“Griana says to come quick. The cows are coming down with redwater,” he said.
“What? What? Why?”
“She said you have some skill and she needs all the hands she can get.”
Sorcha had arrived at the village only two days before. A sudden, early cold snap forced her to break her journey and she was driven to seek shelter in this Ardlander village. Ardlanders, while reserved, off-handish, even proud, were hospitable to travellers.
A guest could not reject any reasonable request of her host so she dressed and followed Capall. He shifted restlessly from foot to foot with impatience as she pulled on another two layers of clothes.
Griana was in the cowshed already by the time Sorcha arrived. There was a knot of people around her, grave-faced and nodding in agreement as she spoke.
Griana was the local Binder and the spokeswoman for the village. She was a tall woman and straight backed, despite her age, with the blue-grey eyes typical of Ardlanders.
“Close off this byre. If it hasn’t spread already,” said Griana to the people gathered before her in the cowshed.
“So they have it then? For sure?”
Griana did not bother to answer but instead beckoned Sorcha over.
“Do you have redwater down in your Lowlands?”
“I don’t know. What is it?”
“The cattle sicken, first with lassitude, then fever and finally fits. Most die. If it’s a cow in calf she loses it.”
Sorcha grew up on a cattle farm in the broad acres of the Lowlands, and she recognised the disease. Herds afflicted with it were mostly wiped out. Lost calves meant no milk and thus no butter, no cheese.
In the Ardlands, up near the roof of the sky, with their long, savage winters these were staples of the winter diet.
“Sealed? Are we agreed? Only Capall, me and the Lowlander remain here,” said Griana to the other villagers still standing around.
The villagers shuffled and murmured at that but raised no questions, nor did Sorcha. Griana was imperious by nature and everyone knew that Sorcha was bound by the laws of hospitality.
“Sealed, then. Till it is passed or useless to continue.”
“Sealed,” the others muttered in agreement. What they meant by sealed, Sorcha did not know but that was no surprise for the Ardlands were a strange, wild place, uncivilised. The people were clannish and insular, with their own habits and ways that made little sense to outsiders.
The wooden doors of the byre were bolted shut. The cracks were wedged with rope and then sealed with tallow, front and back. Griana painted runes to contain and deflect on the inside and outside of the doors.
Thus the three of them were sealed in far from the warmth and comfort of the living quarters and the days of darkness, cold and death began.
Of the twenty cows in the byre, four aborted in the first day and died within the next three. They thrashed in convulsions one by one, flooding the byre with blood and amniotic fluid, the stink and silence of death.
There were no deaths on the fifth day or the sixth and Sorcha held her breath, waiting for the next wave of the disease to fall and batter them.
“Griana is tired,” said Capall as he stirred their dinner over the fire.
“She’s been busy,” said Sorcha.
All three of them were busy, mixing powders and scraps of herbs, boiling them over their tiny fire, cooling them, decanting them, forking hay, carrying water, dosing the cows, sweeping and mucking them out. But neither Sorcha nor Capall had been as busy, nor awake so long as Griana.
She spent hours, whole days crouched over the remaining cows, painting runes on their necks, crooning softly to them, running her hands over them with a distant look on her face.
She was being whittled down by this lack of sleep, the bones in her face becoming more pronounced, her eyes red and sunken.
“She’s nigh at the end of her strength by now. She might not be able to keep it bound any longer,” said Capall.
“Keep what bound?”
“The redwater. Binding it. That’s what she’s been doing for the last six days and now she’s nearly spent.”
So that was what was wrong. The disease should have peaked by now, rippled through the herd like fire through dry autumn stubble and wiped out all the cows, save one or two at the most.
But instead the flood of sickness and death was somehow being held back by one old woman.
“Girl, girl, come here.”
Griana’s was standing beside a fawn coloured cow, one hand resting on the ridge of the cow’s spine.
“Whista, whista, whista, lie down then, girl, whista, whista, whista,” she murmured and the cow folded her front legs under her and lay down, slow and careful as an old woman taking to her easy chair.
“How do you do it?” asked Sorcha.
Griana was on her knees, running her hands over the cow’s neck and head.
“I bind the redwater with rune and power, keep it in stasis, like the bud before the blossom. Everything wants to reach the fullness of its growth, but I hold it back.”
Using her index finger and a dark coloured salve, she daubed a hand-sized rune, to bind, high on the cow’s neck. Her strokes were confident and the rune well-proportioned and elegant.
“I can hold it as the bud, as the green apple on the bough but the animals’ strength will be gone before the redwater’s potency has passed.”
She started to murmur to the cow, her eyes distant with concentration. She was moving slowly, her face glazed with exhaustion by the time she straightened up several minutes later.
“Binding the thing takes most of my strength now as it is reaching its peak. But without someone to touch, then all the work has been for nothing.”
She used the archaic word for “touch”, the word from the rune meaning “to absorb, cohere, connect, influence”.
In the Lowlands that rune could still be seen on labour and marriage contracts and on the lintels of older merchants’ houses. The common word “touch” had a purely physical meaning.
“Touch what?” said Sorcha.
“Aye, there is no touching for you Lowlanders. Your people have forgotten how to do it. Your red priests have seen to that well enough.”
Griana continued, as if calling to mind a lesson well learned far in the past.
“The living creature is touched and the pain is channelled and cast out through the power of the rune and the will of the Binder.”
She held Sorcha’s gaze for a moment.
“Not many can do it but I see some power in you. Power calls to power. If I had an apprentice, a proper one, skilled and trained, there’d be no need for this.”
She snorted at her lack and the fawn-coloured cow at their feet lowed quietly.
“Touching brings its own price but I ask you now, Sorcha Ni Feirm, are willing to do this?”
The words were out of her mouth before she had thought about it. Price? What price? But it was too late now to change her mind. This was a new thing and was that not why she’d left her home and gone on her travels? In the hope of seeing a new thing?
“Sit down there then and lay your hands on the cow’s head,” said Griana. “Calm your breathing; calm it, calm it, calm it; steady and slow, slow and deep, slower and deeper.”
The cow tossed her head slightly but did not try to move away. Her huge, liquid eyes regarded Sorcha.
“Slower and deeper. Slower still and deeper.”
Griana’s voice seemed to come from a great distance as the byre all around receded.
“Now, easy, quiet. Slow and steady. See if you can reach out to her mind,” instructed Griana.
It was like reaching out for an object on a table in front of her. It was familiar, like a smell which brings sharp memories, sudden as a reflex.
The surface of the cow’s being was all ragged with pain, but beneath it was the bovine patience that Sorcha recognised immediately.
“Can you see the pain? The bright fire?”
It flickered across the cow’s being, shimmering with colour. Sorcha stared at it. It was strange that it was so beautiful.
“Don’t do that! Concentrate.”
There was a note of fear in Griana’s voice which pulled Sorcha away.
“Now the pain, you can touch the pain. Gather it into the palm of your hand.”
Here, she only had to think a thing for it to happen. The pain flowed to Sorcha until she held it in her hand like a bright bauble. It trembled and burned in many colours as she grasped it.
“Now, release it. Let it run through your fingers.”
She opened her hand and the pain slipped through her fingers like water, dwindling away until it winked out to nothing, disappearing into the darkness.
The cow’s mind was clearer, now that the pain was cast out. Sorcha could feel the pressure of the herd mind all around her, the web of connections between them.
Sorcha contemplated that mind from within till her attention was drawn away by a different mind, one that was sharp and skittering, proud, bloody and vengeful. The rat hidden in the wall surprised her with the intensity of its desires.
She felt two other bright shapes at a distance and she reached out to them. The connection was much weaker with them for they were conscious of her. They held themselves back, aloof from it, from her. She battered at the closed doors of their minds. Let me in. Let me in. I want to see.
“Stop that. Stop that now.”
The voice was a whine in the background, easily ignored.
“Stop. It is forbidden.”
The voice grew more insistent but there was so much to see. She would never have time to take it all in. She started to reach out further, expand herself past the cowshed.
The command was like a blow, an imperative that she could not ignore. She could feel the straw prickle through her clothes and smell the warm breath of the cow, the sharp, green smell of the salve.
Sorcha opened her eyes and the room tilted and slid around her. Griana stood over her and Capall squatted on his hunkers a few yards away.
“Risks, I told you there were risks. Use may come naturally to you, but mastery comes to no-one that way, girl.”
Old Griana bent down to get her jar of salve from where it lay in the straw.
“When the redwater is passed, you may go on your way again with my thanks, or you may stay and learn, Sorcha Ni Feirm.”
Griana picked some straws off the jar before she turned to Sorcha once more. “But before you choose, I’ll tell you this, mastery is a long, hard road.”
© Noeleen Kavanagh 2012
Noeleen Kavanagh is an Irish writer currently living and working in Shanghai, China. Her publications include poems, micro-fiction and short stories in Silver Blade, the Linnet's Wing, the 13th Warrior Review, Another Realm, Moon Drenched Fables, Aurora Wolf and the Luna Station Quarterly. Publications also include short stories in the print anthologies Dream and Screams and A Pint and a Haircut. Upcoming publications include a short story in Misfit Magazine and Sorcerous Submissions