by Sarah Callaghan
I am Fionnuala, though not her of whom tales were made.
I am not that Fionnuala who was once of the Tuatha de Dannan and daughter of Lir, lord of the sea. I am not that Fionnuala who was changed into the form of a swan by the evil of a jealous stepmother. I am not that Fionnuala who found redemption when the liquid sounds of a church bell rang across the water.
I am that Fionnuala who struggled in the storm for thrice three hundred years. I am that Fionnuala who sheltered her three brothers beneath breast and wings on the cold rocks in the freezing waters of Inish Glora. I am that Fionnuala who sang with heartbreaking sadness at the knowledge that we had outlived all others of our kind.
I am that Fionnuala.
This is what I witnessed.
Three nights after the last of the leaves had fallen, I saw a gathering upon the cliff top. On strong wings I flew to it, with little enough reason for my going, save for curiosity. That, and a strange calling that rang in my blood lured me there.
The cliff top is bare and barren, windswept grass falling down sheer cliffs onto the rocks and into the sea. There are no trees, save for Rowan, and only a low long mound, forming a circle half eaten by the air.
There was no reason for the gathering, and no reason for me to attend. But Wolf was there, and Rowan. Bog Witch and Puca, too, and all the little ones. There were more there than had ever been before, even at the gatherings at solstice and midsummer.
Bog Witch was talking when I joined the throng. The wind caught her voice and threw it into strange shapes along the grass. She's old, is Bog Witch, old and grey and stooped, but her cracked and cackling voice is strong.
Around her feet were huddled the little ones. They clung to her ragged and dirty skirts as if the wind was like to blow them away. She paid them no mind, leaning on her twisted staff.
Wolf was sitting on the outskirts of the throng, his back to the crowd. He was pretending to take no notice, but I could tell he was listening with all his might.
Puca was running here and there and there and here and all the way back again. His little hooves churned up the grass, he slipped and slid on the mud underneath. But that didn't stop him running from one, to another, to another.
He was so out of breath by it all that he couldn't speak. His movements took the place of his words, becoming more and more agitated.
Rowan stood, as he always does.
Bog Witch spoke urgently, though I couldn't hear her words. The little ones tightened their grip on her skirts in terror. She reached down to them, stroking them, comforting them. All the while continuing with her tale.
I walked up to speak to her, the little ones moving carefully aside. I had to choose my words carefully. There is respect there, between her and I, but no love. I dislike witches. They remind me of my stepmother.
She inclined her head in a mocking bow.
"Welcome, princess. We are honoured."
"Spare me your hollow flattery, old woman. Just speak. What passes? Why the gathering?"
"Surely one so powerful as yourself, princess, already knows?"
She spoke deliberately, taunting me, trying to provoke me. I refused to take the bait. Hunger and cold and danger teach many things. Patience is the least of them.
"I need no sight to see that you are gifted beyond all here in matters of the future."
"Ah, princess. Now you try flattery."
I remained silent. Waiting.
So did she.
From behind us came the rumbling of a voice not often used.
"The sun shines less, the nights grow longer. Darkness is falling and winter is coming. Yet here, here I can feel the sap rise and the buds burst, the blossoms flower and the berries ripen. Here is warmth and water and a richness in the earth, while all around the dark skies threaten and the wind carries the smell of snow."
Rowan stopped, leaving silence, unwilling to ask the question he had planted in our minds.
Puca slithered to a halt, and slipped, falling in the mud of his own tracks. He was up again quickly, and shook himself, grass and mud falling from his coat. More gently, as if he feared knocking her to the ground, he stepped up to Bog Witch. He butted her gently, the lightest touch.
"Why? Why are we here, Bog Witch? Why now? And why so many?"
With a palsied hand she stroked his head, following the curve of his horns down his neck. She did not look at me when she spoke.
"I saw a vision."
For the first time in our long rivalry I saw her shaken. Powerful indeed the vision who's memory caused her to appear thus.
"No. More than any vision I have seen before," she said. "It came upon me unbidden."
The silence was absolute, none willing to break her concentration or disturb her recollection. An unbidden vision was a rare thing, and terrible to contemplate.
"I saw this place, as I am standing here now. It was dark and stormy, as it is now. All were gathered here, as they are now. I felt the power rise, I saw spring return, and the spirits of the ground come alive.
"I saw a human child, walking up the hill. I saw the storm build, and the lightning strike, and I saw the human child fall.
"What rose was no human. Tall and slender, armoured and armed, it was. Nobility, and arrogance, all on the one face. And yet, it was still the child. Shining with the radiance of the moon.
"The stranger held a wand, and a sword. The wand was held to the sky, and a terrible chant began, never meant to come from human lips. I wanted to flee, but still the vision came. I covered my eyes, my ears. But nothing could block it out.
"The Shining One struck the ground, and I could hear the Mother scream with pain. The Father answered, and a shimmering curtain of light fell from his hand. The light was brighter than a thousand suns, shining with the glory of a hundred rainbows. So bright the stranger shone, and so bright the shimmering curtain, that the night was driven away, to hide in the shadows.
"Through the light came figures, moving quickly. I saw them ride out, a host of creatures, like unto humans, yet taller and more slender, with upswept eyes and ears. They wore gold and jewels, armour and silks. They rode horses whose feet did not trample the grass, leaving no trace of their passing.
"They terrified me."
The little ones at her feet began keening in fear. She was their mother, their protector. If she feared something, then it was terrible indeed.
"I cast the vision from me with all my strength.
"I did not see the host again. What I saw then was flashes, images, fleeting and swift."
She bared her rotten teeth, looking to those she addressed, one by dreadful one.
"I saw you, Rowan, your body burning piece by piece, fed to the flames by unseen hands."
Rowan shivered, moving as he would when shook by a gale.
"I saw you, Wolf, running, desperately running. Behind you, always following, was the cry of hounds."
Wolf lifted his head to the sky and howled. I felt suddenly cold.
"I saw you, Puca, with a golden collar round your neck, chained in a beautiful garden. Around you the flowers were dead from the heat, and you lay unmoving."
Puca ran, trying to flee from the meaning of her words. Round and round and round he went, always following his own tracks in the circle around the gathering.
"I saw my little ones, broken and bleeding, and myself lying dead among them."
The little ones cried and howled, terrified hands plucking at the Bog Witch's skirts, climbing up her legs, trying to hide in her many layers of shawls.
Bog Witch said nothing then, for her voice had broken. She gathered her little ones in her arms, comforting them. They begged her to deny her vision. She could not, even for their sake.
I marvelled to see the teardrops flowing unhindered and unnoticed down her cheeks.
"When, Bog Witch? When?" I asked her.
I desperately needed to know. The future is not stone, things can be changed. The future is air, all around us. Lifegiver and destroyer both.
"Soon," she replied.
The word was scarcely out of her mouth when Wolf's howl echoed around the clifftop for the second time.
Puca ran to where Wolf sat, looking down to the fields below.
"Human child!" he called.
The little ones fled at his words. Within moments all that remained was Bog Witch, Wolf, Rowan, Puca and myself.
I took to the air, flying down to see the child. It was a boy child, and he paid me no mind, even as the wind from my wings caused his hair to wave wildly.
He walked slowly up the hill. At each step he took the air grew heavier, the wind blew harsher. Until he set foot upon the brow of the cliff and the first bolt of lightning arced across the sky.
Puca was terrified; he stood close by the side of Bog Witch for comfort. Wolf watched the child with his gleaming red eyes, waiting.
The boy child did not see us as he stood on the cliff top. He did not see us as the wind blew hard and fast, and touched with snow and ice. He did not see us as the lightning bolt arced down from heaven and struck him to the ground.
The flash was blinding, we all cowered away, sheltering our eyes as much as we could. When the lights had stopped dancing in my vision I looked to the spot where the boy had fallen.
He was kneeling on one knee, trying to rise. His head was bowed as he staggered to his feet. For a moment he weaved from side to side, scarcely able to stand. Then he straightened and raised his head.
No longer was he a human child, a boy with open and handsome face, dressed in simple clothes. Now he stood encased in blackened steel, his face angular and hard, and glowing like the moon. On his belt was a sword, in his hand a wand.
Bog Witch made not a sound as she stood there.
Puca cried out "The vision! The vision! What are we to do?"
At the sound of his voice the stranger turned and looked at us all.
Bog Witch would not meet his gaze, she hung her head and waited.
Puca hid behind her, shaking in fear.
Wolf growled, low in his throat. A warning.
The stranger did not look at Rowan, silent as he was.
I looked at him, his strange human-like face, and his almond eyes. I looked deep, and I saw madness in his mind. A great battle, both sides losing.
He staggered over to me, drawing the sword that he was barely able to hold.
"Who are you? Where am I? What am I doing here?"
His challenge was harsh, but it could not hide the music of his voice.
I was the only one to answer him.
"I am Fionnuala and you are here, at Dun Eala. I do not know what you are doing here."
For a brief moment I thought I saw recognition cross his face. It was gone quickly.
He walked back to the place where the boy had fallen. He raised his wand into the air and began to chant. Bog Witch began to wail, blocking her ears from the sounds.
I heard a snarl behind me. Wolf stood there, teeth bared.
"I will not be hunted!" he growled.
With a great leap he was running towards the stranger, the lights of a thousand fires in his eyes.
Puca saw this, and took heart.
"I will not die a slave!" he cried. And he too began to run.
Wolf jumped up on the stranger, jaws closing around the arm that held the wand. He bit down hard, and the stranger screamed in pain. He dropped the wand and the chant was broken.
It still hung in the air like a living creature, twisting and turning like a snake.
Bog Witch raised one hand and caught it. It writhed around in her grasp but she held it tight. I could hear muttered words come from her and her hands moved in the complex patterns needed to unmake the half-worked spell.
Puca butted the stranger just behind the knees with all the strength he had. The stranger fell over backwards with Wolf on top of him, Puca dancing out of the way in just enough time so as not to be crushed.
I heard Rowan whistling, as the stranger searched for a weapon. His sword was useless, trapped as it was between his body and the ground.
Wolf dropped the arm to go for the stranger's throat. The stranger tried to fight him off, one hand reaching for the dagger at his belt.
He grasped it, and scored a long cut along Wolf's side. Wolf yelped in pain, but stood his ground. With a quick flip, the stranger had thrown Wolf from him, and struggled back to his feet.
He approached Wolf with his freed sword. Wolf stood at bay, growling.
Puca ran towards the stranger, intent on butting him again.
With an incredible swiftness the stranger whirled, striking Puca across the face with one fist. Puca fell to the ground as one dead.
Bog Witch screamed in rage, and the stranger looked at her for a moment, fear and surprise showing in his eyes.
That moment was enough. Wolf sprang at him, snapping in a fury. The stranger stumbled backwards, towards the edge of the cliff.
I heard Rowan's voice as I took to the air.
"Drive him back."
My wings drove the air into his face, blinding him. At the same time Wolf was jumping, snapping, trying to get a grip on him, trying to bite.
All the while the stranger was being driven back to the edge of the cliff.
Rowan moved, pulling at the soil with his roots.
Wolf yelped and lost his feet as the earth beneath him shook. The stranger raised his sword and was about to strike at the prone figure in front of him when I knocked him backwards with a single blow.
He wavered for a moment on the edge of the cliff, trying to regain his balance. He cried out in fear as the earth beneath him crumbled and he fell, tumbling into the darkness.
Below I could hear the waves washing up on the shore, and nothing else.
Wolf was half over the edge as well, scrabbling to get enough of a hold to climb back up. He pulled himself up without my aid and walked off into the darkness.
I called to him, but he did not answer.
Bog Witch was kneeling, cradling Puca in her arms. I was glad to see the rise and fall of his sides as he breathed.
Rowan's whistling died, and with it the wind.
The air was still now, the danger over. But it was not yet peaceful.
Bog Witch gathered Puca to her and rose with difficulty. Carrying her burden she walked slowly down the slope to the green fields below.
I walked beside her a little way.
"What of your vision now?" I asked her.
"There is much to do, and much to plan now, princess."
"But why?" I asked. "The danger is over. The foe is defeated. Your vision was false, old woman. We have hope."
"My visions are never false, princess. Listen well, for I saw you too in that vision."
She staggered on, not looking at me.
"You wore a crown, princess, and sat upon a throne. And you were no longer a swan."
I was angry then, for she was mocking me.
"That cannot be, old woman. It all happened as you saw. And yet we changed it. We defeated the invader. Your vision was false. I will remain as I am."
With those angry words I stopped, leaving her to walk on alone.
"As you wish it, princess. Deny your desires and your dreams. But where are your brothers now?"
Her last words to me were carried faintly on the breeze.
"My vision was not false. It has yet to pass. For in my vision it was a girl child who climbed the hill. Remember that. A girl child, princess."
And she was gone, swallowed by the night.
I am Fionnuala, and that was what I witnessed.