Title: The Blackthorn Tree I: Believe Me
Summary: Being Irish means you don't need reincarnation to explain TFWID.
Author's Note: This story was formerly known as "The Blackthorn Tree". It has been slightly revised.
This story is dedicated to my dad, the Civil War buff, who will probably never read this story. Thanks to my brother Kevin, who confirmed that there were rifles in the Civil War. (Gun history is not my forte.)
"The Blackthorn Tree I: Believe Me"
All that comes from...injustice will be wiped out, but loyalty remains for
"Where's Private Biddle? Dropped his rifle again?"
The men laughed. Sergeant Sculley stopped them with a look.
"No, sir," he answered the major. "I sent him to do some scouting...ah, here he comes now."
Biddle shambled along with the comfortable slouch of a farmboy-turned-soldier. They'd all been taught to march, and they'd all dropped it as soon as they'd marched a few score miles under full packs. Hmp. No full packs now, not for the boys in butternut. There was the major. Bet he'd like me to hurry. Too bad. Sculley's worth ten of him. But he wasn't suicidal yet, so he made a sloppy salute at the major when he came up to him. Besides, he didn't want the sergeant telling him he was a disgrace.
"Found a good place for us to bivouac for the night, sir. Good cover. Nice and dry. About two miles from here."
Even the major perked up at the word 'dry'. The last three days, they'd been sleeping on marshy ground. The damp could get into a man's bones, not to mention what was left of the cook's flour. "Good work, Biddle," he said. Then they were moving again, Biddle showing them the way.
Sergeant Sculley came up to him. "What did ye think ye were doing back there, draggin' in like an old dog? Could ye have come any slower? Faith, ye could pretend to be a soldier for the major's sake."
"But I ain't."
"People see what they expect to see, a mhic," Sculley said for maybe the thousandth time. "If ye act a soldier's part, a soldier ye'll be to the major. And your life all the easier. Ye might even live long enough to become an old sergeant like me."
Biddle grinned. That was always the line Sculley used, though everyone could see he wasn't much older than the rest of the boys in the unit. But he'd been in the war since the beginning and survived, so nobody was going to question the sergeant's right to call them "boy", or even "son" when they got in trouble. Sculley took advantage of the fact that Sully was his only Irishman and called him "a mhic", which could mean either one.
By the time they finished making camp, Biddle felt more than ready to eat. Unfortunately, they didn't have much. But somebody caught a squirrel, and somebody else found some wild onions and sorrel and such, and that was stew. Then somebody called for a tune.
Sullivan Biddle felt like a civilian again. He carefully unwrapped the oilcloth, opened the case, and took his fiddle out. "I need to tune it first," he said. "Sing 'em a song, Sculley!"
"What'll ye have, boys?" the sergeant asked, putting his blanket around his shoulders against the mountains' nightly chill. "An' don't say "Lorena". Too sad entirely."
The boys wrangled for a bit. Sculley and Sully exchanged conspiratorial glances. This would give Sully a bit more time for the tuning. And sure enough, by the time the boys had decided on "Sam Hall", Sully was able to lay his fiddle down in his lap and listen to the sergeant's husky tenor leading the singing.
"Oh, my name, it is Sam Hall.
It was odd to hear the sergeant's brogue starting to turn into something a little more Tennessee. It reminded him of how Mother used to sound - a lot of "County Mayo, God help us," and a little bit of what she said was New York, and then, slowly gaining ground each year, the regular way people talked. In his county, at any rate.
He had never much liked the Irish in him. Told people his name was Solomon, when he was a kid. At least that was a proper name. There were lots of people in his county with Scottish names, but Irish ones?
Then he'd met Sarah - Sarah Kavanaugh. That was an Irish name, but her family'd left Ireland more than a hundred years ago. They were Marylanders, fallen on hard times. Her parents didn't think anyone was good enough for their Sarah, especially not Sullivan Biddle. But Sarah liked him. She just didn't like Mother. "Common," Sarah'd called her once, and Sully'd nearly lost his temper with his dear. And Mother didn't hold with Sarah's ways. But it would all work out, Sully reckoned. He loved them both, so how could they help loving each other?
Sculley and the boys ended the song with one last triumphant curse. Then Sully swung into his favorite tune, "The Red Fox".
Sculley'd taught him that one. "Robert Emmett said he'd give anything to lead twenty thousand men, all marchin' to that tune," he'd said. "Poor heroic idjit. God be good to him."
Thomas Moore'd written "Let Erin Remember" to "The Red Fox", and after Emmett'd been executed, he wrote "Oh, Breathe Not His Name" to another tune Emmett liked. Everyone knew Moore's songs, but Sculley didn't sing 'em much. Said they brought up sad thoughts. Welll, "The Minstrel Boy" he could understand. But what was so sad about "Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms"?
Then the next tune in the set, the one he called "Sculley's Waltz". Sculley'd thanked him for the name, but told him it was the eeriest, lopsidest, strangest tune he'd ever heard.
"Well," Sully'd replied, "it's the first tune I ever wrote, Sculley!"
"Well, I thank you for it. But where I come from, they'd say a tune like that was learned, not written."
"Learned from who?"
Sculley grinned. "From the Daoine Sidhe, a mhic, the Folk of the Hills, when they're at their dancing."
"Don't say...!" Sculley'd broken off. "It's not polite."
Then the last tune in the set, a happy one he'd learned from Sculley: "Road to Lisdoonvarna". Sculley wouldn't sing the next song, or the next. The boys would do a few, and chime in whenever someone sang a song fit for it. But the bulk of the music would fall to Sculley and Sully, unless some of the musically-inclined men from the other units wandered over. And so it went, for an hour or so, till Sully pleaded tired hands and Sculley quit his singing.
"Aw, just one more song!" they pleaded.
"Sing 'Believe Me'," Sully asked. "I don't get to play slow airs much, or accompany anyone."
"That's one pretty song," someone from another unit said. "I would purely like to hear that."
Sculley stared at him. You know I don't like singing Moore, the stare said, without a word spoken.
Sully put on his best begging-hound-dog look.
Sculley rolled his eyes. "Faith, how can I refuse ye? Start the damned tune and I'll sing it."
There was a brief bit of clapping. Then silence fell around the fire, as Sully played an introduction as softly and sweetly as his skills could muster. Then Sculley began to sing. Both his voice's brogue and huskiness grew thicker with each note.
"Oh, believe me, if all those endearing young charms
(Oh, Sarah, thought Sully, as he played.)
"Were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms
(God forbid. God forbid.)
Thou wouldst still be ador'd, as this moment thou art,
(Sully played a brief interlude, to let Sculley catch his breath and his composure. The man was nearly crying! That's the last time I ask him to sing Moore, he resolved. But I'll get the story out of him sometime.)
"For it is not while beauty and youth are thine own
(Will he be able to finish? wondered Sully. Just four more lines....)
"No, the heart which has truly loved never forgets,
(Three more lines. Don't stop now.)
"But, as truly, loves on to the close,
Sully scraped out an ending. Sculley faded away from the fire. Awed by their sergeant's sorrow, no one tried to stop him. And that was pretty much the end of that musical evening.
Sully turned in, but he had trouble sleeping. He felt bad about his request. Of course, he'd had no idea that Sculley would break down and cry like that. But he felt that he'd acted shabbily. He sat up. He should find Sergeant Sculley and apologize. Anyway, the sergeant always said they shouldn't go off alone, even in friendly territory. He'd seen which part of the woods Sculley had headed off into, and Sculley wouldn't have gone far.
Sully easily slipped past the watch and into the woods. It shouldn't be too hard to find Sculley and bring him back.
Sergeant Sculley scrubbed her face desperately. She'd acted like a right idjit, agreeing to sing that song! Lucky it was no shame for a man to cry, these days. Lucky she'd such a low voice for a woman. She'd known better, what was more. But Sully was a good friend and a good fiddler, and she'd no heart to refuse him.
Ah, be honest, woman. You'd not refuse him the moon.
She'd been a soldier a long time. She was good at it, and good at concealing her sex. She didn't fall in love often, these days; she was too old for that. So for a long time, Sully had just been the clumsy young hound who dropped his rifle trying to save his fiddle, and she'd just been the sergeant trying to save his arse and everyone else's. But she loved music, and Sully had enough of the gift and a wish to learn that she'd had to teach him tunes and tell him the stories. They'd become friends, being the only two Irish and the best two musicians.
And then, he'd started asking her to teach him lovesongs in Irish to sing to his Sarah. She'd found it easy to teach the old idealistic ones: "Úna Bhán", "Róisín Dubh", "Eibhlín a Rúin", "Aisling Gheal". Then she'd started in on the passionate ones, like "An Draoighneán Donn" and "An Clár Bóg Déil".
And suddenly she'd realized that she wanted him. Stupid. And stupid most of all because she knew he was in love with his Sarah.
Lucky she wasn't the sort to show favor to the ones she cared for. No, she pushed Sully harder than the rest, because he was the best of them. He could read the lay of the land and find water or a camp. He could read the movement of the enemy and tell their intentions. He could guess what the officers would order next with eerie ease. He would have made a great spy or scout. She hoped someday he'd make officer.
Or maybe not. Maybe it was better if those brains of his never served the Cause. State's rights was one thing, but slavery here was worse than she'd heard.
And now she was off in the woods crying, not sure if she was crying for the man she'd married and watched grow old and die or the man she'd never have who she'd likely watch die in this war which she was heartily sorry she'd signed up for, especially on this side of it. It was all too much like the tangles her boys came to her to confess. She wished she had a sergeant to tell her troubles to, and to kick her arse. But she didn't. So she'd just sing herself one last song - "An Draoighneán Donn" - dry her tears, and go on back to camp.
"Is glaise a shúil na an féar...."
(His eye is greener than the grass,
And worst, she thought, is the woman he's in love with. All the men from his county say she's a beauty, and proud. Not that I have anything to say about pride. I have more than my share, and a good thing too. But will she let him be Sully, and have his music, like any sensible woman? Or will she try to make him only Mr. Biddle?
Face it, woman. You'd be jealous of a saint.
(Oh, it's a man who has no sense
In Irish music, a man may sing songs from a woman's point of view, and vice versa. She was not singing like a man. Her voice was unconcealed, and she sang like the young woman she had been so long ago and in her own country.
(The rowan tree is very tall,
And Sullivan Biddle heard her singing and was entranced. This was the sort of thing that happened in Sculley's tales. This was some fairy woman out in the woods, beautiful and unpredictable and dangerous to mortal men. A bit lonely. A bit fierce.
(A hundred men think I am theirs
And it happened that she had tied her blanket around her like one of the cloaks of her youth. It hid the shortness of her hair and gave her the look of a skirt.
(A nice boy gave me a gift to me
And Sullivan Biddle could not remember that he had ever loved any other woman. There was only one woman in all the world, and she was singing to tear his heart. So he came to her.
And she saw the man who was the pulse of her heart standing before her, his eyes full of love. So she pulled his head down to her, and she kissed his mouth with her mouth, and breathed in his breath. They stood there a long time, their arms around each other, until they ran out of air.
And then they stared at each other.
"I'm sorry, miss," Sully said, panicking. "I shouldn't have done that. I have a girl at home."
Sculley smiled sadly at him. "There is someone I love, too. Lonely, that."
Sully relaxed, relieved. "I'm glad you're so understanding, miss. Can you get home all right?"
"Then I'd best be going." And he went.
Sculley bit her lip. Damn the man. Thank God he'd not recognized her. And damn him, that he hadn't. What odds, that an Irish sergeant and an Irish colleen would both be in the same woods the same night?
But people see what they expect to see. That was how she survived.
Sully's mind was in turmoil. How could he have forgotten Sarah? And why did he find a stranger so lovely and worthy of love? It had to be just the loneliness.
But when they went on the march again next morning, and even when he apologized to Sculley for making him sing Moore, an old old song kept humming through his head.
"I dreamed last night of my true love,
He hadn't learned it from Sculley. He'd loved it for as long as he could remember. And for a long time, it had made him think of Sarah.
"Her links of hair, so long and fair,
He put his fairy lady out of his head. I love Sarah Kavanagh, he told himself firmly. She's the only girl I want. She's the girl I'm gonna marry. The only one.
But it was hard to remember that. And when he saw Sarah coming, he started guiltily.
Sculley could pick her out from all the other girls come out to do nursing; Sully had shown her picture to everyone who'd look at it. But it was the shining in her face that made her stand out from the rest.
Sarah'd come to her Sully at as quick as a pace as was decent, maybe quicker. She was in love, truly in love.
Sculley'd turned her head and looked away. She, who could look on a field hospital - the flies and the piles of limbs and the dying men - without a shudder.
Sarah and the other girls were learning that with their nursing. But while Sculley fought mortals, they fought Death.
That was another reason to be jealous.
And so they went through Tennessee, Sculley and Sully and Sarah Kavanaugh. Sculley's men were happy to be getting closer to home. But it worried them, too. What would the Yankees do to Hamilton County? Sully and Sarah talked together as often as they could. And at the campfire, Sergeant Sculley seldom sang.
And so they came at last to a certain field they all knew well except Sculley. It was less than a mile from Sully's house. He slipped off with Sarah to visit, one night. He came back wearing a brave smile that didn't fool Sculley for a minute. And now this....
It was a stupid fight, and well she knew it. The art of war was to pick your fights so that you could win, or live, or at least finish what you'd set out to do. This fight would do none of that. Women off hiding in a bunker, when it should have been all of them - or better, none. It would have been more sensible for some to hide and the rest to draw off pursuit into the woods. But here and now she was a sergeant, and it was not her affair. Her job was to keep the men fighting till the end.
Their best hope was that the officers would be picked off early, so that some men would survive to surrender to the Yankees, she thought grimly. She checked her rifle one last time.
And then the bullet came.
Sully cursed. "The sergeant's been hit!" he called out. "I'll see how bad it is." He crawled over to Sculley's position.
He heard others curse as the word was passed. It wasn't a loss they could afford.
He cursed again when he saw where Sculley'd been hit. In the gut. That was nothing but a long way to die. He bound the wound as well as he could, but he knew in his heart that it was hopeless.
At first Sculley was unconscious. When he came to, he was not in his right mind. The pain must have made his mind wander, unless he had hit his head when he was shot. He was speaking in Irish - a strange kind of Irish, hard to follow. He caught muttered scraps of names. "Eefa", he heard, and "Coo Huhlin."
Then the Irish changed back to something he could understand. It didn't make much sense, but at least he knew the words. And then he started to sing a song under his breath. Sully leaned in, trying to catch the sounds and identify it.
And then he knew. It was "An Droighneán Donn".
Sung in a woman's voice.
Sully's face burned, and the battle was forgotten. Had Sculley pretended to be a woman? And why would he...?
Then he remembered who Aoife was. Cuchulain's lover, a warrior queen who was always fighting the forces of Cuchulain's teacher, the warrior woman Scathach.
What if Sculley wasn't a short man? What if he were a she, of average height?
It seemed a remote possibility, but Sully put his hand on Sculley's heart to test it. Some small mass was being bound in by... he felt a bit farther... a sort of wide belt. The belt continued all the way to the other side, where another mass lay bound.
Sully's face turned red again.
And then pale. His fairy lady had a gut wound.
"God," he said urgently and silently, "I know I'm not a prayin' man in either of my parents' churches. But this is Sculley here. He's - she's - my best friend, and... I think I'm in love with her. Give us a second chance, Lord. Heal her like you healed the people in Galilee. Or at least take her and me both, and quickly. Amen."
He looked at her. She was still gutshot. She was still dying.
He shot at the Yankees with new precision then. And they shot back. And soon a bullet stretched him out by her side, and his soul began to float from his body.
Sculley felt her guts knitting together. She concentrated harder. She had to hurry the process, or she might get buried. At least she'd learned hundreds of years ago not to use her shapeshifting to make herself look like a man. It wasn't just humiliating; it was too easy to lose yourself when you stayed in another shape too long, even another human's.
Besides, Sully was back there.
She pressed the pace, using energy she could ill-afford. And then she was awake again. Not many gunshots now. The battle must be nearly over. Carefully, she looked around for Sully and the rest.
She could see only a few living men. Sully was not among them. His body lay next to hers, with the heartsblood running out of it.
Silently, she cursed. She reached for his body. There was little life left in it. She cursed herself. She had taught Cuchulain. She had taught Gawain. She had more experience as a warrior than anyone else she knew of. But of all the things she could do and teach, with all the power she held, she could not heal another, not even as well as Sarah might.
But she could do something else.
She stopped, frightened. She had never, in all her long life, dared to make another of her kind. It was too great a sacrifice to lose her memory and the other's for the space of nine lives in other shapes.
But of all the times she had lost someone, this was cutting closest to to the bone.
"Sully. A grádh," she said. "I will not lose you now. If it takes us nine times nine lives, I will have you back."
She touched a corpse close by her with a thought of power, and it took her shape. Another. It took on Sully's. Then she placed both her hands on Sully's head and covered his body with her own, as well as she could. A cloak of mist and shadow settled around them. None would see this take place, even if one was close enough to touch them.
Then the two bodies began to glow with power. A golden mass of light came out of her. It hovered, hesitated, and tore itself in half. Half went back into her body. The other half melted into the man's corpse beneath her.
The bodies glowed again with power, brighter than the sun at midday. And then they looked as if they were catching on fire, being consumed from within by some strange internal holocaust. The power grew brighter still, until it could not be borne.
And as the last bits of the two corpses vanished, two white birds flew up with a clatter from where the bodies had been.
Nobody looked up to see them go. Sarah, hidden in the bunker, never knew.
People see what they expect to see.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead....
But the just live forever....
Song credits: All the songs are traditional. The translation of "An Draighneán Donn" is mine, from a literal translation by Brian O'Rourke in his (highly recommended) book of verse translations of songs, _Pale Rainbow_. I'm pleased beyond words by the version recorded by Anúna on their album Omnis. The best album I've found for learning Irish-language songs is _Ceolta Gael_, its sequel, and the associated songbook.
I found the music for "The Red Fox" in an old Thomas Moore songbook (with "Let Erin remember") and MIDI'd it myself. Not the accompaniment, though. Sorry. Moore got the tune from Bunting. Other fox tunes Moore used were "The Fox's Sleep" (with "When he, who adores thee") and "Yellow Wat and the Fox" (with "Oh! doubt me not"). Timothy Roberts' album _Invocation_ includes many good Thomas Moore songs, though sadly not "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms", "Let Erin remember", or the other two. However, "Believe Me...." is extensively recorded; Slappy Squirrel even played it on a xylophone once on Animaniacs. The very nice MIDI file I linked with can be found at Lesley's Folk Music - Tunes, Lyrics & Info.
The only place I've seen "Sculley's Waltz" is on Bruce Warren's wonderful hammered dulcimer album, _Come Dance and Sing_, where it is in a set with "Road to Lisdoonvarna". (Best album I ever bought in a US Park Service gift shop.)
"Rainbow Willow"/"I Dreamed Last Night of My True Love" has many versions; I'm sure there are recordings but I haven't found them. Your best bet is probably looking in folk songbooks of mountain songs. I like the (cussless) version of "Sam Hall" Steeleye Span did. Didja like my Civil War spelling?
Historical note: Women did indeed fight, disguised as men, in the Civil War (and many another). I probably should have done this as a gritty and naturalistic war story, since this solution for the "Scully as sergeant" is so little used. But it worked so well with my "Scully as shapeshifting Sidhe woman" that it had to go in.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge all the other people who've written stories with immortal Scullys and Mulders. Thanks for the inspiration. And thanks to all the fanfic writers who made me into an X-Phile. I needed that.
Maureen S. O'Brien