This story began with Yvaine of the white hands and her heart’s desire, which was to have her lover return to her from the west. When he had been gone for many years, and it seemed likely he would be gone for many more, she went to the court of her cousin, and soon after her cousin’s court became involved in the War of the Five Princes.
In the war-days, ravens became fat on the eyes of dead men. They were as constant as shadow and less welcome than the fleas. The bolder birds adopted a knowing stare which many of the fighting men found intolerable. It was the sort of stare that knew intimately the difference in taste between your breast and your thigh. There was no chasing them away; whenever someone tried, the ravens chuckled prophecy and shat on the someone’s shoulder.
It got so that it was a relief when a battle began because it gave the men something to focus on beside the ravens, more of which seemed to gather each day.
During one of these battles, the war-prince Caoilte of the flame first saw Yvaine. He could have looked up from killing and seen her at the edge of his opponent’s field, stooped over the wounded and healing them with a touch of her hand. He would have seen her with her cousin’s household, at one of the four false treaties between the five armies: a sorceress who was as lovely as the stars and whose affianced was, most said, long dead.
Caoilte of the flame was as hot-hearted as he was hot-headed, and when he stood on the victor’s side he claimed Yvaine as a prize of war. Yvaine found herself alone and cursed to be contained within a tower which possessed no door. However, it did have a stair which spiraled like the inside of a shell and lead nowhere except the tower’s bottom and top. In the topmost room there was a window. The window was a joke, for Yvaine couldn’t look out the window according to the terms of her curse, nor could she use her sorcery to transform herself into a ribbon of wind or a sluice of rainwater or a fall of light or a butterfly or a bird with wings of frost and thorn, and in that fashion leave the tower. Should she do any of these things, she would die – and Yvaine, like most of us, did not want to die.
But the window gave her light and kept the air from going stale, and the tower would have been even less bearable without it. It faced a tall looking glass, which was remarkable insofar as its glass was as smooth as a waveless sea. Yvaine was permitted to use this looking glass as a window or to admire herself in it. (Those who had devised the prison were not particularly long on imagination when it came to what ladies might wish to do all day and all night.) She was also provided with three willow embroidery hoops, a slender needle and a loom. In a little copper box with a lid that did not quite close properly, Yvaine could find any color thread she desired.
After three years during which Yvaine never heard another’s voice, Caoilte came to Yvaine and offered her a bargain.
“In your keeping you have the key to this tower,” Caoilte said to Yvaine, tossing his burning hair out of eyes, while she silently looked at his face where it appeared in her mirror.
He waited expectantly. Eventually, Yvaine replied, “I think not, my lord.”
Then Caoilte leaned forward. In the mirror, his eyes were the same color as the underbelly of a storm cloud. The closer they seemed to come, the darker they seemed to get. “But you do have the key,” he said. “You could take my hand and I would take you from this place. I have need of a woman to bear me good strong sons. A woman who will not die when the first comes into the world.”
Yvaine declined his offer and Caoilte scowled, then vanished. Yvaine embroidered or wove the images she saw in her mirror. For Caoilte, she chose crimson thread and yellow. For a cockatrice she saw passing by one day, she chose evening blues and purples. For the river she heard beneath the wind and birdsong, she chose dark greens.
After many years passed, Caoilte returned.
“Yvaine, fair Yvaine,” he sang. “Today is the day of all days that the door to the towerless door-” and he laughed, drunk “- the doorless tower could open.” He smiled and licked his lips. “If the proper key is inserted.”
Yvaine chose the tower again. Caoilte raged and slammed his hand against the mirror. It cracked on his side and his palm left behind a smear of blood Yvaine could not wipe away no matter how often she tried over the following years.
“The one you waited for is dead,” he said. “Long dead. He’s been ground into dust for the greening.”
He held something up with his left hand. It looked very much like the medallion her lover had worn over his heart the last time she’d seen him, before he’d ridden away on his foam-silver stallion into the red west.
“He found solace in another before the end,” Caoilte said while he crushed the medallion into dust and washed his hands in a basin of foaming wine and salt. “And the date of his death was marked before his shadow had left your gate. Take my hand.”
When Yvaine still refused, Caoilte said: “You will be here either until I release you or until the youngest of the mountains has crumbled to ash and the very last shadow of the very last memory of the very last descendant of the race which will tell stories of the race which first heard mention of the shining host has lain dead for a thousand years.” Then he left her alone to consider his offer once more.
Yvaine did not find those terms of condition very appealing. She wove images of escape, of a river rising to drown a tower, of a bed shaped like a barge sailing on the river’s waves. She wove the woods at night and the hungry wolves and a knight who lay dead among the cabbage and briars.
And then one day a raven so black that he was blacker than black flew into the tower. This was the first time any living thing had ever done so, and Yvaine welcomed the distraction. “Hello, bird,” she said.
“Name’s Themory,” the raven croaked.
She soon learned that he was a sarcastic creature with a raucous laugh and the most insolent beak owned by any bird. But he was regal in his way, and he was wise, and anyway he was her only company, so they became as close as bird and woman can become.
One day he owned he did not visit Yvaine out of the goodness of his heart. He said: “Listen, princess. You’re lovely and all but if you don’t think I’ve got better things to do like eating corpses and harbingering doom you’ve got another think coming.”
He was, Themory said, sent by a stranger.
“Tell me who this stranger is,” Yvaine demanded, but Themory, being quite as insolent as his beak, would say only: “If I knew who he was, he wouldn’t be a stranger.”
“Does he have hair as brown as the redding autumn?” she asked.
“No; it’s as white as chicken bones or birches,” Themory replied, and he advised Yvaine to accept Caoilte’s suit. “He’s mad with wanting. He’ll agree to any condition you place on your acceptance as long as it doesn’t look like a trick. He’ll probably like it better.”
Yvaine considered this advice and the next time Caoilte of the flame came to press his suit she said: “It will be a very long time before the conditions of my imprisonment are fulfilled and I am released, unless I take your hand.”
He said, “Yes.”
She said, “Then I take it gladly if you will agree to a final challenge.”
Yvaine challenged Caoilte to perform three tasks of her choosing. If he failed, she would go free; if he succeeded, she would become his wife immediately and they would speak no more of the tower.
Caoilte narrowed his storm-grey eyes, tossed his burning hair, squinted in suspicion and then agreed to perform the three tasks. He called the leaders of three mighty hosts to witness the bargain and attach it in place by unbreakable geas; then Yvaine agreed to set the first task the very next morning with the same three lords as witnesses.
The next morning came and Yvaine said: “You, with your hands alone, must cook a pie of butterflies without singeing so much as one single fragile wing. I will, as incentive and so that I might truly judge your effectiveness, transform myself into a butterfly to be cooked along with the rest.”
And that is just what she did.
Now, Caoilte of the flame was invincible, unconquered and unblooded, a most terrible and merciless foe, a mighty Prince of War, and he was not familiar with the kitchen. The tribulations of the war-prince Caoilte of the flame while making the pie almost deserve their own story so great were they. In the end, after consulting a book and using his own considerable talent (for Caoilte was also a magician), he managed to cook a pie so mouthwatering in appearance and scent that it was with great difficulty the air itself managed to keep from devouring it.
When Caoilte sank a knife into the pie’s crust, steam poured out and, with the steam, butterflies. Their wings were radiant against the sky, of all colors. Yvaine fluttered out last of all, a moon-colored creature with streaks of deep blue iridescence dusting her wings.
Caoilte caught her in his hand and she took her own shape again. In response to the smug satisfaction in Caoilte’s eyes, she judged the pie fairly cooked. Not so much as the corner of one sngle wing had been singed.
But when Caoilte went to claim a kiss, Yvaine held up her hands. “Wait, my lord. You can cook a pie of butterflies without singeing a single wing. But others could do that, it has nothing to do with me.”
Caoilte impatiently gestured for the next task.
Yvaine said: “It is now evening. I will transform myself into a star. If you can rightly name the star that I am out of all the other stars in the clear nightsky then you are truly a worthy husband for me.”
The three mighty lords who were witness elbowed one another and grinned, for they had been well entertained by the spectacle of Caoilte cooking a pie.
Yvaine transformed into a star and although Caoilte watched to see where she went it was impossible to follow her path into the sky. All the stars flamed up at once, like an army whose swords all catch the brilliant of the sun in the exact same instant, and when Caoilte’s blindness faded the stars were mere stars again: distant and cool. Their song was, “We are legion.”
He narrowed his eyes and studied the sky. He thought that maybe that one over there or maybe even that one over there, but then again maybe this other one all the way over there, but he was never certain. He poured over star-maps drawn by philosophers and sailors, but he still could not see a star that didn’t belong. Finally, on a hint from an advisor, he snapped his fingers and commanded the moon to stop shining.
As soon as it the moon stopped shining, a few stars which had been invisible beside the moon’s luminiferous shine became visible and one particular pair drew Caoilte’s eye. One of the stars was large, brightly shining; the other was delicate and pale, and all but hidden behind the larger star. Caoilte marked that star and named it Yvaine.
The star promptly fell from the heavens and transformed back into the sorceress. Her pale cheeks were flushed and her eyes were both dark and bright and she was still shaking with the cold of those distant skies. Caoilte got so far as to touch her arms before she lifted her hands to ward him away.
“Wait, my lord. You can cook a pie of butterflies without singeing so much as a wing, but others could do that, it has nothing to do with me. And out of all the stars in the night sky you can rightly name the star that I am, so you are truly worthy to be my husband.”
Caoilte was pleased. Impatient and imperious, he gestured for the third task. It is said by some who tell this story that by the third task his eyes had been so blackened by desire that he was no longer seeing very clearly. Those who tell it this way are clearly on Caoilte’s side, but perhaps it was true, for it is true that by the third task his eyes were as black as soot instead of as grey as ash.
“For the third task,” Yvaine said, “I find it only sensible that it illustrate two things that are also one and the same. I must prove myself your equal and you must prove yourself mine. Otherwise, how could we be wed and how could I survive the birth or your first son? This is the third task, then: Transform yourself into a bird which I will then cook into a pie. You must come out of the experience unscathed and entirely unhurt, without so much as a single feather singed.”
Caoilte saw through Yvaine’s trick immediately, but he only smiled. He thought that she had set him a deliberately easy task because she wanted to give in and did not want to lose face. He thought, Even at the height of her power there is not enough sorcery in her little finger’s nail to burn me, because I am not called Caoilte of the flame for the hue of my blood or my hair. Then he took the shape of a hawk, and then a falcon, and finally a firebird.
Alone, for Caoilte was too noble to be cooked with common birds, and with her own two hands Yvaine placed the lord into a pie-dish. Then, very carefully, Yvaine placed a fragrant pie-crust over Caoilte and made patterns on the edge that looked like the calligraphic footprints of birds. She sprinkled cinnamon over the top and smoothed down the crust. She could feel Caoilte breathing quietly underneath. She stoked the kitchen fire until it burned hot and orange tongues licked toward the pie, anxious to cook it. Then she lifted a knife and stabbed it through the pie and, not coincidentally, Caoilte.
The very air caught its breath so each and every living thing the world over was forced to forfeit one. Yvaine withdrew the knife and anyone could see that the edge glistened as red as the filling of a pie – or blood. Then the youngest of the three mighty lords gasped. Even the fire hissed and spit, but the fire went unheard over the roar of sheer fury which sprang from Cailte’s throat. He screamed and screamed and screamed himself back into his war-lord’s shape, and he stood as pale as milk and all covered in fragments of pie. When he took his hand from his shoulder, a bloody red scratch was plane for all to see at the juncture where the neck meets the shoulder.
“You,” Caoilte said, in a voice which had scratched itself into tatters. He would have hit her if the geas hadn’t held.
Yvaine held up the knife. “Three have witnessed it. I charge you to acknowledge it. You’ve failed; I’m free to go.”
The three mighty lords nodded and Caoilte’s silence stretched until it was as thin as spring’s last frost. “I have lost nothing but a hag,” he said. “I acknowledge it.”
When he glanced at the blood on his fingers, his eyes were as blank as the river after it is silver with salmon. Then he made a cutting gesture with his hand.
“You tricked me. My blood is on your knife. Until it is clean, let you get nothing unless it be by blood.”
Then Caoilte of the flame strode away on foot, his hand clasped to his injury, and each of the three mighty lords bowed to Yvaine and left in their own way – one on the back of a silver fish, one on the back of a red fox, the youngest on the back of a wine-dark mare. I know, because I was there too and I squabbled with the ants for a piece of pie-crust.
Jessica Paige Wick is an editor, alongside the far more sinister Amal El-Mohtar, for the online poetry zine Goblin Fruit. Her own work has appeared in Cabinet des Fées, Strange Horizons and Mythic Delirium. She is a huge fan of Patricia McKillip, Remedios Varo and Seth Lakeman.
Image: Dana, Stephen Reid, ca. 1908.