Tom quietly crept out of the house, faithfully carrying two pails, careful not to wake his mother as he closed the door behind him.
In the dead of the night, the moonlight as serene as it was in his dream, he walked toward the grove of birches, where the creek flowed. Where he had found her.
He felt able and well. Nothing in him hurt, he felt lighter in his spirits and in his steps. She healed him. She seemed to have healed his spirits with it.
True to her words, the night was as desolate and safe as the darkest depth of a cave. Not a single soul was outside that could have seen him or harmed him.
When he reached, he half expected to see her there, sitting by the creek with her back to him and her hair flowing silver.
But there was no sign of her. He wasn't dreaming any more.
He indeed had walked out of his house with two pails, after a seeming epiphany in a dream, and was before the creek, its waters shimmering in the moonlight, as vivid as it had been in his dream.
He stood gazing at it, listening to it rush. He stood, grimy and beaten down, in clothes that were unwashed and reeking. But his head was clear, and his eyes weren't losing their focus in a haze of pain and fever.
He walked back home safe and sound, protected as though by a charm. There were no patrollers of the night watch, no guards, no secret spies. Only the dim hoot of owls and the rustle of trees.
Once he reached home and emptied the two pails into the barrel, he went back again to bring more.
He made four more journeys, hoping to fill the barrel until it was full. Before he was homeward for the last time that night, he leapt into the stream, gratefully greeting the invigorating cold.
Plunging down, eyes open in the dark, in his heart he once again hoped to see her, if she were a nymph and was underwater all along, hair flowing bright silver. He only saw darkness though, with faint ripples of the moonlight and the faintly swaying weeds. He washed his clothes in the stream, wrung them dry the best he could, wore the damp clothes and reached home, shivering, yet profoundly calm.
He saw her again in his dream the next night. She forbade him from going to the stream without her sign. He must go only when she appears in his dream and tells him to. He abided by her cautions. He had many questions for her. But her answers were only the same cryptic ones, and the dreams were even shorter.
Of his questions, she answered one concerning his safety when venturing out at night. She promised him that he remained protected not only from guards, but also from the curse in the air.
The following days were peaceful. Knowing that with Brigid's help he can safely steal to the stream in the cover of the night to fetch water, the looming fear of being deprived of water was lifted.
One night, after she appeared in his dream, he reached the creek to find a cloth laid out with food. There was enough meat and herbs and butter to last them a few days. This kind gesture was repeated again, and again. It humbled him, and filled him with wonder and affection.
He welcomed her ethereal presence in his life like a weary wanderer would a homely inn.
In a blink of an eye, three months had gone by. With Brigid's existence, it seemed like his life was lovelier, if only for his discontent at the woeful quickness with which she departed from his dreams. He wished she stayed longer by that vivid yet dreamlike creek, longer than for when she made her measured and careful talk and disappeared, leaving him awake.
It was an undisturbed idyll. But when one blessing came his way, another part of his life began crumbling. His mother's state worsened.
Neither hot meals ladled from the pot nor all the tender nurturing in the world seemed to nurse her back to health.
Perhaps her failing health was an ill omen, a harbinger of misfortune, for with all the abruptness and force of Zeus's bolt, one morning, the royal guards came in droves.
Their shouts shook them from the quietude of their confinement.
They were ordering them to a monumental feat. They were driving the entire shire out of their homes, and herding them all, of all places, to the Catacombs of York. The ancient vault was the resting place of long dead churchmen and men of nobility.
Amid the barking orders of the guards and clopping of their horses' hooves, he and his mother were only able to retain meagerly possessions, such as blankets and clothes.
Thus they set out, the first alarming sight in months of their suffering neighbors and friends, on a long journey to the catacomb, babies in mother's arms, children's hands in father's grasps. Tom's arm protecting his old mother.
Barely a furlong must they have walked, when his mother couldn't walk any further. But just then, amid the troop, Kit found him.
By the gods' grace, he had brought along a handcart, on which he carried his father. It took no word from Tom for Kit to help his mother onto it, and together, they pulled.
The stoic guards, their horses on a trot, led the exodus. The guards were covered so completely in heavy armor that nothing of their body was visible. That was how they carried themselves, ever since the day they ordered everyone home and told them to confine themselves. Protecting themselves from the air.
The commoners had no such luxury, thought he, and not everyone wore a cloak, which then again offered little protection compared to a suit of armor. He watched with distress the swaddled babies, the tattered tunics on men, the threadbare kirtles on women. The shabby shawl on his own mother.
By twilight, they reached, weary and hungry. Many had fainted on the way. Some had to be left behind, to be fetched later by the guards if they so cared. Some who brought along carts or wagons, like Kit himself, had to leave them outside the catacomb.
No man would have foreseen a day when commoners saw its interior.
Yet, an entire village was fit within its dark, narrow passages and crumbling walls.
To maintain sanctity and order within its walls, men were separated from women and children.
Men were to be confined to the east end of the catacomb, women and children to the west. The middle was separated by iron bars, which was firmly locked.
And thus was he separated from his poor ailing mother. Before they parted, she held him, and pressed a wavering kiss to his cheek. He tried to memorize the fondness in her yellow eyes. And then, she was guided away by their good neighbor Allisoun. He stood watching her retreat, consternation heavy in his heart, until she disappeared in the shadows of the turning passage.
Tom stuck with Kit and a few other mates. Every man was bewildered, winded, angry, aching.
Tom was grateful that he, of all those men, was at least not broken in his body. He owed it to gentle Brigid. The consternation in his mind stayed sharp as a thorn though, in the wake of the confusion and the distressing sights; and the retreating form of his ailing mother that disappeared in the shadows.
He and his mates spoke little. There was nothing to speak of in the company of emptiness and hunger.
The very evening, before they settled or comprehended their state, a few guards entered and walked amongst the men, sizing each one up with eyes that were hid behind their helms. They were picking men out, barking you, you over there, up.
It was not a surprise to Tom when he, Kit, and two other fellows from their group, Nash and Tobias, were called. The guards seemed to be choosing able and young men.
And promptly, the chosen men were led out of the catacomb, and into the open night.