Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Norn, there lived a girl and her two brothers. The brothers given names were Auric and Igor, and these were the first words the girl spoke. However, her child’s tongue tripped over the words, saying “Awk” and “Egel”. Their father laughed at this, and remarked that his house was full of birds: a hawk, and eagle and a babbling little magpie. This so amused their mother, that it was not long before all three of her children were known by naught but these nicknames, and she would call them her little birds, and sing lullabies to them as sweetly as if she were a bird herself.
The mother was skilled at archery, and the father at skinning, and they worked well together, killing beasts for meat, and then weaving items of great magic from their coarse hairs. And they taught these skills to their children also.
Early one bright spring morning, while her brothers were out hunting, Magpie was walking along at the edge of the woods, collecting sticks for the fire. Her attention was caught by a glint of reflected sunlight just inside the woods. Curious, she went to see what shone so prettily there, amidst a patch of nettles. She stretched out her hand and carefully brushed aside the stinging leaves to claim her prize: a delicate silver necklace. Magpie fastened the clasp around her neck, and moved on, pleased with her treasure. She had barely taken two steps when a tall figure appeared out of the trees and blocked her path. She shrank back in terror, knowing full well that before her stood one of the Sidhe.
“That pretty trinket which you wear
You stole from me! How did you dare?
Foolish girl! Here’s what I’ll do.
I’ll take what’s mine, and what’s yours too.”
The girl tried to take the necklace and hand it to the fae who was advancing upon her menacingly. But her trembling hands could not undo the clasp.
“Please, sir” she begged in desperation “I knew not that it belonged to you, and I am only a poor maiden, with nothing to offer you in recompense but my apology. Forgive me.”
“Nothing to offer? That’s not true
I can take something dear from you
As a poor maid, you’ve something good.
For I shall take that maidenhood!”
Saying so, he pushed her hands down and ripped the necklace from her throat, taking a good few of her hairs with it. Then he reached out towards her again, and tore her clothes with fingernails as sharp as claws, and in but a moment she stood before him, weeping and begging incoherently, as she clutched the ragged remnants of her dress to her chest, in a vain attempt to cover her nakedness. He stared at her appraisingly as he casually reached up to fasten the necklace around his own neck.
“Your body doesn’t much appeal
So mayhap we can make a deal
I’ll find another wench to bed
And you’ll prepare my meal instead.
Agree to this, and I do swear
You’ll live unsullied. Is that not fair?”
Even as she accepted in relief, she burned with shame at the insult of his rejection. At his curt gesture, she followed meekly, knowing that to run would bring her nothing but pain and death. He led her out of the woods, and to her own home. Puzzled and afraid, she followed him inside. He strode in without knocking, and bowed mockingly to her parents, who were sat at breakfast, and announced.
“Your daughter kindly made a deal
One for my bed, one for my meal.”
With a quick flick of his knife, he sliced her father’s throat, and pushed the corpse towards Magpie as he took her terrified mother roughly into his arms.
“While I am busy, roast that meat,
Or both your parents I shall eat.”
Afterwards, the fae pushed back his plate, looked over to Magpie and her mother, huddled in a corner together, thanked them courteously for their hospitality, and turned to leave.
The mother rose, overcome with fury at this last mockery. “When I tell them what has happened this day, my sons will find you, and they will kill you. They are well named, my Hawk and Eagle, for they can hunt and kill a rat like you with ease!”
“Mother, no!” whispered Magpie, but it was too late. The fae turned, and said:
“You shall never tell your sons
For I shall still your prattling tongues.”
And he struck her dead, just as he had her husband. Then he turned to the girl, and smiled to see her terror. Wiping the blood from his blade upon the tablecloth he said:
“Don’t tell your brothers, little bird,
Not one solitary word.
For they shall suffer, if you do,
My curse shall fall on them, not you.”
And so it was that when the brothers returned from the hunt, they could only guess at what calamity had befallen their parents, for their sister was seemingly struck mute with the horror of it all. It was not hard for them to divine that a fae was to blame, but no more than this did they know.
* * *
Well, the years passed, and it happened that Hawk became enamoured of a girl named Hope. And she loved him well also. After a while his thoughts turned to marriage, and yet he hesitated. One night, after Magpie had gone to her bed, Eagle teasingly asked his brother if it was a fear of the marriage bed that made him delay so.
“Not that, indeed.” replied Hawk with a half-smile that faded quickly. “What I fear is that the Sidhe who killed our parents may return. How can we know what caused them to notice us, and what may turn their attention to our family again? It is clear that poor Magpie lives in constant terror that they will return. I cannot bring my Hope into a family that lives under such a threat.”
Magpie was not yet asleep, and heard what he said. She had spent much time turning the fae’s words over and over in her mind, wishing she could speak to her brothers safely, wishing she had not so readily allowed another to take her place in the fae’s bed, even wishing he had killed her also, so she would not have to live in silence with the guilt and fear.
The next day, Hope came to visit while Hawk and Eagle were out hunting, and Magpie suddenly opened her mouth to speak. Her voice cracked from long unuse, but Hope fetched her a pitcher of water, and Magpie’s voice returned and she spoke, saying: “ ‘Don’t tell your brothers!’ That was all he said. But to you I may speak. Oh, why did I not realise this before? I may tell you all!” And so she did, and Hope held her friend in her arms as they both wept. She assured her that her brothers would understand, and not hold her to blame for the actions of the fae, and that all would be well once more.
And so it was, for a time. For although Magpie dared not speak to her brothers, she no longer felt completely alone. When her brothers were away, she and Hope chatted happily as they wove a wedding gown for Hope, and she could forget for a while her sorrow, guilt and grief.
But this time was brief indeed. After her brothers had left to hunt one morning, Magpie heard the door to their cottage open. Without looking up she called out cheerily “Good morning to you, Hope.” She heard a thud, and a fluttering of wings, and looked up to see two birds, one a Hawk and one an Eagle, emerging from her brothers’ clothes, and flying out of the door, past the Sidhe, who was leaning against the door frame. He raised one finger and wagged it back and forth in mock disapproval as he spoke.
“I warned you, fool, not to converse
With your brothers – so here’s their curse.
As they are named, so they shall be
And lost shall be their memory.
You have but one chance. You must weave
A cloak from stinging nettle-leaves
Once done, ensure you wash it well
In virgin’s tears, to break my spell
When the sealing words are spoken
Garb the birds, their curse is broken.”
Well, of course, Magpie could do naught but make the attempt. And full slow going it was, for Magpie spent one day collecting nettles, and the next could do no work, for the welts upon her hands were too raised to do the fine work of spinning. Once the welts had subsided, she would spend a day spinning the nettles into yarn, and the welts returned, redder and fiercer than before. Once she had sufficient yarn, she began to weave a cloak, and the yarn too, burnt her hands and forced her to take pause from her labours. However, not a day did she waste, for when her hands were useless, her eyes were not, and she wept copious tears. It would be an untruth to say that not one of the tears were shed for her own self and the pain in her hands, but mostly she wept for her brothers, her parents, and her friend, who had forgotten her love and his family entirely.
Each morning Magpie set out seeds and breadcrumbs for the birds, until her garden was a place that every thrush, sparrow and tit for miles around flocked to that they may eat. And ‘twas not long ere hawks, eagles and kestrels flocked to feast there themselves. And Magpie recognised at once two such birds, and in her heart she knew them to be her brothers, and these she kept close account of.
At length the day came that she had woven a cloak large enough to cover both her brothers, not only in their bird form, but as men. And she had wept many and more tears, so that her eyes were as red and sore as her hands. She had bethought herself of a rhyme to bind the magic into the cloak, and all was ready.
Now, it happened that Hope, though she had forgotten entirely about her betrothed through the power of the Sidhe’s magics, still passed beside Magpie’s cottage most days. And she had taken to watching the birds, feeling a peculiar fondness for one of the Hawks. On this day, she was sitting in the shade of the bushes, unseen by the sidhe who strode up to the cottage and entered. Horror struck, Hope went to the window and peeped in, ready to run at a moment’s notice, but wishing to save the occupant of the cottage if she saw a chance.
Magpie sprung up in terror as her nightmare became reality, and the fae once more entered her home.
“Ah, little bird, you’ve done so well
But all for naught, so sad to tell,
Your brothers shall remain as birds
If you can speak no magic words.”
The fae drew a knife, and stepped between Magpie and the window. A moment later a human tongue, flung casually aside by the fae, struck the window, sliding down it before Hope’s wide eyes, leaving a smear of scarlet on the pane as it fell wetly to the ground below.
The fae, ignoring Magpie’s attempts to scream, took a goblet from the cupboard, dipped it into what seemed to be a rain barrel, and raised it in a mocking toast to the mutilated girl.
“These are no longer of use to you
But make a most delicious brew
Virgin tears, so sweet and fine,
Intoxicating just like wine.”
It seemed hours to Hope that she stood, transfixed, at the window, watching as the Sidhe drink glass after glass from the barrel, and Magpie sobbed and bled at his feet. It was not until he had drunk his fill and rose to leave, kicking over the barrel as he did so, that she came to herself and fled to hide. Once she was sure he had gone, Hope entered the house to comfort and help the injured girl.
The next morning, Magpie awoke from the stupor the healing herbs Hope had given her to the sound of her loom. She stumbled in confusion from her sleeping chamber to find Hope sat working at a small piece of pale red woven cloth.
Hope smiled. “If that…creature does not wish you to speak, then speak you shall. One moment.”
Hope finished her creation with a few deft movements, and stood before Magpie.
“Into silence you were thrust
But open wide, give me your trust
Dark secrets and great pain you feel
Great secrets to the light reveal
Into silence you were bound
But now a new voice shall be found
To get the answers that I seek
It is required that you must speak
Out of silence you are free
Come, friend, share your words with me.
Rhymes may be rhymed, songs may be sung
So speak once more with woven tongue.”
Bewildered, but feeling the first flickering of hope, Magpie did as she was bid and opened her mouth to receive the weaving which Hope gently placed inside. At once, the threads stretched out, searching for and attaching themselves to the raw tendons of the stump where Magpie’s tongue used to be.
Once the whole tale had been explained to Hope, she said ‘Then we must cry together, and refill your barrel of tears. And small hardship shall this be, I think, for never in my life have I felt more like weeping.”
But ere one drop of salty water could drip into the barrel from Hope’s cheek, she gasped, and brushed it away.
“Forgive me, friend.” She explained “The sidhe’s magics have caused me to forget your brother entirely. We cannot be certain my tears are…acceptable for this purpose.”
“Worry not” said Magpie “I have tears and more to spare for this. I have wept a dozen times what is needful, and am not a hundredth of the way through my weeping. Was it not my own cowardice and carelessness that caused this sorrow to be brought upon my family? I have wept more than the Sidhe knew.”
And she showed Hope two more barrels in her pantry, both full to the brim with tears.
Now, if you know of the power of the weavings of the Norn, you will know that these last but until the light of dawn. And both Magpie and Hope had observed that the birds of prey came most often to the garden in twilight. The dawn twilight would be useless to them – Magpie’s tongue would turn to wool in her mouth, so she would be unable to imbue the cloak with the necessary magics. But if she cast her weaving spell upon the cloak before the dawn, it would fade just as the birds arrived. Thus they knew they must have the cloak ready for dusk if they were to succeed in transforming the brothers back to their true forms.
So the girls carefully washed the cloak woven from nettles in the half barrel, though it stung both their hands grievously as they did so, and Magpie spoke these words as they did so:
“This cloak is big enough for two
Washed in the tears I’ve wept for you
Woven in sorrow and in pain
That you may take true form again
Shed your feathers, fold your wings
Memory of you this brings
Hawk and Eagle, turn to men
Be my brothers once again
May this dreadful fairy curse
Be lifted, through my woven verse
Around your shoulders lie a cloak
In my tears and hopes ’tis soaked.”
And the girls took the cloak into the garden, and waited for dusk.
Small birds appeared, feasted upon the crumbs placed out for them, but no hawk, no eagle did they see.
The light began to fade, and the birds flew to their nests, until but once small thrush remained in the garden. Both girls wept in frustration and sorrow, and Magpie made certain that her tears fell upon the cloak, while Hope made certain that hers did not.
It was only when the thrush cried out piteously, as the Eagle’s talons plunged into its chest that the girls saw, in the last remnants of the light, that one, and only one, of the brothers had arrived.
“Eagle!” called Magpie in joy. “Oh! Where is Hawk? I need you both! Can you bring him to us, quickly?” Eagle cocked his head upon one side, blood and thrush-feathers protruding from his beak, black eyes staring at his sister.
“Oh Eagle.” sobbed Hope. “I know not if you have enough memory or understanding in your present form to save yourself and your brother, but this we must attempt. This cloak here is magic. If you place it around yourself and Hawk at once, both of you shall be as you once were. We can restore you now, but then my Hawk is lost forever. Can you take it to him, find him, and clothe you both?”
Then the eagle dropped the feathers, took the cloak in his strong beak, and with a single beat of his powerful wings soared upwards towards a speck of black that flew high above the garden.
The girls clutched at each other’s hands, scarcely daring to hope or breathe, as they watched him soar higher and higher, slowly gaining upon the hawk as the last of the light faded. Then the two birds came together, circling high above, and the cloak dangling from the beak of one. With a swift movement, the eagle flung the cloak outward and away from him. It billowed in a gust of wind as both birds flew beneath it. It fell onto them, hiding them from view.
High in the air they were when they changed and grew. Down they plummeted, and loud cries fell from lips that had but recently been beaks. Not with the triumphant call of the hunting bird who has sighted prey, but the scream of a man falling, wingless, into emptiness. Hope screamed also, but Magpie did not. Her tongue had turned to cloth in her mouth, and the backlash from her weaving had turned her heart to cloth likewise. The three siblings hit the ground at the same instant.
Hope took Magpie’s body in her arms, and carried her to the place where her brothers had fallen. At least, she thought grimly, they can be reunited in death. She placed her friend beside her beloved Hawk – for now all her love had returned with the memory of him. She sank down beside them, and wept all night long.
When dawn came, and Hope had no more tears within her, she stood, and walked away, stumbling, with no thought in her head but to get far away from the cause of her sorrow. As she walked, her attention was caught by a glint of reflected sunlight just inside the woods. Curious, she went to see what shone so prettily there, amidst a patch of nettles.