Without the Child of the Prophecy the quest to regain the sacred islands will fail. Fainne becomes close friends with Darragh, one of the tinkers who returns every summer. The alliance that is preparing to take back the islands forcibly from Edwin of Northwoods is led by her cousin Johnny, the child of Liadan and Bran Son of the Shadows and child of the prophecy that a child of Briton and Erin and of neither, marked by the raven, would save the sacred islands. To force Fainne to do this, her grandmother threatens her father with sickness and a slow death. Her grandmother gives her a charm to wear to protect her from the people of Sevenwaters; in reality, this charm allows her grandmother to see Fainne and to partially control her thoughts.
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Epilogue Chapter One Every summer they came. By earth and sky, by sun and stone I counted the days. The sun sank in the west, a ball of orange fire diving beyond the hills into the unseen depths of the ocean. Its dying light caught the shapes of the dolmens and stretched their strange shadows out across the stony ground before me. Each day the setting sun threw the dark pointed shapes a little further across the hilltop to the north.
When the biggest shadow came right to my toes, here where I sat in the very center of the circle, it was time. There was a pattern to it. There were patterns to everything, if you knew how to look.
My father taught me that. The real skill lay in staying outside them, in not letting yourself be caught up in them. It was a mistake to think you belonged. Such as we were could never belong. That, too, I learned from him. The season they spent here at the bay was the closest they ever came to settling down.
Danny Walker would be driving one pair of horses, his wife Peg the other. The rest of the folk would walk behind, their scarves and shawls and neckerchiefs bright splashes of color in the dun and gray of the landscape, for it was barren enough up here, even in the warmth of early summer. And last, there was the string of ponies, and the younger lads leading them or riding alongside.
That was the best moment of the summer: the first glimpse I got of Darragh, sitting small and proud on his sturdy gray. This string would be trained over the warmer season, and sold when the traveling folk went north again. Not by so much as a twitch of a finger or a blink of an eyelid would I let on I was there. But Darragh would know. But he did not lay down any restrictions. It was more effective, he said, for me to set my own rules. The craft was a hard taskmaster.
I would discover soon enough that it left no time for friends, no time for play, no time for swimming or fishing or jumping off the rocks as the other children did. There was much to learn. And when Father was too busy to teach me, I must spend my time practicing my skills. The only rules were the unspoken ones. I understood that for our kind the craft was all that really mattered. But Darragh made his way into my life uninvited, and once he was there he became my summer companion and my best friend; my only friend, to tell the truth.
I was frightened of the other children and could hardly imagine joining in their boisterous games. They in their turn avoided me. Maybe it was fear, and maybe it was something else. I knew I was cleverer than they were. I knew I could do what I liked to them, if I chose to. I wished I was one of the traveler girls, with a red scarf and a shawl with a long fringe to it, so I could perch up high on the cart and ride away in autumn time to the far distant lands of the north. We had a place, a secret place, halfway down the hill behind big boulders and looking out to the southwest.
Below us the steep, rocky promontory of the Honeycomb jutted into the sea. Inside it was a complex network of caves and chambers and concealed ways, a suitable home for a man such as my father. Behind us the slope stretched up and up to the flattened top of the hill, where the stone circle stood, and then down again to the cart track.
Beyond that was the land of Kerry, and farther still were places whose names I did not know. But Darragh knew, and Darragh told me as he stacked driftwood neatly for a fire, and hunted for flint and tinder while I got out a little jar of dried herbs for tea. He told me of lakes and forests, of wild crags and gentle misty valleys. He described how the Norsemen, whose raids on our coast were so feared, had settled here and there and married Irish women, and bred children who were neither one thing nor the other.
With a gleam of excitement in his brown eyes, he spoke of the great horse fair up north. He got so caught up in this, his thin hands gesturing, his voice bright with enthusiasm, that he forgot he was supposed to be lighting the little fire. So I did it myself, pointing at the sticks with my first finger, summoning the flame. The driftwood burst instantly alight, and our small pan of water began to heat. Darragh fell silent. I would have done it. The smell of the herbs arose freshly in the cool air of the hillside.
The summers were full of such days. He taught me to fish with a single line and a steady hand. I taught him how to read what day it was from the way the shadows moved up on the hilltop. In this place I always felt safe. In this place sky and earth and sea met and touched and parted again, and the sound of the wavelets lapping the subterranean beach was like a sigh, at once greeting and farewell. Darragh never told me if he liked my secret cave or not.
There was a wild grass that grew on the hillside there, a strong, supple plant with a silky sheen to its pale green stems. We called it rat-tails, though it probably had some other name. Peg and her daughters were expert basketweavers, and made use of this grass for their finer and prettier efforts, the sort that might be sold to a lady for gathering flowers maybe, rather than used for carrying vegetables or a heavy load of firewood.
Darragh, too, could weave, his long fingers fast and nimble. One summer we were up by the standing stones, late in the afternoon, sitting with our backs to the Sentinel and looking out over the bay and the far promontory, and beyond to the western sea. Clouds were gathering, and the air had a touch of chill to it. I was sad, and cross with myself for being sad, and I was trying not to think about another winter of hard work and cold, lonely days.
I stared at the stony ground and thought about the year, and how it turned around like a serpent biting its own tail; how it rolled on like a relentless wheel. The good times would come again, and after them the bad times. Darragh had a fistful of rat-tails, and he was twisting them deftly and whistling under his breath. Darragh was never sad. Besides, he could go away if he wanted to. I glared at the pebbles on the ground.
Round and round, that was my existence, endlessly repeating, a cycle from which there was no escape. Round and round. Fixed and unchangeable.
I watched the pebbles as they shuddered and rolled; as they moved obediently on the ground before me. The stones stopped moving. Now they lay in a perfect circle. He was looking away over the bay again, watching the small curraghs come in from fishing.
He gestured toward the neat circle of tiny stones. I never would. And—and you need keeping an eye on. Who did he think he was, talking as if he was my big brother? Just as far as the junipers down there. Come on. Go on, off you go. I ran, if you could call my awkward, limping gait a run. With my skirt caught up in one hand I made reasonable speed, though the steep pebbly surface required some caution.
I was only halfway to the junipers when I heard his soft, quick footsteps right behind me. No race could have been less equal, and both of us knew it. He could have covered the ground in a quarter of the time it took me. But somehow, the way it worked out, the two of us reached the bushes at exactly the same moment. Six, maybe, and he a year or two older?
I had the little ring on my finger the day the traveling folk packed up and moved out again; the day I had to wave goodbye and start waiting. It was all right for him. He had places to go and things to do, and he was eager to get on his pony and be off. Still, he made time to say farewell, up on the hillside above the camp, for he knew I would not come near where the folk gathered to load their carts and make ready for the journey.
My father was down there, a tall, cloaked figure talking to Danny Walker, giving him messages to deliver, commissions to fulfill. Around them, the folk left a wide, empty circle. Keep out of trouble, now, until I come back. As for me, I had no words at all.
Child of the Prophecy