The Fox by Arlene Radasky - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
82 AD November
I will die when I choose to die.
And as I die, my thoughts will be of Lovern, the Fox, a man who taught me to live, to talk to the gods, and to love. We failed to change the future, and now I beg the goddess Morrigna to allow
Peat smoke darkened the room and firelight struggled to glint off the weapons behind Uncle Beathan, our clan chieftain. I kept my eyes on the weapons so I did not have to look at him. A bronze shield, two spears and two swords -- one short, and one long -- were balanced against the wall. The sword hilts showed our smith’s interpretations of animals, trees and the spirals of life. If I squinted just right, the bear, Uncle Beathan’s name sign, shrugged its shoulders as if alive. When he was in a better mood than today, he let me touch them. I wished I had worked with my cousin to create this art.
We stood in front of my uncle’s table like thieves as he ate goat cheese and bread, crumbs falling into his beard. My hands were sweating. I held them behind me. I jumped when he spoke. “Jahna, you will marry Harailt.”
He had sent Braden to summon my mother and Harailt, as well as me. Harailt’s father, Cerdic, was there, too. No good ever came from being summoned. Beathan would usually send the girl who did his cooking, Drista, to ask us to join him for family discussions. Drista, a farmer’s daughter honored to be chosen by Beathan to serve at his table, was almost at the marrying age and would leave Beathan’s home soon. He would pick another and another to come to him, until he married.
When our chieftain sent his warrior, Braden, we knew he wanted to discuss important clan matters.
I did not want to be in his lodge that afternoon. Uncle Beathan’s dogs chewed on old pork bones under his table. The smell made my stomach churn.
Mother did not look upset when she glanced down at me. I wondered how we could be mother and daughter. As a small girl, I held up our polished bronze and compared our faces. She told me I was vain. I told her she was beautiful. I felt like a young goat next to her. Mother’s hair was long and straight, the colors of autumn, amber laced with gold and red. Her brother Beathan’s hair was similar. Hers smelled of herbs when she washed it. She wore it loose. Mine was black as a raven’s-wing and never where I wanted it. I wore mine tied back. Her eyes were blue as clear snow water, mine the color of mistletoe leaves with oak splinters. She reached Beathan’s chin, and my head came to his lower chest. Smiles were rare on her solemn face, and I seemed not to know how to be serious. She blended into our family, the village, the clan. I was like none of them. She told me I was like my father, a trader from the south. I wished I had known my father.
Beathan sliced another large piece of cheese and stuffed it into his mouth. My stomach groaned. Chewing, he continued. “However, Cerdic. You do have a rich farm. You will be able to provide your son with sheep and pigs to start his own family. And he will inherit your land one day, goddess willing.” He drank long from his cup of mead.
Cerdic was a small man with arms strong enough to lift one of his sheep out of a ravine and shoulders broad enough to carry lambs. Harailt, like his mother, grew tall, thin and quiet. His shorter father looked up to him but Harailt heeded his father’s wishes.
Blankets and pieces of clothing were strewn all over my uncle’s home. Bridles and parts of his chariot lay on the table in the midst of repair. His hunting dogs laid asleep on his bed, or at his feet, gnawing on the remnants of last night’s dinner. In the gloom of the room, we had to be careful not to trip over whatever was on the floor. My aunt used to straighten after him, but she died two planting seasons ago.
I looked straight at him. Shards of light reflected in his sky blue eyes. I shivered.
“You have seen sixteen harvests,” he said.
I knew I was past the age of marrying. Most girls younger than me were married and had several children hanging onto their skirts. I had foolishly thought Uncle and Mother would let me choose my mate.
“It is time for you to start having babies of your own. You will marry. I will hand-fast you to Harailt at Samhainn, to be blessed by the gods. Now go! I am still hungry. Girl! Mead!” He belched. Drista dashed in, balancing an overflowing mug and more cheese.
Stunned, I hung on to my mother’s arm. As we left his lodge, Uncle Beathan’s words rang in my ears.
“But Mother,” I said. “I have watched Braden for a long time. It was him I hoped to marry. I was waiting for him to ask Uncle for our hand-fasting. Now, I have to marry that—that—farmer.”
“Shush, girl,” my mother said.
I did not care if Harailt heard me. I had known him all my life; we played as children, but I had never thought of marrying him.
I did not know if the tears in my eyes were caused by the sun or disappointment.
I overheard Cerdic as Harailt and his father walked away.
“It is too bad you could not have married Sileas. Her hands are callused from hard work. Her father taught her well. Jahna does not know how to work the land. She has lived with her mother, weaving, and her hands are soft. She will not like to work outside in the fields.”
Yes, I thought, I weave cloth. My hands did not have the grime of the fields on them, but they were still strong hands. Would Harailt only want to marry someone with dirty hands?
“We must do what Beathan decrees,” my mother said. “He is the ceann-cinnidh.”
I glanced over and saw Harailt’s shoulders slump.
The moon, full then, was now a sliver. I stayed angry and sullen most days. I spilled water and half swept the floor. My mother finally lost her patience with me one day and grasped me by my shoulders.
Turning me to face her, she said, “You will be married to Harailt. And you will be happy. Beathan has said you will marry so you—will—marry. Stop behaving as if you were a lost puppy.”
My dream of Braden faded and I accepted my fate. I supposed I liked Harailt. His earlength, rust colored hair, swept back with lime-wash, looked comely. His face though not as handsome as the warrior’s face I had admired for so long, was not ugly. He kept his red beard trim, and his hands were large enough to catch a baby lamb being born. He was a good farmer who smelled of harvest grain. I could marry worse.
The day before Samhainn, the day our hand-fasting would be officially announced, Mother asked me to go to the drying rack in our yard and bring in the last of our blue yarn. I stood in the sun, thinking of the upcoming ceremony. Would Harailt kiss me after the announcement? Only my uncle and cousins had ever kissed me, and then only on my cheek. I touched my lips and wondered if I would know what to do.“Jahna!”
I sighed, not wanting to go back to the loom. The sun was high and white clouds floated in the bright sky. I had been cold in these days of rain, and felt the golden warmth as a gift from the goddess. I hoped for the same weather tomorrow. It would be nice to be warm and dry on the day of my hand-fasting.
I waved my hand to show I heard. “One moment, Mother.” I saw Harailt coming from our smithy. He walked toward our house from Finlay’s work-hut, carrying a repaired plow on one shoulder. “Harailt is coming. I wish to speak to him about the giving fires.”He passed me and did not stop, though I thought I had seen him look my way. “Harailt,” I called. He stopped walking but did not look at me. “Come with us to the ceremony,” I said. “Come early so we may talk. I would like to arrive at the fires with you.”
He sighed and looked at me as if speaking to his little sister.
“I will ask my father,” he said. “He may need help with the animals. Maybe my sisters will be enough help. If he says I may come, I will be here in time to walk with you and your mother.” He started down the hill.
“May the gods protect you from evil tonight,” I called.
He answered, “And you,” without looking back.
I hoped he would come to take me to the festival. He had been busy with the harvest, and
I, making cloth for winter cloaks, so our visits had been few and hurried. We would need to learn to live together quickly, and I was ready to try. We would not have the usual full season to live together before marriage. My uncle had shortened our hand-fasting time. Maybe he worried one of us would protest the marriage.I wrenched the bitter-smelling blue wool off the rack and ran to my mother, my hair flying free from its tie again. “Jahna, do not run,” she scolded. “You are old enough to be respectable. We still have good sunlight so we can weave more before we go to Beathan’s.”
I added the wool to the overflowing baskets next to our loom, which stood on the other side of the room. A window cut into the stone and mud wall just above it let in the afternoon light. It would be hard to leave Mother and this home I had known all my life.
Taking a deep breath, I inhaled the scent of the wool and dyes, a mixture of herbs and trees, bitter and sweet. A smell I grew up with. I learned to weave and spin with these smells as I learned to walk. My fingers were soft from the wool grease and stained from the dye. We had finished dyeing until next spring and my hands would soon lose their blue tint. I did not mind.
I loved the color and patterns we designed with the dyed yarn. I had created the clan plaid we wove by using woad blue to represent our sky and red from the alder tree to portray the blood of our clan. Uncle Beathan had declared it the colors of his warriors.
I had other pictures in my head filled with color and wished I could bring them to life, but mother did not approve of spending my sunlight hours doing anything other than weaving after the shearing of the sheep. We traded cloth for food, and pictures had never fed anyone in her family. So I wove, both cloth and dreams.
“Mother. Will you miss me when I am married?”
“That is a silly question. You have lived here longer than I had hoped. Beathan was good to me and let you stay longer than I expected. Now it is your time to become an adult. I am proud that you are going. You will give up your childish ways and act as a young woman. Now hand me that yarn and ask no more questions.”
The shuttle flew in my mother’s fingers like a bird through the leaves of an oak tree as she lifted the yarn and created the pattern. As I watched, my life memories played through my mind, especially my travels into other bodies -- my passage dreams. I had visited two other people in my mind and prayed to the goddesses daily to allow me to continue to have those dreams after my marriage. I hoped they were not one of the childish things my mother told me I would have to give up.
I was much younger, about ten harvests, when I had my first passage dream. At dusk, the peat smoke lay harsh in our lodge and I longed for fresh air. I sat on a stool, watching the spindle and whorl twist my wool. In no more than a blink and a small dizzy spell, my heart told me that I looked out of another person’s eyes. My mind said it was impossible.
I glanced around, afraid and breathless. I was in a small enclosure with strange things around me. Something looked like our polished bronze, but much more reflective. I did not understand what was happening, but I heard the goddess whispering, telling me not to be afraid.
A hand that belonged to the body lifted the bronze-like thing, and the face of a girl my age was reflected back at me. Us. Her large eyes, color same as my own, looked frightened. She wore her black hair like mine, but her face was not mine. The Goddess Morrigna whispered into her ear, too, that all was well. I felt her shoulders lose their tension. Questioning brows raised over our eyes.
I heard wind blowing and we turned to a hole in a wall to watch trees bend and sway. A skin did not cover the opening, yet the cold wind did not blow in.
The Goddess Morrigna said, ”You are together, yet separate. You are connected through the wisps of time. This is a gift of life. Accept and learn.”
I whispered my name, “Jahna.”
She said, “Aine.”
The picture was gone. I was still balanced on the stool, watching the spindle, and surprised that I was not on the floor asleep. Morrigna whispered the name in my ear again. “Aine.”
When I asked if others had passage dreams, Uncle Beathan shook his head. “No. But if I could travel unseen, I would spy on other clans to make sure they had peaceful thoughts about us. Imagine, being able to listen to war plans, unknown to others!” He laughed. “Let me know if you hear about horses faster than ours. We need to look for new stock, and I want to know where it is best to go.” He pushed me out of his way and continued on to his lodge.
Mother did not laugh but looked at me with suspicion, so I kept my dreams secret from everyone except Ogilhinn, our druid priest. Just before he died, he had assured me my dreams were god given.
The noise of mother’s shuttle brought me out of my reverie. “Girl, the work will not get done on its own. There is much wool to spin and you stand with your mouth open like a chick waiting to be fed. Now we must go to Beathan’s. Get our cloaks. I will take my light one but you should wear your hooded one. You may need to go outside and bring in firewood.” She stood and stretched her hands. “I wish Beathan would marry again,” she said as her fingers popped. “He has mourned enough since Gavina died. I hope he finds a woman that pleases him soon. I tire of serving his evening meals.”
Our empty yard was quiet, and the sky clear, as mother and I stepped outside. The moon began showing its full body over the mountains.
“We will hear many stories about the spirits of last year,” said Mother. “This evening meal is always one filled with tales. Remember, many of the stories are not real. Men try to impress each other with stories bigger than the man’s sitting next to him.”
Beathan’s yard noisily filled with the warriors and others who followed him like puppies. My mother and I worked our way through them and went inside where a spitted hog dripped fat that popped in the fire. Root vegetables and onions boiled in a pot and heat filled the room like a blanket. We set out the mead buckets and mugs, eating as we worked.
A commotion outside told us Beathan had arrived. We placed the pork in front of his trencher. He was the honored man tonight and all nights in his lodge. He would carve the joint.
"Let me through! I smell meat, and my hunger is enough to eat a full stag!” With a laugh like a wild boar’s roar, Beathan pushed his way into the room. The noise grew as hungry men followed, all expecting to sing and eat with the chieftain. He clumsily dropped something from his shoulders to the floor.
Startled, my eyes traced the shape of a man. A captured prisoner? Was he alive? One of Beathan’s pony-like, black hunting dogs lay down next to the stranger’s body and licked his face. The man flinched. He was not dead.
The fire burned high, and with the torches there was enough light to study him.
“I warn all of you,” said my uncle. “Let him sleep. He will be busy tomorrow. If he wakes, we will feed him.”
The man laid still, even though the noise grew behind us. The tables filled with men. Mother and Drista passed overflowing buckets for them to dip their mugs into.
I crept closer and crouched next to his chest. His odor slipped through the smell of the other men and the fire smoke. He was not unwashed, but had spent many nights outdoors. His red hair splashed loose over the brushed dirt floor. His worn shoes were stuffed with straw. He wore a sorrel brown weave I had seen on traders from the south: a shirt with long pants, his body wrapped in a short cloak of the same color and tied with a thin cord. An empty dirk sheath was tied to his belt. He looked thin, hungry thin, but had strong shoulders. A leather pouch lay on the floor near his feet, painted with a design I had never seen before. I picked it up, stared at it for a moment, and dropped it when the stranger groaned.
Beathan laughed, walked over to the stranger, and took the man by the arms, easily lifting him onto a stool next to him. “Come, priest. Come up to my table and have some meat and bread. Drink my mead. We have much to discuss about the giving fires tomorrow.”
I picked up a tray of bread and stood next to Beathan, studying the man’s face as it became visible through the smoke-filled room. I guessed him to be about twenty seasons. He had an intelligent, broad forehead. His gently sloped nose was not large. A beard, the color of an iron pot left outdoors, covered his cheeks and chin. His sharp eyes were a curious blue, not of the daytime sky, nor of flowers, but midnight blue. He seemed tired, yet wary.
The stranger stole a look around the lodge, then reached down and picked up his pouch. The crowd fell instantly quiet.
Beathan reached behind him and clapped him on his back, almost pushing the stranger off the stool.
“I have his dirk,” my uncle said. “He is no threat.”
The talking and shouting began again. The man laid his arms and head on the table and did not move except to breathe.
“Women!” Beathan said. “Bring us more to drink and eat! This day has been difficult and long. I have a story to tell. Where are my sons?”
Finlay, tall like his father, with arms and shoulders strong from working as our smith, and the oldest, Kenric, a hand shorter but also well muscled, came into the lodge together, sat by the fire, and ate with the men as we listened to their father’s story.
“Yesterday, Cerdic told me of raiders by the river. He had watched them for two days. I decided there was not time to go for my warriors when I came across them by our river, so I charged into the group and fought like a demon.”
The stranger lifted his head, looked at Beathan, and smiled. I lost my breath. He was more handsome than the warrior Braden.
“They ran as fast as they could. All except this one. He did not run. I asked why, and he said the gods and goddesses were protecting him. Only a druid would stand like that in a battle with me. I found a priest on Samhainn eve! It is a sign that we will be blessed for the giving fires on the morrow. More mead!” He pounded on the table.
Beathan’s sons and other warriors gathered around Beathan, slapped him on the back, and poured out praises. I knew he would not go into battle alone when so many warriors were at his call. I glanced at my mother who shook her head but wore a smile. We knew his tale was bigger than the truth, but we enjoyed listening. My uncle’s stories were often more exciting than the storyteller’s.
The druid’s quick hands began stuffing bread into his mouth. He reached for his dirk but when his hand touched the empty sheath, he looked at Beathan.
“Here is your dirk, priest.” Beathan stabbed it into the table in front of the druid. The druid pulled the short weapon out of the table and sliced some meat from the joint, eating as if it had been a long time since his last food.
As the meal ebbed, Kenric brought out his alder whistle and played notes that trilled like birds in the trees at dusk and the rapids of the river. I loved his fast music. He often played it to please his father. Fingers and hands began to drum the tables in time with the tune. I started to hum.
The druid untied the strings of his pouch and took out a longer whistle. His playing brought in the sounds of the ponies and the wind in the trees. I began to sway, spin and fling my hair. My eyes were open but not seeing the smoke-filled room. I was in the forest, riding the ponies. Then I noticed the music had stopped.
“Druid,” Kenric asked. “Why did you stop playing?”
Breathless, I ceased dancing and looked to see him staring at me. I dropped to my knees, my legs unable to hold me. What did he see? He tore his wise, night blue eyes from mine, and turned to Finlay.
“It is late and I must prepare for the early ceremony. Has the sacred wood been laid for the fires?”
I could not move. My body seemed to made of stone. I knew his voice.
“Yes, in two stacks beneath the hill,” said Finlay.
The druid nodded.
I began to breathe again, and watched him. Suddenly, his eyes caught mine and he tipped his head to me as if in recognition, but his face was unreadable.
“The stables are secure and you are welcome to sleep there if you do not wish to stay and drink more,” Beathan called over the noise. “Although, if the spirits come to visit, you may come back. We will be singing and drinking through the night. On the morrow, my sons and I will escort you to the fires.”
“My daughter and I will bring water early,” my mother offered, “so you may ready yourself for the ceremony.”
“The stable will be good,” said the druid. “I will sleep well there. The animals will keep me safe and warm.”
My mother said, “We are going home. My daughter and I will take you.”
He turned to my mother and me. “I am ready, if you will show me the way.”
The men’s songs and the smells of mead and meat slipped into the night as we stepped through the door. There were few others outside. All were wary of Samhainn’s eve.
“I forgot, I must talk to Drista about tomorrow’s meal. She must start some dishes before she leaves for the fires,” said Mother. “You take the druid to the stable and wait for me.”
The druid and I were alone.
I pointed to the stable door, and walked behind him. Filled with questions, I asked, “Where are you from? Why did you stop playing and look at me so?” He stopped and shivered as we arrived at the stable door.
“Take my cloak. It is hooded,” I offered, slipping the heavy plaid off my shoulders. I held it out for him. “Here, it is lined with soft wool and will be warm for the night.” When he reached for it, our fingers touched. My body felt as if it were pierced by sharp knives. My heart raced like a herd of running deer in my chest. We both pulled back, my cloak in his hands, his eyes surprised.
He said nothing, but looked at me as if he could see my soul.
I had to learn who he was. “What is your name? Where are you from? Why did you stop here?”
“Too many questions for a late night. Call me Lovern. My clan name is Fox. I wear the fur of the red fox on my arm.” His shirt covered his arms and I could not see the band of fox fur, but my heart again stampeded.
“What is your name?”
“I—I am Jahna,” I struggled, my voice almost gone, my body weak. In a passage dream, I had visited a boy who hunted a fox. This voice was the same.
“Jahna?” he whispered. Moonlight reflected off his piercing eyes, revealing confusion. “Jahna?” He stumbled as mother took my arm.
“Sleep well, druid,“ she said as she rushed me home. I stole a look over my shoulder to see him watching us. My mind roiled with thoughts. Was he the boy I had met in a dream?
My second passage dream was the first time I had visited the boy. I was eleven seasons old. Like the time before, I was sleepy in a room filled with peat smoke when dizziness crept over me. I blinked and saw through his eyes. His mind told me he was alone and hunting, hiding himself from his prey in a small shelter. Close to sunset, the clouds were turning hunter’s pink, and he knew his prey would show soon. Startled by my coming into his mind, he lost sight of the path he had been watching. I felt his impatience. This hunt determined his adult name. The goddess touched his mind and his fear was gone.
His body tensed as a shadow crossed the path. A stunning red fox stepped out of the brush with a rabbit squirming in its mouth. The fox stood, watchful, for two breaths, and carried the rabbit into its burrow. The young man cursed. He wanted to capture the fox before it escaped underground. He crossed the path holding a small knife, reached into the hole, and grasped the snarling, biting fox. He pulled it from its burrow, sliced its neck and held its body above his head, warm blood running down his arm. I could not tell whose blood it was, his or the fox’s. The bite wounds would leave scars but the feeling of triumph in the boy’s heart overshadowed the pain. He was sixteen seasons old. I whispered my name and awoke. I tasted blood that morning.
I was thirteen, and he eighteen, the second time I visited. He sat on a rough log. The smell of sweet smoke and blood wafted around me, and I began to feel ill. An older man knelt beside a fire. He added leaves and small plants to its flames. A small goat, just sacrificed, lay on a rock. The young man’s hand held his small bronze blade, covered with goat’s blood. His mind told me he sacrificed the goat to ward off a threat to those he loved. I sent him calming thoughts of safety. I whispered my name as the goddess bade me and left.
Home, I listened to rain and the god’s wrath, thunder, outside. Unease filled my heart for the rest of that day. I feared for the young man in my dream.
After leaving the stable with Mother, I did not sleep, thinking of the druid in the stable, the boy he had been in my passage dreams. I tried to determine why the gods had given me my dreams and why they brought the boy, now a man, here.
I arose before sunrise. Wrapped in a blanket, I ran to our fire and blew on its coals. It came to life and spread light and warmth throughout our home.
“Thank you, Goddess Morrigna, for protecting our fire and home,” I said, uttering our daily prayer. I dressed quickly. On tiptoes, to get as far from the cold floor as possible, I dipped a jar deep into our water urn. I shivered as I poured icy water into our boiling pot and fed a small block of peat to the glowing embers.
“Do not waste the fuel,” mother protested. “We must quench the fire soon to relight it from the giving fire.”
“Yes, Mother. I wished to start the grain cooking before I carried wash water to the druid.”
“Oh, yes. The druid. There was a feeling in my bones last night that he might harbor trouble. I do not know whether we should ask him to stay in our village. I must discuss this with Beathan.”
Mother’s feelings were often right and even Beathan listened and took counsel from her. “Do not be long with him. I will need you to carry the offering to the goddess today. Are you not meeting Harailt to walk to the ceremony?”
Oh, Harailt! Beathan would announce our hand-fasting today. How could I have forgotten? I poured warm water into a jug to take to the priest and measured barley and Mother’s favorite herbs into the now boiling pot.
“That smells good. Thank you for starting it.” I heard her groan as she got out of bed and started dressing. “Today you will be looked upon by the whole clan when hand-fasted to Harailt. You should wear your yellow dress.”
“Yes, Mother.” I smiled. She still thought of me as a child at times. I would be married next week! I wondered if she would then think of me as a woman.
My light cloak belted, shoe laces loose in my hurry, I pulled open our door to leave. Not quite dawn, fog hid sun as it started its long climb from behind our mountain. An iron gray sky harbored small touches of moss-flower pink reflected in the haze. The animals were still snug in stables or homes, protected from wolves, and the cooking fires were small. Bumps on my arms from the coolness of the air made me glad I carried the jug of warm water.
At the first rays of light, birds started their possessive chirps. Listening carefully, I heard no owls; they must be in from their hunts. Mother said a day started with an owl song was a favorable day. I prayed the gods looked in on me today even though no owls sang.
I hesitated at the stable door, unable to go in. What should I say? Would I ask, Priest, have you ever had anyone visit you in your mind? He would think me a fool.
I jumped when he cleared his throat. He stood in the darker shadows of the already dark stable. My eyes grew accustomed to the lack of light and his hands rested on the pony. Its ears reached forward as if listening. Lovern straightened to his full height, almost touching the roof of the structure, and slowly nodded to me.
“Come in.” He hesitated, then said my name as if forgotten then remembered. “Jahna.”
His straw-filled, tousled hair looked as if he had wrestled a demon all night. My cloak lay in a crumpled ball on the stacked hay in the corner. Caution edged his familiar voice. “I am thanking this animal for bringing me here and protecting me last night. I have come a long way. I feel I may have found the end of my journey. I trust the gods to tell me today.”
“I have warmed water for your washing. Are you finished with my cloak or will you use it today?” I asked.
“I did not use it last night and will not need it today. You may take it.” He nodded to it, his hands still on the pony.
“If you would like some milk to break your fast, I can milk a goat. Beathan would not mind.”
“No, I will not break my fast until after the ceremony.”
I hesitated, not ready to leave. I needed to know more about this man. What journey? What will the gods tell him today? “You may use my light cape today if you wish. I can give it to you now. If you wear it, the members of our clan will recognize you as a friend and welcome you more easily. You should wear our colors -- if you think you will stay in our village for a time.”
“I will not need your cape today,” he said gruffly.
Was the fog affecting his voice or was he uncomfortable with me here, alone?
He stepped closer, his face a mystery, his sinewy, muscled arms bare. It was then his scars and armband became visible. I had been in his mind when he received the wounds that caused his scars! He was from my passage dream! I could not move or breathe. He reached down, picked up my heavy cloak, and stepped next to me. Currents of energy ran through my body. I watched him intently, thinking myself ready to run if I needed, but deep in my mind knowing I could not. He leaned in, and the heat of his body and mine combined.
“We will have a journey together. The Gods Dagda and Morrigna protect me,” he whispered into my ear. Opening my cloak, he laid it across my shoulders. His hand rested on me for an instant. I trembled, and felt his breath on my face. His eyes never left mine. Was this a frith, a sign from the goddess? What kind of journey was he speaking of? Questions overcame my thoughts, but I could not form them into words.
I remembered the women teasing unmarried girls around the well, laughing, “The first male you meet on Samhainn is the man you will marry.” He was the first male I had seen on this sacred day!
“No. No! I will marry Harailt,” I said. “I am promised. Our hand-fasting will be announced at the ceremony today. You and I cannot make a journey.” I twisted out of his reach. My legs finally worked and ran me back to the safety of the known, the safety of my home.
He was there. Dependable Harailt. Waiting at my door, ready to go, dressed for a ceremony in a new tunic, and hair brushed back from his face with limewater. His dirk sheathed and tied at his waist. I ran up to him, breathless, trying not to look as flustered and confused as I felt.
“I’ve just come from the druid and I have to get water from the well. Please go help Mother.” I took the wooden bucket to the well, filled it, and was tripping back when Harailt came out of the house with Mother.
“We will start gathering the goats,” Mother said. “Get dressed. Bring the blanket and the oak log for the fire.”
I went in, emptied the bucket into the water jar and found my leather bag with our gift to the goddess, the blanket we wove, folded inside. The oak brand that would bring the giving fire home lay next to the pit. Mother had smothered the fire with earth and emptied it of its ashes. Laid with small kindling, it stood ready for the new fire. I found my yellow dress lying on our bed and pulled it over my head. I combed my hair, hoping to gain some control, and wore it unfettered. I retied my shoes, pinned my cloak and stepped outside.
The noise and smells of the day rose to a level seen only on days of ceremonies. The people of the farms and homes around us were gathering for the event.
I heard a loud rumble of sound behind us as I followed Harailt and Mother. A war chariot passed, pulled by two ponies, driven by Beathan. Riding on either side, each on his own pony, were Finlay and Kenric. Kenric carried an oak log filled with the embers of fire that would light the giving fire. The druid, Lovern, stood next to Beathan in the chariot. I gasped. How handsome he was, red hair flying free. He was almost as tall as Beathan and had Beathan’s plaid cape pinned around him and his own pouch hanging over his shoulder. My thoughts and feelings were confused. Would he look at me? Did I want him to?
Lovern’s eyes did not stray as the chariot rushed by.
I stepped between Harailt and my mother and we began the walk to the ceremony.
Looking back at my life, I understand I was unborn until the night Beathan carried Lovern, the Fox, into his lodge. I started living when he played the music of the wind and I danced.Chapter 2
“Little Mouse, are you ready to be a life partner with this man?”
I knew I was to be with this man for the rest of time. Happiness filled me as a red thread
I woke up humming the melody of the music that floated in my ears, the sound of men’s voices singing, and the music of a pipe. “Wow, that was vivid,” I told the dust bunnies under my bed as I reached for my slippers. I never did like to clean house. I looked at my wrist to see if the red thread was still there. No. Just my watch telling me it was time to get up. A dream. I remembered similar dreams, and the peacefulness they brought me. I wished I could feel like this all day. “I wonder if the dream had anything to do with Jahna? If only-” My phone rang.
“Hi, Aine. This is Kelly. Are you at work?”
Kelly supervised one of my crews during the week. She and I were friends and often met
for lunch or went out on Saturday nights if I wasn’t working. I hadn’t spent much time with her lately as I’d worked almost every weekend for the last five weeks.
“Hi, Kelly. No, I took this weekend off. I just woke up. What are you doing up so early?”
“There is a blasted work gang right outside my window. They started their jackhammer at seven this morning! Can you believe it? I was calling you to find out who these jokers are and put in a complaint.”
“Ummm. You know, Kelly, we don’t handle every job that goes on in London. How do you know they aren’t digging for a new sewer line?”
“Oh, Aine. I knew you’d find out and get a call in. I just wanted one more hour’s sleep. Oh well. Since we’re both up, do you want to meet for lunch?”
“No, I’ve some things I need to get done today. Thanks. Say, are you going out tonight?”
“Is it Saturday? Darned right! It’s been too many Saturday nights without you. I thought you’d a new bloke and were afraid to introduce him to me, afraid I’d steal his heart with my new short skirt!”
“Oh, now I’ve got to come to see how short this one is. I’ll join you tonight. Cheers.”
I sighed as I pushed end.
A new boyfriend. That would be nice. Does this mean I’m lonely? No, I don’t think so. I’ve dated several times since my divorce, but I didn’t have a steady. I couldn’t connect or feel comfortable with anyone. I might have been scared because of my experience with my ex, Brad, but I hoped not. Late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I rationalized that I was waiting for the perfect man, a life partner. I thought I had him once, but blew it. Then we met again last summer. I didn’t know if I would ever get another chance at fulfillment, but if I was going to get one, this was it. However, I had some work to do if I was to have any chance at all.
I crossed the room to wash my face. I loved my flat: small, efficient, and --most important -- within walking distance to my office on Upper Brook Street. It was located over a bookstore, and if I took a deep breath I smelled the dust, glue, ink, and paper from the new and well-read used books from downstairs rise between the cracks of the centuries-old floorboards.
I was happy. At least I kept telling myself I was.
I toasted a bagel and ruminated about my job. After lots of soul searching, I’d taken a job with Michael Goldsmith Corporation, MGC, as a field archaeology supervisor. It was hard to admit I was working for a big company.
While in college, obtaining my degree in archaeology, we debated about the big corporations that were going to take over our work someday. I promised myself that I’d never work for one. I guess some promises couldn’t be kept. Something had to pay for food and rent.
I worked hard to gain the position I had with MGC, and headed the Cultural Resource Management division for London. This archaeological field was new and I was inventing a lot of it as I went along. MGC was a consulting company that worked with construction companies and conducted pre-construction discovery research for all local permits.
If an ancient site was found during construction, our job was to survey and research the site before the continuing construction or rebuilding. We made sure history was preserved in a timely manner so the construction companies involved didn’t go bankrupt.
I used the newest toys, the Geographical Information System, and ground-penetrating radar. I cataloged finds, marked them for preservation, dug them up and sent them off to a museum. I wrote the reports. It paid my bills and I was working as an archaeologist. What more could I want?
Well, a productive dig on my Scottish Highland hill would be perfect and I’d been planning this adventure for several months.
A cup of tea, a bagel slathered in butter and marmalade, and day planner in hand, I slumped into my oversized chair and stared at the poster I’d taped over my desk, an enlarged picture of the hill I wanted to work on. Family photos were boxed up to free a wall for this picture. Its presence kept me focused on my future goal and filled my little home with hope.
I opened my planner to my to-do list. The GIS didn’t have the hill listed as a pre-known site. I received the farm owner’s permission to conduct research on the hill and applied for the necessary permits. I even had a small amount of money, just enough to start. I’d begged a loan from my aunt. She always believed in me, even when I made senseless decisions -- like marrying Brad.
Now, after months of preparing, I was ready to get a team together; a cheap team, preferably a free team. I planned to call Marc Hunt, a Professor of Archaeology specializing in Pre- and First-Century Celts at the University of Birmingham. His grad students needed fieldwork. I prayed he would say yes. This could be my second chance.
We had a history. In college, we’d fallen in love with the Celts and each other. The way we planned it, archaeology would never be the same after we graduated. We were going earn our doctorates and astonish everyone with our research. I thought I would be working next to him for the rest of my life.
It ended when Brad Teller stepped into my life.
Marc and I’d been dating for several years. One summer, the university offered him a chance to work a site in Cambodia. I was a year behind him and was scheduled to take classes that summer. I couldn’t believe he said yes. I was hurt he wouldn’t stay with me and find a job here in London. After a fight the night he left, I avoided his calls the rest of that week. I was thick-headed and I paid for it.
Brad showed up at a party one night. He was attractive and I decided Marc wasn’t going to have all the fun. Who knows what he was doing in Cambodia? Brad and I danced one dance and then he never let me out of his sight. I thought he was romantic. It was what I thought I wanted from Marc. Looking back, I couldn’t understand how I let myself be fooled by him. It was as if the dark Welshman cast a spell on me. I didn’t feel towards him the way I felt towards Marc. I loved Marc. I never loved Brad.
Six weeks later, we were married in a civil ceremony. His lovemaking was clumsy and unfulfilling and he started abusing me soon after our honeymoon. I never called or spoke with Marc again while Brad and I were married. I gave Marc no explanation. I didn’t have one for myself. We left England and worked all over the world, never thinking about coming back to Great Britain. It seemed that Brad was running from something.
My friends sent me rebuking letters, telling me not to stay with Brad. My best friend Susie wrote long missives begging me to come home. She told me how hurt Marc was and that if I came soon he and I might be able to repair our relationship. Thinking about going home made my heart ache, but for some God-forsaken reason, I was trapped. Trapped as if I were Brad’s slave.
I stopped answering Susie. Her letters stopped coming, and I was glad. They made me think about my life. I didn’t want to think about it then.
I did menial work for Brad, transcribed notes, and ran errands. Every time I tried to make a suggestion toward his research or create a place for myself, he told me I was stupid and told me to stop interrupting his work process. I cried myself to sleep night after night. At the end, when he touched me my skin crawled. I couldn’t stand the way he smelled.
Brad tore my self-confidence to pieces. I believed I would never be able to work on my own.
We were in Africa when a letter came from George Wyemouth, my mentor. He wrote that his wife had died. Shocked, I realized I would never get to see Sophie again. His beautiful Sophie, the love of his life. To her chagrin, he often told the story of stealing her from another man’s arms. He had to assuage her family with proof of his love for her before they could marry in peace. He often said he would have fought a bear for her if necessary.
Now, George needed me. His letter was disjointed and difficult to read. Here was a man whose socks were folded in order of their color in his drawer, and he couldn’t write a simple letter. I had no choice -- my heart pulled me to go to him.
When Brad found out, we argued for hours. Our shouting match emptied out into the hall of the apartment building. When the neighbors’ doors started to open and people stared, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back inside. I resisted and he hit me. His closed fist crashed against my chest and his open palm connected with my cheek. Up until then, for a long, awful fifteen years, he verbally abused me, but this was the first time I was afraid for my life. I left the apartment and stayed in a hotel. The bruise on my face wasn’t bad, I could cover it with makeup, but the bruise over my heart grew and was painful for days.
One thought fastened itself into my brain: I’d paid my penance. I didn’t need to stay with him anymore. I wouldn't have a physical rescuer, but George’s letter opened my soul, and the light poured back in. I phoned home, my aunt wired money for a plane ticket and I left Africa. I left Brad.
I came back to London, filed for a divorce, and helped George through his grief. We walked, talked, and mended our hearts together. In my heart, I felt certain that I repaid George, my mentor, my adopted uncle, a long-owed debt.
I went to a party at a friend’s home. The hostess invited a hypno-therapist, Rhonnie Craig. Her explanation of the process was fascinating and I couldn’t resist, so I made an appointment to see her.
“We’ll work together on this,” Rhonnie said. “I’m going to take you to a place and find the power inside yourself that’ll allow you to have good relationships. You may have a history with strong men in this or past lives, but we don’t have to travel through each one to help you now. I want to draw on the good relationships you have with men in this life, your father, brother and any others you may have or have had, to make you aware of your strengths.”
We drew on my family and the love I had for Marc. I cried and then remembered what had attracted me to Marc so long ago. I learned I could love again. I would love someone who would love me and let me be me, not hold me down.
After my sessions with Rhonnie, I felt like I had been freed. She helped me vanquish my guilt over my decision of marrying and then leaving Brad. The sessions gave me a new perspective on my life. I could see a productive future of my own now. Rhonnie became a very good friend.
When I went to work for MGC, Marc and I would run into each other at conferences. We said hello, but nothing more. Every time I saw him, my heart fluttered but I told myself it was because I was jealous of his position as a Ph.D., teaching and doing research, not anything personal.
Last summer I decided to try some fieldwork again. Marc just happened to have a project that I was interested in. The University of Birmingham funded Marc and through a friend I heard he was working a Bronze Age tomb near Fort William. I had time accrued so I took three weeks. I must’ve had a brain freeze when I made the decision to just show up one day.
There I was, perched in front of him, his team working up the hill. His deep blue eyes filled with questions as he contemplated me. Concentration lines further furrowed his brow. His lips, framed by his full, burnt umber beard, formed a tight line. His hand ran through his collar length rust hair, pulling it back. I was shocked when I saw gray at his temples. In my mind, he was timeless. We weren’t supposed to age. But here was proof of the flight of our lives.
“Aine MacRae. What are you doing here?”
“I heard you were working here and had a few days off. I would love to work. A volunteer job, anything, just so I can get my hands back into the Celt world I love. I see Romans all day long in London and need a change.”
He became even more wary. “I don’t know, Aine.” His mouth screwed up, and his jaws clenched. He hesitated and said, “I could use another pair of hands, but I don’t want trouble. Where’s Brad?”
I shrugged. “I haven’t spoken with him for years. We didn’t separate on the best of terms, as I’m sure you heard. I’d love to help here for a couple of days. I’ll do anything you need, even go for tea.”
“Well, I guess we could use some help categorizing and labeling. At least you’re familiar with the era.”
“Great! Exactly what I wanted, a working vacation.”
It was strange standing there in front of Marc. I couldn’t describe the feelings that were racing through me. I had a hard time catching my breath. Marc had gone on without me. He’d married Darlene, a tall, blonde American biologist who said she loved him for his Scottish accent. I remember my stomach lurched and filled with finality when I heard about his marriage. I silently wished him luck. I was miserable.
They both taught at the University of Birmingham until she died, three years ago. You would think, with all the money spent on research, that there would be a cure for breast cancer by now. Maybe that was where I should have been spending my time -- with the living, the people who needed help now, not in the dirt with the long dead. But there I was.
I looked up at the entrance to the tomb dug into the side of the hill. Behind us stood a tent that covered the workstations where we sifted, sorted, and cataloged the cave contents. I loved being here at this time of year; the blue harebells bloomed among the sparkling granite boulders. There was a path worn in the grass from the tent to the slippery shale trail leading up to the tomb’s entrance.
“May I go in and look?”
“Yeah, come on. It’s one of the best-preserved tombs in this area. I think it’ll date to about the beginning of the first century from the looks of some of the artifacts. We’ve found several burial offerings. Wait ‘til you see! An artisan made the bronze swords. It’s the swords and the shield that makes me think it’s a chieftain’s tomb. Most of the burials in this area were cremations. It’s a real find to get a full skeleton.”
We slid and slipped up to the entrance. Marc leaned in and asked everyone to take a tea break. Two young men and a young woman crawled out in single file and stood up.
“Thanks, Dr. Hunt. Gosh, it’s cold in there. I need to get my sweater,” said the young woman.
Marc introduced me to his students Tim, Matt, and Lauri.
“This is such an exciting project,” Lauri said.
She was so young! “So you like to be stuck back in an unstable cave? Well, I can say that if you can work there, you can work anywhere. You’ll do well in this business,” I told this, smiling, brown-eyed wrinkle free, straight-toothed, and innocent face.
She donned a huge smile and bounced into the tent after her friends.
“God, Marc. She -- they’re just kids,” I said, shaking my head.
“Yeah, the older we get, the younger they are,” he replied. He turned to me after following them into the tent with his eyes, shook his head and said, “All so idealistic. They have a few more years with me and then off to find jobs on their own. Good luck to them.”
“My company is always looking for good people. If you are referring them, I might be able to pull a few strings,” I said.
“I’ll remember that when the time comes.”
Marc and I got to our knees and crawled in, avoiding the electric cable. The darkness spilled away from a large lamp set up at the end of the cave, lighting the walls and their scooped out cavities. The clay was cool beneath my hands. The air was dry and carried a familiar odor. It reminded me of the Parisian catacombs I toured as a child, where bones were piled to the ceilings. The catacombs smelled like the butcher shop I used to follow my mother into on Skye.
Someone had carved the tomb out of a small cave. It ran back about four meters and was about two meters high. With Marc leading and carrying a large flashlight in one hand, we came to the first carved out ledge. There were the bronze shield and swords that a chieftain would carry into battle while riding his chariot. I could see the outline of his bow, but it had deteriorated. Marc was right; the work that I could see on the hilts of the swords was wonderful, intricate yet strong. This was further proof of the artistic bent of the earliest Scots.
Further on there were a few small ledges with some unrecognizable items I assumed to be clothing and other burial offerings. We continued to the last and largest ledge, the resting place of the skeleton. Marc stopped at its feet. I sat and looked at the skull and upper body.
“Oh, Marc. This is remarkable.” I leaned closer to look at his neck vertebra, as his head seemed to be positioned at an odd angle. A shiver ran down my back. “Oh, wow! He was decapitated!”
“Nice, Aine. You haven’t lost your touch. I noticed it right away, but my students didn’t see it until I pointed it out. It will be good to have you around, even for a short time.”
Everything was going well; I enjoyed every day. In my heart, I knew this was where I should be. It all seemed familiar, the valley and the boulders on the hill. My arm hair prickled every morning when I looked up at the tomb.
One morning, the fog was deep and heavy. I should’ve known there would be trouble on a day like this. It was too Emily Brontë-like. Perfect for drama. I think Brad knew I was there and wanted to cause trouble. He’d lost his funding for all his foreign work and had to come back to England. I heard he was doing follow-up conservation reports for different historical societies, none of his own research. I had also heard his next assignment was on the Isle of Lewis.
Brad never respected Marc and had been jealous of him. When their paths crossed, as they did in this business, there was always a careful dance around each other to avoid talking. This time, however, Brad interrupted their dance. I was unaware he was there until he crossed the path and grabbed hold of my arm.
“What makes you think you can do this kind of work?” Brad said, his face in mine. “Working for a huge corporation doesn’t teach you how to do exacting research like this. Who let you in here?”
His breath made me nauseous and I started trembling. I thought I was over him but he could still make my vision start to go white.
Marc walked up, pried Brad’s fingers off my arm and slipped between us, acting as a shield.
“You two are sleeping together, aren’t you! I knew you would start rutting again. Had to go for old fruit though, huh, Marc? Wouldn’t any of the young things you work with do you?”
Marc’s shoulders braced at those comments. “No. We aren’t sleeping together. But if we were, it wouldn’t be any of your business. Leave! Now! I don’t want you here on my site.”
Brad’s eyes lost focus just as they did the night he hit me. He lunged, trying to get around Marc to me, and Marc decked him with a single punch. It didn’t take much; Brad, 5’6” and overweight, didn’t match up to Marc’s 5’10” and lean strength.
Brad’s nose looked broken. “I’m not done with you, Aine,” he said through his bloodfilled hand as he left. “Or you, Marc. You think you’re so high and mighty.”
I stepped in front of Marc so he couldn’t see Brad walking away. It was all I could do at the time. “Marc. I am so sorry. I didn’t think he would find me. Are you OK?” “Yeah,” he said and rubbed his knuckles.
“Do you want me to go back to London?”
Marc grabbed my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t ever let him treat you like that again. You’re better than that. Don’t let him chase you away from anywhere or stop your dreams again. Walk your own path!” He stomped to the tent. Tim, Matt, and Lauri looked on with open mouths.
Marc seemed to be very careful never to let us be alone together again, and I hoped I had not irreversibly damaged a future friendship. I tiptoed around him, trying not to get into his way.
I think I redeemed myself at the end of the project, though, when I found a bronze bowl that’d been overlooked by everyone else. It was under a rock, outside the tomb, and I knew exactly where to go to find it. No one ever asked me how I knew it was there, which was a good thing. They never would’ve believed me. How could I tell them that I’d dreamt about it, that Jahna showed me where it was?
We all celebrated on our last night together. Marc shook my hand and thanked me for coming. I left, feeling as if I were leaving something important behind but I didn’t know what.
When his report on the tomb came out, he listed me as an associate.
Last October, my mood echoed the gray rain-filled skies of London. Trapped indoors more than I liked by reports and other paperwork, the walls of my cubicle seemed too close in on my desk. Trying to keep work permits updated and the actual work flowing was almost impossible. Working conditions in some of the locations was unsafe, so several sites close to being ready for construction to start or continue were delayed. I was getting daily calls from the construction bosses, and was ready to do a rain dance in reverse—anything to stop this horrid weather. It was on a lunch hour when, daydreaming about the work being done in other sites, I started browsing the local archaeological web sites. One from the Isle of Lewis jumped out at me.
It was dated three weeks after he accosted me and left Marc’s site last summer. As I read the article, I became nauseous. I’d lived with that man for fifteen years. How could I’ve been so stupid? I didn’t mourn him; I mourned the lost years I had spent with him and the loss of my personal goals. For several weeks after I read the article, I dreamed about walking the Highlands. Snippets of a hill overlooked by a mountain and three smaller hills floated in my mind when I woke up after these dreams. After all the construction had finally started, I decided to take a few days off and hike. I needed the time outdoors.
I trod along the rocky paths of the Scottish Highland and camped in the rain, heading somewhere, but nowhere in particular. Then, rounding a small rolling hill, I saw it. The clouds lay heavy just above its summit but one ray of sunlight was peeking through, creating a halo effect. I knew, I just knew I was supposed to be there. The feeling of recognition, similar to the one I had on Marc’s site, was strong.
I got to its summit and the ever-present rain stopped for just a few moments. I crisscrossed the even ground and saw the hill-fort in my mind’s eye. It was in a perfect position. Visibility was good in three directions. The oak trees in the distance were far enough away to allow a warning if anyone tried to come up to the fort. The meandering stream that ran through the oak grove proved water was available. The strong, squat mountain behind was close enough to provide a protective wall for the back of the fortress. The meadows were clear, and there were the farmer’s long-haired cattle foraging in a bog-like depression. I turned around several times to take in the whole view. Something was missing. Several things seemed out of place. Suddenly a flock of sheep pictured itself in my mind.
“There should be sheep on this land,” I said to myself. “They should be right over there.” But they weren’t there. I was confused. The sheep should have been there. But why would I wonder where the sheep were? I’d never been here before. I didn’t even know if the farmer who owned this land had sheep. Well, most farmers raised sheep in this part of Scotland. I made a mental note to ask him when I came back. I knew at that moment I would.
As I wandered over the grounds, I stopped on a slight depression that would’ve been close to the fort’s walls. I stopped to eat my lunch there. As I sat, a warm, hand-like weight rested welcomingly on my shoulder.
I planned my return while I worked the rest of the winter in London.
I longed to work on that hill, the hill in my picture. I’d completed all the necessary steps. I’d found money, just enough to support a few others and myself for about two weeks. With a few people and rudimentary equipment, we could begin a dig. After we found what I knew was there, money and other resources would come pouring in.
Now I just had to convince Marc to come with me. I needed his team. My instincts told me he was the one to call. I said a small prayer to the gods and asked for his understanding.
Oh gosh, why was this so hard? After hesitating and stalling until the morning was almost gone, I dialed.
“Hello, Marc? This is Aine. I’ve a proposition for your students and a favor to ask of you.”
72 AD NOVEMBER
The fascinating young woman, Jahna, who danced in front of me last night, left me reeling in confusion. It was my first night in the company of men in the many nights of my journey, and I was exhausted. While I lay on the floor, she came close enough to allow me to smell lavender from her hair.
They sang to praise the stories of their ceann-cinnidh. I played to entice a glance from her. Beathan expected me to stay for the Samhainn ceremony. Now I had to stay not only for the ceremony, but to find out why the gods led me here. For I am Druid. The gods and goddesses talk to me.
They spoke to me last night.
After my meal of bread and mead, I required quiet hours to purify myself, to allow my songs to rise to the gods. The young dancer guided me to the stable. I asked and when she told me her name, my legs weakened. I shuddered. My thoughts had been invaded by her twice before. In the dreams, she looked through my eyes. She was there at the hunt for my namesake, the fox. And again after the sacred sacrifice to stop the Roman invaders. Could I be in danger here with her? Her name, Jahna, haunted me for years.
I undertook this journey to survive. The gods guided my steps. It was a search for her.
I circled the goats and ponies, secure in the warmth of their bodies. I had walked for many nights wary of the unknown; tonight was not an exception. I wished to speak with my teacher Conyn, but could not. He had been captured by the Romans, was now a slave. I mourned my loss of contact with him.
Jahna left me her cloak. I wrapped myself in it to know her. Her scent -- lavender, some herbs for cooking and some unknown to me -- lay heavy on the wool. I reached into my bag and took my stones into my hand. Three times, I traced the path of the labyrinth. My mind calmed, ready to hear the gods. I covered my face with her cloak and opened my mind to those who wished to speak.
The goats bleated. The ponies neighed, and one came close enough to warm my neck with his breath.
The gods and goddess came, surrounded in light. I spoke to them. “You have guided my hands to be able to heal. You have calmed my spirit when I have been in question about the needs of others. I have a need. Why was I led here?”
I interpreted the music of their answers in my vision.
Lugh spoke first. “Lovern,” he whispered, “you are tired. Your mind is heavy with indecision. Here you may sleep and renew your body for the morrow. Then you must decide whether to go or stay in this village. Your journey may be complete if you chose to stay. But understand, danger is never out of sight. There is death hanging over these people.”
Arwan, the god of my underworld, the one I called on every Samhainn, spoke next, in a coarse, deep voice. “Your journey may end here. Or it may continue if you choose to go. If you go, you will meet and learn from many more people, but your heart will remain unfulfilled. If you stay, you will learn why your paths crossed here. It is for you to choose.”
Then three voices, woven into one, Queen Morrigna, sternly said, “Hear me, mortal. Fear me if you stray. You are commanded to teach the one who carries the blood of her people. You are commanded to guide the one who will soften the paths of the dying. You will mark the day of her marriage. It will not be to the chosen one. She holds the dreams of your future in her hands. It is to Jahna I commit you. Jahna is your burden. You may choose to leave and wander alone for eternity. You may choose to stay and learn to love and cry. It is your choice.”
I listened. The gods gave me directions. I gave my life to the gods. I am Druid.
The night was long. My blood boiled. The gods had spoken, and the task of finding Jahna’s connection to the gods had fallen on me, if I stayed. I knew not whether the dangers that Lugh described were caused by her or directed to her. I must act carefully until I made my decision. My body overheated. I threw her cloak off and removed my shirt.
As night ended, I stood by the pony that carried me yesterday. Then she came. Jahna. She brought warm, cleansing water and we talked. To start our journey, I told her the gods have crossed our paths, one over the other. I watched as she ran away. I wondered what was in her heart, why she ran. But I did not have time to wonder long.
Beathan lunged noisily into the stable, his hair brushed back, his chest bare. His plaid cape was fastened around his shoulders and hung over his yellow braecci, covering tree-trunk like legs. His boots were long and laced with a length of red hide. He hawked and spit at his rooster. It ran as if familiar with this morning routine.
“Did you pass the night well, druid?” Beathan growled. An extra plaid cloak hung off the crook of his elbow.
“Blessings this morning to you. May the goddess ride on your shoulders today,” I said.
“She can ride if she can hold on. I expect a fine ceremony and a full harvest for the next year. Ask her for a gentle ending to this gods-forsaken dark season. The storms have been hard this year.”
“I will ask. I cannot promise.”
“Ach. You priests never promise anything. I have found the gods listen to those who please them the most. I pray you please them.”
He turned away from me, laid the cloak on a rail, and threw a handful of grain to his goats. They stumbled over themselves trying to get to it. He laughed. “Hand-fasts will be announced today after you speak. The couples will marry soon. A good way to start a new season of growth. The young woman who danced in my home last night, Jahna, is one of them.”
He turned to his ponies and gathered the harness for the chariot into his massive arms. The rattle of the metal buckles blended with the morning call of the roosters and prattle of waking people outside the stable.
“Plentiful harvests and ample butchering is what I ask. We must give a bull to Arwan and Morrigna today,” he said as he lifted the harness over the pony’s withers.
“Is Jahna going to be hand-fasted to one you choose?”
“Yes. She is my kin, I chose a good match for her. I did well.”
Even though he did not face me, I imagined his smile. He was proud to be the chieftain and make these decisions. He had chosen for her. This was what the goddess meant. She was not to marry the chosen one. Now I must convince this mountain of a man that the marriage was not to happen.
“Ceann-cinnidh, Beathan,” I said. “I beg you to listen well. The goddess spoke with me about Jahna last night.”
Beathan stopped buckling the harness, stood to his full height and turned to me, questions in his hooded eyes as he measured me from head to toe.
I stood tall, still covered by his shadow. “The Goddess Morrigna ordered Jahna not to be betrothed today.” I stepped in front of the pony so Beathan could not leave the dark stable until he absorbed the goddess’ words. I was ready to fight for the goddess’ demand. “I do not know what goddess Morrigna’s plan is for Jahna’s future, but I know I must be involved,” I said.
His body tensed. A low growl came from his throat. “What do you mean, you must be involved? You have just arrived. What do you know of Jahna?”
“Jahna is the reason I am here. My journey was a long one. Many dangers were involved. I left to avoid death but arrived here by the calling of the gods. Last night they told me that Jahna is the reason I am here. I do not know more than that.”
The grey, early morning light hid his eyes. I could not assure him with mine that I spoke the truth.
I silently prayed. Morrigna, whisper in his ear. Tell him I speak with your words.
I said, “The goddess led me here but I do not know what she plans. I must study Jahna, know her, and then the goddess will guide me.”
Beathan did not move, even his breathing seemed to stop. I strained not to speak until he answered. His jaw clenched, and his eyes closed. Then his eyes opened slowly and trapped mine.
“Sometimes, this goddess asks the impossible,” he said. “Why you? Why not one of my warriors?”
“That is the answer I will give you after I have spent time with Jahna. She is the one who holds the truths to these questions. She is the one the goddess will speak through. I must learn if she has the clan’s good will at heart.”
“The clan’s good will? The clan’s good will? What do you know of my clan’s good will? We have fought hard to have a little bit of peace. Jahna was born of my sister and during her lifetime no ill has come to the clan. Why would this change?”
“Good Chieftain, I do not say there is harm coming to the clan. I only know I must find out why I am here. The gods have given me a choice and I choose to stay.”
After a long moment of silence, Beathan’s face hardened into an iron mask. “I will do as the gods ask. You are a priest. You must speak the truth on Samhainn. But know this, druid. She is of my family and if you harm her without talking to me first, I will have your head on my wall.” The pony’s ears stood up as it felt Beathan’s hands stiffen on its back. “She is your millstone while you are here.”
“I will not harm her without your permission. Betroth the man Jahna was to marry to another woman. Jahna will not marry him,” I said.
“Harailt,” Beathan said as if just remembering the name. “Hmm. He did want to marry the farm girl, Sileas. I will announce it today.”
He pointed his large hand at me and said, “I warn you. Do not anger me. You do not scare me, Priest. I will hunt you like a dog if I decide to kill you.”
“I do only what the goddess wishes me to,” I said, bowing my head. I must find out why the girl Jahna invaded my mind. Now, I had Beathan’s permission to talk to her, to question her, to know her.
“We will ready my chariot. You ride with me. My sons will come on their ponies. Wear this.” He threw the plaid to me as he led the pony outside. “We will go soon.”
I swung the cloak over my shoulders and fastened it with the acorn-topped pin attached to it. I slung my bag over my neck and, when Beathan called, climbed into the chariot, his sons on either side.
We passed Jahna, her mother and a young man I guessed to be Harailt. I did not look at Jahna. To be prepared for the ceremony, my mind must be free from outside thoughts. I was to perform the sacrifice of the Samhainn giving fire. My mind was clear; I meditated on my songs. I did not think of Jahna again until later.
At the ceremony field, there were two stacks of oak logs far enough apart to allow the passage of people and animals. The clan gathered and talked among themselves excitedly. Most were wearing the plaid Jahna had woven. It was the first time I had seen a clan dressed in the same colors. I felt the strength of the bond it created as I looked over the clan. Beathan was right to ask all to wear it as a sign of brotherhood and fealty. I walked to the sacred circle drawn around the piles of wood and waited. The crowd began to call for the ceremony to begin. The men led the bull to me.
“Here is the earthen vessel to be used in the ceremony,” said Finlay, handing me the small pottery cup that would hold the blood of the sacrifice.
I crossed to the bellowing sacrificial bull. Two grown men hung onto ropes fastened to its neck, its front legs hobbled. Frightened eyes rolled and froth flung from its mouth as it tried to escape. I laid my hands on its forehead and looked deep into its eyes. It calmed as I spoke. “I call the god Arwan and the goddess Morrigna to attend our ceremony and ask the blessings of both to fall on the clan, the harvests and the animals. I thank you, sacred bull, for giving your life today. You will call the gods to us and have them hear our prayers.” I raised my dirk to the sky and plunged it into the bull’s neck. Its blood spurted into the cup I held against its straining neck. He flew into a rage and blood sprayed, covering my arms. Two more men leaped forward to further restrain the enraged bull.
I drank and passed the cup to Beathan. He drank. The blood was warm and tasted of metal. I heard the call of the birds over the bull’s screams, and looked up. The sky over us was black with ravens.
“This is the sign of Morrigna. The Queen is here and blesses the clan,” I shouted and I raised my bloody arms to the ravens. The crowd cheered, then quieted as they began to feel the tension of the next few moments. If the sacrifice did not go well, the clan would feel the wrath of the gods.
I nodded to Finlay to carry up the sacred sword. He stood, the bull’s shoulders at his chest, raised it, and plunged it into its back. The sword pierced its heart. The bull raised its head as if surprised, fell to its knees and then, as we raced out of the way, rolled to its side with a huff, dead. A good sacrifice.
I told the gathered clan, “The peaceful death of the bull is the sign the god Arwan is here. He will bring good hunting and a good harvest for next year.” There were cheers and shouts of happiness among the people.
Beathan walked forward and commanded attention with raised arms.
“To celebrate the coming planting season of the Clan,” Beathan shouted to the muttering crowd. “We will have marriages.”
“I betroth Maira and Clyde.” He raised his hands for the couple to come forward.
I heard shouts of congratulations.
“Gara and Lyel.”
Again, I heard wishes of good luck and a healthy family.
My eyes searched and found Jahna, next to Harailt on her tiptoes, steadying herself on his arm. He seemed to be pulling away from her.
“Harailt and Sileas.”
The crowd grew quiet. Jahna jumped when Beathan finished the announcement and then stood still. She stared as Harailt walked to a young woman, I assumed was Sileas, and kissed her. I watched Jahna turn and run towards the lake. After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd cheered again. Harailt, a grin on his face, did not notice as Sileas’s eyes followed Jahna with concern.
I could not follow Jahna. This was the goddess’ moment. I stayed to light the Samhainn fire.
“These we shall burn today:
the rowan in the shade,
the willow near the water,
the alder of the marshes,
the birch under the waterfalls,
the yew for resilience,
the elm of the brae,
the oak, shining of the sun,
the hazel of the rocks, and
the pine for immortality,
to call all the gods and goddesses.
To bring the clan health and food and peace.
To bring honor and prizes and strength to the warriors.
To bring music and mead to all in the coming spring.”
Kenric passed me a burning oak brand. I let it fall on one stack and then the second, creating two purifying fires. The heat burned the hairs on my arms as I threw in the cup used to drink the blood.
“Let the bone-fire receive the bull.” I directed the body of the bull to be thrown on the first fire. “You may now pass between the fires, bring your animals, and be purified for the newyear. Be protected and comforted by the gods. Give your sacrifices and light your brands to rekindle your home fires as you pass.”
The farmers and warriors lead families, ponies, cattle, sheep, and goats between the fires. All threw in a gift -- harvested grain, wool, or other items -- and reached out for a piece of the fire to take home. I watched as Wynda, Jahna’s mother, threw in a piece of plaid cloth. The air filled with smoke that carried the smell of burning meat and wool to the sky.
Why was I passed over and not hand-fasted to Harailt? I was worthless and abandoned. I ran to the lake and fell to its muddy bank, confused. My life had ended. The ravens were gone. I sat next to a lake that was deathly still. The smell of burning animals drifted in the air and choked me. I was alone; the clan was passing through the fires to be purified and I was not there. My arms crossed my breasts, and I shook as I cursed.“How could you refuse me? How could you leave me alone?” I screamed at the iron sky.
I folded into myself, knowing I would never be the same. I would not be able to face the clan again. I sat as the sun traveled through the day, and the sky darkened with the coming intolerable night, shivering in my aloneness.
I had not heard him approach. I jumped when he spoke.
“It will be dark soon. You must come back to your home,” Lovern said. “How can I? I can never go home. I have been cursed,” I whispered.
“No. You have not been cursed,” he said.
I lifted my tear-stained face, brushing my stringy hair away to look at him. “I told you this morning in the stable. We shall find out what our path is together. You
He kneeled beside me as I sat up, wrapping my cloak tightly around myself to shield him from touching me.
“I was supposed to be with Harailt after the fires, celebrating. We were going to go back to his farm and eat a meal. Where is he now?” I asked.
“He is with his betrothed,” he said.
“You come here, not invited, and destroy my life. You invade my dreams and do not let me sleep. You convince Beathan that I should not be married to Harailt, yet you do not tell me why! I am cursed for knowing you. I wish I had never seen you! What is it you want from me?” Bewildered and angry, I slapped him. I hit him and struck him until I yielded to the ground again, sobbing. He knelt, defiant, through my tirade.
“I envisioned our future together. The goddess gave me your dreams. Now, we must determine why. I must be sure in my mind what our destiny is, Jahna,” he said.
He was quiet as the moments passed and my sobbing eased.
As he gave me time to calm myself, I remembered what I experienced in my passage dreams. I was content to be with him, and I wanted to help him at those times. I knew he was spiritual and determined. But for me, confusion still reigned. He changed my future. He destroyed it. I do not know what was to be ahead of me. He said we have a destiny together. At least I would not be alone.
“My future. Our future,” I said, wiping my face with the back of my hand. “We have a journey to take.” I looked at him, remembering my passage dream. “There was blood on your arms.”
“Yes, your mother gave me some water to wash after the purifying.”
He thought I meant the blood from the bull. I meant the blood of the fox.
“She also gave me food. I brought you bread and boiled pork,” he said.
I salivated. I had not eaten for many hours.
I stretched to take the bread and pork. He held it just out of my reach. I looked up at him and scowled with hunger and annoyance. He had caused me to be here, and now he played with me. I hated him again. I wanted to be anywhere but here right now.
“I must ask you to swear to something before you eat,” he said.
“I do not see why I need to swear anything to you. You have taken away my life. Why should I talk to you at all?”
Lovern stood. He was not as tall as Beathan, yet he towered over me with a sharp, appraising look. I saw the muscles of his jaw working under his beard. His eyes were intensely blue-black. I was not as brave as I wished, and I trembled.
“Beathan, your chieftain, has given me leave to talk to you. I am a druid. You must obey me. You must obey my demands, or I will take you to be tried before the clan council,” he said with authority.
If he spoke with the council about my dreams, they could accuse me of being evil. I could be a sacrifice at the next quarter ceremony. I could not explain my passage dreams. I grew frightened.
I stared at him and asked, “What do you want me to swear?”
“I have two questions. You must look in my eyes and swear the truth of your answers. I will know whether you are telling falsehoods.”
Standing as tall as I could, I only came to his chest. My dress and cape were dripping mud and wet grass, and I shivered. I looked into his deep eyes in the darkening daylight, and I noticed his full brows pull together, creasing his forehead.
“I must know whether you have been influenced by a man in any way,” he said.
“Influenced by a man? Pff. What a stupid question. I am a loyal clanswoman; of course a man had influenced me. Beathan, my chieftain--”
“Have you ever lain with a man?” he interrupted.
“No! I have lived with my mother and never have let any man touch me. Ever!” Now, I was beginning to wonder if that would ever happen.
He nodded and continued, “Have you ever harmed or wanted to harm anyone through your dreams?”
I stood there, looking at him and remembering my passage dreams. I felt his emotions when we were together in the dreams. I felt his excitement of the hunt, his fear at the sacrifice. I felt the confusion of the girl I visited, Aine. I wanted to convey peace and comfort to both, never anything harmful. A moment passed, his eyes narrowed and jaws clenched, and he began to move away from me, taking the food.
“Wait!” I reached out and grabbed his arm. “I swear I have never wanted to harm anyone in my life, awake or in my dreams, except you just a few moments ago. I am hungry, cold, and tired and you have destroyed my life. You withhold food from me and threaten me with the council. You tell me my mother and chieftain approve of this treatment. I want to strike you!” Anger writhed in my stomach. Then, my shoulders sank. I knew could not hit him. Beaten, I turned from him and cried, “I do not want to be here.”
I put my face in my hands, and sat back down on the cold ground. The sky was grey, filled with cruel clouds. The glaring sun was leaving, setting behind the three hills. I told the truth and could do no more. Let him take me to the council. I did not care. I folded in upon myself.
He laid his cape across my shoulders. It was still warm from his body. I relaxed, enveloped in his odor of earth and acorns. He gave me bread and meat; I ate. Then, he lifted me into his arms. His body warmed me and I stopped shivering. My head rested on his shoulder. I fell asleep with the rocking of his body as he carried me home.
The following morning, I woke up in my own bed.
At breakfast, my mother told me the gods and druids often changed the plans of men.
“So it is,” she said. “So it is.”
She told me I was to meet the druid by the lake where we were last night. I did what I was told. I put on my dress, combed the grass from my hair, and went to the lake.
A storm was coming. The sky darkened, and rain scented the air. As I walked past others on the path, a few people wished me good morning and I was surprised. I did not expect anyone to acknowledge me after yesterday.
When I arrived, he was waiting. He wore the cloak and acorn pin Beathan had given him. His unbound red hair blew around his face in the wind. His clean-shaven face was unusual as the men of my clan wore beards. He was more handsome than the warrior Braden, and my breath caught in my throat. I was disappointed in myself. I did not want to like him. I hardened my thoughts about him.
“I am glad to see you are well today. Did you get some rest and food?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, curtly.
“I told Beathan we have no need for the council. I did not tell him about your dreams and our meeting in them.”
The wind began to blow harder; my skirt stung my ankles as it whipped around. What did he want of me?
“I still have some questions in my mind. I do not understand why we have this connection. We must find out together. In a dream, the goddess showed me both you and I standing on a mountain, looking over this valley. We were protecting it and each other. I must understand our bond to know what is expected of us.” He looked at me with concern on his face.
Maybe he is right. Druids often had dreams of the future. But I feared his words in my heart. Why would my clan need protection?
“The wind is bringing in a storm with a bitter edge to it,” I said as I wrapped my arms around my shoulders. I wished I had worn my oiled cloak.
He looked up at the dark, cloudy sky. “It will not rain for a few hours more. I want to walk around the lake with you.” He opened his arms and invited me to walk next to him, warmed under his cloak, his arm around my shoulders.
“What is the name of this lake?” he asked, pointing his chin at the wind blown waves.
“Loch Dubh. Black Lake. It is black during all the seasons. I am told other lakes are blue.”
“You have never seen other lakes?”
“No. I have never been away from here. Except in my passage dreams.”
We walked further. He was quiet until we reached the high point of the shore. The wind was stronger, and I leaned into it to stand upright. We stood on the bank and looked out over the lake. The hills were behind him now, and he looked like a warrior, standing against the wind with his hair blowing away from his clean, strong face.
“It is here our chieftains made sacrifices before and after battle,” I observed, pointing to the lake. “Kenric told me there are iron and bronze swords down there.”
“Has there been a human sacrifice here? I feel lingering souls,” he asked.
“There were several when I was very young. Warriors taken in clan battles. I remember feasts, and after, the heads on our gate. Mother told me it was common during her childhood. She said some of the heads of our clansmen hung on other fences. It was the way of life. Since Beathan has been chieftain, though, battles are rare. He brought peace to this valley. His wife was from the clan we often fought. They talked a truce, and she came to live with us as his wife. We have no reason for a human sacrifice. The animal sacrifices seem to placate the gods. There have been no battles or threats in recent times.”
I was still unsure how I felt about him. I did not trust him. The gods had guided him here, so he said. I asked the gods to guide me through his actions. My uncle and my mother gave my life to him, but I would not do so as easily. I would not give in to him unless he proved his worth to me. He would not have my spirit unless I gave it.
Lovern looked into the distance as if he saw riders on ponies fleeing across our farm fields. His brow filled with furrowed rows. His arm slightly pulled me closer to him, while I wanted to pull away. I stayed near him only for his warmth.
“No threats. No threats yet,” he quietly murmured as we turned to walk home in silence.
73 AD JANUARY
Time was not my friend.
The moon passed through her cycle before Lovern and I spoke again. A slow fire burned in my belly, fueled by discontent and confusion. Bothersome questions repeated and grew to command my thoughts during sleepless nights.
My mother and I still helped serve the evening meal to my uncle, his warriors, invited clansmen, and the druid. While the warriors and my uncle boasted the bravado stories of hunts and mischief, I stared at the lodge's packed dirt floor. To avoid Lovern, I walked to the end of the benches and placed the bread out of his reach. My mother or Drista refilled his mead. I watched. Lovern ate sparingly and drank little. He rarely smiled. He did not start conversations but viewed the evening gathering until someone tossed him a question or comment. He petted my uncle's dogs and fed them bones and scraps from the table.
When Lovern's dark, assessing eyes caught mine, I stumbled, balance lost at his glance. As I passed one night, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me to him. The laughter and chatter around me was gone from my ears. The air grew silent. My hand shook as I steadied myself against the worn table and tried to push away, unbidden tears tracing my cheeks. I stared into his indiscernible face until his eyes softened, almost imperceptibly, as if he had come to a decision. His mouth formed a smile as he slowly released my arm. The noise of the room came back, and I fell away from him.
My mother found me huddled against the stone wall, hidden by the smoke of the peat fire, my quiet tears falling to the dirt floor. Mother frowned, turned to leave and beckoned for me to follow.
A war raged inside me. I had passage dreams of him as a boy. I knew him before he came to my clan. Why was the boy, now a man, here? The gods were testing me. There was no one to counsel me. Mother's ear was not sympathetic for my dreams and worries and Ogilhinn, my druid friend, was dead. So I observed, alone, unobserved. Or so I thought.
Lovern left the hilltop to visit farmers' abodes daily. I followed, out of sight, and watched as he kneeled to talk to children, touching their cheeks with kindness. He spoke with the mothers and wives and gave them potions. His hands moved in conversations with the farmers while they surveyed the pigs. He seemed benevolent from a distance. Sometimes my doubts eased while I watched him. Lovern said the gods had spoken, that we had a journey to make together. If the gods speak, then we must listen. We built our lives around that rule. But, I was still wary.
One afternoon, when the sky darkened with the clouds that lay threatening overhead, Lovern stood tall in the center of the hill fort. His feet were spread wide, and his arms were crossed. His eyes followed me like a hawk flying over a field mouse. I went to the well, fed the animals, and swept my home. Defiant, I kept my face turned; he learned naught from me. Or so I thought.
It was the season the gods sent the dark times, the beginning of our year. Now, the sun rested longer and our daylight was short.
Mother breathed with more difficulty on the days the lamps were lit. The smoky air in our abode clotted her lungs. She sometimes rose at night and rushed outside. She stood on her tiptoes, braced against our wall, her neck stretched and her mouth reaching for air. I followed and covered her hot body with a blanket against a chill that seeped into my heart, as she panted like a dog that had lost to a rabbit in a chase. Cords in her thin neck strained as she coughed up the bad air that invaded her body. I had seen others with the same breathing pattern while accompanying Ogilhinn.
I knew a few of the healing arts. Ogilhinn taught me about some herbs and medicines. What I learned was not sufficient to feel skilled enough to help the ill often, but my soul pulled me to help when I could.
I tried to calm her, gave her heather tea and soured cow’s milk. I said prayers to Airmid, for healing. Mother hated the drinks, but they seemed to ease her distress. It was all I knew to do. The sun's victory over the storm meant no oil lamps were needed to weave. We both celebrated the reprieve.
The sun was out the morning he and I spoke again. My mother's loom glowed in its filtered, golden light. It had rained steadily for three days and we celebrated the sun’s muted, temporary warmth.
Anxious to be outside on such a rare day, I stood and appraised the center of the hill fort. The offal was gone, washed down the hillside by the cleansing downpour. Dogs, free from boundaries, ran and chased fowl and each other until they could run no more. They returned to their masters, tongues hanging and spittle strung behind.
All who lived on the hilltop took advantage of the lull in the storms to sweep the floors of dwellings and stables. Homes gave up their animals to be tied outside, while women spread clean straw on the floors and refreshed beds. The scent of fresh-cut juniper wafted through the air.
Activity buzzed like bees finding the first spring flowers. The colors of the multi-layered green mountains were vivid. But warning lay in the light blue sky in the form of a grey cloudbank on the horizon. The next storm would be here today or tomorrow, and the north wind carried a dampness that caused me to shiver.
On my way to refresh the water for our home and animals before the next storm, I met other women from the hill homes. There was water stored in barrels by our doors for this chore, but we still came to the well when the rain stopped. Even in the mud and cold, gossip overruled convenience.
"Jahna! Jahna!" The firm voice was familiar, its owner hidden by an oiled, hooded cloak cut from wool my mother and I had woven. Slim, work-worn hands drew back the hood, bronze hair fell to her back in waves, and I was eye to eye with Sileas.
I stepped forward and grasped the hand she held out to me. Perplexed, I tried to sort out the feelings that were running through me in the seconds I had before I spoke again. She had married Harailt, but I was not disconsolate.
The path I was to follow was with Lovern, although it was difficult to find. Sileas and Harailt had been in love for many years, since childhood. The gods made the right match; the right promise was kept. The goddess was watching over both Sileas and me. I hugged her to my heart, felt her body relax in my embrace, and my voice returned.
“Sileas. I have not spoken with you about how pleased I am for you and Harailt. There were so many around you on your marriage day, and I did not want to bring you distress. I always knew you and Harailt should be together. You and I are friends, and I need your friendship around me. I do not wish to lose that attachment, ever.”
“Oh, Jahna. I worried that you would never forgive me. I also want to keep our friendship strong.” Her light blue eyes clouded. Was it the cold or something else that affected them?
“I have been concerned about you since Samhainn and I saw you fly away when our betrothal was announced. I would have come to your home, but the weather has made some of our sheep ill, and I have been busy making the marriage bed for Harailt and me.”
I knew of the things that needed to be done to create a new household. She had moved into the dwelling Harailt shared with his father, Cerdic, but she was making it her own now. She crafted a warm and comfortable bed in her new home. A bed where her children would be born.
Her round face broke into a small grin, but fell solemn again. “Harailt’s father is ill. His breathing is difficult, and he coughs all night. Yesterday, I saw him spit blood when he did not know I was watching.” Her shadowed eyes showed the concern of one who knows the result of a cough with blood.
I touched her warm cheek with my cold, dry hand and said, “I will speak with the druid and I will come myself to see Cerdic.”
“I must go now. It is time to start the day’s chores.”
I said, “Good bye, friend. Go with the gods. I will come to your home soon.” She walked to the gates, and I turned back to the well.
I dropped the iron-ringed wooden bucket into the dark hole. The wet rope burned my fingers. The bucket filled with frigid water. I heard Lovern whisper my name behind me. I hesitated, decided to ignore him, and then, groaning with the effort, I began to pull up the full bucket. As I tugged at the heavy load held by the scratchy rope, he laid his warm, soft, long fingers over mine. I relaxed my aching, raw fingers and released the rope into his hands.
Hand-over-hand, he pulled it up easily. He stepped in front of me, leaned against the stone wall and lifted the bucket of freezing water out of the well. I held out my water jug, and he filled it, pouring without a drop lost. He turned to the other women in line and, refilling the bucket with ease, filled three more jugs. He assured them with prayers for safety from the coming storms. The women bowed their heads in respect, and to thank him, and hurried back to their homes, families, and warm fires.
I waited. He had not spoken with me for two weeks. I did not want to be the one to start a conversation, but I had promised Sileas to speak with him. He watched the others leave and leaned over me.
His voice burned away my promise to Sileas.
“You and I are going to the forest today. Take the water home to your mother and meet me in the stable. Be quick, the storm is coming.”
Surprised at his tone, anger filled my belly and caused my hands to tremble. Water spilled from my overfilled jug and soaked the doeskin slippers I had worn on this errand. It was the voice of a master to his slave. How dare he give me orders after not talking to me for so long?
“I will go nowhere with you,” I said. “Why do you think you have the right to order me to come? You have not spoken with me in two weeks, and now I am supposed to follow you like a goose? No, I have work to do with my mother. I will not meet you anywhere.”
His sinewy body pressed me closer to the well. I stared up into his face, framed in the morning sun, and saw iron in his eyes. He took one step back and placed himself between my home and me, between my past and my future.
“Jahna. It is time to start working together. I have much to teach you, and we have much to do together. Many need us here. I had a dream last night about you. We must start today.” His deep blue eyes locked onto mine, and I could not move. What was in our future that caused me to be so cautious?
His hand touched my forehead and the village vanished. As if drawn on the sky, I saw Lovern and myself with our hands raised, praying to the gods. We asked for their forgiveness. I was in a sacred place—all was calm. My heart was sad—a dreadful time was ahead, and we asked for help for our people.
Just as quickly, the vision’s grip released me. Dizzy, I tripped forward and almost dropped my heavy water jug. The bright sun blinded me.
Even with my passage dreams, I had never had a vision like this. One that I knew to be the truth of my future. I shook my head to move aside the wool that wrapped my brain. While imprisoned in this confusion, I realized my anger was gone. As if someone whispered in my ear, my heart knew the anger would not return. Lovern and I had a path to follow, and Morrigna was leading us. I knew I would not argue anymore. I straightened and caught the start of a grin, the recognition of my acceptance, on his face. He also knew I was starting another way of life, with him.
“I will meet you soon,” I said. My muffled mind was full of questions as I walked quickly to my home.
Later, in the stable, the breath of the animals lent a sweet grassy smell that helped soften the odor of waste. Lovern stroked Beathan’s favorite war pony, careful of its impatient movements.
“I wish to find oak-grown mistletoe. We must gather some to protect us from the coming winter storms. I noticed as I walked around the farms and hilltop homes that there is little of the old mistletoe left inside them. Beathan said you would know of the mistletoe oak tree.”
“Yes, I do know of such a tree. It is not close. How will we get there before the storm?”
“I have spoken with Beathan. I told him today was the beginning of our search for the truth in the words of the gods. That you and I both agreed to work together. Pleased, he said we could use those ponies.” He pointed across the stable.
“These are his oldest and slowest. Still, Uncle Beathan is very generous to allow us their use.”
We tied the leather to the ponies’ backs, slipped on the bridles, and led them outside into cold gusts of wind. I mounted, wrapped my cloak around and under my legs for protection from the cold weather, and tugged up my hood, its braided cords tied. Lovern wore his light brown cape over the same clothes in which he had come to us. I shrugged and shook my head at his choice. The ponies broke into a comfortable gait down the hill and toward Bel’s Copse with me in the lead.
Bel’s sacred oak grove was an hour away by pony. Druids had designated it sacred many years ago. Only our chieftains, druids, and a selected few were allowed entrance. It was there the mistletoe grew and where we gathered the dry oak for the quarter fires. When I was a child, I went there to learn from Ogilhinn.
Ogilhinn and my mother were the only people of our clan who knew of my passage dreams.
He invited me to the sacred copse after mother told him of my unquiet nights. She feared I was ill after I told her of my first passage dream, and asked if he knew of a healing spell or drink that would give me restful sleep. I think Ogilhinn invited me so he could watch over me as a mother watches a growing child. He began to teach me the healing arts. He would allow me to nurse the injured, sick, and dying of our clan.
It was then I told him of my passage dreams. He told me the dreams were a gift from the gods, and I would, one day, find the reason for them.
“The sight came to me,” he said, “when I blessed you as a newborn. You were working, helping your clan in ways not yet known. A man will come into your life to guide you. You will find your path to the gods. There will be a great trial for you and your faith will be tested. Do not lose your way and you will find peace after death.”
I knew him to be a visionary. He often foretold the future of members of our clan. I remembered when he told Trannis not to go near the river without his friends. Trannis fell into the river while hunting. He did not know how to get out and was saved by his friends. I secretly prayed my test would not come to me for many years.
Both Ogilhinn and I had prayed and stood vigil while Gavina, Beathan’s wife, was ill. A mist lifted from her and floated over her body. I looked around and saw no one else noticed it. A thought came to me. In a whisper, I told to it to cross the river. In an instant, the mist was gone. She was dead, her spirit shuttled to the land of the dead by the ferryman.
Then Ogilhinn became ill and died. He left me incomplete in my knowledge of helping the sick and injured and I had been afraid to do too much of this work alone. I could not harm any by weaving so I stayed with my mother. I thought the way I would help my clan was to weave my cloth, and the test Ogilhinn spoke of was marrying Harailt -- so I believed.
Now, my understanding of my life’s plan had unraveled and twisted like the path leading to the sacred woods. I wondered what lay ahead.
At the far edge of the copse grew a stunted oak. Lightning had damaged one of its largest branches near the trunk. As we sat on our steaming ponies under the tree, we could see bunches of mistletoe. Its golden-green leaves, burdened with white berries, grew out of the tree’s injury.
“I have a dress of that green, and see?” I opened my cloak to show him the inside. “I lined my cloak with felt woven from the color. I love it.”
“I noticed. The color is good fortune. It brings Morrigna’s protection to you. Your eyes look more gold than green when you wear the dress.”
I was surprised. He knew when I wore my green dress. He had kept his silence and secrets.
He reached across the width of the pony’s distance and touched a loose tendril of my hair.
“You have been touched by the goddess. Your hair is one of her signs, the color of her ravens. Your dreams are another.”
Shyly, I looked back into the leafless oak tree. “Here is where we find Bel’s sacred mistletoe. Here is where you asked to be.”
We dismounted, and he shimmied up the oak tree and unsheathed his dirk to harvest the mistletoe. Being careful of possible weakness of the branch, he harvested all the stems with berries leaving the green leaved stems with no berries to continue growing. There was enough to give one branch to each household of our clan for this new year’s protection and fertility. As he cut them loose, he dropped the stems to me. I wrapped them in a cloth and slipped it into a pocket inside my cloak. He slid down out of the tree, sheathed his dirk, and readjusted his small bag.
“What is that design? I saw it the night you came to us,” I asked as we remounted our ponies.
Lovern reached behind and pulled the soft leather pouch to the front. He covered the drawing with his right hand and closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes and said, “My druid teacher, Conyn, first drew it to help me learn to meditate. It is a seven-ringed labyrinth. I copied it and use it when I talk to the gods. I will teach the meditation to you someday. This bag never leaves me. It carries my past and future life.”
At that, the sky, which had lowered and darkened to the color of bruised lavender, began to rain in torrents.
“Follow me! I know where we can get out of this,” I shouted through the thunder, trying not to get a mouthful of water while talking.
Our ponies wove their way through the trees and jumped the small stream that formed rapids with the rain. I stopped at the foot of a hill and tied my pony to a holly bush. He did the same. Wildly searching through the undergrowth, with rain beating on my head and back, I found the start of the trail.
“Up here,” I yelled. I shaded my eyes with my hand, peering through the wall of rain, to make sure he was following. The wind whipped his light cape. His long, rain-darkened hair clung to his face, yet his eyes were sharp as an owl’s.
We fought our way up, slipping on muddy rocks, reaching out for each other at almost every step. Finally, the mouth of the cave appeared before me. It was smaller than I remembered. I hoped no other animal had found it and decided to use it for refuge from this storm. He edged in front of me, lowered to his knees, and disappeared inside. Tucking my cloak and dress up around my thighs, I crawled through the entrance. Stones punched into my bare knees and water sluiced down my back from the hillside. Grunting, I crawled and dragged myself until I ran into his huddled form and fell into a heap myself, gasping. The cave opened into an area large enough for us to sit upright. I wrinkled my nose at its close and fetid air. We caught our breath.
“I did not expect the rain to come so soon or so hard,” I said as I untied my hood. “I am glad we harvested the mistletoe. The storms this season seem to be stronger than any I remember.”
After I unfastened the oak pin, I shrugged my cloak off. It had kept me dry. I had woven the cloth and cut it myself. After Mother sewed it, I rubbed it with the oils boiled from the wool after gathering. It had repelled most of the rain, even the small waterfall at the mouth of the cave. Only the hem of my dress and my shoes were wet. Sitting next to me, Lovern shivered in the cold, grey light that lit the cave. Our breath steamed in front of us.
“Take off your wet cape and come here, under my cloak,” I said. He had warmed me the same way, the day we walked around the lake. “You must get warm. We will not be near a fire for hours.”
He agreed, and we were soon sitting side by side, wrapped together in my cloak, his wet cape lain aside. The clay floor held the cold but at least was not wet. The slant of the floor of the small cave kept the rain outside. Roots from the trees on the hillside grew inside, and it smelled of wet earth and the animals that used it as protection in the past. We had arrived first, and most animals would avoid us. I hoped.
He said, “I am glad you knew of this cave. It would have been a difficult ride back.”
“I know the land around us. My favorite place is a waterfall in the small river near here. I find peace there.”
Lovern shook his head like a wet dog and drops of water flew over me and across the cave.
“Stop shaking! You are getting me as wet as you,” I said. “Let me dry your face.”
I used the corner of my dress to dry his clean-shaven, carved cheeks and strong chin. I gazed into Lovern’s eyes. His hot breath mingled with mine. He smelled of wet wool, leather, sweet bees-wax, and acorns. I had never smelled that combination before. Harailt had an odor of the oil from the sheep he tended, and Uncle Beathan the pork he loved to eat, but this… This was new. I wanted to stay here and inhale this scent forever. When I touched him for the first time not in anger, there was quickening, new to my body. Heat started in my loins and rushed up my neck to lodge in my face.
He broke into his crooked grin, his eyes crinkled at the corners, and their deep blue lightened. I became motionless, not wanting to allow anything to interrupt this connection.
“I can see we are both warming. Even in this light, I can see you are blushing,” he said.
Questions blurred my thoughts. I had never felt this way about a man before, not even Harailt. I became embarrassed and eased away from him.
“What do you carry in your bag?” I asked, wanting to fill this awkward space.
Lifting its strap from his neck and shoulder, he untied the drawstring at the top of the bag and tipped it upside down. Three white crystals, as large as sheep’s eyes, tumbled into his upturned hand.
“Hold these and tell me what you feel.” He reached over and gently placed them into my hands.
They were warm. More than his body heat, they carried warmth of their own. Looking at them in the dim light, I had the impression that the milky, bluish white color was swirling inside the stones. I caressed them, and was not surprised when a feeling of love and respect emanated from deep inside the stones.
“These crystals,” I told him, “are your link to your family, your life. They carry memories of who you were, who you are. They should be held near your heart.”
His hand reached out and I opened mine to drop the stones into his. The words I had just spoken came from my heart, not my mind. They were out of my mouth before I thought of them. This was new to me. This and my earlier vision at the well had never happened to me before. It was unlike my passage dreams. I did not know what to think. Did I speak incorrectly? I searched his face.
Lovern smiled. “Oh yes, you have gifts from the goddess. You did not know of my stones, yet you told me what they mean to me. Your gifts will become stronger as we work together.”
He took the stones and held them in his right hand, and rolled them together with soft clicks. “I received these on my naming day. Conyn, my teacher, gave them to me and told me they represented the three goddesses, Morrigan, Macha, and Bodb, the triumvirate of Queen Morrigna. He told me that I was to be tested, and I would need these to give me strength. I think he knew about the battles and my journey. He often told me about events before they happened.”
Lovern’s eyes stared out the entrance of the cave but seemed to be looking much further than the rain would allow me see. His eyes turned back to the stones. “I use them for meditation. They bring me closer to the goddesses and memories of my family.”
He laid the stones on his lap, reached into his bag again, and drew out a piece of red fur. Fox fur. After caressing it with both hands, he handed it to me. His eyes held mine. As I took it from him, I remembered my first passage dream of him. The air around me crackled with excitement, and carried the strong smell of blood.
“Oh, Mother Goddess! This is from the fox I watched you kill! I was there!”
“I knew the fox I killed that day would mean more to me than just my naming animal. I kept a piece of its fur with me. Yes, you were there,” he agreed. “It is through our connection that we will work to find a way to protect your clan. We must, or what happened to my people will happen to yours,” he prophesied. He slid the crystals and the fox fur back into the bag. “This bag is all I have of my home.”
I wondered what had become of his family and why he was so frightened of it happening here.
The rain pulsed down outside the cave. The sky was bright with lightning and peals of thunder vibrated the air. We both whispered prayers to Toranis, the thunder god. Lovern reached for the cloth wrapped mistletoe and extracted a small sprig.
“Mother Morrigna and Father Bel, protect us from the storm.” He touched the mistletoe to his lips and forehead. “I pray in your names for protection of this clan, this village who offers me a life renewed.”
He reached across me, his arm brushing my breasts, and laid the mistletoe just inside the entrance of the cave. I wanted him to stay in that position. I looked at his lips and wondered what they tasted like. I had never thought that about any other man. He sat back against the wall. I hope he had not seen how I reacted to his touch. I had to do something, so I asked a question.
“Lovern, why did you come here, to my village?”
He sat silent. I began to wonder if he was not going to answer. Then, in a quiet voice, he told me his story.
“I passed nineteen seasons in my mother’s village. She raised my two sisters and me, until I went to live with the druid. A wild boar, when I was but five summers old, killed my father. My mother, alone with three small children, knew times of strife and hunger, but we survived. But the last few years were beyond any we had ever experienced or dreamed of, filled with war.”
His head hung, eyes to the floor of the dark cave as he continued.
“My queen, Boudiccea, fought to overthrow the invading Romans, but she lost. As punishment, her daughters were murdered. She could not live with her failure and without her daughters so she took poison. The Romans raged and went on a killing and raping quest. They wished to destroy all of her loyal villages. We had escaped notice but then our chieftain decided to raid a Roman camp. It was a decision that cost too much. After the battle, the Romans came to our village. My mother was killed, sisters raped and taken as slaves. My teacher was also taken. I do not know if they live. Of my village, only I escaped.”
We have not had any of our clan taken as slaves in my memory. My mother told me stories of when our clan villages were at war with each other constantly.
“One of my uncles was taken,” she told me once, “and sacrificed at Beltane by another tribe. Beathan has called a truce with the local clans and we do not have to worry the way my grandmother and mother did.”
I had no memories like his. I could not compare his pain with any I felt. After a pause of ten heartbeats, his eyes looked into mine, and a spark of life flickered in their depths as he continued.
“Before the last battles, Conyn told me that he had no more to teach me. He arranged to send me to a nearby village to learn more about treating wounds, to the healer Kinsey, well known in our land. He claimed he could heal all wounds except those that separated the head from the body. His village was spared the Roman raids. They brought their wounded to him, so great was his skill. The Romans needed him. I learned much. Then, news came of the raid on my village, the home of my mother, sisters and teacher.”
“Why did you leave? Could you not stay with Kinsey and be free?”
“The day the story of my village’s attack came, I ran home. Ashes and bones filled my home and the homes that were my village. I walked and cried for one whole day, looking for anyone left alive. One man, a farmer, had been hit on the head and fallen into a hole filled with animal waste. He had escaped the fires. He groaned and I heard him. It was he who told me what had happened to my family and teacher. I had carried and laid him under a shelter. I gave him drops of water to drink.
“Then, a small band of Roman warriors came back to search for any left alive. The farmer told me to run as he scooted under some straw. I jumped into the hole I had pulled him from and pretended death. No Roman would crawl in after me. They found the farmer, killed him and threw his body on top of me. I did not move. I hid in a hole in the ground that stank of shit and death for one day. It was during that day I decided I could not stay.
“That night, deep in darkness, the careless Romans asleep, I ran. The tree and star gods guided my feet.” His fist tightened around his memory bag. “Away from those murderers, the Romans. I will never forget the smell of my village. I dream of my sisters’ cries.
“It took me three moon cycles to walk here. Months filled by hiding, eating berries, leaves, small animals, and stolen food. Three months of walking away from death, to life. To you.”
He hesitated, took in a deep breath, and again sighed. I leaned forward, fascinated by his tale.
“I came to the bank of the fast, narrow stream and waterfall --”
My waterfall! I thought.
“-- hidden in the copse of birch and alder trees, near your village and I sensed I had finally come to a place where I would be safe.” He seemed to slump in a release of tension with these words.
“I had decided the gods would bring me out of the forest when they knew it was safe. I had no desire to move from the spot by the stream.
“While resting, I heard twigs break and leaves rustle. A strong odor of sheep floated in the air, and I knew a farmer watched me. I decided not to attempt to talk to him unless he came to me. I sat by the rushing sounds of the rapids and breathed in the peaceful clean smell of the nearby trees, meditated, and waited. The farmer was gone. My stomach rumbled from a lack of food, and I was dizzy from the lack of sleep. I wanted, needed this journey to end. I did not have long to wait. The scent of the pony came next.”
He turned to face me with a smile tickling the corners of his mouth. It made me happy to know he finished his sad story and now was in a better place. He straightened his legs and wiped his nose as if he smelled the pony again.
“A large form shaded the sun, and then I saw a warrior’s spear under my nose. It was poised ready to plunge. Its tip broke the skin on my chest as it cut through my clothing.” Lovern reached up, and touched his chest where the spear point had left its mark. “The pressure was enough to tell me my life was in danger if I moved quickly. After many heartbeats, when the spear did not plunge deep into my heart, I respectfully looked up and saw him. He was a tall warrior whose feet hung low on his war pony.”
Lovern’s chin lifted as if he were looking at the warrior now. “The hand not holding the spear was holding a short sword. His hair hung to his shoulders. His eyes impaled me from under the brush of his eyebrows. His tight mouth and set chin, almost fully covered in a thick beard, signaled me not to move.”
That was how he met our chieftain, my uncle Beathan. I visualized this encounter. What a difference in this story of the two men meeting for the first time.
“The warrior’s stern voice, as well as his weapons, caused me to listen carefully. ‘Where are you from?’
“I told him I was a druid healer. I came from the south, escaping invaders.
“He told me that the gods looked with favor upon him that day. He introduced himself as Beathan, chieftain of his -- your clan. He pulled back the spear that had raised blood on my chest, sheathed his bronze-hilted sword, and called his dogs from the copse. Two of them came, each almost as big as his pony.
“He told me to give him my dirk until we reached his lodge. I would ride behind him, weaponless. With the threat of his spear and the dogs at his side, I obeyed. Beathan then told me, ‘Our druid is dead. Our gods directed me to you. You will perform the Samhainn ceremony on the morrow.’”
When Lovern mentioned the Samhainn ceremony, Sileas’s face and the promise I made to her came to mind. I needed to remember to tell Lovern about Cerdic’s illness.
“Beathan reached under my arms and lifted me off my feet,” Lovern continued. “I was deposited on the pony as if I were weightless. The sun was in the sky at mid-afternoon, glistening off the damp autumn leaves. We rode for an hour with no conversation between us. I observed as we rode. It was foghara, the harvests were in, and the fields were empty. We passed farms with generous stacks of hay and cornstalks that shared the stables with the ponies and sheep. The harvest was good; the goddess was happy. I heard pigs screech and smelled the blood of butchering float on the air. It was time to prepare and salt meat for the cold days. As I bounced on the pony’s back, I filled myself with thoughts of the ceremony. Samhainn, the time that lies between summer and winter, light and darkness, the new beginning to the year. I silently prayed to the gods and goddesses, asking them to honor and protect the people of this clan. In exchange, I would light the giving fires and perform sacrifices. I also prayed that this would end my journey. I hoped I could stay with this clan, and again be a healer.”
Pausing, Lovern reached above his head, pushed against the roof of the cave and stretched. My legs were beginning to cramp so I stretched them also. The incessant pounding of the rain had lessened.
“We came to the fort and the pony carried us up the hill to the enclosure’s open gates. I remember how loud his voice was when Beathan called others to come to his lodge as we entered the hill fort.
“All the lodges we saw, the farms and the homes on the hill, could have been from my own village. The ride took us past the corn-drying kiln and your well. Dogs ran through the center courtyard and Beathan’s dogs took off yelping in chase. The odors of peat smoke and cooking meat made my mouth water. I heard women calling their husbands and children to dinner along with a clamor of goats, ponies, chickens, dogs, and pigs, living together in the fort.
“Men came to him, all wearing capes of the same plaid as their chieftain. They yelled greetings and raised their empty mugs in a salute.
“His pony stopped in front of his lodge. Beathan lifted his leg over the pony’s withers and slid off. He turned and encouraged me to do the same. I slid off and fell to the ground, weak with hunger and lack of sleep. Beathan laughed like a coughing bear in the spring.”
“He snores like a bear in winter, too!” I said.
“I know, I sleep in his home now. Sometimes I cannot sleep through all the noise.” Lovern shook his head and smiled.
“Beathan carried me inside his warm home that smelled of smoke, and cooked meats-life. You served me and I ate, my strength returning. Then I watched you dance and heard your voice. I grew weak again.
“When you walked me to the stables and told me your name, I had to grit my teeth and use all my strength to stay standing. How could it be, in the entire world, that I would finally meet you? You were as real to me as my mother, yet I knew you only through two day-dreams. Strange incidents that seemed real yet unreal. I had felt safe and secure during the events, never in danger or helpless. I was connected to you, in my heart. I was named Fox because I know to follow my instincts, and when my life was threatened, I traveled for months, never doubting my journey or the path it took. Now I know it was to find you. I am home.”
Here, he paused, twisted towards me, and cradled my face in his gentle hands. “I do not know why you dreamed of me, but I do know that we are fated to be together. The gods, and my heart led me here, and now it is up to us to find out what we are destined for,” Lovern concluded.
“But what is our future?” I asked. “Why did it take the loss of your family to bring us together? It saddens me to think that they are gone in such a horrific way.”
“I have learned that the gods reveal their plans at their will. We do best if we do not question them. We must go, it is late and your uncle will send men after us if we are too long.”
The rain slowed to a drizzle and we left the cave. Droplets gathered on my eyelashes, fell to my face and I blinked in the muted light. We reached the tethered ponies. He came up behind me and turned me to see his tender eyes. The warm fingertips of one hand lifted my chin and the others traced my cold face, from one cheek to the chin and back. His damp body still smelled of bees-wax and acorns. His hands had touched my face and heart.
I fell in love with him at that instant. His breath was sweet when his lips touched mine. A contract was sealed. I felt a shift in my life and future with that kiss. The old druid Ogilhinn’s vision for me had come true.
My path was now clear. No longer would I weave wool.
Jahna first came to me when I was ten. I don’t mean she knocked on my door and asked me to come out and play; I mean she slipped into my mind. My first waking dream. I was awake but it almost seemed dreamlike.
I’d heard adults use the term “invisible friend” and chuckle when talking about their children. My own Mom and Dad used it when I tried to ask them about what had happened to me. She’d come to me when I was studying in my room. At first, I was a bit disoriented, maybe dizzy. Then it was as if I had an echo in my head. I didn’t know how else to explain it.
I looked through my eyes at the normal mess in my room and it was familiar, yet unfamiliar. I was off-balance. It was like I had never seen the room before but I knew it was mine. That was until I looked at the hand-mirror my aunt had given me the Christmas before. It had been framed by wood that’d been painted copper and made to look very old. I -- she seemed to recognize it.
Just before she left, I heard her whisper a word in my ear: “Jahna.” I thought it was her name; at least, that was what I called her. As I remembered it, I wondered why I wasn’t afraid. I would be today, if it happened to me for the first time. I’d be sure I had a brain tumor or was going crazy. But back then, I felt calm, and at peace, when she left.
I was okay with it until I started asking around to find out if anyone else had ever felt this way. Mom put her hand on my head to feel for a fever and Dad and Donny laughed. I asked my best friend at school, but never mentioned it again when she made up a hurtful rhyme and teased me in front of the boys.
Jahna came about once a year after that. She never spoke to me except to whisper her name. A few pictures came through but usually it was just feelings. I was wary of the visits at first and then came to look forward to them. She stayed for just a few breaths and then left me with a longing to know her. She seemed to glean thoughts from me and even prompted questions. I think she helped find my career.
I’d developed my hunger for history early. My aunt was the keeper of the family papers and she’d shown me a letter that she said was hundreds of years old. After reading it, I decided to trace my family line. I also knew I wanted to hold ancient things in my hands, and study archaeology.
The second time she stayed for more than a second was the first day in my class on Ancient Celts in Great Britain. It was my favorite class at university. Marc was there, sitting next to me, and I’d felt an excitement on that day that I hadn’t felt about any other period of history. The moment Jahna was inside me, the era seemed as if I had lived through it. The pictures in my text were familiar. I knew I would specialize in that period.
From the beginning, she seemed to be about the same age as me, a child at first, but now I saw her as an adult. It was as if I were reading a novel, putting faces on the characters. I’d done that for Jahna. In my mind, she looked like me. I could almost see her face as I searched for her in my mind. Were our faces similar? Did we share my straight-as-a-stick coal-black hair, my hazel-green eyes that I always wished were blue, my round face and big mouth? Was she tall, or short like me? I had never seen her, only sensed her, but she was a part of me.
When I married Brad, she stopped coming. Jahna was one of the many things I thought I’d lost through my marriage. Then she came back last year while I was working with Marc on the chieftain’s tomb. A weight had lifted from my heart.
Now, Marc and I were back in Scotland. He’d gathered a crew of students and had come to help me get my site started. We were settled into a country inn, not far from the farm where the hill was and were ready to start work tomorrow.
I thought all was fine until Marc had come into my room five minutes ago. He walked straight to my only chair and sat down. I moved some clothes on my bed so I could sit. He began complaining about the lack of funding for our project. I knew I was walking a fine line with my relationship with him. I desperately wanted to be friends, but he seemed to be pulling away. We both tried very hard to be civil to one another, but I realized now how tired I was of defending my desire to dig on the hilltop. It was a hard decision to make, I understood that; however, he had promised to give it a try.
Suddenly, tonight, with Marc in my room, Jahna’s smoky, peat scent was in my nose. Very faint this time but there. My eyes closed involuntarily. I hunched my shoulders and shivered, and the skin on my neck tingled. Shaking, I covered my face with my hands as I whispered, “Not now, Jahna, I want to be alone when you come.”
“What’s the matter?” Marc asked. “Headache?”
“Yes.” I almost added “you.” Taking my hands from my face, I reached behind me to arrange the very hard, small pillows on my bed into something comfortable to lean against. I didn’t quite accomplish the cushioning I wanted for my back. This wasn’t going to be a comfortable night.
A shrill ring made my heart stop and I leapt up, almost falling off the bed as I grabbed the phone. Startled, I answered. “Aine MacRae. Yes, he’s here, just a second.” I sighed as I stood and carried the phone to Marc, trying not to trip over the cord. The burning peat scent was gone. Jahna delayed her visit.
“Marc Hunt. No, my mobile doesn’t work here. Scotland, the bloody Highlands. What do you need? Really?” He looked at me with a big smile on his face. I became alert.
“We could be there in two days! Let me talk to Aine. I’ll call you later, bye.” He handed the phone to me, and I set it back on the water-stained and scratched nightstand.
“That was Doug. He had some incredible news,” Marc said. “I need to have something more concrete to keep me here, now. He said we could be in Wales working on the Roman digs. They need all the help they can get. Once I tell the team we have the job, they’ll want to leave, too. It’s only April, we could have a long summer digging and then the winter to do the cataloging.”
I didn’t want to have this conversation again. I turned my head to avoid his eyes. It took me five months to put this project together. Two months went into begging the farmer to agree to let us on his land, and then three more months to acquire a little funding, the license and to get Marc to agree. All this was about to be compromised.
I said, “I can’t leave now!”
“I would rather be in the field than in the classroom. You know that. I’ve precious little time digging and I have to go back soon.” He had been on sabbatical for almost a year; this fall he would return to university.
His face began to brighten as he explained, “The extra money I make in Wales will help me retire early. I might even get a post on the project and be able to leave university altogether.” His dream was to do research. With this offer, he could see that in his immediate future.
“So you’re asking me to stop this project?”
“Yes,” Marc said. “It’s just a hill, nothing else. When we finished the tomb last summer, we decided not to come back to the Highlands. Remember?” He was starting to sound desperate. “All you have to support your argument is the single bronze blade the farmer found, years ago. You know that anyone walking through here at any time might’ve dropped it. We don’t have any other artifacts, this site isn’t on a GIS map, and the money isn’t enough to let us stay more than two weeks. We can barely set up a good camp in two weeks! Drop this and come with me to Wales. We can still work together there.”
My jaw tightened as I tried to recall why Marc had been so attractive to me in the first place. At forty-five years old, his five foot-ten inch frame was still thin. His collar-length red hair and full beard was now streaked with silver. His eyes were clear and dark blue, even through his glasses. He smelled like the ground we dug in. I felt comforted when near him, even though the relationship was strained right now. Damn it, he reminded me of someone. Who was it?
“Yes, I remember saying that I didn’t want to come back here. And you have to remember what was happening in my life at that moment. I wasn’t thinking straight. Brad was behaving like an ass, and I said I wouldn’t come back here because I didn’t want to be near him.”
I shook my head so hard my hair stung my face. I walked to the small table by the window, picked up a photo of my hill, and ran my fingers across its glossy surface. “I’ve a strong feeling we’re supposed to be here.” Turning to look at him and waving the picture, I continued. “There is something here.”
How could I tell him my heart pulled me? I had to be here, it was time. How could I tell him this when I didn’t really understand it? I walked this whole countryside last November. Something or someone called to me. I had to stay.
I laid the picture on the table. “We can go to Wales next week if this doesn’t work, Marc. We don’t have to sleep out there. We can be comfortable here, with real beds,” I said sweeping my arm around the small but adequate room. “We can get a good start and at least get through one layer of soil in a small quadrant in a few days. Let me choose where we start digging, and then if we don’t find anything you can go with my blessings. But I can’t quit, not now!" A headache formed just above my neck. I rubbed my shoulders.
“Aine, I don’t know. So far, we’ve only spent a little money on these rooms and transportation. The team is here as a favor, and we could back out of this without much loss. I really don’t think we should stay.” Marc leaned over, reached into his pocket, and removed his mobile phone. He flipped it open as if some miracle had occurred in the last hour, and it now worked.
My heart sank and my hands fell into my lap. I knew I would have to tell him. There was no other way to keep him here. I’d kept my secret for so long, I didn’t know if I could find the words.
I never told anyone about her visits after the first one. Not Brad. Not even Marc. That was one of my many mistakes in my relationship with Marc. I needed to start being more honest with him, even if he didn’t believe me. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t care if he believed me but I did. I needed his help now and his friendship.
My stomach started churning but I knew I couldn’t escape this time. I looked straight at him with exasperation, took a deep breath, and said, "Marc, do you remember the bowl?"
“Bowl? You mean the bronze we found in the tomb last year? Yes, I do. It was a lucky save,” he said as he was looking through his phone list, trying different numbers, cursing when nothing connected.
I turned away, head lowered. With little breath left, I said, “No, it wasn’t luck. It was Jahna.”
“What?” I heard impatience building in his voice. “What or who is Jahna? There wasn’t anyone named Jahna on that job,” he countered, still fiddling with his phone.
I crossed my arms and sat on the edge of the bed, feeling very vulnerable. “All right. All right. I’ll tell you about her.” I stopped, took a deep breath, and continued. “I don’t understand who she is, but her name is Jahna. I sense her thoughts.”
I watched Marc. He stopped dialing his phone and stared at me, wide eyed.
Looking down at the floor, I tucked my unruly hair behind my ears, folded my hands in my lap, and began. “This isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to have a hard time believing me. I would. Just listen, please.
“I was ten years old, doing homework, when I had my first awake dream. That’s what I call them. I wasn’t asleep. I pinched myself and left a bruise. I was awake.”
I held my hand up and looked at it. “I could see the pencil in my hand. I could hear the wind outside. But it was as if I were looking out of someone else’s eyes and my eyes at the same time. I felt as if someone else were listening and watching, not-- not outside my head but inside my head.”
I recalled the odor that came before her visit, burning peat. “Everything in my room looked different,” I continued. “I distinctly remember looking at my mirror, and thinking it was the same, yet not the same. She whispered her name in my ear, and then she was gone. I had several visits like that, short, with little or no information exchanged, until I went to university and took my first Pre-Roman Celt class, George’s class. It was as if I lived then. Déjà vu, if you like. That class seemed to allow Jahna to come through easier. We didn’t have real conversations, but as close as you could come. Like channeling or ESP. I’ve had a few vivid scenes pop into my head, like the placement of the bronze bowl we found. She showed me where to look.”
I stopped, glancing at Marc to see his reaction. He was leaning back in the chair, arms crossed, smiling, and looking as if he were waiting for a punch line.
“Don’t you dare laugh. I’m serious.”
My room’s radiator rattled into existence. It was already too warm in the small room for me. Small rivulets of sweat started creeping down my sides and under my breasts. I reached over, turned the radiator valve to the off position, and jumped when Marc’s chair legs hit the floor with a sharp bang. His arms were still crossed but his face now wore a look of disbelief.
Staring at me, he said, “Aine MacRae.” He shook his head and continued. “You can’t expect me to believe we found that bowl through a ghost! We’re trained investigators. We use science and scientific tools to find artifacts. Are you trying to tell me that a ghost pointed to the bowl? Am I to believe a ghost does all your research for you?” He looked at me, waiting for me to refute all I had just said.
“Yes. I mean, no.” I paused and regained my composure. “So far it’s only been the information about the bowl that I’ve been able to prove.” Palms up and beseeching, I said, “She’s real to me, Marc. Just because you can’t see or hear her doesn’t mean she isn’t real. Jahna isn’t a ghost. Well, maybe she is but…. I think she was alive then.” I got up, crossed the small room, and anxiously rifled through a box in the corner. “Here it is,” I said, finding my notebook.
“I knew we were leaving something behind. The rest of you were ready to say the grave was empty, that we’d found everything, and then, on that last morning, I moved the rock and found the bowl. I knew just where to look. Here, look at my notes. I wrote down the feelings I had from Jahna the night before. I saw the bowl under the stone and when I went back to the tomb, I went right to the rock.”
I held my notebook out, turned to the page I had been looking for. Marc, with wrinkles of doubt on his face, wouldn’t take it.
“This is a drawing I made. The design is on the bowl I found.” I shook the notebook. “Jahna came to me and told me about it and showed me where to look. I’m not crazy, Marc. She is real to me.”
He looked at me with the hooded eyes he wore when he disagreed with or, worse, disbelieved someone. I slammed the notebook to the bed. I was determined to get Marc to understand. I took a deep breath and stood tall, all five feet-two inches of me, ready to defend my story, ready to fight for what I knew was the truth. I knew it in the deepest reaches of my soul. I stood in front of his chair, fists and jaw clenched, looking down into his skeptical eyes and declared in a controlled voice, “I believe Jahna and I have a shared history. I think she is an ancient ancestor of mine. I believe my family, the MacRaes on Skye, can be linked back to her somehow and I want to try to prove it. That’s one of the reasons I became an archaeologist.” I could feel my defensive instincts catch hold now and I continued, arguing, “Now, I’m where I should be. It all feels right, as though I am home. All the digs before were rehearsals. I cannot leave!”
I walked to the window and leaned my forehead against the cool pane of glass. I looked out into the dark night and tried to see the hill I’d captured in the picture. “I think she wants me here, Marc,” I reflected. “She wants me to find something.”
“Okay.” Marc’s voice was laced with mockery as he stood up, stretching, filling the space between the chair and the bed. “So, you’re telling me you have regular conversations with dead people, and now, I suppose, we’re going to start digging tomorrow with spirits in tow. Well, I need some spirits, now.”
I cringed at his tone and pulled back from the windowpane. I turned just in time to see him reach into my suitcase for my bottle of Lagavulin he knew I kept there. “Hey! Stop!” I said, just as he was touching the bottle. “If you want a drink, go get your own.” I never let anyone else drink my scotch. I always had a bottle of Lagavulin with me, and no one dared to touch it without an invitation. I first offered it to him after we found the bowl, but since we arrived here, he’d been helping himself without my objection. Until now.
I was angry. I wanted him out of my room. He brought back feelings I thought I’d buried with Brad. “If you think I’m strange, then go find a normal person to be with. I don’t want you here right now,” I snapped. When he paused, I continued, “I’m not kidding. I am going to bed, and you need to leave. Now.” I’d told him about a part of me that was sacred, and he’d made light of it. I felt sick to my stomach.
“Wow. All right, I’ll go. Aine.” He paused. “I’ll have to think about this. I don’t know what to make of your story. I’ve known you too long to know you wouldn’t make something up like this, but it’s so hard to believe,” he said, shaking his head. “I need to talk to the team before we make a decision.”
Marc pulled open the heavy door. He turned to look at me, confusion in his eyes. “We’ll be downstairs if you want to come and join us.” He walked out of my room, into the hall, and closed the door. He left me staring into my own reflection in the full-length mirror hung on the back of the door.
“Bloody hell! That’s the reason I’ve never told anyone.” I stared at the closed door.“Why did I let him get to me like that?” I took a deep breath and sighed with a release of emotion. “I don’t care what he thinks. I knew it would turn out this way if I told anyone about Jahna.” I searched the mirror, and said, “Jahna, I need you now. We are so close. I’ll work this site alone if I have to. I’m counting on you, so don’t let me down.” I turned, lifted one of the heavy tumblers on the bureau, and poured myself a drink. Neat, no ice.
The first sip brought me its lovely, medicinal flavor and I calmed down. I let my thoughts drift back to Skye, to when I was thirteen. Had it really been twenty-nine years since Aunt Peggy had shown me the letter?
It was almost three hundred years old, and an ancestor of mine, a member of the MacRae family, wrote it. The yellowed parchment had been addressed to a British Colonel at Fort William and my aunt had it preserved amongst other family heirlooms. It described how the son of Dubhglas MacRae, nineteen-year-old Hamilton MacRae, could be identified. He was at Glen Coe in February of 1692, with the MacDonalds. They assumed he was dead after the massacre and his family wanted his body back to be buried on Skye.
“…his Body is short, not the tall, large Bodyes that are the MacDonalds. He also has Raven Hair and Beard, not red. His Eyes are Green, not Blue. It tis the Second Toe, on each foote, after the Great Toe that is greatly longer. It is a sign of the family for many years. I beg the return of his Bodye to his Mother for burial.
Signed today, the Fifteenth of March, in the year of OUR LORD, Sixteen Hundred and Ninety Two by Dubhglas MacRae, Father of Hamilton MacRae.”
“We have traits in common, you and I, old Hamilton, our toes and hair and eye color.” I looked around to verify no one was listening. I didn’t want to be heard talking to another dead person.
Finished, I set the tumbler on the nightstand. I put on my comfortable, flannel nightgown and woolen socks. I knew she had something to show me. We’d find it soon, together, Jahna and me. I climbed under my down comforter and snuggled into the warm nest of my bed, yawned, and wondered if she would try to come back tonight.
I tossed and turned for an hour, and examined the conversation with Marc again and again. I finally slept, without dreaming, until the knock on my door the next morning.
73 AD FEBRUARY
Harailt’s father, Cerdic died.
With his dying, I found my life’s work.
Our harvested mistletoe hung on the support posts of our clan homes for protection, and,
I passed my days with Lovern, either in Beathan’s lodge or my home when it rained, or outside in the meadows and woods when the sky was clear. He repeated chants, and recited the recipes for cures, and I prayed with him to learn the prayers. We mixed potions and medicines and distributed them to the women on the farms. He possessed knowledge of how to stop winter itching and fevers that beset babies and children, and more. A contented smile was my constant companion.
“Jahna, you are like you were when the spotted lamb followed you as if you were its dam,” said Mother.
“Oh, Mother. I remember him.” The lamb needed me to care for it. Uncle Beathan said it would die, but it lived for many years. "With Lovern as my teacher, I hope to learn and be able to care for the injured and ill people of our clan and not just lambs.”
“I have thought on his being here,” said Mother. “I was not in favor of his staying at first. I have seen how he made a potion I had not heard of before that calmed the stomach illness. He is making you happy. I still wonder why the gods brought him here and what could be following him, but Beathan tells me that he is good for our people. I have decided to leave the decision in the hands of our goddess Morrigna.”
Lovern told the men and warriors at Beathan’s evening table why he left his home. All agreed that he could stay. I had not told mother that Lovern was the boy of my passage dreams or that now, if he left, I would follow.
I had much to learn. I absorbed his information about medicines, spells, and how to treat the injured and sick. I remember the Druid Ogilhinn only spoke with the tree gods and asked for help. Lovern made potions that chased away the bad spirits. Lovern was a druid and a healer with the hands of the gods touching him. We were fortunate to have him here.
But, together we could not heal Cerdic.
It was Imbolc. Darkness came early on these days. We lighted our oil lamps before our evening meals. Again, the season brought labored breathing to Mother. One night, as I followed my mother into the cool night air again, Sileas’ plea rang in my ears. I told Lovern about her request, and the next day we went to see Cerdic.
Cerdic, Harailt and Sileas lived in the home together. Harailt’s sisters were married and gone. Sileas and Harailt were outside feeding dried corn to their hogs and chickens when we arrived, but urged us to go in.
Cerdic sat on the floor near a low fire. His hands grasped the edges of a blanket that covered his shoulders. His head low, he was folded over his chest as if to protect his heart from the dampness and smoke that filled the home. An oil lamp flickered a sickly, yellow shadow across his face. His neck stretched forward and jaw jutted open. His eyes were squeezed closed and his brow furrowed with lines of strain. His deliberate breaths escaped his body in liquid groans. I kneeled next to him and Lovern in front. There was no recognition of us in Cerdic’s haggard face.
“Cerdic.” I touched his shoulder, but he did not open his eyes. “Cerdic. Why are you up? You should be lying down,” I asked.
“Can.” He stopped to inhale between every word. “Not -- breathe -- lying --down.”
A groan turned into an explosive cough that shook his body and sprayed blood to the dirt in front of his crossed legs. The floor was sticky with this spit. While he coughed, I rubbed his back, not knowing what else to do. I looked to Lovern. He watched Cerdic’s spasm. When the coughing eased, Cerdic reached one arm out from under the blanket and wiped the frothy blood from his lips, his eyes still closed with the concentration of his breathing. The fresh and dried blood on the sleeve of his tunic scared me. I turned to Lovern, silently asking him whether we could help. He nodded, his eyes never leaving Cerdic.
The room echoed with Cerdic’s ragged inhales and rough exhales along with the soft pops and hisses of the peat and dung fire.
“Cerdic, you know you are dying,” Lovern said.
I looked from Lovern to Cerdic my mouth open in surprise.
“How can you say that? He is a strong man, he may live through many more Samhainns,” I argued, not admitting what I had witnessed. Cerdic’s fingertips and lips were blue and stained with blood. His white face was slippery with sweat and pulled from the struggle of living, neck ropey with the battle for breath and his head bowed as if surrendering to the war for life that was being waged in his body.
“Yes,” said Cerdic, “soon.”
I looked at Cerdic, not wanting to believe. Where was the strong man I had known all my life; a farmer whose sheep produced wool that my mother and I wove? A man who was a valuable member of our clan and the father of Harailt? I did not recognize the coughing shell of a man, readying himself to cross to the spirit world. His once proud eyes did not leave the floor of his lodge.
Sileas and Harailt stepped through their doorway. I stood and moved next to Sileas, my arms around her. Harailt took my place on the floor next to his father.
“He has been this way for three nights," said Harailt. “We have not slept, but stayed up to give him comfort. How can you help?” he asked Lovern.
“I cannot help him live. I can help him die,” said Lovern gently. He turned back to face Cerdic. “I will try to ease your breathing, to ease your crossing.”
Harailt grasped his father’s shoulders with white knuckled fingers while Sileas stiffened in my arms with an “Oh.”
Death was not unexpected nor feared by us. Our fear was a difficult passage to death, or dying alone. While we all traveled this path, no one wished to die helpless, with great pain, or alone.
Cerdic’s passage promised to be difficult. He would not give up his soul easily. He had been a stubborn man in life and I knew he would be a stubborn man in death.
“We need to move him outside. It is easier to breathe in the fresh air,” said Lovern.
I recalled my mother’s trips into the cold nights, searching for relief.
We created a fire pit outside his home, in the protection of the corn drying area. The thigh high, three-sided walled space opened into the yard of the farm. Thatch-roofed and windprotected, it allowed Cerdic the breezes and fresh air he craved. We built a small fire to bring warmth to him. He did not need it as much as we did; his body was hot with his struggle. Wrapped in heavy cloaks, dried grasses stuffed into our shoes and hands tucked under our arms to stay warm, we sat with him day and night.
Word spread that Cerdic was dying and our neighbors and friends came. For the two cold, damp, grey days he was outside, all who had known him, hunted with him, and traded stories with him said goodbye.
Beathan’s father and Cerdic had grown up together. Cerdic helped Beathan’s father become our clan chieftain. Beathan honored Cerdic by singing songs of the days when his father and Cerdic were boys. A smile crept across Cerdic’s strained face.
Lovern went to our sacred pool with a jar and returned with some water. He asked Sileas for a dried apple which he cut into small bits. He put it in a pot, brought the water and apple to a boil, added wild garlic and the lus mor we gathered several days ago. The mixture was cooled and then held to Cerdic’s lips to drink for relief. When he was too weak to swallow, I dripped it from my fingers into his mouth, the way I had fed my lamb. We laid mistletoe on his chest, a piece of salted pork over it, and bound a cloth around him.
Lovern’s low murmurs and chanting were constant. He appealed to the gods of the Otherworld to make this passing, Cerdic’s dying, a kind one.
After two days, his breath came in short, torturous gasps and Lovern told us Cerdic’s death was close. Cerdic, lying on his left side, faced east, toward the sunrise and the door of the Otherworld. He could not talk. Lovern sat, touching Cerdic’s forehead. Sileas and Harailt were seated, holding his feet. I laid down behind him so my body was next to his and hugged him to me with my hand over his heart. I felt the struggle in his rapidly beating heart and shallow rising chest. I whispered in his ear over and over, timed with my calm breaths,
“Breathe in for life,
Breathe in for death,
Cerdic struggled less, but he still lived. His worn soul, stiff with resistance, still refused to pass. We sang and prayed to our god of all nature, Cernunnos, and our goddess of the underworld, Cerridwen.
“Oh great horned one.
Oh moon goddess.
Cedric is traveling to you.
Help him build his boat;
He will cross the water.
Allow him into your lodge.
Seat him next to your fire.
Share food and mead with him.
Promise him successful hunts.
Show him the treasures of your abode.
Help him make this crossing to the next world,
To his next life.”
“Cerdic. What stops you from crossing?” I whispered. He was growing restless again. My own breathing grew labored, matching his. I forced my mind to follow Lovern’s labyrinth. It was one of the things Lovern taught me. I wanted a way to ease Cerdic’s crossing of the river of death. I had never seen it done but in my heart and my mind, ideas came to me. I knew I could help. Just follow the labyrinth’s path.
I whispered, “Cerdic. Who do you want to see on the other side?” All the animals in the farmyard quieted as if to hear his answer. Even the birds in the trees were silent. I prayed to Corra, the goddess of the underworld crossings, and a vision came to my eyes. At the end of the labyrinth’s path, Cerdic stood at the edge of the rushing, black river, looking to the other shore. He saw darkness. He was afraid. No one was there to meet him. In my vision, I brought his wife into my mind, Machara, as I remembered her when I was young. She stood on the opposite shore of the river. Whispering to him, I gave the vision to Cerdic. “Open your mind Cerdic. Breathe and open your mind. Let me in to show you.” I felt a small release in the tension of his shoulders. “There, Cerdic, she is there. Machara is waiting for you. She will help you across the river. It is safe for you to go now. Go with Corra and Machara in peace. You will be well there and breathe with ease. You will be young and in love again. You will own many sheep and have many cups of mead to drink. We who remain here will sing your song and remember you in our stories. You are free to go, Cerdic. You are free to follow Machara.”
His struggle softened, then his racing heart stopped beating under my hand, and welcome tears of relief fell from my eyes. A few moments after Cerdic stopped his struggle for breath, Lovern came to me and helped me up. I was drained. It was as if I had carried Cerdic across the river myself. Lovern carried me to a cot to rest while Harailt and Sileas took care of Cerdic’s body.
“You have done well, my love,” said Lovern. “You have found your gift.” Lovern, Sileas and Harailt later told me Cerdic smiled just as his soul passed. The hogs began to root again. The sky grew dark with another rainstorm. Cerdic, buried with the others of our clan, lay in a meadow below the sacred pool.
“I will give my sheep to Crannog, my neighbor, in exchange for food for three years," Harailt said. “He has a good pasture and they will do well. The clan will still get their wool. I have told him he can use my land to grow food for us and corn for his hogs. We will have no time to work it now.”“WHAT?” I was sure Beathan's bellow was heard across the lake.
Sileas stood proudly next to her husband Harailt, and in a quiet tone said, “I had a dream, my chieftain. I dreamt that Cerdic came back. He stood next to our firepit and looked around the home where he raised his children. I was in bed but sat up as I saw him standing there. He looked at me and there was a spark in his eyes. He spoke with me.”
”’ This is to be the place all in need will be carried. For those who require healing and for those who are dying. Our gods and goddesses will be close here, ready to offer their spirit. The druid will be here. Jahna will be here. You and my son Harailt will be here. All will be doing the work of the gods and goddesses. There will be no more sheep raised here, only praises to the otherworld. Lovern will heal and Jahna will aid the eventual passing of all. Bel and Morrigna send this message. It is through this work that our clan will be allowed to carry its bloodline into the future. Heed this message or all will be lost.’”
“We must do what he told us or Morrigna and Bel will be angry. The morning after this dream, a flock of crows, at least one hundred strong, came into our yard. Many saw them circle our abode and land in our trees.” There was a murmur of agreement from the people at the council table.
“They sat quietly,” she continued, “for a short time, while Harailt and I looked out our door at them. We fully expected them to eat the corn we stored for our hogs but instead they sat and stared at us as we watched them. I finally understood they were waiting for our answer and I yelled out our doorway for them to take the message to Morrigna that we would do as she commanded. As they all lifted off at once, a wind was raised that carried the smell of new cut grass. I knew we had done what was asked.”
Beathan looked at Sileas and Harailt as if the crows had just landed on their heads. His face grew red and his hand clenched the short sword lying in front of him until his knuckles turned white. Beathan turned to Lovern and I as we stood listening. Harailt had bidden us to be with them while he and Sileas made this request. It must have been because they thought I would bring favor to them, being Beathan’s niece. I wondered if this was a safe place to be at this moment, Uncle or not.
The dream was not an easy task, and one filled with hardships. I understood the call of a dream, however, and knew this one we had to follow.
“How are we to allow a farm that is one of the largest of the clan to go fallow and not produce? How do we just turn it over to the gods? Druid, is this your doing? What am I supposed to do?”
Lovern laid his hand on Beathan’s shoulder. “It is a calling we must follow. The future of our clan depends on it. So say the gods. The fields will not lay fallow, Crannog will plow and harvest them and raise the sheep. There will be no change in the wool or food supply, we lose one farmer but gain a home for the sick and dying. If we are together we can be better at easing their struggle. I ask you, no beg you, try this plan for one year. If it is a hardship and you do not see that it works, we will go back to our old ways.”
“Druid. You can talk milk out of a bull,” said Beathan after running his hands over his face and beard for several minutes. “I will give you one year.”
And so Lovern and I lived and slept with my mother but worked with Harailt and Sileas in the abode that became a hospice.
73 AD APRIL
The winter darkness had passed, the fields were sowed, and the harvest was expected to be good this year. Many farm animals were with young and of the clan only Cerdic died. We had no threats from neighboring clans. The dark season, Geamhradh, was gone but had been kind.
To celebrate the spring, the coming of new life, Lovern and I asked Beathan to hand-fast us.
At the feast for the hand-fasting, I wore my green dress, Lovern’s favorite.
“Jahna. You create a fire in my soul,” he whispered during one of the few moments we shared alone. “Our lives will be joined by the gods and we will travel our path together. As I stand here tonight, I promise my life in trade for yours, at any time the gods ask it of me.”
I could ask for nothing more, yet I felt a need to not let go of him. I knew our journey would not last long. I craved a vision of our grandchildren, of Lovern teaching them about the plants and gods of our land.
I could not say what the future held for us but only go through each day working with him and the gods and goddesses. We were strong in each other. For now, I kissed him with a love-filled heart.
As he turned to take greetings from others, I noticed he had recovered from his travel here. He had gained muscle and carried a look of calmness in the corners of his eyes. My mother cut and stitched his new clothing. She also gave him a light cape of our plaid. She welcomed him to the clan with this gift. She told him he should burn his old clothes for luck, but he folded and stored them.
“There are too many memories woven in them,” he said.
Lovern had given me a gift before the ceremony, a sacred drilled hazelnut strung on a leather cord to wear around my neck. With it came his acceptance of my knowledge of the Otherworld. I saw myself reflected in his deep blue eyes, as a woman and mate. I sighed with content. I was not a girl trying to find her way. Through the help of Lovern and the gods, I found my new life. I was now an immrama, a soul friend.
At the feast, we danced and drank Beathan's mead. My mother baked my favorite, salmon in eggs and herbs. All who came brought food to share, a cup of milk from a white goat, or a hog to be slaughtered and roasted. Kenric played music on his pipe. Hundreds of feet danced with us, even Mother’s. Lovern spun me off the floor and I laughed.
“I bind the three threads of unity around your wrists. With this hand-fasting I ask that Morrigna, Bel and Lug bless you. Now go into the community and all will know you marry in one year,” Beathan said as he tied the three strands of yarn around first my wrist and then Lovern’s as we faced each other. “Druid, it is good that the plan you had for Jahna worked. She remains my niece, my sister’s daughter and I will still hunt you if she comes to harm in your care,” he said. His eyes were fierce.
“Her soul has been promised to the gods but I will protect her while she is on this earth,” said Lovern.
I stood in the center of the circled clan. To be here as Lovern’s colleague and hand-fasted with him as his life partner was an honor. The clan accepted me as a healer, and at the same time Beathan acknowledged Lovern as a clan member. We moved into our future.
Beathan invited both Lovern and me to his evening meals where we shared stories, music, and food. I did not serve any more, and I did not allow my mother to serve me. She sat beside me with honor. Grumbling, Beathan made do with one slave to serve his meals.
Lovern taught me much about healing. We gathered the plants and herbs that had been available in the cold darkness of winter, but we were ready for the plants that had been hiding to burst through from ground and reach for our hands to harvest. My mother’s home, now our home too, became our storage and drying shelter.
We decided to make our abode larger to accommodate and store the herbs, plants, and other supplies we used and gathered more of each day. We traded with Straun, our neighbor. He built our room and we promised to care for his family’s health, with no more recompense, for one year. It was a good trade.
“Straun. Our doorway must have this lintel and I wish it to be installed before we re-enter the house,” said Lovern.
“Of course,” said Straun.
Lovern crafted the lintel from yew and hazel and carved it with druid letters. He read it to me. “May our love invite health, good spirits and peaceful dreams.” Peaceful dreams. A shiver slid down my back. The heavy feeling in my heart would not be eased. I knew not what the gods asked of us in the future but knew we walked to the end of our own labyrinth.
“Here will be the shelves to store the dried plants. We can keep a box of the stones we need for healing, here. And over there we can hang the mistletoe,” said Lovern as he walked through the space that Straun would be enclosing with our new wall.
Straun had opened up the back of our home, breaking the stone wall out and stacked it nearby, ready for reuse. The outline of the room pushed out to touch the wall of the fort behind us. Straun dug three more support holes. The walls and the new thatched roof would be done in a few days, if the weather held. Mother, Lovern and I were sleeping at Beathan’s and would be glad for an enclosed, weather-tight, quiet abode again.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I can see it in my mind.” In my mind, I also prepared our marriage bed. It would be here. I would gather the pine boughs for freshness and cover it with dried grasses and heather for sweetness and softness. Over it I would spread my best woolen covering and our blankets, the ones I wove last year. Three threads, one each of blue, red, and yellow, would have three knots tied and then all three braided around three small twigs of oak. I would say prayers to Lug for fertility, and place the small bundles where our heads would lie.
Lovern walked over to the first of the three holes and stood looking back into our home. “I am where the gods want me. I am here to live and die. I wish my memories to be new from this time on. Yet, do not want to give up my old ones. Jahna, please come here.”
Startled, I came back to the present.
He turned to face the hole as I stepped next to him. I looked into his turned down face. His red hair fell over his eyes. They seemed to look far away as he stared into the hole. He shrugged his labyrinth bag from his shoulder, untied its leather string closure and it fell open. Turning the bag on its side, he shook it until the three sharp crystals fell out into his smooth hand.
“I have created a new life. These stones helped me arrive here safely, and they will protect my new abode and family.” He handed me one and again it was warm in my hand.
“Place it in the hole.”
I looked to him in bewilderment. Was he going to bury his stones?
“It will be a part of the support of our home,” he said. I kneeled to the earth and placed the first of the three stones in the hole. We did the same twice more.
I stood and brushed the dirt from my knees. Lovern upright and tall behind me placed his hands on my shoulders, his fingers softly entwined in my hair. I laid my hands on top of his solid, protective hands, grateful to have shared this moment with him. I heard the ravens in the distant trees. Our powers were strong together.
“Great goddess Morrigna, protect us,” prayed Lovern. “We are here now to live as you and Bel request. We shall follow the path to which you have led us. Create a peaceful and healthful abode in which we can teach our children to praise you. Grant us the knowledge to help the clan in any way you demand. In return for our lives, we ask for good memories to be made here.”
Straun watched our ceremony from a respectful distance. After our completed prayer, he took three flat river stones and laid them inside each hole, on top of Lovern’s crystals.
“These flat stones were from the sacred pool and will protect the crystals from the weight of the posts and the roof. The stones will protect the crystals for the life of the house,” said Lovern.
My breath caught in my throat, and I knew the crystals would be here much longer than our home and the other homes on our hill. The crystals would be here for many moon and sun rises. Longer than our clan would inhabit the surrounding fields. Only our love would live longer. My body sagged with this knowledge, and I leaned against Lovern, my strong post supporting my future.
74 AD APRIL I awoke next to Lovern before the cock’s crow. In a deep sleep, his chest raised and lowered with each breath. He wrinkled his brow, and I wondered what he dreamed of.
I refreshed our peat fire and sat a small pot of water next to it. I sat, bundled in my cape, waiting for the sun to rise, and held my slate. I had found the piece of stone on the mountain trail behind our hill. It was two hands wide, and a small finger thick. I worked its imperfections into pictures that surrounded the labyrinth I had painted on it.
Since seeing Lovern’s memory bag in the cave, the day of the storm, his labyrinth fascinated me. We grew closer during the time he taught me how to follow its path. The morning hours of our first days together were spent tracing it. When I knew I should continue the meditation on my own, I found my stone and began to paint my own labyrinth. Its course, a double spiral, was painted in the colors I loved, the red and blue I used to dye the clan plaid. The surrounding drawings were of the nature around my home, the mountain behind, the trees around, the sky and birds above us.
I did not like to let a day pass without at least touching the stone. I could create it with my eyes closed and follow the blue and red lines with my fingers. I often created its image in my mind when helping a person cross to the Otherworld as I had for Cerdic. It smoothed the way for my thoughts and the visions of the Otherworld, if they chose to come.