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NAAMAH'S KISS CHAPTER ONE

I was born to the Maghuin Dhonn.

We are the folk of the Brown Bear and the oldest magic in Alba runs in our veins. Once, there were great magicians among us; men and women capable of seeing all the skeins of the future unwind in the great stone circles, capable of taking on the shape of the Maghuin Dhonn Herself.

No more.

It changed long before I was born, when a prince of Terre d'Ange wed a princess of the Cullach Gorrym, the folk of the Black Boar. The greatest magicians among us saw the seeds of our destruction in that union. They acted to avert it; and in the end, they succeeded.

But they did not act wisely, and there was a cost. The Maghuin Dhonn, already viewed with fear and suspicion, were despised in Alba for many long years thereafter. Our great magics deserted us. We turned instead to the small magic of concealment, learning to shroud ourselves and our places in twilight.

It is a simple enough trick. My mother taught it to me when I was some five years of age. "Close your eyes and think of the time between night and day, Moirin," she said to me. "When the sun's last rays have sunk beyond the horizon, but darkness has not yet fallen. The stars are pale in the sky and the trees are dim around you."

I obeyed.

"Breathe it deep into your chest and hold it," her voice continued. "Then blow it out softly and let it settle around you like a cloak."

I exhaled softly.

"Ha!" My mother's voice was startled and pleased.

I opened my eyes. A glimpse of gentle twilight fled, replaced by bright, hearty sunlight. It made me squint. "I did it?"

"You did. I saw the air sparkle about you. You would have been concealed from any gaze not already upon you." She dropped to her knees and hugged me. "I wasn't sure."

"Why?"

My mother hesitated and stroked my hair. It was as straight and black as her own, but much finer. "You know that our bloodline is not entirely pure?"

I nodded. "We are kin to the kings and queens of Alba and Terre d'Ange, and the lord of the Dalriada, too."

"Like it or not, aye." She smiled wryly. "So. The gifts of the Maghuin Dhonn are not always given to each of us. I'm glad She has chosen you, little one."

I smiled back at her. "So am I. It would be a terrible thing if She didn't, wouldn't it?"

"So it would."

It was some nights afterward that Oengus came for the first time; or at least the first time I remembered. It was his scent that awoke me, a hard, clean scent like fresh-chipped granite and pine, with a musky undertone. Lying in my snug nest of blankets in our cozy cave, I opened my eyes to see my mother rise and go to greet the shadowy figure beyond the threshhold.

"Well?" a deep voice asked.

"Moirin can summon the twilight." My mother's voice was tranquil.

"Does she show signs of other gifts?"

"No." There was a faint rustle as she shook her head.

"Have you told her?"

"No!" Her voice sharpened. "She's a child, Oengus. A child of the Maghuin Dhonn. Let her be one for as long as she may. Forever, mayhap. I would be content if nothing more came of it."

"Peace, Fainche." His tone was soothing. "It is just that there are those of us who wonder if She had not some greater purpose, calling you to a stranger." And then his tone changed, teasing. "Or so you claim. Mayhap it was his milky-white skin and green, green eyes that drew you?"

"Hush!" my mother said, but she was laughing.

"Come into the night with me." His voice dropped another octave. "I am here, and you have been too long without the company of men."

"Hush," she said again; but it was different this time. Amused, but different. Something stirred beneath her voice, a current of something dark and rich and heady. It called to something inside of me, something I didn't know how to name. She glanced over her shoulder at me. I closed my eyes and feigned sleep. She went with him.

I was alone.

I wasn't scared. My mother had left me alone before, and I knew better than to mewl for her return. But I felt strange. There was a fluttering deep in my belly like a dove's wings beating. I called on my diadh-anam, the spirit-spark of the Great Bear Herself that dwells in all Her children.

Something else answered.

I had a sense of a lady's presence, bright and laughing. A sense of terrible beauty and piercing desire; though for what, I could not have said. A sense of lips pressed to my brow in a kiss. Words filtered through my thoughts, fond, gentle and amused.

Not yet. Not for many years.

The fluttering feeling went away. Comforted, I slept.

In the morning, Oengus was gone and the night's strangeness had passed. My mother was in good spirits. We ventured upstream to forage for arrowhead root, filling my mother's wicker basket to brimming. Splashing happily in the stream's marshy verges, I forgot all about the man in the night and the bright lady's presence. When we returned to our cave, there was an offering.

"Eggs!" my mother said with pleasure. She plucked one from the basket and passed it to me. "Look, Moirin. See how perfect it is."

I cradled it in my palms. It was warm from the sun, brown and faintly freckled. The shell was smooth. I touched the tip of my tongue to it. It tasted chalky and a little acrid. "From Lord Tiernan?"

"I daresay." She smiled. "He's a good man. He keeps to the old ways. We taught the Dalriada to survive in this land and they have never forgotten it. He remembers we are kin, too."

She set the arrowhead root to soak overnight and made a savory pie of eggs and greens that night. When I begged for the story of Lord Tiernan's coronation, she obliged me, tirelessly describing the splendid affair. It wasn't until I was falling asleep that I remembered last night's visitor and my strange vision. I resolved to ask my mother about it in the morning.

But when the morning dawned bright and fair, and my mother promised to teach me to catch trout with my bare hands, I forgot again and did not remember for a long time.

As I grew older, she taught me many things.

Most were simple skills. I grew adept at summoning the twilight; breathing it into me, blowing it softly around me. Thus concealed, I would lie motionless beneath the tendrils of the big willow along the stream, dangling one arm in the water and waiting for a speckled trout to swim into range. I could close my hand around it so gently it didn't even thrash and lift it into the waiting creel.

I learned to gather greens like purslane, watercress and dandelion, and roots like arrowhead, burdock and cattail. I learned which mushrooms were poisonous and which were good to eat. I learned to boil acorns until the bitterness was gone and grind them into meal.

I learned to read weather signs and to track small game. My mother was skilled with a bow. When I was little, she hunted without me, but as I grew bigger and more adept in the ways of stealth and concealment, she took me with her. The first time I saw her kill, it was a hare.

It was a big hare, fat and lazy, crouching in a sunny glade. It began to startle as we emerged from the woods. My mother called the twilight around her, and I did the same. The bright sunlight faded around us, the world turning soft and silvery dim.

"Hold," she breathed.

The hare froze. I imagined I could feel its heart beating, a fast, inhuman flicker. Its round, dark eye gleamed. It saw us, and it saw its death in us.

My mother loosed her bow. The twang of it startled me out of the twilight. The sunlit world came crashing back. The shot hare leaped, ran a few paces and fell over onto its side. I swallowed hard. It seemed a much graver thing than catching fish; and somewhat unfair, too.

"Did it... obey you?" I asked my mother.

She didn't answer right away, beckoning me to accompany her as she went to gather the hare. She laid my hand on its warm fur. I felt a faint movement as the last trace of life went out of it, then a loose stillness.

"In the twilight, we are closer to the world of spirit than flesh," she said soberly. "When we speak, their spirits hear. If their death is upon them, they obey."

"Oh," I whispered.

My mother's eyes were dark and somber. "It is a grave gift and one never to be used lightly. Only to sustain life. We give thanks to stone and sea and all that it encompasses for it, and to the Great Bear Herself. Do you ever use it for sport or any idle cause, it will be stripped from you. Do you understand?"

"I do."

The folk of the Maghuin Dhonn knew the cost of using gifts unwisely. My mother taught me things beyond woodcraft, cookery and survival.

She told me stories. Stories of days gone by, stories of heroes and villains, of great exploits and betrayals. There were stories from the oldest, oldest days when the world was covered with ice and our people left a distant land, following their diadh-anam, the guiding spirit of the Great Bear, to Alba. I listened and shivered with awe.

"Have you ever seen Her?" I asked.

She nodded. "Once."

"Where? When?"

She shook her head. "It is a mystery and I cannot speak of it until it is your time. But She is unlike any mortal bear."

There were other stories, too. The story of how the army of Tiberium conquered Alba, bringing stone roads and foreign sicknesses, driving us into the wilderness. How the mighty magician Donnchadh took on the shape of the Maghuin Dhonn Herself and suffered himself to be taken into captivity and tormented for sport, until he tore loose the ties that bound him and slew the Tiberian Governor. Afterward, the disparate folk of Alba united and drove the Tiberians from their soil.

And yet, we were despised for it.

"Why?" I asked.

My mother gave me her wry smile. "The man who united the rest of Alba, Cinhil Ru of the Cullach Gorrym, lied. He said the Maghuin Dhonn had sacrificed their diadh-anam and gone mad. That the same fate would befall them all unless they set aside their petty quarrels and stood together. And so they did."

"Without us," I said.

"Without us," she agreed. "The world is not always fair, Moirin mine. And yet, Alba has never been conquered since, and we are still here."

And then there were the tales of our heritage. The summer that I was ten years old, my mother took me on a pilgrimage to visit a place made sacred by our history. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in my life. We were weeks travelling. She taught me to read the taisgaidh markers, the signs indicating the paths we travelled were held freely in trust for all of Alba. No one might bar another's passage nor offer violence on taisgaidh land.

Of course, we were prudent and concealed ourselves in twilight when others passed. Still, it gave me a thrill to see other people. My mother identified them for me in a low whisper, willing passers-by not to hear her voice. If they heard aught, they glanced around and shrugged, concluding it was merely the wind.

The folk of the Cullach Gorrym looked most like us; slight and dark, with black hair and eyes. But there were others I'd only heard about in stories, the Tarbh Cr and Eidlach r and Fhalair Bn, tall and fair-skinned, with hair that blazed like fire or gleamed like ripe wheat, startling blue, green or grey eyes.

The first time I saw one, it stirred a memory. Mayhap it was his milky-white skin and green, green eyes that drew you?

After they had passed and we had released the twilight, I looked at my mother with her warm brown skin. I stretched out my hands and studied them. I was used to thinking of us as almost one person. But my skin was a different hue than hers, honey-colored.

I'd never thought on it. I closed my eyes and touched my lids. I wondered what color my eyes were. I didn't know.

It may seem strange, but what is obvious to an adult is not always obvious to a child. We led a solitary life. There was me, and there was my mother. Other people were murmurs in the darkness, baskets appearing on the hearth. Tales out of history, tales out of lore. Until I saw my first fair-skinned stranger, it never occurred to me that the tales stopped short.

I had no idea who my father was.

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