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On the Boundary Walls

Chapter Text

‘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.

Chapter Text

Trewyn was sceptical that her interlocutor on the boundary walls would show up at the feast as he’d claimed, and it seemed at first her scepticism was justified: the hall was packed with Ailill and his mercenaries, but no strange, otherworldly visitors. She took her seat at the table, on Ailill’s left, and helped herself to a plate of roast meat and spiced apples. Ailill was in a pensive mood, and sat silently beside her, but the mercenaries were noisy, filled with confidence after the week’s successful campaigns, and the air of the hall resounded with their shouted conversations.

As the piles of food dwindled on the table and musicians drifted out to sing ostentatious praise-poems to Ailill, Trewyn sat back and watched the candles burn low, and the shadows dance on the walls of the vast hall. She had drunk several mugs of spiced mead, and felt quite sleepy. Her eyes were just about to slide shut, when he appeared.

One moment that hall was as it had been, musicians playing harps and hand-drums to a cluster of appreciative mercenaries, and then something shifted. The candles flickered, an odd breeze flared up briefly, and the man was standing in front of Ailill, his appearance as sudden and unsettling as it had been earlier on the plain outside Ard Mhacha.

‘I have come,’ he said, ‘to take your doran with me, to join my own entourage, where her skills will not be wasted as they are here.’

Every eye on the room turned to Trewyn, and she found the force of this attention almost unbearable.

Ailill lapsed into shocked blustering.

‘Trewyn is sworn to me, to carry out my will as my own left hand, as surely as my band of mercenaries! You cannot simply come in and take her!’

‘I was suggesting nothing of the sort,’ replied the man.

Trewyn found his tone deceptively soft, and wondered that no one else in the room seemed to sense the undercurrent of danger.

‘Of course,’ said the man, ‘if your doran, your Trewyn, were to come with me, it would be her choice, and not until you had been granted suitable compensation.’

‘A compensation of my choosing?’ asked Ailill.

Trewyn found her heart was suddenly beating very fast. Every part of her was screaming a warning, screaming that Ailill’s question was playing into the other man’s hands, that they were being manoeuvred into a position of weakness.

‘But of course you must choose your own compensation. I will not have it said that I deprived a man — a king — of his prized doran unjustly. It simply remains for you to name the price.’

And he settled on a three-legged stool that had somehow materialised beside him, rested his hands on his knees, and looked expectantly at Ailill.

The abruptness of this demand seemed to unsettle Ailill, who attempted to stall.

‘One thing alone will not compensate for the loss of Trewyn! I have a series of demands!’

The man on the stool smiled, without warmth or sincerity.

‘Of course you do. Well, let us hear the first of these demands.’

‘The plain outside the boundary walls of Ard Mhacha — it’s not broad enough. My watchmen cannot see far enough to spot encroaching enemies. If you want Trewyn, the first thing you’ll have to do is clear the plain. I’ll want it doubled in size, in all directions. And you’ll have to do it in a day.’

Trewyn gasped. It was a ridiculous demand, impossible for one man, breathtaking in its audacity. It was also an incredibly demeaning request: she had been in Ireland long enough to know that clearing plains and building boundary earthworks were tasks normally reserved as punishment for prisoners or lower-ranked enemies captured in war. To ask it of this otherworldly stranger was dangerous.

He gave no reaction to Ailill’s demand, but simply nodded briefly, as if a suspicion he had held had been confirmed.

‘It will be done,’ he said. ‘Will sunrise to sunset tomorrow be considered acceptable?’

The mercenaries in the hall began to laugh with incredulity. Ailill, emboldened by this show of disbelief, nodded his assent, and gestured expansively.

‘Bring this confident man a drink!’ he said. ‘Bring him a plate of food too! He’ll need all the sustenance he can to undertake this impossible task he’s just promised!’

Trewyn wondered that no one else in the room seemed to be able to see what she could perceive: that this man bristled with otherworldly power, and that it would be incredibly dangerous to offend him. She excused herself from the hall as quickly as she could, and spent a fretful night lying, sleepless and anxious, in her room.

*

She avoided public areas the next day, claiming a headache and the need to prepare new stores of dried herbs, and spent her time until the afternoon in her room, alternating between pacing restlessly and spinning wool in an attempt to distract herself. As the last light of the afternoon sun left her room, she sensed a commotion outside, and, with a sigh, took her cloak and stepped through the door. She walked through the empty hall and kitchens, and cut swiftly through the cluster of huts, houses and other buildings that had grown haphazardly around Ailill’s residence. No one seemed to be working, and any people who remained were hurrying in the direction of the boundary walls. Trewyn joined them. On the western wall, she encountered some of the mercenaries.

They looked as shocked and anxious as she felt.

‘Just look! Look out there,’ said Magnus, a tall, Norse mercenary whose wounded arm Trewyn had stitched just one week ago.

Trewyn looked out over the wall in the direction he was pointing. The plain was cleared, and had doubled in distance, spreading out towards the horizon from Ard Mhacha, just as Ailill had demanded and her would-be rescuer had promised.

Ailill was outside the wall on the plain. He was too far away for Trewyn to see the expression on his face as he approached the waiting crowd.

‘I am here to vouch that the plain is cleared, within the time allotted,’ Ailill shouted, his voice ringing around the wall.

The man who had accomplished this outrageous task appeared beside Ailill. His face scanned the crowd, searching, until he spotted Trewyn, to whom he nodded.

‘And your next piece of compensation?’ he asked Ailill.

‘The rivers to the west and north of here are a problem. They are too wide for my mercenaries to cross safely, and the nearest crossing is too far away. Divert them.’

Trewyn’s heart sank. Ailill had learnt nothing.

‘I suppose I have a very short amount of time in which to perform this task?’ asked the man at Ailill’s side.

‘From sundown to sunset tomorrow, or else I’ll count the task as a failure,’ the king said, to Trewyn’s dawning horror.

*

She was not surprised to discover that the rivers had been diverted within the allotted time, nor that Ailill was determined to announce his third and final piece of compensation at another crowded feast in the hall. What Trewyn couldn’t understand was why Ailill seemed to still believe that he was dealing with an ordinary human man, or that his demands were impossible and that requesting such things would cause no offense. As a doran, she had had several encounters with the supernatural, but had always known to approach otherworldly beings with extreme caution. Ailill’s course of action seemed determined to make an enemy of a powerful inhabitant of the Otherworld. Trewyn was resigned that with this third demand, she would be leaving Ailill’s court, and she gathered her meagre collection of belongings into a pack, and wore her cloak to the feast, so that she was prepared to leave in a hurry.

She arrived to find Ailill in an expansive mood. He was handing out captured trinkets to his mercenaries, waving around a half-full goblet, and presiding over a table heaving with food. Just about every single inhabitant of Ard Mhacha appeared to be packed into the hall, clearly anticipating an evening of dramatic confrontation. Trewyn settled herself in a corner, hoping to remain unobtrusive until the last minute.

After several hours, a voice rang out amid the hubbub.

‘Well, Ailill, you have had your feast and your feats, and made a great spectacle of me for your followers, and the time has come for you to make your final demand for your last piece of compensation.’

The strange man’s tone was light, but Trewyn sensed an underlying warning.

Ailill, inevitably, was oblivious. He stood up shakily, much the worse for drink, at the head of the table, to make his announcement.

‘Trewyn has skills that have been of great value to my cause, and so my final demand is this: bring me something of equal value. Bring me her weight in gold and silver. Bring it to me here, and bring it to me before this feast has ended, and you may have Trewyn. Fail to do so, and you must leave Ard Mhacha and never return.’

Trewyn sat very still, her body suffused with horror. Ailill clearly thought he was, yet again, making an impossible demand. Trewyn knew otherwise. She watched the otherworldly man. The air around him seemed to shift and blur, and before Trewyn had a chance to comprehend what was happening, a shower of silver coins rang out, falling like a waterfall and tumbling down the length of the table towards Ailill. The coins were followed by gold cups, jewellery, and intricately worked ornaments, almost too many to count. This bounty fell ceaselessly into a pile that increased before Ailill’s uncomprehending eyes. After several minutes of this, the flow of gold and silver stopped, and the man walked over until he faced Ailill across the table. His voice, when he addressed the hall, was contemptuous.

‘You could have asked for anything — for time to run backwards, for a cauldron of regeneration to bring your dead warriors back to life, for an era of prosperity and peace and bountiful harvest — and you chose these glittering trinkets. How lacking in imagination and ambition you are, and how ill-deserving of the skills of your doran. Which reminds me — bring Trewyn forward! I suppose we must see this through to the end, and check that the gold and silver matches her in weight.’

Ailill finally seemed to grasp who — or what — he was dealing with. His face was ashen as he scanned the room for Trewyn. She put him out of his misery.

‘I am here,’ she said, stepping forward into the light of the torches at the centre of the room. ‘You may weigh me against this gold and silver, and then I will leave Ard Mhacha with this man.’

‘There’s no need to weigh things,’ said Ailill, clearly trying to regain some measure of control of the situation with an attempt at magnanimity.

‘Oh no, I insist. I will have no one say that I cheated a king,’ said Trewyn’s soon-to-be companion, in icy tones.

And so they weighed Trewyn, and they weighed the gold and silver, and, to no one’s surprise, there was no difference in their weights. The mood in the hall had changed completely, merriment replaced with a creeping sense of anxiety. Even the wildest mercenaries were silent.

‘I have no quarrel with you and yours,’ said Ailill desperately. ‘Let this exchange mark the end of our dealings, and I’ll let Trewyn go with you with my full support.’

‘Are you implying that you were contemplating not sending her to me with your full support?’ asked the otherworldly man, as Trewyn approached him, willing Ailill to say nothing more.

‘I will go with you,’ she said. ‘I will go with you now, only let these people continue on as they were. I will turn my back and walk with you from this hall, and put my skills to work for your cause — whatever it may be — if you leave these people unharmed.’

‘You are lucky you have Trewyn to plead on your behalf,’ said the man, ‘and you are lucky that I always honour the requests of someone who goes to my realm willingly.’

And he took Trewyn’s hand, and together they walked out of the hall. Their path took them, inevitably, to the very edge of Ard Mhacha, and beyond to that broad plain where she had first seen him appear in the mist.

‘Do you have a name?’ she asked.

‘You can call me Midir,’ he said, as he led her through the darkness, into another world.

Chapter Text

If Trewyn thought her time with Ailill had been a strange experience, her time with Midir was even stranger. Everything about his world was disorienting: the stars were unfamiliar, the land seemed to shift and change shape from day to day, and the very air felt different. Trewyn began to doubt her sense of the passage of time, as some days seemed to rush by after several hours, while others seemed to stretch out for weeks on end. Her doran abilities worked differently, with results that were not always what she expected. Some of the sources that she had drawn on back in her own world — iron, salt, and particular kinds of stone or plant — were no longer available to her, as they could not be brought into the Otherworld.

However, one change in her circumstances was most welcome: she was once more surrounded by women. She hadn’t realised how much she had missed the company of women during her time with Ailill and his pack of mercenaries, until she met the strange, powerful, dangerous women who worked with Midir.

Some were otherworldly beings, with eyes like glittering ice and hair that shifted between the colours of sunset, night sky, and the stormy sea, and unstable magic like the creeping growth of ivy. Others were women like her who had made the choice to walk between the worlds, on the promise of adventure, power, an escape from difficult circumstances, or the attention of a being such as Midir. All of them pooled their skills, teaching each other a charm here, the magical properties of a golden apple tree there. At the head of all these women was Fúamnach, tall and regal, and radiating supernatural power.

Fúamnach took Trewyn under her wing. When she discovered that Trewyn was a skilled weaver, she put her to the task of weaving cloaks of protection out all kinds of odd materials: plants and river-water and grass and harp-strings and strands of human hair. In that strange, unnatural world, all these substances could be woven as easily as wool.

Fúamnach taught Trewyn spells to summon animals and people to the parts of the world where doorways into otherworlds might appear, and she taught her songs and stories that had not been heard for thousands of years. She taught her how to track the passage of the stars in the Otherworld, and how to navigate using those unfamiliar constellations, until Trewyn could travel great distances with confidence. She showed her where to find springs and rivers, and hazelnut trees nestled against hillsides, and secret tracks through the forests that dotted the land. It was a grander, more ostentatious magic than the kind she had learnt with Angharad, but it was satisfying in a similar way.

This was why it was such a shock to Trewyn when she was woken one morning by Fúamnach, who ushered her from the room she shared with several other women, and out onto one of the hills that surrounded Midir’s residence. The grey, dawn air was so cold that Trewyn’s breath was visible.

‘I am going to have to take drastic steps to get you away from here,’ said Fúamnach without preamble.

‘Get me away from here? Why?’ asked Trewyn, shocked and uncomprehending.

‘Right now you like it here,’ said Fúamnach, ‘and we all like you, but your reasons for being here are not enough to keep you happy in this place forever. The other humans are leaving terrible things behind — they are devoted to this place, and to those of us who live here — but you were manipulated into coming. It takes too much out of you, being a human and living in a place like this, and it will eventually seem empty.’

Trewyn felt a chill. Were all her decisions doomed to be made at the whim of capricious immortals?

‘There is a layer of truth to what you are saying, Fúamnach — I do not want to remain here forever — but I made no bargain with Midir as to the length of time I would stay, and I know of no way to leave without his help.’

‘There is a way,’ said the otherworldly woman, ‘but you are not going to like it.’

‘What is it?’ asked Trewyn, shuddering.

‘When they hear what I have done to you, they will say that I did it out of jealousy, that I hated you and wanted you gone,’ said Fúamnach.

She did not answer Trewyn’s question, but instead embraced her. Trewyn felt herself shifting and melting in Fúamnach’s arms, transforming into something she couldn’t control. When Fúamnach let her arms fall, Trewyn no longer stood on the hill as a woman, but rather flowed down it as a cascade of water.

Her mind could scarcely comprehend what was happening. She had drawn on water for spells before, which required an awareness of its movements and characteristics, but this was different, a terrifying, tumbling journey, completely out of her control. None of the ways she would have reacted as a woman were possible: she couldn’t scream, or reach out to steady herself, or stop herself from moving.

After a while, she realised she was no longer moving through the Otherworld, but rather had somehow returned to her own world. Her own sun shone down on her, and she felt herself transforming once more, evaporating and shrinking and emerging from her watery state into something tiny and fragile and frightened. In her new form — a fly, with wings of a strange purple colour — Trewyn launched herself into the air, which almost instantly became a ferocious storm. Trewyn was dimly aware that this, too, was the work of Fúamnach, before she was flung violently away, carried wherever the storm took her.

It seemed she was buffeted across the sky for hours. Her mind was wild with fear, as the part of her that remembered she was a woman warred with the fluttering, frightened mind of the insect. The sheer force of the storm horrified her, even as she accepted that Fúamnach had created it to get her as far away from Midir as possible. She wondered if it would blow her clear across the Irish Sea, but it appeared that Fúamnach deemed the midlands of Ireland sufficient, as the storm winds abated, and Trewyn, exhausted, still in the body of a fly, drifted downwards, to land on a patch of green grass.

As Trewyn came back to herself, she was transformed for the final time, back into her own form. Sitting up, she realised she was, inevitably, on the earthen boundary wall around a royal residence. She also realised that she was not alone.

‘What a strange path you have travelled to bring you here to Temair,’ said the man who stood above her, unfastening his cloak to spread it over her shoulders.

That was how Trewyn met Eochu, the king of Temair.

*

Trewyn knew that Irish kings styled themselves ‘king of Temair’ if they had pretentions to kingship of the whole island. In actuality their realms rarely stretched beyond a cluster of hills, the green plains that unfolded around them, and the hill of Temair itself, like a jewel at the heart of the island of Ireland. But when a doran tumbled into their laps, dropping from the sky as the last stage of a strange, supernatural journey, no king of Temair was going to give up the opportunity this presented to increase his prestige. Eochu was no different. Despite Trewyn’s pleading that this would attract Midir’s hostile attention, Eochu insisted on bringing her with him on a circuit through Ireland.

The circuit was essentially an assertion of authority, a demonstration that Eochu could travel along any road or track without impediment, and that he and his followers (he included Trewyn in this number) would be welcomed into any home. Some nights were spent in the halls of client-kings, with extravagant feasts of wild boar and venison, while others were spent in humble farmhouses whose residents gave up their only beds to Eochu and opened food stores that Trewyn suspected could ill afford to be depleted. But wherever they were, Eochu had his followers tell the same story, the tale of a beautiful woman brought to the Otherworld against her will, cast out by the evil, jealous wife of her supernatural abductor, and transported to Temair, where her magic was properly appreciated.

Slowly they made their way around Ireland, as the stories about Trewyn raced ahead of them on the road, to be magnified and twisted in strange ways, until their journey brought them back towards Temair. As they approached Eochu’s domain, Trewyn lagged slightly behind, her footsteps heavy as she made her way across the plain.

That was when Midir chose to appear to her.

‘You have led me on a wild journey, doran girl,’ he said, casting no shadow and making no impression in the lush, green grass.

Trewyn said nothing.

‘You should hear the stories they are telling about you,’ Midir said. ‘They make you out to be a most alluring woman, the lover of kings and fairies and demons, trailing magic like lightening from your fingers. I would have thought you had had enough of the kings of this land, and their petty, ridiculous power struggles. But it is no matter. I will rescue you from this Temair king, just as I rescued you from the king of the Ulaid. Look for me at the feast tonight.’

Trewyn opened her mouth to say something — she didn’t know what — but by the time the words had come, Midir had vanished.

Chapter Text

Trewyn almost considered not attending the feast, but she knew that whatever Midir wanted to do, he would do whether she was there in the hall or not. She contemplated spending the meal sitting unobtrusively in a corner, but again she knew Midir’s actions would drag her into the centre of things whether she wanted this or not. It was safer to go in prepared, with full awareness of whatever was about to happen. And so, for the first time since she had arrived in Ireland, Trewyn dressed herself with the knowledge that all eyes would be upon her, in clothes of deep red, lit with flashes of pure white thread. She cut ivy from the vine that grew in an overwhelming tangle outside her window, and twisted it into a wintry headdress that she tied into her hair. She adorned herself with arm-rings and brooches and other jewellery — the glittering spoils Eochu had acquired for her during their circuit of Ireland — and, with a deep breath, left the comforting stillness of her room for the turmoil and drama of the hall.

Eochu was in high spirits, leading toast after toast to the various hangers-on who crowded around the feasting tables. The din was so great that it almost drowned out the sound of the musicians, brought in to sing songs of praise, or recount historical events in a way that flattered Eochu’s ancestors and diminished those of his rivals. There was so much food that it was difficult to see over it across the tables, but Trewyn took nothing beyond a small glass of wine as she took her seat at Eochu’s side.

As the conversation ebbed and flowed around her, Trewyn tried to calm her anxious thoughts. The whole evening felt oddly akin to the time Fúamnach had turned her to water, when she had rushed along uncontrollably towards a destination that was as unwanted as it was inevitable. Her hands shook as they held the wine glass. She couldn’t stop looking at the entrance to the hall, wondering when Midir would choose to walk through it. And as Eochu and his followers made their way through the mounds of food and rivers of wine, mead and ale, shouting and laughing and recounting stories from the road, Trewyn sat, and watched, and waited.

Midir always chose his moments well. While the food remained and the conversation was a tumultuous din, he’d stayed away. He’d timed his arrival to perfection, striding through the entrance just as things began to quieten down, but before the feasters had begun to get bored and drift away. The harpists were playing a melancholy tune, the song of a woman cut off from her beloved by the rising tide, who gave her name to the island on which she was trapped. The sound of the music echoed around the hall, and the torches cast disturbing, flickering shadows.

Midir had not bothered to hide his strangeness. He was dressed in a long, black cloak which swirled around in a striking manner, caught in a breeze that seemed to have travelled into the hall with him, and his eyes flashed with an otherworldly red-gold fire. He was carrying something under his arm.

‘I have been told,’ he said, ‘that the king here is an uncommonly talented fidchell player. And I have heard that he never refuses a challenge. And so I have brought my own fidchell set, and come here this night, that I might play against the king himself in his own feasting hall.’

‘You heard correctly,’ said Eochu.

He gestured to a hovering servant.

‘Bring a table and chairs to the centre of the hall. We will play fidchell there, so that everyone may see. And although you made the challenge, I shall allow you to name the first stakes.’

Trewyn could tell that Eochu thought he was being regal and magnanimous, making a gesture that he felt would be appreciated by the watchful crowd. She shivered. Midir smiled wolfishly.

‘I am only a humble traveller,’ he said. ‘I do not have much in the way of possessions, and so I will stake this handful of copper coins as the prize.’

He set the fidchell board on the table, and laid out the pieces, and settled in opposite Eochu to play.

The game was not a long one, but it was filled with dramatic moments, exactly the sort of thing to please the crowd of onlookers who watched with raucous attention. Eochu’s followers, appreciative after the feast, were cheerful in their support, calling out suggestions and, when the king finally won the game, they applauded loudly. With a crooked smile, Midir began to hand over the coins, but Eochu stopped him.

‘Let’s make it the best of three,’ he said, ‘and if I win, I name the stakes.’

Midir nodded his assent, and the games continued.

*

Trewyn couldn’t say afterwards how much time had passed, or how many games she’d witnessed. After a while, it was apparent to her that Midir was losing deliberately. He lost the second and third games with a shrug of the shoulders, and was required to give Eochu the strange, intricate silver brooch that pinned his cloak together. He lost the next game, and with it, his sturdy leather shoes. He lost the next game, and the next, and the next, for ever escalating stakes. By the tenth game — which he also lost — he was promising to build a causeway across one of the bogs that surrounded Temair.

When Midir lost the eleventh game, and had to leave the table to perform this degrading task, Trewyn was certain that Eochu and his followers would see reason. But instead, buoyant with constant victory, Eochu ordered Midir out of the warmth of the hall.

‘When you’ve finished what is required, you can come back in for the next game. And I’ll send some men out with you to make sure you don’t just leave with the work undone,’ he said.

Midir inclined his head briefly, and swept from the hall, trailed by a handful of Eochu’s unlucky followers. The fidchell matches had been going for so long that the first light of dawn was showing in the sky. Trewyn pulled her cloak tighter, and slipped from the hall, to watch and wait from the boundary walls.

After several moments, two of the men came racing back, their panting breath visible in the cold winter air.

‘Get the king,’ they said. ‘Get everyone. They need to see this!’

Eochu was fetched, and, followed by a great entourage, he made his way across the plain to the bog beyond. Trewyn stayed behind. She didn’t need to see Midir at work — heaping brushwood over the bog, felling trees, stripping them of bark and leaves, cutting them into planks, sanding the planks down, and binding them together with wooden nails in a raised platform, all with unnatural speed. She wondered if anyone would notice that Midir’s construction was made entirely without the use of iron, and whether they would realise from this what he was. She wondered if Eochu would be more sensible than Ailill.

All through the morning, Trewyn was left unattended on the earthworks with her thoughts. The occasional shout or exclamation drifted up to her from the bog, far away to the west, but she waited, still and quiet and alone. Finally, as the sun was almost directly overhead, people began to drift back across the plains towards her. She overheard a pair of young boys wondering excitedly whether or not ‘that silly man’ was going to challenge Eochu to yet another hopeless contest. She walked slowly back towards the hall, letting the crowd overtake and swallow her.

Once inside, she settled herself near the central table. Eochu entered at the head of a troupe of warriors, calling for ale and other refreshments. Midir walked with him, like a shadow.

‘Well, challenger, how about another game? I’ll even let you name the stakes this time.’

Midir paused beside the central table, running his hands along the pieces of the fidchell set.

‘If I win this game,’ he said, ‘I would like a kiss from that woman.’

And he pointed at Trewyn.

She could feel all eyes upon her, and a quiet fury began to build, ringing through her blood. Was there no end to Midir’s ridiculous, attention-seeking demands?

Eochu settled into his chair at the fidchell table, a glass in his hand and a condescending smile on his face.

‘If you win this game,’ he said, with a sneering laugh, ‘you can have a kiss from every woman in this hall!’

‘Just the one is enough,’ said Midir.

And they began the game.

Later, people who witnessed this contest would find it hard to recall how many hours had passed. Time seemed to rush and blur, so that although only a few moves had been played, the sun had moved far into the west. The fidchell pieces danced and surged around the board, and the observing crowd found it hard to follow the flow of the game, so intricate was the battle taking place before their eyes. It became clear, after a while, that Midir had been hiding his true skill — he was easily Eochu’s equal, and he played in surprising and unexpected ways. The Temair king played with a furious desperation, knowing that he had been made to look weak and foolish, and knowing that to lose this game would be to diminish his authority. But eventually, he had to admit his defeat.

‘And my prize?’ asked Midir, his eyes flashing with that unearthly fire.

Trewyn stood. She felt a whirling in her ears, and a kind of calm certainty. Her hands were twined in her hair, detaching her ivy headdress — now quite wilted, but still recognisable as leaves and vines.

‘Enough is enough,’ she said.

And, reaching deep within herself, she drew on the strength of the plant she held in her hands. She thought of its journey from rain-watered seed, feeding on the rich, deep earth, reaching out into the sunlight, growing wild and unchecked across the building wall. She thought of her own two hands, cutting the ivy vines with an iron knife, weaving it into a headdress, holding it in place with her own long hair, and the quiet power of those actions. She thought of plants, as sustenance, medicine, or put to darker purposes, and their endless cycle of growth, flowering, withering and rebirth. She used all this, and she called.

The air in the hall was different, dancing and shimmering and buzzing. And, as Trewyn watched, it seemed to split and crack — and out of the tear that had opened up stepped a woman, with dark hair and clear brown eyes that looked around the hall, taking everything in.

‘What can I do for you, Trewyn?’ asked Juniper.

‘Take me away from this place,’ said Trewyn, stepping towards the other woman.

Juniper took Trewyn’s hand. She had changed since Trewyn had seen her last, changed into something brave and bright and bold and glittering.

‘I’ll take you home,’ she said.

Chapter Text

Trewyn felt herself shifting and changing, her body reshaping itself just as it had when Fúamnach had caused her transformation. But this time, she retained control over her own limbs, as they shrank and were covered all over with the soft, white down of feathers. Her arms refashioned themselves into wings, her neck became elongated, and her bones felt as light as driftwood. Juniper, beside her, had been going through a similar transformation, and before anyone else in the hall could react, the two women had lifted into the air, as a pair of graceful swans. Trewyn’s heart was fluttering and birdlike, and for one brief moment she feared someone would try and stop them — Eochu made a feeble gesture in their direction, but his hands clutched empty air. Midir seemed to be trying to say something, but Juniper and Trewyn soared high above him, out of the hall and out of reach.

And then they were rushing along a strange and otherworldly path, travelling at an inhuman speed through the dark skies above Temair. The green hills and plains unfolded below them, the stars glittered above them, and Trewyn flew, following Juniper, whose flight was sure and steady. After a while they were crossing the ocean — Trewyn marvelled that she felt no fatigue — dipping and diving and gliding over ink-dark waves, the sea-salt seeping into their feathers. And, after the sea, the land again, green and familiar, jagged with cliffs and steep mountains. And, at last, a house. Juniper led Trewyn downwards, and, as they hit the ground, they became women once more. Trewyn’s heart was racing as she looked around wildly, trying to get her bearings, and, as her breathing slowed to a calmer pace, she became aware of Angharad, standing at the entrance of the house.

They had returned to Angharad’s dwelling in the west of Britain, the site of Trewyn’s apprenticeship as a doran-in-training, the place where she had first met Juniper — then Ninnoc — and taken her tentative initial steps towards the life she now led. Angharad greeted the two younger women at the door with warm, woven cloaks, and bread, and hot, spiced wine, and ushered them inside.

‘You must be exhausted,’ she said.

She led them through into the central room, where the chairs had been covered with piles of cushions and soft, woollen blankets, and the tables had been laden with food and drink. A fire had been made up, and was burning brightly. Trewyn curled herself up in a corner of the softest-looking chair. She felt as if she would need to sleep for a thousand years.

‘You should hear the stories they’ve been telling about you,’ said Juniper.

‘Stories about me have made it across the ocean?’ asked Trewyn, in shock.

‘You’re apparently an intoxicating and powerful woman — the storytellers can’t agree if you’re human or something else entirely — who tempted two men and at least one other being to lose their minds and tear up every hill in Ireland to recover you. Or you’re Ailill’s daughter, stolen from him by fairy trickery and trapped in the Otherworld for a thousand years. Or you caused a fairy woman to go wild with jealousy so that she cast you back into the world of humans and politics, with your memories gone and your love for her husband forgotten. And so on,’ said Juniper, laughing.

‘There are tiny grains of truth in all of that, but it wasn’t like that, really. I didn’t feel as if I was living in a story, at the time. I certainly didn’t feel powerful, or even useful, mostly. By the end I felt like an insect, or fast-flowing water, buffeted this way and that by the political tides.’

Juniper nodded, and poured more wine into Trewyn’s cup.

‘That kind of work at the courts of kings is draining,’ she said. ‘It can involve really intriguing magic, but more often than not you spend your days brewing tisanes and advising scarred mercenaries about their love lives.’

‘You’ve done that kind of thing before?’ asked Trewyn.

‘Not in Ireland, and not for as long as you, and never again. I think it must have been two years since we parted, after our time together on the road, roaming from hearth to hearth and hedge to hedge. I tried a few things after that — being a court doran included — but nothing felt right. I was heading south to Cornwall, to my father’s kingdom, to spend some time there, when I felt your need, like a faint call reaching out across the ocean. And you know what happened next. This time with Angharad is just a pause, a break in my journey, because you needed my help.’

‘You’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like — you know that, Ninnoc,’ said Angharad.

‘I’ll stay until Trewyn’s got her strength back. And then, we’ll see,’ said Juniper, reaching across the table to help herself to a plate of apple cooked with hazelnuts and spices.

‘And you, Trewyn?’ asked Angharad.

‘I think ... I think I will rest here, for a while,’ said Trewyn. ‘I feel as if I’ve lived through more lifetimes than my own. I need to be still, to sit quietly and weave, until I feel more like myself. I need to watch the plants grow, and the birds return with the spring, and think about what to do next. I’ve been rushing along every path for so long, and I need to remember stillness.’

‘I heard they dragged you out on a circuit of Ireland, like some kind of talisman,’ said Juniper.

‘That part was true!’ said Trewyn. ‘Oh, Juniper, the things those kings did to signify their own power, as if to reassure themselves of their own might. What a strange, strange time I’ve had.’

‘You can tell us all about it later, but for now, you need to regain your strength’ said Angharad.

The flames in the fire leapt and danced, and, in this room at the heart of her childhood home, surrounded by two dear and familiar women, Trewyn allowed herself to rest.