Tailtiu watched the boy as he ran over the green grass, hair blowing behind him, bright eyes sparkling in the sunlight, laughter trailing him like a banner of joy. The boy was hers, though she had not born him, a gift from the son of Dian Cécht who said only that the boy’s mother could not raise him. Not really a gift—he was an offering of peace to the queen of a defeated people, fostered to her for raising, to win her people’s loyalty back to their northern cousins. But however he had come, he was hers.
Those bright eyes saw her standing in the shade of the apples and he ran to her, clasping his strong little arms around her legs. She stroked his hair, warm with the early summer sun, and smiled. He might be a child of the Tuath Déa’s bright fire, but he was her boy.
“What did you find in the woods, Mama?” he asked, tugging at the cloth covering her basket. He always wanted to know everything.
“I found what I looked for, of course,” she replied, as she always did, and he laughed as she sat on the green turf and lifted the cloth, he tucking himself against her side to see what she would reveal. “What do you see?”
“Three grey stones, a bunch of green feather-leaves, and four twigs—from oaks!” he cried, triumphant at identifying the tree.
“Three grey stones from the strand and you see the holes in them? If you listen to them, you will hear the voices of the spirits of earth and sky.” She held one up to her ear and he quickly mimicked her, his eyes widening as he heard the spirits singing in the apple above them. He didn’t really need the stone, but it helped to focus a busy headed child. She would wait until he was older to take him to the high peak to hear the spirits there. He was not ready, yet, for harsher voices, not her golden child. But he would be, one day.
“The feather-leaves are yarrow, clearsight. An ointment of yarrow on the eyes can help mortals to see the spirits the stones let them hear—and a bouquet of yarrow at a wedding will set the couple in love for seven years at least.”
“Did you have yarrow at your wedding?”
Tailtiu’s eyes turned to the horizon. There had been yarrow at her first wedding, both in her hands and in a bag she had embroidered and hung over their sleeping place. But that husband was gone, killed in the war with the Tuath Déa. There had always been land enough to share, he had not needed to die, but…
Thin arms wrapped around her, startling her out of memory.
“Don’t be sad, Mama. I’ll protect you. I’ll bring you yarrow as often as you like—just show me where it grows!”
She stroked his hair with one hand, pinching a piece of yarrow between her fingers and rubbing it to make the scent come. “Yes, you will always bring me yarrow and blackberries, won’t you? You will make a great festival for me, my Lughaid, when I am gone. You will not forget me, when my sorrow lays me down to rest.”
“I would never forget you,” he whispered, holding her as tightly as he could. “But you will never be gone.”
Tailtiu looked down at the golden head under her arm and smiled. “Not for good, not forever, but even I must rest sometimes, little warrior. I have cleared five plains and wed two husbands, but you will marry someday and I will rest then, knowing you will not forget me.”
He cuddled against her side, still holding her tight. “Tell me the story of how I came here. Tell me where I come from.”
She paused. He had asked and asked. Dian Cécht’s son had not told her the story, but she spoke to the spirits of land and water and sky, she knew who the boy was, and where he came from. She knew whose child she was raising, and even without the yarrow, she knew the destiny that weighed on him. Was it time for him to know?
“Well, we will make a beginning of it, anyway. It is not a simple thing, telling where you came from, my heart.”
He looked up, eyes bright but a little wary. “You will tell me? You know?”
Tailtiu nodded. “I have heard the story from the wind—you must remember, the wind will always tell you the truth, if you ask politely—and had it confirmed by the one who brought you to me first.”
“The story begins, I suppose, with Bírog, the druid woman…”