Authors: Judith Tarr
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Kingdom of the Grail
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Electronic edition: November, 2004
Pride of Kings
House of War
Rite of Conquest
For Jennifer Roberson
in honor of guilty pleasures
With special thanks to Catja Pafort
for matters geographical
Well has Merlin spoken the last spell,
worked the last image, gone to his own:
the moon waxes and wanes in the perilous chair,
where time's foster-child sits, Lancelot's son.
Taliessin Through Logres
erlin the Enchanter sat alone in the wood. Trees walled his world. They had been young once, slender and small. Now they were old, massive and gnarled, and their branches wove intricate patterns of sunlight and moonlight, stars and clouds and sky.
The patterns of leaf and sky repeated themselves in a shimmer of bright water. The pool was small, hardly larger than a basin, shaped from a bowl of moss-green stone and filled by a spring that bubbled from the roots of the oldest tree, the father tree, that towered above the rest. They were beeches, but the father tree was an oak, more ancient by far than they. Merlin sat in the shade of it, hunched and utterly still.
But his eyes were alive. They were strange eyes, clear gold, set in a face as keen and fierce and inhuman as a falcon's. He was not mad, not at all, but neither was he sane. He never had been. He was too full of magic, too sore beset with visions.
All his world was this circle of trees, this bit of sky, this pool of bright water. Images danced in the waterâa whole universe of visions, past and present and to come. They blurred and shifted and changed. They tumbled over one another like silver fish.
He seldom troubled to make sense of them. They were all the same to him in this prison, this cage of wood and
water, earth and air. Only the turning of the seasons touched on him, and those but lightly. He did not count them. For if he set number to them, he knew the length of his sentenceâand that was far beyond the reckoning of mortal years.
The boy came in spring. The leaves were just unfurling on the beeches. The oak still clung to the last of its sere brown leaves, but even it was yielding reluctantly to the new year. There had been snow not long ago, but it was gone even from sheltered hollows.
Living creatures seldom entered Merlin's prison. Birds flew over it but were not moved to pause. Deer, boar, smaller creatures of the wood, veered away from its woven walls of wood and magic.
And yet on this morning of spring in a year beyond his counting, there in front of him stood a human child. It was naked and brown and as wild as a young stag, and its eyesÂ .Â .Â . its eyes were as yellow as a hawk's, and as keen, and as blindly fierce.
Merlin's eyes blinked, gold meeting gold. The child blinked in return. His black brows knit. He tossed his head. For an instant, too quick almost to see, a new-fledged hawk crouched in his place, with wide hot-gold eyes and ruffled feathers; then he was a naked man-child again, scowling at the man beneath the oak.
“And you,” said Merlin out of a conversation many years old, or many years yet to be, “look at least as odd as I do. Would your mother's name be Nimue?”
“My mother is dead,” the boy said. “My father is a count. He's always away at court. What are you?”
“I am half a devil,” Merlin said.
“You look it,” said the boy.
“And so do you,” said Merlin.
“I look like my mother,” the boy said. “I never knew her. Did you?”
“Yes,” said Merlin, “and no. She never came to visit me. No doubt she was afraid of me. They mostly have been, one way and another.”
“Because you look so odd?”
“Because she had too much magicâand too little. She could never set me free.”
“Are you trapped?” the boy asked. “Shall I fetch the woodsman? He can cut you out.”
“No mortal man can free me from this place,” Merlin said. He said it without sadness, or anger, either. All that was long worn away.
This child of Nimue regarded him with clear golden eyes and said in his clear young voice, “Ah. You are
one. I saw you in a dream. I'm supposed to protect you. And feel guilty about you. Because my grandmother's grandmother did something she should never have done, and she could never undo it.”
“You dreamed it?” Merlin asked.
The boy scowled. “You don't believe me, either. Nobody does. They all say I'm mad, or touched. Or the Devil's get.”
“You are,” said Merlin. “But I believe you. I'm the Devil's get myself, after all.”
“I probably shouldn't talk to you, then,” said the boy. “Father Bran whips me when I talk of things I see. He's beating the Devil out of me, he says. But if God is truth, then how can the truth belong to the Devil?”
“Truth can be hard to stomach,” Merlin said, “and the Church only wants to hear its own side of things. The Church wants the world to be simple.”
“I go to church when I must,” the boy said. “When they can catch me.”
“And do you fly up shrieking in the middle of the Mass?”
The boy blinked. He looked more than ever like a falcon. The air blurred about him, but he shook himself and was solid again. “I try not to,” he said. “Even when Father Bran drones on and on. And on.”
Merlin's face felt strange. It was some little time before he understood. He was smiling. He had not smiled since Nimue trapped him in this wood, built the walls of magic high and made them strong with his own stolen strength. Nimue's daughterâMerlin's daughter, blood of his bloodâhad never loved him, though she guarded him dutifully. Her daughter and granddaughter had been afraid of him, or had resented him.
There was no fear in this child, and no resentment, though perhaps he was too young for that. He crouched beside Merlin and peered into the pool.
He was the first living thing that had touched the enchanter since he was bound in this place. He leaned across Merlin's knee, a warm light weight, comfortable as a pup in a litter. “There are people in the water,” he said.
“Visions,” said Merlin.
“Visions are the Devil's work, too, Father Bran says,” said the boy. But he did not recoil from the pool.
Merlin watched him rather than the water. The boy did not seem to notice, or if he did, to mind. He lived as perfectly in his skin as an animal did, as pure of heart and as unselfconscious.
Merlin leaned with him over the pool. For a moment it left off its blur of visions and became only water, reflecting sky. Sky, and their faces: old and young, grey-bearded and smooth-cheeked. It was the same face. The same eyes.
Then there was only the one, the man old beyond years. A falcon soared up on swift wings, leaping toward heaven.
The boy's name was Roland. Having come once, he came again and again, sometimes in human guise, sometimes on wings. At first he came simply to sit by the pool as Merlin sat, and to engross himself in its visions. But as the seasons changed, he wanted to know what it was that he saw, and why. Then Merlin taught this child as once, long ago, he had taught Nimue; and before that, a boy named Arthur, who was born to be a king. It was the same teaching he had had himself, far away in Britain, from old masters and forgotten Druids, and spirits of wood and water, earth and air.
Just such spirits came to them at Merlin's calling, and later at Roland's, to teach him their secrets. Roland drank knowledge like wine. His mind was as quick as fire. And everything, to him, was joy.
Merlin began to count the days again, and reckon the seasons. Days when Roland was not there were as tedious as the whole of his centuries' imprisonment. Days in Roland's presence flew as swift as thought. Merlin was alive again, though still a prisoner.
“I will free you,” Roland said. “Teach me. Train me. Make me strong. Hone my magic till I can break down these walls.”
He said it more than once, so that in Merlin's memory of
that conversation, his selves blurred together: small naked child, long-legged boy, gangling youth. The words were always the same, and the expression, fierce with conviction. And every time he said it, his magic was stronger; but never strong enough.
When Roland was grown out of childhood but not quite a man, he asked the question that Merlin had been waiting for him to ask. He knew the story as people told it: how Merlin the Enchanter had been seduced and made a fool of by the sorceress Nimue, and how she had lured him away into Broceliande and snared him in nets of magic. He knew too from dreams and visions that Nimue had lived to repent her betrayal.
“But why?” he asked in a dreaming noon, halfway between spring and summer. He wore clothes now, because his guardians in the world had impressed upon him, somewhat, that he was a person of consequence, son and heir to the Count of the Breton Marches. He still could not be prevailed upon to keep all of them on, not when the sun was high and the air was warm and the grass was soft for lying on. Somewhere in the wood beyond Merlin's prison lay a heap of lordly garments. Here, he wore a pair of leather breeches, very well worn, and a knife with a silver hilt, plain but fine, and a silver fillet binding his thick black hair.
Merlin, watching him as he lay with his arm over his eyes, reflected in some surprise that the boy was beautiful. Merlin had not been that, that he remembered; wild, yes, and striking in his strangeness, so that some had thought him ugly, but others had found him pleasing. But no one would ever call this boy ugly. His limbs were too long for him now, and tended to tangle; his hair was very much the same; and his nose, as Merlin had observed only the other day, belonged on a notably larger face. And yet he was rather more than mortal fair. The old people of the hills had looked so, before they shut themselves away from human eyes. It was not a human beauty. It had too many edges. His skin was too white, his eyes too strange. But it was beauty to stop the heart.
Roland was oblivious to it. He lowered his arm and sat up with swift grace. His yellow eyes were bright, almost
angry. His black brows were knit above them. “Tell me why,” he said. “Why did she do it? What drove her to it?”
“Some say,” said Merlin, “that she was in league with the king's son, the traitor Medraut; and some, that she simply wanted my power. Others consider that I, after all, am half a devil, and that half of me is never to be trusted. Those say that the quest of the Grail was conceived to destroy the fellowship of Arthur's warband, to break it and scatter it, so that Arthur would be destroyed and his kingdom broken. And Nimue, who was loyal to the king, saw what I was doing, and so lured and trapped me, to save the kingdom; but of course she failed.”
Roland shook his head sharply. “That's folly. Devil or no, you devoted your life to Arthur and his kingship. You would never have broken it.”
“If Arthur had gone over to the dark,” Merlin mused, “I would have.”
“But he never did.”
“No,” Merlin said. He sighed. The boy was leaping with impatience. He was fierce as the young are, without age to dull their edges.
And after all, thought Merlin, it was time. Roland had asked. Merlin would answer.
“Listen,” he said. “I have a story.”
Roland knew what that meant. He looked as if he might protest, but clearly thought better of it. He drew up his knees and clasped them, and settled as he had so often before, to hear his teacher tell a tale.
“Long, long ago,” said Merlin, “in the dawn of the world, when Egypt was young, when Ur of the Chaldees was a raw new city and Babylon but a cluster of huts beside a muddy river, there was a sorcerer, a great master of magic. At first he was a master of the light, but as he grew older and more aware of his own mortality, he turned little by little toward the dark. Then at last, in terror of death, he turned his back altogether on the light, and made a great pact with the Prince of Darknessâno less than that one who is called the Son of the Morning.”
“Sathanas,” Roland breathed. “The Great Evil.”
Merlin nodded. “Yes. That one himself. The sorcerer gave his soul in return for his body's life. He gained much
else, too: beauty, wealth, power. Oh, he was beautiful, like a dark angel, and men fell on their faces before him.
“But evil is never content. It was a condition of his pact that he be no king himself, but rule through the power of a king. And so he did, from generation to generation. But men's lives are short and their memories treacherous. For each king who died, he must find another, corrupt him, raise him up, rule through him, watch him grow old, then have it all to do again.
“He grew greatly weary of this endless round. For a long while he withdrew from the world, built himself a fortress with strong spells, and set himself to master all magic that there was in the world. Yet he found he could not do that, for the magic of the light was now closed to him. And that, in its time, drove him nigh mad.