I opened my mouth to say somewhat soothing, to tell her for the hundredth or thousandth time that she did have a mother, one who had loved her very much and regretted leaving her more than anything; but Bao forestalled me.
“You know it would mean we will be gone for a time, young highness?” he asked her. “Away in Alba, all the way across the Straits?”
She scowled at him. “I know where Alba is!”
Bao smiled back at her. “Well, then.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Bao and I will stay as long as you wish.”
After a moment of silence, Desirée nodded. “Yes,” she said with a child’s dignity. “I’m sure. You should go see your mother, Moirin.” She paused, her voice breaking a little. “But you will come back, won’t you? Both of you?”
I hugged her, gathering her against me. “Always,” I whispered against her silken hair. “Always and always, dear heart.”
And so we left.
There were farewells aplenty, but they were small and private. When we left, we left without fanfare. Thierry begged us to accept an escort, but we declined. Terre d’Ange was at peace, and I didn’t reckon we’d encounter any dangers. Eschewing the offer of a royal coach, we rode beneath the open skies, crossing the land that had become a second home to me since first I set foot on it.
When all was said and done, it was a short length of time in which to have lived so very much, and gone so very, very far from home. With Bao at my side, I retraced my passage across the breadth of Terre d’Ange, remembering how terribly young and incredibly naïve I had once been.
I breathed in the scent of lavender blooming under the hot sun. I savored once more the sharp, piney taste of rosemary flavoring a roasted capon, remembering my first taste of it, and how oddly the woman at the inn had looked at me when I’d inquired after the name of it.
Now it was all different. Herbs such as rosemary and basil were old, familiar friends, and the bear-witch from the back of beyond had served as a companion to Queens and Emperors alike.
Betimes we stayed at inns, and often we were recognized there from the tales that had begun to spread across the realm. But more often than not, Bao and I made camp in a stretch of wilderness or a fallow field, passing across the land like a rumor. When I could, I posted ward-stones and summoned the twilight to conceal us.
The closer we drew to the Straits, the more I felt the pull of my diadh-anam beckoning me home. By the time we reached the port city of Bourdes, it was a bright flame in my breast; not a blaze, but a steady beacon, like a lamp burning in a distant window, summoning a weary traveller homeward.
Which was a piece of irony, since the Maghuin Dhonn did not dwell in houses with windows.
Exactly where and how Bao and I were to live in Alba, I didn’t know. I reckoned there would be time and more to worry about it after Bao had endured the trial of the stone doorway, assuming he survived as I fervently prayed he would. In the meantime, there were vast reaches of taisgaidh land where the Maghuin Dhonn were allowed to dwell undisturbed.
Bao was less sanguine regarding the matter.
“It is good to know that the Cruarch of Alba respects the ways of your ancestors, Moirin, but I am not raising my children in a cave,” he said to me in our chamber at an inn in Bourdes where we had lodged for the night after booking passage across the Straits. “You’re not thinking of it, are you?”
I toyed with one of the gold hoops in his ears, giving it a tug. “I had a joyful childhood, Bao. Can you say the same?”
“No.” He kissed me. “But do you not think you have grown too civilized for caves?”
I smiled. “Actually, I hope not.”
Bao eyed me. “We will see.”
I returned his kiss. “Aye, we will.”
We set sail from Bourdes the following morning, travelling a day and a night across the choppy grey water of the Straits. I could feel my diadh-anam quicken further, and I knew Bao felt it, too. And my heart… my heart soared at the first sight of Alba’s shores, of the green and lovely isle where I had been born, the sanctuary to which the Maghuin Dhonn Herself had led Her children thousands and thousands of years ago, when the world was covered with ice. A wild energy coursed through my veins.
“Do you not feel it?” I asked Bao.
He was silent a moment. “Aye,” he said at length. “I do.”
When we made port in Bryn Gorrydum, a part of me wanted to leap and shout for gladness, to announce to the world that I was home, truly home, at last. But I was mindful that whatever Bao might feel, he was a very long way from the land of his birth, and that he had given up any life he might have had there to be with me.
And so I restrained myself, which was all to the good as shortly after disembarking, while we waited for our mounts and goods to be unloaded, we were greeted by a representative of the Cruarch of Alba.
He was a dark, wiry fellow with the elaborate woad-markings of a warrior on his face, half a dozen men attending him, one of them carrying a standard flying the Black Boar of the Cullach Gorrym. His dark gaze skated over us, taking in my green eyes and half-D’Angeline features, Bao at my side with his staff lashed across his back.
“Lady Moirin mac Fainche?” he inquired in Alban.
I smiled at him for the sheer pleasure of being addressed in my mother-tongue. “Aye, indeed.”
The fellow bowed. “On behalf of his majesty Faolan mab Sibeal, allow me to welcome you home, and invite you to partake of his hospitality.” He grinned, teeth white in his woad-marked face. “He is eager to meet with this distant kinswoman who has garnered such a name for herself and hear firsthand of your adventures.” He accorded Bao a second salute. “And to learn more of your esteemed husband and his distant homeland.”
Courtesy dictated that I accept the invitation, and under ordinary circumstances, I would have been pleased to do so. We shared a common ancestress in Alais the Wise. Faolan mab Sibeal had a name for being a strong, just ruler, and I had not forgotten that he had sent a generous message of support and appreciation to King Daniel when he named me Desirée’s oath-sworn protector.
But it would mean delaying my journey, like as not for days if the laws of hospitality governing the Cruarch’s table were honored. It would mean celebrating my homecoming and sharing my tale with strangers, when all I yearned for was my mother’s presence. I didn’t know how to extricate myself politely. All at once, I felt out of my element, and scarce older than the seventeen-year-old girl who had left these shores years ago.
The Cruarch’s man saw my hesitation. “It is an invitation,” he said gently. “Not a command.”
“His majesty would not take it amiss if I decline?” I asked.
He shook his head. “The invitation stands. You are welcome in the halls of Bryn Gorrydum at any time.”
I smiled again, this time with relief. “Tell his majesty I am most grateful, and we will surely avail ourselves of his hospitality when next we return to his city.” My diadh-anam flickered within me in a silent reminder, and I glanced sidelong at Bao. “But I fear we have pressing business among the Maghuin Dhonn at this time.”
He bowed again, beckoning to his retinue. “I will do so, my lady.”
“Do you reckon I was right to refuse his offer?” I asked Bao when the fellow and his men had departed.
Bao gave me a wry look. “I barely understood a word out of the man’s mouth, Moirin. It’s going to take me a while to master the Alban tongue. It’s a tricky one.”
“Ah, gods!” I said in chagrin, reminded all over again at how much he’d given up for me. We’d been practicing on the journey, but in my excitement on reaching Alban soil, I’d forgotten it wasn’t his mother-tongue, too. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Bao touched my cheek, eyes glinting with affection. “No matter what happens, I have no regrets.”
It heartened me. “No?”
“None,” Bao affirmed. “I swear it.”
The sailors finished the task of unloading our horses and baggage, and the ship’s captain wished us good passage. We were left undisturbed in the harbor while we set about the task of saddling our mounts and arranging our gear on the pack-horses.
It was a fine day, the sky a pale blue overhead, streaked with thin, scudding clouds. A light breeze skirled around us, capricious and whimsical, now carrying the tang of saltwater and spray from the ocean, now the odors of hewn stone, horse-dung, and the press of humanity from the streets of Bryn Gorrydum.
And then it switched again as I swung myself astride my mount, coming from the west and carrying a hint of deep green forests and sunlit meadows to my nostrils. A familiar scent, the scent of my childhood.
Lifting my head, I inhaled deeply.
My heart beat faster.
“Mother?” I said softly. The teasing wind caressed my skin, tugged at my hair. Feeling only a little bit foolish, I cleared my throat and called her name aloud, speaking it to the wind. “Fainche mac Eithne! Your daughter has returned, and is bound for the hollow hill and the stone doorway. There, I will meet you.”
The wind spun away, carrying my words with it. Bao and I exchanged a single wordless glance.
When first I had ventured to the hollow hill, it had seemed such a very long journey. Of course, I had been half out of my mind with grief, Cillian’s death fresh on my mind, travelling on foot.
This journey passed swiftly.
Our long-legged mounts ate up the leagues with swift strides, rendering the green isle of Alba smaller than I remembered it. And indeed, after the vast tracts of land I had traversed, it was a small realm.
Even so, the wild spaces were a joy to me. Following the ancient markers, we travelled over hill and dale, through forest and meadow, keeping to taisgaidh paths and summoning the twilight to avoid the notice of fellow travellers. I hunted and foraged, sharing my earliest learning with Bao, showing him what greens, roots, mushrooms, and berries were edible, and which were to be left alone.
With every league that passed, my diadh-anam burned brighter inside me, beckoning me homeward, ever homeward.
I did not count the days, but as we drew nearer to the hollow hill, all my senses were keen and alert.
The forests through which we passed were not so deep and dense as the jungles of Terra Nova, but they were wild and untamed nonetheless. Leading our pack-horses with care, Bao and I picked our way along a burbling stream that flowed cold and clear over smooth, speckled rocks. Beech trees clustered thick, the slanting sunlight filtering gold through their green leaves. Maiden’s-hair ferns grew along the banks, and there were deadfalls angling across the stream, thick green moss growing on their bark.
It was in the hush of mid-day that I sensed the presence of others. This deep in the wilderness, it was unlikely to be ordinary travellers. There was a hint of wood-smoke in the air, and when I strained my ears, I could make out the faint sound of piping notes carried on the breeze.
My throat tightened inexplicably. “Bao?” I whispered.
He drew rein, wiping his brow with one forearm. “Aye?”
I swallowed. “I think they’re here.”
Bao unslung his waterskin and took a long drink, then recorked it. “Well, then. Let’s go meet them, shall we?”
Here was a clearing in a copse of hazel trees, where there was a campfire burning and several figures arrayed around it. One was my uncle Mabon, lounging idly and playing a tune on a silver pipe. One was Oengus, squatting on his haunches and poking at the fire with a long stick.
I loosed a joyous shout.
The last was my mother, my mother, her dark eyes shining, her face familiar and beloved as she rose to her feet.
I fairly flung myself out of the saddle, taking several swift steps across the clearing, and then she was there, slender and stalwart, her arms encircling me in a hard embrace. “Ah, Moirin mine!” Her voice was husky in my ear, her hands rising to cup my face. “Let me have a look at you.”
Blinking back tears, I drew back so my mother could look at me.
“It’s as I thought.” There were tears in her eyes, too, but she was smiling. “You’ve grown into a rare beauty, my heart.”
“The child was ever a rare beauty, Fainche,” Oengus said mildly, rising. “No one ever denied it.”
My mother laughed. “Oh, hush, you!”
Oengus grinned and embraced me. “Welcome home, child.”
I turned to find Mabon assisting Bao with tethering the mount and pack-horse I had precipitously abandoned. My uncle jerked his chin toward us with a laugh. “Go and meet your wife’s mother, lad!”
For all his insolence, Bao was Ch’in, and respect for family was ingrained in him. He greeted my mother with a deep bow when I introduced them. “It is an honor, Lady Fainche,” he said in careful Alban.
My mother looked him up and down, her face unreadable, long enough that Bao flushed slightly under her regard. “So you would face the stone doorway and seek out the Maghuin Dhonn Herself for my daughter’s sake?”
Bao raised his brows. “Do you speak against it?”
“No.” She laid one hand on his chest. “There’s pride in you, aye, and stubbornness, too. That much I can see. I pray it will be enough.”
My skin prickled. “Do you doubt it?”
My mother turned toward me, her expression grave. “Ah, Moirin mine! You’ve done a thing no one has ever done before, sharing your diadh-anam with the lad and calling him into life out of death. We hope, aye.” She shook her head. “But no one can say what the Great Bear Herself will make of it, not even Old Nemed, who remembers more than most of us have forgotten.”