MERLIN: THE KING'S WIZARD
Chapter One: The Throne of the Greenwood
His name was Merlin, and he was the child of the Queen of Air and Darkness and a mortal maiden. His human mother Elissa had died when he was born, and he had grown up happy and free in the deep forest under the care of his foster-mother Ambrosia ... until the day that the Queen of the Old Ways, Queen Mab, had taken him to learn the arts of magic in her land under the hill.
To become a wizard.
At the time it had seemed like such a simple thing to become a wizard, passing through the three stages of magic to become a Wizard of Pure Thought, but Merlin had quickly realized that things weren't simple at all. He'd come to perceive that Mab saw him as nothing more than a pawn in her plan to restore the Old Ways to a Britain increasingly falling beneath the spell of Christianity ‑- and that Mab saw no difference between Good and Evil, so long as she got her own way.
Perhaps it came from being half-human, but Merlin did see a difference between Good and Evil. Under his foster-mother's guidance, Merlin had chosen the ways of the Good, and that simple choice had set him and Mab upon opposing paths. He would do anything to keep from becoming her tool for changing the world from what it was to something it could no longer be.
Inevitably the day had come when Merlin had fought against his magical mentor.
"I'll never forgive you ‑- never!" Merlin shouted. He held his foster-mother's body in his arms.
"I'm sorry about your mother and Ambrosia, but they were casualties of war," Mab said insincerely. "I'm fighting to save my people from extinction."
But to fight this war, Mab had sacrificed everything that would make it worth living.
"I don't care if you die and disappear," Merlin said furiously. Mab had killed Ambrosia out of spite ‑- and to reclaim Merlin's loyalty. He knew that in her total heartlessness, the Queen of the Old Ways would try any trick, take any hostage... .
"I will, unless I fight and win!" Mab assured him seriously. "That was why you were created." To be Mab's tool against the New Religion, to bring pain and suffering to thousands just like Ambrosia.
"I will never help you," Merlin vowed.
"You will," Mab purred, her green eyes gleaming with wolf-light. "I'll make you help me."
But he had sworn a bitter oath on the forest graves of his mother and his foster-mother ‑- both now dead through Mab's treachery ‑- that he would never use his wizard's powers except to defeat Queen Mab.
But Merlin now knew how infinitely clever and treacherous Mab was, and that was why no action was safe. His only safety from Mab lay in being more cunning than she was, more clever. So Merlin would follow the way that Mab's sister, the Lady of the Lake, had unfolded to him in the Land of Magic. Merlin would study wisdom, not magic, and all of Mab's plots to make him her tool would fail.
But as the years passed, Merlin realized that though he had not lost his fight against Mab, he hadn't won it either. Though Merlin had escaped the twisting paths of the Land of Magic to live safe and unmolested in the forest that had been his childhood home, he knew that in the world beyond the forest, Queen Mab was still scheming and planning to make her dreams for him come true.
His visions told him so.
The ability to dream true was not a talent that Merlin had learned in the Land of Magic or a gift granted by the Lady of the Lake. It was a skill that he had been born with, something in his blood from earliest childhood. Now that he had turned away from wizardry, Merlin's prophetic dreams were much stronger, and through the years, he had come to rely on them. Though his dreams always came true, sometimes they were so confusing that he didn't realize the truth they contained until it was too late. But they were the only weapon he had. As a boy, Merlin had cherished dreams of being a valiant knight, but his wizardhood had forced him to set aside his boyhood dreams long ago.
Through his dreams Merlin watched all of Britain as it writhed in the terrible grip of its tyrant king, Vortigern. Vortigern the Saxon ruled as he had for Merlin's entire lifetime. He crushed all rebellion with an iron hand. He was neither Christian or Pagan, and there were only two things he could not control.
One was the Great Dragon, Draco Magnus Maleficarum. The fire-breathing monster ravaged the West Country with his insatiable appetite for flesh. Only magic could defeat the Great Dragon, and King Vortigern was no wizard: instead, the King preferred to slake the beast's appetite with flocks of sheep and the occasional virgin sacrifice, rather than fight it and lose. Vortigern wished to save his army for other things, like his other great nemesis, Prince Uther.
Prince Uther was hungry for more than roast mutton. He was the rightful heir to old King Constant, from whom Vortigern had stolen his blood-soaked throne. As a child, Uther had been smuggled out of Britain, and grown to manhood exiled in France. All his life he'd been waiting for his chance to take back what was his by right of inheritance, gathering ships and men across the channel in Normandy. Now that he was grown, Prince Uther wanted two things: his father's throne and Vortigern dead. And he would wait no longer to attain either of his desires.
Merlin's visions told him that Uther would soon meet the king on the battlefield, but his visions did not tell him whether the Old King or the Young Prince would win the war to come, nor what the cost to Britain would be of the winner's victory.
A high one, no matter who wins, Merlin thought with a sigh. There had never been a year of his life when Britain had been free from the shadow of war. Even if Uther gave up his hopes of the crown and settled peacefully in France, there would still be war in Britain, for Vortigern had no heir to set upon the throne when he died, and Vortigern's nobles watched the aging king hungrily, each one certain that he would be king hereafter.
Wolves have better manners than that lot, Merlin thought sourly as he opened his eyes, shaking off the last of sleep. His night had been restless, filled with dreams of dragons and swords.
He stretched and sat up, looking around the snug forest cottage that had been his home from earliest childhood. He had been born in this very room, to a mother who had died only moments later, the first victim of Mab's meddling in his life. Since he had returned from the Land of Magic years before, the little hut in which his foster-mother Ambrosia had raised him had been his home and his whole world.
It was late autumn, a few weeks past Samhain. Unconsciously, Merlin always expected trouble to come at the beginning of the dark half of the year, and when the festival time had passed, he assumed the rest of the year would be quiet. But the morning wind had brought him the news that strangers trespassed in his beloved forest. There was danger afoot.
Merlin rolled to his feet, shivering in the cold of the small forest hut. He'd slept in his clothes: a rough tunic of brown homespun and leggings over which he wore a long vest of deerskin to protect him from the worst of the winter cold.
Wind whistled through chinks in the thatch of the cottage, and Merlin moved quickly to poke up the fire on the hearth, holding his hands out to the warmth he raised. Without the use of his wizard's powers, he was as helpless as any mortal man before the forces of Nature. Fire was the earliest magic, and a touch of wizardry would warm him, but he would not use his magic for his own comfort. It was reserved for only one purpose: Mab's destruction.
As he prepared his simple breakfast of herbal tea and acorn bread, Merlin's mind was far from the simple homely tasks. What did the coming of the strangers mean to the peace and quiet of the life he had made for himself here in the greenwood? While a part of him hoped he would be let to live out his life within the confines of Barnstable Forest, he had always known that this was an unattainable dream. He had always known that his fate would find him someday.
And suddenly, someday was today.
As he had learned to do over the years, Merlin awaited what was to come calmly. He finished his morning meal and then went out into the clearing in the forest to meditate. He sank down gracefully into a seat amid a drift of autumn leaves. All around him the circle of young trees stood like the pillars of a cathedral ‑- a cathedral of the Old Ways that grew from the living earth, and was not made of dead stone as were the churches the New Religion built.
As soon as the thought came to him, Merlin pushed it away. To think in terms of the Old Ways versus the New Religion was to fall into the same trap that Queen Mab had, a trap made of hatred and distrust. Merlin chose to walk a third path, neither of Black Magic or White Light, a path grey as mist, where everything must be judged upon its own merits. He would not hate the New Religion nor follow the Old Ways. He would simply be as he had always been: Merlin the Wizard.
As he closed his eyes and settled into a meditative trance, the forest seemed to unfurl below him as though he were a bird soaring far above its leafy canopy. In the eye of his imagination, he could see glints of metal far below, the helmets and lances of his uninvited guests. They were warriors wearing the sign of the White Dragon: soldiers of the King.
Why had Vortigern sent them? Even as he wondered, Merlin knew he would have to wait for that part of his answer. He was only a thread in a pattern that forces greater than himself had begun to weave long ago, and over the years Merlin had learned to save his strength for the most important battles.
At midday he finally heard them approach ‑- a troop of mounted soldiers crashing through the winter-killed underbrush. There were half a dozen of them, and riding at their head was an old man dressed as a Druid, though the reigns of two draconian kings had managed to nearly wipe that ancient priesthood from the face of Britain.
So Vortigern has discovered he now has some use for magic? Merlin thought to himself. This should be interesting.
He got to his feet and turned to face the soldiers just as they entered the clearing.
Their captain was a man of a type Merlin knew all too well: a brute, but a clever one, who served a ruthless master with efficiency and without conscience. The old Druid riding with him simply looked terrified, but despite that he was obviously the real leader of the little party. "Seize that man!" the Druid blustered, pointing an accusing finger at Merlin.
Merlin tried his most disarming smile. "Welcome to my home, sir," he said mildly. "How can I help you?"
To live in perfect trust was the first lesson that magic taught. As the years had passed here in his forest home, Merlin had learned to live and act as if he expected goodness from all men, and such was the power of expectation that he had rarely been disappointed. Even now such humble sorcery worked its subtle magic. The old Druid dismounted from his horse, and when he spoke again, his tone was very different.
"Well, er, the king wants to see you," he said in apologetic tones, taking a step toward Merlin ‑- or more precisely, away from his armored companions.
Now that he was close enough, Merlin could see how the old man's face was marked by lines of care and worry ‑- though that was hardly unusual with Vortigern on the throne.
"You have only to ask," Merlin said gently. Because of his forest seclusion, Merlin had been spared most of the fear that the ordinary people of Britain faced in their daily lives. But if Vortigern was asking for him, Merlin knew that Queen Mab must somehow be behind it.
"You'll come voluntarily?" The old Druid did his best to conceal his surprise. "Ah, that's good. Most people are reluctant to meet King Vortigern. In fact they're usually dragged in screaming. Not that I blame them," he added hastily. The last of the pretense of command seemed to leave him now; as he sighed, his shoulders drooped and he suddenly looked like what he was: a frail, frightened old man in the grip of forces larger than himself.
"I'm the King's Soothsayer," he explained dolefully.
Even Merlin in his isolation had heard of Lailoken, Vortigern's Soothsayer. No wonder the old man looked so weary. The poor creature was hated by the Christians for his pretence of Pagan wizardry and despised by the pagans for serving Vortigern. It was a hard life when you fit in nowhere, and no one knew that better than Merlin, who was himself half-fairy, half-mortal.
"An important position?" Merlin asked Lailoken politely. Vortigern was notorious for ignoring advice, no matter what its source. He wasn't likely to pay any more attention to his soothsayer than he did to his generals.
"And a fragile one," Lailoken agreed. "I'm the third Royal Soothsayer this year."
"He must get through them at an alarming speed," Merlin commented. He did not need to ask why the previous soothsayers had retired. There was only one way to retire when you worked for Vortigern.
By now the rest of the soldiers had spread out around the clearing, surrounding him and incidentally cutting off his path of escape. Merlin saw that Vortigern's men had come well-prepared: all of them were armed to the teeth. More to the point, they'd brought a spare horse for him to ride.
"He gets through everything at an alarming speed," Lailoken said gloomily, as if agreeing with Merlin's thoughts. The soothsayer shuddered, glancing at the ring of soldiers surrounding them both, and then, as if only now remembering his duty, said: "You are Merlin, the man without a mortal father?"
"Yes," Merlin answered, wondering why Lailoken was asking. There was no point in denying who ‑- or what ‑- he was: a wizard, created by the Queen of the Old Ways to be her champion and born of a mortal mother ‑- but a champion who would not fight, and a wizard who rejected magic.
"I'm afraid the king wants you urgently," Lailoken sighed. He seemed to sincerely regret his part in the proceedings, whatever it was.
Without being asked, one of the soldiers led the riderless horse into the clearing. The man's expression said clearly ‑- though silently ‑- that Merlin would mount the animal one way or the other. Bowing to the inevitable, Merlin vaulted gracefully into the saddle, and from that vantage point took a last look around his forest home.
Something within him told him that it would be a very long time before he saw it again.
In moments, Merlin and Lailoken were surrounded by mounted soldiers whose horses were moving at a brisk trot along the road that led out of the forest, the road that led west... toward Castle Pendragon, and the King.
In the month since the last architect had been executed, little had changed here on the Welsh border. The building blocks of what was intended to be Vortigern's most formidable castle still lay scattered across the landscape as if they had been dropped by an angry giant. The tents which sheltered the members of the court obliged to attend the king here still decorated the grassy plain near the ridge like bright mushrooms. Beyond them, the tents housing the workers and soldiers spread in somber and orderly rows. All day long, masons and laborers toiled to repair the destruction of the tower's last collapse. All of them hoped there would not be another ‑- none more fervently than the man who huddled over a table of curled velum drawings, cringing beneath the King's bright gaze. He was not the best builder in all of Britain, but he was certainly the most unlucky, for no architect in the last ten years had been able to make Vortigern's fortress stand.
"It'll hold this time, Your Majesty, never fear," Paschent said nervously.
"I never have," Vortigern said simply.
It was no more than the truth. For more than two decades, the Saxon king had ruled Britain as king by right of conquest, and he had done it without help from either magic or religion. But Time had taken its toll, and now the aging ruler, his kingdom beset by threats from within and without, was willing at last to seek out new alliances. It was why he had demanded that his soothsayer discover why the tower would not stand, even though Vortigern had never found that magic could accomplish anything muscle could not.
As he regarded Paschent, there was a sudden rumble from behind him.
He heard the screams of desperate men, the scraping sound made by granite blocks as they ground together like monstrous teeth chewing workmen to pulp. The ground shook as the walls bulged and buckled, spitting out building stones that struck the earth like the footsteps of giants. Suddenly the air was thick with rock dust and the powdered mortar which rose from the destruction like morning mist before beginning to drift down the hill. The screams of the dying dwindled to whimpers and sobs, and the frightened murmurs of the survivors were punctuated with urgent cries for help.
Through all of the upheaval, Vortigern didn't turn around. He didn't need to. He could see all he needed to see in the architect's face.
"You were saying?" Vortigern's voice was soft with menace. His hand dropped to the dagger at his belt and he watched Paschent's face go grey with the realization of the magnitude of his failure.
"Your Majesty!" a voice called from behind him.
Vortigern turned away from the trembling architect. A troop of his soldiers had just ridden into camp with the soothsayer at their head. Lailoken actually looked pleased to see Vortigern. This was an event so unusual that it took the king's mind completely off the latest collapse of his stronghold.
There was a young man with Lailoken, an unprepossessing lad dressed in threadbare rags and animal skins. Vortigern was surprised: Lailoken had actually found the fabulous creature he'd gone in search of.
The old Druid dismounted hurriedly and shuffled toward the king. The young man stayed by the horses, regarding the camp with watchful eyes.
"Your Majesty, I've found him ‑- the man without a mortal father!" Lailoken announced excitedly.
Merlin contemplated the king with interest. This was his first actual sight of the man who had haunted his entire life with his blood-stained deeds, the man who had persecuted Christians and pagans with a monstrous even-handedness. Perhaps unconsciously Merlin had expected to see a misshapen creature as fearsome as any he had encountered in the Land of Magic, but Vortigern was only a mortal warlord.
In a way, Vortigern reminded Merlin of Idath, Lord of the Wild Hunt and the Kingdom of Winter. And Idath, like the winter cold, could be a fearsome enemy.
"If this is another of your moth-eaten tricks‑-!" the king snarled, and Merlin saw Lailoken cringe back. The wind on this hilltop cut through Merlin's tattered clothing like a knife, and Merlin could see the more-warmly-dressed Lailoken shiver with more than cold. He took a few steps forward, knowing that there was nothing he could do to save the old man from Vortigern's capricious wrath.
"No ‑- no!" the old man protested. "It's all true."
Vortigern turned his attention to Merlin, and the impact of the king's arctic gaze caused Merlin to take an unconscious step toward him.
"There's only one way to find out," the king growled. With a swift stride forward, Vortigern punched Merlin in the stomach. "Get a knife and a bowl and cut his throat."
Merlin fell to the ground, gasping for breath. The winter-dry grass crackled beneath his weight. He could dimly hear Vortigern calling for someone to cut his throat, and Lailoken's feeble protests. Merlin shook his head sharply, hoping to clear it, and struggled painfully to his feet, still panting from the pain.
"He doesn't look much like a wizard," Vortigern commented.
"You caught me by surprise," Merlin answered honestly. What did Vortigern see when he looked at Merlin? A sacrifice for some ritual the Saxon didn't even believe in? "Why do you want to cut my throat?"
"It's not personal," Vortigern said. There was a dagger in his hand. "I have to mix your blood with the mortar in the castle. This toothless old fool says its the only way to make the building stand. You'll die easier knowing you die for your country." Vortigern smiled mirthlessly.
It wasn't hard for Merlin to suppose who had put such an outlandish idea into the king's head. Queen Mab must think that if Merlin was faced with death, he would have to draw on the power of the Old Ways to save himself, breaking the oath he had sworn over Ambrosia's grave.
But Mab was wrong. Merlin had other resources than magic to draw upon. He had his heart, his will, and his mind.
"I'm afraid your Majesty is giving the impression of being invincibly stupid," Merlin said kindly.
Vortigern's head snapped around. "What was that last word?" the king asked dangerously.
"Stupid," Merlin repeated clearly.
There was an electric moment of absolute silence, as everyone who had been close enough to hear what Merlin had just said held their breaths and pretended they hadn't.
Vortigern's face revealed nothing. Then, suddenly, the king roared with laughter. Relieved, the others joined in.
"This man thinks he's me!" Vortigern said, and then, barely pausing for breath, "Why did you call me stupid?"
Merlin took a deep breath and marshalled everything he knew of human nature. "Because it's obvious why you can't build a castle there. Look‑-"
He gestured, pointing confidently toward a narrow fissure in the cliff just below the castle. When he had been a young man growing up in the Barnstable Forest, Merlin had been taught natural history by an old hermit named Blaise. From the furrows in the rock, he could tell that a stream had flowed there a long time ago. He also knew that by now Vortigern must be looking for a face-saving excuse to abandon this building project without having to admit failure. Perhaps this could be it.
"I'm looking," Vortigern growled.
"I don't see anything," Paschent said, clutching his architect's tools nervously against his chest.
"Can't you see the stream?" Merlin asked persuasively. He visualized the stream in his mind as it must once have run, a sparkling rill leaping from rock to rock, and willed the others to imagine it as well.
"It runs into a great cavern below." And that meant that if Vortigern ever managed to get the tower to stand, its weight would cause it to collapse and break through the roof of the cavern below anyway.
"There's no water there ‑- I swear," Paschent said frantically.
"I can see it," Vortigern snarled menacingly, turning on his architect. "We can all see it. You wanted to build a castle on water?"
"But ‑- but ‑- but‑-" Paschent stammered.
Now was the moment when Merlin should have taken control of the situation, persuaded Vortigern that he'd discovered the underground stream through his own common sense, and found some way to slip invisibly away from the king's notice. But even as he formed the thought it floated away, just as his consciousness was. No! Not here! Merlin cried silently, but the force of the vision was too strong. Merlin became only a fragment of awareness, a leaf in the gale that was swirling him up to heaven. The mantle of prophecy descended upon him, blotting out everything else.
"That's not all that's wrong," he heard himself say distantly. "You've woken the dragons... ."
The outside world vanished. With his inner sight, Merlin saw the vast grey landscape of dreams, and on that infinite plain two mighty armies clashed. The winter chill no longer troubled him; though the wind was enough to loft the armies' banners into the sky, Merlin did not feel it. He was a disembodied observer, nothing more.
Above the two hosts flew their battle-standards: one a white dragon on a black field, the other a red dragon against a background as white as snow.
"I see two dragons, a red and a white... "
("My crest has a white dragon," Vortigern said excitedly.)
As the armies ran toward each other, the bright flicker of light on their swordblades became the dazzle of sunlight on the scales of two enormous dragons flying above them, one white as frost, one red as flame. As Merlin watched, the two beasts and the armies they embodied met in a clash of swords and scales. Their roaring deafened him, the screams of fury and pain chilled his blood.
In moments it was over. The dragons faded away to become pieces of cloth once more. The black banner hung limp and tattered, while the red dragon waved triumphantly against a sapphire sky.
Merlin blinked, refocusing on his surroundings with difficulty as the images of his vision slowly faded. Everyone was staring at him, some frightened, some hopeful.
"What did you see?" Vortigern demanded.
"The red dragon conquered the white," Merlin answered simply. He didn't believe in lying, and even if he did, he suspected it would be very unhealthy to lie to Vortigern, no matter what the truth was.
"It's an omen!" Lailoken said, before he remembered who his audience was. Vortigern's banner was the white dragon. "Er... wouldn't you say, Sire? I mean, it could be an omen... " the old man's voice trailed off uncertainly.
Vortigern looked from Lailoken to Merlin, his eyes narrow with suspicion. Merlin could tell that Vortigern had not quite decided what to do, but the king was legendary for swift and ruthless decision-making. He was obviously waiting for more information.
Just then, there was a clattering sound as a large party of knights rode into Vortigern's camp in a great hurry. Before the horses had stopped moving, the knight in the lead had vaulted from his horse and rushed to the king's side.
"Your Majesty ‑- Prince Uther has landed from Normandy with a great army!"
"He's marching on Winchester," said a second knight, coming up behind the first.
Vortigern's response was an elemental howl of rage. He glared at his men, about to leap into action against this new threat, when suddenly he remembered Merlin.
"You foresaw all this," Vortigern said, his voice a deadly adder's hiss.
"I am Merlin. I see things unknown," Merlin said, with more confidence than he felt at the moment. It was as much truth as boast, but saying it aloud made him uncomfortable. It seemed too much like tempting Mab to attack him.
"What are your orders, sire?" Vortigern's commander asked urgently.
"Gather my armies. We march on Winchester," Vortigern said, turning away from Merlin.
The wind caught the king's black cloak and filled it like a sail, whipping it away from his body so that his scaled golden armor gleamed in the sun. The king took no notice. His knights hurried to obey him, and all around them the camp began to seethe like a boiling cauldron as the news of Prince Uther's landing spread through it.
The construction of the tower that had obsessed Vortigern for the last seven years was forgotten as if it had never been. The king had a new and more urgent threat to face.
"Why doesn't it ever stop?" Vortigern asked, as if only to himself. Suddenly he drew his sword with one fluid motion and laid it against the side of Merlin's neck. "I've been fighting my enemies for twenty years. I crush one and another takes his place."
More knowledge than that of the white dragon's defeat had come to Merlin in his vision. He had a part to play in Vortigern's destruction, though he did not know precisely what it was yet. But perhaps through destroying Vortigern, he could strike at Mab as well.
"Perhaps you need me to foretell the future," Merlin said smoothly, trying to ignore the cold weight of the sword at his throat. "Then you could crush them all before they had a chance to cause trouble," he said.
The words were spoken lightly, but Vortigern took them at face value. "Yes, that would be helpful, Merlin," he said seriously.
"Of course, then you couldn't cut my throat," Merlin added.
"No... . You're obviously an extraordinary man." Vortigern lifted the sword away from Merlin's neck. "But I can't have extraordinary men running around loose."
Before Merlin could react, Vortigern leaped forward and struck Merlin a hammerblow to the side of the head with his mailed fist. The young man dropped senseless to the ground.
"You're just not quick enough," Vortigern said smugly to the unconscious wizard. "It's a mistake my enemies make, too. They always think before they act. I act before I think, so I act first! That's why I always have the advantage... ." He prodded Merlin with the toe of his boot, and then, satisfied that the young prophet wasn't shamming unconsciousness, motioned to his guard to take him away.
"Mount up! We ride for Pendragon Castle ‑- not you, you're out of a job," he added, pointing a minatory finger at Lailoken.
"But sire... " the old soothsayer quavered. He wasn't quite sure what Vortigern meant, but he knew that leaving the king's service was usually fatal.
Captain Rhys led Vortigern's black stallion forward. Vortigern vaulted into the saddle. He shouted with laughter, looking down at the expression on Lailoken's face. "Why so surprised? You must have known this would happen. You're an expert on the future!"
Vortigern rode away, still laughing. Lailoken stared after him for a moment, then began to shuffle in the opposite direction as fast as his old legs would carry him, lest the king change his mind. A moment later, Paschent joined him.
Pendragon Castle stood as it always had, a brooding presence looking down upon the River Thames from the ancient Roman city of Caer Londinium.
Once this city had been sacred to Lughd of the Long Hand and Bran of the Ravens, and ravens still flocked around the tallest tower of Castle Pendragon. But Bran and Lughd had been supplanted by Mars and Apollo and the eagles of Rome, and Lughd's Dene had become the City of Legions. In the end, even Rome had left, and for a time the New Religion had reigned here, until Vortigern had taken the throne by treachery and betrayal. Vortigern worshipped no power but his own dark ascending star, and in his name crimes were done that shocked the ancient stones of Pendragon Castle.
Princess Nimue sat in her inner chamber, her back resolutely turned to the narrow window-slit. Her embroidery sat forgotten on her lap. It was too dark to sew by now, and in any event she'd dismissed her waiting women ‑- most of whom were Vortigern's spies ‑- in order to savor a little precious solitude. Any time that she did not have to play-act for the king's benefit was priceless... the Princess Nimue had been given years in which to lose all taste for duplicity.
Her childhood dreams of freedom had all been for nothing ‑- she had simply exchanged her little lodging at Avalon Abbey for an equivalent cell within the walls of Pendragon Castle, and the life of a royal captive. Her world was still limited by blocks of stone and rules made by others.
Nimue did not like to think of how many years had passed since she had become King Vortigern's prisoner, one of the many men and women held by Vortigern as security for their fathers' good behavior. 'Hostage' was a kinder word, but the reality was the same: if she displeased the king, if her father Lord Ardent displeased him, Nimue would die.
Her life was not hard. Just as it had been at Avalon, her life at Pendragon Castle was circumscribed with prayer and study. Though here at Pendragon the omnipresent threat of death hung over her, Nimue found she did not fear death as much as she feared never having lived. Would she grow old here in her stifling stone cocoon, a caterpillar who never had the chance to become a butterfly?
If Uther took the throne, things would be different. Uther would unite the land and bring it under Christian rule once more. Nimue longed for his coming the way the nuns at the Abbey longed for the return of the Grail. When Uther came, there would be peace and justice at last.
Suddenly her thoughts were interrupted by the clatter of the gates being dragged open, and the shouting of many voices. Someone was coming to the castle ‑- from the sounds of it, a large party, and Nimue knew that the king was not expected to return to Pendragon for some months yet. She sprang to her feet and ran to the window, leaning as far out as she could in order to see. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dark.
The first thing she saw was the glitter of torches stretching in two lines up the road as far as she could see. It was an army! For a moment her heart leapt ‑- had Uther come? ‑- before she realized that the castellan would never have opened Pendragon's gates so easily to Vortigern's enemy. If there was an army outside Pendragon's gates, it was the king's. But why was Vortigern bringing his army here?
The outriders clattered through the open gates holding their torches high. The light glittered on the gold crown Vortigern wore upon his armored helm. She could see him plainly as the horsemen milled in the castleyard beneath her window, and Nimue drew back a little in fear the king might see her as well.
Vortigern had a new prisoner with him. Nimue watched as soldiers pulled the unconscious man from the back of the horse over which he had been tied like a sack of meal, and held him between them. Nimue could see that he was moving feebly ‑- Vortigern could see it too, and took a torch from one of his men, thrusting it toward the prisoner's face as he examined him closely.
Her fear forgotten, Nimue leaned out her window again, peering into the frigid dark. The prisoner bore an elusive familiarity, though he must be a peasant, dressed as he was in rags and animal skins. Who was he? How did she know him?
Satisfied with what he saw, Vortigern turned away and strode into the castle. The soldiers followed with their prisoner.
"My lady! My lady!"
Nimue barely had enough time to move away from the window and sit down again before Mistress Olwen burst into the room. The lady in waiting was agitated, her cheeks flushed and her wimple askew.
"My lady ‑- it is war! Uther has landed and attacked Winchester ‑- and they say a Pagan wizard saw it all and predicted it at the moment it happened!"
A wizard! Suddenly Nimue remembered where she'd seen Vortigern's prisoner before. They had met in a forest, many years before... .
It was amazing, Merlin reflected gloomily, how much difference being able to leave a place made to one's feelings about it. While it was true that his tiny cell was dark, wet, and freezing, he'd happily poked around in caves that were just as inhospitable. The only difference between the two was that he could have left the cave at any moment, and here an iron door barred his escape.
Merlin glanced toward the tiny window set high into one of the cell's slanting walls. It provided the only light and air the chamber got, though at the moment all it admitted was moonlight and frost. It, too, was barricaded with a grille of cold iron, but, like the door, it could provide no real obstacle to magic.
The power of the Old Ways could free Merlin in an instant, whisk him back to his woodland home and protect him from the king's anger. Merlin could feel its power pulsing at his fingertips, just waiting to be used. A word, a gesture, and he would be free... and lost. The moment he used his magic, Merlin placed himself more firmly in Mab's power, there to become her tool for every sort of evil.
A flicker of darkness appeared at the edge of his vision. Merlin turned, unsurprised, to see that Frik, Mab's gnomish servant, had appeared in his cell.
Mab always likes to keep a close eye on her triumphs.
On this occasion, Frik was not wearing any of the disguises he so loved, and his plain, close-fitting black cowl and garment made his pale face and long curving ears seem to float like disembodied shapes in the dimness. He smiled grotesquely at Merlin.
"Hello, Frik. How are you?" Merlin said easily. Frik was his only pleasant memory from his time in the Land of Magic. Frik had genuinely seemed to care for him. The gnome was Mab's servant, but he'd never tried to trick Merlin as Mab had. And he'd never killed anyone Merlin loved.
"Overworked and underpaid ‑- how terribly sweet of you to enquire," the gnome answered with toothy smile. He turned away, examining Merlin's cell fastidiously. "How did they ever make a vulgarian like Vortigern king?" he mused, with a moué of distaste for Merlin's surroundings. "You mortals have no sense of the fitness of things; how appalling."
Merlin shrugged. Frik drew himself up, seeming to recollect his purpose. "Anyway. I'm here with a message from Queen Mab."
"Naturally," Merlin said with a faint bitter smile.
"She's going to punish you," Frik announced portentously.
"She hates me," Merlin explained kindly. Perhaps the explanation was even necessary ‑- human emotions were largely a mystery to the Fair Folk.
"No," Frik corrected him with schoolmasterish fussiness, "but she's rather disappointed that you've refused to use your magic powers. Why won't you use them, Master Merlin?" Frik asked mournfully.
"Because Mab wants me to!" Merlin snapped. The hot force of his anger surprised even him ‑- after so many years, he'd thought his feelings for Mab had hardened into a cold hatred. He turned away from Frik, staring up and out through the grill, yearning for the open air. The night was clear and bitterly cold.
"You will in the end, you know," Frik said, with what almost sounded like compassion in his voice. He touched Merlin's shoulder gently. "She's a terrible enemy, Master Merlin, and a very poor employer. Well, I mean, I could tell you stories... ! But enough of my problems‑-" There was a ripple in the darkness, and Frik was gone in mid-sentence.
Merlin stretched his cramped arms, then blew on his fingers to try to warm them. Mab thought that confinement in this dismal prison cell would do what Merlin's self-imposed forest exile had not... but she was wrong.
If Mab is a terrible enemy, Frik, then so am I. She'll see that before this is over. I will not rest until my dead are avenged ‑- the dead, and the living as well... .
Princess Nimue slipped along the castle wall. Pendragon Castle seethed with activity, and the news that Winchester had fallen to Uther had seemed to madden Vortigern. Nimue's father was one of Vortigern's captains, loyal to him since before he became King. But after Vortigern executed Hawdes and Aerlius on the mere suspicion of treason, not even those who had been loyal longest dared to do anything that might anger him.
It had been a relief to everyone when Vortigern had finally ridden out to inspect the army massing a few miles away on the Downs, and Nimue had seized her chance. Vortigern's special prisoner was sure to be somewhere in the dungeons, and with winter coming on, the worst of the cells were the ones that were open to the outside air.
The first few cells Nimue checked were empty, but at last she came to one that was occupied. At the bottom of the narrow slanted shaft she could see a man dressed in deerskins and rude homespun lying on a crude cot.
"Merlin?" Nimue whispered softly.
He roused at the sound of his name and saw her. As he climbed from his bed and made his way stiffly to the window, Nimue could see how pale and haggard he looked. Ill as he was, though, his face lit up at the sight of her.
"Nimue!" he said.
If he climbed the rough wall as far as he could and stretched toward the sky, and she knelt and thrust her arm down between the bars of the grate, their fingers could just touch.
"Merlin ‑- it is you!" Nimue said, holding his fingers through the harsh iron bars. The years had turned him from a boy into a man, and there were new lines of care and worry in his face. "You said we'd meet again," she said, remembering that long-ago day. "I thought I recognized you last night when they brought you in... they said you were a wizard."
"I am," Merlin said, before he remembered Nimue was a member of the New Religion. Christians hated wizards with a special intensity because of the power of the Old Ways that flowed through them. But no shadow of that prejudice touched Nimue's face.
"Not much of one, if you can't even escape," she said, teasing him gently.
"I can, but I won't," Merlin said. "I'm Vortigern's prisoner, and so I'll stay. But why are you here, Nimue?"
"I'm a hostage," Nimue told him. She smiled wryly. "Vortigern wants to make sure my father doesn't join Prince Uther. The cage is bigger, but other than that there's not much difference between us."
"What difference there is, I'm grateful for," Merlin told her softly. She was more beautiful than he'd remembered, the lovely young girl having ripened into a desirable woman. He could almost be grateful to Vortigern for having brought them together again. "It seems I said the wrong thing when I told him Uther would defeat him."
"Oh, I hope you're right!" Nimue said, lowering her voice even further. "If he comes soon, I think there is hope for both of us."
Merlin wanted to ask what she meant, but a sudden sound behind her made Nimue rise to her feet. "I must go," she told him hurriedly. "I'll come again."
Merlin lost count of the passing days, but Nimue visited frequently, growing bolder as her visits went unnoticed.
Without Nimue Merlin would have died. She brought him food in secret, but though the winter nights were icy, and frost had begun to form upon the walls of his cell, she dared not bring him blankets, or anything his jailers would find. Merlin shivered without cloak or covers to warm him, but a worse torture than the cold was the imprisonment. Merlin was a creature of the wild open spaces. The man-made walls seemed to loom inward, crushing the life from his body, until he began to wonder if Vortigern had simply forgotten him, leaving him to die here alone.
Other than Nimue, Merlin's only companionship came from his visions; as he grew weaker, he drifted in and out of dreams, seeing jumbled meaningless images of events yet to be.
"Merlin!" Nimue's urgent whisper roused him.
He blinked, gazing upward toward the light. His body felt heavy, as though it was turning to stone in sympathy with the walls.
"Merlin!" she called again.
He wanted to tell her he heard her, but when he tried to speak, no words would come. He raised a hand weakly, and realized he could move no more than that. His visions always told him he would not die here, but lately he was coming to doubt them. And if he died here, had Mab won? Or had he?
"Merlin, what's wrong?" Nimue's voice was filled with unshed tears. "What has he done to you?"
"Nothing." Speech was an enormous effort, but somehow he managed it. "I just need... space to breathe. These four walls are suffocating me, Nimue." He looked up toward the window he could no longer reach.
"I won't allow that." Nimue's voice held a hardness he'd never heard before. "The king is back. I'm going to demand that he release you."
"Nimue!" Fear for her did what fear for himself could not ‑- but by the time Merlin had gotten to his feet, Nimue was gone.
It felt good to be at war again, the king decided. Vortigern was far more cheerful than he meant to let his captains know as he called them together in Pendragon's Great Hall for a council of war. When the two armies clashed next spring, the slaughter would be glorious. Uther had taken Winchester, and the Celts and Picts of the North were rising for him, but Vortigern held the South and the West. The Angles, the Saxons, and the Cornish would fight for the crown like demons, and the Welsh archers could put an arrow through the heart of a sparrow on the wing. Vortigern had nothing to fear. He had a trained army and years of experience. It would not be that hard to defeat a callow youth in his first battle, and in the process Vortigern thought he'd be able to get rid of a number of troublesome political enemies on his own side as well.
But in order to win his war, he first had to inspire his captains.
"Now... " Vortigern said, leaning forward on his throne.
At that moment there was a commotion outside the Great Hall. Suddenly the doors flew open and a young woman in a coronet and dark velvet mantle marched in. After a moment Vortigern recognized her: Nimue, Lord Ardent's daughter and one of the royal hostages.
"I didn't send for you," he observed.
"That's why I'm here," Nimue said calmly. His words didn't seem to faze her.
"I've killed men for such insolence," Vortigern said. All around him, the chamber was filled with the stifled sound of battle-hardened warriors trying not to be noticed.
"And women?" Nimue asked. She really wasn't afraid of him. Vortigern found this astonishing.
"Yes. And children," he said, smiling his predator's smile as he stalked toward her.
Astonishingly, Princess Nimue laughed. "See? I'm trembling," she said, holding out a steady hand.
"What makes you so brave?" Vortigern asked in wonder. He circled her menacingly.
"Knowing that if you hurt me, my father and his men will go over to Uther," Nimue said calmly.
Vortigern grimaced. Kill the girl and he lost his hold over Ardent, and his hold over the fathers of the other hostages weakened. He could not afford that, least of all now, when Uther waited ready to welcome any disaffected band of warriors to swell his army's ranks.
"Yes," he said consideringly, "that would make you brave enough to face me. So what do you want?"
"Merlin ‑- the wizard ‑- is sick."
"Then get him a physician," Vortigern growled, once he remembered who she was talking about. The moment was sliding from drama into farce, and if any of the fools gathered in this room laughed he'd have to kill the girl just to save face. Maybe he could feed her to the Great Dragon and kill two birds with one sacrifice.
"There's no cure but his freedom," Nimue announced.
"I can't give him that," Vortigern said. For a moment he wondered if somehow Nimue was in communication with Uther. Christian or not, Uther must know that a wizard as powerful as Merlin would be a great ally in the war to come.
"Then he'll die," Nimue said.
As if I care, Vortigern thought. A dead wizard could be of no use to his enemy, and that was more important than the aide Merlin could be to him. "We all die eventually," Vortigern said, sweeping his captains with a menacing glance. "Even wizards."
Nimue turned to go, as if she had given up. As she reached the doors she stopped and looked back, as if a thought had suddenly struck her.
"If he does, you'll never know about the battle. He's had another vision. Don't you want to know how to win?"