The woods are lovely, dark and deep...
Being as she
had been a good girl, and had put up with her mother’s insufferable
friends all afternoon, Rowena treated herself to a leisurely walk
through the forest. It was a lovely day, and she relished the thrill
of freedom that only a nine year old girl on a secret adventure could
feel. Though she was not far from home, her father had warned her
time and again that the forest was dangerous. Strange creatures made
their homes there, and it was not safe to walk there alone, and
certainly not at night.
But it was a bright sunny afternoon, and the evening was hours away. She would be home before mother even knew she had gone. As she picked her way carefully along the trail, she took time to notice the various shrubs and flowers that grew at the base of the birch and yew trees. She picked a small yellow posie and threaded it into her buttonhole.
She wondered if it made her look pretty. She had no looking-glass to see, but put her mind to some alternate way to achieve a glance of her reflection. Smiling to herself, she thought of one almost immediately. Her mother constantly told her how bright and full of wit she was for such a young lady. This secretly pleased Rowena so that her heart swelled with pride, but her mother had also had occasion to teach lessons of humility.
Rowena had learned to remain close lipped about her intelligence.
She turned to a smaller side path, knowing that it would be just a little more dangerous, but willing to take the risk. The posies were lovely, and it seemed important to her that she match her own beauty against them. She could not say why, if asked, but there was no-one there to ask her.
The path narrowed, and the large canopies of the trees grew denser. The light dimmed as she stole deeper into the forest, and she began to shiver. Without the sun to warm her, the cool air chilled the bare skin of her forearms, but the foreboding atmosphere of the forest sank deeper, gripping her bones and winding slow tendrils of unease around her heart.
Soon she would cross a larger path, and from there turn north. She knew the four directions. Her father had taught them to her when she was old enough to understand. She smiled at the image of him, his broad frame powerful and comforting, pointing at the sunset and telling her the sun always goes to sleep in the west, and rises in the morning in the east. Once you knew that, he said, you could face in that direction, and tell whichever direction you wanted to go.
Rowena had memorized his lesson carefully. The thought of being able to find her way was somehow empowering, as if it were the first step on the path to a lifetime of freedom.
She practiced until she could look anywhere on the horizon and name the direction. It had become second nature quickly, and as a result, she had never once been lost, and was very proud of both herself and her father, for having the presence of mind to teach her something so useful.
Thinking of her father focused her mind, and the mild panic she had been feeling passed. The trees suddenly gave way to a pretty glade, where the foliage was considerably thinner. The sun shone through the gaps and melted away the last of her fear.
The path continued across the glade, but it was now less than a hundred steps to the cross path, in her estimation. She counted aloud as she stepped into the glade, for her father had also taught her numbers, and words. She knew many words; she loved everything about them… the sound of them in her mind; the small explosions of meaning which changed and twisted as they were strung together. She could write her name, and knew the alphabet by heart.
She had counted to fifty-six when she suddenly became silent. A sound from ahead had startled her. What was she thinking! The woods were dangerous… if her father had taught her anything useful, that had been the one thing he seemed most concerned about. Rowena remained as silent as possible, waiting for any other sign that she was not alone. It seemed like an hour that she waited, but was probably more like four minutes. The spots of sunlight on the path had barely moved.
She tentatively stepped forward, hoping that it must have been her imagination, or perhaps a falling pine cone.
She nodded to herself. A falling pine cone! Of course that must have been what it was! Her panic subsided once more, and she moved slowly forwards, eager to find the wider path. Another thirty-two steps brought her to the edge of the path (she counted silently), and she looked both ways along it, in case any wild animal might be lurking. There were none, as far as she could see, and she chided herself for being a scaredy-cat, now feeling more comfortable, and beginning to enjoy the game.
She turned to the north, to follow the path to the lake…
And found herself with the point of a sword resting on her throat. She stopped, gasping, shocked and suddenly very afraid.
“Halt!” cried a muffled voice.
Rowena had time to take stock of the figure threatening her. The voice was muffled because the figure wore a steel helm, the visor closed. A leather jerkin adorned the figure's torso. It was tied with a belt around the waist, tucked into which she could see various weapons… daggers, sticks, and what appeared to be a small blacksmith’s hammer.
Upon further inspection, she noticed that the weapons were dull, and, suddenly, it struck her. They were made of wood. She looked up at the helm, which wobbled slightly, before moving her eyes along his shoulder and arm to the blade he held pointed at her throat.
It was also carved from wood. Rowena frowned.
Not very well. Whoever had made this had done a very rough job.
And then she realised the helm was at the same level as her own head. She fixed it with a cold stare.
“Why should I?”
“I’ll chop your head off! That’s why!”
“Oh? With your wooden sword? Or perhaps you’ll use your wooden dagger?”
“I am a great knight, in search of a wizard! It’s said that there’s one living in the woods. Tell me where he is!”
Rowena took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
“You’re not a knight. You look silly.” She began to giggle.
The little knight retracted his sword and stuffed it into his belt clumsily.
“I do not. I am a great warrior, and I’m going to find the wizard, and chop his head off, and steal his wand.”
“All this chopping off heads! Do warriors really chop off people’s heads?”
The knight contemplated silently. His helm wobbled this way and that.
“I suppose.” He said. “Father told me about Launcelot. He was a great warrior, and I bet he chopped lots of people’s heads off. Anyway, what are you doing here? No-one’s supposed to be here. It’s the woods and it’s dangerous.”
“I’m going for a walk. I might ask you the same thing, I’ve never come across anyone here before.”
“I told you, I’m looking for a great wizard, so I can steal his wand and do magic. Do you want to help? What’s your name, anyway?”
“My name is Rowena. I live in the village.”
“Oh.” Said the knight. He reached up and with some difficulty pulled the helmet off his head, revealing a boy of about the same age as Rowena, perhaps a year or two older. A shock of dark red hair fell around his shoulders messily.
“I’m Godric. Do you want to help me look for the wizard?”
“There’s no such thing as wizards, silly. They’re all just tales.”
“Are so wizards! Father says there was a great wizard, long ago, maybe twenty or a hundred years ago. He was King Arthur’s wizard, and his name was Maerlin. My dad says he was our ancestor, and we can do magic. He disappeared, Maerlin, and it’s said he hides somewhere in these woods, and if you catch him, and get his wand, you’ll be able to do magic, proper magic, not just pretend.”
“Really?” Rowena raised an eyebrow. “You can do magic?”
“Well,” said Godric. “Father says we’re supposed to. But I’ve never done it.”
Rowena nodded her head.
“Well I don’t believe in magic.” She said. “That’s all just stories too.”
But Rowena’s heart skipped madly in her chest. She had been able to do magic since the age of three. Her father had told her to hide it, and that she must never use it, or speak of it. But on occasion, she liked to experiment. When she was six she had caused a rosebud to spring suddenly forth into bloom one cool Sunday morning, just by running her finger along it. The rose bushes were sparse, and the bloom looked so lonely. She had smiled to herself, and had walked along the rows, stroking each bud gently as she passed, leaving a trail of red roses as she walked up and down. Her father, passing and noticing what she was doing, had run to her, and shaken her shoulders hard enough to make her cry.
“Bad! Bad!” He hadn’t seemed to be able to say anything else. Rowena did not know the word ‘apoplectic’ but would have grasped its meaning instinctively if someone had muttered it and pointed at her father.
He sent her indoors to her cot, and she hadn’t been fed dinner that night, or been allowed outside for several days. When she was finally granted freedom once more, it was to her horror that she found the rose bushes cut down, and bare earth in their place. She burst into tears at the sight, and ran back indoors.
Her father had taken her on his lap, and hugged her and kissed her tears away. He had explained, as carefully as he could, what might happen if she was ever caught doing what she was doing (he would not say the word, as if it were a talisman of doom) and what would happen to the rest of her family, as well.
“But they were beautiful! The roses were so beautiful daddy! Why would we be in trouble for making beautiful roses?”
Rowena’s father had nodded sadly. Then his face had turned hard. She had never seen such an expression directed at her, and certainly not from her father.
“If you ever do that again, I’ll send you away! Forever! Do you understand?” He raised his hand, not to hit her, but as a warning that if she ignored him there would be plenty of it.
Rowena had burst into fresh tears, but this time her father had stood and left her to cry. He paced silently from the room, shutting the door behind him.
She had only ever experimented when she was sure she was alone after that. And she never spoke of it.
Rowena stared at Godric.
“Anyway,” she said, “how did you think you were going to take a great wizard’s wand, with only your wooden weapons? Do you think they’ll be enough against his magic?”
“I am a great warrior. My weapons are my tools. Father says the greatest weapon is the mind. He says if you rely on that, then your tools will always be enough for the job.”
“Well, Godric, you have a very wise father. Why don’t you take his advice and put your ‘greatest weapon’ to some real use, like learning some manners. Who told you it was alright to go sticking your sword in a lady’s throat?”
Godric looked suitably chastened. “Sorry,” he muttered.
Rowena smiled. The boy was younger than her, in his mind, but she liked him instinctively. There was a great strength about him that she couldn’t put her finger on.
“It’s only play, I know…” Said Godric. “I like to have adventures, and do brave things. My father does brave things every day. I want to be like him. If I can find Maerlin’s wand, I can give it to him, and we’ll be able to do magic again.”
If Rowena had any doubts about the boy, they vanished after his candid confession. She could relate to wanting to please her father. Painfully so. Her father was everything to her, so much larger than life. He had taught her every useful thing she knew, and it was a rapidly growing list.
Godric’s statement made her see him in a new light. This strange, silly boy had crossed from stranger, to acquaintance, to friend in the course of a small conversation. The realization changed her heart.
“Alright,” she said. “I’ll help you then, Godric. Where do you think we’ll find old Maerlin?”
Godric’s face brightened as if a dark cloud had suddenly lifted above him.
“Really? You’ll help me?”
“Yes, but we need a plan. We can’t catch a wizard just by blundering into the woods now, can we, even if we do have lots of weapons. Do you know anything at all about where he’d be?” Rowena pointed towards the forest. She went on,
“I thought I knew every villager and their children – and their dogs if the truth be known. But I haven’t seen you before. Are you from the village? If you are, then you’ll know the stories about the forest…”
Godric smiled, a little sadly, Rowena thought.
“You look pretty,” he said suddenly. The look on his face suggested the words had slipped from his mouth unbidden.
Rowena flushed slightly, but smiled.
“With the posie… it makes your eyes look nice.” Godric stammered. The truth was, he had never seen anything so beautiful as the girl before him. Her long black hair and pale skin accented her ruby lips in a way that Godric found to be quite unusually distracting.
“My family have just arrived here. Father told me about the wizard, but I haven’t heard any other stories. We come from far away…”
“Ah, I wondered why I haven’t noticed your face before,” she said, in a way that made Godric wonder if she thought his face was somehow memorable or special. It gave him a little more confidence, so he went on;
“Father is a master craftsman. He works in wood, and can build anything. We travel a good deal, and are often not in one place long. What stories are there of the forest? Father only told me it was where Maerlin had come to hide.”
“Well,” said Rowena. “There are dangerous things in the forest, more than a few. It’s said that ghostly horses roam there, Thestrals, and you can only see them if you’ve seen death up close. And Centaurs. There are bands of them, and they carry weapons. Believe me Godric, you do not want to say the wrong thing to a Centaur. And there are Giants…”
“I’m not afraid…” said Godric, puffing his chest out slightly. “I have my sword.”
Rowena looked down at Godric’s rough wooden sword, and tried not to burst into fresh giggles.
“Well, lets just hope we don’t come across any Giants.” She smiled.
“It’s lucky you met me,” said Godric. “Now I can protect you. What were you doing here by yourself anyway?”
“I was going for a walk to the lake.” She said. She didn’t offer any information as to why. It didn’t matter now. Godric thought the posie made her look pretty.
Godric smiled back. He liked her accent. She was from the north. He had known people from the north before, but they had been rugged and brash. Rowena was anything but brash. And her beauty was quite the opposite of rugged. Godric thought he had never seen finer features on anyone.
As neither could think of anything further to say, they walked slowly together along the path, into the forest. Before a minute had passed, they had disappeared into the deepening gloom.
Godric, by instinct more than anything else, took Rowena’s hand as the sunlight faded. They followed the path for ten minutes or more in silence, creeping and trying to look everywhere at once; Godric for any sign of an ancient wizard; Rowena, more practically, for any sign of Centaurs or Giants.
So far the most dangerous creature they had seen was a hedgehog ambling unhurriedly across the path. The creature stopped and looked when it heard them, but apparently found them no threat. It continued on its way and disappeared into the underbrush.
The sun had dropped lower in the sky. Rowena realised that if they didn’t start back soon, night would fall before they could get safely back home. She did not want to be found missing at suppertime. Apart from the fact she was hungry, her parents would be frantic, and, when located, she would be in a good deal of trouble.
Godric caught her eye, motioned her to be silent, and pointed to the right, in front of them.
Rowena froze. She had never seen anything like the creature who proudly stood before her. It was a large white horse, with a single, spiral horn sprouting from its forehead.
It gazed at them curiously, without fear. Neither Rowena nor Godric had ever seen a real live unicorn before. Very few people had; unicorns were usually shy creatures, and kept their distance from most other creatures.
As they stared, unblinking, another unicorn trotted up behind the first, and whinnied, shaking his head.
All thoughts of hurrying home were banished. Rowena could think of nothing but how beautiful the equines were, such proud thick manes, and rippling muscles. Rowena had been told that it was great good luck to see a unicorn, and that they only appeared to people who were possessed of a higher purpose. She did not know whether her parents had made it up, or if it were legend, but at that moment, she felt very special indeed.
Godric’s eyes were bulging, and his mouth hung open. He had come in the woods to play… His father was working, and would be until well after nightfall. His mother, when he left her, had been fast asleep on her cot. The pungent scent escaping her lips with each snore was familiar to him. His mother was enamored of strong waters, and spent much of her time under their influence.
Godric made no moral judgment against his mother. He knew in his heart that she was weak, but he refused to believe that her weakness could not be overcome. He had tried many times to hide the bottle, to no avail. His mother always had another, concealed here or there.
The idea of looking for Maerlin had been an attractive one. It involved adventure on an afternoon free of boredom. And it offered a way out of his family’s misery… If he could find the wizard, and somehow take his wand.
Never had he imagined that he would witness not one, but two unicorns. His heart beat crazily in his chest, and Rowena was squeezing his fingers so tightly that they ached. He did not complain. He wouldn’t have complained if she had cracked all the bones in his hand. Holding Rowena’s hand was quite as big a thrill for Godric as seeing the unicorns.
The large white horses walked closer. They whinnied softly and snorted, shaking their heads up and down, until they stood just a few feet away from the spellbound children.
Godric was first to react. He stepped slowly forward, and held out his hand for the unicorns to scent. The closest one nuzzled his hand and licked it. Rowena giggled.
The second unicorn stamped the ground softly with his hoof. He snorted, and moved forward, nudging the children apart, then each unicorn knelt, and looked at the children. Their purpose was obvious enough.
They wanted the children to climb on.
Godric and Rowena stared at each other, unable to speak. Again, Godric acted first, and straddled the male’s back. Rowena could do little else but climb on the female. She was both wildly excited and very afraid. But she found herself unable to refuse, and she did not believe the unicorns meant them any harm. She had never once heard of anyone riding a unicorn.
The great white creatures stood, and took off at a slow trot. Godric and Rowena held handfuls of mane to stay balanced, but found that they could ride easily. The unicorns seemed to know how to hold them still.
Both children, after a few minutes, felt safe.
But the unicorns were headed somewhere, deep in the woods. They trotted for several miles. As they rounded a corner, a small band of Centaurs stood, blocking their path. The unicorns slowed and stopped.
The Centaurs, after a moment, parted to let them through. The leader bowed as Godric and Rowena passed.
As they began to trot again, Rowena looked up at the sky. It was dimming quickly; the sun had disappeared a short time ago, and soon it would be dark. She looked to Godric, and pointed.
“We won’t be home before nightfall…” she said.
Godric shrugged. There seemed little they could do.
Soon after however, the unicorns came to a halt. Both kneeled slowly. Clearly the children were to get off. The woods around them were wreathed in shadows. Rowena and Godric stayed close as the unicorns stood, whinnied, nodded their heads, and trotted off, disappearing down the trail.
“What now?” Said Rowena. They had felt safe because of the unicorns, but had not expected to be abandoned deep in the woods by them. The light was fading quickly, and Rowena suddenly realised they had no torch. The woods would simply swallow them up.
Godric looked left and right. He stared down the trail where the unicorns had disappeared, and looked back the way they had come. They must have traveled for miles. Neither child had any clue where they were.
“Well,” said Godric, “They’re unicorns. And unicorns are supposed to be intelligent. They wouldn’t have done this to harm us, I don’t think so anyway. Maybe they wanted us to find something here?”
“Maybe,” said Rowena, not sounding convinced. “Or maybe they just didn’t realize we wouldn’t be safe… I think we’d better start heading back.”
“Alright,” said Godric. He took her hand, and they began to walk back the way they had come. Soon the shadows would swallow the path entirely, and they would be lost.
“I wish we had light…” Said Rowena. “I’m scared, Godric.”
A voice, deep and sonorous, suggested from somewhere behind them, “Why don’t you make some light then?”
The children halted in their tracks, and once again, Rowena squeezed Godric’s hand painfully tight.
“Go on then, children. You’re both more than capable.” The speaker had still not revealed himself.
Neither child moved or spoke.
“As you wish. I shall do it then.”
The speaker muttered a word neither Godric nor Rowena had ever heard, and, instantly, a ball of white light appeared, a dozen feet away to their left. It slowly drew closer, and with it, its maker.
He was a small man, bald, beardless and ancient. His skin was sallow with age, and his robes were stained and dirty. He wore a smile, benevolent and friendly.
“Glad tidings, children. I have been expecting you.”
Godric, perhaps because he had boasted that he wanted to be brave, spoke first.
“Who are you, sir? How could you have been expecting us? We were not expecting to come.”
“Ah wisely spoken. Indeed you were not. And yet, you are here, as I expected. Come children. The woods are not safe after dark. Stay close, we don’t have far to go.”
They followed almost instinctively. The orders of grown ups were rarely to be questioned, but their curiosity, and the opportunity to find a safe haven, were factors that motivated them just as strongly.
The tiny path led them, after a few minutes, to a small clearing. The light revealed square stones at their feet, and in the surrounding dimness, Godric could make out stone walls that looked as if they had crumbled long ago. They were standing in what could only be the ruins of an ancient castle.
They walked on, and shortly came to a stone staircase that led down into a chamber, to what once must have been the dungeons or storage area of the castle. The stairway opened into a large room, though the roof was low enough that Godric could reach up and touch it. A doorway in the wall to the left led to a smaller, cosier room. A fire burned brightly in the fireplace, though there was no flue or chimney. The fire simply gave off light and heat, but no smoke. Inspecting this curiously, Rowena was surprised that she could see no wood or coal glowing at the base of the fire. The air above the fireplace itself appeared to be burning.
She turned to the ancient man who had led them here.
“How do you do this?” She asked, wonder in her voice.
The old man smiled wryly. “Magic, of course! Haven’t you been watching, young Miss Ravenclaw?”
“Magic…” she muttered.
Godric’s jaw fell open.
“Then… You… You’re…”
“Maerlin. Yes, I am he. Welcome to my home.”
Godric stammered. “But… it wasn’t supposed to be real. Father only told me the legend. I didn’t mean to come and find you.”
“And yet, find me you did.”
“Is magic always like this?” Asked Godric.
“Often, yes...” said Maerlin. “There are many kinds of magic, however. Children, I must speak to you. It is no coincidence that you are here. I have much to say, but little that you would understand.
Rowena, child. Your father has forbidden you to use magic, has he not?”
Godric stared at Rowena, blinking. “But… but you said you didn’t believe in magic!”
“I lied, Godric. I’m sorry. My father made me promise not to tell.”
“And why do you think he did that?” Asked Maerlin.
“I don’t know… well, I do know. Witches are bad, and they get burned at the stake.”
“Precisely.” Said Maerlin. “But did you know, for many many years, there have been a society of witches and wizards… small and sparse to be sure, but there… They have kept themselves well secret, because the consequences of being found out would be severe and, shall we say, final.
I have lived here long, and long. The castle we stand in was once great and mighty. It is protected, by charms and illusions. But my health fails. I am not the magician I once was, and I fear younger blood is needed to carry the torch.
Children. Both of you have power… Magic. Both of you will learn to excel. I have watched you both, since your early childhood. Do not ask how. You would not understand. But I have watched.
Children. I am in my final years. Death will be welcome when it comes. But I offer you both this; Come. Learn. Do not worry about your parents. I will make sure you are not missed. All you need do is accept.”
“Learn?” Asked Godric. “Learn magic?”
“I… cannot accept, I
am afraid,” Godric looked terrified. “My father… travels, for
work. I am never in one place long. Soon we shall be gone from here.”
”Ah, I see.” Said Maerlin. “Very well. I will not keep you from your family.” Maerlin looked to Rowena.
“Your parents would be none the wiser, I assure you. If I meant you harm, I would have harmed you already. I urge you to accept. You will become a wise and powerful witch, with some guidance.”
Rowena did not hesitate.
“I accept.” She said. “But, I’m already in a deep hole of trouble, as is Godric, I assume.”
“I shall have you home before you know it, and your parents will fail to notice your absence. These things I can do. Children, take my hands, if you will?”
Godric and Rowena did as they were asked, and, a sudden, stomach spinning twist, followed by a howling as of great wind, and Rowena stood outside of her front gate. Her mother stood on the porch, and called to her to come for supper, apparently oblivious to her previous absence.
Godric and Maerlin had disappeared.
Smiling, Rowena opened the gate and kissed her mother, before going inside to clean up for the table.