A quiet night. No attacks. The demons think everyone here is dead, so they've no reason to bother with the crannog. I get a night of deep sleep and so do the others, too exhausted even for nightmares. We all wake refreshed in the morning. Drust's already up. He's prepared cold slices of meat from the night before and hot porridge, which we share in silence in the greyish pre-dawn haze.
Fiachna searches the village for a forge, smith's tools or other weapons like Bran's knife but he doesn't find any. The rest of us go on a quick search too, for weapons or food. We kill the remaining chickens, take the eggs they've laid and some slabs of cured pork. But there's little else worthwhile.
We're ready to go but Drust says he needs to pray first. He finds a place where he can face the rising sun, then kneels, closes his eyes and meditates.
"How long will he be?" Connla asks me.
"Five or ten minutes." Actually, I don't have a clue but I don't want to look ignorant in front of Connla.
"Time enough for a quick shave," Connla says. Filling a bucket with water, he douses his face, takes a small knife, wets the blade and waits for the water to settle. Then, studying his reflection, he scrapes the hairs off his cheeks and chin. Most of the men in our rath grow beards but Connla prefers the smooth look. Goll sometimes teases him about it, says he looks like a girl.
Bran-it's hard not to think of him as Run Fast-watches Connla shave, fascinated. Maybe he's never seen a man shaving before. He pays extra close attention as Connla trims around the sides of his upper lip, careful not to disturb the hairs of his moustache. As he's finishing, cleaning the blade, Bran reaches over, grabs a patch of Connla's moustache and yanks hard. The hairs rip out and Connla howls with pain and surprise.
Bran holds the hairs up proudly, grinning. He thought Connla missed them and was trying to help. But Connla doesn't see it that way. He roars at the boy and swings a fist. Bran ducks, still holding up the hairs. Connla lunges after him. Bran laughs and flees, shouting, "Run fast! Run fast!" Connla chases, cursing foully, drawing his sword.
The rest of us fall about with laughter. We know Connla won't catch Bran-if he was too fast for demons, a human stands no chance. Connla eventually realises this and stops chasing the boy. After hurling a few final curses at him and some more at us, he storms back to the bucket, regards his ruined moustache with a miserable expression, then scrapes the rest of the hairs away, shaving his lip bare.
Bran edges up to me, timidly holding out the hairs. "Giblets," he says, handing them over. I give the boy a delighted hug. Goll claps him hard on the back-the old warrior is crying with laughter.
"I'd keep him out of Connla's way for a few hours," Fiachna chuckles. "He'll calm down later but he'll be in a foul mood for a while."
"Don't worry," I grin, squeezing Bran tight. "I'll look after him."
"Giblets," Bran repeats, stroking the hairs fondly, as if they were petals, making us all laugh again.
Shortly after the sun rises, Drust stops praying and we depart. Bran trots along beside us, unaware of the scowling Connla's dark looks. I keep the boy close, in case the surly warrior tries to hurt him. I doubt he would, but I'm never sure about Connla. He's a hard one to read. Impossible to know how he'll react to a joke or how deeply to heart he'll take a light insult.
I study Bran as he jogs, smiling at the countryside, squinting up at the sky and birds, perfectly content. I assume he had family and friends in the crannog, all of whom are dead now, but he doesn't seem bothered by the loss. At first I pity him but the more I think about it, pity turns to envy. It must be nice to live like Bran, immune to the pains which the rest of us suffer. Knowing what I know-that unless Drust succeeds, this land will be overrun by unstoppable demons-I wish I could be as empty-headed as the fleet-footed boy.
Heading due west, we make good time. After a while Drust drops back and walks beside me, nudging Bran out of the way. The druid asks lots of questions about my past, Banba, my training. He wants to know what I can do, how powerful I am. He sneers when I tell him about my remarkable memory-that doesn't interest him. When he asks about my family, I tell him I'm an orphan of unknown origin.
"You've no idea who your people were?" he presses.
"No." I pause. "Do you?"
He frowns. "Why should I?"
I shrug, not wishing to tell him about my vision and the possibility that my mother might have been sending me out to find my original clan.
Drust continues asking about my magic, what spells I know, where my strengths lie. His enquiries fill me with unease. They shouldn't. It's natural for a magician to be interested in the abilities of another. But this doesn't feel like simple curiosity. He seems to be testing me, probing for weaknesses. I recall what he said back in the hut-"You'll do"-and worry burns in my stomach like a fire.
At midday we take a short rest. Drust sits slightly apart from the rest of us. Instead of eating, he pulls a board out of the bag which he carries on his back. A strange board, the surface divided into an equal number of black and white squares. It's the thickness of the length of my thumb, made of crystal. He sets it down on the ground, then spills small, carved shapes out on to the grass. When he starts to position the pieces on the board, I realise it's some sort of game.
"Chess," Orna says as Drust moves the first piece.
Drust looks up eagerly. "You play?"
"No. One of the slaves in our tuath had a set but it was only played by men. I picked up some of the rules by watching but I don't know them all."
"A pity," Drust sighs. "It's been a long time since I had anyone to test my wits against."
He concentrates. Moves a white piece shaped like a horse's head, then one of the many simply shaped black pieces. Everyone's interested in this new game. We've never seen it in our tuath. Orna explains about the game while Drust plays but it's hard to follow the rules, especially as Orna is unsure of them herself.
"The main aim is to keep your king from being taken?" Lorcan asks.
"Aye," Orna says.
"Why can't he fight?" Ronan frowns. "A king should be a fine warrior, yet the kings in this game seem scared. They hide at the back."
"It hails from a different land," Orna explains. "In some places kings don't fight. They send others to battle in their place."
Angry mutters from the men-
"It's not right!"
"The likes of those wouldn't last long against demons!"
I ignore them and focus on Drust and the way his hands linger over the pieces. Long, slender, unmarked fingers. They move the pieces swiftly, smoothly, from one spot to the other. I get the sense that he could move us just as easily. And maybe already has.
After lunch, Drust marches beside me again. But now, instead of asking questions, he says, "I can teach you if you're willing to learn."
"Chess?" I reply eagerly.
I come to a halt and stare at him as if he'd slapped me. Fiachna and Connla stop behind us, hands sliding to their weapons. I start walking again before they ask what's wrong. Drust keeps pace beside me, waiting for me to speak. Bran's on the other side, following a butterfly. My head's buzzing with conflicting thoughts. I'd love to learn magic from a druid-they can do so much more than priestesses. But men teach boys. Women teach girls. That's the way it's always been.
"I wouldn't teach you all the spells I'd teach a male student," Drust says, reading my thoughts. "There are secrets not fitting for one of your gender, just as you know secrets not suitable for a man. But we could work on your technique. I could show you where you're weak, help you improve and teach you some new spells, those which you deem acceptable."
"But men... girls... it isn't done," I mutter, red-faced at the thought of sharing my spirit with a man, as I must if I allow him to become my tutor."Just because something hasn't been done doesn't mean it shouldn't be," Drust says. "I'd prefer a boy to work with, just as you'd rather learn from a priestess. The fact is we have only each other. We can be bold and make the most of this opportunity or we can be prim and let it pass. Bec?"He waits for my answer. After a long, dry-mouthed moment, I nod clumsily. "I would be... glad to learn... from you."Good," he says, then rests his left fingers against my forehead. "Close your eyes and think of the moon. Before we begin, I want to teach you how to clear your head of all the rubbish you've let it fill with lately. Your mind is too much that of a human, not a priestess."A rush. A buzz. Tingling all over. My head... my body... my spirit... full of... magic.Four days marching. Four nights spent in the open. We lie down each dusk, singly or in pairs, sheltering beneath trees. Drust comes to each of us in turn, touches us and mutters spells. We have orders not to move during the night, even if we need to empty our insides."Go where you lie if you have to," Drust says. "Just don't leave the spot where you settle. The spell will break if you do."The first night-nothing. No undead or demons. I sleep fitfully, tucked up next to Goll, aware of Drust's magic-the air flickering around me-wondering if it will hold.The second night, a beast pieced together from several humans stumbles by. It's moaning and scratching at the earth with bone-exposed fingers. Starving, hungry for any kind of flesh, even that of insects. It passes within four or five strides of where I'm resting with Orna. We hold our breath. I feel Orna's fingers slide slowly to her sword. I want to whisper, "No!" but I'm afraid to make any noise.The undead creature stops. I think it's seen us. Orna hisses. Her hand finds the hilt of her sword. Her fingers tighten.Then a fox darts out from under a bush and pelts away from the undead beast. It howls and lumbers after the animal, arms flapping up and down.Silence, broken after a few seconds by Drust. "The only two who didn't reach for their weapons were Bec and Goll. And Goll's asleep." A short pause. I sense his smile in the dark. "Now that you've seen my magic at work, I hope you act less rashly next time. You nearly gave our hiding place away."We sleep better after that, though at least one of us remains awake at any given time, watching out not just for the undead and the Demonata-but also keeping an eye on the mysterious Drust.Under Drust's stern eye, I begin practising magic and learn quickly, feeling my power grow. But I'm unable to make the new spells work. Men's magic is different to women's. We take power from the earth, trees, the wind, sun, moon. The world is charged with natural magic which we channel. We're creatures of nature, and like bees take pollen from flowers, we pluck grains of magic from the land and air around us.Drust's magic is different. He only reveals fragments of his secrets to me, but he seems to draw most of his power from the stars. Some of it from the sun and moon, but mostly from the heavens beyond."Gods are in motion up there," he says to me on the fourth night. Drust sleeps by himself, but tonight he asked me to sleep close by. There aren't many clouds in the sky, so we have a good view of the stars. "Demons too. And the spirits of the dead. They battle, toil, love-like us. But their actions are greater than ours. They inhabit forms hundreds or thousands of times our size."His eyes are fixed on the stars. From their light I can see the tattooed stars on his head moving slowly. His expression is soft for once."When they come here, they come in forms similar to ours," he continues. "This world is too small for them otherwise. But up there..." He sighs. "Male magic comes from the forces generated by the gods, the dead and the Demonata. We've learnt to tap into their power, the way priestesses tap into the roots of trees or the hearts of bears. But the magnitude... the dangers..."He turns on his side-only slightly, so as not to break the masking spell-and trains his gaze on me. "Man wasn't made to share the universe with gods. Their ways are not meant for the humble likes of us. But we've decoded some of their secrets regardless. Like worms, we've grabbed on to the talons of eagles and learnt some small truths and means of flight. But we can never really fly. We try, and succeed to a certain extent, but the fall is always-will always be-there. To be a druid is to embrace death, dance with it a while and finally fall prey to it. That is why we'll never rule this world. We have the power to bend all men to our whim, but are forever pushing ourselves further, trying to fly higher... and falling."A silence. His gaze returns to the sky. He looks troubled."We could have crushed the Christians hundreds of years ago. They were weak then. If we'd been aware of the threat they posed, we'd have bound their tongues and turned their fingers to stone so they couldn't speak or write. Their religion would have died with them. But our eyes were on the Otherworld, the stars, the gods. We didn't keep watch on the world around us. And when we eventually lowered our heads and studied the waters closer to home, it was too late.""You could still stop the Christians," I mutter quietly, hoping he won't punish me for disagreeing with him. Drust's a harsh teacher. When I make mistakes, he slaps the back of my head or stamps on my foot or lashes me with a knotted rope. Banba was tough too, but not as cruel as Drust."Could we?" Drust sighs. "Some believe it's not too late-even as they retreat from the world of man and hide in caves or deep in forests. I don't agree. Our time has passed. We'll survive in some form or other, I'm sure. But we'll never be this strong or fly so high again."He says nothing after that, and I know better than to disturb him. Lying on my back, watching the stars until my lids grow heavy and close, I think about his words and try to imagine a world where druids and magic have no place. And I realise, just before I fall asleep, that in such a world I would have no place either.Marching. Eyes half closed. Feeling power around me-power from the stars and those who drift among them. Trying to absorb it. Muttering the words of a spell which Drust taught me. I'm holding a small rock. If the spell works, the rock will float for a second or two.I stutter on a key word and lose my place. Drust's hand instantly connects with the back of my head. "Concentrate!" he snaps."I am!" I snap back. It's the seventh or eighth time he's hit me in the last hour. I'm sick of it. "I can't do this stupid men's magic! Teach Bran, why don't you!"Bran's head rises. He's been walking along just behind us, humming a tune."He couldn't do any worse than you," Drust snarls, slapping me again, harder this time. That's it! My right hand comes up. I'm going to slap him back-see what he thinks! But before I can..."People often say I'm too small to be a smith."Drust and I look up, startled. Fiachna, who was marching ahead of us, has stopped and is smiling."This has nothing to do with you," Drust growls."I never said it had," Fiachna replies. "I'm just remarking-people often say I'm too small to be a smith. They think smiths have to be large, burly men who can swing two heavy hammers at once and bend iron with their hands. And most are. But they don't need to be."My master was a gentle man. He had a bad leg. He broke it when he was a child and it didn't heal properly. So he never fought. But he made some of the finest weapons imaginable. He knew iron, how to bend it to his will and get the best out of it. He'd always talk while he worked, happily chatting away, seemingly to himself. People thought he was mad but he wasn't. He was talking to the iron, learning from it, easing and teasing it into the shape he wanted-the shape it wanted.""I don't see-" Drust begins but Fiachna talks over him."He taught me to work that way too. He never beat me or shouted or lost his temper. I wasn't his first apprentice or his last. He'd take boys on for a while, teach them his ways, observe them, then let them go if he felt they couldn't learn from him." A short pause, then he adds, "Apologies for telling you your business but that might be the best way to teach Bec. Unless you think she can't learn.""She can!" Drust shouts. "She has potential. I can feel it.""Then hitting her won't help, will it?" Fiachna says calmly. "My master always said you couldn't beat a skill out of somebody. They had to learn in their own way and time. If you rushed them, you only delayed them. You had to be firm but not cruel. Cruelty is a barrier and barriers slow people down.""My masters beat me unconscious whenever I made a mistake," Drust says and he sounds like a bitter child."Did you learn anything while you were knocked out?" Fiachna asks.Drust starts to roar a retort, then stops and frowns."Hard to learn when you're dead to the world," Fiachna says, nodding slowly. Then he turns and starts walking again.Drust looks at me and catches my smile. He scowls. "I don't like being spoken down to by a smith," he huffs and my smile fades. Then his expression mellows. "But only a fool ignores good advice simply because it comes from an unlikely source. Very well, Bec MacConn. We've tried it my way. Now we'll try it Fiachna's. No more beatings for a few days. If you improve, well and good. If not..." He grins tightly. "I'll have to whip you all the harder!"I gulp, torn between the relief of the present and the threat of the future. Then I take a breath, relax and start again, drawing in power from the sky, chanting the words of the spell, focusing on the stone, willing it to rise.