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Authors: Mary Stewart

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical

The Last Enchantment

BOOK: The Last Enchantment
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The Last Enchantment
Mary Stewart
(1979)

Merlin #3

To one who was dead

and is alive again,

who was lost,

and is found.

BOOK I
Dunpeldyr
1

Not every king would care to start his reign with the wholesale massacre of children. This is what they whisper of Arthur, even though in other ways he is held up as the type itself of the noble ruler, the protector alike of high and lowly.

It is harder to kill a whisper than even a shouted calumny. Besides, in the minds of simple men, to whom the High King is the ruler of their lives, and the dispenser of all fates, Arthur would be held accountable for all that happened in his realm, evil and good alike, from a resounding victory in the battlefield to a bad rain-storm or a barren flock.

So, although a witch plotted the massacre, and another king gave the order for it, and though I myself tried to shoulder the blame, the murmur still persists: that in the first year of his reign Arthur the High King had his troops seek out and destroy some score of newly born babies in hope of catching in that bloody net one single boy-child, his bastard by incest with his half-sister Morgause.

Calumny, I have called it, and it would be good to be able to declare openly that the story is a lie. But it is not quite that. It is a lie that he ordered the slaughter; but his sin was the first cause of it, and though it would never have occurred to him to murder innocent children, it is true that he wanted his own child killed. So it is just that some of the blame should rest on him; just, too, that some of it should cling to me.

For I, Merlin, who am accounted a man of power and vision, had waited idly by while the dangerous child was engendered, and the tragic term set to the peace and freedom which Arthur could win for his people. I can bear the blame, for now I am beyond men's judgment, but Arthur is still young enough to feel the sting of the story, and be haunted by thoughts of atonement; and when it happened he was younger still, in all the first white-and-golden flush of victory and kingship, held up on the love of the people, the acclamation of the soldiers, and the blaze of mystery that surrounded the drawing of the sword from the stone.

It happened like this. King Uther Pendragon lay with his army at Luguvallium in the northern kingdom of Rheged, where he was to face a massive Saxon attack under the brothers Colgrim and Badulf, grandsons of Hengist. The young Arthur, still little more than a boy, was brought to this, his first field, by his foster-father Count Ector of Galava, who presented him to the King. Arthur had been kept in ignorance of his royal birth and parentage, and Uther, though he had kept himself informed of the boy's growth and progress, had never once seen him since he was born. This because, during the wild night of love when Uther had lain with Ygraine, then the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall and Uther's most faithful commander, the old duke himself had been killed. His death, though no fault of Uther's, weighed so heavily on the King that he swore never to claim for his own any child born of that night's guilty love. In due course Arthur had been handed to me to rear, and this I had done, at a far remove from both King and Queen. But there had been no other son born to them, and at last King Uther, who had ailed for some time, and who knew the danger of the Saxon threat he faced at Luguvallium, was forced to send for the boy, to acknowledge him publicly as his heir and present him to the assembled nobles and petty kings.

But before he could do so, the Saxons attacked. Uther, though too sick to ride at the head of the troops, took the field in a litter, with Cador, Duke of Cornwall, in command of the right, and on the left King Coel of Rheged, with Caw of Strathclyde and other leaders from the north. OnlyLot , King of Lothian and Orkney, failed to take the field. King Lot, a powerful king but a doubtful ally, held his men in reserve, to throw them into the fight where and when they should be needed. It was said that he held back deliberately in the hope that Uther's army would be destroyed, and that in the event the kingdom might fall to him. If so, his hopes were defeated. When, in the fierce fighting around the King's litter in the center of the field, young Arthur's sword broke in his hand, King Uther threw to his hand his own royal sword, and with it (as men understood it) the leadership of the kingdom. After that he lay back in his litter and watched the boy, ablaze like some comet of victory, lead an attack that put the Saxons to rout.

Afterwards, at the victory feast,Lot headed a faction of rebel lords who opposed Uther's choice of heir.

At the height of the brawling, contentious feast, King Uther died, leaving the boy, with myself beside him, to face and win them over.

What happened then has become the stuff of song and story. Enough here to say that by his own kingly bearing, and through the sign sent from the god, Arthur showed himself undoubted King.

But the evil seed had already been sown. On the previous day, while he was still ignorant of his true parentage, Arthur had met Morgause, Uther's bastard daughter, and his own half-sister. She was very lovely, and he was young, in all the flush of his first victory, so when she sent her maid for him that night he went eagerly, with no more thought of what the night's pleasure might bring but the cooling of his hot young blood and the loss of his maidenhood.

Hers, you may be sure, had been lost long ago. Nor was she innocent in other ways. She knew who Arthur was, and sinned with him knowingly, in a bid for power. Marriage, of course, she could not hope for, but a bastard born of incest might be a powerful weapon in her hand when the old King, her father, died, and the new young King took the throne.

When Arthur found what he had done, he might have added to his sin by killing her, but for my intervention. I banished her from court, bidding her take horse forYork , where Uther's true-born daughter Morgan was lodged with her attendants, awaiting her marriage to the King of Lothian.

Morgause, who like everyone else in those days was afraid of me, obeyed me and went, to practise her woman's spells and nourish her bastard in exile. Which she did, as you will hear, at her sister Morgan's expense.

But of that later. It would be better, now, to go back to the time when, in the breaking of a new and auspicious day, with Morgause out of mind and on her way toYork , Arthur Pendragon sat in Luguvallium of Rheged, to receive homage, and the sun shone.

I was not there. I had already done homage, in the small hours between moonlight and sunrise, in the forest shrine where Arthur had lifted the sword of Maximus from the stone altar, and by that act declared himself the rightful King. Afterwards, when he, with the other princes and nobles, had gone in all the pomp and splendour of triumph, I had stayed alone in the shrine. I had a debt to pay to the gods of the place.

It was called a chapel now — the Perilous Chapel, Arthur had named it — but it had been a holy place long before men had laid stone on stone and raised the altar. It was sacred first to the gods of the land itself, the small spirits that haunt hill and stream and forest, together with the greater gods of air, whose power breathes through cloud and frost and speaking wind. No one knew for whom the chapel had first been built. Later, with the Romans, had come Mithras, the soldiers' god, and an altar was raised to him within it. But the place was still haunted with all its ancient holiness; the older gods received their sacrifices, and the ninefold lights still burned unquenched by the open doorway.

All through the years when Arthur had been hidden, for his own safety, with Count Ector in theWildForest , I had stayed near him, known only as the keeper of the shrine, the hermit of the Chapel in the Green. Here I had finally hidden the great sword of Maximus (whom the Welsh called Macsen) until the boy should come of an age to lift it, and with it drive the kingdom's enemies out and destroy them. The Emperor Maximus himself had done so, over a hundred years before, and men thought of the great sword now as a talisman, a god-sent sword of magic, to be wielded only for victory, and only by the man who had the right. I, Merlinus Ambrosius, kin to Macsen, had lifted it from its long hiding-place in the earth, and had laid it aside for the one to come who would be greater than I. I hid it first in a flooded cave below the forest lake, then, finally, on the chapel altar, locked like carving in the stone, and shrouded from common sight and touch in the cold white fire called by my art from heaven.

From this unearthly blaze, to the wonder and terror of all present, Arthur had raised the sword.

Afterwards, when the new King and his nobles and captains had gone from the chapel, it could be seen that the wildfire of the new god had scoured the place of all that had formerly been held sacred, leaving only the altar, to be freshly decked for him alone.

I had long known that this god brooked no companions. He was not mine, nor (I suspected) would he ever be Arthur's, but throughout the sweet three corners ofBritain he was moving, emptying the ancient shrines, and changing the face of worship. I had seen with awe, and with grief, how his fires had swept away the signs of an older kind of holiness; but he had marked the Perilous Chapel — and perhaps the sword — as his own, beyond denying.

So all through that day I worked to make the shrine clean again and fit for its new tenant. It took a long time; I was stiff from recent hurts, and from a night of sleepless vigil; besides, there are things that must be performed decently and in order. But at length all was done, and when, shortly before sunset, the servant of the shrine came back from the town, I took the horse he had brought, and rode down through the quiet woods.

It was late when I came to the gates, but these were open, and no one challenged me as I rode in. The place was still in a roar; the sky was alight with bonfires, the air throbbed with singing, and through the smoke one could smell roasting meats and the reek of wine. Even the presence of the dead King, lying there in the monastery church with his guards around him, could not put a bridle on men's tongues. The times were too full of happening, the town too small: only the very old and the very young found sleep that night.

I found none, certainly. It was well after midnight when my servant came in, and after him Ralf.

He ducked his head for the lintel — he was a tall young man — and waited till the door was shut, regarding me with a look as wary as any he had ever given me in the past when he had been my page and feared my powers.

"You're still up?"

"As you see." I was sitting in the high-backed chair beside the window. The servant had brought a brazier, kindled against the chill of the September night. I had bathed, and looked to my hurts again, and let the servant put me into a loose bedgown, before I sent him away and composed myself to rest. After the climax of fire and pain and glory that had brought Arthur to the kingship, I, who had lived my life only for that, felt the need for solitude and silence. Sleep would not come yet, but I sat, content and passive, with my eyes on the brazier's idle glow.

Ralf, still armed and jewelled as I had seen him that morning at Arthur's side in the chapel, looked tired and hollow-eyed himself, but he was young, and the night's climax was for him a new beginning, rather than an end. He said abruptly: "You should be resting. I gather that you were attacked last night on the way up to the chapel. How badly were you hurt?"

"Not mortally, though it feels bad enough! No, no, don't worry, it was bruises rather than wounds, and I've seen to them. But I'm afraid I lamed your horse for you. I'm sorry about that."

"I've seen him. There's no real damage. It will take a week, no more. But you — you look exhausted, Merlin. You should be given time to rest."

"And am I not to be?" As he hesitated, I lifted a brow at him. "Come, out with it. What don't you want to say to me?"

The wary look broke into something like a grin. But his voice, suddenly formal, was quite expressionless, the voice of the courtier who is not quite sure which way, as they say, the deer will run. "Prince Merlin, the King has desired me to bid you to his apartments. He wants to see you as soon as it is convenient for you." As he spoke his eye lingered on the door in the wall opposite the window. Until last night Arthur had slept in that annexe of my chamber, and had come and gone at my bidding. Ralf caught my eye, and the grin became real.

"In other words, straight away," he said. "I'm sorry, Merlin, but that's the message as it came to me through the chamberlain. They might have left it till morning. I was assuming you would be asleep."

"Sorry? For what? Kings have to start somewhere. Has he had any rest yet himself?"

"Not a hope. But he's got rid of the crowd at last, and they cleared the royal rooms while we were up at the shrine. He's there now."

"Attended?"

"Only Bedwyr."

That, I knew, meant, besides his friend Bedwyr, a small host of chamberers and servants, and possibly, even, a few people still waiting in the antechambers.

"Then ask him to excuse me for a few minutes. I'll be there as soon as I've dressed. Will you send Lleu to me, please?"

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