It was my idea to go under the hill. I knew it was a bad idea -- we’d lost Saiorse the year before, and Oisin two years before that -- but I was young and fearless, barely twenty, and Roisin and I were in love.
“Cara,” she said. “My Da thinks you’re going to ask for me. What do you say?”
I can remember the way the light shone off her hair, the glint of it, warm and brown in the sunlight, and her eyes, the soft brown of them smiling at me, teasing me, challenging me to say yes, I’ll ask for you.
She came from a fine family. Her mother was a lord’s daughter and could have married a lord herself, choosing instead our village blacksmith and a love match. Roisin herself, they’d said, could have had anyone. The Lady Shea’s daughter, for instance, who had made eyes at her, during the yearly fete, or the Hayes’ oldest, who (it was rumored) was to inherit when his uncle died and become an earl.
I didn’t have anything to myself. I had the cottage I’d grown up in, shared with Sean, our only inheritance from our parents. I had my sheep and a few cows that I tended to. I made cheese for the village, and grew cabbages and spun thread to sell at market day, but I was poor as anyone else in the village, and I had nothing to offer her -- no guarantee that we’d always have bread in our mouths, no guarantee of a fine home of our own, nothing.
I couldn’t offer her anything. She said she didn’t care, and her Da backed this up, but we both knew the stakes.
“I’d love you even if you were a wandering tinker,” she said, “without a house, only a tent under the stars.”
She’d said similar things since we were fifteen and too young to know what love was.
I didn’t believe her, or rather, I did, but I knew that it wouldn’t last.
I knew where she came from. I’d been to her family’s home -- we’d grown up together, been best friends for longer than we’d been able to talk. That had given way to love, but I wasn’t sure it would lead to marriage. Her parents had fine beeswax candles on the table, for everyday use, not the flickering rushlights that Sean and I were reduced to using after our parents died. Her father made sure there was always meat on the table, but we could barely afford to feed ourselves. I brought home rabbits when I could, or fish, but just as often as not it was bread and cheese for supper. We never went hungry, but I was unaccustomed to finery, not like her, and I lived in fear of what would become of us if we married. I could not imagine my life without her, but I was all too capable of imagining what life would be like when -- not if -- she left me.
The idea of going under the hill came to me at market-day. It was the anniversary of when Saoirse had disappeared, and her parents were in their stall, ashen-faced and quiet, trading silently with whomever came by. I gave them a coin, because I had extra copper, and they dipped their head in thanks.
Saoirse had gone under the hill, like Oisin the year before her. She’d gone seeking her fortune, and she’d never returned.
We grew up knowing about the hill. We were warned about it, about how going meant that you might not come back. Those stories were outnumbered by the tales about emerging blessed with wealth, something valuable. The ones that lived under the hill, it was said, were generous and willing to help in matters of love.
We didn’t talk about what they were. Trolls, said some, and others said no, they were elves, or else people like us who had mastered magic and could live forever. All of the tales spoke of how generous they were, how eager to help us, if only we were willing to go and ask.
There were rules, about going and asking. You could not ask selfishly. You could ask for something, but only in exchange for a fair trade. What the trade was varied. Some of those that came back said that it was simple, just a song or a story. Others said that it was hard, they asked for a year and a day of service, and they’d declined. Still others said that there was no trade at all, it was a simple gift, but they had declined it because they felt unworthy.
“Unworthy” was never defined.
Sometimes they were generous and sometimes they were not. We were never clear on what the rules were.
What we knew was the stark and simple truth: sometimes those that went under came back, and sometimes they did not.
One of the village men saw me, when I stopped to give Saoirse’s family a copper. Cormac Hayes, who had made a play for Roisin’s hand the year before, only to be rebuffed by her -- because, she said, she was in love with another.
He knew who it was he’d lost to. He also knew how it was that I felt about her, the conflict that haunted me, the idea that I couldn’t provide for her.
“Thinking about going under?” he asked, jeering. “Hoping to end up like Saoirse? When you come back -- if you come back -- I’ll already have married Roisin. Go ahead, try. It’ll save me the trouble of getting rid of you.”
I would have given him a piece of my mind, but Sean put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me.
“Of course she’s not going under the hill,” he said, his voice easy. “She doesn’t need to -- Roisin already loves her.”
Cormac’s hands balled into fists, but to his credit, he said nothing further.
“You can’t let him get to you,” Sean said, as we wheeled our handcart full of goods home. “He’s bitter because she’ll never have him, even if she didn’t have you.”
She loves me because she hasn’t realized what life with me would be like, I thought, she hasn’t realized how hard it will be, that love isn’t enough to overcome everything.
Aloud, I said, “I know. I’m going to make a play for her hand soon.”
“Finally,” Sean laughed. “You’ve only loved her for what, three years now? If you’re still stuck on her, you should ask and put her poor Da’s mind at ease.”
“I’ll ask,” I said, and the conversation was dropped.
I found the entrance to the kingdom under the hill when I was tending my sheep, but I’d already made up my mind to go. I didn’t find it by accident -- that wasn’t how it worked. It only showed itself to those that had decided to go. The stories about people who had found a way under without meaning to, who had found themselves pulled into that other kingdom, were all false, and I knew that.
I marked where it was with a stone, and I took the sheep back to their pen and told Sean that I would be away for dinner, and not to worry after me.
“Going to Roisin’s?” he laughed.
I nodded, and slipped a bit of iron in the form of a length of wire into my pocket.
He saw me do it, and frowned. “And where would you be going with that?”
“The fence on the west side is sagging, and I mean to fix it.” The fence was sagging, and it bordered the road to the village -- and Roisin’s parents’ house. It was also, conveniently, on the way to the entrance to the place under the hill I’d marked.
His face softened. “So long as you’re not planning any mischief.”
“Never,” I said. “Don’t forget to collect the eggs?”
“I won’t,” he promised.
She met me there.
I hadn’t said anything to her, had given her no reason to be suspicious, but word of what Cormac had said had reached her, and she knew me too well.
“You aren’t going,” she said. “There’s nothing there worth going for.”
“I am going,” I said. “I’ve got iron in my pocket, and…”
“Iron only works in the stories. Saoirse was carrying iron and they still took her. She had her clothes inside-out, too.”
“How do you know?” I snapped, embarrassed.
“I saw her walk in, on the way to visit you.” She flushed. “I asked her what she was doing, and she said it was her own business, and so I asked her if she knew her tunic was inside-out, and she said she did, thank you. She had an iron horseshoe in her hand.”
I shook my head. “She must have asked for the wrong thing.”
“Oh, like Oisin did?”
Oisin had been born without a left hand. It was the sort of thing that all of us in the village knew about, and all of us knew that he did just fine without it, but the city girl he’d fallen in love with had given it as the reason she couldn’t wed him.
“If asking for a left hand wasn’t enough, wasn’t the right thing, what is?”
“Maybe he didn’t ask for that!” I said hotly. “Maybe he got confused and asked for something else!”
“What are you planning to ask for, Cara? What could possibly be worth going under the hill for? What could be worth risking your life for?”
“You!” I shouted. “I don’t have the money to marry you! I was going to ask for help in making it -- so that I could ask your Da for your hand without having to be embarrassed!”
Roisin stepped back, stunned. “Da will give you my dowry. You know that.”
“Oh, I do?” I couldn’t stop myself. “Your Da said that I could wed you if I pleased, but he meant you to have a lord for a husband, and if you wed me, it’ll be without a dowry, and then how will I provide for you? You, who are used to honey on the table at supper and candlelight to work by in winter? How will you like sharing a house with Sean and I, in the middle of winter? On the cold nights, we bring the sheep into the kitchen! You could have had an earl, and you’re settling for me -- do you think your Da likes that? Bad enough that I’m poor, worse still that I’m a girl -- he’ll give his blessing, but he won’t give you your dowry, Roisin, because he’s still hoping that you’ll come to your senses and find a nice, rich boy to settle down with!”
She shook her head. “You,” she said. “Give me that.”
She reached into my pocket and ripped out the bit of wire.
“If that’s what you’re going to ask for, you’ll be stuck for certain.”
She squeezed it in her hand, and looked up at me, her eyes full of tears.
“Roisin,” I started, but she stepped forward and pressed a finger to my lips.
She leaned in and kissed my forehead. “You have to come after me, if I don’t return. Come back for me.”
“Roisin -- ”
Before I could say anything else, she knocked three times on the wooden door -- what legend said would let you in, under the hill -- and stepped through.
I wanted to chase after her, but the door shut in my face, and no matter how many times I knocked, no matter how I banged and pleaded, it stayed shut.
Sean found me, banging on the door, the knuckles on my hands raw, and brought me home.
“It’s too late,” he said, as I tried furiously to dig my heels into the dirt, to stay there. “It’s too late, dammit -- she’s gone, and nothing will bring her back!”
“I can’t,” I said. “I have to go in -- she told me to go in.”
“The door won’t open for you until it’s good and ready,” Sean said. “ So you have to come home until it is. Come on. I’ll make you tea with honey and whiskey.”
“I’m not sick,” I said dully. “I’m…”
“I know,” he said wearily. “But you’ll need help sleeping.”
I went with him, and drank the tea he prepared, barely tasting it. He went out into the village, after he tucked me into my bed, and told Roisin’s parents. I’d hear later about the lashing he’d received from Roisin’s Da, just what it was that he had to say about our family and our choices, but Sean gave as good as he got. One of the village lads told me later how the fight could be heard across the market square, Sean shouting that his family’s fixation on money was what had lost him his daughter, nothing else.
We didn’t speak of the fight. Sean came back with a black eye and bruised jaw.
“Roisin’s Da wouldn’t listen to reason,” he said. “So I had to talk him down.”
I didn’t ask questions.
I went to the hill every day. The door did not show itself.
“Patience,” Sean said. What he meant was, eventually you’ll overcome this, too, the way you did when Ma and Da died, and so I ignored him.
I went every day and looked for it, and when it wasn’t there, I told myself that perhaps it would be tomorrow, and that I would come back. I did not forget what I’d promised Roisin, to come back, and I did.
We didn’t have a way of marking the days, and even if we had, I’m not sure that I would have realized when the anniversary was.
It must have been the day after, when I went to the hill and saw the door was there.
My sheep were with me. I stared at it blankly, and wondered just what it was that I was looking at. I’d been waiting so long for it to reappear, I’d given up hope of finding it again, and now here it was, standing quietly in its frame and looking for all the world like it had been there for years.
I didn’t have iron in my pockets, or salt, or St. Jahn’s wort, or anything that was supposed to protect against magic. My clothes were right-side out and I wasn’t even carrying the hagstone that Sean had given me, the one with a natural hole through it that, it was said, would let the carrier see through spells.
I didn’t think. I walked up to the door, I knocked, and when it opened, I walked through, leaving the sheep behind.
It shut behind me with a quiet “click” of the latch sliding into place, and that was that.
The kingdom under the hill was like our world, except brighter, more beautiful, the air more pure. The grass was greener and the sky was bluer, and for a moment I thought that I’d made a miscalculation, that I’d ended up in what the priest told us the Kingdom of God was -- but when I reached down to touch the grass, I found that it was made, not of the fiber I expected, but of glittering green stone.
False, I thought. All of it.
I saw no one, and I heard nothing except my own footsteps. There was a path, though, and I followed it, down and away from the door, into the heart of the kingdom under the hill.
Occasionally, as I walked, I thought I saw glimpses of other things -- other people, other faces, peering at me from the scenery. The horizon seemed to stretch endlessly, but I knew it had to be an illusion. When I looked into the sky, there was no sun -- nothing except a gentle light that radiated down.
The air smelled vaguely of apple blossoms, the way that the orchard at the edge of the village, the one owned by the Kellys, did.
Eventually the path ended, at another door. This one was made of stone, carved with fine detail -- birds and trees and stars, and the face of a lady in the middle, her hair filled with flowers.
“Tell us why you seek passage, and we shall decide if you are worthy,” came a quiet voice in my ear. It was sweet and melodic, and it might have come from the door itself, for all I could determine its origin.
“Please,” I said. “I’ve come to fetch Roisin. She was right -- and it’s time for her to come home.”
The stone door swung open.
I stepped through and I found myself staring at three Roisins, each more beautiful than the last. Here was Roisin in a dress of spun gold, a slim golden coronet on her dark hair. Beside her was a Roisin in a dress of silver, a silver veil studded with emeralds over her head, and standing beside her was the loveliest of all three of them: Roisin in a blue gown the color of the sky with all its stars, a necklace of small blue stones around her neck and her hair loose down her back, falling nearly to her knees.
“You may take her home,” said the same voice. “If you can find her.”
All three Roisins smiled at me. “Cara,” they said, their voices in unison. “How I’ve missed you.”
I shut my eyes. “I’ve missed Roisin,” I said. “And you -- how am I to know which one of you is her?”
“You have to choose,” said the one in the gold dress.
“And choose wisely,” added the one in silver.
“For if you choose wrong,” said the Roisin in blue, “you will leave with none of us, and the door under the hill will never open for you again.”
I shook my head. “I -- how am I supposed to choose? How am I supposed to know?”
“Study us,” said the Roisin in silver.
“The real Roisin will stand out,” said the one in gold.
“But choose careful,” said the girl in blue. “You only get one chance.”
I thought. Sean would know what to do. My brother was careful, patient. He’d tell me to stop stalling, that I’d know the real Roisin as soon as I saw her.
I looked at each of them in turn. I studied them. All of them were beautiful -- too beautiful, their faces too symmetrical, their features too perfect. Roisin, my Roisin, was imperfect, and that was why I loved her.
“Gold,” I said. “You’re not Roisin. Roisin has a scar on her cheek from when she fell out of the apple tree.”
The girl in gold dipped her head knowingly, and vanished. One moment she was there, and the next, she was not.
The girl in silver smiled, and I saw that she, too, was false. “Silver,” I said. “Your teeth -- you don’t have a gap between your front teeth. Roisin has one -- she can whistle through it.”
Silver disappeared as well.
I studied blue. “You’re not Roisin either,” I said. “You’re close -- so close -- but the Roisin I love, her ears stick out just a little too much, and yours don’t, at all.”
Blue laughed, and disappeared.
“Well done,” said the voice, and before me appeared -- Roisin, my Roisin, wearing a gown the color of flame, her hair swept up in a golden net studded with rubies.
“Cara?” she said, surprised.
I studied her for a long moment, unsure if it was her. When she kissed me, I knew.
“Roisin,” I said, laughing with joy. “I’ve come to show you the way back home.”
I brought her out from under the hill. The gown, I was told, was a gift. I had passed the test, somehow.
I took her to her parents, and I told her Da my plan to marry her, dowry or no. “We may not always be as comfortable as you, but I promise I will love her until the end of my days, and if that is not enough, I do not know what is.”
He bowed his head and gave his consent, and we were wed the following week.
We sold the gown, the net with rubies. We fetched a high enough price, in the city, to be able to build a cottage of our own, and still put money away for a rainy day.
We’re together now.
She’s never told me what under the hill was like.
“Beautiful,” she said, when I pressed. “But strange.”
There’s time enough for that, though -- time enough for everything, and both of us have learned to be patient.
'The way back' made me think of fairy tales. There aren't enough queer ones, so I wrote one.