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The Hero's Portion
I am Gareth mac Diarmuid, once lord-milite of King Arthur's Combrogi, the cavalry that broke the Saxons on Mount Badon, and after his death the same to Queen Guenevere, she that's exiled. God's blessing on the old lady wherever she bides.
Many joys and sorrows past, in an Eire Rhian and I have all but forgotten, we were Ehne and Deigh, peasants who served the cattle lord Feargus in the mountains above Lough Tay. Our bo aire was a good man and did what he must for his people. I've never blamed him for banishing us oversea to Britain. We found a new life there under different names: Lord Gareth and Lady Rhian, no less of an honor. When I became a centurion of horse in the alae of the Sixth Legion, I painted a golden sunburst on my blue shield, never dreaming that sun would blazon the bursting of my own heart or that contentment and happiness would ever be separate houses, one open to me, the other forever closed.
You would think a man come to mature years, friend to a king in a life sure as seasons, would know himself through and through. Yet in a day, a moment, a glance, he can be a lost boy again, sure of nothing in a world where his own heart is a stranger. Wiser is not always happier. That soft spring morning at home began my troubles, and her name was Etain, daughter to Lord Feargus.
Etain ni Feargus was as spoiled and willful a child as ever plagued a father's rath. Fifteen and starting to fill out to beauty, with kissable lips but an adder's tongue between them, Etain would have her way and no other. If she grudged you three words, two were sharp. Ehne reckonedthe girl might never find a husband, for such a tongue would drive any man away. To our misfortune, one would not go away, the wrong one, and this was the way of it.
When I woke that spring day, night was just fading from black to grey beyond our clochan. Ehne still slept, one arm flung over me as always, as if she would ward off even my bad dreams. Not to wake her, I slipped off the ledge into my shoes and moved mouse-quiet up the incline that led outside. After finishing at the latrine trench, I walked along the hilltop to breathe in the fine day coming up over our home. Far below down the steep hillside, Lough Tay lay peaceful as my wife, scarce a ripple on the waters. There, hard by the lough: the lord's low pasture, and up the near hillside, the cattle and horse pens and the high pasture beyond where we'd driven up Feargus's cattle weeks before at buaileingh time. On the near heights the Nob, a steep and rounded hill crowned by bank and ditch and high stone walls about the great round rath of Feargus himself. At the base of the Nob our own clochan, reed-thatched and rounded by our own wall I'd sweated to raise stone by stone.
I loved this time of morning before God woke the world: soft as Ehne's face in sleep before she rose to fire the bake oven and peck at me over breakfast. Not that Ehne was a scold, mind, just lacking my easier ways. As Lord Feargus said, "No better manager of horses than Deigh and no better manager of Deigh than Ehne ni Donal."
We were young and content, my wife and I. In the Leinster mountains we called the Knuckles of God, the country of clan ui Byrne of the tribe Culain, the land was green and generous. We never knew cold or want, our horses fleet, our pigs and cattle fat. Ui Byrne throve so well that other clans like the ui Chellaig often raided to steal our cattle wealth.
In the grey morning light I was startled by a hint of movement near the horse pen and thought at first it might be a scout from such a war band. Far above on the rath walls, a guard paced slowly, spear resting on his shoulder, but he was moving toward me and saw nothing. Movement again, fast and furtive, crouching along the pen fence: a small figure stealing away, cloak flying in the morning wind to reveal a dark blue kirtle and flash of gold piping at the hem. The girl scurried toward the brow of the hill over the low pasture and disappeared into the trees there.
Etain it was; I knew the kirtle and cloak. Why I did not cry out to the sentinel I will never know. I should have, but like any servant wanting to avoid too much close attention from his master, I thought it best to mind my own business; the matter would sort itself out without me.
Better light now. As the girl broke out onto the low pasture, running furiously, I saw the horseman trot out from the trees on the other side. My first fear was nothing beside the next. They were far below me, but my eyes were and are still my best part. The horse was one of those small, half-wild beasts ridden by the Sidhe, those dangerous folk called Faerie in Britain. We called them, with careful respect, the Good People. When the rider leaped down to crush the girl in his arms, I saw trouble coming far worse than any ui Chellaig. I watched as he lifted Etain onto the horse and mounted behind, turning the shaggy little horse away toward the high mountain beyond Tay. I knew where he was going. That year the Sidhe had pastured their scraggly sheep somewhere on those heights and in the valley beyond. None of us on Feargus's tuath wanted them that close, but a wise man does not deny the Good People anything.