Nativity by Ness Ayton

This piece was first published in "The Chronicles of Sherwood" many moons ago...

"Ailric, you can't go. Not tonight."

The young Saxon looked down at the girl lying on the straw pallet.

"I must, my love. Herne is calling."

Her face fell.

"Then you must go. But don't be long, please."

"I won't," he promised, throwing his cloak round his shoulders. Gently he bent down and kissed his heavily pregnant wife before disappearing into the dark and wet night.

Left on her own, Megan grew fretful. The child lay heavy inside her and her back ached. Wearily she struggled to her feet and crossed over to the fire. Poking the embers gently, flames sprang to life and shadows danced on the walls. A goblet of warm mead caused her to feel drowsy and she settled down in a chair near the fire.

Eventually she dropped off to sleep, but it was a sleep troubled by dreams.

Flames leapt high in the dawn sky, thatch rustled and burnt, swords flashed in the rising sun, screams of the wounded and dying - sights and sounds mingled as Loxley died.

Tears lay on the sleeping woman's cheeks.

Hoofbeats drummed into the trees. A man's determined face and a child's frightened face merged. She knew the man but not the child. Arrows flew amongst a ring of standing stones. The man writhed in agony and whispered a warning before he died.

"Ailric," she murmured, openly weeping now.

The scene changed to a leafy glade in Sherwood. A hooded man stood with his back to her, surrounded by a group of men. Gradually he turned around and she saw the same green eyes that now loved her and she knew for certain who and what he was.

"My son." She touched her swollen belly with awe.

Arrows flew against a blood red sky. A rocky tor and an archer silhouetted against the weeping sun. Two figures running to the forest. A broken bow and a man dying, hacked to pieces by Norman swords.

Megan knew that she saw the wheel turned full circle.

"Herne why my family?" she wailed but she knew the answer. She'd been born and bred to be wife to Herne's son and accept all that that meant.

The night wore on and there were no more dreams yet she still slept fitfully wishing Ailric would return. Pains in her stomach at last roused her to wakefulness. Grabbing the swollen bulge, she groaned, knowing that it was her time. Where was Ailric when she needed him? Taking tight hold of the chair Megan eased herself to her feet. One hand to her back and the other on her stomach she staggered to the door and out into the pouring rain. Desperately she made her way to the nearest hut.

"Martha." Her voice was thin and weak, drowned out by the pounding of the rain. A dog barked, frisking round her skirts, then pawed at the door, whining pitifully. The door opened in response to the creature, dim candlelight spilling onto the ground. Megan fell through the opening into the warmth of her friend's hut.

"Megan, what's wrong?" Martha cried seeing the girl's clammy face and streaming hair. The groan and the way Megan clutched at her stomach were answer enough.

"Lie down," she ordered the girl steering her towards the bed and pushing her husband off it.

"Robert, go and fetch Anna. Megan's time is at hand."

Muttering to himself Robert stomped into the rain and was soon back with an aged crone.

"Where's Ailric?" Anna asked the suffering girl.

"With Herne," Megan replied. The others nodded. It made sense. Ailric was frequently with Herne; it was his place.

With the help of Anna and Martha the baby was quickly delivered and Megan lay back on the straw pallet, exhausted by her labours.

"She'll have to stay here for the time being," Anna whispered, anxious not to upset Megan.

"Of course she must," Martha agreed, glaring her husband into submission as he appeared about to argue.

Ailric returned to the village just as dawn was breaking over the forest. He quickly discoveredīž the whereabouts of his wife and carried her and the baby back to the hut. Laying them both on the bed, he smiled down at them.

"I'm sorry I wasn't with you," he murmured. She raised a hand and ran it through his hair.

"I know. It doesn't matter. Anna and Martha helped. We have a son, Ailric. Your first born is a son."

Ailric lifted the child into his arms. The baby lay there placidly, stretching its arms to his face. Gently touching the child's curled fingers the man smiled at his son.

"Robin. His name is Robin," he whispered.

"Yes, it is," Megan agreed, receiving the child into her arms. She looked down into the baby's eyes, startled by the swirling forest green depths she saw there. The eyes were those of her husband's and, for a moment, it was as if she held him in her arms.

She glanced up, almost fearfully, at Ailric and into his dark green eyes, seeing, only too clearly, that father and son were one and the same.

"Yes, he is my successor," her husband told her. "Our lives will be shaped by our destinies."

"I know that only too well," Megan whispered. "But there is something else about him. Can't you see it?"

Ailric looked down at his son once more and saw, briefly, what his wife was referring too. In the child's eyes lay a wisdom beyond his years, a knowledge of this world and the next that seemed to come from some inner strength, and for a moment Ailric was afraid.

It was, he knew, his place to die when the call came and he would be prepared to meet his death when that happened, as his son would be when it was his time; but he also knew that more lay ahead for Robin than would ever be asked of him and he was afraid for his son.

Ailric and Megan looked down at their son in awe.