He who searches for enlightenment,
Shall find confusion.
He who seeks to slay another,
Shall slay himself.
He who travels to the deepest reaches of the Underworld,
Shall find heaven.
He who has lost his soul and cannot save himself,
Shall save us all.
—Taliesin, The Black Book of Gwynedd
Dinas Bran, North Wales, Kingdom of Gwynedd
Water streamed in rivulets down the stone walls as I stood at the kitchen door of the castle, seeking shelter from the weather. I pushed the door open farther, the rain dripping from my hood, and confronted the weeping woman.
“Give the boy to me.”
With tears pouring down her face, a match to the drops of rain on mine, Alcfrith, sister to the great King Penda of Mercia and wife of Cadwallon, the King of Gwynedd, handed me the sleeping child.
I took him and studied the face of his mother. She’d lost her husband and the boy, his father, in battle ten days before, killed far from home in Saxon lands. Although the woman did not yet know, Cadwallon had been struck down by the very man who now sought to marry her. That man would be known forever as Cadfael the Usurper. I didn’t tell her the future I saw or that she would live to regret her choices. As of this moment, the boy, this child of an ancient and powerful lineage, was an orphan and my responsibility.
“Don’t tell me where you’re taking him,” Alcfrith said. “I cannot bear to know.”
“Safer that you don’t,” I said.
And that was that. I turned away from the woman; didn’t even bother to nod at the guard who thought to block my way, just brushed past him. As old as I was, having sought a prophecy my whole life, I could no longer afford to think about anything but the one thing that mattered: is this boy the one?
My brotherhood had searched for him for centuries, but with each child we found, each great man we shaped, we found ourselves disappointed. Human greed, lust, an insatiable quest for power, either in them or in those who pledged to serve them, had always brought them to their knees. For hundreds of years, through the coming of the Romans who destroyed our sacred sites, and then the Saxons, whose gods were strange and barbaric, we’d charted the stars, fought the demons we could, and watched the signs, each time hoping and praying that this boy would be the one.
Would Cadwaladr? His father had ruled with a strong arm, but I’d known at Cadwallon’s birth that despite a vision of great victories that would be his, he too would falter, dying too young to keep either the Saxon menace or the gods at bay. This usurper Cadfael—I found myself snorting under my breath at the thought of his rule. Gwynedd would suffer under that one, although the Council would not see it until it was far too late—and longer still until such a time as the boy in my arms could claim his birthright.
The stars had aligned for this child, more than for any other, even the great Arthur who’d protected his people for a generation. The Dragon stood menacingly in the night sky, one claw outstretched, shining down upon the Cymry—the free people of Wales. The end of one dragon’s life was the beginning of another’s. Would he come to land? Would he inhabit the soul of this boy and lead us to victory as we all hoped he would? In truth, even the gods didn’t know for sure, and the little they told me was not enough.
Alcfrith stood in the doorway of the castle, watching me cross to the postern gate, the light spilling past her into the muddy courtyard. As I reached the gate, rain fell on the boy’s head, and he stirred. I was tempted to look back. Instead, I adjusted the boy on my shoulder. The light behind me would illumine his face and give his mother one last look at what she was losing.
I am not without pity.