This chapter is about 8,000 words into an 80,000 word story (that’s the plan, anyway). My basic idea is to mash-up things I like about the Arthurian world with other random things that I’m interested in as well as some completely original elements. This chapter is mostly the original elements. My approach is very much like C.S. Lewis’s in the Chronicles of Narnia: just throw in whatever random mythological/fairy tale stuff I like, plus some things that are my own invention. This chapter also tries to develop the mysterious threat that is stalking Merlin on his quest. I don’t know how well I’ve done with creating that suspense and feeling of urgency.
As with my Chapter 1 excerpt, this is a first draft with no revisions.
It was completely night by the time Merlin and Ambrose had reached the Marsh. It had been a long journey, over rocky hills and thick forests. In the past, Merlin would have used a spell to travel there, but now he couldn’t remember any. He had tried the black pearl mirror, but it wasn’t working either. The faerie realm often caused mischief with things, even things that were magical. So they had to make the long slog to the March on foot. Or, at least Merlin was on foot. And after almost twenty miles, his feet ached. He clutched his side in pain once or twice as well and couldn’t tell if it was from cramp or from the thorn he’d stuck there earlier.
The Marsh was in the northlands of Tirn Aill. It was the furthest north one could go before falling off into nothingness. Beyond the Marsh was the void. There were times — like this moment — where it felt as if the nothingness of the void had crept into the Marsh. It was cold and black, and there were no sounds beyond the slurping of Merlin’s steps. The Marsh was filled with algae and blackthorns and unnatural briar patches that had never flowered or bloomed. It was a dying place. Merlin picked his way through the mud and muck. Ambrose perched safely on Merlin’s oaken staff.
“I should make you walk,” said Merlin.
“I would like to know how you plan to make an owl walk, my dear Merlin,” Ambrose replied.
“There must be some spell for it.”
The moon was gone, hidden behind a wall of clouds. The only light came from Ambrose’s huge owl eyes.
“Where am I going, Ambrose?” Merlin asked.
“Well, there’s a soupy mud to your left, and an equally soupy mud to your right,” said Ambrose. “And right straight ahead is a hovel of mud and leaves.”
Merlin bumped into the hovel of mud and leaves.
“You could have warned me earlier,” the wizard growled, wiping the wet leaves from his face.
“Yes, well, I didn’t know you wanted to know,” said Ambrose.
Merlin almost walked around the hovel. But he smelled something familiar. Marmalade. And since the wondrous magic of smell is that it can trigger memories that are infinitely powerful, Merlin remembered and knew that this was no hovel. It was a home. The smell of marmalade told him so.
“We’re here,” Merlin said.
Ambrose hooted anxiously. “I do not feel this is very wise,” he said. “This mound of dirt and leaves cannot be home to anything friendly.”
“Oh, Rathleen is not friendly,” said Merlin.
It took twelve knocks, but Rathleen finally let them in. She was the briar witch, and her name was well chosen. She looked like she was made of leaves and brambles and thorn twigs sticking out all over. Her face was as sooty and worn as a burnt log left to cool after a fire. Her dark eyes were buried deep in her gray, ashy face. And everywhere was briar and twig. Her entire body seemed like one giant blackthorn bush that never flowered. Her hovel was nothing more than a dirt mound covered in twisting thorn bushes and dried leaves. There was a fire in one corner and a copper cauldron roasting in it. There were also crude shelves fashioned out of yew branches. The shelves were covered in jars of marmalade. Rathleen went back and forth in her soot-covered rocking chair.
She was not pleased to see Merlin and spent the first ten minutes of their visit cursing him out. When she had calmed, she slowed down her rocking and started knitting.
“I don’t have time for your shenanigans,” Rathleen croaked. “What’s with the bird?”
“I, madam,” began Ambrose, “am the servant of Merlin the Great, and I am a member of the order of magical owls and my great ancestor was the first of Merlin’s avian companions, and I, as his descendent have taken up the mantel of protecting and serving the single greatest living wizard in the history of—”
“Aye, I don’t really care,” Rathleen interrupted. “What do you want, Merlin?” She knitted. It was some kind of scarf or sock, but it was hard to tell. The wool was a motley pattern of greens and browns.
“I was hoping you would know, Rathleen,” said Merlin. “I was hoping you could tell me what I’m doing here.”
“Bugger off, then, if you’re going to wisecrack,” she replied.
“I assure you, madam,” said Ambrose, barely composing himself, “my master is not wisecracking. He is most sincere and we are in great need of your service.”
“Tell your bird to shut up, or I’ll throw this knitting needle into its eye,” replied the briar witch.
Ambrose hooted urgently.
“Rathleen,” Merlin began, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need your help. Your memories, actually. Mine are completely shot. It’s as if someone sanded them off like dry skin.”
“I don’t remember anything,” Rathleen replied. She knitted and knitted. It was hard to tell with her slovenly state and the way her eyes were deep-set and dark, but it seemed as if Rathleen refused to look Merlin in the face.
“Rathleen, why are you afraid?” Merlin asked.
“I ain’t afraid, just tired. Tired, that’s all,” said Rathleen. “ I don’t have your youth, Merlin of Camelot. I’m tired and I don’t remember anything.”
Merlin bent over Rathleen’s face and held up the Knife of Llawfrodedd to her eyes. He spoke sharply.
“You tied this round Llewyn’s neck, ages ago. It’s one of the thirteen treasures, which I know you know because you’re the one who first told me about them. When I first came to Tirn Aill, you taught me the ancient lore. I was a wild demon-child and you taught me simple faerie spells and told me stories of the thirteen treasures and I know you remember and I know that you will help me now because despite your grotesque appearance you are not on the side of darkness but are one of the light.”
Merlin straightened up and flashed a smile. “Now help me.”
Rathleen went back to her knitting.
“Confound it, woman!” Merlin shouted. “Why are you resisting?” Merlin raised his staff and spoke an enchantment. “Dywedwch wrthyf beth ydych yn ei wybod!”
Rathleen raised her knitting needle. “Téigh ar shiúl,” she spoke calmly and pointed her needle at Merlin’s staff.
His staff fell, and Merlin felt a force pushing on his body, like a gale wind blowing him back.
Ambrose alighted from the staff and screeched.
Rathleen cackled and rocked back and forth in her chair. “Still just a child, Myrddin Wyllt. Still just a child!” She flicked her needle towards him and Merlin fell backward. Rathleen laughed again, but in her mirth, she failed to notice the bird. Ambrose swooped and soon one knitting needle was in his beak and the other was knocked across the room.
“That damned bird!” she cried. “Why did you bring that pesky fowl here?” She fussed in her chair, but she didn’t bother to fight Ambrose for her needle or get up and grab the other one.
Merlin stood up. “What the hell is going on here? Why are we fighting?” He retrieved his staff.
Rathleen rocked back and forth, back and forth.
“Something is wrong, tell me,” said Merlin.
Rathleen just kept rocking. But Merlin could see her dark eyes, and he could see that she was worried.
“Rathleen…” Merlin pleaded.
“Alright, ye gods! I’ll tell you,” the witch said at last. She stopped rocking in her chair and leaned forward. Ambrose had perched himself (knitting needle in beak) on a briar twig that jutted out into the room. Being inside Rathleen’s hovel, in fact, was like being inside a giant briar bush insulated by dead leaves.
Rathleen reached into the folds of her brambly cloak and pulled out a smooth white stone with a hole in its center. “I knew you were coming,” she said. “I saw it through this stone over two hundred years ago.” She held up the stone and looked at Merlin through the hole. “But that’s not all I saw.”
Rathleen handed the stone to Merlin. He peered through it and saw a flash of dark green. Then he saw a forest burn. Then he saw the face of someone he did not recognize but nevertheless knew. He felt a freezing cold in his heart. Merlin dropped the stone.
“You are being followed, Merlin my lad,” said Rathleen. “And that is why I am frightened. I saw the face too, and I seemed to know it without knowing it. And I felt the cold that pierced your heart. The stone’s never done that before, I tell you!”
“Who is following me?” Merlin asked. His face had turned pale. “Rathleen, we have just come from Avalloch, and there I found out that the high king has been stolen and replaced with a figure made of glass. And Llewyn the guardian was wearing the Knife of Llawfrodedd, and he said you put it there many ages ago. Rathleen, our enemies are one step ahead of us, and now you say I am being followed. What does it mean?”
“I am indeed afraid, Merlin,” she answered. “You were right to ask me that question, for I am indeed afraid. I do not know who follows you and I do not know who has taken Arthur. But the coldness I felt when I looked through the seeing stone is not a magic I can overcome. It has been freezing me since first I looked.” She paused and there was silence.
“I will help you,” Merlin said at last. “I will warm your heart, but you must help me. You know I need to find the other thirteen treasures. Where must I take the knife? Who has the next treasure?”
“I have it,” Rathleen said. “I have the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir. I’ll tell ye now since we’re putting our cards on the table. Together, with the knife, you must feed the knights who reside at the castle of Biera, queen of winter. But that’s all I know. You, in your infinite wisdom, didn’t tell me the rest of your clever plan.”
“Let me have the hamper and I’ll go,” Merlin said. “You will have nothing to fear once I’m gone. I will speak a healing spell and warm your heart and that’s the last you’ll see of me.”
Rathleen laughed; the sound of it shattered like cracking stone. “You think that once you leave I’ll be safe? Merlin, you’ve gone soft in the head! Whatever is following you will come here. It will come to me and torture me until I give you up. You’re not leaving with that hamper, I’m afraid. Not unless you leave something in return.” Rathleen snapped her ashen fingers and the knitting needle flew out of Ambrose’s beak and back into her hand. “There must always be a bargain struck. There is always a price.”
Merlin almost cast another spell, but he thought better of it. Fifteen hundred years with Nimue had definitely taken their toll; Rathleen could probably defeat him now if she wanted.
“What must I leave for you, briar witch? What is the price?” Merlin asked.
“Oh dearie, you know I love brambles and bracken and thorns,” Rathleen said. “And I love a good bit of blood even more.” Rathleen stood up from her rocking chair and stalked towards Merlin. He tried to move, to turn, but he could not. Somehow she had stopped him. The old witch shuffled closer, her knitting needle poised.
“I know what you’ve got hiding under your skin,” she said. “And I want it.”
“The thorn?” Merlin asked. “It’s my only protection against the madness of Faerie. Anything else, Rathleen.”
“I want the thorn,” said Rathleen as she crept closer. Ambrose flapped his wings to fly, to attack the briar witch, but his talons were stuck to the branch. He flapped wildly and screeched. “It’s no use,” Rathleen continued. “You need the hamper and I need your thorn. A faerie thorn from the Tor, drenched in human blood. You know the magic, Merlin. It will make the perfect charm and ward off danger from my home. Can’t risk whoever is stalking you to stalk their way to me.”
Merlin could not move. Rathleen reached her gray, withered hand under his shirt and felt his skin for the place where the thorn was stuck.
“Rathleen, please!” Merlin begged. He was panicked now. He had faced madness once before, long ago, in that forest in France, where the world ended and he saw the coming darkness. He did not want to go mad again. Anything but madness. “Rathleen!” he cried.
But the briar witch did not listen. She drove her fingers through his skin and pinched the thorn. She pulled the thorn out of his side, the flesh breaking, blood spilling.
“The Gwyddno’s Hamper is by the door on your way out,” said the witch as she shuffled to the cauldron in the smokey fire across the room. She had her protection now.
The binding spell was broken and Merlin and Ambrose could move again. Merlin wasted no time with trying to get the thorn from Rathleen. It was no use; he wasn’t the master wizard he once was.
He grabbed the hamper and never looked back. The last thing they heard was the guttural sound of Rathleen’s spell and the splash of the thorn as it fell into her cauldron.