* * * *
Her sister looked up from where she bent close to the candle at the table near the hearth. “It’s not yet night, Mary Kate.” But a quick shudder shook her shoulders.
“And that’s not a shiver I’m seeing, Rose?” Mary Kate teased. Even she could hear her own voice falter in the midst of the teasing.
Rose pressed her lips together for a moment, bending her attention to her embroidery. “Leave it shut, then.” She cast a quick glance at her older sister. “The...the wind is different.”
Trust her little sister to be sensitive to it, even though she had not the training. Mary Kate’s heart ached. She would not wish the sensitivity she’d been gifted with at birth on anyone, for it set one apart. Though she was from an ancient line of wise women in the village of Baile an Faolchú, the deference given that position...set her apart.
A wail curled around the whining wind, then turned to a shrieking cry. Rose started and dropped her stitchery, and then gazed at Mary Kate. “The bahn sidhe,” she said, her voice frightened. “Where is our Ryan?”
Terror seized Mary Kate’s heart at the spirit’s warning of death, but the door burst open, and her sandy-haired brother ran into the room. “Wolfe Tone’s dead. Curse the damned British, for they’ve killed the last hope we had.”
“Dear Mother of God.” Fear and anger forced Mary Kate to her feet, crossing herself as she did so and sending up a quick prayer for the brave leader of the rebellion who had sought to bring all Irish together in cooperation against the English. “Never tell me you were with the United Irish, brother, for I’ll have your head as quick as the English if you were.” She hurriedly went to the door, and shut and latched it, but not before she looked quickly outside, casting her gaze around the front yard and twilight-dim landscape beyond the gate. “And hush your voice! Do you wish to bring ruin to us? The English have ears, and if they do not, who knows on what whim the Peep o’ Day boys will decide to string you up themselves? Or the Defenders, for that matter?” She closed her mouth on her next words, casting a glance at Rose’s anxious face. No need to speak of their own fate, should they be caught between warring gangs and English troops.
Ryan’s face reddened in both anger and embarrassment. “What’s left of the two, you mean, for we’re all one Irish now.” He paused, clearly trying to rein in his temper. “My apologies, sister,” he said stiffly, but there was an edge of impatience in his voice. Mary Kate held his gaze and made a slight movement of her head toward Rose. His gaze softened; Ryan had an impetuous temper, but equally fierce was his love for family. He would not wish to upset his younger sister.
“I was not,” he said. “You’ve warned me enough as it is--‘tis a right nag you are, after all.”
Kate let out a sigh. “Good, then,” she said. She cast another glance at Ryan. Though he looked at her straight and with some defiance, and though she was sure he was not lying to her, she could not help feeling uneasy. There was the cry of the bahn sidhe, after all--
But it was upon Wolfe Tone’s death, and not anything to do with her brother, surely. Indeed, why wouldn’t a bahn sidhe cry out at the death of a man with the great aspiration of throwing off the oppression of the English?
As impossible as that must be. There was never peace in a large Irish household, and Ireland was a large household indeed. She suppressed a grimace. In a grim way, it was almost a blessing to have one less revolutionary influencing a seventeen year old boy to war.
“Have you eaten, Ryan?” Rose asked. “There’s stew in the pot, still hot, and a good oat cake.”
The sullen look on Ryan’s face disappeared, and his eyes brightened. “Aye, I’ve a little bit at Fiona’s house, but I could do with more.”
Rose grinned. “I think it’s the fourth time this month you’ve dined with Fiona and her mother. You must be careful you do not eat them out of house and home, brother.” She rose from her chair and went to the hearth where the pot of stew sat, picking up a bowl and ladle on the way. Mary Kate could see her grimace as she poured the stew—it was soup more than stew, and watery at that, but it was more than what many of their neighbors had.
“Mrs. McKinnon has said naught.” He waved a dismissive hand at Rose. “Besides, I caught a brace of pheasants and gave one of them to them, so they shall not go without a meal.”
“Pheasant?” Alarm coursed through Mary Kate. “Never tell me you were hunting on Faolchú land?”
Ryan shrugged. “The old lord is dead--bad cess to him--and the steward does not look too closely at what a man might bag. By rights we McCrees should be free to hunt as we wish on that land.”
“English lord,” Mary Kate said. “Should his heir hear of your poaching, you’ll have the soldiers at our door.”
Ryan grunted a quick grace over the spoon of stew he already had in his hand and then quickly stuffed the stew in his mouth. “It matters not what we do, we will have soldiers at our door,” he said after swallowing his spoonful, and shrugged. “I might as well be strung up for feeding those who need it as anything else.”
“Stop, Ryan! Never say such a thing!” Rose cried. She clutched her embroidery, then shook her hand before sucking on a pricked finger.
“Silly goose.” Ryan sopped up the dregs of his stew with his oat cake, and then stood up and took his empty bowl to the washing bucket. He stretched and his eyes went to the door and the bag he had thrown there. "Oh, the pheasant--I brought the other home for us."
"Well, give it over," Mary Kate replied, irritated. "Since you brought it, we should use it soon, as it wouldn't do to have anyone see it hanging about." She took the bag from him and opened it. It was a plump pheasant, clearly one that had fed on Faolchú land. It'd feed the three of them for the next few days in a stew if they were careful. She hung the bag up away from the hearth; she would pluck it tomorrow. A recurrence of the Great Freeze was ever a worry, and it had already become cold enough to have ruined some of their potatoes. However, she had a good lot that hadn't been touched by bad weather, and had been careful to put the good ones by in the earth cellar. She'd heard enough of the Freeze from the elders in the village to be cautious, and it was her training to put away food and herbs and other simples.
She allowed herself a satisfied smile. Though Ryan was correct saying that the McCrees had a birthright to the Faolchú land, it was not a right the ruling English agreed they had. Nevertheless, her great-great-grandfather had managed to retain a small portion of the land from Cromwell’s forces over a hundred and fifty years ago, and her great-great-grandmother and her descendants had kept it from English hands by wit and guile. Indeed, they had prospered compared to many, for they had enough land to keep sheep for good fleece, goats for milk, and grow more than potatoes. Should the animals survive the winter, they would surely have enough spun yarn and cheeses to sell and buy more chickens in the spring. That would be a fine thing, indeed.
She went to the hearth and sat next to Rose, and picked up the sturdy woolen socks she was knitting for Ryan. She thought of the elderly English earl who never saw fit to step foot in Ireland but a day or so, much less the land he owned. It was just as well; his absence made it easier for the McCrees to continue holding the land they had. She hoped the new master of Castle Faolchú would do the same. The last thing they needed were more English, and the truth of it was, the man's neglect would benefit both her family and the next landowner of Castle Faolchú. She thought of the failed rebellion and shuddered. God help us, no more English, no more Irish factions pitted against each other. Just leave us alone.
Mary Kate found Rose looking at her anxiously, and though she gave her sister enough of a reassuring smile that the girl attended her embroidery again, she made herself pay attention to the sounds in and about their cottage as she knitted. The rhythmic clicking of knitting needles focused her senses; she could separate the sounds within and without. There was the crackling of the fire, the first scrape of a bow over Ryan’s fiddle, and then a fine sweet tone. Soon, Rose began to hum, and her fine clear voice sang the words of a love song. Beneath it all were the whispers of air that floated and swirled between the fire’s warmth and the cold draft from the door. And beyond the door—
The wolf wind began to howl, and the faint weeping of the Bahn Sidhe sang a dissonant chorus. Mary Kate closed her eyes, suddenly weary, and prayed that no one was out long in the rising storm. The Sidhe did not only wail for Wolfe Tone.
* * * *
James Marstone pushed back the hair that had come loose from his queue, pushed his hat more firmly onto his head, and urged his ride forward. He half wondered if it had been a bad decision to come to see the land he’d inherited from his great-uncle, for he had heard of the unrest and growing rebellion of the Irish. But the soldiers he'd met before embarking for Ireland had assured him the rebellion was now over, and he was well-armed with both sword and pistol. He grimaced. He now wished he had paid more attention to the newspapers than he had in the past few years, but he had not time for things that--he had thought--would not concern him, for he had thought he’d stay on his family’s estate and work as its steward into old age. He hadn’t expected that he’d have an estate of his own.
He had also not expected he’d be as sick as a dog crossing over the sea, that carriages for let were suddenly unavailable at each inn he entered, and that the only animal he could find for transport was an ill-trained donkey that insisted on investigating every promising-looking piece of green vegetation along the road. But duty was duty, and it was a bad landlord who didn’t take stock of what he owned and those who worked it on his behalf. Besides, he’d already spent five years managing the estate of his older brother, and as a very ordinary member of an unusual family, it was the one thing he took pride in, that he excelled in land management, and so he itched to manage property of his own at last. Never mind that it was in Ireland; land was land, and that it was supposedly poor land he’d inherited was merely a challenge.
A spit of rain hit his nose, but he ignored it. He looked into the distance. It was growing dark, but the last innkeeper had grudgingly told him that Castle Falcoe lay near the village of Baileyanfalcoe; he’d not be far from it if he passed the McCree cottage. And he’d know the cottage by the fine slate roof instead of the usual thatch.
Well, the sky was darkening with approaching night and clouds, but if the sharp edges of the roof on the house in the distance was an indication, he was approaching said McCree cottage, and beyond that would be the village and then at last his destination. With luck, the steward—Mr. Kilpatrick—would have the servants ready a warm fire and a decent meal, and then he could rest his weary bones in a well-mattressed bed.
The thought of physical comfort made him nudge the donkey more firmly than ever with his heels, but the animal only grunted and plodded faster for the length of a few feet before it settled back into a slow trudge. A sudden uptake of wind buffeted him, and nearly tossed his hat from his head, but he seized it just before it flew entirely from his grasp. Rain took the opportunity to slash his face with freezing cold before he could slam his hat on his head again.
The donkey did not pick up speed. James gritted his teeth. Was the damned beast insensible to cold? Surely it wanted a warm stable as much as James wanted a warm bed. He glanced at the cottage ahead of him; he could see light through the cracks in the shutters covering the windows. Someone was within—someone who was enjoying more warmth and food than he was enjoying now, which was none at all. He looked into the dark distance, the road ahead hardly discernible from the horizon now that the clouds had wholly overtaken the evening sky. The castle was but a few more miles from where he was now, but there was no guarantee the idiot donkey would stay on the path without a strong guiding hand. He had the hand; however, he did not have the guidance of familiarity with the landscape.
James looked again at the cottage now not far from the road. He’d get little welcome there, if the attitude of the innkeepers he’d met were any indication of Irish sentiment toward an Englishman. But he could not help noticing that there were few plump Irishmen, and he’d heard the McCrees were an old and honorable family. If they were as poor as the rest of the Irish he’d seen, perhaps they would put up with an Englishman if he paid them well.
He turned the donkey toward the path that led to the cottage, and perhaps the animal sensed that food and warmth were closer than anticipated, for it picked up speed with alarming alacrity, nearly unseating him in its haste.
The donkey came to a halt in front of the cottage door, snuffling around the entrance as if looking for food, and James quickly dismounted and tied it to a post before the animal decided to leave with his saddlebags still attached. He hesitated before knocking at the door, for he could hear music within: a fiddle and the sound of a young woman’s voice lifted in song. But the wind now howled and forcefully pushed him toward the door. It was worth trying, certainly. He lifted the door knocker and rapped twice. The music stopped mid-phrase.
The door opened, and a young male face peered out. “Aye? And who are you, sir?”
“James Marstone of Suffolk—Mr. McCree, I presume? I have been traveling for a long while and—”
“English! We’ll have no damned English here. You’ll do us a favor if you dirtied our doorstep no longer than a minute, sir.” The door slammed in his face.
James clenched his teeth and felt his face grow hot with anger. Then he sighed. He should have expected such. There was nothing for it but to push on.
“Ryan!” A scandalized female voice rose above the wind that began to howl around the corners of the house. “Are you daft? Can you not hear the wind? ‘Tis a storm a-brewing, and leaving anyone out in it would be the death of them.”
He paused, pulled between hope and doubt that he’d be welcome once the woman—young, he thought, from the sound of her voice—learned of his origins. The donkey next to him snuffled at the door again and let out a whinny that sounded very much like a whine. He felt a sudden sympathy for the animal, and patted its head. “Let’s hope the lady feels less of a prejudice than her relative, Sir Donkey.” He leaned toward the door, listening.
“It’s an Englishman, Mary Kate. I’ll not have one of them in this house, by God.”
The lady’s voice rose. “Will you listen to yourself, then? You’re swearing by the Almighty that you’ll not let an Englishman in our home, but I’m thinking Father O’Brian will have a thing or two to say about letting a fellow human being die of cold when it’s your turn in the confessional. Englishman or not, I’ll thank you to be a true McCree and not tarnish our reputation for hospitality, boyo.”
“But what if the—”
“Whisht! Stop your nonsense. All of Baille an Faolchú knows anyone who comes in courtesy to our door is not turned away, and so we are treated in return. So it has been since McCrees have been in this land, English or no English.”
The door suddenly opened before James could straighten himself, and he came face to face with a pair of large eyes, a tip-tilted nose lightly covered with freckles, and a mass of wavy dark hair. The eyes widened in surprised, then slitted in suspicion. “Listening at the door, were you? I’m half inclined to think my brother was in the right of it.” But she pushed the door open wider. “Well, you’re in luck, for he isn’t right, and English or not, I won’t have a frozen corpse at the door for the authorities to find in the morning.”
He hesitated, but she seized his coat sleeve and pulled him in. “It’s little enough fuel we have to heat the house, so I’ll thank you not to let what warmth we have leave on the wind.”