‘The Weaver is blind tonight,’ my father said.
My father rarely told stories. But there is another reason why this telling has been burned and committed to my memory.
He looked old that night. Almost as ancient and weathered as my grandfather, his father, who lie in the bed he hovered over. The profile of their faces mirrored the other, as would mine. At ten, I too bore my father’s features but my mother’s dark hair and grey eyes also marked me as hers.
Father’s large hand rested on the grey, sweat-stained brow of my grandfather. He slept in a feverish stupor, muttering in a language I couldn’t comprehend. Did a malevolent spirit reside in him? Or did he speak prayers to The Four to save him?
Three generations of my family lived under this roof. By dawn, it would be two.
‘Come here, boy.’
My father’s stance, which had been slumped in resignation straightened and he ushered me to follow and sit with him at the table. Reluctantly, I left my spot by the fire next to mother, who hummed as she braided my little sister’s hair. Father, normally so frugal with firewood, had stocked it high for my grandfather that night. My own body burned and ached with the same sickness which plagued him, but I was recovering.
He stretched a hand. The beamed ceiling hidden by row upon row of herbs hanging to dry. Their decaying scents carried through the home on the moans of draught, which make my skin goosebump after leaving the heat of the hearth. Herbs were my father’s practice, as had been his father, and would one day be mine. Pushing a pestle and mortar across the table, he dropped a tied bunch of a herb I didn’t recognise next to me. I needed no instruction. Father took another herb and the sound of stone grinding upon stone drowned out my grandfather’s feverish cries.
‘Who is the Weaver?’ I asked as I worked.
‘She is a Goddess,’ he replied with a smile, empty of emotion. ‘A very old Goddess.’
‘The Mother?’ I frowned. I had grown up on the teachings of The Four, and the Father and Mother. There had been no mention of another Goddess.
Father shook his head. ‘No, she is much older. The Old People used to worship her. The Hebendark still fear her. Our people have all but forgotten her.’
He scowled at me, and I realised I’d stopped work and I took the pestle and ground the strange, bitter herb thoroughly.
‘She is the moon,’ he continued. ‘During the waxing phase she is a beautiful, pale maiden, but as the full moon wanes, she grows old and ugly. Bent like a wind-beaten hawthorn. With a breath and a needle made of starlight, she weaves every living soul into a great, vast tapestry. And with a sickle, sharper than the edge of the crescent moon, she will cut your soul and end your life.’
The next shiver of goosebumps were more than just from the draughty chill. I imagined a beautiful woman, her features suddenly contorted by age, as she drew a moonlight sickle from behind her back. The Four, the Gods and Goddesses I knew, guided man, but the Weaver it seemed could control us and decide when our end would occur. I swallowed and tried to focus on my task. Father must have seen the fear because he laughed and there lie a hint of mirth in the hollowness.
‘But she is blind tonight. It is a new moon. The old crone has died and the maiden will not return until the morrow. Tonight is the one night where man has control of his destiny. Regardless of how your thread has been weaved, we have the opportunity to unravel and go on a new path. We too can fray even the strongest thread she has bound.’
‘Have you not been making him read The Chronicles?’ Father spat at mother.
‘Of course I have,’ she replied without a glance; her deft hands twisting the strands of my sister’s hair into an elaborate style and I couldn’t help but think of the Weaver.
I didn’t enjoy The Chronicles. The dreary texts of our people were written by pious men and women who shunned at retelling the battles and bloodshed a boy of my age was more interested in.
‘King Hadrun. The story of the White Wolf.’
I nodded, vigorously. I liked that tale, but writings in The Chronicles were as old and as stale as the people who’d written it.
‘The White Wolf. A man with the Touch in his very blood decided magic should rule, not kings. On the night of the bloodiest battle where Hadrun’s eldest son was ripped apart by the jaws of the White Wolf’s army, do you reckon the Weaver knew?’
‘It was a new moon? The Weaver was blind!’ I grinned. The White Wolf was the most hated man in our histories. But at that moment, I couldn’t help but feel respect and satisfaction to know a mortal man could defy the Goddess who controlled our fates.
‘Exactly!’ My father’s grin mirrored mine.
‘It doesn’t say that,’ mother interrupted.
‘Black was the night. As dark as death. As dark as the mouths of the deep caverns. Not even the inky waters of The Levels gleamed a single reflection. All that shone was the banner of the White Wolf,’ my father quotes.
‘A drunken bard’s retelling. Poetry,’ my mother argues, but neither father nor I take notice.
‘There must be others,’ I said.
‘Hundreds,’ father replied. ‘Man takes the helm. It may be a change as great as the one the White Wolf brought to those unlucky enough to be Touched. However…’ He finished grinding the herbs and took the mortar from my hands and grunted in satisfaction at my work. ‘However, it can change the course of smaller threads. Smaller weaves, and one I would like to last for a little longer.’ Standing, he went to a high shelf and took down a number of vials and tinctures, setting them on the table. ‘Wash your hands,’ he instructed me, and I obeyed.
When I returned to the table, father had a book open. ‘Read it.’
I did, and what I read made me pale and my eyes widen. ‘You’re going to give this to Grandpa?’
‘Aye,’ he replied without looking at me.
‘But it will likely-’
‘Kill him. Yes, if I make a misjudgement on the dosage. But he will die if I do nothing. The Weaver will come with her moonlight sickle and cut his thread. But she is blind tonight. This is the only chance I have to save him.’ His features softened and his eyes glowed golden in the firelight. ‘Artan, my boy. You will learn to trust your abilities and your instincts. You will learn your fears too, and hope. Part of me fears the cackle of an unloved Goddess who takes pleasure in fraying the tapestries she creates, but I hope I can conquer her like the White Wolf once did.’
Father stood, taking the cup of what I could only call poison, and put it to the lips of my grandfather. My father spoke a prayer in the dying tongue of the Old People. I don’t how I knew, but instinct told me. And perhaps fear too.
Tears burned my eyes and my body flushed with a heat to rival that which came from the fire. My grandfather would die. Father had made it certain.
His lips brushed the forehead of his weathered face and father turned to me. ‘Come the morning we will either burn him, or I will sit you down and teach you how to make this concoction.’
I couldn’t look at him. Turning on my heels, I went to the other side of the house and bundled myself into bed.
Listening to the feverish sound of my grandfather’s ravings, I found sleep.
Father’s call roused me. Soft blankets and warm thoughts turned cold and harsh as I recalled the previous night.
I got out of bed in trepidation. My sluggish footfalls caused by fear rather than the sickness which still left me weakened. But my heart felt hope. And hope kept me putting one foot in front of the other and I saw my grandfather.
The tight mask had relaxed. His thin mouth upturned ever so slightly into a smile. Eyes closed and his arms on his chest. But I could see the colour in his cheeks and the gentle rise and fall of restful sleep. Beside him, my father stood, his own face relaxed and a hand ushered me to the table.
Vials, jars, and a bunch of the unnamed herb were laid out on the table, and next to it, was the book. I sat down, opening it to the page he’d shown me yesterday.
My heart leapt in triumph. Was this how the White Wolf felt when his armies won? I do not know. Those memories are lost to time, but not the story of the Weaver. I smiled because father had tricked her. A lone, mortal man had defied the path the Goddess had weaved and won.
Oh, how she must be seething!
And there, in the little moment of triumph, I felt fear slip in like a sharp poison. In saving my grandfather, we had made the Goddess angry.
The White Wolf’s victory did not last.