"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."
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
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,
"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?"
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
"Have you ever seen Her?" I asked.
She nodded. "Once."
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
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
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
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 Cró and Eidlach Òr and Fhalair Bàn,
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.