The oak door boomed, with a fierce thumping that shook the drying bundles of herbs right out of the rafters across the great hall. The Chief, sitting up at the top table, plucked a bit of dried nettle that had fallen into his cup, and – as puzzled as the rest of them about who could be making such a racket outside on that wild night – he gestured for the beams to be lifted and the door thrown open.
The gale from outside billowed in, throwing rain and twigs across the floor, and lifting the food off the plates of those who sat the closest. She stood on the threshold, with a cloak of dirty red wrapped tight around her, hood up against the storm – though it fought her every step to tear it down and away off into the night. She didn’t wait to be asked, but made her way inside with what would, ordinarily, have been a purposeful stride, but now was hindered and hobbled by an obvious injury to her left thigh. Once in, she threw off the hood, shaking loose the red head of curls for which she was well known, even then, and saying not a word til she stood right in front of the top table, and looked the Chief square in the eye.
“You owe me an honour price”, says she, “for the damage was done to me when your hounds were ahunting today in my woods.” The Chief knew well there’d been no damage done to her, nor any person, that day, for the Gilly was well trained to tell all on his return from any hunt. All he’d reported was a hare run down near the end of the day, though it’d gotten away before the kill, more’s the pity. He also knew those woods were no more hers than they belonged to his Gilly, but her family had the cottage by there for generations now, and the local stories went that they weren’t the type of folk that’d be wise to mess with (and whatever it was that had the neighbours afeared seemed to be growing stronger with each passing generation) so the Chief left well enough alone on that one. He asked her what she thought the honour price was owed for, and didn’t she bare her own thigh right there and then; the creamy white of it slashed through with a big mouthed bite that could only have come from one of the Chief’s own hounds indeed, for other dogs weren’t the size of them, and all the wolves had been hunted out long since.
She turned to the Master of the Hound, and asked him straight out if that bite, fresh as it was, could only have come from one of the Chief’s hounds, and he had to agree there was nothing else local that could have made it so fresh and so obvious. When the Chief refused to credit it, saying he knew the only thing they had run down that day was a fine puss of a hare, her nod and stony stare was all it took to draw the breath from every person in the place in shock.
But what could he do? Paying her would only show him believing in the magic long since thought to have been stamped from the land. He shook his head, and bid her leave, though the poisonous words then spewing from her mouth were enough to pale the staunchest noble at his tables. Her curse on his hounds just riled his temper even further, so he rose himself and pulled her off out into the night, with her cursing still heard after the stout beam was wrested back in place to bar the door.
She stayed there, just outside the hall, right through that night. Only at dawn, when she heard the first wails and cries as they found the stiff, cold forms outside in the kennels, did she pick up her skirts and begin the walk back to her cottage, where she lived for many a year more, with many more wails and cries on account of her… but sure, they are all stories for another day.
Story first told to my own childer, a long while ago… but first published in my ‘Tales of Old Eire’ column, Renaissance Magazine, 2013.
Do you like this Tale of Old Ireland?
Find a fresh one every month (plus a host of back content tales!) with the ‘Tales of Old Ireland’ Storytelling Reward for just $3 on www.Patreon.com/LoraOBrien. Click to Join our Irish Patreon Tribe Today!