The first winds of spring blew cold and fresh over the forests of eastern Eire, lifting a soaring golden eagle high on outstretched wings. The bird could see all of his kingdom and more from up there, and he took the time to inspect his every wheat field, beehive, and farmer's house, every apple tree and glittering stream, and every grassy, flowering meadow. It was an annual task after the long, cold nights of winter.
Reveling in his power, the eagle soared through the sky examining his kingly domain.
A motion far below caught his sharp eye. There, running and dancing along a sunlit brook and weaving in and out of a row of silvery birch trees, was a group of young women. Each wore a soft linen gown of yellow or green or blue, and each carried a small basket. Their feet were bare in the soft new grass, and their hair streamed long and loose down slender backs.
The eagle circled once above them and then flew down to perch high in one of the birches. The young women did not notice him as he watched and listened.
Their laughter reached him first. They were five in number, all young, all tall, all slender, all beautiful--yet one of them stood out among even such a gathering as this.
"Keavy! Keavy!" called the others, laughing as they tried to keep up with the long-legged girl who led them in their playful dance. "Wait for us! How will we ever find any primrose or watercress when you go so fast?"
The one called Keavy stopped at last and turned to face them, her long fair hair shining with silvery light like a river in bright sunshine. She set down her basket in the grass and waited for them with her hands on her hips, frowning in mock impatience.
"How can I stay still on a day like this?" she asked, then burst out giggling. She caught up her basket and dashed away again, her simple green gown swinging around her legs and billowing out behind her in the wind.
The rest of the girls squealed with laughter and raced in pursuit. All of them ran until they reached an open, sunny spot by the edge of the stream, where they dropped down to sit breathless in the grass, surrounded by the calling and singing of the wrens and the larks.
"The servants will be waiting for their watercress," said one girl.
"And the healers did ask for more primrose," warned another.
"We said we would bring these things for them if only we might be allowed outside the fortress gates for a little while, so we'd better fetch them back if we ever want to go beyond the walls of Dun Mor again!"
"They will have them, they will have them," Keavy said with a laugh. "Though I'd have said I'd bring them all the gold in Eire if it meant being outside on a day such as this, after staying inside all winter!" She threw back her head so that her hair formed a shining pool in the grass behind her, and closed her eyes as the warmth of the spring sun caressed her face.
The eagle spread his wings and flew to another birch tree, just above the place where the young women rested. None of them noticed he was there.
"Are you ready to go on yet?" Keavy asked, reaching for her empty basket.
But her companions only moaned in protest and stayed where they were. "It is not fair, Keavy--you are older than the rest of us and can go farther than we can!"
Keavy only laughed again. "I have only just reached seventeen years. The rest of you are all sixteen, are you not? I am not so much older."
"But you are taller and stronger, no matter what your age, and you have tired me out!" complained another of the girls. All of them laughed.
Still smiling, Keavy caught up her basket and got to her feet. "Stay here, then, and rest. I cannot sit still! I'll get the watercress, and perhaps by the time I do that you will be ready to go on and look for primrose."
"Go, go!" they agreed. "But not too far."
"Not too far," Keavy promised.
As she started along the stream, her hair flowing down nearly to her ankles as she walked, the eagle left his perch and followed, wheeling high above, the trees in the bright blue sky. Even with his sharp eyes, it was sometimes difficult to see her as she walked. Through the sunlit trees far below, her skin was nearly as white as the bark of the birches, her gown nearly the same shade of green as the leaves and grass. Yet he could easily find her pale golden hair with its silvery highlights, and when at last she stopped to search out some watercress at the edge of the stream, the eagle flew down to a branch just above her.
The sound of his great wings made her look up.
Keavy nearly dropped her basket. "Oh," she whispered, and took a step forward.
The eagle folded his wings and remained very still.
"Well, beautiful eagle," Keavy said, also standing still. "I am happy to share this day with you. I find that I am often followed by wild birds, who seem to like my company for some reason--but they are usually wrens or larks or sparrows. Never have I been in the company of a golden eagle."
She took another careful step forward, and another, until she stood just in front of the low branch. The kingly bird was almost near enough to reach up and touch.
The eagle watched her closely as she approached, tilting his head and fixing her with his deep amber stare. She was even more beautiful up close than she had been from the sky: tall and slender, graceful and fair, with light green eyes and her long hair streaming in the fresh spring winds. And she was still young enough to fly from him like the maiden she was if he were to show himself to her in his true form. But a creature of nature, even one as powerful as a golden eagle, would not frighten the maid at all.
"I hope we have not intruded on your territory," Keavy was saying. "My friends and I simply could not stay in any longer on a day such as this, the first day to bring a little of the warmth and sunlight of spring with it." She smiled. "You seem to have felt the same way."
The bird drew himself up and ruffled his feathers, never taking his fierce gaze from her. Keavy took one last step forward. "I want to remember this," she said, lifting one hand a little, as though she longed to reach out for him but dared not. "Already this was a special day, and now it is even more so..."
Then Keavy did raise her hand, slowly and cautiously, clearly hoping to touch his soft golden-brown feathers. Yet she did not have to reach far. The eagle raised himself up and stretched out, extending the tip of one great wing straight toward Keavy's face.
She closed her eyes as the smooth dark gold feathers brushed gently over her cheek and the surface of her hair. Then the bird settled back onto his branch, still watching her.
Keavy could not speak for a moment. She could only gaze back with a look of wonder in her green eyes, clearly understanding that she stood in the presence of something magical. "All my life I have heard the tales of such things as this," she whispered. "Tales of those who had the power to change their shape if they chose--into a hunting wolf or a leaping salmon or even a great golden eagle. I can only believe that this must be what you are."
The bird ruffled his feathers again and opened and closed his sharp, curving beak, though he made no sound. "And if you have power enough to take the form of one so magnificent as the eagle, you must be a great druid--or maybe even a king."
The bird gave a short cry and cocked his head.
"Always I will remember this," Keavy said, her eyes shining, and took a step back.
The eagle raised his wings as though ready to take flight; but instead he carefully preened the feathers of his right wing and then dropped one golden-brown feather to the fresh new grass below the birch tree. As Keavy watched, entranced, the eagle did the same with his left wing, and a second gold-brown feather fell to earth. At last the great bird ducked his head and ran his curving black beak through the plumage over his heart, and dropped a third and final feather to the grass.
Then, with a loud cry, the eagle leaped up from his branch and climbed into the air on great strokes of his powerful wings. Keavy swung her head to follow his flight, her pale hair heavy as it swept behind her. The eagle circled overhead, waiting until she picked up the three feathers from the grass; and then, with a last cry of farewell, he soared away on the currents of the sky until he was lost from sight.