In the centuries before his involvement with Arthur, Merlin is immortal, and almost young. He befriends Jason, seeker of the Golden Fleece, and his enchantress wife, Medea. Through Greece, Finland and other lands, to England, the skein of Merlin's tale leads to heroism, treachery and magic.
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Robert Holdstock is the winner of the World Fantasy Award for his classic fantasy novel MYTHAGO WOOD. He is regarded as one of the 20th century's leading writers of myth and fantasy, and has written novels for over twenty years, including the MYTHAGO sequence, the novel of John Boorman's film, THE EMERALD FOREST and THE FETCH. Robert Holdstock was born in Kent, and lives in North London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I was neither a stranger in this territory, nor familiar with it. The last time I had passed this way, the route into the wilderness of forest and snow that was the northern land of Pohjola had been an open gorge, guarded by nothing more sinister than white foxes, chattering mink and dark-winged carrion birds. But in five generations or more, things had changed.
As I came out of the birch forest into the gathering mouth of the gorge I faced a barrier of grim-faced wooden statues, five times a man's height, each ringed with torches that illuminated the leering features.
I counted ten such grotesques. They spanned the gorge. Between them, a thick thorn fence barred anything but a snow-rat from passing, and if there was a gate through this sinister wall, I couldn't see it.
I used the thorns as hooks and erected a crude shelter from the tent-skins in my baggage. I fed the horses then studied each tree-face in turn. One leaf-haired, grim-eyed mask held my gaze for several moments before I realised what it was. The knowledge shocked me. It was an image of Skogen, an old trickster friend of mine; his name meant 'shadow of unseen forests'. That is exactly what he had been. In the remote past, when he had still been in human form, we had adventured together. Now he was here, in eternal night, a god in wood, face cracked by ice. He had no business being here. When I called out his name the torches that girdled his neck seemed to flicker with amusement. I was not amused, and nervous memory was returning.
Now a second face suddenly became familiar to me, once I had seen through the rough-hew of its carving. Another old 'friend' from the early years, this one gentler.
'Well, well. Sinisalo. You used to climb trees. Now you are one. You used to play tricks on me then run away like the wind. Now you're rooted.'
Sinisalo was the 'eternal child in the land'. I myself had once been sinisalo. All of life's creatures are sinisalo for a brief moment. The child's power is usually left behind in the process of growth. But for some of us, that funny, frisky fawn always remains at the edge of our vision, to be summoned at will. The eternal child. Here she was, five thousand years on, a memory in carved birch.
'Sinisalo,' I whispered again, with affection, and blew a kiss.
The face on the towering trunk didn't change its expression, but large, dark birds began to rise from their winter nests and perch upon the craggy ledges of all the statues.
It had been a long time since I had last encountered these entities, and I had forgotten most of them. What I remembered was that every time I encountered them, in stone, or wood, or bone or as masks or colourful patterns on the walls of caves, whenever our paths crossed, my life changed. For the worse. It had always seemed to me that these ten old faces in my world were watching me, appearing to me as unwelcome portents of a shift in my life of travel, security and pleasure on the path I walked. Not that these frozen wastelands of rock, ice and forest were a pleasure to cross, but I was here on personal business, and had been anticipating a change for the better.
No, these gruesome, grinning totems were not at all a welcome sight. My bones itched. Their names--all but Skogen and Sinisalo--continued to elude me. That there was life in the wood, that they had tracked me down for their own purpose, did not escape me. I wondered if they could read my confusion and my reluctance to remember more clearly.
'Listen!' I shouted. 'I know two of you. I'd probably know all of you if I could recognise you. I'm a friend. I walk the Path. This is my hundredth time of walking. At least! Who's counting? I've been here a hundred times before. And now I need to go on. Please call the people who erected you. I would like to talk to them. I need the gate opened!'
A long sleep later--I was exhausted; the crows woke me to the ever-present northern darkness--I stood before the wall, staring at the torches of reindeer riders, one of whom had dismounted and was standing, gazing down at me from some structure in the centre of the thorn barrier. I could see that there were five riders in all, each so heavily draped in dyed and decorated fur cloaks and hats that they seemed enormous as they straddled their beasts. The creatures were amply decked out with winter colours on their antlers, and draped in colourful blankets and cowls, through which their freezing breath emerged like elemental life-forms.
The man who stared down at me asked me who I was. I could see only his eyes. I replied in a dialect of his language that I was the young warrior who had last come this way five generations ago and fought with their ancestor hero Lemkainon, against the bearskin-shrouded Kullaavo, the dark spirit of the land.
'You fought with Lemkainon? Against that monster?'
'Didn't do much good. Kullaavo is still in the forest.'
I told him the name I had used during that encounter. I reminded him that my return had been predicted, exactly on or around this time. The man breathed frost at me, then said, 'If that's true, then you're an enchanter. Some of them live until the flesh abandons their bones. Even then the bones sometimes keep on rattling. Are you an enchanter?'
'Yes. Let me through.'
He peered harder at me. He probably couldn't see me very clearly in the dark. 'How many birds do you fly?'
I was certain he was asking how old I was; the Pohjoli measured the age of shamans by the number of spirit-birds they could inhabit when they entered the dream-trance, usually one bird for every ten years of life.
'Two,' I answered.
'Only two? But you were here five generations ago, you said.'
'I keep to two because I travel faster that way.' The younger, the better.
'More birds, more skills, surely.' The older, the wiser.
'Well, yes. But fewer birds, more appetites.' And more energy. Self-evident!
I had been alive since before the land of the Pohjoli had grown from the great ice. But I still only flew two birds--a hawk and a raven, by the way, though I hadn't seen them for a while; they weren't my favourite companions--because it was more important to keep youth on my side. At least for the moment.
My inquisitor thought about my reply for a moment, then asked me my business in Pohjola.
'I'm going to swim in the Screaming Lake,' I replied.
He seemed astonished. 'A terrible place. There are more dead men in the waters there than are living in the whole of the land of Kalevala. Why would you want to bother with a place like that?'
'I'm looking for a sunken ship.'
'There are a hundred ships at the bottom of that lake,' the guardian said. 'The old man of the water has built his palace from their timbers and the bones of the drowned. It's a dreadful place to go.'
'No water man will have touched the ship I'm looking for.'
The man on the wall squeezed his nose as he thought about my words. 'It seems unlikely. Enaaki is voracious. Anyway, the ice is a man's height thick. Not even the voytazi can get through it.'
The voytazi, I knew, were the water demons who snared men on the shore and dragged them down to a terrible death. The Pohjoli lived in terror of them.
'I have a way of getting through it.'
The reindeer rider laughed. 'Anyone can get through it downwards. Digging down isn't the problem. The lake is full of the song-chanters, bead-rattlers and drum-whackers who've done that. But the ice will close over your head. How will you get out?'
'I may have a way of doing it,' I bragged.
'Then you have a secret,' my host retorted, 'which you must reveal before we can let you through.'
I thought he was making a joke and laughed, then realised that he was quite serious. People in the Northland were hungry for 'charms', I remembered, and they were traded as easily as the Greeks traded olives and milk-white cheeses.
I was getting irritated with this man. It was clear he wasn't going to give way to just any young-looking grease-haired, long-bearded, crow-savaged, mule-packing, stinking stranger; not without trade. And though I suspected he had little time for enchanters themselves--the song-chanting, bead-rattling drum-whackers as he had dismissed them--I hazarded that he was greedy for those little devices of enchantment that in this country they called sedjas.
'I'll reveal nothing of such a secret, and you know it. But I have talismans to trade, and a cure for the Winter Bleak which I'll show you later. Let me through. I must get to the lake.'
'You have a cure for the Winter Bleak?'
Every man, woman, child and wolf in this long-night wasteland dreamed of a cure for the misery that affected them as frost crept from tree branch to their own hearts. I had long ago discovered that the best cure for it was to believe there was a cure for it.
Reindeer man squeezed the ice from his nose again. 'What's your business with the ship?'
Exasperated, impatient, I said more than I wanted to. 'I believe I know her name. I once sailed with her captain. He's still with her. I hope to throw flowers on his grave.'
Reindeer man grunted, then looked about him at the totem trunks.
'I don't understand. But it looks to me as if the rajathuks have accepted you.' He thought hard for a moment, then shrugged. 'So you may pass through.'
I took time to look in turn at each guardian tree--each rajathuk--and thank it.
The gate had been dragged back. I quickly crossed into the territory of Pohjola, tugging on the tethers of my reluctant horses, then watched as the tangled mass of thorn and wicker was returned to its place between the towering wooden idols.
I was introduced to each of the riders who were waiting for me, though only a hulking man called Jouhkan showed the slightest interest in me.
Lutapio, the leader of the riders and my interrogator at the wall, was inspecting my horses. He offered to trade them for reindeer, but I refused. I liked my animals. Good horses, even packhorses, were hard to come by and I'd had this pair for five years. They had become good friends. Losing horses to Time, to Death, and losing hounds or wild cats, other good friends, is one of the most difficult things about walking the long path. My path is rich with the graves of old friends, or memorials to their memory.
I had supposed Lutapio was looking for some payment for the hospitality he was about to offer me, but he waved my suggestion away. I was welcome to travel with them to the lake, just as soon as their business in this forested wasteland was concluded, which would not be for a while.
Their business was at the spirit hill of Louhi, Mistress of the Northlands, a very sacred place, a narrow cave leading into the sheer, icy wall of a mountain, guarded by crowded and tangled winter trees. Blue-red flames flickered in two stone basins on either side of the entrance, and the gleaming white of bears' skulls picked up the eerie light as they dangled from branches.
The reindeer riders had set up two low tents close by, and two bigger fires burned, kept roaring by the rest of the group, who restlessly scoured the woods for forage. Reindeer snuffled and snorted at the tethers.
Curious, I approached the cave, but Lutapio insisted that I stay outside. I could hear song, the sound of three women's voices, I felt, one of them almost chanting, the others harmonising. The song turned into a scream of pain, then there was silence, followed by the sound of weeping and wood being angrily snapped.
The cycle was repeated. Lutapio tugged me back to the warmth and offered me a drink.
'Her name is Niiv. She may or may not speak to you, it all depends.' He didn't specify on what her conversation might depend. 'Her father died in the lake, not long ago. He was the greatest of the dream travellers, and several different animals would take his spirit, though he was strongest in the bear. Niiv is his eldest daughter. His eldest son was killed by a moon-mad wolf. Jouhkan, his youngest son, has no desire to dream travel. So Niiv is here, with her sisters, to ask Louhi if it is right for her to take over her father's dreams. To do this she must become her father for a while, and live through his pain and his life and then at last his death. This is almost the end, as you can hear. She must be terrified.'
'And if Northland's Mistress says no?'
'She won't go back,' Lutapio said matter-of-factly, pointing to a ditch that had been dug through the snow into the frozen ground below. It was marked with a post from which an amber necklace hung.
'I hope the Mistress approves of her,' I volunteered.
Several of the men laughed, including Lutapio, who said, 'Knowing Niiv, Louhi will be eating out of her hand.'
'How far is it to the lake?' I asked later.
'Five rests, perhaps six if you're slow. Jouhkan and Niiv will take you. The lake shore is crowded with strangers, many of them enchanters. The place stinks of potions, spells and shit. You'd be wise to keep your wits about you. Though somehow, I believe you will.'
I thanked Lutapio and assured him that I was prepared for the circus that I would find. Six rests he had said, and I supposed he meant periods of sleep, approximating to a night. When night lasts nearly half a year, days cease to be meaningful, but I had a fair idea of how far I had to go, now, and the journey was to be shorter than I'd expected.
An icy wind began to blow from the mouth of the mountain sanctuary of Northland's Mistress. Our warming fires guttered, sparks flying on to the taut hides of the tents, but quickly dying on the layer of stinking grease that covered the skins. A little while later the three women emerged, running, bent almost double; I heard laughter from below the brightly coloured mufflers that encased their faces, all but their eyes, which flashed brightly in the light of the fires. They scampered to their own tent and ducked through the low flap, pulling it shut. The laughter became louder, and then they sang again, but this time with true, pure joy, three voices that bubbled, shrieked and chattered tunefully.
Whoever she was, Niiv now had a little magic, her father's magic, and she was delighted.
Lutapio and the others crawled into the tent to sleep. I crouched by the fire for a while, wondering whether to probe a little into the Lady of the North; I had heard of Louhi, of course; her effect and influence were everywhere. But I had never encountered her. My idle thoughts were interrupted when one of the women came out of her tent, glanced at me, then came over to me, kneeling down in the snow so that her voluminous skirts spread around her. She wore a red woollen cap pulled down to her eyes, and a scarf that covered her face. Pale blue eyes searched me from that slit in her winter mask. I was disturbed by the intensity of that gaze, almost charmed by it, caught by it as a fish is caught on a bone hook. I couldn't help thinking: this woman knows me.
We sat in this way for what seemed an age. I fiddled with burning sticks and she mimed the slow slapping of her hands together as she watched me unflinchingly.
She suddenly spoke. 'You're one of those who walks the Path around the world. Aren't you?'
Taken by surprise at thi...
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