Love seeketh not itself to please, nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives it ease, and builds a heaven in hell’s despair.
(1757 – 1827)
Somewhere near the very centre of the island of Avalon stood a horseshoe shaped curve of mountain in which a dragon was rumoured to live; and though the villagers rarely saw anything more exotic than the occasional tree spryte that hovered amongst the wood at the mountains base, few dared climb further than Anna The Dark’s cabin a third of the way up the mountains lowest peak.
Anna, it must be mentioned, was a witch of great renown as far as the spoken word could travel, beggars and kings sought her council on all the matters that could affect all of men, but when Anna’s shuddering hand opened the well hewn door of the cabin it was a young girl that faced her on the step.
The little thing was blonde and perfect and no more than seventeen summers old and Anna wondered what her brains might taste on toasted bread.
“Enter freely and leave as free,” Anna crooned, baring her teeth in what approximated a friendly smile.
The young girls tongue flicked across her dry lips and her eyes darted around the dim cabins interior before her narrow and naked foot moved over the buildings threshold.
Anna swung he door closed, and for a moment the girl could see nothing as her eyes adjusted to the windowless shack.
“So what brings a child to my place so high on Wood Mountain?”
The girl blinked in the darkness, her hands anxiously grasping at the rough weave of her skirts. The room was coming into focus, in the far corner stood an ornately carved bed that would not be out of place in a palace, opposite it uneven shelves lined the wall crammed with containers made from wood and steel and strange transparent crystal.
A fire burned in the stone fireplace and ox-fat candles lit the room in unsettling pools of light like islands in the darkness.
“Missy, I do not have all the time of the gods. Be quick with your tongue or leave me to my musings.”
The youngster’s eyes darted to the woman’s face and the two appraised each other for a moment. The youth reached down the neckline of her shapeless dress and dragged out a calf-skin purse that hung around her neck on a leather lace.
Hunger darted across Anna’s face, whether it was from the naked skin or the shine of gold it could not be certain.
Now you may be thinking of this witch as an old woman, like the ones in fairy tales, but you couldn’t be much further from the truth. Anna The Dark looked young to mortal eyes, her hair was the colour of a winters fire and her skin as pale as the dead. If it weren’t for her unwashed skin and matted hair she would not looked out of place anywhere.
“Two gold pieces,” the young girl said with a steady voice, “for your time and your aide.”
The misshapen coins were raised, held between thumb and forefinger.
The witch seemed to do no more then take a breath; and the coins had gone.
“So what are you called child?” The witch asked, moving with surprising grace to the hearth of the fire where she placed the coins into a lockbox on its mantle.
The girl stared at her still raised hand, the space between thumb and forefinger now empty.
“Merula…” She answered with little more than a whisper, awestruck by what she hadn’t seen.
“Merula…” Anna nearly sighed the word. “Do you know its meaning?”
Merula’s blonde locks, tainted by the dust of the mountain, tumbled as she shook her head.
“Ahh, you will.” Anna entwined her fingers, one nail split like a cloven hoof. “So what is it you wish my young dear? Be this visit one of love or hate?”
“Of love: and how to find it.”
“I would not think that so hard with those blonde tresses and those pretty, pretty eyes.”
Anna’s fingers reached for the girl’s cheek and Merula took a hasty step back, her eyes shining not with fear but of disgust.
“There will be times in your long, long life when the memory of my touch will be like a sweet dream.” The witch’s eyes were the colour of rancid meat gone green with age. She seemed to teeter on the edge of decision for a moment.
“But to the task at hand then child…”
No more than an hour later Merula picked her way down the side of the mountain slopes, the setting sun burning her eyes almost as much as her shamed tears.
She knew that certain things were necessary when dealing with magic; and that knowledge didn’t make the acts any easier.
But the knowledge she had won did.
Across the river to the villages south on the very edge of the plains that stretched forever lived a man whose presence in the village was taboo. Living like a hermit he tended a small farm that supplied him with sustenance with enough left to trade with those few traders that would; and only then in secret.
He was not a villain of any sort; on the contrary he was quiet and studious but when he had been little more than a child he had been made an outcast of the village and all its inhabitants. Any single thing changed may have prevented this. If his father had not been a travelling tradesman who’d disappeared quickly after his deed had been done. If his mother had not died in childbirth or if the family who had adopted him had not routinely used him as the scapegoat for all their misdeeds; if any one thing had been different…
The village, as an entity had seen him as disagreeable; a symbol for all that they had done wrong and the man believed that his banishment was the final attempt to rid themselves of their own shameful misuse of him.
So he had selected a plot of arable land on the farthest reaches of the little Kingdom he had loved for so long, but had not loved him in return, and settled in; secretly hoping that one day some measure of acceptance may yet be offered to him.
After some years of solitary existence the children began to visit him.
These were not pleasant encounters.
He built heavy wooden shutters over the window openings and stout wooden beams to secure them closed. He could hear their approach from miles away, their cruel laughter carrying on the wind, and at first he would hide away from them as they made equally cruel use of all he had built.
Fences were torn and animal were scattered.
Crops were burned or stolen and walls were painted with excrement.
Each visit the children got older and more destructive and the man realised that acceptance would forever be beyond his ability.
So he fought back the best he could.
The children would laugh as he chased them, brandishing a pitchfork made of wood and animal bones, running them from what little unspoiled land remained.
So he became what the village had so often accused him of, as so often is the case, he became an outsider and malcontent who screamed at children and became the stuff of bedtime tales for errant youths.
Weeks became months, and months became years, and the man had lost nearly all of what he was when he met the girl.
Once again the children were heard well in advance of the destruction the man knew would come, so he readied himself with pitchfork for the battle he never won; but when he left the shack he had built with his own hands, screaming and waving his pitchfork over his head like a madman the scene outside what not as he had expected.
The girl stood her ground against the large group of hollering children, one of them on the ground sporting a bloodied nose. She swung a makeshift club in a clumsy arc and the group backed away.
She was such a slight figure that she appeared no older than the ones she fought, her blonde hair was dusted with road dirt and her rough woven dress was soiled a deep and filthy brown.
When the children caught sight of him they backed away further, deciding the odds of two to ten not adequately in their favour; they turned and ran.
The girl dropped the club and it rolled off into the ditch that separated the path from the field.
Then she turned to face him.
Acceptance is something that is integral to perfection, without acceptance even the best of things would be useless; and at that moment the man felt something he had always craved from something or someone.
She smiled at him and in her acceptance the man, in less than an instant, loved her completely.
The village Elders, some who were the very same ones who had exiled the man some years before, were not much amused. Their judgement was a swift and awful one; those who take the company of outcasts become outcasts.
The girl was banished.
Her parents wept at their loss, but when rumour informed them of where their daughter had taken residence in her exile, they tore at their clothes and cursed her very name.
Once again the days and month and years tumbled together; and the girl, who had once wondered deeply on the witches predictions for her happiness, began to see something strange in the man.
As she grew to womanhood the man seemed to grow to youth.
His unkempt hair was washed and tied back and his beard was shorn.
The broken and misused land around them was rebuilt; and in the process the man remade himself into someone strong and purposeful and the former girl now saw him in a very different light.
In the woman’s twenty-third summer, and the mans thirtieth, the visits from the village resumed. Tentatively traders began trading openly with the couple and some nearby farmers accepted the occasional help with tending their lands.
Acceptance was still beyond them, there was still a distance between the villagers and outcasts; but some measure of compromise had been reached.
The man and woman cared very little for it however, and it wouldn’t have been any different for them if they had lived in the very heart of the community. The village had from then what they were willing to give, because all they truly desired was on the farm and in the home they had created together.
Now this village in which they nearly lived found itself almost exactly between two great kingdoms to the east and west; and these kingdoms were having troubles of their own.
Political stresses had pulled the once-allies in separate directions, creating skirmishes and mistrusts that had reached the highest levels of government. Eagerly the chief advisors on both sides had concocted a plan; the Princess of the east should be wed to the Prince of the west and all would be well.
But the plan knew nothing of an admirer that the Princess held in awe; and on the eve of the wedding night this admirer ended the young Prince’s life rather than see the Princess sold into servitude for the safety of the kingdom.
This, however, is another tale; and will someday be told.
Chaos spread across the land, in rage over the loss of their favourite Prince the western kingdom launched an assault.
The first the village knew of this was the raid.
Quite by accident a remnant of a party of soldiers from the western kingdom stumbled across a farmstead on the edge of the village. People were killed in the process of their search for supplies, animals were slaughtered and the farm was burned to the ground.
The village rose up in outrage, completely unaware that these were royal soldiers that had done the deed; thinking instead that they were merely raiders from a neighbouring village.
So a party of their own was assembled and sent out to exact revenge.
One act of savagery never eclipses another; but mankind always strives for that effect.
Raids are traded back and forth, people dying on both sides. While the larger battle raged between the two kingdoms, the small villages follow suit like children copying their larger brethren.
The village Elders devise a plan with their few remaining resources, gathering together the handful of healthy adults and calling to arms anyone who could aide them in this final assault.
The woman hung on the mans arm, wailing in abject terror at the prospect; but the man would not budge in his conviction. The village had called on him for his help, had finally accepted him in its need and he would answer the call.
On the edge of the village the few remaining men gathered, the man joining them. Suspicious glances were aimed his way but to them he was oblivious. The man, a farmer not a fighter, readied himself the best he could and the makeshift army marched from town; leaving behind them wives, mothers and children to mourn.
Mourn they did.
A day and a half passed in agony for both those gone and those left behind until from over the fields and farmland a troop of men could be seen. Carried amongst them were litters of branches and animal skins and on these bodies lay.
The woman, who had not left the spot where she said goodbye to the man nearly two days before, watched them approach with mounting dread. Each step closer her certainty grew stronger.
When they finally grew close enough the woman walked in halting steps towards them and a group of the men, who tended to one particular litter, stopped and awaited her.
The man lay on the animal skins, the blood from the wound in his side long since dried to a crust, his body still and lifeless.
The woman’s scream of utter loss and hopelessness cut through the village like a dagger to their hearts, and it is said that babies who heard it grew to be adults who were insane. For many years those who witnessed her grief would talk of little else with hushed tones and fearful whispers.
A line of funeral pyres were built on a low range of hills that, if followed, would rise to meet the mountains themselves. The men were placed one them and the pyres were set ablaze. Each man was considered a hero as, though losses had been high, the mission had been a success. The whole village stood along the range of hills, families huddled in tears around their fallen.
The woman stood alone.
She lit the fire and watched the mortal remains of the love she had been promised burn to ashes.
Day and night tumbled by as if they were one, and the woman didn’t stray from her vigil. When the fire had burned itself out and the ashes had blown to the wind the woman raised herself up and prepared to leave; only the god’s knew where to.
But something caught her eye half buried in the burned earth and charred firewood.
She plucked the thing from the ashes in amazement. It was inconceivable and impossible and there was only one person who may know its meaning.
The witch waited.
She had seen it all in the girl’s eyes the moment she had seen her all those years before.
Five days previous a cry of the purest pain had cut through the world and the witch had felt what was left of her heart swell and invigorate her.
Anna The Dark, the one who knows everything, sat on the edge of the beautiful bed that had be brought for her from the kings home from the west. It had been a gift to tempt her and ensure her aide on some long forgotten problem of that land.
She felt the girl, now a woman, approach.
“Enter freely and leave as free,” Anna crooned, as she had so many years before.
The girl had grown; indeed she had, but instead of the dust covered dress she was now soiled with the ash of the grave and in her hands she clutched an object to her chest, wrapped in skins and protected most dearly.
“What does it mean?” the girl, the woman, asked plaintively. “What does it mean?”
The package was placed at Anna’s feet and carefully unwrapped.
Anna’s smile slid from her face; this she had not foreseen.
On the soft animal furs lay a crystal heart that no tool had ever worked. Perfect arteries glinted back the candlelight, refracting the light around and through, the beam radiating out from the artefact as if the thing itself glowed with some inner power. This was no facsimile of the human organ, chambers inside it were stained with the blood it once pumped, the baked on fluid clearly visible through the transparent walls of the godly creation, and the whole crystalline artefact was mapped with thousands of hairline cracks.
Anna fell to her knees.
“Oh, Lords!” She exclaimed. “I never thought it possible…”
Merula, once a perfect girl, now displayed a perfect mask of rage.
“What does it mean?” With each word the venom dripped and Anna felt fear for the first time.
“When people first walked the world they knew that there was strength in numbers,” the witch mumbled, “but to control these numbers rules had to be written. Sometimes these rules were to control those abhorrent souls that we sometimes see born; but sometimes the rules are merely there to just for control.
“But once a man was born with an honest soul, incapable of hatred unable to deceive; and it is said that the world’s most delicate souls are housed in the most delicate of hearts.
“Man’s rules aren’t meant for such creatures… after all men’s rules are written with men in mind.”
Anna traced the largest of the hairline cracks of the heart, her fingers never quite daring to touch it hovering a distance from its surface.
She didn’t know whether her hands trembled with fright or delight.
“Each crack is a disappointment,” she continued, “each crack is a cruelty delivered to the hearts owner; but this one…”
Her finger followed the large crack until it reached where it gaped liked an open wound.
“Here, is where his heart was finally broken.”
For a long time Merula knelt beside the heart in silence and Anna could think of nothing to say.
Anna knew that this would change them both; she knew that “Anna The Dark” must die this very day and from this point on she would ensure something good would come of her long existence.
She knew this as clearly as she knew Merula’s dark future.
“Bring him back.”
“What?” Anna blurted.
“I told you to bring him back…” Anna said her voice was soft but filled with near infinite menace. Anna knew she could just kill the girl, should just kill the girl; but the temptation of perfect good was too great, and the crystal evidence of it before her too real.
Perhaps there was time to undo the girl’s agony.
“He’s was burned, it can’t be done.” Anna said. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, and after a moments contemplation she realised it was because it contained compassion.
“Then un-burn him, un-kill him; bring him back…”
“It can’t be done.”
Merula’s body shuddered as she wound her rage in, barely controlling it.
The two women sat for a time, book-ending the carpet on animal skins and its strange treasure. Anna contemplating this alien new world that opened up before her as Merula sank deeper by the second into a personal abyss.
“Then you must make me live…”
“What?” Anna said once again.
“If you can’t make him live, then you must find a way of giving me the time to find a way myself. If you cannot do it then I will find someone who can…”
Around us all the world spins on its not-so-merry dance around the cosmos. Time flickers from second to second and stands still for no one. All things begin, and it is said that all things end.
But secretly we all know that this is not true.
There are some that never end, and will never end until their wishes are fulfilled.
Anna continued, seeing the birth of prophets and the children of gods in her unending time on in the world.
Merula also continued, her heart continuing to beat and her mind continuing to scheme; but life, the very thing she craved for her and her lost love, would always be beyond her reach.