Tintagel, Cornwall, Isle of Great Britain
November 865 A.D.
"'Tis a fine night for a child to be born," Manfred cu Llwyr whispered to himself as he walked. Passing the river rock hearth, he took note of the robust fire that burned so brightly there. He stopped in front of it for a moment, lost in thought as he watched the play of flames, then turned toward the thick oak and iron door that led outside.
Opening it with a loud scrape, he made his way down the unheated corridor. As he moved, his body cast shadows tall and thin before him from the light of torches mounted high on the wall. The straw scattered about the stone floor for warmth and cleanliness offered a muffled crackle beneath his feet.
Once out of doors, he rubbed his hands together and raised his eyes to the sky. On the horizon, the setting sun cast a red glow and turned the gray winter clouds to indigo. Manfred sighed and his breath hung in the air before him.
He stopped near another fire -- one of many lit that night in celebration of the feast of Samhain -- and leaned against the timber and stone wall of the keep. He looked out past the fence, hand-hewn stakes of wood sunk deep in the ground that surrounded his burh. A fine mist lay in heavy circles around the treetops, its long fingers beginning to drift down to the earth. As far as the eye could see, from the lush green rolling hills to the thick forests shaded dark by the coming night, it all belonged to him. The sharp smell of the sea, not quite a mile away, rose on the wind and entertained his senses.
Only the Samhain bonfires scattered along the hillsides broke the shroud of mist and night. His churls would soon be starting the dedication of animal sacrifices to the gods, goddesses, and denizens of the Otherworld. It was their sincere belief these offerings would cause the deities to look upon the people favorably and see them safely through the coming winter. He uttered a silent wish that their prayers would be heard, thankful the portents hadn't indicated a harsh winter on the way. If this had been the case, a human sacrifice would have been in order. And though it would've been his duty to see it through, he was loath to take a life. Manfred's "new way of thinking" was a constant point of contention between him and the High Council of Bards, Ovates, and Priests. It was even worse with his twin brother, Eugis, who saw Manfred's beliefs as a threat to their very way of life.
A woman's scream pierced the growing darkness and Manfred quickly turned around. He let his breath out slowly, clenching his fists until his nails dug deep into the callused flesh. Nestled deep inside the hall in their bedchamber, his wife was laboring to bring forth their first child. He unclenched his hands and cast a log on the fire in front of him. Silently, he sent a prayer to Nuada for Rhea's safety.
By the gods, he was fearful of losing her. She had come into his life like a bright shining light, at a time when he thought love was perhaps beyond his grasp, and she enchanted him. She was truly a child of the hills, with her thick black hair and freckled cheeks. She wove wondrous stories of meetings with the Tuatha de Danaan themselves, the very fays who lived in those emerald hills! And who was he to dispute her? He'd seen enough of magic in his own life to know it existed.
Lost in his reverie, he barely noticed the little boy as he approached from the direction of the Samhain festival. The child stopped before him and tugged at Manfred's long white tunic. The copper and stone adornments chimed together. The movement startled him and he glanced down. He'd forgotten he was still wearing the heavily embroidered and jeweled priest's robes. As the Chief Dyrrwed Bard for his clan, he should be at the celebration now, reciting the stories of the Ulster Men, Cu Chulainn, and the other heroes and deities.
Ah, but he couldn't leave Rhea's side as she struggled with the birth. If only for his own sense of well being, he needed to be here. Too many women died while laboring. He would stay and make certain the midwife and priestess in attendance drew upon all of their powers to keep his wife safe from harm while the baby fought its way into the world. And a fight it truly was. Already a full day had passed and still the babe was unborn.
"Dylan mac Connall. What is it?" Manfred squatted down and asked the boy. "What can I do for you this evening?"
The boy didn't answer, but only watched the older man.
"I would've thought you'd be at the feast with the others." Manfred smiled as he looked at the child. Hair as black as the night sky and eyes to match, the boy was so serious for one who'd seen only six winters. But he'd always been that way. Even as a wee babe he didn't cry out or raise his voice. He only seemed to look out on creation with sober curiosity.
Dylan pursed his lips together, then spoke. "I told Da I needed to be here with you and the Lady. He said it would be all right, as long as I didn't get in anyone's way." His father, Fox mac Connall, was the noble of the neighboring lands and Manfred's oldest and most trusted friend.
Manfred smiled again and ruffled the boy's hair. "But the festivities have only just begun. Have you had your fill of our good cook Hazel's honeycakes so soon?" It was just like the child to do something out of the ordinary, the opposite of what everyone else was doing. Single-minded though he was, he was a good boy and a more-than-able student, well on the path to becoming a powerful Dyrrwed priest. Already, Manfred had been able to teach him a hundred verses and tales of their people, the Dumnonii. Of course, there were literally thousands more, but so far the boy had memorized each and every one he'd been taught. No small feat for a child his age.
Dylan shrugged. "I was at the festival, warming my hands near the fire, when I heard someone calling my name." He pulled his hands up inside of the thick brown woolen cloak he wore as if, with the telling of the tale, the small fingers remembered how cold they had been. "I walked into the woods, down the path where the two tall stones stand watching the stream. I heard my name again." His eyes met Manfred's. "Then I saw a lady there."
Manfred grinned. "And what sort of lady did you find?"
"A wet one, Sir. She was just lying there under the water, smiling up at me. Then she started to talk and her voice sounded like music. She told me I should be here with you." He pulled his hands out of his cloak and tossed a green pebble up into the air with one hand and caught it with the other. When he showed his palms, the stone had vanished. He pushed his black hair out of his eyes and looked at Manfred again.
Manfred's grin faded. He took the boy by the shoulders and looked at him carefully, judging the truth of what was said. Dylan's gaze never wavered. Manfred knew the child wasn't one to lie or create fanciful tales, so he greatly doubted he would do so now. Manfred ran a hand through his bright red beard, now streaked with silver. Had he heard correctly? Had the raven goddess of water, Morrigu herself, spoken to the boy? Manfred sucked in his breath. It truly is a special night.
At that moment, one of his churls came lumbering out of the barn to his left, wiping his hands on a bit of ragged cloth. To his right, the midwife appeared at the door to the keep, a soft bundle in her arms.
"The new foal has arrived, my Lord. She's as white as a fair summer cloud, she is." The churl grinned broadly, displaying two rows of uneven teeth, then turned and walked back to the barn.
"An' I 'ave more news fer ye, Sir. Yer child has finally come." The midwife placed the babe in his arms and pulled the blanket away from the small face. As she did so, a hawk flew overhead, crying to the night. The midwife jumped, then made a quick sign for protection.
Manfred stared up at the bird and a shiver ran along his spine. All the signs were present: The appearance of a goddess. The birth of a white foal at the same moment as the babe. The hawk. By the gods, it could only mean one thing. The child would be triply blessed by the gods and goddesses, with the powers of healing at its command.
"How is Lady Rhea? Did she fare well?" he asked, his voice a ragged whisper.
"Oh, Sir, she done jest fine." The midwife smiled kindly. "She's a-sleepin' already."
He looked at the sky again as the hawk continued to circle overhead, now joined by what appeared to be a large raven. "Morrigu," he whispered.
Sparks from the fire lifted with the wind and mixed with the stars. Still the birds flew steady. When Manfred realized the midwife was still speaking to him, he shook his head to clear it. "What was it you said?"
"I says I'm very sorry it's a girl-child. I know how disappointed ye must be." She pulled her homespun shawl tighter around her shoulders as light snowflakes began to fall.
Manfred waved her away impatiently. "Nonsense, woman. Girls have their value, and my daughter will aspire to greatness." He puffed his chest out. "She will be a leader of the Dumnonii. Nay, of all the Keltoi tribes." He gestured to the sky. "Tell me you don't see the signs!" Manfred lowered his hand. He ran a rough finger down the babe's cheek and stroked the downy thatch of dark red hair that covered her head. "Leave the babe with me and go watch over my wife in case she wakes."
"But, Sir. It's gettin' much too cold fer the child to be out here." She glanced around, as if hoping for someone to support her position. "Sir?"
Manfred's expression grew dark. "You heard me. Off with you." When she hesitated, he barked, "Now!" The midwife took a step back, then turned and ran into the hall, her shawl trailing behind her.
He chuckled, then gazed down at his new daughter. "Dylan," he whispered as he crouched down. "This is an important lesson and I want you to remember it. Look at this babe. Life is sacred. It should never be taken from another in vain or for the purpose of calling up healthy crops." He sighed. "There are those who disagree with me on this matter, but, as your teacher, it's important to me that you understand."
"I'll remember, Sir." Dylan leaned forward, his eyes wide as he looked at the baby. "She's beautiful. Prettier even than the lady in the stream."
Manfred laughed. "Of course she is. And, because of your vision, I have decided to name her Maere, after the water spirit."
Dylan smiled, proud. But as he continued to watch the babe, his smile faded. He touched the child's tiny hand and whispered, "I swear by all the gods and goddesses that I will protect her for you and the Lady Rhea." He raised his eyes to his teacher's. "Always."