Leryn woke early, finding Merlin’s cave too quiet after the week of sleeping outdoors. The ambient noises of the forest were unable to penetrate the rock walls, and his companions still slept. For a change, neither man was snoring.
He dressed and went to the main room, stirring the fire and setting the kettle on the small hob. With nothing better to do, he snooped about in the pantry, finding Merlin’s dry staples such as tea, flour and beans were still fresh. Some beeswax-capped pots rested on the shelves, all labeled as various jams. Jars with heavy lids held dried fruits and still others contained dried herbs, mustard seeds, and horseradish. Large casks of flour, smaller crocks of salt, along with a variety of pickled vegetables in large earthen jars lined the lower shelves. A large barrel, two-thirds full of salted, dried fish stood in the corner, and several slabs of smoked bacon hung nearby.
Leryn set about preparing a hot breakfast, managing to turn out a respectable batch of biscuits. By the time he’d finished, Merlin was up, lured from his sleep by the scent of bacon frying. Bramblestein soon followed.
With breakfast out of the way, Merlin set a pot of beans on to cook for their supper, and began making a large batch of bread. “I’ll wrap it in a special cloth, so this bread will keep better than Hannah’s.”
Leryn knew the fabric was most likely not bespelled, as Merlin didn’t waste magic on things that could be resolved without it. “What’s the cloth treated with?”
“Nut oil. It’ll keep the bread fresh for more than a week, as long as it doesn’t come unwrapped.”
Bramblestein said he needed to pick some herbs that only grew there. “I’ll get the herbs, boy. You muck out the byre.”
Cleaning the small stable took little time, and after washing up, he pretended to examine the hundreds of books that graced the shelves. They did intrigue him, but really he observed his host. With the dwarf out on his errand, the wizard had no one to put on an act for, and Leryn saw Merlin as he really was, not as a role he was playing. He was ordinary, a man no different than anyone else, and he’d seen a lot of suffering. His features when at rest clearly showed that.
As if he knew Leryn was watching him, Merlin said, “Get your laundry done this morning. We’ll sing for the wood this afternoon. I would like to be back on the road and headed to Bleakbourne tomorrow after breakfast.”
Taking his clothes to the stream behind the cave, Leryn pondered the words Merlin had used. Several times, singing had been mentioned regarding what they were going to do and that was the real reason he’d been dragged along. Sing for the wood…a world of possibilities lay in those words, all of which piqued his interest.
“You must not have any thought of personal gain when we enter the deep woods. Think only of our quest; think only of protecting Rosie and Bleakbourne from the Demon Knight.” Merlin held a rough cloth bag which was full of oddly shaped objects. He tied it around his waist.
Leryn had seen the bag before, and it worried him. “Will this require my blood? I’ll gladly shed it, of course, but I have a right to know ahead of time.”
Both Bramblestein and Merlin were silent for a moment. Then Merlin said, “It may. We can only hope that all is needed is a blood sacrifice.” His eyes met Leryn’s. “If it calls for more, I will offer myself up.”
“Surely it won’t require a life,” said Leryn, shuddering. “And if it does, it can’t be you. You have to be the one to face the Demon. I’m expendable, so if someone must die for this, it will have to be me.”
“No one will have to die, but they might require something you’d rather not relinquish.”
Bramblestein said, “Merlin is right. If they ask for more than blood, he is the one they’ll want. He’s half-elven and closer to…them. Any elves in your background are two generations past.”
Leryn turned that thought over, pondering the possibilities. It hadn’t occurred to him he might have elven blood in his family. Perhaps there was some truth the Dwarf’s comment. His grandmother had certainly been closed-mouthed about the family, and now he wondered why.
The three men walked toward the brook, passing through the gate in the tall hedge of briars that surrounded Merlin’s grove and entered a primeval forest. All around him stood giants: oak, beech, yew and more. Ancient pines coexisted with spreading maples, and elms. For as far as his eye could see, every lowland tree Leryn had ever seen was represented, all of them far taller, older, and larger than he had ever seen, and each one a respectful distance from its neighbor. As in any forest, some trees sheltered ferns and other shrubs, and some stood alone.
The woodsy scents of myriad different trees vied for Leryn’s attention and the air reeked of green life, of antiquity. Fearing to disturb the silence, Leryn whispered, “I would never have known this was here, yet I was just over the hedge from it. It seems strange something so vast and mighty hides so well from strangers’ eyes.”
“It’s not strange at all. There is a deeper magic in the oldest forest on earth, but it can’t withstand the axes of mankind, and so it disguises itself.” Bramblestein’s words punctuated the quiet. “This is the primordial forest from which all the woodlands of Wyeles, Angland, Eyrland, and the lands of the Scotti were born.”
The woods closed in behind them, hiding the way out.
Some distance inside the forest, they came to a carved stone altar. To Leryn, it appeared similar to a chapel, but with no walls. It was well cared for by someone. The altar itself was covered with a rich cloth of velvet, and candles burned beside it. “This is the place.” Merlin stopped before it, standing with his eyes closed, and Leryn stopped behind him. Even Bramblestein seemed unusually respectful.
Merlin took the obsidian knife and wooden bowl from the bag at his waist. “I’ll need some blood from each of you. Not as much, just a small amount.”
As he’d done the first time at the Devere Crypt, he drew the blood from where it wouldn’t interfere with Leryn’s playing the lute or harp, mixing it in the bowl. Bowing low, he set the bowl on the altar. The three knelt, and, with a prayer, Merlin offered the blood.
After some time, as it had the time before, the prayer changed into a song, which was drawn forth from Leryn through no conscious will of his.
The music of the spell was hypnotic. It felt, to the bard, as if the branches trembled, turning toward the sound, quivering, desiring to join the song. Soft wisps of a reddish haze began rising from the swirling contents of the bowl, moving in time to their chanting. His voice and Merlin’s soared, and as if on the wings of a bird, their spirits rose high into the the forest canopy.
Leryn’s awareness watched from high above, as if he were one of the trees, seeing the red column of mist rising, fascinated as the vapor dispersed into the air, nourishing the leaves of the forest around him.
Just when he thought the song could get no larger, at the furthest edge of his awareness, Leryn heard voices joining theirs.
Concentrating harder, he heard a choir singing, changing the spell that Merlin spun into the most beautiful of hymns. Closing his eyes, he opened his senses, listening to the forest on all levels, hoping to hear the music more fully.
A brilliant light shot from the altar, engulfing Leryn, and when it cleared, he found himself on his knees before a woman of angelic beauty. Merlin and Bramblestein were nowhere to be seen, and the altar had disappeared.
“I am Arianrhod, Lady of the Wood. What is your wish, Bard?” Her voice contained all the melodies of the forest and yet she did not sing.
Somehow, he knew if he answered wrong, she would not only take his life, she would kill Merlin and Bramblestein for bringing him there. He tried to lay bare all his deepest desires. “We need windfallen wood to create a talisman. I wish only to save my people from the demon.”
“With what will you pay? Windfallen wood is a rare gift. Spring is approaches, and we too are in desperate need. What are you willing to give in return?”
Leryn answered without hesitation. “My life if you require it. I hope it won’t come to that, but if so, then I will give it. The talisman can’t be made from a forge fired with ordinary wood. The wood for this must originate from this forest. We can’t take it–we can only ask to be given it.”
She laughed. “Merlin has taught you well. I do not require your life, but…I need something that is yours alone to give. I can’t take it from you, you must choose to give it to me. And once given, it’s mine. You will have no claim on it.”
Leryn couldn’t imagine what she was asking for, but he did know what would happen to Bleakbourne if Merlin and Bramblestein couldn’t make the special orb. “What do you want? If it’s in my power, I will give it to you.”
Nothing could have prepared him for her answer.
“Spring approaches. It’s the time of quickening and is the right time for me to beget a child. Lie with me. The child of our union will sustain the forest long after we are gone.”
Stunned, Leryn’s mind felt slow, as if moving through mush. Arianrhod was beautiful, and a part of him did desire her in that way. But in his mind he was wedded to Rosie, even though she’d refused to marry him.
It felt disloyal. To save Rosie, he would have to be unfaithful to her, something that went against his sense of honor. Considering that she had abandoned him, she might not see it that way, but he did.
And to be aware that he had fathered a child but to never be allowed to be a part of its life…the thought was surprisingly painful.
Yet, he remembered the night of the Crypt Wind, and how he’d quailed before the demon knight. Rosie was in Bleakbourne, and the demon had sworn he would return. Leryn felt the horror but he had to save her, and Polcock, and Tom Tailor, and old Scutter. The town was full of people he loved. Bleakbourne on Heath would be only the beginning of the terror. All of Angland, and perhaps the world, was in mortal danger.
Once again he saw Mordred with his flaming sword raised in triumph, and Leryn knew what his answer had to be.
Merlin and Bramblestein rode silently, leading the laden ponies up the trail, with Leryn following. He had been silent since his return from Arianrhod’s bower the evening before. Both sorcerers had cast many speculative glances his way, but he pretended not to notice.
His writing case sat unopened on the saddlebow before him.
“Care to talk about it, boy?” Merlin was only trying to be kind, Leryn could see that.
The memory of the experience had begun to fade, but the bard was still unwilling to discuss what had happened. “Not really. She let me live,” was all he could bring himself to say.
“I understand.” When Leryn met his eyes, he saw that Merlin truly did comprehend what he had bought the wood with. “Some bargains don’t seem terrible when you’re not the one paying the price. It’s only when you’re asked to pay that you understand what it means to sacrifice.”
“I hope Lance and Galahad have been as fortunate in getting the sand,” Bramblestein muttered. “If not, this was all for nothing.”
Giving up his self-respect, his honor, and a child of his body had been in vain? Leryn shook his head. “No. Not for nothing. It has to have been for some good reason. It has to.”
They rode through the cold mist, returning to Bleakbourne the way they had come.
“Bleakbourne on Heath” © 2016 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
To Read Previous Episodes of “Bleakbourne on Heath” click here: