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Authors: T. A. Barron

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BOOK: The Lost Years
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“Can’t you tell me?”

She did not stir.

“Why don’t you ever help me?” I wailed. “I need your help!”

Still she did not stir.

Ruefully, I watched her for a while. Then I rolled off the pallet, stood, and splashed my face with water from the large wooden bowl by the door. Glancing again at Branwen, I felt a renewed surge of anger. Why wouldn’t she answer me? Why wouldn’t she help me? Yet even as I looked upon her, I felt a small prick of guilt that I had never been able to bring myself to call her Mother, although I knew how much it would please her. And yet . . . what kind of mother would refuse to help her son?

I tugged against the rope handle of the door. With a scrape against the dirt, it opened, and I left the hut.

2:
A
N
O
WL IS
C
OMING

The western sky had darkened, as the moon had nearly set. Streaks of silver, shading into gray, lined the thick clouds above the village of Caer Vedwyd. In the dim light, its humped roofs of thatch looked like a group of shadowed boulders. Somewhere nearby I heard lambs crying. And my friends, the geese, began to wake up. A cuckoo in the bracken called twice. Under the dripping oak and ash trees, the fresh scent of bluebells mingled with the smell of wet thatch.

It was May, and in May even a dreary village before dawn could seem lovely. I pulled a burr from the sleeve of my tunic, listening to the quiet stirrings. This month excited me like no other. Flowers opened their faces to the sky, lambs birthed, leaves sprouted. And as the flowers blossomed, so did my dreams. Sometimes, in May, I swallowed my doubts and believed that one day I would find the truth. Who I really was, where I really came from. If not from Branwen, then from someone else.

In May, anything seemed possible. If only I could learn to harness time itself. To make every month like May! Or, perhaps, to live
backward
in time, so that whenever the end of the month arrived, I could turn May right around and live it all over again.

I chewed my lip. Whatever the month, this village would never be my favorite place. Nor my home. I knew this early hour would be the finest of the day, before the sun’s rays revealed its tattered huts and fearful faces. Like most villages in this rolling, thickly wooded country, Caer Vedwyd existed only because of an old Roman road. Ours ran along the north bank of the River Tywy, which flowed south all the way to the sea. Although the road had once carried streams of Roman soldiers, it now carried mainly vagabonds and wandering traders. It was a towpath for horses bringing barges of grain down the river, a route for those seeking the Church of Saint Peter in the city of Caer Myrddin to the south, and also, as I remembered well, a passage to the sea.

A metal tool clanged in the smith’s shop under the great oak. I could hear a horse tramping somewhere up the towpath, its bridle jingling. In another hour, people would be gathering in the square under the tree, where the village’s three main paths converged. Soon the sounds of bartering, arguing, cajoling, and of course thieving, would fill the air.

Five years in this place, and it still did not feel like home. Why? Perhaps because everything, from the local gods to the local names, was changing. Fast. The newly arrived Saxons had already started to call Y Wyddfa, whose icy ridges towered over everything, Snow Hill or Snowdon. Likewise, people were now calling this region, long known as Gwynedd, the country of Wales. But to call it a country at all was to imply a kind of unity that did not really exist. Given the number of travelers and dialects that passed through just our little village every day, Wales seemed to me less a country than a way station.

Following the path down to the mill house, I saw the last traces of moonlight touching the slopes of Y Wyddfa. The sounds of the waking village melted into the splashy clatter of the river flowing under the stone bridge by the mill. A frog bellowed, somewhere by the mill house, the only building in the village made of real brick.

Without warning, a quiet voice within me whispered,
An owl is coming.

I whirled about just in time to see the square head and massive brown wings sail past me as fast as the wind and as silent as death. Two seconds later it dropped into the grass behind the mill house, its talons squeezing the life out of its prey.

Stoat for supper.
I grinned to myself, pleased that I had somehow known that the owl was approaching, and that its invisible quarry was a stoat. How did I know? I had no idea. I simply knew, that’s all. And I supposed that any reasonably observant person would have known as well.

More and more, though, I wondered. I did sometimes seem a step ahead of other people in sensing what was about to happen. This talent, if you could call it a talent, had only just appeared in the last few weeks, so I didn’t even begin to understand it. And I hadn’t shared it with Branwen, or with anyone else. It could be nothing more than a string of lucky guesses. But if, in fact, it was something more, it might at least provide some entertainment. Or even prove useful in a pinch.

Only the day before, I had seen some village boys chasing one another with imaginary swords. For a brief moment, I longed to be one of them. Then the group’s leader, Dinatius, spied me and pounced on me before I could get away. I had never liked Dinatius, who had spent the years since his mother’s death as the smith’s servant. He struck me as mean, stupid, and quick-tempered. But I had tried never to offend him, less out of kindness than the fact that he was much older and much larger than I—or any other boy in the village. More than once, I had seen him struck by the smith’s powerful hand for shirking his duties, and just as often I had seen Dinatius do the same to someone smaller. Once he badly burned the arm of another boy who had dared to question his Roman ancestry.

All this ran through my mind the day before as I struggled to get away from him. Then I chanced to see a low-flying gull overhead. I pointed to the bird and cried, “Look! Treasure from the sky!” Dinatius turned his face skyward at just the moment that the bird released an especially pungent sort of treasure—which splatted him right in the eye. While Dinatius cursed and tried to wipe his face, the other boys laughed, and I escaped.

Smiling, I thought of yesterday’s close call. For the first time, I wondered whether I might possess a talent—a power—even more precious than predicting events. Suppose, just suppose . . . I could actually
control
events. Make something happen. Not with my hands, my feet, or my voice. With nothing but my thoughts.

How exciting! It was probably just another May dream. But what if it was more? I would give it a try.

As I approached the stone bridge over the river, I knelt beside a low, tightly cupped flower. Concentrating all my thoughts on the flower, I grew oblivious to everything else. The chilled air, the crying lambs, the smith’s noises, all faded away.

I studied the flower’s lavender hue, touched on the east by the golden light of the emerging sun. Minuscule hairs, wearing droplets of dew, embroidered the edges of each petal, while a tiny brown aphid scurried across the collar of fringed leaves at the top of the stalk. Its aroma seemed fresh, but not sweet. Somehow I knew that its hidden center must be the color of aged yellow cheese.

Ready at last, I began willing the flower to open.
Show yourself,
I commanded.
Open your petals.

I waited for a long moment. Nothing happened.

Again I focused on the flower.
Open. Open your petals.

Still nothing happened.

I started to stand. Then, very slowly, the collar of leaves began to flutter as if touched by the barest of breezes. A moment later one of the lavender petals stirred, unfurling an edge ever so slightly, before gradually beginning to open. Another petal followed, and another, and another, until the whole flower greeted the oncoming dawn with petals outstretched. And from its center sprouted six soft sprigs, more like feathers than petals. Their color? Like aged yellow cheese.

A brutal kick struck me in the back. Coarse laughter filled the air, crushing the moment as swiftly as a heavy foot crushed the flower.

3:
R
IDING THE
S
TORM

With a groan, I pushed myself to my feet. “Dinatius, you Pig.”

The older boy, square-shouldered with bushy brown hair, smirked at me. “You’re the one with pointed ears like a pig. Or like a demon! Anyway, better a pig than a bastard.”

My cheeks grew hot, but I held my temper. I looked into his eyes—gray as a goose’s back. This required me to tilt my head back, since he was so much taller. Indeed, Dinatius’ shoulders could already lift loads that made many grown men wobble. In addition to stoking the smith’s fire—hot, heavy work on its own—he cut and carried the firewood, worked the bellows, and hauled iron ore by the hundredweight. For this the smith gave him a meal or two a day, a sack of straw to sleep on, and many a blow about the head.

“I am no bastard.”

Dinatius slowly rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Where then is your father hiding? Maybe he’s a pig! Or maybe he’s one of those rats who lives with you and your mother.”

“We don’t have any rats in our home.”

“Home! You call that a home? It’s just a filthy hole where your mother can hide and do her sorcery.”

My fists clenched. The taunts about me cut deep enough, but it was his crass mention of
her
that made my blood boil. Still, I knew that Dinatius wanted me to fight him. I also knew what the outcome would be. Better to hold my temper, if I could. It would be very hard to keep my arms still. But my tongue? Even harder.

“He who is made of air should not accuse the wind.”

“What do you mean by that, bastard whelp?”

I had no idea where the words came from that I spoke next. “I mean that you should not call somebody else bastard, since your father was just a Saxon mercenary who rode through this village one night and left nothing but you and an empty flask in his wake.”

Dinatius’ mouth opened and then closed without a word. I realized that I had spoken words he had always feared, but never admitted, were true. Words that struck more violently than clubs.

His face reddened. “Not so! My father was a Roman, and a soldier! Everyone knows that.” He glared at me. “I’ll show you who’s the bastard.”

I stepped backward.

Dinatius advanced on me. “You are nothing, bastard. Nothing! You have no father. No home. No name! Where did you steal the name Emrys, bastard? You are nothing! And you’ll never be more!”

I winced at his words, even as I saw the rage swell in his eyes. I glanced about for some way to escape. I couldn’t possibly outrun him. Not without a head start. But there were no birds flying overhead today. A thought hit me.
No birds flying overhead.

Just as I had done yesterday, I pointed to the sky and cried out, “Look! Treasure from the sky!”

Dinatius, who had just leaned forward to lunge at me, did not look skyward this time. Instead, he hunched as if to protect his head from a blow. That was all that I could hope for. I turned and ran as fast as a frightened rabbit across the rain-soaked yard of the mill house.

Roaring with rage, he flew after me. “Come back, coward!”

I cut across the grass, leaped over a broken grinding stone and some scraps of wood, and dashed over the bridge, my leather boots slapping on the stones. Even before I reached the opposite side, I could hear Dinatius’ footsteps above my own panting. Veering sharply, I turned up the old Roman road on the riverbank. To my right, the Tywy’s waters churned. To my left, dense forest stretched unbroken, except by the pathways of deer and wolves, all the way to the slopes of Y Wyddfa.

I sped up the stony path for sixty or seventy paces, all the while hearing him draw closer. As I topped a small rise, I left the path, hurling myself into the thicket of bracken bordering the forest. Despite the thorns tearing into my calves and thighs, I plunged frantically ahead. Then, breaking free of the bracken, I jumped a fallen branch, leaped a rivulet, and scrambled up the mossy outcropping of rock on the other side, finding a slender deer trail, winding like an endless snake along the forest floor, I raced along until I found myself in a grove of towering trees.

I stopped just long enough to hear Dinatius crashing through the branches behind me. Without pausing to think, I crouched on the cushion of needles underfoot and sprung up to the lowest branch of a great pine tree. Like a squirrel, I worked my way upward, one branch after another, until I had climbed to the height of three men above the ground.

At that very instant, Dinatius entered the grove. Directly above him, I clung to the branch, heart racing, lungs aching, legs bleeding. I tried to remain motionless, to breathe quietly, though my lungs screamed for more air.

Dinatius stared to his left and to his right, straining to see in the dimly lit grove. At one point, he looked up, but caught a flake of bark in his eye and thundered, “Curse this forest!” Hearing some slight rustling beyond the grove, he threw himself in that direction.

For most of the morning, I waited on that branch, observing the slow sweep of light over the needled boughs, and the still slower movement of wind walking among the trees. At length, convinced that I had eluded Dinatius, I dared to move. But I did not climb down.

I climbed up.

Ascending the stairway of branches, I realized that my heart was still racing, though not with fear, nor with exertion. It pounded with anticipation. Something about this tree, this minute, thrilled me in a way I could not explain. Each time I tugged my body to a higher branch, I found my own spirits lifted as well. It was almost as if I could see farther, hear clearer, and smell deeper the higher I climbed. I imagined myself soaring beside the small hawk that I could see circling above the trees.

The vista below me enlarged. I followed the course of the river as it wound its way down from the hills to the north. The river reminded me of a huge serpent, something out of Branwen’s stories. And the hills sat in rumpled rows, like the folds of an ancient, exposed brain. What thoughts, I wondered, had that brain produced over the great stretch of time? Was this forest one of them? Was this day one of them?

BOOK: The Lost Years
10.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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