Authors: T. A. Barron
The boar snarled again, this time more like a raspy laugh. The whole body of the beast tensed, nostrils flaring and tusks gleaming. Then it charged.
Though the boy was only a few feet from the tree, something kept him from running. He snatched a squarish stone from the ground and hurled it at the boar’s head. Only an instant before reaching them, the boar changed direction. The stone whizzed past and clattered on the ground.
Amazed that he could have possibly daunted the beast, the boy quickly bent to retrieve another stone. Then, sensing some movement over his shoulder, he spun around.
Out of the bushes behind the ancient oak bounded an immense stag. Bronze in hue, except for the white boots on each leg that shone like purest quartz, the stag lowered its great rack of antlers. With the seven points on each side aimed like so many spears, the stag leaped at the boar. But the beast swerved aside just in time to dodge the thrust.
As the boar careened and snarled ferociously, the stag leaped once again. Seizing the moment, the boy dragged the limp woman into the hollow of the tree. By folding her legs tight against her chest, he pushed her entirely into the opening. The wood, still charred from some ancient fire, curled around her like a great black shell. He wedged himself into the small space beside her, as the boar and the stag circled each other, pawing the ground and snorting wrathfully.
Eyes aflame, the boar feigned a charge at the stag, then bolted straight at the tree. Hunched in the hollow, the boy drew back as far as he could. Yet his face remained so close to the gnarled bark of the opening that he still could feel the boar’s hot breath as its tusks slashed wildly at the trunk. One of the tusks grazed the boy’s face, gashing him just below the eye.
At that moment the stag plowed into the flank of the boar. The bulky beast flew into the air and landed on its side near the bushes. Blood oozing from a punctured thigh, the boar scrambled to its feet.
The stag lowered its head, poised to leap again. Hesitating for a split second, the boar snarled one final time before retreating into the trees.
With majestic slowness, the stag turned toward the boy. For a brief moment, their eyes met. Somehow the boy knew that he would remember nothing from that day so clearly as the bottomless brown pools of the stag’s unblinking eyes, eyes as deep and mysterious as the ocean itself.
Then, as swiftly as it had appeared, the stag leaped over the twisted roots of the oak and vanished from sight.
I stand alone, beneath the stars.
The entire sky ignites into flame, as if a new sun is being born. People shriek and scatter. But I stand there, unable to move, unable to breathe. Then I see the tree, darker than a shadow against the flaming sky. Its burning branches writhe like deadly serpents. They reach for me. The fiery branches come closer. I try to escape, but my legs are made of stone. My face is burning! I hide my eyes. I scream.
My face! My face is burning!
I awoke. Perspiration stung my eyes. Straw from my pallet scratched against my face.
Blinking, I drew a deep breath and wiped my face with my hands. They felt cool against my cheeks.
Stretching my arms, I felt again that pain between my shoulder blades. Still there! I wished it would go away. Why should it still bother me now, more than five years since the day I had washed ashore? The wounds to my head had long since healed, though I still remembered nothing of my life before being thrown on the rocks. So why should this wound last so much longer? I shrugged. Like so much else, I would never know.
I started to stuff some loose straw back into the pallet when my fingers uncovered an ant, dragging the body of a worm several times its size. I watched, almost laughing, as the ant tried to climb straight up the miniature mountain of straw. It could have easily gone around one side or another. But no. Some mysterious motive drove it to try, spill over backward, try again, and spill again. For several minutes I watched this repeating performance.
At last I took pity on the little fellow. I reached for one of its legs, then realized that it might twist off, especially if the ant struggled. So I picked up the worm instead. Just as I expected, the ant clung to it, kicking frantically.
I carried the ant and its prize up and over the straw, dropping them gently on the other side. To my surprise, when I released my hold on the worm, so did the ant. It turned toward me, waving its tiny antennae wildly. I caught the distinct feeling that I was being scolded.
“My apologies,” I whispered through my grin.
The ant scolded me for a few more seconds. Then it bit into the worm and started to drag the heavy load away. To its home.
My grin faded. Where could I find my own home? I would drag behind me this whole pallet, this whole hut if necessary, if only I knew where to go.
Turning to the open window above my head, I saw the full moon, glowing as bright as a pot of molten silver. Moonlight poured through the window, and through the gaps in the thatched roof, painting the interior of the hut with its gleaming brush. For a moment, the moonlight nearly disguised the poverty of the room, covering the earthen floor with a sheath of silver, the rough clay walls with sparkles of light, the still-sleeping form in the corner with the glow of an angel.
Yet I knew that it was all an illusion, no more real than my dream. The floor was just dirt, the bed just straw, the dwelling just a hovel made of twigs bound with clay. The covered pen for the geese next door had been constructed with more care! I knew, for I sometimes hid myself in there, when the honking and hissing of geese sounded more to my liking than the howling and chattering of people. The pen stayed warmer than this hut in February, and drier in May. Even if I did not deserve any better than the geese, no one could doubt that Branwen did.
I watched her sleeping form. Her breathing, so subtle that it hardly lifted her woolen blanket, seemed calm and peaceful. Alas, I knew better. While peace might visit her in sleep, it escaped her in waking life.
She shifted in her slumber, rolling her face toward mine. In the lunar light she looked even more beautiful than usual, her creamy cheeks and brow thoroughly relaxed, as they were only on such nights when she slept soundly. Or in her moments of silent prayer, which happened more and more often.
I frowned at her. If only she would speak. Tell me what she knew. For if she did know anything about our past, she had refused to discuss it. Whether that was because she truly did not know, or because she simply did not want me to know, I could never tell.
And, in the five years we had shared this hut, she had revealed little more about herself. But for the kind touch of her hand and the ever present sorrow at the back of her eyes, I hardly knew her at all. I only knew that she was not my mother, as she claimed.
How could I be so sure that she was not my mother? Somehow, in my heart, I knew. She was too distant, too secretive. Surely a mother, a real mother, wouldn’t hide so much from her own son. And if I needed any more assurance, I had only to look at her face. So lovely—and so very different from my own. There was no hint of black in those eyes, nor of points on those ears! No, I was no more her son than the geese were my siblings.
Nor could I believe that her real name was Branwen, and that mine was Emrys, as she had tried to convince me. Whatever names we had possessed before the sea had spat us out on the rocks, I felt sure somehow that they were not those. As many times as she had called me Emrys, I could not shake the feeling that my true name was . . . something else. Yet I had no idea where to look for the truth, except perhaps in the wavering shadows of my dreams.
The only times that Branwen, if that was really her name, would show even a hint of her true self were when she told me stories. Especially the stories of the ancient Greeks. Those tales were clearly her favorites. And mine, too. Whether she knew it or not, some part of her seemed to come alive when she spoke of the giants and gods, the monsters and quests, in the Greek myths.
True, she also enjoyed telling tales of the Druid healers, or the miracle worker from Galilee. But her stories about the Greek gods and goddesses brought a special light into her sapphire eyes. At times, I almost felt that telling these stories was her way of talking about a place that she believed really existed—a place where strange creatures roamed the land and great spirits mingled with humans. The whole notion seemed foolish to me, but apparently not to her.
A sudden flash of light at her throat curtailed my thoughts. I knew that it was only the light of the moon reflected in her jeweled pendant, still hanging from the leather cord about her neck, although the green color seemed richer tonight than ever before. I realized that I had never seen her take the pendant off, not even for an instant.
Something tapped on the dirt behind me. I turned to see a bundle of dried leaves, slender and silvery in the moonlight, bound with a knot of grass. It must have fallen from the ridge beam above, which supported not only the thatch but also dozens of clusters of herbs, leaves, flowers, roots, nuts, bark shavings, and seeds. These were only a portion of Branwen’s collection, for many more bundles hung from the window frame, the back of the door, and the tilting table beside her pallet.
Because of the bundles, the whole hut smelled of thyme, beech root, mustard seed, and more. I loved the aromas. Except for dill, which made me sneeze. Cedar bark, my favorite, lifted me as tall as a giant, petals of lavender tingled my toes, and sea kelp reminded me of something I could not quite remember.
All these ingredients and tools she used to make her healing powders, pastes, and poultices. Her table held a large assortment of bowls, knives, mortars, pestles, strainers, and other utensils. Often I watched her crushing leaves, mixing powders, straining plants, or applying a mixture of remedies to someone’s wound or wart. Yet I knew as little about her healing work as I did about her. While she allowed me to watch, she would not converse or tell stories. She merely worked away, usually singing some chant or other.
Where had she learned so much about the art of healing? Where had she discovered the tales of so many distant lands and times? Where had she first encountered the teachings of the man from Galilee that increasingly occupied her thoughts? She would not say.
I was not alone in being vexed by her silence. Oftentimes the villagers would whisper behind her back, wondering about her healing powers, her unnatural beauty, her strange chants. I had even heard the words
used once or twice, although it did not seem to discourage people from coming to her when they needed a boil healed, a cough cured, or a nightmare dispelled.
Branwen herself did not seem worried by the whisperings. As long as most people paid her for her help, so that we could continue to make our way, she did not seem to care what they might think or say. Recently she had tended to an elderly monk who had slipped on the wet stones of the mill bridge and gashed his arm. While binding his wound, Branwen uttered a Christian blessing, which seemed to please him. When she followed it with a Druid chant, however, he scolded her and warned her against blasphemy. She replied calmly that Jesus himself was so devoted to healing others that he might well have drawn upon the wisdom of the Druids, as well as others now called pagan. At that point the monk angrily shook off her bandage and left, though not before telling half the village that she was doing the work of demons.
I turned back to the pendant. It seemed to shine with its own light, not just the moon’s. For the first time I noticed that the crystal in its center was not merely flat green, as it appeared from a distance. Leaning closer, I discovered violets and blues flowing like rivulets beneath its surface, while glints of red pulsed with a thousand tiny hearts. It looked almost like a living eye.
The word sprung suddenly into my mind.
It is called Galator.
I shook my head, puzzled. Where did that word come from? I could not recall ever having heard it. I must have picked it up from the village square, where numerous dialects—Celt, Saxon, Roman, Gaelic, and others even more strange—collided and merged every day. Or perhaps from one of Branwen’s own stories, which were sprinkled with words from the Greeks, the Jews, the Druids, and others more ancient still.
Her shrill whisper startled me so much that I jumped. I faced the bluer-than-blue eyes of the woman who shared with me her hut and her meals, but nothing more.
“You are awake.”
“I am. And you were staring at me strangely.”
“Not at you,” I replied. “At your pendant.” On an impulse, I added, “At your
She gasped. With a sweep of her hand she stuffed the pendant under her robe. Then, trying to keep her voice calm, she said, “That is not a word I remember telling you.”
My eyes widened. “You mean it is the real word? The right word?”
She observed me thoughtfully, almost started to speak, then caught herself. “You should be sleeping, my son.”
As always, I bristled when she called me that. “I can’t sleep.”
“Would a story help? I could finish the one about Apollo.”
“No. Not now.”
“I could make you a potion, then.”
“No thanks.” I shook my head. “When you did that for the thatcher’s son, he slept for three and a half days.”
A smile touched her lips. “He drank a week’s dose at once, poor fool.”
“It’s almost dawn, anyway.”
She gathered her rough wool blanket. “Well, if you don’t want to sleep, I do.”
“Before you do, can’t you tell me more about that word? Gal—Oh, what was it?”
Seeming not to hear me, she wrapped herself in her customary cloak of silence, even as she wrapped herself in the wool blanket and closed her eyes once more. In seconds, she seemed to be asleep again. Yet the peace I had seen in her face before had flown.