The tiny purple flowers were lovely, and Nuala focused on the little dots of color instead of the pain. Her hands, swollen and red from the day of harvesting. The rash was slowly creeping to parts of her body that had never even touched the stinging plant.
Breaking the spell was a complicated task, and there were to be no shortcuts. Typically, one would wear gloves when working with stinging nettles, but part of the process was the pain. To save her brothers, she would have to give herself to this completely.
Aoife had explained to her what fashioning the shirts would entail. At first, Nuala had thought it a jest, and a poor one at that. She had never believed the stories about her stepmother being a witch of the wilds, but pain and sorrow were clear on Aoife’s face. Nuala knew in her heart it was true.
It had been easy for her to sneak off the castle grounds, as her father barely knew she existed. He had no use for a daughter, aside from marriage to some faraway political ally.
She had gathered a few belongings and headed into the Graythorn forest. It was a dangerous choice, being so close to Aoife’s mother, but none of her father’s men would think to look for her there. The magnificent stag that was her brother Sean, led her to an abandoned hut where she set up residence.
Her other brothers stayed close, as well. They were barely hanging on to humanity, and Sean was the strongest, but the others often reached out to her mind as well. She never spoke back, of course, afraid that even talking in her thoughts could ruin her chance. Their presence offered her comfort, and they remained near.
Each day would start with harvesting the plant. Five shirts would take a lifetime, and she needed to complete them within five years. The first season was the hardest. Her skin throbbed with pain each night after spending hours collecting the awful plant. She would brew tea from the leaves to soak in, but it wasn’t enough. At one point, her hands become so swollen she couldn’t even gather for days. This would not do- if she were going to achieve her goal, there would be no rest.
Fall was coming, and hopefully, she had enough of the plant to get through the winter and finish the first shirt. Each night after gathering, she would remove all the leaves and set them aside for making the healing tea. Then she would place the long stalks into a giant tub of water. This water needed to be changed each morning. She would trek back and forth from the nearby stream to the tub with the single jug she had.
After about a week, she would remove the soaked stalks and place them on a rack to dry, and then fill the tub with fresh ones. It was tedious work, and sometimes she forgot to eat or drink, only remembering when passing out.
After the plants were dry, she would work each one until it split, breaking the stalk and scooping out the pith with her fingernails. Often this process would cause her to lose a nail, and when she lost too many, she would have to wait for them to regrow before retrieving more pith.
After that, she would work the pith until it was pliable and wind it into a ball of yarn to set aside for winter. This would build her stores when the plant was no longer available to harvest.
Aoife was the only person who knew where she was. Every couple of months, she would come by and drop off supplies. Nuala longed to talk with her and pour out her woes, but it was forbidden.
Sean’s shirt would be first. She poured all her love for him into the task, imagining his powerful arms bouncing her on his knee when she was little. He had been more of a father to her than her own. Nuala’s mother had died in childbirth, and sometimes she felt as though her father had blamed her. Sean had never made her feel that way. He had told her stories of their mom and sometimes even let her tag along on adventures.
The second shirt would go to Cornelius. He had been solid and silent as a child, but never missed a thing. Like her father, he had often been distant. She still loved him profoundly and poured herself into his shirt.
She struggled to find the love and joy to pour into shirt three. Finn had always loved to tease and trick her. He was clever and intelligent and sometimes cruel, but he was also her brother, and she loved him.
The third shirt would be the easiest. Patrick was by far her favorite brother and most like herself. He was quiet and thoughtful and a hard worker. His little mouse form was always close by, and she would leave him gifts of nuts and berries in his nest.
Finally, there was Angus’ shirt. He was the most obstinate, stubborn person you would ever meet. Technically, he was older than her, but he was the only brother she would attempt to boss around. Not that he would ever listen.
Each day she toiled away at her task from dawn until the very last ray of sunlight disappeared from the sky. She was careful never to light a candle, for fear someone would find her, or even worse; she would fall asleep and cause a fire.
The only exception was on the night of the full moon. She would go to a clearing that Aoife had shown her, and her brothers would arrive one by one and transform from their animal forms to the men they were. She could not speak, but they understood her task. When the first rays of morning touched them, they would return to animal form.
She listened to her brothers argue she should not suffer so and that they could just give in and become their animal forms. Then they would comfort her and give her gentle hugs. Even Finn was kind to her in these moments, for he knew her sacrifice. Each month she feared they would not return, but each month, they were there.
As the culmination of five years came close, Nuala raced to complete her task. Aoife had come less and less each year, and food and supplies had withered to almost nothing. Nuala’s already-slight frame had wasted away, but she would finish.
The night before the full moon, Angus’ shirt was almost done. She had only to attach the arms to the shirt. In desperation, so she could work through the night, she lit a candle to complete her work. Tomorrow this would all be over, and it would not matter who knew she was here. Using the last of her yarn, she worked and worked, and exhausted to the bone; she placed her head down to rest her eyes.
Pain seared through her as her eyes flashed open. The candle had tipped, and the flame had caught on her hair and the cuff of Angus’ shirt. Her mouth opened wide to release a scream of pain. Instead, she bit down on her lip hard, drawing blood and cutting off any noise. Tears of pain streamed down her face, and she beat the flames from the last shirt. The fire had ruined the arm, and she had no more yarn to fix it.
Anguish washed over Nuala as she realized there was no way around it. She had failed in her task. Her shoulders heaved in silent sobs as she sucked in air. She still had to try.
That evening, she carefully folded each of the shirts, placing the one with the burned arm on top. She strode solemnly to the clearing where she knew her brothers would be. If her last hope failed, it would be her chance to say goodbye.
One by one, they arrived, and she placed the shirt she had made with such love on them. Noble Sean, keen Cornelius, clever Finn, determined Patrick. When Nuala arrived at Angus, she hesitated, and her eyes turned down in shame. He hugged her tightly, removing the shirt from her hands and placing it over himself stubbornly.
The siblings sat together in silence for the rest of the night, hands intertwined, not knowing what would happen. As the sun peaked over the horizon, they watched as the light crept across the meadow. It touched each of the brothers, and miraculously they remained in human form. When it crossed Angus, one leg remained a cleft hoof.
Nuala looked at Angus, and her mouth opened, her voice cracking from disuse, “so… sorry.”
He just laughed and swept his sister in his arms in a giant hug. Then the six siblings linked arms and made their way home.