A Sorcerous Mist
by Simon Kewin
Quirk stood on the quay, stared out to sea and swore. Nothing. A few yards of choppy, green sea, and then the whole world faded away into grey fog.
He could hear ropes creaking in the thick, damp air. Men grumbling quietly to themselves. The hulls of the boats bumping and jostling against the wooden spars of the jetty, as if impatient at being tethered for so long. He could taste salt and smell the familiar, sharp tang of fish. But he could see nothing.
For three days now it had sat there. It crept a little inland, washing over the town like a slow flood. It stretched out to sea, all the way to the ends of the world so far as anyone knew. And there was nothing to be done about it.
He cursed again. There wasn’t a breath of wind on his face whichever way he turned, no suggestion of a breeze to blow the great sea-har away and let them sail. He thought of the cargo of smoked fish in the hold of Sheerwater, the weight of all those herring in all those barrels sucking her down into the water as if a sea-serpent had hold of her. He dreaded to think what the cold and damp was doing to the fish. And the Western Isles four days sail away even when the fog did lift.
He cursed again, but the wind still refused to stir.
Quickly, for perhaps the twentieth time that day, he walked back along the quay, the wood beneath his boots shiny and slippery with water and the crushed remains of fish. He ignored the squat, rounded shapes of the inshore trawlers, their crews listlessly mending nets, caulking hulls, coiling lines. He strode angrily between small towers of barrels that overflowed with salt and the smooth, metallic shapes of fish. He kicked at the nets that had been thrown into rough piles, ready to be checked and folded. Only back at the sleek, lithe lines of Sheerwater did he stop. Standing next to her there as she chafed at her moorings, he could barely see up to the top of her mast.
McBride stood at his customary station next to the tiller, watching over the boat, one eye always on the short gangboard that crossed to the quay. As ever when they were in dock he looked wary, mistrustful of the land they were tethered to. He rarely went ashore. What it was he feared there, this man who feared nothing, Quirk had never yet found out. Some event in his past, or some series of events, quietly haunted him. Something that had happened to him or to those close to him. Whatever it was, whenever he did make one of his rare, lone forays into port, his eyes were as wide and his breathing as laboured as any fish hauled up in a fisherman’s nets.
Yet he was a tall, strong man—the strongest man on the boat. His hair was long, lashed into a single sheaf with beautifully-knotted leather thongs. His face was worn and a little raw, like ship’s timbers long-exposed to the elements. Here and there it was mottled and pocked, as if he had once been encrusted with barnacles. Quirk trusted him like no one else. Over the years that they had sailed together, his seamanship, his knowledge of wind and water, the sheer strength of his arms, had brought them safely around or through many storms. When he thought of him, Quirk saw him standing there at the tiller, seeming to hold in check the force of the whole sea, roaring orders to the rest of them. At times like that, even Quirk did what he was told.
Quirk walked over to the tiller, glancing around the boat at the furled sails, at the crew being kept busy mending sheets and cleaning decks.
“How are the men?” he asked.
“They mutter about Captain Crellin, the Phynnodderee.”
“Crellin is a fool. A bully and a coward, the worst kind of man. The Phynnodderee is probably half way to Gaul now in a thousand pieces, her cargo back in the sea.”
McBride generally acted as spokesman for the rest of the crew when it came to speaking to Quirk. At the same time, Quirk relied upon him to control the boat and relay his orders to the men. It was difficult being caught between Captain and crew like that.
“The men know that if Captain Crellin has made it to the Western Isles, he’ll get a good price for his cargo and ours will only fetch a half its worth. At the same time they know the risks. We’re all just impatient. You’re right not to sail in this.”
“It can’t last for much longer.”
McBride looked over at the quay then, his wariness clear in his eyes. He nodded slightly in that direction.
A roughly-dressed man, a beggar perhaps, had walked along the quay and stopped at Sheerwater. His clothes looked old, often-repaired, ragged. His hair was roughly cut. Quirk was put in mind of some great, old crow perched there on the quay, his feathers greying and unkempt but his eyes still sharp beads of black. Over his shoulder, the strap of a leather bag.
A hawker, perhaps, hoping to sell them some useless trinket.
“What can I do for you?”
“May I come aboard?”
McBride exclaimed quietly beside him.
“If you can give me one good reason why you should do so,” said Quirk.
The stranger smiled at that. “Because I wish to book passage with you. It will make it difficult if I am unable to come aboard.”
“You wish to book passage? To where, stranger?”
“I have need to travel towards the Western Isles. You are set there with your cargo of smoked herring, are you not?”
“You seem to know much about me and my business.” Quirk still had not moved from his position at the tiller next to McBride. He stood there with his arms folded, much of his suppressed anger clear in his voice.
“You and your ship are well known in this port. So large and fast a vessel.”
Quirk knew the man was trying to placate him, trying to get round him with his easy praise. A part of him fell for it.
“We carry cargo, not passengers. Everyone on this ship works.”
“I can pay well, Captain.”
“You can? Even if you had a pot of Faerish gold it wouldn’t help you. In this fog we can’t navigate. And with no wind we can’t even move.”
“I can find our way in this fog.”
“No one can.”
Quirk was intrigued now, and a little off-balance at this unexpected turn of conversation. “Well, well. And I suppose you can arrange for the wind to blow too?”
“Aye, I think I can, if you’re willing to take me.”
Quirk snorted, laughing openly. At the same time he was disconcerted. This was no ordinary stranger. Everyone born and raised on the island was wary of magic, knew well that unhuman creatures walked the land. And Quirk, a sailor, was more superstitious than most. His life was spent at the mercy of the sea, and the gods and demons who lived there.
At the same time, he had found it best over the years not to show any of this fear to his men, to appear the fearless sceptic.
“And what is your plan, old stranger? Will you blow us all the way to the Western Isles yourself? Or will you row?”
“Captain.” It was McBride beside him, speaking quietly so that no one else would hear. There was something a little like fear in his voice, this man that had shouted down tempests before now. His eyes were wide, concentrating on the stranger as if caught by some glamour.
“What is it?”
“The stranger. I have heard stories, Captain. We all have. I’m thinking maybe I know who this is. You know the name—Mannanan Mac Lir. The sorcerer. The great sorcerer. We must be careful.”
Quirk kept his eyes on the stranger whilst they talked. “Just stories, McBride. Mac Lir is a myth.”
“It makes sense. They say he can shroud the island in mist if it is threatened, that he can control the weather, that he can navigate with his eyes closed.”
“And do they say also that he begs passage on cargo ships when he needs to travel?”
“Not that I know. But if this is him, why does he really want passage, I’m wondering? Where is he really trying to get to?”
Quirk snorted. “He’s just a man in need of a boat to get him to the Western Isles. If he does happen to be a powerful sorcerer too then I’m sure he’ll look after us on the way and pay well.”
McBride said nothing else. He didn’t need to; he knew that Quirk had heard him.
“I cannot make the wind blow, Captain.“ The stranger spoke now, as if he had been listening to their conversation. “But I know one who can. If you’re willing to make the journey to Slieu-Whallian and visit Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag, our Queen of Spells, then we can still be in time to catch the morning high-tide.”
Few spoke so openly of the Wycka. Among sailors it was almost unknown to do so, except perhaps when they were far at sea and out of their power. That the stranger so casually invoked the name of the Queen of Spells shot icy water down Quirk’s spine. He was in a difficult situation now; clearly this was no ordinary man. He had heard plenty of tales of the prices people paid for using Wycka magic. He feared their ancient, night-time, woodland magic of blood and cobwebs. At the same time, he was conscious of his entire crew looking on, listening to every word, conscious of his position with them.
“The Druidh say the Wycka’s touch carries disease, that they bring down plagues, consort with spirits and with the Faer, the Little People.”
“You mustn’t believe everything the Druidh say either.”
A few sailors had drifted over as the conversation had continued. There was an audible gasp from them now. Only someone powerful or foolish would be openly critical of the Druidh in such a public place. Quirk feared them as much as he feared the Wycka. Perhaps more—their hard, bright, green magic seemed somehow less human. And the control they held over the lives of the islanders seemed to grow greater with each season.
He was in a tricky corner and the stranger stood there still, smiling gently as if they were discussing the weather. He could see only one way out. And, who knew, it might even allow them to get their cargo to the Western Isles after all.
“Very well. I will visit Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag and ask for her help. Although I do not see why she would wish to. It is a four hour walk to Slieu-Whallian. Assuming I’m not turned into a beetle and squashed, I can be back by first light to catch the ebb. You are welcome to spend the night on board if you wish.”
He turned to McBride, who looked clearly troubled by the whole situation. “You have Sheerwater. Look after our guest.”
McBride nodded. “Take a lamp.”
Quirk reached up to one of the ship’s booms and picked off a brass and glass lantern, its base full of fish oil ready for the night watch. It would be as dark as peat out of town.
He walked back across the gangboard to the quay and the waiting stranger. He was taller when you were close to him, and his face looked old and worn. But his clothes and boots had once been well-made.
The stranger reached then into his leather bag and pulled out a sheet of creamy parchment and a quill pen. Swiftly, resting the thick paper on his spare hand, he made some marks, then handed it across to Quirk.
“Give this to Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag and I think she will help us.”
Quirk nodded. He had met perhaps one other person in his entire life who could write. He took the paper and looked at the marks on it. They meant nothing to him although he liked their clever intricacy, like so many knots in a fine rope. He folded the paper carefully and put it in a pocket.
The stranger made a sudden, complicated movement with his left hand then and touched the lamp that Quirk carried. It sparked instantly into flame and began to burn with the greenish-yellow flame of fish oil.
He smiled. Quirk, unable to think of anything to say, nodded once again and strode off towards the town.
* * *
Outside Douglas, the island was dark save for the occasional croft or cottage. The land sloped upwards away from the coast, and he soon climbed up far enough to escape the fog. By then it was fully night. There was no moon and the stars seemed especially cold and distant. His oil-lamp was a flickering, insubstantial smudge of light, crushed by the weight of the darkness. There could have been anyone or anything walking behind him, or beside him, and he would never have known.
He knew the tracks and paths of the island as well as anyone; he had spent much of his youth wandering over them. But even so there were frequent alarms when it seemed that he was lost. The night played tricks on him. Time and again he thought he was long past turnings in the path before they finally slipped out of the gloom.
He had been to Slieu-Whallian twice before. Once as a boy, brave enough to get within sight of Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag’s house, not brave enough to approach it. The second time, as a young man—brash and foolish, no doubt. He had come to a rolling. He had been full of excitement at that, he remembered, probably the worse for drink. But when it came to it he couldn’t watch. He had stood apart from the shouting crowd, and left quietly before the end.
On both occasions it had been a bright, clear summer’s day. Now it was the middle of a very dark night, and a different matter indeed. He could easily turn around and return to the harbour. Everyone would understand. No one need even know.
Across the valley, he could see the light from the Queen of Spells’ house. She may or may not be awake—as a Firegiver, she would always keep a flame burning for people to take from when they needed it. The long, steep, slope of Slieu-Whallian was invisible of course, but he knew that her house, an ancient crofter’s cottage, was right at its foot, within sight of the small lake in the valley. He shivered. It was a terrible place. And that she chose to live there, of all places on the island, was the most chilling thing of all.
But he had come this far, he wouldn’t turn back now. He thought of his men back on Sheerwater, wished that McBride at least was there with him. He thought about the stranger, and wondered once again what the writing on the note said. And if this really was Mannanan Mac Lir, what was he doing stepping out of their fireside stories and onto the decks of his own boat?
It was the thatch-weights that finally rattled him. He skirted carefully around the lake and up to the cottage and was about to knock boldly when he saw them. Most people lashed large stones to the ends of the ropes that they slung over their roofs to keep them in place. Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag used skulls—sheep, cows, horses, other animals he couldn’t recognize. Skulls filled with small stones and packed soil, the ropes tied through eye-sockets, around horns. In the daylight he would have barely noticed them. Now, standing there in the depths of the night, after that long walk, his nerve finally failed at the sight of them. The impulse to run was strong. He stood there unable to move.
The cottage door opened. Against the wavering, red light from inside he could see only a silhouette, a single figure about his own height. For a moment there was silence as the Queen of Spells considered him and he, in turn, stood as still as any standing-stone.
“Well, well, a strange visitor in the middle of the night. John Quirk, is it not? It is some time since we last met.”
He had expected an old crone, a cracked and hard voice. But she sounded only a little older than himself, and there was a hint of amusement in her voice. It was enough to allow him to speak.
“I ... I’m sorry, but we’ve never met before. I’ve ... seen you from afar, that is all.”
“Nonsense. It was about this time of night that we met last. Perhaps that was your thinking? You were much smaller then, of course, but you made about as much sense. Your mother laboured for a day and a night and a day to bring you into this world.”
“You ... delivered me? I never knew.”
“You thought we spent all our time putting the evil eye on people, and bringing down diseases on sheep?”
“No. No, I didn’t think that. I ... don’t think like that.”
“Well, maybe. You had better come inside. John Quirk must have some pressing reason to come and visit so terrible an old woman at this time of night.”
She stepped back, granting him access.
He followed her in, immediately grateful for the warmth of her cottage. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to find, but he was surprised at how ordinary it was. A small, stone room lit by fire and candle, rough rugs on the floor, wooden furniture, everything meticulously swept and cleaned. Familiar smells of peat-fire. Only three shelves of books, strange liquids brewing and bubbling in pots and the occasional alarming totem—a longtail skull, a dead crow, an eye daubed in red on a wall—marked the place out as belonging to the Queen of Spells.
Near the fire, the perpetually burning fire, lay a huge black dog, a great shaggy wolfhound. It watched him keenly as he moved, panting faintly as if it had just returned from a chase.
“My dog. He is called Moddey Doo.”
“Ah ... really?”
“Just my little jest, of course.”
The dog didn’t move from its place as Quirk sat down, nor did it take its eyes off him once. He tried to ignore it.
“I have come to ask a favour of you.”
She handed him a beaker of some hot liquid that smelled slightly of heather and sat down opposite him. Her hair was deepest, richest black, shining in the candle-light. “Drink this. Go on, there’s no enchantment in it, it’s just a hot drink on a cold night. Drink and tell me of this favour you wish to ask.”
He took the beaker and sat. “I have need of travelling to the Western Isles but we are becalmed. The whole island is becalmed. A passenger I am taking suggested you might be able to help us.”
“He gave me this letter to give to you.”
She took the piece of parchment from his hand and angled it towards the fire to read it. Quirk sipped from his drink. It tasted good, warming him from the inside.
She looked back up at him. “Well, well, you do have interesting passengers aboard your boat.”
“You know who the man is that wrote this?”
“Of course I do, as do you if you’ve any sense at all.”
“Can I trust him? Is he evil?”
“A little. And a little good, like all of us. But the balance between the two is about right in him. We have dealt with him over many years. There is no malice in him; he won’t deliberately set out to do you harm, if that’s your meaning. He has protected this island for a long time. Be aware of that; he might consider that to be more important than you and your crew and your boat.”
“So, you will help us?
She seemed to study him for a long moment, as if assessing him or, so it seemed, remembering things about him. He sipped the last of his drink and said nothing.
“I will. Partly because of this letter. Partly because of who it is that you carry with you on your boat. Partly because you are your mother’s son. And partly because of you. You are not a bad man and you may even be a good one, some day.”
“I ... thank you.”
“But there will be a price for my help, Captain Quirk.”
He sighed quietly. “I thought there might be.”
“It is nothing you cannot afford. If I do this for you, and you return safely to the island, all I ask is that you rename your ship Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag.”
“She has been called Sheerwater since the day she was made.”
“You are afraid to rename her? Afraid of the Druidh maybe, of what folk might say? These are bad times for the old ways, John Quirk.”
“No, I am not afraid. She is an old friend, that is all. But I will gladly rename her and gladly sail her with such an auspicious name.”
“So it shall be. Stay and guard my dog for me whilst I prepare the magic.”
She stood and up and walked into the shadows at the back of the room, disappearing completely from view. It was said that there were tunnels and caverns underneath Slieu-Whallian, a whole Faerish palace perhaps. He wondered if there was some entrance way to them back there. The huge dog’s eyes were still intent, unblinking on him. He had the distinct impression that he only had to make a single move and the hound would leap up and kill him. He tried to ignore the thought.
A single, pained scream rang out from the shadows then, alarming and urgent. He started to move, then thought better of it as the dog growled faintly, almost gently. Another scream came, and another. If he was back on board he would have run instantly to see what was happening. Here, he was out of his depth, had no idea what he should do. Another scream came, and then silence.
She reappeared back into the light then, looking a little drained, panting a little like the great dog. In her hand she carried a short length of rope, with four intricate knots strung out along it. She offered the rope to him. He didn’t recognize any of the knots; couldn’t immediately see how they were tied or how to be untied.
“Take this. When you have need of the wind, stand with your face in the direction you wish to travel and untie a knot. Take care, untie only one at a time. Use two together and your boat will be smashed to twigs by the storm that you summon. To calm the wind, cut off the piece of rope you have untied and cast it into the sea. Four knots should be enough to reach the Western Isles. I presume you can make your own way back.”
“Thank you, Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag.”
“Very well. Now you must go if you are to catch the tide at Douglas Town, yes?”
Outside the door, he picked up his lantern where he had left it. He turned to face the darkness, then turned back. “May I ask you a question?”
“Another favour, John Quirk? Well now. Let me see—you were wondering why I live where I do?”
“Aye.” He spoke quietly now, almost in a whisper. “I came to a rolling once. I was young. I saw the spiked barrel they put her in, a woman little older than me. I heard her screams, her pleading. I heard the cries stop part way down. I saw what was left of her at the bottom. I saw the lake where they drown those that survive, the place where they bury those that don’t. Why ... why would you live here, here of all places on the island?”
“Many reasons, John Quirk. Partly to remember all those women who were killed as you describe. One or two of them Wycka, my sisters. Most ordinary women. Each and every one of them deserves to be remembered in some way, to be named aloud on certain days, during the rites and ceremonies. Also, this is a place of great power, There is rage and hatred here. On stormy nights the air seethes with it, with their spirits. This is where I need to be. One day soon there will be a battle between the old ways and the new, between Wycka and Druidh, and this is where it will start. Or maybe where it will end.”
He nodded at that and turned back to look at the dark. Away in the east, the first, faint lightening of the sky could just be seen, a faint glow over the hills.
“Remember what I have said and remember the price, John Quirk.”
He set off into the night, his fish-oil lantern burning brightly long after it should have flickered out. Three hours later he arrived back at Sheerwater—tired, sore, but greatly relieved.
McBride was at his usual post, watching warily. The other crew members were below. Only the stranger was on deck; he lay asleep there on the hard wood, his head resting on his leather bag. As Quirk walked back across the gangboard, he stirred and sat up.
“You saw the Queen of Spells? You have it?”
“I do,” said Quirk, holding out the length of rope, a little uneasily as if it was likely to come alive and bite him.
“Good. Guard it well, Captain, we will have need of it.”
Quirk nodded, tied it around his neck with a fifth, loose knot of his own, a rough sailor’s necklace next to the small lodestone that he wore on a chain.
“McBride, rouse the crew. We leave for the Western Isles immediately.”
The tide was already ebbing. They untied and pushed off from the quay with long, wooden poles. The flow of the river that emptied into the sea at the port, along with the pull of receding tide, carried them slowly away and out towards open water. The fog was as thick as ever and they lost sight of the quay within moments.
Soon they were caught in their own little world, a pocket of sea with mist walls. It seemed that they weren’t moving at all although Quirk knew that they must be. It was disconcerting not knowing exactly where they were, what was up ahead. He felt alarm rising; there could be rocks, currents, other boats, all sorts of dangers around them.
The stranger looked calm. He stood right in the bows, looking keenly out to sea, breathing in the spray and air as if he knew their position by smell or taste alone. After long moments, he turned and called to Quirk.
“We are clear of the bay. A south-wester now will take us up along the coast of the island.” The stranger pointed off to the port side as he spoke, indicating the direction they needed to travel.
“You are sure?”
“Very well. “ Quirk untied the rope from his neck and began to unpick one of the Queen of Spells’ knots. It was intricate and unusual and for a time he couldn’t see how to do it. Then, by pulling sharply on a particular loop, he found that it fell apart quite easily.
There was calm for a moment. He was conscious of the crew looking at him expectantly. The air didn’t stir. He turned to face the south-west as if he would be able to see the wind coming. There was the slightest movement of cold air on his face, like some small sea-creature breathing on him.
The wind picked up rapidly, grew stronger. Quirk shouted for sails to be hoisted. They billowed out instantly, hauling the ship rapidly around and thrusting it forwards. The wind was strong now, strangely constant too, with no gusts or lulls to it.
Quirk nodded at the stranger. “Tell me, since it seems that we are to be travelling to the Western Isles together, what am I to call you?”
The stranger smiled. “Lir was my father. Mac Lir would be a good name, I think Captain Quirk.”
“Very well”. Quirk turned and went aft to the great wooden tiller, where McBride already stood, holding the ship’s course with strong, gentle hands. Mac Lir walked to the prow and gazed out to sea as if following a trail he could see on the water, although the fog was as thick and impenetrable as ever.
They sailed like that for the whole morning, Quirk and McBride taking turns at the tiller and going below for a few hours sleep. Mac Lir stood there the whole time like a figurehead. They had to peer around the masts to see him. Occasionally he would lift one of his arms a little, which they took to indicate a slight course adjustment. The higher the arm, the harder they needed to turn.
Some time in the early afternoon, Quirk was back at the tiller, his eyes alternating between the figure of Mac Lir and Sheerwater’s sails. The fog was as thick as ever—thicker, perhaps. It seemed to Quirk now that they weren't moving at all, even though the wind was constant and strong, holding the sails in taut, rippling curves. Still, they seemed to be nailed there to the water.
If Mac Lir had their course right, it would be a swift journey after all. He was thinking about the money they could make on their cargo at the Western Isles, how to pitch the trading, when Mac Lir rapidly held up both arms. The meaning seemed clear. Quirk called to the men to haul in all the canvas; stop the boat.
He lashed the tiller straight and hurried forwards to where Mac Lir stood peering overboard. There was something down there.
“What is it?”
The water all around them was strewn with debris. A raft of wooden splinters and timbers bobbing and blinking in the swell. Quirk picked up one of the long catch-nets that were stowed in the bows and fished some of them out.
They were ship’s timbers, no doubt about it. He picked out a large piece. Clinker built, poorly maintained and in need of tar. They hadn’t been in the water long though, the torn edges were still sharp and clean.
“A local boat, I think. Hit some rocks, maybe?”
“This one is burned, Captain.”
He hadn’t heard McBride come up behind them. The tall man was standing next to him, examining another of the fragments of wood. "See."
Quirk took the piece of wood. Its edges were charred black. It was, he knew, surprisingly hard to set fire to a wooden ship at sea, even when the air wasn't so sodden with fog. He handed the piece on to Mac Lir.
The stranger turned the blackened shard of ship's timber over and over in his hands, as if searching for some answers there. He said nothing for a while.
“Do you know this boat, Captain?”
“Aye. It’s Phynnodderee, I’m sure of it. Captain Crellin. He left Douglas Port two days back, on the same course as us, boasting that he could find his way through a bit of mist.”
"You knew him well?"
"We'd sailed alongside and against each other for years. But he was no friend. A cruel and stupid man, I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did. I wouldn't go to sea on any boat he was the master of. Whether he burned alive or drowned first, I can’t say that he didn’t get what he deserved. That’s harsh maybe, but only the truth."
“So he may have sailed onto rocks?”
“Aye. But the burning, Mac Lir—that I can’t explain.”
The stranger continued to turn the piece of timber over and over in his hands. “No.”
"What's going on here, Mac Lir? You expected something like this I’m thinking. You must tell me what it is you're asking my crew to face. We're sailors, and good ones, but we're not warriors and we're not heroes."
Mac Lir smiled, regret clear on his face. "I know nothing, Captain Quirk. I have heard some rumours of something out here, it is true, but I do not know what. That is why I took passage with you; to see what I could find."
"What have you heard?"
"Vague ... rumours of danger."
"You must understand that some of what I hear is very unclear. Gulls and Storm Petrels come off the sea screeching about threats and dangers. Maybe they really have seen something, or maybe they have just caught sight of a Sea Eagle or a shadow upon the face of the sea. Or I catch a faint scent of something on the wind, or the Wycka tell me of some portents and signs that have come to them. I hear all these things and when it seems that there is some substance to them, I come to see. I can't give you anything specific, Captain Quirk."
He sighed. "Very well. Maybe Crellin was fool enough to set fire to Phynodderree before he sailed her onto some rocks. Or maybe something did the damage for him. I suppose we might as well sail on as back, but it must be clear between us that you tell me everything you know, or even suspect."
Quirk called to his men to start putting the canvas back up. Smoothly, they pushed on, nosing their way through the shattered remains of Phynodderree.
* * *
They sailed on as before, Mac Lir at his post in the bows, Quirk and McBride taking turns at the tiller. The wind showed no signs of fading or turning. Sheerwater skipped sweetly along, her stays and sheets creaking with pleasure at the speed they made.
They must have been somewhere near the northern tip of the island, Quirk reckoned, somewhere near the place where they would need to turn north-westerly, when Mac Lir held up both his arms once again.
He called for the sails to be pulled in. Mac Lir immediately turned back to the boat at that and put one hand firmly over his mouth. Silence. There was danger near at hand.
He weaved his way back around the masts and coiled ropes and up to the bows. “What is it?”
“Boats out there.” Mac Lir looked distracted, as if concentrating hard on trying to hear a faint sound.
“How many? Who are they?” They spoke in hushed voices, almost whispering. He was aware of the crew watching them from all over the deck and the rigging, bearded faces peeping out of the mist, waiting to see what would happen, what he would do.
“I can’t say. We need to get closer and take a look but ... to take Sheerwater any nearer ....”
“She stays here; I’ll not risk her.”
Mac Lir looked away, back into the fog. “Very well. The only way is to go into the water then. Do you swim well Captain? We’ll see them long before they see us.”
He hesitated. He took a short knife from his belt and cut off the end of the knotted rope that he still held in his hand, casting the small piece overboard. The wind calmed immediately. Everything became quiet, nothing moving. Even Sheerwater stopped creaking and breathing for a moment.
“No. I ... won’t swim.”
Mac Lir looked back, surprised for the first time.
Quirk smiled slightly. "I mean, I don't swim."
"Indeed?” Mac Lir looked fascinated, a little amused. “Yet you make your living on the sea, sailing these dangerous waters. You must be able to swim."
“No. Did you sail with me assuming I’m something I’m not, Mac Lir?”
He smiled. “No, no. But, I’m intrigued.”
"Mac Lir, this boat is my home. The sea is my home. But I've seen what the ocean can do and I fear it. I love it, but I know that it does not love me. I know also that if this ship goes down then I will drown. So I've never learned to swim. I’ve learned not to swim."
"I don't understand."
"If you take chances with the sea, sooner or later it will claim you. Maybe it will anyway. But knowing I’ll drown easily makes me more cautious, more careful. If I did learn then no doubt I'd be more willing to take risks. Captain Crellin, they say, swam well."
"Some might say running this voyage is taking a risk. Or taking me as a passenger."
"Maybe so, but I trust to my instinct too."
"And your men know this?"
"They do. I tell them the first day they come on board, before we ever leave dock. Tell them why too. They always look happier when I do."
“Then ... I’ll go alone.”
“No. We have two coracles we use for ferrying to shore and such. We’ll take those if you can handle one. I want to see what’s out there too.”
Mac Lir slapped him on the back. “Aye, very well Captain.”
* * *
They tied long, thin ropes to each of the small, circular, animal-hide coracles and lowered them into the water. Quirk and Mac Lir clambered down the side to kneel in them, bobbing and lurching in the choppy water. They paddled slowly off into the fog, dipping their oars in the water gently and quietly, first on one side, and then the other. They soon lost sight of Sheerwater. The lines connecting them to her playing out behind them, held by a crew member back on board but seeming to end in mid-air just behind them.
Quirk’s mind conjured up dragons and demons all around them in the heavy fog. He could see indistinct shapes moving around off to his left and right, although there was nothing there if he tried to look directly at them. He tried to ignore them, telling himself it was just the swirling sea mist.
After a few minutes Mac Lir stopped paddling and pointed up ahead. There was a definite shape there now, not shifting around, but dark and stationary in the water. A boat. He could see little detail, could gain no idea of the size and form of the vessel.
He began to see others as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. They were all around, perhaps nine or ten of them. Mac Lir nodded to him and moved on, placing each oar-stroke into the rough sea-water with precision and care. They moved forward, careful to keep the line back to Sheerwater clear.
He could see figures in one of the boats now. At first it seemed that there were a number of adults and a child standing there. He could hear indistinct voices, several at once. Deep voices. Mac Lir was watched them intently, his lips moving slightly as if counting.
There was something familiar about the smaller figure on the boat but he couldn’t decide what. They seemed to be wearing a cloak, and some sort of adornment on their head that he recognized. A sort of uneven, spiked hat or crown.
But he knew, then, that this was no child. An adult, a man. Which meant that the others must be enormous, giants of some sort. Nearly twice his height, much bigger than McBride. He wondered if the smaller figure was a prisoner, or their leader. If only he could put his finger on who that person was. He knelt there rocking to-and-fro in the flimsy coracle, the waves almost coming over its sides, he legs becoming numb with cold and tried to remember.
Mac Lir turned to him and nodded back in the direction of Sheerwater. Quirk turned and pulled smoothly but firmly twice on his line. Almost immediately, the crew back on the boat began to reel both of them in. Quirk watched the giants and the ships fade back into the grey gloom.
Half way back, it came to him who the small figure must be.
* * *
“They are Tho-Mooraine,” said Mac Lir. He, Quirk and McBride stood at Sheerwater’s tiller, talking in quiet tones about what they had seen out there on the water.
“Never heard of them. Who are they? What are they?” asked Quirk.
“Their homeland is far away, not of this world. They are pirates and raiders, but also great navigators. They live off the pillaging of ships and coastal towns. They know the currents and passageways that can take them between the worlds, from one sea to another. I have never heard of them in these waters before, but there is no mistaking them.”
“They are giants?”
“Yes. And strong and fierce, a terrible enemy.” He sighed. “I fear for the island. This behaviour puzzles me though. They are scavengers. Occasionally two or three of them will band together to take on a larger ship or a town. But there’s a whole fleet of them out there.”
Mac Lir raised an eyebrow at that. “Ah, you saw him then? You recognized him?”
“I did. At first I thought he must be a prisoner. But now I think not.”
“And I think I agree with you.” Mac Lir spoke in hushed, almost bitter tones, but it was McBride’s face that caught Quirk’s attention. Anyone that didn’t know him would have seen little change. Quirk recognized the slight scowl, the narrowing of his eyes. It was what he did when a black storm that filled half the sky ran hard at them. In him it was like other men shouting.
Not taking his eyes off McBride, he said, “But why? The Druidh protect the island. Why would they be out here, with these invaders? I don’t understand any of this.”
“They would make us all slaves.” It was McBride that spoke, almost whispered.
“Slaves? Yes my friend, maybe they would, “ said Mac Lir. “The Druidh have an army it seems. Or perhaps a distraction for the people of the island, or something to terrify and cow them with.”
“But ... at what price? These Tho-Mooraine—how can the Druidh trust them? Hope to control them?”
“They play a dangerous game. At a guess, the Tho-Mooraine are to be the new Lords of Mann, with the Druidh at their side when all the Wycka are killed. At their side or at their back. We must stop this Quirk, stop this fleet reaching shore.”
“But how?” Quirk was half-shouting, suddenly angry, afraid. “How can we do anything? We are one cargo ship against a fleet! A fleet of warships!”
Mac Lir looked out to sea, into the fog, and then up at the sky as if tell the time from a sun that he could not see. “Your cargo Captain. May I buy it off you?”
“What? My cargo? I don’t understand.”
“Time is short. May I buy your cargo? I will give you a good price.”
“Money ... isn’t the concern; I don’t see how we can defeat these devils and I don’t see what our cargo has to do with it Mac Lir.”
“Nevertheless, I will give you a good price. You can’t eat seawater nor pay your crew with it. Tell me what price you would have got at the Western Isles and tell me quickly.”
Quirk sighed, confused. “Very well. You may have the cargo. With Crellin at the bottom of the sea it would have fetched us perhaps three silvers a barrel. But I still don’t ...”
“Then that is what I shall pay.” Mac Lir pulled out a leather pouch from inside his cloak and handed it to Quirk. “Take what you think is fair. Then I would be grateful if you could organize your crew to throw the whole cargo overboard. As quietly and as quickly as possible please.”
* * *
They lowered the barrels gently into the water, the crew working together as calmly and efficiently as if they were unloading at the dockside. There were only occasional mutterings of disbelief at what they were doing. Quirk felt strangely cheated too, even though they had been paid as good a price as they could have hoped for. He was more worried about the Tho-Mooraine though. He repeatedly scanned the thick fog, expecting all the time to see the great hulks of their ships looming suddenly near.
He went to speak to Mac Lir, who was watching his expensive cargo of fish being returned to the sea from whence they came.
“The fish are yours to do what you will with, Mac Lir. But Sheerwater is not. Tell me what you plan here, why you are doing this thing. Are you preparing to fight?”
Mac Lir smiled. He seemed to be enjoying this. “No, my friend, I am preparing to flee. In these situations I have learned not to fight. This is a fine boat but she is no match for those out there.”
“But we cannot just run away.”
“I think perhaps we can.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you know where we are, Quirk?”
“Roughly. Maybe north-east of Ayre, a few miles offshore, I reckon.”
“That’s about right. And with the Queen of Spells’ wind abated I’m sure you know where the currents will carry us?”
“Then as you’ll know, two or three leagues up ahead are the Creggyn Doo, the black rocks that some call The Teeth.”
“Of course. All sailors know that and all sailors avoid them. They are deadly waters. No keel can pass through there without being ripped open.”
“No. It is too dangerous.”
Mac Lir grinned now. “I know a passage through those rocks. With this tide, with our draught raised now that there isn’t all that weight in the hold, with me navigating, we can do it.”
“And the Tho-Mooraine?”
“I’m thinking they don’t know about the Creggyn Doo. Even if they do, I’m thinking they won’t know about the channel through them that even Manx Captains don’t know about. I’m thinking they’ll follow us in and founder on the teeth. Shall we try it and see Quirk?”
He could think of no other reply to give, no other course of action that offered much hope. He had to think of the island as well as himself, his crew.
Mac Lir turned and walked to the rail, looked out over the sea. He raised his arms and shouted something, the sound alarmingly loud. The words were indistinct, or in some unknown language. He began to move his hands, his fingers in subtle, complex patterns, as if striving to shape the air into new forms.
The mist began to part, a clear circle of air opening up around them, receding rapidly away outwards over the water. From up above, sunlight shone suddenly through, glorious and hot from a bright blue sky. The walls of fog fell back and back, away from them as Mac Lir continued to form his magic. Or unform it.
The boats of the Tho-Mooraine sprang into existence, appearing crisply out of the fog, suddenly very real and nearby, stamped there on the water, conjured from a hazy half-existence into stark reality. Shouts and roars came to them across the gap. Off the other bow, the line of the coast was sharp and clear. The Creggyn Doo would be nearby, perhaps only minutes away in the rapid currents that swirled around the northern tip of the island.
There was no breeze, no point in raising canvas. Quirk thought about untying another knot. He thought about the delicate manoeuvres they would need to make when they reached the shoals and thought better of it. He could feel Sheerwater being born along, towards the rocks and the coast. There was nothing to do but stand there on the open ocean, and watch and wait as they were pulled in, as the great boats of the Tho-Mooraine were pulled in slowly after them.
* * *
They nearly made it.
They were close, very close, the smooth surface of the water already beginning to swirl and roughen as they approached the sharp, underwater rocks.
Great, roaring figures lunged out of the water, up the sides and onto the decks. Giants with fierce, crazy eyes and terrible laughter and great blades drawn from sheaths on their backs. The Tho-Mooraine. They must have swum under-water, caught them up when they thought they were safe.
Some of the crew fought back, others climbing the rigging to try and escape in their panic. The Tho-Mooraine attacked them all, knocking the islanders flying with roars of laughter. Quirk saw McBride try to take one of them on, saw him looking suddenly tiny and weak, saw him knocked sprawling onto the deck with a single, easy sword-blow.
He couldn’t see Mac Lir. He ran forward, ready to take on the invaders as best he could, taking with him a short sword blade he had stowed at the tiller.
A heavy, jarring thud that rattled the teeth in his mouth, a sickening, hot pain in his head, and everything went dark.
* * *
Before he opened his eyes, before he was even truly conscious again, he knew he was no longer on Sheerwater. It didn’t smell right and it didn’t move right.
The pain in his head came next, and then a dim, grey light as he squinted open his eyes.
The whole crew was there. No sign of Mac Lir. There was blood all over them, cruel cuts and bruises. Ropes bound their hands and feet. Most of them were unconscious, lying at awkward, uncomfortable angles as if they had all just been thrown there like sacks. But they all seemed to be breathing.
From outside, above, he could hear the creaks of the Tho-Mooraine ship, the occasional word spoken in a language he didn’t understand, someone somewhere humming a tune.
“I felt them rowing before. They must have hauled us around the Creggyn Doo. They are too strong, these giants.” It was McBride, speaking off to his left.
He heaved round a bit to see him. A bad cut on his left temple had left dried blood over half his face. In his dreams he had seen McBride’s body, slain by the invaders. He had imagined him lying there on the deck of Sheerwater as she drifted unmanned onto the black rocks. Over and over again he had seen it. In the distance, thin lines of smoke had risen from the island’s coast.
Quirk smiled, although it made his head throb more. Several of the crew appeared to be conscious now, their eyes opening at McBride’s words.
“So they have killed none of us. What do you think, McBride—are we hostages? Are we to be set free to tell the islanders about how terrible these Tho-Mooraine are? Or have they some other purpose for us?”
“I don’t know. But I reckon we are sailing south-west again. I think we may be heading for Douglas Port.”
“Hmm.” The light in the hold came from an iron grill in the roof, a hatchway big enough for the Tho-Mooraine to climb in and out of. One of them was up there now - massive, booted feet paced backwards and forwards upon the deck.
“Do you think these dogs speak Manx?”
“I’ve heard none.”
Quirk shouted up, “Hey you shit-smelling son of a pig and a scabby longtail, we need water down here! Are you too stupid to tell or do you have to wait for someone to give you orders?”
The guard paused in his pacing for a moment, then continued as before.
“Apparently not. Well, let us speak quietly just in case. Did anyone see what happened to Mac Lir?”
One of the crewmen spoke. “I saw him holding back three of them. A red fire was coming from his outstretched hands. I saw him thrusting it at them like a sword. He was speaking in some strange language. I didn’t see what happened next.”
“If only we knew what had become of him. And of Sheerwater.”
There were calls from up top, but they only sounded like the normal cries of captain to crewmen. The faint humming—a sea-shanty, he thought—was still audible from elsewhere on the ship.
“They took all our blades, I see. McBride, did they see fit to comb your hair for you?”
McBride grinned at that. “They did not.”
Braided into the knotted sheaf of his hair was a long, thin, sharp blade with a small, metal handle. McBride always went about with it, as much out of superstition as anything else.
“So, we can get out of these bonds at least. As for getting out of this hold, I don’t fancy our chances too much. Not unless something takes these devils’ minds off us for a while.”
“Captain! I can see Sheerwater. She’s tethered to this ship ... sail all furled ... no one aboard.” It was one of the crew, peering through a poorly-tarred gap in the carvel-built hull. “She doesn’t look damaged.”
“Well, well, better and better,” said Quirk. Something was slotting into place in his mind, as satisfying as the pieces of a well-carved wooden joint fitting together. He dropped his chin onto his chest for a moment. They were all still there. The pieces were in place.
“Right lads. Someone get ahold of McBride’s blade, start cutting the ropes. Be subtle for now, if anyone looks in, make sure there’s nothing to see. Meanwhile, I rather think that incessant humming is the answer to all this. Tell me, I can’t place the tune, who knows what it’s called?”
They were all awake now. They listened, some mouthing words, some straining to hear. It was an old sea-tune, that was for sure.
“I know it,” said one of the crew. “My father taught me it when I was young. We don’t sing it much these days but it’s called ... it’s called ... yes, Run the Southeaster Home.”
“Good work. Southeaster, eh? Very well. Someone get my hands free and I think we’ll call up a Southeaster of our own.”
“That’s Mac Lir singing?” asked McBride.
“I think so. They must have gagged him, feared the magic he could speak. But he still knows our position in the water. My guess is a Southeaster will blow the fleet back onto the Creggyn Doo.”
They were nearly all cut loose now. “McBride and I will look for Mac Lir. He must be in a nearby hold. When the storm hits, the rest of you get out and across to Sheerwater. Set her loose from this ship. Leave the coracles behind for us. Batten her down as best you can, drop anchor and try and ride it out. It’ll be rough going.”
They nodded, saying nothing. Quirk untied the lodestone from his neck and let it swing free, finding north. After a while it settled. Quirk took Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag’s rope then. He remembered her warnings. Shrugging, he turned to face the right direction and untied all three remaining knots.
As before, there was a moment of calm. Then, with a single shout of warning from up above, a solid wall of storm slammed roaring into them. It lifted the ship and threw it across the waters, heeling it over at an alarming angle. It seemed that they might go under for long moments as the boat twisted and lurched around like a twig in a whirlpool.
From up top, there were cries and shouts. It sounded as though some of the giants were injured—crushed by collapsing masts maybe. All around them, audible even above the terrible howl of the wind, the Tho-Mooraine vessel creaked and groaned and splintered.
“Go now, go, go! Get across!” He had to shout to hear himself heard. They pushed the iron grill up and out, then took turns to climb out, pulling and pushing each other through the gap. Still the ship veered around out of control. Water flooded into the hold as great waves crashed over the entire ship.
Quirk and McBride left last. Up on deck it was chaos. The giants, for all their strength, were struggling to pull in the canvas. The force of the wind had locked ropes fast against masts. Half of the rigging was in tatters anyway, stays flapping dangerously around. They watched as a wave sucked three of the Tho-Mooraine into the boiling, bottle-green, slate-grey sea.
The crew were managing to veer and stumble their way across onto Sheerwater, going around the edge of the deck and pulling themselves along the bulwarks. There was no sign of the other hatches—too much water flooded the decks. Quirk had a sudden image of a bound Mac Lir drowning in his hold as water gushed in.
They stumbled forwards, holding onto each other, half crawling against the fury of the wind and waves, struggling just to find lungfuls of air.
By touch alone, they found the grill. They heaved it aside. The hold wasn’t full yet, but it would be soon, the boat slowly succumbing to the volume of water flooding it. Quirk took McBride’s blade and pushed himself through head-first, half-diving, half-falling.
Mac Lir was there, his feet and hands tied, his mouth gagged. The water was already up to his chest. Quirk began to cut the ropes, starting with the feet whilst he could still get at them. Then the hands, then the gag.
“Thank you my friend.” He was badly out of breath. ”I hope you ... liked my little song?”
“I’ve heard better. Come on!”
McBride reached down through the hatchway to help heave them back up. It was hard going. For a moment Quirk thought that they wouldn’t be able to do it; the weight of water was too great. Then, in a lull between waves, they managed to haul themselves up onto the flooded decks.
Nearly swimming now, they made their way aft, to where Sheerwater had been tied.
She was no longer there. The crew had got onto her, cast themselves off from the Tho-Mooraine ship as instructed. They stood some way off, canvas all in but bucking out of control in the storm. She wouldn’t take much more of this battering.
“The coracles are here captain.” McBride had to shout against the wind. “Tied up tight. But we’ve no chance of using them in these seas. It’d be certain death!”
Quirk nodded, glanced to Mac Lir, then up to the bows. There seemed to be only a few of the giants left now on their ship. A few still struggled with broken masts and stays. Perhaps the others had all been swept overboard. Ahead of them, the Tho-Mooraine fleet was in tatters. Some had already struck the rocks of the Creggyn Doo and were crashing over and down into the water. Others, battered by the wind and waves, weren’t even getting that far. They dived down into the angry sea before they even got to the Teeth.
Hampered by Sheerwater, their ship had been the slowest, and was now the last in line. Between mountainous, alarming waves, through banks of water that might have been spray or mist or rain, Quirk thought he could see five of the ships still afloat ahead of theirs. It was hard to be sure. The seas were terrifying.
He waited for a few moments, then a few moments more. He was cold now, suddenly terribly cold, soaked through with the cold waters of the ocean. Still he waited. Ahead of them, another of the great ships splintered and crashed onto the rocks. Then Quirk took the short length of rope from round his neck once again, cut one piece of it off and hurled the fragment overboards.
The howling of the wind lessened immediately. Around them, the seas raged slightly less as the witch-wind abated by a third. He had to time this right; had to make sure they had a chance to get across to Sheerwater without any of the invading boats surviving.
“It’s still too much Captain! We can’t get across in this!” Another boat went down then. It stood poised for a moment as if on the crest of a great wave, then crashed down towards the sea-bed. He had an image then of her crew, of the Tho-Mooraine giants as they battled and screamed their last. They were great sailors Mac Lir had said. Terrible enemies but great craftsmen, great navigators.
He cut the remaining piece of rope in two and threw one half overboard. The wind dropped again, the seas flattening out to something like a normal storm. He glanced at McBride. “We might do it now, Captain. It’s a risk, but we might.”
“The Tho-Mooraine are broken; they are no more threat to us,“ shouted Mac Lir then. “Come Quirk, drop this storm and let us escape. The island is safe.” There were only two of the giant ships left now; theirs and another. Quirk nodded. Very well. He tossed the last remaining piece of rope overboard.
The wind dropped to a whisper. Between them and Sheerwater, the waters calmed, continuing to roll and swell a little as they settled down. They could make it in the coracles now. Up ahead, the other Tho-Mooraine ship, fatally damaged by the tempest, veered suddenly round and lurched down into the water. They had to leave now; the boat they were on wouldn’t last much longer.
A hand was on his shoulder then, someone standing next to him, holding him fast. He turned quickly, imagining that one of the Tho-Mooraine had crept up to hurl them overboard. He found himself looking directly into the eyes of the Archdruidh.
“You have room for another on your boat?” The voice was quiet, the eyes calm. The words were an instruction for all that they sounded like a question. The mouth smiled.
For a moment he was disorientated. He had to think quickly. He had forgotten about the Archdruidh. But he surely wouldn’t know that they had seen him in the fog? He might accept that they believed him to be a prisoner too. Wouldn’t he? He needed them now to get him ashore. But was it safe? If they got back to land, could they trust him? The Druidh wouldn’t want anyone to know about their alliance with the Tho-Mooraine. They had to be careful here.
Quirk prepared to reply. The Archdruidh had his eyes firmly locked on Mac Lir now. But, unexpectedly, it was McBride that spoke.
“My Lord, if we had known you were here! These dogs have made prisoners of us all. Let us get off this broken ship and across to our own.” He turned to look directly at Quirk. “You two go first. If the passage is safe, we will follow in the second coracle.”
Quirk was too surprised to say anything. Then, although he had no idea what McBride was doing, too much his friend to argue. He had never known him to show such respect for the Druidh before, nor to give him an order. But, whatever he was thinking, he would let him do it.
He nodded at Mac Lir, who also said nothing, even smiled a little.
The passage across was uneventful. They let themselves down a swaying rope to the water, and stepped precariously into the tethered coracle. Carefully, slowly, they paddled across. With two of them they were dangerously low in the water, and the occasional big wave still threatened to capsize them. But with care the short journey could be made safely.
Quirk was never so pleased to be back on board his own boat. Welcoming, familiar arms hauled them up onto the decks. Sheerwater was filled with cries of relieved laughter.
McBride and the Archdruidh came next. Quirk stood and watched them, wondering what was going on, how they should play this, how it would all turn out. He thought of something that McBride had said before, something about the Druidh wanting to make the islanders slaves. And now this strange behaviour with the Archdruidh.
As before, a few pieces of understanding slotted quietly together in his mind. He thought then that he maybe knew where it was that McBride went when he set off ashore by himself. Things mentioned over the years, looks in his eye, some guesses began to add up. The crew liked to joke that he was off drinking and womanising. But no, that wasn’t it.
They were half-way across now. He could see McBride’s face, the Archdruidh’s back. The crown of mistletoe and gorse rising and falling in the heavy swell. McBride was talking. He had stopped rowing now.
* * *
“You don’t recognise me, do you?” McBride asked.
The Archdruidh looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. Until then he had paid him no real attention, his mind clearly elsewhere. He was just some sailor, convenient but unimportant.
“I meet so many people,” the Archdruidh said, smiling ruefully at the burdens of his office.
“Of course,” replied McBride, “I suppose I was much younger then. I have seen you from afar often enough though.”
The Archdruidh did not bother to reply, as if being watched was only what he expected. There was silence for a moment as they bobbed together in the coracle. McBride, still holding the oars up out of the water, surveyed the sea as if waiting for something.
“You should know, “ he said at last, “that all your long plans, your schemes and plots, all the people you destroyed because they were in your way—all of it will come to nothing. People will stop you. In fact, I will stop you.”
The Archdruidh opened his mouth, about to reply, amusement clear on his face.
* * *
As Quirk looked on, another big wave rolled in, slipping around Sheerwater and on to the coracle. McBride would see it coming, would position them to ride over it. Quirk knew he would. But he didn’t. Instead he was speaking again. Quirk was about to shout a desperate warning when the wave hit, flipping the coracle up into the air for a moment, nearly turning it right over.
McBride must have braced himself, knowing what was coming. The Archdruidh was caught unawares. He half-jumped, half-fell out of the skipping coracle, landing back in the water a good yard away from where McBride sat.
There was a cry then, and a flurry of splashing as the Archdruidh struggled to find the air. But either he couldn’t swim, or his clothes were too heavy, or something else pulled him down. A few, brief moments of splashing and his efforts ended. McBride looked on all the while, impassively, holding his position with expert ease.
The Archdruidh slipped down into the waters. All that was left was a quiet sea and McBride alone in his coracle and the crown of mistletoe and gorse floating there on the waves.
McBride waited for a few moments, paddling around in little circles. Then he continued on his way back.
“Glad to have you back safe and sound, McBride.”
Quirk helped to haul him aboard. There was a moment when they looked at each other with complete openness, so that Quirk knew that McBride had deliberately drowned the Archdruidh of Mann and McBride saw that he knew. For that moment it seemed as if a tie as strong as any ship’s rope held them fast together, and that the world went quiet around them.
“Next time we’re in port, I’m thinking we should maybe go ashore together?”
McBride smiled a little at that, looked slightly unsure also.
No one else was near. No one else could hear their words.
“Tell me, who was it? Your lover?”
McBride sighed. “No. My mother. I was only a boy when they came for her. She had the craft, the second sight. She was a Firegiver and she healed the cattle. And the people sometimes. They denounced her though. He denounced her. I remember him. This was long before he was Archdruidh. But they took her off and tried her, put her into a spiked barrel and pushed her down that hill.”
“She’s at Slieu-Whallian?”
They stood there for a time, saying nothing. Mac Lir was up in the bows, watching the wind and the waves, occasionally glancing back at them.
“McBride, I need to go back there. To thank Caillagh-Ny-Ghueshag. I’m thinking we could walk that path together maybe?”
He smiled at that, warmly this time. “Aye, Captain. We could that.”
Quirk smiled too. Above the bows, over the sea, the lights of the houses were beginning to come on from the shore.
“A Sorcerous Mist” previously appeared in Deep Magic 37.
* * *
Simon Kewinwrites fiction, poetry and computer software, although usually not at the same time. His fiction and poetry has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. He lives in the UK with Alison and their two daughters Eleanor and Rose. His web site is http://simonkewin.co.uk and his blog is http://spellmaking.blogspot.com.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I don't think there's any great mystery about that. I think we all make sense of the world through stories. We gossip our experiences to each other in the form of little tales. The media calls events in the news "stories". I think our brains have evolved to form narratives and all a writer does is set them down. And, I suppose, jumble up ideas and associations from a variety of different places to form something new. But I don't think there's anything particularly special about doing so.
In the case of "A Sorcerous Mist," a lot of the ideas came from the myths and folklore of the Isle of Man, which you may or may not have heard of. It's a small, Celtic island in the middle of the Irish Sea, roughly equidistant from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It also happens to be where I was born and raised, although I'm mostly English these days. But the old stories from the island have long fascinated me and they were my starting point. Mannanan, for example, is a "real" myth, and he did (does?) have the power to wreathe the island in mists to hide it from invaders. My forebears really did push suspected witches down Slieu-Whallian to see if they survived. And so forth. From these bare bones, the story emerged, piece by piece, slowly acquiring associations and connections along the way. Other writers may say a muse is involved in this process, or some mystical process of revelation. I just think my mind, like anyone's, wanted to think in narrative terms and so invented this.