Read The Lost Years Online

Authors: T. A. Barron

The Lost Years (9 page)

BOOK: The Lost Years
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Stop.” I shook my head. “I must learn my own story.”

Weakly, Branwen clambered to her feet. “I left behind more than you will ever know. Do you know why? So we could be safe, you and I. Is that not enough for you?”

I said nothing.

“Must you really do this?”

“You could come with me.”

She leaned against the wall for support. “No! I could not.”

“Then tell me how to get back there.”

“No.”

“Or at least where to begin.”

“No.”

I felt a sudden urge to probe the inside of her mind, as if it were the inside of a flower. Then the flames ignited, overwhelming my thoughts. I remembered my promise—and also my fears.

“Tell me just one thing,” I pleaded. “You told me once that you knew my grandfather. Did you also know my father?”

She winced. “Yes. I knew him.”

“Was he, well, not human? Was he . . . a demon?”

Her whole body stiffened. After a long silence she spoke, in a voice that seemed a lifetime away. “I will say only this. If ever you should meet him, remember: He is not what he may seem.”

“I will remember. But can’t you tell me anything more?”

She shook her head.

“My own father! I just want to know him.”

“It is better you do not.”

“Why?”

Instead of answering, she just shook her head sadly. She went to the low table bearing her collection of healing herbs. Deftly, she picked a few, then ground them into a coarse powder which she poured into a leather satchel on a cord. Handing me the satchel, she said resignedly, “This might help you live a little longer.”

I started to respond, but she spoke again.

“And take this, from the woman who would have you call her Mother.” Slowly, she reached into her robe and pulled out her precious pendant.

Despite my limited vision, I could see the flash of glowing green.

“But it’s yours!”

“You will need it more than I.”

She removed the pendant and squeezed its jeweled center one last time before placing the leather cord around my neck. “It is called . . . the
Galator
.”

I caught my breath at the word.

“Guard it well,” she continued. “Its power is great. If it cannot keep you safe, that is only because nothing outside of Heaven can.”

“You kept me safe. You built a good nest.”

“For a while, perhaps. But now . . .” Tears brimmed in her eyes. “Now you must fly.”

“Yes. Now I must fly.”

Gently, she touched my cheek.

I turned and left the room, my footsteps echoing down the corridor of stone.

10:
T
HE
O
LD
O
AK

As I stepped through the carved wooden gates of the Church of Saint Peter, I entered the bustle and confusion of Caer Myrddin. It took some time for my dim vision to adjust to all the commotion. Carts and horses clattered along the stony streets, as did donkeys, pigs, sheep, and a few hairy dogs. Merchants bellowed about their wares, beggars clutched at the robes of passersby, spectators gathered around a man juggling balls, and people of all descriptions strode past, carrying baskets, bundles, fresh greens, and stacks of cloth.

I glanced over my shoulder at the hawthorn tree, whose branches I could barely make out above the church wall. For all the pain I had experienced in that place, I would miss the quiet calm of my room, the slow singing of the nuns, the bird in the boughs of that tree. And, more than I ever expected, I would miss Branwen.

Watching the blur of people, animals, and goods, I noticed some sort of shrine on the opposite side of the street. Curious, I decided to get closer, although that would require swimming across the fast-flowing river of traffic. Biting my lip, I started across.

Instantly, I was pushed and kicked, turned and buffeted. Since I could not see well enough to stay out of the way, I crashed into a man carrying a load of firewood. Sticks flew in all directions. So did curses. Then I walked straight into the flank of a horse. Seconds later, I nearly lost my toes under a cart wheel. Somehow, though, I made it to the other side. I approached the shrine.

It was not much of a monument, just a carved image of a hawk above a bowl of muddy water. If any people took care of it, they had not done so in years. The hawk’s wings had broken off. The stones around the base were crumbling. Probably only a handful of the people who strode by here every day even noticed it.

Yet something about this old, forgotten shrine intrigued me. I drew closer, touched the hawk’s worn beak. I knew enough from Branwen’s descriptions to guess that the shrine was probably made to honor Myrddin, one of the ancient Celts’ most revered gods, who sometimes took the form of a hawk. One of their Apollos, as she would say. Although I still could not quite accept her notion that such spirits still walked the land, I wondered again about the stag and the boar who had fought over us so long ago. If they were, in fact, Dagda and Rhita Gawr, was it just possible that the spirit of Myrddin still lived as well?

A donkey, loaded down with heavy sacks, knocked into me. I fell into the shrine, plunging my hand into the murky water. As I stood and shook my hand dry, I tried to imagine what Caer Myrddin might have looked like centuries ago. Branwen had told me that, instead of a bustling city, it was just a peaceful hill” with a spring where wandering shepherds might pause to rest. Then, over time, it grew into a trade center, taking goods from the farms of Gwynedd, and regions as distant as Gwent, Brycheiniog, and Powys Fadog. When the Romans came, they built a fortress on the River Tywy’s high banks. And now the old military roads, such as the one to Caer Vedwyd, linked the city to the lush valleys and deer-filled forests of the north, and also down the river to the sea. Whether or not anyone today took the time to remember such things, this crumbling shrine—and the name of the city itself—still connected Caer Myrddin to its distant past.

That, I realized, was the purpose of my own journey. To connect myself with my past. To find my name. My home. My parents. And though I had no idea where this journey might take me, or where it might end, I suddenly knew where it should begin.

The sea. I must return to the sea. To the very spot where I had tumbled onto the rocky shore more than five years ago.

Perhaps, when I arrived at that forbidding shore, I would find nothing but jagged rocks and screeching gulls and pulsing waves. Or perhaps I would find the clue that I sought. Or at least a clue to the clue. It was not much of a hope, but it was the only hope I had.

For what seemed like hours, I wandered through the city, trying to keep to the smaller side streets to avoid being trampled in the traffic. As if I were not already aware of the limits of my vision, I tripped and stumbled enough times to make my toes horribly tender within my leather boots. Even so, I made my way. While I am sure many people concluded—correctly—that I was a clumsy oaf, I am just as sure none of them guessed that my eyes were totally useless. The occasional words of sympathy I received were for my scars, not for my blindness.

At last, I found my way to the road that ran beside the River Tywy. I knew that if I followed it far enough to the north, I would return to my old village. From there I would make my way to the sea.

At last I came to the walls of the city, ten paces thick and twice as tall. I crossed the wide bridge, taking care not to trip on the uneven stones. Then I continued into the wooded valley beyond.

As I plodded along beside the river, I concentrated on each step. If my attention wavered, even briefly, I was likely to end up on the ground. Too often, I did. Once I tripped in the middle of a village square, where a donkey almost stepped on my back.

Still, I managed well enough. For three days I walked, eating raspberries and bramble berries along with the round of cheese given to me by one of the nuns. During that time I spoke to no one, and no one spoke to me. One day at dusk I helped a shepherd pull his lamb out of a pit, receiving a crust of bread in thanks, but that was my only contact with others.

In time the road turned into the old towpath through Caer Vedwyd. Barges floated down the river, sliding past the families of ducks and swans. As I drew near the village, I kept to the cover of the woods, staying parallel to the path without actually walking on it. That way no one saw me. Occasionally, I feasted on roots and berries and edible leaves. I drank once again from the rivulet below the great pine tree where I rode out the gale, but I wished that I had never climbed down. In a strange way I felt more at home here, in the wild woods, than anywhere else in Gwynedd.

Late that afternoon, I paused near the bridge at Caer Vedwyd. I caught a glimpse of a tall but twisted figure standing at the other end of the bridge. I strained to make it out more clearly, as the wind swelled around me. It could have been a decrepit tree, except that I had never noticed a tree in that spot before. I could not shake the feeling that it was, instead, the bent body of a person—a person with nothing but stumps for arms.

I did not linger. Despite the obstacles, I tromped through the woods for some distance, avoiding the next several villages as well. As the shadows grew longer, my vision worsened and my progress slowed. Finally, having left any signs of people behind, I broke into a wide meadow. Scraped from my falls and exhausted from my trek, I found a hollow in the soft grass and curled up to sleep.

Sunlight on my face woke me. Crossing the meadow, I rejoined the road near the point where it left the river. But for one elderly man, whose scraggly white beard bounced on his chest as he walked, I met no one else on this stretch. I observed the old man, wishing again that I too could grow a beard, to hide those miserable scars. One day, perhaps. If I lived so long.

Despite the lack of settlements, I did not feel disoriented. My memories of the way to the sea remained surprisingly clear. For though I had traveled this route only once in my life, I had walked it many times in my dreams. My slow shuffle started to gain speed. I could almost hear the distant sound of slapping waves.

Every so often, I reached into my tunic and touched the Galator. As little as I knew about it, I felt oddly comforted to know it was there. The same was true for Branwen’s leather satchel, slung over my shoulder.

The old road gradually deteriorated until it became no more than a grassy trail. At last it passed through a cleft in a wall of crumbling cliffs. I smelled the barest whiff of salt on the air. I knew this place, knew it in my bones.

Black rock rose vertically to twenty times my own height. Kittiwakes called and swooped among the crags. The trail bent sharply to the right, ending where I knew it would.

At the ocean.

Before me stretched the gray-blue waters, without any end and without any bottom. The smell of kelp tickled my nostrils. Waves rushed forward and withdrew, grinding sand against rock. Gulls, circling above the shore, shrieked noisily.

I crossed the black barrier of rocks, stepping over tidal pools and shards of driftwood. Nothing has changed, I told myself. As waves washed over my feet, I gazed westward. The fog of my vision merged with the fog on the water. I strained to see more clearly, but it was impossible.

Nothing has changed.
The black rocks, the briny breeze, the endless rhythm of the waves. Just like before. Did they hide a clue somewhere? If so, how could I ever hope to find it? The sea was so enormous, and I was so . . . tiny. My head dropped lower on my chest. Aimlessly, I started to walk, my leather boots splashing in the chill water.

Then I saw one shape that had changed. The ancient oak, though still mammoth, had been shorn of most of its bark, which sat in tattered strips among the roots. Several branches, broken and splintered, lay strewn across the rocky beach. Even the hollow in the trunk, where I had endured the attack of the boar, had been punctured, its walls split and buckled. The old tree had finally died.

As I approached its remains, I tripped, stabbing my shin on a pointed rock. But I cut short my own howl of pain, not wanting to alert any wild boars that might be near. Whether or not the boar I had met here was really Rhita Gawr, it had certainly wanted blood on its tusks. If a boar appeared now, I would have no place to hide. And, almost certainly, no Dagda to rescue me.

My shoulders ached, as did my legs. I sat down on the lifeless roots. As I ran my hand along the edge of the hollow, I could still feel the marks of the boar’s slashing tusks. That experience felt so close. So recent. And yet this ancient tree, whose strength had then seemed eternal, was now nothing more than a skeleton.

I kicked at a shred of bark by my foot, knowing that I myself had fared little better. I had returned to this spot, if not yet dead, then perilously close. I was nearly blind. I was utterly lost.

I sat there, my head in my hands. Absently, I stared at the shoreline. The tide, I could tell, was beginning to retreat. Gradually, the border widened between the harsh rocks and the sea, leaving a strip of sand whose contours contained their own tiny mountains and oceans.

A hermit crab skittered across this landscape of sand. I watched as the crab wrestled with a half-buried shell at the edge of a tidal pool. After much clawing and scraping, the crab finally retrieved its prize, a conch streaked with a color that reminded me vaguely of orange. I imagined the crab celebrating that it had, at last, found a new home. But before it could savor its success, a sudden sea breeze blew the shell out of its grasp. The shell slid into the shallow pool, floating like a tiny raft, bouncing on the ripples.

Seeing the stranded crab watch its hard-earned treasure float away, I allowed myself a sardonic grin. That is how it works. You think you have found your dream, then you lose it forever. You think you have found your home, then you see it float away.

Float away.
Despite my better judgment, I felt suddenly possessed by an idea. A wild, hopeless, mad idea.

I would build a raft! Perhaps this very tree, which had helped me once before, could help me again. Perhaps this very tide, which had borne me once to shore, could bear me out to the sea. I would trust. Simply trust. In the tree. In the tide.

BOOK: The Lost Years
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Auto-da-fé by Elias Canetti
The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke
Lunar Lovers by Emma Abbiss
Undercurrent by Frances Fyfield
Dance of Fire by Yelena Black
Brooklyn Heat by Marx, Locklyn
Billy Angel by Sam Hay