Into The Oak
When Ceri awoke the next morning and looked out of her window, the wind had disappeared as suddenly as it had risen; she was almost tempted to believe that the events of the previous evening had been her imagination. She clipped the lead onto the dog’s collar and holding him firmly opened the back door. The morning air was sharp and cold. Ceri shivered in spite of the thermal underwear and the thick anorak she wore. Every sound seemed magnified by the stillness of the morning.
As they left the road and began to walk up the lane, Rufus started to bounce around at the end of his lead. Cerian leant down and unclipped him whereupon the dog bounded away like a greyhound. Suddenly a familiar voice said, “Do you do this every morning?”
“Most mornings when I’m home,” Cerian straightened and knew without turning that it was Herne, “It helps me think.” She admitted.
“You were thinking about last night?” Herne’s voice was surprisingly gentle.
Cerian scowled, “I’d just convinced myself that it was my imagination.”
Herne smiled sadly, “It wasn’t. I thought the same thing - once. I will walk with you if I may; we have things to do. Now that you’ve agreed to help I am allowed to speak more freely and to tell you more about your quest.”
Cerian looked up at him shyly, “How can you appear here - I thought that you were constrained to Windsor Great Park.”
Herne inclined his head and the great antlers bent in a sweeping bow, he pointed to the huge tree ahead of them. It rose dark and majestic above the earth, its branches stark and bare against the autumn sky. There was something regal in the way that it defied the elements. “Anywhere there is an oak I may appear if I so choose. Unfortunately, as humans destroy the forests there are fewer places for me to go. If you continue to chop trees down, soon I shall be confined to Windsor Great Park forever. But-” he smiled again. “That is your problem.”
Cerian nodded, “Yes, I know. That’s not what you wanted to tell me though was it?” She surveyed Herne curiously.
“No,” Herne agreed, sighing, “Did you know your ships were made of oak once, wooden walls they were called-” he sighed again his eyes far away and Ceri realised that he was looking back into the past - his past, he began to hum a tune and then to sing the words, “Heart of oak are our ships; Heart of oak are our men! We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again!” He broke off as he realised Cerian was staring at him.
Finally she broke the awkward silence that had fallen between them, “What do we do now?”
“First we get your dog back,” Herne replied and he whistled sharply, ten seconds later a very muddy Rufus hurtled up the lane and nearly knocked Cerian over. She vainly tried to fend him off and then Herne’s hand descended on the dog’s head, Rufus suddenly stopped prancing and sat down. He gazed at the Lord of the Trees his long pink tongue hanging out.
Cerian stared and gasped, “What did you do?”
“A little knack I have with animals,” Herne admitted somewhat ruefully, “However, I’m glad to see that I haven’t lost the touch.”
Cerian scowled, “Shall we go?”
She let Rufus in the back way and fondled the dogs sandy head, “Go and lie down.” She commanded, “I’ll brush the mud off later.”
“Do you want to come in for a moment?” She turned to Herne.
“I only wish I could,” Herne pointed to the rusted horseshoe that her father had nailed to the lintel. “Cold iron bars the way.”
Ceri stared at him perplexed and then she shut the door behind her so that the horseshoe was not a barrier between them.
Herne took Cerian’s hand and slowly, hesitantly began, “My Lady, if I were to enter your home, I would have power over every living thing within its walls. It is better that I do not have that much power. Princess, you and I are of the Old Magic, the High Magic. Ties of Love bind you and because of that, you will not harm those for whom you care. Love transcends even the High Magic. As for me,” a grim smile touched his lips and Ceri saw his eyes become cold and far away again, “I am not bound by Love or Hate and when the wind is high and the moon sails across the heavens the High Magic, the Wild Magic takes hold of me and I must ride the clouds with the Yell Hounds baying at my heels.”
Cerian suddenly felt a chill of apprehension and for the first time wondered if it was safe to trust Herne, she looked up at him and saw that his eyes were full of the same fierce humour as the day she had first encountered him, their eyes met and held and Herne said very softly and quite deliberately, “Never trust anyone who commands the High Magic, of the men who have held it many have fallen into the abyss because they were swayed by base emotions. You may be called upon to make a choice between those you love and the High Magic.”
“I could not make such a choice,” Ceri whispered and knew in her heart that it was the truth.
Herne surveyed her for a moment or two and then he held out his hand, “Come my Lady, we have work to do.”
For a moment Cerian saw the old Herne standing before her, the one who made her heart leap with joy and before her resolve could falter she nodded.
“Good.” Herne patted her hand tenderly and the scene around them appeared to melt and shift and when it solidified again they stood before Herne’s Oak, “Lady,” he spoke again. “You would do me great honour if you would enter my home.”
Cerian felt as though she was speaking words from a play, “The honour is mine, Lord Herne.”
The oak suddenly parted before them with such a creaking and groaning that Ceri was sure some of the park keepers would come running, she looked up at Herne and he shook his head, “They see only what they expect to see.”
“And what does that mean?” Ceri snapped, “I’m truly getting sick of being spoken to in riddles!”
Herne took her shoulders and turned her to face him, “Lady, you must understand that you differ from these mortals that surround you. Much of the world that mortals inhabit is invisible to them and there is a veil that drops between this visible and the invisible one that Beings such as I inhabit, Therefore, when impossible things happen to mortals like trees opening, this veil drops over their eyes and their brain forbids them to see what is actually before their eyes. It is more blessing than curse, if many mortals could see the invisible world they would go mad. Now will you come?”
Cerian swallowed hard and smiled tightly, “Thank you. I am grateful for the explanation.” She did not voice her other fear that if she could see oaks opening, and dryads dancing within trees, perhaps she was not fully mortal.
She felt the gentle pressure of Herne’s hand on her back as he ushered her into the oak, it closed behind them and Cerian found herself standing in a large chamber, far larger than the inside of the oak could ever be, she and Herne stood in a pool of light, it was as bright as day and yet the glow was not the yellow warmth of the sun but nearer the cool impersonal touch of the moon. Ceri stared upwards at the lamp and wondered what magic kept it there.
“Persuasive,” Herne said softly. Cerian stared at him shocked and then found her voice, “you can read my thoughts?”
“Not really, most of your thought was written on your face. I can pick up thoughts from you much as you pick up radio transmissions - but I cannot read the deeper levels of your mind. I will tell you more of this later when you can more fully comprehend it. For now there is a short ceremony that you must undergo.” Herne’s right hand grasped the back of Cerian’s head and Cerian felt his left hand against the side of her face, she closed her eyes and heard him speak, “Out Cold Iron. Out.”
A sharp stab of agony drew a gasp from Ceri and then she was alone on a sea of pain, she drew a shuddering breath and opened her eyes, Herne’s face slowly swam back into focus. She blinked and felt two tears slide down her cheeks, Herne was still a black shadow.
“Forgive me.” He dropped his hand and reached across her shoulder to take something from the shadowy recesses, Cerian closed her eyes and let her chin fall onto her chest willing herself not to collapse in a heap of hysterical female. A skin bag was put into her hands and she heard Herne say, “Take a small sip, it will revive you somewhat.”
Cerian nodded and lifted the vessel, she tipped a little into her mouth and swallowed, Herne lifted it from her dazed fingers. She licked her lips thoughtfully, the liquid had been light and faintly sweet but there was a wildness about it that lingered at the corners of her mouth. Ten seconds later a warm glow began in the tips of Cerian’s toes and spread upwards.
Herne smiled, “Better? Good. Come,” he commanded taking her hand in an iron grip, “This is where I tell you why I need you and there is much about yourself that you must learn.”
Herne stretched a fur-covered arm into the shadows and when he pulled it back he was holding a smooth metal torch holder, still clasping Cerian’s hand he held it upwards towards the light illuminating the area in which they were standing. A small orb of light detached itself from the lamp and slowly descended into the torch, there was a brief spark and then the torch lit up like a magnesium flare and Cerian saw that they stood on a seamless floor; here and there piles of leaves covered the ground in front of them. Cerian moved forward gingerly, Herne held the torch so that she could see ahead of her and Ceri saw a flight of wooden stairs spiraling downwards.
Cerian laid her hand against the wall and began to walk down the staircase into the darkness beyond.
They emerged into a large, brightly lit room. Herne placed the torch, which had mysteriously been extinguished, in a metal holder near the foot of the staircase and walked across to the fire blazing in the grate.
Cerian meanwhile was looking around completely dumbfounded, a rich crimson carpet covered the floor, a carpet was hanging on one of the walls and three Queen Anne chairs stood empty before the fire. It resembled a room straight from mediæval times and yet as Ceri looked up at the ceiling she saw that it was the same light that had hung above them as they entered the oak, although this lamp seemed to be warmer.
“Is this still Herne’s Oak?” She turned to face the Lord of the Trees.
“In a sense,” Herne replied, “if you go up those stairs the oak will open for you and you will find yourself back in Windsor Great Park but it is also my true home - beyond Time itself.”
Cerian looked around her and again noticed the great vastness of the room; there were shadows at the circumference as if the room was really part of one long tunnel. “I like it,” she said simply. “Your home I mean.”
“Thank you,” Herne’s mouth curved in a smile and then he had taken two goblets from a cupboard and pushed back a curtain of green fern, water oozed out from a crack and trickled down into a granite rock basin. Herne filled both goblets and then walked across to where Cerian was standing and handed one to her, their hands touched, for an instant Ceri felt the warmth of Herne’s palm on her knuckles and then he was moving away to ease himself into one of the chairs opposite.
“Be seated, Lady,” he gestured to the chair.
Cerian nodded and slowly lowered herself into the ornately carved chair, she stared down into the goblet, and it was so clear that she could see that the bowl had been inlaid with silver.
“Please drink,” Herne said softly, “I would offer you wine, but it is too early to indulge in alcohol just yet and we need to keep clear heads. Now - you do want explanations, and as I believe I have said, there is much that I must tell you. So ask your questions.”
Cerian raised her eyes from their contemplation of the chalice and wondered what to ask, so much had happened in the past few days that she almost felt at a loss. A part of her insisted that this could not be happening, but another part, a part of which she had been only half-aware was drinking in the surroundings and experience like a thirsty man drinks water. She raised the vessel to her lips and let a little of the water slide down her throat. It was cool and sweet and yet Ceri could taste a hint of the wildness of the other drink that Herne had given her.
Carefully setting the chalice down on the small walnut table beside the chair, she began, “You told me at my house that you were under a curse - can you tell me why?”
Herne surveyed her thoughtfully for a moment, “This could take some time.”
“I have until three this afternoon,” Ceri replied quickly.
Herne laughed, “We are outside Time itself, it won’t affect us. Forgive me, I should have said what I meant. I did not wish to bore you.”
“Considering you went to all the trouble to convince me that I was the answer to all your problems I would have thought that boring me would be the least of your worries!” Ceri retorted.
Herne’s aureate eyes blinked and then he laughed, “I was right, there is fire in you. I told you that you and I are of the High Magic, the Old Magic. It is what holds Life itself together, what binds those from the distant past with those in the present. In you it could not be tapped because of the iron in your teeth.”
Unconsciously Ceri’s hand went to her cheek the pain still a vivid memory, “Who am I?”
She looked up and saw compassion in the depths of Herne’s eyes, “You were born on midwinter’s day, as I believe I have already told you,” Herne stood up and strode across the crimson carpet, he knelt before Cerian and taking both her chilly hands in his own, looked up into her face, “it is the shortest day of the year. Your scientists herald it as the beginning of the Winter Solstice; we did not regard it with such delight. For us it meant that the Sun was journeying away from us again to spend the winter months in His own land to recuperate after the summer. As for who you are, that you may discover later, it is not as bad as all that.”
Ceri mused thoughtfully and then she raised her head and met Herne’s eyes, “The Beltane fires, the great fires that were lit during the winter months, were they really a plea to the Sun to return?”
She could see that Herne was thinking, “No and yes. At first as the nights became longer, man mirrored the fire of the sun bidding him farewell and then it became a symbolic thing, that the Beltane fires would be lit and people would gather together to bid the Sun farewell and to plead for his return. Later couples leapt over the flames and if they remained unscathed then it meant a long life and strong children.”
Cerian nodded and suddenly it seemed as if something caught her and when she spoke it was in a voice not her own, “For the fire of the Sun is what gives us life, therefore we echo the fire of the sun that he may return to us.” She blinked and then looked down at Herne, “How-”
Herne’s hands gripped her own and his eyes were full of xanthous fire, “It is beginning. We must move quickly, let me tell you my story and then I will teach what little knowledge I possess.” He released her hands returned to his chair and cupping the bowl of the goblet in his hands, he began, “I have been many people and it is possible that I may be more. I am conceived from man’s dark side, from his hates. I first appeared to Henry II.”
“Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest?” Ceri remarked suddenly.
Herne’s eyes became far away as he nodded, “I was there when those three knights rode past. However, Henry Plantagenet took the blame for the thought was in his mind. I was an attendant attached to his court. Sometimes my liege would hunt for deer in the forest. I accompanied him on all his drives. One day I was gored by a buck, my liege killed the beast but I was still wounded sore. Then a man appeared from the forest and told the other courtiers to remove the stag’s head and bind it to mine. I was lifted onto a hurdle and borne back to the castle. I lay unconscious for almost three weeks. I should have removed the creature’s head a week later but before I could, three fellow courtiers discredited me in the eyes of the King and I fled into the forest. I hanged myself on this oak.”
Cerian’s eyes became wide with fear, “You mean you’re dead!” She squeaked.
To her amazement, Herne threw his head back and laughed, Ceri stared at him suddenly feeling very alone and very vulnerable and then Herne shook himself and surveyed Cerian.
“There is more to Life than Death, some people’s spirits are so strong that they remain part of the country forever, they remain alive in legend and story and song and that is another kind of immortality. There is an old saying that a person only dies when the last thing he set in motion is completed, if a person remains alive in memory, then they never die. Those persons whose spirits are bound up in the history of the country survive as long as the country survives - many mortals see their country as forever. You see beyond Forever and Never and Always because of who you are but the fact that I am dead should not bother you, I am part of the country and because the country is alive, I am alive. It is a difficult concept to get across.”
“Yes,” Ceri nodded, “I can see that. So everyone I have spoken to is dead?”
Herne sighed, “We are going to have problems with this idea.” He took another sip of his water and then said, “no, not everyone, dryads lives are bound up in his or her trees, they can move away from them but when the tree dies then the dryad dies. Tethys on the other hand embodies all of the oceans, she is the ocean and it was from the sea that the first life ever came.”
“You are much more than the courtier who served Henry II,” Cerian said suddenly, and thought, and I am much more than the girl who is to save the Hunter.
“Yes, my Lady,” Herne surveyed her for a moment and Ceri wondered which statement he was answering.
“What happened to the men who discredited you?”
“Three weeks later they were found hanged on my oak, I took my revenge on them, or rather the Hunter did, by that time we were inseparable.”
“Has the Hunter appeared since, I mean, you do seem to be two distinct personalities.”
“The last time was during the reign of Henry VIII. But no-one died, at least his body was never discovered. He was an attendant at the court and he loved the forest. Henry VIII plotted to murder two of his wives and when foul deeds are afoot I am summoned,” Herne paused and drank from the goblet, Ceri had the impression that he wished it was something stronger than water, “This is difficult to explain, in order to fulfill what mankind expects from the Hunter, I have to commit murder, thus continuing the circle. Murder leads to murder, this man offered me his life as long as part of him would still care for the forests and the animals. The Invincible Sun, the Lord of the High Magic was so impressed by this selflessness that he made this my last murder.”
Ceri swallowed hard feeling slightly sick, “You mean that in murdering people you gained power ?”
“Certainly,” Herne replied, “Blood is very powerful. It is the essence of Life, why do you think the Celts sacrificed animals to me. Blood has always been recognised as being the Life-force.” He glanced at Cerian’s face and hastily continued, “I have learnt over the years that I was not to blame. Men, or rather some men, try to blame the evil that they do on a spirit or a demon. Unfortunately, many of the more superstitious ones lay the blame on me. Soon the race of Adam will have to take the consequences of their actions.”
Cerian leant forward her blue eyes alight, “Tethys called you by another name - what did it mean? Tell me who you were and why you became to all men - evil.”
“Which question would you like answered first?” Herne inquired lazily.
“The first one.”
“Tethys called me Cernunnos. He was the Celtic god of the underworld, or I should perhaps say that I was.”
“But the Celts died out when the Romans invaded Britain! How could they continue to believe in you!”
Herne’s own golden eyes bored in Ceri and he said gently, “I suppose that is what your history books tell you? Oh no, my little Cerian, you cannot destroy a people except from within, the rituals were held in secret, in groves deep in the forest on altars sacred to me and me alone and the priests chosen carefully so as not to draw attention to the cult. Oh the Romans tried to imprint their own religion on this country, but this land was pagan long before the Romans landed, that the Vikings discovered. Belief is a strange thing, if you truly believe something with your heart, mind, and soul then that thing is true; if you feel that you will fail and always fail, it will be so because of your nonbelief. People are very good at nonbelief, belief is harder. But the early Celts believed in me with all the power of their spirit and to them I was a generous god, I defended their villages many times against the Viking hordes and it was only when they forsook me and did not make the ritual sacrifice that I turned my face away from them.”
“You’ve answered some of my second question,” Ceri smiled tentatively, some of her confidence returning, “would you answer the rest, about how you came to be evil?”
“Christianity,” Herne muttered, “I have many names, Cernunnos and Herne are two of my oldest, we are linked because we both wear horns, the Christian missionaries said that because of that I was the Devil.”
Ceri nodded comprehension dawning in her eyes. “And the White Christ swept the country-”
“Like a fire, and the priests preached that because I wore horns I was Satan.” Herne took up the story. “The people turned away from me and believed those missionaries. Thus for over five hundred years the Kings of your country sustained that belief with their murders and their dark desires. Those two Kings I have already mentioned committed such grievous sin that even today the world gasps at it.”
“There were worse Kings than Henry VIII,” Cerian remarked miserably, “Kings never had very good morals at that time. But I do understand.”
“You wished to know the story of my curse,” Herne smiled, “And I have told you. Have you any other questions?”
“Only one,” she replied. “How am I supposed to lift it?”
“I do not know.” Herne’s face became grave.
For a split second Ceri was suddenly filled with the desire to run away to get out of whatever she had got into and deny all knowledge of what had happened, she took a deep breath, “Tell me what you do know.”
Herne rose to his feet and walked across the claret-coloured carpet, he took the goblet from her and set it on the table then he drew Cerian to her feet. His dazzling golden eyes held Cerian’s ultramarine ones and a real smile touched his lips, “Tethys accepted you, that is a great magic. I know now that you are my salvation. If you were to read some of the prophecies about yourself they might clarify things, there are others who must have discourse with thee.” Herne’s words had suddenly become very archaic and there was a formality to his actions that had not been present before.
Slowly Cerian nodded, “Very well.”
Herne released her hands, walked across to a shelf, and took down two bound scrolls. Cradling them in his arms he returned to where Ceri was standing and handed one to her.
She unrolled it gingerly as if afraid that the yellow parchment would crumble in her hands, slowly she began to read the words; And it shall come to pass, the Hunter will meet the girl who shall be his salvation; And Tethys, Empress of the Oceans shall bind herself unto her that she need fear nothing that swims in the depths or flies upon the surface of the waters. And she shall be called; Much Loved, Hunter’s Salvation, Daughter of the Morning, Keeper of the San Graal.Cerian raised her eyes from the scroll and squeaked, “Me?”
For an answer Herne handed her the second scroll, Cerian took it and held it tightly, half afraid to open it. Eventually she unrolled it slowly and scanned the contents; And the three highest who have beheld the San greal wait for the Keeper. The Keeper shall come before them to be found virtuous.
Herne replaced the scrolls and turned back to Ceri, “I suppose now you have even more questions.”
“Just one,” Cerian sighed, “Why am I called the Keeper of the San Graal, come to think of it what is a San Graal?”
“I do not know why you are The Keeper,” Herne said slowly, “but as for the San Graal - it is the Holy Grail, the reason that the Round Table broke up and the bright fellowship of knights dissolved to end as nothing more than a glorious memory. The Grail is the cup that Christ is supposed to have used at The Last Supper, there are three who have seen the Grail with their own eyes and they shall test you.”
Cerian eased herself back into the chair and demanded, “Who will test me?”
“Joseph of Arimathea, The Grail Knight and the Lady Nimüe.”
“The Grail Knight? You mean a knight of the Round Table will test me?”
“Certainly. But this you must do alone, I can take you there but they will examine you and I will be forbidden by the High Magic to intervene and save your life should you fail.”
For the first time Cerian wondered what she had to do, “Lord Herne, I’m scared.”
Herne took her hands and knelt so that the antlers were level with the top of her head, “Lady, you cannot show fear. You must be warrior and wisdom. You battle not an earthly foe and you have no army at your back. I have the utmost faith in you.”
“And if I fail Lord Herne, will you do me one favour?”
“If I can,” Herne replied guardedly, “what favour would you ask.”
“That you administer the coup de grâce, I would rather it was you than someone I did not know.”
Herne stared at Ceri, “Do you know what you ask, Lady?”
“Yes,” Ceri replied solemnly, “the coup de grâce was an act of mercy to a vanquished knight in a joust or in battle. If an opponent was too badly injured in the stomach then a charitable knight would administer the ‘cut of grace’ and give him a painless death. Usually by cutting the jugular.”
“You did your research well,” Herne said softly, “but I do not know if I could do that for you, Lady.”
“But I demand it, Lord.” Ceri said softly, “you see, even a condemned man has to have one final request. This is mine.”
“You haven’t been condemned yet,” Herne responded “and there is yet another test that you must undergo first - you must face the Verification. You must face the Sol Invictus. If you fail that you will never even remember me, you will be reduced to the status of an ordinary mortal and that would be a loss.”
Cerian smiled and stood up, “Shall we go, my Lord. After all we mustn’t keep the Light waiting.”
Herne led her to another chamber, or was it another time, they were standing in a huge open place. All around them was light, the dazzling light of sun on snow. Cerian looked around to speak to Herne and discovered to her horror that he had disappeared. For a moment she panicked and then ahead of her something began to glow even brighter, taking her courage in both hands Cerian walked towards it.
She halted almost a dozen paced from the edge of the brightness, there was no other word to describe it, it was an ovoid corona of light pulsating slightly. She swallowed hard, licked her very dry lips and spoke, “Sol Invictus; Sol Unconquered; Sun Unconquerable, I am here to stand before you as a test. Test me, Invincible Sun.” Cerian dropped to her knees and waited.
Something whispered in the corners of her mind, “Rise my child. I must look into your eyes and into your heart when I test you.”
Cerian rose to her feet and the shape moved forward, for a brief moment Ceri felt an instant of fear and then the dazzling nimbus obscured her.
“Cernunnos chose well,” the words were spoken but Ceri still kept her eyes closed, something warned her that she would be blinded if she didn’t. “Go in peace, Daughter of the Morning. You have my blessing and my love.”
Someone was holding her strongly and Ceri felt her mouth opened and little liquid poured in, it burnt the back of her throat and made her cough and splutter.
She opened her eyes and stared up into Herne’s face, “Are you all right, my Lady?” He enquired solicitously.
Cerian struggled to her feet and the room swayed. She grabbed Herne for support and sat down again, “Never better, Lord Herne,” she whispered. “Tell me where are we?”
“Back in my home,” Herne replied. Reassured Cerian released her grip on the furry mantle covering Herne’s body. She looked around and saw that she lay in a small bedroom area just off the main cave. “My sleeping quarters,” Herne said softly.
Cerian scowled, “Can’t you turn that off or something?”
“I told you, my Lady, it only occurs when your mind forms questions. “Try burying them deeper or asking them outright.”
“I shall try to remember that, Lord Herne.” Cerian nodded, “but it could be useful, a telepathic link.”
“It would be like being permanently wired to another person’s innermost thoughts. Thank you. No.”
“I never considered that,” Ceri frowned.
Herne meanwhile had gone across to the granite basin and filled another goblet of water, which he handed to Cerian. this time she drained it.
“You passed with flying colours,” He said, “you have almost nothing to fear from the others who will test you.”
“Save that they may find me unworthy of the San Graal,” Cerian remarked dryly.
“You would have always had to prove yourself to them whatever the outcome here,” Herne replied. Suddenly he clasped both her hands again and knelt before her, like a knight offering his fealty to a queen. Cerian stared down at him and then everything seemed to slip into place, “Rise, Lord Herne,” she said softly, “I may be one of you, but I have not yet your wisdom. I would be honoured if you would stand with me.”
“In truth, Princess, the honour is mine.” Herne rose to his feet and stood regarding the child to whom he had given his allegiance.