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Excerpt from Niamh and the Hermit
By Emily C. A. Snyder

he daughter of a Fairy and a King, the Princess Niamh was glorious fair, so that just as once her father could not see for his christening curse, so others could not look upon Niamh for her beauty. And when the ten remaining Fairies came for the newborn Princess’s christening, even they were blinded and shielded their eyes.
    Niamh grew in size, age and wisdom, the constant delight to her parents, and to those who learnt to turn their eyes just so and at least converse with her. As she grew, so did her beauty, until even to sit near the Princess seemed like passing through a fire. Her parents alone could touch her when she came to age sixteen, for King Gavron himself was saintly, and Queen Rhianna doubly so.
    But as the days wore on, the counsellors grew fearful, for although they dearly loved their Sovereign and his Lady, and as much as they cherished Niamh—who could be brought to marry her?  There were no nobles’ sons good enough to withstand her radiance, nor were there any other princes—for this was before the kingdoms split, and Gavron had no male heir. Even among the honest burghers, the mayors’ sons or the chandlers’, none were found to even withstand an hour in Niamh’s company. And it was not long before all the land trembled in fear.
    “What a quandary is this!” one Duke, Llewellyn by name and most senior of all the nobles, said to his fellows. “We thought it bad when King Gavron could not see, but he set forth and was cured in ways miraculous to tell. But the Princess needs no remedy. This time it is we who lack.
    “And who shall rule after her?” he pressed, when the room grew silent with sullen rebuke. “For if none of us and none of our get are worthy of her beauty, then we are neither worthy of the crown.”
    “It is easy for you to speak,” a Count called forth, “for you are old and married and have often said that you prefer your country home to any palace. But there are those of us with sons a-bed, raving sick for a year and more now from having touched her hand; and those who have killed themselves for want of her. For there is no denying that she is a terror, no matter if you bespeak her through a veil betwixt—she burns, and we have suffered for it.”
    “You would have her defiled because your son left her side in holy raptures and renounced his right for a heavenly crown?” the Duke exclaimed.
    “I would send her to a convent, where she will harm no man further.”
    “And set yourself as King, no doubt?”
    “I should not hide within my country home, smug, surrounded by my married sons!”
    “There is one,” a lowly squire, Ewan, cried when it looked as though the Duke and Count might come to blows, “who might marry her.”
    His Knight, Lord Mackelwy, who had raised his hand to box the squire’s ears, stopped and permitted the youth to speak on.
    “I am from the far countries,” said the youth, “north and west of this land. And there lives a man, a Hermit, who is well respected by all his neighbours, far flung though they be. I myself have made pilgrimage to where he lives, and through his instruction came I to my lord’s service. I have never seen this man, but it is said that he has the head and tail of a lion, and the arms and wings of an eagle, those double marks of valour and of savagery, and is terrible to look upon. I know not how he came to that unhappy state—whether through birth, curse or sin—but it is this which has sent him to the life of a Hermit. Although I have never laid eyes on him, I know he has a soul equal to the King’s own, and it has been rumoured that he has performed miracles, and thus may be a fitting bridegroom for the Princess.”
    Upon hearing this, the counsellors all agreed that they could do no better nor worse than to beseech the King to parlay with the Hermit. To King Gavron they went, where Ewan again recited his tale. So simple was his telling that it moved the hearts of many with hope for Niamh—and more, with curiosity to see such a wonder as this Hermit.
    “Hath he a name?” King Gavron asked, when the squire paused for breath.
    “If he has a name,” Ewan answered, “I do not know it. But we all call him Duncan, for his hiding in shadows.”
    “And can any substantiate thy claim that such a man existeth?”
    “You have only to ask any man who has travelled to the north and west, Majesty, below the Ice Giants, beside Loch Corraigh.”
    With that the King dismissed his court, and leading his lady to their chambers, he asked her if she had ever heard of such a man.
    “I have not,” Rhianna said, shaking her sunglory hair. “Although those of my kin may. I shall ask Maelgwenn, who guardeth those lands—although I must admit myself disposed to believe the squire’s tale without my cousin’s word. For I have lived now five full centuries, and attended christenings of every sort, and have seen much stranger things than this!”
    “Aye,” Gavron said. “How well we know, beloved, the wonders and terrors of the Dark Wood, from thy sad banishment there and from my many sallies upon its border. A battle with a manticore wouldst convince many a stonier heart than mine what wonders are in this world.
    “But what concerns me, beloved, is from whence these abnormalities spring. If from a source outside himself, then I can well forgive him. Shouldst he prove himself a good man and true, gladly shall I give him crown and daughter. If, however, he brought his misfortune upon himself….”
    “These things,” his wife urged, “may not be divined by speculation. Let us amongst ourselves agree to send for this Duncan, and see what manner of man he truly is. We can do no more this even.”
    The King acquiesced to his wise wife’s words, and soon messages were sent to the Hermit, and also to Maelgwenn: the first a summons, the second an inquiry. From both returned missives. From the Hermit came a request to know for what cause he was summoned, for he had not left his solitude for fifteen years. The letter, written in an elegant hand and intelligent, although not overly proud, greatly impressed the King and Queen—an impression only deepened by Maelgwenn’s own correspondence.

   “My dearest cousin,” wrote he, “how glad am I to receive word from thee, since last we spoke was too long ago. I lament, even now, the misfortunes thou suffered at our fallen cousin’s hand—although how well I wont thy present happiness. It is a selfish lament, I concede. When once thou wert full one of us, I mean, with thy wings, how much more quickly such matters as these might be resolved! For thou mightest have flown to me, then, and so inquired over nectar and ambrosia, but thou hast chosen a mortal path, and so I fumble with mortal pen and mortal parchment, and spill the ink like footprints.
   “In the question put to me, I reply in fashion suitable to a Fae. Yea, I know the man after whom thou seekest. But on his past, I shall not speak. It is as dark as it is mysterious, and shalt come to light in given time, God willing. (Sure! And I must be out of practice to mangle my prophecies so!) As to his character, for that I will doubly vouch and more. But hear me now: as thou lovest thy daughter, do not delay in sending for the Hermit. Nor delay their marriage by courtship, or even by an hour, lest they never marry, and thy proud line dieth with thee.
   “Alas that I cannot think to end this note on hilarity, as I am wont to do. Thy concern, Rhianna, is the concern of us all. But be thou assured, that shouldst thou or any who calleth on thy name approach me for aid, I shall readily give it, though it cost me all I am.”

    So the heart of Rhianna and the heart of Gavron were appeased and worried all at once, for if Maelgwenn, the trickster of all the Fairies, thought the matter weighty, how much more dire must the matter be! So promptly they sent once more for the Hermit, with full and lengthy entreaties, calling upon every manner of persuasion and appeals to duty at their command. Long, then, must they wait for answer—for even by swiftest messenger and fastest horse, their hope could not arrive until the first heavy Harvest Moon at the earliest, and this was just recent Lent.
    Of Niamh’s would-be suitor, Gavron and Rhianna agreed to acquaint their daughter with all that could be told, for the half-year of waiting must suffice for a courtship. The Queen found her daughter coming from the chapel, fully veiled beneath a white mantilla and clasping her cherished gold-leafed prayer book. Behind her trailed two of her Handmaids, Gwendolyn and Magdwa, golden haired both, whispering between each other like two senseless butterflies wafting in the breeze. When they caught sight of the Queen, they gasped, swept low curtsies, and drew away respectfully. Thank God they did, for Niamh smiled joyfully beneath her veil, and her glorious eyes lit with an inner dancing flame, causing all around her to turn their heads and cross themselves. How dearly Niamh longed to embrace her mother, but how well she knew that to reveal her face would blind the only retainers willing to follow her. So the Princess allowed herself to be drawn away to her rooms.
    There the Queen revealed all that had closeted her and the King within their council chambers. But Rhianna’s heart sunk when first she told Niamh of the Hermit’s demeanour, for the Princess, always the best of daughters before, grew agitated and paced about the room, wringing her hands.
    “What can this mean,” she cried at last. “That I am so strange that none can bear me but a monster? I am not so good as to be ignorant of my effect upon the others who have courted me. And, although I weep for joy that some leave my side to take up Holy Order, still, it is hard when I hear other tales of those who have slain themselves or gone mad when they but approach the castle!”
    “So it is hard,” her mother said. “But thou must not take the blame upon thyself, or that which Heaven endowed. Those who come here have had their mettle tested, and some have been found wanting. Weep then for them, and for their souls, but not for thine own beauty.”

Copyright © 2003, Emily Snyder. All Rights Reserved.

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