Words have power. No one knows that more than a druid. If we Celts have a failing, it’s that we put too much stock in our name, our reputation, the words said about us. Words of praise elevate our standing. The wrong word can destroy not just an individual but his family and clan.
I was as as susceptible as any to the lure of improving my reputation and as fearful of insults and sniggers—not just for myself but for any woman at the university. And I had learned to recognize the signs of danger.
The sound of angry voices reached me first. Angry young men had been known to lash out and use the wrong kind of word, sometimes thoughtlessly, sometimes with spiteful intent. And ahead of me on the path that wound through the university, a very angry young man faced one of my young friends.
Judging by the bucket and sponge by her side—and the state of the statue of Boudicca standing before the college that bore her name—Claire had been trying to remove the concoction of oatmeal, eggs, gelatin, and coloring with which the warrior queen had evidently been pelted. The insult to our college’s namesake was hours old, though, and unlikely to have caused the disagreement before me.
The boy in whom I sensed danger had rakish good looks and the confidence that comes from wealth, breeding, and a certainty in his personal attractiveness. He was probably used to having girls fawn over him. The girl now standing over him, however, wasn’t one to fawn.
I hadn’t seen what had led to him lying flat on his back, rubbing a bruised chin, but I could guess, given the characters involved—pretty girl, handsome entitled boy. Since Claire was one of the girls I mentored, I knew that like me she had brothers. She knew how to deal with unwanted advances.
The Romans Boudicca chased home could have told this young lad what happened to men who mistreated a Celtic lady. Unfortunately, college lads often had even dirtier tricks than the Romans. I picked up my skirts and hurried down the lane.
“You’ll pay for this, Rivers,” the lad said, his expression now devoid of charm. He wiped a drop of blood and soapy water from his chin as he pulled himself up off the ground. “Better go and pack your bags. You’re going home.”
Claire shivered in the June sunshine, but lifted her chin. “Go on, call the campus guardians. Let me tell them where you put your hands, what you tried.”
“And who do you think they’ll believe?” he said, sneering.
Well, that could depend on whom he turned to. There were plenty on campus who took delight in the discomfiture of the women students. I had to stop him from taking that step.
His lips pursed, about to utter that one dreaded word. “Not you, you w—.“
“I think they’ll believe a witness,” I said, slightly out of breath, coming up behind him. The exertion helped hide both my fear and my fury.
He turned, and looked me over—from the neck down—taking note of the plain gored skirt, shirtwaist, and sensible shoes that made up my work wardrobe.
“Will they?” He laughed, clearly unfazed. “You think having some little girl back up her story will count?”
Girl? I didn’t know whether to be offended or flattered. I was more than a decade older than these two, but my lack of height often led to my being overlooked. If he’d been thinking clearly and taking stock of his surroundings instead of looking me up and down, he would have realized that I could not have witnessed either his attack or hers around the curve of the path. Of course, I hadn’t actually said I witnessed anything. Druids value the truth.
And I had learned the value of holding my temper. I counted to ten while he brushed himself off. It would not help if I risked my own job as well as Claire’s place at the university. My voice was cold. “Raise your eyes, boy. Yes, I think they will believe me.”
His nostrils flared at being called boy. Then he saw it—my druid’s tattoo in the blue and gold that denoted a bard. That took him back a bit.
Now I looked him over, slowly and deliberately. “You’re from Taliesen, I suppose,” I said, indicating the impressive buildings of the college next door to my own with a wave of my hand. “You’ll know my brother then. Aiden O’Neill.” I kept my voice calm, reasonable, and tried very hard to hide the disdain I felt. I wanted him frightened but not so offended he would want to strike back.
Now he turned pale—not at the thought of Aiden, who lacked both the family red hair and the temper that went with it, but at the mention of the family name. In a battle of bloodlines, my family had few challengers. Sometimes it was very good to be an O’Neill.
I patted the boy on the back in a comforting gesture. “You haven’t thought this through, have you?” Behind his back, I waved Claire to keep silent. “While Claire remains a student, any complaint she makes will indeed be handled on campus by authorities who cannot be trusted to judge the affair without bias in your favor. However, if she leaves, she can make a complaint as a private citizen, as a Rivers of Devonshire, and the clan brehons will get involved. It becomes a matter of public record. And really, how can you hope to make a career as a healer with a reputation for assaulting young women of family?”
His jaw opened and closed, three times.
The fire of righteous indignation had returned to Claire’s eyes. In a moment, she would demand an apology.
In a fair world, she’d get one, But the truth was that an apology would only humiliate her attacker to the point of making him dangerous again.
I put my hand on her arm, and shook my head slightly. “Let’s go in, Claire. You can finish cleaning the statue later.” I turned back to the Taliesen boy, now wavering between anger and fear, and delivered the coup de grace. “I suggest you do the same. And perhaps if you can remember that you were raised a gentleman, I won’t tell my brother the story of how a girl knocked you flat on your back with one punch. We don’t want to bring family into this, do we?”
The mention of family did the trick. Both combatants backed down at once. Neither family would care to hear this story. And in Celtic society, family was everything. Family—family reputation and expectations—controlled us in a way the law never could. It should ensure this fellow’s silence, too.
Deep breaths helped me slow my beating heart as I steered my young friend through the gate and the portress’s lodge and into the college.
Inside the first of the college’s two quads, I sighed in relief and started to relax. Friday evening was the one time in the week that I was able to be a druid in deed as well as in fact. For a few hours, while I advised the girls on their studies and helped them rehearse the ancient lore of our people, I was neither daughter, sister, lady, or clerk, but just a Master of Bardic Studies. Drui O’Neill, not Lady Morgaine.
Apparently tonight I was also the voice of caution, not a role to which I was accustomed.
“You know what he was about to say.” Even in the safety of Boudicca’s cloisters, I kept my voice low.
“No one would have heard,” Claire said, still fuming, but equally quiet.
“You don’t know that. Half the students in Boudicca and Taliesen have their windows open this time of year and could have heard the entire exchange. And he would have repeated it to his cronies, if only to account for how you were able to knock him down.”
I let Claire fume as we traversed the south cloister until we descended the stone stairs to the crypt’s anteroom. Just outside the room, I stopped her.
“I know you’re upset. You have a right to be, but you can’t let it lead you into the kind of behavior that will give your detractors ammunition. In any case, your anger doesn’t belong in the crypt. Can you put it aside for this little while?”
She rubbed her knuckles, but the hurt in her eyes had another cause. “I used to think he was nice. Charming. Until I told him I was continuing to pursue my degree.”
And with that one sentence, she went from a gentlewoman worthy of respect to bluestocking spinster and figure of fun. She wasn’t the only one who would have to set aside her anger for the next hour or so.
“I’ll be all right. I’m not letting some cad deter me from my studies.” She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, each one longer and slower than the one before. Opening one eye, she looked at me and asked, “How did you know he was a healer?”
Both her eyes were open now and watching me closely. “You said his assaulting girls of family would hurt his career as a healer. How did you know what he was studying?”
How did I know? “Oh, well, I suppose I must have seen him at the clinic.”
“Only senior students work at the clinic. He’s just a middie, like me.”
“Well, then, my brother must have pointed him out. Or I noted the textbooks he was carrying sometime.” I shrugged, and changed the subject. “You should let Mistress Berganza know what happened, just in case.”
“I will,” she promised, still looking askance at me.
“Ready?” I said at the door. She nodded and we entered the anteroom.
Most of the girls were already waiting for me, the bright colors of their summer frocks peaking out from underneath their dark academic gowns, their hair hanging down their backs as if they were still children. By college tradition, the female students did not put up their hair until matriculation, years after their sisters in the outside world had done so. It was a little thing, but it felt like an added insult. You didn’t see the lads of the other colleges in short pants. Maybe I was oversensitive on that issue. As Claire’s attacker so clearly demonstrated, my own lack of inches had made it easy for me to be mistaken for a child, especially with my uncontrollable red tresses struggling to escape my updo.
The young women curtseyed at my entrance, but I sensed their relief in knowing that I would give them a few more moments. Ideally, the brief time before descending into the crypt should be spent in silence, communing with those who had pursued this path before us, all those who had turned to the darkness in the depths of the earth to free the mind from distraction and seek truth. The reality was a little different.
For me, the dark and the stillness were a haven, a longed-for respite from the cares and worries of life and a place to find answers, but the younger students sometimes found it uncomfortable. Even these middies, anxious to move on to senior study, showed no eagerness to make the descent. Instead, they prompted each other and scanned their books until the last minute, hoping to cling to the dim light as long as possible. The more confident—or careless—huddled in small groups chatting about the usual concerns—studies, sports, family, and plans for the summer solstice this weekend.
They didn’t chat about boys. Any girl who hoped to continue her studies beyond the preparatory ten years had accepted that life was unlikely to include a spouse or children.
While I set aside my straw boater and donned a spare scholar’s robe, Claire made a good attempt at regaining her her composure.
“Mistress Berganza is entertaining some doddering old visiting scholars,” she said, smoothing her hair and robe. Good manners took over. “But she sent her thanks, again, for helping us cram. And I wanted to thank you for helping me sort through my summer reading list. I don’t know how they expect us to get through all that material. Or if they really do. Either we bollocks up cramming for recitation to do the reading, or we start the new term ill-prepared. So no matter what we do, we give them an excuse to give us the boot.”
“Bollocks? Is that the kind of language used in college nowadays?” I tried to look down my nose—difficult when I had to lift my chin to meet her gaze—and gave my best impersonation of my mother dealing with impertinent social climbers. Thinking of mother worked even better than deep breathing to help me control my wayward tongue and prevent my blurting out something unseemly. Like agreeing that yes, many of the faculty hoped the girls would fail. Or using language much stronger than “bollocks.”
Claire merely grinned, with only the faintest shadow in her eyes. “I notice you don’t deny the accusation.”
“It would be foolish of the faculty to try to sabotage the students,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “I don’t think your teachers are fools.” Bigots, yes, but not fools. It would not help my academic career or Claire’s, however, to say as much.
“Humph. Well, I’m glad we have you to help. I just wish you could really be our teacher.”
So did I. Oh, so did I.
“Well, I know why I’m on edge. But why are you?” she asked.
“Do I look nervous?” Until she said it, I hadn’t even been aware how anxious I was, how anxious I had been even before the contretemps outside the college. Claire was too perceptive—and tenacious. She wouldn’t let go until she had an answer, and some concerns, like my recurring nightmares, could not be uttered.
I lowered my voice. “I have an appointment with Dean Symonds after this about a possible research project.”
“But that’s so exciting,” she said, straightening up. “What is it about?”
“Shhh. I don’t know yet. It’s not certain, and even if it were, I wouldn’t noise it about.” I hardly dared think about the possibility myself, to let myself hope. Real scholarship—the kind I had trained for. Even my mother would have to recognize such work as worthy of a druid and an O’Neill.
Claire nodded. “I won’t say a word then, except to wish you luck. And look forward to reading the results.”
She thought she understood the difficulties of achieving a career as a woman druid, but she did not, not even after today’s upset. She did not even appreciate the challenges she would have to overcome simply to earn her degree in the first place. I thought she could make it—she had the willpower, the intelligence, and the family connections. But how many of the others could say as much? Other than the musicians, only one in five female students was awarded the tattoo. So many brilliant minds to have their hopes dashed on the rocks of male prejudice . . . it broke my heart.
My heart was still racing at the thought of how close to disaster Claire had come. Only last week one of the girls had come to recitations in tears because she misheard and thought a male student had used the dreaded word—witch. While witchcraft—women’s magic—was ridiculed by the world at large, in academia, it was seen as the worst kind of fakery, no less offensive than plagiarism. It had taken hours and numerous cups of tea to persuade the girl to calm the girl down. What a sad state of affairs it was when a girl was relieved to have been called a female dog.
And, of course, some had more to fear from an accusation of witchcraft than others.
I clapped my hands. “Time to get started then. Down you go. And don’t forget to count the steps.”
I urged them down, following the last girl. Eight steps to the landing, slide the lever to close the upper door, then turn and take another eight steps.
The crypt smelled very faintly of earth and rosemary, a scent as familiar and soothing to me as that of ink and old vellum. Its stout stone walls embraced us in comforting coolness.
My shoulders released the last of the evening’s tension at once. The crypt did not care what sort of inspiration I was seeking. For just a few moments, I heard the shuffling of the girls settling themselves on the rush-strewn floor. I gave them time to follow whatever ritual calmed their spirits. “We’re still working on the Irish canon. Let’s see how far we can get through the Cattle Raid of Cooley. From the top, then.”
The familiar words of Mabh’s and Aillil’s pillow talk flowed with little hesitation, By the third chapter, the girls had found their rhythm, their chant as reassuring as a mother’s lullaby.
This was the space where magic happened, the plane that coincided with our mundane world but was not of it. My brothers saw it as a place of sparkling, luminous colors. For me, it was a world of music, of songs in strange and beautiful languages. I always thought that if I could only make out the words, the whole world and my place in it would become clear to me. The danger was in getting lost in the melody.