I flushed. “Oh…”
Bao grinned. “Aye, Moirin did.”
They absorbed that in silence, save for my uncle Mabon, who played a merry, irreverent melody on his silver pipe. “Will you come and see the place that awaits you?” he inquired, lowering his pipe and winking at the young man Breidh, who gave him a shy, complicit smile. “I’ve helped labor myself to make it ready.”
The place was only a short walk away, less than an hour’s time. It was a cave, but as Old Nemed had promised, it was no mere cave. It was part and parcel of the hollow hills themselves.
There were honeycombed passages, the walls themselves as smooth and sleek and golden as honey. Light slanted in to illuminate it from odd angles, openings covered with slatted shades that could be drawn closed or opened. The main living space was vast and airy, and there were a dozen other chambers suitable for lodging, and a deep, cool cavern at the back that served as a larder, stocked with all manner of supplies.
There was wooden furniture so smooth it gleamed, looking almost as though it had been grown rather than crafted. There were pallets stuffed with sweet, fragrant dried grass and herbs. Outside, there was a stream a stone’s throw from the cavern, a meadow where the horses grazed contentedly, and forest beyond.
It was beautiful.
It felt like home.
“We’ll stay with you for a time,” Oengus announced. “We’ll help you learn all the ways of our folk there wasn’t time to teach you after your first initiation. Do you think you can abide here?”
I glanced at Bao.
He grinned back at me. “As caves go, this is something of a palace, Moirin. I could raise a family here.”
“I would like that,” my mother said quietly.
I hugged her. “So would I.”
That evening, we laid Old Nemed to rest in a green mound in the meadow. It was a somber, peaceful affair. I watched Bao working side by side with Oengus, Mabon, and Breidh, laying thick green rolls of turf they had cut earlier, tamping them carefully back into place. His diadh-anam burned bright within him, still attuned to mine, but his own now that the Maghuin Dhonn Herself had claimed him.
Afterward, Mabon played his silver pipe, and Camlan sang in a clear, pure voice that melded with his song, notes rising up into the gilded sky.
And then we returned to the cavern, where there were lamps kindled against the gathering dusk, making the honeyed walls glow warm and amber. We ate and drank, sharing the last of Mabon’s cask of uisghe, sharing memories and tales of Old Nemed’s life and the folk of the Maghuin Dhonn.
Mostly, Bao and I listened.
There would be time and more to tell our own tales in full. For now, I was content to listen and learn, to feel myself well and truly home at last. And I was grateful, so very grateful, to see the same contentment reflected in Bao’s face. Grace was not always found where one expected it. My restless magpie Bao had found it here in Alba, in the beyond of the fathomless eyes of the Great Bear Herself, in the Way to which all ways lead.
At last it was time to retire. It was quiet and hushed in the pleasant sleeping-chamber allotted to us, a faint summer breeze stirring through a hidden aperture. I set the lamp I carried in a smooth niche in the wall that might have been made for that very purpose. It burned with a clear, bright light, setting the shadows to dancing on the honey-colored walls of the cavern. My gaze fell on the pack that contained the candle Sister Gemma had given me.
“Now is likely not the time for lovemaking and thoughts of plump babes, is it?” I said, feeling suddenly and unaccountably shy.
“Moirin.” Bao laid his hands on my shoulders. His dark, angled eyes glinted at me with fond humor. Lamplight glistened on the gold hoops in his ears, flickered along the stark zig-zag tattoos marking his corded forearms, and the hint of a smile curved his lips. “The choice is yours. But as one who has bridged the worlds between death and life, I think there can be no greater tribute than to celebrate the latter.”
“Are you sure?” I asked him.
He kissed me. “Very.”
It was a good kiss, gentle enough to be reassuring, firm enough to assert his desire, with enough passion in it to leave me a bit breathless.
Rummaging in my pack, I found the candle. Such a simple thing, a slender beeswax taper, sweet and fragrant.
All it required was an earnest prayer and a willing heart, Sister Gemma had told me. Kneeling before the lamp, I gazed at the homely flame.
I saw the future unfurl before me. Like the eyes of the Maghuin Dhonn Herself, the flame contained worlds, worlds of ordinary pleasure and ordinary pain. There was the pleasure of lovemaking and the grace inherent in Naamah’s blessing, the bright lady’s smile. There was the pain of childbirth, and the multitude of joys and terrors attendant on motherhood; the first words, the first steps, injuries and illnesses. There was all the immense pride and delight, and all the helplessness and horror.
There was the terrifying prospect of further destinies that might claim my own children, sending them across unknown seas; and there was the peaceful prospect of a quiet hearth and home. There were quarrels fought and forgiveness rendered. There were hearts broken and mended, there were tears and laughter. There were children and grandchildren, and the wisdom and infirmities of old age.
There was life, in all its mortal, messy splendor. And always and always, there was love.
“Moirin?” Bao said behind me.
I blinked, and the flame was only a flame once more. “Aye,” I murmured. “I am here.” Lifting the wax taper, I took a long, slow breath and uttered the prayer. “Eisheth, I beseech you, open the gates of my womb.”
And with that, I lit the candle.