Lilith pulled herself up, disorientated, her hand throbbing, her head thick with sleep.
Sunlight streamed in through the bedroom’s eastern windows, so bright it brought tears to her eyes.
Lilith sat up—then came to a sudden halt. She stared in disbelief at her black embroidered bodice. She clambered to her feet, still staring at her dress, and then suddenly aware of her throbbing hand, she slowly held it up.
A deep incision marked her palm, the blood clotted and caked.
Panic rose up. Her stomach lurched. Lilith sank back onto the bed.
How had she managed to cut herself so badly? Why was she wearing this dress? What was happening?
Lilith struggled to recall the previous day. She remembered making candles in the morning for Ge-Iad, and then she’d checked his traps in the afternoon and returned to the herb room, but after that?
Nothing… Nothing at all!
She had no memory of the evening or of the night! No memory at all!
What was happening? Was she sick then? Or had she had some sort of accident? A blow to the head? That might explain her injury to her hand too. But she couldn’t remember falling…
Sooty’s persistent scratching at the door finally drew Lilith’s attention. The raking of his claws down the wood grew increasingly agitated until Lilith relented and opened the door. The kitten quickly bounded out and Lilith peered after him, wondering at his urgency. It looked as if he held an object in his mouth. She couldn’t make out what it was, but somehow she felt uneasy. She turned around to look back into the room, wondering what he’d taken.
‘You have arisen.’
Lilith gave a start. She turned around slowly.
The sorcerer smiled. A roguish gleam lit his eye. ‘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.
‘See that you are ready at nightfall.’
Lilith kept her head down and her eyes guarded as he left the room. Then she realised what he’d just said.
The day had come. Tonight she was to learn magic. But Lilith found that any excitement she may have felt was dulled by a sudden sense of foreboding. She tried to push her worries and her unexplained injury aside. She must have fallen and hit her head. It was the only possible reason for her memory loss that she could find.
Lilith spent the morning hours putting the kitchen in order. She cleaned out the hearth, taking care not to mark the velvet of her dress with cinder or soot, and then she restocked it with kindling and wood. She lit the fire with a spell, thinking it fitting on this auspicious day, but found she could only rally a tiny flame that spluttered and flickered feebly.
In the afternoon, she prepared a broth. A broth that inexplicably thickened to become a stew that, Lilith had to admit, tasted quite good. She ladled some into a bowl, blew on it to cool it down, and then ate it swiftly, slightly burning the roof of her mouth in the process.
She went upstairs to dress, but after searching through her cupboard’s wares, she decided that the dress she already wore was perfect for the occasion. Lilith glanced at her reflection in the mirror, shocked by the pallor of her skin. The Elemental’s liquid had exacted a toll upon her. She smoothed her skirts and adjusted her girdle.
Lilith returned to the kitchen to wait by the hearth, with the table set and the stew simmering, until late into the night. When Ge-Iad walked into the kitchen, he was whistling.
‘We will not be eating,’ he said.
Lilith swung the cauldron back from the flames and hurried over.
The sorcerer drew a blindfold from his pocket and held it forth.
Lilith backed away.
The sorcerer’s eyes narrowed. ‘We will observe the ritual or not at all.’
Lilith stepped forward. She stifled her cries as the darkness fell.
The sorcerer didn’t speak as he led her outside. He grasped her arm, forcing her on when her footfall grew hesitant. When Ge-Iad finally untied the blindfold. Lilith blinked, focusing her vision. They stood within a clearing, the dark, dense shadows of trees surrounding them. Lilith couldn’t recognise anything. Her blindfolded journey gave her no inkling as to where they were.
The night was warm. The overly-sweet scent of the arum lilies that grew in the clearing’s moist soil lay heavy in the air. The sorcerer led her to the edge of a faint circle of runes and symbols, drawn in powdery lines on the ground. Lilith watched as the sorcerer bowed his head and closed his eyes, and then he stood in still and soundless introspection.
The moments flowed on. Lilith watched him carefully. He hadn’t brought anything special along to assist his spell casting. Nothing she could see…
Time passed in absolute silence. A swift wind gusted into the gully, swirling around Lilith’s skirts, lifting them up, teasing her legs with its warm breath.
Then the sorcerer began to speak in a low muttered chant, the sounds too swift to decipher. And as Ge-Iad wove his incantation, the wind continued to swell, growing hotter and fiercer until it was a shrieking, deafening gale and the grass became dry and scorched, and the slender white lilies wilted and died.
Then the wind ceased, leaving only an oppressive heat behind.
Sweat beaded on Lilith’s skin, a flush infused her reddened cheeks.
The sorcerer opened his eyes. ‘Spit,’ he said.
‘What?’ Lilith said as she stared at him in surprise. ‘Why? I don’t… I don’t want to…’
‘We observe the ritual or not at all. The choice is yours. Do you want to be my apprentice, Lilith?’
She didn’t want to do it. But what could she do? She couldn’t just walk away. He wouldn’t let her. And she still wanted to be his apprentice, to learn magic, and to find out what the Elemental wanted to show her…
Lilith drew the moisture into her mouth and spat on the ground in front of her.
‘Tilb Zilda Commah Do Adna,’ Ge-Iad said softly. He drew a full pouch from his pocket and walking backwards poured a fine grey ash onto the ground, marking out a circle around the ground where Lilith had spat. Then he reversed his step, drawing a second circle around the first.
Lilith stood at the edge of the outer circle, watching him. She studied the strange symbols and signs carefully, marking them in her memory, keen to imitate him when she got the chance.
The sorcerer chanted again—fierce and furious, snapping and snarling the syllables, screaming forth his wrath and rage.
‘Zilda Commah Tilb! Zilda Commah Tilb Adna! Zilda Commah Tilb! Zilda Commah Tilb Adna! Zilda Commah Tilb! Zilda Commah Tilb Adna! Zilda Commah Tilb! Zilda Commah Tilb Adna!’
In the centre of the inner circle, the ground began to smoulder.
‘Malprg, witness this binding! Torzu, guardians of the spell! Torzu! Torzu! Torzu! Cnila Commah Tilb! Cnila Commah Tilb Adna!’
Smoke rose up and a thin grey wisp of ash and dust. Then the baking ground within the circle erupted into flame.
The blaze shot outwards in a roar of heat and sound, singeing Lilith’s skin, igniting the hem of her skirts. Flickering blue-white flames leapt up towards her face, greedy for the energy that her charred flesh would bring. Greedy to consume. Lilith beat at the fire with her hands. She screamed, flailing wildly, struggling to smother them.
‘Foolish girl,’ the sorcerer snapped. He thrust her back, clearing her skirts from where they overlapped the edge of the circle.
The flames that had been racing up the cloth of Lilith’s dress died, leaving the black velvet folds to smoke and smoulder. The palms of her hands were blistered and sore. She wanted to scream, to sob, to wail…
Ge-Iad placed a hand on her brow. Lilith caught the sound of a familiar word, pitched low. ‘Affa.’ Then the intense pain left her hands, the relief making her gasp.
‘Get back,’ he said. ‘Make no move. Speak no word.’
Lilith staggered away, and sank down, her legs trembling. She watched as Ge-Iad turned his attention back to the fire. Lilith saw the flames surge and roar as the sorcerer wove his magic spell, then the inferno shot upwards, a raging ball of destruction that momentarily blotted out the moon and stars.
‘We are done here tonight,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘You did well.’
The sorcerer reached down a hand as if to aid her, and Lilith heard his softly spoken spell…
Singed Skirts, Locked Doors and the Third Vision…
Lilith woke with a scream.
Fire seared her hands. The bitter stench of smoke and charred cloth permeated the bed sheets. Lilith held her palms up to her face, crying out in horror as she beheld the burnt and blistered flesh, the deep and weeping cut.
She scrambled out of bed, her confusion and fright increasing as she saw the velvet folds of her skirts, singed and crisped as if by fire, and her boots, blackened at the soles.
The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Her pulse raced madly. Everything inside her screamed in warning.
Lilith couldn’t move. If she didn’t move, maybe it wouldn’t happen.
What wouldn’t happen?
The day itself…
Lilith’s stomach turned.
The muffled sound of hooves came from outside her windows. Lilith hurried over to watch as the sorcerer’s carriage passed around the side of the house, a dark, hooded driver sitting slumped in his seat. The horses moved in a swift gait as they travelled down the road, merging into the rainy distance.
Lilith crossed to the door, turning the handle in vain.
Locked in. Trapped.
She climbed back into her bed, confused and scared, feeling herself to be caught up in something beyond her control. Her mind ran in circles.
What was happening?
Why had he locked her in her room?
Her freshly damaged hands bore the mark of one of his lessons, no matter that she couldn’t remember, no matter that she didn’t know how, or when, it had happened. And now she would have to wait for him to return, to finish off the task…
Grim thoughts descended into a dark and melancholic mood, while the rain poured down, an endless deluge that pounded on the roof and sank Lilith further into despair. She pushed herself up against the bolster and stared at the misted windows, the droplets blurring the grey sky outside, her thoughts growing more morbid by the moment. Then she felt something cold and hard underneath her elbow.
Pushing her hand beneath the bolster, Lilith grasped the fine glass neck of the flask.
She needed the Elemental’s help more than ever. She needed to know what was happening to her—to avoid the trap she felt closing in around her—and she needed to know quickly.
Lilith unstoppered the flask and brought it to her mouth, her hand trembling, already feeling the nausea rise within her, recoiling from the inevitable surrender.
The liquid flowed onto her tongue.
Lilith fought to keep her panic down as perspiration coated her limbs and the room began to spin and she breathed in short, sharp gasps.
Her hands grasped the sheets beneath her. Her body arched, and with her heated cries, sleep fled…
Esha’s pulse beat wildly. Her face felt hot. Her damp shift clung to her body. As she surfaced from sleep, the dream washed over her again, leaving her shaken and tingling. It sent her blood racing and it filled her with shame. For she had dreamt of him—an Anghard King, a killer and a slayer of her kind.
The memory lingered, torturing and tormenting her with its intimacies. Esha left the bed and walked to the open window, desperate to cool her heated thoughts. A flood of light illuminated the garden below her, and Esha saw Ibur stride down the path towards the stables. She turned away, unwilling to be drawn further into her brother’s secrets.
Climbing back into bed, Esha crawled under the covers. She lay restlessly, swept up in the anxious spiral of her thoughts.
She was ensnared in a web of Ibur’s making, each sticky thread furthering his trap. But she had given no part of herself to him other than her word. She had granted her brother no gift of herself, no lock of hair to ensnare her, no blood to seal her, no kiss, and with its moisture therein spells to bind her…
Esha tossed and turned upon her bed, stirred by strange longings and all too-real fears. When finally sleep came it claimed her swiftly, a quicksand to sink under, returning her to dreams of skin upon skin and two heated lips that brought flight and sweet ecstasy with their warm and urgent kiss.
She woke again to a knock upon her bedroom door. Tangled in her nightdress and bed sheets, her pillow clutched tightly between her thighs, Esha struggled to sit up as Ibur walked into the room.
‘It is near midday. You had better pack quickly,’ Ibur said briefly before leaving the room and closing the door behind him.
Esha sank back, reality crashing down, her recent, heated dreams and thoughts of a child only serving to send her into greater confusion. Too soon. Too soon. No more time in which to prepare. No more days spent avoiding what was to come. She lay frozen, unwilling to take the first step on the path that would lead her to the night of the Spring Rite. The minutes flowed past, her anxiety grew.
The door swept open and Ibur strode into the room. ‘Get up.’
Esha stared at him, pale with fear, her head shaking. ‘No, please, Ibur. Please…’
As Ibur grabbed her arm and hauled her out of bed, Esha screamed in shock, but the sorcerer didn’t relent. He shook her, snatching up her robe and the same velvet bag that she had packed the day before. He dragged her out of the room and into the corridor. As they approached the steps, he shook her again, violently, and then let her fall to the floor. ‘I suggest you stand up, dear sister.’
Esha looked up at him through her tears, realising that the angry man who loomed above her was nothing more than a stranger. The older brother she had so longed for had never been anything other than a figment of her own imagination. In her desperate desire to leave the Tomb Stones, she had thrown herself into Ibur’s control and now her fate was sealed. As Esha slowly stood up, her mother’s prophetic words came back to her.
You’ll be the death of her…
Esha walked down the steps and through the house without another murmur. She sat in her carriage seat, her hands folded in her lap, her gaze fixed firmly ahead as Ibur settled beside her. She hated him and the hate felt good. The horses trotted off, leaving Branwen Tower behind them.
Perhaps Ibur regretted his aggressive display, for he attempted to engage her in conversation. But this time it was Esha who feigned sleep as the horses cantered towards the harbour and the waiting ship that would take her to the Isle of Fearn.
In spite of her fear and anger, as the journey continued an odd but pleasurable sensation of warmth flowed through her, seeming to radiate out from her chest. Languid and dozy, Esha raised a hand to the amulet that lay nestled between her breasts. The glass grew warmer with her touch, and she found herself drifting into a light, sensual sleep.
‘We are here.’
Esha woke up with a start. Flustered, she leant to look out the window. They were not at the harbour, but outside a shabby-looking inn on a street of large stone buildings. A badly painted sign with the words “The Boar and Ivy” swung in the slight breeze.
Ibur clasped Esha’s wrist tightly as she stepped from the carriage. At a gesture from the sorcerer, the driver unstrapped a large trunk from the roof and climbed down to accompany them inside. As the inn door opened, a flood of noise bombarded Esha and a dozen faces turned to look at them. Ibur’s gaze swept the room. All sound died away as the inn’s patrons quickly averted their eyes.
The innkeeper appeared as if by magic and nervously twisted his hands as he led them up a flight of crude, wooden stairs to the floor above. He opened a door and bowed low, but his obsequious behaviour did not appear to humour Ibur. As the sorcerer entered the room, the man scuttled away.
The room was sparse in furnishings, yet clearly some effort had been made in preparing for Ibur’s visit. A fire burnt in the hearth, a jug of wine and a plate of fruit lay upon a table covered with a bright yellow cloth. The driver left the trunk on the bed and departed, head bowed. As the door closed, Ibur opened the trunk.
‘Put this on,’ he said, lifting up a deep green dress, the hem and bodice embroidered with golden, twining vines. Grape-like clusters of amethysts flashed as Ibur thrust the dress towards her.
Esha remained as she was, her expression scandalised. ‘Where am I to dress?’
Ibur opened his mouth as if to snap a retort, but instead he turned around and left the room. Esha had just finished donning the dress and was battling with the stays when he returned.
‘You are the Lady Arabella, of Muin. Your mother was the Thane of Muin’s youngest sister, the Lady Sophia,’ the sorcerer said. ‘Repeat.’
‘I am the Lady Arabella, of Muin. My mother is the Thane of Muin’s youngest sister, the Lady Sophia,’ Esha replied in a flat voice.
‘Was,’ Ibur corrected. ‘You bear a good resemblance to the girl in question. The Priestesses will be ignorant of the truth until well after the rite, and by then you will be gone.’
‘Where is the real Lady Arabella?’
‘Such matters are not your concern. Suffice to say that, for now, you are she,’ Ibur said as he leant over the trunk and pulled out a plum coloured cloak.
Esha drew the cloak around her, and Ibur fastened it with a large, silver brooch in the shape of a vine leaf. He looked at her critically. ‘From here on we part. Your carriage waits outside. Tradition dictates that the Spring Maiden be accompanied to the Goddess Ship by her father or her eldest brother. Both are dead. Therefore, a young man awaits you in your carriage, a cousin of the Lady Arabella. Do not attempt to talk to him. His behaviour is somewhat… erratic, and he is capable only of delivering you to the ship, nothing more.’
‘The Goddess Ship? Are you not to sail with me?’ Esha asked in surprise.
‘Of course not,’ Ibur snapped as if she were simple. He looked at her shrewdly. ‘Do not attempt anything foolish. Do not doubt that I have my own ways of keeping an eye on you, little sister. I will be aware of all that transpires.’
As a knock sounded on the door, Ibur closed the trunk.
‘Enter!’ the sorcerer shouted in reply. Without looking at the servant who waited in the doorway, Ibur pointed to the trunk. ‘Take the Lady Arabella’s trunk to her carriage.’
Ibur remained silent as his order was followed, and then he turned back to Esha to resume his instructions.
‘Do this well, little sister, and my gratitude will surprise you. You will want for nothing. Remember, the future of our kind rests in your hands.’
‘Speak only when spoken to. Obey all the Priestesses’ requests. And at all costs, continue to wear the amulet. Go.’
At the sorcerer’s dismissal, Esha found herself walking out the room and down the stairs. No matter how she dreaded this journey, her life was in her brother’s hands now. She could do nothing more to avert what was to come. Let it now pass quickly so that she might return to Gort to raise her child by the sea.
The common room was empty as Esha walked through. The innkeeper averted his eyes. Outside, the Lady Arabella’s fine carriage announced her wealth, as did the two bay geldings that drew it. Esha opened the door, anticipating the coachman. Perceiving her error, her gaze swung to the inn, but the sorcerer was nowhere to be seen. Esha climbed inside, allowing the coachman to close the door behind her.
Arabella’s cousin sat on the opposite seat in the curtained carriage. Regardless of Ibur’s orders, Esha couldn’t help glancing at him. A handsome young man not long out of boyhood, dark haired and fresh faced. He wore dark breeches and a white muslin shirt, which was soaked with sweat.
He appeared to be sleeping, for his eyes were closed, but then Esha noticed how tense he seemed and how loudly he ground his teeth. She quickly looked away as the carriage lurched into motion.
After a short descent through the winding streets, the carriage stopped. The door opened and Esha stepped out, gasping in disbelief at the Goddess Ship that towered above her, dwarfing the simple merchant vessels that lay anchored on either side of the long, wooden pier.
The ship was unlike anything Esha had ever seen. It looked fragile, graceful, and elegant, yet also gave the impression of great resilience and strength. The wide hull was constructed of a pale wood, the lines were fluid, with the stern extending up in one flowing curve and bearing a rearing figurehead of the Triple Goddess in all her abundant beauty, complexity, and dark fury.
In contrast with other ships Esha had seen in her parents’ books, or indeed those docked at this very port, the Goddess Ship had no masts, but rather one giant, spreading willow tree that seemed to grow from the timbered deck.
An unexpected bump from behind sent Esha sprawling as Arabella’s cousin stepped out from the carriage. He walked to the pier then stood silently and rigidly.
A slender hand reached down, and Esha looked up into the smiling face of a hazel-eyed girl.
‘Achaiva claims you, Arabella of Muin,’ the girl said as she helped Esha to her feet. ‘Bryonie, Singer of Achaiva welcomes you,’ she murmured as she leant in to kiss Esha softly first upon each cheek then upon her lips.
Esha fought the urge to blush but in seconds her face flamed.
With the ritual words of welcome uttered, Arabella’s cousin came to life. He lurched back to the carriage, the coachman opened the door and the young man climbed inside. The charade completed, the carriage trundled off towards the town.
As the Priestess raised an eyebrow at the departing carriage, Esha looked up at the Goddess Ship and shivered. Seeing her apprehension, Bryonie clasped Esha’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze.
‘It is all right to be nervous, sister,’ she whispered.
The Priestess straightened up and spoke more formally. ‘Arabella of the House of Muin, will you come aboard the Goddess Ship to sail to the Isle of Fearn, where you will serve as Spring Maiden for the Stag King, Anghard, ruler of the Meda Isles?’
Esha hesitated. ‘Yes,’ she said in a trembling voice.
The Priestess smiled again. Esha followed the Priestess up the gangplank and onto the ship. Dappled-green sunlight fell upon the deck and the willow’s draping fronds swayed gently in the wind.
Women, who wore their hair braided around their heads and sported breeches just like a man’s, worked the deck, readying the ship for departure. As Esha continued to gape, the Priestess tugged her hand, pulling her across the deck.
‘I will take you to the Bride, the High Priestess of Achaiva. Then we shall sing, Arabella, and you shall see the beauty of this ship.’
The Bride sat upon a raised ledge inside the curve of the stern. Eight young women, all dressed in pale blue, sat on the deck at her feet.
The soft grey veils that enshrouded Achaiva’s High Priestess moved, as if in a wind all of their own, occasionally parting to reveal a glimpse of the woman within: a long, white lock of hair, a wrinkled brow, a mouth devoid of teeth, the grey and shrivelled lips caving inwards.
As Bryonie gently gestured to Esha to step forward, the Bride reached out a skeletally thin hand to draw her nearer. Esha struggled to keep from crying out as the Bride’s fingers clamped around her wrist.
‘Welcome, sweet Blossom of Spring. Blessings be upon you, Arabella of Muin.’
The voice sounded purer and more beautiful than anything Esha had ever heard before. It conjured up warm spring days and the innocence of youth and of first kisses beneath the waxing moon. It filled her with hope and with excitement and it washed away her despair. Esha found herself smiling as the Bride released her hand.
The blue-clad Priestesses began to sing. Nine voices raised in soulful and melodious homage to the great Triple Goddess and to diversity, place and balance, the intricate and essential score to life’s great symphony.
The Bride arched her back and opened her mouth as if breathing in the pure and perfect notes that surrounded her. As she exhaled, the green branches of the willow tree billowed with the Goddesses’ breath and the ship swept from the harbour.
Esha felt a tug on her hand.
‘Come on. I’ll show you your quarters,’ Bryonie said.
The Priestess led the way to an arched door in the base of the mighty willow trunk and down a spiralling wooden stairway.
‘The ship’s hull has three levels, each accessed by this stairway and a second in the ship’s stern,’ Bryonie said as they walked.
‘The High Priestesses get the first level, of course. Oh, and that’s where the galley and map rooms are. Sailors, Singers and all others have the second. The baths are in the prow end of the second level, but I’ll show you them later.’
Esha found herself liking the Priestess. Yet, remembering Ibur’s warning, she remained silent as she followed Bryonie.
Below deck, the cabins were constructed from living walls of descending roots and woven osier blinds. The air smelt rich and woody, and large portholes, sealed with a thin, fleshy substance eerily reminiscent of skin, filled the space with diffused light. Bryonie led Esha to an entrance formed by a curving root and parted the long, green blinds.
‘Here’s your bed,’ the Priestess said, pointing to a woven green hammock suspended from two twisting roots. ‘Blankets and pillows are here.’
Esha nodded as she looked at a pile of linen folded in a cup-shaped depression in the wood. Here and there, in corners or crevices, tall creamy toadstools sprouted, emitting a pale yellow light.
Bryonie crossed to where one thick root curved downwards, ending in a sink-like bowl. A trickle of water followed the root’s journey, travelling in a groove and gathering in the bowl before passing through the timber floor. ‘You can use this water for drinking and washing, but I’ll show you the baths in a minute. The excess water flows on to the third level, where we use it for the livestock.’
‘You keep animals on this ship?’ Esha asked in amazement.
‘Yes. We collect tithe from the Isles. We also take on horses and cattle, that sort of thing. In return, we send the Isles Teachers, Tenders, Midwives and Reapers.’ Bryonie frowned. ‘But here I am talking too much and telling you things you obviously already know.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind.’ Esha said quickly.
Bryonie smiled. ‘Come on. I’ll show you the rest of the ship.’
As they turned to leave, a large tabby cat slid between the blinds and padded over to the Priestess. It rubbed against Bryonie’s legs and began to purr loudly.
‘He’s the ship’s cat. Or the ship is his. Depending on whom you ask.’
‘How did you choose to become a Priestess?’ Esha asked.
‘I did not choose. It is the Goddess who calls us, and she calls whom she will, young and old alike,’ Bryonie said, and then the Priestess paused, her look now shrewd. ‘What life have you led, Arabella, that you should know so little of the ways of the Priestesses?’
As Esha struggled to think of a suitable reply, Bryonie answered her own question. ‘It is true, isn’t it? I saw the hostility in your brother’s eyes. The man has tyrannised you, hasn’t he?’
‘My brother?’ Esha said in alarm. How did they know? Ice filled her stomach.
‘Yes. I knew it. Oh, Arabella. How awful for you. I saw it the second he stepped out of the carriage, sending you flying and then making no effort to assist you.’
Relief washed through Esha. When Bryonie clasped her in a warm and understanding embrace, the feeling intensified.
‘He is my cousin. I have no brother or father to give me away,’ Esha said in a slightly breathless voice when the Priestess finally released her.
‘Cousin or brother, the man is a tyrant none the less.’
Bryonie clasped Esha’s hand in hers and they left the cabin, the tabby following close behind. As they passed by the other cabins, Esha caught glimpses of women sleeping in gently swaying hammocks.
‘Tell me more of your life, Bryonie.’
‘I heard the Goddess’s call and felt her presence in a dream,’ Bryonie said as they continued towards the prow. ‘The Goddess Ship arrived three days later with Achaiva’s High Priestess on board. The Bride claimed me for the Virgin Achaiva, and my new life began.’
Bryonie looked at Esha with a smile. ‘Of her three faces, I am glad that the Triple Goddess appeared to me as Achaiva, the Virgin. Whichever of the other High Priestesses had come for me—either the Mother or the Crone--my life would have been so different,’ she said in a low voice. ‘The Priestesses of Urania aren’t so bad--just obsessed with birth and babies and regulating the Goddess Isles--but those touched by Iachema, Lady of the Tomb…’ The Priestess’s words petered off, the opinion left unsaid.
They reached the stern, and Bryonie led the way up a wide and gradually sloping ramp of wood and into a chamber. Three large portholes looked over sea and sky, giving the room warmth and light. A series of cradle-like, thickly woven roots held steaming water. Timber decking lined the floors, grooved to direct the overflowing water.
‘The overflow goes to the privies below and out into the sea,’ Bryonie said by way of explanation.
‘Where does the water come from?’ Esha asked, thinking of how inviting the steamy liquid looked.
‘Rain, mostly. But I think the willow might also draw upon the sea water, somehow removing the salt.’
‘Who built the ship?’ the words slipped out before Esha could stop them. Spoke only when spoken to, she reminded herself, but curiosity kept leading her astray.
‘No one really. At least not a person. They say the Triple Goddess built it over a thousand years ago, in the final days before the flood. With this ship she saved the chosen ones, her first Priestesses, and with them the seeds of all the known plants of the world,’ Bryonie answered. ‘It is near the time of the evening meal. Will you join us or would you prefer to have something brought to your cabin?’
‘In my cabin, if I may,’ Esha said. ‘I’m a little tired.’
A swift look of disappointment crossed the Priestess’s face, replaced by a smile that was reflected in her eyes.
‘Of course you are. I hadn’t thought. Well, welcome aboard, Arabella. Cat will show you back to your cabin,’ Bryonie said. Her soft lips touched Esha’s cheek, bringing a flush of blood and causing the amulet at her breasts to fill with a sudden fire.
As Bryonie walked away and Esha caught her breath, the cat looked up at her with wide, knowing eyes. With a twitch of his long white and orange tail, he set off, padding back the way they had come. Esha followed.
As she neared her cabin, she caught the distant aroma of food, reminding her that she had not eaten since the night before. Her stomach rumbled. Cat glanced up as if to excuse himself before bounding off towards the stairwell.
Esha had hardly stepped inside when a young girl entered the cabin, carrying a large tray. The girl placed the tray laden with food upon a low table and smiled shyly before leaving. Seeing no chair and too hungry to care, Esha sat cross-legged on the floor and began to eat. Both meat and vegetables had been cooked to perfection and were accompanied by a sauce that was rich and creamy. Placing the plate aside, Esha reached for a red-skinned fruit with yellow flesh that seemed to melt in her mouth, then five small wedges of cheese together with a good many of the accompanying wheaten biscuits.
Remembering her first evening meal with Ibur, she passed aside the jug of wine and instead filled the silver goblet with water from the willow. The liquid tasted fresh and sweet and wonderfully refreshing.
Thus, replete and possibly a trifle over-full, Esha threw a pillow and blankets into the hammock and began to undress. As she climbed into the hammock, the amulet hummed in time with her heart, soothing and seductive, beckoning her to sleep and to sensual dreams.
Esha felt so at ease lying there in the dim light of evening, rocked by the motion of the ship and listening to the creak and groan of the great willow, that she began to wonder what it would be like to lead a life such as this. To sail the seas in service to the Goddesses. To travel from Isle to Isle, as a Teacher or a Tender, or possibly a Singer.
Would they accept her for whom she was? Could she throw herself on the Bride’s mercy and escape Ibur’s control?
A faint sound brought Esha’s head up. She stilled her breath, her heart thudding in her chest. The noise sounded again—a scratch of a talon or nail upon the timber floor. Esha turned her head to peer into the darkness that pooled beneath the twisted roots. Two direful eyes stared back at her.
‘Cat?’ But Esha knew even as the word left her mouth that it wasn’t.
As the long, black snout inched its way out of the darkness, Esha screamed.
The short, stubby whiskers twitched as it sniffed the air. The snout turned her way and the rat began to emerge from the shadows.
Esha remembered what Ibur had said to her in parting—do not doubt that I have my own ways of keeping an eye on you… I will be aware of all that transpires.
At the sound of Bryonie’s voice, the sleek black rodent stiffened, baring its long, yellow teeth, then it slunk back into the darkness.
‘Arabella?’ Bryonie said again as she rushed into the cabin, the cat by her side. ‘I heard you scream. Are you alright?’
Esha struggled to sit up further. ‘Just a nightmare, nothing more,’ she said and fought the urge to look around her.
With his fur raised, Cat made a slow circuit of the cabin, sniffing in the recesses behind the roots and prying into the shadows. Satisfied, he bounded across the room and onto Esha’s hammock, causing it to swing violently. Bryonie reached out a hand to slow the motion.
‘Are you sure?’ she asked. ‘Was it about the Rite? I can stay and we can talk about it, if you like. This is my first time accompanying the Maiden on her voyage, but I understand your fear,’ Bryonie said.
‘To bed a man you have never even met and then to have to give up your child to be raised by the Priestesses on Saille…’
‘What? I won’t be allowed to have my child on Gort?’
Why had Ibur not said?
‘Well, it has been that way since Anghard the Red, sacred Stag of Duir, killed the last of the mad Branwen Witch Kings. Since then, tradition has dictated that the King’s heirs are born, and spend the first three years of their lives, on Urania’s Isle of Saille. The birth itself must be witnessed by the High Priestesses,’ Bryonie said. ‘But you’ll like the Goddess Isles. I spent my novice years on Achaiva’s Isle of Uath…’
‘I think that I’m a little tired now,’ Esha said, interrupting the Priestess. She smiled to remove the sting from her abrupt words. ‘It was a long journey to the sea.’
‘But of course,’ Bryonie said. ‘May the Goddess grant you a measure of her own inimitable strength.’
And Therein Spells to Bind Her
Heavy grey clouds hung outside her windows, veiling the world from Lilith’s eyes.
She stared into the distance, her mind venturing far beyond the misty drizzle, beyond the sorcerer’s lands, beyond the shores of Gort.
She wondered about things she’d never contemplated before, about Kings and bloodlines and what the sorcerer sought from the union of his sister and the Anghard Stag King. Lilith remembered Ibur’s claim to Branwen Tower.
And then she recalled the young Priestess’s talk of the Witch Kings.
So both Ibur and Esha came from the line of the Branwen Witch Kings. Esha hadn’t seemed to have realised the significance, but Lilith did.
Esha’s child would therefore be born of the houses of Anghard and of Branwen. Then Lilith thought she gleaned a little of the sorcerer’s plans.
She thought back over what the Elemental had told her, what she’d seen in the swirling waters of his hands: the visions of things to come. She paid attention to the details. The sorcerer didn’t want her dead. He’d brought her here for a reason. The Aquis had named her many things she’d not understood at the time. But now Lilith began to realise that she was in someway needed for the sorcerer to fully enact his plans. More than just tending to the stock in his herb room and cleaning his house.
He wasn’t going to teach her any magic. That had become clear. He didn’t want her to know any real spells. He wanted her like Esha: meek and pliant. But what did he want her for?
Lilith walked back to the bed and climbed out of her singed dress and boots. Seeing a leaf snagged on the skirts, she bent down and picked it up. She held it up to the light, recognising it as an aspen leaf. She couldn’t remember seeing one growing in the garden, but hadn’t there been a glade of them marked on the map? In the far western corner of the garden, in an area that bordered the orchard. A part of the garden where she’d never set foot before…
Lilith washed her face and then her hands in the washbowl, taking care to clean the dirt and soot from the cut, wincing at the sting of the water on her burns.
She didn’t want to be a tool in someone else’s plans. She’d glimpsed another world through Esha’s eyes, a world of broad horizons and endless possibilities, and she wanted to be a part of it. Almost as much as she wanted to learn magic.
Ge-Iad’s talk of teaching her had raised her hopes. For a while she’d even dared to think that just maybe she was his equal, as yet without his knowledge but ready to receive his wisdom and step into her place. But she’d gradually come to realise that the yoke still lay around her neck. She was caught up in the sorcerer’s traps and spells, just like the creatures she’d harvested for him. And now he was playing some kind of game with her. She could feel it in her bones…
Lilith dressed in sombre shades of black, her reflection in the mirror regarding her with large, grave eyes. Her skin was as white as a shade’s; the severe cut of her dress accentuated her gauntness. The only thing that glittered or sparkled upon her person was the girdle that hung around her hips.
She lit the room’s hearth fire with a spell. She felt her energy drop as the flame flickered into existence, but as small as it was, it caught the kindling and swiftly became a blaze.
What had he gained by blistering and cutting her skin?
Why couldn’t she remember any of it?
And then a thought voiced itself in her mind, Esha’s thought as she’d lain in her bed, knowing herself to be bound in Ibur’s plans: no gift of herself, no lock of hair to ensnare her, no blood to seal her, no kiss, and with its moisture therein spells to bind her…
Lilith looked at her palms again, thinking back to the two-fold lesson and the way Ge-Iad had smeared her blood across the cloth of the poppet.
Blood—a part of herself…
The light inside the room dimmed as day faded into the night. The sound of the sorcerer’s carriage returning to Branwen Tower was shortly followed by his appearance at her door.
He entered the room to the sight of Lilith seated demurely by the fire.
‘Ah, you are here,’ he said.
‘Yes, Ge-Iad,’ Lilith replied; she didn’t say the obvious. She didn’t need to draw attention to the fact that the door had been locked. That she couldn’t have been anywhere other than here. She waited for him to speak.
‘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.’
The words twisted her stomach. Lilith’s heart sank. No anticipation, no excitement quickened her; instead, she felt leaden, dreading what was to come.
The sorcerer reached into the pocket of his jacket. ‘How did this come into your possession?’
Lilith barely flinched. She kept her eyes wide and her face blank as she looked up at the key: old and rusted, with its bow fashioned into the shape of a spreading tree. How had he found it? Her gaze darted around the room, coming to rest on her cloak that now lay on the ground by the chair, the cloth rent and torn. One of his creatures had been in her room!
‘I found it in the herb room, Ge-Iad.’ Lilith said quickly. ‘I was going to give it to you…’
Lilith watched as the sorcerer slipped the key onto a ring that hung at his belt. She kept her expression calm, smiling slightly, as if she were a little bewildered by his interest. He didn’t know what it unlocked, she’d read it in his face. He didn’t suspect her further.
‘Come,’ he said.
Ge-Iad drew a cloth around her eyes. Lilith struggled, drawing back.
‘We will observe the ritual or not at all,’ the sorcerer said.
Lilith kept her distance; she didn’t want to go blindfolded, obedient and in his command. The thought terrified her.
‘You will do this, Lilith.’ The sorcerer clasped her by the arm and tied the cloth around her eyes. He didn’t speak as he propelled her into the darkness. Lilith stumbled down the steps, hearing the mocking laughter of the beast on the lintel. She felt the air upon her skin as they left the house and walked through the garden, her panic increasing with every step.
They stopped and Lilith heard the sound of a gate creaking open. Then she was urged on again. At last the sorcerer untied the blindfold and Lilith’s gaze darted around her.
They stood within a clearing. Scorched remains of lilies rotted in the rain. The smell of the burnt circle of grass and earth sent shivers through her. As the sorcerer bowed his head in still and soundless introspection, Lilith felt the unseen threat closing in.
Lilith stared at the sorcerer, trying to anticipate his purpose. It didn’t look as if he’d brought anything with him to aid his spells, no components, nothing to harness and channel. And then a sure but sinister thought surfaced in her mind--he’d brought her.
The sorcerer began to chant.
The steady drizzle that had been falling in the gully stopped so abruptly that the water dispersed into vapour before it touched the ground. But Lilith could still hear the rain hitting the branches and leaves nearby.
The sorcerer opened his eyes. ‘Piss,’ he said.
‘What?’ Lilith stared at him in surprise.
‘Piss on the ground within the circle,’ he said. Shadows cast the sorcerer’s face into darkness but Lilith could hear his smile.
‘You need not be shy.’
A surge of terror—a cold and solid certainty in the pit of her stomach. She’d done this before. She’d stood here and offered up a part of herself.
And therein spells to bind her.
She couldn’t run. Not now. He’d just get her back and make her do it.
Moonlight glimmered in the puddles that lay within the burnt circle of earth. Guile whispered softly in her ear. Lilith walked into the circle. She lifted her skirts in her hands. ‘I don’t know if I can do much, Ge-Iad,’ she said. ‘I kind of went before.’
‘A small trickle will suffice. Hurry now. Do as I ask.’
Lilith pulled down her drawers and squatted down over the black earth, her skirts sweeping the ground. She tried not to gasp as she felt the cold puddle of muddy water touch her skin. She fixed her face in lines of concentration. Then Lilith stood up, arranged her clothes and stepped out of the circle.
‘Zilda De Tilb Dax Commah Do Adna,’ the sorcerer said softly. He drew a pouch from his pocket.
Lilith watched as he marked a line around the already blackened circle. Dust seeped through his fingers. Strange symbols and cunning runes formed beneath his nimble hands. And all the while the sorcerer uttered forth his odd syllables and noises, a crude cadence that altered the air around it and stirred the earth beneath their feet.
‘Tilb Cnila Commah! Tilb Zilda Commah! Tilb Zilda De Tilb Dax Commah! Tilb Cnila Commah! Tilb Zilda Commah! Tilb Zilda De Tilb Dax Commah! Tilb Cnila Commah! Tilb Zilda Commah! Tilb Zilda De Tilb Dax Commah!’
In the centre of the circle, a thin grey thread appeared.
‘Ozongon, witness this binding! Torzu, guardians of the spell! Torzu! Torzu! Torzu! Zilda De Tilb Dax Commah Tilb! Zilda De Tilb Dax Commah Tilb Adna!’
The thread spread outwards, splitting and dividing, creeping forth on spore-filled dust like mould across the rotten and decayed. And when its questing growth was done, Lilith saw the shape it had assumed: a web, twisted and crazed, stretched across the circle.
Flame burst up in the centre of the circle, but the web did not burn.
Wind rose up, gusting the flames.
A loud crack and the web-covered ground opened up like a gaping jaw.
Rain lashed down, the moisture caught and tossed within the screaming wind, the flames leapt wildly, the burnt earth heaved and trembled.
‘Cnila Commah! Zilda Commah! Zilda De Dax Commah! Babalon Drix Priaz Ar Chis Amma! Babalon Drix Iod Adohi! Babalon Drix Iod Nor! Babalon Drix Iod Iaiadix!’
Wind struck water.
Fire consumed earth.
The web melted into the mess.
Fire, water, earth whirled in the air, the circle binding the spell.
The sorcerer turned to her with a slow and steady smile. He extended his hand, beckoning her.
Lilith backed away.
‘Come now,’ he said. ‘There’s no need to harbour such resentment, Lilith. This is merely my little insurance. A small safeguard against my apprentice’s overreaching ambitions.’
A shaft of moonlight struck the sorcerer’s face. She could see the spell’s cost in the pallor of his skin.
Lilith kept walking backwards in a slow, tentative step, judging her chances of flight. She knew where she was now. The aspen leaf that had caught on her skirt had been enough to lead the way.
‘Indeed I think you will find that life will be altogether more pleasant, now that I am assured of your agreement,’ Ge-Iad said. ‘After all, I have great things planned for you, Lilith. Great things indeed… Now. Come to my side.’
Lilith backed away further. Then she saw his expression change, the slow light of anger appearing in his eyes.
‘I said, come.’
She didn’t think. Instinct took over.
Lilith swung around and ran, heart in mouth, lungs tight with fear, heeding only the warning that screamed in her ears, sure that she would feel his spell descend upon her at any moment, as she raced into the shadow of the trees…
On this, the morning that she had deemed to be the first day of the rest of her life, Lilith lay stomach down in the long grass, the sun warming her back and legs as she watched the rabbits grazing on the opposite bank of the nearby stream.
She’d run for hours in the darkness of the night. She’d lost all direction and had ended up collapsing beneath the low-spreading branches of a tree, somewhere deep within the forest that surrounded the sorcerer’s lands. Lilith had buried herself underneath the leaf litter, terrified that he would find her. She’d woken with the sun’s rise, amazed that she was still alive. By morning’s light she’d continued her aimless flight. In her ravenous state she’d grazed on the berries and mushrooms she found along the course of her long and wandering path. Then the empty rumblings of her stomach had come to dominate her thoughts.
Lilith’s mouth filled with moisture as she eyed the rabbits.
They hadn’t noticed her. Plump and sleek, intent on eating their fill of the lush green grass, their ears twitched nervously as they hopped from tuft to tuft. Small noses sniffed the air, wary of unseen predators. Lilith inched her way along, using her elbows and knees, skirts rucked up. She waited, letting the grass settle, the anticipation building in her so that she could almost taste the rabbit in her mouth and feel its juices trickling down her chin.
Lilith stoked her desire, feeling it deep, deep down inside her where the magic lay. She let the heat of that wanting rush through her veins. She coaxed it, captured it, channelled it.
A mighty roar of flames shot out before her, blackening the grass on the opposite bank.
A slow grin spread across Lilith’s face. She walked to the edge of the stream and looked across. Three charred bodies twitched in the burnt and smoking foliage.
The stream looked deeper than she’d thought, and wider. Lilith undressed, placing her boots, dress and girdle on the bank. She dipped a toe into the water and shivered. She waded into the stream, lifting the hem of her shift, gasping at the cold. The mossy rocks beneath her feet were slippery. She chose her path carefully, toes testing the way. As the water grew deeper, she lifted her shift higher, wading out of the water and onto the bank.
She walked gingerly across the smoking ground, the earth still hot from the flames, and gathered her catch. She burnt her fingers and scalded her already blistered hands, swearing angrily all the while as she tore a strip of cloth from the hem of her shift to tie the rabbits together for the crossing.
The difficulty was well rewarded as Lilith sat down in the grass to eat. No food had ever tasted quite so wonderful as these rabbits brought down by her own spell on this, the first morning of freedom. Lilith wiggled her toes. The sun warmed her face. She listened to the sound of the gurgling stream. She knew she shouldn’t lie here long. She had to keep going, to find her way out of the forest, maybe look for work on a farm.
At this moment, with the day bright and clear, she didn’t think about the possibility that he would find her. In the depths of the night, quivering beneath the leaf litter, Lilith had not been so sure.
But he hadn’t found her yet, had he?
She had to move on.
It would be so nice if she could just sleep here, warm and safe beneath the sun, without fear. Fear had sickened her, fear had undermined her strength. She didn’t want to be scared anymore. She wanted to be powerful. As powerful as Ibur.
Lilith stood up and gathered her clothes. Perhaps it had been a little careless to undress when she might have to flee at any moment, but it was certainly good to step into dry clothing. She pulled on her boots then picked up the girdle. She looked at the glittering gems in the owl’s eyes and the finely crafted clasp, seeing their worth in terms of the coin to aid her flight from Gort.
Lilith drew it around her waist and joined the clasp. Picking up the remaining rabbit, she set off again. She walked away from the stream, passing back into the deep green light of the forest. Everything felt better now that she’d eaten. Her step surer; her mind clear.
She forced herself not to heed her worries. She swallowed her sadness at Sooty, left behind, and Branwen Tower and her herb room, warmed by the potbellied stove. She regretted the loss of the key. And of the flask, still hidden carefully in her room. She tried not to think of Esha, sailing to the Stag King, and the fate of her as yet to be conceived child. She put the water man from her mind. Best not to think about the past, but what lay ahead.
She pondered on the future. Did her escape mean that the Elemental’s visions would not come to fruition, that all had changed now that she had altered the present by running? And what would she do with her freedom once she left the sorcerer’s reaches? Back to servitude to someone else? Kitchen girl or pig tender for the rest of her days, hiding her magic, watching her step? She didn’t want that either.
Yet Lilith realised that, once she re-entered the outside world, her Gift would be viewed as a Taint again. She’d have no chance of learning any other spells. She wouldn’t be able to use the one she knew, without extreme caution. And if they caught her at it, they’d hang her, or worse…
The stark reality dampened Lilith’s spirits. This future seemed very different from the one she’d envisaged as she’d waited for Ge-Iad to begin their lessons. In her dizziest moments, she’d imagined being inside his tower, sharing his secrets, brewing his arcane sorceries, she his willing apprentice at hand to see and learn all the magic the Gift contained. But when the time had come, he’d tricked her.
Lilith wondered what it would be like to be the mistress of Branwen Tower—without him.
The thought was as thrilling as it was impossible. She entertained it, imagining the rooms opened, the tables laden with flowers from the garden, her servant working hard by the hearth, creating wondrous feasts. Lilith smiled at the thought. Her musings were almost as romantic as one of Esha’s daydreams.
Lilith sat at a crest to catch her breath and gain her bearings. She leant back against the trunk of a beech tree and looked around her, seeing a familiar track threading through the forest and then the low branches of a nearby tree. And within the tree’s branches, the sorcerer’s trap, the fine string web from which she’d disentangled the bat, another victim now struggling in its place.
Lilith’s heart dropped. She’d thought she turned left into the forest after she’d fled through the outer paddocks last night. That much had seemed clear before she’d entered the cover of the trees and had lost all sense of direction. But to end up here, after all her running, it was almost as if she’d travelled a full circle, around the sorcerer’s lands…
Lilith looked at the sorcerer’s trap and the frantic bat, anger growing inside her.
Everywhere she looked the sorcerer wove his hateful spells.
Lilith had crossed over to the web and released the bat before she’d even realised that’s what she intended to do. As the bat flew away, Lilith marked the moment as an omen. She’d evade him too.
She set off again, meeting the track that travelled down to the water. She’d drink from the stream and wash the juices from her face, then go across the stone crossing and into the other side of the forest. The direction the sound of the pipes had come from.
Lilith followed the track. She couldn’t believe she’d run in circles. She’d let her fear drive her on as she’d run, her feet skirting the more difficult terrain. But maybe it hadn’t been free will that had led her chaotic flight. Maybe he’d done something to her with his spell, something that stopped her from leaving his lands. The thought almost brought Lilith to a standstill. Then her feet struck the track at a brisker pace, her anger leaving tracks in the ground.
She just hadn’t concentrated. She hadn’t thought her way through it. She could picture the sorcerer’s map in her mind, but it stopped at a certain point in the forest, no details of the lands that surrounded it. The stream ran a boundary curve around the top right-hand edge of the map and down one side. But if the stream was a boundary, she’d just waded across it not much farther back. So maybe she wasn’t trapped after all, and like the bat, she’d now fly free.
Lilith came to the edge of the crossing of stones that had defeated her on the day that she’d gathered the sorcerer’s traps. She regarded the stones with a frown. The crossing didn’t look difficult.
A few of the mossy stones were widely spaced, that was true, and algae grew where the water flowed over them. She lifted her skirts, holding them high, a chill wind bringing sudden goose bumps to her skin.
Lilith stepped onto the first rock then to the second, her confidence building as she went. Then, with the last few stones before her, her boot slipped on the algae and Lilith fell, scraping her thigh down the jagged rock.
She pulled herself out of the water, dress, boots, and hair sodden. She’d lost her grip on the rabbit. She wasn’t going back to look for it.
Determined to get across any which way, Lilith walked farther up the bank. She waded into the water. Midway across Lilith struck a sudden, icy cold current of rushing water. The current surged out, pushing her back towards the shore.
Lilith struggled back onto the bank. Enraged with her lot, so frustrated by her injuries and her plight, she vented it with full force at the nearest thing, an old and bent tree. Fire roared and flames leapt, the tree became an inferno.
Then she felt spent. Wet and dripping, she walked to the fire, hands out in front of her to warm her. Why hadn’t she been able to cross? What was preventing her? She’d crossed the stream before to fetch the rabbits. What was different? Lilith couldn’t think of anything other than that it had been further back along the stream.
She felt cold, wet, and pathetic. Fatalism stopped Lilith from caring if the sorcerer noticed the smoke from her fire or not. If her anger wasn’t so great, she’d cry. But as it was she wouldn’t grant self-pity a single tear. Lilith sat on a fallen log by the fire, the heat drying her skirts, moisture steaming up into the air. The sun dropped lower in the sky, changing the shadows and the colour of the light. She knew she should find somewhere to spend the night. But the fire brought warmth back into her bones and she felt altogether too weary to rise. Lilith pulled up her skirts to look at her leg, red and grazed the entire length of her thigh and calf.
Lilith cursed the rock, and then the crossing, and then the sorcerer himself, saving her most foul-mouthed offerings until the last. She settled into seething, wincing at her wounds, feeling pitiful and wretched, and hating it.
The sound of pipes played somewhere beyond the stream, brought Lilith’s head up. The tune grew louder, then suddenly, disappointingly, petered out. Lilith turned back to the fire. She bent down to reach for a piece of wood to throw onto the blaze.
‘Greetings. A tired traveller would ask to cross.’
The voice was so unexpected that Lilith had to stifle a cry. She swung around to see a man standing on the other side of the stony crossing. He stood tall in a cloak of rough fur, a blanket and a full pack slung over his shoulder, a large skillet and lid strapped to the outside of the pack.
‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ Lilith asked suspiciously.
‘I am a traveller, as I have said, and a minstrel. I give you my oath that I mean you no harm.’
Lilith eyed him with a frown. He looked like a traveller, although it was more than strange to encounter him here, so close to the sorcerer’s lands.
‘And I have been told that I am a good cook. The evening is drawing in. Perhaps I may share your fire and prepare you a meal in return.’
‘I give you my oath that I mean you no harm,’ the minstrel said again.
‘Well… I suppose you can come across. But the stones are slippery…’
Lilith watched as the minstrel walked with ease across the stones. He unslung his pack and dropped it on the ground then turned to her with a smile. ‘Morgan, of Duir,’ he said. ‘May I sit?’
Lilith nodded. She didn’t offer her own name. She wasn’t willing to shed her wariness, her suspicions. The Isle of Gort seemed an unlikely place for such a traveller to venture.
Morgan sat down and rummaged in his pack, drawing out a wineskin.
She judged him to be older than the sorcerer, his dark brown hair—cropped short an inch above his scalp—shot with grey. His skin was tanned and lined by the sun, his green eyes creased at the edges. Faint blue tattoos ran in lines up the sides of his neck to his temples.
Morgan offered her the wineskin. Lilith shook her head.
The minstrel drank deeply from the skin then he stoppered it and set it aside. He turned to her with a steady gaze, his green eyes bright with amusement. ‘An unusual place to light your camp fire. The flames are as fierce as the spell that summoned them.’
As Lilith scrambled to her feet, the minstrel held out a hand to stay her. ‘You’ve nothing to fear from me, Lilith,’ he said. ‘Your secret is safe.’
‘Why are you here?’ Lilith asked again. ‘And how do you know my name?’
‘Please,’ Morgan said, ‘sit. I gave you my oath. I mean you no harm. I would talk with you a while, Lilith.’
‘How do you know my name?’ Lilith repeated. She remained standing, poised on the edge of flight.
‘Your name is known to many of our kind, Lilith,’ the minstrel said. He uncorked the wineskin and drank again then positioned his pack behind him. Leaning back, his legs out and his feet crossed, Morgan said, ‘Sit, please.’
‘Why should I trust you? How do I know he hasn’t sent you to get me?’
‘The man you speak of is no friend to me, Lilith.’
Lilith sat down on the edge of the log, still wary, still ready to run if he gave her the slightest cause. She watched the minstrel as he continued to speak, reading his face, seeking the truth behind his words. He sounded sincere, but Lilith wasn’t going to be tricked again.
‘Your situation is known to us,’ the minstrel said. ‘We would have it different.’
‘Who are you really?’ Lilith asked. ‘You’re not a minstrel. You’re a sorcerer aren’t you? Like him?’
‘I am a minstrel, as I claimed. I earn my bread and board with stories, by playing harp and pipes. And yes, I bear the Gift of magic. But I am not like him.’
‘Who do you mean when you say “we?”
‘There are others like us in the world. Others like you and like me,’ Morgan said. ‘Others with the Gift of magic.’
‘There are other Witches on Gort?’ Lilith asked, but even as she voiced the question, she knew the answer.
‘No. Not on the Isle of Gort. Ibur will have no others on the lands he calls his: Gort, Muin, possibly more. But on the other Isles, yes, Lilith. We are few, but we walk free.’
‘But you have to hide your magic,’ Lilith said. ‘Don’t you? That’s not really free.’
‘The Meda Isles have changed since the dark years that followed the Uprising. Witch Finders no longer scout the Isles, seeking our kind. The King has passed new laws of tolerance, however slow the remote towns and villages are to enact them. You were vulnerable and unprotected, Lilith. It should not have happened…’
‘Why are you here?’ Lilith asked bluntly. ‘What do you want from me?’
‘The wind whispers. Earth and water speak. They speak of you, Lilith. Your face has been seen in the depths of scrying bowls, your name called by the hallowed voices of the dead. All talk of an orphaned girl, her birth an enigma, the youngest and strongest of her kind. A girl with the Gift in full measure, who has been brought to Branwen Tower.’
‘Then how come you didn’t come for me? Why did you let him find me first?’ Lilith couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice.
‘Nothing of your existence, nothing of your birth, no trace of you was foreseen by any of us until you cast your first spell, Lilith. That in itself concerns us. You are a mystery to us. The birth of one with the Gift is increasingly rare. We would welcome you Lilith, we would aid you to be free.’
‘So you use good magic, and he uses bad…’
‘Magic, like people, cannot be viewed in such broad terms. There is no good magic, Lilith. There is no bad. There is only the thing itself. The intent of the spell caster, the source of the energy that is channelled, and how it is harnessed—these things determine whether the use is honourable or not.’ Morgan paused. ‘Are you hungry? Shall I prepare you dinner while we talk?’
Lilith nodded. She wanted to hear more—about magic, about others of her kind. Morgan stood up and offered her his hand to rise but Lilith rebuffed his aid. She followed him cautiously as he walked to the stream, thinking on all that he’d said.
The youngest and strongest of her kind…
A delicious shiver passed down Lilith’s spine. The Gift in full measure. The sorcerer had not said, but then why would he? He didn’t want her to know that she was strong, did he?
The minstrel stood by the side of the stream, watching the sparkling water flow, and Lilith waited, wondering what he would show her.
‘Life itself is magic,’ the minstrel said. ‘Magic flows through all. Magic surrounds.
‘Gah Zamran,’ Morgan said. He pulled out a set of fine reed pipes from inside his shaggy cloak. As he began to play, Lilith noticed the runes tattooed down the length of the minstrel’s long fingers and across the knuckles of his hands.
The sweet, quickening melody of the pipes wove up into the air, and Lilith blinked, seeing a sudden colour to the sylvan scene that surrounded her. The light of the afternoon sun intensified, vividly golden, the very air seeming to shimmer and shine. Fine particles of dust swirled around her, fluttering closer to reveal themselves as tiny, winged creatures, their wings riding the breeze.
The ground beneath Lilith’s feet tingled, the grass moved in waves around her. Then Lilith gasped as the creatures of forest, glade, and earth began to emerge from the green dappled shadows.
Slender Dryads left their willow trees; the tall, green-haired women drawing their toes from the coolness of the stream and moving with slow grace to where the minstrel stood playing his pipes.
Animals drew closer: stag, rabbit, and a large, shaggy-coated bear. Other things lurked in the shadows, creatures of horn, talon, and fur, and something part human, part equine, that pawed the ground and glared at her with proud and haughty disdain…
The sound of the pipes stopped. The creatures vanished. The light dropped. The grass stilled.
‘A spell,’ Lilith asked, ‘to make me think…’
‘Then a spell to make them appear.’
Morgan shook his head. ‘They are always there, Lilith. More creatures inhabit this earth than can be seen by the eye.’
‘But you made them show themselves to me.’
‘No. I asked. I called. I played for them. They appeared to you because they wished to.’ The minstrel smiled, the lines of his face creasing. ‘And they like music. Most things do.’
Morgan swept a hand to encompass everything that surrounded them.
‘Magic, Lilith. All around us. It flows in each and every one of us, seen and unseen alike. Gift or Taint, it matters not what it is named, all share it to a lesser or greater extent. Even among those that condemned you, you will find common folk certain that they are free of all trace of the Taint, and yet they pride themselves on the trueness of their intuition, or the foresight of their dreams, their canny “way” with people, animals, and plants. Magic, Lilith, in everything, in everyone.’
‘But not everyone can work spells,’ Lilith said.
‘No,’ Morgan responded. ‘Some feel the magic more strongly than others. Some have a certain talent for receiving it, for harnessing, for channelling. And it is this extra receptiveness that is hereditary.’
‘So, do you know who my mother was?’
The minstrel shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, Lilith. Everything about your past is still hidden to our eyes. But for one so strong, Lilith, I would think your mother must have also shared the Gift in large measure.’
Lilith nodded again.
‘Now, let’s see if I can play a little something for our supper.’
Morgan bent down, sitting back on his haunches to stir the waters of the stream with a hand. ‘Gah De Zilda Torzu,’ he said.
Stillness fell upon the rushing stream. The water slowed, moving languidly, caressing each rock, each reed with its watery flow. Then the minstrel put his pipes to his lips and began to play. The tune rose up again, breathtakingly beautiful, the tempo exciting the senses and lifting the soul.
As the minstrel played, a figure began to emerge from the river’s depths, a light-brown head breaking the slow-moving surface. Tendrils of long brown hair intertwined with soft green fronds, naked skin tinged emerald green and brown, a mottled tone that fooled the eye into questioning the truth of the creature’s watery presence. A water spirit. A nymph, birthed of rivers, streams and springs.
Water ran down her back and over her buttocks as the nymph crested the surface. ‘We of the water acknowledge your song, demi-man,’ the nymph said.
Morgan bowed his head.
‘And we acknowledge you, Lilith, and the essence of our kind that now flows through your veins.’
Lilith struggled to hide her shock.
‘A gentle caution to you, mortal beauty. Be not so quick to keep the faith with the ancient one that lurks within the walled woods.’
Lilith frowned, casting a glance at the minstrel, displeased that he had overheard the words, but Morgan’s gaze was on the nymph herself. Then Lilith realised that the nymph had not actually spoken; her lips had not moved, but the words had formed clearly in Lilith’s mind.
‘What do you ask of us, Morgan of Duir?’
‘I would play for our supper, daughter of the water.’
The water nymph regarded him with a warm slow smile. ‘Play then minstrel, beloved of our kind.’
Morgan drew up his pipes once more.
The notes wove pictures in Lilith’s mind, the tempo lively, beckoning, calling for her to dance, to cast aside all worry, to step free upon the lands, to travel the long road that stretched out before her. The music filled her with the urge to cry, to laugh, to scream with joy. It filled her with rapture, exquisite and child-like, a feeling Lilith had never experience before, a feeling she never wanted to forget.
The water nymph’s eyes closed, her body swayed slightly to the score, her reedy hair teased by a wind of its own. As the song came to an end, she opened her eyes and sighed softly. The nymph placed her fingers to her full lips and blew the minstrel a kiss. She dived back down into the water, showering them with spray. And where the ripples of her departure marked the slow moving waters, Lilith saw the bright rainbow scales of fish, swimming outwards.
Morgan threw off his cape and quickly rolled up his shirt sleeves. He bent over the edge of the bank and stared into the water, then plunged a hand into the depths. A second later he withdrew a struggling fish, deftly withdrawing his dagger from it sheath at his hip and ceasing the creature’s turmoil. Morgan held the fish over the stream, the dark red droplets dripping into the water. He spoke softly, words Lilith couldn’t quite hear.
The stream returned to its fast moving flow, washing loudly over rock and stone.
‘What was the spell you said at the end?’ Lilith asked, hungry to learn.
‘Not a spell. Only my thanks.’
‘But you paid the conjuring with the fish’s blood,’ Lilith insisted.
‘The nymph was no conjuring, Lilith. She exists in her own right. She answered my call because she wished to. When I took a life from her domain, I returned some of it to that which birthed it and I offered forth my thanks.’
‘Isn’t that what Ge-Iad does?’
Morgan threw the fish onto the grass and wiped his hands. He turned to her with a worried expression. ‘You call him that to your own detriment, Lilith. In the old tongue, the language of spells, Ge-Iad means our Lord and Master. By naming him so, you give him power over you.’
Lilith scowled. More tricks. More lies. The sorcerer had never meant her anything but harm. She hated him, the force of her emotion surging through her like fire in her veins. Heat filled Lilith’s face.
‘The young cannot predict the actions of the jaded, nor should they have to,’ the minstrel said gently. ‘The innocent are easy pickings to one such as Ibur. You would not be the first to fall prey to him, Lilith.’
Morgan pulled on his cloak and picked up the fish. ‘And no. It isn’t what Ibur does.’
Taking a long leather thong from his belt, Morgan tied the fish to a high branch of a tree. He looked around him, seeking something in the grass.
‘Come and help me gather another vital part of tonight’s meal.’
The minstrel bent down as he walked, pulling white creamy mushrooms from the earth, passing them to Lilith, who then held them cupped in her skirts.
‘You missed some,’ Lilith said, already tasting the fish and mushrooms in her mind.
‘I have found that if I leave a few mushrooms to spore, next time I’m back this way I may get to feast again. And I am not the only creature that loves the taste of fresh mushrooms.’
He stopped to look at Lilith, keen to show the seriousness of his words.
‘And this is what I want to show you, Lilith. Herein lays the difference between the Branwen sorcerer and myself: what we hold as ours in this life is gifted only, a shared portion of the energy that flows through all things, and through all time. Ibur takes. Ibur tricks. Ibur coerces. He seduces with flattery and lies. He bullies and intimidates those that cannot be charmed or bought. He kills those who cannot be bullied. I would show you, Lilith, it does not have to be that way. I would show you that there can be give and take, a balance, a way of existing in harmony with the world around you.’
As Lilith thought on his words, Morgan turned his attention back to the fish, untying it from the branch and carrying it down to the bank. He squatted down on his haunches and drew out his knife, calling back to her over his shoulder. ‘Can you bring me my pack?’
Lilith walked back to the fire, thinking hard. She placed the mushrooms in a small pile and brushed the dirt off her hands, wincing at the pain of her cut and blistered palms. By the time she returned to the stream with Morgan’s pack, the minstrel had scaled and gutted the fish and was washing it in the swift flow. Lilith sat down nearby, watching him as he prepared the fish for cooking. He stood up, walking along the bank of the stream, choosing and gathering various leaves and plants.
Lilith’s curiosity was further piqued. She’d never thought of using herbs for cooking before, only the strange spices in the pantry, the ones she’d learnt to use sparingly. But the herbs the minstrel had harvested seemed an odd choice, chickweed and chamomile, and several sprigs of woody grey thyme.
The minstrel drew a small mortar and pestle, wrapped in cloth, out of his pack. He worked with skilled hands, plucking the leaves from one of the sprigs of thyme and pounding them in the mortar, and then he added the chickweed and chamomile.
Morgan looked up from his task. ‘You’re injured,’ he said. ‘I can heal your hands…’
Lilith pulled her hands out of sight, tucking her arms around her. ‘I don’t need your help.’
She didn’t know why she’d said it. The pain in her hands was irritating and incessant. But it was hard to trust. It was hard to believe that someone wanted to help her just for the sake of it. But then she hadn’t heard all he had to say yet, had she? Maybe Morgan wanted something from her too. She couldn’t let her guard down too much. The minstrel was friendly, charming, seemingly expecting no return. Just like the sorcerer had appeared to be too. She had to be alert.
But did it hurt to let him heal her hands?
Lilith cast a critical eye over the poultice, seeing it again as the sum of its parts: chickweed and chamomile to soothe the burns, thyme to cleanse them. Her scowl softened, Lilith held out her hands, wincing as Morgan spread the poultice on thickly.
Then the minstrel began to speak the language of magic, his fingers passing over her palms, and Lilith gasped as the heat and the throbbing of the cut, melted away.
Lilith wiped away a small area of poultice to see that the blisters had healed. The flesh was whole and pink. She walked to the stream and crouched down to wash her hands. The skin felt tight but the pain had gone entirely.
‘Thank you,’ Lilith said. She didn’t look him in the eye. She felt suddenly vulnerable, as if he might view the Gift of healing as an unspoken debt between them.
‘I don’t do this for thanks, Lilith. I heal because I see your pain. If I can aid you, what loss to me? And wouldn’t I want the same treatment at your hands?’
Morgan washed the mortar and pestle in the stream and then placed them back in his pack. He unlaced the skillet from where it was strapped and dropped the fish in it. ‘I’m hungry. Let’s get this meal underway.’
Skillet in hand, the minstrel returned to the fire. Lilith followed. Morgan placed the skillet on a flat stone, and then he walked to and fro carrying more stones from the stream to a furthest corner of the fire where the flames were smaller and the embers glowed fiercely. Then he returned to his pack.
Lilith sat down and watched the minstrel as he pulled various items from the different pockets of his pack: spoon and knives, a small stone pot. Then, to Lilith’s delight, the minstrel produced what looked like a small jar of cream, a larger one of milk and a square of muslin, which when unwrapped turned out to be a large pat of rich, yellow butter.
‘I also offer my services as a scribe, and a messenger of sorts,’ Morgan said as he laid out the ingredients for their meal. ‘I write letters for people and pass on news from other Isles. Few can afford the coin to pay for my services, but I live well enough for all that.’
The minstrel took the skillet and fish and poured a portion of milk into the pan and a large wedge of the butter. He threw the remaining sprigs of thyme in with the fish, put the lid on the skillet, and then sat it on another large flat stone he’d placed in the embers.
‘You really can cook,’ Lilith said with surprise as she watched him peel and slice the mushrooms into the stone pot.
‘I like eating. I have, or so I’ve been told, an unhealthy weakness for earthly pleasures. Women, ale and song, and good food, cooked well.’
The minstrel sat back. ‘We must speak in earnest. I must be gone from here before daybreak.’
‘But you’re taking me with you, aren’t you?’
‘I can’t, Lilith. This is what I must speak to you about, and more. What do you know of the history of our people, those born with the Gift?’
‘Not much,’ Lilith muttered, hurt by the revelation that the minstrel wasn’t going to help her to leave Gort, no matter his earlier talk of aiding her.
‘I need to tell you a little of it, so that you will understand.’
Lilith nodded. She looked away, fighting the sadness that threatened to reveal itself in tears, gritting her teeth to stop the flow. Why wouldn’t he help her? Why was he going on about the history of the Isles when she needed to flee?
But Morgan was already speaking, frowning as if he chose his words with care. ‘Before the Branwen Witch Kings ruled the Meda Isles, children born with the Gift were welcomed. The standing and wealth of that family increased with their births. The Meda Isles were nothing more than many small kingdoms then, often at war with one another and presided over by the Sacred Stag King—a High King of sorts, who ruled for a term of three years. The sacred rites and rituals of the Stag King’s reign, in turn, were overseen by the High Priestesses of the Triple Goddess. Much as they are today.’
The minstrel stopped to check on the progress of the fish and mushrooms.
‘The Stag King ruled all of the Isles?’ Lilith asked. The idea both surprised and dismayed her. ‘But Ge-… Ibur said the Anghard Kings were barbarians.’
‘This was long before the Anghard Kings,’ Morgan said. He lifted the skillet lid and a waft of aroma vented out in steamy vapour. Lilith’s mouth watered in expectation of the meal to come.
‘But yes, in a way Ibur is right. Our people built the grand castles and manor houses; they brought civilisation to the Isles. The Stag Kings came from Duir, where life was hard and cold. And although Anghard the Red eventually overthrew the last Witch King, neither he nor his descendents ever claimed the white castle of Tinne or any of the grand houses on the other Isles. The Stag King resided in his Long Hall on Duir, as he has always done.’
Morgan drew out his wine skin again and offered it to her.
Lilith shook her head. She remembered too well how Esha’s guard had dropped with each sip of the potent wine. ‘So how did the first Branwen King get the throne?’ she asked.
‘The first of the Branwen line was White Crow of the Isle of Fearne.’
Lilith struggled to keep the surprise from her face. White Crow—like the symbol inlaid on the box!
‘White Crow was the strongest Witch of her day, although until her birth, her family had produced few with the Gift. She left her home on the day of her coming of age, betrothed to the King of Muin, one of the many small kingdoms ruled over by the Stag King. She was said to have been strong in will as well as magic—more than a match for her much-older husband, himself weak in the ways of the Gift. Branwen Tower is said to have been built for her as a hunting lodge.’
Lilith gave a small nod. Of course, it had been she who had hidden the flask within the wall.
The minstrel took another swig from the wineskin then re-corked it and put it aside. ‘White Crow bore the King of Muin thirteen children before he died in a hunting accident on the Isle of Gort. Upon his death, White Crow reigned as Queen, taking her name for her line: the House of Branwen. And although it has been said that she harboured no grief for her husband’s passing, she would wed no other. She finally received a calling from the great Triple Goddess in her guise as Queen and Mother, Urania, and she left her children and Isle behind. She sailed on the Goddess ship to the Isle of Saille to serve as High Priestess in her name. There she worked with a different magic, as vessel and voice for Urania.’
‘She chose to become a Priestess instead of a Queen?’ Lilith looked at him in disbelief.
The minstrel leant forward to stoke the embers near the stone and skillet. He glanced at Lilith.
‘Power and position do not always bring happiness, Lilith.’
He said it gently, but to Lilith’s mind it felt like a reprimand. She didn’t know about the happiness bit, but that sort of power certainly brought safety.
‘White Crow’s first born son, Eideand, ascended the throne of Muin. He proved adept at manipulating power. Isles were added to his Kingdom, through guile or war, and the House of Branwen grew ever stronger.’
‘What of the other families?’ Lilith asked, her resentment forgotten as she followed the story. ‘Did they get stronger too?’
‘No,’ Morgan said. ‘Quite the opposite. While the Branwen bloodline thrived, those of the other powerful families found their numbers in decline. Fewer children were conceived, more died in childbirth and infancy.’
‘So did White Crow’s son get to rule the Meda Isles?’
‘No, it was his son, Draidean, who rallied his followers and crowned himself King of the entire Meda Isles. Wars broke out, of course, but the new Witch King had magic and wealth on his side. He declared his rule all-encompassing, rejecting the right and sanctity of the Sacred Stag of Duir and the Priestesses in turn. And so began the time of the Branwen Witch Kings.’
‘I heard someone call them mad,’ Lilith said, remembering Bryonie’s words to Esha.
‘The madness of the Branwen line,’ Morgan said. ‘Draidean showed a liking for cruel and erratic violence, and many of his descendents were worse. It brought about their downfall in the end. This is the past Ibur so craves a return to, Lilith. This is what he seeks to bring back,’ Morgan said. ‘And this, I am afraid, is where you fit into the picture.’
Lilith looked down. She knew what he was about to say; ‘King Slayer’ the Aquis had named her—had others seen it too?
‘Since the casting of your first spell, the scrying bowls of Seers have been full of nothing else but your face and form, Lilith. Many, many things have been seen. Ibur takes his game to a higher level. The balance has been disturbed. Kingdoms will fall. Kingdoms will rise. And you, Lilith, lie at the centre of it all.’
Lilith stared into the fire. The minstrel’s words echoed the Elemental’s, so heavy and full of portent. After a moment she looked up. ‘But you can stop it, can’t you? If you take me away with you, then none of it will ever happen.’
The minstrel’s silence made Lilith’s heart skip a beat.
‘I’ve been watching and waiting for the chance to talk to you, Lilith. I couldn’t cross onto Branwen lands without permission. Your word sufficed and I am here to help you in whichever way I can, but I can’t take you with me now.’
‘So you’re not going to help me?’ Lilith couldn’t keep the disappointment from her voice. ‘But why?’
‘As I’ve waited here, I’ve consulted with those that see and know: creatures of air, earth, water, and fire. They speak of a three-part binding, Lilith. A powerful spell enacted with the aid of their kind—a spell you willingly gave of yourself for, sealing you to the sorcerer’s will…’
‘I can’t remember things properly. He tricked me,’ Lilith said. ‘He wanted me to… you know, to pass water, on the ground. And the ground was burnt in a circle, and I’d woken up with my hands cut and blistered…’
‘And did you do it?’
Lilith shook her head. ‘No. I pretended to. I knew something wasn’t right. And I remembered what someone I knew once said, not to give anything of yourself, nothing that could be used in spells against you…’
Morgan nodded. ‘Then we can hope that the binding is flawed and that one aspect of Ibur’s control is not complete. But in your flight, you have not succeeded in crossing the boundary of his lands?’
‘No,’ Lilith said.
‘Seeing the future is a fickle thing, Lilith. Those with the talent for foresight agree that all possibilities are seen, the eventual path among them. But some threads of possibility are stronger than others. They surface again and again in the scrying waters, growing stronger as the solidity of the present feeds them. You have been tricked. You have been trapped. But the visions say that this will not always be the way. And given the opportunity that will come, the choice will be yours: to pursue the past or to cast it aside and walk your own path,’ Morgan said. ‘I would counsel you, Lilith, for your own peace and that of the realm, cast it aside.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Lilith said.
The last light of day left the forest. A chill wind picked up. Her heart felt heavy, daunted by what was to come.
‘We would have had it different, Lilith,’ Morgan said. ‘But now I think our dinner well-cooked,’ he said. ‘We will eat and then I must leave…’
‘That’s it? You’ve come here, all this way, to tell me how special I am, but you can’t help me? But when the time comes, I’ve got to cast aside the past? I don’t even know what you mean! You’ve got nothing else for me?’
‘I’ll remain close by,’ the minstrel said. ‘If I have the opportunity to aid you, I will. If you have the chance to run, I’ll be waiting. And perhaps I have something more.’ Morgan picked up a twig from the ground.
‘Hom,’ he said. The twig burst into life, colour shooting up the wood, the buds forming, and leaves unfurling before Lilith’s eyes.
The minstrel reached out and placed the twig in Lilith’s hand. She mouthed the word, looking up to confirm the sound.
‘It is a reminder. May it serve you well.’
Lilith bent down and picked up another twig. She drew on the energy within her, concentrating it deep inside her, feeling the warmth and then the heat, her breath increasing.
The wood stirred into life, a single bud appeared. The bud opened, unfurled, then shrivelled and died. ‘Hom,’ Lilith said again. ‘Hom.’ Two more buds sprouted from the living twig then nothing more.
Lilith looked up to see the minstrel watching her with a smile.
As pleased as she was to have a new spell, Lilith couldn’t see how it was going to help her. It wasn’t as if she could cause the sorcerer to break into bud and become a plant. But it seemed in keeping with the minstrel’s way, all his talk of balance and life and harmony. She’d have preferred something with a little more kick.
‘You’re afraid of him aren’t you?’ Lilith asked quietly, daring him to answer otherwise, hurt by the absence of further aid.
‘Afraid? Wary. Respectful of what I would face. I don’t wish to battle him, Lilith. What good would it bring? What right have I to challenge him?’
‘But what about all the horrible things he’s going to do in the future?’
‘As yet, his disturbances to the realm are minor.’
‘What about me?’
Lilith had been so caught up in her anger she didn’t noticed that he held out a wooden bowl and spoon. Then the smell of the fish and mushrooms caught up with her, and Lilith found herself eating, her eyes closed, overwhelmed by the delicacy he had created, despite a fleeting urge to throw it in the minstrel’s face.
They ate in silence. When the meal was over, Morgan washed the dirty bowls and skillet at the stream. As Lilith sat in desolate spirits, she spied something sparkling near the minstrel’s pack. She saw the value of the shine. Lilith darted from her seat, pocketing the small golden figurine.
When the minstrel returned and began to sort his pack into order, Lilith scuffed at the ground with the toe of her boot, avoiding his eye.
‘I’ll be watching, Lilith,’ Morgan said as he stood up and shouldered his pack. ‘I’ll be waiting, ready to aid you when I can.’
Lilith nodded. She didn’t rise as he prepared to leave. Her unease from having stolen from the minstrel increased her irritation. She stared at the ground, brows lowered.
‘Farewell, Lilith. Heed our counsel,’ Morgan said. ‘Till we meet again.’
Lilith didn’t watch him as the minstrel walked back down to the stream and over the crossing. She fought back tears. Then she gritted her teeth, gathering her anger and nursing her resentment until the tears inside her died, along with the tender vulnerability the minstrel’s words had inspired. He couldn’t help her. Or he was afraid to do so. It didn’t matter either way; she had to save herself.
Night crept in around her; somewhere in the distance a wild dog howled. She’d sleep here tonight, close to the fire. The flames would keep the creatures away. Lilith gathered in more branches, making a barrier against the darkness. Then she lay down, glad for the fire’s warmth as the air grew colder. Lilith cradled her head on her arms and pulled her knees up, her skirts tucked around her.
She thought long and hard on all Morgan had said to her. Then, remembering the golden figurine, she pulled it out of her pocket. It was a small golden moth, rendered lifelike through the wealth of detail. Lilith scraped at the metal, confirming its softness. The colour went all the way through. She put it back in her pocket, pushing aside her lingering disquiet. She needed the coin more than he. She’d try the crossing again tomorrow. The binding spell was flawed—the minstrel had said it himself—she hadn’t completed it, and somewhere there was a loophole, a way to break free.
Lilith lay listening to the noises of the night. She thought about the past, about the time when magic had been welcomed in the Meda Isles and of White Crow of Fearn, for whom Branwen Tower had been built. She who had sealed the key and the flask within the wall.
Then Lilith’s thoughts returned to her own predicament. What if she couldn’t get away? What if she was bound by his spells?
She’d try again in the morning. She’d get across this time.
Lilith settled further, huddled in the curve of the barrier of wood. Her eyes grew heavy, and her mind drifted.
As the sky above her darkened further and true night set in, Lilith slipped into sleep, and into dreams…
…the hempen loop of the hangman’s noose is tight. She hears the raven’s caw… It sits upon the old man’s shoulder, pecking at his weeping cheek, the crimson droplets caught in the sorcerer’s waiting goblet…
Drink, he says, to the liberation of our people…
…the old woman sits beside him, sewing the eyes onto her poppet, the doll squirming in her grasp, its body ripping apart as the sooty-black kitten emerges, his face split in a feline grin. ‘And how do we channel magic, Lilith?’ the kitten snarls…
Heavy and complete.
She floats in the darkness. She drowns in darkness. She is the darkness…
A tiny light relieves the abyss… growing brighter, resolving into shape and form; Esha and a small, dark-haired infant who clutches her hand.
The child holds out her palm, the glowing light held within it…
“Olpirt,” the child says.
And she blows the light towards her…
Lilith opened her eyes, the dream fresh in her mind.
The darkness of night still hung over the forest. No glimpse of dawn to be seen. The rushing stream seemed loud in the deep silence.
Opening her hand, Lilith said the spell. ‘Olpirt.’ Light sparked into existence in the palm of her hand. As she lay in the darkness, smiling at the tiny light, the import of the dream itself was lost under the wave of her satisfied delight. Lilith sank back into sleep with the light clutched tightly in her hand.
On her second day of freedom, Lilith awoke to bird call, an impossibly loud chorus of sound from the canopy above her.
The ground felt rock-hard beneath her, small sticks digging into her skin through the cloth of her skirt. A warm heaviness lay cradled at her breast. A warm heaviness that breathed in a low, laboured wheeze…
Lilith leapt up with a cry, and then came to a halt. ‘Sooty!’
The little black kitten looked up at her indignantly, clearly put out by his rude awakening and Lilith’s rough treatment. He wheezed his complaint loudly.
Lilith dropped to his side and wrapped him in her arms and the cat nestled into her embrace.
‘How did you find me?’
She imagined him searching through the forests, following her footsteps and tracking her, his loyalty and the length of his walk touched her. The kitten’s sudden appearance at the beginning of the next step of her journey seemed a good sign.
Sooty’s eyes glowed brightly as he watched Lilith rise and walk to the stream to drink. Cupping a hand in the flow, Lilith drank her fill, then she stood up and eyed the crossing thoughtfully.
‘Come on, Sooty. I’ll pick you up so you don’t get your paws wet,’ Lilith said as she turned back to the fire.
Lilith couldn’t see the kitten anywhere. She searched around, growing more baffled by the moment. ‘Sooty?’
A low growl resounded from within the shadowy depths of the forest.
The hair on her neck rose up. Lilith froze.
An enormous hound stalked out from the cover of the trees, its eyes gleaming with an unearthly light. With its teeth bared and gleaming wickedly, a growl rumbled in its massive throat.
‘Run,’ the hound snarled.
Lilith dashed towards the crossing.
The hound bounded after her, nipping at her heels, changing her course.
She raced into the forest and the hound followed, the growl still rumbling in its throat. She scrambled up rocks and slipped down slopes, her heart racing madly, too scared to think, too panic-stricken to use her spell, and the dog loped after her, snarling viciously and striking at her skirts.
Lilith stumbled, tripping over a branch and falling to her knees. She screamed, wrapping her arms around her head, ready for the dog to strike.
The hound slowed its gait. It stalked a path around her, growling slowly, its lip trembling as it bared its teeth.
‘Get up,’ the beast snarled again.
Lilith hauled herself up and broke into a half-run, her breath laboured and her chest tight.
The creature harried her.
It hounded her.
It herded her.
Back through the forest depths and into the sorcerer’s fields.
The hound slowed its step as the familiar tower rose up crookedly into the sky. Lilith cast it a bitter glance and cursed it loudly and soundly. She walked back down the garden path and to the kitchen door.
Ibur awaited her, seated at the kitchen table. He poured himself a measure of absinthe from a slim bottle and looked at her over his goblet, sticky green droplets beading the rim.
‘You’ve had quite an adventure, I hear,’ the sorcerer said. ‘Indeed, you even had a little company, along the way.’
Lilith didn’t answer. Dirty, dishevelled, exhausted, sullen and angry at Morgan for not aiding her, furious at herself for allowing herself to be caught, she stared at the flames in the hearth.
The sorcerer’s silence finally drew Lilith’s gaze back up to his face. He smiled, and the smugness of his expression enraged Lilith further.
‘We will put this unfortunate incident behind us. We shall, instead, concentrate ourselves with the task at hand. Come Autumn Equinox, we sail for the Isle of Muin, where we will ride out for the hunt.’
Lilith met his eye. Something of her resentment showed, for Ibur’s expression altered and his voice grew hard.
‘Shall we speak of debts, Lilith? Shall we speak of what you owe me? Shall I remind you where I found you…?’
‘No,’ Lilith muttered.
‘Very well. The third binding is complete. By your blood, spit and by the waters of your loins, you are bound to my cause. I hold your obedience. You cannot go against my plans nor can you harm me. In fact, you can’t do very much at all without my consent.’ Ibur placed his glass on the mantle and drew out his pipe and pouch, then proceeded to pack the bowl carefully with dark shreds of potent tobacco.
‘I can assure you that the idea of individual freedoms is overrated. With a firm hand to guide, with a designated purpose, the common man, or woman, is much more at peace in servitude than at the whims of his own free will. But given time you will find, Lilith, that I have great things in store for you,’ he said. ‘Great things, indeed. You will mingle with Thanes and Ladies. You will feast upon sumptuous dishes, and you will gain the interests of a certain young man…’
Ibur’s pipe sent streams of smoke into the air. He puffed contentedly, drawing his words out, assured of her attention, assured of her place.
‘You will be beloved of Kings and Princes, Lilith,’ the sorcerer said. ‘You shall be the altar at which all my enemies shall fall…’