In the wild waste, a girl, growing. A girl at home in the wild, in the leafless thicket of thin grey saplings with moss growing green on one side. In this thicket, the moss side does not face north but curves in a circle with its back to the world, and, at its centre, where the branches grow most tangled and forbidding, is a hill. In the face of that hill, always hidden from the world, is the dark mouth of the cave where the girl lives with her mother.
As far as the girl can tell, none on two legs but herself and her mother has ever trod here. Her mother will creep from the cave only as far as the gardens at the edge of the thicket, and then only in summer when the leaves are cloak enough to hide the sun-burnished bronze of her heavy-waved hair, when the hard enamel blue of her eyes might be forget-me-nots; but the girl is at home in all the wild. She roams the whole of Ystrad Tywi, the valley of the Tywi who fled Dyfed in the Long Ago. In this valley, where there is a tree she will climb it; it will shelter her, and the birds that nest there in spring will sing to her, warning of any two-legged approach. In May, as the tree blossoms fall and herbs in the understorey flower, she will know by the scent of each how it might taste with what meat, whether it might heal, who it could kill. From its nectar she will know which moths will come to drink, know too of the bats that catch the moths, and what nooks they return to where they hang wrapped in their leather shrouds as the summer sun climbs high, high enough to shine even into the centre of the thicket. Before harvest, when the bee hum spreads drowsy and heavy as honey, she tastes in their busy drone a tale of the stream over which they skim, the falls down which the stream pours, the banks it winds past where reeds grow thick and the autumn bittern booms. And when the snow begins to fall once again, she catches a flake on her tongue and feels, lapping against her belly, the lake it was drawn from by summer sun, far away—a lake like a promise she will one day know. Then as the world folds down for winter, so too do the girl and her mother, listening to the crackle of flame and, beyond the leather door curtain, the soft hiss of snow settling over the hills and hollows like white felt.
* * *
IN THE CAVE is a great hanging bowl. “My cup,” her mother calls it, when she tells her stories. On warm days, bright precious days when her mother will venture outside under the sun—beckon a bird to her finger and sing with it its song—the cup is a gift to the laughing, blue-eyed Elen from her lover, the girl’s father with grey-green eyes like the sea. On these days, her mother calls the girl Dawnged: her blessing, her gift and favour. The girl likes this name, and these days when the bowl is just a bowl, and they work together in the garden while her mother tells tales of the Tuath Dé, the sidhe gods who came to Eiru-over-the sea with four great treasures, one each from the four islands of the Overland that drowned. The Tuath are forever squabbling over the treasures.
“There is the Dagda, with his midnight steed. His treasure was the greatest of all, the golden cup—No, not so deep with the beans, Dawnged.” And the girl would push the next bean less far down into its long, heaped line of dirt. “Now, this cup— Do you remember the cup, little gift?”
And the girl would say, “Yes!” and tell of how the Morrigan, whose steed was grey, had stolen it from the Dagda for herself, and how her lover, Manandán, son of the sea and raiser of mists, had stolen it from her in turn. And she would ask, “What else is the Morrigan called?” Or, “What other name has the Dagda?” But her mother would just hug her, tell her never to steal, for stealing wore away one’s soul, then laugh and ruffle her hair and kiss her eyes—“So like them both”—and they would promise each other they would stay together in the cave, always.
On these fine days when her mother was herself, the girl heard tales, too, of Lugh of the shining spear, and Elatha, keeper of the stone. She heard of Núada the king, who held the sword of light—until Bres, Elatha’s son, took it, and Núada must be content with a silver arm. And Bres, Núada, and Lugh each had only one name.
But the stories changed with the weather. On dark autumn days, when the wind moaned and stripped the last forlorn leaves from the trees, when it fretted and worried at their peace, thrusting its tongue deep into their warm cave—trying to lick them out as the girl had seen a badger lick out ants from a tree—on those days her mother grew gaunt and strange. The child would wake in the night to her mother’s dream cries—a man coming to steal her, steal her child, steal her payment—and her mother would not eat, only hunch over the bowl and scry, and follow the girl about with haunted eyes. She would shout at the girl and rant, confusing her, confusing the tales, for now Elen herself was in them. In these tales the cup was not a gift; it was thrice-stolen, it was payment. In these tales Manandán was a cruel trickster who came with his cup to Dyfed, following the raiding men of Eiru, and found Elen, Elen whose magics were fragile and human against the might of the Tuath Dé, and there he took her by force and kept her prisoner, his willing—no, not willing, compelled to be willing—slave, until the day she fled, taking the golden cup as payment. She fled, and hid herself inside the cave of stolen trophies: the cup she stole from its first thief; herself who was stolen, and stole herself back; and the gift she stole that he knows nothing of.
On these days, Elen calls the girl Tâl, her payment. “Because I am owed, Tâl, I am owed. He owes me, yes, for possessing my soul and my mind; and the other owes me, too, because he knew. Oh, he knew what Manandán would do. But they will never find us, no. We will stay hidden, we will stay safe, and they will never know your true name.”
She will never say what the girl’s true name is, or who the other was, and the stories are never the same. And always the cave is hidden.
* * *
THE BOWL IS not gold, it is not silver, nor even beaten bronze; it is enamel on black iron that never dulls and never dents, though sometimes the iron shimmers with light reflected from elsewhere. Even direct from the hearth it will not burn the hand that holds it, and any who drink from it are healed. Or so Elen tells the girl. The girl herself cannot tell because she drinks and eats from the bowl every day, but every day she grows tall and taller, strong and stronger; her hair with the same heavy wave as her mother’s but paler, brass where her mother’s is bronze, her eyes sea grey with a hint of green. With her fingers she traces the bowl’s wondrous twining beasts of inlaid bronze, their raised wings and bright glass eyes; she touches the cold, enamelled escutcheons where great hooks hold the bowl when it hangs, and pushes with her palm the four small iron stumps on the base on which it stands by the hearth; she smooths the sharp etched points of the mounted knights’ spears, the clean lines of the swords they wield in endless battle.
The girl grows fleet. She runs with the deer. She learns to hunt with Cath Linx of the tufted ears, bathing in the joy of the stalk and the savage leap. She hunts, too, with traps, with sling and stone, and with her one knife, honed to a bright shard; she no longer weeps when she takes the fawn or the hare, for she and her mother must eat; though, more than once, she has left the leveret in its scrape, and wished the sloe-eyed hare the best for her young. As she grows and her legs stretch, she roams farther; she ranges a mile, a league, three leagues, ten. It is wild land, long abandoned to the wet and the cold and, since the Redcrests left, claimed by no king, though once it was, and one day would be again. She climbs an elm whose new leaves taste like sorrel, an elm with no name but Elm. Sometimes Elm rocks her gently to sleep in the late spring breeze, or whispers to her of how it is to grow from a sapling, to draw water from deep in the earth, to feel the world turn season after season, and once Elm shows her the sparrowhawk that waits with marigold eyes for the mistle thrush to leave the safety of its nest. She follows a rivulet to a small, hidden pond where a duck has laid her eggs, and this pond she keeps hidden from the foxes and from Cath Linx, and visits sometimes to delight with the ducklings as they splash for the first time, shake their wings out, get lost and are called back safe to their mother, the duck that has no name but Duck.
And when she, too, goes back to her mother, cheeks blooming fresh with wild roaming, her mother weeps and begs her to stay close, stay safe—for the girl is hers, her gift, her treasure, her payment, all she has—but the girl feels her growing strength; she must run, she must climb, she must test her power.
On one far roam she follows a twining wisp of blue-grey smoke south, down the valley where it begins to widen, and comes to a new steading, built by the ruin of one abandoned in the Long Ago to the wet and the cold. But the land now is drying and warming, and folk are creeping back: real people, not from stories. Hidden in a copse of hazel, she watches and listens as the folk move about the new-built roundhouse with the blue smoke seeping from the pointed roof. They speak a language like hers, but not quite: blunter and rough-hewn, blurred by time. They have names, each different, one that is theirs alone. A name, she thinks, is what makes a person who they are. A name is how they know themself.
These folk are not like her and not like her mother; some are differently shaped, their voices rough and deep as a lowing cow. She stalks two as they walk beyond their thorn hedge to a stand of alders by the stream near their house. They are noisy; their untidy feet snap twigs and kick stones without heed for what might hear. They talk but the things they speak of—fleece and shearing and wives—mean nothing to her. One is bigger than the other, older, but both have reddish gold hair on their faces, wispy as a billy goat’s beard. Their skin is like tanned leather and they do not smell like her and her mother—who in winter smell of woodsmoke and deep furs, grease and ash, and in summer of the herbs they crush in the pool to bathe, and the pale yellow wine they make in the month of honey. These people smell of sweat and iron and sheepskin.
Copyright © 2022 by Nicola Griffith
Interior art copyright © 2022 by Rovina Cai