Saturday, 14 January 2017

Riley and the Wizard

Riley and the Wizard

The world is a very old place, and it has not always been as it is now. Today we live in the era of science, but there was a time when nature and magic were the powers that governed the Earth. What is true now, was not known then, and what was true then has been sadly forgotten by most.

Over two thousand years ago a boy called Eoin lived in a tiny village on an island called Ireland. To him, the island was his whole universe, a world complete, perched on the edge of a wild ocean and he'd not yet travelled further than a day’s walk from the cluster of huts he called home. Eoin had heard stories of lands which lay across those vast waters, but he was sure they were nothing more bedtime stories for children, and could never be true.

The island was covered in forest and was a land of plenty to those who called it home, but it was not without its pearls. The woods were home to Wolf, Bear, Eagle and Boar, all of which could slay a man if he were not careful. Then there were the other-world creatures, magical beings like elf’s, fairy’s, trolls and the like. The island was a kingdom of tribes, ruled by chieftains, heads of the biggest clans, and of course the mystical ones. The enchantresses, the witches, the druids and the wizards. These were the ones who held the power of life and death.

Eoin’s clan was small and didn't have a chief of its own but his father was a great hunter and provided much of the game which fed the villagers. At this time Eoin was still a boy, and where there's a boy, there must be a girl. For Eoin, her name was Roisin and she was the daughter of the blacksmith. They were the same age and he thought she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, but like all boys of that age, he'd rather cut out his own tongue than tell her.

One day, the men had gone hunting and Eoin was left watching over the goats. All of a sudden he heard screaming come from the village. The sound chilled his heart and it could mean only one thing, attack. He left the herd and raced toward home. As he neared, he saw group of men rushing between the huts trying to take what food and livestock they could, they were bandits driven by hunger and greed. Eoin rushed forward, his mind filled with only one person, Roisin. He grabbed a thick bough from a wood pile as he passed and bashed a raider over the head as he came out of a hut struggling to hold a young girl. The raider collapsed and the girl escaped, Eoin ran on. He came to a skidding stop outside Roisin’s home just as four raiders closed in on it. He swung the stout timber and connected with the jaw of one man, hearing a satisfying crack as the bone broke. The others paused, circling outside his reach. The standoff only lasted a few moments before they rushed at him from all sides. Eoin fought like a wild animal, like a wolf, but three on one was going to be too much. A lucky blow caused one man to scream in pain and stagger away holding his forearm. Eoin turned his head and saw the most amazing sight. Roisin was standing with her back to his, holding one of her father’s swords in her hands, swinging at the raiders. Side by side they fought, for minutes or hours, time lost all meaning, until salvation appeared in the guise of the elders rushing from the forest. The raiders fled, Eoin and Roisin collapsed in exhaustion, their chests heaving with exertion, fear and relief filled their minds. She looked him in the eye and in that moment Eoin promised himself he'd never look at another woman with love in his heart.

On the day Eoin passed from boyhood into manliness, he approached Roisin’s family and asked to take her as his wife. The arrangement was welcomed by all and as soon as the water ran low in the river they were wed. The young lovers were never apart, either by day or by night, each gazed upon the other as if they alone existed. You might think their lives were perfect but all was not well in the world. Famine gripped the country and raiding parties become more and more frequent.

Eoin took his father’s place as the protector of the clan and won many victories. In those days, war was common and honour was all a man could call his own. Many times when two clans faced each other, the dispute would be solved without a blade being raised. Where battle was unavoidable, the victorious clan were honour bound to take all surviving combatants under their protection.

Side by side, Roisin and Eoin defended their lands, defeating many attacking chieftains. At the end of ten years, Eoin found himself ruler of all the people from the Blue Mountains of the east to the Grey Cliffs of the west. At last, peace came. Unlike other Chieftains, Eoin never took another wife, only Roisin would ever share his bed.

A year after peace arrived, Roisin’s belly began to swell and soon the truth of her condition couldn't be denied and there were no happier man than Eoin in all the world. On the day of the birth, Eoin the Red waited outside their home, more frightened than at any other time in his life. He endured hours of listening to his beloved suffer the trial of birth and vowed he'd never subject her to such pain again. What scared him even more was when the cries suddenly stopped and silence hung over the village, Eoin the Red held his breath. Then a child’s cry rose into the sky and he nearly wept with delight.

The door was pulled back and a wrinkled old nurse beckoned him inside. Eoin ducked under the low entrance and held his breath. The air was warm, steam rose from a pot which bubbled in the corner. Roisin lay on a bed of pelts holding a swaddled bundle to her chest. She smiled and Eoin rushed to her side.

“Are you good my love?” His first and only worry was for the woman who held his heart.

“Better than ever, look,” she said holding out the bundle for him to take. Eoin hesitated, afraid to take a thing so tiny in his arms.

“A girl,” said the ancient nurse as she dipped a cloth into the bubbling pot to wash it clean.

“A miracle. Take her, she won’t break, she's as strong as her father,” Roisin said, still holding the baby in outstretched arms.

Eoin looked down and saw the most perfect thing God or man had ever created. His heart swelled with love until it was fit to burst in his chest and he felt a tear creep close to his eye. He sniffed it away because, after all, he was the chief. He took the tiny baby in his hands and in that moment he knew his heart now belonged to two. A tiny hand extended from beneath the swaddle to wrap around the tip of his finger.

“She has the grip of a warrior,” he said in amazement and smiled at Roisin.

“She's a fighter for sure, born of her father.”

“Born of royalty,” muttered Eoin, speaking to the baby.

“What? You’re calling her Riley?” said the nurse who was near deaf.

Roisin smiled and raised her eyebrows at him.

“Why not,” he said. “Riley fits her well.”

At the sound of her name the baby gurgled and gave the most powerful chieftain in the land a grin. This time, Eoin the Red couldn’t stop a tear spilling down his cheek to vanish in his bushy red beard.

In the years that followed Riley not only captured the heart of her parents, but the hearts of everyone in the clan. Eoin the Red decided to move the seat of his kingdom west to a place more easily defended from those who might be jealous of his success. He picked Lough Tully. Lough is the Irish word for lake, and this particular lake was on the mid-point of Eoin’s lands. He set about building a Crannog Village, a development anchored around a central island, connected to the main land by a long bridge. A Crannog is a building which sits above the water on huge stilts, making it near impossible to attack by surprise.  As Eoin and Roisin’s empire grew, so grew the number of connected wicker buildings until they occupied all but the deepest parts of the lake.

Riley grew up the most beguiling of children, she was a girl of great beauty but she lacked even a trace of vanity, her love of nature and her ability to weave happiness into any situation brought joy to everyone. Most chieftains would pray for a son but Eoin thanked the great creator for the girl he had been blessed with. He knew she was destined to lead their people after his hair turned silver, a position she would have no trouble holding because she had the best partsof both her parents. 

Turning nine was a huge milestone in any young person’s life, it marked the end of childhood and the beginning of something very important. It was the year a clan member began to earn their place among the elders.  Riley’s ninth year was approaching and Eoin the Red wanted to celebrate it in a manner that would never be forgotten. He decreed there would be a feast unlike any seen before. He sent riders to the four winds with invitations for every chieftain, king, druid, wizard and enchantress in the land. Every powerful person would attend, it would be talked of for a generation. 

Unknown to Eoin, on a cold and miserable morning, the messenger carrying an invitation for Malten the Twisted did something terrible. Malten was a cantankerous old wizard but his magic was powerful and respected by any man with a brain in his head. Esker Wood, the place he called home was reputed to be haunted by a thousand uneasy demons and as a result was avoided by all. It was one of the most malevolent places in the whole of Ireland. The messenger stopped at the edge of the wood and tried to urge his mount forward. The horse rose on his hind legs and refused to go a step further. After a few tries the frustrated and frightened messenger looked over his shoulder. There was nobody for miles. Fear got the better of him and he reached into his pouch, withdrawing the invitation scroll and cast it into the edge of the wood.

“Find it if you want, I've brought it far enough,” said the messenger before galloping away. The wind caught the scroll and blew it deep into the woods where darkness and thorns eventually stopped its tumbling journey.

As the weeks passed, excitement grew and nobody was more excited than Riley. She'd been promised a new cloak to wear at the gathering and she secretly hoped her father would present her with a sword of her very own as a mark of her value to the clan. The week of the celebration approached and nobles started arriving. Soon it looked as if a huge fair was taking place, such was the number of tents that littered the ground. On the day before the feast, the largest Ox in Eoin’s heard was slathered and mounted on a spit above a roasting pit. It would take a full day to cook the huge beast fully.

As night fell, Bo, apprentice to Eoin’s stable master was left in charge of turning the spit till dawn. The time passed slowly and in the darkest hour of the night, Bo’s eyes spotted a shadow moving toward him.

“Who’s there?” he cried, reaching for the club he carried to ward off Wolfs attracted by the smell of roasting meat.

“None but a weary traveller, cold from the night and tired from walking. May I rest by the warmth of your fire?” said the shadow.

“Come closer so I can see you,” the boy said.

An ancient man shuffled into the ruby glow thrown out by the fire and Bo was annoyed at himself for being scared of such a pathetic individual. The man was so old he made the trees about him look young. His back was so twisted he could barely stand upright. As he walked, the few remaining strands of hair attached to his head swung to and fro about his sunken cheeks.

“Sorry for my rudeness grandfather, of course you can warm yourself," Bo said.

“Thank you, you are kind,” said the elder as he shuffled the rest of the way forward and eased himself onto the ground near the roasting pit. The old man stared into the embers and seemed to drift on a sea of his own thoughts. The spit creaked as Bo turned the handle and the stars slowly made their way across the sky. An hour later a yawn escaped the boy’s lips. A little while after came another.

“The hour is late,” said the old man.

“That it is, and many more to go before dawn,” said Bo, stifling a third yawn.

“Let me repay your kindness by turning the beast for a spell. You must be weary.”

The man was right, Bo’s arms were strong but they were indeed aching. Perhaps ten minutes would be fine, as long as he keep watch.

“I’d be beholden to you for a spell of rest, thank you,” said Bo, and the old man struggled to his feet. As he took the handle Bo noticed for the first time how long the man’s fingers were and how wickedly sharp his nails appeared to be. Bo settled himself on the warm ground and watched. The ever circling animal, combined with the heat soon made his eyes close.

When Bo woke he had no idea how long he’d slept but the old man was gone and the Ox flesh was spitting above the glowing fire. One side was nearly black having not been moved in a while and Bo jumped to the handle. He cursed himself for being so stupid and trusting a stranger with his duty. He turned the beast not letting the burnt section dwell above the flames. By the time morning came, even Bo couldn't tell the burnt patch from the rest and he breathed a sigh of relief.  He wondered why the old man had vanished without waking him. The truth of the matter would have been clear if Bo had only seen what happened when he closed his eyes. The beggar was no beggar at all but a Malten the Twisted. His lack of invitation was an insult that stung him to the core and he desired vengeance. As soon as Bo had fallen asleep, he’d stopped turning the beast and dipped his hand into the folds of his cloak to withdraw a potent powder. He sprinkled it over the roasting flesh and recited an ancient incantation. Magic seeped into every ounce of the meat and once the rite was complete he simply vanished into the shadows.

The day of the feast was a sight to behold. The banquet was due to begin with the last cock crow in the evening and continue until dawn. Riley couldn’t contain herself and constantly dashed into the kitchens to pick at the fruits and berries piled high on the dishes. The cooks ran after her playfully swiping at her escaping bottom with cooking sticks but she was far too nimble for them. By mid-day she was stuffed to the gills but still kept picking. As the elders gathered to begin the feast, her full tummy had turned sour and was biting her guts.  Noticing her discomfort and the green tinge to her skin, her father drew her to one side.

“Are you feeling alright, Riley?” he asked softly.

“Yes Father, I am fine, just a belly ache.”

“You don’t look well,” he said, resting a hand on her swollen tummy and the pressure made Riley wince. He looked at her and raised his eye brows making it clear he was not taken in by her deception.

“All these people are here for me. How can I be sick?” she said cried.

“They’ll still be here even if you take a rest. When you feel better, you can join in the celebration, it will last long enough,” he said kissing her on the head.

“Are you sure Father?”

“Go,” he said with a laugh and turned her toward her bedroom. His swiping fingers were much quicker than the cooking sticks and caught her playfully as she hurried away.

When she woke, it was already getting bright. She realised she must have slept all the way through her party and was furious that nobody had woken her up. They'd let her miss all the fun and she felt like crying. She jumped out of bed and rushed onto the deck. It was very quite and that made her worry because the world was never this quiet. Riley reached the great hall and the sight before her was one straight out of a nightmare. There were bodies everywhere, piled one on top of the other, not one of them moved. Plates were still laden with food, goblets overflowing with ale, some candles still flickered as they burned to the quick. She searched among the bodies and soon found her mother and father slumped side by side at the head of the table. Riley lifted their heads and tried to wake them.

“Wake up, wake up!” she yelled over and over again as she shook them but nothing changed. They were warm and breathing deeply as if they were asleep. Why would they not wake?

That was when she heard footfalls coming at a run. It appeared she wasn't the only one left. A few seconds later a young boy came racing into the hall, skidding to a stop when he laid eyes on all the bodies. He was followed in by Ruairi. Seeing him made Riley's heart leap. Ruairi was the next best thing to having her father here to help. He'd been part of the clan for years, even longer than her father had been Chieftain. Now he looked after her father's stables. Ruairi rushed forward and scooped Riley up in his strong arms and hugged her to his chest. The boy regained his composure and began moving between the bodies trying to raise them from their stupor.

“What is going on? What's happened to them?” she cried and buried her face in Ruairi’s neck.

“I don’t rightly know child, but it’s a wicked unnatural thing. Magic of some kind is all I can think,” the old man said. 

“They are alive,” said the boy dropping his head onto a man’s chest to listen for a heartbeat.

“We have to wake them, Ruairi. We must do something!” said Riley drawing her head back so she could look at him. Her face was wet with tears and she was so very frightened. It must have shown because the old man’s expression went from confused to sorrowful as he looked upon her and his eyes watered before he spoke.

“I’m a simple horse man, Riley. I know nothing of magic except that it’s best avoided.”

That answer wasn't good enough. Riley wanted him to know what to do, he was all she had right now.

"There must be someone who can help?”

Ruairi seemed to think for a few minutes and looked around the room. Something must have occurred to him because he quickly let Riley down and got to his feet. “Perhaps. Wait with Bo, I’ll return soon.”

The old man hurried away and Riley went to sit beside her parents. She stroked her Mother’s long black hair and sobbed quietly as Bo stood to one side not knowing what to do. It wasn’t long before the old stable master returned with a healer woman hurrying behind him. She spent some time examining the sleeping people before looking to Ruairi and shaking her head sadly.

“They’ve been enchanted, there is nothing I can do.”

“There must be something!” cried Riley.

“I only wish that were true. I can heal wounds and kill a fever, but this is something else entirely. This malady is not of nature’s making, it’s a dark magic and can only be cured by one thing, magic. It’s not a healer you need it’s a druid.”

“If it’s a druid we need then we must fetch one without delay,” said Riley standing among the adults like she were one of them. Looking from one to the other with eyes which had shed their childhood shades.

“Would that it were so easy, little one. Every mystic in this part of the world lies here, slumbering,” said the old man throwing his arms open wide.

“NO! It can’t be so, there must be someone,” demanded Riley beating her hands against the old man’s chest. He took her in his arms and felt her shoulders move as she sobbed. Then the healer woman spoke.

“It’s said there's a witch in the mountains of the north who never leaves her home. Perhaps she can help, if she exists that is.”

“Can you get her and bring her here, Ruairi?” asked Riley looking into his eyes. Riley thought her heart would break when the old man shook his head.

“I’m an old man, it takes me half the morning to get from my hut to your father’s stables. If he were not such a kind person I would have been cast me aside years ago. That is why he gave me Bo to assist me in my duties. I fear I'd not be able for the journey and if something happened to me who would come then? Also, who will guard our kin while they are laid so low? My duty is here.”

“Well if you won’t go, I'll have to go myself,” she said, defiance making her words sharp.

“You can’t, it’s too dangerous, your Father would never allow it,” said Ruairi, crossing his wrinkled old arms over his chest. Riley gave the old man a stern look, she loved him like an uncle but that was not going to stop her doing what she must. Her father had fought when he was no older than she was. Now it was her turn.

“I’m not a child anymore and like you said, who else can go. My family needs me, I’m not going to let them down,” she said, her eyes were red from crying but now they also glowed with determination. She would not just stand by and wait. Something had to be done and wishing for a solution would not make one appear.

“I’ll go with her,” said the boy who had been standing to one side listening. They both looked at him and he puffed out his chest but there was trepidation in his eyes.

“You’re not much older than Riley,” scoffed the old stable keeper, a scold which hurt the boy’s feelings. There was no question in Riley’s mind, she was going with or without the old man’s blessing. If Bo wished to come, he was more than welcome.

“Time is wasting, we better ready ourselves for the journey,” said Riley and walked toward the door with the boy hot on her heels. It didn’t take her long to gather her bow and some warm clothes to wear on the journey. When she crossed the bridge Bo was already waiting for her with his club, made from the knotted root of a fallen ash tree.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” he replied confidently, patting the handle of his weapon. A noise came from behind them and they turned as one.

“The miles will pass quicker on these,” said Ruairi, as he led two of her father's best horses toward them. Draped across their haunches were food sacks and water skins. Riley had never owned a horse but she could ride as well as anyone in the clan. Bo lived with these beasts every day and easily vaulted onto his mount. Ruairi helped Riley up and patted her leg when she was settled.

“Take care of each other,” said the old man.

“Take care of my family, we'll return as quickly as we can,” she said, mimicking the way she'd heard her father speak. Confidence and authority colouring her words. The youngsters galloped north and Riley tried her best to sit tall but she couldn’t help feeling like a little girl pretending to be all grown up.

For most of the day they rode north only stopping to let the horses graze and rest by a river. Bo ate a little from their food store and tried to encourage Riley to do the same but she refused. She was too worried to eat, in one day her whole world had been turned on its head, now she had nobody to rely on except a stable boy and an ancient horseman.

As night fell, Bo spotted a large pond and suggested camping there. It was as good a place as any so she agreed. Riley tended to the horses while Bo collected wood to start a fire. He was good with a flint and soon had smoke curling up from the kindling. When darkness fell the flames were strong and warming.

“I’ll take the first watch,” said Bo trying to be her protector. Riley was having none of it. He may be a boy but that did not make him any more capable than she.

“I don’t think I can sleep, it would be best if I stand first watch and wake you when I get tired,” she said. The boy saw sense in this and nodded his head. He wrapped himself in his cloak and lay in the warm glow of the fire. In no time he was breathing deeply. Riley sat with her back to a tree and gazed into the flames. She felt so sad, so alone, and if she were honest, terrified. She didn’t feel herself drift off into sleep, but sleep she did.

A twig snapped and Riley’s eyes fluttered open. The night was deathly quiet which was a bad sign. When danger was near all the tiny forest creatures held their breath. She stilled herself, breathing gently and listened. Away to her left, a branch moved and leaves rustled. Something was circling the camp. That was when the breeze carried the stench of animal to her nose.

“Bo,” she hissed. The boy mumbled in his sleep but didn’t wake.

“Bo,” she said, a little louder this time and the boy woke.

“What is it?”

Riley pointed into the woods, her eyes big but her lips remained tightly pressed together. Bo reached for his club and got to his feet. Riley let her hand drift to the bow and she slotted an arrow on the string without having to look at her fingers. The fire had dwindled and only glowing embers remained. Another bush shook, whatever was out there was large. Riley hoped it was a deer who had wandered to close but she doubted it.

When the undergrowth parted her worst fears were confirmed. A huge brown bear swung his head side to side looking from Bo to Riley and back again. Its shiny muzzle sniffing the air, saliva dripping from its huge yellow fangs, the rubbery lips rolled back to reveal its gaping throat as it let out a roar and threw itself up on its hind legs. The animal was twice as tall as Bo and it had the eyes of a killer, black and soulless.

Bo was rooted to the spot, he moved neither forward nor back as the beast reared over him. Riley was just as frightened but she was also angry. Angry at whoever had bewitched her family, angry at being forced out across strange lands, angry at the bear for looking to eat them, just plain angry. She drew back her bow string as far as she could and let her arrow fly. The shaft struck the bear in the face just as it gave another huge growl. The arrow passed straight through the cheek and hung from the beasts gaping mouth. It was far from a fatal blow but it clearly hurt. The roar changed into a squeal of pain, a sound which freed Bo from his prison of fear. He raced forward swinging his club while Riley let loose another arrow, this one struck the animal square in the shoulder but failed to penetrate. The beast struck out at Bo, its razor sharp claws passing a fraction from the tip of his nose. Bo struck out at the beast and this time he connected with the injured mouth driving the arrow a little deeper. The Bear roared and dropped to all fours, charging away into the undergrowth, swinging his head violently side to side as if he was trying to dislodge the pain he felt.

Riley and Bo stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the undergrowth where the bear had vanished. Her body hummed with tension but that passed quickly and shakes ran through her arms and legs. She looked at Bo and noticed he was shaking too. Her Dad had often spoke of the great strength he felt during battle and how it left him drained afterwards. That was how she felt now, drained.

“We'd better build up the fire again, he might come back,” said Bo, his face had gone very white. She felt so cold it was like the night was trying to get at her bones. She hung her bow around her shoulders and followed him along the lake shore picking up dead branches to feed into the flames.

Throughout the night they took turns keeping watch, jumping every time a breeze moved a branch fearing the injured bear was returning to rip them limb from limb. Thankfully he never came. They both managed an hour or two sleep which was better than nothing. When the sun rose they checked their bearing and set off north once more.

As they travelled they passed several settlements and were greeted by more than a few people. The villagers were curious and asked why such youngsters were in strange parts but Riley insisted they avoid such questions. She was sure it would be far too dangerous for her sleeping kin should word of their tragedy become common knowledge. The last thing she wanted was a hoard of bandits descending on their lands when it lay unguarded. All they said too any who questioned them was, they’d come from the south and had business in the mountains to the north. Simple and true. They got more than a few disbelieving looks but none tried to stop them continuing on their journey.

On the third day the heavens opened and rain drenched them to their skins. Riley had never seen such a torrent in her life. The drops were as big as robin’s eggs and each seemed to have ice crystals at their core. Both she and Bo had their cloaks wrapped tightly around them and despite having the warmth of a pony between their legs, they shivered uncontrollably. When they finally reached the base of the great northern mountains they were capped by roof of black cloud. Bo was beside himself with joy at having reached their destination, but Riley was less than delighted. The mountains stretched from horizon to horizon and the Witch might be on any of them. She thought they were no closer to finding help they they had been three days ago. As luck would have it, an old woman chose that moment to come limping around a bend on the path.

“Excuse me, Mother, I have a question,” said Riley as the woman came alongside her horse. The woman paused and looked at the child riding a man’s horse. Riley dismounted so she would be at eye level with the old lady. It was only then that she noticed how thin the woman was, painfully so. Her cheeks were sunken and her eyes bulged in withered sockets. Riley knew that the poor retch was starving. The old woman looked at her with yellowed and nervous eyes. Riley turned back to her pony and retrieved a packet of food. The woman’s eyes grew huge as the parcel was placed in her withered hand and she devoured what she had been given like a wild animal. Riley stood silently until the food was gone and the woman’s composure returned.

“Thank you, my child, you are truly kind,” said the old woman bowing deeply.

“Are you from these parts?”

“I’ve lived all my life in the shadow of these black hills,” said the old woman throwing a less than loving glance over her shoulder.

“We’ve travelled a long way to find a mystic woman whom we’ve been told lives here. Would you know of her?”

The old woman’s eyes became slits, and she looked at Riley hard before answering.
“A mystic you call her, witch would be a better name. She'll do you no good. You’re best off going back home and forgetting this silly idea.”

“Going back is not an option for us and any help you could give would make our journey shorter. It would be a blessing. Could you even direct us toward the right area?”

“Kind girl, take my advice and leave that place undiscovered.”

“Even if it were to cost me my life, I must find this woman,” said Riley letting the woman see both her pain and her resolve in the matter. The old woman thought and her eyes softened. She turned slowly and pointed up the face of the mountain which rose above them. Close to the top a large portion of the hill was missing as if some huge beast had taken a bite out of it.

“She lives on yonder mountain peak, inside that great hollow. You’ll not miss her for she’s the only living thing on that whole mountain. Nothing but crows and the she-devil dwell there,” said the woman and she spat on the ground as if the mere mention of the Enchantress left a nasty taste in her mouth.

The old woman hurried away her eyes cast to the ground. Riley called after her, “Would you take some food for the road?” but not even the offer of rations would make the woman slow her flight from the home of the Witch.

“What kind of place are we going?” asked Bo, clearly the woman’s reaction had frightened him. What had seemed a straight forward task had taken on a sinister note. What they might be facing could be far more dangerous than any hungry bear.

“I don’t know, but we must keep going,” Riley said throwing her leg over her horse before urging it forward. 

The mountain path began to rise steeply. As they travelled higher, the trees grew sparse, then vanished altogether. A sea of bracken flowed across the mountain, as thick and unforgiving as any fortress wall. If it were not for the path they would have been stopped in their tracks. They rode on, each step taking them closer to the roof of black cloud which hung unbroken above them. The rain eventually thinned until mist hung in the air like a living thing. Near the summit even the bracken vanished. The path petered out when they reached a near vertical incline of loose stone, the remains of boulders shattered by a millennium of harsh weather. They tethered their horses to a large rock and continued the climb using both hands and feet. When they crested the scree slope they spotted a tiny house built in the darkest part of the bowl shaped hole. Riley was the first to start down the incline, Bo fell into step behind her. There was no sign of life in the little building or anywhere around it. As they approached, it became clear that the only part of the house not made of stone was the door. It was a wicked looking thing, made of tortured branches interwoven at impossible angles and any gaps were stuffed with moss and heather. Riley studied it and could see no joins or pegs holding it together. She rose her hand to knock when the door slowly swung open. She looked in but the interior was completely black, there were no windows and the weak daylight refused to pass the open door.

“Come,” a voice said. The words were so quite they may have been a whisper in her mind rather than real words. Bo drew back a step but Reily steeled herself and moved inside. It was like diving into a container of pitch. She couldn’t see the hand she held out before her. The house looked tiny on the outside, but inside, echoes rang into the distance.

“We mean no trouble,” she said into the darkness.  “We’ve come to seek your help.”

“Help? No one ever comes here,” came a whisper from the darkness.

“We have. We’ve come a very long way to talk to you.”

Riley felt something brush her hand and even in the dark, she knew it was Bo. He whispered in her ear, “Offer a reward.”

The voice in the darkness chuckled, “Reward. Clever boy.”

“Our clan, my father, has fallen under a spell. His name is Eoin the Red and our lands are rich. If you break the spell he will rewarded handsomely,” Riley called into the darkness.

“Ha! What good are riches to the likes of me? What is a treasure to one, is tiresome to another.”

“Please you've got to help us!” she cried.

“Silence, I do nothing but what I choose,” snapped the voice. Riley stood still and held her breath. She listened to feet sliding over stone as the enchantress moved. It was hard to pick out her position, she seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once.

“What kind of ailment has lowered them?” the voice asked at last.

“They sleep without waking,” explained Riley.

“How interesting. How many slumber?” Riley could hear the witches' voice change. Something about this intrigued her.

“Two hundred, perhaps more. My clan and all the nobles gathered to celebrate my coming of age.”

“Amazing! A truly remarkable feat. I knew it had to be an act of epic proportions when I felt the ripples so far away,” said the voice, she was closer now and there was no mistaking the excitement she felt.

“We desperately need your help. Can you break the spell,” cried Riley. It was frustrating speaking to one she could not see.

“You know nothing of our ways, what you ask is impossible,” snapped the voice, annoyed at being questioned by one with no qualification to do so.

“I won’t believe it! Show yourself, there must be something that can be done,” said Riley stamping her foot and balling her fists. Her blood was boiling and she was ready to fight.

In the darkness a light flared and a tiny flame danced in mid-air. It was like a lantern, but one which needed no wick or oil reserve. It was a lantern of magic. The flame grew brighter and cast out brilliant light. They got their first look at the witch and she was nothing like Riley had expected. She was tall and straight with long golden locks. Her skin was as pure as an untouched snowfield and her smile was endearing. To look at her, you would bet she had no more than twenty years on this earth. There was something about her which made Riley believe she was much much older. Something she couldn’t put her finger on, yet.

“As you command, little one,” she said with a slight bow and a good-natured smile.

“You said you felt it, how can that be?”

“The realm of magic is a sensitive one. When a spell is cast it sends out vibrations which can be felt, if one has the knowledge. The greater the cast, the bigger the ripples and the farther they travel,” she said, as if explaining the simplest thing ever.

“It’s still only a spell, and if a spell can be made, surely it can be broken?” said Riley.

“That, as it happens, is true.”

“Then why can’t you help us? Don’t you want to?”

“Want or not has no bearing. This spell was cast by an accomplished wizard, of which there are only a few, and it takes time for such a spell to weaken.”

“How long? How much time?” asked Bo, speaking at last.

“Twenty, perhaps thirty years.”

“They can’t wait that long. Is there someone with more power than you?” demanded Riley who had let her frustration and anger run away with her tongue.

“You’re being insolent, child,” said the Witch, anger peppered her voice but look of calm remained glued to her face. Yet again, Riley sensed something unseen as it rippled through the woman. It was like another lived under her skin.

“I mean no disrespect, forgive me,” said Riley quickly, bowing her head. She knew she'd gone too far.

After a time the witch spoke, “Such a spell could be removed, but only by the one who cast it. You could ask them for all the good it would do you.”

“We don’t know who cast it if we did we would hunt him down and make them take it back,” said Riley letting her warrior lineage show in the strength of her words.

“Ah, this is something I can gladly help you with. The only one powerful enough to make such a spell, besides me, is Malten the Twisted, of Esker wood.”

“He can break it?”

“If he so chooses,” said the witch with a snooty tone.

“He’ll have no choice,” said Bo, rising to the sting of the mystic’s words.

“I wish you luck, he is one miserable being,” said the witch turning her back. The flame began to dim.

“Come on,” whispered Riley to Bo but her good upbringing made her bid the witch farewell.

“Thank you for your time, Lady. We are in your debt.”

“True,” said the witch quietly.

Bo and Riley had nearly reached the door when the woman spoke once more.

“Before you go, I'll give you one piece of knowledge that may serve you in the future.” Riley stopped and turned to face the eerie woman now dappled in the half-light.

“Sometimes the juiciest berries are found in the thickest thorn patch.” It was a piece of nonsense, but Riley bowed as if she had been given a great gift, “I shall remember that always.”

They left the house and the door shut by itself as they passed. They moved away as quickly as they could. It was only when they had reached the lip of the cut-out did they look back.

"How could it be so huge inside," wondered Bo.

"Magic I guess," said Riley as they paused to catch their breath.

"I thought she would be older,” said Bo.

Riley said nothing but she knew in her heart that the woman had not truly shown herself. The vision they'd seen was a mist thrown over their eyes by her magic. Her true self may have lived since the dawn of time. Riley knew they had been lucky, she'd seen a world of misery in the witch’s eyes. She feared they had not seen the last of her.

Esker Wood was a place known to all, even to one as young as Riley. The reputation of the wood is what made it so famous. Legend had it that the woodland was possessed by evil spirits and many who ventured there were never heard of again.

A sadness hung over the traveling pair as they descended the mountain. They'd failed to get the Witch to help, and now they were destined to face the Wizard who had lain their kin low. Riley couldn't help but feel blue. Even though they ventured on. She felt as if she'd already failed. Something of her mood must have shown because Bo finally broached the subject.

“Are you alright, Riley. You seem distant?”

“No, I’m not. How did I believe I could accomplish this task? It’s too much!”

“It’s hard, but it's not over. We’ve had a setback, but that is all. There is still hope.”

“Us? The hope of our families? That is as good as no hope at all.”

“I won’t listen to such talk, not after all we've done already.”

“Humph,” said Riley, her face falling into a sulk. For the first time since leaving Lough Tully, she acted like a child.

“Would a hopeless person face a three-day journey across dangerous and unknown lands?” asked Bo. He was clearly annoyed with her.

Riley didn’t respond.

“Would a hopeless person stand firm against an attacking bear and be victorious?” he continued.

Still, she wouldn't rise to the questioning but silently acknowledged he had a point. She had surprised herself in the moment with the bear. She felt the courage of her father run in her blood.

“Would a hopeless person climb a mountain to face a witch who is feared the length and breadth of the country?” This time Bo's tone was softer and that got to her.

“I guess not,” she mumbled into her chest.

“Do you take me for the kind of man who would place his life in a hopeless person’s hands?”

This surprised her. First he referred to himself as a man and now that she looked at him he was closer to that mark than a boy. Second was that he looked at her as their leader. She hadn't given their ranking any great thought and had assumed they were simply on this quest together. 

“I hold your life?” she asked, the words were short, but the meaning was infinitely long.

“Of course, you are my Chieftain now, and I'd follow you to the end of the earth. If you are hopeless, then what’s my existence worth?”

“I’d not thought of that.”

“You had better start. I need you, we all need you,” his voice was earnest, and he looked at her with nothing but trust in his eyes.

“Well then, we'll have to succeed this time. Malten will release our people if it’s the last thing we do,” she said, her drive renewed in the face of Bo’s belief.

“I have no doubt at all,” he said smiling.

“There is just one thing,” she said, looking across at him as he rode alongside her.

“What is that?”

“I need you just as much, or more.” She watched the boy go red as pride filled his chest to bursting.

They travelled till dark but were still a long way from Esker wood. The next morning they rose with the sun and only paused twice to allow their mounts graze and take some water. Still they had to camp under the stars but they knew their goal wasn't far away. If truth be known neither of them wished to take on that particular woodland by the light of the moon. Even the mid-day sun might not chase all the shadows from such a place.

When the sun rose again the air seemed even colder than it had been in the mountains of the north. As they rode on, the temperature continued to drop and soon they found themselves at the edge of the wood. It seemed the woods themselves sucked the heat from the day? There were no buildings to be seen in any direction and they passed nobody that might give them directions. When they reached it, the edge of the forest was almost a sheer wall of intertwining branches. Ivy, Brambles and all manner of stinging shrubbery grew in the spaces between the tree trunks. The word impenetrable was made to describe this place.

Riley looked over at Bo and said, “Are you sure you want to follow me into this? I'd not think any less if you.”

He looked annoyed and healed his pony, forcing it into the gloom. The animal worried at its rains but he was well trained. Even if it's eyes were wide with fear it obeyed the person perched on his back. Riley had to admit she was glad Bo went first because she wasn't sure she had the nerve to continue alone. Her horse took some persuading but eventually it followed Bo into the darkness.

The wood were alive with sounds. Frogs crooked, insects buzzed, birds twittered, wolfs barked and crows cawed in the canopy above their heads. So little light reached the forest floor that it was perpetual twilight. Mushrooms and toadstool’s sprouted from every available surface and mist covered everything like a thick blanket. Riley had no idea which way they were going or where the Wizard might call home but it seemed best to keep moving deeper.

They might have been traveling in circles for all she knew, one section of wood looked much like the rest. It wasn't until they heard the thunder of water did she truly know they'd reached a part of the forest they had not visited before. The trees cleared and a bluff appeared above them. They followed the sound of rushing water until the waterfall appeared and on the edge of its plunge pool nestled a tidy timber cottage with a pig sty and livestock pens. It was a picture of happy industry.

"Do you think this is his?" asked Bo.

"It doesn’t look like a wizard's home to me. More like a farmer or a woodsman's," said Riley.

"Why do you say that it's the only place we've seen?"

"Look at all the animals and the vegetable garden. Why would a wizard have these things?"

"Because even wizards eat,” said a voice from behind them, making them both jump with fright.

"You scared us!" said Riley holding a hand over her heart.

"And you invade my land without being invited," snapped the bent old man. Riley got herself together and dismounted. She looked at the old man and knew in her soul she'd found Malten the Twisted. He was well named.

"We've come seeking a powerful wizard who calls these woods home." said Riley feeling hate in her heart. This was the creature who had hurt the ones she loved beyond life.

"Then you've found him. State your business quickly before I turn you into toads like I've done countless times before."

Riley thought about all the croaking frogs she'd heard on their journey and wondered were each of them an uninvited visitor? She hoped not. She looked at Bo and could see fear. Now was the moment she'd been born to carry. She knew it in her bones. It was time to act like a leader not like a hurt child. She breathed in and exhaled her bitterness. 

"Did you bewitch my family?" she asked. The directness of the question threw the wizard off balance.

"If I did, I had a reason. Who are you girl?" he stammered.

"I'm Riley, daughter of Eoin the Red," she said, pride filling her words.

"Then I did, and I've no shame of the fact. He insulted me and such a thing I will not abide." snapped the old man sending his nose toward the sky.

"What terrible thing did he do which justifies such vengeance," demanded Riley.

"He invited all the great people to his feast but snubbed me. Me! The greatest of them all."

"That sounds nothing like my father. If he had a problem with you, he would stand before you himself. My father is the bravest of men." said Riley, standing toe to toe with the wizard and feeling every ounce his equal.

"Whatever you say won't take back his slight.”

"But you could take back what you did. There'll be no answers unless my father speaks, and there  is no possibility of that while he sleeps."

"I care not. Be gone before I lose my patience." said the magician dismissing the children with a wave of his arm.

"We're going nowhere until you break your spell and release my family," she said folding her arms in defiance.

"You'll have a long wait, little one,” he said and shuffled past them toward his house and slammed the door behind him.

“What are we going to do now?” asked Bo. Riley looked at the old man's closed door and knew that no matter how much she wanted to force the old codger to release her people she had no power over him. The witch had been right, if the wizard was going to do it, he had to want to do it.

“We keep trying. Let’s find a place to make camp and see what we can think of.” said Riley trying to keep the weariness she felt from her words. During the night a saying her Mother had used many times came to her in a dream. You trap more wasps with honey then vinegar. When she woke she knew what she had to do.

The next day she stood outside the wizard’s house and knocked on the door. He opened it and glared out at her.

“What do you want?” he barked.

“We gathered mushrooms for breakfast, we have far too many. We thought you might like some.”

“Do you think a few mushrooms will change my mind?”

“I hope your heart will see the truth, but the mushrooms are a gift.” She laid the bundle of fresh picked fungus on his doorstep and walked away. She heard the door slam and turned around. She smiled when she saw the mushrooms had gone. Everyday Riley brought the wizard some new gift foraged from the woodland.  Everyday he slammed the door in her face but the gifts would still be taken. After two weeks she was beginning to lose hope he'd ever lift the spell but she knew she must persevere.

One day she and Bo found themselves close to the edge of the forest where they were gathering blackberries and other fruits of the forest. She reached among the thorny branches to retrieve a particularly juicy looking fruit and a vicious thorn opened her skin as cleanly as a knife.

“Oh you wicked thing,” she said as she sucked on the cut to dull the pain. That was when she remembered what the witch of the mountain had said. Sometimes the juiciest berries are found in the thickest thorn patch. She looked back toward the berry and was thinking of trying it again when she noticed something white in the depths of the bush. Riley felt her heart race in her chest. Was the witch’s gibberish something important after all? Riley reached into the bush, the thorns tearing her skin but she didn't care. She was nearly up to her shoulder when her fingers closed on a piece of parchment. She unrolled the scroll and was amazed to see it carried her family seal. It was Malten’s invitation to her birthday feast. 

“Bo! Come quickly,” she cried as she jumped up and down with excitement.

“What’s happened?” asked Bo as he rushed through the undergrowth.

“Look!” and she handed over the invitation. “He'd not been forgotten, and this is the proof. He'll have to listen to us now.”

Riley snatched the parchment from Bo’s hand and raced away toward the wizard’s house. She found him trying to net a trout from the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.

“Look at what we found,” she said, thrusting the paper into his wrinkled hands. He squinted as he deciphered the words on the paper.

“It's a trick,” he said and threw the paper to the ground. Riley rushed after it before it could blow into the water.

“It’s not a trick, I swear. I found it in a bush at the edge of the forest. Look, see where the thorns have ripped it, and the way the damp has made the writing run. It’s not a trick. You were invited but something must have happened to the messenger.”

She could see the wizard face change as he processed this new information. He took the scroll back from her and slowly walked back to his home. This time the door closed softly rather than slamming. Riley was heartbroken, Even though the wizard held proof in his hands he was not going to remove his curse. What more could she do to convince the man. She felt hot tears running down her cheeks and huge sobs racked her body. Bo put his arm around her shoulder and tried to comfort her.

When the wizard spoke from behind her, his words were softer than she'd heard come from his lips before. She looked, and he was wearing a long cloak and held a tall walking staff in his hand.

“The road will not get any shorter if we linger. Are you ready to go?”


“To wake your friends. I think they've slept enough, don’t you.”

Riley jumped for joy and rushed away to gather her belongings. An hour later they were on the road for home and the wizard seemed to have no problem keeping pace with them. Bo offered to give the wizard his horse but the man refused.

It took them a day and a half to reach Lough Tully, and Ruairi was waiting for them when they arrived. Riley rushed into his arms.

“It’s so good to see you my princess, I have been worried.”

“Have they woken?”

“Not as much as a stir. I've made them as comfortable as possible and stood guard over them but trouble is coming soon, I'm sure. Word is travelling, and we are in great danger.”

At this, the wizard moved forward and said, “Bring me to them.”

“Who is this?” whispered Ruairi.

“He's come to help,” she said with a smile.

When they reached the great hall, she saw that Ruairi had fashioned beds of straw for all who slept and laid them in straight lines. Riley rushed to her mother and Malten followed. He knelt beside her and from the folds of his cloak he withdrew a stoppered bottle. He let a single drop of liquid drip onto her mother's lips and then recited a charm in an ancient elfish language. The wizard then did the same for her father. Nothing happened.

“Why aren’t they waking?” Riley cried.

“It may take time. Magic is not an exact thing and this was a strong spell. I cast it in anger and for that I am sorry.” The old wizard shuffled on and repeated the procedure. Bo lit a fire and got some food. They all sat around and waited. By the time darkness fell none of the sleeping people had stirred. It had been such a long day, Riley didn't even notice when her eyes began to close and sleep took her.

Her dreams were interrupted by someone shaking her. She opened her eyes and found her mother standing over her.

“Why are you sleeping here, Riley. You should be in your bed,” said her mother softly.

“You’re awake,” she cried, jumping up to throw her arms around her mother's neck. As they hugged Riley saw lots of people rising from their cots, stretching the aches from their bodies. Most of them looked a bit bemused as to how they ended up in such a predicament. That was when Riley saw her father sit up and rub his head.

“Father!” she cried and few into his arms.

“Oh my head,” he said trying to shake the pain out of it. He looked at her and smiled. “When you turn ten, I think we'll have less of a party, or at least one where ale is banned.”

Riley cried with joy as all her family were safe once more. From near the door, Bo, Ruairi and Malten looked on with joy in their hearts. The little Queen had won her first great battle.

The End