Camping alongside the road the first night after leaving Emydin’s Cave, Leryn lay wide awake, listening to the snores of his companions. He had no idea how he was going to face Rosie. He didn’t know how he could go on pretending to be fine when nothing was ever going to fine again. He’d been unfaithful, and yes, it was for reasons so complicated he could never explain them, but still—he’d done it.
No words could explain what had passed between him and Arianrhod…the music…everywhere in her realm was music such as he’d never heard. It had resonated in his soul, and he couldn’t have turned away from it if he’d wanted to. She sang and his voice had joined hers…she drew him to her bed and…had he fallen in love with the music or her? It was fading in his mind, but he remembered enough to know he would never feel that way again.
During the hours he spent in her bower, he was changed on a fundamental level. Music had always been his greatest joy, but now it had become more than just his special ability and his livelihood, more than just something he loved and did well. He felt each note as if it were his blood and breath. Now, music was life in the most literal sense of the word.
Arianrhod had said it would be his connection to her and to the baby he’d fathered with her that day. It made sense that she knew she had conceived. Of course, she knew. She was a goddess. But it hurt, like no pain he’d ever imagined. It was the loss of something he hadn’t known he had.
Tears formed, and his stomach clenched. How could he have agreed to walk away from his unborn child? Yet, Arianrhod had explained that evil had entered the world. Because of that, having tasted his blood during the first part of the offering, the woodland hungered for his essence and in its ignorance would devour him if he remained. Recalling old Scutter’s tale of the Killing Wood, Leryn believed her.
She promised the child would be born of the wood, and the natural cycle would be complete as it was always meant to be.
The goddess had chosen him. Then she’d taken a piece of his heart, along with a piece of his future. Afterward, he had dressed, preparing to depart, feeling awkward and strangely bereft. But, as he prepared to walk back to the cave, she had stood before him, and laid her hands either side of his face. “I’ve taken much from you, and you feel the loss keenly. Music lives within your soul, and you are able to hear the song of the forest. So few men can hear the voices of the Ancient Grove. This is why I chose you. In return for your kindness and your faith, I offer you this reward.”
Kissing him, she had blessed him as only a goddess could do. “May your music always be a solace, whenever all seems lost. Wherever you go, your gift will be the light in the darkness for all who hear you.” The unseen choir had sung an anthem, a hallelujah, a holy prayer of transcendence. Joy flooded his being, and light, and ecstasy…the divine grace of her blessing bringing him to his knees.
His eyes stung, and he was overwhelmed by the power of the memory. He would never be the same.
The memory of it stood between him and the memory of Rosie—a thing he could never share with her.
But it all came back around to the Demon Knight, and the one chance of saving Bleakbourne, and Rosie, and Arianrhod, and all that was good in the world. He reminded himself that he’d been ready to offer up his life if that was what it took, and he should be grateful it hadn’t been required.
Tears again…how could he have known it would be his child’s life that would fulfill the bargain?
When the storm hit, they were still deep in the towering forests of Wēalas and took shelter in a rural tavern. It was less of a traditional public house and more of an old-fashioned farmhouse and obviously received little custom. “My goodness—we have guests!” The landlord’s gaze fell on the dwarf. “Are you Bramblestein? The famous dwarf magician from Londown?”
Bramblestein nodded, thinking quickly. Merlin’s presence couldn’t be mentioned, nor could Leryn’s gifts become known. However, Bramblestein was well known, and couldn’t hide who he was. An unspoken agreement passed between him and Merlin, and doffing his yellow hat, he bowed. “I am indeed Bramblestein, at your service. My companions are Noman and Leryn.”
Built in the style of a longhouse, one end was actually the stable and was connected through a door. The horses and pack ponies were lodged with goats and chickens. But for all the nameless tavern was small and not a haven for the wealthy, the food was decent, the cider was good, and the landlord welcomed them as friends, finding pallets and insisting they sleep on the floor before the hearth.
The roaring of the winds and the thundering sounds of trees breaking and crashing to the earth kept everyone awake. The three travelers huddled before the hearth along with the landlord and his wife, wrapped in their cloaks and clutching mugs of mulled cider.
At the landlord’s request, Leryn played his pipes to divert the rest of the group. Consumed by a burning wish for a shield to protect them from the storm raging all around the tiny shelter, he did his bardic duty. Playing softly, all the lullabies he’d ever heard seemed to come into his mind, the familiar melodies soothing his near panic.
At some point, the small tavern grew warmer as if the wailing wind had sought shelter elsewhere, and the terrible noise of the storm became muted, distant. As the sounds died away and the thudding of trees falling stopped, everyone relaxed somewhat.
Dawn approached, and the light filtering through the cracks in the shutters had a peculiarly yellowish cast, although the raging storm had finally passed them by. The amount of light seeping in suggested many trees had fallen.
During the tempest, Merlin had been distant, his mind consumed with worry for Lancelyn and Galahad. But with its passing and the wizard stirred, holding his mug out for Bramblestein to refill. “That was no natural storm.” His voice didn’t carry to the landlord or his wife, who now prepared breakfast in the tiny back room. “It’s far too quiet out there now. I don’t even hear the birds, and there should at least be some snowbirds about.”
“Agreed. And the light entering around the shutters seems strange. Perhaps your former apprentice knows we’re up to something.” Bramblestein nodded, then stood. “I suppose we’d best see what the damage is out there.” Opening the door, he stepped onto the covered porch.
A wall of white completely blocked his view. “Huh,” he said. “Did you cast a spell of shielding?”
“No. I didn’t want to risk it.” Merlyn stood and stepped out onto the porch, examining the wall. Both men turned to look at Leryn, who was lost in his thoughts as he had been since leaving Emydin’s Cave. Their eyes met, and they turned back to the wall.
Bramblestein laid his hands on it, feeling the smoothness. “It’s solid.” He craned his neck, leaning out and looking up past the porch roof. “It seems to be a dome of some sort, not made of snow or ice. It’s like parchment…light comes through, so it must be thin.” Bramblestein reared his fist back and punched the wall. A hole appeared.
Merlin did the same. “Perfect. It’s like an egg—hard to break into but easy to get out of.”
The holes offered enough of a view for them to see that the house was surrounded by countless gigantic, fallen trees, several of which appeared to have fallen against the shield and were then redirected, sliding down to lay at the foot of the shell. It was clear that the barrier had stopped them from crushing the tavern.
Again the two sorcerers turned to look through the open doorway at the bard who was unaware of their scrutiny. Merlin stepped back inside. “Just out of curiosity—what were you thinking about when you were playing your pipes last evening?”
Leryn tried to remember but failed. “I don’t really recall. All the noise, the snapping of the trees…the way the ground shook when they fell…I was terrified, and I’m not ashamed to say so.”
Merlin’s eyes met Bramblestein’s. Returning to the porch, the two wizards used brute force to open a way out, climbing over the trunk of a large, leafless elm that blocked the steps. Once outside, they saw that the tall chimney was all that could be seen, sticking out of the top of the egg-like dome.
Merlin said, “From here, it appears as if much of the forest was blown down.” He climbed back to the porch and knocked out a few more pieces. “We can come and go, but we should take this down before we leave.” While they were outside, Merlin used his magic to cut through the fallen trunks as neatly as any woodsman could have done, unblocking the path to the woodland tavern. He stacked the cut wood in the woodshed.
Once he’d finished clearing up as well as he could, the two sorcerers stood on the porch. “We’ll have to rein him in. But I don’t know how.” Bramblestein kept his voice low.
“I know. It’s like his gift has broken wide open, or something. He has no control over it now.”
“What are you talking about?” Leryn stood in the doorway. “That’s amazing. How did you do it?” Both sorcerers glared at him. Confused, he asked, “Why are you looking at me like that?”
The landlord came out, bowing low before Bramblestein. “Thank you, a thousand times for protecting our home, good sir! We’d have been killed in our bed!” He turned and called to his wife. “Martha my dear! You’ll never believe it—Bramblestein the Sorcerer saved our home with his magic shield!”
Martha was amazed and couldn’t thank him enough. She and her husband refused to accept any coins from them. “All the wood you just cut, clearing the path and saving our lives is payment enough, good sir—more than enough.”
Fortunately, once enough large chunks had been knocked out of the base, the rest of the shell crumbled and fell harmlessly to the ground. As soon as Leryn had finished stacking the large sheets of eggshell behind the landlord’s wood-rack, the three made their goodbyes and were on the road again, leading their pack-ponies, all of them still heavily laden with the precious wood from the ancient forest.
“Bleakbourne on Heath” © 2016 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
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