Cailean wandered along the alley, rattling his stick against the old barrels piled against the walls, the absence of his dog bothering him like an aching tooth. Suddenly he glanced up, sensing danger, as four boys rose from their hiding-places, grinning nastily. “Och, if it no’ Cailean the Simple! All alone? Where’s yer dog?”
Cailean, backing against the wall, gave a curious high-pitched whistle. The bullies grinned. “No use whistling, laddie. We ken yer uncle took the monster dog wi’ him to market! Ye’re all alone!”
Cailean whistled again, though the sound was cut short by the first fist. As he fell to the ground, knees to his chest, arms over his head, he managed to whistle one more time before all four closed in on him, chanting: “That’ll teach ye, idiot-boy fro’ the monster-forest! Think ye can come an’ lord it all o’er us? Cretin! Cailean the Cretin!”
From the corners of the town came the distant sound of barking, and Cailean managed to whistle once more, though it was hard to catch his breath between the blows. Then the barking came closer, he heard the patter of paws, and from every direction poured the dogs of the town - thin mongrels with fierce eyes, shaggy terriers, great hunting dogs, even a slender, nervous hound that belonged to the Lady of Kenrathad. With an oath the bullies fell back, then the dogs were upon them, snapping and snarling. They managed to get a last kick to Cailean’s ribs before turning and running, one leaving a flag of his trousers in the jaws of the biggest. With a groan, Cailean sat up, testing a split lip with his tongue. The dogs swarmed around him, tails wagging wildly, and he patted their rough heads. “Guid dogs. Nay, gettin’ down. I be sore …”
“Cailean! Are ye hurt? Was it those bluidy bullies again?” Cailean’s elder brother Briant came striding up the alley, his pick over his shoulder, covered from head to foot in glittering blue dust. He swung Cailean to his feet with one strong hand, as always making him feel small, drab and insignificant. Though only two years older than Cailean, Briant was four inches squarer, with vigorous dark hair and bright hazel eyes. “Did ye call the dogs? Fool! Ye shouldna call people’s attention to yeself like tha’!”
“But they were beating me up!”
“Learn to fight wi’ your fists, then, laddie!”
“I hate this bluidy town! Wha’ did I ever dae to them? Why canna they just leave me alone!”
“Och, I do no’ exactly love it here either, cub. Ye think I like working i’ the quarries all day and i’ the inn all evening?”
They slipped in the side door without being seen, but as they came up the servants’ stairs, their mother came out of the linen press, her arms filled with starched sheets, her hair bound back in a kerchief. Morag looked them over with her clear green eyes and said, “Who?”
“Donald o’ the Chandlers, and Angus the Round, and Cambeul MacCann ...”
“How did ye get awa’ wi’ so little hurt?”
“They mun have heard me coming,” Briant said quickly. She looked at them without expression and said: “I heard the dogs.” The brothers could think of nothing to say. Morag took Cailean hard by the shoulder, and said: “Ye mun be more careful, Aelfwin. The Awl are suspicious o’ any tha’ seem to show Talent. Ye mun try and be more like others...”
Cailean jerked his shoulder out of her grasp, and stumbled as fast as he could up the stairs to his room. It was no use to tell him to be more like other people. Cailean did not know how. He had always been an outsider, even in the village of Dubhglas where he had been born. When the other boys had played and fought together, he had slipped off with his dog to the great forest that pressed up close to the loch where they lived. The Shadowswathe was a strange and mysterious forest, its moss-draped trees hiding nisses, cluricauns and tree-changers, as well as many creatures that had never been given a name. Dragons flew over the Shadowswathe, shadow-hounds slunk through its undergrowth - there was even said to be one of the Celestines’ enchanted gardens somewhere in its heart, a place where all illnesses were healed and sorrows forgotten. “Anyone born in the Shadowswathe must be a witch-lover and faery-friend,” the people of Kenrathad murmured, and looked askance at Morag and her two sons.
The problem was, their suspicions were true. Nearly everyone in Dubhglas still followed the old ways, but Morag more than most. She had spent eight years at the Tower of Two Moons, being trained in the mysteries of witchcraft, and Cailean often wondered if she had wanted to stay on and take her Tests for apprenticeship, instead of leaving at the age of sixteen to marry their father. If she had, he and Briant would never have been born, and Morag would probably have died with the other witches in the Burning. Instead, she taught her sons the way of the Coven in secret, chanting them the old prayers and songs, and teaching them the mysteries of will and power.
Briant had been born before the Burning, and so he had been Named in the old way by the village Skeelie, who had won her rings of Earth and Spirit at the Tower of Storm. In a clearing on the shores of the Dubhglas, she had drawn Êa’s blessing on his brow with ashes and earth, and named him Briant, which meant Truth, Justice, Strength, the greatest of all virtues.
When Cailean was born two years later, the Skeelie was gone, burnt to death in the village square, red lines of soldiers holding back the villagers with crossed spears. Many died that week in witch-fires all over Eileanan, shrieking their defiance against the Rìgh who had so strangely, so suddenly, turned against the Coven. Not only Tower witches died, but Skeelies and Cunning Men too, anyone with magical skill and knowledge, no matter how small. Cailean was born that same night, and Morag carried him through the forest in the grey light of dawn when no-one would see. In the clearing by the shadowed waters, she placed a wreath of bitter herbs and nightshade on his head, drew the crossed circle on his brow with ashes from the death-fire, and named him Aelfwin. It was a dangerous name to give a babe in those days, an old old name that meant ‘friend of the faery’. His father was angry when he knew, and frightened. He beat Morag and told her to keep her tongue between her teeth. The babe remained nameless, called merely ‘the child’, until the nickname stuck, and he was dubbed Cailean, which meant both child and cub, for even as a toddler he showed an alarming affinity with dogs, able to charm even the most fierce.
Morag ran a terrible risk, Naming him in the old way. If caught, she would have faced the fire, for the Anti-Witchcraft League were ruthless in stamping out any sign of rebellion. Dubhglas was a long way away from the cities, however, and Morag remained safe in the hamlet on the shores of the dark loch. From her, Briant and Cailean learnt a fascination with magic, the forbidden craft. All their childhood they pretended they still lived in the grand days of the Coven, when sorcerers ruled the winds and the waves, when quests were undertaken, spells cast, and battles against the terrible race of sea-dwellers, the Fairgean, fought and won.
Such games had to be abandoned after their father died and they moved away from the Shadowswathe, for Kenrathad had prospered under the new order, and the spies of the Awl were everywhere. After the Burning, the Rìgh moved his court away from his ancient castle, where the ruins of the Tower of Two Moons still smouldered, and built his new wife a magnificent palace by the sea, all from Kenrathad’s shining blue stone. The town boomed as never before, exporting its stone all over Eileanan and the Archipelago, and in the inns of Kenrathad, toasts were made to the new Bànrigh, who had brought them such prosperity. In the country villages, though, minstrels who sang of the Bànrigh’s beauty and wisdom gained only scanty applause, for the Skeelies and Cunning Men had blessed the crops and healed the sick, and kept away the worst of the winter storms. Without their magic, life on the land was harder than ever.
Cailean was roused from his daydreams as Dobhailen pushed open the door with his nose, sliding silent as smoke into the room. Cailean had found Dobhailen as a puppy in the forests, whimpering against the flank of his dead mother. Since that day they had been inseparable, Dobhailen a great shadow at Cailean’s heels, as tall as his shoulder and as black as night. When Dobhailen was there, the bullies dared not lie in wait for Cailean or call him simpleton. Even his massive Uncle Niall found Dobhailen frightening and, though he took him each week to market to guard his purchases, never tried to stroke or pat him, not since Dobhailen had snapped at him one day and pierced his hand right through.
Stroking his dog’s silky head, his warm bulk comforting against his side, Cailean felt better, drifting off into a daydream where he and Dobhailen ran free through the Shadowswathe. It was near sunset when Briant came pounding up the stairs, his eyes bright with suppressed excitement. “Cailean! Guess what! They’ve arrested tha’ auld beggar-woman, the one tha’ lives under the bridge …”
“Why?” Cailean cried in shock. Although he had never spoken more than a few words to the beggar-woman, she was one of the few kindred spirits he had found in Kenrathad. Like him, she liked animals better than people, throwing many of the scraps of bread she was given to the birds in the square. Like him, she was an outsider, scorned by the people of Kenrathad.
“They say she is a witch.”
“But she is just a puir auld beggar-woman …”
“Nay, I dinna think so. Ye should have seen her, Cailean. She fell down i’ a fit i’ the square, raving and shouting prophecies. She said a war is coming! Och, there is nothing new about tha’, the Fairgean have been rising for years! But what has got everyone i’ a sweat is tha’ she called the Bànrigh a fairge! Can ye believe it?”
Cailean was astounded. To call the Bànrigh a fairge was dangerous and stupid. The Fairgean were Eileanan’s greatest enemies, a race of brutal shape-changing sea-people. Although they lived in the water, they breathed air and needed land on which to birth their young, and had fought for a thousand years to regain their lost coastlands. The last few years had seen them rising again, as the Burning of the witches had removed the only power in the land capable of controlling them. Kenrathad was as affected as the rest of the country, even though it was so far from the sea. Every day more refugees arrived, with tales of shepherds drowned in bhuirns as they watered their herds, or milkmaids pulled into wells by finned arms. The merchant ships were holed and sunk, and no-one dared send out more ships, so that Kenrathad’s beautiful blue stone lay abandoned on the docks. The Laird of Kenrathad stayed within his high-walled keep, the great town square was filled with beggars instead of merchants, and the mood in the streets was ugly.
“But how could the Bànrigh be a fairge? The Fairgean have scales and fins and gills!”
“No’ when they’re in their land-shape, idiot! Besides, does it no’ make sense? Why else turn against the witches, if no’ to make sure they canna defend against the Fairgean? No-one has ever kenned where the Bànrigh came fro’ - she turned up out o’ nowhere, and married the Rìgh, and within weeks he was throwing down the Towers and burning witches. An’ they say he sickens more each day and hardly kens who he is, or wha’ is happening. Does it no’ sound as if he is under a spell? Believe me, everyone who heard the auld beggar went white and hurried awa’, and I promise ye there are many i’ Kenrathad tonight who fear it may be true, and our own Bànrigh is really a fairge …”
“They’ll burn the auld woman for saying tha’ …” Cailean felt sick with horror. The Bànrigh was the real power in the land, and the Awl were her eyes and her sword. They would never let pass such an accusation, no matter how old and mad the speaker may be.
“Indeed, the town guards have ridden south to find the Seeker. She’ll burn for sure. That’s why we have to rescue her. We canna be allowing the Awl to burn another witch! Too many o’ Talent have been lost already …”
“But wha’ can we do?”
Briant laughed, his eyes brilliant. “No’ ye, ye fool! Me an’ the rebels! Wha’ use would ye be?”
Cailean felt his jaw drop in amazement. He thought his brother had subdued his restless energy, and settled down to life in Kenrathad. He had had no idea that Briant had joined the rebels, who had sworn to topple the Bànrigh and bring back the Coven. “Wha’ if ye get caught! Wha’ about Mam?”
“We shallna get caught!” Briant laughed. “Come on! The Bànrigh’s Guards will be arriving soon, with a Seeker a’ their head. Let’s go see!”
The town square was seething with people, some white with pity, most filled with excitement. In the centre of the square was a makeshift wooden cage on a massive pile of kindling. In the cage was the beggar, her matted hair over her face, her hands gripping the bars. Every now and again she gave a whimper, and Cailean felt his heart swell with pity. The gang of bullies were belting her with rotten fruit, and at the sight of them Dobhailen’s black lips lifted in a soundless snarl. Cailean put his hand on the dog’s back to quieten him, and the tip of the tail stirred though the dog continued to regard the boys with his silvery-green gaze so they grew uneasy and ran away.
Soon they could hear the hoarse twirl of pipes and the sound of marching feet, then a legion of Red Guards tramped into the square, the townspeople scrambling to get out of the way. On horses at their head were the legion’s commander and the Seeker, a grim-faced man with lips so thin as to be invisible. He was dressed in a crimson robe over breeches and high boots, and the gold medallion of the Seekers hung around his neck. Looking at his cold, implacable face, Briant and Cailean shrank back into the crowd, believing suddenly the stories that a Seeker could look into the mind of anyone and know what they were thinking.
He rode right up to the cage, the townspeople bowing and curtseying, and looked down at the beggar inside. She glanced up and, seeing the red robe, began to shriek and thrash from side to side. “Och, I see the redcoats coming through the forest, flames in their fists. Och, I see the redcoats coming, with their spears and swords, stabbing and killing and burning books. Och, mo Tùr na Aisling, a’ milleadh o chionn fhada.”
“She has betrayed herself now,” Morag said right behind Cailean and Briant, having always had the trick of moving soundlessly. “She should no’ have spoken i’ the auld tongue. See how the Seeker smiles - she will burn now, for sure.”
“Why? Wha’ did she say?” Briant asked.
“Och, my Tower of Dream-walkers, destroyed long ago. I would say she has the gift o’ prophecy … many o’ the Dreamers could walk both ways along the thread o’ time …”
The witch’s voice rose in a shriek. “A child shall be born tha’ shall rule the world. One foot on the seas, one foot on the land. She shall sit on the Throne o’ Cuinn, she shall hold the lodestar i’ her hand, daughter o’ the lord o’ the seas, she shall ride the sea-serpent …”
“That’s enough!” the Seeker said menacingly, but the witch kept chanting: “Child of the MacCuinn and his fairge bride, war shall follow i’ her footsteps, she shall be crowned wi’ death …”
“Stop it, I said,” the Seeker cried, and he dragged his jewelled dagger from his belt so that the crowd tensed. At the last moment, though, he brought the hilt down upon her wild head, so she fell unconscious. “The foul witch seeks to spread fear and dissension, but I ken the guid folk o’ Kenrathad are too wise to be taken i’ by her lies. It is clear she is a witch, for she spoke i’ the forbidden language … we shall burn her i’ the morning!”
Although a few in the crowd cheered, most were uneasy and the Seeker glared at them, slowly examining each face until eyes dropped. “Down to all witches and rebels! Down to those tha’ dare oppose the Truth!”
“The Truth!” the crowd shouted, and under the pressure of their mother’s fingers, Cailean and Briant did too.
“It is late and I have ridden far and fast to come and examine your witch.” Somehow the Seeker made the entire town complicit in the witch’s treasonous statements, and everyone shifted their feet unhappily. “I shall retire now to eat and rest. Leave the witch here to ponder her fate, and we shall meet again i’ the morning.”
Unfortunately, the Seeker decided to stay in their uncle’s inn, and Morag had to hurry back to serve them with dinner and drink. Briant disappeared with some of his friends and, troubled and restless, Cailean wandered back also, Dobhailen pressing close to his side. He crouched on the landing-place and watched the soldiers drinking and laughing, his mother’s quiet figure moving amongst them, and wondered what Briant was doing. His brother did not return until it was late, and then his eyes glittered with excitement. “We’re to rescue her tonight,” he said to Cailean as he wolfed down his supper. “I’m to try and call up fog, so the rebels can creep i’ under cover …”
“Can ye call up fog?”
Briant flushed angrily. “I’ve played wi’ weather before, ye ken tha’!”
“Aye, but sometimes ye can an’ sometimes ye canna, and nearly always something goes wrong …”
“I’ve been practising! Besides, it’s a misty auld day anyway, so all I need do is call it i’, not actually conjure it. They’ve only left four guards, the fools, so we shouldna have much trouble ...”
“An’ why should ye be having trouble?” Morag asked, again startling them with her noiseless approach. “Ye dinna be thinking o’ doing anything stupid, are ye, Briant? The Awl are canny and careful - they ken these mountains are thick wi’ rebels - do no’ be thinking ye can easily deceive them.”
“We shallna be caught,” Briant said confidently.
“Och, it’s the second sight ye be having now, is it? And if ye do manage to rescue the puir auld witch, wha’ shall ye be doing wi’ her? She’s too auld to survive long i’ these mountains!”
“We are no’ going to just abandon her to the wilds,” Briant said indignantly. “The rebels ken it’ll be too hot for them here after they’ve rescued her, so most o’ them are travelling through the mountains to join the rebel camp i’ Rionnagan. They’ll take her wi’ them …”
“And are ye going wi’ the rebels?”
“How can I? I mun stay here and look after ye and the cub …”
“But ye wish to, dinna ye, laddie?”
Briant nodded, shamefacedly. “Things are happening there, mam,” he burst out. “The Cripple himsel’ is there - ye mun have heard o’ him! He’s rescued witches fro’ under the nose o’ the very Bànrigh hersel’! And they say many o’ the Rìgh’s own bodyguard fled there after the disbanding o’ the Blue Guards, rather than hand i’ their swords to the Bànrigh … they’d teach me to fight and be a warrior, I be sure o’ it! And there’d be witches there, maybe they’d teach me too …”
“Ye ken the penalty for rebellion against the Crown is death …”
“Aye, mam, o’ course I do. But we canna sit around and let the Awl burn who they will, simply because they speak out against the Bànrigh, or are born wi’ magical talent …”
“Please, Briant, be careful! I do no’ wish to see ye burn i’ the witch’s place.”
Briant’s eyes lit up, and with a rough kiss, he was out the door and pounding down the stairs. Cailean’s eyes met his mother’s. “Why did ye let him go?” he asked wonderingly. Morag was not usually so easily won over, particularly not in so serious a matter. Her mouth quirked with pain. “He is almost a man, now, Cailean, and mun find his own road.”
That evening Cailean sat with his nose pressed against the window, watching the witch curled in her cage, a pile of rags and tangled hair. Soon after midnight, mist began to drift over the town, and soon it was so thick Cailean could barely see beyond the window-pane. He thought he saw dim shapes moving slowly through the fog, and he heard a low cry, cut off, as one of the guards was felled from behind. Hope was just beginning to stir in his veins, when he heard the blast of a horn and saw soldiers pouring out of every door. The rebels turned and tried to fight them off, but there were too many, and soon the sound of shouting and swords clanging gave way to silence. Cailean clung to the window-frame, paralysed with dread, then he saw the soldiers returning to the inn, dragging prisoners with them.
With Dobhailen by his side, he crept silently down the stairs, crouching on the landing to watch as the foyer filled with redcoats and their struggling captives. With a sharp drop of his heart, he recognised Briant, bruised and bloodied but still standing. The Seeker came out, his voice purring with satisfaction. “I knew the rebels would try and rescue the foul witch. Now we really shall have a bonfire! Take them down to the cellars and make sure they are locked i’ securely!” Dobhailen raised all his hackles and growled, and Cailean shushed him with a touch, as the Seeker turned to Morag and Niall, waiting white-faced by the door. “I am told one o’ the lads captured lives here. I had no idea when I decided to honour your establishment that I was to be sleeping i’ a nest o’ witches and revolutionaries!”
“Och, m’lord, I had no idea my nephew was involved i’ such things, I would never have let them stay if I had kenned.” Niall said nervously, twisting his fingers in his apron. It was peculiar to see such a large man cringing, and Cailean’s throat closed with fear. “They be strange lads, though, they come fro’ the Dubhglas, ye ken, up near the Shadowswathe, wha’ they call the monster forest, tha’ no Truth-fearing man would live near. I swear it’s no’ my fault …” His rolling eye fell upon Morag, standing still and silent, and he said eagerly. “It’ll be their mam’s fault, her family has aye had peculiar notions, and she was a’ the Tower as a bairn, ye ken …”
“Indeed,” the Seeker said, and played with his gold medallion. “A Tower witch! Well, more fire-fodder!” He ran his eyes over Morag, and said, “This one I’ll question mysel’. Take her to my rooms!”
Cailean launched himself over the bannister and onto the Seeker’s back, knocking him to the ground. “Run, Mam, run,” he shrieked, as Dobhailen plunged down the stairs and leapt for the throat of one of the soldiers, eyes burning with green flame. “A shadow-hound!” the Seeker screamed, and threw Cailean over his head so he crashed into the ground. Dobhailen left the body of the soldier, his muzzle dripping, and sprung on the Seeker. Morag knocked out the other soldier with a jug she grabbed off the sideboard, as Cailean screamed “Dobhailen! Dobhailen!”, the Seeker’s dagger plunging into the dog’s flank. Morag smashed the jug against the Seeker’s head, then they both ran out the door into the mist, Dobhailen limping after.
“Why was I no’ told the witches had a shadow-hound!” the Seeker screamed, trying to staunch the blood from his wounds. “Kill it! Shadow-hounds are extremely dangerous! It mun no’ be allowed to escape!”
Through the blanketing mist they hurried, Cailean’s hand on Dobhailen’s guiding back, as the soldiers floundered behind them. The dog lead them to safety in a warehouse, and there Morag did what she could to staunch the flow of the dog’s greenish blood. “I canna believe he is a shadow-hound,” Morag said. “I have never heard of a shadow-hound being tamed before … though ye canna exactly call Dobhailen domesticated!”
Cailean tried to remember everything he knew about shadow-hounds, but it was mainly myth and conjecture. He rested his head on Dobhailen’s flank and the dog whined, and licked his face. In the darkness his eyes glowed green as sunlight striking through forest, and Cailean drifted into dreams of the Shadowswathe. When he woke it was almost dawn, and he knew what he had to do. He left his mother sleeping, and slipped out into the dimness, whistling a curious, high-pitched tune.
All over Kenrathad, dogs lifted their heads and listened, tails wagging. The miller’s two dogs rose and slipped out through a hole in the boards; in the high-walled keep, a graceful little hound scrabbled at the door of her lady’s boudoir until a sleepy chamber-maid let her out; down on the river, hungry mongrels stopped sniffing for food under the wharf and began to trot purposefully though the empty streets.
Suddenly, the silence was smashed by the blood-chilling sound of a shadow-hound howling, waking people from their dreams with a start. In the Inn of the Red Dragon, the Seeker sat bolt upright, cold sweat on his body. Again and again the eerie sound came, and each time it swelled and multiplied, until it sounded as if the hell-hounds of legend stalked the perimeters of the town. The Seeker paced his room, hands shaking, his skin deathly white and clammy - he knew the sound of a swarm of shadow-hounds, and knew how very dangerous they could be. At last he dressed and ordered the soldiers to drag the rebels into the town square. “We will burn them now! Call out the townspeople! Light the torches!”
When the soldiers went to rouse the town, they found their way barred by packs of marauding dogs. If they stood still or retreated, the dogs merely barked, but if they raised their swords, the dogs dragged them down. The Laird’s pack of hunting dogs blocked the great gate so none of the castle guards could get out, whining and climbing over each other’s backs, but not moving even when the hunting master blew his horn. All over Kenrathad, the townsfolk found themselves trapped in their own houses, and those that did manage to subdue their dogs found the streets filled with packs of fierce-eyed mongrels that would not let them pass. So when the Seeker at last strode into the square, a burning brand gripped in his hand, he did not find crowds of admiring townspeople as he had planned - just one small boy, surrounded by a great writhing horde of black shadow-hounds, silent as smoke, their eyes burning with green fire.
The rebels - mainly young men of sixteen or seventeen - were tied to the pile of kindling by some scared-looking soldiers, keeping away the dogs with their spears, but the cage was empty. Cailean regarded the Seeker calmly, his hand on Dobhailen’s head. “I have freed the puir auld witch - she is safe now. Let go my brother and his friends …”
“Dinna be a fool!” the Seeker said contemptuously. “Ye seem to forget I am a Seeker of the Awl! This town is filled with the Bànrigh’s Guards, all under my command. Ye can do nothing.”
“Call your soldiers then,” Cailean said. “I think ye will find they canna come.”
The Seeker looked about him uneasily. There were only six soldiers in the square, and they were white with fear, their spear-points trembling. The mist still drifted around, obscuring his view, but he could see the streets and alley-ways were filled with dogs, some fighting over bodies on the ground. “I have tried no’ to hurt your soldiers, but many o’ them chose to fight,” Cailean continued. “Most threw down their swords, though, when they realised the dogs would kill them if they did no’.”
Gripping his gold medallion, the Seeker looked back at the boy, so small among the undulating backs of the shadow-hounds, snapping, snarling, and straining as if at some invisible leash. “If I release the shadow-hounds fro’ my will, ye will all die,” Cailean said conversationally. “They are hard to hold, and once I release them, I do no’ ken if I can charm them again ….”
With rage distorting his face, the Seeker thrust his burning brand into the kindling. “Watch your brother burn then!” he screamed. At once the shadow-hounds lunged forward, a tide of blackness, and the Seeker fell beneath them, screaming. The soldiers tried to run, but the dogs were all around them, and with pleas for mercy they flung down their swords. Cailean leapt up onto the platform, and desperately beat out the flames with his hands, cutting the rebels’ bonds with the Seeker’s own knife. “By Eâ’s green bluid, wha’ are ye doing here!” Briant gasped, as he half-fell down to the ground.
“Rescuing ye, o’ course,” Cailean laughed. “And ye thought I wouldna be any use!”