Photography by Natalia Le Fay Follow Natalia Le Fay on Instagram @natalia_lefay.
The Lost Queen by Simon & Schuster was published in September, 2018. Read more about Signe at signepike.com.
A chill wind stirred, gusting over the nearby pastures, turning my face clammy where tears yet clung. A feathery fern brushed against my forearm, and I reached to yank it from the ground, the uprooting of the tender shoot somehow nourishing the darkness that consumed me.
That was where Cathan found me after some time, sitting on a half-rotten log by the trickling stream, a mound of tattered ferns at my feet.
“You’re clogging up my head, child.” His knees creaked as he crouched down beside me. His coarse gray hair had come loose from his braid, making him look more like a wildwood recluse than Lord of the White Isle.
I can feel you thinking on me as surely as you are in the room, he’d once told me. And yet I could never sense it when Cathan thought of me.
I looked up. “I think Lailoken has broken his foot.”
“If he did, then he likely deserved it.”
I bent once more to the streambed, my dirt-crusted fingers searching for more shoots to unearth. “Gwenddolau is going off to the Borderlands, where babies are dashed against rocks and whole villages are reduced to cinders.”
Cathan eased down next to me, wrapping his long arms about his knees. He paused a moment before speaking.
“Languoreth, the earth is very old. Tragedies will occur on nearly every patch of land, given enough time. But given enough time, miracles will unfold on every hillock and valley, too. Who are you to say a disastrous fate awaits your foster brother? Gwenddolau’s future is his own, and he has much to accomplish before the Ancestors call him home.”
I stared at thesoil, saying nothing.
Cathan turned to me, his blue eyes calm. “I do not think it is only
Gwenddolau’s leaving that troubles you.”
He waited, but I could not find words for the shadows that had stirred since I’d woken from my dream: my mother’s voice. Her ghostly apparition standing in the winter river. The glistening wounds. The mud-caked boots of the little boy. And so I told him of the stag. Cathan listened keenly, the tips of his fingers pressed together until at last I fell silent.
“You and your brother have been visited by the stag, the spirit of your ancestors,” he said. “This is a mighty thing.”
“But what does it mean?”
“The antlers of the stag arch into worlds unseen. This is why he is seen as a messenger. Perhaps he came to offer comfort. Perhaps he came to show you he is a power that may be relied upon. Perhaps he was only looking for a quiet drink.” His eyes sparkled with humor. When he did not find such a reflection in mine, he bowed his head. “This message has come unto you. You and your brother. But I can tell you one thing of importance. Spirit does not choose to show itself lightly. Spirit cannot be commanded. It comes to those in need, when it is needed, and, most importantly, in its own time. I can promise you that should you desire to know the stag’s true message, you will discover it when the time is right, and not a moment before.”
I let out a sigh.
“Do not sigh like a servant who’s burnt the pudding,” he said.
“I have not finished yet, you know.” He lifted a finger. “Most importantly, the stag comes to tell you of a journey that is about to unfold.”
“What sort of journey?” I asked.
“Oh, an epic sort, always. Filled with dashing heroes, a wicked villain, battles, enchantment, and lion-hearted feats of bravery. This is the stuff of stories told round the fire.” But as Cathan looked at me, his smile waned.
“It’s the living of it that’s the hard part,” he said. “There may well be shadowed days. The stag comes to signal the beginning of a new journey you must take. And so the path of this adventure has been laid at your feet. You and your brother’s. Soon, I think, you will be asked to walk it.”
The journey to Partick. The Wisdom Keeper’s words had taken something once enthralling and hung it with a cloud of doom. I shook my head, eyes stinging with a fresh swell of tears.
“Eh, now,” Cathan said. “Have I not been at your side, all these years? I who foretold you and your brother’s coming? I have bent my life to the task of your learning, Languoreth, and not only from the tenderness that grows for two young babes. I have seen the shadows of the times that lie ahead. You and your brother have roles to play in the events that must unfold. And I mean to arm you to the teeth for battle in ways perhaps only a man such as I am able.”
“Lailoken may have a role, but what role have I?” I challenged. “I was not chosen to become a Keeper like Lailoken. And I was born a girl. Neither will I be allowed to fight!” My role was to marry and someday bear children, but I could not say those words because they sickened me.
“Do not envy your brother, Languoreth. It is true, the Gods have not chosen you for Keeper. And, as a young woman, neither can you become a warrior like Gwenddolau. But you will have your own influence, as is your fate. You will come to understand that each of us has the power to fight.”
He meant to encourage, but Cathan’s words nearly sank me. I did not choose to live in such shadowed days. For generations our land had been torn by violence. Now Cathan spoke of more battles to come, of the roles I and my brother must play, as though we were little more than game pieces on a wooden board.
And to what end?
Because there were men in the world with black hearts who brought pain and gore to this place of clouds and trees and swift-moving rivers. Who brought slaughter and death to our timeworn mountains and the people working to carve their abundance from the hardened earth of our fields. A shiver coursed through me and Cathan draped his thick white cloak about my shoulders, engulfing me in warmth. We sat that way for a while, the Wisdom Keeper’s strong arm about me and our eyes fixed upon the hills that slumbered in the north. Twilight was falling. The lowing of a cow sounded in the faded grasses and against the purpling sky; a hawk circled beyond our ramparts. Cathan watched it keenly before turning to me.
“If you are afraid, then you are wise,” he said softly. “But you have nothing to fear, for I will be with you. Now come with me, Languoreth, daughter of Morken. There are trunks to be packed and provisions to be seen to. Your journey awaits.”