Saturday, February 12, 2011

Behind the Waterfall, Chapter 1:

New Story:  Behind the Waterfall - Imagine there is a gateway between worlds holding a terrible treasure, which in the wrong hands will wreak havoc in the land where humans live. A young woman suddenly finds that she is the only human standing between that treasure and the ruthless magician who wants to make it his own. Her only weapons to stave off this twilight for mankind are the word of a strange old woman who knows the truth of an ancient legend, the reluctant help of a young man half Sidhe, half human, and the determination to avenge her family and uphold ancient vows. What magic lies behind the waterfall? And can she stop it in time?

Chapter 1:  A Visit to My Father's Garden

“Once upon a time, back when I was a young boy, something unusual happened,” my father began as he opened the gate to his private garden.

It was a warm June day. We were far away from the peasants working in the field or the sound of life in the village below the great hall that was our home. Here, behind the garden wall and the tall poplars that surrounded it, it was even hard to see the top of the stone tower in the center of the castle. Papa called it his hideaway, where he could pretend away the cares of his position. No one but my father, the gardener who assisted him and those he invited as guests came into this particular refuge, not even my mother. It was his special retreat. Even his advisors had to wait at the garden gate if he were in here and something came up that needed his attention. They would ring a bell at the gate and wait for him to answer. I felt very special to have been asked to come in with him this day - the morning of my eighteenth birthday.

He paused in his story for a moment as I walked through the gate and onto a graveled path. The garden was filled with roses, red and pink and white, in raised beds between a network of paths, and in places there were stands of pinks and lavender. Papa stopped by a small shed, hung up his elegant silk coat and slipped on a course linen farmer’s smock, broad-brimmed hat and vest, then grabbed a basket, which he handed me. Silently, he led me into the garden.

We stopped by a rosebush filled with bright red flowers. It smelled very sweet. The bees thought so too, as they hopped from blossom to blossom. One of them decided to buzz Papa’s head. He ignored it, but as he studied the rosebush, he put his hand to the top of his head, rubbing the crown of his hat, as if it felt uncomfortable. I remember how the brim bobbed, casting a shadow across his face as he adjusted it.

Finally, he broke the silence. “I must have been about ten,” he said. “A woman in our village gave birth to a fine young baby. She and her husband were very happy at first, but something seemed wrong.” He took some snips out of his gardening vest, and carefully walking around the bush, clipped the stem of a rose that had bloomed out.

“The baby had black hair.” My father put the spent rose in the basket I carried. “Nobody in his family had dark hair. His father was redheaded and his mother’s hair was blond. Rumors began to spread.”

He moved over to the side of the rosebush and looked at it carefully, and clipped another spent rose. “Her husband was furious with the talk, and began to look at his wife with different eyes, wondering about her virtue. The families with dark-haired men began to avoid him, which made the work on the estate suffer as well.”

Frowning at one section of the rosebush, he eased forward a branch, examined it carefully, and then clipped away at what displeased him. He handed the pruned bit of cane to me, and I tucked it with the others in the basket. He moved around the bush and I followed carefully, making sure not to snag my dress on the thorns.

“So what happened next, Papa?” I asked.

Papa bent a rose branch out some. “Hold this, Ellyn” he said. Being careful of the thorns, I gingerly applied pressure to keep it in place while he reached in past it and snipped a stem in the center of the bush. The branch he snipped and handed me had been attacked by something, and the cane was spotted and black in places. I put it in the basket.

“After a particularly loud argument, my father convinced the unhappy couple to take their child and go see the priest at Egilthorpe. Father Paidrag was his name, I believe, very wise about uncanny things. Not as good as the current priest, who doesn’t seem to know much about the fae folk, or anything else much outside of his prayers,” he said, snipping the first of the roses we would bring home, one just beginning to open. “Father Paidrag, after talking to both of them, and praying much with incense and holy water and blessed salt, declared that the infant had fae blood.”

He snipped two more roses. “I’m not sure of how they managed it, but the child’s parents decided that after Father Padraig’s diagnosis, the son they were caring for was a changeling, and that their true son had been stolen from them. Even though the father considered deserting the strange boy and handing him to the church to deal with, the woman was attached to the baby already, and she and the good priest convinced her husband that changeling or no, this was the child the good Lord had given them to raise, and her wishes prevailed. To her dying day, the boy’s mother denied ever being unfaithful to her husband, and slowly the rumors went away.”

I looked at my father as he continued to study the rose bush. He took a deep breath, let it go and moved on towards the next.

“But you didn’t believe the changeling story,” I said, following in his wake.

Papa looked at me, a bit surprised, I think. that I had picked up on his opinion. “No. I watched the boy grow up. He was a very bright child, good at figuring out things. That’s not how changelings are. True changelings are weak, and slow of tongue and mind, like something’s missing in their minds. None of that was true for this boy.”

We stopped by the next rosebush, and my father began examining it as well. “He had a special talent for understanding things growing wild, herbs, trees, birds, even fish. His parents tolerated him. They were good people, and went on to have a string of red and blond-headed children, all quite like themselves, made to farm the land and not wonder about how the henbit bloomed in the spring or how to know the difference between wild garlic and its poisonous cousins.”

Papa snipped a rose, and handed it to me. He looked at me oddly, with a sadness lingering in his eyes that I did not understand. I was beginning to wonder if I were the object of this story. “Unable to understand why he was different, they let him go his own way.”

My father circled the bush, deftly removing blown blossoms and branches that would interfere with the way he wanted the rose to grow. “Maybe it was because they knew what your grandfather would do if he heard of it, but they never tied him up or did any of the other cruel things people do to get the fae folk to give them back their own child. They fed him and made sure he had enough to wear, but otherwise, ignored him as much as they could. He often made his way into the woods. For a while, he trailed my mother as she went gathering herbs.”

“You’re talking about Ghillie Dhu,” I said. I knew the quiet, black-haired man who occasionally came up to our hall, or wandered through the village.

“Ghillie Dhu, the black-haired boy. That’s not really his name, you know,” my father said, looking at me. “His parents named him Cullin.”

“Cullin,” I said, rolling the name over in my mind, trying to match the sound with my mental picture of the slim, blue-eyed man that I had seen when he came into the village to trade his herbs and mushrooms. He had a secret, otherwordly feel about him, as if he didn’t quite belong to the world of the village or the farm. Children adored him, and he them, but he made the grownups uneasy for some reason I could not yet understand, barely being more than a child myself. It was a shock to me to find out how old he was - he didn’t seem old enough to have been born when my father was a boy. I would have guessed him to be no older than twenty-five.

Papa snipped another rose. “I remember watching him following your grandmother, small and too serious for his years. He would squat next to her, listening as she explained what this herb was for or that.” He looked over the rosebush again, tilting his head as he studied it. “For some reason, my mother was rather fond of him, even as wild and unkempt as he was, but Mother was like that. There was a time . . . ” His voice drifted off as he put his snips back in his vest. “Yes, that does it for this one,” he said, then started walking towards a bench placed against the garden wall.

He sat down, and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, and interlacing his fingertips. I sat down next to him, resting the basket in my lap. I remember still the scent of the roses he had cut. They smelled very fragrant.

“There was a time what, Papa?” I asked.

“For a few years, before I went off to Kilcarthin to finish my education and got caught up in the wars, he turned into my shadow every time I went into the woods. I think he was about ten. He would follow me when I went hunting. You wouldn’t think a child so young could stay still enough not to frighten the animals, but he could. He had an uncanny way of calling in the deer. Even the birds would come close when he wanted them to. I think it unnerved my brother. Your uncle stopped hunting with me for a while because of him.”

I picked up one of the roses, and twirled it in my fingers.“Why are you telling me this, Papa?”

He removed his hat and ran a finger over the straw of the brim, not looking me in the eyes. For once, he lost that look of composure and command I had always associated with him, my father, Thane of Redewick, commander of men and advisor to the duke at his castle in Arbercrey. As he sat there and struggled for the words he was trying to say he seemed smaller, diminished, and for the first time in my life I noticed he was aging. Gray streaked his dark hair and there were creases around his eyes.

“Things aren't always what they seem to be, daughter. Sometimes, the changeling boy that nobody wants is a person who holds some wild power that is beyond normal. Sometimes, the friends and allies we thought we had turn out to be our worst enemies.” He sighed. “Just take it for what it is. Sometimes, just the knowledge can tip the balance.”

He stood up and pulled off his gardening gloves. “Someone has asked me for permission to marry you.”

I gasped, I think, feeling a shock run through me. I had known this day would come, but the fact that it was here still came as a surprise. Papa watched me. I suspect I blushed, and my pulise quickened. and that amused him. Still, that didn’t totally remove the darkness touching him.

Something clicked in my thoughts. “You do not approve of the person who asked? Who was it?”

“You are correct. I do not,” he said. “Baron Drystan of Brothingthwaite has asked to match you with his son Roderick. Drystan and I...well let’s just say we seldom agree on things. And there’s more here than that. I’ve been pressured from an unexpected quarter to agree. But I promised long ago not to force you into a political match. For the moment, I’ve been able to use that to buy us time. And I’m not sure I want to be tied to Drystan that way.” He stood up. “Beyond that, we have obligations here at Redewick, obligations that Drystan would never acknowledge.”

I swallowed, trying to calm the red in my face and the beating of my heart. “What would you like me to do, Papa?”

I vaguely remembered having seen Baron Drystan, a stern, cold man who was the opposite of my father in many ways. I remembered his son Roderick more clearly and with more distaste. My heart sank at the thought of becoming a part of that household.

“Don’t worry, daughter,” he said, kissing me lightly on the forehead. “Your happiness matters to me, no matter what the politics. Take these flowers to your mother,” he said. “She will know what to do with them. Tell her I will be in my garden for a while longer. I need to think.”

He helped me stand. After kissing him on his cheek in farewell, I went back to the house.

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