Art by Dale Bott
The bird was an ill omen, I was certain of that. But then, the world was so full of portents that one more would scarcely make a difference.
“Good day to you, brother magpie,” I said as I passed, hoping to dispel at least a little of the creature’s glamour. “I hope the season finds you well.”
The bird cocked its head to one side, as if contemplating an answer. None came, nor did I expect one. There had been a time when my people knew the secret language of birds and beasts, but those days had long since gone.
“If anyone should ask, tell them that Elathan of the Aos Si passed this way,” I said, knowing that my words were foolish but held by ancient custom to speak them.
The bird continued to stare at me as I made my way down the wooded slope and into the valley. I could feel its glittering black eyes trained on my back, at the small harp slung there and the two short swords that hung in colourful scabbards from my hips.
I turned to throw an idle salute, but the bird had gone, mollified by my greeting, perhaps.
“Good hunting to you, brother,” I said.
There was a small stream running southward through the valley so I followed its course. Where there was water there might be a settlement, and it had been many days since I had known the comfort of a hearth.
After a mile or so, I reached a thick wood. Beyond it, wisps of smoke rose into the still morning air. I stood for a moment and let my mind wander before me—using that third eye which allows the Bright Folk to see further, on occasions, than two eyes might allow. There was a village beyond the trees, a place where, perhaps, I could trade the music of my harp for a little food and ale. But which song to play, that was the question, which magic to weave? One of the old songs—the battle of Moytirra or a tale of the Daughters of Emmas—something to stir the blood and memory, most of all, the memory.
As I made my way through the wood my reverie was broken by the sound of snapping branches, followed by laughter, shrill and full of gleeful cruelty. Then a thin, high squeal.
It came again, louder and closer. I moved towards it and emerged into a small clearing.
A child, a girl of no more than five summers, stood on the stump of an oak, her face pressed into her hands. Her hair was long and dark, her clothing torn. Clustered around her were more children, at least a dozen of them—some as young as the girl they tormented, others twice or three times her age. Each one held a long, slender branch with which they whipped at her exposed legs, laughing as they struck.
“Thin blood!” one of the boys shrieked as he lashed out, leaving a livid red welt on the girl’s skin.
“Thin blood! Thin blood!” cried another, until the cry had been taken up by all of them as their spiteful clarion call.
I called out, but they paid no attention—too rapt in their game to heed the brightly dressed stranger in their midst—so I took my harp and struck a harsh, jarring chord on its brass strings.
The game stopped immediately and twelve sharp little faces turned to look at me.
“Leave her alone,” I said
“You spoiled our fun,” the oldest boy said. Like the others he was a thin, vulpine child, with long limbs and red-gold hair. Our gaze met and for a moment I was lost for words; his eyes were large and slightly slanted, irises the colour of gold.
Like my own. So alike that we could have been kin.
But that was impossible. Other than myself, none of the Aos Si had left their barrows for generations—hundreds of years in human terms—and our race had long since ceased to care for the people and kingdoms of Orialla.
“Leave her alone,” I said again. “What harm has she done you?”
The boy smiled, his teeth were jagged and very white. “She’s different from us,” he declared. “Her blood is thin.” His voice belied his eyes, it was all too human and as coarse as the fabric of the tunic he wore.
“Go home, boy,” I told him. “Find another game.”
The smile faltered. “I’ll tell my father.” And the way he said it made it more than a threat, as if the words had power beyond their surface meaning.
One of the girls tugged at his elbow. “Forget him, Ailill,” she said. “Let’s go back.”
He spat on the ground. “We’ll remember you, bard,” he said, then turned away. The children vanished into the trees, their laughter following them.
I crossed to where the girl stood. Her face was still hidden by her hands and hair, her body racked with sobs.
“Good day to you, daughter,” I said, my tone as light and friendly as I could make it.
She lowered her hands and looked up at me. She was a pretty child despite the dirt and tears that stained her face.
“My name is Elathan,” I told her. “A bard by trade and friend to all by inclination.”
“I have no friends,” she said.
I squatted down beside her. “A child as pretty as you and yet no friends? I find that hard to believe.”
A tiny smile turned up the corners of her mouth. “Your voice is funny,” she said.
I deepened my tone to make it more like human speech. “Is that better?”
She giggled and the sorrow dropped from her. Like all children, she had the power to forget her troubles in the face of the new and unusual.
“Do you have a name, daughter?”
“That’s a fine name—a fine, old name. Do you live in the village beyond?”
“Shall we go there?”
She nodded again and, without bidding, reached up and took my hand.
“Will you keep me safe, Elathan?” she said.
I smiled at her. “Of course, child.”
The village was larger than I had believed. A dozen low-roofed houses clustered around a small central square. But beyond that there were two dozen more, interspersed with outbuildings, gardens and hay-filled haggards. Further still, at the southern reaches where the valley widened and flattened, there were small fields of wheat and barley that gave way to an apple orchard. And beside the barley field stood a church—a place of the One God, for what other gods were there since the Bright Folk had retreated to their barrows?
There were few people in the square, mostly women and a couple of scrawny children. They all turned to stare as Moninna and I approached. And why should they not? I doubt that they had ever seen the like of me before with my bright clothing and long, golden hair.
“Good day to you, sister,” I said to one old woman who sat peeling vegetables into a wooden bucket. “I believe I found something of yours in the woods.” I winked broadly at Moninna and she giggled again.
“Not one of mine, sir,” the woman said.
“Elathan has a funny voice, Ornat,” Moninna said. “And he can change it.”
“Most bards can,” Ornat replied, unimpressed. She gestured at my harp with a dirty hand. “Is that thing just for decoration, boy, or can you play it?”
“Sweeter than a nightingale.” I told her.
“And spin a tale, too? It’s been a while since I’ve heard a good song or a good story.”
“I can do you both—for a price.”
The old woman laughed. “You’re a bard alright, Elathan Bright-Britches, for I’ve never met one yet that would sing for free.”
“You’ve a bold tongue on you, grandmother. So just for you, the first song will cost nothing.” I reached down and took Moninna’s hand again. “But songs and stories will have to wait, I have business to attend to—the child should be returned to her mother.”
A frown crossed Ornat’s wrinkled face. “The child is a foundling,” she said. “She has neither father nor mother.” She used the point of her knife to indicate the path to the church. “Brother Lonan minds her, best you take her to him.”
We bid her good day and wandered up the dusty road. It was mid-summer but the wheat and barley in the fields had not been harvested and the fields were wild and unkempt. Once, I saw the fox-like face of Ailill or one of his friends peering out at me from the relative shelter of the wheat field. As soon as my gaze caught his, he scampered away laughing.
“Why did they hurt you, Moninne?” I asked.
“It’s a game they play,” she said and that was reason enough for her.
The church was a stark stone building, much like others I had seen on my travels; a house of the One God with a cross above its doorway and another on the summit of its low, round tower. It looked more like a fort than a place of worship—hardly surprising since the men of Lochlann had raided these parts time after time—and there were no windows other than a few slits cut into the stone.
As we drew near, a tall man emerged from the doorway. He wore a grey cassock, his dark hair was tonsured and a simple wooden cross hung around his neck.
“Moninne!” he called. “Where have you been, child?”
The girl ran towards him and he swept her up in his arms. “You know you should never wander off on your own,” the cleric chided, but there was no real anger in his voice. Then he noticed the blood on her legs. “They caught you again, eh, Moninne?”
“She came to no real harm,” I assured the man. “But someone should teach the children of this village some manners.”
“Would that someone could,” he said. ”I thank you for your concern. Please forgive us for troubling you.”
“I assure you it was no trouble, Brother, Moninna was delightful company.”
“Go inside, child,” the cleric told Monnina. “There’s food waiting for you.”
“Goodbye, Elathan.” She gave my hand a squeeze then scampered up the grassy path to the church.
“Who are you?” the cleric asked. His tone was friendly enough, but he looked at me with ill-disguised curiosity.
“No one of significance,” I said.
“Hardly that, I think.” He nodded at my harp and swords.
“These are difficult times, Brother. A man needs music to keep his soul light, and sharp metal to keep his body attached to it.”
“Music is a gift from God,” he said. “Even if men such as I sometimes mistreat it.”
“You play the harp, Brother?”
“Aye,” he said with a smile, “but not well.”
“Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to meet another player.”
He was about to speak again when something behind me caught his attention and the smile turned into a grimace. I turned and saw Ailill and the others standing less than five feet away. I had not heard or even felt their approach.
“My father will be home tonight,” Ailill said. “He’ll teach you to spoil our game.”
“Do you seek to threaten me, boy?”
The child shrugged. “If he catches you, he’ll kill you.” He grinned his white, crooked grin in anticipation.
“He might try.” I said. The boy’s bland confident manner angered me, and I had to fight down the impulse to strike out at him.
“You’re a fool, bard.” The children turned as one and, silently as they had come, slipped away into the fields.
“If you are wise you will heed their warning,” Brother Lonan said. There was no threat, only concern, in his voice. “You should not be here when the men return.”
I stared at him for a moment. There was a thin sheen of sweat on his face and he gnawed at his lower lip in agitation. I took the harp from my back and played a complex little refrain.
“There is a story here, Brother,” I said. “And I do so love to hear stories. Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell it to me.”
“Come inside,” he said.
His church was cold, damp and stank of iron. The places of the One God have never welcomed my kind and I could feel a tight, unpleasant sensation beginning in my skull.
“The children,” I said. “Tell me about the children.” I had used only a little of the Bright Magic upon the cleric, an effective but harmless geis that would make him open up to me as if I were an old friend.
He shook his head from side to side, like a man who has taken too much wine, fighting the geis even though he had no idea what he fought against.
“The children are not human,” he said after his brief struggle. “At least not fully human.”
Outside, a bird sang and I thought of my friend the magpie. He had promised an ill omen and, true to his nature, had not lied.
“Fifteen years ago,” the cleric continued, “Lochlann raiders came to these parts and our men went to meet them. But when they returned there was something changed in them, they were not the men they had been . . . they were not men at all.
“Their eyes were like yours, Elathan the bard, but darker, fiercer. They stayed only for a night—a wild and terrible night full of pain and lust—and then they were gone. Back to their graves. The men, you see, the men are dead and something else has taken their place. Something old, something wrong. Something that Padraig should have banished along with the snakes.”
“The boy said his father would return tonight.”
“Aye. And he will, along with his comrades. It is their time to walk again.” He grasped the cross he wore and the act gave him strength. “Five years in the grave for one night of life—that was the dark bargain they struck.”
I stopped playing, and my final notes hung in the air. “The Faoi-Mhuir retreated back to the seas many years ago.”
“Not all of them, it would seem.”
My people had fought the Faoi-Mhuir before, at the great battle of Magh Tuireadh. It was from them we had wrested the kingdoms of Orialla in the days when we had come in mist from long-forgotten lands across the ocean. They were our kindred, the dark face of the elder folk, callous and capricious with no seam of brightness in them, only a love for death and destruction that would sicken the soul of any thinking creature.
“They wear the skins of our men,” Lonan said. “And use our women for their pleasure. They sometimes leave us children and that is a blessing of sorts—even if the children are demon born.” I thought of little fox-faced Ailill and his friends and the reason for their spiteful games was clear to me.
“Faoi-Mhuir need blood to sustain their stolen forms. And what better than the blood of a child?”
Lonan nodded. “She is human and not of their kind. I will protect her as best I can, but I am only one man against a dozen devils.
“You must leave this place,” he said. “Our sorrow is not for sharing.”
“I choose to stay—I told Moninna I would keep her safe and Elathan never breaks a promise.”
“Promises are easy to make, sometimes impossible to keep,” the cleric said.
I left the church and walked back to the village. Despite the summer heat, I felt cold. When the Bright Folk had taken their leave of Orialla, we took glamours with us, for the Bright Magic was never meant for mankind to play with. As the centuries passed, the short-lived humans had begun to forget us and to find magic of their own. And so the Bright Folk began to fail and fade, becoming a pale shadow of what we had once been, content to slumber in our chambers and to dream of older days.
So I had taken my harp and ventured into the world of men, to sing my songs and tell my tales, to put a little of the Bright Magic back into the dull world to keep the memory of the Aos Si alive.
I had thought myself the only one of the elder folk to walk the world of men. It seemed that I was not.
As I entered the village square, a voice called out: “So what song will you sing for me, Bright-Britches?”
“An old one, Grandmother Ornat. Older even than you, I think.”
“You mind your manners, bard, I’ve whipped bigger men than you before now.”
“I don’t doubt that, Grandmother.”
I crossed the square to where she sat embroidering a small dress. I unslung my harp as we spoke.
“So when will you play?” she asked.
“Now is as good a time as any. I believe there are some gentlemen coming here tonight, perhaps I will also play for them.”
Her expression darkened at my words. “And what do you know of that?”
“Enough, I think. But let us not talk of such matters.”
I began to play, sweetly and softly. The notes, fragile as starlight, danced and shimmered across the village square. By the time I had finished, the whole village—the women, children and old men—had gathered around me, their faces alight with joy. Only the offspring of the Faoi-Mhuir would remain immune to my music and they were nowhere to be seen.
The tune I played was an ancient one, and there was enchantment in it—magic enough to make those who heard it forget their sorrow and their fear. Whatever this night brought they would sleep deeply and have no memory of it. That much, at least, I could do for them.
I returned to the church just before nightfall. The sky was clear but the moon had already risen, silver against blue. Another portent.
My mind drifted, moving out across the land, through the wheat and barley fields, into the valley beyond searching with my mind’s eye for any signs of the Faoi-Mhuir. I found them easily enough, for they had left a trail which even fifteen years of wind and rain could not erase, a parched path where nothing grew or would ever grow again.
Their cairn lay ten miles to the west. And around it a dozen low mounds of grey, lifeless earth.
I watched as the earth began to move; a hand broke free, then another and another moving like pallid spiders as they clawed at their graves.
As Lonan had said, they wore the skins of men, these Faoi-Mhuir, and as they emerged from the ground I could see the cold fire that glittered in their dark, golden eyes. They carried tarnished swords and spears and their cloaks hung in tatters around them.
The first to fully emerge—a tall, broad-shouldered man—pointed his sword towards the village and spoke a few words. I could not hear them, nor see them clearly, but their intent was clear enough. The Faoi-Mhuir were coming.
I took my swords from their scabbards. The right made from bronze and the left from iron, a dangerous metal for me to carry, but one which had power against the elder folk.
Moninna came running down the small path to greet me, with Brother Lonan close behind. I replaced my swords and swept her up in my arms.
“Good evening to you, daughter. And to you, Brother Lonan.” He had a mace belted at his waist, the weapon incongruous against the grey cassock, and there was ale on his breath.
“So you did not take my advice, Elathan,” he said.
“I am here to help, Brother.”
“You can do nothing,” he told me. “Only the Lord can help us now.” He made the sign of the One God over his breast.
“Nonetheless, I will do what I can.”
We went inside and the cool gloom of the church enveloped me, the iron in the place buzzing across my skin.
I sat with Moninna and Brother Abban in a small alcove, surrounded by the images and paraphernalia of the One God. There was so much suffering there, plain for all to see in the symbols of the church, the blood and agony of a crucified man. Yet his lure was strong, strong enough to all but blot out the memory of the elder folk.
“Will you play me a song, Elathan?” Moninna asked.
“Of course, child.”
I played her a short passage from the Battle of Moytirra—the refrains that spoke of Lugh’s triumph over the Faoi-Mhuir and the celebrations that followed.
“You play beautifully, Elathan,” Brother Lonan said. “Would that God had given me the same gift.”
I ceased my song and placed the instrument at my feet. “You cannot be as bad as you claim, Brother.”
“The sin of pride is one of the few I do not suffer from,” he said.
“Show me,” I said, as much to distract him from what was to come as anything else.
The harp he brought was an old instrument, a relic of the times when humans and the elder folk had shared the world in uneasy peace. But it had most certainly been made by human hands, for the lines of the instrument were inelegant and the strings were bound in iron.
He played a few notes, as inelegant as the harp itself, and the harsh sound of the iron sent a wave of pain through me. He stopped immediately when he saw the look on my face.
“Is my playing so bad?”
“Forgive me, Brother, your technique is more than adequate but . . .”
“What are you, Elathan?”
I saw no reason to lie to him. “I am of the Aos Si.”
“The fairy kind?”
“If you wish.”
He studied my face for a long time, then nodded. “Yet you are a good man, Elathan, even if you are inhuman.”
“The music hurt you,” Moninna said, placing her little hand upon my arm.
“Only a little, child.”
“I wish Brother Lonan had hurt Ailill and the others instead,” she said, employing the cruel logic of the very young.
I picked her up and kissed her plump cheeks. “You are brilliant, little one,” I told her and squeezed her tightly until she giggled.
“Brother,” I said. “If I were to play you a refrain do you think you could learn it?”
“If it were simple enough. But why?”
“Because the Faoi-Mhuir are not music lovers,” I said. “Now come, for our time grows short.”
“Why are you doing this, Elathan?” the cleric asked.
”My people are dying.” I told him. “As memory fades, so their life-force fades. But perhaps you will be kind enough to tell stories of the bright stranger who came here one day and saved the life of a child. The story will give us life.”
He nodded. “Then I will tell your tale. If I live to do so.”
“Have a little faith, Brother Lonan.”
I could feel them as they approached, lumbering across the fields, their presence like a dark shroud over the land.
Brother Lonan and Moninna remained in the comparative safety of the church, but I doubted that the Faoi-Mhuir would find it a hindrance. After all, I had entered the building easily and our blood was not so different.
Yet it was different enough.
As I stood in the shadow of the church, I saw the barley part in the fields. Ailill and his friends had come to watch the evening’s entertainment, fierce grins on their sharp faces.
“When they bury what’s left of you, bard, I’ll piss on your grave,” Ailill said.
“And no doubt your father will be proud of you.”
“Mock while you can,” he snarled. “For they are here.”
Then a high, harsh voice broke through the darkness.
“Bring us the girl and you may yet live.”
And the Faoi-Mhuir were there, naked swords in their hands, golden eyes glittering in the moon-struck night. The tall red-beard at their head spoke.
“The girl. Bring her.”
I drew my iron sword and my bronze sword.
“If you want her, you must take her.”
“That will be of no difficulty.”
Usually the elder folk move swiftly, much more swiftly than humans. But the Faoi-Mhuir had been in the ground for five years and the frigid earth had stiffened their limbs. I was under no such restrictions.
Bronze flashed in the darkness, iron wove through corrupt flesh and two of the Faoi-Mhuir screamed but did not fall.
A thick spear-point brushed past my face. A filthy sword sought my heart and I tumbled away from them as other blades swept towards me. I struck out again and was answered by another scream. For a long moment I was transported back in time and it was as if I stood once again on the field of Magh Tuireadh—the place that men now call Moytirra—shoulder to shoulder with Lugh and Midhir and Diancecht and all the other mighty heroes of the Aos Si.
But there we had been a host against a host. Here, it was one against many and, despite the swiftness of my swords I knew I could not hope to win through.
I parried a blow that almost tore the iron blade from my hand, then turned on my heel and headed towards the church doors, sheathing my swords as I ran.
“The One God will not save you, bard!” Ailill squealed.
Half way down the aisle I stopped. Brother Lonan and Moninne stood by the altar, the tortured image of their god above them, looking down at me with his agonised eyes.
I turned as the Faoi-Mhuir entered and for the first time, in the light of the guttering candles that lit the church, I saw them in all their putrid glory.
Their stolen skins could barely contain them. Warped and twisted muscles bulged beneath the surface, sharp yellow teeth dripped slobber from stretched mouths and insane golden eyes glowered from deep sockets.
“Play, Brother,” I said softly.
The notes I had taught the cleric were simple though their magic was strong. Even so, it should have barely touched them, for the Faoi-Mhure had long since learned to negate our magic. But the music of our harps had never been played by human hands before.
Nor had it ever been played on iron bound strings in the house of the One God.
At the first notes, I unslung my own harp and began to play a soft melody of my own, a healing tune to counteract the refrain that Brother Lonan played.
And the refrain he played was a cruel one. A killing one. The Bright Folk called it The Death Song of the Morrigu and at Magh Tuireadh I had slain a legion of Faoi-Mhure with it.
Now it did not kill, instead it merely sent wave after wave of pain through them—and through me. But for the Faoi-Mhure is was worse, much, much worse.
They screamed like the demons they were. Overstretched skin ruptured as agonised muscles spasmed and twisted, weapons clattered against the floor as the warriors clasped their hands to their ears.
I drew my iron sword and moved among them.
The killing was swift, merciless and joyless.
When it was done, I moved back to the altar. The cleric no longer played but still held the harp in his hands, his expression one of dumb-stuck horror. Beside him Moninne pressed her face into his cassock.
“Death is never pleasant,” I told him. “But be thankful that it is them and not the child.”
He made the sign of his god with trembling fingers.
“Thank you, Elathan,” he said.
I knelt down and took Moninne by the hand. She turned and looked at me.
“Are the bad men gone?” she asked.
“You are safe from him, too,” I said.
“Is that so?” Lonan asked.
“Their father’s influence will fade soon enough,” I told him. And it was true, for without the power of the Faoi-Mhure, the human side of the children would quickly assert itself, although whether or not this would be an advantage to them I could not say.
“Do not forget the Bright Stranger,” I told Moninne and gave her a final kiss.
“She will not,” Brother Lonan said. “Nor will I.”
By dawn I was miles away. I had neither need nor desire to stay in the village any further and hoped that the stiff morning breeze would blow the smell of death from my nostrils.
As I passed a small grove, a bluebird called out to me.
“Good day, brother bluebird,” I said. “Should anyone ask, tell them that Elathan of the Aos Si passed this way.”
It was a good omen.