Seven for a Secret by Elena Gaillard by Elena Gaillard - Read Online

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Seven for a Secret - Elena Gaillard

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Chapter 1

Near Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales, UK

March 1952

––––––––

Rhodri and I were weeding the marrows and peas when Uncle Emrys and Pryderi came running. The scrying mirror on his writing desk told Emrys a sheep was in trouble. Two dogs came with us to search the scrubby lower pastures, and Pryderi divined our way with clover he plucked.

An older ewe stood restless whilst her lamb nudged her. She broke a leg on the rough hillside about a mile below the house, where holes and stones were hid by spring grass and flowers. Ravens watched, wanting the lamb. Rhodri threw a stone at them: they cawed and fussed but didn’t leave.

Emrys stroked the ewe's nose and used a spell to make her lie still. He showed us the dangling hoof. It can't be splinted, not like old Bet's leg. We mustn’t let her suffer. The lamb baa-ed and kicked in Pryderi's arms til he murmured the same calming spell. Emrys took the lamb under one arm and drew his knife from his belt and offered it to Pryderi.

No, Da, Pryderi said, backing away a step.

It's good to be merciful, Emrys said.

I don't have to do this. It won't be my farm.

What if neither Huw nor I were here, would you let poor creatures such as this be blinded, pecked to death, left alone? Would you make your mother or sisters do it?

Not in front of them. Pryderi's voice dropped to a hoarse near-whisper. You didn't make me watch until I was older than them.

They need to learn too. Time's wasting, Emrys said. She's in pain. Sheep never act hurt or ill, they can't be sure nobody would eat them when they're weak.

Pryderi was nearly nine. Rhodri was five and a half, I was nearly five, and he and I were only recently allowed to watch special chores like Aunt Gaynor and Aderyn wringing chickens' necks with a flick of their wrists before making dinner. We always said prayers of thanks to their spirits for their gifts, and treated them well as they worked for us and died for us, sheep and pigs and chickens and dogs alike, even wild animals the dogs and cats destroyed. Pryderi and his terrier often hunted hares for the stew-pot. All the local farm boys hunted, witches or not, so I didn’t understand his being upset.

Pryderi took the knife. Gerry doesn't need to learn yet, he said. He's going away next year. Let his father teach him. I wondered what that meant. Emrys was my Da, no matter what he and Aunt Gaynor said, nor my odd Aunt Alva and Uncle Davith from England.

Question me and our ways as you wish when you're older, but now you'll do as I say. Emrys stroked the sheep's head again, murmuring to her. Good old girl, he said. A good mother you were, a proud old lady. Here's our last gift to you.

Pryderi heaved a deep sigh and stood by the ewe's head. He closed his eyes and let his arms dangle a few moments, said aloud the Lady's prayer wishing good passage for a spirit, pulled back the ewe's nose with his left hand and cut her throat with one long deep stroke. The ewe barely kicked as her blood gushed. Both Emrys and Pryderi spoke spells aloud I never heard before as she died, adding a thanksgiving prayer at the end.

That was well done, Emrys said. Pryderi wiped the blade on grass, gave his father back the knife and started towards the house. You two stay here and keep guard whilst we get the cart, Emrys said and followed Pryderi, still carrying the lamb. The ravens cried and hopped about, and Grim the sheepdog sniffed and barked, excited by the blood smell but clever enough to know to keep away. Sheep wandered away uphill, older lambs butted us. Wind pushed and pulled at our wool coats, light rain hit our faces despite our caps pulled low.

We had a while to wait. I wanted to see the wound. Before I knew it I took fresh blood from the throat on my fingers and tasted it.

A flutter like a small angry bird beating its wings inside my head...the feeling was so strange I kept perfectly still several moments til it faded.

He didn't do all of it, I said to Rhodri, not knowing exactly why.

Don't let Da see you! Rhodri cried. No! Don't wipe it on your coat!

I wiped my hand on the grass. You oughtn't do things like that, Rhodri scolded.

You're just scared, I said. You're scared to try it too.

I'm not scared. It's wrong.

How do you know?

We've never seen it done, Rhodri said, but sounding a little uncertain. He was older than me, and smarter, but would rather think before doing anything new.

So what?

Did you feel something? he asked. I told him as best I could. We argued what it meant til Emrys and Pryderi returned and hauled the ewe into the cart. We left the ravens the entrails so they wouldn't bother any lambs.

We children of the Lady of the Moon are born with powers ordinary folk do not have, Emrys said, as if starting lessons. Our powers naturally grow as we grow older, but we may gain even more in certain ways. Your mothers take power from every child they bear. Our greater secret is that we may sometimes use a creature's death as well as their body to feed ourselves. Pryderi is old enough to do this now.

Emrys' words felt true. But why didn’t Pryderi want the ewe’s gift? Was it just cos Rhodri and I were there to watch? Pryderi walked a little behind the cart, helping guide it over the rough land.

But you didn't do it right, I said. You didn't do all of it.

The looks I got from both Emrys and Pryderi were terrible different ways. I know I didn't, Pryderi said, his voice very cold, a stab to my heart.

You should not know that, Emrys said to me, his voice filled with wonder I first thought was anger but for his face. How do you understand that?

Of course he knows, he's seventh born of a seventh, Pryderi said, and glared at me.

I felt something, I finally mumbled, not looking at Pryderi or Emrys. I didn't know how I knew, I hadn't known what I was doing even mattered til the flutter came.

Listen to me, Emrys said, halting the cart. Geraint, your birthright and destiny is to be a very powerful witch among us, and you will learn more when you're older. Meanwhile you will not tell anyone of this, not even your aunt nor Aderyn or Nesta. Not even Caitlín. Caitlín, a year older than me, my true sister, knew my every secret and I knew hers. But Emrys waited til I promised not to tell.

Rhodri and I were sent early to bed after watching Nesta and Caitlín feed the lamb milk from a bottle. The stockman helped Emrys and Gaynor butcher the ewe. Her mutton was nearly too strong for us to eat, but the dogs never minded meat from an old ewe. Her lamb was named Brutus and remained a pet til he grew older and became a tupping ram for the flock. Most of the other boy lambs were eaten before they grew horns, so he was lucky.

Emrys taught classes in Bangor’s university, and had lots of books about long-ago times. He told us some stories about the Romans and Druids who once lived and fought on our mountains. Afternoons after school, Pryderi went to the field with a shovel and cart and dug up the rough stones, taking them away to a broken old wall along the pasture. When he turned up old bits of metal and crockery he realized it was a ruined old house we’d found. Digging and playing in the dirt and mud with Caitlín and Rhodri was fun even though Pryderi yelled at us a lot for not being more careful. He let me and Caitlín each keep an old lumpy coin and a pretty little piece of a brown jar, cos we found them ourselves.

It was strange having a secret I couldn't share with Caitlín. I worried whether Emrys and Gaynor were truly glad I was already an extra-special sort of witch. I finally knew it was alright when Emrys let me and Rhodri watch a chicken slaughter and taught us the special spell-words Pryderi wouldn't say. The spells made me feel the same as tasting the blood, but I only told that to Rhodri. He said he hardly felt it, and I wondered if he thought I was lying, so I decided to never say anything about it again.

There were plenty of animals around the farm for me and Rhodri to find on our own for mercy: fallen baby birds covered in ants, cat-mauled rabbits and snakes, wounded baby badgers the terriers dragged from their holes. Mercy was very serious business. We became better friends with the ravens, crows and magpies as we followed them and they followed us, and gave them names. Some learned to come to when we called them to our latest mercy.

––––––––

In late May Gran Muriel MacDubsith-Llewellyn visited the farm in a great black beetle of a road car. Emrys unrolled our wonderful table-sized map of Britain to show us how far away Loch Ness was from Bangor, and let us run our Dinky cars and toy horses over the roads.

Gran Muriel was small and tidy, wearing a black tweed skirt suit and veiled hat. Her skin was pale, her short wavy hair black and silver, her blue eyes bright and fierce like Aunt Gaynor's and Caitlín's. We kissed her strong little hand and she kissed our foreheads. Aderyn and Nesta had to bend a little, they were taller than Gran.

Gran was dressed too fine for a farmhouse though we wore our best town clothes to honor her. Our cousin Robbie, who drove her car, wore a nice suit but he tugged his collar a lot. They were calling on Grandda Rhodri's relatives in Conwy before returning to Scotland. I had few memories of his funeral a year ago, but for wearing black in a stone courtyard in Conwy amid lots of people.

Gaynor had told stories of Grandda Rhodri and why she named her son after him, but Emrys said I had far more of Grandda's dark mischief in me than little Rhodri himself ever would. But he wouldn't tell me what he meant or how he knew that.

Gaynor saw how confused I was and took me aside. Muriel is your grandmother, she explained. She's my mother, and your Aunt Dilly's and Uncle Trevor's mother, and your father's mother. Your true father, Davith. You always call him uncle, but he's not.

I don't care, I said. He's not here.

But he will be, Gaynor said. Davith and Alva are your true parents. You're living with us only until they take you home to live with them again.

But I don't want to go with them, I said. All the terrible talk about going away, being taken away, there'd been whispers of it but I wouldn't believe it.

I liked Davith—he told awful jokes, pulled sweets from my ears and played football with us—but Alva was mad. She said funny things like a child but using big words like an elder, and sat staring at nothing, humming, for hours, and wandered barefoot round the farm singing and talking to the hares, birds and fae even when it rained or snowed. She scared me a little cos of the way she looked so hard at me. And she did weird magic, touching my forehead with spells over and over til my head hurt or someone made her stop.

It's them you and Cat belong with, Gaynor said. You've a whole family you hardly know yet! Two brothers and a sister, aunts and uncles and cousins in England and Scotland and Ireland. Your grandmother is a very important lady. You'll soon know her better too.

"I thought all witch elders were important."

Well, of course, dear! But your grandmother has done many things no other witch dares. Listen well to whatever she tells you. Answer well whatever she asks you. And she's also important to me, Gaynor added with a small smile, because she's my mother and I love her. She sighed and smoothed my hair. Gaynor did look a lot like Gran, mostly when she sighed.

After tea, Pryderi and Emrys took Robbie to see the stone house ruins in the pasture, and Gaynor took Aderyn, Nesta and Rhodri to chores, leaving me and Caitlín alone with Gran.

So, my Davit's wee magpies, Gran said, touching our chins. Her Scots accent was stronger than Gaynor’s or Davith’s. Growing older and wiser so quickly. You’ll go home to your true parents soon, and you’ll come visit me in my house. Has your aunt shown you pictures of my house?

We nodded: A great gray mansion on a hill above a long, dark loch, all steep roofs and turrets nearly like a castle. Your aunt and your father grew up in my house, Gran said. There's many children there your age, your cousins and second cousins. We've horses and ponies, and a magic spiral garden. We've history and spells and treasures like no other witch houses will ever have. And we've the thing nobody else has, we have the wee monster my brother Ranald summoned. Would you like to see your father and aunts with the monster?

She took a photo from her purse, of black forest and gray sky with three small people on the rocky shore of a lake. Behind them a cloud of gray mist looked like neck of a great dragon rising from the dark gray water, its head nearly touching them.

It's that big? Caitlín gasped.

'Tis a great Wyrm, a creature of the other side of the air, and it may be as vast or as wee as it pleases. It shows when called by one of our blood. The secret belongs to our clan alone, both the oldest and youngest true demon blood of our clans.

I was still staring at the Wyrm. To have such a thing nearly in your garden! All we had in our nearby forests were silly Tylwyth Teg children dressed in blue, and tiny ellyll that cleaned up crumbs after our weekends baking or canning, but they never spoke, no matter how much food we let them take away.

Never fear your knowledge or powers, children, Gran said. Your fates are in your blood, youngest and so most powerful children of the Black Eagle and the White Witch. Life is such confusion for you but it canna be helped. Soon all will be righted. And then you can come visit me and my bonny monster. She smiled, putting the picture away.

A brooch on Gran's blouse winked black pointed stones, a star in a silver circle, a bright green jewel at the heart of the star. More green jewels twinkled in her earrings, her rings, her silver and black bracelet. Gaynor and other relatives had pretty jewelry but not like those. I never saw a real emerald before. You like my baubles, wee magpies? Gran asked, letting us touch the brooch. She took from her purse two shiny florins and gave us each one. Always remember that like magic, treasure is worthless unless spent. Tis the secret lesson of the dragon's hoard.

I've a treasure tin, I said, clutching the coin, I can show you.

And I've got a treasure book, Caitlín said.

My biscuit tin was full of tiny bones, dog and sheep teeth, feathers, a badger's dried ear, fox claws, seeds, pebbles, seashells, beach glass, buttons, toys, bottle tops. Cat's book had pictures and funny words she pasted in from newspapers, magazines, books, adverts, holiday cards and sweets packets.

What braw treasures, Gran said. Very worthy of two puissant wee magpies. A fine start for your charms work besides. Caitlín nudged me with her elbow, and took a small drawing from the book. I drew her from a magazine and I made up a story about her and I'd like you to have this, she said to Gran a little breathless, holding out a picture of a lady in a red gown.

Everything in my tin was favorite or I wouldn't have it. But that made things easier. The first thing I touched without looking was a piece of pretty green glass I found in Colwyn Bay. This looks like your jewels, I said cos it seemed right. Gran smiled as she rubbed the glass in her fingers. I was glad to please her, but I was also glad I had more still in the tin.

What are your greatest wishes, my bonny bairns? Things you can buy or things you can make? Things you can see or things you can do?

Anyone with money can just buy things, Caitlín said. I like finding things and making things. And I like when we go places and see new things. She nudged me again.

I don't know yet, I said, feeling foolish. I'd like to see your Monster. I like finding nice things too. And hearing the men in Llandudno singing.

I helped Nesta make the sugar biscuits for tea. I can make ants march too. Biscuits are harder. Auntie Gaynor said we make them with skill not spells cos they taste better that way.

And she's right, Gran said. Labor done well is labor of love. All true witches ken magic is sweetest when used most sparingly.

I'm a good sheepdog too, I said, thinking more about it. The sheep listen to me real well. And the chickens do too. They go where I tell them. Only since the blood spell though. I didn't mention that part.

I'd expect nothing less of such a clever child. Gran put the green glass in her purse with the picture. Everyone else came back. The elders talked some more, and after last kisses Gran and Robbie got into their big black car and drove away.

I reckoned Gran’s monster made the Manse a more exciting a place to live than any city. Lots more exciting than Watkins Farm. I hoped I really would see it someday.

––––––––

After dinner we looked at the family photo albums, reading every date and word writ on the pages. The oldest album had wedding pictures of Gran Muriel and Grandda Rhodri dressed in white with candles and wreaths, and pictures of them with their seven children as babies, older children and finally grownups.

The next album had pictures of Uncle Gregor and his family, including Robbie; Uncle Finlay and Uncle Donald, who died in the war; Uncle Trevor, who always brought Emrys lots of books; Aunt Dilly, who visited us twice a year; Gaynor with Emrys; and Davith, with Alva and their children. With us. My name and Caitlín's were writ by them too.

Alva didn't look mad in all the pictures. She was pretty in her white wedding frock. She looked happy holding her babies: Dylan, Aileen, Aidan, Morgan and Finella. Aidan came with Davith and Alva whenever they visited, and played and joked with us. I dimly remembered meeting Morgan and Finella at Grandda Rhodri’s funeral.

But Alva looked strange in the only picture of her with just Caitlín and me. Her eyes were closed and her head tilted, lips parted, holding me in a blanket with one arm and holding year-old Caitlín on her lap with the other. She might be singing or laughing. It was the way I knew her: hair long and mussed, all dressed in white, and barefoot.

She never tried to harm us, even when in November she led me to the faery glen above the farm under a full moon just carrying candles in the dark. Five Tylwyth Teg played pipes and danced with us and ate the fruit and sweets we brought. The good folk were half my height but Alva said they were children ten times my age. Emrys and Davith came looking for us when it started snowing. I'd only been a little scared.

Caitlín pointed to something: our oldest brother and sister were dead, with two dates under their pictures. Aderyn remembered them. They died in the war when bombs fell on Manchester and blew up the house.

Don't be sad for them, Gaynor said. They've gone to the twilight lands where witch souls live before being born again. Bad things happen sometimes to people we love. The rest of us must live and enjoy the world before we also dwell in twilight. But I wasn't sad. I never even knew them.

Chapter 2

Sunday

Didsbury, South Manchester UK

September 1955

And so card divination remains a favorite link to spirits, spiritualism and other so-called psychic phenomena among the ordinary folk here in Britain and in Europe and America...

It was warm, damp and close in the Cadogan front room, even with a window open and fan whirring. Seventeen children sat elbow-to-elbow on couches, chairs and the carpet whilst jotting notes by the gray cloudy light of the big bay window and yellow light from a few lamps.

Just yesterday, I’d been out in the lovely late summer air at Meade House Peak, picking apples and blackberries and riding ponies til we went home at sunset. Now I was drowsy and restless from the morning’s endless lessons on grimoires, divine trinities, Celtic bards, chakras, Hindu poems, Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods, and today’s bit on divination. Everyone used divination in the old days. Modern psychic clean cards coins old entrails bronze livers flocks of birds natural things mistaken signs gods Greeks Romans crystals? I'd never figure out these notes later. I doubted I’d care.

Sunday morning meant occult lessons with Dilys Cadogan for the witch children of Manchester. Uncle Emrys taught Sunday lessons in Watkins House in Bangor. I had lessons at MacDubsith Manse and Meade House Peak even on holidays. Always lessons. No escaping lessons. My toes itched inside my new shoes. Brian Ivey kept shaking his foot and his socks were down round his ankles. Caitlín twisted the same bit of her hair for ten minutes.

"...as is easily shown.  As always, we use the object of our magic, it does not use us." Aunt Dilly had a low voice similar to my father’s: throaty Northern English with a rough hint of Scots when she said rrr.  She spread out five Tarot decks on the small wood leaf table, and called in the five older children from study time in the dining room, including my sister Finella.

Nellie, please show us a cold reading using these three decks. Dilly took away the pretty Thoth deck she disliked for being made by that unpleasant foolish person Crowley, and the old fragile Wirth cards from 1880-something that belonged to her as a child: They were soft round the edges, and didn't stack tight in their little silk-lined wood box. Dilly only let Finella use them. I was better at scrying glass anyhow.

Not even our parents understood how at eleven Finella could already divine so much from cards. Our elders wanted her to do it all the time before she got older and started to say no. Nellie couldn't say no to Aunt Dilly for lessons. She petted and stroked the three decks, and everyone leaned forward though she didn't do anything special yet.

We want a simple question, Dilly said, that Nellie can read once with fair chance of a clear answer she doesn’t already know. No questions from Caitlín, Gerry or the Iveys this time. You know the rules for divinatory success. We’ll have quiet whilst you write.

The Cadogan, Birdsong, Matsoukis, Byrne, Blacktree, Hawkmoore, Chandrakant, Alban, and Conway children began to write on bits of paper and fold them tight. Finella fondled the Marseilles deck, her favorite. I drew cats in the back pages of my jotter. Prickle, the gray one by Finella’s feet, came from an alley near the Matsoukis café. He looked at me funny sometimes but I didn't think he remembered being a soiled hungry kitten in my coat pocket.

Aunt Dilly swept past me with a china bowl, leaving scent of Dunhill cigarets, cedar and jasmine, and waited. Any day now, Eric, Dilly said. You too, Teleri.

Sorry, Mrs. Cadogan, Eric Byrne said. Sure, Mum, Teleri said. As soon as it’s quiet so I can think.

No excuses, dear, Dilly said. "Gerry, please stop drumming with that pencil." Finella glared at me too. Tapping helped me think. I couldn't help other people not liking it. I hated sitting up front among the youngest children, where Dilly could notice every little thing.

Sorry, I muttered. The cats stretched and yawned. Brian Ivey yawned too. That set the rest of the front row yawning, including me. Finella glared at all of us, somehow resisting the evil of Brian’s yawn invocation.

I looked round for other things to draw: books, statues, vases, skulls, and a stuffed raven and stuffed owl. Dilly opened a question, squinted, put it down, took another, read it, gave it to Finella, took another, frowned...

My nose itched. My tum wanted to rumble cos I got up late and didn’t finish breakfast. My throat was dry. What I really wanted was a handful of fat, juicy blackberries. I excused myself and slipped out to the kitchen for water.

The back door beckoned. Uncle Ian’s typewriter clacking and ringing upstairs meant he wouldn’t see or hear me. Just to step outside would be brilliant...

Yes. The rain stopped, the air smelled deliciously of wet earth and leaves instead of factory smoke from the north. Legion and Aleph wagged their tails and pranced. Last year, Brian and I had found Aleph as a half-starved pup in a part of town we shouldn’t have been in after school. Putting a tiny shush spell on his shaggy face and taking up a stick, I sneaked round the house and went up the street and back again, tossing the stick, feeling better out in the fresh air. After a few lovely minutes of freedom, Aleph still wanted to play but I had to go back.

Suddenly there was my brother Dylan sitting on the brick garden wall, dressed in my old summer trousers and football jersey, letting