The Fox by Arlene Radasky - HTML preview
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I tested the water in the small pot. Finally warm, I slipped off my nightdress, rinsed my face and arms in its comfort. As I ran my hands over my body, I wished they were Lovern’s. I vibrated with the sense of the touch of his hands lingering on my breasts last night and the lovemaking that followed. The memory caused my nipples to become sensitive. My heart swelled with joy and wonder at the knowledge that we could be together for years to come.
My thoughts rambled in a confusing tumble this morning. Lovern and I were hand-fasted one year ago today. We had not yet approached Beathan for permission to marry. There was no reason for this lack of action; time just flew by too quickly. A year had passed. I knew I must speak on it soon. Beathan is not one to be patient; he would want this day observed with a decision.
I carried different feelings for Lovern than I had for any other man. When I accepted marrying Harailt, I expected no more than performing normal chores, and cooking his meals. With Lovern, my life was a partnership. He did not treat me like a servant. He and I discussed how best to heal and help our clan. He listened as well as taught me and often took my advice to his work. We were free to go where we wished, when we wished, yet I often followed along to learn from him.
I knew I would be doing this work for the years left in my life. I wanted to do it beside Lovern. But if he decided not to marry me, I would continue to be a healer and helper of souls. That was the gift the gods had given me. Lovern helped me learn how to use it. And I loved him for it.
There was a fear in my gut. We made love frequently, and I still was not with child. Usually, after one year of hand-fasting there was a child to consider. Lovern and I did not have that tie. This thought crept into my mind many times and now, as before, I sighed, shook my head, and released it. I must allow the will of the goddess be done. I will give birth when it is time, when I am ready. As Lovern says, when the goddess is ready.
This morning, as I followed my labyrinth, I prayed a silent thank you to Bel and Morrigna for allowing me to follow their way. I also prayed, while my finger traced my labyrinth, for a sign to help make the decision we faced.
Mother and Lovern were still sleeping. Lovern had come in late last night from a visit with a sick child. His day ahead was full, and I wanted him to rest as long as possible. I listened to the rhythmic inhale and exhale of his sleeping breath behind the hanging wool blanket, there for privacy, and to keep the sometimes messy and odoriferous preparations of our medicines as far away from my mother as possible. Smoke and some odors worsened her cough. A spoonful of a brew made from bog bean and the bittersweet nightshade, three times a day, along with the heather tea and sour milk helped. She seemed to be sleeping better.
We stored our plants and herbs used for the very ill at the hospice. Our small room here filled with treatments for the clan’s common illness.
Hospice. The word sometimes still made my tongue stumble. Some of the clan would not use it and referred to it as Harailt’s home. It was Lovern’s word. He used it when he was learning the healing arts in his other home. Before he came to us -- to me.
We tried to take care of our own in our homes. However, some of the ill required more watching than the family can provide. The hours of the day filled with the care and feeding of our animals, the sowing and harvesting of our crops and the raising of our children. The ill sometimes pushed families beyond their limits.
Harailt and Sileas slept in the home given to this dream, the hospice. Lovern worked there, and when a clan member was close to death, I stayed, too. It was my wish that our friends and neighbors would live long and useful lives with times of work and joy to share. But when the end of life was near, I helped create an easier path for the dying. I did most of this work at the hospice.
After I washed, I was cold and pulled on my tunic and peplum. The nights were still damp, and a breeze ushered in the early hours. I placed two small pots of clean water near the fire, one to boil barley and one for mint tea.
While I prepared our breakfast, I listed in my mind my chores for the day. There was no one ill at the hospice. My morning was free.
I would to go to the river and gather some blackthorn. Its leaves were just coming, and its white blossoms still were stark against the black bark. I harvested the berries in the fall; even the dried ones we now have help stop the bleeding in small wounds. There were many children with raw throats. A wash of its leaves and blossoms steeped in boiling water and then cooled would ease this pain. I wanted to gather enough to boil in a large pot and distribute the tea tomorrow.
I also wanted sweet heather, pungent juniper branches, and green ivy to freshen our bed. The ivy would keep lice away while the smell of the juniper and heather helped us sleep. I thought of lying next to Lovern on our newly freshened bed and smiled. I prayed the day was not too busy for us to lie in it tonight, together.
While the barley boiled and the fragrant tea simmered, I heard Lovern stir. His lithe, sinewy body slipped under the hanging blanket. His trousers already on, he pulled his tunic over his head and shook his copper hair loose. His belt, a cord for his hair, and his memory bag hung from his teeth. After he tied on his belt and slung his bag on his shoulder, he leaned over and kissed me on the top of my head. He tied back his long hair into a red tail.
“May the goddess bless this day,” he said as he stepped outside, into the cool haze of a new spring day to carry on his morning routine.
Mother awoke, her cough softer this morning. This pleased me. If her cough was deeper, I would have changed my earlier plans and gone to harvest and start her on a tea of fresh lus mor. The plant was available year-round and we used it to ease the bloody cough. Mother had not yet coughed blood, but I knew she would. It was the progression of this illness. She cleared her throat and, after combing her graying hair into the thick plaits she wore on top of her head, came for breakfast. Lovern returned. We ate and discussed the day ahead.
“I am going into the woods to see if I can find him today.”
Lovern went in search of his namesake, the red fox, every year at this time. He often sat for a full day near a den, waiting to see the foxes.
“If I find one, I will do what is necessary to please the gods.”
“Good hunting, my love,” I said.
He ran his hand over my hair and stooped to kiss me in a gentle goodbye and left.
And so the day of our marriage began.
I survived the sharp and hidden thorns of the blackthorn tree; boiled the infusion and stored it in small jugs, ready to be used by those with sore throats. The heather and juniper were fragrant in our bed. After giving Mother her medicine, it was time to go to the hospice to see if word of new patients came this morning. Sometimes people stopped by to tell us that someone in their family was ill and to ask us to come treat them.
I arrived at the hospice and greeted Sileas with a hug.
“Harailt and I have used this morning to sweep the house and lay clean bedding for the next patients,” she said. “There was even time to go to the river and eat my midday meal. The sound of the waterfall and its peaceful surroundings renewed my spirits.”
“I often wonder, do you and Harailt ever regret turning your home over to the sick? Do you miss the farm?” I asked.
“No. We have never looked back. Remember, it was not our decision. Cerdic commanded it through my vision. I have enjoyed being useful in ways other than farming. I am fulfilled with my work here and never regret it. Harailt tells me that his father’s spirit has come to him in his dreams, smiling,” she said. “We will never be unhappy with this choice.”
She stepped back from the simmering pot, lifting her dress out of the way of the fire. We hugged, happy our lives would continue this path together.
Harailt and Lovern sauntered through the door, heads together, deep in conversation. Harailt hefted an armful of wood for the fire. Lovern carried two hares and his bow.
Handing the hares to Sileas, Lovern said, “There they were sitting in front of me, asking me to bring them to you. I agreed, and now they are yours.”
“Thank you,” said Sileas. She took the hares from Lovern, lifted them to judge their weight, and said, “I think it will be a good hunting season this year. It is early, yet these are a good size. The grasses are growing fast to feed them.”
Harailt took the hares from Sileas. “I will skin, clean them and return them to you. But I must know, Lovern. How many did you see? Is there a concern that we may lose many of our chickens? If it shall be a good year for the foxes, then I must be sure to keep our fowl in a safe place.”
“I saw three yearling males. Each was on the prowl for mates. I am sure there will be females for them close by.” Then Lovern smiled. “I also saw a vixen with four kits. I am always glad to see them. I know Arimid is pleased as long as I continue to have my foxes around me.”
“Arimid,” Harailt said. “She is a demanding goddess. She expects much sacrifice by us to keep the foxes alive.”
“Yes,” said Lovern. “She is the one who gave me my skills for healing and sacrifices must be made to her. I cannot work if the foxes are not here. But I do not worry this year, they are here and well.”
Harailt said, “I have heard your foxes are doing well. There are many farmers missing chickens and ducks. They blame the foxes and would trap them, but you have forbidden it.”
“There will be many young kits for the vixens to feed this year. I will help you build a hut to keep your hens in. They will need protection.”
“But you know many farmers will not be able protect their animals in this way. They will lose food.”
“Yes,” Lovern said. “It is always so. We will pass the word that if they are losing livestock to a fox, they may trap it. If it is a nursing vixen, let her be, but they may kill every other adult male. If that does not work, then come to me. I will help them build protection.”
Harailt nodded, picked up a skinning knife, and walked through the door into the sunshine with the rabbits.
Sileas followed him. “I want to make sure he cuts the skin in a way that I may use it for a winter hat,” she said. “I will return soon.”
I touched Lovern’s tunic. “There is too much blood here for just two hares. Did you find him?”
He reached his long arms around me, and pressed his face into my hair. “How is it you always smell of lavender?” he asked, inhaling deeply.
“It is the same as you always smelling of acorns and beeswax to me. It does not matter what physical work you have done, even after sacrificing a bull, I still find that scent on you, just under your skin. It is you.” As comforting as it was in his arms, I pulled back to see his face. A questioning look came into his eyes. I repeated, “Did you find him?”
His face relaxed into a smile. He took a deep breath and said, “Yes. He was there. He was in the same glen as last year. He was sitting on a warm rock. His fat tail was wrapped around his body. He saw me before I him, yet he stayed. I was able to use one arrow to capture him and thrusted once to kill and bleed him. It was a clean sacrifice.”
He reached into his tunic and brought out a leather packet, holding it at arm’s length for me to take. I took it from him, unwrapped one soft corner, and revealed the red tail of a Forest Fox, Lovern’s totem.
“The gods be praised. It is fine,” I said as I ran my fingers through its long red fur. I wrapped it, handed it back and Lovern tucked it into his tunic. It was to be displayed above the door of our home, one to be added each year.
“I buried his heart near the sacred pool,” he said in answer to my unvoiced question. “I stopped there, near the water fall, to pray and wash his blood from my arms.
“I understand the farmers’ disquiet,” said Lovern. “However, we must all make sacrifices to the gods in trade for our lives. For me to stay here, I must have the foxes nearby. I cannot have them killed, or I would leave. They bring my dreams,” Lovern said. “Conyn told me they bring the art of healing to me. They are my namesake, my sacred symbols,” said Lovern, with an earnest face.
“Lovern, do not be concerned about your sacred foxes. We will protect them. Our clan heeds your words,” I said, my hand on his shoulder. “I, myself, will go to the den and raise the kits if something happens to the vixen.”
Hearing a flurry of commotion, we turned and watched as a stout, red-faced man I recognized as Aonghus bolted into the room, carrying his weeping boy Torrian. His heavily pregnant third wife and gaggle of small children followed him.
“Please!” His appeals were directed to Lovern. “Torrian fell and hurt his leg.”
We gathered around the big man carrying the small boy, parting the crowd of children to reach them.
Aonghus admonished Torrian as Lovern took the crying boy into his arms. “If you would do what I ask, the gods would not punish you in such ways. You must learn that you should get your work done and then go off chasing clouds.”
“We will see what the injury is,” said Lovern, “and treat it the best we can. Harailt, hold the boy’s leg, keep it as still as possible, while I lay him on the cot.”
“We cannot stay at home to care for him,” said Aonghus. “We are lambing and have to get crops planted. We are needed in the fields.”
Torrian cried out in pain as Lovern and Harailt laid him on the cot.
I saw Aonghus’ brow crease at the sound of his injured son. “I sent him to clean the goat pen, but as usual he ran off. He never does what I ask. We always have to look for him. He runs off chasing butterflies or bugs. I heard him yell and found him lying on the ground under a tree. Can you help him?” He looked at Lovern with pleading eyes.
Sileas and I kept track of the children as well as we could. Some of our pots contained poisons. “Aonghus, take your children home. I will come after Lovern has done his work and tell you of the results,” I said.
Aonghus controlled his children. He left with them and his wife trailing after him like a father goose with his goslings.
Lovern placed his hands on the boy’s body to determine the injuries as I sat down next to him and held his small, trembling, dirt-encrusted hand and sang a lullaby. Torrian calmed his crying to a whimper. His tears slowed in the paths cut through the grime on his cheeks, and he answered Lovern’s questions.
“The branch broke,” Torrian whimpered. “I was trying to catch the bluest bird ever! That branch held me before. OUCH!” Lovern touched the swelling bruise on his leg.
“Is my father right? Is this the gods’ punishment?” Torrian whimpered.
“Do you hurt anywhere other than your leg?” asked Lovern.
“I bumped my head and landed on my wrist but my leg hurts the most,” the young adventurer replied.
I watched Lovern’s face, deep in concentration as he inspected the boy’s other injuries. He ran his large, gentle hands over Torrian’s blond covered head, and down to Torrian’s hand where he looked over his wrist.
Lovern’s face softened when he spoke with the boy. “The gods do many things to teach us right from wrong. It is good that you are interested in the nature around you and want to know more. But the gods say you must obey first your chieftain, then your father and mother before you think of yourself. You should do your chores before exploring.”
Torrian nodded in agreement.
“When you get better,” Lovern continued, “with your father’s permission, I will take you into the forest and teach you more about nature. After your work is done.”
Suddenly, all my doubt left my heart. In my eyes, the hand of my own child replaced Torrian’s small hand in mine. I would give birth. I did not know when but I knew I would have a baby. Silently, I thanked the goddess.
The boy nodded, his whimpering eased, and his tears stopped.
I was worried about the boy. His left foot hung out of its normal position. A red, angry blood-swelling raised one half the distance below his knee and above his ankle. Regret for a young life to be lived as a cripple washed through me. The result for this injury was at the least a very bad limp or maybe no use of his leg. I have seen some die.
“You have broken your leg,” Lovern said. With a stern look on his face, he continued, “This will take three full moon cycles to heal, and you will be restricted in your movements during that time. The bone inside your leg, the thing that makes it stiff so you can walk, has broken. Like this,” Lovern said. Lovern reached down by the fire, picked up a small piece of kindling, and snapped it.
The sharp sound made both Torrian and I flinch.
“But look, how the pieces go together.” Lovern pressed the broken ends of the stick together. “This piece of wood is dead, but your leg is alive, and the bone will grow strong again. We have to put the pieces back together, like the stick, and keep them there for three moon cycles to give your leg a chance to mend straight. If you do not follow my instructions, and go off chasing a bird again, you may not walk with this leg or you will badly limp,” lectured Lovern.
“Can you help him walk again?” Sileas’ face was pursed in doubt when she asked this question. She voiced my silent concern.
Memories of the damp smell of the cave and the sound of lightning came into my head. The night he told me about his journey, he also told me he studied with Kinsey, the healer who could make people walk again.
“Lovern can do this,” I said with confidence.
“Harailt, please find four strong, straight caorann branches, the length of his leg.” Lovern said, in his teaching voice. “Sileas, we need four long strips of cloth to use as binders. Jahna, boil some barley, thick, and mix it with honey. Add some of the dried meacan dubh. We will lay the bone-set mixture on the broken bone.”
We rushed to complete our assigned tasks while Lovern comforted the boy, told him stories of the gods’ battles with giants, and dripped the juice of the red meilbheag onto his lips. The poppy juice was bitter and the boy made a face. After he swallowed, I knew Torrian would sleep and not remember the pain.
Harailt came in with the rowan branches, still removing leaves and berries from the gray bark as he entered. He laid them within Lovern’s reach. Sileas appeared with cloth ties. I brought the still warm poultice of barley, honey, and comfrey.
“Harailt,” said Lovern, “settle his head in your lap and hold his shoulders.” He then asked Torrian, ““Are you a still a little boy or are you now a young man?”
Torrian’s shoulders straightened, his brows knit in defiance and in a proud voice replied, “I am a man. I have my own goat to care for.”
“Ah, I thought so. A little boy would be afraid of this injury, but I can see in your face, you are not. This will be painful, but you will sleep. When you awaken, you will lie here in this bed for seven sunrises. We will bring you food, drink, and care for you in all ways. Only then are you allowed up with an aid for walking until your leg heals. If you do not heed this bargain with the gods, your leg will not heal straight. Do you understand me?” asked Lovern.
Lovern spoke in his straightforward way. He instilled confidence in those he treated. He always spoke the truth, and the people of our clan trusted him.
“Yes,” whispered Torrian.
Torrian’s face, set in a determined grimace, seemed to get younger as Harailt settled his head and shoulders into his lap.
“Open your mouth.” I inserted an oak stick soaked in vetch between his teeth. “Now bite.” The taste would distract him from what was about to happen.
Lovern grasped Torrian’s foot and ankle firmly, and pulled until the leg straightened. Torrian screamed and fainted, as we expected. I folded the poultice around his bruised leg while Lovern and Harailt positioned the branches and, as fast as Sileas could hand the cloth to them, tied them into place.
Sileas went to the fire to prepare the boiled lus for Torrian when he woke up. The wort would calm him and stop the bleeding in the leg.
“He must have mistletoe tied in red thread under his head when he sleeps. The gods will look on this with favor, and his blood may not poison. Feed him ground, boiled apple, and be sure he has a few drops of the poppy juice in his water,” said Lovern. Sileas nodded and went to find the red thread and dried apple.
A large shadow darkened our doorway. I turned and saw Beathan, our chieftain. He had not come into this dwelling since Harailt and Sileas gave it to the clan in honor of Cerdic to be used as a hospice a year before.
“Tell me what you are doing.” Beathan’s deep voice shook the still air in the small room. “Why did I hear a scream as I came into this yard? Is the boy still alive?” His eyes found mine with his last question.
He gave Lovern and me the stern looks of a disapproving father. He was taking our measure.
I think he felt the loss of the farm, but I knew the sheep that moved to the neighboring farm in Harailt’s trade were giving more wool than before. The clan did not lose but gained in this deal. He would not admit it. He was my uncle and I respected him as a father, but I was always ready to defend our work if he questioned it. His silence was worse as it hid his thoughts.
“Good afternoon, Uncle. It is good that you have come to see what we do here,” I said, smiling as I walked over to the towering man. I took his huge paw that dwarfed my hand and proudly guided him to where Torrian lay sleeping.
“Lovern has given this boy a chance to heal and walk again. Torrian has broken his leg. Before this hospice, Torrian would have been in his bed, at home, alone, and in a fever with little treatment. He probably would have died. Or, if he lived, he would not have the use of his leg.
“Because of what Lovern accomplished today and the treatment he will get in the coming days from Harailt and Sileas, this boy will live to be a free farmer or warrior for the next chieftain of our clan. He will outlive you, bråthair-måthar, healthy and strong.”
Uncle Beathan grabbed me in a bear hug and lifted me off the floor.
“Ah, I see you still have the tongue of a brat,” Beathan said. “I am glad you have not grown out of that. You must cause Lovern many gut-aches with your insolence.” He turned to Lovern. “Well, do you still want to marry this meanbh-chuileag? These midges can make a man very angry. Or have you changed your mind and found a pleasant quiet mouse to warm your bed?”
“Put me down, Uncle,” I whispered, though Beathan’s laugh probably woke up Torrian. “You are crushing my ribs, and what do you mean a quiet mouse to warm his bed? Do you expect him to follow your example of not marrying and trying on all the single women of the clan? I will not allow it.”
“Not allow it?” asked Beathan, seriously. “Not allow it? Who are you to not allow it? Are you married? How can you not allow it if you are not married?”
Still in Beathan’s grip I heard Sileas and Harailt begin to laugh and saw a grin break out on Lovern’s face. Why was he grinning? Did he think it was a good idea to have all the unwed women of our clan to warm his bed?
Lovern stopped laughing and answered. “Ah, Great Chieftain. You are mo chraid. But, I would never be able to call you more than friend if I did not marry her. I wish to call you uncle. I have never had an uncle, and to have one as great as you would be a good thing.”
“Unh,” Beathan grunted as he lowered me to the floor, my feet regaining my body’s balance as he let go.
Lovern came to me, leaned over, his face close to mine, and embraced my cheeks in his hands. My eyes looked up into his as he said, “There are no others, a ghaoil. My beloved, I want to marry you because you complete my soul. You healed my broken heart. I traveled far and outran many dangers to find you. I know that without you I would not be able to do the gods’ work, my work. I wish to make our union permanent and marry you.”
My heart swelled with love at his words. Standing next to him, I smelled acorns. I laid my arms on his chest, my hands on his shoulders, and said, “Bel and Morrigna sent me a vision today. I will have a child. I will marry you to complete us. I will marry you because I love you. Without you, I could not have finished my labyrinth.” My cheeks were wet with tears. His thumbs wiped them away with tenderness.
I pulled him to me and when our lips touched, I felt a release of the tension of the day. In its place was an excitement for this night in bed as well as the years, no matter how few, ahead of us. I did not want this kiss to end. When we broke apart, we turned, arm in arm to Beathan.
“Uncle,” I said. “I feel this is an auspicious time. We must marry now. We should not wait any longer. There is an ancient oak nearby.” I turned to Lovern, “May we be married under the oak?” His hands squeezed mine.
“Yes,” said Lovern, his eyes sparkling. “I agree. It should be now.”
“Lovern,” I said, “go to the tree, and wait. I will get Mother. Then, Beathan can marry us.” He nodded as I turned and ran out of the hospice.
“Is it twelve moons already?” said Mother.
“Mother, let us start down the hill. You can talk to me as we walk. They are waiting for us, and we do not dare keep Beathan waiting too long.”
“Bah. He thinks he is so important, but I knew him when our mother chased him all over the hilltop for teasing our hens. He was made to do his chores and mine when Mother caught him. Sometimes I would tease the hens and blame him so I could go off and be with my friends for a day.” Mother chuckled. “He would get his revenge, though. I often found small animals or insects in my dress. He never admitted it, but he would wear a big grin when I found them and screamed.”
We were through the gate and halfway down the hill, me impatient but gently tugging on her arm, her taking one deliberate step at a time, and she continued, “Twelve moons. That is how long it took your father and me to decide to marry. He was gone on one of his trading journeys for two moons. When he returned, he told me he had decided to marry me. I laughed. There was no decision to make in my mind. We were to be together. He was a part of my life and I a part of his. When he told me, I remember, he swung me up in his arms and kissed me. Then we walked to your bed. You were three months old. He picked you up and cradled you. So gentle for such big arms,” she said with a far away look. “He looked into your eyes, the reflection of his, and promised to take care of you for all your life.”
She stopped walking and coughed. “We did not know how short a time we would have together. But the time we had together was good. He was a good father and husband. I missed him for a long time. Enough of the past.” She waved me on as if telling me to walk faster. “Let us go celebrate the future!”
We approached the tree where Beathan, Lovern, and Harailt stood waiting. Torrian would sleep a while longer so Sileas was there, also. I waved, but before we walked closer, Mother pinched my ear and brought me close to her mouth.
“I have doubts about your marriage to him, Jahna. You are not with child. I can tell. Is it best to be married to this man? Should you look for a man who can give you a child?” she whispered loudly. “You have been sleeping with him. I hear you. But there is no baby.”
Taking a deep breath to calm myself, I answered, “Mother. Today, a sign was given to me. This is what the goddess wills. If it is to be, you will live to hold a grandchild.”
“I hope to live to hold many, Jahna. I want many grandchildren. It is the right of a mother to want grandchildren.”
The oak was near our sacred spring. We used the water under the oak to wash our feet and hands in purification rituals. Lovern and I used it when mixing our cures. It was a favorable place. It was a blessed place to be married. It temporarily eased my mind of the shadows of doubts about our life together.
We gathered into a circle, Beathan in the center. The trampled grass's fragrance wafted through the air. Flowers nestled in small clumps around the tree trunk and above us the birds sang. The sky darkened. A cloud of ravens flew over without a sound and landed in a willow. A shiver rippled down my back. We were being watched. Morrigna was there. My hand quivered in Lovern’s strong hand. His grip tightened; he smiled, reassuring.
Beathan spoke, “That you wish to be married does not surprise me. Do not think the longing looks you gave one another at my dinner table escaped me. I knew you were eating to gather strength to tumble through the night,” he said gruffly but with a twinkle in his eye. “It is about time. I was beginning to wonder if I would have to make a demand for this to happen! When you first came, Lovern, I was unsure, wary of you. But you kept your promises.”
Beathan turned his head to look at me. Did I see a bit of moisture reflect the sunlight on his eyelashes?
“Jahna. My sister’s daughter. You grew to be like my own and pestered me as you would have your own father. But, I am proud of you. You are a fine woman and healer. I thought I was losing a skilled weaver, but you now weave a path for our souls to follow.”
He now faced both Lovern and I, his hands palm up in front of us. “You teach us in the ways of our gods. Our clan is better because of your partnership. I have seen your work today and say this is good for our clan.”
At this, his arms, the tattoos of our clan around his wrists, rose over his head, spread in declaration. “I call the attention of all the gods and goddesses. I allow this marriage in my name. I join Lovern and Jahna. They will live under my protection as long as they keep the clan laws. I declare this and will proclaim it to the clan. May the gods and goddesses bless this union with many good years and healthy children!”
Surprised, we stood in silence. This was the longest speech I ever heard Beathan give.
“Well, Sileas,” asked Beathan. “Why did you carry out the red thread? Have you forgotten its purpose?”
“Oh. No, O Chieftain, no,” she stammered. Flushed, she lifted and tied Lovern’s and my clasped hands with red thread, wrapped three times around. Lovern kissed me deeply. I could do nothing but smile, my heart laughing. And so we married.
A lusty, rejoicing whoop split the sky, caused me to duck and the ravens to rise in somersaults and caw in escape. Beathan’s yell and bear hug enveloped us all.
My mother kissed me and then Beathan on his bearded cheek. “You have done well with your life,” she spoke into his ear. “I often wondered what would happen to you when we were children.” His belly shook in laughter.
Lovern tried to hug everyone in return but our tied hands restricted his movements.
“See, Priest?” Beathan said. “She has already a hand on your freedom!”
“I do not see it as a restriction, my friend,” Lovern said with a smile at me. “I see it as a promise to each other. A promise we made many years ago.”
I knew he referred to my first passage dream with him as a boy. Beathan’s forehead wrinkled. He did not know about the dreams. He did not know Lovern and I touched our minds long ago.
With a shrug of his mighty shoulders, Beathan said, “Now we go to eat. Invite all as we go. It will be a big celebration at my home tonight. I killed a hog yesterday. Let all bring food and drink and we will sing and tell tales all night.”
“I have two hares to give to the pot for the dinner,” said Sileas. “Harailt can pick them up on his way. I must stay with Torrian tonight.”
Harailt gave her a kiss and her arm curled around his waist as they walked back to the hospice. A flash of memory came to my mind. Harailt and Cerdic walking away from Beathan’s after he ordered Harailt and I to be hand-fasted. Harailt’s head hung, and he shuffled away. He loved another. He loved Sileas. All came to pass as it should.
We sat as honored guests at Beathan’s table. Many came and more still as Beathan announced our marriage. He gave Lovern the honor to carve the roasted meat. Lovern transferred the knife into our bound hands and we both carved. Cheers of congratulations rang out. The night was long and filled with mead, peat smoke, poems of bravery, love songs, and music. We danced, kissed in the shadows, and laughed, our hands held with the red thread of our promise. The celebration lasted long past the moon’s rise. Lovern and I stumbled home long after mother.
Lovern used his teeth and we both used our free hands to untie the thread’s knot. We were forbidden to cut it. He put the thread into his memory bag.
I crossed my arms and grasped the hem of my tunic, lifted it over my head and Lovern came up behind me. He wrapped his arms around my waist and nibbled my neck, just under my ear, causing my knees to grow weak. Chills ran down my body and my nipples stiffened. “I cannot get ready for bed if you do not let me go,” I said.
“I am here to help you undress,” he whispered into my ear.
His strong arms enveloped me, carrying his scent of honey and crushed acorns. No other person smelled like him. No other man could make me want to be surrounded by him forever. I fell into his arms, and he turned me around to face him. My breath came faster as my heart danced in my chest. Heat rushed up from my toes to my face, and my breasts ached, waiting for his soft fingers to caress them. My body ached with desire. I buried my face into his chest, wanting his scent in my nose forever.
“Jahna. When I think back on the time I did not know you, I wonder how I could have thought I was alive. I need you. I am strong with you near me. Now, with this contract, we will be together forever. You are now my family. You are my life.”
“It is for you that I have waited so long,” I said. “I have taken no man before you. You are the one who taught me that to love is to feel the presence of the gods. My life will be lived as your partner, your wife. I will love you through this life and all we have hereafter.”
His gentle blue eyes misted. Then one of his hands left my waist and encircled my breast. My nipples hardened even more at his touch, and I gasped. I stood on my tiptoes, and pulled his lips to mine.
When our lovemaking was over, I lay next to him, weak, and rolled to him so my nose was against his ribs, inhaling his scent. His fingers combed through my hair; then his palm rested on the back of my head. We whispered promises of fealty. This night burned itself into my memories. It would be there until my death.
We spent that night in a bed that smelled of sweet heather, in each other’s arms.
The day of our marriage ended.
Tomorrow I would follow my labyrinth.
I had been given ninety-six hours to find her.
Marc talked Lauri, Tim, Kendy, and Matt into staying for four days. They’d still have time to pack up the tent and equipment and go on to Wales if we didn’t find anything in the time they gave me.
I called the farmer who owned the property, Mr. Treadwell, and told him we were coming up today. As he hesitated, thoughts of him telling me he’d changed his mind ran through my head. I reached for my antacids.
“Just be sure to close the gate when you come up,” he said. “It wouldn’t be good fer me cattle to roam the roads, unattended.”
I thanked him and assured him we’d close the gate.
There was little conversation between Marc and I at first. The unpaved farm road was rough and full of ruts and I was glad we’d a Range Rover and a sturdy van for transportation. I decided not to ask any questions on the ride up about the discussion of their staying here. I was in the Rover with Marc and the rest of the crew was in the van behind us. Marc convinced the crew to stay, but I didn’t know if I wanted to find out how much he told them about our discussion last night. I hoped he’d been discreet about Jahna.
The morning fog kept the dust down. It was also obscuring our view of the hill. I’d seen the hill and taken pictures of it last fall, but could hardly make out anything in this blanket of cold and moisture. Thankfully, I had my map coordinates out and the GPS in hand or we’d have driven right by it.
It wasn’t a large hill, and it blended in with the landscape of pastures and surrounding hills. It also backed into the mountain just behind it, and was just tall enough to see the countryside, making any defense of it by ancient people easier. I knew they’d been here. Now I needed to prove it to the crew and Marc.
We parked at the bottom and gathered around the van to unload our little bit of equipment. I asked for a few minutes to walk up to the hilltop to find the first spot I wanted to excavate.
“I’m only going to get one chance at this and I’d like to make sure I pick the right area to start.”
Marc looked at me with concern, sighed, and nodded while the rest of the team demurred and then agreed. The fog started lifting but the ground was damp and the air was still cold. The Rover’s heater was on the blink, so the crew got back into the van to wait. Marc went with me.
“How’d you get them to stay?” I asked as he and I followed an old trail to the top. Oh Lord, I could tell I was having an attack of what my mother called “run of the mouth.” I couldn’t stop talking. It sometimes happened when I was nervous or happy. She could slow me down by holding her finger up, but she wasn’t here. So, without any reason to stop, I continued, “When you knocked on my door this morning, I thought it was to say goodbye and please drop off the Rover when I was done. Then I opened the door and there you were, standing with the trowel in your hand and a smile on your face. I was quite taken aback! By the way, did you have Mrs. Dingleberry pack us a big lunch? I didn’t have time to eat breakfast, as you know.” I ran out of breath.
Marc shook his head and chuckled.
We reached the top of the hill. Sunlight and warmth filled the last steps of the trail and we surveyed the scene below. The valley was still invisible and I imagined this is what Noah saw after landing on Mount Ararat. It was a sea of grey, nothing but the ground we stood on and the mountain behind us visible.
“It was fun to see you so flummoxed,” said Marc, “and I’ve never seen you speechless before. You certainly are back to normal. When we were dating, I barely ever got a word in edgewise. Anyway, last night I explained the job offer in Wales. Then I said to think of the opportunity of finding a new location in Scotland. I told them to imagine being the first team on a new dig and all the exciting things that could come of it. Finally, I asked them to compare it to being one of many on an established dig in Wales and getting paid. They of course, being of sound minds, chose Wales. I then implored and finally retreated by offering them £500 each if they stayed for the rest of the week. They said they’d stay four days. No pressure on you or anything but something had better come up out of the ground fast.”
Looking over the edge of the hill, I asked, “Where are you going to get £2000 to pay them with?”
Marc reached out and touched my arm. I turned, not knowing what to expect and still feeling the possibility of loss in my stomach. His eyes were the lapis blue I remembered from our university days, the color I saw when, together, we made plans for the future, plans to conquer history. The feeling of loss was replaced with something else. Confusion. Why did it feel like I’d been standing beside him, in this place, forever?
“Aine. I’ve almost enjoyed this last month, gathering the crew together and getting here. I’d thought of it as a challenge.” He paused, shuffling from one foot to the other, his hands deep in his pockets. “And I have to admit, a way to get to know you again.” His hands came out of his pockets and ran through his hair. “I’m sorry I was such an ass last night. Doug’s call took me by surprise. Why don’t we call a truce and see what the next few days bring? I thought it over after we talked in your room last night. I spoke to them,” he said, pointing down the hill, “after I’d already decided I’d stay for a week. I told myself, ‘just pretend it’s a small vacation.’ God knows I won’t get one for a long time if I go to Wales. So I’ll just sit tight and let the youngsters do all the hard work and I’ll man the computer. The money will either come out of the grants you’ll get from this dig or you’ll sell everything you own to pay them,” he said, looking at me with a sly grin.
“Oh God. I’m already in debt up to my armpits. Oh well. If all goes like I know it will, we won’t have to worry about anything anyway. And you won’t have to go to Wales. We’ll have all the money we need.”
Suddenly serious, I asked, “Marc, will you be unhappy here?”
“I had doubts earlier and still have a few, but I made the choice to stay. Heaven knows why, but I’m going to make the most of it, even if only for a week.”
Marc and I walked around the edge of the hill. I stopped every so often and bent to touch the ground. Then I could smell peat fires around me. I heard animals in their corrals and felt the vibrating footsteps of people. This was where I was supposed to start. I turned to Marc. “We’ll start digging here.”
The fog cleared enough to see the bottom of the hill. We waved to the van and they came tumbling out and grabbed the little equipment we had: stakes and twine to mark the quadrants, and spades, trowels, brushes, and sifting screens for digging.
After trudging up the path, Tim marked the area I pointed to with the stakes and twine and asked me why I’d picked it. “It just felt right,” I answered. I didn’t tell him a warm feeling came over me as I felt the ground, a feeling that raised the hair on the back of my neck. Jahna had touched me.
After marking the quadrants, we started removing and sifting the first layers of topsoil.
We found the first pieces of pottery just before we left for the day. We were using hand trowels to remove the soil at that point but the ground wasn’t difficult to dig in after we cut through the sod with the shovels. The sun hid behind clouds and we stayed cool even though we worked hard. We’d been digging for several hours and found nothing when I decided to take a short break to watch the sifting.
Matt balanced our square-frame screen on his hip. On the other side, it was supported by pieces of lumber attached to the screen frame. The soil that was going through the screen created a pile at his feet. The rocks that came up were tossed to the right of him and anything that he felt needed a closer look was laid to his left, in a bucket. So far, the bucket was empty. I watched as three small pieces of pottery emerged from the debris and lay on the screen along with the larger pebbles. Matt stopped shaking the screen and looked at me with anticipation. The pieces were dirt-covered and might have been overlooked by an amateur. With experience, you get an eye that searches for anything that looks as if it were man-made. I picked them up and looked for signs of age.
“They are coil pots,” I observed, brushing off some of the soil. I walked them over to Marc and handed them to him. He looked at them and said, “Yes, this could be good news. I don’t think we should break out the champagne yet, though.” He handed them back to me and said, “I hope there’s more. Lots more.”
That night, back at the inn, I asked Marc to call and ask George Wyemouth to come while I was on the phone looking for more money for the project. I now had employees and tests to pay for. With George’s connections to labs he could get our items carbon dated quickly. Without his help, it would take months to get results. I didn’t have months.
In the second of my four days, we found a bronze blade similar to the one the farmer showed me last fall, more pottery, and two postholes. I was giddy after the postholes became visible. “This could be the reason to open a bottle of champagne!” I laughed. Marc stood next to me and I pulled myself up on tiptoes to kiss him. As I started to go back to level ground, he grabbed my waist, looked into my eyes, and said, “Congratulations, Aine. You may have a viable site.” He let me down and shrugging his shoulders said, “And I may have to stay another week just to see exactly what is here.”
I don’t usually notice sunsets while I’m working. At that time of the day, I am in the tent, helping sort all the items we’d exhumed during the day. This one, however, pulled me into a whorl of feelings. I noticed the pink colors floating around me while I was walking from the tent to the Rover to get my coat. I glanced up at the sky but I wasn’t expecting the grandeur that overcame me. The daytime scattered alabaster cumulous, and steel gray nimbus clouds wore edges of cyclamen pink. The sun was just sitting on the cusp of the three hills across the pasture.
“Everybody, come see this! Wow!” I said.
Lauri and Kendy came out of the tent and looked around. Kendy said, “It’s beautiful. Sunset is the best time of the day. I use these colors in my art at home all the time. They are so peaceful.”
Lauri continued, “Ohh. It’s wonderful. Whew, just look at those clouds on the horizon, though. I’m sure glad we covered everything. I think we may have a gusher tonight.” Tarps, weighted with stones, covered our working area.
Marc walked over, and I shivered in the cooling air. I snuggled into the warm curve his arm and shoulder made as he opened up his coat and gathered me into it. I sighed, knowing I could get into trouble with this man all too easily. I felt a stirring of interest in his body vibrations and wondered what he was thinking.
“I don’t think I’ve taken the time to see one of these in a long time. It’s pretty good,” Marc said. He turned to take in the sight behind us. “Look! Up on the trail. There’s a last bit of sunlight hitting that pile of rocks. It looks like a beam from a ray gun on a spaceship! Kapowie! Rocks and bad guys, gone! Hey, is there a good movie playing in town?”
The mood ruined, I said, “I swear I’ll never get used to you guys and your lack of romance. Just go and let me look for a few minutes.” I shoved him off with my hands. He left his coat on my shoulders and walked to the Rover to get CDs to use for a backup for his computer.
The sky went from a light blue to a smoky-lavendar in about two minutes and the clouds from rose to mauve with it. I was enjoying every moment and turned back to the mountain behind us to look at the trail where Marc’s imaginative laser beam was pointed. The light was still being concentrated on the spot through a trick of the clouds, but a few shadows were beginning to creep up. Suddenly, I knew I needed to go get a closer look at that pile of rocks. No big revelation or scene in my head, just the certain knowledge that I was going there tomorrow. If it did rain, I hoped the weather cooperated and the rain would stop early in the morning. I didn’t want to climb it in a storm, but there wasn’t a question of going; I was going. I memorized the rocks and boulders nearby, and knew I could find it in the morning.
Back at the tent, the team was talking about the latest sci-fi movie they’d seen and the one they hoped to catch tonight. “Aine, we’re going into town for dinner and to catch a movie. Coming?” Marc asked.
“Sure, this may be the last good night out I get for awhile,” I said, knowing my evenings would be taken up by deciphering the day’s work the further along we got. I wanted this dig to be perfect.
“Let’s take the Rover and the van so we don’t have to cram into one car,” suggested Marc. “Put the box of pottery and the blade in the back of the van and Matt and I’ll take it to Mrs. Dingleberry’s. Tim can take the rover with Aine, Kendy and Lauri and we’ll meet you there.”
We got into Fort William about an hour later and found a café next to the movie theater that was showing the film we wanted to see. It was one of the Ring movies, and we were all excited to have a night off to enjoy it. Marc and Matt arrived thirty minutes behind us.
“Marc,” I asked, “how long until the registration of the site is done, and when is George getting here?”
“A few days, and tomorrow. The Scottish Historical Association will process our request for listing on the monuments list, and George will get in on the morning train. I thought you and I could wait here tonight and bring him back to the dig in the morning. He gets in around eight,” said Marc.
A chorus of catcalls and laughter went up from the rest of the team at that suggestion. The other customers in the café looked at us, and found a noisy group of disheveled friends.
“No wonder you wanted to bring two cars. We thought that was a bit extravagant of the tight Scotsman in you, Marc,” said Lauri. “A night in town with a lady!”
“No, no!” Marc said. “I was thinking of your comfort! Tim is always complaining about not having enough room for his 6’5” frame and size 13 feet!”
“Now don’t you go pinning this on me, Marc. I can fold up nicely when needed,” said Tim.
I listened. Heat climbed up my back, around my neck and infused my face at these remarks. “If Marc and I decide to stay, it will be in separate rooms. There is nothing else to it, and I will thank you to stop this!” I said. “Anyway, I didn’t bring clothes or anything else for overnight so I probably won’t stay.”
Marc said, “Don’t worry, there’s a small shop where we can get whatever we need.”
That encouraged them, of course, and when we got into the movie, I was upset with Marc for putting me into this position. I angled my way around everyone else until I stood next to him as we slipped into our seats. “What was that all about? What’ve you been saying to them that has them thinking we are a couple?”
I wondered if I wanted us to be a couple. What would be wrong with having Marc as my lover? No, I don’t want anything permanent now. I’ve work to do to get my career on track. But just one night, what could that hurt? I searched through my pockets for my antacids.
“Just the truth,” he said. “I told them we enjoy working together, that I respect your knowledge and decisions and would follow you to the ends of the earth if you asked.” His eyes told me he was teasing.
I turned to slap his shoulder in response, and he gently caught my wrist. I tried to twist it away and was surprised by his eyes. They sparkled. They actually sparkled in that dim theater light. He smiled and kissed my fingertips. I gasped, then, unasked, my fingers touched his lips and my eyes welled with unshed tears. The movie started, and he held my hand through to the end. I don’t remember the plot.
The exiting crowd escorted us outside. “Thank heavens the rain hasn’t started. I hate driving on these single lane roads in the dark as it is. I can’t imagine doing it in a storm, too,” Matt complained.
“What? Driving in London is easier? Don’t be a bloody galoot! Just pull into the turnouts when you see headlights and wait for them to pass. The Hielans will appreciate you not trying to race them through the straights. Too many tourists try that and lose so let’s keep the natives happy, right?” said Marc, reaching into the van and pulling out an overnight bag. How unfair that he packed for tonight and I didn’t.
“Yes, we Highlanders use our road kill in haggis, remember? So do take care on the lo-oong road back,” Matt said. I laughed. They climbed into the van and waved as they left.
“I have reservations at the Caorann Inn for us. Come on let’s walk. It’s a few blocks from here.”
“Right. I’m glad it isn’t raining. It’d be a mess to work in the morning if it were. I’ve something I want to look at, and I wouldn’t want to do it in a storm.” Here I go again. Why do I feel the need to talk? I know. Being alone with Marc is making me nervous. I want to be here but what do I expect? “I’m glad George is coming. I know we’ll find something great and I want him here to see it. He’s helped me all through my career, and even before, in school. I appreciate him.”
We walked quietly the rest of the way to the inn, watched over by Ben Nevis, the air smelling of the expected rain.
The inn was built with the magpie construction that was so popular, trying to look historical. It was modern inside, and I was glad to see the farce wasn’t carried any farther than the exterior. Marc had reserved one room with twin beds.
“When I called, they were full except for this room. We’ve shared tents before so I figured we could share this room. I thought of calling somewhere else, but I’ve stayed here and liked the location, the view, and the name of this place. So….”
As I walked to the window, I noticed the room smelled like Mrs. Dinglberry’s inn, lemon wood wax. I lifted the curtains and said, “There’s a gorgeous view of the mountains, even with the clouded sky. But the name? Caorann? Rowan? Why do you like the name?”
“It’s the wizard tree. I thought I could use a bit of magic to get you to stay here tonight. It is my favorite tree because of its magic. Wizards, witching wands and such.”
“Hmm. Well, here we are,” I said as I turned to the hospital-cornered beds. “Which bed do you want? These are longer than the beds at our inn. I’ll bet your toes hang out over the end of those elfin beds,” I said, chuckling. “This will be a treat for you tonight. Well, I need to go to the store to get the things I need for tonight. Where did you say it was; close by?”
“Not too far, but I don’t think you’ll need much,” he said as he picked up the overnight bag, opened it and dumped it out on the bed. Out fell his change of underwear, toothbrush, and shirt, followed by my undies, bra, shirt, and shampoo. He’d even remembered to bring my toothbrush and hairbrush.
Surprised, I went through the items. “Wow. You take big chances, Marc. How’d you know I’d say yes to staying?”
“I knew you couldn’t resist helping me pick up George. Here,” he said, unzipping a side pocket of the bag. “I hope you won’t be upset by my touching it without your permission, but I hoped you’d share a bit with me tonight.” He pulled out my precious bottle of Lagavulin, wrapped in a towel.
“Oh, thank you, this is perfect. A dram of the lovely will hit the spot right now. Would you pour for both of us, please?”
We made ourselves comfortable in the overstuffed armchairs that crowded the room, sipped our drinks, and discussed the day. “We’d a bit of good luck finding more pottery and the set of postholes today. The pottery should be able to give us a date. The postholes are a sign of inhabitation. We may have a hillfort!” I said. “My name will finally be first on an excavation report. I’ve been waiting a very long time for that to happen.”
“Yes, I agree, it looks as if there might be something here. Let’s give it a bit more time before we start claiming what it is, however. It could be a simple travel hut for a hunter, and we won’t find anything else. We’ve only been digging two days. You should’ve heard the story I told George to get him to come here! You’re going to owe me for a long time. We’d better find something big soon, or he may disown you as a friend.” Marc smiled. “But don’t worry. Yes, your name can go on the report first.”
Suddenly, a flash over-filled the room with light followed by a loud, rolling, rumble reminding me of boulders being tossed in a flooding riverbed.
“What the--? Oh my gosh. It must be pouring,” I said as I got up and walked to the window. It was covered in rivers of water.
I’d been standing there but a few seconds when Marc came up behind me. I felt his body heat. Oh, please touch me, I thought. My breath left my body in a rush. I loved this man, I was just realizing it again after so many years. My mind was spinning. After Brad, I swore off love forever. Marc kissed the back of my neck.
That did it, any resistance I’d had was gone. And he knew it. I melted against him and he caught me in the circle of his arms. He smelled like the ancient earth that we were digging in today, full of mystery and truths. I turned to face him on tiptoe, barely reaching his Adam’s apple, and kissed him as he leaned his face down to mine. His beard was softer than I thought it would be, and I inhaled the fumes of the aged Lagavulin on his breath. I reveled in the sense of protection I found next to him. His hands came up into my hair and cradled my head. I was enchanted. Yes, Caorann was the right name for this inn.
We broke apart, breathless. I looked into his eyes. “Marc. Where did this come from?”
He wrapped his arm around my waist, and said, “Aine, I loved Darlene. I’m glad I’d those years with her.” He paused for the length of one breath. “But, you were my first love. I was working up the courage to ask you to marry me when Brad stepped into the picture so many years ago. It killed me to watch your career fall by the wayside, and I thought you were out of my life forever. I tried to tell you that he wasn’t doing right by you a long time ago but couldn’t.”
“You knew and just stood back and watched?”
“You needed to find out on your own what a loser he was and fight it on your own. That was the only way you’d be free from him,” he said.
Memories slammed into me, and I tried to catch my breath as he said, “Look Aine. I was disturbed when I left your room the other night, but I figured I’ve known you for a long time and you’ve made some stupid decisions in your life but you’ve never seemed crazy. I don’t owe you anything. Hell, you owe me. You left me for Brad.”
I cringed when I heard the pain in his voice but kept my eyes on his. There was nothing I could say in the face of the truth of his words.
“I went a bit crazy for a while. I decided that I’d never love anyone else. I was really messed up. I followed everything that you and Brad did and watched you as he took your life away. Don’t get me wrong. Darlene was wonderful. I’m glad she was a part of my life and I never cheated on her. I loved her and she still has a place in my heart but she never took your place. You had a hold on me that I can’t explain. I never seemed whole. Now, maybe we’ve another chance, and even though I am scared of getting hurt again I don’t want to miss it.”
I stood rooted to the floor, not able to move. I was petrified and humbled. He was trying to forgive me. Tears stung my eyes. “I am sorry, Marc. What I did was so wrong. I’ve no excuses. But I think I paid for it.”
“Yes, I guess you did.” He circled me again, with his gentle bear hug, lowered his head and used his mouth to cover mine in a deep, long kiss. I tasted the tip of his tongue. Feelings of order, of things being right in the universe, came over me. I’d not felt this way since he and I were together in college. He was my life partner, my teacher, and my love.
“Um, yes?” I answered, breathing fast.
“I wanted to do this right. Is this romantic enough?” he whispered into my ear.
One of his hands came down from my hair and settled in the small of my back and pulled me closer.
We didn’t want to let go of each other and waddled to the closest bed. I began to laugh, and Marc covered my mouth with his and gave me something else to do. Oh my God, it’d been years since I last made love, wanted to make love, and I’d feelings I thought were gone forever. My heart tattooed against my chest, my breath was ragged, and my conscious thoughts were gone. I’d one thing on my mind, and from his reactions, fast breathing, drumming heartbeat, and one noticeably hard item, I knew he felt the same way.
We sat on the edge of the bed and Marc’s hands began to explore my back. He grabbed my tucked in shirt and began to pull it out of my pants. We were still kissing but without the earlier panic. We knew we’d be here for each other and time didn’t matter. My shirt was above my waist, and his warm hands touched my cool skin. Fire and ice. I melted even more. His hands crept up under my shirt and came to my bra. I knew one truth: if he stopped for any reason, I’d die. I prayed he knew how to undo this bra. He did. His fingers cupped my breasts, and his thumbs circled and gently pinched my nipples.
I pulled back from him, unbuttoned the top two buttons on my shirt, and pulled it over my head. He let my bra slip to the ground.
“Aine. You’re perfect. I knew you’d be. Beautiful,” he said as he lowered his mouth to a nipple, licked and sucked it. My back arched to meet his mouth and I gasped.
Now, I wanted more. “Let’s get your shirt off,” I said. I reached over and started to unbutton it when he jerked the shirt off, popping a button across the room. “I brought another shirt for tomorrow, don’t worry,” he said, and grinning, when he saw my surprise.
He turned the lamp off, and the only light in the room came from under the bathroom door, just enough to let us see what was necessary. We pulled off the rest of our clothes, climbed under the down spread and started kissing again, his tongue exploring my mouth and mine teasing his. His hands were velvet, rubbing all over my body. He explored tender spots not touched in years and I was ready to explode. I brushed my hands down his furry chest, into the curve of his taut waist. His stomach began to vibrate and heard an intake of his breath. I slid my hands down his thighs. This time he arched and groaned. We were together in lust and love.
When it was over, I cried tears of completion and happiness. I kissed his neck and shoulders as he lay on top of me. He wasn’t heavy. I wanted to be covered by him, still have him inside me, kissing the top of my head for a very long time. When he rolled off, I rolled with him and snuggled. “The world seems right when I’m with you,” I said. “I think I’ll need a lot of this.”
“Me too. Do you think we stand a chance?”
“God, I hope so. I hope you can forgive me. I’ll try to make it up.” I kissed his hairy cheek. “I want another drink. Do you?” I scooted out of bed, found his shirt and put it on against the coolness of the room. I poured two fingers of scotch into our glasses. Sniffing the pungent odor of iodine and peat mixed, I handed the tumblers to him to hold as I climbed into the bed. I piled my pillows against the headboard, and retrieved my drink. He balanced on one elbow, took a swallow, and looked at me.
“After I sew the buttons back on, I think I’ll give you that shirt, it never looked like that on me,” he teased.
“Humm. Cute. Sounds like a beach romance.”
Suddenly, I smelled a very strong scent. “Do you smell it? Do you smell the smoke?” I asked, sniffing and turning to Marc. I saw the confused look in his eyes and said, “She’s here. I smell peat smoke. Get me some paper and a pen. Quick, from the desk drawer, hotel stationary, anything. Just get it.” He brought them back as I sat my glass on the floor. I took the pen and paper from him just as her thoughts started running through my mind.
“Who is here? What’s wrong?” demanded Marc.
“I’m fine. Just let me be quiet for a few minutes and then I’ll tell you.”
Jahna was here. I closed my eyes and let her thoughts put pictures into my head. She stood in the spot on the mountain where the sun shone at sunset. She was there with someone, looking back at her village. Several homes stood on the hilltop, farms in the surrounding valley and three hills in the distance. I could feel her happiness. She loved this spot and she shared it with those she loved, a man and a child, their daughter. I could feel the two standing beside me. I saw her home, the one closest to the gate, with the unusual small alcove. Something was heavy in my hands. She looked at a bronze bowl. It wasn’t the one I found last year, this one was different. A big, red forest fox ran in across the path in front of them. My mind went blank. The pictures were gone. Jahna was gone. I wrote down what I could remember, although the scene seemed burned into my head. I wrote about the sights and feelings that ran through my mind and drew a picture of the bowl. I sketched three ravens as I saw them on the outside of the bowl. When I was done, I slumped in exhaustion, and the paper and pen fell to my lap.
Marc leaned over and took me into his arms. “What the hell was that? I thought you were having some sort of seizure or something, and then you started writing. What happened?”
“I’m sorry, but Jahna came. I felt her touching me several times today and wanted to get everything she told me on paper so I didn’t forget it. I saw the hill-fort, Marc. It’s there!”
“Your ghost? Your invisible friend, Jahna?” he asked as he leaned back on his pillows. “Did she show you where to find some money to pay the crew with?”
I remembered the invisible friend poem my girlfriend made up when we were kids. I picked up my glass of scotch, put my folded notes in my pants pocket so I’d find them tomorrow, and went into the bathroom to take a shower. I didn’t say a word.
I had just stepped under the hot spray when the bathroom door opened, and Marc walked in. “All right. I’m sorry. I promise to try not to make fun of you about this again.” I thought about his apology for a nanosecond, accepted it, and invited him into the shower with me. He kissed me and we made soapy love again under the warm spray of the shower.
The next morning we rose early, breakfasted, and walked to the train station. The rain stopped about an hour before we went out, but the air still hung heavy with the ozone from the lightning storm. The gutters were full of fast-running water as we crossed the streets.
We arrived at the train station by seven-thirty. People were milling everywhere waiting for the train from London to arrive. Some waited to greet lovers and family and others with luggage were ready to start an adventure. A loud din surrounded us. I glanced up at Marc as he looked out over the crowd. I grasped his arm to keep him close, and he leaned to hear me. “I know what happens to me is very hard for you to believe. It would be hard for me to believe except I’m living it. I’ve never told anyone else, not even Brad, and I want to keep it that way. Please don’t mention it unless we are alone.”
“Okay. I haven’t and won’t tell anyone until you do. By the way, do you get warnings when this is going to happen? Does it ever happen when you’re driving?”
“Yes, I smell peat smoke. Sometimes just a whiff and sometimes it’s thick. Last night it was heavy and no, it’s never happened while I was concentrating on something, like driving. I need to be relaxed.”
“Good. Let me know when you smell it and I can get a drink and turn on the TV so you two can converse in peace,” he suggested as he continued to survey the crowd.
Pulling on his sleeve to get him to look at me, I asked, “Marc, all this must seem strange to you but you’re still here. Why? Most people would’ve run at my first mention of Jahna. I couldn’t believe you didn’t go downstairs and tell the team about her. I was surprised the next morning when you weren’t on your way to Wales and you’re still here after last night. Why did you stay?”
He pursed his lips and nodded as if deciding to answer my question was difficult.
“Okay. Here’s my confession. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I’ve an aunt in Ireland who talks to the dead, or so she says. My uncle says she got bored with him and wanted to bring some excitement into their marriage. She says that isn’t true, but she does love being fey. My uncle doesn’t fully believe her but says it doesn’t harm anyone. No one else admits to it although my cousin seems a bit strange at times. Of course, that could be just because she lives in Ireland. They seem happy. And, ghosts are a big part of this island. They’re woven into our history. And who knows, this may be that one piece of information that will lead us to our pot of gold under the rainbow,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Thank God for his Irish aunt. I decided I’d have to meet her someday.
The train arrived in all its thunder and confusion. We watched for George among the detraining passengers, me jumping up and down trying to see past the bodies of those around us, Marc calmly looking over the heads of the crowd.
75 AD May-June
The oak fires of Beltane were cold, the home fires cleansed and restarted. The proper sacrifices were made and rituals observed. Lovern had seen his fox vixen with two new pups this spring so all was well in his mind. Mine was dark with foreboding. In it lay a heaviness that did not allow recognition.
Twelve bloody moons had passed since our marriage. I slept with mistletoe under my head, and making a sacrifice to the god Lug often crossed my mind. Lovern had not voiced any concern about my not being with child. He told me what the gods wanted to happen would happen in their time. I was the impatient one.
My mother requested – no, demanded a grandchild. I hoped to give her one before she died. My mother, at forty sun cycles, was one of the last of her generation. All her childhood friends were gone and she bemoaned it every day. Gray now streaked her bronze hair, and her blood cough caused her to lose strength. She wasted, eating only soup. I worried that I would not be able to ease her pain.
She had coughed blood last month, even with our treatments. I knew from the experiences of the others that we could not stop the course of the illness, but I hoped we could slow it. We made her comfortable. I was selfish and did not want her to go before she held my child. I used this to explain the darkness in my mind.
Beathan passed thirty-eight sun cycles, and was now the oldest among his warriors. He swore he had not lost any strength. However, he walked slower, and sometimes could not count hogs in a pen at a distance the way he used to. Streaks of white ran through his beard. He had shades of gray near his ears he tried to hide when liming his hair.
The seanmhair of our clan was almost sixty sun-cycles and revered. A grandmother many times over, she revealed stories of her youth during our festivals.
“My father and brother died in battle against other clans. My first husband’s head hung off the rail of an enemy’s war chariot, the fourth summer we were married.” She always started her tales with these sad memories. “You complain of hardships but you do not know of those we suffered when we were young.” The snowstorms in her youth were fiercer than ours and the stream flooded every year. “Beathan’s peace has made you soft. You may come to regret not having to stay fit by fighting every day,” she told us.
She could not walk. Carried to the festivals, they said she was as light as a seed. She ate food that someone else chewed. Her breasts hung to her waist, and her face was lined with the tracks of many sorrows. Her hair, still long and plaited on top of her head in our fashion, was the color of the wispy clouds that came before a rain. Goddess be blessed, her mind was clear. She and I spoke often. She had in her memory many cures from the old times. Sometimes when we were together, she sat and stared at me.
“Why do you look at me so, Seanmhair?”
“I see no age in your face. It is the face of a youth. No age lines like mine. I see no age lines in your future,” she said. “Always be at peace with our gods. You will not live long.”
I shivered. I have lived through nineteen growing seasons. How many more would the gods give me?
A dal was called after our last Samhainn. All the valley clans attended the meeting. Lovern and Beathan represented our clan. It was there Lovern learned that the sea grass harvest on the coast brought in several rare kinds this year and that the tradesman who brought these to us died on his last trip. Lovern wanted to go gather the sea grass. We had many uses for it, such as thick-neck, aching of the joints, sick stomach, aches of the head, and the expelling of afterbirth. There were healing quartz stones on the beaches as well.
“I have not seen the sea from this coast. I would like to go and gather as much as two ponies can carry. If I stay long enough to dry it before packing, I can bring more home.”
“I cannot go,” I said. “Mother is not well and there are the plants that are ready to harvest here that I must take care of. The winter rains stopped early, and we will lose the plants in bloom if not gathered now. We need the seaweed. You must go. I ask that you take Braden with you for companionship and another sword if needed. I am afraid. The Romans are beginning to cross the line they have not crossed before. It is true, you will be headed away from them, but you do not know who might meet you in the dark.”
“My wish is not to fight, but you are right. It is auspicious to have three go. I will ask Beathan for Callum to also accompany Braden and me.”
Beathan was reluctant to let another warrior or pony leave his stable. He asked me whether I foresaw any battles in our clan’s future that might require the warriors Lovern requested.
“I dreamed a badger was overtaken by a bear and two wolves. The dream ended with much blood, but the badger lay dead and three ponies were on the trail leading to our clan,” I responded. I saw the future more often now. I accepted it as another gift from the gods.
“Unnh,” said Beathan. “There will be a fight. But, if you saw the badger taken by a bear, then good, I am the bear. I never lose a battle. My sons and other warriors who live under the sign of the wolf will be here. Braden and Callum have other signs. They can go, Druid. Take three ponies. Use your own backs to carry supplies or find a way to trade for another pony,” he growled and lumbered away to attend to the clan council.
“To cross the mountains, gather and dry the sea grass, you will be gone at least three moons. You need something to trade for food and supplies. Take the blue dye and iron pin I use for tattoos. Copy the patterns and the spirals from our labyrinth that I tattooed on you, Braden and Callum. The symbols will be unknown where you go.” I traced one up his arm. “Warriors and others will want these and animal symbols. If you tattoo a chieftain or high warrior you can trade for a pony and come home faster.”
Bags filled with dried pork, barley, and bitter vetch to quell hunger, barely gave room to sit on the three smallest ponies from Beathan’s herd. When I saw the size of the ponies, I went to Beathan. He told me that Lovern was lucky to get them and if I complained again, he would find even those small ponies lame and unable to travel.
“Uncle, you are a very stubborn man. We have done much to help your clan, our clan. Lovern is going on this journey to gather healing plants and yet you do not wish to make the trip easy. If you become ill in the middle of the night, remember that I sleep deeply and will not get up until the sun does!”
I slammed his door as I left. His laughter and “I never become ill!” followed me.
Braden, the warrior I fawned after like a puppy in my youth, and Callum gathered at our door at dawn on the next morning. I studied Braden and compared the differences between him and Lovern. Braden was much thicker around his waist now, and his nose was always red. These were signs of much mead every day. He was noisy and was always fighting. He was a good warrior but not a good husband.
Lovern had passed twenty-three sun cycles. His body was still lean. Quiet, he often meditated. He drank mead sparingly, and ate lightly. He and I kept many long hours, but our energy did not lag. He was the perfect mate for me.
The sun peaked over the top of the mountain behind Lovern and his hair glistened with the red gold of its light. I handed him the small jug of blue woad dye, stoppered with a piece of oak branch, and my sharp iron pin. It was threaded into a piece of my plaid.
“Keep these near your heart. They will remind you of me through the long nights you are gone.”
“Ahh, Jahna. I have traveled before and have never forgotten you. Do not my homecoming nights, wrapped in your arms, prove that? My body sometimes remembers even when I should be thinking of other things. This is the longest time I will be gone, but I will return to you.”
I smiled, my throat catching my breath, not allowing me to speak. I swallowed my tears.
He pulled a small leather bag from his tunic. “I made this for you. You will have our labyrinth with you always. Your stone is beautiful but too large to carry,” he said smiling.
It was fashioned after his memory bag; its labyrinth was smaller but more detailed than his. I clutched it close to my heart and bit the tip of my tongue, tasting blood, so I would not cry and spot it with tears of loneliness.
I drew my dirk, raised it to the hair that fell around his shoulders and cut off a curl. A lock of my own raven black hair joined his. I mixed them together until his gold sparkled amid mine. I kissed it and then handed half to him. We opened our memory bags and placed the precious token inside.
“We will be near each other always,” I said.
He gathered me into his arms; his nose buried in my hair, my head filling with his scent and whispered, “Your hair smells of the heather in our bed. If you need me, I will feel you. Dream of me, Jahna. Ask me and I will come. Just dream.”
He mounted his restless pony, turned, and said, “Do not be at odds with Beathan. He is stubborn, like you, but he is my friend and he has given us much.”
I nodded. He rode to the gate where Braden and Callum were waiting and the three trotted down the trail, away from me.
Lovern had been gone one full cycle of the moon. Twenty-eight sunrises. I counted his absence by sunrises because each greeted me after another restless night without him. I worked hard to pass the days.
Sileas told me we needed to re-supply our meadowsweet. The deceptive meadowsweet, cursed in my memories. I could not smell or think on it after this day without gagging. Its creamy blossoms, though sweet scented, released a strong odor when crushed. It was used to relieve headaches, fevers, and pain. The flower was blooming in the meadow near the creek at the edge of the forest. I had been there often but never ventured farther. It was a full day’s ride from the hill.
Beathan gave me the use of one of his older ponies, a mare that gave birth to many strong colts. I was not in a hurry, and her gentle ride would help the time pass. I was ready to spend the night there, alone, and ride back the next day. If Beathan had known I was going alone, he would not have allowed me to go.
I told my mother I would be home for the next day’s evening meal and put some dried pork and bread in my pocket. It was a warm day. I did not take my cape, but dressed in the green dress Lovern said turned my eyes mistletoe green. I smiled at the thought and slung my memory bag over my shoulder.
At the meadow, I tied the pony on a bush near the creek. There was long grass for her to nibble.
The day was beautiful. The harvested flowers gifted the air with the aroma of cleanliness. I filled and tied my cloth. Finches flitted from branch to branch on the edge of the meadow in a great chorus of feeding. My pony joined in the sounds of nature surrounding us. She gave a soft, contented whinny. I arched up, my arms stretched over my head to the blue sky, and took in a deep breath. The warmth of the sun filled the air. Overhead, I followed the hunting glide of a falcon. Sometimes I likened my passage dreams and visions to being able to fly like a falcon. When I had passage dreams, I was out of my earth body and able to go great distances unencumbered. I gave thanks to Morrigna. I had one regret: I wished to share this day with Lovern.
When my right leg gave way, I fell to the ground. Not understanding what happened, I looked at my leg and saw an arrow piercing my thigh, from back to front. How did it get there? Swift pain took my breath and senses away, and then I smelled him.
The rancid stench of rotting eggs and piss blanketed me, and I vomited.
“Bitch. That is no way to greet your master.”
The first time I felt him there was more pain; he grabbed my long hair and jerked my head back. He stood above me, the bow and unused arrows in his other hand. I had a quick view of a short, unkempt man. My last sight before I fainted was his black-bearded grimy face, broken with a sneer.
I woke to the jolting gait of my mare. I was loaded across her back, and tied ankles to hands under her belly. I groaned as I tried to move my head around to clean air. My leg burned as nothing I had ever felt before. I saw blood dripping from my foot and knew my wound was bleeding.
“Shut up, bitch. Do not cry out. It will not help you.”
I felt a sharp pain behind my ear and then nothing.
The sickening, rocking motion had stopped. I was off my pony and lying on the ground. I smelled the earth as well as the foulness of the man. I tried not to move as I slowly opened my eyes. The light was dim, but I could see a hollow under an overhang of a hillside. He had built a wall of branches and logs. I looked further and saw I was alone, so I tried to move. My leg pounded, and I had an intense thirst; my mouth was sticky.
The arrow was gone from my leg. I had treated a similar wound in a warrior’s leg who had been shot while hunting. The arrow was not difficult to remove. He lived. I had hope. My bone was not broken, but I could not move my leg without the risk of fainting from the pain and restarting the bleeding. It was wrapped in a dirty rag. I prayed blood poison would not take hold, but in this hut, poison thrived. A thought ran through my head. I might not live long enough for blood poison to be a worry.
My hands were tightly bound in front of me with a braided cord, tied to an iron ring and attached to a peg in the ground. I tugged, but it was secure. Startled, I watched as the corner of the wooden wall lifted and the man crawled in.
“You are awake. Good. I want you to feel what I do to you.”
I tried to roll away and fold my knees into my belly, but I cried out at the sharp stab of fire-like pain. I watched in horror as he came closer.
“Don’t worry, bitch, you will not need to move. I will move for both of us,” he said with a yellow grin.
The dim light filtered in through the wooden wall, but it was enough for me to see him. Long, greasy, mouse-brown hair covered his head. The angular bones of his narrow eye sockets jutted out above a beard that hid the lower part of his face. His lips were barely visible through the tangle. His pitted and scabbed nose ended in a point. He panted through his open mouth and I saw the holes of missing teeth. I smelled rot in his breath as he drew closer. He used his gnarled and filthy hands to drag himself across the dirt to me. He carried my small dirk clasped in one hand and the other, open on the ground, had only three fingers and thumb. The first finger of that hand was missing, gone at the joint. I recognized that sign. He was a slave.
“You are mine. I am owed,” oozed out of his mouth.
Burning bile rose into my throat as he crept closer, like a venomous snake.
Never before was I this afraid. I had no way to protect myself and would become his victim. I knew the deep fear of feeling lost-the fear of a soul dying alone.
He was on me. I could not move. His filth-encrusted body rose to half-sitting as he reached over and cut off the green dress that Lovern loved. I screamed and writhed and he hit my face with a closed fist. His rough hands covered my breasts.
“The bitches at the camp were not like you. Dirty camp followers. They gave themselves to who ever had money or food. Not loyal to anyone. You, I will not share.”
His mouth covered my breast, and I screamed as he bit me.
He struggled to get his ragged tunic above his waist and when he had it tucked into his belt, he forced his knees between my bare thighs. The only covering I had now was the filthy bandage around my wound. I could see his swollen penis, as he held it in his hand, ready to force it into me.
“No! No! No! Morrigna, protect me!” I cried and tried to squirm away. My tied wrists and his body weight stopped me. The goddess must have been sleeping; she did not come. His full thrust into me and his weight on my wound pushed me into oblivion.
It was dark when I became aware again. I heard him snoring in a corner of the hollow. The cave filled with the acrid smell of his piss and rotting teeth. I rolled to my side and vomited again. Only bile came as I had not eaten nor drunk for many hours. I had no hunger, but my thirst was overwhelming. I knew it came because of the loss of blood. My swollen hands and joints began to ache from not being able to move freely. I was desolate, without hope. Abandonment, thoughts of no rescue, fueled the fire of my fear. I had no idea how far we were from the clan and did not know whether my blood left a trail to follow.
Then I remembered my labyrinths. Both my stone and the bag Lovern gave me. A hollow feeling of loss twisted my gut when I realized I might never see my memory bag again. If I stayed at this level of consciousness, I feared I would lose my mind. I had to escape. I brought my painted stone into my mind. I pictured the red and blue path surrounded by nature as I had painted it. I placed my forefinger on the path and followed as it led to the center, back out, and then in again. My breath calmed, and my muscles relaxed. Sudden wavelets of fear ripped through me, but I was able to contain them, to allow myself to fall into a light sleep. I had some control over myself. He had taken my body, but he could not capture my mind. The sun rose. I was still alive. He sat near me, drinking from a flask.
“Please,” I croaked, my voice dust in my throat. “May I drink?”
He threw the flask to me, and I grabbed it with my swollen hands, barely able to hold it. Two swallows of water were all he gave me.
He laughed and again crawled to me. I screamed as he bit my other nipple.
“I can have you at any time. I am as good as those cursed Romans and their whores,” he said as he lifted his bare buttocks over me. He was ready and groaned and pushed into me. His thrusts were uneven and shallow at first but as he continued they became faster and deeper. His weight crushed the air out of me and caused my leg to pound. My eyes closed, and I tried to fly like a falcon. I begged the gods to let me escape.
When he was done, he lifted off me, his penis small and drooling. He rolled back to his corner and sat up.
“Please, more water. My wound. I need to drink,” I whispered.
He lifted the corner of the wall that was his door and left. In a few minutes, he brought back the flask and gave it to me. It was full, and I drank it all. I vomited.
“Gods curse you. This place is small enough without your messes.” He untied the cord from the iron ring, leaving it attached to my wrists. He tugged and I crawled, forced to move like a worm, leaving the tatters of my green dress behind. He was unhappy at how slow I moved and when we were outside, was angry.
“You are not worth all this trouble. I will kill you soon and leave. The Romans are not far away. They will find me if I stay.” He tied me to another iron-ringed peg pounded into the ground near the cave entrance.
“If my clansmen find you first there will be nothing for the Romans to find.”
He stood and kicked me in the stomach.
“Shut up, bitch.”
I vomited again and fainted.
He was on me when I awoke. Finished, he rolled off, stood and pissed. I don’t know why he told me bits of his story. I hated his voice and wished he would choke while he talked.
His voice was gravel in my ears. “I was once a great warrior for Queen Boudiccea.” Lovern’s queen, I realized. “When she killed herself, I tried to escape but they caught me and cut off my finger.”
Was his story supposed to make me feel sympathy for him? It did not. If I could have reached my dirk, I would have cut his throat and drunk his blood with no regrets.
“I shoveled Roman horseshit. Me, a warrior! I hate them. One night, the guard drank too much. I got hold of his dirk, slit his gut, and ran. I have been running for days. Hunting and eating when I could. I built this shelter. I was hunting when I found the best game of all—you. Now it is time to go. I will not like leaving you but you will slow me too much. Pity. You are beautiful and a good fuck.” He was done pissing but started to rub himself. He was getting stiff again.
I forced myself to think. Something echoed in my head. He would not stray far from his protective cover to hunt. We were not far from the meadow. There was a chance of discovery. My soul lifted. I knew now I had a chance to live. Hope began to rekindle.
He laid on me again and I bit his ear. The metallic taste of his blood heightened my thirst. He pressed my dirk next to my cheek and threatened to slice my eyes if I did it again. He pushed into me and I traced my labyrinth in my mind.
The second night, I started shivering. Still outside, I lay on the cold ground. The skin near my wound was red streaked. Blood poison. My body was heating from inside. My goddess was warring with my soul. I concentrated on my labyrinth and Lovern. I must not cross the river of death yet, but I would die if I did not get away soon.
My mind, deep in meditation with the labyrinth, allowed the shivering of my illness to take over my body. The third day he gave me just enough water to keep me alive, nothing more. My soul came to the top of my body, to cross the deep and fast river, twice.
To let go and cross the river of death would have been easy.
“No!” said the goddess. “You cannot go. You have more pain to live through for me. You have more to sacrifice. I will not let you go, yet,” she told me.
My blood poisoned pus odor mixed with his putrid fungus smell, and gagged me as I inhaled. I flew into my passage dream with the stench of rot in my nose. Three small ponies stood shuffling their feet on the sand. Callum and Braden packed bags of dried seaweed. Then I knew. I was in Lovern! Morrigna granted me one last wish. Startled by my visit, Lovern hesitated, and sat on the beach with his eyes closed. It was different this time; I gave him my message. I sent him my fear. I relayed my anguish. I begged for his rescue. I cried for his return. My pain tore through his heart and when he opened his eyes, I heard him tell Braden and Callum, “Go for the ferryman. We must leave the island, now!” He ran to his pony. I left his mind. Lovern knew. My dream was over.
On what I learned later was the third day, a vision appeared. A giant bear stood tall over me, growling. His fangs glistened. He dropped to all four feet, and called my name. How could a bear know my name?
“Jahna, do not speak. I am here to take you home. You are safe,” the bear said.
My mind was not clear. Who was here? Beathan? I remembered the man telling me he was going hunting and would be back soon. My voice would not come. There was no moisture in my body. I could not speak more than a frog’s croak. Beathan’s dirk slipped under the cord tying my hands and the sky behind him exploded.
Sound and motion rushed in, and Beathan, caught on his knees, twisted away from me into a man who would kill him. Beathan fought using the dirk. He lunged forward. His dirk plunged into the triangle between the man’s legs, cutting the tool that had done so much damage to me. I screamed with the pleasure of seeing the blood and pain of this animal that had tortured me. The shrieking man straightened and raised his sword. Beathan tried to stand and stumbled. He was half crouched when the sword swooped down. The world fell silent for a breath. Then a victory screech tore into my ears.
Beathan’s blood washed over me. His body fell to one side and his head to the other. I stared into his eyes as his soul crossed. For an instant, I was without thought. How could our chieftain, our ceann-cinnidh, my brave Uncle, be dead? But he was. I closed my eyes and prayed.
“Cerridwen. Take our ceann-cinnidh. He was brave in battle. Make his crossing easy.” I could not think of more to say.
The trees around me came to life. Our clan war cries, branches, and blood rained down. Finlay and Kenric were here. They sliced the man into small pieces before he fell to the ground. His blood mixed with Beathan’s on my body. His dead eyes stared into Beathan’s. And my world changed.
When I awoke I smelled puffball fungus. A clean, healing smell. Its spores fought blood poison in wounds such as mine. I was laying on a bed in our hospice, Sileas bent over me. Tears coursed down her face as she raised my head to sip the tea she held to my lips.
“Drink, it will help you sleep. It is what is best for you now. Do not remember, just sleep.”
“Beathan,” I whispered after I took a sip of the warm elixir.
“He thought he alone could rescue you. He told Finlay and Kenric to wait. It cost him his life. But he died in battle. His head was buried with his body, so his soul has crossed. He is at the Long Table of Chieftains, ready to fight for the right to carve the joint and drink his fill of mead,” she said, crying as she spoke.
My eyes closed, and his dead face filled my mind. “May you find peace, Beathan. I owe you my soul. I will honor you,” I prayed. “My memory bag?”
She put it in my hands. I trembled as I opened it and slipped my fingers inside. Our hair still mingled. I pulled it out, and the light picked up the bronze glitter of Lovern’s hair.
“He is coming,” I said and smiled, my heart beating fast at the thought.
She helped me get our tangled locks of hair back into the bag, and I held it close to my heart.
She bade me sleep. I held my bag up to see the labyrinth. This pattern kept me from leaving my body and dying. I followed its trail with my finger as every muscle in my body relaxed, aided by the drink. One small vision appeared before I slept. I held my baby up to the skies. I heard her cry. I prayed, please let it be Lovern’s child.
Do not let the monster leave a mark.
75 AD June
Spirits haunted me day and night. I was afraid to be alone.
With Sileas and Harailt’s care, my body was healing. My mind was not. My blood moon came. Thank Morrigna. I was not carrying his child. I hobbled, walking aided with a stick, while my leg wound healed. I spent most of my time in Finlay’s smithy or his home with Eiric, his wife. I needed to rest where I blended into the background. In the house, Eiric managed their five children. She seemed to always be in motion. Her four girls helped with the chores and watched the baby boy. Now ten moons old, he was beginning to walk. I tried to hold him, but he wriggled out of my arms faster than I could move to catch him. He made me smile when it hurt to smile.
The toddler, Broc, looked like both his mother and his father. His father’s sky blue eyes sparkled with the laughter that bubbled out of him, and his mother’s blond hair was just becoming thick enough to be seen on his head. Whenever Finlay came into his house, he would smile and rub the boy’s head as if making sure he was still there. After four girls, he finally had a boy child and I saw his pride.
“I will make his first sword and take him hunting,” he said. “He will make a fine warrior for the chieftain. My girls will marry warriors and hunters. I can ask no more from the gods.”
Kenric, my other cousin and Finlay’s older brother, was now our chieftain. I spent little time in his dwelling. He and his family had moved into Beathan’s home. His wife, Caitrin, managed the two boys, the feeding of the family and all the warriors and others who came to eat with the chieftain. I could not help as much as I had earlier, and I felt underfoot.
There was another reason I did not go there. Beathan was in every corner and I saw blame in the eyes of the men who were now Kenric’s warriors.
I did not have the energy to work at the hospice. Sileas, Harailt, and I would discuss the illnesses, injuries, and treatments. They followed what I suggested in Lovern’s absence.
I was also unwilling to sit and weave with my mother. She wore the grief of losing Beathan in her eyes, but even worse, I saw Lovern in our home. Lovern was at the fire, mixing medicines in our room, and drinking mead at the table. I could not sleep in our bed. His scent was gone.
Most nights I trembled in a corner by the loom, the putrid smell of the badger filling my nose. In my mind, I went back to the hut, wondering if I could have stopped him in some way. The gods did not give me an answer to this never-ending question.
Confusion, always nearby, reigned over me. Mother spoke of Lovern coming home. She missed the druid and his medicines. I prayed for and dreaded his return. My passage dream had alerted him, and he was coming, I was sure. But when he arrived, how could I tell him that the man who had taken me also beheaded our chieftain, his friend Beathan? Even that seemed a small concern when I worried about how he could still love me after my taking. Another man had used me.
The idea of Beathan’s gift had started the day I sat near Finlay’s stone workbench on a small wooden stool. Buckets of water stood ready for dunking the hearth-heated metal. Pieces of leather used to work bronze were lying on the bench. Tools hung from the beams or lay on the ground near the hearth. Here, Finlay had crafted the small oak pins that Beathan declared represented our family. He had honed and engraved Beathan's swords on this workbench, the blades now buried with Beathan. He made plows and sharpened knives here. I felt safe. The heat, the smell of charcoal, and the rush of work in the smithy wrapped around me like a woolen shield.
Finlay had started work on a bronze bowl the day before. I watched him hammer the metal into shape and pictures drew themselves in my head.
“What will it look like when you finish?”
“I have no design in mind.” Finlay stopped hammering and reached for a mug of mead. "How would you decorate it?”
“I would use an oak tree and its acorns.” I picked up a stick and drew it in the dust on the floor. A shaft of sunlight streamed through the hole in the wall of the smoky room to the center of my picture. “There are strong branches, able to carry many responsibilities. Here, acorns, ready to grow into adults, and finally the heart of the oak, pure. It burns with the fierce heat of bravery.” As I traced the tree, I cried for the first time. I cried for Beathan. I cried for the loss of my life as it had been.
Finlay put down his mead, walked around the workbench, and sat beside me in the dirt of the smithy floor. The alder charcoal fire in his hearth was hot on our backs. My tears mixed with his sweat as he hugged me, his heavy leather apron stiff against my face.
“I am sorry for Beathan’s death. It was because of me. If I had not gone out that day, Beathan would be here.” I sobbed into his shoulder.
“Beathan died saving your life. But remember, Jahna, he died in battle, as a chieftain. He is in the next world, on the council, making decisions for others. You are the one who reminds us that we all die. Some go easily in sleep, some go with a difficult sickness, but we sing songs about those who die in battle.”
I looked to his face, his misty eyes belying his words of strength.
“I have started a song for Beathan that will keep his memory alive for many generations,” he said. “Our clan will remember him as long as we are a clan.”
“A s-song,” I stuttered. My tears stopped. I wiped my face and nose with my dress. “A song for a brave warrior.” Finlay stood up and shook out his tunic, lifting the wet spot I had created on his shoulder away from him. He nodded, and I continued, “I would like to decorate this bowl and take it to Beathan. Will you teach me to work the metal?”
“Yes, I will teach you. The tattoos you design are good. The tree you drew in the dirt will give honor to the bowl and be a fitting gift to Beathan.” He picked up the bowl he was working on and said, “I promised this one to Darach. He is giving me woven wool so my girls can make new dresses. They grow too quickly. It is a gift from him to his wife for the son she gave birth to six moons ago.”
He walked over to a storage chest and lifted out a bar of metal. “I have just enough bronze to make another bowl for the honor gift to Beathan. You will engrave it, and we will take it to Beathan’s tomb when you finish. Here are the tools I use for the fine work,” he said and opened a leather packet.
Out rolled small iron, copper, and bone tools. There were hammers, and sharp picks with different shaped tips.
“I have a copper bowl that has no engraving. I use it for washing. You can use these tools to practice on that bowl. Learn how each moves the metal and leaves its mark. Learn how you can make them different.” Our last smith had fashioned a large copper bowl that Finlay brought to me. Picking up several tools, he demonstrated. “Hold this one like this and gently tap. Do not pierce the bowl or you will be hammering it back into shape.” He laughed.
I turned the bowl over in my hands, feeling every bump and wrinkle. I said a prayer to Dagda, asking for the energy to create my picture, and began with one small tap. Small nicks and scratches happened at first, but I got used to the way of the tools, and became sure of myself. I worked without lifting my head, lost in the bowl.
Several days later, Finlay lined the second, unfinished bowl with a piece of leather and used small taps to create a finish that reflected shards of firelight around the room.
“It is beautiful,” I said, holding it in my hands gently, as if it would break. I gave it back to him.
He laid it on his hearth. He went to his small altar, near the hearth, and knelt to say a prayer to the smith’s goddess, Brigit. I kneeled beside him and prayed to Bel to inspire me with the skill to complete my work, to Brigit to thank her for the bowl, and to Morrigna to ease my panic and fears. We both rose and Finlay carried the bowl back to the workbench. I brought over the two nearby stools and we sat.
Finlay picked up the copper bowl I had practiced on and looked at it silently. He turned it from the scratches I had created in the beginning to the design covering the other side. “What is this? I have seen it on the bag the druid carries.”
“It is a labyrinth. See how it leads to the center and back? It is a path from the center of the earth to the gods. Lovern brought it with him from his home and he taught me to use it.” I stopped talking for a moment, and remembered my finger tracing the path in my head. “It helped me escape most of the pain of the taking.” I did not tell him that I had not been able to use it since.
Reminded of my trials, he searched my face. Was he looking for signs of lunacy? As if reaching a decision in my favor, his face relaxed and he nodded.
“Hmm,” he grunted. He put the copper bowl aside and picked up the bronze. “I know you will create an honorable design. We can make the trip to place it in his tomb when you are finished.”
In two days, I engraved the design of the oak onto the bowl. I tapped leaves on the strong branches that spread around its circumference. I scratched lines on the acorns. I carved my heart into the heart of the tree. When I stopped to look at it, memories of Beathan flooded my mind. I remembered when he brought food and peat to my mother and me when the snow was deep. When I was small, he lifted me to his shoulders to carry me through the mud. He helped repair our loom when it was overused. I gave thanks to the goddess that Beathan had been a part of my life. Now the bowl honored his life as a caring ceann-cinnidh of our clan as well as my uncle.
Pleased with my work, I turned it over in my hands. It was time to show Finlay.
He was fitting a new buckle to Kenric’s war chariot’s leather harness. Kenric wanted all Beathan’s harnesses for his ponies and chariots repaired. Beathan had worn them to breaking.
My breath held in anticipation of what he thought, I walked over to him. He cooled the buckle in a bucket of water. Hot steam rose, and he cautioned me to wait. He went to the labyrinth bowl, washed his hands, and walked back to me, wiping his hands on his tunic. He raised the hem of his garment to sop the sweat from his face. As he raised his shirt, his strong belly muscles rippled. A picture flashed through my consciousness. Lovern’s smooth belly and chest. Gripped with a longing for him, I inhaled through closed teeth and silently begged him to hurry. Come home to help me heal and, I prayed, to forgive me.
Finlay took the bowl and looked at it, for what seemed to me, time enough to grow a new beard. He turned it over and around, carried it to the door, used the sun for light, and came back to the workbench. I could not read his face. He picked up a piece of very soft leather, a bucket of water and a small jug of fine creek sand. First, dipping the leather into the water, he touched it to the sand and began to polish the bowl.
“Use a gentle circle movement.” He handed it to me, nodded, and said, “It is a good and fitting gift for Beathan.”
I was proud and pleased.
“Can we take it soon?”
“If Kenric allows. Tonight I will show it to him and the warriors. I will ask if others want to accompany us to Beathan’s tomb to place it.”
I heard the music and laughter echo through the lodges, late into the night, from the evening meal’s gathering. Just before dawn, Finlay knocked on my door. I was awake. I opened the door, and he stood, swaying, silhouetted by the moon. He spent his night drinking and singing his song, regaling Beathan’s heroic deeds.
“I heard you sing your new song repeatedly last night. It must be liked by the men.”
“Yes, I will teach it to you on the journey. We will have plenty of time. We are readying to go to the tomb.”
The tomb. We will make the trip today, I thought.
“There are four of us including you,” he said. “Kenric is coming and bringing his son Logan. He is old enough to leave his mother now. We are loading the ponies. Come to the stable soon.”
“Be sure to take food,” my mother whispered into my ear. “All those men will bring is mead. They must always be reminded that there are things that satisfy a hunger other than mead,” she said with a smile and then coughed blood.
I described the bowl to my mother last night before she slept. Her eyes misted, and she said, “It is a good gift to take to my brother. His spirit is walking at night. I see him, sometimes, in torment. I think he is disturbed at the way he died. He holds his head in his hands and tears fall from his eyes. Maybe this will comfort him.” She nodded and mused with her fingers resting on her lips. “Yes. It is good that you are doing this.”
Her agreement did not take the heavy guilt from my back.
Finlay, Kenric, little Logan and his wolfhound Mialchu were at the stable gathered around the impatient, stomping ponies. Logan, at six sun cycles, was Kenric’s oldest, and looked through his father’s gray blue eyes. His mother’s blond hair was tied back with a short piece of leather. His feet were in one place, but his body bounced all over the stable. I stood and watched, amazed at how he could move yet not move. Small boys were to be watched and kept from harm, but not understood by adults.
Kenric asked whether Logan could ride with me. He was too small for his own pony on such a long journey. Our supplies, Kenric’s and Finlay’s swords and shields were strapped to the rumps of their ponies. There was no room for Logan.
“I will be honored to ride with the grandson of Beathan. I will tell him stories of his grandfather,” I said.
I wore the leather pouch decorated with the labyrinth Lovern had drawn. I tied my dirk to my belt, and a short sword that had been Beathan’s hung across my chest. It was a gift from Kenric when I walked again. It had hung in Beathan’s lodge. Kenric told me to use it for protection. It lay well balanced and not heavy in my hand. With it, I would kill the next man who hurt me.
Finlay handed me the bowl, wrapped in soft doe’s skin, and I slipped it into the bodice of my dress. My corded belt held it in place. I used a small stool to mount the pony, and swung my leg over its back with a grimace. Logan was boosted up. I hoped for some peace as he began to wriggle and grope for a place to hang on. We rode, one in front of the other, down the trail to the lake.
Logan was unsettled so to quiet him for a few moments, I started a story. “I remember, when I was your age, your grandfather, my uncle, would throw me into the air. I loved it, but Mother hated it. She was sure he would drop me. I would cry until she gave in. He would throw me one more time and catch me. He then kissed my mother on her cheek and told me to run and play with Kenric, your father. He was a good man, your grandfather. We are a stronger people because of him. That is why we make this journey.”
Logan told me his stories of when Beathan tossed him into the air, too. His mother had reacted the same as mine.
“I miss my grandfather,” said Logan.
“Yes. So do I,” I said.
Beathan’s bowl began its journey.
George’s thick white eyebrows lifted in recognition when he saw Marc waving. He waved back, and then his hand fell to his balding head as if to straighten hair he’d remembered he used to have. He wore his uniform of khaki, multi-pocketed pants and a tan, long sleeved shirt.“Good,” he said. “I was hoping both of you would be here.”
He leaned his tall, work-stooped frame just enough to kiss me on my upturned cheek. I smelled coffee on his breath and saw crumbs of his breakfast on his shirt. His rough hands brushed my cheeks. He hated wearing gloves when working, always afraid of missing something. Time had created a road map of capillaries on his face that was new since the last time I had seen him. He also looked tired.“How are you, my girl?”
He was a trusted friend of my family. He knew my dad when they were younger and my dad made him promise to watch over me at university. Although my father died years ago, George still looked out for me.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m so glad to see you again. It’s been far too long.” I put my arm through his and noticed he seemed a bit thinner than I remembered. “How have you been?” I asked, patting his shoulder.
“Oh, you know, all the aches and pains that come with age. But I find, now that I’m
Marc picked up George’s bag and we climbed into the Rover. We dropped his bag off at Mrs. Dingleberrie’s and were on the hilltop by mid-morning.
“We’ve only been here two days but have part of a domicile excavated,” I said. “I’m expecting to find more very soon. I’m really excited about being here.”
I immediately saw the look I dreaded from his class when I would go to him and ask for an extension on my papers. I could never get them pared down to the page number requirement.
“You’re always trying to make something bigger than it really is, Aine. Well, we’ll see. I needed a small vacation for a day or two and then it’s back to my report. It’s worth the trip just to see you both on a job together,” he said, smiling.
“Yes. It’s been enjoyable so far.” Marc said, looking at me with a smile. He winked and I blushed. “We have a small crew, but all hard workers.”
We stopped at the edge of the excavated area where Matt and Tim were on their knees, trowels and brushes in hand.
“Did it stay dry?” I asked, changing the subject.
Tim and Matt stood and shook George’s hand.
“We had to use a bucket to get some of the water off the tarp before we moved it, but it’s dry enough here,” said Tim.
“Good. I see standing water in places. We could have been up to our knees if we hadn’t covered it,” I said.
“It is a good thing the tarps worked,” said Marc. “We probably don’t have enough money to get a pump and generator if we flooded. We’d have to break camp. We may have to do that in a day or so anyway if something more doesn’t show up.”
“I really don’t think we’ll have to worry about that anymore, Marc. I feel it in my bones,” I argued.
“As nice as your bones are, they could be mistaken,” Marc said.
I gulped and had no answer to that truth. My stomach was back on its nervous roil as Marc and I walked George around the site.
“You must have trusted Aine’s instincts somewhat,” George said as he reached over, tucked me protectively under his arm, and gave me a hug while we walked. “You called me and I’m glad you did. I’m happy to be here for her, even if only for a few days. I’ll help in any way I can.” He smiled at me. “You were a great help when my Sophie died. I’d’ve had a hard time of it if you hadn’t come and helped me. I’ll look around. If I think it is warranted, I know where we can get some funding.”
My hope leaped at this bit of good news, but the pressure was on. All I had to do was find something in the next few days. Jahna, I need you now, more than ever.
We were back at the tent and Kendy showed us her drawings of bits of pottery and the bronze blade we found yesterday.
“Marc, I’m going to take a hike up the mountain a bit,” I said. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to get to the trail to see if I could find the spot Jahna had shown me last night. I located the area the sun was shining on yesterday while we walked around. “I’ll take my camera. I think it would be valuable to have some photos of the hilltop and the surrounding area from above.” I pointed up. “The sky looks as if it might rain again, and I want to go before it starts.” From the way the clouds were forming, I figured I had several more hours before we had to pack it up and go back to the inn. I couldn’t waste time.
George agreed. “There might be some ancient trails that show up in photos from above. I think that’s a good idea. It might give us an idea how popular this hill was. Wait. I brought some new toys, walkie-talkies. Aine, why don’t you take one? They’re supposed to have a range of over two kilometers. This will be a good test. I’ve not had to use them this far away before. When you get up there, call and tell us what you see.”
I grabbed my pack, put in my camera, the walkie-talkie, a bottle of water and started to the mountain that flanked the hill.
I skirted around the standing water and mud puddles on the hilltop and found the trailhead. I hopped over ruts formed by rivulets that had run down it last night. The mountain was picturesque. Greenery of all shades was starting to show in the spring warming. Grasses and small brush surrounded granite boulders that seemed to burst out of the mountain’s side. It wasn’t a big mountain, but a respectable one in one’s book of mountains, I thought. The trail led me in a zigzag fashion, the way animals would clamber up. I followed it without much difficulty, stepping carefully to avoid slipping in the mud.
The larger exposed boulders partially hid my view of the hill below. About halfway up the trail, I stopped. The boulders opened up, and I saw the valley and hill clearly. The hilltop was just large enough for a few dwellings and the accompanying animals. We had uncovered the first sign of habitation and I visualized the rest of the fort. The depression that would have been the defensive wall followed the shape of the hill. I imagined people walking in the courtyard and animals in the stables.
Looking out over the fields, I saw the bog where Mr. Treadwell let some of his Highland cattle feed. There might have been a lake there at one time. On either side, now surrounded by stone walls that were centuries old, lay other fields that looked as if rows of ancient cultivation were plowed into them. They were now pastures for cattle.
As I turned back to the hilltop, I had a dizzying feeling of déjà vu. I had been on this spot last night. I looked through Jahna’s eyes with this view filling my vision. The spot now being excavated was where she saw her home in my awake dream. It was exactly where I decided to start digging. I knew she had come here to look over her home, happy with her life. There was nothing else I wanted more than to know her at that moment. She was happy, and I would have loved to see her and talk to her at that point in her life. She had given me a gift. Jahna allowed me to feel her joy.
I turned to go on, but something looked strange from the corner of my eye. An unusual slab of stone, actually a large piece of slate, was set into the mountain. It was out of place. This was a granite mountain, and didn’t have slate running through it naturally. Earth partially covered the slab, and a mound of dirt directly under it must have come off in the rainstorm last night. On its left was a trickle waterfall from last night’s rain. The soil was saturated.
Suddenly, I was depressed. My shoulders fell forward, and sadness filled me. I almost fell. I put my hand against the slate as a brace and sat down to catch my breath. The peaceful feeling was gone. I couldn’t understand the grief that replaced it. For a moment, it seemed all my dreams had vanished, that there was nothing left to live for.
I sat with my back against the slate, unable to see the hilltop below me. Dark shadows filled my eyes. I closed them to gather my strength to stand again, and felt the slate grow warm against my back. It was as if it were sun warmed, but the sun hadn’t cut through the clouds for hours. I leaned forward and, still seated on the damp trail, scooted around to face the slate. It was dark, the color of the damp earth around it, and large, about one and a half meters across and over a meter high. I traced it with my fingertips and found the outside edges buried in dirt. It was a huge piece of slate that should not have been there. Someone must have placed it for a purpose. I had to know who placed it and why it was here. Starting to try to dig around the stone with my fingers, I remembered the walkie-talkie. I pressed the button and said, “Hello George. Would you get Marc for me please?”
“Sure. I’m walking over to him now. Where are you?”
I stood up and waved my arms. “I am about halfway up the trail, and I’ve found something I’d like Marc to come see.”
“Hi, Aine. Oh, there you are, I see you waving,” said Marc. “What is it?”
“There’s a slab of slate up here. It looks human placed. Could you bring up some of our tools so we can take a look?”
“Should I get a pry bar from the Rover?”
“Yes, I think we might need it,” I said.
“George says he is coming too. He suspects the view from up there is good.” “Tell him he won’t be disappointed. I’ll take pictures of the stone and the surrounding area until you get here. You should also bring a tarp, the ground up here is very damp and we don’t want to be sitting on it for long without protection,” I said and wiped some of the mud off the bottom of my pants. “Bring Kendy along. We should get some grid sketches before we try to move it, too.”
“OK. We’ll be there soon,” Marc said.
While I waited, I took pictures of the surrounding valley, the hilltop and the stone slab. I put my hand next to it to give it a size comparison and pulled out my notebook to make a sketch. I wanted my own record. I knew this was important.
As soon as they arrived, we spread out the tarp. Kendy sketched the hillside and the slab. We used GPS readings and measurements to get its exact placement.
Finally, Kendy said she had enough information and Marc and I started cutting the soil away from its edges.
“It sure looks like it was covered originally. Either by humans or an early slide,” said George. “Last night’s rain must have loosened the soil just enough. The topsoil here looks a bit unstable so be careful. There is a shoulder of earth just above you that looks as if it could cause some trouble.”
I looked up where he was pointing and said, “Then we need to get it excavated so it doesn’t get covered up again. I don’t want to lose it. I have a feeling this is very important.”
“Okay,” Marc said. “We have it as far as we can go by hand. Grab here while I use the pry bar to loosen it a bit on this side.” The stone started to lean back and let light behind it for the first time in, I was betting, centuries.
“Stop,” I yelled. “There’s an opening. It looks like a cave. Let me take some pictures before you move it further.”
Marc and George held the slab in place, while I took pictures of the stone and the hole behind it. Kendy was furiously drawing. A minute later, we had it moved to the side and the mouth of the cave exposed.
I stood trembling while Marc, using a flashlight, peered into it. “It seems to go back a bit but I can’t see a lot through this small opening,” Marc said.
I got down on my stomach and crawled to the edge of the opening so I had a direct view into the cave. “This was dug by someone. It’s short, about four meters. I can see the end of it. And about a meter or a little more high and wide. I can see more slate lining its bottom and sides. There is a box of some sort toward the back,” I said, excitedly. “I’m going in.”
“Wait, Aine,” George and Marc said together.
“Do you think you should be going inside? This looks pretty water logged and could be dangerous,” asked George.
Marc continued, “We don’t have the best equipment to get anyone out if it collapses while someone is in there.”
“I’m willing to take the risk,” I said. “We need a big find to help fund this project, Marc, and this could be it. This cave is man made and is lined with slate. And that box. What could be in that box? I don’t have time to wait. I’m the only one who will fit in that hole. I am going in now.”
On my tummy, camera in one hand and flashlight in the other, I inched forward like a worm. I tried to keep the flashlight focused on the box and took pictures as I slid myself further into the dark cave.
“I’m at the box! Oh my gosh! Its sides are pieces of slate, balanced against the sides of the cave and each other. There is a larger piece that is the lid. There isn’t room in here to do anything more than lift the lid so here goes.”
The stale air made me sweat. I lifted the lid, slowly. The front and back sides of the box fell inward and banged against what was inside. I held my breath, and hoped I hadn’t broken anything. I laid the lid to the side, and saw a faded design painted on it. I couldn’t see what it was. I expected to be able to look it over more carefully outside, but now I longed to see what was behind the rest of the slate. I pulled the front side down and my flashlight highlighted a raven design. Three ravens intertwined. There, in front of me, was the bronze bowl I had seen in my dream last night.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” I screamed. “There’s a bronze bowl in here. Marc, I’ve found another bronze bowl!”
“Wow!” said Marc.
“Take pictures!” said Kendy.
“Be careful,” said George.
I snapped about thirty pictures, still unbelieving what I had discovered and said, “I am going to pick it up and bring it out.” I laid my camera and flashlight down and wrapped my hands around the bowl. I glanced up and noticed a shadow at the back of the cave. Something was on the floor, just beyond the bowl. I was drawn to it but first I wanted to get the bowl out.
“OK. You’ll have to help me. I have my hands full and can only use my elbows to move.” I felt myself being tugged by the hem of my pants. I inched backwards and my shirt bunched around my waist.
Finally out, I handed the bowl to Marc and stood, pulling my shirt down.
“There’s something inside,” said George. “It looks like cremated remains. It could be a burial bowl. We can send it to Glasgow for testing.”
I gently liberated the bowl from Marc’s sweaty hands. It was the size of a large grapefruit with three ravens engraved on the outside. As I held it, I felt the same heavy grief I had felt before. My shoulders slumped as I realized these must be Jahna’s ashes. I had found Jahna’s remains. I didn’t want to let it out of my sight but I realized it should be studied. “Okay. Yes. Send it to Glasgow. There probably are human remains in the bowl. Let’s see if there are enough remains for it to be sexed.”
“Good idea,” said Marc. “It could be another chieftain.”
“Could be,” I said. “Could be.” But I knew he was wrong.
“Kendy, would you walk it down for me?” I asked. “I need to go back in and get the camera.” George placed the bowl and its contents into a large, plastic bag, keeping it upright.
“Please be extra careful, Kendy. The trail is very slippery,” I said.
She started down saying, “I’ll guard it as if it contained my mom’s ashes.” I watched her until she was halfway down and said, “I have to go back in. I left the camera and flashlight and I saw something else in there.”
“OK, but be very careful and don’t stay long,” said Marc. “We should get down and start the paperwork on the bowl to get it sent off.”
I kneeled down, crawled back into the hole and inched forward until I reached the camera and flashlight. My hands stretched the last few inches and touched what had created the shadow. I had to make a choice. Do I carry out the top of the box or the unidentified lump that attracted me? I made the choice. I would come back to retrieve the slate. The lump was going first.
With the lump of metal in one hand, and camera in the other, the flashlight would be left behind. I could get it and the lid next time.
“I’m ready. You can start tugging.”
I was out up to my waist, when it happened. I heard a rumble and “Watch out!” simultaneously. Everything went black, and I couldn’t breathe. The whole mountain was on top of me. I tried to scream but choked. Someone whispered, “Do not let go of the acorn. Do not let go of my acorn.” I don’t remember anything else until the clinic.
When I woke up, a woman in a white coat hovered over me. Marc, George and the rest of the crew pressed their faces against a window, looking in. Machines buzzed and blinked and tubes of liquid ran into my arms.
“What happened? Where am I?” I asked.
“Hi, dearie,” she said.
Usually I hated to be called “dearie,” but I didn’t mind this time.
“It is sure good to see you awake. My name is Susan. I’m a nurse. You’re in clinic. Your friends brought you in. We’re waiting for an ambulance to get you to Fort William so you can have further tests. Do you remember what happened?”
I shook my head.
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Yes, Aine. Good. Glad to have you back.” She smiled a teacher smile at my correct answer.
“Well, you were buried in an avalanche and when they uncovered you, you weren’t breathing. Someone had to breathe for you until you started on your own.”
Over her shoulder, Marc’s dirt streaked face broke out into a wide grin. I lifted two fingers and waved, felt a sting in my arm and then everything was gone again.
The next time I woke up, George was in the room alone with me. “We’re at hospital in Fort William. You’ve been asleep for about twelve hours.”
“What happened?” I croaked.
“You were almost out of the cave when the ledge that I was worried about gave way. It triggered the whole cave to collapse. Marc and I scrambled out of the way and when the dirt stopped falling, we got back on our knees and dug for our lives. Uh, for your life. It seemed to take an eternity but I guess it was only a couple of minutes before we had you out. You weren’t breathing and Marc started CPR. After about two rounds you started coughing and breathing. We got you to the village and helicoptered here as fast as we could. Fortunately, you only have torn muscles and deep bruising but no broken bones. We were all very lucky!”
“Marc?” I whispered.
“He went to get a cup of coffee.”
“It’s in Glasgow.”
I silently thanked God that it was ok.
George broke into a smile. “Ah, the ever present scientist. We recovered the camera and the pictures are perfect. We had to pry open your hand to retrieve the piece of metal you went back in for. It seems to be two items that have become welded together over time. We’ll decipher them later.”
Marc came into the room with two steaming cups of coffee. “Sleeping Beauty is awake!” He handed the cups to George, came over to my bedside and took my hand. “God, I was scared. I don’t want to ever have to do that again. No more caves for you.” He leaned over and kissed me gently on my lips.
“Awakened by a prince,” I said and smiled. “When do I get out of here?”
“We can take you home to London tomorrow if we promise to give you proper time to recover,” Marc said.
“No! Not London, the inn. I don’t want to leave the site.”
A stormy look covered George’s face but Marc said, “Okay, okay. Calm down. I’ll call Mrs. Dingleberry and see if she’s fine with it. After all, you’ll be under her feet for a while. That way I can watch over you, too.”
“Tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Marc.
I thought about the bronze bowl, its contents, and the whispered order to hold onto the acorn. I knew there was no way I could prove who was in the bowl to anyone else, but I knew. I had found Jahna.
What other secrets did she have hidden? The mountain almost killed me but I knew Jahna had more for me to find.
75 AD JULY
An ache settled deep in my leg. Dusk hazily descended as we sighted the meadow through the trees. Depths of hopelessness filled my heart and sank into my gut. I wanted to vomit as we rode into the open space and started across what was once a place of beauty for me.
Meadowsweet’s potent odor rose from the green, marshy lea, crushed by the weight of the ponies. I looked around. There, near the bend in the stream. Was I standing there? Yes. I was gathering the blossoms, reveling in the sunlight of the summer day, remembering a night of love with Lovern, when the arrow crippled my leg.
Panic caused my belly to fill with fire and pull against my backbone. The memories of my taking haunted me, but here I felt the fiendish presence of that man. My hand rested on my short sword, ready. I would never let myself be taken again.
The ponies entered a stand of alders just on the far edge of the meadow. This hot-burning, hard wood became charcoal for Finlay’s smithy. He whispered a greeting to the fire god, Bran, as we passed from the meadow into the cover of the trees. What god was I to thank for my despair?
The size of my world had increased, not by my choice, and would never be the same again. This line of trees was where, at my taking, I once crossed into a world of the dead. The grass trampled by the hooves of the ponies smelled sour to me. The sweetness of this formerly tranquil place had disappeared. Everything I had known beyond this meadow led to the battle of my spirits and the death of Beathan. The blood red setting sun and shrill call of the birds in the forest set the scene in my heart. Tears welled and fell onto my white dress, spotting it with grey grief.
“ Piuthar Jahna, why are you crying? Why are you not excited like me?” queried the small Logan as he shifted to pat me on my back with both small hands. He rustled behind me as I leaned forward in pain, both from my leg, and the heavy burden I carried.
“Quiet, pup. Let her be. Your aunt is grieving,” admonished Kenric. Kenric and I had been riding side-by-side, exchanging glances. We did not need words for our conversation. In the meadow, his eyes sympathized with me, and seemed to say, I understand. Here, you were gathering the herbs. It was from here we followed the blood trail with the dogs. Feelings of fear and suffocation were dredged from my memories. I choked back my tears, not wanting to frighten Logan.
“Do not make me unhappy we brought you along, little nephew,” Finlay said, following us. “We will be camping soon. Then you will hear the song of how Beathan captured the Autumn Bear.”
Logan began bouncing up and down in anticipation, almost knocking me off the pony. “Sit still, meanbh-chuileag. You are as troublesome as the spring midges,” I teased as I semi-emerged from my cocoon of self-pity. Logan giggled with young exuberance. I imagined the size of his sky blue eyes and smiled as I realized I was jealous of his innocence.
My back ached and I groaned as I lifted my sore, swollen leg to allow the feeling to come back to my foot. I did not know whether I would be able to stand when I slid off the pony.
“Here is a good place to stop for the night,” said Kenric, in a small grove of rowan trees.
Logan slid off the pony to the ground and began to run as only a child can after a day on horseback. Finlay slowly lifted me down. My legs trembled as he supported me until I could feel the ground with both feet. As the men and Logan gathered wood for a fire, I hobbled and kneeled at the roots of the sacred rowans to pray.
“O Sucellus,” I called and knocked on the tree bark. “God of the Forest and Trees that are sacred to us, we thank you for the wood we use tonight. You, who ferries the dead across the river, be aware of Beathan. He was a mighty warrior and Father of my clan. I ask you to protect us, this small group, as we honor our dead. Keep us from the evil spirits who walk the night.” I searched my soul for a prayer for Morrigna. I asked only two things. “Take this panic from my heart and return Lovern safely to me.”
Mead flowed from my flask as a gift to the gods mixed with my tears. I was unaware of the roughness of the tree bark as I ran my hands over it, rubbing my prayers into the pith of the sacred tree’s heart. I pulled my hands away and small droplets of blood formed in my wounded palms. I grasped my chest. The dark crimson stain covered the bodice of my white dress, and I fell over, deep in the arms of Mother Earth. My heart could not continue to beat carrying this weight.
Kenric gently lifted and carried me to the fire, his eyes wise in a way I had not seen before. Sadness showed in their creases. He bore the weight of his family and our clan now. The air around him vibrated, a sign of a life filled with burdens of others.
“He will return. I have no doubt Lovern will return,” he assured as he laid me on my cloak near the fire. Logan was holding dried pork with both hands, pulling off bites with his small, white teeth. The deerhound, Mialchu, was peacefully curled up next to him, waiting for falling scraps. Finlay laid a large log on the fire and then spread his cape on the ground next to Logan.
“We have dried meat and bread for the meal. There is plenty of mead,” said Kenric. He handed me a full skin.
“Eat, and then we will sing of Beathan and the bear and the time he found a druid in the forest,” coaxed Finlay. “You can add words for the dance you did the night the druid came to our clan. Do you recall?”
I nodded, reached for the mead and was grateful I was with my cousins on this lonely night.
The next morning’s ride was uneventful. We traveled along a river, down into a valley littered by small grey boulders and few trees. Large and small stones lay scattered in the heather and bracken. The valley’s surrounding hills shook the stones off like water drops off a wet dog’s back.
Just after midday, Kenric stopped and unstrapped his shield and long sword from his pony’s rump. Remounting, he laid the sword across his lap and hung the leather and bronze shield from his shoulders. Finlay did the same. They readied themselves to fight as warriors, if needed. We were closing in on the village. My hand was on my short sword.
“If we have a reason to run the ponies, hang on tight to my dress. Do not fall,” I warned Logan.
A cleft midway down the valley was our goal. When we turned in, there stood four structures built using scattered stones. The slate-roofed lodges stood in a semi-circle around a central well.
“This is the clan of Beathan’s wife, Gavina,” said Kenric. “My mother. They are the Mathan Sealgair Clan. Beathan’s song contains a verse that tells this story.”
Finlay began to sing. “While hunting one fall, a young chieftain, Beathan, stopped to rest here and fell in love with a maiden, Gavina. To marry her he fashioned a truce with her father, the clan chieftain.”
The verse ended and we were silent remembering the times Beathan and Gavina laughed together. It was a good marriage. Now they are together on the other side.
“Beathan told me he loved coming here,” said Finlay. “Even after her death. It was a place he could be at peace. He drank mead and sang songs. The memory of Gavina, our mother, as a young girl made him smile. That is why we decided to carve his tomb nearby.”
After my rescue, Kenric and Finlay had carried Beathan’s body and me back to our clan. The next morning, while I lay unconscious, Kenric, and Finlay took Beathan to be buried. They had stopped at this village on their way home after they performed the ritual of entombing him.
At that visit, bringing news of Beathan’s death, Kenric swore to uphold the vow of peace Beathan fashioned with his wife’s clan. Clan Chieftain Haye, pleased they came, honored Beathan and the agreement of peace with a feast. It was here Finlay first sang Beathan’s death song. With the renewed vow of peace, Kenric had the bargaining tool that challenged our council to vote him the next chieftain of our clan.
Now, Kenric, Finlay, Logan, and I rode in among women grinding meal, boys feeding pigs in a small pen, and dogs chasing chickens. The tantalizing smells of evening meals floated on the air along with the sounds of the families gathered in shared lodges. My mouth watered as I followed the smell of fresh baked bread from this direction and roasted fowl from that. Our ponies paused in the center of the village; people stopped to watch, rakes or vegetable baskets in hand. I heard the laughter of children. Mistletoe and pine boughs hung in the doorways and lay in the windows. Respect for the gods and nature was visible. Alertness ruled the air. We sat at ease but with our hands on our weapons.
Kenric sat up straight and spoke loudly. “Kenric, mac Beathan is who I am. I am the ceann-cinnidh of my clan, son of the last ceann-cinnidh. I have come to honor the tomb of my father, Beathan. We ask for hospitality this night.”
I heard a murmur, a rustle of clothing, and then I watched a young warrior bend to enter the largest stone dwelling. Mialchu stood, hackles raised. All of us were unsure what the tone of the greeting would be.
A man stooped as he came outside and stood in the doorway. His shield was corded and laid across his back to allow him quick access, a long sword in his right hand and a spear in his left. He was the tallest man I had ever seen. Limewater stiffened his long black hair, and serpent tattoos crawled up his muscled bare arms. His tunic covered broad shoulders, and a wide, woven leather belt encircled his waist. The cloth they all wore as breeches and dresses was a simple weld yellow but a cape of dark blue wool hung from his neck. His skin was the brown color of working outdoors.
Behind him stood a blond woman holding a wriggling tawny-haired child, Logan’s age. Though tall herself, she was shadowed in the man’s height.
From behind the house stepped four warriors, arrows aimed at us, ready to shoot if commanded. Their chieftain, Haye, his face alert, addressed us in a deep, demanding voice.
“Good eve, Kenric mac Beathan. We have watched you ride through our valley. You have asked for a night’s hospitality? Tell me why we should give it.”
“Because you will honor the peace my father Beathan arranged and I renewed, Haye,” said Kenric. Our ponies did not know these people and were anxious, flickering, and sidestepping. We held our reins tightly, and he continued. “We will not stay if you do not wish us to. We are making a journey to honor Beathan’s grave. We will pass good words to his spirit if you let us bed here tonight. It would please him if you give us food and mead.”
“Hhhach,” growled Haye. “If there is a spirit I wish to please, it is Beathan’s. He would be a difficult one to appease if angry. Now, get off the ponies before they step on a child and I have to kill you!” He ordered the bowmen, “They are friends, let them come.”
Haye laughed as he took two steps and covered the distance that would have taken Kenric four. Kenric and Finlay bounced off their ponies and were instantly embraced in a bear hug. Haye then noticed me and turned to Finlay, his eyebrows raised.
Finlay answered the unasked question. “She is Jahna, the mate of our druid. She is carrying a gift for Beathan. He died during her rescue. She wishes to honor and thank him.”
Haye’s booming voice was directed to me. “You will stay the night. There is boar to carve and good, strong mead. Come.”
I handed Logan to Haye’s wife, the smiling, tall woman from the door.
“Logan, go with Mialchu and make sure he has food and water,” I reminded him as he scampered off to be with Haye’s son and the other children. I heard Logan’s words tell them that he was on his way to see his dead grandfather, the bear fighter. His giggles and Mialchu followed him, and they made quick friends as children and dogs do.
Kenric and Finlay, with Haye’s hand on their backs, went into the large stone dwelling. The men of the clan followed, and the women gathered the children to help carry the prepared food. There would be stories and songs tonight for everyone in the clan.
A bent woman led the ponies into a stable next to the chieftain’s lodge. I followed. In the waning light, I noticed she wore the wrinkles of many years. Though small for this clan, she was four fingers taller than me. Her hair was not grey like my mother’s and other older women I knew, but long, white, and worn free. I stared at her. She noticed and laughed as she brushed her hair away from her face.
“I see you have noticed my hair. I have a long story about how it became white.”
“I have only time and would be honored to hear your story, wise lady,” I said.
“I will get a brand and light this space. We will talk when I return.”
She went into the large dwelling and returned with a torch while I stood outside the door of the stable. She entered and put the torch in a niche in the wall. We gathered some dried grass and fed the ponies. I made sure there was water in their buckets. She pulled a rope gate across the doorway to stop the wandering of the animals.
I rubbed the ponies’ backs and thanked them for carrying us this distance. I laid my cape on some of the sweet dried grass piled in a tiny alcove of the stable and sat down. All was well. I was warm, had water to drink and was ready to hear her story. She sat beside me and began in a soft, far away voice.
“It is not a story sang around the fire. It is the story of one life traded for another. Similar to the way the warrior Beathan’s life was given in trade for yours.”
The torchlight created long shadows as she leaned her body to rest on the wall. She groaned and straightened her legs. Her knees cracked as she stretched.
“Aooow! My knees ache all the time now, not just in cold. I cannot walk the distances I walked as a youth. My body sounds like rocks falling down a cliff with all its bangs and gurgles and clicks. Forty-three winters have worn this body down.”
I knew our world was filled with lives as tragic as mine, but I could not understand someone else surviving the same guilt I carried since Beathan’s death.
She wriggled her rump as if to soften the hard ground. Her long fingers ran through her hair and she started her story.
“It has been this color since I was a child. In the beginning, it was the color of Haye’s. Black. Not black like yours. Yours reminds me of a glimmering raven’s wing,” she said, touching a strand of my hair, lying on my shoulder. “No, my hair had ribbons of copper in it. Mmm. But, I stray from my story.
“When I was young, my parents died in a village three days’ ride from here. Raiders from the sea destroyed it. Only a boy and I escaped. Everyone else was killed by them.”
“Oh gods,” I said, beginning to understand.
“No, no, child. Do not be distressed. It was long ago. I am at peace with it now.”
She took a strand of white hair and began twirling it around her finger.
“We heard they were coming. A man ran in from a neighboring village. They had just been raided. My father decided to hide me in a hole he had dug in the field behind our home. As he lowered me, he saw the boy run by and grabbed him. My father ordered me to take care of him.”
She sniffed and rubbed her face as if to rub the memory away. “I did not want to take care of the smelly, wriggly boy who lived with the tanners. My father covered the hole with sticks and leaves. The dust fell through and got into my eyes.” She looked up as if looking for the roof of sticks.
“He finished the covering and told us to be very quiet. ’Do not come out until I or mother come back to get you,’ he told me. Noise exploded around us and the ground shook with running ponies. We heard many screams, then one last woman’s scream. She called for her husband. Early in the raid the boy was in tears, and I feared he would cry out. I covered his mouth with my hand. He tried to break away from me, but I was bigger and had a tight hold on him. I was so scared we would be caught. My father told stories of the sacrifices of people caught in raids like these, and I did not want to die. The boy was struggling so I-I stuffed the hem of his tunic into his mouth and sat on him.”
I grew cold with a premonition of her story.
“After a few minutes he stopped struggling. Later, I heard the ponies and the men as they left our village. Father had not come yet, so I did not think it was safe to climb out. We stayed through the night. I fell asleep, sitting on the boy.”
She looked at me, her brows creased in concern and said, “He could still give us away, and I could not let him do that. When the sun came up the next morning, my hunger, my need to pee, and the ache in my legs would not let me stay in the hole any longer. I stood up, pushed the sticks off the top of the hole and turned back to the boy. The sunlight streamed in on the body that I had sat on all night. He did not move. I had traded his life for mine.” She stopped at this and murmured a short prayer to Bel.
“Now, I was alone,” she said. “I climbed out of the hole and walked to the front of the burned lodges, calling for my father and mother. I found them, the parents of the boy, and all the rest of my village. I found the bodies. Their heads were gone. My mother and father’s blood dripping heads now hung on the raider’s walls. I was the only one alive.”
As she spoke, a shadow came over my eyes. The smell of food and sounds of happiness around me were gone. I heard only the sword as it passed through Beathan’s neck and smelled Beathan’s blood as it poured over me. I steadied myself against the wall; I did not want this horror to overcome me. “No, no, no,” I whispered to myself. When my vision cleared, I saw that she noticed my distress. Nodding, she continued her story.
“I stayed there for two days, in shock, wandering around and eating what I could find. But, the need to live is powerful. I went into the forest to find food, eating grass and worms until I learned to trap small animals. I ran from anyone who came close, until the druid found me. He talked to me for days. I came to trust him. I told him my story. He and I lived together as husband and wife for fifteen sun cycles until his death.” She sighed. Her hand touched her hair, stroked it as if in memory, and confessed, “It turned white the first full moon after my parents’ death. He loved my white hair. He loved me.”
I nodded. She understood. She lived through a horror as great as mine. A sense of relief and perception filled my heart. My grief was lighter. I raised my hands to my face and tears came to my eyes. I could almost believe Lovern would continue loving me. I stopped crying and looked up to see her watching me with kindness.
She awkwardly rose to her knees and with a smile said, “As much as I enjoy the company of my family, sometimes we just need to be with quiet animals that cannot sing, talk or drink mead.” She leaned over to me and touched my chest where I had wiped the blood from my palms. A surge of energy came through the tips of her fingers to my heart. Her green eyes burned into mine, and her thin mouth broke into a grin.
“You are a healer,” she said. “I saw your decorated leather pouch. We are sisters. I am a healer too. My name is Rhona.”
“I am Jahna. Thank you for your story. It lifts a burden.”
“Life goes on, my child, life goes on.”
She walked to the opposite wall of the small stable, stretching as she moved. “We hunt bears and they are many this year. I know there are hardships to endure. The gods and goddesses have wars to fight, and we often are caught up in them. For now, my family is not in the sight of angry gods. I pray that it may be so for a long time.”
I shivered with the thought that came. “The slave who took me told me the Romans were coming our way. We can prepare for them and fight until they leave,” I said with hope.
“Sometimes, all the preparations we make cannot help,” she said as she handed me a skin filled with a liquid. “This is from my healing spring and is pure. Wash and drink. I will bring you an infusion I make from a plant brought from the seaside. It never fails to bring sleep.”
“If that is true then I will be in your debt,” I said, bowing my head in respect to her. “Thank you. I will stay the night here.” The loudest noises were the ponies munching their dried grass, a sound more inviting than the laughing voices I heard emitting from the dwelling nearby. “I do not want to seem inhospitable, but I do not think I can sit through the music and laughter in the chieftain’s lodge. Will you tell my whereabouts to Kenric and Finlay? Will Logan be looked after?”
“Yes, I will speak with your men, and the boy will have a place to eat and sleep,” she responded. “I will leave you here to make yourself comfortable, and I will bring food and the drink.”
She left. I heard the soft neigh of a pony and an echo in my ear. “Sometimes, all the preparations we make cannot help.”
75 AD JULY
I readied the dried grass under my cape for sleep, Beathan’s bronze bowl next to me. Rhona brought back a small roasted fowl, bread, and two containers of drink on a wooden plank. A mug and a small cup of clear liquid sat balanced next to the food.
“Here is mead to quench your thirst and the infusion for sleep. I used only a drop of the oil as it can also cause death.”
“What is the name of this plant? There are many that cause death but few that will also allow sleep,” I asked as I ate.
“Hemlock. Tales of ancient use come with it. Drink it after you eat and are ready for sleep. It will come soon. The oil is bitter, but I mixed in honey to sweeten it.”
She pointed to the package on my cloak. “Is that the gift you take to Beathan?”
“Yes. I adorned it for him,” I said, handing it to her. “The oak was the tree he adopted for his family.”
She nodded as she unwrapped the soft leather. “It is a good gift. One that will honor him for all time.”
Rhona stayed with me as I ate and drank the bitter infusion. I laid down, enveloped in the odor of the ponies and the peat smoke from the dwellings that surrounded me. It was but a few moments until I fell asleep and dreamed.
I stood watching from a distance and saw the stone dwellings, the homes of Haye’s clan. People moved quickly. Gathered food lay in bundles, and weapons glinted, tied to the backs of ponies. Men and women were readying themselves for battle. Loud shouts rang from dwelling to dwelling. Haye’s war chariot stood outside his lodge with two ponies throwing their heads in impatience. Haye stepped through his doorway and behind him came his son, Eanruig, and Haye’s wife, Nairne. Eanruig was older than when I saw him today, but not yet an adult. Both he and his father were bare-chested, and their faces and bodies dyed woad blue. Limewater stiffened Haye’s black hair. Bronze and leather shields, swords and dirks were strapped to them. I felt excitement and fear.
Hayes spoke. “The King has called us. We must go quickly, Nairne. I must take those who can fight, and I chose you to guard the children of those who go. We will come back when the battle is done. We will have a celebration to honor Morrigna, may the Goddess protect us. We will chase the invaders off the land and will be rewarded by our king. Be glad we go!”
In the shadows I saw the white hair of Rhona, Haye’s mother. I turned to face her. Bent in grief, she cried out, “Have I not given enough of myself? Must I lose also my son and grandson?” Many ravens flew overhead, and I shivered.
No one answered her. The stone dwellings were empty. Moss grew on the fallen rocks that were once walls. Roof slates fell into the centers of the lodges. Heavy dust covered the fire pits. A cruel winter wind blew Rhona’s white hair around her face to catch itself in her tears.
I woke with the bitter taste of the infusion in my mouth. I had not had dreams of the man I knew and feared but instead, I had a vision of a future I did not want to know.
Rhona sat near me, touching my shoulder as I sat up, the dawn’s light just reaching the village.
“Your face twisted with a dream,” Rhona said. “I am sorry. I thought you would not dream of the man who haunts you."
I could not tell her that I dreamed of her son’s death.
“Rhona, do you know where Beathan's tomb is?”
It was still dark as I wrapped my cape around me and picked up the bowl.
“Yes, I have visited there. He was a man I respected in life and in death.”
“Will you take me if we both ride my pony? I am ready to go now. I do not want to wait for Finlay and Kenric. They will come later.”
We rode a trail that was steep at times, but my pony never faltered. I was seated behind Rhona. We spoke no words; we communicated by touch. The sun rose hot on our backs, and we stopped at a creek to wash and drink. We would eat after the gifting. Bracken and blooming heather surrounded the trail. Crossing a moor, I could see the hills that were the feet of the stark mountains behind them. The hillside where Beathan’s body lay buried was a mountain foot. Covered in creeping juniper and blue harebells, color filled the spaces between the quartz-filled granite rocks and boulders strewn about the ground. The clean smell of recent rain was in the air.
Rhona sat holding the pony while I slowly climbed to the entrance of the tomb. The side of the hill was steep and covered in loose shale. I carried the bowl, a small piece of peat, a coal from last night’s fire and a live pigeon Rhona had given me. I finally came to the ledge in front of the entrance of Beathan’s tomb. I stood, caught my breath, and leaned on a large boulder that had been rolled to block its entry. I could not get in but that was not important. I would leave the gift outside the entrance. Beathan could see it from the Other World.
I dug a hole using my hands and small sword. As I lifted the bowl to the sky, it caught sparks of sunlight and reflected the color of Beathan’s hair. He was watching. His hand was warm on my shoulder.
“Beathan. A gift to you for the gift of my life. You exchanged your life for mine. I honor you and say you will be in my heart forever. We sing songs about your bravery and drink toasts made in your name.” The last tears I cried for Beathan fell as I continued. “I offer this bowl to bring you happiness. May you drink mead from it. May you dip honey from it. Watch over us, your clan and the clan of your wife. I feel unrest is coming and we will require the help of the gods. Please make them aware of my request,” I called, remembering my dream.
I tucked the bowl, wrapped in my cape, and the soft leather snuggly into the hole, covered it with dirt, and rolled a large stone over it. The entrance looked undisturbed.
After gathering small twigs, I retrieved the live coal from the moss it was nestled in and blew on it until it and the twigs caught fire. The peat began to smolder. I laid hemp on top, and the smoke began to writhe around me. I unwrapped the pigeon and held it securely in my left hand. I lifted my dirk to the sky and called to Andraste and Caswallawn, the Goddess and God of war.
“Hear me, O God and Goddess. If we must fight, make us victorious. Help us defeat our enemies. Help those who die in battle cross the river easily.” My dirk found its way to the pigeon’s heart and blood began to drain from its body, covering my uplifted arms. The smell of the blood, the mixture of the sweet hemp and acrid peat smoke carried me to a passage dream.
I looked through Aine’s eyes at Beathan’s open tomb. To be able to see it through her and know our life story continued was a blessing from Morrigna. Beathan would be remembered as a warrior and chieftain. Tears came to my eyes with this understanding.
I willed her to find my bowl. I took her to the stone and watched as she lifted the bowl from under it. She saw the oak tree I had engraved. She held the bowl I made up to the sun. It reflected the color of Beathan’s hair. I knew then she would help keep Beathan’s memory alive. My heart filled with peace. I paid my debt to him, and Beathan was a fair man and would forgive me my guilt. Now, I could forgive myself.
“Jahna. Jahna, are you well? We awoke before daybreak and found you gone already.” Finlay and Kenric knelt next to me on the ledge and spoke at the same time. Logan was slipping his way up the hillside. My fire was out, and the pigeon blood dry on my arms. My passage dream was gone.
“Yes, I am well. I pleased Beathan.” I smiled at them both. “Thank you. Thank you for bringing me here. We can go home now.”
Logan clambered up to the ledge just then and touched the stone covering his grandfather’s grave. He turned, grinning at his accomplishment and was ready to go down, just as fast. His quick slide down was followed by our evenly measured footsteps. We spent another night with Rhona’s clan and continued on our way the next morning before daylight.
Arriving at our trail, I looked up at the gate of our hill fort. There stood a sentinel waiting for us. The sun was in my eyes and I could only see that he stood like a warrior, tall and straight. The hot summer breeze wore the smell of crushed acorns and bees. My heart lurched in my chest. I gasped–I knew who the man was.
I could not go up the hill. I slid off my pony’s back. Kenric leaned over and scooped my pony’s reins and Logan. He and Finlay rode on. They stopped at the top of the hill for a moment. The tall man and Finlay exchanged words. Kenric nodded to him.
Mouth dry and moist hands, I waited. Lovern turned and walked to our home. I followed, limping up the hill with trembling legs.
I had forgiven myself for Beathan’s death, but could Lovern forgive me?
I jerked awake, knowing I would have to fight my way out of here. I’d behaved and was a good patient for a week, but I’d decided to rebel and was itching to go. Marc had been restricting my movements but no more; I was vacating this inn today.
George had received a grant for us several days ago. It was enough for us to stay for the rest of the summer. Things were changing at the site, and I wanted to see it. I’d been cooped up here too long.
My room was littered with clothes; jeans and button up shirts were strewn across the floor and bed, all too hard to put on. I finally surrendered and, with great trouble, pulled on sweatpants and a t-shirt. I couldn’t even get a bra on. It hurt too much to twist and reach behind yet.
Marc walked in just as I finished dressing, carrying a cup of steaming coffee. “Aine. What are you doing?” His forehead creased with concern, his tone gentle, yet impatient. “You’re not supposed to be going anywhere. The doctor told you to rest. I think you should be inside at least a few more days.”
“Yeah, Marc, I know. But I have to go to the job site. I want to see it. It seems like weeks that I’ve been away. That coffee smells delicious. Can I have a sip?” I took the hot cup from his outstretched hand and sniffed the adrenaline-starting steam. “Mmmm. How can someone who doesn’t drink coffee make it so perfect?”
“Well,” said Marc, “you aren’t a coffee gourmet and she makes it strong, just like you want it. If you stay here one more day, I’ll have her make you coffee all day long.”
“No, even that isn’t enough to keep me here. If you make me stay, I’ll tunnel out. I really want to see what you all have done to my dig.”
He compromised. “Ah well, okay. But promise me, if you feel the least bit tired you’ll let us bring you back.”
I endeavored to finish dressing but couldn’t lift my arm over my head without pain. I tried to hide my grimacing face in the sweatshirt. I didn’t want him to see how much it still hurt to move. “Oh, damn it. Marc, can you help me, please?” I sighed and stopped struggling. “I’ll be careful. It’s been seven days, and I can’t stand the inside of this room or any room in the inn anymore. I promise not to do anything strenuous,” I said, sweatshirt piled in my lap.
“I hope not, even your feet were bruised. I don’t know how, the cave-in didn’t bury them. It must have happened when we pulled you out. You were complaining about them the first night in hospital so I slipped the sheet off and saw that they were bruised. Then I saw your toes. You know the super long second toe? I remembered teasing you about that when we were at university.”
I looked down at my bare feet and waved my toes in the air for him to see. “Yep. The MacRea toe. Pretty neat, huh? It’s in the family genes. Or should I say on our feet?”
Marc grabbed my sweatshirt and lifted it so I could get my hand inside. It slid on and I gently eased it over my sore shoulder.
“Thanks. Finally, real clothes. I’m surprised they still fit. Mrs. Dingleberry must think that to feed is to heal. I’ve probably gained 5 pounds.” I could see Marc’s keen, blue eyes peruse my body. Chills ran up and down my back and other places. I had to concentrate on getting outside, or we wouldn’t be going anywhere, even if I were still sore. My body wanted him and a debate was going on in my mind.
“Nope, I don’t see anything that shouldn’t be there. You look just as tempting as before,” he said as he kissed me gently on the tip of my nose and then my ear. I closed my eyes and wished he would continue, but after taking a deep breath my resolve strengthened.
I slipped on my loafers and ushered Marc to the door. “Have the results from the urn come back yet from Glasgow?” I gingerly followed Marc down the short hall.
George had called Jim Cowley, an osteoarchaeologist and friend, when he realized I was going to be okay. He paid for a helicopter to pick up the bronze bowl and what we hoped were human remains while I was in the hospital in Fort William. They were flown to the Scottish Universities Research & Reactor Centre in Glasgow for Jim to analyze.
“No. We put in a rush order. The lab’s been running some recalibrating tests. They haven’t started any new work and won’t for the next week. I called yesterday. Jimmy told me the remains would be tested as soon as they’re done.”
“A week? Another week? Oh, bloody hell. I don’t think I’m going to be able to wait that long. God,” I said, shaking my head, “am I glad I wrote down my impressions after the awake dream I had when we were together. I reread them yesterday. I had forgotten so many details since the accident.”
“That shouldn’t be a surprise, Aine. Your injury was deadly serious.” Marc stopped on the landing of the narrow staircase and turned to me. “I would have been just sick if you had been critically injured, or worse, Aine. You have to promise me to be more careful. I don’t ever want to feel so helpless again.”
I slipped my arms through his and hugged as well as I could with the still-bruised ribs. “I know, Marc. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to put you in that position again. I like having you here. This week would have been a lot worse if you hadn’t been here to play Gin Rummy with me and tuck me in.” I pecked his cheek with a kiss.
“You know, I’m glad you talked me into staying. And I’m glad you found the bowl, even if you say you had help from a ghost. I’m happy to be here, with you.”
My heart raced at his comments. He was happy to be here with me. But bringing up Jahna, even in that teasing mode, gave me chills. She was waiting for me and getting impatient. That was one reason I had to go today. She had something else for me to see.
He paused, as we made our way downstairs. “Oh, we did date the pottery.”
I stopped and turned to him, hoping for the information I had been praying for.
“We got a date of 80 AD plus or minus fifteen years,” he said. “I know you were looking for a pre-Roman site and it looks like we have one. Remember the lump of metal you went back into the cave for? It looks like it’s a bronze clasp or pin with the head in the shape of an acorn and a bronze bracelet. The pin was probably a cloak clasp.”
“WAHOO! The year is perfect!” I gloried briefly in the moment and grinned at him. Oh yes, this was going to be a very good day. I could feel it. “Is there any food left? I need breakfast,” I said and walked as quickly as my back would let me. My back ached, and I hung onto the glossy, oiled balustrade for balance. Marc trailed behind.
Mrs. Dingleberry had insisted I eat breakfast and dinner in my room; it had been days since I had been in the dinning room while food was being served. My mouth watered as I entered and smelled the bacon and coffee.
This was Mrs. Dingleberry’s heaven. Cooking and cleaning was her forte; nursing was not. I had eaten well while recuperating, but she just barely tolerated having me around all day. Guests weren't meant to be here unless it was mealtime or bedtime. I’m afraid I caused her some schedule upset. Today she would be rid of me for most of the day, and I could imagine her oiling and polishing to her heart’s content. I smelled the lemon oil along with her delightful breakfast.
“George! Good morning! Hi, Tim, Lauri. Good to see all of you.”
“Aine!” they chorused as they twisted in their chairs to see me. “Congratulations on the funding! Good to see you out of bed.”
“George. You’re my savior. Thank you for talking to the ‘powers that be’ and securing the money. Marc told me you were also using some of your grant money to fund us. We’ll pay you back. My heart is touched by your trust in me.”
“You’re welcome. But the news that brought University money to you, of course, was the Raven Bowl. My influence hardly played a part in the decision.”
“The Raven Bowl?” I asked looking at Marc.
“That’s what the press is calling the bronze bowl you found. We don’t know what’s in it, but the beauty of the bowl is enough to bring attention up here. The lab started spreading the word,” Marc returned.
“Wow. ‘The Raven Bowl.’ It’s good. I like that.” I knew Jahna would have liked it, too.
George stood up, walked over to me and kissed my cheek. His nose was perpetually wrinkled from keeping his gold, rimmed glasses on. He was balding; it seemed more since my accident. He ran his hand over his head as a nervous habit, and it looked as if he had rubbed most of his hair away. He was rubbing it right now. “I was wondering when you were going to get out of bed. Are you going to stay downstairs today? I have some reports you can read to catch up. There is a great reading chair in the library.”
“Actually, George, Mrs. Dingleberry and I have already walked through every room here in the inn that I am allowed into. She wouldn’t let me alone until she was sure I wouldn’t keel over in her parlor!” Mrs. Dingleberry scurried in at that moment with a tray of warm scones and scowled.
“Do you see that puzzle set up on the table over there?” I pointed across the room. “I’ve been working on it for two days while you were at the dig. I even helped Mrs. Dingleberry dust the furniture! She wants me out of here. She’s had me walking up and down at least two sets of stairs and three rounds of the rooms for two days, now, to strengthen my legs. I’m going stir crazy. I am going to the hill today.” I noticed Mrs. Dingleberry quivering, probably with happiness at having me out from under foot.
She turned from the buffet she was loading with more food and said, “I must go down into town today and was going to ask one of ye to stay with the lassie. She’s fine.” George looked at me, then Mrs. Dingleberry, and then turned and looked at Marc. “What? You’ve gone and jumped over the gunwales on this one! This injured woman can’t go to the site!” He harrumphed.
I tried to calm him. “I’ve already promised Marc I wouldn’t do anything to get in your way. I just want to walk around and see what you’ve found.”
Lauri reached in front of me to get the butter for her warm scone. “We’ve found some more postholes and a fire pit. We have a coal layer, and we think we are in the center of a dwelling,” she said, ready to take a bite of her scone. “It’s near the southern walls, next to the double gate.”
I looked at Marc with raised eyebrows. “Is it a domicile?”
He nodded slightly. We were so close. I could feel her. My neck tingled. I thought that the feelings and dreams would end when I found where she was buried but yesterday, as I looked out the window toward the hill, I had a feeling that I had to go to the site today. I couldn’t shake it. My gut was telling me that it was urgent that I get to the hill. My shoulder was aching, and I could feel my back trying to spasm, but dammit, I was going.
“Mrs. Dingleberry, your coffee is perfect this morning. Thank you. Marc, would you please pass more of those wonderful currant bannocks? Oh, and the butter?” I asked.
Marc watched me eat with an amused grin. I could swear he was waiting for me to burst out of my clothes.
After breakfast, they jumped into the jeep and I eased myself in, over George’s protests. “OK, George, I’ll a take a pillow to lean against. I think Mrs. Dingleberry will let us take the rose patterned one in the dining room.”
As we bounced along the farm road, me sitting against the rose pillow, I remembered the last time I came this way seven days ago. The dream was in my head from the night before. I could feel Jahna at my elbow, directing me. I had found her tomb that day, and had almost found mine.
We arrived, and I felt as if I’d come home. I was amazed as I looked around the site. George and Marc had called in more workers and there were fifteen people here now. I was involved in discussions about the increase back at the inn, but was not expecting to see them here yet. It reemphasized how long I had been gone.
There were several people on the east side with sonar equipment, looking for disturbances deep in the soil. To the west, I saw surveyors staking plots for further digging. On the trail, a crew worked on the cave where I had been trapped. A larger tent had been raised for meals and laying out artifacts to photograph and catalog. It also contained a stockpile of supplies, snacks, and water. It looked as if we planned to stay awhile.
I inhaled the odor of freshly overturned earth, the intoxicating smell of my work, smiled, gingerly slid out of the jeep and limped to Kendy and Matt. Marc and George had registered the site with the West of Scotland Archaeology Service. That meant the news would spread. Matt and Kendy had volunteered to be on site at night. The world around a dig tended to start coming to look and take anything that isn’t nailed down once a site was registered. We would hire security guards as soon as I could afford it and I notified the local police. They couldn’t make a regular stop but were aware we were here. When the security did come -- soon, I hoped -- Matt and Kendy could go back to sleeping in a real bed. The looks on their faces told me they really wouldn’t care where they slept as long as it was together. I wished I could be that young again and have a fresh start to my life. Although, I have to admit, my start so far with Marc was pleasing. I smiled with the memory of our one recent night of lovemaking.
“I see the press is here,” I said and nodded toward the tent. “I want to avoid them.
“Oh, no problem,” said Matt. “They stay inside, protected from the always expected showers. We hardly ever see them.”
The reporters were as anxious about the carbon dating and material composite results as we were and would send the results to the local papers and the archaeological societies. Bronze bowls were news in both circles. I was pleased, even with the extra work and money spent on guards, that news of our find, my find, was making it out to the world. I wondered how many cameras would show up if there turned out to be a cremated human body in the bowl.
Matt laughed. “Aine, you are looking good for being so close to becoming one of our artifacts!”
Kendy poked him in the ribs and frowned at him. “Seriously, Aine, should you be here? You look as if you still hurt a bit.”
I tried to wave her comment off, but George looked at me with his “I told you so” look and then walked away.
I shrugged my good shoulder. “I have to admit that I’m not feeling as good as I was a week ago, but wild pigs couldn’t keep me away for another day. Wow! We look legitimate now. It’s amazing what an increase in funding can do!” I turned to Kendy, who was still standing near me. “Kendy, please show me what you have. I haven’t seen your drawings for at least seven days.”
Tim and Matt picked up trowels and sifters and stepped into the ever-increasing hole. Marc trudged back to the jeep to get his computer and George was off to direct the surveyors, I’m sure to their dismay.
“I’d love to! It’s so much fun being here at the beginning of things. We’ve several structure outlines already plotted, and I’ve had a bit of fun with them. I needed something to do while Matt and I were stuck out here.” She grinned crookedly at me. She opened her sketchbook. As she leafed through it, I could see the drawings she’d made before my accident. She had different views of the cave the way it looked before the slide. My mouth went dry with the memory of the mountain falling on top of me. My bruises seemed to step up their demand to be noticed. Then she turned the page. They had found more postholes and she drew them just as they looked in the excavation. But there was more.
“I drew this one for fun, to give us an idea of what this side of the village might have looked like. It keeps me motivated to remember these aren’t just holes in the ground, they were homes and places of work.”
The drawing was a composite of the total excavation site, the structure in front of us with the fire pit in the middle, other structures that were being uncovered, and those we might uncover later. She superimposed a half sphere built with a short, circular, stone wall about fourteen inches high, continuing to the roof in wooden planks and mud or wattle and daub for each of the excavation sights. The roofs were thatched. It looked as if she had been sitting in the courtyard of the fort while it was being lived in. And it looked familiar.
“Oh, did anyone tell you that we found pieces of quartz in three of the postholes that are at the back of this structure?” she asked absentmindedly. “We found the stone from the walls scattered all around, as you would expect. We were charting, and removing them when I noticed one of the postholes had a flat stone in the bottom. I lifted it to find a piece of white quartz under it. It looked deliberate enough to raise my curiosity. We found the same flat stones in two other holes and with quartz under them, also. The flat stones look like river stones but the quartz isn’t found around here. They seem to be an offering to a god or goddess. Have you ever seen them before, Aine?"
My legs went wobbly but not from my injuries. I grabbed the back of a camp chair that was near the edge of the excavation and sat down.
“No, I’ve never seen it before in a dig.” I’ve seen it but I can’t tell you where, I thought, or you’d think I was crazy. “Go get that chair and come sit beside me,” I said pointing to another camp chair to the side of the tent. I looked at the actual excavation, and back to the picture. There it was. The pattern of the postholes and the stone wall of the structure led to the defense wall and touched it. It wasn’t a round circle. It created an alcove, of sorts. That and the quartz made it jump out at me. We are in Jahna’s home, I thought. We had found her home.
Trying to sound calm, I said, “Kendy, look at the postholes toward the back of the structure.” I pointed to the excavation. “They don’t go all the way around, but in this picture you have drawn them in as if they do,” I continued, handing her sketchbook back to her. “Yes, I see that. I was supposing the rest of the holes would be uncovered, maybe today.”
“I’ll bet there won’t be anymore holes uncovered for this structure. I have a feeling. This structure didn’t stay round but took this jog to join with the fence. Look. It could create a private alcove by hanging a blanket. One of the first private bedrooms in Scotland!”
“Well, Aine,” she said looking at me out of the side of her eyes. “No one should ever say you don’t have a good imagination!”
I smiled at her and looked back at the drawing with déjà vu.
Mr. Treadwell walked up to Kendy and me just at that moment. “Good morning,” I said. About 5’6” tall, I was sure he had been taller as a young man. But now, age and hard work had caused his body to disfigure with arthritis. He still carried the rugged look of one who has worked outdoors all his life. His white hair tufted just above both ears, and he was cleanshaven. His watery blue eyes had seen too many days in the sun, and deep lifelines creased his face. His muddy boots were least twenty years old and he smelled of tobacco and scotch. His voice lilted with a strong Highland mark, and it made me feel as if I were home on Skye. “Good mornin’, lassie. I ken ye were here. I would appreciate it if ye did not scamper into any more caves. I would like not havin’ anyone kill’t on my land.” I noticed he was serious. “Kendy, would you mind if I spoke with Mr. Treadwell for a few minutes? I’ll look at the rest of your pictures later,” I requested.
“No problem. I have to get back to work. You can find me here when you’re ready.” Kendy looked relieved as she picked up her drawing pencils and notepad and slipped down into the dig near the newly excavated fire pit. She proceeded to start drawing the layers Matt and Tim were uncovering.
“Mr. Treadwell, I hope not to have to go into a cave again for a very long time,” I replied, knowing in my heart I would go into another one in a heartbeat if I thought something was there. “Would you give me a hand up, please? I would like to take a short walk with you.” Mr. Treadwell extended his arthritis-bent hands, and I took one as gently as I could. As I started to pull myself up, I began to twist my back. “Ouch! Oh that hurts!” I sat back down into the chair, tears just squeezing out of the corners of my eyes.
“Ach,” said Mr. Treadwell. He dropped my hands as if they were on fire and backed up five steps.
Marc heard me, quickly stood up, and put his computer on the table. He walked over, but before he could say anything, I frowned at him to show my determination. He faced me, grasped my upraised arms and helped me stand straight up. Much better. I saw a frown returned in his eyes. “Thanks for helping me, Marc,” I said with a grimace I hoped looked like a smile. Plainly concerned, he quietly said, “Aine, you need to go back. I’ll have Tim take off and drive you. I told you it was too early for you to come here.”
“No, I promise not to do anything that strenuous again. I just want to take a short walk with Mr. Treadwell,” I said and leaned against him until I caught my breath.
“OK, but only if you promise not to go off the hill unless one of us is with you. We don’t need any repeats of last week.”
“Scouts honor, I won’t. I am a big girl, Marc. I can take care of myself.” Looking worried, he countered, “Yes, but I can still worry.”
His strong arms supported me and I was comfortable and secure in them. This is where I should be. I hugged him as well as I could without wincing and with my cheek against his, I whispered, “Marc, I owe you my life. I love you. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, but I can’t live my life in a bowl. I promise to be as careful as I can.”
I turned to Mr. Treadwell, who watched the conversation with a humorless face. “Mr. Treadwell, let’s take a stroll.” I offered him my arm.
Marc watched with concern as Mr. Treadwell and I limped off, Mr. Treadwell’s arm protectively under mine for support. I wasn’t sure who supported whom. I looked back at Marc to tell him I was in good hands. He stood there watching us, shaking his head.
As we walked, we looked out over the pasture where several head of long-haired Highland cattle were grazing, and then at the mountain. I stared at it, not breathing, for a long moment. That mountain almost took my life. I shook my head to shake the memory of the accident away, and turned, searching the surrounding skyline. I noticed three tree-covered hills. They were alone, standing as if they were sentinels.
“Do those hills have a local name?”
“Aye. They are the Ben Rien. They are the three Celt goddesses that become one. It is said the hills remember the uald Picts.”
“Ah, the Queen Hills, named for the queen goddess Morrigna. The goddess of fertility and war. Interesting combination, wasn’t she? Her favorite was the raven.” I looked up into the blue sky, empty except for the scattered, cotton ball clouds. I seemed to remember it peppered with ravens.
“Aye, ravens roost in the trees on those hills. They’re here at harvest. They’re lucky for us. Like the ravens in the Tower of London. We say our town will have ill luck if the ravens don’t come back every year. We look for them to come.”
“I know what you mean. We need all the luck we can get these days.”
I noticed a depression in the middle of the pasture just below us. There were trenches cut into the pasture.
“Are you cutting peat, Mr. Treadwell?”
“Aye, lassie. I use it in the longer winters when fuel prices are dear.”
To position my self in the memory of my awake dreams, I turned to look behind us, to the place on the hill where I thought the gate would be in the defense wall, then turned back to the pasture. “Mr. Treadwell, was there a lake here once?”
“Oh, aye. My father said my great-grandfaither drained a wet-land to create a pasture, bad as it is. It was called Loch Dubh or Black Lake.” He paused. I imagined his ancestor standing on this hilltop we were now excavating and looking at the area, deciding how to drain it. “Most of the year the ground is still wet and full of sinkholes. I cannot let the cattle run in it but a few months of the year. The few I have there now are sure footed and will be canny of the bogs. There’s a story about it if you’re interested, lassie. 'Tis a ghost story. Would ye like to hear it?”
“Yes, please. I would love to.”
“There was a grand battle between the Romans and the Picts near here,” he said, using his chin to point in a faraway direction. I figured he was referring to the battle of Mons Graupius of AD 84. He continued, “They supposedly sacrificed a druid near here to keep it from happening. It’s told he still walks here.”
He turned and studied my eyes with a look that chilled me. “Lassie, ye must swear never to speak of this.”
I raised my hand and promised.
Quietly, as if he were in a church, he went on, “I saw him one November morning, kneeling at the edge of where the loch used to be. He was praying, or at least I took him to be a praying. His arms were raised to the sky. The tartan was on his shoulders and he had a proud, straight back. A figure in the corner of my eye. When I turned, he was gone and a big fox was sittin’ there, right there where the man stood. He ran off when my eyes caught his.” His whole body shifted closer to me as he whispered, “Others would laugh, but that’s what I saw.”
“Mr. Treadwell, I believe you. I’ve seen ghosts, too.” He looked back at me with understanding in his liquid blue eyes.
I suddenly had the most overwhelming feeling of dread. It felt as if the air around me were filled with water. I could barely breathe and began to double up. I couldn’t stay on the hill anymore. After arguing so hard to get here, I had to get away.
“Are ye all right, lassie?”
“Yes, please; let me lean on your arm to the jeep, and then if you would let Marc know I’d like to go back. I think I need to get out of their way for the rest of today. Mr. Treadwell, I am very glad you came up here today. Thank you. Thank you very much for telling me your story. You don’t know how much it means to me.” I leaned on him and felt strength belying his age as he walked and supported me, limping, to the jeep.
Tim drove me to the inn, trying to avoid the bumps in the road. All the way back I thought about Mr. Treadwell’s ghost and wondered why I’d had that reaction at the telling of his story. Just what I needed, another ghost in my life.
The ghost of a man that turned into a fox.
75 AD AUGUST
Lovern waited outside the door to our dwelling, his eyes filled with questions. After treading slowly through the gates of our village, my head full of doubts and fear, I stopped in front of him, not knowing how he would receive me. He gently took both my hands into his, raised them to his lips, and kissed my fingers, his tears wetting my knuckles. His right hand moved to my head -- I leaned into it -- and his left hand to our doorframe; he prayed a blessing on our home and me. His hand then rested on my shoulder. I looked into his deep blue eyes and saw an immense relief and then deep concern. Dread replaced my temporary happiness. I did not know how much he knew of the events that led me here.
“I arrived home several days ago,” he said, “after you came to me in the passage dream. We rode as fast as we could, stopping only to sleep a few hours and feed the ponies. You were gone when I arrived. I learned of your taking and of Beathan’s death from your mother.”
I bowed my head, unable to look into his eyes any longer.
“I thanked all the gods for sparing your life,” he said. “I wanted to ride after you to comfort you and heal your spirit. I craved to hold you in my arms and assure myself you were well.”
“Yet you did not come,” I whispered. “Why?” The heat of his body touching my skin made my stomach burn. I drew into myself, unclean, not worthy of his touch. I felt his arms fall away, and air moved as he stepped back. In my mind, I knew he smelled the stench of the badger, the man who took me, which I carried in my nose continually.
“I could not leave your mother. We have taken her to the hospice. She was not eating when I arrived two days ago. She is very ill.”
Startled at his news, I said, “My mother? My mother is not here?” I had prayed to hear her healing words on my arrival home. Disturbing news of my mother’s progressing illness was not in the vocabulary of my dreams. My stomach turned inside out, and my world began to tumble again. My reunion with Lovern, curative moments of talk and love, would have to wait. The forgiveness I felt at Beathan’s tomb was far away in the depths of my heart.
I lived in routine. I rose early, after little sleep, and saw after Mother’s daily needs. Sileas and I would make medicines and complete chores while Lovern and Harailt went around the village to visit the injured and ill.
Lovern and I had not slept together since my return. I made my bed at the hospice because of Mother, and he at our home.
We had not spoken about my taking, although Lovern tried. Once, while alone in the yard of the hospice, he turned to me, holding a bucket of water he had gathered from the sacred spring.
“Jahna, drink from the god’s water. Let it rinse the gloom from your soul. Let it wash away your memories.” His hand dipped in and offered me a drink. The sun was too bright for my eyes and the birds too shrill.
“You cannot want me,” I said. “I am impure. You are a healer. It will cause you to be ill.” Pain filled his eyes, but I could not stay. His glances were licks of fire on my skin. His touches caused unseen bruises. Nausea rose violently in my gut, and I ran away. To find a path of purification was a constant prayer of mine. My days were long and nights longer.
The gods called me, even in my time of distress. Death in our clan required my attendance during this time. Braden was the cause of another heaviness in my heart.
Braden and Callum had ridden hard with Lovern from the seaside. On their return, they had gone back to practicing daily as warriors and hunting. They both decided to chase an old boar that had lived in our forest, fattened on acorns for several sun cycles. Running ahead of Callum, Braden slipped, and the angered animal split his gut with its long, sharp tusks.
Callum ran into the hospice with Braden cradled like a baby in his strong arms. “I told him you would heal him, Lovern. I said you have the god’s ear.” He laid Braden on the cot, who was breathing fast and bleeding from his midsection.
Lovern and I prepared the meal of boiled onions we fed to those with such wounds. It told the severity of the damage. The smell of onions came from Braden’s belly. It was then we knew death would come soon. There was to be no miracle here.
Braden died the hard death of a gut wound. For two sunrises he was brave and tried not to show pain, but the third day gave way to his deep groans and cries. I sat and talked with him, trying to capture a vision to help him cross the river of death. He strongly resisted.
In a low voice, tempered with a smile, I recalled the times we played as children. Braden always seemed to attract trouble. His father was strict, yet always forgave. Together, we remembered the day Beathan watched Braden prove himself as a young warrior. He won a contest as he practiced fighting with the other young men of the clan. Impressed by Braden’s strength and skills, Beathan called him to be one of the chieftain’s guards. He was among the bravest in the band of personal protectors Beathan had around him. It was during that time I imagined him to be my first choice of a husband.
“Braden, my friend,” I said. “I am sorry for my being captured and forcing Beathan into battle without you. You might have been able to save him. Thank you for protecting Lovern on your journey. Braden, be in peace. We will sing songs to your name. You will be in my mind as long as I live. When you cross the river, you will be at the hand of Beathan. Go. He has need of you there.”
Braden slipped into the deep death sleep. My labyrinth guided my thoughts to his river crossing. Through the fog of a light vision, I helped him into Death’s boat. Braden’s sucking breath rattled and stopped.
It saddened me to see the hero of my youth pass.
After this death, I realized it was time to tend to my own life. I had tried to wish the guilt away, but it hung over me like a black cloud and hid the warmth of my friends and Lovern. I took a deep breath and decided to try to perform the necessary rituals to cleanse myself and prepare for my mother’s death.
My mother’s dying happened in small stages. I attended her evening meals. She could eat tiny spoonfuls of wild carrot and rabbit stew with encouragement. Questions arose in her eyes, sunken into her thin face, as I fed her, the answers out of my reach.
Among other rituals, I prepared hazel memory sticks for my mother. She and I recalled her life story, and she chose a remembrance for each stick. There were ten. Among them were the days she spent with my father, three sticks to record the day she met him, the day they married and the day she came to believe he would not return. She told me she believed that in whatever way he died, he went calling our names.
“His love for you and me kept him returning from his travels. He would not have stayed away willingly. Now I will join him,” she said with a far away look in her eyes.
Three more sticks stood for memories of hers and Beathan's childhood: their mother’s love for them, times she and Beathan enjoyed playing and later hunting together.
“The days of play did not last long. Beathan knew early he was to become our chieftain and started the necessary training before he was ten. It sometimes made him insufferable to live with, but I was proud of him. The day he became chieftain was a very good day for our family. He was a brave and fair leader of our clan. His death was not in vain and he will be remembered long after I am forgotten.”
After I took a deep breath with my eyes closed in Beathan’s memory, I said, “Mother, you will be at his table to remind him of his family. Carry our love to him. In this you will be remembered, also.”
The last four memory sticks were for my birth, her only child, and events around our life together.
“The day you were born, your father gave me this bronze armlet.” She shook it from her bag, her arms too thin to wear it. “It is one of the first pieces Finley made with decoration. Its spirals symbolize the continuing of our bloodline. I want you to have it now, Jahna. It is up to you to carry on your father’s family. I also want you to wrap me in my plaid cape when I die. The day Beathan took the plaid you created and declared it to be the clan plaid was a good day in my life.” She paused to cough. Blood now colored the cloth she used to wipe her mouth. I brought her a cup of warm brewed chamomile to calm her. “Good. That is very good. It is in the Goddess’s light that you are now working to help our clan in healing. And to assist our spirits cross the river to the Otherworld is a path that will take you straight to the Goddess’s side when it is your turn to go. I am proud you are my daughter. Your marriage to Lovern will bring only good to our family, I am assured.”
My mind was buzzing like a hive of bees with the memories we had discussed. Her pride for me was an emotion she had not expressed before, and I was humbled. I grasped her hand and held it to my lips, my tears falling into her palm. My heart knew she would to be in a strong body when she crossed, but my mother would also be gone from my everyday life. The calming words I said to others at this time seemed difficult to believe right now.
At day’s end, on the thirtieth day after I arrived home from Beathan’s tomb, we burned her hazel memory sticks, bundled in one long, red thread. Holding the bundle, she kissed it three times, said goodbye to her past, and slipped them into the fire. Lovern, Harailt, and Sileas reverently watched. A tender smile filled my mother’s eyes with calmness, and she slowly nodded in approval.
The vision that came to me as that fall night’s air filled with peat smoke began with the god Cernunnos. He wore the head of a Red Deer, and pointed to a peak covered in clouds. As a hawk, I flew over the peak, down under the clouds, to see Bel and Morrigna drinking from a single cup. The battle for my soul had been waged and was now over. Both had hands on the cup as they raised it to the knot of tall rowan trees, our sacred trees of healing and life. A White Stag stood under the tree and stared at me, the hawk, and lifted its head in greeting. The splendid white animal tossed its head as an invitation, and I perched on its mighty antlers. Blood, dripping from an arrow lodged in its heart, splashed on the ground under its breast. My wings carried me down to the pool of warm blood. I watched his life slowly leak away, shadowing his eyes. When he nodded to me, no regret radiated from him.
Without warning, brilliant blue butterflies rose in a silent flutter from the forest floor and filled the air around us. Certainty filled my heart. I used my wings to carry me to the air currents and rose above the scene. I looked far below and burned this location into my memory.
In my bed at the hospice, I awoke to silence. The ravens that had been harshly cawing in my ears every moment since my taking were gone from my head. My shoulders were at rest, and my neck’s tension was lifted. The weight of guilt was gone from my body. I knew what I needed to do to be purified and be able to go back to Lovern’s side as his life partner.
Mother was tranquil, as calm as the cough would let her be. She smiled and seemed to sense a change in me while she sipped a small amount of broth.
“Mother. I must go for a few days,” I said. “Lovern and I have a quest. I have found what I need to continue my life, to mend my spirit.”
Her words filled the spaces around her coughing. “Go. I have been sad to see pain in your face. This is the first day I see light in your eyes. My daughter, you must find the way to bring Lovern back into your bed. I still ask a grandchild of you! Sileas will care for me. I will not die before you return. Go.”
I packed bread and dried meat in a cloth, filled a skin with water, went to fetch a pony from Kenric’s stable and walked it to our lodge.
Lovern was at home. I could not go in but stood in the doorway and called out to him. I was pleased as I looked around. He kept the fire area clean; all the cooking dishes were in the right places and the ashes swept from the ring. This showed respect for our dwelling. The blanket that separated our room from the rest of the home lifted and he walked quickly out.
“Jahna. Are you home to stay?” Joy filled his face until he saw me shake my head. “Oh. I was coming to the hospice soon. Is your mother…?”
“Mother is as comfortable as possible this morning. Bring your bow, arrows and short sword. We go to hunt the White Stag. I have seen where it lives. It waits for us by the rowan trees.”
Lovern stepped forward and laid his palm on my cheek. “You have had a dream. The gods are coming to help us. We will recover our lives and live together again. I have prayed for this day.” He ran to our room and returned, his bow strung across his back, balancing the bundle of arrows under his arm as he strapped his belt on and slid the sword through it. His dirk was already in its sheath; he was ready to hunt. He stood in front of me waiting for an explanation of my request, his brows resting under the lines on his forehead caused by his concern. I looked into his face and noted that all the vestiges of the young boy I had seen in my passage dream were gone. His face wore the lean look of a man. I stepped back as he reached for me. I was not ready to allow him to touch me again, still working to overcome the weakness his scent of honey, acorns and, today, leather gave me.
“Jahna, tell me about your dream. The White Stag will bring many blessings to us and our clan if we find it,” said Lovern. “Cernunnos will bring game and Morrigna will be pleased if we capture it for them.”
It was in Lovern’s heart to think of the clan as well as me. I bit my tongue to keep my selfish reply hidden. The White Stag was mine, not a sacrifice for the clan.
“In the form of a hawk, I flew to the Stag. I stood on its antlers and was covered in a blue light. Blue butterflies, Lovern. Butterflies. It means my rebirth as a pure woman. It foretells my return to be with you. I need to be a part of your life again, and this is the path we must follow to achieve this end.”
“I have waited for a sign,” he said. “If the gods say we must capture the White Stag to allow you to come home to me, to lie in my bed again, then we must go, now. There has been too much time apart. We cannot live like this any longer. I will do what is asked of me if it means that I may reclaim you as my partner, to love you and caress you. If it is not to happen, then I will leave this hill fort. I cannot stay without you by my side.”
He jumped into the saddle of the pony and reached out for me.
“First, I must tell you that we do not go to capture the Stag,” I said. “I agree it would be a trophy worth much if we could bring it home, but the gods told me it must be sacrificed. Its life is in trade for mine. No one else may be allowed to wish upon it. No one else may be allowed to see it alive.”
He frowned and thought for a moment while holding the prancing pony’s reins. “If the gods have sent you this message, I will abide. Our gods speak with you as well as me. If it is to be a sacrifice, it shall be. Let us get started.” He grasped my arm and easily pulled me up behind him. I shifted, clutching his narrow waist under his bow and over his belt as we started downhill.
“Go to the mountain trail that is in the morning shadows,” I whispered in his ear and tightly held on. I pressed myself against his straight back, buried my nose in his hair and took deep breaths filled with the scent of him.
“Jahna, I have missed you,” he said turning slightly to me.
“Quiet. We must be as your fox on this journey or the Stag will flee. We will talk after, I pledge.”
His slight groan and flick of the reins betrayed his impatience.
I followed the trail I had seen from the air as a hawk. We went without a stumble around large boulders and across very narrow, washed out parts of an animal path for the rest of the day and into the night. We were guided by the gods but tired as humans. Stopped to rest, we ate dried meat and drank water from the skin. There was neither a fire nor words between us. The rocky ground did not allow an easy night’s sleep.
Confusion clouded my thoughts. I prayed to be on the right trail. I thought about my mother. I remembered my childhood, so many memories dredged up with my mother’s memory sticks and Braden’s death. The ever-present smell and hideous thoughts of the time I was taken slipped between the happier moments, as much as I tried to erase them. Lovern traced his labyrinth. In the light of the moon, I brought my labyrinth into my lap and ran my finger over its lines. My fast breath of unease slowed into measured calmness. In my mind, understanding the scenes were not real, I was able to relive my taking. I was on this path for redemption, to be allowed to purify myself and I had a need to fully remember why. The tension that was always present during these times of recollection was gone. Lovern sat near me and we were here to wash this evil spirit from me with the blood of the Stag.
The night escaped as dawn’s light streaked over the top of the mountain. Luminous pink reflected from the granite boulders on the mountaintop allowed me to recognize this place. We had arrived without my knowing. We were in the clearing of my vision.
“The Stag is here,” I whispered to Lovern, cautioning him not to speak.
Crouching in the grassy edge of the trees, we crept to the copse of rowans, their leaves beginning to turn the gold and red of autumn. The proud buck stood just beyond the perimeter of the trees. His thick neck lifted his fine head to sniff the morning air, and he took a step forward. His muscles rippled just under his snow-white pelt, and his tail flicked at an annoying insect. He stretched his neck up, becoming taller than Lovern, to eat the higher, more tender leaves. The sun continued to climb in the sky and enveloped him in a golden light as we watched.
I counted ten points on each side of his antler crown. Here stood a legendary creature of the forest. His carriage was one of a virile, tested bull. One at this age had given life to many young. His proud bloodline assured, the gods would let us take him. Breathing quietly and seldom, we crawled on our bellies to cross the distance between us. The underbrush provided cover. He seemed not to hear us.
Lovern notched an arrow to his bow. My body trembled, and I fought not to close my eyes as Lovern slowly stood, pulled the string of his bow and took careful aim.
“Give me the permission,” prayed Lovern in a whisper, “and strength enough to kill this mighty animal of nature with one arrow. May it be accepted as my sacrifice.” I prayed for Lovern’s straight aim and crouched, prepared to give chase after the arrow was shot.
The Stag’s ears twitched, and he looked over his shoulder, away from us, into the depths of the trees. He snorted and took in a breath that rattled the nearby leaves. He seemed to be giving us the chance to take his life while not looking into his eyes.
Lovern let lose the arrow.
Hearing the twang of the bowstring, the Stag turned to face us. His intelligent, black eyes bore into my heart with the knowledge of his demise. I begged for his forgiveness just as his ears cocked toward me. As if he heard and understood my need, he stepped into the arrow’s path. His head rose, carried his eyes to the heavens and opened his heart for the iron point of death.
Pierced, he jumped and snorted; his antlers vibrated with the shock. The arrow sank deep into his chest, and he fell to his knees unable to run. We raced to his side just as his noble head settled to the ground. I knelt, touched his forehead and gazed into his eyes as he took his last breath. It sounded like a sigh of relief. Then, as if released from this difficult world, his inner light extinguished. Another trade, another life for mine. A life so my bloodline would continue.
Together, Lovern and I rolled the magnificent animal to its side and Lovern pulled his dirk from his belt to open the Stag’s neck veins. The red blood ran down its white neck and spilled onto the green mat of grass. My cupped hands captured a few drops, and I sipped. I tasted the smell of Finley’s smithy – hot metal. Lovern drank and then we wiped our hands across our faces. Lovern’s cheeks were streaked with the crimson fluid that had been the White Stag’s life. I felt the stickiness on my face and watched it drizzle crimson down my arms in spiral trails. They ran under and copied of the design on the armlet my mother gave me, the spirals of life.
Lovern jumped up, droplets of blood spraying through the air. “Jahna! Look! Behind you –- quickly, look!”
Thinking the mate of the Stag may be on her way to take her revenge, my breath caught in my throat as I twisted to look in the direction his blood covered finger pointed.
Out of the corners of my eyes I captured movement, a rush of blue flickering and floating on the air. Facing the trees, my eyes wide, I watched clouds of small blue butterflies lift to the sky. I accepted the scene from my vision. The blue butterflies and the White Stag were here in this copse of rowan trees to heal the relationship between Lovern and me. I did not question our presence. We were here by the grace and wonderment of the gods.
A song came to my lips.
“Anaman dance on air and color to bring life
and blessings from the gods;
purify our spirits,
bring change and rebirth;
Anaman alight, blue mysteries, and heal me.
Anaman Anaman Anaman.”
“O Morrigna,” sang Lovern in his own prayer song. “Shown in the form of Cernunnos, we welcome you. The King of the Forest rests at our feet. In him, we seek fertility for ourselves, our forests, and the animals within. Bless us so in your name we may continue to teach others to bless you. Blessed Cernunnos, we will be forever grateful for your blessing and allowing us to sacrifice the White Stag to Morrigna and you.”
“I will be there until I am free,” I said and pointed to the edge of the small meadow where we spent the night. “I will come to you when I feel my soul release.”
Lovern nodded. I picked up my cape and walked a small distance away.
Lovern continued singing just out of reach of my ears. Birds in the forest around me twittered, their songs sweet again.
Lovern stripped off his clothing. I admired his tall, lean body and the muscles that worked as he shoved the Stag’s body into position. Lovern’s penis, hanging limp between his legs, did not show his true virility. He was my lover and I tingled with memory.
I kneeled and wrapped myself in my cape, my labyrinth bag in hand. I thought on the reasons we were here. Through the rest of the day, I relived my first meeting Lovern in Beathan’s home.
Lovern went into the forest and returned with a short log. After he reached in and cut out the Stag’s tongue, he placed the log just under its chin, raising its neck off the ground. He placed the tongue on the grass nearby. He lifted his short sword into the air, bringing it down repeatedly until the Stag’s head separated from its body. He grasped it by its antlers and sat it on its neck, facing his work. Then, he rolled the Stag’s body to its back and cut a deep line down the belly with his dirk. He cut again at the joint of each leg. Grasping a corner of the pelt, he pulled and cut under the skin to separate it from its body.
I remembered falling in love with him as he taught me how to heal and find my life’s path.
Midday saw the pelt completely removed and set aside. Kneeling, covered with blood, Lovern carved large pieces of meat off its shoulders and haunches. As if called, a small red fox walked to Lovern’s side; its sharp nose dug into Lovern’s arm to announce its arrival. Startled, Lovern looked down and laughed at the brave copper-colored animal. Its white-tipped red tail slowly swished back and forth. Lovern crawled on his knees, not rising above the small animal more than necessary, and reached for the Stag’s tongue. He laid it just in reach of the fox. The fox sauntered over, sniffed, bit into it and tried to lift it. It was too heavy so the fox snorted, gave in, and dragged his prize back into the forest from whence he came. Lovern watched in silence and bowed his head to the empty air left by the disappearing, sly fox.
After quenching his thirst from our water skin, Lovern reached into his labyrinth bag and retrieved the red thread we had been handfasted with. It fell in tendrils from his fingers as he brought it to his lips and kissed it. His penis became partially erect. I wondered if he was remembering the night of love that came after that ceremony. He tied the thread around the antlers of the Stag.
I recalled our marriage and the night of love we shared. My loins moistened and readied for entry.
Using his sword with both hands, Lovern dug a hole. He finished it just as the sun started on the down side of the day. He disappeared into the forest again.
My throat closed, and I grew weak with memory of the fear of my taking and the death of Beathan.
When he returned, he piled the logs he carried into the hole along with twigs and small branches. He pulled and rolled the body, with difficulty, into the hole. The King of the Forest’s head balanced on top of its body. Lovern laid his short sword near the hole and reached into his bag again for his firestones. He lit the tinder and wood under the Stag. Soon, wood and fat fed, red and gold flames jumped into the air and the fire’s smoke rose to the darkening sky. The body of the White Stag, King of the Forest, was consumed by the purifying blaze. His spirit flew to the forests of the gods on the smoke.
Lovern stood to watch for several breaths, then reached down and picked up the white pelt he had removed earlier. He walked towards me. I could hear his voice. Holding out the white pelt, he prayed, “Morrigna. Bel. Hear my pleas. Forgive my wrong-doings. Give me the power to heal and protect. Give me guidance to bring back into the true line of our nature the love of my life.”
I grew stronger with the sound of his voice. I watched him declare his love and need to me through his actions and prayers to the gods. I knew the gods gave us this love we shared, and I would continue to honor it into whatever future we held together.
“Lovern,” I whispered with a dry throat, “help me rise. I am free. I am purified.”
He came to me. His hands strong under my arms, he lifted me to stand and raised his head to heaven singing thanks. I turned to stand behind him and dropped my dress to the grass. I took a step so my back was against his, my hot skin absorbing his sweat. My head rested under his shoulder, and I entwined our fingers. My legs were growing weak with relief and need of him when I felt his body quiver.
I released his hands, and we turned to face each other. “Are you chilled?” I asked this as I trembled with my need.
“No,” he said as he pulled me tightly against his body. His head dipped to kiss me and I felt him, fully erect, pressing his hips into mine. Our bodies reacted to the prolonged absence of each other.
“I have missed you so,” I wept and reached my arms around him, my face buried against his chest. He lifted my chin and looked into my eyes. I saw tears in his, reflected in the waning light.
“Jahna, as my wife you should not have had to face the trials you did. It is my job to give you protection, and I failed. Before I left, you implored increased protection for me and I failed to do the same for you. Your taking and Beathan’s death should fall on my shoulders, not yours. I ask your forgiveness. I ask the gods’ forgiveness.”
“We are both purified with this hunt and sacrifice,” I said. “We must now follow the path of our future.”
We kissed, our tears creating clean lines through our blood-covered faces. Lovern eased me to the ground, the white pelt under us for protection. I cried in pleasure as his mouth and hands found my breasts. I lifted my legs around his slender hips, and he groaned as he entered me. We moved as one, searching for the most important truths in the entire world. The love of a man and woman. The urge to create new life.
I screamed into the night with my release, and he cried out my name. We clung to each other, loving again and again until the sun rose.
“The fire is out,” I said as I lifted my head to look over his shoulder. He still lay atop me. “I am hungry. Is there dried meat and water?”
“Later, I will cook the meat I removed for this purpose. You need to eat well from now on.”
Looking into his face and seeing his grin I realized he would know, even as I did, that I was with child. His child. Our child. A child of this night.
“Yes, I will take care of my body and soul for our daughter. She will carry our blood into the future.”
“I agree, but now we will take care of us. I need you again, Jahna. My body will never tire of yours, even when you are too big to walk!”
“Mmmm. It is pleasant to have you inside me. But I have enough hunger to eat a pony.”
“Quiet, woman. I will feed our souls first and then your stomach.”
Later, we ate meat from the Stag, climbed onto our pony and traced our path home. We stopped only to wash our bodies in the waterfall of the sacred pool. There, we loved each other again.
My mother was awake when we returned to the hospice. I knelt by her and whispered, “I am with child. A girl child.”
She laughed, and for a few days we made plans. She spent her last days with smiles on her face and hope in her eyes. At the end, she kissed me and said she would be with me at her granddaughter’s birth. I was to look for a sign. “Teach her to weave the clan colors. They must be carried on.”
“I will, Mother. She will learn to use your loom as I did.”
“Jahna, you will be a good mother.” She blessed me with the highest praise a mother can give a daughter. My heart filled with pride and sorrow.
She died in her sleep during the next full moon. Lovern gently cradled me in his arms while we mourned our loss. A large owl, my mother’s sign, made its resting place in the tree outside our door after hunting.
She watched over me and mine for the rest of our time. She still watches over my blood.
76 AD MAY
My mother had blessed me before she died, and the time the baby grew in me was easy. I slept in our bed, our home protected by Lovern and our crystals, comforted by his warm breath on my neck and arm over my shoulder. This was a time of peace and recovery for my body and mind. Passage dreams were not a part of this life, nor were visions, until the night before Crisi’s birth, ten days after the Beltane ceremony.
Our Beltane festival was good that year. Our animals were healthy, many carried young, and our crops grew fruitful with an early warm spring. Lovern and the clan members, satisfied with the graces and blessings the gods had given us, knew we would have enough food for next winter.
Sleep had become precious to me and I did not get enough as the size of my belly grew. When I did sleep, it was for short times. The night before my birthing pain started, I settled next to Lovern, trying to get as comfortable as possible on my side. I realized I had to pee and groaned.“What is it? Have the pains started?” Lovern was as ready for our daughter to be born as
“No. I must pee. Again. And I will take a small walk. The moon is full, and I want to sit
under it, alone, for a time. When the babe is born, I will not have any time alone.” Lovern pushed against my back to help me get my unmovable body up. The baby, a
small boulder’s weight I carried in my belly, threw my balance off. It was difficult to rise out of
bed without help. I would not only welcome a healthy babe but my body back as well when the
Outside, on a stool near our well, I sat for a few moments in the light of the moon,
envisioning our home with a small child in it. My body cooled, I shivered, and rose to go in. On
my walk back, a flash of light caused me to look up at our home. It had disappeared. In front of
me was the framework of an unfinished lodge. Gazing around, I saw it was the house Lovern and
I now lived in. Where I grew up. Instead of walls, rooms, and a fire pit, only the support posts
and cross beams for a future roof were standing. The room we built, where his crystals laid
buried under the posts, was part of the shell that was outlined by the timbers. This was strange;
we added that room after he came to live in my mother’s home. I stood, turning and staring deep
into the unfinished abode. I searched for something precious to me.
I walked into it and paced around the uneven floor. A picture dropped into my mind, and
I realized I was looking for a baby. There, crying, lying on the cold dirt, was a newborn girl
child. She was naked on the White Stag pelt. An owl, my mother’s sign, was perched on the floor
next to her in a protective stance. The owl hooted and watched me intently as I walked to the
baby. I stooped to the floor; the owl grew quiet, and the baby stopped crying. I picked her up and
saw my eyes studying me from her face.
The goddess whispered her name into my ear like a spring breeze. Crisi. Her eyes looked
deep into mine with the knowledge of all newborns, the knowledge we forget as we grow. Her
hands waved in the air in front of her face. I reached for them. She grabbed my finger in a strong
grip. I looked at her feet, raised above her nakedness. Lovern’s second toes on each foot were
longer than his large ones and she had toes like her father. He said it was a family mark from his
mother. This child, Crisi, was a child of ours, a mixture of our families. This was our baby. I
cradled her gently as I lifted her to the stars to display her to the gods.
“This is my daughter. This is Lovern’s daughter. This is Crisi, the one who will carry our
blood into the future.”
A pain brought me back, seated outside my home in the dirt, empty hands lifted to the
When told of my vision, Lovern discerned that we -- he, I and Crisi -- would be the start
of a new blood line. The lodge in my vision represented our family, and we were the beginning
frame for it. The next generations would continue to build, creating a secure family line,
establishing a safe home.
The next day I worked between the pains with the help of Sileas to ready our home for a
baby. We cooked, stored water and wood. I renewed the mistletoe in the window and juniper
branches under our bed. Energy ran through my veins. I did not want to sit down. Lovern was
underfoot, trying to get me to settle, so I chased him out to gather herbs in the gardens around the
He returned for the evening meal, and Harailt joined us. The pains were strong; I knew
our daughter would come soon.
“Our baby should be born by the sacred spring,” I said. “We can give her the taste of its
cool water with her first breath. She will carry it with her all her life, its protection, and its
memory of this home.”
“Harailt, go check the ill,” said Lovern. “Tell them I will be there in the morning.
Tonight, I tend my wife at my daughter’s birth.” He turned to me, smiled, grasped my hand, and
kissed my forehead. My love for him was never stronger. He was my protector, my baby’s
Our owl followed us to the grove near the spring where the waterfall’s spray was lifted
to us by the evening breeze. Of the birth, I remember Lovern’s strong hands supporting me while
I squatted and Sileas’s gentle hands rubbing my back. Crisi was born with the taste of her home
on her lips, her grandmother watching over her, and surrounded by love. Clean and wrapped in
the protective White Stag’s pelt, she did not cry until the next morning. She grew healthy and
79 AD May
My adult life had contained the many fears and visions of war and early death. Since Crisi’s birth, many of the fears were resting. I did not know whether they were gone or asleep like a bear in winter.
When Crisi had passed three springs, she, Lovern and I hiked up the mountain trail behind our fort. We often looked there for flowers used in healing. I was in a peaceful place in my life and watching her play brought back memories of her birth.
She was a peaceful baby, easy to care for. Even now, she would rather laugh and play than cry. I often took care of other children of our clan, and at this age they had become willful. Crisi had shown some stubbornness (I told Lovern it was from him) but usually she listened to us. I saw a wisdom in her eyes I had not seen in other children. I liked to think that she was the best child in our clan. I was sure, however, all mothers thought this way. I had heard and joined in when mothers bragged about what their children had done, but none sounded as smart as Crisi.
It seemed the goddess, Morrigna, would only bless us with one child. I prayed and made pilgrimages to the waterfall for sacred water, and done all the other things a woman must do to have a baby. But, as Lovern said before, the gods act in ways we do not understand sometimes, and I had no more children. Not even a whisper of one. I had not given up, but learned not to hope so much. Now, when my bloody time came, my heart did not cut with longing and I did not hear a ghost babe cry in the night. If it happened, I would rejoice.This day echoed with laughter as we came around the mountain. When we saw our home, I asked Lovern to stop.