It’s fairly common for editors to want to change titles. Sometimes a title might be too much like that of another book. For example, one of my novels had the working title of Berserker Prime. I turned it in without realizing that Fred Saberhagen had used the same title five years previous. This kind of thing has happened to me more than once.
Other times, the editor just doesn’t like your title for artistic reasons. Maybe the title is too long, too obscure, or doesn’t have the right resonance. Heck, I’ve known some editors who change your titles for absolutely no good reason. When I was writing for one young adult publisher, the editors always changed my titles—without ever telling me or asking my opinion.
On two occasions I’ve had editors ask to change my titles to something that I thought was blasé. In both instances, my sales in the series fell dramatically.
There is a saying in the book industry that “A bad title won’t hurt book sales on a series.” That may be true, but when you get a bad title, the artist almost always comes up with a lackluster image. Thus, you get both a bad title and a lousy cover.
Don’t do it. If you and your editor can’t agree on a title, ask for a day or two and think about a new title. Come up with a good one. If your editor doesn’t like it, tell him or her to butt out. It’s your book, your career, and your livelihood on the line.
A good title should have three qualities.
- It needs to be short, only a word or three, so that it can fit on the cover.
- It should combine words or images in an interesting way so that readers will wonder what it is about. I think that my novel Wizardborn worked well that way, but there are plenty of novels on the bookstore shelves that provide good examples.
- It should resonate with other books in your genre. In short, if you’re writing a romance, the title should scream “Romance.” If you’re writing horror, it should be appropriate for horror.
So pick a good title for your novel, and then stick with it. If your editor calls you and says, “Hey, I’ve been thinking that you should change this title. . . .” Ask him or her why. In the cases where it happened to me, the editor did it at the last moment, just before the book was going to press, or the catalogs were going to the bookstores. I allowed the changes, but the proper response should be, “We’ve been editing this book for a year. Why the hell didn’t you bring it up earlier? Forget it. The title stays.”
Don’t be pressured into making last-minute changes. Take responsibility for your title.
Here is an Arthurian short story about Merlin’s daughter called The Mooncalfe. You can find more of my short stories for $.99 on Amazon under my name, David Farland.
It was late evening on a sultry summer’s day when three riders appeared at the edge of the woods on the road southwest of Tintagel Castle. The sentries did not see them riding up the muddy track that led from Beronsglade. The knights merely appeared, just as the sun dipped below the sea, as if they’d coalesced from mist near a line of beech trees.
The manner of their appearance did not seem odd, on that day of oddities. The tide was very low, and the whole ocean lay as placid as a mountain pool. To the castle’s residents, who were used to the constant pounding of the surf upon the craggy rocks outside the castle walls, the silence seemed thunderous. Even the gulls had given up their incessant screeching and now huddled low on the rocks, making an easy dinner of cockles and green kelp crabs.
All around the castle, the air was somber. Smoke from cooking fires and from the candlers hung in a blue haze all about Tintagel’s four towers. The air seemed leaden.
So it was that the sentries, when they spotted the three knights, frowned and studied the men’s unfamiliar garb. The leader of the trio wore a fantastical helm shaped like a dragon’s head, and his enameled mail glimmered red like a dragon’s scales. He rode a huge black destrier, and as for the device on his shield, he carried only blank iron strapped to a pack on a palfrey.
Beside him rode a big fellow in oiled ringmail, while the third knight wore nothing but a cuirass of boiled leather, yet carried himself with a calmness and certainty that made him more frightening than if he rode at the head of a Saxon horde.
“‘Tis Uther Pendragon!” one of the boys at the castle walls cried at first. The lad hefted his halberd as if he would take a swing, but stepped back in fright.
Pendragon was of course the guards’ worst nightmare. At the Easter feast, King Uther Pendragon had made advances on the Duke Gorlois’s wife, the Lady Igraine. He had courted her in her husband’s company with all the grace and courtesy of a bull trying to mount a heifer. At last the duke felt constrained to flee the king’s presence. The king demanded that Gorlois return with his wife, but Gorlois knew that if ever set foot in the king’s palace again, he’d lose his head. So he locked his wife safely in Tintagel, began fortifying his castles, and prayed that he could hire enough Irish mercenaries to back him before the king could bring him down.
Last anyone had heard, Duke Gorlois was holed like a badger at his fortress in Dimilioc, where Uther Pendragon had laid siege. It was said that Pendragon had employed Welsh miners as sappers, vowing to dig down the castle walls and skin Gorlois for his pelt within forty days.
So when the lad atop the castle wall thought he saw Pendragon, immediately someone raised a horn and began to blow wildly, calling for reinforcements, though none would likely be needed. Tintagel was a small keep, situated by the sea on a pile of rocks that could only be reached over a narrow causeway. It was said that three men could hold it from an army of any size, and no fewer than a two dozen guards now manned the wall.
The captain of the guard, a stout old knight named Sir Ventias who could no longer ride due to a game leg, squinted through the smoke that clung around the castle. Something seemed afoul. He knew fat king Pendragon’s features well, and se he peered through the gloom and the smoke that burned his eyes, he saw immediately that it was not Pendragon on the mount. It was a young man with a flaxen beard and a hatchet face.
Ventias squinted, trying to pierce the haze until he felt sure: it was Duke Gorlois. He rode in company with his true friend Sir Jordans and the stout knight Sir Brastias.
Ventias smiled. “Tell, the duchess that her husband is home.”
The celebration that night was remarkable. The duke’s pennant was hoisted on the wall, and everywhere the people made merry. Sir Brastias himself told the miraculous tale of their escape—how they had spied Pendragon leave the siege and the duke had issued out from the castle with his knights. After a brief battle, Gorlois had broken Pendragon’s lines and had hurried toward Tintagel, only to discover Pendragon himself a few miles up the road, frolicking with some maiden in a pool. Since King Pendragon was naked and unarmed, it became an easy matter to capture the lecher, both arms and armor, and force his surrender.
Thus Gorlois rode home in Pendragon’s suit of mail.
So it was that the celebration began at Tintagel. Suckling pigs were spitted and cooked over a bonfire in the lower bailey, while every lad who had a hand with the pipe or the tambor made music as best he could. New ale flowed into mugs like golden honey. Young squires fought mock combats to impress their lord and entertain the audience. And everywhere the people began to dance.
But Duke Gorlois could not relish it. Instead, he went to his great hall before the festivities began and gazed upon his glorious young bride with a sultry stare. He never even took his seat at the head of the table. Instead, he studied her for less than a minute before he grabbed one of her breasts as if it were a third hand and began to lead her to the bedchamber.
This he did in front of some eighty people. When the priest quietly complained about this impropriety to the Duke, Gorlois, who was normally a very reserved fellow, merely said, “Let the people frolic as they see fit, and I will frolic as I see fit.”
Though everyone was astonished at this crude display, no one other than the priest dared speak against it. Even Sir Jordans, a man who could normally be counted on to pass judgment fairly on any matter, merely sat in the great hall and did not eat. Instead, he played with his heavy serpent-handled dagger, stabbing it over and over again into the wooden table beside his trencher.
Then Duke Gorlois dragged his wife up the stairs against her will, stripping off his armor as he went.
Or at least that is the way that my mother tells the tale, and she should know, for she was a young woman who served tables there at Tintagel.
It seems surprising that no one found it odd.
The evening star that night shone as red as a bloodstone, and all the dogs somehow quietly slipped from the castle gates.
There was a new horned moon, and though the people danced, they did not do so long. Somehow their feet seemed heavy, and the celebration seemed more trouble than it was worth, and so the crowds began to break off early.
Some went home, while most seemed more eager to drink themselves into a stupor. Yet no one at the time remarked about the queer mood at Castle Tintagel.
Late that night, my mother found Sir Jordans still on his bench, where he’d sat quietly for hours. He was letting the flame of a candle lick his left forefinger in a display that left my mother horrified and set her heart to hammering.
Dozens of knights lay drunk and snoring on the floor around him, while a pair of cats on the table gnawed the bones of a roast swan.
My mother wondered if Sir Jordans performed this remarkable feat for her benefit, as young men often will when trying to impress a young woman.
If so, he’d gone too far. She feared for Sir Jordan’s health, so she quietly scurried to the long oaken table. She could not smell burning flesh above the scents of ale and grease and fresh loaves, though Sir Jordans had been holding his finger under the flame for a long minute.
“What are you doing?” my mother asked in astonishment. “If it’s cooking yourself that you’re after, there’s a bonfire still burning out in the bailey!”
Sir Jordans merely sat at the table, a hooded traveling robe pulled low over his head, and held his finger beneath the flickering flame. Candlelight glimmered in his eyes. My mother thought the silence odd, for in the past Sir Jordans had always been such a garrulous fellow, a man whose laugh sounded like the winter’s surf booming on the escarpment at the base of the castle walls.
“Do you hear me? You’ll lose the finger,” my mother warned. “Are you drunk, or fey?” she asked, and she thought of rousing some besotted knight from the floor to help her subdue the man.
Sir Jordans looked up at her with a dreamy smile. “I’ll not lose my finger, nor burn it,” he said. “I could hold it thus all night. It is a simple trick, really. I could teach you—if you like?”
Something about his manner unnerved my mother. She was beautiful then. Though she was a but a scullery maid, at the age of fourteen she was lovely—with long raven hair, eyes of smoke, and a full figure that drew appreciative gazes from men. Sir Jordans studied her now with open admiration, and she grew frightened.
She crossed herself. “This is no trick, this is sorcery!” my mother accused. “It’s evil! If the Father found out, he’d make you do penance.”
But Sir Jordans merely smiled as if she were a child. He had a broad, pleasant face that could give no insult. “It’s not evil,” he affirmed reasonably. “Did not God save the three righteous Israelites when the infidels threw them into the fire?”
My mother wondered then. He was right, of course. Sir Jordans was a virtuous man, she knew, and if god could save men who were thrown whole into a fire, then surely Sir Jordans was upright enough so that god could spare his finger.
“Let me teach you,” Sir Jordan’s whispered.
My mother nodded, still frightened, but enticed by his gentle manner.
“The trick,” Sir Jordans said, withdrawing his finger from the candle flame, “is to learn to take the fire into yourself without getting burned.”
He held up his finger for her inspection, and my mother drew close, trying to see it in the dim light, to make sure that it was not oozing or blistered.
“Once you learn how to hold the fire within,” Sir Jordans whispered, “you must then learn to release the flames when—and how—you will. Like this . . .”
He reached out his finger then and touched between my mother’s ample breasts. His finger itself was cold to the touch, so cold that it startled her. Yet after he drew it away, she felt as if flames began to build inside her, pulsing through her breasts in waves, sending cinders of pleasure to burn hot in the back of her brain. Unimaginable embers, as hot as coals from a blacksmith’s forge, flared to life in her groin.
As the flames took her, she gasped in astonishment, so thoroughly inflamed by lust that she dropped to her knees in agony, barely able to suppress her screams.
Sir Jordans smiled at her and asked playfully, “You’re a virgin, aren’t you?”
Numb with pain, my mother nodded, and knelt before him, sweating and panting from desire. This is hell, she thought. This is how it will be, me burning with desires so staggering that they can never be sated. This is my destiny now and hereafter.
“I could teach you more,” Sir Jordans whispered, leaning close. “I could teach you how to make love, how to satisfy every sensual desire. There are arts to be learned——pleasurable beyond your keenest imagining. Only when I teach you, can the flames inside you be quenched.”
My mother merely nodded, struck dumb with grief and lust. She would have given anything for one moment of release, for any degree of satisfaction. Sir Jordans smiled and leaned forward, until his lips met hers.
At dawn, my mother woke outside the castle. She found herself sprawled dazed and naked like some human sacrifice upon a black rock on the ocean’s shore.
The whole world was silent, with a silence so profound that it seemed to weigh like an ingot of lead on her chest. The only noise came from the cries of gulls that winged about the castle towers, as if afraid to land.
She searched for a long while until she found her clothes, then made her way back to the castle.
Two hours later, riders came charging hard from Dimilioc. They bore the ill tidings that Duke Gorlois had been slain in battle the day before. Among the dead were found Sir Brastias and Sir Jordans.
Everyone at Tintagel took the news in awe, speaking well only because they feared to speak ill.
“‘Twas a shade,” they said. “Duke Gorlois so loved his wife, that he came at sunset to see her one last time.”
Even the Lady Igraine repeated this tale of shades as if it were true, for her husband had slipped from her bed before dawn, as if he were indeed a shade, as had the other dead men who walked in his retinue.
But my mother did not believe the tale. The man she’d slept with the night before had been clothed in flesh, and she felt his living seed burn her womb. She knew that she had been seduced by sorcery, under the horned moon.
Two children were conceived on that fell night. I was one of them, the girl.
You have surely heard of the boy.
King Uther Pendragon soon forced the widowed Igraine to be his wife and removed her to Canterbury. When the boy was born, Pendragon ripped the newborn son from its mother’s breast and gave it to a pale-eyed Welsh sorcerer who slung it over his back and carried it like a bundle of firewood into the forest.
I have heard it said that Igraine feared that the sorcerer would bury the infant alive, so she prayed ceaselessly that God would soften the sorcerer’s heart, so that he would abandon it rather than do it harm.
Some say that in time Igraine became deluded into believing that her son was being raised by peasants or wolves. She was often seen wandering the fairs, looking deep into the eyes of boy children, as if trying to find something of herself or Duke Gorlois there.
As for my mother, she fled Tintagel well before her stomach began to bulge. She loved a stableboy in Tintagel, and had even promised herself to him in marriage, so it was a hard thing for her to leave, and she slunk away one night without saying any goodbyes.
For she constantly feared that the false Sir Jordans would return. It is well known, after all, that devils cannot leave their own offspring alone.
My mother went into labor three hundred and thirty-three days later, after a term so long that she knew there would be something wrong with me.
My mother took no midwife, for she rightly feared what I would look like. I would have a tail, she thought, and a goat’s pelt, and cloven hooves for feet. She feared that I might even be born with horns that would rip her as I came through the birth canal.
No priest would have baptized a bastard and a monstrosity, she knew, and she hoped that I would be born dead, or would die soon, so that she could rid herself of the evidence of her sin.
So she went into the forest while the labor pains wracked her, and she gouged a little hole to bury me in, and she laid a huge rock beside it to crush me with, if it came to that.
Then she squatted in the ferns beneath an oak. Thus I dropped into the world, and the only cries to ring from the woods that day came from my mother.
For when I touched the soil, I merely lay quietly gazing about. My mother looked down between her legs in trepidation and saw at once that I was no common girl. I was not as homely as her sin. I was not born with a pelt or a twisted visage.
Instead, she said that I was radiant, with skin that smelled of honeysuckle and eyes as pale as ice. I did not have the cheesy covering of a newborn, and my mother’s blood did not cling to me.
I looked out at her, as if I were very old and wise and knowing, and I did not cry. Instead, I reached out and grasped her bloody heel, as if to comfort her, and I smiled.
When my mother was a little girl herself, she said that she told me that she had often tried to visualize angels who were so pure and good, wise and beautiful, so innocent and powerful that the mind revolted from trying to imagine them. Now a newborn angel grasped her heel, and it broke my mother’s heart.
No human child had ever had a skin so pale, or hair that so nearly matched the blush of a rose.
Thus my mother knew that I was fairy child as well as a bastard born under the horned moon, and though she loved me, she dared not name me. Instead, though I bore no lump like a hunchback or no disfigurement of any kind that made me seem monstrous or ill-favored, she merely called me “Mooncalfe.”
If beauty and wisdom can be said to be curses, no one was more accursed than I.
My mother feared for me. She feared what lusty men might do to me if ever I were found.
So she fled from villages and castles into an abandoned cottage deep in the wooded hills, and perhaps that was for the best. The Saxons were moving north, and on her rare trips to the nearest village, she came back distressed by the news.
At nights I could hear her lying awake, the beads of her rosary clacking as she muttered prayers to her vengeful god, hoping that he would heal me. I knew even then that she prayed in vain, that her god had nothing to do with me.
Mother raised me alone. Time and again she would plead, “Don’t wander from the cottage. Never let your face be seen, and never let any man touch you!”
She loved me fiercely, and well. She taught me games and fed me as best she could. She punished me when I did wrong, and she slept with me wrapped in her arms at night.
But if she let me outside to play at all, she did so only briefly, and even then I was forced to cover myself with a robe and a shawl, so that I might hide my face.
Sometimes, at night, she would kneel beneath a cross she had planted in front of the cottage and raise her voice, pleading with her god and his mother. She begged forgiveness, and asked him that I might be healed and made like any other child. She would sometimes she cut herself or pull out her own hair, or beat herself mercilessly, hoping that her god would show pity on her for such self-abuse.
I admit that at times, I too prayed to the Blessed Virgin, but never for myself—only for my mother’s comfort.
She sought to cure me of my affliction. She rubbed me with healing leaves, like evening star and wizard’s violet.
When I was three, my mother took a long journey of several days, the first and only one she ever took with me. She had learned in the village that a holy man had died, a Bishop who was everywhere named a man of good report, and she badly wanted his bones to burn for me.
So she bundled me up and carried me through the endless woods. Her prayers poured out from her as copiously as did her sweat.
We skirted villages and towns for nearly a week, traveling mostly at night by the light of the stars and a waxing moon, until at last we reached an abbey. My mother found his tomb, and had work prying the stone from his grave. If the bishop was truly a good man, I do not know. His spirit had already fled the place.
But we found his rotting corpse, and my mother severed his hand, and then we scurried away into the night. The abbot must have set his hounds on us, for I remember my mother splashing through the creek, me clinging to her back, while the hounds bayed.
Two nights later, when the moon had waxed full, we found a hilltop far from any habitation, and she set the bone fire.
We piled up tree limbs and wadded grass into a great circle, and all the time that we did so, mother prayed to her god in my behalf.
“God can heal you, Mooncalfe,” she would mutter. “God loves you and can heal you. He can make you look like a common child, I am sure. But in order to gain his greatest blessings, you must say your prayers and walk through the fire of bones. Only then, as the smoke ascends into heaven, will the Father and his handmaid Mary hear your most heartfelt prayer.”
It seemed a lot of trouble to me. I was happy and carefree as a child. My greatest concern was for my mother. Having seen all the work she had done, I consented at last.
When the fire burned its brightest, and columns of smoke lit the sky, my mother threw the bishop’s severed hand atop the mix, and we waited until we could smell his charred flesh.
Then my mother and I said our prayers, and my mother bid me to leap through the fire.
I did so, begging the blessing of the Virgin and leaping through the flames seven times.
Even as a child, I never burned. Until that time, I had thought myself fortunate.
But though the fire was so hot that my mother dared not approach it, I leapt through unharmed, untouched by the heat.
On my last attempt, when I saw that the bone fire had still not made me look human, I merely leapt into the conflagration and stood.
I hoped that the flames would blister me and scar me, so that I might look more like a mortal.
My mother screamed in terror and kept trying to draw near, to pull me from the fire, but it burned her badly.
I cried aloud to the Virgin, begging her blessing, but though the flames licked the clothing from my flesh, so that my skirts and cloak all turned to stringy ashes, I took no hurt.
I waited for nearly an hour for the flames to die low before I wearied of the game. Then I helped my mother down to the stream, to bathe her own fire-blistered flesh and ease her torment.
She wept and prayed bitterly, and by dawn she was not fit for travel. She had great black welts on her face, and bubbles beneath the skin, and her skin had gone all red—all because she sought to save me from the flames. But as for me, my skin was unblemished. If anything, it looked more translucent. My mother sobbed and confirmed my fears. “You look more pure than before.”
So it was that I foraged for us both, and after several days we began to amble home in defeat.
After that, mother seemed to lose all hope of ever healing me. She confided a few days later, “I will raise you until you are thirteen,” she said, “but I can do no more after that.”
She wanted a life for herself.
She took to making trips to the village more, and I knew that she fell in love, for often when she returned, she would mention a young miller who lived there, a man named Andelin, and she would sometimes fall silent and stare off into the distance and smile.
I am sure that she never mentioned her accursed daughter to him, and I suppose that he could not have helped but love my mother in kind.
One night, late in the summer, my mother returned from the village crying. I asked her why she wept, and she said that Andelin had begged for her hand in marriage, but she had spurned him.
She did not say why. She thought I was still too young to understand how I stood in the way of her love.
Later that night, Andelin himself rode into the woods, and called for my mother, seeking our cottage. But it was far from the lonely track that ran through the wood, and my mother was careful not to leave a trail, and so he never found us.
Though I felt sorry for my mother, I was glad when Andelin gave up looking for us.
The thought terrified me that my mother might leave someday. She was my truest companion, my best friend.
But if I was raised alone as a child, the truth is that I seldom felt lonely. In a dark glen not a quarter mile from my home, was a barren place where a woodsman’s cottage had once stood. A young boy, Daffyth, had died in the cottage, and his shade still hovered near the spot, for he longed for his mother who would never return.
I could speak with him on all but the sunniest of days, and he taught me many games and rhymes that he’d learned at his mother’s knee. He was a desolate boy, lost and frightened. He needed my comfort more than I ever needed his.
For in addition to conversing with him and my mother, I could also speak to animals. I listened to the hungry confabulations of trout in the stream, or the useless prattle of squirrels, or the fearful musings of mice. The rooks that lived against the chimney of our cottage often berated me, accusing me of pilfering their food, but then they would chortle even louder when they managed to snatch a bright piece of blue string from my frock to add to their nests.
But it was not the small animals that gave me the most pleasure. As a child of four, I learned to love a shaggy old wolf bitch who was kind and companionable, and who would warn me when hunters or outlaws roamed the forest.
When, as a small girl, I told my mother what the birds or foxes were saying, she refused to believe me. I was lonely she thought, and therefore given to vain imaginings. Like any other child, I tended to chatter incessantly, and it was only natural that I would take what company I could find.
Or maybe she feared to admit even to herself that she knew what I could do.
Certainly, she had to have had an intimation.
I know that she believed me when I turned five, for that was the year that I met the white hart. He was old and venerable and wiser than even the wolf or owls. He was the one who first talked taught me to walk invisibly, and showed me the luminous pathways in the air that led toward the Bright Lady.
“You are one of them,” he said. “In time, you must go to her.” But I did not feel the Goddess’s call at that early age.
It was that very year that my mother became ill one drear midwinter’s day—deathly ill, though I did not understand death. Flecks of blood sprayed from her mouth when she coughed, and though her flesh burned with inner fire, she shivered violently, even though I piled all of our coats and blankets on her and left her beside the roaring fire.
“Listen to me,” my mother cried one night after a bout of coughing had left her blankets all red around her throat. “I am going to die,” she said. “I’m going to die, my sweet Mooncalfe, and I’m afraid you’ll die because of it.”
I had seen death of course. I’d seen the cold bodies of squirrels, but I’d also seen their shades hopping about merrily in the trees afterward, completely unconcerned. I did not share my mother’s fear.
“All right,” I said, accepting death.
“No!” my mother shouted, fighting for breath. Tears coursed from her eyes. “It’s not all right.” Her voice sounded marvelously hoarse and full of pain. “You must promise me to stay alive. Food. We have plenty of food. But you must keep the fire lit, stay warm. In the spring, you must go north to the nunnery at the edge of the wood.”
“All right,” I answered with equanimity, prepared to live or die as she willed.
She grew weak quickly.
In those days, I knew little of herb lore or magic. If I’d known then what I do now, perhaps I would have walked the path to the Endless Summer and gathered lungwort and elderflower to combat her cough, and willow and catmint to help ease her pain and gently sweat out the fever.
But as a child I only prayed with her. She prayed to live, I prayed for a quick cessation of her agony.
Her god granted my prayer—the only one that he ever granted me—, and she died within hours.
But death did not end my mother’s torment. Her shade was restless and longed to watch over me. She thought me abused because of her sin.
So she remained with me in that house, wailing her grief. Each night was a new beginning to her, for like most shades, she would forget all that had happened the night before. I took her to see Daffyth on some occasions, hoping that they might comfort one another, but she gained nothing from it.
She cursed herself for her weakness in allowing herself to be seduced by Sir Jordans, and she often breathed out threats of vengeance.
She loved me and wept over me, and I could not comfort her. Nor did I ever seek out the nunnery, for my mother seemed as alive to me as ever.
I lived and grew. The she-wolf brought me hares and piglets and young deer to eat, until she herself grew old and died. I gathered mushrooms from the forest floor, and the white hart showed me where an old orchard still stood, so that I filled up stores of plums and apples to help last me through each winter.
I foraged and fed myself. As I did, I began to roam the woods and explore. I would leave the old cottage for days at a time, letting my mother stay alone in her torment. On such occasions, she wandered too, searching for her little lost girl.
I found her once, there at the edge of the village, staring at Andelin’s house. The miller had grown older, and had married some girl who was not my mother’s equal. Their child cried within, and my mother dared not disturb them.
Yet, like me, she stood there at the edge of the forest, craving another person’s touch.
I often kept myself invisible on my journeys, and at times I confess that I enjoyed sneaking up on the poachers and outlaws that hid in the wood, merely to watch them, to see what common people looked like, how they acted when they thought themselves alone.
But in my fourteenth summer, I once made the mistake of stepping on a twig as I watched a handsome young man stalking the white hart through tall ferns. The boy spun and released his bow so fast that I did not have time to dodge his shot.
The cold iron tip of his arrow only nicked my arm. Though the wound was slight, still the iron dispelled my charms, and I suddenly found myself standing before him naked (for I had no need of clothes). My heart pounded in terror and desire.
I suddenly imagined what the boy would do, having seen me. I imagined his lips against mine, and his hands pressing firmly into my buttocks, and that he would ravish me. After all, night after night my mother had warned me what men would do if they saw me.
So I anticipated his advances. In fact, in that moment I imagined that I might actually be in love, and so determined that I would endure his passion if not enjoy it.
But to my dismay, when he saw me suddenly standing there naked, he merely fainted. Though I tried to revive him for nearly an hour, each time I did so, he gazed at me in awe and then passed out again.
When night came, I wrapped myself in a cloak of invisibility and let him regain his wits. Then I followed him to his home at the edge of a village. He kept listening for me, and he begged me not to follow, thinking me a succubus or some other demon.
He made the sign of the cross against me, and I begged him to tarry. But he shot arrows at me and seemed so frightened that I dared not follow him farther, for his sake as well as mine.
Soon thereafter I met Wiglan, the wise woman of the barrow. She was a lumpy old thing, almost like a tree trunk with arms. She had been dead for four hundred years, and still her spirit had not flickered out and faded, as so many do, but instead had ripened into something warped and strange and eerie. Moreover, she did not grow forgetful during the days as my mother’s shade did, and so she offered me a more-even level of companionship.
One night under the bright eternal stars, I told Wiglan of my problem, of how my mother longed for me to look mortal, and how I now longed for it too. I could no longer take comfort in the company of cold shades or in conversations with animals. I craved the touch of real flesh against mine, the kiss of warm lips, the touch of hands, and the thrust of hips.
“Perhaps,” Wiglan said, “you should seek out the healing pools up north. If the goddess can heal you at all, there is where you will find her blessing.”
“What pools?” I asked, heart pounding with a hope that I had never felt so keenly before.
“There are ancient pools in Wales,” she said, “called the Maiden’s Fount. While I yet lived, the Romans built a city there, called Caerleon. I heard that they enclosed the fount and built a temple to their goddess Minerva. The fount has great powers, and the Romans honored the goddess in their way, but even then it was a sin, for they in honoring the goddess, they sought to hedge her in.”
“That was hundreds of years ago,” I said. “Are you sure that the fount still springs forth?”
“It is a sacred place to the Lady and all of her kin,” Wiglan said. “It will still be there. Go by the light of a horned moon and ask of her what you will. Make an offering of water lilies and lavender. Perhaps your petition will be granted.”
Bursting with hope, I made off at once. I set my course by the River or Stars, and journeyed for many days over fields and hills, through dank forest and over the fetid bogs. At night I would sometimes seek directions from the dead, who were plentiful in those days of unrest, until at last after many weeks I reached the derelict temple.
The Saxons had been to Caerleon and burned the city a few years before. A castle stood not far from the ancient temple, but the villages around Caerleon had been burned and looted, its citizens murdered. Little remained of it, and for the moment the castle was staffed by a handful of soldiers who huddled on its walls in fear.
The temple on the hills above the fortress was in worse condition than was the castle. Some of the temple’s pillars had been knocked down, and moon disk above its façade lay broken and in ruins. Perhaps the Saxons had sensed the Lady’s power here and sought to put an end to it, or at least sully it.
The pools were overgrown and reedy, while owls hooted and flew on silent wings among the few standing pillars.
There I took my offerings and went to bathe under the crescent moon.
I knelt in the damp mud above the warm pool, cast out a handful of lavender into the brackish water, and stood with a white water lily cupped in my left palm. I whispered my prayers to the Goddess, thanking her for the gifts that the Earth gave me, for her breasts that were hills, for the fruit of the fields and of the forest. I pleaded with her and named my desire before making my final offering of lily.
As I prayed, a man’s voice spoke up behind me. “She’s not that strong anymore. The new god is gaining power over this land, and the Great Mother hides. You seek a powerful magic, one that will change the very essence of what you are—and that is beyond her power. Perhaps you should seek a smaller blessing, ask her to do something easy, like change the future?
“Still pray to her as you will. It hurts nothing, and I’m glad that some still talk to her.”
I turned and looked into the ice-pale eyes of a Welshman, recognized at once my features in his face. He was my father. I did not feel surprised to meet him here. After all, my mother had taught me well that demons always seek out and torment their own children.
He stared right at me, his eyes caressing my naked flesh, even though I had been walking invisible.
“Sir Jordans?” I asked. “Or do you have a truer name?”
The fellow smiled wistfully, drew back his hood so that I could see his silvered hair in the moonlight. “I called myself that—but only once. How is your mother? Well, I hope.”
“Dead,” I answered, then waited in the cold silence for him to show some reaction.
When he saw that he must speak, he finally said, “Well, that happens.”
I demanded, “By the Bright Lady, what is your name?” I do not know if the Goddess forced him to reveal it because we were at the pool, or if he would have told me anyway, but he answered.
“Merlin. Some call me Merlin the Prophet, or Merlin the Seer. Others name me a Magician.”
“Not Merlin the Procurer? Not Merlin the Seducer? Not Merlin the Merciless?”
“What I did, I did only once,” Merlin said, as if that should buy a measure of forgiveness. “The omens were good that night, for one who wished to produce offspring strong in the old powers. It was the first horned moon of the new summer, after all.”
“Is that the only reason you took my mother, because the moon was right?”
“I was not at Tintagel on my own errand,” Merlin defended himself. “Uther Pendragon wanted to bed the Duchess Igraine, and her would have killed her husband for the chance. Call me a procurer if you will, but I tried only to save the duke’s life—and I foresaw in the process that Pendragon’s loins would produce a son who could be a truer and greater king than Uther could ever be.”
“Igraine’s son? You did not kill the boy?”
“No, Arthur lives with me now, and follows me in my travels. In a year or two, he will learn his destiny,” Merlin said. “He will unite all of England and drive back the Saxons, and he will rule this stubborn realm with a gentle hand. . . .” He hunched down in the tall grass beside the pool, stared thoughtfully into water that reflected moon and stars.
“So you helped seduce the Lady Igraine for a noble cause. But why did you bed my mother?”
“For you!” Merlin said in surprise, as if it were obvious. “I saw that night that your mother had fey blood, and all of the omens were right. I saw that you would be wise and beautiful, and the thought came to me that Arthur would need a fair maiden by his side. The old blood is strong in you, both from me and your mother. If you marry Arthur Pendragon, perhaps together we can build a realm where the old gods are worshipped beside the new.”
“Didn’t you think before you mounted her?” I asked. “Didn’t you think about how it would destroy her?”
Merlin said, “I looked down the path of her future. She would have married a stableboy and borne him five fine sons and a brace of daughters. She would have been happier, perhaps—but she would not have had you!”
“My mother died in torment because of you!” I shouted. “She died alone in the woods, because she feared letting anyone see me alive. She died friendless, because I was too young and silly to know how to save her. Her spirit is in torment still!”
“Yes, yes,” Merlin cajoled as if I did not quite see some greater point, “I’m sure it all seems a tragedy. But you are here, are you not? You—”
I saw then that he would not listen, that my mother’s suffering, her loneliness and shame, all meant nothing to him. She was but a pawn in his hand, a piece to be sacrificed for the sake of some greater game.
I knew then that I hated him, and that I could never allow Merlin to use his powers against a woman this way again. And suddenly I glanced up at a shooting star, and I knew that I had the power, that the old blood was strong enough in me, that I could stop him.
“Father,” I interrupted him, holding the lily high in my left hand. Merlin shut his mouth. “In the name of the Bright Lady I curse you: though you shall love a woman fiercely, the greater your desire for her grows, the more lame shall be your groin. Never shall you sire a child again. Never shall you use a woman as your pawn, or your seed as a tool.”
I stepped through the rushes to the side of the warm pool at Minerva’s failing temple, felt the living power of the Goddess there as my toe touched the water.
“No!” Merlin shouted and raised his hand with little finger and thumb splayed in a horn as he tried to ward off my spell.
But either he was too late, or the spell was too strong for him. In any case, I tossed the white lily into the still waters.
As the wavelets rolled away from the lily, bouncing against the edges of the pool, Merlin screamed in agony and put his hands over his face.
I believe that he was peering into his own bleak future as the cried in horror, “No! No! No!”
I knelt and dipped my hand in the pool seven times, cupping the water and letting it run down my breasts and between my legs.
Then I stood and merely walked away.
Sometimes near dawn, I waken and think that I can still hear Merlin’s cries ringing in my ears. I listen then, and smile a fey smile.
In time I made it back to my cottage in the woods, and I told the shade of my mother about all that had transpired. She seemed more at peace that night than ever before, and so before daybreak, I introduced her to the child Daffyth once again.
I told Daffyth that she was his mother, and convinced my mother’s shade that Daffyth was a forgotten son, born from her love for a man named Andelin.
In the still night I coaxed them to the edge of the woods, and let them go.
When last I saw them, they were walking hand-in-hand on the road to Tintagel.
As for me, I learned in time to praise the Goddess for her goodness and for what I am and always hope to be—a mooncalfe, and no sorcerer’s pawn.