Stories

Many of the stories published on this page are extracts from The Raven and the Storyteller which can be found on Amazon

A Bards Tale 

Long ago, well before this time, but when the world was even then already old, there was an ancient college high up on a mountain peak, well away from any city or village. It was a college of Druids. Some called them Alchemists and some called them Healers, some called them Seers and many called them Philosophers and indeed they were all of these things. They also acted as Judges when called upon to do so.

It was here that the Bards studied and received their training.

As some of you may already know the studies of the Druids are very long indeed and so it is with the Bards. This tale is about a young man, Alwyn, who had spent nineteen years in his studies to become a Bard.

He learned the natural sciences, logic, philosophy, mathematics, geometry, music, grammar and syntax, oratory, history, astronomy and navigation.

After ten years of these general studies he began to memorise the key features all of the known myths and much poetry and the arts of storytelling and all of the forms of poetry as well as the twenty four ancient forms and their uses and the secrets of Taliesin’s work and the truths of The Matter of Britain. He had learned how to make his own poetry sing with internal beauty and how to hurl a curse so fearful that it could stop an enemy in his tracks.

As you can tell he really had to work hard but he was happy to do so. A Bard was free to tell a tale and say what he liked in free speech wherever he went in those days. He was also a welcome messenger carrying news of what went on in the land. Alwyn regarded it all as a great privilege. He wanted to be nothing else and was aware that there is no end to learning.

So, time passed and after another nine years he had the ability to spin a myth into a good tale to speak with a fine harp accompaniment or to play a music to which no feet could be still at a village dance and compose a fine verse on demand, and beautiful poetry from his own heart and from seeing the essence of nature. He then was set a task, a question, to deepen his understanding of story and to send him journeying, out in the world.

He was to be a travelling Bard. He was too young, inexperienced and unknown to be a great Bard in a great Court for by then he was only six and twenty years on this earth. He was a Bard for the people. He was given a harp as the tool of his craft, a pair of good strong boots and a blue cloak against the cold.

When he set off it was autumn, just as it is now. He carried little, just a small bag of the most necessary things and a hip flask of mead. He took up his harp and slung it onto his shoulder and began his journey of a year and a day..

He descended the rocky path into the woods below. All the leaves on the trees shone with orange and gold and the woods were full of sounds as the creatures bustled about preparing their winter stores.

He thought of the myths and stories he knew and none seemed to fully answer…… ”What is honour?”

The young Bard realised that for all his studies he had less than he thought in his own store for he knew little of the outside world, least of all, about the question he had been asked and was, at that moment, pondering.

A year and a day to answer a question.

”What is honour?” —- the words turned over and over in his mind. He had entered the shelter of the college aged seven. He knew he was himself not qualified to answer the question so he resolved to ask where he could, as indeed he had been instructed to do.

He gathered food here and there as he walked and drank the fresh sparkling water of the mountain springs and composed a new tune in his head as he walked. The words for a song came to him easily but the nature of honour eluded him.

As the sun was beginning to sink he had reached a valley and in the soft curve at the bottom of the valley a small well kept cottage was nestled, by a still grey lake fringed with reeds. There were sheep in a nearby enclosure, bought in for safe keeping at dusk.

A small boy, unafraid, ran out of the cottage door to meet him. The young boy knew a Bard when he saw one and was excited at the prospect of a tale. The boy was soon followed by his father and mother who were friendly, open hearted folk who invited the young Bard to share their supper in return for a tale or two and they all soon sat down by the fire for a bowl of mutton stew.

The Bard introduced himself as Alwyn and told them many tales that night, tales chosen with care to suit his audience, tales that made them cry a little and laugh a lot. He understood his audience well enough from his studies and even more by watching the firelight and delight or sorrow in their eyes, falling or fading and flaring up just as the flames did in the hearth.

They all grew tired, and the boy was long asleep, lulled by the sound of the harp, so they gave Alwyn a bed for the night and in the morning, as he broke the nights fast with them he asked his question. The farmer looked ponderous but the boy swiftly and brightly piped up with an answer.

”If you have honour you don’t steal from your mother or father because they are the people who care for you most and gave you life.”

His mother and father nodded and smiled but his father, looking thoughtful, added,

”Aye but what if you’re starving and ain’t got no coin? then you can steal but from only the rich. I’d steal the kings rabbits out of the wood and mind I don’t get caught and still keep my honour I reckon. He would kill me for it if I was caught though. Remember that my boy! But he should not have let you starve in the first place, I say. Where is the honour in starving folk? Good question it is and I have answered with all I know of it. High born folk will have another opinion of honour i suppose but I think i am as honourable as they. I just know we have been lucky and not had to think about honour too much.”

The Mother spoke then.

” I say it’s being true to the people you love and giving kindness to strangers. If you don’t do that it doesn’t matter if you are honourable in some fine way or not! If you don’t do those two things you are just plain bad!”

Alwyn thanked them for their hospitality and he took up his harp and slung it onto his shoulder and travelled on his way.

He told many stories in his travels and asked the question many times but felt himself no nearer to any certain truth of the nature of honour at all and had formed no opinion of his own, except that it had something to do with kindness and honesty.

Time was passing swiftly.

One day Alwyn reached the walls of a town. The gate stood wide open, for this was a peaceful time, but it was still always guarded by men at arms. Alwyn noticed that a few of them, off duty, were sitting around a fire and he wandered over to ask if he might warm himself and tell them a tale.

He told them tales of glory and battles and heroism and of the crafty schemes of merchants and the witty jests of village landlords in taverns which delighted them. Then he asked them ”What is honour?”

They all answered much the same.

”I serve the Lord of this land and he serves the King. I made a vow to do so. I took an oath and to keep that oath is a matter of honour for me.”

”And what if he commands you to do something you think is clearly wrong?” asked Alwyn.

The most outspoken soldier paused in polishing his sword and answered, with a tone of annoyance, ”I must obey whether I like it or not. I took an oath. I am not an oath breaker! A man who breaks a seriously taken oath is a liar and a cheat and has no honour at all! My Lord must also keep his oath to the King. We are equal in that.”

”And the King? Does he take an oath?” Alwyn asked.

”Of course!” said the Knight. ”He makes an oath to God!”

”He must claim to know very precisely Gods Will?”

The Knight gave the Bard a narrow eyed look and said, ‘I don’t question that. It’s not my place. I know what honour is and I live by mine.”

”You make it seem so simple” said Alwyn, with a smile, ‘Thank you.”

If Alwyn had not safe passage and free speech by right in the land it might have gone ill for him to be asking such a question about the King, but, as always, he took up his harp and slung it onto his shoulder and travelled on his way.

One day, as the first snows were beginning to fall and the red berries shone out against the dark leaves of the holly, he met an old man with a donkey, sheltering at the side of the road, huddled up against the chill air and stirring a pot of thin soup. He invited Alwyn to share his meagre meal which had a wonderful scent of herbs about it, rising in steam in the frosty air.

Alwyn felt sure, that being older in years than other people he had asked, this man might have a good answer. When he heard the question the old man nodded sagely and admitted it was by no means an easy question.

”I wrote a verse of my own about this,” he said. ”It does not answer your question but it does warn of Honour’s most dangerous companion …..

”Honour’s not without grave risks, you will see,
Since close beside Honour’s throne sits Pride;
And Pride’s self-gazing shatters love inside
The soul, thus leaving naught but echoed “Me!”
So heed my paltry lines I write: Stand tall
When called before the crowd, a hero’s crown
Receiving. Wait, when you take it for your own
and know, Pride goes forth before a fall.”

At this moment a younger man came out of a nearby wood, attracted by the fire. He was simply dressed but he had a very fine horse and the horse wore armour and its reins were held by a squire. The man was very polite in his manner. His hair was turning just a little grey and he looked tired and care worn. The old man stood and bowed stiffly and invited him to rest at the fire. Alwyn greeted him with a smile.

”I could not help but overhear your verse” said the Knight, for such he was. He took a seat on a moss covered stone near the fire.

”We were discussing the nature of honour Sir” said Alwyn, passing the Knight and the old man a cup each of mead from his flask. ”May we have your own opinion?”

”Indeed” said the Knight,, ”for honour is the core at the heart of my life. It’s a continuous reaching for a better version of ourselves, and encouraging others to reach for that also. It’s a way of relating to others that places them not only higher than ourselves, but higher than they might think of themselves. It is a standard that we must reach, or die trying, because anything less would be a failure of character.”

”A very interesting answer Sir,” said Alwyn, thinking it the best answer he had received so far and that it seemed to fit well with what the farmers wife had said.

Wrapping his blue wool cloak close around him and bidding them farewell with blessings Alwyn slung his harp on his back and travelled on, thinking of the Knights words about having a better self. What was this better self we much reach for?

The end of Alywn’s journey had arrived and he was still pondering this question as he arrived back at the door of the college. The year and a day was over and even before he had unslung his harp from his back he was called to his teachers chamber to give his own answer and this is what he said,

”I asked many people and everyone answered me in accordance with their view of the world and their own heart. It seems there always has to be a judgement made about what is honourable and what is not. Opinion may change with experience but you have to make these judgements every day of your life, even in the simplest act. I think it is a question with no certain answer and this is not a matter for dogma, for each mans life is his own responsibility. I think one aspect is based on kindness, for we all live in community, but one man spoke of his ‘better self’, a higher version of his self, and this I think is the clue. This higher self is the soul. Perhaps honour is the way we protect our own soul in all our own actions and sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed but the honour is in the trying to care for our own soul. It is our soul that demands honour.”

The Druid smiled and told Alwyn to go and rest but Alwyn was still curious.

”Did I answer rightly?”

”Let your own soul answer that question and soon we will set you another for your next journey. Those who ponder on such questions as what is honour, what is truth and what is love and think with an open heart and mind are well begun in the journey of learning that will one day leads them to wisdom. Always take care of your soul. You will continue to travel. Your studies progress well enough.”

*****************************

The day Moon met the Raven

A man who had for some time been travelling the road in all weathers, sat down at the roadside under a sheltering tree. His jacket was richly embroidered but his leather boots were dusty and worn from long walking. He had little coin in his purse but his pouch was full of papers covered with poems and interesting thoughts gathered here and there. He was tired, too tired to even be capable of assessing his own mood at that moment. He was, he thought, probably content and in balance.

As the sun sank and dusk fell he looked up and saw the moon rise and he realised that it was the Autumn Equinox, when the length of the day and the night, darkness and light, are equal. As he relaxed and watched the moon climb higher into the sky his mind drifted and he began to assess his own life, dispassionately.

Awakening from his trance he realised that he had been joined by a white cat and a raven. He thought they must be hungry and began to feel in his pocket for food of some kind but the Raven, seeing his intention, said,

”Sir, don’t let us trouble you, for we are not hungry. We came to sit beside you only because your appearance interested us.”

With that, they began to discuss him as if he was not there, but also as though they could read all his thoughts.

The cat said ”He seems to me a miserable man with a sad life. Look at his boots and the lines that run down by the sides of his mouth, Raven, and he clearly has no money. I would say he is a terrible failure. He has nothing. He looks homeless and I am convinced he has no wife and no children.”

She paused to clean an ear with her paw and looked thoughtful.

” I expect he has travelled much too, and those types who keep feeling the need to move on seldom manage to keep many friends. Doubtless he is also unemployed or he wouldn’t be sitting here dreaming. It all looks like doom and gloom to me. How very sad! ”

”Squawk,” said the Raven, cocking his head at the man and considering, ” I see him quite differently. I see a man with laughter lines round his eyes and he clearly loves beauty, just look at the jacket he wears! And he may not have much in the way of coin but he is generous with what he does have or he would not have begun to search for food when he saw us. He is kind I think. He does seem to have a lot of papers in his pouch and I suspect they are poems so maybe he has, not a job, but a talent. Also he is tall and strong and I doubt he lacks for food. I suspect he is also armed, a dagger slipped into his boot perhaps.”

The Raven hopped onto the man’s shoulder to get a closer look, thinking that he had remarkable peculiar ears, but discarding the point as irrelevant for now.

”As for being much travelled, well yes, but is it really true to say that a rolling stone gathers no moss? True, he probably has left friends and loved ones behind, but just imagine all he has seen on the way and all of the people he has met. I think he has had a rich life and must be happy and could even be congratulated.”

The Raven and the Cat then proceeded to squabble and the man feared the Raven might be eaten, so he spoke.

”May I interject in this argument for the sake of your peace?”

”Yes, please do”, said the Raven, hoping for an end to the fight and some wisdom.

”I suppose so” said the Cat, shrugging and sounding gloomy, ”Much good may it do, for I expect none.” She sat grooming herself again, looking bored.

”Well” said the man, ”It seems to me that you both see things from only one point of view. You, dear Cat, are entirely negative and this charming Raven sees only the good and the positive in all.”

”So”, said the Cat, expecting to lose the argument, ”Tell me I am wrong then. Go on.”

At that the Raven looked pleased but sighed in a way only a bird can.

”The truth is,” said the man, ”that you are both right but without each other you are both wrong.”

”How so Sir?” said the Raven, looking puzzled.

”I am both happy and sad.” the man replied, ”The sum of all you say is true. But if only the negative was true I would just sit here and give up and if only the positive part were true then I would have learned nothing. The positive and the negative work together in my life. Joy is my desire and I have often had it but I know that sorrow, which I also have had, can bring depth to feeling and we can’t appreciate the one without the other. So I sit in the middle and am content. You need balance!”

With that, the man stood up.

”I will continue my journey now”, he said. ”I wish you both well and safe paths.”

The cat turned her back and pretended to look at something else, as Cats always do when embarrassed and the Raven said,

”Sir I will come with you if I may. I have always liked travel. I sense that you are restless at night and perhaps when you are tired I can lighten your day.”

The man smiled and nodded his head. As he began to walk off he said, under his breathe,

‘’Gold leaves spin, falling, bringing sadness and delight. The balance is held.’’

 

******

 

The Whisper and the Rose.

 

A warrior was returning from a long war, one that he no longer believed in. He was tired and felt himself growing older. He was walking across a barren and desert place. His horse walked beside him with a drooping head. They had seen oasis after oasis but all springs and wells were dry and the water supply they carried was running very low. They had an urgent need for water. As the sun sank and the desert chill of night began they saw a crumbling sandstone palace ahead and plodded towards it.

Passing through the gate, the palace seemed deserted. Water ran from the mouth of a stone lion and into a pool on the other side of the courtyard. The warrior felt he had never seen a more beautiful clear water. It twinkled, reflecting the sunlight and distorting the blue and gold mosaic patterns around in the fountain bowl. He licked his parched lips and hastened toward it.

”Not so fast!” a man’s voice said.  The warrior spun around, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

An old man advanced toward him through an archway. As the warrior looked around he saw people peeping at him from behind the carved screens around the inner wall but as his eye fell on them they scurried away.

The old man looked strong despite his age. He walked with a very upright, straight back and a manner of great self-assurance. His robe was richly embroidered, dark hues against black, but it was faded, as if the sun had bleached its colours almost entirely away. He held a black staff in his hand that glimmered slightly but he had no other weapon. He smiled grimly.

”I do not forbid a stranger and his horse refreshment Sir” he said ”But be warned that if you drink of this water you will place yourself in the debt of all who dwell here.”

”Very well,” said the warrior, ”Even if I can deny myself water I would not deny my horse. What payment do you require to settle such a debt?”

”I will but ask that you do me a simple favour,” said the old man. ”Now drink Sir.”

The warrior walked with his horse to the fountain and stood aside while his horse sank his muzzle into the water and drank a long time. When his horse had finished the warrior took a brass bowl that hung on a chain and dipped it into the fountain several times and drank until his great thirst was quenched.

The warrior then lived amongst the people of the palace for many days and no favour was asked of him. They lived a simple life. They kept goats and chicken and a few sheep but, in the evenings, when they sat around the fire together they made no music and if any told a story it was dark and grim and no-one ever smiled. Only the men sat close to the fire. The women sat a little way off, their faces veiled. They all wore sad grey robes and only the old man’s robe was embroidered.

It became clear that they rarely saw strangers and that it was long since they had travelled anywhere for trade.

After a few days of this grim life the old man came to the warrior.

”I ask you now to return a favour in exchange for our hospitality.”

”Yes, as I promised,” said the warrior.

”I want you to guard the stone box you see at the centre of the courtyard,” the old man said, gesturing toward the box.

”You will guard it alone every night and you must ignore anything you hear. Don’t trust any voice.”

”Very well,” said the warrior, looking perplexed.

”Don’t worry about this,” said the old man, leaning a little on his black staff. ”All that is in the box is a rose that grows beneath the ground and gains its light through the filigree stonework of the box. Also I want you to water it each morning. This must be done without fail so that it does not die.”

The warrior did as he was bid, taking a lantern with him. He stood beside the box and put the lamp on the floor beside the box. He peered in and was surprised to see that the rose was black. He wasn’t quite sure if this was caused by darkness and shadow but it seemed to be so.

As the moon reached the apex of the sky he heard a quiet whisper.

”Let it die.”

Nothing more.

By the morning he thought he had only imagined the whisper and he took a pitcher of water and poured some down on the rose.

The next night the same thing happened. The whisper came again and said,

”Trust me. You don’t know what you do. Let this black rose die.”

The warrior watered the rose at dawn and went to the old man and told him what he had heard.

The old man just shrugged, ”I told you not to listen. This whispering voice is a strange illusion that afflicts all who guard the rose and it lies. The rose must not die. Our lives depend upon this. This place is under a spell and the black rose is our protection.”

Night after night the warrior guarded the rose. He even forgot his own journey and he turned a deaf ear to the whisper that came in the moonlight. Weeks and months passed.

One night the whisper sobbed and said,

”You are blind. Let the rose die. This man keeps us prisoner in our own lands. You know nothing of this place. You think he helps you. This water is free to all but for this man who stole my home. You have been tricked into an evil. Let the rose die and set me free.”

In the morning the warrior watered the rose but his heart was heavy and his mind perplexed. He realised he had no idea who lied and who told the truth. He had no way of knowing. He thought it might be wiser to trust a man than trust a whisper in the night. He decided to continue to keep his promise but he didn’t speak to the old man about it again.

The next night the whisper came again, sounding frustrated,

”If you don’t listen to me you will become as bad as them! You are falling under the same curse.”

For the first time the warrior spoke back to the whisper.

”Why do you say that?” he said.

”Do you feel any wish to travel on and reach your home, as you did when you arrived? Don’t you see that nothing grows here but the rose? There is no music, no laughter. The place is grim and barren with no life and it’s the same for miles around this place. All is barren and deserted. No plant lives but this rose. You are strong and could ride away and yet you stay. Ask yourself why!”

The night passed and the warrior watered the rose at dawn as always. But all next day he thought. He wondered why he had not resumed his journey. He was even starting to neglect his horse. This startled him. He vaguely recalled that he never neglected his horse. He finally felt suspicious and a little as if he was waking from slumber and he resolved to speak when the voice whispered to him again that night.

He went to tend to his horse with extra care before he went to his guard post by the box that night. He felt sad that he had not spent as much time with his horse of late. The horse snorted and pushed against him. He rubbed his horses ears thinking perhaps it was time they just left this place, but he felt so lethargic the instant he thought it.

The warrior walked to his guard post feeling more tired than he ever had before. When the moon hung high in the sky he thought he saw a faint glimmer out of the corner of his eye. The feeling that someone was there grew stronger and he saw the glimmer again.

Then he heard the whisper.

”I beg you not to water that rose before you become truly like the rest of them! I know you feel it beginning now. Don’t water the rose. You only have to fail to water it once and I and my people will be released. Remove this terrible enchantment!”

The warrior suddenly heard in her voice the urgent honesty with which she spoke. His instinct told him she spoke the truth.

When dawn came he left the rose dry and turned to walk away. He heard a tremendous crack behind him as the courtyard split across the centre and up from the ground coiled the rose, on a stem as thick as an arm. The huge rose bent down its hideous, heavy head above him. It had fangs like a serpent.

The warrior drew his sword and hacked at the stem as the rose lashed about, snapping at him. The old man rushed into the courtyard shouting curses and pointed his staff at the warrior.

The warrior struck a mighty blow at the rose just beneath its massive head and it fell to the ground, spewing out an odious sap that made the warrior almost slip and lose his footing. In an instant the glimmer he had seen before appeared between the warrior and the old man and formed a shield that deflected a flash that shot from the staff toward him. The old man fell to the floor.

Behind the warrior from the box a beautiful white rose grew. It had a graceful stem that twined and swayed and many flowers were on it. From the glimmering shield the whisper spoke again.

”Warrior, pluck one white rose and throw it into my light.”

The Warrior acted fast and did as he was bid. The old man on the ground shrivelled up and vanished and a beautiful woman with the wings of a Fae stepped out from the light.

The beautiful Fae walked to the water fountain and filling a pitcher bought it back and watered the white rose and as she did so the people of the palace began to appear, looking bemused and rubbing their eyes, as if they just stepped out of a dream. They thronged toward the Fae. Slowly they all began to smile and talk. The courtyard was full of the wonderful, gentle perfume of the white rose.

The Fae stepped up to the warrior and gave him water from her pitcher and smiling she thanked him.

”You will soon see changes here” she said. ”Go to the walls and look out.”

The warrior climbed the stone steps that led up onto the parapet and looked out. As he watched he saw grasses and corn thrust up from the ground toward the morning sun and a spring arose from a rock a little way off and formed a pool that became a stream that ran out across the land.

He heard the water of a broken fountain at the gate begin to bubble. Birds appeared and bathed in it, splashing the water over their wings and dipping their heads. All the time plants were growing and he saw the land transform to the soft, fresh green of new growth where all had been desert before. He saw the beginning of the growth of trees nearby.

When he went back down to the courtyard there were children playing and a boy was playing a flute for girls who danced and chased each other, laughing. The men and women bustled about preparing a feast. The women had removed their veils and showed their lovely faces. The Fae sat beside the White Rose and smiled.

As soon as the feast was almost ready the people went to change into bright and colourful robes and they gathered flowers from a garden that had grown outside the gate and entwined them in their hair.

Soon there was food and music, laughter and dancing and all the time the Fae just smiled quietly beside the Rose. The festivities went on throughout the night, lit by lanterns and candles and the stars and moon that shone down from above.

In the morning the warrior went to the Fae and said,

”I will take my leave my Lady. I have delayed my journey far too long.”

The Fae nodded and plucked a rose. She handed it to him saying,

”This rose will never die and for as long as you live, or your children after you, you will never want for food or water, no matter where you are.”

The warrior placed his hand on his heart and bowed his thanks.

”I am only sorry to have tried your patience my Lady” he said.

”Ah no,” said the Fae with a wide smile, ”This was nothing. We had waited a thousand years for you to come. I admit I did begin to despair one night recently, but one night only. Hope never dies if you nurture it. It may lay deeply hidden, like a seed, but it can always grow. The name of this white rose is Hope.”

The warrior mounted his horse and rode out across the fertile land, the white rose in a pocket, close to his heart, as he kept it from then on.

*******************

The Winter of the Unicorn

Outside the city walls, despite a hard winter, the granaries were still well filled. There was plenty for a great feast and for the rest of the winter too. The hens and geese were plump. The Baron and his men had been out on a deer hunt in the forest. The cellars were laden with heavy oaken casks filled with cider and mead.

The streets were brightly lit with lanterns and merry with song and chatter. Minstrels played festive music, glad to have been welcomed into the City.

Children well wrapped in wool coats and leather boots ran about throwing snowballs at each other and made ice slides in the streets to the annoyance of the old and infirm. In the morning when they woke they had enjoyed drawing finger pictures on window panes to embellish the work of Jack Frost.

The cooks were all preparing the winter feast. Everyone was looking forward to eating the Goose (except the geese of course). There would be puddings and pies and fruits and nuts from the fields and the forest and there would be frumenty, a great favourite of all. The poorer people were hoping to have a slice of Humble Pie, made with the heart and brains and other offal of the Deer.

When the festival of the Winter Solstice arrived and the old, old custom of tree dressing began, the plump Friar came to the tree he called the Paradise Tree outside the cathedral and blessed the tree in readiness for the time of Christmas Eve.

There was to be a play just outside the church on Christmas Eve and mummers were to adorn the evergreen tree with apples and communion wafers. Decked out in this way it represented the two mystical trees in the Garden of Eden; the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil and the Tree of Life. The play would be attended by many, both rich and poor.

In the morning the rich Baron stood, wrapped in furs with an armed guard behind him, on the steps of the Great Hall and gave ostentatious, but not overly generous, charity to the poor of the city. He despised the poor. He saw them not as men but as mindless vermin. He had not a compassionate or charitable bone in his body. He was unkind and even cruel. He washed his fingers frequently in a bowl of rose water a servant held beside him, wiping poverty from his hands on a delicately embroidered cloth.

Out, beyond the city gates, a mile or so away in the fields where the ground was a patchwork of brown, bare frozen earth sprinkled by flurries of snow and deeper drifts against walls and hedgerows, a family lived by a frozen lake, close to a forest, in a wooden hut. They were a family of six; an old Grandfather and his son Dynawd, his sons’ thin, gaunt wife, Awena, who once had been very pretty, and their three very young children. All were pale, cold, dressed in rags and starving, as were many others in that land.

The family had done their best to ensure their survival but they were only allowed to keep a small portion of the harvest. The Baron and the City took the rest.

The fire in their hearth was meagre as, though there were plenty of fallen branches and twigs in the forest, these too had been claimed by the Baron as his own property and only a bare supply could be gathered. The Deer and all living things belonged to him too, by his sole decree and the support of his henchmen.

The Barons men rode out from the city frequently to check that the people of the land withheld no item of tax or stole from the forest.

The punishment for poaching or for gathering more than an allotted amount of wood from the forest was very severe, no less than death was ever granted. Dynawd dare not risk his life for his whole family depended upon his survival. He took what he could. His boots were a mess of mended holes. He spent his days plugging every hole that let in a draught or was outside in the snow with Awena scavenging while the old man watched the children. He felt impotent as he watched his family starve.

The winter had come early that year and been very harsh. Dynawd had never before found it this hard to survive and looking ahead he began to despair. There was nowhere to turn to for help. He looked at his wife and children with pity. His father could offer no advice.

The baby was always coughing in a way that caught at Dynawd’s heart. She was his only daughter. He loved all his children dearly and his wife and father too. He was glad his mother had died in a peaceful sleep in the summer. It was a better death than this.

Dynawd couldn’t sleep at night, partly through hunger and partly through sorrow. His wife clung to him in her sleep for warmth. He rolled her aside and wrapped the thin blanket closely around her and went outside.

The moon was full and the snow in the fields, the frost on the leaves, the icicles that hung from the eaves of the hut and the ice on the lake all glittered and sparkled in moonlight. How such beauty could also be so cruel in its consequences was a mystery.

Dynawd looked up. A bright star shone high at the apex of the sky. It was surrounded by myriad twinkling stars as if diamonds had been tossed on a black velvet cloth with one pure jewel at the centre, outshining them all. Dynawd was overcome by its beauty and sat down in the snow outside the hut and wept unashamedly. He was at his wits end and powerless to change anything.

As he sat there the memory of happier winters came to him from the time before the Baron came and seized all the land and murdered so many of Dynawd kin. Almost all of the old Wise Ones had been taken in a day and slain.

Then he remembered the Yule Log that used to burn in his family’s hearth for twelve days each year. Now, this was forbidden. It was a very hard wood and so considered to be of great value.

The memory gladdened Dynawd’s heart for a moment and he resolved that, come what may, he would get a Yule Log once again in this bitter year and some holly and mistletoe too if he could and maybe even a rabbit or a squirrel. What had he got to lose now, they were all going to die anyway. Despair brings desperate actions.

Dynawd stood up and as he turned towards his door to fetch a knife and an axe his eye was caught by a silver glimmer just inside the forest. A light flurry of snow had begun to fall again and Dynawd, squinting against the cold flakes that landed on his eyelashes, peered into the forest with blurred eyes. Now he saw nothing and, looking back briefly over his shoulder he went into the hut.

Dynawd came back out with the knife in his belt. He set the axe down by the door a moment because, to his surprise, he saw a graceful white horse standing beside the lake. He had no thought to try and catch it as, wild or owned, it was not to be his, so he just stood silent and watched it.

Then he saw the white horse bow its head and the ice immediately melted and made a pool. The horse drank. This made Dynawd very curious and he slowly crept forward, trying not to crunch the snow with his ragged boots but the horse heard him instantly and turned its head.

It was a Unicorn.

Dynawd stood transfixed, rooted to the ground. He had never seen such beauty; a Unicorn in the snow lit by moonlight, magical, unbelievable, yet there it stood. Dynawd could not have moved at that moment even if he had wanted to. He expected the Unicorn to flee to the forest and vanish like all dreams do.

Instead of fleeing the Unicorn came to him and stood before him calmly. Dynawd looked deep into the Unicorns soft starlit eyes and saw endless compassion and kindness and something a little like sorrow.

In a voice that was musical with the purity of a struck silver bell that seemed to come from far, far away, the Unicorn spoke.

‘’I have come to help you Dynawd. This land is stricken. The city takes everything. Your people cannot survive. Something must be done. You must swear never to forget your traditions or what your people believe.’’

‘’I swear this,’’ said Dynawd. He would have sworn to anything the Unicorn asked of him, but he agreed with every word.

‘’Kill me and take my horn. My horn must be used for good and never for ill. Your family shall eat my flesh and survive. My flesh will be one with your flesh and with it you will receive my blessings. ’’

Dynawd reeled back in shock. ‘’I can’t kill a Unicorn,’’ he said and tears filled his eyes.

‘’You must,’’ said the Unicorn, ‘’It is my wish and it’s why I am here beside you this night. You must do as I say and nothing less. You must kill me and your family must eat my flesh. You must take my horn and help your people and keep their spirit strong. You will be blessed by my spirit. I will live inside you. From now and forever no-one in your family will die in danger or of ill health. All will have a peaceful death in old age, just as did your mother, who I met long ago in the woods when she was a maiden. ’’

Seven times Dynawd refused to kill the Unicorn.

Seven times the Unicorn insisted he must.

Then the Unicorn said, ‘’I will make this easy for you. Go and lean your back against the oak tree over there and hold your knife out toward me. You may close your eyes if you wish but keep your arm and the knife straight and rigid. Go, do as I tell you.’’

Dynawd obeyed, but he couldn’t close his eyes. The Unicorn walked up to him there and looked at him gently and then raised its beautiful head, bearing its throat and pushed itself onto the knife, cutting the vein that held in life. Blood flowed down onto the snow as the Unicorn fell to its knees without a sound and it lay down at Dynawd’s feet.

Dynawd stood there, unable to move, but then he remembered the Unicorns words. He cut out the horn and took it. It glowed in his hand like starlight a moment and then dimmed to bone. Dynawd skinned the Unicorn and took it as meat to his home. He found it very hard to eat and swallow it but he knew that he must. He didn’t tell his family what it was.

The next morning Dynawd saw that his wife’s face was different. She looked so healthy and seemed to have some inner light. His father and children too looked strong and well. He stood and stretched himself and felt a strong vigour in his limbs that he had not felt for years and he could not help but smile.

He stepped out of his door and looked across at the Oak tree. He saws no sign of slaughter or death but a Holly tree grew there next to the Oak and it was weighed down with red berries and full of singing birds that had come to eat.

Dynawd wondered what the Unicorns horn could do. He had been told to use it to the good and never to the ill so he knew that it must have some power. He had seen the Unicorn melt a hole in the ice on the lake and so Dynawd thought that a safe thing to try. He touched the ice with the wand. The ice melted.

Then he went to a dead tree and touched it. At first he saw nothing but then, after a while, a few buds appeared. Dynawd had sense enough and respect enough for nature not to mess about with the seasons so he did no more than that. He returned to the house to sit and ponder. The horn was still in his hand.

When Dynawd went in and closed the door Awena said, addressing Dynawd’s father, ‘’my, that was a strong wind to swing the door like that!’’

Dynawd said, ‘’It was me.’’

Awena looked startled and said, ‘’Dynawd? Where are you?’’

‘’I’m right in front of you Awena. Can’t you see?’’ Dynawd touched her arm.

Awena squealed and backed away.

‘’Do you see me Father?’’ Dynawd asked.

‘’No I don’t,’’ said his father. ‘’Try putting down the Unicorns horn.’’

Dynawd was surprised at his fathers’ words but did as he was bid and appeared as normal.

‘’How did you know it was a Unicorns horn?’’

‘’From old tales of invisibility my father told me and his father told him before that. Also I dreamed of a Unicorn all last night and I have my suspicions about that meat. Hadn’t you better tell us what happened?’’

Dynawd sat down and told them all that had happened. He showed them the horn and they passed it from hand to hand in reverent awe.

‘’You could kill the Baron maybe?’’ said Awena.

‘’No I don’t think so,’’ said Dynawd. ‘’That’s certainly a good deed to many as we would all see it but it could also be seen as evil and though the Unicorn said I must help our people he also said I must only use the horn for good. That may not include anyone’s death, including that of the Baron. There will be other ways.’’

‘’But the first thing we will do is move into the forest. I will build us a small shelter where we can be more hidden and safe for a few days and I will use invisibility to feed us while I think. We will go far, far in where our fire smoke can’t be seen. We will as good as vanish. I will see what else this horn can do.’’

And this they did.

One night before he went to sleep Dynawd left the Unicorn horn resting on a sack of grain. In the morning he saw that the sack was full of gold coins. They had wealth but Dynawd knew he must not use the horn just for his own well-being.

Dynawd thought hard and long in the forest. He was an intelligent man and his father was full of old stories to guide him so Dynawd also listened. Finally he came up with a plan. He didn’t fear for his families safety because the Unicorn had said they would all live long lives and die in peace.

Dynawd went alone to the City, using invisibility and leaving gold coin on the counters of shops until he was dressed as a wealthy man. Then tucking the Unicorn horn away he went and bought all else he needed with the gold. He bought fine clothes for his family and three horses and a very fine sword of old design for himself and rings of silver and sparkling jewels for Awena’s fingers. He knew this latter was an indulgence but also felt she deserved it. Then he returned home to fetch his family back to the City.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas Dynawd and his family entered the gates of the City in splendour. The people bowed as they passed, even the Lords and Ladies. There was something in Dynawd face that inspired. They felt his inner beauty.

Awena who had once been pretty now shone with an inner light and there was no denying that she was the most beautiful woman any man had ever seen in that City. The old man looked wise and noble and the small children laughed and sang as they rode with him on his horse. The babe was in Awena’s arms.

Dynawd took a room at a simple tavern, which puzzled the rich and the poor alike. But wherever he went amongst the poor he was generous and it was obvious he had wealth. He was polite to the wealthy but didn’t speak with them much at first, preferring to observe the City whilst creating a certain mystique. It wasn’t long before he was invited to sit at the Barons loaded supper table one night.

The Baron asked Dynawd where he was from and Dynawd told him he was from the far side of the forest. The forest was known to be vast.

‘’I have travelled much,’’ said Dynawd

‘’You must have many travel tales,’’ the Baron said, ‘’I would like to hear some if you would oblige. I get bored here in the evening with these drunken louts who hang about the Court. I don’t trust any of them either.’’ The Baron was a little in his cups, as he so often was.

‘’I would be glad to oblige my Lord, ‘’ Dynawd smiled, thinking he had a huge stock of tales to draw upon, stories from his own race, stories with adventure and wisdom. He would be glad to tell them to this powerful, unkind usurper from another land, this man of no compassion.

After a time Dynawd started to create some tales of his own too in a way that was designed to influence the Baron in current circumstances as they occurred. In effect he had become the Barons favoured Bard, which was a powerful position of influence.

The Baron didn’t really even know what a Bard was; thinking it was just a poet and musician, an entertainer. But he came to regard Dynawd as a trusted friend who never did him harm. Occasionally Dynawd would seem distracted and say he was thinking of leaving but the Baron always begged him to stay.

The people knew very little of Dynawd or his wisdom and inner light but under his influence the Baron came to see that showing a little compassion could be an effective political strategy and even a delight. The compassion and love that poured from the Unicorns horn had the greater effect in the land and Dynawd’s family acknowledged that to each other and never forgot it.

While Dynawd told the Baron endless tales and gained his trust and advised him on serious matters Awena rode about the countryside, taking the Unicorn wand with her, helping, healing and feeding the people. She became well known and loved and they started to call her Unicorn Daughter and Lady of Light.

Dynawd and Awena were very happy in this life and they saw their people prosper and the Unicorns blessings revealed. They both lived to be more than one hundred and thirty years old and when they died their children kept the Unicorns horn and continued to help people all over the land.

The blessing of the Unicorns flesh was passed down, generation by generation until its history was lost in the mists of time but in every generation thereafter one Bard of great, slight, or no fame at all appears in that family and has the gift of the Unicorn.

They quietly do their best to help in any way they can wherever there is suffering and a need for secret charity. In this way it could be said that the Unicorn of Winter has outlived all others, who are just a beautiful memory and gone from this world.

******

Through the Fire

 

A Lady sat by a fireside in a warm and pleasant room.

The Lady was young, she was innocent of face and fair.

In the corner stood a harp, a mirror, a loom.

Deep and deeper into the heart of the glowing fire

She gazed seeing images flickering there

While she considered her hearts desire.

 

Her imagination set free, she wandered.

She saw pathways and forests and caves,

Fortunes won, lost and squandered,

Extravagant creatures with wings,

Battles, books and jewels and dark open graves,

Crowns and horses and rings.

 

Her heart beat fast and filled with desire

For all that she wanted from life.

She longed for adventure and never to tire,

Yearned for love and wealth and fame.

In a heartbeat she forgot herself

And reached her hand into the flame.

 

She had passed through the fire,

Into the cave she had seen, encrusted with gems.

Diamonds, emeralds and rubies hung from the roof

Entwined and supported by golden stems,

She plucked them like fruit and hid them deep in her skirt..

She turned then toward the cave entrance,

When a sound she heard made her quickly alert.

 

She heard the song of a distant bird,

The like of which she had not heard before.

Having no plans or well laid intentions

She decided to find the source of the song.

She stepped bare foot from the cave onto the mossy floor

Of a vast forest filled with the scent of flowers.

 

Looking about her she felt she didn’t walk long

But as the light fell she realised

She had been walking for hours and hours.

She saw a giant oak, gnarled, misshapen and ancient

In a clearing surrounded by lofty trees

And high in its leaves, on a far off branch, she saw the bird.

The bird continued to sing as if it intended to please.

The bird was unexceptional and grey of plumage

But its eye was very bright and in its beak it held a jewel.

 

She greeted the bird by instinct, feeling sure that it could speak

and then asked the question that burned in her heart

”Pray tell Sir Bird, what is that jewel you hold in your beak?”

The bird placed the stone beneath his feet

” Lady pray tell, what would you like it to be?”

She considered this question a while

Realising there was magic afoot

She answered, with what she hoped was an alluring smile,

”The Stone of Immortality”

 

”And why would you want such a thing?” said the Bird

”Surely this is what we all want” she replied.

The Bird cocked his head

”I can think of many things a girl such as you could want,

Happiness, peace, the joys of the bridal bed,

Knowledge, understanding, children, wealth…..?’’

”Yes I do want those things’ she said,

”But forever, in eternal good health!”

 

”You will have all else forever also” warned the Bird

”Grief, sorrow, loneliness, you may sometime hunger or fear,

cruel words and dark thoughts are also a part of this dish.

Immortality is not a bed of roses, my dear.”

With that he pushed the stone off the branch

To land at her feet. ”Pick it up, or not, as you wish.”

Without hesitation the Lady stooped down and took it.

At first it dazzled and burned in her hand,

But finding herself in its possession she bid the Bird farewell

And set out smiling to further explore the land.

 

She gained fortune and fame

For she had long to develop her naturals talents

And many came to revere her name.

She achieved every challenge to which she aspired.

Her fairness of face never changing

She found love and was much admired,

She fulfilled every one of her dreams.

 

But she also saw that with all these blessings

Immortality is not the gift is seems

And the Birds warning had been correct.

She saw all her loved ones pass on without her

And with this sorrow came the endless time to reflect

Upon her loss of all she had treasured most.

 

She watched her friends over aeons,

Numerous they were, a vast host,

One by one, in repeating pattern, pass away.

While she remained lovely and vibrant with health

They all seemed to go as if in a day.

She saw her lovers beauty and strength fade,

Her children grew old before her eyes.

She kept her fame, her knowledge, her wealth

But these are worth nothing when all we love dies.

 

Feeling tired, abandoned, alone, forlorn

She returned to the Forest, to seek the Bird.

She arrived at the clearing in the soft light of dawn.

The Bird sat as before high up in the Ancient Tree.

He no longer looked grey, unworthy of a glance.

This time she saw that he was a Dove.

The bird moved on his branch in a circular dance,

And then gently bowed to her. ”What is your desire?”

 

”I want to be mortal” she said ”and return through the fire

And accept my true fate, whatever is to become of me”

”I see said the Dove, then i must ask you one question,

What is the greatest treasure anyone can possess?”

Without hesitation the Lady answered, Love.”

 

”You have learned the greatest lesson my child”

The Bird bowed again, ”Now return through the fire,

Use this understanding well, for short and fleeting

Is your time in this world. Go now and find Love,

But most of all remember to nurture and live it.’’

 

”This will be the greatest gift you take from our meeting;

Love is not for the taking. Remember to give it.”

 

*****

 

THE LOVE IN THE HARP

The sun was sinking when I approached the Inn where I had previously left my Harp in safe keeping, it being large to carry with me on my longer journeys. When I entered there was no-one there except the Inn Keeper who was seated by the fire. I had always trusted him. When he looked up and saw me he seemed very uneasy, constantly shifting his gaze from mine.

”Good evening to you Sir,” I said, ”You seem disturbed. Is something amiss? The Inn is strangely empty.”

”No, no,” he said, ”All is well. It’s just quiet tonight. Will you be wanting a meal and a bed for the night?”

I told him I would but had mainly come to collect my Harp. At that he looked uneasy again but stood up, and left the room saying, ”I will see that a chamber is prepared for you. Will you take your meal by the fire?”

I relaxed by the fire and in due course a meal was bought and, having eaten, I retired upstairs and lay on the bed relaxing. Some hours passed. I noted that the night was strangely quiet. There were none of the usual sounds to be heard in an Inn so close to a brook and a wood, as this one was.

It was then that I heard a Harp being played; a Harp that I felt sure was my own.

I got up and left my room, following the sound. The Inn was in darkness, the interior only slightly lit by shafts of moonlight which filtered through the small window panes. The Inn was quite large and I wandered along corridors from door to door following the sound of my harp. Increasing in volume the sound lead me from door to door but then, as I reached it, always grew distant again.

Feeling that someone was playing a game with me and one that I had not the patience or willingness to play I decided to return to my room and solve the mystery on the morrow.

As I approached the door to my room I heard my Harp louder again. The tune was very sad and dark and was one I had never heard before. It was strangely foreign to my ear. I entered my room.

Sitting by the now wide open I saw a woman playing my Harp. Her back was to me. Her hair, which reached to her waist, was dark as a moonless night and her gown of grey was bejewelled. I stood entranced, by both her and the wondrous music. I hoped she would turn as something in the music made me long to see her face.

I stepped towards her.

It was then that I noticed her hands on the strings.

They were wrinkled and ancient. I stood transfixed, watching them stroke the strings. She turned and looked up at me.

Her face was not only that of an old woman. Beauty can exist in age just as it can in youth. This face was hideous as if centuries of venom filled it.

Her eyes held mine for what seemed an age and I felt my energy draining from me. My head filled with terrible visions.

I saw her feed on dead bodies in graveyards, snarling and ripping off limbs. I saw her take a crying baby from its cot and swing it round her head, smashing its brains out on a wall. I saw her cause lovers to destroy each other. I saw her stand by laughing as a man, drunk and insane, took a knife and cut out his mothers’ eyes. I saw her chain a woman to a wall so that men could rape her and then, afterwards, kick her and spit in her face after as she lay sobbing on the floor, trying to cover herself.

I saw aeons pass, time flying backwards. She was there, present at the heart of every sorrow and act of anger in history. She deceived with beauty and promises of power or wealth and bought the good to their downfall. She crowed over poverty and starvation. She rejoiced in every despicable action.

Even the memory of some of these visions is too painful to relate. I could not bare such horror and fell to my knees in anguish. I tried to resist what I saw but could bring no kind of other visions to my mind against them.

She stood over me and spat out these words, ”Fool! You who believe in Love and Kindness have no resistance against me. I am evil and hatred and I will take what you love and you will follow me! You will meet your darkest fear!”

With that she spread dark wings and flew from the window, leaving me shaking. The Harp vanished. I knew she had taken it and I was struck with grief.

Now, you might think ‘Let the harp go, don’t follow her!’ But this was not just any harp. It is an ancient Elven harp, blessed by my ancestors, and belonged to my mother before me. It plays its own tunes that my fingers only follow and it brims with poetry. It was as if she had stolen my mother’s heart and dragged it to hell. I could never rest while this evil being had it.

I knew she had entered the wood so I followed. All was hushed and still but as I walked I felt eyes from behind every tree. As I turned to look I saw them briefly before they vanished.

After a time I became aware of a scuttling sound that sent shivers up my spine but I pressed on into what became denser and denser undergrowth that seemed to cling to my boots more and more with each step.

After a time I heard the harp in the distance. I followed the sound.

As the harp grew louder, and seemingly closer, the scuttling sound increased.

Being well aware of what my darkest fear is I was almost daunted as my imagination leapt ahead of me.

A little further on I saw a cave entrance and the song of the harp echoed within it. Approaching I saw that the entrance was beset with webs. Dimly, through them, I saw the Harp. It played alone. As expected the cobwebs stood between me and the Harp. I stood a while, trying to brace myself against what I knew was to come.

I had no weapon; only determination.

I started to push the webs aside. They broke easily at first but grew stronger as I was further in and spiders began to throng around me, getting in my clothes, my hair, my eyes. It was hard to continue as every fibre of my body warned me to flee.

I reached the heart of a huge web and all the spiders suddenly left me in peace. The woman then appeared and began to wave her arms as if casting a spell. The movement was that of a spider.

She transformed before my eyes. I was hypnotised with fear and loathing. This was a spider so huge I could see it’s fangs and the gaze of her eyes which, as before, were filled with evil intent.

She reached out her legs and dragged me towards her. I screamed. I felt her all over my skin as she stripped me.

I begged. She bared her fangs. I tried to think of beauty and peace and couldn’t. I tried to close my eyes but it made it worse, to feel her but not see her. She toyed with me, enjoying my horror and feeding on my fear.

I became a scream that would not stop.

There was no feeling of hope left in me. The time ran slow and I was oblivious to all but her. The pain and fear never abated for a moment. I only wished I might die.
I saw pleasure in her eyes for a moment as I called upon death to save me. She wanted my humiliation as well as my despair. Her jaws were full of drool. I almost wished she would drown me.

Vaguely, at the back of my mind, I heard the tune of the Harp changing. Each note seemed to respond to my pain and it began to soothe me.

Strands of the web began to snap but the Spider still clung to me fiercely. The music grew stronger. The Spider bound me and began to wave her legs above me as though warding the music off.

I heard my Mother sing. She sang of Love and Beauty, Birth and Starlight. Her voice sang in the strings. The Spider, cringing, slowly backed away and shrivelled and, becoming a woman again, she let out one long piercing cry and fled out of the cave.

The song faded, leaving me there bound on the ground. I started to try and free myself when the spiders began to gather about me again. I lay still and waited. I did not fear them any more. They swarmed over me and freed me. I laid there amongst them, admiring their grace, listening to the Love in the Harp.

 

*****

 

The Green Dress

Flora was the prettiest girl in the village. She was known for her friendliness and free spirit and her very sunny smile. Sam admired her very much and thought she would make the perfect wife to help him run the local tavern, of which he was the landlord. She had all the right qualities.

They hadn’t been married very long when he told her lovingly that he sometimes felt anxious for her safety when she was out alone.

”I worry so when you come through the woods – could you not use the village road instead?”

Flora said, ”Well yes I suppose I could but I love the woods. You have no need to worry.”

”I may not need to worry” said Sam, ”But that’s how I feel and I can’t stop it. If you cared how I feel you would take the village path.”

Flora did care how Sam felt and she thought it wouldn’t be so hard to do what he wanted and so she agreed and she no longer went to the woods. Time spent amongst trees had lifted her spirits. She missed them. But she loved Sam and his feelings were more important too her.

A few weeks later Sam said, ”You know, I really think you talk to the men in the bar too much. It makes a bad impression.”

”I am only being friendly,” Flora replied.

”It’s more than friendly,” said Sam. ”You laugh too loud and do all you can to attract their attention. It hurts me to see it.”

”I am so sorry,” said Flora. ”Don’t be jealous. I love you.”

”I am not jealous,” said Sam, ”It hurts me to see you making such a fool of yourself and the men will take advantage of you.”

Flora felt guilty and stopped laughing in the bar altogether and she kept her eyes down and only smiled a little when serving the drinks.

She decided to make a special chicken dinner as it was Sam’s favourite. She wanted to make him happy.

At the end of the meal he said, ”That was delicious but please don’t suck the bones so. It’s irritating.”

Flora was unhappy. She felt so often criticised but little by little she changed to please him.

One day in the village she saw a lovely dress in the shop and decided to buy it. It would cheer her up and please Sam too. The dress was a soft green, her favourite colour. It reminded her of the woods she missed so much.

That evening she wore the dress to surprise Sam. After she had cooked dinner she went and put it on and came to the table wearing it. But instead of being pleased Sam said, ”Flora you know I don’t mind you spending money but I really think you should have asked me what I thought of the dress first before you decided to buy it. I might have suggested a different colour. Don’t you even care what I think?”

”Of course I care,” said Flora, looking down.

She never wore the dress again. She didn’t feel comfortable in it. A month later Sam asked where it was and said it was a waste of money to buy a dress and not wear it. She never bought a dress again, without asking Sam first.

One night in the bar an old friend of Sam’s said how lucky he was to have married Flora, her being a good cook and all, and Sam replied,

‘Yes she is. She ain’t the girl I married though. I don’t know why. She used to be adventurous and laugh a lot, i liked that about her. She doesn’t smile like she used to either. Changed she has. That’s the trouble – you marry ’em and then they don’t make any effort no more”

**********************

(This is an extract from The Raven and the Storyteller Book 2: Into the Deep Greenwood, which is available on Amazon on Kindle and also as a paperback)

‘’You fight well young Dylan but there was a moment when I could have grasped your sword hand. I didn’t take the opportunity but be more careful of that, be less enthusiastic, you moved in too close. A warrior must develop an internal stillness.’’ Moon said, ‘’ It’s long though since I saw that last trick you played. It can be very effective. Where did you learn it?’’

‘’From Emerald, Sir,’’ Dylan replied.

‘’I would be pleased to meet her,’’ Moon said. ‘’I begin to think we may have the same homeland. Emerald is not a name from that land but as Skillywidden said, some of us have several names. She seems very elusive.’’

‘’Ah yes,’’ said Dylan laughing, ‘’I never met anyone so hard to catch. But she will be home soon enough. All will meet here on May Eve.’’

Glancing at the old book Dylan had left on a log Moon went over and picked it up before sitting down on the grass and taking a drink from his flask. He wiped the lip and passed the flask to Dylan. Moon flipped through the worn pages of the book and then sat holding it. The leather was warm and smooth in his hand. He stroked it absentmindedly and felt again the soft footfall of an old memory, just out of sight.

‘’I see you like to read. You enjoy all the old tales?’’ Moon asked.

‘’Oh yes,’’ said Dylan, ‘’they are full of lessons and yet you don’t feel as if you are learning. The old stories enchant me. I have read almost all the books in the cottage.’’

Moon nodded.

“How did you come here?  You were born in these woods?’’ Moon asked, changing the subject.

‘’No Sir, but I was young when I came. I came here by chance, to escape. I never left. I don’t really know where I am from, though it can’t be very far. I do recall a few details but I most clearly recall my need to escape.’’

‘’Would you tell me this tale? I would be glad to hear it?’’ Moon asked.

‘’If it interests you I will tell it but with all I remember it’s not so very much to tell. I was a boy of about six and there were some festivities in the city. Much of the entertainment was so close to my home that I could sit on a step and watch without straying far from the house. I was trusted not to run off. My favourite performer was a man who did some magic tricks with mirrors and boxes. He also told wonderful tales as part of his act. Being small I was enchanted by all this.  I often saw him talk with my mother.

One morning he asked me to help with his trick and I stepped into the magic box. I cannot say what happened because I still don’t know. I seemed to fall into a sleep in there and when I was awake again I was not in the box but in the back of his cart and I wasn’t in the city of any other place I saw before. He said I fell asleep on the journey and the box must be only a dream. He had a power. I never questioned anything he said.

I begged to be taken back but he told me not to worry and he would take me back soon.  He said he had a use for a lad like me and that I should forget about home for now. He said I had been apprentice to him by my mother and that this was a wonderful chance for me. Later he received news that she had died and he showed me a letter, my family seal upon it.

Perhaps if I had not run away we would one day have gone back to that city but I did run away. I was so confused and unhappy at the news of my mother’s death.

I escaped one night and ran to the woods because I didn’t know which way else to run. I was afraid of the wood at night but I was lucky and I met Dewberry who made me laugh all the time. I have been here ever since and have no idea to this day of where that city was. I am happy here and have no great inclination to find it after so long. I think of my mother sometimes. I do remember her face. I missed her very much for a long time. But she is gone. I saw the letter. Now I stay here and learn to be a warrior so that I can protect the woods and anyone who is badly treated.’’

Moon wondered about this story. He had no idea how long the boy in the city had been missing and many boys went missing.

That night Moon spoke with Wilf. Wilf was very interested in the news but he too had no idea how old the lost boy might be by now.

15.

Moon and Dylan met again next day by the pool, where Skillywidden sat fishing. He seemed a very patient fisherman as they sat there long and he caught nothing. Wilf was watching the water closely. Dylan remarked on the lack of fish.

Skillywidden laughed.

‘It’s a long time I’d be here for sure,’’ he said ‘’if it were fish I was after for there are none in this pool that I know of at all. I’m fishing for dreams and I caught a dozen or more already lad. They are resting there in my net keeping fresh. One of ‘em may be yours tonight.’’

Dylan peered at the net just below the surface of the pool but to him it seemed entirely empty. Having known Skillywidden for a while he didn’t question further. He liked the idea of having a dream from Skilly’s catch and hoped he might have one that very night.

‘’Let me tell you a story,’’ Moon said, settling down with his back to an oak tree. ‘’It is a tale of the power of the word and the sword.’’

Dylan settled to listen and Skillywidden went on with his fishing.

‘’In ancient days a knight, who had fought many great battles during his life and all in honour of great and just causes, was returning from war, hoping that the people of his homeland might remember him. One night, on his journey he stopped to rest beside a waterfall. He lit a fire and had not sat beside it long when an old woman appeared. She held a scroll. She sat down beside him and spoke,

‘’Lord Knight,’’ she said, ‘’I have waited here for your return so that I might deliver this scroll to you. It will tell you of your true quest. It is the quest of your own destiny. Follow it and you will be rewarded. Follow it not and your life will be wasted in endless struggles and all you do will come to no purpose. The choice is yours to make. Here is the map.’’

Handing him the map she continued, ‘’ This map that will lead you to your true hearts desire. Few people really know what this is. They imagine they want or need this or that but they are never replete, whatever they may gain. Only the deepest desire of the heart can satisfy. Many people live their whole life and never know or find it. I offer you this opportunity, take it or not as you will. ’’

With these words she vanished.

It was all so sudden and strange that the Knight might have thought it all a dream if it were not for the very real scroll he now held in his hand. The Knight felt he must follow this quest for if he did not he would think about it and wonder ever after. This choice seemed like no choice at all.

The warrior travelled far as he followed the map and he had many adventures on the way but one day he came to a dark castle on a mountain peak. The map showed this as his destination. The castle seemed abandoned. Uncertain what next to do he decided to shelter there for the night, in the roofed courtyard. It had begun to rain. He fell asleep in a sheltered corner and he had a strange dream. He dreamed of three statues and each statue had a chain attached to it that led off into the darkness. One chain was made of iron, one of jade and one of silver.

A voice, in his dream, said, ‘’we all must make choices.’’

He knew he must choose one of these chains to follow and, wondering what each chain signified, he chose the one made of silver.

He was awoken by a sound, the sound of a door creaking on its hinges. He stood and saw that the huge oak door on the other side of the courtyard had swung open. It opened into a gloomy passage way. Along the wall ran a fine silver chain that gleamed as if with its own light. He took hold of the chain and followed it into a deepening darkness. It became so dark that he could see nothing. He went along until he reached another door. The door was inlaid with an inscription in silver.

The inscription said, ‘’All is dream. All is story. Speak seeker.’’

The Knight, by instinct, knew what to say.

‘’All is dream. All is story,’’ he said.

The door swung open and the Knight entered a vast hall made of huge blocks of dark stone, both walls and floor, with a high vaulted roof open to the night sky. The hall was filled with fires. Each fire burned in its own grate and each grate was of a different shape and design. The Knight walked slowly around the hall looking at each grate. Some were decorated with fruit, some with weapons, some with flowers, some with faces, some with crowns but he was drawn to one grate and returned to it over and over again. It was larger than the others and made of cast iron. It looked both ancient and timeless. The fire in the grate burned strong and fierce.

The Knight walked all around the large grate examining the design which depicted a sequence of events as if from a long story. Many scenes in this story were familiar to him but other scenes came from parts of a story he did not know. He wondered if this story was in some way his own or showed where his own actions belonged in a far greater story.

As he stood there watching the fire he began to notice more story within the flames. The images were fleeting.

How much time had passed he did not know, when he became aware of a quiet movement behind him and turning he saw a woman dressed in a long white robe. She held a book in one hand and a sword in the other.

‘’Welcome,’’ she said, with a gentle smile. ‘’Welcome to the Hall of Fire. I see that your eye is drawn to the Fire of Imagination.’’

‘’It seems in part to depict my own story,’’ said the Knight.

‘’Yes, it does,’’ said the Lady, ‘’but it also shows how your actions have affected the world and, more than that, it shows your choices. The flames at the heart of this fire reveal your dreams and the things you have imagined and will imagine. I see you are drawn to them. You were seeking their stories, were you not?’’

The Knight didn’t really understand but he nodded.

The Lady bent down and placing the sword she held on the floor beside the fire she said,

‘’Follow me to the Hall of the Hearts Desire.’’

The Knight followed her and, turning a corner, they entered a great library. The Lady placed the book she held onto a table and opened it.

‘’This is the Book of Numbers,’’ she said, turning the pages until she arrived at one.

‘’This page is yours,’’ she said, pointing. ‘’Come and look.  Listed here are the numbers of all the people you have killed, in battles of good causes, and in this column here is the number of all the children never born, due to these people slain. This next number is the number of tales never to be told now. The final column shows the number of minds changed for the good by your honourable knightly actions. You see? It is zero.’’

The Knight felt disheartened and ashamed and he bowed his head in silent acknowledgement.

‘’Now follow me’ said the Lady and she took him to an alcove at the side where a small boy sat reading a book of poetry.

‘’You know this boy?’’

‘’Yes it’s me’’ said the Knight, feeling sad. ‘’I loved to read above all things when I was a boy.’’

‘’What did you read?’’

When I was allowed to I read books of poems and stories. Ah, I remember those magical stories as if it were only yesterday.’’

‘’What was your favourite story?’’

‘’There was a book about a man who travelled the land planting trees and helping people he met. He was poor but was a very good man. I would have liked to do that and be like him but more than anything, when I was a child, I wished I had written that story or one like it. All I wanted to do as a child was make stories but my family had other ideas for my future.’’

The Lady smiled. ‘’Did you wonder where the jade and the iron chain might have lead you?’’

‘’Yes I did wonder,’’ said the Knight.

‘Those are stories you can create. It doesn’t matter at this moment where the chains went. Use your imagination and decide that for yourself, make the story, a story people will remember just as you remember the man who planted trees. You have the power to plant ideas in story. When all warriors are dead and gone the word lives on. Words have a power that outlives the sword. Some words outlive us all. Use them with care. Words and stories are magic. Go now and fulfil your true hearts desire. You are free to do so. It is your destiny. Use this gift well.’’

The Knight thanked the Lady and lay down his weapons and took off his armour and left the Hall of the Hearts Desire. Joy and hope filled his heart as he travelled on; beginning to imagine all the stories he could tell.’

Moon looked a Dylan.

There was silence.

Dylan looked thoughtful.

‘’I feel as if this story is almost my own,’’ Dylan said.

Moon smiled, ‘’It touched your heart perhaps. It is almost mine too.’’

Wilf cocked his head and gave Dylan a penetrating look. At that moment Skillywidden caught a fresh dream and gently placed it into his net with a chuckle.

‘’Does a unicorn mean anything to you? Or a silver hand on a door?’’ Moon asked.

‘’I remember a unicorn, yes,’’ Dylan replied, looking puzzled at the sudden change of subject. ‘’A unicorn statue stood at the door of my home. I used to play beside it on the doorstep. My mother told me that my family was blessed by a Unicorn centuries ago. I think there may have been a silver hand on the door but I am uncertain of this. The memory of the silver hand is as if only from a dream. I believe it is the hand of fate.’’

Wilf let out a loud squawk and flew in a circle, swooping and dipping. He came to rest on Moons shoulder.

‘’I will lead him home,’’ he said. ‘’Imagine his mothers joy when she sees him!’’

Moon nodded and smiled broadly. ‘’Yes, that is certainly easy to imagine Wilf. You can take much pleasure in such a journey.’’

Dylan stood up. ‘’Take me home?’’ he said.

‘’Sit down Dylan, be patient a moment.’’ Moon said. ‘’I have a further story to tell you.’’

And so it was that Moon sat beside Dynawd’s descendant and told him the Tale of the Winter of the Unicorn, the tale of Dylan’s own gift and destiny. He explained to Dylan that, by chance or fate, he had told this same tale in the City at the Winter Solstice and how a woman had come to him afterwards with tears in her eyes and had given him gold and of how sad and gentle she was. He told of Wilf’s part in the tale when he returned to the City and watched the woman and learned the source of her sorrow, that her son was lost to her. Dylan’s eyes filled with tears for the Unicorn but they were mixed with tears of joy at the thought of seeing his mother again and the realisation she was not dead.

After a moment of thought Dylan said, ‘’But I must wait. I can’t go without saying farewell to Emerald. She has been like a mother to me for many years.’’

Emerald sat under a tree at the edge of the woods looking out across the land, her bow at her side, as she so often did. The young hare played in the field nearby.

Emerald was always on guard, always watching for signs of potential threat to the woods or to the nearby stone circles. Over the years she had noticed subtle changes, changes that troubled her, making her wonder what more might come with time. She had been a warrior almost all of her very long life and much had already changed in the world.

‘’Wait for Mayday, lad,’’ said Skillywidden, with a grin. ‘’Emerald will return to the clearing soon enough. She would never miss the Gathering. There is more to be revealed here yet. Wait for the end of this story.’’

Skillywidden set his fishing net aside and brought out his loom and began to weave. The pattern was at first like water and then the water lead into paths that crossed and circled one over another and it was as if a flower bloomed at each point where a path crossed. The pattern became more and more complex until it dazzled the eye and no mind could grasp it all at once. All the while Skillywidden hummed to himself and it seemed to Moon that this wordless song held all things together.

***********************

The Blackbirds Mirror

Once upon a time and over the hills far away there lived a man of about thirty summers who, being orphaned at twelve, had spent much of his life travelling and finding work and shelter where he could. His name was Gwylym.

On the day that we join his journey he had come upon a beautiful orchard, just as the daylight began to fade. He decided to stay there for the night and rest. The orchard was on a hillside above a broad sweep of pasture and he sat for a while looking down, his eyes travelling across the curve of the land until in the distance he saw a bridge that spanned a small river and lead to a small castle. The evening sun tipped its many turrets and spires with pink and lilac. He decided to take the road across the bridge to the castle on the morrow, in the hope of finding a little work that might suit his skills.

He was awoken early by the dawn chorus, the air full of twittering and chirrups, but one voice rang out nearby and above them all, the persistent song of a Blackbird. In a half doze the young man listened to the voice and was convinced that the bird was trying to converse with him. He lay in his state of half-sleep, that place that always seems to hover between two worlds, and listened.

”Take apples. Eats, eat!” chirped the bird, ending with a shrill note.

”Take apples. Eats, eat! Take the perfect one, keep, keep!”

”Take the perfect apple. Pocket it. Pocket it!”

The bird repeated these phrases again and again between other messages the young man could not decipher. The bird made so many shrill cries that soon the traveller became fully awake and being hungry he did as he was bid. He considered the fact that this orchard was not wild and that the eating of the apples might be considered a theft but as he was hungry and had no other food but a crust he compromised and ate only a few. He hoped he might find some honest way to earn a meal at the castle.

In the centre of the orchard he discovered a tree a little larger and older than the rest. Hanging from a low branch was an apple so beautiful that it seemed to glow. Gwylym hardly dare touch it, yet he felt sure that it was the apple the blackbird told him to keep. He hesitated, unsure. Gwylym always did his best to be honest but choices are not always easy. He sat down to think. The blackbird appeared on the branch. It turned its bright eye upon him and nodded.

Gwylym looked at the bird wondering. Nothing is always as it seems. He felt instinctively that there was more to this bird than met the eye and wondered if it was to be trusted. This might be a trap. But Gwylym’s instincts and insights were generally good and he saw no harm in the eye of the bird or its demeanour. He smiled at the blackbird and stood up and gently plucked the apple from the tree. It looked very juicy and appealing. He was very tempted to take a bite but he put it in his pocket as he had been told.

Gwylym had no idea what all this meant and there was nothing to do but continue his journey. He slung his pack on his back and walked down the hill and crossed the river. He thought he saw the blackbird fly up to the battlements as he approached the castle. The drawbridge was raised and he couldn’t enter.

Up above on the battlements, out of his sight, a lady looked down on him. She had long dark hair that flew about in the wind and wore a dress of apple green. She narrowed her green eyes as she watched Gwylym and a blackbird came to rest upon her shoulder. The bird hopped down and a tall man appeared beside her wearing a long dark cloak clasped with a brooch like a birds wing. He put his arm around his Lady and called to a nearby guard to drop the drawbridge and go out and invite the young man they saw there to enter.

”I would like you to test this man,” the Lord said to his Lady, ”Along with the other six applicants who await us. I saw something in him. We need a judge who is a stranger in these lands and though all of these men are new comers, as is he, we need to look deeper into their characters rather than at their qualifications and connections.”

The Lady nodded, ”I will have them look in my mirror, my Lord.”

Gwylym was somewhat surprised to see the drawbridge lowered and an ornately dressed guard come out to greet him. The guards message that he had been invited inside for an interview with the Lord and Lady surprised him even more but he was glad to be welcomed and followed the guard to an antechamber that was richly decorated with tapestries of all kinds of birds and animals.

Six men were in the room, all finely dressed. Some looked very wealthy and some very studious. Some sat and spoke in low voices or fiddled with scrolls whilst other strolled about impatiently. Each of them bore a gift in his hand. Gwylym was puzzled as to why he found himself in such fine company, being rather shabbily dressed himself. It slightly alarmed him. He caught a few words here and there and realised that he was to be interviewed for the role of a Judge, for which he was not at all qualified. As he waited he decided he had better let this fact be known as soon as he had the opportunity. He would ask if they needed any carpenter or smith.

At that moment the anti-room doors were flung open wide and they were beckoned in to the inner chamber. The Lord walked forward to greet them. The Lady sat on a chair beside a mirror, covered over with a cloth of fine lace.

The Lord was most welcoming.

”Present yourselves to my Lady” he said, as he perched himself on the arm of a chair, where he sat idly swinging one leg.  ”I am for the present only here to observe these proceedings.”

Each of the men approached the Lady and bowed and presented her with a gift. The gifts were very fine indeed and included jewels and finely crafted ornaments and a wondrously worked leather bound book on the tenets of the Law.

When Gwylym’s turn came he flushed with embarrassment. He stepped forward.

”My Lady I think there has been a huge mistake. I am a man only skilled with my hands. I have no legal qualifications or experience. I am sorry that I am taking up your time so unnecessarily.”

The Lady smiled. ”You speak well nonetheless” she said. ”Keep your place. You have a gift for me?”

This anticipated question had been worrying Gwylym. He had nothing of value in his pouch. All he could offer to a Lady was the apple in his pocket. He dare not part with the tools of his trade.

”I ask your forgiveness again my Lady for I have nothing to offer you but this apple and even that does not fully belong to me for it is from your own orchards. I have only carried it here. Perhaps it may refresh you.”

The Lady took the apple, glanced at her husband with a smile, and nodded to Gwylym. ”The apply will suffice.”

She turned to the assembled men.

”Gentlemen,” she said ”We have looked closely at all your experience and qualifications. We are eager to find a truly fair judge of our peoples. Please keep this matter of fairness and balance in mind. I have no questions to ask you but I ask each of you in turn to look in the mirror that stands beside me”

With that she pulled away the lace cloth and there stood a most unusual mirror set in an iron frame of blackbirds in flight, there wings overlapping each other.

The Lady gestured for the first man to step forward. His manner was relaxed as he stepped forward but when he looked in the mirror he took a sharp breath and stood transfixed. He put his hand to his face.

”This is not me,” he said. ”I don’t recognise this face though I see it is my own hand that touches it in the reflection. This is some magic to deceive me.”

”I assure you this is no deception,” said the Lord ”You may leave the chamber.”

The man could not hide his irritation as he swept from the room.

The reaction of the next man was much the same and the third said,

”This mirror is seriously distorted, twisted and fogged. I cannot see myself clearly.”

The Lady stood behind him and looked over his shoulder, ”You see my face Sir?” she said.

”Yes, my Lady,” he replied, ”I see your face clearly. If I may be permitted to say so you look just a little older and wiser in your reflection and with a clear beauty but my own face is distorted and unclear to me, if this be my face at all, which I doubt. I am greatly puzzled by this mirror.”

”You may leave with our thanks” said the Lord ”and be welcome to dine at our table later. At that time we will announce our choice to all.”

The man looked a little more hopeful and left the room.

The fourth man admitted to recognising his own face and claimed that the mirror was flawed. He was thanked and dismissed politely.

All took their turn with similar results. The Lady beckoned Gwylym forward.

Gwylym saw not his usual reflection but an image that seemed to him to go far deeper, a reflection of his inner being perhaps.

”What do you see Gwylym?” asked the Lady, noticing that he looked with great concentration but no bewilderment.

”I see that this mirror is not flawed,” Gwylym answered. ”It is crystal clear. It is me who is flawed and the mirror reflects this. Where there are distortions to my face, not revealed by any other mirror, I recognise each distortion as my own.”

”Explain them to me,” said the Lady, with an encouraging smile, and stood behind him to look. The Lord shifted on the arm of the chair and leaned forward to see.

Gwylym peered at himself closely.

”There is a darkening, a shadow, at the side of my left eye. I think that’s a blow I struck someone in unjustified anger. The line that runs to the right of my mouth are all the unkind words I now regret. My right eye looks far more closed than the other and that’s the lies I told and the secrets I kept to keep myself out of troubles instead of being totally honest.”

The Lord nodded, ”Go on. What more?”

”I have stolen when hungry, my Lord,” said Gwylym ”More than once. I see this written on my face too. And envy I suppressed.”

”Something more,” said the Lord. ”Speak out without fear. I see something else in this mirror, something you are trying to hide.”

Gwylym looked in his own eyes and mouth searching for something other than the one thing he presently didn’t want to admit. The Lord sighed.

”Come, come, speak up,” he smiled.

”My Lord. I am very attracted to your Lady who stands so close behind me.”

The Lord laughed, ”Yes, I see it. But what man would not be. You are forgiven whole heartedly. I would like to appoint you the Judge of this land, for a man who can see himself clearly can also see others and having flaws himself can be trusted to judge as fairly as is possible.”

‘’But my Lord,’’ Gwylym protested, ‘’I know nothing of the Law. I am a simple man. Please, if you will, give me some task so that I may serve you with skills I have.’’

‘’You will find that you are perfectly suited to the role Sir, for I see this in the mirror too and as to the Laws of our land they are really quite simple and are designed to protect and defend human virtues. You need not spend your days amongst dusty tomes I assure you. I will help and guide you if a case is more complex and you request it but it is you who will make the judgements and I will trust you that they be fair.’’

Gwylym felt reassured but not entirely convinced. He had begun to like this Lord and Lady and felt happy to do his best to serve them and so he inclined his head and said, ‘’I will do my best to be a fair Judge, my Lord.’’

The Lady smiled, ‘’that is all we ask. Come now let us dine and drink a cup to your future. ’’

Gwylym was the Judge in those lands for many years after and as his wisdom and experience increased he became known amongst the people as Gwylym the Wise and Gwylym the Fair. He married a talented seamstress and had six children. On Fridays, when the Court was closed, they always visited the orchards and Gwylym often made furniture while he pondered a difficult case. Those pieces that survive to this day are all marked by a hidden blackbird. He never saw the Mirror again but he did notice that the Lord and Lady kept themselves very much to themselves and seemed to age very little.

Gwylym was of a great age when he died and his passing was much grieved by the Lord and Lady and the people.

***************

The Pearl and the Olive Tree

Moon pulled up a seat by the fire and began a story…..

The Pearl and the Olive Tree

”This is a tale of a sailor called Jack who comes from parts hereabouts. Some say he is a pirate but I say he is not. He is a clever seaman to be sure and a good fighter when he needs to be but he has a kind heart and helps many people, especially the poor.

Sailing homeward from the Barbary Coast with a cargo of Saharan salt and spices from the east is a dangerous journey and Jack and his crew have fought off many a pirate ship, when they can’t outrun them, and who would complain or think it wrong that in victory they take the pirates gold. It’s Jacks favourite joke that it’s a fair transaction.

Any one who saw Jack now wouldn’t call him beautiful. He has become weather-beaten and rugged over the years and has a scar on his face from a pirate captains sword that just missed taking out his eye, but when he was young he had beauty and women were enthralled by him wherever he went, not least for the fire and spirit he has in him.

Jack is one of those people blessed with a quick mind. He learns fast and remembers almost all he hears and he can speak many languages haltingly and French, Spanish and Arabic fluently. His travels to far lands have educated him in many things. He is also clever in trade. His ability to strike a good deal with a cheerful smile and much charm has increased his wealth, though he seems to care not for riches and there is a reason for this, as revealed in this tale.

My tale begins when Jack was but a young man of nineteen or twenty, in the days before he had his own ship. He was shipwrecked not far off Gibraltar. The Captain went down with his ship and all the crew were lost but Jack survived. At the last moment he had climbed one of the masts and as the ship took its final death roll he leapt into the broiling sea.

Jack was a good, strong swimmer but might have drowned if luck had not presented a large rock, almost a small island, just as his strength was fading. He lay on the rock panting and blessing his stars.

In that moment he vowed to captain his own ship and never be ship-wrecked again. Jack knew that the captain of the ship gone down had been a fool who had made a huge mistake and the loss of all his companions was the result of it. He grieved for the friends he had sailed with and lost.

After a while, laying on the shore regaining his breathe, he saw an Olive tree and he crawled to its shade and leaned against it exhausted. Little else grew on the rock, just a few prickly pears growing in dry earth and some plants such as you might see at the edge of the desert. All else was rock. In the cool shade, out of the burning noon sun, Jack fell asleep.

When he awoke the sun had just fallen and he stood up and stretched, grateful still to be alive. He heard a sound behind him and turned.

A beautiful girl stood gazing at him in silence. Jack was confused but entranced. He stood, stunned by her beauty, her dark eyes, her long hair, her lips in a gentle smile. Her skin was brown and she wore nothing but a simple green cloth that blew in the breeze and a few leaves were twined in her hair, but to him she looked a queen, a goddess, and so he bowed.

”Don’t bow to me,” she said in a warm, soft voice ”I am but a maiden and grateful to a fate that has washed you up upon this shore.”

Jack replied ”I am awed by your beauty, my lady.”

”Ah! Your lady I am,” she said, ”for I have watched you while you slept and am already deeply in love.”

” I have never known love,” said Jack ”Never felt it either, yet I feel it now, so strong, I feel I will die if you are not to be mine.”

She moved into his arms and he kissed her with a longing he had never felt before. His heart beat wildly with a need to possess her and they sank to the ground. She tore off the green cloth and cast it aside and clung to him. Jacks heart leapt with joy, in an ecstasy of passion. They owned each other.

Passion subsided and was replaced by a sweet tenderness that felt like a life time of knowing each other and they lay together looking up at the stars, deep into the night. Jack didn’t even notice the cold night air. He said he would never leave her but would take her with him away from this rock. She just smiled, a little sadly, and nodded. Finally they fell asleep in each others arms.

He awoke in the morning alone beneath the Olive tree. He looked about. She was gone. With an awful sinking feeling of realisation he though it had all been a dream yet he felt a huge loss that ripped at his heart and bought tears to his eyes. He howled. He lay on the ground and beat the earth. He cursed his dreaming that had bought him this pain. He called himself a fool. But he knew in his heart of hearts that no other woman would ever satisfy him now, though he had one in every port. He was in love with a dream.

After a time he calmed a little and managed to eat some olives as by now he was very hungry. The olives strengthened him greatly. Now he felt love more than misery but told himself he had just had a wonderful dream and that the most important thing was to face reality and forget dreams and to get off this rock. He saw that the shore of Gibraltar was close and decided to swim.

Years passed and Jack achieved his ambition and became the captain of his own vessel, the Cormorant. She was a wonderful ship, and fast, and his crew were loyal to a man. They had much success. Though he laughed and joked and rolled about in the arms of many a woman when they went ashore Jack never fell in love with any of them, though he was kind and treated them well. All the women knew not to expect any commitment from Jack. The sea was his life, the sea and trade.

On one of their visits to the main Souk in Mali, where the camel trains come in from the Sahara with their cargo of salt, Jack completed a favourable transaction and had arranged for a caravan to convey a large amount of salt to his ship. After all was done he decided to relax a while and he went to the central square of the Medina to sip at mint tea and watch the world go by. His ear was caught by a storyteller and so he moved closer.

In the centre of a circle of interested listeners sat an old man in a striped robe, his hood up as protection from the sun. He sat on an old worn scrap of a carpet and there was a stick on the ground at his side and a small boy who now and then leaned against his shoulder.

The old man was telling a story about a donkey and a judge and his audience were roaring with laughter as Jack approached. The boy got up and went amongst the crowd gathering coins and then the old man began a new tale and Jack sat down to listen, sipping his tea and munching on almond nougat, which he had a weakness for.

The old man told a tale which gripped Jack the moment he heard mentioned of an olive tree that grew alone on a rock in the sea. The old man told of a beautiful young girl who lived in Tangier long ago, a girl who was an only child and the joy of her fathers heart.

”Many men wanted her as their bride,” the storyteller said, ”and came to her father with generous offers but he refused them all saying ”Only the man who wins my daughters love shall have her.” ‘

Jack leaned forward eager to hear more and storyteller continued his tale.

”It happened that she attracted the eye of a merchant, who was really a magician, and he determined to have her whatever her father might say but he went to him with numerous bribes. The girl would hide behind the pierced screens when he came and she disliked the look of him intensely. He was old and short and skinny and his teeth were black with many gaps and she thought he smelled of something strange that she didn’t like. The sight of him repelled her and made her sick to her stomach.

Eventually the magician came to the house with his final offer, a fortune indeed, but her father, knowing well his daughters dislike of the man, refused once more and told the magician not to come to his house again. The magician flew into a rage and swung his sword and chopped off her fathers head with one mighty blow. The girl saw all this from behind the screen and was both terrified and grief stricken but she had enough sense left to her to run from the house.”

”She ran from the house in a panic and headed down through the winding steps and passages that lead her to the harbour and she took a small rowing boat and rowed out to sea. As night fell she came to a rock. There was no fresh water and little to eat there but there was an olive tree. She was exhausted and it was so dark by now that she decided to rest there until the morning.”

”But she should not have supposed she was out of harms way. She thought the old man was just a merchant and she had no idea of his magical powers. But he knew exactly where she was and he came like a bat in the night and transformed into his own shape before her eyes. He lunged at her. She screamed and backed against the olive tree begging for mercy and, to the astonishment of both the girl and the magician, strong arms came from the tree and wrapped around her and gently drew her in. The dryad of the olive tree had taken pity on the poor girl.”

”The magician could do nothing to draw her out from the tree and the protection of the dryad and this angered him greatly. He placed a curse on both her and the tree.”

”All curses must have some conditions of restitution and the magician was wise enough to know this so he decreed that she must stay in the Olive tree forever and could only step out when a man stepped upon the rock, a thing that he believed would never happen. Furthermore, just to be safe, he added the condition that she would even then have to return to the tree after thirteen hours unless the man buried one hundred and one pearls at the foot of the tree and that one of those must be the most beautiful pearl in the world. Having completed his spell he left the island, content that his revenge was complete and to the best of anyone’s knowledge she is still held in the Olive tree to this day and no man has ever stepped on the rock,” the Storyteller concluded.

”Not so,” thought Jack, his heart flooding with joy. Being too wise to declare it publicly and risk others knowing this truth he kept it to himself but laid a pouch of gold in the old mans lap and rushed back to his ship.

No Captain has ever pushed his crew to load a cargo so fast. All he could think of was the beautiful girl who had not been a dream. His memory flooded with images of her and the feelings of that one night of pure love and joy he had spent with her and his mind was full of the determination to get the one hundred and one pearls and release her from the tree and into his arms forever.

He smiled a huge smile at his crew even as he shouted and swore at them to work faster and they nudged each other wondering,

”What’s up with the Captain, he is like a man possessed.”

But Jack was ever practical and as he sat in his cabin that night writing his log he thought of all the ways to get pearls without making anyone who was dependent on him or his crew suffer from the lack of the gold they earned and took. Certainly he could trade some gold for some pearls after the cargo was delivered and he could do that as a result of every trip but it would take long to get one hundred and one. Also one of them had to be the most beautiful pearl in the world. How would he find that and if he could find it perhaps he could never buy it, what might it cost and did anyone even have it? It might be at the bottom of the sea.

Jack had always avoided mermaids when they came swimming along side seductively. He knew they could lure a man to his death and had once witnessed one of his crew drown when he believed the mermaids lies and could not be stopped from leaping from the ship to join her. Some sailors say it is a happy death but Jack didn’t believe that for one moment.

Now, despite this aversion he decided to seek mermaids out whenever and wherever he could. He announced this to his men the next day with many heavy and serious warnings not to betray themselves to any mermaid.

‘’We will continue to deal salt for gold and to board any pirate ship that dare draw near us but now we become hunters of mermaids too. Beware their cunning for they hunt men and any man caught in their nets never returns. I have my reason for this hunt, which I do not share, but the share you get of our cargo wont change.’’

So Jack bought a pearl or two for gold after every trip and he never saw one that looked more special than the rest. He became a mermaid hunter. He developed an instinct about where they could be found and when. The mermaids came to know the ship and its crew and were amused at the frequent banter they had with Jack and the way he guarded his crew.  In truth the mermaids liked him and he liked them though he would never have admitted that. The mermaids were happy to give a pearl or two for the pretty gold coin they valued only as a trinket.

Jacks love of the life at sea never changed but the girl was always there in his mind and his heart.

Now I must digress, for a moment, for I too met a mermaid in a cove near here some years ago. She asked me to tell her a tale about a mermaid and i did and it so pleased her that, before she vanished with a flip of her tail, she placed a pearl in my hand. I know nothing of pearls so i just slipped it into my pouch, thinking it might have a use one day.

I had well nigh forgotten I had that pearl until I encountered Jack and he told me his history and the reason he hunts mermaids. We sat on the harbour wall and I listened to all he told me.

”How many pearls do you have now?” I asked

”I am unsure,” he said ”for I just this moment left a mermaid who unexpectedly gave me an ‘andful in return for a favour and a bit o’ gold. I ain’t yet counted ’em again.”

He took out a leather pouch and making sure no-one was watching he poured them out on the top of the wall to count them. He had one hundred and nine.

”One more I need,” he said, ”For these are all common pearls and I don’t yet ‘ave the one most beautiful.”

I looked at Jack’s pearls spread out before me and saw that not one of them stood out from another and then I remembered the one in my pouch and I recalled that it was certainly larger than these. I felt in my pouch and found it. I held it out to Jack and laid it in his rope calloused hand.

He said nothing but gazed at it long. It glowed in the light and there were gentle colours in its soft gleam. I confess that until now I had never looked at it properly. It was a pearl of great beauty and larger than the rest.

A huge smile spread across Jacks face, ”This is I believe the most beautiful pearl in the world!” he said.

He stood up. ”You will excuse me now,” he said, ”if i take a sudden leave of ya for ’tis time to set sail for a god foresaken rock and my beautiful woman. Ah but I don’t know ‘ow best ta thankee. Will ya take this pouch o’gold and the other nine pearls.”

I smiled at him, ”Keep the nine pearls as a gift for your girl and give me one gold coin. A gold coin and the sight of you smile is reward enough and I wish you good fortune in your quest.”

With many thanks and a smiling bow he left.

So, I am sure you all want to know whether Jack got his lady.”

Moon smiled at his listeners.

”Aye that we do,” said the landlord.

”Well,” said Moon, ”Jack made excellent use of a fair wind and sailed with all speed to the rock and rowed ashore alone. The olive tree had aged and looked far stronger. He clearly remembered the story and he buried the pearls at the bottom of the tree, keeping just nine.

All was well and as the story had foretold his love stepped out of the tree and straight into his arms. She was more beautiful than ever. Just as the tree had thrived, so had she. She was no longer a slender girl but a woman. I won’t try to describe their happiness or their passion but it was long before they returned to the ship.

They set sail for Tangier and Jack bought a house up high in the hills that look down upon the beautiful bay and the white mud walls of the town. Jack jokes that the curve of the bay is as beautiful as the curve of his woman’s hips but not half as seductive. They were married and nine pearls were sown into the neck of her wedding gown.

Though Jack still can’t resist the pull of the sea and trade and has a care for the welfare of his crew his wife always sails with him and she took to the life easily. He has eyes for no other woman and often says he can’t believe his luck on the only day he has ever been shipwrecked and he met her nor his luck in hearing the storyteller of Mali, for without that he would never have known how to free her or believed her to be more than a youthful dream.”

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