From the author: A kingdom is threatened. A young prince approaches a druid for help. He learns of strange magic. A legend begins.
A boy of about nine years-old tracks through the moss and the reeds of the swamp. These are the Marches. Rough country, unless you get used to it quickly. Grow up within it, rather than staying apart. His mother would have preferred he remain in the keep, by the fire, with the old women watching over. His father pushed him out of the door as soon as he could walk.
"You'll have to be strong, boy, if you want to follow me."
His feet pass from slippery log to slippery mud without wavering. He can do, and has done, such things with eyes shut. A helpful talent, not least when the mist from the marsh lake is thickest, clogging the channels in between trees.
He has his eyes open tonight though, as he treads the lake’s shore. He sees the sky through the elms glowing hearth-fire and lilac. Flames belch intermittently from the silt up ahead.
Through their glare, their gaseous haze, he checks to make sure that he hasn't lost track. Ahead, the figure’s white garb is a beacon. It draws the boy deeper into the darkening woods; birthplace and home of all rumour and myth.
The boy pulls closer, his nimble, calfskin-booted feet besting the old man's stumbling gait. The man's woollen tunic is spattered with mud, greened on the sleeves where he brushes too close to centurion oaks. Falling leaves catch in grey hair and grey beard. He repeatedly wrenches his staff from the marsh and it belches like toads when they’re seeking a mate.
The boy had witnessed these toads, lit by will o' the wisps, with his father beside him. One of the rare times that his father hadn’t sent him away. It was dull — really dull — when it actually happened, and yet glows like a blade in his memory now. His father so often in battle of late, keeping other chieftains and dangers at bay. His mother so often alone by the fire, weeping, unsure if her husband will ever return.
It is this worry, in part, which has brought the boy here.
The old man turns his head and the boy flattens his frame to the trunk of a sycamore, not risking even the lightest of breaths, lest his quarry detects a slight change in the air.
He has come because of murmurs the old man is a druid. That he keeps communion with the spirits, the old gods of the land. That he can work spells.
And a man like that must be helpful in war, good to have on your side.
The boy grows a tad doubtful, however, when they reach the man's hovel. The walls are crooked. The thatch is damp and green and thin. Mushrooms overlapping like slates at one corner. The door, such as it is, doesn't quite fit the frame.
If he himself could do magic, he wouldn't live in a dung-heap like this.
Still, all stories have to start for a reason. Usually a good one, he thinks, keeping some kind of faith.
Squatting in the bushes on the edge of the clearing, he sees weird, vivid lights — a whole gamut of colours — flicker through cracks in the rough oaken shutter, which covers a haphazard hole in the wall.
Mothlike, adept, he flutters towards it. Presses an eye to a suitable gap.
The old man leans over a dark, heavy table. In this light, his tunic reveals stains beyond green and mud-brown; it is dappled and streaked with a rainbow's dried blood. By his slender blue hands are a range of clay bowls, the size of his palms, striped with more colours still.
He adds seeds to the mixtures, and various berries, and sprinkles in lichen and shimmering dust. Works them together with a bleached length of bone.
Squat tallow candles flicker nearby. Occasionally, specks are sprayed out by the motion, hit a flame, flash, and then fade with strange smoke. The old man then pours in some light amber liquid, which might well be urine, or maybe just beer. The harshness of grinding becomes a river-like slosh.
At the window, the boy sees the birthing of magic. His eyes at the crevice are wide and unblinking, don't want to miss how these potions are made.
The old man sees only his usual work. Once he is satisfied that each mixture is right, he places the bowls on a wide wooden board, which he lifts with a delicate, trembling grace. He bears it across to another small table, next to the window. There is only a solitary candle lit there, perched on the cracked, yellow skull of a ram; wax has formed frozen waterfalls across the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the gaping, deathly jester's mouth. The light it throws out makes the colours all glimmer. Cats' eyes, owls' eyes, in a nocturnal hunt.
The boy meets their stare, only faintly afraid.
The druid picks up a sharpened stick — which, from the rumours, the boy thinks is a wand — and holds it precarious over one of the potions. The red one. A blood moon.
But rather than muttering an incantation — as, again, he's been led to expect — the old man simply dips the wand in the brew. Scratches it over the skin of this wood.
Patterns happen, runes, in other shades besides red. An island begins to take shape on the surface. Beasts, humped and spitting out steam from their backs, move in blue swirls that he takes to be sea. Fishing boats join them, with small men holding spears.
Then, the scratching stops.
And the druid turns towards the shutter. And rises. And the eyehole goes black.
The boy sits cross-legged on the floor in the corner, drinking beer from a cup made from hollowed-out horn.
At the other side of the room, the druid is still working. The stick scratches again at the surface of the table. The candle still dances on top of the skull.
After a while, the boy stops sniffing and sipping and screwing his face up at the drink’s potent flavour. He starts to ask questions. All of which go unanswered. So many of which go unanswered that he starts to worry the druid doesn't understand the common tongue.
He asks him straight out, just to be sure.
And is corrected and rewarded with a string of raw curses, told to be quiet and to drink up and sit still.
He stays in the corner and focuses on figuring out what kind of beer this is; on keeping it down and not adding further to the wreckage of the floor. Bugs like walking shields, like the Roman phalanx formation, scuttle and slither among breadcrumbs and rags.
He shivers and kicks them. He tries to stay quiet, but can’t hold out for long.
Soon, he is peering around the druid's shoulder. The stick speeds across what he can tell now isn't the moon-pale surface of the table, but rather a length of vellum, stretched taut and flat.
It's clear that at least some of the rubbish in the room is other pieces of this, bundled and bound, somewhat roughly, in scrolls. Amassed in great quantity; stored without any real planning or care. The bugs seem to use them as tunnels, as dens.
"Is this what druids do, then?" he asks.
And: "What's that bit mean?"
And: "How about this?"
"And this man with a sword?"
He is transfixed. He's never seen pictures of this type or quality before in his life.
From his wanderings in town, he knows the etchings on doorposts outside taverns — shapes that he gathers mean wicked things (according to his mother and his nurses) but he can't make out exactly what.
These ones here, though, he can make out right away.
The warriors. The ships. The forest.
The waters. The deer. The peasants. The keep.
It is only the markings between all these pictures that cause him confusion. A question loiters on his tongue, but the druid swivels and stops it with a withering look.
The boy glances again at the walls of the room, the various shabby sheets he now knows to be scrolls, for any clues, anything that might somehow aid understanding. But there are none.
Vaguely disheartened, he heads back to the corner, trampling breadcrumbs and bugs as he goes.
Even now, years later, the boy has never learnt to read. The young man. Not for want of trying to teach him, on the druid's part, but rather due to a lack of focus in his pupil. A tendency to become distracted by the figures beside the text. To be swept off into dreaming.
A tendency that only increases, and sharply, as the chaos and war in the region gets worse.
His mother, once so pitiful and endearing in her worries for his father, becomes almost placid in his absences now. The longer his father has survived, despite all of the serious injuries suffered, the more she's exhausted her stockpile of care. No matter what her husband, who dares now to openly call himself King, does, there is no peace in the Marches; no easing of the panic and the darkness that is sickening the land. So, she has said to her son, pleaded of him, “What is the use of it all?”
"He encourages the bastards," she says. "He taunts them."
The village is no longer safe from attack, either by the men of other chieftains or by wandering brutes. Old women and old men, and children, suffer worst in these raids. Horrors his mother will no longer speak of. Findings that turn his father's face stony, even in the wake of the heartiest feast. Where there was once ribaldry, challenge, greasy ribs tossed with a laugh to the wolfhounds, now there is simply a wait for the end.
"May I be excused?"
If he were still so young, he would not be allowed out of the keep. He would never learn to navigate the swamps so well that he could do it even in thick fog, even eyes-closed.
Certainly, his younger brother never will.
Several times this past year he has been grateful for his knowledge, for the mud and the moss and the lake that baptised him, tutored him mercilessly where not to fall. Threatened his drowning.
With the ways being so fearful, and in exchange for his continued free stay at the hovel, and for being taught how to make what the druid calls ink, he now gathers the ingredients from the woodland himself. In so doing, crouching amidst squelching earth and cracking twigs, he is sometimes caught off-guard by thieves. Each time, however, he is able to shake their pursuit in the woods.
Or, if they are too many, and block his way, then he draws his dagger, his broadsword, and stabs out at them, slashes. Though his training is not yet complete, he sometimes gets lucky — he cleaved a man through the ribs once, the bones springing out like the jaws of a wolf — but mainly his hope is to drive them into the water. With the weight of their stolen gold, and the tangle of weeds in even the shallows, they don't stand much chance of escaping alive.
Whatever scratches he incurs in return for his efforts, the druid always tends.
Whatever scratches he incurs, he feels that they're worth it.
Not long after he first started coming here, the druid gave in to his questions and began to explain to him some of the scrolls. Over time, these explanations turned into fully-fledged histories, overstuffed myths.
He comes now, he mixes the inks, smashing the seeds and the berries in all proper quantities; carries them to the second table, which the druid rarely leaves, and eagerly waits to see which song will come next.
While the old man works his keen craft at the vellum, he retreats to his corner, which he pads now with hay — when he can steal some from his father's stables — and drinks beer from the cup made of hollowed-out horn.
When he's ready, the druid turns to face the young, curious prince, as the ram's skull leers snow-blindly over his shoulder, and he sings about empires and fiefdoms undreamed of, and madness and love on the far side of the world.
One day, in an effort to pilfer more hay from the stables, he is caught by his father. He is forced into armour. He is placed in a saddle. Told the war is getting worse. The chieftain on the next hill is pushing for victory; all of this, the castle and the town, is on the verge of being lost.
The prince doesn't have so much time to go and listen to the old man's stories after that.
His days are spent in open combat in muddy fields.
The rainbow of the druid's palette fades.
There are now three colours only: dirt, blood and steel.
His nights are spent sleeping without any dreams.
His mother is given to worry again, for his sake, but is prone now as well to throw rage at her husband, whom she accuses of attempting to murder their son, so he cannot usurp or inherit the throne. Claims he is sick, under thrall of some witchcraft; has made a deal with some demon, some terrible succubus, to ensure that their firstborn will never be King.
She becomes increasingly distant. Goes missing for hours and then days at a time.
During those wanderings, his father looks almost half-cheerful again. Relaxed. Carries the day's new battle-scars lightly.
Until, at last, he goes missing too.
When the prince barges in through the door of the hovel, the old man turns calmly, amidst flickering candles and fluttering scrolls, as if he already knows what his guest means to say.
"You are a druid, are you not? All this time you have beguiled me with songs and with pictures, when I came out here at first to learn of your spells. To seek your help against all who would challenge our rule."
The old man remains quiet.
"Well? Where are they? Do I not deserve them, after all that I have done?"
Still the old man doesn't speak.
"My father lies slain in a field and they have taken his flag. I will have my revenge. And I will have your help."
"Why don't you sit down, boy?" the druid says. "I have a story that might be of use."
"No. I do not need stories. I need spells. I need to take my foes’ blood."
"Will you help me or not?" the youth says, with a hand on the hilt of his gore-rusted sword.
"What is it that you want most to gain from this war?" the old man says. "What end would satisfy you, if it were indeed within my power to give?"
The youth glares in silence.
He clenches and unclenches his fist on the hilt.
"I would be the true and only King of this land, having bested all enemies. I would be known as the bringer of unity. The bringer of peace."
The druid pauses, then nods. "I can do this for you. But it will take time. And you, for once, must be patient. And you must leave me to focus my all on this task."
Barely three days after his father is buried, his mother leaves the castle to live with the man whose army took the old King's life.
There are other defections.
He takes a wife, but suspects her constantly of being unfaithful. Whenever he's wounded, he raises his battle-scarred hand to her face, sharing the pain. Reminds her: "We are in this together. Win or lose."
Though he says the latter word, he doesn't believe it to be possible. He doesn't want to. He wants to keep faith in the powers of his old friend. He tells himself — even tells his wife, in his quieter, gentler, rarer moods — that the druid's magic will work. He will be unchallenged King, and she will be unchallenged Queen.
But this faith is tested sternly, daily, as he looks at the ramshackle husk of the keep, stamped on the lilac and hearth-fire of dusk. As he imagines the walls, the foundations beneath them, sliding down the steep hill to get sunk in the gore; drowned in a river, an ocean of blood.
And it is tested most sorely and sharply when the axe of an enemy cleaves through his collarbone, before he can end the man’s life with a thrust.
It is strained for weeks, while his wife keeps a vigil, keeps the hearth-fire burning, keeps the deep wound improbably clean. Weeps onto his fevered brow. Wails into his sweat-and-piss-and-shit-drenched sheets.
Looks at that brow in a moment of stillness, of coolness, and wonders if it will ever bear the weight of a crown.
Recovered, though tender, he rides to the forest. He has been patient enough, he reasons. It has been half a year, perhaps longer, and he can afford to wait no more. Not with his fiefdom so close to collapse.
His shoulder still pained — the skin a pink knot like an adder beneath it — he cannot carry the weight of armour, and nor can he swing a sword or do much else with his left hand. This leaves him, though vulnerable, at least light on his feet, and despite it being a decade since he first learnt the path, and the undergrowth spreading, and the lake's border changing, he finds his way, easily, out to the hut.
But what he sees doesn't please him, doesn't offer him hope. He hangs back, crouched in the bushes, pressed to an oak. The thatch has gone sparser, more ragged than ever. The shutter hangs off its hinges. The door buckles inwards where it didn't before.
Through the hole in the wall, he can tell it is empty. It has been cleared-out or raided, that much is plain.
He bursts in through the door. Normally, the wind that accompanied his entrance would ruffle vellum, tremble flames. But there is no sign of either, of anything, save the thick dark wedge of the mixing table. On top of it, there are only stained fragments of broken clay bowls.
Where the other table was, there is just the ram's skull, caved in, its yellow teeth missing.
And a lone scroll that it pins to the floor underneath.
He searches for others, but there aren’t even scraps. In fact, the rest of the floor has never been cleaner. Even the hay has been taken; the bugs have deserted, their legions decamped. All that mars it are a few ragged splashes of red, which he scuffs with his boot to see how they flake. They might just be ink. He does not want to drop to his haunches and taste.
He opens the scroll. At the start and down the borders, for a part of its length, there are marvellous pictures. The old man’s best yet. There is a warrior in a crown, with hair of a colour that could be taken for his. There is a woman who, though he never introduced her to the druid, looks much like his wife. Even down to the cobalt blue of her eyes. There are his enemies before him, wasted and slain. And the mighty red dragon of his father's lost flag, crawling up along one side, with the spiralling turrets of a massive castle ascending the other. A stone castle. Much more impressive than the current wooden fort.
But the rest is dark scratches. The ones the old man did try to explain but which he never quite grasped. The ones he realises now must be the lines of a spell.
He can’t even discern his own name in the tangle. Arturus.
Perhaps if he'd learnt all this when he was young, he could have defeated his enemies without needing help.
But he didn't.
And he won't.
This scroll, spell or not, is no good without a druid to read it. And his druid is gone. The best he can hope for now is to get back to his wife and take her to safety, before his foes charge the hill and breach the keep wall.
He rushes to exit, feet plunging into and out of the mud.
He thinks of his father, his legacy ending.
He thinks of his wife again, how she's with child.
A son of his own? A prince?
He can't give up on that. The crown. Not so quickly. Not after all this. The druid must have come through, kept his promise, put the magic in action before whatever befell. He just has to stay patient. Have faith. Attain safety.
He thinks of the castle he'd seen on the scroll.
A flying red flag at the peak of a tower.
Between the tree branches, the gathering mist, the evening sky hangs there all hearth-fire and lilac. For a moment, as he watches, as he runs, as he dreams, he forgets the changed line of the shore of the lake.
This story originally appeared in Swords & Steam Short Stories (Flame Tree Publishing).