He whispered in my ear again, more persistently this time. "Toiréasa!"
I pretended to ignore him, but I couldn’t prevent the smile that inevitably came to my lips. Rather than open my eyes, I breathed deep of the aroma of the woodlands around us. Fern, soil and bark. Hydele mixed with betonicam, the dust of the latter sending streaks of colour smearing themselves across the insides of my eyes.
"Torri, I’ve brought you some breakfast."
My stomach was aching, so I opened my eyes, continuing to smile at the fair lad in front of me who called himself Cofhuaim. His hair was a tangled mass of brown, his cheeks grubby from a life living rough in the woods. But there was such openness and trust in his face! I had only known him a few weeks, but he had saved my life and taught me to survive in the forests of southern Mileth that had become my home, and without doubt I loved him completely.
I can barely remember the times before I came to be here, and what little I do remember I would much rather forget. My parents named me Toiréasa, meaning ‘Harvester’ - one who reaps what others have sown. I doubt they realised how apt the name would be. For when I was merely 12 years old, my parents, being rogues of some infamy, were exiled permanently by the demagogues of Mileth.
My mother screamed every insult she had ever learned as she was dragged from our house, and my father had to be overcome by five guards, such was the strength of his fury. I did not realise at first that I was to be kept behind, nor did I have any understanding of why my parents had been taken from me. When I was finally told, I sat numb and motionless for hours on my sleeping mattress in the corner of the room, staring blindly at the priestess of Danaan sent to be my guardian and comforter.
I remembered nothing for two months. The priests told me later that I had been either silent for days at a time, or screamed for hours in impotent fury. At some point, my home near the church was condemned as being unfit for habitation. I had lost everything. My life was meaningless.
"You’re thinking about the old days again aren’t you?" Cofhuaim’s gentle words cut through the pain that had begun to appear on my face.
I smiled, and immediately the nightmare left me. "I can’t hide anything from you can I?"
"Why would you want to?" he asked, the simplicity of his tone disarming me easily. "Here," he added, "try these. I know you’ll love them." I raised myself up from my sleeping position and he offered me a handful of shrooms; small juicy ones that were a pleasure simply to hold in one’s mouth, savouring every morsel. Cofhuaim had taught me how to forage for food, but his ability to find the best the forest had to offer was almost preternatural. I would often spend hours searching out edible roots that he’d find in just minutes.
"Mmm!" I exclaimed, my mouth full. "Eees are ilicious!"
He smiled at me, as he had so often before, a smile imbued with gentleness beyond imagining. But this time there was something else there too, behind his deep-green eyes. A momentary sadness, perhaps?
I am no stranger to sadness of course. In the years after my parents were exiled I had far more than my share of it. Despite the kindness of the followers of Danaan who had taken me in, I quickly lost all self-respect. Through the twisted logic of self-hatred, I managed to persuade myself that my parents’ banishment had been my fault - that I had been too demanding as a child, that somehow I’d caused them to turn to crime to support me.
At first I fully expected my parents to try to get in touch with me, to let me know how to find them. But as the months passed and I heard nothing from them, my naïve childhood trust turned to bitterness and I stopped caring about anyone or anything. It seemed both ironic and predictable, then, that I too in my turn found it easy to steal and cheat my way through life. Inflicting pain is easy if you can no longer empathise with people, or care about the consequences to yourself.
"You never stopped caring, Torri. You only chose to believe you had."
My eyes raced back into focus, and I almost spat out the last shroom onto the grass beside me. "How did you know I was thinking about that? Am I that transparent?"
"It’s because of the bond between us. Sometimes I can see what you’re thinking."
I looked at him closely. I expected to see the wry smile that indicated he was jesting with me but he returned my gaze earnestly. I giggled, embarrassed at his sudden seriousness. "You know I don’t hate myself any more," I said unnecessarily, for of course he knew it. He was the one who had taught me to love myself again.
After 2 years, I had gone search of my parents, and found them in Abel. In a manner of speaking, at least. They had fallen foul of the local rogue’s guild and been quietly ‘removed’. Through his contacts with the guild, Aricin was able to find the location of the bodies for me, buried in a shallow grave near the temple of Fiosachd. I sat nearby for hours, but felt nothing. No pain, no sadness, no grief, no anger, no despair - only a cold nothingness that clawed at my mind, demanding my sanity. Why did I feel nothing? What sort of monster was I that even my parents’ deaths had so little impact on me? Shouldn’t I at least be able to cry?
Many people walked past me as I sat there in despair. I glared at each one, daring them to try to comfort this maelstrom of torment that I’d become. It was unnecessary. None of them had any intention of approaching me. Except one. He strode towards me with purpose, as if he’d expected me to be there. I watched him approach, my fiercest snarl twisting my face. Leave me alone! I am a curse to all people! I bring only disaster and death!
The young man did not pause for an instant, but continued to step through the undergrowth, barefoot, to reach where I sat.
"Hello," he said brightly, helping himself to a place by my side. "My name is Cofhuaim." He reached into a small pouch by his side and drew out an apple, offering it to me. "Are you hungry?"
"No," I said, lying out of sheer annoyance at his audacity.
The young man smiled broadly and bit messily into the fruit himself, leaving small pieces caught in his bedraggled beard. I fought the urge to remove them for him. What did I care how he looked?
Cofhuaim stared at me thoughtfully as he continued to eat. "Do you know who you truly are?" he asked, finally.
I shook my head defiantly. "I am nothing, worthless. A curse to all who encounter me."
"That is strange," he murmured quietly, "For I see in you a light that burns bright with kindness, patience and inner strength."
I let out a raucous, almost inhuman cackle. "Then you are a fool!"
"Perhaps. But wisdom often seems foolish at first."
"Would you try to save me? Give it up, for I am already lost."
"You admit there’s something worth saving then?"
I paused, and looked away. "Once perhaps, but no more."
I thought perhaps he would give up this futile line of questioning and leave me in my comfortable suffering, but he continued to persist. "You think you feel pain because you’re a wicked and cruel person do you not? You believe that what goodness you had in you has been destroyed?"
I let out a sigh. "It’s true."
"No," he said firmly, "It isn’t. You cannot destroy your true nature. You know I speak the truth. The anguish and pain you feel is due to your sense of self-hatred and guilt at not being able to be the person you know you truly are."
"I was always so hard on myself wasn’t I?" I looked up from my reverie and kissed my love lightly on his cheek.
"Yes," he admitted, smiling ruefully, "But that is ever the burden of those of us who seek to be ourselves, in harmony with all around us. We always fall short of our ideals.
"I was so shocked and surprised by what you'd said. Almost as soon as you began speaking I knew you'd change everything for me."
"No, not I. You simply needed an excuse to break free from your self-imposed prison. Remember how eagerly you agreed to come back to Mileth with me, after being so hostile at first? Your transformation was entirely your own doing!"
I smiled in happiness at the memories of the short time I'd shared with this exceptional person. He was irrepressibly enthusiastic and insisted on believing in the light and goodness in my heart, even when there was none to be seen. Eventually, imperceptibly at first, I had begun to believe him, that I was a worthwhile person.
Suddenly, there was that look of pain on my love's face once again. Cofhuaim sighed so deeply I feared the weight of all of Temuair rested on his young shoulders. "I can hardly bring myself to speak of it," he began, "But our paths must soon diverge. Our time together in this place comes to an end."
I stared at him, aghast. "But... I thought we'd be together forever?!"
He stared at the ground my my feet. "Yes, we will be. But not in the way we are now. Look inside yourself my love, do you not feel it? Deoch has given you his spark. It is given to you to join the other Aislings in Mileth. A new start. You will finally be who your were always meant to be!"
He could not hide the quiver in his voice, and a tear formed in his eye. My own tears flowed freely. I could not speak. I recognised what he had said for the truth it was. I reached out to the only friend I'd ever known, and kneeling we embraced each other. An endless, unalterable connection of souls.
A week later, Toiréasa strode purposefully, barefoot, through the Temple of Circles, guided by Cinaed. Understanding herself now, she knew that her path would be that of a monk - the path of harmony with nature and inner strength. She tried not to think too long on the parting from her love. The pain was great, but this time it would only make her stronger, not consume her as it had done in the past.
The testing was difficult, but Toiréasa answered the questions honestly, from her heart. Finally she stepped into the final chamber to meet Cail himself, the patron of monks... and stopped dead in her tracks, transfixed. There standing waiting for her was not the expected god of nature, but her love, Cofhuaim himself!
"You look surprised, my love!" he grinned, cheerfully. "Did I not say we'd always be together? Didn't you believe me? I have many forms and many names. Cofhuaim means Harmony, and that is who I am. God of Harmony, aye, and of Nature and Balance also.
Movement returned to Toiréasa's limbs then, and with a shout of delight, she leapt across the chamber to embrace Cail, her god, her love.