Every candle was lit in Eithne’s room when she woke – not only the two she kept ordinarily, but also the candelabrum from the hallway, which was now sitting atop the chest.
At first the strangeness of those familiar candles in an unaccustomed place troubled her more than the presence of a man in her room calmly rearranging its furnishings. This was perhaps because he moved with such self-assurance that he, at least, seemed to find his presence there less remarkable than the candelabrum’s.
He lifted a pile of blankets from the chair in the far corner and turned to carry them across the room. Then she saw his face.
“Cormac!” she gasped.
He dropped the blankets against the opposite wall and sighed. “Good evening, Eithne.”
“But… it’s dead you are!” she whimpered.
So she had been told. Cormac son of Crinan had been found dead in his bed three days before Diarmait’s wedding, his throat slit from ear to ear.
He had come to her twice, and on the third night he had not come. In the morning she had learned why. She had been terrified to think that the men of her family had avenged her honor, but no one treated Eithne herself at all differently, least of all her father.
As she had grown more confident that he had not been murdered on her account, she had begun to feel relieved that he would never come again. Two days after his murder, she learned she need never have invited him at all.
But now he was here.
He pulled a chair up into the center of the floor and leaned his weight on its back.
“Have a seat.”
His throat was bloodless and even unscarred. Nevertheless Eithne crossed herself and began whispering a prayer.
He pushed back his hair in a gesture of impatience and crossed the room to retrieve the other chair, now free of the blankets that had been encumbering it. Eithne scrambled out of bed while his back was turned.
“So,” he said as he dropped the other chair in front of the chest, far from the first. “Let us begin. I am not dead, as you may see by virtue of the fact that I am here. Cormac son of Crinan is not dead, because he never existed in the first place. And the gentleman who visited you in your bed is not dead, either, but I think you will never see him again.”
“Who… are you, then?” she asked.
He returned to the first chair and pulled it back for her.
“Be seating yourself, Eithne. Do not be afraid. I shall not touch you if you’re not desiring it. I only wish to talk with you. And do not bother calling for your father. It’s sound asleep he is, and the trump of doom would not be loud enough to wake him before the dawning.”
He had the very look of Cormac, to the smallest freckle, as even an identical twin of Cormac would not. The only difference was the sinister black tattoo that sprawled over the left half of his face. Perhaps, she thought, this was a feature of the walking dead, that men might know them.
“Come, Eithne,” he sighed. “I shall not hurt you. I shall not touch you unbidden. I give you my word. It’s this chair you’ll be taking, and I the other, and if you can spit on me from that distance, I shall be impressed. Even with the wind at your back.” He winked.
Her body moved jerkily with fear, but she bid it totter over to the chair and collapse onto it.
“Who are you?” she asked softly. She would have asked him what he was, but she was too afraid to hear the answer.
“It is a pity you put so much faith in outward appearances, my dear,” he said as he crossed over to the other chair. “Otherwise you might have recognized me. I too visited you in your bed once. Do you remember?”
She choked, seized by a sudden terror. After a breathless moment she endeavored to wriggle her fingers and found, to her relief, that she could.
“I shall not hurt you, Eithne,” he said gravely. “I would not have hurt you then if I had not been interrupted.”
“Are you – one of the Sidhe?” she whimpered. “Good sir?”
He smiled indulgently at her. “No, ‘dear lady’. But I believe you are.”
She opened her mouth, but only a kittenlike squeak came forth.
“I know, I know,” he chuckled. “You are supposed to be black and ugly and evil… which, I must admit, offends me a little, as I shall admit only to being black.”
He haughtily examined the fingernails of one hand, but when he peeked up at her he was slyly smiling.
“However, dear Eithne, you will admit that, while not black, it’s dark of skin you are, and the noses of your kin each vie with the others for the name of ugliest. As for evil…” he shrugged. “I don’t believe it.”
“It’s a fairy I am?” she asked weakly.
“So we might say. And, as for my own self, I am what you thought me when you saw my wings. I am an angel.”
“Don’t be looking so surprised, Eithne. It was your own idea. And as for… No, no,” he chuckled. “Ask me what you were about to ask me. It is quite charming.”
“I… I was about to ask you why you were so black and… if you’re an angel…”
“You didn’t say it this time,” he pouted. “‘Black and batty,’ you’re meaning.”
It was indeed what she had almost said, but she was afraid he would be insulted.
“Are you seeing into my thoughts, good sir?” she asked softly.
“No, my dear, and it is one of your many charms. But I was supposed to say, ‘And what color were all the other angels you’ve seen, Eithne?’” He paused to smile fondly at her. “And you were to say, ‘I’ve never seen another, good sir,’ and blush quite prettily. Ah, now I’ve spoiled it.”
He sat back and crossed his legs neatly in a rather un-Cormac-like gesture.
“You must forgive me if I seem impatient,” he sighed and laced his fingers behind his head. “We have had this conversation before, and I am trying to hurry through the beginning so we can reach the interesting part.”
“Several times, but you aren’t remembering. I shall make you forget this one, too, when I go. You see…” He dropped his foot to the floor and sat up again. “Are you remembering the woman who… interrupted us last time?”
“Aye, you are,” he interrupted. “That was Dana. Aye, that Dana,” he said before she could ask. “Dana of the Undermounds. Dana of the Swan Star. The mother of your race. She ‘saved you’ from me, but she did not save you from the other angel who came to you. And who had no more right to be there than I,” he added peevishly.
“Another angel?” she whimpered. This was the bit of information that overwhelmed her, and gouts of tears suddenly spilled forth from her eyes.
“Whisht, whisht,” he soothed, though he made no move to come to her. “Aye, your ‘Cormac’ was an angel too, though no brother of mine. A lot of rascals, they,” he muttered. “I shudder to think of it, Eithne, and I am deeply sorry I was not able to prevent it. That creature saw you only through the veil of his lust, and yet Dana let him come to you. Do you know why?”
She shook her head, loosening another wash of tears.
“Nor do I. However, I believe it is because you invited him and you did not invite me. And, my poor girl… you needn’t have, need you?” he said mournfully. “You know that now.”
She wiped her face on the sleeve of her nightgown and nodded.
“Ach! If only you had trusted me!” he sighed. “Matters would already be well along.”
“Matters?” she mouthed. But she remembered why he had come the first time. He had said he would make her a mother.
“Aye, you know what I’m meaning,” he smiled dreamily. “It’s another moon we must be waiting. But so much of it has gone by. It does not seem so very long when I think I must be seducing you by the time she is next dark. And it’s on the wane she is even tonight.”
“Seduce – ” She choked and sobbed.
“Whisht, whisht, Eithne! The entire purpose of a seduction is that it be agreeable to you. That is why I am here: to learn how best to seduce you. Let us be beginning. It’s a peculiar girl you are, you know. You liked neither gifts of jewelry nor gifts of flowers. You weren’t tempted by promises of silver or castles or power. You don’t – ”
“Perhaps I simply don’t like you!” she cried.
He smiled. “Tell me how I may please you, and I shall indulge you if I can.”
“Go away and leave me alone forever! It is the only way!”
He shook his head. “Don’t be wasting time, my dear. I want you to get enough sleep tonight.”
Eithne hung her head and looked up at him blearily through the veil of her heavy hair. Her brief flare of defiance had already gone out.
“Now, I had a new idea tonight,” he said. “Do you like cats? Kittens? Do you like to cuddle little… furry things? Ah… cute, and so forth?”
Eithne had been caressing the back of one of her hands with the other, in a pitiful attempt to comfort herself, but she stopped even this now.
“It seems to me that young ladies like cats,” he said almost to himself, tapping his lip thoughtfully with a finger. “I believe I shall bring you a cat next time.”
“Next time” seemed impossibly vague to her – particularly since she did not expect to remember this time. What did it matter what happened then or now? What she was living was less real than a dream and more horrifying than a nightmare. It were better to be raped by elves than to be loved by black angels with batty wings.
In spite of the impassivity of her despair, however, the idea of a cat slowly arose in her mind. She had often wondered whether some insult to a cat had caused that evil fairy to visit her in her bed… but of course, now he was saying that she was the fairy…
“Are not cats the friends of the Sidhe?” she asked dazedly.
He folded his hands over his knee and tilted his head. “Do you find them to be?”
“I… don’t… know…”
She only knew that one must take care not to offend cats, for some of them were in league with the Sidhe and would be avenged by their fairy friends. Some cats, it was said, even had magic of their own. But if she was a fairy…
“Do I have magic?” she asked.
“Ah!” He leaned forward. “It’s the first time you’re asking me that.”
She sat back in her chair, dismayed to think she had said something that seemed to please him.
“I believe you do, though it might be locked away from you. Would you like to learn?”
Eithne dared not reply. Nevertheless she thought she would like to know – if only because it might prove or disprove his claim.
“Let me teach you,” he said softly. “If you have magic, I can teach you to use it.”
“How?” she asked warily.
“We shall start with something simple.”
He stood and glanced over his shoulder at the candle by her bed. It winked out at once.
“You shall light it again,” he announced.
“How?” she repeated.
“I must be touching you.” He held up his hands as if to show how harmless they appeared. In fact they appeared sure and strong. “If you will allow it. Not intimately,” he added. “And I shall stop if ever you ask it.”
She stood slowly, but she dared not advance. She stopped so close to the chair that she could feel the edge of its seat with the backs of her legs.
He held his arms out nearly at his sides. “Come and stand between my hands,” he said.
She saw she would have to press her body against his to do so, and she did not move.
“Turn around and come stand between my hands,” he said with an almost paternal gentleness. “Your back to my breast.” He patted his chest. “I must make you feel the patterns of magic inside of you. We must be aligning them with mine.”
He held out his arms, and suddenly her heart throbbed with a terror she could not explain – once, twice, thrice–
Then she remembered: her childhood fear of the water, and her father’s many attempts to coax her into the tarn. She remembered his dripping, outstretched arms, and she remembered too what had seemed a searing cruelty at the time: how he would take a step away from her for every step she took towards him, making her feel that she would never reach him, she would only drown.
This angel or fairy or revenant would not trick her so. She leapt at him, startling him as she had hoped, and wrapped her arms tightly around his back. He might turn into a demon horse, like the Púca; he might take her for the ride of her life; but she would not let go.
“Eithne!” he gasped. He did not move his arms to touch her at first, but gradually he began to chuckle softly, and he brought his hands up into her hair. “You have certainly never done this before,” he murmured.
He did not transform himself into anything, and she began to feel that she had made a terrible mistake.
“Go away!” she sobbed and clung only more tightly to him.
“Now, my dear, only turn yourself around and we shall try the other way. Backwards we may be freezing the candle or burning the curtains.”
She could hear the gentle smile on his voice, but she could also feel his breath blowing cold through her hair onto her neck. She tried to flee it blindly, squirming and pressing her face against the warmth of his chest, mewling in horror.
“Come, Eithne,” he said hoarsely after a moment. “We have something to do here.”
He moved his hands down to her arms and pried them away from his body. It was easier to let him move her than to move herself. She soon found herself leaning back against his warmth, and he was gently supporting her elbows in his hands.
“Go away,” she whispered.
“It’s a young girl you are, Eithne,” he murmured. “Your father must have hung a swing from a branch or a rafter for you and your sisters, no?”
“So, you know how to swing. And you know when to kick your legs to go higher, don’t you? Somehow you’re knowing precisely the right moment?”
“Aye…” She relaxed slightly, remembering those carefree summer afternoons, when she had been a little maid and knew nothing of men or angels.
“I should like to see that,” he sighed. “With the hair of you flying…”
“I used to wear my hair in braids,” she squeaked.
He coughed politely into his hand and then adjusted the position of her arms. “So, what we shall do is similar. You will feel something going higher and higher, and at just the right moment, you must let it go. Do you understand?”
“Let us try, anyway,” he said dryly.
At once she felt something swelling inside of her, somewhere in front of her spine and at the level of her raised elbows, at a place where she had never felt anything at all.
She shuddered her shoulders reflexively to try to rid herself of it, but it was not in her muscles. She tipped her head back against his neck and moaned, but it was not in her lungs.
“The candle!” he whispered urgently.
Just as she thought she would burst – she did not. The tingling pressure simply sank away, like a sail collapsing in a calm, and she nearly crumpled over with it.
“Splendid!” he cried.
The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the candle flame.
“Ach!” she gasped. It was just what her father had described as one of the feats of her sister Catan’s elven husband. “Did I do that?” she asked.
“It was a lot of fuss you were making for such a tiny flame,” he chuckled. “But aye, you did.”
“Did I do that?” she asked warily. “Or did you do that?”
“You did that, dear Eithne, and I only guiding. Were you not feeling it?”
“You may try it again when I am gone, if you’re not believing me. I doubt you will manage much for now without the help of me, but do try not to burn your house down around your sisters’ heads.”
“But how shall I try it if I’m not remembering you came?”
He folded his arms and paced slowly to the door and back again.
“Very well,” he sighed. “I must allow you to remember. I fear I said too much earlier, but it is the first time you have touched me. Perhaps next time I may even win a smile.”
He smiled at her, but she refused to look at him.
“However,” he said seriously, “I hope I may then permit myself to come to you in another form. You have no idea how distressing it is to me to be forced to come as… him,” he frowned. “But it has proven to be the least distressing to you. Do you truly like such brutish men?” He stared dubiously at his own broad, callused palm.
“I… I liked the way of speaking of him,” she said softly.
He snorted. “It’s a Highland accent you’re favoring, is it? That I can provide, and proper grammar besides. But I shall find a more elegant guise. And cleaner!”
He lifted the edge of his coat to scowl down into his armpit. Eithne hurriedly rubbed her face to hide the beginnings of a smile.
“But I must be leaving you now, my dear,” he sighed. “It’s little sleep you’ll be getting tonight, I fear. I’ve already given you much to think on.”
Eithne’s heart sank. “Please, good sir… don’t come again,” she whimpered. “Leave me be. I don’t want to be loved by… anyone…”
“Peace be upon you, Eithne,” he said gravely as his entire body flared into light.
The light was blue-violet, but nevertheless the nearest thing her instincts knew was fire. Eithne shrieked and stumbled away.
The brief, cold fire vanished, leaving neither smoke nor ash nor any trace of him at all – except in Eithne’s mind.