Fractal Myth

THE SEVEN RAVENS

Chapter 5

[Michelle Whitehead ©2006]

"No." Lynet's voice was firm, implacable. She had been trying to reason with Cate for days and had finally given up, but that didn't mean she was giving in.

"Oh, Mumma. I have to."

It was one week before Cate's eighth birthday, one week since she had learned the truth about her brothers. It had taken a few days for the facts to sink in, but to her parents surprise, she had accepted the idea that her unknown brothers had been turned into ravens, almost without question.

What confused her was that her parents had chosen to keep the secret from her for so long, especially when she began to add up all the lies they'd told her over the years. She felt like the ground had disappeared beneath her. As if everything she had ever believed was false. Arlys and Lynet had been astounded by her sense of betrayal. They had been so intent on protecting her that it had never occurred to them to question the decision they had made. Eventually, Cate admitted that they had done what they thought was right, and that knowing about her brothers' fate would not have changed her childhood in any way. As her bewilderment faded, however, it was replaced by a strong determination to find her brothers and rescue them.

"It makes sense," she told her father, speaking to him as though he were the child and she, the parent. She had cornered him in the barn where he was stacking wood for the coming winter. Now he was perched on the edge of a thick sack of flour while she marched back and forth in front of him, sucking on the end of her braid, as was her habit when thinking deeply. "You want to go but you can't, because Mumma needs you too much. I could never look after her and keep her cheerful while you were gone. That's why I have to go. Someone has to. If they could have come home by themselves, they'd be here by now, wouldn't they? So someone has to do whatever's necessary to set them free. That someone is me."

Arlys put his arms around her, feeling the firm resolve stiffening her small body. He had to admit she had thought her arguments through carefully. Every counter argument he had tried had been shot down in the flames of her peculiar logic.

"All right, darling. You can go." He placed his finger on her lips to stop the instant whoops of celebration. "But... and this is a big but. I won't let you go without your mother's permission. I won't let you break her heart. I've already done a good enough job of that by myself!"

"Yes, Dadda," Cate had answered meekly, throwing her arms around him. Then she ran out into the yard, turning somersaults along the way. Arlys watched her as she ran all the way up the hill to the forest, only stopping to call to the little wren which was singing in the old hollow oak by the graveyard. He felt he had dealt with the situation quite nicely. He couldn't bear to say no to his daughter when she faced him with such earnestness, but he knew there was no way Lynet would let the little girl out of her sight.

That night, over dinner, Cate began working on her mother.

"Dadda says I can go."

Lynet shot Arlys a look of pure disgust. 'Coward,' that look said. Arlys ducked his head acknowledging the justice of her complaint.

"Dadda doesn't know what's best for you. He's never had a little girl to deal with before. If you were a boy, he'd put you over his knee like he did with your brothers."

"You've never had a little girl before either," Cate retorted, sure she had found the flaw in her mother's argument. "How do you know what's best for me?"

"You may be my first daughter, but I was a little girl once too, you know. I was just as headstrong and determined as you were, but my parents would have locked me in my room rather than let me go running wild all over the country. Maybe we've allowed you to have a little too much freedom?" Lynet's gaze was thoughtful and her daughter eyed her cautiously. Being locked in her room was certainly a fate to avoid.

"You'd think I was talking about running away forever to make my fortune or something. All I want to do is find my brothers and bring them home to you. Don't you want to have them back? I'm only trying to do what you really want." Cate's tone was sulky, and tears lurked just beneath the surface.

Her mother's hug was warm and comforting. "Of course I want them home," she sighed into her daughter's hair. "Your father and I have prayed for nothing else, every night for the past seven years. But I want to have you safe and well here, even more. It was our longing for you that led to our losing your brothers. If we lost you as well, we'd have nothing to live for."

"You'd still have each other."

Lynet smiled and reached out to take Arlys's hand. "Yes, we'd still have each other, and a husband like your Dadda should be enough for any woman. But I'm greedy. I want my children as well. I've already had to get used to not knowing where your brothers are. There's no way I'm going to risk losing you too."

"I wouldn't be lost. I'd be searching for them, and as soon as I found them I'd be bringing them home. Honestly. I'd come straight back, Mumma, and I wouldn't be lost. I really wouldn't." Cate was obviously sincere, but her certainty did not have the desired affect on her mother. Lynet shook her head. Her daughter tried a more direct line of attack. "Please, Mumma? Please let me bring my brothers home to you?"

"No."

"Oh Mumma, please? I have to go."

"No."

Cate looked shocked. She'd never before realised that her mother's stubborness matched her own. Arlys finished his dinner and quietly went back out to the barn, lost in admiration of his wife's ability to contradict their beloved daughter. He'd have been putty in her hands long before now, allowing her to do whatever she wanted. Lynet watched him go, wishing she didn't feel like such a monster. That was beside the point, though. Cate could plead until she was blue in the face, but there was no way she was going to allow her to leave. She wasn't even eight years old yet. Anything could happen to her, and none of them had any idea where the boys were. Cate wouldn't even know where to start. The thought gave Lynet some comfort, and while she and Cate washed and dried the dishes, she turned it over in her mind.

"Mumma?"

"No."

"But Mumma..."

"You're not going."

"I promised Dadda I wouldn't go without your permission, but I'm not going to stop asking until you give it to me."

"You can ask all you like. I'm not changing my mind." Lynet was pleased with her solution, almost as pleased as Arlys had been with his, but she wasn't going to play her cards too early. Cate would be suspicious if the answer came to easily.

For three days the tussle continued, with Cate begging her mother for permission to rescue her brothers, and Lynet steadfastly refusing to consider letting her go. While the tug-of-war continued, Arlys took to spending more and more time in the barn. He so clearly saw both sides of the argument that he couldn't stand it when either party tried to enlist him as an ally. "I'm strictly neutral," he declared, making a run for the safety of the woodpile. He never doubted that Lynet would win the day, so when he saw Cate coming towards him, he prepared himself for more tears and tantrums.

"Mumma says I can go," his daughter exclaimed in triumph, her small face wreathed in smiles.

"WHAT?"

"Of course she says I'm too young now and I have to wait until I grow up more, but when I'm bigger she's going to let me go!"

Arlys looked towards the house. Lynet was standing innocently near the door. She caught his eye and winked at him. Arlys winked back, but in his heart he was worried. If Lynet thought Cate was just going to let the matter drop, she didn't know their daughter. The little girl was as frustratingly stubborn as her mother had ever been. Still, at least Lynet's ploy had bought them a few years, and who knew what might happen in the meantime. The boys might even come home of their own accord!

Cate was a good winner and she refrained from rubbing her parents' noses in their defeat. To their immense surprise, she didn't even mention her desire to search for her brothers, instead showing immense interest in the plans for her eighth birthday party. She had decided not to invite any of the children from the village. Although the bruises were long gone, the emotional scars of their teasing would take a while to heal.

"Forgive and forget," her mother counselled.

"I have, Mumma. Honestly, I don't hold a grudge against them. I just... I just don't want to hear them saying anything about my brothers. I'd rather celebrate my birthday in my own way, with the trees and my friends in the forest."

As a result, they were planning to have a picnic in the clearing by the well, just the three of them.

"Four," Cate insisted. "My wren will be there too."

"Four," Lynet agreed laughing. "I'll have to remember that when I'm making the sandwiches."

"It's all right, Mumma," Cate said seriously. "Wren never eats much. She doesn't think human food is good for her."

"Humph," Lynet joked. "Turns her beak up at my cooking, does she? We'll see about that. How about I make oatcakes with honey and we'll see if that tempts her?"

"I don't know about the wren," Arlys said, surprising them, "but I'm definitely tempted. Cate, do you want to help me decorate? There's some lovely starflowers near the creek. We can make garlands for the trees."

"Good!" Lynet exclaimed goodnaturedly. "Get out of my kitchen and give me some room to work, otherwise we'll be having a picnic without food!"

"I'd love to, Dadda!" With her little hand tucked into her father's, Cate skipped along the path to the forest. Arlys envied her carefree ability to put her troubles behind her. It was as if, having reached a compromise on the question of rescuing her brothers, she had now put the matter entirely behind her.

The day of Cate's eighth birthday dawned bright and clear, a rosy light spilling across a bank of fluffy clouds. She woke early to find the little wren singing joyfully on her windowsill.

"Come on, sleepyhead," the wren seemed to be singing. "It's a lovely day and there's lots to do! Come out and play!"

Cate grinned and leapt out of bed. She was dressed almost before her feet touched the floor and seconds later she was running out the door, grabbing a slice of bread from the table on the way out.

"What's the hurry?" Lynet called after her, but she received no reply. Cate was already halfway up the path to the well, the little wren flitting ahead of her as she ran. Lynet laughed and went back to making sandwiches for the picnic they had planned for the afternoon. She was happy that in the excitement of planning for her birthday, Cate seemed to have forgotten her previous determination to search for her brothers. It still worried her that her daughter preferred to talk to trees rather than other children, but Arlys seemed confident she would grow out of it. Lynet preferred to nudge things in the right direction, so as a surprise, she had invited Aedre to join them for the picnic. Of all the children, she was the closest to Cate's age, and she was a nice girl, even if her brothers were a menace. Lynet shook her head as she remembered how easily Eadwyn had put them in their place when he'd caught them teasing Galan. It was no wonder they had gloated over the boys disappearance. The only wonder was that they hadn't told Cate long ago. She sighed. If only Cate had grown up with her brothers to protect her. But then, Lynet realised, she would not be so independent and self-assured. Perhaps it was for the best after all. Especially as the boys would be home any day now.

The jar on the mantelpiece now held forty-nine shiny black feathers. Lynet knew because she counted them often. Seven boys gone for seven years. Surely they would be home soon. She and Arlys prayed every night, kneeling beside the side of their bed, reaching out to the life force of the world, to God the father, pleading for their sons return. Lynet nodded to herself, hope clutched tight like a ball inside her heart. Their prayers would be answered soon. The boys would come home, and Cate would know what it was like to live with her full family around her. Imagining the thoughtful, shy girl surrounded by a rowdy crowd of brothers, Lynet wondered for a moment how she would cope. There was no doubt it would be a shock to the system, but it would be good for her. It would wake her up a bit, bring her out of her shell. Cate spent far too much time in the forest talking to trees. A house full of brothers was just what she needed.

"Please Lord, bring my boys home soon."

Feeling that she had resolved the problem to her satisfaction, Lynet continued kneading the dough that would become tomorrow's bread. It was nearly time to start packing the baskets for the picnic. Arlys would be back soon, ready to help her carry everything up the path to the clearing, and Aedre was due to arrive any minute. Everything according to plan. She hummed a cheerful tune, letting her muscles relax into the long slow movement of kneading, losing herself in her favourite daydream, a dream in which all seven of her sons returned, just in time to share the loaves as they were lifted from the oven.

The sound of her song carried into the garden where Arlys was tending his cuttings. Studying the little flower that had arrived with the first ravens' feathers on the twins' birthday, Arlys had realised the stem had been broken carefully to leave a heel of old wood. He recognised it immediately, as it was the method he had taught his sons for propagating woody shrubs. The second flower, arriving on Erian's birthday, had been snipped from the plant in the same way. Arlys had potted it up, and it was now flourishing in a sunny corner of the garden. The third flower, which had arrived with a feather on Galan's birthday had been different, obviously a soft stemmed, herbaceous plant. However, it had been picked with a full seed head next to the flower, so Arlys had collected and sown the seed. Things had continued in this way for the next seven years. Six times a year, the feathers and a flower were left on the doorstep. Lynet cherished the feathers in the jar on the mantlepiece, while Arlys took up the challenge of growing the exotic plants his sons sent him. Not all had survived. Many never even set roots, and Arlys regretfully assigned them to the compost heap, but he had had some remarkable successes. Not knowing their origins or whether they might be poisonous, he was careful not to allow them to escape into the forest, but the little garden beside the house was now cramped with pots full of strange and delightful flowers.

Stretching his back, Arlys noticed a little pair of eyes peeping through a gap in the fence.

"Come in, Aedre," he called, and a little girl in a bright blue dress slipped through the gate, smiling shyly.

"What beautiful flowers," she exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like them! Where did they come from?"

Arlys smiled. "I grew them," he announced proudly. "They were gifts from my sons."

"You mean the rav..." Aedre stopped, eyes wide, and her hand went to her mouth. "I'm sorry. Mumma said I had to be careful not to say anything wrong. I didn't mean to be rude. Sometimes I wish my brothers had been turned into birds instead of Cate's. I mean, everyone says nice things about her brothers. They don't about mine." She looked so worried that Arlys hastened to reassure her. "Come on inside," he said, realising that Aedre was probably was isolated and lonely as Cate was, even with her brothers living with her. "Lynet will be glad to see you. Cate's still out in the forest somewhere, but she'll meet us in the clearing when she's ready."

"Will I get to see her wren? She told me once before that I could, if I was very quiet, and promised never to tell Bearn and Gifre. I wouldn't tell them, anyway, even if I hadn't promised. They always spoil things that I like. I got a new doll for my birthday from my Gran, and they broke it straight away." Her voice was matter-of-fact, but Arlys could hear the sound of hidden tears.

"I'm sure Cate will want to show you all her forest friends," he said. They had reached the kitchen door, and Lynet bustled out, cheerfully enfolding Aedre in a warm hug and sending Arlys off to wash his hands.

A short time later, Lynet and Arlys trudged up the path to the forest clearing, weighed down by rugs and baskets full of food. Aedre skipped along beside them, proudly bearing a dish of honey cakes. As they passed the old oak and the tiny graveyard, Arlys stopped for a moment, placing his hand against the trunk and wishing with all his heart that his curse were undone and his sons were safe at home again. Aedre watched him curiously, noticing that the bark in that spot was worn bare from his touch. She turned to ask a question and found Lynet's eyes were closed and her lips moving without sound. She realised that her friend's mother was praying for the three little girls buried at the foot of the oak, as well as for the seven boys who had disappeared before Aedre had been born. Sympathising with their sadness, Aedre wondered how her parents would cope if they suddenly lost Bearn and Gifre. Much as she hated her brothers at times, she couldn't imagine life without them. At the same time, she felt even sorrier for the little girls who had died as babies, without ever having the chance to play and sing. Somehow that seemed worse than being turned into a raven.

A sudden thought occurred to Aedre and she set her plate of cakes down on a large rock by the side of the path. Darting across to the three little mounds, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a long blue ribbon, tugging at it like a bird with a worm. She tied it around the carved wooden cross on the middle grave, teasing the ends into a bow. As she stepped back to admire the effect she noticed a little blue feather in the leaf litter at her feet. Next to it, a tiny spray of pale blue forget-me-nots peeked through a clump of bracken. Carefully picking them up she placed them gently on the other two graves.

Just at that moment, Cate emerged from the trees behind the graveyard. She stopped, obviously surprised to see Aedre there. The two girls stood facing each other across the tiny mounds, then Cate grinned and ran around to embrace her friend, hugging her tightly and complimenting her on the decorations.

"That's lovely," she exclaimed. "Now my sisters can join in my birthday celebrations too. I am glad you're here. I have so much to show you!" Arm in arm, they strolled back to the path where Arlys and Lynet were waiting. Both smiled their thanks to Aedre, appreciating her impulsive generosity. She picked up the plate of cakes and the little procession continued up the path to the clearing.

Little had changed there in the eight years since Cate's birth. The spring still fed the deep well with fresh clean water. The ring of rocks was still upholstered in green velvety moss and the grass was as thick and lush as it was on the day when Eadwyn threw the baptismal jug into the air. For Arlys, it was like entering a timewarp, and he expected any minute to hear either the sound of the boys' voices raised in laughing argument, or the rushing sound of widespread wings. Instead, the clearing was hushed and silent, without even the incessant chirping of a cricket to disturb its peace. Cate and Aedre's laughter seemed to echo eerily from the surround trees. Suddenly there was a new sound, and Arlys shook his head to clear away the sense of gloom which was threatening to eclipse the party mood.

"She's beautiful!" Aedre enthused, marvelling over the tiny wren which was now perched on Cate's shoulder, whistling sweetly. "She likes you," Cate said, and to confirm it, the wren hopped across onto Aedre. She stood frozen, scared to move, but delighting in being so close to the little creature. "You're so lucky," she whispered to Cate. "I've never ever had a pet." Instantly, the wren took off, alighting in a nearby tree.

"You've insulted her," Cate whispered back. "She's not a pet. She's my friend."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Aedre looked so crestfallen that Cate laughed.

"Don't apologise to me. You'll have to tell her you're sorry, but I think she'll forgive you."

Feeling slightly silly, Aedre went across to the branch where the little bird sat. Shiny black eyes watched her every move. "I'm sorry, little wren," Aedre said, glad that her brothers couldn't see her talking to a bird. They would never let her hear the end of it. "Please forgive me?" Nothing happened.

"You'll have to better than that," Cate offered. "She's not stupid, you know."

Aedre nodded and squared her shoulders. The bird was little more than a ball of fluff and feathers, but it did seem to understand what she was saying. Looking into those beady little eyes, she suddenly found her self-consciousness and embarrassment melting away. "I know you are not a pet," she said, speaking straight from the heart. "I would never try to lock you in a cage. You are wild and beautiful. Thank you for choosing to share your wonderful songs with me today. I will always remember the magic of your music."

Cate nodded. "That's more like it!"

As if in agreement, the wren began to sing once more, while the two girls helped Cate's parents set up the picnic.

Nearly an hour later, Cate and Aedre were lounging against the mossy velvet rocks, crumbling little bits of honey cake for the wren and laughing as they watched several ants trying to cart away the crumbs. Every now and then they leaned their heads together and whispered secretively. Cate was telling Aedre everything she knew about the trees and other inhabitants of the forest. Aedre was amazed to discover the existence of a world very different to her own. She had often heard the other village children laughing at Cate's strangeness, but now she saw for herself the peace and serenity of the forest, she wished that her life had some of that strangeness in it too.

After helping Lynet pack up the remains of the food, the two girls crept off hand in hand to explore, stepping quietly around Arlys who was stretched out, napping, on a thick bed of grass. Cate took Aedre along hidden trails, threading their way through thick brush, to show her the caves and hollow logs that were home to many different forest creatures. Aedre marvelled at the extent of her friend's knowledge about nature. In return, she shared the snippets of gossip and legend she had learned from listening to the old women in her father's store. Cate was particularly interested in what lay outside the village, plus anything Aedre had ever heard about her long-lost brothers. Aedre hoped she could teach Cate as much as Cate was teaching her.

A pleasant afternoon passed quickly, and long before they were ready to part, Cate pointed out how low the sun was and how dark the shadows were getting. Aedre shuddered, realising that if Cate were to disappear, she would be totally lost. She had no idea how deep into the forest they had come, but she had long ago given up on trying to keep her sense of direction. Cate had no such worries, though. She seemed totally at home, even when Aedre could no longer see the trail they were following.

Just as she was beginning to panic, they pushed through a patch of scrub into the open air. Breathing a sigh of relief, Aedre looked around. To her surprise, they were much closer to Cate's house than she'd thought they possibly could be. Lynet was standing by the door looking anxiously up the path to the clearing. As soon as she saw them her worried expression faded and she began scolding Cate for her carelessness. Aedre's mother had already sent her brothers to find her and bring her home.

At the mention of Bearn and Gifre, Cate's joyful smile faded, and she looked fearfully at the brightly lit door. Aedre took her hand and squeezed it. Even in the dim twilight, Lynet noticed the exchange and smiled.

"Don't worry," she consoled them. "I sent the boys back home again with the message that you were safe. Now that we know I wasn't lying, I think you two had better say your goodbyes. Arlys will walk you home and square everything with your parents." Lynet laughed to see their faces mirroring each other's relief. "Quickly now. It really is getting too late to be outside. Your mother won't let you come to play again if she thinks we don't treat you properly."

"I had a lovely time, Mrs Redgrove. Really I did. I've always wanted to explore the forest, and Cate's taught me ever so much. I'll make sure my mother knows what a nice day we had. I'm sure she'll let me come again."

Despite her assurances, the two girls threw their arms around each other as though they never expected to see each other again. They parted reluctantly, still feeling a closeness which neither had thought possible when the day began.

Cate and Lynet stood at the front gate, watching the glow of the lantern as Arlys escorted Aedre back to her house.

"You really shouldn't have kept her out so late," Lynet chided gently. "She's not used to running wild all day like you are."

Normally Cate would have protested the injustice of the criticism, pointing out the thousands of things that had delayed them and explaining how it would have been impossible to return even one minute earlier. This time, however, Lynet felt her daughter's arms stealing around her waist.

"I know, Mumma. You're right. I'm sorry."

Lynet looked down in surprise, then felt her daughter's forehead. She was slightly flushed and her eyes were glittering in the starlight.

"You don't look well," she murmured. "Too much excitement, I guess. I think an early night is in order for you, young lady."

Cate only nodded, resting her head against her mother's arm and hugging her as though she never wanted to let go.

Arlys looked at her. It was true, she was much more mature than her brothers had been at her age. Not yet eight, but already she knew more about the world around her than most of the adults in the village. He sighed and shook his head regretfully. Much as he would have liked to shield her forever, the secret was a secret no longer. He sought Lynet's gaze and she nodded with resignation. They had discussed this on many a long sleepless night. The most important thing now was to make Cate understand that what had befallen her brothers was nothing to do with her. It was the will of heaven, and her birth had only been the innocent occasion of their misfortune. It was a blessing that she had been born, and the disappearance of her brothers would never change how her parents felt about that.

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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