Beneath the Knowe is a faerie tale set in ancient Ireland, featuring a brave heroine, music, and the ageless denizens of the Bright Court. Expect to encounter some creatures familiar from the world of Feyland in this 30 page story.
Can music overcome fey magic?
When the chieftain’s infant son is stolen away by the fey folk of the Bright Court, Maeve Donelly journeys beneath the faerie hill to save the child. Her only weapon is a simple pennywhistle, and the music running in her bard-gifted blood…
The wind off the white cliffs whipped Maeve Donnelly’s hair about her face like ragged flicks of fire and tugged at the woolen shawl knotted around her shoulders. That same wind snatched the notes from her whistle, tearing the tune away from the hollow length of reed almost before her fingers could form the notes. Her rough brown skirts pressed against her legs, and high overhead, kestrels rode the currents. Could they hear her tune from where they floated, up there against the clouds?
Below the cliff-side, the sea crashed into rocks, white foam against dark water, tracing images she could almost decipher.
The wind veered, lashing her hair into her face and blowing straight into the fipple of her whistle, stealing the sound. Time and enough for her to stop. Her mother, Brigid, would be waiting for her to return with her basket of seaweed,
With chapped fingers, Maeve tucked her whistle into the secret pocket she had sewed for it in her skirts. If her parents saw the instrument, it would be trouble for her.
Had she anyplace else to go, or the means to get there, she would leave the small village of Dunkerry. But a young woman alone, with nary a skill to her name… well. She might be a fool, but she knew the bounds of her world clearly enough.
And what of the music? a small voice inside her whispered.
Ah, the music. Her bane and salvation, the tunes that bubbled through her, woven into the texture of her skin, the very beating of her blood.
Maeve sighed and shifted her basket to her other arm, stepping lightly over the hummocks of grass. Women did not have the bardic gift. She had been told that enough times, had humiliated herself by begging in front of the leader, Colm, and the entire clan.
“I have the music,” she’d said. “Send me to the bards at Tara. Please.”
“Prove it, then,” Colm had said. “If the music flows in you as you claim, we shall hear it.”
“I will.” She’d pulled her first instrument from her pocket, the battered tin whistle she’d traded a traveling tinker her best shawl for.
Nobody knew she’d done it; she’d lied and said the shawl had been blown away into the sea. Every day for the past year, whenever she could steal away, she’d go over the Burren to practice. None to hear her but the tumbled gray stones and small white flowers, the tough grasses and the wide sky above. Rain or wind or blessed sun, she learned how to coax tunes from the hollow length of tin. She’d studied the whistle’s construction, the way the fipple split and let air into the hollow length, the finger-holes placed just so. Although one was incorrectly drilled, making the tone a touch too low. Still, she’d learned to adjust her hand so that the note was true when she played it.
Finally, armed with a dozen sweet, bright tunes, she’d gone to her father. He’d laughed when she told him she had the bardic gift, and shook his head. When she’d insisted, he’d cuffed her on the shoulder.
“Be still,” he’d said.
“Aidan.” Her mother had laid her hand over his clenched fist. “Let the girl go to the leader. She won’t be quit of this notion.”
And so Maeve had gone before the clan at the next Gathering and made her claim. She’d pulled the whistle from her pocket, put it to her lips, and sent her music singing into the air.
Colm’s eyes had narrowed, and he had traded a long look with her father.
“Anyone can blow a bit of air through a whistle,” Colm said. “If you truly have bardic blood, you’d be able to do more than that.”
He’d beckoned to the piper, Donal, who came forward and laid his heavy war-pipes in her arms. There was blunt sympathy in the musician’s eyes, but he did nothing to aid her.
Maeve had tried to position the pipes correctly, but it was like holding a young, ungainly animal. The drones flopped and crossed, though she managed to hold the chanter at more or less the right angle. At last she’d stuffed the bag under her arm, nearly dropping the pipes in the process. The mouthpiece was too high for her, but she lifted her chin and puffed into it, filling the bag with air until she was nearly dizzy.
Then she squeezed, and the most horrific squawk emitted from the pipes, a screech and wail that set the whole clan to laughing. She squeezed again, her fingers desperately moving over the chanter, trying to make at least a semblance of a tune. Hot tears sparked at the corners of her eyes, but determination held them back. She would show them, she would prove herself.
But she could not produce anything except terrible sounds from the bagpipes.
The bag deflated with a last, weary groan, and Donal took the pipes from her unresisting grasp.
“Come, lass,” her mother had said, laying an arm about her shoulders and steering her away from the laughter. “At least you tried.”
Of course she’d failed on the pipes. They took years of practice to master, even for those with bardic blood. But no one would stand for her.
Her father had taken her whistle and made her watch as he threw it out over the cliffs. The thin shaft of metal had made a soft, breathy sound as it turned, end-over-end, and then plummeted into the waves with a splash she could scarcely see.
“That’s done,” her father said.
Still, the music itched and burned inside her. She hummed and diddled the tunes pushing at her, but they needed more—they needed an instrument. So she’d visited the salty marshes to the south on the pretext of picking berries, and harvested several long lengths of reed. It had taken weeks of whittling for her to make a whistle that even sounded a note, and weeks more to craft one that played sweetly and in tune.
Luckily, she had always been the one to volunteer to go out gathering, even in the worst of weather. Her absences could always be explained by a basket filled with mussels or berries or kelp.
Maeve crested the last hill. Her village lay below, bounded by green meadows and a stout palisade of logs and stone. The fortifications were not needed—there had been no raids, no invaders since long before her birth. For two generations, Dunkerry had been protected by other means. But that protection carried a price.
Maeve shivered and glanced over her shoulder. The Faerie Knowe rose to the north, near the edge of the cliffs. It seemed nothing more than a green hill, safe enough. Aye, but it was what lay under the hill that mattered; a gateway to the kingdoms of the Fair Folk.
Hefting her basket, she set her steps toward the village. The gray houses and brown paths were softened by the thin drizzle in the air, and curls of peat smoke hung above the thatched roofs.
She paused before her cottage door, hearing the sounds of voices within.
“Tis past time to tell the girl,” her father said, his voice raised in temper. “You’ve coddled her too long.”
“She’s not ready,” her mother replied.
Fingers suddenly cold, Maeve set her basket down. They were speaking of her—they must be.
“Ready or no, Fergus will claim her as his wife at the next Gathering. Better it doesn’t come as a surprise.”
Shock stole her breath. Wife to Fergus? How could such a thing be?
She must have made a sound of protest, for her mother flung the door open. Brigid pressed her lips together and took Maeve by the arm.
“Don’t stand out there in the wet,” she said.
Maeve numbly grabbed the basked and let her mother tow her inside. Her father stood beside the hearth, his arms crossed.
“How could you?” Maeve asked. “How could you promise me to him?”
Fergus wasn’t a bad man, but he was hard. Nor did she think he would treat her with any concern for her desires. Besides, he was a full ten years older than herself. When she dreamed of marriage, she had imagined someone nearer her own age, with gentle hands and kind eyes. Not Fergus.
“Your sister has been wed for two years now,” her father said. “Past time for you to marry—and since you have taken too long about it, we’ve chosen for you. It’s a good match. Fergus has the ear of Colm, and you will be a woman of influence.”
“I won’t!” Her protest rang out sharply.
“You will be wed to Fergus, or you’ll have no home to go to at all. Think well on that, lass.”
With stiff fingers, Maeve unknotted her damp shawl. The thought of wedding anyone, especially Fergus, was as bitter in her mouth as uncooked greens, and nothing would sweeten it. Half-formed plans darted through her, changing path midflight. She would go south, to the next clan’s village, and hope they would take her in. But no, they would just hand her back to Colm. All the clans would. Well then, she would go and live wild on the Burren, scratching out a living from the stone. Or take refuge in a hidden cave beside the sea.
But she knew all her plans were useless.
“It will not be so terrible,” her mother said at last, after the silence had stretched to breaking, and had broken, and then broken again.
Maeve hung her shawl beside the door. There was no comfort—there was only the difficult, impossible future ahead. No path led where she wanted to go. Then you must make one, a small, willful voice inside her insisted.
The clang of the alarm sounded outside, a high, insistent clamor. With a curse, her father took up his sword and strode out of the cottage, leaving the door open wide behind him. Chin high, Maeve followed. She could do nothing now, except set aside her own trouble and see what had raised the alarm.
In the center of the village, Colm stood with his bulky arms crossed. Beside him stood her sister Aoife, sobbing into her hands.
They had not been close, especially since Aoife wed the leader last year and bore him a son, but the sight of her sister’s grief was a small knife through Maeve’s heart. She hurried to Aoife and wrapped a comforting arm about her shoulders.
“What is it?” Maeve asked.
“My son!” Aoife cried. “They’ve taken him, curse those evil—”
“Quiet!” Colm’s roar was nearly deafening. “Do you want to call more harm upon the clan? The warriors are arming even now. We will retrieve my son before night falls upon the land.”
Maeve tightened her grip around her sister’s shoulders
“The Fair Folk took him,” Aoife said, her voice desolate. “They stole him from his cradle, and left naught but a gnarled stick and a handful of leaves in his place. They’ve taken him beneath the knowe, and I’ll never see my sweet boy again.”
She bowed her head, a fresh spate of tears wetting her rain-slick hands.
Maeve swallowed. Once a generation, the Fair Folk took a child. That was the price the village paid for living so near the Faerie Knowe and benefitting from its protection.
Nothing could be done—certainly not by force. It was beyond foolish for the men to attack the knowe. And yet, the leader’s son had been stolen away. The village could not allow it.
“Assemble at the gates!” Colm cried.
The men of the village yelled and beat at their shields with newly-sharpened swords.
“Can they truly succeed?” Maeve asked her sister, not expecting a reply. “Come, I’ll make you a tisane.”
She led Aoife back to their parent’s cottage, where no empty cradle awaited to spur another bout of weeping.
Their mother laid a new turve of peat on the hearth, and its comforting smoke and warmth soon filled the small living room. Maeve curled her hands about her own warm cup and regarded her sister’s pale face. Deep in her heart, she knew that force of arms would not prevail against the Fair Folk.
But what would?
The afternoon seeped by in a gray haze. Aoife did not protest when Maeve led her to her own pallet and bade her rest. Though Maeve had no child of her own, she had already come to love her nephew’s small softness, his tiny fingers and wide eyes.
Finally, near dusk, she could bear the inaction no longer. She pulled her brown shawl from the peg beside the door.
“I’m going to watch for the men,” she said in reply to her mother’s curious glance.
The rain had ceased and a thin line of pearly light etched the western horizon, burnishing the lip of the sea to silver. Maeve slipped her hand into her skirt pocket. Her fingers found the familiar shape of her whistle, and the seed of an impossible idea took root within her.
A thick clump of gorse grew beyond the village. Maeve knelt on the damp ground behind the prickly brushes, heedless of the wet seeping through her skirts, and waited for the men to return. If they saw her out so near sunset, they would insist she return to the village with them—and that she would not do.
Soon enough, she saw the score of warriors from Dunkerry returning from the direction of the Faerie Knowe. They straggled through the green grasses, supporting one-another. Several of the men were limping, and all had the defeated look of dogs sent home with their tails between their legs.
Maeve could not hear more than unhappy mutterings, but when they reached the palisade ringing the village, Colm raised his sword and shook it in the direction of the knowe.
“We will return,” he cried. “And you will yield up my son—else we will sow salt upon your hill, and iron, and fire!”
The other men let out half-hearted ayes. Clearly they were not as eager as their leader to return to battling the Fair Folk.
Scowling, Colm strode into the village, Fergus at his side.
When the last of the warriors were gone, Maeve rose and hurried from her hiding place. Dusk was upon the land, that between-time when the gates between worlds were unlocked. She must make haste.
Taking up her skirt in both hands, she ran over the hillocks toward the rise of the knowe. Still, she did not run so quickly as to lose her breath; she must be able to play when she arrived.
The grass around the knowe was deep and lush, and seemingly untrampled, despite the earlier presence of the warriors. Maeve climbed to the top of the circular hill and stood there, looking out over the sea.
The last ray of sun speared from beneath the clouds, a brilliant shaft of orange that touched the water to a narrow path of flame. With a deep and steadying breath, she pulled the reed whistle from her pocket and brought it to her lips.
Clear and strong, she played the notes of the jig she had recently fashioned—a jaunty tune that swooped and soared like a lark in the blue air. Beneath her feet, she thought she felt the hill tremble.
Three times through the tune, and Maeve smoothly transitioned into another. A faster reel this time, the melody twisting and burbling like a stream over rounded rocks. The last bit of sun slipped below the horizon, and the notes of the whistle rang out, high and piercing and sweet.
With a groan and a rumble, a dark passage opened in the hill; a gaping mouth leading into darkness. Roots dangled from the curved roof, though the floor was paved in glimmering silver stones. A waft of warm air swirled up from the depths below, scented with delicate flowers.
Maeve finished the tune, the last line of melody suddenly sounding thin and forlorn. With cold and trembling fingers she slipped her whistle back into her pocket. She had guessed, had hoped, but now that her suspicions were proved true she did not want to follow where that passageway led. The Fair Folk were not for mere mortals to deal with.
Think of the babe, she told herself. Think of Aoife.
She could not enter the darkness under the hill for herself, but she could do it for them. Taking a last, deep breath of open air, she stepped onto the stones of the passageway. The floor sloped inexorably down, neither twisting nor turning. The floor shed a pale, steady light, even as the light of the mortal world faded behind her. After a hundred paces, Maeve glanced over her shoulder. There was only a small circle of dusk to mark the opening into the knowe.
“Halt,” a deep voice said. “Who trespasses in the kingdom under the hill?”
Maeve clutched the frayed ends of her shawl and peered into the silver-lit shadows.
“I seek a stolen child,” she said. She knew better than to give her name to the Fair Folk. They had enough power without her giving over the key to her true self.
A pale figure moved forward, clad in shimmering mail and carrying a long-hafted spear. His long hair flowed back from a high forehead, revealing pointed ears and an unearthly, handsome face.
“I am the Guardian of the Gate,” the elfin knight said. “None may pass, without paying the price.”
She had nothing to give—except her music. When she drew the reed whistle from her pocket, the knight laughed.
“We care not for such a plain trinket. Turn about, mortal girl, and leave the hill before it swallows you whole.”
“I’m not giving you my whistle,” Maeve said, irritation flowing through her like a strengthening tonic.
She brought the instrument to her mouth and began to play—a low, lilting air that had come to her from the quiet stones of the Burren, the solitary sun of a yellow flower before the storm.
The tune ended and the knight sighed, the sound sweet and ineffably weary.
“Very well,” he said. “That will grant you passage to my king’s court. I will summon a guide.”
He lifted his hand, and a bright spark shone in the air. Maeve covered her eyes, the brightness printed on the back of her eyelids.
When she opened them again, a small figure stood beside the elfin knight. He came no higher than the knight’s knee, and was clad in a tatter of wisps and leaves. His unruly hair was tangled about sharp-pointed features, and his smile was full of mischief, though Maeve saw no spark of ill-intent in his merry brown eyes.
“Greetings,” the sprite said in a high, lilting voice. “I am Puck. Come, mortal maid, and see the wonders of The Bright Court. It is an honor bestowed upon few, to venture so far into this Realm.”
A few steps beyond where the knight guarded the gate, the passageway opened into a misty cave. Archways and columns rose on either side, but Puck continued to lead her forward, finally stopping in front of a massive set of double doors. They rose into the mist, and seemed fashioned of pure gold, carved into sinuous designs: foliage, flowers, the figures of capering fey folk.
Slowly, without either herself or Puck touching them, the doors began to open. Radiance spilled from the widening crack, and Maeve squinted and turned her face away. Would she be entering the heart of a flame? For her nephew’s sake, she would do it, though her heart beat fast and frightened at the thought.
The doors spread open, like shining wings, the too-bright light faded, and Maeve felt her eyes widen at the sights beyond.
“Behold,” Puck said. “The Bright Court.”
He stepped over the threshold and beckoned her to follow. Fear and wonder warring within her, she did.
The Bright Court was, indeed bright as day. Tall trees shone gold and silver in the light, their branches glimmering with emerald leaves and brightly jeweled flowers. Underfoot, lush moss cushioned her footsteps, and the faintest brush of music caught at her ears.
Puck led her through the enchanted forest, the light growing brighter still. Something glowed high overhead. Maeve shaded her eyes with her hand and peered upward. It was not the sun, not here beneath the knowe. Instead, an enormous, luminous pearl hung, suspended on a silver chain. Its white radiance was touched with scarlet, as though ruby coals smoldered in the heart of that brightness. Such a light was never seen in the world above, nor would ever be.
“Yonder lies the true court of the Bright King,” Puck said. “Take care, mortal maid.”
Ahead lay a clearing full of glimmering figures: faerie women with gossamer wings, strange, spindly figures with overlong fingers, and small balls of light that darted hither and thither, stitching the air with brightness. The scent of roses filled Maeve’s nose.
A dais rose in the center of the clearing, and on either side the Fair Folk reclined on couches fashioned of velvet and silk. Maeve’s gaze snagged on one tall, ethereal woman, who held a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms. Surely Maeve’s nephew was swaddled within.
Atop the dais sat a throne of gold surrounded by glimmering grasses, and upon it was seated the Bright King. He was as perfectly formed as a sunbeam slicing across a midday lake, and his elfin beauty outshone even the bejeweled splendors of his court. His pale hair was swept back by a circlet of gold. Piercing silver eyes surveyed her from a face full of strength and otherworldly beauty.
Maeve caught her breath—for who needed breath in such a presence? It was enough simply to gaze upon him.
Then Puck pinched her leg with his sharp fingernails. The pain made her jump, but it was enough to clear the faerie glamour from her senses. She had not come here to stare, bedazzled, at the king.
“What have you brought me, Puck?” the king asked in a deep, rich voice.
“A maiden from the world above, your majesty,” the sprite said, sweeping a bow.
He glanced sidelong at Maeve, and she hastily made the king a curtsey. The wool of her skirts were coarse and human against her hands. She felt like a speck of dirt in a honeycomb, dross surrounded by gold.
“Greetings, mortal girl,” the king said in a low, rich voice. “What brings you under the hill?”
“I have come to take back something that belongs in the human world.”
“If it is here, then it belongs to us,” he said.
The look he gave her sent a prickle down her spine. Foolishly, she had not considered that she, too, might be trapped beneath the hill.
“I offer you a bargain,” she said.
The watching courtiers leaned forward, their attention sharp and focused. The king’s brilliant eyes fixed up hers, and Maeve felt as though she were drowning in sunlight.
“A bargain?” he asked.
Tales of the Fair Folk often featured such things—though it was not always the human bargainer who was victorious in the end. They were tricky folk, and Maeve knew she would have to choose her words carefully if she wanted to win free and return with the babe to Dunkerry.
“Yes,” she said, summoning up a bravery she did not feel. “I propose a trade. I will stay here for one night and play my music for you. In return, you will give me the human child you stole from my sister, and let me freely return to my village.”
She pointed at the faerie woman with the quiet infant in her arms. It might not be a baby at all, but it was wrapped in the heather-blue blanket Aoife had woven for her new child. And Maeve had been very specific in her wording. She hoped she had not left something unsaid that would be her undoing.
The Bright King arched one elfin brow. “How do we know if your music is worthy enough to pay the price?”
“I’ll give you a tune.” Maeve pulled the reed whistle from her pocket.
Before fear could stiffen her fingers or worry steal her breath, she began to play. Bright notes filled the air, setting the leaves of the gemmed trees dancing, making the pearl high overhead glow with renewed brilliance. Maeve tossed the melody into the air like a bright streamer. Certainly the Fair Folk had magic and wealth and beauty—but they had never heard this tune before.
It had come to her, sweet and playful, as she watched the children run and shriek in the high grasses. It was the music of simple pleasures, of mortal delight.
The court quieted. The king closed his eyes, a blissful expression stealing over the sharp planes of his face, and Maeve knew her bargain would be accepted.
She played the night through as the creatures of the Bright Court feasted and danced. Neither sup of food nor sip of drink did she take, mindful of the tales.
After what felt like hours, when her fingers were flagging and her cheeks sore, Puck swooped in before her, riding a snowy white owl. His eyes were bright, his hair tangled with the white stars of hawthorn blossoms. Jaunty, he leapt from his feathered mount and held a gleaming silver whistle out to her. The length shone like starlight, and a curling design of golden vines was embedded in the metal, each hole edged with a perfect, miniscule leaf.
“My lady bard,” Puck said, no hint of derision in his high voice, “please accept this gift from the Bright Court.”
Maeve reached for it—how could she not?—then hesitated. “Does this change our bargain in any way?”
“Fear not! Tis a gift freely given. Besides, it is for our own selfish pleasure.” Puck winked at her. “We would hear your music played on a worthier instrument than the simple reed you now hold.”
The new whistle was light and smooth under her fingers, and the tone was like honey and sunlight, if sunlight had a voice. The music issuing from it refreshed her, and the court as well, for the dancers swirled with new energy, laughter chiming up to echo in the gemmed branches. Even the king stepped down from his throne to dance with one of his gossamer courtiers.
Through it all, Maeve kept a small part of her aside, watching the blue bundle of her nephew. He was passed from creature to creature, and several times she saw his small fists waving above the blanket. Not once did he leave the confines of the court, and never did she see any ill intent directed at him.
Finally, the king raised his hands. Maeve finished the reel she was playing, and weariness crashed over her in a dark wave.
“My court,” the Bright King said, “our long night of pleasure is at an end. Bring forth the babe, so that this mortal maid can be on her way. The bargain has been fulfilled.”
A tall, willowy creature with pale wings and a sad smile stepped up to Maeve. In her arms she bore the child.
Maeve held out the silver whistle, though her heart ached to part with it. Still, she could not trade her nephew for something so small.
“No,” the king said. “The whistle is yours now, as befits the music singing in your veins.”
Clutching the instrument, Maeve made him a bow. “Your majesty is generous.”
“Perhaps. Though perhaps you will not think so, soon enough.” A hint of sorrow shaded his fathomless eyes. “Now, take the babe and be gone. And perhaps we shall meet again in another time and another place, maiden of Dunkerry.”
As he spoke she felt a pull on her soul, a reminder of the power he held, and her own mortal insignificance.
Hurriedly, she slipped the silver whistle in her pocket, then took the warm bundle from the faerie woman. Her nephew looked about with his wide, unfocused gaze, and Maeve wondered how much of his journey under the hill he would recall.
“Come,” Puck said. “Best that you do not linger here.”
Wise words. Pulling the child close to her chest, she turned and followed the sprite. They passed though the bejeweled forest, the gold and silver leaves of the trees shimmering in an invisible breeze. The tall doors swung open at Puck’s gesture. As soon as she stepped over the threshold, a chilly fog enveloped Maeve.
“Quickly!” Puck cried.
Taking hold of her skirts, he tugged her forward, past the misty arches framed by columns, the dim passages between leading to unknowable realms. Their feet made no sound on the silvery paving stones.
Nearly running, Maeve and Puck passed the figure of the faerie guard, who stood motionless as a statue as they hurried past. The pathway sloped up, and ahead Maeve could see the circle of sky. The pink and orange of dawn over the ocean was already turning to blue. The high chirping of swallows punctuated the air, and the smell of damp earth and salt was suddenly strong in her nose.
And then she was out, the babe safe in her arms. The sun surged above the ocean, and the green grasses of the Faerie Knowe bent in a mortal breeze about her feet.
“Follow your heart’s music, young bard,” Puck called from the recesses of the passageway. “Farewell!”
Maeve tucked the child close and raised one hand. The earth shut with a whump, the sod unmarked by any seam or hint of passage. The door under the hill was closed.
But she had her nephew, safe in her arms. And the silver whistle, a cherished weight in her skirt pocket.
The babe began to cry with the shrill wails of an infant in need of feeding. Murmuring hushes, Maeve sped down the knowe. She expected to see the warriors of the village returning this morn, steel in their hands and anger in their eyes, ready to win back their clan leader’s son. But the green cliff-tops were empty of anything but the dipping swallows and the sound of the surf, crashing far below.
She topped the rise, and smiled at the village of Dunkerry below. They would be amazed to see that she, Maeve Donnelly, had succeeded where all the warriors had failed! She would use this victory to buy her way to the bards at Tara. If there were no women bards, well, she would be the first—but she suspected Colm had only said as much to dissuade her, and to keep her father satisfied.
The village looked strange to her eyes after the bedazzlement of the Bright Court. The scatter of cottages seemed changed, the palisade more weathered.
A man stood at the gate. As she drew close, Maeve made out his features: it was Fergus, but she scarcely recognized him. Deep lines seamed the sides of his mouth and his forehead, and he was bent, as if from age, over his sword.
“Halt,” he said, one hand on his sword pommel. “State your name and business.”
“It’s me, Maeve. I’ve come back with Aoife and Colm’s son.”
“Maeve?” He leaned forward, eyes widening. “Maeve Donnelly? Where have you been these long years?”
“What?” Surprise tightened her fingers around the babe, and he let out an impatient squall.
“Thirteen years ago, to the day, you disappeared. Taken by the Fair Folk, just as Colm’s son was. It is really you?”
“But… I only left last evening! I’ve not even been gone a day!”
Even as the protest left her mouth, she remembered the Bright King’s cryptic words, the shadow of sorrow in his eyes as he accepted her bargain. One night under the hill—yet thirteen years had passed in the mortal world.
“Come,” Fergus said. “We must see Colm.”
He led her through the village. Whispers and gasps followed, and then Maeve heard a familiar voice cry her name.
“Maeve! My own daughter!” Her mother hastened from a nearby doorway.
“Mother,” Maeve said, her voice trembling as she saw her mother’s wrinkled features, her once-brown hair now white.
“Mo cushla.” Brigid clung to her. “I thought you lost to me forever. After your father died, I was so alone.”
“I never meant to be gone so long.”
It had only been one night… but the proof of the years lay all around her. Her family was changed, her father dead with no farewell from his youngest daughter to speed him on his way. She felt cold, a chill of the soul that even the warmest day could not lift.
A small crowd formed about them, but they made way for Aoife. A girl clung to her hand, the child perhaps nine years old. Colm followed, his face grim.
“Aoife?” Maeve whispered.
Her sister’s beauty had become gaunt and bitter, her proud face now sharpened by age and unhappiness.
Maeve lifted the bundle, and the babe waved his tiny fists again. “I’ve brought your son home.”
Aoife took a step back, her mouth twisted. “I want no part of that changeling, or your fey magics. Look at you—still a maiden fair, while I have borne three children since, and seen two of them taken by winter fevers. Begone. We have no need of you here.”
“But, your son…”
“Take him,” Colm said to his wife. “We will find a wet nurse.”
Unsmiling, Aoife snatched the babe from Maeve’s arms. She looked down at him, and her expression softened slightly—a sight that gave Maeve some small hope for the child’s future.
“Come back to the house.” Brigid touched her shoulder. “Tis better you give them time. Your return is so unexpected…”
Maeve had to shorten her steps to keep from outpacing her mother. Her throat still tight with disbelief, she blinked at the changes to Dunkerry, big and small. Half-familiar faces watched her from open doorways, children that she had minded now grown and married, some with children of their own. She stumbled over a patched bucket in the alley that surely had been gleaming and new only yesterday.
Their cottage was smaller and darker than she remembered, and quiet without her father’s bluff presence. Maeve went to her pallet, then halted when she saw her corner was occupied by the spinning wheel.
“We’ll make you up a bed,” her mother said. “And surely Aoife has some clothing you can borrow.”
“But where are my belongings?” The earthen floor tipped beneath Maeve’s feet. She felt overwhelmed by the changes, as though she was a swimmer in the rough ocean of time, the waves washing over her head. She was drowning, drowning.
“They are gone.” Her mother’s eyes held such sorrow. “There is nothing here that belongs to you. When you did not return, well… Your clothing and possessions were put to good use.”
Of course. The village was not so wealthy that they would pack her few trinkets away in the vain hope she would one day return. The only thing she had that was truly hers was the silver whistle from beneath the knowe, nestled deep in her pocket.
If Colm saw it, rich and shining, he would take it from her. She must guard this secret well.
“May I rest?” she asked.
“Take my bed.” Her mother pushed open the door to the bedroom and awkwardly patted Maeve’s shoulder as she went past.
Her dreams were filled with brightness and melody. When she at last awoke and opened her eyes, Maeve nearly wept at the sight of the dim stones of the cottage walls. Lamplight cast a golden square through the doorway, and she could hear her mother at the spinning wheel.
“Ah,” her mother said, when she saw Maeve at the threshold. “I’ve a bite of supper for you on the table.”
Hunger knotting her stomach, Maeve sat and ate of the brown bread and cheese. At least the water from the village spring was unchanged; cool and faintly flavored with moss.
“What will I do?” she asked.
Brigid frowned at the spinning wheel, her fingers moving more slowly than they had used to. At last she spoke.
“You are a part of the village. They will make a place for you.” Her voice was not as confident as it might be, and Maeve knew it would not be that simple.
Indeed, the next days were fraught with difficulty. All Maeve’s old tasks had long-since been filled by others. A dark-haired lass scowled at her when she offered to take the girl’s basket and collect seaweed in her stead, and the children ran from her, a stranger in their midst. Even Aoife turned her back when she saw Maeve coming. With the leader’s wife showing her no favor, the rest of the villagers felt free to do the same.
Maeve was too much of a strangeness among them; a girl disappeared for thirteen years, yet not a day older. There was no place for her in Dunkerry—and from the sidelong looks and spiteful whispers, there would never be. The knowledge was ashes on her soul.
Finally, on a morning that dawned bright and clear, she collected the two worn dresses Aoife had begrudgingly given her, a knife and a cup, and her old shawl, and bundled them into a blanket.
“Must you go?” her mother asked.
“I don’t belong here,” Maeve said. In truth, she never had—always a lark among ravens. Still, her heart ached from it.
Eyes bright with tears, her mother gathered her into a tight embrace.
“I’ll miss you so,” she said. “But I have already mourned you once. And there is my grandson to thank you for.”
“Look after him,” Maeve said. She had not held the warm weight of the baby since handing him to Aoife.
“I’ll gather you some provisions, some coin,” Brigid said. “Your father had a small store set by, and I want you take it. There is nothing in Dunkerry to spend it upon.”
“I will send more,” Maeve said, though she scarcely knew where she was going.
Word of her leaving had spread through the village, in the mysterious way such things do. When Maeve stepped out of the cottage into the sunshine, the street was lined with her former kin and clan. Some met her eyes and nodded, some would not look at her at all, but they all followed her down to the gate. There, Colm and Aoife waited.
“So, Maeve Donnelly,” the leader said. “You think to make your way into the world?”
Beyond the open gate, swallows darted over the long grasses. The hush of the sea was borne on the wind, and the sun lay dazzling over stone and hill. For the first time since her return, Maeve felt a melody stirring within her breast.
“Yes,” she said. She did not need nor crave his permission.
Aoife glanced down at her son, then at Maeve. Something softened in her expression, so that for a moment Maeve saw the young woman she remembered.
“Here,” Aoife said, holding out a bracelet that gleamed gold in the sunlight. “Good luck, Maeve.”
“Adh mor ort,” the villagers murmured, echoing Aoife’s words.
“Thank you.” Maeve took her sister’s gift and fastened it around her own wrist. She would not sell it, unless her need was dire.
Her mother stepped forward to give her one last, fierce embrace, and then Maeve was free.
She slipped her hand into her pocket. The silver whistle lay cool against her fingers, a promise of her future. She would write a tune for Dunkerry—give voice to the longing and ache inside her, the chances missed, the years so suddenly spent.
Every journey must begin with a closing door.
“Farewell,” she said, then turned her face to the east. Toward Tara.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons is purely coincidental.
Copyright 2013 Anthea Sharp. All rights reserved. Originally published November 2013 in the Northwest Independent Writers Association Anthology, 13.