A Beltane Dance

For Marilla

      Cathair piled wood on his lonely Beltane fire.  At home, everyone would be drinking and dancing, celebrating the spring.  His heart ached.  Fial was dead, and Cathair was exiled, but time moved on without them. 

     The accusation of fratricide, falling from Neasa’s lips, had wounded Cathair’s heart almost as much as losing his twin.  Almost.  He still didn’t understand how his brother’s wife had turned everyone against him.  Or why.  He and Neasa had always been friends. 

     He stared into the dancing flames, taking comfort from their light and warmth.  But even with the crackle of the fire, the night was too quiet.  It was Beltane, and spring was here, in spite of all of Cathair’s troubles.  It was a night for raised voices and laughter. 

     So he sang to the fire.  His heart was too heavy for a joyful tune, but he managed a thankful song. 

     A beautiful woman appeared in the firelight.  She was clad only in long hair that shone like burnished gold in the flickering light.  Her eyes were the color of the sea at dawn, and her skin pale as the foam that swirled on its surface. 

     Cathair’s voice faltered.  The woman frowned at the loss of the music, and vanished like mist in the sunlight. 

     Cathair stared at the empty air.  She’d been a fairy, then, or some other wild, unknowable creature.  It was a night for magic, after all.  Such creatures were dangerous.  But she’d looked lonely. 

     Cathair knew loneliness. 

     He forced his voice into spirited reel.  The fairy reappeared turning and spinning, stomping and clapping, all to the rhythm of his voice.  He watched her go around the fire once, then twice.  The sorrow lifted from his heart.  On the third circle, he joined her. 

     Her laugh rang in his ears, harmonized with his voice.  Her skin radiated heat like a banked fire.  They danced till Cathair’s breath grew ragged, till his songs were gasped fragments. 

     He’d forgotten what happiness felt like. 

     He held her hand in his.  She didn’t try to pull away.  "I thank you for the dance, and for the music," she whispered.  Her voice was like distant birdsong, carried by a summer wind.  "What boon would you ask of me in return?" 

     "A name to call you," Cathair said. 

     She laughed.  "Not my true name?" 

     "I have no desire to chain you."   

     "You have wisdom, as well as a beautiful voice and a handsome face.  You may call me Aodhamair."  She brushed her fingers along his cheek, leaving a trail of heat. 

     "Aodhamair," Cathair repeated.  "A beautiful name.  It suits you." 

     Aodhamair threw her head back and laughed.  "You do please me.  Come.  Let us dance to a different song."  She pulled him to the ground, warmed it beneath them with her burning skin and golden hair. 

     Eventually, the fire burned down, and the dawn crept across the sky, first gray, then with a full rainbow of colors.  They watched the sunrise together. 

     She would have to leave soon.  The thought cracked the edges of Cathair’s already-broken heart. 

     "I will grant you a boon," Aodhamair said.  "Because you did not ask for one, and because you are worthy."

     She pressed a delicately wrought silver ring into his hand.  Cathair remembered Fial buying it last summer.  "Your twin gave this to a village girl.  She threw it into the forest after he was killed.  She feared that his wife’s jealousy would demand her head as well.  Take this ring to your brother’s lover, offer her your protection, and she will testify that it was not you who killed your beloved twin. 

     "Neasa killed Fial?" 

     Aodhamair nodded.  "Your brother died at her hand.  She was angry at his betrayal." 

     "Why accuse me?" Cathair asked. 

     Aodhamair shrugged.  "Perhaps she thought you knew, that you helped him hide his affair. 

     "No.  He never told me."  Cathair would have tried to stop him. 

He stared down at the ring.  Proof.  Proof that he was falsely accused.  Proof that would allow him to win his life back.  But what was there to go back to, now?  His return would ruin Neasa.  Fial was already gone.  Everyone he’d trusted had turned against him. 

     "I—I would ask for another boon," Cathair said. 

     Aodhamair arched an eyebrow.  "This does not please you?" 

     "Not as much as you do." 

     "Name your boon," she said.  He thought he heard a quaver in her voice. 

     "I would stay with you." 

     "You do not understand what you ask." 

     Cathair shrugged.  "Then tell me." 

     "I could become mortal and stay with you.  But how can I know that you will not betray me as your brother betrayed his wife?" 

     "I can’t come with you?  Become—what it is that you are?" 

     "It is possible.  But you would lose all memory of your mortal life.  Your twin would then be truly lost to you." 

     Fial had betrayed Neasa, lied to Cathair.  To everyone.  The memories weren’t worth staying for.  "He is already lost to me."  

     "Is your anger on his wife’s behalf, or your own?  Is it his infidelity or the fact that he didn’t trust you with it that twists in your gut?" Aodhamair asked. 

     Cathair stroked her hand.  "Neither was right." 

     Aodhamair stared up at the rising sun.  Her face glowed.  "I do not wish to stay here." 

     "Let me come with you," Cathair said.  "My life is lost to me—even if I can regain my place, it’s not mine anymore.  Let me leave it behind and forget." 

     "That is truly your wish?  There is no undoing this choice." 

     Cathair nodded.  "My feet are ready for a new path." 

     "Very well," she said, standing, as glorious in the sunlight as in the firelight.  She offered him her hand.  "Come.  It’s time to go." 

     Cathair took her hand.  

About Jamie

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cats. She has over 160 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. She has a novella and two short story collections available from Air and Nothingness Press. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

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