I glanced around. “Is she here?”
“No.” There was a troubled furrow between my mother’s brows. “Nemed will meet us at the hollow hill on the morrow.”
“But tomorrow is tomorrow,” my uncle Mabon said easily, coming over to offer me a warm embrace. “Today and tonight are for celebrating.” He nodded toward the campfire. “There’s a brace of coneys skinned and ready for roasting, carrots and tubers gathered and waiting for the embers, and a stolen cask of uisghe begging to be breached. So let’s make merry, shall we?”
Oengus gave a decisive nod. “Indeed.”
It was a strange and wonderful thing, that reunion there in the Alban forest. We ate food cooked beneath the skies, scalding our fingers on roasted rabbit-meat. We drank Mabon’s stolen uisghe, the strong, fiery liquid burning a golden trail down our throats and warming our bellies.
We told stories, or fragments of stories, voices tumbling over one another, trying to cram seven years’ of absence into a single day.
Bao watched with a dazed look, overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. “It is very hard to follow, Moirin. Tell me again how Oengus is related to you?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “But he is family.”
With the sunlight angling low through the hazelwood copse, my uncle Mabon issued a drunken challenge to Bao, wrestling a convenient branch loose and taking a defensive stance. With a fierce answering smile, Bao unslung his bamboo staff and went on offense. Back and forth across the clearing they sparred, their feet churning the loam, until a weary truce was declared.
“You did not tell me your uncle was a stick-fighter, Moirin,” Bao said cheerfully, dropping to sit cross-legged beside me, sweat glistening on his skin. “He’s quite good, you know.”
I eyed Mabon. “I did not know. But he has a way with wood.”
Mabon returned my gaze with a serene smile, hoisting the cask of uisghe to his lips. “Did the bow I made you serve you well, niece?”
“Aye,” I said. “It did.”
His smile deepened. “I thought it would.”
It occurred to me that there was truly a great deal I had yet to learn about the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn.
Sunset gave way to twilight, dusk falling over the copse. Fireflies emerged in the undergrowth, golden lights flickering on and off in an elaborate dance of courtship. Oengus slumped sideways and began to snore. Mabon passed the cask to Bao and followed suit, arranging himself comfortably.
Bao nodded where he sat, his head hanging low, his hands cradling the cask of uisghe in a protective manner.
I glanced at my mother.
She smiled at me. “I like him.”
“Do you?” I asked.
Lifting one hand, she stroked my hair. “I do, Moirin mine. He has a good, strong spirit, and I think he loves you very much, for all that he does not wear it on his sleeve.” She paused, leaning forward to stir the embers of the campfire. “Cillian wanted you to be someone you were not. This one doesn’t, does he?”
“No,” I said. “He doesn’t.”
My mother nodded, adding another branch to the fire and banking the ashes around it. In the low glow, she looked no older than I remembered, her face yet unlined, her black hair untouched by silver. “It makes all the difference in the world.”
“What about tomorrow?” I asked.
She sighed. “Tomorrow is tomorrow, my heart. I do but pray you both return from the ordeal.”
“Ah, Moirin mine!” Her gaze was deep and dark and sorrowful. “You and your husband share a diadh-anam, child. Did you not think you would have to pass through the stone doorway together?”
“No,” I said honestly. “I hadn’t thought on it.”
“Tomorrow is tomorrow,” my mother repeated. “But tonight is tonight.” She stroked my hair again, pressed a kiss against my brow. “And come what may on the morrow, tonight is precious to me. Sleep, and be my little girl one last time.”
Laying my head in her lap, I slept.
On the morrow, the mood in our camp was markedly more sober. Since we were less than an hour’s journey from the hollow hill, Bao and I began our ritual fast. At sunset, we would venture through the stone doorway.
Bao turned pale on learning I must accompany him. “But why? Your Maghuin Dhonn has already acknowledged you.”
“That was before I gave away half my diadh-anam,” I murmured.
“You didn’t know!” he protested.
“I should have,” I said. “And in some deep part of me, I must have known. I told Master Lo I was willing to give anything to restore your life.”
For the rest of the journey, Bao was quiet. I daresay all of us were, not knowing what the day might hold.
When we reached the foot of the hollow hill, there was a man awaiting us. He gave me a shy, uncertain smile, and I recognized him as the young man Breidh who had been attendant on my first initiation.
“Old Nemed is waiting for you,” he announced. “With your permission, I’ll take your horses to her place and tend to them ere I return for the rite. She lives near.”
It surprised me. “She has a stable?”
Breidh shrugged. “No, but there is a lean-to that will shelter them at need. There is a meadow where they may graze, and a stream where they may drink. Is there aught you need from your packs?”
I glanced at Bao, who shook his head. “No.”
Once we had dismounted, Breidh blew softly into the nostrils of Bao’s horse, then took the reins and led it silently into the forest. My mount trailed obediently behind him, the pack-horses following, all with ears pricked gladly.
Bao watched them go. “Your folk have a way with animals, Moirin.”
This time, I knew the way. At a quiet nod from my mother, I began ascending the slope of the mountain, making for an ancient, gnarled pine-tree that jutted forth from the tall hill at a sharp angle. I wondered how long it had stood there, marking and concealing the path. When I reached it, I laid a hand on its trunk, sensing its age. It had stood for a long time, although not so long as Elua’s Oak; but it was not the first to stand sentinel here. I brushed a green pinecone with one fingertip, wondering who would take its place.
Behind the pine-tree, a series of rough promontories led to a narrow crevice that led to an even narrower canal. I squeezed through it, my shoulders scraping, feeling the walls with my fingertips and edging my way through the darkness toward a faint, distant light.
“Gods!” Bao whispered. “It’s like being born!”
Oengus’ low chuckle sounded behind us. “Exactly right, lad.”
When the passage into the hollow hill opened, it opened all at once. I stumbled out of constriction into emptiness.
Ah, stone and sea! It was beautiful, more beautiful than I remembered, more beautiful than any man-made temple. Light came from an opening somewhere far, far overhead, illuminating everything. Tall, tapering columns rose from the cavern floor, descended from the vaulted ceiling. The stone was smooth and milky-pale, hints of blues and greens flowing through its veins, patches of pink and rust blossoming here and there.
“Moirin…” Bao’s voice was filled with awe. “Is this real?”
I smiled. “Aye, I think so.”
One by one, the others emerged behind us, taking a moment to revel in the beauty of the place.
At length, my uncle Mabon stirred. “Do you remember the way, child?”
I pointed to a waterfall of frozen stone. “I do.”
He nodded. “Lead on.”
There were false passages where one could lose oneself; that, I remembered. We passed them by, climbing the slick frozen fall, passing in and out of shafts of light, past sparkling crystalline structures. With careful steps, we crossed the narrow, rocky bridge over a gorge where dark water spilled over a lip of stone to gurgle and flow far beneath us.
At last, we came to the final shaft that led to the uppermost cavern, hand-and foot-holds worn smooth by many hands carved into its steep walls. This time, I wondered who had carved the holds, and how many of the Maghuin Dhonn had made this ascent over the centuries.
Everything was as I remembered, the shaft emerging onto a spacious cavern of ordinary, rugged granite, the far end open onto sunlight and a vast swath of blue sky, smoke from a cooking-fire trickling upward into a natural chimney duct.
But if Old Nemed had been old before, she was ancient now, a wizened figure huddled in blankets beside the fire, tended by a young woman. The years that sat lightly on my mother weighed heavily on Old Nemed.
“Fainche’s daughter!” Her voice was a thin wheeze in her chest. She freed one crabbed hand from the folds of her blanket and beckoned to me. “Come here.” I went to kneel before her. Nemed’s rheumy eyes had gone as milky as the walls of the hollow hill, filmed with cataracts. She lifted her gnarled fingers to touch my face. “So you’ve been out and about, eh? Overturning the order of the world, eh?”
“I’ve done my best to do Her will,” I said humbly.
She patted my cheek. “Oh, sometimes you have to overturn things to restore them to rights. I trust you’ve learned that much, child.” Craning her neck, she peered past me into whatever dim fog her vision afforded her. “Come, let’s have a look at this young man who thinks to importune the Maghuin Dhonn Herself.”
Brushing off dust from the walls of the shaft, Bao came forward to kneel beside me. “Greetings, old mother,” he said in a respectful tone.
Freeing her other hand, Nemed felt at his arms and shoulders and chest, loosing an unexpected cackle. “You picked a nice specimen, anyway! Lean and firm, just the way I like them.” Her laughter gave way to a rattling cough.
Leaning down, the young woman dabbed at her lips with a length of cloth, and I realized I recognized her from the previous time, too.
Old Nemed waved her away impatiently. “Wish I could get a better look at you, lad,” she said in a wistful voice. “Reminds me of my younger days. You understand what we’re about here today?”
“I think so,” Bao said, concentrating hard on comprehending her words.
Nemed turned her head. “What do you say, daughter of Eithne?”
My mother made her way across the floor, Oengus and Mabon following her. “He understands, Nemed. Both the children know what is at stake.”
“I am…” Bao hesitated. “Forgive me,” he said, picking his words with care. “But how is it that all of you know?” He glanced at me. “I’m sorry, but I do not remember you putting all this in a letter, Moirin.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t. Did my father tell you?” I asked my mother.
“Not this, no.” She said no more.
“There are more mysteries in the world than you know, child,” Nemed said. “The Maghuin Dhonn Herself grant it, you may learn them yet.” Her wrinkled eyelids flickered closed, then snapped open. “But we will speak of this later, if there is a later. Leave me in peace for now.”
For the rest of the day, Old Nemed dozed, attended by the young woman I had recognized—Camlan was her name. The young man Breidh returned, assuring us in a soft murmur that the horses were fine.
There were a dozen questions crowding my thoughts, but I understood without being told that now was not the time to voice them.
Later… if there was a later.
Bao sat cross-legged in the cavern opening, gazing out at the stone doorway looming in the glade below us. It was as I remembered, two standing stones twice a man’s height, a single slab laid across them. Its shadow moved across the glade, marking the hours like a vast sundial.
“It’s as I’ve seen in my dreams,” Bao said in a hushed voice. “And yet it seems such a simple thing.”
I nodded. “It is and it isn’t.”
When the shadow began stretching eastward toward the cavern, Old Nemed roused herself. Reaching for a cooking-pot on the fire, she dipped a finger into it and stuck it in her mouth, tasting it with a slurp. “It’s time,” she announced in a surprisingly strong voice. “Let us begin.”
All at once, it seemed all too soon.
I wanted… ah, gods! I wanted to slow the progress of the sun, I wanted another day with my mother—another week, a month.
I wanted to ask Oengus how exactly we were related, and what magic Mabon had imparted to my yew-wood bow, and how he would know I would need it one day. I wanted to know why Camlan and Breidh were attending the rite when tradition held it should be the last two to have passed through the stone doorway, and I wanted to know how many of the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn had done so since last I did seven years ago.
I wanted to tell Bao one last time that I was sorry for binding him to me without his knowledge or permission, sorry for forcing on him a fate in which his very existence was dependent on the acceptance of a foreign god.
But when I glanced at him, his face was calm with resolve. Bao had made his peace with this. He had told me he had no regrets. He had died once, and he did not fear the prospect.
And so I held my tongue and said nothing, and the rite began. Together, Camlan and Breidh dipped their fingers in a jar of salve, anointing first my eyelids, and then Bao’s.
“May you see Her true,” they chorused in unison.
Old Nemed ladled out two bowls of mushroom tea from the pot that had been simmering on the fire. We drank it down, both of us refraining from wincing at the bitter, acrid taste of it.
The slanting sunlight seemed to thicken like honey in the cavern as Camlan and Breidh helped us to the far opening where my mother and Mabon and Oengus stood waiting. Beyond them, the rocky slope fell away at a steep angle. Below was the verdant bowl of the glade, an immense cupped hand holding a sparkling lake, a scattering of pine-trees and the stone doorway, its shadow long and stark on the green grass.