Out of the Nether

Getting double-workshopped tonight. Book 1 - containing the first 6 chapters of my novel in progress, Out of the Nether...38,000 words. My regular workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars get the first kick of the cat at 8pm. Then at 11, I go online with my friend John's screenwriting workshop in California...and they get to have at it.
By November they will get hit by another 20,00 words...and I'm aiming for another 20k by Christmas. I'll beat them down through sheer exhaustion if nothing else.
If you'd like to critique along with the workshopping pros...here's Book 1, Chapter 1. I'll put up a link to the rest of book one after I've had a chance to digest the workshop comments and make necessary changes.

POST-WORKSHOP REFLECTIONS: Ironically this chapter I have posted is the one most likely to undergo major revisions in the next draft. 6 chapters were submitted to the workshops. Chapter 6 was the least polished. There were scenes missing and frankly, I knew it would need some work. But - as often happens in workshops - I was somewhat blindsided by the critiques. The stuff that people loved when the first 4 chapters were first workshopped 10 years ago, were precisely the things that got hammered the hardest in this year's workshops. That's encouraging, because it means that other aspects of the work have improved to the point where the best things about the old version have turned into the worst of the new. How's that for progress? Ha! What was once elegant, resonant and touching is now manipulative, inaccurate and overwritten. What once whizzed past in a blur is now moving at just the right speed. Interesting!

Proves a number of things:
  • The public taste is ever evolving. Things that were considered inevitable 10 years ago are now frowned upon as unutterable.
  • You can't count on anything you think you know. The universe is in a constant state of flux and descent into chaos and shame on anyone who thinks they have a handle on anything. Except Marshall McLuhan - whom we thought we had escaped...but we were wrong!
  • Artists grow as artists simply by growing as people. 
  • In the computer age everybody has access to the Well of All Knowledge. We all know it all - and if you're creating something that doesn't agree with the popular preconception, you have to be aware you are breaking moulds and trying to redefine something that people already believe they have a good handle on.
  • because of popular media, the public has become so inured to action and conflict that there needs to be something major at stake all the time. 
Having said all that - I'm pretty happy with the trial run. A good 40% of the readers were hooked from the start and carried to the end of the section I handed in - wanting to know what happens next. And another 20-40% are readers I can hold onto by fixing some of the more glaring problems. A potential 4 out of 5 on good reads etc. And really - how could I be unhappy about that?

Out of the Nether

A Novel by DL Sproule

Book 1
Chapter 1
The Glamour is Lifted and Something Scurries from Beneath

It was another in a string of hot, windless days. Summer had come early and stayed late. In the spring, the forest was lush enough to shade all the footpaths. Now, with the autumn sun blazing down, the bare branches made the heat inescapable, and turned stalks and low branches into a spiny, waist-high barrier of blades and thorns.
A slim young man dressed in woodsman’s deep green picked his way through the bright, crackling underbrush, lifting his legs in crane-like steps and setting his feet down carefully. Just a tad too tall for his weight, a wee bit too fine-boned to be walking alone in the wilds of the Scottish midlands. The load on his shoulders unbalanced him and he almost stumbled. At the most inconvenient possible moment, the hump on his back moved and then spoke.
“Papa, you’re sweating!”
Moroch found a relatively level spot to stop, panting with the heat. “Right you are, Jaynie. And for what gain? At this rate we won’t get to market until sundown.” We’ll have to risk taking the road, he told himself. It will be all right. Who, after all, will be there to see us?
He turned and began to retrace his steps, the pace a bit easier because the vegetation had already been trodden down.
Now where are we going?” asked Jaynie, whose name was really Sinnead – a proper name with a history, according to mother – but her parents always shortened it to Jaynie.
Before Moroch had a chance to reply, more questions and comments poured from her. “Are we going home, papa? You promised to take me to market. We can’t go home yet!”
The child blathered like an oracle!
“Would you rather I drop you head-first into this pile of leaves?” He tilted her, pretending to buck her off. But he hadn’t the energy to make it the sort of game that might distract the child.
She squealed half-heartedly, clinging to his neck, but her laughter died quickly. “Are we going home to mama ? Do you think she’s better now?”
Reaching up for her slim, tanned arms, he swung her around in front of him, setting her gently on the ground as he disengaged her with a tickle. When she tried to re-wrap herself around him, he held her away with his long arms and looked at her. In all her short years they’d never been apart. Though he could have covered the distance much more quickly without her, he couldn’t have left Jaynie behind to watch her mother die.
Moroch frowned. The arms and front of her little dress were darkened with sweat. Now why was her perspiration not concealed by the glamour he used?
Of course. It was visible because it was not hers. It was his.  And because it was generated by something outside of her it therefore wasn’t hidden behind the magic masque. Sodden clothes aside, she was beautiful as always – and wearing a familiar pout. With her long dark hair hiding most of her face and bathing the rest in shadow, she looked melancholy for a such a young lass, but not otherwise troubled. She didn’t suspect what had been done to her.
“We can’t go home yet,” Moroch said haltingly, as he searched for an explanation that a seven year old could appreciate.  “I know some magic that might help your mother, but I need special herbs that do not grow hereabouts. They can only be bought from a certain merchant. We’re just going to have to take the main road to the market.”
“Are we going to pass the House of Strangers?” she asked, her eyes big.
“I’m afraid so,” said her father, his lips turning into a thin line and disappearing into his dark blond beard. “We have no choice.” The quick way from Cliffside to the village of Tooks was constricted by a rocky headland, forcing travellers to pass by the Inn, a boon for its proprietor but a danger to anyone like Moroch who might prefer to slip past unnoticed.
Any other path meandered lazily round bog, beck and firth, following, Moroch was sure, the original wanderings of cattle. He’d run out of time for stealth; boldness and reliance on luck would have to do.
The sun was high by the time they made the road.
And it was mid-afternoon before they rounded the final heather-studded outcropping of rock, where Jaynie spied the Inn, a haphazard stone and log building that her father called the House of Dangers because lately it was full of men who had come from the wars to the south. Having learned to kill in battle they knew no other way to earn their bread. The life of a farmer or fisherman held no charm for men who’d had a taste of war. They were cruel and rough, constantly picking fights amongst themselves to demonstrate their battle-worthiness and strength to far-traveling merchants who might hire them as protectors.
Jaynie reached for her father’s hand. She gazed up at his thin face, the delicate features etched in golden sunlight against the hot blue sky. His nose was narrow and sharp, his pale brows arched over deep-set grey eyes. Where Mother’s hair was brown as a chestnut, Papa had golden curls, like a crown of sunlight. She loved his hair, loved running her fingers through it as she rode upon his shoulders.
Her father saw the look on her face and laughed, picked her up and kissed her and then hoisted her upon one shoulder where she rode like a lady.
From the higher vantage point she could see everything as they walked past the Inn. Several men loitered about its entrance, playing knuckle-bones or sharpening their knives, or simply dozing in the heat. One, however, a man as big as an ox, with hair the colour of moldy straw, brown leather armour and a sword the size of a ploughblade looked attentively at them as they hurried by, his eyes narrowing. Jaynie had the horrible impression that he was looking directly into her soul.  A sneer carved into his battle-scarred face.
“Put me down, Papa,” she said, suddenly wanting to be by his side, not carried like a baby. The little hairs on the back of her neck prickled with the feel of strangers’ eyes upon her. As Moroch rounded the bend Jaynie looked back to see the big man drop the stick he’d been whittling and duck through the doorway, vanishing into the gloom inside.
As they passed the Inn and entered the market, the air grew suddenly thick with dust and strong, interesting odors: fish, game, manure, fresh-baked bread; and something else, like flowers in bloom. Jaynie looked out over a sea of dour faces, punctuated by a few that had been stroked to a rosy hue by the sun. A squat, ruddy woman she recognized as the weaver’s wife smiled at her and said, “Aren’t you the little treasure?”
She tried to smile back, but found herself overcome by a wave of shyness. They came to market so seldom that everything, though reassuringly the same as several months ago, seemed overly loud and busy.
Moroch crouched before her. “Well, my little treasure,” he teased, smiling gently, “time to help me now. We need to find old Mother Cai or one of her daughters. T’is said the birds bring them herbs from hidden places far away, and the women feed them honey-cakes in payment.” He took her by the hand as she skipped along beside him. His fingers were huge and warm, enveloping and protecting her. The momentary fear she’d felt as they passed the Inn had gone.
While her father talked to a shaggy northern-looking man if he knew the whereabouts of Mother Cai, Jaynie’s attention was drawn by the smell of roasting chicken. As she turned her head, the breeze shifted and she got a faceful of biting smoke. Clucking birds stuck their necks out between the bars of loosely lashed wooden cages that were stacked upon one another. The entire tower swayed and jiggled as the birds moved. More of the silly things hung upside down, on poles connecting that tower to the next, their legs tied together with a bit of twine, their little heads wobbling as their beaks opened and closed silently. At the base of the rickety tower was a woman on a low stool, dejectedly plucking a pheasant. The bird’s wing dragged on the muddy ground as the woman worked on the other wing. Seeing Jaynie, the woman grinned and pressed several long striped feathers into Jaynie’s hand. In a guttural dialect, she said, “Might as well learn how to take wing now, child.”
A man came round the back of the wagon. “Quit giving away merchandise.”
The woman shouted, “Nobody’ll buy ‘em feathers. How about youse doing some work….”
Then the man started shouting and Jaynie couldn’t make out any of the words and didn’t care to. As she backed away from the bickering pair, she realized her father’s hand no longer rested on her shoulder.
She turned around and saw father paying the shaggy man for delivering Mother Cai. The old woman herself was sort of spooky. One of the oldest people Jaynie had ever seen, her leather wattles jingling under her round red chin made her look like one of the chickens. Jaynie giggled at her observation and caught a breath of something quite different from the chicken. It was like a whole field of fragrant posies. There! A woman with three children of various sizes clinging to her skirt was selling scented love potion from a basket over one arm. The little bark pots, dark with grease, drew so many bees and flies that potential patrons circled wide to avoid her.  Neighbouring merchants joked about paying her to take her smelly wares to the next village up the highway. But Jaynie found herself drawing closer to the woman who gave her a friendly gap-toothed smile and held out a tiny pot. She lifted the carved lid temptingly to reveal a creamy yellow potion inside, flecked with tiny bits of dried leaves and petals.
Jaynie leaned close and sniffed. The smell was so rich and strong it made her dizzy. The woman chuckled low in her throat. “Take it, little one,” she said. “A lassie like you should smell as sweet as she looks.” Absently she swatted away a bee, and in the same motion gently cuffed one of her bickering children.
It was only as Jaynie was reaching out to accept the vial that she realized the woman would want something in exchange. Nothing was free in this world, her mother had told her; you either had to work hard to find, catch or grow it, or pay another for his labour. It was only fair. Father would never allow her such a luxury... but perhaps if she said it was for mama? Good smells warded off sickness and evil, everyone knew that. She looked back over her shoulder and saw the old woman taking his hand, pulling him toward her tent. Father shouted to Jaynie, “Come!”
Jaynie shook her head reluctantly at the woman, who shrugged and turned her attention to a couple of women with full pouches of walnuts over their arms. Hurrying along after her father, Jaynie longed for one more sniff of the rich, sweet potion.
Just then, a mime cartwheeled through the square and a crowd of children gathered around him, laughing. Jaynie, distracted, slowed to a stop, in hopes of seeing some magic. She quickly grew bored with his sleight-of-hand, having seen her own father perform much better tricks of making things seem to disappear.
Remembering Mother Cai, she turned to look for Moroch. But just then a huge hand clamped around her shoulder, hard. As if she’d done something wrong. Fear flooded through Jaynie in a cold wave as she realized it wasn’t her father’s hand.
“Is this the one, Lord Magician?”
Jaynie, terrified into silence, looked up. Her assailant was the man from the House of Strangers, the giant one who’d looked at her so penetratingly. He dwarfed the man standing beside him, a man whose silver helmet and breastplate gleamed blindingly in the sunlight.
“Let’s have a look at her,” said the silver man. “There’s magic here – I can sense it.”
As he stepped closer, Jaynie could smell an acrid scent upon him and she jumped back. He crouched and held out a long narrow hand with skin as smooth as an eggshell and white as a trout’s belly.  “Come, girl,” he said with a quartz-eyed smile. Altogether he gave the impression of being carved out of ivory and metal, and with just as much heart.
“Yes,” the man said, eyeing her. “This must be the one.” Jaynie, her heart in her mouth, tried to squirm away, but the hand on her arm only held tighter.
“She’s under some sort of enchantment,” continued the silver man, cocking his head as he cast his eyes over her. “We want whoever laid the spell upon her. He can’t be far away.”  He looked desultorily over Jaynie’s form as if she were an animal he meant to buy, and not for a great price.
Jaynie’s mouth had gone completely dry. What was he talking about? Enchantment? Spell? Tears began to sprout and prickle in her eyes.
Another brute, almost as big as the one who held her, lumbered up beside his master, waving his sword like a wolf baring its teeth. Several of the villagers who’d started to cluster around backed away.
The first man kept his hand on Jaynie as all three turned. Jaynie almost cried out with relief as her father ran up, looking like thunderclouds. He stopped a wary distance from the armed men and looked longingly at his daughter. Jaynie bit down hard on her trembling lip.
“Here’s the one you want,” the swordsman guffawed.
“Hello, Druid,” said the silver man, with a smile thin as a crescent moon.
“I am no Druid,” said Jaynie’s father, his voice tightly controlled. “Just a woodsman.”
“A woodsman? Will you be selling me some charcoal? Or maybe you’ll lead me to the faerie pool where I may gain everlasting life?” He snorted through his nose delicately, making Jaynie think of a little white ermine she’d seen once in winter, wrinkling its nose at a shrivelled bit of meat.
 “Release my daughter.” Moroch’s voice was harsh.
To Jaynie’s amazement, the brute who held her did as he was told. The heavy hand lifted. But the man began to laugh, as if he knew a nasty secret. She stumbled to her father and wrapped her arms around his legs, even as he pushed her behind him. A crowd had gathered around them by now, though at a safe distance. Two women sidled up and pulled Jaynie away protectively, obviously fearing a fight. Muttering in outrage, the women patted and stroked her, cooing comfort but preventing her from returning to her father’s side.
The silver man’s thugs raised their blades, advancing on Moroch. As the onlookers prudently scuttled out of the way, some of the women shrieking, Moroch slipped a hand into his belt pouch and drew out a stone. He fondled it for a moment then threw it on the ground at the men’s feet. When it struck it emitted a crackling burst of light and raised a cloud of dust. The swords transformed into harmless branches, shedding leaves instead of blood as they hit him.
Jaynie gasped, struggling against the women’s grasp. How had he done that? She’d seen him gather and paint certain little stones, watching from the cover of the trees, but hadn’t known why he did it. The paint had smelled like blood and burnt flowers. He’d caught her watching once, but had only smiled sadly at her, and gone back to his delicate work.
The soldiers cursed. One growled like an animal at the branch that had been his sword and snapped it in two with his hands, his face a furious red.
The silver man laughed and stepped forward. “Thank you, kind sir, for proving that you are the one we seek.”
He pulled off his silver helmet. Pale, sweat-dampened hair clung to his narrow skull.  His eyes were colourless, his white skin unflushed by anger or heat. He turned his cold gaze on Jaynie, staring boldly as a wolf would at a bird. She felt herself grow warm and then feverish and then so hot that it burned her own eyes to keep them open. It was if, like the moon, he reflected the sun’s heat onto her, taking none for himself. She gasped for breath, squeezed her eyes shut, and the heat vanished.
Peeping from between her lashes she watched the silver man slide closer to her father, moving like a dancing flame. Moroch held his ground, naked hate on his face. The silver man began to laugh, or sing – Jaynie couldn’t tell. She could make out some words, "Aidan who consumes forests, come..." It must be a spell, she thought, sick and cold inside. All trace of heat had fled. He’s a greater magician than my papa. He has something more than runes and tricks, something much worse. For a moment Moroch locked eyes with his daughter, a look that held too much love and regret and helpless anger to bear.
Jaynie found herself clinging to the skirt of the woman who held her, but she wouldn’t close her eyes. Not again. She’d not waste her last moments with her father. She knew what would happen next – could see it in a terrible little tableau in her mind: her father, burning. No!
But it happened, just like that. There was no way to avoid or deny it. Between one breath and the next Moroch turned into a white-hot flame, man-shaped and twisting while the three men laughed. The woman holding her dragged her back as everyone started to run.
Her father didn’t make a sound. There was only the roar and crackle of the flame that consumed him, so bright it cast shadows to rival the sun.
Jaynie’s arm was almost wrenched from its socket as the market-place cleared of townsfolk. Gasping, one hand to her throat, the woman who had protected her crouched in the dubious shelter of a hut and pulled her close. “Oh, poor, poor child! To see your father burn! It’s a curse from the old gods, that it is –”  The big-boned woman, weeping in shock, tipped Jaynie’s face back, ready to comfort and wipe away tears. Instead she shrieked as if stung and pushed the little girl away. “What –! It’s not human,” she gibbered, staggering to her feet and pointing a shaking finger towards Jaynie. “It’s a monster... a goblin!”
A monster!  More frightened than ever, Jaynie looked to either side, then turned around, certain there was a creature behind her, about to bite her head off. But she saw nothing. The others who had run from the magic were looking at her, raising their hands to their lips in shock as they stared at something Jaynie couldn’t see.
“Where is it?” She asked the woman, but her question went unanswered as the woman stumbled back, wiping her hands on her apron as though they were covered in slime.
A bony hand clamped around her wrist.
“I’ve got it!” crowed an elderly man, his eyes glittering avidly.
“No!” whispered Jaynie. “Papa! Oh, papa...” Her eyes blurred with tears.
The silver man’s henchman, the giant who had first held her, shouted, “It’s the druid’s familiar. Kill it!”
Adults closed in around Jaynie with clubs and fists raised. She did the only thing she could do. She bit down on the old man’s thumb as hard as fear would let her and managed to pull herself out of his grasp. Then she ducked between the legs of her attackers and ran for the shadows. Finding a gap in the underbrush, she scrambled into the cover of the forest.
It seemed as if everyone Jaynie had ever known or seen was in the crowd that chased her into the black and hungry forest. There were merchants from the market, all the farmers and herdsmen from around the village of Tooks, and all their wives. Even the children ran after her, throwing stones and calling her foul names.
She hardly noticed the branches scratching her face and tearing at her hair and clothes. As Jaynie ran and crawled through the bushes, brambles and prickles penetrating her hands and her knees, all she could think of was that last sight of her father. He’d known he was going to die, and she had known it too. Seen it. The horror of it almost made her sick. But why were all these people chasing her? She had done nothing! Bewildered and frightened, she wanted nothing more than to beg someone to tell her why this was happening and what it all meant.
Someone crashed through the underbrush behind her and Jaynie looked over her shoulder to see a boy almost as small as she was, but obviously older – at least ten winters by her inexperienced reckoning. He was going to catch her.
When she tried to run faster, she tripped over a root and fell, chin first, onto the mossy ground. She rolled over, holding her hand up to fend off the boy. He came to a stop several arm-lengths from Jaynie, stared at her and muttered, “It really is a monster.”
The look on his face was one that Jaynie had never seen before, but was destined to see many more times in her life. With fear on his face, he turned around, shouting, “It is a goblin! Over here! Someone kill it!” He practically danced with excitement.
Jaynie looked around her, but the monster was still invisible. Cold realization began to come.
Her voice a strangled whisper, she said, “What do you mean? Where’s the monster? Why can’t I see it?”
She rubbed her eyes, wondering if she was dreaming, and right away she knew something was wrong, because her eyes bulged out wetly like a frog’s. She ran her hands over the contours of her face, aghast at the fungus-like nose, the huge, sharp teeth and the heavy brows. Her little pointed chin was now nothing more than a warty nubbin above a thick neck. No, no, no! How could this be?
She was the goblin everyone was screaming about. She whimpered deep in her throat, but it came out a rough croak. The silver man must have done it. He had used his evil magic to turn her into a monster.
The boy danced and shrieked, waving the townsfolk closer. Jaynie scrambled on hands and knees deeper into the trees until she tumbled into a small ravine. Unseen for the moment, she ran as quickly and silently as she could in the direction of home. Home! She choked back sobs, fending off branches with hands that were clawed and clumsy. Her own soft little hands, the hands papa had held such a short time ago, were gone.
Home.  Her mother was there, waiting for them to return with healing herbs from the marketplace. Her mother would help her. Drawing strength from the promise of her mother gathering her up and blanketing her in love, Jaynie fled deep into the woods, running until she could no longer hear sounds of pursuit.
Stopping, she crouched panting like a dog. She touched her face again and again, still unable to believe what had happened to her.
Papa, burning like a white torch... no! She couldn’t bear to remember it.
“Mama,” Jaynie began to repeat under her breath, over and over, louder and louder, like a wordless baby, “mama, mama, mama. . ..”
What if mama didn’t recognize her? What if she saw a monster like all the people at the market? What if she drove Jaynie out of the house?
“Mama! Maamaa! Maaamaaa...” she sobbed, her wail broken and quavering, just like a goblin.
*     *     *
The first thing Mary of Cliffside saw upon rousing from her fever was a monster, looming over her. Lacking the strength to scream, she gasped and pulled away.
But the thing restrained her gently with its gnarled hands. As she looked at it, unable to look away, she realized that it was really quite small. It had only seemed to loom large in the gloom of the cottage. Moisture was leaking from its bulging eyes, as if the thing were crying. All Mary could muster was a shake of her head and a soundless opening and closing of her lips. She felt as weak as a newborn babe. At that thought, she placed a hand against her belly. Empty and flat. Pain shot through her abdomen. She fell back against the thin pillow, silently mourning the baby she knew she’d lost. It had come too quickly, the pain of it searing her into unconsciousness. She had a vague memory of crawling away from the pitiful body and the bloody afterbirth. Well before term it had been, and whether boy or girl she didn’t even know. Where was her husband? He’d set off to the market hours ago, or was it days?
The hand against her forearm felt so familiar... so warm and childlike. She felt a cup at her lips, and eagerly sipped the water it held. With the refreshment came sudden memory.
Jaynie? Yes, it was only little Jaynie over her, nursing her. Poor, cursed child. She could see the girl the way she really was, and Mary knew what that meant. Moroch was dead.
She felt her meagre remaining strength drain out of her into the dark earth below, leaving her nothing more than an empty shell floating between life and death.
So, her man was dead. And their child had been transformed back into this bent and ugly little creature that was weeping over her now, spilling water and making the most awful choking sounds. It was too much to comprehend. Her head was pulsing and whirling as sleep tried to drag her back under.
But Jaynie needed her so badly.
The child’s eyes were desperate with fear and confusion. Such a terrible betrayal. For a moment Mary felt a fierce anger at her husband for tricking Jaynie so, for letting her think herself beautiful when between one heartbeat and the next it could all be snatched away. How could he die and leave them like this?
She put her hands on her sweet bairn’s shoulder and drew her into a feeble hug. Jaynie threw herself upon her mother, weeping and blubbering inconsolably. “Papa is dead! Oh, mother, what will we do?” Strings of saliva drooled from Jaynie’s peg-like teeth, over the warty neck and into the little frock, now torn and filthy, that Mary had sewn for her.
“There, there,” Mary whispered, her throat aching. “There, there.”
*     *     *
Mary watched from her cot as her daughter stirred a pot on the fire. She bent to her task as if her life depended on it, frowning in concentration as she rasped the wooden spoon back and forth.  It was amazing the child had managed to keep herself alive, let alone both of them. Mary knew that if the baby had lived, it would likely have been for only a few days, for she had been too ill to nurse it.
With an effort, Mary managed to prop herself on her elbows. It was two days since Jaynie had come running home. When Mary had first awakened, she had entertained the hope that the fever no longer had any hold on her. And maybe it was true, but she was so weak that even the tiny exertion of sitting up made her sweat. Her muscles ached, particularly her ribs, and there was a burning pain between her legs. Determined to make some progress into wellness, Mary forced her legs out over the edge of the pallet and down onto the cold stone floor.
She must have unwittingly groaned or made some sort of noise, because suddenly Jaynie was there, small arms around her shoulders, trying to prop her up, as if it was the game they used to play.
“No, lamby. I have to do it myself.”
“I can help.”
“No you can’t, dearest. I need to do it myself.”
Jaynie stepped back, as Mary tried vainly to get to her feet. Finally, she fell back onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling. She was panting with the small exertion and had started to shiver. She laughed as she realized she didn’t even have the strength to lift her legs back onto the bed again.
But while she was lying there, goblin hands worked around her, prying and pushing, lifting and levering, in an effort to get Mary lying down properly again.
She reached for both of Jaynie’s wrists and held them. “Stop, child. I have to get up. If I lie here much longer I’ll never rise again.”
But it was much more difficult than she dreamed. Smells of urine and old blood rose up in waves from the pallet, making Mary gag. At last she sat, feeling hundreds of years old, staring at her cold white feet on the stones.
Jaynie lay a blanket across her shoulders and said, “Maybe you should wait awhile before you try to eat. Your hands are shaking....”
Mary shook her head. “I only want water. The thought of food....” She groaned and closed her eyes. Again Jaynie held the cup to her lips.
After a while Mary asked, her voice flat with held-in pain, “Where is the baby?”
“I...I buried him. Under the yew tree on the hill.”
“You did well, child. Thank you,” Mary whispered. “I should go to him... say the words...”
But exhaustion reached up from the straw and dragged her violently down.  She closed her eyes to stop the whirling, but in the darkness it enveloped her. She had no recall of anything between her futile attempt to get out of bed and the nighttime darkness into which she awoke.
Mary pushed back the covers and this time forced herself to her feet. She stood swaying, trying to get her bearings in the darkness. She was hungry at last. The embers of the fire were still glowing and she stumbled toward the warmth. Perhaps the pot Jaynie had been stirring was there, and she could get herself a bite to eat.
It was, and in the blackened iron was a mess of something that smelled almost, but not quite, like food. What had the child been trying to cook? And where had she found the meat? Mary took a careful sip of broth from the spoon, and made a face. Oh dear. But her stomach needed something in it if she was to get well at all, and this would have to do.
*     *     *
It was another day before the bravest of the villagers came to Mary of Cliffside’s little cottage. She heard rumbling voices approaching, and peered out the crack between the door and its frame to see what was happening. A small group of men stood shuffling their feet and gesturing towards the cottage, obviously working up their nerve to confront the goblin’s mother.
Mary drew back and bit her lip. Jaynie, exhausted from the effort of nursing her mother over the last few days, had fallen into a deep sleep, curled like a misshapen puppy on the rug before the hearth. Gathering all her strength and quickly pulling a shawl over her head, Mary slipped out of the cottage and along the narrow stone path towards the chattering little mob.
Holding her head high, Mary tried not to stumble or waver as she drew near the men. To show weakness now would be to invite their derision and violence. She’d seen enough of men to know this. “Good day, sirs,” she sang out, in a voice she hoped was strong and level. “Eamon, Kevin, Sean. And I see you are here too, Manfred. How nice to have visitors. Have you come to offer your condolences on the death of my husband?” She drew herself as tall as she could.
The men, taken aback by her forthrightness, glanced among themselves, obviously unprepared. Finally Kevin, who owned the most cattle of anyone in the land and was burdened with pretentions of leadership, stepped forward, clearing his throat. Mary raised her eyebrows. Kevin pulled on his small red beard and blew out his cheeks.
“Well, missus. It’s true we’re sorry your man is dead.” He stopped and glanced nervously at his companions. No help was forthcoming.
“I thank you for your kindness,” said Mary. Her heart was beating very fast, but the men couldn’t know that. And if her eyes were bright and her cheeks glowed pink from terror, all the better. Men would back down before a woman’s beauty.
As long as she held the upper hand.
She waited, and Kevin took a small step forward. The others stepped forward too, like the sheep they were. She smiled, though it took most of her strength.
“We’ve come to ask about your wee girl. Where is she?”
“I’ve sent her off to gather nuts,” Mary lied, praying Sinnaed wouldn’t wake and show herself.
Kevin ruminated on this for a while. Finally he said, “T’was seen in the market that she’s no child of god, but a half-breed. A goblin.”
“Aye.” Mary inclined her head in agreement.
Kevin’s mouth fell open. “Aye? You’ll not be denying it?”
“It’s plain to see.” Mary shrugged. “But she’s a good little bairn, useful and clever.” She turned her eyes to young Sean. “Your little Gerda always enjoyed playing with her. Many’s the time the two of them spent the night giggling and telling tales to one another.”
Sean looked at his feet. Mary turned to Eamon. “Remember when your wife and all your little ones had the pox, and little Jaynie came every day with quail eggs she had found? Ah! You didn’t know it was her, eh? Well, ask your missus.” She tapped her foot, wishing she had a proper shoe on it and not a knitted slipper. The gesture would have been more regal. But she could see an abashed look on one or two of their faces.
She stepped a little closer to them, leaning forward and smiling as winsomely as she knew how. “Her father’s love caused him to gift her with a few short years of beauty. Now he, and her beauty are gone.” She blinked back sudden, entirely unfeigned tears. “You’ve seen her as she is. Do you think she poses a threat to your own daughters? Will she be stealing love meant for another?” She shook her head sadly. “Jaynie is a sweet, gentle child, no danger to a living soul. Let her live out her poor life here, in the only home she knows. She is ugly, nothing worse.” At that, Mary could say no more. Her throat had closed over the tears of painful memories and the thought of lonely years eked out in a friendless land.
But as she watched, the men one by one turned and skulked away, leaving only Kevin standing twisting his fingers and frowning. He harumphed once or twice, but his voice when he spoke was suspiciously shaky. “Well then. I suppose there’s no reason to say any more. The child can stay. But any sign of magic from her, and –” He puffed up for a moment, then deflated. “Well. I can’t answer for what a frightened man might do.” Perhaps seeing the irony of his own words, he nodded to her, spun on his heel and marched away.
Mary waited till he was out of sight, then turned and stumbled for the cottage.
When Jaynie awoke from her sleep, she saw her mother on the floor holding her head in her hands. She ran to her, fearing that the fever had returned, only to find herself pulled into the nest between her mother’s crossed legs.
Wrapping her arms around the little girl, Mary choked back a cry.
“Mother, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, child. Everything will be all right.” Mary wiped her eyes. She had to tell the child sometime. What better time than now? The girl would have little else in her life, at least she could have the dignity of knowing who she was.
Mary took a deep breath and gathered Jaynie closer, rocking her gently. “Your father had some magic – you know that. At least you knew a part of it. But you don’t know this: his people were...of another race. Much older than ours. There was a time when these islands belonged to the Faerie folk. But hardly any of them are left anymore. There are too many humans. So it wasn’t really his fault that he fell in love with a human – and I with him – even though we and Faerie were never meant to mate. They consider it an abomination. As our child, you were cursed by both the green man and the goddess. And by Christ himself, I think. But they could not alter your spirit.”
“But...I am no longer beautiful!”
“You are as beautiful as you have ever been.”
“No!  The silver man changed me. Cast a spell on me, and now everyone hates and fears me. Mother, please – make me pretty again!”
Her mother shook her head gently and peered sorrowfully into Jaynie’s eyes. “The way you look now is the way you were born. The illusion of beauty was a spell cast by your father to protect you from the derision you would receive if the humans or faerie-folk were to see what you really look like. That is why he always stayed near you – to be apart by more than a mile would weaken the magic. When he died, the glamour was lifted.”
“You don’t understand...” Jaynie began, realizing even as she said it that she was the one who did not understand.
“Without your father’s magic, you will never be able to walk and live freely among people in the human world. Life will not be easy, but I will always be here for you, will always love and protect you.”
And so it was that Jaynie came to be known along the steep shores of Inverness as the Goblin of Cliffside, or sometimes as the Wee Hag.
Her back was bent and her nose was a twisted lump like an edible root. Her chin was so small that the strap of a bonnet would slide up and hook under her nose, so she went bareheaded at all times, despite the sparseness of her bone-white hair. No one did her harm, because though some felt pity for her, everyone was afraid of her.


Popular posts from this blog

The Hazards of Homage

Learning to Write by Sculpting - Getting Down To Details

Rediscovering the Excitement