Grania navigates by the dim light of the stars, her feet carrying her past sleeping houses and dark buildings. In the dead of night Clew Bay is eerily silent. Even the sea is quiet, the waves nothing but a soft, distant rumble. No matter. She grew up here, walking these winding paths year after year. Her heart has not forgotten.
It feels good to be walking again, to be focusing on nothing except moving forwards, to be doing anything other than lying in the dark waiting for morning. If she walks far enough, maybe she’ll stop seeing her father’s face every time she closes her eyes.
Walking these familiar streets alone, with reminders of him everywhere, seems wrong. Here’s the house she grew up in, with its whitewashed walls and wooden shingles, there the church they went to every Sunday. She crosses herself out of habit as she passes the looming stone building.
In the distance, she can see the field where she and Tiernan used to swordfight. His voice—“Grace O’Malley! Stand and fight!”—comes to her unbidden, and his laughter. There’s Finnegan’s smithy, its roof in need of thatching, and the town square, empty now of people. These are the same streets she ran through every day as a child, in the brisk morning air, to stand at the harbor and wait for a glimpse of her father’s ship.
Home. Is it still, now that he’s no longer here? Now that she’s no longer that stubborn, fearless girl?
Slowly, she comes to a stop near the docks and looks out over the bay. It’s too dark a night to see anything but the stars reflected in the water, pooled and glittering like they’re close enough to touch. She looks up at them. Little pinpricks of light against the darkness. Her father taught her to look at them and, later, how to navigate by them. They will lead you home, Grania, no matter how far you wander. Her heart clenches. He sails up there now, in a sea of stars. One more light to guide her way and bring her home.
Somewhere out there the Pirate Queen is docked, her sails furled around the mast, deck gleaming in the moonlight. Sleeping. Waiting. Grania’s eyes strain against the darkness until she picks out its familiar shape in the distance.
She imagines him standing at the helm. Her father. Her captain, strong and hearty, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Oh, what wouldn’t she give to turn back the years and stand once more on the Queen’s deck, fighting the English by his side? She’d been too young then to realize that couldn’t last forever.
It strikes her then that this is where she’d stood as a child, year after year from the time she first learned to walk, watching him leave until his ship was nothing more than a speck against the horizon, beyond Clare Island. How she’d longed to go with him. She’d wanted so much she’d thought her heart would break with it. To be out on a ship, far from land, finally free to do as she pleased. Foolish, maybe, for a girl to want so much. But she’d gotten it, and she’ll never forget the rush of joy she felt at the sight of Clew Bay growing smaller and smaller as they headed out to sea.
A joy she might never feel again.
(But it’s better not to think about that or the rage will thaw the numbness and she’ll fall to pieces. Her father dead. Tiernan lost to her. The sea, her freedom… all gone. Who is she if she can’t wield a sword? Will she die on the shore, without ever again feeling the spray of the waves, the sway of the deck, the freedom of the tides? No. She refuses to accept that.)
The wind here is biting, coming straight from the sea with nothing to temper it. Grania's hair whips against her cheeks, but she barely feels the sting. Her heart squeezes at the familiarity of it. On her worst nights, she’s longed for her father; ached for her ship; pined for the view of water all the way to the horizon, for the blurred line between sky and sea. She’s dreamt of Tiernan more times than she can count, only to wake miles away, alone. But she’s never realized—not until this moment—how much she's missed the sound of the waves, the taste of salt on her lips. This is her bay. This is home, and she is chieftain now. Her heart feels heavy.
The wooden boards creak behind her. She turns, half expecting to see her father there, come looking for her.
“Grania,” he’ll say. “What’re you doing here out in the cold? Lost your mind, have you?” Then his gaze will follow hers to the Queen and he’ll smile in understanding.
There’s nothing there but shadows.
With one last look out to sea, she moves away. Her feet—numb now from the cold—move of their own accord, taking her inland. The buildings are more spread out here, farther from the docks. Houses and barns dot the flat landscape, rising without much rhyme or reason, and it almost hurts to see them there, in their old, familiar spots.
Finally, Grania stops. A small wooden house with a shingled roof stands before her, no different than the many cottages she’s passed yet oh so different. For too long she stands and stares, eyes scrutinizing every detail, trying to convince herself she’s really there. If the world hadn’t just been turned upside down, if her chest didn’t feel so tight, she might have laughed at her own surprise. Of course her heart would bring her here.
Despite the time she’s stayed away, the house is unchanged. Grania can almost convince herself that the years haven’t passed and her life is still simple, uncomplicated. That she’ll walk through the door and Tiernan will kiss her, and tomorrow they’ll board her father’s ship and head towards uncharted waters. Tomorrow she’ll feel the salty sting of the wind on her face and know what it is to live free. Then she remembers.
She shouldn’t be here. She doesn’t know where else to go.
The thought of knocking doesn’t even occur to her. It would feel to strange to knock, like a stranger, at the door to a house she spent half her childhood traipsing in and out of. Knocking here would be as strange as knocking at the door to her own home, or her father’s. She has always been welcome here. Grania hopes—knows, deep down—the years haven’t changed that.
The door opens silently and she enters, shutting it behind her. The house is warm, the embers of a fire still burning in the hearth. Her eyes adjust slowly to the half-light. Grania makes out the shape of the table, the chairs around it, the mess of pots and pans. Nothing has changed, then, except for them.
“Tiernan,” she calls softly.
If he doesn't hear her, she'll leave and pretend she was never foolish enough—weak enough—to come.
For a few moments, the house stays still and silent. She’s trying to find the courage to return to the echoing silence of her room, where Donal lies in a drunken slumber, when Tiernan appears out of the shadows.
Hair mussed, knife in hand, he stands coiled for action. Seeing her, he puts the knife down and relaxes.
“Grace? What’re you doing here?” He moves closer, scanning her for injuries. “Are you hurt?”
“No, no.” She shakes her head impatiently. Because he’s still watching her closely, she adds, “I’m fine, Tiernan.”
Grania opens her mouth to protest, only to realize she’s shivering. Had the night been cold then? She didn’t feel it. She flexes her fingers and finds them numb.
“Come, sit.” He draws two chairs closer to the fire, but doesn’t sit. “I’ll not have my chieftain freeze to death.”
Chieftain. The word stings, lashing at her heart.
“Your chieftain? Is that all I am to you?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he looks at her like he’s trying to figure out a puzzle.
“Grace, why did you come here?” The rawness of his voice surprises her, and she sits down to avoid his gaze.
“I don’t know,” she says quietly.
Maybe she does. Maybe she came because he is the only person left who really knows her, all of her—who she was and who she is. Because the world is wrong and she can’t make sense of it, and he has always been her sanctuary. Because she’s felt the loss of him constantly—a dull ache in her soul—and tonight she’s not strong enough to bear it. But how can she say all that?
“I can’t close my eyes without seeing him,” she says instead.
He softens at that, sitting down at last.
“Sword in hand, scowling.” She mimics the scowl he reserved for battles. “How the English feared him.”
“He’d make them cry for mercy,” Tiernan recalls. “Grown men weeping like babies.”
“Many a night he’d tell me tales of those battles. I never believed him ’til I saw for myself.”
She smiles at the memory, sees that he’s smiling, too.
“He was a good man,” Tiernan says, serious now. “I’ve known none better.”
Her throat is tight. She swallows hard, refuses to blink until the tears disappear and her eyes burn. She will not cry.
“Aye,” she manages. She can’t quite bring herself to refer to him in the past tense. Not yet. Grania looks down at the chieftain’s ring she now wears. It still shocks her to see it there, but it feels lighter than she’d expected.
“I should have been here.” She looks away, stares blindly into the fire. “I would have protected him.”
In the blurred edge of her vision, she sees him make to get up and move towards her. Grania straightens and turns to look him in the eyes.
"I would.” A challenge.
“It was God’s will,” Tiernan says softly.
“Yes. God’s will.” Her voice sounds bitter even to her ears. She slumps back against the chair and watches as he pokes the fire with a stick, turning over a log.
She gave up everything she held dear for the sake of her people and the land she loves. But the English attacks continue, and now they’ve taken her father, too. Where is God in all this? Can’t He see their suffering?
Grania wants to close her eyes and go to sleep for a very long time, and wake up when the world makes sense again. She wants to hit something until her knuckles bleed, to break something she won’t be able to repair, to scream herself raw. Her chest feels tight. She is so, so tired of being strong and sacrificing for the sake of duty. Can’t she be selfish, for once?
“I’ll not go back to Rockfleet,” she says quietly.
Her words surprise her, but as soon as they’re out she sees the truth of them.
“I can’t go on like that.” She waves a hand towards the pots and pans. “Cooking, sitting at home while himself,”—the word tastes bitter on her tongue, and she can’t help but give it an ironic edge—“whores and drinks.” She shakes her head. “No. I won’t go back.”
“Was it that bad then?”
“It was empty. Stuck in a dress, day after day… weaving, sewing, waiting.” Grania frowns, gestures wildly in frustration. “That’s fine for some, but—”
“The sea is your calling.”
She meets his eyes, shocked for a second. But of course he understands.
“Aye,” she says at last, nodding. “And I felt trapped. I missed the sea so much I thought I’d die. The ground feels too solid and wrong, somehow.” She smiles, but her voice is tinged with longing. “Missed my father, and being aboard the Queen… even the battles and the men’s terrible singing.”
“But not me?” Though he asks it lightly, Grania can see his eyes are serious.
She studies his face, sees the hope and exhaustion and longing written there. He’s never been able to hide anything from her; she could always read him too well for that. Her counterpart, her best friend, her compass. He’s the North Star that will always steer her true.
“I’ve missed you most.”
She reaches out to take his hand.
“Tiernan…” she starts, then stops to search for words. “You are half of my heart. You always have been.”
“I’d look out for glimpses of your hair,” Tiernan says, after a second. “Everywhere, all the time.” He moves to brush a stray strand of hair from her face, thumb caressing her cheek lightly for a second, before drawing away. “Just the slightest flash of red and I’d turn, expecting you’d be there. Even found myself talking to you a time or two.”
He grins, shaking his head, then sobers. “I didn’t realize I was always looking for you until you weren’t there for me to find.”
A beat. The firelight plays on his features, making them softer, somehow. She looks away, as if the floor can help her find the right words to make him understand.
“What I did, I did out of duty,” she says slowly, lifting up her eyes to meet his. “I love Ireland too much to watch it die, and I’d not be able to live knowing I hadn’t done what I could. But I wish…” She takes a shaky breath. “I love you.”
“And I love you.” He kisses the palm of her hand.
She shakes her head, pulls away. “Tiernan—”
“What, you thought I’d stop just because you married another man?”
For once, she doesn’t know what to say. She just stares at him, like an idiot, until he smiles in amusement.
“There’s only ever been you, Grace. I’ve been in love with you half my life. Even if I wanted to, I’d not know how to stop loving you.”
She hasn’t cried since her wedding day a year ago, hasn’t allowed herself a single tear because a part of her feared that once she started there would be no stopping. Now the tears overwhelm her. She wanted him to understand. She longed, selfishly, for his forgiveness. But she hadn’t expected him to love her still, not after she’d broken his heart and chosen Ireland over him. How is she supposed to live now, knowing his feelings haven’t changed?
Her grief, still too raw to be pushed down, comes pouring out in ragged sobs, mixed with regret. Grania cries for her father, the best man she’s ever known, and for everything she’ll never share with him. She cries for Tiernan; for all the pain she’s caused him, and for what might have been. For herself and her lost freedom and the carefree girl she’d been once. For her land, succumbing bit by bit to English rule, and her people, dying in battle for a way of life that’s disappearing.
Tiernan’s arms envelop her, and she buries her face into his chest, holding onto him tightly. Like he’s the only thing keeping her from falling apart.
Grania cries for what feels like hours. When she finally stops, she becomes aware of Tiernan stroking her hair. The warmth of the fire and the comforting nearness of him have her feeling drowsy. She longs to close her eyes and lean on him, just for a few moments. Instead, she straightens and wipes the tears from her eyes.
“I must go,” she says. If there’s a hint of regret in her voice, who could blame her?
“Stay,” Tiernan says. She lets him lead her towards the bed. “It’s late and you’ve walked all day. You’ll be wanting to sleep.”
“No. Donal can’t know I was here.” Grania looks around for her cloak, trying to remember where she left it.
She raises her eyebrows.
“Aye, blasphemy. Forgive me.” He crosses himself hastily. “The man’s a coward and a drunkard—”
“That he is,” she agrees.
“—and he doesn’t deserve you.”
“He’s angry that I’m to be chieftain. He cares little enough for me, but I’ll not give him another reason to spite me.”
“He won’t know,” Tiernan grabs her hand, pulls her closer. “I swear it.”
She reaches out to caress his face, gently tracing his jaw, noting the dark circles under his eyes. For all his talk of walking and exhaustion, he’d made the journey twice.
“Thank you,” she says softly, kissing his cheek impulsively. He tilts his head in confusion, so she elaborates. “For bringing me the news. Being able to say goodbye… it was a blessing.”
Grania sighs, but finds that her heart feels lighter. She smiles at him, feeling more her old self. “All right, then. It’s late and you’ve walked all day. You look exhausted.”
He laughs, then wraps his arms around her and she curls into him, breathing in his familiar scent. Grania relaxes slowly, the steady sound of his heartbeat lulling her to sleep, his chest comfortingly solid. She feels more at home than she has in a year.
Tomorrow, she’ll have to deal with Donal’s petty rage and somehow lead clan O’Malley. But tonight she can rest, safe in Tiernan’s arms. Soon they’ll head out to sea and she will chart their course. Her spirits rise at the thought.
She will not die on land. She will not live trapped in a cage.
After all, she has killed men with knives and swords, stabbed them in the stomach and watched the blood bloom red as they fell. She has scaled masts during storms and steered ships true, navigating by the stars through nights as dark as pitch.
She is her father’s daughter, with the sea in her blood, and she will not surrender without a fight.