This free fiction is part of The Infinite Bard project. A new story will be linked to the IB site every other week, so be sure to check back often!
Moira wiped the damp from her face with the tail of her plaid before wrapping the tightly woven cloth more closely about her head and shoulders. The day had been soft and fine when she’d left her home in Lastalrig village to wander the gorse covered hills in search of herbs and wild berries for her mother’s pantry, but the weather had turned. At first the fine drizzle hadn’t concerned her—born and bred in the lowlands of Scotland, Moira was accustomed to changeable weather—but now thunder sounded in the distance and she feared she was about to be caught in a drenching downpour.
Time to return to Lastalrig.
Hiking up her skirts and clutching her gathering basket in one hand while holding her plaid about her head with the other, she pelted toward home. The path beneath her bare feet soon turned to rivulets of mud interspersed with slippery rocks, but she found her way with the ease of long practice.
She’d just rounded the bend that should have brought the village into view when her reality shifted.
Instead of the thatched cottages and winding lanes of Lastalrig, she saw a misty vale of white-barked trees whose leaves glistened silver in the clear light of a blue-white sky. The edges of this unexpected vision shimmered with an incandescent light so bright she dropped her plaid to shade her eyes…
…and in so doing discovered yet another profound oddity.
Rain no longer poured from the sky in her natural world. Individual drops hung suspended in the air all around her. They sparkled like jewels caught in the hair of some high-born lady, but they did not fall. Neither did the wind blow nor the rivulets run about her bare feet. Nothing moved, save Moira…
…and a tall, stately being who approached her from the vale within the circle of shimmering light.
Moira dropped her basket, preparing to gather her skirts and flee from the approaching stranger. But her feet refused to obey her command to run. Instead, they remained firmly rooted to the wet ground, surrounded by beads of rain that should have long since washed over them. Heart hammering and ears awash in a deafening roar like the waves of the firth on a stormy day, Moira sent a silent plea for protection to the goddess and awaited her fate.
The being stopped just inside the circle of light and raised a hand in greeting.
He was close enough now for Moira to recognize him as male, but not a man such as the Scotsmen she had grown to young womanhood among. No. This was no mortal man, but one of the Fair Ones. She cast her gaze to the ground lest her frightened stare give offense, all the while memorizing every detail of his appearance.
Tall and lithe with an impossibly handsome face, the man’s long, white-gold hair was held in place by a slender band of shining gold. His garments were like nothing she had ever seen. A finely woven robe of a material so white and clean it seemed to radiate light covered a soft tunic of sky blue belted with a filigree of skillfully wrought gold and precious gems. His trousers were the deep green of a forest glade and his feet were clad in boots of supple leather.
She glanced at her own bare feet, streaked with dirt, and the rough homespun wool of her skirts and plaid and felt shame to even be seen by such a fine laird.
“Well met, Moira, daughter of Senga, granddaughter of Flora, kin of the wise woman Fiona. I greet you, Beloved of the Cailleach, in the name of the Seelie Queen.”
Moira’s heart hammered so hard she thought it might burst from her chest. He had called her by name! More astounding still, his greeting implied she was known to the Seelie Queen. And what had he meant by calling her beloved of the Cailleach? What would the goddess who had created the mountains and hills of Moira’s homeland know of a simple village girl?
She should answer. Courtesy demanded she find her tongue.
But what could she say when she didn’t even dare raise her eyes to glance at his face?
“Th-thank you, Laird,” she finally managed to stammer.
“Come, Beloved of the Cailleach,” he said, stepping through the glowing circle and waving away the rain. As soon as he stepped fully into Moira’s world, the vision of his own shimmered out of existence. He smiled and held out his hand to her.
Startled that he should invite her touch, she scrubbed her hand on her skirt before placing her fingers in his.
He nodded. “You are brave. The Cailleach has chosen well.” Holding her hand firmly in his, he stepped forward, away from the village… and her home.
She licked her lips, unsure whether or not she dared to question him, but the words leapt from her throat. “Where are we going?”
He cocked his head and waited until she met his gaze. “We go to Fiona, your kin. She who has served your people as wise woman for so long that most have forgotten her name.”
Moira’s mouth dropped open. The wise woman was named Fiona? Moira had never heard her called anything but Mother, usually in hushed and reverent tones. The wise woman lived in a cave in the hills above the village. The ancient woman helped any who asked a boon of her, and in return the villagers ensured she had everything she needed.
The wise woman was healer, mid-wife, and seer. She brought new life into the world and guided the spirits of the departed to the Summerland. She cared for the village, healing their hurts and warning them of coming danger. She was the heart and soul of their community; the mother of them all.
And she was kin to Moira?
The man of the Fair Folk led Moira so quickly and by such a direct path that she wasn’t sure her feet even touched the ground. Sooner than she, who knew this land like the lanes of her own village, would have thought possible they stood before the opening to the wise woman’s cave. The warm orange glow of a hearth fire welcomed them, and the man of the Fair ones raised his hand in blessing.
“Fiona,” he called, his voice clear and strong. “Bréanainn the Fair greets you in the name of the Seelie Queen. May we enter?”
Moira started. The Fair One’s name sounded like a breeze whispering through the silver leaves of the white-barked trees of the vale from which he’d come. She knew she’d never be able to teach her vulgar mortal tongue to say such a fair and fearful name, and she stared at him in wonder. Tall. Lithe. Inhumanly beautiful. And yet, this awesome being, this Fair One, asked permission to enter a humble cave.
“Brendan the Fair,” came the response, in a voice that wavered and creaked. “Long have I awaited your return. Enter and be welcome.”
Moira breathed a sigh of relief. Brendan was a name her lips could form.
The Fair One ducked and stepped into the cave, drawing Moira along behind him.
The interior of the wise woman’s cave was not dank and gloomy as Moira had expected, but warm and cheerful. The floor of hard-packed dirt had been swept clean of leaves and other wind-blown detritus, and a well-tended fire crackled at the back of the cave, its smoke drawn upward through a crevice in the rock. A sturdy bedframe of lashed wood stood to one side, its wool-stuffed mattress covered by a finely woven plaid blanket. Shelves of dried herbs and beans made up the pantry and a large barrel of water rested between a neat stack of firewood and the hearth.
The ancient wise woman made to rise from a beautifully carved rocking chair beside the fire when Brendan and Moira entered, but the Fair One waved her down.
“Be at ease, Fiona,” he said. “You need not trouble yourself for me.” He turned to Moira and beckoned her forward. “I have brought you a companion. This is Moira. She is the daughter of Senga, granddaughter of Flora.”
The old woman’s eyes sparkled and she held out her hand. “Come closer, dearie. Mah eyes be no longer keen and I would see ye clearly.”
Moira stepped forward, took the woman’s gnarled hand, and knelt beside her knees.
“Aye,” the old woman said, nodding. “I ken ye now. Ye’ve the look of Flora about ye, though it’s long since I’ve seen mah twin.”
Twin! Moira inhaled sharply. She’d never heard that Grannie Flora had so much as a sister, let alone a twin.
The wise woman pushed the plaid from Moira’s head and stroked her hair before grabbing her chin and turning her head from one side to the other.
“Aye,” she said again, her voice wavering, though whether from emotion or age, Moira couldn’t have said. “Ye’ve the same bonny red hair and yer eyes tilt just so. Do ye have a wee dimple when ye smile?” she asked, touching the spot on Moira’s cheek where just such a dimple was wont to appear.
Brendan laughed. “I imagine the girl is too over-awed to smile for you just now, Fiona. Get to it. Tell her why she’s here.”
Fiona patted Moira’s cheek before turning a frown on the Fair One.
“Th’ choice is hers,” she said. “Ye canna force her. She main decide o’ her own free will.”
Brendan held up a hand. “Peace, woman. I know the rules, but she cannot make a choice if she doesn’t know her options. Tell her why she’s here.”
Fiona turned her rheumy gaze on Moira, sighed, and said, “Ye are of my blood, lass, and we’ve a compact with the Fair Ones. If she so chooses, a woman of our line can be gifted by th’ likes o’ Brendan wi’ th’ Sight and wi’ th’ healing touch. The Cailleach has chosen ye. If ye wish, ye can take up the mantle o’ wise woman when I leave this land.”
“Me?” Moira squeaked. “Be the new wise woman? What would my parents say?”
“They willna’ know,” Fiona said quietly. “’Tis one price o’ the gift. All who ha’ known ye will forget ye.”
Moira swallowed. So that was why she’d never known the wise woman was her kin. Fiona’s family… even her own twin sister… had forgotten her existence.
“And that’s no th’ only price,” Fiona continued. “If ye choose this path, ye will never know love, never wed, never birth bairns o’ yer own. Ye will bring other women’s babes into the world, but that joy will be denied to ye.”
Moira sat back, landing on the hard packed dirt with a thump. Her family would forget her? She’d never wed? She thought of Conor, of his merry eyes, lovely dark curls, and the trim body which had drawn her eye more and more often as she matured. She’d expected to wed him, knew that he merely bided his time until she reached the proper age. He’d ask her father for her hand on her next birthday. Next week, in fact.
And suddenly the timing of the Fair One’s visit made sense. Brendan had to issue the call before she was pledged to wed.
Moira raised her head, met the wise woman’s gaze, and saw her own sorrow reflected in Fiona’s eyes.
Brendan cleared his throat, and Fiona nodded.
“O’ course, ‘tis not all loss and sorrow,” she said. “Yer name may be forgotten, but yer people will love ye. They’ll come to ye with their burdens, and ye will make them light. Ye’ll bring healthy babes into the world, babes who might have perished, an’ their mothers wi’ them, were it not for yer healing touch. Ye’ll see beyond the veil, and bring warning o’ fire and flood. Yer people will thrive because o’ ye, and when they die, ye’ll guide them frae this land wi’ calm, giving them a peaceful passage to the Summerland. Ye will be a boon to yer people, and they will bless ye an’ care for ye.” She gestured around the comfortable cave, her other hand caressing the arm of the beautifully carved rocker.
“Of course,” Brendan said, “you must never ask for payment for your aid. Gifts you may accept, but those gifts must come from an outpouring of love and gratitude, never by your request.”
“Aye,” Fiona agreed. “Only a witch would demand payment, and ye will never be a witch. Ye will be a wise woman, the Cailleach’s gift to her people.”
Brendan stepped forward to stand beside Fiona and his gaze sought Moira’s. “What say you, lass? Will you accept this destiny?”
The wise woman sat alone in the comfort of her hillside cave, stroking the gleaming surface of a small, finely wrought, silver box. She smiled as she settled more comfortably in her rocking chair beside the dancing flames of her hearth fire. The silver casket had been a gift from the laird of Lastalrig Castle. The good laird was unaware of how important his gift would be, but her Sight had shown her its value. At some as yet unknown time in the future, she would place a powerful spell upon this casket, and the outcome of that working would forever change the fate of the heirs of Lastalrig.
Life was good.
She had made the right choice.
Certainly, she had shed more than her share of tears in the early years, but time had mellowed the pain of the price she had paid for the power to heal and protect her people. Resting her head against the carved wood of her rocker, she recalled those early experiences. They had been traumatic in the moment, but time had encased them—like an insect caught in amber— turning them into precious jewels; fragments of a life no longer hers.
She remembered the first time her sister had come to her for a boon; the shock of seeing no recognition in her sibling’s clear blue eyes.
The night she had been called to the home of the man she’d once thought to wed to usher his first-born son safely into this world; the exquisite pain of holding a babe who, had she made a different choice, might have been hers.
The evening she sat beside her father’s bed and guarded his soul as it left his body and began its journey to the Summerland; the mixture of intense sorrow and joy she had experienced when he had looked into her eyes for the last time… and recognized her for who she really was.
Closing her eyes, she whispered aloud the words that sustained her, that kept her identity whole, her destiny grounded.
“I am Moira, daughter of Senga, granddaughter of Flora, and, by the grace of the Cailleach and the gift of the Fair Ones, the Wise Woman of Lastalrig.”