In the shire of Faodail, the tongues of its folk were a-flutter for weeks divining the arrival of their laird's new wife. Her name was only wondered at, her possible beauty, bitted and pieced. Her suspected virginity formed a weighty debate over pickled ales, but the greatest odds involved speculation on the hue of her hair.
Others worried, more soberly and less lucratively, where she might be put. Faodail was peopled enough. Was she really to live in the castle keep? And what of Beochaoineadh, his wife for a year over last? The folk fancied Beo for a simple reason. When she'd arrived at Faodail, the castle walls had vined verdant. The shire recognized when garden faeries pushed forth an opinion.
This new, mysteriously haired woman was bringing gallowglass, and forty-seven men were expensive to house. The older folk of the shire, living just off the lane, would need to upstake to Jabbot's Field or farther. Making room for the soldiers generated much frowning, especially among the older Maids Maudlin, who collectively insisted that cottages less than twelve12 steps square were cursed with a layer of wilt-rot dust, a blight that refused to be swept. And so, the maids refused to move.
The shire decided that if any of the gallowglass brought wives (or heaven forbid, children) they would be wedged into the lodge, down by the castle gate.
“Best breed those goats!” was the final conclusion of most public conversations, faithfully passed along to Beagan, the goat-herd, who thought it a painfully slow response to such an immediate need. Beagan did trod the shire for several days, though, collecting coins for the purchase of a twelfth cow at the autumn fair in Tamlaght O'Crilly.
Some of the womenfolk secretly welcomed the promise of new men. Many a lass had expanded a garden to make way for a bigger harvest. Maid Maren hoped to finally be trothed. And two of the shire's widows had been noticed sweeping their blighted floors more thoroughly than usual.
And some of the men were caught anticipating the arrival, too. The Ugly Mouth of Mealladh never tired of complaining about the English threat. Irish clans were small and nimble by nature, but Faodail had lost twelve men in the battle of Crugh. Their flanks were few.
The promise of fighting men both comforted and concerned the old maids, who wondered whether this new Scottish wife would feel welcomed by the faeries. If the faeries angered her, would their new protectors leave?
“That's the wrong worry,” Maid Perbish sniffed. “Ya best be worried this hairless wench anger the faeries, not the other way round!”
Most of the maids' preparation for the Scotswoman involved bribing the faery trees. All manner of gifts were left to hang on brindled branches: bundles of dried herb and berry-bead necklaces and bee bunting feathers. A hunt was undertaken for the seven-leafed clover, but none was found.
Nádúrtha, the castle cook, was the only member of Faodail folk who said nothing. She kept silent with her work, just as she had always done. When the Laird Leannán instructed Nádúrtha to accompany the stable boy to pick up his new wife at Lord Uachtarán's castle, she nodded. And when Mellen, the stable boy, asked if they could stop at a mead hall between Faodair and the northern castle, Nádúrtha grunted. Mellen knew why. The whole shire knew that she feared the field faeries, and most likely wanted to get back before sunset so as not to encounter any.
The three had returned at dusk. Their wagon entered the gate, passing the tiny lodge from which a wisp of smoke was eloquently rising, and ambled up the winding castle road. From its banks grew a row of muscular beech trunks, their branches clasping and twining into a knotted canopy. Saoirse emerged from this tangle and caught first sight of the tower. It stood, stoic, its front wall sliced with slits, just wide enough, she thought, to feed sunshine to a lupine.
“I'll start a fire, miss.” Saoirse wasn't sure who said this, but Mellen was still carrying trunks and, given another glance, didn't look like his throat could house such a deep voice.
“It's Lady now, Nádúrtha. I'm not a miss anymore.” The only person left to hear was Mellen. He looked around before resuming his work. Saoirse stepped down from the wagon and placed a foot on the land that now belonged to her.
She followed the gangly Mellen through a large wooden door hanging open: less an invitation than a faulty hinge. It smelled of cedar and swung uneven on big, black hinges that looked stamped by the anchor of a ship. Inside, a large kitchen where Nádúrtha was poking at the hearth. A fire danced back to life, sparks flinging themselves into what looked to an exhausted Saoirse like scrivened swirls of flourescent gold.
“You'll find the laird's bed chamber up t'ree flights, miss.”
Saoirse trailed Nádúrtha up the spiral staircase to a chilly bed chamber. She could see only what appeared in the ring of light from cook’s candle. Mellen had stacked her trunks just off the stair and a heavy curtain betrayed an invisible breeze. “Not miss, please, Nádúrtha. I'm the lady now.”
The cook, who always seemed to be nodding, left her mistress with an assurance: “I'll have him unstack in the mornin'.” Saoirse watched as the dank esophagus of stairs swallowed Nádúrtha whole.
No gealach glowed down from the sky. Nothing but black air in the room. She imagined what might lay beyond her blind eyes. Perhaps a big canopy bed, like the guest chambers held in the castle Bawn Guelph. Saoirse kneeled on the bed and crawled her hand up the bedpost. No canopy. Perhaps mahogany doors. Perhaps a cushioned chaise. A tiled ceiling. Paintings. Arched windows overlooking a grand, green park. She tumbled over the possibilities like a girl foolishly chasing flowers rooted in the ground.
In the morning, no servant woke her. She heard no sounds at all. The room was smaller than she had imagined the night before. The wool curtain hid no view except for the branches of a loosestrife myrtle huddled against the tower’s west wall. No chaise, no tiles. No paintings. A pine door opposite the cook’s stairway.
She wrapped herself in robes, reacting to the chill, and pulled open the pine door. A hallway extended away, its torch sconce webbed over. The hallway led her forward past another pine door. A sharp turn and then another. Finally, stairs that opened into another long corridor; this led back to the kitchen. A loaf of bread waited on the wooden table and the hearth fire lost an occasional ember to the kitchen floor.
Saorise picked at the bread, her numb toes in woolen socks held up high before the fire. The bread required a strength of jaw the lass would need to practice. Happy, girlish voices approached from one of many dank hallways jutting from the kitchen, and Saoirse considered retreating up the back staircase. But, no. She was now the lady of this tower. She would hide from no one. Two chattering girls burst into the kitchen and stopped, silenced by her presence.
“M’lady?” the other one remembered quickly.
Saoirse didn’t know and told them so. The girls tumbled back down the hallway that had brought them and their giggling receded into an echo.
Nádúrtha eventually burgeoned through the back door and plopped down a basket of wilted greens. “Come, miss.” She led Saoirse down several hallways to the shaft where the urine was dumped and suggested she drape her cloak over the piss hole to kill the lice.