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Lorcan's Bane ~ a tale of peril and the right use of magic

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Mirren was born to magic. A healer like her mother, she has used spells and herbs all of her life and never questions her place in the world. Nor does she imagine that her skills could lead to murder. Tucked away from the world in Boann Tarns Valley, Mirren leads a life of contentment and magic. A healer like her mother, she loves her work and community. But Prelate Lorcan jeopardizes everything. Not only is he smitten with Mirren, his coming has been foretold as the curse that will oppress women for 100 generations to come. Although the mysterious Ariel foils Lorcan's first attempt to abduct Mirren, he further complicates her life. She has little time to master her magic and counter the prelate's threat, but Ariel becomes a monumental distraction. Determined to save herself and her gender, Mirren flees to an abandoned monastery, where she walks between the worlds and hones her magic. But will that be enough? How can one gentle, but powerful healer stand against the violence of armed men who wish to see her fail?

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Of all the folks in Boann Tarns, only Lorcan calls me a witch. But he does not know the half of it, for I have learned things since Midsummer Day that even Ariel did not expect.

I wonder how I might have fared had I not been Betha’s daughter. She is a healer of widespread renown. Indeed, people from here to the coast all claim that hers is the first smile you see when you enter this world and the last that you see when you leave. As her sole apprentice, I am heiress to her wortcunning as well as her worldliness. Since long before my first moon blood, she and I have walked the moors and forests gathering every manner of medicinal plant. In each appropriate season, we harvest bark and roots, mosses and mushrooms, flowers and leaves, nuts and berries. We also stock unlikely things like porcupine quills, hornet nests, spider webs, and beeswax, and we find apt uses for them all.

We even harvest the Druid’s Herb, with their blessing, so great is their respect for my mother’s healing arts. At her elbow, I learned to make potions, tinctures, and salves. I, too, can stitch wounds, deliver babies, and comfort the dying. Yet despite all of my skills and experience, I was nowise prepared for Lorcan.

By my nineteenth spring, I shared my mother’s duties and helped her teach her craft. Traditionally, Beltane brought farmers’ children to learn rudimentary healing skills between the planting and the harvest. Or the occasional novitiate bard or postulant from the White Sisters arrived to stay for a year and a day. In exchange for the lessons, our students helped my father, Kade, who keeps the inn at Boann Tarns.

Our little inn sits at the confluence of three gentle streams that flow from the springs and tarns of our valley all the way out to the sea. The valley is a rough heart of fertile fields and water meadows dotted with numerous jewel-like, but anonymous, lakes. Rainy seasons blur one lake into another until the entire valley floor is soggy with cattails and rushes. Dry years see countless small ponds spring up where larger tarns used to be. Since their ever-shifting shorelines defy all attempts to name them, and the waters are said to be magical, they are collectively called “Boann” to honor the Irish goddess.

Perhaps the inn was originally a shrine to her, for great devotion went into the masonry. The main hall is made of smooth river rocks so cleverly fitted that nary a wind whistles through. Inside, a double-faced river rock fireplace soars three times my father’s height to vent through the roof. Here, too, the stonework shows uncanny skill, for an endless knot of hammered copper is inlaid among the rocks, a permanent symbol of grace that wards the great dining hall.

The hearth is fashioned of massive flagstone slabs worn even and rounded by generations long since turned to dust. Four ancient tree trunks support the rafters and intermingled among them are polished wood tables and benches. Beyond, rows of glazed windows open onto the porch and frame the ever-changing majesty of our valley. There is an elemental sanctity about the inn, for it took birth from holy ground and even now serves as the heart of Boann Tarns.

The building nestles into a small hillock at the head of the valley and was so cleverly constructed that, in many places, the building dovetails with the face of the bluff behind it, creating secluded rooms embosomed by the land. Such a room is my own. Although it smells of earth and stone, my chamber is hardly dreary. I have windows to let in the sunlight and a door to my own little courtyard. Not a courtyard, perhaps, by gentrified standards, but a private patch of lawn chamomile embraced by the crook of the hill and open to the sky. Willows and ferns crowd the hem of the chamomile where a rivulet sings its way down to the confluence. Farther up, stands of hawthorn and heather perfume the breeze, and birdcalls ring from upland to vale. It was there, tucked between the sheltering hills and awash in the moon’s waxing light, that I first glimpsed Ariel.

That fateful spring, Betha and I made plans to ride to the coast to gather dulse and sundry supplies for our students. We had decided that the following year one of us would make the trip alone, and the other would stay and tend to the valley folk. This being our last such journey together, my mother had something important to share with me. She barely spoke of it, but I assumed that I was about to learn her deepest secret, her holiest of healing skills, and that I would be forever changed.

I was right about the latter.

“You will need seven nights to prepare, Mirren. Come,” she said and kissed my brow. Hugging my waist, she guided me across my little lawn and down through the ferns to the rivulet. Kneeling on the grassy bank, she motioned for me to follow and nodded toward a natural pool as it caught the first beams of the swelling moon. “Each night at moonrise, before your evening meal, come here and gaze into the shining water. Still your mind then ask a question. Listen for whispers on the wind. Heed your heart. And if a vision comes, pay close attention, but do not obsess. Only time will tell whether your spirit gave you a true seeing or your talking mind gave you an illusion.” Mother hugged me again. “We have much to discuss on our journey, Mirren. Now, let’s go help your father. We have guests for supper.”

Betha and I walked arm-­in­-arm out through my courtyard and down the fragrant footpath that wound in front of the family quarters to the inn’s main entrance. Just before we reached the slab stone steps, she turned to me and smiled. And just for a moment, I felt I was looking at my own reflection, so much were we of like kind. Then telltale shimmers of silver betrayed her copper hair. Even so, the sign of years did not diminish my mother’s beauty. Perhaps her lineless skin and sparkling eyes owed much to her work with the healing herbs. Or perhaps her devotion to life kept her young. Either way, when I looked at her, I saw my own future and was glad to be her daughter.

“Ah, Betha, Mirren, come meet our dinner guests.” My father has a way of embracing the world, as he did with Mother and me. Wrapping his arms around each of our shoulders, he whisked us across the flagstone floor to meet the monks.

Six generations of Father’s forebears have cared for the inn at Boann Tarns. So certainly, many of his skills are inborn, and his apprenticeship began when he was just a small boy. But I believe it is his open heart that sets him apart in his trade. From afar, Father appears older than he actually is, for he has the kind of hair that fades to gray fairly early in life. His frosted brow belies his vigor, though. On any given day, he can carry the work of three younger men, eyes twinkling and lips humming from dawn until dusk. Not only does he oversee the upkeep of the lodgings, he personally plans the meals and often cooks, as well. Travelers familiar with these parts will tell you that my father’s hospitality is second to none. As is his apple mead.

“Brothers,” Father began, as he kissed Mother’s cheek and let his hand slyly stray down her back toward her rump. Stopping just short of transgression, he continued, “Meet my wife, Betha, and my daughter, Mirren.” He hugged me and said, “My dears, may I present Teilo and Gethin? They hail from the priory at Blackthorn Glen.”

“Up to sample Kade’s mead,” Teilo said. The elder monk was a formidable man, who towered over my father by a head and a half, and he had more the look of a warrior than any monk I had seen before or since. He must have read my thoughts, for after he kissed my mother’s hand and murmured his honor to meet her, he turned to me. “No doubt you believe me better suited to swords than to scripture, Lady Mirren.” He raised a grizzled eyebrow, but his gentle smile disarmed his fake bluster.

Taken aback, I could only stammer and blush.

“Think nothing of it, child. God tempers us each with the fire that gives us the most character. I believe my years of warfare softened me up for a gentler path. I am Teilo, and I am ever at your service.” Mocking his own height, he bowed low and grinned up at me as he did so.

Gethin, fourteen or fifteen, perhaps, was much harder for me to understand. He might have been as tall as my father, but he seemed folded in upon himself somehow as if to minimize his own existence. Despite his appealing features, his temperament matched his swarthy demeanor and cast him as pleasant as a persistent dark cloud.

“Gethin and I just arrived from the continent,” Teilo announced. “We traveled there extensively until his father was taken by the fever.” The big monk softly squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “Then we came to Blackthorn Glen. Gethin has an interest in healing.”

Mother stared at the boy, silent and bemused, her hands clasped so tightly before her that her fingers turned purple. She shuddered, drew a deep breath then smiled at him. “Perhaps you would like to study with us. We are accepting students.”

“It is not seemly for monks to be taught by women,” Gethin mumbled, never raising his eyes to meet hers.

“That’s a pity,” Mother countered gently, “as women are the keepers of the local herb lore.” When Gethin did not respond, Mother said, “Well, you are young and have plenty of years to learn on your own. Unless, of course, you confuse yarrow with our own Highland hemlock. Ah, Mirren, supper is waiting, and we have yet to set the table.”

With that, she placed her hand on the small of my back and ushered me into the kitchen, leaving Gethin sullen and silent.

As we went, I overheard Teilo suggest, “Perhaps an apology would be in order, Gethin, for it is also unseemly for a man to let his pride precede his wisdom. Besides, your father would be ashamed for you to speak so to a lady.”

Mother and I laid out colorful crockery platters and mugs, and Father brought trenchers of savory food. Though spring had scarcely settled in, we had an abundance to offer the brothers. Father seasoned the first of the bitter greens and cresses with wild garlic, leeks, and herbed vinegar. He brought potatoes roasted with fresh butter and rosemary, a variety of cheeses, steaming hot bread, and a compote of dried fruits simmered in sweet white wine. But it was the baked trout crowned with dill and lemon thyme that drew a sigh of pleasure, even from Gethin. And, of course, there was my father’s apple mead.

The evening waxed from quiet appreciation of my father’s fare, to polite discussion of local matters, to laughter when Teilo offered to take me off my father’s hands with the apple mead recipe as dowry.

Father turned to me with misty eyes, and he said, “Ah, she is a treasure, and the recipe is worthy enough, but neither is mine to give.” Glancing up at Teilo, Kade continued, “Have you a mind for an angel’s song?”

Father winked at Mother, who nodded to me. “Mirren, will you sing with me tonight?” she asked.

Now, I am not a harper like Betha and not for lack of trying, either. It is just that singing renders me incapable of making my fingers pluck the strings. The moment I close my eyes and open my mouth, I become hollow, and songs from the earth pour through my lips. I do not know how else to tell it. While I am vaguely aware of the words and hear my own voice as from a distance, a force rises through the soles of my feet, up into my heart, and out to the world through my singing. It is a mindless power in that my talking mind grows silent, my sight turns inward, and I am unaware of everything but the music. Since Betha knew this about me, I was surprised by her request. But she winked and beckoned, so I grabbed two stools and followed her to the hearth.

I heard Teilo say, “Two angels then, Kade. I am doubly blessed.”

Betha began with a lay of the hill country. Her voice flowed like gentle water, and her slender fingers caressed the strings of her carved hazlewood harp. When the refrain came, I added my voice in a whisper, a mere shadow to her words. Next we sang a bawdy round about the sheepman’s daughter and a vagabond tinker. Although I sang the lead line, I opened my eyes to glimpse Teilo, who smiled and tapped his foot, and Gethin, who wore a scandalized flush. Then Mother softly strummed the opening strains of my favorite ballad, a prayer for Boann Tarns.

The moment I parted my lips, my feet began to tingle. Then a jolt akin to lightening drilled me through from foot to head. And before I knew it, all the world had vanished except for my song. Gone were the warmth of the hearth and the lingering aromas of dinner. Gone were the sounds from the kitchen and the stones beneath my feet. Even my mother’s harping grew faint, for the will of the music conquered my senses and hollowed me out to channel nature’s voice. Words rose from my heart, and I sang them to life with my breath. Forests grew from my lyrics. Animals sprang from my rhymes. Each verse and intonation invoked an essential element until, by the end of my song, I had planted a living picture of the valley in the souls of those who listened.

I stayed within that rich non­space all evening. Somehow I knew to sing with my mother’s harp, even though I was not aware of it. I do not know how many songs passed or what they were. I only know that when my mother ceased playing, I opened my eyes to silence. Shameless tears streaked my father’s handsome face. Gethin huddled darkly within the folds of his cowl, and Teilo stared at me, unblinking. I dared not look at Betha, for I had startled even myself.

As it turned out, it was Betha who gathered her wits first. She put her harp aside, then came and gently stroked my hair. “Kade, no doubt your daughter is thirsty. Some mulled wine, please,” she said and steered me to the hearth seat.

“Thank you, Mother, but...” I began.

“It will be best for your throat, Mirren,” she pressed, giving me one of her looks.

I obeyed and drank the wine. As it flowed down my throat, warm and spicy sweet, I fully returned to myself. But I was exhausted and too dull to visit. I murmured, “good dreams,” and shuffled down the corridor to my room, too spent to light the lanterns that hung cold and dark on their hooks.

Teilo and Gethin stayed two days before they returned to Blackthorn Glen. Every now and then, I caught Betha staring at the boy, her eyes curiously haunted. Despite her obvious relief at the monks’ departure, a hint of sadness lingered in her voice. But so consumed was I by my scrying project that I failed to ask her about her disquiet.

Instead, I kept to myself while I did my chores, and then I slipped away to wander Boann alone. Sometimes I roamed the peaceful paths that meandered among the tarns. There, all manner of things embraced the warming springtide. Water lily fronds already dotted the lakes, and fish jumped among them trying to catch the scarlet dragonflies. Marsh birds whistled and glided over the mirrored shallows. Once, a bittern with a snippet of red yarn in its beak swooped right in front of me and into the willows that wept at the water’s edge. Fragrant breezes sighed and murmured there, and the only other sounds came from nature’s untamed children with never a human voice among them.

I also climbed the gentle hills that cradle Boann Tarns Valley. More often than not, I skirted the heathered moors and kept to the warm, lazy forests. I know of secret dells where faery flowers grow, and though I had never been to them alone on full moon nights, I did not doubt that the good folk danced there.

My favorite place was a little vale that lies just opposite the hermit’s trail. Three grizzled hawthorns grow in a clump there, marking the end of the forest track. To the left of the trees, the barely discernable widdershins path climbs a rock­strewn bluff and leads, or so legend has it, to the home of the old gods. Rumors of restive spirits dissuade most folks from ever going there, but I had heard no tales about the sunwise path and decided one day to explore it.

The trailhead passes between the hawthorns and an overgrown barrow. Before I stepped between them, I unstopped my waterskin, poured a small bit on the ground, and paid homage to the resident spirits.

Then I followed the grassy lane that winds beneath the shoulder of the hill to the lip of a shady defile. The way ducks through a promenade of venerable oaks and ancient wych-elms, whose eminence is softened by the velvety lichens swathing their trunks and the ivies festooning their limbs. The brook plays hide and seek with the trail, first peeking up from under the lacy fern fronds then wending away through clumps of woodruff and stands of meadowsweet. Strewing the forest floor are little pockets of betony and creeping mosses and liverworts. There, even the deadfall cannot escape the insistent green.

Tucked away in the verdant fold of the glen is a grassy clearing encircled by oaks. Beyond, the headland hill is steep and leafy, and from out of a hidden cleft, a gush of laughing water cascades in sheets to fill a small pool below. The waters eddy and lap the fringes of the clearing, then hasten away on their voyage to the sea.

If there is any place on Earth akin to the non-place of my songs, it is my little vale.

The evening I first saw Ariel, I went to the dell determined to conjure a vision. Each of the four preceding nights I had done as Betha told me, fasting from morning until moonrise and trying my utmost to scry. All to no avail. Thus, I secluded myself in the little glen to prepare myself in earnest. Having fasted since the day before, I already felt light and empty when I dropped my things upon the grass in the clearing and unpacked my rucksack. First, I pulled out my soft butter-colored robe, a recent gift from a weaver, whose prize ewe I had healed. Next, came my shawl, my comb, a loaf of new bread, and a small clay pot filled with a decoction of rosemary, soapwort, and sage. Finally, I pulled out my wineskin and set it near the center of the clearing.

I slipped off my boots and stood barefoot on the turf to loose my hair. It is just a hint darker than Mother’s and falls in torrents all the way to my waist. When I wear it unbound, which is not often practical, Father teases that I am all afire and offers to douse me in the nearest tarn.

I shook out my hair, drew a steadying breath, and purposely relaxed every sinew and muscle all the way down to where my toes hugged the cool tendrils of grass. I did not summon the power then; I just imagined what it felt like. Instead of a lightning bolt, a shiver ran through me from bottom to top, leaving me serene and lightly tranced. I sighed in deep contentment and perused the entire dell.

Once certain that I was alone, I walked a slow deosil circle, pausing to greet the keeper of each direction. Again, I trod the roundabout way, this time thanking the elements for my blessings. The third time around, I called for protection and imagined a shimmering globe that cloistered the dell from all but her natural woodland inhabitants. For a fleeting moment, I felt as if I stood in the grassy palm of an upturned hand—cherished and safe and magical.

I picked up my wineskin, and my empty stomach lurched at the thought of the vision root, even steeped as it was in mead. But if my scrying failed again, I could make only two more attempts, and I did not want to disappoint Betha. Besides, a foreshadowing had leered at the edge of my dreams since the new moon, and I wanted to put it to rest. I unstopped the wineskin and took a tentative sip. It was not as bad as I had feared, but it took all of my resolve to chew the bitter bits that floated in the mead.

When I had done so, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and disrobed, allowing the breeze and sunlight to caress my nakedness.

Life sang through my body, and with it came a sinking sensation that made me smile. I breathed deeply, slowly, and rhythmically until my perception shifted subtly. Then I picked up my clay pot and walked through the icy pool to the waterfall.

The chill and the force of it scoured me, and for a moment I scarce could catch my breath. Even so, I stood beneath the nippy water until my pulse quickened, and my hair enrobed my body like a second skin. Uncalled, a wordless song sprang to my lips. I hummed as I uncorked my little clay pot and poured the sweet-smelling potion into my hand. When I rubbed it into my hair, I imagined that I was washing my talking mind clean of its chatter.

“No illusions,” I whispered, tipping my head back so the water washed all illusions away. Then I gently cleansed my body of anger and fear and all other idle profanities that might keep me from attunement.

A wave of mild vertigo swept me and bade me not tarry. Thus, I thanked the waters for floating my burdens out to the sea and walked unsteadily back to the grass, my teeth chattering from the cold and the onset of the root. I found a shaft of fading sun and stood within it to squeeze the water from my hair. The sunlight did not quell my shivers, so I rubbed my gooseflesh away with my shawl until my skin glowed as ruddy as the waning day.

Atop my robe lay my apple wood comb, a gift lovingly carved for me by my father. The instant my fingers closed around the handle, a rush of love raced through my hand, up my arm, and into my heart, and I lost myself in the vivid sense of him. Then I grew lost in combing my hair.

Some legends have it that a woman’s hair holds magical powers; thus, as I untangled my fiery mane, I imagined loosing my own secret skills.

After a time, evening’s whisper brought me back to the moment. I struggled from my musing and pulled my robe over my head. Wanting as little as possible between the night and me, I left the robe unbelted. I also declined my boots and hurriedly tucked them into my rucksack with my other belongings.

Little shimmers rippled my vision, and the woods grew more alive. Unwinding the circle and thanking the keepers required mighty concentration, but I managed to offer the last measure of mead and the new loaf of bread to the earth. Finally, I dismissed the sheltering globe and wrapped just enough of it around me to ward my journey home.

From my altered perception, the portal between the ranks of ancient trees opened to a realm I had suspected but never known before. My bare feet became enamored with the path, for each leaf and blade throbbed with conspicuous vitality and eagerly stroked my passage. Newly furled ferns, exquisitely green and exuberant, crowded to hush about my ankles and to shower wet kisses. Such holy intimacy with the natural world drew tears from my eyes and joy I still cannot express.

On I passed through the living cathedral of leaf and life. The twitter of birds wound down to evening song. Toads and crickets timidly added their own notes, robbing me of the will to hurry, enthralling me with the wonder of the woods. I remember how odd it seemed that each tree and pebble stood out in sacred distinction, yet pulsed in perfect union with that vast, secret flow that knows no beginning or end.

So lost was I in such thoughts that I did not see the two turtledoves until they flapped up across the trail to find a safer perch on the low branch of an elm. There they sat, eyeing me, cloaked in their lively elegance and that singular gray only doves are allowed. Just when I thought that the most perfect moment of my life, one creamy feather drifted down through an ebbing ray of daylight and landed at my feet. I retrieved it and continued on my way, which became more difficult as the vision root took greater hold of me.

The breath of the trees and herbs ruffled the tiny hairs on my arms, and a chorus of night sounds sang in my ears. Numberless voices of earth, water, and sky rose in point-counter-point... harmony... cacophony... ceaseless and boisterous as life. The heady aromas of rich earth, the perfumes of the plants, and the musk of a lurking badger all assailed me with an inundation of scents. Even the shadows in the glen held tangible presence and begged exploration as they stretched seductively through the darkening trees and tickled the edge of the path. I tried in vain to sort out my thoughts, to sort through the riot of sensations, to reach the mouth of the vale before the day fled completely in advance of the moon. And then I caught the aroma of supper wafting from the inn. It is fortunate that my feet had the good sense to follow my nose, for curious lights flickered in and out of the copses. They peeked round the boles of massive oaks, too, and fluttered away through the heather. Now, I had heard tales of faery lights and imagined they would look much like that. Except those, glimmers were as large as me and seemed to return my gaze. Further, they seemed distinctly female. I stopped for a moment to gaze at them—torn between wonder and wariness. Then I glanced at the halo waxing along the verge of the world, and I knew I must hurry to capture the moon’s first beams in my pool.

I slipped, unnoticed, into my private courtyard with just enough time to drop my rucksack and smooth out my hair. I drew a deep breath, took a step toward the rivulet, and stilled my talking mind. Again, I breathed, stepped, and stilled my mind. Breathe, step, still until I found myself kneeling beside the shimmering pool, my heart beating in time with Earth’s pulse. For that small space, my most elemental self and I embraced, and I caught a glimpse of the vastness that resides within, yet is mirrored outwardly as an infinity of stars.

I swallowed hard and murmured, “How best may I serve?”

The first moon rays burst across the surface of the pool, and the water shivered in delight. I shivered, too, and stared, transfixed by the dancing ripples. Soon the evening smells and drowsy birdcalls lulled everything into softness. Even the ripples slowed to glass, and from out of the reflected moonlight, a face began to take shape. At first, I thought him a Celt from one of the coastal towns, with his glorious blue eyes and locks of jet-black hair. But as his image grew clearer, I saw that he bore the same unearthly glow as the faery lights out on the moor. Indeed, his tunic, or whatever manner of clothing he wore, blazed a blinding white. He seemed to be engrossed in deep conversation, but I could see no one else in the vision. Nor could I hear his words. They did not matter, though. Whatever he said carried great affection, for his face was tender and warm.

I rocked back on my heels—vexed that after such honest effort, my reward should be some silly maiden’s fantasy. I thought to throw a pebble into the pool to dispel the nonsense, but as I glanced that way again, I saw his dazzling face staring up at me, patiently amused. Then he tipped his head and looked directly into my eyes, smiled with perfect teeth, and shimmered away on the breeze-ruffled water. Maiden fantasy or no, my mind spun with questions. I knelt closer still to the stream. I even breathed softly on the shallows and willed my vision to reappear.

Silent as owl wings, I recalled my mother’s whisper, “...do not obsess. For only time will tell...”

I girded to tear myself away when a high puff of cloud sailed across the moon, and a shadow, like his eyes, flickered across the water.

Shaking from my fasting, the root, and the vision, I struggled to compose myself enough to gather my things and make myself presentable for supper. I did not succeed with the latter. The moment I entered the kitchen, Betha pulled me aside and felt my forehead. Then she peered into my eyes and sat me at a table in the corner while she fixed me broth and bread and watered wine.

“Well, no singing for you tonight. As ensorcelled as you are already, you might wake up inside of a faery mound.” Though she teased, no doubt she was dying to ask me about my scrying, but courtesy forbade it. She sat close by, smiling quietly, but making sure I finished every morsel. After which, she handed me a honey tart, drew me to my feet, and swatted my rump. “Off to bed with you then. Be sure to remember your dreams.” She winked, and I obeyed.

My dreams were insistent and unforgettable and made little sense at the time. The moment I closed my eyes, I took flight from some faceless, nameless dread. All the long night, terror drove me through clutching forests, up wind-whipped ramparts, and down bone-cold ravines. My only respite came in fleeting glimpses of a shining face that beckoned me on when my spirit would have failed me. Then the chase resumed, and I could neither wake up nor escape.

When dawn finally cracked the darkness, I rose and went to the pool to splash my face with the icy water. I dressed, bound my hair, and munched on the honey tart as I hurried away down the path to the tarns.

I did not worry that Betha would miss me. No doubt she knew I was off by myself to ponder the night’s experiences. My head throbbed from my troubled sleep, so I dozed on the sunny, fragrant turf or sat in silence and allowed my thoughts to wander where they would. To my chagrin, they strayed again and again to the dazzling face in the pool.

Now, I was never a giddy girl. Perhaps that is because I learned of life and death at such an early age. Or perhaps my mystical inclinations superseded romance. In any case, I had never played at maiden’s games to find a future lover’s name. Nor had I made poppets or gazed into candles or cast “come to me” spells, for I had never really thought of marriage. I am a healer—my craft is my life. And much as the monks of Blackthorn Glen shun liaisons with women, I found no need in me that required a man to fill.

So, although I reviewed my moonlit vision—and confess that I savored that dazzling face—I wondered most whether he and the others were faeries and why they had appeared to me. I also pondered my haunted night. Even a wild boar conjured less dread than the relentless, unreasoning threat that chased me from midnight till dawn. Well, perhaps Betha would help me sort it out on our journey to the coast. Or perhaps another vision would favor me, or perhaps, a clarifying dream. But no visions came that night or the next. My sleep was peaceful, too, and I was refreshed, albeit perplexed, when my journey with Betha began.

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