Prologue – The Prophecy
3rd century AD…
Fionn mac Cumhall threw back his shaggy blonde head and roared. Across the battle field, five figures answered his call by stepping forward from the ranks of warriors who seethed and swirled in combat around them.
The five sons of Urgriu. The leaders of the enemy battalions. While they still lived, their men fought fiercely. Dead, and their army would lose heart, perhaps even surrender.
It might be his last act, but he could do it. He was Fionn mac Cumhall, greatest leader of the Fianna that ever lived. He had led a good life, a long life for a warrior. Perhaps now it was time to offer it up for the sake of his men, and the people of Ireland.
The smell of blood and the sight of broken bodies filled his senses. The carrion crows already gathered, anticipating great feasting. On the outskirts of the battle, looters were even now raiding the bodies of the fallen, both living and dead. The clash and thud of weapons, the exultant cries of the death-dealers, the screams of the injured and the moans of the dying, it all mingled together into the cacophony of war, a familiar music he had danced to so many times.
Memories came rushing back to him now, sweeping through him like the winter wind which tore across this land he loved so well; his childhood in the forest of Sliabh Bladhma with warrior-woman, Liath Luachra, and Bodhmall, his druid aunt; a tender kiss from his mother, Muirna; serving the mage, Finegas, on the banks of the River Boyne; his first union with his beloved wife, Sadbh; defeating Aillen of the Sidhe, who had laid waste to the palace at Tara with fire every Samhain; usurping Goll as head of the Fianna, reward bestowed upon him by the grateful High King, Cormac mac Art. Ah, but that was a sweet moment! Yet it was that act which had ultimately led to this ill-fated conflict.
Now, it was time to finish it. As the riastradh, the red frenzy of battle, descended upon him, Fionn cast aside his battered shield, already hacked to pieces, and hefted his sword in both hands. With a fierce cry, he charged down the hill and dived headlong into the fray.
The five brothers ran forward eagerly to meet him.
From his vantage point overlooking the carnage, Finegas stirred.
“Your time is not yet come, Fionn mac Cumhall,” he muttered. “You are descended of Nuada, first King of the Tuatha de Denann. Royal Sidhe blood runs in your veins. You are duty-bound to deliver your people. There is one more task you must do, before you go to your final rest.”
With that, Finegas took up his wooden staff, and strode down onto the battle field.
“I tell you, his body is not there,” insisted Caoílte mac Rónáin. “We have been searching for days. The injured have been sorted from the dead; the bodies are waiting for burial or cremation. We cannot delay much longer for fear of disease.”
The surviving leaders of the Fianna had gathered in the tent of Feircobh, King of Munster.
“We are having the devil’s own job fending off the scavengers and looters,” added Feircobh. “We need to act now.”
“Some say it was Aichlech mac Dubdrenn who struck off his head, but even I cannot see if that is so,” said Diorruing, who had the second sight.
Conan mac Lia, Fionn’s right-hand man, had assumed command of the Fianna in his friend’s absence. He set his jaw stubbornly. “We look again. He must be there. You saw him; he was beset by all five brothers at once. There is no way even he could have survived such an onslaught.”
Tense with frustration, he looked round at the faces of each of his companions, one by one, desperately seeking their agreement. Their eyes slid guiltily away from his, and he knew they had made their decision.
And then, a new voice spoke which they did not recognise, a voice as faint as a breath of summer air, yet which throbbed with knowledge and the promise of secret power.
“The age of the Fianna is over. Never again will this land experience such greatness as existed under the hand of the Fenian King.”
An aged man, leaning on a large stick, stood just inside the tent opening. He cast a thin, dark shadow against the sunlight.
Feircobh glared at him in annoyance. “Who are you, and how did you get past my guards?” he demanded.
The old man’s voice was tremulous, not much more than a whisper. “The Fenian King rests beneath the hill. He will answer the call of his people once more in their hour of greatest need.”
Caoílte mac Rónáin started forwards eagerly. “The Fenian King? Do you mean my Uncle? Do you have news of him?”
The old man did not acknowledge him. He turned and hobbled out through the opening.
Although the men chased after him, turning over the camp in their efforts to locate him, the strange old man was nowhere to be found. It was as if he had simply vanished into thin air.
Chapter One – Abandoned
the present day…
Abandoned. Again. This time by his own family.
Couldn’t wait to see the back of me. Didn’t even have time to come in for a cuppa. Just dumped the disabled boy and his luggage, and beat it as quick as they could.
Conor sat in his wheelchair in his aunt’s bright, country kitchen and fumed. Her light, nervous chatter fluttered over his head like a cloud of twittering birds. He wasn’t really listening. He was too caught up in his anger. Every now and then, he intercepted a worried glance as she stood at the wooden table, chopping carrots for dinner. He attempted what he hoped was a reassuring smile, and not the tight grimace it felt like.
His parents and two sisters were walking the Wicklow Way; one hundred and thirty two kilometres of mountain trails and breath-taking scenery.
Talk about rubbing it in.
There was nothing Conor would have loved more than to be able to walk. Just to get up and move using his own two legs. Even from his wheelchair to the kitchen table would have felt good right then, never mind up hill and down dale in the great outdoors.
He knew it was unreasonable to resent his family for escaping on this adventure without him. He also knew how guilty they felt about leaving him behind. But it still hurt.
Just then, the back door burst open, and a girl a few years older than himself sauntered in, throwing herself down into a chair at the table. She looked pale and tired.
Conor’s aunt immediately put down her knife, and adopted an aggressive stance, fists on hips.
“Well, and where have you been, young lady? Out all night with never even a phone call, and your cousin arriving this afternoon. At the very least you could have been here to meet him. I did warn you.”
“I was out,” said the girl, with a yawn. “I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Conor’s aunt paused, pushing her hair from her eyes with the back of a hand. That gesture reminded him vividly of his mother.
“You look a mess, Ciara,” she said quietly.
“Not now, mam,” groaned Ciara, getting up and heading for the kettle. As she passed Conor, she said absently “Want a cup of tea, Conor? Haven’t seen you in ages. What the hell happened to your hair? I always thought you were a carrothead.”
“His hair?” echoed his aunt, staring at him.
Ciara rolled her eyes skyward impatiently, and ignored her mother’s puzzled comment.
Conor held his breath. How can she see that my hair is white? Human eyes shouldn’t be able to see it. His heart began to race.
Ciara didn’t wait for a reply, but poured out three cups of tea.
“We’re going into the living room with ours,” she announced to her mother, and began propelling Conor’s wheelchair out of the kitchen and into the lounge. This was a large sunny room with a central fireplace around which several sofas huddled. At one end, a solid old bookcase ran the length of the wall. Ciara wheeled Conor into the bright bay window where a motley selection of armchairs were grouped around a coffee table facing a flat-screen TV. Ciara grabbed the remote control off the table and flicked through the music channels.
Ciara sprawled in one of the armchairs, hugging a cushion to her chest.
“Does it have to be so loud?” complained her mother, following them in with a tray upon which balanced their tea and a plate of warm, home-baked scones.
“Of course it does.” Ciara’s reply was flippant. “We’re young. Weren’t you young once? No…probably not. Never mind, go back to your kitchen and your cooking, if you don’t like it.”
“Less of your lip, young lady. What has got into you, these days? Don’t think you can get away with such rudeness just because we have a guest. Wait till your Dad gets home.”
“Mam, just get off my case, will you?” Ciara pointed the remote control at the TV and turned up the volume.
“Don’t you mind her,” Conor’s aunt said to him. “And don’t go picking up any of her bad habits, either. Your mam would kill me.” She smiled, and left the room.
Conor stared at Ciara. She looked almost ghost-like with her pale skin and scruffy, dirty-blonde hair. She looked like she hadn’t seen the sun, or eaten, in weeks.
“What bands do you like?” She glanced over at him, as she continued flicking through the channels. “I like anything grungy, especially Nirvana. I know they’re a bit retro these days, but that’s why I like them.”
Conor decided to try something. He reached out to her with his mind. Why are you so rude to your mam?
Ciara’s eyes were glued to the telly. “Oh, she’s so frustratingly boring and old before her time. Besides, I’m a teenager. We’re not supposed to get on.”
Conor bit back his excitement. She could hear his thoughts, and had answered him without even realising. He sent her a reply. Well, I’m a teenager, and I get on pretty well with my mam.
“Well, I guess you’re lucky then. Anyway, you’re…different. She probably lets you get away with murder.”
The remote control slipped from Ciara’s hand and clattered on the floor as she turned to stare at Conor, eyes wide as realisation dawned.
“What…what just happened? You’re talking, but you’re not…speaking.” She looked confused and frightened, perched on the edge of her chair like a rabbit ready to bolt.
Conor smiled reassuringly. It’s Ok. It’s just that you’re telepathic. So am I. It’s a gift.
“Man, I must have had a little too much tequila last night. They warned me it could mess with your brain.” She lay back in her chair, groaning, eyes closed. “This can’t be happening.”
Conor chuckled. Well, it is, so you better get used to it.
Ciara opened her eyes and glared at him. “It’s not funny. Anyway, I thought you were some kind of vegetable, or something.”
Conor blinked. Vegetable? That’s not very nice. Is that really what everyone thinks?
Ciara blushed. “Well, you can’t communicate. What are we supposed to think?”
I’m communicating with you now.
Ciara considered that for a moment. “I guess no one else knows you can do this, then?”
Conor shook his head.
Ciara sat forward, her eyes sparkling. “Cool! So we have a secret. This could be fun. Why don’t you want anyone to know?”
It’s…complicated. Conor wondered how much he could tell her. He was elated to have found someone he could share his secret with. The weight of it had been crushing him these last few months. He decided to hold off for now, and changed the subject.
So what’s going on with you and your mam?
Ciara’s expression immediately turned sour. “I guess she’s mad with me for dropping out of college. She wants me to get a nice little job in a hairdresser’s, or an office, or something.”
You dropped out? Why?
“Because I never really wanted to be an accountant. I just did it to please my parents, but I hated it. It was so boring, and respectable.”
So what do you want to do?
Ciara sighed. “Oh, I don’t know. Go off travelling, have an adventure, climb some mountains, anything which gets me away from small town Ireland.”
Conor understood that well enough. He, too, felt like he had never truly belonged.
Suddenly, Ciara sprang out of her chair. “Shall we go for a walk?” she asked brightly. “I can show you around, if you like.”
Chapter Two – The Rath
the present day…
Ciara wheeled Conor down the drive and into the lane which led a short distance into town.
I don’t really feel like going into the village. I can’t face being stared at by a whole new bunch of strangers. Can we go somewhere else?
“Sure. There’s a little trail beside the house which leads into a field on my dad’s land. There’s a fairy rath ringed by trees. It’s very peaceful. I sometimes go there when I need to escape,” replied Ciara.
And another thing. Not only am I not a vegetable, but I can push my own wheelchair, too.
“Oh…sorry,” said Ciara, coming immediately to a stop and looking embarrassed. “I just assumed…”
I know. It’s Ok. I never used to be able to do it, but I’ve been working hard on my strength and fitness with my physiotherapist. I like it better when people walk beside me, instead of behind me.
They continued on in silence for a couple of minutes, turning into the little rutted lane which ran beside the house.
“I’ve never seen a wheelchair quite like that before,” said Ciara, as she opened the gate to let them through.
It’s special, all right. It’s a Trekinetic K2 All Terrain three wheeler. It’s changed my life! My old chair was a standard issue, and got thoroughly battered last summer. So my sisters did some research and persuaded my parents to get me this one.
“It’s kind of like a mountain bike with those big chunky wheels, and I love the black shiny seat…it’s egg shaped.”
It’s made out of carbon fibre, so it’s really strong, and it’s moulded to my body shape, so it’s also really comfortable.
“What’s it like? Being in a wheelchair, I mean.”
Conor snorted. It’s great! I love it!
Ciara shot him a quick sideways look. “You’re being sarcastic.”
Of course I am! What do you think it’s like? It’s shit!
“At least you don’t have your mam on your back all the time about stupid things like cleaning your room, or coming home before midnight so you don’t turn into a pumpkin, or something.”
Conor stopped wheeling, and turned to look at her. Ok, if you really want to know, it sucks! Like when you’re trying to cross a road, only you can’t because there are no ramps and the kerb is too steep to get a wheelchair down. Or you’re desperate for a slash, only all the toilet cubicles are so small you can’t fit a wheelchair in, and then finally you find somewhere that has a disabled loo but it’s too late, you’ve already wet yourself a little, and anyway, someone is changing a baby in it. How do you think that feels?
Ciara kicked at a patch of moss between the wheel ruts. “Oh. Sorry. You’re right, it is shit. I had no idea.”
No one does. How could they?
“Perhaps we should all try spending some time in a wheelchair to see what it’s like.”
Conor frowned, and wheeled himself forward. That wouldn’t work. It’d just teach people to feel grateful they’re not me.
Ciara changed the subject. “Ok, well, there’s the rath up ahead. It’s a gentle slope, but probably too steep for the chair.”
Conor was not in the mood to give in. This chair can go anywhere…but you might need to help me a bit.
Ciara hid a smile, and moved to the back of the wheelchair. It took quite a bit of effort, but the hill wasn’t high, and they made it to the top. Conor parked up, panting with the exertion, and applied the brakes.
“It’s a lovely view, isn’t it?” said Ciara softly, and Conor could tell this was a place she was fond of.
The rath looked out over undulating pastureland divided into fields by a latticework of hedges. Directly in front of them stood Ciara’s house, and the road which led into the village. Behind them, the land fell gently away to an unbroken horizon of green against blue. Occasional farmsteads studded the vista like jewels, their white walls shining in the sunlight. A light breeze sighed in the branches of the trees which fringed the rath, bringing with it the summery scent of yellow gorse.
Ciara was right. This was a peaceful place.
“It is a place of my ancestors. The magic is powerful here,” said a familiar voice Conor had not heard in a long time, a voice he had often longed to hear, and yet one which he also feared.
“Annalee,” he gasped, spinning his wheelchair around to face her.
Chapter Three – Bad Tidings
the present day…
She had not changed. Thick black hair still tumbled to her waist, framing a petite, pale face in which her silver eyes looked too large. She was even smaller than Conor remembered.
“What are you doing here, Annalee?”
“Looking for you, of course.” Her voice was as light as birdsong, rippling like stream water, just as Conor remembered.
“I can’t believe it. I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Never is a long time, even for the Sidhe.”
Ciara looked from Conor to Annalee, and then back again. “What the hell is going on here, Conor? So you can talk now, huh? Any other little secrets you’ve got up your sleeve? And who is this…this weirdo?” she indicated Annalee with an angry sweep of her arm.
“I am Annalee, Princess of the Sidhe, daughter to the Ri Tuatha of Gori in Tir na Nog. And you are?”
Ciara snorted. “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Sheba-“
Ciara’s exclamation was cut short as Annalee spoke over her. “Conor, I have grave news. There is trouble most dire in Gori. In fact, all of Tir na Nog is in danger.”
“Well, how rude!” began Ciara indignantly. The other two ignored her.
“But Bres is dead,” said Conor. He clutched at his amulet in alarm, and was rewarded by its familiar warmth and scent. Rowan for strength and courage, whispered that dreamy far away voice on the edge of his consciousness.
“And now the Ri Tuatha is also dead. Murdered by poison. They say I have done it, but Conor, you know me. I would never murder my own father.” Annalee looked desperate.
Conor felt a queasy feeling of uncertainty in the pit of his stomach. He had never been completely sure of Annalee and her motives, but was she capable of such a hideous act?
“Why?” he whispered. “Who would do such a thing?”
Annalee’s face darkened. “It is the Clan Chieftain of Muiri who is responsible. Her forces even now march against the city of Fal. She has had me imprisoned.”
Conor remembered Nemain of Muiri from his first visit to Tir na Nog. It was from her that he had first learned about the Four Treasures of Eirean. But why would she turn against her own people?
“Imprisoned? How did you escape?”
“I did not escape. I am chained, bound and gagged. What you see is just an image.” She walked forward and touched Conor. Her hand passed right through him. All he felt was a blast of cold air.
Conor swallowed hard. “Has she…has she hurt you?”
Annalee looked away. “I will not speak of that,” she said softly, and Conor knew that they had, although what kind of torture they could have dreamt up in the magical realms was beyond him. “It’s Ok. I never let her in. My mind is still my own. She doesn’t control me yet. But I don’t know how much longer I can resist.”
A steely resolve took hold of Conor. “I’m coming to get you,” he said firmly.
“No, Conor, you mustn’t. You will play straight into her hands. That is just what she wants. Then she will take you and use your powers, and all will be lost. Do not come for me, I beg you.”
“I can’t just sit by and let all this happen. I have to help.”
“I know. That is why I came to you, Treasure Seeker. Awaken the Fenian King, Conor. Only he can help us now. Only he can unite us and save Tir na Nog. And only you can find him.”
“The Fenian King?”
“It has long been said that he will return to us in our hour of greatest need. Find him, Conor, and bring him to us.”
“Will somebody please tell me what the hell is going on?” roared Ciara, unable to keep quiet any longer. Conor and Annalee both turned to look at her.
“Who is this mortal, Conor?” asked Annalee coldly.
“She’s my cousin, Ciara. She can read my mind.”
“Can she now?” Annalee sounded doubtful.
“Yes I can! And don’t you dare talk about me as if I’m not here,” said Ciara hotly.
Annalee turned back to Conor. “You’ll have to leave her behind.”
“No way,” declared Ciara firmly. “I’ve already messed up once this year by dropping out of college. My punishment is to mind Conor for the summer. If I lose him, my mam will bloody well kill me. He’s not going anywhere without me.”
Conor choked. “Punishment?”
Annalee made a decision. “She can come along, for now. You can always wipe her mind later, if it doesn’t work out.”
“Oh no you don’t! Either I’m in, fully compis mentis, or Conor’s out. If you want him, I’m part of the deal, like it or not.”
Annalee ignored her. She looked at Conor. “There’s one more thing. Ruairi is missing.”
Conor’s blood ran cold at this news. Ruairi was Annalee’s son, the son she had had with Bres, her people’s arch enemy. He was as unpredictable as his mother, yet he had fought against Bres and killed him.
“Do you think he could have killed your father?” It was a question he had to ask.
Annalee sighed. “Who can say what passes in his mind? He has been found guilty of murder once before, a fact we cannot ignore.”
Conor bowed his head. It was true. Ruairi had killed Airmid, last of the Elders, in order to further his own plans. Conor felt defeated before he had even begun. He couldn’t believe all this had been happening in the year he had been away from Tir na Nog. When he had restored the Four Treasures to the Sidhe last summer, he had thought they could at last find peace and start to rebuild their society.
“Where do we look for this Fenian King?” he asked, but his question was met with silence. He looked up.
Annalee was gone.