Linn’s first meeting with Manannan Mac’Lir, who is in exile from his beloved island, and plagued with problems that have arisen in his millenia-long absence. Linn is overwhelmed, caught up in the magic she firmly doesn’t believe in, and swept into a joyful celebration that is headier than any mortal wine…
I rarely do this, but I suggest you listen to The Gael, on uilleann pipes, while you read this passage. It is what I was listening to while I was writing it.
As always, if you have not been reading along, start here.
Linn thought of the last two years, and the conversations coming to a halt with her arrival. She did want more.
“Ah…” He sat back and smiled. “Youth is refreshing.”
Bes shifted his weight, and Linn realized guiltily that she ought to be letting him do the talking. She looked at him, and even though he hadn’t changed his expression, she thought she detected approval.
“I need help, yes.” Mac’Lir spoke again, and Linn paid attention to him. “My court is fallen…” He gestured loosely, at the ruins, fire, and the people who were mostly not paying too much attention to them. “Once, my rule here was supreme. The great heroes all came to eat, drink, and make merry with me. In time, I saw humanity was in ascendance.”
He looked away, out into the darkness. Linn wondered when it had stopped raining, or if he was somehow keeping it from raining. He looked wistful, for those days of legend and lore. Linn remembered Hypatia talking about the dirt, disease, and despair of the past. She had no inclination to romanticize that time.
The haunting pipes filled the silence. Mac’Lir spoke again, softly. “I went with my family down to the sea, to find peace. We slept long and long in the cold, icy lands far from home. Now, I have been awoken, for what reason I know not. One calls me, from a distant shore. I am exiled from my own place…”
That explained why they weren’t on the Isle of Man, then, Linn thought. She wondered when he would get to the point. One thing she had learned, these last two years, was to be patient. She waited.
“I cannot go, myself. I am needed here, I find. So, the Fire that has come to the Sea, will you go for me?”
She blinked at him. Was this what he had wanted from her grandfather? But she had said yes to the adventure. “I will go. Where, and who calls?”
“One of my blood, of my strength. They went to the new lands, after my sleep, and now all I can give you is a token, which tugs my heartstrings…”
Mac’Lir lifted a hand and held it out to her, a tiny white feather in his palm. Linn took it gently, and he cupped her hand in both of his, closing his eyes. She could see his lips moving, speaking, but couldn’t hear anything. The feather grew very hot, and heavy, and Linn heard her own squeak of pain with dismay, then gritted her teeth.
Bes shifted his weight and Linn flashed a warning look at him. She’d said she would do this. He frowned, but didn’t move again. The pain ebbed, and Mac’Lir let her hand go. The feather was gone. Only a blackened, ashy outline of it remained in her palm. Mac’Lir opened his eyes, smiling. Linn could see he was tired, now. Whatever he had done had been difficult.
“You will leave tomorrow, perhaps. For tonight, child, dance, refresh, and be joyful!”
Linn knew this was a dismissal, but wasn’t sure quite what to do. This whole episode had been odder than even her normal. She backed away slightly, then. Bes turned away from the king, who was sitting still with his eyes closed now.
“Come on, you heard him…” Bes started, amusement in his eyes.
“I don’t know how to dance…” Linn murmured to him, feeling utterly silly and blushing uncontrollably for some reason.
“We will teach you, then, Daughter of Fire!” The women who had been dancing all swooped in on her at once. Linn found herself again swept into an inexorable force as her coat came off, a long shawl was knotted around her hips to become a skirt over her practical jeans, and the pipes were joined with other instruments. She almost couldn’t help it, then, the music carried her into the dance with the four women.
It was fun, she had to admit, as they took her hands, and chanted the steps for her at first. It didn’t take long to learn how to follow them. Naeve, the woman with green hair, clapped her hands when she saw how quickly Linn was catching on. The music pulsed through her blood, her heart raced, and Linn whirled through the intricate patterns as her body took over from her mind.
“Faster, faster!” Naeve encouraged. They had been telling her their names, and she suspected they were naiads, except the very fair blonde with the pupil-less black eyes. That one, Ban, made Linn a little nervous when she came to her in the rounds of the dance. Now, she laughed as Linn stumbled a bit while taking her hands in turn.
“No need to fret, my pretty. I shall not sing tonight.”
Linn didn’t know what she meant, but this had gone from being a command, to a lot of fun, and she really did want to learn. Besides, something told her that her failure would look bad for Grampa Heff. This was oddly important.
The pipes skirled, the drum beat faster, and Linn felt her hair slipping loose of its braid as she flew from hand to hand around the circle. The niaids were singing, softly now, a liquid chant that kept time with the fast drum, but growing louder as Linn joined in with them. She had no idea what the Gaelic words meant, but it sounded beautiful, and it felt right to sing with them. Ban, true to her promise, did not sing.
There were stars, Linn saw when she tipped her head back. Twinkling brightly overhead, and she felt like she could reach and touch them, they looked so near. Her feet kept time to the rhythm of the music, like they weren’t hers, and she was part of a pattern of dancers. More had joined in, even Bes, who caught both her hands in his for a movement, his fingers warm on hers and his smile broad. He could really dance, Linn thought, and then they were separated again.
Merrick, his hair as tousled as hers must be, laughed as they danced, but she didn’t mind. He wasn’t laughing at her, but in joy. Everyone was happy. Mac’Lir had returned, so they celebrated.
Linn was never sure, later, how long they had danced. She knew that at some point the music had slowed, the various instruments dropping out until it was only the lonely pipes again, and then even that had stopped. The wind whispered among the stones, and she stood on the grass wondering if she had lost her mind. People were all around, some curled up near walls sleeping, others swaying with blank eyes to music only they could hear now.
Linn lifted a hand to her face, feeling her head throb. What on earth had possessed her to dance like that? And sing? She couldn’t sing or carry a tune in a bucket.
Bes appeared. “Hey, now…”
He put an arm around her waist and she leaned on him. “Bes, what the hel..heck?”
“Tell you later, kiddo. You did grand.” He led her toward the wall, making a gesture with his free hand. There was a doorway, with a half-open door. Blackened oak timbers, very heavy, Linn noted absently as they passed through it and into the dim room beyond.
“Was that there before?” She wasn’t thinking clearly, but she was sure it hadn’t been. “Where are we?”
“In the morning… well, ok, it’s morning now. When you wake up.”
She knew it was morning. The sun had been rising over the ruined castle wall, just the edge of dawn showing. Her head ached abominably, and she could barely keep her eyes open. Bes kept pushing her along. When the bed came into view, she stopped asking questions and let him tumble her into it. She could feel him tugging a boot off as she fell asleep, but she was past caring about being treated like a child.