GERALD BECOMES A WIZARD - SHORT STORY

Life as a Royal Equine Poop Coordinator isn't the life for Gerald. His family business revolves around the rear end of horses and, as far as he is concerned, that is something he is not destined for. The life of a great wizard is on the horizon and Gerald is sure that when he reaches four feet eight his wizarding gene will kick in, and he will become what he has always dreamed of. Of course the fact that no-one in his family tree, as far as anyone can remember, has ever been a wizard could put a kink in Gerald's plans, but we'll see what happens.

This is a short story which takes a little peek at the year before Gerald's dream comes true. The journey and actual achievement of his dream was not a smooth ride.

This short story is a peek at Gerald's life before the novel 'Gerald and the amulet of Zonrach', the first in a series of Gerald novels.

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PREVIEW

Gerald leaned against a soft tower of straw reading his latest wizarding text. He would have called it an educational piece, but due to it being mainly constructed of colorful images, we would have called it a comic. Gerald devoured these valuable stories of famous wizards with gusto, every penny he acquired as gifts and wages from his father was saved in an old wizard’s pouch hidden under a floorboard beneath his bed. He didn’t earn much, but what he did he saved until he could afford a text book—one of the floppy ones filled with pictures.

The huge pile of straw he had secreted himself behind was the perfect place to read, and he knew that he must study hard if he was to become a famous wizard. The fact that he was just an eleven year old boy living in a little dream world had no effect whatsoever on his aspirations. Also, the small detail that not one person in his family had ever been a wizard didn’t detract from his ambition.

This was quite a large problem because the only way to become a wizard was to reach the dizzying height of four-foot-eight; well that and the requirement of the family tree to contain a magical gene in it somewhere down the line. But, the apparent absence of such a gene in any of Gerald’s forefathers made no difference to him; he was going to be a wizard.

He sighed with pleasure as the story of Graadval The Elder unfolded before his eyes, which were actually beginning to water now. Gerald had been leaning against the straw mound for so long that the smell, which you would have originally said was just the smell of the countryside was actually becoming a bit too much to bear. His father’s job was a horticultural expert, and the main ingredient of his famous fertilizer came from the rear end of horses. This meant very little to Gerald, unless you counted the fact that mixed in with the straw was at least one third of his father’s complete stock of Arce Qwik Grow Fertilizer. That would also account for the rather damp, brown stain on the back of his tunic, and of course the pervasive smell which was now making Gerald’s eyes stream.

“Gerald!” the voice boomed around his family’s smallholding; a powerful, deep voice which made Gerald cringe.

His father was not known for his patience and people around the realm always said that his brash manner and fiery temper was due to the flaming red hair covering his head like a tatty mop; straggly and quite patchy. What did remain attached to his father’s skull could not be tamed and stuck out at all angles. Unfortunately for Gerald, he had inherited this feature, and even though he was only eleven you could see the wildness in his most visible feature. Gerald had tried many different methods of disguising it including coloring, very unsuccessfully because the witch he had bought the recipe from was usually more interested in her home-brew than the remedies and potions her customers paid for. Luckily for Gerald his hair grew back as if it had a regular doses of his family’s famous product.

“Gerald Arce, get your ar—“

“Coming!” Gerald jumped up, fear of a thrashing making that certain area of his anatomy, which usually received the thrashing, tingle. He stuffed the rolled up wizard text book down the back of his tatty breeches and walked around the straw to greet his father.

If Gerald’s father had been a wizard his powers would have been mediocre at best. His family was not known for their stature and at only five-foot-two, his father would have needed to be very careful with regard to his use of magic. There wasn’t much wiggle room for any demotions he might receive, and if he had any of Gerald’s tendencies to see what happens then those inches would probably disappear at an alarming rate.

Gerald, at only four-foot seven still only had another inch to grow before his—nonexistent—wizarding gene kicked in, but his family’s growth rate was pretty much against him getting there before he could grow a beard—or hair in other less visible places.

“Let’s get going, Gerald,” said his father, his wafer thin patience showing signs of wearing through. “We’ve got to get to Sendora before the end of the week and I still have to visit Molehaven before we get there.”

“Molehaven?!” Gerald swallowed hard. Lord Moleheart scared the hell out of Gerald and had made it plain that he wasn’t a fan of the little red haired boy who’d rather skulk away and practice incantations than do any honest work. It wasn’t Gerald’s fault that the outside privy exploded when he tried to test the black powder he’d bought during his last visit to Sendora. How was he to know that Lord Moleheart would be sitting on it reading at the time. Gerald presumed that time would allow the memory to fade, but his last visit to the Lord’s stables managed to dispel any such illusion.

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GERALD AND THE AMULET OF ZONRACH - GERALD I

In the realm of Wyverndawn, a wizard’s height is the mark of his power, and shrinking an entire inch is disastrous for twelve-year-old Gerald.

Looking for promotion of an inch or two, Gerald attempts to create a village landmark using his superior wizarding skills. But the spell he bought - from a guy who knows a guy - is a tad more powerful than he anticipates. The resulting earthquake breaks off a chunk of Wyverndawn from the rest of the realm allowing Vabalaz, a highly dangerous wizard, to escape from prison.

A red-faced Gerald is banished from his village and, to complete his shame, is demoted another inch; two more and he’s likely to become a Royal Equine Poop Disposal Coordinator. Gerald’s questionable acquisition of a certain golden amulet could be the answer to his problems. But when Vabalaz discovers it may also be the key to creating his elite wizard realm, Gerald is elevated to evil wizard’s enemy number one.

Gerald’s hopes of returning home hinge on repairing the damage to Wyverndawn and thwarting Vabalaz’s plans. Failure could mean Gerald’s next spell might well be his last.

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CHAPTER 1

A jet of blinding light flashed across the room, ricocheted off the window frame and disappeared up the chimney. ‘Oops…’

A rumble under Gerald’s feet steadily increased in strength until the floor beneath him rolled like a ship in a storm.

This can’t be good.

Gerald staggered to the window at the front of his weather-beaten cottage. The small hill, and new village landmark, supposed to be forming outside –to improve the view– failed to materialize. But the cotton ball clouds, normally drifting on the warm summer breeze, whizzed by. Panic surged through Gerald as he caught sight of villagers clinging to structures for dear life. His knees weakened when the village herbalist flew past his window, as he followed her progress across the green, he spotted Lord Moleheart hanging onto a tree like a flag in a gale.

‘Kack!’ said Gerald.

The bedroom door flew open. ‘Gerald! What have you done?’ Colin dodged flying crockery as he made his way across the room.

‘Hmm?’ The point of Gerald’s tall and illegally obtained wizard’s hat twitched, as he blinked rapidly at the devastation occurring outside.

Colin, who had recently been posted to Molehaven as Gerald’s assistant –a position where roles seemed to change with alarming regularity–, very rarely shouted. If he could get away with it he whispered his spells. Shouting indicated Gerald had been especially naughty and confirmation came when he shrank one inch before Colin’s eyes.

At this rate Gerald wouldn’t be a wizard much longer. Four feet eight was the statuary minimum for all wizards. Anything less, and Gerald would be back working in the fields, or shoveling horse poop until he reached the minimum height again.

‘Double Kack!’

‘Have you been buying words again to strengthen your spells?’ asked Colin.

‘I really wanted a small hill, to brighten our view. It always looked so flat outside and you know there’s this tikitonic plate thingy just outside the village? Well the word I know can move it a bit but… the guy I know, who knows a guy, guaranteed this other word will move two of them together to make a hill.’

‘Well, you’ve managed to cause the earthquake that should create it.’

‘But the guy who sold me the word said…’

‘And you believed him? Tell me exactly what you did.’

‘Umm… okay… first I pictured the plate thingies. Next, I pictured them moving towards each other so one overlaps the other. Then I said the first word. Then I pictured them moving more and the hill forming. I said the last word to add power to the first… Finally, I stamped my wizard’s staff on the ground to really give it some oomph…’

‘But you don’t have a staff. You’re not tall enough to own one yet.’

‘Yes I have… look,’ Gerald showed him the gnarled, white, wooden staff.

‘You do know that’s just a replica don’t you?’

‘Well, yes, but it adds to the overall image of wizardry doesn’t it?’

‘Is that all you did?’

‘Yeh… I think so anyway.’

‘Gerald…’

‘Well I was hungry and this image just popped into my head’

‘What image?’

‘A slice of pie…’

‘So let me know if I have this correct,’ said Colin. ‘You attempted to create a hill using a word above your skill level whilst banging a replica staff on the ground and thinking of a slice of pie…’

‘That about covers it,’ said Gerald.

The rolling had settled to a steady rumble. Outside, a crowd had gathered on the village green, now that they were not hanging on to buildings, trees and each other for dear life. A stab of fear shot through him as all eyes turned in his direction. A tall figure, wearing an expensive flowing cape, broke away heading in the direction of his cottage.

Backing away, he glanced up at Colin. Up! Normally they stood the same height. ‘Err… I think I may be in a spot of bother here.’

‘I think you’re probably right,’ said Colin.

‘Do you think he’ll believe me if I tell him I don’t know what’s happening?’

‘I wouldn’t get your hopes up.’

‘Right, I suppose I’d better go and meet him, eh?’

Gerald opened the heavy oak door, covered in stickers of runes and other miscellaneous wizarding symbols, to greet Lord Moleheart. He hadn’t seen the village leader since that unfortunate incident with copious amounts of custard. It cost him a couple of inches, rather unfairly thought Gerald. How could he know creating a feast for his Lordship’s birthday would involve juggling so many words?

He stepped onto the weather-worn step and the rumbling stopped. Not in a nice gentle way like a sigh of relief. This was more like a runaway cart hitting a brick wall. One minute Gerald stood on the doorstep, drawn up to his full and important height. And the next he was flying through the air, his voluminous robes expanding around him like the wings of an eagle. He hit Lord Moleheart squarely in the chest, and as the entangled pair landed on the ground, Gerald’s robes rode up, surrounding them in a Persian blue shroud.

‘Gerald, get that thing out of my ear!’

‘I’m trying.’ Gerald struggled to untangle his staff from within the folds of his robes.

Finally, with much swearing and energetic arm swinging, the two combatants separated. Gerald bent down, picked up his hat and tried to straighten the tip, now at ninety degrees from its original vertical position.

Lord Moleheart’s puce face shoved into Gerald’s and growled. ‘What have you done this time, you adolescent, pigmy wizard?’

‘Err… nothing, my Lord,’ Gerald placed his hat over the, fiery red, spiky covering on his head. Gerald’s eyes flitted about in a desperate attempt to avoid the glare of the Lord of the manor. This was unavoidable once he was lifted off his feet by the front of his robes and Lord Moleheart’s nose thrust against his. Gerald’s little legs ran for all they were worth in an effort to escape the wrath of the village leader.

‘What have you done?’

‘N…n…nothing… I was as surprised as you when the ground moved.’

‘Well something’s going on and it’s not natural. An earthquake is possible, although I’ve never heard of one occurring here. But the hurricane winds accompanying it point to a naughty wizard up to no good again.’

Gerald breathed a sigh of relief as he was lowered to the ground, and the vice-like grip released. It didn’t take him long to recover. After smoothing his robes, setting his hat straight and readjusting the slightly wedged boxer shorts he cleared his throat in a self-important manner.

He raised his staff in the way he assumed an important wizard would. ‘I, my Lord, will seek out the reason for this chaos forthwith and notwithstanding ….’

‘QUIET!’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘With your track record, I don’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth. You are hereby banished from Molehaven. Don’t come back until you’ve sorted out this mess!’

‘Kack.’

‘What did you say?’

‘Nothing, my Lord.’

Lord Moleheart sighed. ‘Get out of here, and take your peasant servant with you.’

‘Peasant servant?’

‘Yes, you know, the little guy on the doorstep dressed in peasant clothes?’

‘He’s a wizard too,’ said Gerald.

‘Are you sure? He looks a lot like a peasant to me.’

‘He’s my apprentice.’

‘Ahhh. Anyway, you and your little apprentice have until sunset to leave the village.’ Lord Moleheart turned and headed towards the crowd.

‘Ooooh, you liar!’ said Colin.

‘Shhh…’ Gerald ducked into the doorway. ‘Seems like we’re taking a little trip, eh?’

‘Apprentice, pfft… I’m taller than you now so really it’s the other way around.’

‘Only by an inch and I’ll get that back in no time.’

Gerald walked to the desk, a list of essential items growing in his head. He picked up a blank scroll, a quill and bottle of ink and wrote.

List Of Essential Items For Very Important Trip:

  • Book of Spells no wizard should go on a very important trip without.
  • Top of the range wand (only slightly used, small crack at tip).
  • Wizard’s Staff, carried by important wizards at all times.
  • Spare set of robes, Red with silver stars and crescent moons (in case I have to attend very important meeting).
  • Latest Wizarding Market brochure in case there are any must-have items for sale.
  • Bag of Gold taken from bank yesterday (only very slightly overdrawn).
  • Cart.
  • Pony.

That about covers it. Gerald packed his replica ancient wizard’s chest. ‘Have you packed yet?’

‘Yup,’ Colin held up a small knapsack.

‘Is that all you’re taking?’

‘All I need is a change of clothes and a book or two. What have you got in there?’

‘Just the essentials.’ Gerald grunted as he struggled to carry the chest out through the back door.

With Colin’s assistance, he managed to place it into the back of the rickety, two-wheeled cart beside Colin’s knapsack. ‘Do you think we’ve forgotten anything?’ Gerald climbed into the cart and grasped the reins.

‘Err… food?’

‘We’ll pick that up on the way out of the village.’

‘Err… Pony?’

‘Kack…’ Gerald climbed down from the cart. Nonplussed, he entered the stable and brought out their secondhand looking pony. Even though it possessed quite a few bald patches and one bent ear, he was very proud of the fact he owned one. Not many people in the village could afford a pony or horse. Actually, Gerald couldn’t afford one and Rebel, as he’d named him, was acquired after a small mistake involving a gardening job, a scythe and an explosion which converted Rebel from a breeding stallion to a patchwork gelding. The owner refused to pay Gerald and as he was about to dispose of the pony Gerald kindly agreed to take it in payment for his services. The farmer was so happy with this bargain, he followed Gerald all the way down the track waving his scythe above his head with joy. Gerald couldn’t actually catch the words coming from the chap’s mouth but he was sure they were filled with praise for his professional wizardry.

He hitched Rebel to the cart, and moved onto the main thoroughfare of the village, waving to the villagers on the village green. The friendly inhabitants waved back, using clenched fists or, one or two, fingers in response to the Gerald’s gesture of farewell.

‘You see how sad they are to see us go?’ asked Gerald.

‘I’m sure they’re really sad we’re leaving, Gerald.’

Gerald stopped outside the general merchant store and waited while Colin went in to fetch supplies for the next few days. He came out and handed the rations to Gerald.

Gerald peeked inside. ‘These look a bit beaten up, I’ll just pop back in and have a quiet word with the shop-keep. Explain that people such as us, on a mission as important as ours, should have only the best quality items, not these battered things.’

‘I wouldn’t if I were you, Gerald.’

‘Why not?’

‘He informed me, in no uncertain terms, that these items were in perfect condition prior to the quake this morning. And the value of his stock had halved because most of it flew off the shelves. He also stated that if he got his hands around the neck of the little wizard he assumed was responsible, he would squeeze until the little wizard’s head popped off.’

‘Ahhhh, well I think we should just carry on our way then. I haven’t got time to chat.’ They set off down the road, the sun warming their back. As the cart bumped along, a little plaque hanging from the rear swung merrily back and forth with the words I HEART WIZARDS branded on it.

 
GERALD AND THE THREE PRINCESSES - GERALD II

Gerald is shocked to find his nose pressed against a two-hundred foot tall tree and the fact that he was supposed to end up at the Wizards’ Court in Silverfell just goes to show that sticking an amulet into a simple slot isn’t as easy as you would have thought.

He is greeted by an impressive looking wizard named Derek, and is informed that a local witch is kidnapping the king’s daughters. Stealing her rampion has gotten her into a lather and her promise of taking his daughters once they reach twelve years of age is more than just an idle threat. Derek has the task of rescuing them.

Gerald couldn’t resist agreeing to help, but, as usual, his mouth engaged before his brain and he has now trapped himself and his friends in DeFareyTayl until the quest is successfully completed. Much to his chagrin he also finds out that this realm is topsy turvy when it comes to the promotional aspects of the wizarding profession and every time he does well he will shrink an inch.

The only way that Gerald, and his friends, can return to Wyverndawn is to aid Derek in his quest to rescue the princesses, but the price of success might be that Gerald and Colin return home as Royal Equine Poop Disposal Coordinators and the majestic Zach could end up as a newt.

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CHAPTER 1

Gerald was surprised to find his nose pressed against a huge tree. Huge wasn’t the word he would have used to describe it as, when his eyes followed the enormous trunk upwards, he couldn’t see where it ended. He probably would have used a word like gargantuan or colossal, perhaps even mammoth or titanic.

“Wow, big tree,” said Colin.

Gerald shot Colin a look of annoyance, “really? That’s the description you’re going to use? This tree is huge!”

“What I really want to know is…,” said Colin, fixing Gerald with that ‘what have you done?’ glare, “where are we?”

“No idea,” said Gerald taking a step back. “I can’t remember this tree being below the wizard’s court.

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” said Colin. “In fact I’m sure the entrance to the wizard’s court was in a cellar, or am I wrong?”

Gerald could feel his friend’s eyes boring into the back of his head and knew that any moment now he was about to lose another inch. He held his breath, eyes shut tight, waiting.

“Erm, no you’re not wrong. How did we get here? And more importantly, where is here?” he said, his eyes scanning the forest surrounding him. All the trees were massive, not just the one before him.

A cold snout touched Gerald’s shoulder. I believe you lined the amulet up wrong when you inserted it. You were too busy saying how you had experience of this sort of travel and we should leave it to you.

“Well, anyone could make that simple mistake,” said Gerald, “but the question is, what do we do now?”

“Hello there.”

Gerald, Colin and Zach all span round to face a tall wizard. In Gerald’s eyes this figure was the ultimate in wizards. In fact he’d never seen one this tall. Gerald stepped forward and with a low bow said, “Oh great wizard, we are new to your realm. Where might this be?”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Colin with his face in his hands and noticed a red tinge to the tips of his ears. He was sure he heard the words, oh no, not again, but couldn’t be sure as Colin seemed to be now stuffing parts of his clothing into his mouth and his shoulders had this strange jiggling kind of thing going on.

“Colin, are you having a seizure?” said Gerald. “Do you want one of my healing spells or, better still, one of the potions Blossom made for me.”

The jiggling stopped, but now Colin’s face had turned a very strange shade of puce at the mention of Ma Thistle’s granddaughter. “Err, no, no need for that Gerald.”

“Excuse me,” said the great wizard. “You are in the realm of DeFaretayl. I am Derek and I belong to the guild of wizards here.”

“I’m sorry sir,” said Gerald. “My friend seemed to be ailing, but I believe it has passed now.”

“No Problem,” said Derek.

We need to find a way back.

“Hmm, what was that Zach?” said Gerald, who continued to stare at Derek with awe. In fact the way he was staring wasn’t too different from the way Colin looked at Blossom, although without all the blushing.

We should be looking for where to place the amulet so we can get back.

Gerald looked at Zach and said, “you’re right, we should be trying to get back.” He faced Derek again. “We’ll have to get going now as we have a very important meeting with the Wizards’ High Council in Wyverndawn.”

“Wyverndawn!” said Derek. “You’re not... no it can’t be true... are you Gerald?”

Gerald caught Colin’s look of disbelief and shrugged. He turned to face Derek again and thought he heard Colin groan as a grin spread across his face.

“Why, yes I am.”

Derek stepped forward and bowed. “Your fame has spread far and wide and I wonder if it would be inappropriate to ask a small favor.”

Gerald pulled himself to his full height; and a little more as he tried to stand on tip toes without being too obvious. He wants an autograph. I can’t believe a high wizard is asking for my autograph. “Of course you can,” said Gerald. “I have time to sign a few.” Now where’s my quill?

“Sign a few?” said Derek. “I’ve been sent on a quest, a small, but important one. If you would do me the honor of aiding me I, and DeFaretayl, would be forever in your debt.”

“A quest?” said Gerald beginning to feel uncomfortable at the direction this conversation was heading. An autograph was one thing, but anything that involved possible danger or hard work was not on his ‘to do list’ right now. Almost getting barbecued by Vabalaz the previous year was enough heroics for him. Anyway he had a very important meeting at the wizards’ council in Silverfell. But, this was a great wizard asking for help, perhaps a little detour wasn’t too much to ask, especially as his fame had reached this distant realm. Yes, I think this would do great things for my standing with the Wizards’ Council. I’d be the perfect ambassador for Wyverndawn in DeFaretayl and there’s bound to be promotion in it for me.

“Of course we will help.” There’s that groan again. “Colin, are you sure you’re okay. You really do sound as if you’re ailing.”

“No,” said Colin. “I’m fine, although I am beginning to wonder at what mess I’m going to have to clean up in the very near future.”

The frown on Gerald’s face relaxed as he turned to face Derek again. “What is your quest, Derek?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure to be honest. As soon as the king mention the word ‘princess’ I sort of went weak at the knees. The rest of the conversation, I’m afraid, is a bit of a blur. The king did say it was simply a matter of guiding her back home, so I presume she’s just lost.”

“Hmmm, this seems like a simple quest,” said Gerald, whose head span round to glare at Colin when another groan emanated from that direction. “Do you have any idea where she might be?”

Are you really sure you want to accompany this wizard on his quest, Gerald? Even though he is tall I have serious doubts about his abilities.

Gerald turned to Zach. “I’m sure it will be fine, a wizard doesn’t get to that height without being brilliant.”

Hmmm, I’m not so sure, but if you say so...

Gerald turned back to Derek feeling Colin’s eyes following him.

“Not really. She does like to go wandering off by herself a lot and I know she has a few friends in a forest to the north of the capital” said Derek.

“So, what’s our first step then?” said Gerald.

“I think we should camp here for the night and set out for the king’s court at dawn. He and his advisers will fill you in on the details as they’re still a bit fuzzy to me,” said Derek. “If you collect some firewood and water we can settle down and have something to eat. If you have any food, that is, as I forgot to bring some.”

“Okay. Colin can you get the water while I get the firewood? Zach, can you catch us something to eat?”

The look Colin gave Gerald was all he needed to understand that his friend didn’t approve of his decision to help with Derek’s little quest. In fact Gerald assumed that he’d be a pile of ashes if looks could spontaneously combust a person.

Gerald piled the wood in the center of the clearing and watched while Derek prepared to light the fire. Excellent, I get to see a high wizard at work.

He watched Derek stare at the rickety pile of wood and point a slightly tatty looking wand at it. Derek seemed to take a deep breath before shouting, “woody, lighty, fire!” The tip of the wand glowed. Then a lance of fire shot out of the end, arcing left, ricocheting off a rock and hitting a crouching Colin squarely in the buttocks. Gerald’s eyes followed the bucket, which Colin had been filling, launch into the air, turn one hundred and eighty degrees and deposit the contents on Colin’s now flaming robes. Luckily enough the water extinguished the fire, but the glare aimed at him snapped his mouth shut like a bear trap.

“It wasn’t me!” said Gerald.

“Sorry!” said Derek. “I think my wand needs re-calibrating.”

Gerald turned to face Derek and was shocked to see the wizard grow an inch. If he’d been the one to cast the spell he’d have shrunk an inch. And another thing, the words that made up the spell didn’t sound very wizardly at all.

“Incendio!” Gerald lit the pile of kindling and was surprised when he shrank an inch. “What the…?”

“Why did you shrink?” said Colin. “That was a perfectly good spell, and such a simple one.”

“I’ve no idea.” A sliver of panic ran through Gerald’s body; it seemed this realm was off kilter. Although he had lost an inch, which irked him, he decided it may have just been an error on the part of the wizards’ guild here and would be rectified once he explained the issue.

They sat and ate a supper of roast venison, well the remains of the deer as there was a slight disagreement with Zach on his return from hunting. And the ensuing argument on the ownership of the deer resulted in singed robes and a few small lacerations as they prised what remained from Zach’s mouth. Gerald had to admit it was a delicious meal though.

* * *

Gerald’s eyes opened to a kaleidoscope of green above his head, so far above that he could imagine the sky itself was green. Thin rays of sunlight speared their way between tiny gaps in the thick foliage dappling the ground around him. He could hear the nearby stream gurgling and splashing as its crystal waters made their way to an unknown ocean.

Splat!

Gerald’s view was completely obliterated by whatever had landed on his head and he was sure some of it had entered his mouth.

“Oh my god,” said Colin. “That is the biggest bird poop I’ve ever seen.”

Gerald sprang to his feet and launched himself towards the stream, Colin’s hysterical laughter ringing in his ears. As he lifted his head from the icy waters Colin sat down beside him.

“Doesn’t this remind you of the time we camped outside Peakhaven?” said Colin. “If I remember rightly a bird did the same thing then. Although the poop that landed on you then wasn’t the size of something Zach would have done as a youngster.”

Gerald glared at Colin as his friend doubled over with laughter. “I don’t find it funny at all. How big was that bloody bird anyway?”

“Huge,” said Colin. “I’ve never seen one that big before.”

Derek strolled over and said, “You need to watch for the birds in this glade. That was just a Thrush, you should be glad it wasn’t one of the Ravens, or Eagles that nest here.”

Gerald looked at Colin who shrugged.

Gerald look at this!

Gerald, Colin and Derek walked back into the glade and looked around. It was only then that he saw the massive standing stones.

“What are those?” said Gerald.

“Ahh, this is a magical glade,” said Derek. “These stones were said to be left by sorcerers thousands of years ago. Very old magic.

“They say that they used places like this for sacrifices to gods of magic and that the residue from those rituals still remain, which is why any animal or plant born within the local area is unusually large.

“They also say that any spells performed within these circles are more powerful than would normally be the case.”

Gerald looked around and thought about what Derek had just said. “More powerful?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a pity it couldn’t be harnessed,” said Gerald. “Can you imagine what we could achieve given more power?”

“It’s that way of thinking that got us into our last mess,” said Colin.

“People have tried,” said Derek. “But I think only one wizard has ever managed to harness it, albeit in a small way. In fact he created the portal that you came through.”

“Zonrach?” said Gerald and Colin.

“Yes, how did you know that?”

Gerald’s hand grabbed the folds of his robes at his chest and he saw the glare from Colin.

“You’re wearing it,” said Colin. “Aren’t you?”

“Just for safe keeping,” said Gerald.

“Anyway,” said Derek. “Although we know the theory of how to do it, we don’t know how to physically get it into an object. The senior wizards in our guild believe that an object, once created to hold the power, can recharge itself when in a certain range of the stone circles.”

Gerald’s eyes were growing wider and wider at the implications of what Derek was saying. He also caught sight of the look that both Colin and Zach were giving him.

“Don’t even think about it,” said Colin.

I think we better leave here as soon as possible until we understand what this all means.

“But…”

“We’re leaving… Now!” said Colin

“Zach, Colin, you are both party poopers,” said Gerald now feeling as if someone had stolen his last square of chocolate. In fact it felt more like someone had blown the candles out on his birthday cake before he’d had a chance to. If he’d been prone to tantrums he would have thrown himself on the floor and screamed and screamed until he was sick.

With a flick of his robes he turned and strode towards Rebel, which deflated him slightly as they hadn’t brought Rebel with them, so to save any more embarrassment he carried on straight out of the stone circle and into the woods.

Where are you going Gerald?

“I have no idea, Zach! But it involves getting away from you two until I calm down.” He hadn’t actually gone that far as he’d slipped behind one of the huge trees to save face.

“Wow, what a spoiled brat,” said Colin.

“I heard that!”

“Come back out here. We need to figure out what we are going to do next.”

“I want to go back home,” said Gerald walking back into the glade.

“You can’t,” said Derek. “You made a verbal agreement to help me and in DeFaretayl that is binding. The portal won’t work now until you’ve fulfilled your part of the agreement.”

“I’ll speak to your king or high wizard or whatever and make them let us go.”

“It won’t make any difference,” said Derek.

“Well, we’ll see about that,” said Gerald. “Which way, Derek?”

Derek pointed to a path, “follow that to the north.”

“Can you fly ahead and let us know the lay of the land, Zach?”

Yes.

Gerald turned back to Derek. “Lead the way.”

With Colin by his side he fell in behind Derek and made his way out of the glade. The forest closed in around him making him feel claustrophobic. His eyes followed the towering monoliths until his neck ached. He couldn’t be sure, but he was certain that the trees were actually turning slowly to follow the group’s progress.

An almighty crash tore through his thoughts, and a sound like the ripping of a sail in a storm reached his ears. He saw a jet of flame shoot through the trees to his left. Then words he never thought he’d ever hear from his dragon leapt into his brain.

“Zach!”

Sorry about that.

“What happened?”

I couldn’t reach the top of the canopy, it’s too dense. So I tried to thread my way through the trees and I’m not sure if I lost concentration and flew into a branch or not, but I could swear that one reached out and slapped me as I reached the edge of these large trees.

“You might be right, because I’ve been getting the impression that the trees are watching us,” said Gerald. “But what about the flame?”

Yes, well it appears that being knocked out of the sky has a similar effect to the one when we confronted the assassin last year.

Gerald’s mind went back to an incident that he would rather forget. It involved a dodgy spell to increase Zach’s size and an unfortunate jet of flames from an unmentionable area of Zach’s anatomy. On the plus side it did deter the assassin from carrying out her task, and left her with a barbecued appearance.

“So that would account for the sound of ripping cloth then,” said Gerald.

Yes, sorry about that.

“Okay, wait for us there.”

As the group meandered through the forest Gerald wondered at the world he’d arrived in. A very disturbing feature seemed to be the animated vegetation which was not a feature of Wyverndawn. Yes there had been monsters and yes they were frightening, but here a tree root could grab your foot and drag you under the dank surface of the forest. A limb could whip out and slap you in the face. It was only his second day here and the bravado that was his trademark had been knocked into submission already.

Splat!

“What the… Not again?!”

“That Thrush seems to like you,” said Colin with a grin.

And there were also the huge bloody birds that pooped on you at every opportunity. Gerald growled and tried to wipe away the noxious goo streaming down his face and robes. He’d never be able to get rid of that smell and his prized set of Persian blue ceremonial robes were toast. He was just about to give the giggling Colin a piece of his mind when Zach appeared on the path before them.

This seems to be where the area of the stone circle’s influence ends.

Gerald breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of only being crapped on by a normal size bird, which was a pretty unusual thing to be happy about.

His eyes were drawn to the vista in front of them. They had emerged on the edge of a valley and far below them stretched, what seemed to be, a normal forest. In the distance he could make out monochrome towers which pierced the misty skyline.

“That is our destination,” said Derek. “Mouldyend.”

 
JAGUAR

Valaria is young, in prison and pregnant. She is also a Jaguar.

The brutal slaying of her mate prompts her audacious escape from an illegal predator collection on the edge of Exmoor Forest, England. Heavily frequented by humans, the woodland presents an even more dangerous proposition than her natural home in the lush rain forests of South America. But Valaria finds an unexpected, and unlikely, ally in the form of a local shepherd and animal rights defender, Tom Smith.

Her captor and tormentor, Edward Forsyth, is in hot pursuit and must track Valaria down and kill her, or risk spending the rest of his life behind bars if his illegal collection of predators is discovered. For Edward this is not an option and his greatest desire is to hang her head on his trophy room wall.

Putting herself between the barrel of a gun and her offspring to ensure their freedom may be her only option.

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CHAPTER 1

Her eyes of fire burned through the darkness, fueled by hatred so intense the very center of her soul was a furnace.

Valaria's amber coat rippled in the moonlight as she glared through the mesh of her enclosure. A low, threatening growl rose from deep inside her chest. She paced up and down the perimeter, the frustration of her bondage clearly visible to anyone who might be watching. Aurelius, her mate, lay at the back, near the entrance. She grimaced as his pain wracked form shuddered; each breath sending spasms through his body. No matter how much Valaria tried, no amount of licking could stem the flow of her mate’s life's blood ebbing from the wound inflicted by their keeper earlier that evening.

"Don't let our cubs be born in captivity, Valaria," his voice barely audible, consciousness slipping away from him. "My time is near but you must escape to ensure our young are born free."

Valaria patrolled her prison, her gaze alternating between the only thing she loved and the vast expanse of freedom just outside her reach.

Aurelius had told her to escape, but how?

He had said he wanted the new life growing within her to be born free, but she could see no way to make his wish come true. All she could see was a lifetime of captivity ahead, for both her and her unborn offspring.

Her attention snapped back to Aurelius as her mate's final, shuddering, breath left his body. Her roar of anguish echoed through the countryside, sending startled birds into flight and woodland creatures scurrying for cover.

With his death her only link with home was torn away. She walked up to him, his familiar scent strong as she nuzzled his still form. The healthy sheen was leaving his coat as she watched. No longer did the moon reflect off his muscular body, painting abstract patterns on the rosettes as he breathed. No longer did his eyes glisten as he looked with love into hers. Still. Lifeless. Now he was just a piece of meat in her partner's cast off clothing. She lay down next to him, their flanks touching; the remnants of his warmth surrounding her with a surrogate comfort.

 

Valaria slept fitfully that night and dreams of her homeland filled her mind. The warm moist air surrounded her coat giving it a dewy sheen. The canopy of the rainforest above her went on to the ends of the earth, or at least as far as she had ever been. Her nose twitched and her breathing came in irregular pants as she ran through the forest floor, the damp musty air filling her nostrils.

Her first kill flashed through her mind in fragmented pieces: the pounce; the squeals of the capybara as she brought it down; the smell of terror as she closed her vice-like jaws around its trachea, abruptly cutting off its cries; the spasmodic death throes as it fought to live while high above her head parrots and monkeys screeched out their warnings.

She dreamt of the two-legged beasts, with their vile odor, as they taunted her and prodded her with sticks through the bars of her prison. One pointed a hollow stick in her direction and opened its mouth roaring at her while others joined in. The stick spat and a sharp pain pierced her flank. She tried to pull the sting out with her teeth, but the forest spun and a cloak of darkness enveloped her.

 

Her dreams were shattered by the sound of dogs barking. She woke; her mate's body felt like a block of ice beside her. She stretched out, shaking the freezing cold from her bones and looked around.

With a heavy, aching heart her eyes fell on Aurelius, an empty shell of the once proud, strong beast who used to fill her life with meaning. Gently and with infinite tenderness she groomed him, as if carrying out this act of love would restore him to her. There was no warmth in his body, no purrs of contentment from the carcass she once called mate.

For the first time in her short life, Valaria felt utterly alone. Aurelius, the only anchor to her former world, had been ripped away from her by one of those cruel man beasts. She stopped grooming him, resigned to her loss and walked to the front of the enclosure as an act of farewell. She could not bear to look at him anymore. The thing lying in the shadows wasn't her beloved mate, full of strength and majesty, but a husk, hollow and lifeless.

Valaria vowed, at that moment, to escape as soon as an opportunity arose and swore her cubs would be born free. She would fulfill Aurelius’ last wish or die in the attempt. Death was better than this life of captivity.

 

George Winterbourne leaned against the wall which formed the western side of his employer’s Mansion. He had a list of jobs as long as his arm to do before the end of the morning, but he couldn’t be bothered. In front of him several acres stretched to the edge of the estate filled with pens and enclosures containing his master’s collection. He knew that the estate was small compared to Edward Forsyth’s select circle of stuck up friends. It was large enough, though, to secrete a collection of highly dangerous, and endangered, predators, among them Valaria, a young female jaguar. He’d been mucking out and feeding those beasts since dawn, but the thought of carrying more mountains of animal crap and large stinking slabs of meat made him groan. Five more minutes, he thought, yeah, five more minutes. He took out a cigarette and lit it, the flame from the match warming his cupped hands. He’d just taken a long draw when the angry voice of his employer pierced the winter air.

“George? George, where are you?! You’re never around when I need you, you lazy sod.”

His hazel eyes rolled as he sighed, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Why doesn't he just leave me alone? I can't even get a five minute break.”

“George, I know you're skulking around having a smoke somewhere. Get round here now. I've got work for you.”

“Bloody slave driver,” said George through gritted teeth. He crushed the cigarette butt under the heel of his boot. He ran his fingers through his mop of raven hair, smoothed his close cropped beard and crunched his way up the gravel path that surrounded Eastville Manor.

As he rounded the corner of the house, Edward's ice blue eyes bore into him, chilling him to the bone. George’s eyes locked onto Edward's pale fingers as they drummed an impatient tattoo on the concrete railing surrounding the terrace, “And where have you been?”

“Err, I've been seeing to the Snow Leopard, sir,” George hunched his shoulders. Damn, how could Edward make him feel two-inches tall, he was bloody six-feet-two for god's sake.

“Don't lie to me! The Snow Leopard enclosure is around the other side of the house. So, where have you been?”

“I... I was having a smoke, sir.” George stared at the ground, his face flushed with anger at the verbal battering he always seemed to be on the receiving end of from his boss. If it wasn't for the damned high wages Edward paid he would have told him where to stuff this job a long time ago.

“Animals need routine, and I need to know what has been done so that I can plan the rest of the day.”

“Sorry, sir, it won't happen again.”

“It had better not. Now what have you done so far this morning?”

A surge of panic flew through George's body as he pictured the pitch fork entering the side of the male jaguar. How can I cover up that injury? Hopefully the wound was only superficial and the jaguar was okay. His mind went back to the previous evening when the male jaguar had attacked when he shoved the jaguars' food through the hatch. He’d panicked and speared Aurelius. He prayed he hadn't done any permanent damage to the cat. Damn, I haven't checked the jaguars yet, and I've got to get to those cats before the boss sees the male.

“I've done all the way round to the Florida Panther, sir,” George's eyes slid away from Edward's glare. Heat climbed in his face at the thought of being caught out in another lie.

“Good, so it's just the Maned Wolf and the Liger left to do then, eh?”

“Er... yes, sir.”

“Right, finish those two and then we'll go and check on the jaguars. I'm pretty sure the female is pregnant.”

“Yes, sir, I'll report back when I'm done.”

By now sweat was pouring down George's face, stinging his eyes, despite the bitter cold. As soon as Edward turned and strode back into his study, George bolted. He ran around to the jaguar enclosure as if the very devil itself was on his tail. As he skidded round the corner the still form of the male jaguar came into view and all color drained from his face.

George's mind worked overtime. If I could get the male out and make it look as if I had killed it while it tried to escape, then perhaps the boss would understand.

He went round to the rear of the enclosure and retrieved the offending pitchfork. He also picked up a small coil of rope and tied a noose in one end. He planned to open the door just enough to enable him to lasso the male jaguar so that he could drag it out. He would skewer the cat in the side once more this time leaving the pitchfork embedded in its flank, then call for the boss and show him what happened.

George fumbled in his pocket for the key to the door. His sweaty palms didn't help matters. The keys jangled as he extracted them from the rubbish cascading from his pocket. He placed them on the ground and prepared the rope. The pitchfork lay, forgotten, on the grass by his feet.

He was too intent on Aurelius to notice Valaria concealed in the shadows as he approached the door. The coil of rope was held in his right hand and the keys in his left.

 

A low growl rumbled in Valaria's chest as the familiar scent of the human who had taken her precious Aurelius reached her nostrils. But, this time there was an overpowering odor which she recognized from prey in her homeland; fear. A new and distinct odor she had never detected from this human before. She wondered what had caused the change.

She backed further into the shadows, ears flattened and lips curled back into a grimace, bearing lethal saliva-speckled teeth, housed in a jaw that could crush a turtle shell as if it were no more than an egg. Her massive head was held low, below her powerful shoulders, as she crouched ready to spring. The scent of fear had changed the stakes, and now the human before her was not a dominant beast but just an obstacle in her path to freedom.

She watched intently as he approached the door to the enclosure with cautious steps, the sweet perfume of his overwhelming fear caressed her. Her body quivered with anticipation, every muscle taught as a bow string at full stretch just waiting for the archer to release the arrow; and the arrow was Valaria.

The tip of her tail twitched back and forth as she watched him retrieve the keys and approach the enclosure. She had to restrain the adolescent urge to lunge at the mesh of her prison before the door opened. The golden glow of Valaria's eyes penetrated the gloom as she focused on her prey fumbling with the key, trying to place it into the lock on the door.

Wait... be patient, she told herself. Not long now.

The lock on the door sprang open and the human pushed it ajar. He pushed too hard and as it swung open Valaria pounced.

She had timed her attack to perfection. Her keeper, framed in a halo of almost blinding winter sunlight, was the ideal target. Emitting a ferocious roar she launched herself at him.

Her keeper was catapulted backwards when the one hundred and sixty pound mass of teeth and claws cannoned into him like a freight train. The razor sharp claws of her front paws dug into his shoulders to maintain a firm grip as her mouth snapped around his neck, closing off any further cries. She almost smiled with pleasure as she rejoiced in this act of revenge. She could sense the specter of Aurelius standing at her side for this kill, and a warmth spread through her body at thrill of fulfilling his final wish. She held this position until she sensed the life leave her tormentor. She released the human’s flaccid body and scanned her surroundings.

She was free!

 

Edward Forsyth was sat in his study reading when George's screams shattered his train of thought.

“What the bloody hell is going on out there?!” Edward leaped to his feet and instinctively reached for his shotgun before sprinting out of his study to investigate. As he flew out through the terrace doors his heart skipped a beat. The agonizing screams coming from his keeper stopped abruptly, and he knew from his experience with predators that it was not a good sign. He skidded to a halt in a spray of gravel as he rounded the corner to the jaguar enclosure, and his eyes locked onto the form of Valaria. Outside of her enclosure she looked a lot bigger and infinitely more lethal. His years of experience with wild animals, though, jarred him into action, and he brought the shotgun up on aim, leaning into the vicious kick of the weapon as he fired. His hands, trembling from the initial shock of seeing Valaria free of her pen, meant the first shot went wide of the mark and his second shot was fired at thin air where only a fraction of a second earlier a female jaguar stood astride her keeper.

Edward’s heart hammered in his chest as he tore his eyes away from George's tortured face and, when he looked up, they met those of Valaria. The power of her gaze left him shivering, wishing he could turn away. But he couldn't drag his eyes from her glare. And in that brief moment, for the first time in his adult life, Edward felt the icy finger of fear track its way down his spine.

 

Valaria paused by the edge of the line of conifers lining Edward Forsyth's estate. Her efficient eyes picked out the forms of the two humans who had caused her mate so much pain and humiliation; one on its knees and the other laying lifeless by his side. They looked small and insignificant now, not the domineering beasts who used to make her cower before them like a young cub before its father.

She turned away, and, like a phantom departing with the night, she was gone.

 
WILFRID

It is the Dark Ages and Anglo Saxon England is a dangerous place to live. Within a week of becoming a man, twelve year old Wilfrid witnesses the savage slaying of his father by Kronwearh, a mythical wolf of legend.

Determined to avenge his father’s death he sets off to track and kill the beast himself. Unbeknown to Wilfrid, his best friend, Godric, follows. When Wilfrid finds the beast his friend is slain by Kronwearh and Wilfrid barely escapes with his life. He returns home to find he is ostracized by the members of his village. Causing the death of the Thegn’s son and preventing him from entering Waelheall is an abomination to the people he once called family.

His only chance of redemption lies with a Wicca living in the depths of the forests surrounding his Wessex home. She has the key to defeating Kronwearh. Wilfrid has less than two weeks to kill the beast and return to Woden’s shrine in time for the Blot Monath ceremony or his father and best friend are doomed to spend eternity between worlds.

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CHAPTER 1

21 September AD 772

 

Wilfrid paused by the lake, morning mist hovering knee high. He marveled at the clouds of vapor exhaled with each breath in the crisp September air. A wooden bucket dangled from his hand while he watched a flock of geese launch themselves into the sky. They were free to fly away this morning but he could not.

Days of pretending to be a great hunter or leading imaginary armies into battle were a thing of the past. A chill ran through his body that had little to do with the frosty morning. When the sun finally slipped below the western horizon this evening he would, in the eyes of his village, be a man.

The chill turned to ice when the howl of a wolf in the distance pierced the air.

"Wilfrid! Hurry up!"

Wilfrid’s head jerked round at the shout of alarm from his mother. He dropped to his knees, eyes scanning the line of trees on the opposite bank, and broke the thin covering of ice at the shore’s edge before dipping the bucket into the frigid water. The wolf’s call came from the depths of the forest and, even though there was no immediate threat, he shivered at the sound. They usually stayed far away and only ventured close to the village if prey was scarce but he still couldn’t shake the fear crawling through his body.

He filled the bucket and sprinted back, the frost covered grass crunching beneath his feet. He hurried towards his mother who waved him through the gates to the village of Aelfring. Her rapid arm movements increased his pace.

"Hurry up, Wilfrid," said his mother, eyes fixed onto the tree-line in the distance. "Quickly now."

"I’m coming as fast as I can, modor."

Relief swam over him as she ruffled his mop of hazel hair when he handed over the bucket. He sprinted through the closing gates, scattering hens and goats in his hurry to reach the small wooden house located to the right of the village entrance. The thatch looked tired and the gaps in the walls needed repairing, but it was home and he loved it. He dove through the low entrance and ran round the fire pit to his sleeping area where a bright red tunic lay on the fur blanket. His heart swelled with pride as he ran his hand over the woolly surface. His first ever brand new item of clothing. Wilfrid jumped when a pair of strong, calloused, hands grasped his shoulders.

"I have something else for you, son," said his father, wrapping a fur pelt around Wilfrid’s shoulders. "I made this cloak for you from a boar skin. He fought like Woden himself before I brought him down, so look after it." The hands turned Wilfrid round to meet his father’s gaze. "And this clasp came from the village blacksmith as a gift. Make sure you thank him properly."

Wilfrid fingered the bronze disc, inscribed with his name and the name of the smith. Firelight reflected from its surface illuminating the moisture threatening to break free from his eyes. A tunic, cloak and brooch. The value of these items alone must have weighed heavily on his parents. His father may be one of the best hunters in the village but they were not wealthy by any means. His aqua eyes met those of his father. "Thank you, faeder. When do we go?"

"After we’ve eaten. Thegn Aelfric will be presiding over the ceremony today so act like the man you are to become."

Wilfrid swallowed hard, the head of the village is performing the ritual? I hope I don’t drop the seax, faeder will never forgive me.

"Will Godric be there too?" said Wilfrid, trembling at the shock of discovering the role his best friend’s father was to take in the proceedings.

"Yes, but will remain by Aelfric’s side until the ceremony is over. Now you change your clothes and eat your breakfast, then we can be off."

"Yes, faeder."

 

When Wilfrid stepped outside, Godric stood waiting. "Hi, are you walking up to the shrine with me?"

"I can’t," said Godric, shoulders slumped. "I’ve got to go with my faeder. I’ll see you after the ceremony though. I love your new cloak and brooch."

"Yours are way better than mine," said Wilfrid, looking at his friend’s clothes with a twinge of envy.

"No they’re not, your faeder always has the best of the pelts when he comes back from a hunt and that boar skin is amazing. Look at the tanning on the back, it’s perfect. It must have taken him months to get that sheen on it."

Wilfrid flushed with pride at his friend’s compliment. "Yeh," he said, fingering the cloak. "He’s the best hunter and tanner in the village."

"Which is why my faeder only ever trades with him," said Godric. "Look, I’ve got to go, the elders are coming. Good luck and I’ll see you after it’s over."

"Yeh, see you later."

Wilfrid’s eyes followed Godric as his friend joined the Thegn and village elders making their way out through the gates. Godric’s father owned all the land surrounding the village and ensured his son had the best of everything. Wilfrid knew this ceremony would be the best his parents could afford but next year Thegn Aelfric would spare no expense for Godric’s. The longhouse would be filled with nobility and the finest food and drink available. Even though Aelfric had given over his home to Wilfrid’s father for today’s celebration it would be a much quieter affair.

Horns bellowed, dragging Wilfrid back to the present, as the men from the village gathered outside the gates. His father moved up to his side and rested a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder.

"Ready?"

"Yes, faeder."

His father handed him a leather leash with a black goat attached to the other end. He looked down into the large eyes and swallowed. Would he be able to make the sacrifice when the time came? Wilfrid took a deep breath and strode to the entrance, heart racing. With his father at his side, he passed the long line of men dressed in their finery and took up his position at the head of the procession. Horns sounded one last time and they marched towards Woden’s shrine sat on the top of the hill overlooking the village.

At the boundary to each farm they passed, the procession halted and sounded their horns. The custom alerted the farmers to their presence and indicated they were not thieves. Failure to announce themselves, even on land owned by the Thegn, could result in their death. Most of the farmers they met on the way joined the party. The rite of manhood remained one of the most important milestones in a boy’s life, important enough of an event not to be missed. And as the company of men grew so Wilfrid’s chest swelled with pride.

Even through the chill of the autumn morning Wilfrid perspired, not only be-cause of the fur lining the inside of his heavy cloak, but from nerves. When he awoke in the morning he would be expected to carry out the same duties as his father. If the village came under attack Wilfrid would defend his home from intruders with the rest of the men, not hide in the longhouse with the women and children. Even though a knot of fear settled in his stomach, he lifted his chin and, holding his head high strode up the hill with a confident air.

 

Wilfrid stood by Woden’s shrine. Below, the valley stretched for miles in the crystal clear air and a weak autumn sun shimmered overhead in the watery blue sky. A reverent silence settled over the group as Thegn Aelfric stepped forward, indicating Wilfrid should do the same. The plinth, made of stone taken from local roman ruins, reached his waist and a bronze image of Woden sat atop. His eyes met those of his village leader whose encouraging smile allowed him to relax enough to loosen the painful tension in his body.

The rest of the men stood directly behind him, as if blocking any chance of es-cape. Although this ceremony marked a positive milestone in his life, he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being punished in some way. Twelve years old; too short a time to fully enjoy childhood. Godric stood next to Aelfric and winked at Wilfrid, breaking the tension in the air. Wilfrid exhaled the deep breath locked in his chest and smiled back at his friend.

Thegn Aelfric looked up to the sky, lifting a seax --the large single bladed Saxon dagger-- high above his head, the sun glinting off the razor sharp blade.

The clatter of weapons, shields and helmets from behind, rang in Wilfrid’s ears, as the men of the village took to their knees, heads bowed.

"Woden!" Aelfric’s voice rang clear in the crisp air. "Grant your blessings on Wilfrid, son of Osgar, as he receives the seax of manhood. May this blade seek the blood of our enemies and find glory in his hands. May he follow in his father’s footsteps and bring honor to his family and his village. If he falls in battle accept him into Waelheall where he may sit and feast with you and the heroes who have taken their place at your table."

Wilfrid watched the dagger as Aelfric lowered his arms until the seax sat at eye level.

"Wilfrid, accept this Seax as a sign that you are now a man. Accept the duties and responsibilities that come with the role of warrior, hunter, provider and protector of your Thegn, village and family."

The Thegn, with a slight nod, indicated he should take the weapon. Tears sprang into Wilfrid’s eyes as he raised his trembling hands to accept the gift. And as the cold metal touched his fingertips his heart skipped a beat. Aelfric released the seax. It was time to see if he could use the blade as intended.

Two men held the offering ready for Wilfrid and looking into those eyes, now filled with fear, he stepped forward.

“Woden!” Wilfrid swallowed hard. “Accept my offering as I enter the halls of men. Give me the gift of courage to allow me to defend my family, my friends and my lord.”

He held the razor sharp blade against the goat’s throat and drew his hand back hard. Blood splashed over the blade and ran into the wooden bowl held beneath the neck of the goat.

Thegn Aelfric offered the bowl to Wilfrid who took it in his hands. As the men of the village watched he lifted it to his lips and drank deeply.

Horns blasts ripped through the air behind him and he almost collapsed with shock. Heavy hands pounded his back in celebration as all around men rose to their feet, pulled out drinking horns and broke into song. Wilfrid couldn’t take his eyes off the gleaming blade as he cleaned it while his father attached a scabbard to his belt. The smith who fashioned the brooch had also forged this stunning seax and his name was engraved on the blade along with Wilfrid’s on the other side. Serpents adorned the whole length of the dagger, meticulously etched into the shining metal. A strong arm wrapped around his shoulder breaking the trance and he slipped the weapon into its leather scabbard; the weight of the blade feeling alien against his left hip.

 

Wilfrid dipped his head through the low doorway to the longhouse and the smell of roasting pork reached his nostrils making his mouth water. It took a few seconds for his eyes to grow accustomed to the gloom of the smoky room as a firm hand guided him through the entrance. Flames spat and sputtered as fat from the suckling pig dripped onto the flames of the fire-pit. A large u-shaped table wrapped around the fire was filled to bursting with fruit, bread, meat and silver banded drinking horns.

He gaped at the shear opulence of Aelfric’s home. Heads of stags, wolves and boars adorned the walls. Huge beams stretched across the room, sat atop thick oak columns draped with banners of the Thegn’s colors. The light from torches barely reached the peak of the high thatched roof where a layer of smoke hung like a low lying cloud. Godric walked by his side across the stone floor, unlike the mud of his home. Although they had been friends all their lives, Wilfrid had never set foot inside Godric’s home and was astounded at the level of comfort. Deer skins on the floor? They would have made cloaks and bedding in his home. Godric continue to guide him to a seat at the top of the table, to Wilfrid’s place as guest of honor. The village men took their seats only once he, his father, Godric and Thegn Aelfric had taken theirs.

Wealhs –slaves-- and womenfolk appeared, moving around the table filling drinking horns with mead, wine and ale. Silence fell as his father stood.

"Men of the village of Aelfring raise your horns and welcome another to our band of warriors. I am proud to present my son, Wilfrid, to you as a man. Wilfrid!"

"WILFRID!" thundered the rousing chorus. The volume of the toast filled Wilfrid’s chest with pride.

He took a drink of sweet fragrant mead as his eyes scanned the happy faces singing and laughing around the table. I’m part this group of men now, not just a child under their feet. I belong here. As the mead, ale and wine flowed so did the volume of singing and telling of boastful tales.

Godric had to put his mouth up against Wilfrid’s ear to be heard over the noise. "I’m to go to my room. My faeder says it’s time for men not for children. Will I see you tomorrow?"

"If I am allowed," said Wilfrid. "I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do yet."

Godric nodded and a sense of loss filled Wilfrid as he watched his friend turn away, head low, and head for his sleeping quarters. Wilfrid didn’t know how much time he would have for himself, or whether he would be allowed to spend any with Godric after today. The mead made it hard to focus so he leaned back in his chair and drank in the atmosphere around him.

A rhythmic thumping on the table brought Wilfrid to his senses. All eyes turned to the longhouse entrance and a sense of foreboding flowed through him as a figure in dark flowing robes entered. He couldn’t understand why he had such a visceral reaction to this person. He didn’t recognize him, although the men surrounding the table seemed excited to see him.

"It’s Caedda, the wandering storyteller. Some say he is a sorcerer and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true," came the whisper in Wilfrid’s ear. He turned to see the face of his father flushed with excitement. "He usually only attends nobles and kings and never needs an invitation. He somehow knows when an important celebration is taking place and just appears. It is strange that he has picked your rite of manhood celebration to attend."

Wilfrid’s eyes scanned his father’s frowning face, but the rhythmic thumping on the tables drew his attention back to the figure who had reached the foot of the table. A wealh ran forward and handed the storyteller a horn filled with wine and an expectant silence fell over the hall. Caedda took a long pull from the horn, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his robes and scanned the room. Wilfrid’s heart raced as the storyteller’s piercing eyes made contact with his. He swallowed hard and relief swam over him when Caedda turned away, breaking the spell.

Wilfrid watched, transfixed, as the storyteller raised his arms above his head. An indication the story was to begin. He noticed every eye in the hall focused firmly on Caedda. The only sounds came from the crackling fire and sputtering torches and the whole room held its breath, waiting.

"Woden!" cried Caedda, lowering his arms.

"Woden, from whom all men are descended, sits on his high throne. His two dark wolves, Geri and Freki, at his side. Most of you believe this is so, but there were four. Shrowearh, a beautiful white female, once Woden’s favorite sat where Freki now resides.

"Kronwearh, a truly massive beast desired Shrowearh’s position at Woden’s side. But our faeder spurned this huge wolf, sensing greed and avarice. Geri and Freki also ignored their brother and pushed him further and further away from their circle. This enraged Kronwearh to the point of madness and he constantly snapped and snarled at his siblings, attempting to secure a place at Woden’s side.

"With promises of peace and of a truce the treacherous Kronwearh lured Shrowearh away from Woden’s side and slew her. In his madness he had convinced himself he could return to our god’s side and take up the position he so dearly desired.

"But Woden saw the savage butchering of his favorite and, in his rage, banished Kronwearh to live on this mortal plane. Not as a true wolf but as an abomination to nature and every living creature around him. He lives here amongst us, shunned and feared by all beasts.

"Kronwearh’s fury knew no bounds and Woden had miscalculated the level of evil within the wolf the god has cast aside. He haunts forests, moors and mountains, preying on those who worship Woden. Anyone slain by Kronwearh can never reside by Woden’s side in Waelheall and are trapped between our world and the kingdom of the fallen.

"This is Kronwearh’s curse on all who follow our faeder and god, Woden. Death inflicted by this wolf will lead to certain damnation.

"There is a rumor that one hero stood toe to toe with Kronwearh, inflicting grievous harm to the wolf, and survived. This is just a just rumor, but where there is a rumor there is also a spark of truth no matter how small."

Caedda’s eyes slowly surveyed the room and Wilfrid thought he caught a barely audible sharp intake of breath as they settled on his father for an instance, but dismissed it as Caedda’s eyes continued on.

"If Thunor, the god of thunder visits you on your travels then find shelter be-cause legend says that Kronwearh rides alongside his chariot."

Wilfrid exhaled the breath he had held throughout the whole of the tale and he heard many around him do the same as Caedda took a large pull from his horn, signaling the end. A huge cheer suddenly rang out from the crowd breaking the spell and the men returned to their raucous songs and feasting.

Rather than relieve Wilfrid’s feeling of foreboding, the tale only increased his sense that danger was close at hand and when Caedda’s eyes, pointedly, fell on Wilfrid a lump of ice settled in the pit of his stomach.