It was a cool misty morning in late spring and far away across the lush green horizon the first colorings of dawn were just beginning to paint the sky over the land of Llewdor. Many of the country's inhabitants were still sound-asleep in their beds. Even the earliest of risers were only just beginning to stir, save one. High atop the jagged mountains in the old gray manor house that sat on the range's only flat peak one boy had been awake for hours. He sat on a small rickety bed in his closet sized room and stared out the dirty old window at the coming dawn.
The house with its gray daub walls and strange blue shingles belonged to a terrible wizard by the name of Manannan. Though it would seem to the people of Llewdor that the grouchy old man never left his mountain home in truth he was often away wreaking havoc on the neighboring kingdoms leaving a trail of misery where ever he went. Only one person could attest to this and he was not allowed to leave the mountain. But the Llewdorians were not aware that anyone else lived atop the mountain, no one was aware of him except the wizard.
The boy's name was Gwydion and he had lived with the wizard for as long as he could remember. His life thus far had not been a happy one. He was not the wizard's son and Manannan was not one to take an apprentice, no, he was the old man's servant boy though the term slave seemed much more applicable. His days were long and hard, filled with nothing but menial chores and routine humiliation. Some part of him had hardened against the wizard's foul treatment. It was the invisible shield that kept him going.
There was a reason Gwydion had woken up so early on this particular morning. Today was the day he turned twelve. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about turning twelve, nothing particularly special. It just meant he was a little bit older; his stature was increasing though he still barely reached the wizard's shoulder. His limbs were becoming long and gangly, hard to control. Twelve meant he was stepping onto the path that would lead him from boy to man and there would be a long winding road ahead. He had woken early so that he might have some time to reflect and enjoy the day before reality came crashing down on him. Part of him knew that birthdays were supposed to be special, something to be celebrated. But Manannan didn't celebrate anything except destruction.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the metallic squeaking of hinges and Gwydion was ripped from his thoughts. The door opened ever so slightly and a slender black cat appeared through the crevice. She mewed quietly and looked at him with her big black pupils engorged by the dim lit. Her dark coat was as sleek and shiny as ever. She quickly padded across the floor and with the slightest twitch of her haunches leapt up onto the bed in one graceful motion. Wasting no time she quickly found her spot in his lap and settled into it.
"Good morning, Cat," he said running a hand down her spine.
Her back arced instantly responding to his touch and she purred loudly. Once Gwydion had ventured to ask his master what her name was.
"Her name is Cat and that is all it will ever be," he'd snapped eyes suddenly growing dark. "Show her no kindness, boy, for she does not deserve it."
Gwydion ignored his master's orders and quickly worked to befriend Cat. At first she had been hostile, glaring at him with suspicious glances. It seemed as though she had been treated badly before. He struggled to gain her trust and eventually resorted to coaxing her closer with kitchen scraps then gently stroking her to prove he meant no harm. Now she was the closest thing to a real friend he had in this world. Some days she was the only thing that kept him from going completely mad. But he had to be especially careful not to show her any direct affection when his master was nearby. It didn't seem to be a problem because Cat kept her distance whenever Manannan around as if she understood the consequences too.
Smart Cat, he thought a grin pulling at the corners of his mouth.
He scratched her behind the ear and just below the chin right where she liked it and was rewarded with a soft nuzzling to the ribs. Glancing back out the window he discovered that the lazy sun had finally pulled itself over the horizon. Sighing he looked down at Cat who was so happily curled in his lap.
"Well," he said causing her to look up at him sleepily. "Time to start another day."
Cat yawned and stretched out exposing her pink sandpaper tongue and sharp ivory teeth. She took her own good time about getting up out of his lap before walking all of two steps and plopping back down on the bed.
"You might be able to sleep," he said rising. "But I've got work to do."
He stepped toward the small table that sat beside his bed and opened its only drawer. Inside lay the few articles of clothing he possessed. He pulled out a faded tunic that had already been patched several times with mismatched scraps of fabric and worked it on over his dingy under shirt. Even though he'd been wearing it for two years now and had grown a few inches it still managed to hand loose on his thin frame. Taking off the lightweight trousers he used for sleeping he tossed them on the bead nearly covering Cat. She raised her head just long enough to meow at him grumpily then went back to sleeping. He took the heavier pair out of the drawer and pulled them one. The trousers had initially been made of sturdier fabric but were now so worn in places they were practically transparent. Before too long he was going to have to patch up the knees. Lastly he tugged on a pair of dusty old black leather boots and tucked his trousers down inside.
As he exited his shabby little room he remembered to grab the worn strip of leather that served as a belt and fastened it around his waist, though the only purpose it seemed to serve was showing off how scrawny he truly was. He stepped out into the second floor's main hall and made his way towards the stairs. The old manor house groaned and creaked of its own accord. His footsteps only seemed to aggravate that condition. He and Cat were the only ones that utilized the floors and stairs for what they were. Manannan much preferred to poof himself in and out of places as if walking were too much trouble. He had no idea how out of repair his home really was.
As he hurried down the hall Gwydion paused a moment to stare at the large oaken door that lead to the only other room on the floor. He knew that inside the wizard lay sleeping, just waiting to awake and begin another day of tormenting him. How many hours he had spent polishing that door, buffing its lacquered finish until it shined. Tearing his eyes away he stepped onto the stairs. The wood planking groaned dangerously under his weight. One day he would summon the courage to ask Manannan for a book on woodworking to that he might learn to repair them, but not today. Instead he quickly hurried down the stairs and out into the cool morning.
As he stepped outside a gentle breeze danced across his face greeting him like an old friend. It was these morning hours he like best for they allowed him to work without any interruptions from the wizard. Moving away from the door he glanced around the manor's oh so familiar grounds. The piece of land was not very large and most of its space was occupied by the house which sat in the northwest corner. Directly to the south lay the head of a walking trail that lead down the mountain into Llewdor though it was never used. He was forbidden to leave the manor's grounds and would be punished it the wizard even caught him looking at the path. In the northwest corner sat the grounds only other feature, a mid-sized coop for Manannan's chickens. Gwydion often wondered why Manannan even had chickens for they only seemed to be there so he would have something else to do. Never the less, they were there and he must take care of them so collecting a bag of feed he stepped towards the pen. Even at this early hour the chickens were up and pecking idly at the dirt.
Reaching into the burlap sack he grabbed a handful of cracked corn and other grains and began tossing it to the chickens. As he did so he allowed his mind to wander. Eventually his wild thoughts come to settle on the dream he'd had last night. Once again he'd been visited by the woman with the beautiful auburn hair that was always half pulled back and hanging in long spooling curls over her shoulders and the kind blue eyes that often reminded him of his own. She often appeared in his dream especially when he was feeling particularly sad or alone. She never said much but would always hold him and stroke his hair and smile at him with a warm, loving smile that somehow told him everything was going to be alright. Last night she only came long enough to hug him and whisper Happy Birthday ever so softly in his ear. Some days he fancied that she was his mother traveling through dreams themselves to show him he was still loved. Other days he knew she was just a figment of his imagination created by his mind to keep him sane.
Sighing Gwydion replaced the bag where he'd found it and went back inside. The ground floor of the manor contained a few more rooms than the second. Immediately to his right were the stairs leading back up to the second floor. To the rear of the small foyer was an archway that led to the wizard's dual purposed library and study which due to some enchantment was much larger than the space would suggest. To the left was the dining room with its large oaken table. Beyond that and to the rear of the house was the kitchen.
Turning left he walked briskly through the dining room taking no time to stop and admire the dismal décor. Frankly the large moose head mounted above the china hutch sent shivers crawling up his spine. It seemed to watch him as he hurried by. Finally he made it to the kitchen, the only other room in the house he considered to be his. Manannan rarely ever stepped foot in here.
Gwydion looked around the familiar room. It was small with a prep table against the eastern wall, a wide hearth to the north, and pantry shelves to the west. He tried to decide on which task to do first. It was too early to start cooking and judging by the placement of the sun he still had an hour before the wizard would wake up and demand to be fed. Finally his eyes settled on the broom. Walking over to it he started his usual morning routine. First he swept up the dirt and grime that accumulated on the floor like crazy no matter how often he cleaned it. Then he removed yesterday's ashes from the fireplace and gathered the materials for a new fire.
As he did this his mind wandered back to the woman in his dream and the off chance that she could actually be his mother. He thought about her and his family more often than he like. So many questions lay unanswered inside his head. Who were they? Where did they live? Were they close by? Did they still think of him? One day when he'd been feeling particularly audacious he'd asked the wizard about them.
"You are an orphan I retrieved from a nearby orphanage to help me with the daily running of this household," the wizard had replied curtly. "They were happy to be rid of you."
Somehow Gwydion just didn't believe him. So he waited for several days to pass then asked again. Every time he was treated to a different tale each more vicious than the last.
"Your mother was a gypsy woman who bore a child out of wedlock," Manannan had once said. "So ashamed and appalled she was by her hideous son she brought him to me and begged that I take him to live with me on my mountain. Being the gracious man I am I obliged her request."
Another time it had been, "Your father was a rival of mine and humiliated me in front of our peers. To extract my revenge I snuck into his house in the middle of the night and made him watch as I killed his family. Then to torment him further I informed him that I would take you, his only son, as a slave boy in my house. He died knowing I would torment you for years to come."
The stories served only to torture his young and fragile psyche even further and got him no closer to the truth. Eventually Manannan grew tired of weaving false tales but when the boy's persistence did not falter he snapped and was swift to deliver a severe punishment. Gwydion had been beaten and locked in his room for days on end with neither food nor water. When Manannan finally did let him out again he was put to work twice as hard as before. Eventually his aching joints and blistered hands taught him to hold his tongue.
Gwydion shook the foul memories from his head and came back to the present. He had spent over a quarter of his hour cleaning and with that out of the way could begin cooking. He walked over to the pantry and selected one of the well loved volumes from a shelf. He flipped through it and found a recipe that caught his fancy. Cook books were one of the few things he was allowed to read. He could only learn that which increased his usefulness, idle knowledge was not permitted. He placed the book on the table and returned to the shelves. They were filled with pots, pans, and other implements used for cooking but as far as the eye could tell no food stuffs. That was the secret to the wizard's kitchen.
One small cupboard was built into the pantry's shelves. Though it was unassuming to look at it was a wonderment in itself. The cupboard was enchanted to supply the user with whatever they needed and never run out. Gwydion swung open the doors to find the cupboard's shelves laden with exactly what he needed. Grinning broadly he collected his ingredients and returned to the table. Then after briefly looking over the instructions printed on the page began working with nimble fingers.
Gwydion thoughts drifted back to when he had learned how to read. It seemed a strange skill for the wizard to want his slave boy to have yet none the less he was insistent. Of course, Manannan could not be bothered to teach the boy himself so he summoned a tutor. The tutor had been a strange man, quiet by nature, pale and drawn in and almost transparent way. As a child he hadn't thought much of it but looking back it seemed odd. Still he was a pleasant man and carefully encouraged Gwydion through the process of learning. Gwydion felt bad for he could not remember the man's name or whether he had even learned it at all. He was a quick learner and was soon reading with ease. Once his comprehension reached a satisfactory level the tutor disappeared as swiftly and strangely as he had come.
Lost in concentration another twenty minute quickly flew by. He was about half way through preparing breakfast when a sudden meow alerted him to Cat's presence. She paced leisurely across the floor and hopped up on the window sill in front of his table.
"Look who finally decided to get up," he teased not looking up from his delicate work.
She responded by yawning lazily and looking down at her bowl expectantly. Her eyes drifted from him to the bowl and back again. When he did not take notice she began to meow over and over again until she gained his attention.
"Alright," he said setting down the knife.
He walked over to the pantry and produced a fresh jar of milk from the enchanted cupboard. Uncorking it he poured the better half into her dish. She barely waited long enough for him to pull back his hand before happily lapping it up.
"There you go," he said and set the jar down. "You know, I'm going to have to stop spoiling you so much. You're starting to get a belly on you. Manannan will suspect."
Cat's head snapped up and she glared at him through bright yellow eyes as if offended by the weight comment. Ignoring her Gwydion resumed his work. Out of his peripherals he did notice that she did not go immediately back to drinking her milk. But after a few odd moments of hesitation she quickly lapped up the rest. He grinned. Silly Cat.
The remainder of his hour quickly floated by. It wasn't long before he was putting the finishing touches on his dish. Just as he was finishing the air around him suddenly filled with a crackle of static electricity making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Manannan was awake.
"Boy, food, now!" a gruff voice demanded loudly from the dining room before the static even had a chance to dissipate.
"Coming!" he called back hastily loading the dishes onto a serving tray and heading out into the dining room.
A dark figure sat in the large ornate chair at the head of the table. His elbows rested on its surface, hands folded neatly in front of his chin. He looked exactly the way a wizard was expected to look. His face was old and weathered with wrinkles that could only be described as scowl lines. A long white beard hung from his chin contrasting greatly with the midnight black fabric of his robe. From a distance he was deceptively frail looking but with one look at the beady black eyes that glared out from under his bushy white eyebrows that illusion was shattered. But it wasn't just the wizard's look that sent chills crawling up the spine it was the aura he gave off. The temperature of a room seemed to drop a few degrees just by him entering it. His glares could stop even the bravest of men dead in their tracks. Gwydion was accustomed to these glares and one was following him at this very moment just waiting for him to slip up.
"Good morning, sir," he said attempting to be cheery as he placed the tray in front of his master.
"And what exactly is so good about it?" the old man growled picking up his fork with one skeletal hand. Gwydion somehow managed not to cringe at the state of his yellowed claw-like fingernails.
"It's a beautiful morning, the sun is shining," Gwydion offered. "And it is also my birthday, sir."
"How old are you now?"
The conversation ended there and the wizard began to eat in silence. The silence usually meant that Gwydion was dismissed but today he lingered struggling to work up the courage to ask one question. Manannan took notice of his delayed presence.
"Whatever you are going to say, say it," he demanded.
Gwydion wrong his hands nervously fighting the urge to flee. If he waited much longer he would lose his chance.
"Well, sir," he stammered shakily. "Since it is my birthday I was wondering if perhaps I might be able to read a few of your books."
Suddenly the room seemed to explode. Chairs and benches tipped over crashing to the floor, the tray was overturned sending food and other items flying everywhere, china smashed, and Gwydion was thrown to the floor clutching a burning cheek. Manannan had jumped to his feet faster than anyone would believe a man of his age could and Gwydion had not even seen his hand fly. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the wizard cheek quickly turning a violent shade of red and stinging so severely he had to blink rapidly to keep the moisture welling in his eyes from spilling over. The wizard's face was tinged red too, eyes furious.
"Impudent boy!" he spat. "How dare you ask such I question? Have you forgotten your place? I am not your parent! Do not for one moment dare to think that I care for you for you will find yourself gravely mistaken! You are not here to learn. You are here to work and if you do not work there will be consequences. Am I understood?"
Gwydion nodded vigorously in agreement to keep from provoking the wizard's rage further.
"Good. Now clean this mess up and when I come back it had better be spotless," Manannan growled disappearing into a cloud of smoke.
As the smoke dissipated Gwydion allowed a few stray tears to roll down his face before hastily wiping them away. He had long since trained himself never to cry in front of Manannan for it did no good. That old wizard didn't have a heart and any heart he did have had long since turned to stone.
With a shuddering sigh Gwydion pulled himself to his feet and brushed himself off. Moving on was the easiest way to cope. Dwelling on that past would never get him anywhere. What's done is done. Inside he chastised himself for even thinking to ask. After all that trouble what had he changed? Nothing. In this house nothing ever changed and it never would.