The bitter rains of March beat on the hillside overhead. But deep in the heart of the rock, it was warm and dry. Inside the high-domed underground dwelling-place, the light from many candles played over walls swagged in blood-red velvet, looped and tied back with ropes of silver-gilt. Bright rugs from the East covered the stony floor in amber and indigo, garnet, rose, and black. A low fire glowed and murmured on the hearth, its slender plume of smoke lost in the void above.
In the center of the chamber, Merlin lay on a curiously made couch, staring at the ceiling through tightly closed eyes. A wand of golden yew lay within reach, humming softly to itself in a high, beelike whine. His hands lay loosely at his sides, palms upward, fingers reaching, ready to catch his dreams as they came down. A ring of candles shone around his head. The flames quivered and changed color, and he knew the time was near.
"Yes, yes," he muttered tensely. "I am ready—come—"
Suddenly his thumbs began to itch. For a second his mind turned to milk, warding off the ancient sign of impending evil and danger ahead. He crushed his thumbs in his fists to drive it away. The itching intensified.
"No!" he moaned.
No, he was Merlin still; it could not be. Feverishly he composed himself again for waking sleep, the magic sleep of the Druids he had learned long ago, preparing to send his spirit from his body as he always did. Once he had made the long hard leap of faith, his spirit self would walk the astral plane, gathering the secrets of the Otherworld. When he had to return, when his roaming soul submitted to his body's chain, he would know how to deal with what was to come.
"Come to me! Come!"
He could feel his soul straining at the leash, hungry for the void. Any moment now, yes, yesss—Merlin, Merlin, attend—
A series of stabbing pains shot through his thumbs. Moaning, the old enchanter opened his eyes and forced himself to sit up. There was no avoiding it. There could be no flight of the spirit while this loomed. Evil impending? Where did the danger lie?
Throwing his skinny feet to the floor, he struggled upright and began to pace his cave dwelling, blind to the dark beauty of the place and the books and treasures he had brought there over the years. Mumbling and twitching, he came to rest at last before a silk curtain hanging on the wall. Behind it was an oddly shaped piece of glass in a deep frame. In its clouded depths, he saw a reflection stir and forced himself to interrogate the shadowy shape within.
"Danger then?" he ground out.Danger
, the answer came.
Merlin gasped in fear. How could it be? He had left Arthur well and happy, not three moons ago. To be sure, Arthur was not as young as he was, and the old man detested the lines deepening on the face he loved, and the gray spreading through his former pupil's glistening fair hair. But for a knight in his forties, Arthur was in his prime. His massive frame was almost unscathed by tournaments and battles, his fine face had lost none of its warmth, and his gray eyes were as kindly as ever, and much wiser now.
With another stab to the heart, Merlin remembered the boy Arthur once had been. Never had a fairer youth trodden the earth, except for Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, Merlin's kinsman and dear liege lord. Merlin paused, ambushed by bitter memories again. Well, Uther had long gone down to the Underworld. Gone, all gone, all the Pendragon kings. No grieving or pining would call them back now.
Merlin turned back to the shadow in the mirror and tore his long gray locks.
"How can Arthur be in distress?" he wailed. "He has what his heart desired! I found him the child!"The child
? quibbled the image in the glass.
"Yes, yes, child no longer, I know," Merlin retorted feverishly. "He's a grown man. But how can the danger lie there? Arthur loves the boy! Why, Mordred is everything to him now—"
But still the smoky shape wavered in the glass. The child, the child, the child
"Gods above!" Merlin struck his head. Twenty years had passed since the boy Mordred could be called a child. If he was not the child, then it must mean another child to come.
A child of Guenevere's?
Merlin tore himself from the mirror and flung himself down on his couch. The Queen had indeed been childless for many years. But she was still within her childbearing years. Many a woman in her forties still gave birth, let alone one like Guenevere, tall and well formed, blessed in life and love. Could the child his spirit was warning him of be hers
Gods above! Around his head the candles danced blue and yellow, mocking his distress. Guenevere, yes, he might have known!
The old enchanter gave full rein to his spleen. If only Arthur had taken another bride! He could have married a princess of the Christians, a sweet silent thing, tame as a caged bird to his ruling hand. But instead he chose a queen with her own kingdom, one born into the way of women's rule. Time and again, Guenevere had taken Arthur by surprise. And this would not be the last.
"How long, ye gods, how long?" Merlin wailed, beating his breast. When would he be free of his eternal task of saving the house of Pendragon, keeping it alive till its name was fixed forever in the stars? He had found the lost son, and had given Arthur an heir. Another child now would lead to confusion, and worse. A boy would encourage rebellion and bring rogue lords and disaffected kings to challenge Mordred as the rightful heir.
And a girl—
Worse, much worse. Merlin clasped his head. The Summer Country followed the rule of queens. Guenevere was the last in a line going back to the Great One Herself, the Goddess who had mothered the whole world. To those of the old faith, a girl child would inherit the Mother-right, she would be born to take command. Guenevere's daughter could prevail over Arthur's son. And Pendragon then would be swept away, no more than a blink in the long eye of time.
Merlin scrambled round his cave, cursing and weeping his fill. All his life, all his many lives, he had fought for Pendragon, only to see his great work threatened every time. Now he must leave his warm, secure refuge and take to the road. He must close up the hidden door in the hillside with strong spells so that no one would disturb his mountain lair. The harsh winds would scour his unprotected flanks and make a tangled mat of his long hair, the iron-gray locks that he groomed and perfumed each day with such care. The wild rain would be his only clothing now, the cold highway his lonely habitation, as he lived at one with the hare and the midnight owl, and no man could tell when he would be home again.
But it would all be for Arthur.
And for Arthur's child.
A spark of hope flared in the old man's wizened heart. Guenevere might bear a child such as Arthur had once been, sturdy and well made, with hair of bright gold and eyes of heartbreaking truth. And perhaps he, old Merlin, might get the child for himself, wrest it from Guenevere as he had taken Arthur from the arms of his mother, Igraine. Then the future of Pendragon would be secure. And he, Merlin, would have the rearing of a new High King-
The old man leaped to his feet in ecstasy. Throwing back his head, he emitted a soundless hail. The white mule grazing on the mountainside above would hear the cry, he knew, and amble to his door. Call the mule, change into his traveling dress, assemble his few effects-soon, soon, he would be on his way and gone.
His old heart revived as he looked ahead. Out in the open air, wearing the woodland green with his wand in his hand, he would be part of the wild wood again, one with the forest creatures who had always taken him as their own. And already he could feel the call of the road. The highways were not as good as they had been when the Roman legions marched away, but they would serve. And no one alive, no, not even the Old Ones who made the world, knew the lesser tracks and hidden greenways as Merlin did.
"On your way, then, old fool!" he chided himself. "Leave your fireside, go!" There was no time to waste if his thumbs were to be believed-if he was to search out the evil now threatening Arthur and come once again to the rescue of the King-if he was to discover what the warning meant and find the child.Find the child.
Yes, that was what he must do.
With a racing pulse, Merlin began to prepare.Avalon, Avalon, sacred island, home—
The mist clung to the hillside like a living thing. The muffled figure went carefully downhill, though she had trodden the path a thousand times. When day broke, the towering pines and silver apple trees on the slopes would be easier to see. But now, in the darkness before dawn, she had to trust to her feet, not her eyes, to find the way.
Ahead of her the still waters of the Lake gleamed blackly in the darkness, ageless, impenetrable, pulsing with life. To her right a solitary lantern marked a stone jetty where two boatmen waited with their rough-headed lad, looking up in awe at the veiled figure as she drew near.
The boatmen came to meet her, squinting a silent greeting through thick fringes of black hair. Shyly they handed her into the boat and set off with a will, one rowing, the other poling from the stern, while the boy scrambled nimbly around, casting off and stowing the mooring rope. Then he doused the lantern, and the mist of night took them in its dank embrace.
The low barge drove onward through the dark. The only sounds were the steady plash of the oars and the faraway wailing of a waterfowl. The woman sat in the prow, digesting the rich damp smell of the living water, looking forward without fear. Unwary travelers were often lost on the Lake, circling the watery darkness till the Great One took pity on them and turned them into marsh fowl forever lamenting their plight. But these men knew the waters like the wildfowl themselves.
At the back of the boat a silver spray of water feathered the darkness as the taller of the two boatmen drew up his long pole. His small black eyes were fixed on her, damp but friendly, like a water vole's. She met his gaze.
"The Lady has sent you?" he asked, in the rough tongue of the Old Ones.
"To the Queen," she confirmed. Her voice, too, had the rusty cadence of one who rarely spoke.
Crouched in the foot of the boat, the boy stared at her, radiant with desire. "You go to Camelot?"
In her mind's eye she saw the great castle bright with many flags, its white citadel and slender spires, its towers roofed with gold. She nodded. "Yes."
On the far shore, another lantern beckoned them to land. There a young girl clad in water pelts stood holding a pony, a dappled mare with huge soft eyes. It was the finest thing the people had, she knew. But for the Lady's messenger, nothing was too good. She mounted and took up the reins. The little mare turned her head trustingly, asking without words, Where are we to go? The rider reached down to stroke the smooth, warm neck. All the way, came the silent command, all the way, my dear.
One by one the Lake dwellers faded into the breaking dawn. For a moment the traveler sat, taking leave of the still lake of shining water, the green island floating in the mist, rich with apple blossoms and the song of birds.
Farewell, Avalon: the words breathed from her like a charm. Then she turned the horse's head into the dawn as the silver mist enfolded her like a lover and hid her from sight.
Excerpted from The Child of the Holy Grail by Rosalind Miles, Author of the International Bestseller, I, Elizabeth. Copyright © 2002 by Rosalind Miles. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, 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.