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A Grimm Tale and a True One

The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli

"Don't you love it, Mother? We can shut our eyes and pretend we live in a candy house. All candy. Everywhere."

The Ugly One remembered how her child loved sweets. Asa was beautiful, and her mother tried to give her all the beauty she could though they were poor.

She worked as a midwife in the village where she was accepted for her healing gifts. She took simple things in exchange for her services: some food, a bit of wool, or perhaps a lovely ribbon for Asa's hair.

The hunchbacked woman was simply good, happy knowing that her talents were used to help others. Yet her neighbor Bala knew they would be rich if she could persuade the Ugly One to drive the demons from the burgermeister's son. The Ugly One protested. She was a midwife, an herbal healer sometimes, nothing more than God wished her to be. But when she saw the boy, yellowed and dying from a tormenting demon, she believed that God had given her another path.

The Ugly One was wise. She knew that exorcising demons was a dangerous business, yet as time went on and her power grew the Ugly Sorceress, as she was now known, became a little careless, and the demons were ready to take advantage.

She traded herself to them out of love for another, but she fled the wicked voices in her head that told her to complete her fall into darkness by devouring innocent children. The house she built all by herself in the faraway forest was plain, but she boiled sugar syrup from her field of beets to create marvelous candies. She strung them all over the outside of her house. Their sweetness and beauty reminded her so much of Asa.

Time passed. Iron teeth and ice water in her veins did not prevent the Ugly One from being sensitive to the smallest sounds from woodland creatures, many sent by the devils to spy on her. One morning she was roused from her bed by the sound of voices:

"'Throw me down some gumdrops, Hansel,'" says a light, high voice. The sound is musical, but the words cut me as deeply as any sword. A child is outside my home. A human child!
....
"I am slightly giddy. I speak, but my voice is musical, not my old, rough peasant's voice. No, it is the gentle voice of a friend. I am saying, 'Nibble nibble like a mouse. Who is nibbling at my house?' My words are sweet as the candy the children eat."

Brian Boru: Emperor of the Irish by Morgan Llywelyn

Cover to Brian BoruBrian Boru, son of the Lord Kennedy and his wife Bebbin, was the youngest of a family of brawling, wild boys in the valley of the Shannon River. His life was joyous and full until the day the Viking long ships made their way to Beal Boru. He and his brother Mahon knew nothing about it until they caught sight of the fires from the hillside where they tended sheep. They ran back fast. They knew that their father was away trading cattle, so there would have been no battle-just a slaughter and a looting.

"Every structure inside the fort had been set afire. The main lodge was burning and so were the several outbuildings and smaller lodges for Kennedy's dependents. There was a crash and a huge shower of sparks as a roof collapsed. With a gasp of horror, Brian jumped to one side, only to stumble over the body of the old shanachy. The man was dead and covered in blood."

When darkness fell, Aval, the banshee guardian spirit of the clan, wailed through the hills, mourning the Dalcassian dead. The sons hid in the old homestead, away from the smell of ashes and burning timber. No one slept that night while the voice of the banshee ripped and tore the air.

There was no mother to comfort Brian for Bebinn had been slain by the marauders. Brian was miserable and angry. He found it easy to start fights with the other boys. Brian was good at fighting, so good that the other boys' fathers complained to their lord Kennedy.

"You're too young to carry a sword, and your mother isn't here to watch you," his father said. So it was off to the monastery at Clonmacnois for Brian. He set himself to study law, languages, and history, especially the history of battles.

Brian learned ways to fight that were new to his people. He dreamed of leading Irish armies to drive out the Vikings. He dreamed of a land where young boys need never cry for their slain mothers. And then he set out to make such a land with his wits, his will, and his sword.