It was a cold morning just before Imbolc. The sky faded gradually from the deep translucent blue of twilight to the pale milky blue of pre-dawn, as the god Bellenos began his daily journey across the heavens. His burning chariot emerged proudly on the horizon, behind low rolling hills dusted with white; at first blinding, making the foreground appear darker. Then the intense light of the sun-god rose higher, spreading his warmth, igniting frozen dewdrops on innumerable blades of grass, and transforming every tiny crystal of frost on the branches of trees into microscopic rainbows.
Teague woke early as usual and stretched slowly, then shivered as it was bitterly cold. He woke the sleeping fire and fed it some more wood before pulling on his shoes and cloak and going outside. He walked down to the well for water, which he brought back and set to warm over the fire. He was always first up and always fastest to sleep. He often drifted off during the day if not too much was happening.
The activity disturbed his brothers, Blyth and Abbon, who stirred and rubbed their eyes wearily. Blyth was the oldest; at nearly fourteen he was practically a man. Slim and muscular he was strong, and yet disliked fighting and did not look forward to warrior training. Abbon was the youngest, at ten. He was cheeky and irrepressible. He loved to run around and tease his older brothers, then dodge out of the way of their blows.
The three dressed and left before their mother even woke, knowing that she was tired from caring for their little sister. Elarch was often ill; she had a pale complexion and platinum blonde hair that framed a porcelain face with china blue eyes. Slim and graceful with a long neck and high cheekbones, and she lay curled up on her mother’s furs fast asleep as the boys left the house.
Today they would have to go and collect as much firewood as possible for the great feast of Imbolc. This was an important festival marking the end of winter. Fires would be lit, sacrifices made, and prophesies for the coming year would be sought. Everything from the weather and the crops, to new life and death might be foretold.
The three ventured out of the camp, through the gates in the tall wooden fence, decorated with the skulls of enemies slain in battle, weaving through the slopes and ditches that made up the defences against attack, and down the hill to the edge of the woods. Things had been pretty peaceful lately, the Gods had been kind, and the seasons mild, providing plentiful food for animals and people alike. The rivers were full, fish jumping, and there was plenty of trade both far and near. As a result the defences were in poor repair with stakes not driven deep into the soil and the ridges crumbling to fill the ditches in places. The woods were never quite safe though, as wild animals always lurked and, it was said, there was a huge beast that carried away unwary children, never to be seen again.
“Don’t you go falling asleep now Teague!” called Blyth.
“As if.” grumbled Teague, he was only too well aware of the dangers of the forest. He was perhaps the most timid of the three. He had a gentle artistic nature, which his mother saw, but his uncle, Kyndyrn, could not accept. Not that he was a coward, he would just try to avoid a fight until there was nowhere left to go. When he was cornered he would turn; and cold fury took over. His Uncle had done it once, goading him to fight, he had pushed Teague over the edge until, with no way to back out gracefully, the boy’s eyes seemed to glaze over and his muscles tensed. He had leaped with unexpected force and speed, knocking Kyndyrn over and scratching at his face. As a result Kyndyrn, the strongest warrior in the clan, had red scratches down both cheeks for several days. Teague’s mother had intervened to stop him being punished.
“You got what you wanted little brother, you made him fight, now leave him be!” Epona said, and her eyes burned into him.
While Kyndyrn was a fierce warrior, he knew his sister Epona was a powerful mage. Her curse had been known to kill a man, so he let it drop.
In the woods there were plenty of fallen branches from the strong winds of the previous night and collecting was good. The boys loaded up wheeled carts as they went, but soon, as the weak sun reached its highest point in the grey sky, Abbon’s thoughts turned to mischief. He found a few old acorns that had fallen on barren soil and decided on some target practise. Choosing his aim carefully, and from a good distance, he hit Blyth hard on the back of the head, then carried on collecting as if nothing had happened. Blyth turned angrily to see the source of this small missile, at first blaming Teague who was completely innocent, and said as much. A few minutes later Teague was struck on the side of the face and there was no doubt where the shot had come from.
“Cut it out Abbon! We have work to do!”
“What?” said Abbon with his best innocent look on his face.
Blyth gave Abbon a glare that said, try anything one more time and it will be the last thing you do.
Abbon let it go until all was forgotten and then let loose a couple of quick shots one at each brother. The two older siblings dropped everything and gave chase but Abbon was already running and with a fair head start he leaped into the branches of a tree. He was a very good climber showing absolutely no fear. His long slender fingers caught hold of the thinnest branches that would support his weight and he clambered out of sight into clumps of ivy strangling an old oak. “Get down from there NOW!” shouted Blyth with little hope of obedience.
“Come on Abbon, we won’t do anything” said Teague somewhat untruthfully.
Abbon inched out along a branch and across to another tree. Leaf buds were poking through here and there, ivy gave some cover. With dense undergrowth of ferns and holly, Abbon hoped he could avoid being seen. He headed deeper into the woods where he could avoid coming down. Hoping to get away long enough for them to cool down, but his brothers followed the sounds of creaking branches relentlessly.
It was decidedly cooler and darker here. There was a sense in the air of foreboding. Even Abbon realised they were too far into the forest, and fear of the unknown began to overtake fear of his brothers. Likewise his brothers became much more worried about beasts, both real and mythical, than about getting revenge on their little brother.
“Abbon! Come on stop messing around, we have to get back!” called Blyth.
No sound came. Blyth and Teague had lost track of Abbon completely. Then a little voice came from just above their heads.
“Me too.” admitted Teague, “Come down and let’s get out of here.”
Abbon dropped to the ground right in front of Blyth.
“You idiot Abbon, we’ll be late back now. Come on, it’s this way I think.”
After giving Abbon a half-hearted clip round the ear, Blyth led the way back as best he could remember. There was a path of sorts, which was probably a regular track for deer and boar, and he followed that for some way before striking out across a large patch of ferns which they had damaged on their way through earlier.
Soon however it became clear that he was lost again. There was nothing familiar but Blyth kept on going, not wanting to admit the truth. Teague knew it wasn’t right but would not say anything for fear of getting shouted at. After what seemed like hours, but may only have been minutes, they noticed a smell of smoke. There was a huge ancient oak, with a crown of nine boughs that split from the trunk several feet above the ground. The gnarled and misshapen bark below the crown resembled a face, with heavy eyebrows and a dark and gaping maw. It looked like a particularly fierce and malevolent warrior. A little further ahead they saw what looked like a clearing and some sort of fire. A huge conical pile of moss and earth stood seething with grey smoke before a small round hut. Blyth called out to see if there was anyone inside.
A small man appeared in the doorway, he looked ancient yet sprightly, deep wrinkles covered every corner of his animated clean shaven face, his eyes twinkled and his mouth flickered into a smile of sorts, tinged with sadness. He dressed in an uncommon manner with shoes that were clearly not obtained locally. His cloak was linen and a rich deep purple, hemmed with gold.
“Why do you come here?” He asked in a quiet, hoarse voice.
“We… got lost.” said Blyth feeling strangely afraid.
Something about the man and the place unnerved him. Teague and Abbon felt it too. They were silent, and stood well back from the hut.
“You are from Ba-Dun.” the old man said. It was a statement not a question. Perhaps this was obvious as it was the nearest settlement.
Next he said, “The children of Trethiwr.”
How did he know? Blyth must have looked surprised, because he added,
“You are the image of your father, boy. How is he?”
“We have not seen him since just after our sister Elarch was born. Uncle says he is probably dead” Blyth spoke with only a tinge of sadness, he had seen his father so rarely in the last thirteen years. He remembered hearing stories of far off lands, of different tribes and cultures, and of strange dialects and languages.
“He is not dead.” stated the man without any doubt in his voice, “It is a time for prophesy, so I will tell you this. Your father will return soon. Go now, that way, as quickly as possible. A storm is coming and you need to get back to the fort.”
Blyth wanted to ask questions but as he took a breath the man said again.
“Go NOW!” He pointed again in the direction they should head and his expression left no invitation for further discussion.
The fire grew hotter and glowed red issuing spurts of billowing smoke. The boys were filled with an overwhelming sense of dread. They ran, and even as they turned to look back, the hut, the man and the fire, were nowhere to be seen. Blyth led the way again as they crashed through overhanging branches and low scrub until the trees thinned and they found themselves at the edge of the forest once more, not far from their carts.
It was already darkening as the weak sun held on to the horizon with thin fingers, before dropping out of sight. They threw a few more stray sticks on the carts, tied their loads down, and raced back to the village as fast as their burdens would allow. Blyth going back several times to help Abbon who kept getting stuck and once overturned his load. They arrived back cold, yet sweaty, to find the whole village a buzz of frenetic activity. Kyndyrn stopped only long enough to hit them all, and shout about how late they were. Their wood was thrown onto a huge, already burning, pyre and they headed off to join in the celebrations.
There was no sign of a storm however. Perhaps, thought Blyth, the old man was not a seer but just a crazy old man. But the way he had disappeared, along with the house, and the fire, was still very mysterious. Anyway, it would have to wait until after the feast.