7 June, 1572. The fourteenth year in the reign of Her Majesty, Gloriana Regina, Elizabeth Tudor. The Kirk in the Woods, near Kirkenwood Manor, the North of England.
The sun crept to the peek above the horizon, way to the north of due east. I sat on the lake verge watching the light grow and the shadows shrink. Faeries buzzed around my head, giggling as they tugged at my unruly hair. I laughed with them. The innocent laughter of the young.
’Twas the time betwixt and between, neither day nor night, here or there, real or unreal.
As I was betwixt a child and a woman.
Gently, I twined a wreath of magic around the flowers scattered at my feet. They wove into a living crown. I transported the garland to my head with a gesture of my finger.
The faeries tilted the bright halo so that it canted over my left eye.
We all giggled hilariously.
My aging wolfhound, Coffa, drowsed at my feet along with her unnamed pup. I could not remember a time before Coffa came to me as a familiar.
My three cousins and I were the only children of our generation of Kirkwoods to possess magic and familiars. We played with magic as toys with no idea of how to use it for any but our own pleasure.
The lake rippled. A disturbance at the center spread outward. I sensed a presence beneath the water. Who would inhabit the watery depths?
Could it be the legendary Lady of the Lake? I day-dreamed a few moments that she rose from her mysterious home to give me the great sword Excalibur. I would travel the world, wielding the sword for justice, righting wrongs, and defending the weak as my ancestor King Arthur had done.
Would you not rather be the Merlin? A tiny voice like the chiming of silver bells asked. The faery voice spoke with the resonance of an entire flight of creatures. The Merlin carries history and news to the common folk, listens to their woes, and befriends them.
I sighed. Of course I’d rather be the Merlin. As my father had been. In all things I wanted to be like my father, a man who was fast becoming more legend than memory.
Way off on the other side of the lake, the church bell tolled Matins. A raven launched himself from the rooftree with a noisy flap of wings. The dreams faded. I was just a little girl. The Lady would certainly never deem me worthy of the sword. I guessed she rose merely to play with the faeries on this warm summer dawn.
“Deirdre!” a voice called from the direction of the church. “Dee, where are you?”
The faeries popped out of this reality in surprise, then popped back in, giggling all the while at their own shyness.
“’Tis merely my cousin Hal,” I explained to them. “He’s very protective of me and doesn’t like it when I go off on my own.” As much as I loved my cousin, sometimes I needed to explore these woods by myself. The faeries only came when I was alone. Hal was too impatient to let me study plants and flowers and insects to learn their secrets.
“Dee!” Hal’s call echoed across the lake. He sounded urgent, worried.
I ignored him. My friends, the faeries and the Lady of the Lake, were much more important.
A cloud darkened the growing light. A chill breeze ruffled the lake water. The waves grew higher. The wind whispered with anxiety as it shifted in the tree tops.
Run, the faeries urged me. A bright green one nipped my ear.
Flee, the Lady added from beneath the lake waters.
“What?” I asked. I rose to my knees and got tangled in my skirts. Linen petticoats tore as I tugged them from beneath my feet.
A thrumming sound vibrated through the ground. I ripped the layers of fabric to free my feet. The moment I regained my balance the faeries left me for their own refuge. The Lady sank deeper into the protection of the water.
Coffa jumped up, snarling, teeth bared, ears flat. Her pup growled, too, but remained at my side.
A wolf as large as a man slunk out of the woods. Drool glistened on his yellow teeth.
His eyes glowed red with Otherworldly malice.
“Dee, we come!” Uncle Donovan, my guardian, yelled. He stood beside Hal on the church steps. His illegitimate sons, Gaspar and Peregrine, joined them, long swords still sheathed. Malcolm, the Steward of Kirkenwood, carried a crossbow and a quiver of arrows. They all ran around the lake. Hal leaped over rough ground. Gaspar slashed at low hanging branches that impeded him. Peregrine dove into the lake. He swam with long even strokes.
The wolf growled.
None of them could reach me in time.
Coffa lunged at it. The pup tugged on my skirts, urging me away.
Snap. Snarl. Yelp. Coffa and the wolf tangled, jaws clamped upon each other’s throats. Clumps of fur flew.
Magic, Dee. Try some magic, Hal called to my mind.
Magic? What kind of magic could keep the wolf at bay. My heart cringed. My magic had attracted these beasts touched by the Otherworld.
Coffa’s hind legs collapsed. She rolled, bringing the huge wolf with her. She should have outweighed the wolf by three stone or more. She should have stood head and shoulders above a normal wolf. This beast was as big as she.
A second wolf crept out of the woods. And a third. And then a fourth. Noses worked. Tongues flicked. Drool slid down in ugly poisonous ropes. Throats growled. Red eyes glowed.
The men fanned out, each aiming for a different wolf.
The pup pulled me behind a curtain of willow branches.
Not good enough. The wolves would find me by scent.
Coffa’s legs scrambled for purchase. Weakly. The wolf kept her down.
I looked for the armed men. Peregrine might get to me first. Not before four wolves ripped out my throat. Coffa was already dying.
I sobbed as I reached for whatever magic existed in the air, in me, in the earth. Power tingled in my feet. Without bothering to breathe deeply and prepare myself, I drew the energy upward through my knees to my belly and outward to my hands. Rapidly I braided the willow fronds together. I wove and twisted them into a semblance of a wall. With gaping holes. There were not enough of them to make my shield impenetrable. Magic glinted in the dawn’s light and the dew, weaving a web of power between the dangling braids.
Coffa whimpered once more and died.
The pup threw herself at my magical barrier and bounced back.
I gathered her into my arms, sobbing. “No. She can’t die. She can’t. She’s all I have of my da!” I wailed.
The weight of my wolfhound pup drew me to my knees. I gathered more strength from the earth. I tried to replace my grief with anger. I wanted to tear the wolves apart with my bare hands.
Malcolm Steward aimed his arrow at the closest wolf and shot. Arrow sped. Wolf yelped and paused. It licked at the arrow protruding from its flank. Then with its teeth it ripped the arrow from its flesh. It came away bloody, dripping with gore.
The wolf barely paused to lick it clean. It sped to Malcolm and took him down. One bite ripped out Malcolm’s throat.
I gagged in horror. “Malcolm!” I choked. As close as family, I’d known him all my life, trusted him as a beloved uncle. “Malcolm,” I sobbed.
At last Peregrine climbed out of the lake, drawing his sword even as his feet touched solid ground. He met the four wolves with cold steel. They bit at his blade and danced away, stung by its edge. The wolf that had killed Malcolm joined them.
A raven swooped down and pecked at the lead wolf’s nose. The beast turned and bit at the bird. It flew away with a sarcastic croak.
Peregrine lunged with his blade. I watched each slash in wolf fur close and knit within a few heartbeats. Malcolm’s murderer had already healed.
“What creatures of evil are these?” I gasped.
The pup struggled to be free of my grasp.
Gaspar and Uncle Donovan joined Peregrine. Two of the wolves broke away from the attack on him. They crept up to my hiding place. They tested the barrier with paw and nose, jerking back from the flash of stinging light of my magic.
And then Hal was there. Barely a year older than I. Fire came to his hands with ease. He flung ball after ball into the fray.
The lead wolf’s fur caught the fire. It screamed in pain, dropped, and rolled. The fire kept burning. Stubby paws transformed into human hands that beat at the flames. They kept burning.
Fire engulfed the wolf. From one eye blink to the next a man appeared beneath the fur. Skin blackened. An inhuman scream erupted from tortured limbs. He writhed.
The fire ate at his skin until only bones remained.
A horrible stench flooded my senses. I gagged.
A second wolf caught fire and ran howling into the woods. The remaining two backed off, slinking, snarling, reluctant to continue, reluctant to leave their prey.
“Retirada!” a command came from deep within the line of trees. “Retirada!” An accent tinged the deep guttural voice. I had not the time to decipher it.
I did not even realize the man had spoken in Spanish rather than English.
The wolves turned and ran as one.
Through the mist of my barrier I glimpsed a short, wiry man clad all in black and silver. He loped away at the head of the pack. Something was wrong with his left arm. He cradled it close against his chest.
“Dee!” Hal tore at my barrier. “Open the wall, Dee, you are safe now.”
I took a deep breath and then another. My mind unwove the willow fronds. One by one they parted. The magic collapsed. It slithered around me, becoming a tight envelope of mist, and then it disappeared inside me. The earth greeted the magic through my feet and gratefully accepted it back. The spell grounded successfully.
I collapsed into Hal’s arms. Uncle Donovan rushed to enfold us both in a deep hug. “Werewolves. How could werewolves attack you this close to dawn!”
“Magic. They sought my magic,” I stammered. I trembled all over. My knees wanted to collapse. I could not take my eyes away from the still form of Malcolm. Only Hal’s embrace and the pup pressed to my side kept me upright.
“Powerful men know of the Pendragon. They search this region for signs of magic in hopes of finding, perhaps killing, the Pendragon,” Peregrine reminded us all. He had no magic himself, but he’d lived around magicians all his life.
“What kind of spell did you weave to attract werewolves? ” Uncle Donovan leaned away from me and looked me sternly in the eye. “I have forbidden you to work any magic without my supervision.” His attention strayed to the blackened form that had once been a man.
“I know,” I replied meekly. Suddenly I could look nowhere but the grass at my feet. “’Twas just a silly spell to entertain the faeries.” And because of it, Malcolm, a good and honorable man, had died.
And another had paid the price for that death, most horribly.
“A very silly spell indeed. ’Twas stupid. Dangerous!” At last, Uncle Donovan looked at the horror that had once been Malcolm’s face and neck. He gulped and bowed his head a moment. “I shall have to think on your punishment for disobedience, young lady.” Uncle Donovan dropped his arms from my shoulders.
I suddenly felt cold and alone.
Hal tightened his grip on me in reassurance.
“They killed Coffa.” I let a tear trickle down my cheek. I could not think on the man who was also dead.
“She was old for a wolfhound.” Uncle Donovan sounded sad. “She was beyond breeding again. She left you another familiar. The pup will also be Coffa, Remembrance, so that you remember why a trusted retainer and your familiar died.” He turned on his heel and marched back toward the church and Malcolm. He shed his doublet and placed it reverently over the face of the corpse. “Gaspar, Peregrine, fetch Father Peter. We need to burn the body to sanctify his unclean death.”
We all gulped back sobs. Then my guardian returned his attention to me.
“Remember, Deirdre, you are not the only one with a familiar. You are not guaranteed the heritage of the Pendragon, and therefore your use of magic must be circumspect and carefully controlled.”
“Yes, Uncle,” I replied meekly. My face flushed with guilt. I’d never live up to my father’s legacy.
Merlin’s Descendants #4
by Irene Radford
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-165-8