Read Merlin's Wood (Mythago Wood) Online

Authors: Robert Holdstock

Tags: #Fantasy Fiction

Merlin's Wood (Mythago Wood)

MERLIN’S WOOD

or

The Vision of Magic

ROBERT HOLDSTOCK

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Then in one moment, she put forth the charm

Of woven paces and of waving hands,

And in the hollow oak he lay as dead,

And lost to life and use and name and fame.

Then crying ‘I have made his glory mine’,

And shrieking out ‘O fool!’ the harlot leapt

Adown the forest, and the thicket closed

Behind her, and the forest echo’d ‘fool’.

From ‘Merlin and Vivien’
part of
Idylls of the King
by Alfred Lord Tennyson

PART ONE
Broceliande

A storm was coming, but the winds were still,

And in the wild woods of Broceliande,

Before an oak, so hollow, huge and old

It look’d a tower of ivied masonwork,

At Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay …

From
Idylls of the King

The People on the Path

(A time in childhood)

The boy’s voice woke Martin from a spirit haunted sleep. It was pitch dark. A fragment of gravel cracked against the bedroom window, and again the voice: ‘Martin! Martin! There are people on the path.
Martin!

People on the path
.

Martin flung back the blankets and ran to the window. Below, in the faint moonlight, he could see his fair-haired brother Sebastian, pale-faced, and excited. He was pointing to the forest. ‘Martin, there are three of them. Quickly.’

Martin pulled on his jeans and a grubby white jumper. He opened the window, dropping effortlessly to the ground. The old dog whined and yapped in its kennel, dreaming of the chase, too far away in other lands to be disturbed by this second escape from the farmhouse. Martin ran through the darkness. He vaulted the gate and chased after Sebastian.

‘Wait for me!’ he hissed, not wanting to raise his voice and perhaps disturb the people on the path, though he knew this had never happened.

Where was Sebastian? The moonlight waxed and waned as light cloud drifted over the forest, over the farm. Something ethereal flowed and glowed distantly. Faint birds seemed to be flying upwards, spiralling around the dark shape of a slowly spinning figure.

The boy who danced was Sebastian. Martin watched amazed as his brother, arms outstretched, danced among the people on the path, moving through the three milky forms, a man, a woman, a tall child with long hair. The child was looking back, nervously. Martin thought it was a girl, but the spectral features were hard to discern. All three moved in slow motion. Their ghostly shapes shed light like streams of plasma, where Sebastian passed through them, his voice a thrill of laughter.

‘It feels cold. I can hear their hearts beating – it’s weird. Their breathing too. The man smells of grease and smoke. Come inside, Martin. Quickly. It’s the best yet! It feels like I’m flying and running and swimming all at once – I can fly like an eagle, Martin – come and feel what it’s like.’

Martin followed his brother up the old path, but he felt apprehensive. There was a shifting, lurking movement in the wood and Martin thought at once of the old
bosker
, the murderous woodsman who lived among the pools and rocks of the deeper forest. Or perhaps it was Rebecca, spying, always spying on her brothers when they went out onto the path by moonlight.

The night air carried the strong sour smell of earth, emanating from the spectral figures that had emerged from the edge of Broceliande. The man, looking over his
shoulder as he moved slowly along the path, seemed to be watching Martin. His mouth worked as if he were speaking, his face contorted as if in warning. Then he raised an arm and pointed, the pale finger freezing Martin in his tracks. The woman turned slowly. She too seemed to stare at the boy who followed them, unaware of the blond lad who laughed and danced within her insubstantial form.

At length, Sebastian left the inside of the people on the path. He was shivering, almost ecstatic. ‘It felt
strange
! The man’s so frightened. They’ve had a
vision
of something. Like a long, thin bottle, with trees and earth inside. Like the one I drew last time. They’re running away from something. How old, d’you reckon?’

Martin knew his brother was referring to the historical age of the figures. The people who walked the path sometimes looked quite modern, sometimes came in the uniforms of the cavalry from the time of Napoleon, or even earlier; Martin had once seen a Greek warrior on the path. The women occasionally wore dresses that swirled and sparkled with glass as they moved, but more usually were wrapped in heavy cloaks, or thick furs. But the people he watched tonight were wearing peasants’ clothes and carrying rough sacks over their shoulders. Their hair was long and they had no weapons. They could have come from one of many times.

Martin shrugged and shivered, walking slowly behind the ghosts on the old track as they steadily ascended the hill to the ruins of the church. There, as they crossed the
thorny hedge to the right of the lych gate, the figures began to fade.

Swinging on the wooden gate, aware of bright moonlight cutting an edge across the hollow tower and the broken walls of the chapel, Martin and Sebastian watched as the figures began to descend into the earth. The ghosts were outside the defining wall of the cemetery, beyond the hump of the prehistoric mound on which the church had been erected.

When they were waist high the boys waved and called ‘goodbye’. Soon only the heads could be seen, bobbing through the thistles, and then they too were gone.

Where the people went from here, none of the children of this or any other time had ever discovered.

The path from Broceliande continued south into another realm.

The Stoneshifter’s Tale

(Fifteen years later …)

A storm was coming, Martin noticed, as he followed the cart and the coffin along the path around the forest. And yet the winds were still, the air apprehensive, sharp with the first scents of autumn, seeping from the wild woods of Broceliande. As he drifted onwards to the graveyard and his mother’s cold earth home, he watched the dark oaks in the green. Hollow, huge and old, their towering trunks veined and snaked with ivy, they might have been old men, their smooth and spreading roots the shapely limbs of women sprawled at their feet in careful, drowsy thought.

In those days, as in all days, Broceliande was a terrible place, a ‘glooming’ forest growing over boggy dells, forgotten stones, a place of hidden pools, falls of water and strangling thickets. Cut through by the village road from Gael to Guer, still the true heart of Broceliande could not be found, although the stink of that heart’s corruption oozed from the edgewoods to lie, a sour miasma, over all the farms and hamlets to the west, the direction of the wild sea coast at Quiberon, of the
stone-tattooed land at Carnac, the direction of the source of storms.

Yes, something lay rotting at the heart of the forest, a death that had been known for generations. It was a decaying place, shedding ghosts like autumn leaves. It held the farmsteads in a root-strong grip, the minds of the families too, though sometimes a youth escaped the shadow (to wait too long was to be lost) and Martin was one of these. He had fled that shadow from the forest. He had been sixteen. He had promised that he would return only at his mother’s death, a sad event which had now occurred, calling upon his conscience and his courage.

Again, then, he walked the slow path by Broceliande, a grieving son, a frightened man, confused by the flow of feeling from the wood.

Off the western shore the tide was turning, and with the ebbing flow the traveller was finally lowered to her cold earth home. The storm passed to the south as the priest spoke words over the grave, then walked through the two small fires to embrace and commiserate with Martin. The bell in the renovated tower tolled slowly.

‘I’m sorry your sister couldn’t be here. Eveline loved her very much. After little Sebastian died …’

Martin saw how the priest swallowed back the words, but he knew well what the man meant. Sebastian had been a special child to his parents, the deeply loved one; when he was gone, Rebecca had inherited the mantle of affection. Martin, too, would have liked to have seen his
sister by the cold earth home, but she was lost, somewhere in the outback of Australia, following songlines, always following songlines.

Father Gualzator hesitated, shivering slightly as the chill wind blew, sending smoke swirling from the fires, the applewood sweet, the hazelwood smoke more acrid. Behind him, Martin’s uncle Jacques and aunt Suzanne stood in respectful, watching, waiting silence, the old man’s beret clasped at his groin, his long grey hair disturbed by the breeze. His watery eyes were filled with an odd longing; he was longing, certainly, for a cigarette, and to remove the too-tight shirt and tie. But there was something more disturbing him and Martin was aware of it. The priest was agitated, his rosy complexion now brighter with the embarrassment he was feeling. Martin asked him, ‘What is it?’

‘There are people on the path. I think they’ve followed us from the wood. Before I sing the hymn, I’d like to let them go.’

Martin looked back, to the place where the people used to sink below the hill. He could see nothing, sense nothing. The priest was blind to them too, but aware of them. He was a Basque, estranged from his strange land, and his language had given him a form of vision that was denied to the likes of Martin.
To speak old was to see old
, he had always said, and when Martin had been a boy he and Sebastian, watching the ethereal flow of people on the path, had tested the priest’s ‘old’ eye, and found it unerring.

A few minutes of strained silence later the priest
relaxed. ‘They’ve gone,’ he whispered, and turned back to the cold home. He tugged the rope that held the lid of the coffin and exposed the three linen-wrapped packs. He sang softly as he poured spring water along the length, then the breadth of each part of the traveller. Martin watched, remembering, as red berries and white were dropped carefully onto the wet linen. The flask of honey and the sack of meat were lowered, and then the small sun-wheel, resting on the traveller’s chest. The lid was replaced, earth was scattered and more familiar words were uttered: ‘Dust to dust, flesh to the fire …’

It was over. Jacques steered the ageing dray back to Eveline’s farm, the cart riding smoothly on newly greased axles, the priest leaning forward on his knees, staring back at the rebuilt church. Martin was comforted by the over-attentive Suzanne, whose black veil continually blew in his face as she held his arm, held the side of the cart, and talked non-stop about the traveller, Eveline, and the years of her trials and tribulations. Martin was not unaware that he was being gently criticised for having stayed away so long and he repeatedly tried to change the subject, talking about Amsterdam, the design business he ran – but Suzanne was quite single-minded.

Jacques had prepared a stew of rabbit and pheasant in red wine; the priest offered a whole
coeur de brie
, a succulent cheese which Martin had not tasted in years;
and Suzanne had baked bread. There were several stone jars of still cider, and brandy wine.

They sat at the pine table, warmed by the smell of cooked wine and fragrant wood burning on the open fire; they raised their glasses to the traveller and spoke her full name aloud, ‘Eveline Mathilde la-coeur-forte Laroche’.

Jacques was then allowed his single cigarette, which he smoked silently, curling the cigarette inside his fingers as he pinched the tip, inhaling deeply and staring at his empty plate.

When he announced that he wished to smoke another he was told sharply that he couldn’t, but he glanced at Martin, defied Suzanne and rose from the table, lighting-up as he moved and cocking his head meaningfully to the door. Suzanne poured herself more cider. Father Gualzator reached for the brandy, which he blessed (with a mischievous grin at the woman) before tipping the bottle to his glass.

Outside in the cold dusk, Jacques said, ‘I don’t know if you’re intending to stay, but if you are you should come to the Quiberon peninsular with me. Maybe tomorrow, although I think it’ll be a stormy day. What do you think? Will you stay?’

Puzzled by the man’s words, Martin nodded, accepted a cigarette and lit it. Distantly a fox barked, and the wide scatter of hens moved suddenly towards the shelter of the shed. ‘I have to stay. I have to sell the farm, clear up the paperwork, settle the taxes. I’ll be here for a few days. Why Quiberon?’

‘It’s where your grandfather died, just after the war.’

‘Oh yes. Of course. Eveline would never take me there …’

‘Your mother was only twelve. My little sister. I was only a year older but I felt a lot of responsibility for her. How things changed!’

‘Why go back now?’

‘I want to tell you what happened to me. And to Eveline. I’ve never spoken about it, and nor did she, not as far as I know. But now I think I must. If only to encourage you to leave Broceliande, and not endanger your own life.’

‘That’s what Eveline said to me in her last letter.’ Martin drew the envelope from his jacket pocket and removed the single sheet of blue writing paper. His mother’s handwriting was neat and precise. He read aloud,
‘You were always the sensible one. You avoided the path and I think you must have avoided the danger. I do hope so. If you come back to Broceliande
, please
don’t stay. I have always enjoyed the trips to Amsterdam. You have always been a loving presence in my life. I don’t need you at the farm when I finally travel on. It would be better to avoid danger and stay in the city where you have made such a good life for yourself. Please think carefully about these words and say the same to Rebecca, if you ever find her
.’

Jacques lit his third cigarette, glancing almost guiltily back at the house, but Suzanne’s voice was raised with laughter and the glasses were clinking.

‘For a reason I don’t fully understand she was very
worried about you coming back. There are so many strange things about this place – the ghosts, the wood, the lost memories. We’ve all experienced them. They are part of life,
our
life, we take them for granted. But there’s something not quite right. Something wrong. Something has changed in the last few years. I can’t explain it. The priest has seen it. We probably all felt it when Eveline died, seven days ago. She seems to have been
acutely
aware of it. She was very concerned for you.’

‘The evil in the heart of the wood …’ Martin mused aloud, staring into the night.

‘As I say – it’s hard to know. But I would like you to come to Quiberon. Hear my own nightmare. It may help, it may not. It might help you understand your brother’s death a little more. I don’t know. But Eveline didn’t want you to stay here. And the only way I have of persuading you to leave is to share my nightmare. It’s up to you, then, to decide whether you should handle Eveline’s affairs from here, or from your house in Amsterdam.’

The next day Jacques drove Martin to the sea-drenched cliffs of the western coast of Brittany, arriving in sleeting rain, below a grey sky that moved effortlessly over them from sea-horizon to misted hills behind.

As Jacques drove, he hunched forward in the seat of the old Citroën, peering through the running water on the windscreen, occasionally recognising a place name
and exclaiming, ‘There! It’s OK. Now I know where I am!’ or ‘Hell and damnation. That last signpost must have been wrong. These damned coastal people.’

Through hamlets, closed against the rain, through country lanes, winding between grey fields and gleaming trees, they traced an erratic course southwards, driving near the cliffs, then looping inland, then back to the edge of the great sea. It was a journey in which they regularly passed the signs of habitation, yet saw not one single human being.

At last the road dropped towards a pebble beach. The restless sea curled and whitened as it heaved against the dark rock of the small bay. Stones, like a ring of black fingers, probed from that swell, out below the waves.

‘There,’ Jacques said, turning off the engine. ‘There at last!’ He took a moment to light a cigarette, then remembered to offer Martin one. The paper was damp, but the sharp smoke made Martin heady and relaxed. They peered through the rain for a while in silence. After a few minutes Jacques wound down the window and flicked the smouldering butt into the abyss. Martin did the same, then squirmed and twisted into his oilskin. He followed the older man, out onto a path that looked down on the drowned stone circle.

‘There!’ Jacques said again. ‘You see?’ He pointed through the rain beyond the circle. ‘You see the stones of the second ring? Two rings together, side by side, stretching into the sea, one of them more drowned than the other.
Can
you see?’

Two dark fingers of smooth rock appeared then
disappeared beneath the swell, a long way out across the ocean.

‘Yes,’ Martin said, adding, ‘How old are they?’

‘The rings?’ Jacques shrugged. ‘Six thousand years, some say. Or maybe only a few years.’ He chuckled. ‘It depends on how you think of them. When we built them, when we put them upright, they marked a land that was hallowed, but has now been swallowed. Maybe people around here are descended from the builders, eh? Who knows? The stones wear the sea like a skin. You can see how it gleams on them! At low tide, during the hot summers, you can walk among them. It’s muddy, they’re crusted—’ he meant with barnacles, ‘but you can touch them. I’ve heard stories that they sing, some that they dance, and some that they feed on the blood of young girls.’ He laughed again, glancing at Martin curiously, green eyes narrowed against the wind and rain, but watching for a reaction. ‘And of course, under certain circumstances, or maybe in certain minds, they do. They do. Everything is true. I’ve always believed in spirit,’ he said. ‘But it’s something you just accept, not make into daft ritual. Do you have them in Amsterdam?’

‘Girl-eating stones?’

‘Ritualisers. The people who sing to the stones. The people who think that aliens made them. Crystal gazers.’

‘We call them The New Age. The Age of Aquarius, in the sixties. People then used to long for it to come. I’ve worked with many of them. Most of their dream was
hope, expectation. If their dreams
had
come true, they’d anyway have grown older, moved on …’

Jacques laughed throatily, then hawked and spat away from the wind. ‘I agree with you,’ he said. ‘Dreams are for dreaming, not living. But that said, there’s one dream I’d like to have come real, which is why I asked you here. I’ve lived my life with it. I stood here and hoped it. I longed for it. I dreamed of my father for years, for decades. If I could switch back the clock …’

Martin wasn’t following his drift and said so. Jacques pointed out to sea again. ‘There. Right there. Follow my finger …’

He was pointing to the outer ring of stones, perhaps to the tallest stone that could be glimpsed at the ebb of the swelling water.

‘I was fourteen years old,’ Jacques said. ‘The storm had come in fast. The far horizon darkened, but Eveline and I kept playing on the beach. My mother seemed alarmed, but we kept playing on the beach. The blackness spread like colour soaking through water. It swept towards us, although where we played was still in the sunlight. My father was on the small boat. Eveline and I had each had turns with him. Now he was alone, and enjoying a few minutes of peace away from us. The sail was full and he was turning to come back to the bay. The darkness was like a veil, like a net being flung towards us. The sea began to rise, and we were called from the beach and taken up this very path. Soon the sea began to heave into the rocks. The stone circles were awash. We watched the swirl of cloud, the blackness. It was flowing very fast. I had never seen a storm like it.’

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