“Do you remember what I said to you the first time, Moirin mine?” my mother murmured to me.
I nodded. “It gave me courage more times than I can count,” I whispered. “I have never, ever doubted your love.”
She gave me a hard, fierce embrace, then turned away, averting her face.
Oengus clapped a hand on Bao’s shoulder. “Come back to us as one of our own, eh, lad?” he said in a rough voice. “Like to get to know you better.”
Bao took a deep breath. “I pray it is so.”
My uncle Mabon said nothing, only raising his pipe to his lips, then lowering it in silence.
No one knew what would happen.
Without a further word spoken, Bao lowered himself from the ledge, dropping to the slope below. Turning back, he held out his hand to me, helping me down. Loose pebbles skidded under our bare feet. Bao unslung his staff, bracing himself on it and lending me his arm as we made the long, precarious descent, both of us dizzy from Nemed’s brew, gauging depths and distances with difficulty as we placed our feet with care.
At last we gained the bottom. As I had before, I turned back once to see six figures silhouetted in the opening.
As before, my mother raised her hand.
I raised mine in reply.
Soft blue twilight seemed to rise from the bowl of the glade, only a few streaks of gold lingering in the sky overhead. Bao and I walked toward the stone doorway, looking neither to the left nor the right. The doorway seemed to grow taller and taller as we neared it. We passed beneath its shadow and stood before it. Beyond it, the lake awaited us, shimmering in the dusk, lovely, but ordinary.
“So this is it,” Bao said without looking at me.
He reached out his hand, and I took it. Together, we passed through the stone doorway, and the world changed.
Dusk turned to night, all at once pitch-black and brighter than day. Stars burst like pinwheels in the sky overhead. Every blade of grass was visible, every needle on every pine-tree, everything near and far at once. Everything was filled with splendid and terrible purpose, and ah, gods!
Knowing what to expect made no difference, no difference at all. It was so beautiful, so unspeakably beautiful.
“Oh, gods!” Bao whispered, tears in his voice. “Oh, Moirin!”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
Dazed and stumbling, hand in hand, we made our way to the shores of the lake, silvery and shining, stars reflected in its depths.
There, we waited.
We sat cross-legged opposite one another, Master Lo’s last pupils, and breathed. It seemed a fitting tribute in that place. We breathed the Breath of Earth’s Pulse, grounding ourselves and listening to the heartbeat of the world. We breathed the Breath of Trees Growing, sensing the deep network of roots lacing the soil around us. We breathed the Breath of Ocean’s Rolling Waves, aware of distant seas ringing the island, waves breaking on its shores. We breathed the Breath of Wind’s Sigh, sensing the infinite vault of sky rising above us, and the Breath of Embers Glowing, fiery stars whirling before our eyes, heat pulsing in our veins.
There was no telling how long we waited. Time moved differently on the far side of the stone doorway.
A long time.
Long enough for hunger pangs to come and go. Long enough for weariness to settle into our bones, long enough for our heads to begin to nod, so that we must wake ourselves with a jerk, time and time again.
Long enough for fear, and the first inklings of despair.
I rubbed the faint scar on my right hand—not the scar of sisterhood on my palm that Cusi’s knife had inflicted, but the one on the web of my thumb I didn’t remember acquiring. Seven years ago, I had asked Old Nemed to demonstrate her gift, and she had taken that memory from me.
If we failed, she would take this memory away. All of it. The hollow hill and the glade, the world of beauty beyond the stone doorway. My diadh-anam would gutter and die within me, and I would no longer be myself.
And Bao would no longer be.
It came to seem that was what would come to pass.
In the blazing darkness, unshed tears glittered in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Moirin.” His voice was hoarse from long disuse. “I didn’t want to leave you.”
“Don’t say it!” My voice shook. I clambered to my feet, my legs unsteady. “Please!” I cried into the darkness. “Oh, please! I did all that I thought You wished! I know I made mistakes, but I tried, I tried so hard! We both did! Over and over again, we tried our best!” Sorrow stabbed me like a knife, but in its wake came anger. A futile mix of fury and despair seared my veins. “I beg You, do not do this to us!” I shouted in a ringing voice. “Does love mean nothing to You?”
Bao drew a short, shocked breath.
For a moment, it seemed as though the entire world stood still. No breeze stirred the pine-needles. The surface of the lake went as smooth as a mirror. Even the stars overhead seemed to pause in their ordered dance.
A low rumble shook the glade, making the ground tremble beneath us, a rumble rising to a growl, rising and rising to a deep, deafening roar that rattled my teeth and bones within me, a roar that rattled the very heavens. I clapped my hands over my mouth as if to take back my words, then clapped them over my ears to block out the deafening sound.
A massive shape rounded the lake and blotted out the stars, coming toward us, a mountain on the move. Beside me, Bao leapt to his feet, his staff in his hands. He shot me a single wild glance filled with rueful affection.
The Maghuin Dhonn Herself came, unhurried and roaring. More than a mortal bear, aye; but a bear, nonetheless. Her muzzle was parted, dagger-sharp white teeth glinting in the starlight.
Helpless and awed, I lowered my hands.
Bao lowered his staff.
Pace by terrible pace, She came toward us, brown fur silvered by moonlight, dwindling from a scale that was unthinkable to one that was merely terrifying. And stone and sea, She was so beautiful, I knew I would gladly die at a single swipe of Her immense paw. Still roaring, the Maghuin Dhonn Herself loomed over us, rising up on Her hind legs, the bulk of Her filling the sky.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “Forgive me.”
The roaring ceased.
My ears rang in the silence that followed. The Maghuin Dhonn Herself dropped to all fours with a thud that shook the earth. With a barking huff that sounded for all the world like amusement, She lowered Her majestic head toward us.
And I understood all at once that I was forgiven, that I had always been forgiven, that I was Her child, and loved.
“Ohhh…!” Bao whispered.
I felt Her breath warm on my face, saw Her dark, luminous eyes filled with wisdom and compassion, love and forgiveness, amusement and apology, and a thousand, thousand things. I saw in their depths Blessed Elua crowned with vines, and Blessed Elua with his hand extended, dripping blood onto the earth. I saw the bright lady Naamah lie down with kings and peasants alike, her face bright and holy. I saw the good steward Anael walking the fields, touching the crops and singing. One by one, I saw all of the Companions.
I saw Yeshua ben Yosef stooping to write a word in the dust, and that word was love. I saw Yeshua suffering and dying on the cross, and his eyes were the eyes of the Maghuin Dhonn Herself.
I saw Sakyamuni meditating beneath a tree, lifting his head, enlightenment illuminating his face.
I saw the dragon rising from White Jade Mountain in all his glory and splendor, summoning the rain and lightning as he coiled through the sky.
I saw the elephant-headed god Ganesha laughing, his trunk upraised in joy. I saw dark-skinned Kali dancing, terrible and beautiful, her tongue outthrust, a necklace of skulls adorning her neck.
I saw Xochiquetzal trailing a cloud of birds and butterflies in her wake, and I saw the flower-garlanded ancestors of the Quechua rising with dignity.
I saw a glimpse, a fleeting glimpse, of the beyond that lay beyond.
All part of a whole.
And then I blinked, and it was gone. Here on the far side of the stone doorway, there was only the starlit glade, me, Bao, and the Great Bear Herself. She gave another soft, whuffling cough, Her breath stirring our hair. I laid my hands on Her coarse, wiry fur, running my fingers through it, feeling Her warm, living presence.
I wanted to thank Her, but there were no words.
She knew anyway.
Turning away, She left us, Her slow tread shaking the earth as She dwindled into the distance and vanished.
Did you…?” I asked, unable to frame the question.
Bao drew a long shuddering breath. “Aye,” he said simply. “I saw.”
“Well,” I said in a display of profound inadequacy, still at a loss for words. “Well, then.”
He glanced around, wonder and regret in his face. “We can’t stay here, can we, Moirin? Not yet anyway.”
I shook my head. “No.”
“It’s enough to know.” Bao squared his shoulders, his expression turning to one of resolve. “More than enough for anyone’s lifetime. Shall we go?”
I nodded. “Aye.”
We turned as one toward the stone doorway, both of us pausing in surprise at the sight of a figure standing silhouetted in it. It was a young woman of the Maghuin Dhonn, a cloak of starlight seeming to cling to her. Even as I stared, she came toward us, her bare feet gliding over the silvered grass, her face unfamiliar and amused.
“Do you not know me, daughter of Fainche?” she asked; and if her face was strange to me, there was somewhat in her voice I knew.
“Lady Nemed,” Bao said in a low tone beside me.
She laughed. “Death can’t fool this one, can it?” Her eyes shone in the starlight, dark and clear. “It’s good to get a look at you, lad.”
I swallowed. “You’re…?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” The mirth left Nemed’s face, leaving it solemn. “The task falls to you now, Moirin mac Fainche. You’ve passed the final test. And now that I’ve passed through the stone doorway, you’ll be its keeper.”
I gazed at her in disbelief. “Me? But my lady, I can’t! I don’t know… gods have mercy, anything!”
“Hush.” Nemed laid a hand on my cheek, and her touch was as soothing as my mother’s. “You’ll have teachers a-plenty, child. I’ve seen to it. But it was to you that my gift passed, and it is to you that the role falls.”
“I can’t,” I repeated, feeling foolish. “My lady, I’ve obligations in Terre d’Ange, and an oath to keep!”
Nemed clicked her tongue. “Do you think the Great Bear Herself does not know this? She chose you.”
Her gaze deepened. “You bridge two worlds, Moirin mac Fainche, even as your husband has bridged the worlds between life and death. It is not a bad thing at all to let the mortal world know that it has need of the Maghuin Dhonn, nor to remind the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn that our time has not yet passed. You will find a way to honor your oath while making the rite your own. It need not be held every season.” Nemed smiled a little. “A place in the hollow hills has been prepared for you, but you are not bound to it every waking moment, Fainche’s daughter.”
There was a suspicious glint in Bao’s eyes. “A place?”
Nemed laughed again. “It is more than a mere cave, Yingtai’s son. I do not think you will be displeased.”
His eyes widened. “How do you know my mother’s name?”
She patted his cheek without answering the question. “It is well that fate has appointed Moirin such a strong protector. But I fear you cannot linger here. A long life and joy to both of you.”
“But—” I said again.
Old Nemed, no longer old, but young and lovely, made a shooing gesture at us. “Go on with you! The world is waiting.”
We went with slow, uncertain steps. The stone doorway loomed above us, its shadow black on the starlit grass. I glanced back to see Nemed watching us, starlight sparkling all around her. With an expression of profound amusement and deep affection, she shook her head at me and pointed at the stone doorway.
Without a word, Bao reached out his hand to me. I took it, and we passed through the stone doorway as we had entered it, hand in hand.
In the space of a single heartbeat, starlight gave way to the bright, ordinary light of day. The sky was a bright, cheerful blue overhead, and the grass beneath our feet was green. There were birds singing and a faint scent of wood-smoke on the breeze.
I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.
“It seems our long journey has come to an end, Moirin,” Bao murmured. “Truly and at last.”
I squeezed his hand. “Aye.”
When we reached the cavern, there was no need to explain. They knew. The mood was one of subdued sorrow and muted joy. Old Nemed’s body lay swaddled in blankets, a makeshift litter waiting to transport her.
I stooped to touch it, then rose, tears in my eyes. “Mother…”
My mother wrapped her arms around me and pressed her lips close to my ear, sighing with relief, her warm breath stirring my hair. “Moirin mine. Ah, child! Don’t grieve for her. She knew her time was nigh. This was the ending she hoped would come to pass.”
“Did you?” I asked.
She kissed my brow. “I dared hope only for your safe return.”
“I’m scared,” I admitted. “And I don’t know what I’m meant to do.”
She smiled. “I know.”
“You will learn in time.” It was the young woman Camlan who spoke, clearing her throat in an apologetic manner. “It need not come all at once. We are here to help, all of us. Nemed did her best to prepare us for this day, and we will do our best to teach you.” She paused. “The last thing she said before she passed… Is it true you made the Maghuin Dhonn Herself laugh?”