An Fear Dearg by Keira Reynolds
Lough Tarbh was a prosperous, peaceful, sleepy little village. The villagers always had enough to eat, the local lord ruled with a light hand, and nothing much ever happened. Flannán had only been here a little while and already she was growing tired of it.
Flannán woke up with Eithne curled in her arms, Eithne’s sleeping head nestled on Flannán’s shoulder. Flannán smiled, brushed Eithne’s hair from her face, kissed her lightly on the forehead, and eased out of bed. She was careful not to wake her sleeping lover. Today was Eithne’s day off, and she had more than earned her rest.
Eithne served food and drink in the inn from early morning until late at night, while fending off the unwanted advances of drunken men, some of whom seemed to think that a woman with a wooden leg should be grateful for any attention, even from married men twice her age who could not be bothered to scrape the dung from their boots before coming into the inn. Flannán had stepped in when one aggressive drunken villager was slow to get the message that his attention was unwelcome. The man, Cormac, currently had more difficulty walking with two legs than Eithne did with one, although in his case the condition was temporary. His body would recover, though his pride might not.
Flannán had composed a ballad satirizing the man’s behavior. Flannán would be gone from here soon but some of the villagers had already memorized the song. The biting words would give some protection to Eithne after Flannán was gone. No one wanted to replace Cormac as the subject of the ballad.
Flannán almost felt sorry for the man. Almost.
She dressed quietly without waking Eithne, leaving her harp beside the bed but taking her spear from where it stood propped in a corner alongside Eithne’s wooden leg. She closed the door behind her, and waited until she reached the foot of the creaky stairs before putting on her boots.
Niamh, the innkeeper, was already busy serving early breakfast. She raised an eyebrow at the sight of Flannán’s spear.
“You’ll not be needing that,” said Niamh. “Cormac is a damn fool, but he’s learned his lesson this time. He’ll not be bothering you or Eithne again. I told him he won’t get back in here if he does, and there isn’t another inn or tavern within a day’s walk of here. Cormac likes his drink too much to risk being banished from the inn.”
“This isn’t for Cormac,” Flannán assured her. “My horse has been growing restless in your stable. I plan to take him out into the wilds for a bit of a run today. Even in this peaceful place it’s better not to go into the wilds unarmed.”
“True enough. Though I would have thought that demon horse of yours was protection enough. My stable hands are terrified of him.”
Flannán laughed. “Catha won’t hurt them. He just enjoys scaring people.”
She ate a breakfast of bread and cheese, washed down with a mug of fresh milk, and took an apple with her when she left the inn and made her way to the nearby stable. The stable boy was not happy when asked to saddle her horse. Flannán tossed the apple she was carrying to the lad.
“Give that to Catha,” she advised. “That will keep him happy long enough for you to saddle him.”
The stable boy caught the apple and left, returning a little while later leading Catha, saddled and bridled. The horse whickered and flicked his ears forward when he saw Flannán, and sniffed at her hands and clothing, hoping for another apple. Flannán patted his neck and swung up into the saddle.
“Restless, aren’t you boy?” said Flannán, leaning forward over the horse’s neck to whisper in his ear. “Me too. Let’s go run through the wilds, you and I, and shake off the dust and cobwebs of this place. We’ll both feel better for it.”
She rode at a trot toward the western opening in the earthen bank and palisade that surrounded the village. There was no gate; the villagers dragged thorn bushes into the gap at night. Outside the last cottage, just inside the palisade, a small crowd was gathered. A woman, clutching a small child, sat in the dirt outside the cottage, wailing, while neighbors tried to comfort her. Flannán brought Catha to a halt beside one of the men, whom she recognised from the inn.
“Fearchar, isn’t it? What’s happened?” asked Flannán.
“That’s Cormac’s wife,” the man answered, giving Flannán a shrewd look. “He’s missing. You haven’t had another run-in with him, have you?”
“Not I. I haven’t left the inn until just now, and he hasn’t been back there.”
Fearchar nodded. “I saw what happened between you. I believe you’re the type that would challenge Cormac openly if you still had a problem with him.”
It was a relief that the man believed her, and that she could call upon witnesses, if necessary, to confirm her story. Cormac was not well-liked in the village, and her status as a bard earned Flannán some respect, but the villagers’ first loyalty was always to each other. They would turn on her in a heartbeat if they believed she had murdered one of their own, even one they did not like.
“An Fear Dearg!” the woman wailed. “The Red Man took my husband!”
“That’s what she keeps saying,” said Fearchar. “That’s all we can get out of her. She swears the Red Man took Cormac in the night.”
Flannán dismounted and stooped down beside the wailing woman.
“You say the Red Man took your husband?”
The woman glared at Flannán. “You!” she spat. “This is all your fault!”
“Why would you say that?”
“You shamed him before the whole village! It wasn’t enough for you to beat him until he could barely walk, you had to write that horrible song about him, too. You drove him to seek revenge. He called on the Red Man to curse you, but the Red Man took Cormac instead!”
“That was foolish, and hardly my fault. If you’ve heard what happened at the inn, then I expect you have also learned why. I’m surprised you didn’t throw him out yourself.”
“I know what happened. I know what kind of man he is. That doesn’t mean I want my children to be fatherless. It’s your fault he was taken from me, and you must bring him back. I lay a geas on you, to bring him back to us.”
Flannán looked at the child crying in the woman’s arms, and then through the open doorway behind them into the cottage, where two more children clutched each other, looking out with wide-eyed, tear-stained faces.
“I do not fear your geas,” said Flannán. “You have no power over me. But I will find your husband, if I can, for the sake of your children.”
Flannán swung back up into Catha’s saddle. Fearchar looked up at her with troubled eyes.
“I should come with you,” said Fearchar, while fear and duty chased each other across his face.
“Have you a horse?”
“Then you would only slow me down. Alert the village. No one should stray far alone today.”
“Where will you search?”
Flannán nodded toward a high, conical hill that overlooked the village from the west. The lower slopes were wooded, while the crest was shrouded in mist.
“If it truly is the Red Man who has taken Cormac, then Cnoc na Sídhe is where I’ll find them.”
Fearchar looked up at the brooding hill and traced a sign in the air before him, a traditional gesture of warding against evil. “Gods and goddesses go with you. I’ll alert the village.”
Flannán guided Catha out through the gap in the palisade. The village was surrounded by cultivated fields, and beyond them lay common ground—meadows, pastures, and coppices. To her left lay the lough from which the village took its name, with fishing boats pulled up on the shore.
Though she had denied it to Cormac’s wife, Flannán felt a twinge of conscience. Had she really needed to beat Cormac so badly? The red mist of fury had clouded her judgement, and she had only stopped when Eithne begged her to. And the ballad—had she been motivated by her desire to protect Eithne, or had she been a little too carried away by pride in her own cruel wit?
She shook her head and put her doubts behind her. Dealing with incidents such as this was the reason she had been sent out alone into the world at the end of her studies. This was no time for distractions.
Beyond the common land the wilderness began, the vast forests of oak and ash, broken by hills, loughs, and bogs. Here on the western side of the village there was less cleared land than elsewhere, and the wilderness came closer to the village. The village folk did not like to venture into the shadow of Cnoc na Sídhe.
Flannán rode at a canter through the open fields, but she had to dismount and lead Catha when she came to the forest. Here there was only a narrow path, used more often by deer than by human folk, where low-hanging branches, loose rocks, and twisted tree-roots made riding dangerous.
The trees thinned out and gave way to open heath as Flannán and Catha approached the crest of the hill, but the hilltop was still shrouded in mist. Flannán continued to lead Catha, unwilling to risk riding in such poor visibility.
Through the mist, giant shadows loomed, a great ring of standing stones that crowned the hill, and a stone altar at their center. Someone lay upon the altar, and a second figure stood nearby. Flannán looped the reins over Catha’s neck and went on alone.
Someone, presumably Cormac, lay on the altar, hands tied behind his back and a sack over his head. He writhed and moaned. Beside him a cloaked and hooded figure sat upon the edge of the altar, arms crossed before his chest. Flannán stood before this cloaked figure, leaning on her spear.
“You would be the Red Man,” said Flannán.
The cloaked figure threw back his hood, revealing flaming red hair, a red beard, and a ruddy face. He almost looked human. But there was something alien about his eyes, something cold and unfeeling, a total absence of human sympathy, kindness, or mercy. “I would,” he said. “And you would be Flannán.”
“And that, I suppose,” said Flannán, nodding at the writhing, moaning figure on the altar, “would be Cormac?”
“That it would. He thought he could summon me and force me to punish you for humiliating him. Nicely done, by the way. Your song laid bare his shame for all to see. I couldn’t have done better myself. But the Red Man is not a servant, to bow to the wishes of human folk. I alone decide who I will punish, and who I will reward.”
“What did you do to him?”
“I showed him who and what he is. Not unlike your ballad. Except that mine is a song that only he can hear, and it has no end.”
Flannán showed the Red Man a silver coin and laid it on the stone altar beside him. “I’ll take him back to his wife and children now.”
The Red Man laughed, and it was not a pleasant laugh. “You may take him. I am done with him. I do not think his wife and children will find much joy in his return. Take your coin too. The Red Man is not so lightly bought. There will be a price to be paid, for sure, something dearer to you than silver or gold.”
“What do you mean?” asked Flannán. “What price?” But the Red Man laughed his mocking laugh again, drew his hood over his face, and stepped into the mist. Flannán tried to follow him, but he was gone. She could find no trace of him.
Flannán untied Cormac and took the sack from over his head. The man gibbered and drooled and stared at her with wide, unfocused eyes. She could get no sense out of him. Catha came when she whistled, and she managed to boost Cormac up into the saddle, and then she led the horse and the broken man back down the hill toward the village.
Fearchar was waiting at the gap in the palisade. He looked even more concerned than he had when Flannán last saw him.
“I’m sorry, Flannán,” said Fearchar, as he helped her get Cormac down from the horse and into the cottage. “I have bad news, news that I fear will hit you even harder than the rest of us.”
“What is it?” Flannán asked, even as a dreadful premonition began to creep up on her.
“It’s Eithne. She’s gone. The Red Man took her.”
Flannán did not wait to ask any further questions. She left Fearchar to deal with Cormac, swung back into Catha’s saddle, and set off at a gallop back toward Cnoc na Sídhe.
She wasted no time wondering how the Red Man had got to the village and away again with Eithne. The paths of the Sídhe were not the paths of mortal folk, and time passed differently for mortals and for Sídhe. Her mind was clouded with fear and rage as she remembered the broken man that Cormac had become. She tried not to imagine what the Red Man might be doing to Eithne.
In her haste she tried to ride through the forest, but she was forced to dismount when a low-hanging branch struck her in the face, almost sweeping her from the saddle, and Catha stumbled over a twisted tree-root. She looped the reins over Catha’s neck, left him to follow at his own pace, and ran as fast as she could, stumbling over roots and loose stones, whipped and scratched by briars and thorns. She burst out from under the trees and raced up the hill toward the stone altar.
She almost tripped over something that lay in the grass in her path. She stooped and picked it up, feeling a chill of dread. It was Eithne’s wooden leg, a length of oak some eighteen inches long, reinforced with iron bands, with a leather cup and straps at one end and an iron ferrule at the other. Had it become detached in a struggle? Had the Red Man removed it to render Eithne more helpless? Or had Eithne dropped it as a sign for Flannán to follow? Flannán ran on, the wooden leg in one hand, her spear in the other.
Eithne lay upon the altar, tied and hooded as Cormac had been. The Red Man was nowhere to be seen. Flannán laid the wooden leg on the altar beside Eithne and drew her dagger. She cut Eithne’s bonds and removed the hood, dreading what she might see.
Eithne sat up and embraced Flannán, her eyes wide with fear, but bright with consciousness and recognition.
“Flannán!” she cried. “I knew you’d come. But look out! The Red Man. He comes!”
Flannán whirled around, and there was the Red Man, his hood thrown back, laughing.
“I told you there would be a price,” said the Red Man.
Flannán leveled her spear at the place where his heart should be, if he had a heart, and spat at his feet.
“I offered you silver,” she said. “This time, I’ll give you cold iron.”
The Red Man laughed again. “Aye? As you did the beast that killed your best friend?”
Flannán stared at him, stunned, an icy feeling growing in the pit of her stomach.
“You failed, Flannán,” said the Red Man. “You failed Seachnall when he needed you most. You let him die. And now you’re going to fail Eithne too.”
The misty hilltop, the Red Man, and even Eithne, all disappeared, as the Red Man’s words carried Flannán back, against her will, to a cold day in a forest far from here. The great bear had come out of nowhere, buried its slavering fangs in her friend’s shoulder, and dragged him screaming back into the forest. For one moment, one terrible moment that still woke her, sweating, in the middle of the night, Flannán had frozen, rooted to the spot by horror and fear. She had overcome the fear and given chase, her spear raised, trying to get a clear cast at the bear. But by then it was too late.
“Kill it!” Seachnall had screamed, over and over again, a scream she still heard in her nightmares. “Help me! Kill it!”
Flannán had thrown the spear, but anxious of hitting her friend, she had thrown wide and only grazed the bear. By the time she retrieved the spear, the bear had dragged Seachnall into the trees. She had run after them, guided by her friend’s screams and later, when the screams fell silent, by the trail of blood. She had found what remained of her friend’s torn body and carried it back to his family. Perhaps his family had hunted down the bear. Flannán hadn’t stayed to find out. Though his family had assured her that his death was not her fault, that they knew she had done everything she could, they could never quite look her in the eye while saying it. She had left before the ashes of his funeral pyre had cooled.
She lowered her spear and sank to her knees. A great weight of shame and despair pressed down on her. She had failed and her friend had died horribly because of her failure. How could she go on? The Red Man loomed over her, smiling his evil, gloating smile, and his eyes sucked the life out of Flannán’s soul.
And then the Red Man stumbled, and his eyes glazed, and he dropped to his knees before Flannán. Behind him, two figures stood wreathed in mist. There stood Catha, and beside him, steadying herself by clinging to his mane with one hand, stood Eithne. In her other hand she wielded her iron-bound wooden leg like a club, and the Red Man’s blood was on it.
Flannán surged to her feet with a snarl and thrust her spear at the place where the Red Man’s heart should be. An empty cloak fell to the earth. Catha snorted and stamped the cloak into the mud. The Red Man was gone.
Flannán helped Eithne mount Catha, and for the second time that day, she led the horse back down the hill toward the village.
“The Red Man is still out there, though, isn’t he?” asked Eithne. “We didn’t kill him?”
“No, we didn’t kill him. The Sídhe are hard to kill. Though I hope he’ll have a sore head for a while, curse him. I will have to face him again one day. But not you. You need never fear the Red Man again. He feeds on fear. He draws all his power from fear. He has no power over those who have overcome their fear and faced him down.”
Flannán looked up at the brave one-legged woman on the horse, and despite the horror they had just lived through, Flannán laughed.
“And you, my love, how you faced him down! Tonight, I will sing a new song: the ballad of Eithne One-Leg, Eithne the Fearless, Eithne the Beautiful and Brave, who saved her lover and defeated the Red Man, armed only with her own wooden leg!”
Keira Reynolds is a trans woman, a software developer, and writer. Her stories have appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and A Summer of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. She is currently studying Arts and Humanities (Creative Writing) with the Open University. She lives with her wife Julie in County Kerry, Ireland. Find her online at her website.