Book One Of
THE MERLIN CHRONICLES
Greasy smoke billowed and churned across the landscape like some living thing trying to devour the countryside. It seared the old man’s throat and lungs and stung his eyes, making them water fiercely, nearly blinding him. Stumbling through the matted grass, he hunched forward into the smoke while briars tugged at his gown, causing him to trip and lose precious seconds. It seemed like the very plants were in league with the soldiers who were attacking the tiny village.
The soldiers were now gleefully slaughtering men, women, children and livestock in their mindless quest to kill one old man they did not even know. They did not know him and did not ask why he was their target. They were simply carrying out an assignment and doing their best to enjoy their work. They had been doing this month after month and never seemed to tire of the game. Brutality comes naturally to some people.
The old man tried to gauge his progress by the decreasing level of screaming, shouting and drumming of horses’ hooves. If he could make it beyond the curtain of smoke without the soldiers cutting him down, he still had a chance. How many times over the past four years had this happened? Five? Six? Eight? He had lost count.
He had lost a lot of other things, too. Those few friends who had not deserted him out of fear for their lives were now dead. Even the king was dead; buried in some secret place so that evil woman could not desecrate his grave. Once her soldiers had killed the old man there would be nothing to stop her from wreaking vengeance on the entire kingdom. But he knew she would not stop there. Her greed could not be bounded by the shores of one small island. Nothing stood between the realization of whatever unspeakable goal she and her monstrous allies had in mind except one old man and the bag of scrolls and books he had pilfered from her library four years earlier.
When he finally broke through the smoke into the pale, salmon-colored dawn, Merlin slumped forward onto his knees and rolled to one side in the soft grass, careful not to damage the small object clutched tight to his breast. The wails of the dying and the shouts of their tormentors had faded into the distance, but the fear still clung to him like a leech. He could breathe again, but the tears would not stop coming. Rolling onto his back, he stared at the brightening sky and silently asked the single question. Why?
If he had been one-tenth the all-powerful magician the balladeers at Arthur’s court had made him out to be, none of this would have happened. Now, his only chance was to escape the carnage and find a way to stop that damned woman once and for all. He had to make it across the last few miles to the coast. If he could make it that far, and if Vivian was there as she had promised she would be, he would have all the time he needed.
Hoisting himself off of his knees, Merlin moved as quickly as he could. Once the mounted bullies had trod over the last charred body in the village they would know he was not among the dead and start scouring the countryside. He kept as low to the ground as his seventy-three year old body could manage, but the sparse undergrowth of Cornwall offered little in the way of cover. If he were not in such a panic, he could have cast the spell to render himself invisible. But as it was, God, and the off chance that the butchers were not bright enough to figure out which way he was headed, were his only allies.
Just after dawn the next day he crested a small rise. There, a few miles distant, lay the cliffs of the Cornish coast. Beyond was the endless, heaving gray of the sea merging with an equally gray sky. Merlin turned and looked back over his shoulder. Still no sign of his pursuers. He leaned forward and pressed his ear to a bare spot on the earth. No drumming of distant hoof beats.
Four hours later, as he neared the edge of the world, he spied a tiny, wavering shape walking toward him along the cliff edge. Exhausted as he was, he pulled himself erect and walked toward the figure, which quickened its pace to meet him.
Even at this distance, and in spite of the sea wind, the woman’s voice was as clear and musical as a tiny glass bell. She rushed forward and embraced him, laying her delicate blond head against his chest.
“Thank you for coming to meet me, pretty lady. How on earth did you know where I would be?”
“I can find you because I love you.”
Merlin smiled and gently kissed the top of her head. Her hair smelled as fresh as the salt spray from the ocean.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
“You know you could have come to me at any time. She would never have found you.”
“Then why do you insist on staying here?” Her watery blue eyes stared uncomprehendingly at him from a childlike face.
He wondered how old she might really be. She looked no more than sixteen or seventeen; but she had looked that way for as long as he could remember, more than half a century, at the very least. He was too tired to think about it.
“I don’t dare leave until I can find a way to defeat her. As long as I remain here, I can keep her and those monstrous creatures in check. Eventually, I will find a way to stop them permanently but I need you to help keep me safe till then.”
She sighed and nodded. “You mortals are all the same. So involved in doing things. Plotting and scraping. You will never change and I will never understand you.”
“You never change either, my love.”
“That’s different and you know it.” She slapped his chest playfully with one tiny hand. Then, after a pause “But you know I will do anything I can to help you.”
“Thank you, Vivian.” He looked around at the landscape as though expecting it to reveal some bit of information. “Where is the place?”
“Just up here. Less than a Roman mile.” She tugged at his sleeve. “Walk with me.”
He fell in step beside the tiny, sylph-like figure as she trod barefoot along the edge of the cliff, her translucent gown floating before her in the gentle breeze. “Are you certain she won’t be able to find me?”
“The lines of earth-energy are very strong here. They will protect you from her scrying. You brought it with you?”
With one hand, he reached out and took her gently by the arm, turning her to face him. With the other hand, he held out the bundle he had kept clutched to his chest for months and pulled back the folds of tattered cloth that kept it hidden.
For a moment she simply stared at it. “Oh.”
“You were expecting something else?” A gentle, humorous, mocking tone had crept into his voice.
“I was not expecting anything. You humans have your own queer magic, we have ours.”
Half an hour later they drew to a halt.
“This is the place. You may put it down now, if you like.”
Merlin leaned forward, placing the object on the soft ground like some precious, votive offering. As he straightened up, the girl laid her hands on his chest. “It’s still not too late. If you were with me you would be safe forever. You know that.”
Merlin nodded. “I know.” He pulled his eyes away from her, scanning the watery horizon, afraid that if he looked at her face, his resolve might crack; just a little.
“Very well.” She rubbed a hand idly across his thin stomach. “Are you ready?”
Now he looked her squarely in the eye. “Yes.”
“Do what you must do and then I will seal it in the ground here...” she pointed to a spot a few feet to the left…“where the energy is strongest.”
They stared at each other for what seemed like a moment removed from time, filled with longing and impending loss. Then Vivian spoke again. “When you have done whatever you think is necessary to stop her, call me again. I will hear you and come for you.”
“I don’t know how long this may take. A year, ten years, I just don’t know.”
She laughed and hugged him. “You know such things mean nothing to me. And so long as you are here they will mean nothing to you either. A day, a century, they will all be the same to you as they are for me.” Merlin nodded silently as she spoke. “And when you have done this foolish thing you feel you must do, and I have come for you, then you will be free to be my love forever.”Wordlessly, suddenly, the old man grabbed the delicate girl-thing whispering “Yes. I promise” and crushed his lips to hers.
“Good. Then it’s settled.” Her eyes sparkled like a happy child. “Do you have your precious scrolls?”
Merlin smiled thinly and patted the cloth bag slung over his shoulder. “If I didn’t, it would be a little late to go back for them now.”
“Then do what you must do.”
Merlin turned toward the sky, raised his hands and began invoking the power of God. “In nominos Patri... Wait.” He broke off, turning back to her. “I’ve been so confused and so tired, I almost forgot. The sword...”
“Do not worry. The women of your Christian Church delivered it back to me after they buried poor Arthur. I returned it to my lake where it was forged in the time of his father. That woman will never have it. At least that is one power she can never wield against you and the world of men.”
Merlin stroked her cheek with the back of one long, slender hand and returned to his work.