Myth & Legend
Peadar cries when I tell her Friday will be my last day as her teacher. The little one nuzzles tight against my chest, and I stroke her white hair till her sobbing fades.
When at last her pink eyes meet mine, such pain flows from them that I blink away my own tears.
“You won’t be Màiri anymore,” she says.
“No.” I shake my head and try my best to smile for her. “My name will be Tòmas. Tòm, if you like.”
“But you always call me Peadar.”
How can I explain Daoine-Sìth biology to a little one when I don’t understand the subject myself? “You’re bàn. Okay? White locks, pink eyes—on her mother’s breast she lies. You’re allowed to use either of your names.”
I stand her in front of a silvered glass panel and run a fingertip down her white locks. “Pretty soon your hair will darken to blonde, and you’ll be òr. Blue eyes, golden braid—gentle girl, at home she stayed. Golds always use their girl name. So you’ll be Brìghde.”
The little one’s face droops, her lower lip sagging. “But I only ever want to be Peadar.” Tears flow down her pretty cheeks once more.
I brush the hair away from her eyes and touch the wet trail her tears left. “Do you feel that tingle?”
Her pink orbs grow wide. “Are we bonded?”
“No, sweetie, but it means I’ll be ruadh before long. Redhead running through the vale—soon enough he’ll think he’s male. Màiri has to give way to Tòmas, at least till the change.” I scan the room, but everyone else has already left. “Tell you what—I’ll ask Ìosa to let you be Peadar when you grow up. All right?”
She nods, sniffs one last time, and returns to playing with her blocks.
After Peadar’s mother comes for her, I shoulder my bag and step outside into the mild afternoon sunshine. I pull my fleece jacket closed against the chill breeze. Eilean nan Sìthean, like much of Scotland, saves its warmth for a few weeks at midsummer. Only the reds walk around without at least a bulky sweater.
“Ruadh,” I whisper. A boy. Me. The white tip of my braid falls past a woven leather belt and brushes against the full skirt of my dress. For most of its length my hair glows a pale gold, but the roots deepen to a strawberry blonde. When they turn red, will I be as hot-blooded as every other ruadhan?
Èideard waves me down as I stroll past the practice field, so I lean against the old stone fence and wait. Èideard Iseabail Dòmhnall and I have always been inseparable. At her ruadhaich celebration, Iseabail gave me her braid—a promise of her love for me as she became Èideard. In the year since, he’s grown strong and swift, and as assertive as any other red.
His hug smells of wool, hay, and old flannel. Èideard grins as he brushes a stray lock from my face. His fingertips send a hot electric wave across my cheek and down my neck. “How much longer?” he asks.
“Father wants us to wait till summer.”
Èideard frowns, but I only shrug and turn my gaze away.
“I can have my ruadhaich in a few weeks, but he wants me to adjust to being a boy before risking the change.”
Èideard pulls me close again and brushes his lips against my ear. “I’d rather you adjusted to being my wife.”
I push away then. His hazel eyes dance with mirth, and the arrogance only a ruadhan would think proper. True—I’m two hands shorter than Èideard, and only seven stone, but that’s no guarantee I’ll be his petite wife. After the change, we might be Tòmas and Iseabail. But one doesn’t argue gender with a red. Every single one insists on his eventual manhood. Well, except me. I just shake my head and walk away.
At my ruadhaich, my father will cut off my braid, and I’ll give it to Èideard to seal our betrothal. We’ll announce our union then—Tòmas and Èideard. The first day of summer we’ll kiss to complete the bond and trigger the change, but only the good Lord knows which of us will become male and which female.
My foster mother greets me as soon as I walk in the front gate. “How was your morning, dear?”
“Peadar took the news hard. I promised to visit her.”
She nods in sympathy. So delicate and beautiful—was the gentle-spirited woman ever a strong and masculine red? I try to imagine her as assertive as Èideard has become.
“Did you think you’d be the one, you know, to become male?”
She eyes me for a moment before answering. “Everybody does.”
I turn away and walk toward the house. So am I the only ruadhan who thinks I might end up female? Some people consider little Peadar Brìghde Aindreas pregendered. Am I? A long sigh escapes my lips as I head for the house and the bedroom I share with my gold foster sisters.
One foot on the doorstep, I glance over my shoulder. “Yes, Màthair?”
“Anna’s loose. Track her down, will you?”
My little she-goat has run off again. I bob my head and grin. The herbs that grow along the trails overlooking the sea generate as much pleasure for her as the ocean views do for me. The heather doesn’t bloom till late summer, but the hills are always bonnie in my eyes. My pulse throbs while I wait for my mother to call one of my foster brothers. Niall perhaps.
Golds are too fragile to let one wander about alone. But she only tilts her head and says, “Off with you, then.” Her eyes assure me of her trust, but does she understand where Anna might have gone? “She could be on Cladach Beag.” The pathway down to the beach runs treacherous, even with one of my brothers guiding me.
“Then be careful, Tòmas.”
For the afternoon at least, I’m a red in her eyes—strong and masculine. I run to my foster mother and hug her. “Thank you, Màthair.”
“Be home before dark.” She straightens my collar and kisses my cheek.
Hours of daylight remain, so I’ll leave the beach till last. I run in, grab a travel pack, and sling it over my shoulder.
My little she-goat often feasts on the berries that grow along the old stone fence at the edge of our pasture. I wander south toward the village, but don’t spy her anywhere. My father mended the gate to the commons, so she can’t have gone that way. Turning north again, I begin the long trek up to Am Bàrr. From the summit I’ll be able to survey the rest of our farm, but it’s the view of the ocean that always tugs at my eyes. To the east—just a few leagues distant—lie other islands. Silver specks rush across the ground and through the air. Niall once told me they were metal craft piloted by Outsiders—strangers who enter the change before they’re born, and who spend their entire lives as one gender.
The Daoine-Sìth love peace, but Outsiders kill without mercy any who leave our island. Their weapons target even small fishing boats that stray from our shores. How have we ever harmed them that they hate us so?
To the west a distant gray shape fades in and out of the mists. Long ago, a faraway land called Aimeireaga sent a floating island. To protect us, they said. Our elders thanked them but insisted that God alone would be our defender. Still, they haunt our shores. Along the coastline boulders tumble into the sea. Halfway up to Am Bàrr, I find Anna perched on an outcrop between the trail and the cliffs. She doesn’t come when I call, but I won’t follow her out on the tilted rock. Only a ruadhan would be so bold. Or so foolish. A glance at the sun tells me I can afford to be patient. So I sit and wait for my stubborn pet to tire of her game.
Thoughts of Anna flee my mind when I gaze back down the coast toward Cladach Beag. Something looking very much like a dead body floats in the shallows. Even squinting leaves me uncertain, so I stand and lope down the trail till I’m sure. The tide will drag the corpse somewhere else by morning. Will anyone ever find it again? But if I pull the body ashore, darkness may fall before I get Anna home. I take off running down the trail toward the beach. I arrive at the cove out of breath and stagger toward the shoreline.
Black. None of the Daoine-Sìth have hair that dark. The sun inches toward nightfall while I stare at the Outsider and wonder what life would have been like had I been born already male or female. Like them. Would I hate anyone different than me? With the sun only a hand-breadth above the horizon, no time remains for Anna. I’ll need to search for her again in the morning while my brothers come to fetch the body. My father will switch me good if I ruin my boots over a corpse. Especially an Outsider. To keep my clothes dry, I strip down to my chemise and bare feet. With one hand I hold my skirt up out of the water. With the other I reach for the body. The surf numbs my legs before I grab him. My hand jerks back on its own when a faint electric pulse runs up the length of my arm. Dealan! I lose my balance and sit in the frigid water.
How can he be alive? I rub my arms, hoping to stop the shaking, and gape at the body till a wave crashes over my shoulders. In the west the globe of the sun touches the horizon, setting the ocean and sky ablaze with purple and orange. The day’s last warmth bids me goodnight.
Waves bump the Outsider into my leg, reminding me that he’s still lying face down in the surf, waiting to be rescued. I grab both of his arms and throw myself backward to drag the body ashore. Once I reach dry ground, I roll him on his side and rest. His winsome face belongs on a gold. Pale skin with freckles clashes with black hair. Short in back, long in front—the style seems curiously feminine. Earrings aren’t uncommon, but I’ve never seen anyone with their nose pierced. And whoever heard of black nails?
I brush my fingertips across his cheek, noting a sensation like a static charge. However weak, his dealan proves him still alive. Perhaps if he were warmer...
I spread my fleece coat over the Outsider and begin searching for driftwood. Soon I have enough piled high to keep us warm through the night. Feeling a little better, I allow myself a weak smile. My travel pack will have a fire starter. Only it doesn’t. Then the rain comes. “Oh, that’s just fine,” I mutter, wondering if this will be the night I freeze to death.
The path down to Cladach Beag skirts a steep cliff. An overhang shelters a strip of dry sand several feet wide. With my boots and clothes out of the rain, I begin dragging the Outsider to shelter. One final lunge should suffice, but I slip. He falls on top of me, and his face bounces off my chest. Blood pours from the Outsider’s nose and runs down the open front of my chemise. Am Bàs Ruadh! Panic stabs through me. Terrified, I freeze till it’s too late. I scramble to unbutton my chemise, but the ruadhan’s poisonous blood has already soaked into my skin.
My heart bangs against my rib cage and pumps adrenaline into muscles that refuse to do more than twitch. Fists clenched, eyes closed, I mourn for Èideard, my lost love. If the blood doesn’t kill me outright, it will bond me forever to its owner. Daoine-Sìth biology will compel my faithfulness.
I struggle to sit upright, pull the red against me, and spread my coat over the two of us. My desperate soul cries out as I sing, “Éisd, a Dhé, ri m’ ghlaodh—”
Overwhelmed by nausea, I lean to the side and throw up. Does the blood act so quickly? My eyes refuse to focus. I rest my head against the face of the cliff and struggle to continue my song. “M’ ùrnuigh—lead me to the rock—a shelter for me—” The lyrics get all jumbled, so I keen a wordless lament to the gathering mists.
Thick clouds slide across the moon, hiding its face, sealing me away from the light. Slumber rolls over my body like the tide.
~ ~ ~
Terror wakes me with a start and sucks the remaining life from my soul. Something moves in the darkness. To push away the fear, I pour out my heart in song.
“You can stop now, ban-sìdhe,” a voice hisses.
My throat seizes, cutting off my breath. Cold presses in around me.
“Hide your eyes,” she whispers.
Dealan throbs in the night—so strong its release may kill me.
I scramble to cover the Outsider’s face with one arm while burying my own beneath the other. A sharp crack—a flash brighter than daylight outlines the bones in my arm, leaving a skeleton after-image drifting across my vision.
Warmth follows, and when I open my eyes, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen basks in the glow of a bonfire. If she turned a rain-soaked pile of driftwood into a roaring inferno with a touch of her hand, what else might she do? My heart stutters at her approach. The lady kneels beside me, as graceful as a seal in the water. She presses a hand against the Outsider’s brow and runs her fingertips across his cheek. She shakes her head then, turns to me, and picks at the front of my chemise, scowling at the dark stains.
Great drops fall from her amber locks, as though she was caught in a heavy rain. One leaves a scalding-hot streak as it runs down my chest. Another sizzles when the liquid hits congealed blood.
A locket swings from a fine gold chain around her neck. Fire reflecting in its case dislodges an ancient memory that disappears into the fog—something crucial slipping away. My tremors grow stronger than the chill in the damp air. Did she brave the path down to Cladach Beag—suicidal at night—or simply walk up out of the ocean?
The lady stands and crosses her arms. Yellow flames reflect in her navy eyes. “The Outsider will die before morning,” she says, as though it matters not. “In time, the bond will fade.” She turns and strolls toward the depths, her feet splashing in the surf.
“Can’t you help him?” I struggle free and run after her. As the waves crash around my legs, I grab her hand. “Please!”
Sapphire eyes—colder than the water—rebuke me. I drop her hand and lower my gaze. Before she turns away, she says, “If you would save its life complete the bond.”
~ ~ ~
Long after she disappears into the breakers, I stand in the surf and pray that I awaken from this madness. A woman from the sea—a selkie? Me bonded to a black-haired ruadhan—an Outsider? Both impossible.
Èideard’s forever lost to me now. Shadows dance in the mist, mocking my pain, till the flames waver and die, leaving behind only glowing coals. In a panic I stumble back to the fire, kneel before it, and coax the embers to new life. After the frigid sea, the sand burns hot against my bare legs. Vapor rises from my wet chemise as I huddle close to the flames. After the shaking stops, I sit with my back to the fire and delight in its hot caress.
The Outsider lies where I left him, my coat in a heap nearby. A gentle brush of his cheek assures me he still lives, though for how long I know not. My eyes search the sky in vain for some sign of the dawn.
If you would save its life complete the bond.
To do so with a stranger—against his will—who is capable of such evil? One long kiss—an exchange of saliva—would trigger the change in both of us and make us forever one. Pain throbs through the fog in my head. Inconceivable that I spurn Èideard and share the rest of my life with this stranger. My soul recoils from the thought.
In time the bond will fade.
But if I do nothing, he’ll die, and I’ll never forget that I might have saved him.
So tired. I pull the Outsider close and rest his head on my lap. Contact only strengthens the bond, making it all the more difficult to resist. But I won’t let him die alone.
Bàs thar eas-onair, my father would say. Let the stranger perish rather than dishonor yourself. But I can’t abandon someone who needs my help.
If you would save its life complete the bond.
Ìosa commanded me to love my enemies. On the fading edge of awareness I kiss the Outsider, close my eyes, and chase after dreams of a life now vanished.
~ ~ ~
I start awake again, to find myself face to face with—with her. Dark purple sky of the approaching dawn reflects in the woman’s midnight eyes. “Well,” she says, the hint of a smile twitching her lips. “The Outsider lives. What will become of you now, ban-sìdhe?”
The red’s slow breaths come as soft gurgles and rattles that bubble out of his mouth and nose. Too weak to lift his limp body, I roll him on his side and slump back against the cliff again. Fever smolders behind my eyes.
Graceful as before, the lady raises her head, as though searching for the fragrance of wildflowers on the sea breeze. She touches my arm, rises, and walks away, vanishing into the morning sunshine.
“Màiri?” Echoes of a distant Niall whisper through Cladach Beag.
I push the ruadhan aside and jump up, but the world spins, slamming me face down into the sand. Nausea clenches my stomach muscles tight. My attempt to scream for help ends as a hacking cough.
Someone above might at least notice me if I’m closer to the shore, so I struggle to my knees and crawl toward the surf. When the first wave brushes my hands, I collapse and roll on my back. From there the cliff top rises in the distance, an indistinct blur of gray and green under a cobalt and red expanse.
“Màiri?” Louder now.
Water roars past my shoulders, nudging me sideways. The waves leave behind sand, bits of seaweed, and a chill that rattles my teeth. I’ve spent the last of my strength, so I surrender and let the tide wash over me.
Back and forth—waves jostle my body. Far above, lazy white puffs drift across the early morning sky. Gulls frolic in the updrafts, greeting each other a cheery good morning.
Drowsiness brings sweet dreams of my brother Niall standing over me, love and concern written in freckles across his rugged face. “Màiri! You’re alive.”
Niall lifts me. Being a ruadh hero means carrying a gold damsel in his arms. All seven stone of me. I rest my head against my brother’s shoulder and drift beyond awareness.
~ ~ ~
A ball of white-hot fire shatters the haze. My eyes snap open and tear, drowning in the bright morning sunshine. The Elder Gleann nods satisfaction, her hand still pressed hard against my bare chest. Aftershocks echo through my nerves as the energy diffuses. She steps away, murmuring one of the ancient blessings.
My breath pulses in ragged spasms till the memory of pain subsides. I try to sit up, but a gentle hand restrains me.
“Rest, nic-cridhe.” First-Mother, standing beside me, spreads her fingertips across my cheek and sends a wave of peace through my aching body.
Perhaps everything’s been a dream. “Màthair-àil, I don’t—”
She touches a finger to my lips and shakes her head.
White clouds drift across the azure expanse above. Sheep bleat somewhere nearby. Familiar scents bring contentment. I lie on a ram skin on the back of a small hay-wagon. Niall stands off to one side, nearer the house. Anger’s replaced the concern on his face, but he smiles encouragement when his gaze meets mine.
The elder rests her hand on my chest again. Her gray eyes close, concentration distorting her face. One long ear twitches. After a moment, she shakes her head at First-Mother. “I can only do so much. Severing the bond now might well kill her. Would that Venora were still alive.”
Màthair. Such a long time since my real mother went away. I was just a wee bànag when the elders took me into Clann a’ Ghlinne and gave my foster parents charge over me.
Deep sadness darkens First-Mother’s face. “She is not. And we are out of choices.”
The Elder Gleann studies me for another moment before nodding. “Màiri, the Outsider clings to this world by drawing from the bond. Unless we can make you stronger, he will drain your life, and you both shall perish. First-Mother will take you to Còir-Bhreith. Perhaps the black water will heal you.”
Niall helps me to my feet and holds me upright while I don a clean dress and coat. While I’m pulling on my boots, the elder grips Niall’s arm. “Fetch the Outsider. Make it comfortable, but keep it in the barn. I will not have any more of the children at risk.”
My brother nods, but anger burns in his eyes.
In a short while First-Mother returns with her stallion. Eachann’s coat shifts between glossy black and a dark sea green in the bright sunlight. The horse turns his head, eyes studying me, as though hunting for something. A step closer, and he presses his nose against my chest.
I stroke his neck and whisper of his beauty.
First-Mother mounts the horse. Niall lifts me up to sit behind her. “Hold on,” she says, and we start across the field. Eachann glances back at us, then gallops off through the heather.
My arms convulse, tightening about First-Mother’s waist, but she only laughs, leans into the wind, and grabs hold of Eachann’s flowing mane.
Còir-Bhreith—the birthright of the Daoine-Sìth—lies far to the north, well into the highlands. Only a few have traveled there, and none will speak of it, at least not in front of a curious gold child. Iseabail—my lost love—once said the black water either cures you or kills you. None dare drink of it unless death already threatens.
Eachann—lord of all the horses on Eilean nan Sìthean—runs on as though he bears no weight at all, but is out to frolic in the meadows on a Saturday afternoon. Beads of dew, smelling of the ocean mist, fly from his mane. A scream of joy—or perhaps terror—bursts from my lips as we sail over an old stone wall. My hands break free—time and again—but my legs stick fast to the stallion’s flanks.
After an hour’s ascent we enter a narrow mountain pass rent by some recent cataclysm. Shards of rock litter the ground between its barren walls. Eachann slows and picks his way through the rubble, examining the ground as a bloodhound might.
Without warning, rock gives way to moss and vines, as though we’ve crossed some mysterious threshold. The valley of Còir-Bhreith lies before us.
“Fo gheasaibh,” I mutter, head tilting back as my eyes follow the trees skyward. I shall never find anything more wonderful. The heather on a thousand hills can’t compare.
First-Mother laughs, musical notes that hang in the still air. “Enchanted? The black forest used to cover most of the highlands, but this—this is where the Daoine-Sìth were reborn. Nothing here dare harm you.” She urges the stallion forward.
A footpath—little more than an old goat trail littered with twigs and dead leaves—wanders off beneath the nearest boughs. As we pass farther under the canopy, daylight dims. The undergrowth fades till the ground beneath us becomes a carpet of pine needles and moss, broken by the occasional rocky outcrop. Looking back, I wonder if I could ever find the way out on my own.
After several hours the land starts a gentle decline to the edge of a circular lake with steep banks. Not a ripple disturbs its black surface.
After setting our packs in order, First-Mother dips a tin cup into the water and hands it to me. “Drink of it—just a little at first.”
When I hesitate, she downs a mouthful herself. Shamed, I take the cup and swallow the rest. The icy liquid is sweet, better than the artesian well that waters the Gleann homestead.
First-Mother rests against the mossy bank and pats the ground beside her. “When I was a wee lass, my father used to bring me here to enjoy the heather in bloom and the fairy rings that grew beside the great cairns. He recounted stories of the Fair Folk buried here. An ancient race they were. And a people of peace.”
Clouds drift across her face, sadness replacing the joy. “Before many years passed, war engulfed my world.”
“War?” A word unsettling to me. Oh, I understand the meaning, all right. I read of nations fighting, sometimes slaughtering each other. Wasn’t Dàibhidh a mighty warrior? But Ìosa will end all war.
First-Mother nods, her eyes still sad. “For months our lives here remained peaceful. But the night of my honeymoon a terrible explosion rocked the island. A pillar of death, rising up through the clouds, left this crater and not a trace of the burial mounds. Ash and dust rained down on the land for a week. By the time the fallout stopped, everyone else had died. Or so I thought.”
Everyone. A wee bànag knows the first-mothers survived a plague that killed all the men and most of the women. But what about the children? “A’ chlann?”
She strokes my hair as though I’m some fretful little one. “Every creature that survived became something new. Before the plague, only a few old oaks and pines watched over the heather here. This forest grew in their place.”
My gaze wanders out across the lake as I try to imagine something so destructive. And yet, the area radiates tranquility. Around the black water—perhaps a day’s journey on a clear footpath—majestic evergreens reach toward the heavens.
Every creature. How?
First-Mother smiles, then strokes my hair again. “What do you know of the Outsiders?”
An image of the black-haired ruadh flashes through my mind. “I thought they went through the change before birth, but—” My Outsider’s ruadh.
“They do, but their sexes are not as the Daoine-Sìth. Outsider males plant seed as they bond. Their females both carry their young and nurse them. Such were the first-mothers, but the children we bore were changelings.”
My first-mother—the mother of my mother’s mother—was an Outsider, but my mother’s mother a child of the plague. What then am I? And what of the Daoine-Sìth, whose resting place once lay here?
The air grows hot and thick about me, like the warmest summer day. Oily drops of sweat trickle down my nose and splash on my dress. First-Mother wipes a bead from my cheek and nods in satisfaction. “As I had hoped. Come.”
She takes my hand and leads me to a massive oak, its roots forming walls higher than my head. Nestled in its shadow lies a bed of moss—dark green carpet with flecks of gray. A faint trace of mint spices the air.
First-Mother sets our packs down and digs out an empty water-skin. “We sleep here tonight.” She wipes another drop from my face, her fingers now cold to the touch. “First, tell me why a gold who never misbehaves would give herself to a stranger.”
My conscience trembles, both condemning and excusing me as I tell her how the Outsider bled on me. The bond draws me toward my ruadhan even now, but the pain of losing Iseabail remains strong.
As the heat within me grows, the elder’s gift of dealan fades, and with it, my strength. When my body trembles, First-Mother gestures toward my mossy bed and leaves our sanctuary.
The last rays of the evening paint the trees with red and blue. I slip off my boots and lay them aside. My dress and leggings I hang from the limb of a nearby sapling. My chemise, though damp with sweat, should be enough to keep me warm.
A moment later First-Mother returns and hands me the water-skin. “This will drive the illness from you, but you must take enough to last the night.”
After a long drink of the black water, I lie down. Tendrils of the plant move—a soft embrace that wipes the moisture from my legs. I sit up, mouth open, ready to scream, but First-Mother smiles at me and shakes her head. “It desires only the toxins the water purges from your body.”
Once again, she hands me the black water and bids me swallow as much as possible. This time, the liquid tastes like fire. Heat explodes throughout my body. The world grows dim. I close my eyes and embrace the softness of my enchanted resting place.
~ ~ ~
Morning light sparkles through the branches. I sit up and brush a small white patch from my bare leg. Large woolen snowflakes lie on the moss all about me—intricate lace designs etched into fabric—the remains of my chemise.
I yawn, stretch, and breathe deep, filling my lungs with the sweet forest air. My body quivers with the need for action—to dance, to sing!
First-Mother hands me the spare undergarments from my travel pack. “Clothe yourself. We’ll eat and be on our way.”
Chemise, leggings, dress, belt, and boots—my coat would be a bit much considering the warmth that flows through me. Is this how a ruadhan feels? Perhaps now my father will cut my braid.
First-Mother gathered nuts and berries while I slept, as well as a few large cinnamon apples. As I feast, my eyes drink of the black lake nestled in the embrace of massive trees, trying to imprint its peaceful beauty on my memory.
I scramble up a root and climb on Eachann behind First-Mother. Before we depart, she gazes back toward the crater lake. “Còir-Bhreith holds the promise of peace. One day an Outsider war will unleash it upon the world.”
~ ~ ~
Eachann glides over the ancient stone fence guarding the boundary of the Gleann homestead. In the west, orange and purple streaks pierce the clouds—the Creator painting the end of another day.
Urged on by First-Mother, I finish off the few remaining mouthfuls of water from Còir-Bhreith. Whatever caused the plague and raised the Daoine-Sìth anew lives on in a crater lake in a hidden primaeval forest. And means life to me.
Niall’s the first to welcome us home. He lifts me down from the stallion’s back. Joy spreads across his ruddy face. I hug him, bounce up and down a little, and run off toward the hay-wagon on which my bond-mate lies.
I freeze. “Yes, Èildear?”
“Touch not the Outsider.” The Elder Gleann’s eyes grow unyielding and cold.
I whisper a protest, then glance at First-Mother, begging her to intervene.
“Nic-cridhe, be patient. Why not see if your mother needs help?”
“Yes, Màthair-àil.” Another glance at my bond-mate, two deep breaths, and I rush off toward the house.
My foster mother greets me with a hug. “Màiri! I’m so glad to see you well again. Why don’t you take a hot bath before dinner?”
But he needs me! I stare at the kitchen doorway.
One eyebrow creeps up my mother’s forehead. She gestures toward my room. “Off you go, now. After you change, be a dear, and help your sisters, will you?”
“Yes, Màthair.” For the moment at least, I can forget what’s become of my future, and just be her daughter.
Except my bond-mate lies outside in the cold darkness.
A pitcher of steaming water, a bar of heather soap, and a fresh towel—a delightful bath and clean clothes do me wonders. I brush out my hair, weave it into a loose braid, and tie it off with a bit of ribbon.
Perhaps they’ll let me check on him before dinner. Just to hold his hand for a bit.
My sisters have finished setting out the best china and silverware, so I grab an apron and help them transfer the hot serving dishes to the dining room. After everyone else has been served, I join my sisters at our table.
“I can’t believe you bonded, Màiri—and with an Outsider! You’re not even ruadh yet.” Èibhlin takes another bite of her fish. The prettiest of my foster sisters—ever careful to be the most ladylike of all—seems a princess among farm girls.
“He bled on me by accident, Èhibhlin. I had to complete the bond to save his life.”
She frowns at her plate in disapproval and wipes her fingers on a napkin. Will she become the most masculine ruadhan ever?
You may kiss your bond-mate now, for husband and wife you shall be—the only proper way to complete a bond. Some think the ceremony unnecessary, but everyone at least makes a public announcement of their intentions before triggering the change with someone.
Except me. And Èideard must know of my shame by now. He’ll want me to return Iseabail’s braid. Will he ever forgive me for betraying him? I let my fork drop, unable to take another bite.
After dinner, First-Mother and the elder excuse themselves, withdraw to the guest chambers, and close the door. I’m about to knock when my mother wags a finger at me. “They wish to conclude their discussion in private.”
“That’s not right, Màthair. I need to tend to my bond-mate.”
“Right now you need to help with the dishes.”
I reluctantly head for the kitchen.
“The elder would have you sleep in the great room. Tonight anyway. Alone.”
Mother followed me.
I never sleep by myself. Ever. Nobody does. Only the faintest whimper escapes my lips. “Yes, Màthair.”
For some time I lose myself in the hot water, soap, and dirty dishes. I draw comfort from the work of my hands and the chatter of my sisters as they dry and put away the pots and pans I wash.
Niall stops by. He grins, but the tightness in his jaw bespeaks anger and pain. “Èideard was here this morning. I’m sorry.” He hugs me but says no more.
What have I done, my sweet Iseabail? Never will I feel your touch again. I finish the last pot, wash my hands, and walk back to my room.
While my sisters get themselves ready for bed, I move my clothes to a chair in the great room. My books, my brush, a few other personal items—all my world fits in a travel pack.
After a furtive glance at the front door, I shake my head and sigh. A few minutes with my bond-mate aren’t worth being switched with a willow branch. Soon, but not yet.
Long after my sisters have gone to sleep, I sit close to the fire and wait for someone to give me leave to care for the Outsider. Isolation from my sisters—an utter sense of being alone—feeds the desire to hold my bond-mate.
The old clock chimes twelve, and I creep down the hallway toward the guest chambers. “Wait until the dawn.” The unspoken command drifts down the hallway.
In a panic, I gather everything I might need, grab a lantern, and slip out the front door.
In my haste I slam into Eachann in the pale moonlight. “Ooh! Sorry, boy.” I rub his nose and whisper, “You are by far the most gallant horse on this whole island.”
I try to dodge around him, but he grabs my braid.
“Ow! Eachainn, let go. My bond-mate will die if I don’t help him.”
He presses his face close to mine, one eye just inches away.
“They won’t let me be with him, so I’m taking him to the NicCodruim homestead.”
The horse nudges me back toward the manor.
“No! It’s my right. I’m NicCodruim.”
He blows air out through his nostrils, drops my braid, and takes a quick step back.
Hands on my hips, I move close, trying not to sound cross. “I can’t just let him die, can I?”
Eachann turns and gallops away.
I was arguing with a horse. I rub at the pain in my temples and head for the outbuildings.
My bond-mate lies on the hay-wagon in the storage area of the barn. He’s alone and in darkness, but at least someone covered him with a blanket and stoked the fire. Peat smolders in the fireplace, casting a warm red glow across the room. I set my lantern on the mantle and move close to the cart.
His chest rises and falls in shallow breaths. With my fingers on his cheek, I study my ruadhan’s pale face, determined to imprint his likeness on my heart. Dried blood, sand, and bits of seaweed still mat his dark locks. Mud streaks his pale skin. Rotting fish isn’t the worst of the smells emanating from him.
“We’re not going anywhere with you like this.” I fill two small pails and set one against the glowing peat. A quick search turns up a sponge and some soap. By the time the water steams, my bond-mate lies naked in the dim light.
Nothing marks his body as different, other than those black locks. Babes and elders have white hair. Golds and mothers blonde. Reds and fathers are redheads. What does black mean? Surely his dealan proves him ruadh.
His odd black leggings and shirt go straight into the rag bin. A chemise and kilt are far more appropriate, at least till the change makes his sex obvious. Even then, nobody wears leggings without anything over them.
Contentment spreads across my face. Either the bond alters perceptions, or Ìosa has given me a pure love for someone my family thinks of as our enemy.
I brush out his hair then, admiring the short style. Perhaps he gave his braid to someone in betrothal. If so, I’ve destroyed his dreams as certainly as I cast away my own.
All cleaned up and properly clothed, my bond-mate glows with the sort of beauty that continues to flower as it ages. I try to imagine what he’ll look like after the change. His ears will grow tall, their graceful curves ending in points. My Outsider would be beautiful as a woman—no doubt. More stunning, perhaps, as a man.
The change would give him muscles and a stronger jaw.
I run my fingertips across his cheek one last time and finish packing.
The old NicCodruim estate has been deserted since the death of my parents. Its gates lie several hundred paces along the road toward Cladach Beag. My small hay-wagon is meant to be pulled by a draft animal or a strong ruadhan. I may still be able to push it out to the road. From there, the route follows a gentle downhill slope to my family homestead.
Leaving means forever, though. I may force the Elder Gleann to acknowledge my claim, but she’ll never allow me to return. Well, no matter the cost, I must keep the promise I made by completing the bond.
Hoping and praying that no one hears it squeal, I slide the barn door open.
The Elder Gleann stands outside, holding a willow branch. Eachann paces in the shadows behind her.
Mother once made me watch the elder punish Niall. My poor brother screamed like he was still timid little Flòraidh instead of a brawny ruadhan. The willow branch left angry red welts across his back and legs. I bite my lower lip to keep it from trembling.
Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh—such is the depth of the bond. What God hath coupled together, let not man separate. Nobody gets between bond-mates. Not even elders. But she may not listen if she’s already passed judgment. With indignation growing, I search for my most respectful tone. “I am the least of NicCodruim, but—”
With an almost careless gesture, the Elder Gleann casts away the willow branch. Her gray eyes radiate shades of anger, determination, love, and tenderness, but her dealan pulses, and her hand flashes toward me.
No! For a heartbeat and a half, my eyes beg her not to interfere. Let us live or die in peace!
An impossible blast of energy overwhelms sight and sound. The impact of her palm against my chest knocks me to the floor.
I lie on my back, gasping for air. Remnants of the silver cord that once bound me to the Outsider drift away, like tiny motes of dust dancing in a sunbeam.
The Elder Gleann kneels beside me and brushes a tear from my cheek. “I’m sorry, Màiri, but this is the price of your foolishness. I cannot save the Outsider’s life, and I will not let you die with it.”
The elder stands again, strides to the barn door, and pauses there to gaze back at me. “Remain by the Outsider if you wish. Until it dies, if you must. It’s no longer a danger.”
What right had you? On the cart my ruadhan moans. I struggle to rise, but the muscles in my body refuse to cooperate. Flashes of light arc across my eyes. Thunder echoes in my ears.
A shadow moves across my vision. Eachann. The lady from Cladach Beag stands next to him, rubbing his neck. “Have you a name, ban-sìdhe?”
My eyes refuse to focus, but she seems somehow more tender than before, more concerned. I roll my head to the side and cough out something sticky. “Tòmas.”
She frowns at me the way my foster mother always does when I don’t give her a complete answer.
“Tòmas Màiri NicCodruim.”
She kneels beside me and leans close. “Not Màiri Gleann?”
I rock my head back and forth in denial. “What difference does it make? She’s broken the bond. I’ll die without children now.” The Elder Gleann has taken even that from me.
Anger spreads across her face, but she presses her fingertips against my cheek and closes her eyes. Peace and contentment overwhelm my pain, subdue the storm, and suffuse me with a ruadhan’s heat.
I thought only First-Mother or--
The lantern’s flame reflected by her necklace draws my gaze. A bànag’s faded memory drives my hand to grasp the locket. On one side, a selkie. On the other, the initials RVC—Rònan Venora NicCodruim. They told me you drowned! “Màthair?”
She presses a fingertip against my lips. “Rest, mhic-cridhe. Hope is not yet lost.” She rises and moves to where my ruadhan lies. The sky glows a dark violet by the time she returns to my side. “I’ve done what little I can to comfort your bond-mate. Come, Tòmas. Come and see.” She helps me to my feet.
I stand near my Outsider and trace my love across his high cheekbones. My fingertips sense no dealan there, no bond either, but some ethereal ribbon still ties my heart to his. Almost the color of heather, his angelic eyes track my every thought. A slow smile graces his lips before his eyelids flutter and close. His body relaxes. And breathes no more. Blinking to keep the tears away, I grasp his hand and squeeze. “You’ll be fine now.” Please, dear Ìosa, let it be so. I would hold him close to my heart.
~ ~ ~
Daoine-Sìth survive not long the death of a bond-mate. Nor desire we. Those who in their grief surrender themselves to the sea never return.
Life ebbs out of me one drop at a time—heedless of the Elder Gleann’s intervention. Mixed with my tears, it runs down my cheeks and splashes in black drops against my Outsider.
In time the bond will fade.
Màthair takes my hand and helps me climb up on the hay-wagon next to my bond-mate. A moment later Eachann steps out of the barn, pulling the cart behind him.
The sun rises beyond the distant hills as the stallion trots past the entrance to the NicCodruim homestead and continues down the road toward the old mill by the sea.
Màthair runs along beside us. Though she sweats not, beads of moisture drip from her hair—like the ocean spray. I see her no longer through living eyes, but as warmth and light pulsing through the lingering mists of death.
The pathway down to Cladach Beag runs long and treacherous even in daylight. Yet it passes in a heartbeat. Eachann rests with his hooves in the wet sand.
Light and sound dim—the world slipping away—though tiny silver motes dance through the black mist.
Silence throbs in the emptiness behind my eyes. Despair wraps tentacles about my heart.
Of a sudden, peace ripples through the void, along with the feeblest warmth of life.
My burning eyes flick open. Unbearable light closes them in an instant, leaving the drifting after-image of my mother’s face. “Màthair?”
“What would you, mhic-cridhe?”
“Bury me with my Outsider. Here where we bonded.”
Though I see her not, I feel her healing touch once more. “Selkies do not so easily die. Your body prepares for cruth-atharrachadh.”
Metamorphosis. What will become of you now, ban-sìdhe?
Flowers on the sea breeze tickle my nose. I breathe deep of their sweet scent.
Eachann lunges forward. Wheels splash into the surf. Water flows into the cart and swirls around me. I lie my head against my bond-mate’s chest as the waves sweep over us, and we plunge into the emerald depths.
If you would save its life complete the bond.
As consciousness fades, I kiss my bond-mate goodbye.
~ ~ ~
My eyes open to moonlight and a world cast in shadows of silver and blue. The surf crashes behind me, filling the night air with a salty mist. Waves surge over my tail. The sea—my true home now—tugs at my heart. Soon I must return.
I stretch sore muscles and yawn. Bits of bloody flesh—scales and fins—fall from my lips. Though fish gather in the shallows offshore, the frenzy’s gone. I need no more.
What will become of you now, ban-sìdhe?
A selkie. Me. One of the seal folk! I smack flippers together and bark a frantic cry that echoes across Cladach Beag. My body convulses in terror. Cruth-atharrachadh. Metamorphosis.
A wider tail slaps the wet sand. One hand wanders from scaled hips up to my face. Nose. Lips. Chin. Mine. But I find an over-sized conch shell where my hair should be. I panic again and send golden locks tumbling down over my breasts.
Hysterical laughter bursts from my mouth. I lift an angelic voice in song. “Ged is maighdeann mhara mi.” Yes. A mermaid I am. I glance out over the waves at the moon sinking into the ocean. Home beckons stronger now, though behind me the sky turns red with the morning.
A body lies face down in the waves. Again. Half sea creature. Half man. Black hair, shorter in back. Earrings and a pierced nose. Yes. My Outsider.
I flip my tail, sending water and sand high into the air. My body shudders—and I stand on two legs, naked to the world of mankind.
“I’m Daoine-Sìth,” I cry to the gulls flying overhead. My hand brushes across my chest—flat once again. Yes. Ruadh. Tòmas Màiri NicCodruim.
My Outsider breathes not, though the faintest hint of dealan murmurs through him.
Selkies do not so easily die.
Màthair could not my bond-mate heal. Only her own. Or her children.
I brush fingertips across my Outsider’s smooth cheek, leaving a trail of soft blue sparks. Cinnamon tickles my senses. Somewhere in the distance thunder rumbles.
“What right had you?” My anger against Elder Gleann surges. But only love conquers hate.
I press gentle fingertips against my bond-mate’s chest. With the faintest burst of dealan I brush away the ashes of that shattered silver cord. Tiny motes of the morning sun and droplets of the sea mist dance in the void—so fragile now the ethereal link to my Outsider.
But perhaps enough remains. Dear Ìosa, let it be so.
A kiss brings no change. I press my hand against his chest and whisper my love. Joy and peace flow from me to my beloved. Till the sun drifts high overhead. Till hunger rages in my belly. Till my bond-mate’s body convulses in Cruth-atharrachadh. And he’s my Outsider once again.
She. Her hair—now blonde—falls down over breasts ready for our first bànag.
My hand drifts down to my brù line—that path our babies will follow before birth. I run a finger along its length, counting the bàn lumps there—nine in all.
What a blessing, dear Ìosa, to have so many children. And I’m the one who’s male after all. But I had breasts as a mermaid.
My Outsider stirs. Angelic eyes flick open. The color of heather—they track my every thought. “You rescued me. I thought for sure I’d drowned.”
A sudden terror freezes my heart. What will become of us if she rejects the bond?
I lean close and caress her hand with mine. Soft blue sparks roll from my fingers to hers.
“Selkies do not so easily die,” I say. My happiness—my urgent need—my uncertainty—flow tenderly across the bond.
Her velvet eyes grow wide before she kisses me. The sea around us glows blue with áed—the fire of our love. The cinnamon scent of desire blossoms as we roll down into the surf. Waves splash over us and withdraw. Time and again, as our bodies change. Till our lips part.
Golden locks flow down over my breasts again, dripping with the sea. Emerald scales flash in the sun. I slap my tail against a wave with the blessed joy of life restored.
Muscles and a stronger jaw—yes my bond-mate is more stunning as a Daoine-Mara. The merman pulls me close and kisses me. “My love for you was always true,” he says.
I laugh and slip from his embrace. “Though a mermaid I am. Or a hungry selkie.” Metamorphosis comes more peacefully now. I slap my flippers together and wait till he shifts form, then race my love toward a school of fish.
LIANNE SIMON’s first novel, Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite, was published by MuseItUp Publishing in 2012. Eastern Iowa Review published her personal essay "Changeling" in their 2015 Spring/Summer edition. She wrote about intersex from a Christian perspective for the Fall 2015 issue of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics by Johns Hopkins University Press. As a public speaker, she advocates on behalf of those with differences of sex development. Lianne and her husband live in the hills north of Nashville, where she writes both English prose and computer software.
Chila: What was the impetus behind this unique and beautiful story?
Lianne: Wow. Thank you for those kind words. I grew up knowing I was different, but not understanding why. My imagination—which my mother encouraged—led me to some fanciful places. I thought perhaps I was a changeling—an elfin half-girl left in place of some human boy-child. Later, during family genealogical research, I ran across a very old book that claimed my sept of the Kirkpatricks was faie—an Old English word meaning enchanted. As though we'd interbred with the Fair Folk.
"Outsider" began as the story of an intersex teen feeling alienated from the world. Not only is her body not entirely female or male, and she's not developing like other girls, but she was adopted and has no idea of her heritage. When her parents take her to Scotland to find her biological parents, she discovers that she isn't human at all, but one of the Fair Folk. I was hoping to write one of those epic fantasies that I so love to read, but as time passed, "Outsider" became much more like my novels--a character study. And in this case, of the Fair Folk adolescent who sacrifices herself to rescue the Outsider.
Chila: We published your nonfiction "Changeling" in our first issue. Does your desire to educate people about the intersex conditions color much of your writing, and how do you feel readers typically respond to such information - positively, negatively, indifferently, with confusion, etc.?
Lianne: I speak to groups—especially Christian groups—about intersex, but my writing is much more difficult to explain. Some authors and editors talk about #ownvoice—stories written by those closest to the subject. I view that concept as the emotional distance between the main character and myself. That’s why my narrators are always intersex or someone very close to a person who is. That’s what I can internalize and bleed out on paper. I don't know what it's like to be unambiguously female or male from birth. In the case of "Outsider," I wanted to examine a society in which the rules of sex and gender were radically different. Where some of the issues faced by intersex people were the norm. Where not even sex is known until one has entered into a lifelong bond with a partner.
Most of the feedback I’ve gotten on my first two novels has been positive. People appreciate the emotional depth and the understanding they get from seeing the world through the eyes of someone who is intersex.
Chila: You have an article about intersex from a Christian perspective published in the Fall 2015 issue of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics (Johns Hopkins University Press). Briefly, how does your faith inform your self-image, and so your writing?
Lianne: Intersex—and its attendant emotional issues—is what keeps bringing me back to the cross for the grace I need to live a life pleasing to God. There's no question but that I have to rely entirely on Jesus. I know I can’t make it on my own. Some have pointed out that my identification should be in Jesus. Indeed. It is. But my body is intersex. And so that colors most of what I do. Some Christians make a point of telling me that intersex is a result of the Fall, that it’s not part of God’s good design. So then I’m not. But I don’t think they’ve looked at the Bible to see the wonderful promises God makes to those of us who have sex differences. (See Isaiah chapter 56, for instance.) My mother once asked me if I’d be female or male in Heaven. I told her that I didn’t know, and I won’t care. My Redeemer loves me. That’s all I need.
Chila: Do you have other work in progress that you can tell us about?
Lianne: I have a number of other short stories in the works—all based in the same world as "Outsider." Anya, a Young Adult novel with an intersex main character, is about a third of the way through the first draft. This one’s been difficult because it addresses some subject matter that I really wasn’t eager to write about,
including human trafficking.