Silent as a riptide it pulls me. Nine nights it has called me.
Black is the portal looming ahead: a shaft dropped down to the secret heart of the earth. Up from the well like a wound in the world, the voice is calling, calling, calling:
Brief, dagger-sharp memories of places I have never been, transfix me – standing stones cry out to me against a purple, star-pierced sky. The cold of the altar stone years for my back. The old, old love, the old, old terror stirs and flexes its claws.
Bright as a blade the vision flashes and I, grown to a man, awaken to a grey, eerie dawn in a dead field, one crippled leg hobbled to a stake. Mad-eyed wild-women dance round me, ivy in their manes, their teeth shining like the fangs of wolves. My blood is on their nails. Every one of them is calling me back.
”Let me go!” I cry, but greater than fear is a weird love for these ghosts. I am bursting with passions I cannot understand.
I long for the weight of an iron torque about my neck and I feel the wheat in the fields aching for me. A steel pommel calls to my grasp and the grace of the fleet forest deer grips my throat.
”I cannot bear it!”
I am ashamed to say it, even in a nightmare, but I do: ”I am not a man!”
My heart has grown just large enough to hold the fruits of twelve short summers.
The blackness of the portal hears, and gathers itself like an ebon cloak about the greatest of the ghosts as he rises to tower tree-tall before me. Titan hooves clack against the tunnel’s slab floor. Antlers spread like topmost boughs above, proudly upreared by a man-like form, its shoulders oak-bole broad, its black adorned with glints of gold, armed with the faint clatter of steel.
I reel. ”Please! There is no room in my heart for you!”
”Come back!” is the only reply; always, ”Come back!”
And I must.
Like the maw of a beast, the tunnel takes me. It is into the shaft and down and then down and then deep, dark down I go. Until, through the waving of the stag-horned hunter’s black draperies, I glimpse the face of the one who calls. An arm’s length before me, he appears. He reaches out to take me. He opens his mouth to speak.
Lightning leaps through every nerve and with a spasmodic lurch, I wake, shuddering. But the face of the caller is branded in my sight, his raven scream is in my ears. His face is mine. Numbly, my lips form words I do not understand: ”The Black Crow Calls.”
Seldom do our northern mists cool the courtiers of the Queen, for the borderlands are not a place the rich and high care to go. So I stood with all the rest, restless with hope.
They jingled by, the three rich riders, resplendent, self-satisfied and plump as burghers, ostentatiously bored amidst the excitement of the common folk and those of us of the provincial nobility. I felt betrayed. There was no greatness to them. Why had I been compelled to be here? My eyes scanned the assembled crowds restlessly, ignoring the passing train of the courtiers.
There she was.
Standing with the others, an older woman with a strong, lined, thoughtful face and wise eyes. Thick, silver-grey hair showed beneath the black shawl. Her dress, too, was black as the wing of a crow. And her eyes were not on the procession. They stared straight at me.
I knew her and had never seen her and my breast ached with the beating of my heart.
A little turning up of the lips enigmatically and her eyes met mine. I felt as if arrows pierced me through. The scream of a raven was in my ears.
She turned and began to push her way through the dense crowd, away from the still passing procession, and that enigmatic smile of satisfaction was lost to my sight.
A wing of darkness brushed by before my eyes and something broke inside my head. Abruptly I was moving. With a strength beyond my years, I escaped the clutching hands of surprised, surrounding servants – then I was forcing my way through the thick knot of solid, stolid citizens. The last servant of the three lords passed in stately progress as I was across the mud street behind him before the crowd could close in at his back.
She stood in the distance ahead, waiting at the edge of town, looking back to see that I still followed and that my father’s men were lost in the press behind. She walked unhurriedly ahead of me and I followed. Away from town we went, round the edge of a wood, past fields of yellow grain.
At last I stood before a little house with a thatched roof reaching almost to the ground. Gasping in the coolness of the quiet end of afternoon, I hesitated.
Before me was an open door and the portal was dark. Within me was turmoil – leaping, twisting. I looked around at the empty fields. Where else was there to go?
Step by step I neared the portal and the dark oblong grew larger, but less dark. Then I stepped through.
A cauldron, looking vast in its blackness, stood on three legs in the center of the room. Smoke rose round it, adding to the black of its sides, eventually escaping through a hole in the roof. She had only just gotten the fire going again, but she stirred the streamless stew gently, a slight smile on her face – a face furrowed by the passing of age, yet ageless in itself.
”Who are you?” I asked from a dry throat, lunging like a baited hawk at the only food I had ever seen.
I knew myself bewitched, but there was no time for more than a single shiver to run up my back-bone. Quick, harsh, demanding, the words came from me, ”Why did I come? Why should I follow you?”
But she was silent as the ghosts that haunted me each night. She drew slow circles in the water and gazed into it as one gazes at a scene far away.
As my confusion increased, the demanding young noble crumbled quickly and the unhappy child with a lump in his throat began to show through.
”What do they call you?” I asked simply.
For the first time, she spoke.
stood there helplessly, the hot tears burning to get out. All
the rules of my world, so carefully clutched up out of chaos
over the last twelve years could no longer protect me. All rules
lay dead at the threshold of the Black Crow.
Looking from her simple gown of solid black, down to my own rich holiday dress, it seemed to me that, like my striped jerkin, I was neither red nor yellow nor brown nor any one color or thing. Words came from deeper than the heart, from the very center of me.
”Who am I?”
Her eyes met mine again, and the words began to pour from me, ”Why am I never at home in the place where I was born? Why do I hear someone calling me sometimes, and why does it hurt so much?”
I tried to say, ”In the Name of God,” but the words would not come out. Instead, I fell at her feet and clutched the thick, slick-worn cloth of her skirt.
”Please – who am I?”
”You are of the Blood,” she replied.
Her words went through me and I knew they were true, though I did not know what they meant. The tears began to escape despite my best efforts.
”Please,” I said, speaking without choosing my words and struggling to keep my voice steady, ”help me to understand. I am lost. Somewhere there must be a clan for me, but I wandered away and couldn't find my way back. I was born to the wrong parents! Where are my people?”
”Thou hast been in the earth long, young one. Thou has been born and lived and died and rested and then been born again, many times. For that is the true way of the world. Thou art of the blood of the Ancient Ones, priests and priestesses of the Mighty Ones of Earth and Sky.”
A provincial Christianity, brow-beaten and rod-beaten into me, battled desperately for control – pitted against forces far older and more deeply rooted in soul and heart.
”I will go to Hell and burn forever!” I cried, ”But I must know! The Ones that call, what do they want from me? I can’t hear their voices!”
The wise woman’s voice grew soft, yet the words bound me straiter than chains. ”The Old Ones would hear their names on thy lips again. It is for that they are calling. Thou did’st follow me because we are linked, thou and I. In our last lifetime we were lovers, Lady and Man. The old promises are not forgot.”
Gentle hands stroked the hair of a boy whose heart was filled with pain. He clung round her knees, crying for the loss of a love he had not remembered, even in dreams. Crying because now that he had found her again, age had cheated them of that promised love.
The crying ceased. Dim, uncertain memories of vows to the Old Ones of the World danced like shadows before his mind’s eye.
”I think,” said I, ”that I swore to be Theirs always, and that They have taken me as a sacrifice, time and time again, never letting me grow old. Black Crow, is it my death they want this time, or is it my life?”
I looked up, and there like the moon above me was her face with that enigmatic, now frightening smile.
”Is it one and then the other?” I asked, ”And me not knowing when the axe will fall?”
Still she smiled and there was no answer. She was thinking of her own end.
A curious quiet came over me. Like when the sky is still filled with clouds, but has grown too weary to storm. The wise woman raised me and set me to stirring the cauldron for her. She brought in herbs from her garden.
”This is my home,” I thought, ”not the manor house of a father whose face I cannot remember when I close my eyes. I have come home.”
At last I asked the question: ”What shall I do now, Black Crow? I want to stay here with you, but my father’s people will come looking for me.”
”I must go back, mustn't I?” I said sadly.
”Aye. Thou shalt learn to be a noble, Thomas. Because our people were conquered long ago, and the Houses of our leaders thrown down, we have had to hide in the shadows. When it came time for thee to be reborn, thou did’st choose to leave the blood-lines of thy clan to be born into the house of a lord of our conqueror’s race.
Learn to use a lord’s power to help our people, Thomas. Thou may’st visit me and I will teach thee and show thee the kin of thy soul.”
”But we must be careful, Black Crow,” I remember saying. ”No one must know I come to the house of a commoner. They would suspect.”
The Black Crow’s eyes turned down to where the evening breeze, blowing through the open door and past my small, tense form, stirred steam into white, elusive wraiths. Below, the fire crackled and wood popped. Her countenance was lit from within like the glass hood of a lamp aglow with candleshine. Now darkness beat like wings fluttering round her candle, casting shadows from within upon her face.
I saw all this, but I did not then understand.
”We must be careful,” I said, and left.
Next comes a memory locked in the flesh, not the eyes or brain. Years had passed in learning from the Black Crow, during which I had made of myself a sober youth, given to dark and simple dress. To my amusement and, thought it meant safety, chagrin, this sometimes led people to suspect me of puritan leanings.
The beauty and wonder we shared is lost. This one night seared those years away:
Hands, holding me back. A man wrapped round each leg and uncounted hands clutching tightly to either arm and all about my chest, as I strained vainly forward.
How many there were, I could not tell, nor who there were, for they all wore hoods or scarves or masks. But from the moment I rounded the bend where the path curves about the edge of the wood, and they came springing out of the darkness upon me, I had no chance. I would not keep my avowed appointment.
”How dare you!” I raged, trying to fling my body forward and loosen their grasp. ”Who dares set a hand upon his Lord? What do ye mean here?”
The men all kept silent, lest I recognize their voices, but with a sudden cold sinking of the heart, I knew – I could smell the smoke.
The quiet young nobleman who had thought himself able to hide his heart forever from all around him gave an unrestrained howl of horror.
”There is not a man among you dares stand face to face with me!” I cried desperately. ”Ah, give me my sword and I’ll dare the best of ye or all of ye at once! But let me die with a sword in my hand!”
They held me tight, being no fools, and the sword I had trained with for so long hung impotent at my side, the hand that hungered for the feel of the hilt, stretched out helpless above.
Eight years of careful silence would not leave me and I could not even call out to my Gods.
”Think ye that I do not know ye all?” I asked the faceless men. ”You are surely my own men, tenants of my land which I have kept for you and blessed for you. Have not the harvests been good all the years of my lordship? Have I not served ye better than the Lord my father who taxed and burthened ye all?”
Silently they held me, their yeoman hands firm yet gentle. My name was not among those the White Lady called that night.
The words were ripped up through my guts, one by one, like fishing barbs on a string. ”I think ye mean to burn my friends!”
a furious energy, I fought to burst the bonds of death, but
my loyal tenants had determined to serve their master in the
best way they knew how. Surely if they burned those who had
bewitched me, I would be free again.
”Is this love?” I cried, choking, ”to hold me here while you destroy everyone I love, everything I live for? You fools, I am not bewitched! You cannot save your Lord from the pact he’s made! Can’t you feel it? It’s me you’re burning out there!”
The furious struggle ceased and I stood still and trembling in their hands. Savagely, I struck at them with the only thing I had left – the voice of my hatred.
”When the fire dies, so will I, and you shall hold naught but ashes in your hands. But know ye this: that the spirit of the land lives in me, your Lord, and I give ye all my curse!”
Dread put its eagle talons in them then, for Christian though they were, in their hearts they knew the Lord is married to his Land. That was why I lived to hear the screams of my clan-sisters and the brothers of my blood.
”The Land shall lie barren,” I called in a hoarse, distorted voice. ”Your crops and the beasts of your fields shall sicken and wither. No man shall dwell in this desolate place; the beasts of the wild wood and the seeds of tree and shrub shall shun this land that hates the living! Where now are your farms, ’til the end of time, shall be naught but wasteland and death!”
Then I hung limp in their hands, the soul gone out of me.
One man of them all had the courage to throw off his scarf and show his face to the Lord he had betrayed. Numbly I looked in that face and saw a farmer, a man of earthly possessions, solid life, father of sons and daughters; bearer of a conscience. And I saw and remembered the look in his eyes. It was a look of utter pity.
Dimly I was aware of them bearing my spiritless body back to the kinless castle where the years had left none to await me. There they laid me on my bed, as gently as they would have laid corpse in coffin.
Sitting alone – as always – at table, I drank my wine, looked back on these events of twenty winters gone and more, and smiled my twisted, cynical smile. I had not died. That is, I had not wholly died.
”Where are you now, Lord Thomas Magus,” I asked, ”Kabbalist, student of manuscripts in Hebrew, Latin and Greek?”
I smiled that inane, sardonic smile and poured more wine down my throat. Not all the wine in my cellars could fill my gulf. Not all the hoarded wisdom of the ages could still the echoes in that vasty wasteland.
If quiet I had been before, companionless was I now. Better was I pleased by the converse of spirits than by that of men.
To a shuttered window I moved, to peer through the cracks, but there was nothing outside. Dark of the Moon. These last years I seldom left the manor and my studies anyway.
”There is worse than the stake, my friends,” I whispered, ”there is being buried alive.”
Turning from the shut-up window, I crossed an echoing, stone-flagged plain to where my statues stood. How many nights before had I sought companionship here? My eyes ran their accustomed track along the old familiar curves. The designs were classical enough to be safe, but with hints that these represented more than what the Christians now mostly saw as storybook Gods and Goddesses, less dangerous than the Fairies of the nearby fields.
The silence was like a weight. I stood at the marble feet of Selene and gazed up at the cold, impassive face.
”I studied the wonders of the living world,” I whispered, ”and in the end I found mass-murder. I turned to the ways of temporal power, and with other arts, wrought sterile vengeance. I’ve sought to build a pure realm of my own thoughts, my experiments, my spirits. I have built a tomb, Selene, a trap, a lie. Dear Goddess, I am empty. Guide me.”
Mockery. Tonight Selene had no glow of life, Silvanus did not seem to subtly shift his alabaster limbs. Tonight Aphrodite, Dionysus, Hera – every figure in the hall mocked me with stillness. There were no Great Ones here. Tonight I was surrounded by statues, stone dead.
The sound of wine refilling my goblet warned me belatedly that a servant had entered the room. I spun about and stared closely at him. He gave no sign of having overheard anything. But that is the way of servants.
could I be so careless? Then I hesitated, torn. Here was, after
all, a human being to whom I might speak.
I gave him the wave which meant, ”Leaver the wine, and leave the chamber for tonight.”
In his wake, silence – deafening, appalling– clanged shut like a prison door.
I turned to the darkened mirror on the mantlepiece, which I used for confuring spirit guides. My own voice sounded ghostly in this empty place, but desperate for dialogue, I spoke to my shadowy reflection.
”Thou foolish man. Thy greying hairs are an outward sign of the thousand little infirmities which have begun to cling to thee. Their sum is age.”
The face in the glass seemed to alter, as if another face were shiftingly superimposed over my own, and thoughts formed unbidden in my brain: ”You have no heir to take your place as Lord of the Land.”
”Why should I care now?” I asked defiantly. The Land is on her own – I no longer aid her. I’m tired of vengeance – I no longer blight her either. It has been years since I gave a damn about her.”
I slammed my fist upon the mantlepiece and made the mirror jump. ”The Lord and his Land are one flesh. In cursing her, I have brought barrenness upon myself. What is all this knowledge for? Who shall read the books of power I have so meticulously penned?
”A younger man, knowing what I know, unfettered by a heart of ash – what might he not accomplish? There need be no common connections this time to make people suspect. The heir to my power could be of high enough standing that I might legally deed him my title and land.”
The reflection of my features grew ugly and I turned away. ”What am I thinking? The one thing I’ve learned is to trust nothing and no one.”
If I should allow myself to feel again…
”I never knew,” I said in a thick voice, ”was it act or word of mine which brought my friends to the stake?”
There came no answer. I ran a hand over my face and leaned my forehead on the mantlepiece, seeking to ease the conflict. ”The times are more dangerous than ever,” I reasoned. ”This new king, James, is spreading a mindless fear of witchcraft. There are many who believe me to be just what I am and who keep silent only from fear of my arts, both magical and politic. Have I the right to risk another?
”Have I the courage to risk another’s loss?”
”What does it matter what thou think’st” said the ghost in the glass. ”Thou hast heard the crow call.
So I began to appear occasionally at court and to visit my peers. Behind a wry smile, I learned again to make meaningless conversation, while unremarked, I viewed and considered the youth of the nobility – meaning to stake my all on one last throw.
Time is a strange God. He turneth the musings of a grey-haired man into the fevered memories of a man whose hair is white as the sheets of the great cold bed where he lies, a harsh-lined face wedged among snow-capped pillow peaks.
Brain and body burning, then freezing, only to burn again; though fever-visions haunt me, my mind is sharp enough to know my state.
The crows are croaking at me from the roof. My lungs are filling with liquid – pneumonia.
Why can I find no gentle acceptance of death? Ah, must cough and gasp. Hard to breathe. I never thought I’d live so long, nor surely, grow so old.
”Ah,” I gasp, ”where is the boy? Where is Roland, my apprentice, my heir? He should be with me.”
My voice is too weak to penetrate the heavy air. There are no servants to hear, in any case – he has sent them all away, ”Lest thou let slip some secrets of the Art in thy delirium.”
He has left me alone in the top tower room to gasp and cough and listen to the hungry crows.
”Doesn’t he know I’m dying?” I cry with an old man’s petulance.
Of course he knows. Who better?
Aye, there’s the crux of it – the thing that will not let me drift away in peace:
I think it is the magic that is killing me. And there is only one person could do that to me.
Ah, the room contracts and expands as the fever distorts my senses. Can I trust what I feel? My mind is maddened with passion and darkened by the shadow of what awaits.
Keep breathing yet awhile – I cannot leave not knowing. So sick…
Suspicion, too, is a sickness and it has gradually devoured me. Have I so little loyalty that I can blame him for what is the eventual fate of all old men?
Crow on the tower, messenger of the Goddess whose womb will be my grave, let me hear Her voice again. For truly I fear for my soul. I’ve spent my life paying, but there is still so much to make up for before I can die. The hour of judgment is at hand and I am no longer known for my mercy.
I am alone – does not that fact damn him? What use is an old man to him now?
”Ah,” I wheeze, ”he swears he loves me.”
And what is the shadow love casts, old man? You know it well: hate. My spies tell me what he calls me behind my back: the Terrible Old Man.
”Where is he, my Roland, my boy?”
More guilt to shackle my spirit? Have I driven him too hard, blind to what has been driving me? Have I dangled my lands before his eyes too oft? Have I bred in him too great a hunger for the power I have come to value above all else?
”Could you not wait, boy, for an old man to die?”
The fever-visions crowd the periphery of my sight and the croaking of the crows oppresses me. How many disasters do I require to learn a simple lesson? ”Trust nothing and no one?”
Old fool! Treble fool – I gave him my Will with his name on it. O, my friends long gone, I have undone myself. Is this agony payment enough for failing my appointment with you that dreadful night?
”Come, boy, come to thy master’s side!” I summon my will and reach out to him. As I suspected, he lurks nearby, unable to face me, unable to flee. My fierce, old will shall shake the lead from his feet and bring him back to me.
There is small power in me, but I’ve a secret still: my sword lies unsheathed beneath my deathbed, hidden by a cloth. I will not need magic to share that secret with thee, my dear one.
”Come, boy, I’m dying. Quick, boy, I want thee.”
Ah, ah, exhausted by the effort of summoning him, yet I must be ready. Gods, the hilt of my sword is crying to my hand again! Let me look on those eyes that could do this thing to me.
His incubus lies heavy on me, suffocating me. I cannot move a finger. I feel him nearing; I hear the echo of his steps spiraling up the long stairwell to the tower top where I lie in wait.
my eyes sink shut, yet I feel the fire of his soul in the doorway
of the chamber. The boy is near me.
How strange the word sounds on his lips! How like the word ”Tyrant!”
”Master, I’ve brought thee some medicine and I wish thee to drink it before thou speak’st.”
The crows laugh and call the jest to one another.
”Will’t thou taste it, boy?” I gasp; bitter, cold.
He will not answer, but brings the goblet to my bedside, his spirit crushing me, making me thirst. One harsh bark of laughter escapes me and I say, ”I swear, boy, by what I hold is true…”
I must pause and pant for life, ”…which thou know’st I will not break…that I will drink thy medicine…but let me talk with the first.”
Sagging limply, I let him sense the emptiness of my reservoirs of one-time power. The weight on my limbs and lungs eases, but I give no sign of renewed strength.
In a dying voice, I whisper and he leans over me to hear. ”Boy, boy, ah…I gave thee everything…I know you have betrayed me, Roland…”
He can no longer meet my eyes, but looks down and bites his trembling lip. Another bark of laughter escapes me and sets me to coughing.
Terrible Old Man, am I? More terrible than you know.
Agony twists like a drill-bit in my heart, and for a moment my savage resolve is washed away.
”Why do you hate me so?” I cry. ”Traitor” Ah, boy, did you not know? Did I never tell the – in all the desolate world, as my own, I loved thee.”
Now I can speak no more, but arch my throat and drive my fevered head into the ice-cold, ice-hard pillows and struggle just to breathe. Tears run down the gullies in this mask I’ve worn and forgotten to look beneath.
O Gods, Goddess, what have I done to him to make him in my image? Take me now, Lady. Why should I resist so? I owe thee a shameful death for not dying with my friends.
Roland looks at me like that one man among all those who turned on me that night – the one man I spared in my bleak, vengeful years. He looks at me with the eyes of a girl.
”I know thee now,” I cry, reaching toward him through a miasma of shifting, half-formed images as delirium threatens to pull me down into his fens. ”Is that why you are burning me alive? Because I let thee burn and would not go with thee?”
Dizziness sweeps over me and darkness flaps its wings before my eyes. ”Thy spirit must have flown straight out of the fire into thy mother’s womb, to get thee back to me so soon, Black Crow.”
His eyes widen. Perhaps his heart understands what his mind knows nothing of.
So much to pay for.
The pain blinds me for a moment. And what of the Land, I think at last, at the threshold of dissolution. Great Goddess, the Lord and Land are One, and I must take off the curse – it must die with me.
And what of its new Lord, Roland? Look at the turmoil on that young face – the secret hates and loves unveiled. Lady, he cannot understand what he is doing. If I die by his sorcery, he will never be free of my ghost.
”Speak quick, old man,” the crows are saying, ”and gather thy strength while thou can’st.”
”I know why, Roland. Set by the goblet and strike the bedstand ’gainst the wall.”
He hesitates, thinking me mad.
”Do it, boy, quickly. Aye, smash it and thou’lt find a hidden compartment.”
Now I lie gasping while he shatters the old wood, and freed, the iron key falls clanging on cold flags.
”The secret room – the room in the cellar –where I never let thee go – open it. The last instruments of the Art lie there – the last of the gold. Thou hast the Will, the Deed – all but the last secret, now, is thine.”
Struggling to sit up, I pant, ”I’m weak, boy, I’m dying. Help me – fulfill – my vow. Quickly.”
He lifts me up; I weigh little in his arms.
”The medicine, boy; I swore.”
Baffled, eyes brimming, he holds the cup while I gulp and splutter the bitter potion down. There is little air left in me. ”Help me – to floor.”
His arm around me, by bony knees strike cold flags, my right hand feels the sword beneath the cloth, while the room swims round me. ”Now – I share with thee – my final secret!”
I must stop and cough enough room into my lungs to draw another breath.
”Away from me, boy, get away.”
He lets go and takes a step back, still facing me.
I gasp, ”To the door, damn thee, and let me hear thee there!”
He backs across the little room to the doorway and opens his mouth to speak, but has no words to say.
The cloth is twitched away, and at last my good, bright blade is home in my hand. To Roland’s surprise I manage to rise, leaning on the bed. From the doorway he stares dumbly, numbly. Round and round I rock my torso to build strength and momentum, breathing hard. Now reversing the sword, I jam the hilt in the pillows and throw myself upon the point as hard as I can.
The blade pierces deep into the soft, old abdomen and grabbing the sharp steel, I tug upward to widen the wound as much as I can before the blood loss drops me helpless on reddening sheets.
The pain does not last long. I taste blood in my mouth and feel my limbs quivering and writhing purposelessly.
Then I am free to rise above the body and watch how it shudders and bleeds without me; small and forsaken on the broad, white bed. Roland still stands speechless at the door.
My death was not at your hand, young friend. Do you understand that you are free to weave a better fate for yourself and your Land than the one you had chosen?
Next time I will know better. Next time I will not be blinded by vengeance.
Next time I will find my Black Crow, and one day, lying in her arms, I will remember where we have been before and what we have done.
But now I too am free. Free to step back into the great, glowing face of the sun.