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Authors: Edith Pattou

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BOOK: Hero's Song
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Collun dropped the rake he had been using and his knees suddenly turned to water. He staggered and nearly fell forward. Panic filled him. He must help Nessa. She might die. But he could not get his legs to move.

Then he felt his mother's skirts brush past him, heard her soothing words as she struck Nessa sharply on the back and the peach pit shot out of her throat. Nessa croaked painfully and gasped for breath, tears running down her face, arms wrapped tightly around Emer's neck.

Collun had crept away then, sunk deep in shame. He was sure if Emer had not come when she did, Nessa would have died and it would have been his fault. He was a coward.

He had turned more and more to his gardening. When he went into Inkberrow to sell vegetables, he kept to himself. He made no friends among the villagers. Except Talisen.

***

That morning Collun packed the few belongings he had decided to take with him into a worn leather bag with straps for carrying on his back. It smelled of earth and seed, for he used it to carry his farming gear out to the fields. He then took stock of the herbs in his leather wallet, replenished several that were running low, and strapped it over his chest.

When he went into the kitchen he saw that his father had set out a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and some salted meat. Collun thanked him and added the food to his bag.

"Father, I would ask a favor of you. If Talisen should come here, asking for me, tell him I have gone and there was not time to say good-bye."

Goban nodded, then said with a frown, "Where is the blade I forged for you?"

"In my pack."

His father snorted. "It will do you little good there." He turned and left the kitchen. Collun could hear him putting on his long boots and leather apron in preparation for the day's work.

Collun sat at the table finishing his chicory. He thought about Talisen and smiled slightly. It was ironic that he should be the one leaving Inkberrow when it was Talisen who constantly talked about leaving to seek his fortune.

He couldn't remember how they first met, but it seemed to Collun that he and Talisen had always been friends. They were an unlikely pair; Talisen was a charmer with a quick grin and a way with words, while Collun tended to keep more to himself.

Collun thought of stopping by the Whicklow farmhold where Talisen made his home to say good-bye, but it was in the opposite direction, and he felt the press of time already lost.

Leaving his pack on a kitchen chair, Collun went to his mother's room.

"Collun?" she said, pulling herself into a sitting position as he entered the room.

"I am ready to go, Mother."

Collun stood by the side of the bed and looked down into Emer's pain-darkened eyes. Even as a child Collun had been aware of a remoteness in his mother. For all that she loved her children, he had always felt there was a private sadness in Emer no one could ever touch or know.

"You are going then?" Emer asked, her voice muted.

"Yes."

"There is nothing I can say that would persuade you to stay?"

"No."

"Very well." Her tone was resigned. Then she reached out and took Collun's brown, rough hand in hers and said, "Protect yourself well, son. There may be those who would harm you, as they would harm Nessa."

Collun was startled. "Why?"

Her eyes shifted away. "I cannot explain. I made a pledge to Eira long ago, and I must not break it, even now." Collun knew Emer's feelings for the goddess Eira ran deep. Every morning at dawn and every evening at twilight, even during this illness, Emer sat by the fireplace, her eyes closed and her lips moving silently as she prayed to Eira.

"But, Collun," Emer said, "if you should hear of my death..." He let out a sound of protest, but Emer continued, "Find Crann. He will help you, if you are in need."

"Who is Crann?"

"I cannot explain," she repeated. "One thing more, son. It is important. Do not speak of me on your journey or say my name. Especially when you arrive in Temair. Will you promise?"

"Your name? Why?"

"Promise me."

Collun was puzzled, but he agreed to do as she asked.

Emer looked relieved. "Have you food for your journey?"

"Yes. Father gave me food."

She smiled sadly. "He is a good man, Goban. He has done his best."

"Mother..."

"Go now, with my love. And tell Nessa—"

"You will tell her yourself when we return." Collun made his voice loud.

"Yes."

He stood, looking down at her white face. He suddenly felt he would not see it again. Holding back the tears, he leaned over and kissed his mother's brow. Then he left the room, his heart beating painfully.

He returned to the kitchen and checked his gear once more, feeling in his jersey pocket for the book Nessa had given him. Then he hoisted his pack onto his back and went out the door.

He paused at the wooden gate at the bottom of the path and heard the clang of iron against iron coming from the smithy. He could see his father's set and sweating face as his powerful shoulders heaved the large hammer. Emer called him a good man, and perhaps he was, but for father and son there were no more words to be said.

He set off.

THREE
Talisen

It was a fine morning. The air was cool, but the sun warmed Collun's face. Had this been a short walk into Inkberrow for seed and bulbs, his spirits would have been high.

Uneasily he remembered the sword buckled at the hip of Fial's man, Quince. There was a time, he had heard, when the high road between Inkberrow and Temair had been safe. But that was before Medb had named herself queen of Scath, a country that lay to the north of Eirren.

Long ago Scath had been part of Eirren, consisting mostly of the country's sparsely populated northern reaches. It was an area with a harsh climate and rocky
soil, and it stretched with many fingers into the northern sea.

Collun had learned of Scath from the coulin, the old songs of Eirren. The songs told of a dark lord named Cruachan, who, skilled at wizardry, had spread his power like a black shadow over the desolate north. He rose up against Amergin, the bard who ruled Eirren, and calling the land Scath, Cruachan named himself its ruler. To strengthen his power and ensure his claim, he allied himself with morgs, evil creatures who dwelled in the northern island kingdoms of Usna and Uneach.

When the morgs had fulfilled their bargain with the dark lord and established him in his kingdom, most returned to their own lands, preferring the perpetual night and cold temperatures of Usna and Uneach. But some stayed. And those Eirrenians who had chosen to remain in Scath, and who were loyal to Cruachan, now called themselves Scathians.

Medb, the present queen of Scath, was a descendant of Cruachan. It was rumored that morg blood also ran in her veins. She was called bhannion annam, Queen of Ghosts.

The border between Scath and Eirren had from the beginning been an uneasy one, but never more so than when Medb named herself queen. She demanded of the young king and queen of Eirren that the border be opened and that unrestricted travel be allowed between the two countries. The king and queen had agreed to Medb's demands. But the Northerners who came into Eirren roamed in bands with strange weapons and brutal faces, and they preyed on those who traveled Eirren's roads. The rulers of Eirren swiftly placed reasonable and just restrictions on those entering Eirren from the north.

Medb responded by invading Eirren.

The invasion was hastily mounted, but its savage and unexpected force wreaked devastation on northern Eirren. Forests burned, homes were laid waste, and countless Eirrenians lost their lives.

Led by young King Gwynn of the long shoulders and burning dark eyes and a handful of brave, fierce men, the army of Eirren set forth to meet Medb's deadly host.

The Eamh War, named for the plain on which the tide of battle finally turned, lasted for two years. Eirren ultimately triumphed, and the men who had stood at the head of her army were named heroes. Chief among them was a young man called Cuillean, whose bravery became legend in Eirren. Many songs were composed lauding his mighty deeds. It was said that on the Eamh Plain alone, Cuillean had single-handedly killed more than a hundred Scathians.

A truce was forged, and for fifteen years it was upheld. In response to overtures by a seemingly repentant Medb, the king and queen of Eirren even reopened the border, allowing restricted travel between Eirren and Scath. But in recent years the roads had gradually become unsafe again, and there were many who feared another war between Scath and Eirren. Talisen had learned this from the traveling bards, although few in Inkberrow were much concerned with the news.

Collun suddenly thought of the kesil. "Do not travel on the high road. It is not safe." Those had been his words. The small winding road that Collun now walked joined with the high road to Temair several leagues ahead.

Did the kesil speak of Scathians when he said the
road was not safe? Or was there something else, something that he, Collun, had reason to fear? His mother had said as much. "Those who would harm you." But why? Who was he but a gardener and farmer, the son of a blacksmith? Who could possibly wish to harm him? Or his sister? And yet Nessa had disappeared. Collun's hand shook slightly as he wiped away the sweat on his upper lip.

It was late afternoon by the time the road from Inkberrow joined with the main road. Collun was beginning to feel hungry, so he stopped and settled himself under an ancient yew tree. So far he had seen only one group of travelers, all on horseback. They were Eirrenians and had greeted him pleasantly enough, but they looked at him curiously, as though surprised to see a lone boy on the road.

As he fished in his pack for food, Collun suddenly felt someone was watching him. He looked sharply up and down the empty road. There was nobody in sight. Then he heard a sound from above. He gazed up and saw a large black bird in the branches over his head. It was opening and closing its wings slowly, as though readying itself for flight. Yet it remained in the tree.

At first he thought it was a raven, but it was slightly smaller and its black feathers had a bluish gleam to them. A scald-crow, he guessed. He had never seen one before, but he knew of them. They were not common in the south of Eirren.

Collun quickly finished his meal and repacked his bag. He stood, and as he moved away from the tree, so did the scald-crow. It slowly mounted into the sky and, making a graceful curl in the air, headed down the road toward Temair.

Collun gave a fleeting thought to the ill-tempered messenger from Temair who had been convinced black birds were omens of ill fortune. Reminding himself that he did not believe in foolish superstitions, he shrugged his pack into a more comfortable position on his back and followed in the same direction as the scald-crow.

His thoughts drifted back to Talisen, who was always one to believe in bad omens or good-luck charms. If Collun so much as scratched his nose, Talisen would immediately claim, "You're about to meet a stranger." Or kiss a fool, or walk into danger, depending on Talisen's whim of the moment.

***

When the sun went down, the air grew cold. Collun breathed in the crisp air, wondering when the first frost would come. He started to think about the work that needed to be done at Aonarach, but then remembered he was on the road, away from Inkberrow and his garden and fields.

As twilight deepened Collun began to look for a spot to make camp for the night. The moon was new, a bright crescent shining in the night, and Collun could see the faint outline of the full moon behind it. The old moon in the arms of the new, as Talisen would say, calling it a lucky omen. Abruptly Collun caught the sound of footsteps behind him. He stopped and listened. Nothing. But as he began walking, he heard the sound again. He stopped again. And the footsteps stopped as well. Collun peered back over his shoulder and thought he could see a muffled, dark shape behind him. Fear made his mouth go dry. He wet his lips and thought of the dagger that had been a trine, buried deep within his
pack. "Little good it will do you there," Goban had said.

Collun kept walking, faster and faster, while he reached behind him and fumbled at the opening of his pack. It was no use. In order to get at its contents he would first have to take the bag off his back and then unloose the thongs that held it closed.

He was almost running now. Quickly he swung the bag off his shoulder, but even as he tugged desperately at the thongs, an arm wrapped around his shoulders. He swung his head around to face his attacker, but instead of a Scathian, he was looking into the laughing face of Talisen.

"What's in the bag that's so precious?" Talisen said, brushing his black hair out of eyes that were narrowed in mock greed.

"Talisen!" Collun cried, caught between relief and anger.

"Sorry, Collun, I couldn't help myself. But you deserve it for running off without me, without even saying good-bye. Is that any way to treat your old friend?"

"I am sorry, but there was no time."

"I will forgive you for that, perhaps, but never for keeping the news about Nessa from me." Talisen's face, for once, was grave. "I wondered why I had not seen you for some days. I would have come out to you, but Farmer Whicklow was working me from dawn to dark, paying him back for his missing pig, which of course had nothing to do with me. But is it true? Has Nessa really disappeared from Temair?"

"Yes. I am going there to find her, if I can." While he spoke, Collun rummaged in his pack for the dagger his father had forged. When he found it, he resolutely fastened the sheath to his belt.

"That's the stone that was in the handle of your trine," Talisen said, eyebrows raised. "Is your trine now a dagger?"

Collun nodded.

"You expect danger?"

"Yes."

"Then I am glad I have come prepared." Talisen drew a blade from the sheath at his own hip.

Collun shook his head. "No. You are not coming with me, Talisen."

"Of course I am."

"This is no tale out of one of your old songs. The danger is real."

"Then all the more reason. Besides, Collun, you will need a bard along to chronicle your adventures."

BOOK: Hero's Song
7.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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