Finnegan and Cillian Byrne were fools.
On a hot spring morning when their young wives needed their help with their sons and daughters, the two brothers had decided to go hunting in the forbidden Hercynian Forest in search of game and relief both. Hand-crafted pipes in hand, the brothers strolled through the sun-dappled woods with bows and quivers slung over their shoulders, green shirts, and trousers for camouflage, leather boots, and bone-handled skinning knives at their belts.
Blowing out bluish-white smoke as he ducked dangling vines, Finnegan drawled, “You were right about sneaking out before dawn. Best way to avoid the wives and kids.”
Cillian nodded sagely, his puffy, ruddy face a picture of seriousness even as his unruly mop of dark umber hair fell over his eyes and he had to push it back. “Aye, stick with me brother; I know all the tricks.”
Cheeks chubby as a squirrel hoarding nuts, Finnegan cursed as he passed under a low branch and his own neck-long ginger locks became ensnared in some twigs. “Titties of the Righ Tuatha! Blast these branches!”
“Like the God-Queen would ever show you her titties,” Cillian chortled, watching his brother tug himself free with amusement; even when he was done, there was still a twig fragment in his hair. “You’d be more likely to run across a Sidhe in this forest!”
“Hey now!” Finnegan rebuked him, finally pulling free. “It’s one thing to joke about the Righ Tuatha; it’s quite another to joke about the Sidhe in their own home. Watch your tongue, eh?”
Cillian snorted and took a deep draw on his pipe, breathing out smoke as he replied, “Faugh! You’re like an innocent little faun, aren’t you, Finnegan? Still believing in the Sidhe … haha!”
Finnegan frowned as he lurched over a mossy rock. “The Sidhe aren’t to be laughed at, brother. They are the spirits of the land, as real as you or I. Be quiet now and I will tell you the tale of how the Sidhe gave the first God-Queen her powers.”
Cillian smiled at the initiation of the age-old ritual of telling tales to pass the time while hunting. He and his brother had told one another every story they knew and continued to do so every time they took out their bows together. “Alright, but keep your voice down in case we find a deer or rabbit.”
Finnegan nodded and pushed a bush out of his way with a rustle. He puffed on the baui in his pipe and let the smoke eke slowly out of his nostrils before he began, “The world began trapped in a duck egg, and when that duck egg cracked, out popped the world.”
“Where was the duck?” Cillian asked. “And if there was no duck, who created the egg? And if duck eggs did not exist until the birth of the world, how did the world get trapped inside one?”
“Shh!” Finnegan hissed irritably, waving a hand to waft away his brother’s questions and a persistent gnat. “Ducks are magical – everybody knows that. Now pipe down. Ahem, as I was saying, the world began in an egg. The Sidhe were the first out, the yolk if you will – spirits of the world to come. And the first of the Sidhe was Eochaid Ollathair, the wise old father of the forests. The Sidhe were the ones who granted the first God-Queen her power. Of course, the God-Queen was not just given her powers – oh no! She had to perform trials to show her worthiness. She was tested.
“Her first test was to befriend hideous monsters that looked like Demons; creatures with horns and fangs and claws and … and tusks, maybe. She passed that test, refusing to hurt the creatures and, instead, showering them with affection until the ugly little critters would follow her everywhere they went. Her second test was to listen to the wisdom of the spirits of her ancestors, which she passed easily, simply taking in what was said and acting accordingly. Thirdly, she was shown signs of her own imminent death, and she passed that test by accepting her fate without rancour. Her next test was to show mercy to a being in need, which she did, rescuing a bird with a broken wing. And her final test was to know herself thoroughly enough that she could not lie to herself. This too she achieved, though the stories are murky about how she achieved that one. And thus was the first God-Queen, Callimachia Forferen, granted her powers.”
“D’you think you’d have passed the Sidhe tests?” Cillian asked, circumventing a thorny bush.
“Of course,” scoffed Finnegan, tripping on a tree root and stumbling for a few paces. “Wise and merciful – that’s me.”
Cillian nodded, bumping his head on a branch before ducking. “Me too.” Looking to the left, he did a double-take and gasped. “D’you see that, brother? Over there! D’you see it?”
“What is it? Where? I don’t see anything!”
“Over there! It is a big black dog, I swear – bigger than any dog has any right to be! And it is looking at us!”
“You’ve been smoking too much,” Finnegan said doubtfully, peering into the brush. “Oh no, wait! I see it! I see it! Ollathair’s tears, he’s a big’un, isn’t he? What should we do? Should we shoot it?”
“Don’t be daft!” Cillian hissed. “That’s the Grim! It’s said any who see the sign of the Grim will die within the day!”
“By the Sidhe,” Finnegan breathed, feeling as though ice-cold water had just been dumped into his undergarments. “The Grim! You’re right! Well then, let’s shoot it before it kills us!”
“It doesn’t work that way!” Cillian snapped. “The Grim is a sign of impending death, not the actual killer. It serves as a warning.”
“Let’s shoot it anyway – just to be safe!”
The sound of a snapping twig behind them made both brothers spin around, dread written upon their ruddy faces. They spied nothing, however, and when they turned back to the Grim, it was gone.
“Vanished without a trace,” Cillian murmured in awe even as fear gave him goosebumps. He blinked and coughed and seemed to snap out of a trance. “Probably just a dog, though, in the end … Right?”
“Oh, definitely just a dog,” answered Finnegan breezily. “The Grim? You really had me going for a minute there! Haha! It was definitely just a dog, you superstitious old coot!”
“Hey, I’m only a few months older than you!”
“And a few steps closer to the grave,” said Finnegan with a wink.
Bending, Cillian picked up a clod of dirt and hurled it at his brother, missing by a wide margin. Finnegan hurled a dead twig, which hit his brother on the arm as he turned away from it.
“Ouch!” Cillian shouted despite a complete lack of pain, before tearing through the forest at his brother, leaves flying from underfoot, subtlety and hunting forgotten.
He tackled his brother to the ground, and the two of them rolled around for a few minutes, trying to wrestle one another into submission. Eventually, neither having gained the upper hand, they rolled apart, panting and glaring. Then, after they caught their breath, they continued walking without another word, checking they had not broken bows or lost arrows, knives, or pipes.
“So, I think it’s my turn,” said Cillian after a while. “Be quiet now and I will tell you the tale of the woman who found the first Sidhe mound.” Finnegan waved for him to continue, pretending to be searching for prey, though they had long since scared off any creature that might have been nearby with all their ruckus. “Wandering in this very forest thousands of years ago, a woman out for a walk with her new-born babe came across a grassy hummock within a mushroom circle. Stepping inside the ring, she felt immediately warmer as if somehow immersed in hotter air. She sat down on the mound awhile to rest and sing to her baby, but her singing piqued the curiosity of the Fair Folk and brought them forth from their hiding places within the hill.
“The Fair Folk complimented the woman on her beauty and her entrancing singing voice, treating her with such warmth and kindness as she had never known. They invited her into the mound to share a meal with them, and she accepted gratefully. After the most wonderful night of her life, after eating her fill of all manner of delicacies beyond her wildest dreams and drinking the sweetest of wines, the woman bade the Sidhe farewell and made her departure. She returned home to her village with wondrous stories to tell, but, of course, nobody believed her and she could never find the mushroom circle or the hummock again no matter how hard she tried.
“It was not until years later that she fully understood what had happened that day – not until her son started using magic to play pranks on the villagers, her friends. Not until the boy started to show the buddings of wings on his back. She knew then that he was not human. She knew then that she had been tricked. Her son had been stolen by the Fair Folk all those years ago, swapped for a Sidhe child. She knew then that she had been raising one of the Fair Folk all along and that she would never see her true son again, and she wept.”
“Don’t some of the tales say she killed herself not long after?” prompted Finnegan, sidling between two large oaks.
“Aye, but I choose to leave that part out,” replied Cillian, going around the trees. “I don’t much like that ending. Bit depressing.”
“Mm true.” As Finnegan emerged on the other side of the two oaks, he blinked in amazement and stared, for now two Cillians stood before him. He struggled to unsling his bow from his shoulder and nock an arrow, stammering, “Wha-? Wha-? What in the name of the blessed Osto is going on here?”
The Cillians looked at one another then and both jumped out of their skin, yelping like they had stepped on thorns. “Who in the God-Queen’s arse are you?” they both yelled, fumbling arrows from their quivers, fitting them to their bows, drawing back the strings, and pointing the shafts at one another.
Both wobbled with the effort of holding the bows bent, and Finnegan feared they would soon shoot each other by accident.
“Wait, wait!” he shouted, pointing his bow at the both of them but not drawing the string. “Put down your bows! Put them down!”
The two men – who looked identical in every way down to the creases in their tunics and trousers and the tufts of umber hair poking out in odd directions – did as he requested, and he breathed a sigh of relief; now at least he had a little time to suss out the truth.
He pondered for a moment, then said, “My true brother has a birthmark shaped like a cock. Where is it?”
“Left leg,” one of the Cillians answered instantly, and Finnegan drew back his bowstring and let fly.
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