January 840 AD
Wessex, southern Britain
Merlin leaned back on the bench, stretching his long legs and using the wall of the house as a backrest. Even in this coldest winter month, the bright sunlight glowed through his closed eyes and warmed his cheeks. No matter what time or place he visited on Earth, he always chose this same appearance. He liked to appear old enough to look wise, allowing his dark brown hair to be streaked handsomely with gray. His body was always tall and virile, and he always moved with strength and confidence.
Contentment warmed his spirit just as the sun warmed his body. He looked down at two-year-old Alfred playing near his feet in a puddle. The child was slapping his hands in the mud and laughing at the patterns the spatters made on his clothes. So bundled that he could hardly move, the young prince was managing nonetheless to make quite a mess of himself. Merlin was glad to see it. Children need to be messy, he thought philosophically. It connects them to their Earth.
This part of the Earth is particularly beautiful, Merlin continued to muse drinking in the landscape before him. He loathed Sir Hugh, the lord this manor, but he had to give him credit for choosing the perfect site for his house. It was set on a small hill nestled at the edge of the New Forest and blessed with a panoramic view of broad meadows and distant water. The setting not only gave them a magnificent view, but it also made their defenses almost impenetrable as they could see any attack coming for miles. True, the forest offered cover to any who sought to steal upon them from the rear, but an attack from this vantage was extremely unlikely. The woods carried the aura of magic, and they were widely feared to be home to a legion of mischievous creatures and malicious spirits. The people of this time were so superstitious that even the marauding Danes would not brave its dark mysteries. The forest offered the manor more security than any amount of fortification ever could.
Merlin had adopted this dark forest as his home. Rumors whispered behind closed doors and secret-shielding hands speculated wildly about where he had come from and what he did in those woods. In fact, people knew him by two different names: Merlin Emrys when he walked among them as a wise, mystical sage; and Merlin Wylde when he disappeared into the enigmatic shadows. He was greatly amused by the ‘shocking’ stories he had heard of wild orgies with wood nymphs, spells cast to make inanimate objects walk and talk, and potions brewed to make simple folk throw off their clothing and run naked through the market. The people of this time would never understand that he was not human; he was not even from this universe. Almost all of them believed the Earth dropped off at the edge of the great sea and the sky existed like a rainbow from point to point on a flat earth. It would be pointless to try to describe a different universe to them when they had no concept of ‘universe’ at all.
Although he liked humans very much, he relished his mysterious reputation. It was useful to have them be wary of what he might do. That fearful respect gave extra weight to his opinions and counsel.
Merlin smiled fondly at little Alfred. A child so young could not understand that the event taking place inside this house would be the most important of his life. In his time travels Merlin had discovered that Alfred would be a great king. He would be a groundbreaking law maker and a stunning defender of justice for all of his citizens, not just the rich and not just the men. His reign would be a model for governments well into the 21st century. But of all the magnificent moments he would experience, of all of the remarkable things he would achieve, this day was the most significant one of his entire life. Many people achieve greatness in their lives, but far fewer find a soul mate with whom to share it. When Merlin had met Alfred the king in a future time, he had met Alfred’s queen as well; the queen being born as Alfred sat there making a mess in the mud. He had observed them as adults long enough to see how often they bowed their heads together in private conversation, brushed hands or leaned toward one another in affectionate unity. That kind of love was a rare find indeed. Merlin was filled with joy for him that the child was too young to feel for himself.
From the corner of his eye, Merlin caught a mist rising in the nearby woods. A mist on such a cold, clear day? It was too late for the sun to be burning off the morning frost. As he watched, it grew in size and began to move away from the forest. It moved as though it was alive, as though it had intelligence, as though it had intent.
Merlin moved futilely into its path hoping his body would block it, but knowing that it would not. As its first fingers touched his face, dread grabbed his insides and squeezed every breath from his body. He had been touched by an Evil that was all too familiar. That mist was unmistakably Malcolm, enraged and consumed with revenge.
Merlin grabbed Alfred and ran into the house. Inside everything appeared as it should, and the bustle of activity in the room deterred him from sounding any sort of alarm. When he saw how Kathryn was straining in her labor, he knew that there was nothing that could be done. She couldn’t be moved, and certainly no one was about to leave her. Merlin stayed out of the way, holding his breath and trying to stem the danger by the sheer force of his will.
It was plenty hot enough to make the body sweat, in spite of the cold, clear January day. Half dozen women moved with purpose from one task to the next preparing to care for the newborn baby and her mother. A fire roared in the huge fireplace making shadows jump and dance on the stone walls and their beautifully embroidered tapestries.
The woman lying on the bed, Kathryn, wife of Sir Hugh of Eastlea and lady of this manor, was sweating most of all, straining to deliver a baby none too eager to leave her womb. It seemed as if the child knew some reason she did not want to come out that the adults could not guess.
Kathryn was so tired from her long labor that she was hardly aware of anything going on around her. Queen Osbera sat by the bed and held Kathryn’s hand, wiping the exhausted mother’s brow with a cool cloth. The queen’s serene expression gave no indication that Kathryn was squeezing hard enough to crush the bones in her hand.
Mildred, the midwife, checked for signs of the baby. “I can feel her head, Mi’lady. It won’t be long now.” Her calm words set off a frenzy of activity among the other serving women who gathered the hot water and hot towels from the fire. They put rags and blankets within easy reach and brought close the basket that would serve as the baby’s bed.
‘Her’ head. Mildred spoke confidently of the baby as a girl because it was widely known that the wizard Merlin had predicted with confidence that the child would be female. Though she had not yet drawn her first breath, she was already betrothed to the youngest son of her mother’s closest friend, the woman now holding her hand and wiping her brow. When Kathryn’s daughter came of age she would be marrying Prince Alfred, fourth in line to be king of Wessex, son of King Ethelwulf and Queen Osbera.
Alfred was perfectly still in Merlin’s arms, mesmerized by the activity and the moaning woman on the bed. He tightened his little arms around Merlin’s neck, and Merlin held him tight to protect him against the impending catastrophe.
“Push, Mi’lady,” Mildred commanded. In this venue the old serving woman was in charge, and Kathryn tried hard to comply with the instructions that she barked with authority. Mildred had brought too many babies too count into this world, and she knew exactly what she needed to do. “Take a deep breath, Lady,” she said in a soothing voice, “and push again.”
Kathryn squeezed Queen Osbera’s hand and pushed until her face was red and swollen like a balloon, blood vessels blue and bulging in her temple. This was not her first delivery, but it had been her longest and most difficult. This girl-child, so different from her boys, refused to be separated from her. She strained against the contraction, took a breath, and pushed again. “Here she comes, Lady. Here comes her head.” Encouraged, Kathryn pushed with renewed vigor.
“Kathryn,” said the Queen with encouragement and compassion, “you are almost done.”
Finally, they heard the gargled cry of the first breath of life. Kathryn’s whole body relaxed and for the first time since her labor began a whole day before, she smiled. “It is a girl?”
“Yes, Lady.” Mildred said joyfully. “She is beautiful. She is perfect.”
Kathryn looked up at Osbera to see her eyes filled with tears. “She is perfect, Kathryn,” she said. “Absolutely perfect.”
Mildred began to bundle up the red-faced, squalling infant. “She’s eager to be with her mother. She wants none of me,” she laughed.
Without warning, the mist began to seep into the room. It came through the very walls, needing no more than the tiny chinks between the wood and stone. Merlin watched helplessly as it grew in size and began swirling around like a ferocious storm. Slowly one and then another of the busy women shuddered at the sudden chill in the hot, steamy room. The mist broke its shape and sent tendrils to steal the breath from each of them in turn as it searched for its prey. There were no open windows and no open doors for such a thing to enter, but enter it had.
The mist found its quarry, momentarily creating a spinning vortex around the bawling newborn. As quickly as it had blown in it blew out through the apparently solid wall.
There was deafening silence.
Immediately Kathryn’s body tensed. “Why did the baby stop crying?”
Everyone was frozen in place like statues. The horrible silence was replaced with soul-chilling wails. Mildred moved to look at her with tear-filled eyes. “The baby is dead, Mi’lady.”
“What!” Kathryn screamed searching frantically for her precious, long-awaited daughter. “No! It cannot be!”
“There was evil in that vapor, mi’lady. It sucked the life right out of her little body,” Mildred choked out.
The Queen’s face reflected Kathryn’s horror like a mirror. “Oh my God… Oh Kathryn…”
The drama before him sent shudders through Merlin’s body. Everyone but Kathryn was wailing. Even the Queen, whose reserve he had never seen breached, was shaking with the power of her sobs, her face buried in her hands. Kathryn had fallen back into her bed as though struck dead, vacant eyes staring unblinking into the fathomless void of her despair.
Merlin knelt by Kathryn’s lifeless body, taking her limp hand and bringing it up to his face. A terrified Alfred clambered onto his mother’s lap, who clutched him to her and spilled her sorrow onto his little neck.
In the center of it all was the heartbreakingly still body of a perfect baby girl.