It was well after dark, and Ifan Glyn hurried home while the unusually windy night did its best to make him even later. Father would surely be angry. It was the second time this week. But the light! It had been a burning orb that radiated a brightness that should have seared his eyes, but he couldn’t turn away and stared wide-eyed into the blinding glow. When it had faded his eyes were not burned—not even lingering spots or an afterglow where the light had been. What was even stranger was he couldn’t remember how long he had stood there or what he had seen. Only the height of the moon told him how late he was.
He ran over the uneven cobblestone road through the center of the village. As he came to the hard-packed, crushed-seashell-and-dirt path, he turned toward his family’s home, still in a run. He slowed as he approached the wooden gate, bracketed on either side by the stone walls that encircled their small manor.
Ifan dreaded another lecture from father about how he had a responsibility to the family, and the family had a duty to the village. He was no longer a child, the celebration of his nineteenth naming day still fresh in his mind. He did not need to be reminded that they were less than half-days ride out of Castle Westhedge, the capital, and how their village had prospered under his father, the Village Steward. Or that his father was one of the richest and most respected men in the village, a fact that was impressed upon Ifan daily by everyone he met.
Inhaling deeply, to calm himself, Ifan lifted the gate’s bar and let himself into the courtyard. Maybe father is already asleep for the night, he thought as he went around to the servants’ entrance on the side of the house.
He squinted as he opened the door too quickly and one of the hinges squeaked. Ifan stopped and waited for the pounding of his father’s footsteps, but when they didn’t come, he closed the door, lifting it slightly so the hinge wouldn’t announce his presence.
He pulled off his boots and tip-toed down the hallway to the stairs leading up to his room. His stomach complained as the smell of cooked mutton still hung in the air from the dinner he had missed. He only hoped the cook had left something in his room as she had in the past.
Closing the bedroom door, Ifan let out a sigh of relief and put his boots at the end of his bed. He looked at the desk, but there was no platter. He sighed again. His shirt was over his head when he heard his father’s voice.
“Do you have no respect for me?” the barrel-deep voice came from behind and meant Ifan’s efforts had been wasted.
“No. I mean yes.” It was just like his father to ask a question Ifan could not easily answer. Ifan finished removing the linen shirt, and since it was a chilly night, he pulled on a nightshirt.
“What you do reflects on not just yourself, but the entire family.” His father’s voice was hard. “Especially on me. How can I expect people to listen to me if my own son will not?”
Ifan could repeat the lecture verbatim. He was tired, frustrated, and just wanted to go to bed. “I am sorry father. I was with Colwyn at—”
“I know where you were.” The accusation was clothed in disgust. “Anyone in the village could find you just by visiting the tavern. You could at least find a better way to waste my money than drinking it away.”
“It was money I earned by helping Clerk Gotch,” though Ifan knew most nights he lived off his father’s generosity. “What do you expect of me?” He erupted as he turned toward his father. “There is little for me to do here.” He spread his hand out to take in more than just the room.
“There is plenty for you.” His father’s voice rose as his face reddened. “You are good with numbers. You have already shown you can help Gotch. He is getting old and will only be able to maintain the accounts for another five or six years. You could apprentice to him.” His voice lowered as he pleaded with his son.
“I don’t want to be a clerk, collecting fees and trying to please you and the others.” Ifan was almost in tears. “I’ve seen what it has done to Gotch. No man can live with a dozen masters.”
“I’d hoped your willful and shameless behavior would be short-lived, but…” The argument ended as it always did. His father shook his head in frustration and stomped out of the room.
Ifan dropped into a chair, put his hands over his eyes and bent over to rest his elbows on his knees. He was a man now and knew his father was right—but Village Clerk! It was a respected position, as his father had told him often, and any man in the village would feel blessed by the Burning Lady to have the opportunity. Ifan, however, just couldn’t see himself sitting behind a desk for decades to come, arguing with the Woodward over how much wood to cut from the nearby forest, or the Messor about the number of workers he could hire for the duke’s harvest.
A flash filled his mind and jolted him upright. It was like the light on the road, and it disappeared as quickly as it came. Something nagged his thoughts, and he could feel that it was not gone entirely. An urge to go outside pulled at him. He thought it was one of the headaches he would get after arguing with his father, but it was different this time. It was a like a voice, barely above a murmur.
He could barely make out the word.
‘Come to the Willow Grove.’ The voice came from inside his head, not through his ears.
The Willow Grove was to the east. It was only a quarter mile, he thought as he removed his nightshirt. He didn’t know why he put his linen shirt and cloak back on. All he knew was that this was something different. And that in itself was motivation enough.
The moonlight filtered through the finger-like drooping branches of the Willow trees as Ifan pushed them aside. He carefully stepped over roots that could easily twist or even break an ankle. He had been to the Grove many times over the years, mostly on his own. It had become a place of tranquility where he could pretend he was somewhere other than the village—anyplace else. He came to an opening, a small glade he did not recognize. It wasn’t large, maybe twenty paces across.
Ifan looked into the clearing and thought how strange it was that only Willow trees encircled the area. Glancing from one end to the other, he also wondered if it had all just been a dream. The light. The voice. Neither had come to him since leaving the manor.
The trees wavered; their thin weeping limbs fluttered as the strong wind grew. In the dim light they looked like many-fingered-guards pointing to the open space.
He stepped out and turned around taking in the circle of trees that blocked his sight from anything outside the glade. Why am I out here? he wondered. There is nothing for me here anymore than there is back in the village. He frowned and sat on a fallen log at one end of the clearing and hung his head.
“They say Willow groves are the temple of the Burning Lady,” he spoke out loud knowing no one would hear and chuckled at the thought. Ifan believed as did most people he knew, but the Goddess was more of a tradition to him than anything he consciously thought about. However, tonight was different. Thoughts of the Burning Lady filled his mind as he tightly clasped his hands together and squeezed his eyes until tears formed. His breathing quickened and he fought to keep from shaking. I’m lost. So lost, he admitted, though it was something he’d known for some time. He lifted his head.
Twinkling lights filled the night above him. Ifan had a sudden desire to reach out to them, but they were too far away to grasp. Staring at the sky, he spoke as if to a friend. Words that came from his heart. “I have nothing to live for. My life has no value. I pray dear Lady that you give my life meaning.” He had followed the prescribed rituals and had even asked questions of the local Cleric when the man wasn’t called away to perform a Healing or other duties. But it was the first time he had ever prayed to the Goddess. The first time he had asked the Burning Lady directly for anything.
He continued to stare for several moments and then laughed, before lowering his head. Maybe his father was right, and he was just a foolish boy. The thought sickened him, but reality did not take one’s stomach into consideration.
Ifan stood and looked to the sky one more time, before turning back toward the narrow path he had arrived on. He walked over to the wall of trees and couldn’t find the trail. He walked along the tree line moving branches as he went trying to spot the opening. It’s dark, even with the moonlight, maybe I passed it, he thought as he walked back along the Willows again. The branches twisted and whipped him, making it more difficult to see anything outside the glade.
Two more tries, yet the path remained hidden. The trees seemed tighter together and Ifan wondered if he could even squeeze between them to make his way out of the grove. He started to worry. An eerie feeling made his mind itch and then the voice came again.
‘The value of life, is life itself.’
Ifan jerked his head around looking for the speaker, but no one was there. It was the same voice as earlier. His eyes passed over the center of the glade as a burst of light filled the entire clearing. He threw up his arm squinting. The brilliance dimmed slightly until he could lower his arm.
In the middle of the clearing stood a woman, at least it was the form of a naked woman. She was bathed in a white light, like the hottest of fires, and a bright aura encircled her, the edges of her body shimmering. Her waist-length white hair swirled with the wind and then the air stilled, her hair falling in curls over her shoulders.
Her gaze held him, and he was unable to move. He was locked onto her eyes. Instead of pupils, flames filled them.
‘Thou hast come to me.’ Her lips didn’t move, but he heard her as clearly as if she was standing next to him.
‘Thou shalt be my servant.’ The woman pointed a blurry finger at Ifan. ‘I hast need of you.’
“But I am—”
‘Thou will go to Westhedge.’ The voice cut off any argument.
Ifan dropped to his knees. The knowledge of who he faced finally dawned on him. “I don’t know how to serve my Lady.”
‘My steps shalt be thy steps.’ Her lips never parted, but she smiled, nonetheless.
He bowed his head. “I am yours to command my Lady.”
He stood and a wisp of vapor floated from her fingertip. His head flinched as the vapor drifted toward his face.
‘No longer let thy heart fear.’ Her voice calmed him, and he inhaled deeply.
A dazzling light filled his mind, and he could feel something running through his body. The light faded and he felt fully refreshed. He noticed his thoughts were not as before. He searched, and as if it had always been there, he found the knowledge that would allow him to reach into the il fennore, the land of the Burning Lady, and merge with one of Her gossamer Spirits. Buried in his memories was information on how to use the Spirit to mend a broken bone and how to revive a stopped heart, along with thousands of other healing functions. He had gained decades of knowledge in the moment of a breath and wondered for what purpose. As he was still trying to grasp all that had happened to him, the Goddess’ words came to him.
‘Thou shalt be known as Yoan and thou shalt be Cleric to King Einion .’
A Cleric. A Healer. The priests of the Burning Lady. There is a purpose. He mind found comfort in the thought. Yet he was still confused as she had said he would be Cleric to King Einion. But Einion was only the Crown Prince. King Adair ruled Cainwen. He realized he would never be known by the name of Ifan ever again.
The center of the glade became a small sun. He threw his arm up once again before the light collapsed upon itself, leaving him in the dark. He stood for more than the turn of an hourglass considering what had happened and what it meant to his life.
Ifan found the trail without difficulty and started the long walk back to his father’s house. He thought of his possessions and realized there was nothing he needed. The weight of the purse at his waist reminded him that he still had a little of the money he had earned working with the clerk, Gotch. It was not a lot, and his father would offer more, but he was determined not to accept. What he had would be enough to buy a robe and food for his journey.
He would wait until daybreak to leave for Castle Westhedge. He expected he would arrive to changes in the royal family. His father would cry. The life of a Cleric was as respected as a noble, but it was a life without family.
He walked in the moonlight; the wind had died, and he breathed in the night air as if it, and everything in his life were new—which they were. Cleric Yoan smiled as he continued toward his father’s house and thought, I hope they find someone to replace Gotch