Chapter One Chapter One
THREE YEARS LATER
Rowenna found her mother on the cliff tops to the northeast of the Winthrop cottage. It was a storm-tossed March night—the sky was a boil of approaching thunderheads, and Mairead Winthrop crouched on her hands and knees, scrabbling for stones in the scant, unyielding earth of the cliffs.
It hadn’t been hard for Rowenna to find her mother. A nameless something, a pull at her bones, had alerted her to the fact that Mairead was missing and drawn her here. The untapped craft within Rowenna led her places of its own accord with increasing frequency now, but she said nothing of it to anyone and ignored the call when she could. Mairead had made it clear enough that Rowenna was ill-suited for this sort of work and too undisciplined for power. And Rowenna had resolved not to grasp for power if that was so. If she had to wait a lifetime to be taught her craft, then wait she would, even if the wordless pulls and yearnings within her tore her apart.
“Màthair, come inside,” Rowenna begged. “This is no weather to be out in.”
Anxious things clawed at the insides of her rib cage at the sight of Mairead. The oncoming storm hadn’t yet swallowed up the last gray light of dusk, and she could see that her mother was filthy. Dark soil stained Mairead’s clothes and clung to her skin, and her nails were broken and bloodied from wrestling with rocks she’d dug up and built into a lopsided cairn. Far below them, the angry sea worried away at the cliffs, its constant muttering having built up to a discontented roar.
Whatever Mairead was doing, Rowenna did not understand it. All her life she’d sat by, observing her mother’s craft, trying to still the shards of it that lurked beneath her own skin until such a time as she was deemed ready. An all too familiar sense of frustration and confusion washed over Rowenna, bitter enough for her to choke on.
“Go home, Enna,” Mairead pleaded. “There’s nothing you can do to help.”
Rowenna stayed as she was, wracked with indecision.
You’re not ready yet, Mairead had told her so many times, with or without words. Perhaps you never will be.
But there was hunger in Rowenna Winthrop, no matter how she strove to keep it in check. A hunger to know her inexplicable pieces better. A starveling desire to be whole and understood, even if only by herself.
“Enna!” Mairead insisted.
Rather than do as she was bid, Rowenna sank to her knees at her mother’s side. A cold, fitful rain was starting up, and she knew if her father, Cam, had been there, he’d have dealt with this very differently. If he’d been home, he’d have coaxed Mairead in out of this weather, taking her back to the Winthrop cot and warming her by the fire. He’d have soothed her with quiet words and his steadfast presence, the way he’d done for all of the Winthrops at one time or another.
But Cam was gone and had been for months. The English tyrant in Inverness still kept his upstart and unwanted court, and the disparate sparks of rebellion had been fanned to full flame by his cruelty. Cam had left to join the Highlands uprising, and in his absence there was only Rowenna to manage Mairead’s fey moods, for her brothers found them entirely unnerving. Well, so did Rowenna, but she did not have the luxury of casting off her mother’s care onto someone else.
Setting her lantern down, Rowenna pushed up the sleeves of her oilskin and slowly began to dig at Mairead’s side. It seemed simple enough—to pull rocks from the earth. There was no craft in that on its own. No witchwork. Her mother was sobbing with fear, the whites of her eyes gleaming in the lantern’s feeble glow. It was catching, that fear, and however benign the work, soon Rowenna’s belly roiled with nerves. She’d seen Mairead compelled to do things before—to build her cairns on the cliff tops at the solstices and equinoxes, to spin yarn and knit new pullovers for every one of the Winthrop boys well before their old clothes had worn out.
But none of it had ever been like this.
This wasn’t just a compulsion. This was raw panic.
The wind died down for a moment, and Rowenna realized with a chill that the strange, rhythmic sound she’d heard beneath the gale was not the omnipresent sea, breaking against the shore, but Mairead herself. Her lips moved constantly as she muttered the words of the Our Father, over and over again as she worked.
Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done….
Deliver us from evil
Deliver us from evil
Deliver us from evil
“Màthair?” Rowenna finally managed to get the word out. She pried a rock free from the iron-hard earth and handed it to Mairead, who took it with a shamefaced look. “What is it you’re afraid of? What are you doing? And how can I help?”
It was the first time in three years that Rowenna had put a question to her mother about the nature of her work.
Mairead glanced toward the sea, her eyes owl-like in the gloom.
“I’m making a ward,” she said. “A hedge against the devil and his creatures. A work of protection, built of hard stone and unshakeable intent.”
Rowenna’s throat tightened, and she let the mud-slick rock she held fall from her hands. “I can’t help you then. I don’t know how to make a ward. You know that.”
“Just go,” Mairead ordered, her voice ragged with despair. “Please, Enna. There’s nothing you can do here.”
Slowly Rowenna got to her feet and looked down at Mairead. And despite her own ignorance, despite the mistrust that had driven a wedge between them, Rowenna loved her. Loved Mairead with a fierceness and wildness made sharper by the tension of knowing her mother saw her as too quick tempered to help in this work.
“Come with me,” Rowenna pleaded. “Whatever you’re doing can wait. No one’s asked you to take on the burden of protecting this land—it’s too much, and you’ll get no thanks for it in the end. Leave it, and come home.”
When Mairead looked up, there were tears shining in her eyes, but she shook her head. “I can’t, Enna. I just can’t. Someday you’ll understand.”
That cut Rowenna to the quick, because were it not for Mairead’s resistance, she’d understand already. All around them, the wind keened across the moorland, repeating stormy words in a hollow, rain-sodden lament.
She comes, she comes, she comes.
Scrambling to her feet, Mairead disappeared into the deepening twilight. Wind howled over the cliffs and set the rain to stinging like bees by the time she returned. Rowenna glanced up, and a strangled gasp escaped her, for under one arm her mother bore an incongruous burden—a great white swan, which remained oddly quiescent with Mairead’s hand covering its eyes. Rain beaded off its soft plumage, and its neck arched gracefully.
“What are you—” Rowenna began, but Mairead shook her head. She set the swan down atop the completed cairn, and the bird stood up, ruffling its feathers.
“Eala,” Mairead said, calling the bird by its name in Gàidhlig. “For years I’ve helped your kind on their long journeys across the sea. Now I stand here in need of an offering from something wild and pure to make fast my ward, and protect this land. Will you do as I ask? Will you help me?”
Rowenna shivered as the swan bowed low. Since she was a child, she’d fed the swans with her mother when they stopped in their wandering from north to south. A handful of times, when birds arrived exhausted or injured, she and Mairead had taken them in, tending to them at the Winthrop hearth until they were well enough to carry on.
Mairead bowed back. “Thank you, beloved.”
But when Mairead reached into the pocket of her overskirt and pulled out a sheathed gutting knife, Rowenna could watch no longer. It was one thing to be up on the cliffs laying out wards in a gathering storm. To do harm to a living creature with this strange work, though—that was more than even Rowenna with her hunger had ever wanted. That felt like darkness.
Her eldest brother, Liam, with his priest’s leanings, would have a thing or two to say about all this. Ungodly, he’d call it. Unforgivable.
“No, Màthair,” Rowenna said breathlessly, hurrying forward and taking hold of Mairead’s arm. “Surely there’s another way to finish your work.”
“Enna, I asked you to go for a reason. But it’s only a little blood,” Mairead assured her, quieter and calmer now that her work seemed to be near finished. “Just a drop or two. The swan will be fine, love. We’ve done it before, the swans and me.”
“You’ve done this before?” The knowing that her mother had repeated this ritual in secret burned through Rowenna. It was as if an entire other life existed, beyond the one Rowenna knew, and Mairead had struggled to keep her out of it. Yet it should be hers by rights—didn’t her bones cry out for power and craft, just as her mother’s did?
Betrayal made Rowenna angry, and she chose her words with the intent of wounding.
“I didn’t realize that all this time, you’ve been just what they say you are in the village.” Rowenna spoke with defiance, and for the first time that she could remember, Mairead met her sharpness with answering anger.
“Say the word if you’re bent on doing harm,” Rowenna’s mother snapped.
“You know what it is,” Rowenna answered.
“I do. But I want you to speak it.”
Rowenna drew herself up. “They call you a witch. And they call me a witch too, though I’ve none of the craft of one. I bear all the blame, and none of the power.”
Her voice wavered a little at the last, and Mairead winced.
“Enna, I’m sorry,” she said, her words hardly audible over the wind’s cries. “I’m sorry I was cross with you, and I’m sorry for what they say. I didn’t want any of this for you. Believe me when I tell you that all I’ve ever wanted is to keep you and our village safe.”
“Then let me help in earnest,” Rowenna pleaded. “Show me what needs to be done. Teach me. We’ll finish this work together, and when it’s complete we can go home together too. The boys are waiting. Finn’s asleep, but Liam will read aloud, and you and I can help Duncan untangle his nets. Then in the morning, let me keep helping you, Màthair. Stop trying to cut me off from who we are and what we can do.”
Mairead hesitated, glancing from the swan to Rowenna and back again.
“You’re a good lass, Enna,” she said. “Truly you are. I don’t know what your father and I have done to deserve you, my saltwater girl.”
Rowenna swallowed back tears and waited, hardly daring to breathe.
“All right,” Mairead said at last. “I need you to show me your courage now, if you’re to be a help.”
Still standing on the cairn, the swan regarded them both with knowing dark eyes. But as Mairead and Rowenna turned to it, something startled the creature. It half ran, half flew past them, wings buffeting the air as it fled.
“Eala!” Mairead called, and started after the swan. “Don’t leave me. Our work’s not done!”
From somewhere in the gathering dark, the creature let out a riotous trumpeting that echoed off the stormy cliff sides. Rowenna ran after Mairead, who chased the swan, until abruptly, the clamorous sounds of the white bird were cut off. Mairead froze, and Rowenna fell still at her side.
“What is it, Màthair?” Rowenna asked, her voice little more than a whisper that the wind caught and carried away.
“I don’t know.” Mairead shook her head. “I don’t know, but my work will have to stay unfinished. We’ll be safest at home now. Come with me, and hurry.”
She grasped Rowenna’s hand and pulled her along, and Rowenna went willingly, heart beating so hard within her that it hurt.
They were just passing Iteag Burn, where a stream rushed over the cliff face and down a steep track to the sea, when Rowenna tripped and nearly stumbled. Pausing, she lowered her lantern, only to find one of Mairead’s cairns in a scattered heap. Atop what remained of it lay a shapeless white-and-crimson object.
Rowenna’s pulse quickened, and for a moment her breath refused to come.
“Is that your swan?” she finally managed to get out.
Without answering, Mairead stepped forward. When she set a hand on the white shape, the once-elegant head and neck of the swan lolled over her broken ward. The creature’s breast feathers were sodden with gore, for it had been torn apart, its rib cage split and all the soft and vital pieces inside stolen, so that it was no more than an empty husk. No more than the twisted idea of a bird, rather than the thing itself.
“What did this, Màthair?”
She comes, she comes, she comes, the wind sang desperately to Rowenna, as unreasoning fear woke inside the girl.
“I won’t speak the name of the thing that’s done this. Not here, not tonight,” Rowenna’s mother said with a tense shake of her head. “But I mustn’t leave the bird, not when it would have offered me blood to keep us safe. I must at least give it back to the sea.”
Mairead glanced at Rowenna, and the girl’s chest ached with fierce devotion, and with familiar hunger and longing.
“I think I’ve been wrong, to keep you in the dark,” Mairead said slowly. “And I think you’re ready. You are who you are, and there’s no changing that. We’ll work together from now on, my saltwater girl. Just as soon as we get through this night.”
When she pressed a kiss to Rowenna’s forehead, it felt like a benediction. Like a new beginning. Like the moment Rowenna had waited for all her life.
Mairead bundled up the broken swan and carried it to the edge of the cliff. There she lingered, murmuring something to the lifeless bird, but her voice was stolen by the wind. Toeing blank space with the breakers pounding endlessly against the shore below, she let the dead swan slip from her arms. There was a flash of white, and the darkness and the distance swallowed the creature up.
At last Mairead turned back to her daughter, and to the blur of the Highlands, shrouded in stinging rain. She reached out, and for the briefest, tantalizing instant, her fingers brushed warm against Rowenna’s own.
In spite of the storm, Rowenna smiled, overcome by a surge of pure relief. Things would be better now that they’d come to an understanding. Mairead smiled back, and Rowenna’s fear quieted.
Then, with a strangled cry, Mairead was torn away as something reached out of the darkness and dragged her down the wet and treacherous track of the burn.