The Druid's Son - sample chapter

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Chapter 1 - The Thing Unexpected

     Harvest was over. The corn from the poor stony fields had been gathered safely into the barns, and the sheep and cattle brought down from their high summer pastures to graze on the stubble and manure the fields with their droppings. Only the pigs were still in the oak-woods below, fattening on acorns. Soon it would be Samhain, the time of the blood-feast, the time of slaughter.
     The woman standing in the house-place doorway and looking up at the misty hills was thinking of another slaughter, a spring blood-letting which had changed her world forever. Not long after Beltane of the previous year, it had been, when the word they had all dreaded came from Môn: the Red Crests had crossed the Aber Menai, and destroyed the Sanctuaries of the Druids. Those who had been supreme in Britain for longer than any living man could remember were now a broken rabble, hunted fugitives in need of shelter themselves.
     It had seemed impossible to her, as if the black earth had gaped beneath her feet, or the sky of stars fallen upon her, and yet it had happened. Before many days the first wounded survivors had reached her mountain valley, followed in a little while by half a dozen of the Druid Priests themselves: lean grave-faced men in fire- and blood-stained robes, with the high shaven foreheads of their kind, and their eyes still dark with grief and loss. The people of the valleys had taken them in and made them welcome, and shared their spring-scanty food and ale. The woman in the doorway remembered that first nightthe crowd of weary strangers in her father the Chieftain’s fire-lit hall, the low murmur of talk, and the silence where there should have been bard-song. She remembered the man who had been seated in the place of honor beside her father: a dark-bearded man neither young nor old, whose solemn face yet bore the marks of past laughter, and whose deep-set eyes were gentle, and wise beyond his years. Lovernos, they had called him, Lovernos the Fox
the last Archdruid of Ynys Môn. The woman smiled a little sadly, thinking of him, and her hand went unconsciously to her swollen belly, where she carried his child. Spring-born, the boy would be: for Lovernos had told her, speaking with awen, that it was a son she carried.
     Motion caught her eye in the twilight distance, and she left off remembering. Five riders were coming up the valley track from the south. As they came closer, she knew them, for four of them were her brothers and cousins, gone these three moons and more as part of an escort for Lovernos and his band. The fifth was an older man in worn dark clothes, gray-bearded, and with short-cropped gray hair above his forehead where his tonsure was still growing out—for it was no longer safe in Britain to look like a Druid. By the time he dismounted stiffly before the hall door, she had fetched the guest-cup, and offered it to him now.
     “A blessing on the house,” he said formally, as he took the carved ash-wood cup and drank.
     “Be welcome, Honored One,” said the woman. She remembered him now as one of Lovernos’ men, Cunomoros by name. “Come in to the fire.”
     “Gladly,” said the man, following her into the hall through the curious crowd which had gathered there. “The nights are cold here now.”
     “And will be colder still before long,” said the woman. They stopped beside the hearth-place, and the man held out chilled hands to the flames.
     “It is accomplished,” he said quietly.
     “I thank you for the news,” said the woman. “Did he… did he suffer much?”
     “No,” said the man, “it was clean. I struck the first blow myself; after that he felt nothing.”
     “I am glad,” said the woman, and paused, biting her lip, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
     “He sent you this,” said the man; and reaching into his belt-pouch, he pulled out a battered silver ring which she knew well. “Keep it for the boy until he can wear it.”
     The woman took it and looked at it, then closed her hand tightly upon it. Cold though it was from the autumn chill outside, yet she felt the power in it still, as if some spark of its former owner lingered. “You are so sure,” she said wonderingly, “so sure I will bear him a son.” And at the words, she felt the child stir for the first time in her womb.
     “Yes,” the gray-haired man said simply, and stretched out his hands again to the fire. Then he met her eyes, and something passed between them. “I was sent back,” he said softly, “to be the boy’s teacher…and his foster-father as well, if that would please you.”
     The woman looked at him, and saw for the first time the strength in his face, and the wisdom. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “It does. He will need a father, and I am going to need a new man. Come with me now, and I will show you…your home.”

     He was born in mid-spring, in the month of Edrini, at the time when the days and nights are equal: a fine healthy boy, with a tuft of his father's dark hair, and his mother's blue-gray eyes. He was a quiet baby, eating and sleeping readily, causing no trouble, and born in a fortunate year: a year of good crops and good weather, when all things throve. He grew fast; it seemed to his parents no time at all before he was crawling, then walking. That was when the trouble began; for although the boy would play peacefully with other children, and loved his foster-father's company, he liked best to be alone among the hills.
     “Have you seen Togi?” asked his mother one evening. Cunomoros, washing the garden soil from his hands at the water butt, looked up.
     “I have not,” he said. “Not since midday. I thought that he was with you.”
     “And I thought the same.” She sighed. “Perhaps he will come home soon for his supper.” Cunomoros looked up at the surrounding hills, where the slow summer twilight was deepening into dusk.
     “Perhaps,” he said. “But I think that I will go and look for him all the same.”

     The boy lay listening to the bats, watching them as they flew swiftly on their dark irregular hunting courses through the clear evening air, and hearing their high thin voices. The human voice calling his name he had ignored now for some time. The night was too fine for going indoors, and he was not yet sleepy. His empty belly he ignored also, as a thing of no importance: at this he had already had much practice. The bats were more important. He had never seen so many at one time before, and he thought there were several kinds among them, some large and some smaller. In a little while he might understand their words.
His father’s voice was closer now; soon he would be found. He should have picked a more hidden spot in the rocks, but this smooth patch of open, sheep-cropped turf on which he lay gave him a better view of the bats, and of the pale summer stars behind them. It was too late now to move. Instead he watched the jerky flight of the bats as they twisted and turned in the air in their pursuit of their prey. He had found a dead one the summer before; the short brown fur had been soft, and the body amazingly light. He had kept it in a cleft in the rocks until something—perhaps a fox—had found and stolen it.
     A dark shadow blotted out part of his sky. “So there you are, Togi,” said his father’s voice. “Why did you not answer me? You must have heard me calling.”
     “I was not ready yet.” The boy’s eyes still followed the bats. What must it be like, he wondered, to fly so swiftly and so well, skimming through the darkness like a ghost, free of all restraint?
     “Well, it is time we went back.” Cunomoros stretched down a hand; reluctantly the boy took it and was hauled to his feet. “You mother will be worried.”
     “Let go, I can walk by myself. Why would she be worried? She knows I know these hills.”
     “Women are like that. Besides, there are wolves.”
     “In the summer?” The boy leapt up onto a gray boulder and picked his way from rock to rock, his bare brown feet gripping surely, his arms lightly extended to keep his balance.
     “Sometimes. Other things as well. What were you doing up here?”
     “Watching the bats. Does nothing hunt them?”
     “Nothing that I know of. They move too quickly, and never in a straight line. That is their protection; no one knows where they will be next. Remember that, if you are ever pursued, and do the thing unexpected.” Unseen in the darkness, Cunomoros frowned, his own thoughts going back seven years to a pursuit and an escape. The Red Crests had hunted them then, sure enough, but Lovernos had been too clever… He put the thought away with practiced ease, and held out a hand to his son. “That is a good lesson for you: do not forget it.”
     “I will remember.” The boy jumped down and paused. “Father…?”
     “What?” The man stopped, waiting.
     “Is it true they are spirits? That they speak with the voices of the dead?”
     “The bats?” said the man, frowning. “It might be so. Where did you hear this?”
     “I do not know,” said the boy, moving on through the heather. “Only, I remembered it… Is it true?”
     “Perhaps it is,” said the man, following him. “But only those as young as you are now can hear them; I cannot. As you grow older, you will cease to hear them, too.”
     “That will be a pity,” said the boy. And softly, half to himself, “Then I must listen as much as I can now, while I am still young.” And they went on down the mountain.

     He was seven years old, and it was Samon, the beginning-of-summer month: time to start his warrior training. This was the first thing he had thought of when his eyes opened that morning. Quietly, so as not to awaken the small brother who shared the bed-place with him, he rolled out from under his blanket and stood up on the packed earth floor of the hut. His mother and the new baby were still asleep, for the dancing had gone late, but his father was up already as always, standing in the doorway to view the pale sky, and combing his long gray hair and beard with his fine-toothed bone comb. The boy ran quick fingers through his own rough-cropped dark hair, and straightened the sleeveless woolen tunic, belted at the waist with a strap, which was all that he wore in summer—his father was particular about these things. Then he picked up his small belt-knife from the place where he had left it the night before, and tucking it under his belt, followed the man outside. “May I carry the basket, Father?”
     “You may.” Cunomoros handed him the covered willow basket, but kept the glazed pottery jug he carried in the crook of his left arm for himself. “Is it too heavy?”
     “No,” said the boy stoutly. In truth, it was heavy; there must be more than a few oatcakes in it this morning.
     “Good,” said Cunomoros, and they set off up the hill. The sun had not yet risen, and all the world was fresh and new—a good omen for the first day of summer. Later it might be warm, unless the clouds came. In the pens some of the shepherds were gathering their bleating flocks, ready to drive them up the mountain to the summer pastures, where they could feed on the rough grazing well away from the village crops; tomorrow the cows would follow with their calves. Some of the young men and women would be up there with them all summer, milking the cows and the ewes to make butter and cheese, and storing the resulting winter-food in cold stone-lined rooms dug into the hillside. The boy almost wished he was going; he loved the solitude of the high places; but he had work to do here below, learning his manhood skills from the arms master, and his priest-craft from his father.
     At first the path wound back and forth on the steep slope, then it straightened out. The hilltop was empty except for the low ring of ancient gray stones with the burnt-out remains of last night’s bonfire in its center. There was only the song of the wind through the gorse and heather, and the far-off cry of a hunting hawk, dancing suspended on the bright air. They stopped beside the big stone on the far side of the circle, and the boy put down his heavy basket in the grass. He watched while his father stirred the gray embers of the bonfire into life and fed them, first with small twigs and the dry stalks of last year’s willow herb, then with bigger pieces of split alder wood from a pile which had been left behind for this purpose the night before. Tendrils of white smoke arose, and small flames licked greedily at the wood. When the fire was burning strongly, Cunomoros stood erect and lifted his hands in the dawn prayer. The first light of the rising sun touched his brown face as he did so, and turned his gray hair and beard to silver. He began to chant, and the boy added his high voice to the song. This part of the ritual he knew well and loved.
     When the prayer was finished, Cunomoros turned to the offering, after first adding more wood to his fire. From the willow basket he took out a stack of flat oatcakes and a joint of raw meat from the previous evening’s sacrifice. At the scent of the cakes, the boy’s stomach rumbled; but the Gods must be fed first. Cunomoros broke the oatcakes one by one into the greedy flames, then laid the meat across them. A black smoke went up, and an odor compounded of burnt and roasted flesh. He added a few more pieces of wood and stood back. “Are you ready?” he asked.
     “I am.” The boy pulled the knife from his belt and unsheathed it; the sharp edge, bright with much honing, shone in the sunlight. Reaching around to the nape of his neck, he seized a tuft of hair and hacked it off; then, still holding it in his left hand, he jabbed the point of his knife with practiced care into his left thumb, so that a fat bead of blood burst out and ran down into his palm. Closing his hand, he mixed the blood into the hair. “I give myself today to the Gods who bred me, to the Gods who fed me, to the Gods who led me. May I always walk in their path.” Opening his hand, he dropped his offering into the fire, where it vanished in a puff of flame. Then he stepped back, smiling.
     “Well done,” said Cunomoros. “Let me see your hand.” The boy held it out; the cut was small, and had almost stopped bleeding. “Good. Keep it clean as I have taught you.”
     “I will.” They stood side by side and watched the fire for a while. When the meat was charred to black ashes, Cunomoros poured ale from the jug to extinguish the flames. A hiss and a cloud of pungent steam arose. When the jug was empty, he lifted his voice again in a chant, and again the boy joined him. Then silently they picked up their burdens and started back down the path, leaving the hilltop to the kestrel and the morning wind, and to the Gods.

     That afternoon Togi went to begin his warrior training, along with half a dozen other boys born in his year. He knew most of them well; they had played together since they could walk, rolling and wrestling like puppies in the rushes of the hall during feasts, swimming naked in the icy waters of the stream which made its way by leaps and bounds down the valley, and gathering birds’ eggs on the moors in the spring and nuts and bramble-fruit in the autumn. The use of the three-pronged fish-spear and the birding bow they knew already; now was the time for them to learn the way of those weapons used against men, and to hone their woodcraft until they could pass silent as shadows through the oak-woods of the lower valleys, or lie in ambush on the bare hillside hidden only by a patch of rough grass and their utter stillness.
     Old Crotos, an elderly warrior who had passed his youth in the war-band of the local king and had the scars to prove it, looked them over as if he had never seen them before. “None of you,” he told them, “are a patch on what your fathers were, and they were a poor lot—always supposing you had fathers, and were not merely found under a bramble bush.” The boys grinned sheepishly, knowing this for old custom. After a while Crotos set them to work casting spears at a straw target. Togi was neither worse nor better than any of his fellows, but he set himself doggedly to improve. As his father said, one could never have too many skills. Presently Crotos dismissed them, telling them to be there earlier tomorrow.
Togi went home, to find his father hoeing the bean patch behind their hut, which stood a little apart from its fellows. Without being asked, he went to fetch the big wicker basket, and began filling it with the hoed-up weeds. For a while they worked in companionable silence; then Cunomoros paused to rest. Leaning on his hoe, he asked, “How did it go?”
     “Oh—well enough,” said Togi. “Mostly we threw spears.”
     “Mmm,” said Cunomoros, and began to hoe again. After a little more silence, Togi said, “Father?”
     “Does a Druid also need to be a warrior?”
     “Mmm,” said Cunomoros. “Well—no, and yes. In days past, it was not necessary. We were respected for our learning, and for our magic; no one would have dared to lift a weapon to us. But nowadays…” He paused, thinking how to phrase this.
     “Since the Red Crests came?” said Togi.
      “Since the Red Crests came,” agreed Cunomoros. “They do not honor us or our Gods. We cannot cease to be Druids; but in the future, it may be well if we are able to defend ourselves with steel, if need be, as well as words, and with war-craft as well as magic. Remember, Lugh of the Light is a warrior as well as a Druid, and a Bard, and many other things; and what the Gods do not disdain to do, men should never cease to try and accomplish.”
     “Mmm,” said Togi, and carried the basket full of weeds away to dump them on the midden. When he came back, he said, “You will still teach me every day?”
     “Of course. Every morning, and whenever else there is time.”
     “Is there time now?” asked Togi. His father looked at the still un-hoed bean rows and smiled.
     “We can recite as we work,” he said. “Let me hear yesterday’s lesson.” And in time to the hoe strokes, they began to chant.

     Half of his days now were spent under the supervision of Crotos. Here the boy learned the use of spear and shield, and practiced with a scaled-down wooden sword—against the possibility that he might someday own a real one—the swinging strokes which could take off an enemy’s arm or head in battle. He learned, too, the rules of the boy-pack; and this, for one who had always preferred his own company and that of the mountains, was a harder task.
     The younger boys were often set to compete with or learn from their elders, and sometimes Crotos nodded off in the warm afternoons, when he should have been watching them. At first the boy had no trouble; they were all of them feeling their way like new hound puppies in the pack, and Togi—his full name was Togidubnos, but no one ever used it unless he was in serious trouble—had early weighed up his fellows with his usual calm good sense, and taken care to be on friendly terms with most of them. But in any group there is always an exception, and the exception in this case was a hulking ten-year-old called Ivomagnos, two hands taller than any of his fellows, and large and strong in proportion.
     It was Togi’s bad luck to be matched often against Ivo at weapons practice, not because he was the other boy’s match in size or strength—none of them were—but because he had a certain quickness which made him better at this game than the rest. It was just as if he knew where Ivo’s wooden spear-blade would be before it arrived, and could always move aside in time, or block it with his own light wooden shield. It was true that he scored few hits in return—Ivo’s greater strength could always beat down his blows—but this was no consolation to the bigger boy, who was used to having things his own way. At last, when Togi had danced aside from one of his lunges for the ninth or tenth time that afternoon, to the laughing jeers of some of the older boys, Ivo lost his temper and charged. Hitting the other’s shield with his own, and with all of his considerable weight, he knocked the smaller boy to the ground and landed astride him. “You little rat,” he cried, “twist away from this, if you can!” And grabbing Togi’s throat with both hands, he began to choke him.
     Clawing unavailingly at the bigger boy’s hands, Togi knew that he was in trouble. The sweating red face above him was beyond his shorter reach, and the weight on his small chest had already driven all the air from his lungs. As his world swung and darkened around him, he did the one thing that he could, the unexpected thing: he made himself go limp. Then, as Ivo, thinking the fight over, relaxed his grip and leaned back, Togi grabbed the bigger boy’s wrists and pulled himself up off the ground. His rising head met Ivo’s nose with a satisfying crunch, and Ivo screamed. Togi twisted out from under him, and came to his knees. Then he yelped in his turn as Crotos’ dog-whip, impartially used, lashed them both. They fell apart, panting.
“What is this?” said Crotos. “Cannot I take my eyes off of any of you young fools for a moment without one of you trying to kill another? To do it by accident is bad enough; I expect nothing better from such untrained cubs. But to do it by intent… Well, stand up, both of you, and let me see the damage.”
     They stood, well apart, Ivo trying to stanch the blood which was still pouring from his nose. Crotos looked them over in silence for a while, running the lash of his dog whip through his fingers. There were nervous giggles from some of the other boys, but he fixed them with a rheumy eye and they became silent and serious. “Huh!” he said at last. “Ivo, go down to the stream and wash the blood off of your face, and whatever it was you did, do not do it again. Togi, pick up your weapons and try a bout with Lugo. Maybe he is fast enough to hit you. The rest of you, go on with what you were doing. This show is over!”
     They scrambled to do his bidding. Ivo, his hands still on his streaming nose, gave Togi a glare which promised future vengeance, then went off as bidden to wash his face. Togi, ignoring his grazes and bruises, picked up his wooden spear and shield and faced Lugotorix, a thin red-haired youngster who was one of the unofficial leaders of the boy-pack. Lugo grinned at him. “That was a good move,” he said. “I saw it. Did you do it by intent, or were you lucky?”
     “Some of both, I think,” said Togi, grinning back.
     “Ha!” said Lugo, and laughed. “Well, show me now what you can do now with your spear… No, feint first. No, like this… quicker… quicker… good! Now I will try… watch my eyes… How did you do that?”
     “I do not know,” said Togi, panting, as they paused; he had dodged the thrust at the last moment.
     “Huh!” said Lugo, and laughed again. Then he sobered. “Keep an eye on Ivo. He holds a grudge.”
     “I know,” said Togi.
     “Do you?” Lugo grinned again. “You know a lot for such a little fellow. Well, one more bout, and then we will rest.”
     They sparred again. This time Lugo was faster, and feinting low, managed to graze the younger boy’s left shoulder over his shield. “Enough for now. Crotos will be letting us go for the day soon. Are you all right?”
     “Yes,” said Togi. “Thank you. It was a good lesson.”
     Lugo laughed. “I wish,” he said, “that I knew how you manage to be so quick. Well, you may have need of it before long. Go on, now. You can go.”

     Togi was stiff the next day, but Ivo’s face was a mess, and not being popular, he came in for a good bit of teasing. The looks he gave Togi were frankly murderous, but Crotos kept them apart, and presently Ivo’s nose healed, and the other boys lost interest. So the summer slipped by. Lughnasa came, and everyone was busy with the harvest. The sheep were brought down from the high pastures, and the ewes separated from their lambs, and the rams put with them to tup. The cattle came down in their turn, and the girls and youths who had spent their summer with them brought down the stored butter and cheese. In the oak woods the pigs fattened upon acorns.
     The mornings were frosty now on the hilltop when the boy and his father made their dawn prayers and offerings. Sunrise was later and farther south; Togi learned to track it against two aligned stones of the little circle. He knew the cries and the flights of the commoner birds now, and their meanings. One morning as they chanted, a flock of geese passed over calling, so low that the beat of their wings was loud in the still air, every perfect feather shining in the early golden light. The boy’s eyes followed them with awe and longing, the words of the chant momentarily forgotten; then he remembered himself and took up the song again with his father. “Where are they going?” he asked when it was finished.
     “Far to the south,” said Cunomoros, “to a land where summer lingers most of the year. They go and come with the tides of the light, along their broad pathways in the sky. Every year they have made that journey, since the time when the world began to be, and all things living first crept from the cold and darkness, to see and adore the rising Sun. Each year at midwinter, when the light turns back from darkness, we remember that first morning, and recreate the world with our songs and tales. So it has been and will be, until at last fire and water reclaim the world, and cause a new beginning.”
     The boy nodded absently; he had heard this tale before, but always loved it. “Tell me again about the tides.”
     Cunomoros smiled. “The tides of the light wax and wane with the turning of the year, following the sun, as the tides of the ocean rise and fall following the moon. The ocean is the great water which laps the coasts of Britain, and cuts us off from Ériu’s Land to the west, and from Gaul to the east. One day you will see it yourself.”
     “Have you journeyed over the ocean?” asked the boy, his eyes still following the flight of the geese, now distant black specks in the clear air.
     “I have. In my youth I myself traveled to Ériu’s Land, and there I learned many mysteries. There were many of us on Môn who went there to study in those days, and many from that country who came to learn from us. Your blood-father got his birthing in the north of that great island.”
     The boy nodded again; he had been told this before, too, but it was only a story to him; Cunomoros was the only father he had ever known. “And did you go to Gaul?”
     “No,” said Cunomoros sadly. “The Red Crests destroyed the Sanctuaries there before I was born. Everywhere they come they bring destruction. May the strong Gods keep them from Ériu’s Land, for that is our last retreat. When the oak groves of Ériu are cut down, there will be no more Druids.”
     “Until the world is reborn?” said the boy.
     Cunomoros nodded slowly. “Yes. Until our world is reborn.”
Copyright ©2012 by G R Grove. All rights reserved.
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