Leryn was silent after leaving the forest tavern, allowing his two companions to argue about what had occurred there as much as they liked. Ignoring their bickering, he refused to think about what he had inadvertently done during the storm, seeing the shield as one more awful event in a string of horribleness. His life had veered out of control and he didn’t know how to get it back.
Their way was frequently blocked by debris from the storm, and they often had to pick their way carefully. Toward noon, as they led the horses around yet another gigantic tree, the two older men had come to some sort of an agreement and the conversation had taken an unfortunate turn, from Leryn’s point of view. “I’m a bard. Can you give up breathing? I can’t give up music. It flows through my soul like blood through my veins.”
Barely suppressed irritation sharpened Merlin’s voice. “Who knows what sort of mischief you could cause now your gifts have been unlocked? Music is the facilitator of the strongest magic for those of us who follow the White Way, which is why practitioners of dark magic abhor it.”
“I was scared stiff and wasn’t aware I was doing it.”
“Then you have a problem,” Merlin said. “Music is intrinsic to the White Way. Music is magic, but practitioners must always rely on symmetry and chants to confine it, ensuring it doesn’t run wild.”
Leryn’s glare turned to steel. “Music is all I have left, thanks to you and this godforsaken quest. You’re not taking it from me.”
“Peace!” Bramblestein raised his hands, the voice of common sense, for once. “We’re just saying that your encounter with the Goddess of the Old Forest may have opened something in you that was previously blocked.” He grinned at Leryn’s sudden blush. “This means you must be careful to never make music when you are upset or highly emotional. Who knows what sort of mayhem you could accidentally cause?”
Leryn shivered, not wanting to discuss Arianrhod. He had refused to elaborate on his experience to either of his teachers, but it preyed on his mind constantly. “I just have to school my thoughts. I can still play the silly drinking songs everyone likes and spin epic tales.” He grinned, although he felt anything but mirthful. “Your words of wisdom will be strictly adhered to, not unlike your advice regarding symmetry.”
Bramblestein chuckled. “You did pick up on that rather quickly. Bleakbourne sits at the crossroads of the Fae and mortal realms. Last night you cast a spell you were never taught and were unaware you were doing it. That can’t happen in Bleakbourne, for any reason.”
Leryn refrained from screaming although the frustration was nearly more than he could bear. “I admit it frightens me. But, since music is the foundation of magic, I’ll have to make certain the songs and stories I perform are mild, confined to the traditional bardic role of maintaining peace and keeping a happy tap-room. I’m already well-trained in that aspect of the craft. What I have to work on is being aware of what I am singing or playing, and controlling my emotions.” He met Merlin’s gaze. “If you believe me unable to do this, you should kill me to preserve your own secrets, because I won’t give up music.”
Merlin capitulated, reluctantly. “I suppose Mordred will expect you to be in the tap room playing your pipes, so you’ll have to continue.”
As they wound around a hill, the road narrowed and passed through a small canyon. From there it would enter a broad valley. Deep inside the canyon they found the road blocked a fallen tree. Looking at the blockage, Leryn sensed something wrong.
Bramblestein also examined it. “This is no windfall. It was cut…!” His words broke off as two raggedly dressed men leaped out of the brush, waving blades.
A tall, thin man shouted, “Old men! Drop your purses! You too, bard!”
Bramblestein made a rude gesture, drawing his sword. “Make me, assholes.”
Rage flashed to the surface and Leryn also drew his sword, “Come and take my purse, if you can.”
An arrow whistled downward from above, narrowly missed Leryn, startling his horse. As he regained control of Elsinore, Merlin’s resonant tones rang out, casting a fire spell. Screeching, the archer fell from the rocks above, thrashing and trying to put out the flames. The two others panicked, attempting to run but were blocked by their own fallen tree. Leryn and Bramblestein quickly dealt with them.
As Leryn’s blade cut the throat of the burnt man, he heard a strangled cough from behind him. He turned, in time to see Merlin swaying, his hand clutching the arrow protruding from his right shoulder. His eyes glazed, and slowly, he slid from his saddle. Leaping from his horse, Leryn was just in time to catch and hold the much larger man, lowering him to a sitting position against the tree trunk.
Merlin tried to speak but lost consciousness.
“Oh, god…please don’t be dead, you insane old man. Don’t you dare die.”
Bramblestein hurried to Merlin’s side, his heart sinking. “Help me get him laid out. I’ll be better able to see what the damage is.” After they had the wizard positioned, Bramblestein examined him. “It’s missed his lung. He’s not bleeding too badly, which is good and also bad. Blood cleanses the wound, but until I get it out I can’t tell if any major arteries or veins are involved. Right now it’s plugging up the wound.” He met Leryn’s stunned gaze. “I’m going to have to remove it, but I can’t do that here. In the meantime, since he’s out cold anyway, I’ll cut the shaft off it, so that will help somewhat.”
“If it’s not life-threatening, why is he knocked out? It must be bad.” Leryn looked at the sky, trying to gauge the weather. “We’re in for some rain. We’ll have to cover him up. He’ll get a chill on top of it, and we don’t want that.”
“Ordinarily he probably wouldn’t be unconscious, but he’d be in enough pain he’d wish he was. He’s out because he cast that fire spell, with no chance to prepare. That always takes twice the strength it would have with planning. He’ll have to sleep for at least twenty-four hours. Then taking an arrow in the chest on top of that—he may not survive this. If he dies….” Bramblestein clamped his teeth shut.
“That can’t happen. We won’t let it.” Leryn looked at the tree that still blocked their path. “We’ll have to backtrack. We passed that Chapel of the Moon not too long ago. We can seek shelter there.”
“Good idea, but he can’t ride this way. We’ll have to rig a sling litter and carry him there.”
Leryn agreed. “Once we get him situated, you can do what you have to.” He paused to figure what to do about the horses. “I’ll tie Elsinore to my waist, so he’ll follow me. If we tie the other horses to him in a string, we should be able to do this.”
Bramblestein snorted. “That’s ridiculous. You can’t hold up your end of the sling and drag the horses too.” He too looked at the threatening sky. “But I don’t have any better ideas, so we’ll give it a try.”
After a great deal more struggle than they’d hoped, carrying the makeshift litter and leading the horses, they arrived back at the Chapel of the Moon, a small stone building standing alone in the forest. The door was closed, which meant the priest or priestess was not there. “There should be a cottage behind the chapel–whoever is on duty here won’t mind if we make Merlin comfortable.” Bramblestein led the way.
Setting the litter down, they picketed the horses. No one was at home in the small house, but from the looks of the garments hanging on pegs, it was occupied by a priest. “Perhaps he’s out gathering his dinner,” said Leryn.
“I don’t know. Perhaps,” replied Bramblestein. “I did see winter purslane earlier. But something doesn’t look right here. Monks usually keep thing much tidier, and he wouldn’t just leave the place.” His forehead wrinkled with his attempt to see what was amiss and failing, he put it out of his mind. “It just so happens, one of the herbs I gathered while we were at Emydin’s cave was early woundwort. I’ll make a tea of it and once cool, we will use it to wash the wound. Then you can make poultices of woundwort, speedwell, and plantain to bandage the wound with once we’ve gotten the arrow out—if it can be safely removed.”
Leryn nodded. “I know what to do. I’ve watched my grandmother make poultices.”
Some light entered through the windows, but Leryn lit the oil lamp that stood on the mantel to give Bramblestein more light to work by. The dwarf worked slowly and carefully, making sure his patient didn’t bleed to death. To Leryn’s relief, Merlin remained unconscious during the surgery.
After what seemed a long time, Bramblestein handed the bloody arrow to Leryn, who set it to one side. The dwarf carefully bandaged Merlin. “Thank all the gods and goddesses, nothing vital was damaged. He should wake up soon. But he’ll be several days healing, even with my spells and the poultices. He can’t travel like this, so we’ll have to wait here until he’s well enough to continue on to Bleakbourne.”
“We’ll need more light, and I’ll have a look in the chapel to see if the priest has returned. I’ll refill the lamp first.” Leryn rose and looked around for more oil.
“The monk probably keeps his supplies in the lean-to around back.”
Leryn walked around back to the shed and filled the lamp. With that done he went around to the chapel, entering through the massive, ornately carved front door. He was immediately assailed by the stench of death. “Oh, no….”
The chapel had been ransacked. On the floor behind the altar lay the body of the monk whose task it had been to tend the place. The elderly man had been beaten to death at least one day before. His prayer beads had been stolen, and the vessels for the sacraments smashed against the floor. Kneeling, Leryn closed the old man’s eyes, saying a prayer for his soul.
Shaking his head in disgust, he returned to Bramblestein. “It appears the thieves stopped here before they set the trap that caught us.” He told the dwarf what he’d found. “No wonder the priest wasn’t in his home. It’s a disgrace. The poor old thing never harmed anyone, and to be treated so badly…it makes me ill.”
“We’ll have to bury him properly,” Bramblestein said.
Leryn shuddered. “That’s going to be an ugly mess.” He looked closely at his mentor. “I can handle it by myself. You’re done in, and I don’t think you should leave Merlin.” Going to the late monk’s cupboard, he found a wheel of cheese and a jug of ale. “I don’t think our late host will mind if we partake of his cheese and beer.” He served Bramblestein, watching as his color began to return.
“Thank you. I won’t argue with you.” The dwarf’s voice shook from exhaustion and more. “The Brotherhood of the Moon found me and took me in when I was a boy of six and left alone in the world after the Scotti overran Lugdumnon. The monks ensured I was apprenticed to Merlin, once they realized I had a knack for certain kinds of magic.”
“I always wondered how you came to be so far from the Dwarven Lands.” Leryn steeled himself for the task. “I’d best get started. The priest may be in heaven, but his mortal remains aren’t getting any prettier. If you could keep the water hot, a good wash-up afterward will give me something to look forward to.”
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“Bleakbourne on Heath” © 2016 – 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.