TRIGGER WARNING: This contains confronting themes and is recommended for those aged 15 and up.
Dear Reader: The serial, “Brethren of Judas” is on a mental health/research hiatus, as the topic of coercion right now is a difficult one for me. Please enjoy ‘Rois’, a one-off story of medieval horror.
We walked out of the village together. I stomped furiously ahead, but it was not good enough because my mother could easily berate me from behind. “You can walk faster than that Rois, right now a cloud could out pace you.”
I didn’t answer. I was still very angry she was taking to the tower with her. I had demanded to walk ahead to avoid looking at her back the whole time as we crossed the field. She carried the bag of rabbits without complaint, and it made me hate her more.
Sensing my annoyance, she walked on, and I cursed her for thinking that the Tower at Abhainn was more important than me, her eldest daughter, her only girl. Hate, hate, hate her.
Croi and Una watched as we went by, tending to the barley while murmuring about us. It’s none of their business but they love to talk, bitches, the pair of them. “It’s an honour, you know, not every woman is allowed to walk choisant with the men. We must protect the village, it’s our duty, are you listening?”
“I am, and I know. You’ve been saying it all day.”
“Well, maybe if I keep saying it, you might actually start to listen. Your grandmother Eithne and your great grand mother Clodagh walked choisant as well, it is your birthright.”
A million times, maybe more, I’d heard of Clodagh, who was pulled from the river and charged with this “honour”. She had been saved by some old woman for this, but I had no interest in it.
“I know, they walked choisant, mother, I know.. you’ve said…”
“That’s why it matters. We’re an unbroken line of protection.”
I couldn’t feign interest, I‘d been hearing about it too long to care as my first blood had come earlier in the day, and it was worse than mother had said. When I was eleven she started talking about the blood and here it finally was, a full two years late. She’d watched me like a hawk and insisted I tell her the moment it started, no matter what I was doing. She joked once that she could be halfway through birthing Brawley and she’d still drop everything and check on me.
This morning, she was checking the rabbit traps when I woke and found the disgusting puddle. She was already half kneeling when I told her, but she dropped further and insisted I kneel too, and we prayed to Cernunnos, not Brigid. I wanted to ask mother why she chose him to thank, but tears of joy were rolling down her cheeks. It was just another annoying part of the day adding to the feeling that nothing made sense.
Mother walked on and I tried to ignore the painful cramps and sore back. She was still rambling about our responsibility, but at least I could see the Tower of Abhainn ahead. “There are raiders, bandits, you know this. Our village is too close to the sea and the river, and with that comes good soil, yes, but also the greedy thieves. They only know how to steal; think of our cattle, the crops, our homes. Tonight, we go to the river ford and wait. You will see.”
I was so angry at her tone I snapped, “See what? There is nothing to see! We waste the night wading in a ford while my belly hurts and for what?”
She turned then and I stopped, having gone too far again. Narrowed eyes, flaring nostrils and wild, red braids streaked with some white, my mother was a sight to behold. I thought she’d slap me, and I would deserve it, but she didn’t. After a heartbeat, she just shook her head and said, “You’ll see tonight.”
We didn’t speak again till a guardsman hailed us at the rampart to the tower. He called my mother’s name, Orlagh and she replied with surprising pride, “Aye, and with Rois!” That drew forward all the men and they poured out, stopping the repairs to the partially collapsed wall and coming down the tower itself. There were at least eight strong men to walk choisant with us and I wondered what two useless women could do. But they beheld us with respect and almost a sense of awe.
“With Rois? Already?”
“Wonderous! We are blessed indeed!”
“With Rois here, we will crush them like mice!”
They gathered around us and one of them took of his helmet to inspect me more closely. I was astounded at their respect to my mother and instantly suspicious. Their reaction made no sense at all, what was happening?
“Rois, dear, show them the torc,” my mother suggested gently.
“The torc! She can wear it, of course!” One of the men called out to the others and they leaned in. Never had my skinny neck been shown so much interest.
I hesitantly lowered my tunic to show a little of the new torc mother had placed on me that morning and they gazed at it with wonder. “Orlagh, what a wonderous sight, thank you Cernunnos.”
My mother, blushing a little, thanked all of them men individually and produced the bag of rabbits from this morning. “We will take them to the stone as an offering and then… I will show Rois.” One of the oldest men in the guard, Old Carrig, came forward to take the rabbits and beckoned for my mother. While watching me, he kissed her hand and said, “Remember Orlagh, I was there when Eithne brought you, remember Orlagh? Now I have lived long enough to see Rois as well!”
“Carrig, dear Carrig, I am so glad you’re here to see her. She will make us all very proud, by Cernunnos, you will see. She is wild, this one!”
“The wilder the better!” Carrig laughed and shuffled away with the bag. Mother actually put her arm around me as we walked down to the stone together, but I removed her arm and hissed, “Are you going to tell me what’s happening?”
“I cannot, till tonight. Evening will be upon us soon and we must thank Cernunnos for his blessing. Can you not see what joy you have brought to the men? Trust that your mother knows a little more than you, and soon, very soon, you will understand.”
“Why will you not tell me?!” I half-shrieked.
She smiled her infuriating smile and I wanted to bite the arm around me. “A part of me wants to see you angry and rage-filled. There can be no fear tonight and no better way to learn than to feel.”
“You tell me, or I’ll run home!”
She finally slapped me then. Her hand cracked hard across my raging red face and tears exploded into my eyes. “No, you must remain and be present in the ceremony, but I want you to remember how much spite you have right now.” She pressed my arms at my sides, hard and seemed to growl. “You have only to wait till nightfall and you will have your answer. But for now, be the river. Soft and bubbling on top, hiding deadly currents beneath. Remember that Eithne used to say that? It is carved above our doorway. Be the river, Rois.”
I was shocked at the force of her slap, but more so that she remembered about the river, and what Eithne used to say before she died. Eithne never chastised Curran, even though he was three years younger than me and extremely mischievous and she didn’t live to see Brawley the menace. No, they were never told about the river. As the oldest, she was stricter with me than the boys. It was as if she wanted me to keep the anger inside me. When she struck me for dropping an egg, or for not watching the boys, she would chant, “Be the river, Rois. Soft and bubbling on top, deadly currents beneath.”
It worked; I was calm. For so long I’d learned to push my anger into the dark river in my mind that it was easy. Even with my guts on fire and my sore back, I could push the rage down. Mother watched my face till I was calm and then, unexpectedly, kissed my forehead.
“You already make me proud, Rois, but tonight, you will see.”
At the ford, the men waded in and cleansed themselves and mother copied them, so I did too. The sun was lower in the sky now and the water was cold but it was just at this small dip in the valley that it was shallow enough to stand in without tripping and drowning. When it rained hard, it was impossible to pass.
They merrily cleansed their hands, face and chests while Carrig respectfully smoothed water over a large, flat rock. The guards were in excellent spirits, cheerful and jovial, and I wondered why. They had a difficult night of guarding the ford from invasion and a huge responsibility was on their shoulders, but they were light, almost cheerful. Finally, the horse play ended, and they made a circle. I was horrified when the men all knelt, but mother and I remained standing in the middle of them. I felt their eyes on me. I watched, shocked, as they sang to thank “Great Conall”, which I had never heard before. Further horror filled me as mother and Carrig cut the rabbits throats on the large flat stone. So much for eating, I thought, mother had only let me have water today. Then my empty stomach churned as the guards began to smear their faces and armpits in the dead rabbit’s blood.
It was awful. I watched, eyes wide with horror, as the men were painting themselves with sticky, strong-smelling blood. They rubbed the dead bodies on their necks, their armpits and all over their faces. The smell was overwhelming. My hand went up to my nose and mother batted it away like a fly. Only Carrig did not smear himself and I longed to ask why, but I could not interrupt the solemn singing.
But the horror worsened when mother removed her cloak, even though it was cold, and the sun would set soon. She released her braids from beneath her hood and signalled that I do the same, so I started to. Then I watched in horror when she removed her smock, then began to undo the tunic closest to her bare skin. I stood, cold in my smock, still wet from the river, refusing to remove my tunic or shoes. She stood, white skinned and still a little wet, but the men did not look at her, they continued singing and deliberately looking away. Her torc, like mine, was the only thing she left on. I wanted to cover her, but I knew I was supposed to be undressing. Why was my mother naked? Did I have to be naked too?
Suddenly it was as if the spell was broken and my mother dropped to her knees, her body covered by her hair. She called out, “Carrig, to the tower!” but I could barely hear her, it was as it her voice was not her own. Frantically, I knelt to check on her, but when she lifted her head, she was not my mother anymore.
A red wolfwoman stared back at me, then roared as the rest of her began to change. Her hands extended into enormous red paws and from somewhere, I saw a tail appear. I stepped back too quickly and fell, feeling a burning all over my skin. I half fell, half tripped as my legs bent into powerful wolf legs and I tried to rake my hands, or paws, over my burning skin to stop the itch. Fur. It was fur bursting out of my skin.
The tips of my fingers burned as sharp, long claws forced their way out of my fingertips, but it only hurt for an instant. I landed on my back and rolled my fur against grass, scratching and squirming. It was happening so quickly, the sun in the distance was almost finished setting and I saw the glorious moon rising as I twisted to scratch my back with my paws in the air. Then I caught sight of the moon, the giant eye of Cernunnos and it held me, transfixed by its beauty. Staring at the silver orb, I felt no pain, only joy.
My mind was a blur of animal impulses with only a memory of who I had been just a moment before. I could suddenly smell so many wonderful things, as if the nearby river and trees were bursting with life. I squatted to clean my paws and was surprised at how easy it was to lick what used to be hands. As I crouched, I felt the wolf-headed torc around my neck and I marvelled that I still wore it. Did it change, as I had changed? Is that why mother and I wear them? It did not bother me, I decided, as I licked my paws and shook myself from head to toe. It felt as natural as breathing to groom my new form.
Mother, because I recognised her, nuzzled my face gently. With a firm snout, she cleaned my ear, and I heard her voice in my mind.
Do you see now, Rois my love? I could not spoil the surprise for you.
I love it mother, I didn’t know it would feel so good! How long will I stay this way?
Every night of your blood time you will change. I will be there with you when we are aligned and we will run through the fields together, my dear. Above all things, we protect our village.
I felt more like myself in this form, and I wanted to tell mother that. She was beautiful as a woman and even more stunning as a wolf. I watched her smell the air, and I could smell the rabbit’s blood on the men. Instantly, I knew not to attack them. That was why they had soaked themselves as if their lives depended on it. It did. If not for the rabbit blood as a warning, I wouldn’t know who was friend or foe, or would I? Turning my head, something sharp and distant drifted into my mind, a smell I did not like.
I smell them too my dear. Let’s go.
And do what?
We’re going to kill them, darling.
She led, astutely keeping low and I marvelled at her movement. Like me, she looked completely at home as a wolf, with the same red, brown fur that was her hair, down to the silver streaks. I longed to see myself, but the smell was overwhelming me.
Keep low, they are in the trees. I will go this way; you go to the other side.
Then what mother?
Be the river, little one. Don’t think, just attack them. Use the anger I know is there.
She slinked into the long grass and bushes and seemed to vanish, but I could still smell her. I could also smell their weapons and some leather armour, but mostly I could smell the sweat on their flesh, practically humming with their pulse.
I walked silently, padding closer to a group of three men and I saw my mother on the other side of where they hid, watching the tower. I realised why mother had not let me eat that day, only drinking water had given me an appetite. I could see more clearly in the dark as a wolf and I realised I was much, much larger than the men. Where my extra strength and muscle had come from was a mystery, but I felt I was longer and larger than before. The fur on my body bristled and lifted with pride as I silently stalked the men, as mother did the same from the other side. When I saw her leap, I let appetite and anger move me.
My mother bit the exposed throats of the nearest man and I copied her and leapt, landing paws first on his shoulder, then burying my face into the white skin beneath his jaw. My rage poured out of me, guiding my paws to scratch and rip, my teeth to snap and bite. Rois, the girl not allowed to show anger, was unleashed as the men screamed.
His voice called uselessly, his yells just vibrations I could feel in my teeth as I bit. The weight of my wolf form pushed down, heavy fur and strong bones and muscles stopping him from taking in air and when he tried to hit me, I tore off his hand with ease.
Dying from all the bleeding, he looked at me. The last thing he would have seen was his hand being eaten, the flesh of the thumb going first.
Mother had killed the first man already and saw the third was trying to run. Rearing up onto her hind legs, she knocked him down. Her powerful jaws locked onto his chin as he fell, then she tore out his throat too. I was immensely proud of her, but also of myself.
There was enough meat on the three men for a whole pack of us, so we left a lot uneaten.
Full, and pleased with myself, I followed mother out of the trees and went back to the guards at the tower. I assume they were somewhat frightened by our faces and paws being soaked with blood, but they allowed us to sit nearby and rest.
Will it be like this tomorrow, mother?
I don’t know what the night will bring, my little love, but we will run together. We will protect the village, like we’ve always done.
She nuzzled me tenderly and lifted her nose to the sky, then let out a long, strong howl. I joined her and our wolf voices, our true voices, filled the night.