Domnall and the Borrowed Child

The best and bravest faeries fell in the war against the Sluagh, and now the Council is packed with idiots and cowards. Domnall is old, aching, and as cranky as they come, but as much as he’d like to retire, he’s the best scout the Sithein court has left.

When a fae child falls deathly ill, Domnall knows he’s the only one who can get her the medicine she needs: Mother’s milk. The old scout will face cunning humans, hungry wolves, and uncooperative sheep, to say nothing of his fellow fae!

We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s Domnall and the Borrowed Child—available in paperback, ebook, and audio format November 1oth from Tor.com!

 

 

For centuries—more than that, millennia!—since the beginning of time itself, the fae had celebrated the Spring by finding the bluebells and creating a faerie ring. And now, apparently, that was all over. Too dangerous, squeaked the Council. Times have changed. Tradition simply tossed to the wind like dandelion seeds.

Domnall stabbed his walking stick into the muddy earth to navigate the bog as carefully as possible. Dirty snow still crusted the north side of the hills. He spat and trudged through the mud as the afternoon sun sunk low. Maybe he should head out, leave this place and plead for safe passage from the sluagh—they still ruled their lands, at least. A chortle escaped him at the thought of his short round self jogging behind a pack of high-flying sluagh, terrorising the local villages. Maybe not.

A scrabbling sound ahead broke into his thoughts and he froze, scanning the scrubby land for movement. When nothing else stirred, he crept carefully towards the protection of the woods.

Leaving the Sithein was too dangerous, so the elders said. Domnall muttered under his breath. Everything was dangerous. One day they’d pull boulders to the front porch and barricade the door, leaving the Cu Sith outside to scratch and whine for the rest of eternity.

Domnall’s job was to find bluebells and simply report their location, as if they were a new hazard to be marked on the maps, a human settlement or unexpected party of sluagh travelling through.

At dawn, the younger scouts would venture out, blinking confusedly at the sunlight, and follow his directions. Their job was to collect the dew and return it to the Sithein for the cèilidh’s starlit drink. Domnall shook his head in disgust.

He froze at another rustle, up ahead by the trees. This time he saw it: something large moving between the trees. He slipped behind a moss-ridden log and peeked over to get a better view. Predator or prey?

His heart stopped when it came into view. A human child, she was, wearing a dark green wool cape. She knelt, rummaging around the forest floor, and then stood up again. Bad news.

Domnall didn’t know of a human settlement near here, but the children never roamed that far from their huts. Every year, the humans encroached on more territory, driving the immortals closer together. He stood stock still, keeping himself invisible against the landscape. His right foot sunk into the mud and the cold wet of the bog soaked through into his soft leather shoes. He clenched his jaw but did not move. After a few minutes, the human child turned and retreated into the woods.

Domnall took a slow, deep breath and then dashed forward, hoping to follow her from afar, find out where she’d come from. He skidded on an icy patch and cricked his ankle, which was already aching from the cold and wet.

That was the problem, he thought with a grimace. The fledgling fae were coddled and fussed over and the elders obsessed about the dangers of the world and no one went out except him. He was too sore and too tired and, by Finvarra, too ancient to be doing all the bloody scouting for the Sithein, while the younger scouts warmed their hands by the kitchen fires and peeked out past the Cu Sith every now and again.

The human disappeared into the distance. Domnall had no chance of finding the settlement now.

But there, just over the next wooded hill, was a shimmering sea of blue bells. Domnall limped over. He took note of the local landmarks—he absolutely would not be joining a group of unseasoned scouts in the dawn trek to gather dew. It was a fine location, perfect for a midnight revel. If only his people weren’t as stupid as sheep. The tragedy of the war was that the wrong people survived. Domnall spat. Then a sly grin crossed his face.

He glanced over his shoulders to make sure there were no witnesses, and then he looked at the dusty green-blue buds again. He tugged his jerkin up with one hand and used the other to enhance his aim. His voice rose in a squeaky falsetto: “Enjoy our drink of the evening,” he trilled. “The light taste of a damp dawn on wildflowers, collected and enhanced by our most handsome scout.” He shook it a bit to make sure they all got a dose and let out a hearty guffaw. “Idiots, this is what nature really tastes like.” He gave his wee friend a shake and then pulled down his clothes with another glance around the woods.

Oh yes, he’d show those scouts exactly where to go. The whole Sithein would get their share of dawn-soaked dew and like it.

 *     *     *

The sun had almost sunk out of sight by the time that Domnall hiked back to the Sithein. His hip hurt and his legs were chilled to the bone. But when he crested the final ridge, he saw a familiar figure in bright yellow with blue fabric wrapped around his shoulders. A smile broke out on his face. Only one person wore such horrendously bright dyes.

“Tam!”

Tam waved back and walked towards him across the flattened area where they would hold the revel.

Domnall paused to catch his breath. “What are you doing out here? You’ll blind the butterflies with that tunic.

Tam laughed. “I was looking for you.”

“They have me doing the drinks catering for the next dance.”

“Stealing a bit of whisky?”

“I wish. Dew of bluebell and last year’s stale honey.” A smirk twitched at his mouth.

Tam’s face lit up. “But that’s great! Does that mean we’re going out for the faerie ring? I thought…”

“No, and more’s the pity.” Domnall scowled. “We’ll have it right here. They’re sending out the youngsters at first sunsight to collect the dew for us to drink at the end of the revel. That’s the modern way. We’re not trusted to dance among the bluebells until dawn, old friend. ” A grin crept over his face. “A word of advice. Don’t drink it. It’s going to be an extra special brew.”

Tam raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know what you are up to; I only came looking to warn you that Maeve’s looking for you.”

Domnall groaned. “Don’t tell her you found me.”

“Too late,” said a voice directly behind him. He turned to see Maeve standing next to the Sithein’s shaggy Cu Sith. Both of them were glaring at him. The evening sky filled with black clouds, chilling his joints. Everything ached. But there was no point in expecting Maeve to have any sympathy.

“Maeve, I was going to come straight to the nursery to talk to you but I must get this report in first, that’s all.”

She sniffed and looked down her nose at him. “This is more important. One of the children has taken a chill.”

Domnall straightened. “How bad?”

“Very,” she said, her mouth a tight line. She had dark shadows under her eyes and her bleached tunic was wrinkled and stained. “Can you get her to mother’s milk?”

He swallowed his fear and nodded. “Aye, of course I can.” He knew a place just about an hour away, with iron hung on the walls and a [freshly-carved] cot near the fire, a new baby arriving. He could swap her there. Yet, he couldn’t stop the question from escaping. “Are you sure she needs it?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t.” She looked him up and down. “Are you sure you can keep her safe?”

“Of course I can. I’ll see to her.” He rubbed his aching hip. “I’ll take her after moonset, so it’s proper dark.”

Maeve stomped back into the Sithein without another word.

“Guess you are working tonight, then.” Tam put a hand on his shoulder.

Domnall nodded. “Not put one of ours in a human cot in what… a hundred years? Longer. You should have been there when I brought that mortal babe back to his family.” A chuckle escaped him. “I had a bit of ragwort, stole it from a sluagh raid ages before, waiting for a chance to use it. So, it was me and old Fernie, remember him? Before he disappeared. I helped him drag the babe back to the hut on a piece of canvas. He waited outside while I grabbed our little one. We jumped into the fire and used the ragwort to go straight up the chimney! You should have seen the mortals’ faces. Before they even had a second to chase after us, Fernie shoved their babe through the door and ran for his life. We laughed for weeks.” Domnall laughed. “Yeah, that was old Fernie. Never did anything quietly. Not like the slithering and sneaking we do today.” His anger returned. “It’s disgusting, you know? That child must be near death for Maeve to even talk about swapping the child for a human one, because we’re good neighbours now and we don’t do that kind of thing. Well, maybe once this child is saved, we’ll remember who we are. Maybe then, we can stop cowering in the shadows and we’ll be able to live again.”

Tam took a step back and Domnall realised he was shouting. “Sorry, mate.”

“So, looking forward to tonight, are you?” His smile was wry.

Domnall swallowed hard. Tam knew him too well. He looked his friend in the eye. “Yeah, I’m scared as a hairless mouse. If the humans catch me, they’ll cut me to pieces just to find out how long it takes me to die. You hear horror stories of the sluagh, but that’s nothing compared to a human who’s captured an immortal.” And I’m exhausted and every joint hurts and there’s no one I trust to do it better. He clenched his fists to keep from shaking. “But I’ll do it and I’ll do it right.”

Fat raindrops began to splatter against the grass. The two friends turned to find shelter in the Sithein. The Cu Sith snuffled and sneezed wetly at Domnall as they drew near. “Thanks for that,” he grumbled.

Tam patted his shoulder as they went their separate ways. Domnall tried to remember the layout of the village and then shook his head. Worrying about the switch wouldn’t do a mite of good. He resisted the temptation to go straight to bed and made his way to the kitchen instead. A bowl of roast nuts and a spell in front of the warm fire would make everything better, he was sure of it.

 *     *     *

Smoke tickled Domnall’s nose as he entered the nursery. An earthenware pot filled with hot coals sat in the corner of the room, radiating a steady warmth, with woollen blankets stacked up at the side. There were a dozen beds, rough canvas mattresses, but only three were occupied. Spring water trickled down a moss-covered rock wall into a shallow pool at the bottom where a skinny young boy was bathing. Domnall winked at the boy. Maeve shoved Domnall forward with her broom. She swept away the leaves that Domnall had tracked in from the floor and then sniffed.

“You reek of mushrooms and mead. You probably aren’t in a state to keep yourself safe, let alone a child.”

Domnall bristled but a grin from the boy cheered him up again. Maeve grabbed an old bucket full of muddy water. “Last one in bed gets this dumped over their head,” she threatened, with immediate effect. She would too.

When her back was turned mopping the floor, Domnall waved over the boy. “You look like you could look after this for me,” he said, handing over his walking stick. “Mind that you keep it safe.”

The small face blushed with pleasure and little fingers clutched the stick tightly. He’d struggle to hold onto it once Maeve got wind, but it did the young ones good to keep her on her toes.

Domnall cracked his knuckles, ready for work. “Where is she?”

Maeve waved the bucket towards the fire pot. The smile disappeared from Domnall’s face as he drew near. The woollen blankets were wrapped around a wee shivering faerie with tangled black hair. Her dark eyes took over her face. She looked familiar; he’d seen her peeking at him at one of the dinners. Domnall turned back towards Maeve, unable to stand the stench of illness. “How long has she been like this?”

“A week, maybe two. Daoine gave her some herbs but it’s not helped.”

Maybe two? The poor mite. “What’s her name?”

“Nighean.”

Domnall knelt next to her. “Hello Nighean. How are you feeling?”

She stared at him with overlarge eyes. “Not very well.” A tear slipped from one. “Am I going to fade?”

“Oh no, squirrel, absolutely not!” He took her sweaty hand and held it tight in his own. “I’m going to take you to get cured. The mother’s milk of the mortals will chase the fever away.” He kept his voice bright. “We’ll disguise you and sneak you into a human house. It’ll be an adventure!”

Maeve snorted in the background. He ignored her and squeezed Nighean’s hand. “I need you to be brave. I’ll tell you all about it on the way there. Do you think you can walk?”

She held his hand and stood on shaky legs, face pale with the effort. There was no way he could get her to the settlement like this. He rubbed his knee and turned. “I’ll carry you. You just need to climb onto my back, gently now, that’s it.” He rose unsteadily. “Let’s get Maeve to tuck that blanket all around you.”

Maeve fussed behind him. “Have you got the amulet?”

“Yes, in my sporran.” He tapped the pouch tied to his waist.

“You’ll make sure she’s safe, won’t you?”

“Of course I will,” he snapped, and then bit his tongue. Maeve was as frightened as he was.

Nighean held on tight, hot face pressed against the back of his neck. He ignored the ache already starting in his knees and jogged out of the nursery to give Maeve confidence. It’d been centuries since anyone had put a changeling into a human home, but he wouldn’t trust the job to anyone else. And for all Maeve’s snide comments, she’d asked for him specifically. He wouldn’t let her down.

 *     *     *

Domnall kept up a cheerful patter to keep Nighean from dozing. Every time he felt her grip start to loosen, he piped up with a new story to keep her awake. “You’re a brave one,” he told her. “You’ve been farther afield than anyone else in the nursery except Maeve!” He told her about the owl hooting in the distance and the snuffling of the badgers and about the deep, dark loch created from the tears for a dead fae princess.

They were not even halfway to the human settlement when he stumbled forwards, cursing the sluagh dagger that had sliced his tendon so many years before. He landed hard on his knees, unable to break his fall without dropping Nighean. She woke with a loud cry. Domnall sat in the damp shrubbery and wrapped her up again in the blanket until her tears stopped. Poor little thing just wanted to be left alone to sleep.

Something rustled near them and he sprung up with another low cry. “As long as the night creatures are still rustling, we’re safe,” he told her in a whisper. He helped her clamber back onto his back. “Now, we need to get you to the humans. Did Maeve explain about being in their house to you?”

A soft nod. She was falling asleep again. He swiped the sweat from his brow and then paused at the sound of a soft snarl in the distance. Wolf, wildcat, fox… all of them were dangerous after the long winter. He jogged faster. “I’ve got a special amulet for you, which we’ll slip on when you are in the crib. It’s proper ancient magic. This is the only one left, so you must take extra special care of it. Don’t take it off for any reason at all.” He jiggled her until she nodded. “It’s the amulet that hides you in plain sight. The humans won’t see you, not unless they look very close. They’ll believe you to be one of their squalling young. You have to be careful, though. It’s unreliable, magic is, even the ancient sort. So don’t call attention to yourself. Human newborns can’t walk and can’t talk, so you musn’t either. Are you listening? You must keep the necklace on and you must not speak. Got that?”

She snuffled in her sleep. Well, she wasn’t likely to get up and talk to the humans, she’d barely said three words all night.

A shadow moved in the dark. Domnall froze, his heart pounding. With Nighean on his back, he was as vulnerable as a three-legged lamb. He knelt in the mud and leant forward, freeing one hand to wipe the sweat from his face. Nighean was a dead weight. He shifted her sideways, draping her across the top of his shoulders like a rag doll. Her hand twitched against his chest as he slowly stood but she didn’t wake.

The frosted grass crunched under his feet. He carried on. There was no other choice.

 *     *     *

When the musty scent of wet wool reached him, he knew they were close. A fresh-water loch lay in the low-lying glen, with slender canals reaching like tendrils across the fields of the small village. Ahead in the darkness, he saw the night reflected in the large brown eyes of sheep. They lost interest within seconds and went back to grazing lazily in the dark. He crept forward, teeth clenched against his pain.

Finally, they reached the hillside orchards that marked the edge of the village. He breathed a sigh of relief. This close to the humans, they should be safe from the night predators. Well, the four-legged ones, anyway.

The first house came into view, rough stone walls topped with a flat roof of thick turf. He wrinkled his nose: this hut held sheep, not people. He tiptoed past the dark stone walls of the huts. The village was fast asleep. Just past the curve in the stream was the home he was looking for: a low stone hut like the others. There was a small rent in the sod where a wisp of smoke escaped: they were keeping their home warm for the baby.

He lowered Nighean to the ground with a relieved grunt. She whimpered.

“Shhh.” He placed a finger over her mouth. The heat still radiated from her in the dark night. “Remember what I told you.” She clutched his arm tightly in response. He wrapped her up in the woollen blanket and hid her behind the rubbish piled by the side of the hut. The door creaked as he pushed it open. He peeked inside.

He could see a large post and a wooden table by the orange glow from the low-burning coals of the fire. At the far side was a wall of hanging animal hides. That must be where the mother was sleeping.

He glanced behind him at the huddle of huts. No sign of any life. He motioned to Nighean to stay quiet and crept into the house.

Ah, there was the cot, an old horseshoe hung over it. He barely gave the iron a glance. If they’d been clever enough to put it inside the cot, it might have caused problems; hung on the door like that, it was simply decoration.

The wooden cot had high sides of roughly hewn pine. Domnall stood on tip-toe and peeked inside. A fat human baby with a red thatch of hair on his head and plump, wet lips slept on the straw mattress.

Domnall glanced around the room for something to stand on but there was nothing. With a nervous glance at the hides, he put his shoulders against the pine and slowly pushed the cot off balance. The baby shifted sideways as the cot tipped. Domnall gently lowered the cot onto its side and caught the baby.

It hiccoughed but did not wake. Domnall let go of the breath he hadn’t been aware that he was holding. “Nighean,” he whispered. No response. He crept outside. She was dozing again, her fever-flushed face pressed against the cold stone wall. He pressed a finger against her lips and shook her shoulder. “You’ll be safe in the cot in just a moment. Almost there.”

Nighean stumbled behind him into the hut. They needed to move fast now; the baby was snuffling unhappily. Domnall pulled the amulet out of the pouch at his waist. He tied the leather cord around the baby’s neck and pressed the stone to his chest. The old scout took a deep breath, focusing his attention, and then quickly removed the amulet again, shortened the cord and then draped it around it around Nighean’s neck before pulling it tight. The illusion of the baby, if it held, would wrap around her like a blanket, covering her from mortal eyes. It was the most basic of foolery, but that was enough.

Domnall lay the baby on the woollen blanket and dragged it out of the cot to the door. “Remember what I said,” he whispered. He helped Nighean into the cot. “Keep the amulet on and don’t speak. Let them carry you.” Her eyes were already closed. Domnall sighed and pushed the cot back upright. “You’ll get some of the milk soon, just stay quiet.”

The baby spluttered unhappily. Domnall half-carried, half dragged it out of the hut, pausing only to push the door closed behind him. Then he paused to check on the baby. It was a pleasant enough looking thing, chubby face with wispy red hair and grey eyes wide with amazement. They just needed to get away from the huts, then they’d be fine. He wrapped it up and dragged the blanket through the mud as fast as he could. The baby made curious sounds muffled by the bundle. Domnall dashed past the remaining huts, holding his breath until it burst out of him at the bottom of the hill.

The sheep watched him with dull interest as he swaddled the thing up again with its head free. He pulled it to his chest and tied the corners of the blanket around his neck and waist. It made wet sounds but didn’t cry. Domnall took a deep breath of relief.

He’d done it! A smile broke across his face. Nighean was getting the milk to cure her fever; she was going to be all right. Everyone would be talking about his daring switch. He was a hero. His aches and pains faded as he carried the baby back to the Sithein, looking forward to a warm dinner of oatmeal and a well-deserved nap.

Excerpted from Domnall and the Borrowed Child © Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, 2015

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