All people die. All things die. That is the way of people. That is the way of things. The question is how long anyone gets.

For all her might and main, Meg might have been carried off early, and of those who survived the plague, all would have mourned her. But Meg survived.

Deirdre did not.

So in a way, Meg did not survive either. For as Deirdre was carried off to the underworld, she took with her the piece of Meg's heart that she had held for oh these few sunny years. And all who survived the plague mourned for Deirdre more than for most. And some who knew how much Meg shared with Deirdre mourned for Meg as well. Not many. Just a few folk at the fireside, some words of condolence.

Then the funerals were done, the bodies were buried, the rites performed, and that was that. It was time to bring in the wheat, what little they all could bring in with so fewer hands now; it was time to wrangle up the cattle, so many more than they needed now; it was time to move on.

Meg had to get a move on through the tall grass. When Diarmuid had asked who would round up the cattle Meg had raised her hand. Better to send the tallest and strongest lady in the village to wrangle the cattle, like always. Better to spend the time grumbling quietly than to speak with anyone. Ah, what matter speech now? There was but one person she wished to speak to, and she was gone. There was little to think of but her – her golden hair, her grey eyes, the way she could make her ears wiggle, Meg never figured out how – little to think but that Meg would never see her again, never even had the chance to say goodbye.

What matter doing anything anyway, now? Rounding up the cattle, bringing in the corn – useless. She could see Deirdre again, if she wanted. All she had to do was lay down and die, and follow Deirdre downward. All she would be doing would be abandoning everyone else to die. And then they would follow her downward and they would all be together in the realm of the dead and hate her forever.

Meg shook her head and listened for the sound of cattle lowing. They usually kept close to the woods this time of year, and close up against it at this time of morning. Sometimes they got into the wood and then it was a terrible chore to dislodge them. She was half-tempted sometimes to just fence the damn wood all around and keep them there. Ah, but there were too many boars in the forest, and the crows there looked at her oddly. Having the cattle in the woods wouldn't do. She hurried forward.
And tripped and fell right over a short little someone.

"Ho there!" cried the little voice of a little man. "I've been kicked by a giant!"

Meg scrambled to disentangle herself, then rolled over and stood. She bowed to the little man, and kept moving.

"Wait!" said the little voice. "Wait, I say!"

But Meg would not wait. She kept marching through the tall grass.

The little voice piped up again, close in front of her. "Hold on, Meg!"

Meg halted in mid-step.

The little man stepped out of the tall grass. And indeed, he was little -- barely to Meg's knee. He had a grey chinstrap beard and clothing that looked nearly as fine was the Queen's, yet well-worn. "Come now," he said. "Can't you stop a while and hear a song? I've got plenty."

Meg shook her head. She pointed to the woods in the distance, then waggled her index fingers aside the top of her head to look like cow horns. She pointed to the woods, then back the way she came.

"Not sure what you mean," said the little man. "Although…if I had to guess…I'd say those cattle up the hillside are yours?"

Meg whipped her head around to see the entire herd of cattle being led up the hillside and over by a lone drover. It was not a man she knew, and it was not in the direction of her village. It was in the direction of the clan chief's village.

Meg bowed to the little man again and broke into a run, hoping to catch that drover and knock out a few of his teeth.

There was a wooshing sound behind her, and the next thing she knew, the little man was right beside the drover. Meg couldn't hear what either man was saying, but the drover's face was becoming slowly more horrified as the conversation went on.

She finally caught up to the two, and caught the end of their conversation.

"Do you understand?" said the little man. "Meg's been through a lot. I don't want to have to bring the ultimate penalty down on your chief, but if you take those cattle – "

"I get it," said the drover. "I really do. But what happens to me if I come back to the chief with nothing? That's not fair to me either!"

"Don't worry about it," said the little man. "If there's a price, I'll pay it. I'm getting a good deal out of this anyway."

The drover shrugged, and set off up the hill to fetch the cattle back.

Meg came up behind the little man, and nearly ran into him again. She stood there, catching her breath, watching as the little man took out a clay pipe and shook some dried leaves into it. What was it about him that let him be so happy, when Meg's world had fallen to pieces? Why did he smile when the moon might as well have been gone?

The little man caught Meg's eye. "There you are," he said. "Heh. You're hard to overlook sometimes. Although, I could have sworn that you weren't there a moment before. I wish I could say I wonder what's gotten into you. But I think I know it. I have heard your story as it goes thus far. Do you want me to suggest what you ought to do next?"

"NO!" shouted Meg.

"Ah ha!" said the little man. "You speak! There's a step in the right direction. Now for the next step –

"I don't care about next steps," growled Meg. "I don't want to move another step. I want Deirdre back."

"That is the next step," said the little man. "Or one of two paths, at any rate."

"How's that?"

The little man lit his pipe, and puffed on it for a moment.

Meg stamped her foot, causing the little man to jump a foot high. "Answer me!"

"Hold your horses!" said the little man. "Or cattle in this case. Now, watch." He puffed on his pipe once more, and blew out a cloud of smoke.

Meg expected the smoke to blow away in the gentle breeze. But it did not. It hung there – and then it moved. It shifted into the form of a grey woman plodding along, a woman who looked like Meg – only older, and haggard. She had no light in her eyes, no life in her limbs, but she looked like she had lived a very long time.

Then the scene shifted again. There was Meg, looking less old – still older, but only a few years older than she was now. She had on good solid armor, and she had a shield, and a spear, and she stood before a gathering of unarmed women and children. She had more light in her eyes. But, as Meg watched, her ghostly form was attacked by an unseen foe, and she fell in defense of the people, buying them whatever time they had to escape.

"Two paths," said the little man. "Which will you choose?"

"What in Morrigan's name is in that pipe?" said Meg. "It smells terrible."

"It's terribly addictive," said the little man. "So never you mind. Tell me, which path do you want?"

"Neither of these paths has Deirdre," said Meg. "They're both worthless."

"Not necessarily," said the little man. "The choice here is between living a long half-life and living a shorter full life. I think if you pursue your great talent then it will be easier for you to move on, and it will help you reach your beloved faster, but if you would rather live long and boring years, you have the other option. Tell me, why did you stop answering your queen's call?"

"Deirdre and I had seen enough. We'd been away from home too long."

"Ah yes," said the little man. "I'm told she was always by your side. I'm told you were arranged to be married. But she is not by your side now, alas."

"I would rather be by her side now," said Meg. "Even in the underworld."

The little man looked nervous. "You'd just join her right now? Like that? I mean I could send you that way, but – "

"I know I know," said Meg. "The village needs my help. Can't forget that."

"There is a third option here," said the little man. He drew on his pipe, and blew out another cloud of smoke. This time it shaped itself into two separate images: One was a huge grey cauldron, big enough to hold someone as large as Meg; the other, Meg herself, holding up her arms. But there were no hands at the end of those arms. "That's the third path," said the little man.

"It doesn't have Deirdre," said Meg.

"Oh no?" said the little man. "Maybe you just can't see her in the picture."

Suddenly, out of the cauldron crawled a familiar woman.

"It can't be," said Meg. "Are you saying if I pick the third path – but that cauldron was destroyed long ago."

"Different cauldron," said the little man. "Cyrridwen's work this time. It will take some effort to find, and you might not want to be dealing with the owner. She drives harder bargains than

I do, that's for sure. Why, I remember her poor servant Gwion – "

"I will give up both of my hands to have Deirdre back," said Meg. "I'll give up both of my feet. I'll give up my ears. Not my nose though, I like my nose."

"That's not the sort of price she demands!" said the little man, looking disturbed.

"What price then?"

"You'll have to hear it from her," said the little man. "You sound as though you have made your choice."

Meg nodded.

"Well then. You will find Cyrridwen if you seek her, or perhaps not. I'm sure she knows by now that you are coming. So – set out on the road, see how long it takes, see what price she charges. I am…sorry that you could not pick the first two options I gave you."

"That's why you hid the third from me?"

"The third will be a very hard road, my friend. And longer than you know."

Meg heard cattle lowing close by. The herd had come back, along with the drover. She ran to him, kissed him on each cheek, took his droving stick, and led the cattle away.

As the herd neared the village wall, the little man appeared again, standing on the back of a bull.

"You again," said Meg. "I thought our business was concluded."

"Not quite I'm afraid." The little man sat down. "You need to know what to bring."

"What then?"

"Bone. Deirdre's bone. Any amount will do, but it has to be hers. The cauldron needs something to work with. Used to be it needed the entire body, but – "

"I have to dig up and dig through the body of a plague victim?" said Meg.

"Alright," said the little man, "I understand that it sounds bad, but unless you have some piece of Deirdre that's not buried, you will have to go digging."

"I have the golden ring she gave me," said Meg. She held her right hand up to the sun, where the ring gleamed in the morning light. "I'd say that's a bit of her."

"Okay," said the little man, "Maybe you don't want to mention that out loud – "

"I have my heart," said Meg. "There's a piece of her heart in mine."

The little man put face in his palm. "Great. Look, just don't tell me what you have to offer, alright? You might wind up paying all of those."

"High price," said Meg. "I said I'd pay anything to get Deirdre back."

"You said you'd give up most of your limbs. Now will you please stop talking! Jesus Christ, I shouldn't have – "


"Never mind," said the little man. "After your time."

"Sounds like Cyrridwen wants to drive a high price," said Meg. "But what about you? What price will you demand for getting the cattle back?"

"Ha!" said the little man. "No price. That one was on the house. But…if you want my help with everything else, I will need you to do something for me."

"Which is?"

"Be worth singing about. Whoops, here come your folks." The little man vanished with a pop.

Bran and Adanna were there, and Conall and Aoife and Ciara, and a host of others, happy to see Meg back at last. She'd been gone longer than anyone expected, and they were just about to send someone to fetch her when she came up the road.

So Meg knew that despite her loss, she was loved. It would carry her through the next few days.

But she would have to tell them she was going.

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