- Nov 1, 2004
The Mercury of the Philosophers
THE WIZARD GLASTYN disappeared one day, from the King’s grand castle at Caer Cadwy. He had been a restless man, given to abrupt departures and unheralded arrivals; he loved to come on people unexpectedly, and delighted in all manner of disguise. Every traveler who came to the castle or stopped in the town below had some tale to tell of him: how he had been spotted at a fair in Walgan, garbed as a traveling herbalist, or in the brown robes of an itinerant friar, begging his bread along the dusty southern roads, or again—this time disguised as no one but himself—riding his old piebald pony on the outskirts of the forest Coill Dorcha.
Those who claimed to know him best confidently expected him to reappear at any time. But an entire season passed, and then another, and fewer tales of chance encounters found their way back to Caer Cadwy. At last, they ceased to come at all, and even the most hopeful were forced to admit that Glastyn was not coming back.
He left behind him: a whimsical, inconsistent king; an order of jaded, disillusioned knights; and a realm slipping slowly back into the chaos from which he, Glastyn, had rescued it some fifty years before. Two other things of some significance he left behind him: the Clach Ghealach and Teleri ni Pendaren.
A man of many diverse talents, Glastyn had been an Alchemist of some reputation, and was therefore accustomed to working with outwardly unpromising materials—which might explain why he had chosen for his apprentice and successor such an unprepossessing little waif as Teleri ni Pendaren.
For the Mercury of the Philosophers (so the Sages inform us) is a common substance, little regarded and seldom recognized, except by the wisest of the Wise. Its nature (they go on to say) is cold and moist, “a dull metalline species,” “the child of Saturn, of mean estate,” “the water that wets not”—but enough. Let it merely be stated that much of the same could be said of Teleri.
She was short, slight, and colorless, with grey eyes and a quantity of fine fly-away hair the color of wood ash. She had so far revealed no great aptitude for wizardry beyond a species of semi-magical invisibility that owed as much to her size and her coloring, to her ability to move swiftly and silently, or to will herself to absolute stillness at the same time that she imagined herself elsewhere, as it did to any sorcery. Yet it served her well in place of the real thing, so long as nobody looked directly at her.
Three years after the wizard vanished, she remained the same: still small, silent, and colorless. She tended his garden, dusted the books in his abandoned tower laboratory, and continued her own studies in the arts magical. On occasion, she assisted Brother Gildas, the Royal Physician. She rarely practiced even the minor magics that Glastyn had taught her. She lived alone and seldom spoke to anyone. And she seemed unlikely ever to transmute herself from Apprentice to Wizard, or even from Child to Woman.
So Teleri was at the age of eighteen, the winter that the Princess Diaspad returned to Caer Cadwy—Diaspad, with her heart full of malice and her brain full of schemes by which she hoped to set her despicable young son on the throne of Celydonn.
But Nature, like the Alchemist, continually strives for perfection. She was simply taking her time over Teleri.
A Storm Over Camboglanna
IT WAS LATE in the year for rain, but the weather (like so much else) could no longer be depended upon. An unexpected warm spell at the beginning of winter brought a whole swarm of violent storms snarling up out of the south, and the snows of November melted rapidly under the driving rains of December. Then the long grey road winding through the brown hills of Camboglanna melted, too, until all was a treacherous quagmire of mud and gravel.
To the messenger from Mochdreff, urging his exhausted steed onward through the storm, the icy rain felt like splinters of glass, penetrating the wool and leather of his cloak and tunic, piercing him to the bone. He cursed hoarsely under his breath, hating the cold, hating the wet, aching with fatigue, despising this unwelcoming land and everything in it.
This land of low hills and shallow valleys, of farms and fences and thatched villages. No, he did not like this undulating, crowded country—so different from his own Mochdreff—but it was the unnatural stillness of the land, more than any strangeness he could see, that had fathered the vague uneasiness gnawing at the back of his mind.
The land did not speak to him; or if it did, it spoke no language he could understand. And soil so dumb, so smugly secretive, must be hiding something.
The messenger peered ahead through the slanting rain. On a hillside far to the south, he could just make out the sprawling outline of a castle: lofty towers amidst the ruins of an older fortification. Beneath Brynn Caer Cadwy crouched a tiny walled town, clinging to the castle’s outer bastions as if in dread of the sea grinding her teeth on the rocks below.
With his destination in sight, the messenger felt his spirits rise. He did not expect a cordial welcome, here among the outlandish Camboglannach, but he was a stoical, uncomplaining man, and would be content with a roof over his head and a place to sit, somewhere near the fire maybe, while the elements continued their battle in the darkness outside.
IN THE GUARDROOM near the main gate, the rain and winds battering the castle were muffled to a distant drumming by the thick stone walls. The guards huddled companionably over a smoking peat fire, dicing and drinking, or more productively occupied: polishing a sword or an axe, replacing a few broken links in a mail shirt. The air was heavy in the tiny room, thick with the rich, moist aromas of burning peat and the goose grease they used to keep their armor from rusting in the damp air.
A pounding at the gate sent the idlers scrambling for their weapons. The Sergeant and two others pushed aside the horsehide that served them for a door and disappeared into the passage outside. A moment later, hinges creaked and oak timbers scraped across cobblestones as the gate swung open—then closed with a crash as the wind smashed it shut again.
The Sergeant returned to the inner room, accompanied by a stranger in a sodden crimson cloak. Ten years ago, even five, any stranger presenting himself unannounced at the gate could have expected a lengthy interrogation and confiscation of his weapons before he gained admittance. But years of peace and easy living had eroded discipline; the Captain allowed the messenger to strip off his leather gloves and warm his hands by the fire before demanding an explanation.
“My message is for the King alone,” the stranger growled, pulling a letter out of his pouch and thrusting it rudely under the Captain’s nose.
“Mochdreff, is it?” the Captain muttered, recognizing the boar’s-head badge imprinted in the wax. “The Princess Diaspad?”
The other men, suddenly grown hostile, eyed the messenger suspiciously. What news but bad news could ever come out of Mochdreff?
They were wary of all “foreigners” these men of Camboglanna and the south, distrusting their neighbors: the Draighenach, the Gorwynnach, the Rhianeddi, Perfuddi, and the Hillfolk of Tir Gwyngelli—all of whom, naturally, cherished similar suspicions regarding the Camboglannach and each other—but especially the dour Mochdreffi.
As for the Princess Diaspad: a southerner by birth and nurture, she had been arrogant and violent as a young woman and had not increased her popularity by marrying a foreigner.
The messenger returned the letter to his pouch, tucked his gloves into his belt, and stalked out of the room. The Sergeant would have followed, but the Captain detained him.
“Let the man find his own way,” he said, and everyone laughed. No stranger could possibly find his way unaided through the myriad levels of the castle; he could wander for hours and never come anywhere near the King. If the Mochdreffi was too proud to ask for a guide, then so much the worse for him.
As the men put down their weapons and returned to their interrupted amusements, the Captain voiced the thought on every man’s mind. “And wouldn’t this be a fine time for the Princess to be visiting her step-brother—with the two young lords from Rhianedd so conveniently out of her way!”
The two young lords from Rhianedd, otherwise known as the Queen’s brothers, Cadifor and Llochafor, had recently been exiled to their estates in the northern highlands by a King grown weary of their pretension and their relentless maneuvering for recognition. For themselves, they were not general favorites, but Sidonwy, the Queen, was well-liked—at least by the common-folk—and inspired such an excess of devoted loyalty that some of it encompassed her brothers as well.
“But coming all this way in weather so foul as this?” the Sergeant asked. That hardly sounded like the woman they all remembered, who was addicted to personal comfort and hated, above all, to get her feet wet.
“Reckon it up for yourself,” said the Captain. “A little more than a month since the Rhianeddi lords left us, eight or nine days for the news to reach her in Mochdreff, a week, maybe, for the Princess and her household to prepare themselves for travel—and who knew then that the weather would be wet?—then a fortnight or more on the road with the wagons and all, and that man sent on ahead . . .”
Oh yes, she was on her way, they were all certain of that. And not a man of them but knew what it was that she had come for.
CYNWAS THE KING had a habit of falling in love, suddenly, violently, and often inexplicably. Typically, these infatuations were as brief as they were violent, burning themselves out in a day, a week, or a season.
But he fell in love with Caer Cadwy, one summer spent visiting the ruined home of his ancestors, and was instantly inspired to restore the castle to all its former glory and beyond. Much to his own surprise, still more to the amazement of others, the passion had never waned, and the love affair was to last all the days of his life—as would the reconstruction and renovation of the castle, which continued sporadically (and with a splendid inconsistency of style) all through the years.
Counting the ruins on the lower terraces, the castle was vast, surging up the hill, level on level, until it reached the top and spilled over on all sides. When construction rendered any portion inaccessible or unlivable, the inhabitants merely picked up their belongings and moved to another part of the castle. The folk of Caer Cadwy led a cheerfully nomadic existence.
The castle reflected the changing moods and sudden enthusiasms of the King. It was a palace of magnificent contradictions, a fabulous mixture of styles and periods: towers that began in undressed dry stone and ended in elegant turrets of fine ashlar block; ancient ruins melded to modern flying buttresses, gothic arches, and machicolated battlements; broad, pleasant courtyards and tiny secret gardens; staircases and passages that led by lengthy and meandering courses . . . nowhere.
Moreover, the King cherished a fondness for novelties, and for carvings and statuary of all kinds—iron zoomorphs, stone gargoyles, brazen centaurs, nymphs, and satyrs—which appeared throughout the castle in some startling juxtapositions. Even the shrubs in Sidonwy’s garden had been trimmed and sculpted to resemble fabulous beasts of heraldry and legend. The visitor to Caer Cadwy, wherever he went, inevitably developed a sense of constant, hostile, observation.
And so it seemed to the messenger from Mochdreff, as he threaded his way through the maze of the inner Keep, where (he had grudgingly been informed) the private apartments of the King might currently be found.
Only a few scattered torches lit these corridors. The walls dripped moisture; the rooms he passed through were all unoccupied. The man from Mochdreff began to fear that he had lost his way. Either that, or the servant he had asked for directions had purposely misdirected him.
A sound, a light pattering of footsteps—the messenger whirled around to see who followed after him.
As far as he could see in the murky half light, the corridor stretched empty behind him. Perhaps the sound had existed only in his imagination, inspired by the scowling gargoyles and leering zoomorphs; perhaps he had only picked up his own echoing footfalls. He turned again and headed resolutely in what he hoped was the right direction.
SOMETHING SMALL AND colorless moved in the shadows. Teleri crept out of hiding and scurried away, in the direction the messenger had just come.
No ghosts walked the halls of Caer Cadwy, for Glastyn’s spells had laid them all. Yet the castle was haunted, all the same, by the lonely little wraith the wizard left behind him. Dressed in somber grey, she was rarely seen as she wandered through the castle, listening at doors, peering out of alcoves and peepholes and from behind pillars, keeping a secret watch over the castle and its inhabitants.
Unconsciously, she slipped into one of her favorite games. No longer Teleri ni Pendaren, sometime apprentice to the great wizard Glastyn, she became the ill-fortuned Princess Goewin, fleeing her father’s hall for a fateful assignation with her nameless lover. The long corridor, a corridor no longer, became one of the perilous paths winding down the cliffs below Dinas Moren.
Around a bend in the path came the sound of approaching footsteps, the light, quick fall of slippered feet. For a moment, Teleri (or Goewin) wavered, uncertain as to time and place; then the instinct for concealment took over. Teleri stopped where she stood, pressed up against the damp stone wall, and effectively disappeared. Disappeared, that is, until another young woman, herself all but concealed by a long brown cloak, rounded the corner and nearly knocked Teleri over.
Something fell to the floor with a clatter like bones, and the newcomer furiously confronted the little sorceress. Her make-shift invisibility shattered by their brief contact, Teleri was helpless before that sudden blaze of anger.
The long cloak had fallen open, allowing Teleri a glimpse of the bright, tightly laced gown beneath; like the girl who wore it, the dress was eye-catching, if a trifle shabby. Teleri recognized the face within the brown hood: Prescelli, Queen Sidonwy’s spiteful little handmaiden. Dark-eyed, sharp-featured, and intense, there was yet something in Prescelli suggesting both the courtesan and the lost child.
“Little sneak!” Prescelli hissed. “You’ve been spying on me, haven’t you?”
Teleri shook her head, tried to shrink away into nothingness. “I have not. Why should I?”
Prescelli stooped to pick up the armful of broken wax tapers scattered across the floor by the collision. A strange burden for a girl whose allotment of tallow candles could not be so generous—and the King’s private chapel, where the finest white tapers burned day and night, lay just around the comer.
Teleri tried to slip past, but a shrill protest from Prescelli stopped her. “Not so fast, you filthy little spy! I want a word with you.”
“Sneak” and “spy.” Those names had been hurled at Teleri before (and behind her back she had heard crueler whispers: “witch,” “half-wit,” “changeling”); it was to avoid such ugly names and scenes that she cultivated the habit of invisibility. But she was unable to disappear now, so long as Prescelli’s attention remained so intently fixed.
“If you tell anyone what you have seen—”
“I’ve seen nothing,” Teleri breathed, edging sideways toward the corner and concealment. “There is nothing for me to tell.”
“And if I ever catch you watching me again—” began Prescelli. But now she spoke to empty air. Teleri had seized her moment of inattention and disappeared into the dark corridor around the corner.
“There are three kinds of wisdom,” said the wizard Glastyn. “Three Parts of Wisdom, we say: the Wisdom of the Body; the Wisdom of the Soul, or Intellect; and the Wisdom of the Spirit—or the Heart. Men have spent entire lifetimes striving for only a third part of that wisdom. Indeed, it is a great thing if a man can call himself master of any of these, but the true Adept is master of all three.”
“You are an Adept,” said the child, looking up from her book.
The old man smiled into his long white beard, but he furrowed his brow as though he were frowning and he spoke sternly. “You have come very far in your studies, then? You feel qualified to pronounce this one or that one an Adept?”
“It isn’t that,” said the child, who knew the wizard’s ways and understood that he was not really scolding her. “I read it in one of your books. It says in the triad:
‘The Three Great Fallen Adepts
Cynfarch, Master of Ravens
Atlendor the Old
But Greater than any of these was
“I see,” said Glastyn, “that you have made some attempt to memorize the triad, but you have forgotten the most important part:
‘Who fell again and again and rose.’
“The Mastery of Body, Soul, and Spirit is not a thing to be achieved once and then forgotten. The road the Adept must follow is treacherous and he must walk softly and with great prudence. He who forgets that is fallen indeed, and he alone is beyond redemption.”
The child returned to her book. But after a short while she looked up again and asked, “Do you think that I will ever be an Adept?”
The wizard did not reply at once, apparently absorbed in his work: the purification of gold by the agency of antimony. “That remains to be seen,” he said at last. “The Wisdom of the Body—you are learning something of that in your sessions with Brother Gildas. If you become a Physician, that is a fine and noble calling. The Wisdom of the Intellect—that is what the science of Wizardry strives, in part, to elucidate. I have hopes that you may, after the usual seven years of study, become a Wizard worthy of the name.”
“And the Wisdom of the Heart?” the child asked, when he did not go on.
This time, Glastyn did frown. “There is an order to these things, and each must come in its proper season. As for the Wisdom of the Heart . . . I do not choose,” he said, “that you should learn that just yet.”
TELERI RAN UNTIL she came to a thick oak door, which she pushed open and slipped through, into the dark passageway beyond. The air in the tunnel was damp and dead, the blackness ahead of her absolute, but Teleri never hesitated. She closed the door firmly behind her and plunged fearlessly into the dark.
This passage, built into the thick walls on the upper levels, led, by short ways and by long, to all inhabitable parts of the castle. Everyone knew that the tunnel existed, but only Teleri knew all the doors, trap-doors, and sliding panels that offered access. Few others resorted to the passageway, even as a short-cut, but Teleri liked the friendly concealing darkness, and the tunnel’s geography was comfortably familiar.
She extended a hand, feeling along the wall: rough, irregular stone, harsh lumps where the mortar had squeezed out and not been smoothed away. A change in texture indicated that she was nearing her destination.
A little farther on, she touched wood, found a hidden catch, opened the door a crack, and slid through. She had entered the Wizard’s Tower by the back way, and now stood at the foot of the spiral staircase leading up to Glastyn’s abandoned rooms and to his laboratory.
She ran up the steps, impatient to return to her studies, feeling no need for invisibility here. To her surprise, she found the door at the top of the stairs unlocked, standing slightly ajar. She ran a sensitive hand over the doorframe, checking the wards that protected the door against forced entry, relaxed when the familiar tingling indicated that they still held. The door had not been tampered with, nor would this be the first time that Teleri had forgotten to lock a door behind her.
She pushed the door open and stepped into the laboratory. As always, the air tasted of dust and tallow and bitter herbs. As she glanced around the room, a cold chill slithered down her spine and a faint sense of invasion prickled across her skin. Did her imagination play tricks on her, or had someone actually taken advantage of the unlocked door to enter the laboratory uninvited?
Teleri’s uneasy gaze traveled over the crowded shelves that lined the room. Even the brightest sunlight could not dispel the shadows that lurked in the laboratory’s odd corners and alcoves; now, by the light of a three-branched candlestick, the shadows had crept out of hiding and thrust their long inky fingers into every part of the room. The wizard’s books and paraphernalia covered the shelves and filled the cabinets. Most lay under an undisturbed powder of fine dust: the intricate five- and six-pointed pentacles; the elemental elixirs glowing red, yellow, green, and black in glass jars; the bejeweled ceremonial daggers; the silver aspergillum. A golden pentagram painted on the floor was scarred and faded. These were the tools of ceremonial magic, the art of the full Wizard, and Teleri never used them.
But the mortars and alembics, the green glass phials and flasks—the equipment of the Alchemist or Apothecary—were sparkling clean and in slightly better order. Teleri knew the uses of herbs and the preparation of medicines and she spent many hours grinding, mixing, and distilling them.
The customary disorder remained unchanged. If someone (the light-fingered Prescelli, for instance) had been in the room during Teleri’s absence, she had taken nothing with her when she left.
Teleri took off her cloak, hung it on a peg by the door, and wandered over to the nearest bookshelf. She selected a thick volume bound in crimson leather, and carried it over to the massive wooden armchair by the fireplace.
Teleri curled up among the dusty purple velvet cushions. She ran uncertain fingers over the richly tooled cover of the book, wondering whether she would be able to open it. Although she knew all the names that sealed each of Glastyn’s books, she sometimes found one that simply refused to open at her command. This particular volume had always remained stubbornly shut, try as she might to unseal it, but today she had a feeling that the time was right.
“Cynfelyn,” she whispered, and the spell binding the pages together released its hold. The cover flew open, landing in Teleri’s lap and breathing decades of mildew into the laboratory. With a sigh of satisfaction, Teleri made a nest among the cushions, balanced the book on her knees, and bent her head over the closely written page.
It was in this manner that Teleri had continued her studies ever since Glastyn’s disappearance. He had evidently planned everything in advance, and the books opened or did not open according to that prearranged plan. It was like Glastyn to find a way to manage things even though he was no longer there.
But Glastyn had always known how to manipulate people and events. Some fifty years ago, he had first appeared out of the forest, bringing with him the long-sought heir to the Crown of Celydonn. Despite formidable opposition from the greater lords of the island kingdom, Glastyn had successfully placed young Anwas on the throne. Then, ready for some real work, he set out to master the Wild Magic.
The Wild Magic was all around: stirring sluggishly beneath the soil, riding on the restless winds, gathering in the air like storm clouds. Once, these same forces, running rampant, had torn the kingdom asunder. A mighty alliance of warlocks had risen to power, calling up monsters from the depths of the seething earth and out of the boiling lakes, toppling a dynasty of great kings.
But Glastyn knew the ways of the Wild Magic. He drove it back under the earth, where it lent fertility to the soil; he sealed it in trees and rocks, which afterward were known to speak with deep, inhuman voices; he bound it with his own name and with the King’s. Then, while the land and the people gradually returned to some semblance of normality, Glastyn found more work for himself.
In a half century of service to the Crown, Glastyn had kept busy. He convinced Anwas’s son, the young King Cynwas, to establish an order of knighthood dedicated to bringing peace and order to the strife-torn realm. He traveled extensively, attending christenings, weddings, tournaments, deathbeds—any event that brought the principal families of the realm together. Not a man, woman, or child among them but felt his firm hand shaping the future course of their lives.
Then, at the age of nearly a century, he took an apprentice, trained her for five years, impressed on her that it was her duty to take his place when the dire, mysterious fate which he had foreseen finally overtook him—and slipped out of the sight of men.
But the Wild Magic, though tamed, had not been banished. Since Glastyn’s disappearance many disquieting signs had appeared, indicating that the bindings were gradually dissolving: the unpredictable weather; crops that withered, inexplicably, on the vine; strange hybrid creatures—neither man nor beast—that stalked the forests or came down out of the Coblynau Hills; grotesque, evil-smelling corpses an outraged sea cast up on the island’s rocky beaches. Once again, as soon as the sun set, people locked and bolted their doors, and except within the walled towns and castles few dared to venture out of doors at night. Even here, in smug, respectable Camboglanna, fear of witches and their craft was spreading.
And what role in all this could an imperfectly trained young sorceress hope to play?
Teleri, no longer a student but not yet a Wizard, not precisely a Witch, but something uncomfortably close, was a puzzling little paradox that the King, his servants, and the nobles gathered at his court preferred not to worry about. They left her, for the most part, strictly alone.
Left her to hours of solitary study, her mind echoing to ancient names and spells and the long rich history of the Isle of Celydonn, until the old tales became a part of her daytime imaginings as well as her dreams at night, and the shades of long-dead kings and heroes became, at last, more real to her than the bustling world of the castle around her. Yet she stayed on at Caer Cadwy, observing the lives of the people much as if they were all part of another story in one of Glastyn’s old books. This, in obedience to Glastyn’s command.
Because Glastyn, when he first took Teleri for his apprentice, had appointed her as sole guardian of the Clach Ghealach, and it was the Clach Ghealach that protected the King.
One of the legendary talismans of the ancient kings of Celydonn, the Clach Ghealach was a great moon-colored crystal set in Cynwas’s massive crown of state. It warded the King, and all in his castle on Brynn Caer Cadwy, from nightmares and sendings, from the unseelie host and the creeping horrors, and all the restless spirits that walk in the night.
How Glastyn expected her to keep the Clach Ghealach safe, Teleri did not know. She was never permitted to touch either the crown or the stone, which were kept under lock and key in the King’s treasure room. But the wizard had laid the task on her like a geas, and it would have taken a more competent sorceress than Teleri to break any geas of Glastyn’s.
And that was why she was here now, whiling away the long rainy afternoon, studying a book of spells she never really intended to put to use. Lulled by the peace that enfolded the tower room, she had already forgotten her suspicions about Prescelli and the unlocked laboratory door.
Copyright © 1989, 2020 by Teresa Edgerton
Map © 1989 by Ann Meyer Maglinte