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Disclaimers:This is an Uber Xena and Gabrielle story. I have taken some liberties with pre-Christian Irish history here, but I’ve also tried to keep a certain flavor about it. There is a glossary for the Gaelic words I use at the end.
Subtext: Most definitely. This is a story of two women with a love that crosses all boundaries.
Other Disclaimers: There will be some graphic violence and perhaps some other things that would deter you from reading. Although, I tend not to get too explicit in any of my writing, I'm disclaiming for it anyway, due to the fact that I'm chained to the Muse.
Dedication: This story is dedicated to those bards out there who showed me that UberXena can be just as entertaining as regular Xena FF. To: Katrina, Bat, PJSeeley, Bardwynna, and S.Bowers, who were the first of many bardain to enthrall me with their UberXena stories.
Our love is a force not to be denied
Neither Death nor Time will part us
Through all tests the gods have crafted
We shall love forever...and beyond
My heart is held within your gentle grip
I willingly let it rest there in safety
For I know as does no other
We shall love forever...and beyond
I'll guard your love and hold it close
Bringing you no reason to fear me
Come to me and know the truth
We shall love forever...and beyond
Where you go I will follow
When I am born, you are not far
Truest hearts can never be broken
We shall love forever...and beyond
The Isle of Eire
Horse and rider moved as one across the dewy, green slope. The early morning fog hung low in the valleys, making the hill they were on seem as if it were an island on a vast, billowing sea. Mist clung to them, but neither horse nor rider were bothered by the wetness. Even the huge gray wolfhound, that loped beside them, took no note of the dampness.
Through hills and valleys filled with heather the cloaked figure rode with single-mindedness. The towering finger of rock called Cathair an Rígh, "The King’s Throne", was the dark figure’s destination this morning. Rising out of the mountains, its almost sheer ascent toward the sky was broken only by the "seat", a kind of flat, wide projection halfway up, that made the mountain indeed resemble a throne.
The rider reined in the light brown mare at the base of the rocks and dismounted. For several long moments the figure stared up at the immovable, lofty stone quietly, then with quick precise movements, flung the thick woolen cloak from off broad shoulders and placed it on the horse for a blanket.
Long tresses of raven black, freed from the confines of the cloak’s hood, framed a face both beautiful and hard as the mountain itself. Eyes the color of crisp blue skies glittered and narrowed as lean, strong fingers removed a well-made sword from a fine leather belt and placed it for safekeeping in a deep saddlebag. She was tall and lithe, her bronzed skin unusually dark for most of the Celtic race and its silken smoothness deceptive as she moved. Sinewy muscles under her skin would become pronounced then hide again as she stretched her body through a short series of exercises, designed to limber up her body. She wore a thick, dark-blue woolen tunic with no sleeves that set off the palest of blue eyes and leather trews dyed black tucked into well-crafted boots.
It was obvious this was no crofter or miller’s daughter. A thick gold torc hung on her long neck. Engraved with Celtic knotwork, the ends were of two lions, both female, coming together face to face, snarling. On her wrists were black leather, woven bracers with silver metalwork. Her biceps had golden armrings gracing them, engraved with more Celtic knots and mythical beasts.
Her hands were lean and powerful with thick calluses only where a sword’s hilt would be. Where her tunic didn’t cover there were a few scars, some freshly pink while others were almost invisible with age. These were not made by any common means, it was plain, but by weapons designed for war and death. Long thin scars, made from a sword’s edge, were the only ones visible on her arms, but it was not hard to believe that there were other marks of battle upon her body. All of these things, and more, showed her to be a warrior. And the gold that she sported was usually reserved in such quantities for only the best, the Fianna.
The tall figure started for the crag then stopped as a loud bark caught her attention. She smiled slightly and went down on one knee, holding out her arms for the wolfhound.
"Come here, Nemhain."
The large dog bounded up to her and immediately started licking the woman’s face enthusiastically. The warrior chuckled softly and patted the animal for a moment, then pulled back on the dog’s ruff to get her attention.
"Stay here with Ciolam. Stay," she said firmly, then stood back up with a natural grace.
The gray wolfhound looked up at her mistress mournfully and whined, then looked over at the horse that was nipping at the tender heather. Nemhain turned back to her mistress and whined again.
"Stay!" the woman ordered, again. "You can’t come with me. I’ll be back as soon...as soon as I can."
Turning, she started again for the mountain, only looking over her shoulder twice to make sure the wolfhound was obeying her word. Then with a small nod of satisfaction to herself, she lengthened her stride.
This was the easiest part of her journey. The steep slopes gave way quickly to shale, making walking more treacherous, but she was not deterred. Soon she was truly climbing, for there was no other way. The only handholds were small crevices, with jagged pieces of rock the only relief from the otherwise sheer face.
The climber ignored the growing number of scrapes on her fingers, her mind focusing instead on where to put her hands next and which way to climb further up. But even with the hard ground slowly increasing in distance below her, making a fall deadly, her thoughts were not completely on the surface beneath her hands.
"Come on, Gwydion. You’re the one who said he wanted to climb this." Blue eyes twinkled down at a fair headed young man just below her as she clung precariously to the side of the cliff.
"Yes, but we didn’t think you’d think we’d meant today, Kerry." The boy looked up, startling blue eyes the only clue to the pair's relationship. Where she was dark, he was fair, taking after their mother. Kerry, on the other hand, took after her father and the blood of the clan. Gwydion grinned and looked over at the third member of their climbing party. "You doing all right, Annwyn?"
With fiery red hair flying chaotically in the stiff breeze, the young woman smiled back. "I’m fine. But it is hard to keep up with your sister," she said good-naturedly as she reached for another hold.
They had been living together as fostern for six years. Gwydion and his older sister had left their home and come to live with Rohan the Chieftain of Clann — Brien when they were six and eight years of age. Annwyn had also arrived at the chieftain’s house at the same time, for her family lived near Gwydion’s and both the families thought the children and the clans would be better suited by such close ties.
Fosterage was an honored tradition among most Celts, although mainly the wealthier families and nobility practiced it. To build strong ties between families and clanns, children were exchanged and raised in their new homes to be cared for and loved even more than their blood. It was a tight, strong bond that was revered.
It was unusual for siblings to be fostered out with the same family and at the same time, but the two had refused to be separated. Fortunately, their father doted on his only two offspring and had easily relented to their pleas, although it had been Gwydion’s pleas that had really won Fionnbhárr over.
Since that day they had been raised in Rohan’s home as his foster children, closer in ties in some ways than his own, who were also fostered out to other families. The three did everything together and were known on the Brien lands as terrors, although it was always said with an amused gleam in the eye.
Gwydion looked up at his darker sister and smiled. He was always the most cheerful one of the three of them; she was always the brooder. "Get your head out of the clouds, Kerry. We still have a ways to go before we even hit the seat itself, let alone the top."
Kerry shook her head at the memory, trying to drive the pain of it from her mind. Stubbornly she climbed higher, her fingers searching for any hold strong enough to bear her weight. Her eyes though would veer from their upward search for a path, to a spot even higher, and every time her heart would skip almost painfully.
Soon she was pulling herself up to the ‘seat’. Turning around on the wide ledge she looked out upon the mountains on one side and the lowlands on the other. It was a wondrous sight, even with the dark ominous clouds. She sat down near the edge. Although she knew she could go on, it was better to take a small rest and catch her breath.
Her eyes turned away from the scenery and looked at the ledge after a moment, causing her to wince inside at the memories. Nothing much grew up here at this height but a scraggy shrub or two and some of the hardier kinds of heather. Kerry sighed.
"I’m going to be so sore tomorrow." Gwydion complained as he fell back on the hard ground and breathed heavily.
"If you’d just do the exercises the armsmaster gives you, you wouldn’t be heaving and puffing like an old woman." Kerry reached over and poked her brother in the gut, winking at Annwyn as she did so. "Even Annwyn made it up here before you," she teased.
"Séamus is a tyrant." Gwydion bemoaned as he gingerly rubbed the sore spot where his sister’s finger had jabbed him. "You two aren’t much better."
Annwyn’s brilliant green eyes sparkled happily. She enjoyed taxing her body to its limits as much as Kerry did. "Not tyrants, Ceideach. We just don’t hide in the musty hall at the bardd’s feet listening to tales like someone we could mention."
Kerry laughed lightly at the name her foster sister insisted on calling her brother. ‘Pet lamb’ was a good nickname for Gwydion, for he was indeed the pet of the holding and as sweet and harmless as a lamb. Where Kerry and Annwyn both dreamed of becoming heroines of the legendary Fianna, Gwydion wanted to be a poet, studying under the great bardds. Although the three young people had all arrived at their new home together, they were not the same age. Kerry was the eldest, having just had her fourteen birthday. Gwydion was twelve summers old, and Annwyn was the youngest of the trio, only being eleven. Even so, the three trained and learned together.
So far, their training had been the same for all three, despite their differing ages. They were learning how to wield a sword, the shield, the spear, and various other weapons under Armsmaster Séamus ap Eoghan’s teaching, and learning history and the lore of the clans under the strict eye of Rohan’s bardd, Aodan. Kerry was the most adept at learning the physical parts of their training, with Annwyn also doing very well for her age. Gwydion though, was far more talented in memorizing the lore that was required of them. Kerry’s brother just didn’t care to learn how to be a warrior.
"You’ll both be sorry when you’re older and are great warriors of the Fianna. I’ll create great epic poems about others’ deeds and satires about you two, you just watch." Gwydion stood back up and looked down at the two reclining girls, his boyish face grinning widely. "Then you’ll be sorry for teasing me." Kerry stood up quickly and held out her hand to Annwyn, pulling the other girl to her feet.
"Ahh...but it’s so much fun," she laughed briefly then looked up. The climbers were only halfway up to the top and they’d have to get started again, if they were going to make it back down before sunset. "Ready?" she asked, her eyes still on the cliff face looking for an approach.
"Aye, Kerry. Lead the way," Annwyn answered, eager to continue.
Gwydion just sighed and nodded.
The blood started to pump quicker through Kerry’s veins as she strode up to the rock face and stretched up, securing a handhold. The young woman wasn’t one to back down from a challenge and no mere rock, even one with the haunting history of several fallen victims to its name, was going to defeat her.
"Damn my pride," a much older Kerry whispered, the words barely louder than the wind itself as she too stood up from her rest and started the second half of the climb. "I should have... I... " Kerry paused, her fingers holding onto the rocks, her feet precariously perched. Her eyes had started swimming with tears, the emotions this climb stirred within her starting to affect the warrior far more than she wished.
With a ruthlessness born of twelve years she thrust away the pain momentarily. There was time enough to deal with her emotions later.
The wind dried the sapphire colored orbs as they gazed up the crag. Once again her eyes stopped at a point almost to the top of the mountain, then looked away. Gritting her teeth Kerry continued her climb.
It was going well. All three young people had finished their climb to the top of Cathair an Rígh and were enjoying the view. Perched high upon the world, the three fostern felt like heroes of old, their hearts full, their spirits soaring free as the eagle that shared the sky with them.
"It’s beautiful." Annwyn murmured, her hand squeezing Kerry’s as she shifted slightly. The top of the mountain wasn’t comfortable, for it ended in an almost perfect point, but countless winters of wind and rain had weathered it, making enough room for two adults, or three adventuresome youths, to sit.
Kerry smiled broadly, her blood still pounding with the thrill of the climb. She returned the pressure on the clasped hand in her own. It felt good to be here with the two people she loved more than anything in her life. She turned her head and looked at her brother fondly. "How about you, Gwydion? Was it worth the climb?"
Dazzling white teeth flashed in the late afternoon sun as her brother met her gaze. "Oh yes!" he replied ecstatically.
Kerry threw back her head and laughed heartily, the joy of sharing this with Annwyn and Gwydion bubbling inside her and running over. She couldn’t help it, she just felt so...happy.
They sat quietly for a while, just enjoying the view and the smell of heather faint on the wind that caressed their skin. Abruptly the sound of the eagle broke their silent contemplation as it shrieked at them angrily for being near its nest, then dove down in a mock attack at their heads.
Kerry watched as Annwyn waited for the eagle to circle them again, then stood carefully and looked over at the gliding bird of prey defiantly. Her green eyes flashing like fire, her bright red tresses whipping about in the wind, the younger girl put her hands on her hips, making both the siblings chuckle softly. Kerry was the brooder usually, Gwydion was the happy soul, but Annwyn...Annwyn was the fiery spirit. A wild temper to go with her flaming head of hair, she wasn’t known to back down from an adult, let alone an eagle.
"Get ye gone then, ye wee bird!" Annwyn barked. With her rising ire, her speech tended toward the more common tongue of her family, forgetting the long arduous hours of tutelage Ollave Aodan had tortured her with to make her sound more ‘civilized’, as he called it.
The huge eagle screeched again, circling around the pinnacle of rock. "I said, get ye gone! Blast ye rotten carcass of a three-legged mule!" Annwyn bellowed. "We aren’t even near ye nest, you balding pigeon!"
Gwydion and Kerry both burst out laughing, unable to contain themselves anymore. Red-faced Kerry wiped the streaming tears from her eyes and would forever regret it.
All she knew was that when she drew her hand away from her eyes, Annwyn was falling over the edge, with a startled Gwydion trying to catch her.
Perhaps it was shock, but in that moment Kerry froze.
"Aiiiiiieeeeeeeeee!!!" Annwyn’s shrill cry of alarm and fear pierced through the haze in the older girl’s mind and sent her surging forward to catch Gwydion, who had a hold of Annwyn’s belt but also was being pulled over the cliff’s edge.
Hand reaching out she braced her legs, grabbing for Gwydion’s wrist and making it. With a grunt she tried to keep herself upright, while not letting go of her brother, but the combined weight of Gwydion and Annwyn sent her over.
Instinct for survival made her free hand shoot out and grab onto the nearest outcropping, the top of the crag only inches above her trembling fingers. Then she screamed in agony as the weight of her companions ripped muscles in her arm, but she refused to let go of her brother or the cliff. It was near impossible to set aside the pain as Séamus had taught her, but knowing that she had to, for all their sakes, she did, thrusting it deep down within her, away from her mind. Then, finding the barest of ledges under her feet, she dug her toes in as far as she could.
Breathing heavily, she looked down. She almost let go in relief when she saw Gwydion was still holding on to Annwyn.
"Grab on to the rock!" Kerry’s voice shook. "Annwyn! Grab on to the rock!"
Gwydion groaned as Annwyn started swaying slightly, her arms trying to reach out and touch the cliff. "Maeve’s bull!!" The young man cursed, his arms starting to tremble as he dangled from Kerry’s grasp. "Come on, Annwyn! You can do it!"
Kerry’s heart lurched as she felt the skin of her brother’s arm slip slightly under her hand, Annwyn’s frantic attempts and Gwydion’s shaking causing her to lose her grip. "Please, Annwyn!"
"I...I’m trying," the girl replied, fear making her voice tremble.
Gwydion slipped further in Kerry’s grasp, her fingers no longer clamped around his wrist, but wrapped around his hand. Gasping slightly, he looked up at his sister, his blue eyes afraid. "Kerry?"
"I got you. I got you." Kerry insisted.
Beloved flesh slipped through her hand.
Kerry sat on the top of Cathair an Rígh and sobbed. That bright afternoon almost twelve years ago had ripped the heart and soul out of her. She didn’t remember much about the climb down, only the agonizing pain of her arm and her soul as she made her way as fast as she could. The night and the anguish that surrounded the young woman were her only companions during that hellish descent.
She had found them almost immediately, prostrate at the foot of the ‘king’s throne’ as if in supplication to some vanished ruler, their bruised and bloodied bodies barely recognizable in the pale moonlight. At some point her wailing eased off and her tears ceased. Then came the emptiness, a soothing expanse of cold wind blowing through her, promising her relief.
Kerry had taken that promise willingly and had let it overwhelm her.
Foil'd by our fellow-men, depress'd, outworn,
We leave the brutal world to take its way,
And, Patience! in another life, we say
The world shall be thrust down, and we up-borne.
And will not, then, the immortal armies scorn
The world's poor, routed leavings? or will they,
Who fail'd under the heat of this life's day,
Support the fervours of the heavenly morn?
No, no! the energy of life may be
Kept on after the grave, but not begun;
And he who flagg'd not in the earthly strife,
From strength to strength advancing--only he,
His soul well-knit, and all his battles won,
Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life.
"Immortality" by Matthew Arnold
The gate guard smiled shyly at the stunning young woman who passed through the main gate. He could see very little of her since her hood was up, but he could tell she was beautiful. Her face was smooth as fresh cream from the cook’s butter urn and just as pale. He was very young and this was the first day he was being allowed on gate duty instead of just training with the rest of the men. He stood up straight with pride as bright clover-green eyes smiled at him kindly.
"Tell your lord, Gwynne ní Rhydian asks for coire ainsec and offers to honor his dún this evening with a poem or epic of his choosing." The woman’s sweet melodic voice made the young guard shiver in response. He was instantly, irrevocably, in love and he knew it.
"Y..yer be a bardd, mm..ma’am?" the pimple faced youth stuttered as he closed the thick oaken gate behind the woman and her horse.
The woman, seeing his nervousness for what it was, smiled at him, reassuringly. "I am an Ollave and on my way home for the first time in many years. I wish for a peaceful night’s rest or two, before I continue on my way. Do you think your master would mind?"
"I’ll go an' ask ‘im." He immediately turned around and hailed a passing warrior.
Gwynne chuckled to herself as she watched the guards change and the younger man bolted for the keep. The young woman reached up and pulled back the hood of her forest green cloak, blushing slightly at the appreciative look the new soldier gave her. She had been told countless times of her beauty, but even now she didn’t believe it. The cruel jests of children to a gangly girl had jaded her opinion. But now that gangly girl was gone and in her place stood a woman.
It was a family legend that their ancestors had some of the blood of the Sidhe, the "fair folk"; if it was true, then Gwynne was as close as any mortal would ever come to looking like one of the eternal race that ruled under the earth.
She was tall and slim, with features that were fair to the eye and almost surreal in beauty. Fine silken hair hung down her back all the way to her hips. The thick tresses dazzled the eyes in one moment from the glorious pure gold of its length, to the next when one could swear the fair woman’s head had burst aflame. Its length hung unhindered except for two small braids, one behind each small, finely sculpted ear, ending in tiny, gold hair rings.
A slender torc, in the shape of twisted oak branches with carved oak leaves and acorns on the ends, hung daintily, the two ends nestling in the hollow of her neck.
When the young guard finally returned, Gwynne was idly petting her horse, lost deeply within her own thoughts. A polite cough got her attention and she turned to face both the excited youth and a robust elderly man, who was looking at her, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"Ye look a mite young fer an ollave." The older man’s deep voice boomed at her, as if he was yelling across a field instead of standing next to her.
Gwynne restrained a grimace and smiled at him sweetly, taking in the man’s appearance. Though he looked well off, she doubted he was the lord himself. His well-made but ordinary, plain, brown, woolen garments and the fact that he only bore an eating knife at his side, told her that he was no warrior, let alone a chief. Looking into his muddy brown eyes, she vowed not to let his condescending attitude bring out her temper.
"I just earned the right to wear the robes of an ollave two fortnights ago, but I am a bardd and a traveler asking for guest-right." She emphasized the last few words, hoping that reminding him of the duty of every home and dun would make him think twice about criticizing a bardd.
She knew she was rather young for the rank of ollave. In fact it took twelve years of hard study, memorization of countless epics, poems, histories, and endless clann genealogies to become a ollave, including continuous testing from teachers over the years.
She was quick-witted and could remember the tiniest of details and as a child those traits had been enough to bring her to the local bardd’s attention. More than likely she would have stayed in her father’s home and been trained by the bardd, but when an unfortunate incident had taken her elder sibling away forever, the only thing that her parents could think of to bring her out of her terrible grief was to send her off to fosterage.
Plans were quickly made to send her to a well-respected ollave named Fergus ap Aidan. Then word had come that the bardd had died from winterfever and that his old mentor, the riogh-bardain, Fergus ap Cathal had decided to honor his former pupil’s obligation. The family had sent her to him in Tara instead, hoping she would do well and that her studies would ease her pain. She had been eight at the time and her younger self had fallen in love with the old, doddering bardd.
Fergus became the father of her heart, teaching her from her young age and continuing her education throughout the years, even after she had left his side to go out into the world. It had only been four summers since she’d seen him last, but it felt much, much longer than the twelve that separated her from her blood parents.
Soon, after she finished this trip, she hoped she’d have time to visit him again, for he was very old and she’d heard that his health this past season hadn’t been good. First though, this trip to see her father, mother and older brother.
"Forgive my manners, bardain. I am Declan ap Tadhg."
Gwynne nodded slightly accepting his apology, but refusing to show the surprise she felt. This was the local laird’s own son.
"My father, Tadhg, welcomes ye inta his house. Ye are invited ta this evening’s meal. The laird dinna have time ta meet with ye now, fer he is with another guest, but he ‘as tol me to assure ye that he will speak with ye at the meal." Declan blushed slightly, embarrassed at having been found wanting in manners in welcoming a traveler. He motioned the young guard to take the woman’s horse to the stables after he had removed her packs from the saddle.
"Make sure she gets a treat would you? I’ve ridden her hard these last few days," Gwynne asked sweetly, handing over the reins.
The young man’s face grew beet red under her eyes. Not trusting his tongue to embarrass him further in front of the comely bardd, he nodded once and led the mare away quickly.
Gwynne chuckled and met Declan’s eye, pleased that the man had either seen the boy’s discomfort and just refused to say anything or had missed it completely. Seeing the wry twinkle in the man’s brown eyes, she knew it had been the former and her opinion of him raised a notch. The fact that he kept referring to Tadhg ap Corlam as ‘the laird’ instead of ‘father’ meant that Declan was illegitimate. Children born out of wedlock had a harsher life than legitimate offspring. Unless there weren’t any issue from a brehon sanctioned union they couldn’t inherit their parent’s lands. It also wasn’t unknown for parents to sell their bastards into slavery for an extra cow or two.
Declan though, seemed to have a fine position in his father’s house, since he’d been given the duty of greeting a bardain who had requested coire ainsec. Guest-right was considered a sacred duty by all Gaels and it was considered an honor to give food and shelter to those travelers who asked for it.
The walk through the compound to the maenor was a short one she was happy to see. For it was true, her trip had been hard these last few days and though she would like nothing more than to take her meal in her room, she knew she would be expected to attend and perhaps be called upon by Tadhg.
The maenor was small compared to some she’d seen in her travels, but still of good size, denoting the prosperity of the family and the clann. As they passed through the main hall, the only room large enough to house the entire holding for a feast or the evening meal when everyone got together, the bardd’s eyes looked appraisingly at several tapestries hung on the thick gray stone walls.
Most of them, she could tell, were Gaelic, probably made by the women of the household or traded for. One in particular caught her eye, immediately, and she stopped to admire it.
It was an amazing piece and she figured its length to be at least the size of five grown men laid end to end and perhaps two high. Made of pure silk, the colors were so numerous and vivid that some of them Gwynne knew she’d never seen in nature before. It was a scene out of the most imaginative of dreams, of flying creatures with scales and sharp claws that looked akin to lizards but breathed smoke and flame. Even though she knew these were terrible monsters, she was stunned by their beauty. Several dozen flew among billowy clouds and looked down upon the world below.
It was a world crafted by such talented hands and with such detail that Gwynne could see mountains, lakes, rivers, plains, great cities and small villages. Such diversity in such a small space, but it was the people that the blonde woman thought were most fascinating. Small and yellow skinned, with eyes the shape of almonds. Some of them wore the oddest armor that she had ever seen and she couldn’t imagine how a warrior could move freely enough within it. No fian would ever tolerate being so encumbered, she knew.
Declan’s booming voice startled the bardd and made her jump back guiltily. She had forgotten all about him for a moment. Looking over at the big man she asked, "Where is this from? Never have I seen such a fine tapestry."
Declan’s chest thrust out in pride as he snorted. "I dinna think ye would, lassie. ÔTis been in the laird’s family since the time before even the great warrior Fionn. ÔTis from a far away land, past even where the accursed Romans came from." He spat on the stone floor in disgust and raised a meaty arm at the other tapestries in the hall. "Linen. Every few winters the ladies of the maenor must make new ones, but this one," a stubby finger swerved and gestured at the hanging in front of them. "dinna ever change. The threads dinna rot and the colors are just as fresh as I remember them as a wee bairn." He chuckled at the wide-eyed look of disbelief on the young woman’s face and nodded at her sagely.
"’Tis true...’tis a legend about it also." He left the sentence hanging, hoping the mystery would reel the bardd in.
Gwynne tried not to laugh at Declan’s attempt to impress her. Obviously the man felt slightly threatened by the fact that her rank was far above his, as young as she was. She gave him an innocent smile. Actually she was liking this man more and more as the moments went on. "Really? Would you tell me? Please." Green eyes implored.
Declan coughed slightly to cover his uneasiness. Only a heartbeat ago he had felt superior to this child woman and now he was grinning like a young lad because of a pair of sparkling eyes and a bright smile. "Err...yes. ‘Tis said that a long time ago in this far land there lived two chieftains, both kings of powerful clanns. One chieftain, ‘tis said, had a son by the other’s wife before she married."
Gwynne nodded in understanding. Brehon law permitted such thing. If a man or woman wished, they could dissolve a marriage. It got complicated sometimes if there were children or joint lands in issue, but the laws were extensive enough to cover most circumstances. It was interesting to her that such a far land might have similar laws to their own.
Declan continued. "’Tis said the woman saved the life of a great female warrior from the father of her son who was the enemy o’ her lord and chief. The warrior was not of her own people, but the woman saw greatness to come inside of the woman. A great and savage warrior that grew ta know love with the woman who had saved her life and who ruled her husband’s lands in his name. But the warrior turned from this love and cast herself back into the pit of darkness that was her soul and fled the lands after killing her love’s enemy in vengeful anger. Time passed and the son grew ta manhood and took his dead father’s crown, but he was a hard ruler and the people cried out against him. Many tried ta bring him down but dinna succeed. So terrible was he that he imprisoned his own mother and killed her by his own hand, but not before she called out ta the great warrior in the darkness." He paused and pointed to a small scene in the central part of the tapestry.
Gwynne leaned closer peering intently. One of the flying creatures, emerald green in color, looked to be on the ground perhaps dead. Two figures stood by it. One was dark, tall, and a pale aura surrounded her as she wielded a sword against the fallen monster’s neck. The other was far more fair and smaller of size than the other. Gwynne noticed that both of the figures were women and that unlike the rest of the people on the embroidered tapestry, were more like herself in skin color and looks.
"The story is no’ clear on how the warrior returned, but return she did and with a companion. For once again the warrior had found love and this time she dinna turn away from it but embraced it fully. Tis said the fight was swift and in the end the chieftain died by magic."
"Magic?" the blond woman interrupted, then blushed. It was very rude of her to interrupt a tale being told and she knew it. "Forgive me, but your story interests me and I got carried away."
Declan nodded, appeased. The truth was, that he was enjoying sharing the history of the ancient hanging with the bardd. "Aye, ‘twas magic. ‘Tis not clear how. Perhaps she was of the Sidhe?" he asked.
Gwynne shrugged slightly. "Perhaps. I don’t know. It is after all your story." Her eyes twinkled at him merrily.
The man laughed, his belly jiggling slightly. "Aye, ‘tis that. Any road, the chieftain’s mother before she died, had had a kenning for what would happen and told her servants to put down all that would come about on a great tapestry and afterwards ta place it and the story in the care of her most trusted of servants who had been imprisoned in the dungeon with her, but would survive. So ‘twas done. Many seasons passed and the tapestry was passed from father ta son until it came ta the laird’s ancestors with a message." Declan looked at the young woman beside him and smiled when he saw she was waiting patiently for him to go on.
"’Tis said that one day the warrior and her love will return and that they will take on mortal form and leave Donn’s realm ta walk the land again." Declan’s brows furrowed a moment in concentration, than with a small cry he pointed out a thin line of sharp images that were stitched into the border. "I dinna know what these mean, but ‘tis said the warrior’s love will." He stood up straight again and glanced at the bardd thoughtfully. "Ye be an Ollave. Do ye know what it is?"
Gwynne looked at the embroidery thoughtfully. The Gaelic language was entirely oral, although the druidds did have the runic language Ogham, but in her training she’d been fortunate enough to learn several languages from Fergus, including Latin and Greek. It was Greek that was stitched into the weaving here, but an old form and it took her a few moments to figure it out.
"Hold on a moment...hmm...interesting." The woman murmured to herself as she translated it in her mind from Greek to Gaelic. It was difficult and the words lost some of their meaning, but she believed she got most of it.
"’Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness is form.'* Whatever that means," Gwynne snorted. "Almost sounds like it could be from Fergus’ mouth though," she chuckled to herself and continued. "The rest is separate from the first part as if it’s more personal. It says, ‘The heart is empty but where there is emptiness there is room,’ or space, I’m not quite sure, ‘for you to enter. She is water and you are earth. Opposites. But tempered with fire you are stronger together than apart.’"
Verdant eyes shining with curiosity scrutinized the rest of the tapestry for any more writing, but found none.
"The laird will be right pleased to hear yer words, Ollave," he said respectfully, all traces of doubt about her gone. "Twill finally answer the last mystery of the tapestry and he will be grateful to ye." Declan resettled the woman’s bags on his shoulders, anxious to show the bardd to her room and tell the chieftain the interesting news.
Seeing her escort was ready to continue their trip through the maenor, Gwynne purposely forced down her curiosity as she followed the big man through the hall. There would be time later at the feast to speak with the chieftain and perhaps glean another bit or two about the legend. There had to be more to this tapestry than Declan knew. How far off was this land and its fascinating people? Had the warrior and her love already come back from the golden lands of Annwn? Did they still walk the lands of the living?
Gwynne sighed, resigned to having to wait for her questions to be answered until later that evening.
And thou art dead, as young and fair
As aught of mortal birth;
And form so soft, and charms so rare,
Too soon return'd to Earth!
Though Earth receiv'd them in her bed,
And o'er the spot the crowd may tread
In carelessness or mirth,
There is an eye which could not brook
A moment on that grave to look.
Portion of "And Thou Art Dead, As Young And Fair"
By Lord Byron
Time stood still to Kerry. Up here where there was only sky and the hard stone of Cathair an rígh beneath her feet, the world seemed to pass by without touching her. The darkening of the sky into angry, thick clouds was the only sight to change.
Her sobs had long since ceased and the tears had been dried by the wind's caress, but still Kerry sat on top of the mountain, her eyes barely registering the changing weather. Instead, it was her thoughts that continued to occupy her - haunting memories that held her tightly in their grasp.
That black day had spawned a coldness in Kerry. Having lost the two most important parts of her life, she'd shrunk from feeling anything afterwards. Only her lessons at Seamus' feet kept her from insanity, but even then it was a close thing. At the young age of fourteen she had been already well schooled in the warrior's art for she was a natural, taking to the sword and shield as if she were born to them. But where before she’d been dreaming about becoming a warrior, after the deaths of Annwyn and Gwydion, she became obsessed, driven. Learning the secrets of warfare was beyond just being a joy anymore and she embraced it heartily.
Her foster father, Rohan, had been deeply concerned about her at first, for no word had been returned from Kerry's parents on the news of their son's death and Kerry had shown no emotion over it. But his worries changed to pride as his dark-haired ward, in the two years following the accident, was able to defeat Seamus time after time on the practice grounds.
At the age of sixteen she should have gone home and been wedded, but instead Rohan had asked Kerry what else she wished to learn. He had been pleased when she had answered without pause, "To learn from the best of the best. To learn from Sc‡thach."
And so she had. Rohan sent her to Sc‡thach, the legendary woman warrior who trained only the best and brightest of Eire's future warriors. Rohan had been full of pride and hadn't been surprised at all when the ship had come back from Sc‡thach 's isle in the north without Kerry, the young woman having passed Sc‡thach 's tests and scrutiny and joined the ranks of would-be Fians and champions.
Kerry had found the training invigorating and had immediately thrown herself wholeheartedly into the midst of this small world. She hadn’t been the only student of Sc‡thach. In fact, there were about thirty altogether. Some were Celts of high rank, either kings or chieftains sons or daughters like herself. Most of the students though were average Celts sent by their clanns for training. But no matter what blood you carried in your veins, if Sc‡thach didn’t approve of you, you were sent back on the same ship on which you had arrived. It was even a rumor that once, many years ago, the High King’s heir had been sent back to Tara because he had failed Sc‡thach's tests.
Kerry hadn’t made friends easily during her two years on the island. Not that others didn’t try and befriend her, but her heart was still sore and by now used to being empty and she found it quite difficult to open herself up. Even so, she had managed to gather a group of boys and girls her own age around her for companionship.
Brothers and sisters were they to her, though not as close as Annwyn and Gwydion had been. Sc‡thach was their mother and teacher. If they survived their time with her and passed her harsh testing, they would become truly like fostern to her, but bound not just by oaths and love but by the sword as well.
One day Sc‡thach told Kerry that she had learned all she could and that soon she must move out into the world. She was ready now to re-enter the world. Reborn with a sword in one hand and a shield on the other. The testing of blood, which all warriors must pass on their first battle, would be the last trial she must face before becoming a true warrior, but that was a test of the battlefield and not one could Sc‡thach give. Once again she was asked what she wished to do, for Sc‡thach did her best to help her children as much as she could.
Kerry’s choice, as before, was immediate. There was only one place where she wanted to be. One group of warriors above all others whose name was legendary and into whose ranks only the best of fighters could enter. The Fianna.
Sc‡thach had known what Kerry's answer would be and when the time came for the yearly trials in Tara, she sent Kerry off well equipped and well wished.
Tara had been a wonder. It was the Ard-Rígh’s home, from where he ruled over the many kingdoms of Eire and its high, thick white stone wall and towers awed her. She’d never seen so many people in one place and it had overwhelmed her for a moment, but then she’d taken herself in hand and marched straight to the field where the Fianna were recruited. She had watched at first, to learn how good her competition was. Sc‡thach had taught her all there was to know about the Fianna and what their requirements to enter were.
First there was the test of knowledge. A Fian had to know the twelve books of poetry. Books they were called although none were written down. Questions of history and law had to be answered too from the inquisitors.
The next test was being able to run through the forest without leaving a trail or making a sound. A single leaf out of place or a twig snapping spelled doom for any aspiring Fian.
Lastly were the tests of steel. Several bouts of combat against ranking Fians in which you could never lose a weapon. How well you fought was also taken into account, but it was not unusual for a future member of the Fianna to lose these fights against the best the army had to offer.
Kerry had passed, as Sc‡thach knew she would. She’d been exultant that night, almost feverish in her joy as she was feasted at the ceili into the Fianna. She’d been accepted into the heart of the mightiest of armies, where only the best of warriors were allowed.
The rapture alone might have been enough to fill the void inside her, but it was another Fian who boldly strode into that dark, cold place that festive evening.
Kerry grimaced at the memory. It had been years since that night, true, and although she wouldn’t trade those times for any treasure in the whole of Eire, at times she wished she’d never met Niall.
Tall, fair, and comely, he’d been one of the warriors chosen to go up against her sword in the trials. The fight had been the longest and most difficult for Kerry that day and she’d been glad that it ended up being the last. At the end, tired and soaked with sweat, she’d been defeated, but barely. She remembered looking into those golden emerald eyes of his and laughing, not caring that his sword had been at her throat. A heartbeat later he had joined in and so had the Fian judges. It was a quality they were looking for, they had told her later. Not just to be intelligent, fleet of foot, and strong of arm, but to love battle and be unafraid of your dán.
Later that evening surrounded by rejoicing Fians, old and new, Niall ap Fearghas had walked up to her and handed her a cup of usqueba to ease her thirst and fire her belly. That potent brew had not been the only thing to set fire within her that night.
"A fool. Once and twice again," Kerry whispered as she stood up from her rocky perch and stepped up to the edge. Her keen sight barely picked out her mare and dog far below. "Ever the fool. Why is it, Ceideach, that I can’t hold the ones I love?" she asked her brother’s ghost, hoping that he heard her.
"I’m so tired." She swayed forward, but the wind pushed her gently back. "Tired. Empty. I need..." she paused, unsure of what exactly she needed. Kerry shook her head, midnight dark locks of hair whipped around her. "I don’t know what I need. I just..." She paused again and let her lithe body lean again, but once more the wind pushed her back.
"Why? Why do you stop me?" she asked, not sure if it was the wind or her brother’s spirit that was keeping her from falling. "It will end all the pain."
Abruptly her face hardened. "No. No pain. There is no pain. Pain is weakness," she snarled. "You’re right, Ceideach. This is the way I am. What better way for a warrior to be, but empty of pity, compassion, and pain. I need nothing. I need no one. You left me to show me my weakness and so did Niall."
Pale blue eyes darkened as her eyes and heart hardened. "Thank you, Gwydion. Annwyn. Thank you for reminding me, yet again."
Kerry removed a small package from her belt pouch and placed it in a crevice, securing it there with as many stones as she could find.
"Thuit mo ghrian gu sior," she whispered, her words faint upon the wind. Then with one last lingering look, she went over the edge.
Drenching sheets of bitter, cold rain had started pouring out of the sky, making the climb more difficult for Kerry, but she didn’t care. Her mind was no longer on her past, but the weather suited her mood far more than a clear spring day.
The storm had darkened the sky until now she was climbing down almost blind, the faint glow through the clouds was the only way she had of knowing that the sun hadn’t quite gone down. Finally, reaching the bottom of the cliff, Kerry dusted off her hands and glared up at the lofty peak one last time then turned her back on it. She had done what she’d come to do and now it was time to move on.
Always moving on aren’t you, Kerry? The wind has stayed longer in one place than you have these past few winters, the tall warrior spoke to herself silently. Her long legs made the trip down the shale covered hill quickly and it was with relief that she was greeted in the near darkness by a welcoming bark from Nemhain.
Sharp eyes pierced the dimness in the direction of the greeting and spotted the vague form of her horse. She immediately changed her course.
The scent of clover and grass washed over her face in a warm cloud as Ciolam greeted her mistress. The mare was looking none the worse for wear from being left out in the cold rain. Kerry removed the soaked cloak from the mare’s back and wrung it out. She debated whether to wear the odorous, wool cloak then decided not to since she was already soaked through herself.
The warrior gazed up into the rain soaked clouds for a moment then at her two companions. A faint smile caressed her lips. "How about a warm bed and meal tonight, hmm?" She eyed Nemhain, noticing the remains of a carcass the hound was gnawing on. "Something more than just some scrawny old rabbit for dinner?"
The enormous gray wolfhound hoisted herself up, looked dolefully at her mistress, then showered her as she shook herself briskly. Smelly droplets flew everywhere, leaving Kerry no time to duck.
Kerry chuckled as she wiped her face off. "You’re more wet than I am, alanna," she teased, her hand ruffling the wet furred head that poked and snuffled at her. "Or at least you were. Now, I smell like a wet hound."
She grinned wryly, feeling happier. "All right. Let’s go see Rohan. I hope he’ll be glad to see me after all this time." Her heart stabbed painfully for a moment as she thought about her foster father, but it passed.
Mounting up, she oriented herself and tapped Ciolam lightly in the ribs sending her in a smooth trot.
Even in the near darkness, Kerry knew this place well. She was just as familiar with every dip, hill, and ravine as she was with the back of her sword hand, so making her way to her foster father’s dún was an easy feat in this weather.
It wasn’t long until the pale cliffs that surrounded Dún Carraig-ban on two sides rose up out of the dimness, glowing eerily in the rainy night.
A fierce wave of homesickness unexpectedly rose up within her. This was home. It was this place, if no other, where Kerry held the remains of her heart.
Ciolam seeing the torches high above the stone wall and knowing shelter and perhaps a warm mash were near, picked up the pace without her rider's bidding. Nemhain also, sensing the mare’s and Kerry’s lifted spirits, gave several happy barks and wove in and out of the horse’s path playfully.
Laughing at her hound’s antics, the warrior let Ciolam have her head. It would be good to see the dún again, even if it brought out the darker ghosts from within her.
Up to the thick oak gate she rode, only reigning in at the last moment, sending a spray of wet mud everywhere.
A dark cowled head peered through a slit in the gate, a brightly lit torch backlighting the figure.
"Hello," greeted Kerry. "Might a traveler enter?"
"Ye have a name?" a scratchy voice asked.
"Kerry ní Fionnbhárr." She heard a startled gasp from the other side of the gate, but ignored it. It had been several years past since there hadn't been a reaction to her name. "Well? Must I ask for coire ainsec from my own fostern? Let me in before I drown."
"Coire ainsec? Ye want guest-right? Here?"
Kerry frowned deeply, but kept herself from drawing her sword and plunging it through the crack in the gate and into the man’s body. "Yes, you bare-brained ass. I want a warm bed and meal. Tell Rohan his foster-daughter is here," she ordered through gritted teeth, her eyes flashing like fairy fire in the night.
"Aye. Aye," was the guard’s only reply as suddenly the figure and the torch light were gone from the gate, leaving Kerry still sitting on her horse in front of the dún’s gate.
"Why of all the guards did I get a thrice damned idiot?" Kerry shook her head, sending droplets of rain flying. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that even here the stories have changed opinion of me."
Sighing heavily, she thrust down her anger and chose to wait patiently. Nemhain, sensing something was amiss with her mistress, growled low and stared at the gate.
Thankfully, for her sanity and the condition of the gate that she was starting to contemplate hacking to bits, the guard came back.
"Ye remember the rules of guest-right?" he asked, his hood now pulled back from his head to reveal a middle-aged warrior who was vaguely familiar to the mounted woman.
"Are you trying my patience for a reason?" Kerry replied as she moved Ciolam closer to the gate, so as to get a better view of her tormentor. "Yes, I know the rules of guest-right, you son of a diseased swine! Every child knows them! Now let me in!!"
For an answer the gate opened and Kerry, wasting no time, spurred Ciolam inside and whistled for her hound to enter. Waiting first for the guard to close the gate behind her, she dismounted and pulled off her saddlebags. Handing the reins to the startled guard she growled, "Where’s Rohan?"
The guard looked away from her, refusing to meet her steely blue gaze. "The laird of the maenor is in the hall. The evening’s meal is about ta start. The boy," he motioned over to the maenor’s main door where a small boy waited, "will show ye ta yer quarters where ye can change ye clothes if ye wish."
"Fine." She turned and started towards the door, Nemhain at her side.
Shifting the bags on her shoulder, she walked up to the tow headed boy who waited for her and nodded at him. "Greetings. You have a spare room for a guest?" she asked politely, refusing to be angry in front of the child.
She chuckled dryly as the boy just nodded and opened the door for her and her hound to enter, then led them both down a well-lit hall.
Kerry raised an eyebrow at the direction they were taking. Either Rohan considered her as a guest and not his foster daughter anymore or the family rooms were all taken. Probably the latter, she thought to herself. It had been quite a few years since she’d set foot in the dún and more than likely quite a few of the servants and family had left.
"What’s your name?" Kerry asked the boy, curiously. Frightened young eyes looked back over his shoulders at her.
"Ainimh," the boy whispered timidly.
Kerry frowned, both at the boy's apprehension of her and at his name. Sometimes she forgot how dark a name and reputation she had. "Why do they call you ‘blemish’?"
The small boy shrugged, "Been tha’ way since I was born."
The tall woman snorted derisively, her eyes scrutinizing him for a moment. No visible birthmarks. Hmm..if my parents had named me Ainimh, I would have run away from home. But then...I’ve been called worse. And still am at that.
"’Tis a big hound," Ainimh muttered, then cringed as Nemhain noted the boy’s look and nosed him.
"She won’t bite. Not unless I tell her, that is." Kerry grinned.
"Oh. ‘Tis a right big hound," the boy repeated as if in awe. "Not even the laird has such big hounds."
"No, he doesn’t. At least, not the last time I was here. Her name is Nemhain."
Fear came back into the boy’s eyes and he snatched his hand back from the dog’s head. Nemhain whined. "After the ‘Frenzy’ herself?"
"Aye." Kerry saw the terror in his eyes and tried to reassure him. "But not for the reason you might be thinking. Nemhain here," Kerry motioned the hound to walk beside her, "gets excited in battle. So much so, that it’s hard to keep her still. So, because I trained her for war and because she's frisky and wild in the midst of a good fight, I named her Nemhain. No other reason."
The boy nodded but the dread didn’t leave his face.
Kerry sighed and let it be. Live with it. You always have, Kerry.
The rest of the walk went quietly until they finally arrived at the guest room. Kerry raised an eyebrow at the small quarters but didn’t complain. Coire ainsec gave you shelter and it was considered the height of rudeness to complain about what you did get.
I would have been more comfortable in the stable though, she thought wryly as she quickly dried off and changed. Making herself more presentable, she followed Ainimh back through the passageway and to the big doors that heralded the main feasting halls. The way to the guest rooms was actually shorter if you went through the hall she knew, but with it being the evening meal, the hall would be full and it wasn’t polite to enter a chieftain’s presence and immediately leave just to go clean up.
A spear wielding guard stood beside the age-darkened door. The man took one look at Kerry and nodded, then opened the doorway.
The hall was as she remembered it. Large enough to fit the holding guards, servants, family and more. Wooden tables were lined up in a large, upside down U, with the family sitting at the top row of tables, facing the main entrance.
Kerry’s eyes scanned the lower tables as she walked forward with Nemhain close beside her, ignoring the hush that drew over the crowd. Old faces and new. Many of them new, she noticed immediately. Nodding to this one and that, her gaze slowly made its way up to the main table, just as she did herself.
What she saw, almost made her stop still in surprise.
She frowned in confusion for a split moment, then schooled her face into an impassive mask. Striding up a few more steps, she halted in front of the Chieftain of Clann — Brien and nodded slightly.
"Welcome to Dún Carraig-ban. Be welcome to shelter and rest here," Tadhg said formally, a slight sneer on his lips.
"Thank you." Kerry paused for a moment.
"And what might be your name and clann?" the sneer blossomed and grew larger.
The blood ran cold through Kerry’s veins at the question. No one had ever dared to ask her for her whole name in the past five years, not since the last time she'd visited her family. But then, Tadhg was always the fool, Kerry’s thought was silent. Nemhain growled low, her hackles rising as she brushed slightly against her mistress' thigh in support.
"Kerry ní Fionnbhárr." She supplied, only giving her name and her father's, not her clann. Her eyes grew harsh and darkened to sapphire in the firelight. "But I’m known as Anum-dabh ‘Black Soul’."
It was at that moment a figure sitting next to the chieftain gasped in shock, bringing Kerry’s gaze immediately toward her. But it was also at that moment that a passing servant, whose duty it was to change the torches, tripped over a misplaced leg and set the silken tapestry afire.
One sung of thee who left the tale untold,
Like the false dawns which perish in the bursting;
Like empty cups of wrought and daedal gold,
Which mock the lips with air, when they are thirsting.
"One sung of thee who left the tale untold" Percy Bysshe Shelley
Gwynne idly walked through the kitchen’s garden, touching an herb here and a flower there in meditative thought. Dressed in her Ollave’s green robe, with embroidered harps and stags intertwined on the cuffs, she felt as ready as she could be for this evening.
Somber clouds now darkened and filled the sky, heralding a heavy rain that had already started higher up in the mountains, but the bard wished to stay outside as long as she could, knowing the evening meal and entertainment would leave her little time to be by herself. It was quiet moments like these, when the wind blew gently upon her cheek and the smell of heather and the faint scent of the sea from far off tickled her senses, that she felt the most alone in the world. It had been that feeling of solitude that had drawn her as a child to Fergus. The elderly bardain had been like a secluded isle amongst the harsh waves and chaotic tides of the Ard-Rígh’s court in Tara. Hundreds of courtiers of the king would fall silent at Fergus’ voice and listen with rapture as the bardd would woo and enthrall them with tales of heroism. But even with all the wealth and adoration he received, he had been alone among them.
Gwynne had felt that way since the day word had come of her elder sibling’s death. She’d been a very young child the last time she’d seen her, but Gwynne could still remember her sister’s laughter as the two rolled down the gentle slope behind their home, both children covered in flowers and sweet-smelling grass.
Perhaps that was the reason why Fergus and she were so drawn to each other beyond just student and teacher, foster father and foster daughter. Like her beloved Fergus, Gwynne had become her own island alone in the sea, touching the waves with her gift of voice and song but never truly letting them touch her. A wavelet here, a bit of sea-foam there, were the rare moments when she let someone in for friendship or company, but never a surging breaker came close to caressing her soul like a heart friend or true love. Yes, she had known pleasure in the embrace of another, but it was only momentary. She’d never found anyone that moved her beyond the safety of her own shores.
She bent down and touched a small sage plant, breathing deeply of the fresh scent.
Perhaps it is meant to be. Fergus has lived his whole life with his work as his only love...well except for me. I am the closest that has ever come to his heart and his to mine. Father of my soul. Closer to me than blood or bone. And yet...I dream...
Carefully, she pinched off a small sprig of the sage and stood back up, brushing the herb absently against her upper lip as her mind grew steadily more troubled.
What is it that is disturbing me so this day? Is it that I’m getting closer and closer to a home that I haven’t known in twelve years and parents that perhaps I have never really known? Or is it something else?
A vision of the tapestry that hung in the hall of Dún Carraig-ban came to her. Its richly hued silk seemed to tease and taunt her with the scene of the warrior and her lover standing over the slain green monster.
‘The heart is empty but where there is emptiness there is room for you to enter. She is water and you are earth. Opposites. But tempered with fire you are stronger together than apart.’ The odd phrase echoed again and again in her mind, but she had no idea what it meant. I wonder...
"Ollave?" A deep resonant voice caused Gwynne to drop the twig and spin around in surprise.
Two men stood before her, both with slightly amused looks on their faces. One was much older than the other, with long, gray braided hair. His face was lined with age and scars from old battles. He was tall, though not as tall as the younger man at his side. Still, for his years he was well built and looked long familiar with the sword that hung from belt. A bright red kilt was wrapped around his hips and he wore a thick, woolen, white, tunic and boots. An immense gold torc made up of three twisted strands hung around his neck.
The other man towered over Gwynne herself, who was of equal height to the older man. His barrel chest thrust out as he noticed Gwynne scrutinizing him and he gave her a self-assured smirk. Heavy braids of fire-red hair hung over his shoulders and a thick mustache of the same hue fell in greasy strands past his chin. He definitely looked like a man who enjoyed his meat and ale. However, the young woman could see thick cords of muscle play under the man’s skin and by the well worn hilt of the man’s sword and the bright gold that adorned his arms and throat, she knew that he too was a warrior.
"Excuse us for interrupting. I am Tadhg ó Brien. I thought perhaps I should meet my other guest before the meal started." The gray-haired chieftain spoke first, eyeing the young bardd eagerly. She was very comely and tonight’s meal would be a pleasant one with her company.
Gwynne bowed her head slightly and gave each man a bright smile. "I am Gwynne ní Rhydian and I’m grateful for your hospitality this evening." Her eyes wandered over to Tadhg’s companion in polite question.
"Ah...and this is my other guest, Ruán Fuildhórtair mac Eochaidh. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He’s a famed Champion of the Fian and earned his name ‘Spiller of Blood’ at the Battle of Tiar six years ago. He was just telling me of his feats."
Gwynne bent down to pick up the sprig of sage to give herself a moment to remember his name, but try as she might she couldn’t remember any champions by the name of Ruán Fuildhórtair, let alone from the Battle of Tiar. Twirling the twig in between her fingers she smiled pleasantly up at the huge man, suppressing the doubt she felt within. She was a guest of Dún Carraig-ban just as he was. It would be rude to call his name into question in front of the chieftain himself. At least, not without making sure first. "The Battle of Tiar. I’ve heard of it, of course."
"Ah, then you must have heard of my triumph in turning the battle against Clann ó Ceallach?" The warrior leaned toward Gwynne as he spoke. Like most warriors he was proud of his deeds and wanted to speak of them.
"Why don’t you tell us in the Hall, Ruán?" Tadhg suggested, looking at the dark sky uneasily. "It looks as if we are about to get rained on."
"Are you sure you haven’t heard of me?" Ruán asked as the two men walked back into the dún, Gwynne between them.
A sly thought came to the bard. "Perhaps I just need to be reminded. A great many heroes and legends were born on that day." I should know, she thought silently. "While we eat, I’d love to hear your telling of the battle," Gwynne lied. She really didn’t want to hear the warrior’s story but she was curious to hear his role in a battle she’d actually witnessed.
Only a few feet from the dry safety of the dún itself, the sky opened up and the rain fell. So densely did it pour that the world seemed to fall under a dark pall and Gwynne could barely make out the doorway. As one, the three ran to the entranceway and ducked inside. Thankfully, they had been close and had escaped being completely drenched.
Tadgh looked out the gate into the now almost pitch-black herb garden and shook his head. "I haven’t seen it rain like this since I was a lad. There might be flooding in the lower fields. I’ll get Declan to deal with it after the meal." With a heave he closed the massive door and started down the passage to the Hall.
Gwynne was about to reply, but Ruán interrupted her. "Aye. I’ve seen armies bogged down by less. I’m sure the lass here has heard a child’s tale or two." The warrior didn’t even bother looking down at Gwynne for her answer, instead he just gave a dismissive wave in her general direction as he followed the chieftain.
Eyes the color of lush spring leaves narrowed in annoyance, then were just as quickly shuttered. Gwynne was used to being thought of as more pretty than intelligent, even with her bardain rank, but it was still painful. Plainly both of these men considered her beauty to be more of an asset than the fact that she knew more of the history of Eire than either of them.
Refusing to let the two completely ruin her evening before it had truly begun she caught Tadhg’s attention before Ruán could speak again. "Your son, Declan, was gracious enough to show me the fine tapestries in your Hall when I was welcomed."
The chieftain turned his attention to the young bardd and smiled broadly. "Declan is my only child now. I’m glad his manners have improved. Sometimes the boy is suspicious of strangers to the dún and he insults them without meaning."
Gwynne nodded in understanding, but it wasn’t Declan she was truly meaning to speak about. As the small group was about to enter the Hall, she replied. "Actually, I was impressed by your silk tapestry. I myself have lived in Tara and can honestly say that not even the Ard-Rígh himself has anything like it."
Tadhg stopped dead in his tracks and looked at the woman, his smile even wider, his chest puffed out with pride. "Aye. It’s been in the family for generations. Declan told me that you’d figured out what those words meant."
Gwynne chuckled softly. "Yes. It wasn’t easy, but my teacher was quite thorough. I’m glad I could help."
"You’ve given me and my house a great gift," he replied as he entered the Hall.
Gwynne caught the slight frown on Ruán’s face as they followed the man into the crowded room. Apparently, he doesn’t like the conversation to be about anything or anyone else but himself.
The three made their way to the upper table quickly, Tadhg waving to his people to start eating as he sat down in his chair. He motioned for Gwynne to sit next to him, leaving the bench on the other side of the bardd for Ruán to claim.
Sitting down, she spotted Declan sitting a few places down on Tadhg’s other side and nodded to him, smiling and blushing slightly when she got a twinkling wink in response. She turned to the chieftain and leaned closer so he could hear.
"I was wondering if perhaps there is more to this tap..." she began, but was interrupted as a shadow fell over her and Tadhg.
"Excuse me, laird," whispered a very wet guard.
Gwynne scooted over a bit so as not to get any more wet and turned her head away politely as the man spoke in his chieftain’s ear.
"What?!" Tadhg’s eyes were wide in surprise as he responded to the guard’s whispered words. "You’re sure?" At the man’s nod, Tadhg sighed heavily, then grimaced. "Well...we have no choice. Let her in." He waved the man away and turned to his guests just as servants were making their way around with platters of roast boar and a huge urn of leek soup.
"Anything amiss?" Ruán asked, leaning dangerously near Gwynne, who did her best not to look too obvious as she moved back to her original spot.
Tadhg shook his head slightly, but his eyes narrowed. "We have another guest it seems."
"Well. Just in time then with the rain pouring," the bardd put in.
The chieftain of the Brien clann nodded, but he didn’t seem pleased about it. "No matter. She’s a guest. I’m sure you’ll both be meeting her after she settles into her room." He turned back to Gwynne and forced a smile. "You were asking me about the tapestry?"
Gwynne’s curiosity was piqued about who the new guest might be, but she wanted to know more about the silken mystery on the Hall’s stone walls. "Declan told me the family history of the tapestry, I was just hoping there might be a piece or two of the tale he didn't tell me?" She moved slightly to the side, to let the servants fill her plate and bowl.
Tadhg took a deep swallow of the ale then started in on his soup, dipping great chunks of dark bread into the hot liquid and eating them. Gwynne took a more slow and dainty approach and ignored the snorts and slurps that came from Ruán.
"Well..." the chieftain swallowed a big bite and looked at the bardd. "A great druidd guested here once when my cousin was the chieftain of the clann a few seasons back. He was very curious about the tapestry, just as you are now, lass." He winked at her and chuckled at her slight blush.
"That would have been Rohan? I’ve heard he was a great warrior." Ruán stated speaking through a mouthful of meat.
"Aye, my cousin was a great man, but we disagreed on many things." His eyes grew cold for a moment. "Especially about our new guest. Any road, the Druidd had a vision apparently."
"Truly?" Gwynne popped a small piece of meat into her mouth.
"He said that the tapestry was more than it seemed," Tadhg turned back to his meal.
"Interesting," the bardd whispered, her eyes drifting past the other eaters and falling upon the tapestry itself.
"Druidd nonsense," Ruán growled low, but Gwynne pretended not to hear him.
It was at that moment the main door to the Hall that faced their table opened and a tall figure strode in accompanied by a huge wolfhound, almost half again the average size of the breed. The hush that fell over the crowd drew Gwynne’s attention from the tapestry and her eyes narrowed.
She was taller than Gwynne herself, the bardd guessed, and walked down between the tables straight to the High Table like she owned the very dún itself. A well-cared for sword hanging from her side over a black kilt and a short sleeved, blindingly white, linen tunic was all she wore besides a pair of boots and gold. And there was a lot of gold. A thick torc, even larger than Tadhg's lay heavily about her throat and wide armbands graced both muscled arms, the color flashing in the torchlight and catching Gwynne’s eye. The bardd’s eyes traveled upwards and marveled at the long, thick, tresses that reminded her of the wings of a raven, all shiny and slick. But it was those eyes that captured her attention the most. In the heavily lit Hall the blackness of the eye was small, and the blue eyes seemed huge and almost as pale as the sky on a summer’s day. But they were hard eyes that swept passed the lower tables and came to rest on Tadhg, making Gwynne shiver despite the warmth of the room.
She knew this woman. Gwynne’s agile mind raced as she’d tried to think of where she’d seen her before. It wasn’t as she was now, but perhaps...
Her thoughts were interrupted as the guest came up almost to the table itself and stopped. Gwynne could hear a hiss come from Ruán, but she ignored him as Tadhg spoke to his guest.
"Welcome to Dún Carraig-ban. Be welcome to shelter and rest here"
Gwynne raised an eyebrow at Tadhg’s tone, wondering at the harshness in his voice.
"Thank you." The trickle of unease and curiosity within the blonde bardd heightened at the woman’s voice. She knew this woman, but from where?
"And what might be your name and clann?"
Gwynne watched in fascination as the guest’s eyes seem to grow harder. The impassive face was a mystery to her, but she could see every emotion in the woman’s stunning azure orbs.
"Kerry ní Fionnbhárr." Gwynne’s heart froze. By the goddess!
"But I’m known as Anum-dabh ‘Black Soul’."
An involuntary gasp escaped the blonde woman, as she slumped back into her chair in shock. Kerry Anum-dabh! Her mind shouted in stunned amazement. Never in a thousand winters did she think to see this face again.
She stared at the woman warrior, her brain barely registering it when those blue eyes turned toward her for a split moment then away to a commotion off to the side. Instead she was boneless in her chair, unable to see anything but the woman who stood in bronzed flesh before her. The woman that had once been foster sister to Annwyn, Gwynne’s own beloved elder sister. But that was not the only way that Gwynne knew her and the bardd felt a dark coil of dread arise deep within her.
End of Part One
"...And Beyond" Poem - written by me on 1/28/98 and inspired this story.
*- From the "Shingyö Sutra," a Zen Buddhist monk chant.
Thuit mo ghrian gu sior – means "My sun has set forever."
Well? What do you think of my first endeavor into the world of UberXena? Personally, I'm really enjoying myself. I haven't had this much feeling about a story since I wrote "Heart's Choice".
I'd like to thank at this time my two editors who made me realize that it was a good idea to get their help. I hadn't realized how sloppy I was before. *blush*
Anyway, thanks for reading and I hope you continue to enjoy the story.
"Bard? Where? Is that a dangling participle?"
"Mar a bha, mar a tha, mar a bhitheas."
I have more than what's shown here, but I don't want to spoil anything. Believe it or not, just one word can do that. *G* I'll be updating this as each Part goes out.
alanna – "little one"
Anam-Dabh - "Black Soul" The name a bardd gave Kerry after the Battle of Tiar for her fury in battle.
Annwn – the Underworld, equivalent to Elysia. Tartarus would be Ifrinn which is a cold, dark region where venomous reptiles and wild beasts roam.
Annwyn ní Rydian – Eldest child. Fostersister to Gwydion and Kerry. Fosterdaughter to Rohan ap Lorcan, the Chieftain of Clann ó Brien.
bardd/bardain – both mean bard. A class of poet/historians whose duty it was to create epics about great events and heroes, to memorize poems, epics, satires, genealogies, histories (of Ireland as a whole and individual clan histories). There are four ranks, each taking three years of learning and tests to complete. Apprentice, journeyman, master, and ollave. Bardds are not allowed to teach until after they have passed their journeyman tests. (I’m taking certain liberties with history here, but for the most part this is all correct.)
"Black Irish" - often taken to mean Irish people with dark hair and eyes. There are several explanations for this genetic deviation from the norm, but the legend that the "black Irish" were the original inhabitants of the island and all the rest were just blow-ins, is how I’m explaining Kerry’s and her ancestors dark looks. These original inhabitants were said to be the Milesians. Descendents of mythical Spanish king Milesius who supposedly conquered Ireland around 1300 BC from the Tuatha de Dannan (Sidhe).
Brehon– the Gael lawmakers. Gaelic law was actually very complex and covered almost every constituency. Fines, in cows, were the majority of penalties in breaking brehon law, but in extreme cases, like treason, death was the consequence. Exile was also a penalty for serious cases, making the exiled person a Gael without family or clann.
Cathair an Rígh – means "The King’s Throne"
Ceideach – means "pet lamb"
ceili – a party
Ciolam – (Kerry’s horse.) also is an Irish vessel
clann– the Gaelic spelling of clan
coire ainsec – means basically "guest-right", the obligation to provide shelter and food to any who ask it. Considered a sacred duty.
dán – "doom" "fate"
Declan ap Tadhg – Illegitamite son and only child and heir of Tadhg ap Corlam.
Donn - The Dark One, Lord of The Dead. He lives on an island off the south-west coast of Ireland, were the Irish must go to after death.
dún – means "fortified place" fort, castle, etc... usually a fortified holding
Dún Carraig-ban - means "Fort White-rock". It's the home of the chieftain of the clann ó Brien.
Fergus ap Cathal - the Ard-Rígh's own riogh-bardain and Gwynne's foster father and teacher
Fian – a warrior of the Fianna
Fianna - the army of Eire, under the direct command of the Ard-Rígh and only follow their own laws and his word. They are the supreme warriors of the land.
Gwydion ap Fionnbhárr –Youngest of two children. Brother to Kerry. Son of Fionnbhárr ap Cormac, Chieftain of the mac Namara and Úna inghean uí Mahon. Fosterbrother to Annwyn. Fosterson to Rohan ap Lorcan, the Chieftain of Clann ó Brien.
Gwynne ní Rhydian – Youngest of three children. Bardd of the ollave rank. Fosterchild and former pupil of the great riogh-bardain, Fergus ap Cathal.
Ifrinn - The cold, dark region of Annwn where venomous reptiles and wild beasts roam. Reserved for kinslayers and cowards.
inghean uí – means "daughter of a male descendant of". Dearbhorgaill inghean uí Conchobhair which means Dearbhorgaill daughter of a male descendant of Conchobhar.
kenning – means basically a "deep understanding"
Kerry ní Fionnbhárr – Eldest of two children. Sister to Gwydion. Daughter of Fionnbhárr ap Cormac, Chieftain of the mac Namara and Úna inghean uí Mahon. Fostersister to Annwyn. Fosterdaughter to Rohan ap Lorcan, the Chieftain of Clann ó Brien.
laird – means "lord" the head of the house, usually nobility.
Nemhain– (Kerry’s wolfhound bitch.) Named after the war goddess of "Frenzy" who creates panic among fighting men.
ní – means "daughter of" Pre- Christian Gaels didn’t have last names like we do now.
mac – means "son of". ap is more commonly used. Pre- Christian Gaels didn’t have last names like we do now.
maenor – means "manor"
Morrígu – "Phantom Queen." Morrígan or Morrígu is the Old Irish name of an ancient Irish war-goddess. The word is sometimes used as a generic term for a group of three war goddesses, along with Nemhain and Badb.
Niall ap Fearghas - Kerry's Fian lover who died at the Battle of Tiar.
" - " or ua means "(male) descendant of." Donnchadh ó Conchobhair which means Donnchadh male descendant of
Ollave – bardic title. Takes twelve years of training and tests to achieve this highest of the bardic ranks. Exceptional Ollave’s are often entrusted with diplomatic or social missions between kingdoms. All bardds above the rank of journeyman are allowed to teach.
riogh-bardain – means "royal ollave", a bardd of the ollave rank who’s sponsored by a royal family, very exceptional talent.
Ruán Fuildhórtair mac Eochaidh – guest of Tadgh ó Brien.
Sidhe – "The Fair Folk", also known as the Tuatha de Danaan, who ruled the island before the Gaels came. It is said they are an immortal race that went below the hill.
Scathach – A legendary woman warrior who taught men and women at a kind of advanced military academy on the Isle of Shadow.
Tadhg ap Corlam – Is the laird of Dún Carraig-ban and the current Chieftain of Clann ó Brien.
Tara - in the county Meath, was the seat of Irish kings. There is a stone that stands on it which is thought to be the same one called Lia Fail, Stone of Destiny, upon which the Ard Righ (High King) was inagurated. The stone would "cry out" if a worthy king stood upon it.
torc – an open-ended neck ornament of either gold or silver worn by Celts of rank.
trews – pants
Thuit mo ghrian gu sior - My sun has set forever.
usqueba – "water of life" Whiskey
Here are approximate transiliterations for the letters that don't exist in English. The slash above the letter is called a fada in Irish,
meaning long, because it lengthens the vowel).
á = aw - awe, crawl (a - flat in Ulster)
é = ay - hay, bray
í = ee - feed, creep
ó = o - owe, flow
ú = oo - cool, fool (more like the French word for "where")
Some of the consonants are pronounced differently.
s = sh (when it is in the stressed syllable)
bh = v
dh = g
mh = w
th = h
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