The First Vision…
Esha stood upon the cliff top and looked out over the waves, ignoring the rain that soaked through the thick wool of her cloak.
Ibur had said he would come…
‘When the last days of summer have passed and the chill of autumn is upon you, I will come.’ His words had been so lovely and poetic. With them Esha’s soul had been lifted up and over the waves. Freedom lay in her brother’s promise. Yet still he had not arrived.
The soft rain fell, as it had always done, each and every day of the sixteen years since she had been born here, on one of the five, rocky outcrops known as Iachema’s Tomb Stones. Isles so desolate that not even the Crone Goddess’s own Priestesses ventured onto their rocky shores.
Their very isolation had drawn her parents here, many years before her birth. They had fled to the Tomb Stones, seeking sanctuary from the Witch Finders, a place to hide. The story of their arrival here had been told to her so many times that Esha knew it by heart. They had bought a small fishing boat, and together with provisions, they’d sailed across the short but wild stretch of sea between Ruis and the Tomb Stones.
Here they had stopped, perched on the edge of the world, so to speak, looking out over the sea. The rain continued to fall. The fisherman’s boat slowly rotted away. They survived on fish and the vegetables her mother managed to coax out of the poor, sparse soil.
The fifth and last Tomb Stone had become their home. For the Meda Isles were too dangerous, her parents said. The world too filled with hate. And now they were settling into their twilight years, content to remain on this Gods’ forsaken rock. But not Esha. She had to leave. She had to live her life before it slipped away and she grew old and grey.
Her brother Ibur had fled years before her own birth. Her parents had never spoken of him, no mention of their first-born son. Esha had no inkling of his existence, until the day her brother’s smiling face had appeared in the small, ornately framed mirror that hung above the crude stone hearth. Esha’s mother had screamed and her father had quietly cursed. But Esha had felt excitement bubbling up inside her as her parents voiced her brother’s name in disbelief.
They had tried to shoo her out of the room, but Ibur had seen her, and as he had called for her, her parents had fallen silent, her mother’s face draining of colour, her father’s animated in anger. A sight Esha had never been privy to before.
And then he said that he would come for her. Esha’s parents had argued with her, begged then outright banned her from leaving with him. Yet when she pressed them to tell her why, they had fallen back on vague talk of his selfishness, his rage against the world. They claimed him full of hate. No good would come of his scheming. Esha’s mother had foreseen it in the scrying bowl.
Yet Esha had stood her ground. What life was there for her here?
She searched the horizon once again. Ibur hadn’t said how he would arrive. The Tomb Stones didn’t lie on any shipping route. To the north, east and south lay the expansive sea. The only visible land was to the west--the other rocky Stones and the Isle of Ruis. Perhaps he would arrive as her parents had, by boat from Ruis?
A brisk wind stirred the loose strands of her long black hair, bringing colour to her cheeks and tears to her dark brown eyes. Esha maintained her vigil. She knew what she would face when she returned to the small shanty: their unspoken recriminations, their disappointment. They didn’t understand her driving need to leave. They were growing old. She was young. Her own story had yet to unfold…
A flash of light on the horizon drew Esha’s attention. The light came again, from the direction of Ruis, a sparkling flicker of movement that caused her stomach to flutter in nervous expectation.
Was it Ibur?
Whatever it was, it was huge, a lone shimmering presence in the otherwise grey surroundings. When it was near enough to define, the splendid vision took her breath away. Ibur had come at last!
The sorcerer rode upon a mythical dragon. The magical creature’s semi-translucent form glistened as if made of water. She could see the clouds through its scales and through the membranes of its thin, glimmering wings. Ibur raised a hand in greeting as his watery mount swooped down low and landed with an impressive arch of its wings.
As he swung a leg over the creature’s neck and his booted feet met the ground, the dragon returned to its element. Water cascaded across the scrub-covered cliff.
Ibur was tall, handsome, with flint grey eyes, his gaze intense. His long, dark hair was swept back from his face and tousled by the wind. A short beard hugged his chin, his face strong yet boyish. He smiled as he opened his arms wide.
Esha ran into his embrace.
He held her tightly, pulling back only to regard her.
‘You’ve come at last. I knew you would!’ Esha said.
‘And I am ready to show you the world, little sister.’
‘I must first say goodbye to my parents,’ Esha said, suddenly struck by the finality of the moment.
‘Of course. I would like to say my greetings too.’
They walked together to the shanty, Ibur remembering the way with sure strides, reaching back to help her across the slippery rocks and chatting to her about life on the other Isles. Esha grew excited again, picturing the places in her mind.
The shanty came into view, built within a cleared area under the protection of an overhanging rock. Constructed from materials Esha’s father had salvaged from the mainland in one of his early night-time forays, the shanty was held together by nails, rope, and their combined spells. The structure often moved with the winds, somehow managing to remain whole however strong the gale. Around the shanty grew her mother’s garden, and tethered in the scrubby patches that dotted the outcrop, the family’s goats grazed.
Esha’s mother was on her hands and knees amid the spinach and lettuce. She looked up at the sound of Ibur’s voice. ‘So. You’ve come to take her from us.’ She stood up and wiped her dirty hands down her patched and faded skirts. Her grey hair was coming undone from its tight bun, the wisps sticking to her reddened cheeks. ‘Why can’t you leave well enough alone?’
Esha frowned at her mother’s harsh greeting. To Esha’s mind, Ibur’s behaviour was that of a gentleman. She couldn’t fault the warmth of his demeanour.
‘It saddens me that you still spurn me, Mother,’ Ibur said, and Esha could hear the sadness in his voice.
As Ibur spoke, Esha’s father walked around the side of the shack, a bucket in one hand, a makeshift fishing rod in the other.
‘You,’ he said. ‘You know you are not welcome here.’ He put the bucket down, water sloshing over the edge.
‘I’ve come for Esha,’ Ibur said. ‘As I said I would.’
‘And what of your plans for her? I know of your thirst to restore the past, but the Meda Isles are lost to us now. Leave them to their peace, Ibur.’
‘I offer Esha the world,’ Ibur said. ‘She will make of it what she will.’
‘Esha will die,’ Esha’s mother said. ‘I have foreseen it…’
‘And so shall we all mother. It is the one thing we can rely upon. At least she shall have lived.’ Ibur turned to Esha again. ‘Come, Esha, collect your things and we shall leave.’
‘I have nothing I wish to take,’ Esha said. Her excitement was now interwoven with a growing feeling of loss and more than a little fear.
She clasped her father close. At first the old man held himself tense, but then he embraced her warmly. There were tears in his dark eyes when Esha looked up, yet he didn’t say a word. Esha walked over to her mother and a lump rose in her throat.
‘Don’t go Esha. Please…’
‘You knew this day would come, Talitha,’ Esha’s father said. ‘Let the child go.’ He took the old woman’s arm and led her inside the rickety hut.
Esha followed Ibur away from all she had known.
She gasped with delight as Ibur conjured the dragon again and they climbed astride it. Her stomach rolled and she tightened her grip around her brother’s waist as it launched itself into the air. She could see the white-crested breakers crashing on the rocks beneath them as they soared up, leaving the rocky isle far below.
The air was thick with moisture. It beaded on her face and lashes, blurring her vision. Soon the Tomb Stones were nothing but tiny dots in the sea, the Isle of Ruis a blotch of deep green. For a moment Esha thought that they would continue on, flying across the Aeacus Sea all the way to Ibur’s home Isle. But then the dragon tilted its wings and inclined its neck as it swooped down over the swelling waves and they passed over a small, stationary skiff.
The dragon spiralled lower and hovered above the sails. In one fluid move, Ibur lifted Esha up and vaulted off the dragon’s back. ‘Vniglag Ta De V-pa-ah,’ he said softly, and they floated down as if on feathered wings.
They landed gracefully on the deck. The dragon flew over the sea, dissolving into its watery depths.
Not a soul greeted their arrival. No sailors worked the deck or rigging.
Ibur strode across the deck to the prow of the ship. There, with his arms raised, he roared out words of power.
Esha looked up to see nebulous phantoms suddenly cavorting within the rigging. Their forms were gossamer thin and insubstantial. No two were alike: winged horses snorted, sinuous serpents slithered, fairies fluttered, and chaotic creatures leapt and writhed.
At the sorcerer’s commands, the beings were whipped into a frenzy of movement. Blowing, puffing, and fanning their airy essence into the white billowing sails, they sent the ship scuttling across the sea.
Yet however masterful Ibur’s control, it was not absolute. Amongst the bustle of activity, the malicious and mischievous could be seen unravelling ropes, tearing sails, and unpicking stitching. Others blew in contradiction to their kin, and Esha blushed to see several more copulating and frolicking on the spars.
‘Elementals,’ Ibur said with a raised brow and a wry grin. ‘Come. I’ll show you to your cabin.’
Leading Esha inside, he escorted her across the room and to another door, giving her little time to linger.
‘I must attend to a few things,’ he said. ‘Yet I look forward to our arrival on Gort. There I will show you our home, and we will have time to become better acquainted.’
‘But of course, Ibur.’
‘I have prepared a potion should the motion of the ship make you unwell. I would advise you to drink it. It will make the journey more pleasant.’
‘Thank you, Ibur,’ Esha said. She started to say something more, but Ibur smiled, bowed, and left the cabin, closing the door behind him.
Esha swallowed her disappointment. She had been longing for this day ever since she had seen his face in the mirror. She walked to the door, her hand halting inches from the handle. She bit her lip, dropping her hand to her side with another sigh. He was busy, as he had said, and there would be time for talk later.
‘Olpirt,’ Esha said, and a small flare of light kindled in the palm of her hand then drifted up to shine forth into the space around her.
Her quarters appeared to have been recently constructed. The inner walls were thin, the wood unseasoned. A real bed and mattress filled most of the space; a wooden table, chair, and a large, carved trunk, the remainder. A lantern swung gently from the ceiling.
Esha stood on tiptoes and opened one of the lantern’s panels. Intoning a spell, she blew the resulting flame inside. She negated her original light spell and looked around her.
Her curiosity piqued by the carved wooden trunk, Esha sat down beside it and struggled with the latch. The lid opened with a creak and an accompanying smell of camphor, revealing clothes: breathtaking velvets, satins and silk, trimmed with soft fur or stitched with gold and silver. Clearly her brother was a wealthy man. Esha closed the lid carefully.
From behind wall she could hear the sounds of Ibur’s footsteps as he moved around his cabin. Esha sat down at the table. A jug of liquid, a silver goblet, and a bowl filled with strange fruit lay next to a cheese platter and several cured sausages.
The pitch and toss of the ship seemed to be increasing. Esha picked up the pewter tankard that held the potion that Ibur had prepared for her. She drank it in one go, grimacing at the bitter taste. Choosing a shiny red fruit from amid the exotic fare, she began to eat, but after a few small bites, sleep—heavy and irrepressible—took hold. The fruit slipped from her outstretched hand and rolled across the cabin floor.
Esha slept peacefully, her expression serene and her breathing deep as the hours and miles flowed by.
A chill wind rolled in from the south, the waves increased in height and breadth. The enchanted ship tossed upon the water. The jug of wine tipped across the table, the liquid dousing Esha and awakening her from her inexplicable slumber. She came to with a start.
Esha looked around her in confusion, pushing the fog of sleep from her mind while struggling to remember where she was and what had happened. She felt befuddled. There was a strange and bitter taste in her mouth.
From under the door came a flash of silver light. A peculiar scent permeated the air, followed by a queer rustling and then a faint, wheezing sound. The odd noises died, replaced by a low murmuring.
Esha rose unsteadily. Curious, she opened the door and peered into her brother’s room. The cabin was sparsely furnished, almost austere in the lack of decoration, the wooden floor bare and as highly polished as the deck. Esha could make out the shapes of a bed, the curtains pulled tight, and a tall wooden closet and wash basin butted up to the newly made inner wall.
A rounded globe of luminous pale blue—obviously magical in nature--shone from across the room. Then, as her mind reinterpreted the image, Esha realised that it was the moon, seen from behind a pane of glass in a wide, curved window that looked out over the dark sky and sea.
Esha slipped into the room. In front of the window, a fat yellow candle flickered, reflecting in the glass and casting shadows across a large, pitted table. The dark figure of her brother sat hunched before it.
Esha tiptoed further into the cabin. At the back of her mind, she knew that she shouldn’t be intruding. The knowledge made her nervous, but Esha’s curiosity drew her on. As Ibur’s profile came into view, she saw that his eyes were closed and his features slack, as if he were in a trance. Mere inches in front of him, a jet black feather and a curled lock of grey hair floated in the air, both items imbued with a blue shimmer.
Ibur’s lips moved, mouthing whispered words. Esha tiptoed closer. The words became lucid. She held her breath, well aware that she was eavesdropping. It looked as if Ibur was talking to someone… Esha leant forward, so close now that she could see the individual strands in the floating lock of hair.
‘Tell the Hags anything you like. But do not fail me,’ Ibur said.
There was a pause, as if the sorcerer listened to a reply.
‘The Stag will be aware of nothing, save that which lies between his legs.’
The feather and hair bobbed with Ibur’s exhaled breath.
Silence—heavy and portentous.
The sorcerer’s body tensed, then Ibur straightened up.
Esha ran, her heart thudding madly as she hurried into her room and closed the door behind her. She lay back on the chair as if asleep, horribly aware that her breathing came too fast. With a whispered word she extinguished the lantern and the room plunged into darkness. The door creaked open.
Esha pretended to be asleep, not moving until she heard the door close again.
She climbed into bed and lay thinking about what she had seen and heard, trying to make sense of it. She shouldn’t have pried into his affairs, but her father’s talk of Ibur’s plans and her mother’s final warning lingered in her mind.
Esha had often heard her parents speak of the past. They themselves had been born after the fall of the last true King, in the dark years when the Witch Finders had roamed the Isles, seeking out suspected Witches and hanging or burning them at the stake.
They had also spoken to Esha of her grandfather. He had been a small child, just off the breast, when Anghard the Red, the Stag of Duir, led the Uprising.
Esha’s father said he’d been told that Tinne had fallen to treachery. The Witch King had been betrayed, and everyone in the white castle massacred. Then they had searched the city of Tinne, dragging the ‘Tainted’ into the streets and slaughtering them where they stood--women, children and all. Somehow Esha’s grandfather had managed to escape. He fled Tinne, and so began his life of hiding, something her people had done ever since.
Yet if Ibur wanted to change that, to help their people out of hiding, to reclaim what was theirs, how could her parents treat him so harshly for pursuing such a noble goal?
Esha finally fell asleep, dreaming of a white castle where elegant people danced, resplendent in their finery.
She woke to the sound of seagulls. Excited by the prospect of the new day, Esha quickly bathed in the water from the washbowl, and then opened the trunk to search for a suitable dress. She chose one made of a velvet cloth in deepest purple. Esha tied her hair back into a thick ponytail with a velvet ribbon that she found beneath the dresses.
A knock sounded on the cabin door.
‘May I enter?’
‘Please do,’ Esha called back.
Ibur entered the room. ‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘I trust that you slept well?’
Did Esha imagine it, or did Ibur look at her suspiciously? ‘Yes, Ibur. Thank you,’ she said, feeling as if she would blush and give herself away. ‘Have we arrived at Gort?’
‘We have indeed. I have sent a message to my driver. We should be at Branwen Tower by lunchtime.’
Ibur pointed a finger at the clothes trunk. ‘Darbs.’ The trunk vibrated then stilled, as if awaiting the next order. The sorcerer bent his finger in a beckoning motion. ‘Nis.’
As Ibur walked through the door and into his own cabin, several items, including a large leather bag and a wooden crate, slid across the floor to join Esha’s trunk. With Ibur in the lead, the procession moved out onto the deck. Emerging into the bright sunshine, they were greeted by a collection of hoots and howls from the Elementals that floated above. Ibur swatted a rebellious sprite aside, as if it were a fly.
Esha’s eyes shone as she gazed upon the Isle that was to be her home. ‘Oh, it looks lovely,’ she exclaimed excitedly and turned to her brother with a sunny smile.
Ibur returned her smile. ‘I suggest that you hold on to something,’ he said in warning. He pointed a finger at the horde of spectral beings and dismissed all but two of them with a few well-aimed words.
Esha barely had time to follow his advice before being assaulted and buffeted by the departing Elementals, the din near deafening as they shrieked and screamed.
Ibur stood staring at his home Isle, and although his hair blew in the ensuing gale, Esha noticed that the airy apparitions treated the sorcerer with a grudging reserve.
The ship rocked gently on the calm waters of the cove. The sun shone warmly; the water sparkled. The sorcerer strode across the deck, preparing the ship for his departure, furling the sails, dropping the anchor, and battening the hatches. The two remaining Elementals heckled him from the spars.
Satisfied that everything was secure and safe, Ibur returned to the prow.
‘I am so looking forward to seeing my new home,’ Esha said, looking at the white sandy shoreline and the green hills beyond. ‘Branwen Tower is such a grand name.’
‘The Tower was originally a hunting lodge,’ Ibur answered. ‘It has been in our family for generations, though I am afraid it has been neglected over the years. I have not yet had the time to restore it to its former beauty.’
Ibur looked up at the Elementals then pointed a finger in the direction of the ship’s boat. The Elementals hurried to remove the lashing, and lowered the boat onto the water. Ibur pointed his finger at the trunks, and intoned a spell. The trunks floated obediently into the boat below.
‘Come, Esha,’ he said.
Ibur clasped her gently around the waist. ‘Vniglag Ta De V-pa-ah,’ he said softly, and they floated up over the ship’s rail and into the waiting boat.
Ibur held Esha as she gained her balance, then he aided her to sit. The Elementals flew down on their finely laced wings. Their small faces were mischievous as they positioned themselves behind the boat and began to blow, spraying Esha with seawater as they did. Ibur sat at the prow. Esha could see that his lips were moving, whether to control the Elementals or the boat’s course, Esha didn’t know. She kept silent, not wishing to disturb his concentration.
The boat drew up to the shore, the Elementals running it into the sand. As Ibur dismissed them, they blew sand into Esha’s eyes. Their laughter rang in the air long after they had disappeared. Ibur helped Esha to alight the trunks and crates following them onto the beach.
Ibur led the way up from the sand and into the scrubland that lay beyond. They travelled up a path to a high green escarpment. The grass gave way to an area of forest with trees that were almost bare, save for a few stubborn, yellow leaves. At the edge of the wood, a gleaming black carriage awaited, two black horses grazing contentedly in the lush grass.
The driver sat slumped, as if asleep, but at their approach, he sat up and quickly stepped down from his seat. He hurried to open the carriage door for Esha.
Settling back onto the soft, black leather seat, Esha smiled as Ibur joined her. A moment later the carriage moved off with a lurch. The horses’ hooves stirred up the dust as they plunged down the track and into the forest.
Esha stared out the window at the blur of passing branches. Ibur sat with his eyes closed and his hands clasped across his chest as if sleeping. Realising that he must be tired after his long journey to and from the Tomb Stones, Esha didn’t try to engage him in conversation. Instead, she amused herself by imagining what her new home would look like.
Branwen Tower--the name had a heroic quality, slightly mysterious, yet strong--the very stuff of legend. She discarded the term hunting lodge. It was altogether too dull for her accompanying imagery.
By the time the trees had given way to cleared land and the track had become a road bordered by avenues of towering and majestic oaks, Esha drifted in a world of her own. Her eyes sparkled as she lost herself in dreams.
The carriage stopped.
Esha greeted the return to reality with a look of surprise. Beside her, Ibur sat up.
‘Ah, good. We are here.’
Esha peered out the carriage window. The sky was overcast; the sun hidden. She couldn’t see the building from where she sat, only a rambling garden, brown and drear, summer’s exuberant growth now nothing but dried seed pods, dead stalks, and leaves.
The driver opened the door and Esha stepped out of the carriage and looked around her. Branwen Tower crouched like a living creature amid the dying foliage. Built of ominous black stone, a substance that seemed to absorb all light, the structure was imposing yet graceless. A lone, crooked tower reached precariously into the sky. A tall black wall stood around it, the dead twisted branches of trees rearing up from within.
Ivy claimed the building’s lower levels, but something about the tower and the wall that encircled it halted its growth. No birds nested in the tower’s crenellations and the monstrous stone gargoyles gathered no lichen.
Esha shuddered. She battled the urge to run. Her instincts screamed at her not to enter this forbidding abode. Yet it was Ibur’s home, she reminded herself, it had been in her family for centuries. Esha followed her brother inside.
As she stepped into a small, dimly lit room with a long passageway opening before her, the sensation intensified; Branwen Tower gave the impression of being steeped in an ancient and powerful magic. There was no sign of Ibur. An old, shabby woman shuffled along the passage towards her, grimacing frightfully. The crone bobbed up and down on the spot, mutely beckoning her to follow.
The old woman walked on ahead down the long corridor, Esha following behind. They walked up a flight of curving black stone steps that ended on a landing flanked by darkened doorways, the lintels carved into the likeness of bizarre magical beasts. Another flight of steps followed.
At the top the old woman paused, breathing deeply, and opened her mouth to gasp for air. Esha recoiled, stifling a scream at the sight of the crone’s mouth: her tongue was a blackened, grotesque stump. The woman straightened up, seemingly unaware of Esha’s repulsion, and continued into the corridor beyond. She opened a door to a chamber, indicating that Esha should enter.
A fire blazed in the nearby hearth, instantly drawing Esha closer. As she basked in the warmth, her moment of fear, born of darkness and shadows, began to fade.
A table held an array of platters, plates, bowls, and tureens, tendrils of steam and delicious aroma’s rising up. Esha breathed them in with delight. She looked around the room with a smile of pleasure and wondered why she had been so frightened. It must have been the excitement of the journey that had frayed her nerves.
Esha walked around the room, inspecting the contents of the cupboards and cabinets. On an ebony dresser, she found a casket of jewellery, ropes of pearls, chains of silver and gold. Esha draped herself in the finery. A loud knock upon the door halted her fun.
‘Just one moment please,’ she called out, suddenly abashed. Quickly shedding the jewellery, flushed and slightly out of breath, Esha sat down at the table. ‘Come in.’
Ibur strode into the room. He stopped abruptly, then with a smile, bowed low. ‘Forgive me, my Lady. I had hoped to dine with my sister tonight but I see that I have entered the wrong room.’
Esha frowned then, blushing furiously, she removed the heavy gold and ruby tiara.
‘It gladdens me to see you happy,’ Ibur said. ‘I will join you at your repast, if I may.’
‘Oh yes. Please do.’
Ibur had dressed for the occasion, immaculate in a deep-green silk shirt, black velvet breeches, and long black boots. He reached over and poured a deep burgundy liquid into two fine-stemmed silver goblets. ‘This wine is excellent,’ he said. ‘From the Thane of Muin’s cellars, no less.’
Esha drank deeply, striving to appear at ease--a suitably refined dinner companion. Inside, she felt out of her depth, as if transported to a setting of one of her own fantasies, and she struggled to know just what to do next. When she placed the goblet back upon the table, Ibur refilled it, holding up his own in a toast.
‘To the liberation of our people,’ he said, and then he sipped his wine.
‘To the liberation of our people,’ Esha repeated. She drained the goblet in one go. A flush of gratitude swept through her, leaving her feeling light-headed. ‘Thank you, Ibur. You have done so much for me.’
‘It is nothing, little sister. If only it was so easy to help the rest of our people,’ Ibur said as he refilled her goblet once more.
‘Surely nothing is beyond your powers, Ibur,’ Esha said. She felt keenly for her brother’s burden. The warmth of his convictions touched her. Oh how her parents had misjudged him.
Ibur shook his head, fixing her with his intense gaze. ‘But there you are wrong, Esha…’
Esha remembered his conjuring the magnificent, watery dragon and his mastery over the Elementals. Her own spells were few. Her parents had always shown a reluctance to teach her more. Ibur’s knowledge and mastery deeply impressed her. ‘I don’t believe that there is anything beyond your powers, Ibur,’ Esha said solemnly. She drank deeply again, finding herself dizzy and feeling a little strange.
Ibur reached across the table to refill her goblet. ‘Not everything is achievable by power,’ he said. ‘There is one thing—one vital part of my plan—that is beyond me, as a mere male, to achieve.’ He paused, then reached across the table and clasped her hand. ‘And here, my beloved sister, here, I am hoping—no—I am praying that you will help me…’
‘Speak brother,’ Esha said, the drama of the moment adding to the overwhelming sensations that whirled inside her.
‘I would not ask it of you, save that I can see no other way…’
‘Tell me,’ Esha replied. ‘I am at your command.’
‘I ask that you serve as Maiden at the Spring Equinox,’ Ibur said. ‘And that you bear the Anghard King a child…’
The Hanged Man…
Lilith staggered down the black stone steps to the kitchen.
Her head throbbed. Her stomach roiled. She felt seedy, distinctly unwell. As if she’d drunk too much wine, something she’d done only once in her life, when Hugh had stolen half a quart and had urged her to join him in quaffing it in the stables.
Lilith used her hands to steady herself as she made her way down. Her body felt odd, uncoordinated, as if she hadn’t yet assumed mastery over her own limbs. As if a part of her was missing, still caught up within the vision.
Even the house felt strange, altered by Esha’s memories. Lilith glanced down the corridor before leaving the darkness of the steps.
Her mind still swirled—she’d seen things, known things, and thought things she’d never contemplated before. And she knew Ge-Iad’s real name. She didn’t understand why he hadn’t told her, but maybe it had something to do with being his apprentice. Lilith patted her pocket, feeling the key inside. The flask had only revealed one vision, but Lilith knew in her heart there had to be more. The flask and key had been hidden in the wall. But who had hidden it? And why? The key obviously led to the rest of the secret. Lilith pondered on the vision as she walked down the cobblestone path.
Seeing Lilith, Sooty stalked into view and joined her. Lilith bent down to give him an absent-minded pat.
So Esha was Ge-Iad’s younger sister, and the sorcerer had been born on one of the Tomb Stones, near Ruis, which Lilith had heard of before, as it was one of the Goddess Isles. He’d returned to Branwen Tower, which, as he had told her, had been in his family for years. Lilith liked the manor house’s name. It suited it, strong and ancient.
Ge-Iad had looked younger in the vision, no sign of the grey at his temples. So Lilith reasoned that it had been a vision from the past. She wondered what had become of Esha.
The Cook would have called Esha a romantic soul. Lilith had heard her say it about the Mistress once. She’d said it with a slight sneer, and because the Cook had been in a good mood that day, Lilith had pressed further, asking her what she had meant. Someone who lived in daydreams, she’d replied, with their head lost in the clouds.
It had been so strange being inside Esha, seeing the world through her eyes. She had shared Esha’s wonder at the sorcerer’s conjuring, yet Esha’s feelings had been overwhelming much of the time. Lilith liked her, but although Esha seemed to know more than Lilith about the history of the Isles—and Lilith had to admit that wasn’t hard—Esha didn’t know people. And she certainly didn’t know about wine.
Lilith recalled how Esha had drunk goblet after goblet of the stuff, and Lilith knew from the young woman’s memories that she had never even tasted wine before. Ge-Iad/Ibur had refilled her glass each and every time, while he had only sipped at his.
Then he had asked her to be the Spring Maiden and to have the Stag King’s child. Lilith didn’t know much about the sacred festivals, but the child bit was clear enough. As usual, Ge-Iad’s manners and words had been charming, but it seemed to Lilith that he’d led Esha into agreeing before he’d even asked her to do it. It didn’t seem right. Lilith felt suspicious of the sorcerer’s plans for Esha. Past plans, she reminded herself. All this had happened in the past. Who knew where Esha was now, or whether she had slept with the Stag King and had his child?
Lilith had recognised Hesta when Esha had arrived at the manor house. Although, she’d been younger too, slightly less bent and wizened. Esha had been so fearful of her, so revolted. That surprised Lilith, as she had taken instantly to the gentle old woman.
But what about Hesta’s injury—the stump of her tongue. Lilith shuddered as she remembered it. She’d always thought that Hesta had been born a mute. Yet Hesta’s tongue had looked as if it had been severed. Lilith had heard that thieves sometimes had a hand cut off as punishment, forgers their ears. What had Hesta done to have her tongue removed, and who had done it? Or maybe it wasn’t a punishment, maybe someone wanted to make sure she couldn’t talk…
Suspicions whispered in Lilith’s mind. She hated what they said, but she didn’t silence them as she slipped off the path and under the cover of the trees.
She was scared of angering the sorcerer, especially now that she had seen his darker side. Yet Lilith needed to get to the bottom of things, and with Ge-Iad still in his tower, she intended to do just that.
Lilith explained her reasoning to herself: Ge-Iad had told her that she must follow his commands, yet he hadn’t ordered her not to go looking for a door, or a gate, which she could unlock with a key that he didn’t even know about, did he? And if she were caught out and about in the garden, that alone would not be suspicious. She’d often harvested herbs. She only wished she’d thought to go by the herb room and get a basket—then she’d look more the part.
The spreading tree within the key’s bow had made Lilith think of searching in the garden. She thought she’d try the summerhouse first. It seemed an obvious choice. It proved hard to find under the rampant growth of the ivy. Lilith searched around it, finding a small, broken window, and she peered inside. She saw the door on the other side of the room and hurried around to it. Tugging at the ivy to find the key hole, Lilith drew the key from her pocket. She didn’t even have to try it to realise that the key was too small.
Lilith turned the door handle anyway. A faint click and it opened inwards. She tugged and pulled at the ivy again, clearing the way, then rubbing her eyes and sneezing from the dust, Lilith looked inside. She walked in carefully, looking up at the spider webs that hung from the rafters. The thatch had long since rotted away, the ivy’s woody branches now forming its tangled roof. Rain, wind, and sun had entered the room, spoiling the books that sat in a mildewed pile upon the warped wooden table.
Lilith stepped across the debris strewn floor. She ran a hand over the books, and then picked one up. The pages had glued together. The soft grey fungus that grew across the cover left traces on her fingers. Lilith put the book aside and looked through the rest of the stack. Her thirst to read something other than the Botanicum made her persevere, searching until she came to three books that had been spared the worst of the damage.
She picked them up and looked at the covers, pleased to see that one of them dealt with rare and exotic herbs. The second book looked like a sketch book or diary, with beautiful drawings and tiny floral script. And the last book, Lilith noted with interest, was entitled, “The Sacred Trees and Rituals of the Meda Isles.”
Lilith clutched the books to her chest, delighted by the find. She’d look at them later when she had more time. She wanted to find the door that the key fit and Ge-Iad wouldn’t remain in his tower forever. Lilith glanced around the room again, seeing a tall cabinet with an abandoned bird’s nest perched on the top. The cabinet had a lock. Lilith hurried over.
She held the key up and immediately saw that it was far too large for the lock. Lilith sighed as she placed the key back in her pocket. She walked back outside, her eyes passing around the garden, coming to rest upon the high stone wall.
Then Lilith remembered how she’d felt the coldness of an iron keyhole, as she’d run in the dark, seeking the way out of the woods…
Clutching her books, Lilith pushed aside the herbs that grew in the shade beneath the canopy of the trees, wading through the growth to the clear area that girt the wall.
The dead ivy that climbed it seemed a stark contrast to the rest of the garden. Lilith did as she had done before, running her fingers over the ivy and stones as she searched for the keyhole. She spotted the gate beneath the gnarled and matted wood. Lilith pulled off a dry leaf that blocked the keyhole.
She felt for the key in her pocket, drawing it out. She placed it in the keyhole.
It fitted. Perfectly.
Lilith didn’t bother to turn it. Her disappointment weighed heavily as she put the key back into her pocket and walked back to the elder bower. That was it then. She’d seen what lay within the wall, nothing but dead trees and barren earth. Lilith thought about it as she made her way to the kitchen. It didn’t make sense. Why leave the key to the woods with the flask? What connection did they have with the vision? It felt like a dead end. The flask empty. The key seemingly useless.
Gods! He was looking for her! Lilith carefully placed the books under a tree, and then she slipped out onto the cobblestone path, her stride casual. She hoped her deceit looked real.
The sorcerer stood outside the kitchen door. ‘I have been calling you!’ he said, clearly irritated by her absence. ‘Where have you been?’
‘Gathering herbs,’ Lilith said quickly. She’d almost said in the herb room, but if he’d been calling for her, he’d obviously checked there first. Lilith gave an inward sigh of relief that she hadn’t given herself away.
‘We leave now for Ladluck. Hurry and get your cloak and we will be away. Join me at the stables.’
Lilith hurried up to her room. She took the key from her dress pocket and slipped it into her cloak’s. She pulled on a pair of boots and left the room, closing the door behind her.
She walked swiftly down the path to the stables. Lilith drew up the hood of her cloak, hiding her face beneath its deep folds as she approach the cart. She climbed up onto the seat beside the sorcerer.
‘A good day to travel out,’ he said.
‘I would have thought you would show more enthusiasm, given this is your first outing since your arrival on Gort.’
‘I’m a bit tired, Ge-Iad. I didn’t sleep well.’
Lilith watched the passing landscape as they travelled through the forest and then through fields, unmoved by the golden hills and dappled vineyards green with spring’s full growth. Ge-Iad remained immune to her dark humour. He whistled happily, puffing upon his pipe, the thick grey smoke curling up over his shoulder, disappearing with the wind.
She didn’t want to look at him. Lilith understood how Esha felt. When Lilith looked at Ge-Iad, her suspicions wavered. It didn’t help that he was so attractive, although Lilith’s initial infatuation with the sorcerer had faded when he had punished her by burning the poppet. He still impressed her—greatly. She was still eager to learn magic, but Lilith wasn’t sure that she trusted him anymore.
They crested the summit of a vine-terraced hill, then through the sunlit fields that bound a small village. Lilith noticed that the farmhands and tillers bowed their heads at the sorcerer’s passing.
They travelled through a small village, the children playing on the track scattering at the cart’s approach. Lilith saw doors opening as the village women came out to quickly gather their children inside.
Ge-Iad didn’t seem to notice or care how the farmhands or villagers reacted to his appearance. Then Lilith remembered how his family had owned Branwen Tower for generations. Judging from what she’d just seen, the people of Gort both respected and feared the sorcerer too.
Just outside the village, they came to a crossroads, and Ge-Iad set the horses on the road that led to Ladluck, a wide track through green fields that rippled in the wind.
The village lay at the end of a sweep of rolling hills that led down to the sea, the cobbled road slick with the salty spray. Smoke billowed up from the chimneys, lying heavy in the air. The horse’s hooves clattered loudly on the road, drawing curious glances, but Lilith noticed that no eye lingered on the sorcerer’s passing. Heads were swiftly averted or bowed, doors closed. A matted-haired child paused on the threshold of her house, her small fingers sketching the sign against the evil-eye in the air, the action halted as she was hurried inside. The door slammed shut. Ge-Iad’s whistle, a slow and easy tune, jarred amidst the sudden silence of the streets.
The cart rumbled its way to a deserted square where a makeshift scaffold had been erected, a limp body gently swaying upon the gibbet.
‘A perfect specimen,’ Ge-Iad said as he climbed down from his seat and gave Lilith the reins.
Lilith looked at him in horror. ‘We’ve come all this way to get a dead man?’
‘A hanged man. And not just any either. This man was a rapist, Lilith, and a murderer. I’m sure you understand the villagers’ delight in capturing him.’
The sorcerer drew forth a knife from his belt and nimbly climbed up onto the scaffold’s rough plank platform. ‘Such potency exists within this body: a reservoir of pure, condensed violence,’ he marvelled. He sliced through the thick hemp rope and the body dropped with a thud.
The sorcerer sheathed his knife, jumped down from the scaffold, and dragged the body over to the cart. He hauled it up, slinging its arm around his shoulder, throwing its legs and then its body onto the back of the cart.
‘The manner of death is magnificent in itself,’ the sorcerer said, his admiration clear. ‘The rope didn’t break his neck. Instead, it slowly strangled him, prolonging his death throes.’
Lilith couldn’t stop the shudder that passed through her. His words reminded her of the feeling as the noose had snapped taut. But if Ge-Iad noticed her distress, he didn’t let it dampen his enthusiasm. He continued on in an animated fashion as he studied the body, tapping the chest and drawing back an eyelid. ‘The body of a hanged man is a very useful thing indeed. A killer doubly so. The fat can be used for candles, and the liver dried and ground is an excellent poison. But the most potent weapon of all is the Hand of Glory.’
‘What’s that?’ Lilith’s sharp question halted the sorcerer’s flow of talk.
Ge-Iad turned to regard Lilith with slow and suspicious interest. She looked down, wishing she’d stayed silent.
‘You will wait here for me,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘I have some business to attend to. On no account are you to leave the cart. Do you understand?’
Lilith nodded. ‘Yes, Ge-Iad.’
The sorcerer strode away, the sound of his footfall receding behind her. Lilith kept her back to the corpse, unnerved by its presence. A sickly smell issued forth, making her gag.
Three figures strode around the corner and into the square, coming to a halt at the sight of the cart. Lilith pulled her hood forward, shielding her eyes, willing the men away.
‘Hey! Just what do you think you’re doing?’
Lilith flinched at the call. She watched nervously as the men walked closer, circling the cart.
‘Well blow me down! It’s a girl…’
Lilith’s skin crawled. She recognised the leer in the man’s voice. Was she safe from no one? She held her tongue, desperate not to commit another social error, terrified that anything she did or said might be taken as an invitation to assault her. She fought the urge to look around the square, seeking the sorcerer.
‘Why don’t you come on down, sweetheart. I’ll warm your cockles a damn sight better than that poor sod.’
A wave a ribald laughter passed between the men, ending with sudden abruptness.
Lilith turned around, her breath catching in her throat as she saw the sorcerer enter the square, his booted feet striking the stones, his cloak swirling out behind him. The sorcerer was followed by a string of people bearing sacks and boxes.
The effect of the sorcerer’s appearance on the three men was instantaneous. Their fawning supplications brought a bitter smile to Lilith’s lips as they backed away from the cart.
‘It seems I have arrived at exactly the right moment, once again,’ Ge-Iad said as he climbed onto his seat.
His entourage loaded their burdens in the back of the cart. If any found the sight of the hanged man sprawled within the cart odd, they showed no sign. Each bowed their head in turn upon completion, and then they walked away in silence. Ge-Iad acknowledged their services with a wave of his hand.
The sorcerer placed a small parcel on Lilith’s lap then he took the reins. ‘Open it,’ he said as he urged the horses on.
Lilith undid the parchment to find a small, leather bound book tied with a fine purple ribbon. She untied the ribbon and read the title: “The Joye of Cooking.”
‘I have gone to great effort to procure this book for you, Lilith. Mark that you use it well.’
Lilith opened the book, turning to where a small spring of dried foliage marked a page: “Let the meat-screen, basting ladle, and drip pan be cleaned carefully, the spit given an additional rub. The hook should be inserted so as to take in a bone, take care not to tear the meat or suffer the juice to escape.”
‘Thank you, Ge-Iad,’ she said. She hid her disappointment. She didn’t want cook books, she wanted spells. She didn’t want the heat, the drudgery of the kitchen—she wanted to learn how to use her Gift, as he had promised.
‘I have also come by several items, sourced for me by a merchant from the markets of Tinne, from the warm southern realms of the Meda Isles. Sugar, spices, and such forth. They should prove a welcome addition to your cooking.’
‘Thank you, Ge-Iad.’
The sorcerer either didn’t notice Lilith’s lack of enthusiasm, or he chose to ignore it. He continued talking. ‘I have also taken the liberty of having several new dresses made for you. The fashions now being much changed.’ He paused to look at her. ‘The dress you are wearing being a prime example,’ he said. ‘Really, Lilith, could you not find anything less becoming? As I said before, you are a beautiful woman, and as my apprentice…’
‘I don’t see how it does me any good to be beautiful,’ Lilith said, interrupting him. ‘I don’t want men to look at me.’
‘Ah, but there you are wrong, Lilith. A smart woman knows the value of her beauty. A clever woman utilises her charms to her advantage.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You will wear the dresses that I have bought for you.’
The remainder of the journey passed in silence. Lilith stared at the book in her lap, her dark eyes smouldering. Ge-Iad whistled merrily. His smoke streamed into her face, stinging her eyes and making her cough.
Sooty met them on their return to Branwen Tower. He jumped up onto the back of the cart and sniffed the corpse with growing interest. Lilith shooed him down.
‘Unload our purchases,’ the sorcerer said.
Lilith hoisted a sack onto her shoulder and tucked a small box under her arm. Thus laden, she made her way to the kitchen. She placed the purchases down in the pantry. She walked slowly back to the cart. The sorcerer had unharnessed the horse and stabled him in his stall.
The hanged man lay in a pile of straw, a black swarm of flies already circling above it.
‘I will be done shortly,’ the sorcerer said as he unrolled a leather pouch, resting it upon the straw.
Lilith caught a glimpse of gleaming implements, each within its own inner pocket of the pouch: scalpels, saws, and blades of varying purpose and size. The sorcerer turned his back, blocking the sight.
Then Lilith knew what he was doing and just what he wanted the vervain for.
‘Finish unloading the cart,’ he said. ‘Then return here.’
Repulsed, Lilith could hardly bring herself to answer him. ‘Yes, Ge-Iad,’ she muttered quickly. She hefted another sack onto her shoulder and one under her arm and walked back to the kitchen.
When she returned to the cart, the sorcerer stood up from his work. ‘I have what I need,’ he said. ‘You may dispose of it now. Bury it, or burn it in the incinerator. I care not. So long as the stench doesn’t reach me.’
Lilith cast a horrified glance at the corpse, wrapped in sacking, the ankles tied with rope. When he’d told her she was to become his apprentice, she’d never thought it would involve dragging dead bodies around.
The sorcerer rolled up his pouch of implements and placed it in his breeches pocket, then lifted up the buckets. Lilith looked away, not wanting to know what lay inside them. He departed, leaving Lilith to her grisly task.
Trying to put aside her squeamish thoughts—after all, however awful the job, it still had to be done—Lilith judged the effort it would take to haul it to the incinerator. She decided against it—she’d bury it here instead, behind the stables. The ground was nice and soft, not too hard to dig.
Then Lilith went cold.
The spade still lay in the tower’s dead woods…
As she pictured it, lying in plain sight, exposed to the sorcerer’s eye, she felt weak, light-headed. He might even be able to see it from his tower, the only thing that gleamed in the barren woods. Lilith swayed, placing a hand on the stable wall to steady her.
She’d have to get it. There was no other way. The thought of the sorcerer discovering it made Lilith’s stomach turn.
She’d have to wait until night. The woods would be too exposed by the light of day.
Lilith took off her cloak and threw it over a hook in the wall. She hitched her skirts and girdle and rolled up her sleeves. She seized the rope, hauling the corpse out of the stables, grunting and swearing all the while. She couldn’t believe it was so heavy. She stopped to catch her breath before shuffling backwards, the body dragging behind her, around the corner of the stables to the incinerator.
When she’d shoved and pushed and kicked the corpse into the incinerator, lighting the packed firebox with a heated spell, Lilith slammed the door shut. She dusted off her skirts, watching the black and acrid smoke slowly snake up from the chimney and into the evening’s blood-washed sky.
She’d use the key to the gate. It might take a bit of force to open it, to break through the gnarled and woody ivy, but it would be easier and less conspicuous than climbing over the wall.
Lilith retrieved her cloak from the stables. She walked slowly, dragging her step as the garden darkened around her and the sun set behind the outer paddocks and fields. Lilith glanced up at the tower. The window was light. The sorcerer was hard at work.
Lilith stopped by the side of the half-hidden path. She looked around her before slipping under the cover of the trees. She ran quickly through the grove and passed the bower’s stone statue. She swallowed her unease, plunging into the darkness, not slowing her pace until she’d reached the other end.
She arrived at the wall and the ivy-covered gate, out of breath and shaking with apprehension. She hated the thought of going back into the woods. Especially at night.
Lilith withdrew the key from her pocket. She looked in the darkness for the key hole, detecting the faint gleam of metal.
Placing the key inside, she turned it.
With the click of the lock, the ivy that covered the gate infused with sudden life, the dried stems and tendrils swelling and growing and greening and twining, back away from the wood of the gate, clearing her way.
Lilith stared at the gate in amazement.
A slight push of her hand and it swung inwards.
As Lilith stepped into the walled woods, she drew breath. A deep green canopy of branches grew over her head. Tall, graceful trunks soared up to their heights. Moonlight shafted through the leaves, casting dappled shadows onto the long grass below. The air smelt wonderful, so rich and fertile, so full of life. The night sky was filled with the flight of moths, their silver-scaled wings touched by the moonlight. The darker shapes of bats swooped amongst them.
She closed the gate behind her and followed a meandering path, caught up within the spell of the woods. Lilith had forgotten about the spade. She felt no pressing need to hurry. The beauty and peace of the woods soothed her, luring her in to discover its lush, green secrets. Her aimless footfall brought her to a ring of slender alders, their deep roots in the banks of a large pool of shimmering water.
The water lapped gently, moved by its own secret currents. Long, green reeds grew by its mossy banks. Lilith squatted down by the water, cupping a hand to drink, seeing her own reflection in the surface, stars twinkling in the darkness above her.
In the centre of the pond, the water suddenly swirled.
Lilith dropped her hand, startled by the movement.
A white-crested wave radiated out, washing against the bank, soaking the tips of her boots. As Lilith watched, the shimmering waters of the pool began to glow with a soft, blue light.
The liquid drew back from the shore, leaving the reeds and muddy earth bare.
Lilith scrambled to her feet.
Then the glowing blue water swelled, surging upwards in small waves, cascades tumbling as a figure formed—a man, fluid and flawless, his skin an iridescent shimmer.
Glowing droplets rolled down his smooth scalp and onto his watery shoulders. Undulating ripples rolled across the breadth of his chest. His eyes were aqua blue, without white.
The water man sighed, and the sound was like the wind through the reeds.
‘You have come at last, Lilith, Child of Sorrow…’
The Seducer of Demigods and the Slayer of Kings…
The water man walked towards her, his feet leaving glowing depressions in the damp ground.
‘How do you know my name?’ Lilith asked. She stared at the watery creature with awe, not knowing whether she should run. Then he reached down and stroked her cheek. His touch was cool and calming. Lilith’s skin tingled with the contact. Her fright vanished.
‘I have always known you, Lilith,’ the water man said. ‘I have long foreseen and awaited your coming.’
Then Lilith understood. ‘You left the flask and the key in the wall!’
‘She for whom these alder woods were planted, and after whom the tower is named, sealed my essence, together with the enchanted key, within the wall,’ the water man said. ‘Her mortal form long ago fell to ashes and dust, while I linger on.’
‘Who are you? Why did she leave the flask?’
‘I am an Aquis. A Water Elemental and a Seer. Past, present, and future, all can be viewed within my depths.’
‘But you’re not really here now, are you?’ Lilith said. ‘I’ve been in here before. These woods were nothing but dead trees. And there was no water.’
‘The key unlocks the spell to the past, allowing you to see and speak to me. Allowing you to see what must be seen.’
The Aquis crouched down. He cupped his palms together and a whirling pool of water appeared within them. The water stilled, mirror smooth.
‘Look,’ he said.
Lilith looked into the water, seeing her own reflection.
Her long shadowy-black hair, her heart-shaped face pale and her dark eyes wide with curiosity. A gentle ripple passed across the pool and the features of her young face flowed and changed, the reflection altered: flesh, skin and bones transformed…
Long lashes now curved over her large dark eyes. Softness was absent in the condescending set of her fine boned face. The older Lilith smiled, a twist to her full lips.
Then a sudden wave washed across the surface, clearing it of Lilith’s future form. A second image began to materialise, but just as it appeared, it vanished, replaced by another fleeting scene in turn.
…an axe descends… a room awash with blood…
…the deep green shadows of an ancient forest… a temple, the dogs bay loudly… she sews a coat of skins, bare arms and skirts stained crimson…
…a sparkling blue sea, the Elementals fan the wind into her ship’s billowing sails… wide, white wings appear in the sky above her…
…a white stone cell… a strange demi-man sits hunched, severed stumps of wings, matted blond hair, his body emaciated and covered with grime… the winged man looks up… his vivid blue eyes widen with surprise…
Lilith reeled as the scenes flickered and changed. She trembled, closing her eyes, dizzied by the racing images.
The water man reached out and stroked her cheek again, a soothing caress.
‘Why show me this? What do you want?’ Lilith asked. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘You shall be the Reaper, Lilith,’ the Aquis said. ‘You shall be the Redeemer. The Seducer of Demigods and the Slayer of Kings.’
‘Me?’ Lilith asked, horrified. ‘I don’t even know what a redeemer is, let alone a seducer. And I really don’t want to kill anybody! I’m sorry, but you’ve got it wrong. I’m not the person you’ve waited for.’
‘There is more you must see, Lilith. Then you will understand.’
‘The pictures go too fast…’
‘The visions you must view cannot be scried. They are more than mere images, Lilith. They are the memories of another.’
‘Esha’s memories?’ Lilith asked. ‘But what has that got to do with me? And why do you have her memories anyway?’
‘A little of my essence flows within the sorcerer’s sister. Threads of her story, her memories, reside within me. You must drink of me, Lilith. Then and only then will you understand what must be done. Fill a flask with my essence,’ the Aquis said. ‘You must hide when you drink of the liquid. You must guard yourself well. The sorcerer will not allow you to live should he find out that you have uncovered the secret of the Tower of Branwen.’
‘The secret of the Tower?’ Lilith looked up at the high tower, but it was a different structure now, wasn’t it? The lines weren’t crooked. Tendrils of ivy softened the imposing, black stone.
‘I am the secret, Lilith,’ the Aquis said. ‘I am the power you feel within the black stone. I am the force that resonates through its walls. Countless souls have died to conceal my existence. The sorcerer will not hesitate to add one more.’
‘But he won’t catch me, will he?’ Lilith asked, heartened by the visions of her future.
‘Each step alters the destination. The future I have seen relies upon the present.’
His words spurred Lilith into action.
‘I can get a flask from the herb room. It might take a little while. I’ll hurry.’
Lilith ran back through the moonlit woods, glancing over her shoulder to see the Aquis’s watery form sink back into a pool of his own shimmering essence. Her heart hammered madly, her skin felt flushed. She tingled, deep down inside.
Although the Elemental’s words had frightened her, the images she’d seen had been greater than her wildest imaginings. She’d seen herself sailing on the sorcerer’s ship—the one she’d viewed in Esha’s vision. And it had been hers! But how was that possible?
Lilith reached the gate, pulling it open. It swung closed behind her. The ivy flowed back, covering the gate, becoming dead and brittle once more. She looked up at the wall and the stark and twisted branches that rose above it. She could see the crooked tower through their midst and the light in the high lone window.
Cutting across the garden, around the back of the summerhouse, and underneath the spreading oaks, she crept around the toolshed, hidden by the weeping willow, and down the path to the herb room. Lilith left the herb room door open as she tiptoed across the floor and searched through her collection of flasks, selecting one with a firm stopper. She shoved the flask into her cloak pocket.
She stopped to look carefully around her before stepping outside and closing the door. Lilith was just turning around to head back down the path when she saw the glow of eyes, watching her from within the shadows. She froze. A surge of fear sent her pulse racing.
The lights winked out. Lilith waited, tensed, ready for flight. She held her breath and listened, hearing nothing but the sounds of crickets in the grass and the distant chorus of frogs. The lights didn’t reappear.
Creeping back down the path and around the back of the toolshed, and then through the tall, tangled swathes of flowering herbs, Lilith glanced behind her again before hurrying to the gate.
She slipped the key into the keyhole and the ivy grew green once more, twining back from the gate. The push of her hand set it swinging inwards. Lilith closed the gate behind her and set off at a run.
The Elemental awaited her return, the perfect lines of his fluid form drawing Lilith’s awe once more. She approached him shyly, withdrawing the flask from her pocket and holding it up.
‘I have it.’
‘Hurry! The sorcerer’s work reaches completion. Even now he prepares to leave his tower.’
Lilith brought the flask to the Elemental, dipping it into the pool cupped within his hands. She raised the bottle up, the liquid aglow.
‘When…’ Lilith said.
‘Go,’ the Elemental insisted. ‘Do not tarry.’
Lilith almost forgot the spade again, remembering it only at the last moment. ‘My spade,’ she said. ‘I can’t see it.’
‘It lies where you dropped it, in the dead woods, in a time far removed from the one in which you now stand.’
‘The sorcerer will not find it, Lilith. But you must guard the flask and the key. Trust no one. Drink. See and understand. Return when you are ready to embrace your destiny. Hurry!’
Lilith shoved the flask deep into her pocket, dulling the glow. She ran through the enchanted woods, resisting the urge to glance back at the Elemental’s shimmering form. Opening the gate, she hurried through. The lock clicked. The ivy twined back over the gate, the branches and tendrils grew brown and dry once more.
Lilith looked around her, alert to any movement in the garden. She ran with her skirts lifted, feet pounding the path, passed the summerhouse and through the bower, emerging into the shadows of the ash grove. She stepped out onto the main path and turned towards the house and kitchen, forcing herself to walk slowly as if she hadn’t just been sneaking furtively through the darkened garden.
Sooty stood on the backdoor step, his eyes shining brightly. He rubbed himself against her, sniffing at her cloak pocket. Lilith gently pushed him away. The kitchen was dark. The house silent. Lilith walked quietly into the corridor. She hurried up the steps to her room, hearing a faint slither behind her as she stepped out onto the upstairs landing and walked quickly down the hall.
She closed her bedroom door behind her and hurried over to the bed. Lilith pulled the flask from her pocket and slipped it under the bolster. She undressed quickly, throwing her cloak, dress, and girdle over the back of a chair. She toyed with the idea of placing a chair wedged under the doorknob, as she had done before, yet it might arouse the sorcerer’s suspicions.
If Ge-Iad looked in on her, she would appear to be asleep. Lilith climbed into bed and withdrew the flask. The soft blue light illuminated the room. She unstoppered it, pondering the Elemental’s words, the visions she had seen. She remembered the nausea and the sickness that had followed the vision.
She still didn’t understand what part Esha’s story played in her future or her past, but she longed to know. Lilith breathed deeply. She raised the flask to her lips and drank.
As the liquid rolled slowly down her throat, she fought to keep from retching. Quickly stoppering the flask, Lilith thrust it back under the bolster.
Sickness rose up like a wave, crashing down upon her.
…a cold sweat marked her brow…
The room began to spin…
Esha stood before the door to the sorcerer’s chambers…
The Second Vision…
Esha raised a shaking hand and the door heaved like a beast stirring from sleep.
The yew wood moved and rippled as if made of water, and three small figures appeared, the imps swimming in and out of the swelling surface, gesturing obscenely.
Esha’s hand shrank back.
‘Hello girlie. Who’s a pretty pussy then?’ The voice was a sneer, long and nasty.
She could hear the imps breathing, the rattles of old men. But the imps were chained by Ibur’s will, she reminded herself. They could not hurt her…
Esha took a step back.
‘Why don’t you come over here and lick it girlie?’ the imps continued, their gestures growing more frantic as three, tiny wooden phalluses thrust through the surface.
‘Nice and close, pretty pussy. Nice and slow.’
Esha’s gaze dropped to the floor again, her face flaming.
‘Part your haunches pretty girlie, just like a good doe. Hah. Hah. Hah.’
‘Bend over dear. Hah. Hah…’
Esha spun around and ran. She slowed as she came to the steps, wiping away her tears.
She was too scared to go back. Too scared to face her brother’s grotesque familiars. No matter how much she needed to speak to him, to plead her case, desperate for a reprieve.
She had spoken to him little more than a dozen times since she had arrived. Autumn had sped past, followed by a bitterly cold winter, and now Spring Equinox approached and Esha was struck with terror at what was to come.
Her brother continued to keep his distance. But Esha knew he was here. She had seen the light in that loathsome tower window. She had seen his crone busy at work, tending to her master’s needs.
Esha hurried to her room. She began to pack, shoving clothes and shoes into a large leather bag. She stopped in front of the jewellery boxes. Was this right? She couldn’t go far without coin for food and for passage. Surely, with so much wealth, Ibur would not notice the absence of a few trinkets? Esha frowned and bit her lip. Opening the lid of a gold casket, she snatched a handful of pearls and jewels and thrust them into the bag. She pulled on a robe and turned around to leave.
Ibur stood in the doorway.
As he raised an eyebrow, looking both bewildered and disappointed, Esha’s eyes brimmed with tears. The leather bag dropped to the floor and the strand of black pearls slid out, coming to rest under the dresser.
‘What is this Esha?’ Ibur said as his gaze rose up from the bag to his sister’s trembling face.
‘Oh, Ibur! Please brother, you cannot ask me to do this! Please. There must be some other way. Surely you can find someone else to bear this child!’
‘My dear, I am saddened,’ Ibur said, a small frown creasing his brow. ‘This is vital to the future freedom of our people. I had thought that you understood that…’
‘I cannot go through with this. I wish that I was stronger, Ibur. But I cannot bed this man…’
Ibur smiled. ‘I think you are wrong, Esha. I think your strength is as great as your honour, or else you would not have agreed to this in the first place.’
Esha wanted to speak, to tell him that she hadn’t known what he would ask of her, but Ibur pressed on.
‘Come, Esha. Let me enliven your mood. Will you accompany me for a gentle drive in the woods? As you are already dressed for travelling, we can leave without further delay.’
‘Yes, Ibur,’ Esha said, feeling trapped, miserable in her inability to convince him. He thought her strong, honourable; Esha couldn’t bear to lower his estimation of her, but she dreaded the coming Rite. She couldn’t go through with it. He just had to understand!
She followed her brother to the stables. The horses were harnessed and the carriage waited. The driver opened the door and Esha stepped inside. Ibur followed, seating himself beside her. The carriage set off with a lurch, travelling down the majestic drive through Branwen Tower’s fields and paddocks, and into the forest.
‘You shall sail from Gort tomorrow afternoon.’
‘Tomorrow? Surely it cannot be so soon?’
‘I would ask, Esha, that you do not speak to anyone unless addressed. Keep your answers swift. This is important, Esha, do you understand?’
Esha nodded. She looked out the carriage window and thought about the Tomb Stones and her dreams of a bright world beyond. Her misery was so great that she felt helpless, a victim to fate.
‘The Priestesses will prepare you for the ritual marriage. On the evening of the Spring Rite, I will come to you. I will give you further instructions. Bien P-aox.’
As Ibur’s words concluded, a shot of pain passed through Esha’s head, a feeling close to violation.
An unexpected flash of anger ignited inside Esha, but she quelled it. Ibur was right. She had agreed to this. And no matter how she dreaded it, no matter how great her terror, she would be helping Ibur in his quest to liberate their kind. Allowing people like her parents to end their lives of hiding. Esha thought of honour and of cause and of the virtues of self-sacrifice, but the leaden feeling in her soul did not lessen.
Ibur glanced out of the carriage window then he reached up to thump the ceiling. The horses slowed their pace, and before long the carriage drew to a crossroads. A coach, hitched to two bay horses, stood at the intersection.
Ibur’s carriage came to a halt.
‘If you would not mind waiting for a moment, my dear?’
‘Of course not, Ibur,’ Esha said, wondering why they had stopped.
As Ibur closed the carriage door, Esha looked out the window, watching as her brother crossed to the coach. The hooded driver that sat hunched upon his seat didn’t stir as Ibur opened the coach door.
A sudden blur of black wings and a raven emerged from within the coach. Cawing loudly, it flew up and perched upon the roof. Ibur looked up at the bird and its eyes flared with a strange light. Then the sorcerer stepped into the coach and the door closed.
Esha waited for her brother’s return. The raven cocked its head to regard her with one beady eye. Then an old man’s face appeared in the coach window: heavy jowls and rolls of wrinkled flesh. A fat, bejewelled hand reached up to wipe back the long grey hair from his eyes as the old man peered through the window, regarding her in turn.
A second later Ibur reappeared, and as he stepped out and onto the road, the raven swooped down through the open door and back into the coach.
Esha stared ahead as Ibur entered the carriage and sat down on the seat beside her. He knocked on the carriage roof again and the horses set off, quickly leaving the coach and crossroads behind.
‘We will take a short detour by the sea,’ Ibur said.
Esha sat silently as the horses cantered on. After a while the trees thinned and the forest petered out, replaced by a patchwork of fields lush with spring’s growth.
The road forked and they followed a smaller lane that ambled through more fields.
‘I thought you might like to see this,’ Ibur said.
Esha peered through the window. The lane stopped at the edge of a gentle rise overlooking the sea. A house stood at the top of the hill. A cottage surrounded by flowers and fruit trees and a sturdy wooden fence and gate. Her heart lurched. Esha turned to her brother.
‘Quaint, is it not?’ Ibur asked.
‘It is charming,’ Esha said.
The carriage came to a stop outside the gate. Ibur stood up. The sorcerer stepped out of the carriage and held the door open until Esha had alighted.
As they stepped through the gate, the heady scent of roses surrounded Esha, bringing a flush to her cheeks. She gave a tentative smile.
As Ibur led her up the garden path, Esha could hardly restrain her excitement. She didn’t know why they were here, but the little cottage with its whitewashed walls and roses that rambled over the kitchen lintel delighted her.
Unable to resist, she went up to the kitchen window and peered inside. The cottage was furnished but seemingly empty. She glanced back at Ibur, only to see her brother holding up a small key. Esha looked at him in confusion but quickly followed as he walked inside. The kitchen smelt of herbs. The table and benches were clean, the flagstone floor swept. A simple whitewashed hearth lay empty, but a basket of wood sat beside it. Ibur opened a door and stood aside, letting Esha pass. A large bedroom with a bay window that looked out over the sea, a wooden bed and dresser, and a child’s cot…
‘I trust you will find it suitable. It is my present, for you and the baby,’ Ibur said. ‘The sea air will be conducive to a healthy term and delivery. I will provide servants, of course: a maid, a carriage and a driver. There is a village not far from here…’
Esha threw herself into his arms. He stroked her hair. ‘I am glad that it makes you happy, little sister.’
‘Thank you Ibur!’
‘You may look at the house and gardens for a moment longer, if you wish. I will wait for you in the carriage. Do not be too long. I am required at Branwen Tower before nightfall.’
As Ibur left the room, Esha looked around her in pleasure. Her own house. Her own dwelling. Esha walked over and stroked her hand across the cot’s wooden headrest. Until now she had not thought of the child. A baby, her own no matter who the father was, to have and to hold, and to love. She had not thought of that. If this vile thing must be undertaken, then let her raise this child here, by the sea.
Esha walked back through the house and into the garden. In her mind’s eye she could see chickens scratching underneath the spreading, pink crepe myrtle. And vegetables, planted in rows, there by the old, stone well. Perhaps she could get the driver to dig the beds. She could sit with the baby under the shade of that mulberry tree and sing it nursery rhymes while it chortled happily.
Esha paused to pick flowers as she walked down the path to the gate. Her step was light as she entered the carriage. As the horses trotted on, Esha gazed back through the window, looking at her cottage until it vanished into the distance. Yes—if this must be undertaken, then let her raise this child by the sea.
Ibur didn’t talk on the way back. He kept his eyes closed, and although Esha knew that he didn’t sleep, she didn’t miss his lack of company. Her mind was on the cottage… and her baby.
A little of her happiness seeped away as they travelled up the drive to Branwen Tower, but Esha gripped the dream tightly, refusing to let go. They alighted at the front door, the driver continuing on to the stables. Ibur strode into the house, bellowing for his crone. Esha stopped by the door, thinking about the wooden cot and the way the light had sparkled on the deep green waves. And they could eat peaches in the summer and maybe get a soft, brown cow to milk for cream…
Esha stepped inside. As she drifted down the hallway, Ibur waited for her by the steps.
‘I had quite forgotten,’ he said as he held out a necklace on the palm of his hand.
Esha exclaimed in delight. She draped the silver chain over her hand and held up the pendant, a tiny glass ball that held one glowing blue droplet of liquid--a single, imprisoned tear, suspended in time and in motion. Two silver claws clasped the pendant tight, linking it to its chain.
‘Oh, Ibur! It is exquisite!’
‘It is both exquisite and potent. The amulet will enhance your fertility. It will also ensure the conception and safe deliverance of your child.’
Esha felt her hand trembling as the silver chain slid across her palm and through her fingers. The amulet felt hot, a sudden sense of warm contentment filled her, feeding her struggling dreams.
Esha walked up the curving stone steps to her room, holding the amulet tightly to her breast…
Lilith woke to footsteps in the corridor.
She opened her eyes as the door swung wide and the sorcerer stepped into the room. His gaze swept the chamber. He regarded Lilith critically, his eyes narrow and suspicious. Some doubt seemed to have been laid to rest in his mind, for his expression changed.
‘You are unwell?’
Lilith nodded. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
‘Why were you absent from your bed last night?’
‘What?’ she asked thick-headedly.
‘You were seen, returning late.’
‘I had to be sick,’ Lilith answered. The lie slid out quickly.
The sorcerer stared at her a moment longer. ‘Very well. I am in need of several ingredients. You will check the traps.’
‘Yes, Ib… Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said. She blanched, but the sorcerer was too intent on his own thoughts to have noticed her slip.
‘You will find a rough map marking where I have placed the traps, together with a barrel, in the kitchen. You are to use a measure of the fat in the barrel to make nine candles of equal width and height.’
It was only when he had gone and Lilith had sunk back onto the bed that she’d realised the implications of what he had said.
You were seen.
An icy feeling stole over her. Who had seen her? Then Lilith remembered the sound of slithering behind her as she’d hurried up the stone steps to her bedroom in the darkness of the night. She’d have to be more careful. She needed time to see all that the Elemental wanted her to see, and to bring about the future he had shown her.
Lilith lay in bed for as long as she dared, pondering the vision. The Elemental had said she would understand once she’d drunk the liquid, but she didn’t, did she? What possible connection could she have with Esha? It was true that they shared a certain similarity of looks, but beyond that, nothing. Why did he want her to see this?
She’d have to try again to find out more, but she couldn’t risk being discovered. She needed a place she could hide, away from the sorcerer and his spies. A place she could really be safe when she drank the liquid and surrendered her body and mind to the visions.
Lilith sat up slowly. Her head pounded and her stomach was a little unsettled, but she gave blessings that the sickness was not as bad as the last time. She hurried to dress. Lilith chose a sensible grey dress from the cupboard and a pair of sturdy brown boots, suitable for her endeavours. Fastening the silver girdle around her waist, she hesitated—the chain was surely too fine and fragile to wear whilst harvesting in the forest? What if the chain broke and she lost it. She made to unclasp it, stroking the jewelled eyes with her fingers, finally deciding to keep it on. The girdle was far too enchanting to be parted from.
Lilith made her way down to the kitchen, pausing on the other side of the lintel to regard the carving of the magical beast with narrowed eyes. As she turned to go, Lilith thought she heard the sound of a low, nasty chuckle. She hurried on, resisting the urge to shudder. If what the Elemental said was true, one day she’d never need to fear anything again. She just had to stay alive until then…
Lilith set about her tasks, sweeping and cleaning, removing the old embers from the hearth and restocking it with kindling. When the fire had caught sufficiently, she added more wood and swung the cauldron over the flames. She tipped in water then added some oats, her efforts producing a thick, glutinous mass that she ladled into a bowl, tasted, and then set aside with a deep sigh.
It wasn’t any good. She couldn’t cook. Nothing turned out as it should. She missed the taste of properly cooked food, her mouth watered when she remembered the delicacies she had sampled at the grey stone Keep.
Lilith lifted down the cauldron with a grunt, hefting it outside, and ladled the contents onto the grass. The chickens eyed her warily, not approaching the food until Lilith was halfway back inside. She searched through the pantry, wishing that she had some bread to have with the meat and cheese, something simple on a stomach still fragile after the effects of the Seer’s liquid. She packed a few things to eat in a muslin bag, tended to the fire, gathered up the barrel of fat, and headed to her herb room.
Lilith remembered to collect the books she’d left under the trees, thankful that it had not rained. Sooty met her on the way down the cobblestone path, tufts of tiny white feathers in his mouth and a satisfied smile on his face. He accompanied Lilith into the herb room, heading for the basket she’d placed for him in a corner by the potbelly stove. Trampling the blanket into submission, the little black kitten settled with a contented sigh.
Pulling the thick cork out of the lid of the barrel, Lilith reeled at the rancid smell. She forced herself not to gag as she scooped a quantity into a pot. She tried to remember her one, brief session with Ge-Iad, when he’d told her how to make candles.
As she gathered the wick, knife, sticks, and the moulds from the shelves, Lilith tried to recall his instructions. Now what was it—clarify the tallow by melting it in a pan, then lift the hard fat off—something like that anyway. She’d missed a bit of what he’d said, probably muddled more, but hopefully the memory would suffice.
Lilith knelt down by the stove and prepared the kindling. She struggled with the tinderbox, casting it aside with a curse. Lilith pointed a finger at the wood. ‘Prt!’
She was startled by a loud, gasping wheeze from Sooty, who had leapt up from his basket, back arched and fur raised, his yellow eyes wide with surprise. Lilith laughed. ‘It’s alright you silly cat,’ she soothed. ‘It’s only a spell.’
Lilith added more wood to the flames then reached over to stroke the kitten, but he wouldn’t be placated. Sooty crossed to the door and Lilith let him out with another laugh, watching him as he stalked off in the direction of the house.
Lilith worked hard on the candles, struggling to complete each stage of the process. Yet the fat smoked and spluttered, stinking awfully. She took the pot off the stove and tried to separate the hard fat, but it was all of the same horrible consistency. Lilith set the pot aside while she oiled the moulds and measured the pieces of wick.
When she returned to the pot, the fat had cooled. Lilith did her best to scoop off the hard fat, placing it in a separate pot that she put back on the heat of the stove. Again the mixture reeked so badly she thought she’d be sick. Then Lilith had an idea. She took a small lump of fragrant beeswax and dropped it in to the fat. She poured the thick viscous liquid into the moulds, making sure each wick was tied securely to the stick that lay across the rim, holding them free of the fat.
While the candles cooled, Lilith tidied up, leaving the pots to take back to the kitchen. She’d have to rinse them out with boiling water and they’d need scrubbing to remove the fat and wax.
Lilith unfolded the map that the sorcerer had drawn—a rough sketching showing the location of each of his traps. Then she unrolled her own map of Branwen Tower’s gardens and grounds. She looked at the lay of the sorcerer’s lands and the forest behind it, marking in her mind what she would need.
Gathering up her wicker cages, Lilith strung them with rope across her back. She placed her lunch in the basket, along with the maps, jars and sacks, and the books she’d found in the summerhouse. Hopefully she’d have a chance to read them in between harvesting. Taking up a tall, stout stick that leant beside the door, Lilith set out.
She headed up the path to the orchard. Lilith walked behind the chicken house to where the grass grew green and long. She held her stick high as she searched the ground around her feet, seeing the white circle of bleached backbones and the gaping jawed skull of the snake-bone trap.
Caught within the trap’s magical radius, another snake twisted and coiled, still fighting the spell that bound it. Lilith brought the stick down hard, not giving herself time to worry, gritting her teeth as it dealt the mortal blow.
Life left the body, bursting out in spurts of frenzied twisting and writhing until the scaled form stilled and the gleam left the darkness of the snake’s eyes. Lilith waited. She prodded the dead snake with her stick. She took a sack from her basket and prodded the snake a second time, to really make sure it was dead. Then bending down, she grasped the tip of the tail between her fingers, picking the snake up and dropping it into her sack.
Consulting the sorcerer’s map, she went on her way, filling jars with the traps’ bounty: glistening green flies and long-legged centipedes, a glossy black scorpion and several grey newts. She left the orchard and headed into the outer paddocks, stopping beneath the hazelnut hedgerow to drop two struggling lizards caught between bewitched bone and rock into a wicker cage. She put the cage into her basket, and then with a final look at her map, Lilith climbed the turnstile over the fence, and walked into the forest.
She’d never been this far beyond the orchard. It felt lovely and fresh beneath the canopy. Sunlight filtered down to warm her face. She felt almost free, away from the sorcerer’s eye. She took care to keep to the walking track as she headed deeper into the forest to find the last trap: a string web strung between the low branches of a tree, a small bat fluttering feebly in the binds.
Lilith removed it with care, untangling its claws from the web. The bat didn’t struggle as she placed it in a second wicker cage and latched the door. Then Lilith sat down beneath the tree, her legs stretched out before her. She turned her face up, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of the forest: the rustle of branches in the breeze, the gurgling of the nearby creek or stream that she’d seen on the map.
She pulled the muslin bag out of her basket and ate her meagre lunch, her thoughts wandering, unhindered by apprehension and freed of the oppression she now felt when she was at Branwen Tower.
She wondered what it would be like not to be beholden to anyone. To be her own mistress. To travel the Isles, like she’d seen herself doing in the Aquis’s prophetic waters. To sail with the Elementals at her beck and call, totally and utterly free.
She thought again of Esha, trapped, terrified about what she would be forced to do. Lilith had recognised the old man and the raven, and she knew him to be a Lord: the Thane of Muin. Lilith didn’t understand what part he played in the sorcerer’s plans, but it was clear he had long been in Ge-Iad’s control.
Engrossed in her thoughts, it took Lilith a moment to realise that another sound had risen up amongst the birdsong, a faint resonance of distant pipes…
Intrigued, Lilith stood up. She gathered her things, tying the rope back around her chest with the cages strung on it. She picked up her basket and the cage with the bat and set off in the direction of the sound.
Lilith followed the track down to the stream where it ended at a series of mossy stones crossing the rushing water. The farther bank stretched up the southern slope of a hill, the top dense with trees. The sound of pipes came from within those shadowy depths. Lilith unloaded her burdens by the side of the stream, judged the distance across the water and the slipperiness of the rocks, and gathered up her skirts to cross.
She placed a foot on the first stepping stone and slipped almost immediately, ending up with a boot in the water. Grumbling, Lilith tried again. This time she made it to the second stone before tumbling, both boots in the icy water and the hem of her skirts wet. She walked back to the shore and glared at the crossing. She couldn’t believe she could be so clumsy. It seemed such a little way. The stones were broad and flat, the space between them not overly large. Why couldn’t she cross?
Lilith rung out the hem of her dress, hitching it higher, and she began again, carefully balancing her foot before stepping fully on the first rock. She eyed the distance to the second then started to cross, finding herself struck by a sudden, strange dizziness. She struggled for balance, then into the water Lilith went for a third and final time.
Lilith stepped back onto the shore, glancing up to the forest-covered hill, hearing the faint sound of the pipes, a quickening lilt to their notes. She frowned, confused and frustrated by her inability to cross. She could try to wade across the stream but she didn’t relish the thought of making her way through the cold water and further soaking her boots.
Her curiosity thwarted, Lilith turned her back on the sound. She looked up at the sun, judging the hour of the afternoon, and then Lilith picked up the basket and traps and began the journey back to Branwen Tower.
The herb room door was open when she returned.
That alone cautioned her. Lilith entered the room warily.
The sorcerer was walking in a slow and measured step around the room, studying all with a thoughtful eye. Lilith placed her basket and the traps on the stone table. Ge-Iad stopped to stare at her, the scrutiny of his gaze making her nervous. He didn’t say a word. The moments drew on.
Ge-Iad strode to the table. He inspected each of Lilith’s findings critically. He held up the books. ‘And these? Where did you find them?’
‘The summer house,’ Lilith answered quickly, ‘when I was gathering more vervain.’
The sorcerer put the books back in the basket. He glanced down at Lilith’s wet boots, and then his gaze slid back up to her face, his grey eyes piercing, as if he could read her thoughts. Lilith looked away.
She looked up at the sound of the sorcerer’s spell. Ge-Iad was still watching her. Lilith could feel her cheeks flaming.
The sorcerer held up the burning candle, sniffing the smoke with his fine nose. He placed it back down on the table, nipping the wick with his fingers.
‘The candles are flawed,’ he said. ‘You have wasted a measure of the fat. You will not make the same mistake again. Repeat the process. Melt the fat in a pot placed in a second pan of boiling water. When it has cooled, lift the hard fat off and repeat the procedure. Do not add beeswax to the tallow.’
‘Yes, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith quickly replied.
Ge-Iad’s frown slipped away, replaced by a warm smile. ‘I will have need of your services tonight, Lilith,’ he said. ‘Indeed, it is a special occasion. For tonight you will assume your full duties as my apprentice.’
‘Yes, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith said, then his words sank in. ‘Thank you, Ge-Iad!’
‘See that you are ready at nightfall.’
The sorcerer took up the basket and traps and left the room.
Lilith’s tiredness vanished. The day had finally come. Tonight she would learn magic. Tonight she would become his full apprentice!
Then Lilith thought of the Elemental and his warnings, and of Esha, caught up in the sorcerer’s trap. Her excitement faded. She was being shown these visions for a reason. She knew what he was capable of. She had to remain wary. Yet still Lilith couldn’t help but feel intrigued by what was to come.
Lilith worked quickly, repeating the heating of the tallow, the trimming of the wicks, and the oiling of the moulds. She lifted the hardened fat from the pot, tipping the remainder outside. Then she softened the fat again, with the pot held an inch above the stove plate. She tied the wicks to the sticks, and poured the thick fat into the moulds.
She looked with satisfaction at the results. Then Lilith left the herb room, her mind ten steps ahead of her as she made her way to the house. What would they do tonight? What new spells would she learn?
She hurried up the steps to her room, too preoccupied to feel her usual unease at passing under the lintel’s guardian. Undressing quickly, she opened her cupboard doors wide to survey her cloaks, gowns, and shoes. She bit her lip.
Selecting a dress of deepest black velvet—the skirts wide, the bodice low and stitched with silver thread—Lilith drew it on. She changed her boots, the leather stained by the day’s soaking. She looked in the mirror and smoothed an errant lock of hair.
She stared critically at her reflection. She could see the changes the passing months had made. She looked older, her bone structure becoming more defined as her face matured.
Lilith turned this way and that, inspecting the dress. The material accentuated the darkness of her eyes, the pale translucency of her skin. She arranged the girdle around her waist so that she could see the owl’s sparkling eyes.
Lilith returned to the kitchen to see that the fire was out. She took care not to mark her dress with cinder or soot as she cleaned out the hearth and restocked it with kindling and wood. In the spirit of the occasion, she lit it with her spell. The wood erupted nicely.
Mustering her meagre cooking skills, she prepared a broth. But due to an unforseen thickening, the broth in turn became a stew. She tasted it with caution, finding it more flavoursome than she would have thought.
By the last light of day, Lilith set the table then sat down to await the sorcerer’s arrival. Time passed slowly, lengthened by her expectation.
When Ge-Iad finally arrived, he dismissed her offering of dinner. ‘Come,’ he said. He drew a cloth from his pocket and made to tie it around her eyes. Lilith flinched, pulling away from his hands.
‘We will observe the ritual or not at all,’ the sorcerer chided.
Lilith held still, fighting her fear as Ge-Iad blindfolded her. The sorcerer didn’t speak as he led her outside. Ge-Iad held her arm, directing her footfall. She felt helpless, completely under his control.
They came to a sudden halt, and Lilith heard the muffled sound of a gate turning, then the sorcerer led her on again. At last they stopped and Lilith blinked as the blindfold left her eyes.
They stood in a clearing, surrounded by the dense growth of spreading trees. Lilith didn’t recognise anything around her. He’d taken her to an unknown part of the garden. She tried to draw her mind back to the blindfolded walk but nothing about the journey provided further clues.
Arum lilies grew in the moist soil of the clearing, their slender, white throats emitting a sickly sweet smell. A warm wind caressed Lilith’s face, settling a little of her disquiet.
Ge-Iad stood beside her with his head bowed. Silent and unmoving. Lilith could smell the scent of his spell components upon his shirt and jacket: spicy and exotic, yet laced with the underlying heaviness of decay. She watched him carefully, not wanting to miss anything as he prepared for his conjuring and casting.
He hadn’t brought anything special along to aid his spells, at least not anything she could see. No doubt he would reveal them in good time…
But to Lilith’s confusion, as the moments continued, the sorcerer showed no signs of stirring. He just stood there, his eyes still closed, his head down, and his arms by his side. It didn’t even look as if he was locked in intense concentration, preparing to channel the energy. Lilith peered into the shadows, trying to detect any supernatural forces that might be answering the sorcerer’s silent summoning. All was still. All quiet.
The seconds passed into minutes, the minutes drawing on into long empty silence. Lilith shuffled her feet, her state of tense expectancy subdued by the wait.
Then the temperature dropped so suddenly that it left ghostly traces of her breath in the air.
Fog rose up, wreathing the ground.
The sorcerer began to speak in a low and mumbled chant. As he wove his incantation, eyes closed and head bowed, the soft fog continued to rise—a shifting sea of vapour that lapped at Lilith’s skirts. The sorcerer’s chant quickened, each syllable snarled with the force of his will. Then something altered—a perceptible difference in the resonance of the atmosphere. Lilith scanned the space around them, staring into the fog at their feet, seeing nothing but feeling the change.
Ge-Iad opened his eyes. He drew forth his dagger, and took Lilith’s hand, turning it over, palm up. He passed her the blade, a challenge in his eyes. ‘Slice the skin,’ he commanded. ‘Deep enough to draw blood.’
‘But I don’t want to cut myself,’ Lilith said desperately.
‘We observe the ritual or not at all,’ he said again. ‘The choice is yours. Do you want to be my apprentice, Lilith?’
Lilith hesitated. Despite the Elemental’s warnings, despite what she knew of the sorcerer, she still wanted to learn magic, and what’s more, what good would it do to say no? Would he allow her to just walk away?
Lilith gritted her teeth and drew the blade across the soft flesh of her hand. Dark droplets rolled off her palm and into the fog below.
Ge-Iad placed a hand across her brow. ‘Affa.’
Lilith caught the familiar whispered word. The pain drained away in a rush.
Ge-Iad held up her hand as the blood welled forth. ‘Tilb Cnila Commah Do Adna,’ he said softly as he watched the sticky droplets fall.
‘Get back,’ he snapped.
Lilith stepped back, horribly tired. He’d drained her. She knew it. She’d recognised the spell. She watched nervously as he withdrew a full pouch from his pocket. In reverse stride, the sorcerer walked a circle around the ground on which Lilith’s blood had fallen. He poured a stream of powdery dust, and where the fine white particles fell, the fog vanished, revealing a cleared inner area. Reversing his step he poured a second circle of dust around it.
Quickly now the sorcerer worked, his hand pouring the dust into strange and complex symbols and runes. And as he worked, he began to chant again, his voice growing louder with each completed symbol, until the spell was a snarl, a spit, a curse, a scream.
‘Cnila Commah Tilb! Cnila Commah Tilb Adna! Cnila Commah Tilb! Cnila Commah Tilb Adna! Cnila Commah Tilb! Cnila Commah Tilb Adna! Cnila Commah Tilb! Cnila Commah Tilb Adna!’
A crack split the ground within the circle.
‘Caosg, witness this binding! Torzu, guardians of the spell! Torzu! Torzu! Torzu! Cnila Commah Tilb! Cnila Commah Tilb Adna!’
Steam issued out of the crack, a noisome brown stain that rolled along the ground, creeping up to lick at the line that bound it.
A low buzzing sounded.
A fly flew from the crack. Then a second.
Then the dark, wet soil vomited forth a swarm, blackening the air within the circle.
A brittle white claw broke through the ruptured earth. Grasping at the edges of the gap, something hauled itself forth. Skull of lizard, wings of bat, skin of fur and scale, the creature dragged itself out on twisted limbs. More misshapen horrors followed. Flies filled the hollow cavities within them, swarming up from between the ribcages. Unfurling tattered wings, they flew up shrieking into the night sky.
Winged serpents slithered forth from the crack, creations of decaying skin and bone, crow’s wings and sparrow’s. The mutation of their parts showed in their ungainly flight as they followed their gruesome kin into the air.
Then the gaping earth belched again and the sky grew swiftly dark as a second swarm of insects erupted from the depths.
The crack snapped shut.
Warmth returned. The fog rolled away. The sorcerer turned to look at her. ‘Come here,’ he said. ‘You did well. I am very pleased.’
Lilith walked forward cautiously; she couldn’t see his face properly in the dark but he sounded happy. She still felt bitter about the draining spell but the conjuring had astounded her, however loathsome the creatures. She couldn’t wait to try some of the words she’d heard, to try some of her own conjuring. She had a feeling that this—the calling of the creatures out of the earth—had only been a part of the spell, a final stage, and that he’d first done something that had involved the animals she’d gathered from his traps…
Lilith didn’t flinch as Ge-Iad gently lifted her chin to look her in the eye.
Then his eyes narrowed and his grip grew firmer, bruising Lilith’s skin. ‘But I am not foolish enough to allow a lowly brat to mimic her betters or to attempt to cast my spells. No. I think it is best that you forget,’ he said with a scornful laugh. ‘Amis Papnor!’