Let it be known, in this the third year of my reign as Àrd Rìgh of the Sovereignty of Dál Gaedhle, the four disgraced clan lords now proven to conspire against my rule, be stripped of lands, titles and inheritances, rights and fealty owed, and hitherto be banished from Dál Gaedhle, never to show their faces nor cross our borders on pain of death.
SIGNED BY DONNACH FINNBAR MACENOICHT,
ÀRD RÌGH OF THE SOVEREIGNTY OF DÁL GAEDHLE
6053 POST DRAGON WARS
The World of Dál Cruinne
Post Dragon Wars Year 6053
The Border between the Western Sovereignty of Dál Gaedhle and the Eastern Clanlands of Dál Gallain
Now he was free.
Ciarán rode past the derelict border-fort tower where Dál Gaedhle became Dál Gallain. The wooden wall, long rotted, stretched between squat rough-cut sandstone fortifications dotted along the borderline for the length of the land. If his gaze could reach its end, he would spy the Muir Gallain, the great sea of the south. The guards who had travelled with him stayed back, their mounts tossing manes and jangling tack. The horses reflected their riders’ wishes to be away, no doubt. Aye, eager to leave but requiring certainty of his departure.
Ciarán’s mount slowed and picked his way through the broken cut stone and rubble strewn across the path between two ivy-covered fort towers as the rumble of hooves receded behind him.
Good. Donnach MacEnoicht’s obedient escorts had done their high king’s bidding and turned for home.
The warrior-clansman escort had returned to him his sheathed sword, its baldric’s smooth leather belt wrapped round it tight, addressing him only as Ciarán Gallawain.
Ciarán ground his teeth. Never again would a soul address him by his clan chief title of lord. Neither would he feel beneath his fingertips the patterned surface of his highly decorated chieftain’s belt about his waist. The weight of his sword, Dearg, now pressed down on his back. That insipid àrd rìgh could choke on his mercy, for it only displayed his weakness.
Aye, one day my sword will draw blood and redden the ground at Donnach’s feet.
Ciarán kicked his horse to a gallop. He could not hasten from the border fast enough. Huffing, he pushed further southeast, urging his horse on, leaving Dál Gaedhle… and Alana… well behind.
He swallowed hard against the thickness that threatened to line his throat. Best to leave those thoughts alone. What’s done is…
Grey clouds churned beneath the sun, and the day dulled around him. His legs were heavy from this past week’s ride, as if rocks filled his muscles. Cold rain beat hard on his forehead, running over his jaw and trickling down his chest beneath his fine wool shirt. Weak sunlight angled through the tree foliage, edging the leaves of the forest in silver. Dense undergrowth slowed his pace and encroached on the road now turning into a goat-track.
Narrowing his eyes and sharpening his focus in the dimming surrounds, he dismounted and led his steed at a walk, swiping branches to the side to clear a path. Sprays of water droplets wet his breeches and soaked his plaid. The cold seeped through chilling his skin and burrowing deeper. He must rid himself of the cloth, though he was loath to—the last remnant of his connection to any clan. Even so, some in the east might recognise the tartan of a noble clan of the west.
He could take no chances.
A dim glow showed through the thicket like a beacon. He headed for it, leading his horse through the edge of the forest, which stood like a wall around a small dwelling in the middle of a clearing covered in night. Light shone in the window of the wattle-and-daube cottage— the home of a commoner, and a poor one at that—and smoke rose from its primitive stone chimney. He tied his mount to a nearby post and stood at the wooden door above which hung clumps of rowan, ash and heather—and a shrivelled raven’s foot.
He grunted and lifted his baldric from his shoulder and strapped the belt around his waist. His blade must be ever ready.
He raised a fist to the door. It swung open, his knuckles hitting air. A hag with long silver hair matted to knots and hanging over humped shoulders, stood in the doorway. Her face, as crinkled as summer-dried fruit, opened to a toothless maw. Her breath wafted to him—vomit, rotted meat and the reeking pile of excrement at the bottom of the long-drop of The Keep on a sweltering day. His throat tightened, threatening a gag, but he swallowed against it.
“Come, young man, ye have wandered far.” The crone’s head bobbed her welcome.
He lowered his fist slowly. The crone seemed harmless enough, and with no other dwellings nearby—and the gnawing in his belly—he stepped in. A fire filled the hearth, its heat bathing his face and raising vapour from his clothing.
Her withered fingers drew the length of plaid from his shoulders. Strands of his long hair dragged with the woollen cloth, flicking his cheek. “Ye have the fair hair of a noble clan, young man.”
Ciarán stiffened. “Ye are bold, old woman.” Taking a step back, he drew his sword, its ring filling the tiny dwelling.
“I meant nae harm, my lord.” She dipped a shaky bow then lifted her head, her gnarled hands caressing his tartan clasped to her breast and her eyes glimmered. “Just wishing to show kindness to a weary traveller, is all.”
The woman stood by the rough-hewn wooden table sitting in the centre of the room, illuminated by squat candles placed on any available flat surface, their melted wax leaving deformed sculptures in their path. Far, indeed, were the comforts of a caisteal. Yet warmth seeped through his damp clothing, chasing away the chill. A pot bubbled over the coals, the aroma more palatable than the woman’s breath.
Her gaze followed his. “Ye will be hungry, my lord.”
She draped his plaid over the chair nearest the hearth, then ladled broth into a wooden bowl and placed it on the table. His stomach growled.
Ciarán re-sheathed his sword and approached the chair, never lifting his gaze from the old crone. She was familiar. Not in physique, but in spirit.
I… have… known this before.
Ciarán sat on the creaking chair and, steadying himself, poked the contents of the bowl with a wooden spoon. Sparse chunks of meat floated in the thin brown liquid.
He ate, the gamey flavour of rabbit scarce throughout the soup, and let his gaze wander the one-roomed dwelling. Herbs hung to dry above the grey stone fireplace. Cooking pots of assorted sizes sat stacked on the hearth and next to them, a neat pile of firewood.
“Ye should go further east tomorrow when ye resume your travel, my Lord Ciarán Gallawain.”
He stopped the spoon inches from his mouth, sloshing out the contents with a jerking halt.
By the antlers of Cernunnos! His plan of wandering through the land incognito was now impossible if even this isolated old hag had recognised him. He returned the spoon to the soup and scooped once more, narrowing his eyelids.
But how does she know?
The woman stood with her green eyes fixed on his, and the back of his neck prickled.
“Ye must go to where ye find the ends of the world.” A tremor to her tilted head accompanied the instructions. “That is the way to the one who truly possesses the power.” Crinkled hands rested on the tabletop; on their backs thin translucent skin revealed a river delta of veins. “Ye will receive more than you first perceive, for ye have tae trust Cumhachd adhar.”
Ciarán’s brow tightened. The hag had spoken the old tongue, and he had heard the name—a long time ago. The Power of the Air.
He tightened his grip on the spoon, digging the handle into his palm as his heart leaped within his chest. He required power to gain what, in truth, was his.
He lifted his chin. I, Ciarán Gallawain, was born to rule.
His wet-nurse had spoken often of his destiny. He saw it now, as vivid to him as his present surroundings—she stood by the great fireplace in the caisteal of his birth, chanting to herself and pricking his finger then flicking his blood into the hissing flames.
Bile rose in his throat and burned. For he was now a wandering exile and coming second to Donnach MacEnoicht in Tòireadh—the Quest for the High Kingship—had thwarted all. A dull, thick sensation returned to his belly, like a pot of stew set on low coals, brewing slow and long since losing his love, his quest and his dignity. The grumble in his gut had been an intimate friend for three years, and now he would name it—resentment, and he would suppress it no longer.
His life had changed indeed. He must start from naught wherever he landed, and much hard work lay ahead.
“I have a word for you, Lord Ciarán Gallawain.”
His vision refocused and the woman’s gnarled hands came back into view, the river delta melting to smooth youthful skin.
His gaze rose to hers. She stood taller, a whispering caress of cloth slipping over skin accompanied her patched garment’s slide to the floor. Transformed, a shining mane of golden curls cascaded across smooth skin, pouring over perfect breasts on its path to curved hips.
Ciarán gasped. A mage disguised as a crone—that explains all.
The sudden appearance of her home, her knowledge of him, and her enigmatic advice.
The mage raised slender youthful arms above her head and the hearth’s blaze lit the room in an orange glow. She lifted her hands higher, as if in supplication, while candles blazed as bright as lightning. A stunning younger version of those green eyes locked with his, and he sat, unable to move.
“When sunlight bids farewell to day
Or with morning tide enlightens,
A crossing to other worlds at bay
With magicked power opens.
Then shuts the gates for those to stay
Until the orb-illumined run
Its courses of the worlds then done.
Where light caresses land as one
There, travellers’ journeys fill their sum.”
The air rang with her rich voice, her tone holding the glimmer of a chant, verging on a wail.
Ciarán’s thundering pulse joined the candled-lightning of the room and his breathing staggered with a heaviness pressing on his shoulders, as if the eyes of the universe weighted their stare upon him.
The mage’s arms slowly lowered, her youthful form retained, and her lips curving.
It was a riddle. A conundrum. A challenge… A command.
Power lay behind it, whatever it may be. And this striking beauty before him a messenger only.
He shook the weight from his shoulders and, rising to his full height, stepped to the mage. His face was inches from her delicate lips, her apple-scented breath invading his own.
“Where is this place? I will find it.” He blinked at the earnestness of his own voice.
“Not one but many, my Lord Ciarán.”
His breath caught in his throat.
Here was his new start. His chance to begin afresh.
But to have it—a chance I must take.
“So be it.” A heat ignited within him, as sparks ran to his fists and swirled in his mind. “Tell your master I wish to enjoin my goals with his.”
“Nae, my Lord Ciarán Gallawain, for ye yourself shall inform him.”