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Like a Lioness

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Murna had been a sickly child. Her birth had been a difficult one; her exhausted mother had struggled to nurse her; and for many months, Murna had not thrived. If it had not been for old Cutha the midwife, patiently teaching her, like a motherless lamb, to suck milk through a wisp of wool stretched over the neck of a leather bottle, she would not have thrived at all.

By the time her mother died, giving birth to a sister who lived a bare handful of hours, Murna had put all that behind her and was a stocky, solid three-year old, well able to hold her own with the other children of her age. But people remembered, without ever speaking of it: no matter that her mother had borne three large, lusty sons before Murna; there was something weak in the blood of the womenfolk of her line.

So it was that none of the young men of the Tribe, two or three years past their Feast of the New Spears, had ever come to her father asking for permission to take her from his hearth. There were too few young men, anyway, now that the Tribes were restless under the heavy hands of the Red Crests. Nor did her father and her brothers (and her brothers' wives) seem to mind overmuch that she was there to fetch water and grind corn and watch both bread and babies if her brothers' wives had business elsewhere.

As for Murna, she minded, very much, but she knew there was no use grieving for what could not be mended.

oOo

This morning, as every morning, Murna rose and went out to draw water for the household. The work would have been no less onerous if she had been drawing water for her own man and child, and yet—.

Pausing at the door of the house-place, peering into the mist, she saw the thorn trees had already been pulled back from the gap in the bank that circled the village. It was quieter than usual, with so many of the Men's Side away about this business with the Red Crests.

Between the ends of the looming turf banks, a figure appeared, walking in a kind of weaving stumble up the track towards her, as if he were drunk. As he came closer, she saw his face was a stranger's face under the ash-fair hair, but still he reached out a hand to her. She took a step back, and none too soon. The man lurched forward and fell in a dead faint across the threshold.

For a moment, Murna stood looking down at him, taking in the close-cropped hair, the dirty white tunic with a spreading red stain on the flank, the heavy sandals. Then she knelt swiftly and began to turn him over.

Behind her, Shula, her eldest brother's wife, said, "What is—? Oh!"

"Help me to bring him in by the fire." Murna had managed to get the man half on his back, resting against the doorpost. Now she stood and stepped across him to reach his feet.

"A Red Crest?" Shula snorted. "We should knife him and throw him on the dung-heap for the dogs!"

Murna had been about to kneel again, but she swung her head up, sudden fury surging within her. "Has he not claimed the guest-right?" True, the man was more outside than in, but he had crossed the threshold. For that reason alone, Murna would have welcomed him to their hearth. But he was also hurt and in need of healing, and Shula was always the laziest of her brothers' wives, the least likely to trouble herself for others but plenty likely to cause trouble for Murna. And for another reason that had hardly shaped itself in Murna's mind as yet.

Shula glared back at her for the count of a dozen heartbeats, but Murna did not drop her gaze. Finally, with a snort of disgust and a shrug, Shula bent and roughly caught the man's shoulders to help drag him inside.

A short while later, the man was lying by the fire. Murna had stripped his tunic to reveal the bloodied bandage that covered the wound to his side. There was no evidence of any other recent hurt, save for a a few light scratches here and there on his legs and arms, most likely from pushing through the furze and heather. Also hunger: he was lean and powerfully built, but with a hollowness to his face that she had seen before, at the end of a long winter after a poor harvest. It spoke of many days with little or no food.

"Fionhula, bring me a blanket from my bed and the salve box also," she ordered, beginning to peel away the blood-stiffened bandage. "Essylt, is there any water left?"

Essylt, only recently wed to her youngest brother, Finn, lifted the cover on the leather water bucket. "Only a little. I'll fetch more."

Murna threw her a grateful smile as she collected one of the smaller buckets they took to the spring and passed outside. Essylt had quickly become the favourite of her brothers' wives, just as Finn had always been her favourite brother.

Fionhula was back, setting the salves down next to Murna and arranging the blanket over the man's legs, while Murna carefully lifted away the linen pad that had been placed over the wound.

The gash was not large—perhaps three fingers wide—nor deep, but it had been made three or four days since and gaped angrily. "Fionhula, do you fetch Cutha, also?" A glance had shown Murna that Shula had retreated to the women's side and picked up her babe, cradling him against her shoulder and stating without words that she would run no errands at Murna's bidding.

Fionhula was evidently scarcely more willing but, with a heavy sigh and making much of it, rose and went out.

Shula had taken a few steps sideways for a better look. She snorted again. "Like as not, he'll die."

"Like as not," Murna agreed quietly, not rising to the lure. "But we shall see what may be done."

oOo

Murna was turning oatcakes on the hearthstone when she saw the stranger had woken and was watching her cautiously. Cutha had helped her to clean and salve the wound, and bring the ragged angry edges together so they would knit, and then cover and bind it again. Two or three times while they worked, the man had half-woken, before he passed out again almost at once. The last time, they had managed to get a little warm milk down him laced with a sleeping draught.

“There, that will let him rest.” Cutha had laid a hand against the man's forehead for a moment. “If his fever does not worsen, he will do well enough in time.”

Murna had stayed near, watching over him, while she busied herself with tasks about the house-place. Shula and Fionhula had taken themselves and their children off somewhere else, with their noses in the air, as soon as they might, while Essylt – with her sweet smile – had fetched more water, so Murna need not stir far, and then gone to tend to the cattle.

Now, more than half the day was gone, and the man was awake at last and looking at her clear-eyed. Seeing that she was looking back at him, he said slowly, in her own tongue, “Where am I?”

“In the house-place of Sinnoch Mac Connla. I am Murna, daughter of the house.” She rose and reached to ladle a little stew into a bowl. “Are you hungry?”

He nodded, making to sit up and then letting out a little hiss of pain.

“Ach, lie you still.” She came round the fire with the bowl and knelt next to him. “The hole in your hide will mend, but it is not mended yet.” Setting the bowl down beside him, she helped him lean on his good elbow so he could eat. “And slowly. It has been many days since you have eaten your fill, I think.”

He took the spoon from her and dipped it into the bowl, and then checked. He looked up at her and smiled, his whole face warming into something less harsh and pained. “Good fortune on the house and the women of the house.”

Murna held his gaze for a moment, before flushing and looking away, her heart beating suddenly faster. A quick glance back at him showed he was still looking at her, still smiling, until he bent his head and began to dig into the stew.

Pushing away her discomfort, she fell to wondering about his words. He did not speak like the Red Crests who at whiles had visited the village, but as if he had learned her speech as a cradle-tongue. Yet there was no doubt he had been a Red Crest: the weal across his forehead, and the gall under his chin, and other marks on his skin told her he had spent many hours wearing the Red Crests' armour. Yet he had shed his armour....

She let him eat a little before she asked, “And what may we call you?”

He swallowed another mouthful of stew. “Gai—Guern.”

“Guern....” She nodded, to show she had accepted the lie, and he smiled at her again. One day, perhaps, he would tell her his Red Crest name.

He was looking around the house-place as he ate, at the several sleeping places tucked under the eaves. “You have brothers?” He did not need to ask if, daughter in her father's house, she had a man of her own.

“Three.” Murna shrugged one shoulder. “And their wives and children, also.”

Guern was chasing the end of the stew around the bowl. “There is no work to be done in the house-place?”

“Much!” Murna laughed harshly. No doubt Shula would complain long and loudly on her return about all the work Murna had not done. “But there is also much to be done about the garth and with the cattle while the men are away.”

“While the men are away?” Guern echoed her words softly. He set the empty bowl down beside him and flexed his fingers. “Yes, it would be so.”

Murna felt a stirring of unease. He was wounded. He was a guest. Surely he would not—. She sat back on her heels, preparing to spring up, and said sharply, “I can fetch Midir or Kuno soon enough, if you would have dealings with the Men's Side.”

He started, frowning up at her from under his brows. Then his face softened. “Nay, do not be afraid. Only, it is in my heart that I—that I should leave before your father and brothers return. That is all. I would not outstay my welcome.”

Murna picked up the bowl. “I do not know when they will return, but surely you may claim guest-right until you are well enough to go. Wherever it is you would go. My father would not bring shame upon his hearth by refusing that to any man. Now,” she reached out and gently pressed him back onto the ferns and skins, “rest and sleep. And in the morning, if all is well, you shall sit outside in the sun and grow strong.”

She rose and stood looking down at him, as he settled back and closed his eyes. Softly, so softly she did not think he would hear her, she said, “It is in my heart that you would stay.”

oOo

The following morning, Murna found Guern some clothes and helped him outside. For a while, he sat in the house-place doorway with his face tipped up towards the warm sun. Then he turned his attention to mending the horse-harness Murna had brought him when he had asked if there was any small task he might put his hand to in payment for her hospitality.

Murna, busy about the household work, saw the patient skill with which he cut away the broken part and shaped the strip of new leather to replace it. Saw, too, that many of the women in the village found more reason than usual to go in and out through the gap in the bank that circled the village, casting sly glances in Guern's direction and whispering behind their hands after they went by.

Several of the younger boys were less shy, standing a little way off and openly staring at Guern. When he looked up and nodded at them, they startled and scattered like a herd of deer.

Once or twice, letting her gaze fall in the other direction, towards the heart of the dun, Murna saw Shula and Fionhula at the centre of small knots of women, evidently sharing what they knew of the stranger – and, no doubt, the disdain they had not troubled to hide when they had returned to the house-place the night before.

It was Essylt, when the harness was mended, who hesitantly brought Guern a sickle in need of a new haft. When he was done with that, he fell to carving a spare bit of wood into a small figure of a horse. When it was finished, he set it down in full view in front of him – and made a gift of it to the first boy bold enough to come and admire it.

After that, he could have spent until the next full moon carving horses and hunting dogs, if Murna had not chased the children away at dusk. Could have spent until the full moon after that mending the many things their mothers began to bring him. When Murna tried to stem the flow, Guern laughed and said he was content to be as busy as he might be.

Within a few days more, when his wound was half healed, he began to go out with Essylt to help with the cattle.

He had some skill with the beasts, it seemed, according to the reports Essylt brought back. Once or twice, she said, he had talked to her of herding cattle as a child, though he did not speak much. With Shula and Fionhula, he did not speak at all; they had continued their pretence that he was simply not there, even as he sat on the Men's side of the house-place as they all ate the morning and evening meal.

Murna herself was careful not to ask too many questions, lest she startle him, like putting up a nesting lark. But now and again, as she brought him his food, or tended his hurts, or went about her work in the house-place with his shy, watchful gaze following her, he would ask her about her people: how they lived and farmed and traded.

One evening, when he had been sitting in the house-place door in the lingering evening light, with his gaze turned to the distant forests and the high hills, he said, quietly, “There must be good hunting yonder.”

“There is.” Murna was setting the warp threads for a new piece of cloth on the loom near the door, and she reached out and touched the deerskin looped back from the house-place entrance. “Deer. Grouse. Boar, sometimes. Wolf, also, when the winter snows drive them down to our sheepruns.” She cocked her head. “You are a hunter?”

“I have been. From time to time.” He shrugged. “A man might earn his place at the fire as a hunter in those hills, I think?”

Murna's hands stilled on the loom for a few breaths. Then she reached for another loom weight. “He might. If he were a good hunter, he might in time have a fire of his own and a few cattle and—a wife and bairns.”

Guern's head swung round and he met her gaze. She looked steadily back, as the evening light faded around them. Deeper inside the house-place, Shula and Fionhula could be heard quarrelling over a mislaid bracelet, with Essylt trying to make the peace. At last, Guern said, with a catch in his throat. “That would be a good life, I think.”

There was no chance to say more, for Fionhula came storming out between them, with her nose in the air and one insult after another thrown back over her shoulder. Then the light was almost gone, and it was time to leave off the chores and settle around the fire for the evening meal.

oOo

Guern was out with the cattle again when the men of the village returned. Husbands held close their wives and fathers scooped up children and whirled them around, exclaiming about how much they had grown. Mothers fussed over returning sons, and brothers who had been too young for the hosting ran to take ponies and hung on the words of older brothers who had been blooded in the great victory over the Red Crests. Everywhere, dogs wove in and out, thrusting anxious muzzles against the careless hands reaching down to caress them.

In a few places, there were no happy reunions: anxious gazes had sought out the faces of loved ones and found no answer to the question they asked. Underneath the hubbub of voices and laughter could be heard a low current of sorrow, as shield brothers broke away from their own joy to awkwardly stumble through a few grim words.

Into this uproar came Guern, hesitantly trailing in, last of those who had stayed behind to see to the penning of the cattle when the news had come. Unnoticed, at first, until first one of the returning men and then another turned and saw him, and touched the arms of their companions. At last, the whole village was regarding him with an uneasy hush.

Murna, her breath catching in her throat, stood stone-still for a heartbeat. Then she broke away from the joyful embrace of Finn's arm around her shoulders, and swept forward, and held out her hand to Guern.

He hesitated, his gaze searching her face. She gave a small, fierce nod, and he took her hand, following as she turned and led him to her father and brothers.

“Father, this is Guern, a stranger who has claimed guest-right with us this past sennight, and more.”

Her father's brows drew down into a frown as he looked Guern up and down. “A Red Crest?”

Guern had raised his head and flung back his shoulders, all the pride of the parade ground in him as he met the challenge. “I was.” His words were clear and firm, though he still held Murna's hand in his as if he might drown if he let go. “Before my way took me through the mists to the border of the Otherworld....”

Murna's father went on frowning at him, before he said softly, very softly into the hush, “Those who claim the guest-right may wear out their welcome with long use. And we have no need of Red-Crest Spears here.”

Guern drew in a breath. Murna felt him begin to draw his hand from hers, to turn away. She held on tighter and cried out, “He has, already and enough, repaid his place at your hearth, with much hard work. And do we have so many on the Men's Side, here and now, that we must needs turn away this one who comes among us. Who has some skill with cattle and with craft, as many here could tell you. Who is a skilled hunter, so he tells me himself. Who may have walked one path to the borders of the Otherworld, but has returned on the path he walked a child. Who—.”

Her words faltered as she took in her father's grim expression. For a long breath, she thought he might strike her or tell her to hold her tongue. She had never spoken to him so—no woman she knew had ever spoken so, of the things of the Men's Side.

Then her father's expression softened a little. “You would make a place for him here, my daughter?”

She drew herself up straight, tall and proud, feeling Guern's hand warm and strong in hers. “I would.”

Her father turned his attention on Guern. “And would you make a place among us, with my daughter?”

Guern looked steadily back at him, before he turned and smiled at Murna. “I would.”