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 The Forbidden Land

Book Four of The Witches of Eileanan

Kate Forsyth

A ROC BOOK

 

ISBN 0-451-45828-1

 

for Binny and Nick—

blood-kin and soul-kin

in memory of all the imaginary worlds

we created and lived in,

and with thanks for a lifetime of

love and support.

Write on!

 

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.

—Allan Ramsay,

Seventeenth-century Scottish poet

 

THE LOOM IS STRUNGCastle Rurach

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 Tomas 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 Righ, 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 smoke-weed 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 Dun 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 Nic-Sian 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. Consequently, 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' Ruraich 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, dear-ling. 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 ruining 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 ever...

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