For Finbar, of whom I am exceedingly proud. ?
Table of Contents
? Chapter One - Aunt Nieve Chapter Two - Uncle Cialtie Chapter Three - Mom Chapter Four - The Yewlands Chapter Five - Rothlú Chapter Six - Fergal Chapter Seven - Brownies Chapter Eight - Araf Chapter Nine - Essa Chapter Ten - Gerard Chapter Eleven - The Dahy Chapter Twelve - Acorn Chapter Thirteen - The Hazellands Chapter Fourteen - Lorcan Chapter Fifteen - The Reedlands Chapter Sixteen - Big Hair Chapter Seventeen - The Druid Table Chapter Eighteen - The Race of the Twins of Macha Chapter Nineteen - The Castle Beach Chapter Twenty - The Shadowcasting Chapter Twenty-One - Aunt Nieve Chapter Twenty-Two - The Army of the Red Hand Chapter Twenty-Three - The Return of the Hazellands Chapter Twenty-Four - The Evil Eye Chapter Twenty-Five - Mother Oak Chapter Twenty-Six - Born Ready Chapter Twenty-Seven - Aein Chapter Twenty-Eight - The Choosing Chapter Twenty-Nine - The Truth, a Second Time Chapter Thirty - A Time to Bend Chapter Thirty-One - A Decision Chapter Thirty-Two - Goodbyes
Copyright About the Publisher
Chapter OneAunt Nieve
‘How come you never told me I had an aunt?’ That was the first thing I said. I know, my firstquestion should have been, ‘Are you alright, Dad?’ He didn’t look alright. The light wasawful, but I could see blood on the side of his face. I’m amazed I didn’t say, ‘What is that
smell?’ because it sure stank in there. I’m not talking about a whiffy locker room smell, butthe kind of stench that can make it possible to see your breakfast a second time around. Ormost obviously I guess I should have asked, ‘Where are we?’ or, ‘Why are we chained to awall?’ But instead, the first question I asked when I regained consciousness was aboutgenealogy.
‘Well, Conor,’ Dad croaked, not even looking at me, ‘the first time you met her, she triedto kill you.’
She had, too.
I was sitting in the living room watching crappy morning television. I was dressed, shaved andready to go. You had to be with my father. It wasn’t unusual for me to run out of the housetwo minutes behind him and find that he had left without me.
‘Are you ready?’ he called from the bedroom–in almost Modern Greek.
That was a good sign. It was a simple matter to gauge my father’s moods–the older thelanguage, the worse his frame of mind. Greek wasn’t too bad. I shouted back, in the samelanguage, ‘Born ready!’ I had learned a long time ago that I had to speak in the language of
, or else he would ignore me completely.the day
He came out of his bedroom in a white shirt with a tie hanging around his neck. ‘Could you dothis for me?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
Tie tying was one of the very few things that Pop found impossible to do with just one hand.Most of the time I didn’t think of Dad as having a handicap at all–I know a lot of two-handedmen much less dexterous than him, and anyway, I was happy to do him a favour. I was just aboutto hit him up for a bit of cash, so that tonight I could take Sally to a nice restaurant, asopposed to the usual crummy pizza joint.
‘What’s with the tie?’ I asked.
‘The dean wants me to smarten up a bit. There is some famous ancient languages professor
visiting who wants to talk about my theories of pronunciation. As if I don’t have anythingbetter to do than babysit some idiot.’
That question was a mistake on my part. He said that last sentence in Ancient Gaelic. That wasthe language he used when he was annoyed or really meant business–it was almost as if it washis mother tongue. I’m not talking about Gaelic, the language of the Irish, I’m talking aboutAncient Gaelic, a language found only on crumbling parchments and in my house.
‘Aw c’mon, Pop,’ I said as chirpily as I could, ‘maybe this professor is a beautiful she
idiot, and I can finally have a mom.’
He gave me a dirty look, but not one of his more serious ones, and tucked the bottom of his tieinto his shirt.
I plopped myself down on the sofa. I could hear Dad humming some prehistoric Celtic ditty as hebrushed his teeth in the bathroom. A fight broke out on the television show I was half-heartedly watching: two women were pulling each other’s hair and the studio audience waschanting the presenter’s name.
‘Turn that damn television off,’ he shouted, ‘or I’ll put a crossbow bolt through it!’
I quickly switched off the TV–coming from Dad this was not an idle threat. He owned acrossbow–as well as a quarterstaff, a mace and all sorts of archaic weaponry. If it was old,he had it. Hell, he even made me practise sword fighting with him every week before he gave memy spending money.
This gives you an idea of what life was like with my father–the mad, one-handed, ancientlanguages professor Olson O’Neil. People said that he lived in the past, but it was worse than
the past. It was cool when I was a kid, but now that I was older,was fromthat–it was like he
I increasingly thought it was weird–sad, even.
That Dad embarrassed me from time to time wasn’t really the problem. Now that I was startingto get a few whiskers on my chin, what really got me down was that he seemed disappointed in meall of the time and I couldn’t figure out why. I was doing well at high school. In a week Iwould graduate, OK, not at the top of my class, but pretty up there. I had never really been introuble. My girlfriend didn’t have pink hair and studs through her nose, or eyebrows, or evenher bellybutton. Dad liked Sally. It seemed as if he wanted me to be something–but hewouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell me what.
A knock came on the front door that was so loud, it made me jump to my feet. Now, weird is whatmy life is these days, but here is where all the weirdness began.
We live in a converted barn outside of town with a regular-sized front door that is cut intotwo huge barn doors. When my father answers a knock, he always peers through a tiny hatch tocheck who’s out there. I, on the other hand, like to undo the bolts and throw open the two bigdoors. It shocks visitors and it has the added effect of annoying Dad. I don’t do that anymore.
I dramatically swung open the two doors and found myself face to face with two of the biggest,sweatiest horses I had ever seen. Riding them was a man in full King Arthur-type armour and awoman in a hooded cloak. With hindsight I wish I had said something clever like, ‘The stablesare around the back,’ but to be honest, I was too gobsmacked to speak.
When the woman pulled back her hood, she took my breath away. She was astonishingly beautiful,with a wild mane of amber hair. She seemed to be about five or ten years older than me–twenty-five, twenty-seven maybe, except something about her made her seem older than that.
‘Is this the home of Oisin?’ she asked.
‘There is an Olson here, Olson O’Neil,’ I stammered.
She considered this for a second and took a step into the room–or, I should say, her horsedid. I had to back away to stop from being trampled.
‘Who are you?’ I demanded.
She looked around the room and her eyes stopped on an oak fighting stick that was mounted onthe wall. A look of satisfaction crossed her face. ‘I am his sister,’ she said.
I started to say, ‘Yeah, right,’ and then two things struck me. One was that she was speakingin Ancient Gaelic–I was so stunned by the appearance of those two that I hadn’t noticed itbefore. The second was her eyes–she had Dad’s eyes, and nobody had dark peepers like myfather.
‘Dad!’ I called out. ‘There’s a woman out here who says she’s your sister.’
That is when all hell broke loose. Dad came charging out of the bathroom screaming at the topof his lungs, with toothpaste foaming out of his mouth like a rabid animal. He grabbed the waraxe off the mantel, which I always assumed was there just for decoration, and hurled it at hissister. She pulled her head back just in time to avoid getting a quick nose job, but hercompanion wasn’t so lucky. The flat side of the axe hit him square on the shoulder and knockedhim from his saddle. The rider desperately tried to stay on his mount. The horse made ahorrible sound as he pulled a handful of hair out of its mane, but it was no good. He hit theground with a crash of metal and then, as if being attacked in my living room by equestrianswasn’t surprise enough–he disappeared–he just vanished! One second I was watching the Tin
Man falling through the air, arms and legs flailing in all directions, and the next second hewas gone–poof! In the space where he should have been, was a pile of rusted metal in a swirlof dust.
Dad shouted, ‘Conor, watch out!’ I looked up just in time to see a spear leaving my aunt’shand–and it was heading directly for my chest. Then everything seemed to go into slow motion.I remember looking into my aunt’s eyes and seeing what almost looked like pain in them, and Iremember turning to my father and seeing the utter defeat on his face. But what I remember themost was the amazing tingling sensation that I felt all over my body. An amber glow seemed tocloud my vision, then I noticed the glow cover me from head to toe and then encircle the spear,just as it made contact with my chest. The spear hit me, I fell over from the force of it, butit didn’t hurt. For a second I thought, That’s what it must be like when you receive a mortal
. Then I saw the spear lying next to me. I felt my chest and I was fine.wound–no pain
Dad sat me up. ‘Are you OK?’ he asked.
I wish I had a picture of my face at that point–I could feel the stupid grin I had pasted onit. A horn blew–Dad and I looked up in time to see my would-be assassin galloping away fromthe door.
‘Can you stand?’ Dad asked.
I remember answering him by saying, ‘That was very strange.’ I was kind of out of it.
‘Conor,’ he said, helping me to my feet, ‘we have to get out of here.’
But it was too late. Two more riders, this time in black armour and on black horses, burst intothe room. Tables and chairs went flying in all directions. Dad grabbed my hand and we tried torun out the back, but before we could take more than a couple of steps I saw, and heard, ablack leather whip wrap around my father’s neck. I tried to shout but my voice was strangledby the searing pain of another whip wrapping around my own throat.
The next thing I remembered, I was chained to a dungeon wall talking to my father about thefamily tree.
‘What’s her name?’
‘Nieve,’ Dad said, without looking at me.
I was about to ask, ‘Why does she want to kill us?’ when I felt something crawl across myankle. It was a rat–no, I take that back–it was the mother of all rats. I’d seen smallerdogs. I screamed and tried to kick it away. It moved just out of reach and stared at me like itowned the place. Just what I needed, a super-rat with an attitude.
‘Where the hell are we?’ I yelled.
‘We are in The Land,’ Dad said in a faraway voice.
‘The Land? What land?’
‘The Land, Conor–Tir na Nog.’
‘Tir na Nog? What,’ I said sarcastically, ‘the place full of Pixies and Leprechauns?’
‘There are no Pixies here, but yes.’
‘Dad. Quit messing around. What is going on?’
He turned and looked me straight in the eyes, and then with his I’m only going to tell you
voice he said, ‘We are in The Land. The place that the ancient Celts called Tir nathis once
Nog–The Land of Eternal Youth. I was born here.’
I began to get angry. I was in pain, we were definitely in trouble, and Dad was treating melike a kid, making up some cock-and-bull story to keep me happy. I was just about to tell himwhat I thought of him, but then I thought about the guy who fell off his horse. ‘Did you seethat guy disappear?’
‘He didn’t disappear,’ Dad said, and I could tell he was struggling to make this so I couldunderstand. ‘He just grew old–quickly’
‘When someone from The Land steps foot in the Real World, they instantly become the age thatthey would be there. That soldier was probably a couple of thousand years old.’
‘He was an immortal. Everyone from The Land is an immortal.’
I looked deep into his eyes, waiting for the twinkle that lets me know he’s messing with me.When it didn’t come, I felt my chest tighten.
‘My God, you’re not screwing around, are you?’
He shook his head–a slow no.
‘So what,’ I said half jokingly, ‘like, you’re an immortal?’
‘No,’ he said, turning away, ‘I gave that up when I came to the Real World.’
I shook my head to clear the cobwebs, which was a mistake, because I almost passed out with thepain. When my vision cleared, Dad was staring at me with a look of total sincerity.
used to be an immortal?’ I asked.‘So you
At that point I should have come to the obvious conclusion that this was all just a dream,except for the fact that dreaming isn’t something I had ever done. Famously, among my friendsand classmates at least, I had never had a dream. I had an idea what they were like from TVshows and movies but it was not something I had ever experienced. People always said, ‘Oh, youmust dream, you just don’t remember it,’ but I don’t think so. When I put my head down, Iwake up in the same place and I don’t go anywhere in-between. And anyway, I knew this wasreal–there was something in the air, other than the stench, that felt more real than anythingI had ever known.
I was silent for a long while and then I asked, ‘Do I have any other relatives I should knowabout?’
The answer came, not from my father, but from a shadowy figure standing in the doorway on thefar side of the room.
‘You have an uncle,’ he said.
Chapter TwoUncle Cialtie
The instant he emerged from the shadows, I knew he was my uncle alright. He looked like an oldhigh-school photo of my father, before the grey hair and the extra twenty pounds. He had thatevil twin appearance about him, like one of those crappy TV movies where the same actor playsthe part of the nice and the wicked brother. He even had the black goatee and a sinister sneer.
Don’t get the impression that this was a comical moment. Even chained against a wall, I triedto take an involuntary step back–this guy was scary. But the person who scared me the most atthat moment wasn’t my uncle, it was my father.
‘Cialtie,’ he said, with more malice than I had ever heard from anybody–let alone Dad.
‘Brother Oisin,’ Cialtie dripped, ‘you look, what is that word? Oh yes–old.’
‘Where is Finn?’
‘You mean our father? I thought he was with you. Last time I saw him he was riding into theReal World looking for you. His horse didn’t look very healthy though.’
‘You murdered him.’
‘Oh no,’ Cialtie replied with false innocence, ‘I wouldn’t hurt Father. I merely stabbedthe horse,’ and then he smiled. It was my first experience of Uncle Cialtie’s smile, and itmade my stomach churn.
‘I’ll kill you,’ Dad hissed.
‘No, I think you will find that that is what I am going to do to you. But first I am going tokill your boy here, and you know the best part? After that I’ll be considered a hero–asaviour even.’
‘Why would killing me make him a saviour?’ I said, finding my voice.
Cialtie addressed me directly, for the first time, instantly making me wish I hadn’t asked thequestion. ‘Hasn’t Daddy told you anything?’ Cialtie scolded. ‘Tsk, tsk, Oisin, you reallyhave neglected his education. Haven’t you told him of the prophecy?’
‘I didn’t think this would ever happen,’ Dad said without looking at me. ‘We were neversupposed to come back.’
‘You are the son of the one-handed prince’ quoted Cialtie, ‘a very dangerous young man.
It’s true, it was foreseen by a very gifted oracle.’
‘Who,’ my father said, ‘you murdered.’
‘Water under the bridge, Oisin. You really must learn to let bygones be bygones. You see, yourdaddy here carelessly lost his hand–which I still have upstairs, you know, it’s one of myfavourite possessions–so that meant that having a baby was a no-no, but as always Oisinthought he knew best and it looks like it’s going to take his big brother to sort thingsout.’
‘You are using my hand,’ Dad hissed, ‘to keep the throne.’
‘Oh yes,’ replied Cialtie, ‘I find it works just as well in the Chamber of Runes without therest of you. Better, in fact–because your mouth isn’t attached to it. That Shadowwitch youused to run around with did a really good job of preserving it.’
I could see the blood vessels in Dad’s temple stand out as he strained against his chains. Mytemples must have been throbbing too. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Some oraclepredicted that I had to die? Cialtie was using Dad’s hand? And what throne?
‘I would love to stand here and reminisce all day’ said Cialtie, ‘but I have a nephew tokill. Now, your father’s runehand has come in so useful these last few years, I thought Imight as well have yours too. The start of a collection, maybe?’ He reached into his cloak andtook out an ornate golden box. Inside was an imprint of a hand.
‘I’m going to cut off your hand,’ Cialtie continued, ‘preserve it with proper magic, notthat Shadowmagic stuff she used on your dad’s mitt, and then you bleed to death and die. Yourdad gets to watch and everybody is happy’
I used to think that anger was a bad thing, but now I realise that in times of extreme stressand fear, anger can be the emotion that focuses your mind and gets you through. Did I hate myuncle? You bet. And the idea of killing him was the only thing that kept me from whimperinglike a damp puppy. I held on to that thought as he came at me.
Cialtie paused. ‘You know, I just had a thought. Is it not ironic that the day you become animmortal is the day you die?’
‘If I’m an immortal, how are you going to kill me?’
Cialtie laughed, a sickening laugh that deliberately went on too long. ‘Oh my. I never thoughtI would see the day when I would meet a son of Duir who was so thick. Immortality, my boy, maysave you from illness and getting old, but it won’t save you from this.’ He drew his swordand swung at my wrist.
glow encircledamberThen it happened again. The world seemed to slow down and a golden–no–an
Cialtie’s sword and me. I felt the pressure of the blade on my wrist but it didn’t hurt, andmore importantly, it didn’t cut. Cialtie flew into a rage–he began hacking and stabbing atme. I didn’t even try to dodge it–the amber glow seemed to protect me. Finally he threw thesword across the room in a rage.
‘This is Shadowmagic,’ he hissed. ‘That witch’s doing, I’ll wager. Well, I have asorceress of my own.’ He turned to leave–then looked back. ‘You have a reprieve, nephew. Isuggest that you and Daddy say your goodbyes. Just don’t take too long,’ and then he wasgone, leaving me shaking, half from fear and half from anger.
‘I’m sorry, Conor,’ Dad finally said.
‘How come you never told me?’
Dad laughed. ‘What was I supposed to say? “Son, you are old enough now for me to tell you
” You think I’m loony enough as it is.that I am the heir to the throne of a magical kingdom.
I can imagine what you would have said to that.’
‘So, you’re the heir to a throne?’
Dad thought for a second, and took a deep breath that looked like it hurt. ‘My father–yourgrandfather–was the lord of this castle. His name was Finn and he held Duir–the Oak Rune. Hewas the king, if you like, of Tir na Nog.’
I was struggling to make sense of all of this. My head was spinning. ‘You’re a prince?’
‘The one-handed prince?’
‘So why did Cialtie say I was dangerous?’
‘Ona,’ Dad said, ‘made a prediction.’
‘Who is this Ona?’
‘She was my father’s Runecaster.’ When I looked puzzled he said, ‘Like a fortune teller.’
‘And what did she say exactly?’ I could tell that the question pained him but I was angry.Some old bat throwing stones around was causing me a lot of trouble.
‘She said, “The son of the one-handed prince must die, lest he be the ruin of Tir na Nog.”‘
‘That’s ridiculous! You don’t believe this crap, do you?’
Dad lowered his head, and when he spoke I could hardly hear him. ‘Ona was never wrong.’
‘So let me get this straight. You lose your hand in a gardening accident and then everybodywants me dead!’ As soon as I said it I realised how ridiculous it sounded. ‘You didn’t loseyour hand in a lawnmower, did you?’
‘Are you going to tell me about it?’
‘That is a long story,’ I heard a woman’s voice say. It sounded as if it was coming frominside the wall to my right. ‘And if you want to get out of here,’ she said as she appearedright before my eyes, ‘we will have to save it for later.’
You could have knocked me down with a feather. If I thought my aunt was stunning, this was themost beautiful woman I had ever seen. Dark, tall, with a straight black ponytail plaited to herwaist and wearing–check this out–animal skins. She seemed to just step through the wall.
She worked fast. She placed what looked like honey in the locks that shackled our wrists andDad’s neck. Then she dropped to one knee, lowered her head, mumbled something and the ironsfell away. I can’t tell you how good it felt. If you have ever taken off a thirty-poundbackpack after a twenty-mile hike, you have the beginnings of an idea. Dad and I stood up.
‘Quickly!’ she said, and walked straight through the wall.
Before Dad could follow I put my hand on his shoulder. ‘Who’s the babe in the skins?’
‘That’s no way to talk about your mother,’ he said, and followed her through the wall.
I stood there as if rooted to the spot. I don’t have a mother. My mother is dead. My father
. Emotions swirled around me like a leafy breeze. I was five years old. I rememberedtold me so
the pain in my chest, the taste of my tears. I remembered the look on my father’s face as Istared up to him from my bed.
‘Is Mom in heaven?’ I sobbed.
‘I’m not sure I believe in heaven,’ a younger version of Dad replied. ‘The ancient Celtsbelieved in a place called Tir na Nog, where people never grow old. I think that’s where yourmother is.’ He held me until the tears slowed and my sobs were replaced by sleep. Was this theonly time my father had ever told me the truth?
I looked up and saw her standing there. ‘Are you my mother?’ I said in a voice I hadn’t usedin fifteen years.
‘Yes,’ she said, and I knew it was true. I looked into that feminine mirror of my own face,complete with the tears, and I could hardly stand it. I know it contravened all eighteen-year-old cool behaviour but I couldn’t help myself. I threw my arms around her.
She held me tight and stroked the back of my head.
‘Conor, oh my Conor,’ she said.
I could have stayed in those arms for days, for months, for the rest of my life. She gentlypushed me back by the shoulders, and in a motherly voice I so long had yearned for, said,‘Conor?’ When I didn’t reply I heard the other motherly voice, the one that says, I’m your
. She shook me and said again, ‘Conor!’mother and you had better listen to me or else
That got my attention.
‘We don’t have time for this. We must leave here.’
Still in a daze, I wiped my eyes and nodded.
Mom gestured to our right. ‘This way’
That was when I heard his voice at the door.
‘You!’ shouted Cialtie.
That snapped me right out of it. I looked to the door and saw my uncle standing there with sometall, spindly, pale woman. She was dressed in hanging black lace with dark, dark eyes, blacklips and a skunk-like streak in the front of her jet-black hair.
I lost it–I flipped out. ‘Leave me alone!’ I screamed so forcefully that spit flew out of mymouth. Neither of them was prepared for a fight. They expected to find us chained to the wall.I loved the look on Cialtie’s face as he reached for his sword and realised that he had thrownit across the room after he had failed to cut off my hand. It was lying on the floor to myleft. We both looked at it at the same time. Cialtie went for the sword, but I went forCialtie. Some people would think I was brave, but bravery had nothing to do with it. I wasplain loco. All of the day’s craziness, the pain, the revelations, the emotions–I had justhad enough! I hit Cialtie with a picture-perfect American football tackle. My shoulder caughthim square in the solar plexus and smashed him into the wall. I actually heard all of the airfly out of his lungs and I knew he wasn’t getting up in a hurry. Out of the corner of my eye Isaw the goth woman smash into the wall with a shower of golden light from something my motherdid. I reached down and picked up the sword. It was so much lighter than it looked. The pommelfitted in my hand as if it was made for me. I started to raise it, fully intending to bring itdown on my uncle’s head, when two guards ran into the room. As they reached for their weaponsmy mother grabbed me by the collar and threw me at the wall.