“Who is Bírog?” the boy asked.
“I have told you before I am not your first mother.”
“Yes, but you are the only mother I know or need.”
Tailtiu smiled, stroking his hair. “Yes, you tell me so. Bírog is your second mother, and she is the one who introduced your father to your first mother, the one who bore you.”
“But who is she?”
“Bírog is a druid woman, who lives in the northern mountains…
Bírog lived among the northern mountains, listening to the trees and stones and the wind. So she heard Balor roar, even from Torey Island, when he learned his daughter had born a son, the son he had forbidden her because of a prophecy. She heard him bellow to his man to take the babe—and the babes of the women who were his daughter’s companions—out to the sea to be drowned. Bírog knew that a prophecy could be delayed—and Balor had tried, locking his daughter away from men in a doorless tower of glass—but they could not be denied, and she felt the stirring of action in her heart even while she heard the babies cry as they were bundled into a rough blanket, pinned tight with a thorn.
So it was Bírog was flying over the sea when Balor’s man rowed out into the bay with a coracle full of babies, and so it was that her whisper pulled the thorn from the thick wool, and so it was that the babies, only a few days old but every one a child of Cian, son of Dian Cécht, crawled straight over the side and into the water. Bírog flew down and snatched up the smallest and last of them as he just touched the waves’ foam, and her cloak brushed the others, turning them to seals. But the last babe, the tiny son of Ethliu, she carried in her arms to the plains of Eire. And it was these arms of mine that she put him in, the salt scent of the sea mixing with the warm scent of a new babe.
“So you see, my Lughaid, you were born first from your mother, Ethliu, and second from the sea itself, and third by the arms of Bírog who carried you on the winds with her magic.”
The boy looked at her, the brightness in his eyes darkened with thought. “I am glad I came here, to you, but why did the others give me away?”
“Well, Bírog gave you to me because she knew I needed a boy to raise and because she knew you needed a mother to raise you. Ethliu… she has had few choices, and keeping you was not one she could make.”
Ethliu, daughter to Balor, war-chief of the Fomoire, was born under a prophecy her mother gave. It rested on Ethliu like a heavy cloak, making everything in her life more difficult: she would bear a son, and that son would have a destiny, and that destiny would destroy her father. Balor loved his child, but he had no wish to be destroyed, so he built a beautiful glass tower and put Ethliu into it before she was old enough to know men or bear children. He sent women to keep her company, and Bírog to train her in knowledge and wisdom. The glass tower let her look out on the world, but she could not be part of what she saw, for fear of the prophecy on her.
More than one who knows her has called Bírog a thorn in their side, and this is in part because she serves the powers. Balor sought to deny the prophecy, but she knew it could only be delayed, and when Cian came searching on Torey Island for a cow he had lost, she knew him for the man to move the prophecy forward.
Bírog greeted him on the strand, asked his intention in coming to the island, and his honest answer assured her he was the man she needed. She told him that the only way he would ever win the cow was to enter the doorless glass tower. She knew that, once in the tower, Cian would forget the cow and think only of Ethliu and that he would do all that was needed to move the prophecy forward.
Bírog carried Cian to the tower and set him before Ethliu and the women with her and he did all he was asked by them, so that three quarters of a year later, Balor heard the cries of babes from the tower he had built and called for them to be drowned. He opened the door to the tower, the door that did not exist, and carried the babes away, giving them to his man to drown in the bay.
The boy looked more serious still. “My grandfather wanted to kill me. And my first mother is imprisoned.” He looked up at Tailtiu, a little afraid perhaps but certain she would answer him truthfully. “What is the destiny that is laid on me? How will I destroy my grandfather—and why?”
Tailtiu sighed. “That story is long and longer and goes back to the time when your father’s people and my people were one, before we fled, north and south, from this island to travel on foreign shores.”
“But you will tell me why, won’t you?”
She nodded. “I will tell you the story, why there is unkindness between our peoples, but the short of it is this: your mother’s people—who are no distant relations to any of us—laid claim to this place after your father’s people won it from mine. They have a hold over the Tuath Déa, for your father’s people allied with them before asking us for a place here. They made promises, and the Fomoire hold them to those promises to the very letter, even if it crushes the spirit. The king, Eochu Bres, the flower of the Tuath Déa, does not speak against them, but instead enslaves even the highest of your kinsmen and withholds both food and comfort at the bequest of the Fomoire.”
“And your mother, your first mother, is Fomoire.” She looked at the solemn boy and spoke what she had not meant to. “And this is a secret that not even the king knows: his father is of the same people as your mother, sweet boy. But this is not a thing to speak of and you must keep it quiet in your heart.”
The boy nodded. “The king is like me then—he was raised by his mother, as you raise me. He must wonder about his father, since he has never known him.”
Tailtiu stroked the boy’s hair, hearing what he did not say. “It is hard for a boy not to know his father. I sometimes think Bres sees Balor as his, though it is not so. We had all hoped his marriage to Bríg would set his heart toward her father, but instead he treats him poorly and hardly will look on him. Perhaps someone told him the Dagda voted against his leadership.”
The boy twisted a stem of yarrow through the hole in one of the stones, then used the stem to tie an oak twig to it. She hadn’t shown him the way of that, hadn’t worked that charm for him, but he seemed to know the working anyway. Holey stone for hearing and yarrow for sight, the oak for strength to bear the message. He had always been a clever child, but as she watched him she realized he was less of a child than she imagined. He was and had always been small for his age, but he was almost old enough now to be fostered for training instead of raising. They would want to take him away to foster with a warrior’s house and make the weapon of him they thought he must be. His size had fooled her, lulled her into peace, but she saw by the lines of his face that he would not be with her much longer. She took one of the oak twigs and squeezed it in her hand.
“I will kill my grandfather and make my mother an orphan,” he said quietly. “Because he will not lift his hand from the people, because he will not share the bounty of the land. And you have told me, it must be shared or all are lost.”
“Yes, my heart, that is all true.”
“My father will come for me in the spring.”
“Yes,” she said and her heart was heavy because it was true, “but before then there are still things I must teach you. Like how you earned your name.”
“My name? Didn’t my mother name me?”
“No, it was your grandfather who gave you your name, and a better piece of cunning I never heard. It was Bírog who planned it…”