At last, a good King sits on England's throne. But Arthur leaves Camelot on a quest of shadows, while his nemesis, Mab's disciple Mordred, grows into a monster cruel enough to laugh at his own mother's murder.
As Mab's growing evil drives away even her loyal servant, the gnome Frick, Merlin, too, is alone -- his true love, Nimue, lost to him forever. Arthur is betrayed, facing Mordred at the heart of an apocalyptic civil war.
For when Arthur battles Mordred, when Merlin battles Mab, all hope will turn to ashes, all dreams will pass into legend.
And not even Magic can survive.
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Merlin Part 3
By James Mallory
Warner AspectCopyright © 2000 James Mallory
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Battle of Honor
It was spring again, and Merlin was always most restless in the spring. The spring breeze ruffled the feathers that trimmed his long cloak, and sunlight flashed off the crystal ball embedded in the head of his wizard's staff. It was as if the green life of the earth called to him, wooing him to walk through the tall grass and shadowed forest paths. In his soul, he longed to give in to the blandishments of the daffodils and bright butterflies that he could see beyond the castle walls and follow their trackless path. Somewhere out there was the forest hut in which he had been born, the forest in which he had spent so many happy, innocent years before Mab came to claim him as her champion. Later, he had returned to Barnstable Forest to live a simple life as the child Arthur grew to manhood in the home of Sir Hector, safe and loved and secure.
But there is nothing in life as constant as change, and just as Merlin's life had been torn apart years before by the revelation of his true parentage, so Arthur's life had been similarly rent asunder when the time had come for Merlin to tell him that he was not a simple country lad but a prince, King Uther's son. Arthur had taken the news well, but unfortunately for Arthur, he had possessed a mother as well as a father, and therein lay the seeds of Merlin's greatest failure to protect his young charge.
Arthur had not been the unfortunate Lady Igraine's only child, and Arthur's half sister, Morgan le Fay, was rotted through with ambition. Morgan had wanted the crown, but couldn't have it while Arthur lived, so she had schemed to become the power behind the throne. Morgan's lust for power had caused her to ally herself with Queen Mab, using fairy magic to trick Arthur into lying with her.
Now Arthur had a son, Mordred, begotten in sin and raised in malice, a boy who lived for the day when he would tear down all that Arthur and Merlin had painstakingly built together, destroying Camelot and Britain.
Merlin's gaze traveled toward Tintagel and the west as the breeze ruffled his untidy light brown hair. How old was Mordred now, and what was he doing? It had been nearly seven years since Merlin had last seen him, and even then the boy had been growing unnaturally fast. Seven years ago the King had not yet been married, had not yet declared his intention to go on this disastrous quest for the Holy Grail.
But Mordred was surely still a child. There would be years in which to decide how best to deal with his menace. And today, Merlin faced other problems. He sighed, resting his weight on his staff. The stone walls of Camelot that he lived within so much of the time seemed to cut off all light and air - even when, as now, he stood upon the highest battlements, gazing toward the northern horizon and feeling the warm spring sun soak into his bones.
Old bones, and older every year, Merlin thought ruefully. I was a grown man when Arthur was born, and now Arthur is a man grown in his turn. Where is he today, I wonder?
The letters that came from Arthur and the little band of knights that he had taken with him upon his quest to find the Grail were few and far between. One had come to Camelot three months before, written three months before that, so the freshest news was six months old now. Six months ago Arthur had still been in France; who knew where he might be now? Wherever he is, I fear he is no closer than before to what he seeks. The Grail seems always to elude him, glimmering just out of reach like a will-o'-the-wisp. And he has sought it for so many years....
As always, thoughts of the Grail led Merlin to thoughts of Avalon, and Nimue. He had loved her from the moment he had first seen her, more than half his lifetime ago. He loved her still, though he had not so much as spoken to her since that night many years ago when he had learned of Arthur's disastrous liaison with Morgan le Fay. While Mab schemed to destroy Merlin and all he loved, even a letter between the lovers might be too dangerous. For a moment Merlin's shoulders drooped with weariness. All he had ever asked of the world was bound up in Nimue's smile, but Merlin was not an ordinary man who could allow himself ordinary joys. He had been created by the Queen of the Old Ways to be her champion, to destroy the rule of the New Religion in Britain, and to return Queen Mab to supreme power. Half human, half fay, caught between both worlds and never at home in either, for most of his life Merlin had battled toward a goal that daily seemed to be slipping farther out of reach: freedom for Britain from the tyranny of the Old Ways, and peace and happiness for her under the reign of a good King.
He had held such high hopes of Arthur, and Arthur was a truly good man. But somehow Merlin's dream had slipped away with Arthur's decision to quest for the Holy Grail. For centuries, Christendom's great treasure had reposed at Avalon Abbey, but it had vanished on the night that Merlin was conceived, and had not been seen since. Arthur believed that Britain could not truly begin to heal from the carnage and treachery of three bad kings until the Grail was restored to Britain, but the king's abrupt departure left his new-wed queen, Guinevere, alone to rule the country in his absence. Guinevere was barely a bride when Arthur's quest began, and he had never lain with her to make her his wife in more than name. There was trouble brewing in that corner, for Guinevere was of royal blood, raised as a princess of the Iceni and only lately converted to the New Religion that Arthur followed. She could not understand Arthur's motives in searching for the Grail and leaving Britain behind.
What she could understand was that she was left alone in Camelot year after year while the memory of Arthur grew ever more distant in her mind.
Merlin sighed tiredly, and somehow the sunlight seemed less warm and inviting than it had when he'd climbed all the way to the top of this tower to enjoy the solitude and the view. He could not blame the young Queen for her increasing attachment to her Champion, Lancelot of the Lake, but no good could come of it. And with Mab hatching her plots in Tintagel, raising up Arthur's bastard son Mordred to be her willing accomplice in damnation, they must all be eternally vigilant.
Merlin did not know if Arthur had confided to his Queen the exact nature of the transgression that caused him to seek the Grail so passionately, but he suspected she was unaware of what it was. Should he warn Guinevere of Mordred's existence? Merlin hesitated. Arthur's conscience had long since passed out of his keeping. If Arthur had not told his wife, it was not Merlin's place to reveal so painful a secret. And perhaps the Queen need never know at all....
The ravens who lived in the tower took to the air, cawing and complaining. Someone had entered below, and Merlin suspected who it was, and on what errand she was bound. Drawing his cloak around him and clutching his staff tighter, Merlin descended the long winding stair that led to the ground floor of the White Tower.
Guinevere, Princess of the Iceni and Queen of Britain, stood on the ground floor, peering up toward the light that spilled down from the windows above. The years had ripened Arthur's child-bride into a magnificent woman, strong-willed and regal. She had never quite lost her distrust of Merlin, a pagan wizard at a Christian court, but she had come to accept his presence, and sometimes she even took his advice. But Merlin knew that to Guinevere he would always remain half-unreal, a creature out of fable. A Wizard of the Old Ways in a land that was rapidly forgetting that Magic had ever existed at all.
She did not come here looking for me, Merlin reflected, and when the Queen recognized him, his guess was confirmed.
"Oh," Guinevere said. "I was just ... good morning, Master Merlin. I did not expect to see you here."
Her cheeks were flushed and she would not meet his gaze. Merlin thought he could well guess who the Queen had come here alone so early hoping to meet. Lancelot.
Lancelot of the Lake had been Merlin's own choice to guard the Queen while Arthur was gone. Mab's sister, the Lady of the Lake, had sent Merlin to Joyous Gard to find a champion to preserve Camelot in Arthur's absence, and there Merlin had found the best knight in the world-Lancelot. When Lancelot had returned to Camelot with Merlin, he had easily defeated all of Arthur's knights on the field of honor and been named the Queen's Champion. In the few weeks they had known each other, Lancelot and Arthur had become fast friends, and Arthur had willingly entrusted his dream of Camelot, a shining city of peace and charity, to his friend.
Merlin knew that Lancelot had only the highest ideals and the most honorable intentions, but sometimes it seemed to Merlin that all those principles weren't quite in Camelot's best interest. The city should have been finished years ago, but Lancelot was forever tearing things down, redrafting Arthur's plans, trying to force Camelot to match a perfection that was simply inhuman. It never occurred to the knight of Joyous Gard that some dreams were not meant to become real.
"Were you looking for someone, my lady?" Merlin asked Guinevere. "I fear I am the only one here." Did you ask Lancelot to meet you here? Was he wise enough to refuse? My children, what am I to do with you?
"No, of course not," the Queen answered, a little too sharply. Bright color flamed in her cheeks. "I was only ... looking around."
"You should go back to your women," Merlin told her as gently as he could. "I shall," Guinevere replied, with a haughty jerk of her chin. She swirled her heavy skirts about her and walked quickly away, the silk making a hissing sound against the stone.
Merlin sighed quietly as he watched her go. Her distrust of him made her temperamental; for all that it had been seven years since her wedding day, the Queen was still very young. But perhaps it was wrong of him to still treat her as a child. For better or for worse, in Arthur's absence, Guinevere ruled Britain, and her word was law here. If the choices she made sometimes seemed foolish to him, then it was no more than her right to choose her own path.
Merlin leaned upon his staff, drawing what solace he could from the smooth surface of the gnarled wood. They would all endure somehow-he, Guinevere, Lancelot, Britain. And Arthur would return.
The Queen strode out of the tower and into the bustling streets of the town. She blinked at the brightness of the sunlight after the dimness of the tower, but stumbled determinedly back to where she had left her attendants. It had been a foolish notion really, to go off looking for Lancelot like that. He would not thank her for interrupting his morning's work for a bit of inconsequential chatter. Lancelot was a busy man, and despite all his efforts, the building of Camelot went more slowly every year. Sometimes she thought that Arthur might even be back before it was finished.
As always, thoughts of the King-even after seven years, Guinevere found it hard to think of him as her husband-brought an unhappy, guilty twinge. How could Arthur have chosen to leave if she hadn't failed him somehow? Would he have felt such a need to gain the Grail if she'd been a better person?
What did you want from me, Arthur-the-King? Why wasn't I good enough-or just enough for you, damn you?
She'd repeated the unanswerable questions to herself so often down the years that separated sixteen from twenty-three that they'd almost become a litany, but the answer was always the same. Silence, from her heart and in his letters. Though he wrote of his many adventures and always sent his love, there was never any hint in his letters of a longing to return-to Camelot or to her. There were times when Guinevere could not imagine why Arthur had married her at all. He seemed to have no earthly need for a wife or a Queen.
But no matter how little Arthur needed her, there were others who did. Lancelot needed her. She could see it in his eyes.
"Your Highness! There you are!" Dame Linnet cried with relief. Dame Linnet was a plump young woman who favored blue gowns, and her timidity often frustrated Guinevere nearly to tears. Today, however, Guinevere was almost grateful to see her.
"Yes," Guinevere answered composedly. "I went to look at the tower, but it was too dark inside to see much."
"Oh, but that was because the shutters for the upper windows are still closed. When the glass for the windows arrives from Flanders, it will be bright enough inside to read at midday! Sir Lancelot was just telling us how it would be."
Dame Linnet gestured back toward the others, who were gathered about a familiar figure.
His bronze hair gleamed in the pale sunlight, and he wore a bright blue cloak that Guinevere had embroidered with her own hands, for with Arthur absent she had no one else to lavish her needlework upon. Beneath the cloak he wore a simple linen tunic, but no sword, for Lancelot was a civilized man, from a country so unlike Guinevere's war-torn Britain as to seem almost mythical. He smiled when he saw her, and Guinevere smiled back, all the shadows and doubts of a moment before gone like morning mist. Nothing bad could happen while Lancelot was with her.
"Your Grace," Lancelot said, bowing to her. "I was just explaining how this section of the wall would look once the buildings along the street are finished."
"As beautiful as the castle, I trust," Guinevere answered in a steady voice. Camelot Castle had finally been finished two years before, the second structure to be completed in the Golden City after the great Cathedral.
"More so," Lancelot answered. "Providing the architect does what I tell him. And now, ladies-and Your Highness-if you would care to accompany me, I will show you the new marketplace."
He held out his arm to Guinevere, and she placed her hand upon it. She could feel the roughness of the sun-warmed linen beneath her fingers, and she fancied she felt the warmth of the flesh beneath as well. Her heart beat faster, and for a brief instant she wished that Arthur had never been born.
Merlin watched them go from the doorway of the tower. He shook his head sadly. He did not need his wizard's gift of prophecy to see what was happening between the Queen and Sir Lancelot. And what he could now see, others would soon see. He did not doubt that-for the moment-the friendship was innocent, born of loneliness on the Queen's part and sympathy on Sir Lancelot's. Both Lancelot and Guinevere were too proud to casually betray their ideals to gratify a momentary whim-and Lancelot, at least, was so convinced of his moral superiority that he felt himself beyond the earthly temptations of illicit love. Such confidence could be fatal-no one knew that better than Merlin.
Excerpted from Merlin Part 3 by James Mallory Copyright © 2000 by James Mallory. Excerpted by permission.
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