Niamh loved a bargain.
Haggling with merchants along the dusty village square was her favorite weekly past time. Father feigned disapproval. Mother ducked her head in mock shame, muttering worthless apologies. In truth, they loved the coins Niamh saved them, the extra butter and eggs she acquired.
It wasn’t easy being the plain, simpler older sister, but the occasional sweet or bundle of herbs she brought home especially for me softened the manner in which others scorned or outright overlooked me.
“Betha! Oh, dearest sister! Look what I have for us!”
I glanced up from the book in my lap. Niamh’s joy shone like dawn on the first day of summer. Her long braids, pale as that of the goddess she was named for, swung in time to the music of her voice. Even I could not deny the smile she brought to my lips every time she entered the room. I craved her attention as much as anyone in our village.
Two of the largest turnips I’d ever seen overwhelmed her hands. “They are lovely sister! Stingy Jack will nigh bother our home this All Hallow’s. Wherever did you find them?”
A blush colored her fair cheeks, obvious even in the dim room, as she ducked her head. “Colm saved them aside for me. For us.”
“Did he now?” I raised one eyebrow; the young farmer’s affection for my sister was as subtle as the harvest moon. “Then tomorrow morn, when it is again light, we shall carve them in a manner to make him proud.”
Niamh set the root vegetables on the large table and settled in beside me near the hearth. The evening’s dark was almost complete and the outskirts of the room were nothing more than shadows and secrets, but here, huddled close to the brightly glowing embers, listening to Mother and Father tending to our few animals, it was us. Just us. Sisters. Best friends. Closer than anyone.
Her fingers twined through mine. “Tell me a story. Oh please, please! I shan’t sleep if you don’t.”
“Well, we cannot have that. You’ll need your sleep if you’re to woo the handsome, talented Mr. Mac Carthaigh.” My heart panged for a moment, though I shoved the bit of jealousy aside. There would be unkind talk should a marriage agreement be made with Colm’s father; it was much frowned upon for a younger daughter to marry afore the elder. I’d long ago made my wishes known to Father, that I had no intention of marrying; that I would live at home and care for them and our meager land. His relief had been visible, a straightening of his frame and an understanding smile. I would not have been easy to marry, a fact I’d long since known.
“Oh, Betha!” But her giggle, hidden behind a faintly freckled hand, told me all I needed to know. I’d soon lose my sister. Colm was a kind man, though, of easy demeanor and calm tendencies. A good farmer. He would make a good husband for someone of Niamh’s joyous, excitable personality.
I closed my eyes and breathed her in. She who loved me. Who didn’t see my plainness or oddities. She, who was my other part. “Very well. One with fae? A love story? Or perhaps a scary story?”
“It’s the night before Samhain. Make it a scary story. Stingy Jack.”
“That’s been your favorite since you were very little,” I said, gathering my skirts and shifting on my thin cushion.
Mother and Father came in as I was starting. They settled into their chairs, lighting two small lamps. Mother with her mending and Father with one of his books. Quiet took over as I spun the tale of Jack, a greedy, drunken lad who made deals with the Devil and, after meeting death, found no home in either Heav’n nor Hell, doomed to wander our world, neither alive nor dead.
Niamh shivered and squealed in all the expected places, just as she had for the past ten years.
With the conclusion of the story, Father met my eyes. “Always the bard,” he gruffed, pridefully. “Off to your bed now daughters.”
Niamh gripped my hand again, pulling me to my feet and toward the small back room we’d shared since forever. The one that would soon be mine alone. We ducked under the bundles of herbs I oft dried back here, herbs used for tonics and ailments and other female-related issues. “Those turnips will need such frightening faces to scare off that old Jack!”
My dearest sister fell asleep still holding my hand, mid-sentence, murmuring lovely nothings about the Samhain festival in the morrow.
Niamh was up as the first rays of morning poked holes through the overcast sky. She whispered into my ear, “Wake, wake, sister dear. It’s Samhain.”
We plowed through our thin porridge as we planned our carvings. We were both inspired by the story I’d told last night and giggled as we dug terrifying faces into the hard flesh of the turnips. I winced as my knife nicked the end of my thumb, but instead of bandaging it, I smeared my blood along the raggedy mouth.
We hid our work from each other until we were done, spinning them around on a three-count.
Niamh’s glowered at me with a toothy snaggle and round, glaring eyes.
Mine was more devilish, with slits for eyes and long fangs from an evil grin. With the addition of the crimson blood, it was more than a wee bit terrifying. Niamh grimaced and shuddered, refusing to touch my creation.
I smiled and gave the turnip an affectionate pat. I won every year.
Father and Mother were appropriately spooked as they placed the turnips to either side of our door. We each said a prayer of protection to the gods, offering handfuls of nuts and chunks of freshly baked bread to our ancestors who’d passed over already and were waiting for us to join them.
Niamh and I waited as long as we could, rushing through our chores, but Mother finally sighed and shooed us to our room to dress for the festival. Moments later, we were wrapped in warm, woolen brats, tying the long cloak over our best léines and fastening them under our necks with the brooches Father had gifted us last winter solstice. I wound festive green ribbons through Niamh’s braids, waving her off when she tried to do the same for me.
I had no need for fancy adornments.
Father pressed a few coins into our palms before shooing us out the door, promising he and Mother would be along soon. Elbows linked, we scurried away, lest they call us back for one final chore. Carved turnips and gourds adorned fence posts and doorways at every home in the village, the grotesque faces determined to send Stingy Jack along to the next village.
We both came to an abrupt stop when a shadowy figure stepped from the side of the path to the center of the village. Colm was waiting. Niamh dropped my arm and skipped ahead, then paused and looked back, her entire face begging.
My stomach lurched, but I smiled and nodded once. That was all it took for her to dash away, not once looking back. I pressed a palm hard against my chest, over my heart, steadying the sharp pain. Perhaps I could brew together herbs to heal the growing hurt. Her impending marriage and departure from our home shouldn’t surprise me, didn’t surprise me. The emptiness taking hold inside my very being, that was a surprise.
I slowed my gait, meandering along the path. Though I know I could have forced myself upon the couple as a chaperone, I had no desire to subject myself to any such torture. Instead, I vowed to enjoy the peace of the perfect day.
The late autumn sky was unexpectedly clear, the same watery blue as Niamh’s eyes; the air warm with lilting gusts carrying the tangy spice of dry leaves and bubbling cider, salty from the breezes coming over the hills from the sea.
I wandered along the booths and brightly colored tents, admiring the various crafts and foods: leather purses, cutlery and small blades, woven blankets, thick sweaters and socks, pretty léines and delicate lace–the likes of which I would never need–and all manner of mouth-watering treats and warming drinks.
The steady beat of a bodhrán accompanied by the cheerful pluckings of a harp filled the small square, the smiles of Farmer Ó Briain and his wife, Brigid, as wide as the circle of dancers in front of them.
Soon my coin purse was a wee bit lighter, a mug of warm milseán in one hand and a fresh oatcake in the other, plus a sack of roasted hazelnuts tucked away for later. I didn’t feel like eating, but hoped the food would put me in more of a celebratory mood.
Somehow, be it the food or the music or the weak sun warming my shoulders, the bad mood flitted away. I nodded to the few who met my eyes, ignoring the muttered anti-curses aimed my way from most everyone else. Even that didn’t ruin the lightness in my heart, for this, their wariness and distance, this I was used to.
Villagers began gathering around center of the square, waiting for sunset to officially start the Samhain festival. Soon, clouds rolled in, brought to flaming colors by the setting sun. I found a large rock in an out-of-the-way corner and watched, awed at its beauty, until deep blues were all that remained. With nightfall blanketing us, a cheer went up and the head of our village, Cian Ó Cuinn approached the towering pile of kindling and branches of the bonfire.
His torch no sooner touched the stack of wood than the thunder of horse hooves overtook the cheerful noises of the celebration.
First there was confusion.
Then there was screaming. And running. Panic spread faster than disease.
I was hidden in the shadows, away from the initial destruction. One horseman stopped not three arm lengths from my hiding place, unaware of my presence. He sped off moments later, but he’d lingered long enough for me to recognize the coat of arms on his horse: The Kelly Clan.
Flames spread from the bonfire as villagers scattered through the small space, desperate to avoid the spears and swords being swung from the armored horsemen; the raiders from a village many hills over had chosen a moment when we would be at our weakest, our most unsuspecting.
When our larders and cellars were at their most well-stocked.
Bodies littered the ground. Some tried to crawl away, out of the path of the horses’ hooves. Most were not successful. The ground darkened in the flickering lights of the flames. Smoke filled the air as booths and tents smoldered.
I pulled further into the shadows until I saw it.
Saw her beautiful golden braids, twisted throughout with dark green ribbons.
Saw them splayed across the ground, stained crimson.
The scream that erupted from my soul was not human. I called on the gods to give me strength. I called on the goddesses to grant me power. I called on anyone listening to help.
A jolt of agonizing pain hit me, radiating from my soul, through my heart, and along my spine. The world turned red. Nothing was going to blast down from Heav’n to offer assistance.
Shaking with an energy, an anger I did not understand, could not control, I crept over broken stalls of ruined goods and burnt foods with the agility of a spider, stopping only when I found the booth of cutlery. I did not care what I grabbed. I reached down and wrapped my fingers around the first handle I found among the rubble. I would not meet a similar fate so easily.
It felt sturdy. It felt like it belonged.
So armed, my hand was steady. My mind was suddenly calm.
I knew what I had to do.
I would not wait for them to come to me.
With no fear, I stepped in front of a charging raider, arm raised. I slashed and stabbed, surprised when I connected with living tissue.
When the raider slipped off his horse in pain, I finished him, devouring his shock that a wee woman could be his end.
It powered me.
Though I was not responsible for all of their deaths–a few other villagers fought valiantly–I brought down five mighty men. T’was not enough to save our village, nor our winter stores, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
As the sun rose, revealing the true carnage of the night, I finally sobbed. The raiders had taken both Father and Mother, as well as Niamh. Colm had died next to her, his body partially shielding hers; a good man to the last, though they were not yet wedded.
Our home had been looted of all valuables and burned. I had nothing,
Nothing but the clothes on my back and the knife in my hand.
It promised never to leave me. Not in words, but the meaning was clear as yesterday’s sky.
My tears stopped. I flung the blade to the ground. The second it left my still blood-sticky grip I felt lost, the pain of grief hit me across the knees and deep in my stomach. I heaved, falling to the ash-coated dirt. The blade’s wood shaft, stained a deep mahogany from last night’s slaughter, seemed at odds with the gleaming metal. It shone, like the bay on a summer afternoon; the metal was unlike anything I’d seen before, seeming to move before my very eyes. One edge perfectly smooth, the other jagged like rolling waves.
And it sang, reaching into my mind with a haunting melody of loss and desire; of pain and healing.
I wanted to pick it up again. So much so that I had to stop myself many times from reaching for it. If it could call for me from several arm lengths away, what might it do, say, if I picked it up? I feared that I’d only seen the beginning of what it, what we, might do together.
The desire to possess the blade finally overcame me and I crawled across the ground on my stomach, clenching the grip so tightly my knuckles turned white.
It rejoiced. The melancholy song of loss turned to one of joy and eternity, telling the tale of its life. It had been denied for so long, passed from merchant to merchant to merchant, rarely used, only displayed until it was sold to a new collector. Never used, only shown, it grew hungry. It had lived among clans and chieftains, lords and kings, until finding its way to our village, called by some unknown force. Called by the impending bloodshed.
Now the knife had tasted blood.
And it wanted more.
It demanded more.
It promised to give me everything I desired if I joined with it.
All it needed was me. My soul. Such a little trifle, really. Weren’t their lives, all their lives, worth such a trade? It was destined to be. We were destined to be together. Forever.
And so help me, I returned the promise.
Together, we set out to fulfill that destiny. Together we would right the world, starting with the wrongs that had taken place just this night. No matter how long it took, the blade promised. No one would stand in our way until every last one of those responsible was dead.
Image attribution: Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]
GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
And you can find Jill in all these places!