You deal with him.
That was the first and last communication my mother ever had with my father about me. My father was more surprised than angry when my mother’s emissary rode through the dun gates with a sullen brat on a pony behind him and an expression of pained endurance on his face. The man had ridden three days with me and I’d made sure they were the longest three days of his life. He was so glad to see the back of me, he didn’t even take bed and board from Griogair for the night; he stayed for one meal and a very stiff drink, then turned right round and rode back the way he came. I hope Lilith made it worth his while.
Even later my father was never angry about it. He wasn’t involved enough for that; at most he was mildly irritated. Deep down I’m sure he wasn’t convinced of my existence, that he thought I was just one more of Lilith’s illusions.
My stepmother believed in me, all right. I used to feel Leonora’s cold blue gaze like frost on my skin, and if I looked up, she wouldn’t look away. She was the only one who didn’t. The rest of the clann averted their eyes, as if I was a colossal embarrassment. Well, that’s what I was, so as soon as it became clear Griogair wasn’t going to embrace me as his long-lost heir, they adopted the policy of pretending I didn’t exist. The small band of children took more of an interest, the older ones freezing me out or taunting me at best, and giving me thrashings at worst. The younger ones ran from me: I made sure they did.
But my stepmother didn’t bully me or fear me or ignore me. She watched me. I thought it quite likely she’d eventually kill me, but I never could read Leonora’s eyes, let alone her mind. It wasn’t that she felt threatened by me; she wasn’t threatened by anyone. I’d watched her and my father together and I’m sure he never smiled at my mother like that, or touched her so gently, or spoke so tenderly. Certainly he never treated me that way. If he caught sight of me his brow would furrow and he’d set his teeth and look exasperated, as if I was a reminder of some great mistake, a souvenir he couldn’t get rid of. Leonora? All I could ever make out in her was pity and a degree of contempt, and I hated her for it. I’d have liked to hate my father too, but I couldn’t. All I ever wanted was his love, or if I couldn’t have that, his notice would do.
I never had a chance.
But my mother sent me back to him anyway. She was living at court by then, an adviser to the queen: oh, her exile had brought her up in the world. From being Griogair Dubh’s afterthought lover, she’d risen to be one of the most powerful courtiers in Kate NicNiven’s halls. What she didn’t need was a truculent attention-seeking toe-rag who was always getting into trouble, calling the captains names and the courtiers worse ones, getting thrashed on a regular basis and generally being an embarrassment. So she sent me back to Griogair.
I liked it better with my father anyway. The women of our race don’t do motherhood well, it’s a known fact, so I didn’t really miss Lilith, not after a while. Sithe women make wonderful fighters, wise and wily counsellors. If they’re healers or smiths they do it well; when they’re witches they excel at witchcraft. What they do not excel at is motherhood. It’s not something that happens easily, we’re not a fertile race; maybe that’s where those ridiculous stories come from, the ones about us being baby-stealers. Let me tell you, our women can barely tolerate their own brats, let alone someone else’s. Our women don’t yearn for children, because what’s the point mourning for centuries over something that may never happen? Instead they harden themselves, and even if they do breed they never quite shake off that hardness. Anyway, some of them don’t even take lovers, the loss of their virginity is so physically painful. Must be, to stay loverless for centuries.
Well, my mother must have got over that problem. She had plenty of lovers, though what she wanted more than anything was to be Griogair’s bound lover and that was something she’d never get for all her wiles, because he’d bound himself to Leonora decades before Lilith came along. When it became clear I wasn’t going to advance her cause in any way, Lilith lost interest in me altogether.
Which was fine by me. Being sent away from Kate NicNiven’s labyrinthine caverns was like breathing for the first time, and there was no-one I missed from her pale and haughty court. There had been even fewer children underground than there were above it, but anyway, I needed neither friends nor mother. At my father’s dun I was content to skulk in the shadows and watch; that way I could see how the fighters trained, how the children scrapped and competed, how the strange and complex hierarchies of dun life operated. There were daredevil games on horseback that I might have liked to join, and when the wild racing music played on moonlit nights I used to half-wish I could throw myself into the dance with the rest of them. But it was fine, I was fed and clothed and relatively safe, and I was learning a lot—not that anybody made me study, or even tried to make me work the fields or learn a practical skill. My education was self-inflicted and unconventional, but I knew that the lessons would come in useful for the rest of my life. The most useful of them was the one I learned first: I was responsible for myself. In life and death you’re on your own, and I knew that better than any of my peers.
It seems stupid now that I looked forward so much to living with my father. I must have had some childish romantic picture in my head, me and him doing father-son things together, fighting and hunting and laughing and confiding.
But it turned out he already had a son, a perfect one, so he didn’t need another.
Copyright © 2010 by Gillian Philip