MERLIN: THE OLD MAGIC
Prologue: The Courts of Shadows
She rode the winds of the upper air in search of a very special man. She did not remember how long it was since she had travelled this way, for her kind did not reckon the passing of Time in the way that mortal men did. Seasons spun over the face of the earth like shooting stars, but she paid little attention to their passing. She was the stuff of stars, not seasons, and the Old Magic ran in her veins, hot and pure and old. She was Mab, Queen of the Old Ways.
But the Old Ways were dying.
It had started so insignificantly that even she could not put her finger on exactly when the first challenge to her power had come. Perhaps when the first Christian had come from Rome to preach his pernicious doctrine to the people of her land. She had been strong then, and arrogant in her power, and what could the insignificant doings of Men matter to her as she listened to the crystal music of the stars in their courses? The land would take them in and its magic would change them as it had so many others.
But the land had not changed the Christians. They had changed the land. When they began to lay waste to her people, cutting down the sacred groves and toppling the standing stones that marked her temples and sacred places of power, she had lashed out at them in a hundred furious battles, but it was already too late to win the battle. These Christians were not content for their strange god to live in harmony with the other Powers of Britain. They demanded that those powers be cast down and banished forever ‑- and Mab's kind could not live without human belief.
War came to a land that had never known it. As the gentle spirits of field and wood were destroyed by cold iron and holy water, the people no longer lived in harmony with the land. Weeds grew among the scanty crops that had once grown lushly at the behest of a Priestesses of the Old Ways. Trees that had once borne abundant fruit withered. Famine spread throughout the land, for man and beast alike, and now humankind labored with incessant toil to bring crops from the soil, and turned in even greater numbers to the priests of the New Religion for the certainty and security they could offer.
And as they did, Mab's people ‑- the folk of Fairy ‑- died. When human folk forgot them, they dwindled away into nothingness. She must save them, somehow. She must destroy the Christians and the Christian king who persecuted her people.
She needed allies, tools....
The mead-hall was lit by flickering torches whose smoke spiralled up to the age-darkened rafters of the Great Hall and the carven dragon-heads there. The sightless wooden eyes gazed down on the feasting Saxons below as if hungry to join in their merriment.
The walls were hung with the painted round shields of the Saxon war-band, the bright designs and snarling faces looking down on the tables full of feasting men. Their enemies called them pirates; they called themselves warriors ‑- landless men and younger sons who had no patrimony save a sword-blade and no skills save those of war. And so they sailed and raided all up and down the Frisian coast, seeking the gold and glory that could take the place of a homeland.
The war-leader looked out over his followers and wondered why he could not share in their merrymaking. He was a young man, Saxon-fair and muscled like a young bull. He wore a great wolf-skin cloak, and gold glittered about his brow and upon his brawny arms, mark of success in countless previous attacks. The raid they celebrated here tonight had gone well; they'd sacked a village a few days sail down the coast and came away well-laden with gold and glory and few men lost. Now their leader hosted a great feast for them, with bards to make a song of his prowess and valor in the battle. And by so much his glory increased.
But it wasn't enough. Gold was spent and glory faded. His eyes were the pale wintery blue of northern ice, and he looked out over the merriment of his companions with increasing restlessness. Only land was eternal, and you could not load land aboard a ship and sail away with it.. .
"But you could still take it," a voice whispered in his ear.
The young warlord straightened in his chair and turned sharply toward the sound of the voice. What he saw made his eyes widen.
A woman stood beside his chair, but a woman like no other woman he had ever seen. Her skin was white as moonmilk, and her long black hair was as dark as raven's wings. It was twisted and braided and studded with jewels, but enough of it fell free to coil about her shoulders like glittering black snakes. Her face was painted into a harsh mask, her eyes rimmed with black that made their translucent fire glitter like moonlight on the ice. She wore a trailing black gown that made the young warlord think of smoke and shadows and the dark and powerful undertow that could claim men and ships and drag them to the bottom of the sea in an instant.
"Who are you?" he asked, but in his heart he already knew. His people called her kind svartaelfin ‑- the dark folk of Fairy. This one must be their Queen, so rich and powerful did she look.
"One who can give you what you desire," she answered. She put a hand on his arm, and at her touch he felt a mingling of alarm and desire that excited him. He had never felt such an emotion before, save in the heat of battle.
"And what do I desire?" he asked, turning toward her and looking over his shoulder to see who noticed. All were occupied at their drinking. No one saw her but him, he was sure of it now.
"Land. Power. A Kingdom. A name that will live forever." Her voice was like the surf hissing over the rocks.
"All men desire that," the warlord said. He was beginning to be irritated as well as wary, and his temper was not good at the best of times. "Where are these lands?"
"West of here," the woman said. She pointed in the direction of the sea. "The are undefended and ripe for the taking, groaning beneath the tyranny of a Christian king."
"Britain?" The young warlord was astonished. "Britain is a Roman province; Constant rules there as their puppet, and if he should cry for help, the Legions will come to his aid. They'll slaughter my men by sheer force of numbers."
"Rome will send no more legions to Britain," the woman answered. Her eyes glittered like those of a hunting cat. "The Empire is fallen ‑- now is the time for new men to carve out new empires. And I will help you."
Rome fallen? But the Roman Peace had lasted for as long as the Saxons could remember, the Roman Legions keeping them from raiding the soft fat villages of Brittany, Armorica, and Gaul ‑- all Roman provinces ‑- but protecting Britain most of all, for the Romans valued the tin trade that flourished there.
His eyes narrowed as he studied his eldritch companion. Most men would fear her, but he was not most men. He had known from the cradle that he was different, that he was born to rule.
Now he would.
"And your price for this aid, Lady?" he asked levelly.
Her face twisted into a mask of hate. "Kill the King! Kill Constant and every Christian in the land and I will help you rule in his place," Mab hissed. "You will have power and rich lands beyond imagining. You are Pagan, and I do not care who rules there so long as the people return to the Old Ways."
"Killing Christians. I can do that. I'm pretty good at it, actually," he said with satisfaction.
Let her think he served her, until he had his kingdom. He bowed down to no power on earth or beneath it ‑- he cared not what gods or spirits existed or didn't so long as he ruled.
Prince Vortigern smiled.
Chapter One: The Courts of Winter
The road to Anoeth was long and twisted. Only the dead travelled it easily. It was a land of grey mist and the blackened stumps of stark, twisted trees that reached out of the mist like hands from the grave. Even Mab felt its chill, and she shivered as she groped her way among the standing stones that marked the path. This was not her own kingdom ‑- this was the land of Death and Winter, ruled over by its own dark king, Idath.
Once they had been lovers, for Idath, grim and terrifying as he seemed to the souls he harvested, was as necessary to the Old Ways as Mab herself. When the Wheel of the Year turned, spinning the seasons from summer to winter, Idath was there to take up the weak who fell to Winter's cruel sharpness. Without death and change, there could be no light and life.
But death must balance life, not overwhelm it. The war that had raged over Britain since Vortigern landed had sown death in its wake as a farmer sowed seed, until the land was awash in blood. King Constant was old and crafty, and his priests filled his armies with the terror of Hell and the death which has no rebirth. They fought like maddened wolves for their King, but Vortigern had allies in the Danelaw, and with their help he had slowly pushed the royal armies back across the face of Britain, but at a terrible cost to both sides in lives.
Now it ends, Mab told herself. Vortigern was camped outside the walls of London, and her allies would open the gates to him. Before another dawn, the Christian rule in England would be over, washed away in blood.
But though Mab could see many things, the future was closed to her. For that she turned to Idath. His Cauldron of Rebirth showed the future of all lives that were reborn from it. He would tell her the outcome of today's battle.
The endless misty plain frustrated her, and she howled her displeasure ‑- a wailing, terrifying cry that had slain grown men on the battlefield. They had named her bean sidh� ‑- the banshee ‑- for it, and Morrigan, Lady of the Ravens, those birds who were the only victor on any battlefield. They had loved her once.
The echoes of her cry died away in the mist, and Mab snarled with rage at her memories.
"There's no need to shout," Idath said mildly.
He was tall and gaunt, his whole being cloaked in shadows. Beneath the heavy antler-crowned bronze helmet he wore, his eyes glowed a feral red. Yet he, just as she, was dwindling away through the force of the humans' disbelief.
"Don't play games with me," Mab raged. "You know what I've come for."
"You've come to know what will be," Idath answered. "But are you sure that's what you truly want? The future holds only sorrow, for all things die."
"Not us!" Mab answered quickly. "We shall live forever ‑- for as long as the hearts of the people beat in tune with the Old Ways."
"And if they are all dead?" Idath answered inexorably. His cloak billowed, and now Mab could see the glowing metal of the Cauldron of Rebirth, souls rising from it like steam as they returned to the world; the dead who filled it being transformed by Idath's powerful magic. "You have made much work for me in these last years, with your Vortigern. His appetite for slaughter is endless."
"He was necessary," Mab answered. "Constant and his Christians were destroying us. Vortigern is a Pagan. He will restore the Old Ways once he rules England."
"Are you truly certain of that, my love? Gaze into my cauldron and tell me what you see here." Idath stepped back.
Almost reluctantly, Mab came forward and gazed down into the mists. The pearls that studded the lip of the cauldron glowed like captive moons, turning the liquid within an eerie glowing emerald. The mist that boiled up from the cauldron's depths veiled the surface.
"I can't see anything," Mab complained.
"The future is always in motion," Idath replied. "Wait a moment and it will settle... there."
Mab gazed down, fascinated at the mirrored scene the cauldron contained. She saw the gates of Pendragon Castle forced open by treachery, saw Vortigern's troops swarm through the breech, slaughtering everyone they could reach as the red dragon banner of King Constant was dragged down and trampled underfoot. She watched as the King, knowing his army was defeated, ordered all his prisoners slain, and watched as Constant was slain in turn. The golden crown rolled across the floor, away from the spreading pool of blood.
Vortigern picked it up, a slow smile of satisfaction spreading across his heavy Saxon features as he placed it upon his head. He stepped up to the throne from which Constant had been dragged only moments before, and seated himself on it.
"Where is the boy?" Mab heard him ask.
"Your Grace, he has escaped to Normandy with Queen Lionors," Kentigern told his brother. "He's just a boy." His voice shook a little with fear as the new king frowned.
"Boys grow up to be trouble," Vortigern rumbled. He seemed to recover his triumphal feelings of a moment before with an effort. "But meanwhile, there's work to do. Take as many knights as you need and ride through the kingdom. Slay everybody who isn't loyal to me and won't pay my new taxes, Pagan or Christian. The Queen of the Old Ways thinks I will rule as her puppet to bring back the Old Ways, but she's wrong. From now on, the supreme power in the land is me ‑- and only me."
"Yes, Your Grace," Kentigern said, bowing and nearly stumbling with the relief of leaving the royal presence alive.
"No!" Mab's shriek of despair shattered the smooth surface of the cauldron, dissolving the image. "No! I gave him Britain so that he would bring back the Old Ways! He has betrayed me! He has betrayed all of us!"
"He has been true to his own nature," Idath said inexorably. "His symbol is the White Dragon, and the White Dragon cares for nothing but battle."
"He will serve me in the end," Mab vowed through gritted teeth. "Whether he wills it or not. But the next champion I choose will not be able to betray me, ever ‑- this I swear!"
"Gracious Lady, thrice-crowned Queen, hear the prayers of those who worship you and come to our aid." Ambrosia finished her morning prayers in a hasty rush and got to her feet. Not that You'll help, she added cynically. The hilltop shrine ‑- no more than a tiny altar hidden at the end of a long passageway made up of bluestone menhirs ‑- was one of the few on the Downs that still remained undefiled. But even it had not escaped without injury, for at the back wall the carven stone image of Mab in her three aspects ‑- Morrigan the Warrior, Titania the Maiden, and Melusine the Mother ‑- that had been marred by some angry and disappointed petitioner until only the Warrior aspect was still whole. The Maiden and the Mother had been battered almost into invisibility, but between them Mab-Morrigan ‑- Raven-lady, Sword-crowned, Queen of Battles ‑- looked down at Ambrosia with sightless, knowing eyes.
Ambrosia lingered, more from weariness than from any desire to commune with the Lady she still grudgingly served. On the crude stone altar a bronze lamp shone down on the meager offerings ‑- a barleycake, some flowers, water from the sacred well. Little enough to offer to the Queen of Air and Darkness, but her followers were starving.
"And it isn't as though You're going to come for them," Ambrosia said with a sigh. Ambrosia had not seen Mab in the flesh since she was a child first serving at the great shrine of Sarum, when Constant's rule, though Christian, had not yet descended into its later madness. In those days the followers of the Old Ways had been persecuted and driven from their holy places, but they had not been hunted and slaughtered as Vortigern was doing now. It was scant consolation in these dark days to know that the Christians suffered equally from the new King's tyranny.
Ambrosia lifted the carved amber amulet that she wore about her neck and kissed it dutifully. Then she turned reluctantly away from the altar, back to the world and her duties. There are times when I wonder if You ever cared for us at all, she thought. Ambrosia only had her mother's tales of the golden time when the Old Ways reigned supreme, their magic setting in motion the stars and the seasons. Now everything was darker, grimmer.
She stepped out into the daylight again, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light. All around the shrine and its sacred well there were crude shelters made of wicker and animal skins, where refugees from Vortigern's endless pogroms took shelter. Some of those hiding here were Christians, Ambrosia was almost certain of it, but in the old days the shrine of the Old Ways had been open to anyone who sought refuge there, and Ambrosia intended to continue that custom.
"You look tired today, my dear," Lailoken said. He was a Druid, and still wore the hooded white robe of his order and carried the golden boline hung at his belt, but his oak-grove had been cut down long ago. Since that time he had been a wanderer among the courts of those lords who clung to the Old Ways, but under Vortigern's rule no one dared any longer to harbor a prophet and seer, lest they be accused of plotting against the king.
"I'm always tired," Ambrosia said crossly. "And hungry. But there's no use grumbling about it. There are hungry mouths to feed, and‑-"
She broke off, studying his lined and weathered face. "Lailoken, you look as if you'd been eating green apples. Have you had a vision?"
"Yes, well... that is to say, I'm not quite sure." The old druid's voice quivered, both with age and with the fear of his own powers that had come with the years of secrecy and hiding. Once he had been a great prophet, able to see into the future and advise men on what the fates held in store for them, but the years of persecution had taken their toll.
Ambrosia put a hand gently on his arm. "Oh, well, never mind it now. We'll talk about it later over a nice cup of herbal tea," she said reassuringly. At least they still had the herbs for that.
But later never came, and in after years she wondered what Lailoken's vision had been, and whether knowing it would have done her any good at all.
The sun was overhead when the riders appeared upon the horizon. Ambrosia was standing beside the sacred well, overseeing the filling of buckets and waterskins that would provide water for cooking and cleaning for all the camp's inhabitants.
She squinted her eyes, peering into the distance, trying to see. Her heart sank as she counted the horsemen's numbers. There were too many of them to be anything but trouble. A trick of the wind stretched their banner smooth against the sky for a moment, and on its dark surface Ambrosia could see the White Dragon. These were Vortigern's men.
Lady, save us! Ambrosia breathed a terrified prayer, clutching the amulet she wore as if Mab might truly come in answer to this prayer when she'd come to no other. For one long minute she stood frozen, transfixed by the horror she could envision so clearly.
Then she found her voice. "Run!" she cried to the startled folk around her. "The White Dragon is coming for us! Run!"
She dropped the bucket she'd been filling and ran down the hill to the huts to spread the alarm. By the time she got there, the panic had spread, and the fastest of Vortigern's riders had reached the outskirts of the camp.
It was a slaughter. The refugees were given no chance to surrender and less to escape. Some of the men fought back, with quarterstaff and spear, but they were cut down like summer wheat. Vortigern's men rode among the women and children, slashing and stabbing like madmen and setting the torch to everything that could burn. Within moments, the encampment was a hell of smoke, fire, and blood, filled with the shouts of the butchers and the screams of the dying.
Ambrosia clutched a screaming child in her arms ‑- snatched up as it fled in panic from the riders ‑- and looked around herself wildly for some direction that promised escape. Seeing a gap in the fighting she began to run toward it, clumsy with the burden in her arms.
She did not see the blow that knocked her from her feet and sent her spiralling down into blackness and silence.
The pain harried her back toward consciousness like a watchdog nipping at the heels of its flock. Ambrosia grunted, opening her eyes and coughing from the smoke she breathed. The smell of blood was a sweetish sickly rot that overlay everything like the stench from a poisoned wound. She tried to move, but a great weight lay upon her back and legs, and even the motion of lifting her head brought a bright flame of agony alight behind her eyes. She groaned in pain and frustration, the memory of the attack coming back to her in mocking fragments. She froze for a moment, listening, but there was no more sound of slaughter... only a quiet like that of death.
It took her nearly an hour, wounded as she was, to struggle from beneath the body of the dead man whose corpse had concealed the fact that she still lived from Vortigern's marauders. At last she stood, bloody and aching and sick, in the middle of an ash-covered ruin that had once been a holy place. It was twilight, and the sun was setting in a sky as red as the blood-soaked earth beneath her feet. The unburied dead lay all around her ‑- man, woman, and child slain for no more reason than that they were here. She walked among them, searching, hoping to find someone who had survived as she had, but there was no one else alive. All were dead, butchered, their possessions looted or burned around them.
At last Ambrosia looked up the hill. Vortigern's men had been thorough. Some of the stones of the shrine had been pulled down and a fire set there. Its smoke was still rising in an oily black column. There were bodies there too, the bodies of those who had fled to the sanctuary in fear and hope, but they had received no answer to their prayers save the cold steel of a swordblade. This place was a holy refuge no longer, merely another place that had been broken by the king's will.
And no one had stopped him.
No one had come to their aid.
No one had answered their prayers.
"Damn you, Mab." Ambrosia's voice sounded harsh and rusty, like the cry of the ravens who flocked here to feed on the dead. "Do you hear me, you midnight hag? I said damn you, and all your heartless kind! Why didn't you help us? Don't we matter to you?"
She looked down at the amber talisman she wore, the symbol of the triskelion spiral crowned by a horned moon that marked the covenant she had sworn to the Old Ways, and suddenly she could bear to wear that mark no longer. She jerked at it, breaking the leather cord from which it hung, and flung the amulet as far from her as she could.
"Well if we don't matter to you, Lady, then you don't matter to me ‑- not you, nor any god under heaven. Never again. I'd rather worship a stone statue like the Christians do. It'd be more honest."
With dragging steps Ambrosia began to walk slowly away from the scene of so much death and pain. She did not look back.
She did not know how long she wandered, weak and sick, across the war-torn land. No one bothered her, for who would interfere with a madwoman who wept and laughed and sang as she walked and ranted against unseen presences? She ate what she could beg or steal, and drank from streams and standing ponds, and mourned her dead and cursed her gods as she wandered.
And at last she came to Avalon.
Avalon Abbey had been the first outpost of the new religion in Britain. Kings had risen and fallen, but all had left Avalon alone, for it was known the length and breadth of the land that a new kind of magic ruled here, and even kings were wary of what they did not understand. First a chapel, then a church, then a convent and hospital had been built upon that tiny outcropping of land on Britain's western shore, where Avalon endured from century to century, its green mist-shrouded heights rising up out of the tidal flats like the bulk of some primordial sea-beast.
And though all the world knew that the new king feared nothing under heaven or beneath the earth, even he did not disturb Avalon's peace, for the finest healers in all the land dwelt there, and even a king may some time need to be healed.
Elissa had first come to the Abbey as a tiny child in her mother's arms. Her mother had been queen of Orkney the north, but King Constant's dream of a unified Britain had left no room for queens and northern kingdoms. The war he made sent Queen Morgause fleeing with her infant daughter to the sanctuary of Avalon, and she died there soon after ‑- some said of a broken heart. Elissa had grown to womanhood within the sound of Avalon Abbey's tolling bells, a princess without a country. Though she had received offers of an honorable place in many a nobleman's house, in her heart, Elissa did not long for what was lost. Elissa had thick dark hair and sparkling eyes and a tendency to freckle if she stayed too long in the sun. She was cheerful where her mother had been grand, pretty where Morgause had been beautiful. The peaceful life of the holy sisters suited her, and she asked no more than to be able to spend the rest of her days here in Avalon.
But she was young, and it was summer, and even the most contented of Avalon's inhabitants could be forgiven for playing truant from an afternoon of weeding the garden to curl up against the sun-warmed wall of the apple orchard and dream. And after all, she was not yet one of the holy sisters, vowed to obedience, merely a young postulant who might someday become a novice.
It was while she was sitting in the shadow of the wall looking out over the land that she saw the old woman.
Elissa did not question how she could be so certain at this distance that the bundle of rags that lay upon the flats was a woman, or even alive. There was one thing that Elissa knew full well, and that was that the tide was coming in, and no amount of prayer could hold back the running sea. Without someone to help her, the woman would drown.
Elissa flung herself to her feet and ran through the trees. She reached the bottom of the orchard and lifted her skirts to leap over the wall, agile as any boy, and run down the path that led to the mainland. The sea-washed stones were cold against her feet as she ran, and she tried to calculate how long it would be until the space between Avalon and the mainland was awash with the running sea. Not long enough to take the time to summon help; what she must do here she must do alone, and quickly.
Elissa reached the prostrate figure and knelt beside it, turning it over gently. It was, as she'd first thought, a woman. The woman's hair was streaked with grey, and there were lines of pain etched around her mouth. Her clothes were ragged, but they had been of good quality once. Elissa saw the Pagan signs embroidered on the tunic at wrist and hem and crossed herself hastily, though she did not think that one so injured could possibly mean her harm.
"Who are you?" Elissa asked. There was no answer. In the distance she could see the shining line of the advancing sea. It seemed as if there was plenty of time, but Elissa knew from experience how fast the sea came in. She shook the old woman gently. "Wake up, wake up ‑- you cannot stay here."
Elissa saw the old woman's eyelashes flutter. The woman's head tossed from side to side fretfully, and she coughed.
"Le' me 'lone," the old woman muttered, flinging up an arm over her face to shield her eyes from the sun.
"I can't do that," Elissa said reasonably. "I can't just go off and leave you here now that I've seen you. Besides, the tide's coming in. You'll get wet."
"I don't care," the old woman said, but there was more life in her voice now, and it seemed as if she'd resigned herself to living.
"I'm Elissa. What's your name?"
Elissa pondered this. "It doesn't sound very much like a good Christian name," she said tentatively.
"I'm not a very good Christian," Ambrosia muttered. "Look here, girl, if I get up will you shut your row and leave me alone?"
"Let me help you up," Elissa said, evading the question. Between the two of them, they got Ambrosia to her feet.
She leaned heavily on Elissa, and Elissa could feel how thin and starved she was through her rags. When she coughed, her whole body shook. Elissa was a practical person, and began composing a mental list of all the things her patient would need once they reached the Abbey. Though it was only a short distance to the gates, she was all but carrying Ambrosia by the time they reached it.
"No more, girl. I can't walk another step. Let me die here," Ambrosia gasped. Behind them, the sea foamed over the causeway, cutting Avalon off from the mainland.
Elissa looked around. There was no convenient place she could leave her patient to rest while she went to find the serving brothers and get a litter brought to carry Ambrosia to the hospital. The only building anywhere near was the chapel, and if Ambrosia were truly a worshipper of Pagan gods, she might not be willing to go there.
But the whole isle is holy ground, and she is already here. There is no other place. The chapel will have to do.
"Come on. It's only a little farther," Elissa coaxed. She half-dragged Ambrosia to the open doorway of the chapel, and carried her inside.
Once out of the sun, Ambrosia seemed to recover a little more of her strength. She straightened up and looked around, standing unsteadily upon her own feet.
"What's that?" she said in a surprised voice. "By the Lady ‑- it's glowing."
"It's the Grail," Elissa said proudly.
Avalon Abbey had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, who had come from the lands east of Rome seeking a refuge, for in those days the followers of those whom the Greeks and Romans called The Anointed One were weak and few, and everywhere were persecuted. Avalon had been their refuge, the land deeded to them by an ancient Pagan king, and it was here that Joseph had brought the new religion's greatest treasure: the Cup that their Master had touched with his own hands, the Cup from which he had crafted their link to the Eternal.
It blazed with white radiance as it hovered above the altar; a great silver chalice, its lip edged with pearls. There was always someone keeping vigil before it day and night; when Ambrosia and Elissa had entered, the young brother who was watching the Grail stood and stared at them curiously.
"This is Ambrosia, Giraldus," Elissa said to him. "She's injured. She needs help."
But when she turned back, Ambrosia was tottering unsteadily toward the Grail's radiance. Its pale light shone on her face, making her look again as she must have looked as a young girl. The Grail Chapel was not large, and in moments Ambrosia stood before the altar itself. She reached out a hand as if to touch it, but before her fingers could brush it there was a great flair of light, and Ambrosia squealed as she fell backward.
"Are you all right?" Elissa and the young brother asked almost on the same breath.
"I... " Ambrosia drew a deep breath without coughing. "I'm more than all right. I haven't felt this good in years." She got to her feet, and it did seem to Elissa that she looked sturdier than she had when she'd come into the chapel.
"The Grail healed her. It's a miracle," Brother Giraldus said.
"Laddie, where I come from we have miracles with our morning tea," Ambrosia said, fixing him with a glittering hawk-keen gaze. "Still, I've got to admit that it was more use than any of Herself's tricks ever were. Now, who did you say you were?"
"I'm Elissa. This is Brother Giraldus. Welcome to Avalon."
Elissa could see Giraldus puffing up to deliver one of his lectures on the wickedness of the Pagans, but from all that Elissa had seen of them, they did not seem very different from Christians.
"Avalon?" The name seemed to mean something to Ambrosia. She looked alarmed, as if she expected both of them to jump on her. "Not the Christians' place?"
"She's a Pagan," Brother Giraldus said in disgust.
"Pagan or Christian, all are welcome here," Elissa said firmly. "Yes, we are Christians here, but the Grail's magic is for all."
"Oh, aye, the way it was under the old king," said Ambrosia, "with the axe set to the root of every tree in every sacred grove."
"The false gods must be swept away by the light of the True Religion," Giraldus said.
"If it's the true religion, it doesn't need our help to prevail," Elissa said gently. "You saw what the Grail did, Giraldus ‑- can we choose to do less? Avalon's arts are free to all who ask. Our Lord would ask nothing less of us, for He taught that the love in the human heart is the greatest magic of all, and here, by the Grail's aid and example, we try to live that magic. Whoever you've been, whatever you've done, it does not matter within these walls," she said to Ambrosia. "Vortigern's war cannot penetrate here."
Ambrosia studied Elissa with surprised respect. "Eh, girl, you'll do. Pity there aren't more who think as you do."
"There will be," Elissa said, with a certainty that startled even her. "The truth will prevail in the end."
In the Hollow Hills at the heart of the earth, Mab listened and heard and felt the outcries of the slaughtered as the grew ever greater. With every murder of her folk she felt the deathly cold of extinction strengthen its grip on her, leaching away her power, her very life ‑- and the lives of all she ruled.
"No!" her scream of fury struck sparks from the walls of her crystalline kingdom, and hot fury banished the pangs of weakness.
In the long centuries of war between Christianity and the Old Ways, her heart had hardened. After so much loss, Mab could no longer love as she once had, and after so many deaths honest grief, too, was denied to her. All that was left to her was the need to fight back, to lash out against the tormentors. Weak as she had become, there must be something she could do before all was lost!
But when she reached the site of the battle that had summoned her, all that was left was crumbling bone and the embers of a battle long over. Victor and victims alike were gone ‑- all that remained was the bones of the dead and the blackened stones of the defiled shrine.
"Gone... all gone," Mab whispered.
But even if she had come in time, there was so little she could have done. Her powers lay in trickery and illusion, and Vortigern's men feared their master far more than they could ever fear any apparition of Mab's.
She had thought it would be so simple, that once the Christian king was gone the people would return to the Old Ways. She had used Vortigern as a sword to cut off Constant's head, but her weapon had turned in her hand, and the new king slaughtered her people just as the old king had ‑- and worse. Now more and more of Vortigern's subjects were abandoning the Old Ways in fear and despair, hoping that the new god could defend them against the White Dragon as Mab could not.
I have tried! she wailed silently. It was only that she had made the wrong choice. She had chosen a warlord, but her people needed a leader.
And that was what she would give them ‑- a leader. She had learned her lesson well. She had made a bad choice in Vortigern ‑- very well, she would not look for Britain's savior among the people of the mortal world this time. She would create him. A prophet and wizard who could see what must be done to return Britain to the Old Ways, and who would do those things through the power of the magic that was his birthright.
Mab smiled, feeling the promise of victory beat through her veins like hot wine. It would take all the power she possessed, but she would weave the greatest spell off her existence. Through her magic she would create a warrior to humble Vortigern, a leader to lead her people back to the Old Ways. He would be no simple soldier, but a wizard, a true heir to the Old Ways, born of her magic. One who would be loyal to the land and to her, who would fight for not only the body but the soul of Britain.
She could do it. It would be hard, but she knew this plan would work. No foreign kings or alien usurpers ‑- this would be a leader formed in the heart of Britain, made to rule and to serve the Old Ways.
The lake's surface was a flawless mirror in the morning sun, and the land around it was beautiful and wild. Mab stood upon the shore and called soundlessly to the Power that dwelled here, summoning it forth.
Suddenly the surface of the still clear water began to churn and waves appeared as if the surface of the water was lashed by a ferocious storm. A brightness flashed beneath the surface of the water, and then broke into the air. All at once the surface of the lake was placid once more, as the shining figure swam through the air toward Mab.
She shone like the sunlight on the wave, and moved languidly through the air as if it were her own watery kingdom. Her gown seemed made of bright water, and as a necklace she wore a circlet of shimmering fish that swam back and forth around her throat. Her silvery hair floated on the air, moving slowly after her like a mermaid's tail. Where Mab was dark, she was bright. Where Mab was hard, she was supple. Where Mab was stone, she was water.
She was the Lady of the Lake, and she had ruled here since the first raindrops had gathered to form a pool in a hollow on the cooling earth.
"... Sister... " she said, and her soft voice was the sound of water rushing over stones. "I got your message."
"I have come to a great decision," Mab said. The fairy queen seemed out of place here in the Lady of the Lake's domain. Mab was a creature of night and shadow. Here in this shining green and silver land, she seemed like a scrap of glittering darkness dropped from some other world.
"I don't like the sound of your voice when you say that," the Lady of the Lake said mournfully. Small circling motions of her hands allowed her to hold her place in the air before Mab. The bright silver fish flitted back and forth about her throat, and she gazed sadly at her sister.
"I'm going to create a leader for the people," Mab answered. "A powerful wizard who'll save Britain and bring the people back to us and to the Old Ways."
But the approval ‑- the interest ‑- she had hoped to see on her sister's face did not appear. The Lady of the Lake was one of the strongest Powers still left in the world, but she had not suffered as Mab had. She did not hate as Mab did.
The Lady of the Lake sighed, shaking her head slowly. Her pale hair swirled around her face. "It will be too much for you, Mab. It will drain you of what power you still have."
Don't you think I know that? Mab wanted to shout. But she held her tongue. What did the Lady of the Lake care for the fear that haunted Mab? "If I don't do it, we'll die," she said desperately. "If people forget us we won't exist any longer. The new religion has already pushed us to the margin. Soon we'll be forgotten." I need your help, she thought, but could not bring herself to say the words.
"All things change, sister," the Lady of the Lake sighed. "It's sad, but Heaven, Hell, and the world move on. It's our Fate. Accept it."
"I won't accept it!" Mab hissed in her snake's voice. "I'll fight! Will you help me?"
Her sister shook her head slowly, gazing at Mab pityingly. "You forget that I am the Lady of the Lake. I'm made of water, and now that the tide has turned away from us I accept it. I'm sorry, my dear." With a last backward glance, the Lady of the Lake swam away, sinking again below the surface of the water.
Mab stared without seeing at the silvery surface of the lake. All along she had been fighting for survival, to reclaim what was hers. Now she realized that she was willing to die for it as well. Her sister had been right: to create and shape the leader who would save Britain would take every ounce of power that she possessed. In making him she might unmake herself, vanishing from the pleasant world of Men forever. But at last, Mab realized that it didn't matter. Her death didn't matter. No one's death mattered.
Winning was what mattered.
"Then I will do it myself." The darkness swirled around her, and she was gone.
Rather to her own surprise, Ambrosia was accepted easily into the community of lay brethren who lived side-by-side with the religious at Avalon at a tiny village called Glastonbury. She found that Elissa's views were far more widely represented than Brother Giraldus', and she was valued here for what she could teach of herb-craft and herb-lore and the healing arts that were unaligned with Pagan magic. Slowly her spirit began to heal as her body had been healed, and as summer died into autumn and the Wheel of the Year turned, Ambrosia began to wonder what the future held. She had renounced her allegiance to Mab and the Old Ways, but she could not find it within her heart to follow Elissa into the new faith.
Trouble isn't in the gods, its in ourselves. We make the gods over in our own image, and then wonder why they're always quarrelling and scrapping. And their followers are worse ‑- look at young Giraldus, all puffed up with pride just because he's spent some hours kneeling on a cold stone floor. No, I'm through with gods of any stripe, Pagan or Christian. King Vortigern, Queen Mab... it's all one in the end.
But in the end, it did not matter whether Ambrosia had renounced the Old Ways, for the Old Ways were magic, and magic would find her in the end.
"Frik? Frik, where are you?" Mab shouted as she swirled into the enchanted sanctuary at the heart of her power. This was where she crafted her strongest magics, and being here was like being in the heart of a jewelled rainbow. In the center of the spherical chamber was a great crystal altar that seemed to have risen up out of the living rock. The floor surrounding it was as smooth and polished as a mirror, and around the edge of the circle, row after row of concentric rings of crystals stretched as far as the eye could see, crystals that glittered with magical fire in every color the eye could see. The whole sanctuary glowed with a complex shimmering fire, and though it was deep in the heart of the earth, the chamber was awash in a dark unearthly radiance, a light never meant for mortal eyes to see.
"Frik!" Mab shouted again, and her servant came running.
He was dark and misshapen, as grotesque as Mab was beautiful. His long pointed ears and goggling eyes made him look as if someone had tried to create a parody of a human being and hadn't gotten it quite right. He had been her servant and companion for so long that Mab herself could not remember when the relationship had begun. Had she captured him? Had she created him? Neither of them remembered, but while Mab preferred always to remain herself, Frik was in love with the powers of illusion, taking a thousand different guises purely for his own amusement and rarely appearing before Mab in the same form twice.
Today the gnome bowed low before her, dressed in some bizarre costume that he'd plucked from some past or future era. Frik, like Mab, existed outside of Time, and could see into the future as easily as into the past, and he was dressed now in a pair of grey-striped trousers and a black coat that hung down in two tails behind. The costume seemed to amuse him greatly.
It did not amuse Mab.
"You saw it all. You were eavesdropping again, weren't you?" Mab demanded.
"Ma'am?" Frik said, trying to look innocent.
"She denied me!" She closed her eyes in fury, clenching her fists. "The Lady of the Lake denied me!"
"I'm afraid your sister is rather indecisive when it comes to making decisions, Madame," Frik said obsequiously. "She never gives you the support you deserve."
"She deserves to be forgotten ‑- but I don't! We're on our own, Frik. You know what I mean to do, and now I must do it alone. I'd better get started."
At this her gnomish servant actually looked alarmed. "Don't you think you should at least wait a few days?" he asked, trying to be assertive and servile all at once. "To build up your strength?"
"There's no time," Mab snapped. "Our world is dying." She knew in her bones that Frik was mistaken. To rest would not restore her strength. Only the destruction of the new religion could do that. Every moment she delayed was another moment in which it grew stronger.
She sensed Frik backing away as she closed her eyes, drawing upon all of her power. A wizard, a leader, a savior for Britain. She concentrated upon that image, shaping it with her will, as all about her the crystals of her sanctuary glowed with enchantment, pulsing with color and light.
A figure began to form, reflected a thousand times in the hearts of the glowing crystals. Mab opened her eyes, unable not to look. She saw the image of a beautiful young man with light brown hair and piercing dark eyes.
He was perfect.
Merlin... Almost reverently Mab breathed his name. She would name him for the merlin-falcon, the swift and nimble bird that soared through Britain's skies. Merlin. A great weight of frustration and sorrow ‑- even guilt ‑- seemed to lift from her shoulders. She had been wrong in choosing Vortigern. One who could not wield the magic would never be the savior the Old Ways needed. But her Merlin, her wizard-prince, would be a creature of the magic itself. He could never betray the magic, any more than he could betray himself. He was not yet born, but already Mab tasted the hot joy of victory.
But thus far all she had cast was illusion, enchantment. Now she must give him life.
To create true things was the hardest thing there was for any of her kind to do. Her power and that of her kindred lay in the realm of illusion and dreams, not the material world. It was said that the most ancient of her kind had sung that whole world into existence where before there had been nothing but the Void, but if that were true it had been long ago, in the morning of the world when the powers of the fairyfolk were at their height. Now, weakened by centuries of battles and losses, Mab struggled to reach beyond herself, to draw upon the very power that kept her alive in order to give life to her illusion, to make her Merlin real.
My champion ‑- child of magic ‑- protector of the Old Ways ‑- the thoughts in her mind scattered like a shower of sparks from the Beltane fires that marked the turning of the year, but the image of Merlin stayed bright and true within her. Only she could give him life. Only she could save them all.
I cannot do this alone!
She could not do what she had first intended, and instantly create the grown man of her vision. She was too weak for that, and so Merlin must begin as a spark in a mortal woman's belly, and grow to manhood the way the mortal kind did. Frantically, the power growing in her moment by moment, she cast about for a suitable vessel.
He must be born a prince and the son of princes‑- An image of her Merlin raised within the walls of a noble house, wearing the golden coronet of rank upon his head and dressed in furs and velvets filled her mind for an instant. Yes. That was as it should be. Let the mortal kind bow down to him from the first instant of his life.
Suddenly her whole being was jarred by the clangorous sound of iron bells ‑- Christian bells, ringing out their holy music over the land that Mab was fighting to reclaim for her own. Avalon. Her search had brought her to Avalon.
Mab knew that the nobility often sent its soft pretty daughters there to be schooled in safety. So be it. She would find the vessel for her Merlin here and at the same time, strike a blow against the powers she so hated. With a sigh almost of relief, Mab freed the burgeoning power she had summoned. It welled up and through her, power drawn from the very fabric of the Earth itself. She held nothing back ‑- if it cost her everything she was, still she would do this thing. Her very bones tingled as she summoned all her arts, drew power from every source and shaped it to her will. For Merlin ‑- for Britain ‑- for the Old Magic ‑-
At last it rushed from her grasp, taking everything that she was ‑- her fire, her heart, all the best of her ‑- with it. Somewhere out there in the world, her Merlin took form, took life, took wing like the owl upon the wind.
And only Darkness remained in the cavern beneath the Hollow Hills.
Elissa heard the churchbells chiming on the wintery air, ringing out the glory of the blessed Nativity. When midnight came, the doors of the Grail Chapel would open, and all who could manage to fit inside would crowd in to hear Mass in the presence of the blessed Cup. But until that time, Elissa watched before the altar in the Grail Chapel alone.
She had become a novice only last month, but the Father Abbot said that if she studied and prayed hard she might become a professed nun as early as the spring. The thought made her wriggle with excitement, though she tried hard not to succumb to the distraction of idle thoughts. It was a great honor to be chosen to watch over the Grail, especially on this holiest of nights.
Though preparations for a great Christmas feast were going on everywhere throughout the Abbey, Elissa did not feel left out. It was wonderful beyond imagining to be able to spend this time alone in the presence of the Grail, its soft radiance shining down upon her alone and mingling with the light of the dozens of candles lit in the Sanctuary. If Giraldus got his way, these wonderful hours would end.
Since the summer the Grail had healed Ambrosia, there had been dissention here in Avalon. Brother Giraldus and others who sided with him, thought that the Grail should be kept locked safely away like the great treasure it was, so that no Pagan could profane it by their touch or presence. This was the faction that thought as the old king had, that their mission must be to convert the heathen to the new religion by any means ‑- or failing that, execute them so that they could work no more wickedness. Fortunately the Father Abbot who ruled over their small community believed as their founder Saint Joseph of Arimathea had: that the Grail's magic should be free to all who sought it, and that Love must be their ultimate law.
Elissa sighed faintly, keeping her eyes fixed upon the shining Cup. People made everything so complicated, when surely there was one simple truth that bound them all together, Pagan and Christian. Perhaps when she became one of the healing sisters she would be able to work toward its discovery, so that they could all live together in peace. It must be possible, for Elissa knew that Ambrosia was a good woman, nothing like the Pagans Giraldus preached of when he'd had a little too much wine. She wondered how many Pagans Giraldus had actually seen, for he had come to Avalon as a small child, just as she had.
Suddenly, as if it were a divine punishment for her irreverent, uncharitable thoughts, the doors to the chapel burst inward with a sound like the rushing of great wings, and a black wind blew out all the candles.
"Who's there?" Her voice was cracked and high with fear.
The darkness seemed to pluck at her with a thousand tiny hands. She shrunk away from the touch, whimpering with terror. The chapel, so welcoming and friendly moments before, was now as cold as the wind blowing in from over the sea, filled with a presence whose rage and triumph filled Elissa with agonized despair. She wanted to scream for help, but the presence of the malign spirit that had somehow entered this holy place seemed to stifle her cry stillborn. There was no light anywhere ‑- she could not see the Grail ‑- and as she sprang to her feet and tried to run, the long full skirts of her novice's habit tripped her and sent her sprawling across the cold stone.
This is my fault! It's because I made fun of
But she could not complete that thought, for suddenly her whole body was pierced with a spear of pure liquid agony. It was as if she had been struck by a bolt of black lightning that meant to burn her to ash and remake her as some creature of the darkness. She drummed her fists against the cold stone of the chapel floor and could not feel the blows. Every nerve in her body sang with the vengeful Power that had come upon her in the holiest place in all Christendom.
Because of her. It must be because of her. Hers the guilt, and hers the blame.
At last the agony passed, and her body was her own again. She screamed as loud as she could, a keening wail of pain and loss and guilt that took the last of her strength with it.
The next thing she knew she was being shaken roughly. Elissa opened her eyes, for a moment not knowing where she was or how she'd come here, and gazed up into the angry face of Brother Giraldus.
"Where... ?" she began, but he did not give her a chance to ask the question.
"Fool! Strumpet! What have you done!" Giraldus shouted at her, dragging her to her feet.
Her head ached and the chapel seemed to spin about her. With dazed miserable eyes Elissa looked around herself. The only light came from half a dozen torches carried by the crowd that filled the chapel. The candles were all quenched, and the High Altar was empty.
"I‑- I‑- I‑-" Elissa stammered, but she knew there were no words that could do any good in the face of this disaster. No comforting presence glowed there to heal and encourage. The Grail was gone.
And with a terrible, impossible certainty, Elissa ‑- Princess Elissa, daughter of Queen Morgause of Orkney ‑- knew that she was with child.