was born in 1958 in Victoria and grew up looking after her seven brothers and sisters, whom she kept in line by telling horror stories. She is the award-winning author of seven novels and one collection of short stories, Green Monkey Dreams (1996). Her Obernewtyn Chronicles have established her at the forefront of fantasy writing for young people and The Gathering (1993), soon to become a feature film, won the Children’s Literature Peace Prize. Isobelle divides her time between her home on the Great Ocean Road in Australia and her travels abroad. Darkfall (1997), the first in the trilogy Legendsong, was finished while Isobelle lived in Prague with her partner, the Czech writer and musician Jan Štolba.
“The Pumpkin Eater“
I ride this day upon the Worldroad, alone, except for Courage, who rides on the pommel of my saddle fluffing his feathers. I did not dream of journeying thus as a child. Maeve told me that women did not travel unaccompanied, especially not beautiful princesses who must wait for their prince to come for them.
Not that I am a princess any longer, nor beautiful enough to make them catch their breath at the sight of me.
I wear the trews and knee boots of a man, and the wind blows my hair wild about my shoulders. I have split ends and chafed lips and my legs and arms are muscular and strong. I have left curling tongs and perfume and silk behind.
Maeve told me a woman was either beautiful or ugly, but I have learned to be something else altogether. No doubt it is fearsome in its strangeness, though, for a commonwoman in her pumpkin house peers out at me with a kind of dread, and her man waves his hoe at me and makes the warding sign to keep off evil.
When I was a princess, they bowed and smiled to see me go by, dazzled by my beauty, relieved to see a man riding with me: my keeper.
Now, a pedlar glares at me and gives me a wide berth in his wagon. He does not know what to make of a woman alone riding the Worldroad. I am neither commonwoman nor princess, but some strange new hybrid. Worst of all, I am manless.
“What will come of it?” I hear him mutter. “If one rides alone, will not more ride after her?”
I remember drawing the card of long journeying the year my firstblood came, and the bird of my heart, cages for so long, beat its wings against my breast.
I knew it could mean either a physical or metal journey, but this was the third time it had come to me. To draw a card three times is a trine, and summons all the meaning of the card. So then, a mental and a physical journey. I did not know how long that journey would be, and that not all of it would take place on the road.
I had focused my mind and summoned the earth magic that belongs to women, willing it into my hands as I drew again to see what the journey would entail. I remember the spread as if it is before me now.
Under the significator, I laid the four permitted explanatory cards, face down, and crossed them with a fifth. I kept one ear on the door, not because of Maeve at her chutneys and sauces in the kitchen, singing tunelessly even though she swore she didn’t, but for fear my mother would come and catch me.
She might well take the cards and fling them out of the window, or tear them up. Worse still, she might just give her cold, cawing laugh, and the Seerat would be forever tainted with her sneers and black mocking glances.
My mother was more silent than not, and bitter/mouthed when she spoke. Sometimes I thought she was insane. I could not imagine how I had come from her, for it seemed to me we were not alike in any way. She was dark, lean and spiky and sombre as a winter tree, and as a child, I was blond and plump. I decided I must be more like my father. I did not dare ask how he had looked, but I knew that he had blue eyes – mine were blue too – and I extrapolated the rest of him from my own features: shorter than my mother, with smooth creamy skin and pale hair like buttery down.
He had died fighting in the dragon crusades when I was still in my mother’s womb. I knew this only because Maeve, who had come with my mother to the edge of the world afterwards, had let it slip after drinking fermented berry cordial. I learned that the rare indulgences in this small vice offered the best opportunity to wheedle information from her. That and eavesdropping were the only ways I had of learning anything. I did not know what a crusade was, and she would say nothing more about it other than that it was to do with fighting and was therefore the business of men.
For Maeve the world was divided into nobles and commoners, men and women. I believed her, but I had no intention of letting any of her categories shape me. I would be my own thing, I thought blithely, never knowing that this would be the hardest thing of all.
“Men’s business? Fools’ business,” my mother had snarled at her, overhearing us speak of warring. I was glad she did not know how the conversation began. A sort of madness had seemed to come over her the one time I had the mistake of asking about my father. She began calmly enough, telling me he had ridden up to the tower on a white horse and called her to let down her golden hair so that he could climb up.
“He was fair as a dream with his eyes full of clouds, and his hair slicked down by his mother’s spit. When he looked at me, it was like being swallowed up by the sky, drowning in that endless blue.”
“Was that love then?” I had asked eagerly, and then wished I had not, for the black glitter in her eyes seemed to stab out at me.
“Love? Who spoke of love to you?” she hissed.
Maeve, shivering in her boots, confessed. “She had to know,” she added defiantly. “You think bringing her here will keep her from it? Love will come riding on a white horse for her, and she will go, just as you did.”
My mother gave a crazed howl of laughter that froze my blood and Maeve hustled me out, clucking under her breath.
“Why did she bring us back there?” I asked, when all was quite, and Maeve came down at last to give me supper.
“Because of love,” she said with weary sadness. “Without your father, the palace, the dresses of precious watered silk, the sweetest summer wines, were meaningless. You see, love is like the sun. It makes everything golden, but when it sets, all is darkness and shadows. Then there is nothing but a tower of one sort or another.”