The Changeling Bride


A Raven at Random short story
by Maggie Secara






In the World

The changeling girl knotted a wishing ribbon into the hawthorn tree, the white-blossomed may, and let the ends slip into the breeze, yearning like her heart towards Faeries.She whispered, “I can’t bear it any longer. Do something, please.”

No answer came. No crystal doors sprang open. No doors of any kind. Yet here was the gate, folk said, from which at certain times the Faerie Court in gorgeous array would ride out of the hollow hills to hunt and revel by their own unearthly light, and to this place in splendour they would return. Not that anyone she knew had ever seen them. As far as she or any human eye could see, the hill was just a hill: tumbled granite and one white tree, its summer branches a banner blazing against a troubled sky that promised rain but no rescue..

A Raven watching in the tangled branches—That’s me, hello—muttered to himself. Ruffling glossy feathers, he set star-white flowers tumbling through the leaves. Some danced across her hair, or landed on her cheeks and lashes. When she glanced up, she seemed to recognize him, or what he was. He thought that very odd. Perhaps she was too weary to be frightened. It was even stranger when she said, “Oh, Raven, will you ask them? If I’m what everybody says, can’t I come home? Will you tell them for me, please?”

The Raven clacked his beak. He dropped no sparkling garments to replace her ragged gown; no glass slippers, or whatever it was she wanted. That was not within his gift. He was relieved as much as she, therefore, when getting no answer she limped away leaving only a long green ribbon fluttering on the branch.Sensing a puzzle, he dropped to the ground. The air around him shimmered, his shape altered until the King’s Raven stood in night black doublet with a white frill at his neck and wrists, a rapier riding easy at his side. Lightly he plucked the ribbon from the tree, then sang open the crystal doors that part our world from yours and ambled off to seek his king.


In Faerie

My Lord, who is pleased to be called the King of Faerie, never cares to be distracted from his revels though he so often is. His whim is as capricious as the sea. When he pauses to hear his Raven, the rings of colored light singing over his hands fray and twist, splinter into brittle, tinted polygons. Impatient, he flings the shards into nothing, and glances at the ribbon.

A curious brow lifts. Intrigued, if only slightly, he listens, then he laughs and deigns to wonder, “What was her name again?”

No one remembers. My Lady the Queen receives the Raven, more or less, while dancing with her ladies. When she stops to acknowledge him, violets spring up at her feet, but that always happens. She is less than pleased until she sees what he has brought her. His hope flares as the Queen takes the ribbon from his hand, notes how it ripples on the air as supple as burnished silk, but then she frowns

“This is linen?”

“Yes.”

“Not silk?”

“My lady, no.”

The girl who wove it has no materials so rich, and yet it shimmers in the light as no linen ever does. You can’t deny the scent of flax is there, and the hum of magic.

His tale is brief and would end with a gift, if my Lady would accept it from him. He should not have spoken. She’s never cared for him, our gracious Queen. He is the King’s Raven, not hers. Yes, even the fae have history, though we live outside of time.

Her sweet expression hardens. She lets the cloth slither through careless fingers to the grass and says, a trifle cross, “Fine work, yes, but it’s nothing to ours. What are you thinking, sir? Make her go away!” In courteous haste he leaves her. After that he quizzes every fairy midwife to find out the changeling’s name, which is variously given as Patch or Pinch, once as Cinderella, but mainly Pinch. Hardly a name at all. It isn’t much. Perseverance may yield a little more in time--in mortal time, and you know what that means.


In the World

One bright morning, a cheerful young fellow strolled out of the Borderlands with a pair of jewel-blue eyes in his head and a fiddle under his arm. His whole intent was bent on visiting the three tidy villages below the faerie hill to watch and listen for the girl no one liked to speak of, to learn where the sign against evil was as common as a blessing.

The first was filled with brewers soberly about their work, the second with cobblers so busy even their children had new shoes. With a day here and a day there, these two quickly enough sent the young man on his way.

The third for the most part rang with the hum of spinning wheels, the thump and clack of looms from dawn to dusk. Here the Fiddler looked into each busy cottage to touch his cap and see who it was that lived there, and inquire if there might be a wedding or a christening that needed his art, or failing that a little honest work.

He had shining black curls and a gold ring in his ear, and a bent grin made of mischief. Young and old, every goose girl and spinster left what she was doing to preen and straighten her cap when she saw him. One middle-aged bachelor stood up straighter and ran fingers through his hair. Even Grannie Biggins put her teeth in for a smile. 

Of course they had work for him. Where he lent a hand to a goodwife’s churn, the butter came almost at once. For another, the loom’s tangled warp became obedient under his clever hands. When he spied a growing crack before the spinning wheel could fly apart, it was mended in a trice. He asked no payment but the local news; he chatted and he charmed and he listened. 

Some while past midday, the Fiddler touched his cap as he passed the little church and wandered into the ale-wife’s yard beside it. There he gobbled down a whole loaf of fresh new bread, a crock of butter and a jar of heather honey. With unfeigned delight he threw back a tankard of Goodie Whitbread’s best ale to the admiration of the men coming out to eat their dinner. He listened as one by one the looms fell silent. All but one—just one—that with his gifts the Fiddler alone could hear though it was buried under the crash of machinery, the race of running water. He marked that tell-tale sound, among all the other tales around him. By and by the village women left their work, too, and joined their gossips at the ale yard fence, but none of them old or young was the face the Fiddler sought. Well no, she wouldn’t be. 

So he laid his fiddle into the crook of his arm. The bow he set to it had been turned from a holly tree, and the silver strings drawn from moonlight. And when this Fiddler struck up a tune hearts lightened, smiles spread, and even the saddest, the most hard-pressed, the most ancient feet twitched and set to dancing is if it were a faire day. 

In return, when he let them stop to breathe, he begged a friendly question or two. Taciturn country folk with seldom two words for a wandering musician, they forgot he was a stranger. He’d cheered their day, it seemed only fair to answer—the simplest bargain in the world. They babbled their gossip, boasted their town’s prosperity, bragged of their children. Oh, such children this village had! Every one a perfect darling who knew their catechism back to front down to the last Amen.

“Every one?” said the Fiddler with some doubt but no especial interest.

“Well, not every one,” someone allowed, before someone else boxed his ear. “Ow!”

“That bat-faced wench with the crooked foot?” the old Parson belched. “The half-wit girl?”

The yard fell all but silent—all but the Parson who might have been a drink or two ahead of the rest.

That girl? Oh yes, he knew her, they all knew her. A changeling that one was, sure enough. (Fingers round the ale yard shaped the wards against ill luck.) Pinch, they called her. And Smudge and Cinders; Dishrag, Acorn; Bat-Face, sometimes,. But mostly Pinch.Of course. Unfirth Webster’s only child, born round and rosy, had in a few days of her birth turned small, shriveled, colicky. Well, surely that was unnatural. Then on the christening day the Parson, lit up with age and alcohol, had dipped her in the water and forgot (to hear him tell it) to raise her up. Held her under, he did, till she bit his thumb with a mouth already full of pointed kitten teeth and an impish smile.“Look you, I still bear the scar!” 

The Parson thrust the opposable digit under the Fiddler’s nose as firmly as he had thrust the child back into the godparents’ arms. Denying them the holy oil and salt, chanting anathema as he fled, well— there’d been no christening that day nor any other. And though the parents tried a dozen horrific ways to force the fairy out of her—to drown or burn or trick it out—every effort had failed. The goblin-thing remained, the true child gone for good. They’d have killed it outright but for fear of fairy retaliation, and one other thing.

“She could spin, y’see,” said the Goose Girl. “Almost 'fore she could walk, she’d grabbed her mam’s walking spindle and…”

“Tibbet!” someone gasped.

“Ow!” said the Goose Girl. Pinching obviously was a local event.

“Then what became of this infant phenomenon, this Pinch?” the Fiddler asked sweetly.

The Parson frowned, but a sly twist came over the Miller’s man, a small leering fellow who scrunched up his eyes and beetled his brows so he looked as much like a goblin as any Christian can. He glanced about, collecting grins and eager nods.

“Gone.”

“So, she’s dead? Ah well.” 

“Ah no, not dead. Not here! Gone!” 

“Ran away, then.” The Fiddler appeared to give the matter some thought, though he could feel a punchline urgent in the crowd. “That is a pity.” “And why’s that, eh?” said the Miller’s man.

“Well, know you,” said the Fiddler, “in some parts they say a changeling girl, if she thrive, can claim a dowry from the Fair Folk—if someone can be got to marry her.”

Now that sly grin broadened, mocking. “Marry her?” “As good as marry a witch!” one man exclaimed.

"Or a demon,” grumbled another. “A man’d want to mind what jewels he had, a wife like that,” said a third, one hand creeping towards his crotch.

The Miller’s man sneered, not to be taken in by a mountebank. “What sort of dowry would that be, eh? A pot of dead leaves and a long nap in the hollow hills, I guess, while the years roll by.” The Fiddler lifted his chin, not liking to be challenged. “You’ll know best, master, of course.”

Well, the Miller’s man took that as having scored a point, but the Miller himself shoved in just then, panting like a bull. A big brosey fellow he was, with hands like hams and a vast red beard all clogged with flour and bran that puffed into the air as he talked. “What sort of a dowry?” he demanded.

The Fiddler, with his long-nosed face split in a tilted grin met the big man’s raging eye. Then mildly, he tilted back his tankard and took a long swallow, and another, and they watched his Adam’s apple ride up and down till the tankard must have been emptied twice over before he set it down.

“What sort of dowry would you want?” he wondered. “They say the King of Elfhame is richer than the Emperor, and his wife is richer still. What price would a man ask with a changeling bride?”

Timid while the Miller glared, the others soon were talking all at once—the wives as well. A new suit of clothes, one guessed, no two suits of clothes! A decent pair of brogues that fit the left foot and the right, unlike the trash from the next village over.

"New thatch to the roof. Aye, all that and a flock of fine fat ewes, and a prize ram, too." "You fool, you want to replace that old loom of yours, bigger, brighter, water powered, magical."
"A new cart to get my cloth to the fair!" "Aye, and a team of young oxen to pull it!" 

New clothes for all those adorable children and a golden chain for the wife! 

Over by the pump, a bent grey man muttered, “Only my old woman alive again, is all. That’d be all the treasure for me.” Murmuring, he worked his way painfully to the wicker gate and left it open behind him. The Fiddler marked the old man as he hobbled away. Sent peace and good dreams following after. 

Keeping to the shadows the Miller consulted with his man, and said nothing, but anyone with eyes could see the gold pieces dancing in his mind’s eye, though he’d never seen but one piece of gold in his whole life and that in the cathedral. He’d no more notion of what a great treasure was than a goose has, but he knew he wanted it, ought to have it. 

Said the Miller, “Wish all ye like, you clod pates. Changelings is no more’n a traveler’s tale. Next the fool will tell us he’s wed a fairy wife hisself.” That made the Fiddler smile. “I’ll not say that, no, but I was there when the good man did. And who do you think it was that played for the dancing? And here’s how I was paid.”

The Fiddler spared a moment for the thrill of anticipation, then he produced as if from nothing a golden coin the size of the Miller’s red nose. He held it up between thumb and forefinger, and let them see how it was stamped with a kingly profile, scribed about with letters none of them could read. A proper coin, it gleamed like sunbeams on water and no mistake. With a twist of his fingers, it flipped high into the air and landed spinning on the rough wooden trestle, glinting in the ale-yard twilight.

When it stopped, the Miller had disappeared. So had the Fiddler. The coin, too, it must be said. The day seemed to have turned into night. Amazed and exhausted, everyone went home. For a few days’ time all their dreams danced to a slip jig no one could quite recall, but every man and woman woke with a smile. All but the choleric Miller and his changeling wife.

In Faerie

My Lord hearing all this reads again the spells woven into the green ribbon with the changeling’s tears. He shakes his head, a trifle sadly.

“A bargain is a bargain,” says he.

He means there are rules.

He means: Faerie leaves no debt unpaid or uncollected. We strictly keep our word, in our own way. We cannot lie, though we may parlay the fickleness of truth. And the truth, the King points out, is that some years before, as time runs in the mortal world, we’d left little Pinch in fair exchange for the mortal child we took—a pretty thing that couldn’t hold a tune, as it turned out. But did the Fae complain? Did we ask for our own back when our changeling proved a disappointment? We did not. An even trade is fair enough, a sickly child for a unsound one. Or well, you see how it is. There’s an end. Done’s done.

All this conveyed in a look and an airy phrase in a minor key. And yet it cannot be denied that graceless, limping, miserable Pinch whimpering under the hawthorn tree retains a claim upon us. Raven presses his point with the rest of what he’s learned, which is this:

In the World

As the circle of the years wore on, Pinch failed to waste away, as changelings often do, nor fly up the chimney; the parents didn’t wake one day to find their own child in her place, although they lived in hope. They might have accepted her by that time as their own: tragic mistake, apologies all around, but no. The habits of fear and anger were too ingrained. The best they could do, resentful but resigned, was show her how to weave as well as spin, and treat her as a kind of clumsy foundling. She called them Master and Mistress, and answered to whatever names they threw at her, but mostly Pinch. I’ll leave you to guess why.

Friendless and unloved as a jewel in a midden heap, Pinch could spin a thread so fine even the spiders in the rafters curled up in despair. And where her tears fell as the shuttle flew, the linen cloth became a cobweb lawn transparent as water sliding over stone. Red with labor her hands might be, but they wove a cloth so fair only an Empress could be worthy of it.

Where folk are cruel by habit, there is always someone to take advantage. Indeed, the girl’s skills might have made her fortune, but the Miller had a mother, herself as coarse as sackcloth and half an ogress, and she had watched the changeling grow, and knew what a prize she was. Did she care the girl was fae-born, fae-rejected, half-lame, nearly mute? Far from it. That sad young woman might be small and thin, her eyes half-closed from flinching night and day; and yes, she was plain as a mud fence. But a quiet biddable girl with such skills need never hurt for a husband. Even the parents saw that, and so they leave the story, for which we may all be thankful.

The Miller, who was called Biglaf, took Pinch home to his mother’s house beside the mill, where to her surprise her only task was to sit and spin, and spin and spin. When she had spun a houseful of thread, she was shown to the loom. And when she had filled another room with cloth, the Miller’s mother took folder after folder of the finest wool and linen not to market but straight up to the castle where she sold it to the Duchess who sold it to the Empress and for all I know, the Pope in Rome himself. In return, fat bags of silver came into the cottage on the river to be buried under the floor, while the changeling wife spun and wove all day in her one ragged dress.

In Faerie

With these miseries laid plain before him, my Lord reconsiders while long fingers on a little harp trace out a plaintive melody.

“I could set her an ordeal, some sort of quest,” he says, with a glance at his sweet Queen. “Have her spend seven years sewing seven shirts of stinging nettles? Kill a giant? Polish my armour, at least. To prove herself,” he says. “Don’t you think?”

Ah, no. My Lady’s temper is aroused along with, I suspect, a deep desire for the empress-worthy cobweb lawn. A round of cheerful bickering commences.


In the World... or very near it

When next the Raven finds her a day, a month, a year or two later, the leafless hawthorn is bedecked with colored ribbons, with little gifts tied into the branches: a poppet, a hen’s foot, a silver ha’penny. Perhaps more time has passed than we’re aware. It’s an auspicious day in the mortal world, though frost limns every stone. On such days if you are looking, if can you find them, and we like you, the crystal doors of Faerie stand open for a time.

Here she is, dressed poorly for the cold though she hardly seems to notice, being wrapped in a woolen mantle of her own making. Not her finest work, for such things are all sold, poor thing. She looks no older, yet she seems unable to lift her gaze from the sullen earth.

“On such days as this...!” the Raven coughs, then glares. “Pay attention, girl. Look up!”

When the light of Faerie pierces her eye, Pinch is stunned at first. She freezes, unbelieving, until a lilting music finds her; a tune she knows and has heard only in dreams, until now. Heart lifting, she flings off her muffling cloak, begins to run plodding at first then nymph-like through a flowering grove. Now the treasures come: the gay green gown, the dainty shoes. Fae folk great and small beckon, cheer her on. One step is all she needs, and when she takes it, she’s enveloped in the cool edge of a summer dawn; for the first time since she can remember, she can breathe. And she is welcomed by her kindred, home at last. 

And what of him, the brutish husband, bully Biglaf? He follows when she runs until the Borderland confounds him. Where she sees a path through the white-starred trees, he sees only a wall of reddish stone and heather, a leafless hawthorn tinkling with trinkets and rags. She has left him, and he knows it, and knows why. All day he rages there, red-faced and cursing Faerie, demanding her return. We do not answer. Why should we? We are pleasantly occupied showering our lost sister with gifts and gallantries, and teaching her to dance. At nightfall he is gone, but no one notices.

On the next day, he is back. He’s climbed the hill in his Sunday best, with his hair combed under his Sunday cap, apparently contrite. Flour no longer clogs his beard and eye brows. His mother has told him (I have been eavesdropping, don’t judge) just what to say and how to say it.

“Mind your manners with the Fair Folk when you want a favor.” 

Everyone knows that, but humans are children and many, like the Miller, know only what they want. He has contrived his own plan, direct, forthright, and deeply flawed. “Good People!” he shouts at the blank stone wall. “Is this my reward for taking your discard off your hands? Is it right, I ask you? Is it fair? I say Faerie owes me a dowry.”

The wood, alive with laughter, falls silent. Even the trees catch their breath at such cheek.

“I’ll let you buy her back, my lords and ladies, for a bag of your treasures! Let me just fill my pockets and you can keep the ugly drudge.”

Oh, his mam won’t be best pleased with that.

My Lord is somewhere in the 1920s amusing children with a camera. He’s not to be disturbed. My Lady’s temper, as so often, proves crisp as the crystalline surface of a snowdrift.

“Insolent cur,” she snaps, then turns to the King’s Raven—that’s me. “Sir, do what you will, only take Gwyth with you.”

“Gwyth?”

She means the girl, the weaver, and here she is, restored. Gwyth has left her painful name behind with the rags and bruises, removed from time and terrors. Already made more comely by the sweet airs of Faerie, by love and new friends, she waits beside the Queen.

Almost gently, my Lady tells her, “You may forgive him if you like, or recommend revenge.” To me she adds, “Don’t leave a mess.”

We are watching him from quite nearby, parted from his exertions by a single shimmering veil. Her heart serene, Gwyth whispers, “Surely I owe him something.”

“Something like this?”

At the Miller’s next demand, I sing a phrase that fissures the earth at his feet. He screams and falls to his knees as a light shines out like a beacon. With rumbling and roaring and a sound like angels singing, it widens into a cave of blazing crystal carved with amethyst and paved with pearl, the burial hall of kings long forgotten. When the shaking stops, Biglaf trembles as the gleam of gold sets his stunned face aglow.

We are the people of peace, some men say, so in peace we allow him to rush into the cave where ancient gold glints amongst dead men’s bones. We watch him dive among them, hooting and laughing. In a moment he is bathing in gold coins. He thrusts hard hands into a gilded box to fling whatever he finds there against the cold stone wall and sings back the song it makes. 

Drunk with greed, he all but bounces off the walls himself, wallowing in the wealth of nameless kings. As cheerful as he has ever been without hitting someone, Biglaf drags royal corpses from their shelves and the rings from their hands, rips scepters out of moldering fingers. He tips coronets from hoary heads, spills pearls out of baskets to fill them with gold. The Raven nods to the faery woman so lately restored. “In your own time, sweeting” Gwyth blinks, and curtsies. Now that she is free she may, perhaps, consider mercy. 

Or not. 

“Fair’s fair,” says she. Her hand lifts, grey eyes harden. Fingers snap.

This time the earth song is more complex, more layered, you might say. The chamber doors slam tight, and the walls crumble to drown the fellow and his cries in dark earth. His pockets are full, let him choke on his treasure.

"Let him revel with the dead," she says.

And she lives happily ever and ever after.


The End




© Maggie Secara 2016