Six faeries stood silently in the darkened chamber. Heads bowed, they listened to the young girl’s birthing cries. A few moments of quiet and new cries echoed around the damp, rocky walls—the cries of a newborn.
“Fetch the evil one.” The rough-hewn stone slab at the entrance to the chamber slid open, screeching on the stone floor. Two more faeries, shoulder height to a man, but manlike, their faces serious in the flickering firelight, carried a dull, lead casket into the chamber. It was small, yet too large for the squalling newborn within it. A third faerie, her face intense with concentration, held, in a gloved hand, a black dagger above and close to the casket as they laid it on a stone plinth by the charcoal fire. Suspended over the fire was a stone cauldron filled with molten lead.
“We must act quickly,” commanded the leader of the faeries, Grizel, an ancient figure dressed for the ceremony in a shining green robe and cloth cap that appeared too big for her. “The dragon queen captured the Pitiless One in her womb; he must not escape. No mortal woman made a greater sacrifice.”
“Hold the dagger close,” warned another, similarly dressed. “It must almost touch, or he will escape.”
They slid aside the top of the casket. As Grizel chanted, the newborn calmed, became still, slept. The dagger wavered, and fear rippled through the chamber.
“Steady there the dagger!” Grizel snapped, her features sharp. “Our survival—the survival of all—depends upon it.”
Led by Grizel, the faeries began a low, slow chant. More faeries entered, their hands held before their faces to shield them from the heat. They fixed a wooden trough, tipped the cauldron, and a runnel of lead flowed into the casket. The metal surrounded and covered its contents in silver liquid beyond the depth of a clenched fist. Pungent smoke poured from the lead box, and debris collected on the surface of the lead as the heat consumed the form within.
“Hold it closer!” Grizel warned the faerie with the dagger. “We must trap the spirit. Only the enchantments on the dagger prevent its escape.”
They skimmed the ash from the surface so the lead would harden cleanly.
“The body burns and the lead cools and the spirit within is trapped in the texture of the lead for all time,” intoned Grizel.
They waited, motionless, silent, as the dagger, held now by two faeries, hovered above the casket. Time passed; the lead cooled, became solid.
Relieved, the faeries regarded their work with half smiles and mutters of satisfaction. Grizel placed a bracelet on the sarcophagus. The bracelet, black jet, glittered darkly in the orange light from the fire, the trembling shadows lending movement to the segments.
“The spirit can never be free. This bracelet will ensure that.”
She stepped back from what was now a solid lead sarcophagus. “Now the consort,” she said. “Beitiris is but a wood-faerie, the enchantments will hold her.”
Six faeries, stumbling a little and breathing heavily from the weight, brought in a second lead casket, larger than the first, and lowered it to its plinth. A gasp rose from the faeries as they slid the casket open to uncover the young faerie lying inside. She wore black with face and hands of the finest oak. Yet she was dazzling, ethereal, with a face that stirred even these old, long-dead faeries. Though the enchantments gripped her tightly, her bright green eyes raged at them, promised retribution. Briskly, wanting an end, the faeries moved the trough into place and tipped the cauldron. As the lead touched the trapped wood-faerie, she shrieked, the sound shattering on the rocky walls, unable to escape.
She flinched. The enchantments broke, and Beitiris wriggled free of the confines of the lead box. She crouched on the floor; her green eyes darted between the faeries and the lead sarcophagus and widened in anger as she understood what they had done to her master and wished to do to her. Her lips closed tight, her jaw firmed; she grabbed the bracelet from atop the sarcophagus and ran from the chamber, throwing off wards and spells to slow the pursuing faeries.
In her wake, Grizel, with outstretched arm, launched a quiet, hard-to-notice, spell of containment.
Grim-faced at Beitiris’s escape, but satisfied that the master, the Pitiless One, was secure, the faeries set enchantments, and charged one of their own, Farquhar, to keep the chamber undisturbed for all time. They had done all they could and left the sarcophagus to gather dust in the silent darkness.
The bracelet still grasped in her hand, the wood-faerie ran hard, not pausing until she reached a small loch, its surface the bright blue of the cloudless sky.
Grizel’s spell caught her, changed her, and the wood faerie took root, hardened, stretched, grew branches. Where Beitiris had rested, now stood an oak, the bracelet tangled in its roots. In time, other wood faeries joined her, followed by still more, and the loch turned dark with the forest around it.
Western Scotland, 55 CE.
Lilidh sighed. He hadn’t done anything to hurt her, but the gleam in that single black eye told her he planned to. He had fed her—once—meat pie. She might have enjoyed it but for the chain. The chain around her neck. Light but effective, the chain told her she could not leave this small round hut with the stone walls and sod-tiled roof, where she sat on the floor, her hands tied, loosely but again effectively, behind her.
She was too reckless; people told her that. But what danger could there be in a stroll along the moonlit seashore? What danger could hide within the rocks waiting for a vulnerable young girl to pass? A wolf? A god? A faerie? Surely not. What about a man? Not any man, but Moncreiffe, the Grand Master of the Vates. What about him?
The piece of pie placed on a stone—apple, her favourite—should have warned her. Moncreiffe liked pie a great deal; people said Moncreiffe and his pie were inseparable. Inseparable, that is, until something better came along. She, the sixteen years born, unmarried girl, with her long black hair, smooth skin, full lips, and slim body was something better. She should have run when she saw the pie, but curious rather than hungry, and wanting to make new friends in the village she and her mother had settled in only two weeks before, she had taken the bait, giggled, stepped between the rocks, and felt Moncreiffe’s soft, warm, undisputable grip on her wrist.
Lilidh sighed again—this time for her father. Fine warrior though he was, he had fallen in battle to a finer warrior from the south. When the news came, Lilidh, now a young girl without protection in a land where young girls needed protection almost as keenly as they needed air to breathe, became the object of too many men’s desire. The chief, a rough bully of a man, held in check only by the threat of her father’s revenge, wanted her, not for a wife, he already had one of those, but as a slave-lover. Forced to run by his desire, her mother and she had come to this village, only to have Moncreiffe jump in and pay her court. None of the other men—some she might have considered—dared approach while Moncreiffe showed his interest. The women turned their heads away, as if they wanted to warn her but dare not. When Moncreiffe asked for her hand she refused him; how could she marry a man who so often licked his fleshy lips when he looked at her? She knew him a little now, and there was something behind that scarred face that disturbed her deeply. She sensed an evil insecurity there; a man who would do much harm in pursuit of his own satisfaction.
Now the women could stay silent no longer. They warned her about another girl who had refused Moncreiffe; a girl who afterwards had disappeared completely.
A third sigh. For her mother, who must be beyond devastated. It was morning now—Lilidh had been away half the day. Mother and daughter, everything to each other, had clung together like two abandoned chicks, but Lilidh feared their future was grim. Her mother had learned of the death of her husband less than a moon ago. If she lost her daughter too, she would see little reason to live.
What did he think to do with her, this Moncreiffe? Did he think she was weak, and wouldn’t fight? She must show him she was not so fragile, but how? She remembered how her father had told her his three laws of adversity: never ever surrender; grab any chance; stay cheerful. The last law was the most important; if you lost your good spirits, you were as good as beaten. She wondered how his three laws had served him in his fight with the southerner. Had he died with a grin on his face?
Her jaw firmed around the cloth that made soft squeaks of her shouts; she would display no fear. She would stare into this man’s eyes, show she despised him, thought him less than the slugs. She would not complain, beg, or cry out, no matter the provocation. Whatever reaction he sought—fear, cries of pain, even sighs—she would deny him.
What if he wanted rape? That would be the worst. The idea coursed through her veins like molten lead. Though she was a virgin she knew men raped to feel the power. Lilidh did not know what she could do if he wanted rape except offer no resistance, make no sound, show only that she despised him all the more. Perhaps that would lessen his satisfaction.
She would battle this man, who had dragged her from a moonlit stroll and chained her in his hut, with silence and contempt. What else could she do?
Overwhelmed by her difficult position, one she was unlikely to outlive, Lilidh cried a tear. Her tears drying, she swore that, if she survived, she would search for a husband. Sixteen years born, beyond the usual marrying age, she would look, not for love, but for strength, for toughness, for protection from men like Moncreiffe.
Lailoken, startled, dropped the caterpillar that had been a slug—he hadn’t finished, it still had moist black skin—and looked up. He shook the fuzz from his brain, his straw hair whirling around his head like a flower’s petals. He always felt this fuzziness when he dragged himself back from glamourie. Once again he was one of several novices, squatting on the heather of the druid’s grove, attentive to their sharp voiced mentor, Cullen, a normally mild druid who thought he had caught the young novice napping.
Lailoken hadn’t been napping. Using his nascent powers in glamourie—change of appearance—he had formed his body in an attitude of rapt attention, while he concentrated on his slugs. His attention had wavered, his glamourie too, and to Cullen the previously rapt novice had appeared to fall asleep.
It wasn’t the slugs that caused him to lose his pose, but intruding thoughts of Lilidh. Black-haired, slim-bodied daughter of a woman new to the village, she had laughed at Lailoken’s advances.
“A dusty old druid’s wife is no future for me,” she had told him, dark eyes dancing, red lips curled in sharp amusement. “What Lilidh needs is a man with hot blood in his veins; a lover; a fighter.” She would dance away on the arm of some young warrior—perhaps even his own brother, Cynbel, though he knew Cynbel placed no value on the prize that, in Lailoken’s imagination, was so freely given to him and so carelessly refused to Lailoken.
She left the young druid, who ached for her so profoundly, only anguish and self-loathing. One day, he would show her his worth. His worth. What was his worth exactly?
Though Cullen had torn him from his dreams of Lilidh, his mentor was not satisfied. “Novice Lailoken, you have breached the very depths of laziness. I set the task of learning the twenty-five guidances of adjudication, and yet today you can tell me none of them. Now, we study property rights yet, knowing nothing, you feel no need to attend to our discussion of beating the bounds.” His annoyed voice became overly reasonable. “Please,” he spread his arms to include the other novices listening on this fine, cool morning. “Tell us what you know of this subject.”
Lailoken relaxed. He was a chief’s grandson, and not only did he know about beating the bounds, he had suffered through it; his backside still felt the tingle of every boundary of his grandfather’s property, where his father, Nechtan, had impressed them.
“When a man wishes to teach his son the limits of his land,” he said loudly, “they ride the boundary, and at each corner, the man beats his son painfully with a switch. The son will not soon forget the place.”
Cullen smiled ironically at his errant student. “A lucky question for you, novice,” and continued the lesson. Lailoken saw clearly that Cullen, a druid without discernible personality and possibly the most boring tutor Lailoken had ever known, was clever and dedicated—a man who had renounced all hope of riches, family, even personal pleasure to give his life to druidry. Lailoken wanted all that Cullen had forgone, and to be a wizard too, and in his most secret thoughts, he knew, despite the poor opinions of his druid masters, he would become the most capable of wizards. However, today’s lesson was property rights; yesterday’s had been adjudication, and tomorrow’s was certain to be something even more stultifying. He wanted nothing of them.
Lailoken was a natural wizard, and it was his passion. Glamourie, form-changing, weather control, he planned to master them all. Let other druids worry about property rights, adjudicating disagreements, remembering history, and advising the chief—all they had forced on him in the first ten years of his novitiate—he wasn’t interested. With his witchy mother and a father who would be chief, he would be a most powerful druid, though at fifteen years born, the grove still trapped him in the drudgery of narrow expectations.
He could already perform easy glamourie, could change how others perceived him and fool most people, even a druid as clever as Cullen, but only because Cullen would not have imagined Lailoken was so advanced in the art.
Now he practiced the change of form—slugs to caterpillars. Form-changing was not glamourie; the slug didn’t just look like a caterpillar, it was a caterpillar, and like any other caterpillar, it would turn into a butterfly; when Lailoken had perfected his skills, that is. It was a power that depended on the control of history—a tweak to the historical factors that caused the slug, rather than a caterpillar, to be here beneath this tree. It was something only the most expert druids claimed to have mastered, and in which Lailoken was still only a beginner. His mistakes—unfortunate furry slugs and shiny black caterpillars with antlers—still crawled through the grove. The third druid skill—weather control—fascinated Lailoken but up to now he had learned little about it.
The Arch-Druid Chyndonax was expert in all wizardry, and could bring rain or fog, even lightning strikes, at will. Form changing was Cullen’s strength, but apart from these two, the druids around Lailoken had few skills to teach him. Lailoken seethed to learn more and had set out to acquire for himself the powers he craved. The druids cared nothing for the grandsons of chiefs, and if they had their druthers, would have him spend ten more years as a novice before they allowed him inklings of wizardry. Ten more years of dry property rights. How would he survive?
He must distinguish himself in some dramatic, important way. They would not refuse him wizardry then, and perhaps the passionate Lilidh would cease to laugh, and regard him with that soft, half-wondering, half-bemused expression a woman reveals to a man she wants. When they came, which was often, the thoughts of a pliant Lilidh affected him so deeply that he could only hold his head in his hands and wait for them to pass. He was determined to become the greatest practitioner of the ancient arts the country had seen—greater even than Chyndonax. Chyndonax was old now, but Lailoken was sure no blushing girl had refused the bed of the young Arch-Druid.
His older brother, Cynbel the Hushed, was a gifted warrior who stood far more chance of distinguishing himself so long as his craving for an honourable death remained unsatisfied. Marcail, his twin sister, had died some years before in a boating accident for which Cynbel mercilessly excoriated himself.
Hardly aware of Cullen’s drone, Lailoken mused about his younger sister, Aileen, who was preparing for her flowering feast in a few days’ time. He loved her dearly, but sadness tinged his thoughts of her. His curse of second sight allowed him glimpses of the future, and though he knew only a speck of what was to happen, Aileen was not there. Instead some great tragedy loomed over the village—he could not guess what it might be. He would talk to his grandfather, the old, sick chief who had admitted once that he shared this curse, to find out more of this impending calamity. Lailoken knew his grandfather would die soon and feared his father, Nechtan, becoming chief. His father was a hot-blooded, impetuous man, likely to lead the warriors of the village on some ambitious scheme to ‘subdue’ the friendly peoples around them and bring them into his tribe. Perhaps that was the catastrophe that threatened the village.
While Lilidh fretted and Lailoken dreamed, Aileen, thirteen years born, sat quietly in her room and sewed her tunic for her flowering day. She used a special linen, thin, delicate, and bleached sparkling white. When completed, the tunic would cover her from her neck to just below her knees and from her shoulders to her wrists. Aileen would look as fresh as a drop of dew on a newly unfurled daisy. She pulled the golden needle through the seam, and with it, the linen thread, captured by a hole in the needle’s head. By her side was the bronze, sharp‑pointed bodkin she used to make holes in the linen—separating the threads rather than cutting them—for the blunt needle to pass through.
She loved the tunic, but when she thought of wearing it at her flowering feast, her stomach cramped in fear. The feast meant she was a woman now, and that meant marriage. Her father was an ambitious man soon to become chief on the death of his own father. He would want to forge kinships in the surrounding villages and would marry Aileen off to some chief’s son or, if she looked delectable enough in the brightly white tunic, to the chief himself. Aileen shuddered at the thought of an old man’s hands touching her in that way and hoped that her grandfather lived a long time yet. It wasn’t likely. He had a sickness—what it was, nobody knew—and despite Aileen’s fears for herself, her fears for her grandfather were greater; he would die soon and the newly flowered Aileen—most appealing with her witchy powers—would be married, and married, would have a child, and if the child was a girl, Aileen would die too.
She had never known her own mother, who had died birthing he, but Aileen wondered about her every day. She had been a witch, as had her own mother and grandmother too. Mothers back seven generations had died giving birth to daughters, and each woman had been a witch. Aileen, so people said, had gained all these women’s power, and would become the strongest witch ever known. Aileen didn’t feel like a strong witch, or even a weak one. She couldn’t do anything, not even scratch her nose without using the nail on the end of her finger. Things had happened when she was angry, but she didn’t know how, and certainly did not control them. However, her mother had twins when she birthed Cynbel and Marcail and had survived that, though Marcail was a girl. Perhaps if Aileen had twins, she would survive too. Marcail had died; drowned when Cynbel took her sailing in harsh weather; Cynbel had never forgiven himself.
Aileen had one friend—her brother Lailoken. She had tried, many times, to make friends with girls her own age, but her reputation frightened them. Even grown men and women treated her differently, coolly, careful not to upset or anger her. She would have loved to run into the sea by the village, romp in the waves, giggle and splash someone who giggled and splashed in return, but Lailoken was two years older, and a druid. It wasn’t wise to splash druids, and they almost never giggled. She wished she could escape: escape the prospect of marriage and almost certain death; escape the looks of the people around her; escape and find a friend—a girl friend of her own age to talk about tunics and face-clay and to run with, giggling, into the rolling breakers.
With a start Lailoken realised that Cullen’s sleep-encouraging drone had quietened; he raised his eyes to find his instructor stood now, speaking so quietly to his father’s slave that their heads almost touched. They turned and looked across the heather to where he sat, their slanted heads still close as if their hair had tangled.
“Novice Lailoken,” Cullen called in tones now alert, sympathetic. “The chief, your grandfather, is dead.”