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Forked lightning split the blackness of the sky. Swollen clouds raced screaming through the air and peal after peal of thunder came rolling in from the edge of doom. Far below, the little ship fought doggedly through the boiling sea. Soaked to the skin in spray, the figure in the prow raised a bony fist and shook it in the tortured face of the sky.
"Grief upon me!" he cried, "grief on all of us. And a curse upon you, Lady, for raising this storm!"
His words were lost amid the raging winds. All around lay nothing but a black expanse of roaring waves. Mountains of water were torn up from their depths, filling the air with the primeval smell of the seabed, where shipwrecks sleep and long-ago dead things rot.
"Aft, aft!" came a cry from one of the crew.
"See to the mizzen!" the captain shouted back.
"Spare your efforts, fools, and say your prayers!" cackled the old man in the prow. "Nothing can save us now."
The busy crew took no heed of the tall, lean figure in the prow, his crabbed hands gripping the rails, his bare head and hawk-like face defying the full fury of the storm. But crouched at the foot of the mast, the cabin boy watched the wind whip the curses from the old man's lips and shook with fear from head to foot. He saw his mother's face as she kissed him good-bye and made his own farewell to her in his heart.
Hastening past, the bosun checked his pace. "Never fear, lad," he called out more stoutly than he felt, "you'll come to no harm. The Lady of the Sea takes care of little 'uns like you."
The boy grabbed at his arm and pointed to the old man in the prow. "What's he doing, swearing and cursing like that?" he wailed. "Won't he offend the Lady and drown us all?"
Another burst of lightning shattered the sky. In the sickly light, the bosun had the color of a corpse. Shuddering, the child saw himself and all the crew drifting through the depths with glassy eyes and floating hair. He tasted the salt of his tears and the salt of the spray and felt himself dissolving into the sea, the primal ocean where all things are one. Over the side of the ship he saw great green-black masses of writhing water come to drag him down, and whimpered with dread.
"What, him?" The bosun hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the watcher in the prow and grinned through the driving spray. "There's many would say that no ship'll ever sink as long as that crooked old carcass is aboard."
The boy's eyes widened, and he forgot his tears. "Who is he, then?"
The bosun cheerfully touched the side of his nose, and turned away. "Don't ask, lad. Don't ask."
Heartened, the boy watched the bosun race off down the deck. In front of them two mighty waves met head-on, and a towering spout of water lit the darkness of the sky. A fountain of white foam shot up into the air, and in its midst the boy saw a cascade of gold coins as bright as stars and a shining pearl the size of a seagull's egg.
The boy was ravished. It was a sign of hope.
Greatly daring, he raised his eyes and looked about. A rugged, fearful coastline lay ahead, leaping into view every time the lightning flashed. Through a break in the rocks he could see a little bay and a mighty rock within it, with a castle on the top. Cut off from the land, protected by the sea growling around its base, the great fortress stood dark and glowering, brooding over the roiling waters all about. Nothing but a narrow bridge of stone connected it to the headland opposite. It was the best defended place on earth.
Who lives there? the boy wondered. One of the Great Ones for sure.
"Into the wind!" came a distant command. "Keep her straight and true."
The little ship drove onward to the shore. Waving his arms, the old man in the prow renewed his curses, hurling defiance at the castle ahead. Assailed from right and left by the surging waves, the boat bucked and reared like a living thing, resisting the sailors' efforts to bring her to land. Undeterred, the helmsman held his course. Riding the last great wave, the little boat shot the gap between the rocks with a leap like a salmon in spring, and broke through into the safety of the bay.
In the shelter of the mighty rock, the wind dropped, and at last the old man's cries could be heard. "Grief upon you, Lady, for raising this storm! Did you think you could keep Merlin away?"
There was a stirring from the dark rock ahead. Candlelight blossomed in the topmost tower and a sound like a sigh drifted down the wind. "Keep you away, Lord Merlin? Surely you know that I sent for you?"
A pink and mauve dawn warmed the morning sky. Muttering furiously, Merlin followed the young knight through the lofty halls and passageways of the castle on the rock. Gods above, he scolded, what a voyage that was! Never again would he come to Tintagel by sea. Last night's adventure had almost been the end of him.
But not quite. A glow of satisfaction lit his golden eyes. He and the crew had been royally received, despite arriving at the castle like drowned rats. A good night's sleep had followed in a fine feather bed, welcome even to a Great Druid like himself, a bard of the seventh seal and a lord of light. Stepping out now from a rich red-and-gold chamber hung with gorgeous tapestries, the old enchanter felt almost himself again.
But not quite, his inner voice whispered. Not quite. Oh, he looked fine enough, he knew, sleeking down his perfumed locks of hair. After last night's escape from the terror of the sea, he had gowned himself all in green for the woodland, green for the safety of earth. His long coat with its high standing collar was as dark as a midnight yew, his sleeves as they kissed the floor were a beech bud's piercing green, and the skirts of his robe sang like the wind on the mountains of home. A circle of moss agates held back his hair, and rings of jasper and beryl adorned his hands. Good enough, he decided, for any man.
But for any woman, and this one above all?
He clutched the gleaming wand he held in his hand and bared his teeth in a venomous grin. Not for her, Merlin. Not for old Queen Igraine.
Old Queen Igraine? He caught himself up. Young Igraine once, of course, and lovely enough in her youth to entrance any man. Had he forgotten that? No, he could not forget. Grief upon me, sang within his head. Grief upon all of us. Above all, on Igraine.
On . . . On . . .
Slowly they mounted to the topmost tower through wide, gracious corridors and many flights of stairs. And even here in the castle, the sea was with them still. Here in the silent corridors where no foot trod, salt-laden breezes brushed Merlin's hair and tugged at his sleeve. And always, everywhere, came the rhythmic sound of the waves, the heartbeat of life itself from the time life began.
Upward, ye Gods, upward still?
"This way, sir," called out the young knight.
On every level, the passageways narrowed down till they came to a low door in the rough stone wall. The young knight bowed to Merlin with a smile. "The Queen attends you, sir. I shall be here to escort you back when you return."
Merlin's wand was singing in his hand. Eyeing the polished shaft of golden yew, he shut his ears to its high, anxious whine, and ducked through the low opening with bated breath. The tang of the sea was even stronger now, but once inside, he might have been walking in the sky. He stood in a circular chamber at the top of the topmost tower overlooking the sea. Long windows reached from ceiling to floor all around, and the whole of the lofty chamber was flooded with light. A blazing dawn poured in from every side, and for a moment Merlin felt he could touch the rising sun as it burst from the bosom of the sea below.
In the center of the chamber stood an aged queen. Taller than most women, she had an air of remote and unquestioned majesty. Her cloak was silver, her veil the pale gold of the moon, and her robes shimmered green-gray and black like an angry sea. A deep crown of pearls encircled her head, and a gold wand of power quivered in her hand. She bowed to him in silence, and Merlin struggled in vain to read her timeless face.
A lofty forehead, skin as pale as spindrift on the foam, and a cloud of white hair like gossamer, fine and strong. Large, liquid eyes set in a steadfast gaze, with a look that had seen a thousand years come and go. A woman of luminous beauty, with the power of a warrior queen and an undaunted soul. Ye Gods! Cursing, Merlin clutched the remnants of his composure around him like a tattered cloak. He might have been in the presence of the Great One herself.
But the woman before him bore all the signs of one bound to her mortal frame by flesh and blood. Suffering had carved deep wrinkles on her face, and a lifetime of endurance had forged the set of her chin. At some point she had known what it was to lose the will to live, and traces of that overwhelming despair hung about her still. Yet now they were no more than the shining remains of unspeakable pain transcended at last by a higher will. Here was a spirit who had risen above the fray, soared with her sorrows, and used them as the wind beneath her wings.
Alas for Igraine . . .
Merlin drew a ragged breath. Well, may the Gods forgive.
She saw his discomfort and spoke. "So, Merlin?"
Not Lord Merlin, the old enchanter noted with a sulfurous spurt of anger, nor Merlin Emrys the Bard, Great Druid, Lord of Light, nor any of the titles that honored his work as poet and prophet, dream-weaver and teller of all tales throughout his many lives. But Igraine bowed to no man, least of all him.
He forced a yellow smile. "Madam?"
Slowly he assessed the statuesque figure and immemorial face. "Lovely as ever, I see," he said with perfect truth.
In spite of himself, he felt his flesh quicken and stir as it always did in the presence of a woman like this. He spread his wrinkled hands invitingly. "Alas, madam, if only you and I . . . "
Igraine gave the ghost of a smile. "Sir, you have made many conquests in your time. I was never destined to be one of them." Her face hardened. "On the contrary . . . "
Merlin hastened to forestall her attack. "You blame me still for taking Arthur away from you. But he was born to save the House of Pendragon, you know that. His destiny was written in the stars."
"Oh, Merlin--" Words could not convey the depth of Igraine's distress. "That was not destiny. That was your desire. You wanted Arthur, so you took my son."
The tears of a long-bereft mother stood in her eyes. Merlin knew better than to defend himself.
"Yet think of him now," he wheedled. "High King of the Britons, famed throughout the land. Lord of the Round Table, and leader of the finest fellowship of knights ever seen. A King whose glory reaches as far as Rome. A byword for honor and chivalry everywhere." He held out his hands in appeal. "Did I do wrong?"
Igraine faced him with a stony disregard. "Your conscience must tell you that."
"Indeed it will," said Merlin hurriedly, "in the fullness of time. But today I am here on a voyage of goodwill."
She stared him in the eye, anger crackling around her like a storm. "When did Merlin ever have goodwill for me?"
"For your kingdom, then. For the land of Cornwall at large."
"Enough, old man," she breathed. "Say what brings you here and be on your way."
Old man, she said?
"What brings me here?" Merlin paused to conceal his rage. "Isolde!" he hissed on a slow, outgoing sigh.
Far below, the tide plucked at the shingle at the foot of the tower. Isolde, Isolde, sighed the restless sea.
At last Igraine stirred. "Queen Isolde? What of her?"
Merlin bared his yellow teeth. "Alas, she is in danger of her life. I fear if she stays in Cornwall, her days are done."
Not a flicker of emotion showed on Igraine's face. "And why is that?"
"Her husband, King Mark, is losing his grip on the land. His barons despise him and want him to name his heir. He cannot hold Cornwall much longer, and when he falls, Isolde will fall with him. His nephew Sir Andred is poised to take the throne. And not a soul alive wants Andred as Cornwall's king."
Igraine fixed Merlin with her glimmering gaze. "Just as well then that Mark has another nephew, Sir Tristan, respected by all in Cornwall, high and low. He's been Isolde's knight for many years, and he'd guard her to the death. Why should he not succeed without harm?"
Merlin shook his head. "Blood will be shed, I know it. If you love Isolde, bid her to leave Cornwall at once. She will only be safe if she goes back to her own isle."
"So Isolde must flee to Ireland and take refuge in Dubh Lein? Indeed it is her fortress, her castle, her ancestral home. But what makes you think she will find safety there?"
Merlin started. "Why not?"
"Ah, Merlin--" The Queen glimmered at him. "I thought a Druid's ears could catch the song of a babe in its mother's womb and the turn of the tide of every faraway sea. Did you not hear of this, Lord Emrys the Bard?"
Was she playing with him? Merlin hid his rage behind an iron grin. "Hear of what, I beg you?"
"There is trouble in Cornwall, you say. But the wolves are gathering around Dubh Lein, too. Ireland's green hills and valleys are in danger now."
"From what?" Merlin cried, ready to tear his hair. "From whom?"
Isolde gave him her thousand-year-old stare. "From a race of invaders who were old when these islands were young. From the men of an ancient tribe who fell back to the northernmost mountains when the Romans came, but lived to drink from the skulls of the stragglers when the legions withdrew."