The Iron Grail

The Iron Grail

by Robert Holdstock
     
 

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"The first is a man who needs you and will use you. He will weaken you dangerously. The second is a man you betrayed, though you believe otherwise. He wishes to kill you and can do so easily. The third is a ship that is more than a ship. She grieves and broods. She will carry you to your grave."

These three warnings greet Merlin on his return to Alba, the

Overview

"The first is a man who needs you and will use you. He will weaken you dangerously. The second is a man you betrayed, though you believe otherwise. He wishes to kill you and can do so easily. The third is a ship that is more than a ship. She grieves and broods. She will carry you to your grave."

These three warnings greet Merlin on his return to Alba, the future England, to the deserted fortress of Taurovinda---the Hill of the White Bull. He is not the only one making the journey: Urtha, High King of the Cornovidi, is coming home to reclaim his stronghold, and Jason is sailing in on the Argo to seek his younger son, hiding somewhere in the kingdom.

But Urtha's fortress has been taken by warriors from Ghostland; they claim it as their own. There will be war against the Otherworld.

In this sequel to Celtika, Robert Holdstock weaves myth and history into a fabulous tale of honor, death, and magic. At its center, moving along his never-ending path, is Merlin himself, an enchanter in the prime of his life, reckless, curious, powerful, yet a stranger to his own past---a past that is catching up with him.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Holdstock's erudite fusion of British legend and Greek myth continues to enthrall in the second majestic installment (after 2003's Celtika) of his multi-layered Merlin Codex series. Seven centuries have passed since Merlin/Antiokus journeyed with Jason to find the Golden Fleece, and now the iconic mage, who ages only when he uses his powers, finds himself not in Greekland but in Alba (England). After an eerie brush with the Three of Awful Boding (the Fates) and a warning about a gift from Medea (Jason's betrayed wife and Merlin's first love), our hero travels to Ghostland to retrieve the children of the warlord Urtha, who is fighting to reclaim his fortress Taurovinda from Otherworld warriors. But when his enchanted ship Argo arrives in Alba, Merlin finds that Jason still is searching for his younger son, Kinos (aka Little Dreamer). Merlin accompanies Jason to the Otherworld, where Kinos has been hidden by his enchantress mother, Medea. Though Jason believes Merlin may have assisted Medea in his sons' faked murders and kidnapping, the two friends forge a truce and learn the consequences of the "corruption of love; the corrosion of hope." Haunting, intricately plotted and richly revisionist, Holdstock's blend of epic history with fantasy resonates with an authority and an audacity readers have grown to expect from this accomplished British author. (Feb. 26) FYI: Holdstock won the World Fantasy Award for Mythago Wood (1984), reissued this fall by Orb. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
VOYA
In this sequel to Celtika (Tor, 2003/VOYA June 2003), Merlin arrives in Alba, home of the Celts. He is pursued by the Greek hero, Jason, who has been preserved for seven centuries by the Goddess Hera. Jason, once Merlin's friend but now his enemy, believes that only Merlin can lead him to the son who was hidden in time by Jason's vengeful wife, Medea. But two children need Merlin's help immediately. The children of Urtha, High King of the Comovidi, must be rescued from Ghostland, where they were taken when their father's hill fortress was sacked. The fortress itself has also been occupied by fierce warriors from the land of the Undead and the Yet to Be Born, who have crossed the river separating the living from the dead. Battles must be fought and magic done before Urtha can recapture his stronghold. Finally Merlin, Urtha, Jason, and a crew of Argonauts travel in the Argo to the Otherworld, where Jason finds his son and learns that appearances can deceive and Urtha and Merlin discover why Ghosts are walking in the land of the living. The convoluted plot of the first book limited the novel's accessibility. Fortunately the action here is pretty much centered in one location, and the characters stay around longer. Holdstock does a commendable job of weaving in what little is known about Celtic society. Still, readers who have not read Celtika might be terminally confused by this sequel, which is recommended only where the prequel has a following. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2004, Tor, 320p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—RaynaPatton
Library Journal
Upon his return to a future mythic England, known as Alba, Merlin journeys to the Hill of the White Bull-Taurovinda-where Urtha, the High King, seeks to reclaim his holding and where Jason, commander of the Argo, seeks his reborn younger son. Holdstock (Mythago Wood) excels in revitalizing legendary tales, capturing the essence of archetype in his visionary prose, and this sequel to Celtika features a blend of ancient Celtic and Greek myth. Most libraries should consider for their fantasy collections. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Second installment of Holdstock's latest fantasy venture (Celtika, 2003): an erudite and colorful but less than fully convincing whirl of Greek, Celtic, Norse, and what-all mythologies. Last time out we met a resurrected Jason, his ship Argo, and some of his shipmates-including a certain Merlin (he's been walking the Earth for ten thousand years, hoarding his magic in an effort to remain youthful). Jason seeks the two sons whom he thought murdered by his (and Merlin's) former lover, the witch Medea. In Greek Land he found Thesokorus, who denied him and fought him; now he seeks Kinos, the Little Dreamer, in Alba (Britain). But Medea has hidden Kinos in the Ghostlands, an eerie region containing the Shadows of Heroes and Unborn. When Merlin arrives in Alba, the Fates manifest as a bloody, dreadful apparition; they warn him of multiple menaces: "Three are returning who are a threat to you. A fourth is already here and hiding." While waiting for High King Urtha to return from Greek Land, where he was severely wounded, Merlin must retrieve Urtha's sons from Ghostland. Meanwhile, Taurovinda, Urtha's fortress, has been overrun and occupied by Dead and Unborn warriors from Ghostland. Kymon, Urtha's young warrior son, urges an immediate and foolhardy assault to retake the fortress; Urtha's daughter, Munda-she has acquired visionary powers known as the Light of Foresight-sees only bleached bones. And, yes, we've met Arthur, but he doesn't know who he is since he hasn't been born yet. Churning, nightmarish, baffling, rich with mesmerizing detail: amazing but pointless.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781466840324
Publisher:
Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
01/10/2005
Series:
Merlin Codex , #2
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
File size:
945 KB

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Read an Excerpt

The Iron Grail

Book Two of The Merlin Codex


Robert Holdstock
Chapter One

Three of Awful Boding

The great fortress of Taurovinda, its causewayed heights rising steeply from the Plain of MaegCatha, bloody playground of the Battle Crow, stood abandoned, burned and silent. The brooding forest encircling the plain had encroached deeply into the empty land around the hill. Twisted blackthorn, briar rose and scrub oak whispered at the base of the ramparts, edging closer, clawing at the towering earthen walls. The high watchtowers, blackened by fire, seemed to drift against the clouds. Nothing had passed the outer gate, however, save for the birds, the Dead, and those who lived outside of Time.
The oldest of the Five Fortresses of Alba, stronghold of the warlord Urtha, mournful Taurovinda still defied the land that sought to bring about its corruption. It stood strong against the storm of nature. And for days, now, it had been calling to me: an urgent whisper, a sound-scent summoning me, drawing me from the seclusion of my hidden valley, away to the west.
I crossed the plain from the evergroves, Taurovinda's gloomy sanctuaries, spread along a curve in the mysterious river Nantosuelta, whose fords at this point the fortress guarded. I was aware, as I followed the traces of the path between groves and gate, that I was watched from the shadows of grey rocks and stooping oaks, which had grown as fast as weeds since the desertion of the hill. It was early spring, but the plain and the groves might have been in early summer.
Enormous, steep embankments enclosed the hill, capped with high palisade walls of dark oak rising rank upon rank, enclosing a maze of roads. Five gates opened along these winding approaches between the earthen banks, the first carved with twin bull skulls, the second with the interlocking antlers of stags, the third with the leering faces of wolves, the fourth with human skulls grinning from hollows carved from elmwood columns, the fifth hung with the long-bones of two horses, tied in bundles, wrapped in horse-hide and topped with the red-painted skulls of Urtha's favourite war-steeds. This was the Riannon Gate. The horses had pulled the king's chariot in raids and carried his three children in fun. He had mourned their slaughter as he would mourn the death of a brother.
It was a long climb, a gloomy climb, an ascent made in shadow and silence. From the Riannon Gate I surveyed the sprawl of houses and lodgings, animal sheds and barracks. The king's hall lay ahead of me, long, steep-roofed, its great oak doors closed. It had been much repaired after the sacking of the fort and as I walked around the boundaries of the enclosure I saw the colour and sheen of shields lining its northern wall, the arms of ancestors and champions. But who had undertaken this renewal?
I walked as far as the western gate, which looked out over willow marshes and a distant, untidy forest. Beyond that were rocky gorges, reaching to the edge of the Realm of the Shadows of Heroes itself: Ghostland, playing ground of the honoured dead and the as yet unborn.
In the centre of Taurovinda was a dense orchard of apple trees and berry bushes, hazel spinneys and shimmering birch. This was the druids' place, the place of deep shafts, deep tombs, stone shrines and bone shrines and the effigies of those who were invoked during the cycle of the year.
Apart from the wind in the foliage, this too lay in silence.
When the first sounds came, they were a surprise. I had expected to hear the same whispering summons that had called me to the fortress, but now I picked up a plaintive mewling, the sound of pain, three voices murmuring with pain, I thought. I noticed, also, the creaking of rafters, steady and slow. The crying seemed to come from the king's hostel, and I walked past the wall of broken shields to the wide, double door of carved and red-painted oak.
Now the doors were open; I could see they were broken, the intricately carved faces of horses and hounds battered, their colour fading. I entered the gloomy interior of the hall, but enough light streamed from narrow smoke holes in the roof to illuminate the grim and gory sight of three naked women hanging by the neck from the central rafter. Their hands were tied, their bodies flayed from throat to thigh, but they showed the sharp glitter of life and expectation in their eyes as they watched me, giving the lie to their apparent condition.
Though I gagged for a moment, I had seen such threesomes many times before. In Greek Land they were commonly known as the Fates, and were easier on the eye, far easier, quite beautiful. In the north they were called Nornir, sometimes Skaldir, monstrous and sadistic women, with raging appetites for war, men and gore. In the forested gorges of my childhood, in the distant past, they had been Scrayzthuk and had worn patchwork cloaks of the hides of deer, jackal and bear over their own bodies, bodies that had been cut with flint knives to the very bone. They, like their later apparitions, were the organisers of birth, crisis and death; they were bad news masquerading as good; favourable fortune thinly daubed on worm-infested wood.
The three before me now, common in these western lands, were the Three of Awful Boding. They were commonly found at the field of battle, or at a king's house where murder would soon occur. I had heard them called the Morrigan. They could be beautiful or corpse-like, depending on their whim. It was too much to hope that they were waiting for someone other than me, but I questioned them just the same.
'Are you waiting for Urtha, High King of the Cornovidi? He's still coming home from Greek Land. He was badly hurt in combat, but is in good company; loving company.'
'Not him,' whispered Mornga, the oldest of this grisly threesome.
'Then are you waiting for the king's elder son, Kymon? He is hiding in Ghostland with his sister, Munda. They are still children. They survived the destruction of the fortress, but I don't expect them home just yet.'
'Not him, not them,' whispered the second of the Three, Mornbad. The breeze from the open door blew on them gently, and the roof creaked as they turned, but their gaze remained fixed on me.
'Then is it Cunomaglos, Urtha's foster brother and closest friend, the man who betrayed him by abandoning Taurovinda, causing the death of his wife and younger son? Urtha pursued him to Greek Land and killed him. I saw the whole combat. We are not expecting Cunomaglos home at all!'
'No, not that hound-harried wretch,' Skaald, the third of the Three, whispered. 'He prowls the edge of Ghostland, but he will always be denied.' Her blackened features were draped with long, russet hair. It stuck to the raw flesh of her breast. It was this one who continued in that same ghostly whisper. 'We are waiting for the timeless man who walks an endless path. A man of charm. A young man who should be old.'
Eyes like ice gazed at me without blinking from the gruesome, throttled faces. Three crows settled on the hanged women, pecking lightly at their shoulders.
'I think you've found him,' I said.
'We know,' was the reply, almost amused. The crows seemed suddenly alarmed but it was merely a gust of wind curling through the hall. Skaald whispered, 'Three are returning who are a threat to you. A fourth is already here and hiding.'
I waited for enlightenment. They waited for me to ask for more. When I proposed the question, Skaald said: 'The first is a man who needs you and will use you. He will weaken you dangerously.
'The second is a man you betrayed, though you believe otherwise. He wishes to kill you and can do so easily.
'The third is a ship that is more than a ship. She grieves and broods. She is rotting inside. She will carry you to your grave.'
The crows had become very still, watching me quietly from their raw perches, as if waiting for me to respond to these ominous visions.
I felt sure I knew to whom the first two 'awful bodings' referred, but I was puzzled by the reference to the ship. It had to be Argo, of course, the argonaut Jason's fabulous vessel on which I had sailed with him in the past. But why did she represent a danger to me? She had just helped me escape from Greek Land; she had helped me come back to this island of Alba.
She was a threat to me! She grieves and broods. She will carry you to your grave.
It made no sense. Argo and I were friends, or so I'd thought. I was clearly missing something.
This was an event that I would have to glimpse, in due course, but not yet. The cost to my strength of opening such foresight would be too great. For the moment I merely enquired after the fourth arrival, the one who was already in Alba, though I was sure of the answer I would get. Each of them spoke in turn.
'Fierce Eyes,' murmured Mornga.
'Your childhood friend,' whispered Mornbad.
'Your lover,' breathed Skaald, almost sneering. 'The one you lost. She still loves you, but until you open your memory to the time in the long-gone when you were together, there can be no further love between you.'
My childhood friend; the fierce-eyed girl who had become my lover, then abandoned me as she and I had been sent to walk the Path around the world, developing our powers of enchantment, forgetting everything about our pasts.
She had ended up in Colchis, established as the Priestess of the Ram, and had taken a name that continued to live in legend.
'Medea, then. Medea is already here. I understand, now. She has sent you to warn me off!'
'Medea, yes; among her many names.'
'She sent you.'
'Her gift to you.'
Her gift? These rank and rotting corpses? It took only a moment to realise that the gift was the 'warning off'.
'Your gift to her could be as easy as rejoining your path. Go away from this land. There will be other times for you and Medea.'
'Where is she? Is she here now?' I asked the Three, but they answered only, 'In Ghostland. Stay away from her. She must protect herself from the Warped Man, Dealing Death.'
And with that final statement, the encounter was concluded.
I had no doubt that the 'warped man' was Jason, the man who had betrayed Medea seven centuries ago, and who, now that they were both in the same time again, sought to obliterate her from memory.
After such an intervention by either Nornir or Fates, it was considered polite to host a feast, initiate games and allow for uninhibited sexual encounter. The thought sent a chill through me as I stood in the breezy house. Nothing in me was aroused by these clotting corpses and it was a relief to find that they, too--reading my expression, no doubt--thought the idea untenable. Their strangled laughter mocked me. A moment later, the crows spread their wings, jumped towards me and chased me from the king's house.
But I sat for a long while at the edge of the untended orchard, among the cairn-covered sacred shafts into the hill, thinking of what had been said, in particular what had been said concerning Argo. Argo was the means by which I had come here, to misty, mysterious Alba, hiding out and licking my wounds. She had once been Jason's ship, and had become Jason's grave; then she had been Jason's resurrection and his new life. She had done much the same for me, though in a different manner.
As the day advanced, and the sky darkened towards a storm, I thought back over seven hundred years, searching for a memory--any memory--that would make sense of the foreboding words from the grim trio.
I remembered at once a terrible dawn in the harbour town of Iolkos, in Greek Land, where everything had begun…

Copyright © 2002 by Robert Holdstock
ISBN 0-765-30726-X

Meet the Author

Robert Holdstock's novels include Mythago Wood, which won the World Fantasy Award; Lavondyss; and Gate of Ivory. He lives in London.


Robert Holdstock is the author of the World Fantasy Award-winning Mythago Wood, widely considered one of the most significant fantasy novels of the 20th century. He lives in rural England not far from London.

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