Over the next few days, Saoirse distracted her own anticipations, waiting for her new husband to arrive. He would bring her retinue, her clansmen from Scotland. The trip from Stane had only been bearable knowing her men surrounded her, keeping her safe. She missed them, Gavenleigh the most.
In the tower yards she found clusters of nicklewort sprigging out from stone clefts. A garden grew quietly in the south corner, well plotted but overrun with snakeweed and spulk. The last of the winter wheat was ready for harvest. Bees buzzed and watched her from a distance.
Spurred by boredom, the new lady of the castle made herself a mission of feeding clumps of uprooted snakeweed to the chickens that wandered near Faodail lane. The older women she met curtsied when they saw her, and asked through tittered fingers about the wedding. The younger women avoided Saoirse. And one, on the third morning of her chicken rounds, called out in a strange, pleading way, “Lady Echternach?” For that was Leannán’s surname.
Saoirse fumbled and stammered. She had never bothered to ask. Everyone just called him Laird Leannán. She laughed at her herself, and started to explain why the name had startled her so, but the woman was already pressing four smooth stones into her hand.
“They’re soaked in blackberry juice.”
Saoirse stepped back. “You needn't ply me with gifts, good woman."
“They're not for you!” the old woman squeezed her arm. “Give 'em to the faery folk. For fealty.”
“They expect payment?” A laugh escaped Saoirse's throat. “Those are just tales, good woman.” The lane through Faodail rumbled underfoot, just slightly, a barely felt drumbeating of the moles. Their eyes locked. Had they felt anything at all?
“My lady, if you anger them--”
“Anger who?” Saorise’s voice had lost air and the words scraped out.
“The Tuatha Dé Danann.” The woman leaned in and whispered, “They might bring a lack on us.”
As the woman scurried away, Saoirse could see the tower from the lane, standing chilled in the shadow of a huge Douglas fir. It rose up into the weak sunlight with all the pomp of a grain silo. At the top, behind the parapet, Saoirse saw one of Leannán's knights patrolling. This constant watch for an invasion had infected the whole shire with nervous looks of their own toward the hills to the east. Saoirse looked to the east, also, watching a cloud bank she knew would reach her homeland of Stane by nightfall.
But this was home now, and after her short walk back, she climbed the stairs to the third-floor bedchamber. On a table beneath the window slit, she placed the blue stones and a small bunch of daisies she’d picked from the side of the road. When she opened the shutters, a glare flooded the floor without warming it. This room reminded her of the root cellar back home, despite being three stories up.
Still bored, a curiosity drew her with fanciful fingers up a new set of stairs. At the top, she found the great hall extending up to wooden rafter beams. A walk-in fireplace staunched itself at the end of the hall, and before it, a long oak table flanked with benches. Man-sized candles stood at attention along the side walls and a large window, larger than any other in the castle, looked out over the hill that slowly descended toward the village. Saoirse could see the tops of huts clustered by the stream and the kitchen smoke of a hundred weary women baking their honeybreads and boiling their purple potatoes. Beyond them, a large herd of sheep peppered the eastern-most field.
“My kingdom,” she told the candles, but she hoped the imps of the loam were listening.
The next morning Saoirse found Nádúrtha in the kitchen.
“I'm feeling such an ache. Just here,” she pressed her head. “Some nettle tea, if you please.”
“You'll have to pick 'em, miss. I can't leave the kneading. In the briar out back.” She turned back to her work.
“Nádúrtha, I--” she changed her mind and started again. “Nádúrtha, can you hear me?”
In the silent moments that followed, Saoirse turned away. She found the tiny postern and pushed it open onto the north yard. Against a far stone wall lounged three meandering bushes, and with an aproned hand, she plucked some medicinal leaves. She decided, as she tore the tendons of stems, to only speak to Nádúrtha when face to face. The need to be heard, especially now, pressed in on her. A bush of whortleberries begged for attention next, and she dropped a few of these into her lifted skirt. Showing them to cook, standing vessel bow, she received a nod for her trouble.
“Very good, miss. I'll boil a jelly. The men'll be home.”
“This day?” Saoirse's heart skipped and she forgot to correct the cook's impudence.
The men did arrive that day, Leannán and his warrior clan, about a hundredfold, and with them, the MacMuir clan gallowglass, all forty-seven. When she heard the wagon wheels on the gravel lane, Saoirse rushed outside. Men were everywhere and she didn’t at first see faces she recognized. But one face emerged.
A man taller and brighter aglow - was that possible? - emerged from the chaos and ran to her embrace. “Sister! How find you your new kingdom?”
“It’s--” Saoirse stopped. “I've gathered stones for a cairn. Let me show you.” She led him to a mound of rocks she had placed by the nettles. Gavenleigh offered her some dried fruit from his satchel, but she was more interested in feasting on his countenance. She had missed familiar faces.
That night, with the hum of many bustling through the tower, she waited for her husband in the quiet bedchamber. As the candlewax dripped onto the floor, she watched the pine door but her newly betrothed did not open it.
When she woke, the castle was empty. She could see groups of men on horseback practicing their skills on the hills above the village. She could see a few children on the lane, running with a dog. She could even see Nádúrtha hunting strawberries in the bothersome grasses. The candle that had burned out the night before lay in a hardened puddle in the corner of her room.
Her head still ached. She went out to collect more nettles without her apron, and the arrowed leaf stung the palm of her hand. The scratch drew a tiny drop of blood.
“Here.” Brighid held out a gauze of cobwebs, which she patted onto the human's injured palm, staining her finger with a bit of blood. She sniffed the stain. “You haven't had our honey yet.” She sniffed again. “The bees will be insulted.”
“Your head will find the winds of Aduaine unwelcome without honey. The bees can teach your tongue about what grows here. That's what honey is for. Your blood still smells of Scottish clover.” The faery squeezed some dew onto the cobwebs. Once wet, they turned a bright shade of wintergreen and hardened over Saoirse's hand.
“I’m Brighid.” Once Saoirse knew her name, her formalities flew away and she felt the urge to confide.
“My husband ignores me, Brighid.” Shocked at what she’d said, Saoirse covered her mouth.
“Yes, I figured he would.” She reached into her coin purse and removed a pen that she gave an intimate lick. On Saoirse's forearm, she wrote the word, “Husbandry,” and swirled the “y” with a flourish. “Many wives are happy to be spared that duty, Lady Echternach,” Brighid winked. “Leave the husbandry to the farm hands.”
“But he married me.” Why was truth now tumbling out of her mouth? “I need to know that I'm worth more than forty-seven sgians.”
“No, no, you've got that backwards. Those forty-seven daggers give you power,” Brighid looked toward the castle tower, “especially with him.”
“But Leannán has not come to me. He barely greets me. The union of marriage is much less... friendly than I imagined it to be.”
“Every woman in Eire has come to that conclusion, Saoirse. But your marriage is a contract of clans.”
“Yes, I know. But I had hoped...” Saoirse trailed off.
“He was married before, you know.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “No, I didn't know. Why has no one told me of this?”
“It's hardly relevant. Your marriage is a contract, Saoirse. Not a declaration of love.”
She was silent for some time while Brighid re-traced the cursive letters on her arm. “Where is his wife, Brighid? Did she die?”
“She was annulled.”
“He gave her up for me?”
“Her gave her up for the gallowglass.” Brighid pocketed her pen like a cherished secret. “His intentions toward you remain to be seen. I doubt he has any. That was never part of the deal, but who knows.” Brighid took a hard look at Saoirse. “What does Nádúrtha call you?”
“She calls me miss.” Saoirse felt the kingdom beneath her feet shifting like sand. “Brighid,” the faery now felt like her closest friend. “What should I do?”
Pleased with her new, well-placed ally, she stroked the cheek of Saoirse. “Be the face on his warship, the initials on his hilt. Be the one he can't win without.”