At first Morwid couldn't say what had awakened him. One moment he was dreaming peacefully of his old life in the castle, the next he was wide awake, his failing eyes straining against the darkness of the sea cave.
Drawing his blanket around his shoulders, he sat up, listening for any sound of approaching danger, but all was quiet, save the trills of the forest creatures and the crashing of the sea against the rocky shore below.
He lit a torch and moved to the opening of the cave. Above him the night sky glowed with the color of blood. Along the horizon a sphere of light pulsed and grew until it blotted out all the stars. As if launched from a huntsman's bow, it arced across the heavens, trailing fire, then disappeared in a shimmer of gold that briefly lit the dark sea.
The old warrior trembled with hope and longing. "When the heavens are red with fire, he will come," he whispered. "So say the prophets."
He ran his fingers along the rocky ledge above the entrance to the cave till they touched the prize he had guarded since fleeing the castle so many years before. The Book of Ancients held spells and stories, curses and cures, promises and prophecies for the kingdom of Kelhadden. Morwid took it down and clutched it to his chest. He had no need to read it now; he knew every page by heart. But the weight of it, and the smell of leather, dust, and secrets mingling in the air, comforted him.
Too anxious for sleep, he stood for a moment holding the book until his hands and heart steadied, then he returned the tome to its place. He stoked the fire that burned day and night against the chill of the cave and set his blackened water pot on the coals. While the water heated, he opened a pouch and measured into a bowl a pinch of bloodrose and a dusting of dried balsam leaves. Muttering to himself, he upended the entire contents of a second pouch into his bowl. "Plenty of sage," he murmured, "for I shall surely need all my wisdom when he comes."
Morwid poured the bubbling water over the herbs and, when the mixture had cooled, drank it down. Then he laced his leggings, picked up his fishing line and basket, and left the cave.
The sky had lightened to an ordinary shade of gray; the rising sun was a seam of fire on the horizon. Atop the farthest promontory stood the castle at Kelhadden. Sheltered by a thick growth of alders and oaks, its granite turrets and towers glittered in the growing light. High on the roof a red-and-yellow banner danced in the morning breeze.
Morwid set off toward the sea, moving carefully, for the trail to the bottom of the cliff was treacherous with sharp crags and hidden drops where the unwary could tumble to certain death. Though he was slow of step, his thoughts were agile as ever, darting from one question to another. When would the promised one arrive? Would he come alone or with a legion of warriors? Would he allow Morwid to accompany him to the castle? This thought brought a smile to the old warrior's face, for he had long dreamed of standing sword to sword with Ranulf on the day when the odious Northman was ousted at last.
Though many years had passed since Ranulf had overrun Kelhadden and seized the entire kingdom for himself and his kinsmen, Morwid's memory of the humiliating defeat he had suffered that bitter winter was still rapier sharp. A desire for revenge burned in his gut like fire. Now the comet and the red sky promised deliverance. Buoyed by the prospect of his imminent return to the castle, Morwid felt neither the pains in his knees nor the sharp stones beneath his feet as he made his way to the shore.
He reached the sand and cast his line into the rolling waves. The first rays of morning sun penetrated the depths of the sea cliffs and cast a golden glow across the water. The smells of salt and kelp hung heavy in the air. As fine a day as any for a trip to the village, he mused. Though Morwid detested traveling in disguise, he still had a price on his head, and the ravaged village was rife with Ranulf's spies. But today, eager for news of the comet and the one it promised, he was willing to brave any danger.
When his basket brimmed with fish, Morwid coiled his line and began the slow walk home. Near twilight, as he neared the cave, a strange wailing halted his steps. Unsure whether the sound was human or animal, he warily crossed the clearing, then stopped short. At the entrance to the cave sat a basket made of reeds. Inside it lay an infant, wrinkled, red faced, and howling.
"By my bones!" Morwid cried aloud. "Who has brought this babe to my door?"
He rushed inside his cave and anxiously surveyed his belongings. All his herbs and potions were lined up neatly along their ledge. The fire danced merrily inside its circle of stones. The Book of Ancients lay undisturbed just where he had left it.
The infant's cry grew louder and so full of anguish that Morwid hurried to the basket, lifted the child, and began to sing an ancient song he had learned as a boy. Though the old warrior's voice was rusty from disuse, the babe quieted and nestled against Morwid's shoulder. "Aye. 'Tis better now," he crooned. "I know not who left you here, or why, but you cannot stay. Why, just this morn came a sign from the heavens. As clear a portent as ever I have seen. The prince of Kelhadden is on his way at last, and I must be ready."
He shifted the infant to his other arm. "Oh, little one, you cannot imagine how long I have waited and hoped for this day. So you see, though you be a pitiful mite, I cannot look after you. There is important work to be done."
Something warm and wet ran down Morwid's sleeve. The child stirred and began to fuss again.
"By the saints, you have wet on me!" Morwid laid the babe in the basket and heaved an exasperated sigh. Soon it would be too late to start for the village. Besides, he couldn't leave a wet, hungry infant alone in the cave, at the mercy of prowling animals. On the morrow he would leave the child at the village church. Then he would see whether there was news of the prince.
The babe let out another lusty wail.
"Patience!" Morwid muttered. "Or I shall leave you to wallow in your own piss."
He rummaged through his few belongings for dry swaddling and settled upon the cloth sack he used for carrying provisions to and from the village. He bent over the basket and loosened the damp, sour-smelling blanket. The babe blinked and watched the old man solemnly. When the swaddling fell away, Morwid's hands stilled. Words of the ancients sprang unbidden to his mind as he regarded the child's tuft of tawny hair and wide, amber-colored eyes:
Strong of bone and fair of face, the prince shall take his rightful place. Golden hair and golden eye, such are signs to know him by.
"Nay," Morwid said aloud. "By my bones, it cannot be!"
A bubble rose in his throat that was very nearly a sob. He had expected the promised prince to arrive all grown up, with strong limbs and an even stronger heart. Nothing less would defeat Ranulf and the Northmen. But now Morwid remembered another part of the prophecy:
From one who is wise, though he be old, the prince must hear his story told. And then to rise, his powers known, to claim at last his rightful throne.
Stunned, Morwid wrapped the babe in the dry cloth and sat down to ponder the day's events. If this infant truly were the prince, it would be years before he could claim his kingdom. The child seemed to be the one the Book of Ancients described; on the other hand, all the Northmen were robust and fair haired. Perhaps the babe had been left at the cave purely by chance by a mother unable to care for him.
The babe cried out. Morwid stood and took some comfrey from his store of herbs. He was in dire need of a calming potion, for this squalling child had disrupted the peace he depended upon. Of late his mind seemed to return more and more often to his early years in Kelhadden. Memories were his greatest comfort during the long evenings, and he took them out one by one, like jewels from a box, each one a shining reminder of what had once been and what might have been. He resented anything that interrupted his reveries. Still, the arrival of the golden-eyed boy child on the very night of the red sky must mean something.
"Drucilla." He spoke her name aloud, with the same affection as in the days of their youth in Kelhadden. "I will take this babe to her, and together we will sort things out."
The child yawned and turned his head, and Morwid noticed a red tricornered mark, no larger than his thumbnail, behind the baby's ear. It reminded him of the thicket of briers clinging to the great stone wall at Kelhadden.
"I shall name you Thorn," he decided, "for want of a better name."
The babe blinked his golden eyes, soaked his swaddling again, and bellowed long and loudly for his dinner. Morwid made a broth of fish and herbs and spooned it into the child's mouth drop by drop. While the babe slept, Morwid sipped his comfrey brew, made ready for their journey, then stretched out beside the flickering fire.
Birdsong woke Morwid before sunrise, and he set off with the infant still asleep in his wet swaddling.
Morwid picked his way along the path that led down to the forest, fitting his steps into the ridges of the trail. The sky lightened, until he could see the bright glitter of the distant sea and, far below, the cool green woods where Drucilla lived in a wattle-and-daub hut far too mean for a woman of her gifts. Near midday, as he neared the hut, he shifted the infant and quickened his pace. Though it would pain his friend to do what he would ask her, his hopes for the future of Kelhadden depended upon it.
Soon he arrived at Drucilla's hut, where he rapped three times, waited, then rapped again.
The door opened. A hand emerged, grabbed his sleeve, and drew him inside. Morwid was stunned at how thin Drucilla had grown since their last chance meeting some months earlier. Her dark hair, once lustrous as a raven's wing, had gone gray, and her arms and legs seemed lost in the folds of her blue robes. But her voice was strong as she greeted him. "Morwid! My dear friend! I woke this morning knowing you would come." She drew back the swaddling. "By my faith. This child is wet as winter on the moors. He must be changed and fed. Then we will talk."
While Drucilla bustled about the hut tending the infant, Morwid recounted his sighting of the red sky and the mysterious appearance of the golden-eyed child. "The Book of Ancients...," he began.
"Aye." Drucilla settled the child on a blanket before the fire. "It is sometimes maddening in its vagueness, but it served our king well till the very end, did it not?"
"Not well enough," Morwid muttered. "Had he heeded its warning, or listened to my counsel, our kingdom would not have been lost."
"King Warn was but a mortal," Drucilla said quietly. "Even the gods are not immune to vanity and the desires of their own hearts."
The infant began to fuss. Morwid picked him up, stuck his own finger into the child's mouth, and rocked to and fro till Thorn quieted.
Drucilla grinned in a way that made her seem almost young again. "By all the saints, Morwid, I do believe you missed your calling. All this time we thought you a brave and wise warrior, a counselor to kings, when 'tis plain you were meant to be a nursemaid."
Long ago Morwid would have enjoyed her banter, but today his eyes were gritty from lack of sleep and his thoughts far too troubled. "Drucilla -- "
She stopped him with an uplifted hand. "You need not ask. What kind of seer would I be if I could not divine why you have come?"
"I would spare you the pain if I could, but I must know whether this boy be the true prince of Kelhadden."
"Aye." She took a brown clay pot from a shelf. "Lay him here by the hearth, then fill this vessel from the rain barrel beside the door. But be mindful of the Northmen. I heard them this morn long before the cock's first crow, riding toward the sea."
Morwid went for the water and returned to find Drucilla seated on a low stool. Beside her was a table covered with a green cloth, upon which sat a circle of stubby, unlit candles and a ball of amber glass. She waited while Morwid set the water before her and seated himself opposite her. Then Drucilla waved her hand above the candles. A circle of flame sprang up, making a small island of flickering yellow light inside the dim hut. Cupping her hands around the pot, the seer closed her eyes and chanted:
"Fire and water, air and earth, reveal the truth of this child's birth."
Drucilla opened her eyes. She passed her hand over the water, and the ripples followed her fingers as if drawn by a magnet. "Now we will see what we will see," she whispered.
Wrinkling her brow, the seer peered into the still water. Morwid clutched the edge of the table and watched his friend anxiously across the dancing flames. Outside, the wind rustled in the vines. A bare branch knocked against the window. The silence lengthened till Morwid at last cried, "Well?"
Drucilla shook her head, her expression troubled. She rubbed her eyes and pushed the water away. "Perhaps these old eyes fail me at last. Or else my gift itself is waning. I fear you have journeyed here for naught, my friend. I cannot say for certain whether this child is the one."
"I must know! Try your scrying glass."
With a resigned sigh Drucilla picked up the amber ball and bent over it. Soon her face contorted. A sheen of sweat filmed her forehead. She moaned and took several ragged breaths. "Ahh. Two there be," she whispered at last. "One alone, then two as one, until at last the quest be done."
Morwid snatched the glass. The candles went out. "Two as one?" he cried into the darkness. "What does it mean?"
Drucilla raised her head. "I am certain of nothing save this: The prince, whoever he be, must find the lost amulet that lies far beyond the summer country. In the amulet lies the power to oust the Northmen. But there will be much pain in the taking of it."
"Where is it exactly?"
"Beyond water and fire. Beyond ice. Beyond the raging wind."
Morwid paced the little hut. "What am I to do? I am far too old to waste my final years preparing a boy who might or might not be the one the ancients have promised." He stopped his pacing and placed a hand on Drucilla's shoulder. "And the pain you spoke of. Is there no way around it? Surely there must be some spell or enchantment that will do the trick."
"Some of my sisters can call up fire and rain, some can stop the wind. It is said my mother's gifts were strong enough to stop time." Drucilla took both of Morwid's hands in hers. "The years grow long, so perhaps you have forgotten that mine has always been a minor gift. I am but a seer, powerless to change what fate ordains."
Morwid opened his mouth to speak, but she silenced him with a finger to her lips. "I am tired now, and hungry. Let us eat before the child wakes and you must journey home."
So saying, she opened a cupboard and took out a crust of barley bread, some comb honey, and a bit of cheese. Stepping silently around the sleeping Thorn, she poured a watery ale into two goblets, and they sat down to eat.
They spoke then of the old days in Kelhadden, when they were young and the walls of the castle rang with music and laughter. They spoke of cool green gardens and summers by the sea, and of good friends long dead but hardly forgotten. They spoke of Morwid's dream of the future, when the Northmen would be banished from Kelhadden forever. Morwid lifted his goblet. "To the prince," he said. "Wherever and whoever he be!"
"To the prince." Drucilla drained her ale and stood. "It will be dark soon, and I do not like to imagine you in this wood then. The king's huntsmen would as soon spear you as the stag. You must go now, but I will give you more swaddling for the boy." She shook her head. "The poor mite needs milk, but I have none."
"Aye. It would be easier to call down rain than to find any while Ranulf forbids us our own animals."
Drucilla lifted Thorn from his makeshift bed and removed his swaddling. Morwid held his nose against the acrid smell, but the seer seemed not to notice. She wrapped Thorn in dry blankets and dribbled a bit of gruel left from her breakfast into his mouth. The babe sucked her finger greedily and closed his eyes. Drucilla rocked the child and looked up at Morwid, her black eyes glistening with tears. "Mayhap this day I have held our new prince."
"And mayhap you have not." Morwid sighed and stroked his beard. "If only I could be certain."
"My counsel is this: Proceed as if this babe is the prince. Teach him everything he must know in order to find the lost amulet. When he reaches his twelfth summer, bring him to me. Perhaps then I can divine his true calling."
"A wasted effort," Morwid grumbled, "to teach him all I know only to find he is nothing but a worthless foundling."
"Learning is never wasted," Drucilla said. "If he is not the prince, at least you will have a well-trained lad to aid you and to ease the loneliness of your cave." She placed the sleeping child in Morwid's arms. "I worry about you, my friend, living alone in such a cold, dark place."
Morwid grunted. "I am a warrior. I have seen worse. This hut of yours is hardly better. When Ranulf is defeated, I will come down and make you a proper house."
Drucilla laughed. "We are both too old for such an undertaking, but I thank you just the same." She opened the door and peered out. "All clear. But watch how you go."
The old warrior kissed her cheek and slipped into the fading light. He had not meant to stay so late. Already the sun lay low in the trees, casting long shadows along the forest floor. His mind teemed with questions. Was this babe the prince who would someday reclaim the kingdom? Or was he merely the castoff of some desperate woman who had chanced upon the cave? If Thorn were the prince, what should he be taught for a journey beyond fire and wind and ice? Hunting and fishing, aye, and how to read the stars. Swordsmanship and archery. Riding? But where would Morwid get a horse when such animals were forbidden to all but Ranulf's men? Just as worrisome was Drucilla's odd pronouncement. Two as one. What could it mean? He turned it over in his mind, but still it made no sense.
So busy were his thoughts that the huntsmen were nearly upon him before he realized the danger. The thunder of horses' hooves shook the ground. Then the red-cloaked king himself, riding a magnificent black stallion, crashed through the trees, his huntsmen and baying hounds following. Behind them ran two hollow-eyed men, ragged and barefoot, calling out to the king, begging for the entrails of the hares dangling from the huntsmen's horses. The cracking of horsewhips, followed by the anguished cries of the beggars, filled the air. Morwid hid behind a tree and cradled Thorn to his chest. He felt his familiar hatred for the Northmen returning. Once, those poor beggars had been men of substance, farmers perhaps, or farriers or merchants or millers. But Ranulf had pillaged the entire kingdom and forced all but the most despairing of his subjects into hiding.
Swallowing the rage roiling inside him, Morwid waited for the Northmen and the beggars to pass, then ran deeper into the forest, until he reached the edge of a dark pond. There he crouched in the damp reeds and covered the baby's body with his own. Thorn whimpered, and Morwid put his lips to the baby's ear and quieted him with the words of one old song and then another until the sounds of men, dogs, and horses faded. Morwid lifted his head and looked around. He was bone tired. The sea cave was too far away to reach before nightfall, and he was unwilling to chance another encounter with the hunting party in order to return to Drucilla's hut. With a sinking heart he realized he and the babe must wait in the forest until morning.
The coming night promised to be a cold one. He could smell the frost, and the wood smoke from the far-off huts of the forest people. Without tools for fire making, he could do nothing except huddle with the infant in the tall grass. He wrapped Thorn in all the swaddling Drucilla had provided, then held the child close inside his own cloak. The warrior and the infant warmed each other as the moon rose through the bare tree branches and the wind soughed in the reeds beside the pond.
"Did I ever tell you about the time King Warn and I, with only a handful of men, held off the king of Arnen for nearly a week?" Morwid asked the babe. "Aye, and it was a fierce battle, to be sure, as we had to rely more on our wits than our skills with dirk and lance, there being so few of us, you see. 'Tis better to use one's head than to lose it to the enemy's poleax."
The sound of his own voice comforted the old warrior, and so he went on with his tales until he and the child both fell asleep.
Copyright © 2005 by D. Anne Love