The rain first tapped then hammered on the roof. The solar Sulis leaves, though they were tightly sealed like dragon scales for the night, sounded like a cacophony of drumming Bodhrans. The man's fingers drummed the counter as sweet-smelling steam began to rise from the simmering pot.
"Thank Aegir for warm mead on a blustery day," Caractacus said.
A vast fireplace commanded the room. Adorned with Celtic symbols and little sculptures or artifacts tucked into scattered alcoves, it was more altar than purely decorative. He poured the warm honey wine into a handmade mug and joined his hounds in front of the roaring, electric-fed fire. Despite Celtica being a cloudy region, the magisci druids had developed some amazing technology over the centuries, as well as destructive, a truth which had exiled him to this uninhabited valley in the first place. With a swift sip, the mug clacked against his teeth. Corca lifted his head and whined at his master, sensing agitation.
“Ciúnaigh síos.” Caractacus tilted his palm up from the armrest.
The Auroch Cú hound heeded the calming gesture and relaxed again, but Conn leapt to his feet, roaring his bark like a possessed béar. Corca immediately copied his brother, and Caractacus turned in his chair just as the door was flung open. In with the wind and rain stumbled a soaking wet, cloaked and hooded figure. The intruder shoved the door shut, cursed, and the massive dogs rushed forward, squirming and wriggling as their ferocious baying turned to excited whines.
“Ach,” the young woman said, throwing back her hood. “It’s wet as a kelpie’s ass out there.”
Corca and Conn nearly knocked her over twice before she shooed them away. She pulled off her muddy boots, hung her dripping raincloak next to a larger one, turned around and beamed.
Arms open, she strode over to him and he stood to receive his grown daughter's embrace.
“Etaine,” he said, pulling away after a brief hug. “What are you doing here?”
Her ice-blue eyes glinted and an eyebrow shot up under her damp copper hair. “Doing here?” She sat down, as her father did, in the chair facing him. “Visiting you, of course. I’d call but, y’know, hard to do when you don’t have a cloch.” Her tone and fidgety gestures from knee clasping to sarcastic smirk told him more than she probably wished to reveal.
“The last time you were here you wanted my ancestor’s sword of which you have yet to return,” he said, watching her face as he took another sip of mead. “What is it this time? The drinking skull?”
“I’ll bring the sword back. I promise,” she said defensively. “It’s my ancestor’s sword too, and I got high marks on the report I used it in. Druid Maedoc was very impressed.” She was rambling, and he knew none of this had to do with the real reason behind her unexpected visit.
He was happier to see her than he cared to let on. Affection and teary farewells were not family traits of theirs.
Etaine took a deep breath and looked at the waving flames behind the grille. “Okay,” she said, raising her palms off her knees in the same calming gesture her father used on the hounds. Tilting her head down, her eyes burrowed into his. “Don’t get mad.”
Caractacus sighed, clumped his mug onto the small stone table next to his chair, and returned her obstinate stare.
“Did you lose it?” he asked. “Break it? Sell it?”
“As ucht Dé!” she exclaimed with an eye roll. “No, the sword’s fine. It's not about the sword.”
He leaned in with hands clasped and elbows on his knees. “Does this have to do with your Order? You know how I feel about that.”
“You haven’t even heard what I’m going to say,” she shot at him, raising her voice and her arms. “Why do you always assume it's something bad?"
"Because you said 'don't get mad.'"
She shrugged. "Yeah, well. You get mad at everything."
His eyes narrowed, but she cut him off as effectively as his hounds herded a wayward auroch.
"What if it’s something great?" she said. "What if it’s something important, or…or—” every word was conducted by her waving arms and dancing brow—“or something that might just catapult my career because I got funding for it, believe it or not, from a very prestigious druid who shall remain nameless, because it hasn’t been attempted in over eighty years—”
Silence fell at his stern command and raised hand.
“Stop,” he said more quietly while lowering his arm. He could see the fire dancing in her eyes not just in reflection, but beneath them. Her jaw clenched and his nostrils flared. “Tuatha De Danann,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “You’re talking about Tuatha De Danann, aren’t you?”
She nodded and crossed her arms over her embroidered shirt.
He shook his head. “Etaine, what are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that I should do it is what I’m thinking.” The words tumbled out again as soon as she unclasped her arms. “I’m thinking that it’s a rare opportunity and that it wouldn’t just benefit me but our history as well if I go do this. I’m thinking—” her tone was turning indignant—“that it would be nice, for once, if my father understood why I do what I do, and just offer me a damnaigh bevvy instead of a lecture because lectures make me want to drink!”
With a short, exasperated growl she jumped up and stalked across the wooden floor in her blue socks to the stove. He noticed there were cartoonish white seals embroidered on her socks. He grinned, then rubbed a hand across his face and sank further into his chair. Corca had slunk away from the argument and now hid under the circular oak dining table. He thumped his tail when Caractacus met his woeful eyes. Conn slept on, uninterested in nonsensical prattling—crows or humans, the noise was the same. Etaine was pouring a cup of mead from the pot when her father finally replied.
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “There’s a reason no one has sought the Danann in decades.”
Her throat squeezed around the lump of retorts she wished to fling back, but she knew she must tread delicately. Her druidic order and blossoming profession had always been a festering abscess between them. Only the hard rain pierced the silence as she clasped her mug in both hands and returned to stand in front of the fire, her back to him.
“Would you try to dissuade me if I were a man?” she asked bluntly. So much for delicacy.
She could hear the shock in his voice. Whether it was genuine hurt or laced with disdain at realizing the truth in her accusations, she knew she’d lanced the boil. All she had to do was let it bleed dry.
“It has nothing to do with you being a woman,” he said.
She shot a look at him over her shoulder. “Doesn’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t. I’d say the same thing even if you were my son. I don’t approve of this misadventure because I don’t want anything to happen to you. The last expedition, all ten of them, vanished, and they were highly trained professionals in their fields.”
“And I’m not?” she snapped, refusing to look at him.
His hands slapped against his thighs. “That’s not what I’m implying.” She heard a groan and, without looking at him, knew his familiar gesture of bowing his head and running calloused fingers through his shaggy, peppered hair.
A quiver of guilt trickled down her back, but she refused to be swayed.
“I have the funding,” she said to the fire. “And I’ve already put out a public notice for positions to be filled. I expect to start sometime in Giamonios when the rains have decreased.”
“You know what happened to the last expedition?” Caractacus said.
Etaine snorted and took a sip of her cooling mead. “Your melodramatic conspiracy theories won’t change my mind, Da.”
This ushered in a stretch of silence as Etaine watched the flames and Caractacus watched his stubborn daughter.
Stubborn but bright, he conceded, shaking his head. There would be no talking her out of this. That he knew. His mind raced, trying to catch a solution but thoughts slipped his grasp like will-o-the-wisps. With a jolt, he realized she hadn’t come here to ask his permission, nor because she needed his advice or even his blessing. She would go on this mad quest whether he wished her well or threw his mug against the stones in a fury which he barely restrained from acting upon.
She had come to say goodbye.