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Defeating the Wolves of War by I.J. Noble

© I.J. Noble

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“Defeating the Wolves of War.”

Back in the mists of a more dangerous time, a new day was breaking over the Welsh Hills. Their craggy peaks scattered the early morning light into long enquiring fingers. As time flickered on and the sun rose in the sky, it sent daylight down into a darker, secret place.

The light had found its way down into the small hidden valley. This secluded place, the remains of a volcano, was surrounded on all sides by rugged high slopes. The steep sides had a scattering of gnarled ancient pines. Against the odds, the stunted trees had secured themselves on very tenuous footings. Scars infested the heights, where the weaker and more deformed trees, had been teased out by the prevailing westerly winds. In the centre of the long dead volcano, stood a well-crafted wooden stockade. Inside its protection around forty circular wooden huts were huddled together snugly. Ash-grey smoke rose slowly from the dying embers of yesterday’s fires. Through the centre of the village a shallow stream meandered over smooth pebbles. For a thousand years, the children of that village had amused themselves on hot summer days, cooling their feet and trying to catch sticklebacks between their chubby little fingers. The water that supplied the stream was borne from seven springs that bubbled out from the foot of the cliffs that encircled them.

This morning, shadowy will-of-the-wisp figures were rising from the stream, and drifting out onto the valley floor. Some of the ghost-like entities were being pulled into the warm smoke, which rose from the smouldering embers; the two entwining as they rose into the cool morning air. The sun’s rays made the twirling phantoms look as if they were dancing in its light. Apart from these mesmerising dancers, everything else in the valley was perfectly still.

Then in a beat of a butterfly’s wing the sleepy silence was shattered. Two cockerels screeched into life, their crowing was harsh and loud - they were clearly in competition to see who could crow the longest and loudest. In seconds the sleeping village was coming to life. The shadowy figures of its inhabitants began moving around, setting about the tasks of the new day.

A female figure appeared in a doorway, she hesitated there for a moment to stretch the sleep out of her old bones. She pulled her hooded cloak tightly around her, before making her way over to the fireside. From inside her cloak she produced a few strands of dried grass. Her hands showed all the signs of a hard-working life. She skilfully scrunched up the grass into a ball, then, kneeling by the fire, she began to blow softly on the grass as she held it close to the smouldering embers. In just a few moments the tinder dry grass burst into flame. As she continued to blow, the flame grew stronger, and the fire's red glow lit up her face. She was not a young woman - her weather-beaten face was another testament to that - but the years had etched warmth into her face, and her dark eyes looked calm and full of kindness. She continued to stoke up the fire, building the flame with bits of dry wood. But as she went about her work, dark eyes were studying her every movement.

When she was happy that the fire was truly lit, she returned to the hut - still oblivious to the fact that she was being watched.
“Merlin it’s time to get up, there’s a good boy.”

She returned to the fire carrying a metal pot and placed it on a crossbar that straddled the fire.
The flames she was nurturing were soon flickering around the pot. The old woman then sat herself down on the large tree trunk that half- encircled the fire. She sat deep in thought; her only movement was to occasionally stir the pot. She was so intent on the pot and her thoughts, that she never noticed the dark shape of her watcher skulking its way toward the hut. But the creature’s hungry eyes never lost sight of her for a moment. The dark shape stopped at the entrance to the hut to listen. After making doubly sure the old woman still had her back to him, with incredible stealth he silently slipped inside the dark hut.

Merlin pulled the large bearskin he was under tightly around him; he just needed five more minutes in the warmth of his bed. At that very same moment the dark shape used the opportunity to slip under the bearskin with him - being very careful not to let his damp fur touch Merlin’s skin. The creature waited for a moment, lying perfectly still not even daring to breath. When he was sure he had not been discovered, it moved up inside the bed. Its target was the boy’s face. Up it crawled, still being super careful not to touch its quarry. The creature was finding its way in the pitch-blackness by the sound of Merlin’s breathing. Up and up it crawled inch-by-inch, the creature’s heart was pounding ever harder with anticipation - he could already taste the boy on his tongue, but he knew he mustn’t make his move too soon, or he would lose the element of surprise.

He was so close now he could feel the boy’s hot breath on his face. But still he wasn’t close enough to pounce. Another few inches were squeezed out, and then finally he made his move. He thrust himself forward. But at that same moment Merlin caught a faint whiff of the animal’s bad breath. Merlin moved with lightning speed - but was just a moment to slow, he did have his hands around the animal's neck - but the assailant thrust out his long tongue. Merlin felt the hot slobber of it as it hit him full in the face. Before Merlin could push it away, the pest’s tongue hit him again; this time it slapped him in the eye.
Although Merlin had a firm grip on the dog’s scruff and was pushing him away, the excited animal slobbered him one more time, right on the tip of his nose. Now it was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for Merlin. The trouble was the puppy was very ticklish around the neck, and couldn’t bear to be touched there. It immediately started to growl. Merlin whispered to the pup that he should be quiet, or they would be found out.

The problem was, if Merlin let go of the puppy when it was in this kind of frenzy, sometimes it would give him a nip on the fingers.
“Shoosh, Gelert, or Mam’s going to hear you, shoosh boy.”
But the pup, as usual, was unable to control himself. The odd thing was that although he was growling, his tail was wagging like fury at the same time.

Merlin managed to turn the pup over in one movement, and had Gelert muzzled with one hand, preventing it from nipping his fingers. The dog fell silent, now the only noise was its tail hitting the bearskin like a drum. Merlin grabbed the tail and pulled the pup close into him. At that moment a shaft of light fell across his bed and his mother was standing in the doorway.
“Merlin if you don’t move now, you’ll have to go without your breakfast. And if you’re any later you’ll have Old Man to answer to, you know he doesn’t like it when you’re late. He’s bound to have a few words with you, and you won’t like that will you?”
No he wouldn’t, anything but that. He took his hand off the dog’s tail to pull back the bedclothes.
“Coming right away Mam.”

The tail began to wag again and gave three drumbeats before he could capture it again.
“Do you have that animal in that bed with you again?”
Merlin pretended he never heard her, and stayed silent.

“If your father finds that dog in your bed he’s not going to be happy with you.”

That was funny, because his dad had told him his Mam wouldn’t put up with the flea-bitten mutt in the bed. His dad had been away for the past three days. He had gone down to the sea on a fishing expedition. He had gone with all the other able-bodied men of the village. In another year Merlin would be old enough to go with them, and was excited by the thought of coming of age. The only trouble was, a year was such a long time.

“Hurry now, there’s a good boy, your cawl is ready for you.”
With that she left the hut.

Merlin loved cawl, the thick soup warmed him in the morning.
Merlin kicked back the furs and was pulling his tunic over his head when the dog took hold of the garment and began pulling it off again.

“Gelert, not now boy, I’ve got to go.”
But the pup must have thought his words were some kind of encouragement, and only pulled back the harder.
Merlin pulled back, and lifted the little dog off his feet; this only encouraged Gelert to grab a better hold on the garment. Merlin turned around trying to get hold of him, but of course the dog went round with him. Then Merlin tried jumping up and down hoping to shake Gelert off, and still he held on. Thankfully his mother called from just outside of the hut, and from the tone of her voice, it was clear all her patience had gone. The dog let go immediately and dived back under the bearskin to cower.
Merlin was out of the hut and still pulling on his clothes as he stumbled his way over to the fire.
Before sitting down he stopped to stretch, then to rub the sleep from his eyes.
Merlin was of average build and around 5'6" in height, and his eyes were as black as his jet black hair. His face and arms were as brown as a berry, obvious signs of an outdoor life. He wore a one-piece tunic, and a cloak with a hood. He wrapped the cloak tightly round himself, before sitting down next to his mother by the fireside.

Merlin’s mother filled a small wooden bowl with his cawl from the large pot that was heating on the fire. She held it out to him, but Merlin was staring into the fire, lost in his thoughts. His mother had to nudge his arm to prompt him to take the bowl from her. He took it without taking his eyes off the fire; it was as if the flames had him held in a trance.
"Merlin, eat," his mother prompted.
He began to eat, but was still mesmerised by the flickering flames that reflected in his eyes.
"Merlin!" his mother shouted in a sharp voice.
It was everything he could do to drag himself away from the warmth of the fire. But before he stood, he tucked the remaining contents of his bowl down behind the log, as he did every morning, where it was always met by an eager slobbering tongue.

Once he was on his feet his mother passed him something similar to a small satchel. He slung it over his shoulder quite automatically. He stood there for a moment, his attention still on the fire. His mother kissed him on the cheek, turned him around, and helped him on his way with a little push. With slow undetermined steps Merlin started down through the village. He hadn't gone more than ten feet, when his mother called for him to stop. He had forgotten his Shepherd’s crook.
"Here," she said, placing it in his hand, "I don’t know you'd forget your head if it wasn't stuck on."
Merlin gave her a smile, turned and was on his way again, now with a little more of a spring in his step. His mother watched until he turned a corner and was lost from her view. As Merlin walked on, a voice called from behind him,
"Merlin: Wait for me!"
Merlin didn’t turn or show any sign of recognition.

Running down the path behind him was a much younger boy. He was of a very slight build and only about 4'9’inches in height. On catching up, the boy threw his arm onto Merlin’s shoulder and greeted him in a cheery tone,
"Good morning!" he shouted into Merlin’s ear, having to jump and got purchase on Merlin’s shoulder to do so. Merlin still didn’t answer or show any other sign of recognition.

"Just because you're up and about doesn’t mean that you're awake. How many fingers am I holding up?" the boy asked, pulling himself up again on Merlin’s shoulder and thrusting a hand in front of Merlin’s nose.
"If you don't take your hand away Ifan, I'll bite your fingers off.”
"Haven't you had any breakfast, then?"
Merlin turned with lightning speed, and grabbed Ifan around his waist, and he began swinging the boy around. At that point another boy joined them.
"Is that little pest giving you trouble again?" the new boy asked, as he grabbed Ifan by his legs. The two of them then started to swing Ifan from side to side. The boy that had joined them was about the same age and size as Merlin, but that was where the similarities ended. Steffan had fair hair, and a few freckles, a warm smile, and a cheery disposition.
"What do you think we should do with him Steff?" asked Merlin.
"Let’s feed him to the pigs," said Steffan.
“Better not, he would be sure to give them a bellyache,” said Merlin.
"Let's give him the bumps," came another voice, and two other boys joined them.
One was a tall strong looking boy; this was Llewellyn, the chief’s son. Again he was very similar in looks to Merlin. The other was of normal height for his age, but he was as thin as a beanpole - this was Gwilym, the fastest runner of the team. The four boys grabbed a limb each.
"How many shall we give him?" asked Steffan the fair-haired boy.
"Let's give him 11 - one for every miserable year of his life," shouted Taliesin, who was about to join them. Ifan, who had been insisting he was almost 12 for the last few weeks, gave it no mention on this occasion.
Taliesin again was just above average height for his age. He, like Steffan, had a fair complexion; only he had blonder hair.
“Good idea,” said another boy who was joining them. This was Garnon the blacksmith’s son, he had a dark complexion and again was much the same in height as Merlin, but because he was stout it made him look shorter then he was - he might not have been very fast on his feet - but he was already stronger than some of the men in the village.
Ifan shouted for mercy, but it fell on deaf ears.

They tossed him as high into the air as they could, without actually letting him go. Then they let him drop almost to the ground, only holding him back at the very last moment, so he only had a very light contact with the ground.
The noise of the boy’s laughing and cheering, mixed with Ifan’s joyful screams, brought all the village dogs running and barking excitedly, adding to the din.
Ifan had 14 bumps in all - because on getting to 11, they decided to give him one for luck. Then Gwilym said 13 was an unlucky number, so he had to have one more. Counting wasn’t one of Gwilym’s strongest attributes.
Ifan had said - before stopping to think of the consequences, that twelve came after eleven. So they were back to thirteen being an unlucky number, so poor old Ifan, by his own doing, had to have another bump.

Chapter two

After the bumps were given things quickly settled down - even the dogs stopped barking.
“We’re in trouble now,” Merlin said, coming to his senses, “we’d better run.”
Everyone suddenly realized it. They collected up their things and ran as fast as their legs would carry them. This got the dogs excited again and they started barking. Merlin tried to encourage Gelert to go back home, but the dog was far too caught up in the moment to listen.

When the Shepherd-boys got to the gates of the stockade they set about their tasks in double quick time. Merlin and Llewellyn opened the gates. The other boys gathered the sheep from their pens and drove them through the gates. Merlin and Llewellyn led the way down the well-worn track. They stopped for a moment on seeing two dark figures walking to meet them. The two boys looked to each other for courage.

The boys knew these dark shapes only too well, and feared them. First came Dog. A dog he was - and it was his only name. Dog was a big animal, as tall as a Irish wolfhound, and as stout as a bullmastiff, and he was as black as night - although his most striking feature were his bright blue eyes. The dogs that had followed them down through the village - barking and completely out of control, turned yelping on seeing Dog bounding in their direction. Merlin willed Gelert to run and prayed he wouldn’t be so daft as to have a face off with Dog. But he needn’t have worried; Gelert was well in the lead, and putting as much distance as he could between himself and Dog. The animal had no time for anything, or anyone else, other then his master. Merlin had tried to befriend Dog with gifts of food, but the animal ignored it and him. Once the other dogs had disappeared back into the stockade, Dog returned to his master’s side. Dog’s master came in the sinister form - known to all as the Old Man.

The Old Man wore a long dark cloak that covered him from head to toe. The only things visible from within the cloak, at that distance, were the tip of his large crooked nose. The nose poked out of the hood like an accusing finger. The other thing was a disfigured, blue-veined hand. The hand had very long bony fingers, with two-inch nails, they curled like an eagle’s claws around his staff. The staff was no ordinary Shepherd’s staff. It was also a battle staff. There was an axe on the top that was forged into the shape of a dragon’s head. Its most striking feature were its eyes, two large rubies that gave the head a very sinister look. The deep red colour of the oval eyes seemed to burn into the onlookers mind. The dragon’s ears were little axes. The back of its head was formed into a sharp curved blade. The body was serpentined and had one large spike at its centre. It had a large dragon’s talon crafted into its base. And of course it was also a walking aid, which looked very much as if it was essential the Old Man’s mobility.
He was so bent over that he only looked about 4 foot tall when he walked. Every part of his body seemed to be twisted or deformed. His back looked badly hunched, and one leg looked shorter than the other.

The boys had stopped walking now, and were standing bunched together, as the Old Man drew closer. Ifan squeezed himself into the centre of the throng - deep down he wanted to make a run for it. He was not alone in having those feelings. If one of them had broken rank - it was more than probable that they would all scatter. But they stood fast behind Merlin.
The Old Man and Dog did not stop coming at them until they were only inches apart. The Old Man glared at each of them in turn - his ice-blue eyes seemed to freeze them to the spot - and if they managed to look away, they almost always found themselves looking into the red piercing eyes of the dragon’s head, it unnerved them all.

This was not the first time they had been late. When he got this close they could see his ghostly- white wrinkled face. But what always grabbed their attention was a large dragon tattoo running from his forehead down his cheek.
Ifan, who thought he would be out of the line of fire, if he tucked himself into the middle of the bunch - found himself looking right into Dog’s face. The dog’s foul breath made his eyes water, and judging from the slobber running down the dog’s jowls, Ifan imagined it was salivating over the thought of eating him.
"You're late," the old man scolded them.
An uneasy silence followed as Merlin struggled to swallow the lump of dry saliva that had suddenly manifested itself in his mouth; it went down with a clunk, which everyone heard.
"I’m very sorry, but we had some chores that needed doing."
Merlin had dug deep to find the courage to speak. It was a weak excuse and Merlin knew that the Old Man didn't believe it, but it broke the suffocating silence.

The Old Man let out a high-pitched growl and turned to walk away. It was such an unexpected movement, that Gwilym and Steffan stepped back in fright and fell over Taliesin and Garnon. The four went tumbling to the ground. The Old Man turned back, the boys felt as if his ice-blue eyes were burning into them.
"Children, always messing about!" he scolded them once more, before he turned away again. Dog also gave them a fearsome growl. Then the Old Man started mumbling under his breath. This was something new and worrying for the boys.
As soon as his back was turned the boys were back on their feet, and looking at each other accusingly, each blaming the other. Merlin motioned for them to hurry; Steffan and Taliesin were still pushing each other, with Llewellyn desperately trying to keep them apart - as they followed the muttering man. He kept up talking to himself until they got to the entrance of the cave. The cave was the only safe way in and out of the valley. The other way was to risk life and limb climbing the steep cliffs. It was that danger that helped to keep them safe from the evils of the outside world. The cave was also the way the stream got out. This was another unique part of the village’s safety.

The boys first and foremost responsibility was to lead the sheep out along the stream’s bed. They had to keep the sheep in the stream for quite some distance. This distance varied every single day. Every day they changed the place where they let the sheep out to graze. They did this so that their footprints could not be followed back to the village. This precaution had kept the village safe from the Romans for hundreds of years.

At the entrance to the cave there was a small gate that held back the sheep. The sheep were never allowed through until everything had been checked on the other side; it was only opened when it was safe to let the animals through. Merlin and Llewellyn followed the Old Man down into the darkness of the cave. The only thing to guide them was the sound of trickling water and the soft draw of the old man’s gammy leg being dragged behind him.

They turned a bend and the welcome light from the narrow little entrance cut through the darkness. From there they had to step into the stream to get through the final few feet. This was where the Old Man usually stopped and let Dog go on ahead on his own. Dog would then scout out the area for wolves and bears that sometimes hunted in the hills. They would then wait for him to come back to give the all clear. On a few occasions he had come back covered in blood, some was his own, but most belonged to whatever it was he’d been fighting with. Once he dragged a bear back in with him and spent the rest of the day chomping down on it.
But today was different, and to their surprise the Old Man continued going through, he and Dog stopping at the entrance for a moment to make sure it was safe to step out into the open. The Old Man called the Merlin and Llewellyn through. Dog bounded off down through the stream; his huge paws throwing water high into the air as he went. In a few minutes he was back, it seemed they were safe.

“Bring the sheep through,” the old man said to Llewellyn, directing him back into the cave with a wave of his staff. Normally it was the Old Man himself that gave that order to the boys when dog returned into the cave.
Llewellyn was quick to obey, and disappeared back into the cave. Then the old man had Dog follow Llewellyn with another wave of his staff.

Merlin had never been alone with the Old Man before, and he didn’t think it was by chance. The Old Man was going to have more words with him, he was sure. Merlin wondered what else he had done wrong. He wished that Gerwyn was still in charge; Gerwyn had been the leader of the boys before Merlin. He had come of age and was now hunting with the men. Now he was the leader of the boys -although he was only a few weeks older then Llewellyn. In fact there was only three months between the six of them. Ifan was a lot younger, the baby of the team. Gerwyn had always spoken with the Old Man. Merlin knew Gerwyn had been afraid of the Old Man and he used to tremble when the Old Man spoke to him - now he was in the firing line. The moments ticked away.
Where were they? What was taking them so long? He wished they'd hurry. The old man had his eyes fixed on him, and it was making him feel very uncomfortable. Merlin looked away, trying to concentred his mind on doing his job, He scanned the landscape for anything unusual, as he did every morning. But he was always being drawn back to eye contact with the Old Man. The Old Man had never stared at him like this before. Sometimes he had given him a disapproving look, but nothing like this. Where were the others? It felt as if he'd been waiting for them forever.

Merlin’s mind drifted back to the time when he and the other boys were about twelve. On some autumn evenings, when the nights were drawing in the men of the village would go down to near the cave entrance. They would sit around a fire to talk and tell stories. This had long been a favourite place for younger boys to meet and play in the daylight hours. The large tree trunks that surrounded the fire were a good place to build up muscle and balance.

On very special nights, once or twice a year, the Old Man would agree to talk - there was always a buzz around the village that day. The excitement was too much for Steffan, and he instigated a plan with the others to sneak down there early, hid close by so that they could listen in. Merlin remembered the excitement building in him as the darkness drew in around them, Once the fire was lit there was no way out of there without being seen, they were trapped there until the end of the meeting. As the fire grew and its light rose and fell with the flicker of the flame, the atmosphere grew, and as more and more men arrived, their chatter lifted the boy’s excitement even more.

Then without warning the talking stopped, and the only sound was the crackling of the fire, as it sent sparks high into the air. The very air seemed to have come alive with anticipation. Then they saw the Old Man he had just seemed to appear out of thin air. The fire’s light cast his shadow on the rocks over the heads of the boys. The Old Man was standing tall and straight, looking twice his normal height. He greeted the surrounding company, but was talking too softly for the boys to hear him clearly. Steffan was the first to break cover, without a word to the others he was crawling towards the fire. Llewellyn was quick to follow, then Gwilym and Taliesin. Garnon looked to Merlin, what choice did he have, they had to follow. The boys crawled in behind the tree trunks and were looking into the circle from between the sitting men. The Old Man was talking.

“I entered this forest, when I say forest it was unlike any woodland I had ever seen. I can only describe it as a wall of green, and I soon found out to my cost that this was a very hostile place. There were plants of the like I had never seen, some of their flowers stank of rotting flesh. Other plants had long sharp poisonous looking thorns attached. They ripped at me all the while, and the animals that I only had the odd fleeting glance at, were even more bizarre. But the worst things were the bloodsucking worms and insects that dropped on me from the trees. I moved through the forest all that day and it only grew thicker. I then climbed the highest tree, a tree so tall it rose above the clouds. I saw from there, that there was no way through, the forest went on further then the eye could see. I knew then that I would have to spend the night in that terrible place.

I built my fire just as the darkness ate everything around me. Then I was tormented by the sounds of the night, my imagination tried to put pictures to the deafening howls and pitiful screams, there seemed to be death in action all around me. And there were the eyes - millions of them cought in my fire’s light, there seemed to be more eyes shining back at me than there ware stars in a cloudless sky.
I put my back to a tree and vowed not to sleep or let the fire go out. Whatever the creatures were I felt that the moment the fire went out, they would close in and eat me. The night was long and I was very tired, and I did drift into sleep.”

The Old Man sat down on the ground and placed his back up against a log and placing his staff across his knees.
“I woke feeling I had only slept for a few moments. But when I went to stoke the fire, I found that I couldn’t move, something had wrapped itself three times around me, and it was pinning me to the tree. My axe was in my hands, but I couldn’t move my arms, I struggled with all the strength I could muster, but I was being held too tightly. A few moments later I found that it was getting hard to breathe, whatever it was that had trapping me, was very strong. Then in the fires dying light I saw movement out of the corner of my left eye, I turned and came face to face with a monstrous snake, its head was bigger than a dragon’s. The beast looked me in the eyes, then ran its long forked tongue over my face, it seemed to quickly decide that it liked the taste of me, and all the time its coils were tightening around me, I thought then that my ribs were going to break. I was in so much pain - that I was almost willing it to sink its fangs into me - hoping the poison would destroy me quickly.

But when the snake opened its huge mouth, I quickly realised it was going to swallow me alive.”
The Old Man opened his hands to show how big the mouth had become.
“The snake then began to squeeze its mouth over my head, with the intention of eating me whole.”
The men, who had been silent up until that point, let out a collective show of horror, the boys were absolutely mesmerised.
The Old Man continued to use his hands to demonstrate how the snake began to devour him. He pulled his hands down over his head.
“Its breath was as foul as a rotting corpse and it took my breath away. As its mouth slipped down over my head it got very dark. I felt its tongue run over my face again and I bit it. The snake tensed immediately squeezing me all the harder. I wanted to let go and cry out, but resisted - I knew I was hurting it and was not going to let go. I bit down the harder and again the snake tensed again, I groaned through my teeth, and bit down again - even though I knew it was going to punish me again. With its head covering my nose and mouth I was being denied the little air that my lungs could hold. I bit again, I wanted to inflict as much pain on it as I could before I passed out. The beast then began shaking its head violently. My lungs were burning now for the want of air.
The world then began to turn in my head, with the last drop of my being I bit hard again - the tongue came away, and I could taste its blood in my mouth. My thinking at that moment was that it might well be eating me, but it would never forget how it had lost its tongue. Then to my surprise the snake loosened its grip and pulled its mouth off me. The beast then looked me in the eye again and hissed its hate at me - in doing this it splashed my face in its blood, and as I sucked in air, the blood spilled down into my lungs, chocking me and making me vomit. By the time I had gathered myself and had readied my axe, the snake was out of the fires dying light. I quickly saw to the fire, and now made a larger flame than before. The sounds of forest seemed to grow ever louder as I patrolled my small clearing. The night was so long I was becoming afraid that daylight would never return to that place. I walked around the fire not daring to stop for a moment.”

And with that he began to walk around the fire, axe at the ready, and mimicking the sounds he had heard, two then three times he went around, but the fourth time when he got on the other side of the fire, the heat’s shimmering haze seemed to be devouring him, and it was taking him a long time to reappear on the other side, as the boys looked for him through the flames - something roared in the dark behind them. Their hearts leapt, they turned to see a dragon with the brightest ruby red eyes coming at them.
There was no time for going around the sitting men - the boys went scattering through the men shouting “dragon”, they had never run so fast in their lives, and didn’t stop until they were home in their beds - where they where supposed to have been all along.
Of course the next day they concluded that they had been tricked - the Old Man must have known they were there all along. It took weeks for the boys to settle out of the nightmares that plagued them after the incident. They had kept well away from the Old Man after that.

Merlin was pulled out of his thoughts
when to his alarm, the Old Man started walking towards him. Merlin’s heart leapt. He wondered what it was he'd done to upset him. The Old Man stood beside him for a few moments, without saying a word. Merlin stood perfectly still, his heart racing now. He was that nervous he found he couldn't swallow again. But not wanting to show his fear, he smiled at the Old Man politely, to Merlin’s utter surprise and amazement the Old Man smiled back. Well at least he did something with his face that Merlin took for a smile.
Merlin had overheard the men of the village tell stories about him - and Merlin believed that even the men were still scared of him. Merlin’s mother and father had agreed that the Old Man looked the same as he did when they were young - and their parents had said the very same thing. It seemed he had kept the people of the village safe for hundreds of years with his magical powers. He was also known as the night watchman, because he looked after the village as it slept. Every dusk he and Dog would take up their place down at the mouth of the cave, where they would stay until dawn. They did this summer and winter, 365 days a year. Merlin had seen them appear at the cave entrance looking like ghosts covered from head to toe in frost crystals. Merlin was sure it must have been magic that had kept them alive - because he thought no mortal man could have survived that cold.
Rumour was that he hadn’t slept in 400 years. One of the many stories told about him was that when he was younger, he had killed seven men who had set about him. They had intended robbing him, but he had killed them with his bare hands.
When Merlin was younger the older boys of the village had told him to be careful because the Old Man ate little boys and girls alive - but he didn't believe that any more - kids stuff, he told himself reassuringly. But there was no doubt that the Old Man had magical powers - he'd heard his father talking to the other men about him, and it wasn’t just the Old Man that scared the villagers. They were certainly wary of the witches who lived in the caves at the top of the village.

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