The Race

“You let that horse lead you too much,” Maureen scolded. Sean looked up, startled. He had been daydreaming, not watching the road. He trusted the horse to know her way home. Maureen’s voice jolted him to the present, which was, oddly enough, the past.

It was November 30, 1584. They had been part of Grania’s crew of pirates for three months. In that time, they had crossed the breadth of Ireland, rescued Maureen from Sir Richard Bingham, the newly installed English Governor of Connacht and thwarted said governor’s plan to destroy Grania Uaile’s hold on the western coast. Now, they were back in port, back at Grania’s stronghold, Rockfleet Castle. Now, they were home. The only problem: he and Maureen had been born in 1943. Home was a relative term.

“What are you doing here, Maureen?” he asked, watching as she sidled up to him on her own horse, Baibín. Maureen ignored him and instead, leaned over and patted his mare’s neck.

“You have him wrapped around your hoof, Mistress Réalta,” she whispered loudly. Maureen looked over at Sean and winked.

Sean rolled his eyes. He did give Réalta too much lead, but it was a compromise he was willing to make with the horse in order to remain seated. He was no horseman.

“I’ll ask again, since you obviously didn’t hear me: what are you doing here, Maureen? Didn’t Grania ask you and Owen to clean the stables?”

It had been Maureen’s punishment for refusing to take a knife to her hair. Its dark curls always threatened to escape the tight, coiled braid that Maureen wrapped around her head. That posed a real health hazard when one spent her time among the rigging and ropes of an Irish galley. Maureen had stated, rather boldly, that she had no desire to earn a nickname like Grania’s own: Grainne Mhaol – Grania the bald. She would keep her hair bound while on board, thank you. Shooting the room a look, Maureen had dared anyone to contradict her.

Sean had stayed out of it. He was not going to be caught between the two formidable women – one old and one young, but both determined. Eventually, Grania yielded and Maureen had been tasked with mucking out the stables.

Now her hair was flowing free over her shoulders, the sun catching the hints of red within its dark waves and making them glow. Sean shook his head and stared ahead, smiling ruefully.

“It’s done,” Maureen was saying. Sean didn’t believe her; he believed Owen – youngest of the O’Neil lads, who were Grania’s most trusted associates – was mucking out the stable by himself. Réalta the horse wasn’t the only one who knew how to take advantage.

With a blithe shrug, Maureen turned her mare and kept pace with Sean. “I thought I would ride to meet you. It’s too lovely a day.”

Translation: she had nowhere else to go where she wouldn’t be caught shirking her duties, and she was jealous of Sean’s freedom. She smiled brightly at him and he smiled back. Whatever Maureen’s reason, it was good to have her company.

“How was Tomás?” Maureen asked. Sean had been sent to Tomás Conroy, a smith who lived about three miles inland. The once-empty bags straddling Réalta’s rump were bulging with metal-worked, lethal goodies.

“You just missed him – he came out part of the way with me. He said there have been people along the road, unusual people.”

“More unusual than us?”

Tomás had been their first encounter after arriving in 1584. Despite Maureen’s wild story about being orphaned runaways-turned-minstrels – to account for their unusual clothes – he had taken them for spies and delivered them to Grania.

“Ah, you know Tomás – he’s worried about the hill,” Sean replied. They were approaching the hill now. It was a fairy hill – a sidhe mound – and within it was the power bridge the gap between centuries. Sean often wondered how many other superstitions were really truths buried by centuries of lost knowledge.

“He says they – whoever ‘they’ are – have cut more trees. He’s afraid the good folk are mad. Given that we’re here, I’m inclined to agree with him.”

Maureen nodded her head, silently agreeing. She gazed up at the hill. Behind it, the sun was starting its descent and a shadow spread across the path. She would never admit it aloud, not even to Sean, but it scared her. The sight of it made her shiver with dark premonition. Dubh’s letter had said that in three months they would be able to use the hill once more to return home. How – and by what power – she was afraid to know.

She shook her head, banishing the thoughts, and turned to Sean.

“Moseying past the hill seems a bit like walking on our own graves, Sean. I’ll race you back to Rockfleet!”

“Maureen,” Sean protested, “you know I’m no horseman – you’re the one who had the lessons, not me.”

“You did fairly well on the trip to Dublin, I hear.”

“Don’t remind me.” Sean rubbed his backside. There was a reason he preferred life in Grania’s fleet to life on land – in the sixteenth century, anyway. He looked at Maureen, waiting patiently for his acquiescence. He made a face.

“Fine, woman. We’ll race – but no cheating this time!”

“What, me? Cheat? I’m offended, Sean!” Maureen leaned over; there was a wicked gleam in those green eyes and Sean held Réalta’s reigns tightly.

“Just for that, I’ll give you a head start!” Maureen whistled and slapped the horse smartly on its behind.

Réalta snorted and shot ahead. Sean bounced on her back and tried to hold on with his knees. He could hear Maureen laughing behind him and he cursed, loudly. Réalta took it for encouragement and somehow galloped faster. They rounded the bend that skirted the hill, its shadow damp and chill in the already-cold November air. Something snapped in the scrub and Réalta gave a startled whinny. She was spooked.

Watching Réalta take off with Sean clinging to her back, Maureen chuckled and dug her heels into Baibín’s flank. Réalta was a fast horse, but Baibín was faster, and she was within a tail’s length of horse and rider when she heard Réalta’s frightened call.

“Maureen!” Sean yelled. She watched as he nearly lost his grip and struggled to keep his place. The panic in his voice was real, and she urged Baibín on.

They hurtled through the countryside, its barren winter splendor a blur as they shot past. Réalta wasn’t tiring.

“Try to avoid the stronghold, Sean,” Maureen called out. They’d have to do more than muck out the stables if they ran roughshod through the huts and carts that constituted the village abutting Rockfleet Castle. Just beyond the stronghold was a protected dune and shallow inlet. If Sean could steer—

“You think I’m in control of where she goes?” Sean managed to shout back. Maureen grinned. At least he hadn’t lost his wits.

“Hold on!” she called out. To Baibín, she muttered: “Go fast, girl – fly!”

And they flew. She caught up to Sean, and with Baibín close to her flank, encouraged Réalta to veer off the path. They cut through tall grass and bramble, ignoring the sting as thorny branches slashed at their legs. The inlet was ahead; Maureen hoped the sandy dune, the pebbled beach or the shifting waters would stall Réalta’s frantic gallop.

“Maureen, get me off of this thing!”

“I’m trying!” Maureen shouted back. She didn’t trust her skills as a rider to reach over and grab Réalta’s reigns, wasn’t sure it would even work.

They careened over the dunes and slammed into the shore faster than she had anticipated. Both animals reacted too quickly for Sean and Maureen to do anything other than scream as they were discharged into the shallows.

Recovering first, Sean sputtered and wiped seawater from his face. He grabbed at Maureen and helped her sit. Baibín and Réalta, up to their knobby knees in the water, snuffled at their drenched heads.

“Well, that was fun,” Maureen muttered, pushing Baibín away. She looked at Sean.

“Fun?” Sean shot back, his blue eyes wild. “Maureen O’Malley, you’re mad.”

“Aye well, Sean McAndrew, you’re off the horse and alive, aren’t you?”

Sean slapped at the water and Maureen shrieked, laughing. She splashed back and they giggled, giving into hysterics as they tried to help each other out of the water.

Liam and Phalen O’Neil, Grania’s first and second mates, watched the spectacle from the dunes. Phalen turned to Liam.

“So, who do you think won the race?” It wasn’t the first time Maureen had challenged a fellow rider.

Liam turned to see two older women from the stronghold rushing towards Sean and Maureen and attempting to help them out of the shallows. He laughed shortly.

“The washerwomen.”