Authors’ note: It wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a story from Ben’s human past. As a boy in ancient Scotland, Ben often found himself in trouble. Fortunately, he also always found his way out. The title of this story comes from a quote by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. However, the idea that sparked the story happened because I (Jess) was listening to Alt Nation on Sirius XM and Missio’s song Wolves came on. I’m a huge fan of Missio, and Wolves might be my favorite song of theirs. It gave me this picture of a dark wolf with glowing amber eyes that remind little Ben of his own. It was a short trip from there to Google where I learned some pretty interesting Scottish folklore that inspired what you are about to read. If I were you, I’d listen to Missio while I read this, but as we say in the Flaherty household, you do you!
Where There Are Sheep
“Where’re ye off ta, Beanie?”
He rolled his eyes at the nickname but didn’t say anything about it. He had eight summers behind him now. His father promised that after Yule he could start hunting with the men. He might even be able to go fight with them, if he could carry his father’s shield by the time he was needed. The childish nicknames would stop then, he was sure.
“Nowhere,” he said, unconvincingly as he inched toward the door.
His mother’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair. “An’ I suppose tha’s na half our feast stuffed in yer pockets?”
He let his eyes go wide and innocent. “I dunno wha’ yer….”
Of course that was the moment an apple fell out and rolled across the floor to her feet.
He tried to think of a convincing falsehood but nothing came to mind. “It’s for the fair folk,” he confessed.
“Beathan, ye cannae go wastin’ food.”
His face flushed with a flash of temper. “I’m not wastin’ it! If ye don’ share they–”
“Aren’ goin’ to have our harvest feast,” his mother interrupted.
“It’s the second one a the season!” he protested hotly. “Ye dinnae wanta share the firs’ harvest either! Daira says–”
“If Daira wants ta feed them, ye can go help her do it,” his mother said, clearly annoyed. “Get on wi’ ya, lad. I’m busy.”
He huffed a sigh and awkwardly emptied his pockets on the table. He held up a single apple. “What if I–”
“Put it back,” his mother snapped. “Go feed the goat!”
He groaned. “Ach, I cannae do it wi’ only one hand.” He waved his splinted, bandaged arm at her.
His mother gave him a very pointed look. “Ye shoulda thought a tha’ before ye climbed tha’ tree.”
“I was after eggs for ye!”
Her stern expression slipped into a fond smile. “Tha’ ye were.” Then she frowned again. “Did Daira say ye dinnae need the sling?”
He shifted from one foot to the other. “Uhhuh.”
“Yer blushin’, lad. Ye know tha’s a dead giveaway, don’ ye?”
“Go get it,” she ordered. “Then go feed the goat.”
He stomped over to the hearth, snatched up the twist of fabric Daira had fashioned to keep his broken arm out of his way, and wrestled himself back into it, swearing softly when his arm reminded him it still hurt if he moved certain ways.
Once he had it situated, more or less, he side-eyed his mother. It seemed she was busy with stirring the big pot over the fire, so he sidled up to the table again, and slowly put the apple back in his pocket.
“Beathan,” his mother warned without turning around.
He scowled at her back, and slunk out the door. Without the apple.
Daira had made a real point of teaching him about the fair ones after his strange encounter a couple of winters ago. She’d said if you didn’t want them bothering folk, you had to leave gifts, especially food.
“You mean make friends?”
“Ach, no!” she replied with a serious expression. “You buy some peace is all. But no safety. Never think yer safe with the fair folk. Na fer a moment, Ben.”
He grinned. He loved how she always called him Ben. It was how he thought of himself after his strange encounter with the woman he and Daira were certain was the Cailleach Bheur. She usually called him that now. Unless he was in trouble.
“Are they all dangerous?” he asked, eyes wide.
Daira shrugged. “No … but ye musn’ take chances, Ben. Some … and ye know from the egg on yer head … some’ll take yer life without blinkin’. An’ if they’re hungry….”
He nodded solemnly. He’d nearly been a meal for one of them. Fortunately, Caraid made a meal of the faerie before that could happen.
He’d been leaving little dishes of food outside since then. At least he had until his mother caught him at it recently. So far, this had been a lean year for crops and the weather hadn’t been favorable for foraging either. Even though the leaves hadn’t fully colored yet, there was a chill in the air. The men didn’t seem especially bothered because hunting had still been alright, but his mother worried about getting the clan through the winter. He’d caught the back of her spoon more than once for trying to sneak off with food over the summer.
He’d learned his lesson for the most part. And Cinnie let him have scraps often enough. But he thought feast days might be different. Something told him that if he put out nothing but scraps on a feast day, the fair folk might take it personally. Besides, as far as he was concerned, if there was a feast, everyone should get some. So he’d left a good portion of his own meal out when his mother refused him any extra.
He heaved a sigh. He was in no hurry to go wrestle with the goat’s food one-handed. Instead, he wandered around looking for Caraid. He hadn’t seen her today. She always turned up, but he worried when she wasn’t on his bed in the morning, keeping watch.
He looked longingly up at their roof. That’s probably where she was. But he couldn’t climb with one hand. Or can I?
He glanced around to be sure no one was looking, then he slipped free of the sling again, stuffing it into his pocket. He got a running start and hopped up on their covered rain barrel with his usual weightlessness. He squinted up at the thatch bundles. Then he flexed his hands, wincing at the sharp twinge it caused in his splinted arm. He figured this wasn’t one of his best ideas. But, then again, it probably wasn’t one of his worst ones either.
He prepared to make the jump to catch the edge of the roof, which really wasn’t all that high, no matter what his mother said, but a sharp, “Bean! Get down from there!” startled him into nearly falling.
“Ach, Cinnie, I’m na hurtin’ anythin’!” he complained, but jumped down anyway.
His brother Drustan’s wife smiled at him with a combination of affection and exasperation. “Exceptin’ yerself, most likely, Bean.”
He dug a bare toe in the cool dirt. “I was jus’ lookin’ fer Caraid.”
“Don’ go climbin’ up there lookin’ fer yer mad cat with that arm. Ye’ll wind up more hurt and fevered again,” she admonished. He didn’t bother to conceal the deep roll of his eyes, but it was cut short when she added, “I saw yer girl out back by Nanny on my way over.”
He huffed another irritated breath. “Course she’s by the damned goat.”
“Who yer supposed to be feedin’ from the sour look ye’ve got.”
He shrugged. “Ma said ta, but….”
“But yer feud wi’ Nanny is the stuff o’ legends.” Cinnie smiled again. “Here, Bean. I’ll an’ help. Then ye can come inside to help. The feast is only a day away. The more hands the better, lad.”
“Did she chase ye off again?”
He nodded, blushing. “She dinnae wan’ me te take anythin’ fer the fair folk.”
“Ach, well. She’s been worried we won’ have enough. C’mon. Le’s go find yer Caraid.”
She took his good hand and led him around back. She didn’t so much help him feed the old goat as she talked to him while she did it herself. By the time they finished, Caraid appeared, just as Cinnie predicted she would, and contented herself with trying to trip her human by affectionately rubbing against his legs as he paced around telling Cinnie about his latest adventures, lamenting his mother’s stinginess with the food, and complaining about the sling Cinnie made him put back on.
When they finished tending the goat, who, predictably, tried to knock Ben down every time he got anywhere near her, Cinnie coaxed him back to the front of the house with the promise to help with his mother, too.
“She’s not gonna let me ha’ anythin’ though,” he protested.
“Ye le’me worry about tha’, Bean,” she replied as she headed inside.
After a while he peeked around the edge of the open door. Cinnie was talking to his mother as they dumped some things in the big pot. Cinnie caught him looking and tipped him a wink right before she pointed out something on the far shelf. Once his mother was engaged in conversation with her beneath it, Cinnie waved at him.
He grinned and dipped back inside to quickly stuff his pockets.
Then he and Caraid headed for the wood.
By the time the Winter’s Sleep was drawing to its end, things had improved a bit, to Ben’s way of thinking. And he didn’t necessarily credit the meals he left out for the faeries who might live nearby. But he didn’t discount it either.
The weather had turned fair after the lean meal that marked the clan’s second harvest celebration, and in addition to a fine end to the harvest season, the local game practically walked right in the front doors of the hunters, fish nearly lept into their boats, and foul might as well have dropped out of the sky right onto the dinner tables of his people. It had also been a warmer winter than any of them could remember.
His arm was still in a splint, but it was no longer bandaged up. He’d left the sling behind as well. And while he thought that between Daira, his mother, and Cinnie, he’d never been so fussed at in his whole life as he had since he’d broken it, he could finally use it without much pain. He’d climbed up on their roof that very morning, to talk to Caraid. Not that he’d admitted to it when asked where he’d been.
“Oh, ye know … aroun’.”
“Alrigh’, Bean,” his mother said to his vague answer. “I need one of ye lads te go to Moibeal’s. Balgair got more birds than they can use. She offered some already plucked for the soup for the feast.”
He grinned. “I’ll go!” he replied quickly.
“Are ye sure ye can carry things, Bean?” she asked. “It’s bound ta be heavy.”
“Ach, I’m fine! I keep tellin’ ye.”
She gave him a piercing look. “Maybe ye should find Osheen….”
He pretended like he hadn’t heard her. “Be back soon!” he called and dashed out the door.
After the way she’d been about his broken arm, he didn’t even want to think about what she’d be like once he went off on a real hunt, and he most especially shuddered to think what she’d be like once his father started taking him along to fight. She was going to have to get used to the idea that he was going to get hurt sometimes. Besides, he wasn’t about to let Osh take on the job of going to Balgair’s.
Aila might be home.
His face felt suddenly hot, though he couldn’t have said why.
When he approached their doorway, he saw Balgair’s youngest daughter, who was a bit older than him, brushing dirt out their door with a straw broom. Her dark hair fell in tight ringlets over her shoulders and her bright blue eyes sparkled when she glanced up. “Beathan!”
His neck and ears heated.
“Aila,” he said with all the dignity he could muster. He drew himself up to his full height, too. He’d been smallish for his age only last year, but since the spring he’d, as his mother liked to say, shot up like a sprout, and now he’s was as tall as Osh, and he was rapidly catching up to Angus.
Aila beamed a sunny smile at him and his face split into a grin of his own. “How’ve ye been?” he asked, suppressing the urge to fidget with the edge of his tunic.
“Good.” For some reason entirely mysterious to Beathan, she giggled. “Tired of cleanin’ up for the feast.”
“Mmm,” he said with a sage nod, because he couldn’t come up with anything else.
“What’re ye doin’ here today? I haven’ seen ye in ages.”
He mentally cursed the boots his mother had made him wear because he really wanted to dig a toe in the dirt. “I … um … Mam sent me ta see abou’ some birds, I guess.”
“She’s gone off to Enaid’s. She’ll be back in a bit though.”
“Oh. I … I’ll come back then.”
She smiled shyly at him. “Do ye still need to go get the mistletoe for yer hearth like ye always do?”
“They wouldn’ let me.” He shook his head. “Alastair thought he saw one o’ the big cats in the wood an’ she still thinks I cannae use both hands.”
She pointed to his splint. “Does it hurt much?”
“Ach, no.” He waved dismissively with his splinted arm to make his point. “All of ‘em put up a stink or I’d a gone anyway.”
She smiled again and stepped closer. “Yer so brave.”
He didn’t think his face had ever been so warm. But he grinned anyway. “I try ta be.”
“I wish we had some mistletoe.”
He squared his shoulders. “I could go get some.”
“Won’ yer mam get after ye?”
He waved his hand again. “Ach, she won’ know.”
Aila giggled again. “Only if yer sure….”
Ben was already headed in the direction of the forest. “I’ll be back before yer màthair! With the mistletoe!”
The best place to enter the wood happened to be near Daira’s cottage and he’d nearly gotten caught by the wisewoman before he could disappear into the underbrush. But one of the things Ben had learned in the last few months, as he’d done his best not to be slowed down by his injured arm (or his mother and the rest who kept after him about it), was stealth.
She’d heard something though, because she peered at the forest’s edge for a few moments. Daira took a step in his direction, but stopped abruptly. “Caraid!” she exclaimed. “Come to chase some squirrels, have ye?” She stooped to pet the cat. “Ye stay outta the wood. I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.”
Caraid simply meowed and got up on her hind legs, offering her head for more petting.
Ben grinned. He could always count on Caraid to know when he needed her. He was also pretty sure, tales of a faerie death dog or not, Caraid approved of this excursion, because if she didn’t, he knew full well that, instead of helping, she’d be chasing after him and tripping him up. He crawled along on the ground until he was far enough away that his blond hair wouldn’t be seen through the branches.
Once he was sure he’d avoided detection, he got to his feet and used his good hand to brush himself off. It was strange that it was warm enough that there was no snow clinging to the ground, even here in the shade of the wood, but it was nice, too.
He squinted up through the treetops to get an idea of how much time he had to get what he came for and get back to Aila with her mistletoe. His face pulled immediately into a frown. It had taken him longer to sneak over here and get into the woods than he’d thought.
There was nothing for it now. He’d promised mistletoe and he aimed to deliver it. He peered around at the trees, frown deepening. He loved that it wasn’t as cold as it usually was this time of year, but the trees hadn’t even shed all their leaves. It was going to make finding the sacred plant even harder than usual.
He combed through his most recent memories of excursions to find various plants for Daira and recalled seeing some mistletoe in the grove near his favorite fishing pond. Pleased he had a place to start, he got his bearings and headed confidently into the deeper part of the forest.
As Ben meandered through the familiar trees, he found himself glancing over his shoulder more than usual. It was almost like he wasn’t alone. But he didn’t see so much as a finch or squirrel.
He slowly noticed that his feet crunched over the leaves too loudly. The trickle of the stream that emptied into his pond reached his ears as well, even though he was still a good bit away.
He tried to tell himself it was the time of year. Winter was always quieter. But.…
Something felt … off.
He stopped abruptly. He caught the barest sound of velveted paws off to his left and his head whipped in that direction in time to see a sliver of movement … something like sun dappling that disappeared behind a deadfall.
Ben held his breath, listening.
When his chest strained with the need, a sharp chilling bark split the air. He gasped and took off in the opposite direction of the sound.
He leapt over downed trees, dodged huge rocks, brushed off the whipping he took from sapling branches, and went sprawling in an icy patch the shade allowed to hide in wait for him.
Using both hands to gain purchase, Ben scrambled to his feet, momentarily grateful that his arm was mostly healed and had the strength to aid his escape from the beast whose bark had frozen his blood.
He pelted through the forest, his thundering heart the only sound until another thunderous bark shattered the silence of the forest. Daira’s voice came to him suddenly: I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.
The hammering in his chest stopped for a split second as his heart squeezed with real fear. Every tale Daira had ever told him of the dangers the faerie realm posed played through his head. He should have run toward the village. You had two warnings from those creatures to get to safety. If it barked again it would take him.
He glanced around the copse of birch trees he found himself in, frantically searching for any sign of the dark wolf with glowing eyes Daira had warned him about.
A branch snapped behind him. He pulled his hunting knife from where he kept it strapped by his hip and spun to face it, just in time to be caught in the back of the legs by a log he’d failed to see in his mad dash away from that harbinger of certain death.
This time when he went sprawling, it knocked the breath from his lungs and the knife from his hand. It also set a cascade of stars in front of his eyes.
A shadow fell over him.
He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his field of vision. If death had come for him, he planned to meet it glaring.
Instead of the wolf of legend, a wildcat perched on the log above him. When he met its eyes, it opened its mouth in a blood-curdling hiss.
Ben forced himself to stay still, though what he wanted to do was run away as fast as his long legs would carry him. He took a slow careful breath and eased his hand away from his body to try to recover his knife.
The wildcat tensed like it would pounce, but didn’t. It opened its mouth again.
He expected another menacing hiss, but what came out of the creature was a scream, so high, so loud, and so unlike anything he had ever heard, he thought it must not be a regular woodland cat. It had to be another creature from the fair realms, even more deadly than the cù-sìth. He took a slow breath. Angus had told him about the scream of a wildcat. This wasn’t some monster from beyond the veil. If he stayed calm, he could make his family a gift of it’s pelt. He might catch trouble from his mother for having gone into the wood, but if he came home with this creature’s fur, she could hardly pretend he was still too hurt to do so much as carry some birds. And maybe she’d stop trying to talk his father out of letting him go with the men. He didn’t think his father took her fussing too seriously anyway, but a victory here would surely put an end to it. Besides, he had no interest in having being a meal for anything in this wood, from the faerie realm or otherwise.
His fingers brushed the handle of his knife and he had a momentary surge of hope that he could defend himself. The hope was short lived though. The cat wiggled its hindquarters, just like Caraid when she was about to pounce on some hapless squirrel, and screamed again.
So quick, he didn’t even see it move, the creature was on top of him, huge paws on either side of his slender shoulders, before he could get his fingers to close on his knife. Its breath was hot and fetid, like the smell of the end of the world. But no part of him was going to be its meal without a fight.
He got his hands around its neck, the only thing he could think to do. But he’d hurt his arm again in his fall, so he didn’t think he could choke it. It confirmed his fears by pushing closer to his face. It screamed again, jaws snapping so close its teeth caught his hair.
He pushed against it with all his might, but was sickly certain he wasn’t going to keep it from taking him for long. His bad arm started to give out and he screamed back in its face because it was all he had left.
Hot saliva dripped on his face and another snap pulled his hair so hard his head jerked, and he cried out. Blood pounded in his ears, fueled by struggle and stark terror, but another rumbling bark pierced it. He knew he was as good as dead then, even if the cat didn’t finish him.
Suddenly, a dark green blur barreled into the cat, knocking it off him with a heavy thump.
Ben didn’t pause for the space of a heartbeat to be relieved. He scooped up his knife and skinned up the nearest tree as fast and as high as he could.
When he could go no further without bending the top of the slender silver tree over, he wedged himself against the trunk and tucked his knife back into its leather sheath so he could hold his throbbing arm against his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut until the worst of it passed. Then he looked down at the ground far below.
The blur that saved him from death-by-wildcat was most certainly a wolf, but bigger than any wolf Ben had ever seen or heard of, at least as big as the pony Drustan had picked up from traders last summer. The wolf was also the same color as the evergreen boughs that adorned their mantle and sills at home. It could only be the cù-sìth.
But it had barked three times.
Ben’s stomach dropped at the momentary flash of horror that he must be dead, that the wet smacking sounds he could hear below weren’t from the beast eating a wildcat, but must be from it devouring his flesh, while his spirit simply hovered above the forest floor.
Then his arm throbbed in time with the steady, if too quick, beat within his chest. He thought he might have rebroken it a little. He patted his good hand all over to assure himself he was still, in fact, solid. He patted the tree trunk for good measure. Once he’d assured himself that he hadn’t dropped dead from the faerie wolf’s bark, he angled himself forward to get a better look at it.
The gruesome stain on the forest floor, combined with the sounds of the wolf feasting on the remains of the wildcat, caused Ben’s stomach to do a slow roll. He leaned back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. It seemed like forever before the slurping, crunching meal came to a close.
“Hullo, up there!” called a pleasant, gravelly voice.
Ben pried his eyes open and looked down.
At the base of the tree, stood a man. Well, that was the best word Ben could come up with to describe the fellow with wild dark hair, and an even wilder beard, dressed from head to toe in leaves and moss. He couldn’t have been any taller than Ben, but he stood resting a small hand on the back of the horse-sized wolf now resting on its haunches beside him.
“You’re the ghillie dhu,” Ben blurted.
The small man grinned up at him. “You can call me Barclay, laddie.”
“Hullo, Barclay,” he called down politely. “I’m Beathan.”
“Are ye, now?” The man seemed amused, though he wasn’t laughing. “I thought yer name was Ben. Or is that some other reckless young man I’ve heard about from other dwellers o’ the wood?”
Ben liked that Barclay called him a young man and not a child. He also wondered who might have told anyone his name, or how Barclay recognized him. Of course, he supposed he was the only person in the whole clan with blond hair. Other than Cinnie. And she was from Away. “No, tha’s me.”
“It’s gettin’ on toward dark, lad. Why’n’t ye come down so ye can get yerself home?”
Ben hesitated. “Um … because….”
“Don’t ye worry abou’ Maddy. She hasn’t got any mind to hurt ye.”
“Daira says … Daira’s our wisewoman and….”
“I know Daira, Ben. And she’s most wise. But ye needn’t worry about ole Maddy.”
“So, she doesn’t bark death for people?” he asked, starting to climb down. If the gillie dhu said he was safe, he was. He protected children in the wood, or so Daira had told him. And while he liked being called a man, he knew he wasn’t one. Not yet. If he’d had his first whisker, he’d have been off with the men today instead of sent on a kitchen errand by his mother.
Barclay chuckled. “She does. But na fer you, Ben. Your road ends far from here.”
Ben frowned, but didn’t ask what Barclay meant. He was too busy trying to get back down without losing his one-handed grip on the branches. He dropped back onto the ground right in front of Barclay and his giant pet, who now looked at Ben with glowing amber eyes that reminded him of his own.
He wanted to ask Barclay why her eyes glowed like that, but he was distracted by her surging forward and covering him with sloppy dog kisses that almost knocked him over. “Quit it!” he laughed, throwing up his hands. “Maddy stop! That tickles!”
“Let him breathe, Mads,” Barclay laughed.
The wolf obediently sat down next to her master, but looked very much like she’d like to slobber all over Ben some more.
“Thank you,” Ben said, relieved the wolf was as obedient as she was enormous. He looked up at the darkening sky. “I should get home, I think.”
Barclay nodded his agreement. “We’ll walk you out, young Ben. That lynx isn’t the only one nearby.”
“Lynx?” he asked, falling into step between Barclay and Maddy.
“Tha’s its name. Ye won’ hear it spoken aroun’ these parts, but I know the names of all the creatures in the wood.”
As they walked along, Barclay talked of the many names of creatures, showed Ben all manner of herbs and mushrooms that were good for medicine or to eat, and smiled slyly whenever Maddy would lap Ben’s splinted arm.
When they arrived at the edge of the wood near Daira’s cottage, Barclay took a small cloth-wrapped bundle from a pouch amongst the moss and leaves that made up his tunic. “This is fer Daira. Tell her Barclay says hullo, will ye?”
Ben accepted the bundle. “I will.” He turned to go, but Barclay stopped him.
“Hold on, young Ben. I’ve gifts fer ye as well.” Barclay took a beautiful cutting of mistletoe from the same pouch and handed it to Ben. “This is fer you. You’ll also be happy te know tha’ Maddy healed up yer arm.”
Ben accepted the mistletoe with his good hand and flexed the other a few times, grinning when he realized it didn’t hurt one bit. He knew dogs licked wounds to heal them. But apparently a giant magic dog could take it to another level. “But why…?”
Barclay smiled. “Any lad who’d share his own feast wi’ my people, an’ daily risk his màthair’s wrath, is a friend to me an’ all the good fair ones who live in this wood.”
“Thank you, Barclay.” Ben started to reach his hand out, then pulled it back.
“Go on, lad. Maddy won’ mind.”
Ben grinned and scratched the cù-sìth behind her ears, though he had to stretch to do so.
By the time he stopped, Barclay had disappeared back into the trees. Maddy gave Ben one more sloppy kiss up one side of his face, then turned and galloped back into the wood herself.
Ben secured the mistletoe in the pouch he kept tied to his belt for collecting herbs, pleased he could keep his promise to Aila, even if it was a bit later than he’d planned. Then he caught sight of Caraid and Daira standing in her well-lit doorway. He took off across the last stretch of grass, calling to both of them, excited to share his latest adventure, and to begin preparations for the holiday in earnest.
He was going to leave a proper feast outside for Barclay and his friends tomorrow.
No matter what anyone said about it.