When I came into my senses I was alone, tied to the chair but in the open topped part of the tower used by my master to watch the stars. In a few moments I remembered how I got there and felt some orientation.
It was night and the cold air could have been from spring or fall. I took a deep breath.
It was fall. I could smell the leaves and sense the living world preparing to go underground. I was certain- it was late autumn and that meant I had been unconscious for at least 6 or 7 moons.
My mind was swimming from impressions left by my contact with the Shadow Makers. Even though I had no memory of speaking with them, I had clear impressions of what they said and a list of tasks they had for me.
I had changed but not fully. I would not be immortal but would instead die in the coming year if the transformqation wasn’t completed.
I couldn’t tell Merlyn because he wasn’t here. In addition, he would soon be irrelevant.
One way in which I had already changed was that I felt rather comfortable waiting, tied to the chair, out in the weather. Another, is that I didn’t die of hunger or thirst as I waited for the old druid to come back. I slept in the chair, mostly, for 3 weeks, when I awoke to find him standing over me.
“You are alive,” he said.
“You left me out in the rain,” I said.
“You stank,” he replied. “I thought you were dead. I was going to get the next kid to carry you out.
“The Shadow Makers sent me on a journey to collect magical things. I went to an island in the far north where there are mountains that belch fire. The gods had me take scrapings from a hot water springs there.”
“Please set me free and bring me some ale,” I asked politely.
He thought about this for a brief moment.
“Well,” he said, “You haven’t had anything to eat or drink for a year and a half. You must be changed and you must be hungry.”
“I must be but mostly I’m thirsty. Bring me a small amount of ale. I don’t trust myself not to drink too fast.”
He was visibly impressed by my sense of moderation and nodded in approval. He released my bonds and turned to fetch a cup from the jug he kept in his laboratory.
Moving was a little painful after being seated for so long, but actually, I was surprised at how easy it was to stand.
I looked around and my eyes went to the stone pedestal and long knife that Merlyn used to bleed out animals for his experiments or sacrifices, whatever he was doing. I walked over to the structure.
I spoke again, “As far as the change, they told me it was incomplete. They told me what I had to do if I wanted to still be alive next year.”
“They haven’t spoken to me since they sent me north,” he said. “What did they say you need to do?”
I took the cup of ale from his hand and drank from it. I thought: If I live forever, I will never have a more satisfying sip of ale.
With my free hand I took the knife from the altar and swept it swiftly across the front of the druid’s neck and he dropped to the floor. I had nearly severed his head but the spine was too tough and I had to climb on top of him and saw through it with the blade.
Even then his mouth moved and his eyes rolled around. No sound came out. His body jerked for a few minutes and I slowly went about taking off his arms and legs. Soon, all his parts went dormant.
I had the feeling that if I left them in the same room long enough they would knit back together.
I had more ale. I cut out the old man’s tongue and sliced it into bite sized pieces. It was as delicious as the ale.
Today the thought is repugnant and it would turn my stomach to have to do that but at that time it just felt like the most right thing I had ever done. As I ate, starting with the head and brains, then the organs beginning with the heart and finishing with the meager muscle tissue, I felt such elation and joy they can’t be described. Each night I communed with the Shadow Makers and awoke with hunger.
I began to have an acquired memory of the old druid’s experiments. Merlyn also left copious notes, which I studied. These pieces, along with my own understanding of the Shadow Makers, began to form a whole cloth.
It took me a week to eat the druid and I didn’t leave the tower until I had finished. When I finally came down I found the fortress deserted, its gardens overgrown and even the kitchen woman was gone.
I was alone for the first time in my life but I was also not alone. I had something else living inside me that filled me with life and power. Walking around the Roman-built fort I saw it as if for the first time. Having eaten the brain of Merlyn, it was as though I remembered each stone and where it was quarried.
A closer inspection of the garden behind the kitchen revealed the body of the old woman. I would need servants to fulfill the needs of my new gods.
Looking in the stables I found that most of the animals had perished. Probably while Merlyn was gone and after the kitchen woman died. And I was tied to a chair.
I adopted the old druid’s habit of writing things down. First thing was to make a list of the things that needed to happen most immediately.
The material that Merlyn had just brought back from the fire islands in the north, needed to be combined with other substances from his previous experiments. Then it required care I could not give it here in the fortress.
I needed a person from a coastal village that I might pay to do what was needed.
Servants were needed to carry on the work here as well. I was concerned that even though I had wealth to purchase whatever was wanted, that Merlyn’s depredations on the youth of town of Muridunum had created bad blood. Each of those bodies along his wall were somebody’s baby.
There were a number of farmsteads and small settlements to the west. I determined to bring a small fortune in iron and silver take to the western road to solve these problems. I also completed combining the ingredients and packed up the one critical experiment I could not keep at the fort much longer in a sealed zinc box.
I was just 16 years old but had the knowledge and power of thousands of years of immortals. The year was 1140 AUC in the old Roman counting but would be called 390 Anno Domine after the church began to make the rules.
As if any of these numbers make any sense or have relevance in the long term. I already had a firm conviction that I was here for the long term.
I had a plan. I would use the knowledge from the gods to make more fortune to put at their disposal. I would pay informants and storytellers to give my masters the most comprehensive information. I would learn everything about the world, starting with my local corner.
I knew I was a tool- I could not avoid it. I would be a most valuable tool. I would also prosper and gain immortality.
I already knew that the furnaces, stamp mill and metalworking shops built by the druid would make the finest iron in the world, steel really, and their products would be highly prized. I could also make very fine bronze in large quantities and had a variety of casting molds for tools and clasps.
With a few servants to make optimum use of the machinery available I would become wealthy very quickly. I set out with the only surviving animal from Merlyn’s fortress, a donkey.
I passed through the market at Muridunum on my first day out. I was surprised that I could not recognize many of the people. It was less than 3 years since I had come here with my father.
Soon I realized that shops and stalls were either new or badly burned.
I wanted to find out what had happened and I didn’t want to just ask these strangers. An alehouse, a stall really, where my father and I would stop for stories looked like a good place to start.
It didn’t have a name. Names for that sort of thing came later. It was not where I remembered it and it was new, but it was clearly the right spot. The proprietor was the same man I recognized from years before. A stroke of luck. I even knew his name and I knew he was a talker.
I said, “Hail Gwynedd, it is Maelgwyn, son of Agrippa. I used to come here when I was younger.”
He stared at me. I thought for a moment he wouldn’t remember me.
Finally he said, “Ah, yes, I see you now. You’re one of the young ones was sold to the druid. But you’ve been gone years. You must be the first I’ve seen come back.
“I remember your father, too. A fine man. Made good tools. I grieved to hear how he died but it was no surprise when I saw the family sell you off after.
“It’s hard times and dark days for everyone. I fear to get out of bed each morning.
“Are you still working for the old man or did you escape?”
I replied carefully, “He died. The old woman that lived there died, too. I’m the only one left. I’ve decided to take over his iron works.
“Coming through town I did not find I recognized many of the people. And there are signs of burning.”
He took a moment. “It’s been that long,” he said. “The Hibernians came and raided twice in the last 3 years. They kill anyone who fights them, take everyone else as slaves.
“Your uncle, who sold you to the druid, was in town selling bronze during the most recent attack. He must have tried to run but they chased him down. When I returned, after the pirates left, I found his body face down. The back of his head had been split by an ax.
“He was returned to your family but they have not come back to town since.
“New people come in. They’ll be next if they don’t watch out. The world is swiftly changing.
“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in years. I’m constantly worried, watching, listening. As soon as I see their boats I run up to the hill by the old fort, wait them out.
“When they come, they take everything. Coin, brass, silver, iron- if you’ve metalwork to sell there’s folk’ll buy. I’d sure like to replace some things I’ve lost but I have little to trade but ale and a few coins. Others will have even less.”
“It is an age of changes,” I said. “My father was born at the Roman fortress at Leucarum when it was commanded by the usurpers under Magnentius. Now the Romans have fled.”
Gwynedd said, “They have not fled very far, Maelgwyn. They have still great forts and towns across Britain. It is only the local area they’ve forsaken. Their navy even came and chased off the pirates when they raided to the east.
“They still rely on the River Severn to bring copper, zinc and tin out from the mines upriver and don’t want the supplies disrupted. Roman buyers still come to Muridunum on the high summer tides.”
We spoke for the time it took to drink a full tankard of his ale. With the druid’s heart and brain in me, I was able to visualize and perceive the information with far greater understanding than I would have been able to achieve before my transformation.
In the end I gave the brewer a an iron hammer head, a zinc ingot and 3 bronze knives of good size and quality. I assured him that I had much treasure to share and I encouraged him to continue gathering information from travelers that he could share with me.
Then I continued down the ancient road to see what remained of the coastal farms. I saw a few houses burned or deserted but came upon one group of round houses on a promontory farmstead where people were alive and working.
The border ditch and ramparts probably helped to preserve it. I walked my donkey up to the gated entrance.
Watchers from the settlement eyed my approach and greeted me with spears. Though I was a youth with barely any hair on my face, they made certain that I had no weapons on my person before I was allowed through.
I told them I was a smithy and had tools to sell. I had fine bronze arrow tips and iron tools. I had a sword (it was the last one made by the old man before I ate him) that would help them resist the Hibernian pirates.
Inside the defenses I could now see two occupied houses of good size and another that had gone out of use. Children of all sizes swarmed around as I was taken before the family elders.
The leader of the family was the oldest looking man I’d ever seen. While Merlyn had no doubt been much older, this was the oldest ordinary human I’d seen. His name was Calpurnius and in better times he had worked for the Romans before the punishment of the usurper Magnentius.
The large family reminded me of my own. We shared a meal from a cauldron of boiling soup made with turnips and mussels. It was delicious.
I said, “This is the best meal I have had in years. How often do you gather food from the ocean?”
They all looked at a boy of about 11 who stood near me.
“My name is Padraig,” he said. “I harvest the mussels, cockles and crabs. I go to the sea every day.”
I got the zinc box from my pack and brought it to him. It was heavy and he could carry it just barely.
I told him, “This box holds a very special plant that must be drenched regularly with seawater. Keep it somewhere shady near the water. After the first time, you must let it dry out before again watering it fully. If you do this, I will bring you a silver coin each time I visit.”
I took a silver coin from my purse and handed it to him.
“If you dump it and sell the zinc box, you receive nothing from me and I will never return.”
He promised to take good care of it. I wondered what it would turn into.
The farm was productive and I quickly saw the value of trading with these people. To Calpurnius, the eldest of the family, I gave the rest of my small purse of silver coins. Then I brought out all the good metal I had with me and they loaded up my donkey with turnips, rutabagas and shellfish.
I asked for and they agreed to send along two of the young ones, Fien and Eldraig, who were big enough to work as long as I promised to bring them back in time for spring planting.
It was amazing what people would do for money.