The sun was just clearing the horizon. Leryn shivered in the cold morning mist, unhappy at being out so early. Apart from the odd dove or duck’s call, the sounds of plodding hooves, or the occasional creak of a saddle, the soft lapping sound of water along the banks of the river Heath was all that could be heard.
Since Merlin’s pronouncement that he would have to resort to blood magic, Leryn had steeled himself to endure whatever he must, but fear of the unknown preyed on him. It was impossible for him to know what Galahad or Tom Tailor were thinking, but he suspected their thoughts ran similar to his, as no one was talking. The wizard’s thoughts were a mystery under the best of circumstances.
Entering the ruins through the tumble-down gate, they passed the stony remains of Devere Hall, and continued through the wild, abandoned gardens, past a derelict folly. On the bank high above the river, they came to the crypt.
Merlin halted his donkey and dismounted, tying Applecore’s reins to a shrub. The others did the same.
Merlin broke the silence, with his gravelly whisper. “I’ve a few preparations to make, and then I will require a small blood sacrifice from each of you—a slice inside your left forearm will do it.”
Leryn breathed a sigh of relief. “I was afraid you’d need a kidney or something—not to be churlish, but I’m still using both of mine.”
Merlin snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. Your kidney will be my sacrifice of last resort, so pray with all your heart that this is all the blood you need to shed, boy.” He grinned at Leryn’s shocked expression.
Galahad looked around nervously. “Great sense of humor old man, but we’re burning daylight if what you said earlier is true.”
“I’ll gladly give a kidney or two, if that what it takes to settle this once and for all.” Tom’s gaze focused intently on the wrought-iron gate. “It’s my duty to see that my family’s curse stays buried.”
“Don’t worry, Galahad. We’ve enough time for what we need.” Merlin rooted around in a string-bag tied to his waist. He knelt on the flagstones before the iron door to the crypt, and with a chalkstone, he drew a circle, with a cross bisecting the cardinal points.
“Won’t that wash away in the next rain?” asked Galahad, looking a bit nervous.
“It won’t matter. Once cast, the magic will never wash away.” Merlin stood, withdrawing a wooden bowl from the cloth bag, followed by a knife, the likes of which Leryn had never seen. Reeking of age, and made of blackest obsidian, runes swirled along the blade, faint but with a life of their own. “Give me your forearm, bard,” ordered the wizard. “This will hurt, but it won’t impede your ability to play your music, and won’t give us away.”
Thinking how bad it would be if the demon had control of the vampire, Leryn looked away, enduring the pain of the cut with no comment or flinching. Galahad and Tom did the same, and after he’d drawn blood from each, Merlin slashed his left palm, adding twice as much of his own as he had had taken from them. They took turns binding each other’s wounds. “The mix of our blood will confuse the demon. He’ll suspect the spell is new, but won’t know for sure, and won’t be able to identify who cast it.”
Muttering an incantation, the old man set the bowl in the center of the circle he’d drawn. Raising the knife to his lips he kissed and then laid it across the blood-filled vessel, and with the sharp side of the blade set away from the crypt door, he passed his hand over it. A strange tension seemed to gather in the air around the watching men, and then eased. With the settling of the spell, the contents were set in motion, a small but uneasy sea of tiny red waves tossing as if in a storm.
“Now, Tom—you will stand at the east. Galahad, you will stand at the west, Leryn to the south. Clear your minds, and concentrate on the sound of my voice. Do not be distracted by the dark dreams of the vampire—he sleeps and as we seek to keep him in that state other forces will try to stop us. They will attempt to knock you from your place, but they are phantasms, and have no physical form. They cannot physically harm you, so be resolute. This is critical: no matter what they do, don’t step away from your cardinal point or break the circle. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” said Leryn, wondering what he was getting into. “I will stand fast, no matter what.” Galahad and Tom said the same.
Each man stood in his place on the circle. Leryn bowed his head, clearing his mind. Merlin said, “Think only of your desire to preserve the safety of the community. The magic will tell you what your role will be.”
Raising his arms, and saying a prayer to the goddess he served, the old man’s normally gravelly voice smoothed, becoming almost musical. The prayer ended and he began chanting, words that Leryn couldn’t quite grasp. Soft wisps of red mist began rising from the ever-moving contents of the bowl. The sound of wizard’s voice was soothing, hypnotic. Leryn watched the red column of mist, fascinated as the mist began to form shapes that were nearly recognizable, unable now to look away.
The wizard chanted on, and at the corners of Leryn’s vision dark forms gathered, dimming the light of the risen sun. Merlin gestured and the shades cringed back, the light brightening with their absence.
More shades gathered, drawing strength from one another. They gained power, looming and threatening as thunderclouds, and the light dimmed again. Despite knowing they were only shadows, Leryn cringed as fangs flashed dangerously close to his face. Dark shades wailed a terrible dissonance, but Merlin’s voice held strong against their clamor, singing the chant.
The shades pressed forward, and still the wizard built his spell. With a roar, the red mist spiraled out of the bowl, swirling, an unending crimson tornado, tearing at Leryn’s hair and clothes, pushing back the phantoms.
In response the phantasms set a loud wail, their inharmonic howls shredding Leryn’s ears, the pain bringing tears to his eyes. The sunlight dimmed as their magic seemed to prevail, and with an almighty rumble, the earth heaved. Merlin’s voice faltered and the four men staggered. Terrified, each man stood fast to his cardinal point, though it took a mighty effort.
The wizard’s voice was strained, and Leryn sensed Merlin struggling to sing the spell, the dissonance of the phantasms overriding his words. Without thinking, the bard lent his own voice in wordless harmony, supporting and smoothing out the rough tones of the wizard’s incantation, and with that assist the old man’s voice grew powerful. Gradually Leryn became aware of Galahad and Tom also singing. Each man held a different note, and the chord grew in strength.
The magic had them and now the music was torn from them, a harmony that was holy, the most beautiful sound Leryn had ever heard.
Deep and rich, the harmonies rose, smothering the discord and disintegrating the shades and phantoms. With their defeat, the red mist first became white and then a rainbow, sparkling and settling over the crypt. The brilliant light of the morning sun blinded them, forcing the men to close their eyes against it. One by one the singers dropped out of the spell, until only Leryn was left singing the long note, while Merlin muttered his incantation and gestured, tying off the spell.
At last the spell let Leryn go, and in the stark silence of the new morning light he bowed his head, trying to absorb what he had just been a part of. Raising his eyes, he gazed upon the crypt. In the dark recesses he thought he could see a faint trace of rainbow sparkles.
Merlin bent down and picked up the now-empty bowl. “Galahad, use your skills to cover our tracks as we depart, if you will.” The knight nodded. Exhaustion made the old man’s hands tremble, but he was quick to secret his ritual vessel and knife away in the rough bag at his waist. Swiftly, the wizard erased the circle, removing it completely.
The others moved away to their mounts and silently mounted up. The green-eyed knight sprinkled dust and leaf litter where the rite had taken place, eliminating any sign that anyone had been there. Following the group, he did the same behind them, removing all traces of their passage.
Once outside the crumbling walls of the ruined estate, Merlin said, “We have one last task, but it will involve no blood. We must set a ward of aversion around this place, to keep the unwary random traveler from stumbling upon it.”
The setting of the ward was simple enough, a matter of the old man circling the borders of the estate three times and muttering an incantation all the while. Following him silently, the three men pondered what they had experienced that morning. When Merlin was finished, the four men were quiet, riding back to the stable behind the Ploughman’s Inn.
Since Lancelyn was still out with Rosie, routing a bear, Galahad remained in the stable grooming the horses and Polcock’s donkey, Applecore. “We will go about our usual business, as if nothing unusual went on this morning. Treat me as you always have—remember I am just a vagrant, an old homeless man you have all been kind to.”
Leading the old man around to enter through the front door, Tom made sure the wizard was settled near the fire with a mug of cider and a hot meat pie for breakfast, paying Polcock the three coppers as he had often done. Leryn went up the back stairs to his room and changed clothes. He came down the front as if he was just rising, also purchasing a meat pie for breakfast. After eating, he sat his corner with his pen and a sheaf of paper, staring at the blank page, unable to concentrate. Finally he looked at some of the older tales he’d collected, making a few notes here and there.
Mid-morning inched toward noon, disorienting in its normalcy. The local shopkeepers began arriving for their lunch hour. Leryn was aware they wanted no music to interrupt their talk of business, and as usual, he tried to occupy himself by fleshing out the tales he’d collected while in Bleakbourne on Heath. His pen made scratching noises, but his eyes kept straying to the beggar in the corner.
Making up his mind to do as he was told and still learn some of what the wizard might have to tell him, Leryn rose and crossed to the old man. Bringing his paper and the inkpot, he sat beside the old vagrant. “Sir, I’m Leryn, here in Bleakbourne collecting fables,” he said. “I’ve seen you near the docks, and was wondering if you have heard any stories that I might add to my book of tales.”
“I’m called Noman,” replied the beggar, his voice thin and reedy. “I was a bargeman, afore my wife passed. I did hear a legend of witches a ways down the river Heath. It was far, far to the south of here, where the Heath runs deep and wide near Londown town…fearful, it was….”
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Bleakbourne on Heath © 2015 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.