Once there was a girl who dwelt in a small farmhouse on an island. The girl was small, but her fate was not. The island was small, but its reputation was not. As for the farmhouse, it was merely small, though also cozy and beloved. At least this was so, before.
Before and after: these are the lines that divide lives and stories. For Katrin-of-the-not-small-fate and her younger brother Cyril, there were two befores and two afters. First, the loss of their mamushka, and then a second loss, their papa. Mother and Father gone: two befores, two afters, and a world of change.
After, the siblings remained under the same thatched roof on the same small farm with its six hens and its orchard of apple and cherry trees. They stayed together in body, if not in spirit, for Katrin blamed her brother concerning their father’s death.
The stone wall enclosing orchard and cottage, or stonecote, as their mother had called it, abutted the grounds of a famed abbey on Talisfarne, an island bounded to the west by the Siren Sea and to the north by the Leviathan Sea, sometimes called the Sea of Worms. The abbey sheltered religious brothers and sisters and hosted an abbey school (also famous) where dukes and thanes from the five kingdoms sent their children for a princely education. Katrin and Cyril’s father had tutored at the school before his death.
The siblings might have left the stonecote and taken up residence in the abbey dormitories, for, as children to a tutor, they were entitled to be educated, fed, and housed without cost. Possibly, each hoped the other would move out, but both were stubborn, and neither had. They shared other traits besides stubbornness, of course. They had the same hair color (brown) and eye color (sea-gray), but perhaps most importantly, they shared the same longing to know things.
When Katrin had been four, she had mistakenly believed her name was “Katrin You Never Knew Such A One For Questions.” This was what her mamushka said when introducing her to others, whether to the bee-keep or abbey matron or the magister of the library. Katrin’s little brother Cyril had only a short name: “Cyril Such A Sweet Lad,” and Katrin was especially proud of herself for being able to recite her very long one, which was more than Cyril could do. She had learnt the entire thing by heart, like one of her father’s scholars memorizing a psalm.
When she had been five, she had learnt her mistake.
“That’s not a real name,” an older girl had informed her.
Katrin, offended but also curious, had asked her mother for the truth of the matter.
“You are Katrin Halvorsdotter,” said her mamushka.
She was not Katrin You Never Knew Such A One For Questions after all.
However, it remained true that Katrin never tired of questions. Her habit of asking them garnered for her more facts than friends, but she was not dissuaded thereby. At six, she was curious about many things: insects and trees and shrubs and people—but mostly she was curious about magia. This was perfectly understandable for a child growing up with the Siren Sea to the west and the Leviathan Sea to the north. Talisfarne was surrounded by fey creatures with magia in their very bones.
“Is it magia,” Katrin asked her mother one night at bedtime, “when you mix tonics and salves?”
Her mother looked thoughtful before she answered. “I suppose it is a kind of magia. One which the Most High gifted the daughters of Grandmother Yeva.”
Katrin and Cyril knew the stories of Grandmother Yeva and Grandfather Adam.
“Does the tsar forbid Baba Yeva’s sort of magia?” asked Cyril, always interested in what was lawful or unlawful.
“No, my darling,” said their mother, kissing his forehead. “But it is not true magia. The greatest magia of all is love, my dear ones. This, you will learn as you grow older.”
Katrin thought she understood what her mother meant. When shins were bruised, a poultice of Viklond arnica was all very well, but it was not so healing as her mother’s caress. Love was strong magia. Of course it was.
As Katrin grew older, her questions grew as well. Her father encouraged these questions as surely as her mother shook her head over them.
“The abbey sisters in the kitchen are always muttering, ‘Magia multiplies,’” said seven-year-old Katrin. “What does that mean?”
“It is part of an old saying,” replied her father. “Magia multiplieth, magia graceth, magia calleth.”
Katrin cared only about the first part of the saying. “How does it multiply?”
“Come,” said her father, taking her to their apple orchard.
Here, he exchanged the word “magia” for “miracle” and spoke of how a fallen apple rotted, died, and in time, birthed a tree sprung from its seed. “And see how greatly it multiplies?” He pointed to the other trees in the orchard.
This might have been magia, but it wasn’t the kind Katrin wanted to know about.
Katrin wanted to know about the magia that haunted the shores of Talisfarne. She wanted to know about sirens’ magia, or that of the Golden Fish in the story, or of the water worms that trod the deep out toward Viklond.
When she asked her mother or the abbey sisters about fey magia, they said, “Hush, hush.” They said it and they crossed their fingers and some spat over their left shoulder as well. Perhaps, thought Katrin, it was a subject for when she was older, like the begetting of children.
At eight, she turned again to her father. A scholar must surely know a great deal about magia.
If magia was found in the bones of the fey, did it live in her bones as well?
Could she have some for her next birthday?
For her next, next birthday?
Her father had put down his scroll and chucked her under the chin.
“We must obey the law of the tsar,” her father replied, taking her in his arms.
She snuggled close, breathing the scent of sage that seemed always to cling to his clothes. “Why does the tsar hate magia?”
“He does not hate it, nor forbid its use.”
“Then will you barter Brother Anton for the reliquary of magia he wears on a cord? For my name-day gift at the feast of Holy Ekaterina?”
“I cannot. The law forbids it. None may barter or sell or trade in magia.”
“Even when it is enclosed in a reliquary?”
“Even then. This is how we keep the Tsar’s Peace.”
“We keep the Tsar’s Peace by not killing rusalki and water worms,” said Katrin. “That is what Brother Anton says.”
“Yes,” replied her father, “by not killing sirens and worms, but also by not trafficking in their bones—”
“Which is where the magia lives,” said her younger brother Cyril, who had crept closer to hear the conversation.
“Can you see what a small step it would be,” said their father, “from dredging bones out of a siren graveyard to taking the life of a very old creature who has gone there to die?”
“That would be very wicked,” said Cyril.
“It would,” agreed their father.
“Someone who would kill a dying fey for her bones might also kill an old but not-quite-dying fey,” Katrin said slowly.
“Yes, child. So the tsar has forbidden all trade in siren bones or the ribs of water worms or—”
“The skeleton of a golden fish,” concluded Cyril, reciting it by heart.
Katrin frowned. Did this mean that only the very wicked possessed magia? She did not think Brother Anton wicked.
“Could magia bring me a friend?” asked Katrin.
This was the real question. She was old enough now to notice that whereas her brother had many friends, she did not.
“Let your papa get back to his studies,” said their mother. “Come and help me with the elderberry shrub.” In the same way that Katrin never ran out of questions, her mother never ran out of chores.
So Katrin would go and help her brother pluck the lacy flowers from the elderberry bushes, or gather the berries that had ripened, or trim the canes, after asking permission of the elderberry, of course. But while Katrin labored, the questions would gather and gather until, eventually, inevitably, they began to spill forth once more.
“She must join her brother at school,” declared Mamushka.
“I think she must,” agreed Papa. He added brightly, “Perhaps she will find a friend or two, as well.”
“Perhaps,” her mother said, less brightly.
At nine years of age, therefore, Katrin began attending lessons at the abbey school with eight-year-old Cyril. If she did not find friendship, she did find answers to many of her questions. She came to understand that whether it could bring her a friend or not, she was not likely to possess fey magia in her lifetime. No one in her family had passed reliquaries down in the days before the Tsar’s Peace had forbidden the making or buying or selling of these items. And so, at ten, Katrin began to take more interest in her mother’s “magia,” the herb lore that Baba Yeva had passed to her daughters. She made a friend or two by tending the small injuries of her fellows, but the friendships tended to fade as the injuries improved. Katrin doubled down on her study of herb craft. Perhaps those cured of greater maladies would be friendly for longer.
But lessons with her mother were cut short when Katrin was eleven and the family was visited by the pustule sickness. Even if Katrin had been better steeped in her mother’s herb-lore, she was too overcome with fever to be of help. Baba Bogdana came and cared for them. “I am too stubborn to die of the pustule sickness,” declared the old woman. As Katrin’s fever lessened but her mother’s did not, Katrin’s thoughts turned once more to fey magia.
Was that a reliquary ring that Baba Bogdana wore on her gnarled finger? Too weak to rise from bed, Katrin begged the old woman for magia or miracle, whichever would make her mother well again. Katrin’s father recovered from the sickness, as did Cyril. So, too, did Katrin, waking in sound health one night as the abbey bells called for middle-of-night prayers. She padded, weak and slow, from her sleep pallet to watch Baba Bogdana as she hovered over Mamushka. Was the old woman chanting or praying? Invoking magia or beseeching the Most High for a miracle? Katrin, falling asleep at the foot of her parents’ bed, never found out. Her mother departed to Heaven before the bells called for dawn prayers, and Bogdana departed for the road outside the family’s cottage. It was too late to ask of the old herb-wife whether magia or miracle had failed to heal their mother.
By the time she was twelve, Katrin was a solitary creature who no longer asked questions about magia. If magia had failed, of what worth was it? If the miracle had not come, well, perhaps the Most High no longer performed them. Let the philosophers argue about the existence of miracles or the proper applications of magia. Katrin had chores. She had school. She had her mother’s herbal texts to study and herb beds to tend.
As for Katrin’s question about magia and whether it might gain her a friend? The question yawned and stretched, turned itself around three times, and settled for a long nap in an unused corner of her heart. If ever it stirred, she shushed it as one might a baby brother, lulling it back to sleep. Another three years passed away, and with them, Katrin’s father, too, passed away. Her questions however, did not. For even those questions afforded the coziest spot by the fire do not sleep forever.