I waded into the water carefully, placing my feet between the stones that lined the riverbed. Moonlight streamed over me like snow; my cloak spread behind me on the water like a tipped sail. When the water reached almost to my chin, I did as my mother had taught me in childhood.
"Let your head carry you," she admonished as I struggled against the current. "Don't fight the water. Your body is the curragh of Eriu; let it skim on the surface of the water." But I, naked and skinny, her mouse-brown, desperate child, had never been able to achieve that floating calm. Daughter of Medb of Connacht, afraid of a little water, clinging and thrashing.
Eventually, exasperated by my flailing arms and frightened mewlings, Medb would abandon me midriver, wading naked to the shore, shaking her head in disgust as my father hurried forward with her cloak. Sodden and terrified, I would paw my way to the riverbank and collapse weeping in the mud.
I remembered this now in utter calm. The overblown moon beckoned with its wide white path across the water. I leaned back beneath it in the silvery light, let my head lift the weight of my body, just as she had taught me to do.
Then I had been five; now I boasted twenty summers. Then I had been naked and shivering. Now I was swathed in my heaviest woolen gown, in my cloak lined with ermine, in my sandals weighted with gold and silver trim. Then my heart had ached for her love andapproval. Now I had no heart. And now I was fearless, as clear and cold as this river in moonlight. Medb would be proud of me now. I shook my head. Not so. Neither Medb nor my father would even know that I had gone. They would think only that I had ridden off with my new husband. Perhaps they were feeling triumphant delight that their little daughter was now the perfect spy in Ulster. It would be weeks before they realized that I was gone. Even Rochad Mac Faitheman, he to whom they had sold me, did not know.
Well enough. I had always been the one alone. It was fitting to depart in this way. The clouds shifted, silver white across the disc of moon.
"This is what I will remember," I said aloud to the night gods. "This wind, this moonlight, these scudding clouds. I thank you for the gift of beauty at my dying."
I felt the water begin to tug me down from below and I imagined the Others, waiting beneath the surface to take me in, to bear me on the current out to sea, on to Tir Nàn Og. Would Froech be among them there, my lost beloved?
I drew in one last breath of air. My face slid beneath the surface and the water closed above me like ice-cold silk. From beneath the water, I kept my eyes open, fixed on the moon, prepared to draw in the breath of water that would carry me to the deep river bottom.
I felt the horse before I saw it, felt the thud of hooves on the river bottom, the churning when the water grew too deep.
Terror overtook me. I could not let him take me!
I sucked in a mouthful of water, drew it into my lungs.
The horse was above me then, snorting and tossing, a black water dragon. I saw the hand descend from the saddle, saw the leather arm shield. The hand closed around my hair. Darkness came up from the sides of my eyes then, closing me in a tunnel, narrowing my sight. I welcomed it. Just before it enclosed me entirely, I felt a swell of pride. I had defeated him, had defeated them both. My loathed enemy--Rochad--my husband. And my mother.
My eyes opened to a room lit by warm fire, redolent with a wondrous smell. Over a hanging cauldron, a tiny woman stirred a brewingmash. Her door hanging parted for a second and a man ducked beneath the lintel, then stood. His skin was black as Rochad's horse, beautiful and gleaming. His hair curled around his head in tightly wound springs of grey, stitched with gleaming black. His upper arms were tattooed with symbols I had not seen among my people. Around his neck he wore a scarf of the finest silk, patterned in turquoise and gold; it was wound several times around his throat. He murmured to the little woman in a tongue I had never heard before. In response, she turned in my direction.
She was as tiny as he was massive, her motions quick and precise. Her hair was a close-cropped cap of dark auburn curls, shorter than my own shorn locks. Her eyes were a deep brown.
They were not of my people, not of the tribes of Eriu.
Joy surged through me.
So I had succeeded! I had robbed him of his prize! Robbed my mother of her war booty. The river had borne me down and I had awakened in Tir Nàn Og. Surely these two were of the Other. I watched them wide-eyed.
The dark man spoke again, ducked beneath the door hanging and disappeared into the night.
The little woman approached me, placed her palm against my forehead. She lowered her face toward mine. I lay perfectly still, though I could feel my eyes widen further at her approach. The Other are known for their surprising and dangerous ways.
When her face was almost next to mine, she did something I had never experienced in my life. She pressed her lips, warm and gentle, against my forehead. Tears sprang unbidden to my eyes at so welcoming a gesture. She drew back slightly.
"Bain Sidhe," I addressed her respectfully. "Woman of the Other, I am Finnabair, daughter of Medb. I have crossed the river of death and request residence here in Tir Nàn Og among the Other Ones."
"Ah, child," she said softly. She sat down beside me and I edged my naked body beneath the warm furs to give her room. She lifted my hand and pressed the back of it gently against her cheek.
"So that's the way of it, then?"
"Will you give me shelter?"
She sighed, a huge gusting of wind.
"Child, you are not dead. You remain in Tir Inna m'Beo, the Land of the Living."
"No! Oh no." I clutched at her hand. "But you. You are not of my people. What are you if not a woman of the Other?"
"I am Niniane. I am of the people the Romans call Welisc. We dwell in the hills and mountains across the water from Eriu. Many years ago, I was sold here as a slave."
"So you are not of the Other."
"Only an Outsider. Only that."
"And the dark one?"
For a moment her eyes looked confused and then she smiled.
"That is Flavius. Flavi."
"He is Other?"
"He is a Nubian, brought from Egypt. Once he, too, was a slave of the Romans. Once he was my rescuer; now he is my friend."
"Where am I? How did I come here?"
I led my gaze around the spare room with its sleeping platform and fire. Countless bundles of herbs and flowers hung upended from the ceiling and bowls with heavy crushing stones covered every bench and table. The woman stood and began to stir the mash.
"This is Flavi's dwelling. You were brought here to me by Rochad, warrior of Ulster. He fished you from the river near the war camp of Medb of Connacht where you were drowning. You would have remembered all of this, but he threw you over his saddle, the great lout." She made a motion of disgust, waved her tiny hand in the air. "Still, I suppose it was that which caused you to throw up the river water and so return to the living."
"I did not wish to return."
She did not question me, came instead and sat beside me again, regarding me steadily. Finally she spoke.
"Twice in my life I have wished to die. Now I look back on each time with the certain knowledge of all that I would have missed had I gone over the water at those times."
I shook my head. "You cannot understand. I will never wish to live again. Because of me, seven hundred men have died. Seven hundred!"
"And your death would return them to life?" Her tone was arch, almost chiding.
"No. I am neither fool nor child. They are gone. I am the cause of their dying. Someone must make sacrifice for that loss!"
Understanding flooded her eyes.
What she did next was most strange. She stood, walked to the door of the hut, peered out into the darkness, listening. Then she came back and sat beside me. When she spoke again, it was in a whisper.
"Someone will bear this for you. It need not be you, Finnabair, daughter of Medb."
"I do not understand. Someone stood in for me? Was it my mother?"
"Your mother? No, certainly. Medb of Connacht lives and is well." Her tone turned wry. "As always and ever, she is Medb."
Hoofbeats thundered into the clearing outside the hut. I knew who it would be before he swept into the room. Rochad. Rochad the Beautiful, the women called him. Rochad the Warrior. For one day, I had thought of him that way. Now I knew better. Rochad the Deceiver, the Liar. My husband. The one to whom I had been sold.
"Protect me," I whispered in terror to the little woman. "Please do not give me to him."
I closed my eyes, feigned unconsciousness, wished for it fervently.
He swept into the chamber on a cold draft of wind.
"How does the daughter of Medb?"
This he shouted at tiny Niniane. Blessings upon her, the little woman protected me.
"Hush," she said. "Her spirit has not returned to her body. Your great loudness will scare it further away. Step out into the night."
I risked peering through slitted eyes as she pushed him before her through the door. He loomed nearly twice her height, but she seemed unafraid, pushing at him with her birdlike hands. Outside, I could hear a softly whispered conference.
"Who stands at the ford?"
"Cuchulainn. He is tireless at the river."
It was at that moment that I knew where I would go and what I must do next. What sorrows more would arise from this decision I could not know. Nor did I care. I am familiar with sorrow; it is my trusted companion. Though they continued to whisper beyond the door, I closed my eyes and sighed, calm again.
The little woman returned alone, the smell of her wonderful spice wafting before her through the doorway. I remained still until I heard his hoofbeats retreating into the distance. I opened my eyes.
"He is gone."
"Thank you for keeping me from him."
"Do you fear him?"
Her eyes were soft, sympathetic. I knew suddenly that with this woman, it was not necessary to pretend at bravery as I must do with my mother.
"Yes," I said simply. "But I loathe him more than I fear him."
"He played for me by trickery and deceit. He purchased me to marriage, and he a warrior of the enemy army, an Ulsterman." I made a rude sign for the enemy armies. "He made a dark bargain with my mother, this Rochad. And by that trickery, seven hundred men have died. He repulses me! Overlarge and overloud and a dishonest great brute. I will never be wife to such a one as that!"
"Ah," she nodded. "I, too, was forced into marriage with one of his kinsmen. I, too, was sore afraid."
"Who forced you?" I asked her.
"The one who sold me as a slave." She shrugged. "He sold me for a good price."
She stirred the bubbling mash again, then brought me a bowlful. She spooned it gently into my mouth.
It burned a little at the back of my river-raw throat, but the smell and taste of it was delicious. I reached up for a second bite like a starveling bird, surprised and a little ashamed at my appetite, for one who would have chosen a watery death short hours earlier.
"What is the spice? I have never tasted such a thing."
She smiled with delight.
"It is called cinnamon."
"It is not a spice of our people. Did you bring it from among the Welisc?"
"No, sweeting, I brought it all the way from Egypt."
I shook my head in confusion at the strange name.
"Egypt is--an outpost of the Roman Empire. A desert place of sand and of beautiful cities."
"Rome I have at least heard of, in bardic tales. How is it that you were in Rome?"
"My father was Roman. My mother was Welisc." Her eyes filled suddenly with remembered sorrow.
I regarded her with curiosity and respect.
"It would seem that your life has been both broad and wide."
"Ah, Finnabair, it has been both of those, surely."
"I, too, was sold into marriage, Niniane. Like a horse. Like a gold neck ring. Would you know who sold me?"
"All have heard," she said softly, but I told her anyway.
"My mother, Queen Medb of Connacht."
"So I was told," she said softly. She cradled my hand.
"And this great Rochad. The beast they call my husband. How is it that you know him?"
She fed me another spoonful of the cinnamon porridge, her eyes regarding me above the spoon. When my mouth was full of the mash, she spoke.
"Finnabair," she said, "Rochad is my son."
Copyright © 2004 by Juilene Osborne-McKnight All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.