, to see your enemy face justice, tugs at you constantly. That is your great weakness. Give in to it, and you will disappoint me.”
“I cannot think why your disappointment should matter to me in the slightest, Conmael.”
“You will also disappoint yourself. And that, I think, would matter.”
“Rubbish. If there’s one thing I want to achieve before I die, it’s to see Mathuin brought to account for his crimes. Nothing else matters. Nothing.”
“Your expectations of what you can achieve are unrealistic. Hence my conditions and their term. Seven years: long enough to reclaim the woman you once were. Long enough to complete a journey.”
“Morrigan’s curse, what are you, some hoary old mentor teaching a half-grown girl? First you say you trust me; then you tell me I’m still bound to your rules. What sort of trust is that?”
“Did I not say you could travel to court?”
“But not be my own woman.”
He sighed, moving his graceful pale hands in a gesture suggesting helplessness. Which was ridiculous; whatever game we were playing, Conmael held all the pieces. “You will always be that,” he said.
“Bollocks, Conmael. You saw me in Mathuin’s lockup. I’d lost any vestige of the woman I was before. That place hammered me flat. It wrung out every drop of kindness. It turned me into a . . .” Why was I telling him this? “Never mind. I will go to court, I will keep to your wretched rules. I wish you’d explain what it’s all about. I wish you’d explain why my small human life is of sufficient interest to you that you believe you should take control of it.”
“The reason is of no importance.” Conmael was not smiling now. “If it were, you would remember.”
He rose to his feet, elegant as always, and reached out a hand to help me up. I did not take it.
“Remember what, Conmael?”
“As I said, it is of no importance. And now you must be getting on. Did you not say you had folk to visit, places to go? Make sure you are back in Winterfalls by the fourth full moon. And be mindful of your promise.” He did not wait for me to say good-bye, but in characteristic fashion faded and vanished before my eyes. Wretched fey! There was no making sense of them. The only thing certain about this day was that I’d best hurry if I wanted to partake of Grim’s brew before I headed off to the settlement. As for the looming stay at court, Grim and I would have to grit our teeth, breathe deeply and somehow get through it.
Thought it would try us hard, stone walls shutting us in, folk everywhere, no room to breathe. Turns out I was right, more or less. King and queen have taken a whole bunch of folk south with them, guards, councilors, grooms, the queen’s ladies and so on. Even so, the place is packed. As for stone walls, these ones would keep out the strongest army in all Erin. They’re high and thick, with walkways along the top and guard posts everywhere. On the north side, a sheer cliff to the sea. Good thing, that; sort of an escape. Not talking about climbing down there on a rope—a man would need to be a fool or set on killing himself to try that. Been both in the past, but death’s not on my mind now. Blackthorn needs me. Not going anywhere without her.
Thing is, from up there a man can get a grand sea view. The guards on watch can’t miss boats coming in. The men-at-arms from Winterfalls, the ones who’ve come with Prince Oran, are doing guard duty with the rest, and they know me. So I can go up there anytime I want some peace and quiet. I like the spot. Pretty, with the sun on the water. Like a pathway to the end of the world.
When I need to come down and make myself useful I keep that picture in my head, the sea, the sky, birds flying over. Helps me breathe. Helps when there are too many folk around, filling up my head with their noise. So yes, an escape.
Donagan makes things easier. Never thought I’d be grateful to that fellow, but he’s kinder than he seems. Clever too. Sorted things out for me pretty well at Winterfalls when I got in trouble, and keeps an eye on me here too, though he must have better things to do. Donagan made sure Blackthorn and me had our own quarters. And they’re roomy, though not the same as home, of course. We’re tucked away in a tower, and she’s got a stillroom down below, shared with one of the court healers, fellow called Caillín. We’ve left Dog back at Winterfalls, at the prince’s house. Lady Flidais left one of her maids, Mhairi, behind. She’s looking after Dog. Not sure how that’ll work out.
Wasn’t looking forward to staying at court. But it’s not so bad. Word is, the healer that went off south with the royal party is a difficult sort. Grumpy. Caillín’s all right. No pricklier than Blackthorn. She grumbles, but she’ll cope. And me? Donagan said if I wanted work—guard duty, he meant—I just had to say the word. I won’t, though. Want to be free for Blackthorn if she needs me.
The fellows who’ve come from Winterfalls treat me like I’m one of them. Always a welcome in the guard room or up on the wall, and nobody asks why I’m there. Nobody mentions that time I half killed Seanan for saying bad things about Blackthorn. Funny, that. Instead of getting me kicked out of the prince’s house, that earned me respect.
Lot of rules in this place; who eats when and where, who has to step back to let who pass, who’s allowed to go into some parts of the fortress and so on. Apart from that it’s like the prince’s place at Winterfalls, only bigger. Too full and too noisy. Food’s good.
Blackthorn’s soon busy. Caillín should be happy. She’s doing half his job for him. Lady Flidais doesn’t need her much, just wants to know she’s close by, Blackthorn says. And me—I keep an eye on Blackthorn, make sure she’s safe, make sure she remembers to eat. I keep our quarters clean and tidy. And work comes my way without being asked for. When something needs doing, I do it. This and that. Unblock a clogged drain, fix a few tiles back in place, load a cart, help muck out a stable. May as well be useful—why not?
One good thing. The prince must have known I couldn’t be in the same place as that godforsaken bastard Branoc without doing him violence. He’s sent the wretch away somewhere. Not coming back until we’ve gone home to Winterfalls. Good choice. Otherwise Prince Oran would have had a murder to explain to his father when the king got back. I’ll never forget seeing that girl chained up. Branoc didn’t even understand that what he’d done to her was wrong. I’ve seen a lot of bad things in my time. Done some too, and been sorry for it. But a man like that never comes good. Doesn’t have it in him.
Feel like I’m waiting for something, don’t know what. After all that’s happened to us, to Blackthorn and me, seems like our path’s never going to be simple and straight. Be good if it was—the two of us staying in our cottage, getting on with our work and minding our own business. Peaceful, that’d be. Don’t think it’s going to happen, somehow.
I’m up on the wall one day, talking to a few of the lads, when some riders come into view—we’re on the landward side, looking roughly west.
“Nobody expected. At least, nobody I’ve been told about,” says Domnall, narrowing his eyes as he looks down. He was chief guard at Cloud Hill, where Lady Flidais came from to marry the prince. Led her escort. Good man. “Eoin, go down and find Lochlan, will you? Tell him there are folk coming, and ask someone to alert the steward. Is that a lady riding in front there?”
“Escort’s armed to the teeth,” I say as Eoin heads off down the steps. Can’t tell if the rider in the lead is a lady or not; big cloak covering most of her. Or him. If it’s a lady, she’s tall. Blue tunics on the men-at-arms, some kind of emblem on them, too far away to see what. They’re hung about with swords and clubs and knives and bows like they’ve been expecting trouble. “Thought the roads were pretty safe in these parts.”
“They are,” says Domnall. “Could be they’ve come from farther afield. Beyond the border.” Meaning the border with Tirconnell, which has its own king and maybe isn’t as peaceful as Dalriada.
The riders get closer. After a bit, some of the king’s guards appear down below, heading out to meet them. They’re armed too, taking no chances. Though folk don’t attack a place like this with a force of nine or ten, and that’s all this lady’s got. Yes, it is a lady; she’s pushed back her hood and made that plain. Sitting straight in the saddle, head held high, got a proud look about her. Youngish. Hair the color of ripe corn, all done up in plaits.
Both parties halt. The lady says something. Waves her hands around a bit as if she’s upset. The fellow heading the king’s guards answers, and after a bit the guards escort the visitors in. “Must be a friend,” I say. A lady who’s ridden to Cahercorcan with her own men-at-arms isn’t here to see Blackthorn or me. But I get a funny feeling all the same. I’m thinking this could be the start of whatever it is I’ve been waiting for.
• • •
Not sure why I go down to the courtyard then. But I do. So I’m there when the lady’s party rides up to the steps. Someone’s told the prince he’s got visitors, and he’s all ready to welcome them. The lady gets down from her mount, not looking as stiff as you’d expect after a long ride. Groom takes hold of the bridle. Prince Oran walks forward, but before he gets a word out the lady’s thrown herself at his feet, clutching onto his leg and babbling like she’s crazy. I move forward quick, thinking she might be up to no good. Prince’s guards get there before me, grab the lady’s arms, lift her up, pull her away. Prince looks a bit white, as well he might. The lady’s men-at-arms draw their weapons. It’s not looking good.
“I need your help!” The lady’s sobbing. “Oh, please, please listen! I have nobody else to turn to!” She goes on like this for a bit. Face all wet with tears, cheeks flushed red, hair tumbling down. The prince tells his guards to let her go, and they do.
“Please compose yourself,” says Prince Oran. “Whatever has happened, I give you my promise that you will be safe here. Come, this is best discussed in private. First you need rest and refreshment.”
He gives some orders, the grooms lead the horses away, the guards sheathe their blades and one or two waiting women, the ones that haven’t gone south with the queen, help the lady indoors. She’s still crying and carrying on, but she’s quietened down a bit. I’m wondering what it’s all about. But I’ve got no real business following them, so I go off to talk to Blackthorn instead.
Turns out this visitor doesn’t want to wait for rest and refreshment before she tells the prince her story. Blackthorn and me are sitting in the stillroom enjoying a brew when there’s a knock at the door and there’s Deirdre, Lady Flidais’s handmaid. Looks a bit flustered.
“Oh, Mistress Blackthorn, you’re here, thank goodness,” she says. “The prince and Lady Flidais want you to come to the small council chamber—I’m to take you there. Grim too.”
“Now?” says Blackthorn, not getting up. “Why?”
“There’s a lady here with a story to tell, a strange one, and the prince thinks you should hear it.”
Blackthorn looks at me; I look at her. Feels too soon for another adventure. Hardly had time to get over the last one. But we’re at court, and though Oran’s the king’s son and Flidais is his wife, they’re our friends. Anyway, you don’t say no to a prince.
Not long after, we’re in the small council chamber, so-called. There’s a table long enough for twelve, and another table with writing things, and two chests with lamps on. But there’s only four people here, apart from me and Blackthorn and Deirdre: the prince, Lady Flidais, Donagan and the visitor, who’s wiped her face and tidied herself up. Looks calmer now. Prince Oran tells us to sit down. There’s a jug of ale and a platter of honey cakes on the table. Donagan pours ale for us. Deirdre asks if she should leave, and Flidais tells her no, she should sit down with the rest of us. Donagan walks over and shuts the door. Couple of the fellows are standing guard out in the hall.
“Mistress Blackthorn, Grim,” says the prince, “this is Lady Geiléis of Bann. We believe you may have some insights into the situation she is facing. That’s why we’ve asked you to join us. Lady Geiléis, please tell your tale in full, from the beginning. Take your time. I would have waited until tomorrow, since you’ve had such a long ride to reach us. But I understand your need to have this heard straightaway.” He looks over at us. “We’ve already been told part of the story. We thought it best to call you in before Lady Geiléis went further, since we believed we would not find answers for her on our own.”
I catch Blackthorn’s eye. We’re thinking the same thing. I know it. This is going to end up with her getting asked for help. And she’ll have a problem.
Lady Geiléis’s face is still puffed up from crying. She’s got a little handkerchief crumpled in her hand. “My lands are bordered to one side by the river Bann,” she says. “They take their name from that body of water. I have grazing fields, a tract of forest, my house and outbuildings, a scattering of farms and small hamlets whose folk look to me for leadership. I inherited my property from my father, and I have never wed. Across the Bann lies Tirconnell, territory of the northern Uí Néill. My holding is in Dalriada. A bridge spans the river some miles farther north. It is too far away for my folk to use. But at a certain point, where the Bann runs along my border, there is a ford, passable at all times save in severe flood. It lies in a wooded area, the trees growing densely on either side of the river. In the middle is an island, and on that island stands a tower.”
“The Tower of Thorns,” murmurs Blackthorn.
“You know of it?” Lady Geiléis sounds surprised.
“I remember the name from somewhere,” says Blackthorn. “It may be mentioned in an old tale, in connection with the river Bann. I do recall some mention of the ford and the tower together.”
“The Tower of Thorns,” says Lady Flidais. “That does indeed sound like something from a tale of magic and wonder. How did the place get its name, Lady Geiléis?”
“There are thornbushes growing on the island; it is a forbidding place. The tower is tall and lonely. For many long years, it has stood empty.”
“It is empty no longer. Something has taken up residence there. A . . . a presence. Since its arrival a kind of curse has fallen over the district. I cannot find any way to break it. I am at my wits’ end.”
Blackthorn’s bursting to ask more questions, plain to see that. But she keeps quiet.
“My home is isolated,” the lady goes on. “The folk who live within my borders are spread thin. We have neither wise woman nor druid. There is a monastery—St. Olcan’s—but this is hardly a matter for monkish intervention. The brethren know of the difficulty. Prayers have been offered up in their chapel for the banishment of evil spirits, but to no avail.”
Monks. I’m liking this less all the time. I swallow down bile, make myself take slow breaths.
“The tower is not easily accessible,” says the lady. “Not only is it in midstream, but there are the thornbushes, growing densely all around the base. The place was built so long ago that nobody can remember who set it there.”
“If the Tower of Thorns stands all alone, out of folk’s way,” says Prince Oran, “why does this represent such a threat, Lady Geiléis?”
“The island on which the tower is situated lies close to the ford. That ford is the only safe river crossing on my land, and indeed the only crossing of any kind for long miles up – or downstream. The banks are heavily forested; to approach the ford, one must walk, or ride, or drive stock along quite narrow ways through those woods. Since the arrival of this . . . creature . . . those ways are no longer safe.”
We’re all caught by the story now, whether we want to be or not. A monster in a tower. It’s like one of those old wonder tales Blackthorn’s so good at telling. Only this one’s true. Has to be. Why would the lady come all this way and then lie to us?
“The creature does not come out; it does not attack. By day, it makes noises—howling, wailing, crying—from the top of the tower. All day. Every day. When darkness falls it becomes quiet. But . . . it is not only the sound, terrible as that is. The monster has brought with it a curse. A strangeness has fallen over my lands in the summertime. Folk set out on straightforward errands, and some hours later find themselves in unknown parts of the wood, confused and exhausted. Stock wander into deep water and drown. Cattle drop dead calves. Hens will not lay. This continues right through the summer, just when crops should be growing and stock fattening. By the time it stops, when the season changes, the damage is done. I have never encountered anything like it. My folk turn to me for answers, but I have none for them.”
“It stops when the season changes?” says Blackthorn. “So this thing has been there for more than one summer?”
“This is the second. When it fell quiet last autumn I believed it gone. But alas, it returned with the first summer days.”
Odd that she’s waited this long to ask for help. Not for me to say, though.
“The monastery you mentioned earlier,” Blackthorn says. “Where is that in relation to the tower?”
“My home lies between the monastery and the tower. St. Olcan’s is a significant foundation; the brethren there are widely known and respected for their tradition of scholarship. The monks have been helpful, to the extent they can be. But I do not believe this is a demon to be driven out by Christian prayers. It has been suggested to me—this will sound odd—that the creature may be a manifestation of the Otherworld. Something old and dark, whose influence cannot be broken by ordinary means. My folk are frightened, Mistress Blackthorn. Burdened; weighed down. I do not know how to help them.”
“Does this curse, if that is what it is, lie over the monastery too?” asks Blackthorn. “Can the brothers travel these paths unaffected? And what about their stock, house cows and the like?”
“Their grazing field lies at some distance from the ford, and thus far their cows have been spared. As for the fell magic that disturbs the minds of men and animals and causes them to stray from the paths, the monks too are susceptible to it if they wander into the area close to the tower. To travel west with any degree of safety, one must go by circuitous ways. So this is difficult for St. Olcan’s too. They are accustomed to accommodating traveling scholars, and to making visits to other monastic houses. It is fortunate that the brethren keep pigeons for the purpose of sending and receiving messages; otherwise they would be quite isolated.”
“What about the owner of the land on the Tirconnell side of the river?” Donagan asks. “Has he taken any action to drive this thing out?”
“A chieftain of the Uí Néill oversees that district. I sought help from him some time ago, and my concerns were brushed aside as a madwoman’s ravings. His stronghold is located at a significant distance from the river, and his folk generally travel by the main road and the bridge, farther north. As far as he was concerned, not only was I out of my mind, but it was a Dalriadan problem and not his responsibility.”
“Two summers, you say. How did this thing come to the tower?”
“Nobody saw it arrive, Mistress Blackthorn. One day the tower was empty; the next the woods were full of screaming. Soon after, the misfortunes began.”
“It sounds like something from an old tale,” says Prince Oran. “And that makes me wonder if there are precedents. Mistress Blackthorn thought she remembered the Tower of Thorns from a story. Have you looked in the lore for answers, Lady Geiléis?”
For a bit, the lady doesn’t say anything. My guess is, she doesn’t want to tell us this part, whatever it is. “I have done some investigation, yes,” she says. “There are no tales about the Tower of Thorns. Only snippets, fragments. Rumors about the woods by the Bann. They suggest that something similar may have happened before, long ago. The same creature; the same enchantment or curse. The same misfortune. Endured not only once, but several times over by my forebears.”
We’re all staring at her. My guess is, I’m not the only one wondering if she really is a bit wrong in the head.
Blackthorn asks a good question. “Do these snippets include anything about what folk did the last time it happened, or the time before? The creature must have gone away, then returned for some reason. That’s if it really is the same one—it would have to be rather long-lived, if it’s been around since the time of your forebears. How was it driven out?”
“Ah.” Lady Geiléis looks down at her hands. “There are no clear answers on that point. It does seem that if anything is to be done, it must be done on Midsummer Eve. On that day, the thorns that bar entry to the tower are said to yield somewhat; a brave soul armed with a sharp ax might force a way in.”
Really is like one of those old tales, a good one. Or would be good if it was only a story, not real. Can it be real? “Tried to get through, have you?” I say. Seems fair enough to ask, seeing as she’s said this thing was there last summer too.
“I set foot on the island, last Midsummer Eve,” the lady says. “I attempted to slash a way through the thorns, though I did not know what might lie within the tower. The rumors, such as they are, tell us nothing about what a quester might encounter there, or what that person should do on encountering the creature. I knew only that I must bring an end to the terror and confusion brought by the tower’s strange tenant. But I fell short of achieving that. For a certain distance the thorns did indeed give way to my blade. But before I had gone far, the thing in the tower began an eldritch moaning, perhaps a kind of singing, and the branches began to snap back around me. Had I not retreated speedily I would have been trapped within the thicket of thorns; I would have perished there like a fly caught in a spider’s web. I had brought two guards with me, but neither could make any impact on the fearsome barrier; they tried ax, hatchet and knife to no avail. Mine was the only blade that could cut the stems. And as I said, that success was short-lived.”
There’s a silence; then Blackthorn says, “Forgive me, Lady Geiléis, but attempting such a feat on your own seems . . .” Crazy. That’s the word she wants. But she says, “It seems misguided. Why didn’t you send in your men-at-arms? What were you planning to do, fight the creature to the death on your own?”
I’m thinking the same thing. Fact is, though Lady Geiléis is tall for a woman, and well built, she’s hardly a warrior. Monster would likely snap her in half before she got two steps inside the tower.
“I thought . . .” The lady’s struggling for words now. “I believed that once I saw the thing face-to-face I would know what to do. Kill it, yes, I was prepared to do that. Or drive it out.”
“All by yourself,” says Blackthorn.
Lady Geiléis bows her head. “I was desperate, Mistress Blackthorn. I would do the same thing again, if only I could make a way into the tower. To silence that voice, to rid my lands of the curse, I would do almost anything.”
“Mistress Blackthorn’s right,” says Donagan. “It would make more sense to send in a warrior. Or several.”
“I had two armed men with me when I attempted to hack a way through; I told you. Neither of them made any progress, and both were hurt trying to save me from the thorns. Perhaps that should tell us something. I wish I knew what.”
“That it’s a job for a woman?” suggests Blackthorn.
Lady Geiléis gives her a look. “It is suggested in the old fragments of story that only a woman can prevail against this creature. It seems I am not that woman.”
Not liking the sound of this at all. Wish the prince would tell the lady to fix her own problems and leave the rest of us out of it. Wish Blackthorn hadn’t said what she’s just said. I can see where this is going, plain as plain. So although I don’t want to, I speak up again. “This sort of thing’s trouble,” I say. “And not the kind of trouble you can fix by running at it with a weapon in your hand.”
“I’m in complete agreement with that,” says Blackthorn. “A body doesn’t meddle lightly with such matters. Even if you’re right about Midsummer Eve, Lady Geiléis, marching in to confront this creature—to destroy it—could be disastrous, whether it’s one woman doing it or a whole troop of guards. Only a fool uses human means to combat the uncanny. Besides, the thing may not be evil, only . . . misguided. Frightened, perhaps.”
“You believe the tenant of the tower is fey.”
“If it were anything else,” Blackthorn says, “you’d have solved your problem long ago, one way or another. That’s if your account of matters is full and accurate.”
“Why would I lie to you, Mistress Blackthorn?”
“I didn’t say you were lying. But the story feels incomplete. How does this thing survive up in the tower on its own? What does it eat, birds plucked from the sky in midflight? Spiders and moths?”
“Someone—something—must supply its needs. What, I cannot say.”
For a bit it’s quiet. I can see Blackthorn thinking hard, choosing the right words, the safest words.
“You could call in a druid,” she says. “If there are none in your district, I think Prince Oran could find someone for you.”
“To do what?” asks Lady Geiléis.
“To cleanse and bless the land. To ask for the goodwill of whatever spirits dwell in that place.”
“Could not you fulfill that same task, Mistress Blackthorn?”
That’s come sooner than I thought it would. The lady hasn’t quite asked for Blackthorn’s help. But she’s come close; too close for comfort.
“A wise woman could do it, yes,” says Blackthorn. “But not this wise woman. I have work here. I can’t travel.” She waits a bit, then says, “When I suggest a ritual of that kind, Lady Geiléis, it doesn’t mean I’m certain it would achieve the end you desire. The fey don’t see the world in the same way as you or I might. To deal with them is to walk a perilous path, full of twists and turns, byways and dead ends. The fey have little comprehension of human feelings: love, friendship, loyalty, selflessness. That makes it hard for their kind and our kind to work in true cooperation. But the fey understand nature in ways humankind cannot; every part of their being is attuned to it. To bless the woods that lie under the curse, to cleanse the isle where the tower stands . . . I do not believe the ancient inhabitants of Bann would look unkindly on such a ritual.” She takes a breath, then says, “It is for that reason that I do not suggest something that might seem obvious: the use of fire.”
Things go quiet again for a bit; then Prince Oran says, “Astonishing.” Could be talking about what Blackthorn just said. Could mean the whole thing. Unbelievable would be another word.
“You’re very wise, Blackthorn,” says Lady Flidais with a smile. “Lady Geiléis, I understand why you might want Mistress Blackthorn to do this for you in person. But we need her here at Cahercorcan. Or, to be more precise, I do. She’s acting as my personal healer until our child is born. And after that, she has work at Winterfalls. An entire community depends on her skill.”
“If you believe it might help, Lady Geiléis,” says the prince, “I could certainly summon a druid to assist you. But it would take some time; we’d need to send a message south. I believe Master Oisín would oblige, provided we can find him. I could not promise he would be at Bann by midsummer.”
Lady Geiléis bows her head. “I see,” she says. Her voice is wobbly, like she’s holding back tears. I start to feel sorry for her, though I don’t want to. She’s trouble for us, for Blackthorn and me. I knew it as soon as I clapped eyes on her.
“It is so hard, I don’t know if I can go on,” she whispers. “And yet I must.”
Donagan’s been pretty quiet. He gets up now, pours more ale for everyone. Deirdre, who’s been even quieter, hands around the platter of cakes. But nobody’s eating.
“Why not send for Master Oisín anyway?” Donagan says. “The wait would give Lady Geiléis the opportunity for a well-needed rest—you and your escort could be easily accommodated here, my lady—and in the meantime we could apply our minds to other solutions for you. As Grim pointed out, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by a show of force.”
“Even if it were,” says the prince, “I would be reluctant to send men-at-arms to Bann for the purpose. That kind of action is too easily misunderstood by neighboring chieftains, and Lady Geiléis’s land lies right on the border with Tirconnell. Wars have broken out over less.”
“It is a frail hope,” says Lady Geiléis. “To wait for this druid, while time passes and midsummer draws closer . . . and then, perhaps, to bring him west only to find his blessing no more effective than Father Tomas’s well-intentioned prayers . . .”
“Sometimes,” says Blackthorn, “answers take time to find. A long time. Druids know their lore; they spend years and years committing it to memory. Somewhere in that body of learning, there may lie an answer to your difficulty. Meanwhile, consider what we already know. This being has taken up residence in the tower. It is disturbed, distressed, perhaps angry. Since it came, some kind of spell has fallen over the land all around. The question I would be asking, if I were you, the key to the whole dilemma, is why?”
Tonight, as on every night, dusk would be heralded with a story. No matter that she was miles from home. She would tell the tale anyway, as she had over and over since she had first found herself trapped in the endless nightmare. She would tell it before her mirror, here in the guest quarters at Cahercorcan, with the door closed against the intrusions of Prince Oran’s serving folk. She would tell it in a whisper. Even if she had stood on the high walkway of the king’s stronghold and shouted at the top of her voice, he surely could not have heard her. He was too far away; beyond reach. But she would remain faithful. She would keep her promise. So, the nightly ritual.
Onchú stood watch outside her door. He would ensure she was undisturbed. She stood quite still in the center of the chamber. By the light of flickering candles she whispered the story: the old, old story. Each time it was a little different, for she twisted and turned it according to her mood. But no matter what the manner of telling, the tale was cruel as a knife; bitter as gall.
Long ago and far away, across valleys and over mountains, there lived a noble couple. Theirs was a prosperous holding, with many farms and settlements. There was a wide tract of woodland in which many creatures roamed. There was a broad river brimful with fish. On all sides there were peaceable neighbors.
The couple had but one child: a daughter. When she was a babe, her doting parents had used a pet name for her: Lily. As she’d grown older, the name had stuck. At sixteen, Lily was tall and straight, with long hair the color of ripe corn and wide eyes as blue as the summer sky. Folk thought her beautiful. She was a quiet girl, sweet and biddable, and all in that household loved her.
Now, in those days, the fey walked the land of Erin more openly than they do now. In the forest close by her father’s holdings, Lily would sometimes glimpse a cloaked woman moving between the great oaks, or a tall man clad all in green, bending to converse with his own reflection in the water of a woodland pond. She was not sure what it was about such folk that told her they were fey; she simply knew, and knew instantly. Lily was cautious; she had heard tales of men and women wandering into mushroom circles, or venturing into caves at twilight, or taking other risks that led them into a world from which there was no returning. Her mother had warned her that the fey were tricky, dangerous, not to be trusted, and in general Lily did her best to avoid them.
But after her sixteenth birthday, a restless spirit grew in Lily. No longer content with embroidery or spinning or playing with her mother’s lapdogs, she snatched the chance, when she was supposed to be resting in her bedchamber, to slip out the window, climb down by means of a conveniently placed oak tree, and head off into the forest alone. This was quite against the rules—her handmaid and a guard were supposed to accompany her anytime she ventured out. That was only common sense. Had her parents known of Lily’s solitary expeditions, they would have been deeply disturbed.
A river flowed through these woods. In the river was an island, a lovely place all covered with wildflowers, and on the island stood a tower. That tower drew Lily as a selkie’s song draws a lonely fisherman. It fascinated her; it had done since she was a small child and had been told by her parents that the place was dangerous and that she was never to go there. It had not been explained what the danger was, but as Lily grew older she heard folk talk about rotting wood and crumbling stones, sudden steep drops and hidden wells. She heard hints about magic. And she noticed that nobody, nobody at all, ever seemed to set foot on the island. No wonder birds thronged there, and insects on the blossoms. For them, it was paradise.
Nobody knew who had built the tower; nobody knew how long it had been there. The ford that lay quite close to the island saw daily traffic of many kinds: horsemen, oxcarts, herds of goats, folk on foot with bundles held over their heads. A person could not reach the island from the ford without wading into quite deep water; to do so without being seen was well-nigh impossible. Should a goose girl or swineherd or carter spot Lily attempting it, word would soon get to her father, and her father would make sure that was the last time she visited the tower.
But Lily, that good, obedient girl, had found another way across. It was the day of Beltane when she made her discovery. Folk were sleeping off the effects of a night of revelry, and nobody was about. The road was quiet, the ford deserted. The fair isle called to her, with its greensward and its flowering bushes and its tower rising to the sky in an elegant sweep of moss-softened stone. But the river was flowing high. Trying to wade across would be a foolish risk. Besides, how would she explain her wet clothing when she got home? Maybe there were stones to balance on, or a fallen tree, or some other way to get over. Lily went along the riverbank, picking a path through the dense growth of shade-loving plants. Once, she slipped, and in clutching at the nearest stem to stop herself from falling in, she bloodied her palm on thorns. Muttering an oath, she forced a way through to find herself on a tiny strip of level shore, covered in neat round pebbles, all shades of brown and gray and green. They were remarkably uniform in shape.
Lily found a handkerchief in her pouch and used it to bind up her bleeding hand. Already, her mind was fashioning explanations. She knew that just a season ago, she would not have dreamed of deceiving her parents thus. But something had got into her; something had changed her. Perhaps it was all part of growing up.
She used her teeth to tighten the knot in the makeshift bandage. It was as she did so that she spotted the boat. Had it been there a moment before? She could not say, but now it bobbed in the shallows as if waiting for Lily to climb aboard. The little craft was shaped like half of a walnut shell, and was just big enough for one young woman to sit in and row herself to the island, had there been oars. Oh, but she wanted to go across. She wanted so much to climb that tower, climb to the very top where she could look out over the dark expanse of the forest and the long, silver winding of the river, and catch a glimpse of the mysterious lands that lay beyond. Although she knew it was foolish, she felt she might give almost anything to do that.
Perhaps there was a stick she could use as a pole, or a piece of bark for a paddle . . . She cast around for something useful.
“What will you give me if I take you over?” spoke up a wee little voice. And there on the sward was a wee little man not much higher than Lily’s knee, and clad all in green like the folk in the old tales. The diminutive fellow doffed his hat and gave Lily a bow. “You want to use the ferry, you pay the ferryman.”
“Ferry?” echoed Lily. “It’s rather small, isn’t it?”
“I think I can count up to one,” said the little man, “and one of you is what I see. Room for you, room for me. What will you pay?”
Excerpted from "Tower of Thorns"
Copyright © 2016 Juliet Marillier.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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