It was twilight, that mystical time when the world seems suspended between day and night. The remote lake, carved by glaciers into the surrounding folded green hills, glimmered with the reflection of the ruins of the twelfth-century castle that had given the Irish town of Castlelough its name.
As the sun sank lower and lower in the cloud-scudded sky, six-year-old Rory Fitzpatrick sat in his secret wishing place and related the events of the day to his best friend.
“Johnny Murphy stole communion hosts. And not just ordinary bread ones, either, but the special holy hosts in the tabernacle that were already blessed. You know, the ones Father O’Malley takes to shut-ins.
“And Johnny even passed them out on the playground. A lot of kids who haven’t had their first communion yet and didn’t know better ate them. But I didn’t.”
The Lady didn’t answer. She never did. But Rory sensed her unspoken approval.
“He got in a lot of trouble. Sister Mary Patrick paddled him, and he’s not going to be allowed to go on the father-and-son trek.”
He sighed, drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his thin arms around them. Across the reed-fringed lake, the stone castle seemed to brood in the gloaming.
“I think I’m going to pretend to get sick that day. Father O’Malley says you don’t need a da to go, and Cousin Jamie says I can share his, but it’s not the same thing. And besides, his da’s drunk a lot. And mean even when he’s not. So I wouldn’t want to be sharing him, anyway.”
Rory put his chin on his bent knees and looked out over the darkening blue water. “I wish I had a father.”
Beside him, Maeve, the gray, white and black Irish wolfhound his aunt Kate had given him, whimpered. Rory might have thought she was feeling sorry for him, but the dog whined all the time. His mother said poor Maeve was the most fearful beast ever born in all Ireland. Or probably anywhere else, for that matter. Rory figured she was probably right. Which was why it was strange she’d never seemed afraid of the Lady.
“Great-grandma Fionna says that God always answers our prayers. But you know how I’ve been praying forever. Ever since I was a little kid. And Aunt Kate gave me a special rock she said is just like the ones the druids used for making magic —” he pulled the rune with the marks scratched into its surface from the pocket of his jeans and showed it to her “— but I still don’t have a da.”
Another sigh. “If I had a da, maybe Mam would stop crying.”
The Lady’s bright eyes, which were exactly the color of Rory’s favorite aggie marble, asked a silent question.
“Oh, she never cries when anyone’s around,” he said quickly. “But sometimes, late at night, when I have to get up to go to the bathroom, I hear her. I think she’s worried she’s going to have to take the job working for that businessman in Galway.”
He’d been telling the Lady all about this for a month. A month during which his mother had been pretending nothing was wrong.
The mountains were changing colors in the shifting light. Rory knew if he didn’t get home soon, she’d worry.
And didn’t his Mam already have cares enough without having to wonder where he was always talking off to? He could practically hear his Aunt Mary scolding.
“If we had a father,” he said to the Lady, “we’d have more money. And then we wouldn’t have to leave Castlelough.” And you. The unspoken words hung suspended on the soft moist air between them.
“Grandfather rented a room to one of the American who are coming to Castlelough tomorrow,” he reminded her unnecessarily.
The Lady never forgot anything Rory told her. That was only one of the reasons she was his best friend. Another was that he could share anything and everything with her. Things he couldn’t even share with his mother.
“The American is paying a lot. Maybe it’ll be enough.” Rory’s throat closed up the way it always did whenever he thought about having to move away from the farm. He swallowed painfully. Maeve nudged his hand, coaxing it onto her huge head; Rory absently stroked her while he battled with his unruly feelings.
“I guess you’ll be staying out of sight while the Americans are here.” As much as the family needed the money, Rory hated this idea.
The Lady slowly nodded her head. Although it could have been a trick of the light reflecting off the water, Rory thought he saw the shimmer of tears in her gentle golden eyes. It made him want to cry himself.
“It’s only a month.” It seemed like forever. ‘And after they’re gone, I’ll come back.” If he wasn’t living in Galway by then.
Rory wiped his burning eyes with the sleeve of his sweater. He hated the way his voice, all thin and shaky, sounded just like some stupid crybaby.
“I’ll come back.” He made his voice stronger, as if saying the words out loud could make them true. Beside him, Maeve thumped her tail.
Of course you will.
Rory’s blue eyes widened with surprise. It was the first time the Lady had ever spoken to him! Oh, the words weren’t really out loud, they were inside his head, but he heard them just the same.
The sun was setting behind the mountain in a blinding flare of ruby light. It made the Lady’s green scales glitter like emeralds. His spirits lifted, his hopes renewed, Rory watched as the ancient lake creature gave one last flick of her tail, then disappeared beneath the cobalt water.