By Ian Wilson
The dissonant tone resonated through the courtyard of the great house.
“Wrong note… Again,” said Taliesin, grasping his brow. Morgana grinned sheepishly and started over, her delicate fingers plucking the lyre strings. Just as she made it to the high point of the song, her voice cracked. Taliesin cringed. Morgana halted.
“I should just give up,” she said, frustrated.
“Giving up never accomplished anything useful,” said Taliesin. “Keep trying.”
“I’m hopeless, Taliesin,” grumbled Morgana.
“I don’t think anyone is truly hopeless,” replied Taliesin.
“I don’t understand it, Taliesin!” cried Morgana. “This… thing. My hands just won’t pluck the strings in the right order. I know what I need to do, but I don’t know how to get my hands and voice to cooperate.”
“Just need more practice,” said Taliesin.
“I’ve trained with you for years, and I’ve gotten nowhere!”
“Music isn’t one of your natural talents, but it can be developed through time and effort. Just don’t give up so easily. You’ll find your voice eventually.”
Morgana struggled through her lesson and went off to find solace in the forests around Camelot. She didn’t know why, but the wild places always had a restorative effect on her.
The brook babbled through the quiet glen as Morgana traversed its banks alone. She felt the soft patter of light rain on her face. She lifted the hood of her cloak over her round face to keep the weather off then picked up a small, round stone and tossed it in the water.
“Dash it, you’ve frightened the fish!” said a voice from nearby.
Morgana looked up, startled to see a wiry, gaunt-looking man sitting on a rock with a fishing pole in his hands. His clothes were tattered and patched. Animal skins made up a large part of his attire. Twigs and feathers were intertwined among his wild, unkempt locks.
“Pardon me, sir,” apologised Morgana. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“You should apologize to the river,” said the wild man. “She takes offense so easily. I may not get a meal at all today.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should probably go home.”
“To Camelot?” asked the wild man.
“What business is it of yours?”
“Just making conversation. I meet so few people, living in the wild places, you know.”
“Who are you?”
“Some call me Myrddin.”
Morgana had heard tales of the wild man of the woods, but she thought he was only a fable.
“You’re not Myrddin the Mad, are you?” asked Morgana.
“Some call me mad,” said Myrddin. “I think it’s the world that’s gone mad. You must be Morgana the Magician.”
“How do you know my name?” asked Morgana.
“Truthfully, I know not how I know.” Myrddin shrugged, “But I know you.”
“I’m afraid I’m not much of a magician,” said Morgana, as she sat down on a large stone. “I can’t even manage to play the lyre.”
“Ah, but I speak not of what you are now, but what you will be.”
“And how do you know what I will be?”
“Another question I don’t know the answer to,” replied the madman.
“You’re a strange one, alright.”
“Maybe you’re the strange one, have you thought about that?”
“We’re both a bit strange, I think.”
“What if I told you that you could be one of the greatest magicians in the history of Britain?” queried the madman.
“I’d say you were mad,” said Morgana, chuckled.
“I’ve seen it. You will go down in legend.”
Morgana paused for a moment to consider the possibility that the madman might be correct.
“How am I supposed to do that?” blurted Morgana.
“There is a well, the waters of which will make one wise,” said Myrddin in a far-away voice, as though recalling some distant memory. “They can grant sorcery, poetic inspiration. All of it.”
“Where is it?” begged Morgana.
“I do not know,” said Myrddin. “Taliesin would, but good luck getting it out of him.”
“Is there anyone else who might know?” inquired Morgana.
“No mortal man,” said Myrddin.
“Brilliant,” she remarked sarcastically. She rested her chin on her hand. “Now what?”
“Now you should get back to Camelot. Your mother Queen Igerna will be looking for you. I must have a conversation with some magpies.”
Myrddin hopped down from his perch and disappeared among the foliage. Morgana wondered how he knew she was Queen Igerna’s daughter, but thought it best to leave things as they were.
The narrow streets of Camelot bustled with merchants selling their wares. The sun had finally shown his bright yellow face upon the town as the festivities of market day commenced.
Morgana drew back the curtains to see what sort of day it was.
“Creirwy, would you kindly hand me my blue gown?” she asked her nurse. “We’re going to the market.”
“You should be aware, m’lady, that your sister and her brood of chickens are already there, pecking for grubs, if you catch my meaning.”
Morgana rolled her eyes. She and Morgause never got along. Morgause was the pretty one, the smart one, the one who understood magic in ways Morgana could only begin to imagine.
“We mustn’t let that battle-ax ruin our day.”
“Now, there’s a good woman! I’ll fetch that gown.”
Morgana attired herself and braided her hair, and they departed for the market. They did their best to avoid Morgause, but it was inevitable that they would find themselves on the same street. Morgana stayed to the other side, occasionally glancing over at Morgause and her handmaids. They chattered amongst themselves like a group of magpies. Morgana hated the sound of their voices. They were always gossipping; Morgana imagined they were gossipping about her.
“Just keep walking,” said Creirwy. “Ignore them and they won’t have an audience.”
Morgause made a particular gesture with her hand. Morgana interpreted this as a sign Morgause had something rude to say, and she was going to respond in kind. Morgana marched across the crowded avenue to confront her sister.
“Fine then,” said Creirwy to no one in particular. “Ignore my advice again. See if I care.”
Unbeknownst to Morgana, her sandal-laces had come undone. Morgana stepped on the loose leather strings and fell face first in a mud puddle. Morgause and her handmaids laughed like fools. Evidently, Morgause had caused the sandals to come untied by magic.
Creirwy helped Morgana out of the mud. She felt a second pair of hands take hold of her, and looked up to see the kindly face of Bishop Dubric. He looked sternly at Morgause and her maids.
“Perhaps you could find somewhere else to play your little parlor tricks,” said the Bishop. “Maybe the cobbler could use an apprentice!”
The ladies hushed their laughter and moved off. Creirwy, not wanting them to get away with their folly, snapped her fingers, furtively. A goat, who happened to be browsing around the street, suddenly galloped toward the retreating women and headbutted Morgause squarely in the hindquarters. She would have met the same fate as her sister, had her handmaids not born her up. The animal looked back at the nurse, expectantly.
“Stout fellow,” said Creirwy. “That’ll be all for today.”
Morgause gave Creirwy a smoldering stare, to which Creirwy responded with a pleasant smile.
“I hate her,” said Morgana.
“While I understand the sentiment, Holy Scripture is rather clear on the sin of hatred,” said Dubric.
“It isn’t bad enough that I can’t manage to learn music and magic; why does she have to torment me mercilessly?” asked Morgana.
“Some people are simply ugly, and that’s all there is to it,” said Creirwy. “Morgause has had the world handed to her on a silver platter, and has about as much appreciation for it as a sow does for a goblet of fine wine.”
Dubric added, “Morgause may be beautiful to look at, but underneath it is a soul screaming with emptiness. Where there is a void in the soul, malice and pride will fill it.”
“Morgana!” cried Igerna. She ran out of the royal hall to her daughter’s side.
“I’m alright, mother,” said Morgana dourly.
“It was Morgause again, wasn’t it?”
“Who else?” said Creirwy.
“What am I going to do with that girl?” moaned Igerna.
“A good dose of hemlock would straighten her out, permanently,” remarked Creirwy.
“Creirwy!” snapped Igerna.
“There’s very little that we can do,” replied Dubric. “She listens to neither man nor God.”
Igerna sighed. Morgana went to her chambers to get changed, thinking of hemlock for longer than she probably should have.
The sheep and cattle called to one another over the meadow to the music of Morgana’s lyre.
“More feeling!” said Taliesin.
“If I add more feeling, it sounds terrible!” Morgana said, gruffly.
Morgana played the wrong note once again. She tossed the instrument away in a huff.
“That’s no way to treat an instrument,” Taliesin rebuked her.
“I don’t know why this has to be so difficult, Taliesin!” cried Morgana. “There must be a better way!”
“Music is the root of all magic in the universe, Morgana,” returned Taliesin. “Unfortunately, there is no other way.”
“You didn’t learn like this,” Morgana said, eying Taliesin with suspicion.
“How I learned was unnatural. It shouldn’t have happened at all!”
“You turned out alright,” countered Morgana.
“It could’ve easily turned out the opposite!”
Morgana said no more on the subject after that.
Taliesin’s lyre filled the dining hall with its song. It was the only sound; Morgana, normally rather chatty, said very little, and ate even less. She simply sat at the table, picking at her food.
“What’s the matter, Morgana?” asked Igerna. “You’ve hardly touched your food.”
“Not feeling fully myself tonight, I suppose,” replied Morgana.
“I’d say you’re feeling half yourself!” said her sister, derisively.
Creirwy gave her a dirty look. Morgause grimaced.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Morgana.
“Normally, you’d have eaten twice that amount by now!”
“Morgause!” barked Igerna. “That is quite enough!”
“Enough for both of us!” Morgause cackled at her own joke.
Creirwy snapped her fingers under the table. Morgause gave a small cry as one of the hounds took the joint of mutton from her hand and ran off with it.
Taliesin’s eyes met Creirwy’s. The nurse returned her husband’s gaze with a small wink. Morgause scouled. Igerna raised her left eyebrow.
“Finally watching our girlish figure, are we?” Morgause taunted.
Morgana slammed her spoon down on the table and stormed out.
“Morgause, we are nobility. I will thank you to watch your tongue!” she heard Igerna command as she exited.
The moon bathed Camelot in her pale light as Morgana’s sandals slapped softly on the flagstones. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“It’s dangerous for an unaccompanied woman to be out at this time of night.”
Morgana turned around to see Taliesin standing at the doorway to the great hall.
“I don’t care!” snapped Morgana.
“I care,” said Taliesin. “I wouldn’t want my favorite student to be robbed.”
“I’m a terrible student,” replied Morgana.
“Yes, but you’re still my favorite.”
She rolled her eyes but took his offered arm, and they strolled through the twilight together.
“I’ll never get any better at magic,” said Morgana, ruefully.
“Yes, you will,” said Taliesin. “You’re going to be one of the greatest magicians Britain has ever seen.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible,” said Morgana, “unless I drink from the Well of Wyrd.”
“What would you know about that, then?” he inquired.
“Myrddin told me.”
“How long have you known Myrddin the Mad?” Taliesin probed further.
“I met him the day before yesterday.”
“You know he’s mad, right?”
“Yes,” Morgana, replied,“but they say he is also very wise.”
“The Well of Wyrd offers untold power and wisdom,” Taliesin stated. “However, this wisdom is not free by any means. It comes at a price.”
Morgana was silent.
“What’s the price?”
“Something very dear,” answered Taliesin.
“Can you tell me where it is?”
“I can, but I won’t.”
“Taliesin!” Morgana said, stomping her foot.
“It would go against everything I stand for to tell you where to find the well!” Taliesin declared.
“Fine!” shouted Morgana.
She stomped back inside and went directly to her chambers.
The royal stables smelled of horses and hay. It was a bright day, and the squires were practicing mounted combat. Bedwyr had just completed his exercises and was returning his horse to the stables when Morgana waylaid him.
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” said Bedwyr in reply to Morgana’s question.
“I know exactly what I’m asking, Bedwyr, is it really that complicated?” said Morgana.
“A white stag, Morgana?” The young squire glared at her with his clear, grey eyes. “You might as well have asked me to help you hunt a dragon!”
“You have seen one, haven’t you?” asked Morgana.
“That was before the strife,” he answered. “I was just a boy.”
“But, they exist,” confirmed Morgana.
“What makes you so keen on catching one, anyway?” asked the squire.
“It’s for my magic studies,” replied Morgana, “I don’t want to catch it; I just want to follow it.”
“Where to?” asked Bedwyr.
“That’s not your concern.”
“It is my concern if I’m going to lead you on a hunt through boggard-infested wood!”
“Fine. I’m looking for the Well of Wyrd, and I believe a white stag can lead me to it.”
Bedwyr glared at her again. Morgana smiled at him, kindly.
Bedwyr ran his fingers through his brown, curly hair.
“Fine,” he said at last. “I’ll take you.”
The bracken hummed with the sounds of crickets, playing their song in the gathering twilight. The shaggy-coated hounds trotted through forest, followed by Bedwyr and Morgana riding tall steeds.
“This is our third day, Morgause,” said Bedwyr. “There is no white stag. Leastwise, not in these woods.”
“Just one more day,” said Morgana.
“Morgana, we have duties to attend to in Camelot. We can’t spend all our lives out here, searching for something that we may never find.”
“I have to keep trying,” declared Morgana. “You’re free to go back to Camelot.”
“You know I can’t do that,” replied the squire.
“You also can’t make me go back to Camelot.”
“Fine then. We keep looking.”
Suddenly one of the hounds let out a single bark. Morgana followed the hound’s gaze into the foliage. She saw a flash of white fur.
“There!” exclaimed Morgana. Morgana and Bedwyr followed the hounds through the wood until they finally saw it clearly; the white stag. They chased the creature through forest and glen, over streams and hills until they came upon a heath. A thick fog gathered around it. The stag vanished into the mist.
“Come, we must follow it!” said Morgana.
“Are you certain that’s wise?” queried Bedwyr. “The horses are wary.”
“You’re going to let a horse stop you!?”
“Horses have excellent instincts. If they’re nervous, they have good reason to be.”
“I’m going with or without you!”
With that, Morgana followed the stag into the mist. The fog seemed to deaden all sound, save the whirring of crickets. The only objects visible were enormous megaliths; the remains of the ancient giants, or so they say. Eventually, she came to a massive, gnarled, old tree. At the base of the tree was a perfectly round hole. Morgana knew that she had found the well. She produced her drinking horn and knelt by the well’s edge.
“Have a care!”
A black-robed woman stood at the edge of the well. She looked at once ageless and ancient.
“Pardon me, my lady,” said Morgana, humbly. “I meant no intrusion.”
“The waters of Wyrd do not give their secrets freely,” said the crone. “We must all pay a price for knowledge.”
“What is the price?” asked Morgana. “I’ll pay it.”
“The price will be something very dear to you,” replied the crone. “More costly than you can imagine.”
“What will that be?”
“You’ll find out when the bill comes due. Now, will you still drink?”
Morgana paused to consider. Ultimate knowledge for a price yet to be determined. Was it worth it?
“Yes, I will drink.”
Morgana filled her drinking horn and drank deeply of the waters of Wyrd. She felt no different than she did when she entered the heath and wondered if anything had happened at all. Bedwyr shouted her name from somewhere in the fog. She answered him back and followed the sound of his voice through the mist.
They rode back to Camelot in silence. Morgana felt cheated. Had she searched this long for nothing? Then something peculiar happened.
“Wet weather today, don’t you think?”
Morgana looked around to find the source of the voice.
“Not as wet as yesterday,” said a different voice. It was not in any language Morgana thought she knew, yet she understood every word. She looked up through the canopy and saw ravens in the trees, conversing. It was at that moment that she realized she recognized the speech of birds.
Morgana told no one of what happened on the heath. The following day, she and Taliesin met for their usual lyre lesson. Morgana sat down, placing the instrument on her lap. She sang with the voice of an elf, and her fingers flew over the strings with exceptional skill.
“Wait a minute!” cried Taliesin. “What happened?”
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Morgana.
“You know exactly what I mean,” said Taliesin, crossing his arms. “How did you find the well?”
“I followed the white stag,” Morgana said.
Taliesin turned away, rubbing his face in his hands.
“What did it cost?” he asked after a long pause.
“I don’t know,” replied Morgana.
“You don’t know?!” shouted Taliesin.
“The crone wouldn’t say, only that it would be very dear.”
“So you don’t even know the kind of damage you’ve done?” queried Taliesin.
Taliesin looked deep into Morgana’s eyes. There was anger behind his eyes, but also a profound sadness.
“I…” he started, “I am so sorry, Morgana.”
With that, Taliesin left the library. There was nothing more he could teach her.
Morgana wept. For a long time, she thought that losing Taliesin’s friendship and tutelage were the price she paid for knowledge. It was not until many years later that she realized the true cost.