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.
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.
Read the rest in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I