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On the night of the great man's birth a fierce storm was moving in from the far north, but the lowering black clouds still were hidden behind the craggy, snow-capped peaks of the Druagh mountains. The night air outside the birthing hut was calm and still and heavy. The bright stars of Caer Gwydion glittered in the sky, and the full moon was shining like a lantern over the tribal lands of the Rigante.
All was quiet inside the lamp-lit hut as Varaconn, the soft-eyed horse hunter, knelt at his wife's side, holding to her hand. Meria, the pain subsiding for a moment, smiled up at him. "You must not worry," she whispered. "Vorna says the boy will be strong."
The blond-haired young man cast his gaze across the small, round hut to where the witch woman was crouched by an iron brazier. She was breaking the seals on three clay pots and measuring out amounts of dark powder.
"It is time for his soul-name," Vorna said without turning from her task.
Varaconn reluctantly released his wife's hand. He did not like the stick-thin witch, but then, no one did. It was difficult to like that which one feared, and black-haired Vorna was a fey creature with bright blue button eyes that never seemed to blink. How was it, Varaconn wondered, that an aging spinster with no personal knowledge of sex or childbirth could be so adept at midwifery?
Vorna rose and turned, fixing him with a baleful glare. "This is not the time to consider questions born of stupidity," she said.
Varaconn jerked. Had he asked the question aloud? Surely not.
"The soul-name," said Vorna. "Go now."
Taking his wife's hand once more, he raised it to his lips. Meria smiled, then a fresh spasm of pain crossed her face. Varaconn backed away to the door.
"All will be well," Vorna told him.
Varaconn swirled his blue and green checkered cloak around his slender shoulders and stepped out into the night.
It was warm, the air cloying, and yet, for a moment at least, it was cooler than the hut and he filled his lungs with fresh air. The smell of mountain grass and pine was strong there, away from the settlement, and mixed with it he could detect the subtle scent of honeysuckle. As he grew accustomed to the warmth of the summer night, he removed his cloak and laid it over the bench seat set around the trunk of the old willow.
Time for the soul-name, Vorna had said.
In that moment, alone under the stars, Varaconn felt like an adult for the first time in his nineteen years. He was about to find the soul-name for his son.
Varaconn's heart swelled with the thought.
Following the old goat trail, he stepped out onto the green flanks of
Caer Druagh, the Elder Mountain, and began to climb. As he journeyed high above the valley, his thoughts were many. He recalled his own father and wondered what he had been thinking as he had climbed this slope nineteen years before. What dreams had he nurtured for the infant about to be born? He had died from wounds taken in a fight with the
Pannones when Varaconn was six. His mother had passed over the Dark
Water a year later. Varaconn's last memories of her were of a skeletal woman, hollow-eyed, coughing up blood and phlegm.
The orphan Varaconn had been raised by an irascible uncle who had never married and loathed the company of people. A kind old man, he had tried hard to be a good father to the boy but had managedamong many good lessonsto pass on to his ward his own wariness of fellowship. As a result Varaconn never courted popularity and found intimacy difficult.
He was neither popular nor unpopular with the other young men of the
Rigante, and his life had been largely undistinguished except for two things: his friendship with Ruathain the First Warrior and his marriage to the beautiful Meria.
Varaconn paused in his climb and stared down at Three Streams settlement far below. Most of the houses were dark, for it was almost midnight and the Rigante were a farming community whose people rose before the dawn.
But lamplight was flickering in some of the windows. Banouin the
Foreigner would be checking his tallies and preparing his next journey to the sea, and Cassia Earth Maiden would be entertaining a guest,
initiating some young blood in the night-blessed joys of union.
Varaconn walked on.
His marriage to Meria had surprised many, for her father had entertained a score of young men seeking her handeven Ruathain. Meria had rejected them all. Varaconn had not been one of the suitors. A modest man, he had considered her far above him in every way.
Then one day, as he was gentling a mare in the high meadow paddock, she had come to see him. That day was bathed in glory in the hall of his fondest memories. Meria had leaned on the fence rail as Varaconn had moved around the paddock. At first he had not known she was there, so intent was he on the bond with the mare. He loved horses and spent much of his early life observing them. He had noticed that herd leaders were always female and that they disciplined errant colts by driving them away from the safety of the herd. Alone, the colt would become fearful,
for predators would soon descend on a single pony. After a while the mare would allow the recalcitrant beast back into the fold. Thus chastened, it would then remain obedient. Varaconn used a similar technique in training ponies. He would isolate a wild horse in his circular paddock, then, with a snap of his rope, set it running around the inner perimeter of the fence. The instinct of a horse was always to run from danger and only when it was safe to look back to see what had caused its fear. Varaconn kept the pony running for a while; then, not knowing Meria was watching him, he dipped his shoulder and turned away from the mare. The pony dropped her head and moved in close to him.
Varaconn continued to walk, slowly changing direction. The mare followed his every move. As he moved, he spoke to the mare in a soft voice and finally turned to face her, rubbing her brow and stroking her sleek neck.
"You talk to horses more easily than you talk to women," said Meria.
Varaconn blushed deep red. "I'm . . . not a talker," he said. Trying to ignore her, he continued to work with the pony and within an hour was riding it slowly around the paddock. Occasionally he would glance toward
Meria. She had not moved. Finally he dismounted, took a deep breath, and walked to where she waited. Shy and insular, he did not look into her eyes. Even so, he saw enough to fill his heart with longing. She was wearing a long green dress and a wide belt edged with gold thread. Her long dark hair, except for a top braid, was hanging loose to her shoulders, and her feet were bare.
"You want to buy a pony?" he asked.
"Perhaps. Why did the mare suddenly start to obey you?" she asked.
"She was frightened. I made her run, but she didn't know what the danger was. Did you see her snapping her mouth as she ran?"
"Yes. She looked very angry."
"That was not anger. Foals do that. She was reverting to infant behavior. She was saying to me, 'I need help. Please be my leader.' So I
dropped my shoulder and gently turned away. Then she came to me and joined my herd."
"So you are her stallion now?"
"In truth that would make me the lead mare. Stallions do the fighting,
but a mare will command the herd."
"Ruathain says you are a great fighter and a good man."
This surprised him, and he glanced briefly at her face to see if she was mocking him. Her eyes were green. Large eyes. So beautiful. Not the green of grass or summer leaves but the bright, eternal green of precious stones. Yet they were not cold . . .
"Now you are staring at me," she chided.
Varaconn blinked and looked away guiltily. She spoke again. "Ruathain said you stood beside him against the Pannones and broke their charge."
"He is too kind. He knows I was too frightened to run," he admitted.
"Ruathain was like a rockthe only safe place in a stormy sea. I've never known anyone quite like him. The battle was chaotic: screaming men, clashing swords. It was all so fast and furious. But Ruathain was calm. He was like a god. You could not imagine him being hurt."
She seemed annoyed, though he did not know why. "Yes, yes, yes," she said. "Everyone knows Ruathain is a hero. He wanted to marry me. I said no."
"Why would you say no? He is a wonderful man."
"Can you really be so foolish, Varaconn?" she said, then turned and strode away.
Totally confused, he carried the problem to Ruathain. The powerful blond-haired young warrior had been out with three of his herdsmen,
building a rock wall across the mouth of a gully in the high north valley.
"Every damn winter," said Ruathain, heaving a large slab into place,
"some of my cattle get trapped here. Not anymore."
Varaconn dismounted and helped the men for several hours. Then, during a rest break, Ruathain took him by the arm and led him to a nearby stream.
"You didn't come all the way up here to build a wall. What is on your mind, my friend?" Not waiting for an answer, he stripped off his shirt,
leggings, and boots and clambered out into the middle of the stream. "By
Taranis, it is cold," he said. The water was no more than a few inches deep, flowing over white, rounded pebbles. Ruathain lay down, allowing the water to rush over his body. "Man, this is refreshing," he shouted,
rolling to his belly. Varaconn sat by the stream and watched his friend.
Despite the awesome power of the man, his broad flat face, and his drooping blond mustache, there was something wonderfully childlike about
Ruathain: a seemingly infinite capacity to draw the maximum joy from any activity. The warrior splashed water to his face, ran his wet fingers through his hair, then rose and strode to the water's edge. He grinned at Varaconn. "You should have joined me."
"I need your advice, Ru."
"Are you in trouble?"
"I do not believe so. I am merely confused." He told him about Meria's visit. As he spoke, he saw the young warrior's expression harden, only to be replaced by a look of sadness. Varaconn cursed himself for a fool.
Ruathain had asked Meria to marry him. He obviously loved her, too! "I
am sorry, Ru. I am an idiot," he said. "Forgive me for troubling you."
Ruathain forced a smile. "Yes, you are an idiot. But you are also my friend. She obviously doesn't want me, but I think she is in love with you. Go see her father."
"How could she love me?"
"Damned if I know," Ruathain said, sadly. "Women are a mystery to me.
When we were all children, she always used to follow us around. You remember? We used to throw sticks at her and shout for her to go away."
"I never threw sticks," said Varaconn.
"Then maybe that's why she loves you. Now go and make yourself look handsome. Cefir will not tolerate a shabby suitor. Best cloak and leggings."
"I couldn't do that," said Varaconn.
But he had. The marriage took place three weeks later on the first day of summer, at the Feast of Beltine.
And so had followed the finest year of his life. Meria was a constant joy, and Varaconn could scarcely believe his good fortune. During the spring and the following summer Varaconn caught and gentled sixty-two ponies. Sixteen of them had been of high quality, and most of these had been sold as cavalry mounts to the nobles who followed the Long Laird.
The profit had been high, and Varaconn was determined to buy an iron sword like the borrowed blade he now wore.
He patted the hilt, drawing strength from it. Even so a touch of fear returned.
The next day the Rigantes were to march in battle against the Sea
Raiders, who were camped beyond the Seidh River. Varaconn hated violence and was not skilled with sword or lance. What he had told Meria was true. When the Pannones had charged, he had stood frozen beside the powerful Ruathain. Yes, he had fought, swinging his bronze blade with the fury of terror, and the Pannones had fled. Ruathain had wounded three and killed one.
Varaconn had prayed never again to be drawn into a battle. That fear had turned to terror five days before, when he had killed the raven. He was riding a wild pony, galloping over the hills. As he topped a rise, the raven flew up from the long grass. Startled, the pony reared, lashing out with its hooves. The raven fell dead to the ground. Varaconn had been horrified. His birth geasa had prophesied that he would die within a week of killing such a bird.
He had confided those fears to Ruathain. "The horse killed it," said
Ruathain. "You have not broken your geasa. Do not concern yourself. Stay close by me, Cousin, and you will live through the battle."
But Varaconn was not comforted. "I was riding the pony. It was in my control."
So great was Varaconn's panic that in the end Ruathain drew his sword,
which was of iron and cunningly crafted. "Take this," he said. "It is blessed with four great Druid spells. No one carrying it in battle will suffer death."
Varaconn knew he should have refused at once. The blade was priceless.
Most warriors had bronze weapons, but Ruathain had journeyed to the coast with his cattle and had returned to the Rigantes with this sword two years earlier. The young men of the tribe would gather around him at the Feast of Samia and beg him to let them touch the gray blade.
Varaconn felt the onset of shame, for he reached out and took the blade,
perhaps condemning Ruathain to death in his place. He could not look his friend in the eye.
"Vorna says your child will be a son," said Ruathain.
"Aye, a son," Varaconn agreed, glad of the change of subject.
They sat in silence for a while, and the shame grew. Finally Varaconn hefted the sword and offered it back to the warrior. "I cannot take it,"
"Whisht, man, of course you can. I'll not die tomorrow. I have not broken my geasa. Hold the sword and return it to me after the battle."
"It is a great comfort to me," admitted Varaconn. They sat in silence for a moment, then the frightened young man spoke again. "I know you love Meria," he said, not looking at his friend. "I see it every time you look at her. And I have never known why she chose me over you. It makes no sense even now. But I ask youas my dearest friendto be a strength to her if I do . . . die."
Ruathain gripped Varaconn's shoulder. "Now you listen to me. Let the words burn themselves into your soul. I will not let you die. Stay close to me, Cousin. I will guard your back when the battle begins. That is all you have to do. Stay close to me."
Alone on the mountainside, Varaconn curled his hand around the hilt of
Ruathain's iron sword. The touch of the leather binding and the firmness of the grip eased his fears once more, and he sat upon a boulder and prayed to Samia for an omen so that he could give his son a good soul-name. The boy's Rigante name would be Connavar, Conn son of Var.
This would be the name to earn honor among his people. But the soul-name would bond him to the land and carry with it the magic of the night.
Varaconn prayed to see an eagle. Eagle in the Moonlight would be a good soul-name, he thought. He glanced at the sky, but there was no eagle. He prayed again. A distant rumble of thunder sounded from the north, and he saw the advancing clouds snuffing out the stars. Lightning flashed almost overhead, lighting up the mountain. A fierce wind blew up.
Varaconn rose from the boulder, ready to seek shelter. The sword brushed against his leg.
The iron sword!
Fearful that the lightning would strike him, Varaconn drew the blade and hurled it from him. The three-foot sword spun in the air, then lanced into the earth, where it stood quivering.
At that moment the lightning flashed again, striking the sword and shattering it.
Then the rain fell.
Varaconn sat slumped by the boulder, staring at the broken shards of blackened iron.
Then he rose and began the long walk back to the birth- ing hut.
As he came closer, he heard the thin, piping cries of his newborn son echoing above the storm winds.
The door of the hut opened, and Vorna, witch and midwife, stepped out to greet him.
"You have the name," she said. It was not a question. He nodded dumbly.
"Speak it aloud," she ordered him.
"He will be Connavar, the Sword in the Storm."