Excerpt From "The Once & Future King"
It was a calm summer evening when Tom quietly slipped out of his bedroom window and headed towards the lake. He could see surprisingly well in the silver moonlight of the full moon. He soon reached the enchanted woods and proceeded on a path to the lake that he took a few times before but always in daylight. The forest seemed alive with sounds and he took note of crickets, frogs and owls. A few times he heard some unfamiliar bird calls and even a low growl but, even in the moonlight, he could not see far into the forest to identify the sources of the sounds. He quickened his pace and soon arrived at a grass field adjacent to the lake. He climbed onto a boulder next to the shore and looked across the expanse of calm water. The surface of the lake was like a mirror reflecting the moon, stars and even the distant mountains. The water was deep and clear. Tom could see the cobble stone bottom drop away into blackness close to the boulder. He began to think that this was a rather pleasant place when he heard the howl of a wolf somewhere in the enchanted forest. This shattered his pleasant thoughts and he remembered Willet’s words to look at his reflection in the lake.
After gazing at his image in the lake for several minutes, he was about to return home when he noticed a small ripple that distorted his image. The ripple multiplied and the surface of the lake began to swirl forming a whirlpool. From the center of the vortex a voice called to him saying, “Take a leap of faith if you would know the truth.” Tom was petrified for he recalled his dream in which he drowned while trying to swim in this lake. As he wavered, uncertain as to what to do, he heard more wolves howling and turned to see wolves emerging from the woods a short distance from the path. Their yellow eyes gleamed from their large shadow-like outlines. They crept slowly towards him growling as they approached. Tom briefly considered trying to run but decided his best chance was to jump into the lake and swim along the edge to a safer place along the shore. He turned and jumped from the boulder into the lake. He felt a cold shock as he entered the icy water at the edge of the whirlpool. The water was much colder than anything he had experienced. He struggled to swim along the edge of the whirlpool but the vortex was drawing him away from shore. His arms and legs became heavy and he no longer felt the cold. As numbness overcame his ability to swim, he became sleepy. He soon lost consciousness and sank into the vortex.
“Wake up! We must hurry!” Tom opened his eyes to find himself staring into the handsome face of a strange looking young lad with pointed ears! As he struggled to assess the situation, he noted the full moon and that he was on the shore of the lake near the place he had jumped in. However, he was completely dry and when he looked beyond the young lad he saw six man size wolf-like creatures approaching on their hind legs. They had long claws on their fore legs, huge fangs and yellow piercing eyes.
“Where-wolves! No time to loose!” Quickly the lad drew a bow slung across his back and fired an arrow that pierced the eye of the nearest where-wolf. With a screaming howl it dropped dead, while the others rushed forward with a collective snarl. Immediately, two more arrows found their mark and two more dropped dead with arrows in the heart and throat. As more arrows whistled overhead, the remaining creatures turned and dashed for the cover of the forest.
“This way! We must hurry! They will regroup and return in greater numbers! Follow me!”
Instinctively, Tom began to follow the strange lad up a narrow rocky path between the enchanted forest and the lake. He noted with dismay that this direction was taking him away from his village towards the mountains. He strained to keep up with the lad but he ran faster than anyone he had ever seen and the distance between them started to grow so that he soon found himself chasing a silhouette in the moonlight. Snarling and growling sounds behind him told him that the where-wolves were in pursuit and were gaining on him. As he rounded a turn in the trail, he had to jump to one side to avoid running into the strange lad who had stopped in the middle of the trail.
“Quickly, hop onto my back! We must go faster! They are approaching!”
Before he could say anything, the lad picked him up onto his back and they were moving faster than any human could run. He thought that this must be what it feels like for those who race horses at the festivals. Soon Tom could hear rushing water and then saw a boulder strewn stream cascading into the lake. The lad did not slacken his pace and once they reached the stream they bounded from boulder to boulder like a frog leaping across a pond on lily pads until they reached the far shore.
Upon reaching the opposite side of the river, the lad put him down and they turned to see numerous dark shapes crossing the stream on the boulders. The lad drew his bow and fired an arrow which joined a swarm of others coming from the woods behind them. As the arrows reached their targets, Tom saw several shapes fall into the river. A second volley of arrows sent the remaining creatures retreating back into the woods on the far river bank.
“Follow me! No time to explain! The night grows late and we don’t have much time!” They continued to run along a narrow path through the woods but this time Tom followed the lad. The lad did not run as quickly and seemed to adjust his pace to as fast as Tom could run. While they were running, Tom heard singing from afar that suddenly stopped and was followed by different voices singing to the right and left and even over head.
Tom asked, “What is that singing?”
The lad replied without turning or changing his pace, “The forest sentinels are signaling each other. They are saying that we are no longer being pursued.”
Tom marveled, “I see nobody and yet some of the singing seems close enough that I should see someone if they were there unless they be ventriloquists.”
The lad replied, “Your presupposition that it is not possible for someone to be there blinds you to the truth.” Then he sang a short melody and, to Tom’s amazement, two forms dropped from the trees in front and behind them and continued running with them. They were clad head to knees in a hooded cloak that matched the surrounding forest. Their faces and legs were painted to match their cloaks which explained their invisibility.
After running several miles further into the woods, Tom noted that this forest was very old as the trees were larger than any he had ever seen. Although the trees were huge, they were not crowded together but seemed to respect each other’s space allowing moon beams to penetrate to the forest floor in a dappled pattern. Several times Tom thought he saw a tree quiver or bend as they passed but he quickly dismissed this as an illusion caused by the strange interaction of shadows and the patchy moonlight. They entered a clearing and suddenly stopped. The moonlight was brighter here and Tom could see that his companions appeared to be similar age and size as himself. Under their cloaks they were dressed in buckskin with a short sword and bow slung over their backs. Under their painted faces Tom could see hints of fair skin. They too had pointed ears and similar facial features that suggested they were brothers.
The lad turned to Tom and said, “I apologize that the circumstances of our meeting and subsequent need for urgency have until now precluded a proper introduction. I am Cearl, son of Prince Caelin, of the pure ones or Aigneis in your tongue. This is Eni and Osric who were among the sentinels that assisted our escape from the where-wolves.”
At this Eni and Osric both bowed and, wrapping their cloaks about them, disappeared into the night in the twinkling of an eye. Cearl continued as though Eni and Osric were both still there. “I am your guardian and devoted companion. Perhaps you recognize me?”
At this, Tom realized that there was something familiar about the lad but he could not figure out what it was.
“I have been with you many times in your dreams. Come, although the distance is now short, we must not delay.”
“Where are we going?” Tom asked.
“To see my father, Prince Caelin, who will enlighten you to the limits of your current understanding.”
As Tom struggled to make sense of what was happening, Cearl led him a short distance to the top of a rocky ridge where he paused and motioned Tom to take a look.
Cearl said, “This is the valley of Annwn, the home of my people.”
Below them was a broad valley surrounded by sheer mountain cliffs on three sides. Even in the waning moonlight Tom was struck by the beauty of this valley which reminded him of some of the pleasant magical places he had dreamed about. Everywhere within the valley was the sight and sound of flowing water. There were three waterfalls on the far valley wall that plunged from snow capped heights of the precipitous mountains beyond. As they descended down a winding path to the valley floor, he saw numerous bubbling springs and brooks flowing down cobble stream beds to gather in streams that led to a large lake in the center of the valley. There were lush pine and fir forests interspersed with grass clearings bordered by huge fern groves. The fragrance of pine and balsam filled the air and he sensed that this was a blessed place of harmony and peace. The sky in the east was starting to lighten as they reached the valley floor.
Cearl said, “Look at the large lake and tell me, do you see any dwellings?”
“Just one small cottage near the side of the lake,” Tom replied.
“It is enough, it is our destination,” said Cearl. Taking Tom upon his back he hurried down to the cottage.
As they approached the cottage, Tom could see that it was small and simple with a thatched roof and a single door and window. It looked quite inviting with a faint glow from the window and the aroma of cooking food carried on a faint wisp of smoke from the chimney. Cearl put Tom down and, as they walked towards the door, it suddenly burst open and out stepped a man size figure completely covered from head to foot in a hooded cloak. As he raised his arms in an embrace and moved towards them, Tom caught a glimpse of shining amour and the hilt of a large jeweled sword beneath the cloak.
“Wes ou hal! Sir Egric! Long have I prayed for this meeting however short it may be!”
“Sir, you must be mistaken.” Tom replied, “I am Tom, son of Throm a farmer in the village of Downs End.”
“It is as you say. However, you are much more than you have said but you have yet to learn it. Forgive me for confusing you in my enthusiasm for this meeting. Your entry into this world marks your birth into a realm of greater awareness and possibilities. Relatively few of the race of men have experienced such a birth. Most do not have faith in what are popularly called legends and fantasy.”
“A great feast had been prepared by my people to celebrate your birth but the location of your entry and subsequent events has not made that possible. Nevertheless, I am grateful for even this humble meeting and that you have safely arrived. “There are many things that I would have told you but now I must try to tell you what I can in the time remaining.”
Prince Caelin continued, “Behold, the eastern sky brightens, the full moon wanes and dawn marks the end of our time together. Among those of your race who are born into this world, many perish soon after due to the evil one and his allies. The where-wolves you met intended to kill you which would have ended your life here shortly after your birth. Those who so perish return to your world thinking that this world is but a dream. It is fortunate that my son was familiar with your dreams and guessed correctly as to the place you would be found if you failed to appear here.”
Tom asked, “How could I have found this place without Cearl’s help?”
Prince Caelin explained that his was the voice Tom had heard from the center of the whirlpool. “If you would have had enough faith to jump into the vortex, you would have emerged here and have avoided any perils. Your lack of faith and obedience could have been your ruin. It appears that the damage may be limited to what time I have to instruct you.”
“Listen carefully and follow my instructions precisely or you could fall under the evil one’s spell and think this is only another dream. This world is part of yours but is separated by time and is what your world refers to as the first age of the earth. The evil one has cast a spell upon mankind making them believe that all there is to life is the pursuit of pleasures and knowledge to accumulate things. This will be the first of many trials when you return to your world. You will be tempted to think that this is only a dream.”
Prince Caelin placed his hands on Tom’s shoulders and looked deeply into his eyes saying, “If you accept this lie, it will result in the ruin of who you could become and many things that could otherwise be.”
As Tom stared into the Prince’s deep blue eyes he sensed deep concern and hope. Their souls seemed to merge and Tom felt like he was falling into a vast blue ocean as his focus narrowed to the Prince’s eyes. A collage of images raced through his mind at tremendous speed. They seemed to be a glimpse of many things yet to come or perhaps of possibilities but Tom could not make sense of them as they passed in a brief blur.
The Prince relaxed his grip on Tom and continued, “The third age of the earth has not yet begun but it will be the offspring of the merger of the first and second ages. Its beginning will mark the end of our worlds and it will be the ultimate fate of all things. I wish I could tell you more but our time is almost gone and there is one more thing that I must tell you.”
Withdrawing his hands from Tom’s shoulders, the Prince reached into his cloak and pulled out a smooth stone attached to a leather necklace. “This is a seeing stone. It will help you to see beyond the physical appearance of people and things in your world revealing their true nature. This stone will help you find your way. You must pass through many trials and despair but, if you have faith, you will prevail.”
“You must learn how to use this stone after your return. You must seek out a mentor who will instruct you. When you return to your world, you will encounter a mighty warrior who will guide and protect you. To avoid falling under the evil one’s spell, you must do exactly as he says once you awaken. Cearl will also be with you but you will not be able to see him or the stone until you learn to use it. It is time for your return!”
The prince said, “Jump into the center of the vortex in the nearby lake before dawn or all is lost!”
After saying this, he disappeared into the twilight in the twinkling of an eye leaving him with Cearl. Before he could ask any questions, Cearl picked him up onto his back and ran to the edge of the lake where he put him down and likewise disappeared in the twinkling of an eye saying, “Trust and obey.”
Immediately, the water began to ripple and swirl. Once a vortex formed, Tom jumped into it. As before, he felt bone piercing cold as the icy water enveloped him followed by numbness and then he lost consciousness.
It was dawn when Tom awoke in the spot where he had first looked into the lake. He was lying in tall grass next to a large boulder. He vaguely remembered jumping off the boulder into the lake . However, his clothes were dry which was not possible if he had been in the lake. Then he remembered the seeing stone and he looked down at his chest but there was no necklace. He began to think that last night was another of his vivid dreams when he heard the growls of a pack of wolves approaching from the nearby forest.
“This was one part that I wish was a dream,” he mumbled as he stood up and looked about at his escape options. Suddenly, he heard a shout and a small, wiry man clothed in animal skins jumped between him and the wolves.
“Take the path along the lake into the forest while I hold off the wolves,” he yelled as he charged towards the wolves with nothing but a stout wooden staff.
Tom froze and quickly reviewed his options: jump into the lake (again?), take the path back to the village, fight the wolves or take the suggested path into the enchanted forest. To fight seemed ludicrous since there were a dozen wolves and he had no weapons, the lake seemed to lead this same dream like encounter with wolves or worse, the path to the village seemed the wise and easiest choice.
“Move quickly!” The small bearded man shouted again as he brought the end of his staff down on the head of the lead wolf. “The path to the woods! I don’t know how long I can hold them!” The desperate urgency of his voice and selfless courage motivated Tom to obey and he instinctively began running towards the woods. The continued snarls and howls of the wolves behind him told him that the little man was putting up quite a fight but he did not dare to look back until he approached the tree line.
As he ran, his fear gave way to concern for the small stranger who bravely threw himself into harms way to save him. A warm feeling seemed to grow from his chest and, as he looked down, he saw a faint glow. He turned around and looked back down the path to the edge of the lake and stared dumbfounded at the spectacle below. In the midst of the wolves, he saw a large warrior in shining armor wielding a two handed broadsword. Beside him Cearl was firing arrows at a frantic rate. There were a half dozen dead where-wolves surrounding them and at least as many fleeing back into the woods. The warrior and Cearl turned and began to run up the path after him. The sight of the where-wolves brought back nightmarish memories of the night before and spurred him to accelerate his pace on the path into the forest.
“I have no idea where I am going, but at least I won’t be alone.”