Choose the darkest part o’ the grove,

Such as ghosts at noon-day love.

Dig a trench, and dig it nigh

Where the bones of Laius lie;

Altars raised of turf or stone,

Will th’ infernal powers have none.

Answer me, if this be done?

            ‘Tis done.

                        — John Dryden

            They tied him down.

            They chained him to the earth.

            “Until we know,” they say with grating voices.  “Until we are certain what must be done.”

            His head throbs where they struck him, to keep him quiet, they say, so the words won’t fire from his lips.

             And hurt them.

            His fingers graze the place.

            They come away sticky.

            He cannot see through the thick darkness pressing, pressing down all around him, but he knows that, if he could only free himself and fly again through the outside world, his fingertips would glitter black in the moonlight outside this cave where they have sealed him:  black like serpent’s eyes, if he should see them, his fingers and their jewels of blood.

            But it is dark where he is.

            “Not human,” the old wives, old cats, old crones whispered, “not, remember how the dogs turned, first on us, then on each other, and at his command, the bats and the other things of the dark? Monster,” they call him.  “Dark delirious thing.”

            He smiles for a moment and thinks, It is true; I would do that all again, and more if I could.

Then kill me, he whispers in the dark, as he screamed to them when they dragged him here, in the blinding drive of the rain, through the slime and the persistent chips of rock that lay deceptive in the mud.

            Kill me if you can!

            He is not one of them, and he is well aware of how much it galls them. They stripped him of the name his mother gave him at his birth, when, they whisper, stars, stinking and blackened, rained down from the heavens; they named him Ciaran because of the midnight of his hair, and because they say he can call the shadows and bring down night whenever he wills it, “And now,” they whisper, and quake when they do, “now he is only a boy; what will he do when he grows older?”

            No, he is not one of them, stamping through the mud or whispering around the fires, with their metalwork and their designs that he scorned until they arranged the stones as he ordered and marked them as he commanded them to, circles of stones stacked high, engraved with the secret sigils that only he knew because he heard the whispers, and they told him.  Power, say the whispers.

            The spark. Inside me. They know it is there, and they fear it.

            No, he is not one of them.

            “Changeling,” they snarl, afraid.

            There is thunder outside the cave now, walking and talking in the hills above their little settlement.

            They fear the rapid lightning and the thunder’s wrath; they try to tie it up in the knots of their cords; sometimes they succeed.

            His magic, though, is more potent.

            Must go, he thinks; I can go, and I will.

            I –

            He closes his eyes and –

            He is the thunder, rolling like a boulder through a ravine, looking down at the whole green world where the tribe has lived peacefully for twenty-some seasons, where they cower now from the more powerful and savage tribes who could fall upon them at any moment, killing or enslaving them. He is the thunder and he is the jag of lightning, showing in a flash the elders hunkered before the boulder that seals him within the cave, their faces lined and long with worry.

            He laughs at their faces, and the thunder is his laughter, and it echoes across the sky.

            Their fear is potent; he can smell it in his stinking darkness, rancid, like the fruit when it falls from the trees and lies to turn white with mold, uneaten where it has fallen. Sometimes they let it do that in their indolence. The stench of their fear becomes too much suddenly, too, too much; overwhelming him, and he moans, but it is good that they should be afraid of him, it is good.

            Seer, they called him once upon a time, when times were good, when peace felt natural and any threats from outside their little valley seemed dim and unimportant.  I don’t need bones, he often thinks with scorn, to know what is yet to come; only their idiot elders think the bones speak to them. “The bones say what you want them to say,” he tried to tell them, and, “We don’t need your prophecies,” they snarled back before they struck him on the head and he heard his skull splinter as wood does when they tear a branch from one the pear trees in the grove. His knowledge, as it always has, comes from the invisible lips of the spirits, the ghosts, the invisible (or near-invisible) wisps and currents that are like the air, but are not; that live, and watch, and see, and speak. That dance, breathe, sigh. He has always heard them, even before he was Ciaran. They whisper to him, and they whisper truth. He tried to tell the elders that outsiders would come to the valley soon, invading with spears and with fire; he cried out the knowledge that the invisible creatures who watch and know imparted to him, but the elders do not, have never wanted to leave the valley. A warlike tribe, cunning and cruel, the spirits whispered, psst, psst; they are coming, they are coming. But the elders had grown fat and lazy, like the rest of the tribe; “He speaks lies,” they told each other, “his words will panic and inflame. No one must know; we agree, yes? No one must know what the demon-thing has seen.”  They think I am dangerous, he thinks now, head throbbing, throbbing, cracked and bleeding; I will show them how dangerous I can be.

            They should be afraid, he thinks now, back in his body for a moment. He remembers the time he summoned the bees and commanded them, first to make honey for the good of the tribe, but then to attack the three older boys who thought it sporting to laugh and chase him and duck him in the river, and found themselves stung again and again and again by the white-hot needles, and the bees did not die after their first sting, but continued to attack until he bade them return to their work. And there was the time he called bats from their dark and secret places to soar as one in the sky overhead, and the women of the tribe shrieked with fear, and how he laughed; once he sent the wind to whipping the trees and shrieking its rage around them all, and oh, oh, how he’d laughed as they screamed and screamed, music, screams and screams and screams.

            But none of those games were the worst in his arsenal, of course; those tricks were not the worst.

            It makes him bitter now, and he turns restlessly; his head throbs and he is sick and dizzy; he opens his mouth and cries out.

            Can they hear him, out there beyond the stone they pushed before the opening of the cave? Thinks, They are; they must be, and closes his eyes. Thinking has grown difficult and painful. But he has to try to see.

            An Eye opens within him, a red and terrible orb that looks out and around.

            There they are, yes; silent suddenly, fearful and blinking. They can feel the Eye.


            I should call upon all the dark forces of nature, he thinks, aware of his petulance, and I could kill them all, tear them apart.

            But he can’t do that. He won’t.

            Because then Artair would die with them.

            And, foolish as it may seem, he still loves Artair.

            He burns for him still.

            Don’t think of Artair. Think of anyone else, anything; find the spark inside you and use it, use it, damn you, and go far away from this place and these foolish people who will destroy you as soon as they can figure out how.

            The spark.


            I will fly, he thinks now, summons the spark, burning in his gut and his loins, hum rising to his fingertips, golden heat from the sun and from the earth; he is rising, rising, or beginning to rise …

            But then he falls back and strikes the icy, slimy-slick floor of the cave.

            His head spins.

            He vomits a little but swallows it before it can spew from his mouth.

            I won’t roll in my own filth, he swears, though he has already pissed himself once.

            He is naked and the floor of the cave feels like icy snot.

            He cannot rise, he cannot fly, because they have chained him to the earth with metal bonds they forged themselves and marked with the sigils he gave them to guard them against evil spirits, oh how infuriating, and so now he is held by his own magic that has stopped his rising from the icy snotty-slick floor of the cave.

            He screams again and the thunder outside is his tongue and his teeth, their gnash and clash, and the burning in his throat and chest.

            “We must do it soon,” the old men and women whisper outside the cave, their faces the faces of bats and rats and dogs, “we must not hesitate; we must do it while we can.  Before his strength returns. And it will.”

            He wishes he could laugh, but the laughter burns like stomach acid in the back of his throat and twists instead into a sob. His face is wet; he is unaware that he has been crying.  It isn’t just the fear (though the fear is there, back inside him as if he’d eaten it whole, snatched it from the trees and stuffed it into his mouth), or the rage that makes him feel so helpless and weak; although both fear and the impotence of the rage swearing inside him chill and burn him in equal measures, it is the betrayal, he thinks, that hurts the worst.

             “Take him.” The words echoes again through the chambers of his mind: Artair’s face like glass, milky and transparent; Artair, their bravest warrior, the spear at his side and a single finger, once beloved, leveled at my own face, he thinks darkly, Artair leveled that finger at me because he told them that I am the dark one, the nighted boy with the black eyes. My mother called me Brandubh, little raven, because I was born with hair like soft, dark feathers, but they changed me into Ciaran, the bastards who adopted me, the idiots of the tribe, took me from my dying mother’s arm and branded me with that hated name, and my mother is dead and I do not know her anymore.  Even her spirit has gone far away. And the elders were afraid of me because they’d always been afraid, but they would have left me alone, even though my prophecies scared them so badly; they wouldn’t have done this to me if … if –

            “Take him,” said Artair. He thinks, I remember his mouth, and the strength in his hands and the way he took me that night in the circle of stones, the sacred circle of stones, under the moon in the night, and the stars blazed up and burned bright under the circle of stones; “I am married to the chieftain’s daughter,” Artair said, and yet, there he was, pressing into the soft of me, but then there was nothing soft and we made those sounds and we were hot and wet and everything blazed up and burned. Married, of course, not a surprise, no; the betrayal is the surprise:  “Take him. Destroy him.  He must be destroyed.

            “He must be burned.”

            Because Artair knows.

            How does he know?

            “Yes, burned,” Artair told the elders, “burned utterly, and the ashes scattered to the winds.”

            The fear burns brighter inside him than the spark at the thought of fire. They burn witches, he knows; they burn monsters, demons, when they find them.

            And then he knows. In a bright, blinding moment he understands it all.

           Maybe he loves me, maybe he doesn’t. But he knows what the chieftain would do to him if anyone ever found out about us, and our nights together among that ancient, powerful circle of stones. He knows exactly what would happen to him, and he feared that I would betray him. And so he took the first, evil step before I could.

           And why? Why would poor, dear Artair, best beloved, why would he do that? Who does he really love?

            Because of her, of course:  the chieftain’s daughter.  His bride. Small and delicate, eyes wide and wondering like the cows they shelter in the northern pastures of the valley, tiny hands, white, fingers like petals. Beloved by everyone in the tribe.

            And so, “Ciaran is not a seer,” Artair told the elders. “He is no mere prophet. He is a witch, he practices sorcery, the oldest and darkest magic. He must be burned.”

            The thought of fire fills him with a white-hot terror that is so sudden and unexpected that he lunges against the chains and screams again, but the power won’t come. His head is splintered; the fire will consume him, end him, plunge him into darkness from which he can never return.

            “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

            He stiffens, eyes wide, mouth gaping, pain in his head red and screaming suddenly, and fear is spitting and hopping inside him because he cannot tell if the voice is inside his head or outside or both. The voices he hears is gray, its tones low and even, but empty somehow, or maybe it is desolate, or greedy; it does not echo as it ought to inside the cave, with its jagged walls and low, dripping ceilings.

            “They can’t hear me. Only you can hear me.

            “Only you, Brandubh.”

            He relaxes by inches. It is only a spirit, then.  Usually they speak in whispers, half-words, riddles, or in dreams. They never seem to possess the strength to do more than that.

            This isn’t a spirit, then.

            He can feel its strength like waves of heat rippling out at him.

            When he looks in the corner of the cave he knows he is right because a pair of red eyes glares ferociously there in the darkness, glittering with no light to make them glitter.

            He doesn’t speak out loud.  He doesn’t have to.

            He closes his eyes to make those red ones disappear.

            What do you want?  He whispers inside his own mind; a test.

            “To serve you.”  Hissing, an immediate reply. Clearer now.  “I have been watching you.”

            Why me?

            The trill of laughter sounds like water running over stones in the brook, but he can hear madness in that laughter; it rises up like the screaming of blackbirds as they wheel across the sky.

            As I have commanded them to wheel and to shriek.

            For a moment there is only the sound of water dripping somewhere in the unseen depths of the cave. He begins to relax again. I imagined it, he thinks, and a smile touches the corners of his lips that Artair once caressed with his own; I am dying, perhaps, and they won’t have to burn me; dying, and imagining voices that sound grey and vicious and lonely.


            “I could help you.”

            His head throbs; his stomach twists, and he moans aloud. The metal against his wrists sears him, and he smells the black stink of the hair and flesh on his arms as it burns. The chains.

            “I can’t touch them,” says the voice. “I can touch nothing.  Not even the trees to make the winds blow as you can do for yourself.  I’ve watched you do it.”

            Then what good are you?  Tired.  There is no time to bandy with a worthless and irritating spirit.

            It isn’t a spirit, he remembers, it is a demon. Or just a voice. Maybe not even real, whatever that stupid and useless word means.

            “No, Brandubh. I cannot move or touch. But I can help you.”

            How?  Weary.  So weary.  Let me die, he thinks, just let me die.

            “And I could love you.”

            His eyes and mouth open at that; he blinks, gaping, surprised.

            “Yes, yes.” Eagerness in the demon’s voice, giving tone to the tonelessness it evinced before. “You make me real when you hear me, you could see me someday, and I could love you.  I will not betray you, as others have done.  You make me real.  Love, love you, I could, I could love you I could.  You think of me, hear me, and I am real.”

            Of course.  Spirits are jealous of humanity, some of them, and attach themselves to powerful humans, witches, sorcerers, mages, and they attempt to gather enough power themselves to do little things, nuisances, normally, the ones who speak and who can be heard by mortal ears.

            But sometimes they can be commanded, these spirits. These demons.

            You are not real.

            “I am real enough.”

            You are useless.  Have you a name?

            “No name.  I live in the dark.  Like you.”

            Not like me.

            “Of course you do, Ciaran, little Brandubh.  Little bird.  I can read your thoughts, your heart, I feel what you feel.”

            But it isn’t enough.

            “You are right. It is never enough.  But you will help me.  Through you, I will live. Through me, you will live.”

            I’m going to die.

            “Yes.  That cannot be helped.  They will take your body and destroy it.  But you will live, I promise you that.  And you will have your vengeance on them all.”

            Vengeance?  He wishes he had the strength to speak out loud.  He would taste the word. It is clean and shining. Like metal in his mouth. Cold, smooth metal.

            “It will be so easy.” The voice has come nearer and whispers to him now. It is low and soothing. “You will not tarry after your body is gone, and you will not go forward, and there will always be a new body waiting, just for you. I will help you. I will place you.”

            Is there an afterlife?  A world after this one?  Could I live on somehow?  Without you?


             His brow furrows.  The spirit may be gone.  The spirit may never have been real.

            But then:

            “I … don’t know.”

            Of course you don’t.  He turns away from the corner of the cave where the spirit’s red eyes continue to glow like hot sparks stirred in the bonfire.

            “I have powers!  Let me show you!”

            You sound desperate.

            “Can you do it alone?”

            He closes his eyes. It hurts. He furrows his brow, tenses his muscles. All is hurt, all. He summons it, cajoles it, commands it

            The spark – 

            Isn’t enough. 

            He falls back, panting and sick.

            It can’t save me now. He doesn’t want to admit this, but he thinks the words before he can prevent them from rising, little bubbles in his mind. So he closes his eyes again and wills the chains to dissolve and to melt into water, but there is a red flash, a sizzle of pain, a golden crimson explosion behind his eyes, and that is all. No spark. No power.

            He has begun to sob. Tears drizzle his cheeks, and though he cannot see himself in the darkness, he knows that they have cut smooth, clean rivers through the filth that permeates his skin.

            “You are weak.”

            The voice is closer. Caressing and soft. Comforting and soft. 

            He looks, and the red eyes float before him.  He can see himself mirrored in them, and he is right: his face is chalk, strained with lines and black hollows that swim where his eyes should be, and there are clean streaks where his tears have washed away the filth from the floor of the cave.

            “You are weak, I said. Brandubh. Do you hear me? Weak. Even if you could melt the chains, you cannot move the rock.”

            He sobs again, helpless to lock it away inside him. The spirit, the demon, whatever: it is right.

            “They’re going to kill you. You will die. There is nothing you can do.

            “If you try to fight them … alone.”

            Yes, the spirit is right.  There is no way he can accomplish this by himself.

            He can already feel the fire, the tongues of flame licking at his skin, the savage stabbing of pain, the heat that will melt his flesh and sear it black until even the bones will be nothing but fine gray ash …

            The pain; think of the pain; the darkness; think of the pain and the darkness, the pain, the darkness, eternal, Artair, betrayal, he betrayed you, bastard, bastard, darkness darkness nothing but darkness and the pain

            “Do it then!”  He cries this aloud and he knows now that the spirit hovers above him, may even be inside him at this moment, wearing him like the chieftain’s daughter wears the fur of the wolf Artair killed for her.

            Those inhuman crimson eyes, globules of blood floating before him, those eyes burn, orange and now yellow too, tongues of flame, hint of horn and hoof, hint of grin, sharp, sharp teeth.

            He opens his mouth and the words aren’t an incantation as he has known them before and used them to change the weather and the animals and the future, but the words hold power as they always have when he arranges them just so; opens his mouth and screams with the last vestiges of his strength: “I command you to come to me! Spirit, demon, god, power of darkness, I stir and summon you and invite you into myself! Come, come, come to me now!”

              And he feels the spirit’s aching cold all around, burrowing, stabbing, o god o gods like Artair that first time there is pain like Artair but more, deep, buried so deep inside him –

             Artair, yes, Artair over him the way he liked, his face sweating and his teeth bared making those sounds those love sounds but he doesn’t love me, not me …

              He wishes Artair were dead.

             Why did he betray me; why did he have to do that –

             What is the spirit doing?  Drinking?  Moving around?  Eating?  Eating him?  It is inside him; it is swimming in his blood, running pointed fingers through the fire that blazes hot around the very core of him, and laughing. He sighs. It doesn’t hurt anymore; nothing hurts. Artair?  I hate you, I hate you Artair, I hate –

             “Yes, yes.” There is its voice again, its demon’s voice, but inside his brain, walking and talking amid his thoughts. It should feel like an invasion, but it doesn’t. He welcomes the demon’s voice, and the heat that comes with it. The demon is alive, he thinks with sudden, rising triumph, and so am I. “Yes, oh yes,” greedy, the voice is so  greedy, “think of Artair, bastard Artair.  Curse him. Yes, yes, yes, a curse, that’s it!  Give me your curse.  Your hatred and your death and your curse.  Yes, your curse is power. Vengeance fuels your curse, and your curse is your power.  Give me your power.

             “Through the curse, you will live forever.”

              A curse.

              He sighs.  His life is sputtering out.

              Is there hatred?  Is there power enough in the world for what he seeks to do?

              “I …”

              A whisper.

             “I …”

             Again, dry leaves, gentle rattle of bones.

            But the power is there. He feels it building, it is building

            And then –

            – the words, escaping his lips at last, and there is power to them, and he can feel the demon’s delight –

          “I curse you, Artair.  For all … eternity …”

         And after the curse, there is only the darkness.  And whatever dwells there too.

Next Chapter: Chapter One