Authors: Kate Forsyth
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Magic, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #Epic, #Fantasy Fiction, #Fantasy - Epic, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Fantasy - Series, #Occult, #Witches, #Women warriors, #australian
Version – 0.9 - Pre-Proofed Scan
The Cursed Towers
Book Three of The Witches of Eileanan
A ROC BOOK
For my Nonnie, Joy Mackenzie-Wood
"Thou shall not suffer a sorceress to live."
If any person or persons shall . .
consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed or reward any
evil or wicked spirit for any intent or purpose, or take up any dead man, woman or child out of
their grave or any other place where the dead body resteth, to be employed or used in any manner
of witchcraft, sorcery, charm or enchantment whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed,
wasted, consumed, pined or lamed in his or her body, every such offender . . . shall suffer death."
"An Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and
Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits"
—A Statute Made in the First Year of the
Reign of King James the First (1603)
The Cursed Towers
The Shining City
Snow drifted down from the darkening sky, mantling the horses' manes. Lilanthe huddled into the rough blanket. She hated winter. Ordinarily she would have found a sheltered valley some weeks ago, with rich, dark soil in which to dig her roots. There she would have dreamed the winter away, her sap quiescent, the winter storms shaking her boughs but barely penetrating her slumbering senses. Only when the snow had melted and her sap quickened, new buds swelling along her twigs, would she have stirred and stretched and opened her long eyes, smelling the sharp spring wind. Only then would she have shaken the earth from her roots and taken her first trembling steps after the long winter rest. Instead the tree-shifter was perched on the hard wooden bench of Gwilym the Ugly's caravan, trying to keep her balance as the cart lurched over the ruts of the dirt road. Her twiggy hair was hidden beneath a plaid, and her broad, gnarled feet were wrapped in sheepskins. Lilanthe was taking no risks despite the success of the Samhain rebellion which had restored the Coven of Witches. Already they had encountered trouble along the road, her uncanny green eyes arousing suspicion among crofters whose hatred of faeries had been encouraged for sixteen long years.
Enit Silverthroat's brightly painted caravan swayed ahead of them, while behind rattled her son Morrell the Fire-Eater's caravan and an old canvas-covered wagon driven by a slim young man with a crimson velvet cap and very bright, black eyes. Lilanthe turned to gaze back at him, clenching her jaw a little when she saw the pretty blonde girl who sat beside him, laughing at one of his jokes. Lilanthe would much rather have been sitting beside Dide the Juggler, singing and laughing, than beside the taciturn Gwilym. Somehow Gilliane NicAislin always managed to get there first, however, and Lilanthe was too shy to insist on having her turn.
Huddled under the meager shelter of the canvas were a cluster of children, the youngest only nine, and a young, fair-haired woman in the final months of pregnancy. She was whey-faced and her eyes were closed, her hand gripping the side of the wagon as she tried to brace herself against its lurch and sway. One of the young men walking beside the wagon turned often to glance up at her, his face creased with anxiety, and once he reached up to touch her in reassurance. Iain MacFoghnan and Elfrida NicHilde had not been married very long and, although theirs had been a marriage of convenience, it had soon blossomed into love.
Lilanthe clung to the side board as the mare's hooves slipped on a patch of ice, causing the caravan to slide sideways. Gwilym the Ugly gripped the reins tighter, urging the mare on. Ahead, Enit's caravan was almost invisible in the snowy dusk, and Gwilym said anxiously, "We had best find somewhere to camp soon, for it'll be another bitter night by the looks o' it."
The old jongleur did not pull her caravan over, however, not even when they passed a field with running water and a tall stand of trees where they might have sheltered. They began to see the occasional cottage, orange warmth glinting through the shutters, then lights pricked the gloom ahead. Gently Gwilym shook Lilanthe, who had dozed off to sleep. She woke with a start, straightening hurriedly and rubbing her eyes with one hand.
"There's a town ahead, thank Ea!" Gwilym said. "Hot stew and soft beds for us tonight! Keep your plaid over your head, there's a good lass. We dinna want to be chased out o' town again, that be for sure!" Lilanthe gave a shudder and rubbed the bruise on her cheekbone where she had been a hit by a stone at a village a few days earlier. She pulled the plaid close about her face as they drove over the bridge and into the town square, the wheels of the caravans rattling loudly against the cobblestones. Dide handed the reins of the great carthorse to Iain and leapt down from the wagon, his guitar in his hand. He began to strum it melodiously, while his father shouted:
"Come watch the jongleurs sing for ye and play;
Let us chase the winter miseries away.
We'll sing for ye tunes both wistful and gay,
Amuse ye, enthrall ye and lead ye astray!"
The doors of the Glenmorven Inn swung open, and curious faces peered out. Children tumbled out of the cottages, followed by their bright-eyed mothers, while the few merchants still packing up their stalls glanced up in interest. The innkeeper beckoned the jongleurs in with a broad grin splitting his bearded face. His tavern would be packed to the rafters tonight with such a large troupe!
Iain helped Elfrida down from the wagon and supported her as she took faltering steps into the inn. Neither was used to the rough life of the jongleurs, and so both were glad that custom dictated the inn offer free food and lodgings for the itinerant performers. With only four months until her babe was due, Elfrida was particularly grateful for the chance to spend a night indoors. Morrell lifted Enit down from her driving seat and carried her into the inn's common room, Dide playing a well-known folk song as he sauntered behind.
Gwilym the Ugly, unable to perform because of his wooden leg and harsh voice, busied himself stabling the horses, leaving the wagon and caravans drawn up in the courtyard outside the inn's barn. Lilanthe helped him, unwilling to leave the sheltering darkness. The cluricaun Brun stayed within the safety of Enit's caravan, unwilling even to poke his furry face out the door in case he should be seen. Both faeries were very nervous of being discovered, even though the first action of the new righ had been to overturn his brother's decrees against witchcraft and the faeries. Lilanthe and Brun had suffered too much in the past to trust easily to the good nature of the countryfolk, despite the strict new laws that forbade any violence to those of faery blood.
The traveling troupe had first heard of the rebels' victory as they traveled out of Aslinn and into the wide valleys of upper Blessem. A peddler had been holding court among a rapt crowd, his cart piled high with pots and saucepans, rolls of bright material, rakes, spades and wooden sabots. Voice shrill with excitement, arms gesticulating wildly, he had described how the rebels had stormed Lucescere Palace after the death of the former righ, Jaspar MacCuinn. The rebel army had been led by a winged warrior who—the peddler had paused theatrically—was none other than Lachlan Owein MacCuinn, the youngest son of Parteta the Brave and Jaspar's long-lost brother.
Ripples of excitement, bewilderment and dismay had run over the crowd. Rumors of the winged prionnsa had been burning like wildfire all over the country for almost a year, but the countryfolk had always been loyal to the Crown and many had loved the former Banrigh and could not believe the tales now told of her. Maya the Blessed, born of the dreaded Fairgean, the fierce sea-dwelling faeries who had terrorized the coastline for centuries? Maya the Blessed an evil sorceress who had transformed the lost prionnsachan into blackbirds and then cruelly hunted them down? It was too strange and horrible for the people to believe, and there was much muttering among the throng.
The jongleurs and their companions had been thrilled at the news. Since rescuing Gilliane and the other children kidnapped by Margrit of Arran, the jongleurs had been hurrying to join Lachlan and give him their support. Until they had purchased the wagon, the children had had to walk and so their progress had been painfully slow. The delay had frustrated them all, but particularly Dide, who longed to be with Lachlan in the center of the action.
Dide and his grandmother Enit had worked closely with the young prionnsa, coordinating the rebellion and undermining the Banrigh's powers. They had given him shelter for five long years as he struggled to adapt to life as a man again after so many years trapped in the body of a blackbird. Now Dide was impatient to reach Lu-cescere and greet his friend, the new Righ of all Eilea-nan. The young jongleur had urged the convoy on at a dangerous pace, pushing on well into the snowy nights and waking them before the dawn to hitch up the horses again.
On their journey to Rionnagan, the jongleurs had heard many different rumors. There was talk of the Fair-gean rising, invasions of Bright Soldiers from beyond the Great Divide, regicide and civil war. Some of the villages had been attacked by bands of soldiers, some from Tirsoilleir and some the former Banrigh's own guards fleeing the new order. Sometimes on the horizon they saw pillars of smoke rising as another town fell to the invaders. It had been a time of great anxiety for the jongleurs, and Enit had dared not use her witch skills to seek news of their friends with the countryside in such turmoil. Although every town had pinned to the door of its meeting hall a copy of the Righ's new decrees announcing the restoration of the Coven of Witches, it would take some time before those with faery blood felt safe to openly walk the streets or enter a village tavern.
It was cold out in the courtyard tonight, however, and from the inn came the sound of music and laughter. Li-lanthe stared longingly at the brightly lit windows and wondered how long it would be before one of the children remembered she and Gwilym were out here and brought them some food. Despite the shelter it gave her, she hated being left out in the darkness while the others were free to relax and enjoy themselves inside by the fire. She wondered whether Dide had even noticed her absence. Gwilym was busy cleaning the horses' tack and checking their hooves for stones, balancing himself with a club under one arm to compensate for his wooden leg. After a while the tree-shifter looked at him rather shyly and said, "Happen they may want me to perform tonight?"
"Ye'd be better staying out here," Gwilym said tersely. "The jongleurs dinna need ye. They have plenty o'
support from the bairns, and besides, ye ken it be dangerous."
Lilanthe said nothing for a while, then replied rather sulkily, "The last village we were at liked my mimicry."
"And the village before that chased us out o' town with stones and rotten fruit," Gwilym said, scowling at her. He was a thickset man with pockmarked skin, a hooked nose and a sardonic mouth, and Lilanthe was secretly rather afraid of him.
"Ye could cast a spell o' glamourie over me," she suggested after a moment. "It'll be dim in there, and it is no' likely that there'll be anyone with enough Talent to see through the illusion." Gwilym refused gruffly, but she looked at him so pleadingly he eventually relented with a shrug and a mutter. Glancing around the courtyard to make sure they were unobserved, he pointed two fingers at her and intoned the spell, smoothing and flattening Lilanthe's features so she looked much like any other country lass. Her twiggy hair, bare now of any leaves and flowers, he transformed into flowing brown locks that Lilanthe wished fervently were really hers.
"Ye had better hope there's none around who can sense the working o' witchcraft," the sorcerer said gruffly. "It's a cruel night to be chased out o' town."
She thanked him fervently and left him alone in the snowy night. Inside the inn the townsfolk were listening with rapture to Dide as he sang.
"Och if my love was a bonny red rose,
Growing upon some barren wall,
And I myself a drop o' dew,
Down into that red rose I would fall."
Then Enit and Nina joined in to sing the refrain, their voices so sweet that Lilanthe felt tears prickle her eyes.
"Och my love's bonny, bonny, bonny, my love's bonny and fair to see."
"Och if my love was a coffer o' gold
And I the keeper o' the key,
Then I would open it when I lost
And into that coffer I would be."
Those of the children who could not sing so sweetly were accompanying the jongleurs on hand-made drums and tambourines tied up with brightly colored ribbons. Mor-rell was playing the fiddle, and Gilliane was accompanying him on a wooden flute the cluricaun had made for her. As the jongleurs sang the chorus, many among the audience joined in enthusiastically, so the words rang: "Och my love's bonny, bonny, bonny, my love's bonny and fair to see."
When the song ended, Morrell began to display his tricks with fire as Dide circulated through the crowd with his feathered cap, listening carefully to the talk of the townsfolk and giving them what news he had of the court. Lilanthe made her way to his side, her pace hastening when she saw his expression darken.
"They say the new Righ has already set his seed in her belly, which at least shows he is more o' a man than his brother. Sixteen years it took Jaspar the Ensorcelled to get his wife wi' babe, and they say now it were naught but a spell that did it at all."
"But this is news indeed!" Dide cried, catching the coins being flung in his cap. "Ye say the new Banrigh is a warrior maid wi' hair as red as fire? Who is she? Wha' is her name?" A surly-faced crofter with huge, hard hands and lank, greasy hair gave a contemptuous shrug. "I heard she be born o' Faodhagan the Red's line, though indeed we had all thought that clan had long ago died out. Then someone said the foul, flying sorceress Ishbel the Winged was her mother, and one o' the horned snow-faeries her father, but surely that canna be true, the Righ would no' be marrying a blaygird halfbreed, witch-lover though he may be."
"I heard she was brought up as a foundling babe by the horned snow-faeries, no' that she was one o'