Daughter of the Morning by Kara Parsons - HTML preview

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Daughter of the Morning

To my friends and family. Thanks. I owe you big time
Contents
The Curse of the Hunter
.................................... 4

 

Into the Oak .................................................... 18

 

A Test of Worth ............................................... 29

 

The Dark Strikers............................................ 46

 

The Moment of Truth ...................................... 61

 

Duke of the Red Dragon ................................. 77

 

A Father Found............................................... 86

 

And Lost .......................................................... 95

 

Beneath The Mountains of the World ........... 105

 

Full Circle..................................................... 114

 

Chapter 1

 

‘The Curse Of The Hunter’

 

T

he girl’s jaw protruded mulishly and her blue eyes narrowed to slits as she glared back at the man. Her blonde hair fell below her shoulders and was unbound which accounted for the fact that she looked more like a wild animal than a civilised human being. She

pulled one of the fronds of her hair around to her mouth and began chewing it. The man’s lips compressed to a thin line before he turned back to stare out of the windscreen. The woman at the steering wheel surveyed the man quickly, her soft brown eyes taking in everything that was being said, then flicked back to the road ahead. The man turned around to face the teenager sulking on the rear seat. “We’re going to Windsor Great Park. I’ve told you once Cerian.

If you continue to sulk we’ll leave you in the car.”
The autumn air had turned the verdant green leaves to various shades of brown, from a dull russet to vibrant ochre. A wind whipped up the leaves covering the road and hundreds more cascaded onto the roof of the car like a benediction. Cerian shivered and the sense of unease that had begun to

pervade her consciousness for the past year made the hairs on the nape of her neck prickle. She had felt like this twice before, once when she had visited Salisbury with her father and the second, she swallowed hard, the second was when the class had been on an expedition to Urconium. Ceri had been standing some distance away from where the archaeologists had defined the boundaries of the town and she had suddenly known that a young Roman centurion had been standing in exactly the same spot and had stared down at the black water of the Severn. Those other times she had been able to retreat from the places and the fear that it engendered in her, but this time Ceri wondered how she could break away from it. The feeling of uneasiness grew as she stared at the falling leaves to her it seemed as though they were falling in a salute, “As if - as if they’re falling for a King!” She whispered softly. She turned and gazed out of the rear window of the blue Range Rover. The wind seemed to have become even stronger and the trees were tossing their heads. Cerian stared hard at one then slowly she began to perceive the shapes of Dryads within the trees. The oak she was staring at was a large red-bearded man, who bowed solemnly, and then it was a tree again. She turned to the other side of the road, and saw a delicate silver birch. Before her astonished gaze the form of a young girl appeared. She bowed courteously, her black hair obscuring her face, and then it was as before, merely a silver birch. Cerian whimpered suddenly her fear threatening to overwhelm her.

Her mother turned around, “Everything all right Ceri?” Cerian swallowed hard and said, “I’m fine Mum, I was looking at the trees.”

“They are pretty at this time of year,” her mother agreed smiling at her daughter’s reflection in the rear-view mirror. Cerian suddenly felt afraid as if a cold hand had squeezed her stomach as she realised that only she could see the Dryads within each tree.

She slid down on the seat until her head was below the top of it and shut her eyes tightly. I don’t like this, she thought fiercely, I don’t like it! After almost thirty seconds she opened them and sat up, the leaves were still falling from the trees, but the wind appeared to have lessened and Ceri no longer saw the Dryads. She breathed a sigh of relief.

When the car stopped, Cerian pushed open the door and scrambled out. She walked to the back of the vehicle. Her mother opened the boot and began taking out coats; she handed Ceri’s to her. “Do you want to come and have a look around the chapel?” she asked.

“No.” Ceri replied sullenly.

“No, Thank you” Her father rebuked her sharply, “don’t speak to your mother like that!”
“She’s not my mother!” Ceri snapped, “just leave me alone!” Then she was running away across the field leaving two dumbfounded adults behind her.
Ceri’s father put his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “She didn’t mean it, Connie love, she’s just upset about something.”
Constance smiled wanly at her husband, “If you say so, Richard.”
“Let’s go and take a look at what needs restoring.” Richard squeezed his wife’s shoulder; “Ceri will find us. If she hasn’t by the time we need to leave I’ll contact the Park Keepers.”
Ceri ran, ran away as fast as her legs would carry her. Eventually she stopped, panting. She looked around, wondering where she was, the trees seemed to have closed in around her. She wiped the back of her hand across her nose and looked around. She didn’t recognise any of her surroundings, and for a split second a wave of panic erupted in her and she nearly burst into tears again. Suddenly a stag trotted out from between the trees. Ceri froze, she knew very little about deer, but what she did know was that in the autumn stags were dangerous because it was the rutting season. She watched the animal quietly and hoped that it would move away so that she could continue her walk. Stag and child looked at one another for a long moment and then the stag lowered its head, turned and trotted into the forest.
Ceri stood watching the animal walk away, conscious that something unique had happened, and also strangely aware that she could never tell anyone. She began walking again, more cautiously this time. The park opened up before her and she stared in amazement at the forest, it was a blaze of colour. Copper, crimson and chestnut leaves combined to make the forest look as though it was on fire. As she passed the lake a figure emerged from the water, “Greetings, Lady.”
Ceri rocketed backwards so fast she tripped and fell over, landing heavily on her behind. The creature laughed, a bubbly sound, like water running over stones.
“What-what are you?” Ceri spat.
“A Naiad,” the creature replied. “Don’t you know anything?” It added scornfully.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s a name?” the Naiad asked.
Ceri frowned, “It tells other people who you are.”
The Naiad smiled, “But this is who I am.” She raised a hand to gesture at the lake and Ceri realised that her arm was composed of moving water. There was a greenish tinge to it and Ceri saw small silver fish wriggling within the nymph’s arm. The sight made her feel quite ill. “But who are you?” she asked.
The Naiad smiled showing sharp, pointed teeth, “I am the lake; the river, the stream; I flow from the mountains where water is solid, down to the rapids where the water bounces wildly off the rocks in its path and laughs its way to the great meandering river that flows through your valleys and down to the sea.”
Ceri stared, the being’s voice had become suddenly deeper, the voice had taken on a new timbre and the woman’s eyes seemed to glow. “Come closer,” its voice bubbled, “come closer to the water. Rest your head on the moss that grows beside the pool and listen to the sound of running water.”
Cerian’s head suddenly felt very heavy and she struggled to her feet and tottered across to the pool. She lay down on her side so that she could still see the woman. The Naiad smiled showing a long, bright red tongue and sharp pointed white teeth, and she began to speak again. Ceri felt her head becoming heavier and heavier until it was a relief to let her head fall until it rested on the soft moss by the side of the pool. She remembered watching the woman gliding towards her, her red lips slightly parted as if she was panting. Ceri watched a delicious feeling of excitement beginning in her stomach, as the creature bent over her, as if it was going to kiss her. Every fibre of her being seemed to quiver with anticipation.
Suddenly it seemed as though the pool erupted outwards and a deluge of water soaked Ceri, jerking her into wakefulness. She wiped the water from her eyes and turned to the mere to see what had caused the explosion. Then she stopped. Another Naiad was in the pool, an elderly gentleman with long river weed for a beard, and he was holding the female as if she was a puppy.
“You were banished from here!” he snarled, “I forbade thee to enter this place when I came here. Why hast thou returned?” Then he saw Cerian, “I see why thou hast returned. So the prophecy has come true – but thou hast not succeeded. Return to thy masters, Dark One. Tell them that she is protected from such as thee. Now begone!” He threw the creature out of the pool and Ceri watched as the Naiad lost all shape and form and slowly vanished into the ground. The man turned to Ceri and offered her his hand, “My Lady.”
Ceri turned to look behind her for the person he was talking to and then realised that he was addressing her. “I am sorry you were attacked. It was my intention to offer fealty to you when Tethys did, but I offer it now wholeheartedly and hope that you will forgive the outrage perpetrated on your person.”
Ceri didn’t answer, her mind reeling. The Naiad nodded, “I see. Perhaps you are right, it is hard to forgive such an affront. Very well. Mayhap in the future you will find it within your heart to forgive the assault.” He began to sink back into the pool, his form vanishing as he merged with the water. Just as the top of his head was about to disappear, Ceri said suddenly, “Please don’t go!”
He rose again until just his head was above the water. “You will forgive the Naiads of these pools for the affront?”
“There is nothing to forgive.” Ceri said, and wondered where the words came from. “You did not allow the other- ” she tried the unfamiliar word on her tongue, “Naiad into your pool. I do not consider the fault yours.” How do I know what words to use, she thought.
“Then my people shall serve you whenever you call us.” He replied. “I must leave you, my Lady. Your destiny awaits.”
“I thought that to see a water-spirit would drive me mad,” Ceri said slowly.
“Not you.” The creature replied shortly and then something like a smile appeared on the mouth. “You must go. Seek your Destiny.” He began to slowly merge with the pool, becoming liquid again. “Seek your Destiny, my Lady.” And Ceri realised that the voice came from stream as it ran from the pool. Slowly, still somewhat afraid she stared at the bubbling brook and thought she heard the voice gurgle, “Your Destiny awaits, Lady.”
Something like delight seemed to take hold of Ceri and turning she ran away from the water and into the main park her spirit singing. She reached the crest of a hill and stopped to catch her breath, and then she really did catch her breath as she raised her head and stared down at the mass of woodland below her. It was a blaze of colour. Copper, crimson and chestnut leaves combined to make the forest look as though it was on fire.
She walked down slowly. A group of visitors had halted to read a plaque set up beside an old gnarled tree. They departed, laughing, as Ceri approached. The tree was ancient and yet somehow Ceri felt waves of power emanating from it. She turned her attention back to the plaque, ‘Herne’s Oak’ it read, ‘Great Windsor Park is reputed to be the haunting place of Herne the Hunter who is supposed to appear when the thoughts of man turn to dark desires.’ On an impulse, Cerian slipped beneath the rope that cordoned the tree off, keeping it away from the inquisitive hands of youngsters. Carefully she laid a palm against it. To her surprise, the tree felt faintly warm beneath her touch, and although Ceri could never explain it later, it was as if the tree itself welcomed her. Suddenly a voice said “Don’t put your hand into the holes - I got tired of nasty little boys poking around my home and carving words on my property, so I installed a family of ferrets.”
“Does it work?” Ceri inquired her blue eyes laughing.
“Sort of.” The voice was gentle, “I’ve had no more problems. That’s why they cordoned the tree off. Couldn’t risk any more people being bitten. Not that I mind. If they stay away nothing will happen to them.” Cerian turned to face the speaker and saw a tall figure with antler horns jutting from his head; he appeared to be wearing furs joined by invisible seams. She smiled tentatively and then she saw his eyes, the irises were golden and suddenly she was afraid.
“Greetings,” he said, “may I be permitted to introduce myself?”
Ceri opened her mouth to reply just as one of the park wardens came into view. He spotted Cerian and walked across to them,
“Get away from the tree!” he yelled when he was within earshot, “you shouldn’t be under the barrier, come out at once!”
Reluctantly Ceri slipped back beneath the rope, “I was only looking,” she tried to explain.
“Yeah?” the sneer in the man’s voice was unmistakable, “and when I came back in ten minutes there’d have been another pair of initials on the tree, or another heart with your initials in it!”
“I was talking to someone,” Cerian stood her ground.
“Yourself? There’s no-one else here!” With that the warden seemed satisfied and stalked off muttering to himself.
Ceri’s face blanched and she wheeled around to face the figure,
“They can’t see you!” she spluttered.
“Correct,” the figure replied, “I was about to introduce myself - I am Herne the Hunter.”
Cerian’s eyes widened and she finally whispered, “The man who hanged himself on this tree!”
The figure inclined his head and then replied, “Not quite, I was murdered. The only reason it is said that I am allied to the Dark is because I appear when murder is in men’s hearts. I lead The Wild Hunt that forces that Dark Powers beyond the boundaries of Time, I could not do that if I were truly evil.”
Cerian’s eyes narrowed speculatively, “You’re neither Light nor Dark though, you are part of the Old Magic, which serves itself.”
To her surprise Herne laughed a rich, full sound, then he gazed down at Ceri, “They chose well when They chose you. Tell me thy name, Lady.” The tone of his voice had become strangely formal and archaic.
“Cerian Aurelia Prichard.” she replied making a small curtsy.
“A Welsh lass!” The smile that played about the firm mouth became broader. “Lady,” to Cerian’s horror, Herne suddenly knelt before her; “I have been waiting for you for a long time.”
“Please get up,” Cerian implored, then she said curiously, “how could you know of me? For that matter how could anyone know of me?”
“You have seen someone else?” Herne rose to his feet with one fluid motion that made Ceri envious. “ Tell me who, Madam.”
“Someone that called themselves a Naiad.” Ceri replied. “Well two actually.”
“Tell me what you saw,” Herne took two quick steps across the ground and took both Ceri’s hands in his own, “Tell me!” he demanded.
Slowly, haltingly Ceri told him what had happened and saw Herne’s eyes harden and his lips thin, “So it begins. Sooner than I had anticipated.”
“What begins?” Ceri screwed her face into a frown and stared up at the creature.
“Your Destiny.” The creature’s features softened and he smiled down at the girl, “I am glad you have come.”
“What tried to stop me? And what would it have done to me?” Ceri asked quickly.
“That I can’t tell you.” Herne smiled sadly, “if you choose to help me you will know soon enough.”
“Oh. Great!” Ceri turned and looked around for the park warden. No-one was in sight. “What are you?” she demanded.
“A creature.” Herne replied, “Not subject to the same space and time laws that you are, but a creature nevertheless. It is you that I am concerned with.”
“That’s bad grammar,” Ceri replied automatically, “you should say ‘It is with you that I am concerned.’ Why?”
“My Lady, prophecies have been made of you and tales told of you - it has been written that when you came you would lift the curse of man from me.”
“How?” Ceri stared at him, “I’m just an ordinary person.” She realised what she had said as the words landed in the empty air.
“Are you?” the creature smiled, “I rather think that you are anything but ordinary.”
“But you could be a hallucination,” Ceri spluttered. “Saint Bernadette had them all the time.”
“Have you ever had hallucinations before?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Ceri smiled sheepishly.
“Then I would venture to say that what you’re experiencing at the moment is not a hallucination.”
“But why now? Why here?”
“As soon as you reached your tenth birthday you were chosen.” The creature smiled again, “and the moment you came into the park every creature within these environs would have known who you were. You must have seen the dryads.”
“I saw something. People. Within the trees.”
“Yes.” Herne smiled, “the dryads. They showed you their fealty. Every creature of my world has known of your existence from the moment of your conception. It was written that when you returned you would lift the curse of man from me.”
“Then the writing is false,” Cerian eased herself around the other side of the tree and fled. She was certain that she did not follow the path yet wherever she walked a path opened up for her, the trees seemed to uproot themselves and move for her as they would for a sovereign. Then they began to change shape. It was like watching a ghost appear within each tree. Cerian stopped and stared in amazement, the trees were dancing! That wasn’t quite true, she reflected, the trees weren’t dancing. Instead each dryad had moved from its respective tree, and now formed a corridor in front of Cerian. She could see their solidity before her eyes and yet she knew that if she tried to touch them her hands would pass through them as if they were smoke.
At the end of the gathering of Dryads, another figure appeared that of Herne, Ceri almost sobbed with relief. Slowly she began to walk past the row of creatures and was absolutely disgusted when as she passed, each dryad dropped to one knee as if giving homage to a Queen. As she reached him, Herne took her cold hands in his own and his golden eyes looked into Ceri’s blue ones and he said, “They offer you their fealty - to reject it would be unworthy of you.”
How can I accept it when I am not virtuous?” Ceri demanded.
“Because you have been chosen,” Herne replied, “Lady, you must accept this
- turn and speak, the words will come.”
Cerian swallowed hard and then turned and faced the assembled tree-spirits behind her, for a moment panic threatened to overwhelm her and then she felt the light touch of Herne’s hand on her shoulder. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth; “I thank you for the honour you give me,” Ceri smiled, “for you are more worthy of honour than I, for I have not earned it. But I thank you.” The wood seemed to revolve and Cerian suddenly felt dizzy, she felt Herne’s hand on her elbow, “They will celebrate your arrival, our business is elsewhere.” The dryads parted for them as they left the circle.
Once outside the group of spinning wood-spirits Herne bowed again and offered her his arm, “Come, daughter.” When they were halfway down the path Herne said, “You’ll have to get used to their allegiance, you will probably find that it happens wherever you go.”
Cerian winced perceptibly and howled, “But I don’t want to be different! Well I did, but not this different!” Her voice ended on a wail.
“I trust you will cope,” Herne responded, “but you will have little time at present, there are others whose wish it is to be allowed to give thee their fealty.”
“Oh,” Cerian said slowly, the air about them suddenly felt taut and then they were walking through a pair of what seemed to Ceri to be familiar gates. She turned to view them more closely and said, “This is Hyde Park!”
Herne nodded without stopping, “Yes, my Lady. The creatures who offer you their allegiance have come here.”
“More dryads?” She asked quickly, and a little colour came into her pale face. “Not this time, Lady,” Herne escorted her along a woodland path where great trees grew on either side, Cerian watched with a sort of numbness as each bowed its leafy head in acknowledgment. They emerged onto a green carpet of grass, ahead of them the afternoon sunlight sparkled on an expanse of water, Ceri turned to Herne, a quizzical look in her eyes, “The Serpentine?” Herne gently released her arm and bowed deeply, “Lady, I must leave you for a short moment, for one comes who is as great as I; without whose allegiance you will never succeed.”
Cerian turned, the water began to bubble alarmingly and as Cerian stared at it she saw a group of young men break the surface bearing a litter, Cerian saw a tall imposing figure, caught sight of the circlet of gold bound around the brow, and immediately dropped to one knee her eyes firmly fixed on the water.
A low laugh broke from the figure and it said, “Up, child and let me look at you.” Cerian rose to her feet and found herself gazing at a handsome, darkhaired woman; her dress appeared to change colour from blue to green to grey, undulating all the time. Like the sea, Ceri thought.
“I am Tethys,” the woman said, “you have heard of me?”
Cerian’s face shone as if a lamp had been lit within her, “Aye, Lady. You are Empress of the Deeps and when the wind is high and the waves leap to touch the sky the children of Adam fear you.”
“They have good reason.” The woman smiled warmly. “Many fear me. Yet
-” she paused while the grey eyes, cold and calculating, surveyed Ceri, “yet you do not, you are in awe of me but there is no fear in you.”
“Madam,” Cerian curtsied, “I have loved you almost since I was born - I have loved you when the waves beat upon the boat and the wind screamed past the ear like a ravening demon. I have embraced you wholly to me every time I dived from the boat and I have felt your embrace as the waves leapt so that I was drenched with spray. Why should I fear you?”
Tethys gazed at her for a long moment and then flung back her head and laughed, her eyes focused on someone behind Cerian, “A wise choice, Cernunnos.” Herne bowed, “Empress, I was merely the servant, the gods chose her.”
Tethys nodded thoughtfully, her red lips curved in what might have been the suggestion of a smile, “You have my blessing, Cerian, for all things that dwell in the waters beneath the earth are bound to me - but they will now also serve you. If you need mine or any of my servants’ aid, you have only to call. May you succeed, Princess.” A true smile touched the grim mouth and she looked up at the being standing behind Cerian, “she has the mark of a struggle upon her Lord.”
“She has already encountered the Dark, Madam.”
“And?”
“And Thy husband vanquished the creature.”
Tethys looked hard at Ceri, “Did she touch you child?”
“No, Empress.”
“But I see her words did. Would you let me touch you to see if I might identify her?”
“I will.” Ceri stepped forward and slowly into the lake, instantly the Naiads were either side of her, holding her up and guiding her towards the woman seated on the dais. Tethys knelt so that their faces were inches apart and then said, “My companions will dip you in the water that I might see your mind. Take a deep breath now.”
Ceri inhaled as hard as she could and felt the cold waters close over her head, then she was raised so that she lay on her back, looking up at the sky. Something, or rather someone was holding her up, although she couldn’t see anyone she could hear the laughter of the naiads all about her. Tethys bent over her and raising her hand water dripped from the ends of her fingers into Ceri’s eyes. Ceri blinked as the salt stung, “Sleep.” Tethys intoned softly, “sleep and dream of what you saw today.”
Ceri’s eyes opened very wide as her pupils dilated to an enormous size and then they closed again, Tethys watched her for an instant and then nodded to her court. With one motion, the girl was drawn down into the limpid depths of the lake, Tethys smiled at Cernunnos, “She will be safe, Horned One, I promise thee this.”
“I know that, Lady,” Herne smiled and the smile seemed to soften his stern features, “you would not harm her. But while she has no awareness of who she is and what she is, she is vulnerable.”
“Not in my realm.” Was that laughter Herne heard in Tethys’ voice, “she will be as safe as if she were in God’s hand.”
“Then I wait, Empress.”
“So be it, Lord of the Trees.” Then Tethys herself had disappeared into the lake.
To Ceri it seemed as though she moved through a green mist. She was aware of others holding her and then darkness took hold of her and she dreamt. She was back in Windsor Great Park walking along the path, yet she was also acutely aware that she was an observer, she smiled wryly as the stag bowed again and then felt suddenly afraid as she remembered what was about to happen. As the Naiad began to cast its spell, she began to struggle, to try and reach out to the child about to be maimed or killed.
Peace, the word was soft and all at once the image dissolved, and with the word came so many images of rest and sleep that she was powerless to resist them and darkness took her once again. She opened her eyes slowly. She was warmly wrapped in blankets and from the corner of her eye she could see bright tongues of flame licking the chilly air.
“What-“ she sat up and as she did so, realised she was completely naked. A movement to her left caught her eye and she hurriedly pulled the blanket over her again. Herne knelt beside her and almost as a father might he wrapped another blanket around her front.
“Your clothes are dry,” Herne said more gently seeing the fright in her pale face. “But I thought you might like something hot to drink first.”
Ceri nodded, still not trusting herself to speak, Herne handed her a pewter mug and she carefully extended a white shaky hand from the blankets to take it. Herne smiled and moved around behind her, for a moment Ceri thought she was alone and then she felt him kneel behind her and wrap his arms around her. Warmth slowly crept into her frozen frame. She sipped the drink and was surprised to find it was hot, rich cocoa. “How long-?” her voice cracked and she tried again, “How long was I unconscious?”
“A little over ten minutes of your time.” Herne said softly, “Tethys apologises, she forgot that it might cause you distress to relive what happened, but she saw enough within your mind to know that you only encountered the Dark, it did not taint you.”
“Good.” Ceri smiled, “If the ritual of purification was anything like that experience, I’m not sure I could go through with it.”
“Lord Cernunnos,” a gentle voice interrupted them.
Both turned to see that Tethys had risen from the lake, with her retinue. “How are you, child?”
“Well, Empress.” Ceri replied.
“Good. I returned to apologise. Our methods must seem strange to you. I perceive that this creature of the Dark had no lasting effect. Therefore, to you I pledge my support and that of my friends and allies.”
Cerian knelt, “Thank you, Empress.” The waters bubbled again and when Cerian looked up Tethys and all her retinue had disappeared back into the lake. She grinned up at Herne, “I’d better get dressed, my parents would have a fit if they saw me looking like this.”
“Aye,” Herne nodded, he turned his back and waited until Cerian said, “You can turn around now.” He smiled when he saw her running her fingers through her wet hair and produced a comb. “May I, Lady.”
Ceri nodded and as Cernunnos touched her tresses with the comb, they dried instantly, she felt Herne take another handful of damp hair and heard him say, “Well done, Lady, you have behaved with dignity and courage. Tethys approves of you. You have proved yourself worthy, Lady.”
Cerian stared dumbly at him and then snapped, “Instead of speaking in riddles, Master Herne, perhaps you would care to explain what I’m supposed to do for you. You might also care to explain why these Naiads and Dryads keep bowing to me and why in Heaven I should be so honoured!” While Ceri had been speaking the scene around them shifted until they stood facing one another in the middle of Windsor Great Park.
Herne turned away from her, “I cannot even begin to explain that until you agree to help.”
“And I’m not sure that I want to help unless you tell me a few things!” Cerian retorted, her anger threatening to overwhelm her.”
“We seem to have reached stalemate,” Herne sighed, “Very well. If it will help you choose I will tell you a little and answer some of your questions.”
Cerian waited silently. Herne looked out across the park and began to speak. “Many writers and historians assume that Artus, Second True High King of All Britain appeared just at the right moment in order to unite the warring Saxons - they were wrong. Artus was prophesied about long before King Uther Pendragon lay with Igrayne, Duchess of Cornwall.” He paused, Cerian was listening quietly, “and there are also prophecies that relate to you, Lady, that were written many centuries before you were born.”
Cerian swallowed hard, her blue eyes wide, “Would you tell me one?” She pleaded softly.
Herne smiled, the stern mouth relaxing under Cerian’s gaze, “I will tell you the one I remember, it runs something like this; The Hunter’s days are drawing to a close. For a girl has been given freely, a child born, and she shall be called, Much Loved, Princess, Keeper of the San greal and with her birth the Salvation of the Hunter is nigh.” He stopped and then turned his gaze onto Ceri, “I believe that you are the one, I have appeared to others, but none of them accepted my presence the way that you did.”
“No.” Cerian said suddenly. She began walking purposefully away from him, the trees bowing to her as she passed. Cerian kept her head down and looked neither left nor right, If I don’t admit anything’s happened, nothing will, she thought firmly. She emerged from the forest and took a deep breath of the sharp, but not yet cold, air. Relief swept over her as she recognised her parents walking towards her.
She turned and saw Herne behind her, “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, “but this is scaring me more than you can imagine. I cannot help you; I don’t know why you thought I could. Goodbye.” Cerian was conscious of Herne’s eyes upon her as she plodded towards her parents.
“Did you enjoy yourself, Ceri?” The woman asked.
Ceri smiled, ”Yes thanks, Mum. I got a bit lost in the forest but a very kind man found me and brought me back here.”
“Your father’s been into the chapel and had a look at some of the remains of the tapestries that were destroyed by the fire.” her mother said,
“Can some of them be restored?” Ceri swept her fair hair back from her face and surveyed her parent with clear blue eyes.
“Possibly.” Her father remarked, “but I must write up the notes I made and contact the Society. If we undertook the restoration it would be a six-month long project here. I’d be away most of the time.”
“Could I come with you?” Ceri asked quickly.
Her father shook his head, “No, love. You’ll be back at school when we start work. If you’re interested in the history of this park then I’ll bring you back here after Christmas. I’ve some books on it at home.”
“I’ve read one.” Ceri said, “all about Herne the Hunter. Do you think he exists?”
For a moment Ceri saw something indefinable pass across her father’s face, like the shadow of a cloud across the land, then it was gone and he replied, “Get in. That particular book was really about a King who couldn’t resist a pretty face, and who had he reigned this century would have brought the monarchy down. Want to sit in front?”
“Please!”
Cerian clambered into the front seat car and fastened her seat belt. About five minutes later both her parents climbed into it. “Home, James,” her father said slipping the car into gear.
“And don’t spare the horses!” Ceri and her mother chorused. He started the vehicle and gingerly eased it out of its parking place. Leaves covered the road ahead of them and coated the roof of the car and continued to fall as it beetled down the drive. Cerian cringed on the seat and felt like a traitor.
“I presume you know about Henry VIII,” her father began.
“The one with six wives?” Ceri nodded, “I learnt about him at school. I thought he was just slightly eccentric.”
“He was a bit more than that,” her father smiled, “he was completely mad. Historians believe that he suffered from syphilis made him insane, and he abused the responsibility that a King has to his people.”
“So because he was King he could squash anyone who disagreed with him?”
“Something like that,” her father agreed, “Herne the Hunter only appears, or is supposed to appear when there are people around who have thoughts of murder. Henry VIII sent at least two of his wives to their deaths by way of false trials, and Windsor was his home.”
“Grim,” Ceri said, “but do you think the Hunter’s evil?”
“I don’t know,” her father replied, “perhaps not evil, but dangerous all the same.”
“Why?”
“Because he commands neither the Light nor the Dark and that makes him very dangerous, because he’s unpredictable. But-” he turned briefly to Ceri, “you’ll have to make your own choices, if you ever come face to face with the Hunter.”
“And I’m likely to do that,” Ceri hoped that she put the right amount of sarcasm into her voice and felt a great tide of relief as her Dad’s face relaxed. She relaxed letting the seat support her tense muscles and gradually the motion of the car made her eyelids heavy and lulled her to sleep.
She woke just as the Range Rover was turning into their drive, “I’ll shut the gate, Dad,” and she was out of the car before Dad could protest. Once closed she leant on it for a moment looking out across the landscape, and thought again that she lived in one of the most beautiful places in all of England and that nowhere could compare with it.
As she walked up to the house the wind plucked at her eyelashes and hair and the trees seemed to have gone wild, “I’ll just take Rufus out for a run,” Ceri said quickly as she stepped into the kitchen.
“Don’t let him escape into next door’s garden,” Mum warned as Ceri slipped out the back door. She trudged up the garden, Rufus bounding at her heels. The wind whipped at the cerise jacket she had pulled over her jeans and blue sweatshirt. She watched the trees numbly as they bent almost double in the wind and again she saw the dryad within each one bowing to her.
Herne materialized beside her, “I did try and tell you,” he said quietly, ”Unfortunately, your Destiny has already been made.”
“I always believed that my Destiny was in my own hands,” Cerian replied.
“I wish,” Herne replied. He laughed harshly and then said, “I told you, you were prophesied about when this country was being torn apart by the Saxons.”
“But by all rights it is up to me whether I help you or not.” Cerian’s eyes flashed blue fire.
“Of any normal being that would be true,” Herne’s citrine eyes held Ceri’s, “but there are some who because of the time they were born, or the day they were born, have no choice of Destiny.”
“Are you telling me that I was born on a special day?” Cerian asked softly.
“You were born on midwinter’s day, when the sun’s rays touched the altar stone. It is the shortest day of the year and one of the Great Festivals.” Herne’s voice was gentle, “when the Giant’s Dance was first erected on midwinter’s day the sunlight poured through the arch to fall in a sparkling pool of light on the altar stone and one of our noblest gods was revealed. Mithras.”
“You’re talking about Stonehenge!” Ceri said delightedly.
Herne looked outraged, “That Circle was constructed long after the first Giant’s Dance, most of that stands at the place you and your fellow men call Stonehenge.” Herne seemed to be looking inward his eyes faraway.
“Who was Mithras?”
Another smile enhanced Herne’s features, “Your books will tell you that he was a good spirit who attended on the Lord of Life, Ahuramazda. Our legend is one that tells of Mithras as the same, a good spirit, It is said that in the gardens of the Lord of Life, there dwelt a white bull, Ahuramazda wept because this bull’s blood could bring life to the barren and wasted earth yet the only way that this could be accomplished would be if one who served Him would become human and suffer at the hands of Evil, Mithras volunteered, and Ahuramazda created him a soldier, and bade him take the bull to a Holy place and sacrifice it. Ahriman, the Power of Darkness, sent plagues to drive the White Bull back, so Mithras tethered the bull and went out to fight Ahriman. Ahriman set a plague of boils upon him. When this failed to stop Mithras he sent fire to burn him. Badly wounded now, Mithras brought the bull to the Holy place, the first living creature. When he arrived, he forced the bull to kneel while he sacrificed it. From the bull’s blood sprang all life on earth and Mithras too died at the White Bull’s feet. Legend runs that the Sun himself came down and dressed the wounds of Mithras, then he laid his hand upon him and restored him to life, they shared a meal together and Mithras ascended into heaven. He stands on the right hand of the Invincible Sun.”
“Sounds like the God my parents believe in.”
“It doesn’t matter what men call the Light, Mithras, Artus, Christ. The Light has had many names over the ages and if men do things that are right for right’s sake, then they follow the Light. But I am digressing. I need your help, please?”
Cerian shook her head again, “I’m just an ordinary person - I mean - I always felt different - but-but-”
Then Herne did something that unnerved Cerian completely, he took both her small hands and said, “Lady, Tethys, Queen of the Springs and Neaps, Empress of the Tides would not offer her fealty to anyone. That she gave you permission to command beneath the waters is almost proof positive that this is your Destiny.”
“That old chestnut again,” Cerian whistled sharply and Rufus came bounding up to them. Ceri patted him absentmindedly and the bearded collie leapt up at her planting its paws on her chest, nearly knocking Ceri off her feet. Herne snapped his fingers and Rufus dropped back on all fours and licked Ceri’s hand.
“Will you help me?”
“You’re immortal - why on earth do you need my help?”
Herne looked away from her and for a brief second Cerian thought he looked ashamed, “I am under a curse,” he said finally, “I have haunted many places but the last time was about four hundred years ago. I appear when murder is in the air. I am so weary of this curse. I was told that one day a girl who could see beyond the visible world would come and release me from it. Please?”
In the grey blue twilight of an Autumn evening Herne saw the shine of tears in Cerian’s eyes, she took both Herne’s hands and said, “If it is within my power to grant you rest and peace I shall do so,” she smiled, “I can promise no more than that, Master Herne. If as you say I am the key to your salvation I shall help you.”
Herne bowed formally, his antlered head just brushing the top of Ceri’s hair, “Your truly deserve your name, Cerian. I thank you, Lady.” The cold nose of the collie made Cerian start and when she looked around Herne had disappeared and there was only the wind in the trees and the white face of the moon gazing down coldly on the young girl and the dog.
Chapter 2

‘Into The Oak’

 

W

hen Ceri awoke the next morning and looked out of her window, the wind had disappeared as suddenly as it had risen; she was almost tempted to believe that the events of the previous evening had been her imagination. She clipped the

lead onto the dog’s collar and holding him firmly opened the back door. The morning air was sharp and cold. Ceri shivered in spite of the thermal underwear and the thick anorak she wore. Every sound seemed magnified by the stillness of the morning.

As they left the road and began to walk up the lane, Rufus started to bounce around at the end of his lead. Cerian leant down and unclipped him whereupon the dog bounded away like a greyhound. Suddenly a familiar voice said, “Do you do this every morning?”

“Most mornings when I’m home,” Cerian straightened and knew without turning that it was Herne, “It helps me think.” She admitted.
“You were thinking about last night?” Herne’s voice was surprisingly gentle.
Cerian scowled, “I’d just convinced myself that it was my imagination.”
Herne smiled sadly, “It wasn’t. I thought the same thing - once. I will walk with you if I may; we have things to do. Now that you’ve agreed to help I am allowed to speak more freely and to tell you more about your quest.”
Cerian looked up at him shyly, “How can you appear here - I thought that you were constrained to Windsor Great Park.”
Herne inclined his head and the great antlers bent in a sweeping bow, he pointed to the huge tree ahead of them. It rose dark and majestic above the earth, its branches stark and bare against the autumn sky. There was something regal in the way that it defied the elements. “Anywhere there is an oak I may appear if I so choose. Unfortunately, as humans destroy the forests there are fewer places for me to go. If you continue to chop trees down, soon I shall be confined to Windsor Great Park forever. But-” he smiled again. “That is your problem.”
Cerian nodded, “Yes, I know. That’s not what you wanted to tell me though was it?” She surveyed Herne curiously.
“No,” Herne agreed, sighing, “Did you know your ships were made of oak once, wooden walls they were called-” he sighed again his eyes far away and Ceri realised that he was looking back into the past - his past, he began to hum a tune and then to sing the words, “Heart of oak are our ships; Heart of oak are our men! We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again!” He broke off as he realised Cerian was staring at him.
Finally she broke the awkward silence that had fallen between them, “What do we do now?”
“First we get your dog back,” Herne replied and he whistled sharply, ten seconds later a very muddy Rufus hurtled up the lane and nearly knocked Cerian over. She vainly tried to fend him off and then Herne’s hand descended on the dog’s head, Rufus suddenly stopped prancing and sat down. He gazed at the Lord of the Trees his long pink tongue hanging out.
Cerian stared and gasped, “What did you do?”
“A little knack I have with animals,” Herne admitted somewhat ruefully, “However, I’m glad to see that I haven’t lost the touch.”
Cerian scowled, “Shall we go?”
She let Rufus in the back way and fondled the dogs sandy head, “Go and lie down.” She commanded, “I’ll brush the mud off later.”
“Do you want to come in for a moment?” She turned to Herne.
“I only wish I could,” Herne pointed to the rusted horseshoe that her father had nailed to the lintel. “Cold iron bars the way.”
Ceri stared at him perplexed and then she shut the door behind her so that the horseshoe was not a barrier between them.
Herne took Cerian’s hand and slowly, hesitantly began, “My Lady, if I were to enter your home, I would have power over every living thing within its walls. It is better that I do not have that much power. Princess, you and I are of the Old Magic, the High Magic. Ties of Love bind you and because of that, you will not harm those for whom you care. Love transcends even the High Magic; you will never injure those you love. As for me,” a grim smile touched his lips and Ceri saw his eyes become cold and far away again, “I am not bound by Love or Hate and when the wind is high and the moon sails across the heavens the High Magic, the Wild Magic takes hold of me and I must ride the clouds with the Yell Hounds baying at my heels.”
Cerian suddenly felt a chill of apprehension and for the first time wondered if it was safe to trust Herne, she looked up at him and saw that his eyes were full of the same fierce humour as the day she had first encountered him, their eyes met and held and Herne said very softly and quite deliberately, “Never trust anyone who commands the High Magic, of the men who have held it many have fallen into the abyss because they were swayed by base emotions. You may be called upon to make a choice between those you love and the High Magic.”
“I could not make such a choice,” Ceri whispered and knew in her heart that it was the truth.
Herne surveyed her for a moment or two and then he held out his hand, “Come my Lady, we have work to do.”
For a moment Cerian saw the old Herne standing before her, the one who made her heart leap with joy and before her resolve could falter she nodded.
“Good.” Herne patted her hand tenderly and the scene around them appeared to melt and shift and when it solidified again they stood before Herne’s Oak, “Lady,” he spoke again. “You would do me great honour if you would enter my home.”
Cerian felt as though she was speaking words from a play, “The honour is mine, Lord Herne.”
The oak suddenly parted before them with such a creaking and groaning that Ceri was sure some of the park keepers would come running, she looked up at Herne and he shook his head, “They see only what they expect to see.”
“And what does that mean?” Ceri snapped, “I’m truly getting sick of being spoken to in riddles!”
Herne took her shoulders and turned her to face him, “Lady, you must understand that you differ from these mortals that surround you. Much of the world that mortals inhabit is invisible to them and there is a veil that drops between this visible and the invisible one that Beings such as I inhabit, Therefore, when impossible things happen to mortals like trees opening, this veil drops over their eyes and their brain forbids them to see what is actually before their eyes. It is more blessing than curse, if many mortals could see the invisible world they would go mad. Now will you come?”
Cerian swallowed hard and smiled tightly, “Thank you. I am grateful for the explanation.” She did not voice her other fear that if she could see oaks opening, and dryads dancing within trees, perhaps she was not fully mortal.
She felt the gentle pressure of Herne’s hand on her back as he ushered her into the oak, it closed behind them and Cerian found herself standing in a large chamber, far larger than the inside of the oak could ever be, she and Herne stood in a pool of light, it was as bright as day and yet the glow was not the yellow warmth of the sun but nearer the cool impersonal touch of the moon. Ceri stared upwards at the lamp and wondered what magic kept it there.
“Persuasive,” Herne said softly. Cerian stared at him shocked and then found her voice, “you can read my thoughts?”
“Not really, most of your thought was written on your face. I can pick up thoughts from you much as you pick up radio transmissions - but I cannot read the deeper levels of your mind and I have no intention of trying. I will tell you more of this later when you can more fully comprehend it. For now there is a short ceremony that you must undergo. Herne’s right hand grasped the back of Cerian’s head and Cerian felt his left hand against the side of her face, she closed her eyes and heard him speak, “Out Cold Iron. Out.”
A sharp stab of agony drew a gasp from Ceri and then she was alone on a sea of pain, she drew a shuddering breath and opened her eyes, Herne’s face slowly swam back into focus. She blinked and felt two tears slide down her cheeks, Herne was still a black shadow.
“Forgive me.” He dropped his hand and reached across her shoulder to take something from the shadowy recesses, Cerian closed her eyes and let her chin fall onto her chest willing herself not to collapse in a heap of hysterical female. A skin bag was put into her hands and she heard Herne say, “Take a small sip, it will revive you somewhat.”
Cerian nodded and lifted the vessel, she tipped a little into her mouth and swallowed, Herne lifted it from her dazed fingers. She licked her lips thoughtfully, the liquid had been light and faintly sweet but there was a wildness about it that lingered at the corners of her mouth. Ten seconds later a warm glow began in the tips of Cerian’s toes and spread upwards.
Herne smiled, “Better? Good. Come,” he commanded taking her hand in an iron grip, “This is where I tell you why I need you and there is much about yourself that you must learn.”
Herne stretched a fur-covered arm into the shadows and when he pulled it back he was holding a smooth metal torch holder, still clasping Cerian’s hand he held it upwards towards the light illuminating the area in which they were standing. A small orb of light detached itself from the lamp and slowly descended into the torch, there was a brief spark and then the torch lit up like a magnesium flare and Cerian saw that they stood on a seamless floor; here and there piles of leaves covered the ground in front of them. Cerian moved forward gingerly, Herne held the torch so that she could see ahead of her and Ceri saw a flight of wooden stairs spiraling downwards.
Cerian laid her hand against the wall and began to walk down the staircase into the darkness beyond.
They emerged into a large, brightly lit room. Herne placed the torch, which had mysteriously been extinguished, in a metal holder near the foot of the staircase and walked across to the fire blazing in the grate.
Cerian meanwhile was looking around completely dumbfounded, a rich crimson carpet covered the floor, a carpet was hanging on one of the walls and three Queen Anne chairs stood empty before the fire. It resembled a room straight from mediæval times and yet as Ceri looked up at the ceiling she saw that it was the same light that had hung above them as they entered the oak, although this lamp seemed to be warmer.
“Is this still Herne’s Oak?” She turned to face the Lord of the Trees.
“In a sense,” Herne replied, “if you go up those stairs the oak will open for you and you will find yourself back in Windsor Great Park but it is also my true home - beyond Time itself.”
Cerian looked around her and again noticed the great vastness of the room; there were shadows at the circumference as if the room was really part of one long tunnel. “I like it,” she said simply. “Your home I mean.”
“Thank you,” Herne’s mouth curved in a smile and then he had taken two goblets from a cupboard and pushed back a curtain of green fern, water oozed out from a crack and trickled down into a granite rock basin. Herne filled both goblets and then walked across to where Cerian was standing and handed one to her, their hands touched, for an instant Ceri felt the warmth of Herne’s palm on her knuckles and then he was moving away to ease himself into one of the chairs opposite.
“Be seated, Lady,” he gestured to the chair.
Cerian nodded and slowly lowered herself into the ornately carved chair, she stared down into the goblet, and it was so clear that she could see that the bowl had been inlaid with silver.
“Please drink,” Herne said softly, “I would offer you wine, but it is too early to indulge in alcohol just yet and we need to keep clear heads. Now - you do want explanations, and as I believe I have said, there is much that I must tell you. So ask your questions.”
Cerian raised her eyes from their contemplation of the chalice and wondered what to ask, so much had happened in the past few days that she almost felt at a loss. A part of her insisted that this could not be happening, but another part, a part of which she had been only half-aware was drinking in the surroundings and experience like a thirsty man drinks water. She raised the vessel to her lips and let a little of the water slide down her throat. It was cool and sweet and Ceri could taste a hint of the wildness of the other drink that Herne had given her.
Carefully setting the chalice down on the small walnut table beside the chair, she began, “You told me at my house that you were under a curse - can you tell me why?”
Herne surveyed her thoughtfully for a moment, “This could take some time.”
“I have until three this afternoon,” Ceri replied quickly.
Herne laughed, “We are outside Time itself, it won’t affect us. Forgive me, I should have said what I meant. I did not wish to bore you.”
“Considering you went to all the trouble to convince me that I was the answer to all your problems I would have thought that boring me would be the least of your worries!” Ceri retorted.
Herne’s aureate eyes blinked and then he laughed, “I was right, there is fire in you. I told you that you and I are of the High Magic, the Old Magic. It is what holds Life itself together, what binds those from the distant past with those in the present. In you it could not be tapped because of the iron in your teeth.”
Unconsciously Ceri’s hand went to her cheek the pain still a vivid memory, “Who am I?”
She looked up and saw compassion in the depths of Herne’s eyes, “You were born on midwinter’s day, as I believe I have already told you,” Herne stood up and strode across the crimson carpet, he knelt before Cerian and taking both her chilly hands in his own, looked up into her face, “it is the shortest day of the year. Your scientists herald it as the beginning of the Winter Solstice; we did not regard it with such delight. For us it meant that the Sun was journeying away from us again to spend the winter months in His own land to recuperate after the summer. As for who you are, that you may discover later, it is not as bad as all that.”
Ceri mused thoughtfully and then she raised her head and met Herne’s eyes, “The Beltane fires, the great fires that were lit during the winter months, were they really a plea to the Sun to return?”
She could see that Herne was thinking, “No and yes. At first as the nights became longer, man mirrored the fire of the sun bidding him farewell and then it became a symbolic thing, that the Beltane fires would be lit and people would gather together to bid the Sun farewell and to plead for his return. Later couples leapt over the flames and if they remained unscathed then it meant a long life and strong children.”
Cerian nodded and suddenly it seemed as if something caught her and when she spoke it was in a voice not her own, “For the fire of the Sun is what gives us life, therefore we echo the fire of the sun that he may return to us.” She blinked and then looked down at Herne, “How-”
Herne’s hands gripped her own and his eyes were full of xanthous fire, “It is beginning. We must move quickly, let me tell you my story and then I will teach what little knowledge I possess.” He released her hands returned to his chair and cupping the bowl of the goblet in his hands, he began, “I have been many people and it is possible that I may be more. I am conceived from man’s dark side, from his hates. I first appeared to Henry II.”
“Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest.” Ceri remarked suddenly.
Herne’s eyes became far away as he nodded, “I was there when those three knights rode past. However, Henry Plantagenet took the blame for the thought was in his mind. I was an attendant attached to his court. Sometimes my liege would hunt for deer in the forest. I accompanied him on all his drives. One day I was gored by a buck, my liege killed the beast but I was still wounded sore. Then a man appeared from the forest and told the other courtiers to remove the stag’s head and bind it to mine. I was lifted onto a hurdle and borne back to the castle. I lay unconscious for almost three weeks. I should have removed the creature’s head a week later but before I could, three fellow courtiers discredited me in the eyes of the King and I fled into the forest. I hanged myself on this oak.”
Cerian’s eyes became wide with fear, “You mean you’re dead!” She squeaked.
To her amazement, Herne threw his head back and laughed, Ceri stared at him suddenly feeling very alone and very vulnerable and then Herne shook himself and surveyed Cerian.
“There is more to Life than Death, some people’s spirits are so strong that they remain part of the country forever, they remain alive in legend and story and song and that is another kind of immortality. There is an old saying that a person only dies when the last thing he set in motion is completed, if a person remains alive in memory, then they never die. Those persons whose spirits are bound up in the history of the country survive as long as the country survives - many mortals see their country as forever. You see beyond forever and Never and Always because of what you are but the fact that I am dead should not bother you, I am part of the country and because the country is alive, I am alive. It is a difficult concept to get across.”
“Yes,” Ceri nodded, “I can see that. So everyone I have spoken to is dead?”
Herne sighed, “We are going to have problems with this idea.” He took another sip of his water and then said, “no, not everyone, dryads lives are bound up in his or her trees, they can move away from them but when the tree dies then the dryad dies. Tethys on the other hand embodies all of the oceans, she is the ocean and it was from the sea that the first life ever came.”
“You are much more than the courtier who served Henry II,” Cerian said suddenly, and thought and I am much more than the girl who is to save the Hunter.
“Yes, my Lady,” Herne surveyed her for a moment and Ceri wondered which statement he was answering.
“What happened to the men who discredited you?”
“Three weeks later they were found hanged on my oak, I took my revenge on them, or rather the Hunter did, by that time we were inseparable.”
“Has the Hunter appeared since, I mean, you do seem to be two distinct personalities.”
“The last time was during the reign of Henry VIII. But no-one died, at least his body was never discovered. He was an attendant at the court and he loved the forest. Henry VIII plotted to murder two of his wives and when foul deeds are afoot I am summoned,” Herne paused and drank from the goblet, Ceri had the impression that he wished it was something stronger than water, “This is difficult to explain, in order to fulfill what mankind expects from the Hunter, I have to commit murder, thus continuing the circle. Murder leads to murder, this man offered me his life as long as part of him would still care for the forests and the animals. The Invincible Sun, the Lord of the High Magic was so impressed by this selflessness that he made this my last murder.”
Ceri swallowed hard feeling slightly sick, “You mean that in murdering people you gained power ?”
“Certainly,” Herne replied, “Blood is very powerful. It is the essence of Life, why do you think the Celts sacrificed animals to me. Blood has always been recognised as being the Life-force.” He glanced at Cerian’s face and hastily continued, “I have learnt over the years that I was not to blame. Man, or rather some men, try to blame the evil that they do on a spirit or a demon. Unfortunately, many of the more superstitious ones lay the blame on me. Soon the race of Adam will be left to their own keeping and will have to take the consequences of their actions.”
Cerian leant forward her blue eyes alight, “Tethys called you by another name - what did it mean? Tell me who you were and why you became to all men - evil.”
“Which question would you like answered first?” Herne inquired lazily. “The first one.”
“Tethys called me Cernunnos. He was the Celtic god of the underworld, or I should perhaps say that I was.”
“But the Celts died out when the Romans invaded Britain! How could they continue to believe in you!”
Herne’s own golden eyes bored in Ceri and he said gently, “I suppose that is what your history books tell you? Oh no, my little Cerian, you cannot destroy a people except from within, the rituals were held in secret, in groves deep in the forest on altars sacred to me and me alone and the priests chosen carefully so as not to draw attention to the cult. Oh the Romans tried to imprint their own religion on this country, but this land was pagan long before the Romans landed, that the Vikings discovered. Belief is a strange thing, if you truly believe something with your heart, mind, and soul then that thing is true; if you feel that you will fail and always fail, it will be so because of your nonbelief. People are very good at nonbelief, belief is harder. But the early Celts believed in me with all the power of their spirit and to them I was a generous god, I defended their villages many times against the Viking hordes and it was only when they forsook me and did not make the ritual sacrifice that I turned my face away from them.”
“You’ve answered some of my second question,” Ceri smiled tentatively, some of her confidence returning, “would you answer the rest, about how you came to be evil?”
“Christianity,” Herne muttered, “I have many names, Cernunnos and Herne are two of my oldest, we are linked because we both wear horns, the Christian missionaries said that because of that I was the Devil.”
Ceri nodded comprehension dawning in her eyes. “And the White Christ swept the country-”
“Like a fire, and the priests preached that because I wore horns I was Satan.” Herne took up the story. “The people turned away from me and believed those missionaries. Thus for over five hundred years the Kings of your country sustained that belief with their murders and their dark desires. Those two Kings I have already mentioned committed such grievous sin that even today the world gasps at it.”
“There were worse Kings than Henry VIII,” Cerian remarked miserably, “Kings never had very good morals at that time. But I do understand.”
“You wished to know the story of my curse,” Herne smiled, “And I have told you. Have you any other questions?”
“Only one,” she replied. “How am I supposed to lift it?”
“I do not know.” Herne’s face became grave.
For a split second Ceri was suddenly filled with the desire to run away to get out of whatever she had got into and deny all knowledge of what had happened, she took a deep breath, “Tell me what you do know.”
Herne rose to his feet and walked across the claret-coloured carpet, he took the goblet from her and set it on the table then he drew Cerian to her feet. His dazzling golden eyes held Cerian’s ultramarine ones and a real smile touched his lips, “Tethys accepted you, that is a great magic. I know now that you are my salvation. If you were to read some of the prophecies about yourself they might clarify things, there are others who must have discourse with thee.” Herne’s words had suddenly become very archaic and there was a formality to his actions that had not been present before.
Slowly Cerian nodded, “Very well.”
Herne released her hands, walked across to a shelf, and took down two bound scrolls. Cradling them in his arms he returned to where Ceri was standing and handed one to her.
She unrolled it gingerly as if afraid that the yellow parchment would crumble in her hands, slowly she began to read the words; And it shall come to pass, the Hunter will meet the girl who shall be his salvation; And Tethys, Empress of the Oceans shall bind herself unto her that she need fear nothing that swims in the depths or flies upon the surface of the waters. And she shall be called; Much Loved, Hunter’s Salvation, Daughter of the Morning, Keeper of the San greal. Cerian raised her eyes from the scroll and squeaked, “Me?”
For an answer Herne handed her the second scroll, Cerian took it and held it tightly, half afraid to open it. Eventually she unrolled it slowly and scanned the contents; And the three highest who have beheld the San greal wait for the Keeper. The Keeper shall come before them to be found virtuous.
Herne replaced the scrolls and turned back to Ceri, “I suppose now you have even more questions.”
“Just one,” Cerian sighed, “Why am I called the Keeper of the San greal, come to think of it what is a San greal?”
“I do not know why you are The Keeper,” Herne said slowly, “but as for the San greal - it is the Holy Grail, the reason that the Round Table broke up and the bright fellowship of knights dissolved to end as nothing more than a glorious memory. The Grail is the cup that Christ is supposed to have used at The Last Supper, there are three who have seen the Grail with their own eyes and they shall test you.”
Cerian eased herself back into the chair and demanded, “Who will test me?”
“Joseph of Arimathea, The Grail Knight and the Lady Nimüe.”
“The Grail Knight? You mean a knight of the Round Table will test me?”
“Certainly. But this you must do alone, I can take you there but they will examine you and I will be forbidden by the High Magic to intervene and save your life should you fail.”
For the first time Cerian wondered what she had to do, “Lord Herne, I’m scared.”
Herne took her hands and knelt so that the antlers were level with the top of her head, “Lady, you cannot show fear. You must be warrior and wisdom. You battle not an earthly foe and you have no army at your back. I have the utmost faith in you.”
“And if I fail Lord Herne, will you do me one favour?”
“If I can,” Herne replied guardedly, “what favour would you ask.”
“That you administer the coup de grâce, I would rather it was you than someone I did not know.”
Herne stared at Ceri, “Do you know what you ask, Lady?”
“Yes,” Ceri replied solemnly, “the coup de grâce was an act of mercy to a vanquished knight in a joust or in battle. If an opponent was too badly injured in the stomach then a charitable knight would administer the ‘cut of grace’ and give him a painless death. Usually by cutting the jugular.”
“You did your research well,” Herne said softly, “but I do not know if I could do that for you, Lady.”
“But I demand it, Lord.” Ceri said softly, “you see, even a condemned man has to have one final request. This is mine.”
“You haven’t been condemned yet,” Herne responded “and there is yet another test that you must undergo first - you must face the Verification. You must face the Sol Invictus. If you fail that you will never even remember me, you will be reduced to the status of an ordinary mortal and that would be a loss.”
Cerian smiled and stood up, “Shall we go, my Lord. After all we mustn’t keep the Light waiting.”
Herne led her to another chamber, or was it another time, they were standing in a huge open place. All around them was light, the dazzling light of sun on snow. Cerian looked around to speak to Herne and discovered to her horror that he had disappeared. For a moment she panicked and then ahead of her something began to glow even brighter, taking her courage in both hands Cerian walked towards it.
She halted almost a dozen paced from the edge of the brightness, there was no other word to describe it, it was an ovoid corona of light pulsating slightly. She swallowed hard, licked her very dry lips and spoke, “Sol Invictus; Sol Unconquered; Sun Unconquerable, I am here to stand before you as a test. Test me, Invincible Sun.” Cerian dropped to her knees and waited.
Something whispered in the corners of her mind, “Rise my child. I must look into your eyes and into your heart when I test you.”
Cerian rose to her feet and the shape moved forward, for a brief moment Ceri felt an instant of fear and then the dazzling nimbus obscured her.
“Cernunnos chose well,” the words were spoken but Ceri still kept her eyes closed, something warned her that she would be blinded if she didn’t. “Go in peace, Daughter of the Morning. You have my blessing and my love.”
Someone was holding her strongly and Ceri felt her mouth opened and little liquid poured in, it burnt the back of her throat and made her cough and splutter.
She opened her eyes and stared up into Herne’s face, “Are you all right, my Lady?” He enquired solicitously.
Cerian struggled to her feet and the room swayed. She grabbed Herne for support and sat down again, “Never better, Lord Herne,” she whispered. “Tell me where are we?”
“Back in my home,” Herne replied. Reassured Cerian released her grip on the furry mantle covering Herne’s body. She looked around and saw that she lay in a small bedroom area just off the main cave. “My sleeping quarters,” Herne said softly.
Cerian scowled, “Can’t you turn that off or something?”
“I told you, my Lady, it only occurs when your mind forms questions. “Try burying them deeper or asking them outright.”
“I shall try to remember that, Lord Herne.” Cerian nodded, “but it could be useful, a telepathic link.”
“It would be like being permanently wired to another person’s innermost thoughts. Thank you. No.”
“I never considered that,” Ceri frowned.
Herne meanwhile had gone across to the granite basin and filled another goblet of water, which he handed to Cerian. this time she drained it.
“You passed with flying colours,” He said, “you have almost nothing to fear from the others who will test you.”
“Save that they may find me unworthy of the San greal,” Cerian remarked dryly.
“You would have always had to prove yourself to them whatever the outcome here,” Herne replied. Suddenly he clasped both her hands again and knelt before her, like a knight offering his fealty to a queen. Cerian stared down at him and then everything seemed to slip into place, “Rise, Lord Herne,” she said softly, “I may be one of you, but I have not yet your wisdom. I would be honoured if you would stand with me.”
“In truth, Princess, the honour is mine.” Herne rose to his feet and stood regarding the child to whom he had given his allegiance.
Chapter 3

‘A Test Of Worth’

 

H

erne handed a goblet to Cerian, her fingers closed around the cool stem gratefully, “Thank you, Lord.”
“Are you feeling better, Lady?” Herne asked. “Less light-headed,” Cerian replied, “but what happens

now?”
“You have passed one of the most difficult tests, now we journey to Lady
Nimüe, she holds the Grail.”
“But all the legends of Arthur and his knights say that the Grail was taken
up to heaven.”
“There is a reason for that,” Herne mused for a moment. “A reason that I
cannot explain here, but soon you must take the Test of The Keeper.” “Ah,” Cerian swallowed hard. “When?”
“Tonight,” Herne nodded gravely, “We must journey to an especial feast day
- I shall wake you.”
“How do I get home?” Ceri quavered.
Tenderly Herne removed the goblet from her hands and drew Cerian to her
feet, with an arm around her shoulders he led her to the far end of the room. A
pair of doorposts and a lintel appeared. “Walk through and you will arrive
exactly where you were this morning.” He informed her.
“How much time has passed?” Ceri murmured.
“Barely three hours in this world or perhaps half a lifetime in your own.” “I thought you said that time had no meaning here?”
“I did indeed,” Herne laughed, “but Lady, much has happened here and
you are not the child I met a day ago - nor yet are you the woman you wish to
be. Tell me - how much time do you think has passed?”
“Almost half a lifetime,” Ceri whispered, “I have become someone I do not
know.”
“You will eventually know her,” Herne bent and kissed her knuckles, “Time
being what it is, it is different to all men-”
“And for us that can move through Time - it is even more so.” Her eyes
snapped back into focus and she whimpered, “Lord, help me!”
Herne’s xanthous eyes became even more intense and he bit his lip, “Lady,
I may advise you, defend you and even comfort you, but I cannot help you.
Your latent power is emerging. I do not know what your gift is, you yourself
must discover that without my aid. Unfortunately power such as ours brings
with it great knowledge and responsibility. Be brave, little one.” “I do not know if I can be brave,” Ceri told him doubtfully.
“I doubt that anyone does,” Herne replied. “However we shall soon see. You must learn Latin and Brêton, your English is as foreign to the Saxons as
your clothing would be.”
“But I thought that this power would enable me to speak any language I
chose?” Ceri frowned, “stories say that.”
“That’s why they are stories,” Herne replied. “Reality is very different.
Go. I’ll see you tonight.”
Ceri nodded and just as she was about to step through the doorway, she
heard Herne’s voice behind her, “Leave your window open, I need to be able to
enter your room to wake you.” Then she had stepped through the portal and
disappeared from Herne’s sight.

Herne watched as the doorposts and lintel slowly disappeared.

 

“You didn’t tell her the truth?”