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Taking In

Chapter Text

I am the wind that troubles the water;
I am the water, and the waves;
I am the shore where the waves break in rainbows;
I am the sunlight that shines in the spray;
I am the trees that drink in the light;
I am the air of the green-things' breathing;
I am the stone that the trees break asunder;
I am the molten heart of the world --
where will you go? To what place will you wander?
...in vale or on hilltop, still I am there...

Life's "I Am," excerpt

*

The words came to Ronan as though he was having an idea. But they came to him sounding strange and formal, more like the bardic tales of faeries and Fomori than like his own thoughts. I will guard growth and ease pain -- high-minded notions that Ronan hadn't formed into words. But there they were, settling into his mind over the space of a week, until they had ordered themselves into something Ronan knew he could recite flawless from memory.

He didn't, not for another week. He went up the road to school with the strange Oath-words falling through his head one by one to the rhythm of his steps. He went into town on the weekend with his mates, and listened with half an ear to their rambling discussion. It was well enough that they'd been trained out of any inclination to rag on Ronan when he got quiet, because he had more on his mind than just the Oath. There was a weight behind the words, history and responsibility, which troubled Ronan.

They were heading out to the disco on Saturday when Ronan caught up with Majella. She was the best of the lot when it came to pushing back instead of folding when Ronan pushed first, and though it got up his nose sometimes, it could also be useful. "Word in your ear, Maj."

She was dressed in astonishingly tight jeans, and kept threatening her parents that she was going to dye her hair interesting colours. Ronan looked forward to it. "All right," Majella said, "let's hear it."

"The old stories," Ronan said. "Balor of the Evil Eye. Do you think they're about something real?"

Maj gave him a sideways look. "Sure," she said, with the confidence of someone participating in a familiar call-and-response, convinced that she already knew what Ronan wanted to hear. "Balor and the Fomori are probably a metaphor for some stupid occupation. Good riddance to 'em when they left."

"Sounds about right," Ronan said, feeling weirdly comforted, the Knowledge in his head shifting from enticement to admonishment. If the Oath gave Ronan magic and he became an Irish hero, glorious force for good and repeller of invaders, then that Oath was too good to be true. But if Balor was no metaphor -- if Balor was that One Who brought death and pain no matter what land It invaded -- then Ronan's aimless anger had an outlet that was unselfish. Then if he said the words rattling around in his skull, he would be saying something honest.

He arrived home that night sweaty from dancing and fiercely cheerful, mind well made up. His mum was still awake, with tea and the crossword. Ronan swooped down on her to give her a smacking kiss on the forehead, and her half-surprised laugh followed him upstairs to his room.

In the safe darkness, surrounded by the vague familiar shapes of his bed and desk and book stacks, Ronan took a deep breath, considering the words. His heart was beating like frantic wings, and he shoved his hands into his pockets, hunching against the notion that he might be scared. It didn't cross his mind that the Oath might not work, or that he would wake in the morning still unmagical; Ronan had lived in Ireland his whole life, and he knew better than that.

"In Life's name," Ronan said, his voice a murmur in the dark, "and for Life's sake, I say that I will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. I will guard growth and ease pain." The words steadied, true and bright in Ronan's mind. He stood straighter. "I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so -- till Universe's end."

The last words echoed, the way they did whenever Ronan forgot himself and spoke too loud in church. Ronan stood unflinching. He waited until the feeling that the world was watching him with patient expectation had faded, and only then did he blow out a breath that was part laugh, releasing nervous tension.

He waited a short while longer, to see if anything amazing would happen. The stars wheeled by, foxes yipped to one another out among the hedges, and Ronan knew that like every wizard before him, he would be tested -- but not that night.

*

In the morning Ronan slipped out of the house after breakfast to go walking. It was a cool, bright day, with a sky of such clear vivid blue that it made Ronan want to get into a fight for the sheer joy of it. He tramped up the road by the Quinnsworth, with half a thought to fetch eggs on the way back down. Most of his attention was on the Knowledge that was pouring into his head like sunlight. He'd woken up knowing the secret names of every field around Bray, and how to fill an object with moonlight to make a weapon of it, and what words he might say to control the weather. He'd also woken knowing that his Ireland was a patchwork of meticulous, loving do-overs, the work of some few million years of Powers and wizards, so every spell he tried had to be very carefully considered. Something in Ronan bridled at this -- but then, he was a wizard now, which meant there were problems to which he alone in the universe was the solution. That made the waiting seem much easier.

The first blast of rain and wind hit him like a shock. Ronan jerked from his reverie, gasping. Already he was near soaked to the skin. The bright midmorning on Vevay Road was gone, and come to that, so was the road. It had become a dirt track -- or, in the gusting rain, something more like a mud track. Lightning forked overhead, a crash of thunder following almost before the lightning stopped. Ronan looked around wildly, trying to get his bearings in the brief illumination. The Quinnsworth was gone, along with almost all the signs of Bray's habitation. Squinting through the rain, Ronan saw some thatched huts at the bottom of the hill, near where the school should have been.

Timeslide, said the Knowledge in Ronan's head. He swallowed hard. His leather jacket was no help against the torrential rain, and he was already starting to shiver.

Well, Ronan thought, you asked for this, hero. He did what seemed the only thing to do, and started walking again, up the hill to Bray Head. The movement kept him from shaking too much, and Bray Head would be the best vantage point from which to see where everything was.

The footpaths and peculiarities in the rocks from Ronan's own time were gone. He slipped and slid on the grasses, and had one bad moment in which he nearly fell. But Ronan's boots were sturdy enough to carry him through, and some endless time later, out of breath from the climb and the terrible wind, he reached the crest of the hill. At first Ronan could make no sense of what he was seeing: the wind had churned the sea into endless white foam, roaring up towards the Head, waves cresting and crashing as high as he had ever seen them. Between the rain and the spray, there was almost no difference between being in the water and being on the land.

Then Ronan saw it: a boat. How he could have seen it amid the chaos, or recognized it for what it was, made no matter; he saw it all the same. It was small, smaller than a modern lifeboat, and it was heading straight for the rocks at Bray Head.

It was the Romans. Ronan didn't need the Knowledge to realize that. Here were the failed blow-ins, poor sad bastards, being quite literally blown in by the storm-tossed sea. Ronan's heart seized. In that moment he forgot every bit of contempt he'd ever felt for invaders. In Life's name, Ronan had said, and in that boat were a dozen human lives, about to be dashed to pieces against the rocks. Ronan had the power to save them.

What can I do? he demanded of the Knowledge, and the Knowledge poured into his head: the sea was the thing that had to be stopped, and the sea was unstoppable. There was no reasoning with a tempest, no way to negotiate with every factor that was causing this storm, not if Ronan wanted to act in time to save those people in their doomed boat. But if Ronan couldn't reason with the sea, he could become it: and there fell into his mind those words of the Speech which would allow him to describe every molecule of the sea around Bray Head.

As soon as the words came, Ronan spoke them, the Speech rolling out to weave itself through the pure elemental rage of the storm. Directly around Ronan the world quieted, bearing down with a heavy listening pressure. A high singing started in his ears. Ronan could feel the world demanding if he was sure, demanding that he understand the risk he took and the price he would pay. Ronan gritted his teeth and snarled the words, less persuasion than fierce entreaty, and spoke the final phrase.

rocks beating at his edges the dark roil of deep underwaters churning upwards the bay a cradle become an anvil under the pounding drive of the wind on his back the boat rushing for the crash of shoreline and

Ronan stilled.

Distantly he could feel his human body crouched on the sodden grass and slick rock, still lashed by rain and heaving with effort. But Ronan had become the strange dark salty lifeblood of the sea around Bray Head, a thousand thousand sea-thoughts crowding his awareness. He focused. He was still and calm, fighting hard to remain so despite the violence raging through his whole self, because a dozen lives depended on his ability to take it in.

The Romans jumped ship, thrashing frantically towards the shoreline and climbing from Ronan onto the rocks, as the wind howled over him and the sea bucked and he knew the feel of riding the air as rain and in a moment he would become nothing but the water, and a part of Ronan knew true fear, and he didn't want to let go, but --

The sea roared, tearing free. The boat smashed against the rocks, going all to pieces. Ronan clung to the soil on Bray Head, drawing in ragged gasping breaths. His limbs felt liquid. Exhausted, Ronan slumped down, resolving to get up again in a moment. Darkness crept in, and there was nothing.

*

When he woke, it was in hospital in his own time. His mum was asleep in a chair, but when Ronan said her name she roused at once to make a fuss over him. He'd been found that morning unconscious, slipping down the rocks towards the sea, by some people doing the walk of Bray Head.

"But how did you get there?" Ronan's mum demanded.

It was unwise for a wizard to lie. "I think I fell," Ronan said. "I won't do it again if I can help it."

"See that you don't," she told him fiercely. But then she hugged him, and told him he was on no account to get out of bed until the doctors said he no longer had hypothermia. Once he'd promised he wouldn't, she pressed a kiss to his forehead and slipped out to get him juice.

Ronan sat quietly, with a burgeoning feeling of pride, until someone drew aside the curtain around his bed. She was a small woman, with a young-looking face but entirely silver hair, and a sharp expression that Ronan liked at once. "Are you the doctor?" he asked.

"I am not." She settled into the chair Ronan's mum had vacated. "I'm Doris Smythe, your area Senior. And you're Ronan Nolan. I thought it was high time I checked in on you."

"Ah," said Ronan, somewhat intimidated and resenting it. All the same, he said, "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Smythe."

She smiled. "I've heard what you did; it was well done. It's generally against the rules to go sideways -- it strains the overlays -- but this once, for your Ordeal, it was what the Powers would have you do. When you're well again, come up to Kilgarron House, and we'll see about your aptitudes."

"Sure, Mrs. Smythe." Ronan tried to smile in return the way he smiled at teachers, polite and unchallenging. "Thanks."

"You'll be well enough soon," she told him cheerfully, and made her exit.

If Mrs. Smythe's visit was intended to steady Ronan to the realities of being a wizard, it hadn't worked. The feeling of pride at his successful Ordeal was back, and with it a fierce clear joy, foreign and wonderful under Ronan's skin. It wouldn't all be like taking in the sea, Ronan knew. He couldn't carry on like that; he'd mostly be fixing the world in small, subtle ways, like the ways in which he nudged his friends round to his thinking.

Better than going out in a blaze of glory any day, Ronan thought, and laughed.