Rannith eyed Áine with mild suspicion. For untold millennia she had watched over the M’Lauchlin’s fortunes, her unearthly shrieks foretelling the passing of many of the ancient clan. But as they watched the unsuspecting mortal youth something in her demeanour unsettled the warrior Fianna Sidhe.
The moon had crested and columns of silvery light pierced the woodland canopy,magically transforming its interior. It was a scene that fifteen-year-old Conner M’Lauchlin had witnessed many times and had never tired of.
A suffusion of wild garlic and lavender scented the evening air as he lay beneath the majestic oak. it was the same scent he had smelt the night his grandfather had died; the same pervasive odour that had caused a gaggle of his ageing aunts, who had traveled from Ireland to return his ashes to his beloved homeland, to sough of the ‘white lady of sorrow’ at his funeral.
As to what they had alluded, he was never told. Nevertheless, as had happened on each those occasions, he had the familiar sense of being watched by unseen eyes. From his vantage point on the hill he looked about him, but all was calm and serene. Only the gentle murmur of the leaves high in the canopy disturbed the night.
Once again he felt the troubling presence close by. Unnerved, he decided it was time to leave. Taking hold of the rope swing hanging from an overhead branch, he leapt into space. Down he sped, the wind whistling passed his ears in his gathering momentum as the steep embankment dropped abruptly away beneath him. Outward and upward he soared, intersecting the dirt track far below in an exhilarating arc that took his breath away. At the apex of his climb a resounding crack rang out. The once tense rope coiled back on itself and he plummeted earthward into the unyielding woodland floor.
Seconds passed. Áine remained mute, unmoving and unchanging.
Rannith turned in bewilderment, wondering why she had not transformed into the wailing hag. Only now did he see the inner turmoil reflected in her eyes. She was struggling against her very nature; fighting desperately against the need to perform the caoineadh.
Conner awoke from his brief period of unconsciousness to the frightening realisation that he was completely paralysed. It would be hours before his drunken father would even notice his absence. By then it might be far too late; his fertile imaginings having already conjured up frightening scenarios of how death might overcome him. He thought too of his grandfather, the one comforting and stabilising influence in his chaotic life, and of how he would soon be joining him. In the midst of his anguish he heard a soft voice say, “Look, Rannith, he still lives!”
“Aye, but for how long, Áine?” he heard another say, “He is beyond saving. Do what you must and have done with it.”
Conner blinked away clouds of tears and gasped in awe at the sight before him. Only in faerie tale picture books had he seen her like before. From beneath a cowled, mist-like, cloak intensely green eyes held him spellbound. Her scarlet mantle flowed fluidly on the night breeze as if possessed of a life of its own. Shrouded though she was, he could see her delicate form and her pale face framed by an abundance of red-golden hair. He was instantly struck by her height. She was far taller than the images he’d seen depicted in the picture books of his childhood. By his reckoning she was at least two inches taller than himself.
She approached the stricken teenager then turned to her companion, gasping, “He sees me!”
“Aye, and the moon is made of cheese.” he heard the gruff voice quip, his cold eyes narrowing as he came into view. Though somewhat smaller than his companion, he was powerfully built and wore a draggletailed calfskin skirt and tunic. A large broadsword was slung casually over his shoulder, lending a sense of menace to his medieval attire.
Conner’s face betrayed his fear at the warrior Sidhe’s approach.
“Finvarra’s beard! He does see us!” Rannith declared.
“Please don’t leave me here, Áine!”
Ignoring Conner’s plea, the masterful Sidhe again counselled abandonment.
Áine‘s response was swift and vociferous. “Would that your wit was as quick as your tongue, quarrelsome troll!
The insult of being addressed as a ‘troll’ had the desired affect and he fell into a stunned silence.
“Speak no more and heed my warning, for if the Great Council ever get wind of what takes place this night I will know how and will denounce you as a quisling.”
Fianna defiance was legendary, but no match when pitted against the wiles of a bean-sidhe. She would indeed carry out her threat, to the destruction of them both, should he inform the Council of her actions. Nevertheless, this latest humiliation could not go unchallenged and as he stomped off to a nearby hillock he, too, made a vow.
Áine’s touch was as cool and as inviting as her lavender scent and a strange sensation began coursing through his broken body. His limbs twitched and tingled as life gradually retuned to them. After a few hesitant movements he felt strong enough to haul himself up against a nearby sycamore.
So engrossed had Rannith been in the licking of his own wounds, he did not see what was taking place until it was too late. He leapt forward with an unbridled look of disbelief on his face. “Are you completely moonstruck? The Great Council will have our heads for this!” he cried, “It is forbidden to interfere in the life of a ‘leveller'”
Though wary of the enraged fay Conner spoke out, “I won’t say nothin’ to nobody, so I won’t!”
“How easily such oaths slip from the tongues of humans when it suits them.” Rannith told Áine, pulling his broadsword from his shoulder and pointing it menacingly in Conner’s direction. “Now I too will swear an oath, ‘leveller’,” he said, “Though I am foresworn never to bring harm upon your kind, I pledge that if you should ever violate your promise it will be the worse for you.” With that, he strode of into the undergrowth, ruminating further on his great misfortune.
Bewildered and afraid, Conner asked, “How come he hates me so much?
“To know that you must first know this: your stories tell how we were once the human tribe of the Tuatha De Danaan, of how we were defeated by the Milesians and retreated to the hill raths, the Sidhes, to become what we are now. But your stories are false. Between the dawning of the very first day and the first waning of the moon we fay of the Otherworld came into existence. For aeons we have been the guardians of this world, living by nature’s laws. With the dawning of man came change. At first they, like us, lived in harmony and revered nature’s order, but with the passing of time their hunger for power and wealth grew and they began plundering the earth. The great forests that were once our playing grounds and home to the sacred groves where we worshiped are now all but gone; levelled by your kind.”
Conner understood now why the fearsome fay referred to him as ‘leveller’, but argued that as mankind was unaware of their existence they could hardly be held responsible for their actions.
Áine smiled at his naivety as she slowly circled him. “It has not always been so.” she said, adding, “Once we were revered by your ancestors, but as time passed they spread out across the world like a plague. Their conquests took them far from their homeland. Soon they turned their backs on the ‘Old Ones’. They embraced new gods who had no place for such as us. New religions came into the world and for countless generations we have lived in dark and uncertain times. We have become the stuff of myth and legend; a frightening travesty of what we truly are.”
“Are you the ‘White Lady of Sorrow‘?” he asked.
The question had come innocently enough to his lips. The full import of his query, however, was not lost on Áine who replied cautiously, “I am known by many names.”
Rannith, whose sense of hearing was every bit as acute as his sense of betrayal, had picked up on their conversation. He cast aside the bulb of wild garlic he had been gnawing on and strode up to them with mischief in mind. “Aye, leveller, she is known by many names, some more accursed than others. Mark my words;” he warned, “you may have escaped the sound of her lament this night, but it will not always be so.”
Áine scolded him. “Were your black heart not filled with hatred and mistrust, foul imp, you would see the boy for what he truly is!”
The warrior-Sidhe knew in his heart of hearts that there was something special about the teenager. That he could see and converse with them and had done so without their bidding was beyond doubt and unheard of. From what he had gleaned of his father, he was undoubtedly human. But what of his mother?
“Her name was Aislinn. That’s all I know about here,” he said in response to Rannith’s query, She left home after I was born.”
“I am Rannith of the Fianna Sidhe. For centuries I have wandered the earth and I know a liar when I hear one, ‘leveller'”.
Enraged by his high and mighty attitude, Áine found herself revealing more than she had intended. “He is of the bloodline Cionlighct, like me!”
Though taken aback by her revelation, Rannith studied the pair keenly. Each had the same conspicuous green eyes, the same pale complexion and finely sculpted features. Be that as it may, it was going to take more than mere similitude of features to convince him of the boy’s bean-sidhe/human hybridity.
“Are you my ma?” asked a somewhat confused Conner.
“No leveller, she is not.” Rannith cut in, “When a Sidhe – what you call faerie give itself to a human it is no longer Sidhe but becomes an immortal of your race, and can no longer return to our realm. Their immortality now becomes a curse. It’s ageless nature betrays it, so it cannot stay in one place too long. It is cursed never to see its offspring grow into adulthood, and that is why Áine cannot be your ma.”
He tells the truth, Conner. Though I am not your mother, I knew her as well as any sister could,” she said
“You have no siblings! Sidhe are not born like humans,” affirmed Rannith, “We are created by the will of our parents and the primal universal source and the essence of magical things.”
“It is as you say: I have no blood sister.” confirmed Áine, “The one of whom I speak was my sister in common purpose; the one whose love you sought, but could never attain and for whom you have searched these many years.”
Rannith erupted into a sudden rage. “You lie, foul ell-maid! Merle would never consort with a human.
Áine did not shrink from his outburst, but laid her hand gently on his shoulder. “Though she was my friend I was not blind to her conceit and vainglorious ambition. She despised her duality. The transfiguration of the keening that turned her into a hag was abhorrent to her. She sought perpetual beauty in the only way she could. Your search is at an end. The truth of what I say sits before you.”
He looked at Conner for what seemed an eternity before speaking. “Because you are the son of Merle – for that is her true name – and innocent in this matter I will bring no harm upon you.”
Áine watched the crestfallen warrior walk deep into the interior, unaware of the dark thoughts he entertained against those who had wronged him. She turned to Conner. “Return home now and tell no one of what you have heard or seen.”
“Will I see you again?”
“You will, but I fear the circumstances of our next encounter will come sooner than we think”, she counselled, “Tonight the course of our lives has been irrevocably altered.”
Conner got home shortly after midnight in a high state of excitement. As usual he was met by the sight of his father lying in a drunken stupor on the sofa. Beside him lay an empty whiskey bottle. Should he wake him and tell him of his incredible night and risk the wrath of the warrior-Sidhe? Would knowing the secret of his wife’s duality and the secret of why she had deserted him make things any better? In the time it took to secure the house for the evening and throw a blanket over his father he had decided not to speak of what he knew.
In the ensuing weeks Conner became aware of the changes that had begun to assert themselves. His olfactory and auditory senses had become so acute that he could distinguish between the subtlest of odours, and could hear a whispered conversation from several yards away. His vision, too, had become remarkably enhanced. In the darkest of rooms he could make his way around without upsetting a single stick of furniture. His strength and athleticism had also improved. The schoolyard bullies now gave him a wide berth and thought twice about messing with him. Had the beautiful Áine done more than just heal him, he wondered.
Áine had seen nothing of Rannith since their confrontation in the forest and it troubled her. She knew the proud warrior well enough to know that he would exact some form of revenge, but didn’t dwell on the situation. Given time, she intended to introduce Conner into Sidhe society and had busied herself accordingly. It was a strategy that was fraught with danger, because the practice of abducting human children and replacing them with faerie changelings had long since been outlawed. On the other hand, there was a distinction in Conner’s case: he was not fully human nor a completely hapless child. However, events were about to unfold that would expedite her plans.
Dawn was some five hours away and Conner was growing increasingly worried by his father’s lateness. His newly acquired and superior intuitive sense was telling him something was very wrong and so he set out in search of him, little knowing what he would find.
The Gancanagh Inn, or ‘Ballybogs’ as it was more affectionately known, had derived its epithet from the ballybog faeries of Irish folklore that were said to slobber instead of speaking intelligibly; a fitting soubriquet given that its patrons were often struck by the same malady after a night of revelling there. The Inn lay two miles east of the M’Lauchlin home and was Sean’s favourite watering hole. To cut several minutes from his journey he would invariably take the shortcut through Rowshield Wood. It was along this lonely trail that Conner expected to find him.
Moonlit, windblown leaves swirled down the embankment as he neared the spot where he had first encountered the strange duo. He stopped by the oak from which he had fallen and called out to Áine. There was no reply. He walked a little further and began to pick up on the faintest whiff of whiskey on the night breeze. Far ahead he heard an unearthly wail rise up and fall like crashing waves on a seashore; a mournful cry that sent icy chills up and down his spine. Despite his growing fear he picked up his pace and headed deeper into the wood.
On reaching the junction where the track forked he turned right, passing the old airshaft that had once serviced the now derelict coal mine some half mile down the opposite track. It didn’t take him long to realise that he was heading in the wrong direction. Though common sense told him that this was the path his father would have taken, his sense of smell was telling him otherwise. He was being drawn now toward the coal mine. But what could possibly have induced his father to take the wrong turning, he wondered. Even in his drunkest of states he had the unerring ability to find his way home. Bizarrely, too, the smell of wild garlic appeared more prevalent as he neared the site. Why this was so was a mystery, given that the vegetation was becoming increasingly sparse the closer he came to the pithead.
In the expansive clearing stood two ramshackled outbuildings; a single storey shower facility and an imposing three-storied administrative building. Now little more than shells, they were all that remained of the once industrious colliery. He followed his nose past the shower house and into the large office block, where the smell of dank decay and crumbling plaster greeted him as he picked his way through the ground floor. Above him he could hear the sounds of roosting pigeons and the occasional rat as it scurried in search of an easy meal. His father’s scent clung to the weathered walls, intermingling with the stench of garlic. He had been here quite recently. Conner called out to him, and was immediately met by a flurry of beating wings echoing throughout the cavernous building. Gradually, the frantic commotion ceased and he pushed on.
On entering a broad reception area he noticed an iron stairway leading up to the second floor and was about to ascend when something caught his eye. At the foot of a half opened door lay his father’s hip flask, a treasured heirloom that had been passed down through the generations from father to son. Nothing could have induced his father to part with it. He picked it up and shook the dirt from it.
A sudden and terrifying image crashed in on his consciousness, in which he saw his father running, desperately trying to evade some unknown terror pursuing him. He stumbled, gasping in great volumes of air that burnt his lungs. Behind him he could hear his pursuer’s footfalls drawing nearer. Staggering towards the office block, he turned for the briefest of moments to see an indefinable silhouette crash through the undergrowth.
Conner’s legs buckled and he slumped against the stairway. No matter how hard he tried to rationalise it he knew he had witnessed the last moments of his father’s life and cursed his benefactress for it. Picking up the discarded hip flask, he staggered out into the night.
The sharp, unearthly cry rose and fell as before. It was emanating from the beck that cut through the wood to the southeast. Conner was off and running as fast as his legs could carry him, crashing headlong through the brushwood. Swift and gazelle-like he negotiated the treacherous terrain until finally coming upon the swollen stream.
On the opposite bank, several hundred feet further up stream, lay an immense granite boulder that partially obscured the dark figure moving around at its base. He crept forward, but was soon forced to enter the fast flowing waters so as to remain unseen. He made his way forward, keeping the rock between himself and the foul smelling creature that lay beyond.
Slap! Slap! Slap!
The sound of something wet being beaten against a rock and the alarming cries that accompanied it brought Conner to a sudden halt. He was now within feet of his quarry. Emboldened at having gotten so close he leaned forward to take a peek at the nightmare that lay beyond, but his footing on the moss covered stones had been precarious at best and with a yelp of surprise he plunged headlong into the icy waters.
The fearsome crone let out an ear splitting shriek. She rose up from her squatting position as Conner emerged from the water. Eyes, fiery red from centuries of weeping, looked angrily down at him from a cadaverous face, her lank and dishevelled hair clinging to the pallid visage and the sodden grey garb she wore. Conner recoiled in horror at the gaping maw and the hellish sounds that erupted from it. She held out a wizened hand to him. From it fell his father’s shirt. Piled upon a flat rock at her feet lay the rest of his clothes. Next to them lay his broken corpse.
A startling crash came from further up stream and Conner turned to see Rannith leap from his perch in the trees into the beck. He strode forward through the surging water, broadsword in hand.
“Take it, leveller, and avenge your da!” he commanded, tossing the weapon to him. “Strike off its head while you still can!”
Conner looked deep into the fiery coals of the old hag’s eyes. He sniffed the atmosphere and in that instant knew what he had to do. The blade whistled cleanly through the air, neatly severing head from body. Rannith teetered for a moment before his decapitated body collapsed with a splash into the stream.
Conner’s action had been swift and decisive. At the very last moment he had seen something in the hags eyes, a reflection of his own duality. Were it not for the gifts she had bestowed upon him, of which the scheming warrior had been unaware, Áine’s fate would have been sealed. His father’s true killer now lay dead at his feet, the waters washing away the scent of whiskey and wild garlic from his saturated tunic.
Áine keened beneath the pale moon, calling upon the Prince of Death to carry away the soul of Sean M’Lauchlin to the realm of the dead.
For Conner another realm awaited.
© David Calvert 2011
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