Moans filled the dark room. Cathal lay prostrate on the wooden table, which had been cleared of green leaves and the bowls of a half-eaten meal. Eilish examined her patient’s shoulder, pressing her fingers into his flesh in search of bone placement. In reaction to her touch, the man moaned.
“Where is your father?” the carpenter asked with a strained voice. “I want him to do it.”
The setting sun through the doorway and the hearth fire in their home provided enough light for Eilish to see by, although she didn’t need light to be able to put his shoulder back in place, she’d done it so many times.
A shadow moved through the threshold of the dark home, and her father hurried to her side. He placed a heavy stone in her hand and tsked loudly while he looked down at the man on the table. “I would have thought after so many times, Cathal, you would know she has the gentler touch. She is better at it than even I, and I taught her how.”
“You know what to do,” Eilish said, tucking her long brown hair behind her ear. She waited for her patient to comply, knowing full well that he would make a gamut of complaints before she could begin.
Cathal lifted his chin from the table and winced. He let his arm hang free from the edge, muttering, “Domnall, do you pleasure in my pain?”
Eilish’s father rubbed the long dark hairs on his chin. “I do not think it would be proper for a man in my post to relish another’s discomfort. Then again…”
“I always knew you never forgave me for taking your favorite horse carving as a child. Now you take your price from my pain,” Cathal grumbled at the floor.
Domnall tilted his head to look at his cousin. “If that were so, then I would take you on myself. Go on, Eilish. He will not likely stop throwing insults until he is out of pain.”
She nodded and leaned down to place the stone in Cathal’s awaiting hand. His fingers wrapped around its surface, and he let out a loud cry. Eilish, still bent over, took a gentle hold of his shoulder and elbow. Pulling very slowly, she drew his arm downward at an angle. More cries pierced the air, but she didn’t allow them to distract her. She felt the bone in his arm move. A loud clunk sounded, and his shoulder jerked into place.
“Ooooh!” Cathal moaned. “You have it.”
He began to adjust, but Eilish held him still. “How many times must you revisit this table? Let your arm rest so it does not happen again so soon. Father, get him the sling.”
“Ugh. Must I wear that thing? It is a bother to do my work with. How can I cut wood with one arm?”
Eilish and Domnall helped right their grumbly patient and get him to his feet. He held his bad arm with a frown on his face. A strip of cloth was wrapped across his shoulder and chest with his forearm held in the loop.
“I suppose you will want the last of my rye stores just for happening to be in the right place,” Cathal said defensively.
But they all knew the truth of the matter. He’d come hurrying to their home, holding his arm like a broken wing, insisting he was only out for a walk and fresh air. When the offer to come inside and inspect his arm was made, he’d made sure to say he was only doing it to make them happy.
She could hear her father respond as he escorted their patient out of the home. “I would not want to take food from your mouth. Eilish and I will make do from the kindness of the monks for taking care of their flock. We help who we can, Cousin.”
Eilish picked up the plants from the floor that had been swept off in haste. Their limited space and furniture meant the table served many purposes. She adjusted her brat, a green woolen cloak, around her shoulders so the broach that fastened it was centered on her chest. Her form-fitting tunic went down to her calves and was fastened around her waist with a leather belt.
When her father reentered the dusky confines of the wattle-and-daub home, he leaned down to help gather the last of the leaves and roots scattered on the earthen floor. His voice filled all four corners. “I expect we will see him again by the end of the week.”
Eilish knew he was right. Cathal was one of their regular patients, likely due to both his job and bad luck. Most of the villagers couldn’t afford treatments from a physician in the larger towns, so they came to them for natural cures for their ailments. She looked at her father. The long braid at the base of his head fell over his shoulder. Shadowed blue eyes blinked back at her.
He muttered, “We should lay the herbs out for drying. Tomorrow we will go look for more burdock. I recall seeing some growing down beyond Declan’s farm.”
She nodded silently. He knew how she felt about her cousin. Declan was a kind but simple man, equal to her station in life. And a man she did not wish to marry. Eilish didn’t want her father stirred up. She didn’t want them to get into another disagreement over her future. With the skills she’d learned from him, she could find a valuable place in any kinsman’s settlement, but he wanted to know that when he passed from the earth, she would inherit his land.
“Maybe he would walk with us and offer protection,” her father said.
Eilish began to sort the long spear-shaped leaves from the rounder, smaller ones, creating two piles on the table. She sighed. “What protection do we need? From what? From who?”
“Have you not seen the monk’s tower beside the monastery? They did not build it to get closer to God.”
“The Finn-Gall will not come here. We do not have anything they need.” She shook her head.
Domnall threw his hands in the air. “You may be my kin and a very bright lass, but you should not feel yourself safe from the gaill who plunder our land. You need a better protector than me. I will be in need of your medicine before you know it, an old man creaking down the street like a banshee over the glen.”
“Father, do not talk like that,” she chastised. “It will be long before you need my help.”
He grumbled under his breath. “It is clear we will not see eye to eye. Oh Lord, I only desire to keep my daughter safe, but she thwarts me at every turn.”
Eilish closed her eyes and said a prayer to herself to calm down before responding. “I am sorry to distress you, Father.”
Domnall kept quiet the rest of the evening, and he went to bed early, leaving Eilish beside the fire alone. She watched him go behind his partition. It had been long since her mother had wrapped her arms about her, holding her close on cold nights. So many years, in fact, that she had adjusted to their life without her.
Smoke from the fire filled the air. The tiny hole in the reed-covered roof only helped a little. She watched the flames burn down to glowing embers, enjoying their dying warmth. Eilish thought she heard soft noises outside and walked to the front door to peer into the darkness. Leaning up against the door was a brown sack. She looked about before picking it up and bringing it inside. She set the grain near the cauldron for her father to find when he woke. As grumbly as her father’s kin was about their help, by sunup there was always a new chicken for their flock or a sack of produce waiting for them.
Eilish went to her own bed and removed her cloak. She set her broach in a safe place before leaning down to slip off her leather shoes. She pulled her woolen blanket up to her chin and fell asleep quickly.
In the twilight of the morning, she woke to the sound of chickens squawking from their hen coop. She was about to claim a little extra sleep when something else caught her ear. Screams and the monastery bell tolling.
Eilish sat up in bed with a start. “Father?”
“I hear it,” his voice answered from the other side of the screen. “Stay where you are.”
Ignoring his wishes, she got up and hurried to the front door in her tunic. Her father had arrived only moments before her and had slipped the latch to peer outside. The moon was still a sliver in the heavens as the sun’s light began to spill over the green fields. An orange glow emanated over the horizon toward the river. A dark plume rose into the sky.
Eilish remembered the summer evening during her girlhood when the blacksmith’s workshop caught on fire. It had smelled different from the hearth fires she was used to, similar to tonight. Shouts rang out a distance away. She couldn’t discern what was being said, but she could hear the alarm and fear.
“Look!” Domnall pointed to the tall tower in the distance. “They hide only from the Finn-Gall!”
She squinted to see the wooden ladder being lifted to the second level of the stone fortification. She had never witnessed it withdrawn before—there had never been the need. The monks certainly hadn’t wasted time retreating to safety.
Beside her, Domnall muttered, “It cannot be an attack from our neighbors in Ulaid. There is little time. Quick with you—to my bedside.”
He pushed her away from the doorway, interrupting her gaping at the scene outside. The door was closed, and he turned to her. When she didn’t move, he pulled her through the dim home. The embers from the hearth were dull but provided just enough light to see by. He began to rifle through his clothing and threw a pair of plaid leggings at her.
“What is this?” she asked once she found her voice.
“Put them on!” he answered. “I wore them in my youth. They should fit you.”
“But women do not wear leggings!”
Eilish held them up only momentarily before she bent over to slip them on. She couldn’t understand why her father wanted her to wear a soldier’s trousers, but it was clear he was distraught.
“I always wanted a son as well, so now I shall have both.” He looked at her in the gloom and shook his head. Without hesitation he ran off and came back with the strips of long cloth they used for bandages and thrust them into her arms. “Having breasts will not do. Bind yourself flat, and put on one of my loose tunics. I will return in haste!”
She watched him fly across the home to the front door and let himself out. Confusion and shock had kept her fear at bay, but now it filled her senses. Her heart raced furiously in her chest, thundering away in her ears. Eilish tore off her tunic and did as her father asked. With shaking hands, she wound the linen cloth around her chest, flattening the curve of her breasts against her body. Once she reached its end, she tucked it under the binding. Then she plucked a dirty tunic from the floor and slipped it over her head. It was far more loose-fitting than she was used to, and it only just reached her knees.
Before she could secure the waist with a belt, her father hurried back inside carrying something pointy in his hands. She wondered if he’d gone to find a blade, and when he came at her with it, she held up her hand reflexively.
“Do not fear me, child.” He grabbed her hand in his and eased it down. “This is for your own good. I would not have my own daughter raped by the likes of those heathens.”
Steel gleamed in the embers’ light. She now saw it was indeed a blade, but not the type she’d expected. Her father held the sheep shears in his hands. Again, he lifted them toward her. She closed her eyes only to hear the sound of her own hair getting trimmed away like she was one of the livestock. Tears filled her eyes, and she began to weep.
“Shhh, my child. This is no punishment.” He tried consoling her with his words, although he didn’t stop. “It is not uncommon to find many young men with a cut like this.”
Eilish had never seen her father trim his hair, nor had she ever had hers cut before. She sniffed. “I will be ugly.”
“Better ugly than dead or worse,” her father answered, finishing up. The last long curl of hair fell at her feet. Domnall set down the shears to admire his work. His hands arranged her hair so that it fell over her eyes and face, down to her chin. She felt cool air at the base of her neck where it was bare. “Aiden is your name. You are my son.”
She swallowed and nodded, her tears drying up as reality set in. Her father’s ability to remain calm and make quick judgments had always aided him in his life’s work. Eilish now understood. She was to be a boy from that point onward to survive.
Her voice wobbled as she whispered, “But I have no whiskers.”
Domnall patted her shoulder. “Many young boys struggle with that. Keep your voice low, and do what you are told. It might just keep you alive. Let us sneak away. If we are lucky, they will be intent on the monastery.”
Eilish grabbed a sack and filled it with bread, some of the herbs they’d collected that day and a bladder of milk. She flung her cloak over her shoulder and followed her father out the front door. She kept her eyes to the ground and hunched down as she chased after him. He stopped suddenly and groaned. She bumped into him, nearly falling backward.
A man’s voice said something she couldn’t understand. When she peered around her father’s shoulder, she saw two large men holding shields against their chests with their swords pointed at Domnall’s chest. Her breath caught in her throat, and for a moment she forgot to breathe.
Was this it? The end of her life? She hoped if they were going to kill them, it would be quick and painless. Eilish tried forcing away all of the horrific stories she’d heard about the Finn-Gall barbarians. Aside from settling many large towns along the coast, they raped the women and killed the men, and if they were in a foul mood, sometimes the other way around. Anyone left standing was treated like the slaves they became. She swallowed and held still behind her father.
The pale-haired and dark-skinned men continued to point their swords at them as they had a loud argument she couldn’t understand. From around the side of their home came more men, one dragging another behind him without care.
Eilish recognized the dark cassock that cloaked the monks who kept to the monastery. The man stood beside his assailant with his shoulders lifted in defense and his head bowed, revealing his shaved crown. Under his arm was a leather-bound book, something she’d seen the clergy teach from. The monk’s captor spoke with the other Northmen. They seemed to be at odds about something, and the swords moved closer to her father’s flesh the more they fought. She stepped back and tried pulling her father with her.
She was surprised when the monk lifted his chin to speak some words to the men in their own language, at which his assailant shook him like a misbehaving child. Eilish had never spoken to a monk before and thought they remained quiet at all times. Maybe not when their lives were in danger.
“What do they say?” she dared to ask the monk.
For the first time, the man clad in his dark cassock looked at her. She could see the fear in his eyes. He appeared just as frightened as she was that they would soon be relieved of their simple lives. He muttered under his breath, “They argue about your worth. If the old man should be killed or sold.”
She exchanged a glance with her father, whose eyebrows rose at the mention of death. Without a thought, she stepped out from behind her father and said, “Tell them my father is a healer. He has great value.”
The monk cast an apprehensive look at the blades being dangerously swung about before venturing a few spare words. The Finn-Gall stopped their argument to stare at Domnall. Then one of the men stepped toward Eilish. He touched her hair, and then grabbed her chin in his strong, thick hands. His words came out slowly. Not knowing what he said only frightened her more. She dared not look the man in the eye.
It was Domnall’s turn to speak up. “My son, Aiden, was taught the healing arts too. He may be skinny, but he is strong.”
Again, the monk glanced at her with a trace of confusion, but he didn’t hesitate to translate. The man that still held Eilish’s face in his grasp lifted his sword to her cheek. His hot breath touched her skin. “Lítill sveinn.”
He let go of her face to grab her wrist. Her father was secured too, and they were led toward the river where the screams still filled the morning air.