She stared at the flames; the play of white heat, shivering blue and autumn-coloured flickers crackling over the logs and blackening the wood. In her hands, she held a roughly carved bowl of herbs, absently tying them into bunches for drying as she lost herself in memories.
She remembered the rolling stomp of feet around the festival fires, the keening voices of the old women, the shouts of the young men; their winter-paled skin vivid in the semi-darkness. She remembered the blaze and flicker of the torches, their light gilding her skin and mingling with the haze of mead, weaving a gold-threaded dreamscape before her eyes. Woodsmoke and the subtle perfume of dried herbs flavoured the air; the musky smell of the dancers' sweat and smouldering peat creating a dark and earthy undertone. But most of all she remembered the pipes – the pipes! Reeling and rolling, their bugling cry rising over the warlike thump of drums and clapping hands. And above it all, the voices of the young women: chanting the ancient songs and choruses, some so old that the words had passed into memory. Still they had sang, the strings of archaic nonsense words sending a thrill through Arianne's very bones. Oh, how she remembered.
She had danced and whirled around the bonfires, part of the great turning circle, lifting her voice with the others until the sound seemed to buzz along her bloodstreams, raising the fine, downy hairs upon her arms in eerie unison. And all the while, an ache of belonging had built and bloomed beneath her breastbone, spreading a glittering amber warmth through her; so powerful and deep she almost wept…
Abruptly, Arianne shook her head, shrugging her thick grey-green shawl closer around her shoulders. The fire had died to a slow flicker; shrinking back to join the glowing remains of the peat bricks, the cleansing smell of the herbs and wildflowers having long worn off. Arianne stood up and briskly set the bowl of bunched herbs down on her workbench, rearranging a few clay jars and attempting to distract herself from the crushing emptiness of the room. No matter how she filled the space with medicinal supplies, preserves, foodstuffs and everyday clutter, she never managed to assuage the loneliness that seemed to have ingrained itself within the very walls of her home. Her shoulders sagged slightly, and she turned back to the fire.
To be an exile was worse than a thousand deaths.
During the long, bitter winters, when the constant cold froze her cheekbones from the marrow outwards and turned her ears, nose, fingers and toes to throbbing lumps of useless meat, she wished Gorlacon had killed her. Hunched numbly by the useless fire, she hated him for cursing her to this; to endless, deadening, monotonous loneliness, punctuated by the slow tramp of the moon across the skies, dragging the seasons reluctantly behind it like headstrong children. Arianne had always enjoyed having time to herself, but this… Nothing could have prepared her for this.
Her fate had been more or less inevitable, in hindsight.
There were superstitions amongst her people, the people of the North. A host of superstitions, dark and old; ragged whispers that haunted the ears of those who walked the woods and glens. Shadowy-soft, they made their way down the generations, weaving into the very blood of families, becoming part of the fabric of clan life.
And so, with the very first opening of her eyes, Arianne was marked.
Her pale grey eyes, clear and bright as rainwater caught in a bowl of silver, exposed her 'true nature', or so the midwife said. All through her childhood, there had been whispers, swift glances at her too-bright, unnaturally clear eyes. A bana-bhuidseach, they called her – a witch, a sorceress, a practitioner of supernatural arts gifted to her by the folk of the Otherworld. Arianne could no more summon a flicker of flame with a thought than she could cradle the sun in her arms, but legend and tradition ran deep in the minds of the clanspeople, blotting out any resistance the bold, flossy-haired young woman ever made. That she held a strong interest in healing made her doubly suspicious, and was the ultimate cause of her banishment.
Arianne picked up her stout wooden bucket and headed out into the chilly morning, trying not to think of that day. She strode down the well-worn path to the riverside, the bucket banging against her thigh, plumes of her frosted breath rising into the air. Crouching by the edge of the flowing water, she stared at the smooth river pebbles with unseeing eyes. Despite her best efforts, the memories were rising: vivid and painful as always, painting her mind's eye with memory scenes bold and raw and blood-stained; full of war and a terrible, piercing agony as she watched those in her care sicken and die.
Gazing into the fast-flowing waters, Arianne was oblivious to the sounds of distant footsteps through the woods. Her mind dwelt temporarily on another plane; a nightmarish place, glazed with helplessness and scorched with the remembered pain and hurt of others. And their loved ones: raging, screaming, cursing, even as they tried to cling to the last shreds of their sanity…
Gorlacon. His eyes wild, his voice ragged, his customary calm destroyed. "You have to save her, you must, she cannot be, she cannot…" A woman lying on the pallet, smeared with blood, a small child shrinking into the shadows at the corner of the room, a strange smell in the air, emanating from the hideous wound across the woman's abdomen…
Unheeded by the clear-eyed exile, the hurried scuffle of feet drew nearer.