Morwenna stood perfectly still at the edge of the woodland pond, her eyes closed. She drank in the smells and sounds of the forest around her; a buzzard screeching high above and a bee buzzing contentedly somewhere nearby. The faint aroma of lavender and the pungent stink of wild garlic stained the clean air. The thirteen-year-old was acutely aware of everything around her, just as Myrddin had taught her to be.
The air still tingled with energy from that day's practice; she had been coming up to the clearing on her own for several weeks, since Myrddin was often too tired to come with her. She didn't mind, because it made it all the more satisfying to tell him about her day and see the pride in his eyes when she said she had moved a slightly bigger rock than last time, or suspended herself in the air for a few extra seconds.
She smiled ruefully at the mental picture of herself three years ago. When Myrddin had first taken her in, she had barely been capable of anything! Her younger self was a stark contrast to the girl who now stood in her teacher's favourite clearing. Now, she was wiry instead of skinny. Her hair had gradually transformed from puffy into curly, and her once-pale skin could now be described as fair, though her freckles had not faded. She stood with her head held high, fully aware of the raw power flowing through her veins; although Myrddin had taught her to create whirlwinds and small earthquakes and columns of fire, she was, as he had put it, 'undisciplined'. If another warlock were to attack her, she wouldn't know how to fight back and would be defeated in an instant.
Her spirit dropped slightly when she reminded herself that her time with the once-legendary sorcerer was coming to an end; she would have to learn how to fight, and Myrddin wasn't meant to teach her that. Any day now, she suspected, he would send her off to learn one of the other elements and away she would go. After she left, she would probably never see the kindly old man again, even though he had taken her in and raised her as a father would.
Morwenna sighed and turned her back on the glade. As she nimbly descended the hill, rocks scattering under her boots, she hummed a folk song she had heard in town, when Myrddin had sent her off to get some clothes. The tailor had been humming it at the back of his dusty shop, and the simple melody had been stuck in her head ever since.
She was not a very musical girl, and the notes came out as a monotone drone rather than the sweet song she had first heard. She didn't mind, though; it provided a welcome noise in the strangely silent forest.
There's probably just a wildcat about or something, she reasoned in an attempt to settle the uneasy feeling that was creeping into her mind. The birds usually go silent when there's predators about. Morwenna glanced over her shoulder, half expecting to see one of the beige cats crouched in the middle of the path, sizing her up with yellow-green eyes. When she turned around, the path was deserted.
Morwenna stopped dead as she reached the edge of the meadow where the cottage was. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and she slipped behind a tree trunk. She eased herself into a fighting stance, ready to use a technique she did not know, if it came to that. A single bead of nervous sweat trickled down her forehead. Something was definitely wrong, she could feel it in the air.
"Calm down, Morwenna," she whispered, more to break the silence than because she actually listened to herself. "If there was a problem, Myrddin would have sorted it out. He's Myrddin, after all." As she spoke, she wished with all her heart that she could believe her own words.
She crouched down and began to move slowly through the long grass, ready to duck down if she needed to; if there was an intruder in the house and they saw her, she was as good as dead. She was fit, but was no sprinter.
The nearer she got to the cottage, the more Morwenna knew that something was not right. She paused and listened just outside the door. The place was deathly silent. She pushed open the door, and winced as it creaked.
"Myrddin? Are you alright?" she called, trying to keep her voice steady. She was not frightened. She was not frightened.
Well aware that she could be bumbling right into a trap, she stepped into the house fully and left the door open, in case she needed to run. She tiptoed across the main room and eased open the door to Myrddin's bedroom.
Morwenna felt a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding rush out of her in a sigh of relief. She smiled to herself at how panicked she had been; her teacher was lying in a nest of blankets, fast asleep and unharmed. She mentally scolded herself for worrying; the old man had been sleeping more and more in the last few weeks.
She stopped as she began to turn away. Something was urging her to look again; it was like a chant echoing around her skull, and it was coming from the same place in her brain that had put her on edge earlier.
Morwenna felt herself stepping towards the bed as if in hypnosis. Before she even saw him, she knew what she would find. She reached out with a trembling hand and pulled the ragged blanket away from Myrddin's face. The skin had turned grey and waxy. He was dead.
Aderyn knelt in front of King Habren's throne, as he had done once every week for the last three years. He shifted slightly; the bird was late again, and the cold stone floor was beginning to hurt his knees. He sighed and scratched his chin, earning himself a dirty look from one of the younger soldiers.
At long last, the raven careered through the open window in an explosion of feathers. Its eyesight was failing in its old age, and it had very nearly missed the window and flown straight into the wall. The same young soldier coughed to hide a laugh.
The King leaned forward in anticipation as the bird told Aderyn what it had seen. "Well?" he demanded. "What's happened? Is he dead yet?"
The Druid swallowed. Now that he knew how sickly Myrddin was becoming, the King asked the same question each week. Aderyn would always reply with a sombre but secretly-jubilant 'no'. Today, however, the raven had brought him the news he had been dreading.
"Yes, sire," he answered, his voice strangely strong and sure, "Myrddin is dead."
Sir Iorwerth lowered his eyes. He was well aware that Myrddin's death could be the final nail in the coffin for the warlocks and witches of Tintagel—the living legend was the only reason Iorwerth had advised the King against a final push. However, he could not help but feel more than a little sorrow for the passing of a man whom the knight had admired as a boy. Even as an adult, he was still somewhat in awe of the people who had made the powers of nature their own. Every time he had led a raid on a Druid camp or witnessed the execution of a witch, there had always been a growing niggle of guilt—
"Sir Iorwerth!" The sound of his name snapped him out of his reverie.
"Yes, sir?" He responded nervously. He hadn't just been caught daydreaming, had he?
"I said, I want you to take a group of knights to Myrddin's hut and burn it to the ground. It's not like he needs it anymore, and the fire will flush out the girl. I want you to capture her and bring her to me alive, so we can see just how good a tutor the old man really was."
Iorwerth felt an involuntary shiver run down his spine. Listening in on the Druid prisoners had taught him that it took a lot more than three years to master magic. The girl wouldn't stand a chance, especially as Habren was an extraordinary swordsman and a terrible cheat. If they ended up duelling, Habren would definitely have archers poised ready to come to his rescue if he started losing. And if Morwenna died—
"Yes sir. Right away," he barked in the militaristic style that was expected of him. He nodded to the knights he wanted to accompany him and began to march down to the stables.
Morwenna raised he head to the sky. The sight of two starlings chasing about in the cloudless afternoon sky made her smile through the tears; she imagined that Myrddin would have liked the sight of the birds before the earth closed upon him forever.
She lifted her left arm and leg and made a wide arching motion with them, bringing them firmly down on the ground in front of her. As she did so, the pile of dirt at the side of the grave levitated into the air, before coming crashing down on the white-shrouded body inside.
Morwenna sniffed and wiped away the tears with her sleeve. "Bye, Myrddin," she whispered, and turned her back on the grave.
She turned back to the cottage with an empty feeling in her heart. Myrddin would have wanted her to begin to learn the next element, but the emptiness turned to despair when she realised that she didn't even know where to start looking for a new teacher.
Morwenna grabbed a leather haversack from the shelf and began to stuff it full of clothes and as many loaves of bread as she could squash in. Even though she had no idea where she was going, even though she knew how dangerous it was for a girl to be travelling alone, she didn't care. She simply had to get away from the cottage. It was Myrddin's home, not hers, and now he was dead she felt she had no right to be there anymore. She had just attached her dagger to the strap on the haversack when she smelt it.
Smoke. The insistent tickle of smoke at the back of her throat sent shockwaves to some primitive part of her brain, the part which set alarm bells ringing everywhere at once. The smell wasn't just a whiff, either; the air was becoming blacker and thicker by the second, choked by swirling ash. Morwenna covered her mouth and nose with her hand and tried not to breathe too deeply. She shouldered her haversack and desperately cast her eyes around for the fire. The stove hadn't been lit since last night, so—
A thick wooden beam came crashing down, taking a large portion of the ceiling with it. Morwenna shrieked and began backing towards the door. As she did so, she glanced up at the space where the ceiling used to be. Her eyes widened in horror. The thatched roof had been devoured by a blazing inferno which was now eating away at the walls. Without a second thought, she turned and threw herself out of the burning house.
Morwenna managed to stagger clear of the flames before sinking to her hands and knees in the grass, coughing so much it hurt. She hadn't realised how much smoke she had inhaled. Her eyes stung as she tried to get her breath back.
It seemed like an eternity before she could stop coughing and breathe easily again. She lifted her head above the tall stems of grass and wildflowers, only to duck back down again when the glint of flame on metal caught her eye.
Knights. A dozen knights on horses were gathered at the opposite end of the cottage, their distinctive royal-blue capes cascading down their backs like waterfalls. A few of the soldiers were gripping bows and sheaths of arrows; others were holding lit torches.
"Those bastards," Morwenna growled, taking care to keep her voice so low that it would not be heard over the roar of the flames. The fury she felt at the destruction of Myrddin's home could have sent a thousand firestorms their way, but she resisted the temptation. It seemed as though she had not yet been spotted, and she didn't want to throw away her chance of escape. Taking on a group of highly-trained soldiers would have been suicidal. In Tintagel's markets, she had often heard locals recounting their experiences with the King's armies; they were killing machines.
After a moment's hesitation, she began to inch backwards, away from the knights. Fortunately, they were standing on the side of the clearing that faced Tintagel, which was the last place Morwenna wanted to go. As she backed away, she took care to stay down low in the grass in such a way that she could see the soldiers but was hidden from them. Not that it mattered—they were too fixated on the house to even glance her way.
Morwenna scrambled to her feet when she reached the end of the meadow and the beginning of the forest. Realising she had no map, she decided to just keep travelling until she found a town or a village. Surely someone would help her, and anywhere was better than Tintagel.
She jumped when she heard the pounding of hooves in the dirt. She turned, ready to defend herself, but saw the knights riding away from her instead of towards her.
"They must think I died in the fire," she thought aloud, "but why would they give up that easily?"
As the men began to retreat back to the town, one of them hung back. Morwenna squinted through her still-stinging eyes, trying to keep out of sight. The straggler was middle-aged, with a neatly trimmed beard and well-groomed hair. The red crest on his horse clearly marked him out as the leader of the group. He appeared to be scanning the clearing for any sign of Morwenna.
As he reigned in his horse and turned to follow his men, his eyes met hers. She wanted to run, had to run, but she was too mesmerised to do anything. Their gaze held for a few seconds. Had he known she was there all along? Would he send his men after her?
Finally, the knight looked away. This is it, Morwenna thought. He's going to kill me. Why didn't I just run when I had the chance? Stupid!
But to Morwenna's extreme surprise and eventual gratitude, the soldier did not kill her, or betray her to his men. Instead, he simply rode away.
Morwenna stared after him. It was a minute before she came to her senses and fled into the cover of the trees. She never looked back, but kept running in the opposite direction of Tintagel, a hundred questions smouldering in her mind.
End Of Part One
A/N: Surprise! I thought I wouldn't be able to update on holiday, but our neighbours very kindly let us borrow some interwebz, so I *was* able to update after all. ^_^ Thanks for sticking with me this far, and I hope to start the next part soon! See you then! :D