The Madness of Queen Maeve

PROLOGUE

You have heard the legend of Queen Maeve, grandchild, the song of her deeds, her sons, her great war. But I wish to tell you of Maeve the woman, my greatest friend. They speak always of the fire in her head… I would tell you of the waters of her heart.

They say only stories live forever. Now that I am old, I am sure that nothing does, unless perhaps the stars. But I would have her memory walk the earth as long as my blood flows. And I will have her known to my kin, for she was closer than a sister to me…

CHAPTER 1—ÉRIU

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

William Butler Yeats, The Stolen Child

All stories begin with the land— Ériu, our island of fog and soft grass. See the cattle that graze her body. They are small and black and their milk is abundant. It is our very life. 

When the ancestors came across the sea long ago, the gods blessed them and their herds grew. The clans multiplied as the milk flowed, sweet with cream. If you listen carefully in the hollows and dells, you can still hear the ancestors singing. They live forever beneath the earth. 

Sometimes, the tribes of Ériu forget that they have the same forebears. They curse themselves and steal from other clans, and the cattle-struggles soak the earth with blood. 

Some druids urge the tribes toward war. Others, like my Grandmothers, cried that the land gives enough milk for all. Milk and blood, blood and milk, season by season…

Twenty years before my part in this tale, the young, hungry chieftain of the Bull Clan defeated the Eagle king in single combat. The victor was Queen Maeve’s father, Eochaid Feidlech. 

After a hot summer of battle, autumn rains set in, smothering the fires consuming the thatch of the king’s hall. The Bull Clan’s warriors hoisted their chieftain onto their shoulders and carried him around the blazing ruins in triumph and relief. In the blustery twilight, the druids prepared for the rites that would make Feidlech the Ard-rí, high king of Ériu.

“Aaahr, boys, heheh…come, put me down now,” Feidlech laughed. Obediently, they set the huge man on his on his feet. He leaned on his oldest captain to straighten his jerkin, and the crowd dispersed to loot homes and build funeral pyres.

One of the enemy’s grain bins stood untouched by the flames. As the warriors turned away, a small figure darted from under it, tearing through the wet grass on his skinny legs. No one noticed except the old captain. He nudged Feidlech.

“M’lord— the child.”

Feidlech frowned at the boy disappearing through the rain. He shrugged, “Let ‘im go. No harm in it.”

“But that’s one of Athac’s princes,” the old warrior argued. “Don’t leave an egg to hatch, m’lord.”

“What good’s an egg with none to sit the nest?” Feidlech countered. Heads turned—the nearby men were listening curiously now. “Aaahr, stay here,” Feidlech ordered, drawing his sword. 

He followed the child’s track up the wet slope overlooking the Bóann River, where the rain and wind thickened. At the crest, Feidlech nearly stumbled over the body of a druid, a spear protruding from his rumpled cape of eagle feathers.

The boy hunched behind the druid’s war-harp, watching the approach of the man who had bested his father. Eochaid Feidlech was half the fallen king’s age and twice his size, a giant with pale hair and bull-horns clanking around his neck. 

They stared at each other. The harp’s strings groaned in the gale.

“Yer Athac’s youngest, ‘ent ye?” Feidlech asked, voice raspy from smoke and shouting. The king studied the child— proud cheekbones, slender limbs with the promise of strength coming, dark eyes that burned like a druid’s. Blood dripped from a gash in the boy’s face.

The child looked from the sword in Feidlech’s hand to the river below. It was a steep drop.

“Come, boy, I’ll not hurt ye,” Feidlech wiped and sheathed his sword. He glanced over his shoulder back toward the smoldering hall, where a knot of men had gathered, watching. They expected him to finish the long, hard work of the summer’s fighting by killing this Eagle princeling. 

But Feidlech could not slay a child and feel like a king. Bulls don’t kill calves.

“You’re the boy called Suibna, then?” He asked. The boy only stared, eyes round and huge.

“Not to worry, gilla. I’ll be a new father for ye,’” Feidlech stepped closer.

The child clutched at the harp.

“Don’ be afraid, I’ll respect the memory of yer folk. I’ve even got a little daughter yer age. Come here, now.” Feidlech held out a hand.

The boy lunged away, then slipped on the damp turf at the edge of the cliff. Feidlech howled and sprang forward, too late. Boy and harp tumbled toward the river below. Feidlech lost sight of them through the mist, but he heard the splash.

He stood alone there a long time, letting the rain wash away the grime of the battle, mingle with his tears. Then he stomped wearily back to his men, and reported that the prince was dead.

Eochaid Feidlech was a fair king, but sometimes the Eagle clan was remembered in hushed voices over peat fires. In wattle huts, where loyalty was to stomach and herd, they told tales of the fallen king during lean times, when the memory of Feidlech’s feasts grew faint. 

***

I spent long afternoons gathering herbs on that hilltop with my brother Cae, who ate all the best berries and brought down rabbits for the evening pot with his sling.

We were always alone there. The neighboring herdsmen avoided the Harper’s Hill, for Feidlech’s tribe was suspicious of the place. They feared the Eagle Prince’s shade. Some even said they could hear the Eagle King’s war harp thrumming from the Otherworld.

But we never heard anything, and the clifftop grew especially vigorous herbs. Cae liked to watch the comings and goings of Feidlech’s warriors across the plain, and on a clear day, one could see all the way to the eastern sea.

Our mama was a keeper of the rites of the Bóann River, a healer, a mender of breaks, a settler of discord. The milky river in the sky rises each night in the east, then flows west until dawn. Then, our people say, it returns along the earth as the Bóann, flowing west across the land and into the sea, where it rises again. 

How long has our family dwelt beside this river of starlight? Since dark cows have given white milk, as they say. Even twice-grandmothers cannot remember a time when a healer did not live in the house by the ford. Kings have come and gone on the Plain of Temair, their halls raised and fallen, but the healing house still stands by the river, ever unchanged.

“Oi, Breide, horsemen!” Cae cried. I did not look up from the meadowsweet I was gathering. It is a mild, gracious herb, one of the best for breaking a fever.

He sprang to the edge of the cliff and shaded his eyes with his hand. Cae was the youngest and sunniest of Mama’s children. He was red-haired, freckled, with a quick temper and a quicker laugh—the sun’s toll on a moon-soft healer with four daughters.

“Wonder where they’re bound?” He squinted at the distant figures.

“Let’s go back and brew this for Maura, she’ll need it when she wakes,” I said.

Cae picked up a stone and hurled it with all his might, watching it arc toward the river, then jogged down the slope and waited for me at the edge of the hazel-wood. 

After the deep channel below the Harper’s Hill, the Bóann widens and languishes over a gravel ford. The lodge at the center of the village sat nearly empty in late summer, for the people summered in small roundhouses dotting the valley. The healing house, too, was quiet in the warm season. Our only patient was an elderly woman, Maura, who lay on the sheepskins near the fire. A fever was wasting her frame.

My sister Inas worked rhythmically on a grinding-stone beside the hearth. She shook her head when I pulled the meadowsweet from my satchel.

“You have used it diligently, but we must try something stronger.” She scattered a handful of poppy pods onto the stone and crunched them beneath her pestle. Like all the moonish women of my family, Inas was small-boned and pale skinned, with grey eyes and wispy brown hair.

“Her stomach is too weak,” I argued.

She shook her head, “I tell you, poppy will heal her.”

“Sister, she vomits everything but meadowsweet in milk.”

Inas pursed her lips. She was the eldest, and would not stoop to argue with me. A tense silence stretched between us.

“Gods, just ask the old crone what she wants!” Cae threw up his arms. “Too many women hereabout… can’t agree on anything.”

Inas laughed indulgently and scooped up the muddled pods.

“Stew them up, Sister, as I bid.”

***

Mama had never lived with a husband, but in her younger days, she had accepted the attentions of Eochaid Mehren, a wealthy herdsman from the south. He claimed to be father to my brother Cae, and when he was old enough, Mama sent Cae to Mehren for fosterage. He spent seven years learning the art of spear and sword, shield and horse, and returned to us a lanky gilla with a warrior’s ring on his arm and mischief in his eyes.

Though we welcomed him back like the morning sun, he pined away, yearning for the world outside our peaceful little village. He had little companionship in my old uncles. They spend their days fishing and playing at findchell by the hearth, reminiscing about the battles of their youth. They had no more interest in sparring or riding.

Cae busied himself as best he could, attaching himself to me and helping with chores. He complained as we pounded herbs and emulsified medicines in pig-fat over the fire. Every full moon, he drank late into the night with Feidlech’s herdsmen across the river, and came back bleary and full of restless poetry. He brought down so many rabbits and deer that game was scarce for miles. His fire was sputtering.

Sure enough, Maura vomited up the poppy. It was too much for her strained belly. Inas had gone to eat with Mama, so I resumed my treatment of meadowsweet gently simmered in milk. I held small spoonfuls to Maura’s trembling lips, and she swallowed feebly. 

“Sister! My father is coming!” Cae burst back into the house with a crash. “The party crossing the plain— it’s Mehren and his men, bound for the village!”

“Eochaid Mehren? You certain?” I asked, dabbing some milk from Maura’s chin. “Hope all’s well with him.” Folk seldom come to a healing-house with good news. 

But Cae was frantic with joy. He ran his fingers through his hair and strapped on his belt and sword, which had lain long idle in a corner.

“Perhaps he’s come for me, Sister!”

I rolled my eyes, “You don’t want to stay and guard your mama? You want to spend your life riding out after cattle and clashing with rustlers?”

He took my arm and planted a kiss on my brow.

“Ah, you know the answer to that, Brei. Come!”

“Maura needs to finish her meal,” I protested.

The old woman shook her head.

“Go on, girl,” she croaked. “I’ll not wander off,” she laughed wheezily at her own joke.

I patted her hand and followed Cae, nearly running to keep up as he bounded through the dappled wood to the river. Mehren and four grim-faced warriors were urging their horses into the shallows of the ford, their legs churning its limpid surface. Cae tried not to squirm with excitement. 

Mehren’s round, brown-bearded face broke into a grin. He leapt from his horse and crushed my brother to him, then stepped back and surveyed his son appreciatively. Cae had grown, his voice had deepened and his shoulders had broadened. He had become a man.

“Yer a right chunk now, gilla! Yer mother’s been feedin’ ye hearty.”

“Aye, always,” said Cae, gripping arms with each of the men. “I’ve missed you, all of you.”

Mehren turned to me, “Little Breide, ye look well. A woman grown now, eh?”

“Aye, eochaid. What brings you this way?” I bowed.

“Ahr, trouble, a’course….” His face fell and he tugged at his scrubby beard. “Where’s Lady Brigh?”

“By the hearth, I expect,” I replied. 

We led them to our roundhouse at the other end of the village. Cae bobbed around the men, asking after their families and kine. 

Mama sat with my sisters Inas and Feirdhris on low chairs cushioned with sheepskins. Mehren and his warriors crowded in, ducking to avoid the bundles of herbs hanging from the rafters.

“Mehren!” cried Mama, gathering her shawl about her shoulders and rising. She was a small woman with delicate bones and ample hips, gentle and steady as the river’s flow.

“Brigh,” Mehren took her hands and kissed them. He was smiling again, but his eyes looked weary.

“It… it has been years, Mehren,” said Mama, studying his face. “What’s amiss?” 

“It’s me eldest— took a thigh wound in a raid. Didn’t want to risk him ridin’ here, but I came to make an offerin’ to the river… it ‘ent healin’ well as it might.”

Mama nodded.

“An’ I’ve come for this one,” he said, grabbing Cae by the shoulder and pulling him close. “I’ve got to look to his future now. I want him to foster with Queen Maeve’s war duke, the one they call the Bear. I’m journeyin’ there for the Lúnasa feasts, and I’d like to take him along.”

Mama went pale, but Cae looked like dawn had come at midnight.

“Maeve’s war duke!?” he cried. Queen Maeve was a legend— King Feidlech’s eldest daughter, who ruled over her mother’s tribe in far-away Cruachan.

“Aye, son, ye’ve been idle here too long. If your brother never recovers, ye’ll be me only heir. I’ve got t’see yer a hardened man. The Bear’s the greatest warrior in Ériu, greater’n’ Eochaid Feidlech in his prime, some say. Yer to ride with him.”

Mama inclined her head, but Feirdhris and I looked at each other in alarm.

“Take your supper with us,” said Mama, reaching for my hand and drawing me close. “And rest here. You must be hungry from riding.” Her voice was gracious, betraying no emotion. When I looked at Feirdhris, though, I saw my own dismay reflected in her eyes.

The bondwomen turned a pig over the hearth while Mama quizzed Mehren about his son’s injury. I slipped away to finish feeding Maura, and Cae followed to vent his feelings.

“Can you believe it? I’m to foster with the Bear, to fight for Queen Maeve?” He scampered down the path, trampling the verge. The sun was setting upriver, turning the waters a molten gold.

“Mama has yet to give her leave…”

“I’m a man, aren’t I? I am not sworn to anyone. I will go.”

I managed a weak smile. I really was happy for him, but for my heart, his leaving would be like the setting of the sun in the west.

***

A warrior’s arm ring is given him at his coming of age, when he responds to the call of the carnyx, the war-trumpet, for the first time. It is wrought in gold or silver by the best smith his father can find. His own hair and blood are smelted into the metal at its making, and when his father dies, he adds his sires’ rings to his own. His arms are made heavy with the weight of his ancestors.

When the auspicious sign of the water-bearer rose over the eastern horizon, Mehren gave his arm ring to the goddess of the Bóann, a plea to heal his firstborn. 

Cae and I watched the rites from the edge of the river. My brother was uncharacteristically grave. A muscle worked in his jaw. Though he rejoiced at the thought of going to foster with the Bear, this injury meant that Cae might lose the only brother he had ever known.

The reflections of the trees wavered as Mehren waded into the river. It embraced him up to his hips, rippling in the golden flicker of his peat torch and the silver gleam of the waning moon. Mama stepped from the shadows of the bank and waded in beside him. Her soft face was sharpened by the lights of moon and fire. She took his hand, and he sagged against her, weeping. The sound of her singing drifted to us across the water, the river-song.

White cow, Moon-Mother Bóann

Milk of the sky, flowing on earth. 

You flow in our veins, the veins of our children. 

You spring from wounds and you fall as rain,

You stain the ground where the warrior falls.

Moon-Mother, Moon-Mother Bóann, 

Milk of the sky, flowing on earth.

The song ended. Mehren pulled the ring from his wrist with a jerk, and cast it into the water.

The current swallowed it smoothly and continued on her way to the sea.

“I am going,” Cae announced the next morning at breakfast. “We have decided, Mehren and I. I will go to be fostered by the Bear of Cruachan.”

We were huddled around the hearth in the main lodge. Clouds had blown in after midnight, and dawn brought a morose rain. Mehren’s men scraped the cauldron bare of porridge and cream, and started to pack their bedrolls.

My sisters and I looked expectantly at Mama. Brigh raised her eyebrows, and I felt a tingle of trepidation— though hidden by her quiet ways, Mama was a powerful woman, and bowed to no man but the high king. My brother must not speak to her this way, no matter how Mehren honored him.

Cae lowered his gaze, “But, er, I ask your blessing, lady Mother.”

Mama shifted her shoulders as though they ached, and rubbed her neck. She sighed.

“Oh, my son, of course you have my blessing. Your destiny is your own. I know this place cannot keep you,” she studied his face. “And if I must be bereft of you, there is no place in Ériu that can offer you so much as Wolfhall. The Cruachú love Maeve. Their herds thrive, and peace is kept between all the families from the Sionna River to the western coast, from the lakes in the south to the cliffs of the north.” 

We knew Cruachan was the wildest quarter of Ériu, its cattle herded in boggy valleys and on high, windswept crags. Its queen, Maeve, was a legend. Though she was the daughter of the high king Eochaid Feidlech, she ruled outright in her mother’s country.

“She’s a sorceress, like her mother before her,” Mehren said. “She sees all that happens in Ériu ‘afore it passes!” 

“I heard she ran a foot race at Temair and beat every one of her father’s arms-men!” Cae exclaimed.

“I don’t remember seeing such a thing,” said Mama delicately. Feirdhris and I smiled into our porridge, sensing her impatience.

“She can make a man fall in love with her by only a’ glancin’ at him,” said one of the bondwomen. “I’ve heard kings fight each other fer her favor.”

Mama started to reply, but one of Mehren’s warriors broke in, “She can best any man in combat, except her own war duke! An’ her mother was sired by a great mountain wolf, so they say.”

“Er, no, I believe her grandfather was Eochaid Hoama of the Cruachú….” but no one heard Mama’s correction. The household was now in full flow, sharing all they had ever heard about Queen Maeve. 

“Mama, I’m going to check on Maura.” I whispered beneath the chatter.

She gestured me closer and I bent to embrace her, sensing sadness flowing beneath her composure. She said softly, “Harvest more caisearbhán?”

Outside, the wind had risen and the rain subsided. Sunlight was filtering through the clouds on the eastern horizon. I was surprised when Cae followed me and caught my hand in his rough, freckled one.

“Sister, I’ve been thinking— you must come with me.”

I stopped short.

“What?”

“To Cruachan! You heard all that, what an adventure it will be. And you have nothing here, you have no husband, no children.”

“My destiny is to heal, Mama says.” His words stung— you have nothing here.

“Then why not serve a queen? You cannot stay here and be a low-growing violet your whole life, bossed by elder sisters who do not have half your wisdom or patience!” He peered at me earnestly, “Surely a queen like Maeve has need for a waiting-woman with healing hands. Come with me!”

I blinked and stared around me. In the east, the river was returning the sun’s mellow-golden smile, blushing pink at the ripples. The roundhouses of the families across the river sent up tendrils of smoke that mingled and hung in a purple haze in the low places. A herdsman’s bellow rang out as he urged his cattle up the dew-shimmered hills for the day’s grazing.

“Are you afraid to go alone, Brother?” I asked.

“Hah!” He shook his head. “Never. I’ll have companions among the Bear’s warriors soon enough. I ask for your own sake. Think on it.”

He turned back up the path.

I made my way to the sickhouse through the dripping wood. A bondwoman had left a jug of fresh milk in the doorway. I sprinkled it with sprigs of meadowsweet and mint, then stoked the fire beneath it and stared into the flames.

This low room, with its bundles of herbs and sheepskin beds, was the center of our work. Sacrifices and magic were made at the river, but it was here that we struggled and sweated to heal our people.

When Mama was born, her mother, Bóanndech, gave her the name Brigh, Bright One, and prophesied that her name would bring light to the ailing forever. Mama laughed at that, but she was a great healer. She had a way seeing into the body to know what it needed. In these humble wattle walls, she birthed babies and healed terrible wounds. Here she taught me the healing songs, the language of green and growing things, begged them to lend us their powers. 

Blood and laughter and toil…

Maura coughed roughly. Her fever had broken, but she was very weak. I still did not know if she would ever go home. 

“What’s on yer heart, little Breide?” she asked as I spooned the murky brew into her mouth.

“Nothing.”

“Ahr, I’m too near dead for lies, child,” she managed a smile, then coughed up a bit of milk. I dabbed it from her blanket.

“Cae is leaving for Cruachan with Eochaid Mehren.”

The old woman frowned.

“Ye’ll be lonesome when ‘e goes, won’t ye?”

I nodded, then said, “He wants me to go along, to serve in Queen Maeve’s house.”

Maura’s lips closed around the spoon again, and this time she managed to swallow. It looked painful.

“That ye should, bantiarna, if Lady Brigh allows it. Ye’ll have heard a’ Queen Maeve, she’s the greatest woman in Ériu. Make ye into a fine mighty lady yerself, she could.”

I sighed and looked around. “I am sure. The hall of a queen would be very different from this place. Busy, and rich, in the middle of everything.”

She nodded, then her eyes brightened.

“Ye know she’s got a wolf fer a grandad?!”