Stone Fuidhir by Jennifer Jeanne McArdle

King Árdghal’s troops had not been expecting the invaders’ attack, and were woken up from their sleep, groggy and confused. The invaders slaughtered a couple dozen warriors before Árdghal’s army could rally. Árdghal prayed to the war goddess.

To answer his prayers, the Mórrígan sent a flock of ravens. They dropped spears as black as their feathers and bronze shields from the sky. The invaders wailed in horror. Stones lying near the weapons began to twist and pile on top of each other, forming crude but strong legs, torsos, arms, and heads, while lichen, moss, and grasses elongated, becoming tendons and holding the bits together. Inside the man-shaped creatures rattled rocks, nuts, and bits of jaws, teeth, skulls, femurs, or whatever other bones were buried or lying in the dirt.

“Don’t look, Íde,” Ros commanded his young daughter, who stared at the magical chaos. On a road that passed close to the battlefield, Ros, his wife, Sorcha, and their young daughter, Íde, members of Árdghal’s clan, were returning from a trip to a distant city.

“We need to get home and avoid that mess.”

The family carried supplies purchased for their landlord, a Freeman who owned a few fields and some flocks of sheep. Ros and Sorcha were peasants, Bothach. The kings in those days competed for the biggest herd of cattle, stealing animals and pillaging their rivals’ lands. Árdghal’s giant, red cattle were the envy of the other kings. The family thought their king was good, as far as nobles were concerned, but they were too low-born and poor to fight or care about cattle raids.

The stone warriors charged forward, toward the invading army. Most of the invaders ran in fear, but those that stayed to fight realized that the stone creatures were fragile and fell to pieces when the weak points between their stones were targeted by quick thrusts of their spears. Still, the stone warriors gave Árdghal’s men time to load their bows, prepare their spears and armor, and push the invaders back.

One of the goddess’s stone warriors was marching toward the battle, the magic of its creator filling its fox-skull heart with rage, when its slate eyeballs caught sight of little Íde walking with her parents. She held her father’s hand and a fur blanket was wrapped around her shoulders, but her head was turned toward the battlefield, her fierce green eyes darting back and forth. Hanging loose from her hands were cloth, needle, and thread.

Suddenly the feeling inside the stone warrior changed—curiosity for the people who were not warriors and the tools that were not weapons rattled his whole being. Perhaps the nosy fox had left some of its spirit behind in his skull.

The stone warrior watched the family continue down the road. It took one last look toward the battle, then turned to follow the family. It reached Ros’s cabin shortly after the family had arrived. The parents had already gone inside their home, but Íde and her hound were outside and saw the stone warrior approach. The great beast bared its teeth, its wiry hair standing on end. The warrior put his weapons down and raised his hands, but did not speak.

“Who are you?” asked the girl.

The stone creature shrugged with just one shoulder, as if he didn’t know yet how to move his body properly.

“Are you here to hurt me or my family? I’ll fight you. I will.” Íde tilted her chin up and crossed her arms over her chest.

The stone creature shook his head.

The girl shrugged and walked toward a fenced area with tawny sheep. She picked up a brush and started brushing one of the animals. The stone creature approached the fence, still watching the girl.

“Are you going to stare at me all day? Momma says it’s not good to sit around, doing nothing. I’d rather train Peigi, my hound, if you’d clean the sheep for me.”

The stone creature took the brush from the little girl and examined it for a few moments. The girl grabbed his arm and thrust it toward the sheep.

“You do it like this,” she said as she moved his arm up and down. “You have to get all the dirt and other bits out of their wool.” Íde stepped back and then pointed at the hound, who sat and cocked her head to the side.

“They use hounds on the battlefield, you know. Peigi’s big enough to fight, don’t you think? But Momma says I have chores, and Peigi’s got a job protecting the sheep. But if you help me… you can watch the sheep, so Peigi and I can do other things, right?” The stone warrior took a few moments to process the request and then nodded. Íde smiled wide and ruffled the fur on the top of her dog’s head. The day continued, and the stone creature learned more chores.

It was almost sundown when Ros, who was always thinking about all the work he had to do, finally noticed the stone creature. He yelped at the sight of the stranger and commanded his daughter to get behind him. Then he grabbed a block of wood and held it in his shaking hand. The stone creature stood and stared back at the scared man with its unreadable gray eyes.

Sorcha came running outside when she heard her husband yell, but gasped and froze in place when she saw the moving stones.

“He wants to help me with my chores,” Íde told her parents. They looked at their fearless daughter, their calm dog, and back to the creature, whose gaze focused on them.

“He’s of the Sidhe,” Sorcha whispered to her husband. “We can’t force him to leave or we might be punished. If he wants to work, we best let him.”

So, silently and gratefully, he did the cleaning, the animal care, the sewing, the planting, the harvesting, the cooking, whatever little Íde was assigned but didn’t want to do—mostly household chores. Ros and Sorcha learned that their King Árdghal had successfully kept most of his cattle after the battle.

However, rumors spread through the clan that King Caomhán, the one who sent the invaders, would never forget the loss, feeling cheated out of his win because of interference by the Mórrígan, whom he called an evil goddess. Caomhán was gathering allies among the other kings and was planning to strike again, not just to steal the red cattle, but also land and supplies. If Caomhán defeated Árdghal, all of his clan would be reduced to Fuidhir, clanless servants.

Íde worried about what her fearful parents would do if warriors arrived at their house and took their sheep or burned their house. She picked up the black spear and bronze shield the stone creature had brought with him. They were heavy for her, but each day she practiced with them, and she grew stronger. While the stone creature worked, she spent her days playing with Peigi and practicing using the weapons. Her eyes became fiercer as she grew taller.

“Isn’t it funny,” the neighbors commented over the years, “Íde, the little Bothach girl’s father has no land, no voice in clan matters, but her, she’s got her own Fuidhir in that strange stone creature.”

As the years passed, the stone Fuidhir flourished. Though he did not talk, eat, or sleep, the family included him whenever they could. He made beautiful clothing embroidered with multicolored knots and little creatures. His bread and stew were famously delicious. He loved the warm hearth of his home, the feeling of fresh wool in his hands. He loved when the neighbors stopped being afraid of him and would come over and eat with his family or buy his clothing. Seeing others warm and fed brought him so much joy.

A Freeman warrior in Árdghal’s army learned of Íde, the Bothach girl who wielded a black spear. He asked her to become his apprentice. Sorcha and Ros did not know what to think of their daughter learning to be a warrior. They worried that the men might bully her, but they knew nothing could change her mind. They had tried to have more children after Íde was born, but Sorcha always miscarried and was often ill.

“There are many woman warriors, Momma. Dear Scáthach, who lives across the sea, trained our legendary Setanta,” Íde told Sorcha.

“Aye, and she and her daughters suffered for harboring such a man. But you’ve chosen your way.”

After Íde had trained for several years, King Árdghal sent a letter to Ros.

“The ravens tell me Caomhán’s men will march soon. Our clan is lost if we cannot muster our brightest and strongest. If your daughter, Íde, pledges to be a warrior in my armies, I promise your family a plot of land and some gold.”

“Mother, father. I’ve got to go,” Íde told her parents as she beamed with pride. Her status as an official warrior for the king would raise her family from Bothach to Freeman. “All of Árdghal’s clan—the people, the hounds, the cattle, the sheep, and even the stones—are my flock to protect now.”

Sorcha held the stone Fuidhir’s hand the day her daughter left to serve the king to keep from weeping. But part of her was angry at the stone Fuidhir, too.

“If you’d never come, she’d still be with us. We’d be finding her a partner and she’d be starting her own family. Maybe we’d have grandchildren soon,” Sorcha scolded the Fuidhir after her daughter was too far away to hear her voice.

“Ach, that’s not true,” Ros told his wife. “You and I know that Íde’s always been drawn to the battlefield. Without our Fuidhir, she never would have trained properly but still would have given her life once the invaders came. Perhaps she’s got a chance to survive the battles now. Don’t listen to Sorcha, child. She’s just sad.”

Once Íde was out of sight and the sun was low in the sky, Sorcha and her husband noticed the figure of a woman approaching. Her long black hair was untied and wild, a deep red cloak billowed around her, and she held a black spear in her hands. Sorcha and Ros dropped to their knees at the sight of the terrible goddess, wondering what they’d done wrong.

“There is my lost warrior doll,” the Mórrígan said to the Fuidhir. “You lowered yourself to a servant in a peasant’s house. Are you not grateful for the life I gave you?”

“So grateful that I chose not to lose it on the battlefield,” the Fuidhir spoke for the first time in a harsh voice that resembled the sound of rocks scraping together.

Sorcha and Ros held in gasps.

The Mórrígan laughed. “True. It’s funny, even your brothers who survived the battle fell apart shortly after. But not you. You’re still together, years later. You are happy to be a Fuidhir forever?”

“No…” The Fuidhir looked at Sorcha and Ros, shivering next to one another. “I learned to be a Bothach girl from Íde, but I have lived many years now. So, I wish I could be a wife, like Sorcha. I want to continue our family and make them proud.”

The crow on the goddess’s shoulder squawked.

“I wonder what got caught in your rocky skull that made you so strange,” said the goddess. “What human would marry a stone creature? But I have to admire your tenacity. I didn’t know I could make a creature like you, so tenderhearted. Or perhaps it’s not me, it’s just fate and the things inside you.”

But the stones were turning red and striating, the bits of leaves and twigs and lichen elongating, twisting, plumping and darkening. The fox skull in the Fuidhir’s chest melted into the shape of a heart that beat inside her chest.

“Hm. Just like you two can’t keep Íde from the battlefield, I can’t keep my stone warrior from the hearth. I’ll take Íde for a warrior—she’s much more useful than a magic stone doll meant to distract human warriors. But you, Ros and Sorcha, will have this daughter instead.” The goddess cut her fingertip open on her spear and touched the Fuidhir. Wax, the color of pale skin and freckles, dripped from her and covered the mass of muscles and veins, solidifying into skin. The orange wildflowers growing from the Fuidhir’s head split apart into long strands of fiery hair, and her slate eyes spun in circles until they softened into flesh.

“Mother, father,” the creature, now a young woman, said in a sweet voice. Sorcha and Ros looked up. The woman offered them her hands and raised them onto their feet. The couple blinked in shock. Sorcha offered the young woman her fur coat so she would not be naked. Then all three turned their attention to the Mórrígan, who was cackling.

The terrible goddess was now a hunched crone in a faded, pink robe.

“How exhausting! I might have been an absent mother to you, child, for many years, but I’ve come through today, yes? Can’t have you walking around skinless,” she cackled. “Thanks for taking care of my child for me. She’s totally yours now—well, actually, she’s totally her own and always has been, the sneaky stones. But I think I’ll rest these weary bones here for the night and be ready for battle again by morning.” She turned to the young woman. “What’s your name, now that you’re human?”

The young woman thought for a few moments. She wanted a pretty name, a name that reminded her of a warm gentle breeze or a field of sweet flowers. “I’m Fionnabhair.”

“Eh, if that’s what you like, I guess.” The Mórrígan shrugged. “Now make me a fire and your delicious stew, my dear, and maybe I’ll ask my sister Áine to send you a fine, rich spouse to marry.”

Jennifer Jeanne McArdle is a hobby writer in her 30s. For her full-time job, she works in animal conservation. Although mainly an author of speculative fiction short stories, she likes to experiment with different genres and occasionally writes creative nonfiction and poetry. Her stories center around topics such as linguistics, history, biology, animals, nature, gender, morality, culture, travel, individuality, personal growth, feeling out of place, and relationships. You can follow her on Twitter.