The History of Merle of Lots

Editor’s Note: Even though Nancy dropped out of writing fairly early, Sara and I always kept her in the loop, and sent her chapters, hoping she would manage to write again. While we waited, sometimes one of us would write what we came to refer to as an “Aside: a story, complete within itself, concerning the characters of The Log.”

This chapter was written by me, and was inspired by our high school choir director (although he was not evil—we loved him!) Although it got cut from the final version of “Journey to Wizards’ Keep” we managed to keep just one little bit of the wizard, Merle of Lots, in the book as the one who tries to lure Nan into the Chamber of Mirrors.

KC Cowan

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The Story of Merle of Lots

When Irene and Nan met Kay of the Crystal Seas in the Secret Valley, they thought it was the first time they had seen each other. However, this was not so. For they had, in fact, met some four years previously in the Woods of Will’s son. They were but 12 years old.

At that time, Irene was living with Nan the Dancer’s family in the Valley of William Etté. The two girls used to journey to a small forest not far from their home, called the Woods of Will’s Son. Here, they would meet with others of their age to study with the learned Wizard, Merle of Lots. Merle taught them the mystical power of music, and all his students were very loyal to the old man. Often there were large groups of young people who attended these classes, and sometimes only a few, but Nan and Irene always enjoyed meeting others and learning the songs Merle taught them.

Although Nan and Irene tried to show up for every lesson, they could not attend as often as they would have liked, as Nan’s father had forbidden it. He would not explain why, only to say that he mistrusted the old wizard and thought it best that the girls not go. But the cobbler was also a busy man and unable to keep his eye on the spirited girls enough to know their daily movements about the town. Besides, he was a jolly, trusting soul and did not want to restrict the girls too much, lest they grow surly or rebellious. Indeed, aside from visiting Merle of Lots, he forbade them almost nothing.

So Nan and Irene found it easy enough to pack a picnic basket and tell the cobbler that they were merely going for a stroll. They didn’t like lying to Nan’s father, whom they both loved dearly, and yet, the draw to Merle’s Magic Circle of Sounds was more powerful than their desire to obey the cobbler. There was something about Merle’s manner that drew them again and again to Will’s Son’s Woods.

The wizard Merle often would teach the young people magical chants and songs by which they could render such evil beings like goblins and trolls helpless. In truth, none of the students had ever seen a goblin or a troll, but they enjoyed the melodic patterns and the idea they it could be used against such creatures.

Sometimes, Merle of Lots would only talk to them in a low, soothing voice, telling tales of past glories, dreams of the future and his philosophy of life. Often Nan and Irene found themselves drifting off during these times, floating half-in and half-out of their bodies, it seemed. When they awoke, Merle of Lots would be looking at them in a strange manner, and they would be ashamed for falling asleep. But he never said anything to them about it.

Of course, Nan and Irene made friends among the other young people. Most came from neighboring communities. Some of them would be in the group for a month or more and then suddenly stop coming. The girls wondered why, but it never seemed to bother the wizard, so they decided not to let it bother them, either. They were content to come and learn the chants and hear the tales of Merle of Lots.

One bright spring day Nan and Irene planned on making a visit to join in Merle’s Circle of Sounds once again. They had not been able to see him throughout most of the winter, for who takes picnics in the rain? And the Valley of William Etté was indeed famous for its rain.

As Nan and Irene sat at the breakfast table with Nan’s family, eating eggs and cheese and bread, they thought of the Circle of Sounds and their plan to go there, which they had decided upon the night before. Nan spoke:

“Father, dear, ‘tis such a lovely day—the first truly warm day of spring. Could not Irene and I leave our studies for a holiday and look for thimbleberries? I’m sure there would be some in the thickets in the woods.”

“My daughters,” he said, (for he felt they were both his daughters) “you have both studied long and hard this past winter and I am pleased with your work. You may indeed take a holiday. Especially if you find some thimble-berries, for a thimble-berry pie!” And he smacked his lips in thought of that treat for the cobbler had rather a sweet tooth.

The girls packed a basket of food and taking a spare basket for the berries, headed off in anticipation of a fun day.

“Nan, I wish I knew why your father doesn’t want us to visit the wizard. I do so hate lying to him,” Irene said as she swung the empty basket back and forth.

“So do I,” said Nan soberly. “But he won’t tell us why he dislikes the wizard, so what can we do? If only he would come to the Circle of Sounds and hear and see for himself!"

Irene nodded her head in agreement and exchanged baskets with Nan for the rest of the walk. When the girls got to the clearing where Merle of Lots held his lessons, they saw no one there.

“How odd! Today is the appointed day, is it not?” Nan asked, looking about her.

“It is, and yet no one is here, although it is already past the meridian and all should be present. Perhaps something happened to the old wizard over the winter,” mused Irene.

“That is possible, I suppose, for it has been many months since we have been here. How sad! But at least we have a lunch to share and thimble-berries galore to pick—look!” Nan gestured at the bushes about them, heavily laden with the ripest thimbleberries they had ever seen.

“And so early, too! I really didn’t think we’d find any at all. Let’s pick them now and then enjoy some with our lunch!”

The girls put down their lunch and began to pick the berries. They talked and sang while they worked and soon their basket was overflowing with the juicy fruits.

“Nan, I don’t remember there being any thimble-berry bushes here before, do you?” asked Irene as she ate yet another handful.

“No, I don’t…I wonder how they got here? Perhaps they grew during the winter.”

“Bushes of any kind grow during the spring, silly, not the winter!” Irene smiled. “Well, ‘tis most strange.”

I put the bushes here to please you my ladies,” said a strong voice behind them.

“It’s the wizard!” cried Nan with delight.

“Mi’Lord, we were worried about you!” Irene said. “Why do you not hold class today?”

“But I shall hold class today—for the two most talented ladies in all of William Etté’s Valley,” said Merle with a flourish as he sat down between the two girls. “I have a special song to teach you.” He took out a thin, wooden reed and began to play a haunting melody upon it.

Nan and Irene began to get drowsy. They didn’t want to sleep, yet the music was so lovely, and the sun was so warm upon their backs. The last thing Irene saw (or thought she saw) before falling asleep was the thimbleberry bushes melting away.

How strange. Merle of Lots is surely a powerful wizard.

***

Nan awoke suddenly, aware that she was cold. She felt about her for the blanket on her bed, but her hand came into contact with rough wood. There was a creaking noise in her ears and she soon realized that she was in a wagon of some sort, and that night had fallen. Carefully, she looked about her. Irene lay beside her, still asleep. A man and a woman sat in the front of the wagon, which was being drawn by a poor excuse for a horse. Above her through the trees, Nan could see the stars. Nan carefully raised her head to see other wagons and caravans. With a sick horror, she realized what had become of them. They had been sold to a band of gypsies—the worst possible fate that could befall a girl.

Nan moved slowly; her wrists were tied together and lashed to the wagon, but her legs were free. Carefully she stretched her leg over to Irene and gave her a nudge. Irene moaned and stirred slightly. The woman looked back and Nan shut her eyes quickly. She heard some mumbling between the two people up front and then silence except for the creaking of the wheels and the wheezing of the horse.

Dear heavens! What will become of us? What will my father think?

 Nan shut her eyes against the tears that threatened to spill out and finally fell asleep.

When Nan awoke again, the caravan had stopped and the sun was high overhead.  Nan quickly looked over to Irene, who was now also awake. The fear in her eyes told Nan that she, too, realized their predicament. Nan noticed that she was no longer tied to the wagon and she sat up.

“Oh, Irene! What is going to happen to us? We must get away from here!” whispered Nan.           

“There is no escape—we are watched every minute and the gypsies greatly outnumber us,” answered Irene in a low voice. “I don’t know what we can do!”

A dirty gypsy girl brought some bread and cheese to the wagon. She smiled at them shyly. Nan tried to engage the girl in conversation, but the child only giggled and ran away.

“Ugh! This bread is moldy!” Irene threw it down in disgust.

“Well, I guess they figure they won’t be keeping us for long…look over there.” Nan pointed to a group of men huddled around a fire talking loudly. Every now and then, one of them would look over at the girls and grin.

“They do everything but smack their lips!” said Nan, tearfully. “Irene, we’ve got to get away from here!”

“Not yet. We’ll have to wait until dark; we’ll stand a better chance then.”

“What if they sell us before then?” asked Nan. “What if we’re separated?”

“I don’t know, Nan, I don’t know,” said Irene, reaching out and holding her friend’s hand.

Nan and Irene sat in the wagon for hours. The gypsies kept a close watch, but generally ignored them. Then, a boy came running into camp yelling something. The elders seemed very excited and started shouting orders. Everyone began to rush around the camp and two women came over to fetch Nan and Irene. They took them to a small tent.

“Now what?” said Irene.

“Perhaps that boy spotted someone in the woods,” said Nan. “Maybe it’s someone sent out to find us! Oh, Irene, we’ve got to make a break for it!”

But there wasn’t time. Two other women brought in hot water and helped the other two gypsies strip Nan and Irene. The two girls struggled and screamed, but the women were too strong for them. They forced them into the tubs of hot water and motioned them to wash themselves.

“As if we were—why we’re cleaner than they are!” fumed Irene.

Nan nodded tearfully. The girls finished washing and then dressed in the flimsy garments that the women gave them. They protested, but the women didn’t understand and only laughed, so the two girls gave up and reluctantly put on the clothing. Nan and Irene were both embarrassed by the immodesty of the garments. Irene’s was a coffee-colored skirt that was pulled up high on one side of the hip, exposing her fine white leg. A cream-colored, short-sleeved blouse so loose around the neckline that she threatened to expose her, completed the outfit. Nan was given a black skirt fashioned the same as Irene’s and a dark green blouse. The women tied ribbons around the girls’ necks and put bracelets on their arms. Then the women pulled out the band holding back Irene’s hair and undid Nan’s braids to let the hair fall freely. Irene and Nan looked at each other.

“Why, we don’t even look like ourselves!” said Nan in astonishment. “You look more like a gypsy than a princess, Irene.”

“So you do, Nan. Why did they do this?”

“My guess is that they want to pass us off as gypsies. They might have trouble selling us if it were known you are of noble birth. Oh, Irene, I’m so scared!”

There was a shout from outside and in response the women took firm holds on Nan and Irene and dragged them outside. They saw a large circle of men standing around a small platform. So that was what the boy had seen in the woods—not their rescuers at all, but men come to bid for them. The girls started to struggle harder, much to the amusement of the men. They were pulled onto the platform and released. Immediately, the men formed a tight ring around them, eyeing them greedily. Escape was impossible. For what seemed an eternity, the men examined the girls—poking, feeling, as they inspected their hair, eyes and even teeth!  Nan was slapped when she bit one of the men, and the other men laughed loudly. There was nothing for the girls to do but stand there, totally humiliated, as the men continued their inspection.

Finally, they seemed satisfied that they had had a good enough look and the bidding began—first for Irene, then Nan. The two girls couldn’t understand what was being said, but it was obvious that the bidding was fierce. Irene was finally handed down to a short, fat man with a bulbous nose and thick mustache. She began to cry as she was led to him. Nan prayed that she might be sold to the same man; at least then, they could stay together. But he seemed content with only Irene and did not even bid the second round. Nan was sold to a stocky man, young and not bad looking, but with a stench that made Nan want to faint.

At the end of the bidding, the women brought out wine and musicians began to play. The gypsies started to dance wildly around the fire. Their new owners took Nan and Irene away. Irene called out encouragement to Nan, but she had a sinking feeling that they would never see each other again.

Nan was dragged along a stony path to a waiting caravan in a clearing some distance from the rest of the tribe. Nan immediately discerned the man’s intentions and her horror grew. She knew she must do something quickly. Eyeing the path, she saw something that gave her an idea. She pretended to stumble and cried out in pain. She crouched low, moaning and rubbing her ankle. The man let go of her arm and bent down to her. In a flash, Nan grabbed a large rock and smashed it against the side of his head. He gave a short cry and fell to the ground. Nan looked around and saw that they were far enough from the dancing that her act had gone unseen. She dragged the man into the bushes as best she could and then set off in search of Irene.

Irene kicked and screamed all the way to a waiting wagon, where a plump woman got out and began to argue with the man. She seemed very angry that the man had bought Irene. The man seemed to be pointing out Irene’s virtues, but the woman was not to be appeased. Finally, he slapped her and shouting a few final comments, left to go back to the wine and dancing. The woman spat angry words at his back as she got up, then she turned to Irene. Irene was afraid that the women was going to hit her and cowered, but the woman only grabbed Irene’s arm and pulled her over to the other side of the wagon. A girl sat quietly stirring a pot of broth by the fire.

By her light hair and skin, Irene could see that the girl, who was about her own age, was not a gypsy. The woman spoke to the girl, who nodded and gave the stick to Irene, motioning her to keep stirring. The woman went over to the wagon and began to search for something. At last she found what she was looking for and brought it back to the fire. Irene almost screamed when she saw what it was—a small branding iron! Irene started to jump up, but the other girl grasped her firmly by the arm and pulled her back down. The woman stuck the iron into the glowing coals of the coals and went over to the wagon again. Irene covered her face and began to weep silently. Over her weeping she heard the girl next to her speak softly.

“Your friend waits beyond in the bushes. When the old hag returns, I will throw the hot soup at her and you will have time to run. Be quick.”

Irene gasped and looked at the girl who continued to stare placidly into the fire. Her blouse had slipped over one shoulder and Irene saw that she had been branded. She started to speak, but the old woman was returning. After a moment, the woman spoke to the girl by the fire and reached for the branding iron. The girl nodded silently and took the pot of steaming broth off the fire. Just as she started to set it down, she turned suddenly and flung it in the face of the gypsy. Irene wasted not a second, but scrambled away and towards Nan, who was now standing and shouting to her. She grabbed Nan’s hand and they began to race through the woods.

The woman’s screams brought the men running from the revelry. She cried out her story and the men set off in pursuit of the two girls. Nan and Irene thought they had a good head start, but already they heard footsteps behind them.

“Turn left at the boulder!” It was the girl—she had fled as well. As Nan and Irene turned the corner she caught up with them. “To the cave, hurry!” She passed them and led the way to a small cave partially hidden by hanging ivy. “Take my hand—quickly!”  Irene and Nan grabbed onto her and let her lead them through the dark passageway. Finally, she stopped, let go of the girls’ hands and began to grope for something. In the darkness, Irene and Nan heard the sound of two stones clicking together, and then suddenly there was light, and the girl stood there holding a crudely made torch.

“Can you see now? Follow me and be very quiet.”

“But—who…” began Nan.

“Shh! I must be able to hear if they are following,” said the girl and started to move down the tunnel. Nan and Irene quickly followed. After about an hour of walking, they heard the sound of running water. The tunnel opened up to a large cavern—a  lake lay before them and a small stream ran into one side.

“It’s safe to speak now. I don’t think we were followed. We were lucky.”

“Who are you?” asked Nan

“It is not important. We must follow the edge of the lake. Then another tunnel will lead us to the outside. Come.” She set off again.

“How did you know about this tunnel?” asked Irene.

“We have camped in these woods often, and I recently stumbled onto the cave while hunting. I had planned to try and escape tonight anyway, so I decided I might as well take you with me,” she said.

Nan asked many more questions, but the girl only answered with a shrug or a mumble. Finally, Nan gave up and fell silent. When they reached the outside, both girls almost cried with relief.

“It will soon be dawn. We have walked half the night. Why do you not both sleep now? Tomorrow, we will find your home,” said the mysterious girl. Nan and Irene were too tired to argue. They collapsed down upon the grass and fell asleep in each other’s arms almost at once.

***

The aroma of cooking meat awakened Nan and Irene. The girl was tending to pieces of rabbit on sticks, which she held over a small fire.

“Come and eat now. You must be hungry,” she said, offering two sticks of meat.

“Where did you get this?” asked Irene.

“I made a snare and caught him this morning. Not big, but better than nothing.”

“It’s delicious!” Irene chewed enthusiastically. “Where did you learn to hunt?”

“Eat,” said the girl. “Don’t talk.”

Nan and Irene looked at their rescuer. She was dressed as a gypsy, with long blondish hair that hung in loose curls about her somewhat dirty face. She was pretty, with a pert nose, dimples and bright eyes, but in need of a bath and new clothes. When they had finished eating, the girl finally spoke.

“Where is your home? We must figure out how to get you there quickly. It is not safe in the Woods of Will’s Son. Especially if word has reached the wizard, Merle of Lots, that you have escaped.”

“Merle of Lots?” exclaimed Nan.

“Was it he who sold us?” asked Irene.

“Yes, he does it often. It is how I was sold,” the girl scowled. “You’ll recall he never charges for his lessons. But he makes a tidy profit selling a student now and then to the gypsies. Now, where is your home?”

“In the Valley of William Etté,” said Irene.

“Then we are in luck. We can be there by nightfall if we hurry.”  She kicked dirt over the fire and started down a path to the woods. Nan and Irene found it hard to keep up with the girl’s pace and they asked often for rests. The girl would grant but a few, and pace nervously the while, looking about her carefully.

Just as nightfall was approaching, the three came to a rise that overlooked the valley.

“Now, I know where we are, Nan!” cried Irene with delight. “Come on, let’s run!”

“Wait!” said Nan and turned to their savior, “We are greatly in your debt. Will you not come to my family’s home and stay with us? My father would want to reward you properly.”

“Thank you, no. I am anxious to find a new place for myself.”

“But where will you go?” asked Irene. 

“I have always wanted to see what lies beyond the Hooded Mountains. I think I will go there. I can take care of myself.” The girl paused briefly. “Now, you’d best go.” And she turned and strode away.

“Wait! We don’t even know your name!”

“Kay!” she called back, as she ran swiftly into the woods.

“What did she say?” asked Nan. 

“I’m not sure,” said Irene. “I wish she had come with us.”

“So do I,” Nan said. “But let’s get home, Irene—I want to be home!” The two girls ran down the hill into the Valley and to the safety of their waiting friends and family.

 ***