Bres was a man hewn from the Earth Herself, dark, brown and lean as gnarled oak. Rough leather wrapped around his skin so that there was no distinction between the two. His eyes saw everything. Like a cat, he waited and watched patiently for his time to pounce. His black hair pulled tightly back from his face bought his eyes into prominence. He was a shock of brown and amber, a slicing sketch across the green hills of earth.
I drank in the sight of him, silent and hiding, from my place behind the stones. Bres scanned the landscape before him, heavy sword in hand. He was a warrior. The iron tinged the air. He breathed in the sweet scent of the wind, but it left him unaffected. He only wanted to own, to conquer.
That much I gathered from his movements, not needing to delve into his thoughts, not yet. He grabbed a handful of soil and clutched the dampness to his palm. It was his. He claimed it. Softly, he drew a brief design at his feet with the tip of his heavy blade.
He paced forward several strides. He was not a tall man, but then height didn’t matter. He desired only to fill the emptiness within him. He would control the crops, the wheat and the oats. He glanced skyward and his expression asked why he must share his powers with the gods of the sky. Climbing to the hilltop, he saw the silver edge of ocean. He shivered. He was not one meant for water. He preferred the solidity of land.
“This is mine,” he said quietly. He stooped down, brushing his hand over the blades of grass as he would a woman’s hair. He placed grains of soil grit on his tongue. The peaty soil must have melted inside his mouth and he closed his eyes in an unexpected moment of relaxation. He was of the earth and sky. His desire to control was deeper than simple selfishness. The green land was the only thing that could fulfill him.
I told no one of this knowledge of Bres. When I discovered we would marry, I wanted to determine his character for myself. He did not know that I, Brigid, watched him. Destined to be his wife, part of a treaty meant to end the summer of fighting between our tribes. His communion with the land was his first encounter with the Danann mysteries. I did nothing to dissuade his experience and believed this one-sided meeting would give me some bit of power over him on the day we wed.
My earliest incarnation was as a daughter of the Túatha dé Danann. We were the people of Danu, of Eiru, Éire, Erin and Ireland. As Éire’s earliest inhabitants, we were elevated once to the status of gods and goddesses. We were revered after our downfall, remembered, worshiped, until we faded into legends of “fairy folk.” Yet, as in all myths, there lies a bit of truth.
The truth is this: Dagda was my father and Macha, my mother. We were one with the green and mist-filled island. Our duty, the purpose of the Túatha dé Danann existence, was to protect and cherish the island. We lived alongside the towering oaks. We scaled stony outcrops to search for eggs hidden in sea birds’ nests as we looked upon the waves pounding on the shore below. Our homes were beneath the emerald hillsides, closer to the earth, the source of our strength.
Our isolation enabled us to learn skills which most have now forgotten. We were able to shape shift. With our minds, we learned to communicate with each other without spoken words. Our intuition developed more keenly. Of course, skills such as shape shifting took generations to learn. It was a constant daily practice and way of life.
We were often scattered around the island in areas that we felt most comfortable. Fodla was near the rivers. Lugh was forever chasing the sun. For myself, I couldn’t wait to rush to the shoreline, to form my quiet concentration into the stillness of stone.
We learned the earth’s cycles, her rhythms and her storms. I knew when cliffs would crumble into the sea. Eiru knew of the mist and the rain. My mother felt the power of the wind.
We claimed no calendar, no standards of time, except for the changing of the seasons. These gifts we tried to pass on to future generations, to the others that later inhabited our island. Alas, it has all been lost, viewed now as myth and magic and fairy tricks.
Then there came a time when new people appeared. That they found our sacred land, without our knowledge, was a foreboding sign of what was to come.
My sister and I nearly stumbled upon the foreigners as we shepherded home a flock of sheep. In the green valley below our well-traveled footpath, we watched as strangers dug into our land. They ripped out veins of copper and silver, a painful process that vibrated through us.
They continued to dig, these hulking, dark men who built fires around the perimeter of their excavation. They formed the ore into weapons, blades and daggers, unlike any we had ever seen. Danann weapons were sacred, bronze swords and shields rarely used the metal for them taken in delicate process after ritual blessings of thanks. Fodla and I looked at one another in shock. Who were they?
We scanned their tribe, speechless. Fodla shifted her position and a small waterfall of pebbles cascaded onto the leather clad people. We crouched down behind the tall grasses. I looked toward my sister and we joined hands. Focusing our combined skills, we blended into the earth. I searched for the pulse of Danu, our goddess, as I melted slowly into the hillside. Warm, comfortable, but alert. She issued a single thread of tension. She had not yet judged these newcomers.
They worked until the sun rose high and they hauled the materials back to their boats, anchored along the northern shores. “Brigid,” Fodla said. Her face was full of fear. “We have to tell Father.”
With our nerves on edge, it was nearly impossible to maintain the proper meditative state necessary for shape shifting. We crouched behind the forest of boulders and oaks, trusting their ability to disguise us as we returned home.
“There looked to be thirty to forty of them,” Nuada announced to the meeting. We met as a tribe, led by our Elders. Nuada was our chieftain. My father was second-in-command, with my mother as close third. We sat in a circle, in the deepest recesses of our lodge, to discuss what my sisters and I had seen.
“Are they the only newcomers?” Father asked. “Brigid, did you see them approach from the sea? Fodla, the rivers?”
“I saw no signs of them until today,” I said. “I spent my time along the western sea.” Guiltily, I neglected to mention I had spied their boats tucked into the rocks. Fodla shot me a stunning glare and I shrugged a helpless reply. I had not seen them until it was too late. Where they landed didn’t matter.
“And what about the sea in the east?” Father asked. I hung my head in shame. Mother turned to Lugh, sensing my embarrassment.
“You are always with the morning sun, Lugh. Have you not felt their presence?”
Lugh shook his head. “I would have brought it to the meeting.” He seemed to radiate with worry.
“Perhaps we can only sense things of earth and nature, not people.”
“But humans are of the earth. We are of the earth. We should have known of their arrival, no matter what.” Lugh argued.
“And we have dealt with other humans,” Mother agreed. “The Fir Bolg were soundly defeated and have stayed within their boundaries.” She referred to the people, conquered before my birth, who inhabited the farthest edge of the island. They were so remote; I often forgot they were here before us.
“Why did we not know about these people?” Lugh asked. Then he spoke what we had all been thinking. “Are our powers failing?”
Conversation broke out, both verbal and psychic amongst the circle. “The question is: what do we do?” Mother seethed with impatience. Father tried to calm her with quiet words, to tame the sparks flying from her eyes. “Do we prepare for war? And if our gifts are weakening, how do we defend ourselves?”
“We have warriors,” said Father. “We defeated the Fir Bolg, we can defeat these strangers. We will prepare to fight.”
“How long has it been since our warriors have fought? We defeated the Fir Bolg a generation ago. We need time.” Nuada wanted to wait, to watch.
Finally, Mother stood amid the noise. “Silence.” The tribe deferred to her power and we all turned to hear her.“We must do as Nuada suggested. We must continue to spy so that we may uncover their intentions. Perhaps they are here temporarily.” There was a mixture of responses; some nods of agreement, other sent out flashes of anger. She held up her hand.“We will not discuss weapons and defense until we know more. But I will say this. Our gifts must remain a secret.” Then using her silent mind power, she concluded her command. This is our weapon. It must remain ours and ours alone.
The summer of battles was brief, but intense. The Fomorians, the newcomers, desired to own our land and were willing to kill for it. Our people died, blood soaked into the soil and still the Elders refused to use our weapons, the full force of our magic that surely would have defeated them. They were determined to keep our connection to the elements a secret. They decided the best course of action would be peace. And the way to peace, they told me, was to ally with the enemy. The surest way to an alliance was marriage.
“He is called Bres.” Father said when the fighting ended. “He is the next chieftain of the Fomorian tribe.”
The valley had been empty for days. Both sides suffered losses; neither side could declare victory. But we couldn’t survive a prolonged war with the Fomorians.
I sat at the edge of the Western Sea and tried to turn to stone so I would not hear my awful fate. As stone, I could allow the waves to beat against me and drown out my father’s inevitable words.
“Brigid, this marriage will bring peace to our tribe.”
Violence drained us. Father had aged, his face worn, eyes tired. So many of our people were gone. A treaty, a compromise with the enemy, was the last hope for peace to keep our kind alive. I grounded myself more firmly into the sand and resolutely gazed out to the sea. I wanted to become the sand, a fine grain. “Brigid, please,” my father begged as we sat alone on the beach. “The needs, the survival of our people must supersede personal desires.”
Resisting a forced marriage was more than a reaction to my selfish desires. This was against the beliefs of our kind; unheard of, unthought-of, until the race of Fomorians invaded our land.
Father reached for my hand but I pulled away. “I speak of survival. For the sake of the Túatha dé Danann.”
Horror washed over me. If I didn’t do as he asked, as the tribe asked, we would perish. We couldn’t
return to the way things were. The Fomorians had changed the course of our existence, one way or another. “You must be our eyes and ears. You must watch the Fomorians carefully and let us know if they plan to attack us again.”
“You will send me to a strange land, alone.”
“It’s the only way. We need to keep ourselves separate from them. If they discover any of our gifts,
they will destroy us.”
I blended into rock at his words. The waves washed over me and foam bubbled along specks of granite.
Why can’t we use our powers? Just be, like this, blend with the earth. The Fomorians will never know what became of us.
Father became the mist, encircling me and allowing no escape. If you don’t do this, we will all die. If you don’t agree to the marriage, we will all be gone. Forever.
He waited patiently, as only one can with stone, a soothing mist, asking me to think of peace.
Why me? My rock self vibrated anger. My father’s mist began to seep through the minute cracks in my stone. Because we are the leaders, he replied. You are now the eldest daughter. Who else? Who would you choose instead of yourself?
I stood with my people, trembling. I was terrified. In less than a day’s time, I would live with the enemy, go into their homes and eat their food. I would be the wife of their next chieftain.
I snatched glimpses of Bres and of the Fomorians. A dark and robust stock, they stood in regiment rows on the other side of the albino hide. Bres was no exception. They returned my open stare. Some faces seemed kind, some curious, with half-hearted smiles, others hard and angry. A flicker of blue in the tapestry of brown…one of the men, in the back of the rows, had blue eyes. I glanced again and he was gone.
My people, the Túatha dé Danann, were gathered behind me. We were the embodiment of airiness, a
small, pale race, with eyes of blue or green. My chameleon hair could be golden or red, depending on the light. My gown shimmered with Danann magic as it soaked up the colors reflected from the sky.
I caught Bres’s gaze and drew back, intimidated by the sharpness that pierced the air around him. His fitted tunic and knee-length boots of coarse leather and wool defined every lithe muscle he possessed.
Nuada and Elatha left the white deer hide as the divider between the tribes. Bres and I would stand on the sacred deer hide when we vowed our lives together. The Danann ritual was the only farewell my people could give. My father preformed the marriage ceremony.
Bres took my hand in his and I flinched at his grip. He steered my steps to the albino hide, where we would end the bloodshed between our tribes. His hands were solid and brown as stout tree limbs, whereas my hands mirrored the pearls found within the sea. It seemed as though I clasped a young oak.
“Danu, we thank you for your presence. As your children, we stand before you. We ask for peace.” Father diverged from the traditional mating words that called upon the earth and the sky to bind us as one.
“Danann and Fomorian ask for your blessings as we share the earth.” Power should have surrounded me. It should have surrounded Bres. Instead, in the face of blank, empty words and talks of peace between tribes, I felt nothing.
My father’s incantation ended and it was our turn to speak quietly to each other. Danann couples spoke sacred words of magic at this point in the ceremony, words to bind them for a lifetime. Of course, I had been warned not to use those words, our secret. My promise was simple: to uphold the treaty.
Bres spoke first. “Brigid, our joining will be new to both our people and to this island. If you can’t bear the pressures that will be put on us, then you may walk away now.”
He knew I couldn’t walk away. He knew we were trapped together. “There will be pressures,” I said. “However, the purpose of our union is peace. Not for my personal gain.” I paused. “Nor yours.”
Bres smirked at my implications and our eyes met, each daring the other to turn away first. So, this was how it would be. I knew in that instant that I couldn’t let him catch me off guard; I would have to think carefully before I spoke and always remember that cunning motivation hid behind his words. I would protect our gifts, our knowledge of the elements that surrounded us, with my life. The Fomorians would use that information to take the earth, the source of our strength, from us. And as mine was to protect, I believed that Bres’s mission was to discover.
With sickening clarity, I understood why Father and Mother had chosen me. I, Brigid, was quiet and reserved, able to turn to stone. Stone is what they wanted to give to Bres and the Fomorians.
Bres studied my face as though looking for fractures in my expression. I would not give in to him. Instead of showing my trepidation, I smiled and touched a forelock of his black hair that escaped the tight leather band that kept its length pulled back. He grinned and brought my hand to his lips, biting lightly. His gesture sent a chill down my spine.
Release date: July 29, 2014 via Solstice Publishing
(c) Sheila R. Lamb