Scottish Folktale about two sisters who fall in love with the same knight. I’ve given the characters names and am telling the variation where they are by the sea. I’ve also combined some other folklore from Scottish culture to add to the feel.
“On the high rocky shores of Caithness there stood a great keep, its white towers overlooking the ocean. Lady Agnes lived there with her husband Lord Fergus and their two beautiful daughters. The elder daughter, who they name Brannagh was a pale with long black hair and ice blue eyes. Brannagh was clever, and calculating, but grew jealous of her younger fair haired sister Orlaith, for she did not possess her sister’s gentle grace.”—Minstrel of Bones
“Orlaith!” Brannagh laughed pushing her arm. “You can’t just gawk at serving men.”
“I wasn’t gawking!” she smiled sheepishly. “I was..admiring. And I know that I’m to wed one of a higher standing. What’s the harm?”
Branagh smirked as she rolled her eyes at her sister and turned her eyes to the tall red haired serving boy. Rowan was an attractive lad, and Brannagh could barely hold her sister to it, after all, what was a little harmless gawking. At least for Orlaith there was no harm in gawking at the more handsome serving lads. Brannagh’s gawking as often seen by her noble parents as inappropriate and unladylike. Brannagh had to swallow her rage as she tried to ignore the clear bias. Everything Orlaith of the golden hair did was forgivable or somehow even endearing, but if Brannagh, who was only a year older, were to be caught doing the same she would be reprimanded or even more severely punished if they saw fit. Bitterness soured in her mouth as she tried to push the thought back. It wasn’t as if it were Orlaith’s fault that no one made her face the consequences of her actions…no matter how dire.
Brannagh limped over to the window seat and looked out into the ocean letting the sounds of Orlaith’s insistent chattering. Brannagh remembered bitterly that her childhood injury was a result of sunny and golden Orlaith’s carelessness. She shrugged off her resent, surely Brannagh’s fractured leg would have healed properly and her graceful gait been restored if she were a gently and true enough person. At least that was what many around the castle liked to believe. The raven-haired beauty’s true nature is shown in her ungodly gait. Mayhaps the vixen was a changeling, a wiley child of the sidhe looking to take the throne and soon the whole of Scotland. It amazed Brannagh just how many stories her awkward limp had inspired around the castle. She knew it was ridiculous, Brannagh was simply a girl who fell from the docks at the age of ten when her sister foolishly wandered too close to the edge of the pier. Brannagh cringed as she remembered feeling where her left leg shattered as it crashed against the rocky shore. She still tried to walk with the dignity of a lady but she would never get past her painful limp.
“Orlaith,” Brannagh forced a smile trying to remember they were sisters. “There’s a ship on the see with massive sails!”
Orlaith rushed to the window to sit beside her sister, her blue eyes widening at the richly painted golden sun on the sails of the ship, rocking as it moved through the distant blue waves. Mists moved from the water, making the ship look as though it were emerging from the rolling grey mists and into the harbour. Brannagh fancied the ship had set sail from Tir Na Og and that it was indeed the sidhe that have come for Brannagh as she would be the consort of a great fairy hero or king. “Where does this one hail from?”
There was a flash of whimsical light in Orlaith’s eyes as a smile came to her face. “The ship bearing the sun is a great and powerful king and brave knight. Perhaps it’s Arthur come back from Avalon with the bravest and most virtuous knight at his side who has come to wed one of us!”
Brannagh thought hers was better. But Orlaith could have the point, it was a stupid game anyway. They watched more ships come sailing in until the orange sun sank far below the waves and the last beams of twilight painting the sky a dark blue. After the North star appeared Brannagh knew it was high time they return to their castle home.
After they returned home, Brannagh decided to retire for the night, lighting a chamber stick and nestling into bed with a book of collected lore long told from bards. Brannagh wished she were a bard. Travelling from place to place, seeing the world and telling grand stories of heroes that dwell in their kingdom’s noble history. But alas, such wonders were not meant for crippled Lady Brannagh.
Brannagh drifted off into a dream and she saw herself in watching the ships sail out of the harbour. But instead of her sister Orlaith being at her side it was a tall handsome man with broad shoulders and hair as raven as her own. His eyes shone like sapphires in the twilight and he had his arm wrapped around her shoulders. Brannagh was laughing with this fair man and while they watched the ships rolling by in the darkening sky and she felt him slip something onto her finger, she looked down and saw it glint in the fading sunlight. Brannagh’s fair knight had placed a gold ring upon her wedding finger.
“Brannagh!” she heard her sister call.
Brannagh groaned and pushed herself up squinting in the early daylight that poured through the window. “What is it?”
“A knight has come from the Orkney Isles and wishes to court one of us!”
Brannagh rolled her eyes as she pushed herself out of bed. “It’s probably you then. I doubt a knight would be interested in a cripple for a lady love.”
“That’s a wee bit grim, Brannagh. And I wouldn’t exactly call you a cripple.”e
Lest you have to deal with the guilt. she thought bitterly throwing on a dark blue silk gown over her shift and grabbing her twisted rosewood cane. “Why don’t we head down together then to greet this brave, noble knight.”
They walked down the stairs, Brannagh leaning on a hand maid while carefully placing a cane on the steps while Orlaith raved about who this great knight might be steps ahead. They finally came to the throne hall and took their perspective sides of the King and Queen, Brannagh by their mother’s side on the left, and Orlaith by their father. Both daughters stood tall ready to recieve the knight who would walk through the throngs to ask for one of their hands in court. Brannagh prepared for the cruel evaluation she would surely receive. At eighteen she was likely to be skipped over for people wondering why she had not been married yet, though the cane she supported herself on would be a clear give away. Superstitious bastards that simply couldn’t understand why her leg never healed. She felt bad for the Lady south of Edinburgh who was born with a deformity. If her injured leg was a sign of her wickedness, then a birth deformity was certainly an issue. Nonetheless, she stood proudly with a soft queenly smile and would appear to admire her sister’s suitor through everything he had to say. Brannagh was all but ready to join a nunnery anyway.
Changeling child going for the veil, I’m sure that will go over well.
A man came through the court to kneel before the king and queen with broad shoulders and coal black hair. “I am Sir Aidan, third born Prince of Orkney have come to court your daughters, your graces. It has come time for me to wed, and I’ve heard tales of your daughters’ beauty from Orkney, and I would be most happy to make one of your daughters my bride.” The man looked up, his sapphire blue eyes peering up at them as light from the windows played against his fair face. Brannagh had to stop herself from gasping as she felt her heart wildly beat out of her control. This Aidan of Orkney was the man from her dream. Perhaps Brannagh was fey-touched, for his coming was clearly foretold.
“Well, Prince Aidan of Orkney,” Lord Ferghus spoke. “As you see, I have no sons to claim my title after I die. As third son of the King of Orkney, would you be looking to make a home on your land holdings or would you be tending to issues here after I am dead?”
“I would hope that our son will inherit your lands when he is grown,” he said.
“Very well. Brannagh is to stay here with the husband she takes and see over my land holdings. Orlaith will be a suitable wife for you.”
“If you will, lord father,” Brannagh ventured. “Prince Aidan might find in his time here pleasant enough that he’ll want to stay. And if not, one of our sons would claim this land and be your ward to teach until he is grown. Aidan is a knight and a prince. Frankly, I don’t see a better match for me.”
“Very well,” her Ferghus sighed. “You shall court both Brannagh and Orlaith and decide which one to wed on Samhain.”
Brannagh stopped herself from leaping with joy. An easy task given her leg, but still her joy was great. Aidan was carried himself with great pride and was easy to look at. She remembered his embrace in her dreams, the sweet smile on his face as the sunset twinkled over the ocean. The kindness and warmth in his blue eyes. He was hers.
The days passed and Brannagh felt as though she were walking on air. Aidan had spent every night with her walking along the strand, careful to let her keep pace with him (which was rare), speaking of their future. She remembered one night with a particular fondness. Aidan had her one his arm as they watched the ships set sail into the sunset as they spoke of great distant lands out beyond the ocean.
“If we marry I will surely take you to these places, my lady.”
Brannagh’s eyes widened at his offer and couldn’t help but beam back at him. She simply watched him in admiration as the setting sun played across his face, making his blue eyes glisten while the wind blew his hair back. This is exactly how he had looked in her dream.
“I cannot wait for the day, sir,” Brannagh smiled, leaning in for a kiss.
“The moon will turn soon,” he said before meeting her half way to kiss her.
The two sat folded in each other’s embrace as the last rays of sunlight sank below the waters and Brannagh felt Aidan slip something onto her finger. She looked down to see the ornate leafy gold ring from her dream. It was all true. Damn what the peasants and castle folk said, Brannagh was not the cursed woman they thought, and Aidan knew it. Their superstitions had little baring when she was married to a prince. No one could take this away from her.
Brannagh hummed under her breath as she climbed the stairs to the chamber she shared with her sister, heedless of the pain. Aidan knew her, and managed to love her. Brannagh had always imagined she would marry an old lord with no warmth or humour. The sun was finally rising for her.
“Brannagh!” Orlaith squealed as she came through the door. “I have simply wonderful news!”
“Can I perhaps sit, down?” she laughed making her way over to her bed. “Now what is this good news?” she asked, but by the time she finished her sentence she knew what it was, identical to her own, glistening on her ring finger. Brannagh shifted uncomfortably and concealed the ring on her own hand.
“We will be married on Samhain…Next week!” she cried happily after detailing her day in the gardens with Aiden. “I simply can’t wait!”
“How wonderful,” Brannagh swallowed her despair forced a smile, she was used to it by now. “However I am weary, y’know how tired I get.”
“Of course,” Orlaith nodded with a wide smile and disappointing eyes.
Brannagh bade her sister good night and turned over to think, feigning sleep until she could hear Orlaith’s soft, but rhythmic breathing. Afterwards she rose quietly from her bed and tiptoed to the window between their beds and inhaled the salt air. Above the rolling waves stars swirled above, Brannagh could make out a few of the constellations in the sky that night and wondered what it might be like to be among them. Brannagh would never dance among the heavens, that was for Orlaith. Knowing this she turned her eyes to the rolling sea. Far beneath the waves, that seemed to be the only place or her. Brannagh pulled herself up onto the windowsill as pain shot up her leg. She looked back at Orlaith, sleeping peacefully while her sister was in the depths of despair. It was unfair she got everything, and Brannagh got nothing, but as long as Orlaith was around, that was how it would be.
* * *
Golden sunlight filtered through the window pane as Orlaith rose from her bed. Across from her was Brannagh reading a large leather bound book. “You’re up early,” Orlaith smiled. She had seemed so worn of late, she was happy to see her up with the sun once more.
“Well, sweet sister,” Brannagh said beaming…which was uncharacteristic of her solemn sister. “I figure that this time next moon you’ll be off to Orkney with Prince Aidan, and I want to spend what little time we have left together.”
“Brannagh!” Orlaith cried happily throwing her arms around her. “I know Aidan was courting both of us. I”m so glad you’re alright with this!”
Something flashed across Brannagh’s sapphire eyes as she looked away. She wrung her hands together and inhaled deeply.
Brannagh beamed widely once more. “It’s nothing, sister. My leg is just bothering me. Come! You’re to be married on Samhain and I want to spend every minute with you until then.”
“Well,” Orlaith pondered. “What would you like to do?”
“Why don’t we go watch the ships leave harbour. We’ve always enjoyed doing that.” Brannagh stood and hooked her arm in hers.
The sisters walked arm and arm speaking of Orlaith’s wedding, joking of the bad luck marrying on a day when ghosts and sidhe came through the week veil. “I am not going to be switched with a changeling bride.”
“If you’re so concerned perhaps you should wait. Lest you be whisked away to the Otherworld.”
“I’m certain that’s going to happen!” Orlaith laughed sarcastically. “But that’s not what you’re worried about.”
“Whatever are you talking about?” Brannagh forced a laugh. Orlaith was familiar with it.
“Stop lying to me, Brannagh.” she walked away from her. “You’ve been acting strange like last night. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“You!” Brannagh hissed a fire gleaming in her eyes. “Ever since we were little you have always gotten everything. Attention, pets, gifts, forgiveness, and now bridegrooms. Aidan’s not meant for you. You’re nothing more than a wee naive brat. Aidan’s wisdom and worldliness would only be wasted on you, and yet which of us does he want?”
This was beginning to become frightening.She had never seen Brannagh like this before, she was almost as a wild animal. That compassionate spark that she could always see fading was gone. Brannagh had become completely consumed by her own bitterness, becoming the monster the castle folk said she was.
“Brannagh,” Orlaith backed away. “This isn’t you…”
“The hell it isn’t!” she screeched. “Because of you I’ve lost so much. You forget I ruined my leg saving you from the depths! That was my first mistake.”
Orlaith’s heart shattered. How could she say that? Orlaith was a child, and it was a mistake, she never intended to cripple her sister’s leg, or take anything that was rightfully hers away. It wasn’t her fault Aidan liked her better, and she was certain it had nothing to do with Brannagh’s leg. And what of all those years, giggling together over serving boys, confiding their dreams to one another? What of every evening and morning they sat on this very dock? Did all of that mean nothing to her?
“I never believed what they said of you, and I still don’t.” Orlaith ventured. “We can make this right.”
“You’re pathetic!” Brannagh cackled. “All this time I’ve been with you, supporting you, teaching you, for years, yet all you can do is take. You’re a leach Orlaith, a parasite. I’m going to right that mistake I made a long, long time ago.”
And with that Orlaith found herself in the water, struggling to swim in the harsh waves, her hand gripping to the wet and jagged stone face. She tasted the brine rushing to her lungs as the undertow attempted to drag her down. “Brannagh!” she coughed. “Please! Take my hand…I can’t..I—“
“After all those years you still can’t swim?” she spat. “I know why I can’t swim, the hell is your excuse? Not that it matters. You weren’t supposed to survive that time I saved you. I’m jjust restoring the balance.”
Brannagh simply turned her back despite Orlaith’s cries. The last thing Orlaith saw was her sister’s long black hair trailing behind her as she walked away. She had never felt so betrayed, and couldn’t believe her own blood, least of all Brannagh who once sacrificed so much for her, could do this. There wasn’t much time to linger on her heart break, the waves were still crashing against the rocks threatening to pull her out to sea. She attempted to climb up the rock face, but the wet rocks and strewn seaweed proved to difficult, her hands slipped as she plunged back into the water, salt water forcing her body down ward as water filled her lungs. She flailed around in the waves, panicked. This was it, she thought as she breifly surfaced among the violent waves. She was going to die, and no one would know what became of her. Her body would rot in the deep, Brannagh’s dirty secret kept by the sea.
* * *
The minstrel boy walked along the strand smelling the brine and listening to the ocean. That was where he most of his song came from. Nothing like the song of the sea could be matched by man, but the boy dreamed he could come close. Great bards had become a rarity in the kingdoms of Scots, but he could dream of being the last great one.
It was Samhain, and later that night he was to be at the Lord Ferghus’s hall to play for his daughter’s wedding. The prospect of playing for a lord was exciting, and he could not wait.
A young woman with long golden hair stood in the ocean dressed in white, her sapphire eyes bore into him as she beckoned him to follow her. Knowing that tonight would be the hieght of fairy mischief, and that ghosts would stalk the streets, he tried to ignore the lovely woman, but felt compelled to follow, he couldn’t shake it off.
She led him silently to a washed up Lady on the shore with porcelain skin, a mouth that gaped open, sapphire eyes staring vacantly at the sky. It was when the woman knelt by the corpse he knew that this was her corpse.
“What would you have me do?”
She simply stared at him unblinkingly as fey voices from the sea called to him. “Craft a harp…” the fey from beyond the veil instructed. The mysterious fey were nowhere to be seen, but she remained still as the grave. A chill trailed down his spine as an image came into his mind, a gruesome curiosity that shook him to the core. It was of an open harp made of a human’s breastbone strung with three strands of golden hair. He understood what he was no supposed to do.
He tensed as he grabbed at his dagger. The knife plunged into the girls soft flesh as he opened her chest. He nearly vomited from the rancid smell of blood and the appearance of the lady’s innards, a dulled read and swollen. He tried not to think as he followed the instructions to craft the morbid curiousity.
When his was finished the voices stopped and the mysterious woman was gone. He stared at his harp wondering what the hell he was supposed to do with a harp of a maiden’s breastbone and then came to the grim conclusion. This woman he had just mutilated was the drowned sister of the prince’s bride. He shuddered to think that he might play it at the wedding, but Samhain night was not the time to reject a fairy request. That would be suicide.
The sun was setting when he came to the wedding hall. The bride sat beside her prince at the high table between Lord Ferghus and Lady Agnes. They regarded him the wide disgusted eyes as he set the bone harp down on a stone.
“How dare you bring that thing here!” the bride snapped. “Our family has suffered a terrible loss, and one the day the dead walk the earth you bring this macabre object!”
The minstrel boy fumbled for an answer, looking up at the strict eyed nobles. This could have him killed, but so would denying the request. He did not know what to do, his heart beat wildly in his chest and his fingers trembled. He opened his mouth to speak when to the shock of the hall, his gruesome harp began to play on its own.
An eerie melody rang through the hall before it was joined by the golden high voice of what he could only assume was the maiden who found along the strand.
“The brighter younger sister drowned,” the voice echoed through the wedding hall.
Everyone stared at the harp, with wide eyes and slacked mouths. The minstrel noticed the sister grew pale as she shook in her chair. He suspected it was not her grief that drove her to tremble. His suspicions were confirmed when the second string sounded.
“In terror sits the black haired bride.”
Guests of the wedding looked to the sister, staring in shock as the Lady Agnes wailed in pure agony. “Orlaith was your sister! You truly are a monster!”
Brannagh fell to her knees as her new husband and parents swarmed over her. “I–“
The final string sounded, the maiden’s mournful voice echoing through the hall “Now her secret you all know, and now her tears will surely flow.”
* * *
Lord Ferghus sentenced his eldest daughter to death with a heavy heart. He could not bare to look when the headsman fell his sword to Brannagh’s neck. He wondered where he went wrong, if there was any clue he missed, any indication she would do this. He turned to face his wailing wife. She keened like the banshee for days, and sleeping drafts only allowed for temporary relief. He wished to ignore this, just to shut out everything that had happened. However, Ferghus was haunted by visions of his daughters playing together as children. Orlaith was dead, and Brannagh did it. He had to face it.
Later that day he summoned the minstrel before him and thanked him for his services and bringing justice to his daughter. He gave him a small bag of silver and called him the “Minstrel of Bones”. He told the man to leave and take his macabre instrument with him. For the rest of his days, it is said, he could still hear Orlaith’s voice echoing through the castle’s halls.