A magical adventure to the Otherworld, based upon research into the Celtic bardic tradition by the author of 'The Bardic Handbook', 21st Century bard & winner of the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon: Kevan Manwaring (aka Tallyessin).
'If your crane bag is fantasy fiction based on Celtic mythology then this ripping yarn will be just your horn of mead'
Review from The Cauldron, Feb 2007
Alive in the lands of the dead –
trapped in Paradise or the Place of Reckoning…?
Welcome to Shadow World
When Isambard Kerne, officer of the Royal Flying Corps, goes missing in action in the opening battle of the First World War in a biplane piloted by Harry ‘Mad Duck’ Malleard, he is transported into a nightmarish limbo – trapped by his wife’s grief. Separated from his pilot, Kerne finally arrives in an unknown mountainous land where he meets an irascible talking falcon – Merlin, who becomes his guide - and is taken to a Bronze Age tribe: the Chalk Folk, who carve giants from the foothills of the dead. They treat him with fear and awe – for he has fallen from the sky, and a previous stranger has become a warmongering tyrant: Taranis, the Iron King. The tribe is attacked by his Iron Warriors – who kidnap the chieftain’s daughter. Kerne feels responsible for bringing this doom upon them – for the Iron King is no less than his pilot, gone mad with power in this strange land. He must stop his brother-in-arms, or perish himself – for their presence in the Afterlands has caused a rift. They crossed through the Angel Gate alive – one of them must die to pay the price, or the whole fabric of Shadow World is threatened.
Isambard Kerne – a man of peace in a time of war, must choose between the power of words or swords. The fate of both Earth and its Shadow hangs in the balance. Will he be able to master the Way of the Windsmith in time to save the valley of his ancestors? Or will the terror of war change him into what he fears the most?
The past shall not rest, nor the dead stay at peace,
in this gripping adventure from a magical storyteller.
This was not an auspicious start. Stuck on a mountainside with a damaged, twisted ankle, limited supplies, no idea where he was, or indeed whether he was still alive. And what of his gung-ho pilot, Malleard? Hadn’t the BE-2 been consumed in a cloud of fire? Hadn’t Kerne languished in a nightmarish limbo for nine days? If that was Purgatory then what did that make this?
Before Kerne could work out an answer his concentration was broken by a piercing cry. Amplified and echoed by the gorge, it sounded unearthly: like the call of a Valkyrie, he imagined. Whatever it was, it sent a chill to his bones. Stuck in the stark canyon with nowhere to hide, he was easy meat. He loosened the Webley in his hostler, although he had only fired it in target practice, and then only under duress. He loathed the things. And all the trappings of war he shouldered – his dress uniform never seemed to fit comfortably, the collar was always too tight. He lived in another man’s skin. He didn’t want to die in it.
Kerne shielded his eyes and looked up.
Out of the sun came a bird sharp-angled like an arrow. It circled down in a precise spiral, just like he had seen red kites do over his native Welsh Marches. Did it think him carrion? He wouldn’t go without a fight, he thought, an instinct for self-preservation momentarily over-riding his pacifism, before he could check himself. What right did he have, shooting such a beautiful bird? He hated his brother’s fondness for pheasant-shooting. Archie had boasted about the big game hunting he’d enjoyed in the Transvaal – but had come back without trophy.
Kerne clicked the pistol back into its holster. The bird of prey approached. At first he thought it was a buzzard – so familiar in England. Then he reckoned it more as a red kite from Wales. Yet it was slightly smaller. A peregrine? He wished he had studied birds more carefully…It seemed to be a small falcon. Then he could make out its plumage: its shoulders were slate blue, its breast buff, streaked with black. The tail, with its broad black band was the giveaway. Just as Kerne recognised it, the bird swooped passed, flicking his face, making him flinch and nearly lose his balance, uncertain as it was. For a moment he wavered over the chasm at his back. Rocks clattered down and were swallowed in the churning water below. Then he lunged forward, gripping the rock, sweating, seething at his own disadvantage.
‘Damn you!’ he called out, shaking his empty fist.
At the edge of the tree-line the falcon cried out and arced back. Once more it swooped. Kerne flailed out with his stick, but as the bird passed it shrieked:
‘Follow, you fool!’
Stunned, Kerne dropped his temporary crutch and watched as the bird floated to a graceful rest on a dying branch at the edge of the pine trees a hundred yards away. It turned its imperious head almost 180 degrees, looking scornfully back. Once more, it cried out, ‘This way, you idiot!’ but it was in his head the voice rang out – sonorous, aloof and short-tempered like a Scots professor.
Kerne shook his head. Was his mind playing tricks? Perhaps he had concussion. Or had the spring been polluted? Yet, the predicament he was in seemed real enough. Whatever the bird had, or had not said, his way was clear. He edged his way awkwardly along the edge of the ravine, conscious always of the death inches away. The sixty degree slope, the flinty crumbling surface and his damaged ankle did not make the going easy. Beads of sweat broke out on his head. He took off flying helmet, tucked it into his belt, and mopped his brow with the back of his overall. Grunting, he carried on hobbling towards the bird. In his pain he hated its arrogant ease. Finally, out of breath, he collapsed at the foot of the tree, immersing himself in its delicious shade. The resinous smell of the pine forest soothed him.
‘Took your time.’ Once again, the voice jarred in his head, an intruder.
Kerne gritted his teeth and lifted his head from the bed of needles.
The falcon glared down at him with yellow black eyes. Kerne glared back.
‘Am I going mad?’ he asked rhetorically.
‘Going? That depends whether you were sane in the first place,’ observed the bird sharply.
Kerne shook his head in disbelief. ‘I’m talking to a bird!’
‘Are you?’ riposted the falcon, quizzically. ‘Not everything is what it seems.’
‘Well, to me you look like a Merlin.’
The falcon looked at him fiercely. ‘At your service,’ he said almost resentfully.
‘You have spoken my true name – and, in this world, names have power, Isambard.’
He tried to comprehend what the bird had just told him. He’d said his true name was Merlin. And names had power. The falcon seemed to know his first name. And ‘Merlin’, coincidentally, was also his RFC codename, chosen on a whim, because of his fondness for the Arthurian legends as a child.
‘It seems also you know my name...’
‘It was hard not to know it, when you shouted it from the mountain top!’
Kerne remembered speaking his name when he’d first arrived. ‘Shouted? I barely whispered it!’
‘Whispers carry far on a mountain.’
‘So it seems, but – Hang on a minute! I called you Merlin, the type of falcon. Are you claiming to be the Merlin the magician?’
‘Do you know of any other falcons who talk?’ he squawked impatiently. ‘Let me explain – and I’ll make it simple so even you can understand: here, the real name of something is the thing itself. I am called Merlin, because I am Merlin. Q.E.D. This pine tree is a pine tree. If you knew its unique name you would be able to control it. Below us is the Da’anu. If you knew the full name of the river you would have some power over it – you would know its source and destination. Fate is locked in a name. When Adam named the creatures in Eden he gave them their destiny.’
Kerne tried to take it all in, but his head swam. His hand shaking, he unscrewed his canvas-covered cantina and took a draught of the spring water. It cleared his head again, and a sudden revelation came to him. ‘So, are you saying because my name is Isambard I was destined to work for the GWR, like Brunel?’
‘That may have been your father’s intention, but there is often serendipity in our actions. Names can become self-fulfilling prophecies, or reveal dormant aspects of our personalities we didn’t know were there. Every David meets his Goliath, every Helen her Paris, or Menelaus. In your case, it couldn’t have been more appropriate.’
‘Think, damn you. You are not without wits, if you but apply them! How often has your antiquarian field research confirmed what you suspected in the place name; a spring, burial mound, hill fort, old straight track. Names contain the ghosts of the past – or the seeds of the future.’
Kerne pondered on this. What was Merlin implying? What secret was locked in his name? He knew Kerne, his father’s surname, derived from a light-footed Irish infantryman. He saw no possible connection in this, other than being stuck in a war. But he was an airman. What about his Christian name? Isambard, Isambard… He said it out loud – and suddenly it came to him.
‘Is… Am… Bard. I am… A bard?’
‘We shall see. No one said fulfilling your destiny was easy. Come.’ Merlin stretched his wings, and flitted between the branches, down into scented shadows the pine forest.
‘Wait! What about free will? Don’t we have a choice?’
‘We create our own choices,’ Merlin called back, camouflaged by the speckled sunlight and shadow. ‘But they are determined by our destiny. We chart our trajectory by will, desire and fear. You would call them alignments, I believe.’
Kerne looked at the faint path before him, snaking through the pine trees, following the edge of the ravine, but not too closely. The trees muffled its roar. He couldn’t stay there forever, and his guide was getting further away.
‘Wait!’ He cursed under his breath, and hobbled after the falcon as best he could. His guide let him catch up. He had caught a wood-vole and was holding it between his formidable talons. It was squirming, wide-eyed and terrified.
‘Excuse me while I have breakfast.’
Kerne watched in disgust as the bird jabbed it with his beak, killing it in one blow, then began to tear it apart.
‘So this is Merlin the Great?’
The bird gave him a hooded glare.
‘That is the name I am known by in your land, in your day. I am known by others. Myrddin Wyllt in your mother’s tongue – Merlin the Wild, so be warned! Any -way, even magicians need to eat.’
‘But you’re not what I was expecting.’
‘What were you expecting – a wizard in a pointed hat?’
‘I wasn’t expecting anything – but, a bird?’
‘It’s a sore point,’ muttered Merlin through a beakful of vole.
‘Ah,’ Kerne chuckled ruefully, suddenly getting the measure of his mentor. ‘A woman was it?’
A gore-filled beak spat a gobbet of mouse out. ‘Do you want to find your own way out of this wilderness?’
Kerne let him continue chewing in peace. He decided to break his own fast, realising he was now famished. He broke open the bully tin, and cut out a slice with his knife. It had the texture of boot leather. His quickly munched on a biscuit to take the taste away, and washed it down with a tinny draught of spring water.
‘Mm.’ If his mouth was full of food, or whether he was just being taciturn, it was hard to say.
‘What is this place?’ Kerne gestured around at the forest with his stick.
His guide looked at him inscrutably, as if deciding what to tell him.
‘Where do you think?’
‘Somewhere on the Alps?’
‘You’re heading in the right direction – but you’re in the wrong world.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Kerne with a growing sense of unease.
‘How many birds speak on the Earth you know?’
Kerne choked on his bully beef. He didn’t like where this was going. ‘You’re not saying we’re on…another world?’
‘In, not on.’
Kerne sat down. The rock he sat on seemed real enough. The forest looked sub-alpine. None of it was alien. He remembered the novels of Jules Verne and HG Wells, Haggard and Doyle he and his brother enjoyed so much as children.
‘So.’ He tried to frame his question carefully. ‘Are you saying this is another planet?’
‘No. It is the earth you know and love – but more so. It is its quintessence. In the way a tree has its dryad, so the Earth you know has its true self: unsullied by man, unravaged by time. But the two are inextricably linked. Whatever happens there creates repercussions here, and vice versa – as though it was the world’s shadow.’ Merlin brooded over the correct analogy, as Kerne struggled to understand. ‘Like a coimimeadh, a co-walker.’
‘Every human has one. They are in every way like the man, as a twin-brother and companion, haunting him as his shadow. Sometimes they are called the Fetch and are seen before the person’s death.’
‘A doppelganger…’ Kerne shook his head in disbelief. ‘A shadow world…’ He tried to comprehend what Merlin had told him, looking at the pools of light and dark before him, the shafts of sunlight through the pine trees.
‘How did I get here?’
‘Through the Angel Gate.’
‘The “Angel Gate”?’ Kerne thought of the fleeting image of the figure he had seen in the cloud of fire above the battlefield. It had looked like an angel for second, then had seemed like the Long Man to Kerne, Saint George to his pilot. ‘Do you mean the gateway we passed through over Mons?’
‘Yes. It was opened up by the commencement of The Great War.’
‘The Great War?’
‘That’s what the conflict you fought in became known as, an ironic title for so terrible a war…It lasted four years. Millions died needlessly. Mons was the first battle, and the last chance to stop the juggernaut of war. Such a devastating conflict creates a vast build up of energy.’
In a dizzying flash, Kerne recalled the swirling horrors of the Void. ‘A vortex…’
‘Yes. It was a doorway of possibility. The threshold – it could have led to peace. Instead, Europe chose war. You were unlucky enough to be caught in the cross-fire.’
‘Please, tell me straight Merlin. Did we die that day?’
‘You…passed over while the veil was thin. It was an accident, or perhaps not.’
‘So, am I in Hell?’
‘No, I think you left that behind. These are one of the Afterlands – your ancestors thought of them as the Summer Country, as their paradise.’
‘My ancestors?’ Kerne thought of his Irish father and Welsh mother, of the generations stretching back. ‘Am I dead?’
Merlin eyed him closely.
The revelation hit him like a bullet. Not dead? After all the grief Maud had gone through – unless, unless her inability to let go was because she had intuited he was still alive. And then he had made her release him – because he believed himself beyond the veil… Instead, he could have gone home. The thought sickened him. His chance of escape had been wasted. The door had closed. He had doomed himself.
Kerne roared, striking a tree with his branch – shattering his makeshift crutch. Crumpling onto the pine-needle carpet, he sobbed in silence, crushed by the vast gulf between him and his darling Maud, between a forest of death and the green hills of England.
Merlin settled back onto the swaying tree, smoothing his feathers. ‘You crossed over by mistake. This is a great transgression. The presence of a living man in the land of the dead is disrupting the equilibrium of the worlds. It will widen the longer you stay here. You must repair the rift! Otherwise, the dead will walk the Earth, and the living will be sucked into the land of the dead. The vortex is ravenous. Death must have his due.’
Then Kerne remembered what he had said to Maud in the long barrow:
‘Death is our ticket from this world…I have not the coin to pay for my return.’ He could not have returned to the land of the living after all, except with his death.
‘What – what can I do to make amends?’
The falcon preened himself. ‘Heal the wound. Find your friend.’
‘Harry? He’s here? He’s alive?’
‘Yes – but he was wounded. He has…changed. He has infected the Summer Realm. He has brought the iron poison.’
‘The iron poison? What’s that?’
Merlin grew impatient. ‘The technology of your world. The technology of war.’
Kerne shook his head, looking down at his uniform. Slowly, he got to his feet. ‘Where is he?’
The falcon paused. ‘In the Forbidden Kingdom.’
Kerne gritted his teeth. This was not getting easier or clearer. He took a deep breath, gripped the tree for support as pain flashed up his leg. ‘How do I get there?’
‘You must travel through the Valley of the Chalk Folk. They will help – though at first they will fear you.’
‘Because you fell from the sky like Taranis.’
‘You use words I do not understand! Taranis?’
‘Speaks-with-Thunder he is kenned by the Chalk Folk. You know him by another name…’
Kerne shook his head in disbelief. ‘I know him?’
‘Yes. Your friend, the enemy.’
‘Do you mean Malleard? My enemy?’
‘Yes – his time here has…corrupted him.’
‘His time here? But surely he hasn’t been here more than nine days? How could he have changed so quickly?’
‘Time runs differently in this world. You are in a crossing place where the fast and the slow currents balance themselves out – but the further into HyperEurus you go, the quicker the days pass, in relation to the outer zones.’
Kerne brooded on this, remembering how his nine days in limbo were nine years for Maud. How much more time had elapsed for Malleard? He had thought his pilot lost, yet it seemed it was he had been AWOL. The years had left him untouched.
‘He has journeyed deeper into the Shadow World and succumbed to Cythrawl – the source of darkness and chaos.’ Merlin added, as if hearing his question. ‘He has taken the night road to Annwn, to soul-death. You must balance this by walking the light. He uses weapons – you must use words. To fight the Iron King you must master the way of the windsmith.’
‘The windsmith?’ Kerne whispered. ‘…I have heard of that name before… In another life…’ The names Wilmington, Dru, echoed in his mind.
‘Yes,’ agreed Merlin, as if hearing his thoughts. ‘He was a wood-priest. A master of the winds.’
‘But I thought he was just a character from folk-lore?’
‘As you will discover, such tales have grains of truth. Things cross-over. Myths, legends, artefacts, ideas… The windsmith is adept at walking between the worlds. You must study their lore. Find the one-eyed man. He will teach you – for a price.’
Kerne asked where he would find him, but Merlin flapped his wings and flew on. ‘Enough prattle! Follow swiftly. We must reach charmed halls before twilight!’
‘Merlin! Why are you helping me?’ Kerne called out, but the mysterious magician flew on into the forest of light and darkness.