But Finn’s talents are needed elsewhere. Summoned by the Righ, Lachlan the Winged, she must embark on a perilous journey into the Forbidden Land. Imprisoned in the Black Tower is a rebellious prophet whose beliefs have made him an enemy among his own people.
Now Finn must help rescue the one whose words can free a land enshrouded in darkness.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Finn crept up behind her, then, without warning, pinned her to the ground with one arm twisted behind her back. The girl did not shriek out, as Finn had expected, but struggled to be free. Finn had to press her face firmly into the dust, her knees clamped hard into the girl’s side.
“What do ye think ye’re doing, spying on us like that?” she hissed in the girl’s ear.
“I be an outrider,” the girl panted.
“An outrider for whom?”
The girl said nothing. Finn dragged her to her feet and began to force her down the slope towards the camp, keeping her arm twisted up her back. The girl moved abruptly and Finn found herself sailing over her shoulder, landing with a thump in the grass. Then she was on her feet, throwing herself at the girl. Finn was surprised to find herself well-matched and exerted herself more fiercely.
Finn threw her to the ground and pinned her there with the girl’s head locked within her elbow.
The girl gave a breathless whistle. Finn heard the thunder of hooves and then the bay was rearing over them, his black mane tossing….
Book Four of The Witches of Eileanan
She can overcast the night and cloud the moon,
and make the Devil obedient to her croon.
At midnight hours over the kirkyard she raves,
Digging unchristened weans out of their graves;
Boils up their livers in a warlock’s pow,
Runs widdershins about the hemlocks low;
And seven times does her prayers backwards pray.
Then, mixed with venom of black toads and snakes,
Of this unsousy pictures oft she makes
Of anyone she hates—and makes them expire
With cruel and racking pains afore a fire:
Stuck full of pins the devilish pictures melt;
The pain by folk they represent is felt
Whilst she and her cat sit howling in her yard.
Seventeenth-century Scottish poet
Table of Contents
THE LOOM IS STRUNG
Finn brushed away the crust of snow and sat in the embrasure of the battlement, her legs hanging out. Carefully she packed her pipe with tobacco and, shielding the sparks from the wind with her hand, lit it with her flint. With a sigh of pleasure, she drew in a lungful of sharp-scented smoke. For a long moment she held it in her lungs, then breathed it out in a long plume that was dragged away by the frosty breeze.
She inhaled again, leant back her head and puffed out a series of perfect blue smoke-rings. As far as she could see there was no sign of life, only the sharp spears of snow-laden pines crowding close about the feet of towering grey mountains. “Does anything ever happen in Rurach?” she said to the elven cat curled on her lap. “Flaming dragon balls, I’m as bored as a eunuch in a brothel!”
Goblin yawned, showing a mouthful of tiny but very sharply pointed fangs. “I canna help agreeing,” Finn said. “Do ye think we should run away and join the pirates? At least then we’d see some adventure.”
The cat arched its back and hissed.
“No? Ye do no’ like that idea? No, o’ course, ye dislike water. Ye would no’ have to swim in it though. I believe the pirate ships are quite snug and there’d be fish to eat every day.”
Goblin tidied up her whiskers, not deigning to reply. Finn sighed again and stared up at the sharp silhouette of the Fang. For once, it was not wreathed in clouds but cut into the sky like a sabre leopard’s tooth, dominating the horizon.
When Finn had first seen the sleeping volcano, she had been troubled by an odd sense of recognition. It had woken all sorts of half-memories in her, a longing or homesickness that she had not then understood She had then been travelling through the mountains of upper Rionnagan, on the far side of the Fang, and to her knowledge had never seen the tall, symmetrically shaped mountain before. As far as she knew, Finn had never before left the city of Lucescere where she had lived on the streets, picking pockets and begging for scraps of old food in order to survive.
Finn had been one of a gang of beggar children who had had to flee Lucescere after helping Jorge the Seer and his young acolyte Tòmas the Healer escape from the cruel seekers of the Awl, the Anti-Witchcraft League. That had been in the days when suspected witches were burnt to death. In company with the old, blind man and the little boy, Finn and her gang had taken refuge from the Awl in a hidden valley at the very foot of the Fang. There they had formed the League of the Healing Hand, a fellowship sworn to protect the two witches who, despite having such potent magical abilities, were in themselves frail and rather helpless. The League had ended up being very important in the overthrow of the Awl and the restoration of the Coven, and had earned the heartfelt gratitude of the new Rìgh, Lachlan MacCuinn.
Remembering, Finn thought rather wistfully that those years had been the happiest of her life. Although there was always the danger of losing a hand as a pickpocket or being captured as a rebel, there had been the close comradeship of the gang and the constant thrill of pitting one’s wits against the world and winning. Although Finn was never cold or hungry anymore, she was lonely now and sullen with misery. The constraints of court life chafed her unbearably and she felt all the court ladies, including her own mother, disapproved of her greatly.
It had been five years since Finn had discovered she was not an orphan of the streets, as she had thought, but the daughter of the prionnsa of Rurach. She had been kidnapped by the Awl as a mere child of six in order to force her father to their will. She had only discovered the truth during the Samhain rebellion which had put Lachlan MacCuinn on the throne and returned the Coven to power. Her father had then brought her back to Rurach, to meet a mother she had not remembered, and to learn to be a banprionnsa. Although Finn had felt a wrench at leaving her friends, she had been eager to see her home and her mother and to enjoy a life of ease.
But although Castle Rurach was as luxurious and comfortable as she had imagined, it was also boring. Built high in the mountains, it was a long way from the crowded streets of Lucescere, with its merchants, artisans, street performers, thieves and idle nobility. A young lady of Rurach was expected to spend her time with the other ladies of the court, plying her needle in exquisite embroidery and discussing the newest way to cut a sleeve. Finn had no interest in fashion, refused to learn how to sew, and thought of her mother’s retinue as a gaggle of fussy old hens.
The towering range of mountains that culminated in the crooked spire of the Fang was no longer a source of wistful longings but instead a prison wall which kept her locked away from the world with no chance of escape. If Finn had known the secret way over the mountains, she would have run away long ago, searching out her old friends in Lucescere. She did not know it, however, and so she took what pleasure she could in defying her mother and shocking the castle.
Goblin had curled up to sleep but suddenly the little cat raised her head, ears pricked forward. Finn tensed. She heard a step on the stair. She knocked out her pipe with one hand and thrust the other into her pocket, drawing out a small square of tightly folded black material. With a shake it billowed out into a cloak which she wrapped around her swiftly. Wherever the silky stuff brushed against her skin, it tingled and stung, and all the little hairs rose. She pulled the hood up to cover her face, and sat very still.
A gangly young man came out on to the battlements and stood hesitantly. Her father’s piper, he was dressed in the castle livery, a black and green kilt with a white woollen shirt and black jerkin. Although he had wrapped his plaid around his thin shoulders, it was bitterly cold out on the tower heights and he shivered and rubbed his arms.
“My lady Fionnghal?” Ashlin the Piper called. “Are ye here? Your mother desires your presence. My lady?”
Finn said nothing. Ashlin stared about with a troubled expression and called her again. When there was no response he turned and clattered back downstairs. Finn stuck out her tongue at his retreating back and shrugged off the cloak, which somehow always made her feel even colder. She huddled her furs closer around her neck and brought out her precious hoard of tobacco. “Why canna they ever leave me alone?” she said resentfully to the cat, who was still curled up on her lap. “Always following me about, spying on me, tittle-tattling. Anyone would think they had naught else to do.”
She puffed on her pipe angrily, kicking her legs against the stone. “I wish my dai-dein would get better,” she burst out in a sudden wail, then bit the stem of her pipe hard and said no more. Her father Anghus MacRuraich had been injured fighting ogres in the mountains and had lain near death for a week. Although the castle healer had told them his fever had broken and he would now recover, Finn could not help fearing he might suffer a relapse.
She was knocking out the ashes from her pipe when she suddenly felt a prickling at the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder and saw an old man step quietly out of the doorway. He was a short, stocky figure with a flowing grey beard, round pink cheeks and blue eyes twinkling between deep creases. He was her father’s gillie and had served Anghus ever since the laird had been a mere lad himself. Finn did not know him very well since he rarely left her father’s side and so had been absent from the castle most of the time since she had come to Rurach. His kilt was so faded it was a comfortable blur of grey and olive, and he wore his beard thrust through the wide belt that held his kilt together. A thin dagger, black as jet, was stuck through the disreputable scrap of ribbon holding up one stocking. The other stocking was tied up with twine.
“Och, there ye are, my lady,” Donald said placidly. “Bonny afternoon for a smoke.” Finn said nothing. He came to lean on the battlement beside her, looking up at the mountains and feeling inside his sporran for his pipe and tobacco pouch. Swiftly, without a glance downwards, he packed his pipe and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. “Smells like Fair Isles smokeweed ye’ve got there,” he said conversationally. “True tobacco is rare these days, wha’ wi’ pirates and the blaygird Fairgean on the rise. Most have to smoke herbs or seaweed these days.”
“Here, have some o’ mine,” Finn said sweetly, offering him her own leather pouch.
“Och, no need,” Donald replied. “I won a pouch full from Casey Hawkeye just last night. He be the lucky one, his uncle being the harbour master at Dùn Gorm and taking his taxes in tobacco. I should have enough to last me a wee while longer.”
There was silence while Donald lit his pipe and drew up the flame. When the tobacco was burning merrily, he pulled the pipe from his mouth and said placidly, “The question is, lassie, where it is ye got your smokeweed.”
“I do no’ see what business that is o’ yours.” Finn’s voice was honey-sweet. “And I do no’ think my dear mother would approve o’ ye being so familiar as to call me ‘lassie’.”
“Och, I have kent your mother since she was a wee bit o’ a lassie herself. She’ll no’ mind,” he replied equably. “It’s more likely that she’ll be disapproving o’ ye smoking a pipe, that I can promise ye.”
“Oh, ye think so? If only I had kent.”
“And even more o’ ye stealing, lassie,” he said softly.
Finn flushed and fidgeted with the tassels of her coat. She forced herself to raise her eyes and meet his gaze with a look of outrage. “Are ye accusing me o’ theft?”
“Lassie, do no’ be lying to me on top o’ it all. I ken ye must have stolen the smokeweed from Casey Hawkeye and he kens it as well. No’ that he has said aught and naught is what he will say. We do no’ wish to be getting ye into any more strife than ye’re already in. But I am sore ashamed o’ ye, lassie. It is one thing to be picking pockets when ye’re starving on the streets and do no’ ken any better, but to be diddling your father’s own loyal men, that is no’ worthy o’ ye.”
Finn was silent. She held the elven cat up to her face and rubbed her hot cheek against Goblin’s cool fur. Donald smoked in silence for a while, leaning on his elbows. His wrinkled brown face was peaceful.
“It does no’ matter what I do, she disapproves o’ everything anyway,” Finn suddenly burst out. “Ye’re right, she does no’ approve o’ me smoking or having a wee dram o’ whiskey every now and again, or wanting to play curling wi’ the lads…”
“Och, well, curling do be a right rough game now,” Donald said. She threw him a look of exasperation and saw his blue eyes were twinkling. “Ye mun remember that our mam was raised in the auld ways, when lassies did no’ have so much freedom and were expected to mind their manners and do wha’ they were told. Your grandfather was a very strict, starched-up sort o’ fellow, and proud o’ his name and his clan. Your mam was never allowed to forget she was a banprionnsa and direct descendant o’ Sian the Storm-Rider herself.”
Finn screwed up her face and he patted her shoulder. “She’s gone and worrit herself into a fret over ye, lassie. Should ye no’ go down and let her ken ye’re safe?”
Finn’s jaw set firmly. “What has she got to worry about so? It’s no’ as if I’m ever allowed to do anything or go anywhere. What can I do to hurt myself? Prick myself with a needle? Stub my toe kicking my mealy-mouthed cousin in the arse?”
“Fall over the battlements?” Donald said with a slight edge to his voice. He glanced down at Finn, still sitting in the embrasure with nothing between her and the ground but three hundred feet of air. “That is no’ the safest place to perch, lassie.”
Finn glanced down. “Do ye no’ ken they call me ‘the Cat’?” she said mockingly. “A wee drop like that does no’ worry me.”
“It worries all o’ us who care about ye though,” Donald said, the edge in his voice slightly sharper.
“Are ye trying to tell me my dear mother would really care if I fell off?” Finn tried to make her voice hard and sarcastic. “She’d probably heave a big sigh o’ relief to be rid o’ me and another o’ happiness that her precious Aindrew would then inherit the throne. Ye canna tell me she does no’ wish he was the firstborn.”
“I can and I do.” For the first time since Finn had met her father’s gillie, there was no kindly twinkle in his eyes. “When the blaygird Awl took ye away, I thought your mam would die o’ grief. Her eyes hung out o’ her head wi’ weeping and she was naught but a shadow o’ herself all the time ye were gone. I was there when your father brought ye back to Castle Rurach. Ye canna tell me ye did no’ see how full o’ joy she was to have ye home!”
Finn dropped her eyes, feeling a little niggle of shame. Her mother had run across the drawbridge to greet them, her hair all unbound and her feet still shod in soft slippers. Finn had not even had a chance to dismount. Her mother had pulled her from the saddle, weeping and holding her so closely Finn had thought her ribs would break. Enveloped in a golden cloud of sweetly perfumed hair, listening to her mother’s choked endearments, Finn had been filled with happiness. She had hugged her mother back as hard as she could and then felt her father’s arms embracing them both as he had cried, “See, my Gwyneth, I promised ye I would find our lassie and bring her home to ye! Now we can be a family again.”
But her father had spent only enough time at home to get his wife with child, before riding out to deal with the civil unrest wrenching Siantan and Rurach apart. The two countries had been joined into one with the marriage of Anghus’s parents. Ostensibly his mother had been meant to rule as an equal with his father, but Duncan MacRuraich had been an autocratic man. It was his will which had directed the actions of the Double Throne and the people of Siantan had suffered as a result, causing much dissatisfaction.
Although Anghus had reluctantly agreed to dissolve the Double Throne, with Finn’s cousin Brangaine NicSian named as banprionnsa of Siantan, Anghus had then had to contend with the problems caused by the rising of the Fairgean. Each autumn and spring, as the migrating hordes of sea-faeries swept up and down the cost, the attacks of their warriors grew ever more vicious. Consquently, Anghus had spent only short periods of time at home in the past five years, leaving Gwyneth to struggle with her foul-mouthed, light-fingered daughter, her baby son Aindrew, and her unfailingly polite yet distant niece, Brangaine. It had not been a happy time and the initial affection between mother and daughter had cooled into misunderstanding.
“It’s just I do no’ feel like I belong here,” Finn muttered as she allowed Donald to help her down from the wall.
“O’ course ye belong here, lassie,” Donald said warmly. “Are ye no’ a NicRuraich? Can ye no’ tell where anyone is merely by thinking o’ them? The bluid o’ Rùraich the Searcher runs strong in ye, as anyone could tell simply by looking at ye. Do no’ be such a porridge-head!”
Finn laughed reluctantly and followed the old gillie down the tower stairs, the elven cat tucked in the crook of her arm. “If only she did no’ fuss so,” she said. “I feel like I’m being stifled.”
“Wha’ ye need is a guid day’s hunting,” Donald said encouragingly. “We’ve all been cooped up for weeks wi’ the snowstorms; it’s enough to make anyone cranky. A day out on the hills will make ye feel a wee bit better.”
Finn’s hazel eyes lit with green lights. “Och, if only I could!”
“It’s a clear, frosty day,” Donald said thoughtfully. “Happen we’ll bag ourselves a crested pheasant which ye can have for your supper.”
Finn was so pleased with this idea that she came into the great drawing room with a light step and a happy face. Her mother was sitting on a chaise lounge, her embroidery frame before her. Brangaine sat at a stool at Gwyneth’s feet, a selection of silk threads spread over her skirt, while Finn’s brother Aindrew leant against her knee, playing contentedly with a pile of brightly coloured toys. Unlike Finn, he had taken after his mother, sharing the same pale silken hair, fine skin and green eyes. Brangaine had also inherited the MacSian fairness, both women having long, pale hair bound into a plait that hung over their shoulders and down past their knees. The firelight played over the three corn-silk heads, bent close together, and over the blue and grey plaids that both the women wore about their shoulders.
Finn’s step faltered and she scowled. The handful of middle-aged women gathered around the drawing room looked up and silence fell over the room. Gwyneth rose with a welcoming smile, holding out her hands to Finn. “Where have ye been, dearling? It’s been hours and no-one has been able to find ye anywhere!”
Finn gave a clumsy bob and said, rather gruffly, “I’m sorry, mam. I did no’ mean to worry ye. The sun is out for the first time in days and I just needed a breath o’ fresh air…”
“But it is after noon and ye’ve been gone since we broke our fast.”
“I went down to the stables to see Cinders. I knew she would be restless after being cooped up for so long and thought I would take her out for a ride but Casey said none o’ the grooms were free to go out with me. He would no’ let me take Cinders out by myself—he bade two o’ his men escort me from the mews. When I refused to go and ordered them to unhand me, he told me no’ to be such a foolish bairn.” Her voice rose with indignation.
“Ye ken ye must always be accompanied if ye wish to ride out,” Gwyneth said with some exasperation. She took Finn’s hand and drew her down to sit next to her. “I do no’ make these rules to vex ye, dearling. These mountains are dangerous, ye ken that. What if ye were to be thrown and break an ankle?”
“Cinders would no’ throw me! I have no’ lost my seat in years.”
“What if she was threatened by a woolly bear?”
“We’re no’ afraid o’ a stupid bear!”
“Och, ye should be. Ye ken they are surly, unpredictable creatures, and certainly no’ the only danger in these parts. What if a troll came down from the mountains, or a pack o’ goblins?”
“I wish some would, at least then there’d be some excitement!” Finn burst out.
Gwyneth sighed in annoyance. “Finn, a pack o’ marauding goblins is no’ something to wish for! We may be safe here in the castle, but what about the crofters? Goblins have no respect for life or property—they hurt for the pleasure o’ it. Ye will be the NicRuraich one day; it is your duty to guard and protect your people. Wishing harm to come to them for your own childish pleasure is no way to behave.”
Finn bit back rebellious words, but her eyes smouldered and her jaw was set firmly.
Gwyneth took a deep breath to contain her exasperation, then said affectionately, “Dearling, I ken ye find our life here rather tedious but indeed, peacefulness means happiness. There has been so much strife here for so long we auld ones are all rather glad to have some peace and quiet for a change. Your father is home now, thank Eà. As soon as his wounds are fully healed, he’ll take ye out riding the boundaries and teach ye more about the laird’s duties. Until then, ye must bide here in patience.”
“Yes, mam,” Finn said dutifully and let her mother kiss her cheek.
Donald had been waiting quietly just within the door. He had taken off his tam o’shanter and his shining bald dome was rosy in the firelight, fringed all round with grey curls. “I beg your pardon, my lady, but I ken how cooped up the young ones must be feeling wi’ the snowstorms keeping them so much inside. I was thinking I could be taking them out for a ride and maybe beat up some pheasants for your dinner, seeing as how we are all sick o’ eating mutton-and-taties.”
Gwyneth smiled, looking out at the blue sky. “It does seem to have cleared up. If ye take Casey with ye and some o’ the men, I do no’ see any reason why Fionnghal and Brangaine should no’ go out…”
“Excuse me, my lady, but I fear a storm is brewing,” Brangaine said respectfully.
Finn stared at her with hatred. “But the sky is clear! There are no clouds…”
“The clear sky is deceptive, I’m afraid, Fionnghal,” her cousin replied sweetly. “A storm front is coming and heavy with snow. By mid-afternoon the blue sky will be gone.”
“Well, in that case there be no question o’ ye riding out,” Gwyneth said decisively. “The storms do come very quickly here, ye ken that, Fionnghal. I do no’ wish for ye to be caught out in a snowstorm.” She saw the look of bitter disappointment and dislike on Finn’s face and said comfortingly, “Never mind, dearling. The next clear day ye can ride out, I promise ye.”
“It’s fine today!”
“Aye, for the moment, but ye ken Brangaine has the Talent. If she says a storm is coming, ye can be sure that it is.”
“She’ll probably whistle up a storm just to make sure I canna go out!” Finn cried and leapt to her feet, knocking over her mother’s embroidery frame. The court ladies threw up their hands and several cried aloud in condemnation. The elven cat hissed at them from Finn’s shoulder. Finn turned and ran out of the room, knocking over a little gilded table on her way and smashing the heirloom jug that stood upon it. Dashing tears from her eyes, she did not stop, slamming the door shut behind her.
Distressed, her mother ran after her but although the corridor stretched both ways as far as the eye could see, there was no sign of her wayward daughter.
That afternoon a blizzard engulfed the castle in a tumult of snow and wind that had everyone huddled up in their plaids. It did not make Finn feel any better knowing that Brangaine had been right and that any expedition into the forest could well have ended in disaster. She moped around the castle, staring out the windows at the whirling snow and blaming her cousin for mining her life. Although her mother reprimanded her gently, Finn was unable to shake a deep sense of injury and cast Brangaine many a smouldering glance.
That evening she was allowed to see Anghus for the first time, the castle healer having pronounced him strong enough to survive a visit by his tempestuous daughter. Finn’s sulky expression cleared as if by magic, and she eagerly followed Donald into the prionnsa’s bedroom and threw himself upon her father.
He embraced her with his one good arm, though he winced with pain, saying “Careful, lassie, those ribs are still a wee bit tender.”
She lifted herself away a little, saying urgently, “How are ye yourself, Dai? Ye look awful!”
The prionnsa smiled ruefully. “Thank ye, dearling.”
She examined his face closely. He was pale and haggard, with dark shadows under his hazel eyes. The bones of his face and hands seemed more prominent, and she thought with some distress that there was more grey than chestnut now in his long, curly hair. Two white streaks were clawing down into his magnificent red beard, which flowed down over his chest.
“Are ye sure ye be feeling better?” she asked anxiously, settling herself by his side with Goblin curled up on her lap.
He nodded, smiling a little. “Much better, lassie. Though I could wish ogres did no’ have such filthy personal habits. The healer says his claws were so dirty it was as if he had dipped them in poison.”
“Was it exciting?” Finn asked rather wistfully. “Fighting an ogre, I mean? I wish I’d been there.”
“I canna tell ye how glad I am that ye were no’,” Anghus replied, all traces of humour vanishing from his face. “Finn, I was lucky to escape the ogre alive! Three o’ my men were no’ so lucky. Do ye think their widows and orphans do no’ wish with all their hearts that that blaygird ogre had no’ stayed deep in the mountains? It was no’ exciting, Finn, it was tragic.”
Finn nodded her head, though her mouth once again had resumed its sullen droop. Anghus looked at her carefully. “Your mam tells me ye have been most restless and unhappy,” he said gently. “What is wrong, lass?”
She kicked the leg of the bedside table, turning her face away. “Och, naught.”
“It does no’ sound like naught,” her father said, pulling her a little closer so he could see her face. She glanced at him, then away, her brown cheek colouring, her hands pulling at the elven cat’s tufted ears.
“It’s just there’s naught to do here,” she burst out. “Dai, could I no’ go to the Theurgia in the spring?”
Anghus frowned. “But ye have excellent teachers here. We have spared no expense in bringing the very best to Castle Rurach. There’s a witch who trained at the Tower o’ Two Moons itself, no’ to mention the dancing-master, the music teacher to teach ye the lute and spinet, the scribe to teach ye how to write with a courtly hand…”
“I ken, I ken,” Finn said dispiritedly. “My hours are very well provided for.”
“Then what is the problem?”
She met his gaze squarely for the first time. “I’m bored.”
“Oh, Finn, everyone finds the winter very long and boring. The days are short and the weather too inclement for many excursions outside the castle walls. But what canna be changed must be endured. Ye must find something to do to keep yourself busy. Brangaine is much your age; what does she do with her time?”
“Och, bluidy Brangaine!” Finn’s hazel eyes hardened. “She’s naught but a stuck-up corn-dolly, content to sit and sew a fine seam and smirk at herself in a mirror.”
“That doesna sound very fair, Finn,” Anghus frowned. “Your mother tells me Brangaine works hard at her lessons and…”
“Och, for sure,” Finn said bitterly. “Everything Brangaine does is perfect. She’s just perfect in every way, the toad.”
“Fionnghal, it troubles me to hear ye speak this way. Ye must remember that this is your home and Brangaine an honoured guest. She has had an unhappy life, poor lass, losing both her parents so young and so tragically. And she has a heavy load on her shoulders, inheriting the throne o’ Siantan when she is still just a young lass, and the land in such trouble. Do ye no’ think ye could try a wee bit harder to be friends with her? She is your cousin after all.”
Finn said nothing, lifting Goblin so her face was hidden by the elven cat’s sinuous black shape.
“Come, lassie, do no’ look so cross. I tell ye what, next fine day we’ll take the horses out for a whole day, just the two o’ us. What do ye say?”
“If we ever have a fine day,” Finn muttered, then said, with a rather unconvincing smile, “Och, aye, that would be grand, Dai.”
The next fine day brought news that changed everything, however. A messenger struggled up to the drawbridge, cold, exhausted and frightened, his horse ridden close to death. The messenger’s shirt was half-torn from his back, the skin scored with three deep lines caused by a Fairgean trident.
“The sea demons have come, my laird,” the messenger cried, falling to his knees before the MacRuraich. “More o’ them than ever, my laird. We couldna keep them back. Already we’ve retreated to the third loch and still they keep on coming!”
Every year, the rising of the spring tides brought a bloodthirsty horde of Fairgean swimming down the coast of Rurach in pursuit of the blue whales, who migrated south each spring to mate in the warm, shallow waters of the southern seas. Over the past ten years, the sea-dwelling faeries had been growing in strength and numbers, causing great havoc as they swam up every river and stream, killing every human and beast they could find.
Ten years of constant raids on coastal towns and villages had armed the Fairgean with swords, daggers, and spears forged with iron, rather than their traditional weapons of coral and sea jewels, and honed their fighting skills so that each year it grew increasingly difficult to drive them back into the sea. With their steel weapons, the Fairgean were able to cut through the nets strung across the river to entangle them, and were able to fight on an equal footing with the laird’s soldiers.
Every year saw a flood of refugees fleeing the coast and river as the Fairgean transformed into their land-shape to rampage across the rich, rolling farmlands that filled the hinterland. The spring crops were trampled, herds of goats and sheep had their throats cut, and many crofters, stubbornly staying to defend their land, were murdered. Trade between the towns and the countryside was impossible without the freedom to boat up and down the river, and so lumber sat rotting in the yards, the furriers were unable to sell their winter cache of furs, the stonemasons and metal-smiths sat idle, and shipwrights starved. Every spring and autumn, the highland towns were crowded with refugees from the lowlands and each year, fewer and fewer returned to their farms in the lowlands. For the past few years, the MacRuraich had been struggling to fend off famine and disease, for the highlands simply did not have the resources to support so many people.
The news that the Fairgean had struck again, so early in the year and with such force, made everyone anxious and afraid. Almost immediately Anghus was calling for his sword and his horse, though a white-faced Gwyneth was begging him to remember how weak he still was. He only caught her to him and kissed her, telling her to be brave and to keep the castle gates locked tightly. “If they have swum as high as the third loch already, we canna be sure they will no’ swim higher,” he said grimly. “Start preparing for a siege, dearling, and keep those gates shut!”
The MacRuraich and his men rode out that very afternoon, leaving Castle Rurach defended by only a few scant men. Over the next few weeks Gwyneth was kept busy, sending out messengers to the nearby towns and villages and stocking up with food and weaponry. She had little time to pay any attention to Finn, who could not help feeling neglected. Her father had ridden out with no more than a ruffle of her hair and an injunction to be good, while her mother was so preoccupied days could pass with her saying no more than, “Please, no’ now, Finn!”
To make matters worse, the blizzard had blown over and the weather was clear and fine. Every day the loch sparkled, the wind was fresh with the smell of sun on pine needles, and the far blue distances beckoned Finn with the promise of adventure. Not all her pleading or sulking convinced Gwyneth to allow her out of the castle walls, however. The news from the south was very bad. For the first time in four hundred years, the Fairgean had penetrated Loch Finavon, the fourth loch from the sea. Anghus and his men had been driven back with terrible losses of life, and were now making one last valiant stand before retreating to the castle. Many of the Fairgean had transformed into their land-shape, climbed the river banks and were now hiding in the forest along the river’s edge. There had been a surprise attack on a village less than a day’s ride away from the castle. Since no Fairgean had ever invaded so deep into the highlands, the village was not well guarded and most of its inhabitants had been slaughtered. With the Fairgean threat closing in upon the castle, Gwyneth had no intention in allowing Finn to ride out, no matter how defiant her daughter grew.
The more tense and anxious the atmosphere in the castle, the more difficult Finn found it to contain her restless energy. All the squires had gone to attend the MacRuraich and his officers so there was no-one to practice swordplay with. She had ridden her horse Cinders round the outer bailey so many times she knew every crack in the wall and every tuft of grass. Most of the potboys and stable lads had been conscripted into the army so there was no-one to play football with, and the castle guards were all too busy to spend time telling her stories or teaching her to wrestle. She practised shooting with her little crossbow until she could hit the bulls’ eye more often than not, then amused herself by exploring the secret passages and spying on the servants through the peepholes cleverly concealed in the carved panelling. This proved to be such a fascinating pastime that Finn lost track of time, only realising how late it was with a little squeak of dismay when she saw a procession of lackeys carrying heavily loaded trays up the back stairs to the dining hall. Nothing was more likely to anger her mother than Finn being late for her dinner again.
Finn scrambled up the secret stairway, through the dark, labyrinthine passageways and out the hidden doorway closest to the dining hall. It had been hours since she had eaten and she was very hungry indeed.
The secret doorway was concealed within the huge fireplace that took up most of one wall of the landing. Given the warmth of the day, the fire had luckily not yet been lit so that Finn was able to scramble out without too much trouble.
Unfortunately she was just crawling out of the fireplace, the elven cat at her heels, when her cousin Brangaine came demurely down the stairs, dressed in leaf-green silk which brought out the colour of her eyes, her long blonde hair shining in the candlelight. She looked Finn up and down, then said sweetly, “Has my lady sent all the chimneysweeps out to fight the sea demons, that ye must be sweeping up the cinders yourself, Fionnghal?”
The daughter of Gwyneth’s younger sister, Brangaine had been brought to Castle Rurach after being named laird of the MacSian clan. Although Gwyneth said Brangaine needed to be taught her duties and responsibilities as banprionnsa of Siantan, Finn knew her mother hoped some of Brangaine’s poise and civility would rub off on her. Nineteen years old, Brangaine had been brought up in seclusion at her family’s country estate by three maiden aunts who had instilled in her every rule of courtly deportment. Brangaine knew what fork to use when eating quail, when to say “your honour,” the exact degree of curtsey required for every rank of society, and how to be civil to the servants without bring too familiar. Brangaine never spilled food down her clothes, or tore her skirt playing chase-and-hide with the servant lads, or was caught stealing honey cakes from the kitchen. Her hair was always smooth and shiny, her boots were always well-polished, and she always had a clean handkerchief. The very sight of her was enough to put Finn’s teeth on edge.
At first Brangaine had been polite to her cousin but Finn had been uncomfortable in her newfound place in life and had been quick to take offence at what she saw as Brangaine’s smirk of superiority. Brangaine’s comments and suggestions had gradually become edged with mockery, though always delivered with such sweetness of demeanour that only Finn had heard the derision beneath.
At her cousin’s words, Finn glanced down at herself in some dismay, only then realising how very dirty she was. Her skirt was covered in dust and ashes, and the hem was dangling where she had caught it on some nail. Her knees were black and her brown curls all in a tangle. She eyed Brangaine with dislike, saying loftily, “No’ at all. I just dropped something and had some trouble finding it.”
Brangaine smiled her superior smile. “Happen ye’d best brush the cobwebs out o’ your hair and change your clothes afore your mother sees ye. That is, if ye have a dress that’s not all torn and grubby, which I doubt.”
“At least I’m no’ some muffin-faced prig, scared to lift a finger in case I break a nail,” Finn flashed back.
Brangaine’s eyes lingered on Finn’s hands, the nails all broken and black as a blacksmith’s. “No, no-one could accuse ye o’ that,” she said coldly. “Though I’m sure we all wish ye’d wash your hands occasionally. It’s disgraceful the way ye run about looking ye’re the daughter o’ a swineherd instead o’ the MacRuraich…”
Finn’s temper snapped. With an inarticulate cry, she sprang forward, punching Brangaine in the jaw. Her cousin fell back with a shriek, falling over a little gilded table and smashing the vase of flowers that stood upon it.
At the sound of the scream and the crashing porcelain, the door to the dining hall swung open and the court ladies looked out. When they saw Brangaine sprawling amongst the flowers and the shards of broken vase, Finn standing over her with clenched fists, they cried aloud in consternation, fluttering forward with raised hands and mouths open in dismay. “Oh, my lady, how are ye yourself? Are ye hurt? Gracious alive, you be bleeding, poor lassie!” they cried.
Gwyneth came out after them, her beautiful face tense with anger. “Fionnghal, what in Eà’s name have ye done?”
“I punched her in the gob,” Finn replied inelegantly. “And she deserved it too, the polecat!”
“Ye did what?” Gwyneth cried. “I canna stand any more o’ this wild behaviour, Fionnghal! Is this the way a lady behaves? Look at ye! Ye look like ye’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. What am I to do with you?”
Finn glowered back at her, the elven cat crouched at her feet, tail lashing. Across the room Brangaine was being helped to her feet, her eyes bright with tears, her lip split and bleeding.
Brangaine pulled her lace-edged handkerchief from her reticule and daintily patted her lip, glancing down at the bright stains with consternation. She said, rather breathlessly, “Och, please do no’ be too angry with Fionnghal, my lady. Indeed it was my fault; I was teasing her.”
Finn flashed Brangaine a look of surprise and resentment. That’s right, make me look even worse, ye sly-faced prig, she thought. The elven cat hissed, her tufted ears laid back along her skull.
“No matter the provocation, a lady should never lose her temper,” Gwyneth said, trying to control her own. “There is no excuse for striking ye like that. Look at your mouth, ye poor wee lassie. Nan, will ye ring for some ice and a cloth? Fionnghal, I want you to apologise to your cousin at once.”
“I shall no’!” Finn cried passionately. “She deserved to be thumped, the slimy sneaking toad!”
“That’s enough!” Gwyneth cried. “Fionnghal, ye are no’ a street-bairn anymore. Such conduct is absolutely unacceptable! Ye shall stay in your room until ye have the grace to apologise to your cousin and beg forgiveness for your rude, uncivilised behaviour.”
“I’d rather eat roasted rats!” Finn cried. “She does naught but needle me and sneer at me and make me look a gowk.”
“Ye mistake her,” Gwyneth said icily. “Brangaine is a lady born and raised, and has far too much courtesy ever to speak or act unkindly. Ye are too quick to take offence.”
Finn protested passionately but Gwyneth would not listen. When her daughter still refused to go to her room, she called in the guards and bid them escort her away. Eyes flashing, Finn drew her little eating dagger but they disarmed her and marched her away with hard hands clamped around her arms. She stared back at her cousin with hostile eyes, not believing the look of guilty apology which Brangaine cast her way.
The heavy oaken door slammed shut behind her and she heard the key turn in the lock. Finn turned and pummelled it with her fists, then flung herself down on her bed, burying her hot face in her pillow. It’s no’ fair, she said to herself, reliving Brangaine’s superior smile as she had called Finn a pig-girl, her contemptuous glance from Finn’s cobwebbed curls to her dirty, scuffed boots.
The sting in Finn’s eyes subsided as she remembered with satisfaction the moment when her fist had met Brangaine’s jaw. Finn had spent much of her life fighting for survival on the streets of Lucescere. Her punch packed some power. Finn grinned, then rolled over and stared up at the ornate ceiling, I must get out o’ here afore I go stark raving mad!
Goblin was sitting at the end of the bed, delicately washing one paw. She watched as Finn leapt to her feet and rushed over to one of the tall, narrow windows that lined the wall, then began to wash her hind leg. Finn flung open the window and leant out.
The castle was built on a high rocky crag overlooking Loch Kintyre, which lay dark and shadowy some three hundred feet below. The castle was virtually surrounded by water, with the swift, turbulent rush of the Wulfrum River curving round the base of the crag on the northern flank. The walls of the crag were as steep and straight as any sea-cliff, broken at the base by sharp rocks that glistened black with slime.
The road to the castle ran up through thick forest to the edge of a deep, shadowy ravine, carved out of the rock by a fast-running burn that tumbled its way down to the loch in a series of white rapids and waterfalls. The only way to traverse the ravine was across the castle drawbridge, which remained closed at all times. Of all the strongholds that Finn had seen, Castle Rurach was surely the most impregnable.
Although Finn was confident of her ability to climb in and out of any tower or castle, the height of the walls and the wicked rocks below made her reluctant to brave the drop unless she really had to. She had no rope and even if she tied every curtain and sheet in her room together, they would not be long enough to help her even a quarter of the way down. Most important of all, the valley below was sunk in shadows as the sun sidled down behind the mountains. It would soon be night and Finn had no desire to attempt that descent in darkness.
Finn gave another little sigh of frustration and crossed the room to kneel down before the arched doorway and peer through the keyhole. All she could see was the bulk of the manservant set to guard her door. She wished she had something sharp to poke him with but they had not given back her little jewelled knife. If only she had allowed her mother’s ladies-in-waiting to teach her how to knit! A long, sharp knitting needle thrust into his posterior would really make that block-headed, stone-faced footman yowl.
“Just ye wait,” she muttered at the footman’s rear end. “I hope she has ye whipped for dereliction o’ duty once I’m gone. I hope she has ye sent to fight goblins in the mountains.”
She kicked the door but that only served to bruise her foot. Finn cursed and began to stride along the length of her suite, staring out the tall windows at the star-pricked sky. Her skirts swished as she paced. Impatiently she swept them up in one hand so they did not hinder her steps. I shall no’ apologise to that lamb-brained, mealy-mouthed corn-dolly! There mun be some other way out o’ here!
As Finn reached the end of the room and flung herself round to pace its length again, Goblin raised her black triangular head and observed the pacing girl through slitted aquamarine eyes. The elven cat then yawned, showing a long pink tongue and put her head down again, eyes closed.
Nay, I shall no’ be calm, Finn hissed. I wish my daidein was home, he’d take my part. He wouldna believe that muffin-faced prig!
She rummaged around in one of the chests in her. dressing-room until at last she found a little bundle shoved right down the bottom. Wrapped up in a square of yellow-embossed blue cloth were a pair of gloves tipped with steel claws and two odd contraptions of leather and steel that were designed to be strapped on over a pair of boots. Tangled up with them was a handful of long spikes and some pulleys and rope. All this was Finn’s climbing equipment, which had been made for her on the orders of Iseult of the Snows, Lachlan’s wife, in the days when they had been rebels together, plotting to overthrow Maya the Ensorcellor, the fairge princess who had bewitched the former Righ Jaspar into marriage and had ruled the land so cruelly.
Finn gave a little hiss of satisfaction as the tools clattered on to the floor, but almost immediately she bit her lip in consternation. The gloves and boot racks were now far too small. Finn had been only twelve when she had climbed the two hundred foot rampart behind Lucescere to let Lachlan and his rebel troops into the city. She was now almost seventeen and her limbs were much longer than they had been five years earlier. In addition, the rope had decayed in the damp atmosphere of the old castle and was rotten in parts.
She sat back on her heels, and smoothed the cloth out over her knees. A rather odd-looking yellow hand was sewn clumsily on to the sky-blue cloth, with broad yellow stripes angling out from it, meant to signify rays. It was the original flag of the League of the Healing Hand and it brought a sting of tears to Finn’s eyes. After a long moment, she folded it up again and thrust it into the pillowcase with the spikes and pulleys and her little hammer.
Eventually Finn’s temper died and she was left feeling very low and dispirited. She sat in her chair in front of the fire, moodily jabbing the logs with the poker. The sound of a key in the door brought her flying upright but it was only her maid-in-waiting, Raina, with a tray of food. Accompanying her were two stern-faced guards. Finn stood silently, her chin up, her hands clenched before her, as Raina put the tray on the table before the fire and retreated with a mocking glance that said, more clearly than words, “Serve ye right, ye muffin-faced brat.”
At first Finn decided she would not touch any of the food but after a while the smell of the mutton stew broke down her defenses and she ate hungrily, telling herself she needed to keep her strength up if she was to escape the castle. She wrapped up the bread, cheese and fruit in one of her pillowcases, and wished that she had not been so hasty in drawing her knife, since she would surely need one on her travels. Despite her isolation all afternoon, Finn had not lost her resolve to quit the home of her forebears.
THE JONGLEURS COME
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Finn hung out the window, smelling the wind and cursing fluently. Here it was, as still and warm as summer, and she was locked up like a criminal in her own castle!
Suddenly her eyes lit with excitement. A procession of caravans was winding up the steep road to the castle, their parrot-bright colours vivid in the sunshine.
“Jongleurs!” she cried. “Happen they’ll have news o’ the court!”
The little cat perched on her shoulder gave a plaintive miaow. Only then did Finn remember her incarceration and her smile faded. “Surely mam will let me out to see the jongleurs?” she said to the elven cat, who only slitted her aquamarine eyes in response. With a sinking heart, Finn watched the jongleurs’ brightly painted caravans cross the drawbridge and disappear within the thick walls of the castle.
All day Finn paced her rooms, waiting for her mother to relent and send someone to let her out. When Raina brought her a tray of black bread and cheese, she begged the maid to tell her when she would be set free. Raina shrugged, lifted an eyebrow, and went away without a word, and Finn suddenly wished she had been nicer to her maid. She had thought of her maid as the frontline of her gaolers, however, and had often spied on her to gain information that she could use as leverage to stop Raina reporting her movements to her mother. Now Finn was paying for her underhand ways—and the debt was high.
She watched the guards shut her bedroom door with mingled fury, frustration and misery choking her throat. It seemed Gwyneth’s determination was as great as her own. Unable to help feeling a new sense of respect for her mother, Finn sat and toyed with her meagre rations, making and discarding one plan after another.
Without a reliable rope or climbing equipment, Finn was loath to attempt the perilous descent from her window. She was more determined than ever not to apologise for thumping Brangaine, yet she longed to escape the confines of her room and enjoy the rare entertainment the jongleurs offered. There had been six caravans in the procession, which promised a wide variety of performers. There would be music and singing, without a doubt, and juggling and acrobatics, and maybe even a performing bear, like Finn had seen in Lucescere. The jongleurs would bring news as well, which Finn was hungry to hear. She could escape her rooms by trickery but that would only make her mother angry and she would be locked up again as soon as she was found—and how could she watch the jongleurs and listen to their tales of the court and the countryside if she was being chased all over the castle? Unless, of course, they could not see her…
Finn whiled away the long, dreary afternoon as best she could, waiting until it was time for Raina to bring her dinner. At last the sun sank down behind the mountains and darkness fell over the rank upon rank of serried pine trees. Finn flung open the window so that the evening breeze swept into the room, sending the heavy curtains swaying and riffling the pages of her books upon the table. She knotted the rope about the post of her bed and threw it out the window, then drew out the little square of silk she always carried with her in her pocket. Finn shook it out into the long, black cloak and wrapped it about her, pulling the hood over her head. A little snap of static, a shudder of cold, ran over her. She rubbed her arms, moving her shoulders uneasily. Goblin miaowed, and she bent and picked up the little cat, sliding her into the cloak’s deep pocket.
At last Finn heard the bolt sliding back and the grate of the key in the lock. She stood silently in the shadows, trying to breathe as shallowly as she could. Then the door swung open and a ray of light struck into the dark, cold room. Raina’s portly form was silhouetted against the lantern flare. She stepped forward hesitantly, a tray in her hands. “My lady?” she called. When there was no response, she called again. At the note of alarm in Raina’s voice the guards stepped forward, one holding up the lamp. Its flame leapt and guttered in the wind.
As Raina and the guards searched her rooms, Finn slipped silently out the door and down the corridor. A deep thrill of gratification ran through her veins. They thought to keep Finn the Cat locked up but I’ve shown them now, she thought.
As she hurried down the back staircase, Finn could hear the sound of music and laughter from the grand hall. She slipped soundlessly along one of the side passages and in through the servants’ door at the back. She hid herself behind the heavy velvet curtains hanging down from the gallery and peeped out through the crack.
Down three sides of the great, vaulted room ran long tables where the men and women of the castle sat, the boards before them loaded with platters of meat and bread and roasted vegetables and jugs of ale and spiced wine.
Gwyneth sat at the high table with her niece and son and the principal gentlemen and ladies-in-waiting, while at the two long side tables sat the bard and the harper, the seneschal, the sennachie, the purse-bearer and cupbearer, and the other men and ladies-in-waiting, all sitting according to their rank and position. Behind most of the nobility stood their personal servants, all wearing their master’s livery and expressions of the utmost superciliousness. As the kitchen staff brought in the heavy trays and dumped them on a side table, the squires would all leap forward and squabble over the choicest pieces of meat or game, which they would then present to their master or mistress with bent knee.
At the tables at the far end of the room sat the highest-ranking servants. They did not usually eat in the grand hall but had been admitted so they too could watch the jongleurs. They did not eat from giltedged porcelain plates like those at the high tables, but used trenchers of black bread instead, piling them high with mutton and potato stew and any scraps of roast stag or pheasant or honeyed pork that the nobility scorned to eat or throw to the dogs squabbling under the tables. When the juices of the stew had soaked the bread so it was too soft to use as a plate, they ate it or threw it down to the dogs, seizing another from the wooden platter in the centre of their table.
While the crowd feasted, they were entertained by the jongleurs who performed in the centre of the room. Finn craned her neck to see, but her view was obscured by the castle cook’s massive form. All she could see was a juggler’s swiftly rising circle of golden balls, then a sudden whirl of colour as an acrobat somersaulted high into the rafters.
The hall was bright with firelight and candlelight so that even the lofty vaulted ceiling was clearly illuminated. Finn hesitated, then bit her lip, pulled the hood even closer about her face, and slipped out from the shelter of the curtains. Having to dodge and sidestep to avoid the hurrying servants, she made her way up the length of the hall until she could step up onto the dais where the high table was set.
Many of the tall, ornately carved chairs at the high table were empty, since Finn’s father Anghus and most of his men were still absent. Finn slowly eased out one of the chairs, wincing a little as the wooden foot scraped on the floor. Waiting until everyone’s attention was transfixed by the fire-eater swallowing a flaming torch, Finn slipped into the chair and sat down on the soft leather seat, leaning her elbows on the table.
She watched in delight as the fire-eater bent backwards till his long ponytail was brushing the floor, then thrust the flaming torch down his throat, closing his mouth over the blaze so his cheeks glowed red. Slowly, theatrically, he withdrew the torch, now black and smoking, then pulled himself upright, his cheeks still bulging and glowing with that weird red light. From his pursed lips curled a tendril of smoke, then he spat out a long blast of flame that scorched her face. Finn leant back instinctively, trying not to scream with the others.
The fire-eater juggled six blazing torches, swallowed them one by one, then used his fiery breath to ignite a hoop of paper. A black-eyed girl around Finn’s age somersaulted through the ring of flame, then cartwheeled away down the hall as the fire-eater began to juggle daggers and swords back and forth with a young man in a sky-blue jerkin and a crimson velvet cap with a bhanais bird’s feather. A cluricaun in a green satin doublet skipped in to dance a jig between them, the bells on his toes and around his neck chiming as he whirled and pranced amidst the vortex of spinning knives.
Further down the hall Finn could see two boys stalking about on high stilts, their ridiculous hats brushing against the rafters. A man with a forked beard the colour of flax was entertaining the servants’ table with card tricks and a fast-paced patter of jokes, while a woman leant nearby, strumming a guitar. Other musicians wandered about, playing fiddles or flutes, or rattling tambourines tied up with many-coloured ribbons.
The black-eyed girl was now doing a series of elegant back flips that took her right across the hall, then did a handspring that took her up into the rafters where she swung upside down like a brightly coloured arak. Then she somersaulted down, landing on the shoulders of the crimson-capped man, who had the same bright eyes as she did, black as pools of ink. She leapt down lightly and they bowed to tumultuous applause.
Wishing that she was an acrobat instead of a banprionnsa, Finn waited until everyone was watching the young jongleur, who was demonstrating her incredible flexibility. Finn then slowly reached out her hand and slid a slice of roast pheasant from the platter in front of her. Glancing about to make sure no-one was watching, she slipped it into the shelter of the cloak and shared it with the elven cat. Both of them had had nothing but prisoner’s rations to eat for two days now and they were starving. Finn was glad to eat, for the comfort as well as the sustenance. Somehow the cloak of invisibility always made her feel uncomfortable, as if it were made of some prickly material rather than the silkiest of fabrics. It rubbed her up the wrong way, causing her hair to snap with static and her flesh to rise in goosebumps. It was like wrapping herself in the cold and deadness of a winter night, rather than in something to keep her warm. She was always rather glad to hide it away in her pocket once more, though she was never able to leave it in her chest of drawers or in her cupboard, always needing to have it where her fingers could brush it at a whim.
Finn was just stealing a little meat pie from the plate of the man next to her when she felt a little prickle of unease. She glanced about and saw her brother Aindrew was staring her way with an open mouth and an expression of the utmost bewilderment. She looked down and realised it must look as if the meat pie was floating through the air. With a chuckle she concealed it within her sleeve then ate it quickly, trying not to let any flakes of pastry fall out of her mouth. She was tempted to pour wine into a goblet just so he could see a jug lift and pour out a stream of red liquid all by itself. She resisted the temptation and was glad she had when she saw Brangaine was also gazing at her apparently empty chair with some amazement. A meat pie falling from the edge of a plate could be put down to natural causes; a pouring jug could not.
The next time Finn took one of the delicious meat pies she was careful to drop a fold of the cloak over it before lifting it so it too would be concealed by the magic of the garment. After a while Aindrew stopped glancing her way every few minutes, too entranced by the jongleurs to bother about a floating meat pie. Brangaine was not so easily distracted. Finn felt her gaze often and was careful not to draw any more attention to herself, invisible or not.
No-one at the castle knew about the magical cloak. Finn had guarded its secret carefully.
She had first found the cloak in the relics room at the Tower of Two Moons during the Samhain rebellion that had overthrown Maya the Ensorcellor and given Lachlan the throne. In gratitude for their help, he had allowed each of the eight members of the League of the Healing Hand to choose one treasure to have for their own. Finn had chosen an ancient hunting horn embossed with the shape of a running wolf, because the same emblem was on the medallion she wore around her neck. She had not then known that the wolf was the badge of the MacRuraich clan and that the horn had the power to call up the ghosts of the clan’s long-dead warriors. She had only discovered the horn’s magic later, when she had blown the horn in a desperate call for help and had received assistance of the most unexpected kind.
The older boys had chosen swords or daggers, except for Jay the Fiddler who had taken a beautiful old viola and Parian, who had chosen a silver goblet with a crystal in the stem. Johanna the Mild had chosen a jewelled bracelet while her baby brother Connor had wanted a music box.
Chance had caused Finn to pick up the cloak as well. At the time she had told herself that since she had been the one to face all the danger in climbing the wall, she should have something more than the others. She had kept the cloak secret, without really knowing why.
Like the horn, the cloak had proved to be magical, hiding anyone who wore it under a guise of invisibility that not even the most powerful sorcerer could penetrate. Finn had used it to escape the Awl, then Lachlan had hidden himself in it while he confronted his dying brother. Later, Maya the Ensorcellor had stolen the cloak to escape Lachlan’s wrath. Most thought she must have the magical cloak still, for it had not been found during the clean-up after the Samhain victory. Only Finn knew that she had used her own clairvoyant talents to search for it through the maze, finding it at last under a hedge near the Pool of Two Moons where Maya and Lachlan had had their last confrontation. She had folded it up and hidden it in her pocket and told no-one, not even when Meghan had instigated a frantic search for it during the ensuing days. She had brought the cloak of invisibility back with her to Castle Rurach and used it often to escape the scrutiny of her attendants or to eavesdrop on the conversations of the servants.
Just then Finn saw her maid Raina speaking in a low voice to her mother’s chief lady-in-waiting, Lady Anne Montgomery. Her fat old face was distressed. Finn tensed. She watched as Lady Anne allowed Raina to approach the high table. She curtsied respectfully, then bent down low to speak to the banprionnsa. Gwyneth’s face whitened until she looked as though she might faint. She gave a few quick orders then leant back in her chair, sipping at her wine, trying to hide her distress. Raina hurried away and Finn watched as various officers were called away from the tables. They went with worried faces and Finn could not help feeling a certain satisfaction. She sat back to enjoy the show, knowing that half the castle guard would now be searching for her. Not one could possibly guess that she sat in their very midst, under the blaze of the chandelier, and only a few chairs down from her mother.
The platters of roast meats and vegetables had been taken away and now the servants were carrying in plates of honey cakes, sweetmeats and dried fruits. The jongleurs had gathered around the frail form of an old woman, who had been carried into the centre of the room on a chair all carved and painted with leaves, flowers and birds. Her hair was white, her olive-skinned face a mass of wrinkles. The hands which rested on the carved arms of her chair were bent and twisted as birds’ claws. On her wizened breast hung many necklaces of amber stones, some as big as eggs, others as small as teeth.