Inspired by celtic mythology and classic fairy tales, Debbie Bennett's story Daughter of Lir won second prize in the David Gemmell Cup in 1995/1996 (an annual short story competition held by the Hastings Writer's Group and originally judged by David Gemmell himself...)
Daughters of Lir was republished in the Fantasycon 2000 souvenir programme book under the name Cally Andrews and can now be found in Debbie's collection of short stories, Cherry Picks, which is posted on Authonomy.
Daughter of Lir
There’s a keen wind off the cliffs tonight. Banshees wail in harmony with the mournful cries of the seagulls that circle above the waves. The tide is in too, a rhythmic pounding on the rocks – the sea’s heartbeat growing stronger as the hour approaches. There is a feeling of anticipation in the darkness; lives have changed, battles been won and kingdoms lost on nights such as this.
Standing on the headland, by the edge of the crumbling chalk with hair stinging his face like a thousand tiny insects, he waits and watches as he’s waited and watched for what may be a hundred lifetimes. If he closes his eyes, faces the wind and looks with an inner vision, he can see forever out there in the ocean.
But it’s not forever he’s looking for. Not tonight with the memories strong and the image of her so clear in his mind it’s as if time itself has looped back for him, giving him another chance to reach out for her, hold on to her and keep her as he’s kept her love in his heart for so long.
Aisling is her name. Daughter of the Gods and forbidden to one of his kind. Aisling, who came to him on a night like this and left him with such a longing that life became meaningless without her. A sea vision, the sailors said – a child of the ocean sent to snare mortal souls with such beauty and song that could charm the angels from heaven itself and make them seem pale shades, ghostly silhouettes against the spell of the children of Lir. Superstition and yet he believes, for he can hear her now, hear the haunting melodies in the wind and the sea.
There is a power in the song, and power still in the singing.
But his Aisling has no need of such weapons. He is already under her spell and willingly. They have pledged their love for one another and though he knew her time was short, he has her promise to hold onto. And when her father called her home, she swore to return one day, to love him as only a child of the Gods can love.
So each year he waits on the headland and listens to the voices of the sea, secure in an unearthly love for a woman who is not mortal. Each year he listens for the song and hears only the banshees’ cries, premonitions of a death for which he can only dream until he finds her again. For the love of a God carries the price of eternity and he knows he will never find peace without Aisling.
The wind stills to silence. The tide ebbs. There is magic in the air tonight.
Aisling? He dares not look, but forces himself to step closer to the cliff edge. Down below, wet sand shimmers in nacreous light. The sea has withdrawn, exposing rocks like black teeth, the mouth of the ocean come to swallow its prey. Behind the rocks something moves, glistening in the shadows and he can make her out now, a slim figure in a pale shift, her hair like seaweed dressed with pearls. She is watching him, one hand touching the rock, the other outstretched towards him, pleading with him. She can come no further; Lir will not allow it. This is as far as she can keep her promise and it is not enough.
There are tears on his cheeks now, as he knows he cannot see her again. She has risked much already. But how can he live, knowing they can never be together? He sighs. Take me with you. He has no need of speech. She will hear him, if she chooses.
A flutter in the air around him and suddenly there are swans. Four white birds fly above him, majestic in their splendour. Slender white necks outstretched, they circle him for some moments, climbing effortlessly only to swoop down, then rise again. Up and down, round and round, until he is dizzy with exhilaration.
Aisling! There is joy in him as he knows the waiting is over, the promise kept. Yet still the swans circle, as reality crashes back in with the boom of the sea against the cliffs below. The wind howls again, the savage and ancient anger of a God defied. Aisling has betrayed her father by falling in love and he will not give her up lightly.
The swans are flying away from him now, buffeted by the wind. And then they are gone, white arrows speeding out to sea. His body shrieks with the loss, a part of him ripped open and exposed to the wind and the night. But this time it is different, now he knows he can fly too, that all he has to do is believe.
Five white swans soar high above a deserted headland. She has stolen his soul, taken what she laid claim to all those years ago and he is no longer human. And if he is no longer human, then he is free.