The day after the waters were spilled sparkling and gurgling over the thirsty earth, the Cailleach Beira was gathering stones. She stored them in the precarious curve of her apron, which she held up with one hand as the other roamed and chose. Large, rough stones with spines and peaks, chalky at the edges, hard and precious in veins that shone under the young sun's light. She filled her apron and set off for home, but the sly tides and excited eddies of the ocean were unfamiliar around her ankles, the ground underneath lent a new slippery deception, and constantly she stumbled, flinging out one hand to steady herself.
One by one she put down the stones so that they peeked above the water, and she stepped onto each stone as it was laid so that she could roll the next one with her winter-white foot until it was high and bare enough for her purpose. So she made her way across the surface of the world, and water ran down her bare legs and onto the stones, and carved rivers into their crevices, all the way from the high places to the low. At the edges, the waves were starting their long, hungry courting of the land, washing the rough rock into slopes and sand.
From the stepping-stones of the Cailleach the ocean was shaping the world.
* * *
"Mum," Merida hissed. "You're doing it again."
Elinor blinked and froze as she was, even though this meant the back of her hand was left hovering in an awkward spot just over her ear. She'd discovered that sudden attempts to correct herself just drew more attention. Instead she gave a thoughtful nod at an appropriate spot in Maclaine's speech, and used one knuckle to brush back an imaginary strand of hair before returning the hand to her lap.
"Thank you, dear," she whispered back, making sure the words barely twitched her attentive smile.
"You're welcome," said Merida, who hadn't yet mastered the art of talking without appearing to talk. Her natural loudness -- exuberance, Elinor corrected herself -- tended to get in the way.
Luckily, Maclaine was paying far more attention to the rolling sound of his own voice than to any conversations or ursine mannerisms that might be happening in front of him. Elinor imagined herself suspended from a thread, a trick learned from her own mother, her head and her spine tugged upwards, a straight posture that was light rather than heavy. Her mouth was watering with hunger and that itch behind her ear was still there, like a wriggling midge caught in fur.
Fish for dinner again, that should settle it down. She'd have to tell Maudie.
It was definitely getting better. Now Elinor could go for long stretches without catching herself in the middle of a physical bewilderment that her hands were so feeble and dextrous. The sense memories were fading in an irritating, patchy way; she found herself standing outside the kitchens sniffing with much greater force than any lady should because part of her could almost recall how it felt for smells to have layers, colours, a complexity that made no sense to her now.
Was there a legend that could have prepared her for this? More importantly, was there ever a clue, in any of the tales she stored in the neatly cellared depths of her mind, to the fact that sometimes stories didn't sit around and wait for you to extract the lesson from them like herbs in water?
Sometimes the story elbowed its wild way into your real, comfortable, unmagical existence, and then set about breaking the crockery.
"The more you huff, Merida, the longer this is going to take."
"Never mind," Merida muttered. When Elinor glanced over, her daughter was rolling the bare wooden shaft of an arrow mutinously between her palms and squinting at the pile of feathers she held in her lap. In this fiddly impatient mood Merida was more likely to knock things over than to get any more work done, and the pot of fletching glue was very close to one of her knees.
"Come here," Elinor said, "look at what I'm doing."
"You know I'm no good at it," Merida said, but she set down her things and stood up. "Don't you remember the great loom disaster of three winters ago?"
That winter the triplets had only just learned to walk, even though for Hubert that still meant staggering with precarious glee from one grabbable object to another, and they had been only too happy to amplify the mess that Merida had made of her first tapestry. Elinor had found the three of them bobbing like giggling flies in a colorful spiderweb while Merida flailed around the room with a pair of scissors. They had agreed at the time that Merida didn't have to learn to weave if she was willing to concentrate on her music lessons instead; not that she'd held to that particularly well either.
Now, Merida's hands moved tentatively towards the shuttle that Elinor held, then fell back.
"It's all right," Elinor said, shifting sideways so that Merida could share the seat. "Just watch. I'm going to show you something that will help you be a good queen."
"With a loom?"
"With a loom." Ignoring the palpable force of Merida's dubious stare, Elinor indicated the growing pattern. "Do you remember what it means when tapestry is weft-faced?"
Merida pulled one leg up to her chest, then down, then gave a pained squeak and yanked a few stray curls away from where they were trying to involve themselves in the tapestry. "No. Wait! Yes. All the up-and-down ones --"
"All the warp ends up hidden underneath the picture."
"Yes." Elinor laid her fingers on the warp threads, which hung vertical and taut like the strings of a harp. "As queen, people will come to you for solutions to their problems. They'll expect you to bring them together and create a harmonious whole."
"But what if I can't?"
You will, Elinor found in her mouth, but didn't say it. It was an easy answer, a soothing one. Not entirely true. "Then you do as much as you can," she said. "But that isn't what I wanted to say. The best solutions are the ones where you support, you suggest, but they have to do the work for themselves. In the end, they should make their own peace. You," and she plucked at one warp thread, creating a dull sound, "are the structure. Vital, but unseen."
"Weft-faced," Merida said. "Yes, I see, I've got it." She swung her legs around and leapt off the seat. "Are we done? Can I go and saddle the horses now?"
Merida dashed off in a swirl of hair and glue-smell, and Elinor went to tidy the fletching feathers into their basket, trying to dismiss her disappointment. That Merida would sit still for long enough to take in the metaphor was an improvement; Elinor shouldn't expect a miraculous new enthusiasm for her future role to have appeared overnight.
And, truth be told, Elinor felt better just having constructed words around these things that she herself was never taught, that she wished she'd known when she was married. Fergus had suggested, in that voice that meant he was being a lot more serious than he sounded, that Merida should be allowed to make her own mistakes and learn from them, as they had done. Elinor disagreed. What was the point of being a parent, of existing as they did at the precipice of the next generation, with the weight of hundreds of years behind them, if they didn't act to pass on the knowledge that their ancestors had fought and built and travelled and died for? The past was there to be learned from.
Perhaps Elinor's mother had tried, as Elinor was trying now, to share her experience; perhaps Elinor hadn't been listening as hard as she should, or perhaps that quiet and profound anxiety she'd walked around with as a young woman had shredded the advice before it could take root and prove useful.
There was a clatter of noise on the stairs and Merida reappeared, out of breath. "Hurry up, Mum, we'll miss the sunset."
The afternoon air was crisp like a good apple, washing across Elinor's face as they rode and clearing the lingering dust of worry from her mind; it was hard to hold onto a bad mood when riding. Merida and Angus were pushing ahead, the horse giving an impatient prance whenever Merida stopped to make sure Elinor and Beitiris were still in sight.
"Young people," Elinor murmured, one hand on Beitiris's neck. The mare continued to pick her way calmly up the slope.
Ever since Elinor had started riding again, Merida had been enthusing about the view of the sunset from the Firefalls -- "It's just a short climb, you can ride most of the way!" -- and trying to convince Einor that she could leave the evening preparations entirely up to Maudie for one day. The idea of getting wet and dirty and sore just to look at the sky was not appealing. But there had been a flash of something in Merida's hopeful face that made her look very young, no more than six, gathering interesting leaves in the forest and proudly wanting to show them to her mother. A quick squeeze of pain around Elinor's heart had reminded her that there might only be a few more years of this instinct to share the world; even fewer unless she was willing to put herself aside and take part in the sharing.
She focused on the trees and inhaled the softness of the long shadows that fell across them as they made their way higher. The cloudy sound of water striking stones crept up on Elinor's hearing long before they could see it, growing into a sharper and louder noise as the Firefalls came into view. Elinor felt a mild pulse of dizziness behind her eyes as she tilted her head back to look at the source of the water where it glinted high above them.
Merida was already standing at the base of the rocks, stroking Angus's nose with one hand and looking upwards, as Elinor pulled Beitiris to a halt and dismounted.
"Merida! It's practically a straight cliff!"
"There's lots of handholds, see." Merida laid her hands on the stones and jammed one boot into a shallow cleft, lifting herself off the ground.
Elinor inspected the cliff nearby. She couldn't see a lot that looked stable enough to hold her weight, and when she grasped tentatively at a handhold and lifted, a fall of dirt tumbled against her mouth and smudged down the front of her dress. And what if there weren't any handholds higher up? She couldn't see them, she couldn't make a plan. Her hands were wedged in awkward claws and her shoulders were tense already. She was too old for this.
With a sigh, largely of relief, Elinor let herself back down.
"Thank you for the opportunity, darling, but I think I'll stay down here," she said. "You go ahead."
"But you won't get to drink from the falls! Only the ancient kings were brave enough --"
"Aye, I know. The ancient kings and my foolhardy daughter, it appears."
Merida grinned and then turned back to the rocks and kept climbing. Elinor was seized with a useless, backwards fear for all the times when Merida had gone riding alone for hours at a time and done this, or even more dangerous things. Who would have known, if she'd fallen onto rocks, or been thrown against a tree? Who would have heard her crying in pain?
No. Down that path lay the agonising, grasping horror-dark of imagination, another thing that Elinor had only discovered as she watched her children grow past their complete dependence on her. She tried to keep away from those thoughts. But people will go roaming and not everyone comes back; Elinor had known that since she was very young, and was never able to push it aside. The first time Merida had stayed out longer than expected, Elinor had held her fear firmly between her hands and only let it trickle out that night as she lay with her head against her husband's chest and her daughter safely asleep a few rooms away. The hot sourness of it had made her shake so that Fergus had stroked her hair, over and over, understanding and not speaking.
A brisk gust of wind whipped Merida's dress to the side suddenly enough that Elinor's fear whipped up as well, but the next moment Merida's laughter, saturated with delight, drifted down.
"You're missing it!" she called.
"I can see well enough from down here," Elinor called back. A faint orange was tingeing the treeline, hinting at more vivid splendours behind the rocks, but pretty in itself.
It's not about courage, Elinor told herself, it's just that my arms aren't used to it.
High above, the sunset caught amber fire in Merida's hair.
"And then mac Cumhaill let out a mighty shout and hauled on his rod with all the strength he had left in his body, and the giant salmon flew out of the water and tumbled into his boat with a crash!"
Harris, who was playing the part of Salmon in this story, shrieked with ear-piercing joy as he was tossed high into the air. Fergus caught him and tumbled to the floor in one motion, pretending to be wrestling a giant fish into submission.
"More more more more more!" crowed Hubert. He and Harris had decided, between one day and the next, to start speaking aloud, though they only did so if they thought it would get them something they wanted. Hamish, despite remaining the ringleader -- and, in Elinor's opinion, the smartest of the bunch -- still communicated only with meaningful looks and gestures. It was making her nervous. She was sure he was building up to something.
"Oh, you want to know what happened next?" Fergus peeked out from under his son's belly with exactly the look of devilish innocence that Hamish tended to display.
"Yes!" shouted Merida from where she was stretched out near the fire.
"Yes!" from Harris, who was chuckling so hard it looked as though he might burst.
"Well, dear?" Fergus looked at Elinor.
She gave him her calmest look. "Did you want something?"
"Come on, Mum!"
"Hmm, I don't know," Elinor said, glancing down at her embroidery. "It's not a very interesting story, is it?"
"Oh, in that case," said Fergus, throwing her a wink. "Maybe we'd better stop here for the evening, lads. We wouldn't want your mother getting bored."
"Auughghh." That was a full-body groan from Merida, now spread out face-down on the floor like a skinned creature.
Merida lifted her head. She had soot all over one cheek and most of her nose. "What?"
Elinor could feel herself starting to smile. "Tell you what, boys, if your sister can assume a ladylike posture for the rest of the evening, we'll have the rest of the story."
Three pairs of accusing-pleading eyes turned onto Merida, who rolled her eyes and got up from the floor. She planted herself on the nearest armchair and, at Elinor's raised eyebrows, sat up and put her shoulders back.
"Thank you, dear."
"More!" Harris yelled again.
"There was something Finn mac Cumhaill didn't know about this fish," said Fergus, picking up the rhythm of the story with ease. "It was not a normal salmon! It was the Salmon of Knowledge!"
Mixed responses from the triplets, who would probably have preferred it to be the Salmon of War, or at least Mischief.
"However, it looked just like all the other salmon, and mac Cumhaill was ravenous," Fergus went on, now pretending to gnaw on Harris's arm. "So he made himself a fire -- Merida, love, pass us your kerchief -- and cooked the fish in a big frying pan."
Merida dug her handkerchief out of one sleeve and tossed it over to Fergus. It looked clean, to Elinor's relief. Fergus made a big show out of spreading it out and fanning it like a fire, then sat Harris down in its centre.
"The Salmon of Knowledge sizzled as it cooked," Fergus prompted.
Harris sat bolt upright, eyes wide, and started to make fizzing, crackling noises with his mouth. They sounded so realistic that Elinor glanced at the fire, momentarily wondering if some young leaves were tangled amongst the logs.
"It smelled so delicious that mac Cumhaill couldn't wait for it to cool down before he ate it --"
"That sounds like some other men I know," Elinor put in.
Fergus grinned at her, wide and happy, and an answering jolt of happiness glowed in her own chest.
"-- which meant that he burned his thumb as he was trying to get at the meat." Harris's sizzling rose in pitch as Fergus made a big show of blowing on his thumb. "But because this was the Salmon of Knowledge, some of that knowledge was seared into his flesh."
"Eww, Dad!" said Merida, looking thrilled.
"And from that day forth," Fergus boomed, wrapping up the tale, "whenever Finn mac Camhaill wanted a sudden burst of wisdom, all he had to do was suck or bite at the thumb where the salmon had burned him!"
"Oh dear," Elinor said.
All three triplets shoved their thumbs into their mouths in delighted unison.
Elinor glared at her husband. They'd be doing that for weeks now, and she wouldn't have a good excuse to stop them; it's only a story was no longer part of the vocabulary of this family, especially when the story involved animals.
"You'd think that eating the salmon should have made him wise," Merida said. "Not burning himself on it."
"It's a legend," Fergus said. "They don't all have to make sense."
Elinor looked down. Hubert was leaning against her leg, half-buried in the folds of her dress, directing the full force of his hopeful expression up at her.
"You just had a story, you greedy wee beastie," Elinor said.
Hubert's response was to widen his eyes further. When Elinor glanced around the room, her husband the king was lying on the floor, beard propped on his hands, looking expectant. The other two boys were perched on his back.
"Your stories are different to Dad's," said Merida. She'd started slouching again. "Tell us about the Cailleach creating the highlands! Or something about the daoine sìth!"
"The fairies?" Elinor said, smiling. Those were always her favourites, too, and even before she'd seen a will-o'-the-wisp with her own eyes she'd believed in the land's magics in a way that Fergus never did. Never had to. Men didn't need to believe, they could go out in battle and in exploration and live up to the names and deeds of their legendary heroes. But for women the ancient stories were a comfort because they implied a depth to the world, greater forces, the importance of keeping a balance.
There was a legend that had been crouching in Elinor's mind for a long time now, a story she'd discovered in a book and then found too difficult to share. But there was enough distance, tonight, enough warmth and love and humanity, in this room, that she felt strong for the telling.
"I have a new one," she said. "Or more to the point, it's an ancient one. Not about the sìth, Merida, but about one of the goddesses."
"That'd be good too," Merida said.
"A long, long time ago," Elinor said, "when the world was young and the seas were falling in love with the moon, there was a goddess by the name of Artio. Her job was to wander the orchards and make sure they were bearing fruit, and she also had a fondness for the hunters and huntresses of the world, and would protect them if they were in danger."
She saw Merida's gaze fall absently on her bow, where it was leaning against the wall.
"The strange thing about Artio was that she had the power, when she chose to, to appear as a bear."
Now Merida looked right at her and a flicker of uncertainty fell over her face, almost a shadow of guilt. Elinor met her eyes and smiled and, slowly, her daughter smiled back.
Merida was sitting with the hem of her skirt in a puddle, gazing up at the sky through the hole in the dark stone. This sort of thoughtfulness wasn't common, with Merida, so Elinor pulled her own skirts up a few inches and closed her mouth on the comment she'd been about to make about interior decorating. It wasn't even a good joke; hers never were, and besides, the shadowed corners and too-still air in Mor'du's ruined keep were making her tense. Her thoughts were running along uneasy nonsense streams so that they didn't have a chance to dwell on what had happened here. She wouldn't have come back to this place, on her own; like so many new things in her life, she was here because it was Merida's idea.
Not, Elinor thought, looking around, that she couldn't see the value in it. The memory of raging terror had struck her like a physical blow at first, but she'd held it against the memory of the grave they had ridden past on the way there: the respectful cairn built up over the ground where the men of the clans had buried Mor'du. There were no demons crouched in the hidden darknesses of this place now. Misty sunlight scattered itself on the uneven floor and there was a smell of recent rain, and Elinor found that she could be calm. She could run her hand with pity over the deep scratches in the rock and start to imagine this place as the seat of ancient kings.
"I was thinking," Merida said.
"So I can see," said Elinor, when nothing else was immediately forthcoming.
Merida looked across and made a rude face that ruined the effect at once, turning her into a flame-haired goblin instead of a pensive princess. "I was thinking," she said, "about how you and Dad handled the clan's fight about the new hunting laws."
"It wasn't a fight," Elinor said. "It was a lively debate."
"Duncan mac Sporain lost an ear, Mum."
"Duncan mac Sporain is a fool who was spoiling for a fight no matter the excuse, and he should have known better than to stand next to the Tulachs during a law-session." Elinor paused and looked at her daughter. She didn't recall Merida wearing anything but her usual expression of carefully-veiled boredom during that session. "Why were you thinking about that?"
"Well, you knew what the law was going to be at the end of it all, didn't you? And you knew what everyone would complain about."
"Aye, more or less."
Merida shrugged. "You had an answer for all the complaints. And at the end everyone was happy with the law because they'd talked a lot about the details. So it was their law, even though it was really yours. I thought that might be what you'd meant when you talked about the looms. About keeping your own threads hidden at the end. No?"
"That's--yes. That's it exactly, Merida." Elinor got off her own makeshift stool of rock and crouched down behind her daughter, burying her face in that goblin hair with its smell of grass and smoke.
"Augh! Mum," Merida complained, as Elinor hugged her around the neck. But she reached up and held onto Elinor's wrist with one hand, and when Elinor pulled away there was a pleased pink flush framing Merida's frown.
When her first child was a daughter, Elinor had tried not to show how shamefully glad she was, especially since Fergus would clearly have been just as besotted either way. Elinor would have loved her firstborn if he was a son, but she knew a daughter would be hers, for longer, and she would never have to count the days until her child had to be rendered up to an unknown world.
As the eldest Merida had borne the brunt of her protectiveness, too; nobody had told Elinor that along with children came the knowledge that you would tear holes in anyone or anything who tried to hurt them, and for years this knowledge had felt too large for her, almost its own creature. The only time it had fitted perfectly beneath her skin was here, in this ancient space, when Mor'du was trying to kill her daughter and Elinor's skin had been everything that the wild and instinctual rush of defense demanded: larger, stronger, with claws attached. Knowing that you would tear holes was one thing. Actually being able to do it was something else entirely, a furious and prideful exultation that filled your heart and your mouth like the taste of blood.
Artio was a protector, yes. But even Elinor the queen with her needle-pricked hands and weak arms would match any bear or goddess, and defy any force to stand against the natural savagery of a mother.
In bed, later that night, she lay and watched Fergus removing the wooden part of his leg as he always did. The delicacy of his fingers, which most people only saw wrapped around the handle of a tankard or an axe, was something that Elinor thought of as hers and hers only; whether he was soothing his knee out of the leather frame or tilting her face up to his, it was her favourite manifestation of the tremendous kindness and care that it had taken her a while to recognise, when she was that anxious young woman, beneath the bulky and blustery exterior of the boy who had won her hand.
His skin had always been large enough for the roaring of his heart.
"How did you feel," she said as he climbed into bed, "when you fought Mor'du, when he took your leg?"
"Hey now, love, what's brought this on?"
"I hadn't realised -- before -- how satisfying it could be, to fight something with your own hands."
He chuckled. "I can't say I was thinking that at the time. I just knew that before he touched you and Merida, he'd have to come through me."
"He almost did," Elinor said dryly.
Fergus reached out and pulled her close. Elinor nudged the long sleeping-plait of her hair over her shoulder and sighed into the easy warmth of his arm. "It was nothing, girl, compared to what I could have lost."
Given the tracks along which her thoughts had been wandering that day, Elinor was unsurprised when she dreamed herself back into the time of Mor'du. She watched the dream and she was the dream, she was the bear mother giving birth to unformed clay and licking it until it took on a true shape and breathed itself into life.
The watching part of Elinor felt her sadness in ripples like a stone dropped into water; this man who became the legend, the demon, he was raised by a mother of sons. How did she feel, the unnamed woman who dwelled in the invisible crannies of the story, when her child grew so far out of her shaping? What did she think of this angular stranger who was part of her flesh and yet so different to the other three?
In the dream there were stars peering through the holes in the stone ceiling, constellations shouting out the destiny of the bear-child that was not yet Mor'du. In the dream the child bared his teeth and growled his rebellion to the heavens, fate be changed, and Elinor remembered the slow drift from humanity to wild animal, like falling asleep listening to music until only the drumbeat remained.
"Where are we going?"
"There, you see how annoying it is when you won't tell me?"
Merida laughed. Angus, ever unwilling to follow when he could be in the lead, was stretching his neck in impatience. "Give me a clue!"
"It's somewhere we've been before." Elinor halted Beitiris with a tug on the reins and looked around ruefully. "But actually, my dear, this is as far as I remember. You've been there twice. You may have to take over from here."
"I've been--oh!" said Merida, looking around as well. "We're going to see the witch? But she left, she said..."
"She said she was going to the Wicker Man festival. She should be back by now, if she really is coming back."
Again, a flash of guilt, and Merida's shoulders curled in. "Are you sure you want to see her?"
"I think I want to meet the woman responsible for the strangest few days of my life."
"She is very strange," Merida said. Like a curtain pulled sharply aside, excitement replaced the other emotions on her face. "Look! Wisps! I don't need to remember at all. Come on, Angus."
Sure enough, a will-o'-the-wisp was hovering a few yards away, and if Elinor glanced beyond it she could see a line of them stretching back into the trees. As Merida reached the first one she reached out her hand to it, and the blue wisp shone through her fingers before vanishing in a shiver of smoke.
Angus's keenness had been replaced with a slow tread that bordered on sullen, and Elinor could feel Beitiris tensing beneath her legs. Both horses huffed suspiciously through their noses whenever they drew too near to a wisp, but they kept walking.
It had been long enough ago when Elinor first visited the empty cottage that the surroundings didn't feel familiar, and a dim useless part of her was trying to remember the way by smell and by the taste of the air. A little way along the wisp-marked trail they came across a wooden sign nailed to a tree, with beautiful carving around the edges that was in awkward contrast with the crude painted words in the centre: THIS WAY TO THE CRAFTY CARVER. And then, in smaller letters that crowded themselves as they went along, as though the artist had not judged the spacing very well: ALL NEW STOCK INCLUDING SALT SHAKERS AND NO SPELLS WHATSOEVER.
"There, that's a good sign," Elinor said.
"I don't know," Merida said, already half-giggling at her own pun, "the lettering could use some work."
Elinor shook her head. "If only you'd inherited your ability to tell jokes from your father, instead."
Merida looked at her and kept giggling until Elinor found herself laughing as well.
When they reached the clearing, the cottage was a shock. It looked so friendly, so different in the spring sunshine: the greenery that covered its hunched roof was alive with pockets of wildflowers, and the door was ajar and every so often a cloud of wood-dust or a snatch of humming floated out. Beitiris had her nose in a clump of new grass almost as soon as Elinor tied up her reins.
"It's a lot smaller than I remember," Elinor said as they drew near the door.
"You were a lot taller, Mum."
Elinor smiled. "Aye, so I was."
"Hello?" Merida called, rapping her knuckles on the door and causing it to swing open another few inches.
Elinor took a step back before she could help herself. The witch only came up to her waist, but she was very close, and she'd appeared from nowhere. Her big, interested eyes gazed up at Elinor from beneath a few wisps of white hair that had come loose and curled themselves into odd shapes.
"Good morning," said Elinor, hearing her most formal tones come out of her mouth.
"Ahem," said Merida.
"Princess!" said the witch, not moving her eyes from Elinor. "How are you enjoying your purchases?"
"They're, ah, fine." Merida made exaggerated shrugging motions over the witch's head. "Unless you mean the spell, which was not fine. Why didn't you tell me that--"
"No refunds or exchanges for spells which have completed their course successfully," the witch said over Merida's voice. She leaned forward and sniffed several times at the fabric of Elinor's dress, then backed away. "Come in, come in, look around!"
Again there was a bodily dissonance as Elinor entered the cottage, an overwhelming sense that she should have had to stoop right over to fit through the door. The shop was lined with shelves, now, all well-crafted themselves, and every shelf was dotted with items. Elinor moved to look at the objects nearest to her, which included a small wooden plate with a deep, smooth groove all along the edge. A large wooden marble carved to look like a bear curled into a hibernation ball sat in the groove.
"Give it a nudge," said the witch, appearing at her elbow. "It rolls around for almost a whole minute without stopping. Great for the little ones!"
"Does it do anything...else?" Elinor asked.
"Didn't you see the sign? No spells."
"Besides, Mum," said Merida. "Magic won't take to wood."
It took a moment for Elinor to trace the echo of that phrase. It was from Merida's own favourite adventure of the hero Finn mac Cumhaill, in which he stumbles into the kingdom of the daoine sìth and must beat them at a feat of arms in order to be set free; he wins by insisting on archery as the challenge, because the fairies are unable to enchant his arrows and cheat as they usually would. It was a story about the honour of archery as a sport, and Merida never tired of it.
"I wanted to ask you why your spell turned me into a bear instead of any other creature," Elinor said, "but -- your merchandise is a fair hint." She paused, struck by a small set of figurines depicting a bear standing on all fours and gazing at an empty, high-backed chair that could almost have been throne. On a whim she asked, "Do you know of the goddess Artio?"
The witch beamed all over her long-nosed face. "Ah, you've met the Lady?"
"I beg your pardon?" said Elinor. "Met?"
"Well, it's an embarrassing story, try not to spread it around," said the witch, clearly not listening. "I was just a young priestess at the time, liked the magic but not too fond of all the boring rituals, you know how young people are. I spent all my time carving things from wood instead, and the Lady decided that I'd never again be able to shape anything save to her name and her image; odd sense of humour, if you ask me, but that's gods for you."
Merida had drawn closer, face rapt. Now she burst out with, "How old are you?"
The witch turned and headed for a corner of the shop. "Eh, who can keep count? Old enough to see there's a fearful great loss in your heart, milady Queen, a loss that gives you fear because it never healed straight. Old enough to learn the shaping of wood, if I do say so myself, and so do the judges who gave my oak salad bowl first prize at the festival this winter! I've been doing smaller versions of it for sale, here, see what you think."
Elinor accepted the bowl that was thrust into her hands with unthinking politeness, but her mind was reeling. "What do you mean, a loss? How could you--"
It was impossible, surely unseeable; it was too long ago. Elinor had been a mere child when her brother went riding in the forest and never came back. He was a good rider, one of the best, and everyone said that it must have been the snowstorm that turned him around and sent him stumbling down a crevice or far into the winding caves. His horse had turned up two days later, but Kinnon's body was never found. One of the maids had whispered around that he was too good a rider, that the kelpies had wanted him for their own, and they'd called him away and he'd ridden one deep into the icy tarn.
Elinor had learned. Not everyone comes back.
She looked down at the bowl. A family of small bears in descending size followed their mother around the rim of it, and in the centre was a deep patterned swirl like winter clouds.
"I think I'll buy this one," she said. "It's lovely."
"An excellent choice! I'll wrap it for you," the witch said, grabbing it back and bustling over to a small table.
"I told you she was strange," Merida muttered. Her mouth didn't move much at all.
The witch bundled the bowl up in a soft cloth and secured the whole with twine, then held it out to Elinor at the door. The coins that Elinor proffered in exchange seemed to disappear as soon as the witch closed her hand on them.
"Wood's kinder than stone, milady Queen," she said. "It forgives, and it rewards care. And it won't be moved by even a storm's worth of magic, but give it a few drops of rosemary oil and it'll keep the smell safe for you. It was alive once. It remembers."
"Thank you," Elinor said.
The witch grinned at Merida. "Princess, I do hope to see you again soon. Remember the Crafty Carver for all your gift shopping needs! Did I mention I do marvellous wedding cake toppers--"
"I'm not getting married," Merida said hastily. "Not now. Not soon. Goodbye!"
The day was warmer than it had been, Elinor thought, and there was a low buzz of insects that remained even as they rode away from the bee-infested flowers that covered the cottage.
"I was hoping she'd show us another sort of spell," Merida said in a wistful tone. "A real live witch in our kingdom and all she does is make bowls! She should at least have an apprentice, so she can pass on her secrets. I wonder if --"
Elinor had been trying not to start her sentences this way, but this one needed it. "A princess," she said, bracing herself for argument, "cannot be a witch."
To her surprise, Merida heaved no more than a single sigh. "Aye, I see that."
Merida made a face. "You wouldn't just have to solve all the problems to do with people disagreeing; they'd expect you to do everything. Make it rain, make the crops grow well, give them magical weapons for their wars. And it's not invisible, is it? You'd end up being the whole stupid tapestry."
"And you'd never have a moment's peace," Elinor said. "No time for long rides in the forest."
"Still. I'll bet I could make it work," Merida said, and though there was fire sparkling behind her eyes there was a teasing cadence to her voice.
"My dear," Elinor said, laughing, "I don't think a soul in the isles would bet against you."
It was the teetering height of summer, almost solstice, when Elinor insisted that they ride to the Firefalls again. The worst of the day's heat had drifted away on the breeze but sunset was still a few hours off.
"Do you think you'll make it to the top today?"
"Now that, I very much doubt," Elinor said. "Perhaps this time I'll get a full yard off the ground."
"It took me weeks of staring before I tried the first time," Merida said. "The ancient kings must have been really bored."
"Or showing off for their sweethearts," Elinor suggested.
Merida nodded. "I certainly won't marry a man who can't climb the same cliffs as me."
"We'll put that on the next proclamation, shall we?"
"If you like," Merida said, and gestured to a handhold. "Here, Mum, we'll do it together."
Elinor took a deep breath and gathered her queenliness, and touched the rockface with something like a silent request for strength from whatever local spirits might be willing to lend a hand. The highlands weren't her childhood home as they were for Merida, but she'd been happy to move here when she married Fergus. She liked the solidity and challenge of daily life, roots set down against the wind; she liked these mountains and their stories. The high rocky places which the Cailleach, the mother of the gods and of the land, had favoured because they had been her stepping-stones, left striving and snow-capped when the oceans ebbed.
Legends tell you to find your wisdom in food and your courage in water, Elinor thought, and you can glimpse the lessons there if you look at them sideways. There's magic in the deep unchanging bones of the land, but there's life in the trees, and just like wood the nature of fate is barely magical at all: it lies in your shaping of others and the changes they work on you in return. In forgiveness and in memory.
Elinor ignored the craven flutter of her heart as she looked at her daughter and then up to where the water turned to spray and tiny rainbows shivered along the edges. Go on, she told herself. Hold yourself straight. Not heavy but light.
In her mind's eye she saw her head held high by a glittering thread as she fitted her fingers against the stone.