Once, in a time long ago, Lord Liam lost his way while hunting in Graythorn Forest. Many avoided this forest because a witch of the wild inhabited it, and she had long since cursed the place.
Being a Lord and leader of people, he disregarded such superstition. He was the strongest and bravest, and he was determined to procure the magnificent stag that was said to wander these woods. As luck would have it, the stag made itself known within the first hour of the hunt.
Liam gave good chase before it disappeared again, into the depths of the tangles of undergrowth. After following its trail for hours, the lord finally gave up, knowing this continued chase was futile. For as brave as he was, he was not stupid.
So he turned back to follow the path he had carefully marked, only to find that everything had changed. After many hours, he knew he was lost, so Liam leaned against a tree to ponder his next steps.
Before long, an older woman approached him. Being the smart man he was, he knew this must be a witch of the wilds. This danger put him immediately on his guard.
“Hello, young man,” she spoke in a hushed tone, pushing back a dark hood and revealing her long silver hair. She was quite handsome for her age, and he found himself taken with her allure.
“You seem lost. Can I be of assistance?” She continued; her voice was soft and full, like an angel from above. If she indeed was a witch of the wilds, the stories did not speak of her beauty.
“I would like that very much.” His voice quivered when he spoke, and the lord found this very odd because he was typically quite confident. He felt the need to please this woman and was finding it quite challenging to focus.
Her violet eyes, flecked with silver, locked on his, hypnotizing him further. “My help comes with a price, young man. You must agree to this before I send you home.”
He wanted to protest and tell her that this forest was part of his realm, and she had no right to set such a price, but he could not find the will to reject her offer.
“I will pay the cost,” he finally whispered.
The witch seemed to grow three feet, and the silver flecks flashed red. “I know you are recently widowed and have many children to raise. They need a mother to comfort them, to hold them close, and keep them safe. I will lead you out of my forest, and you shall marry my daughter, Aoife. She is gracious and kind, and you will also find her relatively easy on the eyes.”
The king consented to the witch’s request with no hesitation. So deep in her thrall, he was. They confirmed the terms in blood. True to her word, the witch led Liam and Aoife to the outskirts of the forest. It was not long after that the two were wed.
Now, the witch of the woods was neither good nor evil. Her motivations were to lay claim to the realm that Liam lorded over.
Aoife was innocent, sweet, and pure of heart. Graythorn Forest was all she had ever known. The creatures that dwelled within had been her only friends, and she was not accustomed to talking to other people. Transition to castle life was hard for her. The people in the nearby village were mistrustful, knowing that she came from Graythorn forest. And while they were not outright cruel, they were not kind either.
Liam’s castle was more of a fortress than a home. Its cold stone walls quickly felt like a prison to a girl that had spent her entire life outdoors. His first wife had died over twelve years ago while giving birth to their youngest child, a daughter named Nuala. The other five boys ranged from age twelve to the eldest, Sean, twenty, and age with her.
The months passed, and Aoife fell into a routine. The boys were kind enough but were clear that she would never be their mother. Sometimes they would tease her for spending more time in the stables or kennels than the apartments. She much preferred speaking to the horses and hunting dogs. All the boys were interested in was learning the sword. They had no time for her knowledge of herbs, and her experience with earth magic made her a pariah.
Nuala was different. She bonded instantly with the young girl bonded, and Aoife was pleased to find that her stepdaughter had many of the same gifts she possessed. They would spend the days together, and Aoife would teach her young stepdaughter about the herbs and plants of the area, while the boys spent their time learning the sword and the hunt with their father and Captain Darragh.
One day, as the two of them were wandering the forest, Aoife heard a young doe reach out in her mind. Your mother wishes to speak with you. An image of a clearing that Aoife knew well accompanied the message the doe shared. Her fists clenched in anger, for this was the first time her mother had attempted to contact her since she had left the forest.
Aoife ignored the message and lead Nuala back towards the castle.
“Are you just going to ignore her?” Nuala asked, having heard the doe as well.
Blinking, Aoife turned to her step-daughter in surprise, “you heard the message?”
Joy flooded Aoife, and she wrapped her arms around the child. Loneliness subsided just a little as she realized she wasn’t alone. “Do not tell the townspeople. They do not understand.”
The girl looked at her quizzically and finally agreed to keep her secret quiet. “You should talk to her. She is your mother, after all.”
After finally agreeing, Aoife sent Nuala home. She did not want the child to be caught up in anything her mother had planned.
Her mother was waiting when Aoife arrived at the clearing. “It is time to get with child, time for an heir,” the witch spoke coldly. There was no greeting or comfort. Aoife was only a tool.
“But Mother,” Aoife whimpered, “Liam is distant. He has more love for the scullery maid than me.”
“That is easily fixed.” The witch replied, a small vial appearing in her hand. "Slip this into your husband's wine, at the evening meal, and he will not be able to resist you."
Aoife’s shoulders slumped, for she had no love towards the man. “Even if I get with child, Sean is heir, and then Cornelius, Finn, Patrick, and Angus. My child would never be the heir.”
Her mother’s laugh cackled eerily through the forest, and she met Aoife’s eyes, “you get with child, and I will take care of the boys.”
Usually, Aoife was mild-mannered and meek, doing whatever her mother asked, but her anger flared. She stomped her foot and shouted, “You will not harm those boys! You made me come here and marry Lord Liam. You charged me with loving and protecting the children, and that I will do!”
It was quiet for a long while, and Aoife was not sure if her mother had even been listening. A cruel smile played on the witch’s face when she finally answered. “I promise, not a hair on their precious heads will be hurt.”
In a flash of mist, her mother was gone. Aoife stared at the vial in her hand, knowing ignoring her mother’s wishes would make things end up much harder. Her mother never broke a promise. The boys would be safe.
Three seasons later, Aiden was born. He was a spirited baby with a shock of red hair. The other children welcomed their youngest brother happily, and even Liam was joyful. The family enjoyed one complete turning of the moon before tragedy struck.
The five boys had left on a hunting expedition and failed to return when expected. Trackers were sent out immediately to find them, but it was as if the boys had disappeared from the face of the earth. Months passed, with no sign or word, and finally, Liam was forced to declare them dead. Aiden was now his only living son.
Aoife was livid. Her mother had promised not to harm them! Early one morning, she gave Aiden to a nursemaid and headed towards the clearing to summon her mother. She reached out to the animals nearby, hoping to send a message, when a familiar voice entered her mind.
Aoife It was just a whisper, a chaotic voice.
She saw the great stag just beyond the clearing, tall and proud, and knew it was Sean.
Sean, she reached out, infusing her inner voice with strength. She knew in an instant what had happened. Do you know where your brothers are?
Sorrow was his only reply. Aoife shut her eyes and opened her mind to the surrounding forest. Cornelius, a great eagle. Finn, the clever fox. Patrick, a wee mouse. Finally, Angus, the stubborn boar. It was no wonder they couldn’t find each other, so different the creatures were.
She had never been as strong as her mother in spells. Her magic had always been deeper. She stretched with everything she had and could not break her mother’s spell. All she could muster was one night on the full moon when the boys could take human form.
She reached out to each of the boys. I will keep trying. Every full moon, come here.
A flash of white as the stag disappeared into the forest was the only reply she received. She could only hope they understood.
Before long, her mother arrived.
“How could you do this!” Aoife cried.
“I did it for us, child. And as you can see, the boys are not hurt. They will live full lives, albeit not the one they were born into” She chuckled, quite proud of herself.
Now Aoife knew that her mother’s weakness was her vanity, and in a moment of bravado, she attempted to trick her.
“I thank you, mother, for not hurting them. How did you accomplish this spell? Can it be broken?”
Knowing she was being deceived, the witch smiled. She was pretty confident that her daughter did not have what it took to break the spell.
“I crafted five enchanted shirts, one for each boy, and laid them out with their hunting gear. The moment they left the protection of the Castle, they transformed into their respective animals. Now, you know, every spell can be broken with the proper amount of sacrifice. For this one to be broken, and a new shirt must be sown, made from the fiber of the nettle. It must be collected by the one crafting the shirts, and not a sound can escape their lips. Silence for five years, one per boy. On the last full moon, before the fifth year is up, they must put on the new shirts. If the shirts are not completed, or a sound leaves the seamstress’s lips, the boys will remain in their animal forms forever.”
The witch smiled viciously at her daughter. “It’s best to let this be, dear one. Liam will soon forget his sons, and they will soon forget their humanity. You and Aiden will live happy lives, and all will be well.”
Defeated, Aoife sighed. To save the boys, who never really liked her, she would have to sacrifice her voice. She had a young son to raise that she loved dearly. How would she sing him lullabies with no voice?
“I don’t want to see you again, Mother. I want you out of my life,” she murmured.
Her mother just laughed, “I will not return until I need to.” Then the witch was gone.
Aoife didn’t make the shirts. She didn’t even try because she knew she would fail. The only chance the boys had was Nuala. Shortly after seeing her mother in the clearing, Aoife found the young lady and told her everything.
That very evening, Nuala disappeared. Lord Liam’s grief was beyond measure. The once-powerful man was a shadow of what he once was. The only reason he held onto life was to ensure his only living child reached his birthright. Aoife never spoke a word to him. Nuala’s only chance of success was to finish the shirts.