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Authors: Gillian Bradshaw

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BOOK: Hawk of May
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On the day of Samhain I went to her room for the usual lesson. But most of the day we did nothing but read. Morgawse had bought a Roman poem called the
Aeneid
from a travelling merchant for the value of ten cows in gold. She had seventeen books, which were worth a frightening amount, and I had read all of them. I was enjoying the
Aeneid
more than any of the others, though it was full of strange names and I understood very little of it. I regretted that we had only the first six books, the first half of the poem, and that we had nearly finished these.

“…sic orsa loqui vates: ‘sate sanguine divum, Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averni: Noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis; sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras, hoc opus, hic labor est.'”

I smoothed the page and began translating again: “Thus the…prophet?”

“Or poet,” Morgawse murmured. “Like an ollamh.”

“Thus the prophet began to speak: ‘You who are sprung from the blood of gods, Trojan, son of Anchises, easy is the descent of Avernus: night and day the gate of black Dis is open; but to recall your step and to come out to the upper air, this is toil, this labor…,” I stopped, swallowing suddenly. “Avernus. That is Yffern, isn't it? The Dark Otherworld?”

She nodded, her eyes cold and amused. “Does that frighten you, my hawk?”

I put my hand over the page, shaking my head, but the catch was still in my throat. Easy is the descent, but to recall your steps…She was still looking at me.

“Very well, enough for today,” she said. “And what do you think of Aeneas now, my hawk?”

“He still…he relies upon his mother, the goddess, for everything. I don't really like him. Not as much as CuChulainn, or Connall Cearnach, or Noíse Mac Usliu. And yet…”

“Och, it is an ill thing to rely upon one's mother, then?” she said, laughing, and I looked at her and felt my face grow hot.

“She was less of a goddess than you,” I said.

“Prettily said! Aeneas is weak, and so is his mother Venus. And yet, the Romans consider this their greatest poem. They were not artists. They could not understand the depths of a thing, the passions of the soul. They built a strong empire on the blood of men, and made good roads. Other than that…Arthur is half a Roman.”

“He is? But I thought all the Romans left a long time ago.”

“The legions left. ‘Defend yourselves,' Theodosius told the provinces of the Britains, ‘for we cannot defend you any longer.' But they left their memory, men willing to try to set up a fallen empire. In the south, many still think like Romans. Arthur does. That is why he leads the Britons against the Saxons: he wishes to preserve the last stronghold of the empire against the barbarians, one nation defending itself against another. He does not see that Britain is no more one nation than the Saxons are. His is a peculiar way of viewing things, and has many weaknesses. I know them. I have seen and known Arthur.”

She fell silent, thinking, smiling.

“Come here tonight,” she said in a low voice after a long time. “I have planned that tonight you will have your initiation into real Power. It is a good night for it. I will have you accepted by the Darkness, my son, and you will see why I am strong. After tonight, you will have Power as I do.”

I heard, nodded, bowed, and left the room without saying anything. I saddled my horse and went for a long ride out by the sea. I could not stay in Dun Fionn. But with each step my horse made I became more afraid, anticipating something I did not know. I had seen deeply into the Darkness by then, and it frightened me. I desired to be like my mother, to have Power and escape from the fear, but I found the Power still more fearful. I did not know what I wanted, now, but I would go that night.

I realized that the path was familiar, and found that I was going to Llyn Gwalch. Well, why not?

I reached the place where the stream fell over the cliff's edge, combing the gravel with clear fingers. There was a light mist that day, which turned all the low hills so soft a shade of green that it seemed they would dissolve into the gentle sky. The sea beat-beat at the cliff, a sound as constant as my heart. It seemed to me that I had never heard it before.

I dismounted and hobbled my horse, then climbed carefully down the path.

When I reached the beach with its little pond, everything seemed smaller than I remembered it, and I realized how long it had been, and how much I must have grown. But it was still beautiful. My old dreams hung about it yet, glowing faintly in my mind with colors brighter than those of earth. The pond was infinitely deep, still and clear, dark in shade because of the multi-hued gravel lying rounded in its bottom. The sea clutched at the beach, hissed on the stones, and sighed out. Its smell was salt and strong, wild, infinite, and sad. A seagull flew over my head, flapping and gliding. It wailed, once, and some more sea-birds hidden in the mist cried back.

I went over to the pool and knelt by it, drank from it, then studied my reflection. A boy, looking fourteen or older, stared back. Thick black hair, held back with a bit of worn leather. Smooth skin still dark from the summer, a face slightly resembling Morgawse's in the shape of the bones. A thoughtful face whose dark eyes met mine openly, trying to look into the confused mind that lurked behind them. It was so very dark in there.

Who is this Gwalchmai? I wondered. A name, but what beyond that? Something beyond my understanding.

I leant back on my heels and looked up at the grey sky. I remembered those dreams I had had of myself as a great warrior, and the dreams that had come at night, the sword burning with light, tattered shreds of glowing color, and, above them all, the song rising from nowhere. Like the sound of a harp played elsewhere on an empty day, but sweet enough for a man to leave his life behind to hear it better. I remembered playing with boats in that very place, sending them out, so far out, into the open sea, dreaming of the Land of the Ever Young. Lugh's Hall, with its walls woven of gold and white bronze and its roof thatched with the wing-feathers of birds. The sea pounded and sighed on the shore, and the birds keened. I wondered what had happened, and where the Darkness had begun. I felt like a man looking back on his childhood, and I wondered if one could truly be a man at fourteen, and what it was that I had lost. I sat and listened to the gulls, drawing my cloak around me. Tonight it would end. Tonight, truly, it would end.

***

The night was one of wind and broken moonlight which poured raggedly through the clouds driven over the moon, only to be whipped away again. Crossing the yard from the hall, where I slept most of the time now, to the room of Morgawse the Queen, I looked up at the moon's worn face and thought of the old prayers to it. Gem of the night, breast-jewel of heaven…How many, I wondered, had looked up at her face through the years? Warriors planning raids by her light, lovers laughing to her, druids and magicians praying to her, poets making songs to her, all these she must have seen countless times. But surely, it was all chance whether she shone or no, and I could expect no help from her. And perhaps, when I returned this way, I would no longer want any.

The very air seemed to be vibrating when I reached my mother's room, as if with the aftermath of a scream. The door-bolt shivered in my hand like a living thing. There was power in the air, so much dark power that it was hard to breathe.

My mother had already prepared the room. The floor had been laid bare, and the wall-hanging raised so that no light could enter. She had dug a trench across the middle of the floor, and made designs about it with white barley and water, and set candles around it. She stood now in the middle of the room in a gown of a red so dark that it appeared almost black, her bare arms pale and strong and cold-looking in the eerie light. Her hair fell about her, a river of gleaming darkness down to her waist; she was barefoot and ungirded, since it was a time to loosen knots and not to bind them. She was drawing a design in the air about the final candle.

I felt a weakness rise in me, gripping my stomach with icy hands, unstringing my knees. Darkness lay in the air, thick, smothering. I wanted to cry out, beat at it with my hands, run, not looking back to what might follow from the corners of my mind.

I closed the door softly and stood silent, waiting until Morgawse was finished.

She set the final candle down and straightened. She was very tall, and the Darkness hung about her like a cloak, so that all the candle flames bent towards her like seaweed towards a whirlpool. She seemed more than ever to be not of the Earth, but a queen in some other realm. Terrified, I loved her. She smiled when she saw me, a smile blurred by the flickering of the flames and by the darkness she wore around her, but her smile still, secret and triumphant.

“Good,” she said. Her voice seemed to come from a deep void, colder than January ice. “Go over there. Stand, be still, wait, and watch what I do.”

I obeyed her.

She took a jug of something red,—wine or blood, I was not sure which. If it was not blood, there would be blood before the night was ended. She poured it over the design she had already traced, muttering strange words which I had heard separately before. Then she broke the jug and put half of it at each end of the trench. She turned to me again.

“Could you follow that?”

I nodded, not trusting my voice.

She smiled again and turned to one of the wall-hangings.

Just then, the door opened.

I whirled in guilt and terror, expecting Lot to burst in with angry demands or with armed men. I was ready to fight him, and my hand was at the dagger in my belt.

In the doorway stood Medraut.

“Close the door,” Morgawse ordered calmly. “Stand there, opposite Gwalchmai.”

“What…?” I asked. How could Medraut have stumbled on to this? I had been careful to tell him nothing. “Medraut, leave. Now. This is not for you.”

He looked at me in surprise, and then his wide innocent eyes fixed themselves on the pattern again with a fierce eagerness. “But Mother said I should come.”

I suddenly remembered how Medraut had stopped speaking about magic, about unexplained absences of his from training, about a thousand other little things I had never accounted for before, and the realization hit me so that I cried out, “No!”

He stared at me. “What do you mean? Morgawse has been teaching me Latin and witchcraft too. We can all learn together now. Oh, I know that you don't want me to, but it will be much better this way, you can't grudge me the Power that much.”

“No!” I repeated. “You cannot. You will destroy yourself, Medraut. The Darkness will crawl inside your mind and devour your soul until it has eaten all that is you and leaves only a shell. Go, while you can!”

He flushed. Morgawse stood, the rope for the hangings in one hand, watching. Her eyes were on me.

“Why?” asked my brother, growing angry. “You never gave a true reason. If this is so wrong, why are you here too? It is just that you don't want me to learn. You want to keep me a little
boy forever, while you become wise and powerful.”

“Medraut, that is false. It is wrong, but I am all wrong, and you are not, so you must not. Please, for your own sake.”

“So this is wrong, and Mother is wrong, too? That is impossible. Mother is…” His eyes sought and found her, and his anger melted into adoration.

“Medraut, get out of here,” I said again, desperately, though he was not listening now. “Tonight we will do a very strong and dreadful magic.”

“I came for it,” he said. “I've been learning too, Gwalchmai…” And then he spoke in the language of sorcery. The ancient syllables spurted from his mouth like the yammering of some strange animal, incongruous, hideous beyond belief. I could not bear to listen and clapped my hands over my ears, staring at him, feeling the tears start to my eyes.

“It is enough,” said Morgawse. “Medraut will stay.”

I looked at her, ready to cry out in protest, but could not speak. The room became cold, achingly cold and dark. The candle-flames swam before my eyes, as if from miles away. I sobbed for breath in the black tide that drowned me.

Morgawse jerked back the wall-hanging.

One of my father's warriors lay there, bound hand and foot. I had known there would be blood. The man's eyes above the gag were wild with fear, running about the room without fixing on anything. I recognized Connall of Dalriada.

“Oh,” I said. There was a sick taste in my mouth.

“He went to Lot and told him of my oath,” said Morgawse. “I fulfill a promise. We will do to him as we did to the lamb last month, but a man is better for these things.” She smiled again, looking at Connall. “Pull him to the center.”

Medraut stepped forward. I stood, staring, sick. Connall's eyes met mine. His held the knowledge of horrible death.

I looked at Medraut and thought of what he had said: “So this is wrong, and Mother is wrong…”

Lastly, I looked at Morgawse, and for the first time saw her without illusion: a power wrapped in human flesh, long ago consuming the mind that had invoked it. A dark power, a Queen of Darkness. She had summoned it as a servant for her hate, had welcomed its control when she controlled it, and every day became more it and less herself. A power that drank life and hope and love like wine. Ancient beyond words, evil beyond thought, hideous despite its beauty, the creature stood there and gazed on me with a black, insatiable hunger.

I screamed and my hand rose to ward it off, and I saw that I held my dagger.

Her face changed, became as a woman's again, turning to fury. She lifted her arms, and power surrounded her leaping up like fire.

“Gwalchmai!” Medraut was shouting. “What are you doing?”

“Get out,” I said, finding my voice steady. “This has not been Morgawse, daughter of Uther for years. You must get out, while there is still time. If you love me, if you love your life, get out of here!”

BOOK: Hawk of May
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