The sky was dark and grey, threatening with rain. Frigid wind whipped the heather and gorse brambles, and whistled through tall, rocky outcroppings. A shaggy pony, nearly the same color as the darkening sky, ambled through the fallen, blackened skeleton of what had once been a large building. It nosed the scorched stones of the floor, mossy with age, and lipped at the weeds growing tall and green through the cracks. In one corner, the root of a nearby tree had cracked the stones completely and was peeping through the desolation.
In another hundred years, the land would completely claim this ruin. It would be as if nothing had ever happened here, as if no one had ever trod these stones but the mice, the deer, and the herds of wild ponies. The stones would remember, but nobody would know, in the time to come, how to speak their language. All other memories of this place would be long since turned to dust.
The grey pony pawed at a patch of weeds, dislodging a long, white bone from its resting place. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a network of webbed lightning glimmered in the cloud cover. The coming night was a night for ghosts, and if ghosts lingered anywhere on the ancient island, they would certainly haunt this place, where so many lives had been cut short by the rage of invaders. The pony was old. He remembered, though few others did now, not even those who had been spared the massacre by the grace of his people. It was best that they all forget. No sense in human regret for things that could not be changed.
The wind whipped at his shaggy coat, and he turned away from the blackened shell of the building.
Sinbad was sleeping.
Maeve was under strict orders not to let him sleep, and she was very calmly and very deliberately disobeying them. She looked up from her book and studied him, across the small cabin, as he slept on their bed. Often he was quite fetching, she thought, as he slept, but not today. He slept the sleep of the deeply exhausted, snoring lightly through his nose, which was unusual. He lay where he had fallen, his neck bent at a strange angle that was sure to be uncomfortable when he woke. His hair had fallen in his eyes, and every now and then he twitched involuntarily, as if in response to his dreams. He was going to be mad when he woke up, but Maeve didn't care. Served him right, getting so upset about something so minor and refusing to sleep for days until Cait's fever had broken.
Her eyes flicked to the figure lying next to Sinbad on the big bed. Cait was sleeping, too, at the moment, but she was sleeping with more grace than her father. She lay very still, her red-gold hair spread over the pillow, her mouth slightly open and her cheeks pink. Her fever had risen so high that her little face had turned red and stayed that way, no matter how many times they had bathed it in cool water. Firouz said that the tiny rivers of blood under her skin had broken, but that they would heal with time and her normal coloring would return.
Maeve turned back to her book as she sat in a high-backed chair, listening to the seabirds outside the ship and the cracks and creaks of the Nomad as they moved gently through the water. Dimly she heard Doubar calling orders outside, and the answering shout from one of the crew. She was tired, too, more tired than she would like to admit, but she didn't feel much like going to sleep. Though she would never have revealed it to anyone, even Sinbad—especially Sinbad—she had been worried by the fever. She knew children got sick; she also knew that, more often than not, they recovered quickly with no ill effects. But this was not first- or second-hand knowledge of other people's children, this time. It was her little girl, her firstborn, and she hadn't realized just how much fear even a small illness could cause until it had happened. She was thankful they had managed to escape the more deadly sicknesses that claimed too many children before they reached Caitrionna's age. Maeve hated the thought that something could happen, at any time, to the child she had carried and nursed, sheltered and protected, but she had learned to live with that sort of everyday fear.
She wondered, in the back of her mind, if that fear would decrease as Cait grew older—three years was still so young, so small—or when Cait's brother was born. Maeve idly placed a hand over her belly. She had known for several weeks now that she was with child again, but had not chosen to tell Sinbad yet. He would find out in time, but she wasn't ready to share her knowledge yet. Right now was her time for secret contemplation, for this power that the men in her life would never know, or truly understand. It was a power she herself didn't understand—a power she feared, even—until she had conceived Caitrionna. It had taken her a long time, a very long time, to realize that power—longer than anyone on the Nomad would have guessed. She had had the secrets, the mysteries, of the Old Ways laid out before her for years during her youth, but she hadn't been able to truly grasp them with certainty and assurance until her simple sailor unlocked something within her that made her understand.
The rest had been easy.
Sinbad stirred, and Maeve put her book down and went to him. She sat on the edge of the bed and touched his shoulder. He was turned away from her, collapsed on his side. Even in deep sleep, he stilled at her touch. She smiled and sent a tendril of thought out to him. He was not dreaming—he was too deeply asleep even for dreams—but the small thoughts that floated in his head were peaceful. Maeve disengaged from his mind very gently and did not wake him.
She went around the bed and sat down next to her daughter. Cait slept peacefully, and Maeve sent another gentle thought-probe into her mind. She was dreaming, in the simple way that small children dreamed. She was not as deeply asleep as her father, and she recognized her mother's presence without waking. A tiny part of her mind reached out, and Maeve soothed it with a thought, wrapping her mind with warmth and reassurance. Maeve took her daughter's corporeal hand, and the small fist wrapped around two of Maeve's fingers and held them.
Maeve could not remember being so small. She wondered if Cait would remember, even vaguely, this illness or its aftermath. She wondered if Cait would remember what it was like to be the only child aboard the Nomad, or if the days before her brother was born would be utterly lost to her.
Slowly, for the first time in she didn't know how long, Maeve stretched her memory to its longest. She thought about how far back she could remember, the markers of time that kept her memories separate and ordered. She remembered her triumphant return to the Nomad, certainly, and her training before that. She remembered her first travels with Sinbad and his crew, and her time with Master Dim-Dim before she had ever heard of a blue-eyed sailor who was whispered to be the master of the seven seas. She remembered her search for a teacher before Dim-Dim found her, and the journey that had taken her out of her homeland to this far, strange land. Before that…it was very difficult to pull the memories out of the obscuring haze of time. They were nebulous, disordered, unclear. So many times Sinbad had asked her, gently and with care, if she couldn't tell him about her past before her journey to Master Dim-Dim. She cut him short every time, but she told herself it was because she didn't want to remember. Now she wasn't so sure if she could.
She looked down at her sleeping child. Maybe it would be important, someday. Maybe Cait would want to know, too. How could she deny her daughter the right to know one-half of her ancestry, her heritage? For Caitrionna's sake, Maeve thought, she would try again. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, placing herself in a light trance-state. Instead of forcing the issue, she let her mind wander where it would. Sooner or later, it would have to take her back far enough so that she could remember.
The great expanse of sky was hidden by the towering buildings, but she didn't notice. To her city-bred senses, it was completely normal to see only swatches of star-studded sky and a sliver of moon every now and again; the brick buildings were simply darker shadows in the fog-swathed night of Dublin-town.
She lounged against the side of the tall, red-brick building, sliding deeper into the alley's shadows as a carriage clattered by on the cobblestoned street. Them swells wouldn't take kindly to seeing her waiting here. Not many people who lived in this quarter would approve of her presence. She hastily slipped deeper still into the alley. The man she was meeting would not wish to be exposed, especially by the constabulary around here. Word was they worked directly for the magistrate.
"Boy." The word was not a question. He knew she would be here.
"Huh." She made sure her voice sounded properly gruff and raspy.
"Ye 'ave the stuff?" She still couldn't see him, but his breath swept over her, carrying the unmistakable sour taint of stale whiskey.
She dug in her pockets and extracted a number of items of expensive jewelry. Jewels glinted dully in the foggy, back-alley night, faint light from the far-off gas streetlamps preventing it from being completely black.
The man's large hand loomed out of the darkness, and she deposited the stolen jewelry in it, careful not to touch skin-on-skin. "A good 'aul," he commented, a bag of assorted coins passing from him to her. "Ye sure ye doan want to werk fer me exclusively?"
"Nah," she said, attempting to keep her voice from shaking. Occasional jobs with this lout were necessary in order to make ends meet, but she would never become one of his personal thieves. He kept a tight rein over those poor boys, and if she were to become one of them he would assuredly learn her secret sooner or later. And her life was dependent upon the continuation of this masquerade.
There was silence on the thief's part until she began to feel the first edges of real fear. Had it been wise to refuse his offer?
"Ye'd best 'sider this again, boy," he said, grasping her tightly by the shoulder. "I feed'n'clothe me boys well. They's got no room fer complaint."
She refused to let her body tremble from the man's onslaught. No one had touched her, ever, unless you counted her stepfather's backhanded blows when she was younger…well, that had been close to five years ago. She was rid of him now, on her own. And damned if she was going to let this man take his place!
He laughed, a short bark, and released her shoulder abruptly. "Ye've got clout, lad, I'll give ye that." He backed away, but she knew he was not gone. "I be watchin' ye, though. Soon, when ye get bigger and can't fit in all those windows'n'chimneys, ye'll want someone like me around. I'll be waitin' fer that day, boy."
His footsteps shuffled off into the night, and only then did she let herself relax. She pulled off her cap and let her short, close-cropped red hair fall down around her ears. No, she thought, never will I want someone like you around. She rubbed at her shoulder, where the man had touched her. The coarse, dirty cloth of her coat felt reassuring, and with the unaccustomed weight of money in her pocket, she went to find a place to sleep.
She woke just before dawn, to the sounds of the very first hawkers beginning to cry their wares. Thankful that the noise had awakened her, she crammed her cap back on her head, made sure her coins were still in her coat—safely hidden in the lining—and clattered down the steep ladders and stairs of the church belltower.
The priest met her at the bottom of the last flight of stairs. "Oh! I be sorry, sir, I didn't see ye!" she stuttered, surprised. The old man smiled kindly and extended a hand to her.
"You spend much time in church for a child of the Old Ways," he remarked, and she flushed. The priest held out one gnarled old hand and beckoned to her. "Come, child. You've slept here all night and now I suppose you want breakfast, eh? Come, come, we will talk."
He led her through the main room to his own bare little cell. She looked around in awe—this powerful man didn't live much better than she did!
The priest smiled kindly and waved her to a seat in a hard-backed chair. "I see questions in your eyes. You wonder why I have chosen to serve God if such servitude means I must live like this." He handed her a steaming mug of hot tea and a small plate with two bannocks. "To tell you the truth, I don't really know myself." He smiled again, something he did a lot, and sipped at his own tea. "I always knew I would go into the ministry—God always called to me somehow. I do not mind living like this if it means I may preach God's word." His eyes twinkled with merriment. "But that is neither here nor there. I see cunning in your eyes. You are an intelligent creature."
She swallowed nervously. "How'd ye ken I wasn't Cath'lic?" she asked.
"The same way I know you're not a boy."
She froze, her breakfast turning to sawdust in her suddenly-dry mouth.
"What is your name, child?" the priest asked gently.
"M-Maevelyn," she whispered, her brown eyes growing big as saucers.
"Yes, I see it in your eyes, you tell the truth. Please do not fear. I will not betray your secret." He let his eyes twinkle again. "Tell me, how you have survived on your own on the streets of Dublin-town?"
Maeve hesitated. "I'm…I'm a thief. A pickpocket."
"Ah." He leaned back in his hard chair and took a bite of his own breakfast. "Tell me your story."
Maeve poked at the remaining bannock on her plate, hesitating, unsure whether to trust this man. He was a man of the Church, a man who must live by his word, but still…
"Do not fear, Maevelyn. We will treat this as a confession, yes? Tell me."
She took a deep breath. "I…I ran away after me mum died."
"What about your father?"
"Don't know," she said sullenly. "Got meself a stepfather…he be the reason I left, sir."
"Father," he corrected. "Are you saying you've been living on the streets like this for a while now? How long?"
"Sorry…Father. A few years now, I guess."
He nodded. "But you are quite obviously a child of the Old Ways. I can see it in you."
"You have the look of something…something older than us. Something not quite of this world. No, you are but a child, you do not understand me. I don't expect you to. But hear me—this place, this city, is not for you."
"You heard me." He cocked his head to the side. "How old are you, child?"
"Fourteen," she said defensively.
"That's about what I thought," he said, nodding. He rose and crossed to his desk, pulling a piece of paper out and writing on it. She sat where she was and finished the second bannock, rarely used to a full meal when she woke and prepared to make the most of it.
The priest returned after a moment with a folded bit of paper. He handed it to her and said, "Now, Maevelyn, I want you to listen to me very carefully. I may be a member of the Church, but there was a religion in these isles that was here long before we came and set up our churches and our monasteries. That religion is still very much alive, though the Pope has tried to crush it. Me? I am Irish bred and born. I may work for the Catholic God, and I love Him more than I can say, but my blood is the same as yours. Irish. So I am telling you this now, and I want you to follow my directions. There is a place not far from here, out in the woods to the north. I want you to go there—this is a map to help you find it. There are people there who can help you. You have much in your future, child, and it does not lie in Dublin-town."
Maeve could only stare wide-eyed at the priest as he told her all this.
"Now, go," he finished. "And Maevelyn, don't ever be afraid." He blessed her once before shooing her out of the church. "There is nothing for you to be afraid of. Nothing."