**Pronunciation guide: Oisin is pronounced O'Sheen. Niamh is pronounced Neeve or Nee-iv.
(Click Read More below for the rest of the story.)
. . . Ariel’s friend jumped like she’d been shocked. She stood, the wind whipping her hair around like a banshee. Then she turned.
And Ariel felt as if the air had gone tornadic again, pulling the breath from her body. For Jane’s eyes, as they rested on hers, were green—like frosted peridots—instead of wolf-blue as they had always been. And her hair, a fiery solar-flare that normally bounced around her shoulders, was lengthening and darkening until it was burnished auburn and rippled to the middle of her back.
Jane’s eyebrows worked in confusion as a change wrestled through the rest of her body. Her shoulders broadened, jaw strengthened, and she grew taller and thicker until it seemed she blotted out the afternoon sun. The frightened girl raised an arm toward her friend, who stood trembling on the rocks before her, and then stared at it, blinking. It was muscular, curled with hair, inked with scrolled and knotted tattoos. Jane raised her eyes—now like neon ice—and whispered, “Ariel?”
Something burned in Ariel’s chest until she remembered to breathe again. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be. Siobha—Jane had done something to her, and now she was hallucinating. That had to be it. Because there was no way her friend had just become some sort of giant man standing on top of the Cliffs of Moher. Jane must have slipped one of those whacked-out supplements into Ariel’s diet coke on the airplane. And just to be sure, the girl closed her eyes and took an enormous cleansing breath.
That was good. Yeah. Better. The air she sucked in tasted of sea-life and grass and incense and Twinkies and—
Just in time to see The-Man-Who-Had-Been-Siobhan solidify and resolve into himself completely. But Jane was still there too, like some sort of ghost image, small, eyes closed, shivering within the man. Then Ariel's friend also solidified, and melted sideways out of the giant, collapsing onto the ground like a discarded silk robe. Her feet stirred, pulling up, and she murmured as if dreaming.
Which had to be what Ariel was doing.
The giant changeling just stood and watched, eyes anxious, as if waiting for Ariel to collapse too. But something rose up in her—probably hallucinogens—that prevented it. Nobody was going to possess her friend, drag them both to Ireland, and then come busting out of Jane’s body like some alien pal of Sigourney Weaver’s, and get the satisfaction of seeing Ariel go all delicate female on him. Not even a drug-induced mirage. She crossed her arms and stared back.
Which was when all the familiar things about the red-headed behemoth in front of her clicked into place. His face was a little craggy. Old, even. And the auburn hair was kind of shot through with silver—especially where it was held back at the temples by a worked leather thong that hadn’t been there a second ago. The man was wearing a tunic and leggings and a billowing cape like he had just stepped out of Lord of the Rings. But his face . . .
“Holy crap!” Ariel said, forgetting herself, “You’re the homeless pharmacy guy!”
The now very large dried-apple-faced-man smiled in sort of a painful way and said, “Oisin, if it’s all the same to you.” He looked as if he was going to bow, all stately-like, and that’s when Ariel lost it.
“No,” she revved up, whipping her heavy blonde braid back over her shoulder, “It is not all the same to me, Mr. O’Sheen.”
“Just Oisin, not—”
Was he kidding? “I don’t care who you are. You’ve been messing with my best friend for a year now, and it’s going to stop. I don’t know what you gave her,” Ariel waved a hand at Jane snoring peacefully on the peat and rocks, vaguely aware that she was starting to go shrill and possibly a little mad, “or what you got her to spike my coke with to make you look like some kind of idiotic . . . “ she jabbed a finger at him a few times like she could poke a hole in his image and make him pop, “Celtic warrior, but I am going straight to the police, or whatever you fairy-people call it over here, and reporting you. You—”
Oisin/ReallyBigPharmacyGuy raised his hands to stop Ariel’s diatribe. His expression was beseeching and it took her a second to realize he had said a name. And directed it at her.
She blinked. Then slowly turned her head to look at the field behind her. Of course there was no one there. Irrational. He hadn’t been looking behind her. She turned back. “Who?”
Oisin’s face relaxed again into that painful smile. He wasn’t too bad looking. For an old, craggy, RV-dwelling, Twinkie-smelling lunatic. Maybe it wasn’t so odd Jane had become fascinated with him. Ohhhkay. Ariel really kind of felt like she was losing it.
“Niamh,” he repeated, creating a soft second syllable as he lingered over the vowels: Nee-iv.
It was lovely. And something . . . something in Ariel’s body pulled toward the sound, like a dim flash of comfort. It washed through her again and she tried to hold onto it, staring into Oisin’s eyes—green like the trees of a thousand summers . . .
Ariel shook herself. If she’d been able to move her frozen limbs she would have smacked herself in the forehead. This was ridiculous. She needed to snap out of it.
“I have searched for you for three hundred years,” Oisin whispered, emotion scarcely concealed in his voice. It was obvious he was nuts. And just as obvious that he wanted to go to her. To, what? Hug her? Ew.
“That explains the wrinkles.” Ariel punched back, trying to get herself to turn around and walk away. But she simply . . . couldn’t move. Twinkie-man had some power over her. Either that or she was actually asleep on the ground next to Jane and this was just a dream. A dream! That was probably what this was.
Oisin smiled, and he looked younger. More real. He seemed to be realizing just how uncomfortable he was making Ariel. So he shifted his weight back and took a more relaxed stance.
“Your time with mortals has sharpened your tongue. But then your spirit is what I always loved about you.”
He immediately closed his eyes and checked himself. Ariel had felt her face go hard as he dropped this little bomb. He loved her? He didn’t know her, except as the girl who wouldn’t go into his RV when her friend bought illicit herbs from him. The closest this creep had ever been to Ariel was ten feet. And then she had balled her hands into fists and dared him with her jutted chin to try to sell her anything.
Not to mention, he was, like, three hundred years old.
“I’m sorry. I’m not doing this very well,” the silly man-spectre tried again, “Perhaps I should start at the beginning.”
Ariel made a decision. She glared and took a step forward. “You’re not starting anywhere. Because I don’t believe you. I don’t think you’re real. I don’t think any of this is real. And I’ll prove it.” She found, all of a sudden, that she could move again, quite freely. So she did. She took another step forward. And then another.
Oisin’s eyes widened and something like fear leapt across his face as she came closer. “No.” He said, “Don’t. You don’t know what you are doing. You don’t know who you are. Niamh!” And when this didn’t work, he cried out, “Ariel, stop!”
Ariel paused for half a minute, drilling into the alarmed face, looking for . . . she didn’t know. Something to explain this? Something . . . She locked into his eyes again and the comfort returned, flooding every one of her senses. Once more his face looked younger. Distinctly. Skin smoothed and tendrils of that glorious hair tossed about his cheekbones. The cloak rustled around his solid form. There was something poetic in his stance, in his expression. He lifted his hands, tentative . . .
Ack. This was crazypants.
“No.” Ariel shook free again. And this time she ran. Straight for the Loony Pharmacy Guy. If this was a dream, she figured he would disappear. If it was real . . . well, it probably meant she was crazy and would fall seven hundred feet. Either way, she’d put a stop to it.
The cry echoed, shrill, and then became a seagull’s call as Ariel flew past Jane through the spot on the rocks where Oisin had stood. He had disappeared. Just as she suspected. She’d been right. Which is always a good thing.
Unless you’re running at full speed toward a seven hundred foot drop into the rocky Atlantic and nothing stops you, like it’s supposed to in a dream. And you realize you can feel the earth disappear from beneath your feet, and your body flies upward like a feather. And then gravity kicks in and the feather becomes stone and you leave your stomach next to your friend on the rocks and plunge like lead down toward a treacherous jagged beach.
Ariel had no time to cry out. No time to wonder at everything. No time to think anything at all except that she was going to die. In Ireland. Where no one knew her. She fell faster, felt fingers of wind pierce her clothing, saw the ocean rising to meet her, a rippling wall of thick glass.
Something caught her.
Softness. Coolness. Her terrible plunge ended in an embrace. Foam in turquoise and emerald wrapped around her, slicking her skin like silk. Then it buoyed her upward, higher and higher. And when she opened her eyes Ariel found herself cushioned by water. It giggled and splashed and whispered to her, Lir! Lir! And that thing which had been stirring within Ariel’s skin and bones and blood, that comfort and familiar peace burst open, flooding her, filling her mind with pictures. Images. Sounds. Light.
Then Ariel felt something else. Someone. A presence in the water. “Grandfather?” She murmured, without really knowing why. And the presence smiled and answered back, the water around her warming like a hug.
“Ariel. My water-nymph. At last you are returned to us. It has been so long, my daughter, so long. Now go with him. For you are Niamh. Oisin’s Niamh. Go and bring back your city from my depths. Bring back the land of joy and youth and love to this world. Bring back Tir na nÓg. It longs to be free, Niamh Golden Hair. It cannot live when you are not there. Go with him. For you are the golden key.”
Astonishment splashed through Ariel, like the coolness of the water as she continued slowly upward. And she remembered. Kilstipheen, Hy Brasil; all of them names for her beloved Tir na nÓg. The land she had left to find her love. The land she brought him back to, to live with her in joy forever. And then again, the land she let him leave, only for a moment, only to say goodbye to kin.
But then Oisin fell from her enchanted horse Embarr, and his foot touched Ireland’s soil. Never again could he come to Tir na nÓg, to his Niamh. And she wept. And the city sank with her sadness. Ariel remembered it pressing against her heart. Tearing her soul. Stealing her life. Now she felt warm tears again urge from her eyes and swizzle down her cheeks.
And so it was that Grandfather Lir, god of the sea, who could not bear his granddaughter’s grief, had allowed her one chance to find her love and bring him home. Just one. But he was gone, and she could not find him. Lost to her. So she became lost to all. In the world of men.
Ariel reached the top of the cliff and gasped as the voice of the sea fled, leaving the memory of her life in her mind. She remembered it. Felt dizzy with it. Was back to herself again. Was Niamh. Oisin’s Niamh.
But she was Ariel too. And it was Ariel who stepped back onto the top of the Cliffs of Moher and rushed to Jane’s side.
“Jane?” she said softly, touching the girl’s shoulder. But nothing happened. “Siobhan,” she tried. But her friend slept. Ariel sat back on her heels. Unsure what to do. Unsure how to proceed.
There was a sound behind her. Ariel turned and found, with a start, Oisin, kneeling in the grass a few feet from her. His face was terrible; stricken, aged. One hand was on his chest and his eyes were closed. After a moment he breathed in. Then he opened his eyes and looked at her. He stood, slowly, and said, “I am not truly here, Niamh. I could not stop you. And you . . . you have been so long with mortals, you could have died. And then you would have been lost to me. Again.” The big man suppressed a shudder, and he looked so awful that Ariel was struck to the heart. In the next moment she was struck again, for her feelings were returning with her memories. And she knew this man to be the one she had come for and given up everything for. And loved beyond anything and everything. All at once she wanted nothing more than to run and embrace him.
But she couldn’t stand. Her silly mortal legs had given out on her. It’s what stress will do to a girl. And it had kind of been a stressful day. So instead Ari—Niamh, turned to Oisin with the first smile she had given him, well, since she became Ariel, and said, “So, Twinkie-boy, why don’t you explain to me how you are here but not here. And,” she paused, feeling real concern again, “what we need to do for Jane.”
Oisin raised an eyebrow and clasped his hands behind him. His shoulders finally relaxed. “Jane is not harmed. She simply sleeps. A forgetting sleep. I would not have used her, but I could not get you to hear me. Jane has a bit of the Second Sight. So I tried to reach you through her. The herbs helped a bit. And your caring about her did the rest. I knew you’d follow her. And that,” Oisin’s cheeks flushed, “is the last thing that went as planned.”
Niamh smiled. And then smiled again. Thinking of herself as Niamh felt good. As for Ariel—it was Grandfather’s pet name for her. So she could still use that too.
She shifted closer to Oisin, then tried to stand, reaching up a hand for his help. But he raised his own hand and shook his head, his face filled with regret. “Your touch will break Lir’s enchantment. My body is in Tir na nÓg awaiting you. Only when you are there can I reunite body and soul.”
Niamh stared, then nodded, trying to wrap her mind around this new thought. So, Oisin really wasn’t there with her. Yet. Finally getting to her feet with a bit of a stagger, Niamh sighed, brushed herself off, though there really wasn’t anything clinging to her, and looked down at Jane again. “What will happen to her?”
She knew where she and Oisin were going now, and didn’t like the idea of leaving Jane here to be found by, well, tourists. Or worse, midges; little flies that would eat you alive if you stood still on Moher long enough. She felt a pang, gazing at her funny, odd, dear friend.
“Embarr will take her safely home. After he’s taken us.”
“Embarr! Here?” Niamh’s heart leapt. Her horse. How had she ever forgotten about him?
“She’ll sleep safely until then,” Oisin continued, his green eyes glowing as he watched Niamh’s delight, “and wake with the memory that you decided to stay in Ireland after a lovely trip with your best friend.” Oisin moved like he would put an arm around her if he could—and Niamh wished for it, her feelings yearning toward him as they once had—but then he raised the arm and pointed out to the sea. Lir’s sea.
Niamh gasped and squinted across the waves beyond the cliffs.
Where the sea met sky there was a small disturbance—more than was normal in the north Atlantic on a rare sunny day. The disturbance, after a while, took the form of a wave, large and foaming. And as it powered nearer, which it did with amazing speed, Niamh saw galloping at the crest of it, mane tossing, muscles working, and hooves churning up spray, a beautiful Champaign-colored steed. Embarr.
She moved to the edge of the cliff, arms outstretched, laughing and shouting his name. And in a moment the enchanted mount was beside his mistress, nickering and nuzzling her hand, hooves clopping on the grass and rocks. Niamh led him apart from Jane and then stroked and hugged him, running her hands along his sleek foam-flecked coat. And finally, finally, everything in her world slid back into place.
“Oisin, my love. Can this be real?” she laid her face against Embarr’s neck and breathed in his scent.
The warrior, who was looking less and less old and homeless and more and more like the son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, moved to his lady and her horse. He hesitated, then rested a hand on Embarr’s flank. Niamh watched, her breath catching. And then their eyes met. A slow smile spread across Oisin’s face.
With a leap, Niamh’s hero was astride Embarr, the horse dancing a bit to the side under the weight of the man. Then he extended a hand, and laughed as Niamh stared in astonishment.
“I thought you said—”
“I am enchanted,” Oisin nodded. “But so is Embarr. Enchanted by your grandfather, Lir. If I can touch Embarr, and so can you . . . then I believe,” he paused, “I can touch you.” He tipped his head to the side and looked at her, resembling so much the boy she remembered from so long ago that Niamh laughed. And she believed him.
Niamh took a step forward, hesitated, and placed her left hand on Embarr’s neck, just to be sure. She looked again at Oisin and he nodded. Then she reached and touched his hand.
Something surged between them, and Niamh felt callouses and strength, the whorl of Oisin’s skin on hers. He gripped her hand, face flush with happiness, and gently lifted, guiding her at her waist to sit in front of him. Embarr reared and whinnied, throwing Niamh full into Oisin’s chest. Then she leaned forward, took a handful of mane, and with her warrior king, the Pharmacy Guy, surrounding her completely, they leapt from the cliffs, lighted on waves, and galloped to the west, where slowly and sweetly, Tir na nÓg, the home of life and dreams, rose to wait for them.
“So,” Oisin whispered into Niamh’s ear as Embarr’s hooves kicked spray across them, “What is this ‘Twinkie-boy’?”