Authors: T. A. Barron
“About my own name, you are right. After we landed here, I took it from an old legend.”
“The one you told me? About Branwen, daughter of Llyr?”
She nodded. “You remember it? Then you remember how Branwen came from another land to marry someone in Ireland. Her life began with boundless hope and beauty.”
“And ended,” I continued, “with so much tragedy. Her last words were,
Alas that I was ever born
She took my hand in her own. “But that is about my name, not yours. My life, not yours. Please believe what I am telling you! Emrys is your name. And I am your mother.”
A sob rose inside my throat. “If you are really my mother, can’t you tell me where my home is? My true home, the place I really belong?”
“No, I can’t! Those memories are too painful for me. And too dangerous for you.”
“Then how do you expect me to believe you?”
“Hear me, please. I don’t tell you only because I care for you! You lost your memory for a reason. It is a blessing.”
I scowled. “It is a curse!”
She watched me, her eyes grown misty. It seemed to me that she was about to speak, to tell me at last what I most wanted to know. Then her hand squeezed mine—not in sympathy, but in fright.
A shape filled the doorway, blocking the light.
I jumped up from the pallet, knocking over Branwen’s wooden bowl. “Dinatius!”
A hefty arm pointed at us. “Come out, both of you.”
“We will not.” Branwen rose to her feet and stood beside me.
Dinatius’ gray eyes flashed angrily. He shouted over his shoulder, “Take her first.”
He entered the hut, followed by two of the boys from the village square. Lud was not with them.
I grabbed Dinatius by the arm. He shook me off as if I were a fly, throwing me backward into the table bearing Branwen’s utensils and ingredients. Spoons, knives, strainers, and bowls sprayed across the dirt floor of the hut as the table collapsed under my weight. Liquids and pastes splattered the clay walls, while seeds and leaves flew into the air.
Seeing him wrestling with Branwen, I sprung to my feet and leaped at him. He wheeled around and smacked me with such force that I flew backward into the wall. I lay there, momentarily dazed.
When my head cleared, I realized that I was alone in the hut. At first, I wasn’t certain what had happened. Then, hearing shouts outside, I stumbled over to the doorway.
Branwen lay twenty or thirty paces away, in the middle of the path. Her hands and legs were bound with a length of spliced rope. A wad of cloth, torn from her dress, had been stuffed into her mouth so she could not cry out. Apparently the merchants and villagers in the square, busy with their work, had not yet noticed her—or not wanted to intervene.
“Look at her,” laughed a slim, grimy-faced boy, pointing at the crumpled figure on the path. “She’s not so scary now.”
His companion, still holding some rope, joined the laughter. “Serves the she-demon right!”
I started to run to her aid. Suddenly I caught sight of Dinatius, bending over a pile of loose brush that had been stacked under the wide boughs of the oak. As he slid a shovel full of flaming coals from the smith’s shop under the brush, fear sliced through me.
A fire. He’s starting a fire.
Flames began crackling in the brush. A column of smoke swiftly lifted into the branches of the tree. At this point Dinatius stood upright, hands on his hips, surveying his work. Silhouetted before the fire, he looked to me like a demon himself.
“She says she is not afraid of fire!” declared Dinatius, to the nods of the other boys. “She says she cannot be burned!”
“Let’s find out,” called the boy with the rope.
“Fire!” shouted one of the merchants, suddenly aware of the flames.
“Put it out!” cried a woman emerging from her hut.
But before anyone could move, the two boys had already grabbed Branwen by the legs. They began dragging her toward the blazing tree, where Dinatius stood waiting.
I ran out of the hut, my eyes fixed on Dinatius. Rage swelled within me, such rage as I had never known before. Uncontrollable and unstoppable, it coursed through my body like an enormous wave, knocking aside every other sense and feeling.
Seeing my approach, Dinatius grinned. “Just in time, whelp. We’ll cook you both together.”
A single wish overwhelmed me:
He should bum. Burn in Hell.
At that instant, the tree shuddered and cracked, as if it had been ripped by a bolt of lightning. Dinatius whirled around just as one of the biggest branches, perhaps weakened by his fire, broke loose. Before he could escape, the branch fell directly on top of him, pinning his chest and crushing his arms. Like the breath of a dozen dragons, the blaze leaped higher. Villagers and merchants scattered. Branches exploded into flames, the sound of their snapping and splitting nearly drowning out the cries of the trapped boy.
I rushed to Branwen. She had been dropped only a few paces from the burning tree. Fire was licking at the edges of her robe. Quickly I pulled her away from the searing flames and untied her bonds. She pulled the wad from her mouth, staring at me with both gratitude and fear.
“Did you do that?”
“I—I think so. Some kind of magic.”
Her sapphire eyes fixed on me. “Your magic. Your power.”
Before I could reply, a spine-shivering scream erupted from inside the inferno. It went on and on, a cry of absolute agony. Hearing that voice—that helpless, human voice—my blood froze within my veins. I knew at once what I had done. I also knew what I must do.
“No!” protested Branwen, clutching at my tunic.
But it was too late. I had already plunged into the roaring flames.
Voices. Angelic voices.
I sat bolt upright. Could they really be angels? Was I really dead? Darkness surrounded me. Blacker than any night I had ever known.
Then: the pain. The pain on my face and my right hand told me I must indeed be alive. It was searing pain. Clawing pain. As if my very skin were being ripped away.
Beneath the pain, I grew aware of a strange weight on my brow. Cautiously, I reached my hands to my face. The fingers of my right hand, I realized, were bandaged. So were my brow, my cheeks, my eyes—swathed in cold, wet clothes that smelled of pungent herbs. Even the barest touch cut me with daggers of pain.
A heavy door creaked open. Across an expanse of stone floor, footsteps approached, echoing from a high ceiling above my head. Footsteps whose cadence I thought I recognized.
“Yes, my son,” answered the voice in the darkness. “You have awakened. I am glad.” Yet she sounded more dismal than glad, I thought, as she lightly caressed the back of my neck. “I must change your bandages. I am afraid it will hurt.”
“No. Don’t touch me.”
“But I must, if you are to heal.”
“Emrys, I must.”
“All right, but be careful! It hurts so much already.”
“I know, I know.”
I tried my best to remain still as she carefully unwrapped the bandages, touching me as delicately as a butterfly. While she worked, she dripped something over my face which smelled as fresh as the forest after a rain and seemed to numb the pain a little. Feeling somewhat better, I spouted questions like a fountain. “How long have I slept? Where is this place? Who are those voices?”
“You and I—forgive me if this stings—are at the Church of Saint Peter. We are the guests of the nuns who live here. It is they you hear singing.”
“Saint Peter! That’s in Caer Myrddin.”
“So it is.”
Feeling a cold draft from a window or door somewhere, I drew my rough wool blanket about my shoulders. “But that is several days’ travel, even with a horse.”
“So it is.”
“Be still, Emrys, while I untie this.”
“Still, now . . . that’s right. Just a moment. Ah, there.”
As the bandage fell away, so did my questions about how we had come to be here. A new question crowded out all the rest. For although my eyes were no longer covered, I still could not see.
“Why is it so dark?”
Branwen did not answer.
“Didn’t you bring a candle?”
Again she did not answer.
“Is it nighttime?”
Still she did not answer. Yet she did not need to, for the answer came from a cuckoo, alive with song, somewhere nearby.
The fingers of my unbandaged hand quivered as I touched the tender area around my eyes. I winced, feeling the blotches
of scabs, the still-burning skin underneath. No hair on my eyebrows. No eyelashes, either. Blinking back the pain, I traced the edges of my eyelids, crusted and scarred.
I knew my eyes were wide open. I knew I could see nothing. And, with a shiver, I knew one thing more.
I was blind.
In anguish, I bellowed. Suddenly, hearing again the sound of the cuckoo, I flung off my blanket. Despite the weakness of my legs, I forced myself to rise from the pallet, pushing away Branwen’s hand as she tried to stop me. I staggered across the stones, following the sound.
I tripped on something and crashed to the floor, landing on my shoulder. Stretching out my arms, I could feel nothing but the surface of the stones beneath me. They felt hard and cold, like a tomb.
My head spun. I could feel Branwen helping me to my feet, even as I could hear her muffled sobs. Again I pushed her away. Staggering forward, my hands hit a wall of solid rock. The sound of the cuckoo drew me to the left. The groping fingers of my unbandaged hand caught the edge of a window.
Grasping the sill, I pulled myself closer. Cool air stung my face, The cuckoo sang, so close to me that I might have reached out and touched its wing. For the first time, it seemed, in weeks, I felt the splash of sunshine on my face. Yet as hard as I tried to find the sun, I could not see it.
Hidden. The whole world is hidden.
My legs buckled beneath me. I fell to the floor, my head upon the stones. And I wept.
During the weeks stretching into months that followed, my torment filled the halls of the Church of Saint Peter. The nuns residing there, moved both by the strength of Branwen’s piety and the severity of my burns, had opened the gates of their sanctuary. They must have found it difficult to feel anything but sympathy for this woman who did little else but pray all day and tend to her wounded boy. As to the boy himself, they mostly avoided me, which suited me just fine.
For me, every day was dark—in mood as well as sight. I felt like an infant, barely able to crawl around the cold stone chamber that I shared with Branwen. My fingers came to know well its four rigid corners, its uneven lines of mortar between the stones, its lone window where I sometimes stood for hours, straining to see. Instead of lighting me, though, the window only tortured me with the jovial call of the cuckoo and the distant bustle of Caer Myrddin’s marketplace. Occasionally the smell of someone’s cooking pot or a flowering tree might waft to me, mingling with the scents of thyme and beech root that rose from Branwen’s low table by her pallet. But I could not go out to find such things. I was a prisoner, confined in the dungeon of my blindness.
Two or three times, I summoned the courage to walk, feeling with my hands past the heavy wooden door and into the maze of corridors and chambers beyond. By listening carefully to the echoes of my footsteps, I discovered that I could judge the length and height of passageways and the size of rooms.
One day I found a stairway whose stone steps had been worn into shallow bowls over the years. Feeling the wall carefully as I descended, I pushed open a door at the bottom and found myself in a fragrant courtyard. Wet grass touched my feet; warm wind breathed on my face. I remembered, all at once, how good it felt to be outdoors, on the grass, in the sun. Then I heard the nuns singing in the cloisters nearby. I started walking faster, eager to find them. Without warning, I strode right into a stone column, so hard that I fell over backward into a shallow pool of water. As I struggled to get up, I stepped on a loose rock and pitched sideways. The left side of my face bashed against the base of the column. Bruised and bloody, my bandages torn, I lay there sobbing until Branwen found me.
After that I didn’t stir from the pallet in my chamber, convinced I would spend the rest of my days as a helpless burden to Branwen. Even when I tried to think of other things, my mind always returned to the day that had been my undoing. The sight of her, bound and gagged by the tree. The rage that boiled over so violently. The laughter, melting into shrieks, of Dinatius. The searing flames all around. The crushed arms and broken body beneath the branches. The sound of my own screams when I realized that my face was burning.
I could not remember our trek to the walls of Caer Myrddin, though from Branwen’s spare description I could imagine it well enough. I could almost see Lud’s round face watching us ride over the hill in the cart of the passing trader who had taken pity on the woman with sapphire eyes and her badly burned son. I could almost feel the swaying of the horse-drawn cart, almost hear the squealing of the wheels and the pounding of the hooves on the towing path. I could almost taste my own charred skin, almost hear my own delirious wailing as we rode through those long days and nights.
Now, very little broke the regularity of my days. The singing of the nuns. The shuffling of their footsteps to cloisters, to meals, to meditations. Branwen’s quiet prayers and chants as she did her best to heal my skin. The continuing calls of the cuckoo, perched in a rustling tree that I could not name.
And darkness. Always darkness.
Sometimes, as I sat on my pallet, I ran my fingers gingerly over the scabs on my cheeks and under my eyes. The ridges on my skin felt terribly deep, like the bark of a pine tree. I knew that, despite Branwen’s skills, my face would be scarred forever. Even if, by some miracle, my sight were ever restored, those scars would announce my folly to the world. I knew, of course, that such thoughts were foolishly vain. Yet they came to me anyway.