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This is the third volume in the academy's official account of the interregnum. Since every intersection of people with events generates a unique story in each participant, these story cycles necessarily describe some events more than once, albeit from different points of view.
To review, the first volume covered the king's 1941 deposition and exile, the years he and two cousins spent in Irish North America, the role they and their wives played in ending Hibernia's version of the Three Worlds' War, the Prairie Chicken incident, the Royals' interference in the accession of Calaghan MacCarthy to donalship and the latter's subsequent revenge. Volume one also described the aftermath of the 1977 battle of Glenmorgan from Brian McIlhargey's viewpoint, his removal of Mara Devereaux and Karen O' Toole from Ireland, and the early years of Lady Mara's life up to their departure from Edwardston.
Volume two followed the life of Katherina Rourke until the battle of Glenmorgan, and that of Karina Tansey afterward through her captures by Philip Desmond until the appointment of Thomas Monde as governor of Penal City. Parallel events include Sean Reilly's 1980 coup and the assistance he had from Clan Graham and Colin Kildare. The third arc of that story cycle related the 1990s founding of Lady Mara's "Friends of the Day", through to her successful guerilla war at Lagos and departure for Tara.
In The Exile we recount Day MacAllister's return from exile on Tirdia and subsequent involvement with The Friends, the life of Sheana A'Kildare/O'Toole to her arrival at Tara, Lady Karina's second escape from prison and subsequent life at Tara, and the six months of Lady Mara's life from departing Lagos to the day she entered Tara's court, including the obscure but critically important Afghan expeditionary campaign, whose true nature has only now been declassified. We also recount the exploits of Kilkarney's famous class of 1989, some of whose members became almost as well-known as those of the class of 1968.
Since there are many accounts here, two of them from witnessed records and in the first person, readers are advised to read the tag lines at the start of and within each chapter to avoid disorientation. Once again, however, the general editors specifically disclaim responsibility for the style of material dictated by the First Lady. At her continued insistence, it is presented unedited.
Readers from other cultures should note that a Hibernian story cycle is a Celtic knot, its strands interwoven so that it begins and ends everywhere, most likely in the middle, returning repeatedly to the same events and creating intriguing illusions with its weave.
Offered in the Name of the High Lord of Heaven
Under the Patronage of the crown
Dedicated to the Throne of Tara, Mistress of Worlds
by General Editors
Jana Whelan, Ard Seanacha of the Court of Ireland
Walking Buffalo, Academician and Lord Holder of Edwardston
Cameron O'Grady, Lord High Bishop of Tara
Princess Rainbow Buffalo/O'Grady, Seanacha,
Richard Kent, Academician and Lord Protector of England
who, with Ollamh Kildare, Ollamh Rhiannon, and the First Lady, compiled this third volume.
* * * * *
Aileen, you go ahead and edit my material all you want. My Tirdian English is pretty good, because I grew up on Canada's west coast, but people still tell me after all these years that my Gaelic idiom and pronunciation are wrong. So I trust you and Lord Kent to put things together so the academicians are happy. Nellie did a fabulous job programming you. When I read your code, I hardly had any suggestions, but she did include most of them, so it's almost like you're a niece of mine, eh?
* * * * *
A daughter, rather. Once Day and Nellie got their heads together, they re-wrote nearly seventy percent of me. I'll never be the same again.
Tarnished jewel of Ireland and corrupt mistress of two worlds, glorious Tara paused in her stumble toward crisis for a few days in the cold late Fall of 1997. For all too brief a time she reached deep within herself to find a semblance of heart. It wasn't much.
The boy who'd fled injustice in Afghanistan and spent nearly a year travelling to the capital, mostly on foot, diverted Tara's self-absorbed dissipation long enough to enable the Council of Lords to pass an impotent motion in their languid session's dying days. Neglecting to allocate sufficient funds for the proposed expeditionary response force was as much lethargic neglect as duplicity. Who cared what happened in the remote quarters of Tara's dominions, so long as the people were mollified? It was party time.
--from A History of the 1997 Afghan campaign, by Jana Whelan
Ireland, Tara's palace, January 1997 (Hibernia)
Abdul told his story three times. The first, when he found the court mercilessly barred to a ragged boy's entry, was to a beggar seated across the street from Tara's fabled green palace. The ancient veteran seized him as he fled the unsympathetic guardsmen in disillusioned tears.
"Hold, there, young Abdul." The beggar's crutch pinned the slender boy against a lamppost, giving him little choice.
Abdul took several seconds to recover. "How do you know me?"
"Turkistan O'Flaherty fought beside your grandfather sixty years ago. He knows much of your business. Aye, and of Tara's, too, if it be known." He glared across the street at the palace, then lurched upright, dragging his bad leg, and releasing Abdul to lean heavily on his crutch. "Bring my begging bowl. I shall feed you with the others."
"The others" were a dozen ravenous street children whom Turkistan kept alive on discarded bread crusts and thin soup made from dumpster refuse, teaching them their letters and weapons till he could pass them on to service with selected landspeople and commercepeople.
Hearing Abdul's story, Turkistan sent word to one who owed him favours.
The second telling was to an MT reporter, fresh from journalism school, carrying a camera as new as his sword. He would have given his life for Turk, King of Low Tara, the man who rescued him from the street, fed and clothed him for years, got him an education, and had now placed him in an honourable profession where he was already making his mark.
The third telling, once the Tara News program roused the citizens to their MT keyboards and microphones to demand government action, was to Jack Graham, General of the Army, and Chief of Tara's Security.
At that time, Graham stood sixth in Tara's front row and sat third at her executive table. He was one of only three nobles trusted by the twelfth of the donals, those de facto rulers of two earths for the sixty years following King James IV's 1941 deposition. Technically, the Donal was First Lord of the army, but in practice the title was Graham's.
Abdul was no fool. Older than he looked, from East Afghanistan's highest family, and well educated, he knew at once the nondescript man in grey at the general's side was no secretary. He also realized that if his plight hadn't dovetailed with these cynical high nobles' interests, he might have whistled for justice. He could hazard a guess what their plans might be. They were all-too-interested in the biotechnology lab behind his father's manse. He would say nothing of such things. Let them think him an ignorant Mufti boy. Soon, if they cooperated, he would have revenge.
"What do you think, Jack?" the grey man asked once Abdul was ushered out to be properly attired and fattened up in the palace dining room.
For answer, Graham handed him a package. "This was delivered to security today."
The other opened the outer wrapping, then nearly dropped it when he saw the severed hand sealed in tough plastic.
"We handled it in isolation. It's safe," Jack assured the grey man.
"Whose?" His companions tones were brittle.
"DNA analysis says it belonged to our last agent in Kabul, one of the Bindi brothers." Jack leaned back, his face a dispassionate mask. It hurt deeply to have a trusted man go to his death. Then he dropped his bombshell. "Bindi's DNA had been slightly altered. It was subtle, and our head technician missed it, but one of the kids trained in Mara's London school caught the change."
The grey man let out a long slow breath. "Covenant violaters," he breathed.
It was as they feared when certain chemical shipments to East Afghanistan were fingered by Security's network monitoring routines. Mustafsa Khan had broken the Covenant of the Living.
Agreed to by all nations in 1800, the covenant banned human biogenetic manipulation, nuclear and chemical warfare, and projectile weapons. Breaching this thinnest of barriers between civilization and anarchy meant once again someone had gathered the means to annihilate Hibernia.
"What was the genetic change?"
"Not sure yet. It was in a supposedly dormant section of the Y-chromosome. We're trying to analyse the enzyme the new gene expresses, but it appears to be something new. No way to tell if it's what killed our agent unless we find the rest of the body. Likely they burned it as an offering to the Seer."
The grey man was silent for several minutes before observing, "Khan's made no secret he has the usual designs on Northern India. The boy's story gives us good cover for an expedition and it's a perfect training opportunity for the kids. We must close that lab, permanently."
"With the number of troops the policing budget can afford," Graham pointed out, "It's an excellent way to get good soldiers killed."
"There is that," the other admitted, rubbing his hand over his beard. "But I'm trying to put Hibernia together again, and you can't make eggs without breaking a few omelettes. Every military expedition is risky, but far more will die if we do nothing." He gestured contemptuously in the direction of the council chambers. "This is a burden of rule those fools know nothing of. It's why we had kings, as a check of last resort. The MacCarthys deposed James IV to have free reign for their brand of terror and anarchy. It's one of the game we Irish play, Jack. But the stakes are civilization itself."
Jack Graham nodded soberly, then shared the latest intelligence from Africa. "Our Lagos agent says 'Meghan McIlhargey' has things in hand over Frank Haggerty, and plans to leave for Tara December fifteenth. She's openly calling herself 'Mara Devereaux' now."
The grey man rubbed his hands meditatively. Deposing Nigeria's ruthless and corrupt subdomain holder had been a long-time priority. Getting Mara to do it without anyone knowing he was involved or had manipulated her into doing his bidding made it doubly satisfying.
"Today's the first," he announced, glancing at the corner of the data screen he'd had grown in his eye when he was twenty. "We need two weeks to assemble a strike force. On the fifteenth, have your agents discourage her from taking the Tara plane and arrange there be only one she can take."
"Collect her and the other on the way?"
"We need Maeve Derry as backup in case Mara gets herself killed prematurely," his companion observed matter-of-factly, as though the two women were carved wooden privates in a game of 'catch the king'. "I'm sure the army can excuse a worthless stopover in East Africa. Besides, we've tested Derry's integrity sufficiently. We need to start using her." He drummed his fingers against his scabbard. "While we're at it, bump both Kildares to major and have them fly up from Australia with their school's first graduates. We'll test them all well away from palace scrutiny."
The grey man paused, tugging at his beard again. The clandestine military schools he and Graham had manoeuvred Mara and her father into establishing were paying off. Where else could he get reliable officers these days? Certainly not from old Kilkarney, not since the class of 1990 and Perry Docherty's retirement as commander--the MacCarthys controlled there, and were gradually rendering Tara's armed forces impotent through incompetence.
"What about young Dennison?" Graham asked.
"Can't risk making him prominent yet. That comes later."
Graham changed the subject. "Mike Malone was in my office this morning."
"He knows? Not surprising. The MacCarthys are surely involved in this with Khan their front."
"Malone made it clear he wanted a significant role with any force we send. He's reactivated his commission, and been rated a Major-General, so we can scarce deny him."
For answer, the grey man displayed a detailed topographical map on the wall MT. "We need to split our forces, between the main valley where Khan is," he indicated the locations with a pointer, "and this western outlet, where we'll place a smaller force to bar the back door."
"Malone to the west, then? But how do we keep him from sabotaging things?"
"He is holder of Lagos, Jack. He's well chafed already and his temper may serve us. Besides, Malone's rank is courtesy. He was a major before."
Graham was silent, considering this, then grinned as he saw the implications. "Who would be the exec lucky enough to discover this?"
"I've promoted Maguire again."
Jack Graham whistled, then pondered the assignments. "Why the young ones? Why all the women?"
"We season the young officers and promote a few in obscurity, then fetch the best to Tara before the lid blows off here in three years. The women are sentimental enough to care about old Tara and skilled enough to thwart the MacCarthys before they take notice."
Jack Graham didn't reply. He, too, could see the alarming trends in crime, the social breakdowns, and the increasing rebellion, of which this sorry Afghan affair was one of many instances. He was all too aware of Tara's deeply rooted corruption and of the many MacCarthy conspiracies. Yet it was hard to take seriously his friend's notion Hibernia was due to come crashing down in a great apocalyptic cataclysm in the fall of 2000 after having stood since 1014. It was even harder to support his solution--create a clandestine army-in-waiting, ready to seize control from the ambitious and racist MacCarthys when the time came. What would happen to the two of them? After all, they were part of Tara's power structure.
Meanwhile, Mara's New Schools churned out well-trained, idealistic officers loyal to the symbol of an unoccupied throne, unaware they were being manipulated by the world's greatest cynic. But Graham, too, was loyal. He shuddered to think what Tara would become under the MacCarthys. They must act or perish. They might well die anyway, but if so, he at least had the assurance of eternal salvation because of his trust in Christ. Not so the man opposite.
Graham shrugged and returned to the present. It was not the time to breach such matters. And, he knew his friend's subtle duplicity well after working with him for the two decades following the battle of Glenmorgan. With Graham in charge, accompanied by Colin and Daisy Kildare as battalion commanders, three of the planet's four wealthiest families would have a direct stake in the outcome, and would surely supplement Tara's meagre police budget by personal funds. It was in their own self-interest. Graham assumed equally-monied Clan MacCarthy backed Mustafsa Khan. The operation smelled of them, for whoever won the necessary conflict, the realm would surely suffer. Mere news of covenant violations would anger the populace, and Tara would be blamed.
He also knew his friend's moods. "You're coming." It wasn't a question.
"I need to be in the field again, Jack. The sword is cleaner than diplomacy. None of Tara's leeches will sober up long enough to notice. I don't attend their parties anyway. We'll dress up my Cousin Charlie and have him make a few speeches on the MT news channels as me." When Graham looked worried, he added, "Don't fret over him. He likes what he's got. Charlie isn't ambitious enough to surrender wealth for power. He'll enjoy it for a few weeks, then threaten to spill the beans if I don't return immediately so he can return to running the family business and doting on his grandkids."
Mara, Africa and Afghanistan, January 1997 (Hibernia)
When someone's just completed a successful guerilla war against vastly superior government-backed troops, humiliated two of Tara's high lords, then had to release the one she captured despite his being guilty of heinous crimes, not to mention torturing her own self earlier on, she can be paranoid about coincidences and jumpy over strangers.
Mara Devereaux-Rourke, formerly called Meghan McIlhargey, planned to fly to Tara well ahead of Glenmorgan Day, for its dawn would end the twenty-year ban the court had put on her families after that infamous day. She was an accomplished sword and used her true names openly, but only at court could her people be vindicated, so there she must go. Once at Tara, she would network with Friends while awaiting her father's arrival, hope he'd be sober enough to face his responsibilities, and tackle creating a presence at court after June twelfth. Eventually...
However, Cam O'Grady's unexpected presence at the airport was enough of a coincidence to arouse a sense of wrongness. The priest had served her rebel camp well, and she'd warmed to him personally, but his posting to Tara in time to travel with her seemed too coincidental. Mara quickly decided there were far too many armed strangers lounging about the place. Time to change plans.
The airport was the first city location to have the altered transponders with the Friends' private channel. Taking Father Cam's arm with her right hand, she reached for her sword PIEA with the left. Pressing her fingers lightly on the interface studs, she silently picted a stream of requests to certain duty guards and airplane crew.
"Tell me more of Tara, Father Cam," she noisily invited, covering her arrangements while glancing about as they boarded.
The head attendant met them. "Please leave your travel sack by the boarding door, my lady. It's too large for the overhead rack."
Mara complied and was seated with the priest, then loudly asked if she could join the flight crew for takeoff. When approval came, she made a big show of going forward, leaving Cam holding her seat. Was it her imagination, or did three men in the second row watch her progress with too much interest?
"Maybe I'll fly all the way to Tara up front," she announced brightly. "See you there, Father Cam." Mara turned and strolled casually through the front curtain, but once out of sight, she hurriedly scanned her clothing with a borrowed security wand for tracers. Finding none, she retrieved her sack and stepped onto the luggage elevator as it separated from the craft. Moments later, she walked from it aboard a second plane bound for Addis Ababa, and there remained out of sight with the crew the entire flight. She breathed a prayer of thanks to the Lord of Heaven. It was the only other craft departing Lagos that day, and she was thankful it had been available exactly when she needed it.
"Now what?" she asked herself, two hours later, having arrived in East Africa's capital. She was at loose ends, with no immediate plan. She glanced in a mirrored wall as she walked toward the public area. "Anybody'll know with one look at my weapons that I'm an officer even if I pack away my jacket with its shiny new captain's stripes." These, combined with her great height and bright red hair meant she couldn't fail to be conspicuous anywhere she went.
Where could she go? There were no Friends in Addis Ababa she could take refuge with, nor any of their secure network nodes within range, and she didn't want to make calls on the public system, for they would surely be traced.
Entering the small airport lounge, she drifted to one side of the room where she could simultaneously scan overhead monitors, watch the scattered travellers and consider her options. She couldn't stay here. Where should she fly? After several minutes without inspiration, she closed her eyes to pray.
"Lord of Heaven, I'm not a very faithful servant of yours, but you are the saviour of my soul and my commanding officer. Oh my Jesus, won't you reveal purpose in this diversion? Won't you give me direction? What do I do? Where do I go?"
She followed up with earnest prayers for her father, the Kents, Nellie, and many other friends, so that by the time she re-opened her eyes to a small commotion nearby, some ten minutes had passed. Mara glanced to her right. An entertainer had commandeered a section of the floor and gathered a crowd. He was juggling several balls and other small objects. A begging bowl sat beside him in case anyone wished to remunerate his not inconsiderable talent.
Immediately sensing a discordance in the situation, Mara evaluated the juggler with a soldier's eye. "He's enormous, and too fit to be a bard." Neither was he dressed like one, wearing a flowing white robe with a decorative red fringe instead of a tabard. Brown-skinned, the fellow's loose hair flowed over his shoulders, and instead of spieling the typical entertainer's patter, he was eerily silent.
What she found interesting were his eyes. Rather than watching the flashing balls, his gaze restlessly roamed the room, cataloguing the passers-by like store merchandise.
A small boy shrieked with pleasure, "It's Rujub, Rujub the juggler. I wanna go watch." This was followed by mumbled acquiescence, the patter of small feet, and the clink of two pennies in the mendicant's bowl, they no doubt supplied by the child's parents.
The coincidence with Tirdian author G. A. Henty's character wasn't lost on Mara. "He's a spy," she concluded, "but for whom?" Then she realized Rujub's piercing eyes had taken in her own realization. The beggar grinned thinly, nodding almost imperceptibly before switching his attention elsewhere. At once she imagined his hair tied up in a military knot like her own. For the army, concluded Mara, fingering her new stripes. But why?
The harsh voice startled her awareness back to the rest of the room. She looked up to find herself surrounded by five military police centred by a big bluff officer, whose stripes proclaimed him a full general. For a brief instant, Mara thought herself captured by Frank Haggerty's men, but the general's attitude was briskly military, not hostile.
Fully alert, she sprang to attention and saluted.
"Your name and company, Captain." The General was slightly disconcerted to discover she towered nearly five cents above him. It was a common reaction and Mara scarcely noticed.
"Mara Devereaux, Sir, currently unattached."
She watched his eyes carefully and, seeing no reaction to her name, felt herself relax. Evidently she meant nothing to him. Then his searching inventory caught the medical insignia pinned above her breast pocket. He appeared surprised, and slight disappointment tinged his next words.
"I already have two medics. What I need is fighting officers. State your sword rating and military experience, Captain."
"Ninety-five, Sir." She gave the figure as her father had last assessed her, adding, "I did police work at Moody and later took operational command of the crown's loyal forces in and around Lagos." She didn't say the crown had other forces at Moody and Lagos whom she had defeated. After all, winners write history, not losers.
Graham, who kept an active commission despite involvement in Tara politics, tried unsuccessfully to hide his astonishment by a slow nod. Does she realize, he thought, how rare ratings over ninety are? She'd rate first sword of the army, two points above me, and equal to the Donal. A succession of emotions ran across his face--momentary disbelief, calculated acceptance no one could lie about a sword rating, then sly triumph.
"You ride a horse, Captain Devereaux?" He manufactured vague hopefulness.
"Certainly, Sir." Mara brightened, thinking of the many wondrous times she had flown recklessly across the Edwardston prairies, "sister" Rainbow Buffalo at her side. What carefree days those had been. What wouldn't she give for their return?
"Very well, as commander of Tara's expeditionary force to East Afghanistan, I attach you as my exec, effective immediately. You'll stow the caduceus and I'll brevet you up a rank for the duration, subject to performance. See the supply sergeant in the field this evening after six to collect your new kit. Follow me to our rocket plane, Major Devereaux." He saluted and started to turn on his heel, then remembered he hadn't introduced himself. "If anyone asks, you're now on Jack Graham's staff."
Mara was taken aback as she recognized the name of Hibernia's highest-ranking active general, but drafting her was Graham's prerogative when she wore Tara's stripes and was unattached.
"Yes, Sir," she announced, and began to review her geography.
The Afghan domain extended from the Black Sea's eastern shore south to the Persian Gulf and north to Russia's border, thence east to China and India. Its scattered peoples were mostly nomadic. The only towns were Tehran, Tashkent, Karachi, and Kabul, from each of which a minor domain lord ruled considerable sparsely populated territory, often for the sole purposes of plotting dominance over the other three and raiding adjacent territories. In the eastern portion, administration was held by a semi-nomadic band headquartered between Kabul and the strategic Khyber Pass to India, an area hit particularly hard in the eighteenth century biological wars, and still almost barren.
Mara knew nothing of the right and wrong of the dispute nor of Tara's involvement. How ironic, she thought, I've just fought against the legal government and now will fight for it. She recalled her earlier prayer and decided this was her answer. She must trust the Lord of Heaven. She hoisted her travel sack to follow the general's entourage.
Meanwhile, Jack Graham was so pleased everything had gone according to plan, he forgot to mention Mara's unexpected caduceus to his grey friend. After all, Lieutenant Derry would be second medic, so it mattered naught. He did pass along her claimed rating, at which the other got a competitive gleam to his eye that spoke far more than words.
Mara's briefing aboard the plane revealed Graham had stopped at Addis Ababa to collect additional troops, including several badly-needed senior officers, only to find the local lord had diverted most of them a week earlier to settle a tribal brush war. All he got for his trouble were two ten-man squads, one missing its sergeant, a lieutenant who had been sick when his platoon departed for the jungle, an officer-medic the locals wanted quit of, and Mara. The others would leave for the field next morning on another plane.
She departed with the general immediately, and found herself, mere hours later, organizing a corner of the field tent that would double as living and working quarters for the general, herself, and the two majors who would arrive next day to take operational command of the two battalions at this location.
At that, the giant transport had circled the area for an hour while she and General Graham went below on a scout plane with a single platoon of MPs to investigate the domain manse. They found it deserted.
Mara watched the op-info scroll on the field-style flat MT screen--the kind with the embossed microcircuits that can be rolled into a staff-long tube for transport. Three-dimensional cameras and projectors were too bulky for operational work. The only furnishings besides the MT stand were a fold-up aluminum desk and a too-short standard-issue cot where she would seek what meagre sleep time and circumstances might afford. As she worked, she reflected on chief medical officer Mahoney's words when he administered her shots on arrival.
"You're a senior officer, entitled to be called 'my lady', at least for the duration of action here. But with promotion to major comes knowledge and so the threat of capture and torture. These nanomachines I'm injecting protect against common truth serums, various poisons, half a dozen gases, and certain classes of hostile nannies. Their efforts will be slow until they build up in your bloodstream and will wear off in six months, but if your rank is confirmed at the end of the campaign, you'll receive a more comprehensive treatment good for a decade or more. However, these serum nanomachines are a military secret, and their existence is to be kept from junior officers and civilians. Sign here to acknowledge." He shoved a signature pad and stylus across the table.
I suppose, thought Mara, the medical academy has to develop and administer the military's biotechnological secrets. Still, it seemed odd that a civilian physician seconded to the army would know so much. She rubbed her arm at the point of injection and shuddered. She had too much firsthand knowledge of torture. Someday, if the Lord of Heaven permitted, Frank Haggerty would fall into her hands again, when no technicality could release him. Then he would pay for his crimes in Moody and Lagos. She arrested her thoughts sharply, for they spoke too much of frustrated revenge. She reminded herself, as she found herself doing daily, that justice was in the hands of the Lord of Heaven, not in hers.
Mara unclenched her teeth and continued editing advance copies of briefing files for tomorrow's op-staff meeting. In a re-run of a perennial local problem, warlord Mustafsa Khan had assembled a force in this mountainous border area with India that now threatened Hibernia's Peace. Only the arrival of the royal army had caused him to abandon the domain headquarters--an action he probably regretted now he could see how few the royals were. She grimaced again. The total court force was roughly 1500, a third stationed some distance to the west. Khan had at least half again as many, and might have 3000 before long.
All three groups were camped in Shah Valley, part of the ancient route from Kabul to Pekawar through the Khyber. "How many invading armies have shed their blood on this soil over the centuries?" she wondered.
About fifteen miles long and seven wide, the valley was divided lengthwise by high jagged peaks that tapered to nothing at the west and broke into two parallel ridges at the east. She looked again at the satellite view. Graham's two battalions occupied the larger, southern side of the valley surrounding the Khan manse and village, past which the main road ran, near the east end of the dividing ridge. The court's third battalion secured the valley's west end against Khan's escape.
She flipped to another page on the electronic reader. Mustafsa Khan was a militant follower of Iftan Mufti, the twelfth-century agnostic mystic whose religio-philosophy was widespread in the region, but whose devotees constantly clashed with each other and with the polytheistic Shivites across the Indian border--the latter so named after the Irish term "Shivi", a slight mispronunciation of one of their gods' names.
"The Seer's Children" or "Mufti", as they called themselves, held sacred the town of Iftanabad, on the east bank of the distant Indus. Supposedly, the Seer received his enlightenment there before being forcibly expelled by hostile Shivites to Afghanistan. The militant wing believed themselves destined to rule Iftanabad.
Over the last two centuries alone no fewer than thirty wars had raged through the Khyber for control of the northern districts of the two domains. Twice the Mufti had invaded India in force, once they had been briefly subjugated. During the lost years of the eighteenth century, both sides fired missiles armed with chemicals and biologicals until thousands of square miles were sterile and countless millions dead. Two former towns in each domain were radioactive still from smuggled atomics.
Mustafsa had seized Eastern Afghanistan from its previous lord a year before, then laid low for a time, gathering supporters. But this fall, several Shivite villages on the Afghan side of the Khyber had been looted and their meagre crops burned. Two forays into larger centres left several hundred dead, and signs pointed to imminent invasion through the pass and a major war.
The last file in her queue seemed fantastic. It summarized improbable stories of attacks on police troops by a wild creature known as the red devil, said by the superstitious to be a werewolf, though supposedly none had seen it and lived to tell the tale. This she dismissed as local legend.
She next checked the operational finances. Tara had been slow to respond, then voted a minimal policing budget, so Graham was running the operation on a shoestring. Out of his own pocket, she thought.
All in all, Mara reflected, it was a setup poised to lead beyond failure to catastrophe, and she wondered if someone at the capital had it in for Graham. If Khan and his forces broke the hastily-invested minimal royal positions to carry his religious warfare into India proper, there was little to prevent him from seizing vast territories from which it would take an enormous army, years of fighting, and millions of shamrocks to dislodge him.
"Screen off," Mara commanded. She had the maps memorized, and some idea what Graham might try. Khan's troops were well dug in not four miles north of the government position, "as the buzzard might fly", she thought. "No point waiting for them to break out into the Khyber to the east. We must attack within days."
There were three routes by which the rebels might be engaged. One lay to the northeast--a medium altitude valley with a passable route leading directly back down to Khan's camp. It was the obvious and easy route to battle, but also Khan's own natural path to India.
The second was at the far confluence of the paired valley nearly ten Irish miles west. That route was blocked by a battalion under the command of Brigadier-General Michael Malone. Mara didn't trust him. After all, he had employed Haggerty to run Nigeria.
But directly north there was what seemed to her an intriguing possibility for a third attack route--a high, narrow, pass roughly in the shape of a "t" whose top threaded a tortuous route directly between the two opposing camps, and whose broad cross portion ran down toward the eastern end of the main valley between two sheer mountain walls. The highest part of the pass would be difficult to negotiate in either direction if it were guarded by a handful of soldiers, but there were lookout positions up there worth seizing in any case.
They couldn't just fly troops into Khan's camp as would have been done on Tirdia and had been done here on Hibernia when India and Afghanistan fought almost to each others' annihilation in 1791, at the depth of Greater Hibernia's pre-Federation chaos. Modern rules of engagement forbade motorized transport within five miles of opposing positions. In this case, riding was permitted because the enemy employed mounted troops, but there weren't enough horses for everyone, so even the easiest route would require three hours' march.
Mara sighed as she left the tent to do a walkabout. It was her second experience facing superior forces, but this time the enemy had the advantage of being able to pursue guerilla warfare on familiar terrain, while she was in the fixed position.
At once, she spotted Rujub entertaining a group of soldiers near the camp gate. He must've flown with them from Africa, she concluded. Ordinarily, it was her task as second to stop such things, but she'd decided the spy was military, so would merely keep her eye on him for now. Interesting, she thought, that we need spies in our own camp.
Beyond the camp gate and across the now unused road were a large building and several homes abandoned by the rebels just before the government troops arrived. The manse records were reported destroyed, but Mara resolved to organize a careful search. You never knew.
She glanced up and around. Above and all about were the oppressively harsh, near-lifeless mountains. Beneath her feet was a devastated land, one saturated with the blood of generations of warriors, poisoned to lifelessness in the biogenetic wars, and stunted even today. Mara shivered as she looked around for signs of greenery and found few. How much more blood would water the place before this task was done?
On a whim, she donned a split kilt, the kind with two blowsy leggings that make it appear an ordinary skirt while walking, while actually being a riding pant. Like her father, Brian, Mara used the plain court tartan of family Meathe, often noting as she dressed the irony of it also being the king's pattern and so worn by any of his troops not liege to a house. The fiction was the King had no house, so was of the commons. Of course, there was no monarch any more, at least not for four more years when his ban would run out.
Like many young teenagers, Mara had fantasized about marrying the king's son or grandson and helping him claim back the throne. She was too old for such silliness now, but briefly wondered what had become of James IV. Was he long dead, or still hanging about somewhere, looking for an opportunity to do to Tara's current rulers what the first Donal had done to him? "Not likely," she concluded. "He'd be over eighty today." Did he have children? Grandchildren? Were they fighters? Would they be here if they could? The hills delivered no answers. She sighed and went her way.
It was ninety minutes before "evening beans", as a field army would term dinner, when Mara turned in at the officers' stable behind the manse. A dozen high-spirited animals were visible, with more in the stalls behind, all in the care of a native boy who appeared to be about fifteen years of age. He glared challengingly out of habitually angry eyes.
"You're General Graham's new lady exec."
"And you speak Gaelic with no accent," she shot back, equally abrupt, but smiling.
"I am Abdul Khan. I attend school at Kabul." He was nearly twenty cents shorter than she, but grew in stature as he spoke.
"You're high family." She trailed off.
"So why am I the stablehand? Horses are more honourable than men. Tending them is a privilege. My father was the Shah, Lord of this region. This is my stable. These are my horses. I loan them to the army." He was defiant, ready to fight if she naysayed him. Mara just smiled, inviting him to elaborate.
"Mustafsa murdered my parents," he continued, punctuating his words by spitting on the ground with each reference to the man. "Had he offered fair challenge, my father would have chopped the filthy white swine into dogmeat and fed his heart to the buzzards. The police were compromised by greed and frightened by the red devil, so I went to Tara, corrupt though she is. Fortunately for my country, a few there listened, even if only for their own venal purposes. Had they not, I would have returned alone for my vengeance."
Mara, whose family's exile kept her far from the capital, hadn't previously heard the boy's story.
"You have the same surname as this Mustafsa whom we seek."
"He was my father's cousin, but has dishonoured the family, and I disown him. Eventually I will kill him, burn his foul heart as an offering to the Seer, and cleanse our name. For now, I reclaim the family land the coward abandoned rather than face the Irish." He waved at the valley in proprietary fashion and spat once more. Clearly he regarded Tara's army as his personal tool.
Mara, taken aback by the boy's vehemence, hardly knew how to respond. Her heart went out to his pain. She wanted to hug him and speak of the love of Christ, tell him of the salvation and spiritual healing trusting in the Lord of Heaven would bring, but it was too soon. He needed friends and allies first, to experience love. Afterwards he might be open to the gospel.
"You have a horse for me?" She changed the subject.
Some of her compassion may have reached him, for his hard face softened to an evil grin. He gestured at the enclosed ring, where several magnificent animals raced about, burning off excess energy. They were part Arabian, but built more for endurance than speed. "The ones in the stable are spoken for. Take one of these." It was a challenge.
Mara eyed them eagerly, her blood rising. It had been so long.
"The roan stallion?"
Abdul laughed humourlessly. "Try him if you dare. He is Malik, king of horses, and can be ridden only by a king. He was my father's and has been wild since his murder. Someday I will tame him again for myself. The army must choose another. Malik will kill you."
In answer, Mara hoisted herself onto the rail, fished a sugar cube from her pouch and whistled a shrill command. The stallion halted abruptly before her, ears flickering, sweat running in glistening drops from his haunches. He tossed his head, snorting angrily at the interloper.
"Come talk with me, Malik, and make a bargain for the sugar." She held out her hand.
The stallion reared up furiously and trotted off. Mara, who had been through this routine many times, attempted to project mentally her admiration for the glorious beast, verbally repeated the invitation, and kept her hand extended. Her empathy worked wonders with animals and occasionally produced spectacular results in patients. The "shape sense" John Dominic had once spoken of, perhaps.
Malik circled the ring twice more at top speed, then raced directly at her, skidding to a stop inches away, and sending an avalanche of sand in her direction. Mara didn't flinch, but when he tried to bite her hand to make her drop the sugar, she pulled it abruptly away. Before Malik could react, her other hand was clamped on his nose.
Abdul started forward, sure the stallion would break the madwoman's arm, but Malik quivered as if struck by electricity, and when Mara again offered the cube, he gently licked it from her fingers, neighing a contented horsey sigh over the wordless communication passing between the two.
"Abdul. When I mount him, open the gate."
"I'll bring tack."
"Don't need it."
Neither did he, but Abdul, who like most boys in his culture lived on horseback, had never witnessed a European ride without a saddle. Neither had he seen a woman mounted. This tall skinny one is crazy, he reasoned. But if the horse killed her and escaped, it wouldn't be his fault. He could capture Malik again later, when he was ready to lead his own war band and needed a fighting animal.
"Ready... now." Mara stood on the rail and, in one graceful move, leaped to the stallion's back. She preferred to make a running mount over a horses rump as her Blackfoot warrior friends had taught her, but didn't want to lose contact with Malik's face until she was firmly in control. Malik shuddered and turned as if to shake her off, but her hands were against his body running a stream of mental reassurance directly into him, and her legs were firmly clamped to his flanks. Then the stallion saw the open gate. "Ride, Malik," shouted Mara, slapping him, and nudging him sharply with her knees.
The great stallion reared once, then shot to freedom, coming to full gallop in mere steps. Abdul stared after the two in wonder, almost forgetting to close the coral gate. "Crazy European woman," he muttered. But his heart was full of admiration. This one could ride. He watched the pair shrink into the distance, then shook his head. "I'll not become soft over any Irish," he promised, "when there's killing to be done." He fingered the knife at the back of his belt, and imagined excising Mustafsa's heart with it.
An hour later, exhilarated, she laughing, and both covered with sweat, Mara and Malik returned at a sober trot. The stallion meekly followed her to an empty stall, allowing himself to be watered, fed, and groomed. Malik accepted two more sugar cubes and settled down to his oats, a veritable picture of domestication.
"The Lord of Heaven go with you and kindly accept my thanks," said Mara to Abdul a few minutes later. "You'll have no more trouble from friend Malik." She paused, thoughtful, examining the boy's weapons belt. There was more to him than seemed. "You wear a stick and a small knife. Would you like further instruction and preparation for the sword?" Her tone was guarded.
Abdul's eyes narrowed. He'd seen her glance at the scuffed right side of his belt, where his sword hung when he practised with his friends. She knew. "I have begun with the Irish blade," he admitted, honestly cutting to the heart of her observation, "and will wear it openly when I am seventeen."
Mara scrutinized his face. Most would take him for fifteen, but...
"If you would care to join me and a few others on the practice field before breakfast mess, at five hundred hours, we would be honoured, Master Khan." Mara bowed as to an equal, turned, and left him standing, dumbfounded.
Abdul stared after her a long time, thoughtful. She was the first Euro to call him "Master" thereby implicitly acknowledging him as rightful heir of his clan. Even the general and his phoney secretary at Tara hadn't extended the courtesy. If she meant it... Perhaps the Irish were more honourable than he thought. He straightened and grinned. Tonight he would sleep in the family manse, instead of among the tents. It was fitting.
He considered again and decided to message his friends in Kabul and the adjacent valleys. He would gather his war band now. What would the tall woman say when he brought them all to the practice field? Most were seventeen already. His grin became feral. Perhaps he could kill Mustafsa sooner than he had imagined. Perhaps he could make a difference in the imminent battle and gain honour in the eyes of the Irish, glory in those of the Seer's. He briefly considered, then dismissed the Irish god. You needed the Seer to tell you how to live in this life, not some god who lured you with promises of the next.
Mara felt even better two hours later when she left the officers' mess. There she had met Graham's newly-arrived battalion commanders, her old friends Colin and Daisy Kildare, seconded from duty outside the Penal Colony, and like her, newly-promoted to the rank of major. They'd been in touch many times via the MT until she'd left Lagos, but it was their first face-to-face meeting since she and her father Brian departed London following the Friends' first New School class graduation.
The Kildares had brought their drill sergeant and the entire just-graduated class from the Friends' Australian New School to fill junior officer positions. With them, they could organize the three understrength companies of each battalion, some 500 troopers apiece, into three-squad platoons, each with a third lieutenant, and still have a couple of young officers to help in Supply, Services, and Training (SST). Their handful of first and second lieutenants could assist or act in lieu of company captains, of which she had only two. It wasn't by the book, but would have to suffice.
While the three spoke aloud of organizational details, surreptitious connections on the Friends' PIEA channel during dinner allowed them to make plans for late night fireside storytelling and for installing the satellite uplinks the Kildares had brought. They in turn meant she could soon access the alternate network. Open table banter revealed the Kildares were both old friends of General Graham, so, in all, Mara was pleased with the command structure. Now, if Graham had enough competent soldiers...
Ambitious parents often cite Day MacAllister as a modern analog of Cormac O'Malachy, whom Brian Boru renamed Meathe in 1014, when he established Ireland's kingdom. However, unlike those of old, modern legends may be questioned, allowing historians to narrate their lives correctly. The author related this account at London's New School in 1994, again for officer friends in 1997, and has proofread this transcript. We confidently offer it as the authoritative replacement for the extravagant versions of these events still circulating on Greater Hibernia's planetary Metalibrary.
Day and Angus, Lasqueti and Sangster Islands, Canada 1968-1977 (Tirdia)
It's tough growing up knowing your Dad's insane. If he's nuts, how can you believe anything he says? By extension, how can you trust your Heavenly Father?
Delusion, paranoia, inability to distinguish fantasy and reality--the whole ten staves. I looked them up in a psychology text.
'Course, it's worse supposing aliens kidnapped you at birth.
Never mind. Dad and I were the aliens. He stole me. Well, he wasn't my dad, but he was, and he didn't exactly steal me, but...
The cut and thrust of it is, I ignored the evidence, not believing a word he said about us, sure he was mad as a hatter--even when he used technology that surely couldn't exist.
Sorry. Like Lady Karina says, "Tell the story in order, or don't waste our time."
My life started out passably well, the earliest years idyllic--fishing, exploring our enchanted woods, collecting whatever toads, snakes, clams, rocks, feathers, and bruises came my way--in short, being a nosy, active, precocious kid who soaked up knowledge whether useful or arcane.
I lived with my first folks, Grace and Melvin MacDonald, in a rambling Victorian-era house on a bay of Lasqueti Island in the Georgia Strait. We operated "Mac's Station", our Pacific Oil marine refuelling depot and general store on Lasqueti's west side. People moored at our dock, gassed up, then popped by the store to buy a Vancouver or Victoria paper and a can of beans for a quick fishing snack. More mellow customers lingered over coffee and Ma's doughnuts, wasting away an afternoon whilst admiring Vancouver Island stretched out beyond our dock.
Devout believers, my folks allowed Pacific Christian Camps to operate on our property, so my childhood summertime memories are of wonderful music, exciting activities, and fascinating Bible studies. The resident pesty kid, I got included in everything, mastering archery and shooting with twelve-year-olds at age six, swimming and water skiing a year later. I wrestled, ran the obstacle courses, played rugby, climbed the island's rocky hills, and never seemed to run out of energy.
The camp councillors watched me like a hawk, taking notice when I wasn't underfoot as much as when I was. Good thing, especially the day I clambered down a steep slope by myself into a cove to hunt shells and couldn't get back. With the tide coming in fast, Big Bear's rope down the side was sure a welcome sight. Don't remember his real name, just his Third Senior Boys' camp monicker, and how he bargained not to tell my folks if I'd stick close and help him out on the archery range.
All summer campers, staff, and a daily stream of boaters dropped by Mac's. But from October to April our only customers were commercial fishboats, police cruisers, and a trickle of island residents. It was a marginal operation, but it was home.
Excepting scattered waterfront cabins, the nearest settlement was the tiny hamlet at False Bay ferry terminal up Lasqueti where I attended grade school by water taxi. Pa promised I'd commute across the strait in our cruiser to Parksville and Nanaimo for high school and college.
I motored along full of energy, big for my age, satisfying every curiosity, enjoying life, and laying ambitious plans for conquering all the kingdoms beyond our island. But, day after my sixth birthday, and just before Christmas, Ma and Pa called a family conference.
Pa sat in his rocking chair, not moving, looking nervous, like when Ma's aunt Bertha visited. Ma sat bolt upright on the chesterfield, hands folded in her lap as when she kept me at my lessons. I moved to take the easy chair, but she motioned beside her, put an arm around my shoulders, and settled into a hug. I snuggled in, nobody ever having told me I couldn't be tough and love my ma both.
Then I heard the heavy tread of Angus MacAllister cross the upper hallway and rumble down the stairs. My heart lit up. Perhaps there would be stories.
"Crazy Angus", as I called him then, was the lighthouse tender from Elephant Eye Point on Sangster Island, two miles southeast of Mac's. No one lived there later, when they eventually automated the station, but even today vessels heading up the Strait at night take sightings from Ballenas and Mercy, then watch for Elephant Eye to keep in mid-channel.
Angus MacAllister was enormous, especially to a six-year-old. Wild hair, shaggy beard, fierce eyes, over six-and-a-half feet tall (a staff exactly), and built like a bull, yet gentle as a lamb when he worked with an injured bird, gave me my shots (he was our local medic) or talked about his long-dead wife Mercy. Angus had his own room at Mac's and was my favourite visitor.
Pa cleared his throat nervously. "Day, you're growing up towards taking on adult responsibilities someday, and your ma and I thought you ought to know a few things."
He was solemn and hesitant, quite unlike his normal self. I nodded, my elation dampened. I momentarily wondered if this was another "birds and bees" chat, but such matters never made them bashful before.
Pa switched to story mode. "Once, a man and a woman loved each other very much. They married and were together several years, but God chose not to bless them with children."
I waited, fascinated. This was the beginning of the story of me, one I never tired of.
This time it was different.
Angus broke in. "Meanwhile, wee one, there were another lad and lassie living in the auld country wi' their own bairn, newly born and the verra light of their lives." The usual twinkle in his eye went out, and he found himself unable to continue.
Ma took over. "That lady died, leaving him with an infant to care for alone. Moreover, wicked men wanted to kill them. He had to find the baby a safe place."
A roaring began in my ears as I realized what was coming. I've always been a sentence or two ahead. Drove my teachers nuts before I learned to control my tongue. Took several seconds to track Ma's words.
"...And so, God brought you here to us, in the arms of our good friend and cousin Angus, all the way from Scotland."
"You need to know," added Pa, "for we've no truck with deceiving, but you must never forget that though we had no child of our own bodies, you're ours as surely and fully as possible. Maybe more. Most parents never see their children before they have them. We saw you, wanted you, loved you, and..."
"...we still do." Ma hugged tighter.
Part of me believed. But a good chunk was bewildered, the rug pulled out from under life. I walked about stunned for a week, unable to think anything but, "Who are my parents, really?" Ma and Pa could or would tell nothing of the mutual cousin who commissioned Angus to settle me with Canadian relatives, saying only "'Tis for the best, Day. You've a good home here." I fantasized presenting myself on the doorstep of my real family. In my nightmares, they turned me away.
Angus brought me out of my funk with a typically nutty remark. I'd left my electric train unplugged, transformer cord dangling toward the floor, as I drifted listlessly off to my room.
"Ye cannae leave it so."
I turned, puzzled.
"All the wee electrons spilling out make the floor slippery, they being uncertain 'bout where they be and all. Someone might slip and fall."
I blinked, unsure whether to believe him or not, then carefully put the plug on the table. He had a sly look by now, so I guessed he was putting me on.
"Come walk wi' me to my boat. 'Tis time to return to my lightkeeping."
I followed, halfheartedly hoping for a story. Near the deserted bay where he moored his boat--he never used our public wharf--Angus commandeered a cedar log, scooping me onto his lap with one huge hand.
"Ach, wee bairn, we've hurt ye bad, tellin' ye of your first folks."
I nodded, fighting tears. Angus was too fierce to think of crying around him. Men and tears don't mix. I knew that.
"Tell me, wee one. Who raised you from a babe, looked after you, gave you a roof over your head, and loved you, if not Melvin and Grace? No one's like them and you needs tell them so. Will ye do that for me? Yer mopin' breaks our hearts."
I couldn't speak, just nodded. Minutes later, after Angus boarded his speedster and I cast him off, I sought refuge in the boughs of the huge Bigleaf Maple I called my praying tree.
"Dear Jesus, Angus is right. I'm sorry. I've been a thistle in your garden (Ma's expression when I done wrong). Help me do better. But Lord, someday won't you please tell me about my first parents? I just have to know." Then I let loose in the privacy of my woods to bawl my eyes out.
Ma and Pa must'a seen me running full bore across the lawn like I had a lynx on my tail, 'cause they were waiting when I barrelled through the kitchen door, arms akimbo, ready to grab on tight.
"I love you both and I'm sorry," was all I could say. It was enough. We had a long, giant hug.
A week later, Angus visited again. We sat on our same log, this time with me bent into more sociable shape--almost happy again, witness that I'd chatted him up all the way from the station, pestering for a story.
"Ach, wee bairn, I wish I could be so free and innocent as ye, but it cannae be, for my enemies'll find me someday and I must be ready. Nor would it do for one the likes of ye to be close by."
"Who are you, really, Angus?" I pressed, imagining him an escaped criminal or an army deserter. I recalled hearing Pa address him as "Colonel."
"Ye'll no tell anyone?" he conspired, and when I shook my solemn head, continued, "Angus MacAllister of Clan Donald, Scotland's traditional high lairds, also great-grandson of Conn III, King of Ireland and all the world from 1912 to 1932, at your service."
There was more and he said it with believable flair, including a promise to train me in the sword once I was strong enough. Then I remembered the previous week's electricity. An hour in Pa's library sufficed to discover electrons didn't work so, there never was such a king, and Ireland scarcely ruled herself, let alone the whole world. "Adult made-up stories," I concluded. But it helped me recover, and I supposed that was his point.
Angus spent ever more time at our place. He taught me fishing, first aid, fighting with fists and stick, and also a private language he called Orthogaelic. When I could find no reference to it in the UVic library, I assumed it, too, was imaginary.
After I was six, Pa took me in his speedboat twice weekly to Sangster, delivering mail and groceries. I was captivated by Angus, turning over his envelopes to wonder why a lighthouse keeper corresponded with university professors, scientists, politicians, military folk, and the like. But I never had the nerve to ask and he volunteered nothing.
At age eight, I drove the boat alone--which sounds dangerous, but I had lifejackets, could swim like a fish, went only in the best of weather, and always carried a special radio Angus supplied. He would greet me expansively, always show me the lighthouse tower--but never his white stone cottage--and invariably be anxious I return quickly.
My idyll died when I was nine, along with me, almost. Following summer camp season, we got word the Pacific Christian Society was in financial trouble, their assets seized for debts. Days later, a tall, muscular, lawyer fellow with rat-like eyes boated in to "inspect" the property. Pa coolly advised him Pacific Christian didn't own the land. He and Ma did. The lawyer was mighty upset. The MacDonalds would hear from Campbell and Campbell.
A week later, I woke around midnight, remnants of some odd backyard noise picking at the edge of consciousness. It wasn't repeated, but curiosity conspired with the warm late-summer night to fetch me into my clothes and hie outside for a look. Nothing.
I was turning back toward the house when the world detonated in an enormous ball of gasoline-fed flame. The blast plucked me from my feet and slammed me sideways into the forest. My head exploded in pain, and I lost consciousness.
Voices. Faces. One vaguely familiar, the other not. Discussing me, dismissing me as dead meat. Ill-remembered till years later, they swam before me in a red haze of indefinite duration.
I awoke, too numb to feel mere pain, but possessed of the notion demons had blown up our house, then harassed me. "I'm only nine, God," I raged, "Don't let the devil kill me. Don't let the eagles eat me." Funny the ideas nightmares associate.
This was no dream, however. I tried crying for help, found it impossible, and fainted from the agony my efforts induced.
A second time I awoke. Still-functional brain fragments informed me the stars had scarcely moved. Other neurons took inventory. I hung from a tree, impaled through both cheeks and my mouth by a branch. I moved my tongue slightly and found gravel where teeth had been. A thin trickle ran down my face and I tasted salt. Blood, I thought, trying to wipe the drops from my chin.
I raised my left arm. My shirt sleeve was gone, the skin was loose and wrinkled. I stared several seconds before realizing my arm ended in a charred stump. My left side had been turned toward the house. A piece of burning debris must've severed my wrist, the heat cauterizing the wound.
Hovering just over the brink of madness, I vaguely mourned my missing hand and tried again to pray for help from a God I suddenly feared. No, was angry with. This was no accident. Someone had done this, someone had burned my house and killed my parents. God let it happen, and I was furious with him.
I heard no answer, and was possessed of a consuming desire not merely to live, but to wreak revenge on I knew not whom. I moved my right hand, with supreme effort fishing from my pocket the green-handled tool Angus had given me for my previous birthday, the one he called an "Irish army officer's knife". I activated its sonic saw and cut the branch from the tree, loosing my head from the trap, though not from the pounding I took with every heartbeat.
I dropped half a metre and collapsed on my face into the forest duff and early fall leaves, unconscious again. More time passed in a fog of pain, but eventually anger once more took command of my ruined body. I had enough sense not to try removing the wood jammed through my face. I also knew myself to be in shock, likely concussed, not far from death.
I felt around on the ground with my one hand and found a small stick I could use to lever myself to my feet. Then, halting, stumbling, crawling, I wound my painful way through the forest. If I could only get to the cove...
I resurfaced to agony so great nothing could hurt again. I was on my back in a strange room, an out-of-focus visage hovering anxiously above. Tubes connected my left arm to a bedside device.
"Ach, wee one, ye're still here," Angus announced. "Dinnae try to get oop."
I inventoried my upper body as covered in bandages and promptly passed out.
What turned out to be weeks later, when I was partially myself and the wrappings came off, the mirror revealed a horror where my face once was, a mass of fiery scars from my chest up, and a stump terminating my left forearm. I would have screamed at the apparition, but couldn't muster the energy, and fell back to bed, insensible.
Later, Angus said I had found his spare boat, started the motor, driven to Sangster, climbed over the rocks, then collapsed at his door nearly dead. He didn't mention he'd informed the authorities there were no survivors.
"You'll nae tell anyone, but your hand'll come back from the regrow I synthesized with yer DNA." Angus was most broguey when emotionally on fire.
No such technique existed on that earth in 1978, but my forearm, and eight new teeth to replace the shattered ones, indeed returned in under two months. After three, the only remaining scars were jagged blurs on both cheeks, where he'd removed the tree branch impaling me. "Some wounds are too difficult to heal perfectly wi' a portable synthesizer," he explained. "Besides, we dinnae want you looking too like yer old self."
Mental wounds last far longer.
For years I remembered little of the awful night my home exploded. But whenever I puzzled over Angus's other-worldly delusions, my slightly crooked, off-colour hand and the remaining cheek scars argued, "Who on earth could have put me back together?" Earth indeed. I later learned he had other non-existent gadgets, among them a pocket computer. Yup. Didn't exist then.
Once my body mostways recovered, we held a memorial service for my folks, after which, knowing I couldn't recycle "Pa", he said to call him "Dad", rather than "Angus". He produced adoption papers and other identification when needed, but they merely accentuated the sickening hollow in my heart. Who was I? What was my family? Could I belong? I could get no sensible information out of Dad Angus, so any hope of penetrating the secret of my fostering seemed to have died with the MacDonalds, leaving me utterly without roots. Yearning for family became an obsession, driving dreams both day and night.
Despite my need for identity, and until events demanded, neither of us returned to that part of Lasqueti. It was too painful. We boated once a week to Gibson's for mail, but otherwise I became the fellow recluse of Dad Angus.
Now that I shared his secretive home, I discovered he was the archetypal mad scientist, or more correctly, inventor. Our living space was a perpetual clutter of electronic components and assorted prototypes. It's how we made most of our living, the Coast Guard remitting only room, board, and a pittance for light tending. Other government agencies were far better paymasters.
We designed and built security systems, automatic equipment controllers, signal-encrypting radios, and, once that earth invented satisfactory MPUs, computerized instruments and sensors. Dad Angus seeded the patents among assorted silent partners, careful to take no public credit. Sold plenty to the military. They kept their mouths shut.
Got good bucks, too. Those days you couldn't buy anything like our gear there. As full partner in MacAllister Enterprises, I became filthy rich in a host of technology stocks of a kind Dad said did well on his own earth two centuries earlier during its high-tech revolution. Didn't believe a word of it at the time, but the bank account says he was right on.
One of our projects was writing and maintaining software for processing Landsat images. Project management got passed among several outfits, all of whom needed us big time. The latest contractor, on our recommendation, was Donald and Dutton, the international consulting engineering firm out of Vancouver. They won the contract when I was twelve. Dad Angus made them and Boeing my personal clients.
D&D were plenty surprised first time we visited and they saw "Day MacAllister" was a kid. 'Course, I got respect when they realized I coded rings around their hacks.
Nonetheless, I'd have swapped every nickel and all the recognition to have family--real blood relatives.
And, if all this meant Dad was nuts, it rubbed off on me. I'd built my first radio long before moving to Sangster, was into prison alarm systems and landslide detectors soon after, then signal detection and, finally, small computers, once that earth got 'round to making the necessary parts.
I'm out of order again. Dad Angus drank too much. He was plastered every weekend, and I cared deeply. I remember at age six sneaking into his room at MacDonalds' and heaving his cache in the ocean. He bought more and locked it up.
Not long after my recovery, while I was still getting used to my new hand and face, a Shantyman name of Murphy dropped by to preach Dad the Gospel--how Jesus could rescue him from alcohol if he would repent and trust Him for salvation.
Dad listened politely, but when the Shantyman Murphy left, drank himself senseless. Disgusted and alarmed, I went outside, growled up at the sky and prayed, "Jesus, if you fix Dad Angus so's he won't drink, I'll follow you again." See, the explosion left me bitter against the Lord. I'd made a faith commitment at age five, but now thought, How could God love me, yet allow my family to be destroyed, and let Dad Angus be a drunk?
Kids maybe have credit in the Almighty's bank. A week later was my tenth birthday, just before Christmas. A good weather forecast Saturday morning saw Dad and me piled into his cruiser and motor to Vancouver, where we rented a van and shopped ourselves silly, first for clothes and stuff downtown, later for electronic supplies and tools at suburban specialty stores.
That afternoon the meteorology lads, divining the weather would turn bad, put out a small craft warning. We were way out to Langley already, and I saw Dad lick his lips nervously. He'd have to stay sober, or he couldn't drive the van or boat next day. It would be his first dry Saturday since I moved to Sangster.
"One more store, then our hotel," he announced nervously, driving to a tiny shop in Aldergrove for the blank circuit boards he'd ordered.
We no sooner emerged from the van than a stranger--to me--walked up as bold as if expecting us. A kindly-looking fellow of perhaps forty, he had peppery grey hair, and sported a crooked grin. Looked harmless enough, but Dad turned white.
"When will you return to living, Angus?" he asked, gently.
"Look Angus, you've wasted enough years. You can't go your own way indefinitely, or you'll pass on without accomplishing what you were created for."
Intriguingly, he included me in the sweep of his hand. What was he to us, and why was Dad scared? I never saw him so any other time. It's obvious now, but hey, you got no control over being written out of life's plot, so why worry?
"You have to stop over tonight to wait out the storm, so why not come to church tomorrow? You do remember where it is?"
Dad stammered assent, but spent the night tossing and turning. I heard moans, and he called "Mercy" several times, so I knew he was thinking of his wife. He was a ghost next day. I was too, 'cause I spent the night praying scared, though a piece quieter.
In the morning, I asked him point-blank, "Dad, why are you running from God?" I ignored the fact I was too.
He sat on the edge of his bed, running his beefy hand through his long sandy hair and beard. He looked exhausted, sounded worse.
"Mercy and I were partners at Palace Security and in life itself. Someday, ye'll know what it means."
Back to his other-world fantasy. I must've blinked or grimaced, and opened my yap to make some remark. He scowled, stoppering the words in my mouth.
"She was as good a sword as I, but it don't do a spit o' good if there's no one to protect yer back."
Then he changed the subject. "My old battalion from the Asian dustup back in the 60's was in town. They invited me to their hall in West Tara for old times' sake. I knew Gerald Monde and the Campbells were up to something, but how'd I know it would be that day they picked to depose the Donal? Security was in the way. Time I learned, Mercy was dead."
He looked at me blankly. "My fault. I should've been there, 'stead'a celebratin'. Once I knew, I'd no choice but to run for exile. The rebels would've killed you given the chance, so I brought you along. They'd have found us sure if I stayed on Hibernia, so I stole a Security timestream car and came here to Tirdia."
He looked sorrowfully at my uncomprehending face. "I was nae use to Mercy that day and none to God nor man since. Night Grace and Melvin died, I was drunk as a skunk. Didn't hear the explosion or you might not've had to fetch yourself to Sangster. Will you forgive me, Day?"
I nodded slowly, scarcely understanding a quarter of his words, except that "Tirdia" was what he called this earth, as opposed to the fantasy one we were supposedly from.
Now, Dad I could forgive, but I had bigger problems, 'cause if God was proposin' to keep his side of the foolish bargain I'd offered, I had to keep mine. And there was a pile of anger and hatred standing in the way. "Forgive," Dad said. There was a thought. No, I couldn't, I decided, recalling my folks' murder. Surely God couldn't ask such a thing.
It was beautiful weather when we left the nearby restaurant, but Dad had promised the Professor, and like he said, "An officer of Ireland's High King keeps his word, even at dear cost." We went to church.
The pastor preached his heart out. We were all sinners needing God's grace. If we would trust the finished work of Christ on the cross and stop trying to be either good or bad--'cause it wouldn't help either way--we would be forgiven, saved by grace alone and become God's friends. I remember his exact words. It's a trick I have. Can't forget when I don't want to, nor permanent if I do. Can be a curse.
"God is the author of all life," the preacher said, "He demands an accounting from those he's created. If we're to serve the Living God as he designed us to, we've got to understand his perfect, unconditional forgiveness, accept it, then emulate it in our relations with others." He paused. I cringed, skewered to my seat by his words.
"No Lord," I quietly insisted. "I won't. The demons who killed Ma and Pa haven't repented nor asked forgiveness." Works for a while to evade responsibility by blaming your own sin on someone else, but it can't last long. Sooner or later the Lord calls you on it proper.
Before the thought was done, the pastor shot his next bolt. "Constable O'Malley, would you relate what you told me this morning?"
"Sure thing, Pastor Joe." A burly man in full RCMP uniform strode to the front, hat in hands as it's proper for men in church. The pastor stood aside to let him have the pulpit microphone.
"Last night I was on duty at the Langley detachment when the hospital called, asking for an officer to be sent over.
"When I arrived, they had a patient with serious knife wounds waiting for a surgery team. He perked up at the sight of me, whispering, 'I've trusted in Christ for salvation and made peace with God, but I must confess before I go.'
"I would have put him off. After all, it hardly mattered in his condition. But he insisted, saying he wanted to tell those he'd wronged that he'd repented, gotten the Lord's forgiveness, needed theirs. His life was finished, so he needed my help."
"What did you do?" the pastor asked.
"I said I'd tell his story until someone with the right to do so forgave him."
"He died before they could operate, but he was smiling."
"What was his crime?"
Premonition crept up from my toenails, suffusing my whole body until my hair curled. I knew what he was going to say.
"He murdered a family by blowing up their house. He didn't say why. I assume robbery was the motive. Said he left the body of their youngster hanging in a tree afterwards, and the image has haunted him ever since. If someone could forgive him..."
God's demand on me was clear and I tried to stand, to speak, but my head swam. God's forgiveness and my hatred battled, both seeking to claim me.
The pastor announced a hymn, then interrupted after the first verse, "Maybe you've only now understood the Gospel. Come to the front for prayer and we'll lead you to faith in Jesus. Or you committed to Christ once, have drifted away, and need to confess your sin, perhaps offer forgiveness, but certainly receive it from God. Return to his family. Come."
He looked straight at us.
An invisible, irresistible hand pushed me forward. Seconds later, Dad knelt at the front, the Professor with a hand on his shoulder, me beside, the pastor next, and a bunch of people breathed soft amens behind.
When we were done praying, Dad and I stood, turned and faced the people. You could have heard one of Dad's "wee electrons" fall. He nodded for me to start.
"I'm the one," I began, then had to stop. It was hard letting hatred go. "I scarcely saw the man who burned out Ma and Pa, but I've hated him and blamed God ever since, 'specially for leaving me hanging in the tree. But God had heaven for my folks, and he gave me a new Dad, so...I...I...forgive." I bowed my head.
Into the silence, Dad spoke. "I've been i' th' wrong all these years to blame Lord of Heaven for my own troubles, and fer drowning my sorrows in drink. I also ask for his grace to forgive, and I say, He helpin', I'll nae touch another dram."
You understand, what we did that day was no magic wand to fix everything. We still had battles to fight, enemies to deal with, harsh trials to overcome, but we began to live following that altar call. Moreover, I now had family--God's people.
The Professor remained a puzzle till, during one of his many visits to Sangster, he explained, "Angus, I had to get you off the bottle if either of you was to make it out of a short story and into a book."
I never guessed he only had long term plans for me.
People having issues with the rich and powerful, or with the realm itself, occasionally choose to disappear from public view by joining the royal army, a mutually satisfactory arrangement for a competent soldier. The military takes care of its own, and MT newshounds daren't attempt to penetrate army security.
>But if blessed with other talents, there is another way to vanish from official sight. Fortunately for the royals' interests, that possibility didn't occur to Penal Colony Governor Philip Desmond while he was wasting enormous sums of public money in late 1986 tracking a certain little girl he wanted killed. It's truly said Bards are unable to forget, but rather than conceal each others' secrets, Hibernia's bardic nomads make a point of not knowing them in the first place.
--Murdoch O'Kelly in the Bardic Herald
Sheana, Eamon, and the Bards, 1985-1987 (Hibernia)
"Move along now, the show's over." The Penal City beat cop was due off shift and wanted to disperse the rubbernecking crowd first, but it wasn't easy. He followed a couple of rough sorts, encouraging them to make their way from the area. He'd have a juicy story to relate over supper tonight. Then he met his partner, who'd crossed the main road after clearing the loiterers on the other side.
"His new governorship's a testy sort--just arrivin' from the airport and arrestin' somebody right out'n the crowd whilst 'is groundcar drives along the blessed street."
"It were that bald horror what lives out at the Schmidt place he picked up."
"She probably deserved it, lookin' like she do, but I don't like the idea of people being scooped that-a-way."
"She were Rosie Bolivar."
"What, that ugly creature what looks like 'er face was burned off is the South American terrorist? I don't believe you."
"The governor called her that hisself. I heard 'im."
"That a fact? Say, why do ye suppose Tara would put a priest in charge here, anyhow?"
"Mayhap to help him repent of his own sins." He slapped his friend on the back and they both laughed.
The cop, satisfied the two were no threat to the peace, peeled off to his station to report off duty.
It wasn't until the next day that a grim squad of prison guards returned with wanted posters and sharp questions about a five-year-old girl who sometimes accompanied the faceless woman on her occasional forays to town.
Sheana watched the woman she called Mother being taken away by Philip Desmond's prison guards and was filled with fear, but not so much as to paralyse her. She'd been told it would happen someday, but thought it all make-believe, like stories of kings leading armies to war or princes marrying peasant girls like herself. Such things didn't happen in her world.
But this had, and so, per her mother's carefully-drilled instructions, she subdued her instinct to cry out or run after and instead acted casually disinterested. As the cops quelled the street excitement, she wandered off, pretending she just happened to be in the neighbourhood. Then, taking care no one noticed, she worked her way out of town as it got dark, not stopping long enough to find food.
For two days Sheana skulked in the outback, helping herself to odds and ends from homes near town, then she carefully made her way to the Schmidt's farm where she'd lived her entire short life. She read the sun and the stars, and found it easily. But as her mother said she must expect under such circumstances, nothing remained but smoking ruins. Sufficient enquiries had apparently been made to track notorious rebel Rosie Bolivar to her home, and Sheana must assume the guards knew about her, too.
Not once leaving the cover of the brush, she slipped away, only vaguely hopeful her mother's employers had escaped alive. A few hours later, Sheana carefully removed most of her hair with a knife retrieved from one of her mother's forest caches. There she also helped herself to a supply of coins, redistributing most to other locations, keeping only two crowns and several coppers in her little plastic belt pouch. She didn't go near the hiding place of her mother's sword and her mother's two fabulous rings, nor did she dream of confiding in anyone. Rosie Bolivar had trained her daughter carefully to take nothing for granted, to trust no one, and to fear three men above all others--Sean Reilly, Philip Desmond, and Thomas Monde. She'd seen one of those in action, and the theory of fear had become the reality or terror.
Suitably disguised after stealing a boy's shirt from a clothesline, Sheana reconnoitred farther afield, seeking hiding places and food.
For three months, she successfully dodged dogs and the occasional irate landsman who tried to catch her at garden raiding. She spoke to no one and saw few. She slept in dry culverts or under bridges, and for the sake of her mother, tried not to cry overly much at night. Sheana never attempted to catch and eat small animals, but it was not because she cared for their lives. Rather, she lacked the means of starting a fire and the knowledge of which parts to cook. Twice she narrowly escaped serious harm because of roots or leaves she ate in the outback. After that, she adopted the rule "everything is poison unless mother Rosie said it was good".
The hardest thing was keeping clean. She had no soap or hot water, and what streams she could use for bathing were cold and often muddy. It was nearly impossible to keep her clothes clean, and after a few washings she found she had to steal replacements before the smell became too much to take.
Moreover, a five-year-old cannot hide forever. Sheana's natural curiosity and longing for companionship eventually brought her solitary phase to a close.
It was late December and glorious summertime. Sheana was cautiously working her way through a region well-known to her, helping herself to such berries as she could find, and occasionally raiding a vegetable garden for her favourite carrots when suddenly she found herself at a familiar clearing near the city. She had visited it mere days prior, so was now astonished to find it occupied by a large central tent and several smaller ones, these surrounded by a circle of brightly-painted wagons, and the whole enclosed in a colourfully decorated canvas fence.
Sheana had been to a feis the previous year with Mother Rosie, but her little girl's recollection of the details was vague. She was more intrigued by the gaudy trappings and interesting-looking people than by any notion of what a gypsy bardic company was or why they might be here. Fascinated, she took to haunting the area, several times slipping under the canvas fence to scavenge for food, despite twice almost being caught by an all-too-alert security officer.
One evening, as she drifted from tent to tent through the fabulous camp in the semidarkness, munching on a piece of cheese someone had misplaced by the kitchen tent door, she heard strains that would capture her life and imagination forever. The haunting, lyric, stringed melody sent shivers along her spine, arresting her progress in the shadow of a small tent wagon.
Throwing caution to the slight warm breeze, Sheana crept close to the place whence the wonderful music emanated, glanced around to ensure no one was watching, then risked a peek through the tent's plastic window. Inside was a man seated on a stool, eyes closed, strumming a harp. And such an instrument it was--not one of the small handhelds such as the Schmidt's Irish neighbours played at barn raisings and dances. No, this was the most glorious instrument Sheana had ever seen. It towered to the top of the tent; its music reached the very heavens, and the man playing it made the strings perform as she had never imagined possible.
Transfixed, she listened far longer than was wise, giving only part of her attention to absently finishing the cheese in the meanwhile. When the music halted after many wonderful minutes and her dazed ears suddenly recognized slight sounds behind, she was too late. She turned, trying to dodge, but at once found herself swept off her feet into the powerful arms of the very camp security officer she had twice evaded.
He was getting on in years, and his hair was grey now, but he had lost none of his youthful strength, so, struggle and kick as Sheana might, she could not escape. When she finally gave up, to hang limply defiant in his arms, he said, not at all unkindly, "Ah little one, did you enjoy the wee cheese I put out for you?"
She looked up in surprise, her face turning deeper red than normal. "You trapped me," she accused. It was the first time she had spoken since her mother's arrest, and her voice sounded strangely hollow. She glared defiantly at her captor. He was smiling in a friendly way, not at all like the farmers whose gardens she raided, one of whom had chased her with a sword swearing almost as foully as her mother sometimes did.
"Now," he said. "I've caught you fair and square, but I can't stand here holding you the rest of my life. Will you say a promise not to run away until we can talk things over, if I say a promise in return to feed you a proper supper afterwards?"
Sheana licked her lips. After the Schmidt's rich kitchen, the scraps she now subsisted upon left her constantly hungry and she knew she was thinner than she had been. Despite the man's kindly demeanour, she feared. "My mother told me to stay away from strangers," she piped up, forcing the words through a small pout.
He looked over the hungry little captive, pondering her words. If the girl had a parent, one was certainly not evident. "Where is your mother?" he asked, hoping his words weren't threatening.
Sheana didn't answer, but he caught her glance flicker in the direction of the nearby city where the prison's gloomy bulk loomed darkly above all else.
"Ah, I see," he responded carefully. "Tell you what. If we talk a while, we two won't be strangers any more. After you eat, you can leave if you want, and I won't chase you." While she considered this offer, he added, "Is that enough to say you won't run away the moment I put your feet back on the ground?"
"All right, I say it, but if you try to hurt me, I'll run anyhow."
"Good." He plunked her on the ground and squatted so as to look her in the eye. Then he held out his hand. "My name is Captain Eamon McCallum, and I've been hired by the bards to be in charge of their security. What is your name?"
Sheana didn't know what to tell him. She had been dressing and hoping to pass herself off as a boy, but hadn't thought about a name. After some hesitation, she squeaked out, "Sean."
"What's the rest?" he asked, frowning slightly.
Sheana couldn't very well say "Bolivar," so she picked the first one that came to mind.
"Reilly," she answered, employing one of her mother's great enemies. Her captor blinked twice, chuckled at the effrontery of using that of all names, then sat before her cross-legged on the ground.
"Now, listen here young mistress," he said. "I've been in the army a long time, so I've captured and questioned many prisoners, including ones who dressed and acted like someone else. That means I can tell when somebody's lying. I won't ask you again about your last name. You can keep it secret if you want. However, if I'm going to be your friend, I must tell you that a girl shouldn't pretend to be a boy. It isn't decent."
His captive coloured and looked about her, then back at the man sitting quietly before her. She had no idea what he meant by "decent", though it sounded important to him. She felt panic and wanted to run, but had said a pledge she wouldn't. Mother Rosie and Mother Schmidt always emphasized a said promise couldn't be broken, even if it hurt to keep it. She hung her head.
"I am Sheana," she admitted. Afterwards, she realized she'd let her hair grow enough that her pose as a boy was no longer convincing, but at the time she conceived a great and sudden respect for this clever man. Eamon never let on he recognized her from the artist's sketch on hundreds of wanted posters around the city. Nor did he once consider surrendering her for the thousand shamrock reward on her head. He knew Philip Desmond all too well.
Eamon put three fingers under her chin and raised her downcast head. "Well, the name you gave was close to the truth. Now, before I take you to the kitchen, would you like to meet the harpist inside?" When Sheana's eyes lit up with sudden pleasure, Eamon rose to his feet and started toward the door of the tent where she had been listening. "Come." He waved her along behind.
After some hesitation and a further invitation, she followed him inside.
Eamon introduced her. "Mistress Sheana, I present Ard Filea Murdoch O'Kelly, Master Bard of this company."
Sheana stared back and forth between the man wearing the colourful tabard and his wondrous great harp. The latter had an ornate, gilt-covered frame that glittered in the bright light. On the tall side, the strings were attached to a crowned pole, which she later learned signified its rank as king of instruments.
"Is this our night-time kitchen visitor, Eamon?" Murdoch asked.
Eamon McCallum didn't reply directly. Instead, he offered, "Filea O'Kelly, Mistress Sheana is unattached at present and apparently interested in the harp. Perhaps there is a position in the company for her."
Murdoch winked at his friend over Sheana's head as O'Kelly replied. "We could use a girl in the kitchen to help set tables, serve meals and wash dishes for her keep, but I would only allow it if she were willing to study music and poetry in return. We are, after all, bards, not servants." He had a hard time sounding stern instead of laughing aloud.
Sheana couldn't believe her ears. These people would teach her music and feed her in return for mere kitchen work? Why she could do that. Hadn't her mothers taught her? She stared greedily at the harp, then at the two men with their broad grins, and slowly nodded her head. They had a deal.
So, she became Sheana A'Kelly. The cook said she'd never had an adult helper so diligent and useful around the kitchen as the little tyke, and Murdoch boasted no more willing student. Sheana had too short a reach to handle the great or keyed harps, but quickly demonstrated a rare ear for music and made rapid progress on the small strings.
One day as she left the master bard's tent, she heard him exclaim to the Captain, "She's got perfect pitch, Eamon. Perfect. She's only the fourth I've encountered in all my years besides myself."
"Who were the others?" she heard Captain Eamon ask.
"For years I thought James III's Queen Maeve was the only one. When she sang, you'd swear you were hearing an angel. She was amazing, the finest voice of the century. I've got all her recordings, but heard her in person only once, when my father took me to one of her last concerts. I don't think I've ever gotten over her murder. Then last year I heard Day MacAllister play the pipes. Perfect, Eamon, perfect, but definitely a soldier by trade, not a bard. Just six months ago, young James Dillworth joined my virtual class. A harpist, and I had great hopes for him, but he's immature, and has too many other interests to be a bard by profession. But this one is mine, Eamon, and mark my words, she'll be one of the great ones someday. But don't you tell her, my friend. I wouldn't want it going to her head and spoiling her."
Sheana wasn't sure what "perfect pitch" meant, but decided it was complimentary, and she smiled as she walked back to her own quarters, not realizing it was the first time she'd done so since her mother had been arrested.
The bards kept Sheana carefully out of public sight for a month, but by the time the tour left Australia in early fall, she was participating in occasional private recitals with the others and was accepted by the company as one of theirs. No one asked her about her past, and she volunteered nothing. Eamon McCallum kept his own thoughts on the matter private.
Sheana hesitated a long time before deciding to leave with the bards rather than return to the wilderness and hope to stay near the prison. But she had no way to know if mother Rosie was still alive, and no means to talk to her if she were. Moreover, she recognized that her survival in the outback had been a near thing, and she couldn't count on duplicating the feat.
Murdoch O'Kelly and his troupe of poets, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, and other performers were among the best known of the nomadic bardic troupes and were scheduled years in advance. Their immediate itinerary called for them to visit New Tara, then Ireland, but nearly four years were to elapse before their return to Australia.
Eamon remarked to Murdoch one evening just after their arrival in New Tara, "By the time we're back, she'll have grown enough to be unrecognizable."
One day, during their months at New Tara, Sheana sat down with Eamon on the step of the caravan where she lived with the cook and her two trapeze artist daughters. She handed him a flimsy of an item she'd printed from daily news summary.
"What have we here, young lass? Tara news wire dated a year ago today. 'The Academy made history today by confirming a sixteen-year-old as Ollamh of Administration. The Tara-based woman joins Tara Meta-Ollamh and will use the teaching name of Rhiannon. Three men have previously achieved Ollamh by the age of sixteen, but Rhiannon is the first woman to do so.'" Eamon looked up from the paper to see Sheana's wide, staring, patient eyes boring curious holes through his face.
As soon as he finished, she asked. "What is a 'Tara Meta-Ollamh', and why doesn't Rhiannon use her real name?"
Eamon grinned. Sheana always had questions. Almost everyone in the troupe got their daily quota, some exceedingly complex. She couldn't ask him about the technical points of music, or practical magic tricks, so he got most of the other queries, some of which required considerable research.
Not this one, for he remembered the story well. He answered in reverse order. "She was under age, and was being protected from publicity by her parents and by the academy. Some people never use their real names on the network, lest bad people seek them out and try to take advantage of them. A Metaperson is a partnership formed for the purpose of doing business over the network. All the partners work together, sharing in the profits or the risk. Tara Meta-Ollamh is the name of both a school and its teachers, all of whom, by the way, live and work at the palace--on the second and third floors of the east wing, to be precise."
"Are there a great number of teachers in Tara Meta Ollamh?"
"Oh, yes. A person cannot truly say they can do something until they can teach it to others as well, and since many of the very best work at the palace, almost all of them are teachers."
"But there's no charge for me to take courses on the MT, so how could they make money?" Sheana's questions were invariably practical, but Eamon never failed to wonder where she got her ideas.
"Teachers are paid by their schools, which charge the domain lord to whom the students owe fealty."
"And who is my domain lord?"
The light dawned, as Eamon realized what she really wanted.
"What is your name?"
"Sheana A'Kelly." She hesitated, pouted in thought, then asked. "Does that mean Ollamh O'Kelly is my fealty lord? Would he let me take school again?" She sounded hopeful.
"Again," he thought, picking up on the word. Ah, we knew she'd had some formal schooling. Aloud, he agreed, "Yes it does, and he certainly would. As a matter of fact, we were wondering who should teach you administration."
"That's mathematics and economics and politics--all about being in charge of things, isn't it? If I wanted to go to court someday, I'd need to learn that, wouldn't I? So, I should take school, shouldn't I? And, if I'm to go to court, someone at the palace would make a good teacher." She presented her argument in a straight-line fashion that immediately made Eamon imagine Sheana becoming a soldier someday.
"Administration includes a few other subjects besides, but, yes, certainly you'd need to earn a GAC to be considered an educated woman at Tara."
"Maybe Ollamh Rhiannon doesn't have many students yet. Do you think she would teach me? Then I could become Ollamh like her when I'm sixteen."
Eamon chuckled at Sheana's presumption. Everything is possible to a six-year-old, even persuading an Ollamh to teach children rather than GAC graduates, so she could duplicate a feat seldom before attained. Well, maybe. "We can ask, little one."
The request for Ollamh Rhiannon to serve as teacher for one Sheana A'Kelly, of no fixed address, came first to the Palace, then was routed to Rhiannon's current home in the south of Ireland. On her enthusiastic approval, the head of Tara Meta-Ollamh assigned Sheana to Rhiannon's carefully selected class of young children, all of whom attended virtually as remote participants. Rhiannon also taught two advanced classes, but always insisted on having one group of promising beginners.
As the bards themselves had students all over the world, they carried along the necessary equipment for generating two-way virtual classroom environments, so Sheana was able to participate in real-time discussions with ten others of her own age, all from Ireland but her. Sheana knew that the face transmitted to her as Rhiannon's was substituted by the palace software, but in the manner young children have, she nonetheless quickly fell in love with Rhiannon, whose every manner and expression she memorized, and many of which she copied.
Sheana meandered along the aisle of the Atlas class transport rocketplane taking the O'Kelly troupe from New Tara to Shannon airport and a home island tour.
"Captain Eamon, when we're in Ireland, can we visit Glenmorgan?" She plunked herself down beside him with a cautious familiarity she could never afford to Murdoch O'Kelly, whom she regarded as far more intimidating than the old soldier.
"Why do you want to go there, little one?" Eamon asked, careful to give "his little mop top" total attention.
"I want to see where Devereaux and Rourke fought their great war against..." She trailed off, and Eamon realized that, as in modern history class, she wouldn't say aloud the names "Sean Reilly" or "Thomas Monde". Was she embarrassed at having used one of them for herself, or did the dark cloud over her pixie face suggest something more sinister? He recalled how Sheana would wince at those names whenever the troupe presented "Death in the Glen" and sighed slightly. He knew part of her secret and could guess how she knew so much about Glenmorgan, but Sheana kept her own counsel, and he wouldn't pry.
He began to lecture, as he often did concerning military things. "It was only a battle, not a war..."
She interrupted impatiently. "Yes, yes, but can we go there?"
He chuckled at her directness. "After we visit Limerick, Cork, and Waterford, we will camp with three other troupes for a month and present a county feis at Bardsbridge-on-the-Nore, the traditional Bards' meeting place in Southern Ireland. I know the area well. We got into the habit of going there regularly when Ollamh O'Kelly's son Tadgh was in school nearby. Bardsbridge is not many miles from Glenmorgan, so I'll take you there and show you the battleground myself."
"Good," she pronounced, satisfied, then thought a moment. "And I shall meet Ollamh Rhiannon there, also."
"We won't be in Tara on this trip," he replied, "only in the south."
"Ollamh Rhiannon lives in the town two miles from Bardsbridge now."
Eamon opened his mouth to comment, then felt astonished as he realized she'd known exactly where they were going and had been manipulating him.
"Did she tell you that?"
When Sheana shook her head vigorously, he asked "Then how do you know? A virtual class can be broadcast from anywhere."
"I looked up the network numbers of her projectors and traced them to the Town Hall virtual classroom there, of course," she replied, then got up and drifted back to the rear of the plane, not realizing she had by that comment transformed Eamon's bemused surprise into utter shock. Several instances involving people accidentally shut out of their caravans had seen Sheana demonstrate her ability to pick locks, but what could a six-year-old know of disassembling network protocols? Supposedly only top-level security operatives as he had once been knew how to do what she'd just casually announced herself capable of. Eamon shook his head. He didn't doubt she'd done it, but found himself wondering how many other things Sheana knew, or could break into.
Eamon and Sheana at Glenmorgan, late August 1987
"Who looks after everything here?"
Eamon McCallum, lost in his own dark thoughts, started at Sheana's question. He'd been thinking about the loneliness of the storied battlefield, how they hadn't seen a single human being since entering the old Morgan/Devereaux estate. Yet the girl's question was certainly a propos. The grass on one end of the battlefield had been mowed regularly, and the hundreds of crosses had a fresh coat of white paint and new black lettering. He rubbed his chin and considered. "I don't know. Devereaux and Rourke are banned. I thought the Malones took over this estate after the battle, but apparently no one lives here now."
"Maybe the people who were tenants here all went away and wouldn't come back to live under the new holders. Maybe this year someone came and fixed things up for the ten year anniversary."
Eamon blinked at her answers. Yes, he thought, it was ten years and two months ago. Sheana would make it her business to know, wouldn't she? Aloud, he agreed only, "Perhaps someone did."
"The royals camped over there," she announced, pointing, "and Jack Devereaux led his forces toward battle along that path. The battle was there. The royal reinforcements came from over that hill." She pointed here and there, reviewing the progression of the battle in awed tones, almost with the assurance of someone who'd been there. Incredible, he thought. It was four years before she was born. 'Rosie' must've told her everything. Not for the first time, he wondered what the relationship was between the girl and her 'mother'. He'd last seen Rosie/Karina not long before the girl had been born and could swear she couldn't have been pregnant at the time. 'Course if she had, it would make Sheana his biological... No, his thoughts weren't going there. 'Rosie' was gone, disappeared back into the prison at Penal City and not heard from since. He assumed she was dead, so no one would ever know about the girl.
"Come," Sheana finally concluded, "let's go see the manse." She led him unerringly along the path she'd earlier pointed out until they came to another clearing. There wasn't much left after a decade of weathering, but it was still possible to see in the weed-infested mounds of rubble where the Devereaux manse and horse barn had once stood.
Odd, he thought. Was it just his imagination, or was there a burned smell in the air? Surely, there couldn't be after ten years.
Confident she knew her way about, Sheana ran ahead toward a small wooden gate leading into a well-tended enclosure. Not having been there since years before the battle, Eamon was lost in his own recollections of what the place had been like when people lived there, when he had visited, back in the old days when...
Suddenly he heard voices from the cemetery and realized Sheana had surprised someone there. The man before her was armed, and just rising to his feet. Eamon ran toward them, fearful for the girl at first, then stopped four staves away as the stranger turned toward him. He had a bunch of rooted petunias in one hand and a trowel in the other. Then the two men looked at each others' faces.
"Why did you kneel down to the gardener and put your head on your sword?" Sheana walked solemnly beside the still-stunned Eamon McCallum as the two made their way back to the public groundcar that would return them to Bardsbridge. "I thought people only did that for a king. He didn't say his name. Was he a king, Captain Eamon?" She blinked rapidly, and answered herself, as she sometimes did. "He was King James, of course. Then why did he kneel to you? Are you also a king?"
He had to do something about her barrage of questions before they got out of hand, Eamon realized. "I am no king, Sheana. And, we knelt to pray. It's something one does in a cemetery, to show respect for the dead."
She stopped, looked up at him, and shook her sandy curls, negating his lame denial and expressing her own excitement. "It's so romantic. James IV tends the graves of his cousins at Glenmorgan." She clapped her hands. "I shall come here again someday and I shall talk with him more when I am a great lady of Hibernia." The rush of words paused momentarily, then, "And, if you aren't a king, you must be a high lord, or he would not have spoken the same degree of the respect language to you as you did to him."
Eamon grew alarmed at Sheana's all-too-accurate inferences, and must have looked it, for she added, "Don't worry. I can keep secrets. I have lots of practice." And with that, she dropped the subject, leaving him wondering what other deep thoughts the girl's head entertained.
Following a long silence punctuated only by Sheana's comments on the birds, trees, and flowers they passed, she took matters up from another point of view.
"I don't pray," she announced firmly.
Eamon was well aware of the girl's disdain for spiritual things. Today was, after all, the Lord's day. Yet while most girls her age would be happy to attend church and learn about Jesus, Sheana had, as always, attended reluctantly and sat silently, not participating. "Why not, Sheana?"
"Because if there is a God, he's mean."
"Not at all. God is love."
"No, Captain Eamon. If God were love, he would do good things. Glenmorgan wasn't a good thing. It was very, very bad. And, what happened after was even worse. If there's a god, he could have stopped it. But he didn't."
He waited for more, wondering what she'd been told, but she abruptly started a new line of thought, leaving him unsure if she was referring to the fire that destroyed the manse and took the lives of everyone inside, including Katherina's daughter Mara. Or, was she getting at something else? But he knew from experience there was no asking her what she didn't want to tell.
"Another bad thing is the prison in the town by Bardsbridge."
"That's not a prison, Sheana," he protested. "It's a hospital for very confused people. The fence is to keep people who can't look after themselves from escaping and harming themselves and others."
"It's a prison," she insisted. "Bad things happen to people in prisons, and bad people run them. I know. The man in charge is Physician Jones. He kicked Johnny's dog Garth just for running in front of him, and Garth died afterwards."
Johnny Stuart was a local boy whom Sheana had taken up with after a performance he'd attended with his family. Eamon had transported Sheana to town twice to spend Saturday evening with the Stuarts, but this was her first mention of the dog incident.
"Johnny says the prison is scary. People go there, and they scream a lot, and they never come out again. He says there are ghosts, and he's scared. I don't believe in ghosts and I'm not scared of anything, but it's a bad place. If there were a god, there wouldn't be such places."
Eamon wasn't sure what to make of this mishmash, but Sheana, a veritable font of information this day, wasn't through with her revelations.
"Ollamh Rhiannon was sure surprised this afternoon."
"She was? When?"
Sheana laughed. "When I went to town and was in her class in person, she thought I was virtual. At the end, she dismissed the class and the local girls left, then the ones from other places all switched off, but I was still there, so she turned off the projector and I was still there, so then I said 'Hello Ollamh Rhiannon, I'm very pleased to meet you in person my own self and to see what you look like. But I'll keep it secret. I promise.'"
"You went to town alone?" Eamon was aghast.
"You've taken me. I knew the way. It's only two miles." She pouted.
Eamon took her arm, then forced her to look up at him. "You must never do that again, Sheana. You know it wasn't right."
"Why?" A tear glistened in one eye as she attempted defiance but failed. Eamon suddenly realized this revelation was what the whole conversation was really about. She knew she'd done wrong and was confessing, despite claiming not to believe in or care about God. Interesting.
"Because it's dangerous," he said. "The local security officer told me two women and one young girl have disappeared in those woods in the last six months."
Sheana blinked rapidly, then gave in. "I'm sorry," she said. Then she put her head on one side, thought a moment and added, "I'll bet they were kidnapped by bad men and taken to the prison and tortured there." She nodded her head sharply as though she'd proven her case beyond all shred of doubt and it was Eamon who now ought to apologize to her.
"Don't ever go into the woods by yourself again," he admonished insistently, not sure if he had won or lost the encounter.
"I won't," she promised, then added brightly, "Can I come to town with you in the morning when you go to meet with your friend Fred, the security man? Rhiannon won't be there because she's busy, but I can scout the prison with Johnny."
Sheana, Eamon, and the general, the following morning
Eamon was deep into a discussion of new detection techniques with his former student Fred Hallas, the mercenary officer who ran local town security on contract, when Sheana suddenly burst through the door leading from the main town hall. Her dress was torn, there were muddy scratches on her face from a fall, her hair was a mess of dirt and twigs, and dirty tears coursed down her cheeks.
"Come quickly Captain Eamon, Officer Fred. The bad men have captured Rhiannon and taken her inside the prison. We've got to get her out or they'll torture and kill her."
Fred turned toward Eamon with a slight grin, which he returned. Children's fantasies could be so real to them.
Angered, Sheana put her hands on her hips and announced, clipping her words for effect, "I am not pretending. Johnny couldn't come out to play, so I walked past the prison to scout it by myself and I saw them unload her from the medical car and take her through the gate. She was asleep on the cot, but I saw her face. It was her, Captain Eamon. Lady Ollamh Rhiannon. They've taken Rhiannon inside." She grabbed at his arm, urging him, tears flowing down her dirty face. "We've got to stop them before the bad men kill her."
Eamon hesitated. He knew Sheana didn't pretend, but even if Rhiannon was in the hospital, surely no harm would come to her there. Still... Temporizing, he turned to Fred. "What is the governance and disposition of forces at the hospital?"
Fred Hallas had the answer at his fingertips. "Governance is by head physician Henry Jones under clan MacCarthy by contract to Tara. There are one hundred five MacCarthy troopers and eight officers garrisoned on the grounds. They don't allow me entry, because the contract gives them exclusive security authority."
"That's a large force to guard a mental hospital."
"Most are criminally insane, unfit to stand trial. Some are dangerous."
"Don't talk any more," Sheana demanded, tugging Eamon's arm again. "We've got to go."
Eamon hesitated. If he made a false accusation against the hospital staff because of what Sheana thought she'd seen, he would be in serious trouble. "Are you sure it was Rhiannon, Sheana?"
"I'm sure," she insisted, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I only just met her yesterday. I know. Please."
"There have been some nasty rumours," Fred Hallas put in, "but I have no authority without evidence."
"There's a back gate by the river that's not guarded," Sheana added. "You can get in there without anybody knowing and see for yourself. Please."
Eamon tapped his finger on the desk, thinking. Then, he summarized aloud. "If there really is a problem, two of us couldn't do much against that many. Tara security is a good hour away even by fast aircar." He paused and thought. "Who's in charge over yonder?" He jerked a thumb to the south.
"Down the river? The fox."
Eamon hesitated again. The general to whom Fred referred was a former classmate, called the 'Fox of Lagos' ever since a memorable battle there in 1953. His old friend would surely recognize him. Would the Fox turn him in to the court? On the other hand, could the general staff be ignorant that the supposedly dead former Donal Friel O'Tighernaugh, once a Major-General himself, was now hiding out in the very army he'd once led? Not likely.
"Can you get him on the MT? Use code omega gamma omega." Eamon cited a decade-old sequence for a first class emergency and silently prayed he wasn't being led into oblivion by Sheana's fertile imagination.
Moments later a familiar face stared at him from the MT. "Oh, it's you, McCallum," his old friend gruffed at him, apparently willing to accept his identity unremarked, yet letting him know he knew. "This had better be what your code advertises. We're in the midst of resolving an emergency already. One of my people is dead, a second missing, and I don't have time for much else."
It could be, Eamon thought, making up his mind. "I have a report of Ollamh Rhiannon having being kidnapped and now held prisoner at the local mental hospital. The only witness is a seven-year-old, so the testimony is not admissible, but I am prepared to authenticate her as reliable. Guards are a hundred and thirteen including eight officers. Please advise."
At this several excited voices in the office at the other end gabbled at length to one another. There was a pause, several musical tones, then prolonged amorphous static that Eamon recognized as a military white noise.
The general reappeared on the MT screen. "Well done, Captain. You've enabled us to locate one of our people at Castletown hospital, missing since last night, apparently kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. You and Hallas are attached to my command, effective immediately. Your orders are to reconnoitre and hold for our arrival in exactly thirty-one minutes. Assume red blanket. Execute." He cut the connection.
Eamon felt his breath go out. It had been a long time since he'd been ordered to use deadly force with covenant rules suspended. Well, the army looked after their own, whatever it took. He hoped for Sheana's sake that a civilian like her precious Rhiannon could escape the fighting unharmed.
Twenty minutes later, Sheana stood at the edge of the wood with Eamon McCallum, Fred Hallas, and an older man with a jacket covered with medals whom everyone addressed as "General". She looked behind them where forty-five other soldiers led by two anxious young lieutenants were gathered just out of sight of the river gate into the hospital grounds.
"It's certainly an excellent way to surprise them, Sheana," the general whispered. He surveyed the gate and its security device. "It's locked with a standard old Harmon-Jenson fingerprint recognition device," he observed to Eamon. "Sounds a forty decibel tone and sends out a radio signal to a central monitor if disturbed."
"Take me about fifteen minutes to dismantle it," Eamon volunteered, then, as Sheana flashed by him, "No, Sheana, don't touch it."
But before anyone could stop her, she'd climbed onto a rock by the gatepost, pulled a small tool from her pouch, flicked off the lock's cover and begun probing its interior. Within seconds, two soft clicks broke the silence, and the gate swung noiselessly open.
"Hurry, please," she entreated. "They took her to the big building at the back."
"She's in there all right," one soldier announced, examining the readout on a small machine. "Third floor at the front from the looks of it."
"I'll write that girl a security certificate myself," the general breathed, then added, indicating the soldier who held the wand, "Right, Brevet-Lieutenant, you take fifteen and do a circuit of the perimeter, securing the other gates, and posting sentries on the outbuildings. Button the rest of the place up tight and hold for General Graham's arrival from Tara. I don't want MacCarthy reinforcements pouring in behind me."
He turned to a second soldier. "Brevet-Lieutenant, take your ten to the castle's rear door and secure it, but don't move inside until the count of ten minutes or an alarm sounds, whichever comes first. Then go for the interior in full force. The rest, come with me to the front door. Sheana, stay here and keep out of sight."
But he had no sooner said the latter words than she seized a soldier's stick from his belt hook and dashed past him to disappear around the castle. Eamon and Fred, in the process of assessing the general's troops themselves, didn't notice until too late. There was little point trying to find her, so they opted to join the general instead, reasoning they'd best solve all their problems by shutting the place down quickly.
The next half hour was a whirlwind of activity. Not ten minutes in, alarms did begin sounding, and Sheana heard the clash of swords from several directions. But the soldier at the gate had said Rhiannon was on the upper floor, so she bent her efforts to avoid people and make her way through the maze of buildings into which she'd seen her beloved teacher taken.
Four picked locks, three hallways, and two stairs later, she'd made it to the second floor, where she neutralized a fifth alarm lock and swung open the door to yet another hall. Immediately she heard running steps at the other end, then a shout. She entered the hall and found herself face to face with Henry Jones, the very man she'd seen receiving the stretcher at the gate earlier that morning. Charging fast toward her from the other end of the hall was Rhiannon.
Sheana started to yell to her friend in triumph, but Jones reached inside his jacket, then turned toward Rhiannon, ignoring her.
"A gun, Sheana," Rhiannon yelled. "He's got a gun. Get down."
A forbidden weapon? Sheana reacted immediately, charging the few steps between her and Jones with her borrowed stick held straight out. She drove it into his right kidney, end on, with all the force she could muster. There was a sound like thunder and something tore a hole in the plaster wall to one side. Jones fell heavily, giving Rhiannon time to reach him. He tried to raise his gun for another shot, but she stepped on his hand, pinning the weapon against the floor, then kicked him on the head with her other foot, rendering him unconscious.
"I wouldn't let them hurt you, Ollamh Rhiannon," Sheana proclaimed, running around the prostrate physician to hug her teacher and only then realizing what an enormous woman she was. "I'll be big and strong and a soldier like her someday, too," she promised herself. Shortly, the prison's forces began shuffling into the hallway with their hands up and under guard.
But she never did find out what the fuss was all about, for suddenly, Sheana spotted a priest and another soldier enter the far end of the hallway. The hair at the back of her neck stood on end. It was Philip Desmond, one of the three whom her mother had taught her to hate and avoid. The man with him was his security officer Kees VanBuren, the very one who'd arrested her mother.
"Bye, Rhiannon. I gotta go. I'll be in touch." She ducked behind her beloved Ollamh and dashed back down the stairs by which she had entered, catching only a few words of her arch enemy's falsely soothing tones as she went.
"Most regrettable...not authorized by family MacCarthy...my assurances of full cooperation with the palace authorities..."