THE WASHER AT THE FORD
'The Washer at the Ford' was the first Celtic fantasy/horror story I wrote,
although I did put it aside for a while, and it turned out it wasn't the first I had published. 'Washer' appeared
in 'Unhinged' in 1999.
A warrior’s life could be boring. Sometimes it seemed that all there was to do was drink, so Fergus and his companions did so heartily. For autumn, it was a warm day; Fergus made sure his sword was still safely in its
scabbard before taking his cloak off. As his fingers tightened around the brooch
that fastened it, his mind turned to Kyra.
He always thought of Kyra when he held the brooch. It was only a poorly crafted copper one, but she had given it to him on their wedding day, and it had remained
with him wherever he fought. He liked to think that whenever he touched it he
was somehow closer to his wife. He fingered and polished its circular form constantly
- his companions joked that he spent more time looking after his brooch than his weapons!
Since the Beltane fires Kyra had a bump to love as well. Fergus found children a joy, and was looking forward to having one of his own. He wanted a boy first; he would be called Setanta, the birth name of Cuchulain, the
Hound of Ulster, Ireland’s greatest ever champion. The next child would
be a girl, Emer, after Cuchulain’s wife. He fingered his brooch again.
‘......Isn’t that so, Fergus?’
The sound of his name shook him from his daydreams.
‘I was saying the Leinsetermen are a hard enemy.’
‘All battles are difficult,’ Fergus agreed, ‘But
we outnumber them. We’re the army of Leoghaire. We’ll drive the whelps before us like dogs from a hornet’s nest.’ He changed the subject. ‘I’ll be back in a few
‘Beer gone through you already, Fergus Gnat’s
Bladder?’ The friendly taunt hung in the air as he made the short journey
down to the river’s bank. The earthen slope was slippery, but near the
ford where the battle would be fought the water was shallow. Even in his drunken
state Fergus risked no more than a cold bath if he slipped on the damp moss.
He did indeed slip on the moss, and was unable to prevent
himself falling head first into the river. After spitting water from his mouth
he swore in the name of one of the Old Gods, but the cold water cleared his head and Fergus remembered he was a Christian
now. Conor, his lord, had been converted to the new faith last summer, and ordered
his warriors to be baptised as well. His body was therefore Christian, Fergus
remembered. It was just a shame that his mind sometimes forgot.
He staggered, soaking wet, to his feet. As his ears emptied of water, he heard the sound of feminine giggling behind him. He turned to see a young girl of perhaps seventeen summers washing clothes in the river, and hiding her
mouth behind a hand to disguise her amusement.
‘Who are you cackling at?’ He demanded. The answer was obvious; there can have been no-one more undignified nearby than himself. He found his anger subsiding, partly because he’d noticed she was......well, very pretty. Long black hair flowed down her back and over her shoulders. Her
eyes were large, dark and deep enough for any man to drown in. Red lips contrasted
with her flawless pale skin, and white teeth flashed through her laughter.
But Fergus banished his natural instinct to think of Kyra. He was as quick to notice beauty as any other man, but he loved Kyra and didn’t
want anyone else. He held the brooch tightly as he tried to dismiss the girl’s
beauty, thinking again of his wife and the family they would soon have.
‘Are you free?’ He continued, after the vision
of loveliness failed to reply. His voice was a little more friendly now, but
Fergus certainly had no intention of being humiliated by a bond girl, pretty or not.
He wasn’t aware of any farms nearby, and he knew this area well, having marched through it several times. She was probably a slave following one of the armies.
‘I’m as free as you,’ the girl retorted
confidently. That pacified Fergus a little more.
At least he wasn’t giving a bond girl a free laugh. But he couldn’t
understand why a free woman would be washing clothes out here, nowhere near a settlement and between two armies of lustful
soldiers. It was dangerous.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ he pointed out. ‘It’s not safe. And anyway,
why isn’t a girl as pretty as you married to some warlord and supplying him with a horde of heirs?’
‘I’ve got all this washing to do,’ she pleaded,
sweeping a delicate hand towards a pile of clothing on the bank. ‘I’ll
be finished all the quicker if you help me.’
Fergus would normally have been roused to anger at being asked
to wash clothes. That was women’s work.
Slave women’s work. Well beneath the dignity of a warrior. But there was something about this girl that intrigued him. She was out of place. No-one washed clothes, seemingly without
a care in the world, between two armies. She seemed to have some sort of....of....aura? He couldn’t quite think of the correct word - but then he was a warrior, not
a bard. But there was certainly something intriguing behind the mask of demure
In contrast to his bravery in battle, Fergus had always been
cowardly with women. Especially pretty ones.
Standing there, in the middle of a river, soaking wet and preparing to wash clothes for the first time in his life,
he felt clumsy and stupid. ‘What’s your name?’ He asked, as he lumbered self-consciously towards the pile
of dirty linen. It was the only thing he could think of to say.
‘You know my name,’ was the only response he got. She said it playfully, as if teasing. Fergus
was confused; he didn’t understand the answer; he decided to concentrate on the washing, but had to watch what the girl
was doing first. He really wanted to help her so that she could finish the job
quickly and get away from the two armies, but the moment he picked up a garment from the heap on the bank he realised he had
no idea what to do.
‘I don’t know how to wash clothes,’ he finally
‘Oh you are useless,’ she chided with mock severity,
placing a gentle hand on his wrist to show she was only teasing. ‘Here,
let me show you.’
Fergus shivered. There
was something in her touch. Like stone.
Something cold. He put it down to the river water and shrugged his shoulders. But he couldn’t stop feeling uneasy.
The garments were filthy.
The item she was washing looked as if it had been soaked in mud, but she obviously knew what she was doing because
the dirt was coming out and colouring the water a deep scarlet. The colour of
blood, Fergus thought casually, before turning his attention to the clothing itself, a saffron dyed cloak edged with a neat
woolen trim. It looked strangely familiar to him.
Yes. He had one like it lying further up the bank. Fergus’ had a sword hole in it at one shoulder, though, and the owner of this one had left his brooch
on. The fool should have taken it off.
It might get lost.
His eyes suddenly spread wide with amazement. His body stiffened. His jaw dropped. As the girl turned the cloak around to clean another part, he caught a glimpse of a hole in the shoulder,
cleanly cut by a sword. Then the mud fell off the brooch into the water, revealing
one identical to his. But it wasn’t mud that was being washed off - it
was blood. It was his cloak, caked in blood, that was being washed.
A stench filled the air.
An odour like a two-day-old battlefield clogged his nostrils. But there
was something else mingled with the smell of death. A taste of evil hung around
Fergus knew the girl’s name now. His hair began to creep.
The Morrigan, the Washer at the Ford, the Goddesses of War,
often seen by warriors in the form of a raven. She would hover over battles encouraging
men to greater slaughter, before enjoying a feast of gore and souls. The legends
said that any warrior who saw her washing his clothes before a battle, cleaning them for the next, long journey into the Otherworld,
would not survive the slaughter to celebrate victory or experience the devastation of defeat.
Something knotted in Fergus’ throat, and as he fought
for breath his knees gave way under him. He didn’t notice that he had fallen
into the water again. He clasped his brooch tight and turned to memories of the
wife he would never see again. And her bump, one of the many things he wouldn’t
be able to share with her. All warriors lived in the hope of a glorious death,
but to know it was coming with certainty was not what he had expected or wished for.
‘I don’t believe in you! I’m a Christian! I have only one God!’ He shouted
desperately, trying to banish the being. But she had already gone. There was nothing more than a raven cackling in triumph as it lifted itself from the water and into the
sky. The clothes had gone.
Fergus remembered the height of the pile she had been washing. A lot of warriors would face glorious deaths tomorrow.
‘Here he is. Shouting
out rubbish. Fallen in the river, the drunken fool!’ Was the first of many comments made by his friends who found him sitting in the river, his face white as
a lily. They had heard his outburst and come to see what was wrong. Looking at him, half dazed and gibbering incoherently, they obviously thought his over indulgence of beer
was responsible. Fergus was in a state of shock, but he kept his fist wrapped
tightly around his brooch. It was the nearest he would ever get to being with
Kyra again. He looked back at the ford in an attempt to convince himself he had
dreamed everything. Nothing remained of his encounter with the Goddess, but something
inside him told Fergus the experience had not been a dream.
After darkness fell, he stayed apart from his fellow warriors. It wasn’t difficult to be alone because that night was Samhain - or All Hallows’
Eve, he kept reminding himself as a Christian. The night when the boundaries
between the real world and the Otherworld came down, and unsuspecting mortals could be dragged away by those spirits who had
already passed over. Most of the army huddled fearfully together around their
camp fires. Not Fergus. He would
be seeing the Otherworld soon enough anyway; what little did it matter if he were taken there a few hours early? Although away from the camp, he felt no fear of capture from the Leinstermen either - they too would be
crouched, terrified around their fires.
His fingers clasped around his brooch. Fergus studied it in the moonlight and thought of Kyra, as he did so often.
Tonight, though, was different. He knew he would never see her again,
and to his surprise a tear fell from his cheek onto the polished copper. ‘Goodbye,
Kyra. Look after our child,’ he said quietly to the brooch.
It was Kyra’s voice, coming from almost inside the brooch. He imagined
that where his tear had touched the object he could make out the outline of her face.
He blinked away the vision and looked again, closer. Her delicate features
were still there, smiling at him. This was no trick of the moonlight, but after
the passing of a few heartbeats she faded from him.
He was bought back to his senses by the laughter of a raven. Usually, owls were the only birds heard at night.
Fergus wondered if it was the Goddess Morrigan. Was she protecting him
from evil this Samhian night - or All Hallows Eve, he reminded himself - or merely mocking him, reminding him of the death
he must face tomorrow?
The battle was as hard as Fergus had expected. Knowing his fate, he made sure he was in the front rank. There
didn’t seem to be any point in hiding himself away to the rear to postpone the moment of his death. Instead he vowed to be the bravest man on the battlefield, and to take as many Leinstermen as possible
with him to the Otherworld. He wanted the bards to remember him in their songs. He tied Kyra’s brooch to the inside of his shield. Such valuables were usually kept to the rear with the slaves and not taken into a fight, but he wanted
the last thing he saw to be his reminder of his precious wife.
He fought like a monster; almost as if he were a gruacach,
a troll crawled out from its cave during the night. His sword slashed and killed,
and his right arm was soon red and slippery with the blood and entrails of the enemies of King Leoghaire. His shield saved him more than once throughout the battle.
Occasionally during the fighting he heard the coarse shrieking
of a raven, and each time he looked up and asked himself if it was the Goddess laughing at him. He wondered if anyone else could see or hear the bird, but the fight was so intense he never got the opportunity
to ask any of his comrades.
The conflict lasted until well into the afternoon, when the
army of Leoghaire began to push its enemies back. Instead of fighting one against
one there were sometimes two warriors fighting one Leinsterman. Victory was imminent. Fergus continued to hack and kill, waiting for his end. He pushed forward into groups of Leinstermen, often finding himself outnumbered and without a friend to
protect the right, unshielded, side of his body.
But still the death blow refused to come. He wondered if the Goddess had forgotten about him; maybe he would escape the death she had planned for
him after all. He felt his heart pounding as the prospect of seeing his beloved
Kyra again became more real.
Yet another Leinsterman fell beneath Fergus’ sword. He pushed himself forward once more, and found himself free of the battle. He had fought through the densely-packed ranks of Leinster without picking up so much as a blister on his
shield hand. His head swam with jubilation.
He had beaten the Goddess!
Then he saw the chariots.
Eight of them, in line abreast, heading straight for him. Their wide-eyed, foam mouthed, battle crazed stallions were a moving wall of finely
tuned muscle and murderous hooves. Hate-contorted faces rode behind, eyes wide
with warlust and swordarms dripping red. They were the chariots of Leinster. They were coming for him like a vision of death.
And they were only fifty paces away.
As if from nowhere a raven appeared, circling him, diving
at him, cackling triumphantly in his face. The bird taunted him, laughing in
delight at his impending doom. There was something in the air disturbed by its
powerful black wings. The dark, heavy atmosphere of malevolence. The stench of death and evil returned, reminding Fergus of his experience at the ford. He prepared to cross the Bridge of Souls to the next life.
Never before had he faced such overwhelming odds. He had always expected to be terrified in the face of imminent death, but to his surprise he found his
mind clear and focussed, although he could feel his heart beating with a ferocity unmatched this side of the Otherworld. He wondered whether the raven gloating around him were the Goddess Morrigan, or whether
it was just another bird excitedly anticipating an easy meal.
There was only one way to find out. He dropped his sword and shield and, with finely tuned warrior’s reflexes, shot out an arm and grabbed
at the bird. To his relief he caught a wing before the raven could dodge, and
he was soon holding the struggling creature tightly to his chest, ignoring its cries of anguish, oblivious to the thrashing
of its talons and murderously hooked beak.
The chariots were coming nearer. Ten paces away. He held the struggling raven tight. The stench filled his nostrils, forcing him to gag. The bird
fought, tearing at his flesh. But still he held her. His life depended on it.
One of the approaching horses whinnied and halted the charge.
Another steed joined in the cry of fear.
It stopped in mid-stride, pawing the ground and refusing to advance further.
Yet another halted at the sight of Fergus holding the screaming bird. Despite
the whips of their driver, both horses of another chariot forgot their bloodlust and turned back in the direction they had
Fear spread across the faces of the warriors in the other
chariots. As if of one mind, they allowed their horses to follow in the footsteps
of the first.
Fergus let go of the struggling bird and sank to his knees,
burying his head in his hands. He had survived.
He felt the tension drain from him. For the first time that day he felt
his muscles ache, and he allowed himself to grieve friends who had fallen.
He sensed, rather than saw, the girl standing above him. He looked up and saw the Washer at the Ford, looking regal in a rich dress of black
silk which reminded him of raven feathers. There was steel in her eyes. ‘So you have bested me, Fergus the Warrior,’ she said with a hint of admiration.
‘Animals fear magic.
I knew the horses would refuse to approach you.’ He noticed the
bruises rising on her arm, in the same place he had grabbed to the raven’s wing.
‘You death is ordained, should you fight again. I place a geis on you, a condition for releasing you from your destiny, Fergus
mac Ardac. Never again shall you hold a sword. Next time I will be more careful. I will take you should you raise a sword in anger once more.’ She continued, with a touch of bitterness, ‘Why not become a monk of your new religion?’ Fergus remembered Leoghaire’s druids complaining that the Old Gods were not
happy at being ignored by Christians.
He opened his mouth to speak, but the girl had gone. He saw only a raven disappearing into the breeze, its wings moving slowly as if weighted
by failure, and making no effort to gorge itself on a field of free flesh.
Fergus arrived home three days after the battle. As he ascended the hill he was surprised to see his rath quiet; why hadn’t Kyra posted servants
onto the ramparts to await him? Surely news of the great victory would have preceded
him? He stopped and shouted a greeting when he was close enough to be heard. He didn’t want to blunder in and startle her.
It wasn’t long before the gates were opened and his
wife came running down the hill towards him. To his surprise tears streamed down
her cheeks as she flung herself into his arms and covered him with kisses. He
held her tightly. It was wonderful to be back.
‘Oh Fergus! I
thought you dead. I had a vision at Samhain.
You were looking at the brooch and saying goodbye to me. I had a foreboding
that it would be your last battle. Then only this morning a messenger passed
and said you were surrounded by the Chariots of Leinster.’
‘It was my last battle,’ Fergus replied. ‘I can never fight again. I have
thrown my sword to the bogs of Leinster.’
Kyra smiled quizzically but did not question her husband. Instead she changed the subject. ‘Come
and meet your son.’
In his joy at seeing again the wife he thought he’d
lost, Fergus hadn’t noticed that her belly was missing its bump. As he
followed her up the hill towards their home, he tried to remember a time when he had been as happy. He couldn’t. Fergus decided that he was going to grasp
his second chance at life with both hands.
Without warning, Kyra stiffened. Fergus turned and followed her gaze. From three sides, survivors
from the warband of Leinster appeared from behind trees or over crests of hills. Instinctively he reached for his sword, but
his right hand found his belt empty. He had no means of defence.
A screech from above brought back memories of evil. A raven circled lazily, as if reminding Fergus of his geis.
The bird screeched, as if not only welcoming Fergus’ soul to the Otherworld, but those of the family he was powerless