Erinsmore – long ago
Death she was familiar with, knew its many faces. This was new. The multitude of voices that cried out in her head, then were suddenly, horribly, silent. She waited. Until they came to her with the news, sitting by the dying embers of the fire, as the first, thin, rays of dawn passed over her face, drying her tears.
“My lady,” Samson’s expression was like stone. She knew the tidings he carried
“Are they all dead?” she murmured. His face changed, for an instant she saw through his implacable resolve to the young man he’d been, the man who’d loved her. When her abilities singled her out, Samson chose to become her servant, a valued one, true, but, so much less than he’d thought or hoped for.
“Ninniane,” he began, helplessly, wishing to spare her pain. “The Lady Alys,” Ninniane closed her eyes at the mention of her former, much loved, lady-in-waiting. “She, the Lord Valarian, and the nobles of their court; all have perished.”
“How did it happen?” she asked, quietly.
“You do not know, my lady?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I felt the outcry of hundreds of souls untimely ripped from their bodies, it shook the foundations of the world. I felt them die, but… I do not know from what.”
“A monstrous tidal wave, survivors say it stood three times as high as the tallest turret, it engulfed the castle. All who slept on the seaward side were lost.”
“The child also?” Ninniane asked, imagining the last, despairing, moments of those poor souls, as this freakish event of nature unleashed itself upon the sleeping castle.
“No, my lady,” Samson’s face brightened at the scant good news. “The child is teething, the nursemaid had taken her to her own room, to allow Lady Alys a night’s sleep…” his voice trailed away, now, she would have nothing but endless sleep.
“Where are the survivors?”
“In the hall, my lady. Lady Ansianda requests your presence.”
Wrapped in a warm cloak against the chill of the early morning, Ninniane hurried down stone steps, to the welcoming warmth of the great hall, where fires already blazed brightly. Kitchen staff were handing out steaming goblets of mulled wine to the dazed and exhausted survivors, who milled around in confusion, clutching blankets to themselves like lifelines.
She turned at the quiet voice, which rang with a tone of authority, crossed to where Ansianda awaited her. Surveying her normally placid, fellow council member, Ninniane gathered from the hastily pinned up hair, the dishevelment of attire, that Ansianda had been caught unawares by the news.
How could that be, she wondered. How could she not have felt them die, heard them cry out in anguished horror? Maybe Lorcan was right. we are much stronger in our ability than them. Shaking off such treacherous thoughts, Ninniane reached Ansianda’s side, and the older woman clutched at her in despair.
“What a disaster,” she gasped. “I have never known of its equal, all those poor people, lost forever to the sea.”
“I am told Lorcan brought back the survivors using a portal stone?” Ninniane was unable to keep the concern from her voice.
“Yes, it seemed… best,” Ansianda fell silent in the face of Ninniane’s unspoken criticism. “I know what you are thinking,” she continued. “But, the victims, they could not be left there, and it would have taken too long to bring them all back individually.”
Logically, Ninniane could see the wisdom of the argument. Even council members could only transport four at a time, it made sense to have used a portal stone and yet…
“I thought we agreed they should never be used again,” she couldn’t help murmuring.
“I know,” Ansianda flushed, defensively. “But, under the circumstances… after all, it was an emergency. Surely, it will not hurt to use them one more time.”
No, it will not, thought Ninniane, but, there would always be one more time. Each time the stones were used, their power unravelling more of the fabric of existence.
Across the room, she caught sight of Lorcan, his strength and vigour made the breath catch in her throat. He raised his head, locked gazes with her. She felt his power, but, behind his eyes, could read nothing. Lately, she’d felt he was keeping much hidden from her, no longer could she read his soul, and it bothered her, the secrets she sensed he kept.
Samson ushered forward a serving woman, dressed in the grey livery of the household of the Lords of the Far Isles, a squirming, white, bundle clutched to her breast. Holding back her emotions, Ninniane reached for the bundle, gently taking the eight-month-old babe of Alys into her arms. Softly, she parted the folds of the shawl, looked in the face of the girl child she had promised Alys she would always protect.
The child moved, tiny fingers clutched at the shawl. Ninniane felt the world tilt, as dark lashes swept upwards, to reveal eyes of the clearest green, regarding her calmly, knowingly, almost as if the babe was aware of all that had occurred.
The ability surged within Ninniane. A tide of prophecy, as strong as that which had destroyed the child’s home, flowed free. Her voice rang with power. All stopped to listen.
“This child,” she declared. “This child, Gwnhyfar, will change the fates of two worlds. Her importance cannot be underestimated. She will unite two royal bloodlines. Her legacy will pass down through generations.”
In a trance, Ninniane’s gaze passed over them all, seeing a strong and steady blaze of light. It burnt like truth around Samson and many others in the hall. But over some there hovered a grey cloud. She saw it, recognised it for what it was – death.
Desperately, she turned to her fellow council members, saw over Ansianda’s gentle face hovered the spectre of death. As for Lorcan… she could not look at him, it hurt too much.
Reeling from his shrewd, almost mocking, gaze, she uttered a soft cry. Samson hastily seized the child from her, mere seconds before Ninniane crumpled to the ground in a dead faint.
Kneeling by the side of his beloved lady, Samson held the babe too tightly, the child opened her mouth and began to bawl, her thin, high, cries adding to the confusion and consternation in the hall, as all rushed to aid Lady Ninniane, lying still and white on the cold stone floor.
London – 2008
When did it begin, thought Ruby, this need, this longing to escape? Perhaps that sense of expectation had always been there. Her whole life, waiting for something. What, she didn’t know. But, those dreams of other worlds were merely shadows of a real longing, a wanting so vivid she could almost taste it, which started on the day it all ended, or began, or perhaps, both.
It was the Easter holidays, they’d been up town shopping for the day, her and mum. Even Cassie had come, normal sulky, teenage, angst, put briefly aside, to make her the fun sister she’d used to be.
Both girls needed summer uniforms ready for school, so they did that first. Then lunch, in a restaurant so posh, Ruby swallowed down fits of nervous giggles, each time a waiter minced over to refill her water glass, or pick up the massive, snowy white, napkin, that somehow kept slithering off her lap onto the floor.
Flushed from two glasses of wine, mum took them shopping. Reckless with the moment, the number of bags they carried had grown, until even Cassie murmured perhaps it was time to go home. But still, mum persisted, gold credit card flashing.
Finally, they went home, buoyed on a wave of feminine giggles. Mum was opening a bottle of wine, pouring Cassie a glass, even promising Ruby a taste, when the back door opened, dad walked in, and everything changed.
He’d been carrying a huge, rubber plant, Ruby recognised as the one from his office. His face, ashen beside the vivid greenness of its leaves, looked somehow beaten, older, as if he’d lived years, since Ruby had seen him that morning.
He talked. Ruby watched the whiteness of her mother’s knuckles, as they clutched the stem of her wine glass, so tightly, Ruby feared it would surely snap. Finally, what he was saying began to sink in, and she understood.
It was over, all of it. Dad’s job, the one that made this life possible, was gone. The salary and bonuses that paid for a new car and three holidays a year, private schooling, the lovely house and beautiful life they lived. Gone, it was all gone.
Looking back on that day when everything changed, Ruby’s memories were vague, disjointed. All she could remember, was the gold of mum’s credit card, sparkling under the bright store lights, and her father’s chalk white face above the rubber plant, clutched to his chest, as if it was all he had left to him.