Fractal Myth

THE SEVEN RAVENS

Chapter 3

[Michelle Whitehead ©2006]

Lynet opened her eyes to find Arlys and Meghan fussing over her. Every muscle in her body was aching, and she felt drained and exhausted. "Lie still," Meghan cautioned. "You've done the hard work. Now it's time to rest." Lynet's eyes anxiously sought her husband's.

"The baby?" "Don't worry," he reassured her. "Meghan says it's touch and go, but it looks like she's going to be just fine."

"She?" Lynet asked, hardly daring to believe.

"She." Arlys confirmed. "We have a new little daughter." They grinned at each other like triumphant children.

"Can I hold her?" Meghan considered her patient. The colour was slowly coming back to her cheeks, and she was looking better every moment.

"If you feel strong enough."

Arlys carefully arranged the pillows so Lynet was supported, and Meghan placed the baby gently on Lynet's chest.

"She's beautiful," Lynet cried, smoothing the soft fluff of dark hair from the baby's wrinkled forehead.

"Yes," Arlys agreed. "She's just perfect." He had already performed the ritual counting of fingers and toes, delighting in his daughter's tenacious grip on his finger.

Leaving the new parents to enjoy their first moments alone with their baby, Meghan busied herself tidying up the room. After a while, she coughed quietly to remind them of her presence. Tearing his eyes away from Lynet and the baby, Arlys looked up at her inquiringly. Meghan thought she had never seen such a proud and adoring father. She mentally pitied the young men who might come to pay court to this little maiden. She was going to have some strong protectors, with such a father, not to mention all those doting brothers waiting outside to welcome her with open arms. "I don't want the boys to see all this mess," she explained, indicating the stained sheets which she had gathered into a bundle. "Can you send them out of the yard on some errand for a few moments? It won't take me long to rinse these out."

Arlys looked at Lynet, who was trying to tempt the baby to suckle. He knew what she wanted, without her saying a word. "The baby has to be baptised," he said. "I'll send the boys to the well to get fresh water."

"Make sure they take the silver jug," Lynet added.

Arlys nodded. "Of course." He started to leave and then stopped, suddenly unsure.

"It's on the lintel in the kitchen," Lynet said, and laughed when he still didn't move. "It's all right, my darling. We're not going anywhere. We'll still be here when you get back."

Arlys laughed with her, and bent down to kiss them both. "You're more precious to me than you will ever know," he whispered, while Lynet pressed her cheek against his hand. At that moment the baby opened her eyes and gurgled happily.

Arlys left the room in a daze of joy, feeling happier than he ever remembered feeling before. Of course, he had been ecstatic when each of the boys were born healthy and strong, but this baby seemed like such an impossible miracle. Although he had never mentioned it to Lynet, he had begun to doubt his ability as a father and a husband. If his wife wanted a daughter and he was unable to provide her with one, then he was a failure. He knew such thoughts were silly, and that Lynet would have fought fiercely against such an analysis, but he couldn't deny his relief now that those doubts were finally banished. So long as the baby survived. This sobering thought sent a shiver down Arlys's spine. None of their other daughters had lived past the first hour. In the early years of their marriage, the priest, Father Bede, had been waiting in the garden, ready to baptise as soon as the birth was over. By the time their second daughter came to be born, however, the parish had expanded to the point that Father Bede could not guarantee to be back in the village in time. The baby had been born during the heat of summer, when the priest had been three days journey away, on the other side of the valley. They had had to bury her unbaptised, and Lynet had never forgiven herself. She had vowed then that in future she would baptise all her children herself. Father Bede had been sympathetic to her distress and had given her a little silver jug, which he blessed for the purpose. It had already been used for Irwin, Galan, their third daughter, who had been stillborn, and six years ago, for Durwyn. Now it was Cate's turn.

When Arlys appeared at the door with the jug in his hand, all seven boys instantly gathered around him, desperately asking about their mother and the baby. "They're both well," Arlys reassured them, sympathising with their anxious faces. "You'll be able to see them soon, but first, I have a very important task for you."

"You want us to go to the well and get water for the baptism," Eadwyn stated. It was old news to him, having performed the same task for his three youngest brothers.

"Yes," Arlys confirmed. Then his face grew serious as he noticed Brogan and Drefan tussling in the background. "I won't tolerate any mucking around. You hear me? Get the water and bring it straight back. I'm relying on you. The baby is still not very strong, and your mother won't be able to relax until she's been baptised, and we need your mother to relax. Otherwise both of them might get sick. You understand me?" He fixed the twins with a steely glare.

"Yes, Dadda," they chorused, instantly assuming an air of angelic innocence. Arlys shook his head and handed the jug to Eadwyn. "No mistakes," he warned, "and hurry back or you won't know what happened to you!"

"Yes, Dadda," Eadwyn echoed, shooting an unappreciative glance at Brogan and Drefan as his father turned away. "You can rely on us."

"I hope so," Arlys growled, closing the door behind him.

"Is Dadda mad at us?" Durwyn asked, as the boys set off along the path to the forest.

"Not really," Eadwyn said, giving the little boy a quick hug. "He's just worried about Mumma. You should have seen him when you were born! Ohhh, the threats he made then. Made the hairs in my ears curl, I promise you. This is nothing by comparison!" Durwyn was satisfied, but Erian and the twins exchanged an anxious look, knowing their brother was lying. None of them had ever seen their father so easily upset.

The well in the forest was a simple structure, a ring of stones built up around a permanent spring. The water there was always clean and cool, even on the hottest day. The boys bolted up the path towards it, happy to have something to do after so many hours of inactivity. As they ran, they fiercely debated who should have the honour of filling the jug.

By the time they reached their goal, even normally patient Eadwyn had had enough of their bickering. "Look," he reasoned, "it doesn't matter who fills the jug, just so long as it gets filled. The important thing is for our sister to be baptised. Dadda asked me to bring the water, and that's exactly what I'm going to do."

"That's not fair," Brogan complained. "You always get to do everything important, just because you're the oldest. We want the chance to show Dadda that we can be trusted too!"

"Go on, give us a chance!" Drefan echoed. Even little Durwyn's eyes were pleading for the opportunity to take part in the momentous occasion.

"We don't have time to argue," Eadwyn announced, making a sudden decision. "Here's what we'll do. Stand in a circle where the grass is deep and soft. I'll throw the jug in the air and whoever catches it can fill it and carry it home."

His brothers considered the idea and agreed it was a fair solution. Only Durwyn was dubious. As the smallest, he well knew he had no chance of winning this game. He was just starting to cry when Eadwyn, as usual, stepped in to appease him.

"If I catch it, you can carry it home," the older boy offered, and Durwyn wiped his eyes and nodded gratefully.

The brothers lined up, forming a circle in the small clearing. Eadwyn stood in the middle and sent the little silver jug spinning high in the air. In the tussle that followed, each brother managed to touch the jug at least once. Even Durwyn made a valiant effort to catch it when it came near him, but none of them managed to grab it securely. It flipped from hand to hand in a fumble of confusion, then went hurtling into the air again, only this time, at a sharp angle.

Before the boys had time to register what had happened, the jug landed with a splash in the center of the well, quickly sinking beneath the surface. All seven boys were instantly on their knees, frantically trying to retrieve it. Eadwyn had the longest arms and stretching desperately through the clear water, he managed to touch the shining object with his fingertips. The touch was just enough to turn the jug right side up, releasing the air bubble that had been slowing its descent. With nothing to keep it bouyant, it vanished abruptly. The boys hearts sank with it. Nothing remained except the shining silver bubble which made its way to the surface and popped beneath their noses.

"What are we going to do?" Galan asked, eyes wide with panic.

"Dadda's going to kill us," Brogan asserted, and Drefan nodded his head in ready agreement.

"If only there was a frog here," Durwyn prattled, trying to be helpful. "Then he could bring the jug back for us. He'd be a prince under a spell of course, and Cate could kiss him and break the spell and then they could get married and live happily ever after." At the sound of their sister's name, the older boys blanched pale beneath their tans. Caught up in their sibling rivalry, they'd almost forgotten the reason why the water was needed. They stared at each other, the same question uppermost in each mind. What were they going to do?

"Hey," Irwin said, pulling something from his pocket. "I've got my fishing line with a good sinker and a big hook on it. I'll try to fish the jug out."

At the same time, Erian was cutting large leaves from a nearby tree. "If we fold these leaves and hold them carefully," he explained, demonstrating as he spoke, "we should be able to carry enough water back to the house, especially if we take one each." "It's the best we can do," Eadwyn agreed. "It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing."

Under Erian's direction, the boys experimented with making pockets out of the leaves, while Irwin sprawled on the edge of the well, his lips pursed in concentration.

"I think I've found it!" he announced jubilantly, as he felt the heavy sinker clink against something metallic. "Now if I can just get the hook to catch on the handle."

"Keep trying!" his brothers encouraged him, without turning their attention from their own activity. They'd seen only too clearly the dangers of distraction.

Back at the house, Arlys was fuming. Lynet had become agitated when Cate refused to feed, and Meghan had eventually sent him out of the room while she calmed them down. Through the door he could hear his wife's nervous voice and the thin bawling cry of his daughter. The sound carved through his heart, and his sense of uselessness in the situation became more than he could bear. His distress turned to anger and focussed on his sons. How long did it take to fetch a jug of water anyway? He raged silently, glaring up the path towards the forest. They should have been back long ago. It was ridiculous. They'd obviously completely forgotten what they were supposed to be doing. He paced back and forth outside the door, a storm of temper growing inside him.

The door opened, and Meghan peered out. In the background, Arlys could hear Lynet asking for the twentieth time whether the boys were back yet. She was fretting about the need to baptise Cate, because she was sure the baby would die unless it was done quickly. Actually, Meghan thought, Cate was remarkably strong for such a premature baby, but there was no way to calm Lynet down without doing what she wanted. She was emotionally overwrought and it was her agitation which was upsetting the newborn. The sooner the baptism took place, the better for both of them. Meghan was a practical woman, able to see good in both the old and the new faiths, though following neither herself. It was easier that way. Less complicated. However, she admired the depth of Lynet's belief, and she knew perfectly well how powerful the mind could be, especially under extreme stress.

"Any sign of them?" Meghan asked. Arlys shook his head. Meghan's concern was written plainly on her face and, knowing his wife as he did, Arlys appreciated the seriousness of the situation.

"Don't let her worry," he growled. "I'll go and get them myself."

As he pounded up the path to the forest, Meghan couldn't help feeling a momentary pity for his sons. 'I wouldn't want to be in their shoes right now,' she thought. Then Cate started screaming again, and in her struggle to soothe the baby and keep its mother calm, her pity turned to irritation. 'Really,' she grumbled to herself, 'they deserve it. I expected better from them. They should know how strongly their mother feels about this by now.'

Arlys was even more disappointed. Of all the escapades his sons had pulled over the years, this was the worst. He stopped for a moment, leaning on the old oak near the graveyard to catch his breath. He wasn't used to running, he realised, and his temper and worry weren't helping. Chest heaving, he strained his eyes against the dimness of the forest, expecting any moment to see the boys tumbling out from its darkness, stuttering apologies. There was no movement. Everything was almost unaturally still. Not even the slightest breeze ruffled the leaves, and there was no life to be seen. No life. His eyes fell on the three small mounds at the base of the oak, and his heart yearned for the little girls he had lost.

"Damn those boys," he growled. "I wish they were all turned into ravens!"

In the clearing around the well there was a sudden flutter and seven huge, glossy-black birds appeared, eyeing each other with bewildered expressions on their long, hooked beaks. The snap of a breaking twig warned of someone approaching and they took off together in a startled flurry, large wings sawing noisily through the still air.

Standing alone in the clearing, Arlys tried to make sense of what he saw around him. There was no sign of his sons, yet he could feel their presence everywhere. At his feet lay six small pockets, made from folded leaves, a shining bead of water trapped in each one. He recognised the design. He had taught it to Erian during his second son's apprenticeship in the forest years ago. It astonished him to think the boy had remembered such an insignificant detail. Thinking the brothers might have run to hide when they heard him coming, he began to call their names, his voice loud in the small clearing.

"Come on out," he yelled. "I'm not angry with you." It was the truth. He no longer felt any desire to punish them. He just wanted them there to participate in their sister's baptism. But there was no answer.

Arlys scratched his head, wondering, but if they wanted to play games, he had no time to waste on them. He looked around, searching for the silver jug. He didn't find it, but he did find the end of Irwin's fishing line, trailing from the well. "That's strange," he said aloud. For a start, there were no fish in the well, and never had been. Secondly, Irwin's fishing line was only ever found with Irwin holding the end of it. It was his most prized possession, especially since Arlys had found time last winter to melt down some lead and make proper sinkers for the boy. Tugging gently on the end of the line, Arlys was surprised to feel that it was hooked around something quite heavy. Very carefully, he reeled it in, watching in amazement as the little silver jug was pulled slowly to the surface. Things were beginning to make more sense. They had obviously dropped the jug in the well, and being too afraid to come back empty-handed, had tried to rectify their mistake. That still didn't explain where they were now. He tried shouting again, with no reply.

Cradling the full jug in his large hands, Arlys turned and headed back to the house. Just as he left the clearing, he noticed something he had missed before. A long, jet-black feather lying at the base of a tree. Normally he would have thought nothing of it. The forest was full of discarded feathers of all shapes and colours. Brogan and Drefan had quite a collection. This seemed special, though. It seemed to remind him of something. As he bent down to pick it up, being careful not to spill even a drop of water from the jug, he suddenly remembered his previous temper, and the curse he had sworn against his sons. Surely that couldn't be it! That was ridiculous. Such things simply didn't happen. Or did they? There was no other explanation.

As he walked quickly home, Arlys turned things over and over in his mind. Perhaps one of the boys had heard him, and they had decided to tease him for getting mad. That was it. It had to be. They would turn up tonight or tomorrow, full of smiles and cheeky laughter, poking fun at him for being so superstitious. He could feel his temper rising again. How dare they play such games with their mother so ill, and their baby sister just born. He thought he'd raised them better than that. What was he saying? He and Lynet had raised them better than that. There was no way they would be so inconsiderate, just for a joke. Which brought him back to the first explanation. Which he knew was even more impossible. He was nearly at the house, and no closer to understanding what had happened. Then an even more important question occurred to him. What was he going to tell Lynet?

Meghan was waiting for him, just outside the door. "What took you so long?" she whispered, then put her finger against her lips, cautioning him to be quiet. "Please don't make any noise. I've just convinced them both to fall asleep. It won't last long, but it's what they need most." She noticed the silver jug in his hand and looked around curiously. "Where are the boys?"

"I don't know," he replied honestly. "They weren't anywhere near the well. I looked, but I couldn't find them. They're gone, and it's all my fault!"

Meghan was astounded to see that his eyes were brimming with tears. She'd never seen him lose his composure like this before. Even when his daughters had died, he had been the strong, calm presence that had kept Lynet sane. "Hey now," she chided him. "Don't fall apart now! Lynet needs you more than ever. I'm sure the boys will be home soon. They know you never stay angry for long."

"No..." Arlys stammered. "You don't understand!" Sinking down onto the bench beside the door, he told her the whole story, how mad with worry he had been, and how the sight of his daughters' graves had upset him, and finally, the terrible curse he had wished on his sons.

Meghan sat beside him, stunned by his story. She didn't doubt him for a moment. As midwife to three villages and their outlying settlements, she had often been told of strange happenings by people who believed beyond doubt that magic, or spirits, or the will of God was at work in the world. It amused her to listen to them try and explain the inexplicable, justifying it in relation to their personal beliefs. There was nothing amusing about this situation, however. Given the current state of Lynet's nerves, it had the potential to be very dangerous. "You can't tell her," she said at last, placing her hand on Arlys's shoulder.

"Tell me what?" They looked up, startled, to find Lynet standing in the doorway, with Cate snuggled in her arms. "Whatever it is, you know I'm going to find out eventually. It's something about the boys, isn't it?"

Arlys rushed to her side, guiding her to the bench and making her sit down between himself and Meghan. "She's right," he said despairingly, shaking his head under Meghan's glare. "I've never kept a secret from her and I'm too old to start now."

Meghan nodded in resignation. "All right. I guess you know best." Her practised eye has already assessed the condition of her two charges, and she was gratified to see both looking much better than she expected. "You should be lying down," she scolded, unprepared to relinquish her authority so easily.

"I will," Lynet agreed meekly, "just as soon as I know what's going on." Her eyes went to the jug which Arlys still held. She sighed, then said "Cate's waited this long. I guess she can wait a few more minutes." She rubbed her cheek against the baby's head. "Now, whatever it is, tell me."

With his head bowed, staring at the pebbles which carpeted the house yard, Arlys told her. He left nothing out, finishing by stating that it was clearly his fault.

"Rubbish." Lynet's voice was calm and matter of fact. He looked up at her, perplexed by her tone. She seemed to have been expecting nothing more and nothing less. "We are both to blame for this, my love. You, for wishing such a fate on our sons, but myself, even more so. I would not be satisfied with my family as it was. I had to beg for more." She held Cate tightly against her breast. "We've been greatly blessed today, and now we must pay for it. I believe God gives and God takes away. You believe nature is bountiful, but also that nature is cruel. The curse was sworn on the oak, which is sacred to us both as a sign of new life. You said you found a feather in the clearing?" Arlys passed it to her and she stroked it softly with her fingertip. "We must be thankful for God's mercy. Our sons are not dead, though they are hidden from us. They are beginning a new life as well. Who knows what may happen in the future? We must pray every day that we will see them again." She looked from Arlys to Meghan. Both were staring dumbfounded by her philosophical acceptance of such incredible news. "What?" She laughed sadly at their expressions. "I've been dreading something like this ever since I got pregnant. Now it's happened, I'm just thankful it's not worse. Before anything else goes wrong, though, I really think it's time Cate was baptised."

Handing the baby to Arlys to hold, Lynet opened her worn prayer book. Several pages were loose and Meghan had to move quickly to stop them blowing away. In contrast to the earlier stillness, a strong breeze had sprung up, piling thunderclouds against the hills in the distance. In a firm voice, Lynet went through the rituals necessary for baptism. Arlys tenderly cradled his daughter, marvelling at his wife's strength and spirit. He was nearly shattered by the day's events, and it was only the tiny weight in his arms and the love in Lynet's voice which were still holding him upright. When the cold water touched Cate's forehead, he flinched, expecting her to cry. Instead, she opened her eyes wide and laughed at him, her miniscule fingers reaching for his nose. In that moment, he knew Lynet was right. Whatever life they had known before was over. A new life had begun, with Cate at its center. He couldn't do anything to help his sons, wherever they were, but he could make certain that their sister had the chance to grow up safe and happy. She would never have cause to doubt his devotion. Then there was Lynet herself. She was putting on a brave show at the moment, but he knew that inside, she was as torn up with guilt as he was. Surviving this tragedy would be the hardest test their relationship had ever faced. The thought brought more tears to his eyes, which he squeezed back so Lynet would not see. One escaped, dripping down onto his daughter's face. She gurgled again, and he noticed through his blurred vision that her eyes were hazel, green as the forest, and flecked with dappled brown.

The Seven Ravens:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
~ Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

The Original Fairytale by The Brothers Grimm

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