Night fell across the forest, tree by tree. A rising moon shone through the tangled branches, and one by one the creatures of the day slipped to their silent beds. In the shadows, the mounted figure waited, brooding on what was to come. His cloudy robes and long gray hair blended with the night, and his hooded eyes never left the road ahead. Any rider coming from Ireland had to pass this way. And the messenger was coming, he knew it. There was nothing to do but wait.
Leaning forward, he stroked the neck of his patient mule, and a crooked smile played over his ancient face. All his life, Merlin mused, he had known how to wait. Through all his lives, as Druid, seer, and magic child, he had watched and endured as the world went by. He drew in the rich smell of the woodland, sensing the pulse of the living earth. Beneath the moldering leaves of winter, he could feel the approach of spring. This, too, he had long awaited, through a hard season racked with storms and snow. All winters in the end gave way to spring.
Merlin's heart groaned in his breast. "Gods, give us peace!" he prayed. "Or if not peace, grant me a little time!"
Peaccce--tiiime--a mocking night wind whisked his words away. The old enchanter ground his yellow teeth. "I know, I know!" he moaned to the empty air. "You warned me, and I did not hear!"
For the signs had come, there was no doubt of that. Even in Camelot, joyfully ensconced with Arthur and Guenevere, he was always Merlin, and Merlin never slept. First of all, a month and more ago, wandering in the wilds, he had been enveloped by a soft wind from the west, full of sad murmurs and foreboding cries. Then a week or so afterward, alone in his chamber when all the court slept, he had heard the sound of women's voices raised in grief, keening over a battleground as women did in the distant isles. With it came a seeing such as only a Druid can bear. The same trembling in the wind had brought him the sight of women washing their warriors' bloodstained garments at a ford, and the stark glimpse of a green hillside darkened by gaping graves.
After that had come the saddest sign of all. On the first day of spring, all the court had turned out to greet the newborn sun, reveling in the pale beams warming the earth. Merlin had lagged behind as the short day ended and the crowd turned back to Camelot. On the outskirts of the forest, before the approach to the great palace with its white towers and golden roofs, he saw a windblown sea bird, miles from any shore. Bravely she battled over the darkling plain, and came to rest at last in his open arms.
She held a bright green trefoil in her beak. With infinite gentleness he took it from her and wrapped the small spent body in his cloak, cradling her in the bosom of his gown. She raised her long white neck and fixed him with an angry, tender eye. D'you hear, Merlin? she asked him without words.
"I hear," he replied softly in the Old Tongue, and blessed her head. Then she tucked her head under her wing, and breathed her last.
He touched the shamrock then, and knowledge came. The word was coming from the Western Isle--the plant with three leaves had no other home. Ireland, the Island of the West--he closed his eyes and memories sharp as knives stabbed him to the quick. Suddenly he was a love-crazed youth again, studying on the Druids' own sacred island, pursuing the Goddess in the place She called home, the land so beloved by the Old Ones that they had made it the sweetest spot on earth.
Gods above, how he had loved Her then! And any woman in Her shape or form. And in return, many women had loved him. At the height of his love for the Great One, he had found his power. Afterward he returned to Ireland whenever his spirit failed, and always found there the succor that he sought. Indeed, on one such visit, many lives later, the Queen of the Western Isle herself had come to him, and taken him for her own.
"The Queen," he breathed in delight, "ah, yes, the Queen." Gods, what a woman, born to have her way with any man! A warmth pulsed through him and he brought his crabbed hand to his lips in a phantom kiss. Fine days, they were, and even rarer nights. He would not forget.
But for days now he had felt the coming of another messenger. All day at court he had heard the Great Ones whispering in his ear, and at the end of the dinner hour, he had slipped away. His white mule had come at once to his call, and as soon as he was out of the palace, his spirit had soared. Whatever was coming, he would meet it here in the forest under the stars, and wherever it led him, he was ready for the task.
The mists of night were rising from the ground. All around him the creatures that loved darkness were venturing from their holes. A hunting vixen slipped past him through the grass, and soon he heard her victim's dying cries. A life had ended, but her young would live: life and death were all one in the end. Whatever came, it was only a new beginning to that age-old dance, a dance he had been treading since time began.
The old man eased his skinny haunches in the saddle and waited on. At last the mule pricked up its ears and raised its heavy head.
The old man cackled. "You hear it too, my dear?"
Soon the earth throbbed with the distant drumming of a horse's hooves. Merlin eased forward to greet the rider as he came.
And here he was, a cloaked figure flying furiously through the dark. Merlin broke his progress with a hail. "Ho there, traveler!"
In the pale moonlight Merlin saw a youth, thin-faced and tense with purpose, his dark hair standing on end. He wore a rich woollen wrap of deep sea-green, fine breeches, and a pair of well-made boots. Gold jangled at his wrists and round his neck, and a band of gold held back his long black hair. He had the look of a young priest, a holy dreamer who had given his life to a Great One he worshipped and adored. Now he was fighting to hold down his panting horse as recognition spread across his face.
"Sir, it is you I seek!" he cried with relief. "I am sent to tell you that there will be war within the month!"
"I knew it!" Merlin gnashed his teeth. "Where, boy, where?"
"Cornwall will be attacked, the Druids say."
"Cornwall?" Merlin gasped. "But the Queen of Cornwall has no enemies. She rules for King Arthur, and she will protect the kingdom with her life."
"All the more reason for an enemy to strike at the King through her."
"Arthur installed King Mark there as her vassal," the old man cried, "to keep the old Queen safe."
The boy shook his head. "The danger now is more than King Mark can withstand."
Merlin gripped the reins in a trembling hand. "Danger--from where?"
"From the Island of the West."
"Ireland!" Merlin struck his head. "As the seabird warned me!"
Black thoughts rained down like thunderbolts on his head. A long-suffering land, ruled by an unruly queen. A people who relished warfare as much as they cherished love and laughter and the joy the Goddess gives. And Cornwall, a fine prize for any invader--a rich and fertile land, as green as Ireland and as beautiful, a mere step across the water for the skillful sailors of the Western Isle.
So--Ireland striking at Cornwall.
There was no time to lose. He turned to the messenger. "You have done good service, boy. What is your name?"
The young man's head went up with unconscious pride. "My name is nothing. I serve the Lady, and the Great One who made us all."
"But yourself--?" Merlin probed.
A rare smile made the boy's face beautiful. "Set me down as one who loves Ireland and her Queen."
Merlin frowned, his thoughts darkened by memories of a face ravaged by the misery of beauty, a body racked by passions beyond her control. "The Queen of the Western Isle?"
"Herself." The boy let out an ecstatic breath. "And her daughter, the Queen who is to be."
"Isolde, yes," Merlin agreed fervently. "Well, boy, to Cornwall it is!" He raised a hand in farewell. "First I must speak to the King. After that I shall follow you down the Great West Way."
He stood and watched the messenger gallop off. Then a gentle laugh behind him warmed his soul.
"No need to tell Arthur, Merlin, he is here." There was another chuckle. "But you knew that." Merlin turned. The cloaked figure in the shadows made a courteous bow, steadying his horse in firm but quiet hands. "I did not mean to intrude on your meeting here. But Guenevere saw you leave the hall and urged me after you."
"You are welcome, Arthur." Merlin's gaze roved over the newcomer's lofty frame and strong-featured face, clear gaze, and thick fair hair, and he sighed with delight. Not even his old lord and master, Uther Pendragon, had gripped his heart like this. Hastily he recollected himself and arranged his features into a forbidding scowl. "You have not come too soon."
Arthur's gray eyes were troubled. "War in Cornwall, then? When we still face the invaders on the Saxon shore?"
"And trouble within Ireland, too," Merlin said grimly. "But not as we think."
Arthur stared. "How so?"
Merlin closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to gather around his head like moths. "Ireland is at peace. Her people have no reason to seek war. But if her Queen is nursing some dream--some desire--"
As she always did, he added to himself. Half woman, half goddess, the Queen's dreams were her desires. Especially when she was under the sway of a man. And when was she ever without one man in the shadow of another, treading hungrily on his rival's heels?
"She must want to extend her kingdom," he mused on. "And she has many good knights who adore her, men who would fulfill her every desire--" He broke off, his eyes opaque.
"But why attack Cornwall? What does the Irish Queen want?" Arthur wondered, his eyes never leaving the hawk-like face.
Merlin gave a sharp bark of laughter. "If only she knew! She is a creature of the lightest whim. Her passions rule her life."
"Then they must rule her country, too, since the Western Isle still keeps the Mother-right."
Merlin grinned savagely. "With a vengeance, boy! Queens have ruled there from the time before time. In her own eyes, the present Queen is as good as the Goddess Herself. She takes the best of her knights as her lovers, not caring that they get younger every year, and changes her consort whenever she likes."
"But she has a daughter, the maid they call La Belle Isolde?" Arthur demanded.
"True." Merlin paused. "And there's hope in that. Isolde will never support her mother's scheme. Young as she is, she has the best interests of her country at heart."
"But can she convince her mother not to make war?"
Merlin looked past Arthur with an impenetrable stare. "We shall see. I must ride to King Mark in Cornwall, and bid him prepare."
Arthur leaned forward urgently. "Tell him to make all speed to Tintagel to defend my mother. Guenevere and I will follow you with a force of men."
Merlin cackled to himself. "Oh, sir," he said softly, "think how often the Queen your mother has defended herself."
A hunter's moon broke through the watery cloud. The woodland track lay before him, as bright as day. Merlin lifted his eyes, and reached for the mule's silken reins. He felt the open road calling him like a lover, and itched to be gone. The Queen of the Western Isle, eh? he pondered with an inward smile. Out of the darkness of time, a vivid figure came striding toward him across the astral plane, her flame-colored silks hissing around her heels. Then the bright vision faded and he saw a broken bird beating her wings in pain, turning on the male beside her with the fury of the damned.
Arthur's voice came to him through a mist. "What ails you, sir?" the young King asked in concern.
Merlin's sight cleared and he straightened up. "Nothing," he said brusquely. "A secret lost in a dark forest, long ago." The gaze he turned on Arthur was full of pain. "Let me go now. And may the Gods grant that I get there in time!"From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles. Copyright © 2002 by Rosalind Miles. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.