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On the Boundary Walls

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‘You can still change your mind,’ said Angharad, walking with Trewyn through the network of tangled streets that clustered around the port. ‘I know you feel unready to settle down, but there’s a world of difference between roaming wherever the road may take you, and the kind of work you plan to do across the water in Ireland.’

Trewyn was resolute. She hitched her pack higher on her back, and, taking Angharad’s arm, pulled her through the streets towards the waiting ship, where she had booked passage across the Irish Sea. They had strayed far north of Angharad’s normal territory, but Trewyn’s old mentor had been keen to accompany her former protégé along the first leg of her journey west, and Trewyn, though she hadn’t said anything, had been glad of the company.

‘What makes it any different to the work I’ve been doing to earn my keep as I travelled around Britain — a song in a lord’s house to pay for my supper, a ward and some weather-work for a farmer in exchange for a bed for the night?’

‘The difference,’ said Angharad, ‘is that you can’t just move on to the next lord’s hall or farmhouse after one night. I’ve done this kind of doran work for kings before, and they always demand more of you than you’re capable of giving. And it’s very hard to walk away. But if your mind’s made up, I won’t try to stop you. Do you have any food for the journey?’

When Trewyn shook her head, Angharad turned to one of the many food stalls lining the edge of the docks, and bought a large, warm, fragrant fish pie, wrapped in cloth to seal it against the elements. She pressed this into Trewyn’s hands, along with a soft blanket, woven in shades of green and grey.

‘To keep you warm on the journey,’ said Angharad. ‘You know I’ll always be waiting back at the old place if you need me, and you will always be welcome there.’

The two women embraced, and then Trewyn turned, and made her way onto the waiting vessel, and her journey west across the ocean.

*

On board the ship, Trewyn considered what was waiting for her in Ireland. After several years spent wandering almost aimlessly around Britain, relying on her doran skills to pay for food and bed, she had wound up one winter’s evening at an English lord’s house, and found herself eating from the same table as a visiting Irish king and his entourage. Ailill — king of the Ulaid, a people whose lands covered the north-corner of Ireland — was wintering in Britain, travelling the length and breadth of the land to gather up mercenaries to help him in the next round of an interminable series of border conflicts and power struggles that seemed set to flare up upon his return. He’d watched with shrewd eyes as Trewyn had laid her hands upon the English lord’s injured retainer, and ageing wife, and then set about crushing up the herbs for tonics and poultices to ease their pains. He’d followed her into the fields, where she wove charms into the fallow ground, to make the crops grow stronger in the spring. And he’d offered her a deal: a place at his court for as long as she wanted, and a share of any victory spoils, if she would put her talents to use in his cause. If she agreed, all she had to do was show up at the port at the appointed time, and her passage would be paid. And Trewyn, out of impulse, boredom, and curiosity, said yes.

She was more than a little apprehensive. She was going to be travelling further than she had ever gone before, and be attached to a court, with all the power and responsibility that entailed. But a part of her was keen to put her skills to the test, and to use them for something beyond healing remedies, fertility charms and protection wards. She lay back against the wall in the small corner of the ship’s hold allocated to her, and let herself be carried across the water, her thoughts rushing ahead in confusion and worry.

*

Upon landing in Ireland, Trewyn was given very little time to pause for reflection. After a gruelling ride to Ailill’s principle residence at Ard Mhacha, she was put to work immediately, gathering herbs and preparing drafts and tonics for several wounded mercenaries, who had been injured while repelling a raiding party from a neighbouring kingdom.

This was the start of some of the busiest, but also most satisfying, months of Trewyn’s life. She never knew where she was going to be from one day to the next — she might begin the morning creeping out with a scouting party, helping with her doran knowledge to read the land and predict the path and number of their adversaries, spend the afternoon healing wounds and brewing medicinal tisanes, and follow that up with an evening singing up a storm to flood a river and impede Ailill’s enemies’ crossing. Apart from the weather-magic, which always took a lot out of her, she mostly relied on simple spells of protection and healing, or work that drew on her knowledge of history, flora and fauna, rather than any supernatural abilities.

She travelled as widely as she could, always volunteering to accompany Ailill’s band of mercenaries on their raids, even if it meant nights sleeping awkwardly in trees, against hillsides, being rained on, or having to strike camp suddenly and flee frantically back towards Ard Mhacha and safety. The mercenaries came from all over, and Trewyn’s skills with languages proved useful, as she translated between English and Breton, Irish and Norse, easing the tensions that inevitably flourished among a pack of men hired for their willingness to charge into any battle on the promise of good pay.

Trewyn found herself bewildered by the tiny size of the prizes for which Ailill and his enemies were fighting. One day they’d be defending a tiny patch of land along a river, the next they’d be sent to a remote hill with orders to take it back from a minute invading force. Often, they were required to capture places of symbolic, rather than strategic, importance. The beach on a lake would turn out to be a place where some distant ancestor of Ailill’s had been buried, giving it his name, or a hill would be revealed as the location of an ancient slight against Ailill’s forefathers by the ancestors of their enemies, and thus need to be recaptured to restore a sense of honour. One day they managed to drive the cattle of a rival’s herd across the border and inside the very boundary walls of Ard Mhacha, and Trewyn was informed that this was righting an ancient wrong, when the cattle of the Ulaid had been removed under cover of darkness from the safety of its king’s residence.

During lulls in the fighting, she returned to Ard Mhacha, but found herself restlessly walking its walls, the great mounds of earth that marked its physical boundaries. On warm days, this was very pleasant, but even rainy days, when winds whipped across the plains that surrounded Ailill’s stronghold, had a strange kind of cleansing charm.

It was on one such day, when the rain had soaked Trewyn’s skirt so that it clung to her legs and impeded her movement, that she met him. He appeared out of the mist, smiling and untroubled, walking across the plain towards Trewyn’s spot on the wall. She noticed, with a shocked shudder, that although the rain continued to fall, his clothes and hair were completely dry, and his shoes left no impression on the green grass of the plain. He stopped beneath the wall, and called up to her.

‘Greetings, doran girl! News of your talents has spread far and wide. How would you like to use them in service of something other than cattle-raids and miniscule skirmishes over tiny patches of land?’

‘I’m sworn to Ailill,’ Trewyn said. ‘I can’t just leave his cause on a smile and a promise from the first man that shows up with vague offers of glory.’

‘Oh, Ailill won’t make difficulties,’ the man — if man was the right word for what he was — said confidently to Trewyn.

‘I will look for you in Ard Mhacha, at tonight’s victory feast,’ he continued, leaning against the boundary wall with a look of speculation in his eyes.

And he turned, and walked back the way he’d come, until the mist had swallowed him.