There is a story that is not told in Ealdor anymore, not for many years now. It is told commonly elsewhere in Albion, though, in many variations, one among the many folktales that while away the cold dark span of the winter nights, as often in castle as in tavern. One night Arthur is sitting at drink with his knights, and a squire pressed into service as storyteller for the night offers it up.
Merlin is there, too: sitting back against the wall, with several of the other servants. He's giving Arthur's hauberk a cursory polish; it'll get the real thing later tonight, in his quarters, while he sleeps. He worked that out after a month or so of practice. Gaius comes in sometimes and watches the armor quietly working, the boy sleeping; watches and worries. Potions can be brewed, artifacts enchanted, but he has never heard of a wizard whose spells can run along without his consciousness, as though they are as automatic to him as the pumping of his heart, the rise and fall of his lungs.
The squire doesn't choose the story with intent. Or at least, not conscious intent, but magic is rising everywhere in Camelot these days, seeping through the rock like the dragon whispering dreams of the future beneath the city. Or maybe it is just that Beltane Eve is so far away now, a distant memory of summer, and he wants to remember the warmer time.
This is the story:
Every year on Beltane Eve, in many of the villages of Albion, girls braid flowers into their hair, and they dance with the young men, who put masks on to hide their faces. No one is really fooled by these disguises: it is an excuse and nothing more, like the wine and the birth of summer. And sometimes there comes of Beltane a child, and there is a handfasting in midwinter for all to celebrate when the days grow short before that child is born.
But Beltane Eve is also a day sacred to the Old Ways, and it is said that from time to time Lord Herne, Herne the Huntsman, will put on a mask, and dance with a village maiden. She will think it is a man she knows, a man of her village, but when she makes the last turn of the last dance of the night, after coming back to the light and the fires, he will be gone.
And when this happens, sometimes there will come of Beltane a fatherless child, a child whose eyes shine as yellow as the eyes of the Huntsman --
-- here, there is a small clatter of armor, from the back of the room. Arthur throws an irritated look over his shoulder, but the noise is already over, and the squire continues --
-- a child that no man will claim. And the legend says, that if the mother does not put the child out, if she does not leave the child for the Hunt, then on Beltane Eve the Huntsman will come again, and in the morning the child's crib will be empty. And the fate of that child is not worth considering: the Huntsman is the lord of Wild Magic, as cruel as any fox who devours her own kits, if the winter is too harsh.
The squire says this part with all the relish of a fourteen-year-old boy, and wins groans of disgust from his audience. But the story is not over.
Because it is also said, that in this very kingdom -- of course, the squire hurriedly interjects, it is only a story -- it is said that in this very kingdom, many years ago, there was a maiden who danced, and found herself alone, and found herself with child. And when her child was laid in her arms in his swaddling, for one instant his eyes shone golden as the Huntsman's, and she knew Herne would come for him on Beltane Eve.
But she was not an ordinary village maiden: she had lately come home from the city, where she had been servant to a great herbalist, a learned man, and he had taught her a little of his art. And so on Beltane Eve, while all the village danced, in her child's cradle she lay a fox kit tied up in swaddling, its cries almost the cries of a human child, and her babe she kept in her arms and took down to the dark hidden cellar, where she laid down around them a thick circle of salt, which she had saved all the year to buy.
And as the music rose, higher and higher, she heard the boards above her head creak with a tread that was not human, but struck the ground like a horse's hooves. Across the floor the heavy footsteps went, and then back they went to the door, but now with them went the small cries of the fox kit in its swaddling.
The door closed and the fox kit's cries ended, but she huddled yet in her circle of salt, until the music above was broken by a cry like a wounded stag at bay. The music stopped, and thunder cracked above; lightning and rain came down upon the village in great flashes, and the baying of the Wild Hunt rang out clear and wild and fearless. The livestock of the village bawled their terror.
All the night the storm raged, but her door did not open again, and she never once stirred out of her circle. Even when the baby in her arms laughed to hear the lightning, with eyes shining gold, and the hounds bayed to the child in answer.
The morning broke silent. The paths of the village were washed clean as by a flood, and marked with tracks, of great hounds and great horses. Many cattle had been lost, and even a man drowned, who in folly had gone out to see to his livestock. But she had kept her child, and Herne did not come again.
And they say, the squire added, that this child yet lives, a child of a mortal mother with the Wild Magic in his blood, son of the Lord of the Hunt. And his power will be very great, beyond that of any human sorceror or priest, greater even than the Sidhe, who bow their head when the Hunt rides by, and that the Old Magic will try and bring him to their service.
"I'd like to see him last five minutes in Camelot," Arthur says, dryly, and everyone laughs. The wine jug and the mead go around, and someone fills Arthur's cup along the way, so he doesn't notice that Merlin is sitting still and white as salt in the back of the room, his eyes blindly staring, while another story is begun.