Gault was a late fruit from his father’s tree: a frost-blighted plum barely worth the plucking. That was what the boy thought sometimes, beside the sun-gold giants that were his elder brothers. His father had been the old King’s general, back in the days when the skies shook with Lugh’s laughter and his war cries echoed from the mountains to the sea; back in the days when their enemies fled before them, and the Tribe prospered in all their doings. And when the greybeard set his heart on a woman young enough to be his daughter’s daughter, there was none who would gainsay him, not even though she were the sister-daughter of the new King himself.
His was a winter birth, in that long month when the sun never brushed the heather thatch of the dun, hemmed about as the place was by the old bones of the hills; in that long month when a chill mightier than the heartiest fire stalked his father’s halls, snapping at men’s throats. An ill omen for a Child of the Sun, the way his nurse told it, but his mother took no hurt from his birthing, though it was her first. She was back astride a horse within three days, and not the sweet Arab mare owed to her place as his father’s wife and a woman of the Royal Blood besides, but a rough-coated black-hearted war-stallion that she’d ridden into battle before she’d left her father’s dun. For all the heed she paid to her new son, she might have ridden into battle again, save that the boy loosed his first wails into the desolate peace the Red Crests left behind them when they wasted the lands to the south, and there was no war to be had. Perhaps it was that his birth was ill-omened, for one day before the first primroses turned their pale faces to the sun, his mother rode out on her war-stallion, and though his father sought her from the mountains to the sea, she was never seen by any of the Tribe again.
‘Witch!’ they cried afterwards. For surely only a witch could charm the old greybeard, only a witch could melt away like the snow in spring. ‘Witch!’ they cried, for all she’d been the King’s sister-daughter. Indeed, there were those who remembered that a tithe of the Royal Blood that flowed through her veins came from a witch-woman who bowed to the moon. When the boy grew dark and squat and ill favoured, with eyes a colour no human child ought to have, they said she’d surely cursed him. There were even those who whispered that she’d moulded the boy from a snowdrift, with a wolf’s eyes and three drops of bull’s blood. He’d melt away himself one spring.
The boy knew none of that, of course. He grew into a sullen child who bit his lip and saved his smiles for his father. In truth he cared for little but the sun of his father’s love, and that spilled about him as if Lugh never slept. The woman who’d nursed him was not his mother, that he knew, but that was a matter for the Women’s Side and, like all boys of the Tribe who’d grown strong enough to heft a war-spear and swing a broadsword, he looked only to the day when he would leave the Women’s Side behind for good. That day would come when it would.
Spring followed winter and the burns were pregnant with the thaw. The horses went up to the high pastures and came down at the first frosts of winter, the year’s foals prancing at their heels. And in the spring of his twelfth year there came a new thing to cleave short dark Gault from his tall golden brothers. He was not to go to the Boys’ House of his Clan Chieftain’s Dun. As kin to the King, it was to the King’s Place, to Dun Monaidh itself, that he was to go to learn to be a man.
To be sure, Gault knew the Royal Dun. Had he not been to the Feast of New Spears every harvest-time, when his father was hale? A fine thing it was to sit on his father’s lap with all the men in the Fire Hall, to nibble boar-fat and to sip mead from his father’s cup. But the past year or three his father had been too frail to make the steed-leap and too stubborn to let any man lift him onto his mount, and his brothers had left the boy behind with the women. And when his brothers left him alone at the door of the Boys’ House, as was the custom, he found it was a different thing to face all the boys of the Kindred without his father’s broad shoulders to shelter against.
Now boys are like wolves when they scent a weakness, and they leapt for his throat. ‘Dwarf!’ cried one, and ‘witch-get!’ another, and yet a third, ‘changeling!’ And so like pus from a wound, the whole story of his birth spurted out.
His nurse had told him tales of changelings, had told him how the Little Dark People, the Old People, the Earth People would creep into a dun on the darkest night of winter. How they’d steal away a child, the most beautiful of all the children. How they’d leave behind naught but a block of wood or a lump of clay that breathed and moved and spoke but had no heart. That night Gault dreamed of a long-legged, bronze-haired boy with a broad smile on his lips: like his brothers, like the Prince. His other self, his stolen self, his true self.
When they came to wake him in the morning he was nowhere to be found. And when the boy did not return by nightfall, it was the King himself who led the search, for he’d been fond of his sister-daughter in his own fashion, and even now his heart gnawed at him over her loss.
They found the boy soon after dawn on the third day. There were traces beside a little burn that tumbled down from the high moorlands, all sharp rock and sodden tussocks and little stretches of water grey as iron even when the sun shone. A land where not even the sheep would graze, and the Tribe went but rarely. But someone remembered that there was a hut up there by a wind-bent hawthorn, where one of the Dark Ones plied his mending trade.
There was the turf-roofed hut, barely different from an outcrop, and there was the boy stretched out in the heather, pale as snow and chill as winter. There was blood on his lips. Blood, too, on his knuckles, which were raw and weeping, and under his fingernails, which were ragged and torn. It was as if he’d been knocking and scratching at the entrance all the days he’d been missing. But the door gaped wide, and the place was empty and silent, the hearth cold.
When they lifted the boy up he still breathed. He seemed to be muttering something while his mind wandered. ‘Give me back my true self!’ he whispered, over and over. ‘Give him back!’
And in the heather where he’d lain, a little patch of late snow was already melting to nothing in the first rays of the sun.
That was more of a beginning than an end, of course. All stories are. The burns dwindled to a trickle and swelled to a torrent. The fat loops of the bracken shoots broke the ground, shot up proud and tall as a war host, and crumbled in retreat. The old King’s blood made the fields fertile, and it was a new King who blessed the herd. The boy’s father went west of the sunset, and the boy became a man. Gault might stand a full head shorter than his brothers, but his shoulders grew as wide as his father’s in his prime, and his arms as strong. There was none in the Tribe who could match him in wrestling, nor in any feat of strength. No man called him dwarf, not to his face, and seldom behind that bull-broad back.
He never spoke of those three lost days. And if he woke some mornings with words on his lips that curled away like smoke when he’d shaken the sleep from his head, if once when he splashed the blood and grime of battle from his face in a moorland pool he thought he glimpsed a tall youth with blazing hair standing at his shoulder, he never spoke of that either.
The rest of this tale you know. Save only this. There was more than one reason why Gault the Strong bowed to that pup the old Fox dug out. And when it came time for the newest King to spill his life’s blood for the Tribe, as one youth fell, Gault saw another, fair of face and bright of hair, rise up, up, up, blazing ever brighter until he was one with the sun. Lugh’s laughter shook the skies again, and Gault knew the sacrifice was worthwhile.