I forbid ye, maidens a',
That wears gowd in your hair,
To come or ganu by Carterhauah,
For young Tam Lane is there.
I knew what I was doing when I went to Caterhaugh. I knew the stories- hadn't I heard them all of my life? I knew the dangers- hadn't I been warned off of the place since I could walk? I knew that it was mine for the taking- had not the very walls been erected and sworn to my family name generations and generations before this one? Aye, and so I went to Caterhaugh.
I hitched my kirtle up and went with exposed legs. I trilled the paths and, as if acting out a story I'd known from time before, plucked the rose. And when he came, when Tam Lin appeared, I knew my time had come. When he grabbed me and pressed me to him, I knew the chance was mine. While I feigned to stave off his caresses, I knew I was the one setting the trap.
It was not that I did not, truly, feel a passion for him. His tawny hair gleamed in the moonlight, his coal-black eyes shone out, and his fair, fair skin seemed lit from within. Who would not feel desire for this man, whether he came to them from other realms or no? Who would not welcome his embrace, even knowing the events that would have to follow such an entangling? I tell you now- only those who were weak enough to fear. To fear the power, to fear the trial, to fear the sense of grasping one's fortune and claiming it for all to see and hear. I am not one of those.
When he had spent and I, too, had slaked a thirst, he bid me take the rose with me. I knew, at that moment, that I would see him again. I knew that he had a true aim and that what lay within me would be my claim on him. I didn't mention it then- I smiled and took the rose. I left that place and he thought I left him. I let him think that, even as I was counting how many months I would wait before returning with my news. Would I wait until the quickening showed through my kirtle, to give evidence of my truth when I swore it could be none but his? Aye, that seemed wisest.
Six months passed and I concealed all from those around me, lest they spoil my plans for Tam Lin. My plans for Caterhaugh. My plans for myself. I concealed and hid and finally stole back in the dead of night. I laid his rose, pressed and still smelling slightly of its delicate purpose, on the side of the well. He came, as I knew he would. I'd put on the thinnest clothing I had, that the showing would work its purpose. He saw, he blanched, he closed his eyes and knew without me saying anything.
"Tomorrow night," he said, finally. "The tithe to Hell is due, and it shall be me. If they take me, I cannot help as you and the child deserve. If they take me, I go to Hell and there is no returning. Will you stop them?"
I cried tears that were only partly for show. I widened my eyes, as if I were surprised that my lover were the captive of the Fair Folk. I took a steadying breath as if I didn't already understand the Old Ways that he was speaking of, and nodded as he gave painstaking instructions. In keeping the show of being a simpleton, I made him tell the instructions three times, to aid my memory. But it was an Old Dance, and I knew the steps, as if I'd taken a round before now.
The next night, I returned to Caterhaugh. I hid in the rose bushes, tickled by briar and stem, and kept quiet. The procession of the Faeries could be heard before seen, but steadily they came. Those who were not being offered to Hell were jubilant in their exclusion from the Rite, and they danced as they came. Others played instruments and sang, celebrating the terrible fate of their prisoner.
I had not expected the Queen to lead the parade, but there she was. Her hair was the darkest red I had ever seen, her skin pale and luminescent, as if she'd ground pearls and brushed the powder over her flesh. Her lips were so dark and still so red- had she painted them with blood, perhaps with Tam Lin's, preparing him for the greater pain that was his right as their chosen sacrifice? There was something familiar in her haughty gaze, in her assurance and regal demeanor, but I didn't have time to consider that. For, just then, a black horse passed me by.
After the black horse came a brown one, and I let them both pass me by. I was waiting for the milk-white steed which came behind them both. And there, upon his white, white horse, sat Tam Lin. He had told me the horse's color, he had told me that his left hand would not wear a glove though his right would. He said this as if I would find him transformed and not recognize him- but it was needless. Of course he was Tam Lin, the only one I desired, the one I was to save.
I spared no thought but reached, leaped, and pulled him from his mount. The horse kicked up and whinnied in an annoyed fashion, but I held fast my lover in my arms. The Queen of the Faeries had not yet taken note of the commotion, but I knew she would never touch my love ever again.
Tam Lin seemed to have a binding spell of some sort upon him, some strange and weird enchantment. He looked blindly into my face and I realized- it was not that he did not see me, it was that he did not know me. He began to struggle, trying to free himself of my grasp; it was he, himself, who called to his Queen to save him and let him be free.
"Hush, Tam Lin, father to my child! I will not let you go, now nor ever."
The Queen rode back and the revelers parted, giving her a wide berth to ride to where I was crouched over, still clutching my knight to me, as I whispered the same words to him in an attempt to calm him.
"I know you've cast a glamour- over him, over me, I cannot tell- so that he will not know me. But, fair Queen, do you think that will stop me from taking him from you? Do you think I will be so easily defeated?"
The Queen laughed and gazed down at me, taking my measure. I looked into her eyes, refusing to turn from her glance. The moment my eyes met hers I felt a shock all through my body, though I could not find its source. Perhaps it was the fact that her eyes were not cold, hard, or cruel. Her eyes were filled with pain, reluctance, and pity. I felt that I had somehow disappointed her, and she mourned what I was supposed to have been, what I could have done.
"Morgan, do you truly feel up to the task at hand? If you release him, you can walk from here unscathed. I can banish the child from your womb, I can even cause you to forget that you ever came to Caterhaugh with your skirt above your knee. Would you like that, child?"
How did she know my name? Why was her voice so smooth, so soothing? How could she, with those few words, be causing me to doubt what I had always known I must do? Was it another spell, or was it because I wanted what she promised to me? Could I accept- just walk away from all of this?
No- of course not! I chose it! My free will, of my own volition I had come here. Had I not?
"I know your thoughts, child, and I see so much more than you. I advise you to leave while you still can. Will you not relinquish your prize? What if I were to promise to give you Caterhaugh?"
"Caterhaugh is mine whether or will it or no. Cease with offering that which is already mine."
She dismounted and walked over to me. At her nearness, Tam Lin ceased his struggles and began to make strange noises- like a keen, a wail, a plea to her for his freedom. She did not even notice his presence, staring at me instead. She took my chin in her hand and turned my face up to hers.
"Morgan, if you follow this path, you will feel such exceeding pain that even your ancestors in yon graveyard shall shudder with it. I ask you- please, leave him to me. It is the only choice if you wish to remain safe. Will you leave, child?"
It must be a trap- a trap so that she will be free to give him to Hell. If I have not Tam Lin, I have not the right to settle at Caterhaugh, the home which had been my single desire since first seeing it. That was when I was told the tale of the Faerie prince who guarded it. That was when I knew that, though my family had built the castle and tilled the lands for generations, though they filled the nearby graveyard of which the Queen spoke, I could not take my birthright without freeing it from the presence of Tam Lin. And thus, I must take him for my own. And now he had fathered a child on me, and for the babe's sake, I could not leave him to his Hell.
"I will not give him up, no matter what you say to frighten me. He is mine now."
She sighed, heavily, and shook her head.
"I stay not to watch, for it is on your own head, Morgan. Your pain is wrought with your own hand. Remember that…"
She mounted her horse and rode away; not far, just enough, with her back turned, that she could not watch. And then the transformation began and I had not the strength to fight that and to watch her at the same time.
Tam Lin's body twisted and changed and even his scent was different. I looked down and saw that he was a bear. His huge jaw snapped and he snarled and he roared, sending flecks of saliva all over my face, but I held him all the more tightly for that.
He began to shudder and an unearthly scream ripped from his throat. He shimmied in my grasp and he changed again, this time into a giant, writhing snake. The snake's fangs gleamed and caught moonlight as its forked tongue flicked and smacked my cheek. But I held fast, refusing to budge an inch.
The transformation began again, and when it was finished, I held in my arms a lion. It was so big that my arms couldn't meet around its middle- I grasped its fur and did not relent. It seemed to be on the brink of opening its jaw and clasping my head within it as Tam Lin began to shake one more time.
The final form which was forced upon Tam Lin was that of a red hot iron. The iron seemed to surge with heat in my grasp, and I could feel my skin beginning to melt to it. I ran with all haste to the well, and flung the painful object within. I then plunged my hands in to it, hoping none of the assembled bystanders could see the tears of pain that etched down my face. Were they just pain, or were they doubt? I brushed all thoughts aside as Tam Lin emerged from the water.
He was naked and gleaming in the light of the full moon. He stepped out of the well and just past me. Just like that, as if I were not there, as if I had not just endured terror and pain unimaginable in order to save him from the death hold of the Queen of the Faeries. He walked away from me.
He walked over to where the Queen was, and I could see but not hear him address her. Then she turned her face to him and somehow it was as if I was seeing what she was seeing. In a sickening moment of crystal clarity, I knew it all.
"My love," he pleaded. "My Only- will you not take me in your arms?"
"Tam Lin," tears began to fall from her- my?- eyes. "You know that I cannot. I am no longer your mistress. You must go to Morgan, you must go with her. She bears your child within her, and that is a bond that cannot be severed. She has fought valiantly for your freedom, and she has won you from me. You are not mine."
He reached up and pulled her from the horse, just as I had taken him from his. They stood, face to face, and there were lifetimes of pain in the look that passed between them. The part of me that was still me, standing with wet and blistered hands, so far away, began to sob. It happened this way every time. Every seven years it was the time for the sacrifice, and every cycle presented another girl who was fooled into thinking Tam Lin was to be given to Hell, whose attempt to save him only resulted in her becoming enslaved in the same way she always was. It was foretold, it was foreseen, it was impossible for it to change.
I suddenly remembered the night, seven years before, when I had stood where I was standing now, and saw that his love was not something which offered freedom. When I understood that by ensnaring him I had trapped myself and my future. That no one could own Tam Lin, just as no one could own Caterhaugh. On that night I had been both the savior and the Queen, just like tonight. And, just like that night, we were given only this moment- this one exchange, where my love knew me and I knew him.
He would have to leave me and I would get back on my charger. I would lead the procession away, still to Hell, and give myself to its power and evil. I would also still be the girl by the well, the one whose great love would return to her side, go from this place, and wed her. But the fear in his eyes would never dispel; he would never look at me as he had that night we'd met, when he'd sealed our connection and signed it in the blood of my maidenhead. He would always wonder who was this woman and how she had claimed him without his knowledge.
Years from now he would meet another girl, one who seemed to understand that he was trapped in a servitude he did not understand, to which he had never agreed. She, too, would need to save him to get what she wanted- whatever that was. She, too, would come on this night and save him. And once more his memory of devotion to her would be wiped away from his mind and replaced with confusion. Once more he would have a moment where he would finally remember his love for the woman on the horse. She would try to dissuade the girl from her task, and the girl would be almost seduced by the woman she thought she knew, but would never recognize as herself- the woman she would be, the woman she used to be, all at the same time. For who would believe it possible for two people to follow the steps of such an old, strange, weird, dance- year after year, life after life. Morgan and Tam Lin would pay for their original sin by always being torn from one another, by the fact that he would be her husband but never know her. And Hell's Tithe would be paid in this way, every day, or every seven years. Either, both at the same time. And when time passed, their daughter would come, and Tam Lin would not know her, and she would save him. I would save him, I would damn us both, just as I did the first time I ever snuck into Caterhaugh with my skirt tucked above my knee, the first time I hitched it up further and rose above him in the moonlight and I spoke the cursed thought, "I would pay Hell forever in exchange for this moment."