Time out o’ mind it had stood there, feeling and fumbling its stones into new shapes as the aeons passed. The water had always flowed, sometimes a little stream, others a night-mare of tossing manes and black water. It stood there now, grey and weathered, green moss and yellow lichen spattered on the walls. Hard to make out from between the hoary trunks of oak and ash, the tangle or rowan and elder which grew right down to the water’s edge.
He stood beside her on the far bank, just too old now to clutch her skirts at the sight of something new and strange. His bright face was smeared with green from the twigs slapping at him as he followed in her wake through the trees of Caledon. His feet were wet, he was cold and it was many hours since they had shared the last of the porridge. Why have we come here he wondered again but only inside his head. Long years had taught him there was no profit in asking her until he already knew the answer within himself. Then she would smile at him and stroke his hair. A fire would rush between them, all in an instant. He liked that feeling.
She was still standing there like a white stone statue, only her long black hair blew between them in the cold wind, like a dark curtain. He began to fidget, shuffling his feet, slapping his arms to get the circulation back before he turned into a block of ice. He felt her irritation, looked up, but she was still staring across the turgid water at the grey bothy hiding in the woods. He stood still but he couldn’t stop the shaking. She put one hand on his shoulder and the fire crept into him, he was warm.
“Come!” she ordered and strode out onto the first of the great slabs which stepped across the ford. Huge, ancient, sparkling with quartz, the glimmered as though they made their own light. Somehow the twilight was brighter as they walked across the bridge. Walked! She walked. He struggled, pushed and shoved by the wind, until finally he gave up standing and crept across the stones on hands and knees.
They arrived. The point of light he had seen from the far bank was a lantern hanging in back of the roofed forecourt. As they stepped under the arch he could smell and see the great fire in the forge proper. Out of the wind his ears stopped singing and he was suddenly warm again. He gasped at the pain as the blood began to flow again through shrunken, frozen arteries.
“Aya! Brother! Art here? ‘tis cold and the child is hungry!”
She stood a moment, waiting a response, then gathered him to her and took him to the little hearth at the back of the court. She dipped the ladle into the iron bucket and filled the kettle, pulling it on its chain until it hung over the fire. He took small sticks and coaxed up a hungry blaze. They waited together.
Evenstar slid over the horizon before he came. The boy heard the stealthy pad, the careful breathing, even over the rush of wind and water as she had taught him. The bright darkness of the night was blotted out as the man stood in the arch. The boy could smell night fern, winter honeysuckle and witch hazel along with the earthy smell of badger and fox.
“Hast brought the young un, then.” The man snuffed the air, scenting his visitors as he reached up and lit another lantern.
Now the boy could see him. Huge and tall, clad in skins, his bare arms covered in the same delicate spiral tracery that embroidered his mistress. As the boy stretched his neck upwards he found the eyes, bright green pools as wild as a stag, shining out of a crazy maze pattern. Blinking, the boy saw the face too was covered in blue whorls.
“I heard the sister,” white teeth shone out as the man smiled “even as I stood on the mountain. Here!” He tossed a coney and the boy caught it nimbly. “I brought dinner an’ the boy can prepare it.”
Quickly and cleanly he skinned, gutted and spitted the rabbit, setting it to roast. Carefully he fed the fire until the flames were blue. The woman took the kettle and poured boiling water on a pot of herbs. Suddenly the forge smelled of spring.
The boy woke with a start from the comfortable, sated sleep. Peering through the arch he saw the old moon, her dry dugs and slack belly sagging as she hobbled across the sky. Quietly he sat up, freeing his feet from the blanket and loosening the knife in his belt for he was alone. An owl hooted softly from the rafters, he shivered.
He got up and went to the archway, keeping to the shadows. Coming up the stone path from the bridge was an old crone. Tip, tap thonk! Tip, tap thonk! Her two feet and one stick made noise enough to wake the dead.
“Little boy! Little boy! I’m tired and thirsty from a long winter’s travelling. Would you bring me into the warm by your fire?”
The boy stood still in the centre of the arch, barring the way.
“Young man! Young man! I am so tired and your fire smells so good. Will you give me some warmth?”
Tip, tap thonk! Tip, tap thonk! She was closer now. He could smell the rankness on her like a vixen in heat. He stood still in the archway, barring the way.
“Great king! Great king! Will you take pity on a poor old woman? Out in the mid-winter cold I’ve been. All in the deep snow and no drop to drink.”
Tip, tap thonk! Tip, tap thonk! She was so close now he could see the grime in the wrinkled flesh. The cobweb of rags hid nothing. The skin of her breasts and belly were like old parchment written over in faint blue whorls. Then he saw her eyes. Deeper than the deepest well they were but at the very bottom the last embers of the fire still glowed redly.
He sat her down on the wooden stool his mistress had lately occupied.
“Here Mother” and he dipped the ladle into the iron bucket and offered it to her.
“Argh!” she drew away so sharply she tumbled into the hearth and cowered there in the dusty ashes.
He didn’t understand. The water was fresh. He had drawn it himself before he went to sleep.
“’Tis good, Mother. Will you not try a sip? And he drank from the ladle himself to show her it was good.
“I’ll die, boy, die! The water’s from yon well and there’ll be no more o’ me an’ I taste it!”
The boy didn’t know what to do. He put the ladle back in the bucket and wet his fingers in the water. He came round and squatted beside her, putting an arm around the sack of bones encased in skin. She could no longer escape him. He wet his lips with the water and gently pressed his mouth against hers.
This time the fire swept from him to her, a climax which shook them both so that they fell apart. He looked at her and looked at her. Gone the dry parchment flesh. Rounded now the arms and cheeks and breasts. Firm belly and red lips. The long dark hair swung like a curtain between them. He scrambled back, away from her to the other side of the fire. A great laugh made him jump back even further.
The great fire in the forge was leaping and dancing. Bright sparks flew as the hammer sang with the glowing metal.
“Here boy!” The blacksmith called him.
Coming to the anvil he watched as the smith turned and folded the length of metal time on time, beating it out and folding it again and again.
“Strength, lad.” The smith told him. “And sharpness. And flexibility. All you need in life if you use it true.”
The boy watched as the sword was born and born again, nine times into the fire. It hissed and spat like a raging cat as the smith soused it in the well water.
“Caliburn! That’s who thee’ll be.” He whispered to it as he drew it out of the iron cauldron. But the boy had long ears and heard him.
He watched the smith as he finished, sharpened and polished the sword. As he worked his hair fell out of the pigtail holding it and swung long and black with every sweep of the sharpening stone, like a curtain between them. Finally it was finished.
The smith stood and held up the sword in the morning light. The boy was dazzled. It seemed to him that rainbows sparked from the spiral tracery on the blade. Suddenly the smith swung the sword up and plunged it down. The anvil screamed as the blade pierced it. The boy fell back clutching his ears.
Getting back to his feet he saw her behind the sword which stood quivering in the anvil. The long curtain of dark hair half hid the faint blue swirl of tracery on her arms. Her deep green eyes smiled at him.
“Come, little bear. You have seen it made but it is not here you will draw it forth. Deep in the caves of Beli will you go, if so it is the path you choose.”
Together they crossed the clapper bridge and climbed the mountain through the trees of Caledon to the green chapel where the old man waited.