A knock sounded at the door. Who would come during a storm? Bryne went to the door himself, leaving his three sons wrestling in the straw on the floor. At the door stood a woman, wet and bedraggled. Bryne peered closely at her, striving to see under the dirt and rain that streaked her face. She would be comely if cleaned and dressed properly. Her dress, once one any woman would have been proud of, now stuck to her skin and was beginning to tear. But what Bryne’s eyes were drawn to was the bundle she clutched to her bosom. A flash of lightening, and a small face could be seen pressed against its mother’s body. Bryne waited for an explanation.
“I need shelter for the night. For my child,” the woman called over the wind, her voice husky and hoarse. When the man of the house held the door open, her eyes flicked from his face to the glow of the firelight, and back. He made a gesture with his hand, and she, with a lift of her chin that told him she was swallowing her pride, darted across the threshold, stopping just inside.
She was waiting on him to lead the way. Who was she? Bryne led her into the common room, asking no questions. There was a time and a place for all things, after all. The boys on the floor sat up, pieces of straw sticking out of their hair. They were curious, but knew better than to ask anything. With a movement of his hand, Bryne bade the woman to draw a chair up to the fire. She did so, pulling the fabric away from her child’s face, rubbing his small body to warm and dry him. The young boys had crept closer in the meantime, awed at the sight of this thing that was called a mother. Was this what a mother did for her child? Tend to him before herself? Beg lodgings of a stranger for her child’s sake? Would their mother have done that for them, had she still been living?
Bryne was watching her closely, so closely that he started when his oldest son touched his arm. “Perhaps the bairn would like some milk?” At a nod from his father, he ran off, returning with a bowl he had been keeping warm for the cats. The mother took it gratefully, her blue eyes seeming to smile though her face remained grave. Bryne was reminded of the sky earlier that day – grey, but blue. His face softened as he watched the woman feed her child. It was not so long ago that his own wife had sat in that very place.
When the child had been fed and was beginning to sleep, Bryne stood. The mother was near spent with exhaustion, head leaning to one side. “I will show you to a room.” She looked up at him, coming fully awake again, her eyes filled with something like fear for a fleeting second until she remembered where she was. Rising, she followed him away from the fire to a small room. Here Bryne left her, making sure she saw the extra blankets in the chest at the foot of the bed.
Two years after that stormy night, Bryne awoke and turned toward his wife. He still found it hard to believe that Morwen would have him; that she would have given up her livelihood for her child. Her child…there was a strange thing. Morwen would not tell her son who his father was, or anything about their life before that stormy night. Only yesterday he was passing the common room and had stopped when he heard the boy ask about his father. Morwen had not answered; her face had become sad and pensive. Why would she not answer her own son? “Morwen?” He spoke her name aloud. She did not answer. Bryne sat up, touching her on the arm. “Morwen?” Now she was treating him in the same manner as she treated her son. Anger rose in him, as it did so easily these days. He rose and walked to her side of the bed, shaking her. She did not stir. It was then Bryne realized her skin was cold. Cold. His anger grew cold, not the hot anger of a passionate moment, but the cold anger of loss and hate. He left his second wife in bed and went to fetch his four sons.
Bearn was too young to grieve overmuch for his mother, and Bryne’s sons had only known Morwen for those two years. Atop a grassy hill, Bryne watched from beside the stone that marked both of his wives’ graves as his oldest son Lioun picked up Bearn and carried him down the hill, his two other sons following. Their father waited until they were inside the cottage, then his fists clenched and, sinking down in front of the two stones, he let out a cry – not of despair or sadness, but of anger and bitterness. Morwen was gone, Rigru was gone. He would never take anyone else into his heart. He had not taken Bearn into his heart yet, and now he never would.
As soon as he could wield a pitchfork, Bearn was given all the tasks that no one else would do. Though he was young, he soon grew strong – stronger than any of his three brothers, who took pleasure in finding tasks for him. When their father’s heart changed toward Bearn, so did his sons’.
In his ninth year he was walking in the forest gathering wood for the fire. His arms were full and he was walking back towards the cottage. A twig snapped behind him, and he whirled about, dropping several pieces of wood. His sharp eyes caught a flash of color and the swirl of a maiden’s kirtle. Bearn dropped the rest of the wood and raced after the person he had seen. Not once did he think of the fact that he was in the forest alone. He was a fast runner, and soon caught sight of the kirtle again. It was saffron, like the flowers that grew in the fields. Bearn raced on, straining to see whom he was chasing. If it was a girl, she was a swift girl. At last he was so close he could have touched her. She whirled to face him, and his first thought was of a doe, wild and spirited, his next was that his brothers were being trained by Bryne to hunt deer. The girl startled him by speaking first; abruptly, compulsively. “Who are you? I knew Bryne had sons, but Bree and Chet are both older than you.”
His eyes must have showed his confusion. All his half-brothers had told him of girls was that they were timid, demure creatures. “I am called Bearn. And Bryne is not my father,” he said, adding after a moment, “I do not think he is my father.”
The girl tilted her head to one side, again reminding him of a wild animal as she studied him. She had met Lioun and his brothers in the town, but she had never seen this lad before. He had hair like the straw that covered her father’s fields, or like the strands of gold in some grand lady’s kirtle. His eyes were the same as the eyes of his mother, but the girl would not have known that. To her, they were the color of the little blue flowers she nourished in her garden. “Then you do not have a father, Bearn?” She inquired, pondering his name. Bearn was a name for a suckling babe, not for a strong young boy.
“I have a father!” His reply came with surprising vehemence for his age.
“Then who is he?” She parried, surprising him once more. Girls did not talk overmuch, he had been told. As the boy tried to produce an answer out of thin air, he realized what it was about her that reminded him of the deer. Her eyes were not the soft, dark, liquid brown of the doe, but were the color of the doe’s hide, and her hair the same.
His answer came at last, spoken quietly, in a voice the girl strained to hear. “I know not. My mother never told me, and Bryne never will. She never told him. If she had, he might not have called me Bearn. He would have called me by my true name.”
“What is your true name?” She seated herself on a log, smoothing her skirts with the motion of one who is taught to do so each time she sits. Here was a daughter of a wealthy family.
“I know not. Sometimes I pretend it is Fionn, sometimes Aelf, other times Sheld. But it is likely I will never know.” He was standing with his shoulders bent under the burden of namelessness, eyes cast down with the shame of not knowing.
“I shall give you a name,” the girl declared resolutely, studying him. “I shall call you Ladde. Does that suit you?”
He stood upright instantly, his eyes taking on a more blue shade. “Ladde…” he murmured, contemplating the name. “Ladde is better than Bearn,” he said finally.
The girl seemed pleased, her amber eyes smiling. “Then you shall be Ladde to me. I am called Colleen by my mother, but Brotiarna by my father.”
Bearn, now called Ladde, studied her. Flame maiden. The name suited her, but Colleen suited her as well. He would call her Colleen.
A breeze fluttered through the forest, blowing Colleen’s hair, lifting it from her back, and causing Ladde to shiver. “I was gathering wood for the fire when I saw you,” he stated, thinking of all the wood scattered on the floor of the forest.
“Where is your wood now, then?” Colleen spoke before she thought, then her slender hand flew to her mouth. “You dropped it!” She declared, looking at him almost accusingly.
“Aye, I dropped it.” His tone was flat, almost miserable. “One cannot run with his arms full of wood.”
Colleen sprang from her seat on the log. “Then we must go gather your wood again – show me!” She waited, head turned back over her shoulder – like a doe or a bird.
Ladde led her back to the clearing where the scattered sticks lay still. Bending over to gather them into his arms, he took no notice of Colleen again until he straightened and nearly dropped the wood again. She was standing there with her arms full of wood. “Let us go to your home.”
Ladde’s eyes widened. “No!” She recoiled at the vehemence in his voice. “No,” he said again, more quietly. “Bryne would not be pleased, nor would Lioun.”
Colleen took a step forward, understanding slowly blooming in her eyes. “I shall go as far as the edge of the forest, then you will carry the wood.”
He nodded. “Aye. That will do.”
That evening when Colleen returned home, she told her mother of meeting Bearn; but she called him Ladde. “He lives with Bryne in the cottage to the west of our home, Mother. He has no father and no true name, so I gave him one,” she said while sitting contentedly by the fire at her mother’s side.
Her mother’s brows drew together as she thought, the light of the fire outlining her face. “Rigru died several years ago. Nearly two years before you were born, Colleen. He wed a woman who came to his door one eve. It must be her child.”
“He would not let me carry any of the wood he had been sent to fetch,” the child mused.
She was spirited, so much so that her father gave her the name Brotiarna, or flame maiden. As children are wont to do, Colleen and Ladde befriended each other, and many journeys were made back and forth from one house to the other. On some days Bearn would travel to Colleen; on others she to him. Bryne’s three sons were scornful of their half-brother’s friendship, and teased Bearn unceasingly. “You must ask Father to arrange for you to wed this Colleen,” they would say at table, causing Bearn to redden in embarrassment and frustration.
Their taunting did not stop Bearn from spending time with Colleen – in fact, he went more frequently to her. Their favorite thing to do was to walk in the grassy hills and fields separating their lands. One evening when Lioun had been particularly arrogant and authoritative, Ladde ran to the stone wall that marked the end of Bryne’s land, and the beginning of Colleen’s father’s. He had not long to wait before Colleen came racing down the hill. They talked for a time, until Colleen could not see Ladde’s face clearly any longer because of the darkness. Then they bid each other farewell, promising to meet again soon.
When Colleen returned home breathless and excited, her cheeks flushed from the evening air, her father was waiting for her. “Brotiarna, you have come home late. Where have you been?” He stood tall, arms crossed over his chest. Only occasionally had Colleen seen her father like this, brows drawn down over his eyes in anger.
“I have been with Ladde, father. We – I lost track of time.” She took heed of the warning in her mother’s eyes and said no more.
“Ladde?” Her father’s tone grew more stern, if that was possible. “Who is this Ladde?”
“Why, he dwells with Bryne.” This was stated as if it were common knowledge.
“Bryne!” Her father exploded contemptuously. “You were with one of Bryne’s sons? Has your mother not told you that Bryne is a commoner, a peasant, and his sons like him?”
“He is not really Bryne’s son, father. He – ”
“You are not to see him again.” The words were spoken quietly, but with no room for argument.
Colleen’s mother chose that moment to speak, surprising both her husband and her daughter. “What harm is there in the children playing, my husband? They are not yet past their tenth years; let – “
“You forget your place, wife!” He whipped around to face her, his eyes glaring, daring, and warning her to say more. “This is my house, and what I say is what will be!” Two strides took him across the floor to where Colleen’s mother had risen; one movement of his arm brought her close to him. He was nearly two heads taller than she.
She chose to remain silent, holding his angry gaze with her soft, gently pleading one. They stood this way, gazes locked, for what seemed to Colleen like an hour, then her mother slowly seated herself again, eyes downcast.
Her father turned away from her, toward Colleen. “You will tell him you will not see him again.” He spoke quietly now, but Colleen understood he meant what he said.
“Aye, father.” A single tear dropped from her amber eyes as she left the room.
As the days passed, Ladde looked for Colleen, but she did not come. He told himself that she would come, and that he should stop worrying. But in his heart he felt that she would not come. He waited, sometimes neglecting his work, and though he was punished, he did not notice. Finally, he could wait no longer. One morning he left Bryne’s cottage and crossed the brook, the fields, and the stone wall that separated him from Colleen. Soon he could see the smoke rising from the house, and hastened to the door.
It was opened by Colleen, whose face was apprehensive. How could she tell him? He would not understand what she had to do; why she had to send him away. “Ladde – “ she began, gripping her skirt with both hands, twisting and turning the fabric in her hands.
“Colleen.” He stopped her. “Are you well?” She looked pale; had she been ill?”
“Aye, I am well.” She took a deep, quavering breath, then straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and closed her eyes. “Ladde, you must leave!” The words burst from her convulsively. “I shall not see you again!” With an effort she pushed the door closed, barring it. Then she leaned her forehead against the wood, tears dropping from her face, shoulders heaving with sobs.
“Colleen!” Ladde put his hands against the door, willing it to open. It did not open. He could hear her sobbing from inside. What was wrong? She almost never cried. What had he done? With a sigh, he turned away.
There was to be a fair in the town, and Bryne planned to go, taking his sons with him. Ladde would follow later, provided he was finished with his work.
Ladde appeared on the outskirts of the crowd, watching as she played. The song was a familiar one to him; his mother had used to sing it to him as she held him. That was one of the few memories that had survived the years. As he leaned against a doorpost, he realized that Colleen’s cousin Niall was watching her very closely. This revelation brought a scowl to his face. Niall did not deserve Colleen, but Ladde had no hope of winning her. He thrust his hand into his tunic, hesitated, and drew it back out. He would wait until later. Then Colleen and the other fiddler both hesitated for a split second and drew the bows across their fiddles in a long, smooth arch, producing a sound that drew more people from across the square. The note lingered in the air, then suddenly disappeared into a frenzy of short, quick notes that spoke to everyone. To most, it was a call to dance, and they obeyed the call, taking up positions on opposite sides of the square. Colleen thrust her fiddle into the waiting hands of another musician and joined the women’s side with a whirl of her saffron tunic. It was the same color as the kirtle she had worn the day Ladde had first met her. He was caught up in the flow of waiting dancers, pulled along to the men’s side where he stood until a blond, blue-eyed beauty pulled him close and whirled him away. He knew that the men were supposed to lead, but he had never danced before. It turned out it did not matter. His feet moved in accordance with the music, and his body followed.
“I am Freya,” the girl whispered in his ear – she had to stand on her toes – as they whirled about other dancers.
He drew back slightly. “I am called Ladde.” They reached the middle of the square where Freya was swept away into the hands of another young man and Ladde caught sight of Colleen dancing with Niall, which upset him so that he stepped on the toes of the girl he had acquired in the middle of the square. She winced and guided him gingerly to the middle of the square as quickly as she could, disengaging herself from his arms and thrusting herself upon Niall, who was forced to give up his partner. Ladde found himself face to face with Colleen, who was as displeased at the turn of events as Niall had been. “Colleen!” He was out of breath, and so was she. “Come with me!” They were at the edge of the square and Ladde led her into a side street, where she removed her hand with a jerk.
“Ladde, what is the meaning of this?” She demanded, starting to rejoin the other dancers. That he had the audacity to come between her and Niall had put her out of sorts.
She found her way blocked. “Colleen! Please wait! I do not understand.” Ladde spread his arms wide, pleading for an answer. “How is it that we have changed – you have changed?”
Colleen drew herself up, giving a small sigh. “My father is a noble, and your
“Bryne is not my father, or have you forgotten?”
“It matters not; you are not of noble birth! It would be disgraceful if any were to see us together,” she continued, smoothing her skirts – as she had done the day he first met her – only now she was striving to speak calmly, keep her temper, and make Ladde understand.
“But Colleen, it never mattered when we were younger! You are the only person who has ever seen me for who I am, not for who Bryne is or for who my father may be! Can you not see me in that way again?” Ladde pleaded. “Can you not try?”
“Ladde…” Colleen closed her eyes in frustration. “Niall has been calling on my father nearly every day. He has not asked for me yet, but father says I am to be civil to him and to do nothing to discourage him from coming.”