Four teenagers are drawn from an Irish mountaintop into an enchanted land and gifted with great powers: but with power comes responsibility, and a vast evil has noticed their arrival . . . On the summit of the fabled mountain Slievenamon in Ireland there is a doorway to an ancient land of terrible power. The gate of Feimhin has lain closed for centuries, the secret of its opening long lost - until four orphans drawn together by Fate pass through the portal and find the enchanted but war-ravaged world of Tír, a strange land peopled by beings of magic. Here death waits at every corner, and they must learn to fight if they are to survive. And they'd better learn quickly, because their enemy, the Tyrant of the Wastelands, is growing in power. 'The best fantasy novel I've ever read . . . an epic adventure that just does not stop!' said Glenda A. Bixler on Authorsden!
Release date: August 2, 2012
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Print pages: 576
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The Snowmelt River
Frank P. Ryan
The left half of the gates was opening in the high ivy-covered wall. He listened attentively but heard none of the usual creaking. They had oiled the hinges last night, in readiness. He saw the front wheel of her bike roll through, then the flash of her auburn hair, like a warm red flame, and even as his heart began to leap, he saw the excitement in her eyes, the soft green of evening light on the meadow that sloped down onto the far side of the river.
Kathleen Shaunessy lived in the Doctor’s House with her uncle, Fergal, and his housekeeper, Bridey. Nobody called her Kathleen except her uncle. Everybody else called her Kate.
Alan held her bike while she closed the half gate. Fourteen years old – she wouldn’t be fifteen until 6 November – Kate wore blue jeans, tight-fitting over worn trainers, and her upper body was hidden under a thick white sweater. This early in the morning, even at the close of a particularly hot summer, it would be cold. Over one shoulder she carried a denim backpack, just as he carried one on his back: a change of underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, sandwiches and fruit. All they needed for a brief adventure.
‘What did you tell Bridey?’
‘I left her a note. Sure, she won’t believe the half of it anyway!’
She spoke with the soft singsong accent that had so bemused the American youth when he had first arrived in Clonmel, an accent that in Kate he had come to love. Kate was so excited by the mission she didn’t appear to notice his own shakiness. He knew she had crept out through the first-floor bathroom window and climbed down the fall pipe with its convenient bends, as she had many a time before, because if she had left by the door her dog, Darkie, would have barked Bridey awake. He had no need to make furtive arrangements back at the sawmill since his grandad, Padraig, knew all about it. Padraig had helped them plan it. But Alan had worried about it all the same, tossing and turning through the night, with his bedroom window open to the cool night air, fitfully sleepless, as his puffy face now testified, and struggling to come to terms with his own fears.
He said, ‘Let’s check out the others. See if they’re ready!’
Kate switched on her mobile, sending the text message:
The answer flashed to her screen within moments, and with a shaking hand she held it out for Alan to see:
Only Mark could have thought it through so quickly. Revolting had more than one meaning. It was typical of Mark’s sarcastic sense of humour.
So it was really happening. The excitement no longer bearable, Alan did something he had never done before, something at once shocking and wonderful: he hugged Kate across the bikes. Then he kissed her on the lips, feeling lost and weightless with the ecstasy of the contact, the quickness of her surprise. He could not have moved a muscle again until Kate, with the same blossoming of friendship into love, kissed him back there in the shadowed lane, the bicycles interlocking like a promise between them.
Now, his heart racing with the thrill of her response, he saw the flush invade her face, an expanding tide about the roots of her auburn curls and down into her throat above her sweater, with its monogram opening letter from the Book of Kells.
Wordlessly, they wheeled the bikes around so they faced the town. The road was empty and they cycled side by side, Alan’s jittery legs moving around in their own automatic motion, to the crossroads, with the slaughterhouse on the corner and the memory of animals bellowing in the trucks as they trundled in through the gates and the river tributary soon turning red with their blood. They wheeled right around the corner, picking up speed as they crossed over the first of the old stone bridges and then slowing momentarily at the second bridge, with the steps leading down to the river. With every turn of the pedals, the Comeragh Mountains loomed closer, their patchwork of green and yellow fields studded with whitewashed farm cottages, and, below them, extending southwards and westwards, the forests that fed Padraig’s sawmill. They rode on into the sunrise in silence. All of a sudden, time was running away with them. And there was the scary feeling that it might never slow back to normal again.
It had begun only a few months earlier, although now it seemed more like years. Alan had been fishing the River Suir upstream of some small islands opposite the big fork in the river. The morning was misty and cool, and the water meadow, which the locals called the Green, was overgrown, with grasses and rushes way higher than his knees. People said it was unusual. The plants were running wild that summer. The drier parts, up close to the riverbank, were dense with meadowsweet, floating over the ground in thick clouds, and filling his nostrils with its sweet scent. In his hands was the old bamboo three-piece he had borrowed from his grandfather, Padraig. He wasn’t expecting to get a bite. Just looking for some space away from the bustle of the sawmill – and away from Padraig’s intrusive fussing.
He hadn’t got any closer to finding answers since arriving in Clonmel two months earlier. If anything the despair had relentlessly increased. It was there right now, as it was during every waking moment. Like the fire had gone out at the heart of him.
He had done his best to get it together. But he had nothing in common with the other kids here. He’d enrolled at the local high school thinking maybe he could connect with them through sport. He had always been pretty good at games. But even the games they played here were very different from back home. There was no American football, no baseball, no basketball, nothing. Football here was Irish football, where, as far as he could make out, they just slugged the daylights out of each other. That or the hurling, which was even worse. He must have looked half crazy to the other kids at times, his thoughts going blank on him, just standing there in the playground or sitting at his desk, his eyes staring, his limbs suddenly weighted down, like he was suited with lead. He just couldn’t get his mind around the fact that Mom and Dad were gone, really gone, gone for good – period. How did you make sense out of something that couldn’t possibly make any sense? With their loss came a great anger. He wanted to know why they had died. There had to be a reason – somebody who was responsible. He must have drifted into another of his blank spells, his eyes wide open but seeing nothing, when, abruptly, he came to with a sense of danger. There was a homp-homp noise from somewhere nearby, something strange cutting through the dreamy morning. And whatever it was, it was heading his way.
Then he saw the swans.
He had noticed their nest, with three huge eggs in it, on one of the small reedy islands that dotted the shallows. Something, maybe the toss of his line, had made the birds panic. The homp-homp was the beating of their wings as they took off, still only half out of the water and rising into the air like two white avenging angels. He saw every detail highlighted as if in slow motion: the pounding wings, the prideful black knobs on the upraised orange bills, the eyes all-black. He could hear the power in those webbed feet as they battered the surface. For several moments, as they cleared the water just thirty feet from where he was standing, he was overwhelmed by a sense of paralysis. He did nothing at all to save himself. He just stood still, returning, stare for stare, the rage in those alien eyes.
He felt a sudden blow, but from an altogether different direction to what he expected. He offered no resistance to being dragged to the ground in a confusion of bodies, arms and legs, hearing the splintering into pieces of the fishing rod, only distantly aware that he had ended up on his back with somebody else on top of him.
‘Holy blessed mother – are you out of your mind?’
A voice, hot in his ear. A girl’s voice!
He glimpsed a face, pallid as goat’s cheese in striking contrast to the furnace of auburn hair. Immediately above them the swans clattered over their ground-hugging figures. His ears were full of a low throaty hissing. And then they were gone.
Alan just lay there for a while, the stuffing knocked out of him.
She spoke again. ‘Did you hear the sound of them hissing?’
She added, ‘They’re supposed to be mute!’
His neck felt stiff. He had to turn his head through a painful ninety degrees to look at his saviour, who was now sitting up beside him. He sat up himself, seeing they were both covered by the creamy petals of meadowsweet.
All of a sudden she laughed, staring after the swans, which were sweeping low over the gentle rise of the Green, clearing by inches the hedge at the top, and continuing the slow ascent until they dwindled to specks against the mountains.
‘I … I guess it was my fault. My fishing must have spooked them.’
But she wasn’t even listening to him. He heard her whisper, as if to herself, ‘Sure, it’s a sign.’
‘A sign of what?’
‘Like maybe they sensed something different about you.’
He didn’t know what to say to that.
Climbing to his shaky feet, he must have looked even more awkward and gangly than usual. Alan had topped six feet on his fifteenth birthday, two weeks earlier. He kind of hoped he would stop growing soon so he wouldn’t end up having to bend his neck to get through doors like his beanpole grandfather. He thought about helping her up but he wasn’t sure she’d like it. Instead he extended his hand to shake hers.
‘Hi! I’m Alan.’
She slapped his hand away instead of shaking it. She hopped to her feet with a grin and said, ‘Kate Shaunessy!’
What had he done that was funny? There was an awkward silence. He could see in her eyes that she was weighing him up.
Man! He was useless at dealing with girls. And that made him feel even more awkward than ever. And now he was looking at her, very likely staring, and it was making her blush a bright scarlet. She whistled to a small black and white sheepdog, which came bounding up. She plucked at its coat, brushing it free of grass stalks and petals, like she was getting ready to leave.
He said, ‘Thanks!’
He saw her eyes flash, like she had made up her mind about something. ‘I’ve seen you out here before. Pretending to be fishing.’
‘I never noticed you.’
‘Why would you notice me? I’ve been watching you, moping around, feeling sorry for yourself.’
‘I – I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself.’
‘I already knew who you are. I know you’re an orphan.’
He shook his head, slowly, not knowing what to say.
Then he saw how she was trembling. She had been freaked out too. She blurted out, ‘Oh, you needn’t get embarrassed. I’m an orphan too.’
He stared at her for a long moment, wordless. Then he began to pick up the broken pieces of his grandad’s rod, making the best he could of the tangle of line, so he could hold the bundle together in his right hand.
She walked about a dozen paces but then she stopped and patted the dog. He had the feeling she was waiting for him.
Alan caught up with Kate and her dog. He was thinking about what she had just told him: I’m an orphan too. The way she had said it, kind of defiantly. It made him hope that somehow you really did come to terms with the bad things, even if they never made any sense.
She said, ‘I’m taking Darkie home. You can come with me, if you want. I’d like to show you something.’
‘Show me what?’
‘Are you interested in herbs?’
‘I’ve never thought much about them.’
The mist had melted away from the morning and he hadn’t even noticed it going. It felt like maybe a little of it had invaded his senses. His mind was groggy and his limbs felt numb, so he hardly registered the grassy bank under his feet as they passed by the island with the swans’ eggs.
‘Well I’m very interested. I’ve been learning about them. Teaching myself, really. With some help from Fergal.’
They abandoned the Green to enter the beaten dirt track that ran southwards along the riverbank.
‘Fergal’s my uncle. But he’s a zoologist and not a botanist.’
They continued to chat and to stroll, following the dirt track, limited on their left by the slow-flowing River Suir and to their right by the hoary limestone wall that separated the river from the Presentation Convent School.
Kate cracked open the right half of the gates, ushering the dog through, and then she waited for Alan to follow after it into a big, overgrown garden. They were within sight of a very strange-looking house.
A woman paused in emerging from a stonewall outbuilding, to take stock of them. Alan guessed that she must be the housekeeper for Kate’s uncle, Fergal. She was about mid-sixties, stocky and aproned, with thick grey hair held back in a bun. Under one brawny arm she carried an enamel basin filled with newly washed bedding.
Kate said, ‘Oh, Bridey – this is Alan.’
‘Gor! I know who he is! Don’t I see for meself Geraldine O’Brien looking back at me!’
Alan caught Kate’s whispered, ‘Sorry!’ Geraldine O’Brien was his mother’s maiden name. Dad had called her Gee.
‘You knew Mom?’
He didn’t know if his question embarrassed Bridey, or if she heard it at all. She was suddenly caught up with shaking her fist into the sky. ‘Them blessed yokes, with their perpetual thundering!’
Alan glanced up at a jet passing high overhead. The sound might, at a pinch, be described as a thundering, however faint and distant.
Kate said, ‘I’m showing Alan around the place. But you could tell him more about the house.’
‘Sure he’s not interested in this auld ruin.’
‘Ma’am, I am interested.’
Bridey peered back at him with a look of suspicion. ‘And why is that now? Because it looks so contrary?’
He couldn’t help but smile at her choice of word for the house, which captured the look of it perfectly. ‘Is it Victorian?’
‘It started off as Georgian, but they went through a fit of overhauling it during Victorian times.’ Bridey talked into the air, as if half-bemusedly to herself. ‘That was the time when it got its name, the “Doctor’s House”. The Doctor in this case being the medical superintendent of what in them days was known as “the madhouse”.’
Kate tugged at his arm to haul him away from Bridey’s reminiscences. ‘We’re going to take a look at the garden.’
‘Ah, be off the pair o’ you! Leave me to feed Darkie! But mind you keep clear of them greenhouses. Sure that uncle of yours is as stubborn as the tide.’
Kate waited until Bridey and Darkie had disappeared through a side door into the house before explaining, ‘My grandmother died when Fergal and Daddy were young. Bridey became their nanny. Then when Daddy died at the mission in Africa, she blamed the planes.’
‘She blamed the planes?’
‘For taking him to Africa.’
Alan shook his head.
‘She’s convinced the house is cursed.’
‘By what went on – in the old asylum.’
He smiled. ‘You’ve got to admit it’s a weird-looking house!’
‘All the time I was growing up here I thought I was living in the same world that Lewis Carroll wrote about.’
The original house must have been compact and square, with sash windows divided up into small Georgian panes. But somebody, maybe the Victorian asylum keeper, had inserted an octagonal tower on one corner. Alan was standing right outside it, looking up at a structure of wooden frames filled with small glass panes, capped by an amazing minaret-style tower that soared to a tiny flagpole, bearing the Irish tricolour. On the gable ends of the house he saw other additions, very likely arising out of the same fantastic imagination. Ornate canopies topped fussy bay windows and porticos surrounded the front and back doors. There were additional dormer windows on the roof adjacent to soaring chimneys. The surrounding gardens were a labyrinth of arbours for roses, honeysuckle and stuff, so you could wander out of the house into a fairyland of scents and colours.
They carried on round to the back, taking a course that avoided some large greenhouses, with peeling paintwork and several broken panes.
He murmured, ‘Looks to me like Bridey had a point!’
‘It’s nothing that a bit of fixing wouldn’t make safe. They were properly cared for when Grandad was alive. He was interested in plants, an amateur like me. But Fergal is too busy to take proper care of them. Bridey wants to knock them all down. We’re the only Shaunessys left of the family. She’s terrified something bad will happen. But there are old memories, like when Daddy and Uncle Fergal were growing up. So Fergal can’t bring himself to do it.’
She led Alan along a neglected path, overgrown with elderberry and nettles, bringing them face to face with a tunnel big enough to drive a car through. When they stepped inside, it was dank and gloomy. A hesitant light hovered around the entrance, as if fearful to penetrate deeper.
‘I used to hide here from Bridey, playing hide-and-seek. It cuts right under the main road. Then there are all sorts of secret carriageways and tunnels before it finally comes out in the grounds of the hospital.’
‘This still leads to the asylum?’
Kate nodded. ‘It’s a mental hospital now. Once I saw a picture of the old superintendent. He had huge side-whiskers and a beard like Father Christmas. The whole place was arranged so patients never left it even when they came to work here in the gardens.’
Kate hooted with laughter at the expression on his face. ‘Some of the mad people still try to escape this way. Oh, I know I shouldn’t call them that. There are times I feel madder than any of them myself. But Bridey could tell you stories. Those poor souls, they wade out into the river until it comes up to their chins. Then they shriek to the nurses that they’ll drown themselves if anybody tries to come and save them.’
She led him back to the house where they did a tour of the downstairs rooms. Bridey appeared with two glasses of orange juice, then left them to it. They carried their drinks into a study with collections of tropical insects mounted in frames.
‘Your uncle works with insects?’
‘He’s an entomologist at University College Cork. He’s off right now counting new species in the African jungle before they become extinct.’ Then, with what seemed a clumsy abruptness, she just came right out with it and asked him how his parents had died.
Alan was startled into silence.
‘You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to.’
‘There isn’t much to say. It was an accident.’
‘What kind of accident?’
He looked down at his feet. Would she never stop asking him questions? ‘It was in March – just a lousy accident.’
She slumped down into a chair and toyed with her orange. She said, ‘I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to upset you.’
He remained standing, annoyed with himself for letting his feelings show. ‘How about your folks?’
‘Mammy and Daddy were murdered.’
‘You don’t need to worry. I’ve got used to it.’
He took a deep breath. ‘I’d been on a school skiing trip. It was snowing a bit but it wasn’t any kind of a snowstorm. Dad and Mom were coming to pick me up. A special treat in a chopper. Dad was an experienced pilot. He wouldn’t have taken any risk. A bunch of us, school friends, we wanted to get one more run on the slopes. I look back and I think it was a really stupid thing to do. I keep thinking, what if we hadn’t gone back for that last run? A kid called Rudy Forrester broke his leg. It was a really bad break, with his shinbone poking out through his skin. Mom and Dad – they had to take him to the hospital about thirty miles away. They were supposed to come right back for me.’
The silence between them lasted several seconds.
‘All my life, well, I guess I was your typical American kid. You could say I was one of those laid-back guys. To tell you the truth—!’ Alan’s right hand suddenly came up and he slapped it against his head, like he somehow wanted to just punch sense into it.
She jumped to her feet and grabbed at his arm. ‘Please, Alan! Don’t do that. Don’t blame yourself.’
His brown eyes grew distant. ‘I guess … I guess I was some kind of a stupid jerk. The kind of kid who just goes through life without really thinking all that much about anything.’
She held onto his arm, almost hugging it to her. ‘What happened to them? Was it an accident?’
‘That’s what the wreck report said. They made a big thing about the fact it was snowing – and the fact Dad wasn’t familiar with the area. But he was a really good pilot. I just don’t buy it.’
‘You don’t think it was an accident?’
‘My grandfather, Padraig, doesn’t think so. He’s downright paranoid about it.’
‘What? He thinks it was suspicious?’
‘I know it sounds kind of crazy. But that’s what he thinks.’
She took him into a large sitting room, with its big chintzy lounge suite and dark mahogany furniture. The strange tower came off it on one corner, and there was an upholstered window seat so you could sit in there and look out into the garden. There were photographs on the walls of waterfalls, and safari shots of lions, zebras, elephants and crocodiles. In between the photographs, Alan saw rusty iron spears and big wooden clubs. He looked at pictures of a younger Kate with her parents outside single-storey buildings with white walls and red-tile roofs. They were surrounded by palm trees and colourful tropical plants. Kate’s parents looked slim, medium height. Her father was black-haired and her mother was red-haired, like Kate herself, but a lighter, more golden, red. There was a boy, who looked younger than Kate, with the same red hair.
She brushed her finger over the glass in the frame. ‘My brother, Billy.’
‘And all that’s what – some kind of medical mission?’
‘It was a Belgian Catholic Mission, with a school and a small hospital. Mammy was the matron of the hospital and Daddy was the doctor. They worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo all of the time I was growing up. Billy and me, we lived here with Uncle Fergal and Bridey.’ Her green eyes filled with longing. ‘We used to really look forward to going out there and joining Mammy and Daddy in the long holidays. The mission was close to the gorilla forest. There were palm trees in the grounds and all sorts of fabulous plants. Right outside our bungalow was a giant aloe that sent up seed flowers as tall as a tree. Then, when they seeded, the whole plant just withered away and died. Sister Marie Therèse, she was like the Bridey over there. She had such a sense of fun. She used to tell us stories of what the patients did behind the doctors’ and nurses’ backs. They still believed in spells and potions. She called them les petites feticheurs! I loved the Africans too. They needed so very little to make them happy. Mammy used to say that the best smiles she ever saw were African smiles.’
Alan saw that the living room was like a mirror image of the living room back at the sawmill. Bridey and Padraig had each made a shrine to happier times.
‘What happened, Kate?’
Her head jerked and her eyes darkened. ‘There was a lot of trouble going on. There were enough bad people locally already without others coming out of Rwanda. Mammy and Daddy had been told to leave. But they knew if they abandoned the hospital the mission would have been finished. And they thought they were safe because they were a hundred and fifty kilometres away from the border.’ She hesitated, blinking a little fast, still staring at the photographs.
‘Good job you weren’t there!’
‘I was there and so was Billy.’ Kate inhaled and her nostrils dilated. ‘Sister Marie Therèse saved me. She was in charge of the kitchen gardens. We were out there gathering vegetables when we heard the trucks drive in and then the shots and the screaming. I wanted to run back but she stopped me. There was a … a kind of pit. An underground store where she kept yams and stuff. She pushed me into it.’ Kate sniffed and rubbed at her nose. ‘I hid there all through it.’ He could see she was doing her best to fight back tears. ‘I was still there when government soldiers came around, I don’t know how many days later. They found me in the pit. They … they told me the rebels had killed them all … everybody …’
‘I had counselling. I couldn’t bear to go out. I couldn’t face meeting people – nobody. Not even my friends.’ Kate’s face was flushed and her eyelids were blinking so fast they were fluttering. She looked very different from the girl who had pushed him out of the way of the swans.
He touched her shoulder, spoke to her softly. ‘C’mon, Kate! Let’s go explore the garden!’
She scampered back out through the door, half running. He gave her a little space to recover her composure. When he caught up with her he found himself standing at the top of a gentle slope of lawn leading down to the open river. Alan followed her gaze across the forty yards of reed-strewn water to the Green, and beyond that, to the mountains, which were so close you felt you could put out your hand and touch them. He realised that they were almost exactly opposite the place he had been fishing, but closer to the big fork in the river.
‘A good job Bridey wasn’t watching us earlier!’
Kate managed a nervous laugh. ‘Bridey would have needed binoculars. But if she had, she’d have had a heart attack.’ She was hurrying on again. ‘Come on – I told you there was something I wanted to show you!’
‘Show me what?’
‘You won’t know about BSBI.’
‘The Botanical Society of the British Isles. I’m helping them with a project on rare and threatened plants.’ She stopped in front of a small tilled piece of the garden, right by the water, about as far away from the house as you could possibly get. It was divided up into tiny beds, each about a foot square, separated from its neighbours by uneven rows of bricks. He guessed that Kate had laid out the bricks.
The beds were empty except for one.
‘Are you kidding me?’
‘Go on! Take a closer look!’ Kate went down onto her haunches and so he did the same. He saw a flower that looked a bit like a dandelion. The label read ‘Irish fleabane (Inula salicina) – rare. K.S. Clonmel, Tipperary’.
‘K.S. – that you?’
She nodded, proudly. ‘It’s on the threatened list. I’m waiting for the seeds so I can send them to the gene bank people in Dublin.’
She glanced across at him with a wry smile. ‘If you’re really interested, maybe you could help me.’
‘I know nothing about this stuff. If you hadn’t told me what it was, I’d have looked at that plant and I’d have seen a weed.’
Kate’s eyes turned to the Comeragh Mountains, to the forests that clambered over the lower slopes. ‘I just knew it was fate. Your grandfather’s woods cover half of those foothills. There are bits of the old original forests up there on the slopes. Bogs, even!’
From the chatter of words she had flung into the air like seeds, Alan’s mind plucked out one more curious than all the others: fate.
Mark Grimstone was glad he had agreed to keep his sister company while Mo was looking for crystals. They had scouted a few rocky fields before cutting in to explore the dense woods off the Dungarvan Road. After three-quarters of an hour of walking through shadows and being bitten by midges, they came out into a natural clearing, with a white rocky scarp at one edge. Mo went to investigate while Mark passed a moment or two looking around him, swivelling on the heel of his left trainer. Her squeal of delight meant a discovery had been made.
They would spend an hour or two here. Mark sat in a patch of grass, lounging back against a heather-covered outcrop, whipping at insects with a switch of ash and wondering why the Reverend Grimstone, his adoptive father, had brought them to the Irish backwater of Clonmel.
Grimstone would play his usual games, pulling in the more gullible locals – those hoping for salvation from their personal demons – into his rituals of head-touching and shouting their sins aloud. This was all in a day’s work for Grimstone’s style of hellfire and brimstone. But why Clonmel? Mark couldn’t fathom it. He gave up trying, and slumped back against the outcrop, watching hi
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