They’d found the Roadside Wilds B & B off the main road. They’d gotten lost an hour or so outside of Armadale, having just left the ferry that had brought them to the Isle of Skye. Eventually, they’d had to stop as neither of them trusted the GPS or the narrow winding roads in the encroaching twilight. They’d intended merely to ask for directions, but the place itself had spoken to them—quaint, tidy, and run by an eccentric old lady who truly knew the meaning of a full Scottish breakfast. They’d passed a quiet but pleasant evening drinking the old lady’s scotch, then feasted in the morning on sausage, bacon, and black pudding. At some point, Dee’s husband had begun cross-examining their hostess about local history. The old lady, who insisted they call her “Auntie,” had seen Dee’s eyes glaze as Brad jotted notes on his paper napkin about yet another war memorial in a nearby village, and had offered them something off the beaten path.
Her promise of a small but ancient stone circle in the middle of the forest, as yet undiscovered by anthropologists or tour companies or TV producers, had instantly captured Dee’s imagination. But it been no match for a cairn dedicated to the glorious dead of the Great War—at least not as far as Brad was concerned. He wanted historical background and cultural significance spelled out on plaques that he could photograph and catalogue. He was researching a new book—something depressing about grief and commemoration in Scotland—and had started seeking out Dee’s ancestral lines in the process. Her family had apparently come from this part of Skye, but the connections he’d been seeking had all been uncertain. The possibility of a cairn that might hold the names of some of her ancestors was beyond his wildest hopes. So he had left her, clearly disappointed by her lack of interest in this unexpected genealogical gold mine, but promising to return soon.
“Or as soon as I can,” he’d added ruefully, and kissed her. “Between the roads and the feral sheep crossings, it could take all day. Are you sure you want to stay? You won’t be bored out of your mind?”
“A stroll through the woods is exactly what I need,” she’d said, trying to refrain from pushing him out the door. “I could use a break from the battlefields. All those lost souls…” She’d smiled and let the words fade away to forestall his concern, to disguise her relief. She’d slept poorly the night before, her dreams filled with the echoes of all the haunted places that they had visited. She had awakened to find herself wrapped in a longing for something she could no longer remember as the dream unravelled.
Brad had nodded and kissed her once more, his mind already on his research and the day ahead. She’d laughed silently as he ground the gears of their rental car, imagined him cursing the manual transmission. Dee watched until he turned a bend and was lost from sight.
Auntie had errands to run as well. “I’ve made you a cup of tea, hen,” the old lady had called on her way out the door. “Why don’t you take it through to the garden?” Then she, too, had disappeared down the lane with a nod and a wave of the old-fashioned basket she carried.
So here Dee sat, serenaded by crows and wind and leaves, a volume of folklore from Auntie’s library unheeded on her lap. She’d stopped reading when she came to the sorrows of her own tragic namesake, wondering for the millionth time what her mother had been thinking when she’d named her.
“I’d been planning to call you Audrey, but when I looked at you…” Her mother had told this story a thousand times, punctuated by a wave of her hand meant to encompass Dee’s entire being.
Dee shook her head and sighed, wondering what kind of life Audrey might have led. She wasn’t complaining—by all rational methods of accounting, the joys of her life had far outweighed the sorrows—but she couldn’t help but feel the name had left her vulnerable to moments of whimsy and melancholy to which the plucky Audrey might have been immune.
She lifted the delicate porcelain cup to her lips, then set it back on its saucer untasted. A spirit of restlessness seized her and she rose, intending to exchange the tattered book for one of the glossy magazines she’d picked up at the airport. Instead, her feet took her to the garden gate. To her disappointment, it was locked. The wind rustled the leaves and the crows jeered. She sought the hecklers in the trees, intending to give them an Audrey-like chiding for their cheek, and noticed a heavy iron key hanging within arm’s reach. The key turned in the lock, and a sigh went through the trees. She felt the tension that had gripped her since they’d begun their tour of Scottish battlegrounds begin to dissipate.
She stepped across the threshold from the garden into the forest and took a deep breath. Her senses were instantly flooded by the verdant life around her. She breathed even more deeply, allowing the heady scents and colours to buoy her spirits. She thought with sadness of her husband’s solitary journey in his rental car to a place where even the ghosts would be devoured by the voracious appetites of tourists and the bereaved. Another breath and she was overcome by gratitude that she was here rather than there. Alone, for once. For once not lonely. She ignored the knowledge that this was a temporary escape—perhaps she could convince Brad to stay another night or two. Perhaps Auntie knew more local war stories that could claim Brad’s attention. Dee crossed her fingers and her face lightened.
She surveyed the path, which split in two directions. Auntie had mentioned that the stone circle was a popular place for locals, particularly the amorous youth, and Dee was relatively certain that the branch that meandered off to her left would take her in the direction of the village Auntie had indicated. As she took her first step, however, the cries of the crows burst over her—for a moment, she feared that she had strayed too close to a nest and that they would swoop down to drive her away. Heart pounding, she moved back toward the gate. To her relief, the crows quieted. That decided it. She began walking as briskly as she could on the uneven, overgrown path toward the heart of the forest.
“You’ve got Scottish blood,” the old lady had stated, her sharp eyes taking in Dee’s hair and face and complexion. “You could be mine own granddaughter.”
“Dee’s family originated here in the Hebrides,” Brad had told Auntie proudly, as though the old woman herself were not rooted in such places. “But you know how it was,” he went on, pausing significantly. “The Clearances…”
The old woman had nodded, her smile tolerant. Clearly, she was used to tourists coming in search of connections to a long-lost homeland. Neither seemed to notice how powerfully her words had struck Dee, calling her back into the past.
Dee’s curiosity about her heritage had been dampened long ago by memories of her grandmother and mother arguing about how much or how little the ancient past mattered when one was struggling to keep a roof over one’s head right now. The pressing needs of the present had always taken priority over what her mother had considered flights of fancy. Her grandmother had raged at that phrase, “flights of fancy,” insisting to the last on the urgency of remembering. Dee felt long forgotten memories stirring as she stepped deeper into the untouched woods. From the depths of the past, a rhyme surfaced:
Never chase the fox’s fire,
Always greet the crows,
Beware the wily messenger,
With dread approach the stones.
There was more—but she couldn’t remember it. Her grandmother had tried to teach Dee the poems and stories she had learned from her own grandmother, and had bitterly lamented Dee’s refusal to learn them in their original Gaelic.
“Ciamar a tha thu an-diugh, a ghràidh?” her grandmother had greeted her every morning. How are you, my dear one? Dee always refused to answer, insisting that she couldn’t understand, and her grandmother would sigh. “You are too stubborn for your own good! Just like your mother.”
“You’re the stubborn one,” Dee would tell the old woman, her voice echoing the irritable, world-weary tones of her own mother. “Can’t you just let it go?” And Dee would complete the imitation by shaking a finger at the old woman. They would laugh, and the moment would pass. But on the final day, the last time she’d seen her grandmother, the old lady had taken her hand and spoken with quiet insistence.
“My dear one, mine own. The language, the stories, are in your blood and bones, whether you like it or not. Someday you may have cause to remember that. I pray it will all be for the best.” She’d sighed and squeezed Dee’s hand. “O Uill… Dè ghabhas dèanamh?” Oh well, what can you do?
Dee remembered these words with pain, uttered the Gaelic phrase aloud for the first time in two decades. The words, spoken barely above a whisper, weighed heavily in the air. How well it encapsulated her life in its entirety.
The argument had been an old one. Dee remembered the first time she had become aware of it—creeping downstairs late at night, seeking comfort after a bad dream, but stopping and listening when she heard raised voices. “But why would you name her after one of the Folk?”
“First of all, Mother, you know that’s complete nonsense,” her own mother had scoffed. “I thought you would love that I’d named her after one of your stories. And second, I don’t remember ever reading anything that said she was one of the Fae.”
“You wouldn’t have,” her grandmother had retorted, “most of those stories weren’t written down. Her father was a harper for the Folk. She was taken from them when a Druid prophesied that her beauty would result in the deaths of warriors and kings.”
“That’s the story of Helen of Troy.” Her mother’s laughter had become forced, impatient. “Now, finish your dram and let’s call it a night.” Her grandmother had muttered something too quietly for Dee to hear. She wished she could have seen her mother’s face but, whatever the expression, those muttered syllables had resulted in the old woman being sent to bed as unceremoniously as Dee herself when she was discovered eavesdropping.
Dee chuckled—she could picture herself as a skinny child, shivering on the stairs, all scraped knees and wide eyes and big ears. She had loved her grandmother’s stories, then. It was only later, when her friends at school disabused her of her belief in fairy tales, that she came to resent the stories as her mother did. But before the children’s mockery had changed her, the world had been full of wonder—if you knew how to see it. She and her grandmother had known.
As she walked and remembered, the timbre of the crows’ jeers changed. Now, she would swear they seemed almost welcoming. The shadows deepened. She sloughed off the cares she had brought with her like a skin.
The underbrush grew thicker. A thorn scratched a long thin line across her arm. Three scarlet drops welled. It’s in your blood and bones. How she had blamed the old woman for planting that seed. Nothing could uproot it—not her mother’s sarcasm, nor her classmates’ casual cruelty, nor her own attempts to do everything correctly, to achieve those things that her mother promised would bring happiness. An education, a job, a husband, a home. Instead of happiness, she had reaped only frustration, and a loneliness that nothing in this world could salve.
Still she walked, pushing back branches that snagged her hair and her clothes. She looked up at the sky, but she couldn’t see the sun through the thick canopy. She wasn’t sure how long she had been walking—it felt like no time at all, surely not much more than half an hour, but already the daylight seemed to be fading. The thought that she should turn back flickered through her mind, but now she was committed. Too stubborn for your own good, she thought.
So she pushed on, breathing the scent of cranberries and promising to turn around if she didn’t find the circle in five minutes. In ten minutes. Fifteen minutes, tops.
She burst out of the trees into a clearing just as she meant to surrender to the pull of the life she had temporarily relinquished. She looked again for the sun to gauge the time, but the sky was hazy and distant, the texture of the light unfamiliar. For the first time, she felt unease. Still, she did not turn back.
There were three ancient stones—broken, irregularly spaced, low to the ground. Not the circle that Auntie had mentioned at all. This appeared to be something else entirely. A hearth, perhaps. Maybe a well. She took an eager step forward, then hesitated. Her grandmother’s warnings about carelessly wandering into places of power brushed her mind like black wings. Even from a distance of several metres, she imagined she could feel the cold breath of the ages pouring out of the ruins. She took another step, startled as a murder of crows launched into the sky. She watched it go, and rued her own earthbound state.
When her gaze again turned to the toppled stones, she was startled to find a large crow standing before her. She stared at it, thought to shoo it away, but it held her with a glittering eye. If this were one of Gram’s stories, she thought, I’d introduce myself to this crow, and he would teach me his secrets. Her throat tightened as she swallowed the wanting that had haunted her all her life.
Feeling foolish, Dee dropped a clumsy curtsey and bowed her head to the crow.
“My grandmother sends her greetings, Master Crow,” she said, trying to keep her voice light, pretending she was making a joke. “Ciamar a tha thu an-diugh, a ghràidh?”
The crow said nothing for a moment, then croaked once and hopped closer to her. A flurry of feathers disturbed the air behind her as the murder resumed their front-row seats around the clearing.
“It is truly a pleasure to meet you, my dear sir,” Dee told him, thrilled by his approach and hamming it up for their audience. “I hope you don’t mind if I call you Crow—I’ve not yet mastered your elegant tongue.” She curtsied again.
Another croak, another hop.
“Who am I?” she asked, delighting in the game. “Why, I’m Dee!”
The crow froze as the murder began shouting their derision, then turned his back on her. He gurgled deep in his throat, silencing the others. He seemed poised to fly.
“Wait! Master Crow! Let us play a little longer!” If the crow abandoned her, she would follow the path back to the loves and regrets that would even now be waiting for her. “Don’t go! Please, how have I offended?” The crow gave no sign that he had heard her.
“What did I say? My name… was it my name?” Dee took a step closer, then backed away as the crow shuddered. Again, the flutter of dark wings in her mind. A warning. “Forgive me, I haven’t introduced myself properly. I’m Deirdre. Deirdre is my name.”
The murder exploded into the air, their cacophony drowning out the entire world. The crow turned and drew closer, its eye glittering with fierce delight. Deirdre. Her name floated on the wind. For the first time, she felt its power resonate in the core of her being. Deirdre.
Unbidden, unstoppable, her hands stretched toward the crow, which hopped fitfully first on one foot then the other. Never chase the fox’s fire. Fingers lengthened, hands floated of their own accord toward the sky. Always greet the crows. Eyes rolled back into the skull, which elongated to form a strong, perfect point. Beware the wily messenger. Black wings unfurled and stretched, casting shadows across the clearing. With dread approach the stones.
Two crows launched themselves into the sky and were gone.
“Deirdre,” the forest whispered. “A ghràidh. Mine own.”
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