Rowinish and Connara were of the same age. Their long friendship began when they were both young lads of ten years. The Romans had been destroying whole villages in retribution for the bold and daring attacks of the fierce Scottic tribesmen on the Roman encampments.
Connara’s tiny village was burned to the ground, and his family put to the sword. The only reason he lived was that he had been sent to a far pasture to tend the flocks. When he returned and saw what had been done, he became mad for a time, running about and shrieking his grief to the silent surroundings. He fell into a sleep like death, but he was young and strong, and he woke, knowing he must leave and seek out a new home. Gathering such possessions as might aid him on his way, he took to the road, not knowing where he went or what he sought.
On his long mournful way, he saw more evidence of Roman vengeance; many small villages and settlements had been despoiled as his own had been. He found food enough to keep himself alive, but, alone and riven by grief, his reason began to slip away. Scotland was much less populated in that far away time, and he traveled for days seeing no one and speaking never.
Many days after his journey had begun, he came upon yet another burnt village. In this one however, not all were dead. One occupant remained, a boy of Connara’s own age, with flaming red hair, and a face contorted and tormented by suffering. This was Rowinish.
On the day that the Romans fell upon Rowinish’s village, he had slipped away from his family’s cottage early, in defiance of his parent’s wishes, to fish at his favourite stream some distance away. When he returned, it was to find the same desolation that Connara had known.
Connara was greatly captivated to find another alive: another boy like to himself. He could see that this red haired boy had not the inner resolve to propel him out of this place of death however. Rowinish sat huddled and quaking, overwhelmed by what had happened to his home and family.
Connara, so long alone and crazed with grief, could not find words to say to Rowinish. It had been so long since he had spoken, that language seemed to have left him. When Rowinish saw him however, he reached out and grabbed hold of Connara with a fierce grip. His eyes stared feverishly into Connara’s eyes, and, without words, the bond of friendship was formed between them. No words were necessary for each to understand that they had shared the same horrifying fate.
As Rowinish’s grip continued on Connara’s arm, Connara reached out his other hand and took Rowinish’s free hand, and gripped it just as tightly. Slowly, Rowinish ceased to quake with fear. Slowly, Connara remembered how to speak. Slowly, they agreed without words that they wanted to live. Together, they left Rowinish’s village, and took to the road side by side.
In the days that followed, they walked, slept and ate together. Never were they separated. Rowinish had an uncanny ability to find fish for them. He would stand, unnaturally still in a stream peering intently down into the water. Then, with the swiftness of a great cat, he would dart a hand into the stream and pull out a plump fish. Connara loved to watch him, admiring the patience and the swift grace. Red haired folk have long been known for being fey, and Connara often thought that Rowinish called the fish to him somehow.
Connara had the gift of a keen eye. They would be walking along, Rowinish gazing about for the glint of berry or lettuce, when Connara would slip nimbly into the undergrowth, and emerge with a handful of bright fruit or some ripe vegetable that Rowinish could not find even when Connara pointed to the spot.
At night, they slept curled together for warmth. When one would wake from a nightmare of blood fire and screams, the other would soothe and reassure until sleep came again.
After many days of wandering, at last they came to a village that was unravaged by the Romans. When folk there heard their stories, and saw their small, thin bodies and their bravery, they were greatly moved. The village Blacksmith had lost his sons who had gone away to fight. He was a good man, and he took Rowinish and Connara into his cottage. The man’s wife was glad to have children in her home once more, and treated them with a mother’s tenderness.
Being young and strong, they recovered quickly from grief and tragedy. As they grew into young men, they remained constantly together. Unlike most friends, they never quarrelled or grew weary of one another. When they disagreed, they would talk, or wait until some understanding or compromise was reached. Folk said that never had they seen two so closely bound, and all agreed that it must be the result of their manner of meeting.
As they grew into manhood, Connara and Rowinish sometimes left their village to fight in the many battles with the Roman invaders. Both felt a fierce desire for revenge against the destroyers of their homes and the murderers of their families. Always, they fought side by side. Both had developed strong arms working with the Blacksmith, and both were skilled with the dirk.
In battle, they fought not as two men, but as one doubly strong man with four arms to fight, and four eyes to be watchful. Many and many a time, the swift grace of Rowinish saved Connara from the foeman’s blade. Many and many a time, Connara’s keen eye saw a blow coming before Rowinish could fend it off. They saved each other’s lives many times, and each battle reaffirmed their bond of friendship.
In their village, it was common to hold games and contests of skill and strength. Always, it was Rowinish who triumphed at throwing contests and races. He had a natural grace and strength that won him every prize. Connara loved to watch him. Connara would often compete also, happy to vie for second prize with the other young men of the village. Sometimes, Connara would choose not to compete, merely for the joy of watching Rowinish. The grace and power of his red haired friend was his greatest pleasure, and he had no jealousy, only satisfaction that this rare and gifted lad was his sworn and true companion.
There was another who equally enjoyed to see Rowinish run wrestle and throw; this was Onlyn. Onlyn was one of the Fair Folk. In that time, the fairy folk mingled much more with mortals than they do today. All in the village had seen Onlyn and his companions from time to time, but they noted how much more often Onlyn appeared among them once Rowinish began to compete in the games.
Being red haired and fey, Rowinish was likewise drawn to Onlyn with the inextricable affinity of like for like. Onlyn soon began inviting Rowinish and Connara to ride out with him on fairy mounts he brought with him. He invited them to hunt with him, AND THEY spent long winter nights singing together and trading tales.
Both Rowinish and Connara greatly enjoyed this friendship, but for Rowinish, the bond with Onlyn became strong and deep. Soon, he began to ask only Onlyn’s opinion on all things. Connara noticed more and more how Rowinish turned to Onlyn for counsel and companionship. Connara’s sadness grew, but he spoke not of it.
One day, the Roman soldiers marched on another mission of death and destruction which brought them to the village of Rowinish and Connara. All the men of the village armed themselves and prepared to fight. Learning in time of their danger, Onlyn brought his fairy skill and fierce love of a fight to aid their cause. Afterward, many said that it was Onlyn’s blade and magical charisma that tipped the balance against the Romans. Somehow, though so many villages had fallen, theirs did not. The Romans retreated, and the village rejoiced.
After that, Rowinish and Onlyn became even more closely bound together. Connara was even less inclined to speak his sadness. How could he speak against the saviour of their village?
In the next season, Onlyn came to them one day, his face alive with excitement, his manner crackling with energy.
“A great tournament has been called among my people!” he explained with enthusiasm. “In three days’ time, the men of our families will undertake a great contest! The prize will be the rule of our land! It will be a noble and glorious competition, with great honour for the victors! There is great excitement among us!”
He turned his gaze to Rowinish and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I have been your guest here; I have fought at your side to protect your home.” His large blue eyes brightened with mischief and challenge. “Now, I invite you most cordially to come and visit my land. I invite you to fight by my side for the honour and great prestige of my family!”
“Come wi ye tae your home?, Fight at your side?”
“Yes! It would be glorious! I’m sure that no others will bring mortals to fight with them, why the surprise alone will be worth five warriors on our side!”
“Mortals?” Rowinish said enquiringly, “What can it mean for ye tae…? Ye are of the fair folk. If it is true that your people dinna die, what mean ye by a battle?”
“Ah,” Onlyn replied with relish, “The aim is to unseat as many mounted fighters as possible. Once separated from our mounts, we may no longer fight. This is our way. Victory goes to the side with the last mounted fighter. This is not to say that we are not injured in the fray, but we are not disqualified until we are separated from our mounts.”
“And I? Will I enjoy the same protection?”
Onlyn looked as though it pained him to tell the truth, but he said, “Any injury that would kill you in your world will kill you in mine. Because you are somewhat like to us, however,” he reached out an affectionate hand to touch Rowinish’s red hair, “you may shed your blood in our land and still be free to leave it when you choose. As you may know, most mortals, if they shed their blood in our land or eat of our food, must bide the rest of their days with us. Only those like yourself may move freely between the two lands after such an eventuality.
‘Come and fight with us! Your arm is strong, and your agility will render you a formidable opponent. Every great battle holds the risk of death for mortals, but a victory for my family will bring rewards for you such as few mortals have ever gained. My people are very generous in victory, and you will be honoured and gifted as you cannot imagine!”
Rowinish remembered fabulous tales of magical gifts bestowed by the fair folk: a purse of gold that replenished itself each time it was opened; arrows that never failed to pierce their target; snares that drew prey as a dog to its master; potions to sway the mind and heart of another to your will.
Slowly, Rowinish’s eyes lit with eagerness. Even more than the promise of riches, he was gripped by the vision of himself fighting at Onlyn’s side, of accompanying Onlyn at a victory feast, of being honoured above others, of Onlyn’s approving gaze on him. Onlyn had called him strong and agile; he had said that Rowinish would be worth five warriors. Under all of these things, Rowinish felt the inexorable tug that Onlyn exerted on his spirit. Rowinish stood straighter, and looked proudly at Onlyn.
“I will come!” he said excitedly.
“Ah that is just what I hoped you would say! I knew you would hear the call of glorious battle, that you were brave and adventurous, and would undertake to fight at my side!” Onlyn’s eyes were very bright, and his pleasing face wore a look of comradeship and approval that filled Rowinish with pride and anticipation.
“Come to the fallen oak at dawn three days hence,” Onlyn said. “I will meet you there and escort you into our land. Oh it will be grand!”
When Onlyn had departed, Rowinish talked with great animation of the coming battle. “Ye hae heard the tales o fairy gifts! Who may ken what a victory for Onlyn’s family might mean for us!” Listening silently, Connara wondered who Rowinish meant by “us.”
“I wonder what the battle will really be like,” Rowinish went on, taking no notice of Connara’s reticence. “If their object is nae tae kill but tae unhorse, what weapons will they use? It will avail them little tae slash and draw out the lifeblood. I should hae asked Onlyn more about their battle strategy. I will be able tae partake o the victory feast! Fairy food is said tae be incomparable! I will hae the chance tae see fairy women also. It is said that they are surpassingly beautiful. If I serve Onlyn well in the fight, perhaps they’ll look upon me wi favour!”
He smiled dreamily. He did not notice that Connara was alone completing the nighttime tasks that they usually did together. Over the next two days, Rowinish’s excitement grew. He continued to be unaware of the change in Connara.
Connara was experiencing something strange and unexpected. As the morning of the fairy contest drew closer, he began to slip gradually into the silent and withdrawn state into which he had retreated after the destruction of his village. Memories of that time haunted him, appearing unbidden in his mind. He spoke less and less, and he began to move about the village with the hunted wariness he had possessed when he first encountered Rowinish in the burnt ruins of Rowinish’s village. A small part of Connara’s mind remained just alert enough to notice what was happening, but could not see a way back from that darkness.
He woke early on the morning of the fairy contest however, knowing what he must do. He experienced no doubts, no hesitation. Decision returned his powers of speech and action.
Rowinish looked for Connara to bid farewell before walking to the meeting place with Onlyn at the fallen oak. Not finding him, he assumed that Connara had simply risen to go to the Forge, or to the nearby stream for early fishing. Not finding him in either of these places, however, impatience gripped Rowinish, and he left off searching. More than anything, he did not wish to miss his meeting with Onlyn. He resolved to be on his way, and find Connara on his return: when he anticipated the excitement of victory riches and spoils.
As Rowinish approached the fallen oak, he perceived that someone was already there. In the morning mist he could not see the figure clearly but, assuming it was Onlyn, he broke into a run. Reaching the tree, he saw not Onlyn, but Connara. Connara was dressed for battle, and he had his dirk at his side.
“Connara!” Rowinish exclaimed in surprise, “Where are ye off tae so early, and arrayed so?”
“I go wi you intae battle as o old,” Connara replied simply.
“We hae never gone intae battle other than together,” Connara replied with the same simplicity. “Ye hae never fought without me at your side.”
Rowinish was shocked. “That is true, but this battle…, this battle is…. Connara! Ye heard Onlyn! Ye haena my affinity for the fair folk. If ye shed your blood in their land, ye’ll be obliged tae dwell there for the rest of your life! Ye canna do this!”
“I heard Onlyn very clearly. I heard him say that anything that can kill ye in our land can kill ye in theirs. Your affinity for the fair folk will nae protect your life. That task is mine, whether we be in this land, or in any other.”
Rowinish stood speechless, but continued to shake his head in firm rejection of Connara’s intent. Connara spoke again, his voice calm and implacable.
“Since ye made your decision tae fight wi Onlyn, I hae felt myself returning tae the days just before we met. Do ye remember that time?” Rowinish nodded reluctantly.
“In those days, I was alive, but only barely. Words fled me, I was as a hunted animal, friendless and alone, barely human. If ye meet your death, be it here or anywhere, that is how I will remain. Only when I woke this morning and resolved tae follow ye did speech and human sensibility come back tae me. The past two days hae shown me what I can expect if ye die. A life spent in a foreign land is a small price tae pay if only ye remain alive. Ye hae never fought without me by your side. If I am nae there, who will watch your back for ye, who will protect ye from the unseen foeman when your attention is on the enemy before ye?”
Rowinish took a breath as if to speak, but Connara forestalled him. “Dinna tell me that Onlyn will do this for ye. Ye ken well that he will no. He will be in the thick of the fight, wi nae thought except for his own glory. I ken he is your… your friend, I admire him also, but ye ken I speak true when I say that the only back he will guard is his own. I hae made my choice, ye’ll gain not by arguing wi me.”
Rowinish stood aghast. It came over him all at once how he had been neglecting the dearest and truest friendship of his life. Connara’s choice, and his simple avowal of loyalty left Rowinish humbled and speechless. He struggled to find words that would set right this frightening situation, but he could find none.
A merry greeting issued from the mist, and Onlyn rode up to them, leading a fine mount for Rowinish. Ignoring Onlyn for the first time, Rowinish moved closer to Connara so that they could see one another’s faces in the early dawn light. As they had done on their first meeting so long ago, they communicated without words. Connara’s eyes held loyalty and determination. Rowinish’s gaze conveyed his shame and his gratitude. When they at last turned to Onlyn, it was to find him staring at them in puzzlement.
“Connara is coming also, and will fight at my side.” Rowinish’s voice bore the implacable quality with which Connara had confronted him.
Onlyn’s brows rose. “You know what this means?” he asked Connara.
“I ken well,” Connara replied. “Let us go.”
Rowinish and Connara both mounted the fine horse Onlyn had brought. He assured them that the mount was a fairy steed, and well able to carry both of them with ease. Onlyn was glad to have Connara join them. He had little affinity with Rowinish’s friend, but had no malice toward him. He had seen that Connara was strong and capable, and was well pleased to have another to fight on his side.
Onlyn led the way through the mist. He advised Rowinish and Connara to take as little notice as possible of their way. This would expedite their journey, and Onlyn was impatient to reach the sight where the contest was to take place.
He told them that the primary weapons in the battle would be clubs and long heavy poles used to strike and unseat the combatants. “As long as a fighter maintains physical contact with his mount,” Onlyn explained, “he is still in the fight, and may remount his horse. Once contact has been broken however, he must withdraw from the field. You must guard yourselves, for the warriors will carry blades also, though we use them seldom. They will see immediately that you are not fairy folk, and they will show no mercy toward you. Indeed, it may become a point of honour or entertainment for them to pursue and dispatch you: so be vigilant.”
Connara was reaffirmed in his decision to accompany Rowinish despite the risks to himself. As they drew closer to their goal, Onlyn was becoming visibly more excited, and less attentive to their anxious questions. Rowinish was forced to acknowledge to himself that Connara had been right. Onlyn would spare Rowinish no care during the fight.
Suddenly, Rowinish imagined how it would feel to be riding toward this strange day without Connara. He was gripped with emotion. As it had been for Connara, Rowinish felt his spirit drift back to their meeting. With shocking vividness, he could recall the remote and terrified place where his soul had dwelt before Connara had called it back. Connara was behind him in the saddle, his arms around Rowinish to steady himself. With the easy and unrestrained rapport they had always known with one another, Rowinish clasped a strong hand on Connara’s arm. As ever, words were unnecessary for them to express the feelings of their hearts.
For all the rest of their days, Rowinish and Connara would hold in their minds the memory of that strange contest. They had been in many battles, and this one was far from their last, yet it would ever hold a special place in their recollection: for it was like no other. It had the quality of a dream, the kind of dream that lingers in the mind, remembered many years after the dreaming.
Each warrior, each steed, each piece of harness and weaponry shone with an unearthly glow. The folk were indeed fair to look on, strong and lithe in sinew, pleasing of countenance. Their mounts were equally well favoured, and horses and men moved with a grace and power that marked them clearly as magical. The horses leapt higher than any horse in the mortal world could do. Their manes and tails crackled and flowed with energy, seeming to have life of their own. The saddlery and harness were jewelled and embossed, being in themselves a king’s ransom of wealth.
Each fighter would have appeared as a glorious and fair emperor in our world. Their garments were made from cloth of gold, white linen, bright silks and rich velvets. The dyers of their land use the magical herbs that grow there, so that each garment shone with its own brightness. The long poles they carried were of a strong light coloured wood that seemed to shine in the sunlight almost like silver.
The contest lacked the viciousness of the hand-to-hand combat to which the two mortals were accustomed, not being carried out with blades or points. It possessed, however, a ferocity that astonished Rowinish and Connara. It was not only the horses who leapt and danced with unearthly strength and agility. The fighters rose up out of their saddles with superhuman ease and power. To extend their reach, they would leap up to stand in the saddle, leaning far out to topple an opponent with their long fighting poles. Always however, they were scrupulously careful to keep some part of themselves in contact with their mounts.
Rowinish and Connara witnessed the desperation of many a fighter knocked from his horse, attempting to reach and grab for it as it made to dance away. They would cling with outrageous tenacity, sometimes possessing the strength and will to heave themselves back into their jewelled saddles. Indeed, both mortal fighters had to master the urge to remain immobile with incredulity. It was very tempting to stop merely for the joy of watching the spectacular feats of daring and agility all around them. Eliminating the fear of death, Connara thought, definitely changed the conduct in a battle.
At first, Rowinish and Connara concentrated on trying to learn the tactics and movements of this strange battle field. Before the contest had begun (with a long sweet piercing winding of a great golden horn) Rowinish and Connara had changed places. Connara was a slightly better rider, and Rowinish was possessed of greater agility. They agreed that, while Connara controlled their mount and navigated their way through the battle, Rowinish would dedicate himself to unseating and disqualifying as many of the opponents as possible.
Initially, the fairy fighters made little effort to engage the two mortals. Their goal was clearly the unseating of the other combatants. Once Rowinish’s wooden pole (bestowed grandly by Onlyn) had dispatched two or three fighters onto the ground more than an arm’s length from their mounts however, the tolerant smiles of the fighters turned to looks of committed vengeance.
Soon, the two mortals found themselves in the thick of the fighting, and Onlyn’s opponents had produced long thin fragile looking blades. Rowinish wondered about the delicate construction of the blades, but then realized that the smallest of pricks with the point would be as ominous to his companion as a blow from the stoutest sword.
As the number of mounted fighters grew less, their ferocity grew greater. It seemed that immortal folk did not tire. It felt to Rowinish and Connara that the contest had gone on for hours. The constant exertion and vigilance was draining them.
Just as Onlyn was beginning to sing out elaborate and jovial insults to his enemies still mounted, growing confident that his family would prevailed, Rowinish made a mad lunge for the reigns of a passing horse. Its rider had been thrown from the saddle, and was clinging desperately to the stirrup, determined to remount. Rowinish knew that if he could reach the reins, Connara could lead their own mount swiftly away, and the second horse would follow, leaving its fallen rider disqualified on the field.
At the furthest reach of his lunge, Rowinish’s whole attention was on the reins he sought to grasp. He did not see that the fallen rider had raised his club, and was about to lower it, with bone crushing force, on the back of Rowinish’s head. Connara did see, and thrust out his fighting pole, impacting against the club, sending it rebounding toward the fallen rider. The fallen rider was hurled back onto the ground out of reach of his mount. Rowinish perceived that the fighter was no longer a threat, and sought to regain his perch on the saddle behind Connara.
At that very instant, Connara’s whole attention was focused on Rowinish, concerned that if Rowinish lost his own seat, he might be trampled under the feet of the prancing horses. Connara was looking backwards, and did not see the long thin blade that thrust forward toward him. Rowinish did see. He flung himself forward on top of Connara, pushing him down to collapse over their mount’s jewelled main. As he leant forward to press Connara below the rapidly advancing point of the opponent’s blade, Rowinish felt the blade pierce his own shoulder. A trickle of blood began from the wound.
Without thought or plan, Rowinish seized the reins, turned the horse as swiftly as he could, and urged it frantically away from the heart of the battle. He did not stop. As they gained speed, Connara managed to sit up and regained command of the horse.
“By all the gods!” Rowinish shouted furiously, “Take us from here!” Needing no more encouragement, Connara guided the horse as well as he could back the way they had come.
Rowinish gazed down, hypnotized by the sight of his own blood oozing from his shallow wound. As he had not done at any other time that long day, he felt himself begin to tremble with fear. What if this had been Connara’s blood? He, Rowinish, would have been responsible for Connara’s exile. How often it had felt that they shared blood, shared the very force of their lives with one another. This could have been Connara’s blood, and it would have been Rowinish’s fault. His arms clutched Connara with fear and fatigue.
Perhaps it was their great will to return to our world, as well as Rowinish’s affinity for the fair folk: but it was not long until both could see that they had left the fair land, and returned to the more mundane, but wholly reassuring world of mortals. At the fallen oak they dismounted. Rowinish patted the flank of the horse fondly and said, “Ye served us well today. I am sorry I haena apples tae give ye. Return tae your home. Seek oot your master, and discover if he has been victorious.” The horse nuzzled him, then turned and trotted contentedly away.
Rowinish turned to Connara. He said simply, “I am sorry.”
Connara’s eyes held only love and forgiveness. They embraced as brothers.
When they returned to the home of the Blacksmith, it was to find that the evening meal had been prepared and awaited only themselves. Each had told a story to explain their absence for the day. They sat across the table and gazed around them, and at one another with great contentment. The Blacksmith had done some work for a local farmer, and had been paid with a clutch of large eggs and some vegetables. There was smoked fish and ale.
Rowinish and Connara ate with great relish. Never had food tasted so rich and nourishing. Both were greatly pleased by the quality of their victory feast. No dish from fairyland, no matter how subtle in preparation, could have pleased them as did the simple food, shared with good folk, and eaten in the security of one another’s company.
They spoke little as they went about the usual evening tasks together before they slept. Each time their eyes met however, there passed between them a look of great contentment.
Many days hence, Onlyn came to them. He was jubilant, obviously unmarked after days of victory celebration. Seemingly indifferent to their disappearance from the fight, he recounted the completion of it to them with great animation.
“I observed with what courage and energy you fought for my family,” he said. “Many an enemy were toppled by you, and many a fighter separated from his mount by your skilful riding. As I told you, my folk are generous in victory, so I have brought you each a gift. You will both ever be welcome in my land, where you will be honoured guests, but I feel that it will be some time before you venture there again. Therefore, I have brought you that which will be of value to you here in your land.”
He produced two pendants that were suspended from finely worked gold chains. One pendant was a beautifully wrought golden disk carved with a delicate pattern of leaves. The second was a ring, also carved cunningly from the purest gold, also inlaid with the leaf pattern. Onlyn laid the ring on his palm, then laid the disk inside it. All saw how the disk fit snugly and perfectly. They saw how the delicate patterns fit together, forming a seamless circle, alive with leaf and vine shapes, unbroken and perfect.
“You see how these two pieces together make one whole.” Onlyn separated them. He lifted the disk and placed its chain around Rowinish’s neck. Then, he took the ring and placed its chain around the neck of Connara.
“As long as you two live in harmony together in this village, no invader will prevail here. Your bond with one another is of the strongest character, you complete one another as these pendants. I do not need to ask why you left the battle in my land, for the answer has been in both your souls since your childhood. The deepest wish of both your hearts is a safe and peaceful home where the bonds of love and loyalty can flourish. Wear these, my gifts, and this village will be that for you. Your lives will unfold in peace and safety together, and the invader will have no power here.”
It was so. The quality of loyalty and love between Rowinish and Connara was so strong, and the fairy magic so efficacious, that their village was never overrun by the Romans. They grew in strength and wisdom, and their sons and daughters grew to be strong and honourable. So, their great suffering, as well as their great loyalty, were rewarded.
Rowinish and Connara were of the same age. Their long friendship began when they were both young lads of ten years. The Romans had been destroying whole villages in retribution for the bold and daring attacks of the fierce Scottic tribesmen on the Roman encampments.