Golden light and tall shadows spilled across Sadonu’s wreckage as Emyn and the druid walked quietly from ruins to the surrounding trees. Their steps drove the tiny, pale petals of pear and apple blossoms into the mulch.
“How sad that the fruit trees go untended here,” Bodocnos murmured.
“Iomat says it’s best to leave the land of the dead to the dead,” Emyn said.
“She is right, but I am a sentimental old man.”
The trees swallowed them up, blocking most light. Birds called from every direction. Emyn had not been to the grove since she was six and didn’t know what to expect when they arrived.
Bodocnos spoke after a long silence. “Gutumaros, when were you born?”
“Close to Beltane, fifteen years ago.”
“So you are just fifteen. What day exactly?”
“The sixth after Beltane, four hours after darkness fell.”
The master hummed to himself as he worked through calculations far more complex than the simple rules Emyn learned from Iomat. He would know all the paths of the stars and every nuance of their meaning. As a midwife, Emyn had learned only enough to give a few words of promise to new parents when settling an infant into their arms.
What had Iomat said to Emyn’s own A’er, fifteen years ago? “Isminos, your new daughter will find death wherever she turns in her short life. Already, her mother has died.”
That was what the stars promised, but Iomat would never burden a father with such cruel words.
“Isminos, the Morrigu watches over your daughter and marks her for a special purpose.” Yes, that was probably what she said. Softer to the ears, though it hinted at the same thing.
Bodocnos strolled ahead of her as if he knew the path. “Master, have you been here before?”
“Yes, earlier today.” When he turned to answer, the sun flashed against the bronze circlet on his head. “Your headman told me the way. I’ve sent Rialos and Cothuacos ahead to prepare and invoke blessings–”
“My students. Coath, you probably call him.”
Rialos. She repeated the name to herself several times. “What tribes are you from, sir?”
“I am Bellovaci, to the west.” Each time Bodocnos turned his head, the light hit the band; it dazzled her. “Rialos has no tribe, though that will no doubt change once he is a druid. Coath’s family is Carnute. . . .”
No tribe? Was Rialos an outlaw, then? Emyn let her breath out slowly, afraid the master would notice.
“He cannot walk away, this druid.” The bard ghost was beside her. “He served the lords of the skull temple.”
Bodocnos prattled on about the blond student but Emyn didn’t follow his words.
Spirit whispers filled the air. “Such service never ends.”
“He craves peace. . . .”
“Peace of the mind.”
“Peace for the land.”
“He cannot have both.”
“He heard the dead.”
“Emyn!” Bodocnos’ voice struck her like a slap. “Emyn, take my arm.”
She lifted her hand, not sure where his arm was. The bronze band blinded her. She felt his larger hand take hers and guide it to his arm as if tethering her.
“Why do you stare at my forehead?”
“It is bright with the sun.”
“The sun is over there, Emyn.” Her spoken name was warm. Like the arm that she held, it steadied her.
“No, the sun . . . reflects from the band.”
“The bronze band on your brow.”
“I wear no band.” Bodocnos’ voice was as quiet as the breeze that ruffled the willow branches before them.
“He cannot remove it,” a ghost said.
“He took it up in the twelfth year.”
“He took up the knife in the twelfth year.”
“I wore such a band once, at a temple,” Bodocnos sighed. “Do you often see things that aren’t there?”
“I see visions.” Emyn shook with the implications of this question. How would she know if little things weren’t real?
He patted her hand where she held him. “Perhaps your spirits wish to remind me of the service I performed when I wore that band. Do not worry. We’ll keep walking; we are near. I can tell by the bluebells. See? They are thick through the entire grove; it is a lovely place.”
The twelfth year, Emyn remembered, was one of great sacrifice. Such a year approached; it would begin in the fall after Samhain. Bodocnos’ bright clothes, his wild beard, his quick and merry smiles, were all a sham. They hid the druid’s true nature. The service performed in a twelfth year was to offer sacrifice.
Why had he come to see her?
Bluebells flooded the grove and Emyn sank into them. She had no chance to look for the dark-haired student and no time to think. The press of bodies nearby was sudden and warm and she slipped down, watching the bluebells shake, wondering if the ground would stay the same.
It didn’t. Oak leaves crunched in her hands and an icy chill surrounded her. How could the ghosts drop her into another season?
“You were born to us here,” whispered the white ladies, and for once they did not giggle or sing. “Will you die here as well?”
“He would like that.” The dead king joined them, pointing a long arm towards Bodocnos. The ghost had not seemed so real, so near to flesh and blood, since she was six years old. “His knife craves blood.”
Bodocnos’ voice rang out. “What is revealed, Gutumaros?”
“I am not here, not at the grove I walked into.” Emyn looked up and around. “The moon is in the wrong place. The dampness feels like autumn. The people I see wear serpent’s eggs and rich clothes, beautiful clothes. Fur . . . antlers on some heads. The grove is large . . . ,” she counted quickly, “three handfuls of tall trees, three handfuls on each side. The wise assemble. They wait. You are among them.”
“All of us?”
Emyn hesitated. She did see all three, the druid and his students, but Coath stood alone in this large grove, dazed. He’d been pushed to the center of the gathering, and a woman offered a cup to him. “Someone drinks from a goblet. A cup etched in spirals–the moonlight dances in them.”
“Prettiness.” The word came from Coath’s mouth but in her father’s voice. Emyn leaned away as Coath offered the cup to her.
The dead king still pointed. “He would deliver you to the dead if he could find one imperfection.”
“What do you see?” the druid asked.
“I hear the dead king. He says you wish to sacrifice me. Is that why you’ve come?”
“Your ghosts play with us,” Bodocnos said. “I am warned, then. Tell me what they show you.”
Coath was gone; Rialos stood in the center of the grove holding the cup. Emyn gasped.
“Ah. . . .” The dead king croaked out his laugh. “This one, then.”
“Gutumaros—” Bodocnos prompted her.
“A man drinks from the cup,” she told him.
“Young or old?”
“Young.” Bodocnos was too eager. She would not name the man in the center. “A fair man, with red hair.”
The dead king made a sound of disgust behind her. “Liar.”
“He drinks and falls to his knees. No. . . he is lifted up.” Emyn closed her eyes. What should she say? How could she think this through with so many people whispering and shuffling around her?
When she looked again, Rialos’ clothes were being carried past. He stood naked, and Bodocnos helped him to kneel. Rialos’ hair looked soft and clean, as if he’d just come from bathing. Moonlight glistened on every muscle and sparkled on the dark hair that covered his chest, hair that narrowed to a single line below his navel, leading her eyes down.
Emyn had never seen a young, healthy man naked before. She didn’t now, she told herself. This wasn’t real; the ghosts teased her. They enjoyed teasing her.
“Gutumaros, what do you see?”
“Master, I see lies. The ghosts have never shown me what the future holds; I do not believe them.”
“Let me judge their stories, girl!” Bodocnos snapped. “Give us the words.”
Emyn shivered. “A fog creeps through the crowd. The man is on his knees now, naked. A knotted cord falls around his neck. Some of the masters back away and others come close.” Emyn shook her head, unwilling to watch. “This is enough. . . .”
“We are not finished!” The dead king’s voice screeched.
Before her eyes, torchlight glinted off the blade of a knife. A pale hand flexed and adjusted itself around the bone handle. The smallest finger vanished beneath a sleeve but not before Emyn saw a second, stunted fingertip growing from beside the nail.
Such a deformity marked a man. How could he hold a sacrificial knife? He was marred, judged by the gods themselves.
“The wrong man holds the knife!” Emyn’s breath came fast.
“What do you mean?” Bodocnos’ voice rang from her right, but she could see him before her in a different place, holding his student steady as the knife came closer. He wasn’t going to save Rialos, just the opposite.
“He is the wrong man! He is marked! The knife. . . .”
In the illusory grove, someone handed Bodocnos a thick branch; he pushed it through the cord around Rialos’ neck and began to twist. Rialos, perched on his knees, did not fight. He seemed asleep.
The cord tightened. Rialos jerked and fell forward, but Bodocnos caught him and forced him upright. The other man slashed with the knife and blood sprayed over the ground.
Emyn choked and covered her eyes.
“Master, stop this.”
The male voice was soft and Bodocnos outshouted it. “Gutumaros, tell me what you see!”
“You must tell him!” The dead king hissed.
“Then show me truth!” Emyn demanded.
Bright daylight stunned her eyes, pouring through the doors of a stable. The smells of hay and dung filled her nose. Rialos saddled a horse as the man with the knife ran up behind him, striking. She saw the deformed finger again as the knife cut deeply into Rialos’ neck.
Emyn covered her face while the dead king’s laughter scratched at her ears.
She opened her eyes to bluebells. Rialos’ body lay on the ground, white in the moonlight. He was dead; his blood soaked into the ground. No basins had caught it, no fields or rivers would be blessed by it. A waste.
“Tell them—” the ghost said.
“Tell them what?” Emyn turned towards the voice. “What do you want in return for this death?”
“Nothing!” The dead king roared, triumphant.
“Gutumaros, you must—”
“Then why?” Emyn ignored Bodocnos’ voice; she wanted answers. Hands clutched at her and she pushed them away.
“Because this must be done.”
“No! It won’t do any good, that’s what you mean!”
“It still must be done,” said the dead king.
Bodocnos shouted, “Gutumaros, we do not barter with such a death! It is offered without conditions. Tell us what you see.”
Emyn held her head, unable to think. The flowers were gone. She was in a stable again; daylight filtered in around loose boards. Rialos had been left to lie face down on the straw and dirt.
“Stop this or let me—” That was Rialos’ voice. He wasn’t dead; this wasn’t real.
“No!” Frustration shot through Bodocnos’ words. “We must know: should there be a sacrifice?”
“If there is, it will be the wrong man.” Emyn shut her eyes tight. “The man marked at birth holds the knife. The blood spilled is wasted on the ground, no sacred vessel catches it.”
“Nothing can be changed,” the dead king said. “You will all die, and your bones will be scattered on the ground.”
“Nothing will change, sacrifice or no,” Emyn repeated for Bodocnos, then screamed at the dead king. “Is that the worst of your threats, that our bones will be scattered?”
“Such insolence from a puny child! Do you question–”
“Shut up!” Arguing with the ghost never did any good. Only one threat might sway him: “I will not give out your words!”
“You cannot withhold them!” Bodocnos cried. Emyn felt his hand on her arm at the same moment that the ghosts—all of the ghosts, all of their visions and sounds—evaporated around her. “You are their messenger.”
She stared into the blessed darkness, then bowed her head. “They lie. You know they lie.”
“Men lie as well. Lies mix with truth, and they’re damned hard to pick apart. Deliver your messages, Gutumaros, and let the wise puzzle over which parts are true.”
Only Bodocnos’ voice sounded in the grove. What had driven away the ghosts?
A sea of bluebells rippled in the moonlight. The breeze was cool against her face; Emyn’s pulse slowed as she took deep breaths.
“And you,” Bodocnos spat above her. “How dare you disobey me?”
Emyn looked up at Rialos’ face—his real face, lit only by the moon. Why was the master angry with him?
“Yes, and I ordered! Who is your master?”
“You teach us never to ignore those who plead for help.”
“I’ve taught you—” Bodocnos’ tirade ended abruptly as all three men turned toward the far edge of the grove, alerted by a squeal too high-pitched to be an animal.
“Who is there? Stop!” The druid jumped forward and waded through the bluebells to the edge of the grove, where two figures cowered. “Run away now and you will face greater dangers than my anger. Don’t you know where you are?”
A girl burst into tears. In spite of the distance and darkness, Emyn recognized Sinia.