by Zentara Shadowsoul.
We spent the rest of the day in the wagon, sheltering from the rain and talking. Only once were we interrupted. Carney, Isolda’s cousin and probable heir, came to report that the trading booths were ready for the morrow and secure. Tonight, and every night of the Fayre, guards from the clan would sleep within the booths – theft was always possible at such gatherings. Isolda thanked him, adding that she would remain inside for the remainder of the day, due to the awful weather. Carney nodded then looked over at me, his eyes unfriendly and unwelcome, although his greeting was conventional, almost warm.
“Good to see you, Zentara. How goes the quest? Or are you abandoning it already?”
I smiled in response. “The quest continues, Carney. But as you are all here, on my route, I couldn’t pass by without saying hello. The roads were busy, so I guess the Fayre will be too, despite the weather?”
He shrugged. “As always. Will you be staying long?”
“No. I’ll continue tomorrow. May the trading go well, and your Family be blessed,” I replied, using the conventional clan farewell. He took the hint, and bade us both a good evening before departing.
“He still doesn’t like me. And I suspect if he knew the truth he would like me even less,” I commented to Isolda once Carney was out of earshot.
My grandmother nodded. “He has little time for anyone. If he wasn’t my cousin I would never even consider him as a future clan chief. But he’s the only possible heir and has never given anyone reason to doubt that he has the clan at heart. I just hope that he also proves to be a good leader.”
“Why did you never marry?” I asked then, although I think I knew before Isolda answered.
“There was no way to hide that I wasn’t a virgin. Nor was there a man within the clans that I loved, or trusted. Better that I rule the clan alone than find myself a castaway or bullied by any man. I was pressured, of course, but I told everyone that my husband was the clan, the Zigandi. My mother understood. As did many of the women Elders.” She paused for a moment then regarded me closely. “And I had no wish to force the burden of clan chief onto any child of mine. Keeping the peace and leading this clan has never been easy.”
I nodded and understood. “It wasn’t the life you wanted, was it?”
“No,” she sighed. “If I’d been able to join the Shay and to be with Jameel, that is what I would have chosen.”
I held her hand, feeling and seeing the wrinkles and the arthritic lumps that I knew pained her. We shared secrets and sorrows now, and a family bond. Somehow it had always been there, but had strengthened in the last few hours.
“What are the Shay really like? You have told me little so far of how they look and act.”
”Because there is little I can tell you. Quiet, shadowy, reclusive. Yes, I lived within their holding for a while but my hut was separated from their main gathering. I was there purely because of the child I bore. Yes, I was welcomed. But no love, not even friendship, was shown to me.” Her eyes misted over, as if she was seeing that time again. “As for the one who gave me the child, Renegade they called him, he was dismissed as not belonging. He had seemed charming, handsome in his way, with wild purple hair and deep green eyes that were warm and inviting whilst he seduced me. I believe his magic swayed me, held me to him for the two or three hours we were together. I’d gone to the monolith to draw and study it, for it fascinated me. He came upon me whilst I was deeply engaged in the sketch and admired my painting. I was flattered. Oh, far too easily flattered. Afterwards I had little recollection of the meeting, just fleeting glimpses and remembrances of tumbling in the long grass.”
”Magic.” The word resonated, its implications worried me. “What magic do they have? How can I know what magic is within me?”
Isolda squeezed my hand gently. “Their magic is, I believe, of healing, of senses, of the woods. You already use some, without realising.” As I looked at her, startled, she smiled and continued. “Do you not see further than any of us, especially in the dark? Do you not feel a bond with Ghost, and with other animals, that none of us do? And your senses are open to the world around us in a way mine are not.”
I considered her words, slowly nodding at the realisation that these were not normal clan gifts.
“It is why you need to find the Shay,” Isolda said softly. “To learn about your magic, about yourself.”
“But where do I begin?”
“At the start of your life,” she answered, as enigmatic as ever.
I smiled. “At the Traveller Rest where I was found. And the monolith.” Isolda nodded. “Do you have any ideas as to why they left, where they went to?”
“As to why, I believe they felt they were losing the forest, that their homes and lives were being intruded upon. When I was a child the woodlands still flowed across the banks of the Cori and either side of the High Road. Here, where we are camped now, was woodland. Now, see what has happened. Fields, lumberyards, workshops, houses and all the trappings of humanity has replaced much of what was forest. As to where – for that question I have no answer. That, Zentara, is your quest, yours to answer.” She shook her head and for a long time after we sat lost in thought whilst the rain continued to fall, the sound enveloping us both.