Authors: Juliet Marillier
A Tale of Sevenwaters
A fair maid in the wildwood lies
A raven pecks her sightless eyes
Then wings into the heavens again
To shriek his song of death and pain.
I have a tale to tell. I would recite its verses while playing the harp, had not a sorceress long ago robbed me of my capacity to share my story. That may be just as well, for my tale would only make you sad. I was a bard then. I brought tears to the eyes of my listeners, made them hold their breath in anticipation, gasp in wonderment, cheer as the hero won his battle, cry as the fair lady lost her true love. In those days, I contrived happy endings. Folk like to see lovers reunited, challenges met and overcome, good triumphant over evil.
If ever my voice is returned to me, I will sing only sad songs.
* * * *
I listen as my companion instructs a clutch of green novices.
‘In the land of Erin dwell three races,’ he tells them. ‘First are the Tuatha De Danann, commonly known as the Fair Folk, proud and strong, noble and wise.’
With a few notable exceptions,
I add in my mind. ‘They dwell in hollow hills and in deep forests,’ the druid continues, ‘though such sanctuaries are shrinking with the coming of the new faith. Second are the Old Ones, the Fomhoire, whom I should perhaps have placed at the start, since they have prior claim. Their shapes are many, their attitudes inscrutable. Long time and endless patience provide their solutions. They blend; they wait; they observe. The Old Ones are survivors. Last, human folk, late come to this land, short-lived, unsubtle, as moody and changeable as a Connemara shore in autumn.’
Up speaks a bright young fellow, all bony wrists and eager eyes. ‘Master Ciarán? There are surely more than three races here. What of leprechauns? Clurichauns? What of the
‘What about the Sea People?’ another novice chimes in.
‘And there’s those wee things that drink the milk straight from the cow,’ pipes up a red-cheeked lad who, from the looks of him, has but recently replaced his hayfork with a druid’s staff.
‘True,’ says my companion, unruffled as always. ‘There exists a fourth race, a fifth, a sixth; perhaps more than we will ever know. Set them aside for now and consider another variant. Ask yourself what may ensue when the pure blood of the three races is mixed and blended, creating something new. Imagine a being with human passions and frailties combined with Fomhoire endurance, say, or human stubbornness alongside the pride and craft of the Tuatha De. Imagine an individual with the Old Ones’ long memory and the Fair Folk’s facility in magic; picture a warrior of superb skill and courage, who possesses the ability to become rock, water, earth, tree in a heartbeat.
‘Such blends are not common. The three races of Erin seldom have congress with one another, and such alliances rarely produce children. When there is a slipping across boundaries, a union between old enemies, and an infant is born of that coupling, chances are the child will be something exceptional. The bravest heroes and the darkest villains are oft products of such unsanctioned pairings.’
The tutor pauses, his mulberry eyes seeing something beyond this grove, beyond this forest, beyond this summer day. I, too, contemplate. Hero or villain? If I still had my human tongue, I could answer for him. My companion walks the path of light. Here in the nemetons, his vocation is to teach, to guide, to set the feet of the young on right ways. His choice brought him some peace of mind. Some. He has suffered losses as painful as my own. The shadow of death lingers in those dark eyes even as he leads the young brethren in a prayer.
Hero or villain? It depends. I was once hero of my own tale, loved by a girl with star-bright eyes and hair like a soft shadow. I had youth, talent, a path before me. And then ... and then ... Had I a human voice, I would turn the fresh faces of these young druids pale with horror. I would shout and scream my story to the treetops, I would sit by the pool and let my tears fall into the still water, one and two and three. I would whisper her name to the wind, I would teach it to skylark and thrush, to sparrow and nightingale, and they would sing it abroad, an anthem, a lullaby, a love song, a dead march. Oh, if I had my voice again, there would be such a tale to tell. And in that tale, perhaps I would be hero and villain both.
I glimpsed her first ’twixt lake and fire
My heart took wing; soared high and higher
Lóch was her name. The moon above
Smiled down, pale witness of our love.
Ah, that night! She stood reed-slender, the fire’s glow warming her face, and behind her the bright moon danced on the waters of the lake. My heart gave one great leap and I was changed forever. But I get ahead of myself. First I must tell of a day some years earlier: the day when I watched my mother bringing her new son home to the Otherworld.
I was hiding. At thirteen, I was in more fear of her than I had been as a little child. By then I’d begun to understand the darkness she carried within her, a weight of bitter resentment so tightly woven into the fabric of her that it was plain nothing would ever shift it. She’d been away. Three years it had been, three wonderful, peaceful years without her. I’d spent them making verses, practising the harp, and hoping beyond hope that she’d never come back. With her gone, folk had begun to befriend me. I had started to believe it might be possible for one of my kind to follow the paths of light. Yes, even a son of hers.
I was hiding high in the cradling branches of an oak. I watched her pass below, every part of me on edge, willing her to be only a phantom, only an evil memory. But she was real, as real as the little boy she carried in her arms, a red-haired mite of perhaps two summers. I knew at a glance that he was hers. Her son. My replacement.
It was her habit to summon me after one of these trips out into the human world, and her summons came as soon as she’d left the child with a pair of local cottagers, then returned to our own realm. She stood in the shadow of the oaks, eyes cool as I approached. ‘Conri,’ she said. Her tone hardly differentiated me from a grain of dust under her foot.
‘Mother.’ I knelt before her, since that was the way she liked it, making my voice respectful.
‘I don’t suppose I can hope you spent the time of my absence working on the elements of your magical craft.’
It was not a question, and I did not offer an answer, merely gazed at the ground, wondering how she would punish me.
A sigh. ‘I’ve had a reversal, Conri. A serious reversal that needs attention. Look at me!’ Her voice suddenly sharp as an axe. I raised my head. She was young today, auburn hair cascading over her shoulders, figure shapely in a gown of soft green. Her mouth was set tight. Her eyes probed deep inside me. I could think of nothing to say that would please her.
‘You’ve wasted the time fiddling about with your music. Yes?’
‘Yes, Mother.’ I set my jaw firm and held her gaze as my belly twisted in fear.
‘Pah!’ An explosion of annoyance, then a click of the fingers. Pain shot through my arms and hands, crippling, crushing. I crumpled, screaming. Around us in the high trees of the Otherworld, a host of birds echoed my cry. ‘Stupid boy! With your parentage, you could have amounted to something. You are useless! Useless! A weakling!’
I forced myself back up to my knees. The agony was fading. I glanced at my arms, half-expecting that every bone would be broken, but they looked much as usual. My breath wheezed in my chest. I said nothing at all.
‘Never mind that.’ Mother’s tone had changed again. ‘It’s of little account now. Despite the reversal, I have not returned empty-handed. I have a weapon. A fine weapon. Or so it will become, when suitably polished. Conri, I have work for you.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ I croaked.
‘There’s a child. A boy. I’ve left him with human folk, right on the margin between that realm and this — you know the cottage in the forest, close by the place they call Hag’s Head in the human world?’
I did not tell her I’d been watching as she passed her baby boy over to strangers. ‘Yes, Mother,’ I said.
‘Folk might come looking,’ she said. ‘Human folk. The child is too small to be brought to our realm as yet; he requires a tiresome degree of feeding and cleaning. He’ll stay with these cottagers for a year or two. I’ve set a ward over him, of course. But you will watch, also. There will be a certain degree of ill will towards me, I imagine.’
‘Are not human folk too weak to break these wards, Mother? They have no magic.’
She smiled thinly. ‘These are not your everyday human folk,’ she said. ‘They’ll be rather determined, I fear. Conri, you must tell me immediately if you see anyone loitering close to the cottage, or in the woods nearby. And I need to know if my son’s guardians become at all careless. I don’t anticipate that will happen. They understand the importance of this task, and the punishment that will befall them if they do not fulfil it to my expectations.’
‘Your son,’ I said, making my tone suitably surprised. ‘So I have a little brother.’
‘Hah!’ There was neither affection nor amusement in the sound. ‘A half-brother, but you’d be wise not to regard him as kin. You will not approach him, Conri. The child is mine only. As soon as he can listen and obey, I will commence his training. He will be subtle; clever; powerful. Ciarán will be my sword of vengeance.’
* * * *
It sounded ridiculous. That little scrap, not long out of swaddling clothes, the instrument of her fell power? Time passed. I watched as his carers tended to him, as he learned to run and to climb, as he began to talk. I watched him solemnly investigating all he discovered. I saw him gazing into tranquil pools; I observed him sitting so quietly the birds came up to perch on his toes. He was still a very small boy when I saw him bring a ripe plum down from high in a tree, right into his hand. Not long after, he sang a fox out of the bracken to lie down by him, obedient as any pet dog. My brother; my clever little brother. The cottagers tended him well, but they had no time for play. I wanted to show him how to catch a ball; how to make a little house in the woods; how to tease minnows into his hand. I wanted him to know he had a brother.
I reported regularly to my mother. ‘Nobody has come looking for him. Nobody at all.’ Of the magic, which Ciarán explored further with every passing day, I said not a word.
In time, inevitably, she discovered to her fierce satisfaction that this second son possessed all the potential the first had failed to exhibit, and she began his training. My job as overseer was at an end. I found myself at once relieved and saddened. I was free now to pursue my music. I did so within both worlds, for I could pass as a talented human bard provided I was careful not to reveal my eldritch gifts. Those were meagre enough beside my tiny half-brother’s.
I was selfish to step away from him. I knew how cruel she could be; I had experienced her training at first hand. She would not understand the frailty of a small child. She would not care what damage she inflicted. I told myself I could do nothing about it. She was a sorceress, powerful and without conscience. I was a half-and-half. My only assets were a good singing voice and nimble fingers. I reminded myself of this when occasionally I chanced upon my mother and the child working together. My brother’s small face had become pinched and pale; his eyes, so like our mother’s, were smudged with a bone-deep weariness. I saw her punish him. He took it stoically and tried harder to please. The joyous, instinctive magic he had used as an infant was quite gone. She taught him other skills.