Lady of the Wasteland
Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – Gorgesque
Text copyright^©^ 2015 Jon Jacks
All rights reserved
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There used to be a lake here.
A vast lake.
Containing all manner of fish, shoals of them: even whales and, yes, monstrous sea serpents.
So deep. So cool. So magical.
The one I ruled over.
The one I drew my powers from.
The one that was me, as I was the lake.
I’m not used to walking; especially not across a dried, cracked landscape, in which my subjects lie gasping, perishing.
Not used to the whistling moans of dying whales. The pitiful writhing of serpents half trapped in baked ground.
Not used to feeling a wind pummelling my face, a wind that I can’t control.
A wish – a wish to help, to redirect the wind, to conjure up cooling springs of water: that’s all it would have taken, when I still possessed my powers.
I went to sleep, it seems; and woke to this
The end of my world.
Of the world as anyone knows it
Wherever I go, I’m no longer recognised.
How could they know me?
Few had ever seen me.
Of those that did, none dared look directly at me.
The glow might blind them, at least make them look away, their eyes too pained to stare any longer.
The longer I stay like this, the more human I become, more susceptible to their foolish ideas of the world, to their thoughts, their emotions.
Emotions recognising beauty, not reality.
Lies, not truth.
From a high tower, the most handsome man I have ever seen is smiling down at me. And in the courtyard standing below that tower, a tree stands within its very centre, growing upside down.
But – is it upside down?
I’m no longer sure.
The longer this goes on, the more I will forget.
Forget, even, who I really am.
And who is that?
Who am I?
‘Come on Viv!’
Despite the water’s constant muting of the encouraging cries of her school friends, Viviana drew on that powerful sense of urgency to find those extra reserves of energy that would help her win the race.
She drew inspiration, too, from the way her friends were all excitedly rising from their seats as the swimmers spun around at the edges of the swimming pool, heading into the penultimate length. She only caught odd glimpses of all this, of course, and then only through water-glazed eyes as she took in air, her head partially breaking the surface every now and again in mid stroke.
Whenever she could, she focused most of her blurred gaze upon Aden, who was proudly smiling down on her.
She would win this tournament for him!
To show him that she was worthy of his love for her.
Aden vanished in a wallowing of water as Viviana plunged her head under the waves once more, the arm she’d arch high in the air also dipping aggressively into the waters, powering her forward.
There was a flash of brightest red in the waters flowing just beneath her, such that she briefly thought it might be a swirl of blood, that someone might have injured themselves in the last sharp turn against the wall.
As her head rose again from the waters, her interest was no longer on the cheering crowds, but on that flash of scarlet.
As her head dipped beneath the surface once more, she saw that it wasn’t – thankfully – blood after all, but the glow of a brilliantly petalled poppy, incongruously drifting in the violently stirred currents.
She tried to ignore it, to treat it with the indifference it deserved, to concentrate on winning the race.
But as she raised and dipped her face yet again, there were flashes of other, even brighter colours below her.
A shoal of glittering fish.
The waters now stretched endlessly away from her, without any discernible depth.
Her ears rang to the mournful cry of a whale rising from those dark, green depths.
Her eyes widened as a monstrous serpent followed on close behind, striking out at her with its gaping, reddened maw.
Now hardly anyone was cheering. Those that were were congratulating their own friends for winning, or at least completing the race as, one by one, they reached out for and touched the pool’s end.
Most of the crowd, however, even her own friends, were jeering, or even crying out for retribution against Viviana. She had disrupted the other swimmers as she’d urgently swum for the sides of the pool.
She couldn’t understand what had happened.
Hadn’t anyone else seen the fish, the whale, the serpent?
Of course, she knew what the answer to that stupid question was – for the pool’s waters were sparklingly clear.
Naturally, there weren’t any sea creatures in there.
Not even the tiniest fish. And especially not a mythical serpent.
She urgently glanced around, looking for Aden amongst the crowds.
But he was no longer there.
Rather, amongst all those furiously contorted faces, it was another boy who stood out, his expression intent and curious.
It seemed his eyes never left her, even as she ashamedly turned away from the pool, deliberately limping as if she were suffering from cramp.
Who was he?
Aden abruptly appeared alongside her, concernedly draping a thick, soft towel around her quaking shoulders.
Everyone had thought she would easily win the swimming tournament.
Instead, she had lost, and disgracefully too, barging into other competitors in her rush to vacate the pool.
‘Cramp: sorry,’ she whispered to Aden, regretting her lie, but unsure how else she could explain her stupidity.
‘Did you cut yourself?’ Aden asked, glancing down in alarm at her red-streaked heel.
‘Not that I–’
Viviana looked back over her shoulder as she raised her heel up off the floor.
It wasn’t blood.
It was a poppy petal, sticking to her wet skin.
All the kids at school loved holding a grudge.
Especially a fashionable grudge, one that everyone could join in with.
Such as moaning that the Golden Girl of the swimming team had proved more useless than lead when it had counted.
They’d lost to teams they’d spent months boasting they would easily trounce.
It wasn’t just that Viviana had lost her first race; she’d even refused to go back in the water.
Like it scared her.
Like she was some scaredy-cat six-year-old who needed her inflatable armbands.
No one (accept Aden, naturally) was prepared to accept her excuse that she’d suffered cramp.
No one would sit with her in class.
No one would walk down the corridors with her between classes. (Accept, once again, Aden.)
Both boys and girls, of varying sizes, barged into her, making out, if she complained, that it was an accident, that they’d ‘got a sudden touch of cramp’.
Someone even tripped her up, sending her tumbling with her books and pen case. Yet when she whirled around to challenge the culprit, she was met only with laughing or grinning faces.
Of course, the most dangerous area for her was the rows of lockers, where everyone chaotically accumulated, where teachers rarely trod, and nowhere near frequently enough to prevent any jeering from getting out of hand.
With its endless, high rows of metal cabinets, the locker area could have been specifically designed to allow trouble makers to work with impunity.
‘You owe me, Vivid!’
Viviana had such incredibly black hair she’d gained the name ‘Vivid’ amongst some of the kids, a name sometimes extended to ‘Livid Vivid’ if she were ever in a particularly bad mood.
The hefty boy who had almost taken her hand off as he’d abruptly slammed her locker shut was called ‘Barn’ Doorney for equally obvious reasons.
‘I bet money on you!’ he added with a belligerent glower. ‘Money I lost, cos you lost!’
‘You’re not supposed to place bets!’ Viviana countered coolly, calmly opening her locker once more.
‘I’m not supposed to lose; not when everyone’s seen you swim like you’re a fish!’
‘Leave her alone.’
Viviana turned, expecting her rescuer to be Aden: but it wasn’t. It was the new boy, the boy she’d seen staring oddly at her from the crowds during the tournament.
Viviana was suddenly infuriated.
Aden rushing to her defence was one thing: some other guy – who’d obviously confused her for some weak-kneed little girl who required saving from a cumbersome thug like Barn – was a different thing entirely.
She brought the ball of her heel down hard on top of the unsuspecting Barn’s foot, catching him in the delicate spot where it arches up into the leg. Eyes watering in agony, Barn groaned, collapsed slightly: and Viviana sharply brought up a stiffly held index finger, catching him in that even more delicate spot that lies beneath the nose.
She pushed up unforgivingly hard with her finger, causing Barn’s eyes to water even more as he tried to rise away from it. Naturally, he found this impossible, as Viviana’s heel was still pushing down heavily on his foot.
‘Did you know,’ she hissed, close to his painfully grimacing face, ‘that I’m pushing up on your nasal bone – and that if I suddenly pushed even a little harder, I could push it right up into what little of your brain exists up there?’
Her eyes were cold, stern, as she intently stared into the petrified Barn’s own eyes.
He couldn’t nod: the pain being exerted by her rigid finger made that extremely unwise.
His eyes watered all the more, pleading for mercy.
Viviana glanced the new boy’s way.
‘You were saying?’ she asked him coolly.
‘Er, leave him alone?’ the boy replied with a wan smile.
Why did people presume she was helpless just because she was a girl?
Sure, she looked like a girl – thank goodness!
But she had an underlying layer of well-toned muscles (including, most importantly, muscles where most people didn’t even realise muscles existed) giving her an athletic agility anyone might envy.
She had no real idea how she’d ended up with a body like this: she was just lucky, she guessed.
The way some people seemed to eat whatever kind of junk they fancied, and yet ended up looking like they were on a top-model’s lettuce and prunes diet. As opposed to those others who did everything right, and yet everything went wrong for them.
Whoever said life was fair?
She couldn’t be bothered with attending the morning’s first class.
She was too wound up.
Too much in ‘Livid Vivid’ mode.
Perhaps that’s what gave her her wiry muscles; the way she was always tensed, flexing them beneath her skin, giving them an almost endless workout.
Out in the air, away from the claustrophobic, crowded confines of the school, she could think more clearly.
Think things through.
Like; who was this new kid, thinking she was some maiden in distress, requiring a white knight on a charger?
Yeah – he was handsome enough. If you were into that kind of look.
That sort of pretty maleness that had you wondering just how well he could pass off as a girl if he donned a long-haired wig.
Whereas Aden – well, he had that sort of crueller look: like, ‘Hey, mess with me at your peril’ kinda hardness.
She liked that.
It made her feel, well; sorta more feminine when she was with him.
Not that she had to be with Aden to feel more feminine, of course.
She could do that simply by letting down her hair: loosening it from the tightly drawn-back ponytail she usually pulled it into, letting it all fall softly about her face with a few gentle shakes.
She’d noticed how, when looking at herself within a mirror, that softer cloud of hair somehow magically transformed the sterner angularity of her face into one of more gently contoured curves.
Like a glorious curtain, framing her cheeks, bringing attention to the sparkling intelligence of her eyes.
Well, that’s what she thought, anyway!
Reaching behind and above her shoulders, she deftly dragged off the band holding her hair into its ponytail. With a few shakes of her head, of her hair, she let it all drop softly and gently about her face, like a comforting snowfall.
The strands draping across her face and over her eyes lightly tickled her skin and, as they briefly refracted the sun into a harder glare, made her blink.
In those fleeting seconds of brightness, the sun seemed to be crazily drawing closer, the blazing whiteness of the light abruptly transforming into the sharpest yellow.
A circle of yellow sunlight that delicately struck her in her face.
It took her by surprise, naturally.
And then she laughed: chuckling at her foolishness.
The ‘sun’ fell from her face, allowing her to neatly catch it in her hand.
It was a daisy; a large one, but – of course – no sun.
Certainly, it looked like a sun: the rounded, semi-sphere of yellow, its expanding pure white rays.
A sun in miniature, graced with the sparkling gem of a glistening dew drop.
The ‘Day’s Eye’; called that, she’d recalled reading somewhere, because it opened on a morning, but closed on an evening.
Viviana glanced up, shielding her eyes from the glare of the real sun, wondering where the daisy might have fallen from. High above her, a hawk was soaring across the sky: was he the one responsible for the daisy falling her way?
As if the flight of the hawk had somehow crazily awakened within her a greater awareness of her surroundings, Viviana noticed next a squirrel hiding within the crook of a nearby tree, such that its wariness could have also been down to the bird of prey’s passing. Whether this were the case or not, as the hawk swept completely out of view, the squirrel at last made its move, darting higher up the tree’s trunk, heading it seemed as high it would be possible to go.
Its hurried passage shook the tree’s many branches, with far more force than Viviana would have expected it to, the morning dew that rested upon the innumerable leaves dislodged and scattering as an airborne mist. Light and cool, the mist fell from the overarching branches and, caught in a whirling breeze, enveloped Viviana in its soft veil.
Within the mist, the branches blanched, sparkled, as if abruptly doused in ice. And then, suddenly, they weren’t the stems of a tree, but the branches of purely white antlers, the antlers of four harts nibbling indifferently at the leaves as if they would carelessly devour every one.
Harts? There weren’t any herds of deer based around here, Viviana realised, wondering if she were simply conjuring these creatures up within her furiously whirling mind.
But then, where was here?
She didn’t recognise any of her surroundings, as if the mist had miraculously led her immediately astray, or at least made everything unrecognisable to her. Far from standing almost directly beneath the widely spreading tree, as she had been only seconds ago, she could have been caught up within its infinitely stretching shoots, the rolling, meandering road she was walking upon just one of countless intertwining branches.
And just a little farther along that road, there was a performing bear, securely chained to a post.
Who could have done this?
Who could do anything so cruel?
As if to humiliate the poor bear even further, it had been forced to wear a decorative large white ruff, its dancing obviously rewarded with honey, much of which was smeared across its snout.
‘Who’d tie you up like this?’ Viviana wondered out loud, glancing about herself in the hope that she might see someone who could explain what was going on.
‘I don’t know,’ the bear answered innocently. ‘I can’t remember how I ended up here at all.’
Viviana couldn’t remember how she’d ended up here either. So she found herself sympathising with the poor bear’s plight.
It could only be a dream, after all. Not that she could recall falling asleep.
She looked about her now for some means of helping unchain the bear, reasoning that a dream bear could never hope to do her any real harm.
And this was what she sensed she had to do; to help the bear.
There was a dull sparkle of metal amongst the nearby grass and, when Viviana drew closer, she discovered a discarded sword. It was in a terrible state, such that when she tried to use it to hack through the chain, she found she lacked the strength to make any impression upon any of its links.
Chuckling bitterly at her own foolishness for attempting such a thing, she moved to hack instead through the obviously more fragile post; but the bear raised a paw, stopping her from landing a blow against the post even at the risk of losing his own arm.
‘Please, no,’ he gently reproached her, adding as he held out one of his great paws, ‘Maybe, though, I have the strength to sever the chain?’
Viviana wasn’t sure that the bear would be capable of grasping the sword, yet he seemed to manage it surprisingly well. Raising it high, the bear brought it sweeping down upon the binding chain: and with a piercing clang of colliding metals, a link snapped, along with the blade of the sword.
Thankfully, once he was released from the post, the bear made no attempt to attack Viviana. Rather, having cast aside the shattered sword, he gracefully and gratefully thanked her as he wiped the honey away from his snout.
He reached up towards the many leaves surrounding them, bringing one close to his mouth, drinking in the last of the dew before the sun dried it all away.
He shook his head, as if disappointed by the experience.
‘Oh dear: not one of mine, I’m afraid.’
‘Not one of yours?’ Viviana repeated, frowning in confusion.
‘It’s Aurr,’ the bear explained, ‘the dew, I mean: our memory of yesterday. But that, unfortunately, wasn’t one of my memories.’
Now the bear was the one who grimaced bemusedly.
‘But then, I’m not sure who I really am: and therefore how would I know which were my memories, and which were those of someone else?’
Far below them, where the sun’s rays hadn’t quite reached yet, there were many other leaves, each with their own covering of dew. The droplets ran off these leaves, plunging even deeper through the tree’s extensive branches, striking other leaves and dislodging their own droplets until it all fell like rain towards unseen roots.
‘Then perhaps you’ll find your memories down there,’ Viviana said, pointing off to where she believed the bear would have to travel if he was to remember who he really was.
‘Viv? Are you okay?’
Aden was looking down at her as she lay in the wet grass beneath the tree, his face full of concern.
‘Oh, sorry,’ she said, sitting up, silently cursing herself for falling asleep on such damp ground, ‘I must have drifted off.’
‘I saw you storm off, through the school gates.’ He briefly looked back towards where the school stood. ‘I thought I’d better follow you: make sure you were all right.’
‘Sure, yeah: I’m fine. Just that idiot Barn – winding me up.’
‘He’s good at winding anyone up.’
He offered her his hand, helping her up from the ground.
‘I heard you’d had a bit of…well, trouble’s not the right word, I suppose.’ He gave her an admiring smile. ‘But we know what he’s like: he’ll want revenge, hit you when you’re not expecting it.’
She nodded in agreement.
‘I’ll take care; keep an eye out for him.’
‘I heard the new kid tried to take a hand.’
She nodded again.
‘Yeah: not much use though, other than being around to see I didn’t need his help.’
‘That’s my girl!’
‘Who is he?’ Viviana asked. ‘The new kid?’
‘Scott someone or other: only been here a few days. Why the interest?’
She shrugged: she wasn’t quite sure why this new boy had pricked her interest. She seemed to recognise him from somewhere; even though, of course, that had to be impossible, hadn’t it?
‘He was staring at me really weirdly when I…when I got cramp, down the pool.’
‘Weirdly?’ Aden repeated doubtfully. ‘He seems okay to me, if a bit drippy.’
Viviana laughed, throwing her arms around his waist.
‘Everyone seems drippy to you.’
‘Everyone seems drippy compared to me,’ he corrected her with a mischievous grin, wrapping an arm about her, drawing her closer.
Aden’s eyes widened, his gaze focused over her shoulder towards where the road skirted the green.
He said it simply, calmly, with no hint of panic or apprehension.
Turning her head a little, remaining as calm as he was, Viviana looked back towards the road.
The police car was slowing, the officer seated on their side studying them closely. Working out their age, figuring they should be at school.
The car slowed all the more, turning in towards the kerbside, the officer opening his door even before it had come to a complete halt.
‘Run!’ said Aden with a gleeful chuckle, taking Viviana’s hand in his.
‘You take me to all the most romantic places!’
Viviana laughed as she and Aden ran, hand in hand, through the narrow, meandering ginnels that threaded their way between the closely packed but otherwise randomly positioned houses.
The police were weighed down with heavy equipment, cumbersome uniforms. They should had been easy enough to outrun. Unfortunately, one of the officers was obviously new to the job: still eager, still in good physical condition.
‘I’ll draw him off,’ Aden cried out, noticing that this particular officer wasn’t prepared to give up easily. ‘You head that way,’ he added, letting go of her hand as he indicated with a nod of his head that she should make for the dusty lane heading off towards the park.
As they split up, the pursuing officer briefly appeared to consider going after Viviana, perhaps viewing her as the easier target. But whether it was because he thought of boys as being the more likely trouble causer, or because Viviana had broken into a surprising display of speed, he decided instead to continue in his pursuit of Aden.
Even though she had seen that the officer had chased after Aden rather than following her, Viviana didn’t slacken off from her running: she couldn’t be sure that the second officer hadn’t spotted her peeling off, in which case he might continue his own pursuit after her.
The lane was just one of well-trodden dirt rather than anything intentionally paved, one of those tracks that served more as a shortcut for the locals as opposed to an officially designated path. It ran for most of its way behind a wall of haphazardly joined wooden fences, each one of which had been raised by a homeowner to split off their backyard or garden from a wildly overgrown ditch.
The ditch, despite being quite shallow, was to be avoided, the stream coursing down its middle more rust than water coloured, a dumping ground for old pushchairs, toys, even broken chairs. Bushes and small trees grew on each side, a tangle of uncared for buddleia, elm and brambles, a dark wood in miniature.
Almost as if he’d abruptly slipped out of that darkness, the new kid was suddenly blocking Viviana’s way along the narrow path.
He was directly in her path, unmoving, displaying absolutely no intent to get out of her way. He was unnervingly glaring at her, however, much as he’d seemed to do that day at the pool.
Without thinking any further about it, she ducked into the snarled maze of the ditch.
As soon as she’d ducked into the jumble of chaotically intertwining branches, Viviana remembered why everyone tended to avoid it.
The wildly crooked stems snagged at your hair, caught on your clothes, dragged at you. The thorns were even worse. No one ever came out of here without either torn clothes or ripped flesh.
It was always so surprisingly dim and cold in here, the ceiling of a virtual wickerwork of stems blocking of most of the sun’s rays. It meant, too, that there was hardly any colour down here, even the leaves of the bushes being a filthy, faded brown.
Within this dirge of washed-out tints, however, there were the incongruously tinkling bells of pure white snowdrops. Viviana found this out when, tripping over a fallen, half-rotten and hidden tree trunk, she was sent sprawling through a mulch of old leaves and mud, her nose ending up only a hairsbreadth from being buried beneath another disintegrating log.
And it was so cold down here, so free of the effects of the sun, that the snowdrop still delicately glistened with morning dew.
As if the situation Viviana had found herself in wasn’t miserable enough, it began to rain: a rain of the finest drizzle, one that could seep through even the matted ceiling of twisted branches.
Rising unsteadily to her feet in the wet, slippery mud, she groaned when she saw that her clothes were covered in a filthy sheen. Her hair was matted, tangled; she wished she’d kept it tied back in a ponytail.
The rain had made everything lying at a distance from her darker, while even the bushes relatively close by appeared hazy, as if she were viewing them through a freezing fog. The track down here rose and fell, even twisted a little, all far more than she recalled it doing last time she had made her way along it (but that was ages ago, when she had been a kid). It even branched a few times, which she definitely couldn’t remember it doing.
The rain was beginning to turn to ice upon the innumerable stems and twigs around her, solidly linking them together, hemming her in. It could have been a maze, a maze of icy mirrors and glass.
Although the passageways she found herself being directed down began to widen, the thick coating of frost remained, even when the wickerwork ceiling finally opened up, revealing a grey, wintery sky.
It wasn’t a clear sky, however. Far from it.
Arching above everything was another, more distant wickerwork, this one of thick, curling branches, rather than of thinner stems. It was similar in many ways to the vast tree she’d found herself in within her odd daydream earlier, only this one was completely devoid of leaves, and far more snagged and intertwined: more like, in fact, the snarled roots of a tree.
Amongst these crazily intertwining roots there were flares of movement, the tinkling of disturbed icicles, the crunch of trodden, frosty earth or bark. They could have been men, men who were themselves covered in frost, yet it was difficult for Viviana to determine their true size as they all, thankfully, remained some way off from her: thankfully, that is, because she seemed sure that they were giants, far larger than any real man.
The monstrous roots were elsewhere so closely packed and tangled that she was effectively in a clearing, or at the very least the largest open space she could see anywhere else close by her. As she walked more towards the centre of this clearing, the freezing fog cutting her vision down to little more than a few yards, even the all-enveloping roots appeared to vanish, such that she could have been in an endless, silent haze.
Then, ahead of her, she saw a headless giant blocking her path.
The giant’s head lay upon the floor.
His body, however, remained standing, even moving a little.
The head, too, blinked, and talked; talked to his own decapitated body.
‘…and the hawk you saw sits between the eyes of eagle of awareness, who sits within the tree’s highest branches.’
‘Yes, I saw the hawk: but how do I find this eagle?’
Viviana recognised the second voice: it had all the guttural effects of the bear she had met in her earlier dream, the voice of someone not quite yet used to speaking. And now that she was closer, she could see that the bear had only appeared to be headless because his already low-set head was bowed towards the talking head, such that his massive shoulders had hid it completely from her view.
‘Follow the squirrel,’ the disembodied head replied in answer to the bear’s question, ‘as he carries messages – insults mainly – between the eagle and the dragon lying deep within the roots of the tree’s past.’
The bear’s fur was encased in jewel-like droplets of ice, just about matting it all together. Despite being no longer tied to his post, he seemed to Viviana to be in a worse state than ever, as if he had been travelling for a long time, existing on little or any food.
She hoped that the bear hadn’t been the one who had cut the giant’s head off. She feared, as she drew closer, that she might see the giant’s headless body lying across the frosty ground. Instead she saw a well, one that remained remarkably free of the worst of the freezing frost.
And then she realised it wasn’t a well at all, but a hole, a crack, in a sheet of ice.
‘Is this someone else seeking a question of me?’ the head asked her, seeing her approach.
The bear spun around slowly, to see whom the head was greeting.
‘Ah, the girl,’ he said, with what might have passed for a smile. ‘The girl who rescued me,’ he added, turning back to talk to the head.
‘Then she has no question of me?’
The head glanced up towards Viviana, giving her the opportunity to ask a question of him.
She shook her head.
There wasn’t anything she needed to know.
‘And you’re sure that you yourself can’t tell me who I am?’ the bear desperately asked the head once more.
‘My well is the well of reason, but self-knowledge – which is something different entirely – comes from the eagle.’
‘Why do the dragon and the eagle despise each other?’ Viviana asked, recalling the head’s description of the squirrel helping them trade insults with each other.
‘Hah, so you do have a query after all?’ The head grinned. ‘Self-knowledge desires recognition of our better selves, potentially a jumping off point to a higher self, yet fails through its reticence to acknowledge the darkness of our past. Those who live in the past – as the dragon does, eating away at the roots – believe all previous encounters provide our solutions, refusing to recognise anything as being individual and unique.’
‘Then if the dragon is devouring the roots of the past…’
Viviana glanced the bear’s way, hoping that he would realise the urgency of preventing the last of his memories of whom he really was disappearing forever.
The bear nodded miserably, indicating that he understood the problem he was facing.
How could he seek awareness if he remained ignorant of his past?
‘Ah, I see,’ the head exclaimed elatedly. ‘You aren’t seeking to find out who you are – you need to remember who you were!’
‘These are different things, of course.’
This was a new voice, a woman’s voice.
A woman was standing by the well, drawing up water from its depths, using a bucket and a long strand of rope.
‘How much does our present contain of our past or our future?’ she added, using the drawn water to nourish the snowdrops edging the well’s sides. ‘Our present attitude to the second will determine the third.’
But of course, it wasn’t really a well. It was a crack within a sheet of ice.
As the woman appeared to endlessly draw on the water, the ice cracked all the more, trembled, as if about to completely shatter.
It wasn’t just the covering of ice upon the lake that was shaking, however. Within the grey sky of far off tangled roots, there was also a rumbling, a moving, such that the whole of heaven and earth could have been quaking fearfully.
Shards of ice plummeted down from those far off branches. One fell directly into the bear’s hand, granting him a sword. Another, a wider piece, positioned itself along his other arm, becoming his shield.
Still others cascaded about him, latching onto the frozen beads already enveloping his fur, hardening about him into plates, into greaves and arm pieces, into a resplendent breast protector, a bright and shinning helm.
Within a moment, he was arrayed in a full complement of glistening white armour.
And, to anyone who didn’t know the truth, he could so easily have been taken to be a man.
It was a dark knight, one wearing completely black armour, who was scornfully staring down at Viviana.
She was, she abruptly realised, still lying in the cloying mud. Still lying by the rotting log and delicately flowering snowdrop.
The ‘knight’ was no such thing: it was a policeman, wearing near-black body armour.
‘I thought I saw you duck in here,’ the officer announced proudly, reaching down to grasp Viviana’s arm, possibly to help her up, probably to ensure she didn’t make another run for it.
Not that she was going to get very far if she attempted it: her hair was badly snagged upon the surrounding twigs. It would take a while to free herself.
‘My partner says you’ve had a couple of warnings about skipping school before…’ the policeman began, his monologue fading as Viviana concentrated on untangling her hair without pulling on the roots too painfully.
‘I’m sorry,’ Viviana said, when the policeman’s tirade finally came to an end. ‘Please don’t tell mum and dad: they’ll kill me.’
As she pleaded for mercy, Viviana put on a suitably miserable face. She also let her shoulders sag despondently, an act that wasn’t too difficult to accomplish as she really was a complete mess with her mud strewn clothes and wayward hair.
The policeman glanced at her doubtfully, pouting as he considered what the best course of action might be.
Viviana could imagine the gears grinding away inside his head: ‘Well, if she’s got the kind of parents who are going to teach her a lesson…’
Not that she did, of course. They had their own lives to lead.
They were hardly a good example for any growing kid to follow.
Sure, when the cops took her back home, they’d put on all the necessary theatrics to persuade the authorities everything was now in safe hands: the ‘just you wait, my girl!’, the shocked, furious faces, the order to go to her room.
‘Will they be home?’ the officer asked. ‘Your parents, I mean?’
‘They’d normally be at work,’ Viviana lied, knowing that that was what the officer wanted to hear, ‘but mum helps out the local pensioners on a Tuesday, while dad’s…well, it’s his monthly hospital visit…’
She grimaced almost fearfully, like she was fighting back the tears, like she hadn’t wanted to be forced into admitting her dad wasn’t well.
Yeah, she thought, satisfied: that should explain why the lazy-good-for-nothings are sitting at home.
As they waited for her parents to answer the knock on the door, the officers gave the house a look Viviana instantly recognised.
Not much of a house, it said.
Not much of a neighbourhood.
No one came to the door to answer the knocking. The house was completely silent, which surprised Viviana: although her parents might be arguing about who should answer the door, she would have expected to be able to hear the television.
Nothing, bar a meteor strike, could tear her parents away from the television, provided they had their drink and smokes conveniently to hand.
The woman police officer, the one who’d chased but had failed to catch Aden, turned to Viviana.
‘No one seems to be home: you do have a key, right?’
This was the officer who had originally been close to gaining on them when she and Aden had first fled the arrival of the police car: ‘He might as well have just vanished,’ the officer had complained to her partner, explaining how Aden had eluded her, ‘the way he just suddenly wasn’t anywhere ahead of me!’
As Viviana opened the door, she cried out to let her parents know she was home, secretly hoping that – despite the unlikelihood of it – they were out.
Her parents were an embarrassment.
The downside of them being out, of course, was that the officers might decide to take her down the station after all.
‘Dad must have had to go into hospital earlier than usual,’ she said mournfully. ‘If he was in a really bad state, mum would have had to take him too…’
The officers paid little interest to what she was saying. They were, rather, staring curiously about the house, their bewilderment increasing with everything they saw.
They exchanged suspicious glances, slight nods of agreement.
‘How long have you been living here on your own?’ the female police officer asked Viviana.
Even as she was shown to a cell in the police station ‘just until we find someone who can take care of you’, Viviana was still protesting that there must be a mistake, that she had seen her parents only that morning.
‘They must be out,’ she insisted. ‘I’m not even capable of living on my own!’
Not, of course, that her parents actually did much when it came to providing for her, taking care of her. But they did exist, she knew that for sure; how many times had she wished the ground would just open and swallow her up whenever her friends had met them?
The cell was far from being comfortable, the bed narrow and hard. But the officers were going out of their way to be kind to her, even sorting out a clean blouse and jeans for her to wear, ‘spares we had in our lockers.’
Making herself as at ease as she could on the bed, reading a book provided for her by the desk sergeant – some kind of police thriller, naturally, its bookmark a dried and pressed lily of the valley – and having reassured herself that the police would soon realise they’d made a mistake (as soon as they’d checked their records, as soon as they’d asked around) she gradually found herself drifting off, her eyes heavy, the book unsteady in her hands. A number of times, she awoke from a near complete slumber with a sudden, fierce jolting of her entire body.
Half awake, half asleep, everything about her seemed unstable, her bed unevenly balanced, the confining walls constructed at bizarre angles.
And in that half life, neither in one world nor the other, it dawned on her that the police wouldn’t find her parents.
Her parents didn’t exist, did they?
They were just a false memory.
Who am I? she wondered, letting the tears fall.
The blooms of the lily of the valley hang upside down, like falling tears of sorrow, like the memories of yesterday.
And the tears of our memories fall into a far off spring.
Yes, she remembered once being told that.
She walked once more along the immense, intertwining root, each branch like a meandering, rolling pathway.
Serpents, as silvery as moon beams, rushed past her, heading both up and down. The ones heading away from the spring, however, carried within their mouths glistening drops of dew. The ones heading down were returning for more.
She recalled being told about this too. But she couldn’t recall why this was so.
Like the dragon, they must be devouring our memories, our past. Soon, there will be nothing left.
The roots shook, quaked, as they had earlier when they had let a rain of frozen shards fall. This time there was no ice, the coiling stems here being darker by far than they had been before, the roots stretching ever lower, ever more into the depths of true darkness.
Amongst the irritated roaring of the trembling roots, there was also a furious growling, the snap of vicious snarls. The closer Viviana drew towards the irate howling, the more the branching roots around her quivered and rocked.
The dragon wasn’t eating the roots. He was rolling, charging, leaping.
He was fighting a knight in glisteningly white armour.
The knight was losing, Viviana was sure of it.
He was trying to hold his ground, surely, but it was only through foolishness rather than because he was close to victory.
The dragon could have been toying with him, so assured was it of defeating this pathetically inadequate foe.
The knight had to be the bear, Viviana realised, even though it was difficult to be sure as his helm’s visor was down, shielding his face. Like her, he would have come seeking a memory of whom he really was. And he had sought to destroy the dragon, before all his memories were consumed.
She had untied him from his post, and now she had to rescue him from the dragon: was that really how these things were supposed to play out?
Every now and again, it seemed as if the bear might actually win as, throwing himself bravely forward, he would land a number of fierce blows upon the furiously growling dragon: but as soon as they briefly parted, it was obvious to Viviana that he still appeared to be the one who had sustained the most damage, his limbs limp either from exhaustion or wounds..
But how was she supposed to rescue him?
Instinctively, she reached out for a passing serpent, one holding within its gaping mouth a jewelled drop of memory.
‘Stop!’ a voice behind her snapped commandingly; a woman’s voice, Viviana realised, as the newcomer added calmly, ‘The serpents are my servants, taking the Aurr to my holy well.’
‘Then can you please help my friend?’ Viviana asked, carefully placing the uninjured serpent back on the root, risking only the fleetest of glances back towards the woman, not wishing to take her eyes off the ferocious combat. ‘The knight – the bear – will die if we can’t stop the dragon killing him.’
‘He’s known to suck the blood out of dead bodies,’ the woman admitted, her tone still calm, unhurried. In the short glimpse Viviana had had of the woman, she had appeared to her to be hardly different from the woman who’d stood by the earlier well, although perhaps either considerably older or more famished. ‘Fortunately, your friend isn’t dead yet.’
‘Then how do we help him?’ Viviana pleaded.
‘Erm…I forget,’ the woman said, finishing her curt comment with a mischievous chuckle.
At last, the bear was backing off from the dragon’s ferocious onslaught, but nowhere near enough to spare him anything but the odd injury he might have suffered otherwise: he was still frequently reeling from expertly delivered blows of huge claws, still floundering with his own attempts at retaliation.
‘You mean you’ve chosen to forg…’
Viviana’s retort died on her lips as she caught and understood the meaning behind the woman’s knowing smile.
‘He has to accept his past, rather than fighting it!’
Viviana woke up on the cell’s uncomfortable bed.
What had happened?
Had the bear survived?
If it had just been a dream, of course, that would be a stupid question.
But was it a just a dream?
She glanced down at the floor, looking for the book she’d been reading, the book she must have dropped.
It lay upon the floor, splayed open with its back broken, a few pages having come loose, such that they were spilled across the floor.
The pressed flower, the lily of the valley, was also there. Although it was no longer pressed and dried; it was alive, and bathed in a glistening dew.
She couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the bear.
Had she even come to the right conclusion, when she’d assuredly declared, ‘He has to accept his past, rather than fighting it!’?
The old woman, whoever she’d been, had seemed to accept it as an answer: the vision, or whatever it was, had come to an abrupt end, after all.
Yet had it been the right answer?
Had it saved the bear? Or doomed him to failure?
The dragon had been devouring the past: so how could the bear be accepting his past if he allowed it to continue eradicating that past?
Was he supposed to accept the vanishing of his past? To accept his imperfectly remembered past?
Some things we choose to forget: other things we forget through no choice of our own.
Some things we’d be better off forgetting: those things that we allow to churn away inside us, regurgitating every past slight against us, even though it does us no good in the end, simply wears us out.
Perhaps there wasn’t an easy answer to all this ‘vision thing’ or whatever it all wa–
The door to the cell clanged open, interrupting her thought process. A policeman ducked his head around the doorframe.
‘You’ve got a visitor: a boy. Do you want to see him?’
It had to be, the fool!
What would have happened if he’d turned up here when the policewoman who’d chased him was still here? She would have recognised him and flung him into his own cell!
‘Yes please!’ Viviana declared excitedly, almost jumping up and off her bed.
Maybe Aden, she thought suddenly, could tell them I really do have parents! He’s met them, kids at school have met them, even the teachers have met them–
And so why do I think the police are right and my parents don’t really exist?
Her face fell despondently as she considered this, her elation vanishing within an instant.
Yet she was even more despondent when the boy walked into her cell.
Because it wasn’t Aden: it was the new boy at school, Scott.
‘What are you doing here?’ Viviana snarled directly in Scott’s face as soon as the policeman had left them alone together.
She had considered telling the policeman that she didn’t know this boy: but that would have been a lie, wouldn’t it?
She knew him from school, of course.
But more than that, she was sure, surer than ever – she knew him from somewhere else too.
He smiled, grinned like Viviana hadn’t really placed her face threateningly close to his.
He glanced down at the lily of the valley lying upon the floor. He didn’t seem in anyway surprised to see it there.
‘I’m hoping to help you remember who you really are,’ he replied coolly.
Viviana stepped back, frowning bemusedly at Scott’s strange comment.
And yet: she also felt a wonderful sense of relief.
Could he really help her? After all, she realised, the trip – if indeed, that’s what it actually had been – down to where the dragon was devouring the roots of her memories hadn’t resulted in providing her with any clues.
‘Why do I sort of think I remember you from somewhere?’ she asked Scott, eyeing him suspiciously.
He shrugged, gave her that irritatingly complacent grin once more.
‘We often get that feeling, don’t we?’
She grimaced, a grimace warning him that she didn’t appreciate being mocked or played around with.
‘But yes,’ Scott added, unperturbed and unhurriedly, ‘in your case, yes: you should recognise me.’
‘From when, more like.’
‘Sure, okay: so when?’
‘Oh, centuries ago!’
Viviana chuckled bitterly, shook her head to indicate her disbelief.
‘No, no: you’re not laying all this sort of rubbish down on me! I don’t want any of this we were lovers centuries ago type of thing.’
Scott smiled once more, but this time it was one of amused agreement.
‘No, we weren’t lovers. Far from it.’
‘Far from it?’ Viviana considered this curiously. ‘So – we were enemies?’
She was a little surprised when Scott nodded. She narrowed her eyes, glaring at him warily.
‘Soooo – does that mean I have anything to fear from you?’
‘If you did, it wouldn’t be very good for you,’ Scott replied, lifting and airily waving a hand in the air.
Behind him, the cell door clanged firmly shut.
Viviana stepped back even farther from Scott.
‘Who are you? What do you want from me?’
Scott airily waved his hands once more, this time in a conciliatory gesture. His smile, too, was one of those sickly grins desperately trying to say ‘trust me’.
‘I don’t want to harm you–’
‘You don’t want – but you might?’
To her surprise once again, Scott nodded.
‘Well, I’ve got to say I admire your honesty,’ Viviana said with an anguished laugh.
‘I need you to remember who you are,’ Scott admitted innocently. ‘Otherwise, the whole world’s in danger.’
‘Hah, this whole thing just gets crazier!’
Viviana shook her head, as if trying to clear her mind of its foggy stupidities, its clouding foolishness.
‘I’d have to put you down as a madman for sure,’ she added uncertainly, ‘if I hadn’t just seen you close a door without touching it.’
Scott waved another hand, this time directing it a little towards the hard bench that served as a bed.
The metal and wood flowed fluidly, no longer retaining its angular shape. It could have been mercury, it could have been varnish, defying gravity, curling up and through space.
It whirled into new shapes: the shapes of two entirely new forms.
And deciding upon this new design, the fluidity of the materials came to an end: and they solidified as chairs.
‘What’s going on? Who am I?’
‘You’ve deliberately forgotten who you are: probably hoping to avoid me tracking you down.’
‘Are you saying I can do things like that?’ Viviana pointed to the transformed chairs they were both heading to and sitting down in. ‘I can do magic?’
‘I’m…I’m not sure anymore.’
‘Anymore? So, you mean I could do things like that?’
Once again, Scott nods.
‘You must have created some way of helping you recall who you really are,’ he said. ‘A word, maybe, or an action: you would have made sure you haven’t forgotten absolutely everything!’
‘But none of this makes any sense: why would I hide from myself who I actually am?’
‘Because you knew I’d be able to easily track you down: I’d sense your presence, sense your knowledge of whom you really are. You couldn’t hide that from me – unless you yourself didn’t know who you were.’
‘So, how did you find me then: if I really don’t actually know who I am!’
Viviana was amazed she’d asked such a question: was it a question, really, from the person who she really was, the person hiding inside her?
‘The aura of magic: that’s impossible to hide! Especially when you were having to create false identities, even whole families. Besides, you even left a sort of calling card, and I can’t quite figure out why: why did you call yourself Viviana?’
‘That helped you find me?’
Ahhgrrh! This was so frustrating! All this talk about ‘finding me’, even though she still had no real idea who she actually was!
‘But it was my parents who–’
She paused, realising Scott was staring at her knowingly.
‘Who am I?’ she pleaded.
‘Please, can’t you just tell me?’ Viviana begged.
‘It won’t work,’ Scott insisted miserably. ‘Think about it; if I were just to tell you, say, that you were Joan of Arc–’
Scott shrugged, a ‘see what I mean’ kind of shrug.
‘So I’m not Joan of Arc…’ Viviana pouted disappointedly.
‘See? Deep down, you know you’re not. But even if I told you who you were, you’d still feel that emptiness: because it would just be a name, not an actual recall of whom you really are!’
‘So, I get it, I get it – I have to remember for myself who I am! But who am I?’
Scott waved a hand towards the lily of the valley on the floor, allowing it to gracefully float up towards his fingers.
He caressed the flower’s stem delicately, tenderly touched the hanging blooms with a finger of his other hand.
‘Mary’s tears, which sprouted into flower at her feet.’
The flower quivered, shook itself a little, became instead a snowdrop.
‘Our lady’s bells: a purification.’
Another quiver of stems and blooms followed, another flower – this time the daisy – appeared within Scott’s hand.
‘The innocence of the Child; the sleep of indifference.’
As he spoke, the flower transformed once more, this time becoming a poppy, the poppy Viviana had first seen within the pool.
‘You left all these for me?’
Viviana understood now why she had been having the dreams, visions, or flashbacks; whichever they happened to be.
‘Yet if you’re my enemy,’ she asked unsurely, ‘then why would you be trying to help me?’
‘Because something went wrong: something, I’m sure, beyond even your intentions. Because whatever you did – and I’m still not sure what it is, which is why I need you to remember – has placed the whole world in jeopardy!’
‘The bear!’ Viviana unintentionally blurted out. ‘Who’s he? Why’s he constantly appearing in my visions?’
‘He’s you: you trying to work out who you really are! But they’re not visions: everything you see is your recall of a place where time doesn’t exist – and so you’re really there.’
‘Then the bear – me – what happened to me when I was fighting the dragon?’
‘You realised you shouldn’t be fighting it of course: you withdrew, saving yourself.’
‘But it’s devouring my memories! How can I remember who I am if I let it to do that?’
‘How can it devour your memories? Why would it devour your memories? Only because you choose to forget the memories that don’t fit into the way you wish to regard yourself!’
‘The dragon is me too?’
Again, Scott nods.
‘So why fight it, rather than recognising it for whom it really is? Only that way can you calm it, and stop it from destroying your memories; and yes, even those you’d rather forget.’
The flower he was holding had once again changed.
Now he held a foxglove, one glistening with the finest sheen of sparkling dew.
‘Our lady’s gloves,’ Scott announced proudly. ‘They can both kill or cure.’
The Forest of Mystery.
Viviana recognised something about this place; the name, for a start.
It was the way leading towards a place of burial.
Mynwent-y-Milwyr; the grave of the Britons treacherously killed by the Saxons at a peace conference.
The earthwork shaped like a ship, its prow facing westward to the rising sun, the Circle of Lllan-bad-fawr. The burial mound of Uthyr Pendragon Meurig, situated towards its stern, the helmsman’s position.
Around another nearby burial mound, the huge slabs of shorn rock have fallen inwards, blocking the doorway to the barrow, the mound that formed the actual grave.
The bear is already there, still clad within his shining white armour (still – despite the urgency of his strenuous task – with his helm’s visor down, as if hiding his face), trying to lift one of the massive slabs.
Viviana held back.
She didn’t want to see whose name was carved upon the gravestone.
For that, of course, was what she realised it must be.
Even though there were no other gravestones around here.
All these mounds, these barrows, they were from the Dark-ages: the stones, the massive slabs, not gravestones at all, but forming the approaches to the entrance to the realms of the dead. The monstrous teeth of dragons, drawing you in towards the mouth, the tongue, the gullet.
Yet where the bear struggled to lift the slab: this was different.
A mausoleum. The gravestones lifted, perhaps, from a mediaeval cathedral, with its elaborate carvings, its prostrate renditions of the dead lying beneath.
She was dead; that’s what this vision – this recall, this memory that existed outside of time – was about to tell her.
‘It’s the future for every man or woman eventually,’ a woman standing upon a nearby barrow said nonchalantly.
She was tending flowers upon the grave, flowers that had rooted, and were stretching out to find a sun almost hidden within a dim sky.
‘Though some attain a greatness other’s envy,’ the young woman added, staring towards the broken mausoleum with an admiring gaze.
Viviana edged closer towards the shattered tombstones.
Beneath the previously perpendicular but now toppled slabs, she could at last more clearly make out the effigies that had almost been crushed out of existence by their falling.
One was of an armoured knight, his armour resplendent, perhaps that of a king. The other prone figure was that of a lady, again richly dressed in her gown of marble, perhaps a princess if not a queen.
With a shrill howl of triumph, the bear dragged aside the slab. He let its base slip towards the floor, allowing its deeply carved legend to be seen.
‘The bear,’ Viviana translated, just in case the bear was incapable of doing so (and she was a little surprised that she was capable of interpreting it). ‘King Arthur,’ she added, in further translation, surprising herself once again that she should know this.
She frowned, perplexed.
The bear was King Arthur?
‘I thought…thought it was just a legend,’ the bear stated, reflecting her bewilderment as it at last raised the visor of his helmet.
‘What…what about the other grave?’
Viviana stared apprehensively at the remaining monument, the one featuring a prostrate female.
With a disinterested shrug, the bear moved towards the other slab anyway, putting his great weight towards pushing it aside from the partially crushed statue.
As before, although it took a remarkable degree of effort from the immensely powerful bear, the slab eventually shook, moved, partially slid aside.
Like the other slab, it began to slip down the side of the tomb, at last readable.
This legend was in English, not Welsh.
‘Beware the betrayer.’
Despite the stone dress having been crushed out of shape, the face was clear and recognisable.
It was Viviana’s face.
The bear, King Arthur, let the slab he was strenuously supporting drop once more across the prone figure.
He looked towards Viviana.
Even beneath that great helm, that visor which hid his face, she could sense his shock, his hurt.
‘You…you betrayed me?’ the bear said despondently, his head hanging low. ‘I think I know now who you really are.’
And with that, he turned and began to dispiritedly walk away.
Within the cell, it was surprisingly cold.
It was a coldness, Viviana felt sure, that emanated from deep within her.
‘I’m…I’m not the good guy here, right?’ she whispered fearfully.
Scott shook his head.
‘But you could be – if you can remember what you did with my powers.’
Viviana came out of her dazed, trance-like musing, looked towards Scott with deeply puzzled eyes.
‘What I did with your powers? But I’ve seen your powers,’ she protested, confused. ‘You’ve still got them.’
‘Only for the moment: you do steal them. You hide them.’
‘You’re Arthur?’ Viviana asked unsurely. ‘I’ve betrayed you?’
‘No, I’m not Arthur,’ Scott replied, rewarding her with a smile that tried to say he understood her confusion. ‘I’m the Lady of the Lake.’
The cell walls suddenly seemed to be rushing away from Viviana.
No, they didn’t seem to be: they actually were rushing away from her.
The cell was disintegrating around her, the walls swooping away as if caught in a whirlwind, a whirlwind that abruptly decided to tear those walls to pieces.
In place of the cell, they were both suddenly standing within an expansive, rolling landscape of fields and forests. A landscape whipped mercilessly by a violent storm.
‘What are you doing?’ Viviana cried out worriedly above the roaring wind, glaring anxiously at the boy, this boy who’d just ridiculously claimed to be the Lady of the Lake.
‘Me? I thought it was you,’ the boy hollered back, suffering as much difficulty as she had when it came to being heard over the brutally buffeting wind.
‘Me? How would I do this?’
The tempestuous storm raged at her clothes, battered her skin, pummelled her face. Off to one side, the whirling winds uprooted a small tree, spun it through the air, dashed it against a larger tree so violently it cracked sickeningly
‘She’s inside of you, of course! She’s recognised who she is!’
As if to give proof that there could indeed be some other person secreted away inside of Viviana, the boy’s own face, his whole body, quivered as if suffering the worst of the storm’s blows: but then he abruptly transformed, becoming in an instant an elegantly ethereal woman more angelic than human. Her hair was immensely long, but thankfully flowed upwards as if caught in an invisible current of water, the strand of each hair a brilliantly translucent green.
As soon as this gracefully beautiful woman had revealed her real nature, however, she was whipped up off her feet by a gust of the increasingly powerful winds. In the same way it had effortlessly spun the small tree, the storm now twirled her around within the air, throwing her mercilessly against a nearby rock formation.
Like the tree, the woman’s bones, her entire body, should have cracked under such a terrible impact.
Instead, she sprang to her feet as if floating upwards within her own sphere of rising winds.
As she rose, she held out an arm: throwing a spume of water hard against Viviana, sending her uncontrollably bowling across the ground.
Viviana was shocked by just how much the pulverising fountain of water battered her, its effect being more that of a raging sea dashing her against a rocky shoreline. She was bruised and yet, quite amazingly, free of any broken bones.
In the same way that the Lady of the Lake had appeared to magically survive the blows that would have killed any human, Viviana also seemed to have almost miraculously survived a magical onslaught that would have killed any normal girl.
So, once again, this Lady of the Lake had proved she was right: she, Viviana, was no ordinary human after all.
‘I thought you said you wanted to help me!’ she screamed out above the raging howls of the increasingly violent storm.
Yet even as she yelled this out towards the imperiously approaching Lady of the Lake, it seemed all her other actions lay outside of her control: because she yet again flung a furious whirl of gusts towards the oncoming woman.
This time, the Lady of the Lake was prepared for the strike: the rapidly accumulating squalls mostly streamed uselessly around her, their enforced misdirection highlighting the presence of a glowing, protective sphere of energy surrounding her. Even so, the force of the blast was still more than enough to lift her and the energy sphere up into the air once more, this time flinging them violently against a copse of trees.
The trees cracked and shattered under the impact, the splintered timbers flying back across the fields as a deadly rain.
‘She wants to kill me!’ the Lady of the Lake announced as she regained her feet, flowing up and through the air as if she had invisible wings. ‘If you can’t control her, I have to fight back!’
‘Who is she?’ Viviana shrieked back, somehow unconsciously throwing up her own protective shield as another deluge of water rushed towards her.
The Lady of the Lake gasped, ducking a little within her buckling defensive sphere as winds struck her from multiple directions.
‘Morgana Le Fay!’ she cried out to Viviana. ‘You’re Morgana Le Fay!’
Viviana screamed inside.
Morgana Le Fay!
Even she knew enough history to know what that meant.
‘I guess I really am the bad guy here then, huh?’
Half-sister of Arthur, if she remembered correctly. An enchantress who had tricked and imprisoned Merlin within the trunk of a tree.
Who had betrayed Arthur.
Hey, she never realised she knew so much about Morgana Le Fay!
But then again: if she really was Morgana Le Fay, why shouldn’t she know everything there was to know about her?
It was a dispiriting realisation.
Maybe so deeply dispiriting that it even affected the real her, this Morgana, briefly taking all the fight out of her.
Whatever the reason, she was caught off guard by the next strike by the Lady of the Lake.
The blast of waves hit her full on, the energy shield that had previously protected her proving either useless against it or completely non-existent. She was launched off her feet, carried along as if caught up within a tumultuous sea, cast aside as carelessly yet ferociously as any unwanted flotsam.
Even worse, of course, was that this wasn’t just a surge of water, but a burst of magical energy.
It burned her, far more terribly than any fire could. It burnt even the interior of her lungs, even her innards, as if roasting her alive and wishing to turn her inside out.
This wasn’t just any normal injury. Viviana might really be Morgana Le Fay, yet this blow was too much for even her to bear.
It was a deadly blow, a mortal blow.
Viviana slumped to the floor, gasping for breath, her lungs so badly charred, however, that each inhalation was agonising. Her vision was hazy, getting ever more blurred by the second.
The eyes of the Lady of the Lake widened in shock, maybe even horror: the look of someone who’s surprised that they have caused so much damage. Of someone who has used as much force as they believed necessary, only to discover that it was all too much, that their target was far weaker than they had presupposed.
She rushed forward, towards the dying Viviana.
‘I was just trying to stop you from killing me…’ she wept apologetically.
She bent down beside Viviana, taking in with growing dismay the immense damage she’d caused, casting her eyes quickly over the burnt and sorely battered body as expertly as any nurse or doctor, but in this case wondering which spells might save her patient.
But none of her spells could help Viviana now.
Viviana closed her eyes.
There was, perhaps, an attempt at a smile, the sad, knowing smile of someone who has accepted that they are about to die: but she couldn’t smile, for the pain was too much.
She couldn’t manage any final words either.
As Viviana died, the rolling, storm-riven landscape vanished.
The walls of the cell, its floor, its door, were all as solid as they had been only moments earlier.
The chairs that the Lady of the Lake had brought into being were still there.
The Lady of the Lake had also brought about the death of Viviana, of course, and so the girl’s lifeless body was still there too, lying upon the floor.
This would usually be the time for someone like the Lady of the Lake to disappear.
Instead, she remained, weeping over Viviana’s motionless body.
She wasn’t lamenting the death of Morgana Le Fay. She was, she realised, lamenting the death of the young girl Morgana had briefly become: for this poor girl had had no real idea of whom she really was. She had, in her way, been completely innocent, completely unknowing.
She hadn’t deserved to die.
Behind the weeping Lady of the Lake, the door to the cell opened. The police woman who had brought Viviana into the station walked in.
She expressed no surprise at seeing the dead Viviana on the floor. Neither did she show any signs of shock at seeing the weeping Lady of the Lake, a woman ethereal in her angelic elegance, her diaphanous gown of water woven into a silken material.
‘So you killed her?’ she asked calmly. ‘But weren’t you supposed to find out what had happened to all of your powers first?’
The Lady of the Lake glanced up in astonishment: the policewoman shouldn’t be capable of seeing her. Not as she was now, when her magical essence should automatically veil her from view.
Yes, of course, she hadn’t had time to prevent the policewoman from seeing Viviana’s lifeless body laid out across the floor. But as the Lady of the Lake, her natural state was one of invisibility to humans.
‘Who are you?’ she demanded with a puzzled frown.
‘Who am I?’ The officer grinned in amusement at the demand. ‘Shouldn’t you be asking yourself whom you’ve just killed?’
Strangely, the newcomer said this as if she were indeed just a regular police officer, questioning a suspect found leaning over their dead victim.
‘I’m not quite sure how ridiculous this might sound to you,’ the Lady of the Lake replied with uncharacteristic uncertainty, ‘but she’s Morgana Le Fay.’
‘Hah, a likely story.’ The officer responded with another highly-amused chuckle. ‘Morgana Le Fay!’
‘I know it sounds ridiculous–’ the lady began to say, elegantly rising to her feet.
‘Of course it’s ridiculous! Morgana’s hardly likely to let you kill her so easily, is she?’
The lady despondently glanced down at Viviana.
‘She let her guard down–’
The policewoman guffawed in disbelief.
‘All this way – traveling across the centuries – and you still get it all so spectacularly wrong!’
The lady angrily glared back at her; she wasn’t used to being so insulted, so mocked.
‘So you know I’ve come from the past, know I came seeking…information, regarding my powers–’
‘Your lost powers, Coventina! Oh, of course, you think you still have them for the present: after all, didn’t you foresee – with your remarkable gift of foresight – that your powers were under threat? While foolish Morgana, well, she’d ever so carelessly left magical traces of her flight into the future, allowing you to oh so cleverly track her down!’
Coventina glanced down at the dead Viviana once more as she tried to quickly work out what all this new information meant.
Why was she having such trouble thinking clearly?
Why was she feeling dazed, weak, even strangely empty as if…?
She tried to cast a simple spell to one side, a simple matter of transforming the chairs she’d formed, transforming them back into the bench.
She no longer had any magical powers.
Who am I?
The most handsome man she had ever seen was smiling down at her from a high tower. It was a smile, she found herself wanting to believe, of recognition.
He vanished from the window.
Was he on his way down? she wondered. On his way to greet her?
Could he tell her who she was?
Within the courtyard below that tower, a tree was strangely growing upside down, its roots in the air, its branches snaking into the ground.
It seemed apt, somehow. Symbolic of the way her life felt as if it had all been turned upside down.
The boy – she could now see that he was more boy than man – was exiting a door at the base of the tower. He was waving to her, elatedly running towards her.
Viviana? Was that her name?
It seemed familiar, somehow.
Yes: wasn’t one of her names Vivienne, or something like that?
One of her names?
How many names did she have?
Just the one, obviously.
Otherwise, why would this boy, who obviously knew her, call her by that name?
The boy was standing before her now, his grin one of familiarity, of friendship, maybe even love: but it changed to one of amused bemusement. He stepped back a little, intently staring into her eyes, noting the glaze of confusion there.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked, concerned. ‘You look…a little lost?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine,’ she lied. ‘I just…just seem a little bewildered by everything: as if I’ve woken up from a deep sleep, and still haven’t fully come out of it just yet.’
He took her hand, smiled kindly once more.
‘You’ve haven’t come across any wizards or fays who have cast a spell over you?’ he chuckled mischievously.
She laughed with him, hoping she was hiding her uncertainty.
Who was he?
She wished she could remember.
Yes: that name seemed familiar, somehow.
From the tower’s high windows, it was possible to see way beyond the confines of the high-walled courtyard.
The inverted tree standing within the courtyard was, amazingly, the only tree around that could be said to be in any reasonably good condition. All the other trees that the lady could see were leafless, barren, any buds at the ends of the stems dried to a shrivelled, delicate husk.
They lacked, at the very least, water.
There was little grass, the sparse clumps she could see hard and wiry, shooting out from mounds of dried earth. Farmers still fruitlessly toiled in the fields, attempting to furrow what was little more than stony ground, yet both they and their horses or oxen were emaciated, little more than bones encased in leathery bags.
Across it all there hung a melancholy wailing, the moaning of wretchedly dying creatures. This howling lament emanated in particular from the great beasts stranded in the huge, dried hollow she could only presume must have once been a vast lake: for the creatures trapped here in the rapidly drying earth were sea creatures, including whales, squids, even the greatest of sea monsters.
Naturally, she wanted to ask this Aden why it was like this, why they were surrounded by nothing but a terrible wasteland.
Aden joined her by the window. He glanced out at the dying land as sadly as she did.
‘Terrible, isn’t it?’ he sighed miserably.
He said it in a way that seemed to her to imply that it hadn’t always been like this, that it might even have all come about relatively recently.
‘Yes,’ she answered.
He regarded her curiously, once again noting her glazed look of bewilderment.
‘You can’t remember what it was like before, can you?’
She shook her head.
‘I don’t know why I can’t remember: I don’t know what’s happened to me!’
He caressed her cheek tenderly, using the back of his hand.
‘Can you be certain you didn’t come across some witch or enchantress while you were out on your walk?’
‘Is that what I was doing? Out on a walk?’
He nodded in reply to her query.
‘I can’t recall coming across anybody,’ she explained hesitantly. ‘I’m just a touch confused by everything: I don’t know why.’
He glanced out towards the dried lake.
‘It could be to do with all this: this abrupt loss of everything that was good about the land. It affects us all in some way, even if it’s just thirst, a lack of water.’
‘What has happened?’
Now when he looked back at her he frowned anxiously.
‘You can’t remember? Even that you can’t remember?’
She worriedly shook her head.
‘I’ll take you to the abbey: they might have something to–’
‘Why am I like this?’ She interrupted him, hoping for answers, not medicine. ‘Why can’t I remember what’s happened here, or even remember who I am?’
‘You can’t remember who you are?’
Of course: she hadn’t admitted to him that she’d forgotten her own name!
‘You’re Viviana, daughter of the Lord of Moraine,’ he said kindly.
She took his hands in hers, looked intently into his eyes, seeking honesty.
‘And you are?’ she asked uneasily, not wishing to either upset or worry him further.
Was he her husband? she wondered?
She had to know!
‘You can’t remember me either?’ He chuckled, but incredibly morosely, obviously hurt by her indifference to him. ‘I suppose I should be upset,’ he admitted sagely, ‘but if you can’t remember your own name, I also suppose that would be a little foolish of me.’
He grinned wanly.
‘I’m Aden,’ he said, quickly adding – as he saw in her eyes that she wasn’t satisfied with a name, that she wanted more information about him, ‘I’m a friend, your friend!’
She flattered herself, perhaps, that there was a glint within his own eyes that pleaded for more from her: something more than friendship.
She broke off their locked gaze. She turned and looked out across the wasteland.
‘How did it happen: the wasteland, I mean.’
Aden followed her gaze, staring out of the window miserably.
‘It’s the Lady of the Lake,’ he sighed forlornly. ‘She vanished: taking her powers and her lake along with her.’
The Lady of the Lake.
That was yet another name that seemed familiar to her.
Not that she knew why.
‘Why would she leave us?’ she asked.
Aden appeared as perplexed as she felt.
‘It was her powers that left her, I’ve heard: and so her lake vanished too.’
‘Can magical powers just leave someone like that?’
‘The natural law of the land; if she killed the king or queen, her powers are forfeit.’
‘Why would she kill the king?’
Rather than a question, she phrased it more like a statement of obvious nonsense; only to add, with less far less assurance, ‘She wouldn’t kill the king; would she?’
Even as she said this, she wondered if she could be wrong.
Aden shrugged before answering, as if he might be repeating a rumour he’d heard yet found it hard to believe himself.
‘She might have been tricked into killing him; I’ve heard it said that Morgana had abducted the king, transforming him through some magical cunning into a person or thing anyone would find unrecog–’
She wasn’t sure why she had suddenly blurted this out. Aden whirled on her, his eyes curiously blazing with barely controlled suspicion and anger.
‘Why would you say that?’
‘A bear: his name, Ub-Arth,’ she answered innocently, her mind spinning as she attempted to understand why she had assumed this was important.
And then she had the strangest image of a bear trying to remember whom he was.
The wasteland had vanished.
They were now in the strangest of cemeteries, one of long earthworks, of ancient burial mounds, but also of great stone slabs and prone statues.
‘Did you do thi–’
‘How did you–’
They accused each other of causing the change.
It caused them both to grimace in abrupt puzzlement.
They glanced about themselves, looking for clues as to how this might have happened.
Naturally, they both immediately recognised the cemetery: it was the one Viviana had visited. And, of course, they had both made sure they had been aware of her recollections.
‘I’m Coventina,’ the Lady of the Lake pronounced assuredly, her memories of everything that had happened to her having thankfully returned. ‘You were trying to hide that from me…Morgana?’
Aden confidently responded to her accusing glare with a triumphant smirk.
‘Hide, Coventina? How can you accuse me of such thing, when I was aiding you all the time in your efforts to find me?’
With a quiver of skin, of his form, Aden became the policewoman.
‘It’s so easy to catch someone if you flatter them that they’re chasing you.’
Coventina’s stare was still accusing, still disbelieving; she wasn’t prepared to accept that this police officer was how the person standing before her really looked. The policewoman appeared unperturbed by the doubtful glare.
‘Oh, I only needed to be her ever so briefly, of course–’
‘You killed her?’
‘Spare me the moral self-righteousness, Coventina,’ the policewoman scoffed bitterly. ‘You’ve killed the king, remember?’
With yet another shiver of skin, a rippling of form, the policewoman transformed into a woman who could have easily been mistaken for the Lady of the Lake, if it hadn’t been for her hair of sheerest blue.
‘You led me to Viviana – to King Arthur – letting me think I’d found you–’
‘It was all so deliciously self-fulfilling; you see, I foresaw that you would foresee–’
‘Yes, yes; and yet, Morgana…’
She turned aside and, with a wave of an arm, briefly made a nearby stone flow and swirl as if it were made of water.
‘Yes, your powers are back,’ Morgana agreed with an impressed nod of her head. ‘How did you do that?’
Before Coventina could reply, they were both uncharacteristically startled by a loud rumbling coming from inside one of the nearby tombs.
It was the tomb featuring the prostrate image of the girl, the one still covered by the slab that a disappointed King Arthur had let fall across it once more. It sounded like someone was trapped inside, trying to get out.
The slab partially slid off to one side, landing on its base, such that it stood upright against the tomb.
The lid featuring the figure of the girl was the next to slide aside; not much, but enough to allow Viviana to rise up out of it and jump down to the ground.
Morgana fleetingly gazed Coventina’s way with admiration.
‘Now…I am impressed!’
Then she noticed that Coventina seemed every bit as surprised by Viviana’s appearance as she was.
Coventina spoke uneasily to the approaching girl, as if she recognised only that she could no longer be certain whom she was speaking to.
‘I woke up in sheer darkness,’ Viviana answered, mistaking Coventina’s uncertainty for a request for an explanation of how she had ended up here, ‘then when I realised I was in some sort of stone box, panicked and began trying to push the lid up.’
‘That’s not possible…not possible at all!’ Morgana stammered hesitantly, her eyes wide with dismay as she intently observed the opened tomb.
With a furious shriek, she suddenly rushed forwards. Coventina prepared to unleash a charm that would hold her back from striking out at Viviana, until she realised that the tomb was the wailing enchantress’s true goal.
‘Look, look, Coventina!’ Morgana hissed as if treacherously deceived, calling the lady’s attention to the inscription upon the slab
Unlike before, when the bear had partially pulled the slab aside, the full legend was now revealed.
‘Queen Guinevere. Beware the betrayer.’
The effigy gracing the top of the tomb had also changed, it no longer being a representation of Viviana lying their but, rather, one of an enviably beautiful woman.
‘You can’t be Guinevere!’ Morgana protested, rushing towards the bewildered Viviana, glowering at her with the same wild-eyed stare she’d had when she’d read the slab’s inscription. ‘You’re Arthur: you’re King Arthur!’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Viviana admitted bemusedly, backing away from this furious woman whom she’d never seen before, glancing Coventina’s way for support. ‘Who are you?’
‘Stop, stop, both of you,’ Coventina cried out, raising a hand to still Morgana’s fury, using her other hand to draw her attention to a small, glistening flower lying between them.
It was a cow slip, sparkling with three glittering jewels of dew.
‘Our Lady’s Keys,’ Morgana breathed in a mix of awe and fear.
‘Opening the Gate of Heaven,’ Coventina agreed with a nod, an equally awestruck sigh. ‘Perhaps we’re about to receive an explanation of what’s really going on here.’
It could have been the most lustrous of rainbows, only one of just three colours, of sheerest blue, glittering green, and a red portion consisting of roaring, shimmering flames.
Despite its surprising flimsiness – it shook, as if incapable of bearing their combined weight – they were all using it as a bridge.
‘We don’t have much time,’ Coventina declared urgently, taking Viviana’s hand in hers and breaking into a swiftly floating run. ‘It exists only fleeting, for the briefest of moments.’
Viviana noticed that the other woman was also hurrying to cross the bridge, utilising the same kind of effortlessly flowing run. Even so the bridge was so insubstantial, as if constructed of little but clouds and light, that it swayed ominously. More frightening still, the bridge appeared to stretch on forever, arching over two great rivers of boiling, seething waters.
Fortunately, they were all traversing the bridge far more rapidly than Viviana would have believed possible. Moreover, it seemed to her to be becoming increasingly more firm and substantial, the thin stems of a tree merging and intertwining with its shimmering tone here and there. These stems became branches, then a thick trunk, a trunk that became gradually thicker, until it was this rather than the bridge that they found themselves rushing across.
In fact, she realised, it was far too gnarled and dark to be a trunk.
It was a great root, one of the massive roots she had come across earlier when she had descended into the dragon’s realm. There didn’t appear to be any dragon here, however, this seemingly being an offshoot, one curling and coiling its way up into a more airy, far brighter realm.
The root curled and coiled its way through the sparkling air, leading them to a land of flowers, of cow slips, foxgloves, poppies, snowdrops, and lily of the valleys.
Of snakes, too: small serpents, swiftly writhing by them along the root, each carrying a glittering dew drop within its mouth, all heading down towards a small lake or well lying just below and sheltered by the thick root.
As if the Lady of the Lake and her companion knew where to go, they slowed their pace as they followed the serpents down towards the well.
Within the very centre of the well there were two swans, facing each other as if very much in love, their gracefully arching necks forming the symbol of a heart.
Yet as the three of them drew closer to the well, the swans abruptly broke apart, like a heart shattering.
From the midst of the waters of the well there now arose a sword, held firmly upright, but one with a severely broken blade.
A hand held the handle of that sword: and as the sword continued to rise up from the waters, so did the hand, then an arm, until a thoroughly haggard woman was hovering above the centre of the well.
Still hovering above the waters, she swiftly floated across the well towards the approaching women, her darkly glowering eyes fixed firmly on an increasingly nervous Viviana.
Viviana felt as if she should run. Perhaps sensing this, Coventina reassuringly took her by her arm.
‘This is Love,’ she whispered soothingly, ‘arising from the holy Well of Memory.’
Drawing herself up before the fearfully shaking Viviana, the haggard woman handed her the shattered sword.
Viviana took it, briefly wondering why she’d been offered it, what she was supposed to do with it.
Relieved of her burden, the haggard woman abruptly regained her beauty.
Of course, witnessing this abrupt transformation on the simple handing over of a sword, any normal woman might wonder if she had taken on the woman’s haggardness by accepting the shattered blade.
But Queen Guinevere was no normal woman.
She knew she was the most gorgeous woman alive.
‘So, you really were Guinevere!’ Morgana snorted, looking the transformed Viviana up and down as if in disgust. ‘How could I have got it so wrong?’
‘Oh Morgana, you old crone: don’t go flattering yourself you’re infallible,’ the queen imperiously snapped back.
Of course, although Viviana had had no idea whom Morgana was, Guinevere knew a great deal about her. She also knew the Lady of the Lake’s name.
‘Someone’s been playing us all for fools, Coventina,’ she declared irately. ‘Someone who flatters themselves they can exert even more motherly control than you!’
‘It must be for more reason than just a game,’ Coventina replied, closely watching the lady silently return to the centre of the well, quietly sink back into its depths.
Guinevere twirled the broken sword around in her hands, studying it closely.
She wasn’t quite sure what it signified. But she had some inkling of what it might mean.
The splintered sword of love.
A broken heart.
The shattering of a king.
The collapse of his kingdom.
There were three other women by the well.
Women that neither Guinevere nor Coventina, nor Morgana, had noticed before.
Even so, all three women were familiar to the other three.
One was young, and carefully tending the flowers surrounding her, supporting them in their efforts to grow and reach out towards the beckoning sun.
The second of the three women was a little older, and she was nourishing the flowers, ensuring they bloomed beautifully.
The third was the oldest of them all, and she was directing the hundreds of serpents to drop their beads of dew into the well.
‘We saw your aspects within Viviana’s recollections…’ Morgana said to the three women.
‘…but we thought we were calling on you to help us,’ Conventina added.
‘Calling on us?’ The eldest of the three women blinked, as if a little confused by this admission; but really she was simply and patiently recalling every memory she had that would provide the most complete response.
‘The arrogance of young girls these days …’ the second woman said, calmly making an incision upon a nearby slip of wood, as if setting down a law.
‘…and it seems to be getting worse,’ the young maiden added, making her own incision, as if setting down a possible future.
Morgana wasn’t the type to shrink before any kind of authority, even that of the Norns.
‘You: you swapped Arthur for Guinevere!’ she stormed accusingly.
‘Why?’ Guinevere demanded, hardly less subdued by the Norns’ presence than Morgana.
‘Why?’ The eldest of the three women blinked, as if a little confused by this query.
‘Because we choose the lives for the children of mankind…’ the second woman said, calmly making an incision upon a nearby slip of wood, as if setting down a law.
‘…and even our own Earthly equivalents,’ the young maiden added, making her own incision, as if setting down a possible future.
‘Is it because,’ Conventina began, her tone far more conciliatory and subservient than the others, ‘you hold Guinevere responsible for Arthur’s fall?’
‘Arthur?’ The eldest of the three women blinked, as if a little confused by the mention of the king.
‘Brought down to the sensibility of the beasts…’ the second woman said, calmly making an incision upon a nearby slip of wood, as if setting down a law.
‘…by a young woman granted more beauty than we now realise was sensible,’ the young maiden added, making her own incision, as if setting down a possible future.
‘Oww!’ Queen Guinevere wailed, reaching up into her hair in pain where something akin to a crown of thorns had magically appeared.
It wasn’t a crown of thorns, however, but one of a curled branch full of spiked chestnuts.
‘Chestnuts?’ Morgana appeared surprisingly dismayed.
And then Guinevere vanished.
‘Chestnuts?’ Morgana stormed at the complacently smiling Norns. ‘You’re expecting Guinevere to display chastity?’ She chuckled bitterly at the thought of it.
‘Chastity?’ The eldest of the three women blinked, as if a little confused by this term.
‘Modesty and piety triumphing…’ the second woman said, calmly taking water and mud from the well and its surroundings.
‘…over the temptations of the flesh,’ the young maiden added, calmly helping her sister collect the water and mud
‘Flesh?’ The eldest of the three women blinked, as if a little confused by its meaning.
‘The fruit displayed with its surrounding thorny case…’ the second woman said, pouring and spreading the water and mud over branches of the great tree rising up far below them.
‘…yet perfectly undamaged by it,’ the young maiden added, helping her sister ensure that the tree’s spreading branches neither rot nor decay.
Conventina sighed miserably.
She would have rather chosen anyone but the vain Guinevere for such a task.
Guinevere, of course, relished the countless admiring stares she was receiving.
As she danced, her long and lustrous hair danced about her like another, wraithlike partner, glittering as wildly as out of control flames, the entwining coloured braids like rainbows fleetingly whirling through the air.
Arthur was delighted by the attention, the envy, his new bride was generating within the courtly audience. It all added to his sense of being all powerful, the king of his people and his land.
The energy she possessed as she spun around him was remarkable, the energy she gave him even more so, as if she were his bridge to heaven, to love at its very purest.
She, of course, enjoyed the king’s infatuation, the longing emanating like blazing rivers from his eyes: she revelled in it so much, she was greedy for more, for this was the source of her energy. And she knew she had all the power she needed to gain all the adoration she demanded.
It was a power, naturally, that in many women wanes, or is at least tempered: but Guinevere expertly nurtured and let it all flower within her, so that as a woman in full bloom her hold over men could hardly be more complete. They would watch her dance and lose all reason, risking literally losing their heads in the open appreciation they granted their queen as she and the king twirled around the dance floor together, her eyes glittering far more brightly than any of the jewels on the courtly garb the king now wore.
The king admonished himself for his envy of the youth of the queen’s many admirers. There was nothing wrong in them admiring a beautiful woman, just as there was nothing wrong in his wife enjoying such adoration. His enemies wished to bring about a frosty relationship between them by circulating rumours that he was being betrayed, but he could see no real reason to believe any of these supposed scandals had actually taken place.
The queen was pleased that the king, this giant amongst men, loved her so. It should have been enough for her, she recognised that. But what could be the harm in letting other desirous eyes admire her, especially in a court filled with the kingdom’s bravest, most chivalrous men, men who were honour bound to remain as loyal to their king as she would?
Even as the king aged, he still remained her king. She still strenuously maintained her loyalty to him, despite the almost miraculous retention of her own youth and beauty.
She tried to avoid drawing attention to herself while on the dancefloor by standing almost still, by standing at least in the very same spot, for she didn’t wish to grant her enemies more rumours to work with. The king twirled happily enough around her, and yet his eyes were rarely cast her way these days, concentrating instead upon catching anyone watching her in a way that proved the rumours true. For they would watch her dance as thirsty men eye a sparkling spring, their gaze as probing, as venomous, as serpents.
Many times, now, the king wished he could somehow erase from his memories the times he believed he had caught his queen acting suspiciously, wished he could eradicate this darkness gnawing at his soul,
The queen sensed this change within him, naturally: it pained her that he constantly observed her with suspicion, that he watched her every move, not because he adored her but, rather, because he no longer trusted her – the opposite, surely, of love?
And she craved love: being loved unreservedly, without qualification, and loving someone equally in return.
Perhaps, as they danced, her adoring gaze lingered a little too long on her real love.
Whatever it was, the humiliated king smouldered: and suddenly, he no longer retained even the faintest trace of the great man he had once been.
She was dressed in the simple white gown of a wandering entertainer.
She held a chain, a chain securely binding pathetic bear who danced around her.
Somehow, she recognised her surroundings, despite their strangeness. She was standing on what seemed at first to be a rolling, meandering road, and yet in reality it was just one of the countless intertwining branches of an unimaginably vast tree.
A girl was approaching along that road. And, somehow, just as her surroundings seemed familiar, she recognised her.
Yes, that was her name.
Viviana was amazed by what she was seeing.
She wasn’t quite sure how she had arrived here, of course.
She seemed to be bizarrely walking along a road that was in fact just one path amongst what could be countless intertwining branches.
And just a little farther along that road, there was a performing bear, dancing around the most beautiful woman Viviana had ever seen.
As if to humiliate the poor bear even further, it had been forced to wear a decorative white ruff, its dancing obviously rewarded with honey, much of which was smeared across its snout.
Why would this beautiful woman do this to this poor bear?
Why would she do anything so cruel?
‘Why do you keep him chained him up like this?’ Viviana wondered out loud, glancing about herself in the hope that she might see someone else who could explain what was going on.
‘I don’t know,’ the beautiful woman answered innocently. ‘I can’t remember how I ended up here at all.’
She took in the misery of the dancing bear.
No, she realised, it shouldn’t be chained to her like this.
But wasn’t this how she earned a living?
How could she let him go? Would she starve if she did?
Would he attack her, exacting vengeance on her for the cruelties she’d inflicted upon him?
‘Can’t you let him go?’ Viviana asked concernedly. ‘I feel sure he won’t attack us.’
Viviana was surprised to see that the beautiful woman stared absently at the chain she was holding, as if she weren’t fully aware that she was holding it, as if she were simply in a daze.
‘There must be some other way of making your way in the world?’ Viviana pointed out, recognising that the woman might earn her living through keeping the bear enchained like this.
The woman let the chain go, yet again did it absently, as if she wasn’t sure this was the right thing to do, wasn’t sure even what she was doing or why.
The bear still continued to forlornly dance around the woman, however, for he still remained enchained.
‘The chain,’ Viviana pointed out, running both her eyes and her fingers along the links, ‘it’s all intertwined with your long hair!’
They both stared in astonishment at the mingling of chain and hair, the merging so perfect it was impossible to determine where one became the other: if, indeed, they were in anyway separate. Like deeply entwining roots, like the colours of a rainbow, they curled and coiled into each other and indelibly blended.
It was a chain, they failed to realise, that was made of delicate caresses, of soothing words, of tender kisses, and naked embraces.
‘Then I can’t let him go!’ the beautiful woman exclaimed. ‘I can’t be held responsible for this!’
Though she couldn’t quite understand why, Viviana seemed to recall that there should be a sword lying in the nearby grass. Catching a dull glint of metal amongst the blades of grass, she dashed over to it, her face falling in disappointment when she raised a sword that had been severely, perhaps even maliciously, broken.
‘Maybe we can find someone who could mend it,’ Viviana exclaimed hopefully as she once again drew closer to the enchained couple.
The woman chuckled sourly.
‘Broken blades can’t be repaired.’
Viviana swiftly took in the thick, heavy links of the chain once more, carefully studying them in the hope of determining any possible weaknesses.
‘Your hair,’ she declared excitedly, holding out the broken sword to the woman for her to take. ‘Where you hair grows close to your scalp, it’s still hair: even this useless old blade should be capable of hacking that off!’
‘Hack of my gorgeous hair?’
The woman’s stare was one of horror, as if she thought Viviana must be crazy.
‘My hair’s beautiful!’ she insisted vehemently, refusing to take the proffered sword. ‘When it’s through no fault of my own, why would I want to–’
Viviana was neither listening to nor interested in her protestations. Taking the sword firmly in her hand, she began to hack at the poor woman’s locks, cutting it off in great, haggard clumps.
‘No, wait, wait,’ the woman shrieked, too fearful that she might receive a blow to the head to attempt backing away or even raising her hands to protect herself. ‘You might kill me!’
The bear appeared every bit as shocked by Viviana’s actions as the woman was.
But the bear was at last free.
She mournfully studied her reflection in the cold, almost perfectly stilled waters of the well.
Her hair, her once gloriously lustrous hair, was now nothing more than odd, stunted flames erupting from her scalp. Her scalp was also an angry red, almost raw where the blade had been so uselessly blunt that it had simply torn out the roots. There were sore cuts to the flesh too, where that stupid girl had been dangerously careless!
‘I would have let that poor bear go!’ she assured herself. ‘But surely there was an easier way than using that useless old sword!’
The broken sword she was thinking of suddenly appeared alongside her, disturbing the frost and snow surrounding the well as it dropped out of the air.
‘You know, I think you are supposed to mend this!’
She recognised the voice, the self-important tones of the girl who had already been told that swords couldn’t be mended.
She glared up at Viviana.
‘You again! Have you seen wha–’
‘The head,’ the girl replied, ignoring the complaints and the glowers, glancing about herself as if searching for something, ‘there’s a head around here that’s supposed to be the voice of reason…’
‘A head?’ The woman sniggered. ‘Are you sure you’re not imagining–’
‘This is all so humiliating…’
This was another voice, that of a man’s.
‘…so embarrassing: to be frozen out of things by all this frost!’
It was a man’s disembodied head, more and more of it being steadily revealed as the frost that had completely covered it continued to fall away after being dislodged by the dropped sword.
The woman only briefly looked askew at this bizarrely disembodied yet living head.
‘If he’s the voice of reason,’ she pronounced triumphantly, turning towards Viviana once more, ‘perhaps he can explain to you that a sword’s blade can’t be repaired!’
‘Ah, that depends upon the sword, of course!’ the head corrected her.
The woman was obviously disgruntled that she hadn’t received the head’s agreement.
‘The sword;’ the head continued, ‘it doesn’t look to me like it’s a normal sword!’
‘Of course it’s not; because it’s useless and broken!’
‘Where the eagle resides within the highest reaches of the great tree, there also lives both a goat and deer, who like many other creatures living there feed off the branches. Yet unlike these others, they offer something in return – mead from the goat, water from the antlers of the deer.’
The woman frowned, a mingling of bewilderment and fury, grabbing at the handle of the shattered sword as if it might in some way provide its own explanation for its poor state.
‘What’s all that nonsense got to do with repairing a broken sword?’
‘I’m here to help grant you reason,’ the head protested, ‘not the answer to every problem you face!’
She recognised the darkness of this place.
The pathways here, once again formed by the coiling, curling stems of the great tree, were as black as what little space could be made out between the wickerwork of gnarled, intertwining roots, everything winding and snaking into so many impenetrable knots. A steady rain fell, a drizzle that brought a cool dampness to the living wood, to the electrified air.
The roots curling everywhere about her quivered and shook, as if being constantly pounded, continually gnawed at: she recalled the tales she’d heard of the dragon, devouring the memories.
She still held the broken sword. She gripped it tightly, still thinking of it as being little better than useless; but it was, after all, better than nothing.
A low growling, a vicious snorting, came from deeper within the tangled roots. At least, it seemed – she hoped – it came from far below her. In truth, the howling and rasps of heavy shuffling echoed everywhere about her, making arriving at any definition of its source fanciful at best, impossible more like.
There was another series of noises, these more uniform, more urgent, even almost regular.
The snapping of wood, even wood thicker than a row of carts.
Deep off within that virtually solid darkness, she caught glimpses of what could have been shards of light amongst the glistening streams of continuous rain. They weren’t splinters of light, however, but changes in what little light there was down here; the glow reflected from pieces of shattered wood violently tossed into the air.
The closer the onrushing dragon hurtled towards her, the more obvious it was that these supposed shards of light were actually a hailstorm of breaking, shattering roots, such that she called herself a fool for not recognising this earlier.
Not to worry, she thought.
The dragon was unstoppable, its jaw already open and ready to devour her as if she were just one more bad memory to take care of.
Viviana was there once again, this time dashing between Guinevere and the swiftly encroaching darkness that was the dragon.
Raising a hand, she controlled the darkness, telling it to retreat; for although there are some things we’d like to forget, sometimes we need to retain them, if only to remind ourselves of our own failings.
The darkness receded despondently, devouring instead other memories, other recollections that, maybe, should have been retained too.
Serpents, as silvery as moon beams, rushed past Viviana, heading both up and down the entwining roots, those heading upwards carrying within their mouths glistening beads of water. Seeing these, Guinevere recalled once being told of memories falling into and collecting within a far off spring.
Ignoring Viviana, refusing even to acknowledge that she might have just saved her from being devoured, Guinevere rushed along the branching root, seeking out the spring. It called her, this spring, with melodic sounds of rising, splattering waters.
It sprinkled her with its sparkling droplets as she eagerly dashed towards it, the drops that fell upon the broken sword blade making it sparkle in a way it hadn’t for years.
She recalled how the head of reason had said that it wasn’t a normal sword: and wasn’t he right? Wasn’t it something to do with a Well of Memory, with love?
It was a memory that partially eluded her in its detail.
A sword’s blade can’t be repaired but, sometimes, if the will is there, love can.
As long, of course, that that will exists within equal measure within both people involved.
Balance; hadn’t the head of reason also spoken of the necessity of an equality of give and take?
Love isn’t love at all if one’s love for the other is out of balance, if it’s greater than the other’s love for them.
The sword in her hand shrugged, quivered, and burgeoned anew.
It was, once again, a complete and beautiful sword.
What might have appeared to the uninitiated as ancient earthworks were really burial mounds, a great number of them scattered across the fields and hills.
At the mouth of one such barrow, however, the great stones were more like those of medieval graves, the slabs cracked and toppled, the effigies on top of the tombs almost crushed out of existence by their own headstones.
Between the two tombs, a huge man in white armour labours at removing one of these fallen gravestones, his grunting bestial in its urgency, his strength that of a great bear. Despite his great exertions, and the overheating it causes, he still has the visor of his helm down, as if ashamed to reveal his face.
He abruptly halts in his efforts, believing he’s heard something odd, something akin to a dulled, constrained scrabbling and scratching. In the silence, he listens, more attentively this time.
Yes: it’s a muted cry for help.
And it’s coming from the tomb next to him.
The white knight whirls around, all his efforts on removing the toppled slabs now concentrated on the second of the two tombs.
As he moves the cracked headstone slightly aside, he gasps with a mingling of surprise and delight: even though he hasn’t managed yet to completely reveal the tombs effigy, he recognises it as being a rendition of his beautiful queen.
With renewed vigour, he drags the great slab aside, letting it slip to the floor and completely shatter.
Its legend is completely destroyed, of course.
But he doesn’t mind; he doesn’t need to read it.
He knows full well who lies within this tomb.
Calling up his last reserves of strength, he next pulls aside the tomb’s lid, this being even heavier than the headstone, the wonderful statue of his wife considerably adding to its weight. For some reason, even though it makes his labours so much harder, he ensures this lid doesn’t slip completely aside; he doesn’t want even this sculpture of his beautiful wife to be disfigured in any way.
When he looks inside the tomb, his heart leaps in so many unimaginable ways: his queen lies there, untouched by either age of corruption, her beauty and freshness as alive and alluring as ever.
Yet her eyes are closed.
She’s dead, lifeless; a shattered sword embedded up to its hilt in her heart.
It has to be a broken sword, of course, because the tomb isn’t anywhere deep enough to protrude out of his dead queen’s back.
He abhors its presence, it’s despoiling of her otherwise perfect beauty. He decides that it must be removed, that his queen deserves more honourable sleep, deserves a better tomb than this broken one.
Taking a grip of the broken sword’s handle, he pulls its blade up and out of her heart. The blade glitters brightly, untainted either by his queen’s blood or rust.
More surprisingly, the blade isn’t broken after all. As it at last slips entirely clear of his queen’s heart, it’s revealed to be a completely unblemished sword, perfect in every detail.
Even in the dim light enveloping this dank burial area, the blade’s expertly burnished metal sparkles like a flash of flame.
Guinevere opens her eyes, awakes, as if from nothing more than a light sleep. Seeing the knight leaning over her, she smiles. She raises a hand to tenderly caress what would be his cheek, if it wasn’t for its solid covering of the helmet’s visor.
‘You?’ she says dreamily, as if not yet completely awake. ‘I love you!’
With the most ecstatic cry of joy, the knight deftly rips off his entire helm, casting it carelessly aside.
Seeing that the knight is indeed Arthur, as she had presumed, as she had hoped, Guinevere smiles more brightly than ever.
As Arthur elatedly reaches for and helps her sit up within the casket, she throws her own arms about his neck, brings him closer towards her, ensures their lips meet, entwine, sharing the dew of mutual adoration.
They only break off, at last, so that he can take her by her waist and raise her completely clear of the tomb’s walls.
Swinging her gracefully off to one side, he tenderly lowers her feet to the floor: and once again, she eagerly wraps her arms about his neck, once again brings him close, so that they can once again let their lips, their love for each other, deliciously meld.
Stepping back only slightly, Arthur triumphantly hands his queen the brilliantly sparkling sword of love.
With a grateful smile, she takes it, relishes the ease with which she can weld it, its apparent lightness, its most perfect balance.
The blade isn’t entirely free of blood.
A minute yet curiously bright speck remains upon the blade, no more than a bead: little bigger than a dew drop.
Guinevere grins in amusement as she sees herself reflected oddly within that glistening globule.
She stares a little more intently into it, draws closer; until she’s so close that she sees the darkness of an eye’s pupil in its very centre.
It’s like the dark seeds nestled between the scarlet petals of a poppy.
The sleep of indifference.
Guinevere frowns, fighting to recall something. To shake off a sleepy daze.
She looks at the blade, at the patiently waiting Arthur.
She looks about her at the shattered tombs.
‘Beware the betrayer,’ she murmurs uncertainly, struggling with her recollections.
Guinevere stepped farther back from King Arthur, eying him doubtfully.
‘I know who you really are!’ she said, lifting her head high, determinedly looking up towards the heavens. ‘You, I mean: not him!’
Arthur appeared surprised, even briefly moving a little forward as if to embrace her once more, to reassure her: but Guinevere whirled around on her feet, her eyes still intently focused on the heavens, the sword unintentionally swinging out in a protective circle of sharp steel.
‘You…betray me!’ she stormed, glowering aggressively at the heavens. ‘Do you really think I don’t see what’s going on here? See what you’re trying to instil within me?’
And with that, she turned and began to spiritedly walk away from the tombs, from Arthur.
Arthur tried, naturally, to chase after her.
But his ankle was suddenly caught in a violently sprung bear trap, pinioning him no matter how much he raged that Guinevere should return, that it was her destiny.
‘No!’ Guinevere snapped back, not bothering to even briefly look back over her shoulder as she continued to confidently stride away. ‘It’s not my destiny to sacrifice myself for the good of my king. Not even for the good of the land!’
She flung the sparkling sword aside, shattering it against a nearby stone slab into irreparably glittering slivers.
‘I’m me! I’m Guinevere!’
‘She always was so…’
‘…very sure of herself!’
If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – Gorgesque