The river ran through an oak wood. It was only a cubit deep at the deepest, here, and a few arm-spans wide. The wood was not very thick, either; sun struck through in dapples. But there was a wide sandy patch on the bank, and the man had played here often when he was small.
The man looked young—tall and sturdy, sun-browned as they reckoned it in these northern lands, with curly black hair and beard. He wore only a kind of leather tabbard, figured at the hems and belted with figured leather. Underneath swirled spiral patterns in dark blue woad. The next century, when they started numbering, would call this time the "fifth century," but already this style was immensely old. On his shoulder he carried a club, an oak beam longer than his leg and barely shaped by hands. The tip was capped with a small bronze cauldron.
He stepped down to the sandy patch and looked about. "Mother?" While his listened to the water, he twirled the club as lightly as if it had been a willow wand and caught the cauldron as it flew off.
He laid down club and cauldron, then sat cross-legged. "Mother?" He spoke no louder, but this time put some strength in the word. He listened again and smiled. She was here now.
After several breaths, he heard in the lapping of the water, Hello, child. There was no voice to hear, the lapping did not become articulate, but now it meant that.
"Mother, I've come for a talk. I'm sorry it's been so long."
You reckon time like your father. The rippling expressed amusement. The stars have not moved, the Sun has not changed color, the day is the same length. It is not a long time.
Of course, Mother's perspective would be different. "Well, I'm glad then. I've come to ask you about this man Patrick. Have you heard of him?"
People talk by the water. I have walked abroad.
So yes, apparently.
"Well, he just sent the Slua Nathair packing. All these centuries, we couldn't root them out, and he just goes to their stronghold, gives 'em a dressing down in Latin, and the Serpent Host is gone! Made for some good looting, afterward, if you were careful. So. What do you make of him?"
What do you make of him?
Right. Forthcoming as always. "What do you know of his god?"
Silence. Either she knew nothing of the subject, which was unlikely, or she did not want to talk about it.
"He serves the god the Aesir call the White Christ," he told her, just in case. "When the Romans were in Britain, I walked there and heard he was the Son in a family with his Father and their Spirit. And they were said to have made the world."
Like Odin, Vili, and Ve.
"A bit like. But starting even further back. Patrick preaches the same. And he wants the mortals to change their worship."
He wants them for his Christ alone.
"Yes. Caílte and Oisín have come to him to argue about it. They've made friends with him while they argue, and go about with him. The meanwhile, he goes on preaching. And now there's this feat with the Slua Nathair. I don't miss the worms. But he says they were demons, or obeyed some. If there's a power like his in the land, I need to know about him. I recall the talk of demons and angels, in Roman Britain, and I've wondered..." He took a deep breath. "Mother, are you an angel?"
"Angel." An Achaean word for messenger. Servant. I was never a servant.
"No, I suppose not. Well, then... This Christ and his Father... Mother, who is your father?"
The water only made water noises. No answer. She had always turned away questions about her origin with silence or reproof or departure.
"Mother? Who is my grandfather?"
Míl son of Bilé son of Breogán son of Brath.
Expressionless, as flat as writing on a page.
"On your side, as you know I mean."
After another silence: I arose from a Source. He decided he could be silent too and waited. Along with many others.
"I have uncles and aunts? Cousins?"
If you like.
"And this Source is my grand...?" Give her another silence to fill.
A Source of– The Source of all else.
"Is this the Father of Christ? The God of the Christians and Jews?"
I have not looked into it.
You have not wanted to, it seems, he reflected. "Is the Spirit my grandmother?"
It is not a relationship of flesh. It is all older than flesh, older than the sky, from before the world. "Father" is just the best word.
Knows a lot about it, for not having looked into it. "A father with no mother? Curious. Why?"
The water trickled, babbled. The meaning flowed as readily. He had allowed her to change the subject from her own history. Bring the shy horse up to the jump slowly, Rhiannon would tell him. For a human body to become a father needs only pleasure and waiting. Becoming a mother costs pain and danger, costs of your substance. The Source creates in joy unalloyed, is not pained or threatened or diminished.
"There are pains later," he said softly, "that fathers and mothers share."
The water music brought no meaning.
"Does pain lie between the two of you?"
The longest silence yet. This is hard for me to say.
"Then tell me of you and my father, and my own birth." He stretched out on the sand as he had done when small, sometimes with his head in her lap, when she was there that way, sometimes as now propped up on one elbow, listening to the water.
You know all that tale.
"Tell it again anyway," he coaxed. Let the shy horse take another pass at the jump.
We had the best of it at first, raising storms against the sons of Míl, and killing your uncles with sword and spell, she said, nearly recited. There was no hint of anger or remorse; it was all just matter of fact, to both of them. But then your father sang his terrible spells, even mortal as he was then, and knotted all our magic against him and his. And the battles went back and forth, and ... they won! Your father's folk won, fair and square, and were good victors, not gloating and malicious.
So I thought, "This is not too bad and can be made better. What if we were not two clans but one?" So I went to treat with him and your uncles and aunts, as to how we should all get along going forward. And I offered them the hospitality of our halls in the Otherworld, and the awe of them took the edge off their arrogance. And I saw your father was torn. He had lost brothers and other kin, but we were only defending ourselves, and he admired our courage and honor, and our beauty and magic.
I ... do not say I played on that, for that sounds like deceit. But I emphasized it. And I admired his courage and honor, and the generosity that let him treat so open-handedly with blood foes. I admired that, and his laughter, and his magic art, and the silver tongue he used to sing it. I offered to adopt him into our people. And I offered him the friendship of my thighs.
My daughters washed him of his mortality and, his first night immortal, we lay where you lie now, or nearly. There was an oakwood fire, and mead. It was a long night, but not long enough. After midnight, we fell asleep in each other. I woke before him and returned to water. He woke when you cried and he found you here on the sand.
No pain and cost of motherhood for you, then.
And as you know, he took you in and raised you up, and you were his shield-man and then his champion and now his king. Is he in Meg Mell now?
"Last I heard."
Perhaps I shall visit.
"So you like it here, in these realms."
I like it here.
"What went wrong between you and the Source?"
Another pause, but not so long. It… He… demanded of us… Of me…
All of us first spirits.
"What did He demand?"
It was different for each, and for each it was too specific to put into words, even into such meanings as I use here. But always it was a demand for love.
"He demanded you love Him?"
Yes. No. As I said, this is hard to speak of, uttering pain.
"Please, Mother. I must know what Patrick is bringing to my land." Was she ashamed? He had never known her to be ashamed. "And I need to know for myself, Mother. If He is your source, He is mine, too. What is my family history?" No reply. Well, he could wait. If need be, he would become an oak, or even a boulder, shapes good at waiting. But first try more talk. "Did He bully you?" A fine universe that would be. But he had to know.
The water noises stopped. He looked up and down the river course. All smooth as glass. It moved, if you looked close, but without waves or ripples. A picture came into his mind of his mother, standing rigid, fists clenched, eyes shut tight, to hold out memory or feeling. Which of course still soaked through unstoppable.
"Mother, please tell me." He took his own pause, then said, "I'll do whatever you want. I promise." He felt the chill of exposing his destiny this way. She might want him to sweeten all the sea from here to Spain, or keep summer going for seven years, or fetch her a herd of the giant elk that had been her favorites and were all dead these many ages, and he would have to see it through or pay the price of failing.
Silence and silence. Not a gurgle, not a splash. Let's see: He would root himself over at the edge of the sand, where the soil began to be richer. He would lift a head made of arms into the sunlight and, being male and female both at once, mate with the other oaks by insect suitors, and drop acorn children into their grandmother's lap until she relented. Or just curl up and petrify here to wait her out.
The water music began again. Good. He liked being a man. A bit later, she found meanings for the sounds: You see the light on the water here, you hear it flowing. You feel how this place shelters from both heat and cold. You could say the beauty here "demands" to be recognized—you are at fault if you don't. Or you see a duty plain before you; it "demands" your obedience.
He nodded. "So it is an internal demand, the kind that only exists because your heart acknowledges it." You couldn't call that bullying. It was only a demand because you let it be.
He made hearts. He made the inside and the out. This was before that border was drawn.
He had always known Mother was ancient, but it occurred to him she was always showing new ways in which she was so old.
Not all the days and not all the bardic skill of your father could say exactly how the Source called to me, what drew me.
"But I dare say it involves water."
Often. (A bit of a chuckle?)
"Such commands would be easy to obey. They are your own desires."
So you would think. But to answer such calls properly, you must put yourself aside. You must love this unutterable thing more than yourself, or you are not desiring it enough. There are some who would not do that. But the desire did not pass. It never passes. But they will that it would pass.
"Is this the War in Heaven Patrick's spoken of? Is that the casus belli, as the Romans say? That Satan and his lot refused to be true to their own heart's desires?"
This began when there was nothing but ourselves and possibilities. But you can put it that way.
"And what was your part in the War, Mother?"
The pause was short this time. Then: Nothing.
He looked his puzzlement.
I did not fight on either side. I fled. Across a great span of sky and years. I found this world, all beautiful with seas and rain and rivers, only to find it was the holding of one of the rebels. But I was enchanted with the place. Still am. And the rebel lay low, did nothing, was wounded in the light of his light. So I stayed. And then the war found this place when the rebels began to recover and were besieged. And I learned what home was from having one, and what pain was from seeing the rebels suffer and make suffer, and what grief was when I saw some rebels had been friends. And it is a very long story.
She sounded sad and tired.
He sat back up and pondered. He would not let himself think the word "coward." She had faced pain of hide and heart, in many battles and tragedies. He had seen her do it. But this first and ultimate battle must be something else again. Could she be blamed for not facing that? He shied away from answering. But mightn't she have changed in all that time? In all of Time? Perhaps the battles and sorrows she had faced since were practice. For a re-match. He would not suggest that.
Instead, he asked, "What do you want, Mother? I promised."
Again, the meaning was without mood, like words on paper: Do not come to me again. He bowed his head and felt his eyes sting. Until... And he knew she had seen his tears. I send for you.
He raised his face and smiled. "And what do you think I should do about Patrick?"
Why ask me? You will do as you choose. Sulking a bit over fresh bruises. He understood.
"To be sure, but that doesn't mean I don't value your counsel."
You say Oisín and Caílte have made friends with him. Seek them out and so find him. Befriend him yourself if you can. See how he fights, who he fights, who comes to help him. Then decide.
"That's wise. Thank you, Mother." He stood and gathered up the club and cauldron. "Please, send for me soon."
He marched up the bank, into the full light. Soon, he was over the near rise, across the heather. At the top of the next rise, he paused. He looked around. Omnipresent, they said, so it didn't matter which way you looked. But upward seemed the approved direction. He looked up, past the Sun.
"Grandfather, it's time we talked..."