Merlin the Archer: On to the Green Island–two Merlins
How many trails had I been down in my life of adventure and wandering? How many battles, and escapes from battles? Shipwrecks, being bound in ropes, washed up on unknown shores? I had ridden horses into combat, run through rains of arrows, climbed walls of burning cities, swum in brackish water with crocodiles and who knows what else lurking. I had slipped past drunken husbands, vigilant guards, and treacherous enemies, stood before god-kings who could have had me killed with snap of their fingers, been made a slave three times. But it was a mere slip of my foot that brought me to ruin.
The locals begged Herakulis to stay and be their own god-king. They were convinced he had lifted the stones by himself, with help from his divine blood line which they said came from So, their sun-god. Had they no eyes or minds? Their credulousness didn’t matter to me. But if he decided to remain as their king in this place which he plainly loved, our little community would be made weaker, more prone to attack from sea-raiders. Herakul was a famous, respected and feared for his strength and courage, and his presence meant a measure of safety at least from known enemies. He had taken a fancy to one of the younger women, a sea-widow of twenty summers, a real dark-haired beauty named Dromakeh. She was far above the other girls of the area in looks and sense of herself: queenly. I could see Herakul falling into the notion of staying.
“Little king, I can’t refuse the people. They want me to stay with them. I think I’m going to. Why don’t we all come here? There is everything we need.”
It was true. To the west of the great headland was a fine, south- facing gentle natural harbor. A few tiny fishing villages circled the bay. Beyond were low mountains which abounded in deer and other game. Bees made honey in the forests on the uplands and one lively river, riffled with pretty, tumbling waterfalls was called the River of Honey. It was a small kingdom, truly. We held a council.
Most men voted for the move, though it meant having to give up our hard work of the last four years. Still, there was plenty for everyone here, and the enthusiasm of the local chieftains for the protection offered by our band made them almost beg. It was a three day sail from Melaka, our town, but an easy trip with good ports along the way. Finally all but four agreed to make the move. Herakul was pleased to have his companions with him. I looked at him lying propped up on one elbow by the big fire at night, dark-haired Dromakeh by his side. His stomach was getting large, his hair grey. The hero had found a home at last. I could see him getting old here, surrounded by little Herakuls and Dromakehs, enjoying a well-deserved good life as a free man. The people had gods and goddesses here, but mostly they lived for the seasons, fishing, farming and hunting in time with the changing sun and moons. They weren’t particularly warlike, though they had disputes, which they settled by holding a council of the leading men. The main fear came from the sea, for sea-raiders came to prey on the villages. That would soon end with the coming of the mighty Herakulis the Hero.
All seemed set and we stayed a few more days, sailing the ship and smaller boats around to scout out locations for our new dwellings. I didn’t care too much, except to be sheltered from sea-storms, but Aon was taken with a certain place, a little point at one end of a curving, protected beach where the water was perfect for swimming and diving, with easy fields behind it waiting to be cleared of scrub trees, and a small stream that tumbled down from the tall hills that were close to the sea right here. I saw a point not far to the west that had a perfect place for another ring-temple. We rowed our boat over and climbed up a cliff to a flat piece of ground, almost a perfect circle itself, about a hundred yards wide. There was a natural rockfall above it from a big hill. We could just roll stones down and stand them up. This one I would set up to match the rising mid-summer’s sunrise and mid-winter as well. I could see it in my mind’s eye. From here we could make out the Pillars of Herakulis across the wide bay to the east against the pale-blue sea-sky. I was a little excited and thought that maybe this was indeed a good place to settle down once and for all, free from the man-killing goddess and the slave-making god-kings. We would be masters of this land, and good masters, fair and just.
We were climbing back down the cliff to the boat tied on the rocky shore below. It wasn’t a tall cliff, nor was the climb difficult. I could have done it in the dark with warriors chasing me looking to take my head. The footing was a little loose, but dry, nothing dangerous. But somehow I get careless for a second. My foot dislodged a rock about the size of my hand and my heel shot out from under me. Easy now, I thought, just lean back and grab the side of the cliff. But in what at first seemed like a comedy, my hand took hold of section of crumbly rock, which fell apart like dirt in my hand, and then my other foot caught the root of a tiny bush that clung to the cliff face at the side of our crude path. I felt my weight shift forward, and then I fell head first down the steep slope. I still thought; this is stupid, I’ll be able to grab something any second.
But I couldn’t, for the slope suddenly fell away to a sheer drop of maybe twenty feet: three man-heights. I crashed down heavily, out of control. I hit my shoulder and right arm on a huge, sharp boulder at the sea’s edge. Somehow I missed hitting my head, or I would have died right there. The small waves washed around the seaweed-draped rocks. My arm was hurt and my shoulder wrenched badly from the shock. The wetness of the rock and seaweed would not allow me to grab a handhold with my left hand, and my left leg slipped into the water, brushing a small head-sized boulder as it swung around. The boulder toppled off the bigger rock and rolled slowly but inexorably and with great force onto my left knee, pushing the kneecap down as my heel caught on a ledge of rock. I felt a blinding flash of pain and I realized that my leg was seriously hurt. All from this stupid fall caused by slipping on a small rock. I managed to keep my head above the water; the waves weren’t big that day, but my left leg was pinned. I looked at it as the swell pulled the water back. It stuck out at an impossible angle to the side. The rock had almost broken it clean off at the knee.
In a moment there were others around me, lifting off the stone, not much bigger than my head, and pulling me from the water. The pain was unbearable. I had learned to take pain without crying out, but I believe I screamed for help. I remember being lifted out by two men. I saw Aon standing up to his waist in the water looking at me with fear in his eyes. That’s all I remember about it now.
“He’s waking up” I heard someone say. For a swift moment, I didn’t know where I was or what had happened. My eyes could barely open. The light was blinding. Lift that piece of cloth,” I heard another voice say. I recognized it. It was Aon. The world seemed to be shifting, going up and down. I couldn’t move. My mouth was dry. I tried to talk, but nothing came out. I saw Aon lean over me through the slitted, blurred vision of my eyes. I was in terrible pain. My whole body hurt, but my leg more than anything. I had never felt this kind of pain before. I think I tired to lift myself up with my elbows, but they didn’t work.
“Hold him down, “said a deeper voice. One of the crewmen, Santarellas. “Hold on. We’re getting close now.” I looked up and saw the small sail billowing above my head. Aon held a piece of sail-cloth above my face to shield out the sun. The boat lurched forward and I heard the shouting of many men.
“Looks like the women will have to do the moving from now on for you, little king.” Herakul laughed.
“They like men who have the wooden legs in the middle, not on the side, “said Finn.
I took the wine-skin and rained big draught. I grimaced out a soldier’s death smile, but even that seemed to hurt.
“Don’t’ make me laugh, please!” I said. The slightest movement made my leg pain flare up like a white-hot fire. Finn had bound it with a split oar and tight windings of sailcloth and ropes. I couldn’t flex it, which I knew was good. The Egyptians had done this for their wounded soldiers. Finn had told me he learned it somewhere else, though.
“There was a man, a wikka-man, at a place in the big island, “he said. “He could treat you for this, if he was still alive. But this is what I remember of how he did it. I’m afraid for your leg, my king. If it turns the green, then we’ll have to cut it off or you’ll die.”
I felt sick. The fire was burning in my leg at the knee. Fire inside, deep. I had looked at it when Finn had rebound it today, two weeks after the fall. It was red, but not green, black and blue further down by my ankle and cut, but not deep above the knee. The rock had fallen so that my knee had given way to side.
“It will get better, “I managed. It had to. I couldn’t lose my leg.
But it didn’t get better. The pain stayed. I couldn’t move my leg, not bend it at all for the whole long winter. Aon tended to me and so did Evonna, for whose care I was grateful. I learned to get up and hobble around with a crutch of a stout staff that had a cut off stub of a branch at the top that I could put under my arm. I refused to be a useless person.
Finn warned me, “If you don’t heal that, it will get worse. Go easy, Pelop. Let others care for you. You age been caring for others your whole life. You are owed that debt.”
Spring comes early to those blessed warm shores and by the time the sun had begun to track back northward along the lines of ring-stones Aon had put in place, I knew I had to find an answer. The local witch-man and women had come and gone, wearing their animal skins and burning smelly batches of herbs and singing strange songs. As always, the spirits were of no use for me. Maybe I should have never turned away from the gods. But I had made that decision a lifetime ago. Too late now. My knee was swollen out like a melon.
“Maybe I should go back to the Land of Red and Black earth, the Two Kingdoms. Nefer-Kah’s healer would know what kind of poultice to put on.”
“Well, we can’t go there!” said Herakul. Traders had brought us word that there had been a scandalous birth to Pharaoh’s new wife, who had some years before borne him a fair-haired son. Now a new child was black-skinned. Pepi was the copper color of the people of the red and black lands, the Upper and Lower Kingdoms.
“We could go to my green land and see if the old wikka-man is still there. If anyone in this world could heal you, it’s is him, “said Finn. “ I’m ready to go home, anyway. I want to leave my bones in the green lands. I’m going to go on the next tin-trader. You should come.” Finn looked weary. His white hair was now matched by his lined face. None of us were the young warriors we had been five years ago.
The tin-traders sometimes stopped in our bay on their way to and from the northern lands beyond the great gates of the wide sea.
I nodded. Maybe, I thought.
Evonna looked sad when she entered the house. She put down a pot she had carried from the spring behind the house. It flowed out of the rock face which rose steeply up towards the ridgeline. She had stopped outside the door. I was lying on our bed of piled straw bound with strips of bark and covered with thick sheepskins. She tried to smile. I didn’t. My leg was truly on fire and I was tired of it. No matter how much I tried to pretend, it was too much for me. I used my crutch to get outside to go to piss or shit, but there was too much pain for me to go anywhere. Aon did my work, hunting and fishing and ploughing our field inland from the curving beach. I was a useless old man.
Evonna scowled and I spoke to her through clenched teeth, a bit impatiently, for she had a way of not talking straight to me, which angered me. I knew it was the way of women, and that most men, including no doubt her drowned husband, would beat their wives until they were cowed into such behavior, but I wasn’t that kind of man, so it bothered me that she was so subservient.
“Well, “I said, “what is it?”
She turned and tried to hide her face, but I saw her tears. Then I knew. It was the tin-ship.
“There’s no stopping you, “said Herakul.
I leaned on Aon’s shoulder and we limped slowly towards the ship. It was a wooden ship, like ours, about ten man lengths with a solid looking mast and eight oars a side. It wasn’t in the best repair, but I knew that Aon would soon set things aright with that, for I had taught him everything I knew about ships. Finn was already on the deck, grinning.
“Herakul, you God! Lift this poor miserable old pirate into the boat.”
Herakul picked me up in his huge arms and carefully he and Finn and Aon got me up to the deck. Evonna stood on the beach, her head hanging down. She had pulled her hair down to cover her face. A knot of people had gathered around the ship, as always happened when one came to port. But this time the word had spread that I was going with it, and Finn and Aon, so many of our lot had drifted down to the cove. Some women stood with Evonna. She was still young enough to attract another man. In fact, I knew that two or three of our sea-dogs had their eyes on her. We had made a nice house in an ideal place. It was hers. But I was leaving, and I knew I wouldn’t be back, and she knew it too.
There were jars of honey and long jars of wine and other things that were made locally going on the ship. Herakul was the chief broker for the goods. Not so much that this folk would be hurting if there was no return trade. He would get some tin and amber and other things if the ship made it. The captain was a red-haired man of the north who spoke the outlandish language of Finn Ma’Kul, the White-hair. The crew was impatient, for the wind was right now favorable for sailing west, but that would change, and the currents were strong in the strait and could stop a boat dead without a good wind.
Herakul lowered himself down of the side of the ship into the waist-deep water. In the old days, he would have jumped and maybe even made the shore. He turned and looked up at me and reached with his big bear paw of a hand. I reached own clasped his wrist, and he mine. We looked into each other’s eyes.
“May the gods go with you, little king, “he said.
“And with you, my old friend.” I answered, holding his gaze for just a moment longer.
Then we let go and I stood, leaning against the thwart next to Aon, who smiled and waved at our clan of old warriors and their women and children and dogs and pigs. The sweet hills of the land now known as the Pillars of Herakulis were blue in the slight haze which came with the eastern wind. It was a warm wind, the kind that brings sandstorms off the great desert of the southern lands. The people were quiet, solemn. As the crewmen poled the ship back out into deeper water and turned it with the sweep, I stayed watching the people and they watched us in silence. Then Herakul, who had walked back up on the beach, started clapping his hands and shouting and raising his fists in a warrior’s battle salute. The men all joined in and I raised my right arm as well, as did Finn. We saluted the hero Herakul and his clan and they gave us better back than we gave them. The captain yelled something and crew pulled the oars and the ship drew away from the cove and caught the wind and we began to ride on the long swells of the great western ocean.
We made good speed at first, out through the straits but then wind died away, replaced bit by bit with a westerly breeze that called for rowing along the coast. It was arduous, but all I could do was sit there with my leg propped up on a bale of wool and watch the shore, sky, and sea. The shoreline of low cliffs was monotonous, though there were small villages here and there where we stopped for the night. At last, after two weeks, we made a rugged point and turned north. The wind was at our left side and we could sail off the coast, but the waves grew like mountains, long rolling ridges of water that stretched all the way to the horizon. I had seen big waves, but never like this. If we came under one of these giants breaking, the ship would be returned to the pieces of wood that made it in a second.
“Just wait, grinned Finn, his eye shining with the adventure, “until we cross the open sea; then you’ll see some real waves. “
The coast still stood off our right bow and we found good harbors almost every night. The coast went on forever, At each point, I thought we’d see the open ocean before us, but there lying ahead was another flat-topped cliff face a few miles north, and another and another.
I slowly learned to say a few more things in the language of the northmen. Finn taught both Aon and me. First ship terms, swear words, and the names for waves and wind and clouds. Then the names of the gods, one of which was strangely familiar: my old friend Awa.
“Awa.” I said quietly to myself, remembering Mata lying in her own blood by the burning hut. It seemed like another life.
“Yes, she is our mother.” Said Finn.
“It is the same goddess I knew as a child.
“Okk came later. Awa was there first. She gave birth to Dagda and Lug and Nudas. “
“Do they fight among themselves and let people suffer?” I asked.
“Are they not gods?” laughed Finn. He was a sensible man.
“Then I have no use for them, “I said. “They’re just like the rest.”
When at last we made the last of the northern points and entered the open ocean, the waves began to mount. Though I had sailed on many a ship, I could not believe that the little red-headed captain could hold the sweep true as we rode the moving mountains. We had the wind at our backs, and that was the saving grace, for if we could not have run with the wind, we would have gone down in those wild seas. There was no harbor now for eight days, longer than I have ever spent out of sight of land. The men prayed and poured libations of jug wine into the sea for the blessing of Dilanus, the sea- god of their land, Kumreh, in the western north.
My leg was on fire and I couldn’t get much rest, so I practiced speaking with the captain, whose name was Bragh, with Finn helping. Bragh told us tales of the sea.
“If you go north, towards the North Star at this time of year, the winds blow you true like this. We’ll make landfall on the flat shores, where the great stones are. But if you go south, with the pole star at your back in the springtime, the winds blow the other way and you can sail all the way across the world to the lands of the white sands where it’s always warm. It’s two moon’s journey. The people there are peaceful. They wear the feathers of big, blue and red birds. They have no tin or wool or wine. There are trees with huge berries on them that give milk. I have been there. They have no ships, just little boats that carry to men for their fishing. And when you come back, there’s a river in the middle of the ocean that carries you back north to the green lands. The water’s warm, even when there are mountains of ice floating in it.”
More sailors’ tales. No flying horses or shape-changing witches? He was right about the great stones, though. We made landfall after the long crossing at a place where someone had already stood up three long rows of giant stones, far bigger than our puny efforts had been so far. I was impressed, though the stones were rough and not cut, they were tall and wide. There were hundreds of them, and also temples or tombs with three uprights and a huge flat stones for a roof. The locals said that the stones had been there from the time of the giants; the time before time. I hobbled through parts of the rows and was amazed at the work. It made me think that I would make a larger temple next time I built, if there ever was a time. I never stopped thinking about it. I could plan it and Aon could lead the men if an opportunity arose.
We sailed on after a spell and came around a long, windy point and sailed across what the sailors called the Sea River. The winds were whipping our ship and the sail had to be reefed to half sail. The swells weren’t as big as before, but the tops were blown off across us and we were wet and miserable for the whole passage of two days and nights. I felt a great admiration for the tough little captain and his hardy crew. They spoke not a word of discouragement and worked hard at every task. Of course, they drank quite a bit, too, to fortify themselves against the cold, but the drink didn’t make them sloppy or stupid. At last we made a point into calmer waters at the mouth of a river and the low white cliffs topped with green came into view. The Green Land.
There was a small town of wooden house and huts at the river’s mouth. It wasn’t much by the standards of the Land Between the Rivers, Egypt, or even Epirus, but it was welcome after the two months of sailing through rough seas. The men were home. Their families greeted the ship with joy, children running in the cold water’s edge and lank-haired, pale-skinned women standing patiently on the shore. They wore dirty brown and grey hooded cloaks and animal skins streaked with mud, soot, and grease from cook fires and long seasons of eating with their hands. The air was cool and cloudy. Low cliffs rose along the long curving beach to the east. To the north were low hills. Everywhere there was greenery, grass so rich that it was like the sands of Egypt only backwards. There was hardly a patch of ground anywhere to be seen, just grass and bushes and trees in thickets. It glowed green even under the gloomy overcast of the cold sea. The houses of the locals were mostly made of interwoven tree limbs kept upright by stakes driven in the ground and caked with mud and sod in the open spots, and roofed with thick piles of dried grasses that were moldy from rain, but so thick that much of the rain stayed out of the insides. The huts were dark and dank, full of smoke from the little hearth-fires. A blue haze of wood smoke hung about the settlement. I could hardly call it a town. Between the houses was mud, mixed in with scraps of bones and refuse of all sorts. It smelled like shit, for there was shit around the huts. The people were dirty, too. Their hair they wore long, tied in the back. Their teeth were mostly dark and rotten. The children ambled about in the mud, naked except for little cloaks.
But they had the same spirit I had noted from the ship’s crew. They laughed a lot, and were non-complaining. There were no perfumed Egyptians here, with fly-whisks and parasols and face paint. They had lots of bir and they offered it freely, though I noticed the custom was to offer a drink and then expect one in return. It worked out, as all was shared. No one went with his thirst unquenched, even if he couldn’t provide for others. His turn might come later. These were tough people, wiry and strong. I saw they had bows and flint-edged wooden knives, but not a great many other weapons. The bows were for hunting; the arrows were nicely tanged and had good workmanship. They were designed to bring down a boar or a stag. Aon, Finn, and I stayed in huts with the kinsmen of the big man of the village, the brother of the ship’s captain, as it turned out. We had fowl and bir for dinner and bread and bir for breakfast. Not unlike the common folk of Egypt or Akkad in that way.
There were amulets and pouches hanging above doorways and around the necks of the people. To ward off evil, no doubt. There was some coughing sickness in the village and I saw that people’s shit was watery. Pigs and chickens rooted and pecked in the filth on the mud and shit where they liked, naturally. There was a string of fish hanging on a short pole outside a hut. The fish trailed into the mud. If you eat shit, you’re going to be sick. But people think sickness is caused by witches, shades, and demons and the like. I could see that digging trenches beyond the huts for shit would help, and I suggested that to Finn. We had worked on that in our community with Herakul and we had less of the loose shit disease. But Finn shook his head.
“These people are as stubborn as Nefer-Kah’s donkeys, “he said. “They won’t just change their ways because some fancy outlander says to. Even Merlin can’t bring change quickly.”
“When will we see this Merlin?” I asked. My leg was still hurting. The pain came and went, but I couldn’t bend my leg at all without white-hot fire in my knee.
“Bragh says he’s up at the Sacred Place. We’ll go soon.”
Aon and I talked about the shit and mud. He caught the idea at once, as he always did. He was the smartest of people, being his mother’s son and mine, by the luck of the gods. We took it on our selves to make a trench behind Bragh’s brother’s house, some lengths away, in a place where rain water would drain the filth away from the hut. The headman liked it, as did his woman, a ruddy-faced little girl of fifteen winters. Maybe it would catch on. Maybe not.
We set out, heading north. They had a crude cart, two wheels and a plank deck, which was pulled by hand on a track. Fortunately, the road was well traveled, almost a wide ditch in the green turf. I felt bad about being hauled along. I have always taken care of myself, never had servants. But I had no choice. It was thirty miles to the Sacred Place, as Finn called it. We had a little crew of seven lads to help. There was much coming and going to the Sacred Place. It was a meeting and trading place, too. Folk from all over the Green Land came there to be healed and to barter for small things that could be easily carried. There was a market town near the Place. We traveled through what I thought was most pleasant country I had ever seen. Green everywhere, with low, rolling hills, pretty. Clear-running rivers, valleys dotted with tiny villages and farms.
The people here were great farmers. Blessed with lots of rain, they grew wide fields of grains. There were tall, stately trees along the rivers. Here and there was a standing stone, at which the locals paid obeisance as if it was a God. There were offerings of food and flowers and small jugs of barley wine at each stone, placed there by travelers on the sacred road to the sacred Place.
“The Merlin is a great magician, “ said Finn as we walked. “people come even from my island across the windy sea to get his healing.”
“The Merlin? “I asked. “I thought he was a man named Merlin.”
“Ah. There’s always a Merlin, “said Finn.” His face and body changes over the ages, but there’s always a Merlin to help the people.”
“Is this the Merlin you’ve told me about?”
“I think it is, an old, old man by now. But there will be another after. He is sent by the gods, you see.”
Oh, the all-powerful gods. I hoped that this Merlin was a good one. But now the seed of doubt that had lain dormant in the pain-wracked and desperate field of my mind began to suddenly to bud and throw off shoots. Another witch, doing what Mtombe used to call mumbo-jumbo. Feathers and smoke and spells and potions; none of which did any good but keep the witches’ pot full of stew and his beaker topped off with barley-wine.
In twodays we came to the market town of Awonna. Like Evonna, I thought. They called the main stream the Awonna, which I thought must come from Awa herself, the inescapable goddess of the seed. These farmers would certainly worship her quickening for their crops and the harvest goddess and the goddess of the hunt and so forth. The market town was small, but well made compared to the mud slop of the coast town. Here the houses were round, with three courses of flat stones and roofs of woven branches daubed with turf and mud. There were at least fifty houses and many other outbuildings and pens for sheep and cattle and pigs. The settlement was set on the slope of a small hill of white stone and sand which rose above the meeting place of several streams, so the rain ran off rather than standing in the pathways between the dwellings. It was far cleaner than the coast town. The people were the same stock, small and wiry; tough looking. I had the thought that they would make good fighters, though each man seemed to have an independent look to him, which probably meant they could never be formed into fighting units. There were no fortifications around the town, which surprised me. On the top of the hill was a larger dwelling. The place of the Merlin. They called this hill Sarum.
There was a market that day, and farmers and other locals were all milling about the open place at the foot of the hill. There was much bir and the honey wine and barley wine being drunk by the men. The customary dirty -footed -and -faced children ran about, and a few women were wrapped in cloaks, bartering for greens and squealing piglets and ducks and the like. The locals greeted Finn like a long lost hero. He had a reputation here, almost a godlike status. He had been through here years before and had helped defeat the neighboring tribe from some nearby valley. That is when he had known the Merlin, already at that time an old man of over forty.
“And where’s the Merlin,” called out Finn, who towered above the locals, “does he not feast with his people?” Finn had had some of the honey wine, called mead, which is heady stuff, and was a fine mood.
The mention of the Merlin brought a few scowls and the locals made signs against the evil eye, which I thought was strange. Finn had told me this Merlin was almost a god himself. One of the younger men tossed his head in the direction of the looming hill. Smoke rose form the peak of a round house there, and set before it, right at the edge of the earthen wall that circled the top of the hill was a pole set in the ground. On top of the pole was the dried –out black husk of a human head. A man with a long black beard poked his head over the top of the earth wall for a moment and then disappeared. I’m afraid we partook of the local’s generosity in too great amounts that afternoon to be good visitors to the great man. We slept it off in an outbuilding provided by a burly farmer. Te beds were starw on a dirt floor, bit I must say that I slept better than I had a some time, ion considerable less pain, from the effects of the mead, though when I woke my head felt a bit heavy.
Finn, who could drink any man short of Herakul himself under the table, was up and eager to take me to the Merlin. Aon, who hadn’t had much to drink, being a sober lad in general, also was ready to go. He had an interest in the various rites and doings of priests, and compared the sacrifices to see whether one place had a connection with another.
“Everyone sacrifices goats and fowl, and even bulls and boars, “he said, “ and usually the priests or priestesses get the finest cuts.” It was true. The offerings were usually a fold of skin and fat over a leg bone, while the main cuts went to the feast, priests and king first. The poorest supplicants got scraps. Aon had grown strong being raised in a temple full of doting witches. Because he had witnessed so much close at hand, he carried deep doubts about the abilities of healers and other priests and witches. In that doubt we shared a common bond.
The day was overcast, but bright. Maybe the slight hangover from the strong drink made me blink more than I would have liked. three of us accompanied by a village headman of sorts, went up the trial to the top of there hill where the Merlin’s pace stood. It wasn’t much to look at, just another round house of mud and turf and stones, except for the blackened, rotting head on the pole at the entrance. The hilltop itself was within a circle of low earthen walls, with one gap in the walls facing south towards the village below. It looked like it had served as a fort and no doubt would do so again someday.
Finn aid, “This is where we made our play against the hill men from the east. I killed their leader with my bare hands and they slunk away like cowards.”
The cowhide skin that served as a door for the roundhouse flapped and a boy stepped out. He was about ten years old, skinny, with lank, brown hair that hung down to his shoulders. He was wearing loose pants and a tunic of coarse material. Linen, perhaps, though not the fine cloth of the Egyptians. It was so dirty that it was hard to tell what color it might have been. Maybe close to white once, now a dun color, dark with the patina of mud and animal grease around the hems. The lad peered at us suspiciously and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Still, snot dripped down his thin upper lip.
“Where’s your master, then?” Asked the headman, whose name I had forgotten. The headman was no cleaner than the boy and had the same coloring and looks; a long face with a pointed chin and eyes set close. In fact, they looked like they were of the same family. I wondered if the boy was this man’s son.
“The Merlin is busy.” The boy said, a bit harshly, considering he was talking to three tall foreigners of obvious wealth compared to himself.
Finn folded his arms across his chest and said, “Well, you get in and tell your busy master that Finn, the one they call Ma’Kul, is here and would like to see his old friend.”
The boy stared at Finn. He didn’t seem to know who Finn was. Of course, he wouldn’t have been born perhaps when Finn had saved the town and the Merlin years before.
“ I’ll tell him.” The boy turned and slunk back through the hide door. It flapped on the door post. W could hear a deep voice that sounded angry, though thr word were unclear.
The flap moved again and large, burly man stepped out. He was almost as tall as Finn, a good hand taller than me. He was heavy, broad across the chest and shoulders, with a large belly as well, but strong looking. He had dark brown hair and a full beard, unkempt and wild looking, with a feather and a leather thong and amulet hanging from crude braids. Hi hair was filthy and his large ears protruded out from its long locks, which stuck to his pale skin. He was deeply pock-marked on his face and his nose was enormous and red, like that of a man who drinks far too much. He wore a dark brown robe and held a carved wooden staff in his hand, about as long as an arm. A symbol of authority, not a weapon. A symbolic cudgel; a witches’ staff. It had feathers and sea-shells tied to one end and they clinked together as he clambered out of the doorway. Around his neck hung a gang of necklaces of pierced stones and bones and other magical objects. His feet were sandaled. His eyes were dark brown, almost black. He had a somewhat menacing look to him. In battle, I would have chosen to take him out quickly with my arrows to get rid of a formidable foe. He stood there under the bright grey skies, squinting at us.
He didn’t say anything. I glanced at Finn, who had a strange look on his face. Plainly, this was not the man he thought to meet here. The boy had come out and stood slightly behind the big man. It was he who spoke.
“The Merlin asks who comes to see him after first drinking in his scared precinct without permission or sacrifice.”
Finn softly translated this complicated statement to me and Aon. And he added, in Egyptian, “This is not the man we seek.”
Still, I stepped one step forward and made the gesture of salutation which almost all men everywhere but Sumer use, my fist to my chest, and said in Achaean, “I am a weary wanderer who seeks the advice for an injury. I did not mean to slight your Gods. Forgive me for my ignorance.”
Finn put this to the man and boy in the local tongue, some of which I could understand, having been among the seamen of these people for some months now. Finn also bowed slightly and asked the headman to give the Merlin two fowl and a jug of mead as an offering. The boy took the offerings and motioned for us to sit on logs that lay around the fire ring. The human head, with a dead man’s grin, up on its pole stared balefully down on us from its empty eye-sockets. The Merlin, if that’s who the dirty, sloppy man truly was, sat down on a well-worn sawed-off stump that fit his broad bottom well. Bits of bone and slop on the ground around the stump indicated its frequent use. I had seen such places before. Witches, healers, priests, they’re all much the same. They accept the sacrifice for the God and eat and drink it themselves. The good ones share it fairly; the bad hoard it and give out scraps. He waved at the boy, who swiftly cut the chicken’s heads off. He then slit the bellies open and Merlin looked over his shoulder at the guts that spilled out on the cutting stump. The big man grunted and nodded his head. He then had the boy pour a cup of mead and bring it to him. He spilled some on the ground, while muttering an incantation of some kind and then drained the cup himself. Then he ordered the boy to bring us cups. So at least he would share the wine.
We drank, which after two cups helped to ease the headache I had brought with me up the chalk hill. Our Merlin slumped sloppily on his stump and let out a loud belch, which made us all laugh. The wizard grinned and pointed at me and said something. Finn said, “What hurts? Show him your leg.”
I pulled my leggings up and showed him my swollen knee. Even after almost half a year, it was dark and bruised. I could barely bend it without it causing me extreme pain. The Merlin stood up and ambled over and looked carefully at it. He poked at it with his grubby fingers, which hurt and made me wince. Then he lurched over to his stump and picked up his mead cup and took a big draught. He muttered something which Finn said meant, “A pig and five jugs of mead.”
So that was the price. I could manage that. We agreed and got up and left the half-drunk Merlin sitting on his well-worn stump. Te boy looked at us. I could see something in his eyes which I couldn’t understand; anger, or yearning? We were to return at dark. I had no doubt that his mumbo-jumbo, as Mtombe would have called it, worked better by firelight or under a moon than in the plain light of day.
When it had grown dark we ascended the hill once more, towing a nice fat pig, which had cost me dearly – a copper arrowhead, on a rope and carrying seven jugs of mead; two for us and five the so-called Merlin. We could see the glow of a big fire as we climbed the hill. As we entered the walled enclosure, the nasty black skull looked at us from its pole, silhouetted by the flames of a large bonfire. The boy was sweeping the areas around the fire and the sitting logs with a branch. The Merlin was not there. The boy motioned for us to sit and led the pig to the cutting stump. Poor pig. Ah well, he’d be eaten anyhow. Just as well be tonight. We sat on the far side of the fire from the roundhouse. The flames crackled and sent sparks into the night sky. The clouds had blown away and bright stars twinkled above. It was truly a fine night, if a bit cold. My knee hurt worse in these cold northern climes. I welcomed the fire’s heat.
At last the door flap moved and out came our Merlin, decked out in a full outfit of animal skins, including a headdress made of a large deer’s head with antlers of twelve points. Very impressive. He carried a gourd rattle and his cudgel. His feet had sandals with lots of sea-shells on them, which clattered as he walked. He came out to the fire and the boy brought him a large cup of the mead, which once again offered to the fire and then drank. The he turned his attention to the pig. He held up a flint-edged knife to the sky and began incanting to his Gods at length. Then he reached down and slit the pig’s throat in a smooth motion. The pig, held fats by a nose halter and leg bonds tied to stout pegs, struggled only momentarily. The cut had been skillful, for all the man’s bluster, and the animal died quickly; a good sign. Merlin then knelt down and slit the pig’s belly in a long cut, and reached into the bloody carcass and pulled out the entrails in the usual fashion. No different than the priests and priestesses of Epirus or Uruk, I thought. He looked at the mess and poked at this and that with his finger. He stood and stared down for a long moment.
Then he said something to the boy, who brought him a bowl of water in which he washed his hands as clean as they could get. There was a small clay pot on the edge of the fire which gave off a pungent smell of herbs. The boy dragged this away from the flames and poured some into a bowl. This he set out in before the Merlin, who offered drink to it and to the sky, all the while muttering away. Sometimes he would stomp his feet and rattle the sea-shells, other times, wave his magic cudgel across the sky. His voice grew louder and louder, until he was calling into the night with great power. I could see how people could be taken in by it; he really was quite a showman. I however, was not so easily impressed, having already witnessed rites conducted in Achaea, Sumer, and Egypt, where they’ve been at it fro even longer and have more pomp an ceremony. If Abraham had done this I would have had more faith. This was regular outlander nonsense.
At last he made a great show of throwing a handful of dust into the fire, which sent up an impressive shower of sparks. Some kind of earth that had that property, no doubt. Then he came to me with the bowl and dipped his hand into the liquid, a greasy-looking concoction of leaves and who knows what. He spread it on my knee and leg, rubbing it in a bit too hard for my pleasure, but I let him do his business. I hoped it would work, really. My pain had been uncomfortable at best and unbearable at worst, which was most of the time. He then wrapped my leg in linen and bound it with strips of hide and told Finn I was not to move it for three days, and then to bring two more chickens and he would remove the bandage.
So, four chickens, a pig, and six jugs of mead. Not a bad price for the Merlin. Finn helped me down the hill to my bed of straw inn the headman’s lice-infested hut and there I lay for two days without moving. At the third day I was helped back up to the Merlin’s roundhouse and he slowly removed the bandage. The leg didn’t hurt any worse than before. I felt somewhat hopeful. He said to take it easy and it would slowly recover. W gave him the two chickens and thanked him with another jug of mead.
Bu the end of the week, my leg was in terrible shape. The wrapping had been so tight that my foot got black and blue and now was also swollen and on fire. I was deeply angry and wanted to go tell the fool off. But the headman begged me not to, for the Merlin could call down a curse on the whole village or especially on his house, since he had been sheltering me. Finn shrugged.
“This is not the man I told you about. The old Merlin was an older man, thin and clean. He dressed simply, lived a simple life, and was wise as any seer or noble of Egypt. The locals say he moved on and this man came and told them he had been appointed Merlin by the old man. I’m sorry, my dear friend, truly, for making you come all this way.”
After two weeks the swelling had gone down in my foot somewhat. Aon made me a very nice crutch with a carved stag’s head to lean on and I began hopping around the valley. I couldn’t stay cooped up anymore. Above the river bottoms was a series of ridges of white earth covered in grass. I decided to go up there and take a look around. It was a few miles distant. At last I was able to hobble around a little better and Aon and I managed to get up to the ridge. It was wide open there, a rolling plain across which we could see for miles. A beautiful place, windswept, with tall green grass and little hills and valleys showing their traces in the distance. Here and there, there were tiny hillocks topped with grey stones, round, not natural looking. I thought they must be made by men. We mad our way to a nearby one. It was plainly man-made alright. Two huge, long stones lay side by side. They were topped by a large stone which was mostly covered in turf. It looked as if the grass had grown up into the stones over many years. The place had an air of being from a distant time. We made our way around the hillock. There, on the slope of the rise, taking in the sunlight out of the breeze, sat an thin old man. At his feet was a small but solid-looking blue-and –black splotched dog that stood and growled at us, baring its fangs.
“Ah, my friends from the distant sea. I’ve been waiting for you. At last you’ve come.”
My jaw must have dropped open. He spoke Achaean!