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Disclaimers: This is an Uber Xena and Gabrielle story. I have taken some liberties with pre-Christian Irish history here, but Iíve also tried to keep a certain flavor about it. There is a glossary for the Gaelic words I use. Since it was easier to just make a page and put an URL from these chapters to it instead of cutting and pasting, I've done so. I hope you donít mind. If you have to, just make an extra window. I wonít be using much Gaelic, but there is some here for flavor;} I've also put the new words I've added in Part Two at the very end.
Subtext: Most definitely. This is a story of two women with a love that crosses all boundaries.
Other Disclaimers: There will be some graphic violence and perhaps some other things that might deter you from reading. Although I tend not to get too explicit in any of my writing, I'm disclaiming for it anyway, due to the fact that I'm chained to the Muse.
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
You have been mine before,--
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,--I knew it all of yore.
Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?
"Sudden Light" Dante Gabriel Rossetti
She was a vision sitting there behind the table. Her head was wreathed in golden flames that fell far past her shoulders. Eyes of bright emerald green that were opened wide in shock and were locked on Kerry. The flash of surprised recollection in those eyes rocked the warrior back on her heels. In that heartbeat of time, a wave of emotions surged up through her. Recognition. Curiosity. Sadness. Anger. Sympathy. It was a confusing mix and she had no idea where it all was coming from. Then it was gone as the smoke and flames caught the warrior's attention and she looked away.
Kerry immediately closed the distance between her and the silk hanging, leaping over a table and two startled men. Landing next to the horrified servant she snatched the torch away from him and put it out in a diner's soup bowl. With her other hand she seized a corner of the smoking tapestry and heaved, muscles standing out as she strained, tearing the heavy cords that bound the hanging to the massive hooks set in the stone wall above.
The immense tapestry came falling down in a heap, just as Kerry stepped out of the way. In a cloud of smoke and dust the fire was extinguished. When the smoke had cleared, Kerry was pleased to see the majority of the tapestry had survived, but what true damage there was would only be seen when the hanging was put up on the wall again. Either way, it was a sad ending to one of the dún's priceless treasures. A small, wistful smile crept onto her lips as a memory rose up out of the depths of her mind, unbidden. It had been this tapestry that had brought her and Rohan together that first day when she, Gwydion and Annwyn had moved in. She'd been resentful of the man at first, even though she'd wanted to come here. Resentful of how easily he moved into Annwyn and Gwydion's hearts...and her own.
Kerry reached out a slim finger and poked Annwyn in the side, causing her to jump slightly in surprise.
"What did ye do that fer?" replied the young red-haired girl as she slapped the offending digit.
White teeth flashed from the dark alcove where Kerry was hiding. "Gwydion and I just finished unpacking. We're going to explore the dún before that bardd of Rohan's can corner us and start lessons. Wanna come?"
The three children had just arrived that afternoon, after being on a two-day journey from their own homes. Kerry and Gwydion had been escorted by several of their father's kerns to Annwyn's father's farm where they had spent their first night together as fostern. It had been a quiet and shy meeting at first, but the three had met once before and quickly bonded again that night. The next day had dawned clear and bright and saw Annwyn saying a tearful good-bye to her parents and siblings.
The youngest was a two summers old little girl who clung desperately to her elder sister's kilt and who made Annwyn promise several times that she would come back. After the leave-taking, the three had traveled for a day and a half across clann lands, asking for coire de ainsec at a small farm that evening and finally coming to ó Brien lands the next day.
It was the first time any of the three had traveled so far from home and even though the heather smelled the same and the cows they passed were just as familiar, it was still exotic and strange. Kerry especially felt out of sorts. Away from their dún on Aran Isle and surrounded by mountains and no sea, she felt out of place. Here in her new home, it felt too peculiar to her.
Of the three, Annwyn had been most awed by Dún Carraig-ban, when they came up to its white-cliffed surroundings. Only once before had she seen a dún as big and magnificent as this one and that had been during the last harvest when her father had consented to letting her come with him and her brother to Aran Isle where their clann chieftain Fionbharr lived. It had been there that Annwyn had first met the chieftain's only children, Kerry and Gwydion. Descended from the clann's ancestor, Namara, as the chieftain's family and all members of the clann mac Namara were, Annwyn had been treated as a kind of close cousin by the two. All three had been thrilled to find out they would be fostered together.
When they had finally arrived, Rohan, the chieftain of the ó Brien and their foster father, had come out to meet them himself. As soon as Kerry had met this strange man who was to be even closer to her than her own parents, she had balked and Gwydion, ever one to follow his beloved sister, had also.
Oddly, it had been Annwyn who had taken to the tall, fair-headed warrior chieftain immediately. Perhaps, Kerry thought, it was because her own parents seemed to be cold and uncaring whereas this stranger wanted to care for and love her without even having seen her before. Rohan's wife, Caitlin, was a petite woman beside her towering husband, but where he was quiet and contemplative she was always the one to voice her opinions and keep strict order about the dún. She also wanted them to feel at ease in their new home and had been friendly. They both had immediately taken all three children into their home and showed them the rooms in the family wing where they would be staying. Then, they left the three alone to adjust before the evening's meal, saying that the bardain, Aodan, would be by to introduce himself and perhaps start on their lessons.
But Kerry had other plans and having quickly unpacked her belongings into a trunk at the foot of her bed she'd talked Gwydion easily into exploring their new home.
"Well?" Kerry asked impatiently. The mysteries of the dún awaited.
Annwyn smiled back brightly. "Aye. Let's go."
It was in the Great Hall that they found treasure the like of which they had never seen before. An enormous tapestry, made of fine colored threads of hues more numerous than a hill strewn with wildflowers, dazzled the eye. Monsters flew and dipped among the clouds and armies of strange warriors fought each other.
It was Gwydion who saw it first though, the small scene in the very center of the tapestry. After tugging a table closer the three children stared in awe at the two tiny women who had conquered a mighty beast.
Gwydion laughed pointing at the taller and darker of the two figures, "That's you, Kerry! A Fian! A mighty warrior just like Fionn himself. Killing monsters!"
Kerry punched her brother lightly on the arm and mock scowled at him, but inwardly pleased. "Is not!"
"Is too, and the other one is Annwyn!" he countered.
"Nay. Not me." the fiery-haired girl laughed. "It would be the death of me to wear something like that." She stretched up onto her toes and peered closer at the smaller figure who seemed to be wearing next to nothing. "The other does kind of look like ye though, Kerry. All long, dark hair and blue eyes, but older. And this one," she reached up and pointed at the other figure, but didn't touch the tapestry, "is fair like Gwydion and myself. All the others are dark and look different than us."
Kerry rolled those blue eyes in exasperation. "It's probably about Morrígu and Badb, I bet. With all the battles around them and the two goddesses in the center. I bet that's what it's about."
"No, but it is about a great battle long ago and the wars it started, in a land far, far away," came a deep voice from behind the children.
Startled Annwyn toppled off the table to land heavily on her rump and the two other siblings whirled around on the table top to stare at their new foster father in surprise and guilt.
"We were only..." Gwydion started to explain, but Kerry jumped down on to the floor and interrupted him.
"We were just looking. We wouldn't have harmed it," she assured him, her voice echoing her mistrust.
But Rohan only smiled. "It's all right. It was made to be looked at." He held out a strong hand to Annwyn and helped her up off the floor. He pulled two benches close and sat down at the table and looked at the three children with a gleam in his eyes. "Would you like to hear the story?"
Gwydion immediately pulled the extra bench to the other side of the table and sat, nodding slightly. Annwyn had looked at Kerry for a moment, as if trying to decide, but the tapestry was so beautiful and she'd always loved a mystery. Settling beside her fair haired foster brother she smiled at Rohan and blushed slightly. "Please."
Kerry snorted in annoyance. In one moment she had gone from being the leader of their little group, to the next where Rohan had taken them both away from her, leaving her alone. A wave of anger washed through her, then went away just as quickly as she felt her fostern's eyes on her. She was angry for no reason, she realized. This man wasn't taking them away from her heart, but wanted to be let into hers. Quietly, she sat down next to Gwydion, the three children across the table from Rohan waiting patiently for him to begin.
"It all started long ago when my ancestress and the clann chieftain at the time, Bríd ní Doiuglas, received a visitor to the dún..."
"My ancestors are rolling over in their graves surely." Tadhg forced his way through the crowd to Kerry's side, unknowingly disrupting the warrior's musings. He looked at her for a brief moment then nodded his thanks as he squatted down next to the scorched tapestry. Lifting a sooty corner he snorted in disgust.
"It's an ill omen." A startled gasp arose from the gathered crowd at the low words. Kerry eyed the huge, red-haired warrior who had spoken with contempt, as he came up and stood beside Tadhg.
"No. It was an accident. I'm surprised it hasn't happened before this, considering how long it's been hanging here," Kerry replied, not intimidated in the least by the man's height, girth, or manner. She'd seen things that would make him look like a newborn pup in comparison. Nemhain moved forward a step from her mistress' side, her hackles rising when she gave a low, rumbling growl as she challenged the big man. She didn't like the smell that came off him. She knew he was a threat. Kerry's lips twitched slightly as she gave an almost invisible signal with her shield hand and the wolfhound backed off to lean against her mistress' leg. The warrior shrugged at the red-haired giant as if to apologize.
"Careless hands nonetheless have ruined a treasure that was entrusted to my family's ancestors," Tadhg snarled as he let the silk fall from his fingers. He wiped the soot off onto his kilt and stood up slowly, his age abruptly apparent as he sighed. He turned to the shaking servant who was trying to press himself back into the very stones away from his laird's furious gaze.
With a cry the servant fell forward and knelt at Tadhg's feet, sobbing his apology.
The chieftain spat in loathing next to the man's foot. "You are lower than dirt. Do you know what you have done?!" he asked, his voice rising as his anger became more and more apparent. "The..."
"Let him go, Uncle. Please," Kerry asked, surprising yet again the assembled clann members.
Tadhg looked back over to his cousin's fosterchild, anger clearly written on his face. But only for a moment. No matter what problems in the past lay between him and Kerry, she was a guest and a member of the family, if a wayward one. Picking two stout warriors out of the crowd he ordered them to take the tapestry carefully to a dry room until later, when it would be hung up again. The servant he ignored as he made his way back to his chair, motioning Kerry to walk beside him and for the meal to continue.
The two walked along the wall to the High table, Nemhain pacing alongside, past the towering warrior, who stood there, glaring at them both. Kerry just raised a perky eyebrow and grinned at him, evilly. Now was not the time for confrontation with some overgrown boy who didn't know what was good for him.
Nemhain, on the other hand, had no problem with giving the smelly human, whom she deemed an enemy of her pack leader, a less subtle warning, as she purposefully used her great size and weight to brush him out of the way as she passed by him.
Tadhg stopped at his chair and motioned her to his right side, waving his son to move down. Kerry nodded at Declan, glad to see that Tadhg was finally accepting the man as his heir. When she'd been here last, Declan had been a full adult, but because of his illegitimacy and Tadhg's general bullheadedness, he hadn't been fully schooled by Aodan or even given the opportunity to learn warfare. How he was expected to rule and protect the dún without some form of education was a concern to most of the clann, but they trusted their chieftain's judgment.
Tadhg sat down and sighed deeply as the anger drained away. "He loved you."
Kerry's heart skipped a beat and she froze, her body half sitting and half braced on the arms of her chair. She swallowed uncomfortably. "And you're chieftain now," she replied.
Tadhg nodded somberly, then his eyes caught hers in a harsh look. "Where were you?" he hissed.
Kerry settled herself into the chair and fidgeted for a moment as she watched her dog crawl under the huge table and lie down on her mistress' feet. "I've been away."
"That's all you have to say?!" The sharp whisper cut through the room, stilling the conversation for a moment.
Accepting a full plate and bowl from a servant, Kerry cut off a healthy slice of meat and fed it to Nemhain almost tenderly. "That's all." She paused a moment, refusing to look at Tadhg. "When did he...how...?" she couldn't finish the question as her voice suddenly grew strained.
The chieftain watched the beloved foster daughter of his cousin rein her emotions in, her face becoming a cold, stone mask. It was amazing to him actually, considering all the tales that had been told about her these last six years, that she had any emotions at all. Tadhg gave her a moment to control herself, taking the opportunity to eat a spoonful of the cooling soup.
"It was about eight moons ago. After his son died..."
"Kelvin's dead?" Kerry interrupted.
Tadhg simply nodded as he slurped another spoonful. "Aye. That was two winters ago. With his daughter long dead..." he paused and looked over at her. "You heard of that at least?"
Kerry fed Nemhain another bit of her dinner. She wasn't feeling very hungry anymore. "Yes. I'd heard she'd died in childbirth, with the child."
"Well, with his wife and all his children gone to Annwn, and no direct heirs, he started fading away. Rohan was old and without any family close to him I guess he felt he had no reason to hang on anymore," the chieftain explained.
After a few moments of silence he reached out an aged but still strong hand and touched Kerry's forearm. He wasn't surprised when she pulled it out of his grasp gently. Shaking his head he turned back to his soup. "You should have visited. You were the only one he had left."
"He wouldn't have liked what I've become," Kerry muttered as she slipped Nemhain the last of the meat, letting the hound gently lick her fingers. A wry smile came to her lips. "But it's what I am. I've accepted it. Even my own father," she spat the word out with contempt, "knows what I've become."
Tadhg was silent for several long moments, just staring at the dark head that was turned away from him. He'd always been against Rohan's decision to foster the mac Namara children and end the bickering between the two clanns. He would have rather have continued the occasional cattle raids and increased his own holding's herd. Unfortunately, despite the decision, Tadhg's own icy demeanor and distaste for the mac Namaras hadn't endeared the girl to him.
"You were in his last thoughts. He told me that if you ever came back here that he would've wanted you to feel that this was still a home to you." Tadhg leaned closer, ignoring the stare of the wolfhound at Kerry's feet. "He told me say that no matter what anyone else said, he knew you were a great warrior and that he was always proud of you."
"He was a fool," Kerry replied, her jaw clenched and straining with some internal struggle.
"A great warrior? More like a butchering crow with no honor."
A veil of silence dropped onto the Hall, as every head turned to the mountainous warrior who sat two places over on their chieftain's left.
Clearing his throat, Tadhg gave Ruán an icy glare, then turned back to Kerry. "Forgive my manners. I've forgotten to introduce my other guests." The aged chieftain pushed his chair back so that Kerry could get a better look.
The ó Brien chieftain gestured at his rude guest. "This man who has just insulted you is Ruán Fuildhórtair mac Eochaidh."
Kerry met the man's gaze steadily and let some the darkness and rage come out of the void within her and seep into her eyes. She smiled darkly as she saw Ruán flinch first.
"And this is Gwynne ní Rhydian." Tadhg smiled down at his guest. "A bardd who I hope will gift us with a poem or tale tonight."
Kerry's stare softened as it moved toward the woman she had seen earlier. Once again she was moved by the almost unearthly quality of the woman's beauty. But also, like before, a chaotic mix of emotions rose up in her at the woman's face. Then Tadhg's words registered in her mind. She spoke before she even realized it. "Gwynne ní Rhydian?" Her voice shook.
Shining verdant eyes gazed into her own. Kerry swallowed uncomfortably, dreading what the woman might answer.
The raven haired warrior paused a moment, then plunged on. "Did you have a sister named An...." Kerry's voice cracked as she found herself unable to say the name. Compassion warmed the green eyes looking at her and she flushed with embarrassment.
"Yes." Gwynne took a deep breath. "Yes. I had a sister who was your fostern, who went away and never came back. Yes, cousin, I used to have a sister named Annwyn."
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
"Art thou pale for weariness" Percy Bysshe Shelley
Gwynne pressed back into her chair, in reflex, as those light indigo eyes met hers. Her fingers had clamped onto the chair arms as she willed herself not to flee. She didn't feel ready for this confrontation and had done everything in her power to stay in the background as Kerry and Tadhg had talked. She'd made very small movements in hopes of keeping herself out of Kerry's eye, and it would have worked if Ruán hadn't begun to quaff large quantities of ale in sullen anger. Now he was drunk and he'd just insulted a guest of Tadhg's and brought Kerry's attention to both of them.
Thankfully, Ruán was safe unless he did something utterly stupid, like draw his weapon on Kerry. Coire ainsec made it safe for anyone in the dún. Even if someone came to the gates with Tadhg's mother's blood on their sword, he was obligated to let them in and keep them from harm. Blood wouldn't be spilt here.
"And this is Gwynne ní Rhydian. A bardd who I hope will gift us with a poem or tale tonight." Gwynne nodded absently at the clann chieftain's words, ready to stand that very moment if necessary and tell the whole history of Eire itself, if it would get her out of this situation.
Danu! Those eyes, Gwynne exclaimed silently, entrapped by the warrior's gaze. You can see everything in those eyes. Gwynne sat there, riveted, her heart beating rapidly as she scrutinized the warrior's face for the first time. She'd seen it from afar once and barely remembered it as a small child when Annwyn had left, but this was the first time she'd ever seen Kerry this close.
"Gwynne ní Rhydian?"
Gwynne's heart skipped a beat at Kerry's question. She could hear the nervousness in the low timbre and wondered at it for a moment, until she realized this woman was scared. Of her. Gwynne. The bardd blinked, but kept her gaze on Kerry. The blonde woman could see it in those eyes. Fear. Sorrow.
"Yes," Gwynne answered, her own voice barely above a whisper. She hoped that she was doing the right thing and that the warrior wouldn't ask too many questions.
"Did you have a sister named An...." Kerry's voice cracked and trailed off.
It was then that Gwynne knew this wasn't about anything more than Annwyn and that knowledge made her feel for Kerry.
"Yes." Gwynne drew in a shaky breath. "Yes. I had a sister who was your fostern, who went away and never came back. Yes, cousin, I used to have a sister named Annwyn." She paused a moment, then continued. "I was also at Tiar."
The blonde bardd saw the astonishment on the warrior's face and was glad it wasn't anger, but steeled herself anyway against the storm she knew would erupt against her.
Gwynne jumped in surprise as Ruán slammed his fist down onto the table. Heart pounding rapidly she looked at the drunken warrior who was sneering at her.
"What do you know about Tiar, little bardd?!" he slurred, his eyes going out of focus as he leaned closer to her. His ale soaked breath washed over her, forcing Gwynne to restrain herself from gagging.
"Ruán," Tadhg growled a low warning. "This is my home and I will not have yo..."
"That," he pointed a thick finger at Kerry as his body loomed over Gwynne's, "is no rightful Celt or Fian. No clann or family name. What right does she have to come in here and sit at the High Table when by rights she should be sitting at the lowest. Everyone knows she's fudir!"
Silence reigned for several moments, then Tadhg started to speak.
"It is I who chooses who will sit..." he started to say, but Kerry interrupted him as she also motioned Declan to sit back down, the chieftain's son having stood abruptly to aid his father if needed.
"Let me take care of this, Uncle," the warrior responded and was about to stand, but was halted by the chieftain's firm hand on her wrist. She looked down at the hand pointedly until he reluctantly removed it. She gave him a reassuring smile. "Trust me," she whispered.
Ruán laughed loudly. "Trust you? Trust Anam-Dabh? Trust the woman whose own father blames her for the death of her brother and exiled her from family and clann? Trust the woman who mutilated a thousand dead Fians?"
"Actually, that's not how it happened at all," Gwynne interjected, shaking her head ruefully. This situation was getting worse and she was no longer sure that blood would not be spilt. She wasn't even sure of her own safety from Ruán, and she was bardain.
The big man stood up with a roar, his face flushed with anger, spittle hitting her face. "You dare call me a liar?! Me? A champion of the Fianna?"
"You're about as much of a champion as Nemhain here is a puca," Kerry stated as her hand drifted down and patted the wolfhound's head. She returned Ruán's hostile look with a cool gaze. "She's correct actually. The battle didn't end that way at all."
Gwynne looked up at the enraged man impassively as she wiped away the droplets from her face. She was far from amused now.
Ruán took several weaving steps around Tadhg and Gwynne to stand before the dark-haired woman. His hot breath washed down onto her face in a foul cloud. "I've heard of you. Tales to frighten children. I tell you this, I was there at Tiar and it was I who turned the tide of battle, not you!" His upper lip raised up into his oily mustache as he sneered. "You were nothing before that battle and nothing afterwards. A bardd made you, not deeds. Pretty words that made you feared." He spat at the base of Gwynne's chair, ignoring the snort of disgust from the bardd and her hastily withdrawn feet.
Kerry shook her head slightly, a feral smile answering his. She stood smoothly and leaned in closer to Ruán to answer him, her voice a throaty growl. "I made myself feared. No bardd did that. I was the one who killed those warriors of " Ceallach in blind rage. I was the one who took their chieftain's head and made it into a plain skull cup with no gold or jewels to honor his name. I was the one who stayed on the battlefield after the fight had ended and mutilated every single corpse of the " Ceallach, not touching a single Fian body, and killed every wounded warrior of theirs. I was the one who my fellow Fianna named Badb Catha in both fear and awe, Ruán. And that was only my first battle, my testing of blood. No bardd with a wild tale and imagination made that up, Ruán. And no would-be Champion that isn't even a Fian can say otherwise."
Ruán took an involuntary step back at the sight before him. This woman seemed to be changing before his eyes and it created a dark coil of fear in him, rising up out of the pit of his stomach and into his throat. Ruán rarely knew terror, his size and manner having brought fear to others instead. She was no longer just a guest with an ill-omened name and reputation, but a creature of the dark come up out of Ifrinn to challenge him. What had he been thinking that he could get away with this charade of his here, where she'd grown up? Always before he'd been able to awe others with his tales of battles and the gleaming gold on his throat, but not here, not anymore. He took another drunken step back, unaware of the irate stares from the crowd, his attention only for the dreadful presence before him. He shivered as if cold, his eyes opening wider in growing terror. There was something...otherworldly about this woman and it broke through his ale soaked brain that perhaps he had gone too far.
Kerry saw the fear seep into the big man's eyes and her smile grew. She took another slow step towards him around Gwynne's chair, a predator stalking her prey, like a cat with a captive mouse. "Yesss... You understand now don't you? I am everything they have named me and much, oh so much, more. I am the darkness where the strongest of warriors fear to look. I am the terror that rushes through your veins at the first sight of the enemy. I am the Ban Sidhe that calls you to your death in the dead of night. I am... I am Anum-Dubh." The words came out a whispered hiss, but echoed through the Hall, making the gathered Celts draw back in fear. Stout warriors looked at the Hall's entrance, wishing they were on the other side in safety.
Only one stood up to come forward into the fray.
Gwynne glided across the empty space between herself and the two warriors. "I think it's time for that story I promised you, Tadhg," she spoke into the quiet without looking at the stunned chieftain, who was still sitting in his chair, her eyes solely on the magnificent and terrifying Fian woman. She stepped up closer between the two antagonists and rested a hand lightly on the woman's forearm. The arm twitched slightly under her touch.
"Why don't you both have a seat?" the young woman suggested.
A low growl caught her attention and she snatched her hand away from the warm flesh under her fingertips. At first she thought it had come from Kerry herself, but the sound came from much lower and when she looked down her eyes met the gray orbs of Kerry's wolfhound.
Nemhain had watched as her mistress had met the big, smelly man's challenge. A fierce urge to join in the fight had come over her, but there had been no signal from her human. She'd had to lie there quietly as Kerry had made the man back down, only coming out from under the table when the other human had stepped closer.
The wolfhound felt no danger from this one, but when the fair-furred woman had come too close, she could smell the fear from the man change into anger. She looked up at the human male and made her presence known, placing her body carefully between her mistress and the male, but mostly between the fairer female and the enemy.
"Hush, Nemhain," ordered Kerry quietly as she continued to glare at Ruán, daring him to draw his weapon or insult her again. She might be fudir, but she was also a true champion of the Fianna, not some would-be warrior claiming to be.
Ruán pulled his eyes away, disgruntled, and went to sit back down at his chair to drink his fear away.
Gwynne raised her head back up from the hound, right into those startling, pale eyes that were staring back at her. The bardd could see a roiling pool of emotion in their darkening cobalt surfaces. Anger that was fast retreating into the depths. Sorrow that seemed to grow the longer their eyes touched.
Once again she was enthralled by the woman's gaze and unable to think clearly or look away. "I'm...I'm sorry about Tiar. It was..."
The sapphire orbs grew distant and the warrior waved a hand negligently. "It makes no difference to me," she interrupted coolly, then turned and walked out of the Hall, Nemhain close at her side.
Gwynne watched the woman exit, a feeling of loss and sadness filling her. After a moment she sighed and turned back to Tadhg, who was still staring at the empty doorway where Kerry had disappeared in shock.
"What story would you like to hear, Tadhg?" the fair bardd asked. Although she was no longer in a mood for entertaining she felt she had to try and dispel the dark pall that had descended over the Hall.
The diners were just now sitting down and returning to their meal, casting frequent glances at the High table, but it was far too quiet in the room.
Gwynne sat back in her chair giving Ruán a disgusted look as he downed yet another tankard of ale and ordered a servant to refill it again. She moved her chair closer to Tadhg's and touched his hand to get his attention. "Tadhg?"
"Hmm...oh. Pardon me, bardain." The elderly chieftain smiled over at the young woman as he apologized. "I think the evening is well and truly ruined now, so you don't have to entertain us if you don't wish to. Besides," his smile turned wry, "you've already given my family a great gift by reading the tapestry. It's a shame it's probably beyond repair now."
Patting the man's hand, Gwynne nodded. "Perhaps when it's put back up on the wall again, we'll be in for a pleasant surprise and it won't be as damaged as you believe."
"Perhaps." Tadhg echoed distantly, as he looked back at the doorway where Kerry had left. "If you'll excuse me, I have to..." his words trailed off and he stood up. Declan stood up from his quiet corner also, to escort his father.
Gwynne smiled her understanding. "Thank you for an...interesting evening."
A true laugh boiled up out of the ó Brien chieftain and startled the drunken Ruán. "Interesting?" He laughed again. "The dún hasn't been this interesting since Kerry lived here. It's been far too quiet, I grant you, but I'm not sure I wanted life to be this...interesting again." Tadhg shook his head at the word choice, grinning when Gwynne chuckled along with him. He turned his gaze to Ruán and frowned slightly when he looked back to the bardd. "Do you wish an escort to your rooms? I can have Declan take you."
Gwynne looked over at Ruán a moment, then out into the Hall at large. Meeting Tadhg's concerned gaze, she shook her head, causing her golden hair to shine with glints of crimson in the torch light. "No. I'll be fine. I'll stay and see if anyone wants to hear a tale or two. They look as if they could use it. Go ahead." She smiled brightly.
"Then I'll see you in the morning," he replied and left, departing out the same door as the ebon haired warrior had, his son following close behind.
As Tadhg disappeared from her sight, Gwynne's eyes grew hard, the mossy green becoming much darker as she turned to Ruán and openly showed her revulsion. "You are a fool."
Ruán turned his head toward her, his long braids dangling on the table and trailing through an ale puddle. "You're a child. What do you know?" he sneered, and drank down the tankard, ignoring the ale that washed over the rim and down his chin.
"You have no idea whom you've insulted tonight, do you?" she asked as she leaned towards him, her voice barely above a whisper. "Unlike you, I've seen her in battle. No matter what feats you've told and deluded yourself into believing, you're nothing but a fake beside her."
Her cold emerald eyes surveyed the big man completely, stopping at the thick gold torc at his neck.
Grimacing slightly, she lifted a slim hand and waved it in front of his face to get his attention. When she had him focused on a long finger, she whispered. "I'm going to help you, Ruán. Truth. Truth is what will set you free this night."
Her voice was smooth, a well-honed instrument that could also be used as a weapon, as it would be now. Lowering her finger to the table as he dully followed it with his eyes, she dipped it into the puddle of ale and started to draw a small design on the wooden surface.
First, she made a circle, then dipping her finger again to wet it, she drew the primary design, in and around the ring. Three arcs, looping and entwining in one long unbroken line, to create a three-pointed knot woven about the circle.
When she was finished, she wet her finger again and started over, but this time she spoke, her eyes on Ruán. Her hand, knowing the glyph by heart, moved unerringly, keeping the man's attention on her moving finger.
"Tell me, Ruán...tell me, are you a warrior?" she whispered, her eyes glancing momentarily out into the Hall, then back at the drunken man. The residents of the dún seemed to be completely oblivious to the High Table, now that their Chieftain and the main entertainment, Kerry, had left. "Tell me," she prompted him, her finger still hypnotically dancing.
"Yes, I'm a warrior," Ruán answered quietly, his eyes glued to her finger.
"Good. Were you at Tiar?" Gwynne's eyebrow raised at the muscle that started twitching on his jaw at the word, but she ignored it for the moment.
"Yes. I was at Tiar."
"Were you a warrior there?" she asked.
A long breathless moment, then Ruán answered. "No."
The bardd smiled wryly and continued. "What were you doing at Tiar, Ruán?"
The twitch was becoming more and more pronounced.
"I wasn't allowed to fight, but I wanted to. My elder brother was the " Ceallach Champion and I wanted to watch, but our chieftain refused to let me join in the fight," Ruán whispered back.
Gwynne nodded, beginning to see the true tale now. "You went anyway, didn't you? To watch your clann fight against the Ard-Rígh and the Fianna."
"Yes." The answer was ragged, torn from the man's throat.
"What did you do when they were fighting?"
Ruán bit back a choked sob. "I watched from a hill. I watched as my clann died...died at the hand of Anam-Dubh. And I could do nothing. Nothing but run away."
Gwynne sighed, her finger still moving through the ale and tracing the pattern again and again. This was no Fian Champion, but a coward who'd assumed another clann name and lied to everyone he'd met. She didn't feel sorry for him, not much anyway, but she did feel obligated to help him.
After a few silent moments wondering how to continue, the blonde woman spoke again. "You'll remember none of this. It's all a drunken dream, Ruán. Just go to your room and tomorrow you'll feel much better. While you sleep let the guilt and the lies go..."
Gwynne continued on for a few more heartbeats, her voice crooning into his ear. When she deemed it was enough, she pulled her finger away from the table and sat back in her chair to rest.
Eyes closed, she ignored the quiet murmurs in the Hall and concentrated on relaxing and regaining her center again. A yawn erupted from her and she giggled lightly, opening her eyes and looking out into the near empty room. She spared a glance for Ruán, who was still entranced by the wet symbol on the table. Then she stood up and made her way to her rooms.
There would be no stories to tell this evening.
Thin are the night-skirts left behind
By daybreak hours that onward creep,
And thin, alas! the shred of sleep
That wavers with the spirit's wind:
But in half-dreams that shift and roll
And still remember and forget,
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.
"Insomnia" Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The dead lay everywhere on the bloodied plain. " Ceallach warriors and Fianna. No longer were the veins of these mighty warriors warmed by the passions of war. The sun's heat went unnoticed as it bore down upon cooling flesh. Eyes, from the sharpest sky blue to the earthiest deep green, stared up, sightless, at the sky. Arm in arm they lay intermingled, no longer enemies as they crossed over into the bright lands of Annwn, but comrades.
Kerry stood at the edge of the devastation sword in hand, its length still dripping blood and gore.
The word ripped through her mind like a wave, washing the flotsam of her thoughts away to leave behind anger.
He was dead. No longer would her lover's lips caress hers. No longer would his arms hold her in the night. No longer would she hear his whispers of love.
"Dead." The tall Fian's voice was lifeless, seemingly devoid of emotion. But if there had been any people alive on this plain besides Kerry who could have looked into the hard, sapphire chips that were her eyes, they would have seen emotion and they would have fled in terror.
"He's dead." Kerry's gaze turned to the nearest warrior and noticed he didn't wear the red kilt of the Fianna. "You killed him," she snarled. In truth, she didn't recognize him. She knew the face of her lover's killer and had beheaded him much earlier, but this one was an " Ceallach and that made him just as responsible.
She stepped up closely to the dead warrior and spat on his bloodless face. Savagely she ripped off her shield, throwing the badly mutilated remnants to the ground, then reached down and hoisted the dead man up by his hair.
Leaning close to his face, she looked deeply into his lifeless eyes, willing him to hear her from the Otherworld. "He's dead," she repeated again, the madness roiling and mixing with the thick pool of anger in her mind.
She drew back her sword and, with a great sweep, struck off his head, grinning slightly as the torso fell back down to the earth with a sickening thump. Ignoring the gore that dripped on her, she threw the head onto a large pile that she'd already started.
"Dead. They're...he's dead," she corrected herself, frowning slightly at the mistake. A sense of sadness came over her briefly and made her feel as if she was missing something very important, but then it was gone, swept away. She shrugged her shoulders and turned to the next corpse. It was a Fian, identified by his deep red kilt despite the blood and dirt that covered it.
Kerry knelt down and brushed her fingers over his eyelids, gently closing them. "Sleep, brother. Bydd i ti ddychwelyd.. 'There shall be a returning for thee.' Even if I have to destroy every last woman and child of the " Ceallach to do it."
She stood back up and absently wiped her hand on her dark tunic. Noticing her hand came away even more bloody, she grimaced and looked at herself.
From her raven black tresses to her booted feet, she was covered in blood, crusted and fresh. Bits of brain and bone from the countless foes that had died at her hands were stuck in the thick gore. She ran her tongue lightly over her lips, the deep coppery smell becoming sharper as she tasted blood.
A loud caw drew her attention away from herself. Huge black ravens had descended, like a dark cloud, onto the battlefield to feast on the dead. Kerry looked the nearest one in its ebony eye and shivered in recognition. The raven dipped its head into a bloody wound in the back of a corpse and tugged, pulling out a long, thin morsel. The bird's head, now gleaming crimson in the sun with blood, bobbed up and down several times as it ate the meat.
Kerry smiled ferally and walked closer to the raven, reaching down and grasping the " Ceallach warrior's head. The carrion bird squawked at her angrily as it hopped off the man's body and stared at her balefully.
"Haven't you heard? I'm the Badb Catha. I rule this battlefield, little cousin." The warrior's teeth flashed whitely against the backdrop of her blood covered face, as she turned her focus back to the corpse. Its face was turned away from her and covered from head to toe in mud and blood. So much so, that his kilt was colored black with the muck. But she knew it wasn't a Fian and raised her sword to take his skull. A clean blow cleaved the head from the man's shoulders and Kerry sniggered, enjoying herself.
She twisted the dripping head, turning the face to meet her own.
Kerry screamed and dropped the head in reflex.
Gwydion's face stared up at her, his dead blue eyes accusing her. Kerry's legs gave out from underneath her and she fell on to her knees, her brother's head just in front of her.
Dropping her sword onto the ground, she reached out a shaking hand and brushed her fingers over the fair hair, then down to his face. The flesh was cold, wet and lifeless. Nothing at all like she remembered. Pale blond eyelashes. Eyes that mirrored her own in hue, but saw nothing. Cheeks bloodless, the blush of youth gone. His lips seemed even colder under her fingers and stiff, peeled back in a horrific grimace.
Kerry swayed, feeling faint.
"Ceideach?" The pet name Annwyn had given him so long ago, spilled from her lips in a hoarse whisper.
Abruptly realizing she was touching her dead brother's head, she hurled herself up and back, away from the horrifying sight. Tripping over another corpse, she crawled backwards trying to put as much distance between her and the decapitated head as possible.
When she deemed she'd gone far enough, she rested against a convenient body, drawing in great draughts of air.
"What do you fear?"
Kerry's head turned at the words and she found herself eye to eye with a bird, its green gold gaze looking at her curiously. It was a large bird of prey, a gyrfalcon with almost pure white plumage. The tips of each feather seemed as if they'd been stained light brown, making the pale feathers radiate softly like gold in the sun.
"What?" Kerry gasped, not sure if she had imagined hearing a bird speak.
But the gyrfalcon didn't answer, instead it kept scrutinizing her.
"Go away," Kerry ordered as she swept out her arm to brush the bird away.
The gyrfalcon hopped back, dodging the gesture easily.
"What do you fear?" the bird repeated, its beak opening and closing.
A tremor passed through the warrior's body as she watched the golden gyrfalcon speak. "I don't fear anything," she murmured.
Golden verdant eyes blinked at her, but the bird didn't respond.
"I don't fear!" Kerry insisted as she pulled herself together and stood up in one swift, angry movement.
"What do you fear?" the gyrfalcon asked again.
Kerry turned away from the talking bird and walked back to where her brother's head lay. She was picking up her sword when she heard a new noise.
Thousands of wing beats. Spinning towards the sound, Kerry's last sight was the green-eyed gyrfalcon, its wings glowing in the sunlight, before it hit her, sending the world spinning into darkness.
After a moment, the dim whirlpool receded from her mind, and she opened her eyes.
Gone was the blood soaked ground of Tiar with its dead warriors and ravens. Best of all, to Kerry's way of thinking, the gyrfalcon had disappeared. Instead, she stood in a huge hall, which was familiar to her.
She rocked slightly back on her heels.
"Home." A glow warmed her heart as she looked at the Clann mac Namara's main Hall. Tapestries, shields, weapons, and flickering torches hung from the walls, all so familiar to her. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, flooding her senses with the smell of the sea that surrounded her family's island.
"Kerry? You've arrived just in time." A woman's voice sent tingles up the warrior's spine and she grinned unconsciously as she opened her eyes to look at her mother.
Almost as tall as her daughter, "na inghean uí Mahon was the bright jewel on Aran Island. Fair as the sun itself in her youth, she was still a beauty. Her hair had more silver than gold and her blue eyes had more wrinkles than Kerry remembered, but her smile still did more to brighten a room than any torch.
"Mother?" Kerry whispered in disbelief.
"Hurry up, child. Your father should be here any moment for the midday meal. Sit. Sit," she insisted, waving her daughter to the chair on the other side of the one where Kerry's father usually sat.
Kerry walked over and sat down heavily, still not sure what she was doing here.
"I thought I was at...what...?" she murmured to herself, her eyes scanning the room again then coming back to Úna. "Mother?" she repeated.
The fair-haired woman looked at her with a more serious expression as she scrutinized her daughter up and down appraisingly. "You've grown since you were here as a child."
Kerry blinked, the confusion becoming even more overwhelming. "But I was here...." She paused a moment as she repressed the hurt from that memory. "After...after...." Kerry's voice trailed off. She found she didn't want speak of the battle.
"We've heard so much of you since that horrible fight you were in a year ago. Where was that again?" Úna asked as she motioned a servant to place food on the table.
"Tiar," Kerry said, barely above a whisper, her fingers absently plucking at her kilt.
"Yes, that's it." Kerry's mother nodded, then gave her daughter a stern look. "You never came to visit us after your...brother."
The dark-tressed woman stiffened in her chair at the words. A cold thread of anger uncoiled from the empty space inside her. "Gwydion. His name was Gwydion, mother."
"Yes it was. And you killed him."
Kerry turned and looked at her father, who was framed in the doorway glaring harshly at her. Tall and dark like most of the mac Namara clann, Kerry's father strode into the Hall and came up to stand before her.
"Father?" Kerry stood up and embraced Fionnbhárr tightly.
It felt so good to hug her father. She pushed away a nagging thought that she shouldn't be hugging her father and that this was all wrong somehow and held him tighter. She hadn't realized how much she'd really missed him, the island, and everything of...home.
After a long moment, she realized that he wasn't holding her back. Instead he was standing there stiffly in her embrace. The smile on her face froze and slid away, replaced by a confused frown.
"Get away from me," Fionnbhárr hissed, his eyes gleaming madly.
Kerry stepped back hastily and gave her mother a bewildered look. Úna shook her head and looked at them both with worry. "He hasn't been well, Kerry. Ever since we heard...your...your brother died."
Her blue eyes narrowing, Kerry looked back and forth between her two parents. The feeling that this wasn't quite right came to her again. "This isn't...this is a dream," she whispered. "This happened five years ago." Kerry backed away from her father, whose anger was becoming more and more apparent.
"Yes. GO! You're not my child! You're not the blood of mac Namara! Fudir!!, he proclaimed, his eyes gleaming wildly, as he outcast his daughter from the dún.
"No," Kerry denied.
"You killed your own brother!" the chieftain snarled at her as his hand fell to the sword at his hip.
The Fian took another step backwards towards the main door. "Father," she pleaded, "it was an accident...please..."
With a scream of fury and hate, the chieftain drew his sword and aimed for his daughter's head.
Kerry fled, running out of the Hall and through the dún, leaving through the heavy oaken main door, only stopping when she heard it slam shut behind her. Turning back to the gate, angry tears streaming down her face, she felt lost.
"Father." The whisper escaped from her, barely heard above the brisk sea wind.
It all came back to her in a flood of harsh memories. Five years ago she'd come home for the first time since before Gwydion's death. The whispers and the odd looks of her clansmen that she'd gotten when she'd jumped off the boat had been her first clue that something had been wrong in the dún. But she'd thought it was just curiosity. After all, she'd been gone for eleven years, and had changed drastically from the small, gangly, dark-haired sprite that had lived here before.
She'd walked into her home the heir to the mac Namara and ran out less than a candle mark later, an exile and outlaw. She had no rank among the Celts after that, just the new reputation and standing among the Fianna. Kerry was an abomination to her own people, all due to the grief of a madman, her father.
That tiny stream of anger within her grew and blossomed, drowning out the pain within and overwhelming her mind. With a snarl, Kerry drew her sword and slammed her shoulder into the gate, willing it to open.
"Go n-ithe an cat thu, is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat!" she cursed him in fury as she gave up trying to break open the portal with her body and started to use her blade against it.
The sword bit again and again into the heavy oaken door while she screamed her rage. Chips flying everywhere, Kerry took out her anger on the door, eagerly wishing that it would open so that she could take out her anger some more...but this time on her father.
Kerry's sword dug so deeply into the thick wood on her next stroke, that when she made to draw the blade out of the door, it snapped, breaking in two.
"Nooooo!!!" Fists beat furiously on the wooden doorway, but it was hopeless. There was no way to get in.
"What do you fear?"
Kerry froze, her hands now bloody and aching, at the words. Turning her head slightly she gasped as she saw the gyrfalcon again.
This time the bird of prey perched on a nearby railing, but it still looked at her through those piercing eyes.
Kerry shivered uncomfortably as her anger drained away. She dropped her hands to her side and stepped away from both the door and the gyrfalcon.
"I...I told you...I don't fear anything," she muttered as she continued walking backwards.
The gyrfalcon didn't answer immediately. Instead, it hopped down from the railing unto the ground and shuffled after her.
Kerry reached down and picked up a rock, hurling it at the bird, but the gyrfalcon just sidestepped it and continued after her. "Go away," she pleaded, unable or unwilling to understand the emotions that were trying to break free within her.
"What do you fear?" the beautiful gyrfalcon asked again as it hopped after her.
"NOTHING!" Kerry screamed in fury. Turning she fled down the road leading away from the dún towards the harbor and the freedom of the sea. She knew if she could get to the sea, she'd be safe. It had been a secret hiding place for her since her childhood, when she and Gwydion had learned of the power of the sea on their particular bloodline.
She sped along the road, her heart pounding, not from this short run, but from those emotions that were threatening her. Kerry's eyes grew cold and her mouth drew back in a harsh grin. She had nothing to fear. The void within her, that place where only a cold wind blew, which she'd embraced that day, long ago, when Gwydion and Annwyn had fallen, was there to drive away the pain for which she had no use.
The smell of the sea grew stronger as she came around a last corner in the road between two small hills and beheld the white-capped waves.
"Safety," she whispered, the words driven back into her throat by the force of the wind she had created.
"What do you fear?"
Kerry looked up and growled a curse at the gyrfalcon who glided above her. "I told you! I fear nothing and nobody!"
The gyrfalcon, its claws extended, dove for her head.
Kerry screamed in pain and was swallowed by the darkness once more.
It seemed as if an eternity passed until the pain and the empty blackness left her.
"Badb Catha?" a worried voice asked.
Kerry opened her eyes and swayed automatically in response to the rolling deck beneath her feet.
She was on board a ship, her ship to be precise.
She frowned, causing the Fian warrior before her to take a step back in fear. Kerry looked down at herself. She wore her blood-red Fian kilt and her blade once again hung from her side. A thick brown tunic, hidden under an even heavier cloak, helped fight the bitter cold wind that blew across the deck.
Kerry looked back up, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Where am I?"
"Captain?" the Fian asked, his face now looking at her with concern.
The tall, ebony-haired warrior shook her head to clear it. She knew without a doubt this was wrong, but it felt more right than before. Taking the salty air into her lungs, she cleared her mind of all doubts. She was safe here. This was the sea, her domain.
Turning her attention back to the man before her, she gave him a reassuring smile. "Where are we?"
The Fian returned her smile as he pointed out to sea. "We've almost caught up with the Britan ship. The rest of the men are arming themselves now."
A surge of blood thirst rose in her at his news. "Ahhh..." The words disappeared into the wind from her lips. She looked out into the deep-green waves at the ship that was trying to escape from its pursuers.
"Like a wolf after a sheep," Kerry sneered.
The Fian laughed. "No, Captain. Like the Ban-Sidhe, Anam-Dubh, calls the living to her," the man said, using the name that a young bardd had given her at Tiar. In the story Kerry had turned into a Ban-Sidhe in the middle of the battle to turn back the tide of the enemy after her lover's death. The bardd had named her Anam-Dubh, 'Black Soul', for it, but the Fians had their own name for her. They had named her, Badb Catha, 'Raven of Battle' after the war-goddess Badb, because she'd gone back after the battle was over and taken every head of the enemy and mutilated their bodies, insuring they'd arrive in Annwn in pieces. Her anger had awed her fellow Fians and they called her Badb Catha with pride, refusing to call her Anam-Dubh as the majority of Celts did. When they did it was as a joke, disparaging the bardd who dared to think she knew their Kerry.
Kerry threw back her head and joined the man in laughter as they drew closer to the other ship. She could make out a dozen warriors on the deck, along with armed sailors.
It was only a matter of moments and the two ships were locked together by grappling hooks and her fellow Fians were swarming over the edge onto the Britan ship.
Kerry was in the midst of it, hacking, slicing and destroying any who stood in her way in a wash of blood and cackling laughter. When the Britan captain wanted to surrender, she denied him, ordering her men to slay every last bit of life on the ship down to the rats in the hold.
The deck was slick with blood, feces, and packed with the dead when it was finally finished. Kerry stood alone on the Britan ship, her men having disappeared into the depths of one or the other of the ships.
Chest heaving as she stood silently, her head tilted back, she reveled in the raging wildfire within her and the taste and feel of the blood on her body.
"What do you fear?"
Kerry screamed in frustration as her head whipped around to look at the gyrfalcon that perched on the ship's railing.
"You! Again?!" she hissed. She'd had enough of this damned bird and stalked forward, her sword raised to kill.
"What do you fear?" it asked again as she missed, her sword biting harshly into the railing.
"Nothing! I am Badb Catha! I am Anam-Dubh! I fear nothing! I fear no one!" she screamed as she tried again and again to strike the verdant-eyed gyrfalcon, her fury growing as it dodged every time.
"What do you fear?"
Kerry stopped in mid-swing and dropped her sword. "You can't beat me. This is the sea," she growled low as she took two running steps, vaulting over the railing and the gyrfalcon.
Into the sea she dived. Into her element. Safety.
Kerry sat up abruptly, her eyes wide open, sweat dripping from her body.
"Oh gods!" she whispered into the dark room.
A wet nose from the direction of the floor poked her in the side and Nemhain whined.
The warrior reached out a hand blindly and rested it on her hound's head. "Shhh...it's ok. Just a dream."
Kerry fell back into her bed limply. "Just a dream."
Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o'er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal strength and Wisdom are.
"The Pains of Sleep" Samuel Taylor
Gwynne turned slightly under the bed furs and found a more comfortable spot. Her fine hands tucked up underneath her chin, she closed her tired eyes.
She tried to go back over the day's events, but the mists of sleep were already calling her. Huddling in the dark room, her head hidden under the covers, her last coherent vision was of startling blue eyes the color of a bright summer sky that changed to the deep blue gray of the sea. She drifted off, her spirit passing through into the realm of dreams
Gwynne smiled at Fergus as they made their way to the top of the shrouded hill. She was excited and eager to get to the summit, for today was a special day.
A battle was to be fought this morning. The first one Gwynne had ever seen. Fergus had never let her accompany him to a battle before, but now she was nearing the end of her fourteenth year of life and her sixth year as Fergus' foster daughter and apprentice. He'd decided that it was time for her to see the truth behind all the tales and poems he was having her memorize.
It would be completely safe for both of them, he said. They were, after all, bardain and no Celt would ever even dream of laying a hostile hand against either of them.
But Gwynne wasn't here just to witness the battle between the Ard-Rígh's Fianna and the rebelling ó Ceallach. She was here to write the "Lay of Tiar" as her final test into her journeyman rank. It would be her voice and words that would be echoed across the land telling the people what had happened here. It would be through her eyes the people would see.
Fergus smiled back at her, his eyes twinkling in the sun as the two made it to the top of hill.
Gwynne frowned slightly as she made it to the summit and gazed out onto the scene unfolding below. An eerie feeling that she'd done this once before made her look at her surroundings more closely. As she watched, wisps of fog slowly drifted away from the battlefield, leaving behind a spectacle from her past.
Gwynne groaned quietly, for she knew where she was now. She wasn't a fourteen year old girl walking beside her foster father on her first 'real' adventure. She was traveling in the Dreamworld, that other place beyond just nightly dreams where symbolism, magic, and dreams met. The bardd turned slightly and looked over at Fergus, but he wasn't paying attention to her anymore. Instead, a young blonde girl stood by his side and looked out over the battle eagerly. The fair bardd stared at the girl for a moment before recognizing her. It was Gwynne as she had been as a fourteen year old and not the woman of twenty that she was now.
"What have you learned?" a pleasant voice asked.
Gwynne spun around and faced what could only be her guide in this dream. The figure was as tall as herself, but was completely hidden by a thick cloak and hood. Only the feminine voice gave her any hint of the identity of her guide. It had been years since she'd told Fergus about her dreams and he'd taught her all he knew about the Dreamworld. Its symbology and ways had been a mystery to her before then and she'd been scared of the often frightening visions. But now, Gwynne was older and the Dreamworld was an familiar mystery to her, albeit still a mystery.
Fergus had taught her that dreams were two things. The first was your mind trying to tell you things that you couldn't hear when awake. The second was the gods, the spirits of the dead, the Sidhe, or any number of beings and influences that found it easier to reach our minds during sleep. The true message was how you interpreted the dreams, for clues could be anything. A stone. A tree.
"What have I learned?" Gwynne repeated as she continued to consider her surroundings. She knew this place and this time, and of all the dreams to have, this was her least favorite. Guilt surged up within her as she looked down at the battlefield and the dream figures of Fergus and herself that stood a few feet away. "I learned about death," she whispered her answer.
The mist had completely drifted away now, leaving two armies facing each other, the blood of Eire running hot in their veins. " Ceallach warriors shook their spears and swords as they screamed curses at the more orderly ranks of Fians. The Fianna, clad in deep-red kilts to identify them, were outnumbered on the field, but if one were to judge by the noise alone, the Fian warriors would have seemed like a wild flood against the quiet stream of the rebelling clann warriors.
Then abruptly, the two armies were rushing into battle like giant waves crashing into each other. It was a chaotic fight, but to the young Gwynne it was an amazing sight. This was history in the making, more fascinating than any tale, for this needed no imagination to envision. The colors were more vivid and the noises were far clearer than any her mind could conjure up.
The dreaming bardd didn't need to look at the battle below to see it. The blood and turmoil were engraved on her mind from that day six years ago. Instead, she watched the younger Gwynne for a few moments, feeling a bit odd seeing herself standing there, younger and more idealistic than she was now.
"What have you learned?" the robed guide asked again. She now stood just behind Gwynne, apparently looking over her shoulder to witness what Gwynne saw.
The bardd sighed as she turned her gaze away from the young girl she had been and reluctantly looked out at the battle.
The Fians were being overwhelmed by the ó Ceallach. Already, the once green meadow seemed to be painted in crimson as the warriors trampled the field, digging up the red soil as they vied against each other, and men and women fell, spilling their life's blood onto the earth.
Gwynne shivered. Even knowing this was only a dream, the vision seemed so real to her. Far too real for her peace of mind. As the days had passed after Tiar, she'd found that the truth of the battle wasn't quite what she thought it would be.
"I learned that a child's dreams can bring nightmares," Gwynne answered softly, the pain within echoing in her voice.
The bardd's eyes were drawn to a scene in the forefront of the Fianna line. Gwynne didn't have to look to know that her other self was watching also, for she remembered this all clearly.
The Fianna leaders and champions were dead, cast down from their chariots by numbers that even the greatest of heroes couldn't withstand. Blood flowed freely. The living died. War cries became screams of agony then ceased all together. " Ceallach warriors fell. Fianna warriors fell.
Gwynne spotted a tall fair warrior who laughed at his enemies and thrusting numerous short spears into the ó Ceallach ranks, every blow taking an enemy's life. Beside him, a long sword in hand, a dark-haired woman fought, equally joyous in battle. They were surrounded by the ó Ceallach, but they didn't seem to care. The two stood back to back, standing off the rebelling Celts with such passion and skill that even six years since, it made Gwynne ache with the beauty of it.
They flowed so smoothly together. Light and dark. Perfection.
Tears welled up in Gwynne's eyes as abruptly the bright-haired Fian fell under a wave of ó Ceallach warriors, his head cut off and immediately held up in triumph. The bardd's stomach clenched at what she knew was going to happen next. She spared a quick look at the younger Gwynne and shook her head at the rapt fascination there.
A shrill cry broke the air and Gwynne turned her attention back to the battlefield.
"What have you learned?" the figure behind her asked again.
Gwynne answered without paused. "To be more careful with the power of Naming."
The woman warrior was primal fury, rage in its most pure form, and the very essence of wrath and grief.
Gwynne's eyes were rooted on the ebon tressed Fian who screamed again and again with such anguish, as she listened absently to the dream girl and her foster father.
"She's like the Ban-Sidhe," whispered the younger Gwynne as she watched the Fian warrior rage against the warriors who had killed her lover, "calling the ó Ceallach to die on her sword."
Fergus turned to his young charge and nodded. "She seems so, doesn't she. Look, alanna, she pushes them back."
Bile rose up in Gwynne's throat as she heard them speak. It was coming...so close. "I should have never have come here with him that day," she murmured helplessly.
"What are the Keys of Druiddic Mastery?" asked her guide.
Gwynne looked back over her shoulder and tried to look at her guide's face, but it was too dark to see into the hood's depths. "To know. To Dare. To Keep Silent."
Her stomach clenched again as she looked back onto the battlefield. "I wanted to know everything of this day. I dared to believe. I dared to..." her words drifted off as she watched Kerry ní Fionnbharr scream and defy the whole of the ó Ceallach army with only a handful of Fians at her back.
Kerry was savage and feral, killing without remorse or hesitation. A handful died, then two, then three at her hand. Soon the numbers became too great to count.
"I dared to think I knew her," Gwynne finished.
"She's beautiful, but she's so...so..." the younger Gwynne spoke as she grasped for words to describe the woman on the field who was almost single-handedly defeating the rebels.
"She's sad," Fergus replied simply.
Both Gwynnes turned to the older bardd. The younger girl cocked her head slightly as she considered his words. "She's not crying."
"Some people can't cry, alanna," the elder bardd said as he motioned her to continue watching the battle.
"She screams as if she's in pain," the girl whispered in awe. "It's as if...her soul is being ripped from her."
Gwynne closed her eyes momentarily at her younger self's words. "Don't say it. Please, don't..."
"Anam-Dubh," the young girl unknowingly interrupting herself.
"Black Soul." The blonde bardd opened her verdant eyes in pain at those words she had voiced so long ago. "The third Key of Druiddic Mastery is...'To Keep Silent.' If only I hadn't Named her...perhaps...perhaps the last six years wouldn't have happened," she said, the guilt threatening to overwhelm her.
"Gwynne!" Fergus lunged forward and grasped his young foster daughter by the shoulders, fear written on his face. "Do you know what you just did?"
The child bardd shook her head, her eyes wide.
"What is the first thing I ever taught you when we went to the grove?" he asked, his voice shaking slightly.
"That names are power," the older Gwynne echoed the child, her heart beating wildly.
Fergus lowered his head as he knelt and pulled the girl close. After a heartbeat of time he held her back at arm's length and looked into her tearful eyes. "Shh...Gwynne...alanna. It's too late now. Just make me a promise?"
The golden haired woman continued to stare out onto the field, watching as Kerry fought like she was possessed, turning back the " Ceallach. Observing, with sorrow, as the Fian warrior caught up with the Ceallach chieftain and beheaded him with a single powerful stroke before he could even defend himself.
"Anything," the girl promised as she patted Fergus gently on the cheek. She didn't understand why he was so upset, but she knew she'd do anything for him.
"Promise me, Gwynne...promise me you'll stay away from her. Never go near her. For the sake of both of your souls," the elderly man urged.
"I promise," the girl swore, as she was swept up into Fergus' arms again.
"I promised. I did all I could. I stayed away from home, knowing that I might run into her there. I stayed in the grove learning more secrets from you, away from the halls of Tara where she might be. I did all I could. I stayed far away from her when we were on the same battlefield. I tried...I tried..." Gwynne sighed deeply, the tears still running down her face as she witnessed a scene from the past.
The battle had ended now, the " Ceallach who hadn't fled the field were either dead or wounded. All four watched as Kerry sank to her knees beside her dead lover. She didn't cry or touch him. The victorious Fians that were left walked among the bodies looking for their fellow wounded and congratulating each other on keeping the Ard-Rígh's rule supreme. Kerry just knelt there silently, her head down, her hand still clenching her sword.
"What are the Druiddic Virtues of Wisdom?" the hooded guide asked.
Gwynne jumped slightly, surprised by the words. She'd almost forgotten this was a dream and that her guide had one last set of questions.
"To be aware of all things. To endure all things," the last came out as a sob as all the horror of the battle washed over her again and the guilt and responsibility she felt for Kerry pained her, "and lastly...lastly, to be removed from all things."
With a cry that ripped through the air and made Fergus, the child Gwynne, and all the Fians jump back in fear, Kerry stood up and threw back her head. It was a scream unlike all the others. It was a wail of loss.
The blonde woman trembled at the high pitched keen, for she knew the true reason for it. Kerry had lost part of her soul. Not with the death of her lover. Not with the death of a hundred Ceallach clann warriors on her sword. But at the hands of a fourteen year old child who was a bardd and druidd, who had stolen it with a Name.
Gwynne forced herself to watch as Kerry went through the battlefield, killing every wounded " Ceallach and mutilating each one by taking their head. She was thorough, not letting a single one escape her thirst. The Fians stood back watching with an awed captivation.
In their eyes surely Badh herself, the war goddess who was known for taking the shape of a raven and visiting fresh battlefields, had come into their presence, possessing their fellow Fian. Whispers of her name quickly became shouts of both reverence and victory.
Badb-Catha, the Raven of Battle.
"Given by her fellow warriors and not by a fledgling druiddess. Holding no power or else things would have been much, much worse," Gwynne murmured. Emerald hued eyes, awash in a steady stream of tears, continued their vigil as she knelt down on the hilltop. Her hands resting on her robed thighs, Gwynne felt as if her very soul was being pulled out her throat. "I've failed. I didn't keep silent and I can't be removed from it...from her. That's it, isn't it? What have I learned?"
She looked up and over at the silent figure imploringly. "A druidd naming a tree or an animal is safe. The soul of a tree or of a wolf is a much easier burden. But the soul...the soul of a person..." she paused for a moment. "Naming a person gives you power, a power another person should never have over the other, and a certain responsibility for their deeds." Gwynne tilted her head back slightly and sighed. "Anam-Dubh was prophetic. I helped create her when I took part of her soul."
The hooded figure reached up, revealing long slim hands, and pulled back her hood.
She was beautiful. Long, black, straight hair fell down, unhindered, to the middle of her back. Her eyes were a deep earthy brown shaped like almonds. Her skin...
"The tapestry," Gwynne whispered, barely noticing that the mists had come back and now obscured the battlefield from her view.
The woman smiled softly and reached out a long hand, cupping Gwynne's cheek. "I never got to meet you then. I always regretted that, among...other things."
The bardd stood back up on her shaky legs, completely confused. "Your skin...it's like those people in the tapestry."
"Yes. I was from the Land of Chin. My people look different from your own, but our blood is just as warm. We love just as fiercely and we make mistakes just as you do."
"Who...?" Gwynne's words stumbled out.
"It doesn't matter, Gwynne. You need to know that this..." she gestured to where the battle, Fergus, and the younger Gwynne had been, but were gone now, replaced by the mist, "this wasn't to show you your failure. At least, not completely."
Gwynne wrapped her arms around herself, feeling a chill race up her spine. "But it is all my fault. I was an ignorant child who had no respect for the knowledge I'd been given. After that day, I found my druiddic studies more difficult to concentrate on." She gave the woman before her a wry grin. "I turned my focus fully on to the path of being a bardd and only learned what I had to of the druiddic mysteries in order to control what power I have. It was for the best."
The bardd's guide looked at her for a moment then laughed softly. "Self-pity. Is that what you've learned here? You used your knowledge tonight on Ruán," she pointed out.
Green eyes widened slightly, then looked away guiltily. "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to admit to yourself what's been in your heart since you met her," the woman replied.
Gwynne turned her back to the guide and stared out into the mists. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't make the mistake I did, Gwynne. There is nothing wrong with desire."
"You're wrong," the blonde woman murmured. "I can't afford to desire anything or anyone. Be removed, remember? My soul is in danger. I have to leave. I must." Gwynne turned her head back to give the woman an almost desperate look, but there was no one there.
The beautiful bardd dropped her arms from around herself and spun around, looking for any sign of her guide, but she was alone on top of the hill surrounded by mist.
"I refuse! I can do that! Nothing is set in stone!" she insisted. "I..."
Gwynne's tirade was abruptly interrupted by an earth shattering scream coming from out of the fog. "Kerry!" she exclaimed, her heart skipping a beat.
There was no doubt in her mind that it was the Fian woman, for Gwynne's soul and mind had echoed with those terrible howls for years. A fierce sense of protectiveness welled up within her and she took a step forward, her hand reaching out to touch the cloud bank.
Gwynne was torn. She knew this was a dream, but the heart wrenching cry was calling her, she knew it.
Fingers reaching into the fog, cool air on her skin, Gwynne slowly went deeper and deeper into the mist until she was completely engulfed.
Gwynne opened her eyes slowly, barely registering the stars spread out on the blanket of night framed in her window.
She had thrust the covers off of her body a while ago, for her skin was now chilled. Her heart still racing, she forced herself to calm down and recollect as many details of her dream as she could before they could escape her.
Tiar. The child Gwynne. Fergus. Her guide. The screams...oh the screams.
Cries that tore her heart and soul. Confusing her.
She was a bardd. She was able to enthrall lairds and peasants alike. She could make the hardest of warriors and the most cynical of women weep with a tale of love lost. That was her power.
She was a druidd, albeit choosing to not use that power as much as she could. She knew the lore of trees and their language, the Ogham. She knew the secret meaning of colors, plants, animals, and so much more. That was also her power.
But they conflicted. Bardd and Druidd. She couldn't be removed from all things and be a bardd. And she couldn't stop naming as a bardd.
Fergus had been able to be both. The ríogh-bardain of the Ard-rígh himself and a druidd of immense power.
Gwynne sighed, her breath puffing out past her lips in a white cloud. She knew now what it had cost him and what it was costing her.
"You warned me that my soul was in danger," Gwynne whispered, "but from what? What could be so perilous? After all, I have the power over her soul. She has none over me."
Unable to sleep, the blonde stood up and wrapped herself in a warm robe and left her room.
End of Part Two
To be continued...
New words for Part Two
Ard-Rígh - The High King of Eire
Badb - Badb is one of four Celtic goddesses of war. She often assumes the form of a raven or carrion-crow (her favorite disguise) and is then referred to as Badb Catha, meaning "battle raven". Not only did she take part in battles themselves, she also influenced their outcome by causing confusion among the warriors with her magic.Kerry was named "Badb Catha" by her fellow Fianna after her first battle, the Battle of Tiar.
fudir - Exile. An outcast from Clann and family. Lowest ranked Celt. Kerry is an anomaly since although she is fudir, she is also a Fian Champion, which gives her respect and a rank all of its own.
Go n-ithe an cat thu, is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat - May the cat eat you, and may the cat be eaten by the devil.
Ifrinn - which is a cold, dark region where venomous reptiles and wild beasts roam.
kern - a light-armed foot soldier of medieval Ireland
Ogham - the runic/line language of the druidds. The single written language of the celts and known only by the druidds.
puca Ð mischievous spirit of darkness
I had a bit of blockage when it came to chapter 8. Here's a hint...if you ever get blocked when you're writing... Rip it up and start over. This time keep it simple. I tried to over think this chapter and it got me into trouble. Personally, I think it came out much better this way. Thanks to my editors, my beta readers, and "S. Bowers" for helping me through it.
OK. Now for the fun stuff.
"Bard? Where? No one here but us warlords."
"Mar a bha, mar a tha, mar a bhitheas."
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