Lugach fixed his son with a soul-piercing stare. “I entrusted her to you for no more than half a sun’s climb, Cormac. Where is she!” Seeing the pain threatening to engulf his fathers face was almost worse than the hot waves of shame, flooding him with his countless failures. He felt like he had been a disappointment to his father from the day he was born. Now he would be hated. He shoved the clawing animal of guilt and grief back into its iron-barred cage in his heart. To his horror, he was not quite under control when he spoke. That was the way with him, good, but not good enough. “Lost.” It was a choked whisper. Dazed, he shook himself violently, as if from a nightmare that would not give him up.
“Lost?!” his father roared. “May you find her or die trying!”
Running … running … who had moved him? … When had the running begun? As if from a great distance, he watched his body run. Die trying… if only he could do that, it might make his father proud.
Now far from the roundhouse door, down the steep rugged path… he was headed toward the mill… the mill his father built along with his new life after he left the fianna. Cormac used to hate that mill. Now it was a refuge, one of the only places to be alone.
Today it was not his thoughts that sent him sprinting to the roar of the wheel and the grind of the stones. It was not even the resentment he had at not being given the same choice for a future that his father had. It was a dread, an unnamable loss that tore at him now.
Lost, she was lost…
He’d been playing “hide to find” with her when the runner arrived from a far off settlement, on the business of trade with his father. But his father wasn’t there, and so it was up to him to provide hospitality.
He’d left her for a moment among the clusters of trees with no concern. His sister knew the woods like the back of her hand. Besides, at five summers old, she shouldn’t always need to be supervised.
The last thing he had said to her was, “Don’t wander outside the trees.” The last thing he’d heard was her birdsong of laughter as she enacted some imaginary game.
The sound of pounding feet that were not his own brought Cormac unceremoniously back to the present. He thought that running full ahead might keep him from the pain, but now it sliced through him again, sharper than a spear.
The mill, he had to get to the mill. Tears threatened to fall, and crying was as good as forbidden. He was not so far now… but whoever was coming this way was having no trouble gaining on him. Had he been spotted? Quickly, he moved sideways, then dashed behind a thick clump of trees where he could remain hidden, while keeping an eye on the road.
Lost … she was lost …
“Mac Lugach!” the voice shouting his name too close to the sheltering trees provoked a cold panic, even while he recognized the speaker. It was Aodh, Caoilte’s eldest. . Since when did his friends provoke terror in him, he wondered? But he dare not question the extent of his ability to fall short of every social expectation. He held his silence close as death.
“Cormac,” Aodh questioned quietly, having soundlessly covered the space between them. He was too good. Of course he was.
They belonged to the same cohort, and yet Cormac could not meet Aodh’s searching eyes. He turned away in shame, but not before Aodh saw the tracks of tears on his face. He wished he could disappear. He prepared for the inevitable mocking that didn’t come. Instead, Aodh just stood there quietly, regarding him with a genuine concern.
“Something isn’t right with you. What is it, man?”
What was it. Cormac searched in the growing fog for the words that seemed to shrink into shadow, frightened by the glaring light of truth. “Lost … the mill … lost…”
“Look, man,” Aodh said after thinking for a while. “If it’s the mill you’re wanting to get to, let me come with you.”
“Why are you here?” the question was sudden, and Cormac immediately regretted its harshness.
“Your father sent for us to search for…”
That was enough. Could his father not trust his own son? Apparently not. And there were others?
he was back on the trail now, moving … parting the shadowed words and the fog, pounding the anger into the ground, aware only vaguely of Aodh’s presence beside him. He was too dazed to care, but not too numb to drown the panic rising in him like a tide. Lost … he had lost her.
They found the body floating near the mill. She had not yet learned to swim. Between them they carried her, back up the path from where they had come, to break the news no parent is ever prepared to hear.
Behind them, as the sky began to darken, one light could still be seen. It glowed soft and shimmering, just above the mill. It has never disappeared.