“FOLLOW my leader,” I called to the laughing children of Lord Ector’s household the next day. Free at last from the confines of the fortress, I scrambled atop a fallen oak tree and ran its length to the root ball. My bare feet clung to the crumbling bark. This tree had been an ancient giant among its fellows. Six men linking hands in a circle couldn’t span its girth at the base. I counted steps as I ran its length. Nearly three hundred. It had fallen last winter during a fierce storm and had taken several younger trees with it. A broad clearing yawned around the dead giant. Sunlight penetrated to the forest floor here, encouraging new plants and seedling trees to grow.
Da and I had mourned the tree’s passing. Today I rejoiced in the life it gave back to the forest. Already young ferns sought to root around it. Insects burrowed for food, and birds gathered twigs and bark for nests.
I inhaled deeply of the intoxicating aromas of damp earth, sprouting green, and warm sunlight. My body seemed about to burst. The forest sang with life, and so did I.
The goddess promised that out of death comes life, manifested in these sights and smells. So did Father Thomas, but in words that drifted far from the ear. I refused to puzzle over the mystery. I needed to run and shout and rejoice in life after a winter of being cooped up in the caer. Stale air and smoky fires had no place in today’s sunshine. Behind me I heard Curyll and some of his foster brothers helping the little ones onto the tree trunk. They should have been hunting with the men. But the timing and allotment of horses had been all wrong. I had made certain of that. I didn’t have to use magic to divert and misdirect. Lady Glynnis had ordered Boar, Curyll, Stinger, and Ceffyl to watch over us as we played in the forest.
I didn’t look back to see who did and who did not manage to keep up with me. I belonged to the forest. I knew places none of the others would think to tread.
False spring had melted the snow and brightened the sunshine. Lady Glynnis rose this morning and ordered a clean sweep of the fortress. New rushes for the floors. Bedding needed airing and laundry hung out-of-doors. Children were a hindrance on such days and I gladly led them in boisterous games away from the industry of the women. Most of the men, including Da, had left early on a last hunt before leaving for war, rather than be commandeered into cleaning. Curyll and his foster brothers agreed that minding the children in the forest was preferable to beating wall hangings or stirring boiling laundry.
“Wait up, Wren,” Boar called to me. He didn’t like anyone straying beyond his eyes’ limited range. He really was a nearsighted boar; bad-tempered and belligerent when crossed. I ignored him.
Curyll should have been the one who directed us all. Maybe today I could break his habit of silence.
Without slowing my pace, I slid gleefully to the ground from the immense height of the trunk near the root ball. Soft moss and ferns cushioned my landing. I laughed out loud and kept running into the depth of the forest.
I knew a place where water sprites played and flower faeries gathered seeds. First I would have to leave the others content to play in the clearing so that they wouldn’t disturb the spell I wanted to try.
All winter I had kept magic buried deep within me while I studied the how and why of it. The time had come to allow the elements of my spells full range, out-of-doors where we belonged.
“W-where are you, Wr-Wren?” Curyll stood at the top of the root ball, peering into the darkness of the forest. Beyond the clearing of the fallen giant, the canopy of branches formed a thick ceiling. Little light penetrated to the forest floor.
I giggled to let my friend know I wasn’t far off.
“We’d best spread out and search for her,” Stinger said sternly. He methodically stripped a heavy broken branch of side twigs and swung it like a club. The Stinger was always ready to fight with whatever weapons came to hand, even if the enemy was only a question.
“It’s like she stepped through a door into another world!” Ceffyl gasped. His thick dark hair, newly cropped to fit under his helm, stood out like a ceffyl’s bristly mane cut short for war. He looked ready to rear and bolt on his long legs.
“Sh-she’s The Merlin’s daughter. What do you expect?” Curyll laughed, barely stuttering at all.
I had stepped from sunlight into darkness, from clear vision into secrets, The Otherworld couldn’t be more different. Only Curyll would see me, and only if he looked with his heart and not his eyes.
I loosed another little laugh from a different direction. Curyll swung his attention to my hiding place. Ceffyl continued to look I where I had been. Stinger and Boar began beating the underbrush with sticks in yet another direction. A grin split Curyll’s worried face and he climbed down from the tree trunk, less gracefully than I had.
I trusted him to find me, always.
I stood up and ran again with Curyll in pursuit. My bare feet barely touched the ground, I felt so light and free. I wanted to tear off my gown and fling it away, become one with the elements without the hindrance of clothing. When wind and sun caressed my growing body, I would become one with the Goddess. Only free of coverings could I experience the gaia, a sense of unity with all life. Da would understand. Lady Glynnis and the boys wouldn’t.
This summer I will run naked and free with the faeries, I promised myself. This summer when Da and I roam Britain again. I will grow and mature and be ready for Beltane next year, or the year after. Maybe I can arrange for Curyll to be my first partner.
Soon, within days, I would make the first transition into womanhood. I knew that as well as I knew the answer to Curyll’s cure.
The pool I sought shimmered in the sunshine ahead. Ages ago, another forest giant had fallen, its roots weakened by an underground spring. As the tree rotted, water filled the depression. New trees didn’t spring up to fill the gap in the canopy because of the swampy ground. So the water continued to fill the clearing. Now the secret lives who inhabited the dark recesses of the forest found it an ideal gathering place.
“Wr-Wren, wh-where are you? Are y-you lost?” Curyll yelled. His booted feet thrashed through the piles of dead leaves left behind by last autumn’s fall. Each step stirred a crisp scent left over from previous seasons blending into the new one.
My feet left barely a trace of my passing. Curyll would leave an easy path to follow home. I’d show him how to retrace his steps later. When we finished the spell.
I paused at the edge of the pool still within the darkness of the trees. Awe and silence surrounded me, as if the opening between two trees was really a doorway into the Otherworld. Blending with the stillness, I reached out with my mind and called….
“W-why d-did you run so far a-ahead of the others?” Curyll said, out of breath. “If we g-get sep-separated, we’ll be lost. You k-know Merlin warned us to s-stay together.”
He’d been running to keep up with me, and the heat of his body reached out to include me. He smelled of sweat and leather and sunshine, healthy and clean. I enfolded myself into his warmth, binding us together to complete a spell. A thrill of something special tickled the base of my spine and spread outward. I pressed a finger to my lips. Then I pointed to the center of the pool. A flutter of bright colors that might have been mayflies danced above the water.
Curyll’s eyes opened wide in wonder. He knew, as I did, that no respectable mayfly would hover over a forest pool a week past the Vernal Equinox, false spring or no.
“Faeries?” he mouthed the word without a sound. No sound, no stutter. He fingered his torc, like a protective talisman, just like Da did in the presence of magic.
Don’t startle them, I replied with my mind instead of my mouth. Another trick I had learned on my own but not quite perfected. Happily, it worked with Curyll better than anyone else.
He stood hunted-still.
Gradually the fluttering lives gathered around us. Sunlight struck their wings and flashed rainbows, filling the clearing with color. We grinned in delight at the spectacle. Curyll relaxed. The faeries alighted in his hair, on his shoulders and his face. They surrounded us in a halo of bright sparks and laughter.
The faeries never wore clothes. Their tiny naked bodies appeared human except for their brightly colored skin and slightly pointed ears. If I looked very closely, I could see rainbows flickering across their wings.
Curyll twitched his nose where a yellow faery tickled him. I watched him struggle to suppress a sneeze. The faery increased her teasing. Her full breasts jiggled with her laughter. Curyll couldn’t hold back any longer. He blasted forth with a mighty explosion of air.
The faeries rose in a chattering and giggling swarm around our heads. Eventually the flighty creatures settled down.
Why have you called us here? a dark green male faery asked. I wondered briefly if Curyll’s body was as perfectly formed as this being’s.
“Curyll, my dear friend, needs practice speaking,” I replied swallowing my curiosity. “The trees have infinite patience and will not laugh at Curyll when he falters. When he has mastered the ability to speak clearly to the trees, will you let him learn to speak to you?”
Every one of the brightly colored beings nodded agreement. Their giggles of mischief tinkled on the wind like a hundred tiny silver bells.
“W-Wren, I-I-can’t,” Curyll said. He blushed to his ear tips. “They al-already laugh a-at m-me!”
The faeries swarmed in brilliant display of flapping wings and uncontrollable laughter; a full chorus of chiming mirth, much more musical than the heavy church bells the Christians used.
“You can, Curyll. Take your time. Form each word in your head before you wrap your tongue around it. You’ll learn quickly enough that faeries laugh at everything, not just you.” Another round of musical giggles supported my statement. “When you learn to ignore them, you will be able to ignore people who laugh at nothing as well.”
“W-we must g-o ba-ck soon. The others…”
“Time means nothing here, my friend. As long as the faeries listen, there is no such thing as time.” I settled upon a bed of moss at the side of the pool and waited.
Curyll joined me, shaking his head in wonderment.
“Listen to yourself as you listen to others. Make each word count.” I took his hand in both of mine, enjoying the sense of unity his touch gave to me. “We are in gaia, in touch and harmony with every aspect of life. Speak freely without embarrassment or hesitation.”
The faeries settled in my lap, beside me, and on various shrubs. Each took up an attitude of intense concentration that quickly shattered as they found mirth in my stillness.
“W-what will this miracle cost me?” Curyll asked, looking at the ground.
“If it works, promise the faeries that you will never forget the Old Gods and will always honor their creatures of forest, field, and spring. Promise the Goddess.”
He looked up. A cloud of uncertainty fell over his eyes.
“I-I promise, Wren. I promise to always honor the Old Gods and all their creatures of forest and field and spring.”
“Seal it in a circle, Curyll.”
He drew a circle in my palm with his fingertip. I repeated the seal by drawing a circle in the air, a circle big enough to include the faeries. A hint of Tanio tailed my finger as I traced the sigil.
“I. Hope. This. Works,” Curyll said, still holding my hand.
“As long as you keep your promise, the faeries will help you speak. As long as they trust you, they will protect you.” Because I can’t always be there for you. But I’ll try.
Ceffyl slugged Garoth in the jaw. Garoth reeled back, off-balance. He flailed his arms. Blood trickled from a split in his lower lip. Ceffyl tackled his much larger, and more experienced, foster brother around the waist. His face turned bright red with anger.
Both of their helms tilted as they fell to the ground together.
I hadn’t seen what started this fight. Arms practice often disintegrated into brawls. Emotions ran high. My friends and companions turned vicious when they took up sword, ax, or spear. Lord Ector had said ’twas good training for the boys.
“Cease!” Garoth yelled, grabbing the younger boy’s neck with a thick forearm.
“Take it back!” Ceffyl choked out the words. He pummeled Garoth’s chest with his fists.
I saw Ceffyl prepare his legs for a vicious kick.
Together they rolled in the mud, out of my field of vision.
Lord Ector and the other adults seemed to have disappeared, allowing the boys to settle the dispute themselves.
Siblings and fosterlings gathered in a circle around the grappling youths. They alternately cheered and jeered the wrestlers.
Ceffyl rammed his knee upward. He missed Garoth’s groin by a finger’s length.
“Get him, Ceffyl!” Fallon yelled. “It’s time someone showed my brother he isn’t Ardh Rhi of this caer.”
Boar, who idolized his brother Garoth, rammed his fist into Fallon’s gut.
The oldest of Ector’s brood doubled over.
Quickly, the entire throng dissolved into a mass of flying fists, kicking feet, yells of pain, and grunts of satisfaction.
I stepped out of the shadows to get a better view and tripped over two flailing bodies. Before I could catch my balance, I tasted mud and something heavy landed on my back. All the air left my lungs in whoosh. I couldn’t lift my face away from the churned clay of the courtyard. I couldn’t breathe.
Every attempt to draw a breath filled my mouth with more mud.
Red-tinged blackness filled my eyes. Strength oozed out of my arms and legs.
Red on black images chased each other across my dimming eye sight. Laughter boiled in my stomach — the mad laughter of prophecy. I needed to stop and see what vision of the future the Goddess offered. Red for fire, black for death….
Suddenly, just when I thought the Goddess would show me something important, or claim me once and for all, the weight on my back disappeared. Someone’s strong fingers grabbed the back of my dress. I found myself upright, gasping.
“Breathe, Wren.” Curyll slapped my back hard. Mud spewed out of my mouth. Tears sprang into my eyes.
I gulped a huge mouthful of air.
“Now sit down and stay clear,” Curyll ordered. He sounded like an adult giving orders to small children. Or a warrior commanding a battle.
“You’ve got to stop this, Curyll. They are hurting each other,” I gasped as more mud spluttered out of my mouth.
“Give them five more minutes. Then they’ll be tired enough to listen to reason.” He drew a dirt clod out of my hair.
After a few moments, when the frenzy slowed to a methodical drone, Curyll strode forward. One by one, he separated the combatants.
“Enough!” he commanded in a voice that filled the walled courtyard and echoed against the watchtower.
Everyone, including the watchers, froze in place. The babble ceased. Curyll turned in a full circle, glaring at each person individually. No one questioned him. We waited for him to direct us.
My heart filled with pride. Two days ago, my friend would not have dared command the older boys. After our hours with the faeries, he easily assumed leadership of us all.
“Now tell me, who started this?” Curyll barked, expecting compliance.
No one met his eyes. Ceffyl and Garoth hung their heads slightly. Boar and Fallon looked upward.
Curyll stalked over to them. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Garoth, brawling with a boy half your size.”
Garoth said nothing.
“But from the looks of those bruises on your face, Ceffyl held his own against you,” Curyll chuckled.
Ceffyl lifted his head and threw back his shoulders.
“Did you start it?” Curyll suddenly grabbed Ceffyl’s shirt and dragged him close until they stood nose to nose.
“Y-yes,” the slighter boy answered. Fear and confusion shone from his eyes.
“Why? You must have had a good reason to challenge Garoth, who outweighs you by three stone and tops you by a head height.”
“He… it’s personal.” Ceffyl met Curyll’s gaze and held it.
Curyll jerked his head in a quick nod of acceptance. Then he released Ceffyl and turned toward the rest of his foster brothers and Ector’s men at arms.
“And the rest of you? What cause have you to fight your comrades? The rules established by Lord Ector and The Merlin declare that individual disputes must be settled by the individuals and no one else. Have you no respect for rules?”
“In battle, we make our own rules,” Fallon said. “When your blood lust gets up, you fight whoever stands in your way.” He stepped forward as if to challenge Curyll’s authority to impose order.
“This is arms practice, not battle. We are not Saxons who kill indiscriminately. Rules exist for a reason.”
“Rules are made by those strong enough to enforce them and broken by any who can get away with it,” Garoth argued. He and Fallon stood together, shoulder to shoulder. They presented a solid wall of resistance to Curyll.
“When we ride to battle with the Saxons, we can’t afford to fight among ourselves,” Curyll reminded them. “We must learn better ways to settle disputes than coming to blows. We must learn to live within the rules.”
The watchers drifted apart, some to stand behind Lord Ector’s oldest sons; the others to stand behind Curyll. Boar, Stinger, and Ceffyl took positions to Curyll’s right and left. The four of them almost massed as much weight as their two opponents.
I stepped up between Stinger and Curyll, suddenly realizing that words counted more than fists and spears right now. As long as Curyll spoke the words.
“Rules and laws are made for the benefit of all,” Curyll called loudly so that all within the courtyard could hear. “Without rules, we are little better than a pack of wolves hunting in the night, or Saxons who kill for the love of killing. Rules and laws are intricately woven into our culture. Our civilization. Without them, we have nothing to fight for.”
“We fight the Saxons for our lives. Our land,” Garoth remind him.
“We also fight for our right to call ourselves Britons. If our lives and the land are all we care about, we could join the Saxons, let them rule us. We’d have our lives. We’d have the land to feed us. Nothing more. But we are not Saxon slaves. Our laws, our rules that guide our daily lives, and the way we honor the Goddess or any god we care to name, make us Britons.
“Together we can beat back the invasion and preserve our way of life, But if we fight each other with no respect for our laws and rules, then we lose our honor, our trust, and the sense of justice that bind us together.
“We must stand together. Die together if necessary. Fighting among ourselves leads to the death of our spirit and the death of Britain!”
Behind me, someone clapped his hands together, slowly, rhythmically. Others joined in the stunning display of approval. Garoth and Fallon stepped back, jaws slightly agape.
I smiled. My heart filled with joy and pride for my special friend.
In the distance I heard my father chuckle. “I guess he is ready to lead men after all,” he said to Lord Ector.
“Tonight he cuts the meat. Tomorrow, at dawn, we ride to join Uther’s army,” Lord Ector replied.
At dawn. At dawn I would say good-bye to Curyll. I’d done all I could to help him. He didn’t need me anymore.
Loneliness opened a deep chasm in my chest. I needed to reach out and hold onto Curyll and my friends. They were all preoccupied with each other and making plans for the morrow. No one had time for one plain brown wren lost in a sea of adult males. At dawn I would say good-bye to them and our childhood.
Merlin’s Descendants #1
by Irene Radford
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-143-6