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Ouroboros

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From the moment I climbed aboard Finbar’s ship, it seemed like Juniper and I had leapt from the end of one adventure into the beginning of another. We barely had time to catch our breaths or say our goodbyes before the village, and later Dalriada itself, faded from view. At the time, I was too excited to feel sadness or loss. That would come later.

At first, every new thing onboard the ship seemed a wonder to me. I had been aboard once before when I was very little, but never out on the open water, and never on a journey like the one we were making. Finbar gave up his captain’s cabin to Juniper and me. It was not very large, but had a wooden bed built into the side of the wall like a kind of cabinet. Fishes and dolphins and great sea beasts were carved on its sides and it felt very cozy. That first night I lay in the bed with Juniper’s arms wrapped around me. I was lulled to sleep by the rocking waves and the comforting sound of her breathing. In that moment, for the first time in a long time I felt that everything was going to be okay.

*****

I had spent so many years and months wishing for Finbar to return, but now that we were finally together again, it seemed like we hardly knew what to say to one another. When he would speak to me, I found myself suddenly shy, clinging to Juniper’s skirts like a baby instead of the grown girl that I was. Not until the third night of our journey did we have a real conversation. The night was cold and cloudless, and I watched the stars come out from the prow of the ship. Finbar stood behind me and pointed to three bright stars clumped together like a belt. “That’s Orion, the Hunter. Do you remember?”

I nodded. We had watched the stars together many times when I was little. “And over there are the Twins. And that star is Venus, the brightest and most beautiful.”

Finbar laughed. “What a scholar you are. Did Juniper teach you?”

“Yes, she taught me about the stars and the planets, and flowers and herbs, fairy stories. Even Latin and English.” I blushed, realizing I had been babbling.

My father looked at me, really looked at me for the first time since we had been reunited. He opened his mouth and closed it quickly, not knowing what to say. Before, this would have been the moment he would have picked me up and slung me over his shoulder like a sack of flour, twirling me around in circles until I wept with laughter. But I was no longer little and I weighed a great deal more than a sack of flour. He patted me on the shoulder hesitantly. “When I left, you were such a wee thing. Now, here you are, a young lady and learned, too. What happened to the Wise Child I knew?” he mused.

My father’s words made me feel confused—proud that I was growing up, but somehow sad at the same time. “I’m still here,” I said.

“No and yes. I see less the Wise Child I left behind and more the young Margit, apprentice doran .” He paused. “Would it be alright if I called you Margit?”

I thought for a moment. Juniper always thought carefully before she spoke and I had begun to pick up her habit. “It is my Christian name. I would like that…but only if I can still be your little girl, too.”

My father laughed his booming sailor’s laugh, broad and salty. He threw his arms about me and gathered me to his chest. “Always, my pearl.”

*****

Finbar and Juniper had to get used to each other again, too. They were friendly, but there was a coolness there. Juniper treated Finbar’s crew with the same kindness she treated everyone—putting people at ease was one of Juniper’s special gifts. It was her nature to heal, whether that was a broken bone or a broken bond. But her gift seemed a bit stalled when it came to her and Finbar. They had been lovers once long ago. My mother, Maeve the Fair, had bewitched Finbar into loving her instead, only to cast him aside when she grew bored. As she had done to me.

Perhaps Juniper could not work her own magic on herself. I had learned a little of magic and what it meant to be a doran. Maeve had done magic for herself and it had made her wicked. Juniper and Maeve were as dissimilar as Midsummer and Midwinter. No, I did not think working magic for yourself would be in keeping with being a doran.

Some nights, after Juniper tucked me in to my little cabinet bed, she stayed out with Finbar on the deck talking in the night air. At first it annoyed me, because I did not like to be excluded from things, although I often got bored and tired when adults were talking. On the other hand, my stomach did a strange flip every time I saw Juniper and Finbar sitting with their heads together. I was filled with a longing so strange, I feared that if I named it aloud it would pop in the air like a soap bubble, never to be.

Curiosity and suspicion pricked and needled at me. One night, I only feigned sleep when Juniper tucked me in. I waited what I thought was a respectable amount of time, fighting the urge to slip into slumber as the ship rocked gently against the waves. Quieter than a mouse, I pulled back the covers, and let my bare feet alight on the floor, praying the sound of the waves would cover the noise of my footsteps against the creaking floorboards. I crept to the door of the cabin, left slightly ajar. Out on the deck, I spied Juniper and Finbar sitting together in the moonlight, sharing a glass of spiced wine Finbar had brought back from his travels.

Finbar sipped at his glass, head tilted back with a captainly air. “You’ve done well with her, Ninnoc.” Finbar always called Juniper by her Cornish name of Ninnoc, and I could never get used to it. “She’s grown up healthy in mind and body. Thank you.” He draped his free arm about her shoulder. Juniper, I noticed, did not pull away.

“I love her as if she were my own. Having Wise Child in my life has been a great gift. Perhaps I should be thanking you,” Juniper replied sweetly. I knew Juniper loved me, but her words warmed me inside like a tonic all the same.

Finbar polished off the last of his wine and took Juniper’s hand in his. “I wish she had been yours. She should have been. I was such a fool.”

Juniper spoke, an edge in her normally calm voice, “Maeve’s beauty was never her only weapon. It’s not even her best one.”

“Will you ever forgive me?” I couldn’t see the look in my father’s eyes, but I could hear the longing in his voice. “It seems that the stars have given us a second chance. Could we not start over, the three of us, together?”

Juniper hesitated. “Finbar, I don’t…”

Finbar touched his palm to Juniper’s cheek and kissed her before she could finish her thought. She reached out and kissed him back, then stopped, as if she thought the better of it. “I don’t know. I promise you, I’ll think on it.”

I jumped back into bed, heart racing. I dreamed that night of stars falling and ships passing in the fog.

*****

In the morning, there was some disagreement about where we were to go. Finbar had planned to stay in Dalriada and see me, but was forced to change his plans once he knew that the village intended to burn Juniper as a witch. He had a galley full of cargo and would need to put into port to sell it soon, otherwise he could not pay his sailors. Juniper wanted to return to Cornwall and Castle Dore, where her brother was king. Finbar hesitated, but eventually agreed to this. We would stop off in Gwynedd to sell the cargo, then continue on to Castle Dore.

In the small harbor town, Juniper and I left the ship and shared a room at an inn. At first, my feet felt wobbly after so many days aboard the ship. Finbar laughed and called me a true sailor, but assured me I would find my “land legs” as surely as I had found my sea legs. Juniper and I had a meal of dark bread and carrot soup while Finbar haggled with merchants over wool and spices, wine and copper. I was suddenly struck with a wave of homesickness for our own little white house and our cats Pearl and Ruby. For Colman and my cousins. When would I ever see them again? Tears welled up in my eyes and dropped into my soup.

“What is it, Wise Child?” Juniper asked.

“Don’t you miss it?”

Juniper grew very quiet and still. When I looked at her, her dark eyes were deep and solemn. “Of course, I do. It was my home for many years. But there is nothing that can be done now. Life is all about gain and loss, harvest and fallow. It’s part of the pattern.”

I knew what she said was true. It struck me later that Juniper had an uncommon strength. She bent with the winds of fate, rather than let them break her. “Will we ever go back there again?”

Juniper smiled sadly. “Truthfully, I don’t think I ever shall. But you might, one day.”

*****

That night as I lay in bed tucked in next to Juniper, I dreamt I was back at our house by the cliff, tending to beehives. There were many hives, and the bees buzzed about at their work. I held a honeycomb in my hand, and licked rich, dark honey from my finger. Though I was surrounded by a swarm of bees, I was not afraid. Then a great seabird came and snatched the honeycomb from me. I watched as it swooped and barreled toward the sea, and felt a strong compulsion to chase after it. Then I awoke.

I told Juniper about my dream, because she always liked to hear such things. She listened in her thoughtful way, but said nothing.

“What do you think it means?” I asked finally.

“It doesn't matter what I think it means, it’s your dream. What do you think it means?”

Sometimes I hated it when she got like this. I wished she would just give me an answer. She was a doran and wise in the ways of dreams and magic and I was just a little girl. I sighed and puzzled it out, knowing Juniper would not help me unless I tried first. “I felt…conflicted. Tempted. I liked being by the hives, but I wanted to chase after the bird. Yet, I was scared, too. Because I didn’t know where the bird was going.” I frowned. “It doesn't make any sense.”

“It makes a great deal of sense to me. I think you are going to have to make a choice, Wise Child.”

“What choice is that?” I asked.

“You’ll see soon enough.”

I knew better than to pester Juniper when she got like this. I leaned against her chest and she wrapped her arms around me. “What about you? Have you had any dreams?”

“No,” she said.

“Oh. But why would I have a special dream and not you?”

“Dreams are gifts, messages if you will, that can give us knowledge beyond waking life. They can help us make decisions when we feel stuck. Perhaps I don't need a special dream because I’ve already made up my mind.”

I looked back at her thoughtfully and screwed up the courage to ask what I had been wanting to ask her for days. “Are you going to marry Finbar?”

It was a very adult question, but Juniper never shied away from adult conversations. “No, I don’t think I am.”

The little bubble of hope inside me popped. Disappointment and anger washed over me. “Why not?” I protested.

“Oh, there are many reasons. But the main one is that his path is not mine. Your father loves the sea, Wise Child, and any wife of his would always come second to that. And I like my independence. That was between us long before Maeve came along.” I noticed that Juniper did not sound happy about this, but neither did she sound sad.

 “But couldn’t you be a doran aboard his ship?” I still wanted to believe in a reality where the three of us went off on adventures together.

“I suppose I could, but I would not be able to be a doran in the way that is most natural to me.”

“But don’t you love him?” I pleaded. What I really wanted to say was Don’t you love us?

Juniper turned to face me and cupped my chin in her hand. She looked at me and said with a terrifying sincerity, “Wise Child, I love you. I don’t need to be married to your father to be a mother to you.”

I thought about when I chose Juniper to be my mother over Maeve. I felt guilty that I had been tempted to choose another over her again, after all she had done for me. “I already chose you to be my mother. I chose to be a doran,” I said quietly.

“Some choices need to be made more than once,” Juniper told me. And then she said no more.

*****


The sky above us shone a rich sapphire blue, the first sliver of the new moon barely visible in the evening sky. Juniper and I in our robes of fine undyed wool lit braziers of driftwood at the four cardinal directions of the empty meadow that was to be our new garden. At each compass point, we poured fresh spring water that had been mingled with drops of our own blood. It was a sacrifice, Juniper had explained, to our Mother the Earth and the spirits of that place to show our reverence. At each point Juniper hailed the guardians, the fair folk, the Lord and Lady, and gave thanks. With each step around the circle, I could feel power moving up from the bowels of the earth through my bare feet. It radiated down from the heavens themselves, tingling the ends of my hair. By the time we found ourselves back at the beginning, my whole body hummed with power, charged like the air before a thunderstorm.

This, I thought, was true magic. This, I knew, was a power that harmed none, vibrating in harmony with all creation. The power of a doran.

Fueled by the power of the ritual, Juniper and I planted seeds and cuttings all night long. Comfrey and chamomile, tansy, pennyroyal, and even dread belladonna circled our new grey stone house in a great wheel. Some of the seeds and plants had been gifts from the king, Juniper’s brother, brought from faraway lands. Some grew wild and common in the fields. As we planted the last seed, I could see the glow of dawn gilding the fields to the east.

Juniper and I stepped out of the circle. She took my hand in hers and squeezed it. “It will be a long time before it is all grown in properly, but it’s a start.” She smiled, showing her teeth, and I smiled back.

“I’m glad I chose to be with you,” I said.

“I’m glad, too, Wise Child.”

Juniper turned and walked into our new house. I faced south, toward the sea and the channel where I knew Finbar was, he and his crew riding the rough waves toward Frankia. I still felt a pull and a longing there, a tug at my heart. I had chosen to stay with Juniper, to learn and work and build a life, busy as a honeybee. Perhaps one day, I would join Finbar in his adventures, sailing over the horizon in search of spices, silks, and gold, free as a gull. But for now, I would make a home with Juniper. I would grow wise and strong, nourished by her love, and become a doran.