Read Twixt Firelight and Water Online
Authors: Juliet Marillier
‘You have the time for this?’ Ciarán asked.
I had told Fernando I would catch up with him next time the ship came into Dublin. It could equally well be the time after, or the time after that.
‘There’s no point in agreeing to something if I’m not going to do it properly,’ I said. ‘I’d be foolish if I expected a man to step out of such an ordeal with no damage at all. And if I’m to be his wife, it’s up to me to help him get over it, I suppose. I should make it quite clear’ — I glanced over at Fiacha, who had gone so still he resembled a carven effigy of a bird — ‘that I never planned to settle in these parts. That doesn’t change. I can stay awhile. As long as he needs. Then he’ll be coming back to Xixón with me. He should meet my father.’ It was quite difficult to surprise Father; in that, he was like me. But I was sure,
Here’s my husband. Not long ago he was a raven,
would startle even him.
Ciarán had gone rather pale. I think that up until now he had not given real credence to the possibility that I might say yes.
‘I suppose,’ I added, ‘it’s not so much a husband I’ll be getting as an adventure.’
* * * *
My frail bird body shudders. I watch my brother as he readies himself for the hand-fasting ritual, and there’s so much in me I think I might split apart. Lóch, sweet, lovely Lóch, forever lost. And this woman, this tall black woman with the clear eyes and strong jaw, a woman like a shining blade, a woman as unlike my sweetheart as anyone could be; why is she doing this? She almost frightens me.
Lóch, dear heart, I’m sorry. It should have been you by my side. Lóch, don’t hate me for this.
‘Are you ready?’ Ciarán asks.
I cannot answer, but the woman — Aisha, her name is — nods her head. At the last moment, she reaches up and tweaks a corner of her elaborate head-cloth. The cloth unwinds; a cascade of hair descends, black as night and glossy as silk. Even my ascetic brother gawks at her. Suddenly, despite her height, her garb that might be a man’s — long tunic, woollen hose and boots — despite the strength and challenge in her gaze, a warrior’s look, Aisha is all woman.
She turns her dark eyes full on me. ‘Conri,’ she says, quiet as a breeze in the grass, ‘I’m sorry your hand-fasting cannot be as you once dreamed. I did not know your Lóch, but I am certain she would not want you to spend the rest of your life this way. I can never replace her. But I can offer you a new kind of life. I can offer my best effort.’
Sheer terror churns in my gut. I don’t want this! Why would I want my life back without Lóch? If this works, what will I be, so many years on? A wrinkled greybeard with the mind of that young lad who thought himself man enough to wed and be a father? What if Ciarán speaks the words and I become a creature with a man’s body and a bird’s mind? What if I turn into a monster? I never asked for this, I never expected anyone to do it, I don’t want it ...
‘Are you ready, Conri?’
I look at Ciáran’s face, high-boned, steady-eyed, calm as still water. I do not look at Aisha; there is no need. I feel her presence beside me, strong as oak, fearless as Queen Maeve herself, beautiful as the keen flight of an arrow or the piercing cry of the pipes. I want this. I want it from the bottom of my heart. I want it as the parched earth wants rain. I want it as a man wants sunlight after long winter. I want it with every wretched, bitter, cynical corner of my body.
I cannot give Ciarán an answer, so I stretch my wings and fly to Aisha’s shoulder. She flinches, then straightens, ready for the challenge. Her strong mouth softens into a smile.
‘We’re ready,’ she says.
Ciarán paces steadily, casting a circle in the clearing. He greets the spirits of the quarters, asks the gods for a blessing, then moves to stand before us in the centre. We are on the stones between the campfire and the pool. Aisha and I face north, Ciarán south. The star-jewelled night sky forms our wedding canopy.
As my brother begins the hand-fasting, a deep stillness seeps through me, a peace I have seldom known before. It is something like the sensation a bard feels when a song is done; when the music lingers on the air and in the heart long after the final measure.
‘Under sky and upon stone,’ the druid says, “twixt firelight and water, I ask you, Conri, and you, Aisha, to make your solemn vows of hand-fasting. Aisha, repeat these words after me.’ The mulberry eyes meet hers and I feel the smallest shiver run through her body. I edge along her shoulder until my wing feathers brush her cheek, black on black. And she says it, phrase by phrase, word by sweet word, she says it.
‘By earth and air, by fire and water, I bind myself to you. Until the stars no longer shine on us, until the earth covers our bones, until the light turns to dark, until death changes us forever, I will stand by you, Conri, my husband.’
She does not shiver now. Her voice is the note of a deep bell, strong and steady.
Ciarán draws a breath. Looks at me. His eyes are suspiciously bright. ‘Conri, best of brothers. Repeat these words after me.
By earth and air, by fire and water ...’
Oh gods, oh gods ...
The change is quick. My heart has barely time to hammer a startled beat, my wings hardly manage to carry me down from Aisha’s shoulder before my body stretches and lengthens and thickens, my features flatten, my vision alters with sickening speed, pool and flames, man and woman, stars and dark branches swimming and diving all around me. Stone under my cheek; stone under my chest, my belly, my limbs ... a man’s limbs.
Aisha is kneeling beside me; I feel her hands, sure but gentle on my back, my shoulder. I have forgotten how to use this body. I cannot move.
Repeat these words after me
... I struggle to my hands and knees, Aisha helping me. I think I might be sick. I am sick, retching up the meagre contents of my belly onto the stones. Aisha scoops up water, cupping it in her hands. I drink. The skin of her palms is lighter than the rest of her, the hue of fine-grained oak. Her fingers are long and graceful.
I stand. Her arm rests lightly around my shoulders, supporting me. I draw breath, open my mouth, utter a croaking sound.
‘Take your time,’ says my brother quietly.
‘By earth and air ...’
I understand, through the nausea, the dizziness, the utter wrongness of this clumsy man-body, that the
cannot be fully undone unless I can play my part.
‘By ... by ... ah ...’ A paroxysm of coughing. The two of them wait for me, quiet, confident. ‘By earth ... and air ...’
‘Good, Conri,’ whispers Aisha. ‘You’re doing fine.’
‘By fire and water,’
says Ciarán, and I see that he has tears rolling down his cheeks.
‘By fire ... and water ... I bind myself ...’
It comes more easily with each word. A harsh voice, for certain, no bard’s honeyed tones, but a human voice. I stumble through the vow. I owe it to my brother for his long care and for his belief in me. I owe it to this woman, this stranger, to honour the sacrifice she’s making for me. So, turning to look into her lustrous dark eyes and seeing not a scrap of pity there, only joy at the remarkable feat we’ve accomplished tonight, the three of us, I finish it: ‘Until death changes us forever, I bind myself to you, Aisha, my wife.’
Dearest Lóch; goodbye, my lovely one.
Ciarán takes a cloth strip from his belt. Aisha extends her right arm, I my left. We clasp hands, and my brother wraps the cloth around our wrists.
‘By the deep, enduring power of earth; by the clarifying power of air; by the quickening power of fire; by the life-giving power of water, you are now joined as husband and wife. By the mysterious, all-encompassing power of spirit, you are hand-fasted until death separates you one from the other. I give you my solemn blessing, Conri, my brother.’ He touches my brow with his fingertips and I feel a thrill of power run through me. ‘I give you my solemn blessing, Aisha, my sister.’ He touches her in her turn, and I feel her tremble.
My knees are weak. I’m still dizzy and sick, my eyes unwilling to accept the change. Aisha holds me up while Ciarán speaks the final prayers, closes the circle, then moves to add wood to the fire and get out his little flask of mead. My knees give up the struggle; Aisha only just manages to stop me from falling. She settles beside me on the stones, her arm around me in comradely fashion. It feels good.
Ciarán pours mead into cups. For a while, the three of us sit in utter silence.
‘Don’t look at me,’ I say eventually. ‘This was your crazy idea; yours and hers.’ I glance from the sombre, pale Ciarán to the silent Aisha. Before either of them can speak a word, I burst into tears. I sob and shake like a child, my head clutched in my hands. Aisha kneels up and wraps me in her arms, cradling my head on her shoulder and humming under her breath.
Gods, oh, gods
... The worst of it is to be so helpless, so feeble, so unmanned before this woman, this extraordinary woman who surprises me at every turn.
‘Weep now, Conri,’ she says in a murmur. ‘Weep for Lóch; weep for your young life lost; weep for what could not be. Weep all night if you need. Weep until those sad tears are all gone, husband. And in the morning, know the good gifts that you have. The most loyal of brothers. A wife who will stand by you forever and always tell you the truth. We will not long be strangers, Conri. Family, at Sevenwaters and in Xixón. When you are ready, we will go to meet them.’
Still the tears flow; I cannot stop them. This does not mean I do not hear her.
‘The sunrise and the moonrise,’ says Ciarán. ‘The forest and the lake. The stars in the sky. The flight of birds; the secret paths of fox and badger. The company of friends. The wisdom of elders. The laughter of children; perhaps, in time, your own children.’
‘We’ll see about that,’ Aisha puts in dryly, but there’s a smile in her voice.
‘A song by the campfire,’ says Ciarán. ‘The notes of the harp.’
That stirs me to speech. ‘No,’ I hiccup against Aisha’s shoulder. ‘Not that.’
‘Hush, Conri,’ says my wife. ‘Hush, now. It’s a long road ahead, and we must learn to walk before we can dance. I’ve one more thing to say to you.’
I manage a sound of query.
‘You’re a much finer specimen of manhood than I was expecting,’ she tells me. ‘I think it possible my father may approve.’
Ciarán splutters on a mouthful of mead; he’s a man who rarely laughs. I lift my head. Before I can wipe my streaming eyes, Aisha’s fingers come up and brush the tears from my cheeks, sweet as a mother tending her child. But different. Quite different.
‘I might see if I can keep a sip of mead down,’ I say in a whisper. ‘Long time since I ...’
‘Here,’ says Aisha, holding out the cup. ‘Tomorrow is a new day. A new dawn.’
I can barely speak, but I must. ‘This is a gift beyond measure,’ I say, taking the cup. She knows I’m not talking about the mead. ‘I’m not up to much just now, and I may never match it. But I’ll do my best.’
Raven no more, I came to rest
Then set forth on another quest.
What might I be before the end?
Brother, husband, father, friend!
My brother’s patience shielded me
And Aisha’s courage set me free.
“Twas hope that saw me come at last
Out of the shadows of the past.
As I take up my harp again
I do not sing of death and pain.
In my song, love and courage rise.
These are the gifts that make us wise.
* * * *
‘’Twixt Firelight and Water’ ties in with my
series, of which the fifth novel,
Seer of Sevenwaters,
will be published in December 2010. Thanks to the remarkable longevity of the Tuatha de Danann, the story of Conri and Ciarán spans almost the entire time frame of the Sevenwaters books, which cover three generations of the (human) family. Two of the most commonly asked questions about the series are: What exactly is Fiacha? and: What happened to Padriac? This story answers both those questions. I was finishing “Twixt Firelight and Water’ when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The story’s triumphant happy ending reflects my vow to stay positive in the face of challenge. It’s a tale brimful with courage, hope and love. The story’s title comes from a folk song, ‘The Tinkerman’s Daughter’, written by Mickey McConnell.
— Juliet Marillier
About the Author
Juliet Marillier was born in Dunedin, New Zealand and now lives in Western Australia. A graduate of Otago University, she worked as a teacher and public servant before becoming a full-time writer.
Juliet has written ten historical fantasy novels for adults and two books for young adults. Her books have won a number of awards including the Aurealis (three times), the Sir Julius Vogel Award and the American Library Association Alex Award. Her most recent novel is
published in November 2009.
Juliet is a member of the druid order OBOD. She shares her home with a small pack of needy dogs and a sweet-tempered cat.