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Authors: Regina McBride

The Fire Opal

BOOK: The Fire Opal
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A
LSO BY
R
EGINA
M
C
B
RIDE
The Marriage Bed
The Land of Women
The Nature of Water and Air

For Miranda, with love

CONTENTS

Prologue

P
ART
O
NE
The Coast of Rain and Shadows

P
ART
T
WO
The Spanish Ships

P
ART
T
HREE
The Ice Barge

P
ART
F
OUR
Beyond the Horizon

WESTERN COAST OF IRELAND
C
OUNTY
D
ONEGAL
Late Sixteenth Century

PROLOGUE

W
hen I was seven years old, my mother and I spent a July afternoon on the foreshore collecting kelp, which we planned to dry and burn for summer fires. It was a rare sunny day, the light blinding on the tide
.

On our way home, we reached the old ruins, a great edifice with towers, now roofless, and long since crumbled in the harsh salt wind. My brothers and I often played here, exploring and hiding among its walls and foundation stones
.

Mam’s creel basket was so heavy she put it down and sat on the broken stone stairway of the ruin, where sea grass and maidenhair ferns grew through the cracks
.

She gazed out at the waves and the horizon, a faraway look on her face. Now and again that day, as we’d been gathering, I’d seen her lost in her thoughts, staring past the sea with this same earnest, distracted expression. I ached to know what she was thinking about, and now I asked her
.

“I don’t really know that I can explain it, Maeve,” she said
.

“Try, Mam,” I said
.

“When I look at the horizon, I feel”—she paused, searching for the right words—“a yearning for something, but I don’t know what it is.”

She looked back at the horizon, and the same expression softened her features. She seemed so separate from me in that moment that it made me uneasy
.

“What could it be you’re yearning for, Mam?” I asked, and touched her arm to bring her back
.

She shook her head vaguely
.

“Is it something you lost?” I asked
.

“Maybe.” She smiled. “Something I lost long ago, before I was born.”

I stared out to where she was staring, hungry to understand. And that was when I heard a phrase of elusive music that dissolved when I strained to hear it better
.

“Mam,” I said. “Did you hear music?”

She looked surprised by the question. “No,” she said. She got to her feet, picking up her heavy basket, and added, “Let’s go home now.”

Later that afternoon, after helping Mam lay out the kelp to dry, I went back down to the ruins to see if I could hear the music again. Just as I was beginning to focus on the horizon, a tide rushed high onto the beach with unusual force, reaching me and surrounding my ankles, pulling me so that I fell in the sand. When the tide withdrew, it left a great
heap of kelp. Immediately I thought how pleased Mam would be if I gathered as much as I could and brought it home to dry with the rest. As I did, I spied an object, tangled in the vines and leaves. It was about six feet long and looked to be made of iron and other wrought metals inlaid with veined stone
.

I squatted down and gingerly swept ribbons of obscuring kelp away from it to get a better look. Decoratively engraved all over it were swirling symbols and animals with fierce faces and open mouths breathing fire. Embellished with leaves and fruits were the words THE ANSWERER
.

I saw that there had once been a sharp spear at the top, but most of it was now broken jaggedly away. Maybe it had served as a weapon for a giant. Only the elaborate handle was still well intact, though rusted and barnacled as if it had spent centuries on the seafloor
.

It was very heavy, and it took all my strength to turn it over. The other side was different. The carvings formed a kind of face with stylized features and a single swirling eyebrow over a large jewel eye—a kind of Cyclops. The jewel was both transparent and dim, with rich purple and brownish depths
.

As I was gazing into it, a dark embankment of clouds moved in and obscured the sun. I heard my brothers’ voices on the hill above and panicked, feeling intensely possessive of this extraordinary object. I knew if they saw it they would take it. The two of them would be strong enough to lift it, and their games with it would be rough. They’d damage it or lose it somewhere
.

Hoping they wouldn’t see, I struggled to place the object
back in the kelp, and inadvertently kicked a stone loose near a ruined pedestal. Turning, I noticed an opening under the broken stair. I knelt down and looked in, surprised to see a very low collapsed-earth room, in places only about four feet from the ceiling to the floor. It seemed a perfect spot to hide this object
.

As I pushed it with great effort, sliding it toward the opening under the stair, I felt a warmth under my hands and saw a shadow move along the surface of the jewel eye. I felt certain that the thing was looking at me
.

As the object fell onto the soft ground in the ruined room, I was sure I heard it moan and sigh, as if in relief. I lay there on my belly looking through the opening. “The Answerer,” I whispered, wondering over the name. It sank slightly into the loamy earth
.

I was about to cover the opening up with stones when it began to rain, and my brothers’ voices faded into the distance. They had not even seen me down here. With no urgency now to hide my find, I remained there lying on my stomach looking in
.

I decided that I would try to get the object out again, but a shower of mysterious red sparks fell from the low ceiling in the underground room and floated down over the Answerer, settling into the grooves of its embellishments
.

Farther back in the shadows, I noticed a kind of shelf or dresser, now collapsed. It appeared to be composed of white stone with a green matrix, some kind of marble, perhaps, emblazoned with red stars. Each time bits of light fell from the ceiling, the stars sparked with a red brilliance, and the
Answerer sighed like a sentient being. It seemed to belong here, and that filled me with a mysterious satisfaction. It was meant to be hidden
.

Before I left, and as the rain began to deluge me, I covered the opening in the stair with mud and stones
.

BOOK: The Fire Opal
9.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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