A Wizard Abroad, New Millennium Edition (8 page)

They came to the fence. Tualha made a mighty leap halfway up onto the fencepost, hauled herself up claw over claw, and sat at the top, where she washed briefly.

Nita sat down on the fence next to her. “Aren’t you a little young to be a bard?” she said.

The kitten looked Nita up and down. “Aren’t you a little young to be a wizard?”

“What? Are you kidding? I’m fourteen.”

“And that’s
what
percentage of your lifespan?”

“Uh—” Nita had to stop and figure it out.

“You can’t even tell me right away? Poor sort of 
ban-draoia
 you’d make over here. Maths are important.”

Nita flushed briefly. Whatever a 
ban-draoia
 might be, math was only of interest to her insofar as it gave her a hint which way to point her telescope. “And you of Spanish blood,” Tualha said, “and you don’t know that song, about how the Spanish came to Ireland first? What 
do
 you know?”

“Not a whole lot sometimes,” Nita said, suspecting that here, at least, that was probably going to be true. “I know about the Spanish Armada, a little.” 
Very little, 
she added to herself. World history had never been one of her favorite subjects either, but she was beginning to suspect that that was going to have to change.

“That was only the fifteenth invasion,” Tualha said. “The real causes of things go back much further. The wind moves, and things move in it. Now, in the beginning—”

“Do we have to go back 
that
 far?” Nita said drily.

The kitten glared at her. “Don’t interrupt. How do you expect to become wise?”

Nita raised her eyebrows. “How’d
you
do it?”

Tualha shrugged. “I’ve been in the hills. But also, I had to be a bard: I was found in a bag. It’s traditional.”

Nita remembered her aunt saying something the previous night about one of the farm cats having been found in a sack by the roadside, abandoned and starving. The starving part, at least, had been dealt with: Tualha was a little butterball, round and fat. “Anyway,” Tualha said, glaring at Nita again, “it’s all in the Book of Conquests, and the Book of Leinster, and the Yellow Book of Lecan.”

“Somehow I doubt those are in most libraries,” Nita said, “and somehow I doubt I can download them off the Web either. So maybe you’ll enlighten me.” She grinned.

“It’s all in the wizards’ Mastery anyway,” Tualha said, “if you’d bothered to look. But grow wise by me.” The kitten straightened up and curled her tail around her toes. “In the beginning there was no one in this island; it was bleak and bare, and not even an island at all. The Flood rose and covered it, and fell away again. Then two hundred and sixty-four years later came twenty-four men and twenty-four women: those were Partholon and his people. At that time in Ireland was only one treeless and grassless plain, three lakes and nine rivers; so they built some more.”

“‘Built—’”
Nita said. “When was this?”

“Four hundred thousand years ago. Didn’t I mention? Now do stop interrupting. They built the mountains and carved the valleys, and they fought the Fomor. —The
monster people,”
Tualha said in obvious annoyance at Nita’s blank look; “the ones who were here before. The Fomori made a plague, the sickness that makes those who catch it hate and fight without thought; and the plague killed Partholon’s people. So the Island that was not an island was empty.”

She took a breath. “Then after another three thousand years, the people of Nemed came. They settled here and dug rivers and planted forests; and they met the Fomor and caught their plague—fought with them, and lost. In the great strife of the battle the land was broken away from the greater land, and drowned in ice, and then water. When the ice melted and the water drew back, another people came after: the Fir Bolg. They brought new beasts and birds into the land, and there was song in the air and life in the waters.”

“When did the cats get here?” Nita said.

“Later, but will you
shush?
—The Fomori came to the Fir Bolg too, with gifts and fair words, and married with them, and darkened their minds; and they caught the battle-sickness from the Fomor, and most died of it as all the others had. So the ones that were left had the bad blood of the Fomori in them, and became half-monstrous too. —You’re getting all this, are you?”

“So far, yeah. I think.” Nita resolved to have a look at her manual later, if as Tualha said all this information was in there. It might have been in a form that made sense to a cat at this point, but Nita wanted to get confirmation on some of the dates.

“Well.” Tualha shuffled a little where she sat, curled her tail around the other way, and settled again. “After this the One grew angry that Its fair land was being ruined, and sent another people to live here. That people was the Tuatha de Danaan: they were the Children of the Goddess Danu. They tried to parley with the Fir Bolg, but the Fir Bolg were sick with the battle-sickness of their Fomor blood, and would make no parley. So there was a great fight at the Plain of the Towers, Moytura. The battle was fought to a draw, and both sides drew apart and waited for a sign. And the sign came, sent by the One. The young hero-god Lugh the Allcrafted came. He told the Tuatha to bring the four treasures of the people of Dana, the cup and stone and sword and spear they had brought with them when they first came there from the Four Oldest Cities. Seven years he reforged those treasures with the power that was in him. Then the Children of Danu went forth to battle once more at Moytura. Lugh went forward with the Spear called Lúin, and with it destroyed Balor of the Deadly Eye, and the Fomori.”

Tualha stopped, panting a little. Nita made a list in her head. “That’s, let’s see,” she said, “six invasions. If you count the Tuatha.”

“It’s 
all
 invasions,” said Tualha, “from the land’s point of view.”

Nita thought about that. “You may have something there. So then who threw the Tuatha out?”

Tualha laughed at  her.  “Sure you’re joking me,”  she  said. “They’re still here.”

“Say what?”

A leaf went by Tualha on the breeze. She tried to grab it, missed spectacularly, fell off the fence, and came down on the ground so hard that Nita could hear the breath go out of her in a squeak.

Nita couldn’t help it any more: she burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, I really am,” she said, “but I think you need some practice.”

Tualha was already sitting up and washing. After a few moments of this she looked at Nita scathingly. “When you’re a cat-bard,” she said, “you get to choose. You get to be fast, or you get to be smart. And no offense, but I prefer smart. Not sure what
you
prefer, Shonaiula ni Cealodháin,” she muttered, and scuttered off.

Nita chuckled, then got up and made her way back the way Tualha had gone, through the areaway between the riding school and the stable. As she went she noticed a sort of burning smell, and put her head quickly into the stable-block to make sure that something flammable hadn’t fallen into the hay. She couldn’t see anything but one of the grooms leading out a chestnut horse.

Out in the concreted yard, she found the source of the burning. There was a small pickup truck out there, and a square steel box about two feet on a side had been unloaded from it. 
It’s a forge,
 Nita thought, as the little woman standing by it pulled at a cord hanging out of one side, and pulled at it again, and again, like someone trying to start a lawn mower.

The comparison was apt, since a moment later a compressor stuttered and then roared to life.
That pushes air into it,
 Nita thought, 
and then—
The woman standing by the compressor now went around to one side of the portable forge and applied a blowtorch to an aperture there.
How about that,
Nita thought. 
Portable horseshoeing—

Nita went down to have a look as the chestnut horse was led up to the forge to be reshoed. The woman standing by the forge had to be about sixty. She was of medium height, with short close-cropped white hair and little wire-rimmed glasses, wearing jeans and boots and a T-shirt. Her face was very lined and very cheerful, and her accent was lighter than a lot of them Nita had heard so far: in fact, she sounded like an American who had been here for a long time. “Oh, you again is it,” she said to the chestnut as the groom led it up and fastened its reins to a loop on the back of the pickup truck’s tailgate. “We’ll do better than we did last time.” And then the farrier looked up as Nita wandered over. “And you’ll be Miz Callahan’s niece, won’t you.”

“That’s right,” Nita said, and put her hand out to shake. She was getting used to the ritual by now, and was becoming relieved that no one was in a position to offer her any tea.

The farrier held up her hands in apology: they were covered with honest grime. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m Biddy Ó Dálaigh. How are you settling in?”

“Pretty well, thanks.”

“Have you seen this done before?”

“Only on TV,” Nita said. “And never out of the back of a truck.”

Biddy laughed. “Makes it easier to get a day’s work done,” she said, rooting around in a box in the truck and coming out with a horseshoe. She looked critically from it to the horse’s feet, then bent down to push it into the aperture of the furnace-box. “Used to be all the farms had their own farriers. No one can afford it now, though. So I go to my work, instead of people bringing it to me.”

Nita leaned against the truck to watch. “You must travel a lot.”

Biddy nodded and walked around to the front of the horse, stroking it and whistling to it softly between her teeth. “All over the county,” she said. “A lot of horse shows and such.” With her back to the horse’s nose, she picked up its right forefoot and curled it around and under, grasping it between her knees. With a claw-ended tool like the nail-pulling end of a hammer, Biddy went around the horse’s hoof loosening the nails and prying them up one by one: then changed her leverage and knocked the shoe completely up and off. With another tool, a smaller one with a sharp point, Biddy started trimming down the rough edges of the hoof.

“Tell Derval,” Biddy said to Aisling, the blond groom who’d been handling the chestnut, “that he won’t be needing the orthopedic any more; the hoof’s cleared up.”

Nita was surprised. “Orthopedic horseshoes?” she said.

“Oh yes,” Biddy said. “Horses get problems with their feet the same as people do. Tango here’s been wearing a booster until this hoof grew back in straight—he hurt the foot a few months ago, and that can make the hoof go crooked. It’s just an overdeveloped toenail, after all.” She patted Tango as she got up. “We’re all better now, though, aren’t we, my lad? And you’ll have a nice run tomorrow.” She reached into the truck and came up with a pair of tongs.

“He’s in the hunt?” Nita said.

Biddy nodded. “He belongs to Jim McAllister up on the Hill.” She rooted around in the forge, stirring and rearranging the coals in it. Nita peered into the opening of it.

“Lava rocks?” she said.

“Oh aye, like what you get for barbecues. They work as well as charcoal unless you’re doing dropforging or some such.”

She turned her attention back to the hoof, scraping its edges a bit more. Then Biddy picked up the tongs again. “Here we go, now,” she said, and took hold of the hoof again. With her free hand she plucked the horseshoe out of the furnace and slapped it hard against the hoof, exactly where she wanted it. There was a billow of smoke, and a stink like burned hair or nails.

Nita waved the smoke away. “Foul, isn’t it,” Biddy said, untroubled. After removing the shoe from the hoof briefly and dunking it in a bucket of cold water, she replaced the shoe, dropped the tongs, took a hammer out of another belt loop, reached into a pocket for nails, and began tapping them in with great skill, each nail halfway in with one tap, all the way in with the next.

Nita watched Biddy do Tango’s other three shoes. Then another horse was led out, and Nita turned away: this kind of thing was interesting enough, once. 
Maybe I’ll go down to Greystones,
 she thought. Aunt Annie had told her that the bike was out in the shed behind the riding school, if she wanted to use it and no one else had it. 
Or maybe I won’t.
 It was strange, having nowhere familiar to go, and no one familiar to go with. Being at loose ends was not a sensation she was very used to: but she didn’t feel quite bold enough at the moment to just go charging off into a strange town. 
I wouldn’t mind if Kit was here, though...

Nita wandered back the way she’d come, back to the field where the jumping equipment lay around. She climbed over the fence and walked out into the field to look at it all; the odd barber-striped poles, the jumps and steps and stiles, some painted with brand names or names of local shops.

The wind began to rise. From this field, which stood at the top of a gentle rise, you could see the ocean. Nita stood there and gazed at it for a while. The brightness it had worn this morning, under full sunlight, was gone. Now, with the sun behind a cloud, it was just a flat silvery expanse, dull and pewter-colored. Nita smelled smoke again, and idly half-turned to look over her shoulder, toward the farrier’s furnace…

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