Rianna tripped over a large root sprawled across the path in front of her.
When she tried to break her fall, a jolt of pain surged through her arms, but it did not hurt nearly as much as the
pain in her heart. She must get to Niona’s cottage. Her friend, the shaman, was the only person who could help her mother.
Scrambling to her feet, she brushed the dirt and pine needles from her hands and raced on.
A canopy of trees arched above her and cast deep shadows across the path.
The further she entered the forest the gloomier it became. In all her
twenty years she had never felt so desperate. Her lungs were about to burst when
she spied the solitary cottage nestled in the trees on the edge of a clearing. A
beam of sunlight poured into the open space and was like a ray of hope. Slowing
to a walk, she took in deep gulps of air and
the small clearing to the cottage door. Staring at the rough wood, she knocked
loudly. “Niona! I need your
The door flew open and the figure of a tall, slender woman, only a few years older then Rianna, stood in the
door frame. Niona’s green eyes filled with concern when she saw her friend,
close to tears, standing in front of her.
The shaman ran her hand through her disheveled chestnut hair and
motioned Rianna to come in. “Sit down, my dear. Have a cup of tea and tell me why you are so upset.”
Rianna slumped onto a wooden bench next to a table cluttered with jars of various liquids. Scattered among them were dried herbs and roots. Rianna knew
that some of these were used to heal and others to cast magic spells, for she had spent as much of her time as possible with
Niona who was teaching her mysteries that were beyond this world. If her Uncle
Murdoch, the abbot, learned of her friendship with the shaman, he would condemn Rianna as a heretic. Niona set a cup of steaming liquid on the table in front of Rianna.
Retrieving another cup for herself, she slipped onto the bench across from her visitor.
“I really do not have time for tea,” Rianna said in a watery voice, tears welling up in her eyes.
The Shaman folded Rianna’s hand into hers. “Nonsense,
my dear. You need to relax. Now
tell me, why have you come?”
Rianna took a deep breath and steadied her voice. “It is
Mother. While I was away at the abbey, she fell ill. I should have never left her alone for so long. Please come
with me. You must help her.” Rianna
stood, anxious to return to her mother.
The shaman shook her head. “I will come with you, but it
will take time to put together some medicines and potions. How long has she been
Rianna continued tearfully. “I learned of it this morning
when I returned from the abbey. Mora, mother’s personal servant, told me
that she has not been feeling well for two weeks. She has had a pain in her right
side that comes and goes, but yesterday it came and did not go away. She cannot
hold down any food or drink. I think she has been possessed by a demon.”
Niona shook her head slowly. “I do not think it is a demon. It sounds like the side disease. I have
seen it before.”
“Do you think you can help her?”
“To be truthful, there is little I can do. Once a person
has been struck with this illness, there isn=t much hope for survival.” Niona stuffed a vile of liquid into her pouch. “This
mixture might help, but the chances are slim.”
“But you are a shaman! You have
“Aye, this may be true, but all I can do is my best.” She
gathered up more herbs and several small jars, put them into her pouch, and started for the door. “Sometimes the gods are with me; other times they are not.”
Rianna and Niona hurried through the forest in silence, each in her own deep thoughts. Although Rianna and her mother were Christians, Rianna had befriended the shaman. She had seen Niona work many wonders with her herbs. Most
of the village people were grateful for her powers. Without them, many might
have died. The barber-surgeon was the only other healer for miles around, and
his treatment of all illnesses was bleeding the patient. The Christian monks
condemned this practice as much as they did the shaman. The abbot warned the
villagers that healing should be left up to God alone.
As Rianna hurried through the forest with Niona in her wake, she hoped that the shaman was the answer to her
prayers. If she had just not left her mother alone...
“Do not blame yourself,” Niona said, breaking into Rianna’s thoughts. “It is not your doing but the will of the gods.”
Rianna wiped away a tear. Was it also the will of the Christian
God whom she had been brought up to believe in?
Rianna pushed her way through the door with Niona close behind her. Mora
jumped up from her chair near the hearth and rushed over to pull away the colorful fabric hanging that covered the door frame
of Brigid’s room. Rianna and Niona swept into a room heavy with silence. Her mother was practically hidden by the bed covers and sleeping peacefully.
Niona removed the herbs and jars from her medicine bag, then placed her palm on Brigid’s thin cheek. “She is hot." She pulled back the
blanket that covered the ill woman and ran her fingers slowly down Brigid’s body.
When Niona reached the stomach, Brigid gasped with pain.
“Her belly is hard on the left side. ‘Tis the side
sickness as I suspected. ‘Tis caused by a poison that begins in the gut, then spreads throughout the body.” Niona replaced the cover and turned to Rianna.
“Go and fetch some hot water.”
As Rianna made her way to the cooking fire in the center of the room, Mora approached her. Tears slid down the servant’s worn face, and she looked at Rianna through watery eyes. “Your Mum seems to be resting comfortably now, my lady. Earlier
she gave me such a fright with her pain and all. I nursed her carefully and when
her fever subsided, I thought she was getting well. When she got worse, I sent
for the abbot. He should be here soon.”
Mora began to cry uncontrollably, and Rianna led her back to the chair, speaking to her in soothing tones.
Once the water was hot, Rianna returned to her mother. Niona
had lit some twigs in a brazier on the table near the bed, and a sweet smoke filtered into the air. Niona took the hot water, poured some into a cup, and added ground powder to it. Mixing in a small vile
of liquid, she handed the cup to Rianna. Then she took a piece of cloth and dipped
it into the remainder of the water and put a hot compress on Brigid’s left side.
Brigid stirred and opened her eyes. Her dull gaze fixed on Rianna. “Oh, my darling,” she whispered in a rasping voice. “I am so sorry. I do not want to leave you this way.”
The knot in Rianna’s chest drew tighter. She grasped her
mother’s frail hand. “You are going to be fine. I have brought Niona. She has something that will help you
feel better.” Rianna assisted her mother into a sitting position and held
the cup to her mother’s mouth.
Suddenly a hand shot between Rianna and Brigid and snatched the cup. Startled,
Rianna looked up into a pair of eyes narrowed with contempt. Her uncle’s
beefy face was red with anger.
“What in the name of God are you doing, child?” he asked in a tight voice. “Do you want to kill your mother with this witch’s brew?”
Turning, he bellowed at Niona. “Get out of here, you spawn of the
Niona glared at the abbot, then gathered her things into her pouch, and slipped out of the room as silent as
Rianna opened her mouth to speak, but the look that the abbot gave her the made words stick in her throat. He pushed her out of the way and went to work pulling a crucifix from under his robes,
setting it up on the table where Niona’s medicines had been earlier. Fumbling
deeply into his pouch, he pulled out two candles and a small vial of holy oil. He
was preparing to give her mother the last rites.
Her uncle made the sign of the cross. “In nominee Patris, et Filii, et Speritus Sante. Amen.” Bending over her mother, he anointed her head, palms, and feet, then continued
to drone on in Latin.
This was not real. Rianna felt as though she could no longer breathe. The room closed in around her. She had
to get out. Quickly she fled the confines of her mother’s room, dashed
across the main room, and out the door. In the twilight of evening, she drew
in several deep breaths, then slowly slid down the side of the wall into a heap on the ground and wept.
words, “Dona eis requim sempiteram,
grant them eternal rest,” pounded in Rianna’s head along with the lonely sound of each shovel full
of dirt thudding onto her mother’s coffin. She sensed her uncle at her
side but had no desire to face him. A misty rain fell, and fog rolled in from
the sea shrouding the scene as the thuds continued.
Rianna realized that her uncle had meant well when he sent Niona away, but if there was the slightest chance... No use dwelling on it. It was too late. She would never see her mother again. He
must be grieving, too. Brigid was his sister after all. Rianna turned to give her uncle a word of comfort but saw only his brown-robed back hurrying away in the
mist. With a shrug, she turned toward home.
She would let the servants drive the wagon back. Maybe after a long walk,
she would be too tired to think.
Strolling along the road, she stared at the spring leaves glittering in the rain. Their life was just beginning while her mother’s had come to an end.
It was the time of year for new beginnings. Her mother would want her
to look to the future. But what kind of future was in store for a young, unmarried
woman in a man’s world? The ominous thunder in the distance did not brighten
As she continued on her way, Rianna’s thoughts turned to the past three weeks. She had been staying in the guest cottage at the monastery in order to further her studies in reading and
writing. It was what her mother and father had wanted. Until the monasteries had come to Ireland, the Celts had always passed on what they learned orally.
Although runes were still utilized by her people, the type of writing brought by the monks was the future. Her mother had taught her what she knew, than sent Rianna to her Uncle Murdoch, abbot of the monastery,
for further lessons. Rianna was anxious to learn so that she would be able to
write her father’s poems and her mother’s songs onto vellum, a fine parchment made of calf’s skin.
During the day she spent her time in the scriptorium learning to
read and write Latin. By the time vespers was over in the evening, it was too
dark to travel to her home more then an hour away.
After four weeks of prayer and study at the abbey, Rianna had been ready to spend a few days with her mother
and to enjoy a stroll in the woods. As soon as her uncle gave her permission,
she left the monastery and an hour later stepped into her mother’s large cottage.
When Mora met her at the door, Rianna knew that something was wrong. The
elderly woman looked at her with grey eyes filled with sorrow and told Rianna that Lady Brigid had taken to her bed with a
strange illness. The servants had summoned the village barber-surgeon the day
before her return, but he was unable to help.
Rianna continued walking in silence as she scanned the passing
landscape. Soon the monastery and village were left behind, and the rolling green
countryside surrounded her. Heading toward what was now her estate; Rianna gazed
at the cottage with its outbuildings perched atop a hill like a mother bird with her chicks.
It was larger than the cottages found in the village or on most farms. Her
parents had earned a great deal of money while traveling from town to town. Her
father Brandon O’Neill had been a highly esteemed bard and favored by the king of Tara. Her
father’s legendary tales and her mother’s beautiful singing voice brought them much acclaim. When her parents decided to settle down and start a family, they had earned enough money to buy some acreage
and build this cottage.
The cottage was made of wattle and daub like all the houses of the area.
Her parents had the help of servants when they constructed the buildings on the estate.
Willow twigs were woven horizontally between vertical wooden stakes. The
cottage had both an inner and outer wall covered with a mixture of clay, and bog peat was stuffed between them for insulation. As the years passed, her parents added more rooms to the house.
Scanning the forest that marched along the ridge of hills behind the buildings of the estate, Rianna recalled
how she and her father spent many happy hours hunting and hiking among those trees.
He had taught her how to use a staff as a weapon and how to handle a sword. The
thought that her mother and father were together again gave her comfort.
When Rianna walked into the stable yard, she noticed that the servants had returned. She sought out Colin, her mother’s overseer, and found him in the barn putting up the horses.
“Why did you not send for me when Mother became ill?” she asked, searching his haggard face.
“I wanted to, my lady, but your mother did not want to interrupt your studies. Her illness did not seem bad then. It was only a short time
before your return home that she grew worse. Then...” His shoulders slumped, and he turned away as tears filled his eyes.
Rianna put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “I know you
loved her, as we all did.”
She walked slowly toward the dark, silent cottage. Moving as though
in a trance, she entered the main room, built a fire, and sat staring into it. Women
were taken care of by either their fathers, husbands, and in later years, if widowed, their sons. She had no one. Her uncle would take responsibility for her
until she married. Her mother had been an exception. After the death of Rianna’s father, the king of Tara had allowed Brigid to remain on her land and keep the
estate. The land would have gone to Rianna’s brothers if she had any. But she was an only child, so she would keep the land until she married. At that time, the estate would be turned over to her new husband.
Life was unfair. A woman should have more say in her future.
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