Late winter, 442 CE, Loch Rí, Éire
Her baby’s screech stabbed through Clíodhna’s skull, making her want to abandon Aileran and escape into blessed silence. She wished to be somewhere in the forest, on a hill, surrounded by buzzing bees and yellow flowers. Perhaps flying over the rolling hills with a flock of starlings.
Her brief idyll crashed when another scream broke through. She sighed and picked him up, rocking him against her shoulder while stirring the iron pot. Clíodhna cast an eye for her middle child, Donn, who helped a lot, but tended to wander off and get into trouble. She found no sign of him, but someone yelled at the horses outside. He must be doing farm chores.
Aileran cuddled into her shoulder, let out a wet burp, and promptly fell asleep, a warm weight against her neck. His hand curled around a hank of her black hair, pulling just enough to make her wince. At the same time, his adorable smile invoked her own. Despite her frustration, she loved her baby boy. It had been a dozen winters since her womb had quickened, but she’d been glad of the new child after so long, especially after losing one daughter at birth.
Clíodhna glanced out the window of the large roundhouse. She glimpsed Donn, unharnessing the plow with practiced hands. Though he counted but fourteen winters, he needed to be the man of the house since his father disappeared.
The baby fussed again, whimpering in his sleep. She rocked him, still stirring the stew in the pot. They’d only a few meals of dried lamb left from the autumn harvest, but still had plenty of onions and turnips, as well as chives and garlic. At least Oisinne left them a workable farm before he disappeared. She used to sell small wooden carvings she’d made, but who found time for such frivolity now?
The odor of char caught her attention, and she cursed as she tried to swivel the pot off the fire. She needed to add more water before it scorched. Baby still in hand, she bent to the bucket, trying to lift it without waking the child. She failed.
His screams shot right through her ears, a physical pain that made her drop the bucket. The water splashed on the flagstone floor.
“Son of a diseased donkey!”
“Clíodhna! Such language!”
She whirled to see Ita, a blonde woman from the village, standing in the doorway, her hand upon her heart.
“Sorry, Ita. Can you help me for a moment? I need about five extra hands.”
“I can see that. Here, let me take the wee one.” She reached out to take Aileran, who yanked on Clíodhna’s hair so hard it brought tears to her eyes.
She tried to be patient with her son. “Let go, Aileran; there’s a good babe.”
A crash outside made her whimper.
Ita smiled. “Go. Check on your lad out there. I’ve got Aileran well in hand. Don’t I, wee thing? We’re going to get on just grand.” She touched the baby’s nose, eliciting a giggle from the ungrateful wretch. Clíodhna gave them one last lingering glance before she rushed out to find out what trouble Donn fell into.
The boy lay half under a bale of hay, struggling to pull his leg out. His face screwed up in frustration.
Trying to suppress a chuckle, Clíodhna lifted the edge so he could extract himself. “How did you get under there, Donn?”
He pouted, wiping straw from his léine. “When I brought Tinn into his stall, he reared. I staggered back and hit the pile. The top one fell on me. It didn’t hurt, though!”
Clíodhna eyed the stack of hay, assessing the sturdiness of the remaining bales while trying to stifle a chuckle. “They look stout enough to me. You must have hit the bale hard.”
He didn’t answer, but looked at his foot, shuffling it in the dirt. “Yeah, I hit it hard. Tinn reared pretty high.”
Clíodhna gave him a kind smile. “I suppose a full-grown horse rearing up high can be rather scary, even to a sturdy lad of fourteen winters. I’m glad you were smart enough to back up. A frightened horse can be dangerous.”
“I know, Ma. Am I in trouble?”