Merlin and ‘A Mind Of Its Own’

Mind Of Its Own is a magical fantasy story featuring King Arthur’s Merlin when he was given the task to escort a teenage girl on a strange journey. It is for adults only. It is for adults with a sense of humour only. This story was selected as the Story of the month for the 2016 British Fantasy Society October Bulletin.

Mind of its Own

Geoff Nelder

Warning: this tale involves magic with a mind of its own. If you experience any personal oddities during your reading be afraid, but not very afraid. You will return to normal eventually.

Merlin scowled at his arthritis-afflicted knuckles and reached out to the campfire, careful not to knock over a pot of roots and berries simmering with impatience. He grimaced a weak smile at the woody yet fruity aroma from the burning Birch bark.

An untidy pile of brown woollen blankets agitated, releasing a black-haired young woman. Although Merlin admired her clear blue eyes, he was always distracted by a dark mole on her left cheek. Others might use such as a beauty spot but hers sprouted two black hairs.

She stood and shook off the remaining bedding reluctant to let her escape and took two metal cups to the pot.

“Why don’t you cast one of your spells to rid yourself of your pain?” Her voice trilled high as Merlin knew it would from a teenager. Even so, it rankled in his ears and he had to concentrate to hear the girl’s words. He’d been obliged to chaperone her journey between Chepstow and Denbigh and after only two days he’d used up most of his store of tolerance.

Knees creaking, Merlin sat on a fallen tree within warming distance of the fire. “My dear Elspeth, daughter of Arthur’s squire and our Queen of sighs, mostly mine, my magic is an illusion, with smoke, mirrors and trickery rather than genuine sorcery.”

She shook her head, from which a cascade of motes caught in the flames creating a coruscating display. “Last Michaelmas you used a spell to turn an attacking wolf into a timid fawn, who ran away when Mordred ran at it with his knife.”

Merlin smiled as he used a green stick to poke at the fire. “You think you saw a wolf. Darkness, flickering campfire, and a goblet of golden mead. All these components conspire against the unobservant.”

The girl used her hands to part her long black hair like curtains and threw Merlin a smile. It was lopsided, but she possessed full lips and with those large eyes smiling, he knew she wanted something. She licked her lips, making them glisten.

“Merlin?”

“Yes?”

She toyed with her hair, twirling some around her fingers. “I know you are bashful about it, but you can do real magic if you want to. Can’t you?”

He smiled at Arthur’s jibe a year back: “Magician heal thyself.”

His smile upturned to serious. “The last time I tried to use magic to cure my ills, it back-fired.”

“What is back-fire?”

“What? Oh, I sometimes have visions. Of tomorrow.” At least that was what he supposed with the flashing images in his trances of metallic contraptions travelling at shit-scary speeds through strange towns, and sometimes over the top of them. Voices too from which he learnt that objects have little value compared to human emotions, which do not change, no matter how odd the scenes he saw. “For example when I used a spell to cure an ache in my left incisor—the pointy ones—it fell out. Hence the gap. See?”

Elspeth stared at him, then up at an escaped ember looking to ignite an overhead branch.

She returned her gaze to the old man. “You are silly.”

He returned a grin even though it revealed the gap in his teeth and a flickering tongue that played with it. “Silly enough to agree with this mission.”

She leaned forward so the fire shone rosy on her face. “If you use your real magic to take away my spot, I’ll lift my skirts for you.”

“Tempting but my talents in such delights became dormant thirty years ago, and extinct these last ten years.” He sat back, lost in his memories. “Although, perhaps with real magic.”

She tossed her head back to induce a wave in her hair rippling down her back. “I don’t think, my dear wizard, that you would have any difficulty down there when my skirts are raised, do you?”

He’d like to think not but sat back to look at her face. He had to ignore her seductive leer in order to focus on her spot. “The fact that it is more a wart increases the complexity.”

She hid the spot with her hand and pouted. “It is not a wart. I’m not a hag!”

He laughed softly, his whole body joining in.

“Do not upset yourself, Elspeth. Well, it’s not in my grasp to perform two spells simultaneously so I’ll work one on your spot first and then perhaps, on my … problem afterwards.”

He thought he knew which group of intonations were required and still marvelled that from being a child he was one of only a few who could draw on an inner sense to invoke effects in living and non-living beings. However, he hesitated, torn between the opportunity of delight with Elspeth and the risk of the spell turning against him as one did before.

The girl mistook his delay. “Your wand. You need that don’t you? Shall I help you find it in your—”

“No need. I have it here.” He didn’t need a wand but people expected it, and if it aided the illusion so be it. Several visions ago he’d observed himself wearing a cloak festooned with stars and moons as if he were a court jester. He glanced at his dark, muddy cowl. Merlin loved its comforting warmth and the anonymity when inside the expansive hood. He rescued a small stick from incineration and waved it in the air. The end glowed red and released a sparkling smoke trail meandering up in the air. He knew it was merely a stick but she’d see what her mind contorted it to be.

He’d already dredged memory for a suitable spell to rid Elspeth of her wart. While she slept one night he’d rubbed her wart with a clove of garlic then buried the vegetable along the path. The wart remained but perhaps not as bad. A conjuration was required but he needed to avoid those evocations that allowed the magic to escape. He flicked the wand in her direction.

“Elspeth you are not to listen to my words. Relax, close your eyes and allow your mind to drift to your unblemished cheek.”

She sat on a boulder swaying as if in a trance. The air filled with aromatic wood smoke now combined with lavender from Merlin’s satchel.

This was to be one of his spells that mixed magic with incantation. Words verbalised, vibrating through the air not just as speech but as an alternate reality creating an effect beyond mere hearing. Indeed, the understanding is the least likely outcome of such sounds, spoken in an ancient tongue not used by common folk for millennia.

He stood and spoke silently then increasingly sharper as he intonated, “Diffinda, diffindo Durs yek Gor arrants hapaghelu, Diffinda, diffindo Durs yek Gor arrants hapaghelu.”

The mystic words left him, creating a ripple in the air that accompanied each sound as they weaved their way across the fire and brushed Elspeth’s face. She gasped then unsteadily stood with her hands caressing her cheeks.

Merlin had to rush around the fire to catch her as she fainted. At the same time ripples in the air created a purple glow travelling away towards the nearest trees.

“Wake up, girl, I need to catch that wisp and stop it escaping.”

He laid her on ferns, slung his satchel over his shoulder and ran slowly, as fast as he could, after the spell. He should have known better than to be lured by the promise of a woman’s charms, especially as he was unlikely to be able to accept her favours.

Merlin stumbled on making use of cart ruts over the rough ground to the wood. Berries turned back into flowers from where the flaw-removing spell worked on the vegetation as it wandered about a hundred paces in front. If he could get close enough he would use an entrapment counter-spell, if he remembered it.

He wasn’t used to this rushing around. Six decades of trying to please Arthur and Guinevere takes the stuffing out of any man. Yes, he’d lived many decades before Arthur was born and he possessed magic powers but look what could happen to them. Having the reputation of being able to use enchantments merely meant he was put in situations of extreme danger. Instead of rocking in a comfortable chair in front of a roaring fire in the twilight of his life, he had to ward off the slingshots and arrows of Black Knights, ugly Saxons and horned demons.

What was that spell doing? He’d made it to be rid of a spot so it had mutated, gone feral. Autumn leaves on the ground were turning green and returning, upwards to their twigs. If that was all, and only in this area, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it mightn’t stop. If he couldn’t catch and deactivate the magic it could wreck the planet’s whole ecosystem. Another word from a vision, although he knew ecosystem before as Mother Nature, whose wayward son was to be called pollution and whose charming daughters warmed the globe, somehow. Whatever their names, he worried about the future if the magic he’d released created havoc with trees being overwhelmed with their returning leaves and the soils deprived of their nourishment. All his fault.

Just as he reached within a hand’s grasp of the swirling spell seen through the rising curtain of once-dead leaves, a hedgehog shot up in the air and flew past his ear.

“No, you’ve given furze-pigs the ability to fly!” He ducked then tripped face first in a large field mushroom. He elbowed himself up. Just as he was thinking how it would be scrumptious to have mushrooms for their supper, something hard pushed into his back forcing him down, back into the fungus, obliterating it beyond consumption.

Through muddy eyelids he saw Elspeth leaping off him, her skirts flying as she chased the spell.

“Come back,” he spluttered. “There’s danger.”

She called without looking back, but waving a stick, “Don’t worry, I have the wand.”

Merlin groaned at his pains and at her naiveté as he struggled to his knees. There through the trees in the growing dawn light he spied the purple light like an exploring will o’ the wisp marvelling in its new-found world here, machinating mischief there. He’d have to rein it in, use a gathering and entrapment spell on the escaping magic before it hurt Elspeth or undid the very nature of this wood and if left to continue it might undo our Eorthe.

The magician had two chase targets. The girl had to be stopped first because he couldn’t focus while she endangered herself. He threw a hastily-contrived tripping spell that should have resulted in her falling harmlessly. Sadly he missed and an ash tree found its branches entwined instead. It released all its leaves on top of Elspeth, making her stop, fall, laugh and be caught by Merlin. He used an enchanted twine to tie her ankles.

“I’ll release you by and by.”

She sat up and screamed, “No one binds me! Let me go.”

“For your own good. That escaped magic has a mind of its own and is dangerous.”

As if it heard, the purple spell shot a spray of acorns at Merlin, reminding him of machine guns in his visions.  He ducked, making the missiles destroy the base of a beech. He threw himself on top of the girl as the tree fell. Luckily it missed them although they were further covered in leaves and insects.

“See, Elspeth, the magic started by undoing a flaw in a skin imperfection, what else will it find necessary to undo?”

He shook off the living debris and leaves and gathered his thoughts for a suitable gathering spell. He had to run again as the purple dove deeper into the wood. He followed it through a dell, zig-zagged over a hilly copse then skidded to a halt on a lake’s pebble beach. Had it gone into the water? He hoped not as most spells didn’t work close to that amount of liquid. His eyesight became blurred as grit lifted from the beach and hovered in front of him. They shot upwards, followed by pebbles. Gravel moved beneath Merlin’s feet making him fall onto his back. He looked up at the sky, pink at the edges, blue in the middle but becoming obscured by the rising stones.

Now larger stones rose from the beach, some dripping from the lake, slowly at first then gathering pace as they followed the smaller particles. He saw twigs, leaves, everything loose, leaving the ground and heading upwards but where to? A pebble brushed past his ear on its way skyward, then another.

Elspeth’s tremulous voice reached him. “You can’t keep me a prisoner, Merlin. Oh, what’s happening?”

He turned to see that somehow she’d ruptured the twine at her ankles. She still held his ‘wand’. Surely it didn’t really work?

He craned his aching neck back upwards, reluctant to stand in case this falling business of his became perpetual. “I believe the magic thinks anything loose on the planet is an imperfection and is sending it all back to where it came from.”

Elspeth caressed her now smooth face. “That is so sweet, the spell wanting everywhere to be perfect. Look it is all flying, like a cloud to meet the rising sun.”

“That’s it! Of course. It thinks this planet came from the sun and so its imperfections are going back to its creator.”

Elspeth ran her fingers through her dark hair. A loose strand broke free and joined the few remaining uplifting pebbles. “I thought Eorthe came from clay in Odin’s hands, not the sun.”

“Ah, you’ve been listening to our Norse friends. It doesn’t really matter what they or we believe, but what that idiot magic thinks it knows.”

She glanced over at the trace of purple still visible in trees across the lake then smiled at Merlin. “Can you not confuse that spell further, with some artful illusions of your own?”

The magician grinned. “You genius.” He leant forward to pat her on the head but she lifted her face and kissed him full on the lips. His emotions flitted from embarrassment to wonder at the honeyed sweet wetness of her lips. How strange were the females, and what had he been missing all these years?

First the spell. He threw his hands out at the magic and created bright orbs either side of it, to create a distraction. His confidence enabled the correct gathering spell to form in his mind.

Return Nunc revertetur ad me. Dissipantur aucturitas tua.”

To his relief the purple glow travelled across the water to his hands and dissipated.

Elspeth frowned at him. “Will that hurt you, now?”

“No, the spell is disabled and vanished.” He released a deep sigh and finally smiling looked at the girl.

No. He wasn’t sure at first and he didn’t want to worry her, but there was a black hair newly sprouting from her right cheek. A smudge grew to a spot. Perhaps she couldn’t feel it, but she surely would soon enough. His undoing of the spell had removed its power backwards to its inception. If so, that would mean… He glanced up at the sky darkening with the accelerating return of many hundredweights of pebbles, rolled on top of Elspeth and covered his head.

“Nooooo.”

Wonderful photograph of Merlin here. Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was a Victorian who used daguerrotypes. Julia Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s mother, was a favorite model. Thanks to Dr Sharon K Califano

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