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The Divine Sacrifice
By Tony Hays
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Tony Hays
All rights reserved.
The voice came from the other side of that netherworld whence come our dreams. I ignored its call and rolled over, pulling my fur blanket tighter against me.
I resisted it still.
"Malgwyn ap Cuneglas!"
I pried one of my eyes open and squinted at Merlin, old and wrinkled, standing there with one of my finest tunics, dyed crimson, in hand. Owain, a little orphan boy who helped us with our tasks, stood next to him, holding my braccae and my caligae. A smile grew across my face though I wished only to frown. They looked like father and son.
"He is awake!" Owain cried. "Shall I get the water jug again, Master Merlin?" he asked with a smile that betrayed how much he would enjoy dousing me.
"Certainly you should, boy. He used to be a farmer, and farmers are renowned for rising early. I have a theory that rising early allows us to breathe the freshest air of the day. It is time that he went back to his old habits."
Sensing the inevitable, I threw the fur back with my good arm and swung my feet around. "Which old habits are those, Master Merlin? Draining wineskins or killing Saxons?" In truth, I had done more than my share of both. After Saxons had killed my wife, Gwyneth, I turned from farmer to soldier, and at Arthur's side, I reveled in the Saxon blood I spilled. Until I lost an arm at Tribuit. "What will you teach this scamp while I am away, Merlin?"
The old man, whose face resembled a dried grape, wrinkled it further in concentration. "He must learn more about herbs and how to use them to heal, Malgwyn. His education is wholly lacking. Now, come! Don your tunic and breeches. Arthur will be waiting."
I wiped my stump of an arm across my eyes, hoping to clear away the cobwebs of sleep. "Arthur can wait. 'Tis only a two-hour ride to the abbey, and we are not expected before midday."
"Aye, but I think the Rigotamos has a stop to make on the way," Merlin said with a wink.
Pulling myself to my feet, I took the braccae and struggled to put them on. "Not on a formal trip," I answered, with enough of an edge to let Merlin know that he was plowing in salted earth.
* * *
But Merlin had spoken the truth, I acknowledged to myself as I donned my linen camisia. Once, many moons ago, I was a farmer. But the war against the Saxons stole my young wife from me and made me a soldier in the command of Arthur ap Uther, now the Rigotamos, the High King of all Britannia; he was then but the Dux Bellorum, the leader of battles, for the consilium of lords that held our fragmented island together. My zeal for killing Saxons raised me in Arthur's esteem, and I quickly became one of his lesser lieutenants. But a Saxon sword cleaved my arm along the River Tribuit and took my bloodlust away.
Arthur stanched the flow of my life's blood and saved me, when I wanted nothing more than to die. He took me to Ynys-witrin, where the monachi bound my wounds, healed me, and taught me to write with my left hand, gave me something of a trade since farming and warring were lost to me. Death still seemed preferable to all, and I bore Arthur a grudge for my salvation, a grudge that blighted my days and sent my nights reeling into a waterfall of drink.
Ambrosius Aurelianus was then the Rigotamos, having taken office in the wake of Vortigern's disgrace. It was Vortigern who had been betrayed by the Saxons. He had first hired them to counter the threat of the Picts, but the treacherous Saxons turned on Vortigern and swept beyond those lands granted them. The war thus created made the threat of the Picts seem but a minor annoyance, swatted away like a fly. The Saxons hungered for our land, and their appetite was voracious. In the confusion that followed Vortigern's fall, Ambrosius, a native Briton, but one with deep Roman roots, rose to leadership. He brought with him a group of young, valiant warriors, including Arthur ap Uther.
* * *
"Oh, did Lord Arthur not tell you?" Merlin continued to chide me. "He has reduced the size of his party. Only you and Bedevere will accompany him."
Owain tied the rope around my waist that held the braccae up. He jerked it tight, too tight, and I yelped. "You should not eat so much, Malgwyn."
I whacked the back of his head for his insolence and turned back to Merlin. "Only two in his escort for a formal visit? What is Arthur thinking?"
Merlin laid my tunic on a rickety wooden bench. "I think that Arthur is reluctant to pay too much attention to Lauhiir. Should he be accompanied by all his nobles, then it could confer upon the little oaf an importance he does not deserve."
Now, that was reasoning that I could understand.
As Owain strapped my iron-studded leather belt around me, I smiled at the memory of the young, oh so earnest, lord.
Arthur, son of both Rome and Britannia, was a soldier above all else, and he fought the Saxons with courage and guile. I fought alongside him, until that day at the Tribuit when a Saxon blade left me bleeding. By the time my wounds healed, Arthur had stanched the flow of Saxons into our lands and positioned himself to become the next Rigotamos.
After a time, I returned to the old village near Castellum Arturius, taking an abandoned hut as my own. Little Owain, a boy of the castle, neglected by his own people, became my assistant of sorts, helping me with little chores. And thus I remained, copying manuscripts for the monachi, drinking and whoring, until the night that Arthur came to me and laid the death of Eleonore in my lap, on the eve of Ambrosius's retirement and the election of a new Rigotamos.
I grabbed my leather pouch and checked the contents, my flint and tinder for starting fires, an extra dagger, and a small piece of dark, heavy cloth. I had found it in young Eleonore's hand, when she lay ripped apart in the lane.
* * *
Eleonore had been the sister of my wife, Gwyneth. After the death of their parents, while I lay drunk at Castellum Arturius, she turned to my brother for aid, becoming both a beautiful and willful young woman and a serving girl at Arthur's table. Her body was found in the lane in front of Merlin's house, ripped like a slaughtered deer. Arthur came to me to solve the crime. The affair was sordid and nasty, peopled with Druids, true and false, Saxons, and grasping lords, and more deaths followed the first. Among the deaths were those of young Owain's parents, leaving him an orphan in a world bereft of charity. But by luck and a stubborn persistence, I weaved my way through the maze, helping to place Arthur on his throne and keep Merlin safe from the machinations of Mordred, and keeping my own head firmly atop my shoulders. After that, all was different.
I became Arthur's counselor, and I moved into Merlin's house near the main hall in the castle. I had left my daughter, Mariam, survivor of the vicious attack that stole Gwyneth from us both, with my brother, Cuneglas, when I went to war with the Saxons. On my return, I was too lost in shame and drink to retrieve her. She had grown up thinking that Cuneglas and his wife, Ygerne, were her parents. Only during the affair surrounding Eleonore's death did she learn the truth, but even now she lived with Ygerne.
Though I was now responsible for my late brother Cuneglas's family — he died of a head wound some days after the election of Arthur as Rigotamos — it was not appropriate for me to live with them, though I had a yearning that knew no end for Ygerne, my brother's widow. And, oh, how I wished I could break down the fearful barrier in my own mind that kept me from joining Mariam and Ygerne. Guilt is a powerful foe.
Marriage between widows and their husband's brothers was not uncommon in our land, but the guilt I felt for leaving my daughter with them, ignoring them, overwhelmed all other urges. Ygerne, kind and charitable soul that she was, took Owain too into her home, though he spent as much time with me and Merlin as with anyone. And we needed each other, the three of us. Merlin, whose mind sometimes wandered, needed companionship. Owain needed people who cared about him. I needed people who needed me.
I fingered the scrap of cloth with my good hand, in wonder at the role it had played in making all of that happen. It had led me to Eleonore's killers and a better life; I kept it now for good luck.
* * *
"Well, do not expect to arrive at the abbey by the midday," Merlin said in a mischievous tone, "formal trip or not." The old devil delighted in aggravating me. One of the things that bound Arthur and me was my kinship with his mistress, my cousin Guinevere, who lived in a house just off the Via Arturius, the road to Ynys-witrin. The story was an old one and known by but a few. When very young, she had been with the sisters near Ynys-witrin. Headstrong and beautiful, she had joined the sisters to avoid a marriage she did not want. But while there, she met the young Arthur and fell in love with him and he with her. And their love led them to break the boundaries between the sisters and men, and they were caught in an embrace.
Guinevere was driven from the sisters' community in disgrace. But Arthur's rising importance brought the consilium to his defense, and he was spared any sanction. Merlin spread the word that she was actually a powerful enchantress and had bewitched Arthur. The story kept people from bothering her, for they feared her magic, and Arthur arranged for the simple house. As the years passed and his prestige grew, he brought her from the shadows into the light of his court as his acknowledged consort. But a king's wife had to be as perfect (in Arthur's eyes) as the king himself, and Arthur knew that her shame in being exiled from the women's community would always be with her. Though things were better, Merlin's rumors of the enchantress followed her still. I had been pressing Arthur to leave the past behind and marry her, but he refused yet, and it remained a sore point between us.
* * *
In a more somber tone, Merlin added, "Be careful, Malgwyn. I worry that there is more to Lauhiir's appointment than there would seem."
With Saxons knocking at our eastern door and encroaching on our southern lands, Ambrosius had bowed to the pressure from the consilium and named young Lord Lauhiir, the choice of Mark and his faction, as protector of the Tor and Ynys-witrin. Many such lords peopled our land, ruling by brutality and greed. But Lauhiir's father, Eliman, had been a lieutenant to Mark in years gone by. In truth, I liked Lauhiir not, and argued with Arthur about his appointment. To my eye, he was slimy and spoiled, a man who wore fancy clothes to mark his station whereas Arthur wore his station like clothes. But Lauhiir's father had many friends on the consilium, and Arthur could not reverse Ambrosius's decision. "Besides," he told me one day, "by having him close to hand at the Tor, I can better keep an eye on him."
I straightened my tunic beneath the belt as best I could with but one hand. "You think there is some evil in it?" I asked Merlin.
"Evil is a vague thing. Do I think it bodes no good for Arthur? Yes. I think with Mordred away on our western border, Lauhiir poses the greatest threat to Arthur's seat. Mordred's head should be gracing a post in the east." Young Mordred was one of Arthur's least favorite cousins. He was sly where Arthur was cunning. Though I had been unable to prove his guilt in the plot against Ambrosius, he had been exiled to our western coast where he could do less harm.
"You are a wise man, Merlin. You know that that could never happen. David, Lauhiir, and Mark would spark an instant rebellion. I did the best I could, but that wasn't good enough to tie the noose about Mordred's head."
At the thought of David, a lord from the northwest, I stopped and frowned. He had challenged Arthur at the election, but lost, a loss he took not well. Aye, he had sought my punishment for striking the boy lord Celyn in some sort of petulant reprisal for his rejection by the consilium. Mark was second only to Arthur in strength as a lord. He ruled his lands from Castellum Marcus in the far southwest. Tristan, his son, was serving a kind of enforced servitude at Arthur's castle for his hand in Eleonore's death. He had come to Arthur's castle for the election of the new Rigotamos, representing his father. And, we quickly learned, to counsel a treaty with the Saxons, a treaty he indicated that Mark was intent on pursuing with or without the consilium's approval.
But once there, like many young men, he had fallen afoul of Eleonore's charms and become possessed by the spirit of her beauty. But she rejected his bid and in the violence that ensued lost her life. Although Tristan did not kill her, his actions left her vulnerable to those who did take her life. I had let him believe, however, that he bore the greater guilt.
"But Ynys-witrin is great power to place in the hands of a newly made lord," I continued. "I think that Lauhiir is not equal to it." I did not tell him that I suspected Lauhiir as complicit in the plot against Ambrosius, and that had been at the heart of the matter of Eleonore's death.
"I knew a great lord once," Merlin began, crossing the room and settling slowly onto a stool. "It was long before Arthur was born. One day during the hot season, in the marshes near the water, he was bitten by a small fly. Within days, that small fly had laid the great lord low."
"I take your meaning." And I did, though I still believed that he gave Lauhiir more credit than he deserved. I finished dressing, wishing that it were Kay going with us. In so many ways, he was more aggravating than any of Arthur's nobles, but, despite his temper, I had come to trust him completely. Unfortunately, Kay was off on an official inspection tour of our eastern border forts. Unofficially, he was checking to see what mischief Mordred, Arthur's cousin, had inflicted upon the people when posted to the east. Although Arthur had set Gawain and Gereint to keep an eye on Mordred in the west, he desired that Kay should bring him a report from the east. It was while posted there some moons before that Mordred had let the Saxons into our lands, or so I believed.
Bedevere had been by Arthur's side as long as Kay or longer. A handsome, strong fellow, he was quiet, unlike Kay. While I had warred as long with one as the other, I could not say that I knew Bedevere well. His father and grandfather had been nobles under Vortigern, and Bedevere had come to Arthur's service while the Rigotamos was still young.
With a face that seemed cut from stone, he carried the look of a man with a hard heart. But the one secret I knew of Bedevere put the lie to that. Once on a scout for Arthur, Bedevere and I took our soldiers into a small village, not too distant from Londinium. The Saxons had been there before us, and we searched among the burning huts and the slain for any that breathed yet. Circling a small shed, I came suddenly upon Bedevere, sitting on the ground, his sword lying by his side. In his arms he cradled a small girl, her hair as blond as my Mariam's, but her life's blood soaking the ground.
The noble with a face of granite was crying. I returned from whence I came, and he never knew I had seen him. As long as Arthur could count on such men's loyalty, he might have a chance in this maze of a world, a chance to do some good among all the greed, jealousy, and evil.
These were the things which held my mind as I finished dressing. Owain rummaged around in our storage pit, looking for bread and cheese. Merlin had already forgotten my journey and was busy working on some odd-looking project at his workbench.
She always did that to me! Like some little water fairy, my daughter Mariam could pop in and out of the house without making a noise. Blond, like her mother, she had a face as fair and pretty as the morning sun, with eyes as mischievous as Gwyn ap Nudd, the fairy king.
She edged closer to me and sat on the bench. Touching was still awkward for us.
"Mother says you are to come and eat your morning meal with us before you leave." As always, when delivering a message, she was the soul of severity. "Father, why are you and the Rigotamos going to Ynys-witrin?"
I straightened my tunic before answering. "So that he and Coroticus may argue about the church."
Excerpted from The Divine Sacrifice by Tony Hays. Copyright © 2010 Tony Hays. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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