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Screams in the dark.
Mother pushes and after a long fight I slip out of her body on to a bed of blood-soaked grass. I cry from the shock of cold air as I take my first breath. Mother laughs weakly, picks me up, holds me tight and feeds me. I drink hungrily, lips fastened to her breast, my tiny hands and feet shivering madly. Rain pelts us, washing blood from my wrinkled, warm skin. Once I'm clean, mother shields me as best she can. She's weary but she can't rest. Must move on. Kissing my forehead, she sighs and struggles to her feet. Stumbles through the rain, tripping often and falling, but protecting me always.
Banba never believed I could remember my birth. She said it was impossible, even for a powerful priestess or druid. She thought I was imagining it.
But I wasn't. I remember it perfectly, like everything in my life. Coming into this world roughly, in the wilderness, my mother alone and exhausted. Clinging to her as she pushed on through the rain, over unfamiliar land, singing to me, trying to keep me warm.
My thoughts were a jumble. I experienced the world in bewildering fragments and flashes. But even in my newborn state of confusion I could sense my mother's desperation. Her fear was infectious, and though I was too young to truly know terror, I felt it in my heart and trembled.
After endless, pain-filled hours, she collapsed at the gate of a ringed, wooden fort-the rath where I live now. She didn't have the strength to call for help. So she lay there, in the water and mud, holding my head up, smiling at me while I scowled and burped. She kissed me one last time, then clutched me to her breast. I drank greedily until the milk stopped. Then, still hungry, I wailed for more. In the damp, gloomy dawn, Goll heard me and investigated. The old warrior found me struggling feebly, crying in the arms of my cold, stiff, lifeless mother.
"If you remember so much, you must remember what she called you," Banba often teased me. "Surely she named her little girl."
But if she did give me a name, she never said it aloud. I don't know her name either, or why she died alone in such miserable distress, far from home. I can remember everything of my own life but I know nothing of hers, where I came from or who I really am. Those are mysteries I don't think I'll ever solve.
I often retreat into my early memories, seeking joy in the past, trying to forget the horrors of the present. I go right back to my first day here, Goll carrying me into the rath and joking about the big Tat he'd found, the debate over whether I should be left to die outside with my mother or accepted as one of the clan. Banba testing me, telling them I was a child of magic, that she'd rear me to be a priestess. Some of the men were against that, suspicious of me, but Banba said they'd bring a curse down on the rath if they drove me away. In the end she got her way, like she usually did.
Growing up in Banba's tiny hut. Everybody else in the rath shares living quarters, but a priestess is always given a place of her own. Lying on the warm grass floor. Drinking goat's milk, which Banba squeezed through a piece of cloth. Staring at a world which was sometimes light, sometimes dark. Hearing sounds when the big people moved their lips, but not sure what the noises meant. Not understanding the words.
Crawling, then walking. Growing in body and mind. Learning more every day, fitting words together to talk, screeching happily when I got them right. Realising I had a name-Bec. It means "Little One". It's what Goll called me when he first found me. I was proud of the name. It was the only thing I owned, something nobody could ever take from me.
As I grew up, Banba trained me, teaching me the ways of magic. I was a fast learner, since I could remember the words of every spell Banba taught me. Of course, there's more to magic than spells. A priestess needs to soak up the power of the world around her, to draw strength from the land, the wind, the animals and trees. I wasn't so good at that. I doubted I'd ever make a really strong priestess, but Banba said I'd improve in time, if I worked hard.
I discovered early on that I'd never fit in. The other children were wary of the priestess's apprentice. Their mothers warned them not to hurt me, in case I turned their eyes into runny pools or their teeth into tiny squares of mud. I was sad that I couldn't be one of them. I asked Banba where I came from, if there was a place I could go where I'd be more welcome.
"Priestesses are welcome nowhere," she answered plainly. "Folk are pleased to have us close, so they can call on us when the crops fail or a woman can't get round with child. But they never truly trust us. They don't take us into their confidence unless they have to. Better get used to it, Little One. This is our life."
The life wasn't so bad. There was always plenty of food for a priestess, from people eager to win her favour and avoid a nasty curse. And there was respect, and gifts when I made spells work. People wondered how powerful I'd become and what I could do to make the rath stronger. Banba often laughed about that-she said people were always either too suspicious or expected too much.
A few treated me normally, like Goll of the One Eye. Chief of the rath once, now just an ageing warrior. He didn't care that I was a stranger, from no known background, studying to be a priestess. I was simply a little girl to him. He even spoilt me sometimes, since in a way he felt like my father, as he was the one who found and named me. He often played with me, put me up on his broad shoulders and gave me rides around the rath, grunting like a pig while others laughed or sneered. All the children loved Goll. He was a fierce warrior, who'd killed many men in battle, but he was still a child secretly, in his heart.
Those were the best days. Dreaming of the magic I'd work when I grew up. Harvesting the crops. Herding cattle and sheep. I wasn't supposed to do ordinary work, but if a child was lazy and I offered to help, they usually let me. Some even became friends over time. They wouldn't admit it in front of their mothers or fathers, but when nobody was looking they'd talk to me and include me in their games.
Playing... working... learning the ways of magic. Good times. Simple times. Life going on the way it had since the world began, like it was meant to.
Then the demons came.