Dumbstruck, King Amren gaped at Myrddin, who pulled back his hood to reveal glowing amber eyes. Amren recalled Rhan’s earlier threat that she would strike him dead after Myrddin arrived. Taken aback that the Druid was secretly there during the proceedings against Catrin, he cursed beneath his breath. The last time he had seen Myrddin was when he was an adolescent suffering lovesickness for Rhan, the same malady Catrin was experiencing with Marcellus.
Amren recalled stories told by bards at festivities that Myrddin was a wild hermit born of a mortal woman but sired by an incubus. From his demonic legacy, Myrddin inherited extraordinary knowledge of the past and present. The sun god Bel later bequeathed him with prophetic abilities. The staff in his hand rendered Myrddin magical powers. He wondered if the wild Druid’s sudden appearance was a harbinger of his own imminent demise.
“Did Rhan summon you?” he asked Myrddin.
The wild Druid proclaimed in a croaky voice, “The gods sent me as their messenger to counsel you in your time of greatest strife.”
Amren bristled. “What strife?”
“A week ago,” Myrddin said, twisting the strands of his gray beard with his fingers, “I dreamt that I had wandered out of the old forest to meet you on a footpath near the Ancient Oak. You asked, ‘Why have you come?’ I answered, ‘A demonic entity wants to exchange destinies with one of your daughters.’ After that, I immediately journeyed here to shine the gods’ truth on what you must do next to counter this iniquitous being. I hid in the back corner, so I could better understand the depths of your family’s strife.”
Wary of Myrddin’s true intent, Amren scrutinized the Druid’s weathered, crinkled face. “Have you come to help me break Rhan’s curse?”
Myrddin gave a crusty smirk. “Perhaps . . .”
Annoyed with the Druid’s vague answer, Amren snapped his fingers. “Directly answer my question or be off with you!”
Grinning slyly, Myrddin hunched over his staff like a gnarled oak branch and pounded it on the dark oak floor three times. The crystalline globe, embedded in the serpent’s mouth at the end of the staff, lit up like a rising sun. The wild Druid squinted at the orb’s brilliant surface. He intoned, “I see midday transform to night. Crickets chirp, but bees abuzz disappear. Frost hovers above treetops like death. Leaves fly as black ravens above forest moss. Blood moon shrouds the sun. Emerald hills turn barren. The diamond’s flash crowns the sun. Bees again pollinate Mother Earth.”
The grizzled Druid peered at Catrin through one eye while keeping the other shut. “Are you the keeper of the curse?”
She turned to Amren and raised a brow, seeking advice on how she should respond.
“Read the inscribed curse on the dagger,” he instructed.
Catrin retrieved the dagger from beneath her belt. The blade glinted from the orb’s illumination as she read the curse.
“The gods demand the scales be balanced for the life you take today. If you deny my soul’s journey to the Otherworld by beheading me, I curse you to the same fate as mine. When the Raven rises out of Apollo’s flames with the dark powers of the Ancient Druids, Blood Wolf will form a pack with the mighty empire and fulfill this curse. The Raven will then cast liquid fire into the serpent’s stone and forge vengeance on the empire’s anvil.”
Amren shifted his eyes toward Myrddin. “The curse says Blood Wolf will ally with the Roman Empire, but how can this be after his heinous deed of butchering their soldiers?”
The wild Druid tilted his head back and violently shook the staff until the orb turned as dark as a solar eclipse. “The curse stands unless the Raven alters the future.”
Amren dubiously cocked an eyebrow. “Tell me, old man, who is this Raven you speak of?”
Myrddin squeezed his eyelids shut and waved his staff in a circular motion. “I feel the Raven’s essence in the chamber. Its shadow weaves in and out of itself like a knotted serpent. But . . . I can’t tell if it is wraith or human.”
“More riddles!” Amren grumbled.
Myrddin’s eyes popped open. He pointed his staff at Marcellus and declared, “You hold the key for unlocking the curse’s riddle.”
Appearing alarmed by the wild Druid’s gesture, Marcellus clasped Catrin by the arm and asked in Latin, “What did the old man say?”
Amren noticed how Catrin silently gazed at Marcellus, her eyes flitting back and forth, as if she was silently answering him through her thoughts. After a few moments, Marcellus’s jaw relaxed as if he understood. The couple’s connection disconcerted Amren, as did Myrddin’s prophetic vision. Fixing his eyes on Myrddin, Amren asked, “What makes you believe Marcellus can unlock the curse’s riddle?”
“For the curse to be fulfilled, you must be king,” Myrddin answered, his eyes as brilliant as amber gemstones. “But what if . . . you weren’t king?”
“Get to your meaning!” Amren snapped.
Myrddin smiled. “Declare another as king and break the curse.”
Incredulous, Amren was not at first sure if he had heard the wild Druid correctly. “What? Declare another king?”
Myrddin pounded his staff on the wood floor and the orb flamed like a torch. “Look for Apollo in the curse.”
“Speak plainly, old man,” Amren growled, becoming increasingly vexed with the wild Druid’s riddles. “Who is this Apollo?”
Myrddin struck the floor three times with his staff. The wooden floor splintered to Marcellus’s feet. The wild Druid narrowed an eye at the staff’s fiery globe and said hoarsely, “The Roman standing before us is Apollo. The Raven must offer Apollo a cup to incite an ecstatic state to bind his soul with the divine goddess. Once Apollo spills his seed, prosperity and peace will return to the kingdom.”
Amren crossed his arms and huffed. “Doesn’t the ancient ritual demand a king be sacrificed and his blood drained to lift the curse off the lands?”
Catrin interrupted with fevered pitch. “Father, you can’t follow Myrddin’s advice, not if it requires sacrificing Marcellus. Marrock must have sent Myrddin to trick you into believing the curse can be simply broken by your stepping down as king. That monster could ambush us during the drunken revelry at the fertility rite.”
Eyes widening like a wild wolf under attack, Myrddin growled, “My king, I assure you no mortal sent me. I only deliver messages from the gods!”
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