Cerian dismounted and turned to Herne, “Where are we now, Lord?”
He appeared to consult some internal clock before replying, “Approximately thirty of your minutes after we left the Abbey. The others will have dispersed, their part in the ceremony was over when we disappeared.”
Ceri nodded thoughtfully as if considering something else, eventually she spoke, “You used that magic of yours to bring us back, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” Herne’s eyes glinted wickedly, “the very anonymity of where we have just been makes it an admirable place for those who have passed into the Sleep of Waiting to dwell until such time as one may raise them from it. But it would be too far for us to travel in a single day so I merely used what magic I possessed to make our journey somewhat shorter. Happy now?”
Ceri threw back her head and laughed, when she could speak she replied, “Yes, Lord Cernunnos, I’m happy now. I’m going to have a bath and dress in my old clothes, then I think it’s about time that I went home.”
Herne nodded, “For the moment, it is over. You will go home and it may be that all this will fade into your distant memory.”
“Never!” Ceri replied vehemently, “never Cernunnos, and I don’t think that I shall be able to forget what has happened, do you?”
Cernunnos knelt before her and this time smiled, “Oh my Lady, I do not think you will forget, although you may wish that this part of your life did not exist, for this quest is not yet over.”
“I had a feeling you might say that,” Ceri remarked dryly. “But I suspected as much, after all it was promised that I would see Ambrosius again and raise him and Niniane from their sleep. I shall go back to the world, but not my world and this world will become somewhat dim, at least for a while.”
“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” Herne said softly, “it may be at least a year.”
“Yes.” Ceri nodded, “but if time is short it may not be as long as you think.”
“Mmm.” Herne appeared to ponder this for a moment and then he said, “The Ancient Ones have waited many centuries for you to appear, what is one more year?”
“We shall see, Lord Cernunnos,” Cerian replied, she stared out at the apple orchards surrounding the Abbey and at the bare trees their branches waving in the wind, “but I do not know what I feel at present.”
“Lost.” Herne said unexpectedly his hands closing on her shoulders, “I know, they say at the end of things one feels satisfaction but I have never felt it, only a great sense of loss and sometimes a feeling of triumph, but those times have been very few. There is certainly a feeling of not knowing what to do next, I am afraid that I cannot help you, I only hope that you make the transition back to your own world without too much pain.”
“Will I always have these powers?” Cerian asked.
“Oh, yes.” Cernunnos nodded, “it is unlikely that you will use them in your own time simply because of the way that you are perceived. You will be regarded as a schoolgirl again and not as a Princess in her own right.”
Ceri nodded wearily, she turned back to the Abbey and said, “I’ll go and have my bath. When can you be ready to leave?”
“Soon, my Princess,” Herne said, “I think that you ought to inform Galahad, I know that he cherishes you dearly.”
“You make him sound like a lovesick swain,” Ceri muttered her blue eyes flashing.
Herne smiled the smile not quite reaching his eyes, “Perhaps he is.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Cerian gasped, “He daren’t fall in love with me!”
“If I recall his history aright,” Herne responded. “He loved someone very much once until she died, he has searched half the universe looking for her likeness. I have seen him look for her in every face that entered this Abbey and he has never found her-”
“Until me,” Ceri said softly.
“Yes. Until you.” Herne said nothing for a few moments and then he continued his story, “Her name was Dindraine, Perceval’s sister, had they been different people and not on a quest for the most precious of the Light’s objects they would probably have married. But Dindraine died to save the life of a worthless harlot and Galahad grieved the rest of his days.”
“But I’m not Dindraine,” Cerian replied, “and she wasn’t me. If he loves her. And sees her in me. Then he doesn’t love me.”
“Perhaps in time-” Herne left the sentence unfinished.
“No.” Ceri’s voice was firm, “He loves Dindraine. I’m Cerian. He will be my dearest knight for all our days but that is all we can be. I shall go and wash my hair; perhaps you can find the words for Galahad. I cannot.”
She nodded shortly to Herne and walked back to the Abbey. Upstairs a young serving-girl was waiting next to a bath, the water steamed slightly. “Could you fetch the clothes I arrived in, please?” Cerian asked quickly. She stripped quickly and stepped into the slightly fragrant water, she lathered her body and when the serving girl returned Cerian asked, “Would you wash my hair?”
“Most certainly, Madam.” The girl soaped her hair and then rinsed it with clean water, which stood in large jugs next to the bath. Ceri stepped out quickly and rubbed herself dry with the rough towels. It felt peculiar to dress again in her nightdress, dressing gown and fluffy slippers. Herne entered as she was combing her drying locks and said, “Are you ready? We must depart soon, my liege.”
“I’m ready now, Herne.” Ceri replied. Herne walked across the small room and took both Cerian’s hands in his own. “Dear Princess,” his golden eyes seemed to become larger, “I wanted to tell you that it has been both a privilege and an honour to serve under you.”
Cerian’s eyes filled with tears and she bent her head to hide them, “Thank you, Cernunnos,” she said thickly.
The lawn was still silent in the grip of an early winter frost, Ceri stood looking at the stark, silent house and bit her lip while the tears ran down her cheeks and dripped from her chin. Finally she turned to Cernunnos and said in a steady voice, “Farewell, Lord Cernunnos. I hope it will not be too long before you and I see one another again.”
Herne bowed and replied, “Go, my Princess. I know we will see each other again even if it is a hundred years hence.”
Cerian nodded, she stepped forward, through the wall and into her room. She turned quickly to see Herne’s form slowly fade and disappear. I wonder if this is the last time I shall see him, she thought. She slipped back into bed her teeth chattering, and wrapped the duvet around herself in an attempt to get warm. She lay awake, staring up into the darkness and the tears started again and ran down the sides of her face and wet her pillow.
Ceri was very subdued the next morning, “Are you all right, love?” her mother asked quickly.
Ceri managed a painful smile, “I’m fine, Mum.” She lied, “just not looking forward to going back to school.”
Her mother put an arm around her shoulders and said, “I know, I know. But once you’re there it’ll flash by and you’ll be home again before you know it.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Ceri murmured doubtfully.
“Would you like to go to Windsor Great Park with your father tomorrow?” Her mother asked, “you’ll have to set off quite early - would you like that?”
Ceri’s eyes lit up. “Could I really?”
Her mother laughed, “I think your Dad would like the company and it’ll give me a day of peace to sort out your clothes.”
“Can you feel the baby kicking yet?”
“Not yet,” Mum replied gently, “they usually start to kick around the third month.”
“Oh,” Ceri replied. Then changing the subject, “What time are we leaving?”
“You’d better ask your father that.” She replied, “probably at some Godforsaken hour like half past five.”
Her father was burning the last of the rubbish at the top of the garden; he turned as he heard Ceri’s footsteps scrunch on the frosty grass. “What is it, love?”
Ceri stood panting for a couple of minutes before replying, “I came to ask if I could come to Windsor Great Park with you tomorrow.”
“Of course, sweetheart.” He replied, “it may be a little boring for you, I just want to do a bit more research in the Chapel - still want to come?”
“Please!” Ceri’s lower lip quivered and for a moment it looked as though she was about to cry.
“Very well-” It seemed as if her father was going to say more but whatever it was, was lost as Ceri threw herself at him and buried her face in his jumper. “Hey! What’s this?” He laughed as he gently disentangled her arms, “why the hug?”
Ceri gazed up at him and said, “I just felt like hugging you, that’s all.”
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close to him. Ceri hugged him wanting to hold onto him forever, for them to remain locked as one person.
“Richard, Richard!” Her mother’s voice broke the spell; her father lifted his head and called, “What is it, love?”
“Supper’s ready - are you two coming?”
He gently shook Ceri’s shoulder and she looked up, “Let’s not keep Mum waiting,” she said, “I don’t fancy it cold.”
“Me neither,” he replied, and they walked down the garden together hand in hand.
“Are you going to do anything exciting this term?” Her father asked as they ate.
“I doubt it,” Ceri grimaced, “it’ll be absolutely freezing at Powys Hall; it’s the only place I’ve ever known shampoo to freeze!”
“You mentioned it in one of your letters home,” her father said between mouthfuls, “still you’ve got your winter duvet there and you can take one of our hot water bottles.”
“Yes but they go cold so quickly,” Ceri replied plaintively, “and when it’s cold in the morning I never want to get out of bed.”
“That’s normal,” her mother laughed.
Ceri nodded and returned her attention to the meal. Her mother made the sandwiches that night and packed them carefully in the cold box. “I’ve made chicken sandwiches for both of you, there’s salad in the ice-cream container, I’ve put a couple of apples in and two bags of crisps - I’ve also put a slab of chocolate in for you. I don’t think you’ll go hungry.”
“Are you sure you’ll be all right here on your own?” Ceri asked quickly suddenly feeling terribly guilty.
“I think so,” her mother replied, “I’m going to have a nice long lie in bed and then I shall potter quietly around the house. You two go off and have a nice day.”
“I think we can do that, Connie,” her father wrapped his arms around his wife and he bent to kiss the top of her head.
The next morning when her father shook her awake, Ceri dressed quickly and slipped outside. The sun was a crimson ball just resting on the horizon as she opened the car door and stepped inside. She dozed for most of the journey and opened her eyes just as the Range Rover turned into the road that led up to Windsor Great Park. The trees that lined their route were stark and bare; their grey branches cutting into the flinty blue of the sky, and this time there were no dryads within them to greet her.
Her father’s hand touched her thigh, “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Ceri turned to face him and forced a smile, “nothing at all. I was just a bit shocked - the trees look so bare and lifeless - quite a contrast from the last time we were here.”
“Yes.” Her father murmured thoughtfully, “but last night you were so excited - almost as if you were coming here to meet someone - and just then you looked so stricken - as if you’d been told that they’d just died.”
“Do you believe in demons?” Ceri asked suddenly, changing the subject.
“That depends on what you mean by demons,” he replied, “I believe in forces beyond our control - most demons are the result of man’s inner fears or guilt complexes. Why do you ask?”
“Because I believe in at least one demon,” Ceri said softly, “the one who inhabits this park. Herne the Hunter.”
“Yes.” Her father replied, “I believe in the legend - but legends change with the telling and people may have seen one thing and attributed it to the demon. People were very superstitious in mediæval times.”
He stopped the car and they both got out, Ceri pulled her anorak on and then said, “But I believe he exists - I’ve seen him!”
Her father turned to face her, his face suddenly pale and for a moment Ceri was afraid he was angry with her, for a long time he didn’t speak and then he said, “You’ve seen Him? The Hunter?”
Ceri nodded dumbly her heart aching, she wanted to reach out and hug the man she had always regarded as her father but she couldn’t move. Her father licked his lips and then said, “I saw Him once, a long time ago, at his Oak, it was where I found your mother.”
“How?” Ceri’s voice emerged as a squeak.
Her father didn’t answer; he opened the door of the car and said, “Get in.” Ceri climbed inside. He closed the door and began to speak, “I was staying at a hotel across from Windsor Great Park, I can remember that day as if it were yesterday. It was a hot summer day, but dull and overcast,” he smiled to himself, “I thought it was going to rain. I had spent much of the day tramping around the Park wishing that I was somewhere else when it seemed as if by chance I found myself approaching Herne’s Oak. I remember standing reading the inscription when I suddenly heard a woman moaning. It seemed to be coming from the other side of the tree; I walked around it and saw her. She was in the last stages of labour. I helped her to her feet and drove her to the hospital; you were delivered five hours later. Then the woman started bleeding internally and there was nothing that the doctors or the midwives could do about it. She looked up at me and begged me to return her to the park. Against all the doctors’ orders I signed the release form and did as she asked, she told me to leave her by the Oak, but I couldn’t, so I stayed with her and the last thing she said was “Take care of the baby. Her name is Cerian, Cerian Aurelia.” She just slipped away, “Everyone assumed we were married. I took you from the midwife and I felt an instant attraction-” he broke off and turned to stare at Ceri.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“We were going to this year. Her father smiled at the memory, “After all I have no idea who your mother was, perhaps she was another homeless vagrant who’d become pregnant and didn’t realise it until it was too late to have the baby aborted. I couldn’t give you up to the orphanages not after I’d held you. So I simply pretended that you were my daughter. I spent a lot of time out of the country in those days so it was easier than I thought it would be. Then I met your stepmother when you were four and you both seemed to like one another very much, and I’d fallen in love with her, so I married her.”
“So when did you see the Hunter?” Ceri asked quietly.
“I came here when you were about five, you and your stepmother sat in the car and I suddenly came face to face with this antlered creature.”
“What did you do?”
“Thought I was hallucinating,” her father replied, “then it spoke to me, it said, ‘Greetings, Richard, I am Herne the Hunter. I charge you to take good care of the child you have adopted, many things may stand or fall because of her.” Then it disappeared and I was alone. I kept it to myself because I didn’t want to be sent to a Mental Institution. You say you met the Hunter too?”
“The first time we came here I met the Hunter,” Cerian replied, “and I wanted nothing to do with any of it - and I’m still not sure now!”
“What happened?” Her father asked gently.
“I met my real father, and I’d just got to know him when he died, I thought I would split in two. I saw him as a true friend and I miss him more than I can possibly say-” Ceri broke off and began to cry, she cried as if her heart was breaking, she heard his car door open and then her door open and she was gathered up in a pair of strong arms. He rocked her gently until her sobs abated, then he handed her a clean handkerchief, “Dry your eyes,” he ordered, “I think we ought to talk.”
He climbed in his side of the car and stared out into the brightening day, “It must be hard for you, coming to terms with all this.”
“Its harder coming to terms with the powers I have,” Ceri replied, “I’m sorrier for you - why didn’t you ever tell me?”
A smile cracked the man’s sombre mask, “Because I promised and I keep my promises - no matter how ridiculous. Besides which, I did not know what these powers had in store for you - you might not have come back to me!”
“You think so little of me?” Ceri stared at him.
“Not of you - of those whom you serve. Your blood ties are somewhere in the past, you have none in the present, how hard can it be for you to break your ties here?”
“You and Mum are as much my parents as are Ambrosius and Cerian,” Ceri replied taking both her father’s hands in her own, “in fact more so because you both brought me up, I look to you for my behaviour, I look to you for praise and punishment, I love you both because you are my parents if not by blood, then by the simple fact that you were there.” Cerian smiled and then her expression became sombre again, “I did come here with an ulterior motive, I had hoped to see Herne again, to ask his advice, but there’s nothing here.”
“I must confess that I came with an ulterior motive too,” her father replied, “I wanted to see if you were the one chosen, there seemed to be no significant change in you and I thought that if anything was going to happen it would be this year or not at all - so when you said that you wanted to come I thought it would be ample opportunity to see if I dreamed the whole thing up out of my head.”
“And you didn’t.” Ceri responded, “how do you cope?”
“In the beginning I convinced myself that you were the daughter of a woman I had loved and that she was dead, I’d almost convinced myself of it, and I tried to bury myself in my work in the hope of distancing myself from you, except that never worked as you seemed to be drawn to me. So I watched you grow and held my secret in my heart and hoped that you could grow to adulthood in the twentieth century.”
“Why isn’t Herne here?” Ceri asked plaintively, she wrapped her arms around herself and buried her chin in her chest.
“Perhaps because you’ve done all you can do for the moment,” her father said softly, “perhaps we have to work this out together.”
“I probably have to work this out alone,” Ceri remarked to no-one in particular, “I’m just becoming used to my new status and I have to return to my old one. It’s no fun.”
“Its no fun knowing about it,” her father murmured softly.
“Can we go for a walk somewhere,” Ceri said quickly, “I know you have work to do.”
“All right.” Together they walked hand in hand along the path through the forest. A thin layer of frost still glimmered on the ground and as they stepped through some of the tall grasses a cloud of small white moths fluttered from their depths.
“Don’t disturb them,” Ceri said softly. Her father stood wide eyed as the moths spun upwards around him like a cloud of snowflakes.
“Aren’t they beautiful...what are they?” Her father asked.
“Plume moths,” Ceri gazed at her father, a mixture of love and regret in her eyes, “There’s an old saying about them, that they carry memories away.” The last of the moths fluttered upwards into the morning and her father shook himself like a dog emerging from a river.
“Dad?” Ceri said softly, “anything the matter?”
He looked down at her a puzzled expression on his face, “What was I talking about?” he smiled at his daughter, “my mind’s gone completely blank.”
“Something to do with work,” Ceri lied.
“Ah yes. I’ll give you the keys of the car and you can sit in there if you like. I’ll be back for lunch and then we can get home. Suit you?”
“That’s fine,” Ceri replied. She watched as her father began to walk purposefully towards the Chapel and at that moment she felt Herne’s hand on her shoulder. She turned around and flung herself into his arms, “You came! Oh you came! I thought you’d never come!”
Herne held her tightly and then released her, “I am sorry for what I did,” she said, “but it has been hard for him these past years, better that he should believe that I am his daughter, do you not think?”
“I was not about to reprimand you,” Herne said softly, “I think you have done the only thing you could. He hoped so much that you could be his daughter in every sense of the word and never know how you were found or how you’re Destiny might be affected.”
“Can we talk for a little, Lord?” Ceri asked tentatively, “I came back here because I wanted to talk to you - when we drove through the gates and you were not here to greet me I thought that I’d lost you.”
“You’ll never lose me,” was Herne’s reply, “you are my Salvation. I did not greet you because I was not sure that I needed to, my Princess you have come so far, are you still so unsure of yourself and your power?”
Ceri smiled, “I have just become used to my rôle; I hope I never take the power I wield for granted and now I have to become a schoolgirl again. I never was a good actor, Cernunnos.”
“Then you will have to learn how to become one,” Herne replied. “I suggest that we go and refresh ourselves and discuss matters.”
Ceri smiled at him, “May I take us there this time?”
“With pleasure,” Herne replied, “Glastonbury, please.”
Ceri nodded and turned to face the trees, they wavered slightly as if blown by a breeze and then it seemed to Ceri as if the form of the Abbey at Glastonbury began to take shape before them gradually obscuring them from view as it solidified and then they stood in the orchard. It was winter and the skeletons of the trees made Ceri shiver.
Herne mistook her shivering for the cold, “Come inside,” he said quickly, “let’s get a cup of something warm into you.”
Ceri sat before a roaring fire and looked across at Herne, “This was where Galahad was injured.”
“Yes.” Herne replied, “at the moment it is the best that we have. We do not have many visitors after the Midwinter Solstice. I wanted to bring you here because I want to tell you something.”
“My Lord,” Ceri gazed at him. “You told me all I needed to know the last time we met - let it wait until we meet again.”
“Nevertheless, I feel I should say it.” Herne paused to let the import of his words sink in and then he took her hands and said, “Sometimes I forget that you are a child that you have not been schooled in the way of nobility and I forget too that this must be hard for you. If I do so in the future - I trust you will tell me. Never forget that all of the Ancient Ones are proud of you, there have been others who have had the same rights to your throne who have not behaved half as well as you. Drink your cocoa and then we will return.”
This time it was gentler motion, they appeared in almost exactly the same place as they had before and Ceri saw a familiar figure coming towards them, “Dad!” She cried delightedly,
Herne laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, “Do not blame yourself for what you had to do, if he knew that with each step you take towards us you lose him it would grieve him. Remember, he is a good man and I placed my trust in him a long time ago when I entrusted your upbringing and education to him, hold him in honour.”
“Always,” Ceri replied simply, “he’s my father.”
Herne watched as she ran towards the figure and upon reaching it threw her arms around him and hugged him. Then arm in arm they walked back to the car. Ceri unpacked the lunch and they munched through the sandwiches while the inside of the car misted up around them. “Did you get your work done?”
“As much as is possible,” her father replied, “the rest will have to be done on the typewriter I fear. Did walking around a deserted park bore you?”
“Not really,” Ceri replied, “I had a lot to think about.”
“School and the like?”
“School mostly,” she said wrapping the utensils up. “Shall we get going?”
“Certainly,” her father replied. He turned the key in the ignition and slipped the car into gear, quietly the Range Rover purred down the drive.
Ceri looked into the side mirror and saw Herne standing beside one of the oaks, Farewell, Lord she thought.
Farewell, my liege, was the reply, may we meet again soon.
“Do you think you’ll come back here?” Her father asked, “in the spring perhaps?”
“In the Spring,” Ceri murmured as if she had not heard and she seemed to hear distant voices whispering like the leaves on a hot autumn day Come back to us, Princess, come back in the spring!
“It’ll be cold in April,” she said quietly.
“But the trees will be budding and the snowdrops blooming, Winter will be passed for one more year. Rejoice in the greenery of Spring and return to these woods.”
Ceri glanced sharply at her father but he was gazing out of the windscreen, “You sound just like a Druid.”
“I just like life,” her father replied, “in all its forms and we should always rejoice that the darkness of winter is over. Say you’ll come back here with me when the new grass is growing and the skies are clear.”
“All right,” Ceri replied dubiously, “Then I’ll come back with you in April.”