Some of you know Ben Brody as the demon with a heart of gold in Always Darkest. Last Fic-mas we met the restless little boy as he once lived, deep in an ancient Scottish winter. This holiday season, we are visiting that little lad a few winters later, only to discover that wherever he goes, magic (and trouble) are likely to follow.
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. Osheen is pronounced just like it’s spelled, but Ben calls him Osh, and says it Ah-sh. Ashrays are small water spirits in Scottish mythology, and part of the faerie race. Hopefully the rest makes sense in context. While the Solstice isn’t until tomorrow, we want to wish you all, from us and from Ben, a Blessed Yule.
“Beathan, no! Ma’ll skin me ’f I let you follow us!”
“Ach, she won’t know,” he protested.
“She knows everything! ‘Specially ‘bout you, Beanie.”
“Don’ call me that!” he said hotly.
Osh’s smile had the slightly mean-spirited affection only an older brother can have. “But that’s what she calls ye. Her wee Beanie bairn.”
Osheen found himself, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, flat on his back in the dusting of snow, being pummeled by his little brother, who despite his small size, packed one hell of a wallop.
“Ah! Ach, get off me!”
Osh had started the day by taking half the meat from his plate, had mussed his hair, stood between him and the hunt just because he had a sharp eye and a suspicious nature, and now he’d called him Beanie. So, Beathan didn’t even half listen. If anything, he took Osh’s protest as a sign he was winning the fight.
“Beathan, lay off Osheen this instant,” came an unsurprised voice from the nearest doorway.
Undeterred from beating some sense into his thickheaded, mean as a badger brother, Beathan kept up his assault, but growled, “He. Started. It,” between smacks.
Osh, to his credit, was not hitting back, rather, he was deflecting the blows as best he could and pretending to laugh, even though it was starting to hurt. Beathan was a good bit younger but had a wiry strength and tenacity that everyone was starting to mark. They wouldn’t be able to keep him out of the men’s business much longer no matter what their mother wanted.
He looked over pleadingly at Drustan’s wife, Cinnie, the only one who could get Beathan to calm down when he was in a temper, and said, “I caught him followin’ an’ he was tryin’ to get me to help him sneak off on the hunt.”
She came over and bent down, grabbing him under his arms, picking him up, and setting him on his feet.
“Le’me go, then!” He squirmed, finally managing to pull away.
He stepped back from Osh to make it very clear he had no intention of beating the snot out of him again. He also sidestepped out of his sister-in-law’s reach. He didn’t need Cinnie being all handsy on top of yelling at him. She knew he hated that.
He was still mad enough to spit, but he also knew once Cinnie stepped in, the fight was over, and it was time to make nice or he’d have some unpleasant chore on his shoulders. He’d finally passed off the damned goat on one of the cousins and he didn’t want her back. Determined to get himself out of this, he made his expression appropriately contrite.
Osheen picked himself up off the ground and dusted off the seat of his deerskin pants. He could get himself in trouble with Cinnie right now just as easily as Bean if he wasn’t kind. And he had sort of started it, first thing this morning, he supposed. “S’alright, Bean … Beathan. I was teasin’ ye. I shouldn’t’a. I know ye want te come with us.”
“I’ve taken down deer before,” he grumbled.
“Ye’ve helped,” Osh observed. “Boar are different.”
Cinnie squatted down in front of him. “Bean, I tried.” Somehow the nickname wasn’t as grating coming from Cinnie. Then again, it never would occur to her to call him Beanie anymore. He’d told her he didn’t like it once, and that was all it had taken. “But yer parents still think yer too young, at leas’ for huntin’ boar, mo a bhobain.”
Calling him her darling rascal was about the quickest way to get a smile out of Bean short of tickling him, and the endearment didn’t result in him not speaking to her for a day and a half. She wasn’t disappointed when he cracked his shy little smile, dimpling his round cheeks.
“I’ve near seven summers now,” he protested around the pleased grin.
She didn’t point out that having just passed his sixth was not nearly seven by anyone’s reckoning. “I know, love, but yer mother has the final say, doesn’ she?”
“Da’ said maybe I could …”
“An’ she said no when she found out what they were goin’ after, didn’ she? He’s a wise enough man not te argue with her or go agains’ her word. Are you wise enough te be Donal’s son?”
“Go on with ye then,” he grumbled at Osh.
“I really am sorry ye cannae come, Beathan.”
He shrugged his narrow shoulders and waved off his brother. He was so angry he wanted to cry. But that was no way to get taken on any kind of hunt any time soon and missing this one was bad enough. So he wisely kept his mouth shut. Osh took off running to catch up to the men.
Cinnie noticed the carefully concealed trembling of his chin and the way he was biting his lip. She smiled fondly. “I’m startin’ the sorrel soup, hin. Would ye like ta help with the cookin’?”
Usually the prospect of hanging around the fire and getting to glean extra food cheered the little fellow right up.
He dug a toe into the cold dirt and shrugged. “I guess.”
“Where are yer boots? An’ please don’ tell me ye’ve traded ‘em with Rabbie again.”
“No, he hasn’ had anythin’ worth tradin’ fer in ages. He’s in some trouble, I think.”
She smiled. “Well, then. Where are they?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Home?” He waved vaguely up the track toward the center of the small village.
Cinnie shook her head. “Come along then. Let’s get ye in by the fire for a bit. Did ye eat this mornin’?”
They started inside her house. The hearth was surrounded by Beathan’s nieces, all busy with something. Even Teasag, who was just toddling around, had a spoon. He grinned broadly at her and plopped down on the floor, so she could come over and sit in his lap.
“I had some oats,” he finally answered. “Osh took most of my meat though.” Teasag rapped him on the head with the spoon, but instead of getting upset he took the spoon with one hand and rubbed the little lump that was already forming with the other. “Ow! No. No hittin’.”
His voice wasn’t even sharp. He was still so little himself, but he was more patient with the younger ones of the clan than most of their mothers, and most especially with Teasag, who was a bit of a terror.
Cinnie smiled again. Lost food was probably more behind his flash of temper than anything to do with the hunt. She deposited a few honey sweets on the floor next to him. His face immediately lit up. “Thanks!” he said, already cramming two into his cheek.
He played with the energetic toddler to keep her out of the way for a while. He also ate all the sweets and every scrap of meat Cinnie offered. When he kept stealing spoonsful of mulled mead out of the kettle, she decided he was bored enough to start getting himself in trouble. That was no way to send him home to his mother.
Without turning from her work, mostly because he was sharper at reading facial expressions and true intentions than the wise woman, she casually said, “I wonder if the lads will remember the mistletoe …”
She could hear his frown when he replied, “Drus’ tol’ me Angus’ll get it.”
She paused thoughtfully. “He’s hardly one to trust with somethin’ so important. He can barely be counted on to bring home garlic instead a dropwort.”
Beathan snorted laughter. “He’s too busy chasin’ after Sorcha to know good herb from bad.”
“Seems to me the lad who spends half his time with Daira, who knows plants and their lore better than anyone in the family, ought te be charged with the task. Ye did such a fine job las’ time ye went out for it.”
“Ach, ma was all in a snit that I got home after dark last time,” he shrugged.
“Well, ye’ve learned a bit since then, haven’ ye, Bean?”
“‘Spose I have,” he nodded sagely.
She glanced at him and flashed a smile. “Why’n’t ye go have a look ‘round and see if ye can find a nice bunch for the feast, lad? If we leave it te Angus we’re as like to have wolfsbane as mistletoe.”
Beathan found the idea so funny he fell back on the floor laughing. Teasag got a good handful of his blond hair and gave it a playful yank. “Ow!” He sat back up, prying her fingers out of his shaggy waves. Then he got to his feet. “I think I will. Don’ want ole Gus ruinin’ it for everyone.” He snickered to himself again. “Only eye he’s got is fer girls.”
“Ye don’ think you’d ever get distracted from yer work by love, Bean?”
“No! Well …” he trailed off thinking about it. “Maybe if she liked ta fight an’ hunt an’ … if she was really pretty.” He blushed and looked at his feet.
Cinnie laughed and ruffled his hair. He made at ducking away, but it was a half-hearted effort. He turned to go, pausing to wave at Cinnie and the girls.
As he went to slip out of their doorway, she called after him, “Go get yer boots before ye go off into the wood!”
Beathan sighed. He supposed she was right. He started up the path to his parents’ house and had every intention of getting his boots, but a black fluffy streak whizzed past him. “Caraid!” he shouted joyfully.
He hadn’t seen her in over a week. He’d been worried something had gotten to her. He sped off after her.
After a while, he found himself climbing up on the water barrel behind his uncle’s house. Caraid liked the roofs better than anywhere. Probably because the chimneys were warm, he thought. He levered himself up over the edge. “Caraid!” he called softly. “C’mon, now.”
He could see her peeking around the chimney. “C’mon then!” Nothing doing, said her face and posture. He sighed, then grunted with the effort of hauling himself up the rest of the way onto the roof.
He sat down cross legged, facing the chimney. “I’m goin’ te the woods. Ye should come. It’ll be fun,” he said like he was offering a treat. “Ye like the woods,” he said like she’d contradicted him somehow.
This time she did contradict him. He could just barely hear it, but a low growl rumbled deep in her throat.
“What’s wrong, girl? Ye can tell me.” Beathan moved to crawl toward her. She backed up against the chimney and hissed. “Daira says ye could talk if ye wanted te.” She growled again, then purred like she wanted to be petted. Beathan shook his head. “Well, if ye wanna be like that,” he huffed. “I’m goin’. Ye can stay here bein’ a numptie ‘f ye like. There’s nothin’ in the wood today that wasn’ there las’ week.”
Then he was thoughtful for a moment. Even if she wasn’t opening her mouth and using words, she seemed to be communicating pretty clearly. She didn’t want him to go to the woods.
Maybe she’d seen something. Maybe that’s where she’d been. Maybe he should stick to the edges or ask Rabbie to go with him, so he wasn’t alone. Something told him that was a wise idea. But … that wouldn’t be an adventure. That wouldn’t be fun.
He climbed off the edge of the roof, let himself dangle as far as his arms would let him, and dropped into the snow, narrowly missing the water bucket. He swore at the nearness of the dunking. He hated being cold. Being cold and wet was like some special torment nature had devised to try to teach him to look before he leapt. He was still resisting the lesson.
He debated the wisdom of going after his boots again but thought better of it. Who knew if Osheen had stopped long enough to tattle to their mother?
At least if he came back with mistletoe, he’d have that as a distraction. Angus was good for a lot of things, but as he and Cinnie agreed, plant lore, or even the basic growing of things, just wasn’t part of that. He was better at fixing things. An’ at gettin’ girls’ attention, Beathan snorted.
He ran across the meadow toward the wood, liking how the sun had warmed the grass and melted off the snow. It was hardly cold on his stubbornly bare feet. He noticed about halfway between the edge of the village and the tree line, Caraid had started following him, and was catching up. He grinned. He knew she wouldn’t be able to stay away. She loved going into the woods with him. He guessed it was probably because she liked eating the squirrels, but that was okay. It still meant he had company.
He slowed to a jog from the flat out sprint he’d been keeping up. “Caraid!” he called to her merrily. “Ye came!”
He had about a second to be happy about it before she darted in between his feet and sent him sprawling. He hit with a force strong enough to knock the air out of him. He lay face down in the damp grass that was still vaguely crispy with frost, too, trying to get his breath back for long enough that it frightened him just a little. When he finally drew a breath deep enough to speak again, he swore at the cat. One of the good ones he’d heard his father use that always got him in trouble with his mother.
Caraid was only a foot from his face and just gazed into his eyes placidly. He would have sworn he heard a voice right next to his ear whisper, “I told you not to, silly boy.”
He got to his hands and knees, shaking off the unexpected spill, tossed a glare at Caraid, and climbed the rest of the way to his feet, cursing softly in his small-boy manner, while brushing himself off. “If ye don’ wan’ ta go, be gone with ye!”
He made the little hissing noise he used when she was trying to steal his food. Instead of taking off like she normally would have, she just fell into step beside him, almost hugging the side of his leg.
Beathan rolled his eyes and started picking his way along the tree line, his sharp vision trained to pick out the slightest indication of the white berries or clusters of leaves he was looking for. Caraid never strayed from his side, and after a while, he stopped minding that she kept tripping him up. He just adapted his stride, so she didn’t tangle him into meeting the ground unexpectedly quite so often.
The sun had climbed to its highest point in the sky when his demanding little stomach growled louder than Caraid when she was upset. He reached into the little cloth pack he always carried with him on his little adventure. “Stupid,” he chastised himself when he realized he’d left Cinnie’s without so much as a honey sweet.
He was hungry, without supplies, and he’d been hunting for mistletoe for hours. He huffed a frustrated breath. Being sent for mistletoe and coming home empty handed was no way to prove he was ready to join the men. Since the trees on the outskirts of the forest seemed determined to be stingy, he was going to have to venture in farther. The faster he got what he came for, the faster he could go home and get something warm to eat.
He started into the shadows of the trees and once again Caraid was at his ankles, hissing and spitting for all she was worth. He hissed back at her and shoved her away with as gentle a hand as seemed likely to give her the message that he’d had enough of her fussing. She backed off for a moment but before he’d taken another fifty steps, she was back, biting him hard on the back of his ankle.
“Ach, fer feck’s sake, ye mad cat! What’re ye doin’?” he shouted at her, shooing her away with a little more force this time. “What’s gotten into ye?” he grumbled, stopping just to make sure he wasn’t bleeding. He had plenty of light left in the day, but anyone with any sense knew the smell of blood could draw all sorts of unwelcome beasts out of the deeper, darker parts of the wood.
He wasn’t bleeding, so he supposed he might forgive her. She was a good cat, most of the time. He had another fleeting thought that there had to be a reason she seemed so dead set against this adventure, but he shooed it away like it was another ornery cat.
Before too long, he found a tree holding his prize, just out of his reach. Caraid was keeping her distance now, but she was still following him. “Don’ suppose ye want to be useful, instead of mad, an’ skin up there an’ get that fer me?” he asked.
He liked climbing trees, but he was tired, and hungry, and still a little grumpy with the cat.
She made a little purring sound, and he shook his head, grinning affectionately once again. “Well, there ye are,” he observed. “I knew my girl was in there somewhere under all tha’ crazy.”
She purred at him again.
Beathan quickly climbed up the lower branches of the hawthorn tree, got out the cunning little knife Cinnie had given him a couple of Yules ago, and cut a beautiful bundle of the precious plant. He tucked it into the sack where his food should have been, put away the knife, and climbed down.
As soon as he dropped down out of the tree, Caraid was winding between his feet again, now purring loudly and letting out little mews of satisfaction. He grinned down at her. “A’righ’, girl, let’s head home. If ye can keep out from under my feet, I’ll share my meat with ye.”
She meowed in apparent agreement.
They hadn’t walked far when Beathan stopped. “Do ye hear that?” he asked, tilting his head.
Caraid tilted her head too, and upon hearing the tiny sound of soft weeping that had stopped her boy, she hissed again and nearly tripped him.
Ignoring her completely, he started off in the direction of that sound. “Hallo! Hey there! Are you a’righ’?” he called out.
The small sound seemed to grow infinitely louder at his question. It was the sound of a small child crying real tears. Beathan was always the first to hop up when one of the littler ones was upset, so, of course, he sped up in the direction of the noise. Caraid kept up but didn’t trip him this time. He sensed she didn’t want to get chased off now.
In another fifty or so steps, they found themselves in a little clearing. It felt almost as warm as summer and was so bright, it seemed the snow flurries must have suddenly stopped, and the sun must have come out with a vengeance. The sound was still quite loud, but Beathan didn’t see anyone. Then, a sparkling little movement, that at first, he’d taken for sun dappling, caught his eye.
A child, a little girl, was sitting on the ground by a sapling. He shook his head like he needed to clear it. This little girl could not have been bigger than the palm of his hand. After a second, one of her tiny sobs was accompanied by the flutter of little wings that put him in the mind of a butterfly. She must be a faerie, he thought. Then he corrected himself. One of the fair folk. Daira had told him the fair ones didn’t take kindly to being called faeries even if you meant it nicely.
He knew all the stories of the wood, and none of them explained this little creature. She looked a bit like an ashray, at least as Daira had explained them, but there was no water anywhere about. Maybe he’d discovered something altogether new. He couldn’t wait to tell the wise woman. He’d have to stop at her cottage on his way home.
He stepped closer to the tiny girl. “Hey, now, it’s alrigh’.”
At his words, the tiny creature hopped to her feet, smiling brightly, just like there’d never been tears. She nodded at him. Looking more closely, he thought she looked a little older than Teasag, but not very much. Three or four growing seasons at most.
“Do ye need help?” he asked.
She nodded earnestly, and her little wings flapped, bringing her to eye level with him. She smiled at him and something about it made him drop back a step, but then she beckoned with one hand and started flying off toward the deeper, darker parts of the wood.
Never able to turn away from a child who needed help, little Beathan started after her, now totally ignoring Caraid’s hisses and attempts to tangle his feet. He’d figured out how to move around her over the last several hours.
The tiny faerie girl flitted from tree to tree, and Beathan kept up for all he was worth. “Hey, what do ye need? How can I help?” he kept asking, trying to get her to talk to him, and so focused on the possibility of an answer, he lost track of how far into the woods they were traveling.
Soon they found themselves in another clearing. The tree on the far side had a big knot in it that looked almost like a cave. The little faerie girl lighted on the edge and beckoned to him to follow. He looked around. Caraid was nowhere in sight. A grown-up could never get in there, he thought. But someone his size could easily follow her.
Beathan was often impulsive, and more often than not it was to his own detriment, but he was learning at Daira’s knee, and he did have a reasonably keen sense that he didn’t want to get hurt, or worse. “Nah, I can’ little fair one. I’m sorry. I’ve got te get home with the mistletoe.”
The tiny girl shook her head vehemently, beckoning again.
“I really hadn’ better,” he said. “You’re home now, right?”
She nodded, then she made the sort of face that told Beathan that’s where the trouble was. She waved for him to follow her more energetically this time.
“I said I cannae go with ye. Are ye daft?” Daira would skin him alive if he followed one of the fair folk into a tree. Even if it was just a baby faerie.
She fluttered over to him, dancing in front of his face, making little sobbing noises again. Well, that was a bit different. What if she really did need the help of one of the big folk? He’d heard stories like that, certainly. “Ye have te tell me what ye need first,” he said wisely.
She shook her head, tossing her little curls in a way that reminded him acutely of his smallest niece.
He reached out to her, thinking if he could get her to be still for a moment, she might have to speak to him. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” he barked, snapping his hand and hearing little droplets of blood spatter on the leaves. “Ye bit me!”
She smiled at him again and this time he dropped back several steps. Her teeth were sharp, like a wolf, and suddenly she looked older, like a woman even.
This fanged and flying beast grabbed the front of his tunic in her tiny fists and started dragging him toward the hole in the tree. He dug in, fighting with all his might, trying to gain purchase on the ground with his feet, or swat her away with his hands, but nothing he did even slowed their progress.
The gaping cave, for that is what it most certainly was, that led to one of the realms of the faeries, began to glow, a hot, red, burning color that made the little boy’s blood run cold. “No!” he shouted.
He was almost to the lip of the cave, that seemed to have grown to swallow him up, when Caraid leapt out of the cursed tree itself, planting all four paws in the middle of his chest, and knocking him over backwards.
His head struck a stone on the ground with a heavy thud. Just as his eyes were fluttering closed, he got the distinct impression that Caraid had pounced on the creature. The last sounds he heard as he drifted out of consciousness were the wet smacking noises of a cat having a good meal and a deep contented purring.
When Beathan’s eyes opened again, he found himself in front of Daira’s hearth, lying on her softest animal skins and wrapped in warm blankets. His finger was throbbing, but neatly bandaged. His head felt rather like he’d run it straight into the stone wall of his house a few times and then perhaps been beaten with a wooden spoon the size of the old goat.
He groaned and rolled onto his side to sit up but couldn’t quite get there on his first try.
“Well, now, there he is,” came Daira’s soft, pleasantly husky voice.
He looked up and his ancient, wrinkled friend was smiling down at him, holding out a steaming cup. He made a second attempt at sitting up and found it easier this time. He reached out for the proffered cup, took a tentative sip, and spat its contents out in an irritated spray. “Ye tryin’ te poison me, are ye?”
“It’s headache powder. Ye need it with that lump ye’ve got. Drink it, an’ no whinin’, lad,” she said.
Her tone said it was better not to argue. He held his nose with one hand and tipped the contents of the cup into his mouth with the other, trying to get it down in one swallow. He pulled a terrible face. “Ach, what’s in it? Bear piss?”
“Mind yer mouth, young man.” She was smiling when she said it. “It’s a bit a magic. Have ye feelin’ right as rain in no time.”
He handed her the cup. “Magic ought te find a way te taste better,” he groused.
She just smiled and watched him for a while. He stared into the fire for a bit, looking like he might go back to sleep, but as the contents of the cup worked through him, he slowly looked more like himself. It had tasted like death to Beathan, but after the tea, his head quickly seemed to feel better, and his faerie-bitten finger stopped its relentless throbbing. Finally, he looked up at her again.
“How’d I get here?” he asked, remembering how deep in the woods he’d been.
“I don’ know, Ben,” she said softly. He grinned. She’d called him that since he’d come home two winters ago and told her the story of his strange encounter with the Cailleach Bheur. No one else believed him, but Daira always did. “I foun’ you asleep on my stoop with yer cat pacin’ circles around ye.”
He looked around a little wildly then. There she was. Caraid lay just off to his side, sleeping contentedly, and purring while she did it.
“Why don’ ye tell me what new adventure ye’ve had today,” she said, sitting down on the skins next to him, and handing him another cup which he glared at for a minute, but was pleasantly surprised to find this one was some minty sort of tea with lots of honey in it when he finally worked up the nerve to take a drink.
As he sipped the beverage that warmed him all the way to his toes and seemed to ease his small hurts even more and relayed to events of the day, Daira listened attentively. “An’ then the cursed thing bit me!” he exclaimed indignantly.
She laughed. “Well, what do ye expect faeries te do?”
He laughed, too. His head didn’t hurt anymore, and as he finished his story, he peeled the bandage off his finger and there didn’t seem to be any evidence some insidious monster from the trees had nipped him like a rat. “An’ then Caraid knocked me over an’ I hit my head. I don’ know, but I think she might have … might have eaten it.”
“Because she’s a good cat.” Caraid lifted her head and meowed. “An’ a pretty cat,” Daira affirmed, reaching out to pet the cat once again.
“She is that. She’s the best cat.”
“She is, indeed, little Ben. She saved her wee little man’s life today, I do believe. If one a the fair folk bites, they’ve a taste for flesh. That’d not have ended well for ye, lad.”
He shook his head solemnly. “I’m never doin’ anythin’ she tells me’s a bad idea again.”
“How’s yer head now, boy?”
He thought about it. “S’good.”
“Well, then, ye ought to be gettin’ home with that beautiful mistletoe I foun’ in yer pack, lad. It’s gettin’ late.”
His eyes widened. “It’s not dark is it?”
“Very near. But I’ll walk with ye and explain ye’ve had a fall.”
He shook his head. He’d catch all sorts of trouble if they thought he’d been doing something somewhere he shouldn’t have.
“Now, no one’s goin’ to be upset with ye, Ben. Ye’ve been helpin’ me mosta the day, haven’ ye? No one’s goin’ to get after ye for gettin’ hurt doin’ me a good turn, are they?”
He grinned. Daira understood. He couldn’t go home and tell them about the fair ones. They still teased him about his tale of his encounter with the Cailleach Bheur. “I s’pose not.”
She rose like a much younger woman and helped the little fellow to his feet. Caraid got up and stretched and followed them. “In fact, I suspect ye’ll get a hero’s share of the feast, little Ben. Wounded in the line a duty and comin’ home with such nice mistletoe an’ all.”
He grinned hugely. “C’mon, Caraid. I’ll share!”
They set out to walk the short distance to Ben’s home.
Caraid followed, purring loudly. And if someone had looked closely at her face, they might have, just for a moment, thought that it was strange for a cat to wear such a smug smile.