Folks want what they don’t have. That’s the way of things, and no mistake. Allow me to wax poetical for a slight moment when I say, “Desire is the strongest tonic in the world and in all the other worlds of the infinitesimal universe.” That’s my feeling anyway. Nobody never asked me ‘bout it, but I know it just the same. Desire. Strong stuff.
For myself, of course, a glass of amber whiskey and three coins in my pocket. That’s all for old Bert. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m a simple chap that way. When it comes to stealing, that’s just for kicks. A bit o’ fun. It’s what I’m good at, you see. Cat and mouse. Key in a tricky lock. Wriggle in and wriggle out and nobody’s ever the wiser. Old Bert’s good for that. But the essentials? Amber whiskey and three coins in my pocket. All I need.
It began, strange enough, in a pub. But maybe not so strange. Many a momentous thing has happened to me in a pub. So why should the thing that changed my very life be any different? So I was in a pub when I heard the news. Now I tell you, the whiskey in Zazamanc is stronger than any other — been known to lose a twelve-hour to those delectable liquors, no mistake — but for the sweetest maids in all of Faerie, a chap has got to go to Camlann’s. The goblin-maids who pour the ale there are without compare, and old Bert would know. Their faces simply glimmer with the sheen of goblin oil, their noses hooked and luscious. I’ve lost many an hour trying to woo those hairy lasses.
I was sitting in my usual, sipping gently from my mug, when the word came down from a feather. Merlin’s gone. I couldn’t believe it. The sharp-eyed eagle that perched across from me on the knotty wooden bench just nodded away, letting the words hang there like dried meat. I tried to play it cool, I did, but my insides were swirling. No more Merlin. How could such a thing be?
You see, Merlin and me, we went way back. Great friends, you could say. Helped him out of scraps and such. And to find him gone, disappeared, maybe popped his clogs? And to hear the bad news from some fly-by-night English eagle? This was a great blow to my pride. I inquired further.
The word was that Merlin had at long last been trapped by the lake witch, and there was no one left to take up watch over the Tor. All the birds and owls had flown. I come to find out later that this weren’t exactly so, but that’s how the eagle told the tale and what got me thinking.
No one guarding it, eh? The Tor as open as a goblin market? My thin lips aren’t much but they were wet that day, I can tell you. I had a mind to pinch a few things. Free and easy. Many a warm mug of whiskey could be bought with the coin from Merlin’s Tor.
But then I got a customer. Who would’ve thought a queen would come to me? But there she was, dark as a morning star. She waited for me outside my hollow tree. I offered her a roasted acorn, but she didn’t take it. She gave a little laugh and plucked a green leaf from my oak tree. Strange as a tabby cat, the leaf withered to brittle brown and died.
What care I for sustenance? she said and laughed that same tired laugh again. I told her I didn’t rightly know and left it at that.
She was a sad sort, her face covered in a mask of driftwood. Her voice sounded like the waves of the sea, and she asked me as gently as I think she could dare. She said, Get me a treasure from the Tor and I will pay you with gold immeasurable.
I told her — no gold for me, ma’am — all I wanted was a coin, copper and crisp. I said that I was thinking of going to the Tor for myself, that I was looking to see what goodies were lingering now that Merlin was gone. But she said that the greatest thing of value, the only thing worth taking, was a huge cauldron, ancient as Gwyn ap Nudd. She said to me, Steal this thing and I will give you whatever precious gift you desire.
And, ah! Desire is a strong tonic. I could hear it in her desperate voice that she thirsted after this cauldron. Her desire lay upon her clearer than that mask. I could have asked her for anything, I think, and she would have given it to me.
But for myself — and I told her this straight away — I only wanted a whiskey and three coins. One coin, in fact, I said, would be enough for a job such as this. Indeed, the effort of sneaking into Merlin’s Tor, with nobody to guard nothing, would be as simple as floating on a willow leaf. She accepted my fee, so I asked her how I would know this cauldron, and once I had it, where I was to bring it.
It’s marked with the faces of fierce giants, she said. They are hammered into its bronze belly, faces ugly and cruel. And along the lip of this cauldron, you will see spells and runes of old.
That was enough for me. Easy to find. I had an eye for details such as these.
Bring it to me, in the Land of Waste, in the City of Souls.
I shivered. That was not a place for cheerful goblins like me. Death was all that land was good for. But I doffed my cap anyhow and promised the sad lady that I would meet her there.
As she left, and I got ready to go thieving, I knew that what she craved would never be satisfied. Her desires were too deep. But a paying customer is a paying customer.