Authors: Edith Pattou
Copyright Â© 1991 by Edith Pattou
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Chapter One from
copyright Â© 1998 by Edith Pattou
First Magic Carpet Books edition 1998
First Published 1991
Magic Carpet Books
is a trademark of Harcourt, Inc.,
registered in the United States of America and/or other jurisdictions.
The Library of Congress has cataloged an earlier edition as follows:
Hero's song: the first song of Eirren/by Edith Pattou.
p. cm.â(The songs of Eirren)
"Magic Carpet Books."
Summary: On a quest to rescue his kidnapped sister, Collun discovers
that he is a key figure in the struggle to save the kingdom of Eirren
from conquest by Medb, the Queen of Ghosts.
[1. Fantasy.] I. Title. II. Series: Pattou, Edith. Songs of Eirren.
Text set in Granjon
Designed by Kaelin Chappell
Map by Barry Age
E G H F D
Printed in the United States of America
For my grandmother, Hollis,
who planted the garden,
and for Charles
I am a salmon in wisdom's fountain
The Song of Amergin
Irish poet, ca. 1270
(translation by A. P. Graves)
Collun was on his knees, working in the flower beds, when he spotted the kesil coming up the road. He leaned back on his heels, watching the tall figure approach. Pinching off the dead head of a cornflower, he wondered why the ragged forest man was back so soon.
Ordinarily the kesil only came through Inkberrow twice a year, begging for food and muttering strange words under his breath. He had visited their farmhold, Aonarach, just a month ago. Collun's mother had given him food as she always did.
But here he was back again, and, even more odd, instead of heading around to the back door to beg for scraps, he walked right up to Collun.
"Good evening," Collun said, his voice uneasy.
The kesil mumbled words that Collun could not understand. He kept running his hands up and down his knotted gray beard.
"Are you hungry? May I bring you bread? Or a drink from our well?"
The wild man shook his head.
"It won't be long before the first frost," Collun said awkwardly, to fill the silence. The kesil's hands continued moving on his beard, and Collun turned back to his work. He concentrated on uprooting a weed with his trine. A feeling of dread made his hands shake and he cut the weed off short, its jagged edge white against the soil. Collun stared at it. Why did the kesil not go away?
Abruptly the old man reached out his dirt-encrusted hand and firmly grasped Collun's arm. Almost against his will, Collun looked up into his face. The kesil's eyes were focused and alert, not wandering and dull as they had always been before. The last rays of the sun caught them. They were an incandescent shade of silver-blue. Collun slowly rose to his feet, his breath coming fast.
The kesil spoke. "You know what you must do. Delay no longer." The words were spoken softly, yet each one was clear and direct.
"Do not travel on the high road. It is not safe." He loosed his grip from Collun's arm but held the boy's gaze a moment longer, his eyes glittering. Then abruptly the kesil turned away. He shuffled to the gate, opened it, and slowly moved down the road.
Collun watched the kesil go. His heart thudded unevenly. Was this man perhaps
a kesil? For a moment his eyes had been so clear, hardly those of a madman.
Did the kesil know about Nessa? And of the fear that wrapped around Collun like a dank smell? Collun shook his head in confusion and returned to his work, bent on thrusting away all reminders of his cowardice. There was much to be done in the garden.
And yet the moon rose, dinnertime came and went, and still Collun sat crouched in his garden. The trine had long since been laid aside, along with the watering can and the spade. All he had been trying to forget came flooding back.
Collun's lips moved silently as he counted the days since the news had first arrived.
A week and a day.
A week and a day since the messenger from Temair had come up the dusty road to Aonarach. A week and a day since Collun had learned that his sister, Nessa, had disappeared.
Collun leaned over one of the neatly planted beds of flowers and broke off a spray of alyssum. He held it up and in the moonlight could see a fire ant climbing the purple-black stem. He spun the alyssum between his thumb and forefinger, but the fire ant climbed on, making its way steadily through the honey-sweet blossoms.
Collun wished that he could trade places with the fire ant. The insect's path was clear. There was food to collect, shelter to build, danger to avoid. Collun's hand trembled. The ant paused a moment, then resumed its climb. When it came to a fork in the alyssum stem, the ant did not hesitate. It knew which way to go.
Collun did not.
Since that day when the messenger came to Aonarach, Collun had gone about his daily routine on the farm and
at his father's smithy, but his body felt slack, his muscles weary. He watched his hands pound nails into hooves and stake drooping tomato vines, but he was unable to find sense in what he did.
Less than a year apart in age, Collun and Nessa had always been close. When Nessa had left the farmhold for Temair, Collun felt as if everything had dimmedâthe colors of the flowers, the light of the sun. If something had happened to her ... He could not bear even the thought of it.
Collun remembered how his younger sister had looked the day she departed for Temair. Her plentiful dark hair had been tied up in a dozen trailing ribbons. Too many, their mother, Emer, had said, removing a yellow, a blue, and a pink one.
Nessa had been up at dawn that morning, unable to sit still long enough to eat breakfast. Their father, Goban, had grumbled at her fidgeting, but Nessa kept running to the door every few moments to see if Aunt Fial's curricle was coming down the road. She fretted each time she came back to the table. What if they had the day wrong? Or worse, what if Aunt Fial had changed her mind?
But Aunt Fial's curricle had arrived on schedule, driven by a small, wiry man named Quince with heavy brows and a sword buckled at his hip. Nessa's eyes had widened at the sight of the sword. Quince explained that the road between Inkberrow and Temair had its dangers, especially of late. He had had no trouble coming and expected none on the way back, but it was well to be prepared.
Quince had placed Nessa's single case in the back of
the curricle while she said her good-byes. Nessa hugged her mother and father, but when she came to Collun, tears blurred her dark eyes.
"I wish you were coming with me," she had said, a catch in her voice.
"I shall miss you, Nessa."
"I made this for you," she whispered, pressing a small square object into his hand. A book.
Nessa gave Collun a last fierce hug and then jumped up next to Quince on the driver's seat. As he cracked the whip, Nessa raised her hand in farewell, tears still wet on her cheeks.
They stood and watched the curricle bump along the dusty road. Then Collun's father turned away, growling, "The day's half gone. There's work to do."
"I hope Fial will take good care of her," Emer said softly.
"Aye," replied Goban, but his tone held doubt.
Emer looked worried. "Have we done wrong, letting her go to Temair?"
"Right or wrong, it's too late now," Goban grunted. "Leastways 'twas nothing else to be done, once Nessa set her mind on it."
And Goban spoke the truth, Collun thought. There was no one as stubborn as Nessa.
Emer twisted her hands in her apron. "I hope Fial watches out for her," she said again.
Goban did not respond. Collun knew his father had little use for the widow of Emer's elder brother; he thought her vain and foolish. Fial, for her part, was ill at ease with the remote blacksmith and always seemed relieved to end her visits and return to Temair.
Fial was all that remained of Emer's family, though she was not blood kin. Emer's father, mother, and two brothers were all dead. She never spoke of them, nor did she visit Fial in Temair. Their interaction was limited to short visits by Fial to Inkberrow once every five years.
During her most recent visit, Aunt Fial had been delighted with Nessa, who had blossomed since she had last seen her. But none of them had been prepared for the long letter that arrived on Nessa's birthday, inviting her to come live in Temair for a year. Temair was the seat of the king and queen and as such was a powerful stronghold and the largest city in Eirren. Fial offered to present Nessa at court and give her all the advantages of life in the royal dun. For her part, Nessa would provide welcome companionship to a lonely widow.
Emer had been distressed by Fial's offer and at first had refused to even consider it. But Nessa had been so determined to go that at last she wore Emer down.
Emer wrote and told Fial of their decision. Arrangements were made for the curricle to come for Nessa in a fortnight.
The time had gone quickly. And as Collun watched the dust on the road settle, the curricle lost to sight, he felt numb. Goban had returned to his forge, Emer to her kitchen. Slowly Collun made his way to his favorite shade tree, a white willow at the edge of the east meadow. He settled himself under it and opened the book Nessa had given him. At once he saw she had made it herself.
Nessa had loved books for as long as Collun could
remember. They had but few at the farmhold Aonarach, and of late Nessa had been experimenting with making her own.
It had taken her a long time to master the art of crafting paper thin enough to bind between two covers. Collun smiled, remembering the smelly messes she had created in the process. Most recently she had been trying her hand at dyes, and her fingers were often stained by the different berries and barks she used.
The cover of the book was leather, and a simple design had been etched into it. What followed was a short tale about a seabird. Every other page was decorated with a picture of the varied places the seabird flew.
Collun drew in his breath. He had not known his sister had such a delicate and true hand at drawing. He came to the end of the book reluctantly. Then he stood, carefully stowing the book in an inside pocket of his jersey.
He kept it there in the weeks that followed, and when he found himself missing her the most, he would take it out and read it through again.
They had received a short message from Aunt Fial not long after Nessa left, saying she had arrived safely and was settling comfortably into her new life. That was all, until the middle of a hot day two months later when the messenger from Temair had arrived.