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In chapter one, Shannon whispers "A long time ago, on a path that curved toward the sea..." -- the first words to a story she told Erynne as a child. It was a story that began on All Hallow's Eve -- one she could not get out of her head, though she tried, writing it in a journal that Erynne found among her mother's belongings.
Would you like to know what she wrote?
A long time ago, on a path that curved toward the sea, the prophetess Cruithne paused to catch her breath, tightening her grasp on the woolen shawl she wore. The frigid Atlantic wind was picking up, searching out her lonely spot on the hillside. Though her shawl was thick and in good condition, night was approaching quickly and with it would come even colder temperatures.
She had been walking for more than two hours through the hill country of Lough Corrib and her lungs hurt from the exertion. It was slow going, especially with time taken to double back – and the irrepressible necessity of looking over her shoulder. Sixty-three years of life and the rugged terrain were taking its toll on her bones. Using a gnarled walking stick, she carefully found her footing as she made her way down the side of the drumlin toward the tree line below. Her destination was in sight.
The child was asleep, bless her soul, and oblivious to the wind, cradled snugly in the sling Cruithne had fastened under her shawl. Still she worried about having the infant out in the cold. Knowing that the Connemara talisman was securely fastened around the child’s swaddling gave her some comfort. The green stone was narrow at the bottom, clustering out on top to look like a tree. Oak trees were considered sacred, and though Cruithne harbored doubts, she wasn’t willing to risk it. Not with something this important.
During the first hour of her journey, she had been plagued by memories of the child’s mother – her wrenching sobs of separation echoing off the walls of the ravine as she descended. But Cruithne’s promise had been true, her fears substantial. She hadn’t asked for da shealladh, the gift of two sights. Since birth she had seen it as more of an affliction than a gift. But the children must be protected, no matter the sorrow. No matter the cost.
A thick fog was forming at the base of the hill and along a smaller ravine that led to a thatch-roofed cottage hidden in the dense foliage. Soon she could rest. The soles of her shoes had worn through on jagged rocks that jutted out of her uneven path and the blisters that had formed hours earlier were bloody and sore. Cruithne tried to increase her pace, but winced as she turned her ankle on a rock. She had no choice but to hurry. The fog was rising quickly, becoming a bigger threat that the looming night.
This had been their best chance for success. To venture out on Samhain was almost unheard of. Even Modranhe could not predict that desperation would overcome their superstitious fear of All Hallows Eve.
Most people stayed indoors on Samhain, locked up tight for fear that fairies, goblins and ghosts roamed free on this night, waiting for an opportunity to snatch victims and drag them to worlds unknown. Cruithne had once believed in stories of vile phantoms rising from the Netherworlds. Now she had no time for such nonsense. Looking back over the last few years – how they had become dark and oppressive – she realized there were living beings far more fearsome than all the fanciful creatures man could conceive.
Cruithne began to see that the Dark Age into which she had been born had a purpose: evil. Through ignorance, fear and superstition, the powerful had controlled the weak for too long. Then this child and the other had been born, and to her amazement, new hope soon followed. Their births had moved the old woman to action as nothing else could.
As Cruithne reached the ravine, she stopped to catch her breath, her lungs burning from exertion. Full night had fallen and the darkness was only slightly pardoned by a crescent moon. She watched wisps of air pass her lips and then pressed on.
Cruithne had been a tabshear all her life. Born with the gift of prophecy, she had been raised to understand that her strange dreams and visions foretold future events, good and bad. She had also learned to use da shealladh only as it was intended: for good, to help the people among whom she was placed. Never had a prophecy been more important than this one. Never had her path been laid more clearly.
Adjusting the baby in her sling, Cruithne looked in both directions. The ravine wrapped around the hill as far as she could see to the right, finding its crooked way through until the deep shadows of night obliterated it. To the left it disappeared into a patch of thick forest, now rooted in fog, just a stone’s throw from her feet. Directly in front of her was a small clearing surrounded by trees. A path, worn through the forest brush by years of foot travel, could be seen winding through the clearing and toward the cottage where three lights glowed from the front gate.
Cruithne breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Four would have meant danger, and she would have been forced back, or perhaps left with no other option than to find shelter in the woods for the night. But now the end was in sight. The children would be taken away to a safe place where they could grow and fulfill their purpose in life, as Cruithne was trying to fulfill hers. Her step lightened. Defying age and fatigue, she reached the cottage, swiftly rapped three times, and entered.
The heavy door slammed shut behind her, making her flinch. She tried to retreat, but was restrained by two men. Her wind-flushed face drained of color as the darkest corner of the room took form and rose into the light of the fire.
He moved slowly toward her, his massive figure casting a shadow that obscured the firelight. His lips were turned into a satisfied snarl, making his usually handsome face grotesque, and rightly evil in the flickering glow.
The old woman shuddered. With a strength that belied her age, she struggled again with her captors, wishing to take back her premature confidence. If only she could escape to the door. She had lived in these forests all her life; it would only take seconds to disappear into the darkness, living for days, if necessary, with nothing but the pine marten and fox as bedfellows. But the more she struggled, the harder the men clamped down on her wrists, bruising her until she cried out in pain.
“Does it take two men to hold down an old woman, Modranhe?” she finally asked, her voice a hoarse whisper.
The dark Druid stared at her dispassionately, then silently motioned to his men.
Cruithne struggled in vain. They found the child, took her from the sling, and quickly disappeared into the night. The babe had awakened during the struggle and was now crying in terror and confusion, her pitiful wails echoing across the ravine and returning to Cruithne’s ears like daggers. The old woman sank to her knees as deep sobs erupted from her burning throat. Her rescue attempt had been violently paralyzed. Her righteous plans would undoubtedly end in death for them all.
Modranhe stood silently over her crumpled form. After several minutes, she tried to rise, but he moved suddenly, kicking her hard and fast. She fell back to the floor, landing hard. Spitting blood mixed with dirt, Cruithne felt the sickening taste of vomit in her throat. Sharp pain erupted in her ribcage, sharpening with each breath.
A broken rib, she thought helplessly.
The baby girl was long gone, but Cruithne could still feel the warmth of her tender body, smell the sweetness of her breath.
“What will you do to her?” she asked, barely able to whisper the question. “Have you already killed the boy?”
Modranhe squatted in front of her where he could look directly into her eyes. His mouth was turned into a small smile.
"You think me a monster, old woman? They will not die.”
Cruithne raised her eyes to his, looking for a reason to hope. She saw only the blackness of his soul.
“But, I will keep them apart,” he said evenly. “They will never know each other; never fulfill this vision you’ve seen for them. You have found out, Cruithne, how deadly it is to underestimate me.”
Modranhe’s powers were legendary. Villagers and even those who lived in the larger tuathas gossiped incessantly about the notorious druid, his ability to read minds and cast spells. Cruithne had never known how much to believe about the mysterious magic he practiced, only that it was evil and something that must be fought.
“The other courier is dead,” he said, standing to adjust his robes. His eyes rested on the blood that was beginning to pool by Cruithne’s mouth. “You will soon follow him, I see.” He stepped lightly over her and disappeared into the night.
Cruithne lie dejected and dying, curled in a tight knot where he had left her in the middle of the room. Cold air swept around her through the open doorway, taming the fire that had been blazing in the hearth just a few minutes ago. Now sure that her lung was punctured, she drew shallow, painful breaths, fully aware that a deeper pain flowed from her core. Her body felt as if it was missing a limb where the child had been. Hot tears of regret joined her blood on the dirt floor. Desperately, her mind searched for salvation.
Lifting her head, she tried dragging herself toward the door but could not overcome the sharp pain that tore through her side. She fought the black cloud that swept over her, but found herself losing consciousness, dreaming and then waking to horrible reality again and again.
Each time she woke, she considered the gift of blessing that she had been imparted with since childhood. When she slept, she saw the future under Modranhe’s control: the children growing up apart, ignorant of their tumultuous infancy and royal heritage. Would they feel that something was missing? The room came into focus again and the children were right in front of her, dancing. Together, yet still apart.
A tear slid down her wrinkled cheek. She blinked once, staring, but no longer seeing. Silently, she moved her blood-stained finger through the dirt, listening carefully to the howling wind and the birds in the trees just outside the door. Her voice came out in a determined whisper until she was hoarse. Still she continued her cadence, repeating the same words over and again. Her finger continued to follow its bloody path. When the king’s soldiers found her at dawn, her finger had stopped, but the shape of a tree was visible on the dirt floor next to her.
Cruithne found the strength to wait for them, knowing that someone must be told. As one of the soldiers stood by the door, the other knelt over her body. With all her remaining strength, she whispered once more, then collapsed and lay still, only hearing the soldier’s voice from a faraway place above the small room. She felt the pain leave her body as she watched the soldier gently close her eyes. Then she felt nothing at all.