2018 releases

Hell's Bell
Scent of the Jaguar
His Outback Nanny
The Queen's Game
366 Days of Flash Fiction
On the Horizon: Simple worlds of speculative adventure
Lusting the Enemy

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Magic Thursday: Prologue from To Baile Do Cailleach (book one, The Sydney Witches series) by Kathrine Leannan



We have a treat for you today from Kathrine Leannan

We have the whole prologue of To Baile Do Cailleach (A Home for Witches), which is book one of The Sydney Witches series. 

Like all of Kathrine's books there is a Scottish theme. 

The prologue explains why witches need a place to practice their magicks in safety. Chapter one time travels to modern day Australia.

Before we get to the prologue, here's the blurb:
Adrianna Randall, born of ancient blood, is a witch. She isn’t exactly popular with her coven sisters, or insurance companies. Blessed with the blood of hanged witch Elizabeth Randall, Adrianna is a healer to all beasts and restorer to Mother Earth.
There is just one problem…
She has an affinity with fire and she has no idea how to control it.


Now let us enjoy the prologue!!


Prologue

Tranent, Scotland 1591 

ELIZABETH RANDALL SAT ON THE COLD, PINE NEEDLE-STREWN forest floor, humming as she gently stroked the brown breast feathers of a male white-tailed eagle. The bird’s piercing yellow eyes lay closed in pleasure. The muscles of her gauntlet-clad right arm, gripped by lethal black talons, quaked under his great weight. Smiling, she stood and lifted the bird into the air when his recently healed wing flexed with power. With a dual flap, the massive wings unfurled as the eagle launched and became airborne. The ear-splitting avian screech of gratitude clenched around Elizabeth’s heart. She continued to stare at the retreating speck on the pink horizon until finally, the giant raptor disappeared into the great beyond.

At dawn every morning, Elizabeth, with the handle of a wicker basket draped over her arm, left the warmth of the house and set out into the chilled air of the forest to collect wild garlic, tubers, and riverweed to flavour the food for the family table. Unbeknownst to anyone else, she also gathered Lady Fern to relieve stings, blackberries and yarrow to soothe inflammation, wild marjoram to disinfect wounds, and feverfew to ease pain. After a couple of hours, she stopped and put the half-filled basket on the ground and stretched her back. Tired from the morning’s foraging, she sat and leaned against the smooth trunk of a large weeping willow. The wonderful woodsy, earthy smells of the forest instantly relaxed her. She closed her eyes for just a second, when the leaves rustled on the ground beside her.

A large rabbit with two babies at her side limped toward her. Elizabeth wriggled her fingers and the rabbits, first tentative with twitching noses, came forward and climbed onto her lap. As they settled, she noticed a vivid stain of fresh blood smeared her apron.

“Oh, dear one, what has happened?" The kittens snuggled together and dozed. Gently, she began to explore the body of the large female that breathed raggedly; the animal’s pain shot like fire though Elizabeth’s fingers. When fresh blood coated her hand, she sighed and shook her head. “A snare, then.”

The rabbit’s suffering caused the babies to snuggle closer. She gently grasped the ragged and torn left hind foot. The brutal wires of man-made snares had brought the doe to within an inch of ending up over a hearth fire in a pot filled with vegetables. Elizabeth held the injured limb in her right hand, closed her eyes, and waited for the warmth to flow down her arm and into her fingers. She watched mesmerized, all the time stroking to ease the rabbit as it flinched in pain. The fine muscles and sinews knit into place as the fur regenerated. The doe collapsed onto the cloth of the soiled apron, and the kittens seized the moment and started to feed. After a few minutes, the large rabbit hopped down to the ground; the kittens hesitated for just a second, then followed. The doe rubbed her face on Elizabeth’s hand.

“Ye are welcome. Be mindful of the snares, feed close to the burn. Men rarely set snares near a stream; they think animals are afraid of water and that the sound of it running over rocks scares them away.” She laughed out loud. “Men understand naught; all creatures great and small must drink.” She caressed the beautiful long ears one last time before the rabbits disappeared into the heather.

A clap of thunder made Elizabeth jump. She scrabbled to gather her basket as the canopy of the huge willow tree bunched together and surrounded her, an enormous leafy umbrella protecting her from the torrential downfall. She placed her palms on the ancient trunk of the tree. Thick green moss appeared
and began to spread, covering the bark, protecting it from the bite of the frigid winter. “I thank ye, old one.” When the rain stopped, the tree unfurled and its drooping green tendrils once more hung toward the ground. She looked up at the sky; the sun was almost at its zenith.

“I must get back, there is still much to do before the gloaming is upon me.” On her way back to the house, her belly growled from hunger. As she walked, wild raspberries and blackcurrants, ripe and lush, appeared from plants that lay dormant. She stashed a few in her pocket; it seemed squirrels just couldn’t get enough of the delicious fruits. As she approached the house, today, just as every other day, she crossed the stream and a single apple, always delicious, hung ripe from a dead tree. The earthy scent of mushrooms made her mouth water as she picked a handful from where she knew them to be hidden within the wild daisies, their tiny white petals caressing her slim ankles as she walked past. As always, she bent her head and gave thanks to Mother Earth for her generosity.

***

One foggy morning while out foraging, Elizabeth stopped when on the wind carried a very faint noise, like that of female voices. She followed the sound that beckoned her. Her heart beat as if it meant to leave her chest; her daily routine was forgotten. No one ever came into the forest at such an early hour. She pushed through thorny bushes that snagged her hair, scratched her skin, and stained her clothes. When she climbed over a massive fallen tree, she slipped on the lush, damp moss and landed on her bottom. The voices, ever louder, Summoned her, a call that she must answer. Curiosity prickled her skin when the forest opened up into a clearing.

Under the canopy of an ancient rowan tree, a group of women sat in a circle singing words she didn’t understand, and yet the chant was somehow familiar. The lexis welcomed her, elated her, and enveloped her in a wonderful sense of  belonging. A woman with long red hair, whose seated position was higher than the rest of the women, sat with her back toward the forest.

Without turning, she spoke. ‘Welcome, Elizabeth Randall, I am Isobel Gowdie, High Priestess of the Forest Coven. We have waited a very long time for you to join us.”

Elizabeth approached the circle of women tentatively when as one they rose and took turns in embracing her. Never before had she experienced the warmth or the sense of peace that these women offered. Every day at dawn, Elizabeth hurried to the meeting place, a green-grassed area encircled with flowers and mushrooms. Carliese, a young blonde woman, told her that this was a magickal place, a Faery circle protected by the Old Ones. One morning, nervous energy flowed through the women as they spoke of spells and healing. A huge, majestic red stag appeared and walked toward them. All of the women stood and bowed. Elizabeth frowned guardedly and stepped back. When they began to chant, dizziness overcame her. She grabbed Carliese’s arm to her to steady herself.The stag approached her, then went down on one knee.

“Mother of the epoch of magicks to come, it is time for you to perform your duty, to take your place in our history as the one who will assemble a gathering abode where witches can practice magicks in peace, without persecution.”

The outline of the stag shimmered in green luminescent light as he transformed into a tall man with black hair past his shoulders and brilliant violet eyes. He was beautiful. Elizabeth couldn’t help but stare. When he smiled, his face lit up with joy.

“Well met, Elizabeth Randall, Healer of all beasts and Daughter of Mother Earth. I am the Mage, Abramelin.” He held out his hand to her. Suddenly, her sense of vertigo became the glow of something she had never before experienced. She stepped forward and took his fingers in hers. He stood tall and opened his other hand. A garland of beautiful Scottish thistles appeared. Isobel stepped forward.

Abramelin bowed. “High Priestess.” He passed the garland to her.

She nodded, then turned to Elizabeth “This circle of leaf, thorn, and flower is a symbol of beauty and of the fierceness of the Scottish Clans and of our robust ability to survive and succeed against all odds.”

She handed the garland back to Abramelin, and he placed it on Elizabeth’s head. Isobel stepped back and joined the other women who, instead of chanting, sang in beautiful, choral voices the words of the Celtic Wedding Vow: 

“I pledge my love to you, and everything that I own.
I promise you the first bite of my meat and
the first sip from my cup.
I pledge that your name will always be the name I
cry aloud in the dead of night.
I promise to honour you above all others.
Our love is never-ending, and we will remain,
forevermore, equals in our marriage.
This is my wedding vow to you.”

Tears of joy ran down Elizabeth’s face as Abramelin kissed her on the lips, then took her hand in his and led her, surrounded by the voices of angels, into the forest…

***

The townspeople of Tranent whispered about Elizabeth. She was an awkward young girl with long blonde hair. Her happy demeanour and laughter made it easier for them to pretend to ignore her eccentricities. No one would dare speak ill of the younger of the two bairns of Caimbeul Randall, Clan Laird of all the lands as far as the eye could see. Caimbeul was a hard man who, in return for rent and labour, supplied his crofters with thick slabs of peat to keep the hearth fires burning warm and bright and food to fill their bellies. The Laird demanded all boys who survived to the age of six accompany him and the men of the Clan to learn to fish, kill game, and butcher the spoils. The villagers often gossiped about how the two get of their great Laird could be so different.

Coira, a shy, sweet, green-eyed girl with mousey brown hair and pale skin, was the firstborn. Caimbeul, ever greedy for more land, resources and money, negotiated an alliance with William Buchane of Caithness, a successful sheep farmer whose lands shared a border with Caimbeul’s. He promised William Coira’s hand in marriage; she was just twelve years old.

It was a brutal union. She grew from child to woman with loneliness her constant companion. William spent most of the year absent from Caithness. Coira was left behind to attend to the sheep while, thanks to the Court of France and its demand for beaver hats, hallmarked for authenticity, William trapped pelts for the must-have wide-brimmed North American beaver hats, the latest fad and fashion accessory. French traders established shore stockpiles in Acadia, a post at Tadoussac, and trade in Quebec to exploit astronomical sums while the beaver population dwindled to extinction. On the occasions when William returned to Scotland, it was not to his wife, but to the lands of Caimbeul Randall. The best furs were always reserved for his father-in-law, the Laird, while Coira, cold and alone, sat huddled beside a peat fire at Caithness spinning wool until her fingers bled.

Caimbeul Randall was a vain, God-fearing man whose temper was legendary. His reputation terrified bairns. Women turned and walked quickly away when he appeared in the village. Stories of how he beat his crofters if they were a day late with the rents ensured timely payments. He brutally starved his hunting dogs to make them aggressive, vicious hunters. Whispers around hearth fires filled the bairns’ ears and minds with nightmares. It was indeed wise not to cross his path. Everyone feared him. He was equally hard and unforgiving to his own family. A day didn’t pass that he didn’t complain bitterly that he had not been blessed with sons instead of two useless daughters.

***

One morning, in Caimbeul’s dressing room, Seumas, the master’s seirbhíseach, jolted as he held something behind his back. Caimbeul reefed the offending object out of the servant’s hand and bellowed as he glared at his favourite stockings that now had moth holes in each sole. He thundered down the stairs, garments in hand. “Is  this what I am expected to wear? I am Laird! How dare ye keep such rags!”

Aileas Randall put down the knife she had just used to slice a fresh loaf of bread and handed the laden plate to her daughter Elizabeth.“Leave Talamh an Rí now! Get out of this Land of the King! Begone my Keep this second and journey to Tranent!”

The women scrambled to gather their shawls and hurried outside to wait beside a wooden cart. Seven of Caimbeul’s finest archers accompanied them; after all, horse-drawn wains were expensive and highly prized by highwaymen. The men rode with resentful, grim faces and rumbling bellies. Elizabeth, in the flush of young womanhood, was the very image of her mam who sat beside her. It was only the second time in her entire life that Elizabeth had been allowed to go to the village. They chatted excitedly about purchasing a new gartane leem to make garters and thick  stockings for the winter to come, the outing made all the better for being out from under the harsh presence of Caimbeul.

While Aileas was inside the loom-maker’s hut, Elizabeth stroked the noses of the two grey Highland ponies harnessed to the wain. A noise behind her startled her. She blushed and ducked her head when the shopkeeper’s son smiled at her as he carried the domestic loom to the back of the cart. An old woman standing about three feet away placed a hand to her mouth and turned her head. She whispered in a careless voice to a woman standing next to her who eagerly leaned forward.

“I’ll tell ye summat, Sinẻad. It be sap, not blood that runs through the veins of Elizabeth Randall. Poor Aileas, to have birthed such an addled bairn. I tell ye this though, I pity the poor lad who takes her on as wife.” She shook her head and clicked her tongue, her matted grey hair limp around her face. She poked her filthy index finger in the air.

“Starve to death, he will! Ye heed me, there is naught surer than my words, and all because his wife isoff scourin’ the hills looking for weeds and half-dead creatures.”

“True enough, Innes.” The other woman nodded. “I have warned my lads to keep well clear of her, else they bring madness and disgrace upon us.”

Elizabeth looked forward to the time when once per year her sister Coira, Mistress of Caithness, was permitted to journey under the watchful eyes of William Buchanan’s guards to Talamh an Rí. It was a dangerous, frigid journey across the boggy moors to deliver the tanned beaver and wolverine pelts to Caimbeul Randall.

Elizabeth walked across the courtyard with a basketful of berries as Coira and her escorts came into view. She dropped the basket and ran down the road toward them. The sight of the pelts made her blood run cold; the pain of the dead creatures filled her with fury. Her colour was as high as Coira’s was wan. Elizabeth frowned as she hugged her sister; the bone of every rib and vertebra was barely covered by flesh. Her tiny hands were bleeding, bitten deep with chilblains. She was eighteen. She could have passed for fifty.

“Oh, sister! I have so missed you! Come inside and we will break our fast.”

Coira didn’t move. She kept her head down and stared at her paper-dry, cracked hands clasped in her lap. The lead guard moved his horse forward and kicked the side of the wain. Coira jumped, then fumbled with her skirts and stepped down to the ground. Later that night Coira curled alongside Elizabeth in the tiny sleeping space.

She started to cry. “Oh, Coira, what has our da done to you by promising you to that old goat who reeks of suffering and death?”

Coira sniffed and grimaced. “Beth, my life is as it is. I ask for nothing, I expect nothing and I get nothing.” She rubbed her nose on her sleeve. “How I wish our lives could be like when we were bairns. I never knew being a wife would be so cruel.”

“Oh, Coira. Leave him and come home! I can’t bear to witness your suffering.”

Coira pulled back as if she had been struck. “Leave him? He would drag me back and beat me to within an inch of my life. Believe me, I understand the strike of his whip.”

Dressed in one of Elizabeth’s shifts, one sleeve drooped down her shoulder; white ropey scars striped her skin. “Da wouldn’t take me in; he wouldn’t give up the furs. You know how he prides himself on being the best-dressed man in the land. Besides, I would be one more mouth to feed.”

Elizabeth slept an uneasy sleep. Coira flinched constantly and called out, making weeping sounds. The next morning, already dressed, she shook Coira’s shoulder gently. She woke with a start and curled in on herself, her arms over her head.

“’Tis only me. Come, get dressed. The forest awaits us.” Coira’s eyes were as wide as that of an owl’s.

“What are we doing? There will be trouble for leaving the bed without permission.”

Elizabeth cocked her head. “Come now. I do this every day.”

Following the now-familiar path, Elizabeth led Coira to meet her coven sisters. Carliese ran to greet them.

When she picked up Coira’s hand, she gasped. “Oh sweet Goddess, you poor child.”

A red-haired woman watched from the outskirts of the circle, then walked toward them. “Welcome, sister of Elizabeth Randall. I am Isobel.” She paused for a moment, then led Coira to the centre of the circle.

‘Sisters, come to me as one. Let us relieve this young woman’s pain as she has no magicks of her own. Let us give her strength and courage.”

The women, including Elizabeth, began to chant. Coira slumped to the ground as every muscle and sinew that had been bowstring tight since her wedding night released and relaxed. As the chanting quietened to  silence, she sat up. Her thin, mousey brown hair was now a thick, lustrous, chestnut mane. Her cheeks were pink with good health. Although still thin, she was no longer gaunt. Elizabeth clapped her hands, then hugged her sister.

“Oh, Coira! Thank the Goddess, now you will find happiness.” Coira grimaced and her shoulders slumped.

“Oh Beth, happiness is what I yearn for, but protection is what I need.”

Isobel stood in the centre of the circle. A resonant hum filled the air.

Child of feminine wonder
welcomed by the forest,
Let no man again ever unleash harm.
The Guardian Protector will be with you from this time on
Your words are his Summon.

A rustling sound from the undergrowth caused the women to turn and stare. Out into the sunlight walked a magnificent male lynx with brilliant blue eyes and silent paws. Coira stood wide-eyed, completely still as the great feline approached, then bowed down before her.

“I am Lyncurius, born with the Sight and now Protector to you. Fear not, mistress, if you choose to accept me, I will be one with you. You have but to say my name.”

When Coira frowned, Isobel stepped forward. “A precious coven gift to you, sister of Elizabeth Randall. Just say his name, child. Now and forever more, when you need him, just say his name.” Elizabeth nodded to her.

“Trust my sisters, Coira.”

“Lyncurius.”

The lynx shimmered and became a thin wisp of fog before he disappeared into Coira’s mouth and embedded in her tongue. She gasped as the power of the mighty lynx suddenly coursed through her veins. For the first time in six years, she smiled and looked forward to returning to Caithness. Lyncurius would protect her from her brutal husband and she would never be alone again.

***

Superstition guaranteed failed crops were viewed as a result of the use of witchcraft rather than an outcome of harsh weather. Unexpected deaths within the Clan were blamed on the black arts while the deadly influenza virus claimed many lives. The red blistery rash of smallpox was said to be from the touch of dark magicks. Elizabeth feared for her coven sisters when gossip of such events reached her ears.

She despaired for her Clan and their false notions while she spent many hours learning the truth of the laws of nature and death. This knowledge strengthened  her healing skills and imbued her with an intimate knowledge of the true power of magicks. The fear of witches fed the ignorance of her Clan. There was talk of hunting witches and burning them before God, so the Clan would be spared
from crop destruction and death.

Several months later, when all were abed, Elizabeth awoke with a start. Her heart pounded as she was overwhelmed by the pain of terrible suffering. She slid quietly from her sleeping space, grabbed her shawl and her hidden hemp bag of herbs, and crept out into the forest. She closed her eyes and followed the red-hot tendrils of pain. She stumbled in the dark when she sensed him; the enormous, majestic, reddeer stag. He stood breathing heavily in the shadows as blood oozed freely from four deep puncture wounds. The arrows, still embedded in his hide, were incongruously pale in the moonlight.

“Abramelin?”

He looked in her direction. The whites of his eyes were terrifying as agony tipped him to the brink of madness. “’Tis Elizabeth.” He lowered his antlers, readying to charge her, then snorted when she extended her hand and blew a breath toward him. He sagged and began to make a sound like chanting.

“No! Abramelin, no! Do not assume your human form. You have lost so much blood. As a human, you will surely perish right here on this very spot. Please, my darling, think of what is at stake…”

His massive antlers nodded just as he buckled at the knees under the horrendous pain. She helped him to stand, all the while, crooning to him, then she kissed his face.

“Be brave, my love.” She rustled around on the forest floor until she found two rocks, one contoured like a rough-hewn saucer, the other, solid and blunt. She spat into the saucer-like stone. Searching in the hemp bag, she selected the dried flowers and leaves of yarrow, then with the grinding stone, pulverized them into a paste to quell inflammation and reduce the risk of infection. She spat into the mash, then crushed several tender leaves of feverfew to relieve his pain. Arms around his neck, she kissed him and breathed in and out several times to calm herself. She grasped the first arrow and in one clean wrench, pulled the shaft free. The arrowhead tore brutally through his flesh. Abramelin snorted and stamped his cloven front hooves.

Elizabeth was damp with sweat by the time she grasped the last arrow and jerked it from his body. She hurled it to the ground in disgust to join the other three ghastly, blood-soaked weapons of pain and destruction. She lathered the herbal paste onto her fingers and pushed the concoction deep into the wounds, then coated the area where the arrow points had pierced his flesh. She sat on the ground as exhaustion overtook her and began to sob. As she wiped away her tears, she looked up at the dark sky, grateful it was still many hours until dawn. She knew the smell of blood would attract every pine marten and badger for miles. She was confused; common sense warred against the certain knowledge that if she left Abramelin in the forest, he most assuredly would die. With her hand on his long, beautiful, russet neck, she led him through the trees to the cleared edge of Talamh an Rí. The sentry at the front door of the keep slept as he leant against the wall. After making certain there was no one else about, she walked Abramelin into the barn, then gathered up an armful of hay and placed it in front of him. He flared his nostrils, sniffed the air, and then lowered his head to eat. Elizabeth sat on a pile of sweet-smelling hay just inside the front door, smiling; she tightened her shawl around her, as blessed relief settled upon her. Still smiling, she fought to keep her eyes open. Just a couple more minutes…

***

The door swung wide and sunlight flooded the barn. The bang of the wooden panel against the wall startled her awake. “Elizabeth!”

The red stag reared, then charged past Caimbeul Randall, knocking him to the floor. She ran to her father and helped him to his feet. His face was white with fear, then, in an instant, blossomed with the flush of fury.

“For years, I have tried to ignore ye and yer verra odd ways. I have tolerated fledglings in my hoose, feeding them my food until ye release them back to the forest. Never again will I hear talk of plants and healing. Do ye hear me? I will hear no more of such insanity!”

He stared out at the courtyard and shook his fist. “The men and I tracked that twelve-pointer for these three days past. Did ye not consider that the meat from that beast would have eased the winter for the Clan?” He took one step closer to her, his eyes mere slits.

“Damn ye! I saw our arrows hit him with mine own eyes. We followed the blood trail for miles until the gloaming forced us to return to the village.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. Her head snapped viciously back and forth. Then he slapped her with his open hand and knocked her to the floor.

“That creature is now free of our arrows.” His nose wrinkled in disgust. “And there is a reek of healing potions.” He closed his eyes and blew out a loud breath, then dragged her to her feet by the hair. She grasped her belly and pulled a handful of shawl tighter around herself. He eyed her with suspicion, then pulled her to within two inches of his face as he screamed. Fine drops of spittle sprayed on her face.

“Only a witch could cure an animal with such mortal wounds! Answer me true or may God strike ye
down where ye stand. Did ye heal that beast?” He shook her again, then shoved her away from him.

“Answer me! Did ye apply healing arts to that animal?”

Elizabeth trembled violently as blood dripped from her split lip, but she held her head high. “Aye! I saved him! Just like the others and many more; mutilated in sport by ye and yer men only to leave them to die a hideous death.” Bitterness coated her voice. “I hope Mother Earth repays ye in kind.”

Caimbeul stormed out of the barn. Next, loud hammering confirmed he was barricading shut all the doors and windows. Elizabeth covered her ears with her hands while her mother just kept screaming and screaming…

***

She heard them coming before she saw them. The plaintive screech of a whitetailed eagle was riotous. Elizabeth sighed and spoke to herself. “Such is the way of ignorance, dear one. Don’t cry for me. The deafening roar of a red stag filled her with peace. “Abramelin, because of the wonder of our love, I ask you to seek and find my sister Coira. Mam will need her when my da’s work is done.”

The lilting sound of Gaelic female harmonies floated within the barn, encompassing her, from women unseen as his comforting presence left her. Abramelin stood in the forest, surrounded by grieving witches. “Our lady has requested I find her sister and bring her to the Land of the King.”

Fury painted his face as he spat on the ground in disgust. Isobel’s face was wet with tears. “The Keeper of the Lynx. That is why our Elizabeth has requested you bring Coira to her birth home. She fears for her mother.”

“If it is the wish of my Lady, then it shall be so.”

“Follow me.” Isobel extended her arms to either side, then raised them above her head and brought them down in front of her. A shimmer engulfed her as she morphed into a red kite. As she became airborne, a screeching, piping sound filled the air. Abramelin vanished.

The red kite circled high above the lands of Caithness. Coira was out in the field. She had a newborn lamb clutched to her breast, the ewe, a carcass torn by under the darkness of night predator. The orphan bleated forlornly. Abramelin assumed his human form in the shadows behind the tree line. Head high, he walked towards Coira. “Mistress…”

She started and clutched the lamb tighter to her breast. “Fear not.” He bowed low at the waist. “I am friend to your sister Elizabeth.”

“Beth? ’Tis summat wrong with Beth?”

Abramelin hung his head. “You must come with me, before it is…too late.”

Coira frowned. “I doona understand.”

“Your father has proclaimed her for a witch.”

Coira spun on her heel. “Guard! Take this lamb and see to the flock. I shall take my leave of Caithness. I am required at Talamh an Rí.”

The guard stepped forward. “I have no instruction from the Laird of  Caithness to escort you from these lands.”

Lyncurius roared within Coira, demanding release. She stepped toward the guard. “Am I not Mistress of Caithness? You would dare to deny me passage to my father’s lands? Be warned, he would not think twice about taking your head for such disobedience.”

The guard paused, then took the lamb into his arms, turned, and walked toward the barn.

“See to the flock,” she called to his retreating back. “I doona know how long I will be delayed.” She turned to Abramelin.

He held out his hand. “Trust me. On my love for your sister, trust me.” The call of the red kite followed them into the ether.

On the outskirts of the forest at Talamh an Rí, Abramelin and Coira materialised. She stumbled to the ground. Vertigo overwhelmed her as she vomited onto the damp, leaf-strewn ground. After she wiped her mouth on the hem of her apron, she looked all around, then took his outstretched hand. A look of wonder lit up her face. She leaned forward and put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.

“Thank you.”

Coira walked from the shadows to the sunlight. Her mam sat on the frozen ground, leaning against the door of the barricaded barn. Tears ran down her face as she sobbed brokenly. Coira walked to her and gathered her in her arms. “I am here, mam, I am here.” Aileas jolted. Fear painted her face. Her voice was almost gone from screaming.

“My dearest daughter? How?” Coira kissed her and whispered, “Sometimes there are things we canna explain, all we need do is to be grateful.” They hugged each other and huddled together as the roar of the stag and the piping screech of the red kite surrounded them.

Caimbeul Randall burst outside of the house. “What? How is it that you are here?”

Disgust lined his words. Coira held her head high. “A messenger brought word to me of your evil doings. Was it not enough that you ruined my life, but you have ruined Beth’s as well?”

His usual ruddy face became even more coloured as his anger escalated. “Daughters are easy get and next to useless. Better to have no bairns than to be remembered as a Laird who couldna sire a son. Now get inside both of you and get food on my table.”

***

When a bellow of a male voice thundered from outside, Elizabeth recognized the tone immediately. The speech impediment confirmed the presence of the Mayor.

“Elizabif Wandall, ye are charged with being a vitch. Thurrender yerself now.” Standing in middle of the barn, she gathered her shawl and waited for the mob to tear down the barricaded door. She closed her eyes and in her mind saw the faces of all the women of her coven family. She knew after today she would never see them again. She willed her hands to stop shaking as the door was flung open.

She walked outside and faced the mayor. Caimbeul Randall stood beside him. He held Aileas’s left hand tight behind her back while the fingers of his other hand dug brutally into Coira’s thin right arm. Elizabeth jutted her chin.

“Of what am I charged? What is my crime?”

The Mayor looked incredulous “Evil vitch! Ye dare to act as though ye hafe no knowedge of evil magicks! Ye brathen harlot! I hafe receifed many reports. Ye healed Davies’ norse; a norse with a broken leg, no wess. Norses never surbive such injuries. Yet a bisit from ye and the norse was back galliping around the paddocth, by the time of the gwoaming. Explain how Fairmonth’s barley cropth came back to life after the lo…the licusts, when everaone else’s cropths failed. Hith was the only farm ye bisited and the only one to thurvive.”

He eyed her with contempt. “Do you deny ye resthored life to a murderoth wolf ? Ye were seen, the fact has been thworn on the Bible! Ye are an evil vitch and it is our God-given duty to rid this world of vitches. The trial hath taken place and ye have been found guilty. Yer punisthment avaiths you. Now bind her!”

Men from the crowd rushed forward and grabbed her, tying her hands behind her back. Every movement caused the rope to bite into her flesh. As she looked over her shoulder, her coven sisters stood gathered, invisible to all but her. Blood dripped from her bound wrists and blossomed like tiny, gruesome red rose petals littered on the snow. The lilt of the songs of her coven sisters strengthened her. They gave her peace. Aileas tried to hug Coira as they both sobbed and struggled against Caimbeul, screaming and pleading with him. He slapped Aileas and she dropped to the ground. Coira reefed her arm out from under his grip and sat with her arms around her mam.

Elizabeth’s resolve slipped as her mother and her sister’s terrified screams and sobbing rang in her ears. She lurched forward when a woman behind her stabbed her viciously in the back with a pitchfork.

“Die, evil witch, I hope ye suffer for yer sins.” Warm liquid soaked the back of her cloak and blood from the hemline smeared onto the snow. The cheering of the Clan was deafening when she stumbled and fell. The boot of a man in the crowd crunched against her ribs. The mayor grabbed a handful of hair and dragged her toward the noose.

“Elizabif Wandall, ye have been tried and have been found guilty of the practith of vitchcraft. For yer thins, ye will be denied entry to the Kingdom of God and as his most truthded servant, I, today, enact Histh will when I say ye are to hang by the neck until ye are dead.”

Suddenly Aileas stopped screaming. Elizabeth looked toward the place where her father stood a full head above the crowd and gasped; his boot pinned the head of her beautiful mother to the ground, her face crushed against the bare earth. He held Coira by the neck, forcing her to watch the hangman’s platform. She struggled against him, then he clouted her up the side of the head. She staggered, eyes unfocused as she stared at Elizabeth.

Aileas struggled and flailed her arms and legs, an ironic epitome of the harsh life she had led since the day her father Grant McTarn had promised her to Caimbeul in trade for access to water for his prosperous sheep herd, the meat of which was guaranteed in the barter. She started to twitch, then her entire body convulsed violently when a look of peace replaced the mask of terror on her lovely face. Her eyes were open but vacant. Caimbeul Randall didn’t even notice.

***

Elizabeth swayed. The world in front of her seemed to move as if time had slowed, when the voices of her coven sisters entered her mind. “You are our strength, sister, the power and the future is within you.”

As if waking from a dream, the reality of the moment descended upon her. Power flared and courage found her. She glared at a toothless crone who tripped over her mother’s unnoticed, prone body as she elbowed her way up onto the hangman’s platform. She pointed a crooked, swollen-jointed finger as she cackled. “Let’s hope it’s a bad break, we doona want her dead without sufferin’.”

The crowd roared and chanted, “Kill the witch! Kill the witch! Kill the witch!”

Elizabeth’s head jerked as the hag fisted her hair and deliberately reefed the beautiful mane brutally into her gnarled hands. Cold air bit into the skin of her exposed throat.

The old woman hissed with fetid breath as she bound the beautiful long mane of hair with a putrid rag. “Can’t have anything interferin’ with the rope now, can we, witch?”

Elizabeth was filled with a great sense of calm. She was no longer afraid. She was ready to join her mother, to be finally free of her father and the hardship of this mortal world. She turned her head and spoke in a deep theatrical tone to the old crone. “I am ready to die.” She became deliberately sombre as she looked heavenward, then began to chant words that ended with a piercing scream. She turned her head, laughing maniacally, and glared at the old woman.

“But are ye?” The woman jumped down from the hangman’s platform, screaming, “She has cursed me! She has cursed me!”

The mob gasped and shrank backward. Those who had tokens to ward off the devil grasped them in their hands. Those without talismans peaked their fingers in the sign of horns. “Ye unrepthentant abominathion! Ye would dare to perform magikths in front of all these vitnesses!”

The mayor grabbed the rope, dragged it over her head, and tightened the knot around her neck. She threw back her head and spat a glob of spittle in his face. “May God never forgive ye and curse ye and yers for eternity.”

His eyes bugged and he hesitated, then he threw his hands above his head and screamed to the crowd, “Kill the vitch!”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and prayed to Nicneven, the crone Goddess of Samhain. “Mother, hear my plea. Please foster the healing arts and bring Abramelin and my coven’s prophecy to pass.” The trapdoor sprang open. A sharp crack rang out as the bones in her slender neck shattered, severing her spinal cord, ending the life of Elizabeth Randall.

The roar of the frenzied crowd muffled the sound of huge flapping wings as the white-tailed eagle landed awkwardly on a branch of a rowan tree. Isobel, cloaked in magicks, materialized at the back of the mob and moved toward the low-hanging bough that sagged under the weight of the bird. The huge predator leaned forward, his beak against the witch’s ear. He drew back, unfurled his wings and released the naked body of a newborn—the girl child Elizabeth had secretly given birth to in the barn the eve past. Isobel accepted the child into her waiting arms.

She nodded her thanks and understanding to the giant raptor. Unseen, the bird returned to the skies. Coira sat on the ground rocking back and forth, her dead mother clutched in her arms, her father nowhere to be seen. The now familiar burn of hatred for violent men roiled in her belly. Through her tears, she said but one word.

“Lyncurius.”  A faint fog escaped her lips. Then she said a second word. “Hunt!”

Anguish painted her face as the tears of agonizing loss streaked her cheeks. Isobel knelt and spoke quietly. The child, cloaked in magicks, was invisible to anyone in the crowd. She opened her cloak and revealed the babe to Coria.

“This is your niece, Keeper of the Lynx. The child of Elizabeth and Abramelin. She is named Aileas, the noble one, to honour your mam. It was Elizabeth’s wish that the babe live, grow, and learn within our coven until she is Summoned by destiny.”

Coira nodded as she caressed the lovely blonde hair of the newborn, when the mantle of protection of the Lynx settled over her; the smell of blood satisfying.  Isobel stopped and lowered her head in thanks for the retribution of Lyncurius. She placed her hand on Coira’s cheek.

“Abramelin loved your sister with all his being; they were true kindred spirits.”

Coira looked up from the babe. “Abramelin…of course.”

Isobel wiped Coira’s face as fresh tears began to fall. “It is only that he now has their child that he will someday bear his grief. When the time comes, as High Mage he will enact his ability to sift time and manipulate events to ensure Aileas is safe, in a new life, far from here. He will watch over her and play a great part in bringing her to the fulfilment of their prophecy and the preservation of the healing arts. We pray that she will establish a To Baile do Cailleach—a home for witches, where at last, our caste will be able to practice our magicks and live in peace.”

~~~





Bio for Kathrine Leannan 
As a career nurse/midwife, I have celebrated life and birthing all of my adult life. Study and research has always been my playground. After being awarded a PhD, I turned my attentions to my other passion—writing. A love of the Scots and their history is a common thread in my works of fantasy.

I smell rain before clouds gather across the sky. I feel the dawn before the sun paints my world the colours of the earth. It is the flit of gossamer wings above my head as I walk through the garden that warms my soul and makes me glad that faeries exist. The universe is my mistress and my strength. Things that growl in the shadows or snap at my ankles in the night are my dark friends - the source of my creativity.


1 comment:

  1. Great prologue, Kathrine! Can't wait to read what happens next.

    ReplyDelete