Minerva was almost home when she was violently snatched. The man got out of the car a couple of yards in front of her. ‘Excuse me, lady, I’m lost, can you help me, please?’ His smile was broad, his accent American, his pungent aftershave expensive. ‘This darned budget rental doesn’t have satellite navigation.’ He waved ruefully at the vehicle.
It was dark, and Minerva was nervous, the leafy trees stopped most of the streetlight from reaching the pavement. Weary after her long evening shift at the hospital, she just wanted a bath and her bed.
She stopped in front of the well-dressed man eyeing him cautiously; manners and her upbringing dictated she help the lost stranger. ‘Where do you want to get to?’
‘If you could just show me where I am on this street map, I’ll be able to find my way.’ He spread the map on the car roof ‘It’s this driving on the left side of the road, it sure gets me all confused.’ He shrugged, scratched his head and pointed to the map.
Minerva bent forward to study the map. Suddenly the man reached around her, flung open the car’s rear door. He grabbed her by the back of her neck and thrust inside before she could react. The man continued to push forcing her face into the seat, it’s fabric crushing her lips against her teeth. She felt the sharp sting of a knife at her throat.
‘Scream and your dead, lady.’ The voice was deadly calm. Minerva’s thrashing legs were bundled into the vehicle, forcing her face along the seat's hard fabric. A knee pressed hard into the small of her back as her arms were dragged behind her. She heard the rasping click of metal as handcuffs ratcheted closed. She arched her back trying to lift herself and scream but the sharp sting came on her neck again. ‘Don’t push me, lady, I will do it.’ Then her mouth was taped over, and her ankles cable tied. She was shoved violently down between the seats. It took only seconds before she was being was driven away her mind reeling. ‘Just be a good girl and no harm will come to you,’ the man said.
The terrified Minerva doubted that.
After a long drive, they stopped. The driver’s door opened and slammed shut. Minerva felt the rush of the chilly night air as she was dragged from the car onto cold tarmac. The kidnapper closed the car door then lifted her with ease. She saw the stars briefly spin above her as the man whirled then carried her down two flights of concrete stairs to a dungeon-like cellar, there he freed her hands and feet. ‘Make yourself comfortable, you may be here for some time.’
She tore the tape from her mouth ‘why are you doing this to me? She asked, her voice trembling. What do you want? Please, my family…’
He made no reply as he turned and left, locking the door.
‘Why?’ she screamed after him, ‘why?’
Over many long hours, Minerva called out repeatedly only to hear her voice echo around the concrete walls of the cellar. A plastic garden chair, a camp bed, five litres of drinking water and a bucket were the only comforts in the room. It was bitterly cold. She shivered as the chill struck upwards from the bare concrete floor through her thin-soled shoes. She sagged onto the bed and gave way to tears.
Time dragged by. How long she’d been held she had no way of knowing. Was it a day? Two days? The man had taken her watch, her handbag and phone. There were no windows only a single cabin light burned high in the ceiling giving off an anaemic light. Would she die here?
Through sheer exhaustion, Minerva sank into a nightmare filled half-sleep. How long she slept she didn’t know but on waking she felt a little calmer. She drank some water and tried again to figure out what the man wanted. She had no money to speak of and her father wasn’t rich. That ruled out kidnap for ransom. The man had not molested her, so she wasn’t being held for sexual purposes, at least she hoped not. Anyway, she thought, I’m forty and a bit overweight, there are much younger, prettier women than me he could have grabbed.
What worried Minerva most was that she had seen his face, so her captor wasn’t concerned about her recognising him in the future. That indicated that there wouldn’t be a future for her.
She called out again, ‘help, is anyone there? Please, help me.’ She pounded the door with her fists and feet until she was exhausted. She stepped back, curling her hands into tight balls until her nails dug grooves in her palms. Her heart sank as despair flooded through her. It was hopeless and her throat was raw from shouting. She took another drink of water then sat in the chair. Think, Minerva, think, she told herself. He had a knife, if he wanted you dead, he would have killed you straight away. If sex had been his motive, surely, he would have raped you before now?
She concluded that she was in the hands of a madman. If he came back, could she talk him into freeing her? You’re a mental health nurse, you have skills she told herself. Was there anything in the room she could use as a weapon? She searched again. The water was in plastic bottles, her lavatory bucket was plastic, the bed was canvass and plastic with one threadbare blanket. The chair was lightweight.
Searching the ceiling Minerva noticed a small object high in one corner. Curious, she dragged the chair over and stood on it. She couldn’t reach the object but recognised it as a small camera. So, he was watching her. Minerva felt disgusted as she had recently used the toilet bucket. Could this be what he got off on? Was he sitting somewhere watching her, masturbating, enjoying her terror? Would he watch as she slowly starved to death? She shuddered, pushing the thought aside.
Stepping off the chair, she moved the bucket directly under the camera where she thought she’d be out of shot. This might bring him back she thought then at least she’d have a chance to talk to him. She knew how to talk to the mentally disturbed.
It was half a chance, but it was better than no chance at all. Then it occurred to her that if he could see her then maybe he could hear her, too.
Minerva composed herself and thought hard for a few minutes. ‘Hello? Mr American, can you hear me? I bet you can.’ She paused forcing a smile. ‘What do you want with me? Money? Sex?’ She pushed her breasts towards the camera, ‘why don’t you came around and we’ll talk, eh? I’m not an unreasonable person, I’ll cooperate with you.’ She smiled again. Could she remember any of those womens’ self-defence tactics she’d learned two years ago? She regretted now not keeping up with the classes but shift work had made it difficult. Would she have the courage to try and surprise him? She doubted it but it was another frail thread of hope.
She spoke again. ‘Are you sure it’s me you want? My name is Minerva Moonwort, I’m a nurse, I have no money and my family are not wealthy’ she spread her hands in appeal. ‘I have a boyfriend who’ll have reported me missing by now. You know there are cameras everywhere, even doorbells have them these days. She paused again taking a deep breath, fighting her rising anger and frustration. ‘There’s bound to be a camera that caught your face and car registration somewhere. You’ll be caught for sure. Do you want to spend long hard years in prison? Let me go now and I won’t report it.’ Her voice was edged with desperation now, she was breaking down and she knew it but to the floor. ‘Let me go you lousy bastard’ she screamed.
It had been a long and busy day; the Museum of Magic and Mystery had been closed for only five minutes when a knock came on the door. Marcus Moonwort sighed and went to see who was there. Probably some visitor who had left a camera or phone behind he thought.
Marcus saw the tall man waving through the glass doors and knew immediately he was not a previous visitor. He also knew the man was American. Who but an American tourist would dress in a loud red tartan jacket, bright green tartan trews and two-toned shoes? Taken in by this outlandish apparel, Marcus failed to notice that the man’s broad smile didn’t reach his cold eyes.
Marcus opened the door. ‘I’m afraid we’re closed, sir. We reopen at ten tomorrow morning if you’d care to call back.’
‘Aw, I’m sure sorry to be a nuisance, sir’ the man said, looking anything but sorry ‘but I’m going home tomorrow, and I just need to see the exhibit of Merlin’s bones for my research, take a photo and ask a couple of questions. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes. I’ll even pay £100 for the privilege.’
Marcus hesitated, there was something about the man he didn’t like. Was it the false bonhomie or his brash wallet-waving approach? He knew a lot of Americans approached things quite differently to the average British person. Was he allowing prejudice to cloud his judgement? The quiet season would soon be upon him soon and, like most small private museums, making ends meet in winter was difficult.
Yet still he hesitated ‘I’m afraid I still have a lot to do before I can retire, sir, sorry.’ He went to close the door, but the man put his hand in the doorframe.
‘Please, sir, my editor will crucify me if I don’t complete my article. I’ll pay £200. Just five minutes, please.’ The man sounded desperate as he drew out a well-stuffed wallet and displayed its contents.
Marcus relented ‘very well, but I must insist on keeping the visit brief.’ He ushered the man inside and led the way past the Egyptian mummified cats and the collection of African witch doctors’ masks to stop at an unremarkable showcase. ‘There’s nothing much to see I’m afraid, just an earthenware urn and an old scroll. Who do you write for by the way?’
‘Oh, sorry, my name is Silas Limner, they call me Sly. I write for the magazine Modern Moral Magic.’ The man held his hand out.
The hairs on Marcus’s neck stood up as he gingerly shook the offered hand The man was lying. He knew of most American publications; indeed, he had contributed articles to most of them, yet he’d never heard of this one. Also, the name Limner was an obvious anagram of Merlin. His disbelief registered on his face prompting Limner to act.
The Obsidian knife pulled from his belt gleaming dull black in the weak light. It flashed to within a half inch for Marcus’s throat. ‘If you’ll open the case Mr Marcus Moonwort, I’ll have a closer look.’
Marcus regained some of his composure ‘Oh, dear, not another fool who thinks these few sorry bones carry the secret of eternal life and wealth?’
Limner sneered sarcastically, ‘they do, Moonwort, or should I call you Father Aiden Magnus? You are the reincarnation of the medieval Priest, and the guardian of the bones, aren’t you?’
Marcus realised he was in serious trouble. There had been others in previous lifetimes who had tried to steal the bones, but Limner was in a different league. The others had been fools who fancied themselves as druids and had little or no magical experience. He’d detected them immediately and foiled them easily. This fellow, whoever he was, had researched the bones, and knew the significance of the scroll. He had disguised his intentions long enough to slip past his guard. The obsidian knife told its own story. With it, Limner could end his present incarnation long before it was due. The man was a serious dark magician.
Limner forced Marcus to open the showcase and remove the urn and scroll. Upstairs in his private quarters Marcus was made to sit in an armchair. He could feel the forcefield coming off the American now as the man dropped his disguise spell.
Marcus tried to relax, breathing deeply, he couldn’t fight the man physically for he was far too powerfully built. Magically he could defeat him but not with the man’s advantage of knife and physical strength. Unless he could trick this man, he’d have to sacrifice himself to prevent Limner gaining and misusing the secrets of the scroll bringing untold harm into the world as he himself had once done.
Without a word Limner took out his phone, hit a few buttons then showed Marcus the screen. To his horror Marcus saw his granddaughter Minerva sitting on a camp bed weeping. ‘She’s my prisoner Moonwort and unless you cooperate, I shall kill you and leave her to die of thirst and starvation.’ He laughed, a harsh, humourless sound. ‘I have placed a cloaking spell on her dungeon, she will never be found.’
Marcus looked defeated, he had loved the children and grandchildren of all his many incarnations but of all of them Minerva’s soul was the most beautiful. A tear fell from his eye.
‘I take it you want me to interpret the scroll for you?’
‘Of course, and you will, too, or both you and your Minerva will die. I have researched these relics for years now and I will not be denied.’
Marcus looked into Limner’s staring eyes ‘Do you think you’re the only one who has tried to steal the bones? To abuse their power?’ He smiled, ‘you’re a fool Limner, and unless you turn away from your folly now you will find nothing but disaster awaits you.’
‘A nice try Father, but I know the key to finding Merlin’s skull lies in owning the bones. Once the skull is mine, I shall be the most powerful man who ever lived.’
Marcus grimaced then spoke rapidly ‘If you really have studied Merlin then you’ll know he had a lover Viviene whom he taught all he knew. Once she had his knowledge, she stole his staff and other magical treasures. This weakened him and to make matters worse she poisoned him before betraying his to his enemies.’
‘I know all that you old fool the American snapped. ‘The druids dismembered him with this very knife instead of burning him.’ Limner flourished the weapon. ‘They buried the pieces of him in several distant places to prevent his soul from ever entering the shadow world.’ Limner wore an amused smile ‘they even boiled the flesh off his skull in his own cauldron with a great ceremony then used it in rituals of power.’
‘And do you know what became of it.’ Marcus asked.
‘Viviene stole it along with Merlin’s cauldron when the druids excluded her from their rituals. She performed a curse on King Arthur not knowing that the sword Excalibur held powerful Magic. The curse rebounded on her driving her mad. She buried the treasures somewhere when she realised that she was dying.’
Marcus slowly clapped his hands mockingly. ‘You have done well so far Mr Limner, but Viviene put a powerful cloaking spell on the burial site. Many have looked but none have found it.’
Limner guffawed ‘I already own Merlin’s staff and with that and these bones I shall find it. I discovered your present incarnation and whereabouts with it Father. With the aid of the thigh bone and the hand to point the way, I shall find it.’
Marcus nodded solemnly, his face stern. ‘I know you’ll kill me, Limner, but what about my Granddaughter? She has no knowledge of these things. She cannot harm you.’
‘She is nothing to me Father Magnus, show me how to use the scroll and I will free her.’
‘How do I know you’re telling the truth?’
‘It will be child’s play to make her forget and release her. She’ll be found wandering bemused. It will be put it down to stress and overwork.’
Marcus sighed and sank back in his chair ‘so be it.’ he said in a resigned tone. ‘You want to know the secrets of the bones and I shall tell you, but it will not work out how you expect it to.’
Limner spread the scroll out on the floor ‘I know Merlin used the language of the old Britons to write his spells then he encoded them. You have had many lifetimes to decipher them, and I know you did, Father and that’s how you became rich.’
‘As you see I am no longer rich or powerful. I gave up those follies with my first life. True riches are love and contentment. When I left the monastery, I did indeed use the bones to my advantage.’ Marcus sighed, ‘the wealth and power I acquired became a monstrous burden to me. They attracted jealous men, false women, the greedy and evil doers of every kind.’
Limner’s face twisted into a sardonic smile ‘I’ll settle for riches and power, Father. My true love is wealth, and my contentment lies in in power. Now, show me, or I will kill you and leave your granddaughter to rot.’ He pricked Marcus under his chin with the obsidian knife drawing blood to emphasise his threat, his eyes cold.
Marcus spent the next hour patiently showing Limner how to read the code. ‘There is only one part that is not clear and that’s these symbols here.’ He pointed to the bottom of the scroll ‘They can be interpreted as requesting that the magic helps you or commanding it to help you.’
‘Which did you do?’
‘I commanded it.’
‘Of course you did, that’s why it worked for you. One has to be masterful with magic, and now...’ Limner drew back the knife to thrust it into Marcus’s heart.
‘Taking a lot on trust aren’t you Limner?’ Marcus smiled calmly making no attempt to defend himself. ‘Kill me and find that I’ve lied to you or that there is something you cannot make work, then who do you turn to if I’m dead?’
Limner hesitated; his victim was right. He picked up the thigh bone and touched Marcus on his head with it, muttering an incantation. ‘Now you are paralysed, you can still answer my questions but lie and your granddaughter will suffer.’
A circle of power was drawn on the floor and Limner stepped into it and sat cross-legged; his eyes closed. and he began to chant. For an hour he continued, seemingly without result then almost imperceptibly, the circle started to get light. The light turned pale blue and grew in intensity as Limner raised his arms, speaking in tongues. The bone trembled; the hand bones slowly came together to form a skeletal hand.
‘Bring me the skull of Merlin, I command you’ Limner roared.
‘Don’t use the skull, Limner, you have not the knowledge, you don’t know its power.’ Marcus was ignored as the magician repeated his order in an even louder voice, shaking with passion.
From a curtained alcove at the end of the room there came a low moan and the curtains parted. The skull floated across the room to settle in the circle in front of Limner.
‘So, the skull was not lost, you’ve had it all this time and not used it. You are a fool Moonwort.’
‘You are the fool Limner. turn back before it’s too late.’
Milner picked up the scroll and began the incantation of power. From the skull’s gaping eye sockets wraiths of grey smoke appeared and circled the hand picking it up. The hand went to Limner’s throat and gripped it.
‘No, Merlin, please, do not kill the man. Will you not give him a chance as you once did for me?’
The hand relaxed but stayed in place. Limner now looked terrified, both his hands clasped the bony hand, but he was powerless to move it. ‘Do something Moonwort, I’ll share power with you, I’ll make you rich beyond Croesus, Stop the hand, please.’
Marcus took a deep breath and shook himself free. As I said, Limner, I commanded the magic, making the same mistake as you. One asks the magic humbly, that’s the secret, Limner, humility, for only the humble are fit to use it.’ Marcus walked around the circle regarding Limner before he spoke again. ‘After I was tortured for my greed and stupidity, I learned humility. I begged forgiveness. I was reborn as guardian of the bones. I live with love in simple contentment which is the true rich life. Around the age of ninety I hide the bones and pass peacefully into my next incarnation. My wives and children live normal, happy lives to the end of their days.’
‘Please,’ the terrified magician said ‘I’ll learn humility, I’ll release you granddaughter, I swear. Please.’
‘It isn’t in my power Limner all I can do is ask.’ Marcus closed his eyes and mumbled a pagan prayer. Merlin’s voice came into his head. ‘You, Marcus, are the appointed keeper of my bones because you truly saw the error of your ways and mended them. This man has murdered many. His intention was to kill you and leave your Minerva die a slow miserable death.
Marcus watched in fascinated horror as the hand slowly squeezed the life out of Limner. The air grew cold, a whirlwind blew briefly in the circle. Limner’s body was consumed by a cold blue flame and turned to dust which was carried away in the vortex.
On an abandoned industrial estate, a small earthquake occurred. A cellar door was shaken open, and a young woman walked free.
Marcus’s Museum of Magic and Mystery acquired a new artifact that night, it was an obsidian knife labelled as once belonging to the druids who murdered Merlin.