Mo Cheann Beag

Excerpt from the first chapter of my work-in-progress

Étaín paused, closing her eyes and tilting her head back to enjoy the early spring sun on her skin. She took a deep breath, inhaling the early morning fragrances of the forest: dew on grass, leaves, and berries; the musky scent of red deer that had been bedded down around her; flowers persisting through the blanket of leaves to show their colorful blooms. She sighed, opening her eyes, and continued towards the river, the thought of fresh salmon making her mouth water.

The rustling of leaves to her left gave her pause. Étaín’s breath hitched and her hand rested on the knife at her side, and she turned her head slowly. A blur of light skin and copper hair disappeared behind the white trunk of the silver birch. “Hello?” She crept closer, not wanting to frighten the child, and around the tree.

A young girl stared up at her with fearless bright green eyes. Twigs and leaves poked out from the braids in her long hair, and dirt smudged her cheeks and bare arms. Her linen léine was filthy and torn, exposing the delicate skin that had been scraped with thorns and branches when the tunic ripped.

“Hello there.” Étaín knelt in front of the girl. “You look like you’ve had quite the morning.” She studied the little stranger, searching for more serious injuries, but the worst was a circle of bruises around her wrist. “My name is Étaín. What’s yours?” The child said nothing but continued to study the woman curiously. A corner of Étaín’s mouth lifted in amusement. “Well, if you don’t have a name, I suppose I could just call you Mo Cheann Beag for the time being, if you don’t mind being called ‘my little one,’ that is. But, either way, I can’t leave you out here by yourself. I was off to catch some salmon for supper. Would you care to join me?” She stood and offered her hand to the girl, who didn’t hesitate to take it. “And then we’ll see about getting you a bath and some clean clothes.”

As they walked toward the river, Étaín glanced around her, on guard for anyone else who might be in the wood. Where did you come from, Mo Cheann Beag? And what happened to you?

***

“Kissed by the flames, you are, my love, take my hand and follow. We’ll conquer all we see, my love. And bring life to the fire. Cross this river with me, my copper-haired child…” Étaín gently bumped Brigit’s shoulder as she mended the girl’s tunic. 

Brigit giggled, though she had refused to speak all day. She had sat silently as the woman fished, watching as the wriggling salmon were lowered into the woman’s fishing basket, and then took her home, bathing her, slathering salve on her wounded skin, and re-plaiting her hair. Remaining quiet seemed like the only way to keep herself from crying and to not make Étaín believe she had done something wrong.

“There we go. Like new.” Étaín held the léine up in front Brigit so the girl could see, then helped her dress.

As the woman smoothed down the linen, Brigit’s skin prickled as the air in the roundhouse changed. Despite sitting close to the fire, a chill passed through her body. She looked over Étaín’s shoulder, and she met the pale face of a tall, lithe woman; the woman’s light blue irises reflected the flickering fire like a cat’s. The stranger tilted her head to the side, dark braids falling over her shoulder, and a corner of her mouth quirked up in curious amusement.

Étaín glanced back and her dove gray eyes lit up. “Annelie, you’re home.”

“Hello, love.” Annelie knelt down beside them, ran her fingers over Étaín’s blond hair, and kissed her. “Who’s this then?” she asked softly.

“I… don’t know her name.” Étaín turned back to Brigit, lifting an eyebrow. “She hasn’t said a word since I came upon her this morning. I’ve been calling her Mo Cheann Beag all day.”

“Well, Mo Cheann Beag, welcome.” She reached out and touched the girl’s arm, locking her gaze.

Brigit’s face and body relaxed, despite the icy feel of the fingers, as Annelie seemed to slide into her head. What are you doing to me? What are you?

You can feel me? Annelie’s lips parted in disbelief.

The girl nodded, pushing her memories from that morning into blackness, not wanting the woman to see them. Brigit, she said, and Annelie left her mind, her fingers falling from her arm.

Étaín’s head went from Annelie to Brigit and back. “What did you do?”

“I…” Annelie stared at the girl, her eyes wide. “Brigit. That’s what she’s called, but…” She drew her teeth along her bottom lip. A line of crimson appeared where her canine tooth grazed, then quickly disappeared. “That-that’s all I know.”

Brigit smiled and avoided the women’s faces shyly.

“Now you’re timid, Mo Cheann Beag?” A bright laugh left Étaín; Annelie relaxed beside her. “It’s good to know your name, even though that’s all we know about you. You are welcome here until we find your people.” She leaned in and kissed the girl’s forehead, then rose to her feet. “Come on, Brigit. I know you’re as hungry as I am… and Annelie never passes on salmon.”

I hope you all enjoyed this little teaser from my work-in-progress!

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