It was growing difficult by the day to hide her guilt. It was as if the very walls whispered of what Aoife had done and the servants watched her with condemning eyes. There were swans in her dreams – four of them – and they started to cross over in her waking hours. It was only a matter of time before her husband found that his children were gone and that his wife was to blame.
His children. They were not her children. Her sister had borne them, died, and then she had married Lir as his second wife. And the children had been there, watching her cautiously, like she was some sort of strange hound brought into the house and they weren't sure if she would bite them or not. Oh, she could bite, to be sure. And she had dwelt on her resentment – Lir loved them more than he loved her – until finally she turned feral.
Four children of Lir. Four white swans. They haunted her dreams and painted her guilt upon her features.
Aoife was transformed into a raven as punishment. Blood dripped from her beak and her wings were tattered and ridden with foul insects, like the kind found among the dead. Crying hoarsely, she spread her wings and flew up and away from her people and no one could look at her as she went. They hid their eyes and she stared into the sun, hoping it would blind her from her punishment. Four white swans repaid with one horrid raven, cursed to haunt the battlefields and pick among the corpses that lay there.
For three hundred years the four children of Lir swam in calm waters and sang to the fairies that gathered by the shore. It was a song that reminded the listeners of what innocence was and of the moments when that was lost, when the willow tree came to autumn and when the streams came to winter. Aoife spent years flying across the land, hiding in broken forests while blood trickled down her jet beak and onto the branches below. And through it all, she dreamed of white swans and flocks of ravens surrounding her. In her dreams, they would chase her down and tear away her feathers until the wings were broken, crumbling, and she would crumble too and lie among the blood and mud and ash. She saw battles come and go and she would settle on the broken standards and sing and those that passed by would shudder and hurry on.
She saw the world change.
For three hundred years the children of Lir were by the freezing coastline where the winter storms battered them and froze their wings. The daughter would wrap her wings about her brothers and draw them to her breast. There was little singing then, and that which was done was sung to the black waves. Aoife sang to barren fields where grain had gone unplanted for years and it seemed every day held a gray sky. She saw ancient places go into ruin and she would hop among the rocks and sleep among them and dream of four white swans in the ocean. They would look at her then and she would wake and sing again.
Near end of the three hundred years she watched strange ships arrive on Erin's shores. Her cries greeted them and they shrank away, whispering and gesturing, drawing their hands across their chest once and once more. Blood dripped from her beak onto the bow of their ship.
For three hundred years the children of Lir lived on the western shores of Mayo. Here it was not as cold but the storms were fiercer and the children despaired of ever being free from their curse. Their songs, bleak now from so many years on the ocean, drifted to the shore where they were met by a mortal fisherman. The two came together, the immortal and the mortal, and told their stories. And he carried their stories to others and passed them down from generation to generation until a raven heard of them and made wing to the shoreline.
The four white swans were bobbing amidst the surf, stretching their necks for the shore. Aoife landed behind the mortal man and croaked, blood spilling out to stain the sand at her feet. She sang to him, fluttered her wings and sang. If he could listen to them then surely he could listen to another wretched immortal. She had spent years under bleak skies, wishing to be blinded by the sun, waiting for the day war would be forgotten and there would be no more battlefields to haunt. He must listen to her.
But he only picked up a stone and threw it. She fluttered into the air, crying, and the four white swans bowed their heads. The daughter's song drifted behind her wings as she retreated to the forests. That night, she slept with dreams of willows turning to autumn and the flocks of ravens that tormented her nightly were kept at bay.
The nine hundred years were at an end. The swans left the seashore and returned to calm waters inland where trees sheltered them. They could not find their kin – the fairies had long ago left this land to the mortals. Aoife and the four children of Lir were all that was left. She followed them to the lake, keeping her distance so that she could listen each night to their song. She envied them. A princess of the south would marry a prince of the north and their curse would be over – so she had said to them and so it would be done. She ruffled her wings and picked at her own plumage and envied them. In these nine hundred years mankind had not forgotten war and there was still a place for ravens.
The swans were found by a monk that lived in a small chapel near the lake. They sang to him, told him their story, and he fashioned them collars of silver. Aoife perched on the cross at the chapel's point and did not try to sing. Blood dripped from her beak and onto the stone, twining down to the foot. She watched the swans sing and watched people gather along the banks to listen to them. She watched them sleep at night, with the daughter wrapping them in her wings, and she herself did not rest. Not even with their song to calm her dreams.
The world had changed.
When a princess of the south wed a prince of the north guards came to the lake and demanded the swans of the monk. He refused and Aoife flew over their heads, calling down curses upon them. She flew over the heads of the four swans as the guards grabbed them and put chains on their collars, dragging them away towards the palace of the king of the north and his bride from the south.
The curse had come to an end. Aoife's spell was broken and she cried softly as the four children were transformed to their true forms. The guards backed away, the monk crept towards them, and Aoife cried silently from her perch on the cross at the peak of the chapel. The children were no longer children, their forms were hunched and shriveled and they barely had the strength to hold their heads up. Age had claimed them, nine hundred years of torment had claimed them, and Aoife had to look away from the sight. She stared into the sun.
The monk blessed them and baptized them. Aoife fell from her perch on her tattered wings and flew over his head, crying for him to bless her. To baptize her. She told him of the graveyards and the countless dead and how the humans would never stop warring, never, and she would haunt the battlefields until the earth itself ate itself up. She could not die. The four white swans – the four children of Lir – they were dying. She was not.
The daughter asked the priest to bury them together, with the three sons at her breast so that she could shelter them just as she had sheltered them for so many years out upon the ocean. He took her hands in his and gave his word that he would. And they died.
Aoife dropped to the ground and watched the blood from her beak trace streams into the dirt.
Nine hundred more years passed. The raven went from battle to battle, watching the world turn and all the old landmarks turn and turn again. Even the chapel fell into dust and nothing and the only thing that marked the grave of the four children of Lir was Aoife's memories. She returned to it often, crying her broken song and singing of the things the world was doing to the children she never loved in life. At night, she would sleep there, curled on the dirt. The blood from her beak would soak into the ground and she would dream of sheltering wings, a blanket of white wrapped around her, and there she would sleep and wait for a time when ravens would no longer be needed.