Well here is the final volume. In writing it I was very conscious that I needed to bring to the forefront the deeper forces of Nature as they provide the climax. Nature rebels: as it always does; as it is at present in response to our pushing things too far. I had learned something from Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice for example, Shylock is given every opportunity to come to his senses and to act generously but he pushes too far and suddenly all freedom is lost. The catastrophe is worse than anything he could have envisiaged. The same with Othello, who lost contact with the values of real world and so committed a crime for which there could be no redemption. It is truly frightening when once considers the risks we are taking with our lovely world. I am no gloomy Jeremiah. My focus is always on the wonder of the world, and I want my works to entertain, and tease and bring pleasure, but I can not turn my eyes away.
A LAND FIT for HEROES 4
The Burning Forest
Introduction and Chapter 1
INTRODUCTION – Twelve Seconds Distant
When military resistance in Britannia ended with the defeat of the Celtic tribes, the province prospered. The Romans built their roads throughout the length and breadth of the country and ruled in the neat cities, small towns and military camps. Gradually they created an organized society based on urban living.
In the early days after the conquest, the political leader of this society, the Praefectus Comitum as he was called, was appointed from Roma. But soon this position was filled by members of the great aristocratic, military families that settled in Britannia and began to call that province home. These families controlled vast estates and enjoyed almost unlimited power. Their privilege was supported by two classes in the population: the Citizens and the Soldiers. These two classes were mainly drawn from native families who, in the early days, forsook the tribal life and accepted the pax Romana with relish. They became ‘civilized’. As the decades stretched into centuries and the centuries ticked past, Roman rule began to seem like a law of nature. Given material comforts, security and a guaranteed place in society, the Citizens were hardly aware of the strict rules and regulations and limits under which they lived. Thus the clerks and sewer- men, the cooks, cleaners, nurses, gardeners and candlestick- makers who made civilized life possible for the Roman military aristocracy hardly ever questioned their condition. As for the Soldiers, they were not encouraged to think about anything other than a pride in service and a delight in efficiency. They controlled the roads and the city gates.
But where the city walls ended, the wild wood began. Still, in the forests and moors and swamps which surrounded the Roman towns, life continued pretty much as it had for centuries: as it had since before the coming of the Celts and the earlier generations of men who built Stonehenge, yea back even unto the time of giants. In the different regions of what the Romans called Britannia, the old, green and ever-youthful spirits of tree, glade and river maintained their dignity and held sway among the people who lived close to the soil. To those who lived in the vast forests, their ancestors, almost as old as the hills, could be heard whispering in the trees and among the bubbling streams. At nightfall they murmured together in the shadows of the long barrows. Even so, golden lads and lasses made love in the meadows and on the hilltops and in the quiet places behind the barrows, and never thought about grave-dust.
To the ancient Roman families and the Citizens and Soldiers who served them, these woodlanders were primitive savages who could be tolerated because they posed no threat.
Christianity sprang up in some quarters but nowhere did it become as great a political force as in our world. Indeed, where it did survive, Christianity took its place as one sect among many, each of which celebrated in its own special way the sacrifice of a man or woman who chose death in order that humankind might be saved. These various creeds rubbed shoulders with older religions of earth and sky and of the Great Mother.
And all races and creeds walked the Roman roads.
We come to the present.
A pestilence, which began by ravaging the flocks of sheep in the continental provinces, has now shown greater virulence attacking other animals and even humans. Apart from shortages in meat, wool, skins and fertilizer, the disease has caused panic and economic disruption. Strangely, the pestilence has not appeared in Britannia, but only in the provinces of Gallia, Hispania, Germania and Jtalia, and this has led to speculation that it is a manifestation of the gods’ displeasure.
In response, the new Emperor of the World, Lucius Prometheus Petronius, has decided to establish state sheep farms in Britannia and these will necessitate a burning of the land ― at least, that is his overt intention, though in this, as in everything else, Prometheus has darker motives.
To accomplish his plan, the Emperor has appointed Marcus Augustus Ulysses, the senior member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful military families of Britannia, as his deputy. The plan is no sooner conceived than it is put into action. Nothing can withstand it . . . or so the Roman leaders believe.
But, even while the tubs of chemicals which will be used for the fires are being shipped to Britannia, movements are afoot in that country to resist the burning. Nature is beginning to rebel. Those humans who will lead the battle against the great destruction are by and large ignorant of the role they will play. But they are learning. They are Miranda, Angus and Coll. They have experienced many changes in their being and are each, in their different ways, awaiting the next developments.
Miranda has become the guardian of a house of healing in the small community on the Wolds called Stand Alone Stan. Her position does not require medical knowledge but rather spiritual strength. Gradually, as she enters into her new role, strange powers have started to reveal themselves. She can visit the astral plane and see spirits of the dead; sometimes she enters other dimensions of Nature and flies with dangerous Faery creatures. Miranda cannot control her evolution, she is like a leaf on a stream being swept along, but she is discovering her deeper powers, both savage and kind. Soon it will be time for her to assume her full power and act.
Angus the mechanic, the man hungry for knowledge, the man who works things out for himself, has studied history at Roscius’ secret academy in the hills near Stand Alone Stan. But his knowledge, far from bringing him peace, has ignited fires of rebellion in him. After killing a man in a dispute, Angus was expelled from the college and escaped to the wild wood with his companions Sean and his lover, Perol. There they have met up with an ancient creature of the woodland, the giant called Drummer. Now Angus, using all his skills as a mechanic, has brought the old mechanical fighting-dragon back to life. With Sean, Perol and Drummer he has set out to establish a terrorist band called the Dragon Warriors. Their first serious act of rebellion was to attack and destroy the notorious prison camp called the Caligula, high on the Yorkshire moors. They have liberated prisoners in the hope that they will join the conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state.
Coll is the last surviving son of that same Marcus Ulysses who now serves as the Emperor’s deputy in Britannia. Coll was once called Viti but he has abandoned that name in favour of a tree-name ― for Coll is the name of the hazel tree, the tree of intuition. Coll is a sad young man. He feels blighted by guilt for, in his days as a smart young Roman officer, he raped Miranda. For a time he lived alone in a tree-house close to Stand Alone Stan. But then, oversome by guilt and shame, Coll attempted to kill himself by filling his pockets with stones and jumping into a swiftly flowing river. But he was rescued by Gwydion, a rogue and fighting man of the forest, who has now brought him back to health. Coll’s discovery that Miranda has forgiven him releases a new sense of purpose in him. Without realizing quite what is happening, Coll has begun to tread the path of the Shaman.
We enter this world at the house of Cormac, the Singer, deep in the roots of an oak tree, far in the forest. Gwydion has brought Coll there in a state of total exhaustion. Cormac is speaking . .
CHAPTER 1. Coll and Cormac
‘At the portal of death,’ said Cormac. ‘The only gateway for a singer.’ He was looking down at the white face of Coll. The young man lay on his back, his limbs tangled. The only sign that he was alive was his shivering.
Gwydion, who had carried Coll up the slope to Cormac’s house, groaned and tried to rise but Cormac stopped him. ‘Don’t worry, lad. You’ve done well. I’ll take over now. Rest now.’ Gwydion’s eyes closed and he sank back down on to the ground. ‘But you made it just in time,’ added Cormac to himself. ‘Another hour and.. .‘ He said no more but breathed deeply like a fighter bracing himself. Then he threw back his sleeves.
Though he was old, Cormac was strong: the result of a lifetime spent walking under the trees, climbing slippery banks and fending for himself in all weathers. He gripped the shivering Coll under the arms and dragged him down the stone steps set in the earth slope and into the cavern under the oak tree. At the bottom he hoisted him over a rough-cut log which served as a threshold.
The doorway into Cormac’s home was formed between two dark roots. Over the years since the house was first established, the constant coming and going of visitors had polished the twin roots to a dull sheen. Between the roots hung a simple screen of woven rushes. It was attached at the top, and the entire screen lifted and slipped over Cormac’s shoulders as he dragged the unconscious Coll within. The rush door flapped back down, creating a draught which disturbed the flame of an oil lamp set just within the door, making it dip and bob.
They were in a small vestibule. Fur-lined coats hung against the walls, boots stood beneath them and notched walking sticks leaned in a corner. Cormac did not delay but dragged Coll through a low door closed with strips of overlapping cloth.
The room they entered was simple and comfortable and smelled of lavender and herbs. The twisting roots of the oak tree gave shape to the walls, and the soil between them had been pressed flat. Shelves containing plates and cups were inset into the walls. A tall cupboard of dark wood stood against one wall and beside it was small hotplate of the kind found in most of the woodland houses. It was backed with slabs of slate. Above it hung dried flowers and herbs. The floor was of rammed earth and a carpet of animal skins was cast across it. A table with two chairs and a stool stood in the centre while an oil lamp hung down from the ceiling, casting a warm and friendly glow through the entire room. The only other piece of furniture was a large wooden chair which stood close to the hotplate, its severe lines softened by a thick-piled bear-skin.
Leading off the room were two tunnels, each just tall and wide enough for a small man such as Cormac to walk through without having to duck. These were formed between boulders of grey rock, and the dark roots of the oak tree snaked across them and plunged on into the earth.
Cormac hurried. Once inside he dragged the body down one of the small corridors. He passed a couple of openings which led off to other parts of the warren and finally came to a small round room in which stood a low cot covered with a bright yellow woven quilt. Two oil lamps, each set in a niche in the wall on either side of the bed, cast a warm light through the room.
Opposite the bed was a hotplate with a small flue which disappeared into the ceiling at an angle. Sitting on the hotplate, a billy-can piped steam which coiled and vanished up the flue.
Cormac sat Coll down on the floor and removed the heavy damp cloak and the leggings which were stiff with mud. Coll groaned as Cormac eased the shirt up and over his shoulders. ‘Soon have you right,’ the old man murmured. Coll tried to speak but Cormac hushed him. He manoeuvred Coll into the bed and under the covers. Then he helped him sit up while he fed him a drink from the potion on the hotpiate. Coll coughed and gagged, but enough of the liquid went down to satisfy Cormac. He let the young man lie back. ‘Now rest a while. But don’t recover too quick,’ said Cormac, talking to himself.
He gathered up rhe damp clothes and hurried from the room.
Behind him a mouse jumped up on to the ledge beside one of the oil lamps. There it squatted down and began to clean its face with its paws, stopping occasionally to look at Coll with its bead-black eyes.
Night had fallen when Cormac again climbed out of the oak tree. He found Gwydion hard asleep, flat on his back, his head resting on one of Aristotle’s blankets. Cormac chivvied him awake and sent him stumbling down into the house.
Before following him, Cormac sniffed the air. He could smell rain coming again. He busied himself making sure the donkey had fresh water and could reach good grass. ‘We’re going to be here for a while, Aristotle,’ he whispered. ‘And even so, I don’t know whether we’ve time enough.’ The donkey nodded. ‘Bah. What do you know, you daft old donkey?’ said Cormac fondly, stroking its ears. ‘ ‘appen you’re no wiser than me.’
Inside the house Gwydion had made himself at home as was the custom and was busy rummaging in a wooden chest, looking for clean clothes.
‘There’s nothing’ll fit you in there,’ said Cormac. ‘There’s a village not far. We can get you kitted out in the morning. For now, wear one of the winter coats.’ He nodded towards the hall. ‘And if you want a wash there’s a spring just five minutes down the hill.’
Gwydion grinned. ‘If it’s all the same to you, Cormac, I’ll sleep in my muck for the night. Reckon I’ll sleep the clock round.’
‘No matter if you do,’ said Cormac. ‘We’ll not be going anywhere for a while. Yon’un’s in no fit state to move.’ He nodded to the corridor which led to Coll’s room. ‘There’s bread and cheese on the shelf and stew in the pot. Help yourself.’
Gwydion set to with a will. He didn’t speak again until he was mopping up the gravy with a chunk of bread. ‘So were you expecting us?’ he asked.
‘I was hoping. I’d sent out a call. But there’s no certainty. There never is.’ He spread his hands expressively. ‘And if no one had come, well, I suppose I’d’ve just kept my bag of bones together for a few more years ― but I’m a tired man, Gwydion. Tired.’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘Aye. Maybe you do,’ said Cormac. ‘We’re all tired. We all need to sleep.’
Gwydion looked at Cormac steadily. He was not quite certain what the old man was saying. ‘You’re talking about death, aren’t you, old man?’
‘That. And more than that. The breaking of chains. The handing on. We’ve struggled for years and now…’
‘I’m too tired tonight for riddles . .
‘Aye. Get away and rest. I’m just an old man wondering. You bed’s ready in the usual place.’
Gwydion pushed his plate away and stood up but had to stoop or his head would have hit the roof. ‘The way I look at it, ‘ he said, ‘is I’ll die when the time comes. If I’m lucky I’ll be ready for it. If not . . . well there’s bugger all I can do about it anyway. So sing your songs, old man. Make us laugh and cry. Bring young Coll back to health, and we’ll see where we go from there.’ So saying, Gwydion stretched asx well as he could and yawned, bunching the hard muscles on his battle-scarred shoulders and arms. ‘I’ll just have a pee up top. Then I’ll turn in.’
Cormac sat in the roots of the tree in his comfortable wooden chair. A minute or so later he heard the russle as Gwydion came back and thenthe bed creak as Gwydion climbed in. Moments later he heard a deep snore which might have been a lion’s growl. Then that sound ended as Gwydion turned, easing his hurt back and tired muscles.
Silence. Cormac felt the wind stir the branches of the oak tree. Even here, deep underground, the movement of the branches was transmitted to the roots. The rain came with a steady rustle of leaves and a sombre dripping. A mouse scurried into the room, its fur wet. It jumped on to Cormac’s cloak and scampered up until it found a comfortable place in a folded pleat at his shoulder. There it squeaked in his ear.
Cormac sat for an hour or so, listening to the storm outside. He heard a wolf howl in the distance, and a bear growl in the thickets. Aristotle stamped and brayed softly. Cormac understood the messages and he reached for the black canvas bag which contained his kithara. ‘Time to begin. The animals are telling me so,’ he murmured.
He undid the buckles and removed the dark shiny kithara. It boomed to itself softly as he handled it. Then, muttering words in the language of the people who had first visited this land, Cormac un-tuned the instrument and then re-tuned it. The bottom string was quite slack and made a deep rasping note. The top string was very tight and made a bright sharp sound. The middle two strings were tuned close together.Cormac held the instrument close, tucking it into his shoulder, and then he let his fingers idly run over the strings, plucking out a melody. He began to sing softly. His eyes closed as he eased himself into a trance, using the song to carry him out and away and to summon the spirits of the long dead. Cormac was calling up all his powers as a singer, all the powers vested in him as protector of the sacred.
Cormac was alone in a wild place where a black wind bent the heather. This was not a place on Earth though it resembled the Earth. This was a land of no-being, a place of trysting, malleable as thought, a shifting landscape where gods and spirits could meet and universes collide without collision. Here stood Cormae, a hunched figure, dwarfed between the land and the sky, and he played his music into the teeth of the wind and dulled it. He sang to the earth. A stone stood up and became a man with wild hair, and eyes that were red. He sang to the air. The wind curled in the grass and became a tree which became a woman with bold face and red lips. Other figures gathered, shapes of fire and water, leaving whatever was their natural state and transforming to the image of the human, for that was the only shape that Cormac could truly understand. One by one the figures gathered close to Cormac and stepped into him, and as each entered him so the music changed.
Birds fell from the sky and nested in his skull.
Cormac cried aloud in agony when a bull charged through the heather, scratching the sky with its horns, and buried its head in his chest. It ate his heart and as it ate, the bull entered him and Cormac remained whole and strong. Only once did the music falter and that was when the earth opened and a swarm of black wasps surrounded Cormac, crawling on his face, in his lips and ears. But then they too fell away and the land became still. The music settled to a single rasping note as the darkness gathered and the temporary refuge established between time and space and consciousness dissolved. But the singer was stronger and links were now made.
Cormac lay stiff and still in his chair. The kithara was held in a grip of iron and his thumb kept the rhythm alive, but slowing. Then his chest heaved with deep gasp as though the old man had been running. He awoke with a start. There was froth at his lips and a trickle of blood from his nose. He had shat himself too. The fearsome encounter to which he had exposed his spirit had racked his body and this was one of the consequences.
He stirred, opened his eyes and slowly eased himself upright. He set his kithara down on the ground by his chair. All his movements were slow and deliberate, like a man who is handling fragile ornaments aware of his own strength. He sniffed and grinned to himself. ‘Disgusting eh? No bloody shame this physical realm. No respecter of the niceties.’ He stood up uncomfortably and then made for the door. ‘Round two, beginning.’
Cormac pushed through the door, picked up a bucket and climbed up the slab-topped steps. Rain was still falling and a blustery wind was shaking the bushes near the oak tree, but Cormac hardly felt it. He stood in the rain in the small clearing and looked about.
Everything was lit by a pale glow. Standing in a ring round the tree and facing in towards him were animals. Deer and bear, wolf and wild cat, fox and badger, snake and frog. A tiger with long teeth, rarely seen, stood beside the common rat and both ignored the peacock which stood with raised plumage. Here a wild horse from the uplands, its coat still flecked with sweat from its running, and a cow that had kicked its way out of the byre some miles distant and come lumbering through the woods. All had come, driven by what? By a music that they could not resist even if they had wanted to. They had come to offer themselves., their strength They stood still, unconscious of why they were there, but present because they had to be. And there were more, Cormac knew, creatures standing in the shadows, humble spirits of trees and waters.
Cormac moved, edging round the clearing, under the baleful yellow eyes of the tiger. At the other side of the tree he came to a path which led down to a small spring where he could wash. The spring spilled over a ledge forming a waterfall.
Fed by the rain, the spring was a torrent. It sparkled with energy.
As he walked Cormac tugged at his old clothes, shrugging them over his shoulders and throwing them into the bushes. He took off his pants too and abandoned them. He stood in the rain and rubbed his body clean with leaves and clumps of moss. Then he filled the bucket and began a methodical washing of himself, starting with his hair and working downwards. He did not want to enter the spring in a dirty state. The spirit of the spring was an old friend. For Cormac she materialized as an old woman with a stern plain face and hair drawn tightly back ― and she greeted him without a smile. ‘Come then finally, have you?’
‘‘ ’bout time too. And no putting that mucky bum in my clean water. Give yourself a bit more of a washing first.’ Cormac did as he was bid. ‘Heard you playing a while back. Something serious, is it? I haven’t heard you play like that for what ― a thousand years?’
‘That was one of my ancestors you heard.’
‘Ah well. You’re all the same to me. Right, you’ll do. Come on in, old man. Let me hold you close.’
Cormac stepped into the waterfall and crouched down. He felt the clean water sluice over him, not cold but fresh and invigorating. It touched him like fingers, teasing him and pummelling. ‘Will we see much more of you?’ asked the woman crouching now beside him and with her arms round his shoulders.
‘Aye, you will. I’ve a lot to teach. And he’s not so promising.’
‘Well bring him down to me when he’s ready and I’ll teach him a thing or two. But not till he’s ready, mark you. Too much knowledge too soon can kill, you know that. It’s only tough old buggers like you that survive.’ She ran her fingers through his grey hair and pressed her hand to his forehead. For a few minutes they sat together, head to head. Then the woman rallied. ‘Now out you go, old man. You’ve had enough. I don’t want to get you excited.’
She planted a solid kiss on Cormac’s lips and then he felt himself gently urged from the water. But before he left he drank deep, opening his mouth and letting the water tumble in.
‘Cheeky old goat,’ he heard her say, and for a few moments she took on the form of the beautiful woman he had known when he was a young man, newly come into his power and the randiest mortal walking.
Then he was out of the water and on his way back to the oak tree. The rain had stopped but the wind still blew. The animals were waiting, staring down towards the small waterfall.
‘Away now,’ called Cormac, waving his arm. ‘You’ll make an old man embarrassed. Get away back to your homes. I’ll call you when I need you and I know you’ll be there. Away now.’ He waved again and the animals began to scatter. Moments later the clearing was deserted.
Cormac climbed down under the tree and dried himself carefully. Then he selected clean clothes ― a simple white shirt, baggy comfortable trews and long stockings. Last he opened an old black wooden chest and removed a green cloak. The fabric was heavy, and while it was clean it was stained and patched and had seen better days. This cloak had been given to Cormac by his master on the day that he had made his first singing. How old it was Cormac did not know. Now he only used the cloak for special occasions.
So, clothed and feeling comfortable and at ease, Cormac picked up his kithara and made his way through to the room where Coll lay.
Coll was in a high fever, banging his head back and forth and trying to talk, whispering names. Cormac threw some herbs on to the small hotplate and soon the sweetness of their burning filled the room. He took a clean cloth and wiped Coll’s brow.
Cormac could see Coll’s fever like a corona of smoke that threatened to choke him. But within the smoke, at its very heart, there blazed a strong and constant light ― and that gave Cormac hope. He settled himself comfortably at the foot of the bed and began to stroke the kithara, pulling chords and brief lines of melody from the ancient instrument, occasionally adjusting the strings, trying to feel what harmonies would best help the troubled man.
While he may have seemed confident, Cormac was not. He was in uncharted territory. His wisdom told him that every situation had its own rules, and if he had any skill at all it was that he could recognize the signs which revealed those rules, separating the seeds from the sand. Cormac moved close to the fever, willing it to reveal itself in a shape that he could comprehend, sending out his music like a web to entrap.
And he succeeded. The fever became a creature with many tentacles and many mouths. It was feeding on Coll, its mouths stuck deep into his body. Cormac played with more energy and though the fever writhed and hung on, it gradually began to diminish until finally it was no bigger than a starfish. It dropped away and a curl of violet light consumed it. The music now touched the mind of Coll as he whimpered and cried. But gradually he settled and became still. His eyes fluttered and his lips moved as new dreams took hold of him.
Coll found himself walking in a grey world.
Far in front of him was a line of stone pillars carved like the columns of a Corinthian temple. These marked some kind of frontier for beyond them the landscape became bright, with green hills and blue skies and high silver clouds. Tethered just beyond the standing stones and shining in the sunlight was a pure white horse with golden hooves and a silver mane and tail. It stroked the ground with one of its front feet and then reared and whinnied when it saw Coll approach.
That horse can run like the wind, thought Coll and he hurried towards it. That horse will carry me to places unknown. To rare adventures.
But the distance was greater than he had expected, and somewhere Coll could hear a music that distracted him, reminding him of the byre at Belia’s Inn. Coll, who in those days was still called Viti, had tended the animals at the inn. All the horses there were dappled work horses, with great tufted hooves and big behinds and when they farted the flies fell dead. Coll laughed at the memory.
And when he laughed the white columns tremble like something reflected in water, and the landscape dimmed. But Coll paid no attention. He hurried on, eager to see the horse.
‘Viti. Hey, Viti.’ Coll glanced about to see who was calling and saw his eldest brother Quintus. This man, the image of his handsome father, was leaning against one of the upright marble pillars and holding a flagon of wine. ‘You’ve grown into a tough little runt. Come over here and let me look at you. Have a drink. Then we’ll ride over the hill to the city. Everyone’s waiting for you.’
Coll could hardly remember Quintus for he had died in a flying accident while Coll was still a child. Even so, Quintus had remained a presence in the great house at Farland Head long after his death. He was famous for his exploits: for his cruelty and his drunkenness.
Coll approached him warily for somewhere, distant and almost hidden, was a memory of Quintus making him drink something which burned his throat. And Viti had cried until finally a nurse arrived and carried him away.
‘See this hoss,’ called Quintus. ‘She’s yours if you come on over.’ Again the horse reared and whinnied.
‘You don’t have to listen to him, you know.’ A new voice joined. Coll stopped in his tracks. This was a voice he remembered well. Felix, his second brother, one of the few male adults who had ever shown any kindness towards him when he was a boy. Felix had been killed in the Western Empire. He’d been a brilliant young man, by all accounts, skilled in language and diplomacy. Coll looked round and discovered Felix sitting on the ground with his back against one of the pillars. He was seated on a rug and rolled out beside him was a scroll on which he had been writing, for among his other accomplishments Felix was a poet, playwright and composer. ‘You can make up your own mind. No one is called before their time. Some come early but none come late.’
Coll looked at Felix and was horrified to see that his body was covered with cuts that bled. The grass about him was stained with red. ‘Sorry about this,’ said Felix. ‘But there are worse things than blood. Like betraying yourself. No man was ever true, but who was first true to himself.’
Quintus brayed with laughter and clapped derisively. ‘Sententious shite. Call yourself a poet,’ he shouted. ‘It doesn’t even bloody scan.’
Coll found his voice. ‘Hey, hey, hey, you two. No squabbling. This is a serious time for me.’ And even as he spoke the music behind him intensified and he remembered the calm face of Miranda as she stared at him a lifetime ago at the hospital in Stand Alone Stan.
‘Clever woman that,’ said Felix. ‘Shame you ruined everything, eh?’
‘Yes,’ said Coll.
‘So what are you going to become? A shade like us ― full of piss and full of wind, the drunkard and the poet?’
‘No,’ said Coll and he turned round and faced the darkness which seemed to have crept up behind him. It seemed that he stared down a long dark tunnel and at the far end was an old man with a whiskered face hunched over an instrument which he played with fervour.
And at that moment Coll heard a roaring. It came from all about him. And there was a voice like iron cymbals crashing together. ‘Turn again, Viti. Turn.’
Coll did turn and found himself staring into the insolent face of Alexander, the blond Roman youth he had killed at the Battle Dome. The man was taller than Viti and in top fighting condition. ‘Come and join us, Viti. The fighting is marvellous,’ and so saying the young Alexander hit Coll’s brother Quintus in the stomach so that he sat down belching out wine, and then he kicked Felix who fell over like a body made of straw. ‘Come and save your brothers. Come and fight me. You know who I am, don’t you?’
‘You are what is left of Alexander, just the spite and the lies and the jealousy ― the rubbish. And those are not my brothers. They’re just toys made to frighten children.’
The being that looked like Alexander howled. ‘Fight me,’ he roared and he charged towards Coll, covering the distance in a couple of bounds.
Coll felt hands like bands of iron grip him. ‘You will fight me now as you never fought in the past.’ Coll felt teeth against his throat and all the fighting reflexes, dinned into him through hours of practice at the Eburacum Military Academy, came to him. He twisted, hunched and butted and felt the strong arms weaken.
But Alexander was not to be fooled. He went with Viti, causing him to lose balance, and then began to slam him with punches to the face and stomach. Wherever Viti turned Alexander was in front of him, dancing, slightly hunched, fists raised, ducking and weaving. ‘Come and eat the worms you made me eat,’ called Alexander, and he moved closer, his fists like darting snakes.
It’s not fair, thought Viti and somewhere a small blubbering child found voice inside him. He wanted to cry and run away. But a stronger presence, a being not yet fully born in him, made him stay. ‘If you run now, there’ll be no end to running. And the longer you run the harder it will be to stop running.’ Coll heard the voice, which was his own voice, and he covered up, head down and weathered the punches.
Moments later he tried a punch of his own which missed its target but made Alexander dance back. That told Coll something: that his adversary was assailable. Coll yet had choice. He had a moment to take stock of things. The landscape had changed. The Corinthian columns were gone as had the white horse and the figures of Felix and Quintus.
He fought in a grey place while all about him were shapes of music.
Coll lowered his guard slowly and stared at Alexander. ‘I don’t have to fight you. You are nothing, and I have a job to do. But when I do come here, I’ll kick your arse so hard you won’t sit down for a week.’
Alexander looked dumbfounded, and then he started to shrivel. Before Coll’s eyes, the figure began to change. Soon he was no longer the insolent handsome youth modelled on Apollo. His face became black and blue and misshapen ― a travesty of beauty. Ginger bristle sprouted from his cheeks and sides, and his feet were cloven lumps of flesh. On his head, tangled in his hair, he wore a crown of cow’s horns and his eyes became closed and small until they stared out of his face like spear wounds. Coll wondered what mischief this change represented. It was very theatrical and left him unmoved, like a charade performed by a bad actor. Cautiously Coll moved round, looking for an opening.
It came quickly. Alexander, or whatever he had now become, ran at him clumsily and it was an easy matter for Coll to trip him and send him sprawling at his feet. The advantage lay with Coll. It would have been simple for him to move in with forearm and heel, but somehow the manoeuvre didn’t seem worth the effort. Coll had been here before, in this situation on a killing field ― too often ― and always he got it wrong. The killing never really solved anything.
He began to turn away, sickened, and the thing at his feet transformed slowly into a blue snake with black markings like diamonds on its supple back.
Coll was caught off-guard by its sudden beauty. The snake coiled round his feet and then it lifted its black-lipped face until it was level with Coll’s eyes and its forked tongue flicked out. The snake laughed, snake laughter, and for a moment darkness fell.
For a moment Coll was aware of an old man who shone with green light and a tall man who shone with golden light and they were bending towards him. ‘Are you Death?’ whispered Coll lifting his arms to the old man and then he was assailed by music which battered him back into the dream-time, into the world where symbolic forms have life, and guide a man’s destiny towards. . . .
. . . the snake was waiting. It was now a man with a snake’s head and it stood in a desert where the wind lifted the sand and made it flow like small rivers. ‘You must keep pace with me now,’ said the snake and so saying it turned and began to run up the side of a rippled sand dune. Coll followed, lumbering and slipping in the soft sand while the snake figure danced ahead.
They ran down the far side of the dune and out on to a plain of boulders where there were bones bleached white. The snake figure never paused though Coll bruised his feet and began to tire quickly.
Once Coll stumbled and fell to his knees. The snake didn’t stop. ‘Lose me now and you’ll never find me,’ it called.
Coll heaved himself up and forced himself to run on. He seemed so slow. And the snake never slacked in its running.
The day passed. Night came.
Night passed and the day came.
And on. And on.
Coll lost all reckoning, but it seemed that he became lighter.
Late one afternoon when the shadows were long, they came to the ruins of a town. There Coll saw, sticking up out of the sand, the stiff, curled shape of a kithara similar to the one which Cormac played with a strap for his arm.
Coll paused in his running. ‘Come on or you’ll lose me,’ called the snake man. But to Coll the find was too important and he stopped and stood looking at the old instrument lodged in the sand. He took hold of the kithara and pulled. It lifted easily, so easily indeed that he fell back and ended up sitting on the sand clutching the instrument to his chest. It boomed in his hands and rustled as the sand poured from it.
‘Play us a tune?’ It was the snake-headed man speaking. He had run in a large circle and now stood close to Coll. He was not even breathing deeply.
‘I can’t play.’
‘Everyone can play. If they choose.’
Coll tightened the strings which squeaked and groaned. Then he strummed them and was astonished when a rich chord filled the air.
‘Now what?’ said the snake man.
‘Now I must carry this kithara with us,’ said Coll.
‘You can’t,’ replied the snake man. ‘ but I can.’ And before Coll could argue, he lifted the instrument from Coll’s hands and danced away. He slung it into a satchel he carried on his back. ‘Now you have an even greater reason to follow me,’ he called, and began running. Coll followed.
Sun. Dark. Sun. Moon. Sun. Moon. Sun. Dark.
Finally Coll began to fail and to fade. Try as he would, he could not catch the snake man who scampered over the sand leaving scarcely a footprint. Coll felt himself become yet lighter.
When he looked at his hands he saw that the skin was thin and dry and falling in flakes. He touched his face and there was no skin, no cheeks, no hair. There was hard dry bone only. He could place his thin bony fingers in the place where his eyes should have been. Coll was filled with the wonder of this. How could it be that he could run and think and see, but yet was no more than a pile of shambling bones?
Then finally the bones too fell away, dropping one by one ― a digit here, a vertebra there, the skull rolling like a broken ball ― until there was nothing left and Coll was a point of thought moving over the pale brown desert following a snake man who never tired and who carried the kithara at his back.
At last they came to a wide river. The water was black and opaque like flowing pitch. The distant bank was shrouded in mist. Ominous and beautiful.
‘Now you have a real choice,’ said the snake man. ‘You can either swim over or you can run back. The swimming is easy and the rewards are great.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Coll. ‘I don’t know. Tell me what to do. I don’t know anything. I don’t…’
. . abruptly the darkness fell. Dropping like a curtain.
Grey light of dawn. Lying on the grass. Again the old man bending over, holding a beaker: the golden man, lifting Coll bodily. The tree. Miranda watching. ‘Was she pleased?
Strange lights in a dark room ― a smell of perfume, balm for the dead.
Then the darkness rose like smoke and Coll found himself in total darkness. This was a darkness like no other. It pressed in close. Slowly a great despondency settled on him. Why move? Why not move? Though the hopelessness dominated him, he could not stay still. He started to walk with his hands thrust out in front of him, and his hands touched damp moss which writhed and pulled at his fingers.
Buried! That was his single thought. And then, All ended. And finally, Failed. I failed whatever it was I was trying to do.
He moved on, because he could not help doing so, feeling his way-, and slowly a faint light gathered round him. It did not bring hope ― it was what was. Not better, not worse. Just what was.
Gradually Coll became aware that he was not alone ― that as he walked there was one walking beside him. But when he turned he could not see his companion who always seemed to move just that bit more quickly. They never touched. Was it the snake-headed man? Coll wondered.
‘Let me see you,’ said Coll finally, but his companion never answered.
Slowly they entered a place of dark trees and bird-song greeted them. A bird which repeated a simple melody sang enthusiastically from high in a tree. A grey light filtered down through the trees and when Coll held up his arm he could see his skin pale and slightly luminous. When he touched his face he could feel his flesh.
At some point his companion left him and Coll walked on alone while the bird sang lustily. But then he came to his name-tree, Coll, the hazel tree, the tree of intuition which sees straight to the heart of mystery. And there standing under the tree with his back to him was a dark figure whom Coll half recognized but yet could not place. He knew it was the companion that had walked close to him out of the darkness. It was not the snake man, though he carried a kithara at his back.
Coll knew that now he had reached the end of his journey. This was the place to which all the paths of his life led. He looked at the back of the figure and he knew that whatever face the figure had, it would be more terrible than anything he might conceive, and that seeing it might destroy him. But Coll had no choice. He had not come so far or walked so deep in despair, to give up now. Though this be the end, and darkness the reward, still he had no choice. ‘Turn round,’ he commanded.
Every fear that he could ever know possessed Coll. He clenched his fists. He bit his lips. He wanted to cry and turn away. He felt his bowels turn to water. But, unstoppable now, the figure slowly turned in the green twilight.
Coll cried out in surprise. He was staring at his own face: stiff, still, utterly composed and lifeless. The figure was himself ― unsmiling and naked.
‘Who are you?’ breathed Coll.
‘I am your Death,’ said the figure. ‘I have never left you. I will never leave you. I am the companion always at your side. I was with you on the bridge at Stand Alone Stan and I was with with you when Gwydion pulled you from the water. Now you see me without illusion. Now you know there is no need to fear me. I am your servant and I am your friend and I will be with you at the end when…’
‘Sh . . . Will I always see you?’
‘When you want to.’
‘Will I always be aware of you?’
If you wish to… but sometimes you will forget.’
Then Coll said, ‘Can I touch you?’
Death replied, ‘Not now. Later. One day. You have made your decision. You chose Life. And that is good. I am not jealous. You have made that decision several times. Now you must move on. Now that you have faced me, there can be no more fear.’ Then strangely Death smiled and asked, ‘What are you, Viti and Coll?’
Without thinking Coll replied, ‘I am . .. I am whatever I become.’
And when Coll said these words Death suddenly unslung the kithara from his back, struck it once so that a mighty sound shook the tree, and then he handed the instrument to Coll.
Moments later Death began to fade. The air about Coll brightened. He found himself lying in a bed in a low-ceilinged room, smelly with the smoke of burnt herbs and sour with sweat.
Coll turned and found himself looking into the face of Gwydion who was holding a candle and staring at him intently. ‘Are you all right?’ asked Gwydion.
‘I think I am,’ murmured Coll. ‘But where’s the thingummy, the instrument? And where the hell am I? Eh?’
Gwydion shook his head. ‘Don’t know what instrument you’re talking about. And as for where you are, you’re a guest in the house of Cormac the Singer. And bloody lucky you are too.’
‘Cormac? How did I get here?’
‘That’s another story,’ said Gwydion. ‘And that story can wait. I’m going to get Cormac.’ So saying Gwydion withdrew after placing the candle down on a small table beside Coll’s head. Coll was alone. He stared into the flame and for a moment it seemed to carry him away. ‘Are you there?’ he whispered softly. And equally softly came the whispered reply, ‘Ever and always. I never sleep. Nor am I ever jealous. Make your way, brave man.’
Coll heard a shout and moments later Cormac shuffled into the room. The man seemed smaller than Coll remembered, shrunken. In his hands he carried his kithara. ‘So, lad. You’re back. We thought we’d lost you for a while there.’
‘Cormac,’ said Coll for the second time, making no attempt to disguise his pleasure. ‘Of all people . . . But how come I am here? The last thing I remember was Gwydion and me stuck in a bloody great swamp and the rain coming down.’
‘Don’t excite yourself.’
‘Where’ve I been?’
‘You tell us.’
Coll thought back and was astonished to discover that he could remember everything that had happened to him ― almost as though it were all still happening ― but distanced, too. ‘I’ve been on a journey,’ he said. ‘And I met…’ He stopped. He could not bring himself to say the words. ‘You’ll think I’m mad.’
‘I met my Death.’
Gwydion’s eyes gleamed. Cormac’s eyes, deep sunken under his eyebrows, were inscrutable. ‘And?’ asked Cormac. ‘Were you given anything?’
‘I found a … I was given a…’ Coll looked about on the small bed. ‘I thought I had it with me. A kithara, a bit like yours only smaller, not so grand.’
Cormac let out a sigh. ‘Where did you find the kithara?’
‘I pulled it out of the sand near a ruined town. I made a tune of sorts and then the snake man took it from me..
‘Ah, that’s for wisdom and the knowing of life. Go on. Who gave it back to to you?’
‘So now you know where your life goes.’
‘Do I?’ Coll was confused. So much was happening.
Cormac regarded him sternly. ‘Well you’ve always got choice, of course. But we’ll talk about that in the morning. Rest now.’
Coll nodded. His mind had begun to wander. Tiredness of an ordinary kind was taking him over and he did not feel able to respond to what Cormac was saying, still less understand him. At the same time he felt warm, and safe and secure in a way that he had rarely experienced in his life before. And for the time being that was sufficient. He lay back. ‘How long have we been here?’ he asked.
‘Fourteen days come tomorrow. A full half cycle of the moon.You arrived when she was just past the full and now she’s just past the new. So you will start to learn with her.’
‘That’s a long time to be unconscious.’
Gwydion spoke for the first time. ‘You weren’t unconscious all the time. You raved a bit. Talked about what it was like when you were a boy with your brothers and some kid called Alexander. But we wiped you down and fed you, and cleaned you up like a right baby.’
Coll was embarrassed. He felt like someone caught doing something indecent in public. ‘I suppose I should say thank y―’
‘Don’t say thank you,’ shouted Gwydion and Cormac in unison.
Coll grinned. And the grin stiffened, for he was asleep. For a moment, before he relaxed, he looked like his invisible companion.
Cormac and Gwydion retreated to the next room. It was late in the evening but the hangings which closed the doors were tied back allowing the soft warm summer air to flow into the underground house. The ubiquitous stew of the woodlanders was steaming on the hotplate while the vapour disappeared up the flue. Cormac filled two bowls and carried them outside. Gwydion fetched some ale. The two men settled down in the clearing under the oak, making themselves comfortable on wooden chairs which Gwydion had built, shaping the wood with an axe. From this vantage point they could see down the hill to the place where Gwydion had climbed, carrying Coll. They could see over the trees to where the marsh was hazy with fog and insects. Beyond, just visible above the mist, was the shape of hills still golden in the setting sun.
‘I feel like I’ve been through the ringer too,’ said Gwydion, slurping his stew.
Cormac nodded. ‘But now we must proceed with caution, but boldly too. There isn’t much time.’ Overhead the swallows dived catching insects. ‘Tomorrow young Coll’s got a big decision to make.’
‘What’s that then?’
‘He’s got to decide whether he wants to become a singer or not.’
‘What, him?’ Gwydion was genuinely astonished. While he liked Coll and was prepared to let bygones be bygones and help Coll to adapt to the world of the forest, he could not conceive of Coll becoming a singer. ‘He’s a bloody Roman.’
‘I don’t make the choice.’
‘It took me seven years before I started singing ― mark you I was a lazy sod. I’ll teach him what I can. That’s if he wants to learn. If not, I’ll turf him out on his ear tomorrow.’
Gwydion sat silent, absorbing the news. During the two weeks while Coll was in the otherworid, Gwydion and Cormac had spent their spare moments talking, exploring the changes taking place in their world. Gwydion had told Cormac about the things that he and Coll had seen, the ships unloading the chemicals; and at Castra Skusa the barrels stored; and their strange journey through the flood. These conversations had rarely been resolved and had usually ended when Coll needed their attention. Now, with the danger passed, they relaxed properly for almost the first time.
‘Why is everything so rushed?’ asked Gwydion. ‘I’m not talking about now as opposed to a hundred years ago when you were a kid. I’m talking about Coll. Why is everything so rushed with him?’
‘Well,’ said Cormac, easing round in his seat, ‘as well as I can explain it . . – Have you seen waves coming in to the shore? They come in steadily and then whoosh, they hit the shore and all the energy gets released in a few seconds and the spray shoots up and the lather comes rolling up the sand. Well, we are at that moment just before the wave breaks. Don’t ask me why. Ages change. The wheel turns. And the greatest savagery of any age is always saved to the end, like a wave breaking. You told me about those drums of fire-liquid you saw over yonder, you told me about the ships unloading at Cliff Town and that soldier who said the Romans were going to burn a bit of the forest?’ Gwydion nodded. ‘Well that’s all part of it. But there’s more. There’s what causes those things to happen. Ideas that get out of hand when people forget they are human and part of Nature and begin to believe in abstractions. That’s what is worst, and that’s what is going to take all our strength. Well perhaps not mine directly but yours, and Coll’s and that bonny lass Miranda and . .. well everyone finally. Not just us people either. I’ve listened to the birds and the animals. They came to see me. I’ve heard the talk in the groves at midnight when the trees share. Everything knows that we’ve come to a time of testing, but nobody knows the outcome. The fight is on, that’s all.’ He paused and refreshed himself with ale. Then he wiped the froth from his whiskers. ‘Have I ever told you about my Master Gilli ― the singer who taught me to sing? Well he had a phrase that keeps coming back to me. He used to end all his singings with the same words. “If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” No one knew what the hell he was talking about, but those words used to send a shiver down my spine. I asked him to explain and he said, “You’ll know when the time comes.” Well I do. And the time is now.’
Gwydion drank deeply. ‘My mam, old Bella, she once told me she thought I was special in some way and that was why she kicked me out of the house so young ― so that I could get experience. I’m only twenty-eight, or thereabouts, but sometimes I feel as though I’m a thousand years old. I’ve got more scars than I can count. It seems like I’ve spent all my whole life fighting, and thieving, and in betweens getting drunk and making love to as many women as I could. I live as though time’s running out. So I know what you mean. Sometimes, I feel angry in a way that I know makes me dangerous. I know how the old ones felt ― the ones that ran naked into battle and could terrorize the enemy with a look and a shout. I can do that. Sometimes, I feel this anger burning up inside me and I want to fight – it’s like a lust I can’t control. I bloody near brained young Coll on our way here just ‘cos he got up my nose.’ Gwydion laughed at the memory. ‘And what I feel now is a savageness waiting ― like I felt that time I was captured in a brothel by a Roman platoon. Did I ever tell you about that?’ Cormac shook his head. ‘Hell of a laugh. I was working as a bouncer at this brothel in Hispania ― I even got paid for it , and the perks… anyway, this squad of Romans arrived one afternoon rounding up girls for an orgy. I was on duty, dressed up in one of the courtesan’s skirts just in case there was trouble … and the soldiers were so pissed and eager with it that they never noticed ― till it was too late. Anyway, there I was, dressed up in silks and bundled out for this orgy, and where do you think it was? At the villa of the Praefecrus Comitum of Hispania himself, no less. So anyway, whenikt got down to business and they were all possed and getting a bit randy I …’
The two men fell to yarning as the shadows lengthened… cackling and sharing memories. They sat till the new moon swung up over the distant hills like a small silver ship and shone on the still marsh-water.
The ale was almost finished when Gwydion stretched. ‘So what happens now, Cormac? What happens next to young Coll?’
‘I’ll put the word on him tomorrow. And if he accepts I begin to teach him, to in-shistiate him . . . in the artsh of being a shinger.’ He spat and that seemed to clear his head. ‘And we’ll be away a lot of the time.’
‘In the woods. In the dream-world too… He’s a lot of journeys to make. And that’s where your work comes in, old warrior. You are the guardian. You protect us wherever we are from eyes that spy and from anything else that comes nosing.’
Gwydion grinned in the darkness. ‘I knew I’d come in useful.’ He yawned. ‘And what happens if he chooses not to be a singer?’
‘He will die.’ The words were said so simply. Gwydion stopped in mid-stretch. ‘He has come so far and there is no middle way. He now knows so much and so little and there is no moving forwards except by beginning again. Besides, he knows just enough to be dangerous. So I will sing him one of the death songs and send him back to the darkness or you will take him down to the woods and come back alone.’
There was a long pause. Both man looked into the dark Finally Cormac rallied. ‘That would be sad and I hope it will not come to that ― but he has a sad streak to his nature which might make him turn away from his best hope of fulfilment. But we’ll find out tomorrow. He’ll begin to recover quickly now that his mind is clear. The past has fallen away like baggage that he no longer needs. He’s hungry to learn.’
Gwydion stood up and stretched again. ‘Well I think I’ll turn in, if it’s all the same to you,’ he said quietly. ‘What about you? Do you want a hand down the steps? You’re none too steady.’
‘No,’ said Cormac, standing up stiffly. ‘I think I’ll take a wander down to the stream. I fancy a bit of a natter.’
‘Well don’t fall in.’
‘I should be so lucky.’
And thus ended the night of Colt’s awakening.
The next day Cormac got Coll up shortly after dawn. When they had eaten a small meal they sat outside in the clearing and Cormac made Coll describe everything that had happened to him during the two weeks of his dreaming. As the tale unfolded Cormac explained the significance of every detail.
At the end Cormac looked at him closely and Coll was aware of the power of the old man’s gaze. It was as though he was looking completely through him. It was not a hostile gaze but a look such as statues can have. ‘So now, young Coll, you have a decision to make.’
‘Something guided you here? Do you agree?’
‘I thought you did.’
‘I provided the light, but you had to find your way.’
‘Then I suppose … yes, I was guided. But what guided me?’
‘You did. Don’t look for mysterious structures. Concentrate on yourself. Let the good sense inside you have sway. When you comprehend your own strength, you begin to comprehend everything. I know, you’ve had a hell of a time and you are tired and weak. Nothing’s prepared you for this ― at least when I began I’d heard the singers since I was a child ― even in my mother’s womb I’d heard them ― but you…’ He shook his head. ‘Strange who gets the call and who doesn’t, eh? And the timing is always right, even when it seems all wrong. You can deny the call for many lifetimes . . . but still it will be there.’
‘Please speak simply.’
‘All right. I have one question for you. “What do you want to become?” And then before Coll could reply Cormac pushed him head-first off his chair and sent him rolling down the bank. ‘Come back in an hour and give me your answer,’ called Cormac, ‘and take this with you, you might need it.’ So saying he threw the kithara down the bank and Coll leaped to one side and caught the instrument before it could hit the ground. He fell with it, clutching it to him, protecting it with his body. When Coll finally came to a stop and looked back up the hill he found that Cormac had gone.
‘Silly old man,’ shouted Coll. ‘You could’ve bust the bloody thing. Then where would we have been?’ But there was no reply.
Coll was at a loss. He wandered round the side of the hill and he heard the birds singing above him, protecting their territory. That seemed important. Was there a message in all of that for him? Gwydion found messages in everything. He stopped and wondered what the other birds heard when all he heard was their song.
He wandered on and came to the tree called Coll. ‘Hello, friend,’ said Coll. ‘Can you tell me what to do?’ There was, of course, no reply. “Course, I’ve got to make my own mind up, haven’t I?’ Above him the birds hammered out their melodies. He moved on round the hill and eventually heard water tumbling. A spring. Ha! Cormac’s got it all laid on, he thought, remembering his own tree-house and the stream he’d had to walk to. He came to the waterfall and the sunlight was touching the water, lighting it up and catching the fine spray so that it created a flickering rainbow.
The tumbling water reminded Coll how thirsty he was and at the same time how badly he wanted to pee. He put the kithara down carefully, relieved himself in the bushes and then came back for a drink. On an impulse he put his head partly into the water and let it tumble into his mouth. As he did this he was blinded for a moment by the sun and the water poured over his face, into his ears and down into the space between his open shirt and his bare skin. He jumped back. It was as though the waterfall had played a trick on him.
He stripped off his shirt and hung it on a branch to dry. How long have I got left? he wondered. And what am I going to say to old Cormac?
He sat down above the waterfall and idly began to strum the strings of the kithara. He did not know how to play but he could see where the body of the instrument was worn with holding and where the singers who had used it had placed their fingers. He plucked the strings and was delighted at the rich sound that came from the instrument. A bird fluttered down and perched on a stone on the lip of the waterfall and watched him, its head on one side. Coll strummed more notes and the bird hopped closer. In the silence between the notes Coll heard the waterfall sing in its roaring manner, he heard the trees shift and their leaves rustle, he saw the sun on the water and then, magically it seemed ― though he knew it was not magic ― the bird opened its beak and chirped to him. And in that moment Coll knew what he wanted. He strummed the kithara and its notes were appropriate. He wanted to belong, to this world, to this moment for there was no other moment. Coll bent to his music. Music was the way to belong. Music united all worlds. Coll wanted to be a singer ― like Cormac ― able to heal and bring joy and ease sadness.
The thought was preposterous! Mad! Insane! He was dreaming! But the thought once born would not go away. It had snagged in him. And so, for better or worse, that was what he would tell Cormac and if Cormac told him to clear off, well so be it. At the same time, the thought seemed right ― like pulling on your own shoes in the dark when there is a whole pile of shoes to choose from ― and it made sense of everything.
He finished his playing and stood up. The bird flew away. He climbed quickly up the bank towards the oak tree. Waiting there was Cormac and a few steps behind him stood Gwydion. Gwydion looked strangely ill at ease, angry almost, ready.
‘So what is your answer, young Coll?’ called Cormac.
‘I want to become a singer, like you. I want to be your apprentice. If thats…’
‘Well that’s all right then,’ said Cormac. ‘You had me worried for a minute. So let’s begin.’
(End of Chapter 1)
So there we are. If any of you want to leave me a message regarding these 4 books here’s your chance.