Shadow Spell
Author:Roberts Nora

Shadow Spell by Roberts Nora


Autumn 1268

MISTS SPIRALED UP FROM THE WATER LIKE BREATH AS Eamon rowed the little boat. The sun shed pale, cool light as it woke from the night’s rest and set morning birds to their chorus. He heard the cock crow, so arrogant and important, and the bleating of sheep as they cropped their way across the green fields.
Familiar sounds all, sounds that had greeted him every morning for the last five years.
But this wasn’t home. No matter how welcoming, how familiar, it would never be home.
And home he wished for. Home brought him wishes aching down to his bones like an old man’s in damp weather, longings bleeding through his heart like a lover scorned.
And under the wishing, aching, longing, bleeding, lived a simmering rage that could bubble up and scorch his throat like thirst.
Some nights he dreamed of home, of their cabin in the great woods where he knew every tree, every turn of the track. And some nights the dreams were real as life, so he could smell the peat fire, the sweet rushes of his bed with the lavender his mother wove through for good rest and good dreams.
He could hear her voice, her singing soft from below the loft where she mixed her potions and brews.
The Dark Witch, they’d called her—with respect—for she’d been powerful and strong. And kind and good. So some nights when he dreamed of home, when he heard his mother singing from below the loft, he woke with tears on his cheeks.
Hastily brushed away. He was a man now, fully ten years, head of his family as his father had been before him.
Tears were for the women.
And he had his sisters to look after, didn’t he? he reminded himself as he set the oars, let the boat lightly drift while he dropped his line. Brannaugh might be the eldest, but he was the man of the family. He’d sworn an oath to protect her and Teagan, and so he would. Their grandfather’s sword had come to him. He would use it when the time came.
That time would come.
For there were other dreams, dreams that brought fear rather than grieving. Dreams of Cabhan, the black sorcerer. Those dreams formed icy balls of fear in his belly that froze even the simmering rage. A fear that made the boy inside him want to cry out for his mother.
But he couldn’t allow himself to be afraid. His mother was gone, sacrificing herself to save him and his sisters only hours after Cabhan had slaughtered their father.
He could barely see his father in his mind’s eye, too often needed the help of the fire to find that image—the tall and proud Daithi, the cennfine with his bright hair and ready laugh. But he had only to close his eyes to see his mother, pale as the death to come, standing in front of the cabin in the woods on that misted morning while he rode away with his sisters, grief in his heart, fresh, hot power in his blood.
He was a boy no longer, from that morning, but one of the three, a dark witch, bound by blood and oath to destroy what even his mother could not.
Part of him wanted only to begin, to end this time in Galway on their cousin’s farm where the cock crowed of a morning, and the sheep bleated in the fields. The man and witch inside him yearned for the time to pass, for the strength to wield his grandfather’s sword without his arm trembling from the weight. For the time he could fully embrace his powers, practice the magicks that were his by birth and right. The time he would spill Cabhan’s blood black and burning on the earth.
Still, in the dreams he was only a boy, untried and weak, pursued by the wolf Cabhan became, the wolf with the red stone of his black power gleaming at his throat. And it was his own blood, and the blood of his sisters, that spilled warm and red onto the ground.
On mornings after the worst dreams he went to the river, rowed out to fish, to be alone, though most days he craved the company of the cottage, the voices, the scents of cooking.
But after the blood dreams he needed to be away—and no one scolded him for not helping with the milking or the mucking or the feeding, not on those mornings.
So he sat in the boat, a slim boy of ten with a mop of brown hair still tousled from sleep, and the wild blue eyes of his father, the bright and stirring power of his mother.
He could listen to the day wake around him, wait patiently for the fish to take his bait and eat the oatcake he’d taken from his cousin’s kitchen.
And he could find himself again.
The river, the quiet, the gentle rock of the boat reminded him of the last truly happy day he’d had with his mother and sisters.
She’d looked well, he remembered, after how pale and strained she had looked over the long, icy winter. They were, all of them, counting the days until Bealtaine, and his father’s return. They’d sit around the fire then, so Eamon had thought, eating cakes and tea sweetened with honey while they listened to his father’s tales of the raids and the hunting.
They would feast, so he had thought, and his mother would be well again.
So he’d believed, that day on the river when they’d fished and laughed, and all thought of how soon their father would be home.
But he’d never come, for Cabhan had used his dark magicks to slay Daithi the brave. And Sorcha, the Dark Witch—even though she’d burned him to ash, he’d killed her. Killed her and somehow still existed.
Eamon knew it from the dreams, from the prickle down his spine. Saw the truth of it in the eyes of his sisters.
But he had that day, that bright spring day on the river to remember. Even as a fish tugged on his line, his mind traveled back, and he saw himself at five years bringing a shining fish from the dark river.
Felt that same sense of pride now.
“Ailish will be pleased.”
His mother smiled at him as he slid the fish into the pail of water to hold it fresh.
His great need brought her to him, gave him comfort. He baited his hook again as the sun warmed and began to thin the fingers of mists.
“We’ll need more than one.”
She’d said that, he remembered, that long ago day.
“Then you’ll catch more than one.”
“I’d sooner catch more than one in my own river.”
“One day you will. One day, mo chroi, you’ll return home. One day those who come from you will fish in our river, walk our wood. I promise this to you.”
Tears wanted to come, blurred his vision of her, so she wavered in front of his eyes. He willed them away, for he would see her clear. The dark hair she let fall free to her waist, the dark eyes where love lived. And the power that shone from her. Even now, a vision only, he sensed her power.
“Why could you not destroy him, Ma? Why could you not live?”
“It was not meant. My love, my boy, my heart, if I could have spared you and your sisters, I would have given more than my life.”
“You did give more. You gave us your power, almost all of it. If you’d kept it—”
“It was my time, and your birthright. I am content with that, I promise you as well.” In those thinning mists she glowed, silver-edged. “I am ever in you, Eamon the Loyal. I am in your blood, your heart, your mind. You are not alone.”
“I miss you.”
He felt her lips on his cheek, the warmth of her, the scent of her enfolding him. And for that moment, just that moment, he could be a child again.
“I want to be brave and strong. I will be, I swear it. I will protect Brannaugh and Teagan.”
“You will protect each other. You are the three. Together more powerful than I ever was.”
“Will I kill him?” For that was his deepest, darkest wish. “Will I finish him?”
“I cannot say, only that he can never take what you are. What you are, what you hold, can only be given, as I gave to you. He carries my curse, and the mark of it. All who come from him will bear it as all who come from you will carry the light. My blood, Eamon.” She turned her palm up, showed a thin line of blood. “And yours.”
He felt the quick pain, saw the wound across his palm. And joined it with his mother’s.
“The blood of the three, out of Sorcha, will lay him low, if it takes a thousand years. Trust what you are. It is enough.”
She kissed him again, smiled again. “You have more than one.”
The tug on his line brought him out of the vision.
So he had more than one.
He would be brave, he thought as he pulled the fish, flapping, out of the river. He would be strong. And one day, strong enough.
He studied his hand—no mark on it now, but he understood. He carried her blood, and her gift. These, one day, he would pass to his sons, his daughters. If it wasn’t for him to destroy Cabhan, it would be done by his blood.
But he hoped, by all the gods, it was for him.
For now, he’d fish. It was good to be a man, he thought, to hunt and fish, to provide. To pay back his cousins for the shelter and the care.
He’d learned patience since being a man—and caught four fish before he rowed the boat back to shore. He secured the boat, strung the fish on a line.
He stood a moment, looking out at the water, the shine of it now under the fullness of the sun. He thought of his mother, the sound of her voice, the scent of her hair. Her words would stay with him.
He would walk back through the little woods. Not great like home, but a fine wood all the same, he told himself.
And he would bring Ailish the fish, take some tea by the fire. Then he would help with the last of the harvest.
He heard the high, sharp cry as he started back to the cottage and the little farm. Smiling to himself, he reached into his satchel, drew out his leather glove. He only had to pull it on, lift his arm, and Roibeard swooped out of the clouds, wings spread to land.
“Good morning to you.” Eamon looked into those golden eyes, felt the tug of connection with his hawk, his guide, his friend. He touched the charmed amulet around his neck, one his mother had conjured with blood magicks for protection. It carried the image of the hawk.
“It’s a fine day, isn’t it? Bright and cool. The harvest is nearly done, and we’ll have our celebration soon,” he continued as he walked with the hawk on his arm. “The equinox, as you know, when night conquers day as Gronw Pebr conquered Lleu Llaw Gyffes. We’ll celebrate the birth of Mabon, son of Mordon the guardian of the earth. Sure there’ll be honey cakes for certain. I’ll see you have a bit.”
The hawk rubbed its head against Eamon’s cheek, affectionate as a kitten.
“I had the dream again, of Cabhan. Of home, of Ma after she gave us almost all there was of her power and sent us away to be safe. I see it, Roibeard. How she poisoned him with a kiss, how she flamed, using all she had to destroy him. He took her life, and still . . . I saw the stirring in the ashes she made of him. The stirring of them, something evil, and the glow of red from his power.”
Eamon paused a moment, drew up his power, opened to it. He felt the beating heart of a rabbit rushing into the brush, the hunger of a fledgling waiting for its mother and its breakfast.
He felt his sisters, the sheep, the horses.
And no threat.
“He hasn’t found us. I would feel it. You would see it, and would tell me. But he looks, and he hunts, and he waits, as I feel that as well.”
Those bold blue eyes darkened; the boy’s tender mouth firmed into a man’s. “I won’t hide forever. One day, on the blood of Daithi and Sorcha, I’ll do the hunting.”
Eamon lifted a hand, took a fistful of air, swirled it, tossed it—gently—toward a tree. Branches shook, and roosting birds took flight.
“I’ll only get stronger, won’t I?” he murmured, and walked to the cottage to please Ailish with four fish.
* * *
BRANNAUGH WENT ABOUT HER DUTIES AS SHE DID EVERY day. As every day for five years she’d done all that was asked of her. She cooked, she cleaned, tended the young ones as Ailish always seemed to have a baby at the breast or in the belly. She helped plant the fields and tend the crops. She helped in harvest.
Good honest work, of course, and satisfying in its way. No one could be more kind than her cousin Ailish and her husband. Good, solid people both, people of the earth, who’d offered more than shelter to three orphaned children.
They’d offered family, and there was no more precious gift.
Hadn’t her mother known it? She would never have sent her three children to Ailish otherwise. Even in the darkest hour, Sorcha would never have given her beloved children to anyone but the kind, and the loving.
But at twelve, Brannaugh was no longer a child. And what rose in her, spread in her, woke in her—more since she’d started her courses the year before—demanded.
Holding so much in, turning her eyes from that ever-brightening light proved harder and more sorrowful every day. But she owed Ailish respect, and her cousin held a fear of magicks and power—even her own.
Brannaugh had done what her mother asked of her on that terrible morning. She’d taken her brother and sister south, away from their home in Mayo. She’d kept off the road; she’d shuttered her grief in her heart where only she could hear it keening.
And in that heart lived the need to avenge as well, the need to embrace the power inside her, and learn more, learn and hone enough to defeat Cabhan, once and done.
But Ailish wanted only her man, her children, her farm. And why not? She was entitled to her home and her life and her land, the quiet of it all. Hadn’t she risked it by taking in Sorcha’s blood? Taking in what Cabhan lusted for—hunted for?
She deserved gratitude, loyalty, and respect.
But what lived in Brannaugh clawed for freedom. Choices needed to be made.
She’d seen her brother walk back from the river with his fish, his hawk. She felt him test his power out of the sight of the cottage—as he often did. As Teagan, their sister, often did. Ailish, chattering about the jams they’d make that day, felt nothing. Her cousin blocked most of what she had—a puzzlement to Brannaugh—and used only the bit she allowed herself to sweeten jams or coax bigger eggs from the hens.
Brannaugh told herself it was worth the sacrifice, the wait to find more, learn more, be more. Her brother and sister were safe here—as their mother wished. Teagan, whose grief had been beyond reaching for days, weeks, laughed and played. She did her chores cheerfully, tended the animals, rode like a warrior on her big gray Alastar.
Perhaps some nights she wept in her sleep, but Brannaugh had only to gather her in to soothe her.
Except when came the dreams of Cabhan. They came to Teagan, to Eamon, to herself. More often now, clearer now, so clear Brannaugh had begun to hear his voice echo after she woke.
Choices must be made. This waiting, this sanctuary, might need to come to an end, one way or another.
In the evening she scrubbed potatoes, tender from the harvest. She stirred the stew bubbling low on the fire, and tapped her foot as her cousin’s man made music on his little harp.
The cottage, warm and snug, a happy place filled with good scents, cheerful voices, Ailish’s laugh as she lifted her youngest onto her hip for a dance.
Family, she thought again. Well fed, well tended in a cottage warm and snug, with herbs drying in the kitchen, babes with rosy cheeks.
It should have contented her—how she wished it would.
She caught Eamon’s eye, the same bold blue as their father’s, felt his power prod against her. He saw too much, did Eamon, she thought. Far too much if she didn’t remember to shutter him out.
She gave him a bit of a poke back—a little warning to mind his own. In the way of sisters, she smiled at his wince.
After the evening meal there were pots to be cleaned, children to tuck into bed. Mabh, the eldest at seven, complained, as always, she wasn’t sleepy. Seamus snuggled right in, ready with his dreaming smile. The twins she’d helped bring into the world herself chattered to each other like magpies, young Brighid slipped her comforting thumb in her mouth, and the baby slept before his mother laid him down.
Brannaugh wondered if Ailish knew both she and the babe with his sweet angel face would not be without magick. The birth, so painful, so wrong, would have ended them both in blood without Brannaugh’s power, the healing, the seeing, the doing.
Though they never spoke of it, she thought Ailish knew.
Ailish straightened, a hand on her back, another on the next babe in her womb. “And a good night and happy dreams to all. Brannaugh, would you have some tea with me? I could do with some of your soothing tea, as this one’s kicking up a storm tonight.”
“Sure and I’ll fix you some.” And add the charm as she always did for health and an easy birthing. “He’s well and healthy that one, and will be, I suspect, as big a handful on his own as the twins.”
“It’s a boy for certain,” Ailish said as they climbed down from the sleeping loft. “I can feel it. I’ve not been wrong yet.”
“Nor are you this time. You could do with more rest, cousin.”
“A woman with six children and one in the pot doesn’t see much rest. I’m well enough.” Her gaze fixed on Brannaugh’s for confirmation.
“You are to be sure, but could do with more rest all the same.”
“You’re a great help and comfort to me, Brannaugh.”
“I hope I am.”
Something here, Brannaugh thought as she busied herself with the tea. She sensed her cousin’s nerves, and they stirred her own.
“Now that the harvest is in, you might settle in with your sewing. It’s needed work, and restful for you. I can see to the cooking. Teagan and Mabh will help there, and I’ll tell you true, Mabh’s already a fine cook.”
“Aye, sure and she is that. I’m so proud of her.”
“With the girls seeing to the cooking, Eamon and I can help our cousin hunt. I know you’d rather I didn’t take up the bow, but isn’t it wise for each to do what we do well?”
Ailish’s gaze veered away a moment.
Aye, Brannaugh thought, she knows and, more, feels the weight of asking us not to be what we are.
“I loved your mother.”
“Oh, and she you.”
“We saw little of each other the last years. Still she sent messages to me, in her way. The night Mabh was born, the little blanket my girl still holds as she sleeps was there, just there on the cradle Bardan made for her.”
“When she spoke of you, it was with love.”
“She sent you to me. You, Eamon, Teagan. She came to me, in a dream, asked me to give you a home.”
“You never told me,” Brannaugh murmured, and carried the tea to her cousin, sat with her by the peat fire.
“Two days before you came, she asked it of me.”
With her hands clasped in her lap over skirts as gray as her eyes, Brannaugh stared into the fire. “It took eight for us to travel here. Her spirit came to you. I wish I could see her again, but I only see her in dreams.”
“She’s with you. I see her in you. In Eamon, in Teagan, but most in you. Her strength and beauty. Her fierce love of family. You’re of age now, Brannaugh. Of age where you must begin to think of making a family.”
“I have a family.”
“Of your own, as your own mother did. A home, darling, a man to work the land for you, babes of your own.”
She sipped her tea as Brannaugh remained silent. “Fial is a fine man, a good man. He was good to his wife while she lived, I can promise you. He needs a wife, a mother for his children. He has a fine house, far bigger than ours. He would offer for you, and he would open his house to Eamon and Teagan.”
“How could I wed Fial? He is . . .” Old was her first thought, but she realized he would be no older than her Bardan.
“He would give you a good life, give a good life to your brother, your sister.” Ailish picked up her sewing, busying her hands. “I would never speak of it to you if I believed he would not treat you with kindness, always. He is handsome, Brannaugh, and has a fine way about him. Will you walk out with him?”
“I . . . Cousin, I don’t think of Fial in that way.”
“Perhaps if you walk out with him you will.” Ailish smiled as she said it, as if she knew a secret. “A woman needs a man to provide, to protect, to give her children. A kind man with a good house, a pleasing face—”
“Did you wed with Bardan because he was kind?”
“I would not have wedded him hadn’t he been. Only consider it. We’ll tell him we wait until after the equinox to speak to you of it. Consider. Will you do that?”
“I will.”
Brannaugh got to her feet. “Does he know what I am?”
Ailish’s tired eyes lowered. “You are the oldest daughter of my cousin.”
“Does he know what I am, Ailish?”
It stirred in her now, what she held in, held back. Pride stirred it. And the light that played over her face came not only from the flickers of the fire.
“I am the oldest daughter of the Dark Witch of Mayo. And before she sacrificed her life, she sacrificed her power, passing it to me, to Eamon, Teagan. We are the three. Dark witches we.”
“You are a child—”
“A child when you speak of magicks, of power. But a woman when you speak of wedding Fial.”
The truth of that had a flush warming Ailish’s cheeks. “Brannaugh, my love, have you not been content here these last years?”
“Aye, content. And so grateful.”
“Blood gives to blood with no need for grateful.”
“Aye. Blood gives to blood.”
Setting her sewing aside again, Ailish reached for Brannaugh’s hands. “You would be safe, the daughter of my cousin. And you would be content. You would, I believe it, be loved. Could you want more?”
“I am more,” she said quietly, and went up to the sleeping loft.
* * *
BUT SLEEP ELUDED. SHE LAY QUIET BESIDE TEAGAN, WAITING for the murmurs between Ailish and Bardan to fade away. They would speak of this match, this good, sensible match. They would convince themselves her reluctance was only a young girl’s nerves.
Just as they had convinced themselves she, Eamon, and Teagan were children, like any others.
She rose quietly, slipped on her soft boots, her shawl. It was air she needed. Air, the night, the moon.
She climbed silently down from the loft, eased the door open.
Kathel, her hound, who slept by the fire, uncurled and, without question or hesitation, went out before her.
Now she could breathe, with the cool night air on her cheeks, with the quiet like a soothing hand on the chaos inside her. Here, for as long as she could hold it, was freedom.
She and the faithful dog slipped like shadows into the trees. She heard the bubbling of the river, the sigh of wind through the trees, smelled the earth, and the tinge from the peat smoke rising from the cottage chimney.
She could cast the circle, try to conjure her mother’s spirit. She needed her mother tonight. In five years, she’d not wept, not allowed herself a single tear. Now, she wanted to sit on the ground, her head on her mother’s breast, and weep.
She laid a hand on the amulet she wore—the image of the hound her mother had conjured with love, with magick, with blood.
Did she stay true to her blood, to what lived in her? Did she embrace her own needs, wants, passions? Or did she set that aside like a toy outgrown, and do what would ensure the safety and future of her brother and sister?
“Mother,” she murmured, “what should I do? What would you have me do? You gave your life for us. Can I do less?”
She felt the reaching out, the joining of power like a twining of fingers. Whirling around, she stared at the shadows. Heart racing, she thought: Ma.
But it was Eamon who stepped into the moonlight, with Teagan’s hand in his.
The keen edge of her disappointment sliced like a blade through her voice. “You are to be abed. What are you thinking wandering the woods at night?”
“You do the same,” Eamon snapped back.
“I am the oldest.”
“I am head of the family.”
“The puny staff between your legs doesn’t make you head of the family.”
Teagan giggled, then rushed forward, threw her arms around her sister. “Don’t be angry. You needed us to come. You were in my dream. You wept.”
“I am not weeping.”
“In here.” Teagan touched a hand to Brannaugh’s heart. Her deep, dark eyes—so like their mother’s—searched her sister’s face. “Why are you sad?”
“I am not sad. I only came out to think. To be alone and think.”
“You think too loud,” Eamon muttered, still smarting over the “puny” comment.
“And you should have more manners than to listen to others’ thoughts.”
“How can I help it when you shout them?”
“Stop. We will not quarrel.” Teagan might have been the smallest of them, but she didn’t lack in will. “We will not quarrel,” she repeated. “Brannaugh is sad, Eamon is like a man standing on hot coals, and I . . . I feel like I do when I’ve had too much pudding.”
“Are you ill?” Brannaugh’s anger whisked away. She peered into Teagan’s eyes.
“Not that way. Something is . . . not balanced. I feel it. I think you do, and you do. So we will not quarrel. We are family.” Still holding Brannaugh’s hand, Teagan reached for Eamon’s. “Tell us, sister, why you’re sad.”
“I . . . I want to cast a circle. I want to feel the light in me. I want to cast a circle and sit in its light with you. Both of you.”
“We rarely ever do,” Teagan said. “Because Ailish would we didn’t.”
“And she has taken us in. We owe her respect in her home. But we are not in her home now, and she need not know. I need the light. I need to speak with you within our circle, where no one can hear.”
“I will cast it. I practice,” Teagan told her. “When Alastar and I ride away, I practice.”
On a sigh, Brannaugh ran a hand down her sister’s bright hair. “It’s good you do. Cast the circle, deirfiúr bheag.”