“Uh … I don’t mean to put a damper on things,” a hesitant voice broke in, somewhere about five feet behind her, at thigh-level, as she scrambled on hands and knees over a moss-covered log, “but I don’t think we’re supposed to go this far. Norie! Norie!” Some huffing sounds as the speaker stepped up his pace to catch up with her. “Tirlina, I don’t think we should let her go this far! I mean, seriously, this isn’t a good ide- OOMPH!”
The sudden, and forceful exhalation of air, accompanied by a definite sound of tumbling, was enough to make her stop and turn, hands on trousered hips, and look back impatiently. A rustling among the leaves on the near side of the log was all that she could see. These woods were always at mid-autumn, with the trees still clad in some colors but with enough starting to bare that the ground was covered; elsewhere, further, along turns that even she knew she was not yet permitted to take … and perhaps never would be permitted to take … every branch was stripped, except for those of the silent and brooding firs, and even they lay in winter and ice.
After some more rustling, a head appeared, a round young-old face with blond mutton-chops, topped by a flat cap. “At least you stopped,” Westry remarked, with a combination of relief and petulance. The bogle pushed himself to his feet and started brushing off the leaves that clung to all three feet of him.
“If she didn’t mean for me to go this far, she wouldn’t have opened it up,” Nora pointed out a bit defiantly. All of fourteen she was, and every edge to her sharp; even when she stood still like this, long dark hair mussed about her face, she looked ready to fly apart. “It’s not like I’m going there,” she threw out one hand at random, “to the winterlands.” The very thought of that made her shiver. Luatha had warned her, with that knowing look, that the trods heading in that direction were banned. “And it’s mine to go see, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Westry asked. He looked around, obviously trying to spot the bright twinkle that was Tirlina; but his eyesight wasn’t the best, and though he patted his pockets, he couldn’t locate his spectacles. The girl had heard the story so many times, versions of the tale Laurelyn Hillrover had brought back, and Tirlina’s own telling. And snippets of the song Fionn had been making for her ever since – Westry suspected the man might labor over it forever, and never hear it sung, unless Luatha insisted on it when the girl had her woman’s Saining next fall.
And maybe it was his most recent refusal to sing it for her that had set her on this path; headstrong she was, and determined to take the trods where they would let her look back on it herself. Look back on all of them she had heard so much about. Or maybe it was the need, as she neared the age when her own mother had born and rejected her, that made her want to look back at the young Maeve Calhoun.
A bright glow darted in from somwhere in the trees beyond to stop and hover, dancing impatiently in the air above Nora’s shoulder. “What are you waiting for?” she asked, then noticed the stubbornness hanging almost tangibly in the air between her human and the bogle. With tiny hands on tiny hips, the little sprite gave Westry a long-suffering look, then briefly glanced at Nora again before darting off through the trees, her tinkling voice trailing behind her. “Keep going!”
The bogle gaped in near-disbelief, but Nora just gave a decisive, pleased nod, with a definite “so there!” note about it, and whirled to dash off after Tirlina. “Sprites!” he huffed, and lowered his head to follow. No wonder Luatha had felt it necessary to set him to watching the girl, once she was able to run. Tirlina certainly couldn’t be counted on to give her any common-sense counsel – flighty thing she was, all sparkle and nonsense, not at all properly deliberate. Why, whatever thought passed through the girl’s head, Tirlina was likely to encourage! And here she was, going willy-nilly through the trods without a care for the dangers of it! (The fact that both he and Tirlina knew the paths well enough was no excuse, he told himself.)
“It’s here somewhere, isn’t it?” Nora asked, following the twinkle at an easy lope. To the sides, the autumn-trees rippled as they passed, not quite real … but she was used to that, she spent almost as much time with the fey as with human. Somewhere here was an echo of the first meeting her mother and Fionn had with Laurelyn Hillrover. In a way-shelter she had been told. All they had to do was half-squint their eyes, step sideways, and they’d see it.
The sprite danced ahead of her, occasionally disappearing into the maze of branches, and then back again to hover and wait, and then flying off ahead. At Nora’s question, she perched on a high, thin branch, her wings fluttering slightly to keep her balance with the sway. “You have to look,” she answered, as if it were obvious. “Look harder.” And she launched into the air again to spiral up above Nora and Westry’s heads, then shot off straight into the trees ahead again. “It’s here,” her voice drifted back to them on bells.
Westry sighed, and pumped his legs and arms harder after the girl. Look harder. It was the wanting that would do it, of course, that would make the scene twist and untwine and open up so that she could see it almost as if she were right there. Except that she wouldn’t be seen, to these echo-people, these memories. And best maybe, he thought, that Norie not be able to hear them – after all, Maeve Calhoun hadn’t had many kind things to say to her babe in those months, or to Fionn Fhaolain. But she would hear it, he knew.
“Ah, damn,” he breathed softly as he skidded to a stop. Maybe they had stumbled onto a clearing in the autumn-woods, or maybe they had fallen into a chasm. But that mountain-side spot was there, the shelter in the early morning, and the figures shimmering into solidity as Nora stopped herself, eyes widening.
“Is that them? All of them?” she asked breathlessly. Ten feet away, or a thousand, and more than a dozen years, or perhaps just minutes. Dark eyes moved across the scene, counting them, trying to put names to those faces she had never seen.
“Most of ‘em,” Westry acknowledged as he stepped up next to her, trying to recover his wind after the dash through the woods. “They don’t pick up the mage, Enris, until after the clan-battle. And, o’ course, Eric Dunn doesn’t join ‘em until the Hold.” He patted his pockets again, searching for his spectacles. “And two of ‘em here won’t make it all the way. The boy, Pierre,” having finally located the eye-glasses, he used them to point towards the young musician, “and the artist, Daron.” The dark-haired woman could be barely seen, retreating into the then-trees, the ones on that mountainside, off for her morning bath. “And,” he added with just a note of exasperation as he perched his spectacles on his nose and nearly glared up at the twinkling sprite, “Tirlina isn’t here yet.”
The sprite, sitting on a branch above his head with her tiny legs dangling, gave him a brief, sour look, then returned her interested gaze to the scene before them.
“But I am,” Nora breathed, and watched as the slender form of Maeve Calhoun (oh she was thin, then, with a pinched look about her face, not more than a year or two older than Nora was now) stepped over to the blankets to gingerly lift an infant from where it lay next to a dozing wolf. Holding the child with little gentleness, she turned to walk back to Laurelyn Hillrover (Nora knew that face well enough, and the auburn hair), not noticing how the wolf’s eyes opened to study her as she moved.
And with that, Nora’s eyes turned back to the large animal, surprised realization crossing her face. “That’s Rudolpho!” she exclaimed.
“Yep,” Westry agreed. The ballads about the battle at the Dun sung of the gypsy boy, and how he had shifted there, and fought to protect a young serving girl. “And there – the unconscious fellow on the litter – that’s Ulric. And the little man,” Westry continued, showing no sign that he recognized the irony of his calling the taller Hortus a `little man,’ “that is Keir. They were the ones who saved you at the Dun from those as wanted to toss you and Maeve over the walls.” The bogle considered the Hortus – who was busily tending to Ulric’s wound – with a note of pride. “Keir guarded you most of that night, you know. Some of ‘em made the mistake of underestimating him because of his height.”
Nora glanced sideways at that comment, biting the corner of her mouth to keep from grinning. The bogle’s disgruntlement at sometimes being treated as nothing more than a household helping-hand was well-known. “I know,” she answered softly. That part of the song Fionn had sung for her before, and every time he did, she could hear, and nearly feel, how much her uncle wanted to sing it for the Hortus himself.
Stepping gingerly into the scene, Nora crept around the edges, around to where Keir stooped over the unconscious Ulric, and crouched down next to him. Don’t touch them, she reminded herself, knowing instinctively that the force of her wanting might scatter the images if she tried. “I couldn’t tell you then,” she whispered to the unhearing Keir, “and maybe I’ll never get a chance to tell you in person. But thank you.” She stretched out one hand hesitantly, fingers hovering over Ulric’s closed eyes. “My thanks to both of you.” Don’t touch. She wanted to, though, she wanted to feel them and make them real, more than just someone else’s memories.
Nora stayed there for a few moments more, then straightened as two more figures stepped into the circle – Thomis Parch, with that scar across his nose (she knew him, she’d seen him many times before, with Laurelyn at his side) and … Fionn. A dozen years younger, and his eyes (her eyes) so obviously full of anger. Even now, this long afterwards, she could see how he kept his stare on fixing the litter to be pulled behind one of the horses, and away from Maeve. “How did you ever put up with them?” she asked Tirlina. Even now, Nora herself found the two sometimes unbearably stubborn.
“I didn’t,” Tirlina smiled, a hint of a giggle in her voice. “I spent all my time with you.” She hovered over Nora’s shoulder, holding back now to stay even with Westry, letting Nora’s moment take her where she would have it go. The sprite dipped closer to Nora’s ear then, and added in a conspiratorial tone, “I almost did something about it, but it’s probably better that I never interfered.” There were times even now when Tirlina was still tempted to interfere, but she didn’t add that aloud, for fear Nora would get some ideas she shouldn’t.
Nora looked sideways at Tirlina, a sly expression in her eyes, and it was obvious to both the fey that a thought best left alone had passed through her mind. “They both needed a good kick in the rear,” she answered Tirlina. “Still do, sometimes.” A lot of hurt might have been avoided, for all three of them, if only Fionn had been able to bring himself to speak earlier. Instead, he had done too much glowering, leaving Maeve to turn over and over again in her heart all that she had done wrong … all the while, just continuing the hurt.
Here, now, Nora could do what Fionn had not – she walked after Maeve Calhoun and Laurelyn Hillrover, unashamedly eaves-dropping on a conversation that she had heard before, at a time when she was too young to understand it. I was here, she reminded herself. It wasn’t as if she were a stranger coming in, where she didn’t belong. So when Westry gave her that look, the one that said maybe she should leave the private conversation private, she just returned it evenly, and stepped closer.
“Can ye tell me the lay of the land? How unhospitable is this region to Hillrovers these days?” Laurelyn’s voice, when she spoke, was pitched low; odd to hear it, just slightly different from the voice Nora knew now, in some subtle way that the girl could not explain.
“I honestly don’t know,” Maeve answered quietly. She had both arms wrapped around the half-dozing babe (Me, Nora thought, that’s me). “The past few months I have not been …” Her fair skin flushed, redder than the unruly hair on her head. “Since I was three months gone with the child, I ha’ been without clan, without any to speak to me except – except him.” She indicated Fionn with one jerk of her head, her mouth turning in displeasure. “The lines change, ye know that yer ownself, from month to month, sometimes from week to week.”
Westry almost winced at the faint note of scorn in Maeve’s voice, and the passing note of surprise on Nora’s face. The girl had taken, easily enough, the sight of her mother, little taller than Nora was now, thin and pale and with a worn dress and shawl. But she hadn’t expected, perhaps, to feel so acutely the division between Maeve and Fionn. “She isn’t going to want to hear this,” he murmured, so only Tirlina could hear.
The sprite shrugged mid-air, appearing unconcerned, then she dipped down to be more level with Westry’s shoulder, the blur of her wings sparkling in the sunlight – although from which time was impossible to tell. “Trying to stop her will only make her more determined,” Tirlina answered softly, her tiny child-like voice holding an incongruous note of aged wisdom. “Let her discover her own truths. She will either accept them for what they are – her past – or recoil and never look for them again.”
“Nay, she’ll not recoil.” He knew that much, as surely as he knew the weight of his feet. Norie had come up strong, and if he hadn’t found the sprite so frustrating sometimes, he might have admitted that Tirlina had more than a bit to do with that. But he hated every hurt that came to her, and there was a world of pain in this. Not just hers. “It’s hard, I know,” he said back to her, softly, “to hear how ye ha’ been part of a great tale, and to ‘member none o’ it. And mayhap,” he acknowledged, “to love so desperately folk ye never met.”
He suspected Nora didn’t even realize that yet, how the songs had bedazzled her eyes with the glamour of it all. And glamour there was to it – not just Tirlina’s, but that born by all of them. If not, this scene wouldn’t be here now, waiting for the girl to call it forth. But behind the glamour was a great deal of grief, and blood – magic that was, too, but a darker one than he would have wished for the child.
“True,” Laurelyn answered softly – knowing they were all about to ride into a territory that fluctuated with the abandon of the winds. “Have you a direction you’re heading?” she asked. “We’re headed for Morrow’s Hold – you’d have a wider range of places to go from there. Nor do the fisher folk care about clans. Though,” she added, “you know better than the rest what risk we’ll be riding into.”
“You don’t know,” Nora whispered, to no one in particular. Neither of them did – they had no idea what darkness would rise in the Dun of B’ron, or the terrors and mad hope of the Star Dreamer. So much they didn’t know, that Nora could have told them – could have told that infant, the sleeping Rue – about everyone in the party. Their hopes, their griefs.
Behind them, the wolf had risen, padding along, and almost instinctively Maeve had shied away. With that movement, Nora had considered offering unheard reassurances – `It’s not a wolf,’ she might have said. `It’s Rudolpho.’ But Maeve would not have heard; only later would she learn about the orphaned gypsy boy. Only later would she come to find him a doughty defender, a brother, a friend. Only later would she realize how she would weep to see him go, and every spring would wait in Morrow’s Hold with the hope of seeing gypsy caravans, draped in bright silk, making their creaking way towards the village. Only later would she learn how she would rejoice to see a tall young man with laughing black eyes who (blessedly enough) had never felt the need to chuckle too loudly at Nora’s girlish crush.
“I dinna know whether he’ll let me go,” Maeve answered with a faint note of self-pity, nodding towards Fionn, who chose that moment to give her a grim look. “Is it wrong,” she continued in a rush, as if trying to say something before she could stop herself, “to not want yer babe?” She looked at Laurelyn, squinting in the morning sunlight. “Like there’s something missing in me, the part that should want her.” In her arms, the baby yawned, and briefly stretched before settling back into its doze.
The look that passed over Nora’s face at those words was enough to make Westry half turn away. Tirlina knew it better than he, knew how willful Maeve Calhoun had been, and heedless of the child she held. Heedless, too, and blind to the reasons that kept Fionn by her side. In the dozen years since, mother and daughter had achieved a mostly easy accommodation … but this Maeve was not the older one, with more wisdom on her. This Maeve was the child-mother, lost and hurting and not caring much who else she turned her pain against.
When Maeve and Laurelyn stepped further away, Nora stood in place, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. She chewed her bottom lip, in the same way Maeve did at the same moment – a moment more than a decade before – mulling over what she had heard. The bogle knew she had been told all this, in at least an oblique way, by Maeve and Fionn themselves. And she was a strong girl, he reminded himself, as cheery now as she had been as a babe.
A rustling of some nearby bushes broke over the murmured voices of the women, and a flop-eared brown pup scampered over to where Laurelyn and Maeve had eventually stopped, and then skidded to an unsteady halt. He looked up at Laurelyn first, and cocked his head sideways for a few seconds with a slightly bemused, but undoubtedly cheerful expression on his face. Then, after a short yap, looked up at Maeve and again cocked his head to one side. This time he sat staring at her with wide, deep, sad brown eyes, and a disconsolate face, for a long minute of silence. He let out a quiet whimper and dropped his gaze to the baby, before letting out another. Somewhere off to his left, a bird let out a squawk of indignation and fluttered nervously from the undergrowth. The pup’s head whipped around, and he galloped off, yapping and barking fiercely.
The sight was enough to make Nora toss her head back and laugh aloud. Turning away from where Laurelyn and Maeve continued their conversation at a distance, she watched the pup half-tumble after his prey. “In your pocket?” she called out to Tirlina, reminding the sprite of how she had protected the animal on the Star Dreamer. “You didn’t have any rabbits or birds in there with him, did you?”
Tirlina shook her head, smiling. “Perhaps just a bit of bunny fur, but nothing to chase, fortunately.”
The girl’s dark eyes moved from the rapidly disappearing pup-tail, across the encampment, to the last figure, one she hadn’t looked at too closely yet. In every song, ballad, and tale, he was the first to join them, the darkest figure of them all, though garbed in motley. Nora stepped closer, softly this time, for the songs said he had magic. And Luatha and Westry himself had warned her, long ago, that sometimes when you stepped back through the trods, those you looked upon might – if gifted, or cursed – raise their eyes and look back at you. Fey could do it (best perhaps that Tirlina had not been with them at this point – how odd to think of the sprite looking back on herself and meeting her own eyes) and sometimes non-fey could, too.
Again Nora crouched down, hands on knees, near where he sat, and looked more closely, memorizing the lines of his face. None of the songs had yet riddled him out, and probably never would. Even Laurelyn’s, or the one they all said came from her, only hinted at the boon he had asked of the Captain – the pup back again, and his loved ones. But he had gone into the silver tunnel, and come back again, with only Fiend at his heels. And as far as she knew (though she realized that maybe none of those involved would tell her), he had never accepted the offer to return to sit by the Hillrover fire. Never returned to the highlands, where the bards named him in honor. Never returned to Morrow’s Hold. Instead, he had ridden off with only pony and pup, beyond where the trods could take her.
“Thank you,” Nora whispered. “Whether you want it or not, motley-man.” No response. But as he pulled a long, red handled knife from one of the pockets on his crumpled clothes, she stumbled back in surprise – the tales, unstinting in their bloodiness, made clear exactly what the jester could do with those blades – and landed firmly on her bottom.
Where she gaped at him as he began to trim lightly at his finger nails. The sight of it made Westry grin in relief. Half-afraid he had been that the echo of the jester might actually turn the point at the girl and demand to know who she was and what brought her there. Nora just returned his grin, and bounded back to her feet (though well away from the figure) to dust off the seat of her trousers. Around them, the others had begun to break the camp, strapping down the wounded Ulric, the wolf off to fetch Daron, Laurelyn stepping forward to speak to them.
Then the storyteller pitched her tone loud enough to carry to all in camp, and said, “Saddle up friends, and stay alert. I had planned on a civil discussion on this but with all the interruptions I’ll make this short and clean – we’re riding into disputed territory. Territory disputed between the Hillrovers and the MacLenans – and unfortunately you’re riding with the daughter of the Hillrover chief. So any who consider that too dangerous for their taste I’ll give you a map to Morrow’s Hold – neither clan is inclined to raid on travelers who are willing to leave them alone. The worst, and it’s bad enough, is that you might ride into a clan battle. The least will be is that you’re stopped and asked to identify yourself, and more than likely treated to a warm hall and food – as clan hospitality demands.”
Laurelyn looked over at Ulric’s litter and added, “It’s my hope that we can reach a nearby village and let a couple of you take in him. So he can be cared for while he heals.”
Nora giggled at the thought – the sound overlapping strangely with the chuckle of the infant Fionn was settling into the carrier slung over his shoulders. “I think they should plan for the worst. And don’t you dare,” she said, turning to point one finger at the storyteller, “don’t you dare leave Ulric in any nearby village. I’m going to need him at the Dun, you know.”
“Nay, they dinna know,” Westry said easily, waving her over to his side. “But they’ll learn soon enough.” He knew the girl would want to see that, too, look upon what had happened at the Dun, though it was questionable whether she would be able to do so. The place had been wrapped up quite firmly by the clan bards, their songs and bindings holding it even in the trods. And there were some things and some places that even the fey agreed should not be gazed upon again … places where the visitors might find themselves pulled into the memory of it; the Dun, overrun with walking dead and blood curses was one of those. If she were to do it, it would have to be with more than simply Tirlina and Westry to protect her.
Nora would want it, though, he could tell from the way she watched with a hungry gaze as they mounted their horses, or set off on foot. She wanted to take the journey again, this time with eyes old enough to remember.
“Another day,” he said gently, nudging her to go back. The then-trees already were fading, dissolving against the autumn-woods. “No hurry, girl – you know how it ends, after all.”
“Not for all of them,” she retorted, truthfully enough, and wistfully, but she did not resist, and instead stepped back to let the mountainside clearing disappear. “May the threads carry you home,” she whispered at the fading backs. “May the patterns weave us together again.” She wasn’t sure what exactly that meant, but Thomis had taught it to her, and it had the sound and weight of a wish he still carried, one she would repeat for him. She owed him that much at least, and more.
The circle had not turned yet to bring some of them back, and there were no promises that it ever would. Still, she could hope and wish for it, for the sake of Thomis and Laurelyn, Fionn and Maeve. Even for herself. Madder wishes had come true, after all, for little reason other than the recklessness of hope, and love, and longing.
Maybe, someday, the wanting would be enough.
Note: This photograph used under Creative Commons license.