Chapter Three

Caer Aderyn

June, 1259

"De impietate artis magicae, quae patrocinio nititur spirituum malignorum." Father Marcus looked up from the book in his lap to measure the assembled boys with his pale-blue stare, which lingered on Aedan far longer than on any of the others, before he read on. "Porro adversus magicas artes, de quibus quosdam nimis infelices et nimis impios etiam gloriari libet, nonne ipsam publicam lucem testem citabo? Cur enim tam graviter ista plectuntur…"

Aedan's thoughts trailed off as the Cistercian's voice droned on, ponderously, and the heads around Aedan hastily bent over their wax tablets to scribble down the words.

Father Marcus's scriptorium was part of a very recently built abbey half a mile from Caer Aderyn. It was a building completely made of stone, housing eleven monks of the Cistercian order. The walls were lime-washed and full of utensils that still looked new and alien to Aedan – parchment, ink, quills, little brushes and small pieces of limestone, and tiny earthen pots looking almost like the ones where his mother had kept her herbs and ointments, but these were filled with colourful earth and other dyeing materials to make paint. On top shelves, there even stood several books, although the boys were not allowed to touch these.

Aedan couldn't say he cared. As far as letters and learning were concerned, he had completely given them up as a bad job. He had barely mastered the art of deciphering letters, let alone write them in a legible way, and being expected to learn Latin simply as he went along was downright impossible. True, Father Marcus had taken him aside several times in the first few weeks at Caer Aderyn, to give him extra lessons, teach him the letters and some basics of Latin, but by now, Aedan was supposed to pick up the rest along with the others. Aedan hated the mornings in Father Marcus's scriptorium; they made him feel slow and stupid. The afternoons were almost as bad – the other boys had their weapons training then, making Aedan feel useless. Iared's final decision on whether or not Aedan would be taught to wield a sword was still pending; for now, he had decreed Aedan's leg didn't permit it.

Rhys cast him furtive glances every now and then, trying to nudge him to write, but Aedan pretended not to see him. What was the point? By the time he had managed to laboriously pen down one word, the monk would already be on the next sentence. And Aedan didn't have a clue what he was talking about anyway.

A fly was buzzing around the open window of the scriptorium, and Aedan watched it circling into the room, past the scrolls and leather-bound books lined up along one of the walls, until it flew past Dylan's ear, swerving aside as he waved at it absent-mindedly while writing, until it landed on Aedan's desk. Inappropriately, he felt his heart give a leap as hunting instincts awakened and dispersed boredom. He put aside his stylus, taking aim with his cupped right hand to trap the insect.

"…quibus impellentibus aut faventibus se cecidisse plangit in culpam?" Aedan jerked up and stared at Father Marcus, who was towering over him and seemed to have directed the last sentence squarely at Aedan. The boy hastily jerked up his hand, pretending to scratch himself behind the ear. The quick motion startled the fly, which unhurriedly buzzed off into the sunshine.

Father Marcus was a large man, made even more impressive by his girth. His bald pate was surrounded by snow-white hair despite the fact he could not be much older than forty-five, forming a sort of natural tonsure. He wore the customary simple white habit of his order, with a rosary at his side and a large pewter cross hanging down to his ample belly. He was also one of the few monks at the abbey who spoke Rhyddian. The order had its origins in Rouvière, and most of the other monks were from that country.

"My dear boy, since you don't see fit to copy the words of the saintly Augustinus along with your classmates, I assume you already know them?"

Aedan groped at the last Latin word he dimly remembered Marcus saying, still reverberating in the scriptorium, and was infinitely relieved that it was one of the few he actually knew, allowing him to improvise. "It… was about guilt. The guilt of… of sinners, and their, er, wrongdoings before the Lord." This was always a good bet.

"What kind of sinners, specifically?" Marcus demanded.

Aedan saw that Rhys was moving his own tablet towards him slightly, and he was pointing emphatically at one word he had written. Aedan couldn't help but feel grateful at the attempt to help him, but it would have taken him too long to try and decipher the word.

Heartened by his apparent success in guessing at the nature of the text, Aedan hazarded another speculation. Marcus's teachings always revolved around the same few topics anyway, so he had perhaps a one in three chance. "Adulterers."

Father Marcus glared at him and spun to face Rhys. "Summarize the chapter so far," he told the older boy.

Rhys glanced down at his notes, laying both forearms across the lower part, and mumbled something.

"I didn't catch that," the monk said.

"I said I didn't understand it all," Rhys said in a slightly louder voice, not looking up from his tablet nor moving his arms off it. "I'm having trouble following Augustinus, magister. I… don't know what it was about."

Some of the other boys murmured, but Father Marcus cut them short.

"Dylan. Surely you can enlighten us all."

Dylan squirmed, uncharacteristically bashful at being singled out. Aedan shot him a glare, which the other boy couldn't see since he, as Rhys had done, was staring down at his notes. Unlike Rhys, however, he blurted out, "It was about the detestable crime of magic, magister."

Aedan nearly groaned, but caught himself just in time. So that was what they were at again.

Expectedly, Father Marcus turned to Aedan, and the other boys made themselves comfortable for what everyone knew would be a lengthy sermon. "My dear boy, I simply cannot believe you're resisting my every effort to take this mark of sin off you!" the Cistercian said in an incredulous tone. "The learned Dominicus Verus writes that the soul of someone who practices the abominable sin of magic is beyond redemption; why, I'm beginning to believe he is right! You are slow, you are truculent, and during all this time, you haven't given me any reason to believe that you are willing to repent!"

Aedan stared at his desk. They had been here before. He already knew he was in for a beating, and nothing he said had ever helped. In fact, most things he had retorted on occasions like this in the past had resulted in more blows than he would have got if he had kept his mouth shut.

Father Marcus had begun pacing back and forth between his lectern and Aedan's desk. "Until now, I have held firmly to the belief that anyone can be brought to see the truth and beauty of the ways of the Lord, and as God is my witness, I have never yet failed to lead a lost sheep back to His green pastures! But you, my boy…" He had come to stand next to Rhys and cast around as if for help, and his glance fell again on Rhys's tablet. This time, Rhys wasn't fast enough in covering up what he had written, and Father Marcus whipped it from his desk, disbelieving.

"If however a penitent sinner pours out cattle, especially if he admits to some magic…" he read. "Pours out cattle? You are hopeless, Rhys. And to translate it, however inadequately? For him?" He banged the tablet on Rhys's desk with such force that the wooden frame shattered. "And even lie to me? How do you dare! Has that boy bewitched you too?"

Rhys's nose almost touched his desk now, his ears as red as his hair, but Aedan's willingness to put up with Father Marcus's accusations had reached its limit. "I haven't bewitched anything in my life!" he shouted. "My mother hasn't even succeeded in teaching me to light a fire! And as for the learned Dominicus Verus, perhaps he got in the way of a working fire spell once since he hates our people so much, and he probably had it coming to him!"

The other boys had ceased all their under-their-breath chattering and stared at Aedan, completely dumbfounded by his audacity. Aedan realised he had gone too far, and for a fleeting moment, he considered apologizing. Or maybe bolting. But the next instant, he knew it wouldn't do him any good. No backing down now. He might just as well make it count. Unflinchingly, he returned the Cistercian's gaze.

For a few heartbeats, Father Marcus could only stare at him, red-faced, apparently lost for words. Then he said, in a quiet voice that was much more menacing than any amount of shouting, "The lesson is over. You – are staying." He took his cane from his desk and cast a glance at Rhys. "And you."

Aedan jerked his head up sharply. "Rhys hasn't done anything wrong!"

Rhys had found his voice again, or just enough of it to grind out, "Danno, just—shut—up."

Father Marcus advanced on Aedan with narrowed eyes. "So, you're acting noble now, are you? No, you're not fooling me. You are not slow. You are malicious. I am half-minded to ask your father to remove you from my school. But that is just what you are trying to do, aren't you? So here is where you'll stay. And if I can't teach the sin off you with the learned words of Augustinus, I'll beat it off you. Over your desk. And you as well. I will teach you not to lie to me."

Aedan sat on his favourite perch atop Tŵr Aderyn, on a patch of coarse grass that was somewhat easier on his aching backside than the bare stone elsewhere. He had climbed up here, despite having been warned never to do so (there was nothing like daring a boy to do something than to tell him not to do it), and unlike most times, his anger took a lot longer to cool today. Usually, the waves breaking against the foot of the hill had a soothing effect on him, as had watching the gulls and gannets wheeling and plummeting.

Today, nothing could take his mind off Father Marcus, off the most severe beating he had received yet, off the way Rhys had trudged, straddle-legged, to the training yard without one more glance at him, off the gut-wrenching feeling that life in Caer Aderyn was Hell.

The tears came unbidden, but even here, where nobody had ever found him, he wouldn't cry aloud. He sat doubled over, curled nearly into a ball, arms crossed over his stomach as he sobbed into his sleeves.

Rhys had been kind to him (until today), and so had Huw and most of the household, but all kindness always ground to a halt whenever Lady Elaine or Dylan were near. Elaine had been appalled at discovering that Iared had brought home a bastard son to challenge her own children, and Dylan had treated him with open hostility since the moment he had first set eyes upon him. The paint on the family tree in the window embrasure, where a fourth branch bearing Aedan's name and face had been added, hadn't even been dry yet when the two boys got into their first fistfight. Dylan was older than Aedan by six months, but smaller by a hand's width, and Aedan had made it plain that he could still beat the living daylights out of Dylan even with a crippled leg. Unsurprisingly, this discovery had done nothing to endear him to Dylan, or to Lady Elaine.

He sat up with a jerk when he heard somebody laughing.

Hastily, he wiped his grimy face on his even grimier sleeves, and looked around. Further down along the slope, clambering up the tumbled boulders, he saw his youngest brother and sister. Adenydd was reaching down behind her to help little Llywelyn draw himself up.

For an instant, Aedan thought of flight, but then he reminded himself that it would have been disgraceful to run away from small children. Maybe they'd just walk back and not bother him. Of course he had talked to them before, but usually only a few sentences over the evening meal, most often interrupted pointedly by their mother.

He could see Adenydd crouching down, little Llelo following suit, as if they were looking at something in a crag. Aedan turned his face away again, looking back over Gwylan Bay. The idea that this place wasn't quite as solitary as he had always thought it to be just served to make this day even worse. He watched a group of gannets again, circling above the spray of the sea, but the feeling was profoundly different now that he knew someone else was there and was likely to see him at any second.

Sure enough, a short while later, he heard Adenydd's voice shouting his name, a lot closer than he had expected. He forced himself to turn slowly and saw the two children clambering over rocks towards him, coming up the remnants of the old stone stairs that had led up inside the long-collapsed tower.

"What are you doing here?" Adenydd asked, squinting against the sun as the wind blew wisps of her blonde hair around her face. Looking at the three of them, nobody would ever have guessed that they were siblings, not even half-siblings. Both children had inherited their Rouvian mother's colouring, and were as fair as Aedan was dark.

"I'm sitting here," Aedan said, more defensively than he had intended.

"Why aren't you in the yard with the other older boys?" Llywelyn asked.

Resentment rose in Aedan. "Why should I be? I don't get any training anyway. Why should I hang around to watch?"

He could see Adenydd bristling at his tone, but Llywelyn wasn't deterred. "Why aren't you getting any training?" the little boy asked. "You're bigger than Dylan."

"Because of my leg," Aedan snapped, simultaneously with Adenydd's testy reply, "Because he's a cripple."

For just an instant, Aedan wanted to hit her. Then he remembered she was little more than half his age, and a girl, and he abruptly turned to the gannets again.

There was a pause, then he felt a light touch on his arm. Adenydd said, a lot more quietly, "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for." Aedan recognized the phrase as one he had heard Iared use. Their father. It still sounded strange even in his head.

"I know you've been beaten today," she went on, in what he had to concede was a sympathetic tone. "Dylan told me."

Aedan's anger flared again, but he managed to keep it directed at Dylan, not the two younger children. Dylan would have been a lot more gleeful about it than they were. In fact, they were both watching him with a sort of friendly curiosity. He made a noncommittal grunt.

"He says you can't read well."

Aedan threw her a searching glance through slit eyes. There was still no mockery in her tone as far as he could tell. "No, my Mam never taught me."

"I can help you," she said.

"You?" He sized her up with a glance. "You can read?"

"And write. I learned it when Dylan did."

He thought about this for a moment, and much as he wanted to decline the offer, he realised that it might be his only chance at making the hours in Father Marcus's scriptorium even a little more bearable.

"All right, then," he said. "Sometime."

Adenydd jumped, and clapped, and he was reminded of how small she was. But he gave her a crooked grin, which made her beam.

"What are you doing up here, anyway?" he asked, a little more gruffly, to discourage any further admiration.

"Ada was showing me a flower that eats bugs," Llywelyn now chimed in brightly.

"Yes, I found it last week," Adenydd added. "It's over there. Shall we show you too?" She was pointing to the spot where Aedan had seen her and Llywelyn crouching and looking at the rock.

Aedan gave a little shrug and a nod and then got up gingerly from his perch, as his aching backside gave a sharp twinge.

The two children led him to the crag, and Adenydd pointed at a bluish-purple flower on a long stalk, rising out of pointed, fleshy leaves forming what looked like a star.

"Isn't it pretty on top?" Adenydd asked. "And look! You can see some bug shell down there on the leaf."

"Yes, I know," Aedan said. "That's butterwort."

Adenydd looked at him in utter amazement. "You know what it is?"

"Yes. The pretty flower lures the insects to it, and when they sit down on its leaves, they get entangled. Here, can you feel how sticky they are?" He took her hand to show her, and laughed when she withdrew it with a horrified expression. "It only eats bugs, silly, not children!" he said. "Here, you can touch it. See? It doesn't hurt. Not like nettles or whatever you're thinking of."

He held his fingertips to the fleshy leaf to demonstrate that it didn't harm him, and then Adenydd followed suit.

"Can I touch it, too?" Llywelyn asked, fascinated.

Aedan shrugged. "Nothing's keeping you." The little boy timidly touched the leaf, as if expecting it to bite.

"How do you know so much about this flower – butterwort?" Adenydd asked.

"My Mam told me. Butterwort can cure a lot of things. We always collected the leaves in summer to make infusions against coughs. If you make an ointment from them, they're also good for wounds. And if you have lice, you rub it on your head and it kills them."

Adenydd was looking at him in awe, and despite his earlier determination not to let it come to this, he was flattered.

"Oh, and if you pluck the star-flower at Midsummer's Day and put it under your pillow, it'll make the Fae folk think kindly of you," Aedan felt encouraged to go on. He said this before he actually thought about it; when he looked at the children's faces, however, he realised that it had been a mistake. All the feeling of belonging that had arisen during their talk about plants suddenly evaporated into thin air as they looked at him and saw nothing but a Fae-born. Adenydd would probably even have held her tongue; her little brother did not.

"Can you really do magic?" Llywelyn asked. "Ma mère says your mother was a witch."

The innocuous tone only made it worse. Aedan had known from the first day at Caer Aderyn that Lady Elaine disliked him, even though she had hardly spoken two sentences to him, and to know she was discussing him with her children was sickening.

"Go." His voice was quiet, but shaking slightly with anger, and when neither of them moved, he rose, yelling, "Get lost!"

He didn't care that, technically, they owned this place more than he did. This was his spot, his refuge; they had entered it uninvited and had no business here.

Adenydd cast him one more glance that lay halfway between fear and stubbornness, but then she took Llywelyn's hand and yanked him around, starting down the old stairs.

Furious, Aedan sat and turned away from them again, not acknowledging the retreating shuffle of their feet on stone, or their muted voices. He wished he had something to do besides watching gannets. So he was left watching them in as vicious a way as he could, while straining his ears until he didn't hear the children any more.

Just when he thought he was alone again, there was a far-off shriek, from Adenydd or Llywelyn, or maybe from both of them, he wasn't sure. It was immediately followed by more screaming.

He fought with himself for no more than a heartbeat, then he jumped up from his perch and skidded down the steps as fast as he could.

Some fifty yards down the path, he found Adenydd crouching at the edge of what Aedan knew was a rather sheer drop. She was on her hands and knees, staring down, crying, as close to the edge as she dared, shouting Llywelyn's name. Aedan's initial feeling of cold dread was replaced by relief when he realised that Llywelyn was still able to shout back.

"Get back from there!" he panted, dragging Adenydd away from the edge and lying flat on his stomach to peer down. The crumbled face of the old tower was not quite vertical here, but almost, and Llywelyn had been able to catch himself on a patch of hard grass, clinging to it as his feet scrambled for holds in the rock-face. Tears were streaming down the boy's face as his feet slipped again and again. Aedan reached down, but knew it was no use; Llywelyn's hands were out of his reach by more than two feet.

"Help me!" the boy sobbed.

"I can't reach you!" Aedan shouted down. "It's just two feet, come on! You have to climb!"

"I can't!" Llywelyn cried. "I can't put my feet anywhere!"

Aedan edged closer and tried again to grasp Llywelyn's hand, but it wasn't enough. And he didn't trust a seven-year-old girl to be able to hold his weight while he went further over the edge.

Quickly, he assessed his options. The fall wasn't bottomless – there was a ledge some twelve feet down below, almost directly under Llywelyn, but it was narrow enough that he couldn't be sure it would stop Llywelyn's fall. And even if it did, he doubted the boy would be able to jump or tumble that far without giving Prince Iared another cripple for a son.

"I can't hold on!" Llywelyn shrieked. "Help me!"

"I'll get help from the castle!" Adenydd said, white-faced.

"You do that," Aedan replied, but he knew help would never arrive in time.

He didn't wait to hear her reply, but turned to lower his legs over the edge to climb down.

"Can you get him up?" she breathed.

"I'll try," Aedan said between his teeth as he found a secure hold with his right foot and began to climb down.

She hovered there for a few heartbeats, unwilling to leave, but then seemed to see that there was nothing she could do, and ran.

Aedan looked down to make sure he didn't come down exactly on top of Llywelyn, and to look for a stretch of rock that looked as if it had enough footholds. His left leg protested as he bent it further than he even thought possible, and proceeded to climb down as fast as he could. Llywelyn was watching him from below, still sobbing, biting his lips as he made himself hold on.

Aedan scrambled past Llywelyn, his foot sliding off a patch of moss, and his heart missed a beat as he skidded a few feet before managing to catch himself again, half-sliding, half climbing the rest of the way until he reached the ledge. He hit it with his right leg while keeping his left out of the way, but even his good leg buckled under him with the force of the impact. He realised that he hadn't used either of his legs properly in six months.

Aedan didn't take much time to get his bearings but looked up at Llywelyn, and edged to the side to be directly under him. The ledge was only slightly more than a foot wide here, but that would have to do.

"Try to climb down!" he shouted up at the boy. "If you fall, I'll catch you."

"I can't climb," Llywelyn whimpered.

"Then jump," Aedan said. "I'm right under you. I can almost touch your feet." That was a lie; they were even further from Aedan's outstretched arms now than Llywelyn's hands had been earlier. But he hoped a four-year-old boy would rather put his trust in the reassuring words of an older brother than in his own capacity to judge distances.

Aedan saw Llywelyn peering down over his shoulder, still not daring to make the jump.

"Llelo," he said, slowly and deliberately. "Let go. I'll catch you. I promise."

The boy closed his eyes and let go.

Aedan saw him sliding down the rock-face, loose stones and dust raining down on him, but he managed to grasp the younger boy around the chest before he hit the ledge. He staggered, almost going to his knees, pressing his shoulder against the rock for fear of losing his hold and going over after all.

Llywelyn was sobbing in his arms, hanging almost limp.

"It's all right," Aedan murmured. "Everything's all right. We'll just wait for help." He made to let go of his brother to steady himself against the rock, but Llywelyn clung to him like a burr.

"Hey." He carefully disengaged one arm from the boy's grip, to find a more secure position for both of them. "I told you it was all right. I won't let you fall. Don't look down." He wouldn't look down either; the next stop was sixty feet below, a rubble-strewn flat surface at the foot of the tower.

Time trickled by, stretching endlessly, until Aedan finally heard voices overhead, Adenydd's frightened chatter and men shouting.

"We're here!" Aedan bellowed, as loudly as he could, aware that they couldn't be seen from up there.

"Thank God!" A head appeared over the edge above. Aedan recognized the man as one of Iared's teulu, but he didn't know his name. He was joined by another man, Conyn, Iared's castellan.

"Are you hurt?" Conyn shouted down.

Aedan wasn't sure if he meant Llywelyn, or him, or both, but Llywelyn didn't answer, so he shouted back, "Llywelyn's a bit shaken, but we're fine."

He could see Conyn unrolling a rope now. "We're going to pull you up one at a time. Llywelyn, can you climb if we hold you with the rope?"

Aedan quickly grasped the wall for support as Llywelyn shook his head wildly. "No! I'm not climbing!"

"It's all right," Aedan tried to reassure him. "I'm going to tie the rope around your chest. I'll be down here, you're safe."

The boy was still shaking his head vehemently.

Aedan exhaled sharply, then he looked up again and shouted, "Let down the rope – we're coming up together!"

The two men above debated briefly, then Conyn let the rope down towards them.

"I'll need to let go of you now," Aedan told Llywelyn, who was still clinging to him, and still shaking, though not as badly as he had. "As soon as I've got the rope tied, you climb on my back. Piggyback. Do you think you can do that?"

Llywelyn didn't look happy, but riding piggyback apparently seemed a much better alternative to him than climbing, and he gave a jerky nod.

The second man, whose name Aedan had by now gathered was Seith, told him how to tie the rope around his chest and under his arms, and when Aedan was certain that the knot was secure, he crouched down so Llywelyn could climb on his back.

Llywelyn clamped his arms around Aedan's neck so tightly that the older boy coughed. "Llelo, ease up!" he said, his voice tense. And stay off my backside, he added silently. It was unfair how much that still hurt after all that had happened since.

He looked up, nodded at Seith, who was holding the rope, and started to climb.

Seith only pulled as much as necessary, and let Aedan decide how fast he wanted to go. Aedan was grateful of it. He was sure he wouldn't have been able to make the ascent without the rope, and certainly not with Llywelyn on his back. By now, it was difficult to tell where one pain in his body ended and the next began; from his bleeding fingertips to his aching leg, they all seemed to run together.

As he climbed, he heard more voices arriving on the top of the rock, and the hand that reached down to pull him up was Huw's.

Aedan grasped it, and let them help him sit down on the pebble-strewn path. He protested feebly that he was fine, but his legs buckled under him despite his objections. Rhys was at his side in an instant, his face even paler than usual, but when Aedan saw him shift his position gingerly to take the strain off his aching backside, he couldn't help but giggle, and didn't seem to be able to stop. Rhys looked annoyed, but then he had to join in, and soon Aedan wasn't sure whether he was laughing or crying. There had to be over a dozen people around them now, most of whom huddled around Llywelyn, among them Prince Iared, Dylan, and Adenydd. Adenydd now left her little brother's side and ran to Aedan. She was met with hysterical laughter both from Rhys and her half-brother. Aedan was the first who managed to stop, wiping his teary eyes.

Adenydd stood before them with the sort of utterly disapproving frown only a seven-year-old girl can muster, obviously deciding that any words of praise were utterly misplaced on Aedan just then. Her face looked so comical that Aedan nearly burst out laughing again. But then he saw their father appearing behind the girl, and any mirth was wiped from his face as he uneasily waited for Iared's reaction. He was prepared for anything.

Before Iared could say anything, Huw, who had been kneeling beside Aedan, stood, and pulled the boy to his feet as well. Rhys scrambled to his feet too, so he was not the only one left crouching on the ground.

Huw put a hand on Aedan's shoulder. "My prince," he said in an almost formal tone, "with your permission, I think this brave young lad has earned himself a chance at being taught to wield a sword."

Aedan could hardly believe his ears. He was staring at Huw, then he quickly looked back at Iared, whose expression was as unreadable to him as it always was. He wanted to plead with his father, beg him to say yes, but to his mind, that didn't go well with the "brave young lad" Huw had just called him, so he just stood there in silence, hanging on Iared's lips.

He was aware of Rhys beaming, and Dylan scowling behind the Prince, but all of that didn't matter when Iared finally said, "Yes, Huw, I believe he has."

The slight smile Iared then gave him was like a burst of sunlight in Aedan's heart, the first he could really remember in a long, long time.

Somewhere in Tangnafedd

Midsummer's Eve, 1259

Upon a windswept hilltop, three women stood in the shadows of four tall standing stones. A fifth monolith lay in the grass, having toppled over so long ago that it had ground itself into the earth. Carvings adorned the stones; interlacing knotwork here, a tall cross there, crumbled with age, and in several places, a circle containing a threefold spiral. Crows circled above, squawking and quarrelling in the dying light of the evening sun.

"The youngest shall speak the blessing," croaked one of the three, an old woman of undeterminable age, her face creased with a hundred lines and traced with blue symbols reminiscent of the patterns on the stones.

Across from her, a barefoot girl of no more than thirteen, who could not have come into womanhood until very recently, stepped forward. She moved with a hint of the grace she would possess once the awkwardness of adolescence would leave her, long dark curls falling down her shoulders. The old woman, as well as the third, who looked to be in her late thirties and was as dark-haired as the girl, also stepped forth into the middle of the circle.

"Into the sanctum of the threefold spirit we have entered," the girl said. Her voice, surprisingly deep for her small stature and young age, was brisk and clear in the silence. "Give us foresight that we may find the path, give us strength that we may follow it, and give us wisdom that we may see where it leads. Let no evil befall in the Hidden Circle of Mother—" she touched the middle-aged woman's forehead with her right forefinger, "Maiden—" she touched her own forehead, "and Crone." Her finger briefly rested on the forehead of the old woman. A faint glow seemed to linger where each touch had fallen, but just for a fleeting second, then it was gone.

The crone walked back to the toppled monolith, and sat down heavily upon it. The other two remained standing.

The old woman reached into a small pouch at the string she wore instead of a belt, and withdrew some grain, which she cast on the slab beside her.

"My dreams have been troubled," she finally said, "of crows and falcons and hawks, but they have not been clear, and it has been hard at times, even, to tell which was which."

The maiden's mouth twisted, as if she had to force herself to keep from laughing. The crone hadn't noticed, but the mother shot her a disapproving glance.

"We are getting fewer," the mother said. "First Maira's death, and now Glenys is dead in childbirth. Perhaps it was the dying of our people that you saw."

"Our people will survive," the crone spat. "They always have. Falcons and hawks have never troubled us."

A curious crow landed on the stone, and approached the grain the old woman had scattered there.

"Falcons and hawks could mean war," the maiden said.

The crone looked up under the scarf she wore, with a stern glance at the young girl. The crow, startled by the sudden movement, rustled a few feet away, but did not flee altogether, cocking its head and eyeing the grain with unmistakeable longing.

"Leave the readings to your elders," the crone said gruffly. "Your time in the Circle has been less than five wing-flaps of those crows up there. Listen, and learn."

The girl's mouth thinned, but she remained silent.

"So Maira's son has entered the household of the Prince of Tangnafedd," the crone went on. "It has been a long time since one of the crow line has held lands or titles. It has never boded well. Our kind are not made for either." She held her hand out to the crow, which, after pecking up the grain, hopped towards her, squawking for more.

"It could be a chance," said the mother. "In time, he might listen where others do not."

"If he has ears to listen," the crone said disdainfully, reaching for her pouch again. "His blood is watered down, and he is weak, from all I've ever heard of him."

"He may be a boy, but he may yet come into his inheritance," the mother said with a slight smirk. "My brother was completely hopeless until he turned ten, and look at him now."

"Yes, look at him now, the fool – studying for priesthood, whatever his achievements in the Cyfrinach may be. What does he think the Church will do if they find out what he is?"

"He's being careful."

"Hah. Careful." The crone spat. "The last words of the rabbit that walked into the fox's den." She held out some more grain to the crow beside her, and the bird pecked it from her hand.

"We should watch Maira's boy," said the mother, changing the topic. "And in time, we'll find whether he'll be of use to us, or not."

With a quick movement, the old woman caught the crow in her hands. The bird struggled briefly, but soon became still.

The crone looked into the bird's small, beady eyes for several heartbeats, then she cast it up into the air. It cawed, fluttered, catching itself, then circled above her head three times before flying away.

"We should," the old woman agreed. Then she rose from her seat, and touched a finger to her forehead.

"Until we meet again."

The other two copied the gesture, and the three women turned and walked away from the circle, each in a different direction.