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The Mortal

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"I cannot return to the holy place for more than this one hour, and even for this one hour the gods will ask a heavy price of me." (p. 271)

 

On a cloudless night of frost and breezes, the two of us reach the village we had been walking toward for days. I have never come here in breathing life, but she leads us surely to a small house at the border between meadow and wood.

I have not asked her why we are here; it is not our way to query like a mortal.

The full moon pours light and shapes shadows around the house. A dancing night, somewhere. My feet burn as if they thawed after winter. Hers surely do as well.

Three leafless saplings guard the path to the door, all oaks. She passes the first two, but stops at the third. She is startled -- by what? by what? no matter, if I am to know, I will be told. She walks on, no longer parading the illusion of an aged mortal; she raps on the door.

The latch lifts, and a mortal steps out, a female, showing in truth great age.

"I told you that you need never return here," the mortal says.

She nods. "But you never forbade me to do so."

The mortal smiles, almost like one of our kind would. "Enter, then, you and the child."

Inside, the large room is spare and clean. The mortal does not tsk over our rags or prattle about how we must be chilled; a strange mortal she must be. "Be seated," the mortal says, "and I will bring you food."

She replies, "I prefer to stand."

Another smile. "In this house, I still command those who enter. Be seated."

We sit on the plain wooden bench, not too near the fireplace. The mortal takes a stout stick from a bucket of water and uses it to catch the handle of a clay pot, dragging it out from the flames. "It will be some time before the food is cool enough to eat. Tell me of your travels."

To my surprise, she does tell the mortal. Our days and nights, village after village. The places where children drove us out; the places where children begged for their fortunes. The height of trees in the far reaches of the land. Mortals who thought to steal from us, or use us as animals, and how she caused them to believe they had treasure or to fall in love with donkeys.

The mortal nods at her stories, and turns to me. "You carry yourself well. You would not have shamed the holy places."

I hide my surprise under a question. "How do you know of our holy places?"

A slight smile, an amused smile, like that of elders when I have erred. "I have lived there, and I remember them ever, now that they are destroyed and forbidden. Your companion -- you are not yet of an age that she would have told you her name."

She says, "She is too young indeed, and nor does she know her own name."

The mortal's smile broadens. "Then I shall not tell her."

This time, I restrain the question, sending my curiosity into the wood of the floor, the stone of the hearth.

"Indeed, you are well trained," the mortal says. "Almost I cannot tell that you look at me and see only a pig in its sty." Her voice carries none of the dismay I would have expected. "But indeed I know your name, for your mother came here and told it to me when she knew she carried you."

I look at the mortal, then at her, seeing a truth that must have always been before me, a truth I have been too unwise to capture. My mother.

We young ones are not told our mothers, nor our fathers. We are not mortals, to bind ourselves to mewling infants; we are given to elders at birth, walking a few years with one, a few years with another; we are told our parents when we are told our names. I believe I have met my father once, when I was very small, and on some dancing night we shall meet again and know our kinship. I had thought I should know my mother as well, but I have walked with her three years and not known her.

I had thought never to speak with a mortal as with a person, one of our folk.

The mortal turns to the clay pot, takes three wooden bowls from the shelf, spoons boiled grain into each bowl, and adds a little honey and milk. "You did not come here to display your daughter, nor to regale me with tales."

"No," she says, accepting the bowl.

The grain has a light flavor, one that appeals to me more than the bread and cheese that are our usual fare. I eat slowly, as my elders have taught me.

The mortal also seems to savor the food. "Tell me, then, why you have returned."

"I..." For the first time, she falters. I stare, then remember an elder's instructions to pretend I see a deer outside the window so that I can turn my gaze aside. She continues, "I told her I would do so."

Her?

The mortal sits up, face stern. "Katherine Sutton that was."

"We passed near Heron Manor and met her by accident. She recognized me." She pauses, then says, "She called me Gwenhyfara."

I remember, now. A mortal, true, but one who carried herself with elegance and grace, straight posture defying the gray hairs of age. I had asked her for bread, and she had given it, and asked to speak with my companion.

"You do her bidding in a fine fashion." The mortal's voice holds scorn that would have left me too full of shame to see the sun.

She holds firm. "I had accepted her bread; I owed her a boon."

"And she asked you to come and see me?"

"She asked me to come and see whether the tree yet lived."

The mortal turns away. "You saw."

"I saw, and I could not believe."

"She sent the sapling by the old minstrel." Still the mortal speaks to the wall. "He told me she had gathered countless acorns from the dancing oak and strewn them across the land. I am sure that one grows at Heron Manor."

"It does, far enough from their church that you cannot hear the bells."

The mortal exhales slowly. "Finish your food and go. Do not come again."

We set aside our empty bowls. And in a swoop of rags and rope, she bows to the mortal, the bow I had been taught in case I should one day meet....

No.

She looks at me, and I force my back to bend, my arms to extend. The mortal ignores both of us, making no move as we leave the house. The latch, I see now, is wood, not iron.

Under the stars again, I stare at her, my mother. The horror is too much for my training. "That mortal was the Lady?"

Her voice is stern. "That mortal is the Lady. The gods made her a mortal, as the price for defying their prohibitions. You quake to know this? Indeed, you are right to do so."

We walk away, past the sapling of the great oak our folk danced around when there was still a holy place, when we could come and go from the deep caves and serve the gods with our Lady. Our Lady. A mortal. Our Lady.

And as we walk, I realize that she told my mother never to return, but she did not say it to me.