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Keep Your Own

A Short Story

2354 BCE

Northern Ireland

The sun rose over the green marshes and dense forests of Ireland as the elders sang their awakening song on the cliffs of the mountain.

Macha awoke to orange light winking on her face through the hut window. Sunlight spilled across the room, illuminating the clay pots and bronze and stone daggers in separate corners. Nearby, Oisín’s cot of straw and leaves was empty. Macha, tall and lean with shorn black hair, wrapped a pelt around her shoulders and went out the squat doorway of the hut.

Midsummer, the early morning already warm with the day’s heat. The fog had almost dissipated, unveiling sprawling forests and the green hilled valley, and, peppered among them, the first clusters of huts and razed farmland, remains of ringed trees stacked for burning, patches of green standing out freshly among the trees that remained. From the elevation of the hill, the chieftain could observe most of the tribe; indeed, the only invisible ones were the elders, who dwelled above in the mountain’s forest, looming over them all. They’d constructed crude homes deep in the woods, and there they fasted often. Every morning, every evening, they sang their songs after ascending the mountain higher, and now, Macha listened to them in peaceable gratitude.

People were beginning to move below, leaving huts, rising from campsites, stretching, splashing water on their faces; they stoked their fires anew, gathered kindling, hollered at one another through the trees, and followed the path they’d cleared through the infant settlement. Sitting in the grass, Macha looked at her hut: by far the largest of all, it was adorned with weapons, tools, decorations, and copper and bronze jewelry shining in the sunlight. The huts below were sparser, plainer—yet everyone was sufficiently equipped to feed and defend themselves, prepared to keep themselves warm during cold nights or the season of ice.

Macha searched for Oisín among the people milling about below. She sighed: she didn’t usually have to seek him out; he was a well-disciplined boy of seven who obeyed his mother’s words consistently. He was also an agitated soul, though, brimming with energy, and upon awakening much earlier than Macha, as was common, many mornings Oisín became distracted by plights and fancies. He had many friends with whom he played warriors; they often got disappeared into the forests for long periods, sometimes missing the evening meal.

Macha went inside and put around her throat a necklace of glimmering green stones and bronze chips. She took up the long, knobby staff from the corner and lifted it into the sunlight; the green stone in its head shimmered. She went out and down the hill.

On the mountain, the elders’ song ended. Calm settled over the mountain, over the green valley. Three hawks circled over the tribe.

*

Down the declivity into the village, the trees rose high around Macha’s head. She passed huts spaced apart through clouds of smoke drifting from pork over fires. A man chopped logs before one hut while two others stood nearby talking; young children helped their mothers wash bowls in basins of water, and Macha heard, far away, permeating the orchestra of life, the rushing current of the river, running around the base of the mountain and creeping through the forest unabated for leagues. The tribe followed it to the elders’ mountain when the time of the Circle came each year. The river had been one of their beacons.

Walking and nodding to tribespeople, who customarily slowed to bow their heads, Macha wondered if the old ways were about to change. The tribe had grown larger than ever before, as had many throughout the land. The world was shrinking; more people were demanding more food, water, and space. The elders had been deliberating drastic change, as they believed other tribes were beginning to do, and the tribes who continued to roam were encountering more settlements creating borders—and defending them. Land, the elders said, would soon become a precious commodity. The head elder, Balor, said greed had spread like a plague, causing abuse to the Mother. Looking around now at her people, who’d already begun to settle without order, Macha couldn’t disagree. But the wandering search for food was difficult. Communal solidarity could lighten the burden—maybe not entirely, but the fact of their rising survival rate was enough to show the elders change might be needed.

A group of children hurried past up; Macha called to them, “Have you seen Oisín?”

They came to her immediately. “Oisín has gone to the Circle,” said one.

Macha nodded, dismissing them, and with a smile, she continued on the path into the forest.

After a while, she broke out of the forest, where an expanse of sloping, uneven hills sloped around soggy marshlands. Tree clusters bent in the breeze, its force having mounted all morning. The sun glared white in the clear sky. Macha went up the nearest slope; at the top, she looked back at the forest: three hawks circled the village. Macha frowned, eyes moving up to the mountain. A strong mountain, but not the one the tribe held sacred.

She turned to the hills. At the border, where the slopes met the forest, a tall and mighty mountain rose until its peak disappeared in clouds: the Tallest Mountain in Sight, over which her ancestors had climbed after spotting its beacon in a storm, having traveled from the southern reaches. The Mountain showed them the Circle; it had been showing their sons and daughters the Circle since. Macha, like all her tribe, knew this and many other stories intimately and by memory, for they comprised the tribe’s being, its soul within one body.

She descended the hill and climbed the next, and from atop it she could see the Circle, nestled between two farther hills; they formed a sloping bowl between them, it's bottom flat where the Circle had been built, long before memory knew.

Macha thought she could see a lone spec within the Circle already.

*

When she reached the formation, she recognized Oisín’s wolf pelt; he was kneeling, turned away, face lifted toward the sky. The seven stones, slightly taller than Macha’s waist, stood resolute around the child in their perfectly circular arrangement, rectangular, etched with curling lines, spirals, and old, lost words inscribed between. At the Circle’s edge, Macha knelt and bowed her head and kissed the earth three times.

She joined her son, kneeling beside him. They prayed to the ancestors for health and strength of courage, bravery renewed this morning, and they implored the gods to watch over them in all they did. These things they asked by heart, they were not spoken aloud; such moments are meant only for the sacred heart; other days for communal ceremonies.

When they finished, Macha and Oisín left the Circle, kissed the earth again, and started back toward the forest. Always, after visiting the Circle, Oisín was reserved. He looked at the sky, scrunching his nose with clear concern. Macha tried probing him, but he was unresponsive. She put a hand on his shoulder, strong and firm.

“I was proud to find you had come to the Circle without orders, Oisín,” she said. “You are a good child, my light.”

Oisín said, “Thank you.”

Macha watched his face, frowning, briefly seeing her father: the same dark, thoughtful eyes. Remember what the elders said after Oisín’s initiation rites—and before, just after his birth… She remembered it every day. A chill rushed through her; Oisín was destined to be greater than his grandfather and even his mother. After prayers, Macha was always vividly aware of that truth.

Overhead, the falcons sustained their flight.

*

That night, while Oisín slept, Macha sat atop the hill in the cool air. Multitudes of stars turned pinwheels in sparkling constancy, never failing to reveal themselves when dark obscured the light. Macha had always taken great comfort in the stars and was perplexed by those who became disconcerted after gazing upon them awhile. Stomach full from the fowl she and Oisín had shot down earlier, she dozed in the grass, warm and comfortable by the fire, which she’d allowed to dwindle. Eyes drifting shut, the last Macha saw before darkness was the light of the fire, brightening fiercely in a sudden harsh wind.

*

She dreamt she could fly, although, without control of direction, she flew aimlessly on the gales; below the green lands sprawled forever with their sparkling blue pools, lakes, rivers, streams, and filling the expanse were a myriad of trees clustered throughout, layers of dark forests and hidden corners and secret creatures. Macha flew over it all. In the distance, the Tallest Mountain in Sight appeared. And, far beyond, ascending from the place where the sky met the earth, there was a black column of smoke.

The sight filled Macha with dread, more so when she realized she was hurtling straight toward it as the smoke rose higher and ash fell from the skies as the ancestors burned the stars, for the stars were winking out, and the sun was obscured by clouds, and the clouds rose from the same place, far beyond the reaches of the world.

Fire spread across the land. The many tribes screamed as they burned. The most ancient trees were felled; the rivers boiled, evaporated; the earth split open, and everywhere, everywhere, there was destruction.

*

Macha awoke cold, covered in sweat; she lay on the grassy hill. It was not yet dawn for the elders had not sung; the great sun still slept beneath the world, the forest sighed, and the scattered huts and camps were quiet, bathed in the ashy gray of the pre-dawn. The world hung in suspension. Caught in that grave silence, Macha found herself again, took a deep breath, and stood.

Her distress did not fade: dreams should not be ignored, for all held significance, and all could manifest given the proper alignment of fate. Looking at the sky Macha searched for the stars; an expanse, or a void, had opened between herself and the ancestors she’d long worshipped. She wished to clear her mind and set herself solidly before the day began. When Oisín awoke, she must act as usual. My light is too insightful, she thought, wrapping her pelt around herself. He will sense in me fear without name or place. I must control myself.

The elders once said Macha possessed greater self-discipline than her father. Bóv would have been both annoyed and proud to hear this, which would’ve confirmed the elders’ assessment. Summoning confidence in their judgment and her own, Macha bottled the fear of her vision and started down her hill through thickening trees that chittered and shivered. She followed the westward footpath till she reached one of the hot pools.

Steam rose from the water into the cool air; surrounded by thick walls of trees and planes of grassy earth sloping into the shores around the perimeter, the pool was empty save one other. Macha recognized Fea bathing in the deep and knew the ancestors were with her. She shed her pelt and waded into the water. Fea turned, chest-deep, red hair stained with black, cut shorter than Macha’s, blue eyes bright and alarmed. She calmed when she recognized her old friend. “Ancestors keep you, Chieftain Macha,” she said, smiling. “It is a surprise to see you before the sun has risen.”

“Fea,” Macha said. “I have had a terrible vision in the night. I came here seeking solace and found you. I feel I must tell you of it.”

“You can trust me with anything, sister.” Though unbound by filial ties, Macha and Fea had fought together in the inter-tribal wars as young novices new to the sword and spear. Among the tribe and abroad, the two had become chiefly notable for their indomitable prowess and skill in combat. Both families were extremely wealthy, having remained unchallenged by other clans in a long time. When Macha’s father was chieftain, Fea’s father had been by his right-hand until Bóv’s death. Like their daughters after them, the men were inseparable.

Now, as Macha told Fea of her vision, Fea listened patiently, and when Macha was done, so exhausted was she by her own retelling that she sank into the water and floated, while Fea rubbed her chin worriedly.

“This is serious, Macha.”

“Yes.”

“And yet, somehow it would not surprise me.”

“What would not?”

“If it came true today,” Fea said, looking at the sky. “It is rare, three days without rain. Yesterday, the clouds kept angrily to the edges of the sky. I felt them there, waiting.”

“Fea, I am afraid. Where do I turn?”

“The elders are the only ones who can help. They can interpret your vision and decide whether action must be taken in response.”

Macha nodded, having half-expected this: Fea often diverted to higher authorities when presented with a problem. Macha’s refusal to follow suit had created clashes between her and the elders as well as Bóv when he’d been chieftain. Ironically, this had proven Macha’s superiority over Fea when the time came for someone to replace Bóv. The options were Macha, Fea, and two men from the tribe, whose fathers had rivaled Macha’s and Fea’s in combat. The decision was reduced to Macha or Fea; the latter acquiesced, lacking confidence in herself, and deferred the rite to her friend, requesting to be Macha’s right-hand as Fea’s father had for Bóv.

Deliberating this, Macha bathed but spoke no more of the vision. Fea talked about her two children, one of them only born a few lunar cycles ago, and her husbands, both of whom helped construct an impressive hut for Fea and the children. But Macha could not pay attention, and she bade Fea goodbye hastily.

Following the trail back up through the woods, the sun was rising. The elders were singing by the time Macha reached her hut. Oisín was cooking fish and mixed nuts over a fire. “Well done, my light,” Macha said, settling across the fire from him. “Did you visit the Circle?”

“Yes, mother.”

“That is well.” Carefully she inspected his face through the flames. Pensive, serene, a shallow line between his brows as he worked something over in his head. The elders’ words again came to her: He will be greater than any ruler before him. He will bring to him many more than the tribe protects now. But he will also stand in the ashes of the world; he will see great tribes burn, and he will live longer than any other before him.

“My light,” Macha said. The dark eyes looked up at her. “Do you dream in the night, Oisín?”

He nodded.

“And what do you see?”

He looked into the fire. The elders’ words kept ringing: Where all others will seek but will not discover solace, he will take it. Where others hear only silence, he will hear the voices of the Many.

“Well?” Macha said. “What do you see?”

Oisín lifted a hand and held it over the fire, just out of reach of its heat. “I see the great fire, mother. I see dark, everywhere, all around: in the sky; in the trees; in all the rivers. But it is not black.”

Macha frowned. “What is it?”

“I do not know.” He looked at the frying fish, sobriety breaking, replaced by excitement and hunger. “This is ready! We will eat now!”

*

“You have come, Chieftain Macha, because you fear realization of a vision in the waking world.” The head elder’s voice boomed in the cavern where the elders sat in a semicircle, four men and three women, the massive and muscular yet ancient Balor sitting in the center. Macha knelt before them hands on her knees. The cavern’s gaping maw revealed blue-gray skies with sprays of gray clouds. Across the forests and hills, the Tallest Mountain in Sight stood foreboding and monolithic.

“That is right, elder Balor,” she said. “The vision was clearer than the waking world. I could feel the coming of the fire like the coming of my breath. And in the thunder, I heard the voices of our ancestors…warning me we must escape before—”

“No more,” Balor boomed. The elders blinked. Balor leaned forward, glaring at the chieftain. “Macha, you have proven yourself a fearless and brave warrior. But you are new to your position and have much to learn. We, your elders, have decided to stay at the mountain. We are secure near the Circle. Every day we feel this world changing—for good or ill, we cannot tell. But through the Circle, the ancestors have spoken to us, and have advised us to remain. Would you question the word of our forebears, the gods’ loyal messengers?”

“In the shadow of danger, I would and I shall.” Macha lifted her chin. “But if you would not heed my vision, would you ignore Oisín’s also?”

The elders stiffened. Balor’s face reddened. The plans they’d been ordained could cripple beneath Oisín’s contradiction. On the day of his birth, the head elder died of convulsions, prophesying all day without cease of Oisín’s future valor, of the visions he’d bring to the tribe. That elder was succeeded by his old friend Balor—who, Macha suspected, resented Oisín for stealing his friend’s spirit.

Macha couldn’t fathom Balor ignoring Oisín’s first prophecy out of personal prejudice—the tribe was at stake. “Oisín has been dreaming of fire. And of great darkness filling everything: the sky, the forests, the water. I plead with you, wise elders, if you believe in Oisín’s sight, heed our words. We will lose water, clean air, even our trees and food if we stay. We both have seen this.”

The elders were silent. The trees hissed and swished as they bent to the will of the wind. Heads bowed, the elders whispered for a time. Finally, Balor said, “We will give you a verdict tomorrow, chieftain. We must deliberate.”

Macha’s heart sank. “But that isn’t enough time. This occurs tonight, Balor. Tonight. We must move the tribe now.”

“Tomorrow,” Balor repeated. “Such drastic change can wait one moon.”

Fury swelled in Macha; it took all her will not to strike the old fool down with her staff. Wrath toward the elders was unacceptable to the ancestors—she knew she would do penance later. For now, she stood and said through gritted teeth, “My thanks for your guidance, wise elders.” She ducked out of the cavern and stood on the cliff face, looking out at her hill, her hut, and beyond, the forests and the valley and the swirling smoky mountains.

Over the village, three hawks drew ever-widening circles in the air. Fear gripped Macha then. She began the descent down the mountain, heart pounding.

*

When she returned to her hut, Oisín was gone.

Macha searched the hut and the forest’s edge, but she knew in her heart that Oisín was gone. Standing over the smoldering remains of the morning fire, her mind raced. Where could he go if he something terrible was coming? If he knew the visions of destruction and fire were true, where would he hide?

Rumbles in the sky disrupted Macha’s thoughts. Though the clouds were still and sparse, a hot, angry wind was gathering. The smoke of the tribe’s cooking fires carried on the air, a burning, earthy scent. Macha returned inside, retrieved her finest bronze sword, and secured it in a leather holster on her back. She put her necklace around her throat and took her staff in hand.

Macha went down the hill. Darkness began creeping into the sky from the northern horizon, a spirit risen to cast its shadow over all.

*

In the settlement the tribespeople prepared for a storm, sensing the hot air stirring; or perhaps it was intrinsic, something instinctual compelling them to pack up, take shelter—but nobody was actually leaving. Macha looked over the tribespeople’s heads passing to and fro between huts, lugging fire logs and pelts that mustn’t get wet. If the expected rain lasted longer than three days, their clothes would be soaked and they would freeze, for the storms brought hot and cold gales that thrashed the forests and bent the trees.

Not enough, Macha thought. She finally spotted Fea dragging along one of her children by the hand. Her hut was slightly outside the main clusters of the settled, a short distance deeper into the forest dividing the village from the hills. Macha caught up to Fea and wheeled her about.

“Macha? What are you doing? Where is Oisín?”

“Oisín is gone, I must find him. But listen, Fea: you must make everybody leave. It is coming. Do you see?” She pointed past the elders’ mountain: the sky had become a shade of black deeper than charcoal, and the shadows slowly climbed the heavens, poisoning the calm blue. Fea’s eyes widened.

“It is…not just a storm? Some are saying the gods are bringing water…”

“It is not,” Macha said. She gripped her friend’s shoulders. “Fea, please, you must listen. If we stay we will all be burned and lost. There will be nothing left where once were trees and hills and us. It will all be gone. We must go.”

“But where? What is coming?” Fea’s eyes were wide, fearful, more than Macha had ever seen during their battles. Like Macha, Fea feared only what was beyond her control.

“I cannot say, but if we run south, maybe there’s hope.” South, a voice in her head whispered. Where our ancestors came from. We haven’t traveled that far south in many moons, none remember anymore. But in the dream, the fire came from the north, and so did the darkness. South was the direction.

“What did the elders say?”

“The elders will not listen. They plan to discuss it, but they are foolish and set on old ways. They will burn in the mountain, as will we all if we stay. Understand?”

Fea nodded.

“Tell your men and their brothers to gather as many of the tribe as possible. We must get everyone—” Earsplitting rumbling, louder than before, shook the earth and unbalanced them; the soil rippled, they stumbled, fell, huts glancing lopsided. The rumbling persisted, building momentous force with a beat that reminded Macha of the elders’ morning song. “—out. I must find Oisín,” Macha said. “Fea, help them. Please.” She kissed her friend’s forehead and bounded away, through the huts and into the trees.

*

As she ran, the earth continued to shake. Overwhelmed with the sense that everything she knew from the ground to the trees to the sky was about to give way with catastrophic flare, Macha could feel the black rising higher in the sky, where no more falcons flew. Eventually, breaking through the trees to the valley of hills, Macha turned back and looked up.

Her heart faltered. The black was not simply a change in the sky’s hue but a literal cloud of smoke, fast-approaching the village, puffing, swirling, carried on the wind from the north, and as Macha watched in horror, the cloud consumed the elders’ mountain. Did they still dwell there, imploring the ancestors and the gods for guidance and protection, refusing to see, even now, that both had abandoned them? Cold fear seized Macha, for this was too much to weigh upon the balance of her heart. She knew she could only run.

She climbed to the top of the first hill and almost looked back, for the rumbling sounds were mounting. All the cacophonies the gods could produce were dwarfed by these furious explosions. The earth trembled; Macha tumbled down the hill, and her staff flew from her hand, rolling through the tall grass as another explosion sounded.

Macha scrambled toward the next hill, ears resounding with the blasts, and as the sunlight dimmed she heard the elders’ words again: …he will see great tribes burn, and he will live longer than any other before him.

Atop the second hill, Macha saw the Tallest Mountain in Sight was nearer. Beyond, to the south, the sky was blue and serene; northward, the smoke caught the sun and wrapped it in its acrid wings. The world plunged into darkness, extinguishing the last of Macha’s hope, for the gods, they who once lit the great light, had finally dispatched to preeminent work, and all inconsequential ground-dwellers had been abandoned to a cruel, inexplicable fate.

The curtain of cloud fell upon the forest, upon the settlement. As the elders’ mountain was enveloped, consumed by ash and ever-thickening smoke, fresh horrors took root: the stars began to fall, hurtling through the new night, penetrating the clouds, until they landed among the trees, and upon each impact—two, six, ten—the ground trembled closer to splitting apart. Pillars of fire lifted up through the trees, and through the explosions of the lost gods, through the burning trees and howling winds, Macha heard her people screaming. First one, then many more following, until the black cloud fell and the forest was consumed…but the cloud kept eating, roaming toward the valley, toward the Tallest Mountain—toward Macha. Perhaps, then, the south was unsafe. Perhaps everything must burn.

Macha descended the hill, but something rooted her at the bottom. Crying out in dismay, she hurried back up the hill and down its slope, falling to the grasses in search of the staff.

Sweeping across and tearing the fabric of the skies, the falling stars cast jagged orange light over the valley. Macha looked up, saw the streaks cutting the smoke, propelling nearer the hills. The entire forest of the elders’ mountain was ablaze; most of the screams had ceased.

Finally, Macha found the staff. She took it up as a ball of flame made impact near her feet. She ran over the hill, down the slope, over the next, and she kept running, the Tallest Mountain looming ever-closer as the black night solidified. Macha reached the Mountain’s base and, turning back, saw the valley aflame; the tall, dry grasses had ignited immediately, parched from lack of rainfall. Fire fanned across the valley like a river through a broken dam, fed by the falling stars, which were only growing larger.

Macha began the climb, mind racing with adrenaline and fear. She knew she need only survive, need only reach the top, where caves were borne into the cliffs long ago, but her ascent was onerous; the Mountain’s face lacked sturdy handholds, and having now filled the sky and the air, the black smoke filled Macha’s lungs, making her eyes water and her throat tighten. Fireballs soared across the entire valley, arching higher and further to explode at the Mountain’s base, summoned from the void the gods had left. Macha would not let herself despair, though; nothing could be done anymore.

She reached the middle of the Mountain before a ball of fire, taller than Macha and four times her width, collided with the Mountain several hundred feet above her head. Rock rained down upon her as the Mountain trembled and tried shaking her off. She ducked, but could not shield her head with her hands; a rock hit the sword’s hilt, jutting from her back, of and tore the holster; falling embers burned her skin, made smoke in her hair—and then with colossal force a boulder pulverized the stone above her next handhold. Rocks hit her forehead, blood immediately flowed, her sight waned and darkened, yet still she gathered strength to hold on.

When the waves of debris thinned the chieftain continued the ascent. Near the top another star struck, tearing a chunk out of the Mountain, sending it hurtling south; the residual debris rained down on Macha again, and this time, she was hoisting herself onto a jutting platform edge when the flaming rocks hit. Not just a few, but a multitude, one after the other, battered and beat the warrior down first to her knees, and then to her face. Her pelt, already torn and bloody, now caught fire. Bloodied, scratched, and gashed all over, Macha tried to stand, but agony almost split her skull open. Hot blood poured over her eyes…but still, eventually, she stood, knees wobbling. She’d saved the sword and the staff, miraculously, though the sword’s hilt was damaged and there were many burn marks on the old staff.

As hot gales split the shattered day, Macha looked toward the peak, almost within reach. At this considerable elevation, the gaping mouths of the caves were visible, the highest one at the peak—and without reason, Macha suddenly knew this to be the one, perhaps because it was as far as one could reach before nothing remained to reach for—one could only tumble back down.

Macha climbed, as the lights in the sky marked the world’s disintegration, but she could not look, for every time she saw the falling stars she felt deep, inexplicable despair. She climbed and climbed and climbed. Up here the footholds were shallow, the handholds harder to grip. Macha’s sight wavered, duplicated; blood dripped from her wounds, down the side of the mountain in long scarlet streaks that soon evaporated in the heat; every ounce of her strength waned, and yet she persisted, knowing she could not die now, having come this far after losing Oisín. Remembering her hut, the home they shared, she realized it was now reduced to ash; pain seared her heart, but this was a lesson she’d never forgotten: all things end.

When she reached the cave entrance she fell on her face, sword clanging against the cool rock. Blood began to pool and stain the stone. Her eyes drifted shut though her mind tried to resist death.

She heard footsteps, felt a warm hand on her face. Her eyes opened; Oisín came into view, breathless, dark eyes wide and terrified, shallow scratches on his arms and face, likely from the climb—but he was safe! Oisín was safe and alive.

“Mother,” he said, voice trembling with disbelief. “You came. I knew you would.”

“I knew you would,” she said. Strength fading. Can it be so unfair? “Help me up, Oisín. I will not lie in front of you this way.”

The child obeyed, hoisting her by her armpits into an upright position. Oisín helped Macha slide herself toward the rear wall of the cave, untouched by the horrors outside. Macha took her son under her trembling arm. They sat there, backs against the cold, hard wall, looking out the cave entrance as fire rained and darkness prevailed. Though the valley and forests below were obscured from this height—only skies up here—they heard thousands of trees burning, crackling, splitting, falling, screaming their torment for the gods to hear, should any have listened.

“Oisín,” Macha croaked. Her eyes fluttered open and fell shut, over and over as she fought to remain. “This is yours now.” She set the staff in his lap, in his open hands. “And this.” She unsheathed the sword with difficulty and set it across the staff. Oisín looked down at them with an alarmed yet unsurprised look.

“But, Mother, you are still…”

“But I will not be. You know this, yes? You have seen it?”

For a moment he couldn’t look at her. But the weight was too heavy, and his eyes met hers. “Yes, Mother. I have seen all.”

“Then you must know there will be others. Maybe not many—maybe only some—but they will be there when the fire dies, Oisín, someone always is, and when they stand up and look at the sky and see it clearing, when they look and see their homes laid waste and their food and water burned up, they will seek guidance. They will seek a leader to protect them and to keep them.” She pressed her forehead to his and with great force, she took another breath. “Keep your own, Oisín. You must keep your own.”

Blinking back tears, he whimpered, “Yes, Mother.”

“Stay safe. You will know when the time is right to come out. Until then, wait, and always, my light, fear not the dark.” She squeezed his neck gently, lovingly, smiling, blood already drying on her lips. Then Macha leaned sideways, over her son’s lap, over the sword and the staff.

The little boy curled his fingers through his mother’s hair. Until her warmth faded, he did not leave her. When she was gone he stood, sword and staff in each hand, and approached the edge of the cave entrance. Oisín saw black skies and falling firestorms, valleys of fire and ash, and when he looked below, flame was erasing the outline of the Circle.

There were no stars that night nor for many nights to come. But as always, in the end, a blue patch opened in the southern sky. When the ground had cooled and was safe to walk upon again with bare feet, and when the previous chieftain of the Circle tribe had been dead many years, a man named Oisín, navigating the purged black lands, was pleased to find that a few trees still stood amongst the ash.