Merlin and the Spell Words
This story is extracted from my novel, Moxie’s Decision. It’s one of the subplots.
Merlin sat at a desk in his laboratory staring at his four ink-stained parchments from a recent project.
The room had many shelves and tables filled with dusty artifacts, retorts half-filled with solidified liquid, stuffed animals, scrolls, a horned helmet missing one horn, candle stubs, broken quills and other items whose purpose was forgotten by the wizard.
Elbows on the desk, Merlin held his head in his hands, still staring.
Rowan, sweaty from a football practice, entered the room, kissed the top of Merlin’s head .
“What’s that noise?” she asked.
“Noise?” Merlin cocked his head to one side and listened. “Uh-oh, it’s my scryer. There’s an incoming message on it.”
“You have a scryer? Where is it? I’ve never seen it.”
Merlin looked around the cluttered room. “I don’t recall where I put it. Haven’t used it in months.” He opened drawers and cupboards and lifted stacks of scrolls.
“I think the noise is coming from the bedroom,” Rowan said.
“That’s it! Thank you, my dear. Now I remember. I put it under the bed.” Merlin crouched down by the bed, reached under it and pulled out a small silver dish filled with a grayish liquid. The surface of the liquid rippled as the dish made a high-pitched squeal.
Merlin walked over to the desk and placed the dish down. He touch a finger on the surface of the liquid and said, “Merlin here. Do you have a message for me?”
A face appeared in the dish. “It’s Cynwise!” Merlin gasped.
A slow-speaking voice came from the dish. “Merlin! It is imperative that you come here in all haste. We have a grave situation and only someone with your power can prevent a catastrophe. Please hurry.”
The dish went silent. Merlin stuck his finger on the liquid twice and the message repeated.
When the dish fell silent, Rowan said, “You look stunned. Who is Cynwise? What is the message about?”
Merlin, hands behind his back, paced the room and didn’t reply for a time. Finally, he said, “Cynwise is the Keeper of the Secret Scrolls. He wouldn’t contact me unless it was dire emergency.”
“I never heard of Cynwise or the Secret Scrolls. Where are they?”
“Cynwise, the scrolls and the library that stores them are deep secrets. You never should have heard even his name.”
“Where do you have to go?”
“I can’t tell you that. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
“What? I’m an acolyte of the Lady of the Lake. I’m an accomplished sorceress and I’m your lover. What do you mean, you can’t tell me?” Rowan crossed her arms and scowled at Merlin.
“Just that. I’m sworn to secrecy by terrible oaths.” Merlin paced the room some more. He stopped and grinned at Rowan. “Although I can’t tell you where I’m going, you can come with me and see it for yourself. If the situation is as grave as Cynwise says it is, you could offer critical assistance.”
Rowan’s scowl changed to a smile.
“Come,” Merlin said. “We must tell the King. We’ll need an armed escort because we head into wild country.”
Accompanied by a dozen soldiers — half spearmen and half archers — Merlin and Rowan rode north and west. Riding side by side, Rowan asked, “Why did you bring your wand? I’ve never seen you use it. I didn’t even know you had one.”
Merlin patted the top of the wand, a sturdy hunk of polished blackthorn wood. The wand had its own scabbard hanging from a belt. “It has many uses, especially when one is the field as we are now. You see, when you cast a spell at a distance object, much of the magic spreads out like ripples on a pond so the target is hit with a lesser amount of magic then the caster intended. If one uses a wand like this, the wand focuses the magic so more of it hits the target.” Merlin paused and smiled at Rowan. “And of course, a hefty wand like this makes a wonderful blunt instrument.”
They rode for two days before coming to a small village on the edge of the wild lands called Wales.
Merlin waved the sergeant over and said, “You and your men will wait here while the lady and I go ahead by ourselves.”
The sergeant started to protest, but Merlin held up a hand. “Yes, I know about your orders, but I can’t complete my mission with soldiers by my side. This patch of land is peaceful and protected by the magic of the druids. If you try to accompany us further, you may have lightning bolts dancing off your spear tips. You don’t want that, do you?”
The sergeant shook his head.
“We’ll be gone about four days. If we have to stay longer, I’ll send a messenger to you. Mind, make sure your men pay for everything. No stealing or causing trouble.”
The sergeant saluted and left Merlin to give orders to his men.
Merlin and Rowan rode out of the village and headed west.
“This is the direction to reach the library?” Rowan asked.
“No. After we reach the tree line and the soldiers can’t see us, we’ll change direction. Quite a few times.”
“I don’t like the idea of leaving the soldiers behind. What if some natives see us and attack?”
“There aren’t any natives to see us. They avoid this area because they’re terrified by the spells the druids occasionally cast to make sure the locals keep away.”
“You said you’d tell me about the library when the soldiers weren’t around,” Rowan said.
“The Romans tried to stamp out Druidism and they were quite successful in making inroads. At that time, druid history and spells were passed down orally. With the Roman soldiers killing every druid priest they caught, a decision was made to start writing down our history and our spells in order to preserve our knowledge. To that end, several priests learned their letters and started the library. It was deliberately located in a wild area that the Romans stayed away from.
“From what I’ve been told, the library continues to grow. I’ve contributed several papers to it. I’d have like to add my study on the Magic of the Mind, but perhaps that won’t take place.”
Merlin looked behind him. They were out of sight of the village and he turned north.
“You know how to find this hidden library?” Rowan asked.
“No, I’ve never been here. I have only a vague sense of where it is.”
“Men! You’re all pathetic about directions. Why didn’t you ask Cynwise for directions?”
“No need to ask. The library staff already knows we’re here. Soon, I suspect a guide will appear from behind some trees.”
A mile further on after many turns and twists, two men dressed in brown robes with lengthy beards stood on the path. One held up a hand.
“Greetings, Merlin,” the man said. “You may go forward along this path. Your companion must stop here.”
“The lady is my associate and will accompany me to meet with Cynwise.”
“The library has never allowed a woman to enter and she isn’t a trained druid.”
“For your information,” Merlin said, “Rowan is an acolyte for the Lady of the Lake, is trained sorceress and my assistant in these matters.” Merlin pointed a finger at the two druids. “Be aware that I will not proceed to the library without her. You can send my regrets to Cynwise and tell him to get other help for whatever his problem is.”
The two druids conferred in whispers before the younger took off running into the woods. “My brother will ask Cynwise for orders,” the remaining druid said. “Would you like to dismount and have a drink of spring water and a bite of bread while we wait.”
Merlin, Rowan and the priest waited in silence for ten minutes until the messenger returned.
“Cynwise,” he said, “is not pleased, but he will allow the lady to proceed with Merlin.”
Merlin and Rowan mounted up and followed the two druids who walked.
A mile further, they came a hillside covered with briar patches. An old, painfully thin man with a belly-button length white beard waited for them. He carried a staff and leaned on it.
“Merlin, you wretch, you have violated your sacred oath.”
“I have not, Cynwise. I did not tell Rowan where the library is. She merely rode with me. I doubt if she can ever find her way here again.”
“I couldn’t find my way out of here,” Rowan said.
“Why is she here?” Cynwise shook his staff in Rowan’s direction.
“Because, “Merlin replied, “of the severity of your message. Whatever the problem is, I thought I could use Rowan’s skills and knowledge.”
“So be it.” Cynwise sighed, his scrawny chest heaved. “Traditions must be set aside in times like this.”
“What is the problem?” Merlin asked.
“The spells are loose.”
Merlin and Rowan exchanged baffled looks as Cynwise turned and led the way into the library. The entrance was concealed behind three walls of briars with a narrow path between each wall. They entered a large room with fireplaces on opposite sides. A door on the right led to another smaller room. Thick rugs covered the floor and the only furniture consisted of a large table with eight straight-back chairs.
“Cynwise,” Merlin said, “I don’t understand what you meant when you said the spells are loose. What does that mean?”
“Oh dear, I mis-spoke.” Cynwise poured ale into three mugs.
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief.
“I should have said the spell words were loose, not the spells themselves.” He placed the mugs on the table. “Thank you for coming. And perhaps it was wise of you to bring assistance because the situation is dire.”
All three sat down at the table. “I don’t understand what this situation is,” Rowan said. “Can you give us some background about what is happening?”
Cynwise sipped his ale, nodded and began. “This building houses the largest collection of spells in the world as far as I know. The spells are written out in the scriptorium.” He pointed to the other room. “Depending upon the value and power of the spell, it is written down in gold, silver, copper or plain ink.”
“How can you make gold ink?” Merlin asked.
“Go on,” Rowan said.
“The spell scrolls are stored in the library hidden which is hidden underneath the house in case the Romans or other low-lifers found us and attacked. There is always a librarian on duty inside the locked library doors. If someone wants to read a spell scroll or research a subject such as druid history, they write down the request and slip the parchment under the library door. Once the librarian has found the scroll or parchment, he inserts it into a small receptacle that pivots so the scroll ends up outside the library door. The scroll is then returned the same way.”
“Are the doors never opened?” Rowan asked.
“Only to change librarians and then the door is only opened for a second or two while the men exchange places.”
“Why all this bother?” Merlin asked.
“Bother? This library houses the most powerful spells know to the druids. If they were to fall into the wrong hands, they could be misused. That is why we are so security conscious.”
“So what is this dire situation you speak of?” Merlin said.
“In a moment. First, some more background. A week ago, a librarian went to begin his shift, but the on-duty librarian didn’t acknowledge the shift change signal. The replacement librarian found the on-duty librarian dead. The dead man’s face had a frozen look of horror on it. We managed to retrieve the body and we’ve determined the man died in some weird ritual involving a keg of ale and a pair of antlers. While we fetched the body, we were under constant attack by the gold spell words, who flew around the library and dove on us.” Cynwise pulled up the sleeve of his robe and showed a thick bandage on his forearm. “Ten stitches to close the wound. One spell attacked and cut me with a sharp edge.”
“How did the words get loose?” Rowan asked, her face drained of blood.
“Don’t really know.” Cynwise shrugged. “Perhaps one gold spell was flawed or written our incorrectly. The spell word managed to set itself free then released the other gold spells. We now believe the gold spells have released all the spell words.”
“So the library is swarming with spell words flying about?” Merlin asked.
“Just so.” Cynwise shook his head. “It’s only a matter of time until the words accidentally arrange themselves into a spell that will trigger a disaster.”
“And you want Rowan and I to fix this problem?”
“Who else can do it? You’re the most powerful wizard in Britain. If you can’t straighten out the situation, the library and probably a big chunk of Britain is doomed.”
“Perhaps,” Rowan said, “we should see the library and then figure out how to proceed.”
“All right.” Cynwise went to a corner of the room and pulled back the rug to reveal a trap door. “This way,” he said as he descended a ladder. Rowan and Merlin followed and found themselves in a tunnel lit by strange lights at intervals.
“Magic, of course,” Cynwise said, pointing to the closest light. “Have to be replenished twice a day. Quite expensive, magically speaking.”
At the end of the short tunnel they reached a lead-lined door. “The library is behind the door,” Cynwise said. “After we realized the spells were loose, I took the precaution of adding this second door in case the words penetrated the inner door.” He unlocked the door with a large key to reveal a wooden door. Cywise placed a finger over his lips and beckoned Rowan and Merlin forward. “Listen” he whispered.
Merlin placed an ear to the door and the heard sounds of merriment. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end and he felt a shiver of fear course through his body. It sounded like there was a party going on behind the door. How was he suppose to fix a problem like this?
The concluding part of the story will be posted on Friday.
Follow this link for more about the Moxie series of novels