Wash your eyes in marigold water, they said, and wear your coat inside out, and when pass you by anyone on the road going there, count the number of fingers on each their hands lest you pass unknowing by one of Them That’s In It. But the mother did not pass anyone on that lonely high road by the sea, and for that she wondered if they knew already that she was coming and if they had cleared the way.
The baby was tied to her front, half covered by the coat, and she was still and silent as always, but the mother wondered if the baby knew where they were going, and what she thought of it. Already the baby was too big for her age and she could have easily turned her violet-blue eyes to gaze ahead, but instead she pressed her face against the mother’s bodice and refused to make a sound. Absently the mother stroked her silvery-gold curls and crooned to her as she walked on; she had learned early on that it calmed her, and though she would not admit it, the familiarity calmed her too now.
At the end of the mist-drenched road was a single standing stone, once and half again her height, and the mother had to squint her eyes to make out the worn carvings on the front. Beyond it was plain air and far below the thunder of waves.
After dusk fell on the last day of the fortnight, it was said you could sing a plaintive song by water and be fetched away for your troubles, but no one had ever coveted the mother, and her voice wasn’t good for much else than lullabies besides. Instead she crossed herself, careful to avoid covering the baby, and then knelt and laid the offering at the base of the stone—parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Then she straightened and walked round the stone, once, twice, thrice. The edge of the cliff came close then; she held onto the baby a little tighter and peered down at the dark water.
When she came round again that third time, the stone had a gaping hole in the middle of it, and the herbs were gone. The scent of them bloomed crushed and aromatic round her as she carefully tucked up her skirts and climbed inside.
And somehow suddenly she was not within the rock but elsewhere entirely, in a vast cavern full of greenish light. Her feet were suddenly bare and felt clammy on the damp stone. Without meaning to she looked down hastily at the baby—but the baby looked the same as she always did, wide-eyed and silver-haired, plump cheeks pale. The mother felt half ashamed of herself but mostly glad that something terrible had not happened.
When she looked up again there was a white horse before her, with green and gold leaves braided into its silver mane and a tail that seemed to billow out ten feet beyond it. There was a strange cast to its face, almost lizard-like, and protectively she cradled the baby in her arms, half-hiding her body from view.
Atop the horse sat a knight, with hair like russet leaves fallen in a swift-running stream in the early autumn and a staff topped with poisonously pink blooms. His face was beautiful and grave, like the statue of a saint in church.
The mother asked, “Are you to be my guide?”
He did not answer but looked down toward the baby with some unreadable look on his face. The mother wanted then to wrap her away from view entirely but thought that would be taken as an insult.
“I’ve come to get my baby back,” she told him, after a moment, when he didn’t move. And finally he nodded.
Though the cavern had been very big, it was small again in just a few short steps, and then the walls narrowed round them so much that the mother’s elbows brushed against them, and she couldn’t understand how on earth the knight was still able to sit tall on his horse or why she could still see when it should have been too dark. This must have been what people meant when they said you could not trust your eyes in the down below.
The baby did not seem to like the tunnel; she began fussing and made one of her rare sounds, the little keening like a thing fallen flightless out of a tree. “Shh, shh, sweetheart,” the mother whispered to her and awkwardly bounced her a little until she quieted.
The knight glanced back at them to watch. His eyes were unnatural green, and the mother wondered again if she had somehow offended him, which would be a dangerous thing to do. But with some irritation she considered that it wasn’t as though she could leave the baby unsoothed. She wanted to ask where he was taking them but thought better of it.
He went on wordless, and she went on following, and finally the tunnel widened into a grand underground court heaped with banks of moss and devilish-bright flowers. Upon them lounged stern-faced lords and ladies with streaming hair, red and gold and pale greenish-white like cornsilk, and eyes like knives, and long-fingered hands that drifted insouciant through the air as they murmured at each other. Their gowns were of wet gossamer that clung to their limbs and turned impossible colors with every movement, bone white to blood red to the blue of the drowned.
The mother, who had never seen anything very fine in her life, stood dumbfounded even when the knight left her and looked round and round and round, gawking as commoners gawk at kings and queens even though they are not meant to. Perhaps she should have been more afraid, for they panted and smiled as though they had just concluded a dance, and their eyes were bright with interest as they looked at her—and she knew that their revelries were too merry for any mortal to endure them for long.
But as she looked and held onto the baby, she was more curious than anything else. There were men and women here with that same silvery-gold hair, like starlight, and those same sharp noses and long-tipped ears, and eyes that glittered like gems that held the heart of the sea. She wondered if the baby recognized any of them, if anyone of them recognized her—she wished she had covered the baby’s hair in some rag, hidden it away from their rapacious sight.
In the center of them all sat a queen on a throne of living hawthorn. Her skirts, spring greens and gold, streamed down to the ground like she was rooted to it, and her hair, red-gold as a fox kit’s pelt, streamed unbound into the skirts. She was crowned not with gold and jewels but with flowers: love-in-a-mist and white yarrow, black-rooted moly and blackthorn berries and yellow gorse, woven through with more grasses than the mother could put a name to. And her face was hard and white and frighteningly beautiful.
Pay obeisance to the queen, they said, and keep respectful lest you are dashed to pieces for your temerity. The mother sank into a deep curtsey, best as she knew how, and stayed there.
For a little while everything fell quiet around her, as though her ears were muffled, and the purr of ocean waves pulsed in her ears. Then finally the silence cracked open like a chestnut, and without warning the queen was saying to her, “We have granted your request for an audience. What is your petition?”
The mother straightened, her knees feeling a little like they were about to creak. The baby sat quiet on her chest; the queen was looking at her with a faintly curious and amused gaze. “My lady,” she began, then fumbled and amended, “Your Grace. Thank you for having me. I only wanted to ask—”
“And who are you, asking this of us?”
The mother ground to a halt, startled. Names held power, but she was no one at all, so she did not hesitate in telling hers—a common name, possessed by a thousand such widows throughout the isle. Then without prompting she added that she was a washerwoman, and that her husband had died in a war and that she lived in a house with a low stone wall and a vegetable garden. She wanted badly just then to impress upon them that she was a woman who had her good reputation, if naught much else.
She kept watching the queen, as a hidden hare watches for the hound, but the queen’s face remained mockingly merry, and she could not tell what the queen thought. “This is a long way for one such as you to have come to seek an audience with us. What is your petition?”
In her relief her words bubbled over like spring-melt. “I’ve come to retrieve my baby. The baby I bore.”
Them That’s In It, they cannot lie; the queen did not say anything in denial but instead, “You did not tie salt in his dress or place an alder branch over his cradle. We have made you a fair trade. Or would you claim you have been cheated?”
His, his—he was a boy, her other baby. It wasn’t a fair trade, it couldn’t be, the mother wanted to argue. Not when she had given birth all alone in the kitchen, with the paltry letter from the sergeant up by the stove and the tears and the blood; not when she had been unable to lay him in a cradle at all but slumped insensate to the ground after she had finally heard his cry and knew he was alive. She didn’t know what he looked like, even now. When she had gained her strength again it was a sickly girl child she held, who looked like no one she knew and did not cry at all.
But you could not say such a thing, not to their faces. “No, Your Grace. I only wanted—I am his mother, still.”
The queen looked at her for a moment longer, and she thought she might have said something wrong. But instead the queen made a gesture to one of her courtiers, and he slipped away through a door that couldn’t have been there a moment before. The mother wanted to watch him. Her heart was beginning to flutter, or perhaps it was something in her throat or her stomach or somewhere else she didn’t know the name to. But she dragged her gaze back to the queen, as was only polite.
The queen was looking at the mother in that haughty way that only the greatest of ladies could, chin lifted, eyes narrowed, except with it she looked for a moment as far removed from human as anything the mother had ever seen, a wild beast that didn’t even need to bare its teeth. But the moment passed.
“You have come a long way,” the queen commented. “You must have been very determined to retrieve your child.”
How did one explain it to one such as her, how motherhood tugs at you? For nine months he had grown under her heart, and then he was supposed to have been hers, but instead he was gone. She did not reply.
“It is a rare thing, a devoted mother,” the queen continued. “Lucky is the child who has such a safeguard. Even if she has been known to be careless.”
This, the mother understood, was meant to be a rebuke. It was something that made her angry, but she chose to sit on that anger instead, stifle it. She would take it a victory if she left here without offending Them That’s In It.
The baby shifted against her chest, opened her little rosebud lips in a moue, and distracted the mother, who looked down at her with some alarm. But the baby was not waking, luckily, for if she stretched and wailed in here the mother did not know what she would do.
The queen’s eyes were sharp and feral on the pair of them. This time the mother did curl her arms tighter around the baby, drawing as much comfort from her as she was providing in return.
“A hale and healthy child.”
“Well, why wouldn’t she be?” the mother asked, a little confused by this.
“You are a widow left bereft, are you not?” asked the queen, leaning forward a little. “You could have put her out on a hillside and said your babe had been born blue, and no one would have been the wiser.”
There was morning’s dew glittering in the flowers in her crown and perhaps on her marble white skin as well, because there was an almost green sheen to it in this cave-light, unearthly.
“But she is only a little baby,” said the mother, quite horrified. “How could anyone do such a thing?”
The queen regarded her a moment longer with those slanted eyes. Around them, the crowd of revelers were quiet and watchful too, and the mother wondered again if she had said something offensive without realizing it.
But then the door opened, and though she knew that she probably shouldn’t, she could not help but stare at the courtier and the bundle in his arms.
He had dark hair, her son, just like his father. It had come in in soft wisps that curled over his little forehead and ears, exactly the color of the rich earth turned up in a fresh-plowed field.
And then she could not help but stand there and drink the sight of him in: his plump rosy cheeks, his eyes blinking sleepily against the dim light, his chubby arm poking out over the blanket he was wrapped in, which was of fine green cloth, the little hand making its little fist.
When she could finally tear her eyes away, she looked up at the queen, who was gazing at her knowingly. “Here is your babe,” the queen said. “Are you not pleased with the care we have afforded him?”
“Oh, Your Grace, I am so very grateful.” And she was indeed, for she knew just how easily they could have been cruel as they had been kind, how much harder they could have made it for her.
“It may be better care than you can afford him,” the queen added slyly. This the mother did not answer, because she did not know how to say it without being insulting. Her gaze slipped back to her baby, and in her arms the other baby stirred, as though in answer.
With a nod from his queen, the courtier came forward on footsteps that sounded like leaves ruffling in the wind. His hair was like starlight, his eyes like the depths of the ocean, and though he was perfectly polite about it, his eyes lingered hungrily on the baby in her arms. The mother shifted her arms a little, to better shield her. She was so close now, so very close.
She reached out for her baby, shifting the weight of the other baby, who was now peeping curiously about her, to rest on her hip. She actually touched him, brushed the tips of her rough fingers against his cheek, which was as soft and as fuzzy and as warm as the skin of a ripe peach.
And then he was in her grasp, the weight of him heavy against her other hip, and the chamber seemed to shimmer in her vision, but she knew it was not because of any trick of the queen’s but because she was crying. As well as she could manage, she curtsied to the queen and waited to be dismissed.
But she was not dismissed. The courtier reached for her—or so she thought, and flinched away, suddenly anxious.
“What is it?” asked the queen, sounding amused. “You have your babe back; why hold onto the other?”
“But that’s my baby too,” said the mother.
The courtier’s face had twisted up altogether, dark eyes glittering, and though the mother wanted badly to back away from him, she did not think it would be well done of her.
The queen looked at her, looked at her so deeply that she felt as though she had been speared through and through, pinned to the damp rock under her feet. “You did not give birth to it,” she remarked.
“But I fed her,” said the mother, “and bathed her, and swaddled her. I have tended to her needs, and she—she is mine too. They are both mine, equally.”
She did not know why her voice had not shaken, but she was glad of it, for this was not a moment to be uncertain. They were heavy in her arms, but they balanced well on each hip, the human child and the changeling.
“My queen,” said the courtier, more snarl than words, and took a step toward the mother. There were tears pricking at his eyes too, sheening them leaf-green.
But the queen silenced him with a single diamond-hard look. There was something considering in her eyes, something like she had encountered a thing brand new. A little smile twitched about her mouth, but this time it was not merely amused. It was, the mother thought, even a little surprised.
And then it was gone, vanished like a child’s whim. The queen looked toward the courtier and tossed her head, proud as any wild horse out in the surf.
“Why not?” she said.
The mother stood there, a baby on each hip. Under her bare feet the stone was warm and damp, like that hazy day when her husband had gone off to the war.
And—just like then—she waited, and waited, and waited.
When she opened her eyes next she stood on that cliff by the sea under the rising moon, weighted down by the babies in her arms. They blinked up at her, those violet-blue eyes and those soft brown ones, sleepy both, and the girl child nuzzled her face against her side in a way that said she was growing hungry. The moonlight sparked bright in her hair.
And her other child, the boy, was looking at her with the curiosity that only fearless babies have. She wondered how he would like it, the home that the three of them would live in together, the rough cloths that would be all that she had to offer him. But babies are adaptable.
And so she passed the standing stone that had no hole in it now, brushed its carvings that were too worn to read now with her fingertips. And so, with a child under each arm, she began the long walk home.