|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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They say that the old sleep little, as if they have no need of rest with the body's last sleep so near. Whether it is age or the weight of memory that keeps me restless, at night my sleep is broken, and I rise early. This morning I left my bed without waking my maidens to walk by the Lake just at that misty hour between the dark and the dawning, when the birds sing forth their promise that the light will return. As the first rays of the sun glimmered through the clouds, a gleam of light pierced the waters, and for a moment I saw the blazing length of the Sword.
Time converged around me, and once more I was in the Sacred Barge of Avalon, and Arthur lay dying in my arms. Lancelet cast Excalibur into the Lake and saw it received by the Lady. My breath stopped as I waited to see if Her hand would reappear, returning the Sword from the depths to choose a new King to save Britannia.
Vision followed vision, but what I saw was fire—the metal first forged in the fires of heaven, hailed as a thing of power by the folk who dwelled on the chalk before ever a Druid or Adept from the drowned islands came to these shores. I saw the fires of the forge in which a master smith, fleeing his people's doom, had made it into a sword to fit the hand of a king. Hidden and renewed, broken and reforged, in the time of Britannia's greatest need it had returned to bring victory.
I stared, and clearing vision showed me the surface of the Lake gray and still once more. Then I wept, and even that image blurred. The dark people of the hills who had been the Sword's keepers were gone. Water, not fire, hid the blade Arthur wielded, and there was no king of the ancient line to call it forth again. The gleam that I had seen had been the leap of a fish, no more.
And yet as I began to walk again I realized that the tears in my eyes were not from despair. When Excalibur went into the Lake, I knew it for the end of an Age, the loss of all that I had loved. And yet behind its veil of mist, Avalon endures. The star-steel was only metal until the skill of a smith and the passion of a priestess ensouled it. What they did in those days, when the world they knew seemed doomed, may be done again if the Lady of the Forge takes up her hammer once more.
The Sword is gone, but hope does not die.
The acrid reek of burning thatch catches in her throat; then smoke sets her coughing, panic flaring along her limbs as red light flickers across the floor. She snatches up the wailing child. The hide across the door is wrenched away. Beyond, she glimpses figures and the gleam of blades.
A woman screams with a shrill intensity that cuts across the clash of bronze weapons and the battle cries. The scream is her own, and yet the self that knows this is somehow detached from the hot breath of the flames. The baby coughs and struggles, strong limbs, strong spirit fighting to survive. A roof beam crashes across the doorway and she whimpers, wracked by an anguish beyond her body's pain. She stares through the flames, seeking an escape, and enemy faces leer back at her. She recoils and sinks to the floor, smoke stealing her breath as a cry severs soul from sense—"So dies the Son of a Hundred Kings!"
And awareness whirls outward—she sees the thatched roofs of the royal enclosure collapsing as the fire spreads; the bull horns mounted above the great gate crash down. The bodies of warriors, startled naked from sleep, lie scattered on the bloody ground as enemies pile up the looted cauldrons of bronze, the fine weavings, the cups and ornaments of gold.
Time speeds, and the charred timbers of Azan-Ylir become sodden lumps that are soon covered by green. But the flames spread, and the Ai-Giru, the Ai-Ilf, the Ai-Utu, and then the Ai-Akhsi and the Ai-Ushen and even the Ai-Siwanet far to the north are engulfed in turn. The tribes of the Island of the Mighty tear at each other's throats like starving dogs as generations pass. And when ships with painted sails approach the white cliffs of the island, there is no one to face the fair-haired warriors who leap onto the sand, their striped and chequered garments swirling about their knees. They rampage across the countryside, burning whatever the earlier wars have left, and the songs, the arts, the wisdom of the Seven Tribes are as if they had never been.
"Goddess, what can save us?" her spirit cries.
And in answer she hears a call, "From the stars will come the Sword of the King!"
"Lady, are you ill? What's wrong?"
Shuddering, Anderle opened her eyes. Kiri was bending over her, her old face creased in concern. Smoke hung in the air, but it carried the sharp scent of burning charcoal, not thatch…not the smell of roasting flesh. She caught her breath, fixing her gaze on the soot-blackened ceiling of the smithy on the Maiden's Isle, and trees and sunlight on the green peak of the Tor.
Summer had come at last to the marshlands. For the moment, the clouds had retreated, and everything living made the most of Manoah's light. An exultant tide of greenery choked the watercourses and hung above the pools; insects hummed in the humid air.
"Sit you down, my lady—" scolded Kiri, helping her to the bench by the open side of the shed, where a light breeze wafted from the direction of the sea. "You came over faint, what with the heat of the day and the forge." Kiri looked accusingly at the smith.
"Do not blame me—" He frowned. "She knows better than to lean over the fire." The smith-priest wore only a loincloth beneath the heavy hide apron. Anderle wished she could do the same, but the blue draperies of the High Priestess were a symbol of her dignity, and old Kiri, who had attended her since she was small, would not have let her leave the Tor without the fine linen veil.
"You screamed—" said little Ellet, fanning her. "I thought you were burned."
"I'm all right! I was seeing…pictures…in the flames."
"Was it a vision, Lady?" Ellet's blue eyes grew round. Her brown hair was fine and inclined to escape its braid, fluffing around her face like the feathers of a young bird.
"Goddess, I hope not!" Anderle exclaimed. "Azan-Ylir was burning—they were all killed, even Irnana's child."
She brushed back a strand of heavy dark hair and sighed. She and Irnana were both descended from the old line that had provided so many priests and priestesses to rule Avalon, but her cousin had inherited their height and the family's red hair, while Anderle took after the slender, dark folk of the Lake Village, or perhaps, as legend had it, after the folk of that Otherworld that was only a heartbeat from their own.
Kiri's lips thinned. There had always been raiding back and forth among the tribes and clans of the Island of the Mighty, but in the past year the situation had gotten worse. The older priestesses spoke of a time when the weather was warmer, but the rains came more often with each year and the floods remained longer, turning every piece of high ground in the Vale into an island. Men muttered that one day there might be no summer at all. And the Bull of Azan who led the warriors of the tribe was old, his grown sons killed in the battle in which the sister's son who should have been his heir had died as well. He had taken Irnana to wife three years before. Mikantor was their only child.
"We've had no word…" said Eran, frowning.
"The fields were stubble…" Anderle said slowly. "This was later in the summer, when the hay harvest is done…"
"It was a heat-born fancy!" Kiri proclaimed. Anderle sighed. She was surrounded by people who had known her since she was an infant, already designated as heir by the word of her grandmother and the will of the stars. She had first put on the ornaments of the high priestess when her breasts were barely grown. It was only to be expected that they should treat her as an icon and not as an adult with a mind of her own. But she was eighteen now, and expecting a child. She laid a palm upon the swell of her belly. Perhaps when they saw her with a babe at the breast, they would realize that she was a woman grown.
"Drink this water now, my love, and let the fear fade. To dwell on such things does no good to you or the child!"
Perhaps, thought Anderle, sipping from the elm wood cup. Or perhaps it was a warning. Terrifying as the vision had been, it was the cry that haunted her. The loss of any child was a tragedy; the death of her cousin's child would be a personal sorrow. But the Voice had lamented Mikantor as something greater, as the heir to the royal line that had come to the Island of the Mighty from the Drowned Lands across the sea. She could not prevent tribal raids, even when they threatened those dear to her, but to safeguard that heritage was most certainly a part of her duty as Lady of Avalon.
"Rest now, my little one, and we'll send for a litter to bear you back to the Tor…
Anderle nodded and drew down the veil, grateful now for its protection. Better that Kiri should believe her tired than to start asking why Anderle still frowned.
Anderle flinched as the landscape of her vision came into view. They were passing through the opening in the stone fence that wound along the edge of the down. Before her, the fields of Azan were bright with the stubbled gold of harvest. To her right a line of grave mounds paralleled the road. To the left rose the stark stones of the great henge. The track descended to cross the shallow bed the Aman had carved through the plain, with the clanhold beyond. She had forgotten that crops on the plain ripened faster than they did in the marshes around Avalon.
Durrin came up beside her, fair brows creasing in concern.
"It's nothing. The child kicked me—" she said quickly.
"You should not have walked so far," he said repressively.
When priests and priestesses lay together in the Great Rite, they were not supposed to remember who the mortals carrying the power of the gods had been, but everyone knew that Durrin had begotten the babe now stirring in her womb, and he was inclined to behave as if he were her husband as well as the father of the child.
"Would you have me swaying in a litter for all those miles? Or bouncing in one of King Uldan's chariots? Walking is easier, I assure you." Anderle suppressed her urge to snap at him. He would have forgiven her—everyone said that pregnant women were often short-tempered. But she was the Lady of Avalon, and ought to be beyond such frailty.
"In your condition, I would have had you stay at the Tor," he replied, his fair skin reddening, "and not make this journey at all."
He was not alone in that, she thought with a sigh. When she announced her intention to visit her cousin in Azan, everyone from old Kiri on down had yammered objections. Kiri was too old to travel so far, but she had sent Ellet, who was utterly devoted, if a little naive, along as her deputy. Anderle set herself to endure their solicitude. She knew Irnana, and she knew the old king. They would not have listened to a messenger. Would they listen to her? If they did not, perhaps she could persuade Uldan's sister, the queen. War was men's business, but the queen was the final authority.
"Well, we will be there soon—" Durrin mastered his own irritation and gave her the smile that always lifted her heart. The gods had blessed him with beauty beyond the ordinary. She hoped their child would take after him.
Sweet with distance, they heard the calling of a horn. They had been seen, and soon her cousin's people would welcome her with something cool to drink and a soft place to lie down. Despite her proud words to Durrin the ache in her back was constant now. The track led toward the royal clanhold, a ditched enclosure with a bank and palisade. Men came running along the paths that led in from the fields to the smaller gateways. The thatched cones of several roundhouses showed above the fencing, and the crosspiece above the main gate was crowned by a pair of aurochs horns and a sun disk of gilded bronze. The shaggy red cattle grazing in the home pasture lifted their heads in momentary curiosity as the party from Avalon passed. As they drew nearer, the warriors of the king's household formed two lines. They were big men in woolen kilts cinched by broad leather belts, holding round shields of painted leather and broadbladed ceremonial spears. From inside the compound she heard the deep boom of a drum.
Anderle lifted her hand in blessing as they passed. "Achi! Achi!" came the murmur from either side. As the warriors raised their spears in salutation, the setting sun flashed on golden armrings and spear points of polished bronze. The display went far to explain why King Uldan's neighbors envied him. She suppressed a shiver of apprehension as they passed beneath the shadow of the horns.
"You can see that we are well defended." The king set down his golden beaker of barley beer. He was a big man and still strong, though the muscle was beginning to sag on the strong bones and gray frosted his brown hair. He gestured at the circle of stout pillars that supported the roof of the feasting hall, carved and painted in chevrons and spirals that glowed and faded as the firelight rose and fell. Strong they might be, but the walls, whitewashed on the outside and hung with fine weavings within, were no more than plastered wicker. An enemy that breached the palisade would have no trouble getting through.
"The wolves may howl around my gates, but none will pull me down," he continued, "whether they go on two legs or on four."
Anderle sighed. This last season, both kinds had grown bolder. A wolf pack roamed the hills above the plain, but it was the Ai-Ushen, whose lands lay beyond the estuary to the north, whose raids had decimated the herds of the Amanhead clan. The mutton that had been simmered with herbs and barley for the feasting lay like a lump in her belly. This was not going well.
"That is what the body's eyes see," she said patiently. "But I have been trained to see with the spirit, and vision showed me these roofs in flames…" The sight of the hearth fire brought it back again.
Irnana sniffed. "Such talk of visions may impress the common folk, cousin, but I grew up on Avalon too. Did our teachers not tell us that time is always the hardest thing to pin down in prophecy?" She patted Anderle's arm. "I remember how I fretted when I was carrying Mikantor. You have said yourself that the day was warm. Is it not more likely that this is some fancy born of your own fears?"
Anderle bit back her first retort. Irnana might be married to the most powerful king in the Island of the Mighty, but she must always defer to Uldan's sister Zamara, who was the queen. The priestess suspected her cousin had always resented that it was Anderle, not she, who had been chosen to rule in Avalon.
"Surely my own fears would have shown me danger to the babe in my womb . . ." She laid her hand protectively on the hard curve of her belly, where the growing infant stretched and turned. "The child I am trying to save is yours!"
"Anderle," said the king, "we do appreciate your care. But the responsibility and the right to protect my son belong to me, not to the Lady of Avalon!" He drained his beaker, and held it out to be refilled by the girl who was carrying the ale bucket around the hall.
Anderle held her hand across the opening to her own cup. She had drunk enough, and did not need to add ale-sickness to the other discomforts of pregnancy. She shifted on the cushioned bench, but she suspected that for her there would be no comfortable position until the child was born.
"And who do you think would attack us?" asked Irnana. "The Ai-Ushen worry our northern border, but their war leader is Eltan, a boy without the prestige to mount a serious campaign, and the Ai-Utu to the southwest have always been our friends."
"Not all enemies are outside borders," Anderle said in a neutral tone. "Are the chieftains of all your clans content with your rule?"
Uldan's face darkened. "Priestess, you go too far! Do you think I do not know my men, warriors with whom I have shed blood, who have guarded my back when we faced our foes?"
He gestured toward the benches that circled the fire. Anderle recognized the clan chiefs from Amanhead and Oakhill, Carn Ava and Belsaira and the rest, and wondered. She knew that Galid of Amanhead, for instance, had recently lost his family to one of the illnesses that periodically swept the land, and floods had drowned their fields. Did their chieftains still believe in the luck of the old bull?
They see you growing old, and your sister without a son…Anderle lowered her eyes. She felt Durrin stiffen protectively beside her and laid a hand on his arm. There's none so deaf as the man who refuses to hear.
"They have been content to follow me for twenty winters and more," Uldan went on. "The plain is the heart of our land. How could it be ruled from Amanhead or Carn Ava or Oakhill?"
"We guard the great henge and the ancestral mounds," Irnana said proudly. "This is the sacred center of Azan."
"Does anybody still care?" Anderle asked bitterly. "You and I are descended from the People of Wisdom who raised the Henge, and we were brought up on tales of its power, but what does it mean to the clan mothers of the Ai-Zir? Who cares about grave mounds when our people bury the ashes of their dead in pots in the soil? If they did, Carn Ava might challenge you—their circle of stones is just as holy as the Henge. But from them I believe you safe. I only hope that you know the other four clans as well as you think you do."
"Peace—" Durrin's soft voice took the sting from his reproof. He smiled at Irnana, and the other woman sat back with a sigh.
Durrin had that effect on most women, Anderle reflected, trying to suppress bitterness. When they came together in the ritual, she had carried the power of the Goddess as he did that of the God, and now she carried his child. But would he have even looked at her if she had not been the Lady of Avalon?
"Surely you know your own people best…" he went on, and the tension faded from the air.
Perhaps, Anderle thought grimly. I must speak with Zamara. It did not bode well that the queen had not come to the welcome feast. She was older than her brother and would bear no more sons. To continue the royal line, Uldan had to hold on to power until Mikantor was old enough to lead the warriors for Zamara's daughter. To keep track of the shifting stresses and alliances within the tribe was the job of the queen. Unless grief for her son had completely overwhelmed her, Zamara would know where any danger might be.
"Enough of such talk." Irnana spoke into the silence. "I refuse to be frightened by such vapors when it is clear that the plain has been blessed by the gods. You must walk out with me tomorrow and see how this year's heifers have grown!"
As if in agreement, the child in Anderle's belly kicked strongly. Irnana noted Anderle's flinch and laughed. "Do you have another warrior in there who will spar with my Mikantor?"
Anderle shook her head. The priestesses had assured her that the child was a girl, a daughter to inherit the leadership of Avalon, though what use would that be if the tribes destroyed each other? We should strive to leave our children a better world, she thought unhappily as her cousin rattled on.
"You have spent too much time at your prayers, Lady of Avalon. No doubt the babe will appreciate the motion if you take some exercise."
She gestured to the girl who had brought the ale to continue onward, and Anderle did the same, but Durrin and Uldan both held out their beakers to be refilled. Perhaps that was just as well. If they drank together, Durrin's charm might accomplish what Anderle's authority could not.
"Shall we go, cousin? Let the men drown their wits if they will. They will regret it when morning comes." Irnana rose.
"Indeed, if you mean to drag me all over the plain tomorrow I had better get what rest I may." Anderle managed a smile.
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