Fractal Myth

THE SEVEN RAVENS

Chapter 9

[Michelle Whitehead ©2006]

Arlys and Lynet woke reluctantly on the morning after their daughter's disappearance. The previous day had been a nightmare of desperate searching and questioning, from the moment they had read the note which Cate left on the kitchen table. Their first thought had been to find her and bring her back immediately, so as soon as they were dressed, Arlys had headed into the forest while Lynet had set out for the village. Several hours later they met back at the house, each eagerly searching the other's face for news, and each turning away disappointed. There was no sign of Cate anywhere, neither amongst the trees, nor amongst the houses.

They were just preparing to set out again when they realised they had visitors. On their doorstep stood Father Bede, the priest, and Cearo, the soothsayer. Lynet gasped. Although it was rumoured in the village that the two were good friends, they were always been careful never to be seen in each other's company. Then Lynet realised there was a small form hiding behind the other two.

"You've found her!" she exclaimed. "Oh, thank you. Thank you. We were going mad with worry." She moved forward to take Cate in her arms, but stopped suddenly, realising that the little figure in the background was not her daughter. It was Aedre. A small cry of disappointment escaped her, and turning quickly, she fled into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.

"May we come in?" Father Bede inquired.

Arlys quietly apologised for his wife and ushered them into the cold kitchen.

"Can I offer you anything?" he asked, glancing around perplexedly as though he didn't recognise his own home. "I'm afraid... I..."

Whatever he was about to say was lost as Aedre stepped forward with unaccustomed boldness and took his hand. Father Bede and Cearo exchanged a worried glance as the little girl led Arlys to a chair at the kitchen table. He followed her obediently, as though he had lost his way and was desperately in need of guidance. Once he was seated, Aedre kissed his rough, unshaven cheek and beckoned for Cearo to take over. The old woman had a wry smile on her face as she took a seat opposite the tall woodcutter. His eyes continued to follow Aedre, who was now knocking gently on Lynet's door.

There was no answer from inside, so she opened the door just wide enough for her to slide through. A few minutes later the door opened again, this time to admit Father Bede. Aedre closed the door quietly behind the priest, shutting him in with Lynet, who had been crying inconsolably. Cearo and Arlys were talking softly together, Cearo asking questions and Arlys answering, so Aedre crept outside, careful not to disturb them.

Sinking down onto the bench outside the kitchen door, Aedre realised she was exhausted. She had returned to her bed after seeing Cate off the night before, but she had not been able to sleep. Instead, she had spent the rest of the night praying. She prayed for reassurance that she had done the right thing, she prayed for Cate's safe and successful return and she prayed for help in consoling Cate's parents. It seemed like she had an awful lot of responsibility all of a sudden.

Now, sitting alone in Cate's yard, comparing the broken, fragmented people she had seen inside with the strong, cheerful couple she knew and loved (was it really only yesterday? Cate's birthday party where they had laughed together so merrily?) she felt a momentary resentment of her friend. Cate was out there somewhere, living an adventure, while she was left here to clean up the mess. Cate's mess. It wasn't fair. All her life she had wanted to explore, to see new things, to escape from her brothers' constant teasing. Last night, crouching beside the fountain in the middle of the village, she had dreamed that Cate would allow her to come too, to be her companion, but when the time had come, she had found she lacked the courage. Despite all her fantasies, all her research, pestering everyone who entered her father's shop about the outside world, when the chance came to leave, she had not taken it. She had been too scared, and she had sent Cate off alone.

There it was. That was the key. She wasn't angry at Cate. She was angry at herself! Not only had she missed her opportunity, but if anything happened to Cate, it would be all her fault. Of all the people in the village, only she had known what Cate was planning. Only she had been in a position to stop her, or to make sure she didn't have to travel by herself. She had done neither. She had failed her friend.

Slowly, a sound began to penetrate Aedre's thoughts. It was Cate's wren, hopping across the ground towards her, singing as it came.

"Hello, beautiful," Aedre exclaimed, holding out her hand as she had seen Cate do. "Do you miss her too?"

The tiny bird chirped and flared its wings to land on her wrist. It seemed quite comfortable there, and while Aedre did her best not to startle it, it calmy fluffed out its feathers and began to preen. "Aren't you lovely?" The wren turned its head on one side to consider her, then flew off to land a few footsteps away. Aedre felt instantly bereft, as though she had lost something very special. The wren, meanwhile, was busily tugging a worm from a nearby flowerpot. It was so intent on its task that Aedre couldn't help but laugh.

"It's like that, is it? A worm in the beak is more important than making friends with a human? Can't say that I blame you." In her amusement over the wren's antics, Aedre had forgotten her own worries. Besides, wasn't she doing exactly what Cate had asked her to? Cate hadn't wanted a companion on her journey. She had been convinced that, whatever had to be done to save her brothers, she and she alone could do it. What she had needed was someone to remain behind. Someone to look after her parents. Someone to befriend her wren. Looking at it that way, Aedre realised she was as much a part of Cate's adventure as any of the people who might help her along the way.

So what if she didn't get to see all those strange and exotic locations first hand? Cate had promised to tell her all about them. So what if she had to stay in the village and endure her brothers' torments? Things were changing there, too. When Father Bede had shown up at her door first thing that morning, secluding himself with her parents for several hours, then leaving with her in tow, even Bearn and Gifre had been impressed. With any luck, she would be able to spend most of her time here, where they would be too wary of Arlys to bother her. That was a pleasant thought, and she rolled it around in her mind for a while, testing it out. Already she felt a new sense of independence. If this kept up for a while, she would be brave enough to face up to her brothers all by herself!

At that moment, the worm which the wren had been hauling on snapped in half. The little bird rolled over backwards, in a comical explosion of dust and feathers. Aedre couldn't help but burst out laughing. The wren picked itself up, stabbed the half-a-worm viciously with its beak, and flew off to the pear tree to consume its prize.

The door opened suddenly and Aedre tried unsuccessfully to stifle her giggles.

"Ahhh," Father Bede said. "That's what I like to hear. It's nice to know someone around here still has a sense of humour. Come inside now. There are things to talk about which concern you, and we would like to have your opinion. Besides, you must be hungry."

Aedre admitted that she was. It was well past her usual lunchtime. However, she was still a little scared that Arlys and Lynet would blame her for Cate's disappearance. Noticing her reluctance, Father Bede put a friendly arm around her shoulders and led her inside.

As she crossed the threshold, Aedre stumbled. Compared to the brilliant sunlight outside, the interior of the kitchen was dark and cool. It took a few minutes for her eyes to adjust. Once she could see again, she found that Arlys and Lynet were seated together at the table, holding hands, while Cearo bustled around in the background, scolding them the whole time.

Aedre was tempted to laugh again. They looked so much like guilty children, shamefaced and expecting punishment, but determined to stick together, no matter what. Father Bede did laugh.

"Come now, Cearo. I am sure Lynet and Arlys have every intention of going on with their lives until such time as Cate and the boys return. We can make an exception for today, and it won't hurt any of us to drink water and eat yesterday's bread, any more than it hurts the hearth to spend a day without being swept."

Father Bede's voice was kindly and humourous, but Aedre could see his attempts to be consoling were only making Lynet feel worse. Cate's mother was usually so houseproud, her silence under these circumstances only showed the depth of her grief over her daughter's disappearance. Aedre went over and sat down opposite the downcast couple.

"I know I'm not Cate," she said, "and I can't tell you when she'll be back, or whether she will succeed. What I can tell you is that she needed to do this, and that there is nothing any of us could have done to stop her. She did promise me to come back safely, and in return, she asked me to promise to look after you." Arlys raised his head and studied her.

"You're a good child, Aedre, and I appreciate your trying to comfort us, but we'll be all right. I'm sure your mother must need you more than we do."

"Nonsense!" The word was spoken so sharply that everyone except the speaker jumped in their seat. "Poppycock! The girl offers you the help you need, and you're going to sit there and refuse her under some delusion of nobility?" Cearo cuffed Arlys across the back of his head, as though he were a little boy, rather than a man twice her size. "Fool! Keep your mouth shut if you haven't got anything sensible to say."

Arlys grinned ruefully and rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head. Lynet hadn't moved. She stared fixedly at the table in front of her, lost in her own thoughts. Father Bede tried to interest her in the proceedings.

"Lynet? What do you say? I have spoken to Aedre's parents and they are happy for her to live with you for a while, if that suits you."

"Whatever you think is best," she said listlessly, "if that's what Aedre wants."

"Oh yes," Aedre enthused. "Do let me stay with you. I promise I won't be any bother, and it will be wonderful to have some space for myself for a change." In addition to her two older brothers, Aedre also had a throng of younger siblings. Ever since she'd been able to walk herself, she'd been responsible for her little brothers and sisters. Their house was always crowded and noisy, so by comparison, Cate's house was a haven of peace and quiet.

"Won't you be bored?" Arlys asked. "It won't be very entertaining for you here."

"Of course not," Aedre exclaimed. "You don't need to entertain me! I'll have Cate's wren for company, and if I ever start to feel homesick, well... my parents are only a short walk away. Please, please let me stay with you, at least for a little while?"

Arlys looked at Lynet, who shrugged. Father Bede smiled at them encouragingly, while Cearo looked like she was preparing to hit Arlys again if he dared to ignore her advice.

"Good, that's settled then." Father Bede sounded immensely pleased. Cearo clipped him behind the ear instead!

"Stop acting like the cat who got the cream, you old fraud. You didn't arrange any of this. If anyone did, it was Cate. She saw something that needed doing, and she set off to do it. All we can do to help her is to make sure she has something to come back to." Cearo was a tiny, shrunken looking old woman, but when she turned her glare on Arlys and Lynet, she seemed to tower far above them. "As for you two, where's your faith?" The question was snapped out as though Cearo were indeed talking to a pair of naughty children.

Arlys and Lynet exchanged a bemused look. Cearo intercepted it. "Stop pretending you don't know what I'm talking about. Sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves. Wanting to know why you're being punished. Ridiculous. As if the spirits or god, or whoever you choose to believe in has nothing better to do than come up with ways to make you miserable! As if you were that important." She snorted derisively. "There are thousands of possible explanations that don't put you at the center of the universe. So your boys were turned into ravens. You didn't lose them entirely, did you? They still keep in touch, don't they? Count yourselves lucky. Many parents have greater problems than yours. You should be thankful. As for your daughter, she sees you moping around year after year and then she finds out why. You raised her to be caring and responsible, and then you expect her not to try and fix the situation? To just sit on her hands and leave her brothers to their fate, when she believes she is the reason neither of you have done anything about it yourselves? And when she shows herself to be brave and loyal beyond your expectations, what do you do? You give up on her! You act like she has failed before she even gets started. You want search parties sent out to drag her home again. What's the point in that? To destroy her confidence in herself? You think she wouldn't try again, and again if necessary? Are you going to keep her tied up for the rest of her life? And if you can't find her and stop her, what then? You're just going to give up on living? To mope around the house until you die of disappointment? Didn't it ever occur to you that she might succeed? What will she come home to if she does? Imagine she turns up in a year, or two years from now, because it's obvious she's not going to find them overnight. So she walks in that door in a few years time, with all her brothers trailing behind her. What will she find? The house cold and empty and two new graves under the old oak? Or will you be waiting to welcome her with open arms, regardless of whether she succeeds or fails?"

Lynet could hold her tongue no longer. "But Cate's so young!" she wailed.

Cearo's expression softened. "Of course she's young. Anyone older would have too much good sense to even make the attempt! I'm not saying it won't be hard for her. She'll face many difficulties and many dangers, but, really, you should have more faith in her and in the values she has learned from you. Even if the worst happens, and she never returns, you should be proud of her for trying and you should do your best not to waste her sacrifice. She has done her best to provide for you during her absence, hasn't she? Aedre's a good girl and eager to help. You should be thanking the spirits that you don't have to be alone during this time of waiting. After all, you have by far the easiest task. All you have to do is go on with your lives like normal. Surely that's not too much for your daughter to ask, when she is prepared to go to the end of the world and back to rescue your sons?" Cearo ceased talking and glared at them each in turn, hands on her hips and neck stretched like an angry bantam hen. When she got to Father Bede, she winked, so unexpectedly that Aedre thought she must have imagined it. "Well, old man, you've been very quiet. Have you got anything else to add?"

Father Bede smiled gently. "Why no, Cearo. You've been very eloquent. I couldn't have expressed myself better. I don't pretend to understand what happened to the boys, or why, but I'm sure we can all agree that Cate's decision made perfect sense to her, and since we can't change it, all we can do to support her is to keep our spirits up and pray for her safety. I have reason to believe she will not be alone on her quest. At the very least, her guardian angel is watching over her. We must trust in God to protect her where we can't, and we must look after each other as she has asked us to. I think we can manage that, don't you?"

Aedre found that she was nodding in agreement, and that Arlys and Lynet were doing the same.

"Finally!" Father Bede breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm glad that's over. Now, as our first step on the road back to normality, do you think one of you could manage to rustle us up something to eat? I don't know about Cearo, but I'm pretty sure there'll be a crowd of parishioners waiting to talk to me about all their problems when I get back to the church, and I don't think well on an empty stomach."

He beamed at Lynet, who came out of her trance like a wet puppy, giving herself a vigorous shake.

"Of course, Father," she said, heading for the pantry. Within moments a spread of cold meat, cheese and preserves was laid out on the table. "Help yourselves!" Personally, she didn't think she would be able to eat a bite without feeling sick, but Aedre began entertaining them all with the story of the wren and the worm, and before she knew it, Lynet found that Arlys had loaded her plate with food, and that she was hungrily consuming it.

Once Father Bede and Cearo left, the rest of the day was spent fetching Aedre's belongings and moving her into Cate's bedroom. There was also the day's housework to catch up on, for, having started, Lynet could not stop until everything was sparkling. By the evening, all three of them were emotionally and physically exhausted. They ate a good dinner, feeling that having agreed to look after themselves for Cate's sake, they should do a proper job of it, and then fell into gratefully into bed, each praying in their own way that Cate, too, had a full stomach and somewhere warm to sleep.

Arlys and Lynet woke late, pulled reluctantly from sleep by the song of Cate's wren. All night they had tossed and turned with nightmares, alternately soothing and consoling each other, until finally, at dawn, they had collapsed into a deep sleep. It was still early when the wren woke them, though well past the time when they would normally be up and about.

"We'll have to do better than this," Arlys joked. "Imagine if Cate came home and found us sound asleep at midday. She'd turn around and leave again, thinking she'd come to the wrong house!"

Lynet laughed half-heartedly, appreciating his attempt to cheer her, but still locked in the memory of her disturbing dreams. Suddenly, she raised her head and sniffed the air. "What's that smell?" she asked.

Arlys sniffed too, rubbing his tummy appreciatively. "Smells like fresh bread to me," he said. "Don't tell me Aedre's made breakfast for us! Maybe this is a better swap than we realised!"

Lynet threw a pillow at him, hurriedly dressing and looping her hair into a tidy knot. "I'm not sure I like the idea of her making herself so at home in my kitchen," she grumbled.

Arlys aimed the pillow carefully and tossed it at the critical moment, mussing her hair. "Ri-ight," he agreed cynically. "For years I've listened to you complaining that none of your children ever took an interest in cooking, and now you've got a surrogate daughter who is not only interested but keen and" he sniffed again, "talented too, unless my nose is playing tricks on me. If you know what's good for you, you won't go storming out there and discourage her. You'll count your blessings and take full advantage of it. Right?" He looked at her seriously, despite his joking tone.

Lynet paused, meeting the reflection of his eyes in the mirror. He looked so handsome, standing there with his shirt unbuttoned and a pair of socks in his hand. She stopped trying to tidy her hair and let it fall about her shoulders, turning to fling her arms around him. "Oh darling, I'm sorry. I won't be mean to her, I promise. It's just..."

"I know." He returned her embrace, kissing her fondly on the forehead. "It's going to be hard for us both to get used to, but we don't really have a choice, do we?" Lynet shook her head against his chest. "Right. So. Smile wench, and let's go see what sort of mess Aedre's made of your kitchen!"

Lynet laughed as she pushed herself away from him. "Just you be careful," she warned. "You keep teasing me like that and I'll send you off to room with Bearn and Gifre! See how you like that!"

Arlys gave a mock shiver and fell to his knees before her. "No, Mumma, not that! Anything but that!" he pleaded. "I'll be good, I promise!"

Lynet patted him on the top of his head. "Good boy. Now put your socks on and make yourself decent, while I go and find out what's happening out there!"

"Yes Ma'am."

Lynet closed the door quietly behind herself, a huge smile spread over her face. The kitchen was clean and tidy, but Aedre was nowhere to be seen. A fresh loaf of bread and a jug of frothy milk waited on the well-scrubbed table. A small fire was just beginning to die down. Lynet went to the door and looked out. Aedre was coming through the front gate. As soon as she saw Lynet, she ran over to give her a hug.

"Good morning," she sang cheerfully. "I hope I didn't wake you. I always bake bread for my mother first thing in the morning and it's kind of hard to get out of the habit. I made two loaves and took one down to her. Father says I should refill your flour bin for free, from his store, as a thank you for looking after me." Lynet started to object, but Aedre prevented her. "It's no use arguing with Father once he's made up his mind. If you refuse, you'll just hurt his feelings and he'll sulk for days. Besides, he's hoping you'll teach me to make those delicious oat-cakes of yours. All I know how to do is bread, so he and mother think this is a brilliant chance for me to learn more. Mother never has the time anymore."

Lynet nodded, remembering how busy she had once been, with seven young sons to look after. Aedre's mother was several years older than she was. How would she, Lynet, cope with a house full of infants and toddlers now? She shuddered at the thought. After Cate, Meghan had told her she wouldn't be able to fall pregnant again, and when she considered the situation of Aedre's mother, Lynet was grateful.

As if reading her mind, Aedre said, "Mother gave me a message for you. She said Meghan sends her love." Lynet smiled. The midwife was in constant demand, serving two counties now. She had not had time for social visits in many years, but she somehow managed to send a greeting now and then. Aedre continued, "Mother told her about Cate, and Meghan promised to keep her ear to the ground and let you know if she hears anything."

"That's good to know!" Lynet looked around the yard. A storm was brewing in the distance, and the sunlight on the trees looked strangely threatening. The sight filled her with dread as she wondered whether Cate would be out in the bad weather, but with a conscious effort and a tiny prayer, she pushed the feeling down to join the hard knot at the bottom of her stomach. "Come on, then. Let's go inside and try this bread of yours before Arlys eats it all."

Aedre smiled up at her, and together they went into the house, closing the door behind them.

In the empty yard, the first gusts of the storm whipped a pile of dried leaves into the air and sent them whirling up the path to the forest.

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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