Niamh of the Golden Hair

By: Michele McGrath

1


Niamh never remembered a time when she did not have to walk softly. All her life, she had lived in the shadows, keeping as far from the tribe as was possible in one small place. She never knew why she seemed to be a stranger among her own kin. Yet, if she ventured too near some of the elders, they would draw their cloaks away from her as if she were diseased. She asked no one, there was no one she could trust. There had been once, but she did not remember the person clearly. All she retained was an impression of long-ago warmth and love.

She learned early on in her life to hide herself away. She was barely tolerated within the rath, although she was neither a servant nor a slave. Her father had once been the tribe’s leader, a long time ago. Now his name was rarely spoken and then only fearfully. Why he was leader no longer, she did not know.

On the day her life changed, she crept into the roundhouse and hid herself in one of her favourite places, among the hanging drapes on the largest of the looms. It was less used than the others, so she was unlikely to be found. She took her sewing with her, in case she was unlucky and someone caught her. She just wanted to rest. Her month’s miseries were on her and her day’s work was done. She curled up into a tight ball, fighting her pain. The warmth and the quiet soothed her and her eyelids grew heavy. She slept fitfully, until she heard voices coming into the roundhouse.

“You wanted to know when the girl’s courses started.” The voice belonged to her aunt, Sadb. Very carefully, Niamh lifted the edge of the cloth covering her, to see who she was talking to. There were three of them gathering round the fire, her aunt, her uncle, Aed, and the old man Eber, always deep in the councils of the tribe.

“Well?”

“They are now established.”

“Then she can be wed at Lughnasa and we’ll be rid of the bitch.” There was viciousness in Aed’s voice and Niamh wondered who had aroused such hatred.

“No one in the rath will have her,” Sadb said, “even though she is comely enough, with all that golden hair.”

“I know that!” Aed’s roared. “No one is so stupid. We will have to find someone who doesn’t know her history.”

“That will be difficult. He would have to be a stranger and live many miles from here,” Eber said. “Nor will you get a true price for her, if he finds out. At the worst, you would even have to bribe him.”

“She’s not worth any goods and cattle. We can’t afford to part with the little we have left after the winter storms,” Sadb murmured.

“Gods, woman, what choice do we have?” Aed shouted. “What do you think my brother will say if he returns and find out that we have made no provision for her?”

“He may never come back.”

“And you would take that risk?” Aed glared at her and Sabh dropped her head.

“Perhaps not,” she mumbled.

“There are other ways of being rid of her than marriage,” Eber said softly. He turned his face away, looking into the glowing embers of the fire.

“We might have killed her years ago, if that’s what you mean, when she was an infant. We discussed it, as you’ll recall, and the reasons we decided against it still stand.”

“Accidents happen, even to the most cherished of children.”

“You’re sure my brother would not know what we had done to her?”

“No one has seen him for years. He might easily be dead and never come back here again.”

“And he might not. Don’t you remember how he used to dream? Even when we were boys, he had a knack of finding out exactly what people did not want him to. I won’t tie my life to the chance that he will not return. Goods can be replaced, lives cannot. The best thing to do with the girl is to find someone who is ignorant and will take her. We’ll bargain hard, asking just enough in return so he doesn’t think there is something wrong with her. Then, if my brother does come back, we can say truthfully that we treated his daughter just like any other young woman.”

“Such a man will not be easy to find,” Eber warned.

“No, that will be your job.” The voices drifted away.

Niamh dropped the covers back over her and lay shaking with terror. More than one girl in the rath had just started her courses. Several had yellow hair, but only her father was Aed’s brother and had gone away. She held her breath, reliving the savage emotions that surged through her uncle’s voice, fear and hatred, bitterness and greed. They wanted to dispose of her like a crippled animal. Then she stopped herself. Crippled animals were killed. She would be allowed to live and she supposed she should be grateful. They had considered killing her once. What sort of man could her father be, if he inspired such hatred in his nearest kin?