Guardian of the Balance
Merlin's Descendants, Vol. 1
“FOLLOW my leader,” I called to the laughing children of Lord
Ector’s household the next day. Free at last from the confines of the
fortress, I scrambled atop a fallen oak tree and ran its length to the root
ball. My bare feet clung to the crumbling bark. This tree had been an ancient
giant among its fellows. Six men linking hands in a circle couldn’t span
its girth at the base. I counted steps as I ran its length. Nearly three
hundred. It had fallen last winter during a fierce storm and had taken several
younger trees with it. A broad clearing yawned around the dead giant. Sunlight
penetrated to the forest floor here, encouraging new plants and seedling trees
Da and I had mourned the tree’s passing. Today I rejoiced in the life
it gave back to the forest. Already young ferns sought to root around it.
Insects burrowed for food, and birds gathered twigs and bark for nests.
I inhaled deeply of the intoxicating aromas of damp earth, sprouting green,
and warm sunlight. My body seemed about to burst. The forest sang with life,
and so did I.
The goddess promised that out of death comes life, manifested in these
sights and smells. So did Father Thomas, but in words that drifted far from the
ear. I refused to puzzle over the mystery. I needed to run and shout and
rejoice in life after a winter of being cooped up in the caer. Stale air
and smoky fires had no place in today’s sunshine. Behind me I heard
Curyll and some of his foster brothers helping the little ones onto the tree
trunk. They should have been hunting with the men. But the timing and allotment
of horses had been all wrong. I had made certain of that. I didn’t have
to use magic to divert and misdirect. Lady Glynnis had ordered Boar, Curyll,
Stinger, and Ceffyl to watch over us as we played in the forest.
I didn’t look back to see who did and who did not manage to keep up
with me. I belonged to the forest. I knew places none of the others would think
False spring had melted the snow and brightened the sunshine. Lady Glynnis
rose this morning and ordered a clean sweep of the fortress. New rushes for the
floors. Bedding needed airing and laundry hung out-of-doors. Children were a
hindrance on such days and I gladly led them in boisterous games away from the
industry of the women. Most of the men, including Da, had left early on a last
hunt before leaving for war, rather than be commandeered into cleaning. Curyll
and his foster brothers agreed that minding the children in the forest was
preferable to beating wall hangings or stirring boiling laundry.
“Wait up, Wren,” Boar called to me. He didn’t like anyone
straying beyond his eyes’ limited range. He really was a nearsighted
boar; bad-tempered and belligerent when crossed. I ignored him.
Curyll should have been the one who directed us all. Maybe today I could
break his habit of silence.
Without slowing my pace, I slid gleefully to the ground from the immense
height of the trunk near the root ball. Soft moss and ferns cushioned my
landing. I laughed out loud and kept running into the depth of the forest.
I knew a place where water sprites played and flower faeries gathered seeds.
First I would have to leave the others content to play in the clearing so that
they wouldn’t disturb the spell I wanted to try.
All winter I had kept magic buried deep within me while I studied the how
and why of it. The time had come to allow the elements of my spells full range,
out-of-doors where we belonged.
“W-where are you, Wr-Wren?” Curyll stood at the top of the root
ball, peering into the darkness of the forest. Beyond the clearing of the
fallen giant, the canopy of branches formed a thick ceiling. Little light
penetrated to the forest floor.
I giggled to let my friend know I wasn’t far off.
“We’d best spread out and search for her,” Stinger said
sternly. He methodically stripped a heavy broken branch of side twigs and swung
it like a club. The Stinger was always ready to fight with whatever weapons
came to hand, even if the enemy was only a question.
“It’s like she stepped through a door into another world!”
Ceffyl gasped. His thick dark hair, newly cropped to fit under his helm, stood
out like a ceffyl’s bristly mane cut short for war. He looked ready to
rear and bolt on his long legs.
“Sh-she’s The Merlin’s daughter. What do you
expect?” Curyll laughed, barely stuttering at all.
I had stepped from sunlight into darkness, from clear vision into secrets,
The Otherworld couldn’t be more different. Only Curyll would see me, and
only if he looked with his heart and not his eyes.
I loosed another little laugh from a different direction. Curyll swung his
attention to my hiding place. Ceffyl continued to look I where I had been.
Stinger and Boar began beating the underbrush with sticks in yet another
direction. A grin split Curyll’s worried face and he climbed down from
the tree trunk, less gracefully than I had.
I trusted him to find me, always.
I stood up and ran again with Curyll in pursuit. My bare feet barely touched
the ground, I felt so light and free. I wanted to tear off my gown and fling it
away, become one with the elements without the hindrance of clothing. When wind
and sun caressed my growing body, I would become one with the Goddess. Only
free of coverings could I experience the gaia, a sense of unity with all
life. Da would understand. Lady Glynnis and the boys wouldn’t.
This summer I will run naked and free with the faeries, I promised
myself. This summer when Da and I roam Britain again. I will grow and mature
and be ready for Beltane next year, or the year after. Maybe I can arrange for
Curyll to be my first partner.
Soon, within days, I would make the first transition into womanhood. I knew
that as well as I knew the answer to Curyll’s cure.
The pool I sought shimmered in the sunshine ahead. Ages ago, another forest
giant had fallen, its roots weakened by an underground spring. As the tree
rotted, water filled the depression. New trees didn’t spring up to fill
the gap in the canopy because of the swampy ground. So the water continued to
fill the clearing. Now the secret lives who inhabited the dark recesses of the
forest found it an ideal gathering place.
“Wr-Wren, wh-where are you? Are y-you lost?” Curyll yelled. His
booted feet thrashed through the piles of dead leaves left behind by last
autumn’s fall. Each step stirred a crisp scent left over from previous
seasons blending into the new one.
My feet left barely a trace of my passing. Curyll would leave an easy path
to follow home. I’d show him how to retrace his steps later. When we
finished the spell.
I paused at the edge of the pool still within the darkness of the trees. Awe
and silence surrounded me, as if the opening between two trees was really a
doorway into the Otherworld. Blending with the stillness, I reached out with my
mind and called....
“W-why d-did you run so far a-ahead of the others?” Curyll said,
out of breath. “If we g-get sep-separated, we’ll be lost. You
k-know Merlin warned us to s-stay together.”
He’d been running to keep up with me, and the heat of his body reached
out to include me. He smelled of sweat and leather and sunshine, healthy and
clean. I enfolded myself into his warmth, binding us together to complete a
spell. A thrill of something special tickled the base of my spine and spread
outward. I pressed a finger to my lips. Then I pointed to the center of the
pool. A flutter of bright colors that might have been mayflies danced above the
Curyll’s eyes opened wide in wonder. He knew, as I did, that no
respectable mayfly would hover over a forest pool a week past the Vernal
Equinox, false spring or no.
“Faeries?” he mouthed the word without a sound. No sound, no
stutter. He fingered his torc, like a protective talisman, just like Da did in
the presence of magic.
Don’t startle them, I replied with my mind instead of my mouth.
Another trick I had learned on my own but not quite perfected. Happily, it
worked with Curyll better than anyone else.
He stood hunted-still.
Gradually the fluttering lives gathered around us. Sunlight struck their
wings and flashed rainbows, filling the clearing with color. We grinned in
delight at the spectacle. Curyll relaxed. The faeries alighted in his hair, on
his shoulders and his face. They surrounded us in a halo of bright sparks and
The faeries never wore clothes. Their tiny naked bodies appeared human
except for their brightly colored skin and slightly pointed ears. If I looked
very closely, I could see rainbows flickering across their wings.
Curyll twitched his nose where a yellow faery tickled him. I watched him
struggle to suppress a sneeze. The faery increased her teasing. Her full
breasts jiggled with her laughter. Curyll couldn’t hold back any longer.
He blasted forth with a mighty explosion of air.
The faeries rose in a chattering and giggling swarm around our heads.
Eventually the flighty creatures settled down.
Why have you called us here? a dark green male faery asked. I
wondered briefly if Curyll’s body was as perfectly formed as this
“Curyll, my dear friend, needs practice speaking,” I replied
swallowing my curiosity. “The trees have infinite patience and will not
laugh at Curyll when he falters. When he has mastered the ability to speak
clearly to the trees, will you let him learn to speak to you?”
Every one of the brightly colored beings nodded agreement. Their giggles of
mischief tinkled on the wind like a hundred tiny silver bells.
“W-Wren, I-I-can’t,” Curyll said. He blushed to his ear
tips. “They al-already laugh a-at m-me!”
The faeries swarmed in brilliant display of flapping wings and
uncontrollable laughter; a full chorus of chiming mirth, much more musical than
the heavy church bells the Christians used.
“You can, Curyll. Take your time. Form each word in your head before
you wrap your tongue around it. You’ll learn quickly enough that faeries
laugh at everything, not just you.” Another round of musical giggles
supported my statement. “When you learn to ignore them, you will be able
to ignore people who laugh at nothing as well.”
“W-we must g-o ba-ck soon. The others...”
“Time means nothing here, my friend. As long as the faeries listen,
there is no such thing as time.” I settled upon a bed of moss at the side
of the pool and waited.
Curyll joined me, shaking his head in wonderment.
“Listen to yourself as you listen to others. Make each word
count.” I took his hand in both of mine, enjoying the sense of unity his
touch gave to me. “We are in gaia, in touch and harmony with every aspect
of life. Speak freely without embarrassment or hesitation.”
The faeries settled in my lap, beside me, and on various shrubs. Each took
up an attitude of intense concentration that quickly shattered as they found mirth
in my stillness.
“W-what will this miracle cost me?” Curyll asked, looking at the
“If it works, promise the faeries that you will never forget the Old
Gods and will always honor their creatures of forest, field, and spring.
Promise the Goddess.”
He looked up. A cloud of uncertainty fell over his eyes.
“I-I promise, Wren. I promise to always honor the Old Gods and all
their creatures of forest and field and spring.”
“Seal it in a circle, Curyll.”
He drew a circle in my palm with his fingertip. I repeated the seal by
drawing a circle in the air, a circle big enough to include the faeries. A hint
of Tanio tailed my finger as I traced the sigil.
“I. Hope. This. Works,” Curyll said, still holding my hand.
“As long as you keep your promise, the faeries will help you speak. As
long as they trust you, they will protect you.” Because I can’t
always be there for you. But I’ll try.
Ceffyl slugged Garoth in the jaw. Garoth reeled back, off-balance. He
flailed his arms. Blood trickled from a split in his lower lip. Ceffyl tackled
his much larger, and more experienced, foster brother around the waist. His
face turned bright red with anger.
Both of their helms tilted as they fell to the ground together.
I hadn’t seen what started this fight. Arms practice often
disintegrated into brawls. Emotions ran high. My friends and companions turned
vicious when they took up sword, ax, or spear. Lord Ector had said ’twas
good training for the boys.
“Cease!” Garoth yelled, grabbing the younger boy’s neck
with a thick forearm.
“Take it back!” Ceffyl choked out the words. He pummeled
Garoth’s chest with his fists.
I saw Ceffyl prepare his legs for a vicious kick.
Together they rolled in the mud, out of my field of vision.
Lord Ector and the other adults seemed to have disappeared, allowing the
boys to settle the dispute themselves.
Siblings and fosterlings gathered in a circle around the grappling youths.
They alternately cheered and jeered the wrestlers.
Ceffyl rammed his knee upward. He missed Garoth’s groin by a
“Get him, Ceffyl!” Fallon yelled. “It’s time someone
showed my brother he isn’t Ardh Rhi of this caer.”
Boar, who idolized his brother Garoth, rammed his fist into Fallon’s
The oldest of Ector’s brood doubled over.
Quickly, the entire throng dissolved into a mass of flying fists, kicking
feet, yells of pain, and grunts of satisfaction.
I stepped out of the shadows to get a better view and tripped over two
flailing bodies. Before I could catch my balance, I tasted mud and something
heavy landed on my back. All the air left my lungs in whoosh. I couldn’t
lift my face away from the churned clay of the courtyard. I couldn’t
Every attempt to draw a breath filled my mouth with more mud.
Red-tinged blackness filled my eyes. Strength oozed out of my arms and legs.
Red on black images chased each other across my dimming eye sight. Laughter
boiled in my stomach — the mad laughter of prophecy. I needed to stop and
see what vision of the future the Goddess offered. Red for fire, black for
Suddenly, just when I thought the Goddess would show me something important,
or claim me once and for all, the weight on my back disappeared.
Someone’s strong fingers grabbed the back of my dress. I found myself
“Breathe, Wren.” Curyll slapped my back hard. Mud spewed out of
my mouth. Tears sprang into my eyes.
I gulped a huge mouthful of air.
“Now sit down and stay clear,” Curyll ordered. He sounded like
an adult giving orders to small children. Or a warrior commanding a battle.
“You’ve got to stop this, Curyll. They are hurting each
other,” I gasped as more mud spluttered out of my mouth.
“Give them five more minutes. Then they’ll be tired enough to
listen to reason.” He drew a dirt clod out of my hair.
After a few moments, when the frenzy slowed to a methodical drone, Curyll
strode forward. One by one, he separated the combatants.
“Enough!” he commanded in a voice that filled the walled
courtyard and echoed against the watchtower.
Everyone, including the watchers, froze in place. The babble ceased. Curyll
turned in a full circle, glaring at each person individually. No one questioned
him. We waited for him to direct us.
My heart filled with pride. Two days ago, my friend would not have dared command
the older boys. After our hours with the faeries, he easily assumed leadership
of us all.
“Now tell me, who started this?” Curyll barked, expecting
No one met his eyes. Ceffyl and Garoth hung their heads slightly. Boar and
Fallon looked upward.
Curyll stalked over to them. “You should be ashamed of yourself,
Garoth, brawling with a boy half your size.”
Garoth said nothing.
“But from the looks of those bruises on your face, Ceffyl held his own
against you,” Curyll chuckled.
Ceffyl lifted his head and threw back his shoulders.
“Did you start it?” Curyll suddenly grabbed Ceffyl’s shirt
and dragged him close until they stood nose to nose.
“Y-yes,” the slighter boy answered. Fear and confusion shone
from his eyes.
“Why? You must have had a good reason to challenge Garoth, who
outweighs you by three stone and tops you by a head height.”
“He... it’s personal.” Ceffyl met Curyll’s gaze and
Curyll jerked his head in a quick nod of acceptance. Then he released Ceffyl
and turned toward the rest of his foster brothers and Ector’s men at
“And the rest of you? What cause have you to fight your comrades? The
rules established by Lord Ector and The Merlin declare that individual disputes
must be settled by the individuals and no one else. Have you no respect for
“In battle, we make our own rules,” Fallon said. “When
your blood lust gets up, you fight whoever stands in your way.” He
stepped forward as if to challenge Curyll’s authority to impose order.
“This is arms practice, not battle. We are not Saxons who kill
indiscriminately. Rules exist for a reason.”
“Rules are made by those strong enough to enforce them and broken by
any who can get away with it,” Garoth argued. He and Fallon stood
together, shoulder to shoulder. They presented a solid wall of resistance to
“When we ride to battle with the Saxons, we can’t afford to
fight among ourselves,” Curyll reminded them. “We must learn better
ways to settle disputes than coming to blows. We must learn to live within the
The watchers drifted apart, some to stand behind Lord Ector’s oldest
sons; the others to stand behind Curyll. Boar, Stinger, and Ceffyl took
positions to Curyll’s right and left. The four of them almost massed as
much weight as their two opponents.
I stepped up between Stinger and Curyll, suddenly realizing that words
counted more than fists and spears right now. As long as Curyll spoke the
“Rules and laws are made for the benefit of all,” Curyll called
loudly so that all within the courtyard could hear. “Without rules, we
are little better than a pack of wolves hunting in the night, or Saxons who
kill for the love of killing. Rules and laws are intricately woven into our
culture. Our civilization. Without them, we have nothing to fight for.”
“We fight the Saxons for our lives. Our land,” Garoth remind
“We also fight for our right to call ourselves Britons. If our lives
and the land are all we care about, we could join the Saxons, let them rule us.
We’d have our lives. We’d have the land to feed us. Nothing more.
But we are not Saxon slaves. Our laws, our rules that guide our daily
lives, and the way we honor the Goddess or any god we care to name, make us
“Together we can beat back the invasion and preserve our way of life,
But if we fight each other with no respect for our laws and rules, then we lose
our honor, our trust, and the sense of justice that bind us together.
“We must stand together. Die together if necessary. Fighting among
ourselves leads to the death of our spirit and the death of Britain!”
Behind me, someone clapped his hands together, slowly, rhythmically. Others
joined in the stunning display of approval. Garoth and Fallon stepped back,
jaws slightly agape.
I smiled. My heart filled with joy and pride for my special friend.
In the distance I heard my father chuckle. “I guess he is ready to
lead men after all,” he said to Lord Ector.
“Tonight he cuts the meat. Tomorrow, at dawn, we ride to join
Uther’s army,” Lord Ector replied.
At dawn. At dawn I would say good-bye to Curyll. I’d done all I could
to help him. He didn’t need me anymore.
Loneliness opened a deep chasm in my chest. I needed to reach out and hold
onto Curyll and my friends. They were all preoccupied with each other and
making plans for the morrow. No one had time for one plain brown wren lost in a
sea of adult males. At dawn I would say good-bye to them and our childhood.
Now what happens?
Buy the ebook:
DRM-free formats: EPUB, MOBI/Kindle