Blog | Author's Blog | Published 22 April 2021
The Ó Griohtha
I want it known up front that, in many ways, I am still very proud of my family.
The Ó Griohtha is one of the oldest families to come over from Eire to what you would call the Americas. Following a dream, our founding father, Bran Ó Griohtha, fled the Sìdhe Wars for the shores of this fair and bountiful land back when there were still scarcely more than Norseman steadings dotting the northeastern coastline. He and two of his sons were Druids and powerful enchanters.
That legacy has stayed with us through the centuries. We’ve made some of the greatest breakthroughs in mirror enchantments, and our mirrors retain their potency long after others have lost their luster. If there is a mirror in your household that, after generations, still shows you true visions, still relays clear messages, still takes you to your destination without incident, look at the seal on the back. Likely you will see a griffin bearing a yew branch and a hand mirror.
In addition to being heirs to strong magic, our family has also been a pillar of society since time immemorial. Sanctuary, the capitol of the Wabanaki Province, is centered on our family estate. Our Druids have provided council to chiefs and lords for generations. We founded the first Druidic university on this continent and we consider it our duty to send our brightest to teach and spread our knowledge amongst those willing to learn. It should also be said that, while we have made our not inconsiderable fortune by manufacturing enchanted mirrors for all purposes, we take pride in making our wares affordable for all, not just the privileged or wealthy.
For decades the Ó Griohtha have advocated for better treatment of the Nulls in our societies and have striven to improve relations between Nulls and Gifted.
That said, there is no other body of people I fear more.
Clearly, you can see how much power and influence my family wields. And with their specialty being mirrors, is it any wonder that I am terrified to breathe a word of who I am?
But I forget. You don’t know the significance of mirrors.
Let me put it like this. Mirrors are to us what the microchip is to you. The microchip makes possible your phones and computers, your televisions and satellites, your planes and cars. From what I read, practically every piece of machinery you use has some kind of microchip in it.
Mirrors are almost as universal here. We use them to travel, to communicate, and sometimes to look forward or backward through time. There are mirrors to deceive and mirrors to reveal the truth, mirrors to find things and mirrors to hide them. Mirrors are everywhere and on practically every person, and no one knows mirrors better than my family.
Even if some of those mirrors don’t bear the Ó Griohtha’s seal, our scryers can still tap into them. Our enchanters are terribly skilled. Under the right circumstances, they can tap into almost any reflective surface, such as still water or shiny metals.
I wish I’d had the opportunity to pick up a few of those skills. It’s one thing to have an academic knowledge of a concept. It’s another to know how to put that concept into practice—and if there’s one thing that is forbidden it’s allowing a Conduit to practice active magic.
On the shiny side, at least I received a formal education. That is exceedingly rare for a Conduit in Ten A. In my family, though we are treated better than other families treat theirs, we Conduits are not usually allowed any education. It’s reckoned a waste of effort and time, possibly even dangerous. Conduits are viewed as dim. To use one of your terms, you might think of us as mentally challenged.
We’re not, of course. It’s just that we… I don’t know how to really explain it. I like to think of it like this: we experience the world more fully than either the Gifted or the Nulls, and it’s… Well, I guess you could say we have more to distract us.
And I suppose we also come off a little crazy. Some of us can’t bear to be touched and will shy away if you get too close, sometimes even lashing out violently. Others wear a perpetually glazed and distant expression, tracking something in motion with their gaze that is invisible to everyone else. I myself have been thought to be hard of hearing, and I get caught humming along to music that doesn’t exist for anyone else.
When I was young, I used to try to explain that the music was real, that maybe they should try to listen more carefully, but that only earned me oblique glances and placating smiles and so I gave up trying to make any of them understand.
You see, the Gifted use magic to perform tasks daily. They can perceive it around them and can feel its lack, but not like we Conduits can. A Gifted’s sense of magic is vague and imprecise at best. If you equate magic with scent, then you could say that a Gifted’s sense of smell is as weak as a human’s, unable to detect anything but the most overt smells. A Conduit has the nose of a bloodhound, able to pick up the subtlest distinctions and faintest traces of scent.
And for some Conduits, magic is literally a scent, telling them if a spell is nefarious or benevolent, who created the spell, what mood the caster of the spell was in, how long ago that spell was cast, and if it was well wrought or bungled. I can tell all those things and more, only for me magic is perceived as sound, as music.
I think that has to be my earliest memory: listening to my Aunt Galina’s magic, which was like gentle piano accompanied by deep mellow drums and her voice, her magic’s voice, was a clear soothing alto.
I was having a nightmare, something to do with being chased by a massive green dog. I woke up crying and Auntie Lina was there. She picked me up and rocked me, cooing in my ear that everything was all right and I was safe. I remember being more comforted by her music than her words, because the music never lied and if her music was calm and safe then I must be too if I was in her arms. Auntie Lina used to make me feel better just by being near. That effect on me was probably one reason she was made my caretaker.
The Conduits in my family are not raised by their parents. To our chieftains, the heads of our family’s three branches, that would be like handing a delicate and extremely valuable instrument to a thoughtless child. Instead, we are given to caretakers, whose duty it is to see to our every need and to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves or anyone else.
Aunt Galina married into the Ó Griohtha clan from a prominent Rus family here on a diplomatic mission. Though she was not of the blood, my family thought she was a suitable match for me because she was steady and patient, traits that were essential in someone set to the task of watching over an excitable, “dim,” and sometimes unreasonable Conduit. Her magic was strong in earth with just the right touch of water, making her well grounded and in tune with others’ moods and needs.
Anyone who looked into her comfortably plump features and her large brown eyes could tell she was a kind soul, warm and compassionate. One might say she was a natural mother if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate fact that she was barren. I think more than anything it was her inability to conceive that convinced the family Aunt Galina was meant to be the caretaker of one of their precious Conduits.
I thank whatever god, goddess, or spirit that sent me to Auntie Lina and not someone like Aunt Ceridwen. That’s Awnt Ceridwen, by the way, not Ant Ceridwen, and certainly never Auntie Ceri. I tried calling her that once. My cheek bore her handprint until the next day.
Aunt Ceridwen is the caretaker to my cousin Shania. If ever there was a more ill matched pair I haven’t come across it. Shania was a sweet, gentle little girl who loved puppies and kittens and colts. Aunt Ceridwen was curt, severe, and completely unsympathetic, her thin horsy face always set with stern lines when it wasn’t pinched like she’d just bitten into a lemon. She browbeat poor Shania relentlessly throughout our childhood for the slightest provocations, most of which I never understood.
I remember the first time I realized how lucky I was to have the caretaker I did, when I was eight or nine.
I was sitting on the lawn at Auntie Lina’s feet, teasing a kitten with a ball of yarn out of her basket while she knitted. We were in the Rose Garden, so named for the masses of rose bushes studded with blooms of every hue. The roses lined the white gravel paths and clustered in colorful islands surrounding the central fountain.
It was a gorgeous spring day and the perfume of roses was almost as heady as the music of the sun and flowers and people and the light breeze playing over me. It was the place our caretakers liked to use for our exercises when the weather was nice because it was situated directly over one of the largest ley lines running through our estate. Ley lines are basically rivers of magical energy that crisscross the earth in something of a helter-skelter web. Where they cross are nodes, and where three or more lines intersect, you have a nexus. Nodes and nexi are centers of immense power, and that’s why most large cities and inter-world portals such as stone circles or the great traveling mirrors are situated over them. Unfortunately, the Gifted can’t make use of these power sources away from the lines or nodes themselves, and that is where we Conduits come in.
Conduits can draw upon magic wherever we are, even from ley lines miles away. With the aid of certain enchantments, the Gifted can draw that magic through us for their own purposes, again just like you would use a familiar. How much and how fast they can draw that magic depends upon the Conduit’s scope and range.
Mostly these factors are predicated by our genetics, our breeding. The more Conduits in our ancestry and the more crosses between Conduits, the broader our scope and the greater our range. The other thing that helps to determine our ability is conditioning. Up until our mid-to-late teens, our channels are still developing. With careful training and conditioning, those channels can be expanded beyond what they would be if left to their natural inclination. The more efficiently we are able to channel magic to the Gifted, the easier it is on our minds and bodies, improving the quality and length of our lives. That is why our caretakers spend so much time and energy expanding and conditioning us from the earliest age.
Thus the Rose Garden.
Auntie Lina and I had been there most of the morning. She’d already knitted one bright yellow bootie for my newest Conduit cousin, Sabrina, born only a week past, and was working on the second. I was done with my stretching exercises for the day so I was left to hum along with the kitten’s music of mews and purring in peace, but several of my cousins were there still working with their caretakers, including Shania and Aunt Ceridwen.
“Again,” Aunt Ceridwen ordered tersely.
They were sitting at the small table situated on the other side of the pea gravel path from me, and I didn’t need to look up from playing with the kitten to know that she wore her stone face. I could hear it in her music, which was full of harsh cellos and a relentlessly throbbing bass drum. The voice of her magic was guttural and grating on my ears. I tried to tune it out by focusing on the other music around me, but it was hard and I winced every time she snapped at Shania. A Gifted or Conduit’s magic is closely tied to their emotional state, and the sound of her temper flaring scratched at my ears.
“It’s too bright, Aun’ Cer-wen,” Shania said, and hearing the discomfort in her voice and discordant twang of her music, I couldn’t help but glance over at her. She was rubbing at her eyes with her little fists and tears were streaming over her chubby baby cheeks. Shania saw magic like I could hear it.
I cringed in sympathy for her. I remember the first time Auntie Lina brought me to the Rose Garden. I was about the same age as Shania, maybe a little younger. Until that point, Auntie Lina had been careful to avoid taking me near any of the lines, and especially the main nexus, to avoid over-stimulating me until I was older and could bear it. That first time, the music was so loud I thought my head would shatter. My ears wouldn’t stop ringing for days and everything sounded dull and garbled. Withstanding all that power got easier with practice, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have all that happening to my eyes.
Of course, Aunt Ceridwen didn’t know about any of that, and even if she did, I don’t think she would care.
“Nonsense,” she told Shania from where she sat perfectly upright in her straight-backed chair, her hands folded neatly in her lap, right index finger tapping at a ring on her left hand. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the lighting here. Stop your complaining and try again.”
Shania gulped back a sob and lowered her hands by slow painful degrees until she could squint over her knuckles, her eyes blinking furiously. “It’s burning my eyes, Aun’ Cer-wen. Please, can we stop?” I could barely make out her words through her tears, and her hands were pressed to her mouth.
“No. We still have three more draws to do. If you insist on this whining, I will be forced to check you. Do you want that, Shania?” The finger tapping the ring stilled on the garnet set in the center and I held my breath. The rings of the Gifted were enchanted to create links to the necklaces we Conduits wore, chains of silver dripping with talismans and charms. It enabled them to draw magic through us from a distance. It also enabled other things, such as the delivery of varying degrees of sharp shocks when our caretakers decided to chastise us for something. They call it checking.
Shania hunched her shoulders, trying to shrink in on herself as she shook her head, the harp and violin in her music sounding out with high quivering notes.
Aunt Ceridwen nodded, once down and once up, never a wasted motion. “Good. Again,” she said, and she reached out to touch a toy, a brightly painted wooden top, resting on the table next to her. She set it up and started it spinning. At the same moment, Shania gave a whimper and wrapped her arms around her thin chest.
I wasn’t paying any attention to the kitten now. All of my focus was on poor Shania. As she began to rock on her chair and her whimpers grew into stifled cries, I rubbed at my sternum.
Mostly we Conduits experience magic through one of the five senses, but even for those of us who share the same sense, the experience is different. But to say one of the senses is the only way we experience magic would be misleading. Though I hear music as the first and foremost way I relate to magic, I can also feel it as a sensation, see it, or smell it to some minor degree.
In this case, magic had a feel, or more accurately, the movement of magic had a feel. When a Gifted draws magic through us while our channels are still tender and stretching, it’s as though the magic is made up of coarse hemp strands and it’s being pulled in through our skin and senses to be twisted into a thick cable that is then drawn out a raw and abraded hole in our chest. Until the edges of that hole are deadened by persistent conditioning, building up a kind of callus, the magic passing through is very painful and my chest burned in sympathy for Shania.
Only when Shania began to keen did Aunt Ceridwen let the top wobble to a halt. “You must make some effort to stifle that noise, Shania,” Aunt Ceridwen told her young charge as she brushed an errant strand of iron gray hair away from her face. “It is unbecoming in a Conduit of the Ó Griohtha. Be silent this time or be checked. Again.”
I couldn’t watch anymore. “Make her stop, Auntie Lina,” I said, turning to her and clenching my fists in her skirt. “Make Aunt Ceridwen leave Shania alone. She’s just a baby.”
Auntie Lina shook her head, her eyes on her knitting. “It’s not our place to interfere, Danny,” she told me, and the tone of her voice matched her words; but the concerned frown, the way her needles stabbed into her knitting, and the anxious jangle of high-pitched piano keys spoke differently as Shania began to keen again.
My cousin’s sharp cry spun me around in time to see Shania fall out of her chair to the ground where she curled herself into a tight little ball, hands clutching at her neck and the silver necklace collaring her.
I shot to my feet, not caring where anyone thought my place should be, and flung myself down at Shania’s side. Curling over and around my little cousin’s shivering form, willing the power of the line to bend fractionally around us in the frantic wish to ease some of her pain, I glared up at Aunt Ceridwen through the tears that had sprung to my eyes.
“Stop it, Aunt Ceridwen! It’s not her fault she’s crying. She’s little and you’re pushing her too hard. It hurts!”
The last words weren’t out of my mouth before Aunt Ceridwen stood up and grabbed my upper arm hard, hauling me to my feet and away from Shania. She took two lunging steps that I had to hop to keep up with before she shoved me toward Auntie Lina, saying, “Really, Galina, keep better control of your charge or I will have you up before the chieftains for negligence and interference.”
Auntie Lina pulled me against and a little behind her as she faced the other woman. “I think family chieftains might consider causing our solnyshko some injury by being too aggressive with her training to be even more negligent on your part, Ceridwen. My Danny makes a good point, da? The child’s first gen and is not five years old. This is her first time in garden. Maybe you’ve pushed her far enough for one day.”
Her Rus accent, always present but normally so faint I didn’t pay any attention to it, had gotten thick, and she almost never said anything in her mother tongue. Now she’d said two words in the same breath. I needed no further sign Auntie Lina was upset.
“And perhaps you should see to your own charge’s training instead of interfering with how others carry out their duty,” Aunt Ceridwen told Auntie Lina, her pale gray eyes flat and hard as granite. “You’re a disgrace to the family, Galina. That Conduit could possibly reach farther and channel more magic than all our other Conduits combined, but rather than driving your charge to her fullest potential, you caudle and spoil her. Of all our Conduits, this one should never have been placed in your keeping.”
Auntie Lina gave my shoulders a tight squeeze and drew herself up to her full five foot three inch height. She lifted her chin to meet the taller caretaker’s gaze and held it as the drums of her music gave a thunderous roll of warning. “But Danika vos given into my keeping. Clearly, the chieftains felt she would be better served by hands that know how to properly nurture talent rather than crush it by overreaching. The only reason you vere given charge at all was because there vos no one else available.”
Aunt Ceridwen’s eyes flashed once, as though a steel blade had been struck against the granite of her gaze, then her expression turned opaque and her stance very still. The tone of the cello in her music dropped dangerously low while the voice of her magic began to murmur a slow steady chant, and I drew in a sharp breath, clutching at Auntie Lina’s skirts.
When the voice of a Gifted’s music became more distinct and started to chant, it meant they were drawing in their focus to craft some kind of working. In this case, probably a hex aimed at Auntie Lina.
Auntie Lina’s eyes flicked down at me, then narrowed at Aunt Ceridwen, her mouth set in an uncharacteristically firm line. I felt the earth ripple slightly beneath my feet even as I heard her magic’s voice rise above the rolling drums in words I couldn’t quite make out though I strained to understand them.
The building pressure from the two caretakers’ mounting focus and magic pressed against my skin and filled my head with rumbling, murmuring fury until I thought my eardrums would burst. Behind Aunt Ceridwen, Shania had curled onto her side, her back to the two older women, her face buried in her arms. Around the garden, the four other Conduits showed signs of distress. Their caretakers were trying to soothe them, but the cacophony of an entire symphony out of tune and in disarray said they were not very successful. Combined with the constant din of the line, the overwhelming noise of it all had me covering my ears and trying to burrow my way into Auntie Lina’s side.
Just as I thought Aunt Ceridwen was about to strike and a scream began forcing its way past my teeth, Uncle Bly came stomping up the gravel path to stand between the two women. “That’s enough, both of you!” he barked.
Uncle Bly was Evlin’s caretaker. He was in his middle years at the time, with thinning mousy brown hair, crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, and half-moon spectacles perched on his nose. Though he was a lanky man, taller than Auntie Lina but not quite as tall as Aunt Ceridwen, his relatively sparse stature detracted not at all from his bearing of authority. His barked command stopped both women in their tracks, the sound of his bugle and bagpipes silencing the drums and cellos as though they’d never been.
Glaring back and forth between Aunt Ceridwen and Auntie Lina over his glasses, he jabbed a finger at Aunt Ceridwen, growling, “You have the brains of a gnat, starting this fracas here in the garden, and in front of six of our Conduits, no less.”
Aunt Ceridwen was taking this rebuke as well as you might imagine. Her spine snapped willow-wand straight and she glared right back at Uncle Bly down her long horsy nose, her skin going pale as a winding sheet. Her pinched bitter mouth opened, but Uncle Bly charged on through whatever retort she was about to make.
“I catch you slinging hexes at anyone in this family again, least of all my wife, Ceridwen O’Doyle, I’ll shove you so hard your arse’ll land in the next world over. I won’t worry about what the chieftains have to say about it till after the fact.”
If her face had been pale before, except for twin patches of washed-out pink high on each cheekbone, she was the color of a three-day-old corpse left out in the snow now. I’d never seen Aunt Ceridwen so mad before, and I didn’t think it was the threat that made her furious. Uncle Bly had called her O’Doyle right there in front of six Conduits and, more importantly, in front of five of her fellow Gifted.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing shameful about being from the O’Doyle branch of our family, unless you’re a magic snob who is as conceited as Aunt Ceridwen.
You see, the O’Ryan and the O’Connor branches of the family descend from Bran’s two Gifted sons, and both branches are strong with magic users, but the O’Doyle side comes down from his Null son and produces most of the Nulls in our family. To someone like Aunt Ceridwen, admitting she came from an unbroken line of Nulls on her father’s side and her talents were the result of a throwback on her mother’s, who weren’t Ó Griohtha, is right up there with admitting to eating the hearts of newborn infants and dancing in their blood under the new moon. It’s. Just. Not. Done.
Aunt Ceridwen’s mouth screwed shut so tight her chin wrinkled and her eyes became glittering black slits. Not saying a word, she pivoted on one heel, strode over, picked Shania up roughly under the arms, and marched through the arbor leading out of the Rose Garden, the angry sound of grinding gravel loud in the silence following Uncle Bly’s last words.
With Aunt Ceridwen gone, it felt as though a thunderstorm had been averted and everyone left in the garden visibly relaxed and looked at each other with relieved sighs. Everyone except Uncle Bly. He was still glaring at Auntie Lina.
“Have you cracked your mirror, Lina? What possessed you to antagonize that hag?” he demanded, stepping closer to keep from being overheard by anyone other than his wife and me, though he probably didn’t even remember I was there. Most of the family paid us no mind unless they needed a draw or we made some kind of fuss. They thought we didn’t have the wits or the attention span to grasp anything they were talking about. Their lowly opinion did not matter to me because I could catch all the interesting things no one would tell me directly if I asked.
“You saw how she was handling Shania,” Auntie Lina retorted in a low hiss, refusing to back down, her color still high. “She is going to break that child if someone doesn’t step in and do something. And then she goes and puts her hands on my Danny…”
Uncle Bly slashed the air between them with a rigid hand and shook his head. “If Danika had minded her place, Ceridwen would never have taken notice of her, let alone grabbed her. Just as you should know to mind your own charge and leave others to theirs, Lina. We’ve been over this ten and ninety times.”
“Da, and ve vill go over it ten and ninety-one times if ve must. Bly, Shania is going to turn out just like Deirdre if Ceridwen isn’t made to ease up.”
“You and I both know that isn’t why Deirdre is the way she is,” Bly shot back quickly, arms crossed over his chest.
“But moya lyubovʹ, results vill be the same,” Auntie Lina insisted. “Shania’s only first gen…”
“And Danika’s heredity stretches the length of my arm.”
Auntie Lina sucked in a breath at that. “Vot is that supposed to mean?”
“It means the chieftains might not be talking to Ceridwen alone regarding training technique. It’s not even eleven o’clock in the morning and you’ve finished your stretches? Does Danika look at all tired to you?”
Bridling, Auntie Lina thrust out her chin. “Danny’s capacity is already three times that of Evlin’s, and this morning she managed to reach bluffs. Evy has the second best bloodline and seven years on Danny.”
“What other Conduits can or cannot do has no bearing on Danika’s abilities. You need to be training her to exceed her own limitations, not anyone else’s.”
“I know vot I’m doing, Bly,” Auntie Lina told him with a cool look, hugging me to her a little more tightly. “My family has always had best results vith our Conduits.”
Uncle Bly removed his glasses to rub at the crease between his brows with his thumb as he sighed. Then he spread the fingers of his raised hand in capitulation and said, “No one disputes the quality of your family, Lina, least of all me. I’m just reminding you that the heads of this family come from a different school of thought. Keep that in mind when you start in on them about Ceridwen’s approach with Shania.”
“Thank you, I vill,” Auntie Lina said, the lingering chill clipping her words short. “Is that all?”
Uncle Bly gave her a small frown as he polished his glasses before putting them back on. Giving his head one more shake, he reached out to cup one side of her face and kissed the other cheek. “I’ll see you later tonight. If you like, we can talk about this again over dinner.”
Auntie Lina’s stiff shoulders eased and she placed her hand over his where it rested against the side of her face. She kissed his palm. “And make number ten and ninety-two? No. But I look forward to dinner. Come along, Danny,” she said, and she took me by the hand.
The walk back to our quarters was a silent one. As we passed under the old sprawling trees casting dappled spring sunlight over the flagstone paths, Auntie Lina seemed taken with her own thoughts and I was sunk in mine. I didn’t even pay attention to the music of the woods and sky around me. I was too worried over a question that had occurred to me as I listened to Uncle Bly and Auntie Lina.
What happened when the chieftains were unhappy with how a caretaker handled a Conduit’s training? They were the ones who decided who got to be caretakers and which caretaker was paired up with which Conduit. That much I did know. But did they ever change their mind and put the Conduit with someone else if they didn’t like what the caretaker was doing? Uncle Bly seemed to agree with Aunt Ceridwen, at least in a roundabout way, and she didn’t think Auntie Lina was doing a very good job with me. Did the other caretakers, and maybe the chieftains, agree with him? If they did, what would that mean?
It wasn’t like I thought all the other caretakers were as bad as Aunt Ceridwen. They seemed nice enough, like Uncle Bly was with Evlin, but Auntie Lina was special. She listened to me and really cared about what I said and how I felt. She also talked to me as though I were a person, and that was a step up from even the other children in our family. Adults talked down to them because they were just kids, which was how the other caretakers talked to the Conduits even as adults.
And I didn’t like that Auntie Lina and Uncle Bly were fighting. They were as good as parents to me, and the idea that I might be causing trouble for them made my gut twist up in knots. I didn’t know which was worse: the thought of being given over to another caretaker or being responsible for driving a wedge between my aunt and uncle.
Our quarters were just around the bend in the trail and we were almost to the fork that led to the Labyrinth. My questions had crowded up behind my teeth and I thought I’d burst if I didn’t ask at least one of them.
“Auntie Lina,” I began slowly, bumping our entwined fingers against her hip out of nervous fidgeting. “Are you really mad at Uncle Bly?”
Auntie Lina blinked her warm brown eyes down at me as her distant gaze pulled back to the moment. Tucking her short black hair behind one ear, she gave me a lopsided smile and waggled our joined hands a little. “No, ve vere simply having disagreement. It might have looked like ve vere angry at each other, but really ve vere just unhappy vith our situation. Does that make any sense?”
I nodded, but I knew that the situation they were talking about was me, which meant I was still the reason they were unhappy. On the bright side, if I was the problem, then I could probably do something to make things better. Uncle Bly seemed to be saying he thought I wasn’t really trying in my exercises, and he apparently thought, just because I was better than the other Conduits, that ’didn’t mean I was good enough. I could work harder though, and if I tried hard enough maybe everyone would think Auntie Lina was a better caretaker and they wouldn’t take me away and she and Uncle Bly wouldn’t have anything to fight about.
Bending down a little as we walked so she could have a better look at my face, she gave me a real smile and waggled our hands again. “Vy do you frown moya zvezda?”
Having a plan to fix things made me feel much better, and so I squared my shoulders and gave her my bravest smile. “It’s alright, Auntie Lina. I’ll do better in my stretches and then Uncle Bly or anyone else won’t have any reason to be mad.”
“Oh Danny,” Auntie Lina said with a laugh, and she dropped my hand to give me a one-armed hug. “You could be perfect and people vill still find reason to be mad. Some are only happy ven they have something to argue about. You are not to vorry yourself about this. You’re doing splendid in your stretches, my dear. Didn’t you reach bluffs today?”
“Uh-huh. I heard waves and sea gulls,” I said. I was very proud of myself because the ocean was miles and miles to the east and the farthest I’d ever been able to reach. My accomplishment seemed to make Auntie Lina happy, but now I was frowning again at the thought that I would never make some people happy no matter how hard I worked. But maybe Auntie Lina was talking only about people like Aunt Ceridwen. I could believe she was the kind who was only happy when she was mad. I was really hoping the chieftains were easier to please.
“And you’re only eight years old. Do you know your mother vos almost thirteen before she could reach so far? And she had best heredity of her generation. You’re progressing by leaps and bounds, Danny. Don’t vorry about vot any others are saying.”
I wasn’t worried about what they might say but what they might do. Auntie Lina was very nice and always wanted what was best for me, but this time I thought I knew what I should do and so I resolved that, starting the next time we went to the Rose Garden, I was really going to start pushing myself.
I was thinking that I might even want to start stretching when we weren’t in the garden when Auntie Lina said, “Speaking of your progress, I noticed vot you did for Shania, shielding her from the line. That was very good. Do you know how you did it?”
I looked up at Auntie Lina in surprise. I didn’t think anyone had noticed, what with everything else going on, and I’d almost forgotten myself. “I don’t know. I wanted to give Shania a rest. Her eyes were really hurting her.” Shrugging as I ran out of words, I finished lamely. “I just did it, I guess.”
Auntie Lina nodded in understanding. “Instinctive magic is very difficult to put into vords, I know. Vould you say it vos like you made bubble around yourself to keep line out?”
I tried to remember more clearly what it had been like and decided that, yes, it had been like a bubble but made of something stronger than a soap bubble. More like a glass ball. The magic of the line had rippled around it like water moving around a boulder in its path. “I guess so,” I agreed.
“And how long do you think you could keep bubble from bursting, do you think?” she asked.
I looked up at her and felt my brows creep up under the fringe of my bangs. “Oh, Auntie Lina, I don’t know. It’s a big line.”
“It is, isn’t it? Do you think you could make the bubble again?”
“Maybe, if I wanted to bad enough,” I said with another shrug, losing interest in the topic. We’d rounded the bend and the front door of our rooms came into view along with the sculpted-to-look-natural gardens that surrounded the large single story building. The music of the creek that ran past my rooms sounded chipper as its waters sparkled in the late morning sun, and I hummed along with its brisk little ditty.
“Can I ask you another question?” Auntie Lina said, taking my hand again and giving it a light squeeze as she slowed our pace.
Watching the little birds flit from branch to branch above me, I gave her a distracted nod. I really wished I could fly. I wondered what the sun and wind’s song would sound like if it were all around me instead of only rushing past me.
“You knew ven Aunt Ceridwen started crafting her hex, didn’t you? Danny?”
“Hmm?” I murmured, bringing my thoughts down out of the clouds and looking up at her. “Oh. Yes.”
“How did you know?”
I sighed and dropped my gaze to the path, kicking a pebble to send it skittering ahead. This was going to be one of those times I’d get a placating smile or an indulgent pat on the head. Auntie Lina wasn’t as obvious about it, but I could tell she really didn’t believe or understand it when I tried to explain the music of magic. Still, she always answered my questions seriously and honestly and so I thought I’d better do the same. “The voice of her magic started to chant,” I told her.
“Ah,” Auntie Lina said as she reached out to open the waist-high gate that led into the gardens. She was quiet a moment, then she asked, “And does someone’s magic voice not usually include vords?”
I looked up at her through my bangs, not sure she was really believing me or just humoring me. Sometimes the non-Conduits did that. “No, just when they’re concentrating on their casting.”
“Do you understand these voices ven they’re saying vords?”
I shook my head.
“That’s too bad,” Auntie Lina said. “I should think it vould be useful to know vot spell they vere about cast before they cast it. So, vot vould you like for lunch?”
I’d been reaching to open the door to our rooms, but her question brought me up short and I looked back at her. “But I’m supposed to have lunch at the stables with Aunt Moira and the stable kids today.”
Auntie Lina gave me her stern look, the one where she stands up all straight and proper, one eyebrow arched higher than the other. “That vos before you ignored me and started trouble vith Ceridwen.”
“But Stardust is supposed to have her foal today!” I cried, horrified that I might miss that. I’d been waiting for it for months.
“I guess you should have thought of that before you did vot I told you not to then,” Auntie Lina said as she reached over my shoulder, opened the door, and ushered me inside.
The room we entered was spacious, lit by banks of wide windows in the walls behind and facing us and by a skylight taking up nearly an entire side of the sloped roof. The wood floors were covered with colorful braided rugs, and the walls held fanciful tapestries. The couch and chairs by the fireplace were comfortably overstuffed, and a table with two straight-backed chairs sat next to the sink. A wood-burning cook stove squatted against the left wall beside the door leading to Uncle Bly and Auntie Lina’s room.
On the other side of the room, the cold chest stood next to the door that opened onto the pantry. Across the main room, to the right of the door leading to my room, was the closet, and on the left the fireplace. Everything from the rugs to the furniture had a slightly shabby and worn look, but everything was clean and well tended. The wood smelled of polish, the cook range was free of ash, and the windowpanes were practically invisible, without any streaks or smudges to give them away.
Spinning around, I glared accusingly up at Auntie Lina as she closed the door behind us. “But that’s not fair!” I wailed. To my huge embarrassment, my eyes had started to burn and my vision to go watery. I balled my hands into fists at my sides and sniffed, determined not to cry. “You thought Aunt Ceridwen should’ve stopped hurting Shania too!”
Auntie Lina nodded as she briskly walked to the cold chest and started rummaging through it for lunch fare. “Da, but that doesn’t change fact that ve are not allowed to interfere vith the others’ training just because ve disagree with how they go about it. The chieftains vill be speaking to me about my behavior too, you know. Believe me, I think I vould rather be in your shoes,” she said with a wry smile in my direction as she carried the bacon, tomato, and lettuce she’d gotten from the cold chest to the island chopping block that sat before the stove.
Reaching up to the rack above the island, she pulled a frying pan down. Then she took a knife from one of the draws under the cutting block. “How about bacon sandvich?”
“I don’t want a bacon sandwich,” I said through gritted teeth, furious she could be so calm and casual about the whole thing when it was clearly upsetting to me. So much for caring how I felt. “I want to have lunch with the stable kids and watch Stardust have her baby!”
Auntie Lina paused in slicing bread to give me her stern look again, the look that told me I was being unreasonable. Only it wasn’t me being unreasonable but Auntie Lina and the chieftains. I shouldn’t be in trouble for standing up for Shania. It wasn’t fair!
“Vell, you’re not going to the stables. I told you not to do something, vich you did anyway. So, vould you like sandvich or not?”
“No! I don’t want to have lunch with you!” I told Auntie Lina and sniffed again as two traitorous tears rolled down my hot cheeks.
Going back to slicing bread, Auntie Lina said dispassionately, “Then you’d better go to your room and start thinking about vy you’re there and not at stables.”
I whirled around and hurtled into my room, slammed the door shut, and flung myself face down onto my bed to cry. I had really wanted to see a baby horse being born.
I stayed with my face pressed into my pillow until the humiliating tears dried up. When I flipped onto my back, the smell of frying bacon hit me right in the gut. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t had anything to eat since early that morning. My stretches in the Rose Garden always left me with a big appetite, and the faint sound of sizzling made my mouth water. I swallowed hard. The only thing keeping me from going out there and asking for a sandwich was sheer stubbornness.
Rolling until I was sitting on the edge of my bed, I propped my elbows on my knees and dropped my chin into my hands. I looked around my room for something to take my mind off my growling stomach.
I liked my room. It had a lot of different shades of blue, from the curtains to the paint on the walls to the bed covers. I had a table where I could make crafts and draw. Shelves set back into the walls around my bed’s headboard held the books Auntie Lina read to me, along with paper, pencils, and other arts and crafts material. There was a door next to my bed that went to my very own bathroom, a wardrobe and chest of drawers for my clothes, and another chest for my toys at the foot of my bed. None of which interested me at all in my current wretchedness. So I looked outside.
A large skylight was directly above my bed, and most nights, bathed in the moon’s ever-changing light, I would watch the stars dance. The walls on either side of the door to the main room were mostly windows with low sills, but unlike the windows in the main room, mine had some panes filled with bits of colored glass arranged in the shapes of various plants and animals. When the sun hit them just right, glowing stags, oak leaves with acorns, griffins, and holly leaves with red berries would shimmer over the wood floor and rugs.
Because the building we Conduits and our caretakers were housed in was one big angular ring, the windows on the right of my bed looked out on the central quad and fountain. The windows on the left had a view of a shady creek that wound through the woods between our rooms and the Labyrinth. I could just see the tall dark green hedges through the trees. Some of my Conduit kin were returning from the Rose Garden, moving into the quad to take up their favorite places. But the Labyrinth was empty more often than not, and I liked wandering the winding paths and finding secret ponds, ornamental trees, or statues. It was a good place to think, and Auntie Lina’d said she wanted me to think about why I was being punished.
Sliding off my bed, I sidled up to my door and opened it enough to see Auntie Lina sitting at the table eating a sandwich and reading, her book propped up against a vase of flowers. On a plate at my end of the table was an untouched sandwich. My stomach cheered to see it, but I resolutely stiffened my spine and pressed my lips tightly together. I was still mad, and now I was also a little resentful that Auntie Lina assumed I’d just cave in eventually, making a sandwich for me even though I said I didn’t want one.
At the sound of my door opening, Auntie Lina looked up from her book to glance over at me. About to take another bite, she lowered the hand that held her sandwich instead and nodded to my place setting. “If you’re hungry, I made you one too,” she said.
It was like there was a magnet in my stomach and that sandwich sitting on the plate was a giant lump of iron. It took a mighty effort on my part, but I held on to the doorjamb and kept my feet from helplessly sliding across the floor to the table. “No thank you,” I told her with cool politeness. “I was just wondering if I could go play in the Labyrinth.”
“Have you thought anymore about vy you didn’t get to go to stables?” Auntie Lina asked.
“Because you told me not to bother Aunt Ceridwen and I did,” I said, picking at a small splinter in my door. I knew that’s why she was punishing me, and I knew I should not disobey her but I still didn’t think I was wrong to make Aunt Ceridwen stop hurting Shania. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I didn’t think Auntie Lina needed to know that, though, and I didn’t want her to guess. So I kept my eyes on the door or on my shuffling feet.
“Uh-huh,” Auntie Lina murmured, and I risked a peek at her. She’d taken another bite and was giving me a flat look over her sandwich. I had a sneaking suspicion she knew exactly what I was thinking. Swallowing, she dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and asked, “Vot are you going to do in Labyrinth?”
“Just wander around,” I told her.
“Do you vant me to go vith you? I’m almost finished.”
I shook my head.
Auntie Lina looked at the clock on the mantle over the hearth. “It’s after eleven thirty now. Please be back by one.”
“Thanks Auntie Lina,” I said with a gusty sigh of relief.
Running across the main room, I bolted out the front door before she could change her mind. I cut through the trees instead of following the path, and I only stopped running once I made it in through the entrance to the Labyrinth and took the first random turn.
Bent over my knees and panting, I looked back the way I had just come, grinning to see that the turn I’d taken was gone, replaced by neatly trimmed hedge. I’d learned through snatches of overheard conversations that other people were deeply unnerved by the shifting evergreen bushes. The way paths led them to new avenues one day and then ended in a blind cul-de-sac the next made them very nervous.
Even on the first day Auntie Lina brought me to the Labyrinth I was unafraid. I wasn’t even put off by the fact that, once inside the maze, the sky above the crisp edge of the hedge was the solid soft gray of overcast, no matter the season or time of day, preventing one from using the sun as a means of finding one’s bearings. Auntie Lina told me that the Labyrinth also thwarted any Gifted’s attempt to use guidance spells to find the maze’s center. She said it forced them to rely on their intuition.
I had heard that a lot of people seemed to have difficulties doing so without succumbing to panic, which was plain silly Auntie Lina’d commented once with a sniff. The Labyrinth was intended to help one think and to find answers within oneself, to face one’s inner fears, and to possibly aid one in accessing the Underworld, where nature dreamed and the great spirits dwelt. It wasn’t meant to entrap anyone, she claimed, and all one needed to do to leave the Labyrinth was to picture themselves walking out the way they had come in and say aloud the word release. The entrance would then appear.
I’d never been reduced to using what others called the emergency exit. I simply wandered the Labyrinth, letting it show me its secret corners and niches as it chose. When I wanted to leave, I listened to the music of the Labyrinth’s enchantments and let it guide me out. It gave me a wonderfully smug and superior feeling to know that I could do what most adults, Gifted and Null alike, couldn’t seem to, as did being there without my caretaker.
At the time, I thought her letting me come to the Labyrinth alone was a sign of my maturity and Auntie Lina’s trust. It would only be much later that I learned Auntie Lina never worried about knowing where I was since one of the amulets dangling from my collar allowed her to know exactly where I was and what condition I was in at all times. When I learned my freedom was an illusion, the realization stung something fierce. Just then, though, I was confident in my seeming independence, if still quite hungry.
Having caught my breath, I started for one of my favorite niches, and as I went I hummed along with the lilting melody of the Labyrinth. The music was all theme and variation, winding in and around and through, never ending but looping back into itself seamlessly. I let one of the variations guide me to the turn that would take me to the reflection pool. It wasn’t the path I’d taken on previous visits, but the song was the same. I’d had the notion to watch the fish and the water sprites, but that thought was driven out of my mind by a new sound floating to me from somewhere deeper in the maze.
It was the sound of children’s laughter and raised voices. All I ever heard previously was the music and the quiet rustling of the Labyrinth as it subtly shifted and adjusted its course. I’d heard people say voices or frightening noises came to them just before terrifying things appeared to chase them. I’d never had any inner fears manifest in the Labyrinth before—that would come later—and I’d never run into anyone else while wandering the grass-carpeted halls of the maze either. But I figured there was a first time for everything, and so I listened for where the laughter was coming from.
It wasn’t easy. Just as the sky above the Labyrinth was not the same sky outside of it, the maze also played havoc with sound and directionality. In the end, I resorted to listening to the music in my head rather than the noise I heard with my ears. It was my natural fallback in most cases anyway, but in that case I also figured that the Labyrinth knew where the children who were making these sounds were and so it couldn’t have been much different than when I listened for the entrance when I wanted to leave.
It also helped that the kids the laughter belonged to must have been up to some kind of spellwork. Whatever magic they were doing had catches in the melody and didn’t blend all that well with the maze’s tune, leading me to think it was a spell alien to the Labyrinth and one not well managed at that.
Following the tune through the winding green paths and wincing at the occasional sour note, I eventually came to the arbor that opened onto the blind end where Time was the concept meant to be contemplated. It was a largish “room,” at least as large as my bedroom, and square. In the center of the space was a sundial but not, I think, like the ones you’re used to in your world. This one was the size of a dinner plate and rotated with the sun—or the moon for that matter—around the central time-telling needle. The edge of this sundial was finely corrugated, the ridges and troughs fitted snugly into a much larger wheel. The wheel was made of pale oak and could have belonged to a massive carriage. It had eight spokes, each representing one of the eight sabbats: the equinoxes, solstices, and cross-quarters of the year. It stood upright, resting on a base and spinning slowly as the seasons of the year turned.
At least it was supposed to be upright and fixed to the sundial. The sundial stood lonely and apart. The wheel of the year and the base that supported it had been dragged away a small distance and now lay face up on the ground. There was a boy stretched out on top of it spread-eagle, holding on tightly to the spokes as the wheel spun much faster than it was ever intended to go.
Around it stood a boisterous group of children, nine other boys and five girls. Most of the kids were cheering or jeering the boy on the wheel. His face was the color of beets and he showed signs of losing his grip. One girl was different from the others though. She stood facing the wheel with her arms raised in a position of power and a fierce look of concentration on her face, beads of sweat dotting her furrowed brow.
I held back, leaning into the shade of the arbor to keep from being seen while I watched the battle of wills, for that was what was going on. The boy on the wheel was holding himself in place more with his will than with his hands, and the girl was spinning the wheel with the strength of her focus. There must have been a spell laid onto the wheel to allow for this game of wills since the two children playing didn’t look old enough to have reached puberty, which was when a Gifted’s abilities manifested. I didn’t think it was a well-crafted spell either.
Now that I was closer, I recognized the spell as close kin to the one placed on the wooden top our caretakers used in our beginner’s stretching exercises, but this one wasn’t as good. The spell’s song squeaked and squawked, stuttering and stammering as the wheel spun and spun and the boy tried to maintain his faltering grip. Finally, his fingers gave way and, with a loud exclamation, he shot off sideways, almost colliding with two of the spectators and rolling over the grass until the hedge wall of the Labyrinth brought him to a halt.
While some of the kids leapt to check on the boy, who seemed too dizzy to sit up right away, others went to congratulate the girl on her victory. The rest loudly argued over who would have a go next.
In all the noise and commotion, it took me a moment to realize one of the boys wasn’t joining in. He was sitting quietly on a bench close by on my left. He had a stack of books next to him and another open on his lap. He had black softly curling hair, which hung forward to obscure his face, but what skin I could see was fair. He was thin and short for his age, which I thought was probably around ten or eleven. An inch or more of exposed ankle and wrist hinted he wouldn’t stay that small much longer, as did the overlarge hands that held the book open, like the paws of a puppy who would grow up to be very big.
Looking at him, I could hear his music under that of the mangled spell, the noise of the other children and the Labyrinth’s song. Having singled out his song, I was instantly enthralled. That boy’s music was all layers and depth, rich sound and clever phrases. There were two dueling fiddles, a bodhrán, a set of lively panpipes, and a wicked-fast finger-picked guitar. The beat had my head nodding and foot bobbing as I sat down next to him on the bench without realizing I’d moved from my hiding place in the shadows. I hummed along with the melody, reveling in the complex beauty of the song and completely unable to focus on anything else around me, even the boy himself who had looked up from his book as I sank down on the bench beside him. I didn’t hear him right away when he spoke either, my mind lost in following the lovely music. It took him several tries before his physical voice penetrated my reverie.
“What are you humming?” he asked.
“Hmm?” I murmured in distraction, blinking into a pair of deep-set eyes that were the bright inquisitive black of a raven’s. He even tilted his head like those intelligent birds as he repeated his question again.
“You were humming something. What was it?”
“Oh… Ah,” I stumbled awkwardly in search of something to say that wouldn’t have him looking at me like the stable kids did, like I was crazy or dim. I didn’t want this boy who had such wonderful music to look at me that way too, though I had no idea who he was. But I couldn’t think of anything other than the truth. So I shrugged uncomfortably and looked down at my hands, which had knotted themselves in my lap. “I was humming along with your magic.”
“But I don’t have any magic yet,” said the boy, and I looked up to see his head cocked the other way now. “I’m not even sure I ever will have any. None of my brothers or my sister is Gifted, and my father and most of his brothers are Nulls too.”
“Oh no, you’re not going to be a Null,” I told him earnestly, shaking my head for emphasis. “Your magic’s music is very clear, very loud, even if you aren’t old enough to use it yet. You’ll be Gifted. I know it.”
“Oh,” said the boy, and neither his expression nor his tone told me what he thought of my assurance. I thought he would be excited to know he was going to be Gifted, or maybe relieved he wouldn’t be relegated to a menial and obscure life as a Null, but he only studied me quietly with his bright avian curiosity. Finally, he asked, “Do you always know if someone will grow up Gifted or Null?”
I had to think about that for a moment. Aside from my Conduit cousins, the only other children I knew were the stable kids, and they had all hit puberty before I started visiting the stables and kennels. “I don’t know,” I told him with another shrug. “You’re the only other kid my age I know who isn’t a Conduit.”
The boy nodded as though that was reasonable. He didn’t ask any more questions about magic or music, but neither did he act as though anything I’d said so far was odd. Instead, he held out his hand and said, “My name is Bran O’Doyle.” He said his name matter-of-factly, as though O’Doyle was a perfectly good name and nothing to be ashamed of.
That, combined with his calm steady regard, despite my weird behavior and even more unusual statements, gave me a bit more courage and I sat up a little straighter. I put my hand in his and shook it, smiling as I said, “I’m Danika, but everyone just calls me Danny.”
“It’s nice to meet you Danny,” he said, and the smile he gave me in return added a glint of mischief to his black eyes.
I’ve wondered many times in the years since what might have happened if I hadn’t made trouble with Aunt Ceridwen, if I went to the stables to watch Stardust have her baby instead of exploring the Labyrinth and meeting Bran. I even wonder from time to time if there is a world out there somewhere in which that Danny never met that Bran, and I wonder what happened to her. Did that Danny remain meek and compliant to her family’s wishes? I think she must have because, if I hadn’t met Bran on that day, I don’t think I would have ever considered freedom let alone dredged up the courage to turn yearning into reality.
But that would be a long time after that first meeting, and there were to be many trials and betrayals before I could taste freedom for the first time.