Robyn’s hands shook as she attempted to swaddle the baby. “Stupid blanket,” she muttered, her voice quavering from the effort of holding back a sob. The baby squirmed and the corner of the silk came untucked again. She groaned in frustration. “Here,” she said, looking around for something to distract the child and finally settling on a rattle. It took a moment to get the infant’s tiny hands to grasp the cylinder, but it worked. Her legs stopped kicking long enough for her mother to wrap the blanket around them and tuck it firmly under her back.
The fur would have been easier, Robyn reflected, but the baby was prone to high fevers and didn’t need that much extra insulation. Besides, she had always liked the silk. It was breathtakingly soft, and its blue sheen reminded her of the color of forget-me-nots.
She strapped the leather harness over her shoulders and buckled it around her waist, but the baby was still cooing at the rattle, and Robyn paused before picking her up, looking around the room in case she forgot something. Her own clothes were already folded and locked in the suitcase she had brought with her when she’d arrived there almost a year ago, along with the baby’s few outfits. The suitcase was not particularly large, but there was still space available, if she wanted to bring back a souvenir or two. A quick glance reminded her it was a futile effort. Though the dwelling was well and generously apportioned, anything she took would be horribly out of place back home.
The set of wedding dishes, for example, service for only two, were carved out of granite, gold-tipped, and inlaid with precious metals so perfectly fitted into their swirls and curves that there were no tangible cracks. She couldn’t even imagine displaying them in a china cabinet, let alone eating off of them. And that was only the beginning. In the kitchen, she could search the shelves to find sets of utensils, pots and pans, cooking implements, and linens, but they were all alien to her, in spite of the last year’s daily use. Most were made of various metals, with a few accents of leather here and there, but the distressing lack of plastic would instantly distinguish them from the factory-made counterparts that had always stocked her kitchen at home.
The larger pieces of furniture -- chairs, tables, bedframes, lamps, bookshelves -- would be equally eyesore, even if they were small enough to fit in a suitcase. Not only the materials -- here, again, was a lack of plastic and also wood, the element most common to any sort of furniture at home -- but the craftsmanship, the absence of uniformity, the sense that an artist had created each piece as an individual work that could have no twin and would not bear reproduction on either a small or a large scale, betrayed them. She would bring nothing else. She really ought to leave the rattle, too, if the baby would drop it, but that didn’t look promising.
Robyn bent over the child, grabbing her wrist gently with one hand and the rattle by its round, metal top with the other. For a moment, she thought she could uncurl the baby’s fingers from the toy without protest, but no sooner had her little fist closed on air than her mouth dropped into a grimace, the bottom lip jutting out in a telltale signal of the wail that was about to follow. Robyn quickly offered the rattle again, shaking it gently in front of the child and helping her fingers regain their hold on it. The baby recovered just as quickly, her eyes sparkling at the toy as she gripped it, her frown disappearing.
“You can keep it,” Robyn whispered in the same unsteady voice. “Just don’t cry, okay?”
The baby smiled back at her, completely oblivious of her mother’s distress. She kept a tight hold on her toy and did not resist being loaded into the harness, her whole body pressed snugly against her mother’s chest with her head resting on Robyn’s shoulder.
She walked over to the plastic suitcase and picked it up by the handle. Its wheels wouldn’t roll across the forest floor, but it was not too heavy to carry a short distance. She only needed to make it to the Door and then she could rest as needed, though she shuddered at the thought. The Daoine called it the tairSeach, a hidden, cryptic entrance to their civilization, and it was one of the obstacles that prevented humans from discovering them. When Nathan had led her through it last year, he had carried the suitcase so she could hold on with both hands. Now, if her fears came true, she would have to pass through by herself, with an eight-week-old infant strapped to her chest and one hand burdened with luggage. But the alternative -- staying in dohmanEile -- frightened her even more. And her mother’s intuition told her to be ready to leave, just in case. She hid the suitcase back under the bed and straightened up as her husband entered the room.
He went straight to her, taking both wife and child into his arms and kissing them on foreheads and cheeks. “Are you ready, my love?” he asked.
Robyn shook her head. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” she said. She stepped back out of his embrace so that she could look him in the eyes, but he would not meet her gaze.
“I don’t see why not,” he said.
“But,” she began, and then stopped. “It just feels wrong,” she finished lamely.
“All newborns receive rune blessings,” he said. “And we have the chance for a reading from the Phoenix. That’s good fortune.”
“Newborn Daoine,” she corrected. “Not newborn humans.”
“But she is more than either.”
She protested. “You can’t know that -- not for sure.”
“You were there,” he reminded her. “If not for the Firebird, she would have died.”
For the first time, Robyn voiced the thought she’d had all along. “If we hadn’t been here, she wouldn’t have been in danger in the first place.” The trauma and exhaustion of birth had clouded her judgement for a few days, and then sleep deprivation and worry took an even greater toll. Her training as a nurse seemed so far away as to not exist at all, though when she considered it later, she realized that the baby had obviously been born with a metabolic disorder. In the hospital, a simple PKU test would have alerted the doctors to the problem and solution. In dohmanEile, the Firebird came to the rescue just in time, but her solution was far more complicated than a change in formula. “It should never have happened,” she concluded.
There was no use trying to convince him. Nathan was thrilled with what had happened to his daughter and saw only the best of possible outcomes. “She’s special,” he argued, reaching over to stroke his daughter’s hair as she slept against his wife’s chest. “I want this for her. Anyway, it’s not dangerous. It won’t change anything.”
“Won’t change anything?” Robyn had been told that a rune blessing was like a prediction. The runes that surfaced from the fire could foretell a duine’s talents and interests, help shape and guide the duine to reach his or her potential. Robyn had only witnessed a few -- all beautiful and harmless -- but she was still wary of knowing her own child’s future and disposition. She didn’t know what, exactly, had happened to her, and she wasn’t anxious to interact with any more magical creatures, immortal or not.
“Whether I tell you or not, the sun will still rise in the morning, sweetheart.”
Robyn glared at him. “Unless it doesn’t.” When he didn’t respond, she continued. “And if it won’t be rising, I don’t want to know until it happens.”
Nathan shrugged. “Then don’t listen.” He led his wife across the floor to the threshold and put a hand on her waist as she stepped into the metal elevator basket. “Anyway,” he said, following her, and moving the rope through the pulley to bring up the counterweight and lower the basket. “I’m looking forward to the blessing.” But she did not answer him. She was thinking of the suitcase hidden under her bed and wondering how long it would take to retrieve or if she would have time for even that.
It was a short walk to the Tionol, a large assembly hall built in the style of a Roman coliseum, though with vastly different materials. Each of the fifty or so columns consisted of a hollow, metal framework filled with stones cut in large, perfectly rounded spheres, stacked on top of each other from floor to top. Large, silk tapestries hung between the columns, secured to hooks in the column frameworks and metal trusses that supported the roof by dozens of metal grommets around their borders. During the other two rune blessings she had attended, the tapestries were pulled up and, at the base of each column, a fire burned, the flames licking the lacy metal supports and the encased stones. The columns were not on fire now, though, and Robyn could not see any scorch marks or signs of smoke on them.
The hall was paved with stone, grouted with molded lead, descending in steps from the outer walls for five levels around before opening out to a large, round, sunken stage in the center. She rarely saw more than a handful of the Daoine in the arena, even during the blessings, and she wondered why they had built seating to accommodate so many. Perhaps the Daoine had been more prolific when the Tionol was built, though that was obviously no longer the case. She had not attended other gatherings in the hall, and when she asked Nathan if it had any other purpose, he had deflected the question adroitly.
They entered between the columns in an area where the silk had been loosened and climbed carefully down the steps toward the center. From the inside, Robyn could look up at the runes stamped into the leather patchwork ceiling. It seemed silly to make a ceiling out of leather, especially considering the amount of rain that fell along the Oregon coast, but Nathan had explained that the ceiling was coated in a type of petroleum that rendered it waterproof and resistant to shrinking. It was, admittedly, her favorite part about the hall. She sometimes felt she could stare at it for hours and still never take it all in. She had not yet bothered to learn the language. Nathan had told her it was a history, but she suspected it was much, much more.
Robyn could not afford to look up this time, however, since she was carrying the baby, and Nathan’s firm grip on her hand urged her forward more than steadied her. In the center waited a creature whose form resembled a grown woman, although she was clearly something else altogether -- the Phoenix. The atmosphere around her seemed to pulse gently with a glow that always made her look as if she was about to burst into flames.
When they finally stepped onto the stage, she turned her gaze toward them. “Where is the infant?” she asked by way of greeting. The harmonics in her voice danced.
In answer, Nathan turned toward Robyn and helped her loosen the sling holding the baby to her chest. She was sleeping soundly, the rattle still clasped tightly in her fist. He held her up.
“This has never been done before,” the Phoenix cautioned.
“You understand what it means?”
The Phoenix turned toward Robyn. “Is this your desire as well?”
Robyn hesitated. She found it difficult to look straight at the Phoenix, and conversation with her always felt strained. “What are the risks?” she asked finally.
“Knowledge is never more dangerous than ignorance. But rune blessings are rarely opaque. And I do not know the consequences of blessing this child. She has magic in her, that much is clear. But she is not Daoine.”
“Neither is she human,” Nathan responded. “She deserves the blessing. I believe it will help us know what she is.”
“It could tell you how to help her,” the Phoenix consented. “This is my hope.” She turned to Robyn once again. “What say you?”
“I guess, if it can’t hurt,” Robyn said.
She didn’t sound convinced, but Nathan accepted her concession at face value and immediately offered the baby to the Phoenix, who cradled the infant in one arm, her fingers gently stroking its forehead and cheeks. Two of the Daoine, both adults, approached from behind them: a tall, slender female with smooth skin like a willow tree, and a male with the thick, knotted muscles of a sycamore. They wore identical, black leather robes, belted at the waist, with thin, metal bracers spidering around their forearms from elbow to wrist and nearly identical sheaves around their bare calves and shins. The pair stood facing each other, arms outstretched and crossing over one another to form a cradle where the Phoenix laid the infant. Then, with a wave of her hand, a fire sprang up from the ground between the dryads. Robyn gasped, but the Daoine did not move.
In the other rune blessings she had seen, when no Phoenix was present to perform it, the administering Duine had not simply conjured a fire out of nothing. Robyn knew about the fire pit, now hidden under a well-cut stone, in the center of the stage. Nathan told her they burned animal droppings, dried grasses, and the gnarled limbs of bushes and shrubs like juniper, mesquite, and manzanita. Never real trees. She thought it was funny that they now covered up the remains of this fire, as if they were embarrassed at being second-class magicians.
The fire seemed to be burning only air, and Robyn could see the stones underneath bore no scorches or other marks. After a moment, flecks of ash began to float up from the fire like lazy, gray feathers swirling on the wind.
The Phoenix reached toward the baby, loosening the blanket that swaddled her and pulling out a tiny, clenched fist. She clutched the rattle tightly to her chest with the other hand but did not protest. Nathan took a step toward her, holding up his right arm, palm up, fingers stretched open. He motioned to Robyn to do the same, pulling her close to him with his left arm in a tight embrace.
The thumb of Robyn’s hand brushed against her husband’s palm, and the Phoenix gently pried open the baby’s fist so that her fingers brushed her dad’s. As they did, a piece of flame jumped up through the space surrounding the three hands, bathing their faces in its red-orange glow, but Robyn, with her husband’s arm tucked securely around her, did not even flinch. The flame danced across their hands, painting their palms with fiery brushstrokes. It lit up the excitement on Nathan’s face and the apprehension on his wife’s. In a matter of seconds, it had died. What remained on their palms were lines and circles of ash, characters older than time, blessings of a future for their child.
The Phoenix leaned over the baby’s palm first, stretching out the infant’s fingers so that she could not smudge the rune before it was read. “Droichead,” she said calmly, and Robyn felt a tremor run through her husband.
“Bridge,” he translated.
“tairSeach,” the Phoenix said, reading the second sign on Nathan’s palm.
“Doorway,” he said under his breath. “Of course.”
When she reached Robyn’s palm, the Phoenix hesitated, staring at the rune as if she could not remember what it meant.
Finally, she spoke. “You must leave,” she said.
Robyn reacted instantly, almost as if she had been waiting for it. Shrugging off her husband’s arm and reaching for the baby, she pulled the child to her chest, curling her arms and her back around her infant and turning immediately away from the Phoenix.
“What?” Nathan said, the surprised tone in his voice tinged with anger.
“I have never seen that rune in a blessing before,” the Phoenix said, and though her voice remained even, the light inside her grew noticeably brighter.
“What rune?” The surprise was gone, leaving only steel in his voice.
“So what does that mean?” Nathan had a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“It is the rune for destruction.”
“Are you saying --”
“I told you. Rune blessings are not easy to understand. But the child must leave at once. She is a danger to herself and to all of us.”
“How could she be dangerous? She’s just a baby.”
“She is a bridge,” the Phoenix answered. “Magic runs in her veins, like all the Daoine.”
“So? What about the doorway?”
“That could mean you. It was the rune on your hand. And you are the--”
“I know what I am,” Nathan said angrily.
“If she is the bridge and you are the doorway, than either she destroys herself or she destroys you. She has the magic, but how can she control it? She is still human, and humans, by nature, are--”
“She’s not going to destroy anything. She’s a baby!” He was shouting now and had drawn his sword. The Phoenix in response, seemed to burst into flame, tendrils of fire curling around her fingers and sparks dancing in her hair. Nathan was no match for her. He carefully sheathed his sword and held out his hands, palms up, in a gesture of peace.“Calm down,” Nathan began, “I’m sure we can sort this out. Maybe you read the rune incorrectly. Robyn?” he called, stepping backward into the space where his wife had been a moment ago, but it was too late. By the time he had turned around, his wife, and his only daughter, were gone.