1st June 2016, Deadlock Publishing, 280 pages, Ebook
The knowledge of magic that returned with crusaders from the Holy Land has spread among the learned few. The world stands poised on a knife’s edge between two futures—science or sorcery—and a cabal of ruthless wizards pursues three young people who can tip the balance forever.
A war for magic in the Middle Ages.
Orphaned in the year 1380, Eamon and Caitlin flee their home in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. The siblings can pacify savage wolves and control forces of nature, but only the murderers hunting them know why.
As Eamon and Caitlin fight for survival, Teresa de Borjas, the spirited daughter of a Genovese nobleman, develops an inexplicable ability to move objects with her mind. When her brother is murdered and her father imprisoned through machinations of the reclusive alchemist, Maestro Lodovicetti, her sheltered life changes forever.
Journeys of discovery and the pursuit of blood vendetta bring Eamon, Caitlin and Teresa together across the stunning backdrop of medieval Europe. The three must master their powers and defeat a cabal of the world’s greatest magi or be killed as the Age of Kings comes to an end and a tyranny of sorcerers begins.
This isn't a usual review as despite sounding really good it's a bit too dark of the read for me, so I'm giving you all the info minus my opinions. And David has kindly written a guest blog post for you!
DAVID WAID is the author of the historical fantasy novel, The Conjurers, which releases through Amazon on June 1st. He has also published the fantasy short stories, Wicked and Loving Lies and The Festival of Rogues. David lives in Arizona with his wife of 22 years, three kids, and a craven, food-obsessed puggle whose name means “Battle Lord” in Gaelic.
Ode to Historical Fantasy Fiction by David Waid
I hunger for that next great magical story that will sweep me away. I’m a voracious consumer of fantasy books and movies, and because I love it, I write it.
I particularly enjoy writing historical fantasy fiction because of the way it makes readers complicit in the grand illusion. The pre-existing knowledge people bring to a historical novel populates the tale with sensory details far beyond mortal descriptive powers.
For instance, think about Medieval Ireland or 19th Century New Orleans and all sorts of things will come to mind without me writing another word. Those details provide a rich, believable underpinning for a tale of magic, and it is always the grain of truth that makes the perfect pearl.
19th Century New Orleans Picture source
The Inspiration File for Historical Fantasy Fiction
History is an endlessly amazing world to inhabit. As part of the research for my novel The Conjurers, I went online and read through actual translated books of magical spells. Hundreds of years ago, volumes like The Key of Solomon or The Sworn Book of Honorius would have been shared in utmost secrecy, and the penalty if caught would unquestionably have been death by fire.
During the long sweep of the Middle Ages there were kings and plagues, jousting, alchemists, practicing wizards and great sprawling castles under siege. People believed in demonic possession, and a young peasant girl visited by the Archangel Michael became an armor-clad knight who led hosts into battle and united France. At the age of nineteen, the girl—Joan of Arc—was tried by allies of the English and burned alive, yet she remains one of the most well known medieval figures.
Legal proceedings at the time were grim, and not just for humans. There are records of full-blown trials—defense attorneys and all—in which the accused were bulls, pigs, caterpillars, cows, goats, leeches, horses, dogs, mosquitos, sheep, eels, and even dolphins. A rooster was accused and convicted of sorcery, consorting with Satan, and “the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.” Like Joan of Arc, the rooster was burned at the stake.
In Paris, a community arose that was, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said of Mos Eisley, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” This refuge for thieves and murderers was known as Le Cour des Miracles, (The Court of Miracles), because beggars who were supposedly blind or lame became whole again once they returned to their dens and dropped the sham.
|Le Cour des Miracles as envisioned by Gustave Doré Picture source|
The past is liberally sprinkled with great loves, raging hatreds, oracles and poisonings and—in history—the line between truth and fantasy is wonderfully frayed. When I want to be transported and awed, it’s where I go.
2 random chapters of The Conjurers
Note from Nayu: I left out the chapter image because a) Blogger was being fussy & b) It scared me too much post. I have issues with black wolves/dogs/cats (whichever it is). I did read part of the chapters and I'm not quite ready for the whole book yet. Maybe one day!
The horse’s hooves pounded along the valley road from Bray to the Wicklow Mountains. Black Nuada was Sairshee’s favorite from the stables of Leinster’s king, for despite belonging to The MacMurrough, this massive, ill-tempered beast answered only to her. It had taken some abuse in the past, that much was clear, and now was quick to fury. She could have loved the horse for that alone.
She normally treated the animal better than any human servant, but her only care now was reaching the boy, Eamon. Kicking Nuada’s flanks, she pressed on through Ghleann na Gaoithe, the Valley of Winds. As the land rose, the smell of the Irish Sea gave way to the scent of conifer from intermittent stands of trees.
With the remnants of his band, Cahill na Coppal should have captured the unarmed boy with ease, yet everything the man touched fell to ruin. Sairshee could take no chances. Soon, she knew, the boy’s gift would awaken.
The sun had risen, its reflected light dazzling on the snow-covered fields. The valley narrowed several miles ahead where the crude road she followed rose up into the dismal range. Somewhere in that mountain fastness the boy had spent his entire life. He’d been so close. Once the child came into the valley, there were a dozen trails he could take to the wide world, and he must find none of them. Remembering the ill-omened flight of starlings she’d seen, Sairshee urged Nuada to even greater speed.
The stallion galloped up a rise in the land. As horse and rider crested the top they confronted a broad view of the valley and a gaggle of peasants, fifteen or twenty, spread out across the road. Sairshee drew rein. The peasants were armed with pitchforks, staves and mattocks — a formless mob, looking for all the world like a band of conscripted halfwits. It was such an unexpected sight, her concentration broke. She laughed aloud and the cold ring of it carried through the air.
Beyond these men a little ramshackle dwelling stood with wattle skirts, crouched on the side of the road like an old woman making water. Another furlong beyond, the chimneys of a small, slovenly thorp belched at the sky. Sairshee laughed again, wiping her eyes. The man at the front of the rabble gave her an impudent, angry glare and the smile froze on Sairshee’s lips. Her face grew hot. She imagined it turning visibly red beneath the man’s brazen eye and anger grabbed her.
Insolence. After plague and decades of war there were fewer men to manage the fields. The hands who’d once fought each other for work suddenly held crumbs of power and the lords vied feverishly for the labor of their own villeins. Having once taken from the master’s board — as they no doubt saw it — the chattel grew fat on their own gall.
Like this one.
Yet blood would tell. Even the most puffed-up jupon deflated when only air filled it out. Servility was bred to the bone in these people. The reason Sairshee could safely ride through Leinster unattended was not because she was a sorceress — she was no geistmage to summon power without ritual — it was because of her reputation as a sorceress. And her reputation as the king’s cruel and willful paramour. And, in this valley, so far from the king’s seat, the rumor of her liaison with a ruthless bandit.
Sairshee met the man’s gaze and held it. Whether or not he recognized her, this serf could not have missed the ermine cloak that hung from her shoulders, nor the silver trappings on Nuada’s broad, glossy chest. His gaze wavered and fell to the ground. She sat back in her saddle and a smile of triumph touched the corners of her mouth.
“What are you doing away from your hearths and your labor?” Her voice rang out hard, filled with disdain. Off in the distant thorp, she absently noted that a handful of people had gathered, pointing in her direction. One of them broke away and ran for the largest of the hovels.
Before her, the man doffed his cap and several others followed. “Begging pardon, milady. We are searching for brigands. It’s said that Cahill na Coppal’s gang was broken on the mountain behind me.”
“Fah!” spoke a loud voice. “Show some cursed bone, Liam.”
The man who spoke shouldered his way forward. He had dark red hair and held a tall, straight staff. “This is no lady for manners we have before us. ‘T is none other than Sairshee the Slattern, don’t ye know.” He looked up at Sairshee and grinned. “Yer fame precedes ye, lady. From what we’ve heard tell, ye spread yer legs for the brigands that prey on us as though ye were the Devil’s own rutting goat.” He laughed and turned to the others. “An’ I can well see what’s in it for them.”
Some of the men laughed, although others shuffled nervously. No, Sairshee was no geistmage, or she would have struck this man dead on the spot for all his smirking surety, he and the chortling, pox-ridden beeves that surrounded him. Yet she knew if she showed anger, revealed weakness for an instant, she would lose the shield their uncertainty provided. Her face remained impassive. She needed only to be past them.
“I do not know these bandits,” she said evenly. “But I am told their chief is feared even when he stands alone. I have also heard his reach is long for those whose words are over-bold. What is your name, peasant?”
“My name is me own and yer man Cahill is dead, may he burn in Hell.”
Sairshee gasped before she could even think to stop it.
The man with the staff smiled. “Oh, aye, haven’t ye heard? They’ve hung his body from a gallows tree a mile back for all to see. The goshoons beat about his ankles with their little sticks while he swings and turns on the wind.”
The moment seemed to freeze. Sairshee could feel the finger of some fate at work against her. Wind whipped long black hairs across her face. In the air above the valley, a hawk floated. Beyond the assembled peasants, another knot of crudely armed villeins jogged this way from the thorp in the wagon-rutted snow.
She could not afford to turn back.
“Stand aside and let me pass. I am on the king’s business.”
“Yer on no business but the Devil’s, I’ll warrant. Naught but hardship has ever come to us from ye.”
An ugly stir went through the crowd and more than one man nodded. Nuada seemed to sense the mood. He stamped and shifted, tossing his head. Pivoting in the saddle, Sairshee addressed the knot of men, her voice carrying clearly. “This man’s life and lands are forfeit,” she said. “His family dispossessed. The king’s reeve will see to it. Those who stand aside now will face no punishment. Those who do not will suffer.” She looked from eye to eye of the men nearest, holding each briefly. “Choose.”
Invocation of the king and his wrath held a magic of its own. With the words yet hanging on the air she could already feel their ardor cool, the sudden bloat of uncertainty in the ranks. The man who opposed her glanced right and left. He looked up and Sairshee caught his round-eyed gaze. She smiled. His would be a bloody example the people of this valley would talk about for generations. Cahill’s end would seem gentle by comparison. She leaned toward him, the lopsided smile still on her face.
“What is that you say, peasant?”
The churl said nothing and she straightened.
“I thought as much.”
Sairshee nudged Black Nuada and, with a jingle of harness, the beast pushed forward into the crowd and the others quietly stood back. The red haired man did not. His face looked ashen, but he stood still and as Sairshee moved past, he reached for the leather straps of Nuada’s bridle.
Before Sairshee could react, the horse spun on him, its brutish weight advancing. She pulled the reins, but Nuada was strong. He shook his head and bit at the peasant. Shouting, the man retreated and one of the others lifted a wood-tined pitchfork into the horse’s face to turn him aside. At the sight of it, Nuada went into a rage. He reared up, forelegs punching the air and Sairshee almost toppled back over the cantle. She hunched, gripping the pommel with both hands and with her legs she gripped the beast’s ribs, feeling his power as iron-shod hooves flailed.
The horse’s anger became indiscriminate. All his weight came down on a villager who disappeared beneath the hooves without a sound and, once again, Sairshee was almost thrown. Over Nuada’s shoulder she saw frightened faces and a flash of the animal’s own black, rolling eye as he tossed his head.
At the first onslaught, the peasants wavered. The man with the staff cried out, “Nils! She’s killed Nils!” On either side, they swarmed at her with farm tools and angry shouts. Others came at her with grabbing hands. Seeing those grime-nailed fingers and tense, slitted eyes, she went into a frenzy to match the stallion’s. She kicked at one man’s face but the hands of two others gripped her calf and pulled. From the other side, someone took hold of her cape so that bunches of fur choked her neck, yanking her back.
The horse heaved beneath her, biting and kicking. With one hand, Sairshee clung to the pommel, with the other she fumbled desperately for a pouch in her belt. The clasp on her cloak snapped and the fur wrenched from her shoulders. She flew forward in the saddle, almost pitching into the arms of the men at her leg.
“No!” she screamed.
Sairshee’s hand flew out in an arc that left a cloud of yellow powder in the air. Sputtering, the men holding her leg let go, reeling into the crowd. One fell from sight in the press. The other whirled, crashing against his brethren, clutching at his face and throat. Whatever the peasants saw when he spun caused them to scream and scramble away.
She sat upright and panting in the saddle. Taking up the reins, she pulled savagely at Nuada. There were too many peasants and those from the thorp would soon be here. The stallion fought her, but relented and danced back twenty feet to the top of the rise. Reining him in, she glared at the mob.
Two lay still, one a bloody, unrecognizable pile of rags, the other contorted and purple-faced with his tongue sticking out, and a dusting of yellow on his cheeks. Yet another man knelt in the snow, vomiting red bile.
The rest were staring between the fallen and Sairshee with pale faces and open mouths, the man with the staff among them. In their looks she saw fear and . . . revulsion; these grubbing peasants were sickened by the sight of her! Nuada turned in place, straining against the reins, trying to return to the fray and the glut of his anger. The mob from the thorp were now sprinting through the snow.
The fields on either side were deep with drifts, there was no other way through. The boy would escape. Fate’s hand, felt again. And always against her. With a frustrated scream and a curse, Sairshee pulled on the reins with all her strength, wrenching Nuada’s head around. She kicked her heels savagely at the horse and they galloped back the way they’d come along the frozen road.
The road Nairne had chosen took them past the steading of Selig Mór, the man whose house Eamon had run to for help. Nairne stopped to express her thanks to the farmer’s sharp-featured wife. The Mór’s woman stood by the door with her tow-headed children beside her, their running noses pressed to her skirts and big eyes peeking round at the strangers. The man himself was gone with his older sons. He’d sent out a call, raised the alarum, leading a levy of angry peasants off to scour the area for brigand survivors.
The three of them had started from her house late, so the sun hung high above when they resumed the journey. Long lines of cloud crossed the sky like wave after wave of white, furling breakers. Eamon rode in front, with a rope to pull the horse on which Nairne and Caitlin sat. The track descended through a valley that lay between two arms of the mountain. Thin paths branched off the road, leading to farmsteads where feathers of blue smoke trailed away among old stands of alder and oak.
Nairne drew food from a scrip she carried at her waist and they ate a frugal meal of bread and drank from a skin of small beer on horseback. Caitlin took little, chewing in listless silence, sitting in front of Nairne on the horse. As they traveled, Caitlin began to sag and her face grew flushed. At first Eamon thought it was the sun, but the day dragged on and he saw Nairne feel his sister’s forehead and listened to the old woman cluck her tongue.
After a time, they passed from the valley into coastland, crossing a log bridge that spanned a twisting, tree-lined stream. Sunlight filtered through the branches that swayed high overhead. Below, water from the mountain’s snowmelt tumbled past the bridge pilings, cold and clear and burbling over smooth, flat stones. The world’s beauty was a lie, Eamon knew, masking danger and death. He started to spend more and more time looking over his shoulder at his sister instead of the road ahead. Each time he looked back to see if she had grown worse, and each time she had.
Nairne called out, “Yer sister fares poor. The sickness I said would come has arrived. Arra! Sooner and stronger even than I thought. We’ll not make it to the help I’d hoped for.” The old woman’s blind, white eyes rolled. “Keep yer eyes sharp for refuge. It’s not just the weather we need protection from.”
Eamon couldn’t help but look back. Every time Caitlin shut her eyes, it looked as if she died, and a piece of his soul seemed to go with her. Little by little, he was losing himself, he thought. Mother dead. Father Rhys and Baodan no more. Duff laying in a stranger’s house far behind. He’d been told his stepfather would live, but didn’t believe it. When he’d seen him last, the man had been pale and unmoving, lying in the wagon bed between corpses.
Where the path from the mountain met the Dublin Road stood an inn. Two stories high with gabled windows in the roof and walled with a knotty palisade through which Eamon could see a stable and a well. Above the gate on a long pole was tied a twining wreath of holly, signifying rooms to let.
Relief flooded him. “We’ve made it,” he said. Another boy, only slightly younger than Caitlin pulled back the gate to reveal a cobbled courtyard, swept clean of snow. Swinging back to his sister and Nairne, Eamon said, “We’ve made it…” Then he saw his sister. Her eyes were slits, her chin soiled with vomit. The old woman whispered fiercely in her ear. The surge of joy drained from Eamon’s head like water from a broken cup.
Their horses took them in past the gate, but Eamon’s heart had already become small, hard and pitted like a rotten chestnut. They dismounted before the inn and the stable boy led the horses away. The bags were still on the animals, but Eamon gave no thought to the fortune in treasure they concealed.
He helped Caitlin and Nairne down and they ascended a short path to the inn’s front door. Entering the common room, his impressions were scattered, a lit fireplace, rough oak beams across the ceiling, several tables and a collection of unmatched chairs.
The hosteller’s wife came bustling up, took one worried look at Caitlin and gave a sharp cry.
Crossing herself, the woman backed away. Caitlin leaned against Eamon’s side, eyes partially closed. Two traveling merchants seated at a table rose to their feet, chairs scraping behind them. One lifted a kerchief to cover his mouth and nose.
“Mother of God,” the woman said. “Begone with ye and the pestilence.”
“Nay, lady,” said Nairne. “The girl has fever is all.”
“Ye cannot stay here.”
“We have no place else to go.”
The alewife looked at Caitin. Eamon thought her eyes held pity, but her mouth set in a line. She met his gaze for an instant, but ducked her head and looked away. With a quivering voice, she said, “I’ve lost two to the Death. Ye cannot stay.”
Taking hold of Caitlin with blind, searching hands, Nairne stripped her of coat and tunic, dropping them on the floor.
“What are ye doing?” the woman demanded, but she made no move as the two merchants shrank farther away. Nairne did not reply. She pulled on Caitlin’s arms, working them from the short sleeves of her gown and chemise. The girl looked like she might fall over as she was jerked this way and that by Nairne’s rough tugs. Her eyes were barely open. At last, she stood in the middle of the room, half naked and shivering, her shoulders hunched, thin arms hugging herself. Dirt rings on her neck made the rest of her seem whiter than snow and her blonde hair hung in disarray.
The innkeeper’s wife held one trembling hand over her own mouth while the other bunched a handful of apron at her waist. Her eyes watered, but still she said nothing.
Nairne yanked one of Caitlin’s arms high into the air and held it there, turning her so all could see there were none of the black, stinking buboes that came with the plague. Nairne’s jaw jutted forth as she repeated this with the other arm and Caitlin swayed like a drunk. “Just a fever,” Nairne said and dropped her hand.
Face crumpling, the hosteller’s wife relented. “Oh, child,” she said. She picked the coat up from the floor, pulling it around Caitlin’s shoulders. “Shame, shame. May God forgive me.”
She half walked, half carried the girl down a short, unlit corridor. “We have but one room unoccupied, though ye may have it and welcome.” Stopping, she opened the door to a drab, windowless chamber. A single bed pressed against the far wall by two stools and a painted chest.
Seating Caitlin on the bed, the mistress opened the chest to show it contained blankets. The stable boy came in with the bags and Eamon led Nairne in by the hand as the alewife backed into the hallway. Her gaze travelled to Nairne and then Eamon. When their eyes met, her mouth opened and shut again. Finally, face flushed, she said, “The Virgin’s blessing upon ye all,” and walked out, closing the door.
At Nairne’s direction, Eamon piled blankets on his sister. The old woman had done what she could on the road, yet it was clear Caitlin grew sicker. Muttering to herself, Nairne rummaged the contents of their bags. She sent Eamon to the alewife with three smooth-rubbed shillings for lodgings and food. When he returned, it was with bread, pottage, a wizened old apple from the last of the winter stores and a bowl of goat’s milk that Nairne fed his sister like chicken broth.
After eating, the old woman searched the door with her hands until she’d found the latch and fastened it. She leaned her head against the door. “This must stay sealed from now ‘til cock’s crow in the mornin’. Yer sister’s life depends upon it, do ye understand? It must be shut, no matter the ordeal.” She rubbed an unguent on Caitlin’s chest, then drew from the bags a sprig of dried lavender and a piece of rough chalkstone. Feeling her way around the door and the floor before it, Nairne inscribed white, angular marks. She brandished the sprig and intoned words that sounded like gibberish.
Watching the old woman go about her sorcery, the hairs on Eamon’s neck stood up and for a moment he forgot about his sister.
“Is this some Devil’s work?” he said.
Spinning from the door, Nairne said, “Foolish boy and foolish words!” She clucked her tongue.
“‘Divil’s work,’ he says. As well condemn yerself. Ye’d do best to hope this work saves yer sister from the divils ye so lightly invoke. When one who’s touched by the power dies, the passing attracts spirits, like vermin to a carcass.”
Turning back to the door she took a breath that lifted her shoulders, then dropped them. She made a few quick strokes with the chalk and her hand fell to her side. “Forgive me, boy, to speak so blithe of yer sister. ’T was poorly said, though true. Caitlin’s dyin’ will call them hither like beggars to a feast.”
He collapsed onto a stool. “Caitlin is dying?”
“She’s close even now, so they’ll come in the night.”
Eamon grew still and Nairne seemed to sense his change.
“If she can be spared by any craft of mine, it will be so. Unless,” she ticked off several more chalk marks, “ye wish to put all faith in yer god and let his angels bear her to heaven or health, as they will.”
There then, was the choice put into words: piety and loss or the Devil’s plunge for a chance to save Caitlin’s life.
“That’s best, I think.” Nairne frowned. “Do as I tell ye and keep the door shut. Open it fer no one and no thing, do ye understand? Mornin’ will tell all. If yer sister draws breath come sunrise, she’ll live.”
Nairne returned to the side of the bed, hissing that Eamon was in her way, yet she didn’t tell him to move. She tucked the blankets around Caitlin, who slept, and busied herself with small things. In the moments where he could, Eamon held his sister’s hand and whispered, “Don’t go,” in her ear.
Though the air was cold, Caitlin’s face grew hot. Strands of hair lay plastered with sweat to the skin of her forehead. Her lips moved and he leaned close to listen, but Caitlin’s eyes opened and she glanced past him to the door. When her hand touched Eamon’s forearm, he felt the heat of it through his sleeve. With a feeble pull, she drew him closer until he felt her breath on his cheek. “Who’s out there?” she whispered.
He looked over his shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“There’s someone outside the door.”
“There’s no one there, Catie.”
“I see the shadow of someone’s feet. He’s standing outside our door.”
The space at the foot of the door showed faintly with light from the taproom, but there were no shadows.
“He’s not moving,” she said. “Why is the man standing outside our door?”
“There’s no one there, Cate.”
“I’m frightened. Don’t let him in.”
This settled her agitation for a while, at least, and she stared at the wooden beams of the ceiling. Without shifting her gaze, she said, “Do you remember when you named the stars for me, Eamon?”
“These ones are all different.”
He followed her gaze to the dark ceiling. Outside, Eamon knew, the sun could not have set.
“What do you see?” he whispered. Caitlin made no response. The dark hollows of her eyes scanned the ceiling and the walls of the room. Eamon could only imagine what strange landscape she viewed, what blackened trees, stunted, twisted and leafless stood in the murk, clawing at strange stars that wheeled overhead.
At last, her eyes closed and he worried his sister would expire while he sat clinging to her hand. Shortly, though, her breathing became more regular, her fever seemed to abate and she dozed once more. He sat back and the tightness of his shoulders eased a fraction. And as she slept, he thought of the things he’d seen. He returned to memories of the frozen river and Corc’s death. It was clear he had some power. Clearer still, he had no idea how to use it beyond trusting to blind luck and perhaps some small shred of intuition. Could he help Caitlin?
And if this power was some trick of the Devil, what then? Looking at his sister, Eamon realized he didn’t care. He would risk everything to keep her alive. Nairn had stopped her bustle and sat on the room’s other stool, lost in thoughts of her own.
“Can you teach me how to use my power?” Eamon said. “Maybe I can help Cate.”
“I thought ye worried about devilry,” Nairne said, but her attempt at a smile failed. Shaking her head, she sighed. “I’m not the person to do the teachin’ when it comes to a gift as great as yers. I am too small, I fear, to even…” She gestured to Caitlin. “To even help this poor child.”
“Don’t let her die.”
“I’ll do what I can, but the sickness has her.” She ducked her head. “Yer sister is too young fer the ordeal to come.”
The two settled into silence. The room was dark, save for the feeble light of a foul smelling fish oil lamp and there seemed no sense of time other than the slow rise and fall of Caitlin’s chest. Eamon could not remember falling asleep, but his next sensation was of the coarse wool of the bed’s coverlet under his cheek. Still seated on a stool, his head, arms and shoulders rested on the bed top and a blanket had been laid across his shoulders. He remained part way in slumber, thoughts wandering and unclear. Nairne had made a bed of blankets nearby and lay on her back with her mouth open.
From the common room came the sound of conversation and Eamon imagined people gathering by the fire and the sky outside growing dark. Someone drew fingers across the strings of a harp. For a time, murmurs and the tuning of the harp were the only sounds, until the unknown jongleur struck up a slow, mournful melody, keeping time with his foot, and Eamon thought it strange he could hear it down the hallway, tap, tap, tapping against the floor. A man’s voice rose up, sweet and clear. He sang Armagint, the lament of a soldier coming home to find his family murdered.
The sound of her laughter has been replaced
by dry leaves blowing
through the door.
The babes, like herring gulls,
have all flown Eire’s shore.
Seal calves bark and corncrakes call
‘Twere better I’d died
than seen the empty house by Gweebarra Bay
on the rocky shores of Donegal.
by dry leaves blowing
through the door.
The babes, like herring gulls,
have all flown Eire’s shore.
Seal calves bark and corncrakes call
‘Twere better I’d died
than seen the empty house by Gweebarra Bay
on the rocky shores of Donegal.
Drifting in and out of sleep, Eamon listened as the music continued on. Some of the songs were lively dances accompanied by clapping hands and others bawdy reels like the Tale of Paidín’s Pig. The common room’s assembly roared with laughter and stomped their feet. They called the musician by the name of Mead Paw and cries rang out to him from both men and women, “My love to ye, Mead Paw!” and “Another pint fer the master!” After a time, the music and the cries fell into the
background, weaving into strange half dreams.
In a rare moment of quiet, someone whispered. It sounded like it came from inside the room.
Confused, Eamon drifted in light slumber until it came again. Caitlin spoke, her voice so soft he nearly missed it. Sitting up, he rubbed the remains of sleep from his eyes.
“Catie, who are you talking to?”
Caitlin had been whispering towards the door, and when Eamon straightened, they were face to face.
He pulled away, shocked by the change in her. Shadows around his sister’s eyes had turned to purple-black circles while the rest of her skin had become pale, bloodless. Her hair looked dry and lifeless as straw, her lips chapped and peeling. Caitlin’s hands, shaking visibly, lay in her lap.
“Who were you talking to?” Eamon asked again.
Her sunken eyes flicked past him to the door. “No one.”
Whirling, he saw in the space between the floor and the door’s bottom edge, two shadows, like feet blocking red firelight from the common room. Eamon sucked in a breath. The music started up again, only this time it sounded warbling and distorted.
Caitlin fell back, eyes rolling up into her head. Her shoulders pushed back into the bed and her chest thrust up. Muscles in her neck stood out and her face grew red, a horrible, strangled noise coming from her mouth. He turned to wake Nairne, but couldn’t think straight. The air tasted stale, filled his lungs grudgingly. That cloying thickness was in his mind, too, and each thought slipped away unfinished, forgotten.
The tiny chamber reeked of illness and herbs. The stench of the lamp was in his clothes. He yearned to breathe the clean, sea-tinged air outside, to sear his lungs with its frost. In fact, it would be blessed relief to drink even the air of the common room, laden though it must be with grease and smoke. In the tumbling confusion of thoughts, the only constant was this urgency to escape the room. His hands shook and he could think only of kneeling in the bracing, cold snow beneath heaven’s cast, panting clouds of steam.
Strange, jangling music rolled in from beyond the door. A burst of laughter from the inn’s guests had an evil lilt to it. He imagined a man in the adjacent bedchamber, crouched with his ear pressed to the wall, hand over mouth, and thought he heard the man’s tittering laughter through thin partition wood. Then, behind the fear and the shrill, wavering music, Eamon caught a different sound, one that was clear, if distant. He paused and cocked his head. It came again, a musical note that rose, ghostly and plaintive, trailing off at the end. Once more the sound, lofting high, echoing and solitary, then joined by another and another in a strange, familiar chorus.
The mere act of concentrating on this new music brought some order to his mind. The notes transformed, becoming cries; the cries, howls; the howls, wild ranging wolves singing to the moon. With that, the clouds that veiled his mind broke apart. The music of the common room returned to normal. The laughter of the guests held mirth only, and no threat.
The wolves howled again and Eamon knew their voices like he knew his sister’s. It was the pack they’d encountered descending the mountain. His pack. He shook his head, clearing it of the last wisps of reverie and was startled to find himself by the door, across the room from where he’d been sitting. Looking down, he saw his hand resting on the latch, an instant from unclasping the thing and throwing back the door. Yanking his fingers back as though burned, he looked with horror at the shadowed crack along the door’s base.
“You can’t have her,” he said.
Running back to Catlin’s side, he tried to put himself between her and the door. Caitlin lay in her blankets, body still, skin as pale as death. It seemed no breath lifted her chest. Nairne wheezed from her place on the ground and a quiet cough came from outside the door. No doubt a guest, but to Eamon’s mind it was long-legged Jack a’Gaunt, straight out of a child’s tale, come to claim Caitlin with spidery fingers and moist palms. It was all imagination, he told himself, but to no avail. Oh, it might be there was no Gaunt, but there was threat. Palpable threat. Growing black and swollen beneath the inn’s gabled roof.
He called Nairne’s name, but she didn’t reply. Again and again he called her, but still she slept. Scratching noises came from inside the room’s four walls. Spinning, he dropped to his knees by the old woman and shook her by the shoulders. Her eyes jittered wildly beneath her eyelids, but she didn’t wake. Spaces between the floorboards were wide and filled with shadow. There were cracks in the wall. Why hadn’t he seen these things before? All at once, the door seemed a frail, pointless barrier. Summoning his courage, he slapped Nairne’s face. The smack echoed in the little room, but
did nothing to wake her.
Laughter sounded, but when he whirled around, no one was there. Putting his back to the bed, Eamon drew his knees up and dropped his head into his hands. In the suddenly hushed room, his sister spoke.
“Eamon,” she said.
Scrambling around onto his knees, hope surged only to crash again. Caitlin lay pale and stiff, hands folded across her chest. Her eyes were open, but glassy, unseeing. Only by the tiniest, trembling jerks of her pupils could he see she wasn’t dead. But she was close.
Even as he looked at her, she spoke. Her eyes remained unfocused, pointed at the room’s ceiling.
Nothing moved but her lips.
“Eamon,” she said.
Relief flooded through him. “Catie. Oh, Catie.”
“Listen to me.”
“What is it?”
“She stands at the gate but won’t step through.”
“Who are you talking about? What gate?”
“Only ill and evil can result if she won’t step through.”
A terrible thought occurred. “Who are you?” he asked.
Caitlin’s head fell to the side, dull eyes pointed at him.
“Open the door, Eamon, and let me in.”