Short Fiction

On the fifth day of Fic-mas, we travel to the past, to ancient places, origins, and peace that can’t last …

Author’s note:

Some of you know Ben Brody as the demon with a heart of gold in Always Darkest. But Ben wasn’t always a demon. He wasn’t even always a warrior. In the deep of winter long ago, he was only a little boy with a restless spirit. Just like it would centuries later, it sometimes led him into danger, and it almost always led him to magic.

Caraid is pronounced Key-er-aid. Beathan is pronounced Bay’en; and Bean is a nickname for it. Teasag is pronounced Ch-eh-za. Hin is a Gaelic word for honey/sweetie. The rest you can get from context.

 

Winter’s Sleep

The little boy, wrapped in his winter clothes, bearing his family’s colors, against the cold and damp, sat swinging his feet, smiling to himself, and having another little talk with the cat he had, once again, followed up here.

It wasn’t his cat.

But it could be. It had told him so. Not in so many words. But with its big golden eyes that were so much like his own. If those eyes marked him as something special like the village wise woman said, well then, they marked this cat, too.

He was going to call her Caraid. So far it felt like a fitting name. She’d been a lovely, loyal friend. He reached out to stoke her back, her bushy black tail. When he touched her, she glanced over the edge, looked at him with deep, wide eyes, and made a noise that was less a hiss and more a warning.

After his own eyes registered her communication, she scampered back from the edge, hiding behind the stone chimney in the middle of their round roof.

His mother stood on the ground far below him, hands on her hips, looking upset.

“Uh, oh,” slipped out of his mouth; that look said she might shout. He hated shouting.

Instead, she called up in a patient, almost cajoling voice, “Beathan, hin, what’re you doin’ up there, lad?”

He felt himself shrug, even though she was probably too far below to see it. “Talkin’ to Caraid,” he said simply.

She swallowed. “And who’s that, my love?”

He shrugged again. “My cat … Well, she’s her own cat. But she likes to let me pretend she’s mine. Sometimes.”

“Well, lovie … If she’s gone, whyn’t ye come on down then?” she asked, trying to keep from sounding too desperate, and almost succeeding.

“Well, I was lookin’ for Drustan, and Da’, and the boys from up here,” he answered matter-of-factly. “I wanted to know where they went.” He shifted closer to the edge, so he could see her face better.

From far up on his perch, he heard his mother gasp. He had forgotten again that she didn’t like the tall places. That was so silly, he thought. Tall places were where the fun was. “I won’t fall, Mama,” he called down to assure her in his small, almost musical little voice.

“Good lad!” his mother encouraged. “You weren’t thinkin’ a followin’ the boys, if you could see ’em, now were ya?”

He thought about how to answer.

“Um … Nnn … No, ma’am,” he said, not even believing it himself when he heard his own voice.

Now his mother truly frowned at him. “You get right down here now, Bean-ma-lad. You need to move the goat.”

He huffed in irritation and a little bit of dread. “Ach, Ma’, she don’ like me though.”

“She likes you just fine. C’mon now, my love. Come down.”

She reached up her hands as though she could actually catch him from that height and he grinned down at her. Then, ignoring her completely, he flipped over on his belly, like he did when no one was down below and lowered himself off the thatch bundles until his arms felt the strain of his weight. Thoughtlessly, without concern for the fall, he dropped to the ground from there, all the way down, tucked into a roll to absorb the impact, and hopped up at his mother’s feet.

“See, Mama,” he crowed. “Tall places are fun!”

Her eyes flashed at his reckless disregard for his own slender neck. In the event that the look meant she was wondering about whether or not she ought to beat some sense into him, he started off toward where the goat was tied up grazing on what was left of the grass, laughing a little and talking to himself about that ridiculous cat that had been lurking around. If Donal didn’t think the cat was a good omen, she’d have chased it off weeks ago.

Despite her youngest, and most likely last, little boy having just given her another heart-rending scare (the fourth one already this day, she thought, if she was keeping an accurate count), she smiled fondly at his retreating form. “When you’re done with the goat, you can come in and help me make the up the mulling spices!”

“Hooray!” he shouted and took off running. Getting to help in the kitchen meant extra food. Beathan was always happy for a chance at extra food. Especially when it was all cold out. He hated the cold something fierce.

His mother’s eyes widened again as she saw him pounding across the frosted ground in his bare feet. She shouted after him, “Beany, hin, where are your boots?”

He called back over his shoulder, “I traded them with Rabbie for his honey sweets!” he called back over his shoulder.

“Again!?!” she shouted in pure exasperation as he disappeared around the curved wall of their little house, running full tilt.

A slender blond woman came around the corner, shawl around her shoulders, and baby tucked in her arms. Beathan’s mother smiled at her daughter-in-law and newest granddaughter. “Ah, Cinnie, what will I do with him?”

Cinnie laughed. “Was our little Bean up on the roof again?”

“What do you think?”

The young woman with the profusion of curling hair and light brown eyes that twinkled whenever she thought of her husband’s little brother, shook her head as she saw the small bare footprints in the frost and dirt, thinking you had to love a lad who so effortlessly confounded his mother in her attempts to remind him he was just a wee little thing, and not ready for the wide world just yet.

She smiled at her mother-in-law. “What do I think? I think he’s bored spitless. Our Bean hates the winter, especially the dark of it before winter’s sleep ends and the sun returns.”

“That’s only a few days away,” the older woman replied.

“Tis at that,” Cinnie said. “But I also think Drus’ and the boys should have taken him on the hunt with them.”

“But he’s so small, he hasn’t really hit his growth yet and …”

“And you an’ Donal place to much stock in what the Seer says about our Bean. Just let him be a boy. He’s going to find a way anyway.”

She nodded. “I suppose you’re right. He might have liked to go looking for the Midwinter feast’s kill with his father and the rest of the lads. Drustan offered to take him, look after him, but we …”

“Drus and I are always happy to have him with us. House full o’ girls so far. Bean keeps Drus on his toes. Me, too.”

“He was awfully upset when they left … He didn’t say so … But it did set him lookin’ for that cat again. He was up there talkin’ to her, I believe.”

Cinnie teased, “Best watch out for ‘im. He’ll wind up running off with the Wise Ones if he keeps on like that. Talkin’ to animals and the like. There’s magic about our Bean.”

His mother shook her head ruefully. “He magically turns my hair grey! He’s so keen to go join the hunt, to go into battle … This is only his sixth Midwinter, Cinnie!”

“But he’s already got the spirit of the rest of the men in the family, Mother,” she replied, shifting the baby in her arms. “If they’d give him a little training, it might settle him some.”

“I’m afraid he’s just going to chase after them anyway,” she sighed. “He’s such a restless little thing.”

Cinnie nodded, thoughtful. “I’ll talk to ‘im if you like,” she offered.

“That would be wonderful. He listens to you and Drus.” She held out her hands. “Here, give me my granddaughter.”

Cinnie handed off the baby, wrapped her shawl more closely around her shoulders, and made her way to where the goat had been tethered earlier. The boy was right where she expected. The tow-headed little fellow was just about eye-level with the big goat.

“Don’t do it, Nanny!” he ordered, his voice sounding deeper than usual. He was mimicking his older brother Drustan’s commanding tone. “Don’t!”

Cinnie almost laughed when the goat gave a toss of her head and butted him, almost gently, in the stomach, sending him over onto his back. He glared at the goat and spat, “Fackin’ ‘ell. I’d roast you fer the feast in a minute! But nobody wants to eat ornery goat!”

“Such a mouth on such a sweet boy!” Cinnie pretended to be shocked.

He looked up at her and gave her a sideways grin. “Drus says it.”

“And that makes it gold. I know how you are,” she smiled down at him and offered a hand.

He took it and leapt back up, dusting himself off. He looked at the goat and sighed, then his jaw took on a familiar stubborn set and he seemed prepared to dive back in and try to get close enough to un-stake her tether again.

Cinnie dropped down into a crouch so they’d be eye to eye. “Don’t worry about the goat, little Bean. I’ll move her for you.”

He frowned, “It got it. Ma said it was my job.”

“But I have something so much more important for you to do, mo a bhobain.”

He shook his head. “I’m not a rascal!” He tried to sound indignant, but anyone could hear that he sounded more flattered than anything.

“But you are my darling,” she said, and he ducked his head, clearly very pleased. “I need you to do something, or we can’t have the Midwinter Feast.”

His bright golden eyes were wide. “What?”

“I need you to go find and cut some mistletoe.”

“Oh,” his face fell. “I can’t do it. I don’t have my own knife yet.”

She grinned and took a smallish package out of the folds of her dress. It was wrapped in linen and tied with string. She held it out for him to see, but didn’t offer it to him just yet.

“This was going to be your present after the feast, you see. Drus and I thought it was time you had your own. I’ve seen the way you eye those snares Osh sets. And you’ll be joining the hunt before you know it.”

He smiled hugely, anticipating what was in the package from its size and shape. He started bouncing on the balls of his bare feet, just a little. “I hope so,” he breathed. The hunt was all he’d been thinking about since the men started talking over this one days ago.

“No one remembered that we needed the mistletoe when they left this morning. And Mother is busy preparing for the feast, I’ve got little Teasag on the breast from dawn to dusk … You’re the only one around for the job, Bean.”

He grinned again, squaring his small shoulders proudly and holding out his hand. She handed him the package and sat down on the cold ground, crisscrossing her legs and inviting him into her lap. He plopped down and let her wrap her shawl around him as he untied the string.

“Oh!” he gasped as the linen wrapping fell away. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered, turning the perfectly sharp, straight little blade over in his hands. He fingered the sun-bleached cord that made up the handle, and grinned. “I love it!”

He gave her an enthusiastic one-armed hug, that was more to keep the knife in his other hand that it was any kind of reserve in dolling out affection. “Use it wisely and carefully, hin,” she admonished, letting him get to his feet, and climbing to her own.

“Oh, I will,” he promised seriously.

She suppressed her smile at the idea that her little rascal could do anything carefully. “I know you will, lad. Now off with ya!” She patted his little blond head and gave him a gentle push in the direction of the forest.

He took off running like the lives of everyone in the village depended on it.

~~~~

The little boy wandered around the edges of the wood. He spent an inordinate amount of time tagging along after the local fiosaiche, Daira, so he knew more than most of the adults in his life about the local plants, especially those with ritual significance. She was also a wealth of information about the local legends, and magic. Though the boy wondered if such a thing really existed.

The seer had made much of him since the day of his birth, seemed to believe him to be important somehow. He didn’t know about important, but he knew he liked to learn things, to know things. And Daira knew more than most, so he let her fuss over him, and talk at him, and ask him to do things like bring water. Knowledge was worth some work.

He was starting to think that maybe he was going to let Cinnie, let the whole village down, because he hadn’t seen a single bristly mistletoe leaf or berry in many hours. But then, the boy was distracted as a fluffy black form streaked past his leg and into the wood.

“Caraid!” he shouted. When the cat didn’t stop he darted into the tree line to chase after her. There were wolves in the wood, and while he didn’t think much about what they might do to him this close to sunset, he did worry for his furry friend.

He chased after her for some time. And as he looked around a small clearing, he found himself just a little lost. There was nothing in his character that would let him panic about that, but he did think, just for a minute, that maybe he shouldn’t have traded boots for sweets with his friend Rabbie.

He turned in circles, trying to decide from whence he’d come. But nothing looked familiar, and he was so deft in his movement, so quick, so silent when he was on the run, there weren’t even any bent branches or bruised leaves to tell him which way to go.

He was starting to feel the barest beginnings of wanting … not to panic … but maybe to cry a little. He was angry with himself for not having gone after Caraid more carefully. He’d begun to shiver, and a single tear slipped down one cheek when a voice said, “Are you alright, my boy?”

He looked up, and mostly hidden beneath a black cloak and a dark cowl, was quite possibly the ugliest, most wrinkled, and strangest old woman he’d ever seen standing by the edge of the clearing he currently found himself completely lost in. “I … um …” he dragged a hand over his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I’m good.”

The old woman smiled at the boy. He thought for a minute that no matter how hideous and strange her face was, her smile was beautiful. It reminded him of Cinnie, of his mother, of the little girl next door that his father was always warning him away from. There was something about a woman’s smile, he thought, that just conveyed peace and happiness. To him anyway.

He stepped toward her. “Are you alright?” he asked with an entirely vulnerable expression that told her unequivocally he was offering his help if she wasn’t.

She dipped her scraggly head in what he interpreted as an invitation to move closer. “I seem to be caught up on some underbrush.” She indicated her cloak that was almost tearing with the thorns it was caught on.

He moved forward, taking his new knife out of the woven rope belt that held his tunic closed. “Let me help,” he offered.

“Thank you, my boy,” she said in her strange, husky voice. As he knelt to cut her free, she asked, “What’re you doing so far out here, child? It’s nearly dark. The wood is dangerous at night.”

He sawed away at her tangled cloak, focused almost entirely on that. “I was out looking for the mistletoe for the feast, but then I saw my … I saw a … cat … Caraid … run in here. I was worried she might run into the wolves, so I …” he trailed off, expecting the usual adult-delivered dressing down he got at home when he did something impulsive to save some animal, make some village girl smile, or just keep himself entertained.

Instead, the old woman just nodded. “It’s a fine thing to care for the animals that speak their wisdom to us.”

Instead of finding the statement about talking to animals odd, the little boy just tried to focus on getting the last edge of her wrapping free from the burdock it was ensnared in. Daira spoke about the speech of animals all the time. It didn’t even register to him as odd.

Finally, he got the last corner of the woman’s covering free. “There!” he said triumphantly. “You’re free!”

The woman nodded, and drew her cowl closer around her face, but the little blond boy saw a flash of the visage beneath. It was of a beautiful young woman. Prettier even than Cinnie. Prettier than Rabbie’s older sister. Prettier than the little girl next door. He took a stumbling step back.

“You’re the Cailleach Bheur!” he nearly shouted.

A much fruitier, more musical voice than before answered him. “Why would such a little lad, know such complicated names?” she asked, laughing. The sound reminded him of the way mead poured into mugs, or the way the river sounded at the first spring thaw.

“My friend Daira told me about you,” he said. There was no tentativeness in his words. He knew her. And he wasn’t afraid. He welcomed this, she thought. Such a curious little soul.

“I know your friend Daira,” the woman said, with fondness. “And I know of you, little man.”

He slipped the knife back into his rope belt, and stood with his hands on his hips. He wasn’t thinking of why this being, this powerful goddess, might know him; he thought only that her magic was so great, she would end the winter’s sleep. He hated the sleep, longed for the summer, for the festival of first fruits and the celebration of his birth. That meant she might teach him something of value.

“Do you know any magic?” he asked, wide-eyed.

“Ach, lad, I know all the magic.”

“Would you show me some?” he asked, in awe.

“Oh, little Ben,” she replied. She mispronounced his name, but he thought it would be rude to correct her. “You have so much magic in your future, it would be unfair to show it to you now.”

He hung his head for a moment, disappointed in the way that only small children can be. Then he looked up, grinning at her, even though she had now hidden her face. “Okay, but … could you maybe help me find some mistletoe?”

She walked with him for a little way, boosted him up onto a sturdy branch, and watched him cut a beautiful bundle of mistletoe.

“That’ll make the feast a more wholesome place, lad. It’ll wake the whole land. You’ve done well.”

He smiled again. Then he looked around, just a little apprehensive. Sunset was upon them, and dark was coming.

She let her hood fall away, and he saw her beautiful countenance, her soft pink-lipped smile, her blue-grey eyes. He thought he’d never seen lovelier eyes. The little silver flecks made him think of his own metallic eyes. Eyes that were so important to Daira. Eyes told a story, she had said.

“I … do you know the way back to my … Cinnie is going to be worried, and Mama I suppose … and I …”

“Don’t worry, lad,” the beautiful young woman told her small hero. “You’ll find your way home. Just follow your friend.”

Caraid appeared near his feet and immediately took off into the underbrush. The boy started after her, but turned back to the woman. “Can you find your way?” he asked, worried.

“My way is toward the light, to end the sleep on the land. I can smell the sun, mo a bhobain.”

The little boy looked around and then swore under his breath, remembering the worst thing he’d ever heard his brother Drustan say and thinking that was semi-adequate to his situation. “Now Caraid’s gone,” he said, sounding totally bereft.

The woman smiled. “You’ll find her somehow lad. The moon is rising and she’s full. Look for your cat’s footprints.”

He nodded, and started off, looking like he never expected to find his way home, but was disinclined to argue with someone his child’s heart and imagination knew to be a goddess, even if he didn’t want to believe his eyes. He turned toward her at the edge of the cluster of trees he’d seen his cat run off into. “Are you sure you couldn’t show me a little magic?”

She made a shooing gesture. “Go! Before it gets any darker, Ben.”

He dutifully headed into the thicket.

Her shining eyes followed him. “You’ll always find your way home, lad,” she whispered.

She made some gesture in the direction the little boy had disappeared.

“And just a little magic to get you started couldn’t hurt.”

Soft snow began falling.

After a few minutes, the boy could see Caraid’s footprints in the moonlight.

“Thank you,” he murmured, certain she would hear him. “Soon everyone will wake up.”

 

– End –Caraid

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