Originally written and printed in our Writers’ Guild anthology, “Reflections“, “Birth of Niamh” is a dark fable.
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Bronagh gasped, clutching the edge of the table. It was too soon – too soon for her child to be born into the world. Outside, the wind howled and raged, rattling the shutters above her and bending the trees so that they creaked and groaned under the pressure. A raging, howling gail and she was all alone. All alone and the baby was coming.
If only her Cormac were here, with his strong hands and kind words, to ease her panic. She had birthed children before – other women’s, never her own. This was her first, this seed that had swelled in her belly, planted there by Cormac before he left her for the War.
A war against an enemy that was not his own, for a king he scarcely cared for. A war that had taken his life. Had left her here, a widow, with only this child as his legacy.
Now he was dead, and she was alone. Perhaps she should have left her home in the woods, moved into the village with the other women as they, too, waited for husbands and sons that might never return. She had intended to, closer to the babe’s birth time, where she would have warmth and compassion to usher the child into the world.
It was too soon. Far too soon.
Thunder cracked as another spasm wrenched through her body, fingers clawing at the dark wood of the table, brushing the letter so that it tumbled to the floor. It had arrived just two days ago, delivered by one of the village boys, too young to go to war. He had pressed it into her hands, accepting the warmed scone she offered him in payment, even as her hands shook as she took it. She knew before she split the seal what message it would bring. The unfamiliar script, the stamp of the army secretary:
“…regrets to inform you… deceased in the service of duty …”
She had read the letter so many times, as though that might change its bitter message. It had not.
Hail exploded against the roof, the wind howled and she staggered to her bed, the rough straw pallet in its tiny alcove.
Many hours later, with the rain still pounding and the wind still howling, she pushed her baby into the world. The only screams were her own, for the baby remained silent. A tiny, perfect girl with ten fingers, ten toes and even tinier nails. Pert nose, rosebud lips.
But not a breath in her body.
She tried everything she could to bring life to her daughter: breathing air into her tiny lungs, warming her, slapping her back, pressing her chest, yet she remained as still and silent as a doll.
Tears streamed down Bronagh’s face, she clutched the infant to her breast. Cormac’s legacy… lost.
Outside the wind howled, giving voice to her grief.
The morning seemed too bright, too light against the tragedy of the night. Bronagh stepped from her cottage, her chickens and geese flapping around her, eager to be out in the sun, foraging and fossicking. She held the still, wrapped bundle to her breast with one hand, the other clutching the spade with knuckles white and tight. Her grief was spent, the salt of her tears sparkling on her cheeks. Her daughter would be laid to rest with Bronagh’s mother, dead three winters past, and when Cormac finally came home, he would join them.
The ravages of the storm’s fury surrounded her: scattered and broken branches littering the path, those that remained stripped barren of leaves. Several had even been uprooted and lay like tumbled soldiers, dead beneath the onslaught of a formidable foe. She picked her way around and over them, and almost stepped on the small, white fluffy thing before she saw it.
It was an owlet. A tiny, scruffy bundle of down.
She stooped, setting the shovel down beside her and looked into its bright, round eyes. It fluffed up its down, opening its beak in a defiant hiss.
With her free hand, she scooped it up, ignoring its protests. Glanced around, but there was no sign of a nest. The little creature was abandoned and lost.
Grief and anger rose in her then. Anger that this small creature, this mere animal, could have survived the turmoil of the night and clung tenaciously to life, when her own precious daughter had not.
Something stirred in her mind. A dark memory of her grandmother’s teachings, a bitter plan took root.
With her dead baby cradled in one arm, the little owl in the palm of her hand, she returned to her cottage. She set the owlet inside a wooden crate, returned the infant to her bed. She would wait until the night, for dark magic, blood magic, was only efficient beneath the stars.
Darkness fell, and Bronagh’s hands were shaking. She took a steadying dram of ale, to warm her heart and slow her hands. The blood magics required precision, and care. The owlet huddled low in the crate, and fear fluttered in her heart: had it perished during the day? Animals did, on occasion, die of fright. Or maybe starvation. Or an injury she had not discovered. Her hands wrapped around it, and it shuddered into hissing, furious life. Outraged, but weakening. She lifted it, sitting it on the table beside her, igniting the circle of candles; the fragrant scent of spices and black tea, intermingling with the sharp pine of wood smoke.
By the feeble, flickering light, she slit her daughter from collar bone to pubic bone, scooping out her entrails much as she would that of a chicken or a goose, destined for the pot. It was a heart-breaking task, a nauseating one, for a mother to butcher her child as though she were nothing more than dead meat, but Bronagh fought back her gorge and completed her task methodically, carefully. Once the child was hollowed out, she placed the owled inside. The tiny bird unleashed a piercing screech of alarm as it was enfolded in this fleshy hollow.
Ignoring it, Bronagh took her sharpest knife and dug the blade deep into her flesh, droplets of blood beading on the blade, dripping down to annoint the chick’s grey-white down.
“From mother to daughter, I give you my blood. I give you my love so that you may live.” A whispered chant, the words meaning less than the emotion behind them.
Threading her finest bone-tipped needle with scarlet thread, she sewed her daughter’s belly shut with tiny, meticulous stitches.
Inside the owlet gave mewling cries of distress.
Her stitchwork done, she wrapped the pale child in a shawl of her grandmother’s, infused with the scent of lavender (or something more appropriate – research) and carried her outside. The stars strew a silver tapestry across the indigo velvet of the nightsky, and the moon cast a gentle silver glow, illuminating the path. Bronagh stumbled her way along the path, stepping over fallen branches, damp leaves and dirt clinging to her bared feet.
Within its flesh coffin, the bird continued to mew its distress.
The pool, as still and clear as a mirror, reflected the moon’s pale face. Even the gentle evening breeze failed to stir the surface. This was a place of rituals and wonders, a place where anything could happen.
Bronagh waded into the water, the chill pimpling her flesh and plastering her skirts to her legs. She waded until the water met her waist, a sharp, cold bite against her belly. Then she stood, as still as the night itself, until the ripples dispersed and the water was once again a perfect reflective mirror. Into the face of the moon, cast upon the water, she submerged the child.
Baptism by moonlight.
She held the dead baby beneath the water, her arms shaking with the tension, teeth gritted against the bitter cold. The breeze teased her hair, tugging it from its tight braids, dancing down her spine.
Still she held the child under.
Finally, when her fingers were so numb they had twisted into claws, she felt it. The slightest movement. Ripples erupted, as something moved beneath the surface.
Bronagh could barely remember how to move her arms, but she lifted the infant from the black water.
Kicking legs, flailing arms; face twisted into a grimace of outrage and lost dignity, her daughter squalled.
Her daughter lived.
She was called Niamh, for the moonlight that had given her life. She was tiny, but her appetite was voracious, her grip firm. She grew fast.
Her eyes opened, revealing irises of deepest indigo, pupils large and round – an owl’s eyes. As she lay in the crate, now converted into a cradle, she regarded the world with a solemn air, her forehead forever creased in a thoughtful frown and a smile rarely flickered across her pursed lips. She never laughed and barely cried, preferring to show her unhappinness with a terrifying screeching wail.
Within less than a full span of the moon, she lifted her head and moved it, following her mother around the room. Bronagh carried her outside whilst she foraged, strapped to her breast in a sling. She talked to her constantly, telling her the tales of her own childhood, explaining the properties of various herbs and other plants that she collected. Niamh watched, and listened. And learned.
Short, soft down sprouted on her head, an owlet’s fuzz, then fell out, to be replaced with long, loose and shaggy feathers. She grew plump, and crawled, and quickly learned to climb; clambering up onto the table at night to chase moths and pinch them between her fingers, chewing them with every evident of relish.
Still she did not speak, and Bronagh wondered if she would ever find her voice, or if there was too much of the owl inside her.
Her child was so strange, so other. The first time Bronagh took her to the village, the other mothers stared, frowning and asking all sorts of over-curious questions:
“Is she simple?” “Is she even human?” “She’s just not right.”
Bronagh, always an outsider, became even more so and retreated back into the woods and her cottage, isolating herself, isolating Niamh.
Niamh continued to grow, taking short staggering steps on her bandy legs before climbing up the cupboards and perching on the top. Always, she liked to be high and she liked to watch and she liked to listen.
She stole eggs from the basket, cracking them open and licking yolk from her fingers. The chickens feared her, clucking and scattering in a flurry of feathers at her approach, but the geese became her friends. She followed them about the yard, plucking grass for them to nibble, stroking their downy feathers and falling asleep against their firm, feathery forms. Sometimes she talked to them, emulating their coarse honks and guttural rasps with softer tones of her own.
When Bronagh herded the geese to the pool, Niamh followed them into the water, whilst Bronagh watched, anxiety rising in her heart.
Drifting over, a gander dipped its beak down, under the surface, flicking water into Niamh’s face. Droplets cascaded and she reached out, trying to catch them, as they splashed against her hands and face, she emitted a chattering, almost barking, sound.
Bronagh’s heart skipped a beat, wondered if she were choking. Then it skipped another, but this time in joy.
It was the first time Niamh had laughed.
But still she did not speak.
She may have been silent and strange, but Niamh was not simple. She counted the geese every evening as they were ushered towards the cottage and herded into their pen. Her lips moved silently as she pointed from one head to another. Frowned. Counted again. Frowning deep, she repeated the process then, without even looking at her mother, she bent down, tightened the laces on her boots, picked up her short herding stick, and marched off back down the path. Bronagh latched the pen shut and trailed after her daughter, curious to see what she would do.
Niamh moved with precision and purpose, peering into bushes and tilting her head to listen. She moved as silent as an owl at night, as alert and inquisitive. Only once did she turn her head to see if Bronagh followed, rewarding her with a slight nod of approval. She paused at a opening in the trees, crouching to study the wet leaves, where a perfect webbed footprint was barely visible, pressed into the wet mulch. Another look back at her mother, and into the woods she romped, ducking and weaving her way around the low hanging branches, pausing frequently to study a foot print here, a broken twig there.
Bronagh struggled to follow, pushing her way through the branches; twigs grazing her skin and clawing at her clothes. Several times she lost the child, only to catch a glimpse of her pale tunic through the trees.
She found Niamh crouching in the leaf mulch, a dark and cloying odour hanging in the air. The taste of copper on her tongue. Blood: blood and death.
Niamh’s little arms were wrapped about the goose’s neck, its entrails trailing, body mangled, broken and dead. She looked up at her mother then, her eyes bright, not with tears but alive with curiosity and questions. Her pale tunic stained with spatterings of red, her fingers dripping gore. She licked one, more out of curiosity than anything more sinister. Blinked.
“Mother,” her previously unusued voice was soft and lilting, “why is he leaking?”
Niamh hated the fox. He had killed Friend Goose, and she knew he was out there, hungry for the others. Friend Goose had been buried in the garden.They could not eat him, Mother had explained, even though they ate the chickens, because the fox had made such a mess in the killing that it might have poisoned the meat. Niamh was secretly a bit glad about that. It would have felt wrong to eat Goose, even though it would have made him a part of her instead of dead and cold in the dirt (would something eat him there? She wondered, bugs or worms or any of the other things that scurried and squirmed?). It would have felt wrong because Goose was her friend, and she had talked with him – argued really. It didn’t feel wrong to eat the chickens. They were all scared of her and they didn’t talk to her, just screamed when she came too close to them. They didn’t speak in the same way as Mother, but the noise they made for her was the same they shrieked when a crow or hawk flew over. Perhaps they could eat the fox, if she could catch it. It would be hard though, because Mother was always watching her and Mother didn’t like her to wander off by herself.
Night fell, and Niamh crawled dutifully into the bed beside Mother. She didn’t want to sleep though – Niamh hated to sleep at night. During the day, sometimes, her eyes would come over all heavy and her head would sink down and she would fall asleep in the sun. At night, however, her thoughts came alive. When she closed her eyes, all she could hear was the voice of the night: a mouse creeping across the cottage floor, the chickens sitrring restlessly in their pen. Outside, the wind whispered in the eaves of the peat cottage and somewhere, a distance away, an owl shrieked.
The owl’s call stirred something in her, the delicate feathery hairs on the back of her neck rising. She glanced across at Mother: body slack, eyes shut tight, mouth slightly open. Nudged her. Mother murmured in her sleep, but did not stir. Niamh slipped from the bed, padding soundlessly across the packed-mud floor. She slunk along the wall, as far from the chickens as she could. If they woke up, they’d make a terrible racket. A racket fit to wake the dead, as Mother sometimes said. But they couldn’t wake the dead, could they? Not Friend Goose, cold and limp beneath the dirt. Nothing would ever wake him.
She stood on tiptoe but could still not quite reach the latch. Her old crate, her baby bed, pushed across the floor (with a scraping whisper), made a good step. The latch slipped free with a barely audible “whack”. She froze as Mother snorted in her sleep: a snore, then another. Had to move the crate to pull the door open, just a crack. The night air reaching out to run its gentle hands over her body. Rich with the gentle symphony of crickets and frogs, crisp with the scent of pine and secrets. Squeezing through and out in the yard, the ground soft and damp beneath her feet. Niamh had forgotten her boots, but found she did not care. The night filled her with life and energy, flowing in through her eyes and her ears, a kiss across her lips and a caress down her spine. The breeze danced in her long, feathery locks and tugged and teased them. Above hung the moon, round and white, like the sweetest of fruits for the plucking. Niamh ran and skipped, hopped and jumped. She stuck out her arms and spun and spun and spun. A white flash across her peripheral, and she turned her head to gaze upon a large white bird, sleek and silent in the moonlight. It alighted atop the geese’s hutch and swivelled its round head to study her. Its face was long, eyes solemn and dark. Niamh knew immediately that it was female, although she could not have said how she knew this. It turned its head, studying her with the same slow curiosity with which she regarded it.
Made a noise, a low screeching enquiry.
Niamh nodded, answered. This strange white bird was kin, in the same way she knew the geese were her friends, she knew this bird was Mother, just as the tall, dark woman who cared for her was also Mother. Could she have two Mothers? She knew she had a Father, even though she had never met him. Would never meet him, because Father was dead – dead and cold just like Friend Goose. Except that Father was not here, Father was still out there, somewhere, and had yet to find his way Home.
She stepped towards Mother Bird, reached up her hand to it. It hunched, leaning forward, wings slightly raised and towards her. Nudged her with its beak. Let her run her fingers over its silky feathers. Then it jerked, stiffened, rose to its full height and stare at something over her shoulder, behind her. Niamh followed its gaze, turning.
Mother stood in the doorway of the cottage, hair tousled and sticking out like the feathers of a rumpled chicken. She stood and she stared, and Niamh saw that her eyes glistened in the darkness, glistened with that moisture that sometimes leaked from them: the water that tasted of salt and sorrow. The slightest whisper of a noise, she turned her head back to see Mother Bird spread its wings and launch silently into the night sky, a ghostly white shadow against the tapestry of stars.
“Niamh,” Mother called, her words dripping with hope, regret.
Niamh turned her gaze from Mother Bird’s vanishing form and ran to the warm embrace of Mother’s arms.
The next night, Mother did not go to bed instead, after their usual dinner of wild mushrooms and chicken broth, she took Niamh out into the darkling twilight. “Some plants are better gathered by the light of the moon,” she explained, “it makes their magicks more potent.” Niamh did not really understand much about magic, but she was happy to be out at night, with Mother by her side. Mother Bird joined them too, gliding past on silent wings, a ghostly presence in the night.
“She’s an owl,” Mother explained. The two of them walked amongst the trees, their leaves turned orange and red, crinkling beneath her feet. Small crops of mushrooms rose their round and pointed heads. Mother plucked them from the ground, explaining that some were good to eat, others were very, very bad and would poison the body and sicken the soul. Niamh nodded, studying each, remembering their colour, their shape. Together they picked herbs: sniffing the sharp and pungent rosemary; the gentle perfume of lavender; the fresh, clean, sharpness of mint. Creatures rustled in the trees, squirrels scampering home to their warm hollow beds, mice and rats venturing out to nibble on fallen seeds and creeping, crawling insects. They came to the shores of the pool, where the frogs chorused and wind teased the water into tiny waves. Something stood by the water’s edge, muzzle lowered, lapping at the water. It froze as they approached, trangular ears pricked high. Turned its head, regarding them down its long, pointed muzzle. Its fur was the deep russet red of the autumn leaves, muted by the dying light, its eyes pale and alert. For a moment, Niamh and it stared at one another: child at predator, then it flicked its white tipped tail and darted away, a sleek and furry arrow disappearing into the low brambles. Niamh looked up at Mother, eyes bright and curious.
“That,” Mother answered the unspoken question, “was a fox.”
Niamh checked to make sure Mother was well asleep, and snoring hard. She was. Niamh smiled, it had been a very busy day. The geese had taken little encouragement to be as rambunctious as possible, running off in every direction so that Mother had to chase them here, there and every to try and round them up again with her broom, and when she had – flap-flap-flap – they would all be off every which-way again. Niamh had told them to be naughty, because Niamh needed Mother to be very, very tired. So tired that not even the loudest noise would wake her up.
Niamh had a plan – she was going to catch Bad Fox.
And she was going to kill him.
She knew Mother would not approve of her plan. Mother worried that something bad might happen to her, out there in the darkness. But she didn’t understand that the darkness was where Niamh really belonged. Mother might be mad at first, when she found the bed empty, but the dead fox would make her happy, because then she would know that the geese were safe. They could have fox stew for dinner tomorrow, and the next day too – a whole week of tomorrows! And Mother would turn his thick fur into new winter gloves. Warm gloves, so that Niamh could touch the snow without the cold burning her hands. Her old gloves, squirrel skin, were all worn out now, all the fur rubbed off from climbing trees.
She slipped out of the bed, padding across the room and glancing back at Mother. Still deep in sleep. Push the box, lift the latch, push the box, ease open the door.
The breeze danced in, bringing with it the bite of winter. She unhooked her rabbit-fur cape and draped it around her shoulders, before heading towards where Mother’s axe rested against the wall. She had seen the axe turn strong, sturdy trees into little more than splintered wood to feed the fire. If it could do that much damage to one of the forest giants, it could certainly chop a fox into tiny, bite-sized pieces. Except maybe not too tiny, because she wanted some fur left for gloves, or maybe a collar for her cape. The axe was heavy, and no matter how much she heaved and strained, she could not lift it. Mother must be very strong. Her eyes cast about the tiny cottage: the sturdy straw pallet in the corner where Mother sprawled in sleep, the large wicker hutch in which the chickens squatted like great feathery pumpkins; the strings of drying herbs, bulbs and other flora that criss-crossed the ceiling. Nothing there that she could use. In a hearth of stones, embers blinked through reds and oranges; a mouse ventured out from under a cabinet to nibble a forgotten crumb. Then her eyes alighted on the sturdy wooden table – it was dining table, workbench, writing desk. She clambered up the chair and studied the array of tools laid across it: tools to grind and mince, to mix, decant and concoct. Her eyes alighted on the short, wicked blade of Mother’s knife.
She had seen it slice sturdy roots and dive through chicken flesh. It should work on Bad Fox. It wasn’t as heavy either, she could carry it in one hand. Thus armed, Niamh slipped into her boots and laced them up, before stepping out into the night.
Her new Friend Goose joined her eagerly. He was young, had not long shed his gosling down and replaced it with sleek silver-grey feathers. It had been hard to explain her plan to him, the language of the goose was simple and uncomplicated, mostly limited to noises that meant “that’s mine” or “stay back”, “danger” or “content”. She was pretty sure he didn’t really understand now, but maybe that was for the better. He had proclaimed himself the strongest and bravest of the goslings, and she had given him a way to prove it. The other geese stayed in their pen, some honking encouragement, others rasping caution. Friend Goose fluffed up his feathers, held his long neck arced high, and waddled boldly along by Niamh’s side.
Mother Owl glided past, screeching down to Niamh; Bad Fox had been sighted, stalking frogs by the pool. Perfect.
There he was, the russet red beast sniffing amongst the long reeds. The frogs fell silent as he approached them, seeking camouflage in silence. But silence was no camouflage from Bad Fox. He lunged and snapped, tongue lolling, teeth flashing white in the moonlight. Snatching up the little frogs and swallowing them whole.
But what was this? A plump young goose, strutting boldly in the moonlight, heading for the water’s edge. Ears pricked, the fox froze, dropped low, shoulders hunched into a crouch. Stalking, stalking; creeping closer, closer. Oblivious, the goose plucked at the grass, greedy, foolish grazing. So close now, the fox could almost taste the blood on his teeth. He pounced. The goose erupted, flapping, running, the fox in hot pursuit.
Niamh flung her cloak as the fox bounded towards her. It flapped for a moment, as though it had wings, then he ran straight into it, tumbling and rolling in confusion. Niamh pounced before he could gain control, the knife clutched tight in her fingers. She stabbed him, again and again and again, his blood hot and sticky beneath her hands. The rank stink of his fear floating on the currents of the night. Friend Goose whirled about, jabbing with his beak and beating with his wings. Bad Fox struggled and screamed, snapped and writhed like an eel. His teeth grazed Niamh’s arm and she lost her grip on the knife, surprised at the sudden burning pain. Fox scrambled free, his fur matted and bloody, he ran. Friend Goose chased after him, honking terrible insults. But Fox was sleek and fast on foot, whilst Goose was big and clumsy.
Friend Goose returned, shoulders hunched in disappointment. He nudged Niamh, who crouched in the dirt, staring at the blood flowing down her arm, dripping to the forest floor. It was the first time that she had ever leaked – as her first Friend Goose had leaked. Would all her life leak out of her too?
New Friend Goose nudged her, and nudged her again, making low clucks of concern. He picked up her cape, dirty and bloodied, and pressed it into her hands. She took it, draping it over her shoulders almost without thinking, and followed him back to the cottage.
Mother would not be pleased.
Niamh did not suffer the same fate as the first Friend Goose. She suffered instead the application of various strange-smelling ointments, including one that made her skin feel as though it were burning; a tea made of a strong, aniseed brew and the prick-prick-prick of five tight stitches, as Mother sewed the wound shut.
The next day, Mother dragged her outside and declared that they would have to find the fox and finish what she had started.
“You must never leave a beast badly injured, but alive,” Mother explained as she crouched down to examine a blood-stained twig. “You must either heal it, or kill it. A wounded beast is dangerous. They can go mad with the pain.”
The trail of broken, bloodied branches led them down the hill, criss-crossing back and forth across the path to the village. Niamh was crouching, examing the press of a footprint in the mud, when she heard something, a footfall, louder and clumsier than that of any animal that tread these woods. She stood, ears pricked, alert. “Someone’s coming.”
A person strolled up the path, tall and broad-shouldered. Not one of the small, quick women that sometimes came up this path, came up from the village to ask Mother for one of her ointments or teas. Not one of the other mothers that sought out cordials to help their sick children, to ease the winter cold.
This one moved awkwardly, as though one leg did not work properly. Long dark red hair fell in curls, framing a strong face with a broad chin.
Mother let out a small gasp, reaching out for Niamh, fingers flailing in the air, as though she were reluctant to drag her eyes away from the approaching figure. Step, drag, the person came; the corners of their mouth twitched into a smile and their pace quickened. Niamh stepped forward, pressing her hand against Mother’s. Mother gripped, squeezing so tight that Niamh worried her fingers might drop off.
“Cormac,” Mother’s voice was a breathless whisper, barely audible. “Cormac.”
“Father?” Niamh gasped. But this could not be Father. Father was dead somewhere far, far away – cold and broken and bloody, like first Friend Goose. He could not be here, striding as swiftly towards them as his injured leg would permit. He could not be here, wrapping his arms around Mother, engulfing her in a hug so filled with grief and longing and love that Niamh worried Mother might drown in it. He could not be here, staring down at her, the smile on his face fading and a frown crinkling his forehead as he gazed into Niamh’s strange, indigo eyes.
“Who is she?” The tone flat, cold.
“Your daughter,” Mother whispered into his shoulder. “Niamh.”
With husband and wife reunited, life should have been perfect. It was not.
Cormac claimed his rightful place in Mother’s bed, and Niamh was exiled to the tiny loft above the chicken coop. The birds remained silent whilst she slept above them, but should she creep down the ricketty ladder during the night, woke with a tremendous racket. Not that it mattered, because Cormac hardly slept at all.
He refused to talk about the War, except to say that he had fallen into the hands of the enemy. They had beaten and broken him. His own people had abandoned him, giving him up for dead. After years of incarceration and torture, his captors had been attacked and Cormac been inadvariably rescued. However, his captivity had left his body battered and weakened – he had been discharged from the army with only a few coins and shattered, scarred memories in payment. Now those memories haunted his dreams, and he would twitch and scream, scream until he woke everyone and finally himself. He paced the small cottage, dragging his damaged leg; chopped wood with a fury Niamh had never seen in anyone; his temper was short, his mood oscilliating madly from raging anger to a deep and dark depression. He ignored Niamh, apart from the occasional puzzled frown or disparaging comment.
“Don’t take it to heart, my love,” Mother hugged her close. “He’s had a rough time of it. He’s been hurt very badly; we’ve got to help him get better. Give him time, he’ll soon grow to love you as much as I.”
One night Niamh lay awake in her loft, listening.
“I can’t do it.” Frustration, tiredness, in Cormac’s voice. “I can’t do it with her watching.”
“She’s not watching, she’s asleep.”
“She’s watching.” Cormac’s voice rose from its low rumble. “She’s always watching. I’m out in the forest, chopping wood – she’s watching. I’m checking the snares, and she’s watching…”
“She’s just curious.”
“That’s not curiosity. It isn’t canny. She’s like something from another world. The way she never talks, just stands there – staring, listening. Those eyes – like she’s spying on your soul. She’s uncanny. Too silent. She ain’t no child of mine.”
“She’s yours,” Mother whispered. “Who else’s could she be? There’s never been anyone but you, my love.”
A scuffle, a muffled thump.
“I ain’t laying no claim to that… that creature. Those eyes… They’re not normal. She’s a demon spawn, a devil child. Did you lie with a demon? Did you?”
“No!” Outrage sparked in Mother’s simple answer. “She’s not. She’s a sweet, caring girl. The geese love her.”
“And the chickens hate her!” He stomped across the floor. “I always said the geese were the creatures of the devil. No good in them, worth nothing except for the pot. I should have listened to my mother. Should never have married a woman whose grandmother was said to dabble in the dark arts!” A long, drawn out groan. “You bewitched me, didn’t you?” he snarled, as though suddenly realising. “From the start, lured me with your ebony hair and beguiled me with your arcane charms. All this time, I’ve been ignorant and blind, but now you’ve gone and done it, you’ve gone and birthed a monster, a monster that shows just what you really are.” He paused, took a deep breath and began to chant, as he stamped around the room. “Witch.” Stomp. “Succubus.” Stomp. “Demon-whore.”
Niamh wrapped her arms around her knees, hugging them tight. She wished she weren’t here. She wished she were outside, in the moonlight with Mother Owl and Friend Goose.
A slap rang out. Cormac gasped.
“How dare you.” His voice a low, feral growl. Followed by a louder thwack, and then another, and another, and another. There came the sound of a tussle, something being knocked over; Mother sobbing and shouting.
Niamh could not take it anymore – she could not sit and listen to Cormac hurt Mother.
She launched herself from the loft, almost flying, and crashed straight into Cormac’s broad back. Her hands clutched at his throat, her teeth bared in a fierce snarl. If only she had a knife, then she would cut his throat, letting him leak out his life as first Friend Goose had. Cormac was the Bad Fox, and he had crept into their life like a sneaky predator.
He wrenched her from him, his hands huge and strong and powerful, and flung her across the room. She struck the table with a whimper of pain. He stepped back towards the door, hand closing about the axe handle.
“I’ll kill you, demon spawn,” he snarled, lifting the axe above his head. It was not too heavy for him, to him it was nothing more than a stick. He lunged forward, prepared to strike the killing blow, to severe Niamh’s life.
Mother stepped between them. “No.” She didn’t shout, didn’t even raise her voice, but Cormac froze. A spasm seemed to pass through his body and he let the axe head sink slowly to the floor
He howled: a wordless, lost cry of pain and confusion. Then he turned, slammed open the door and disappered into the night.
Niamh hurt all over, but she didn’t seem to be leaking, and her arms and legs still worked. She rolled off the table and scrambled into Mother’s embrace.
The two of them hugged each other close, Mother’s tears dripping down Niamh’s face and tasting of salt and grief, regret and sorrow.
Mother’s eyes were shadowed in bruises, and she drew away from Niamh, pressing one hand to her side. Her face contorted into a grimace of pain, as she eased herself down onto the only upright stool. Nimah boiled some water and began to make tea. She added a dash of restorative powders, to help ease the pain and then extra lashings of Cormac’s special blend. He drank it when the nightmares became too much, and sleep too elusive. Mother could use a good, long sleep, Niamh decided.
Mother accepted the tea and drank down every drop, before easing herself onto the bed. Niamh curled up beside her, lying there in the dark until Mother’s breathing became slow and even. She stirred, uncurling herself from Mother’s arms. Mother murmured: “don’t go. Stay.”
But Niamh would not be dissuaded. She pressed her lips against Mother’s forehead, a silent promise of her love, and slipped from the bed. Mother mumbled again, but did not awaken, too deeply taken by the sleeping potion.
The knife still hung from its hook on the wall, and Niamh scrambled up onto the table to unhook it. The door hung slightly open and Niamh slipped outside. The night was cold, a chill bite in the air, the promise of snow – or at the very least, a heavy frost. Niamh stopped to pull on her boots and returned for her cape. Her breath misted in the air. In their hutch, the geese honked and called to her, Friend Goose offering his assistance. She let him out, but the others huddled back, nervous of the night and scared of Bad Fox.
Cormac was much easier to track than Bad Fox had been. His lopsided limping gait had cut a clear path through the dew-covered grass, and his big feet had cracked numerous twigs. She followed his trail towards the pond, Friend Goose jogging at her side.
She paused. He stood by the pool’s edge, gazing into the dark waters, at the flickering reflection of the crescent moon. He still held the axe, leaned on it as though it were the only thing holding him upright. His shoulders spasmed, maybe with the cold, maybe with something else.
Niamh stepped forward, towards him. “Father?” She ventured.
He turned, and rage bloomed in his eyes, his face contorted in a hideous snarl. “You little cuckoo,” he stepped towards her, hefted the axe. “Crept into my home, stole my wife’s love. Always spying on me, watching me.” His gaxe turned to Friend Goose, who stood beside Niamh, head held high and wings slightly raised. “And your familiar too. Witch child. Demon spawn.” He stepped forward, swung the axe and severed Friend Goose’s neck with one clean sweep. The bird’s wings flapped for a moment, then its body collapsed. Niamh howled, flinging herself at him and jabbing with the knife, catching him in the shoulder, the chest. She had been aiming for his throat. The axe clattered to the ground and his hands closed about her neck, tearing her from him. He held her at arms length, her slashing blade slicing harmlessly across the thick sleeves of his overcoat. Then he waded out into the water and pushed her under.
Nimah struggled, she kicked and slashed and stabbed. Blood blossomed, spreading and diluting. Her thoughts turned dark and confused. She struggled for breath, mouth open, but only water gushed in. Water flowing into her nose and down her throat. Gasping, flailing. It tasted of blood, blood and despair. And death. It was cold, so cold, and she could fight no more.
Her body fell limp, floating beneath the reflected moon.
A poke, a prod. Niamh opened her mouth, gasping and spluttering, vomiting water. Her head felt heavy, her thoughts clouded and confused. She blinked, coughed, and blinked again. A white shape sat before her, moonlight shimmering on ghostly feathers.
The owl nudged her, pressing her beak against Niamh’s cheek. Niamh rose to a crouch. A few feet away, Friend Goose’s head stared at her with round, sightless eyes. She crawled towards it, picking it up and cradling it. It was sticky and lifeless; her bold, cheeky friend now nothing more than this limp, dead thing. She lay it down beside his body.
Tomorrow, when Mother was awake, they would bury him beside first Friend Goose.
Mother Owl hopped towards her, spread her wings and sprang soundlessly into the air. Niamh became aware then of something else. A sound: honking and screeching.
The geese were screaming.
She ran, scrambling up the path and stumbling several times. The screams became louder, more panicked.
The breeze brought with it the smell of smoke, the crackle of flames. Niamh quickened her pace. But she was late, too late.
Greedy orange flames danced across the cottage’s thatched roof, devouring it. The door hung open, and smoke billowed out in great grey clouds, clouds that shrouded the stars.
“Mother!” Niamh cried, running towards the cottage door, lungs burning as she gasped, eyes streaming as she peered into the gloom beyond.
The bed was aflame, a fiery inferno but, if she narrowed her eyes, Niamh could just make out two shapes, curled together in a final, eternal embrace.
You must never leave a beast badly injured, but alive. You must either heal it, or kill it. A wounded beast is dangerous. They can go mad with the pain.