It had the makings of an evil day.
A stranger stood among the scattered houses of the village. A great bear of a man. A broad back and the two legs of him planted hard on the ground, like the trunks of great trees.
A head full of hair, black like his brow. A face too hard for handsome. An eye too fierce for friendship.
A great shield hung at his back, leather rimmed and bossed with bronze. A twist of gold on his right arm, and leather at his wrists. A black knife rode in his belt and a long-handled sword lay at his hip.
Through the village he strode, and the mouths of boys fell open, the gaze of women rested on his thighs. Men stepped aside from his path as he passed.
He met the Elders in the grass circle at the center of the village. They asked him his business, their eyes on the blade at his hip.
"I am Thon," he began, by way of answer, "Thon of the People of the River."
They nodded, for they had heard of these People of the River. Fierce and proud they were said to be, their tales told in houses far and wide.
"I am here because your enemy comes."
Again the Elders nodded, for they knew their enemy was coming. One of their number, head bowed with years and grayed with cares, spoke.
"He comes, as he has come before. He will take some food, some of our young. And then he will be gone. What of it?"
Thon stood tall, his eye on these tired, old men.
"I have traveled long and hard," he said. “I have raised my strong arm against evil men and sheltered the weak in the shadow of my shield."
"I am come here, to this place, now, at this time, and I shall deliver you from your foe."
The Elders argued with him. The told how, in other times, the blood of their young men had watered the ground he stood on. They told him he should go and leave them to their fate.
Thon drew his long-handled blade and the sunlight flashing on it blinded all who saw it. It sang as it cut the air in great sweeps.
"I will meet your foe, and deliver you from your fate."
So saying, he left them and took station at the entrance to the village.
In the cool of the evening they came. Two men, warriors, one with the great broad sword, the other, the double-bladed axe of the Northerners.
They eyed Thon and delivered their message. Their leader would be in the village in the morning. He would take his tribute.
Thon stepped forward, blocking the path.
"I have a message too. Pass this place by. Go elsewhere."
Man stared at man, two pairs of eyes meeting one. One man reached for his broad sword. Thon’s long-handled blade flashed in the sun and cleft him from collar to hip. He crashed to the earth like a felled tree.
The axe blotted out the sun. Its blade cut deep along Thon’s arm till it caught on the leather at his wrist. The long-handled sword flashed again, caught the handle of the axe and bit deep.
Thon twisted his sword, tore the axe from the hands of the other, and thrust. The point of his blade sank deep between shoulder and trunk. The man’s right arm hung lifeless at his side.
"You heard my message," Thon said to him. "Go you now and deliver it."
Thon waited until the man was out of sight and then turned to the villagers. They stood, silent. He watched and the crowd parted as reeds are parted by the prow of a riverboat.
She was tall. Face pale and hair red against the green of her smock. A wide belt hung low on her hips. Wide also the square-cut collar, showing a hint of swelling breast. Gold caught the sunlight at her throat and she wore a clasp of gold on each arm.
She walked slowly, and the eyes of men followed. An Elder raised his hand to stay her, but she stopped him with a glance. Strong and clear her voice. A sound to remember on many a long night.
"Come," she said, "I will tend your wound."
Not waiting for reply, she turned and made for a small house, one set apart from the others. Thon followed, and the eyes of the crowd followed them.
A single room, hearth, stool, a small table for meals and a bed for sleep. This was all she had. She nodded to the stool by the table.
"Sit," she said, and turned to pour water on a cloth.
Thon remained standing, hand on the hilt of his sword. She looked at him, tall and strong in her house, his head reaching towards the thatch. She smiled.
"I am Aine. You may rest your sword, Warrior, and your shield too. Sit. Your wound needs tending if you are to face them in the morning."
Thon nodded and let his shield slip to the floor. He sat and stripped the leather from his wrist. Aine examined the arm, tracing her finger the length of the wound.
"The cut is deep, but clean. You will fight another day Warrior."
She wiped the blood away and dressed the wound with herbs. She bound the arm.
"You will carry the memory of this day," she said, "but for how long, I wonder."
Thon looked at her as he flexed his arm.
"So long as I have my two feet beneath me, so long will I carry the memory of this day."
"More will come tomorrow," Aine said. "You have only two arms. What then?"
"I will fight their leader in single combat," he answered. "The rest do not matter."
Aine looked at Thon.
"Brave words, and honorable. But, do you know the man you will face has honor? You might do well to have another by your side."
"And who would that be? You, woman?" and he reached to grab her.
Aine turned into his grasp and the silver blade she carried in her belt rested at his throat. Thon twisted and made to hold her arm. The knife bit into his neck and a single drop of blood ran down the blade. Thon stayed his hand.
"A challenge must be tested," he said.
"But wise is he who stops when his blood is bright on the blade," she countered.
"That is more the wisdom of man than woman," Thon said.
Aine shrugged. "I take wisdom where it may be found. You would do well to do likewise."
Thon nodded and again made to grasp her hand. Aine stepped out of his reach and her blade was back in her belt before his arm had completed its journey.
"And now, Warrior. Let us see how you do in other trials of strength."
Thon stood, and he filled half the room.
"Should I pour out my strength on the night before a battle?"
"Should you face a battle tomorrow, tense and without exercise?"
A low rumble sounded in the breast of Thon of the River People. He moved to her.
"Is that the wisdom of a woman?"
Aine laughed and her laughter filled the whole room as she pulled him down to the bed.
"Take wisdom where you may find it, Warrior. This night, you may find it here."
It was not yet morning when Aine rose from beside him. The air was cold on her body and she dressed hurriedly, wrapping a cloak about her.
Thon stirred on the bed and reached for her. She placed her hand on his breast, pressing him back.
"This fight is not for you, Warrior, nor can it be won your way."
Thon struggled but her hand on his breast kept him pinned to the bed.
"Listen now to the wisdom of a woman. Stay here, for they have need of men. The Elders have lost their will and way. Forging spirit in them is a battle that will take all your strength and all your courage."
Her voice lowered as she continued, "And you, sing songs of me. Remember me."
These words spoken, she pressed her hand against him and sleep overcame him. Out into the graying day she walked, the mist rising off the grass as she made her way from the village.
One girl, of but ten and four years, saw her go. Aine stopped, placed her hand on the girl's brow for a moment, and went on her way. The girl watched her leave.
When the morning came the villagers beat upon the door of the house where Thon yet slept. He rose and rushed to the door, fastening his tunic and shield as he went.
"They're gone," they cried. "Gone!"
And so it was. There was no sign of those who had threatened the village. Not that morning, not that year, nor in the years that followed.
Thon stood in the doorway, the memory of Aine in the marrow of his bones, the loss of Aine carved on his face. Those near him thought they heard a sound, as of the splitting of a great rock under heat and pressure.
Thon remained in that village and became a leader of men. Often in the night, when the air was cold and mist rose off the grass, the villagers heard the sound of singing.
Kevin J Mackey is native Irish but now lives in the far drier climate of
the San Francisco Bay Area. He reads widely - "whatever may be found
between book covers" - but has a particular fondness for science fiction
and poetry. He has had short stories and poetry published in 2010 and 2011.