Conall smiled “Aye. When enemies came if’n they tried crawling through yon door they be speared from holes in the passage roof.” he said pointing up to the top of the wall.
“Well that’s a lovely thought, not. So, are we to crawl through too?” The thought of getting on my belly to crawl through an ancient ruins tiny door was not appealing in the least.
“Nay, I would no fit through that wee door.” Conall said moving his hands over his body as if to prove it.
“Ok so how do we get in, that is of course if there is room. It looks like some of the walls have fallen inside.” why the Cailleach would be in this old ruin was baffling. Conall took me by the elbow to stand in front of the door. He knocked on the door with his boot. I gave him a sardonic look as if to say ‘really’.
One minute we were stood outside the door the next we were in a small room. The walls stone bricks, the floor covered with rushes. A door at each end. In the middle of the room sat someone in a motley grey shroud sitting at a table. The light was fairly dim with only one lit sconce on the wall.
Two chairs sat on the other side of the table facing the shrouded figure. A table against one wall was filled with bottles, herbs and jars of, I don’t know what was in them. I didn’t want to ask either. It looked like a middle ages doctors consulting room. From beneath the shroud a withered hand appeared and beckoned us to sit. I looked up at Conall still holding my elbow. His eyebrow shot up. In admonishment, he spoke sharply at the person on the other side of the table.
The shroud was brusquely thrown back revealing a woman in her fifties. A wide grin on her face. The withered hand disappearing. She was a stocky woman with smiling green eyes. Her disheveled brown hair with streaks of silver was fitted loosely in a bun at the back of her head. I expected decayed clothing, she wore a black dress with a light brown tatty shawl over her shoulders.
“Ock, Conall I no ken it was ye.” she said smiling.
“Did ye not?” Conall said mildly annoyed.
“What brings ye to me door then? I see ye ha brought a guest wi ye”
Talk about theatrics. I expected the person under the shroud to have been some ancient old crone. Not the person sitting in front of us now.
Agnes drew her eyes to me narrowing them slightly. “Aye ye thought I was an ole crone, did ye?”
“What...no…I…I’m sorry I didn’t mean…” I stammered. Did she read my mind?
“Aye it no matters. Morgan why ha ye come to see me then?”
Again shock. How did she know my name? Looking at Conall he shook his head in exasperation.
“Agnes, ye ken why we are ere, an ye would have seen us coming, long afore we got ere.”
“Aye I did, sit doon the noo, and weel talk.” she waved at the seats once again with a mischievous smile on her face.
Conall and I sat.
“Lass ye have had quite a journey of late.” the Cailleach stated. I just smiled wearily at her. It had definitely been a testing journey so far.
“Ye hae many questions fer me.” I nodded. “Lass do ye remember ye màthair words? Those that talk aboot blood.”
Blood, I had to think for a moment. Then I remembered. The words that had come in a dream the morning after the beating. I nodded again.
Before I could answer the Cailleach spoke again. “Ye blood will open doors for ye. Is that what she said lass?”
“Yes.” I was feeling a little uncomfortable that this woman behind the desk was reading my mind. It felt invasive to say the least.
“Do ye have the box that she gave ye?”
“It’s in my bag tied to the saddle.” I answered puzzled. I had not thought to bring it with me. But then I had not expected to have been propelled from the outside into this room, at the blink of an eye. Before I could say anything further. The box appeared on the table in front of me. “How did you…” it was obvious that the Cailleach woman was not just a seer but some kind of magic woman, a witch no doubt.
“I am nay a witch, just old as time.” she smiled. She had read my thoughts again. I now gave her a derisive look, not comfortable with her doing that.
The woman ignored the look on my face. “The box...I haven’t been able to open it. Mother was going to tell me but she-”
The Cailleach interrupted me. “Give me your hand lass.”
Conall nodded for me to go ahead. I stretched my hand to the woman. She took my hand in both hers. I thought for a moment she was going to read my palm. Quick as a flash she nicked my forefinger with her finger nail causing blood to well up.
“Ouch!” I tried to pull my hand back but she held tight. Turning my finger over touched it to the box. A clicking sound came from inside. The lid, which wasn’t there before formed.
“Ye can open ye box now.” the Cailleach said.
All these years I had this box and never would have thought that to open it was a simple case of blood. My blood.
“Did she no tell ye that ye blood will open doors?”
“Doors yes, boxes no.”
“Is no a lid to a box a doorway to a space within.” smiled the Cailleach.
“I suppose so.” I never thought of it that way. My hand was shaking as I reached to lift the lid. There were no thoughts as to what was contained within. I held my breath. I removed a leather tube. It was very old and worn. Markings along the tube were similar to the designs on the pendant. I untied the lacing at the top. It looked as if nothing was inside. Conall took the tube and shook it into my hands. It was a parchment, old and yellowed with age. I sat with it laying across my hands.
Conall took the parchment slowly unfurling it. His eyes went to the Cailleach and then to me, a look of awe on his face. “Tis the alliance of the Tuatha de Danann and the Picts.” he said softly afraid of breathing on it, should it cause damage. “I nay thought I should see such a thing.”
I leaned across seeing ethereal words, an intricate order of scrawls and curlicues, neatly regimented into blocks across the page. While indecipherable the markings were luminescent. It was as if they hovered above and not embedded into the parchment.
“You mean that all these years this document, this alliance has been in this box. I’m so glad I had it hidden then. I’m sure it’s worth a fortune.” I was relieved that Joe and his cronies, even Mrs McTabbot had never found it.
“Ye have no idea lass.” gasped Conall as he carefully re-rolled the parchment and slid it back into the tube.
“The parchment ha been in tha safekeeping of the Picts for many hundreds o years. It became such twas no longer safe ta keep in this world. Yer parents were bestowed tha task to send it home. As ye ken ye faither was attacked an killed afore they had a chance ta do so. Ye màthair disappeared wi tha box safe in her keep. Until the noo.”
“Lass is there anything else in ye wee box?” asked Conall.
I withdrew a soft leather sheath. It held a small silver dagger. This one though had a beautiful jewelled hilt. A ruby sat in the middle surrounded by a network of gold vines, inlaid with small black pearls, diamonds and turquoise gems. The ruby not dissimilar to the one that Conall wore on his pendant, and the one set into his claymore.
“Lass tis a sacred ceremonial dagger. Tis used in sacrifices.” the Cailleach said resting her chin on her hands as if in prayer.
Conall held out his hand and asked. “Would ye mind if I see it lass?” It didn’t go unnoticed to Conall that the ruby on the dagger was similar to the pendant he wore round his neck or the one that sat perched on his weapon, that had been given to him by the Queen at Tir na Nog. If the one he wore had the power to transport him from place and time, his sword provided him with strength and metal that endured, that what did the one on the dagger do.
I handed him the knife eagerly. The thought of it being used in a sacrifice, human or otherwise was nauseating. How could such a beautifully crafted instrument be used so brutally. Conall held the dagger with the same reverence and restraint as the parchment, as if it were the royal jewels.
“It is said that yon dagger is a way inta tae land not o’ here. Tha dagger though needs the blood. No just tha blood o’ anyone. The person must be special, a descendant of tha Tuatha and one who holds her maidenhead. One unique an gifted.” the Cailleach whispered cocking her head to one side.
I sat staring at her. I knew the words. Words my mother had said to me. I shook my head mindlessly reaching into the box taking the last remaining item, a velvet pouch. I tipped the contents into my hand. A silver pendant, a half circle with two raised panels something like the top two paddle blades of a windmill. The chain was set part way around the side so the pendant sat at an odd angle.
“This is an unusual pendant.” I murmured as I ran my thumb over the raised parts covered with the most precise filigree pattern.
“Gods blood!” exclaimed Conall. I turned to see him move quickly from his chair and pace the floor. His brow furrowed in anguish.
“Conall what’s wrong. Are you ok? is it the knife? Do you know something about it?
He looked at me totally perplexed then at the knife in his hand. “Nay tis nothing.” he said as he regained his composure and his seat placing the knife back in its holder. He had literally gone from angst to calmness in the space of a few seconds.
“Are ye hale Conall lad?” the Cailleach asked a twinkle in her eye.
“Aye Agnes I am.”
“Morgan the box is no the only reason ye came to see me. Is that so lass?” the Cailleach asked.
“I came about my abilities too.” I said as Conall placed the dagger in its holder back into the box. “My mother bound them.” The words unique and gifted still circling the corners of my brain. “Can you restore them?”
“Weel tis some mighty strong magic that binds ye power.” she said rubbing her chin with her fingers. Ula had dismissed the word “magic” when explaining about their abilities. So, there was magic involved then? The way we had entered this room from the outside could only have been by magic.
“Fae don’t have magic they have abilities.” I said waiting for the Cailleach’s reaction. “So, you can’t do it?”
Agnes raised her eyebrows. “I didnae say that child. These aye abilities, as ye put it, they come wi bonds. Once ye have them ye must use them wisely. Ye can ne’er use them fer evil. It will take o’er with no return.”
“Of course!” I interjected. I would never use my abilities for evil, I knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Conall lad would ye like a nip of scotch?” asked the Cailleach.
“Aye Agnes I would.”
The switch in conversation had me glancing from the Cailleach to Conall. I felt like shouting at them to stay on track, but gave up and just accepted it. Three glasses appeared as if from thin air each half filled with scotch. More magic. Conall picked up his glass and downed the contents in one gulp.
I took the glass and sipped the scotch waiting for the burn. It was smooth hardly any burn at all to the back of my throat. Either I was getting used to it or this scotch was somehow different. It was very pleasant though, I drank the remaining contents.
This had turned out to be a most peculiar day, the Cailleach thinking she was an old hag turned out to be someone that looked like a grandmother. Though it was obvious she took enjoyment at teasing and pretending.
The familiarity she had with Conall told me that he knew her well. At least well enough to question her behaviour. It felt at the moment that I was an outsider being permitted to attend a family reunion of sorts. I had however, not said anything as I only came here for one reason and that was to have my abilities restored. Being shown how to open the box was a bonus.
“Conall ye have a question for me?” asked the Cailleach.
“As ye know lad a Brollachan can only take o’er a body of a human that is full o’ grief an anguish. When they are at their weakest in mind. In order, ta keep the body it takes o’er fer longer it needs tae feed on tha breath o such others. The longer it stays the more it needs tae feed.” exclaimed the Cailleach. “tuigsinn lad?”
“Aye I do understand” answered Conall. He realised that Joe must have been constantly taking the breath of other humans to keep him going. An unusual thing for a Brollachan to do.