She dances, she spins, the basket of sleek herring a quotidian counterweight to her whirling twirling frantic ecstasy. The bubbling, burning joy fills her to bursting, and she reviles in it, mouth stretched in a grin so wide it feels as if her lips will crack. The feeling fades slowly, and she floats to a prancing walk, skirts swaying gently around her wooden clogs. Oh gods… Images of her tall, pale Ciaran—so stern, so focused, so changed…until those unguarded moments when they share a touch, a glance, and his mulberry eyes soften and deepen and her heart swells—just like this!—and she knows she is loved, she is worth loving, she loves. And her daughter. Her daughter. The most beautiful child ever to crawl along a beach, eating sand, her curls shining as she draws patterns with chubby, spitty fingers. Fainne. So like Ciaran, with her wide, dark eyes gleaming with intelligence.
Coherent thought intrudes, and she clutches at the ecstasy, focusing fiercely on her family—her heart—but, as with all pure joy, it strikes without warning, lasting only a moment, and then fades. Happiness settles to a dull hum, leaving her mind open to other images. Liadan, her small, competent sister, cautioning, comforting, protecting. Guilt creeps in like a cloud over the sun…gods…she doesn't know where her own sister is, the sister she owes so much. Is she happy? Does she live at Sevenwaters, quietly holding the land and people together in her competent hands, like she always imagined? She wishes she could see her sister, thank her, show her Fainne and Ciaran and her happiness, laugh together over…over…well, they'd think of something.
The thought of Sevenwaters brings back other memories, memories that bring feelings far more familiar than joy. No. She won't think of that, won't think of them, won't think of…him. He is dead. Ciaran told her, and then held back her sweaty hair as she retched into the chipped chamber pot. That is the past. She shudders, and pulls herself back to the present.
Where is she? Why—how? She frowns down at her feet, now innocently motionless. Then she looks up, and out. The sea pounds far below her, grey-green under the overcast sky. She's never been up here before—there isn't really much time for exploring, and until recently, she hasn't felt safe enough to wander on her own. Manannan mac Lir, it's beautiful. Open, wild…so different from the forest of her childhood. Less comforting, maybe, but then, home hasn't felt safe since…well. Here she is free.
A rock clatters behind her, and she turns, startled. And freezes.
"So this is where you've been hiding. Worthless whore. You look like a fishwife. Probably smell like one, too. Let's hope you rut like one…it would be an improvement, anyway."
She feels the gorge rising at the back of her throat, and her legs tremble with fear.
"No words of welcome for your long-lost husband? Come on, Niamh, at least a kiss. Haven't you missed me?"
She tries to move, to step back, to run, but she can't.
"Worst deal of my life, getting stuck with you as a bride. No pleasure, no beauty, no heir…you couldn't even stick it out. Ran away like a worthless coward. Left your family to suffer the consequences of your desertion."
She swallows, still numb with shock.
Fionn smirks, fleshy face arrogant. Blatant desire flares, obvious in his leer, his hulking posture. He steps forward, reaching a large hand toward the red-gold tendrils floating about her thin shoulders. Her eyes go blank with shock, a rabbit looking into the face of a wolf, frozen with fear. In her head, she's back in that bed, trapped under him, the relentless wet pounding cramming her full of disgust, hate, guilt. Toward him, her family, Ciaran…but most of all herself. Each thrust forces her deeper inside, farther from the images she tries to cling to,
But there is another image, one new to this bedchamber that holds her prisoner. Chubby, oh-so-soft fingers pick clumsily at a round, smooth pebble, raising it to a sweet, drooling mouth. Wide mulberry eyes blink absently, and the small pink lips spread in a gummy smile. Fainne. Her heart bursts, and she explodes.
Smack! A white handprint blazes across Fionn's red face, and his eyes widen in shock. Niamh's shriek is hoarser than the seagulls', more piercing than the sharpest rocks below, as haunting as the wind that howls through the Honeycomb. It goes on as the thick contours of Fionn's face melt away, as the mulberry eyes—how many shades of mulberry there are—peer out from the cold, cold face, as her feet are swept out of their clogs, her hands wrenched from the now frail, wrinkled neck, her body tossed to the wide grey sea below.
As she falls, she turns, and for a moment the sun pierces the clouds, illuminating her brilliant golden hair. It shines, burning and blazing for the whole world to see.
But only the basket of herring stands witness.