The Lighthousekeeper’s steps were carefully chosen; his many years on the island had not made him heedless on the treacherous stair that led steeply down to the cove. Deeply worn by hundreds of years of use, and made slippery by the constant sea-mist and the stubborn hair-moss, an unwary descent could easily end in disaster. In a few places the steps had crumbled away altogether, and here handholds had been etched in the rock, without which further progress either
upwards or downwards would not have been possible.
A few minutes of cautious descent took him safely to the foot of the stair. There he stopped; a young seal was lying on the rocks close by. It looked thin, and exhausted; the storms of the previous three days must have been hard to endure, but the morning had brought a welcome break in the weather and a time for rest, though the Keeper knew this might be only a false dawn, a calm before the real storm, which he could sense gathering it’s strength out over the ocean.
Lambent dark eyes regarded him with uncertainty.
“Peace, little brother,” he called softly, watching the cub slowly relax. He walked forward slowly, so as not to scare the little creature any further, and gently stroked the sleek head, all the while wondering if the omens were right, if the time had come around again, if he dared once more to take the risk. He looked up by force of habit at the island’s second peak, a thin spire of rock which pointed at the sky like a beckoning finger. A place of refuge and meditation, the summit of the second peak was accessible only to those who knew the secret paths - only to the Brothers of the Rock, of which he was the last survivor, the sole heir to thousands of years of sacrifice and hardship and learning and scholarship. The weight of this burden had almost crushed him at first, but time had taught him how to bear it, if not to carry it lightly or gracefully.
Lifting an in-blown spar from the strand he surveyed the cliffs around him. The seabirds were restless, though quieter than usual, and far out at sea, beyond the little sheltered cove where he stood, he could see the silver-grey back of a leaping dolphin. Then he heard the distant rumble of thunder, sounding like horse’s hooves approaching at the gallop on a stony path. As the thunder grew louder he knelt down, quickly and skilfully tracing arcane symbols on the sand with the wooden spar, and began, in a half-chant, a half-whisper, “Pray for a brave heart, that does not fear death ....”
Donal O’Connell woke with a curse. The night had been deathly cold and the day would be fiercely hot, the soft weather and soft caressing rain of his homeland only a distant dream, forever lost, a dry, dusty mockery in a land of devils.
He scanned the horizon warily for a long moment, squinting into the morning sun, which even so early in the day was already becoming harsh and glaring. They had been on his trail for days, steadily drawing closer. Distant glimpses had suggested six, maybe seven, and only Janisarries could track so tenaciously in the desert. Sand or stone, it seemed to make no difference to them; whatever ruses he tried, whatever tricks he had learned, he could not elude them. They would not be denied their quarry.
He shared his precious water with his horse; Parsifal needed it just as badly as he did. He reckoned he had enough for a few more days, just enough, if he was frugal, and, more importantly, if he was fortunate, to reach the oasis at Kalibaa. But, as he remounted, Parsifal’s hooves clattered noisily on the stony ground and he heard a whinny in response. Twisting in the saddle, Donal saw eight mounted figures, dark and grim, still and silent against the sun’s glare. He swore under his breath; the pursuit was too close now, at least he had no reason to run anymore. In any case, it was against his nature to run away when a battle was so clearly offered. Drawing his sword one last time, he flourished it above his head, thinking briefly what a song this would have made, if there had been anyone to sing it. He spurred the great stallion; it reared once in defiance, hooves clawing at the air, and charged, hooves sounding like thunder on the stony ground.
And as Donal O’Connell, Knight of the Crusade of Godfrey de Bouillon, threw himself on the spears of his mortal enemies, he saw in their eyes only sadness... and forgiveness.... and loss.
The mountain air was clear and sharp; very cold, but a healthy, bracing, virtuous cold. He had always been at home here, his image closer to the truth than the cynical times might imagine. The scent of the pines reminded him of the time before the illness, a time when he had been strong enough to fell a tree with one swipe of an axe. He grinned then, despite the pain; of course, that had been before he had become sentimental, and environmental.
He remembered the girl, a sweet memory; they had loved each other deeply – should he have settled down with her then? She would have made a warm, welcoming home for them both, a family, with fine healthy children but the wanderlust had proved too strong, and the world of men had called him, had a need for him. He had yielded to this claim and turned his back on her and set his path instead towards fame and fortune. And these, at the last, had proved to be faithless allies, so now, at the end of all his hopes and plans and dreams, he had returned to where he had started from.
The pain he could fight, but the weakness and dependence had proved inexorable, and pity from others was the one thing he would never be able to tolerate. So, as a free man, he had decided to choose his own time and place to say farewell; here, on the wildest frontier, on the mountainside, looking down the valley.
He pressed the gun to his forehead, and took one last deep breath of frost-cooled air, once more savouring it’s coldness; a single shot echoed through the mountains, and high above, an eagle in flight, it’s wings warped against the wind, looked down in curiosity.
In the autumn, when the evenings grew dark, but not yet too cool, Jac and his father would sometimes build a big bonfire down by the river, and afterwards they would sit together in the firelight and listen to the crackling of the flames and the whispering of the waters and the mysterious calls of the night birds. His father, of course, claimed it was only fairy music they were hearing. His uncles would come along then, tall laughing men with bright eyes, singing songs and telling old tales
and stories of ghosts and the wood spirits. He would snuggle up to his father, who would lean over and smile down at him and wink as if to say, “We’re not scared, are we? The two of us together are more than a match for any ghostie, aren’t we?”
As the night grew chill his mother would come down from the house, scolding the menfolk about the late hour, and his uncles would leave in great good humour, their farewells echoing loudly in the trees. Then his father would jump up and, ignoring her half-hearted chidings, spin his mother around, her bare feet light as flowers and dew-drops on the grass, and he would run to join them; the three would dance, his mother’s hair wild and red in the flamelight, the three laughing,
laughing, the scent of the woodsmoke all about and the sounds of the river and the fire singing softly to them.
He carried it with him wherever he went, the memory like a light in the darkness.
Kitti’s waking was every bit as uneasy as her sleep had been. Her pallet by the fire was less than comfortable, and although the covers were clean enough, a family of fleas had made their home in the straw. Again and again she scratched herself in annoyance. Targon had opted to sleep in the stables and would be no worse off, but in truth they had had little choice; inns like this were common enough, but they were places of refuge rather than of hospitality, and served mainly as a protection against cut-throats. She and Targon could defend themselves well enough, she knew, but if they had camped in the open one of them would have had to be on guard and stay awake all night.
And Targon would have insisted on standing the night watch, she thought resignedly. So gallant, so gentle, so courteous, despite the unkind way the world treated him. The innkeeper had ridiculed him in front of the other customers, and offered him a bed by the door where the draught would have left him a frozen, chilled corpse by the morning. She grimaced at the image; Targon tired easily, and
although he fought bravely and stoically against his crippling deformity, it was each day proving to be a more implacable adversary, and she knew that only sorrow and pain lay ahead for him - and then loneliness and loss for her. What would she do without him?
The innkeeper’s wife, a kindly but simple woman, was already up and about her morning chores, and she asked after their guest’s comfort.
“I’m sorry we hadn’t a proper room for you,” she whispered timidly, looking nervously over her shoulder. “But the landlord is always suspicious of strangers, especially two as strange-looking as yourselves,” she continued, oblivious to the insult she had offered, “Why don’t you have a bowl of oatmeal, with some lovely fresh warm milk, and I’ll call your servant to wait on you.”
“Targon is not my servant,” Kitti spoke sharply, “We’ll eat together.”
The woman scurried out the doorway, averting her gaze in embarrassment as Targon lumbered into the room.
“Did you sleep well, little one?” the familiar hoarse voice enquired.
“Like a baby,” said Kitti, “A baby that had to scratch itself with a fork all night. Come on, let’s have our oatmeal and be on our way out of here as soon as we can.”
She pulled on her boots, critically appraising her legs, which she thought coltish and inelegant, although long and well suited for travelling the roads.
“I’ll not be sorry to leave,” said Targon, “The innkeeper is a rogue. I am sure he beats that little woman - you can see how frightened and cowed she is.”
“Don’t waste your sympathy,” muttered Kitti, “She’s weak and stupid and deserves everything she gets. Any woman with the least bit of spirit would have left him years ago; or maybe stabbed him in that fat belly of his with a kitchen knife, or even better, smothered him with a big pillow some night when he was too drunk to defend himself.”
“Perhaps she’s too soft-hearted-,” Targon began.
“You’re too soft-hearted yourself; soft-headed too,” snapped Kitti, “You should save your sympathy for those who deserve it.”
Ignoring his smile, she finished her lukewarm gruel in silence.