Feeling at once angered and restless, I turned from the beguiling sea and, with a gesture that was almost savage, drew the Duir from its great scabbard. Had it been the sword that had enticed me to follow the Ban? Yet so far, in the days I had possessed it, it had scarcely yet found its place in my hand. My fingers curved about the hilt now, and I felt almost defiant.
I raised the blade before me and said sourly, "Very well, then, powerful sword. If I have been bewitched – by the Ban or by you – show me the nature of the enchantment."
‘Twas as if the jewel in the hilt murmured in reply, a muffled flash of silver-blue fire that was like speech. Instantly, the world about me darkened, as at the coming of heavy weather. Shadows raced, faster than thought, across the ground . . . For a moment, enrapt, I felt suspended in timelessness, held to reality only by the feel of the sword hilt in my hand. Then slowly and gradually, like the expansion of dim light, the shadows began to clear.
I found myself in another place, lying on the ground.
It was almost like being suddenly immersed in a dream already in progress, except, when asleep and dreaming, there is usually a certain sense of detachment. Now, I was within the scene – within myself, inside my own body – with my heart beating fast and my body throbbing from contact with the ground. I could feel blood trickling down my ankle and there was a sharp stone pressing into the small of my back. The shadows above me continued to clear slowly, so that bit by bit I saw a shifting sea of green that eventually resolved itself into the separate, waving leaves of a tree. I seemed to be in a clearing, in the forest.
I was so bemused that at first I did not even feel shock. My mind was busy assimilating a thousand details – the fact that I had recently been engaged in a violent confrontation: my breath was short and ragged, and the sweat stood out all over me. The grass in which I had landed was wet, and the angle of light bespoke late afternoon. The scent of damp leaves and rich earth was strong, along with the more insidious but insistent smell of blood. A great deal of blood . . .
I checked, perfunctorily, to see if it was mine and that was when the shock came. I was not wearing my clothes – those I had on that morning – nor any others I owned. Indeed, the hide leggings and laced boots were completely unlike anything I had ever seen. I looked further. I still grasped the sword in my hand. Only . . .
I still cannot easily think on the conflicting emotions that flooded my mind then. The hand was mine, and yet it was not. Unfamiliar, yet familiar, like something long unseen but remembered, from a long time ago. The fingers were brown and strong – the back of the palm was broad, whereas my hands are, in truth, tapered and long – and it was marked by tattoos in a dark, spiraled design.
That marking meant something to me, though surely it should not – not to Creghan of Allaid, born in east Erin. The memory was immediate, but fathomless. I did not know how I knew the symbol and the hand were mine – I just did. A feeling of heat rushed over me, and then cold, in turn, so violent and wrenching it made me feel ill. My mind rebelled . . . and steadied upon the one thing that remained constant – the sword gripped in my hand.
The same sword, exactly the same . . . the Duir, its stone flaring sluggishly, as if it, too, were running out of strength.
Fear tore through me – fear that was not my own, but belonged to him whose flesh was marked by that spiraled tattoo. He – I – knew the meaning of that sluggish response from the Duir. And every part of him resisted it.
I tried to raise the Duir, but my command of those muscles worked badly, if at all. I strained, desperate to see what was above me, and the leaves came into sharper focus. I was beneath a great, spreading tree. An oak . . .
My eyes widened and I – he – tried to sit up. A long way off, I could hear someone weeping, or wailing something – perhaps calling my name. Then a black shadow loomed above me, dense and powerful. It took on the shape of a black-clothed, wide-shouldered man with a sword.
"Yes," he said, his voice echoing to me queerly, as if up a well. "It is an appropriate and satisfactory place, is it not, for you to die?"