Here’s a short piece of fiction I’ve been working on, the premise of which is: What if a banshee is unintentionally seen by someone destined to live a long life? Tradition says that if you see one, it means you’ll die soon, so what if you see one by accident and assume the worst? Maybe you’ll make different choices once you know your days are numbered….
Fintan moved quickly through the forest, habit keeping his footfalls light and silent despite his boiling frustration. A noisy hunter seldom returned with a kill and Fintan was the best hunter in the clan. He wasn’t surprised when his feet delivered him to the shady glade deep in the forest’s interior. Here, all was peace and beauty, where a man could ease his mind and find sanctuary from the world’s demands. And Fintan was in sore need of a quiet place to think.
A narrow stream trickled in a steady flow near the edge of the glade and Fintan knelt to drink from it. The cold water sprang from deep within the earth and was easily the most refreshing water in the kingdom. Priests came to collect it to use in church as holy water, some said the stream was likewise favoured by those who held to the old faith. But today Fintan was blessedly alone, free to drink his fill in peace.
His mother’s words still burned in his brain.
‘You will marry the daughter of Bran Ui Choilean,’ she had said, ‘the match is agreed whether ye like it or not.’
Fintan had met his intended bride the previous summer. She was a slip of a girl, of an age with him but appearing much younger than her years. God knows, he’d tried to like her but it was hard, even for a character as affable as his. Nothing pleased her. Nothing displeased her. Nothing seemed to make any impression on her whatsoever.
He’d staged mock battles with his brothers and friends, showing off his martial prowess. No one could touch him with sword or spear, though he’d been outshot by his closest friend Aidan at the archery contest. Not that Sile had noticed, she’d excused herself to go inside claiming the sun gave her a headache.
His singing voice was judged to be better than passable by those who had an ear for such things. But Sile remained unmoved by his skill with song and lyre, preferring to retire early for the night than listen to another of his melodies.
Even when he’d triumphantly brought down a huge buck stag for a feast one evening, Sile had begged off the hero’s portion he’d offered her, saying she did not like the taste of meat.
Sile of the Ui Choileans had blandly applauded all Fintan’s public exertions, her polite disinterest obvious to all.
In private, every question asked was met first with a pained look as though she couldn’t understand why he was importuning her this way and then answered as briefly as possible. When he tried to speak of love, the subject proved most unwelcome and that conversation held the record for being the briefest of any they’d had.
Until meeting Sile, he’d prided himself on his wit and conversational skills, these both being much desired attributes of a future clan leader. But no matter the conversational gambit employed, Sile would murmur some innocuous platitude or simply stand there, hands meekly folded with nothing to say for herself. Everything he tried just slid off her like water, even after spending days in her company he still had no idea who Sile really was. She volunteered nothing about herself nor offered an opinion on any matter. It was like trying to befriend a particularly taciturn boulder.
Fintan had soon stopped his more probing questions, to spare her further discomfort and spare himself his wounded pride. Clearly, he had fallen short of her ideal husband and Sile was not looking forward to becoming his wife. The prospect of sharing life’s most intimate moments with a woman who could barely even speak to him, made Fintan’s blood run cold and there seemed to be no way out.
A few weeks after he’d started avoiding her, Fintan was delivering a batch of new honey to the nearby monastery. Upon accepting the abbot’s thanks, he visited the small chapel before leaving for home. Once inside the cool darkness of the stone building he’d heard a woman crying softly. It was Sile, on her knees at the altar, sobbing all alone.
‘Sile, for the love of God what’s wrong, a chuisle?’ he said, his customarily kind nature coming to the fore.
Her usual reserve was gone, shredded by distress.
‘Fintan, forgive me,’ she’d cried, ‘I will make no good wife for you.’
‘Of course you will,’ he’d replied, taking her in his arms looking to comfort her, all the while hoping she wouldn’t ask for examples of her wifely virtues.
She’d pulled away from him then, shaking her head.
‘No, Fintan, it will never be,’ she said, ‘I wish to be a nun, I wish to follow the example of Saint Buriana and dedicate my life to God.’
Once this terrible confession was out of her mouth, Sile collapsed anew bursting into fresh sobs.
Thunderstruck, Fintan had sat down with a bump on the chapel stones and commenced laughing his head off.
‘Well good luck to you then, Sile,’ he’d said once he had his breath back, ‘for I’ve no intention of barring your path to sainthood.’
Her face brightened at his response and Fintan had a momentary pang at how grateful she was to be avoiding the prospect of marriage. But it passed soon enough and he and Sile left the chapel better friends than he could ever have hoped.
Together they began the process of letting their families know that the match was not one either of them wished for and over time they hoped to convince them to renege on the agreement. At first, it went well, Sile’s parents had no wish to push their daughter into an unwanted marriage and though Fintan’s parents were disappointed at the loss of lands they were willing to bow to the will of the two young people. After all, there were other brides they could seek.
Sile was accepted by a remote convent in the far west of the country and she departed there within a few months of her confession to Fintan. But a month ago, disaster struck the Ui Choileans. Their only son and heir was killed in a Viking raid, leaving Sile as their lone surviving child.
Once their grief abated enough to allow rational thought, they quickly decided that Sile’s religious ambitions could no longer be indulged. Messengers were sent and Sile was stripped of her new status as a novice nun and returned to her old one as a bride. The marriage contract was revived and Fintan and Sile found themselves once again in the most unpleasant position of being betrothed to each other.
Fintan’s head throbbed. Sile had arrived at their clan house that very day, her newly shorn head a stark symbol of her commitment to the holy life of a nun. Her eyes were red with weeping and she was characteristically silent. Sile’s desolation was hard to ignore, but her parents did an excellent job of just that. They fussed around her clucking on about her ‘happy day’ and how lucky she was to be marrying into the Ui Neills, until Fintan had to leave before he exploded with frustration on her behalf.
Sile was miserable, he was miserable and yet they were being forced together anyway.
Fintan groaned aloud. Short of leaving the only land he could ever call home, he saw no option for escape. The past few days of turmoil and trouble had taken its toll on him. Sleep had eluded him for many nights as he fought the same battle over and over again seeking a resolution that all could live with. Even so, the sun-warmed glade’s peaceful atmosphere was working its magic on him, Fintan felt his tensions fall away and calm descend upon his troubled mind. Within moments he was sound asleep by the little stream.
Soft singing brought him back to consciousness. He opened his eyes to find the hour was late, the sun was beginning to set. A cloaked and hooded woman was sitting by the stream singing to herself, the words inaudible but it was an air that Fintan had never heard before. This he found intriguing as he prided himself on knowing a great number of songs and airs.
‘Pardon my intrusion, but will you favour me with the name of your song, noble lady?’ he asked.
The singing stopped abruptly and the woman looked up, dismay writ clear on her face. Fintan gawped like a young lad spying on bathing women for the first time, for the singer of unknown melodies was a creature of unsurpassed loveliness. Her beauty was unlike anything he had ever seen before, noble, exotic and utterly breathtaking. She was smaller than a woman of the clans with a neat form, slim and compact putting him in mind of a little robin red breast. Her skin was smooth and held the golden hue of the sun. But it was her eyes, clear and hazel, that captivated him more surely than anything else.
Her grey hood had fallen back revealing long white hair flowing over her shoulders and down her back. This, coupled with those eyes that shone with the wisdom of ages, meant only one thing. The woman before him was no mortal, she was a bean sídhe, a faerie woman.
‘Holy Mother of God,’ he exclaimed, ‘it’s worse than I thought then? I am to die?’
The bean sídhe shook her head frantically, her face a mask of dismay. She opened her mouth but seemed unable to speak, only a raven’s caw escaped her lips. Her expression of dismay quickly turned to horror as she tried again and then again to speak. She stared wildly at him, clasping her hand to her mouth, clearly aghast.
‘You cannot speak to me then, a bean sídhe?’ he asked, ‘you are under a geas.’
She nodded tentatively and a small broken caw escaped her lips.
‘Perhaps you could sing? As you did before?’ he suggested, wanting to ease her distress.
She shook her head, backing away from him and gathering the folds of her grey cloak about herself.
Loath to let her leave him, Fintan stepped quickly towards her and tried to take hold of her hand. But his fingers closed on empty air as she whipped the cloak around herself and with a fluttering sound of many wings, she disappeared. A susurration of leaves above his head and the clap of a small bird’s flight and the bean sídhe was gone. Fintan was left bereft.
But she had forgotten something, it lay glinting in the grass next to the stream. Fintan stooped to pick it up, a fine silver comb, small and delicate like the bean sídhe herself. A white hair was caught in its tines, so soft he could barely feel it against his skin. He pressed the keepsake to his lips before tucking it into his brat. Perhaps when the bean sídhe came for his soul he could return it to her.
Beholding a bean sídhe meant imminent death, but Fintan could not regret having the sight of her in his memory. He had been taught that the faerie women were terrifying spectral hags sent to haunt the great families of the land as harbingers of doom. None of the stories had told of their beauty.
He laughed aloud. Well, he’d wanted a find a way out, hadn’t he? There’d be no wedding for a man marked for death. No more appeasing his family. No fear of offending anyone once he told them of the bean sídhe. Fintan felt freer than he ever had in his life. Nothing mattered now. His fate was set. He was to die and that right soon.
Turning to the trees, he shouted into the forest.
‘I will never forget you, my lady, you are the very stuff of dreams. Your beauty shall haunt my remaining nights.’
Fintan left the glade without a backwards glance, his step lighter than it had been in days.