Modern artwork of Aoife and other warrior women tends to be highly sexualized, and (to my knowledge) no ancient images of these women exist. I’ve yet to find a piece of art that matches my mental image of Aoife, but these caught my eye:
One wonders if the folks who paint these half-naked warrior women have ever experienced the climate of Ireland.
28. Bitter Honey
After the first time, the Hound came to Aoife often, usually once during the day and once at night. She was permitted the freedom of the room, but it was guarded by two of the Hound’s men. Or were they Scáthach’s men? The single window, which provided the only light, was too small for her to fit through. She was not allowed pins or brooches to fasten her dress. Instead, Cepp made her a sewn garment, a larger version of her own miniature green robe. It slipped over the head and had openings for her arms.
“Negotiations are proceeding apace, cousin,” said Scáthach, as they sat facing each other on two ornately carved oaken stools, the only items of furniture in the room besides the low pallet and a large, heavy chest. “You’ll be ransomed soon enough, perhaps in a few weeks’ time.”
When they finally came face to face, Aoife had patiently sat through Scáthach’s long speech chiding her for her presumption in thinking that she could possibly have surpassed her more famous cousin in battle-skill, wisdom, leadership or valor. She formally expressed her regret at the death of Uathach, and saw the pain in Scáthach’s eyes.
“Did my daughter die bravely?”
“Yes,” said Aoife truthfully. Her cousin waited, but Aoife said no more. Finally Scáthach nodded, as though grateful not to know the whole story.
“I should have been there to meet you and give you the welcome you deserved, cousin.” Scáthach spoke stiffly and haughtily, clearly ashamed of her absence from the field. “A traitor in our house drugged both me and my champion on the eve of battle. Sétanta is a most unusual warrior. That which kept me senseless for twelve hours only affected him for one, so that he was well-refreshed at dawn.”
“I am sorry for your misfortune, cousin,” said Aoife politely. “To meet you on the field would have been an honor. If I may ask, with whom are you negotiating?”
“One of your Companions, Darragh, survived the battle and leads what is left of your men. He has his hands full. Now that news of your defeat is getting about, revolts are beginning to brew all over your lands. Still, he is anxious to have you back.” He won’t be so anxious if he learns I’ve broken my geis, thought Aoife. I’m good for nothing now. But she was pleased to hear that Darragh was alive.
“The sooner we are rid of you, the better,” added Scáthach frankly, rising to her feet. “Sétanta is far too interested in you. He talks of nothing but his war prize, because I made the mistake of saying that I thought you a serious threat.” She tossed Aoife a scornful glance. “I was wrong.”
That night, when the Hound entered the chamber, she resisted as usual. Her father had focused part of her training on weaponless combat, and in spite of her blood loss and the great bruise on her chest where the Hound’s sword had driven the cuirass against her breastbone, she felt stronger now. A few kicks and punches connected satisfyingly with his hard, lithe body before he wrestled her to the floor.
“Aoife,” he rasped, pulling up her robe. “By the Dagda, you excite me.”
So. She had foolishly been inciting his lust for days now. “Next time I won’t fight. I’ll be as limp as a cloth doll,” she grunted as he entered her.
“But I won’t.”
“Doesn’t your spear ever get soft?” she complained.
“Not if you’re nearby. Once I saw you in battle, I had to have you.” He slowed his pace while they conversed.
“No doubt that explains why you tried to plunge your sword into my chest.”
“I knew your armor would protect you. I have seen such things in Scáthach’s treasure rooms. No self-respecting man would wear a bronze shell on his chest, but a woman has her tits to protect.” He slid one hand up to cup her right breast.
“Did Scáthach give you a little bronze shell for your great big stones?” she asked witheringly.
He laughed. “Aoife, think what a man our son will be. The greatest warrior ever seen in Alba or Éire.” She didn’t answer, and he was silent for a moment, moving slowly and almost contemplatively within her. She felt an unwonted sensation, as though his spear was now gliding, rather than rasping against her flesh.
“Emer, the daughter of Forgall, is my heart’s desire,” he said suddenly, “and she will be my wife. But you, Aoife— you will bear me a strong son. Maybe my only son.” He thrust hard against her, and she felt the movement of his seed as it flowed into her womb.
Her monthly flow came, and she smiled to think of the Hound’s frustration when he heard that his efforts had failed. Looking unhappy, Cepp gave her some woolen cloths to sit on, but wouldn’t allow her any long strips of cloth to secure the rags against her crotch. She feared that Aoife still desired death.
“If I wished it, I could tear this robe with my teeth and fashion a noose to hang myself,” she argued. But Cepp only shook her head.
Aoife assumed that the Hound would leave her alone while her flow continued. But to her surprise, he showed up with a jar of honey for her bread. “This will sweeten your disposition,” he joked.
“You failed. You won’t put a babe in my belly before I am ransomed,” she mocked him. “It was all for nothing.”
“Hardly,” said he, smiling. “I wish you liked it as much as I did. That might have helped you take up my seed.”
“Begone, Dog,” she snapped. “But leave the honey.”
When her flow slackened, he renewed his efforts, sometimes accosting her three times in a day. As soon as he left her, she would stand up and use a finger to wipe out as much of his seed as she could. But Cepp caught her doing this, and told the Hound.
“Shall I put guards inside the room, to watch you bathe and sit on the pot?” he asked teasingly.
“Do as you wish,” she answered in a sullen tone.
“I will stay with you, after,” he decided. Soon, the guards brought a wider pallet into the room, still low to the ground so that Cepp could tend to her wounds, but broad enough for the Hound to lie beside her. Whenever he came to her now, she lay limp and unresponsive, but her movement, or lack of it, had no noticeable impact on his vigor. Tonight, he announced, he would turn her over on her belly. “Cepp says it is the best way of getting a babe.”
“What does Cepp know?” Given her odd looks, thought Aoife sourly, Cepp was hardly likely to be experienced in matters of sex.
“Cepp is bandrui, or nearly was,” answered the Hound. “She never finished the training. The druids disagreed sharply on whether a little woman like her could be admitted. But she decided that healing interested her more than politics and songs. She learned healing among the Cruithin and became a healer in the house of my foster-father, Conchobar.” Conchobar, Aoife knew, was the king of Ulster, a land in Éire.
“Cepp has a great store of knowledge. She told me to pleasure you, and she told me how,” continued the Hound. He lifted her robe over her head, and unpinned his plaid, tossing it to the floor.
“You’ve never pleasured a woman before. No surprise there.” Aoife thought longingly of Aibhlinn, not for the first time. When she was alone, she often cried for her dead Companions, especially the tender and beautiful Aibhlinn, whose wavy hair had been dark red and fragrant, like a rose.
“Of course I have pleasured women,” said the Hound, sounding a bit testy at her remark. “I had my first woman when I was twelve years old. After I killed the sons of Nechta Scéne, the Ulstermen feared my ríastrad. To calm me, Conchobar’s wife brought out all the women of Emain Macha, and they bared their tits. I averted my face from my foster-mother and her sisters, but the rest of them I took one by one until my battle-lust was sated.”
“Sounds a deal more pleasurable for you than for them,” commented Aoife. “Maybe they should have dumped a barrel of cold water on you instead.”
“None of them complained,” answered the Hound smugly. “But Cepp says you require the way of a woman with a woman.”
Aoife was surprised at Cepp’s perceptiveness. “Being no woman, you are doomed to fail.”
“I have everything a woman has that is of use: fingers, lips, tongue. I don’t have tits, but neither does your charioteer. She is a slight, wee thing who should have no place in battle.”
Aoife’s heart stood still. She scarcely dared to hope. “She is dead. You told me so yourself.”
“I tricked you. Cepp divined that you loved your charioteer. I thought it would be a man, but” —here he shrugged— “I noticed her right away and passed the word not to kill her. She has no place on the battlefield,” he repeated.
Aoife gasped in mingled indignation and relief. “Dog!” she cried, and tears sprang into her eyes. The Hound looked smiling upon her and said, “Your joy pleases me.” He bent his head to kiss her, and so great was her emotion that she kissed him back, picturing Aibhlinn’s heart-shaped face and soft full lips.
Doubtless thinking that her ardor was for him, the Hound responded in kind, pressing his lips roughly against hers and plunging his tongue into her mouth. Then, quite suddenly, as though remembering Cepp’s advice, he pulled back and began to caress her lips and face with light kisses. He moved his mouth to her neck, and Aoife shivered. No. She felt her nipples tightening, and he laughed soft and low as he licked them, using his tongue like a big dog.
“These tits must hinder you in battle,” he remarked.
“I bind them tight. They say the warrior women who fought the Danaoi cut off one breast so as not to hinder their archery, but I never found that necessary.”
“A great boon, since my son will drain both your tits dryer than planks of salt cod.”
“Our child may be a girl. If I let it live.”
The Hound ignored this. He had a hand between her legs now, brushing as lightly as a feather over her flesh. She tensed, and he kissed her again. “Think of your charioteer. Did she touch you this way? Or was it more like this?” He dipped one finger into her, shallowly, and moved it about at her threshold.
She was silent, but he continued the motion, slipping his finger in deeper, and rubbing her from within. Time passed, and she fell into a dreamlike state, savoring the fact that Aibhlinn was still alive. The Hound’s finger passed over, about, within, until she made an involuntary sound of pleasure. “Aoife,” he said, sounding pleased. Suddenly he grabbed a cushion and rolled her over so that it supported her hips. The finger was replaced by the questing tip of his spear, though he didn’t push into her hard. “Not yet, not yet,” she heard him saying to himself.
She realized that she was wet, streaming wet. Yes. She spread her thighs, only a little, and his control broke. He drove into her, hard, and she gasped. Yet the ache was mingled with pleasure, and as he continued, she found herself moaning. By the time he finished, his chest was sweaty against her back. He collapsed onto his side of the pallet, and she gingerly removed the cushion, and turned herself over. The stitches on her thigh were tight and dry now, and they itched.
The Hound seemed to be sleeping already, with a smile on his face. “I could take your pin from the floor and plunge it into your throat,” she whispered, very softly.
“I sleep lightly, Aoife. If you try it, you’ll only rouse my spear again. I like it best when you are fierce.”
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Cúchulainn’s anecdote about his first sexual experience at age twelve is adapted from the Irish saga, though I have changed it to make him resemble the young, sexually inexhaustible Heracles. In the original, Cúchulainn returned to Emain Macha in his battle frenzy, and the Ulstermen were terrified. Conchobar’s wife Mugain led out the women, who bared their breasts to him, distracting him from thoughts of battle. He averted his eyes, and the Ulstermen put him in a barrel of cold water, which exploded from the heat of his body. It took three barrels to cool him down.
In my first draft of this tale, Aoife’s moment of desire came entirely against her will. It is not unknown for victims of this type of abuse to become involuntarily attached to their captors, or to feel pleasure in the acts they perpetrate, and afterwards to be racked with guilt for feeling the “wrong” feelings. This was the experience of Tabitha’s mother, Melinda, during her captivity with Tabitha’s father, Corbin Crowe.
I decided to change Aoife’s original NO to a YES, to give her more agency as a character. Thrilled by the news of her beloved Aoibhlinn, she willingly allows herself to take pleasure in the moment. This is something she regrets afterward, because it was bad enough that the act of rape broke her geis to the goddess Brigid never to lie with a man. Now she herself has voluntarily broken the geis as well. Cúchulainn knew exactly what her weakness was, and used it to his own advantage.