THE EAGLES OF Dun Ringill inched north, toward where the outline of a great red mountain thrust into the pastel sky. With such a large group traveling, many of them on foot, the company could not move swiftly. The warriors on ponies at the front of the column had to slow their pace to allow those trailing behind, especially the elderly and children, to keep up.
The journey did not dampen the travelers’ excitement; if anything the chatter of their voices increased as the day wore on, echoing high up into the empty sky.
Eithni dawdled at the back of the group, listening to the rise and fall of conversation, the creak of leather, the thump of hooves, and the rumble of heavy wooden wheels from the carts.
After a while she realized that the seer had been right. It had been hard to drag herself away from her hut, from her daily routines. But now that she had left it behind a lightness settled over her. Not only that, but it was a beautiful day to be traveling, and to be alive. A warm wind breathed in from the south-east, bringing with it the scent of heather and rich earth. Above, birds of prey circled in the cloudless sky, observing the travelers.
At the head of the column, some of the warriors—Galan and Tarl included—carried hawks aloft upon their wrists. The chief’s hawk was named Lann—Blade—and the bird’s sharp beak certainly lived up to its name. The birds would hunt for them on the way, and one of the contests at The Gathering also involved hunting with hawks.
Even though they had slowed their pace to accommodate those behind, the warriors on horseback drew farther and farther ahead as the day stretched on. Eventually they became little more than specks on the horizon.
Eithni did not mind; she was content to make her way north at her own pace. Even Ruith had drawn ahead. She was chatting with a girl who had recently given birth to her first child. The young woman carried the infant slung across her front.
The day stretched out and Bienn na Caillich—the Red Hill—rose above them, before they skirted around its pebbly base. Eithni looked up at the mountain, the profusion of red grasses that grew upon its rocky sides giving it its name.
Folk also called this mountain ‘The Hill of the Hag’, and Eithni imagined that the goddess herself—who ruled sleep, dreams, winter, and death—perched up there looking down at their passage.
By the time they stopped for the day, The Red Hill lay to the south, a dark bulk against the sky. The company made camp in a pebbly vale next to a burn where clear water trickled over grey stones.
During their trek north their numbers had swollen, as folk from outlying villages joined them. As such the chorus of voices was almost deafening as the travelers erected a camp of hide tents under the shadow of The Red Hill.
Tea and Lucrezia, who had ridden with their husbands during the day, rejoined the other women as they prepared supper for the hungry travelers. The men were lighting fires—four large fire pits dominated the camp—and were dragging lumps of peat over for fuel. Few trees grew in this area of The Winged Isle, so peat provided the main source of heat.
The hunting hawks had brought down a number of birds—rooks and grouse—on the journey north-east, and Eithni sat next to Lucrezia, plucking them.
Lucrezia worked deftly, her slim fingers flying as she ripped feathers from the still warm carcass. They worked in silence for a while before Eithni realized that Lucrezia’s gaze kept straying to her.
Eithni glanced up and noted her friend’s tense expression. “Luci … what’s wrong?”
Lucrezia’s dark gaze shifted across the fire pit to where Tea was nursing little Muin. The babe’s pudgy hands kneaded his mother’s full breast as he suckled. “It’s a year now since Tarl and I wed,” she murmured, “and my womb has not yet quickened.”
Compassion tugged at Eithni. She had wondered when this would start to bother Lucrezia. She was surprised her friend had not yet gotten with child. Although Eithni did not reside within the broch, she had heard the talk of how loud Lucrezia and Tarl were at night. It seemed that most eves they kept the other inhabitants of the roundtower awake with their groans and cries. They did not seem to know how to couple quietly, nor did they want to. Lucrezia was a healthy young woman; there was no reason why her womb should not quicken.
“Sometimes you must just give things time,” Eithni replied after a moment. She met Lucrezia’s eye then. “However, I can give you herbs and mix a special tincture which should improve your chances—if you're worried.”
Hope lit in Lucrezia’s eyes, and Eithni realized that this had been preying on her mind more than Eithni had realized. She nodded, her full lips stretching into a smile. “I’d like that … thank you.”
Night fell and the aroma of roasting grouse and rook filled the air. It was a mild night, and as it was the warm season there was no need to sit huddled by the fireside wrapped in furs. Instead there was singing and laughter.
After supper Eithni produced her harp and started to play. Tea, who had a lovely voice, sang beside her.
Tea started off by singing two songs the sisters had grown up with at Dun Ardtreck in the north: tales of the people of The Wolf. These were the songs of their people, of the building of the great broch perched on the wild cliffs where seabirds wheeled and puffins nested on the rocks.
After that she sang an eerie song of the Bean-Nighe—the washer woman. This fairy—a ghastly old woman who could be found by streams and pools—was an omen of death. She washed the clothes of those who were about to die.
Tell me, haggard washer woman,
Whose clothes are washed this day?
I see the cloak of a chieftain
Within your basket, lay.
And is this wife to lose her man,
My heart to be forfeit?
And shall the banshee sing tonight,
To wail his lament?
The sky weeps with blackened clouds,
And spills its rain of tears,
The wind howls through the glen,
To warn The Reaper is near,
The old broch looks forlorn,
As darkness drapes its veil,
I wash my husband’s finest clothes,
That he may die well.
Tell me, haggard washer woman,
Whose clothes are washed this day?
I see a skirt that once was mine,
Within your basket, lay.
And can you wash it free of blood,
To cleanse my blackened soul?
And shall you say a charm for me,
Above my cold barrow?
Folk always enjoyed the grim songs the best. Eithni loved them to, for she was used to feeling melancholy and could let the mood flow out of her fingers into the music. She felt her freest when she played the harp. Her fingers flew over the strings, and she let the song carry her away. The music pulsed through her veins, and for a few moments she felt lifted out of her mortal body. Next to her Tea’s voice grew more strident, the clear sweet notes lifting high into the night.
It was then that Eithni became aware of someone staring at her.
It was a strange sensation, like a physical weight pressing down upon her. It was making it hard to breathe. The fine hair on the back of her neck prickled, and her body grew warm.
Eithni’s eyes flickered open. She looked over the amassed crowd, and across the fire she met Donnel’s penetrating gaze.
Donnel had been glad of the music and singing. Unlike banter, boasting, and storytelling around the fireside—which just irritated him—the music soothed the darkness in him.
He sat on the edge of the firelight, as far as possible from the merriment, a cup of ale clasped in his hands. As the music continued he found himself watching the sisters who sat next to each other at the fireside. They were so different. Tea was tall, dark, and proud—Galan’s equal in so many ways. Next to her Eithni appeared delicate and fey.
His gaze remained on Eithni.
There was something entrancing about her this eve. The firelight played across her skin, highlighting the fineness of her features and her pretty face. Her eyes were closed, and she wore a peaceful expression. She had pulled up her hair this evening, exposing the slender length of her neck.
Donnel watched her, captivated.
It had been a while since a woman had caught his attention. He had only ever had eyes for one. He had only ever wanted Luana.
And yet tonight he felt a pull toward the young woman who played the harp as if it was an extension of her. He felt her sadness, the beauty of her being, and the aching emptiness of her soul.
Had they been camped by one of the mounds of the Fair Folk, he would have thought himself ensnared by magic—for the Aos Sí liked to play games with mortals. Yet there were no such places near here. It was Eithni herself who was bewitching him.
Eithni’s eyes opened then, and across the fire their gazes met.
Donnel’s breathing stilled. He saw her fingers falter, before she caught herself. She played on, but the enchantment had gone. Tea, still singing, glanced across at her sister, a quizzical look upon her face.
Eithni’s slim fingers moved over the strings of the harp, but this time her attention was downcast. Her face had gone taut, and pink stained her cheekbones.
She had not welcomed his attention.
Donnel looked away, fixing his gaze upon the glowing embers of the fire pit. What was wrong with him? A woman he could barely tolerate—a woman who had spent the last year and a half nagging him—had just caught him staring at her like a mooncalf.
Turning away from the fire, as the strains of the harp lifted high into the night, Donnel took a deep draft of ale. He did not know what was wrong with him—but he did not like it one bit.